‘Don’t say it. For the love of God, don’t say it, Eloise.’
‘I have to.’
‘No, you don’t.’
‘Yes, I do. I will not be like my mother. I will not be anything like either of my parents, Odir. I cannot live my life afraid to say the one thing that fills me so completely. I love you.’
Somewhere deep within him something broke loose. Fear and fury took over his body and his mind.
He felt his lips draw into a grim line. ‘No, you don’t,’ he growled. It was a warning more than a denial.
‘It’s not something that you can command or control. It’s not something you can order removed from your life. It’s mine—mine to give.’
‘I refuse to accept it.’
‘What? My love or the fact that you can’t control it?’
He couldn’t answer that question even if he’d wanted to.
‘Through everything you’ve tried to do,’ she continued—her words beating against his heart, smashing through the walls that he’d carefully placed around it to protect himself. ‘Everything, Odir—bribery, blackmail, lies and cheating—through it all it’s still here. I still feel it for you.’
‘Love is weakness, Eloise,’ he barked, as if he could convince her of it too. ‘Love destroys. Look at your mother. A woman who would seek oblivion and secrecy over her daughter’s happiness! How good is love then? And my father! Look at him. If I am to be any kind of ruler—any kind that is far from the destruction my father caused because of his love—then love will never be part of my life.’
He knew that he was shouting now. Knew that he’d lost the control he’d so desperately clung to all evening. Lost the one thing that had got him through the day and the night.
‘You ask what kind of ruler you will be... You have spent so long looking to the future, Odir, that you don’t realise you have already been the kind of ruler to protect your country for the last few years. You have done more for Farrehed in those years than your father ever did to drag it backwards in thirty. You have faced rebellion and smoothed it over. You have faced negligence and done everything in your power to counter it. You have created programmes to ensure the protection of disadvantaged and desperate people who will thrive in years to come.’
Her breath was now as ragged as his own. But there was power in her words. It was as if she were conjuring up a battle cry, and yet he only had an inkling of what that battle would be.
‘You have the love of your people, and even if you don’t believe in the power of that love, the strength of that love, they do love you. And so do I.’
He knew they were on the brink of something. He could see them both on the edge of a crack in the centre of the earth. She was stepping back from him. And no matter how much he reached for her she was withdrawing from him, eluding his grasp.
‘You said yes, Eloise.’ His voice was raw and low. ‘You said you’d come back. Be by my side. You can’t take that back. You can’t leave now.’
The look in her eyes cut him to the core. It was sadness and pity. It was so different from the way she had looked at him earlier in the evening, when she had believed he could hang the moon wherever she wanted. Could protect her from all her demons. Now she was looking at him as if he were the demon. As if he could hurt her more than all her experiences combined.
‘You don’t need me—and deep down I think you know it.’
No. In his mind he denied it. And deep within his chest his heart was beating hard enough to be heard.
‘All this talk of love, Eloise, is nothing but an excuse. An excuse for you to run away.’
She shook her head in fierce denial. ‘It’s not, Odir. I am not running. I’m standing and fighting. But I won’t come back as your wife, no matter the threats or the bribes, unless you do love me.’
‘What you want is impossible.’ His arm slashed through the air before him, as if trying to cut her down. ‘I’m not even sure that I’m capable of it.’
Only for the first time he realised that he was lying to himself. He knew that what she was saying was true. He could rule without her. He’d done it for the last six months. He didn’t need her by his side to make the announcement, and he didn’t need her by his side to rule. Because he did love his people. And she was right—that did make him powerful and strong.