“I will marry her,” he said firmly, the words surprising him. He paused, waiting for the sense of being trapped to rise up inside of him. Waiting for the protests he must feel, but there was nothing.
It occurred to him that because he did not plan to love his wife, Kayleen was an excellent choice. As good as any other he could think of. He already liked her. She was spirited and beautiful, he enjoyed her company. She was good with children and had a sharp mind. While she knew nothing of the lifestyle of a royal bride, she would learn quickly. She would provide him with strong sons. And just as important, she was not the type to make unreasonable demands. She would be grateful for his proposal and treat him with respect.
Lina stared at him. “You’ll what?”
“I will marry her. I accept my responsibility in what has occurred. Kayleen deserves more than having her gift taken in a thoughtless manner. While she gave herself to me willingly, I do not believe she had thought through the ramifications of our night together.”
“That’s why they call it ‘swept away,’” Lina murmured, then nodded slowly. “You are sure?”
“I will speak to her this morning. I have a meeting in fifteen minutes, but after that I will explain what has to be done. She is a sensible woman. She will understand the great honor I bestow upon her and be pleased.”
“How I wish I could be there for that conversation.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked.
His aunt smiled at him. “I would tell you to phrase things differently, but you won’t listen. For what it’s worth, I think you have chosen well, As’ad. I hope things work out the way you want them to.”
“They will. I am asking Kayleen to marry me. What more could she want?”
Lina’s smile widened. “I can’t think of a single thing.”
Kayleen ran and ran until she found herself outside. The bright, sunny morning seemed to be mocking her as she wandered through the curving paths. How could everything here be so beautiful when she felt so awful inside?
What had she done? How could she have slept with As’ad? A few kisses and she’d given in? What did that make her?
She found a bench and sat down. The stone was warm to her touch, almost as if it were trying to offer comfort. Her eyes burned as she longed for someone to talk to. Someone to advise her. But who? She didn’t feel comfortable discussing something so personal with the other teachers she’d worked with. Especially after moving to the palace. She was too ashamed to call her Mother Superior back home. Normally she would go to Lina, but how to explain to her what she’d done? As’ad was Lina’s nephew.
Besides, Kayleen couldn’t bear to see disappointment in her friend’s eyes.
All the regrets she’d been so happy not to feel seemed to crash in on her. Not regret for what she’d done, but for the consequences, which made her horribly weak. Her regrets were about her future, not her past.
How could she return home now? How could she walk into that place where she’d grown up and had longed to return, knowing she had given in to the first man who asked? It wasn’t that she feared punishment, it was that she didn’t know who she was anymore.
She stood abruptly and started walking. An odd sound caught her attention.
She turned toward it and saw a large cage filled with doves. They were beautiful, so white and lovely in the sunlight. She watched them hop from perch to perch.
Her dream was gone, she thought. Her plans, her hopes. Now she was trapped here. Nanny to the girls until they were too old to need her or until As’ad replaced her. She was at his mercy. And then what? Another job? Where? Doing what?
She didn’t know who she was anymore. What she wanted. What she should do.
Impulsively she leaned toward the cage and opened the door. The doves chirped in excitement, then in a rush, flew out and up, disappearing into the brilliant blue sky.
“Fly away,” she whispered. “Fly and be free.”
Kayleen jumped and turned toward the speaker. She was stunned to find the king standing on the path.
Horror swept through her. She’d just set free royal doves.
King Mukhtar smiled kindly. “Don’t worry, child. It’s difficult to resist setting them loose. There is no need for concern. They always return. It is their nature. This is their home. They can’t escape their destiny.”
She knew he meant the words to be reassuring, but they cut through her. Yesterday she had known her own destiny, but today she was less sure. What was her place? Where did she belong? What happened now?
“Are you enjoying living at the palace?” the king asked. “You are treated well?”