He wished that she would hide again, because looking at her like this was like staring into the sun. Too intense, too bright, a light that was too clean and pure for him to possibly process.
“Are you really going to do this?” she asked.
“Am I going to do what?”
“Are you going to marry her? Are you really going to marry her for your country?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” He pressed down hard on the wound in his chest that seemed to be flowing freely, stopped the bleeding. He shut it all down, redirected the walls that she had demolished only moments ago.
“You can’t live like this. You can’t live your life for everyone else.”
“Yes, I can. It’s what I should do. It’s what I was always meant to do, but it’s what I was too cowardly to do when I was a young man. But I do it now, I am determined to continue to do it. And a couple of brief moments of insanity are hardly going to change that. When Christine arrives here, I will confess what I have done. And for every moment hereafter I will be faithful to her. I will be faithful to my country.”
“That is no reason to take a wife. It is no reason to pledge fidelity to somebody. Because you want to show faith to your country? What about love?”
“What is love?” he growled, rage rising up inside of him, and he couldn’t quite figure out why. Why this was affecting him so deeply. Why did it hurt like he was being stabbed with a pike straight to the heart. “What does it matter, anyway? I’ve never seen it do any good. I’ve never seen it help a damn thing. Jasmine loved Damien. Do you suppose Leila loves James Chatsfield? Do you suppose it will do her any good?” He knew he was betraying too much, but he could not hold it back right now, could not stem the tide of anger that was pouring from him.
Dimly, he realized that he was raging against something far bigger than Sophie, that he was pouring it all out onto her petite frame, and yet he could not hold it back.
“What does love have to do with anything? What bearing does it have on the world, on the things I must concern myself with? Love cannot come into it. It is only duty.”
“What is duty without love? An obligation. It is empty.”
“It’s only empty if you don’t act on it. I am acting. I am doing what I must.”
“Do something for yourself.”
“Myself? I do not deserve anything. I had my years of debauchery, of serving me. It is over. And it is for the best.”
“Do you know, Zayn? I lived for that moment in my mind, when I would go up to my father and tell him the mistake he made. I directed my entire life for that moment. I stayed in New York because of that moment. Because I was going to claim what had been lost to me. I selected the school I went to for that reason. I worked hard for that reason. I took this job as a journalist for that reason. And suddenly I just...I don’t care. I built my entire life around that. Around a triumphant moment in front of a man who doesn’t care that I exist. I would give it all up for you. To be here, to stay here. I was going to stand before my father and ask him to choose me now that I was worthy. I’m standing in front of you and I know I’m not worthy. I’m not a princess, I can’t help you. I can’t help your country. But I love you. I’m not waiting until I feel like I’m worthy, I’m just asking. Because what’s the point of being afraid? What’s the point of trying to contort myself into something I’m not even sure I want to be? I can’t be a princess, but I can love you. And that’s what I’m bringing.” She spread her hands wide, totally exposed, totally open. It terrified him to see it. Because she was so unprotected, and he would be the one to take advantage of that. He would be the one to wound her. “This is all I have. But I will give it all to you.”
“I cannot accept it.” His throat was so tight, it was nearly closed. “I can make no other decision but the one that has already been made. I have promised myself to Christine, and I must keep that promise.” It was becoming harder and harder to remember why. But he knew that he must, because it served his country, because it didn’t serve himself. Because it would keep eyes on him while Leila figured out what to do with her pregnancy. Those reasons. He knew all of the reasons. And he could not forget them.
She nodded slowly, tears glistening in her green eyes. “Okay.”
He reached out and grabbed her arm, pulled her to him. “You are not alone. I swear to you, I will take care of you.”
* * *
Sophie looked at Zayn, her heart burning. She knew he was offering everything he could. At least, he was offering what he wasn’t afraid to offer. He was clinging to the idea of duty, because duty was important, she knew that. But she knew there were other ways. And she knew that for whatever reason, he was keeping himself from seeing them.