She could still draw.
She could still dream.
There was nothing stopping her now.
Three sharp raps on the door and the sound of the double doors opening broke the moment between them.
Akeem spat out a word she didn’t understand, but it set her nerves on edge and halted the footsteps of whoever was entering.
Charlotte tried to make a sound of protest—she was naked under the blanket—but with a small shake of his head he silenced her, his eyes wide, his jaw clenched...
She was in the presence of a king and not a lover now.
The bubble had popped, hadn’t it?
And she wasn’t ready—she wasn’t prepared.
Her fingers poked through the blanket to grip onto her makeshift lapels, and she tugged the silk tighter around her shoulders.
‘Do not enter,’ Akeem commanded.
His voice was now controlled, and even. Focused and sure, his dark gaze stayed on hers. Her breathing sped up and she opened her mouth to speak, but before she could form the words his lips pressed against hers.
A feather-light touch of his mouth.
It was a promise.
He stood, and it wasn’t the fear of facing reality that she wasn’t prepared for, and it wasn’t whoever had started to come through the door that scared her, nor was it the embarrassment threatening to undo her that she’d been caught naked, wrapped around the son of a king.
It was him.
Covering her nakedness before his own. Not with the blanket but with his body. Big and wide, he shielded her, doing what no one else ever had. Protecting her.
He turned and walked towards the obscured glass double doors, towards whoever had been about to walk through the door, and continued to block her view with his physique.
His nakedness was its own flawless armour, she realised. It wasn’t a handmade suit or the robes of a prince he required, but only his skin. Only the man had to be present. Because even without expensive fabrics, he still exuded the power only the son of a king could.
An unexpected thrill burned through her, catching her breath in her throat—because whoever was coming through those doors, a king protected her.
He’d made a mistake.
The word pulled at his insides, threatening to break the rigid control straightening his shoulders.
He could not hide her.
The skeleton crew he’d travelled with to England was all for nothing.
The moment those doors opened Charlotte would no longer be his secret, because there in front of him stood his royal guard and two of his most senior aides.
On arrival in Taliedaa, the moment the wheels touched the ground, his men would be ready to protect their new King. And here they were, ready—because it was their job to seek him out and assure themselves of his safety.
In a single undeniable moment he’d become more than his father’s son in his men’s eyes. He had become his father. Because he’d taken his pleasure in the most abandoned way and forgotten himself.
A confident man often did things out of the ordinary without anxiety. But a king? He could do what he liked.
But not the kind of king he needed to become.
The embodiment of control.
His gut clenched. He would not follow his instinct and tell his men to get out again, because his men deserved the respect his father hadn’t ever shown them. The respect his father demanded himself, although he hadn’t deserved it.
He’d expected everyone else to be everything he wasn’t.
His father had been a king of contradictions.
Nine years he’d spent, proving he was neither his father’s son, nor the boy who’d arrived in Taliedaa. Because the Crown Prince made his choices based on the price of his actions.
Another lesson his father had taught him quickly.
He, the orphan heir, next in line to succeed to the throne, was stronger than his father. Better not because of him, but despite him. His father’s reign of pleasure-seeking at the price of the crown’s reputation—at the cost of his mother’s reputation—was over.
Akeem’s chest heaved as his men’s narrowed eyes tried to see past him. To see her. He stepped forward, one step at a time, backing them up and away from the door. Blocking their view.
‘Your Highness...’ The head of his royal guard had the good grace to blush, and the three men behind him bowed their heads.
‘Are my people well?’ Akeem asked.
His bow deepened in response to the silent reprimand. ‘Yes...’ he answered, and then raised his gaze questioningly to Akeem’s.
Akeem cocked a brow. ‘Does the palace still stand?’
‘Yes, it is as you left it.’
‘Does the sun still set?’
‘Within the hour, Your Royal Highness.’
‘All is as it should be, then?’