THE CORONATION CEREMONY went off smoothly. Far better than anyone, including Malak, could have hoped after the surprise of his ascension and the even bigger shock of Miles’s existence. He was fairly certain his top ministers had expected something along the lines of an American reality show.
But Malak had opted instead for a private, deliberately quiet affair, because he thought it was important that Khalia’s second major transfer of power in the past few months seemed so smooth it hardly merited any publicity—aside, of course, from what the papers might say about it.
Besides, he had other plans for grand, sweeping public ceremonies.
A coronation was a ritual steeped in age-old tradition of a far more prosaic sort—the consolidation of authority into a single man. Less myth, more might. Malak had planned his down to the barest, most minute detail, because he wanted the somber images he planned to release to live in his people’s heads and hearts as if they had always been there.
Malak himself, looking quietly authoritative, accepted his place on the ancient throne in traditional Khalian dress. The ritual naming of his heir, that he knew would inspire his people to raptures. For who could resist tiny, fierce-faced Miles, staring up at his father with an identical look of concentration in those same dark green eyes?
And everything went as it should. Precisely as Malak had planned.
Except for Shona.
She had disappeared into her room with her servant earlier, looking shaken. Malak had found he didn’t like it. He preferred Shona bright and ferocious, not quietly obedient—though he hardly knew where to put such a thought after all the effort he’d expended attempting to break her even a little. And then she had emerged again some time later dressed appropriately for her station.
And he’d forgotten what he liked or didn’t like about her emotional state, because he was, after all, just a man.
And she was so gorgeous it made his lungs hurt.
Malak had gone to significant trouble to find the perfect dress that encompassed both the sort of Western chic that would broadcast Shona’s beauty to the whole world and the suggestion of the kind of modesty his people would expect from a woman who had already borne him a son and would soon take her place at his side.
And she had exceeded his wildest expectations.
Shona was always beautiful. But it had never occurred to him how much she tried to hide that. With her aloofness. With her toughness. With her refusal to back down, ever, even so much as an inch. It wasn’t simply the way she dressed, it was how she carried herself.
As if she dared any man, even him, to find her beautiful when she could be a thorn in the side instead.
But it was as if the dress brought out a different side of her. A Shona he’d never met before, this one as soft as she was determined. No longer disguising her stunning beauty, but owning it at long last.
“Are you satisfied?” she’d asked him when she stood there, her hair a gorgeous dark halo around her and her brown eyes fixed on his while the dark green dress managed to both hide and celebrate her figure in a rush and tumble toward the floor.
And at any other time, that would have been a challenge. But not today.
Today, Malak had thought, she actually wanted to know his answer. Did he dare imagine she wanted his approval?
“I am completely satisfied,” he’d told her, though his voice was more gravelly than it should have been and his head was in the gutter.
It was harder than it should have been to simply extend his arm to her. Not to put his hands on her. Not to take her back into that bedroom and explore this new, even more stunning version of Shona with every part of his own exultant, needy body.
Not to call her what she was. His queen.
Instead, after a slight hesitation, she’d taken his arm. And she’d let him lead her through the palace.
“All you have to do is stand with Miles, smile a bit and look reasonably pleased to be involved in something of such import. Can you do that?” he had asked her as he’d walked them both toward the throne room his great grandfather had built for the express purpose of awing peasants and visitors alike.
His earlier ancestors had never seen a need for such a thing. They’d ruled by might and guile through the strength of their armies and the sheer audacity of their military strategies out here in these treacherous deserts. Thrones and crowns had been secondary, little more than affectations and fripperies to hardened warrior kings who took what they wanted and held it by the force of their will alone.
And somewhere between the power of his ancestors and the spectacle of modernity, Malak needed to find his own way to rule.
It made him...uneasy, almost, to consider how little he could imagine holding this throne without Shona. When had that happened? They had been forced back together because of a long-ago mistake and he should have hated that. He had hated the very idea of it, once upon a time. He was sure he had.
He didn’t understand why he didn’t hate it anymore. Why hate wasn’t at all the word he’d use to describe the situation he found himself in with this woman.
Not that he would allow it to be anything else.
“I will do my best,” she had replied. She’d shot him a look, holding herself very straight and tall as if some of those comportment classes had sunk in, after all. “For Miles’s sake.”
And Malak could hardly complain that she was hiding behind Miles when he had used his son to the same purpose himself. But it chafed at him.
And as he’d gone about his sacred duty, promising himself to his kingdom and his people, mouthing ancient words he had never thought would be his to say aloud, he found himself thinking less about the awesome responsibilities before him and more about this woman who still didn’t seem to realize she was destined to be his queen.
When there could be no other outcome.
And if he was honest, only a very small part of that had to do with the son they shared.
Afterward, in the small, formal reception that was filled with palace advisors and a host of his ministers, only a portion of his attention was on the usual political machinations, jostling for position and naked ambition amongst his courtiers. What he was focused on was Shona.
Shona, who kept a mysterious half smile on her face as she stood slightly off to one side, Miles there in front of her with his eyes wide. Shona, who gazed down at her son with that fierce pride written all over her—and the strangest thing was how Malak shared it. He could feel it in him, too. Miles had been outfitted to look like the miniature version of his father he was, and something about that made Malak’s chest ache.
But then, all of this did. The three of them standing together like this did something to him. He’d gotten good at ignoring it during the dinners they shared, but today it seemed less like a vague ache and more like a pulled tendon, sharp and inescapable, no matter how he stood or tried to catch his breath.
He could see how they’d look in all the pictures they’d taken today. Malak and Shona with Miles between them. Miles a few shades darker than Malak’s own brown skin and a few shades lighter than his mother. Like the happy family Malak had never known himself. The kind of happy family he’d never believed in.
A perfect set, something in him whispered.
When the nannies came to lead Miles away, Shona made as if to go with him, but Malak stopped her.
“I thought I would—”
“Remain behind with your lord and king?” Malak smiled at her frozen expression. “What an excellent idea.”
And he knew he’d gotten through to her somehow, because she made no move to create the sort of scene he knew full well she could have done, if she wished. And would have done a week ago. Possibly even yesterday. Instead, she stood with quiet dignity at his elbow, and stayed with him as he finished all his official conversations.
Malak doubted she knew that she had as good as announced her intention to wed him to every minister and courtier in the palace. And every subject of his who would see their pictures in the papers. But he knew.
And it felt a great deal like triumph—which he, in turn, enjoyed a whole lot more than all those other things he’d have preferred not to feel.
“Your ministers can’t possibly think that was appropriate,” she said when they were alone again, the last two in the formal hall outside the throne room. Malak loosened the tie of the very exquisitely cut Western suit he’d worn for the reception.
“If you mean the fact that I am dressed more like a Western king than the sheikh I am in my bones and my blood, believe me, there were many complaints.” He eyed her as if she’d made them. “But none I listened to, as you can see.”
Shona blinked. “What’s wrong with how you’re dressed?”
And then she looked flustered, as if the question revealed more than she’d meant it to.
Malak didn’t try very hard to hide his smile. “Nothing at all if the throne I wished to ascend was in Europe. Didn’t you hear the questions the reporter asked about that very thing?”
Shona was standing in the middle of the room, a vision in that formal dress that looked even better on her than Malak had imagined it would. She stood straight and almost too still, as if she was afraid to move. As if the wrong breath might lead to something far worse than the sudden intimacy of being the only two remaining in a formally crowded room.
“It’s very difficult to listen to so many people talk at once,” she said after a moment. “The reporter, the interpreter and then you as you answered.”
“Which is why you should take Arabic lessons,” he replied mildly, and smiled when her gaze cut to his with more of the heat he was used to. “It cuts down on the chatter. Alas, the tutor I hired for you tells me that you have yet to sit through a single one of her carefully crafted—”
“You made your point earlier.” Her dark eyes glittered as she looked at him. “You don’t have to beat me over the head with it. And no, I didn’t hear the interpreter say anything about your clothes.”
“I wore traditional dress in the throne room and Western dress to the reception, upending centuries of tradition and, according to some, betraying my crass soul for all to see. Because I wish to straddle both worlds. I intend to be a progressive king.”
“Progressive?” she echoed. In clear disbelief. “You?”
“Indeed. There are parts of this kingdom that have remained unchanged since the twelfth century. Villages that have yet to enter the bold new world of the thirteenth century, much less the twenty-first.”
“But...progressive?” She let out a sound that was close enough to a laugh to make his eyes narrow. “That is not a word I would use to describe you.”
“My politics are considered remarkably progressive, in fact,” he assured her. “Here in Khalia, that is, where I am known as a great libertine, who wasted the better part of the last decade immersing myself in the scandalous pleasures of loose and casual Western cities and their many licentious women.”
“Right. And because of that you have such a liberal view of, say, marriage.”
“See?” His voice was soft. He doubted very much his expression matched. “You can do battle with me just as easily dressed like this as you can in those strange ensembles you cobbled together from the depths of your closet.”
He thought she looked shaken again, but if she did, she hid it in the next moment, forcing him to contemplate, yet again, the elegant line of her neck.
“It’s easy for you to say such things,” Shona said softly. “You have nothing to lose.”
She turned then and Malak almost let her go. But there was something about the way she moved toward the door, her head angled toward the floor and her hands in fists at her side. It caught at him. It made him question—
But that was not who he was, damn it all. That was not what he did.
He had never been a man of what-ifs and maybes. He did not feel. He had seen, then taken. His conquests had been legendary.
Hell, she was one of them.
Malak caught up to her in the next atrium, with a set of three fountains in the center, greenery and bright magenta flowers flowing from the pillars, and walls bedecked with a thousand tiny mirrors set into the tiles.
And he had not touched her in so long. Too long. It seemed like forever. He reached out and took her wrist, pulling her around to face him again.
Gently. Inexorably. And what he noticed most was how easily she came, spinning back to him as if this was some kind of dance. As if they both knew the steps. As if they shared this same gripping thing that was making his chest feel tight and the rest of him...greedy.
“What do you think you have to lose?” he asked her, and his voice sounded almost gruff. But then, perhaps it matched that arrested expression on her lovely face.
Her gaze searched his. She swallowed, and his eyes moved to track the movement. He held her so he could feel the tumult of her pulse beneath the smooth, dark brown expanse of her satiny skin. He expected her to tug her wrist from his grip, but she didn’t.
Instead, she turned her head to the side and nodded toward the hundreds of mirrors on the nearest wall that together made a great, reflective pool.
“Look at that,” she whispered, something fierce and yet broken in her voice. “You look like a king. You belong here, surrounded by all of this. Fountains and jewels, thrones and servants. But I look exactly like what I am. A foster kid playing dress-up.”
If she’d reached into his chest and dug out his heart with those elegant fingers of hers, he couldn’t have been more surprised. More taken back.
“You look like a beautiful woman, Shona. Elegant and without equal.”
“Just stop.” She didn’t say it in her usual bitter and harsh way. It was more of a sigh. She shook her head at their reflection. “I never played princesses. Or any other games of make-believe. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t need that kind of escape from reality—or anyway, I never liked it. Why pretend things are better when they’ll be just as terrible on the other side of whatever game you’re playing?”
She was telling him something important. Even if Malak couldn’t understand it, not completely, he could feel it. It was like a shudder, working its way down his spine. It settled deep in his belly, like a kind of foreboding.
“I am not a make-believe king, little one,” he told her quietly, moving there beside her, dark and tall while she was so lithe and pretty. And she fit him. Her head reached his shoulder and he wanted to turn her toward him, make her tilt up that chin, and get a taste of that proud, lush mouth that haunted his dreams. “When you become my queen, and you will, it will not be a game we play. It will be real.”
He didn’t understand what it was she was looking at, there on the wall in so many gleaming tiles, what she saw in their reflection that made her brown eyes look so anguished.
He wasn’t surprised when she pulled away from him then. He let her go, watched as she stared at her reflection a moment more, then turned that same anguished look on him.
“I did this for Miles,” she told him, and there was something else in her voice he didn’t recognize. “Because I never want to be the thing that holds him back. Not in anything.” She waved a hand over her dress, her face twisting. “But I don’t want to do this again.”
“I don’t know what you think that gown is doing to you. You’re a beautiful woman. Why shouldn’t you dress like one?”
“I’m an abandoned orphan from New Orleans,” Shona said, grief showing on her face. Or perhaps it was closer to fury. “I come from nothing. I am nothing. I don’t belong in a dress like this.” She shook her head and laughed a little, though there was nothing like humor in the sound. “Yadira even tried to fit me with some kind of—”
“Jewels,” Malak finished for her. “I know. I chose them myself.”
“It’s ridiculous.” She threw the words at him like an accusation. As if it should have been a body blow that knocked him back a few feet, at the very least. “I don’t know what you want. I know what I look like. I know exactly who I am.”
“Then you had better tell me what you think that is. Because I’m afraid I am at a loss.”
“You don’t have to humiliate me,” Shona whispered, and that, then, was the body blow. Malak was surprised he stood his ground. “I’m here, aren’t I? You might think I scowl too much, but I haven’t tried to escape, have I? I haven’t tried to turn Miles against you. I haven’t kept him from you. I haven’t even argued with the way you’ve decided his time here should be spent. Even before you brought us here I agreed that you could see him. Isn’t that enough? Why do you have to humble me as well?”
Her voice cracked and something inside Malak did the same. He took a step toward her and she moved away, but not with her usual grace. It was as if she stumbled, though she didn’t trip. She simply moved, jerkily, over to the bench in front of the nearest fountain and sat there.
“There is nothing humble about you, little one,” Malak said quietly, and maybe he was the one without his customary grace. “You are proud and you are strong and I pity any man who imagines he could humiliate you.”
She made another sighing sound. “And yet you do it. You do it without even trying.”
He closed the distance between them. She already looked like a queen. If he had ever imagined a queen, the images would have paled next to Shona. Her dark hair was full and curly around her head. The gorgeous deep green gown swept over her figure, as demure as it was alluring. Her skin gleamed, that rich brown that haunted him when he was awake and asleep, and she shone brighter than the sparkling water of the fountains or the intricate mosaics on the floor beneath their feet.
She was as perfect now as she had been in a gold dress and smile five years ago.
Even more so, perhaps, because she’d given him Miles.
“Shona,” he started again, reaching over to take her chin in his hand. He tilted her pretty face to his.
“It’s cruel,” she whispered. Her eyes glittered with some kind of intense emotion he had no hope of naming, but he could feel it. Inside him. Around him. In his throat and his chest and his heavy sex. “You can dress me up. You can throw gowns on me and wrap ridiculous chains of impossible jewels around my neck. But it doesn’t change anything. Don’t you understand that? Nothing will ever change me.”
“What do you think I want to change?”
She jerked her chin from his grip. “Everything.”
It was the way she said that word. With too much heat and that brokenness besides.
“I don’t want to change you, Shona.”
“Of course you do.” Her voice was thick but Malak didn’t think the darkness in it was aimed at him. “I don’t blame you. But I would rather the whole world see me for who I really am right from the start than this—this sad game of charades that no one will ever believe, anyway.”
She made a hollow noise when he only stared at her.
“I don’t believe that you can’t see it. Weren’t you the one who was just telling me how sad and narrow my life is? The truth is, you’re right. I have nothing to give Miles now. I don’t know how to raise a prince. I thought I was doing okay as a single mother making ends meet. Better than my own mother did, anyway. You can call me a queen. You can dress me up like one if you must.” She pulled in a ragged breath, then let it out in a rush. “But you can’t change the simple fact that I was thrown away like trash because I am trash. You can’t dress that up no matter how hard you try.”
Malak felt something deep inside him go still. Like rage turned to stone.
But he gazed at Shona with all the ease that had marked him in his playboy days. As if there was nothing heavy between them and never would be.
“I am the king of Khalia,” he told her quietly. “Any woman I have ever slept with is, by definition, only of the highest caliber. Diamonds of the finest water, as they say. But the mother of my child? The mother of the next king of this glorious kingdom? It is impossible that this woman—this paragon who must be celebrated above all others as a matter of national pride and patriotic duty—can ever be or could ever have been anything remotely like trash.”
“I think you’re talking about Miles again.”
“Quite apart from that,” he said, with all the certainty of his station and the throne that had never felt more like his than it did today, “this is my country. You are whatever I say you are. And I must inform you that you are among the finest treasures of the kingdom, Shona. Because I say so.”
Her lips curved, but her eyes were sad. “That doesn’t make it true.”
“Maybe this will convince you, then.”
He did what he had been longing to do for what seemed like forever. He stepped closer to her, and swept her up from the bench, and into his arms at last.
And then finally—finally—Malak took her mouth with his.