He’d told himself his absence from her was due to the fact that he hadn’t had any time, and he’d clung to that in desperation—because if it wasn’t that, then it was because he had been hiding from his wife. That he had been a coward. Too much of a coward to take what he’d wanted...what he’d felt simmering beneath the surface of their every interaction.
Looking back on endless nights spent in the furthest reaches of the palace, separated from her by empty rooms and duty, he knew his wife had become a source of impossible temptation and censure.
In public she was perfect. Poised, but sensitive. Kind and caring, but regal. In private she had become an ache, a thorn in his side—one that now whispered across the months of time, Why don’t you want me? The thought pierced his deepest secrets, sounding so very much like himself as a child, looking to his father, wanting to know why he wasn’t enough to spare the man pain.
And suddenly every action, every sacrifice Eloise had made during their brief marriage, became overlaid by his own attempts to reach out to a man too distant, too emotionally shut off to love him.
An arrow of pain sliced through Odir and he wondered whether he had made a sound—because Eloise’s eyes were suddenly on him and full of concern. His heart started to pound beneath his chest, and in his mind, just for a second, he wanted to call it all off. He wanted to send her away from the questions and needs that he wasn’t sure he could answer.
The limousine turned left and pulled to a stop before wrought-iron gates. A small crowd had begun to gather in front of the embassy, backed by several news trucks. Figures huddled in the dark, sipping from plastic cups with wisps of steam curling into the night air, throwing cigarette ends into the street away from the pavement, their badges flashing into the night proclaiming them world-renowned news crews.
Before they could move through the gates a couple of flashbulbs burst through the tinted windows, highlighting Eloise’s drawn features. But the quiet growl of the powerful engine beneath them glided them forward through the iron gates and into the embassy courtyard.
Men dressed in black flanked the side entrance to the building, two moving to open the doors to the town car, and Odir regretted it. Some ancient sense of inbuilt propriety had him wanting to open Eloise’s door himself and lead her out into the night air.
* * *
Eloise’s heeled feet nearly slipped on the cobbles, and she clung to Malik’s arm like a lifeline. She took a deep breath and steeled herself. This was her life now. It had been once before, but now...now she knew her reasons for being there.
She forced a smile, turning her head to where the cameras eagerly sought their mark, and gave a small wave. Not too happy—it would not be the done thing to appear happy with the news that they were about to share with the world’s media. Calls for her to smile, questions about where she had been, demands to know if the rumours about her pregnancy were real—a thousand voices swirled around her with one word ringing in her ears. Baby, baby, baby.
For a second her smile faltered, just as Malik positioned his body between her and the media behind them. A baby. They had twice had unprotected sex tonight. She had come to the party seeking a divorce and left the party possibly pregnant, definitely still married and about to become a queen.
Her hand went reflexively to her abdomen. Could she bring a child into the world with parents who...who...?
Could she still claim that she did not love Odir? She might be willing to fool the world’s media, but after all this time she was done with fooling herself.
They might have only slept together for the first time that evening, but she had known this man for two years. She knew how he took his coffee, she knew that he hated to swim, she knew that he felt more at home on horseback than in any powerful car, and she knew that he would sacrifice anything for the protection of his people—even his own heart.
She knew the sound he made when he found his completion within her—had felt it echo within her breast. And she knew that within her heart of hearts, buried deep within its recesses, beneath all the secrets and lies that had built up between them, she had always loved her husband.
‘Your Majesty?’ Malik prompted softly.