But to lose it by choice—to have someone choose a husband over a child, a secret over the truth—that was a different kind of pain all together. His mother’s death had taken away that love for him, but that had not been a choice she had made.
‘Right now, Odir, I’m trusting that you will say nothing of this to anyone, will do nothing—because it will put Natalia at risk. Put my mother at risk.’
Odir couldn’t stand the weight of Eloise’s gaze, full of expectation and hope, he realised reluctantly. His mind was hurtling over all this information and it was changing his thoughts of her, refocusing the image he had carried with him over the last six months. One that had changed that fateful night he’d found her beneath Jarhan’s kiss.
Now the memory was reforming into something new. His image of her slight frame, one that he had once thought weak and inconsequential, was now, he realised, of the strongest steel. One that had borne his awful accusations—one that had suffered so much at the hands of the people who were meant to protect her and care for her: her father, her mother...even her husband.
She had borne so much and never once buckled. She’d done what she had needed to do and he admired that. He respected that. It was a strength that he had not seen in anyone else around him.
She had trusted him with her secrets. Within him he could feel this new image of her shifting the synapses in his brain, bringing new weight to his feelings for her. And suddenly to have her trust felt like a burden greater than any he’d ever carried before. Not his kingdom, not his people, but this slip of a woman and her trust were threatening to undo him.
‘I have money that I would willingly have given you to protect your mother and your friend.’
‘But would you have listened to me six months ago? When you thought me someone who could sleep with your brother? Would you have listened to me six hours ago, when you believed me a gold-digger out for a marriage of convenience to a prince?’
* * *
His silence spoke volumes, and it hurt her more than Eloise could have anticipated. She turned away, unable and unwilling to bear the weight of it any more, and almost stumbled over the cushioned bench beside the heater that Odir’s guard had lit earlier.
No, the silence seemed to say to her. They both knew that it would have been impossible before. It had all been such a mess. And all because of their fathers. They might have been very different types of tyrants, but it had still been tyranny.
Either way, Eloise realised, there was no peace to be had from either man. Odir’s father was dead, and her father would not change. He would not suddenly become a kind man who would sacrifice his own wants for his family. He would not suddenly become a loving man who would protect her mother, or even her. Money, reputation, social standing—that was everything to him. And to admit to his wife’s addiction...it just wouldn’t happen.
She felt Odir sit down heavily beside her. There they were. Two people stripped of everything—not King nor Queen, not a son, nor a daughter. It was just the two of them, looking out at the distance, lost in their own thoughts under the night sky.
And she wanted to be lost. She wanted to feel anything other than what was warring within her heart. She hated all this talk of the past, all the dirty little secrets that had kept them locked away from each other, making it almost impossible for them to be together.
She could feel the warmth from his skin across the small distance between them. The scent so uniquely his that she could have recognised it anywhere hit her in waves. She inhaled it, holding it within her lungs, trapping it inside her and refusing to let it go. She wanted it to fill her completely, to block out any thoughts of what had been spoken of, any thoughts of what was to come.
Her mind hurt from all the plans, all the scheming, all the different possibilities of where this night could have gone and would go now. She wanted him. She needed him to take it all away and fill her with the simplicity of a desire that was already stoking its flames within her.
The air changed, and she couldn’t tell if it was her fault or his. She could hear her breathing—loud in her mind, full and quick—and struggled to slow it. She fought it because she knew that even just one more touch from Odir would turn those flames into an inferno.