After reaching the secluded lagoon on the uninhabited side of Calloway Island, Prince Royal Nicholas Mackenzie Worthington killed the engines of his sleek cabin cruiser and then lowered the anchor into the Caribbean Sea. Sneaking away from his bodyguards hadn’t been easy, but he’d managed to slip out of a side entrance of the palace during the chaos of putting up Christmas decorations. Dressed in workout clothes, he’d pulled the bill of his baseball cap low over his eyes, hopped on a Moped and managed to blend in with tourists during the short jaunt over to the marina.
Nicholas took a lingering look around and then inhaled a deep breath of sea scented air. “I think we’re all clear.” He glanced over at FBI special agent Dylan Thomson, who whipped out a pair of binoculars and then did his own inspection of the surroundings. “What do you think?”
“I want to be sure.”
“I understand.” Nicholas’s heart thudded heavily in his chest but he was glad that after months of having the FBI crawling all over his island that this conversation was finally taking place.
“Okay.” Agent Thompson lowered his binoculars. “I think it’s safe out here as long as you weren’t followed.”
“I’m fairly certain I slipped away undetected. My staff thinks I’m in my private gym. I’ve been working out for extended periods lately, so my absence for a couple of hours shouldn’t arouse suspicion.”
“Good.” Dylan gave Nicholas a crisp nod. “Look, I have some answers for you.”
“Okay.” Nicholas grabbed a cold bottle of water from the mini fridge thinking he could use something stronger. He tossed a bottle to Agent Thompson who deftly caught it. “I guess I’m ready.”
Agent Thompson pushed his mirrored aviators up the bridge of his nose and then took a long guzzle from his bottle. Even though he was dressed as a tourist in a loud Hawaiian shirt and baggy khaki shorts, the stiff set of his shoulders and serious set of his mouth appeared anything but casual. “We’ve confirmed what you’ve suspected. Calloway Island is being used as a tax haven for the wealthy, some of whom are U.S. citizens. And now you’ve got international drug lords using your banks to launder money. The corruption is becoming widespread.”
Nicholas blew out a long sigh and felt the weight of Agent Thompson’s statement settle around him like thick, dense fog. “So now you know why I’ve been campaigning to have Calloway Island become a territory of the United States.”
“Now that we’ve got the hard evidence, your request to turn Calloway Island over to us will be put into motion after congress returns from the Christmas break. I’ve already started the process.”
Nicholas nodded and then looked off into the distance. He’d been working toward this for nearly two years but now that the wheels were being put into motion, stepping down from the throne felt rather surreal. He didn’t care about the trappings of being the royal prince but this would be the end of his family legacy. A hot flash of guilt washed over him but more than anything else he wanted to protect the citizens of Calloway Island.
“Hey, if it helps, you’re doing the right thing. This sort of activity can lead to the invasion of terrorists.”
“Thank you,” he said gravely.
“Sorry you had to make this decision, Prince Nicholas.”
“Me too.” Nicholas looked out over the pristine water and took in the beauty of the white sand beach. Palm trees reached gracefully toward the deep, blue sky which was dotted here and there with cotton candy clouds. How could someplace so utterly beautiful be soiled with dirty deeds? The notion made his stomach twist in knots. “This is making my head spin,” he said absently.
“Well, there’s more,” Dylan added in a deep, serious tone.
Swiveling in the seat, Nicholas gave Dylan his full attention. “Go on.”
“Once we get this ball rolling you’ll put yourself in considerable danger.”
“While we will make every attempt to keep this top secret, if there is a leak, the criminals who don’t want this to go down will come after you.” He pointed his water bottle at Nicholas.
“Oh…” Because he’d been followed around by bodyguards all his life the notion of being in danger felt foreign to Nicholas.
“So what’s the solution?”
Dylan nodded toward the cabin. “Come below with me and I’ll show you.”
Nicholas nodded and then opened the door to the cabin and descended the three steps into the galley kitchen. He slid into the curved, white leather seat of the dining table and lightly drummed his fingertips against the smooth surface while Dylan booted up his state of the art tablet. A pretty young woman appeared on the screen capturing Nicholas’s attention. Short hair, the color of warm honey, framed her smiling face. Big, expressive blue eyes seemed to be looking directly at Nicholas, stirring an emotion inside him that he didn’t quite understand. “Who is she?” he asked without taking his gaze from her face.
“Anna Lee Brody,” Dylan replied and then swiped his finger across the tablet, bringing to life another picture of Anna Lee painting the railing along the front porch of a stately old home. Dressed in faded jeans and a red tank top, she had splashes of white paint on her clothes. A white swipe across her chin caused Nicholas to grin in spite of the dire situation. “That’s her home in Daleville, Alabama, a small town in a rather remote rural setting. She’s renovating the house and converting it into a bed and breakfast.”
“And what does she mean to me?”
“Well, during the process of turning Calloway Island over as a territory, you’ll need to go into hiding. And I don’t mean here on the island.” Dylan swiped his finger once more showing Anna Lee hanging a fat evergreen Christmas wreath on the front door. “And we think she is a good candidate to hide you.”
Nicholas flicked a glance at him. “But why on earth would she want to get involved in something like this?”
“Let me explain.” He went to the next picture showing Anna Lee with two more women. He pointed to an attractive older woman who looked enough like Anna Lee to be her mother. “Belinda Culpepper Brody. Her family owned the home, surrounding lakefront property, small bookstore, and a diner up in town. When her parents died, Belinda and her daughters inherited it all. The taller, dark haired girl in the picture is Amber Brody, Anna Lee’s sister. Amber converted her grandfather’s diner to an old fashioned ice cream parlor and cupcake shop. Anna Lee took ownership of the antebellum home by giving up her share of the diner. Belinda ended up with ownership of the bookstore near the road and some prime lakefront acreage.” He swiped his finger across the screen showing pictures with each explanation.
“Okay…” Nicholas toyed with the cap on the plastic bottle. “But I’m still confused as to what all of this means to me.”
“You’re right in that most people wouldn’t readily agree to do something of this nature. We chose Anna Lee Brody because of her clean background, the remote location, and because she owes some back taxes. As an incentive, if Anna Lee Brody cooperates by hiding you, we’ll give her a much needed grace period to pay her taxes.”
Nicholas glanced at the sweet face of Anna Lee again and swallowed hard. “But by staying with her I could potentially be putting her in harm’s way.”
“Her situation is rather dire. She owes an excess of one hundred thousand dollars.”
Nicholas blanched at the amount but shook his head firmly. “No way. She’d be better off selling off assets than putting herself and her family in danger.”
“And her dream of saving the house that’s been in the Culpepper family for generations would be dashed.”
“I feel for her, especially since I can relate to her circumstances, but won’t be responsible for putting her in danger,” Nicholas insisted.
“There would be considerable protection involved.”
“But still a risk! Put me up in a hotel or something.”
“This plan has already been put into motion but of course in the end it’s your call.”
“I just made the call.”
Dylan gave him a level look. “How about if we forgive her tax debt?”
Nicholas looked at him sharply. “You mean wipe the slate clean?”
“That’s exactly what I mean.” Dylan nodded. “Do you want to be responsible for not letting her have this golden opportunity?”
Nicholas lifted his baseball cap and shoved his fingers through his hair. “How is her situation my responsibility?” he asked, but he felt the need to look at her picture again.
“How about this? Why don’t you let Anna Lee decide her own fate? Get to know her a little bit.”
“We’ve already given you an alias as Nick Worth, a high ranking member of the National Historical Society. Daleville is full of historical homes and Anna Lee’s is one of them. You can go there with the pretense of offering her a grant to help restore her home.”
“It would be that easy?”
Dylan let out a short laugh. “Nothing to do with the government is ever easy, but yes, with the right paperwork I would get her a small grant… maybe something like twenty-five thousand.”
“And she would get to keep it even if we don’t go through with the rest of the plan to hide me there after the holidays?”
“Yes,” Dylan answered in a firm tone that Nicholas believed. “We have a big budget when it comes to the war on drugs and terrorism. This is a drop in the bucket.”
Nicholas remained silent, not knowing what to do but then he looked down at the computer screen and gazed at Anna Lee’s smiling face. For some reason he couldn’t quite fathom, he felt the need to help her out, but still… “I don’t know.”
“Alright, but check this out.” Dylan touched the screen and the scene suddenly came to life. “This is real time.”
“You have a camera watching over her house?”
“I needed to know all there was to know about her before suggesting this plan. Like who comes and goes on her property,” he said in a slightly defensive tone. “Your safety is my job.”
“I get that, I suppose.” Nicholas blew out a sigh.
Although he felt guilty spying on her, Nicholas looked at the screen. A moment later, the front door opened showing Anna Lee bent over while dragging a big box out onto the porch. She seemed to struggle with the weight, making Nicholas wish he could jump through the screen and help. She tugged without luck but she persisted, giving the box a hard yank, making it suddenly slide across the threshold, causing Anna Lee to fall backwards onto her bum. Nicholas felt a jolt of alarm when her shoulders shook and she leaned her head to the side. “Dear God, is she hurt?”
“I hope not.”
After a moment Nicholas realized with relief that she was laughing, not crying. Anna Lee opened the box and started pulling out holiday decorations, looking at each item with a bright smile. “She seems to love Christmas,” Nicholas said more to himself than to Dylan.
“It appears so.”
Nicholas watched her take obvious delight in a motion detecting snowman that waved stick arms and danced. When she appeared to be laughing again, Nicholas wished he could hear the sound of her voice. When she spotted antlers attached to a headband, she slipped it on and then reached inside for more Christmas cheer.
Nicholas thought how the holidays had lost their magic for him after his parents were killed in a tragic car wreck eight years ago. Although he went through the motions, the holidays brought sadness into his heart rather than joy. “Anna Lee doesn’t appear to be too concerned about how much she owes in taxes.”
“She doesn’t know.”
“Excuse me?” Nicholas looked at Dylan in alarm. “What do you mean?”
“The back taxes were from her grandfather’s estate. She will be getting the letter soon.”
“So you waited to have leverage? This was planned?”
“Hey, don’t forget this is an opportunity for her. In the end, she’ll be grateful.”
Nicholas looked back at the screen in time to see Anna Lee tie a big red bow onto each side of the white porch step railings. She had a sweet smile and a face full of trust and innocence.
Still uncertain, Nicholas watched Anna Lee walk across the lawn and decorate the mailbox with a red and green cover before disappearing around the side of the house. A few moments later she returned into camera view, struggling to carry a stepladder. She looked so cute in a silly antler headband that he found himself grinning without even realizing it.
“From everything I’ve seen so far, she’s friendly and well liked in Daleville. Hard worker, too. She has a business degree from the University of Alabama but evidently she chose to come back to Daleville and help her family instead of pursuing her own career.”
Nicholas could relate.
“She graduated with honors. I’m sure she had offers.”
Nicholas had to laugh at Agent Thompson’s persistence. “Why are you insisting that I do this?”
“Because it’s my job to get things done.”
“Okay… okay!” Nicholas raised his hands in surrender. “I’ll do it.”
End of Excerpt