Six months later
Jordan smiled, watching Damiano sleep. The transatlantic flight must have tired him out more than Damiano had let on or he wouldn’t have fallen asleep after a round of sex.
Carefully, Jordan pushed his boyfriend’s proprietary arm off him and got dressed. The hour was still pretty early, and he didn’t feel like sleeping yet. He could catch up with his parents and siblings before going back to bed. He had missed them.
His mother was the first one he found. She was still busy baking, and Jordan watched her for a moment. She looked lovely but tired.
“You should get some rest, Mom,” he said, feeling a pang of worry. She wasn’t that young anymore. “Didn’t you say it’d be just close family tomorrow?” His parents’ lavish dinners on Christmas were a family tradition, but Jordan and Damiano had missed the main event, having spent Christmas with Damiano’s family. His mother had said they would have another family dinner tomorrow now that Jordan and Damiano were here, but Jordan had been under the impression that it would be a small affair.
“It will be,” she said with a weary smile. “Just us and Eloise’s family, no one else. Aiden will be more comfortable with fewer people around.”
Jordan frowned. “He still hasn’t gotten better?” His sister had alluded to it earlier—that Aiden still wasn’t as happy as he seemed to be, but Jordan had hoped she was wrong.
“Oh, he has!” his mother said. “He’s so much better now that he resumed going to school. But…”
“But what?” Jordan said.
She sighed, her shoulders falling.
Jordan was becoming more worried by the moment. “What is it, Mom?” he said, walking closer and taking her hand in his.
Her hazel eyes were glistening as they met his. “I just… Sometimes I wonder if we did the right thing. Keeping him away from that man.”
Jordan went still. Back when his parents had told him about the lengths they had gone to in order to keep Aiden away from his sheikh, Jordan had felt uneasy. Although he’d never been in Aiden’s situation, he knew all about falling in love in unconventional circumstances with an unsuitable man. It had taken him and Damiano a long time to come to terms with their feelings and accept that they weren’t going to disappear once they were an ocean apart. That was why Jordan hadn’t been sure that forcibly separating Aiden and his sheikh was the right thing to do. But Aiden wasn’t Jordan—he was much younger and much more vulnerable—and Jordan understood why his parents had been so overprotective after thinking for a year that their youngest son was dead.
“What makes you think so?” Jordan said.
His mother heaved a sigh again. “Dr. Richardson declared him completely recovered from the ordeal. He goes to school, he goes out with his friends, he’s even been on a date with a nice girl. He smiles more these days, and he acts more like his old self. But…” She pursed her lips. “I know he’s not happy. A mother knows.”
“And you think it’s because he misses his sheikh?”
“Last week we saw a man in Arab clothes in the mall, and Aiden barely spoke for the rest of the day.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Jordan said. “It could be the trauma.”
His mother shook her head. “Aiden keeps in touch with Janice, a girl who was kidnapped with him. She was a… a slave for more than half a year before someone helped her escape. Aiden claims Rahim was the one who saved her—”
“Apparently,” she said, with an uncomfortable shrug. “But that’s beside the point. I’ve seen the poor girl—how skittish of touch and traumatized she is—and I’m…” She swallowed visibly. “I feel like a terrible person for thinking it, but I’m glad my child avoided that fate. After seeing Janice, I do believe that man didn’t abuse Aiden physically.”
“There’s emotional abuse too,” Jordan said, but he was immensely relieved to hear that. No matter how many times Aiden had said that his sheikh hadn’t sexually abused him, Jordan had had his doubts.
“There is,” she said. “But… I saw them together briefly, Jordan. Before your dad and the bodyguards separated them, Rahim was holding Aiden.” She pursed her lips. “At the time, it looked like a violent embrace because Aiden was crying, but looking back, I think we might have misinterpreted it. I’m pretty sure Aiden was clinging to that man and Rahim might have been kissing his face.”
Jordan frowned. “You think they were in love?”
She shook her head with a sigh. “I’m not sure what to think anymore. All I know is that my son is unhappy. It’s been ten months since we got him back and seven months since he last saw that man, but Aiden is still deeply unhappy, no matter how brightly he smiles.”
“What do you suggest we do?”
“I don’t know, Jordan.” She met his eyes again, her expression grim. “Talk to him? Maybe he’ll open up to you. He’s always looked up to you.”
“Okay.” Kissing his mother on the cheek, Jordan went looking for his brother.
He found him outside the house, sitting on the garden swing.
Jordan sat down beside him, shivering a little and crossing his arms. “Damn, I think I got too used to the Italian climate.”
A faint smile touched Aiden’s lips. “Yeah,” he said, looking at the brightly illuminated house with a distant, unseeing gaze.
A shiver ran up Jordan’s spine that had nothing to do with the chill. There was something off about Aiden. Physically, he looked great, but now Jordan understood what his mother meant: he could sense Aiden’s unhappiness like a physical thing. Aiden wasn’t outright moping—he was even smiling—but that unhappiness seemed to cling to him like a second skin, his eyes dull and lacking their normal liveliness.
“I imagine it was an even bigger shock to you after the Arabian heat.”
Aiden smiled crookedly, without looking at Jordan. “What do you want, Jord? Did Mom send you to talk to the crazy guy?”
“No one thinks you’re crazy.”
Aiden laughed, the sound a little sharp. “No one? I sure do.”
Frowning, Jordan laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “What? What do you mean?”
Aiden stared at the house for a long time without saying anything.
When he spoke, his voice was very quiet. “Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, you know. Shopping malls and streets are decorated festively in Dubai, but it’s more for the tourists. New Year’s is a much bigger deal for them.”
Jordan nodded, unsure where this was going.
“Last December I was moping a bit, missing you guys. I knew you were likely all here, at Mom and Dad’s house, celebrating Christmas without me.” Aiden’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. “Zain didn’t ask why I was moping, but when I woke up on Christmas Eve, the entire house was decked out in Christmas lights. Zain even got a huge Christmas tree, and there was a mountain of presents under it…” His smile became softer, fonder, his gaze faraway. “He’s over-the-top like that. And he wouldn’t even admit that he did it to cheer me up. He claimed that he always has the house decorated, and never mind that I could see how confused the staff was by all the fuss.”
Christ, Jordan thought, his stomach sinking. This was bad.
But Aiden didn’t stop talking.
“Zain’s house is huge, much bigger than this one, and it looked like something from a fairytale, all illuminated at night. So beautiful.” Aiden’s gaze was distant, as if he were seeing it instead of their parents’ house. “On Christmas evening, we dined on the patio. We could even watch the fireworks in Dubai, and I talked Zain into spending the night in the hammock there. It’s actually pretty chilly at night in December, but we had a blanket, and he held me—” His voice cracked, and Aiden stopped talking, staring blankly at the house.
Jordan didn’t know what to say.
“It’s so stupid…” Aiden whispered. “I know that life—that existence in a golden cage, with him being my whole world—I know it wasn’t healthy, but…” Aiden blinked rapidly, his eyes glistening. “I’d trade my very healthy life here for that life in a heartbeat. That makes me crazy, doesn’t it?”
Jordan looked away, his heart heavy.
He still felt like shit when he returned to his bedroom.
“Caro?” Damiano said, his voice hoarse from sleep, reaching for him as Jordan climbed into the bed.
Jordan looked into his beautiful gray eyes and suddenly felt so damn grateful for everything he had. He kissed Damiano hard, unable to get enough.
Damiano chuckled, pulling back a little. “Not that I mind your enthusiasm, but what brought this on?”
Laying his head on his lover’s shoulder, Jordan wrapped his arm around his middle. “I just… I feel lucky to be with the person I love,” he said, kissing Damiano’s shoulder. “It just hit me suddenly.”
Damiano knew him too well to let go of the issue that easily. His intelligent eyes studied him for a long moment before Damiano laid his hand on Jordan’s and said, “Tell me what you need me to do, caro.”
Jordan thought for a moment and then told him.
Damiano listened to his request without a hint of surprise.
“I wouldn’t even need to look into it,” he said with a rueful smile. “I’ve been keeping tabs on the man for months. Just in case.”
Jordan rolled his eyes with a laugh. “Of course you did. Okay, I guess your paranoid overprotectiveness can be useful. Spill.”
Damiano hummed, playing with Jordan’s fingers absentmindedly. “Rahim is a highly intelligent man. He’s a shark when it comes to business, and it’s rumored that he isn’t any different in his personal life. Not that he has much of a personal life these days. He lives separately from his wife—he recently sent her to the UK, enrolling her in Cambridge. Apparently his father-in-law wasn’t pleased about it, but in the UAE the husband’s decision is law. Rahim has also been meeting with his lawyers a lot, and from the snatches of conversation my men overheard, they’re working on a divorce. Rahim intends to financially support his soon-to-be ex-wife, so that she wouldn’t need to return to her father upon the divorce, but otherwise he isn’t willing to give an inch to his father-in-law.” Damiano shook his head. “The man has balls of steel; I’ll give him that.”
Jordan frowned. “Do you think there might be a chance that he hasn’t forgotten Aiden?”
Damiano shrugged, stroking Jordan’s knuckles. “Who knows. As far as my men could tell, the man has been living like a monk.”
That didn’t necessarily mean anything, especially for a Muslim.
Jordan sighed. “Even if he gets divorced, my dad’s threat to expose him as a sodomite to the UAE authorities is still very much real. The most Aiden can hope for is to be his dirty little secret again.” Jordan grimaced. From his experience, he knew being a secret just made you miserable long-term. But unlike him, Aiden couldn’t take his happiness into his own hands. Zain Rahim wasn’t Damiano. The power imbalance between Rahim and Aiden was so vast their relationship would have been side-eyed even if there hadn’t been the sex slave issue—or the issue of the UAE government not allowing them to ever be openly together.
Some relationships just weren’t meant to be.
Maybe it was one of them.