Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16, Chapter 17, Chapter 18
Marco watched the car drive through the avenue of cypresses away from him. He thought about flagging it down, running after it, yanking the car door open, pulling Leila from it, and admitting to her that he’d made a mistake. That he couldn’t possibly let her go. Perhaps it was pride, maybe a foolhardiness, or even a deep sense of self-preservation that prevented his thoughts from becoming action. He told himself that at least this time he was in control. The women he’d let into his heart had been the ones to leave, but not this time. This time he had preempted the inevitable. He’d given Leila an out, before she could ask it of him. But he didn’t count on the jagged raw pain. Already his whole world seemed less. A brittle version of what was once full and promising. The longing seeped through each level of body, heart and soul. And he wondered if he’d ever recover.
Again he thought about stopping her as the car disappeared into a cloudy remnant of dust and loss. He stood there for a long time, frozen to the spot in the house he had hoped would be their home.
He would need to immerse himself with something other than Leila Brown. Luca stood just a few feet away, hat in hand, staring off toward the now empty road. Seems like Leila had captured a few more hearts, Marco thought a little irritated.
Leila did not dare look back. She did not dare capture to memory her last glimpse of the house, or the line of servants who’d come out to bid her a teary farewell. She did not dare look back and see Marco. His stilted goodbye had hurt. And the thick lump in her throat had yet to dissolve. But she had blinked back the tears, stuck with gestures instead of words and left as quickly as she could. And now as the car made its way through the sweeping wrought iron gates, she told herself it was for the best. Reflexively twisting the wedding band she had yet to remove, she told herself that her marriage to Marco was a mistake that would now be rectified. She had the ruby now. It was all that mattered. But the lump remained and her heart tore into tiny pieces, each piece left behind in the Tuscan countryside.
Mira sat sullenly next to her, and Leila almost wished for her chattiness to fill the heavy silence. At least I have the ruby, she told herself again. It was all that mattered. Her duty would be fulfilled and her obligation met to the people of Oudh. And to her dear grandmother. She should feel relieved, a weight lifted. But her breath lay heavy in her chest and the interminable journey a silent torture.
They reached the private airstrip where Marco’s plane stood waiting to whisk Leila and Mira off to Oudh. In a matter of moments they were airborne and Tuscany was but just a mere patchwork of land, mountains and vineyards, and memories.
VIP guests including heads of state and various important families gathered in a formal welcome. Leila was reminded of the first time she arrived in Oudh, when she was declared the heir apparent. The reception had been just as elaborate but perhaps her welcome had been not as warm. Leila could understand that then she had still much to prove. Again the stab of guilt took her breath away. What exactly had she proven now?
When she’d shook hands and received bows from members of the elite congregation, she was finally able to set her eyes on her grandmother. Queen Rani Jodhi stood proudly at the end of the room. Her silk champagne coloured saree elegantly wrapped about her slight figure. With her arms wide open in a welcome embrace, Leila found the comfort she had been seeking from the moment Marco packed her off on her merry way. But the embrace was brief, emotional display not quite favoured by the old queen in front of guests.
“You are a sight for sore eyes, grandmother.” Leila said when they finally had a moment alone in the Queen Rani’s private boudoir. “And you, my child, have been missed.” Leila could not look away quick enough and noted the unreserved scrutiny.
“You’ve lost weight and those dark circles under your eyes…”
Leila felt the tears well up in her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. Right now she could fall apart with just that look, but she could not do that now. Reaching into her bag, she removed the ruby and placed in her surprised grandmother’s palm. “You have the Heart?” The queen’s voice shook. “But how? I don’t… I don’t understand…” The ruby glowed in the Queen’s small fragile hand, but the she kept her eyes on Leila. “Bismah had relayed the news of the annulment. It is what you wanted was it not?”
“No.” the response was automatic. “I mean, yes… I don’t know. The annulment was not my idea, grandmother.”
To the Queen’s stunned expression, Leila felt the need to explain, but her mind clouded with the memory of the night before. Less than 24 hours ago. Not even a day. Yet it seemed like a lifetime ago. She had found herself at moments during her journey to Oudh, wondering if it was all just a dream, or something she’d conjured up. Perhaps the stress of the past few weeks had culminated in her losing her mind. But the look in his eyes when he had spoken the words would then flash through her mind and it had felt like a punch in the gut.
“Marco decided on the annulment.” Somehow she knew it was not the time to break down. Not yet. The day was not over. There were meetings with Heads of State planned for the rest of the day. “He also decided that the ruby should be returned to its rightful place. Oudh and you.” Leila suddenly wished to leave the confines of the room. “It is back where it belongs. I only regret…” Leila started to say that she regretted the manner in which it was acquired, but she checked herself. It was not the truth. How could she regret those moments with Marco. In his arms, his hard body encompassing hers with an incomparable passion. She shook the need away. And tried to focus on what lay ahead for the day. Glancing at her watch, she said, “Bismah had given us only a few minutes. The meeting is soon to begin. And then we have a late lunch with members of the elite families.” Leila placed a hand to her head trying to recall the rest of the itinerary Bismah had rattled through during the drive to the palace. He had tried to, in his careless way, commiserate his regret that the marriage had ended as such. “Perhaps time will yield a different result.” At the time Leila had barely paid attention, her mind lost in a myriad of thoughts.
“You should freshen up perhaps, before the meeting,” the Queen said, breaking through Leila’s speculation. “It will be good for you to occupy yourself in matters of the state.”
Leila could only agree and a few hours later she had sat through three different meetings and a long luncheon before she finally had a chance to retire to her room. For a moment she could only stare out at the dark clouds rolling in from the Himalayas in the distant north. It had rained the past few days, there was fair evidence in the splashes of green and now the scent of its impending arrival filled the air. Her mind wandered and she found herself comparing the view to the one in Tuscany. Both had gripped her heart but for so different reasons. Marco! It was a painful echo in her deepest self. Would she ever forget? Did she even want to forget? Battered by the rallying winds, she turned her face up to the heavens while fat raindrops mingled with hot tears.
After a long shower and a chance to finally shed the pent up tears, she sat at her dressing table and felt her body and mind turn to jelly. It was then that Mira entered her plush living quarters after a brief knock. Without a word, Mira picked up a silver backed brush and began combing through Leila’s tresses. The simple act brought with it a sweet comfort. “Time will heal a broken heart.” Mira’s voice sounded far away. “I have dealt with many broken hearts, most my own, and I can say for certain, time will bring relief.” The words were meant to bring comfort, but Leila found their snags torturous. She didn’t want to forget Marco Alessandro Vincenzi. She didn’t want to forget his touch, the way he looked at her as if she were all he could see. Or the wounded man behind the arrogant exterior.