Taking a deep breath, Eloise pushed those thoughts aside and tried to focus on the present. What was it her husband wanted? Had he come to the decision that it was time to end their marriage? Or was there a reason that her husband’s summons coincided with her birthday tomorrow? The same day that she would finally be able to access the trust fund her grandfather had so kindly and generously secured for her. Surely just a coincidence.
And if she told herself that one hundred times more, perhaps she would start to believe it.
Eloise fingered the embossed invitation that had arrived, hand-delivered, that morning. She had opened the door with her coffee in one hand and accepted the envelope with the other. Looking back, she could hardly credit that it had been only eight hours ago. Nothing had sprung her into action like that demand from her husband to attend tonight’s charity event. Nothing. Not even Natalia’s illness, her father’s blackmail or her mother’s indifference.
It had taken her an hour to think out her options, to call the hospital and make arrangements to cover her absence. She could have stayed in Zurich. She could have run again. But if Odir had found her then he knew the name on her fake passport, and without help from Malik she couldn’t easily procure another one.
But through all these considerations was the realisation that she should make use of this unexpected summons...and finally put into motion the one thing she’d wanted for the last six months.
Eloise twisted the royal wedding ring around her finger. The weight she’d lost in recent months had made the fitting loose, and she couldn’t help but wonder if it was a sign. A sign that perhaps she was finally about to escape the noose that had been placed around her neck the moment her ambitious father had finally got what he wanted as two little words fell from her lips... ‘I do.’
A car horn crashed into the night from somewhere behind the cab. She handed the driver the last of her English money and got out, carefully picking up the long skirts of the black silk dress she had bought at the airport. The halter-neck fitted snugly around her throat, disguising the need for the expensive jewellery that would be expected from the royal princess she had supposedly been for the last eight months. The material clung to her chest like a second skin, and at her bare back she felt a blast of unusually warm air for London, which was in the throes of a summer heatwave. She had spent a fortune on it—almost more than a month’s salary. But it was worth it.
She wasn’t naïve enough to go to a State event in a dress of even half the price. And she wasn’t naïve enough to pick a fight with a prince without armour.
Not when that Prince was her husband.
* * *
As soon as Eloise stepped through the doors of the Heron Tower she was flanked by four men dressed from head to toe in black. For a moment—just a moment—she imagined the cold clasps of handcuffs closing around her wrists, and then discarded the thought as foolish. Her husband might be infuriated with her, but he would never do anything to risk the reputation of the royal family. She knew that better than most. She looked to their faces and was not surprised to see Malik, the only one of the men actually to meet her eye. No one spoke, though if it was a sign of respect, or shame, she couldn’t tell.
As they all entered the lift, the guards barring entry to any of the other guests, she allowed herself to feel a burst of hope that after tonight she might finally be free. Her stomach dropped away as the lift drew them higher and higher, giving her the most spectacular night-time view of London. Multi-coloured lights spread out before her and it was almost enough to take her breath away.
But superimposed over the dramatic vista was her pale, shimmering reflection. Her long blonde hair had not been expertly looped and pinned by stylists who knew what they were doing and charged a fortune. Instead she had done her best in the mirror at the cheap hotel she’d rented for the night. And in her mind the two extremes—the poor hotel and the incredibly rich lavish world of the Heron Tower—summed up the last two years of her life.
The poorer part was so much more valuable to her for its freedom...the richer part coming with a price she could no longer pay.
* * *