‘It’s my fault you got involved with the girl…didn’t I beg you to show an interest in her so that she would lose interest in my husband and pay him no heed?’ the older woman cried feverishly. ‘Now I’ve ruined your life! I can’t believe what you’ve done. You didn’t even get your father’s permission to marry her!’
The deep steady tones of Jasim’s rich drawl interposed, ‘The King would never have given his permission—’
‘Then it’s not too late. The marriage can be invalidated,’Yaminah exclaimed. ‘It doesn’t matter that she’s pregnant, that can be hushed up. Pay her off, do whatever you have to do, anything other than sacrifice your happiness with this mockery of a marriage!’
Listening to that uniquely revealing dialogue, Elinor felt much as if she were being eviscerated with a knife. Perspiration beading her upper lip, she hurried back to the bedroom and straight into the adjoining bathroom where she was horribly sick. All of a sudden, she was realising what a total idiot she had been not to question why a spectacularly handsome prince would start showing a pronounced interest in her. Yaminah had asked him to. Murad’s wife had feared that her husband was at risk of being led astray by the nanny and had persuaded her brother-in-law to present himself as an alternative option. Goodness, had they really feared that she might have an affair with a married man as old as Murad? Jasim had been a dazzling success when it came to seduction and too virile for his own good, Elinor conceded painfully. No wonder the complication of a pregnancy had hit him hard! Jasim had never really wanted her at all and even less must he have wanted to marry her.
Elinor freshened up and pressed trembling hands to her damp cheeks. She would do Jasim one last favour: for the benefit of them both she would leave him. There was no true marriage to work at, no future to weave dreams around and clearly no togetherness or mutual passion to retrieve. Their whole relationship from start to finish had been a lie, a big fat fakery, to ensnare her and draw her in. She had been more than a little desperate to believe that he could find her irresistible—even though no other man ever had—and now all she was conscious of was a deeply painful sense of shame and humiliation. What a pushover and a patsy she had been!
She rooted through her luggage, which had been brought up, extracting jewellery, keepsakes, important documentation and a few necessities to keep her clothed until she had time to go shopping. She didn’t care about abandoning the rest—indeed her entire being was bent on leaving the town house just as fast as she possibly could. She piled everything she was taking with her into a smaller bag and changed into a more practical outfit of jeans and a jacket.
She yanked off her wedding ring and left it on the dressing table. Instantly she felt better about herself. He was gorgeous, rich and royal, but he had taken her for a cruelly manipulative ride that she would never forget. How naïve and immature she had been to give her trust so easily! A woman needed a man like a fish needed a bicycle, she quoted to herself, because her heart felt as if it were being pounded into pieces inside her. She didn’t need him when she had herself to depend on, a willingness to work and a comfortable savings account. She and her baby would get by just fine without him.
Even so, tears dampened her face as she crept through the hall and slid like an eel out the front door with barely a sound. She walked briskly down the street and she didn’t once look back. She was already making plans to ensure that even though he looked for her he would find it very difficult to find her again.
‘ALL right, so he’s not there right now,’Alissa conceded grudgingly, lodged at the front window and scanning the pavement opposite for the young man she had noticed earlier. ‘But I swear he was out there looking up at this apartment most of the day.’
Lindy, a curvaceous brunette, groaned out loud and rolled her eyes at Elinor. ‘We haven’t got a boyfriend between us but we’ve attracted a stalker? We don’t have a lot of luck, do we?’
Elinor didn’t laugh. Anything out of the ordinary tended to make her tense. She was always a little on her guard. Eighteen months had passed since she had set out to make a new life and preserve her independence by cutting all ties with the old. Kneeling, she bent over Sami, slotting her baby son into a stretchy sleep-suit covered with pictures of toy racing cars. He thought it was a game and continually tried to roll away out of reach. She closed a hand round a chubby ankle to hold him steady.
‘Sami…stay still,’ she scolded, trying to be stern.
Enormous brown eyes surrounded by black lashes as long as fly swats danced with mischief. He rolled again. At ten months old, Sami had buckets of charm and a huge amount of personality. He was a fearless extrovert to his fingertips. When life went his way he was all sunny smiles and chuckles, but when it went wrong he seethed with melodrama and sobbed up a heartbreaking storm.
‘It’s bedtime,’ Elinor told the little boy, tenderly hugging him close, revelling in his squirming warmth and cuddliness and the sweet familiar scent of his skin.
She usually kept Sami up quite late in the evenings because he was cared for in a crèche during the day while she worked full time. Every morning when she left him there she felt guilty, and evenings, weekends and hol
idays revolved exclusively around ensuring that Sami had lots of fun and got all her attention.
‘Night, Sami.’ Lindy patted his little curly dark head fondly as she moved past Elinor to head into the kitchen. ‘Fancy a cup of tea before bed?’
‘I’d love one,’ Elinor admitted wearily.
‘Nighty-night,’ Alissa said to Sami, tugging Elinor down onto the arm of the sofa so that she could kiss the little boy’s cheek.
Elinor tucked her son into his cot beside her bed. His eyes sparkled and he kicked while she went through their usual bedtime ritual, winding up the music box to play its customary lullaby and tucking his toy lamb in beside him. She read his favourite story, showing him the pictures through the bars of the cot. Slowly Sami wound down, lowering his eyelids until his thick ebony lashes fringed his olive-toned baby cheeks. Content to watch him, Elinor got ready for bed and stayed until he was fast asleep.
‘You’ve let the tea get cold,’ Lindy sighed when she emerged.
‘I’m used to cold tea.’
Alissa had already retired for the night. Lindy was frowning at Elinor. ‘You looked really worried when Alissa mentioned that she thought that guy had been watching the apartment. Did you think it might be Sami’s dad? Was he violent?’
Elinor froze and gave her flatmate a shocked look. ‘My goodness, no, nothing like that!’
‘I couldn’t help wondering and I felt I had to ask just in case someone turns up asking for you.’ Lindy watched Elinor pale at the idea. ‘What are you scared of, then?’
If Elinor had not been so accustomed to sidestepping all such questions to conceal her past history she might have weakened and told all. Lindy and Alissa were more than just flatmates. They were true friends, who had stuck by her throughout her pregnancy and done their utmost to be supportive.
‘Not violence but…maybe losing custody of Sami,’ she confided, finally voicing her deepest fear.
‘I don’t know what you’re worried about. Single mothers outrank single fathers in the custody stakes.’
Elinor shrugged, reluctant to admit that she had married her child’s father, although she was pretty sure that the marriage would have since been dissolved. For what reason would Jasim have retained that bond with an unwanted wife, who had vanished on their wedding day? But she was always afraid that he might still be looking for them because she had kept his child from him. And she felt amazingly bad about that sometimes. However, she didn’t feel she could trust a man who had done what Jasim had done to her. It was Jasim who had taught her how devious, cruel and cold-blooded he could be. He might have married her, but he hadn’t cared about her or even respected her, so how likely was it that he would be happy to share Sami with her? Sami was far too precious to be put at risk.