‘I know you were there much longer than I was. I got to go home when you didn’t have a home to go to. But...’ She shrugged. ‘Forgetting about myself—putting myself last—isn’t something I can agree to again.’
‘I will not forget my people as my father did and allow your hurt feelings—’
‘As King, your duty comes first.’ She inhaled deeply, steeling herself to ask for what she wanted. Needed. ‘But I need you to be a decent human being. No throwaway comments. Explain what you mean and why you want something. Don’t hurt my feelings to get what you want.’
He grimaced. ‘Feelings cannot win. We cannot put them first,’ he continued. ‘Because when you do, you end up in situations you never would otherwise.’
‘Like losing nine years of your life because of your lying, treacherous father?’ she asked. ‘Like being promised a night of sex only to be trapped into getting married? Like agreeing to be your ex-lover’s wife, only to be told you won’t matter in the marriage, anyway?’
Her rant over, she glared at him. At the skin tightly pulled across his cheeks. At his flaring nostrils. At his eyes, dark and wide.
‘Feelings don’t always have to be so...extreme,’she started again when he didn’t answer.
‘We have been nothing but extreme, Charlotte,’ he corrected. His voice was a low rumble. ‘How can we be anything else?’
‘So you’ve decided for both of us that it’s all or nothing? No middle ground? No compromise?’
‘Kings do not compromise.’
‘What about friends?’ She swallowed hard. ‘What about husbands?’
‘Friends?’He flinched, and she swallowed down the pain in her throat.
Akeem held her gaze as something unidentifiable flashed in his eyes, with the silence hanging between them.
‘I cannot promise you friendship. I cannot promise you everything you have asked for.’
She opened her mouth to speak, but he shook his head.
‘I’m not finished.’
She pressed her lips together, and he continued.
‘But I can promise to treat you as a human being, and to respect that you are a woman who can make her own decisions. Going forward, I will ask,’ he promised, moving in on her, ‘not demand.’
His voice was silk against her frayed edges. His words. His promise. This might not be the life she wanted, but she could shape it into something good if he would see her. Recognise that she would not remain in the background any more.
She would voice her opinions.
She would matter.
She pressed the red button again and the lift rattled, picked up a little speed, and stopped with an ungraceful thump.
He hit a button and the doors opened. A red carpet ran all the way from under the plane to a convoy of cars and a gathering of men.
And a helicopter.
‘You are shoeless,’ he said, and she looked at him, then looked at her feet. ‘May I carry you?’ he asked, his words articulated with effort.
She smiled at the tightness of his mouth. ‘I can walk,’ she assured him.
Because she could. She could walk forward with her head high and her feet bare because she wanted to. Because it was her choice.
Before he could comment again, she moved in front of him and onto the red carpet, through the parting throng of men and towards the helicopter doors, magically opened by invisible staff.
She climbed inside and Akeem was quickly beside her, pulling a harness over her shoulders, between her breasts, and clipping her in between her thighs with quick and steady hands, before climbing in beside her in the pilot’s seat.
Her stomach lurched. ‘You’re flying it?’
He turned to her. ‘Scared?’
‘No,’ she denied. But the truth was she was exhausted with being afraid, and this moment, these changes of events, her agreeing to be Queen—
What if the people didn’t accept her as their Queen? Her dad had never loved her. If he couldn’t love her, his own daughter, how could anyone else? How could a whole desert kingdom accept her when her family hadn’t?
But how would she know if she didn’t try?
She’d been afraid most of her life.
Afraid of never being accepted.