‘Yes... You said your dad was selfish?’ She grimaced when his eyes shot flames, as if trying to incinerate her line of questioning. But she wanted to know. ‘I want to know what it was like for you,’ she said. ‘Were you afraid of coming here?’ she asked. ‘Afraid that they—the people—would only see a boy in care?’
‘I was angry,’ he confessed. ‘Angry with you, with your father, and most of all with my father.’ He shook his head. ‘There was too much rage for me to be frightened.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Your dad,’ she replied. ‘Did you confront him about your mum?’
‘You do not confront a king.’
‘But you’re a prince—his son.’
‘All he saw when he looked at me was his legacy being continued. If I had questions—needs—there were other people for that.’
‘But you were so much more than that.’
‘Yes! You were a little boy who’d got left behind. A boy who turned himself into a capable young man.’
‘My father needed an heir,’ he interjected. ‘Not the boy I was or the man I was becoming.’
‘What about family?’ Her heart broke for him. ‘You were his son.’
‘I was an illegitimate bastard,’ he corrected her, and she recoiled from the hatred in his voice. ‘I was nothing. I came from nothing. And he did not let me forget it.’
Her mouth flew open. ‘You came from him and your mum. You came from love.’
‘I came from the swapping of bodily fluids. I was a child who’d grown up in a foreign land, in a system that did not grow men—it broke them.’
‘You were not broken,’ she whispered. ‘How?’ she asked, rage heating her cheeks. ‘How did he not let you forget?’
‘There was a contract...’
‘I had to forget the man and become the Prince. Become Crown Prince Akeem Abd al-Uzza and leave Akeem Ali where he belonged. He made me change my name. He made me—’
‘Put him away in a box? He made you put who you were in a box? Like you told me to do with my feelings. Hide them. Shove them out of sight. Forget them.’
His nostrils flared. ‘Something like that.’
‘No,’ she corrected. ‘Not “something like that”. That was it, wasn’t it? Like my dad... Oh, my God. He made you feel exactly like my dad did when you came to the house. Like a monster.’ She covered her mouth, holding in the scream gurgling in her throat. ‘He made you feel like everything you were was ugly. Bad. Destined to fail. Like my dad.’
‘He did not make me feel like that,’ he denied. ‘He made me a king.’
‘No, you did that on your own,’ she corrected. ‘You never would have failed—with or without him.’
‘I do not believe you’re scared any more,’ he said. Deflecting her.
She let him.
‘Why not?’ she husked.
‘You were fearless on the balcony,’ he replied. ‘And you are fearless now.’
Fearless?A lightness fluttered through her.
She stilled. ‘I may not have chosen to be here, Akeem, but I can choose who I am. Who I want to be.’
‘And you want to be the woman on the balcony?’ he asked.
‘I want to be myself.’
‘Yourself?’ he repeated. ‘And who is that?’
‘I’m not sure,’ she said, a hesitant smile on her lips. ‘But I’m excited to find out.’
‘On the balcony you were a queen, and in here you are—’
‘I can be both and still me.’
‘It is not possible to be two people in one body.’
‘Not two people,’ she corrected. ‘Only one. I’m not hiding one part of myself in favour of another.’ She stilled. ‘Is that what you do? Split yourself? Show your people the King you were out there and conceal this man, hiding in the dark with me?’
He didn’t answer. Instead, he stared at her with an intensity she’d never seen before. He lowered his head and crushed his mouth against hers. Kissed her so hard he drowned out the voices in her head. The doubting voices. The voice of her dad. Just the way he had almost a decade ago. He’d listened to her, to every word she’d had to say. He’d seen her. And now he knew what she needed, just as he’d known when he’d taken her to his hiding place at St John’s. Behind the tree.
Except this time she didn’t need to be soothed. She needed to be touched. Touched by him. Set on fire as she burned the parts of her past she no longer needed in his arms and kept only the parts she wanted.
His mouth pushed hard against hers, his tongue pushing through the barriers of her lips to stroke at the insides of her mouth. It would be easy to let herself fall into the pleasure he was offering her, to resist the knowledge of what he was doing. But she couldn’t.
She didn’t want him to hide from the past. From hers or his. Because it had made them and this moment possible. It deserved acknowledgement.
She twisted free, her hands on his chest. She pushed away. ‘Are you trying to hide, Akeem?’
‘I am standing firmly between your legs, qalbi,’ he said, and backed her up against the wall.
He was lying. She could feel it. The distance.