A Christmas Bride for the King

Page 41

Her voice stopped his self-recrimination and was like balm to a wound. As that registered fully Salim suddenly resented the fact that she’d slid so far under his skin. That she’d witnessed that moment.
He stopped and whirled around on the path to see Charlotte hurrying towards him. She stopped, her chest moving up and down enticingly under that silk blouse. She was angry.
‘What on earth is wrong with you, speaking to Kat like that?’
Salim lashed out. ‘I’m sorry—was that not very diplomatic? Is Queen Kat your new best friend? Perhaps you like what you see and you’re fancying your chances of becoming a queen, too?’
Charlotte’s face leached of colour and her green eyes stood out starkly against her pale skin. Salim felt immediate remorse.
Before she could respond he said roughly, ‘I’m sorry. That was unforgivable. You didn’t deserve that, and Kat didn’t deserve it either.’
Still looking a little shaken, Charlotte said, ‘Then why? What is that place?’
Salim looked up into the sky for a moment, drawing in a long breath, and then looked back down. ‘It’s where Sara died. She was on the high wall and she fell. She had a massive head injury...she died in my arms.’
Charlotte started towards him. ‘Oh, Salim...’
But he held out his hand, stopping her. If she touched him he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t shatter completely.
She shook her head, eyes bright with an emotion that caught at Salim’s chest, making it tight.
‘What a tragic accident.’
Salim steeled himself. He didn’t have to tell her. He didn’t have to say a word. But he couldn’t stop it spilling out, as if some force was compelling him.
‘That’s just it—it wasn’t an accident. She fell off that wall deliberately. She didn’t want to die but she did.’ His voice had turned unbearably harsh.
Charlotte frowned, clearly not understanding. She looked so pale that Salim went over to her, taking her arm and making her sit down on a nearby stone bench.
She looked up at him. ‘What are you talking about?’
Salim paced back and forth, cursing himself for having given in to the impulse to unburden himself while at the same time feeling a sense of compulsion to keep going. As if he knew this was the only way the heavy weight he bore might ever be lightened.
He stopped in front of Charlotte.
‘Sara and I were always joined at the hip. We were so close we even had our own language. One week, not long after our eleventh birthday, our father was hosting an economic forum. Ambassadors from neighbouring countries were here, as well as representatives from all over the world. It was a big, prestigious event. Sara had been tasked to do some things with our mother, to help out, so we were separated during the week. I didn’t notice until almost the end of the week that something was wrong. Sara was avoiding me...not talking.’
Charlotte asked quietly, ‘What happened?’
‘I was in the walled garden—it was our favourite place to hide and play. She came in and I knew something was wrong. I’d never seen her so subdued... Eventually she told me—’ He stopped.
Charlotte stood up. ‘Go on.’
Salim’s jaw was tight, constricting his voice. ‘It was the Italian ambassador. An oily, sleazy man. He’d taken a liking to Sara and had persuaded my mother to let her attend to him especially.’
Charlotte put a hand to her mouth, clearly jumping to a dark conclusion.
Salim continued. ‘Up to that point he hadn’t actually touched her, but he’d said something to scare her enough to take her clothes off, telling her he just wanted to look at her. When she told me this she couldn’t even look at me. She was so ashamed. She told me how he’d kept telling her she was perfect, and that before he left he would show her how a man kissed a woman...how they touched each other...’
‘Oh, Salim...’
But Salim didn’t hear Charlotte’s voice. He was back in that garden, his insides turning to jelly as he watched his sister—his life—transform into someone he didn’t know. Someone haunted and terrified. Someone who had lost her innocence.
She’d climbed up onto the high wall in spite of his pleas and said through her tears.
‘I don’t want him to look at me again, and if I’m not perfect, he won’t like me anymore...’
Salim’s voice was toneless. ‘She jumped off the wall deliberately, to try and injure herself enough so that she would no longer draw the eye of a debased man. She believed this because when our older brother broke his arm once, our parents kept him out of sight until he was healed, telling us that no-one wanted to see a prince who wasn’t perfect. But she didn’t just injure herself. She hit her head and died almost instantly.’