Leila stood quietly just a few feet away from him. The rise and fall of voices and the hub of activity did not alert him to her presence. She had drawn a few curious glances when she had arrived but as they were faces she did not recognise, she decided they were seasonal workers and had little interest in her. Their busy hands did not stop and their lively chatter dipped only for a moment. Besides, his back was to her and he seemed wholly engrossed in tethering the errant vines to the wooden support secured into the newly tilled soil, to pay her any heed.
She was glad of the hustle and bustle and his preoccupation. It allowed her an opportunity to quietly observe him. His browned skin confirmed Luca’s account of Marco’s activities these past two and half months. He had worked hard. The bulge of muscle beneath his stretched t-shirt also attested to all Luca had said about how Marco had spent the months without her.
“Day and night, he is busy on the fields, in the winery. It’s like he has a demon on his back slaving him on until he can but just walk to his bed. Then he starts all over again after a few hours of sleep. Working until he cannot lift a hand again.” Luca had not said this with any hostility when he fetched her from the airport. In fact, she noted the softness in his eyes when he glanced at her as they drove through the Tuscan countryside. “You too look like you have had a demon on your back, Leila, excuso… Princess.”
She should step forward. Maybe just call out to him. But she didn’t. Frozen, by fear or pain, she did not quite know. Yet, her fingers urged to reach out and touch him. How many times did she dream of doing just that? Touching him. His skin would be warm from the sun, but would, as she recalled, prickle as the pads of her fingertips connected with his skin.
Instinctively, she reached out, still feet away and only managed to grasp the large empty space between them.
Then his back straightened. He seemed to sense her because she saw his profile search for the change in the air like an animal of prey. Her heart melted at the sight of the long Grecian nose and the slight slope of the edge of his eye. Her beloved Marco.
For a moment she thought of turning away and running. But she was still frozen to the spot when he turned toward her.
She thought she would just burst with the surge of joy when his eyes fell on her. He made to take a step forward but stopped short. And Leila felt the slick stab of pain rip through her chest. Unconsciously, her hand reached to her chest. To still her beating heart or to ease the pain, she was not sure. His guarded look did little to calm her nerves.
“Leila.” He said finally. And the raggedness in his voice somehow was the salve she needed in those uncertain moments. “Leila.” He said again. “What are you doing here?”
She instinctively moved toward him. And he to her. “I needed to see you.” She must have said the words out loud. He stopped suddenly. His eyes searched her face and this time she noted the suspicion.
“You’ve come about the papers.” His expression had grown hard. Leila almost stumbled at the harshness in his voice. “You did not have to come all the way here to deliver them.” She bit back her pain. This time the words on the tip of her tongue felt hot and she wanted to spit them out at him.
“No I didn’t. After all you did not have the decency to even speak about it to me. You sent it to Bismah instead with your instructions and no surprises, your conditions.”
She clenched her fists at her sides and steeled herself against the tremor in her voice.
“I thought it was best.”
“Of course, you did. You have dictated this relationship from the beginning, Marco. And foolishly I have allowed you to. Not anymore.” She felt her resolve falter. It was the look in his eyes. Did he know? She had not uttered a word to anyone. She dared not acknowledge it but she thought she saw something crumble in him.
And Leila knew something within her crumbled.
“Can we at least, even if it is for the sake of some semblance of appropriateness, discuss the annulment you are so keen for me to sign.”
Marco looked at the woman he loved. That she stood in front of him, was nothing short of a dream come true. How many times had he hoped to see her again? But he had told himself time and time again that she would not want to see him. She had all that she wanted. The ruby, the means to make her grandmother happy and the means to restore the country she had recently become princess and ruler of. Had she not told him when he had first proposed to her that it was all she wanted? That night seemed such a long time ago now. He had foolishly thought he was in control of all that would ensure his happiness. What a fool he had been.
He had to accept defeat. Leila Brown had won in the end. Won the ruby and most of all, won his heart. Now here she stood.
“There is nothing further to discuss. The annulment gives both of us an out. No strings attached.” He kept his voice level.
She looked at him like she was seeing him for the first time. “An out? No strings attached?” Her voice had carried in the strange sudden silence. It was then he realised that the workers had stopped their toil and were regarding them curiously. They must look a sight. The two of them in the middle of the vineyard. She with her hands on her hips which he could not help but think of as arousing, and he with sweat dripping into his eyes which he had to constantly wipe away.
“We should go to the house. This is not a place to discuss this.” He moved toward her, one hand placed at her elbow while the other pointed in the direction of the vehicle parked a little way off that would take them back to the house. The simple touch sent a surge of awareness through him and once again he revelled in the fact that she was there. In his vineyard. His palm on her warm skin. But all too quickly she pulled away leaving him to feel the sharp loss.
“That’s fine with me.” She broke away from him and hurried off toward the rudimentary road.
She sat rigidly while he drove. Curious eyes still watched as the vehicle manoeuvred through vines and workers. Her body lost some of the tension. It felt good to breathe in the scent of Almanacarre. And him. Now so close, his profile in her line of vision as he concentrated on the road ahead. She balled her hands again in attempt not to reach out and touch him. Instead she tried to concentrate on the land that haunted her dreams these past weeks. Marco’s Almanacarre.
She had not, until then noticed that the sun had almost reached the end of its journey across the sky. Held upright by the shoulder of land on the horizon, it cast a dreamlike glow over the combed fields. The vision tugged at her heart. It was ironic, she noted, that she felt her heart lay among these sweet rolling hills and not in Oudh as her grandmother had suggested only days ago. A stab of guilt slashed through momentarily but she pushed it away aware that Marco was staring at her.
“You haven’t been eating.” Her heart leapt at the concern in his eyes. But then stilled again when he said. “Calina will not like the look of you.” The vehicle dragged along the rugged road as it plunged then re-emerged from the numerous potholes.
“I’m fine.” She almost placed a hand on her belly. She hadn’t eaten and realised she was famished. A meal cooked by Calina would be most welcome right now.
“Working hard. I suppose ruling a country would take its toll on the toughest of individuals.”
She tried to search his face for signs of mockery but found none.
“The Queen must be very proud to have your help.”
“Every Oudhian is playing their part in ensuring that Oudh is back on its feet.”
She caught the small smile on his lips. Oh! those lips… “I assume Mira is at the house and that Luca helped you in paying me this surprise visit?” She nodded absently as the house came into view, a few figures pacing anxiously across the front entrance.
It was Calina who was again the first person to welcome her with Luca not far behind.
“Princess, oh, princess. I am so glad you are back.” Calina scrutinised her before saying, “Look at you. You are just skin and bones.” Placing both hands on her shoulders, Calina pulled her into an embrace.
A few more greetings and she was ushered into the house. She found herself relishing each step. Her fingers trailing along walls and surfaces she hadn’t realised she had missed so dearly.
“You’re home now, Princess,” Calina said.
Leila sighed, she had missed Almanacarre, but then caught the look in Marco’s eyes and felt the panic rise. She had no right to claim this home. Marco wanted an annulment. Had he not told his staff this?
“You need to eat. I will get you all your favourites.” She wanted to tell Calina it was not necessary. She wanted to say that she was not going to stay and that they were all mistaken. But she heard Marco instruct Pasquino to take her bags to the master room. And suddenly she felt the weariness of every moment since she had last been in this house. And it overcame her so that all she could do was allow the misunderstandings to continue and the orders to be issued. All the while wondering if she should confess her secret.