Odir realised that he too was smiling until fresher, newer, memories overlaid the past.

‘It’s that memory that is the hardest. Because had I not known a father who smiled, who laughed and played with his wife and children, then I wouldn’t have known anything different. Instead I watched a powerful, kind, generous man disintegrate into a bitter, paranoid, destructive man who ruined everything he touched because he had lost his love.’

And that was why Odir had been happy with a marriage based on nothing so dangerous as emotions. Because his father had proved over and over again just how damaging love could be to a man—to a king. And whether or not he felt desire for this woman—the woman who had betrayed him in the most awful way—he was certainly sure of one thing. He would make sure that she could not incite in him anything near love. Even if there had been feelings that might have grown into something more, then they had been killed dead the day he’d found her with his brother.

* * *

Despite his silence, Eloise could trace the feelings crossing her handsome husband’s features. And for a moment she was lost in his words, wondering if her own father had ever been like that. If perhaps that was why her mother had chosen to stay with him—desperate to see traces of another man, the one she had first fallen in love with.

For a strange moment, she felt impossibly close to her mother and couldn’t explain why. But then darker memories returned—of her father and his manipulations, her mother’s constant escape into prescription drugs to dull the edge of whatever emotion she wanted not to feel. Each time her hopes of being loved and wanted for who she was had been dashed, again and again.

She dragged her thoughts away from her own life and returned them to Odir’s.

‘I hadn’t realised that things were so bad,’ she said into the dark room.

Her words seemed to reach her husband a long moment later, and she realised that she had echoed the same sentiment she’d expressed upon their encounter with Prince Imin. Had she been so preoccupied with her own wants and needs that she had failed to grasp the true significance of her husband’s absence?

‘Jarhan and I have worked for years with the council to protect Farrehed from our father’s paranoia and bad decision-making. Or even lack of decision-making. For some time he simply retreated and made decisions about the governing of Farrehed from his ivory tower.’

‘Is that what you were doing in the first months of our marriage? Is that why you were so busy?’

‘Had I not been so distracted by our engagement, our wedding, my father might not have been able to muster enough support to make an incursion on to Terhren soil. He might not have been able to undo the hard work Jarhan and I had put in to redeem Farrehed in the eyes of her allies.’

Eloise’s mind flew to the spaces in between his words, the meaning she so desperately wanted to find. Did he blame her? Did he blame their relationship—whatever form it had taken—for what Sheikh Abbas had been able to do?

* * *

‘I was trying to hold the country together by a thread. A thread I had to weave without my father seeing me as a usurper.’

In his mind’s eye, Odir watched his father hurl a priceless antique vase gifted to him by the Egyptian Ambassador across the room and watched the pieces shatter and scatter across the floor. It had been illustrative of his father’s sheer fury at the thought of his eldest son trying to take his place.

In his madness he had called him all the names under the sun—things that he would never repeat to a living soul, not even his brother. And it had brought to life the awful, terrible truth. That, yes, Odir had wanted his father gone—he had wanted to usurp his father’s position so that he could stop him damaging their beloved country. But not because he had wanted that power for himself—as his father had thought.

‘I thought it was because you didn’t want me.’

Eloise’s voice broke through, the hurt her tone failed to conceal crashing against wounds already salted with grief.

‘Want you? I always wanted you, Eloise.’

* * *

His words shocked her. Cut through the months of silence and absence. Cut through the fears that somehow she had not been what he wanted. That in spite of the attraction she’d thought they’d shared it was a figment of her imagination.

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