“Very good,” he said. “Excellent. I like her, As’ad. This one may stay.”
“I agree,” As’ad said, still looking at her in a way that made her thighs feel distinctly weak. “She will stay.”
Would she? Kayleen wasn’t so sure. She still had her life plan to fulfill and that included leaving El Deharia in a matter of months. A situation complicated by As’ad and her promise to the girls.
A fter the king left and dinner was finished, Kayleen sent the girls back to their suite while she lingered behind to speak with As’ad.
“There are just a couple of things I need to discuss with you,” she told him when they were alone.
“I’m learning that with you, there always are.”
She wasn’t sure what he meant by that, so decided to ignore the comment. “It’s only about six weeks until Christmas,” she said. “We have to start planning. I don’t know what happens here at the palace, but this is the girls’ first Christmas without either of their parents. We have to do something.”
He studied her for a long time. “El Deharia is a very open country. All faiths are celebrated here. No one will object if you wish to set up a tree in your suite.”
“It’s more than that,” she said, telling herself there was no reason to be afraid, even though As’ad was much taller than her and having to look up to meet his gaze gave her a crick in her neck. “You need to participate.”
He looked shocked. “I do not.”
She’d had a feeling he would be difficult.
“You’ve always had family,” she pointed out. “Your brothers, your aunt, your father. These girls have no one. The holidays are going to be sad and scary and they’re going to feel so alone.”
Kayleen spoke from experience. She still remembered waking up on Christmas morning and feeling an ache in her chest. No matter how many presents had been donated to the orphanage, no matter how the nuns tried, there hadn’t been family.
She hadn’t even had the dream that a wonderful couple would find her and want to adopt her. She had plenty of relatives—just no one who wanted her.
“They need traditions, both old and new,” she continued. “They need to feel welcome and loved.”
His expression tightened. “Then you will take care of that.”
“But you’re their father now.”
“I am someone who agreed to let them live here. Kayleen, these girls are your responsibility, not mine. Do not cross this line with me.”
“I don’t understand. You were so great with them at dinner. Are you telling me that was just an act? That you don’t care?”
“I have compassion. I have honor. That will be enough.”
Was he kidding? “That’s not enough. It will never be enough. We’re talking about children, As’ad. Lost, lonely children. They deserve more. They deserve to be loved.” She wasn’t just talking about the children—she was talking about herself. The difference was she’d already given up her dreams.
“Then they will have to find that love in you.”
She took a step back. Her throat tightened and her cheeks were hot. “You’re saying you don’t plan to love them?”
He might as well have said he was going to kill them in their sleep!
“I will honor my responsibilities. In doing so, it is necessary for me to be strong. Emotion is weakness. You are a woman—I don’t expect you to understand. Just trust me, it is so. I will see to the girls’ needs. You can take care of their hearts.”
She didn’t know what to say or where to begin to argue with him. “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” she told him. “Love isn’t weakness. It’s strength and power. The ability to give means you can be more, not less.”
He actually smiled at her. “Your passion is a testament to your caring. That’s excellent.”
“So it’s okay for me to have emotions, but not you? Because you’re a man?”
“More than a man,” he reminded her. “A prince. I have responsibilities for others. It is my duty to stay strong, to not be swayed by something as changeable as feelings.”
“Without compassion, there can be no judgment,” she snapped. “Without feelings, you’re only a machine. A good ruler feels for his people.”
“You cannot understand.”
“And you can’t mean this.”
“I assure you, I do.” He took her arm and walked her to the door. “Celebrate Christmas however you wish. You have my permission.”
“Can I have your head on a stick instead?” she muttered as she jerked free and walked out into the hallway.