They were married on Marco’s yacht a week later. The day was as tranquil as she was stormy. In a simple tea-length full Italian lace wedding dress, she was a picture of demure elegance. Captain Ross Taylor, a close friend and captain of Marco’s impressive yacht, married them in an intimate ceremony attended by a handful of people; Bismah included.
Back to his stiff self, Bismah watched the proceedings, disapproval clearly etched on his round face; which wasn’t unusual but Leila had learnt to read his expressions and knew that what Bismah disapproved of most, was that the ceremony was not according to Oudhian traditions. Leila reminded Bismah before the ceremony began that this was according to traditions of the west, a world that Marco belonged to and not so long ago, she did as well.
Since there was no aisle to walk down, Leila stood at a makeshift altar, Marco beside her. Carefully ensuring that her eyes did not meet her husband-to-be, she glanced around, her simple veil hopefully concealing her apprehension. It was probably too late to call things to a halt. If she had the luxury of that option. All she could do was just wish that it would be over with – soon!
The captain smiled warmly, his bearded face nodded the beginning of the ceremony. His voice rang out loud and clear, the lapping waves hitting against the sides of the yacht, faded into the background. And the churning in stomach reached a new more uncomfortable level.
Fear kept her feet firmly planted to the gleaming wooden floors of the upper deck. She nervously stole a peek at Marco. She had seen him on brief occasions since the day she accepted his proposal. The few moments they spent together were short and completely civil. Standing beside him now, Leila was very aware of his sleek handsome confidence.
And then he looks at me like that, like I’m all he sees, she thought as their eyes collided and the churn became flutters and something else. It grew clear why Leila was filled with an inexplicable fear. This man, powerful and so very complicated was about to be her husband. Leila, even with her new yet unaccustomed title and position felt simple and unsophisticated.
She saw his lips moving. ‘Leila…?’
The captain cleared his throat and Leila realised that everyone was watching her expectantly.
‘You haven’t changed your mind, have you?’ Marco asked, slightly amused. His voice shook a little, or was that Leila’s imagination?
The captain repeated the question and Leila accepted her vows, to the relief of the guests and Marco, she noted.
They were declared husband and wife and without prompting from the captain, Marco said with a wink, ‘Now I get to kiss my beautiful bride.’ He gently pulled Leila into his arms and kissed her. Gently at first but then he let it linger, a little too long than was necessary, much to the delight of the watching guests.
The sky had darkened and the brightest stars twinkled through the twilight as the orange water nudged at the sides of the yacht. Finally free of well-wishers, Leila leaned against the warm wooden railing, relieved she did not have to maintain the happy smile that was expected on a bride’s face, any longer. Though she knew it was probably a bad idea to be left alone with her thoughts, she needed a breather. Marco was standing not too far off seemingly engrossed in conversation with the few remaining guests. Guests who attended her wedding. Their wedding! She had just bid farewell to Bismah who was going back to Oudh that very night. It had been a surprisingly emotional goodbye.
‘You are now a married woman, princess, in the care of your new husband. I wish you well.’ Bismah took her hands in his and held them, his eyes were soft, and she swore she saw a flicker of admiration.
‘I will take this happy memory to the Queen and let her know that you and the Heart of Oudh will soon return to where you both belong.’ Finally words of acceptance from Bismah. Leila smiled.
‘I will miss you Bismah!’ Her voice shook. With his parting she would be alone, without an ally.
‘You will be in Oudh in ten days. And I will ensure that you arrive to the biggest celebration Oudh has ever seen. Your traditional wedding will…’
Leila interrupted, ‘Bismah, I am counting on you to keep things simple. I know you are going back to prepare for the return of the ruby but I don’t think I can handle another wedding ceremony, especially an extravagant one.’
‘I understand but I can’t guarantee it will be as you wish. You are after all the princess.’ When he saw the reproach in her expression he smiled and said, ‘I will see what I can do.’
After giving Mira, her new assistant, countless stern instructions, he left.
Watching him go, Leila felt more alone than she ever felt before. She bit down the tears, and pushed away from the edge. Life was one upheaval after the next. Just when she thought she was growing comfortable with things, change loomed and her life took on a new direction. She stared out. The sea was perfect. Not for the hundredth time today did she wonder what her parents would think about her at that moment; married to a man she hardly knew but felt drawn toward for some reason. What would her mother think? Was this a big mistake? A mistake her mother hoped she would never make?
A warm hand briefly brushed her naked shoulder. By the way her body reacted she did not need to turn around to know that it was Marco. He stood close behind her.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ His voice was a murmur, his warm breath caressed her ear. She felt her skin prickle as a frisson of awareness shimmered down her spine.
“I fell in love with the beauty of the sea ever since my first sailing trip. This is my favourite time of day …while at sea… the reflection of the sunset and early stars on the still water, always a breath-taking sight.’ The tenderness in his voice was as gentle as his open palm slowly sliding down her arm.
When Leila remained silent, Marco continued. ‘My home in Italy is a different beauty to this one but it is one that stirs my soul too.’ Again she noted his tone of voice. This time there was an unmistakeable ache. “I am sure you will love it as I do.’
‘I look forward to seeing it. Is it near the sea?’
‘No. It’s a small distance away, in the heart of the Chianti region where the sweetest Sangioves vines grow in the most beautiful part of Tuscany.’ Pride and sentiment clear in his tone.
‘You love it there, yet you live here in London,’ Leila remarked.
‘Business,’ Marco simply stated, ‘but one-day when I have all that I need and tire of wheeling and dealing, well then… I will be free to spend all my time in the most beautiful part of the world.’
Leila pondered his response. She wondered what it was that he really needed. One of the boat’s officers, Leila did not recall his name although he was friendly and polite when they were introduced earlier, interrupted the course of her thoughts.
‘Mr. Vincenzi, please excuse the intrusion. Captain Ross wondered if you would like to take the wheel and steer us out to sea.’
Marco nodded, enthusiastically. ‘Yes!’ He turned to Leila, offering her his arm, ‘Would you like to watch, Leila?’
‘Maybe later when I find my…’sailor’s feet’ is that the correct terminology?’ She tried to make light of her refusal. She was exhausted. And she needed some time to herself. A few moments ago, for the first time since they met she and Marco were talking like two people who liked each other. No deals, no propositions and legal conditions. Just two people talking about simple things, things that mattered. And she liked it. She liked the Marco who spoke of his home with such sentiment. But that was not part of the deal was it? She was not supposed to like him.
‘It has been a long day, princess. I suppose you would like to dress into something appropriate for later.’ He said the last part in a whisper and winked at her as he walked off in the direction of the helm. She was appalled at the possibility of the officer hearing his comment. Red faced she turned away and escaped to her stateroom.
Although when she thought about it, she realised, she hadn’t escaped at all, she had merely entered the lion’s den. She had tried desperately to avoid thoughts of Marco during the past week and she had thought it would be easy as the few moments they spent with each other had been stilted and strangely unsatisfying. What satisfaction did she want? For some reason this eluded her. She knew she should hate him. Didn’t he force her into this marriage? Well, maybe force was a strong word but he did give her no choice. But try as she did to focus on his arrogance and his need to have his way, other thoughts were stronger. Like the way her heart went crazy every-time he was near her, or how it had felt to be in his arms and feel his gentle kiss turn into raging passion. Those unwelcome thoughts, she had tried unsuccessfully to dispel by immersing herself in the whirlwind of activity in preparation for the wedding and her honeymoon – oh, yes, this sailing trip to Italy, Marco’s home, was the first step of their journey, of their ‘honeymoon’. There was no doubt what that meant. Marco had her sign legal documents as to what her role as his wife entailed amongst other things. The ruby would only be hers if all the conditions were met. She should hate him, she thought again.