Eli greeted his mother with a hug, thankful the private dining room in his parents’ suite was empty and the table set for three. Both princes had dismissed their advisors for the evening and the princess her lady. Other than the kitchen staff coming and going—who Eli knew he couldn’t trust—there would be few interruptions. Eli didn’t want to know state secrets; he just wanted to learn how to run the kingdom.
“My son, how is married life treating you?” Princess Nijah returned Eli’s hug.
“I dare say I’d enjoy married life better if my bride hadn’t returned to university after our short-lived honeymoon.” Eli chuckled.
“Unfortunate timing,” the princess said with a knowing smirk, then pulled her face into a more serious expression. “But I’m proud of you for marrying her rather than allowing your lust for her to cause you to do something you’d both regret later.”
Eli coughed at the uncomfortable shift in conversation. “Mother, I’ve wanted to marry Savannah for years. That had nothing to do with lust.”
“You think that, but the truth is you could spend every waking moment together without signing marriage contracts, but the difference between her becoming your lover or your wife is that official document.”
“I would never take a lover,” Eli said through clenched teeth, offended she would even suggest such a thing.
“Exactly.” His mother had won the argument. She leaned closer to offer one more thought in a controlled whisper. “You are possibly the only man in this royal family who insists on that level of purity.”
“Even father?” El choked on his whispered question.
“I have no proof,” she said, raising her eyebrows, still with a lowered voice. “But ours was an arranged marriage at a very young age. Whether or not love has grown over time, that is certainly not the reason we signed contracts. Your father is a cold man with little in the way of affection. Whether or not he’s sharing his affection with another, he certainly isn’t sharing it with me.”
“I thought I was the only one who received a cold shoulder from father,” Eli mumbled.
The door to his suite opened and Prince Omar swept into the room with a confident presence that demanded attention of those present. Still wearing his pristine business suit, he appeared ready to attend a council meeting or give a keynote address at a convention.
“Your Highness.” Eli stepped away from his mother and bowed his head in respect to his father.
“Good evening, Your Highness,” Omar said to Eli, barely acknowledging his wife. “Is the meal prepared?” He removed his suitcoat and opened the coat closet near the door. After hanging up his coat, he loosened his tie and transitioned into a relaxed evening mode. Eli knew this was a façade. If called upon to leave again, a quick tightening of his collar and slipping his suit coat back over his shoulders and he’d be out the door with as much professionalism as when he left for his office that morning.
“We were merely waiting on you, Your Highness.” Eli’s mother didn’t bother nodding to show respect. She was one of the few people in the kingdom not required to do so. “The staff will bring our food as soon as we are seated.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” Omar almost seemed to notice the princess for the first time since arriving. “I trust you found the inclusion of our son a welcome addition to your evening.”
“We were just catching up on life since his wedding and the unfortunate departure of Princess Savannah having returned to her university.”
“Ah, yes, that was brave of you to let her out of your arms so soon after your marriage.” Omar strode over to the table and held out a chair for his wife.
Princess Nijah was always dressed as if she’d returned that afternoon from a shopping trip. Her maroon slacks perfectly complimented the tiny flowers on her top and the simple jewelry at her wrists and neck pulled the look together with sophistication. She accepted her husband’s gesture and straightened her fashionable blouse over her lap as she pulled herself to the table.
“I’m thankful to report that your mother and I cannot relate to your plight,” Omar continued, moving over to his own chair and sitting. “I don’t think the princess and I have spent a single night apart in all thirty-one years since we signed marriage contracts. Am I remembering that correctly, Your Highness?” He creased his brow.
“Thirty-two years, actually, Your Highness,” Nijah corrected Omar with humor carefully shrouded under respect. “And if I remember correctly, I spent several nights in the hospital when having your sons.”
“I can’t think of a more honorable reason to spend the night apart.” Omar offered a rare smile, then leaned closer to his wife. “Although, you may not be aware, I technically never left the hospital the entire time you were there. I refused to leave your sons alone. The hospital staff had to drag a portable bed into the nursery. Most uncomfortable bed I’ve ever slept on, but worth the missed sleep.”
“You never told me that you stayed at the hospital…” Nijah’s jaw was slack with a hint of wonder in her countenance.
Omar pursed his lips and shrugged. “The subject never presented itself.”
“I find it interesting that you both referred to your son’s as belonging to the other,” Eli said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table, intertwining his fingers.
“Out of respect to your mother,” Omar said. “She is the person who had to endure the pain of delivery. I only participated in the more enjoyable aspects of bringing children into the world.”
Nijah coughed, choking on the water she’d just swallowed. After the discussion she and Eli had prior to the prince walking in the door, Eli wasn’t sure how to interpret his mother’s reaction.
“You married quite young,” Eli said. “I’m not sure I could have handled an adult relationship at the age of sixteen.”
“That’s why we sign marriage contracts for life, son. Perhaps by the time I die, I’ll have figured out how to be a husband and father. Growing up without my own father, I didn’t exactly have a good role model.”
“What about your grandfather? Shouldn’t the king have been a role model?” Eli asked.
“I lost respect for my grandfather the day he began sleeping with my mother.” Omar’s face was a mask lacking emotion. “I may not have been a good father or husband, but no one could ever accuse me of being unfaithful to my princess.” He lifted his chin and pursed his lips.
“Perhaps you’ve been a better role model then you realize,” Nijah said. “I was just complimenting our son for having married his princess before taking her to his bed.”
“Indeed,” Omar said with a nod, glancing first at is wife and then back toward his son. “That is commendable.”
“Well, uh, thank for being a good role model, father.” Eli had rarely thought of Omar that way. As his mother had described, he was cold and dismissive. Ahmed had described Eli earlier as being a pest who was always underfoot, but that hadn’t been the case. Eli discovered at an early age that his father wanted little to do with him. This evening’s was the longest conversation he could remember. Still, Eli couldn’t think of a time when any rumor had presented an appearance of indiscretion.
“You’re welcome, son.” Omar leaned closer and stage whispered. “Now I just need to figure out how to be a good husband.”
“Maybe you and your princess could discuss the subject later this evening, you know, without one of your children in the room,” Eli said, winking at his mother. “Shall we talk more about my United Nations assignment? I assume that’s why you invited me to your table.”
“That I did.” Omar leaned back to allow one of the kitchen staff to place a china bowl in front of him which contained some exotic fish soup that smelled delicious. “You’ll have to come to dinner frequently if I’m to instruct you how to run this kingdom.”
“I welcome your tutelage, father.” Eli lifted his spoon and smiled. The upcoming months without his wife suddenly didn’t look quite as bleak.