She needed to turn away from him. She needed to leave. But it was impossible. When he was offering to care for her, when he was there, bronzed, strong and naked. Everything she had ever wanted. A fantasy she had never had before. All of him, all of this. She’d had a goal, she had a dream, but it had been so narrow. So limited. Now, suddenly, she saw all of the possibilities, all of the things that she could want, and they were still out of reach. And even though she knew this would end, even though he was promising an end, she knew she wasn’t strong enough to leave now. Not while there was still some time.
So she stood, waiting for him to tell her to go. Because until he told her to go, she wasn’t going to move.
She breathed a sigh of relief when he closed the distance between them, wrapping his arm around her waist and bringing her into contact with his body. “I will take care of you.” His words were intense, steady, a promise she knew he intended to keep. Another duty he was adding to his list. “No matter how far we are from each other, no matter how the years distance us, I will make sure you lack for nothing.”
For a moment she simply let his words wash over her, a balm she hadn’t realized her soul had needed.
She said nothing, instead she stretched up on her toes and kissed him. She didn’t want any more words to pass between them tonight. She simply wanted to be held. She simply wanted to be with him.
He picked her up, and brought her back to bed. And for the rest of the night she thought of nothing but the moment.
* * *
When Zayn woke up the next morning to an empty bed, he was certain of two things. Sophie loved him. And he desperately craved that love. He didn’t know if he was equal to it. If he could return it in the way she deserved, but there was no limit to how much he wanted it.
So many years of wanting nothing for himself, and now that he did, he could think of little else.
Except for Christine.
Sophie was right. They would make each other miserable in the end because while they would both fulfill their function, they would never meet their deepest purpose.
Because when Sophie had said she loved him, he’d felt something shift deep inside him. It had changed him.
It had exposed his weaknesses. Brought them out into the light of day. Sophie didn’t let him hide. She made him face the truth, face himself. And he knew he could do the same for her.
But not for Christine.
Duty without love is void.
It would be so for both of them. An empty, wasteland of duty, dry as the desert heat.
But for a moment, when Sophie had spoken those words, he had imagined a future that did not stretch out before him, dull, lifeless and bleak. An endless stretch of time that would mean so little. Married to a woman whose face he could scarcely picture. Whose voice he couldn’t conjure up. Whose lips he had never tasted, whose body he didn’t want. Was he truly going to have children with her? Was he going to bind her to him knowing that all she would ever be was a political means to an end?
Could he truly consign himself and Christine to a lifetime of dry, empty duty?
He had been using Christine all this time. Using her to ensure his stability, using her to ensure the stability of his family. And certainly, she was using him, too, but there had to be more. He suddenly wanted more for them both.
And he knew no matter what, he could not marry her. Not now. Regardless of what happened with Sophie, and he still didn’t know what might, he couldn’t promise himself to Christine now.
His heart raged as he reached for his phone. His decision was made. It was not in line with his duty. It was not the most honorable.
But it was right.
SOPHIE WENT BACK to her room the next morning before Zayn woke up. She had no desire to repeat the scene that they’d played out in the tent in the desert. And she figured he would be in much the same mind-set today as he’d been then. Possibly worse. Seeing as she had pronounced her love for him and he had rejected it. Well, he hadn’t rejected it entirely, he hadn’t sent her away, rather he had offered to take care of her. And in some ways she found that even worse.
Things that had made sense last night now seemed mostly embarrassing in the cold light of day. But then, pride wasn’t the most important thing. The fact that she had tried was. Because she had to. Because it had been worth all of the potential humiliation to finally demand that somebody want her for who she was.
She heard her phone vibrating on the table and she crossed the room, catching her boss’s name on the screen as she bent down to pick it up. “Hello?”
“Sophie, we haven’t spoken in a while.”
Probably because she meant less than nothing to him. She was as low on the totem pole as it got, and there was no reason for him to call and check in with her when he had no interest. “I know.”