‘WHYWOULDYOU say something like that?’ Her voice was small, and she hated it. Hated it that he’d made her feel that way.
‘It’s a simple truth you should understand,’ he replied.
She snapped her gaze to the impenetrable figure beside her. Understand what? All her life she’d been under no illusion. She came second. Or last, if at all. And now, after everything that had been revealed—her dad!—he was asking her to put up, shut up, and do as she was told. Step aside for someone else. Forget her feelings—her needs because he said so. Like her dad.
She didn’t think so.
Her dad had betrayed her. She bit hard at the inside of her cheek, stemming the tears, the anger burning in her chest. She had been his daughter. His daughter! And he’d lied. Tricked her. Manipulated her into staying in his shadow. Into helping him live his life while she forgot about hers.
She was tired of forgetting.
She wanted to live her way, and for herself first.
Her shoulders tight, her breathing rapid, she didn’t allow herself to think the thought through. She stepped in front of Akeem, raised her hand, and smacked her palm against the big red button.
The lift shuddered to a standstill.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘You don’t get to talk to me like that,’ she said, wishing her heart would beat normally, not with this frantic, chaotic drumroll it had had since he’d waltzed back into her life. She shrugged it off, made herself meet those eyes, fixed on her with disapproval. ‘You don’t get to speak to me like I don’t matter—or won’t matter,’ she corrected, and pointed to the closed doors, ‘after we step outside.’
‘How would you like me to speak to you?’
The question was flat, with no hint of sarcasm or genuine curiosity. Only words.
She’d seen so many versions of Akeem today: the man with furious kisses whose hurt had been as visceral as her own when they’d confronted the past. When they’d kissed. And then there was the man who would be King. The man who’d faced their unannounced visitors without so much as a blush, and come back to demand she be his bride.
The Akeem she was looking at now was already King. No explosion of passion, just a cool regard. The King was looking at her now, and he didn’t see her. Not the way he had when he’d stripped her to her skin and pushed her into demanding what she wanted.
No, this was a king who saw nothing but his people.
‘You asked me to be your Queen and help you establish yourself as King in the eyes of your people—’
‘And for me to do that they must come before you.’
‘It is not negotiable,’ he dismissed.
‘A lot has happened since London.’ She blew out an exasperated breath. ‘A lot neither of us expected. But you’re not the only one who gets to set the rules.’
‘It is my job to set the rules, and to have them obeyed without question.’
‘Not with me. Not any more. Not after—’
His interjection was low. Quiet. But just as he had in the limo and before he’d ordered her to rest, or when he’d stripped her bare in the lounge, he knew exactly what she meant—what she needed—before she’d voiced it.
He did still see her—even if the crown of duty was obscuring his sight.
She could feel it.
The knowing between them.
She nodded slowly. ‘My dad manipulated me, and I sacrificed the last nine years of my life to care for him because he tricked me into it.’
Her head hurt. Her heart hurt. Her father and her grief were complicated, but she still missed him. Loved him. But...
‘Don’t pretend there are choices when there aren’t any choices to be made,’ she said. ‘There is only what you want. Just like my dad.’
‘I am nothing like your father.’
‘Maybe you don’t want to be like him—’
‘I am nothing like him,’ he repeated, his voice a sharp warning. ‘Or my own father.’
‘Did you love him?’
The pause was pregnant.
‘Your dad?’ she clarified. ‘I loved mine, but I’m not sure he loved me, because he forgot about his duty to me—’
‘Stop comparing our lives. They are not similar,’ he bit, and the hard edge to his voice hurt.
‘But they are similar,’ she contradicted. ‘You can’t deny that.’
‘Maybe once,’ he conceded. ‘Once we walked the same streets in the same shoes. But not any more. That world is no longer mine, and it never will be again.’
‘I was an accident—like you,’ she continued, ignoring his resistance. ‘Mum and Dad got married because of me, and continued their binge drinking regardless of the fact they’d made a life. My mum died because of her continued carelessness, and I paid the price by becoming a full-time carer for my dad.’
Their eyes met again in the mirror.
‘Dad forgot that he should take care of me, and not the other way around. He forgot his duty so badly he tricked me into staying in that role for another nine years...’
She trailed off as flashes of the last nine years hit her. She’d lost so much time. How many people had she lost? How many friendships? Her career as an artist?
‘You paid the price because your dad couldn’t keep it in his pants and you ended up in care. I ended up in care too.’ She watched as he hardened at the reminder of how they’d met. Both lost. Alone. Needing what the other had to give.