The Prince and the Pregnant Princess(Desert Rogues, Book 6)(58) by Susan Mallery
Cleo knew she’d lived through more disappointments than many people. Her mother’s continual abandonment, both emotional and physical, had left her scarred. Her teenage search for love, when she’d been foolish enough to think that sex was the answer. Her mistake in judgment with Ian. All those events had wounded, bringing her to her knees, but she’d always been able to get up, figure out what she’d done wrong, learn from it and start over. For the first time in her life she felt defeated.
She couldn’t win this battle, because the enemy was a ghost. Sadik would never love her. It didn’t matter how much respect they had between them or how many children bound them together. He would never love her.
Until this moment she’d avoided the truth. Now that she faced it, she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do.
Three days later Cleo realized that her continued weight gain wasn’t going to be a problem. She didn’t want to eat, she couldn’t sleep and every inch of her body ached as if she’d been dropped from a three-story building.
She forced herself to choke down food because of the baby. For the same reason, she went to bed each night. But while Sadik slept, she stared at the ceiling. As for the pain…she knew it was simply the physical manifestation of her broken spirit. She had played a high-stakes game and she had lost.
In the cool of the morning she walked toward the garden where she was due to meet the king for their time together. She’d dressed in a bright-blue dress and had applied more makeup than usual in an effort to disguise her distress. She even managed to smile at the sight of the king of Bahania being batted at by two calico kittens.
Hassan heard her step and glanced up. He smiled in welcome, then set the kittens on the ground and rose from the bench. His expression changed from pleased to angry in the space of a heartbeat.
“What is wrong?” he demanded by way of greeting.
Apparently she hadn’t done such a great job of concealing her distress.
“Nothing. I’m fine. I haven’t been feeling that well in the past couple of days.
I think I have a touch of the flu.”
Hassan cupped her face in his hand and stared into her eyes. “Child, you are a constant delight to me. However, you are not an accomplished liar. What I see in your eyes has nothing to do with the flu. Tell me what troubles you.”
His concern was more than she could resist. Unwelcome tears filled her eyes. She closed her eyes and spoke the truth.
“I’m dying inside,” she whispered. “Please, Your Highness, don’t make me stay here.”
The king led her to the bench. After she was seated, he handed her one of the kittens. Cleo stroked the soft fur and felt sharp claws dig into her hand. The small body was warm. When the kitten nestled onto her palm and leaned against her chest, a low rumbling purr burst forth. The sound was far too big for the baby creature’s size. Through her tears she smiled.
“She’s very beautiful,” she said as she stroked the kitten’s head.
“She has much spirit, that one.” Hassan sat next to her and picked up the other kitten. “Her mother isn’t purebred like most of my cats. She is not a particularly good hunter, but there is something about her heart. She loves with all her being.” He shifted the kitten in his arms so he could stroke its belly.
The kitten collapsed with delight.
“This will be her last litter,” he said. “Each time her kittens grow and we give them away, she suffers greatly. For weeks she is sad. Sometimes she will not eat and I must feed her by hand.” He shrugged. “No one has told her that I am the king.”
“It sounds like she wouldn’t care.”
He chuckled. “Probably not. After all, that makes her a royal cat.” His humor faded. “As much as I love her kittens, for they carry a piece of her with them, I cannot bear to put her through the pain of having her litters leave her again.
Her unhappiness wounds me.”
He looked at Cleo. “She is just a cat. You are the daughter of my heart. Every day you are gone, I will bleed a little inside. I will think of you often. In time we will need to come to some arrangement with regard to my grandson. But for now you are free to go.”
She hadn’t had a clue where he’d been going with the cat story. Now that he’d given her permission to flee Bahania, the band tightening around her chest loosened a little and she was able to draw in air. Time away from Sadik would allow her to recover…or at least start the healing process. She had a bad feeling that he was going to be the only man she ever really loved.
But she would deal with that reality another time. For now it was enough that she could retreat and lick her wounds in private.
“Thank you, Your Highness. I know this isn’t what you want. It’s not what I want either, but—”
Hassan held up a hand to silence her. “I’m giving you time, Cleo, not a permanent pardon. You and Sadik will have to deal with each other eventually.
But for now a separation may be the best thing. We have a villa in Florida. As we approach the beginning of winter, that will be a safe place for you. I will arrange for a doctor to be on call for you there. The plane will be ready for the journey at three this afternoon. Does that suit you?”
Actually it overwhelmed her. She put the drowsy kitten on the bench, then flung herself at the king. He held his kitten in one arm as he hugged her with the other.
“I am sorry to see you go,” he told her. “You have been a wonderful daughter. I am very proud of you, Cleo. Never forget that. As for Sadik, I am sad to say, my son is a camel’s ass.”
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