The closing of the meeting room door signaled the end of the conversation between myself and the other council members. My head swam with questions about what the fuck had just happened. Leaving Qatar and going to America to reclaim the love of my life Sophia was supposed to be a joyous occasion. Returning to the palace with her had more than turned my world upside down. While I thought Jaabir, the oldest and most traditional council member, was my only foe in that room, it turned out that all the council members weren’t fond of my decision to marry a woman outside of our culture.
Their final ultimatum was clear: either I give up Sophia to keep the throne, or I give up the throne to keep Sophia. If I chose to keep Sophia, then my sixteen-year-old brother Abir would be forced onto the throne. Other than Sophia, no one else knew that Abir didn’t want the crown. Father’s dying wish was for me to take the throne. Mother had supported the decision too, which was why I made Sophia leave in the first place.
Coming home should have been a happy reunion. But with Sophia in my life again, Mother didn’t hide her disdain for the woman I chose to spend the rest of my life with. Apparently, the council felt the same way.
It was an impossible choice. Either I betrayed my brother or Sophia. In my mind, they were both my family, and either way, I would feel a heartbreak even worse than I had in the past.
I cursed Jaabir as I strode down the hallway. Even though I wanted to slow everything down, I wanted to be with the only person who understood me.
I went back and forth, trying to decide if I should tell Sophia about the ultimatum. Since it only happened ten minutes ago, by the time I reached my chambers, I decided to keep it to myself. There was no need to worry her just after she arrived in Qatar. If it were possible, I wanted to extend our honeymoon phase a little longer before I broke someone else’s heart, along with my own.
The door to my room was closed, giving me a moment to take a breath before turning the knob.
Sophia sat on my bed. She turned my way and her light eyes met mine. They widened before she jumped off the bed, her long brown hair flouncing behind her as she raced over to me. She lifted on her toes and wrapped her arms around my neck.
I held her close to me, inhaling her scent. I knew right then that I would never be able to let her go. Underneath all of the weighty decisions I had to make, I held tight to the idea that I would be able to make it out of this problem with Sophia on my arm and a crown on my head. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, but Father had instilled a “never give up” attitude within me at a young age. I was going to get through this how I wanted, no matter what those stuffy old council members said.
Sophia leaned back, her arms still around my neck. Her gaze searched mine. “How was the meeting? I’ve been on pins and needles.”
“It was fine,” I said, not breaking eye contact with her.
She swallowed hard. “Did they say anything about us?”
I moved a lock of her hair off her face and drew her toward me for a kiss. Her lips were soft, and my aching heart warmed in that moment.
“I’ll take that as a no?” she asked when we pulled away from each other.
“They wanted to discuss some matters of the kingdom,” I said, treading carefully. I’d told Sophia there would be no more lies between us. Omission was different.
Sophia searched my eyes, and I smiled, pushing for her to believe me. I wasn’t ready for this discussion yet. Who knew if I would ever be?
“That’s a relief,” she said as her arms dropped from her sides. “Your mother walked by here earlier and didn’t even look at me. I thought the council would be the same way about me since I’m so ‘wrong’ for you.”
I gave Sophia a reassuring smile. No matter what, I would keep her. Separating again wasn’t an option for my heart. The month-long breakup had almost killed me. I would never do that again. We were both proud people, and if Sophia knew about the council’s attempt to force me into their tiny box of what a king should look like, she might decide to leave. Just as I wanted her to have a happy life, she wanted the same for me. There would be no more self-sacrificing in this relationship. I would give up the kingdom for her, but not without a fight.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, wanting to be as far away from the mood of that meeting as possible.
“Okay,” she said and took my hand.
I led her down the hallways, wanting to head out to the gardens. It was my place to think, and I knew Sophia loved the beautiful view of the architectural design of our greenhouse. Mother and Father loved the place as well. It seemed to be the only thing that Mother and I had in common nowadays. But even though she was persistent in setting me up with women that I wanted nothing to do with, she was still my mother.
“So, what are we going to do about your mother?” Sophia asked, as if reading my mind. “She was so cold to me earlier. I don’t think she will ever accept us.”
“Sure she will,” I said. I would do anything to keep Sophia from regretting her decision to pick up her life and move to a foreign country with me. She gave up a lot to be with me, and I wasn’t going to allow her to regret a second of it.
“I love you, and I appreciate you saying that, but I don’t think she’ll be an easy egg to crack.”
We walked along the winding pathway toward the massive structure on the west end of the grounds. It was a beautiful sight with a beautiful woman, and I didn’t want Mother to ruin it, even in spirit.
“Sophia, she will learn to live with it, or she can live her life without us.”
“Might be hard living in the same house as her,” Sophia said.
“We don’t have a normal home,” I said. “When I was a teenager and pissed off at them for whatever reason, there were plenty of places to hide.”
“You, the king, are going to hide from your mother?”
“No, but if she doesn’t want to be involved in our life together, then she can do all the hiding.”
“Our life together,” Sophia said, looking down at the ring on her left hand. “I like the sound of that.”
I pulled her close to me, never wanting to be more than a room apart from her ever again. “Me too.”
We wandered through the manicured flowers and other plants that were native to my land. The first time I had brought Sophia home to the palace, we pretended to be dating to get Mother off my back about finding a wife. We were still getting to know each other and couldn’t completely relax and enjoy ourselves. That was only two months ago. How life changed.
Now, even though the council’s decision sat in the back of my mind, I was able to enjoy exploring my home with her.
Since I’d spent so much time over the years in the gardens, I acted as Sophia’s guide. Many plants weren’t native to America, and she seemed genuinely interested.
Eventually, I found out why.
“I have such a brown thumb,” she said, smelling one of the flowers.
I loved watching the smile stretch across her mouth as she breathed in the scent of the brightly colored petals.
“I once killed a cactus,” she said. “True story.”
“It’s a good thing the palace employs professionals.”
“It is,” she said, stepping away from the flowers as if her very presence might turn them rotten. “I can enjoy them from afar and not worry about killing them.”
I laughed and took her hand in mine. I recalled the time spent at the amusement park in Dallas. Being with her that day was so easy, just as it was at that moment. I was used to having the weight of something on my shoulders, like expectations from Father and the family business. I compartmentalized the decision and truly enjoyed my time with Sophia at that moment. I would have time to worry another day. Today was the first day of the rest of our lives. Sophia wasn’t going to leave the palace unless I was with her.
My stomach growled, and I checked my watch. It was past time for lunch but too early for dinner. After the conversation with the council, I needed some sustenance if I was going to get through the rest of the day with a clear head.
“Let’s go inside for some tea,” I said.
“I lived in England for many years; tea is a hard habit to break.”
She looped her arm around mine. “Sounds good.”
We walked in silence all the way back to the palace. Sophia’s attention was on the grounds while my mind wandered back and forth between my options. Running a company gave me the skills to have many things going on in my head while showcasing whatever mood I wanted. To anyone else, I looked just as blissfully happy as I felt, yet the undercurrent of nerves about what to do about the kingdom moved under the surface of my smile.
Since returning to the palace, I had requested tea in the late afternoon. The servants hadn’t missed one of them, so when Sophia and I arrived on one of the balconies overlooking the gardens, our afternoon tea was already waiting, with fresh fruit, biscuits, and empty tea mugs.
I helped Sophia into her chair before sitting down. Two servants appeared from inside and poured the prepared tea into our cups.
“Thank you,” Sophia said to the servant next to her. The woman bowed, and they left quicker than they’d arrived.
Sophia’s eyes met mine, and she tilted her head to the side. “What is it?”
At some point in our lives, Mother, Abir, and I got used to the servants in the palace. They were around so often that a “thank you” would be irrelevant after one day. Other women that Mother had set me up with carried the same mentality. Sophia was out of her element, and it made me love her even more.
I twined my fingers with hers. “Did I tell you that I loved you lately?”
Sophia quirked her lips. “Not in the last hour.”
“Well I do,” I said.
Sophia winked at me.
I was about to take my first sip when someone’s fast footsteps came closer to us. I whipped around, expecting Mother to burst into the room, ruining the moment between Sophia and me.
Instead, I came face to face with a smiling Abir. I stood up and walked over to him. His body vibrated as if he had ants under his skin.
“Abir,” I said.
His thick black hair was slicked back instead of its normal poof. He dressed smartly in a white shirt and slacks. If we were blood-related, I would say he was the spitting image of me in that outfit. He was dressed to impress, but why? Was it for Sophia?
“Alda is here,” Abir said. His cheeks were high and tight, as he couldn’t lose the grin on his face. “I want you and Sophia to meet her.”
I clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t you two join us? There is plenty of room at the table.”
“I don’t want to interrupt,” he said.
“Isn’t that what you’re doing now?”
Abir’s eyes widened, and I laughed. “Don’t be silly. We want to meet the girl who’s stolen your heart.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”