The Sheikh's Secret Bride(Desert Rogues, Book 3)(29) by Susan Mallery
“Ah, you want the seamy side of life at the palace.”
He was teasing, but she didn’t return his smile. “I’m not saying it has to be seamy, but there are prices for everything. For example, I’ll bet you didn’t have a normal childhood.”
He shrugged. “It was normal for me. I was taken from my mother when I was four and raised primarily by my father and his ministers.”
Liana blinked. “Taken, as in, you didn’t see her anymore?”
“Not often,” he agreed blandly. “My father was concerned that I grow up to be a strong and self-sufficient man. I couldn’t be coddled by women all the time, running to my mother for every little scraped knee or bruised feeling.”
Liana remembered what Bethany had said—that Malik had broken his arm twice when he’d been a boy. “What about broken arms? Did you get coddled then?”
“I was fine.”
But he didn’t meet her gaze as he spoke, and she thought she glimpsed something lost and painful in Malik’s dark eyes. “Were all your brothers raised the same way?”
“No. Jamal and Khalil stayed with our mother until she died. Then they had a nanny and tutors. For them, the responsibilities of being a prince weren’t so all-encompassing. But then they weren’t going to grow up to rule El Bahar.”
Liana wondered if she could really read between the lines of what he was saying or if she was assuming too much. It all sounded very sad and lonely to her. She could picture a much younger Prince Malik being told that he had to be strong and brave, that he wasn’t allowed to cry or show weakness, no matter how much he hurt or how tired he might be. But was that reality or fanciful thinking on her part?
“What about now?” she asked. “Are you still held apart from your brothers?”
“We are close,” Malik said, staring past her out the darkened windows. “But their lives are different. I have the responsibility of the country’s oil production. I negotiate favorable terms with our customers, maintain our alliance with our neighbors. I also have my duties here, within the boundaries of El Bahar. My father is still a young man, but he is ready to have me take over some of his functions.”
“Sounds like a lot of work.”
“Perhaps, but it is all I’ve known. I am the future leader of my country. The people of El Bahar look to me to be strong and always to do the right thing. For them I am the lion of the desert. Powerful, moving forward, fearless.”
“I think you do a good job,” she said, then finished her glass of champagne.
Yes, Malik was a fine Crown Prince, but he was also a man. Who did he go to when he was tired of being the lion of the desert? Who held him when he was broken in spirit, if not in body? With whom did he trust his doubts, his hopes and his fears? For he had to have them. He was human, like everyone else.
“You must get very lonely,” she said.
Malik looked surprised by her comment. “In a palace full of people? Not possible.”
She wasn’t sure if he was denying it because he didn’t want to talk about it with her, or if it was because he really didn’t know how isolated he was. His entire life was designed to keep him apart from everyone else. Her heart ached for the young boy taken away from the loving support of his mother and given to the care of ministers designed to turn him into a man who wouldn’t dare feel any weakness, let alone show it.
How did Malik pass the long nights when the ghosts of the past seemed to lurk around every corner and the emptiness of the future loomed on for eternity? Or was she projecting? Maybe she was assuming that Malik was enough like her to long to have someone special in his life to ease the burden and make the good times even better.
It was the champagne, she thought, even as he poured her another glass. She’d been too excited to eat much that day so the bubbles and alcohol were going to her head.
“I’m very impressed with your daughter,” Malik said as he set the bottle back in the small refrigerator. “She’s going to be an excellent horsewoman. She’s also very bright. I enjoy her company.”
“Does that surprise you?”
“Yes. I’ve never spent any time in the company of children.”
“I suppose not.” She eyed his glass and tried to figure out if he’d filled it as well as hers, or was he still on his first drink? But she wasn’t sure, and it was suddenly so very unimportant.
“I’m sorry I accused you of using her to get to me,” she said earnestly. The words sounded slightly off to her ears. Was her tongue thickening? What had she been talking about? Oh, yes. “What I mean is, your relationship with her is separate from the one you have with me. Not that you really have one with me. She adores you, by the way.”
“I suspect I’m something of a father figure to her.”
“You need to have children of your own,” Liana told him. “Heirs and all that. Your brothers have children.”
He leaned toward her and took the glass from her hand. She wanted to protest its absence, but he was moving closer and she had the sudden thought that given the choice between drinking the bubbly moonbeams and kissing Malik, the kiss would win every time.
“So, have you forgiven me for bringing you to the palace?” he asked.
“Oh, sure. It was fine.” Malik momentarily swam out of focus, then reappeared. Was she drunk? On less than three glasses of champagne? She considered for a moment and decided it was very possible. She’d never been much of a drinker. “I mean I’m glad we stayed friends.”
Copyright © 2015 by Read Best Books Free Online