The watery moon was fat and golden. Leila was reminded of the moon over Oudh. Her first night there, it had loomed large and golden too, and filled the inky blue night sky, tempting her to stand on her tiptoes and to try to touch it. She remembered thinking the fickle moon was the only constant in her life after Aranya and Grayson died. The moon she looked at now was its reflection on the slightly rippled black sea. She stared at it as she leaned against the railing of the top deck, dressed in another creation chosen by Mira and wondering why Marco’s presence was both torture and bliss. He stood beside her transfixed too by the scene before them. She felt the heat radiate from him and was momentarily distracted from her thoughts.
They had just enjoyed a delicious dinner. Under the velvet sky and winking stars, it had all gone superbly, if Marco could say so himself. From the melt-in-the-mouth lobster bisque, the perfect bottle of wine, sourced from his prized wine collection to the perfect setting, he had pulled it off. Yes, he might have had a little help from the heavens but he could take the credit. Her silhouette against the moonlight, was breath-taking. He could hardly contain the excitement she evoked in him each time he looked at her, or just thought about her. Marco had no clue about love, never having been in love before, but if this was what it was about then he knew he should tread carefully. He was in trouble. He’d always kept a solid lid on his emotions. Emotions were for the weak. He learned that the hard way, hadn’t he?
But this time he couldn’t help himself. Maybe when they get to Italy, and he sees her among the hills he grew up around, the hills that shaped him into the hard man that he was, maybe then he’d see her as just another woman.
“Tell me about Oudh?” he asked as he pulled his thoughts away from the home he both loved and hated.
She turned toward him. There was such serenity in her face, he wished it would always remain there.
“Oudh?” she smiled. “I thought you knew the ins and outs of the place where the ruby was formed and … revered?”
True, he did.
“I want to hear it the way you see it.”
She smiled again. The dimples on each side deepened. “Well, it’s beautiful and annoying at the same time. The first thing I saw when I entered Oudh were the golden domed palaces, they were a mirage against the hazy glow of sunset. But it is the heat that stays with you, especially in summer. It is thick and buries you so that all you want to do is tunnel your way out of it. But my grandmother has this special garden, the shadow garden, she calls it. It has groves of trees, and lush greenery along a stream that leads to the big river. There’s a bench in the coolness and you can sit there under the lemon trees, the scent is… soothing as it mingles with the scent of the rosebushes and the climbing begonia. She has tended the garden all her life and still tends it even though she is… well, not strong anymore.’’ She stopped suddenly. “I’m sorry… I tend to forget myself.”
He reached for her, gentler than he intended, his fingers ran down her arm. He wanted more, he wanted to pull her to him. And never let her go. But he settled for just a touch. If this was love, he thought again, then he was in serious trouble.
“Oudh sounds beautiful, I can’t wait to see it.” He felt a shadow of guilt creep into his thoughts. He dropped his arm.
“And your home, aren’t you longing to be there?” The slight breeze teased the locks of hair that escaped the loose pile atop her hair. This time he ached to reach out and set it all free, let his fingers run through the silky strands and then watch as her eyes closed in pleasure. But he kept his hands firmly planted on the ledge.
“As much as I long for you to see it.”
Leila saw something flutter in his eyes. It was doubt, maybe? And then dismissed it because it was preposterous that Marco would ever be in doubt. He always seemed to have the confidence to do as he pleased, no qualms and no regrets.
She turned her back on the reflection and regarded the romantic setting of their dinner. It had been perfect, she could not fault the entire evening. A familiar tune played in the background, she willed her body not to sway to its captivating melody.
As if reading her thoughts, he said, “The perfect date would include some dancing of course.” He held out his hand expectantly. She thought it silly at first but the arch of his eyebrow lifted and she could not resist being enveloped in his arms.
In seamless synchrony, they fell into step. With his strong arms about her, he led her and she followed. Everything drifted away, all her doubts and fears of the past months faded from mind. The cold haunting feeling that she had made the biggest mistake of her life in marrying Marco, the mistake Aranya had warned her about, dissolved into the warm night air. In that moment it was only about being in his arms and knowing that it felt good, even though it may not have been right.
It was one of the most difficult things to do, holding her in his arms yet not being able to kiss her or make love to her. But he’d promised himself that he would not initiate any lovemaking. She’d been saving herself for the man she loved, she’d told him. Well, he was determined to be that man. Yes, he’d taken her virginity, in his defence he had no idea she was one, but he would never allow her to believe that it came with a price. Marco realised that he had dug himself into a hole, one that was fast closing in on him, and all for a ruby. Not just any ruby, he reminded himself. The Heart of Oudh finally belonged to him and he was not going to let it slip through his fingers, even though Princess Leila Jodhi Brown may be far more alluring. He could have both.
Soon they would be in Villa Almanaccare. It filled him with both trepidation and hope. He had his heart broken twice at Almanaccare. The day his mother left, and the day his father decided to leave the world of his own accord.
When he didn’t kiss her after the dance, she wondered why? Having gone to all the trouble of the evening, surely he would expect something from it. Isn’t that who Marco was? Calculating and adept at manipulating situations in his favour. He pulled away from her and led her back to the elegantly laid out table. “Dessert?” The arch to his eyebrow suggested something other than the decadent trio of sweets on silver plates. But his hand merely swept over the table and he pulled out her chair. Leila seriously began doubting herself, if not him. Again, the conversation veered along the next leg of their trip. His second yacht The Flying Carpet 2 which was docked in Monaco and his hopes that she would love Italy as much as he did.
Dessert was tasteless, the familiar flurries distracted her from any of its enjoyment. Words automatically erupted from her mouth, but they were without conscious thought. And after each utterance she could not remember anything she said. He did not seem too concerned, so she might have made the correct responses. Baffled by his change in attitude, all she could do was follow the movement of his mouth. The little crease in the middle of his forehead. The tug of his lip, always to one side and the deep line that formed when it did. Those lips had made her forget a little of why she shouldn’t want to be kissed by them. She tried to look away and found her eyes falling on his hands. Brown and square, they were large and competent. A shiver ran up her spine when she remembered how it had touched, controlled and pleasured. Swallowing hard, she finally gave up on the masterpiece on the plate.
“Why did you marry me?” The words agitated the pretentious serenity.
He stopped his fork laden with the strawberry mousse in mid-air. The crease between his eyes grew deeper and one dark eyebrow shot up. With painful slowness, he removed the napkin from his lap, dabbed the sides of his mouth and leaned back in his chair.
“I mean you say it was to help Oudh and this way was the only way both of us could have the ruby, but you didn’t have to marry me.”
“I don’t understand, princess.”
So he was back to calling her princess.
“Tell me the truth, the deed is done, so there is no point to keeping your true motives from me!” She seethed.
He drew in a deep breath. “Contrary, I keep nothing from you. I was merely doing the right thing.”
She threw her head back in mock laughter, “Spare me the patronisation, please.”
“What do you want me to say? Because it seems whatever I say is not good enough.”
Her eyes fell on him hotly. “The truth.”
She prepared to leave. She rose from her chair, deciding she did not want to listen to him any further. If she were honest with herself, she did not want to know the truth. She feared it would be more than she could handle in her ridiculously fragile state. Now she was baffled by her own behaviour.
But he was up in a shot and had doubled around the table in no time.
“You want the truth?”
But Leila was having none of it. His hand snapped out and grasped her wrist. Her eyes flew wildly from his face to her entrapped wrist.
He stared down at her, his eyes dark in the night. He didn’t let her go. Instead he yanked her toward him and her body slammed against his, then his lips crushed hers. For a moment, she resisted violently, then the resistance left her. Hadn’t she wanted him to kiss her all night? His lips were hot and greedy at first, then tender and slow-moving, savouring every contour of her mouth. The boat seemed to dip under her, she felt like she was falling forever, away from her fears and constant thoughts, and the world with all its obligations into nothing but the perfect space within his tight embrace.
His hands pressed upwards along the small of her back, his fingers searching for more, explored the nape of neck, caressing and then wandering further, until they travelled over her shoulder and toward the mound of her breast. It was just a light fondle, an agonising caress, but it shot through her vividly like a spark of lightning. She moaned into the kiss as his tongue probed deeper. Then he stopped, placed his rough cheek against her hot smooth one and whispered, his voice tormenting when all she wanted was lips on hers. “Mia bella, my darling Leila”. He let her go then, cruelly shoving her at arms distance. His breathing was just as ragged as hers, but he moved his head from side to side. “I’m sorry.” Leila stepped back, confused. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I’ve told Mira to move my things out of the stateroom. I’m sure it is what you prefer.” With that he turned swiftly and strode away, leaving her alone under the pinpricked velvet sky. This time she did not stop the tear that trickled down her face.