Drawing to a stop sooner than she’d expected, the lift doors opened onto a room lavishly decorated with leading members of international society—each adorned in clothes and jewellery that would rival all the gold in the Bank of England.
She glanced around the soft-hued room, its delicate lighting clashing painfully with the sounds of clinking glasses and mind-numbing small talk.
The party, it seemed, had started without her.
With Eloise’s first step into the room those standing nearby stopped talking, and all around her a hush seemed to descend. Many bowed their heads, as if in respect, but she knew it also served to mask their gossiping mouths. And she hated it. She always had. The close attention paid to her and her family before and even more so after she had married Odir. For just a moment she wondered whether this was how her mother felt. Hiding her hurt behind practised smiles. And then she berated herself. Her husband, for all his sins, was nothing like her father.
‘Eloise?’ A familiar voice cut through the crowds.
Eloise turned to take in the face of one of the only friends she could claim from her ‘old life’, as she now thought of it.
‘Emily, it’s good to see you,’ she replied, surprised at the truth of her words, and even more surprised as Emily drew her into a warm embrace.
‘Where have you been?’ Emily whispered into her ear. ‘It’s been ages, El. The rumour mill has had you locked in the Farrehed palace tower by your domineering husband.’
For just a moment Eloise wanted to tell her friend everything. Of the joy she’d found helping others, the freedom she’d found in Zurich, the meaning she’d found in such a simple existence...
‘Mrs Santos,’ Malik said, interrupting Eloise’s thoughts and putting an end to such a foolish whim.
Of course she couldn’t say anything that would reveal her absence from Farrehed...from the Prince.
‘Malik.’ Emily nodded in warm welcome.
‘It’s a long story,’ Eloise replied quietly, with a smile to soften the brush-off. ‘What are you doing here? You’re not usually at these events.’
‘I could say the same for you,’ the brunette replied in hushed tones. ‘My father... He’s... He’s not doing so well.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. And your husband?’
‘Not here—thankfully,’ Emily replied with a rueful laugh. ‘Speaking of husbands... Yours has been like a bear with a sore head all evening.’
‘Really?’ Eloise asked, her heart pounding just at the thought of him.
Emily nodded over her shoulder.
And, as if their discussion had conjured his presence, Eloise caught sight of the man she hadn’t seen in six months. She couldn’t see his face, but the broad lines of his back were etched in her memory as if it were the only way she had ever seen her husband: from a distance and from behind.
Even today he stood a head taller than all those around him, and for one second her breath caught in her lungs. A thousand images of her handsome husband ran through her mind and over her skin. That first ever sight of him, dismounting a formidable black stallion. His impenetrable air of authority before she’d even known he was the son of a sheikh. The way that she had mocked him for his arrogance as he’d flung the horse’s reins at the stable hand and the innocent flirtation they had shared—until later that evening when they had been formally introduced.
Betraying nothing of their first meeting, Odir had eased her humiliation, charmed away her embarrassment and made it a secret shared between them, kept from their fathers. One she’d foolishly cherished.
Images crashed through her mind of the brief time they had spent together during their arranged engagement—the trips he’d made out to the borders of Farrehed, where she had been working for a charity set up to help provide medication for the desert tribes. The secret dinners they had shared...the morning they’d watched the sun rise over the sand dunes...
She thought back with shame of how she had told him her hopes and dreams...how she’d eagerly eaten up his plans for Farrehed and its people. Of how they’d come together, in spite of their fathers’ plans, to try and make the best of the arrangement. Of how she’d dared to hope that their marriage could be something more.