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SOVeReiGN eXIT

A private intelligence operative must spirit a royal daughter away from her rich father but there’s a catch—he’s fallen in love with her from a distance.

                     #

 

The contract was simple: Henry would contact the client, designated “Princess,” and escort her past her daddy’s security. His Royal Highness had made her a suitable match from among her peers in the Unspecified Monarchial Nation. She disagreed with his selection.

Henry leaned against the hotel room windows, hidden by curtains. He shifted his binoculars. Yes, five men on the private security payroll. Two lounged in the lobby, failing at looking inconspicuous. “Where’s the other three?”

 

“Two rooming next door to Princess.” The woman’s voice in his earpiece was smooth and calm. “Third took a walk to get sandwiches, Romeo.”

 

“Thanks, Foxtrot.” Henry worked out a kink in his neck. “We’re still on for 0800.”

 

“Roger. Are you okay? You sound tired.”

 

Ack, she said it. Henry stifled a sudden yawn. “No, no, I’m good,” but he sounded like, “Noaah, Noaah, aam guuud.”

 

Foxtrot laughed. “Take a break. You don’t have to watch her every second. I’ve got your back.”

She always did. He’d trust no one else as comms during a contract. But Henry had one small problem with this job. His binoculars panned across the window of Princess’s room visible from his.

 

He’d fallen for his client.

 

Even now, with her a hundred yards away and below him two stories, his heart skipped. Long black hair, deep brown eyes, curves accentuated by a sleek blue dress… Princess was even more stunning than the profile picture he’d first seen a month ago, when she hired the private resolution group he worked for.

 

Henry lifted his phone and read their text exchange.

 

<I’m scared for tomorrow,> she’d written.

 

<Don’t be. I won’t let anything happen to you.>

 

<I know you won’t. I can’t wait to meet you in person.>

 

<Me neither.>

 

He hadn’t shared those with Foxtrot. The burner phone he used for clandestine communication carried a number that appeared on Princess’s end as a friend’s.

 

“Romeo, come in.”

 

“Still here.” Foxtrot was right. He needed to clear his head. Henry fingered the Ace of Hearts playing card in his pocket, the edges worn from years of use. His worry stone. A walk would be good.

 

His binoculars caught a neon sign among the boardwalk’s offerings. “There’s a fortune-teller downstairs. I’m headed there.”

“Don’t step on a black cat,” Foxtrot teased.

                     #

The storefront was gloomy with red lighting. Henry sat in the cramped booth, surrounded by thick curtains and burning candles. A smoky haze filled the room. He faced himself in a scratched mirror. There was a slot along the bottom.

“Place your money on the table.” The voice, thickly accented, brooked no argument.

Henry paid the fee. A woman’s hand snatched it like a snake striking.

Lights rose behind the mirror, revealing it as two-way. The fortune-teller was young, with long, curly black hair. Heavy makeup turned hazel eyes sharper.

Cards flashed onto the table. Henry couldn’t read them, and the fortune-teller showed no interest in helping him see. “She is near. Your love,” she murmured. “The one of royal blood who has left her birthright. Soon, you will be together, as is destined.”

Henry targeted the key phrases. Your love. Royal blood. The timing was off since Princess hadn’t made her escape yet. No problem. She’d soon be free of her pampered prison.

He was back on the Boardwalk before he knew it, head spinning from the smoke and the deep drone of the fortune-teller’s voice. The jostling crowds made the hot night seem full of endless possibilities.

 

His phone buzzed. It was Princess. <I can’t sleep. Can you?>

 

<Not a wink.>

 

<I’ll dream of you taking me away.>

 

Henry grinned. <We’ll make the moment come true. Promise.>

 

Sleep? Not likely. But he’d better try, so he didn’t screw up the contract—or his pledge to Princess.

 

                     #

 

The morning dawned with muggy beach air that the ocean breezes couldn’t banish. Henry started sweating as soon as he stepped out from the hotel’s equally damp air conditioning. “Eyes on Princess.”

 

There she was. Heading out for coffee with a security man tailing her. Gorgeous—Princess, not Guard One. Henry dispassionately assessed him as attractive, too, though he was more concerned about hidden weapons.

 

“Affirmative, Romeo. Echo is going for the packages.”

 

Such was the plan—one person to whisk Princess away, one person on comms, one person to swipe her belongings from the hotel room. Princess had paid extra for that service.

 

Henry walked down the opposite boardwalk ramp to the street below. He scrolled aimlessly through his phone, maintaining the illusion of distraction. He even allowed himself to bump into a couple people and ask forgiveness. Three other people were walking the same direction as he was.

 

<Beach Brew,> Princess texted.

 

She and Guard One crossed the street in front of him. Henry slowed his approach until they passed a rundown motel, which let him slip behind the lower-level parking garage pillars. The other pedestrians had gone off in various directions.

 

The coffee shop wasn’t a random choice. Princess’s path to it went by an unused storage closet attached to the motel’s underside—a closet with a padlock door latch minus the padlock.

 

Henry increased his pace and reached into his pocket. He twirled a padlock. $12.59. Cheapest expense of their operation.

 

“Oh! I lost my lip gloss!” Princess cried. “Rico, go back and get it.”

 

Guard One stopped behind her. He was five feet from the closet. “Miss, I can’t. Your Father…”

 

“Screw Daddy,” she snapped. “Go get it or you’re fired.”

Henry smirked. She was playing her role perfectly. A few more steps…

 

He tapped Rico on the left shoulder and ducked right. Henry shoved Rico into the cinderblock wall, wrenched the closet door open, and shoved him in. It took all his weight to keep the guard contained while he snapped the padlock into place.

 

“You did good, Princess.” Henry turned and smiled. “I’m—”

 

“Short.” She frowned at him. “How tall are you?”

 

Henry blinked. She crossed her arms and tapped her shoe on the sidewalk as Rico pounded his fists against the door. “I’m—what?”

 

“Short. You’re not blond, either. I like blond guys.” Princess shrugged. “Where’s my car?”

 

“We’re not taking your car. This way, please.” Henry put a hand on her elbow.

 

“Eww, no touching.” Princess wriggled out of her grasp. “We’d better go before he calls someone.”

 

“Yes, I know.” Henry frowned. “That’s why—”

The pounding on the door stopped.

 

“Come on.” Henry led her down the block, to a Subaru coupe parked by a meter. He opened the door for her.

 

She glanced at him. “So, you’re like five and a half.”

 

“What? No. I’m five eleven.”

 

“Not even six? You should have said so.” She shook her head. “Stop calling me Princess, too. It’s dumb.”

 

“It’s—not. It’s the code we agreed upon.”

 

“Still dumb! I’m Mari.” She shook her head. “For what I’m paying I wanted a blond hunk.”

 

“Blond hunks stand out. We’re trying to be discreet.” Henry pulled out into traffic and steered them onto the main road.

 

“Do I look discreet?” Mari wrinkled her nose.

 

“Not yet.” Henry reached into the backseat and handed her a backpack. “Put these on.”

 

His earpiece clicked. “Romeo, this is Foxtrot. Be advised, Guard One called his buddies. They’re heading for your location.”

 

“My location.” Henry grimaced. “Not possible. He didn’t even see the car.”

 

“I’m not wearing this.” Mari held up a T-shirt that read “I (Heart) Atlantic City” and a pair of New Balance sneakers. “Where did you get these, Wal-Mart?”

 

“Target.”

 

“Wal-Mart in disguise.” Mari sniffed the shoes.

 

“Nobody’s worn them.”

 

“They smell like you’re lying.”

 

Henry tried to chuckle but wasn’t feeling it. He checked the rearview mirror. A silver Mercedes Benz whipped through a

stoplight, drawing indignant honks from other cars. “Foxtrot, did this vehicle get swept bugs or tracking devices? How did they know what we’re driving?”

“Hold on.” Keys tapped. A mouse clicked. Meanwhile, beside him, Mari gagged as she slipped on the T-shirt. Henry caught a flash of brown skin but, funnily enough, his libido was flagging. “Ah, Romeo? Social media posts from Princess.”

 

Henry stared at Mari.

 

“What? Oh my gosh. Don’t even.” Mari held up her phone—but it was an iPhone adorned with rhinestones.

 

“That’s not the copy phone we passed you.”

 

“No. Duh. Mine still had all the apps. How am I supposed to TikTok when—”

 

“You TikToked our retrieval?’

 

“I mean, just the car. And the coffee shop.” Mari pouted. “They’re both really cute.”

 

Unbelievable. Maybe it was an act. Had to be. She was keeping up appearances in case they were being bugged.

 

“Tell Princess to kill the location.” Foxtrot was trying not to laugh.

 

“Really not funny, Foxtrot.” Romeo made a sharp right, bumping the Subaru over a curb, then cut right again down an alley between vacation homes. He pressed the accelerator until the needle hit fifty.

 

“What the hell are you doing?” Mari pulled on the sneakers. She shuddered. “Eww, eww, eww. They’re wet.”

 

“Evading. And they’re just damp from the night air. Foxtrot, where are they?”

 

“Hold on. Checking the drone cams.

 

“Check faster.”

 

“Please.”                                                                        

 

“What? Yes, please.”

 

“Mercedes is still headed straight—negative. They’ve turned. Heading back your way. The locator, Romeo.”

Henry grabbed Mari’s phone. “Give it.”

 

“No! Have you seen how many—?”

 

“Just stop, okay?” Henry sighed. “You said you were dreaming of me taking you away.”

 

“I was! Because I thought you looked like Chris Hemsworth!”

 

“So what? You’re five ten. I’m still taller than you.”

 

Mari rolled her eyes. “By an inch. So’s my little brother.”

 

“Wow. I cannot believe you.”

 

“Oh, don’t be pissed. It’s not my fault you got hooked by my texts.” She furiously adjusted the shirt. “It’s like how I write to all the guys, so I can get them to flock around me at parties.”

 

“Except we’re not going—” What was he doing? The phone. Henry threw it out the window.

 

Mari screamed.

 

“That’s no good,” Henry warned. “I’m not going back for it.”

 

“You are too!” She grabbed the steering wheel.

 

“Hey!” Henry wrenched it back, but the Subaru had already veered right. A telephone pole ripped off the mirror and scraped along the passenger doors.

 

A silver car sped into the alley behind them.

 

“Dammit.” Henry pressed the accelerator to the floor. “Hang on!”

 

“Romeo, you’re clear to exit the alley in six seconds before those lights change,” Foxtrot said.

 

Mari yelled and hit his arm, but Henry kept his gaze on the intersection ahead. They burst from the end of the alley and he spun the Subaru, missing a mail truck by inches. He raced across the next intersection at an angle, then shot off along the opposite road.

 

The Mercedes, though, careened through too fast and skidded out of control when it veered around an oncoming minivan. It crashed into a condo’s faux Greek columns.

 

Henry grinned but didn’t celebrate more than that. The airport was still three blocks away and he hadn’t planned to get there via a car chase.

 

“Stop and let me out!” Mari demanded.

 

“What’s your plan, walk to Boston?” A second Mercedes appeared in front of them, coming the opposite way down the street. “Foxtrot, a little help.”

 

“Stay on the route, Romeo. I’ve got it.”

 

A large drone buzzed over the nearby roofs. It carried a bulbous package, though Henry couldn’t see what it was at this distance.

 

“This is stupid! I hired you to get me out of the country, not kill me in a car wreck in New Jersey.” Mari sneered at him. “I bet you aren’t even on TikTok.”

 

“I can’t believe I thought I was in love with you.”

 

“Open comms, Romeo,” Foxtrot said slyly.

 

Mari gawked at him. “Why aren’t you? Everybody loves me. Look at my followers!”

 

The drone dropped its package. The bundle slapped onto the pavement right after a convertible Mustang, rolling out… Into a spike mat.

The device exploded a huge sheet across that lane of traffic, spikes glittering in the summer sun. It wrapped around the Mercedes’ tires and the driver apparently overreacted, because it slid into not one but four parked cars before halting.

 

“I hope their rental agency carries good insurance,” Foxtrot mused.

 

Now Henry could relax.

 

“Look, you seem sweet,” Mari said, interrupting his triumph, “but the whole height thing’s a deal-breaker for me, you know?”

“Trust me, I know.” Henry wondered if he could get his money back from the fortune-teller.

 

                     #

The private jet took off from the Atlantic City airfield, heading west. Henry leaned against a black Honda Civic, watching from behind mirrored shades.

 

He chuckled when the SUV pulled up. Rico ran over toward the fence and shouted something indecipherable at the personnel. They shook their heads and gesticulated in no uncertain terms that Rico should get lost. As luck would have it, a New Jersey State Trooper was already in the parking lot, answering the report of a threatening individual. Henry tucked his phone away. “Good response time.”

 

Henry was glad Rico had gotten a good look at the jet as it departed, because that meant he ignored the passenger plane taxiing onto the runway. With any luck, Mari’s daddy would send his people toward Chicago, instead of Boston, where Mari was now headed on the larger aircraft. Why on earth would that brat fly commercial?

 

His phone buzzed. The client paid the remainder of the fee, minus two grand for incidental damages. The damned phone—and probably punishment for wearing Wal-Mart clothes.

 

“She wasn’t worth it.”

 

Foxtrot spoke but it wasn’t through his earpiece. A woman a couple inches shorter than him with short, dirty blonde hair and hazel eyes walked up to Henry. She held up a tarot card—the one for lovers. “She is near. Your love,” she said in a familiar heavy accent. “The one of royal blood who has left her birthright.”

 

Henry stared, unsure how to react, but suddenly warmed by the realization that it made perfect sense. “You’ve got to be kidding. The fortune-teller?”

 

“One and the same. I’m glad you like your superstitions. Made it easier to find the right place and the right person to bribe—though I think her wig didn’t quite fit.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“I’m Ava, by the way. Nice to meet you.”

 

“Henry.”

 

“I figured, Romeo.” She tucked the tarot card into his front pocket, where it fit neatly by the Ace of Hearts. Then Ava slung her arms around his neck.

 

“And the fortune?” Henry managed a smile. Her lips edged nearer to his. “Because I was told I’d meet a royal love.”

 

“I meant what I said. I’m the second cousin to the grand duke of Luxembourg.” She leaned in and kissed him.

Henry recovered fast enough to kiss her back, thrilled by the surprise, as the jet engines roared in the background.