Claude left the festivities early. It felt wrong to celebrate his engagement when it wasn’t to the right woman. Fortunately, Sabiha appeared to feel the same way and agreed to leave with him. It looked better if they left together. She’d promised to think about talking to him about her situation. Hopefully, he’d learn something that would get them out of this fix.
He hung his jacket up in his armoire and stood barefoot in front of the mirror, trousers loose around his waist. He turned his cheek toward the lantern. The place where Hilda had slapped him was sore, but it was no longer red. It wouldn’t bruise. Thank goodness. She often didn’t know her own strength.
After such a long, awful day, Claude needed a good soak. Unfortunately, he hadn’t had enough wine to truly relax. Summoning a servant was too much of a bother. He stripped, washed, and slipped into the pool.
His exhaustion must have been worse than he thought, for he awoke to the sound of knocking. He scrambled from the pool and dried off, a towel around his hair and another around his hips. Could it be Hilda, come to talk things over? He’d told her he could fix this, after all. Surely, she’d want to. They’d been through so much together. They could get through this, too. He flung open the door, heart in his throat.
Sabiha stood before him, arms wrapped around herself as she glanced up and down the hallway. She startled at the sight of him.
“Come in,” Claude said. She darted past him so fast his towel almost flapped in the breeze.
He shut the door and regarded her with a frown. She wore an embroidered dressing gown, her hair twisted into a simple knot at the top of her head. Her gaze landed everywhere in the room but on him.
“It’s late,” he said. “Are you all right?”
Sabiha took a deep breath. She was trembling. “What you think your chances of becoming king are?”
“I’d like to think they’re good. I have experience leading a country, after all.”
“This marriage is very important to my father.” Sabiha spoke quickly, breathlessly. “He has impressed upon me the importance of making sure nothing goes wrong.”
“But what do you want?”
“I…” She looked away, tears glistening in her eyes. “There is someone else I love.”
Claude caught himself before he sighed with relief. “Then that’s that. I would never force you to marry me—”
“You don’t understand. I have to marry you.”
“Both parties have to be willing—”
“I’m willing.” The words were almost a shout. Sabiha’s eyes squeezed shut, her fists pressed against her chest where she held the dressing gown closed.
“Okay, you’re right. I don’t understand.”
“Our army is large, our might unquestioned. But without war, spoils have been few, and my father has been too generous in supporting the wastrels in our family. Our coffers have dwindled. We need money. You have money. Once I am queen, I can help my family.”
Claude ran his hand through his hair. The poor thing. He was reminded suddenly of Ingrid.
“And if you had the money?” he asked.
“My father still wishes for more power. Some men are never satisfied.” Her cheeks reddened. “Begging your pardon, of course.”
Claude waved her words away. “I took no offense, although I’d like you to know I have a vision for this country, not a thirst for power.”
Sabiha inclined her head, but he wasn’t convinced she believed him.
“Say you had the money, and your father had the endorsement of the king. What then?”
“I am my father’s only living child. I must carry on his bloodline.”
Claude paced and scratched his beard. There had to be something he could do. “This person you love, where are they?”
“She is a soldier held in reserve near Fódlan’s Locket.”
“I can work with that. The Fódlan woman at the party? Her brother’s the commander of the Locket. If we could get your lover to the fortress…”
Holst would be willing to help if it meant Claude and Hilda could marry, wouldn’t he? Then all Claude would have to worry about was faking Sabiha’s death. It would be a terrible blow to the Nasir family, but with compensation from the crown…yes, it could work.
“I have an idea, but you have to trust me,” he said.
Sabiha shook her head. “I appreciate the offer, but I must refuse.”
“Because my father does not want a long engagement. If he had his way, we would marry tomorrow.”
There was no way that would happen. Their wedding would be a state affair, and those always took a while to arrange. Claude snorted.
“That is why…” Sabiha’s cheeks grew crimson. “That is why he ordered me not to wait for the wedding.”
Claude’s mouth fell open as Sabiha pulled the dressing down off her shoulders, baring her body to the waist. He stared at her full breasts, the areolas dark, so different from Hilda’s rosiness. Sabiha reached up and pulled the pins out of her hair. It cascaded down her back in a curtain of midnight.
She was beautiful, but the sight of her didn’t stir him. She wasn’t Hilda.
“I do not have experience with men.” Sabiha’s voice took on a strangled quality. “But please take me to bed.”
“Fill me with your seed so I may bear you a child.”
Claude gaped, his mind blank. A thought tried to form but failed in the face of the absurdity confronting him.
“I barely know you,” he said, as if that was the problem.
“No matter. I am ripe now, so you must take me tonight.”
Claude shook his head so hard the towel unraveled. He tossed it to the floor. “I’m going to have to say no.”
“You must!” Sabiha lunged forward and put her hands on his chest. “Please! It is the only way.”
Claude grabbed her wrists and pulled her hands away. “I refuse. There are several problems. One, we’re both in love with other people. Two, children shouldn’t be brought into the world under such circumstances. Three, there are far better ways for us both to get what we want. Four…you know what? Four doesn’t matter. The first three are reason enough.”
“I beg you, Prince Khalid.”
Sabiha tugged against his grip. Claude stumbled, which made her lose her balance. She staggered backward, her heel catching the back hem of her dressing gown. It peeled away from her body as they went crashing to the ground. Claude landed between her legs, his hands still on her wrists, pinning her to the floor. She looked up at him, her face red and breathing ragged.
A knock came at the door. “Claude? I need to talk to you.”
Before he could respond or move, Hilda entered. Her mouth rounded in an O of horror as she looked at them. Then she spun on her heel and slammed the door behind her.
Claude leapt away from Sabiha and sprinted after Hilda. Unfortunately, Hilda was fast when she wanted to be, especially when she wasn’t wearing heels. He pursued the pink banner of her unbound hair, clutching his towel to keep it closed.
“Hilda, wait! That wasn’t what it looked like!”
“I swear! Just let me explain!”
“I don’t want to hear it. Did you ever even love me?”
“I love you right now!”
Claude had almost caught up—thank goodness her stride was so short. He lunged for her, but she darted into her room and slammed the door in his face. He pounded on the door with his fists.
“Hilda, let me in. Let’s talk about this.”
“No! I was stupid to come see you.”
“Come on. I swear to you—”
“Was I ever anything other than a fun lay until you could come home and get what you really wanted?”
“You are what I really want. Please, open the door.”
The sounds of sobbing faded until he could barely hear them. Hilda must have retreated to bed. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the door. Damn it. His one opportunity to make things right with her, and it had all gone wrong. It had looked bad. He doubted there was any coming back from this.
Several minutes passed before Claude calmed. Only then did he realize how breezy the hallway was. No, it wasn’t the hallway, it was him. He stood bare-assed in the corridor, towel around his ankles.
The few servants in the hall stared as he picked up the towel and wrapped it around his hips. He was used to rumors following him around—he’d been the target of several smear campaigns from his siblings in his younger days—but this scene was sure to beat them all combined. His face felt like it was on fire all the way back to his room.
When he finally arrived back at his bedchamber, his only consolation was Sabiha was gone, as if she’d never been there at all.