In case you missed the other chapters, here’s where you’ll find it…
Leila simply stared at the man seated across her. She was positive he asked her to marry him but the absurdity of that caused her to stutter, ‘Wh… what did you say?’
‘As my wife you will own half the ruby, in this manner the ruby will once again belong to a member of the royal family of Oudh. In a manner of speaking,’ Marco said quickly.
‘Why would you do such a thing?’ Leila shook her head still unable to make head or tail of the proposition.’You will marry a virtual stranger; what on earth would you gain from marrying me?’
‘It isn’t about me gaining anything, Leila. Let’s just say I want to help. This was the only way I could think of that will allow us both to get what we want?’
‘The ruby of course,’ Marco was careful not to let it slip that he wanted Leila as well.
‘You are not making much sense… you already have the ruby. And why would you care what happens to my people?’ Leila searched Marco’s face for some clue. Could she have possibly misread him?
‘Ouch! You do see me in the worst context, don’t you?’ Marco accused. ‘Well if you want to make me into the big bad wolf go ahead. Think your worst.’
Leila remained silent. The man standing in front of her was calm and flippant, yet he had just asked her to marry him as if he was asking her to pass the jam at the breakfast table. And it hurt. Why? Leila did not want to analyse that for now. This day was proving to be full of emotional challenges.
‘Then my answer would be no. You have asked me to marry you but you will not tell me the real reason for it. I have no option but to decline.’
‘You seem to forget you have people depending on you to do the right thing.’
Leila stood up once again and prepared to leave.
Marco remembered thinking that Leila would make a terrible poker player. He was wrong. The truth was she could call your bluff like no one he knew before. ‘Wait, Leila if you want the real motive behind the proposal, you’ll get it.’
‘The truth is that I believe I have been selfish. I am not acceding that you are right merely that my actions may have seemed selfish to you. And I want to rectify that if I can.”
For the first time that night he suddenly looked unsure of himself. Her heart leapt in her breast.
“What I am trying to say is that I am willing to share. I can’t just relinquish the ruby to you; I have desired it for too long. However; my proposition will help satisfy both our needs and more importantly you will be able to fulfil your duty as princess and granddaughter.’
Leila studied the man still seated, his eyes stayed on hers. He seemed sincere. But she knew she couldn’t deny the fact that, however sincere he seemed there must be a hidden agenda. Marco was a business man. A ruthless one. From all the information Bismah had passed onto her about him, she knew that he was holding out on her. Although she glimpsed fragments of his ability to feel compassion; such a proposal must come with a price.
‘You would accept that I would only be marrying you out of a sense of duty to my country and my grandmother? What is it…a marriage of convenience?’
‘It will be a marriage in every sense of the word.’ His meaning was clear.
‘What do you mean? We do not know each other! We don’t even like each other!’ Leila felt the hot red flush rise within her. This was becoming more and more complicated. If anything, these last few months have taught her that she did not do too well with ‘complicated’. Leave, she thought, when she realised Marco had closed the gap between them.
‘You cannot deny that there is chemistry between us.’ It was a whisper. His hand gently reached up and moved a stray lock away from her face. The feathery touch sent stabs of pure heat through her. Dizzy with the build-up of anticipation the light touch tempted, she lifted her head up to meet his. She felt his warm breath on her skin, and glimpsed the feint stubble on his chin. They hovered there for a moment, waiting and wanting. Then he kissed her. His lips probed hers until they opened with a will of their own. And without warning the warm gentle pressure became more demanding. Leila matched the demand with one of her own.
Her body seemed to ripen beneath his touch. Marco pulled her closer. The sweet taste of her was not enough, he wanted more. His hands moved down her spine and made their way up again. His lips moved from her mouth and they found the soft pulsing crook of her sweet neck. Perfect. She was perfect. When her hands crept up Marco’s head and threaded through his hair, he knew he had to stop. Now. Before he lost all control.
Not too gently, he pulled away and turned toward the door. Leila had to hold the chair beside her to steady her beating heart and her limp body. She noticed that Marco turned toward her again, his face slightly flushed, but his voice lacked any emotion.
‘I think my point has been proven.’
‘How dare you!’ Leila’s anger was dangerous. She once again made to leave the room. And yet again he stopped her.
‘You kissed me back, let’s not behave like children and admit that we will at least have no problems in the bedroom.’
‘I will have to agree to marry you first!’ Leila bit back; her eyes still flashing with anger. She strode toward the door. To her retreating figure he said, ‘You have till tomorrow to give me your answer, princess.’ Just as she was about to slam the door and make a spectacular exit, his mocking voice continued, ‘This offer may not be on the table for long.’
Spoken like a true business man. This proposal was nothing more than a business proposition. What did she expect? She had let her guard down. Foolish, foolish, woman, she chided herself.
Leila was sure that everybody could hear the anger in her every step as she made her way to the lobby and eventually the elevator. She ignored Bismah even though he tried desperately to keep in step with her.
Glad that the elevator doors were ajar, she immediately summoned the concierge to take her to the 20th floor. Bismah barely made it into the elevator before the doors closed. From the glare Leila bestowed upon him, he realised that it was best to keep silent and wait for her to reveal all.
It was difficult for Bismah to be patient but he did not want to cross paths with Leila. She seemed thunderously angry. When they finally got into the suite, Leila stormed into her room, slamming yet another door.
Bismah could hear her pacing to and fro. Whatever Mr Vincenzi suggested, it had put Leila in the worst mood he had ever seen her in. A minute later she stormed out of the room again.
‘Can you believe the nerve of that man?’ Her hands slashed the air. The words were spat in a wicked fury. ‘He thinks he can get whatever he wants, whatever the price?’
Before Bismah could get a word in she continued.
‘Marriage!’ Her eyes settled on him. There was more than a touch of crazy there, he noted. So, here was some of the famous Jodhi temper she’d been keeping hidden. He knew it would surface at some stage.
‘Of all the crazy, mad, idiotic things…he thinks that us getting married is a solution?”
She did not acknowledge Bismah’s incredulous surprise but continued with her tirade. ‘I don’t even know that man except that he is arrogant, selfish, self-centered and oh! … just beastly! And he expects me to marry him!’ With that, she took hold of one of Marco’s ostentatious vases nearest at hand and flung it against the wall. Bismah jumped in shock, his feet danced about as he avoided shards of glass and a shower of water and petals.
When Leila realised what she had just done, all her anger dissipated leaving her extremely weary.
‘Oh! Bismah. I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t mean to…’ and with that Leila plonked herself on one of the brocade sofas. The tears were threatening to erupt in floods but Leila swallowed to keep them in check. She was always doing that these days. Overwhelmed, by everything recently. And with each passing day, instead of things getting easier, they were becoming more complicated. And the biggest challenge she had ever faced was Marco Vincenzi. Marry Marco and regain the ruby for Oudh and her sweet grandmother…, or refuse and watch all that she has recently grown to love, be destroyed. Was it even a choice?
‘He has asked you to marry him?’ Bismah’s small voice penetrated her heavy thoughts.
‘If I marry him, he will relinquish part rights of the ruby to me and to Oudh. He claims that the prophecy states that the ruby needs to be in the possession of the royal family; therefore by us marrying he still has a claim on the ruby but as his wife the prophecy will also be fulfilled.’ Leila explained.
‘That is quite a proposal.’
Leila looked up. She did not expect to find compassion, especially from Bismah. But there it was.
‘It is not an easy choice, is it?’
Leila was surprised by Bismah’s change in attitude.
‘I did not expect it to be that kind of proposal.’
‘I don’t know what to do. Things like this only happen in books or movies, don’t they? But then again my entire world has been turned upside down since my parents… ’ Leila slowly stood up and wandered toward one of the surviving vases. Her fingers traced the luxurious velvet of a rose petal. ‘To an outsider my life would seem unreal.’ She sighed.
‘You have been an answer to many prayers. When the Queen announced that you were the long lost princess returned, everyone felt that you were like a breath of hope in our hopelessness.’
Leila was briefly comforted by Bismah’s kind words but also weighted by its meaning.
After a while she said, ‘I always thought I would marry the man I fall desperately in love with? My parents were in love.’
‘Were they happy?’ Bismah asked. He seemed a little embarrassed when he realised what he had asked.
‘Most of the time but not always. I suppose love isn’t always enough.’
‘You know princess; my mother did not love my father at first. Apparently she thought he was a pompous fool.’ Leila could not hide the smile on her face. Hadn’t she called Bismah pompous many times? Thankfully she did not say it out aloud.
‘She grew to love him eventually. But they never did get married because my mother was considered unsuitable for my father. However; they were together for a while. And they were happy. When my father died, my mother got very ill and she died a few months later. She died of a broken heart.’
Leila was taken aback by Bismah’s revelation. She had become used to his emotional stiffness. From the time she was introduced to him three months ago, she had tried many times to speak to him as a friend rather than a servant. Of course she knew that tradition dictated that there is a formal relationship of Princess and servant, however; Leila was not brought up according to any of the Oudhian traditions. And with so few friends in her new life, every one counted. Oh, he did annoy her at times with his ineptitude, but he was at her side, constantly, more than anyone else. She looked over at Bismah and saw that he was humbled by emotion.
‘You should think really hard as to your decision, Princess,’ Bismah said. Suddenly Leila knew exactly what she needed to do. She knew all along in fact.