ROUGHLY, CHARLOTTESMUDGED the pad of her thumb against the sketch, to blend the thicker lines of charcoal into lighter tones. She was attempting to draw his hands. The hands that had held her against that wall. The hands that he had used to turn her on and melt her bones so mercilessly. The hands that belonged to Akeem. The man who wouldn’t show himself to her. The man she wanted desperately to remember that he was more than a dutiful king.
The servants had brought an easel last night, and a trolley to keep her art supplies on, and it had been...wonderful. Making lines and smudges, expressing herself—
Hurriedly, she flipped her drawing over and turned to face the doorway. Akeem stood there, wearing white loose-fitting trousers and a long tunic.
‘Still not ready?’ he asked, and a guilty flush heated her cheeks.
‘No, it’s not ready.’
‘You weren’t so shy before.’
‘It’s been a long time.’ She brushed off her hands. Trying to free her fingertips of soot. ‘I’m feeling my way back in.’
‘I have something that will help.’
‘What is it?’
He stepped closer to her. ‘Come with me and I’ll show you.’
‘Where?’ she asked, her body all too aware of his approach. His closeness.
‘It’s a surprise.’
She arched a brow. ‘More caves?’
He laughed and pointed. ‘You have charcoal on your nose.’
She didn’t laugh back. She placed her charcoal on to her new art trolley and stood. This was her chance.
‘I’ll come with you,’ she said, reaching for the watch at her wrist and unbuckling it with trembling fingers, ‘if you tell me about this?’
She held it out to him. He stopped moving and she felt it. The distance he immediately put between them.
‘What is there to tell?’ He frowned. ‘My mother tied that watch around my wrist on my first day at school and reclaimed it when she collected me. She gave it to me and retrieved it every day until she couldn’t. That is it. That’s the story.’
‘No.’ Her bare feet soundless, she moved closer. ‘They’re the facts.’
‘There is no story. You asked me to tell you and I have.’ He reached for her. ‘Now we leave.’
She evaded him. ‘What about the boy she left with it around his wrist every day? What about the boy who kept it? I want to know the why...’ she repeated his words back at him ‘...the how.’
His expression controlled and unreadable, he replied, ‘It is what it is.’
‘Instinct?’ she said, recalling her words to him last night. ‘He survived, didn’t he?’ Her heart squeezed for the little boy he had been. Alone in his grief. Her eyes filled with unexpected tears.
‘I guess he did,’ he replied, his eyes sharp, watching her face, her expression.
‘It must have been hard, surviving on your own for so long. With only this...’ She looked down at the watch and swallowed down the lump in her throat.
His expression turned from passive to enraged. ‘We both know you were as alone as I was.’ His bearded cheek pulsed. ‘We both survived.’ His black eyes flashed. ‘On our own.’
The past came hurtling back to her. ‘Are you still surviving?’ she asked.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Since I arrived you’ve used mechanisms...places where you hide.’
‘I am right in front of you.’
‘Yes, you are,’ she said, ‘but you pull away every time I get close. Last night you pulled away...’ she shifted uneasily ‘...in your head.’
She made herself stand still. She wanted him to know, so she told him.
‘You ran away.’
‘I ran straight to you.’