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Leila’s body ached. But it was a pleasurable ache and she stretched out a little, luxuriating in the sweet remnants of sleep and the fine silk sheets she found herself tangled in. One eyelid lazily opened, when she momentarily considered her whereabouts. Casting a curious glance about her, she found her mind was cloudy with images she couldn’t quite make sense of. Wooden panelled walls in warm oak, plush furniture and her clothes strewn on the carpeted floor… It all came back, then. In a rush! All at once. Marco! She shot up. Realising too late that she had absolutely nothing on but a rather bunched up sheet, that managed to slip away when she moved, she was relieved to find the space beside her, empty. Her fingers reached out to Marco’s side of the bed. The space cold. And Leila felt her heart sink. It had been cold last night too.
When she had finally emerged from her seclusion in the bathroom, she’d found the room empty. And so was the bed. In the large expanse of it, she’d felt alone and insignificant.
Their first night together had not gone as planned. And though she knew she was partly to blame, the majority of the blame, she convinced herself, had to be confidently planted at Marco’s feet.
He’d looked at her in wide-eyed wonder as if she’d given him the prize of the century. And it wasn’t the ruby, it was herself. In particular her virginity. How could he? How could he treat her like she was one of his possessions?
She’d tossed and turned through those dark hours after he left. Her eyes burned with unshed tears. She would not cry, she’d promised. She’d cried when her parents died. And when she met the frail Queen for the first time. She’d cried when she discovered the plight of the people, her new family. And when she knew her hopeless task of returning the Heart of Oudh, seemed an impossibility. But she would not shed a tear for Marco Vincenzi. She’d prayed for sleep when the hours had passed slowly and the still night tormented her thoughts and her will. And when she thought the night would last forever, he had returned. She feigned sleep when she heard him quietly enter. Briefly he hesitated at the bed. She could feel his eyes on her, but she dared not move. A moment later he crossed the room toward the wingback chairs, most likely bolted to the floor. She heard the rustlings of clothes being shed. Then he was at the side of the bed again. It was the strangest thing but she was almost relieved when she felt the bed dip under his weight on his side.
He murmured something in Italian and then again a whisper in English. “This was not how I wanted our first night to be.” And a sigh.
She listened to his breathing, steady and reassuring. And to that, her eyes finally closed and sleep gratefully claimed her. Sometime during their slumber their bodies had turned to each other. The slight brush of skin on skin, led to touch; their scent evoked a memory of pleasure and a small taste triggered a ravenous hunger.
Now, with the bed empty, she wondered if it was all perhaps just a dream. Had she needed him so desperately that she’d dreamed his return to the cabin? Conjured up their love making in the wee hours of the morning?
Her eyes fell on a note on the side table. Swathing herself in the sheet she managed to free from the tangle on the bed, she hobbled toward it, avoiding pieces of clothing, her clothing.
“Getting a few laps in the pool. Join me. Breakfast? You must be famished.” It read.
She found herself peeved by the casual tone of the note. Just like that? All is forgiven. But not forgotten, she thought as she hurried to shower and change. As she was about to enter the bathroom, a soft knock on the door of the stateroom alerted her to Mira. She blew out her lips in frustration as she called her in. “I’m sure you must need me, Princess. I’ve come to help you dress,” Mira said shyly when she entered the cabin, a knowing smile on her lips as her eyes took in the tousled bed sheets and scattered items of clothing. “Mr Vincenzi is already swimming in the pool. And breakfast is ready.”
He was seated at the elaborately decked out table in the dining room. Hair sleeked back off his tanned handsome face, clad in linen pants and an unbuttoned diaphanous shirt. Tiny droplets of water made their surreptitious way southward along his chest, and Leila found the breath catch in her chest. He smiled, widely.
‘Hungry? We did build up quite an appetite, didn’t we?’
And with that, there went the tiny vestige of hope that the early hours of the morning had all been a dream.
His eyes lingered along the length of her. Clad in the yellow strappy sundress Mira insisted did wonders for her skin tone, she felt more than a little self-conscious under his scrutiny. It was not something she could pull off with confidence, the dress was a tad too flashy with its plunging back and ridiculous plaited silk strings that tied up in a halter. But she mustered up a little coolness and reclined onto the high-backed chair as ladylike as possible. Mira bustled about bringing them breakfast, while Leila kept the conversation mundane. Safe. For her own sanity. They spoke about the perfect weather. He told her of their itinerary for the day, a visit to Saint Malo. They were anchored off the coast of Normandy. And a day of seeing the walled city of Saint Malo appealed to her.
“The Bay of Biscay has reported some rough weather, so we’ll take the jet to Monaco tomorrow instead, and then sail off to Italy again.” He sipped coffee and then cut through the omelette placed in front of him while she buttered a warm croissant.
“I have a call to make after breakfast, then we’re off.”
“I’ve never seen Saint Malo. I took the ferry across to Caen before, on a trip with some friends.”
She bit at the croissant. It was perfectly layered and buttery and she almost closed her eyes in appreciation.
He placed a napkin to his mouth, dabbing the edges as he watched her. “You make eating look so sexy.”
She almost choked. What happened to keeping the conversation light and free of innuendos?
Shaking her head, she attempted to change the subject. “Should I pack a bag? Are we spending the night ashore?” And then realised she hadn’t at all.
He was still smiling… and staring. Perhaps she should just shove the entire croissant in her mouth, and chew with it wide open, surely that should be far sexier? She almost considered it.
“I have a special dinner planned here this evening.”
Her heart pounded. She dared herself to say that it was not necessary. As her husband, and as per their contract he didn’t need to wine and dine her; or even attempt to romance her. She was contracted to fulfil her duties as his wife. But the thought, as it took shape in her head, did nothing but break her spirit. And she found herself gulping down hot tea, to stop the threat of tears. Convincing herself that no good would come from dwelling on the past hopes of her younger self, hopes like marrying for love, and saving herself for the man of her dreams, she plastered a smile on her face. Determined, at least, to make the best of it.
Saint Malo was charming. Although swarming with tourists, there were quiet little pockets of delight Marco took her to. They’d lunched in the perfect little bistro and this time the charm of the place was more than enough to keep the conversation easy-going. Fascinated by the horseshoe shaped tower of the castle on the rise, they’d ambled their way along the cobbled path to reach it, his warm hand comfortable on her bare back. She was aware of his eyes constantly on her. And she found that she didn’t mind it.
In the castle, Leila glided her palm over the cool stone walls and was momentarily lost in the lifetime of it as he regaled her with stories of the dukes of Brittany who built it to protect the city, and how it had for almost four centuries, deterred threats and danger. For some reason, she found his great knowledge of things, his attention to detail, his need to know everything, very attractive. She could listen to him for hours.
When he reached for her hand as they navigated their way through the hustle and bustle of the city, she chided herself as she felt a surge of feeling. Holding hands was due to the large volumes of crowds and the winding streets, she told herself.
Shopping was fun, especially when she managed to find the perfect gifts for her grandmother, and even Bismah.
When the shadows grew long and sunset approached, he put his arm around her and pulled her close as they were driven back to the yacht. ‘The day is not over, mia bella.” He kissed the top of her head his palm slid up and down her sun-kissed arm. Leila couldn’t suppress the bubble of joy that formed and floated in the pit of her tummy.