‘Because I love her.’

* * *

Eloise rushed through the hallways, not knowing where she was going, not seeing where she was going through the tears falling from her eyes.

For six months, and even for years before that, she had never cried. She had kept everything inside, had focused on what needed to be done. For her mother, for Farrehed, for Jarhan, for Odir. And the first time she had asked something for herself, had wanted something just for her, she had been...rejected.

Her heart pounded in her chest. Pain ricocheted through her body. Agony. She was in agony.

She realised that no one was following her—not Odir, not one of his guards. She was no longer under his protection. She was truly alone, and that thought sent a jagged splinter through what was left of her heart.

She pushed through a plain doorway and found herself in a concrete stairwell. She made it down one half-flight of stairs before her foot, clad only in a silk stocking, slipped and she slid down the last step, tumbling into a heap in the corner of the stairwell.

The concrete around her was hard, cold and unforgiving. It bit into the bare skin of her arms and calves, drawing any warmth from her body and taking up the sounds of her cries, returning them again and again in an echo that must have reached both the heights and depths of the building.

Somewhere in her mind a thought rose. This is the sound of a heart breaking. And suddenly she didn’t care that it was loud, undignified, that she was gasping for breath. She was in pain and she needed to let it out. It needed to be heard and recognised, not repressed and denied.

She was hurting, and there was something powerful in allowing herself to acknowledge that. It was evidence of how greatly she loved. So very different from her mother’s repressed feelings, her father’s tightly leashed control and Odir’s denial.

She thought of each of them. She thought about how she’d let herself be used as a pawn in other people’s games rather than standing up and saying no. She’d been passive, reactive, never really going after the thing that she wanted...until tonight.

She’d left Odir—but not because it was something that she wanted. She’d gone because of his command. For the first time she wondered whether, if Odir hadn’t seen Jarhan kissing her she’d still be at the palace in Farrehed. Waiting for him to come to her. Filling her days with impossible tasks. Doing anything to make it right but the one thing that would have worked—talking, opening up, feeling and accepting her love for him.

Zurich might have been a moment of escapism for her and she’d never regret it. Not for one second. But despite all outward appearances it had been safe. Safe because it hadn’t been something she’d wanted, but something she’d been forced to do. Yes, it had helped Natalia, and she’d be grateful for that for ever, but without Odir she’d have never reached out to Natalia. Even today she’d only come to London because she’d received his invitation to the event.

Today was her birthday. Today was the day she would inherit her grandfather’s trust fund. She could still claim that money. It would keep her in Zurich, it would help pay for Natalia’s treatment and she could go back to her secretarial role. But was that really what she wanted? To work day in and day out, claim her pay cheque, return to her little one-bedroom flat in Zurich. Eat dinner alone. Be alone.

She had come to the charity gala ready to ask for a divorce, ready to sever her ties with Odir, but he had shown her tonight that she had not been living at all in the last six months. She had simply been going through the motions. In just a few hours he had brought her to life. He had shown her the kind of passion that she was capable of. And, despite his bribery and lies, she had made the decision to help Farrehed, to put Farrehed first, and that had shown what kind of Queen she could be. One who was perhaps an equal to their King.

Thoughts clouded her mind, and the band of pain that had pressed in around her heart now wrapped itself around her head. She had told him that she loved him. And he had pushed her away.

She clutched her temples and groaned out loud in pain.

He had said that he wanted to be free to marry someone else.

The image of him standing before the world with a faceless bride, pledging to honour, protect and...and love her nearly killed her. But something about that image was off.

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