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Prince Stefan Lutece sighed as his private jet began its final descent into the Wyoming airport. "Father, you know I have other plans for Kyros." And for himself.
And an arranged marriage was not on his agenda.
Saving Kyros from being swallowed by Saruk, the larger militant nation nearby, however, was.
But he didn't intend to succumb to his father's outdated means, or force his people to be swallowed into the folds of another nation. He wanted to utilize the oil on their land which could make them financially independent. That was the prime reason he'd joined COIN, the Coalition of Island Nations in the Mediterranean, and the purpose for his trip to America now.
And as far as marriage—if he ever indulged it would be with a woman who stirred his passions, not a woman like Daria who although physically beautiful, possessed a coldness in her eyes that chilled him to the bone.
"If this summit meeting goes as planned," Stefan continued, "and the coalition succeeds in making the trade agreements with the U.S., Kyros will prosper and gain independence without becoming indebted to King Nazim or Saruk."
The sound of the plane's landing gear rumbled, the plane tipped slightly, then righted, dropping altitude. Stefan glanced out the window at the rugged Wyoming land, the white-tipped mountains, the acres of untamed prairie land, and momentarily missed the lush tropical beauty of his own country.
Kyros, with its century-old ruins and stone temples, was rich in culture and history. With tourism as its main industry, the island was picturesque, boasting plush green foliage, colorful gardens, and inviting private resorts nestled along the Mediterranean coast.
But the island had been forced to become a member of the EU, and with the euro so strong and with additional import costs, fewer and fewer people could afford the exorbitant costs of vacationing on the remote island.
He and his people had discovered several untapped areas prime with oil, though, that could turn around their economy.
"You know Thaddeus and I are both opposed to polluting our nation with mining," King Maximes growled.
"I do know that, Father. But as I've explained countless times, my team of experts has devised a way to minimize the waste and pollution to the environment." It was a major breakthrough, which he intended to use as a selling point to the summit.
"Do not sign anything until you discuss it with me and Thaddeus, Stefan." His father began to cough. "Remember I want what's best for our people."
"So do I, Father. And the COIN compact is what is best."
Stefan gritted his teeth as he ended the call. He felt his blood pressure rising. He and his father and brother would never agree on politics, but with his father's illness, an illness he was forced to keep secret to prevent Saruk from pouncing on them at a vulnerable moment, he was the new leader.
And he'd be damned if he'd allow Thaddeus to deter him. The spoiled brat did not want to make the tough choices but he wanted the glory—and their father's inheritance.
Suddenly streaks of yellow, orange, red and gold filled the distance, the brilliant sunset momentarily capturing his interest. Below him the desert with its spiny cactuses, sagebrush and tumbleweed reminded him of the ghost towns of the old West he'd seen in American motion pictures.
As the plane soared closer to its destination, mountain peaks jutted toward the sky and the desert gave way to hundreds of acres of ranchland, a winding river, and a valley filled with smaller ranches, wildlife, farmland, and green pastures where cattle and horses grazed.
Sheik Amir Khalid had chosen the meeting spot, claiming the Wind River Ranch and Resort was both sophisticated and full of grandeur, and if the sight below him was any indication, the description had not done the place justice.
Unfortunately he was not here for pleasure, but business.
He sipped the last of his scotch, then leaned back and watched the sunset fade as the plane touched down.
Seconds later his cell phone beeped, indicating he had a text message.
Grimacing, he checked the text, half expecting it to be his father, yet hoping it was one of the leaders of the other COIN nations confirming their meeting place.
Instead a warning appeared on the screen, YOUR LIVES ARE IN DANGER. DON'T TRUST ANYONE.
His chest clenched with worry. He and the other royals were well aware that their arrival might cause trouble. Both anti-American sentiment and the fear of terrorists had been prevalent reactions when they had first announced the summit.
Who had sent this message? Was it a real threat?
The plane skidded to a stop, and a drop of perspiration slid down his temple.
It did not matter. He had to contact his security detail and the other COIN members and alert them that they might be in danger.
Forensic expert Jane Cameron slumped onto the tattered sofa in the break room at the crime lab, sighing in disgust at the special news feed of the royals' arrival in Wyoming. Cameras panned the airport where the private jets for the dignitaries were landing. Security and police had roped off areas to fend off the nosy spectators, disgruntled citizens protesting the summit, and the swooning single women who wanted to sneak a peak at a real prince and sheik.
"Every girl's fairy tale—she'll grow up and marry a prince one day," Ralph Osgood, her boss at the crime lab, muttered sarcastically. "How about you, Jane? You got stars in your eyes?"
"Hardly," Jane said with a smirk. Fairy tales didn't come true.
She glanced at the newspaper photograph on the desk. Prince Stefan Lutece was clad in his prince's robe and crown, Sheik Khalid in his traditional robe
Damn. Even if fairy tales did come true, a man like Prince Stefan wouldn't bother with a second look at a plain Jane like her.
Not that she was in the market anyway. She liked her life just fine. She had her job. Control of her own remote. The environmental issues she supported.
"Today marks a monumental day for Wyoming," Danny Harold, a cutthroat news reporter, stated interrupting her thoughts. "The Wind River Ranch and Resort will serve as host to a week of meetings that promise to help bring peace and economic security to the smaller nations of COIN as well as offering innovative and financially beneficial trade agreements to the U.S."
Jane poured herself a cup of coffee and stirred a massive amount of sweetener into the cup. Everybody in the world was in a tizzy over this damn summit meeting, raising the threat level for travelers and locals to a high. Hell, for the last week she'd worked around the clock checking out suspicious crime scenes that police suspected might be terrorist threats. Thankfully they had been bogus, but the possibility of problems was very real.
"Sheriff Jake Wolf, Wind River's local sheriff, is coordinating efforts between the various nations' security teams," Harold continued. "And now, here they come!"
Cameras focused one by one on the royals as they exited their private jets, each surrounded by a team of armed security agents in suits. In the background, protestors shouted derogatory remarks about terrorists, urging them to go home, while women and young girls shrieked at the sight of the princes and sheiks clad in regal attire.
"Sheik Efraim Aziz of Nudar," Harold announced, " twin brothers Prince Sebastian Cavanaugh and Prince Antoine Cavanaugh of Barajas Sheik Amir Khalid of Jamala and Prince Stefan Lutece representing Kyros."
While the crowd cheered and booed, and the security teams muscled through the throng escorting the royals to the scheduled press conference, Jane studied the individual men, silently admitting that they were all very striking.
Sheik Efraim Aziz, clad in a galabiyya and embroidered hat, had dark hair and eyes and looked to be in his late thirties. The twin princes of Barajas, Prince Sebastian and Prince Antoine, were over six feet with brown hair and wore trousers with shirt length robes. She'd heard that both had military training. Sheik Amir Khalid was slightly younger, in his early thirties with black hair. From what she'd heard, he had suggested Wyoming as the summit meeting destination because of an earlier visit. His hat was a kufi skullcap, his galabiya colorful.
Then her gaze fell on Prince Stefan, and for the first time in her life, her stomach fluttered. Not a girl to let a man turn her head, she was shocked at how her pulse jumped and her body tingled.
Prince Stefan had jet black hair that matched his impressive tailored black suit. His prominent cheekbones and patrician nose boasted of a Greek heritage and made him look regal as if he should be the poster boy for all royals worldwide.
Or as if he was a Greek god.
And when the camera focused on him, his piercing green eyes gleamed with an intensity, an air of authority and intelligence that made her want to climb inside his mind.
Yet those piercing eyes scanned the crowd with suspicion.
Suddenly he leaned over, spoke to the security agent beside him, and panic stretched across the guard's features. A second later, security agents surrounded the prince, then whisked him toward a limo while other security teams did the same with the remaining royals.
She tensed and tried to pan the crowd for suspicious characters. Something was wrong. Had the dignitaries been threatened?
Stefan hated to stir panic amongst the royals and forgo the initial press conference, but the moment he'd shared the text message, his chief of security Edilio Misko had contacted Fahad Bahir, Amir's personal chief of security agent and the head of security for the COIN compact. Fahad had canceled the press conference. Security had also insisted the men immediately be transported to the resort.
Stefan despised being forced to slink away like a coward when he was a military man at heart and could defend himself, but he had no weapon now, and he had to remember that he was representing his nation. This deal was far too important for him to dismiss even the smallest hint of trouble.
And worry that this threat would impact their meetings consumed him. Efraim was already on the verge of pulling out of the deal.
Surrounded by Edilio and five other security agents, Hector Perro, Stefan's chief aide, herded him toward the limo. Edilio pushed Stefan inside while shielding him with his own body. The security team surrounded the vehicle, each scanning the area for questionable characters.
Shouts from disappointed fans and protesters echoed from behind the gates as the limo driver drove toward the exit. Police had blocked off the parking lot as well as streets, and a pair of police cars led the entourage of limos as the collective group left the airport.
A mob of protesters lined the front gate, news station reporters and helicopters circled like vultures, and anti-Muslims waved American flags voicing their opinions.
Even though he lived in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern nations surrounded him, he failed to understand the hatred. He had valuable ideas which could benefit Kyros and the U.S., and he refused to allow either country to deter his mission of peace.
"I am sorry you did not get to hold the initial press conference," Hector said quietly. "I understand how important this trip is to you, Prince Stefan."
Stefan glanced out the window at the passing scenery. Night had descended, yet moonlight streaked the horizon, giving the rugged farm and ranchland an ethereal feel. Alpine meadows and Aspen forests filled his vision. Elk, deer, antelope, wild horses, cattle, mountain goats, and prairie animals roamed in their natural setting as if life had been turned back a century to a much simpler time.
A time before hatred and war and pollution.
"We must find out who sent this message," Stefan said quietly, "determine if it was in fact a threat, and if so, discern what the person who sent it might know."
"Yes, Prince Stefan," Hector said. "Edilio is trying to trace the origin of the message as we speak."
They passed an impressive sprawling ranch called the Seven M, then passed the Wind River reservation which jutted up to the resort property. Finally the driver veered down a side road and Stefan noted signs indicating the Wind River Ranch and Resort. The two-hundred acre secluded resort was situated on a working cattle ranch, a concept that intrigued him.
Yet this beautiful state was also troubled with pollution from their oil drilling. An area in which he possessed expertise and a problem he intended to rectify.
The main resort guest accommodations appeared as the driver wound up the drive. A sense of welcome engulfed him at the rustic charm, and the floor to ceiling windows and skylights with their majestic views of the mountains.
Minutes later, his security team ushered him through the enormous lobby, which boasted massive stone fireplaces and cozy seating nooks, to a large conference room where the other COIN members joined him.
"I'll see that your luggage is stowed and your suite properly prepared," Hector said, then excused himself.
Stefan nodded, then greeted each of the royals in turn while a staff waiter uncorked champagne and passed it amongst them.
"We have much business to attend to," Amir said. He gestured toward Stefan. "Stefan has alerted us that he received a warning not to trust anyone while here. We do not take this warning lightly. Yet we must forge ahead unscathed by the hostility of those who oppose us."
"Here, here," Sebastian said, then raised his champagne flute for a toast. The men clinked glasses.
"The summit begins tomorrow, but tonight is for us to relax." A broad smile filled Amir's face. "I chose this resort for its privacy, beauty and charming hospitality. It would be shameful if we did not become acquainted with the area and partake of the amenities offered."
"I for one, am looking forward to those amenities," Stefan said with a devilish grin. "And something the locals call Shoshone lamb and navy beans."
The men laughed.
"I think a massage might be in order." Antoine rolled his shoulders. "The long travels seem to have created a kink in my neck."
More laughter followed as the men chatted about the possibility of attending an American rodeo, trout fishing, and hiking. A waiter appeared announcing dinner, and they were escorted into a private dining suite. Crystal chandeliers, a massive oak table, ornate molding and a picturesque view of the winding river added ambience to the artistically presented array of appetizers, meats, vegetables and desserts.
Stefan lacked a sweet tooth but tried each item displayed, his belly bulging from the fine cuisine. After dinner, drinks were served in a ballroom where they actually mingled with other guests.
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