She couldn’t believe what he was saying. And yet she could. Because Malik didn’t love her. His pride had been hurt, but not his heart. He was not about to come after her when it was a matter of pride alone. She bit her lip to stop the trembling. Damn him!
She shook her head again. “It doesn’t matter, though, does it? Even if we’d talked about it then, we’re still wrong for each other. It would have never worked out.” She swallowed. “A divorce is the right thing to do.”
“Maybe it is,” he agreed. “But the terms have changed.”
Her heart fell to her toes. “I don’t understand.”
He sat up, faced her. His voice, when he spoke, was firm. “If you want this divorce, you’re going to live with me as my wife.”
She couldn’t stop the gasp that caught in her throat. “That’s not what we agreed to back in California!”
“This is the desert, habibti. Conditions change. We either adapt or die.”
“But—but—this is blackmail,” she bit out, fury vibrating through her. How dare he change the terms mid-course!
“I am aware,” he said coolly. “But it is my price. If you don’t agree, you are free to leave. We will simply remain married for all eternity.”
Sydney struggled to calm her breathing. She was absolutely livid. And frightened.
“You would like that, I suppose.” It would forever keep him from his family’s matchmaking attempts, which he probably considered a good thing.
“Not particularly. It would require me to break our marriage vows since I refuse to spend the rest of my life celibate.”
Sydney snorted. “As if you haven’t done so already.” She’d read the papers, seen the pictures of him with other women. She was not so naive as to believe he’d spent the last year completely alone.
“Ah, yes,” he practically snarled. “Once more, you know me so well. You are quite an expert on my behavior. Whenever I am uncertain how to proceed, I should ask you in future. You will know unerringly what I should do.”
“Stop it!” The words tumbled from her, laced with bitterness and pain. “Don’t lie to me, Malik. Don’t treat me like I’m stupid.”
He swore, long and violently, in Arabic. “What about the way you treat me? As if I have no honor, as if my word means nothing.”
“I didn’t say that!” He turned things around on her, made her feel wrong for saying such a thing—and yet she’d seen the papers, seen the pictures of him with other women. How could the evidence be wrong?
“But you did.” She could feel the anger vibrating from him, the indignation. A thread of doubt began to weave its way through her brain. “Do you know what I think, habibti? I think you are little more than a spoiled child. You refuse to deal with anything. You only wish to run away when life gets difficult.”
A sharp pain lodged in her breastbone. “That’s not true.”
But she feared it was. She’d grown so accustomed to hiding behind masks, to hiding who she was and what she wanted. It had been the only way to survive, to be like everyone else.
To make her parents proud.
She was afraid to say what she wanted, afraid she would be rejected or ridiculed.
He reached out, his fingertips sliding along her cheekbone. “You have to grow up sometime, Sydney. You have to face your fears.”
The lump in her throat was too big to swallow. “You’re trying to change the conversation. It was about you, about your women—”
His hand dropped away again. The air between them grew frosty. “Yes, of course. Now please tell me how many women I’ve had. I seem to have forgotten.”
His voice was tight with anger, but she refused to be intimidated. It felt wrong somehow to continue, and yet she blundered on. “There were pictures. You and Sofia de Santis, for one.”
“Sofia is genuinely beautiful. She is also engaged—to a woman.”
Sydney sucked in a breath, the fire of humiliation creeping up her neck. She was only glad it was dark and he couldn’t see. How had she missed the news that Sofia de Santis was a lesbian?
“What about the Countess Forbach? There were several pictures of you together.”
“No doubt because I attended many of her charity balls where I donated money to her causes. She is also, I must say, happily married to the count.”
“You have an answer for everything,” she said.
“And you have an objection.”
“You can’t really just expect me to believe everything I read was a lie—”
“Why not? Did any of these news articles appear in a real paper? Or were they splashed across the pages of the tabloids you grabbed at the checkout stand?”