In truth, it felt as though they were closer to the sun here than they had been in New York. It was beyond anything in her experience, and while it was uncomfortable, it was also fascinating.
Her level of fascination with her new surroundings far surpassed the unease she had been feeling on the plane ride over. She’d managed to sleep for a good portion of the flight, disengaging herself from conversation with Zayn after their little talk about love matches. For some reason, being close to him made her feel jittery.
Okay, so it was normal to feel jittery around the man who’d essentially forced her to come back to his country with him, but this was something else. Something that went beyond the expected unease that one might feel in the situation.
And she was still ignoring it. Ignoring it, and focusing on the view of the Surhaadi desert, and then, of the looming palace walls, and the massive structure that rose up from behind them.
Every window in the palace seemed to be lit with an orange flame, each line, every detail of stone carved into the walls, illuminated by a thin band of light. A blue dome rose from the center of the roof, an intricate pattern fashioned from the gleaming tile that covered it.
It was a modern-day fantasy. An updated take on classic stories that she’d read as a child.
But sadly reading about it could not have prepared her for the reality. For the sheer size of the place.
Yet again, going to friends’ holiday homes upstate was a poor comparison to the home of actual royalty.
“What do you think?” he asked as the limo drove through the parting gates and into a beautifully appointed courtyard, the ground covered in gleaming tile, and fountains stationed throughout.
“I suppose it will have to do,” she said, her tone dry as the desert sand.
“I daresay not many people get kidnapped into such luxury.”
“That all depends, I suppose, on whether or not you intend to throw me in the dungeon.”
“You shall have your own quarters.”
Her own quarters in a massive palace. Things continued to seem unreal. “Oh.”
“No matter what you might think, I am not an animal. I am simply a man. Doing what I must to ensure that my family remains safe.”
She wasn’t familiar with that kind of loyalty. And for a moment, the desire to be on the receiving end of it, from someone, anyone, him even, was so strong it made her ache.
What would it be like to have someone do whatever must be done, to protect you?
She and her mother had never been close, and they had only grown more distant throughout the years. Her mother had no ambition beyond being a rich man’s plaything. Worse, as the years had gone on, she hadn’t even been the rich man’s plaything, but his discarded toy. And she had never moved on from that. She’d never been able to connect with her only child, because her heart had been given over to a man who didn’t care about her at all.
Sophie would have loved her. But she’d never given Sophie the chance.
And Sophie hadn’t been able to watch her mother endure that existence after a certain point, either.
And as for her father, she may as well have not existed. Except for a card, with a check, on every birthday. A check she had summarily put into savings and hadn’t touched until her university years.
This kind of familial love, this kind of protectiveness, wasn’t something she had any experience with.
It was best to just focus on the palace.
“So, is this the original palace? Or is this something of a redo?”
“There have been extensive renovations in the past twenty years. Lots of modernizing. But the majority of it is original. A couple hundred years old. Of course, while homes that are that age are magnificent, they are rarely comfortable to live in. Hence the renovation.”
“Sure, I imagine that’s the case.”
She knew for a fact that living in a home that was fifty years old wasn’t overly comfortable, so anything spanning back centuries probably wasn’t any better. Though it looked immeasurably fancier.
The limousine came to a stop, and Zayn got out without waiting for a driver to come to his aid. He walked to her side of the car, and opened the door for her, standing there as though he was some kind of chivalrous paragon, rather than the marauder she knew he was.
She collected her purse, and got out, rising slowly, her body a little bit stiff from such a long plane ride followed by a ride in a car. The wind whipped through her hair, and she flicked some of the honey strands away from her face, the sun reflecting on it and casting a golden haze over her vision.
He stood tall, regarding her, his expression like granite.