It had been a moment stolen from time, as simple as a man and a woman coming together in sheer passion, with no thought to anything else. But they weren’t just a man and a woman. They were King and Queen. And what they had just shared was the last moment of its kind that he could afford to take.
He was now the ruler of a country, he was now the Sheikh. And that had to be—could only be—his one priority. But the events of the last few hours—the revelations he’d uncovered about his wife—made him wonder what kind of ruler he would be.
For so long he had been safe and secure in the knowledge that he would be so much better than his father. Guilt and grief sliced through him at the thought, but he couldn’t allow that to overtake him. With his father gone, he now stood alone. But the doubt that had been held at bay for so long was creeping in through his carefully constructed barriers.
He had been a truly awful brother, ignoring what had been plain to see, what his wife had seen and known. He had been a terrible husband, failing to ask the questions that would have resolved so much between them, failing to support and protect his wife.
Protect his wife.
The words rang through him with a completely different meaning. It was the second time that night that they hadn’t used protection and Eloise might be pregnant with his child.
The realisation was truly sobering, and the image of a small child with his dark skin and her blue eyes sprang into his mind and lodged itself into his heart. Along with the desire and need to be better than his father—more than a distant, commanding figure shaping a small child, paving over the secret wants and wishes contained in that child’s heart and moulding him into being something else, someone else... He wouldn’t be that person. He would never be like his father.
Again guilt and sorrow poured salt on to a painful open wound. He had long ago grieved for the man who had once shown him love, for the loss of his mother, and the moment he had realised that his father was human, was fallible, had faults... That was the moment Odir had truly become a man.
He never wanted his child to feel that same crashing sensation. Oh, it would happen, he was sure—Odir was not arrogant enough to think himself perfect. But still...
His father had chosen to indulge in pain, zealousness and misery. He had taken the love he had once felt for his wife and children and turned it into something bitter and damaging. And Odir knew that his country wouldn’t survive if it suffered the same again. Odir would never willingly allow that threat to his people. But deep down he knew it wasn’t just his people he was protecting. It was himself.
So within his mind he slowly began to rebuild the walls around his heart—brick by brick, second by second—until everything that had been undone by Eloise in the last two hours was erased. No matter what happened after tonight—no matter what happened in the next few weeks and months—he had to make sure that his feelings for Eloise were not something that would risk the future of his country...the future of his heart.
But before he could speak to Eloise of the future he had one last thing to say about the past—words that were now bursting from his chest.
‘Eloise, I’m so sorry. For what I said to you earlier this evening. For what I thought of you.’
‘We never really had a chance, did we?’ she said, her sad smile offering sympathy, offering understanding.
‘But we do now. We can make a go of it now. I will help you maintain Natalia’s medical care. I will do whatever I can to help your mother in whatever way you want.’
* * *
Still lying on top of him, Eloise felt his breath against her neck, heard the words that he whispered into her ear, and wrapped herself in this new vow he was making to her. His apology soothed the sting of the past and she knew that he meant it. She knew that for the first time in her entire life there was someone to share her burden. To share her fear and the weight of the responsibility she had borne for so long.
‘But Eloise, I can give you nothing more than that.’
He paused as if to let his words sink in. As if to allow her time to hear the truth falling from his lips.
‘I cannot give you love. You were right—I do know how to love, I can and I have. But my love has now gone to my people. All of it. I have none left to give you.’