‘You will not entertain them again,’ he said, and then corrected himself with a speed that surprised him. ‘Unless you want to. Keep the key if you must—if you like,’ he said. ‘But a queen must know control. Which emotion to display. Which fear to make use of to drive her. And you will be Queen, Charlotte. You will understand control.’
A sound escaped her lips and fired straight into his groin. Half-moan, half-sigh. He wanted to taste it. Inhale it—feed his lungs, his life’s essence. But he resisted, and he would keep on resisting.
‘Pack your feelings away,’ he encouraged, and then he told her what he’d told himself on his first night here. ‘Put them in a box, qalbi, and forget them.’
‘Is that what you do, Akeem?’
She waved a hand towards the bed and he turned to it. It was across the room. White organza drapes fell from wooden posts, and on it was a mattress so deep...
‘Are all your feelings hiding under that bed?’
He snapped his attention back to her. ‘I do not need a box,’ he lied. ‘All I need is here.’ He touched his chest. ‘An armour called duty.’
She pressed her hand to his chest.
Oh, but his heart hammered.
Thud, thud, thud.
‘What was it like for you?’ she asked.
And he did not like it. Her ability to call to the part of him he’d buried deep. So deep. He no longer had the key to his box. If it had ever had a key—a lock. But the lid was creaking back from its rusted hinges, and it hurt.
‘What was it like?’ he repeated, all too conscious of his hand on her body, of hers on his. ‘I learnt how to represent my people. Not with wealth or pomp, but by using the privilege of being Crown Prince to guide a people. A country.’
‘Who taught you how to do that? To understand?’
‘Them. The people,’ he said. ‘They were talking, but my father wasn’t listening. I listened.’
He had been right to become Akeem Abd al-Uzza and banish the boy Charlotte had known. The boy who had freely felt his feelings. Because now, moving forward, he wouldn’t let himself feel anything for her.
It was the way he’d survived for nine years, and the only way he would survive now.
His father had abused his power to satisfy himself at the cost of so many people’s lives. His people would not suffer the same under his rule. Not because of his negligence. His feelings.
‘It can’t have been easy for you—’
He stepped back, pulled his hand away as hers fell from his chest. He did not want her to see—to know—how hard it had been for him. He wanted her to know only that he was this. A man of royalty. A would-be king. A crown prince. Anything but a basic boy with basic needs...
‘I have never known anything easy.’
‘Will it be hard for me?’ she asked.
‘The quicker you understand that everything you do from this moment will be to take care of something bigger than you or me, the easier the next steps will be for you,’ he said.
‘Like looking after my dad? That was bigger than me—than my dreams.’
He tilted his head to look at her. ‘I know you understand sacrifice—’
‘And this will be another?’
‘No, not completely,’ he denied. Because that part was true. He would pay for her time. Her sacrifices. ‘This time you will keep your art. Whatever you need—ask. Selma will be with you shortly.’
‘Your personal assistant.’
‘How long do I have to pack?’ She laughed when he stared at her. ‘My box?’
‘Three days,’ he answered.
Because he needed those three days away from her. Three days to compose himself. To stamp out whatever was between them. To put it back into his dreams, where only the darkness recognised its poignancy.
‘What happens then?’
‘We shall present our engagement to the people of Taliedaa. To dignitaries, the Royal Council...’ He inhaled deeply. ‘The world and its cameras will stand in the gardens of the palace as we stand above them on the royal balcony, and nothing,’he emphasised, ‘nothing other than control and orchestrated smiles should be with us. Everything else—’
‘Should be in the box?’
She shook her head. ‘I have less than three days to reinvent myself?’