Never had he thought to hear his title along with her name. He kept walking because his hands refused to release her, his feet refused to stop.
Formal introductions could wait.
What he needed couldn’t.
Akeem stepped into the tiled entrance hall with its high domed roof and kept walking. He turned into a hallway lavishly decorated with ancient tiles depicting scenes of palace life, then walked through a courtyard lit with lanterns powered by unseen electricity and opened a door.
He hadn’t held his past by the hand, he recognised. He’d carried it through the front door and welcomed it. Claimed it as his and given it a home. He’d turned his past into a spectacle of duty, and now he was bound.
He slid her to her feet, caught her wrist, and pulled her into the room with him, onto a floor littered with silk rugs. He closed the door. Her wrist was too small, too delicate. He dropped it.
She didn’t move. She stayed too close...too near.
‘Charlotte, you are not blinking.’
She blinked unnaturally several times. ‘I’m not?’
‘I’m sorry. I’m a little overawed,’ she admitted. ‘The helicopter, the desert, the city... The palace,’ she crooned. ‘It’s beautiful, Akeem. Your home is beautiful...’
His pulse was refusing to slow and his chest puffed. Her mouth was saying all the right words, but they didn’t stroke his ego the way he’d thought they would. The but lingering on her tongue was too loud, too sharp—not what he had envisaged.
Nothing so far was what he’d envisaged his time with Charlotte would be.
And whose fault is that?
‘But...?’ he encouraged, keeping his voice even and ignoring the thud of his temples.
‘But...’ she started, and flicked her tongue against the dip in her bottom lip. ‘But this is my adventure. I want to know what happens next before it happens—before you hoist me over your shoulder again.’
‘Adventure?’he repeated, his brain refusing to understand her use of that word in correlation with his life. ‘This is not—’
‘An unusual, exciting or daring experience. That is the definition of adventure, and I’m pretty sure this fits the bill.’
‘You have a dictionary with you?’
‘I like words. I’ve read the dictionary quite a few times. Just for fun.’ She slanted a slender shoulder. ‘So adventurous was my life before you.’
‘Then tell me what you make of this word.’ He moved towards her. Closer. And whispered, ‘Box...’
‘Box?’ she repeated, lips pursed.
‘You want to know what happens next on this adventure of yours?’ he asked. She nodded. ‘Then tell me: what is the definition of box?’
‘No,’ he said, redirecting her. ‘A box—an everyday box. What is it?’
‘A container with a lid.’
‘Exactly. But sometimes boxes have locks. This box will need a lock.’
She pushed the scarf from her hair and let it hang on her shoulders. ‘Is this a lesson?’
‘Perhaps,’ he said, resisting the urge to close the distance between them and push his hands into her hair, clench his fists around the curling softness. ‘You will need a box.’
‘A large box,’ he agreed, and then he closed the distance between them and did what he’d told himself he wouldn’t. He touched her. A finger to her cheek. So warm. So soft. ‘Staff will enter this room when I leave, and they will help you pack it.’
‘Pack it?’ she asked.
He moved his finger. Slowly. Down her cheek. He stopped at her chin and tilted it. Made her look at him as he moved his finger over the notch beneath her throat, down between her breasts and flattened his palm on her ribcage.
On her heart.
‘How many years has your heart been beating?’
‘That’s a strange question.’
The words shuddered from her lips and he felt it. Her hiccup. The double beat of her heart beneath his palm. She was faltering.
‘And that is not an answer.’
‘Depends on who you ask.’
‘How old are you?’
‘You know how old I am.’
‘For twenty-five years you have felt every feeling, every doubt, every fear, and now you will let them go.’ His palm pushed into her and massaged the flesh, caging her heart.
‘Let them go...?’ she breathed.