And in her life, there had been no place, no time, for sexual feelings.
It made it hard to understand what had driven their parents to such extremes. What had made her mother feel her husband, her only daughter weren’t enough for her. What had made her cast off a lifetime of perfect behavior, a marriage to a man she’d seemed to love, and for her father to react with mindless violence. She’d long been afraid that desire like that was some sort of demon that possessed you and left you with little choice in the matter.
But she didn’t fear it now. Obviously, it wasn’t a concern for her. Particularly not with a man like him.
“I am glad for you,” he said. “I remember it with far too much clarity.”
“You didn’t…you didn’t see…”
He swallowed, his eyes still focused on a point behind her. “I saw enough.”
All she could remember was being pushed behind a heavy curtain. She’d stayed there. And she’d heard too much.
But she hadn’t seen. She’d been spared that much.
“What is your timeline for this marriage?”
“The sooner the better. You’re certain no one is going to come for you?”
“You mean am I sure no one will come and save me? Yes, I’m certain. There is no one like that in my life.” What a lonely thought. She’d always known it, but saying it out loud made it that much more real, sharpened the contrast between what he offered with marriage, and what she would get if she used him and went ahead with her plan.
It was simple. A chance at a future, or nothing at all.
The offer of a future was so shiny, so tempting, so breathtakingly beautiful….
“That is not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“Are any of the old regime, the revolutionaries, still after you in any regard?”
“Not that I’m aware of. The old leader was killed by one of his own, and that ushered in a completely new political era in Jahar. Things are better. But there is still no place for me.”
“As a symbol, you would shine beautifully,” he said.
The compliment settled strangely in her chest. Lodged between rage and fear. “Thank you.” The words nearly choked her.
“It is true. I think people would look at you, at us, and see echoes of a peaceful time. Of a time when our nations were friends. Sure, you won’t be sheikha of Jahar, but you will still matter to the people there. They suffered when the royal family was deposed. They will be happy to know that you’ve risen up from that dark time, as will they. As they have.”
“It is an idealistic picture you paint.”
“I’m not given to idealism. This is how it will be.”
“You seem very sure,” she said.
He lifted a shoulder. “I am the sheikh. So let be written, et cetera.”
“I didn’t imagine you would have a sense of humor.”
“I don’t have much of one.”
“It’s dry as the desert, but it’s there.”
The left side of his mouth curved upward into a smile. “I see, and what did you imagine I would be like?”
“I had imagined you were a ghul.”
She shifted uncomfortably. Because sadly, it was true. In her mind, he’d become a great, shape-shifting creature. A blood-drinking monster.
He reached his hand out, and she swiped it away with a block. He lowered his head, his dark eyes intent. “Permit me,” he said, his voice hard.
She froze and he lifted his hand again. She stayed there, watching him. He rested his hand on her cheek, his thumb sliding over her cheekbone, over the cut he’d inflicted on her.
“I suppose,” he said. “To a child who saw me as the one who took her father from her, as the one who stole her life, I would seem like a monster.”
“Are you not?” she asked, unable to breathe for some reason, heat flooding her face, her limbs shaking.
With one quick movement, she could remove his hand from her face. She could break his thumb in the process. But she didn’t. She allowed this, and she wasn’t sure why.
Perhaps because it felt like something from another time. When Ferran hadn’t been scary at all. When she hadn’t hated him. When he’d simply been the handsome, smiling older son of her parents’ best friends.
But he isn’t that boy. That boy was a lie. And he’s now a man who must answer for his sins.
“I suppose it depends,” he said. “I am a man with many responsibilities. Millions of them. And I always do what I must to serve my people. From the moment I took power.” He lowered his hand, heat leaching from her face, retreating with his touch. “I will always act in the best interest of my people. It depends on which side of me you fall on. If you are my enemy…if you hurt those I am here to protect, then I am most certainly a monster.”