The balcony doors were open, and there she stood outside. Her body was covered in an organza dress and her hair hung between her shoulder blades in a loose ponytail.
Moving towards her, across the hardwood floor littered with silk rugs and past the vast bed, he detested the blood heating through him at the sight of her. Detested this tug inside him. It was the sensation of a rope being pulled so tightly that he couldn’t withstand it for twelve more hours.
Before he could stop himself, he called out to her. ‘Charlotte.’
She didn’t turn.
He stopped statue-still, a foot before the balcony doors, and half turned, ready to leave as he’d entered. Unobserved. But she turned first.
He inched closer, calling for the control he needed. ‘Are you drawing?’ he asked.
‘Only sketching...’ She looked down at the pad resting on the stone balustrade and brushed a hand over it. ‘It’s not very good.’
Memories, fast and blinding, hurtled towards him and plunged him into the past... Under the oak tree. Laughing. Handing her a sketchpad and newly acquired pencils, bought with his meagre wages. Her eyes moving over him as he’d sat and sat and she’d drawn him.
‘How does it feel?’ he asked. ‘To draw again?’
A shy smile curved her lips. ‘Like wearing my favourite pyjamas when they’ve just come out the tumble dryer. Comfortable,’ she explained with a half-laugh, half-sigh. ‘Worn in.’
‘Bring it to me,’ he demanded, wanting to see—needing to see.
‘No, it isn’t ready.’ She turned her sketchpad over and turned all her attention to him.
‘You would deny the Crown Prince?’ he asked.
‘No, I would deny you, Akeem. It’s not ready.’
‘Come to me,’ he commanded.
Tentatively, she took a step towards him. Another step. The shawl fell from her shoulders to the stone floor. He’d approved her dress, as he’d approved the rest of her temporary wardrobe, but seeing it on her in the flesh, her tawny beige skin alight with golden undertones... His throat dried and his groin pulsed.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the small watch. He enclosed his thumb and forefinger around her wrist and fastened it there with quick fingers. Not letting himself notice the delicate flesh of the inner side of her wrist, or how delicate and how soft the skin felt as his fingers brushed against it. Neither did he let himself analyse why he was doing this. Only accepted that he was.
‘It’s a watch...’
‘It was my mother’s.’
Charlotte placed her hand on his. He looked at their hands, hers so much smaller. She trusted him. Trusted him to cage the fire within him. The passion. Just as his mother had trusted his father to do the right thing when he’d seduced her away from her duties and made her take a leap of faith into his arms.
And then he’d crushed her.
He snatched his hand away.
He did not want Charlotte’s heart.
She rubbed her wrist. ‘Why would you give me your mother’s watch?’
He stepped back. He was eighteen again, confused, giving Charlotte his extra pillow.
No. He was twenty-seven and a crown prince. He was not confused.
‘I don’t need it any more,’ he told her—because he didn’t. He didn’t want to feel attached to the past. To the boy that no one wanted, lost in the care system.
‘You don’t need it?’ she croaked. ‘It was your mum’s?’
‘I can’t give you everything you asked for on the plane. So I am giving you this.’
‘What can’t you give me?’
‘You can’t be decent?’ She laughed. ‘Why not?’
‘Because I do not feel decent when I’m around you.’
Her smile vanished. ‘Is that why you haven’t come to me?’ she asked. ‘Why you’ve stayed away?’
He didn’t answer. He couldn’t. How could he admit he’d stayed away because every time he was with her it was a fight? A constant battle with his control?
‘You’ve stayed away because you’re angry, haven’t you?’
Nine years and his smiles were practised...perfect. He did not show his feelings, let alone speak them out loud. But she could see.
He clamped his teeth together.
She stepped into his space and it hit him like a stray bullet. The presence of her. The calming balm she’d offered to him so many years ago, when he’d been about to leave the care system and embark on his own journey. A journey with her. And here they were again. Embarking.
She raised her hand and he made himself remain still. Quiet. All but for the thumping in his chest as she placed her palm to his cheek.
‘You’re angry with the past. With me. I get it. But I’m not angry. Not with you for staying away. Or with my dad.’ She smiled. That small knowing smile. ‘Because the past is the reason I’m here, in this beautiful dress, watching the sun rise over red hills and a city made of red stone. Am I still afraid of getting it wrong?’