‘Busy,’ she corrected. ‘Your history lesson with breakfast, and now the designers have your preferences and sizes...’ She smiled brightly, her warm brown eyes widening. ‘You will have more than the off-the-rack collection they’ve left you to get by with.’
‘All these clothes...’ Charlotte smoothed her hand over the layered silk organza dress she’d chosen to wear for tomorrow’s lessons beside her on the bed. ‘They aren’t off the rack where I shop.’
‘Where do you shop in England? London—so many shops!’
She picked up the dress and held it against her chest. ‘Charity shops mainly,’ Charlotte confessed, refusing to feel any shame. She loved charity shops. They’d kept her clothed throughout her teens and into adulthood, and her dad too. But she’d never have found clothes like these there.
She looked down at the brown dress. No. What had they called it? Plum chestnut? It was layered and striped. It was beautiful. It was a V-necked asymmetric style, with batwing sleeves, a fitted waist and a flared skirt, and a lop-sided hem overlaid by sheer panels...
She never had anything so exquisite next to her skin. And she loved it.
Was that materialistic? Probably. She didn’t care. Wasn’t it every girl’s fantasy to have her Cinderella moment? Her whole life she’d known how she’d wanted to look, but she’d just never been able to afford it.
Akeem as a fairy godmother? She smothered the cackle in her throat.
The team who’d joined her very quickly after Akeem’s departure from her room had supplied her with underwear, shoes, daywear, nightwear... In every colour she could think of and some she wouldn’t have considered. Umber? She’d never worn umber...or burnt orange...or red...
Her core tightened. Tomorrow she would. Tomorrow she’d wear red.
‘Well, no charity shop bags will enter the palace tomorrow morning.’
Selma winked, and held out her hand for the dress. Charlotte loved her familiarity. Her ease as she took the dress from her and hung it, ready for tomorrow.
‘The designers will return with a wardrobe.’ Selma whistled, long and low. ‘A wardrobe with you in mind on so many rails.’ Selma clapped. ‘I can’t wait to see their designs for your wedding dress.’
Charlotte’s stomach dipped. She couldn’t think about the wedding yet. She wasn’t officially engaged, and her fiancé had gone missing...
She missed him, she acknowledged, but only to herself.
‘And, of course, your finished engagement outfit...’ Selma sighed wistfully, a hand on her chest. ‘That dress.’
Nerves made Charlotte’s fingers bite into her palm. ‘One dress at a time, Selma,’ she chided playfully. Because that was exactly what she was doing. Taking one dress—one day at a time.
‘Both will be perfect.’
She didn’t doubt it.
But what about the woman in the dress?
For seventy-two hours she’d been in his home. Under his roof. And he’d resisted her. He’d controlled his impulse to seek her out, to replay their encounter in the flesh, to touch her—hold her...
Akeem toyed with the black leather strap in his hand, frayed and cracked from age. He’d always been impulsive as a child—and as a teenager. He’d said what he was thinking—reacted. He was no longer impulsive. Leaving her alone in his palace, depositing her in her rooms and stepping away—they were considered choices.
He’d given himself space—taken active steps towards addressing the intensity of his feelings for Charlotte. They were too intense. Everything he could not allow himself to feel.
No, you’ve just hidden from her like a scared little boy.
He was not little, and he was not afraid. He’d been working with his most senior aides from dawn till dusk to make this day move like a well-oiled machine. Everything was in place. Everything was ready.
All he had to do was wait twelve more hours...
He ran his fingers over the edges of the watch until he came to its small, round metal face. The silver-plated back was tarnished, with a copperish rim showing its worth.
You shouldn’t have that, should you? Put it back under the bed like a good boy.
He wasn’t that little boy any more.
If your father knew you had it—
He was dead. He couldn’t do anything any more.
But Akeem knew exactly what his father would have done. He would have had one of his men take it. He would have laid it on the table in front of his throne and then he would have called him. Made him watch as he brought a heavy hammer down onto the glass face. Smashed it. The basic wristwatch of a basic woman. Just to smother the basic love of a boy for his basic mother.
So why do you still have it, Would-Be King? Do you need it? Will you cry without it?
His hand squeezed around the watch in his hand until it dug deeply into his palm.
Pain. He flexed his fingers. He welcomed it.
You didn’t welcome it nine years ago, when you confronted your father on his pretty throne.
He shoved the watch into his pocket, but the intrusive thought persisted. He spat a curse to the rising sun, and the memory of the last time he’d seen the dawn with Charlotte emerged as vividly as if he were watching a replay.
The morning after they’d both lost their virginity.
The morning he’d said things would be different.
The morning he’d promised they’d make their own family—be a family.
Turning his back on the city, Akeem moved through the rooms he called his and, with the past biting at his heels, walked towards Charlotte’s rooms.
Outside her room, he hesitated. Could he really not resist for twelve more hours? Had the last seventy-two hours been for nothing...?
He swept inside without knocking.