‘Which were you?’
‘I was—I am,’ he emphasised, ‘the only heir by blood to the Taliedaaen throne.’
His voice was toneless. Not proud. Not...anything. Her eyes flicked across his features. Vacant.
A heaviness expanded in her core. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Would it have made a difference?’ he asked. ‘I told you the truth. My birth family got in contact and wanted to meet me. Would the rest of it have mattered?’ His eyes, black and granite, held hers.
‘Of course not.’ The denial was hot in her mouth. ‘But we were planning to elope—’
‘You promised yourself to a boy with callused hands. A boy who worked from dawn till dusk in manual labour to learn his trade.’ His face was unreadable, a mask of emptiness. ‘You did not promise yourself to an orphan prince raised in poverty, who would one day be a king. You wanted the man and not the crown. There was no need to tell you.’
‘Is that why it was such a rush? Your plan to meet my dad? To tell him we were leaving, with or without his consent? Because you weren’t only leaving London, you were leaving England altogether? Is that why you left—’ She cut herself off and trapped the last words in her mouth.
‘When I suggested we run away together—run away from a system that had cared for neither of us and away from your father—I was taking us to a bedsit with the leaving care grant they’d offer me on my eighteenth birthday. But that day I was going home. To my country. It was that day or never. Because I was leaving and I wasn’t coming back.’
‘And you chose never?’ she asked quietly, his choice of words making her gut churn.
‘I didn’t choose. But I’m here now.’
She wanted to push. Wanted him to say to her face that she hadn’t been enough. That she hadn’t been princess material and he’d forged on without her. But the words clung to her throat.
That was why he’d left her behind. He’d abandoned her because he’d believed she wasn’t capable or worthy of his new life. He’d known the daughter of an alcoholic would never be accepted by royalty. By his family. Or anyone, really.
She was unlovable—destined to fail. Just as her dad had reminded her every time she’d got something wrong. No, more often than that—every time she’d breathed too loudly, spoken too confidently.
Her chest ached for the girl she’d been. The girl who’d poured all her simple hopes and dreams into his ear. Believing he was accepting her as she was. For who she was.
‘I can’t go to Taliedaa,’ she said, ignoring the past nagging at her in the bitter depths of her memories. She wanted to close the door on the past—not wrench it open! ‘I don’t want to go to a world where you’re a crown prince and I’m...me.’ She looked down at the splintering fabric on her knee. ‘I have ladders in my tights. I can’t possibly get on a plane.’
His gaze locked on hers. ‘Then take them off.’
She gasped. ‘I...’ Exhaling heavily, she shrugged. ‘I can’t.’
And she couldn’t. Because she might take off her tights, but she couldn’t take off her skin. She couldn’t shrug off who she was. And she couldn’t change who he was now.
‘Where will you go, qalbi?’ he asked. ‘Back to the same little house where we became lovers?’
‘Once hardly makes us lovers,’ she responded stiffly.
‘I stand corrected,’ he said placatingly, and there were those teeth again. Perfect in their insincere symmetry. ‘The same little house where we spent countless hours hiding from your father—hiding from that robotic children’s home manager—to talk.’
He didn’t blink, those eyes holding fast to hers, and her stomach flipped. Painfully.
His smile faded. ‘The same little house where I lost my virginity and you lost yours.’
Her breath caught tightly in her lungs. Memories claimed her. Just as he’d intended. Memories of the one and only time they’d made love. Of the night they’d surrendered their virginities to one another to seal their pact to marry. It had been the night before they’d agreed to tell her dad. The night before they would leave together and never return.
Instead he’d left her behind, with her father full of ‘I told you so,’ because she’d strayed from the plan and told her dad everything before Akeem would arrive.
And he never had.
‘I am not that boy any more,’ he reminded her again, and reached for her. His fingers held lightly to the tops of her arms. ‘I will not fumble or hesitate.’ His eyes darkened. ‘My touch will be...controlled.’
‘You were never out of control.’ Charlotte stared at him. ‘Not with me.’
He released her. ‘Wasn’t I...?’ He continued without a reflective pause. ‘It matters not, because the pleasure you will experience in my arms now will be nothing like our night together. It will be...’ He exhaled sharply, his nostrils flaring. ‘It will be full of the pleasure only a king can give you. Only me. Only what I have become.’
‘This is your last chance,’ he warned, ignoring her question. ‘Get in—’ he stood aside, waving his hand towards the long red carpet leading up to a gigantic plane’s entrance ‘—or stay exactly where you have always been.’
He dropped his hand to his side, turned and walked towards the plane.
He snapped his head back round. ‘Wait?’
Her heart slammed against her ribs, the breath in her lungs choking her. The funeral had been for her dad. The wake had become all about Akeem. But this...
This could be for her.
‘I’m not the girl you remember, either.’
And she wasn’t. She didn’t want to be. She wasn’t a secret royal, but she wanted to be someone else, if only for a minute. She wanted to be selfish. Bold.