It hurt. More than she had ever thought it would. Her stomach cramped and she was surprised that her body didn’t curl in on itself the way she wanted it so desperately to do.
Here in his arms, with his body beneath her, she felt a part of the past break away and disappear into the night. And with it came the realisation that in the last six months of trying to ensure her friend’s safety she had experienced the very freedom that she had always yearned for.
Yes, she could walk away now—she could leave. If Odir wanted he could tell her father where to find her, could tell him that she had broken her promise to him and to her mother. Not that she thought he would... She could leave it all behind. But what would happen to Farrehed? What would happen to Odir?
When she had agreed to the marriage her father had arranged with Odir she had thought he might rescue her. When she’d realised that wasn’t the case she had tried to make the best of it. When he had thrown her aside she had taken the opportunity and run. She had protected her friend and lived a lie for six months.
Looking back, Eloise realised that at each turn, with every step, she had been thinking only of herself. She had not thought of the man she’d married. She had not thought of the people who had become her people.
If she was willing—if she could put aside her own broken heart and step back into the world of royal responsibility—then she could ensure the future and the security of everyone she cared for. How on earth could she put her own wishes above all that? And if in the last few hours Odir had managed to uncover a want that she had never known she had—a want for someone, anyone, to love her for who she was and not for what she could do or what she could be—well, that wasn’t his fault.
She shut her ears against the echo of a childlike voice, one from a distant memory, broken with tears, that was still asking to be loved.
Confused and hurt, desperate to reach out and comfort her past self and her future self, assuring both that one day they would all be okay, Eloise fought within herself. She had proved to herself that she was stronger than she had ever thought. She had started over again in a new country under a different identity. But in all that time there had been one thing missing from her life. And she realised now that it had been her husband.
If she decided to return to him desperately hoping that one day he’d love her the way he loved his people, she would never forgive herself. Because, no matter how weak and needy that part of her heart was, she would never be like her mother. But if she chose to return to Odir’s side simply to protect her friend, with the hope that she might one day be able to protect her mother and protect the people of their country...
‘I understand,’ she interrupted.
‘You agree to become my wife? To be Queen of my country and mother to my children? You agree to all that?’
She inhaled—pressing her feet to the floor and drawing strength from the solid wood beneath her toes—and exhaled the words Odir longed to hear.
* * *
For the first time in what seemed like an age Odir felt the true flush of complete victory rush through him. It was in no way nearly as powerful as the heights of pleasure that had coursed through his veins as he had found completion within her, but it was no less important.
He told himself that he hadn’t recognised the way her eyes had dimmed as she’d said the words. He told himself that he’d imagined he had seen that same look in her eyes when he’d left her alone on their wedding night. He supressed the twinge that had tightened around his heart—a twinge that felt oddly like guilt—and instead made his quick mind fly to what had to happen next.
They needed to get to the embassy for the press conference so that he could become the powerful ruler his people really needed. They didn’t have much time.
He stood up from the bench, holding his hand out to her, and felt the warmth eaten away by the cool touch of her skin. He brought her to her feet and they left the balcony, the past, and all the words and kisses they had exchanged behind them.
He glanced again at his watch as they silently walked to the corridor where the lift would take them to the suite. Malik was standing in the shadows, watching them from under hooded eyes. Odir bit down against what felt a little like censure coming off his guard in waves.