The clipped sound of her heels on the cobblestones cut through her thoughts as Malik led her to where Odir was waiting halfway up the steps and then towards a non-descript side door, partially opened on the inviting light and warmth of the embassy before her.
Odir’s security detail, having received word that the press had surrounded the front steps of the Embassy, had decided to use the side entrance and led them through sleek industrial kitchens, where staff were already beginning to prep for the day. Each and every one of them stopped what they were doing and bowed their heads with a respect that settled peace within Eloise’s heart. She was a part of this, helping to create happiness not only for these people but for an entire country that very much needed healing. And she allowed that knowledge to warm her. To give her strength.
From the kitchens they were led into a hallway, and then they covered the distance to the central state room at a fast pace. Hearing the hushed tones and feeling the silent respect of every single person they passed, Eloise felt the weight of that responsibility. She looked to her husband, at the broad shoulders ready and willing to take as much of it as was needed. But his back appeared frozen with a tension she had not seen before. His left shoulder was just a centimetre higher than the other—the only outward indication that he wasn’t as relaxed as he appeared.
And suddenly Eloise understood the difference between the previous signs of respect she had witnessed Odir encountering and those she saw now. The bows were just that little bit deeper, the smiles on the faces of his staff more sincere, and tinged with so much more than respect.
They knew that his father was dead and that they were now standing before the Sheikh who would take them back from the brink of civil war and bring them to a new era of peace and prosperity.
Eloise felt rather than saw Odir’s step falter, so attuned to his body now, in a way that she had never been before. And she knew that he had realised, almost at the same time, the reason for the heavy silence about them. A combination of grief and hope.
His powerful stride took them from the rich red hues of the state room and out into the warm gold and white of the central hallway. Eloise took in impressions of colour, rather than specific details, for her eyes only had one goal. Her husband.
In the main foyer, beneath a large, expansive white marble staircase, there were even more people. Men in suits instead of kitchen whites hurried between the rooms off the foyer, papers and tablets in hand, calling for corrections to statements and prepared interviews, demanding changes to itineraries planned for months ahead.
All of them came to a sudden halt on seeing Odir.
Only one figure had been still and silent, watching their approach with hooded eyes. Eyes that sought Eloise rather than Odir.
Jarhan might have fooled those about him with his relaxed stance, but Eloise recognised it for what it was. A façade. And when their gazes met she could read the fear written there. The fear that her return to his brother’s side meant that his secret was out.
Odir caught sight of his brother at the same instant Eloise did. Of all the people in the room, the only one not looking at him was Jarhan. He felt the familiar instinctual reaction rise within him—fury, anger, jealousy, and one word that echoed in his brain—mine!
And then he came to a crashing halt. It wasn’t lust painted in his brother’s eyes. It wasn’t desire or need, but fear. This was the brother he’d tried to protect as a young child—protect from his father’s grief, from his own. The brother he’d taught to ride, made toys with, conjured up imaginary castles and battles, commanded rebellions and cut down tin soldiers... The brother who had been forced to live a lie, forced to hide his own sexuality, forced to sacrifice his own happiness. The brother who had been innocent of all accusations...
Again he wondered how he’d never seen it.
Jarhan wasn’t effeminate—he was almost as strong and commanding as himself. But he would still be castigated for his feelings, for his desires. His father would have exiled him—would have cut him from their family, never allowing his name to be uttered within the palace walls.
But Odir was not his father.
Amongst a sea of bowed heads only three remained upright, and finally Jarhan met his gaze. And instead of anger or recrimination—the two things that had tainted their every interaction in the last six months—Odir felt...love.