Odir frowned. ‘Jarhan didn’t drink back then.’
‘He did that night. The reason for your visit to Kalaran was to confirm the plans your father had made for Jarhan to marry one of Prince Imin’s sisters—’
‘Plans that disintegrated the moment I found him with you.’
Eloise narrowed her eyes. By God, she was glorious like this. Cutting a king down to size was no easy feat, and she managed it with a simple glance.
‘Yes. They did,’ she said, as if those words contained the answer he was looking for. ‘He was drunk because he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t agree to the marriage you were arranging.’
‘But there was no marriage! We didn’t even know which of Imin’s sisters would be suitable for Jarhan. Why would he object to a marriage before a match had even been made?’
‘Because,’ she said gently, as if preparing him for some great hurt, ‘it wouldn’t have mattered which sister you chose.’
‘Because he was already in love with you?’ he said, hating himself for the fear that lay beneath those words. Hating the fear that clogged his breath but didn’t quite stop his mouth.
‘No, because it wouldn’t have mattered which woman you chose.’
Shock cut through him and he could see the truth in her eyes.
‘My brother is gay?’
His wife nodded.
He needed a minute. He needed a week, a month—a damned lifetime. He needed the years he had spent with his brother back.
‘How could he not tell me?’ he demanded.
She was shaking her head. ‘It wasn’t about you,’ she replied.
Shame and sadness filled him. Not because his brother was gay—not at all. But because of how hard those years must have been for him. For Jarhan not to be able to be himself, not to go after the things he wanted from life. Odir knew something of that. Or at least he understood.
Odir had never been given the luxury of wanting anything other than the throne. And to think that in his heart of hearts he had been jealous of the freedom his brother had been afforded as second son. Now he knew it to be no freedom at all. Farrehed was a deeply traditional country, and he knew how his father would have reacted to the news that Jarhan was gay. Badly. Had he been alive, he would most likely have exiled Jarhan in shame.
‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Did you think—even for one minute—that I was homophobic? That I would banish my own brother?’
There was a pause before her response—one that created the most awful ache.
The relief he felt was like a live thing within him.
‘No, it’s not because of that. But we both knew that you were trying to be the best possible future ruler for Farrehed. That for you to gain the crown would have meant the ruthless pursuit of all things perfect and the utter removal of anything that would risk the throne.’
‘That is not a reasonable excuse, Eloise.’
‘For God’s sake—you would pay me millions of pounds, tell a room full of complete strangers that I’m pregnant, all the while still being a virgin, and yet you have the audacity to be outraged by our concern about what you might do? Tell me, Odir, at what point does the end no longer justify the means?’
His answer was swift and harsh.
‘At no point, Eloise. At no point does the end not justify the means. Do you know what’s going on in my country? Really know? There are people in the desert tribes dying for the lack of decent medical care. Because my father withheld it in the belief that if they were weak they would not mount a counter-offensive against the throne.
‘There are people in my country starving, emaciated, going hungry. Fathers are selling their daughters, husbands whoring out their wives—all because of my father, because of his delusion and paranoia.
‘Destruction, a huge divide between poverty and incredible wealth, the outright sale of our country’s best assets and complete isolation from its closest allies. Piece by piece my father has stripped everything from this nation, and I will do whatever I have to to see them returned. Each and every one of them!’
Eloise had seen all manner of determined men, and she knew that fire in his eyes—knew that it was not the determination of the justified, it was the determination of the desperate. It was the look of a man who would use any means necessary, never mind the cost, to get what he wanted.