And there, out in the dark alone, with London lit up before her—as if it too was celebrating the royal child she was supposed to be carrying—she felt every brush of the warm wind, pulling her hair loose from the pins she had bound it with, catching at the fabric of her dress, tugging it this way and that. She wished she could disappear—be swept across the far reaches of England and away from here.
For the love of God, she was a virgin—so very much the last person who was ready to become a mother, let alone to a child born from an immaculate conception!
It had taken the three weeks after their wedding night for Eloise to realise that her husband wouldn’t come to her bed. Had her unpractised kiss horrified him that much? Had that been what drove him from her? Or had it all been lies? His promises of more than an arranged marriage designed solely to get his ring on her finger?
Eloise shook her head, as if to rid herself of the thoughts that had consumed her throughout the two lonely months she had spent in her marriage. Week after week, as one month had led to another, all she’d had were doubts and fears to keep her company. And they’d eaten away at her. A rejection so familiar.
She was so tired of feeling alone.
Even if in her deepest, darkest dreams she had ever considered returning to his side, there was no way she could inflict the kind of marriage they had on a child. Not after her own childhood. A child was someone to be protected—not someone to be manipulated or used as a political pawn.
But for just a second the image of a child with her fair skin and Odir’s deep dark eyes flashed in her mind and took hold of her heart.
* * *
Furious at the thought of his wife evading him the moment he made his announcement, Odir extracted himself from the financially generous crowd.
Where was she? Why was his heart in his mouth and his pulse racing with something that might have been described as fear, had he been any other man? Had he any other blood than Farrehed warrior ancestry coursing through his veins?
He caught Malik’s eye. He pointed in the direction of the balcony.
The moment his eyes rested on Eloise’s slim shoulders, flashing through the night like a beacon, he felt his pulse finally slow and he took his first breath. He drank in the sight of her, hair and skirts swirling around her thin frame.
When he had first caught sight of her in the stables, two years before, he had thought her slender. He had thought her beautiful. When his father had unknowingly re-introduced her to him later that day he’d been surprised. His father thought this slip of a girl could be his wife? He’d doubted at the time that she’d last even a month in the Farrehed heat.
Perhaps, had he paid attention to her surprising survival skills back then, he might have been better prepared for his wife.
Though looking at her now, he thought Eloise seemed lost. There was no other way to describe it. And just like that his conscience poked and prodded. There was a part of him that cursed the past—cursed all the steps that had brought them here. That had made him form those words around a ridiculous lie that would bind Eloise to him in a way her acceptance of his offer would not.
Malik appeared at his side.
‘Are you sure this is what you want?’ his old friend asked again. As if he too realised the precipice they stood on.
No. Everything in him wanted to reject the path he had set in motion just five minutes earlier. But he didn’t have a choice. He only had nine hours until the press conference, and if she wasn’t by his side when it happened then fate would not be kind. He’d needed to force the issue and he’d done just that.
‘See to it that we are not disturbed.’
Malik bowed, and retreated behind the glass door.
Odir stepped towards her, momentarily blocked by the wind as if even the elements were working in her favour, trying to keep him from reaching her, touching her. But that desire, that need, was a weakness he couldn’t afford—had never been able to afford.
So he said words that he knew would keep her at bay. ‘Hardly the dutiful wife—running off just after my speech, habibti.’
Eloise whirled round, hair flying, skirts billowing in the wind. Odir hadn’t realised how close he had come to her and he should have. Because she shoved at him with both her hands and only the surprise of it allowed her enough force to push him back.