‘With the boy and the Prince,’ she answered. ‘One and the same, he told me. But the Prince also told me he could never really be the boy again, because he’d had to become someone else. Something else. But I think he can be that boy again. I think he can be both. And I would like to meet them in the same skin, breathing the same air and in the same room.’
‘I’m not the person you seek. This is not a fairy tale. There are no transformations at midnight—no toads to be kissed, no princes to rescue.’
‘You can be the boy with me,’ she said, ignoring him.
He could never be that boy again.
‘The boy is weak.’
‘And the King is strong?’
‘The King has power, respect. The boy knew neither.’
‘You’re going to kiss me now, aren’t you?’
And he did.
He ran straight into the warmth of her body. Her kindness. And he closed off the voice in his ears telling him he wasn’t worthy of friends—family. That he was weak for wanting them. Because he was starting to wonder if it was wrong.
He was distracting her again. Asking her lips to accept the thrust of his tongue and moving his hands under her tunic to grasp her hips and pull her core into the hard heat of his.
But Charlotte put her hands on his chest and pushed. ‘No.’
‘No more running,’ she said. ‘You let me whisper all my secrets in your ear in the cave. It’s time to whisper in my ear, Akeem.’
His nostrils flared, but he nodded, knowing that next time she wouldn’t accept his attempts to divert her.
‘I do not whisper, qalbi,’ he said, and stalked back to the entrance of her room and opened the door wide. ‘I roar.’
Charlotte remained silent. Breathless as she followed him up a staircase and down a long corridor.
Akeem came to a halt. ‘Here it is.’
She frowned. ‘A door?’
Her heart cinched. ‘Your room?’
He shook his head.
She inhaled deeply, feeling regret or relief washing over her. She didn’t know which. ‘But I already have a room. Several.’
He reached for the handle. ‘And now you have this.’
He pushed the door open and stepped aside.
Charlotte didn’t move to touch him. She didn’t dare. Because touching him would spiral her into a thousand splinters of emotions that would stream from her eyes in an unstoppable stream of— She inhaled deeply, trying to quiet her mind, to think. Of delight?
She whirled to face him. ‘Why would you do this?’
‘We will make this marriage work despite the circumstances that have brought us here, qalbi.’ His eyes darkened. ‘Your lessons begin tomorrow.’
Breathless excitement quickened her breathing. ‘Lessons?’
‘Your diploma,’ he answered.
‘But how...? Who...?’
‘An artist in her own right, with substantial success in the European art world, and a retired teacher, is currently settling into her rooms. This—’
He waved his hands and her eyes moved across walls lined with different casings. A wide cupboard with thin slots holding different paper. Another with paints in bottles and tubes. Another with pencils, charcoal, and an array of other mediums.
‘This will be your classroom.’
Her very own studio.
‘Proof,’ he said. ‘Your dreams will not be forgotten here.’
‘What about your dreams?’
His eyes trained on her; Akeem stepped inside the room and closed it behind him with a flick of his wrist ‘I dream to be the King my father wasn’t.’
‘Why? Why is it so important to be him? His heir, but not your mother’s son? Why are you not both?’
He swallowed, pushing down the angst that had travelled with him throughout his life.
‘The boy you speak of knew only one type of life. The care system embedded uncertainty into the little boy with scraped knees, too troubled to keep. Into the teenager too angry to place in a family home. He grew into a loner in the children’s home. He was too quiet—too withdrawn—to engage in meaningful conversation. Too angry to soothe. The boy was unwanted. The teenager hated. The man...’ He shrugged. ‘He became a king.’
‘I wanted the boy.’