A Christmas Bride for the King

Page 45

She looked up at him now, and Salim felt pinned to the spot. So much so that he had to look away—only to catch his brother’s gaze at the head of the table. He felt something tight loosen inside him. Today had marked the very fragile start of a long overdue rapprochement with his brother, who hadn’t done anything to deserve the distance Salim had put between them.
Salim could see now that for a long time he’d blamed Zafir for not protecting Sara, even though of course it wasn’t his fault. But it had been easier to do that and push him away than to admit he was terrified of loving his brother and losing him, too.
Salim stood up and tapped his glass gently with a knife, causing everyone to stop and look at him. He made a short speech of thanks to his brother and his sister-in-law, to whom he’d apologised earlier, easing his conscience slightly. Then he found his gaze gravitating back to Charlotte’s green one. She was looking at him with that unwavering regard that left him no place to hide.
He said, ‘I pledge here, this evening, to do my very best to ensure a secure and successful future for Tabat.’
Everyone clapped and cheered, not realising that Salim’s statement had been deliberately ambiguous. Charlotte did, though, and he saw the way she avoided his eye, as if she couldn’t bear to look at him.
For the first time Salim felt more than just a twinge of conscience—he felt the inexorable rise of something he’d been trying to ignore for weeks. The realisation that he really meant what he’d just said, and that there was only one person he wanted to see guide Tabat into that secure and successful future...him.
He hadn’t given so much as a thought to finding his replacement in the last couple of weeks...as if a part of him had already accepted the inevitable.
Shock at that revelation kept him rooted to the spot as everyone around him started to get up from their tables for the second part of the evening’s celebrations, and he watched Charlotte—still avoiding his eye—as she got up too and turned away.
That broke him out of his stasis and he went after her, not really knowing what he was going to say when he got to her, but knowing that she was the only person he wanted to see.
Charlotte stopped in her tracks at the familiar deep voice behind her. She considered saying no for a second and then thought, who would she be fooling?
No one.
And yet she couldn’t let him see her for a moment.
It had hurt her more than she could say when he’d made that deliberately misleading comment just now, about Tabat. It had felt like a betrayal of everything she knew he stood for and a betrayal of this last week, when he’d been so inherently respectful of his people. His actions had spoken louder than his words. But he wasn’t prepared to admit that.
The fact that she was the only one who knew that he had no intention of being King of Tabat felt like the heaviest burden now.
He came into her field of vision, holding out a hand. She looked up at him reluctantly and schooled her features as best she could. But she knew it was futile when she saw how that blue gaze narrowed on her face. He still looked as thoroughly disreputable as he had when she’d first seen him, in spite of the traditional robes. Wild curling hair. Stubbled jaw. Wicked eyes and an even more wicked mouth.
She wanted very much not to let Salim lead her into the other room, where slow, sexy jazz was playing. She wanted to resist his pull because it was fatal now, and she knew he’d destroy her without even realising what he was doing.
But she found her hand reaching for his even as she cursed herself for it.
Salim led her into the other room, where there were already couples dancing. King Zafir and Queen Kat were dancing, staring deep into each other’s eyes, oblivious to their guests.
Salim expertly took Charlotte into his arms and started to lead her around the floor. The fact that he was such a graceful dancer when he strived so hard to pretend he wasn’t a part of this world made something snap inside her.
She pulled back and looked up. ‘Did you tell your brother that you’re planning on abdicating?’
Salim seemed to sense her mood, and looked at her while still managing to guide her faultlessly around the dance floor. Charlotte wondered churlishly if the man displayed mediocrity in anything at all.
‘No, I haven’t—not yet.’
‘Well, you should,’ Charlotte said tartly, ‘because he will have to deal with the fall-out in Tabat, his closest neighbour.’
Charlotte focused on a point somewhere over his shoulder acutely aware of his body next to hers, making her feel hot and jittery.
His chest rumbled against hers. ‘You might be interested to know that I haven’t told him because I haven’t made a final decision yet.’
Charlotte’s feet stopped and she looked at Salim. They’d halted in the middle of the floor.
‘What are you saying?’
He didn’t seem remotely fazed that they’d stopped dancing and were drawing interested glances.