There was a big bowl of food to be shared—Salim explained that it was chicken mixed with couscous, spices, herbs and bread.
Charlotte filled her plate.
They ate in silence for a few minutes, both savouring the food, but then Salim sat back and said, ‘So that sense of community...did you grow up in a small town?’
Charlotte’s insides tensed automatically. She cursed her inability to lie and hoped he’d lose interest when she said, as perfunctorily as she could, ‘No, I grew up in London. I was an only child and my parents divorced when I was young. I spent a lot of time in boarding schools and with nannies.’
‘So you knew the opposite of community, then?’ he observed, with a perspicacity that was as unwelcome as it was insightful.
Charlotte put down her fork and took another sip of wine, relishing the slight headiness it brought, which made her feel reckless enough to respond mockingly, ‘I was a poor little rich girl. My parents were million
aires, which afforded them the luxury of having their child taken care of. But their lifestyles have never appealed to me. I wanted to make my own way. I don’t depend on them for anything.’
She couldn’t help the pride showing in her voice when she said that.
His gaze narrowed on her and she fought against squirming in her chair. Why did he have to look at her like that? As if he could see right through her?
‘We have something in common. I never relished the cushion of my family’s fortune. I also wanted to make my own way. I worked my way through college and everything I own now is mine and mine alone.’
She asked, ‘Is that why you’re reluctant to let it all go and become king?’
Salim was shocked he’d said so much, and that he’d felt the need to let her know that he appreciated her independence because he shared it. The sense of kinship was unsettling.
He shrugged, hiding how accurately her words had hit him. ‘Perhaps it’s part of it. Along with the responsibility I feel.’
He stopped there, before he let the real reasons slip out. He hadn’t prepared for this as his brother had so assiduously. He’d allowed a rift to grow between them, so how could he unite a country? And how could he protect the people of Tabat when he hadn’t been able to save his own sister?
Before she could ask any more far too pertinent questions, Salim asked, ‘What about you? What drove you to become a diplomat and turn your back on the life of being an heiress?’
She avoided his eye for so long that he thought she wasn’t going to answer, but then she looked at him and it was like a punch to his gut. There was something so...unguarded about her expression.
‘It was my parents,’ she said quietly. ‘Their divorce was ugly. They used me as a pawn to score points off each other, but once my mother had custody she pretty much abandoned me. I realised at a young age that unconditional love and family happiness are an illusion. So I decided to distance myself as much as possible—become independent so they could never use me as a pawn again.’
Salim was a little speechless. He’d thought his parents were cold automatons, but evidently they hadn’t been the only ones. ‘Does your aversion to Christmas have anything to do with all that?’
Her eyes widened and her mouth opened before she’d recovered. ‘How did you know?’
He shrugged, not liking how easily he’d intuited that. ‘A guess. It’s a time of year that evokes strong reactions, and you were pretty adamant that you didn’t mind missing it.’
She glanced down at her napkin, folding it over and over. Salim wanted to put his hand over hers, but curled it into a fist to stop himself.
She stopped fidgeting and looked at him. ‘They divorced just before Christmas. Days before.’
Some of the candles had gone out, making the light in the tent dimmer. The delicate lines of her face when she looked at him were in sharp relief. Her eyes were huge.
‘Go on,’ he said, aware of the irony. He never usually encouraged women to reveal anything more than the most superficial parts of their lives to him. But this woman intrigued him.
‘Since then I’ve invariably spent Christmas on my own. Whenever the head of my boarding school knew I was due to spend the holiday alone, because my mother was working or abroad, they’d ask a family to take me in... I went once or twice, but no matter how welcome they made me feel it only made me more conscious of not being a part of a family.’
‘What about your father?’
She shrugged. ‘I only saw him a handful of times after I chose my mother to be my prime carer in the divorce.’
She smiled then, but it was tight, almost derisory.
‘The really sad thing, though, is that as much as I hate Christmas, I love it too. The Christmas before the divorce was perfect. Just the three of us in a cottage in Devon. It snowed that year, and my father dressed up as Santa Claus, and my mother showed him to me, tiptoeing away from the house as if he’d just left his gifts. It was magical...’
Charlotte’s gaze focused on Salim again and she felt the blood drain from her face as she realised just how much she’d revealed. His expression was inscrutable in the flickering golden light of the candles. As if he cared about her sad tale! What was wrong with her? She never spoke of her past—not if she could help it—and certainly not with someone who made her feel so many conflicting emotions and desires.