‘Is that what you’ve been dealing with?’
‘What?’ he asked, pulling himself from thoughts of his wife.
Was this not what he’d wanted to avoid? The all-consuming thread that wound around them until all he could see was her?
‘When did things become so bad between Farrehed and Kalaran?’ Eloise asked, wide eyed.
‘After Jarhan’s broken engagement and the recent trade agreements with Terhern things have been difficult,’ Odir admitted.
It wasn’t as if he were confiding in her—just that he was sharing things she would have to know once she returned to his side, he told himself.
‘I hadn’t realised...’
Odir let an exhausted breath escape. ‘Do you really care, Eloise?’
Hurt slashed across her features. ‘Of course I do, Odir. Farrehed became my country—they are my people too,’ she said.
And in that moment Eloise realised the truth of her words. The time she had spent working with the desert tribes had shown her the strength of Farrehed’s nomadic people.
Memories played with her, dancing across her skin the way the desert heat and sun once had, making her feel warm for the first time in what felt like years. Instead of burning and swelling up within the arid atmosphere, as she had once feared, Eloise had felt herself come alive. It had been a different sort of life from the one she had carved for herself in Zurich, but one she was surprised to find that she’d missed.
As they moved through the crowd Eloise slipped a practised smile onto her lips and scanned the people about her without really seeing anyone.
Until her eyes rested on a familiar face beside the bar and several threads of emotion wrapped themselves around her, pulling on her heart. Pleasure, sadness, surprise and a little fear. Jarhan was propping up the bar, a drink in his hand. She’d never seen Jarhan drink until that night six months ago. She wondered why he was here. It was strange that the two Farrehed Princes would be at such a minor event in the royal social calendar.
Jarhan met her eyes, expressing a wealth of emotion he’d never been able to give speech to. And just like that something eased around her heart. She could tell that he regretted that night more than anything. He could never have guessed at its shocking consequences, and Eloise felt sadness and pity rise within her.
A conciliatory smile threatened to lift the corners of her mouth. He had been such a source of comfort to her during her husband’s long absences. He had been sweet, and funny, but always seemingly on the outskirts of the royal family. Never quite fitting in.
She supposed that it was quite possible he never would now. Not after the broken engagement that had followed the events of the night that had started all this...mess.
She felt Odir’s heavy gaze on her and turned to him.
‘Don’t test me, habibti,’ he whispered, with more anger than she had expected, or had ever heard in his voice before. ‘I need your answer and I need it now.’
She looked back to Jarhan, saw in him the cost of duty and sacrifice, saw the weight of it almost crushing her friend, and knew then and there that she would not—could not—live like that.
‘No, Odir. My answer is and always will be no. There’s too much hurt—’
‘Don’t talk to me of hurt. Not tonight, Eloise.’ He gave her a grim smile. ‘I’m sorry, but you have left me with no choice.’
With that he departed, pushing his way through the throng of international dignitaries, socialites, actors and actresses—the world’s wealthiest people, all waiting for him.
Without needing to request silence, he ensured the crowd was hushed and ready for his welcoming words.
Eloise was suddenly unsure. What had he meant by that?
At first her concern was so great she could not quite make out the words of his speech. She turned to Jarhan, but he was no longer by the bar and she couldn’t see him anywhere. There was no comfort, no support—nothing and no one she could lean on. She was alone in a sea of people, and only the sound of her husband’s voice tied her to the land.
Swells of gentle laughter crashed against her as the crowd lapped up the speech asking for generous donations to the charity Odir had spoken of earlier in the evening. The part of her mind engaged in the present dimly recognised that the initiative Odir was presenting had been a project she had started months before she had left. A project that he had seen to fruition.