He arched a brow. ‘I would have thought that a woman of your considerable intelligence could work that one out.’
His mocking tone bounced off her. A surge of emotion was rising. ‘You’re really considering becoming king...and not abdicating?’
His mouth tipped up on one side in a wry smile. ‘Is that so hard for you to contemplate?’
Charlotte shook her head, barely aware that they’d started moving again. ‘Not at all. I just thought you’d made up your mind.’
‘Well, I haven’t yet...for sure. Let’s just say that I’ve been persuaded to look at things a little differently in the past few weeks. And after meeting the people of Tabat...seeing it with my own eyes...it’s a challenge that might not be as unpalatable as I’d thought.’
Charlotte looked up at Salim, unable to stop herself from saying huskily, ‘You will be a great king, Salim. You deserve to serve them, and they deserve you.’
He grimaced slightly and said, ‘That remains to be seen. And first I have to go to London tomorrow, for a function. Tabat’s ambassador to Europe is holding a Christmas party in my honour. Come with me?’
Charlotte’s insides clenched.
wasn’t ready to leave this part of the world, or Salim, but it would be an opportunity for her to remember who she was and where she came from. Her life wasn’t here, with this man.
She had to protect herself. She had to move on.
She prayed that her emotions weren’t showing on her face when she looked up and said, as nonchalantly as she could, ‘Yes, I’ll come with you.’
She knew now that she wouldn’t return to Tabat with Salim for the coronation—she couldn’t. This was his destiny. But it was not hers. And it was time to remember that.
She ducked her head and turned her face to rest a cheek on his chest as they danced. And she closed her stinging eyes.
* * *
Driving through London and seeing the festive cheer of Christmas—streets thronged with slightly crazed-looking shoppers and the bright faces of children pressed up against shop windows to see the displays better—sent Charlotte on a brutal collision course with her past.
Usually by now, or around now, she would be holed up in her apartment, blocking it all out, pretending it wasn’t happening. But now she welcomed it—because she’d been in danger of losing herself completely. Losing herself in a fantasy where she belonged to a man from an exotic land, full of vast deserts and beautiful nomadic people.
But the fact was that whatever affinity she felt for his land was as much of a fabrication as this forced festive cheer. And she most certainly didn’t belong to Salim, no matter how intense their lovemaking had been just hours ago, as dawn had broken and the call to prayer had sounded over the sleepy city of Jahor.
She was like a miser, grabbing hold of as much as she could before it was all ripped away from her.
Charlotte couldn’t help hearing Salim’s phone conversations on the plane to England. He’d made no attempt to keep them private so she’d heard him instruct his staff to set up a hub office in Tabat palace from where he could oversee everything. And then he’d informed his legal team that he would be scheduling a significant meeting in the New Year, after his coronation.
A meeting to tell them that his business would be changing dramatically? That he would be scaling back to concentrate on his royal duties because he wouldn’t be abdicating after all?
The speed with which he seemed to be happy to turn his life around in another direction would have made her dizzy if she hadn’t got to know him by now, and to know his capabilities.
Charlotte couldn’t help thinking that if he was indeed going to be king, then he would be looking for a queen to stand by his side. To have his heirs.
That made her think of Queen Kat, and how seamlessly and effortlessly she seemed to have become a beloved fixture in her adopted country. Because she was loved.
And that was the scariest revelation of all: falling for Salim had shown Charlotte that her parents’ treatment of her hadn’t damaged her as irrevocably as she’d believed. Somewhere deep inside her she’d nurtured a small seed of hope, and when Salim had come along it had burst into life before she could stop it.
‘We’re almost there.’
Salim’s voice broke Charlotte out of her reverie and she looked at him. They were inching along in traffic on a street in Mayfair, near Tabat’s embassy.
He was watching her, and she schooled her features, but not before he’d evidently seen something. ‘You really do hate this time of year, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she said tightly, relieved that he wasn’t seeing anything deeper than that.