She shook her head. ‘You distracted me and I let you, because I understand running...’
She stalled, thinking about the right words—the right way to tell him that she got it. That she understood it—him—better now.
She swallowed. ‘I understand how hard it is to let anyone close, because it’s scary. Scary to think someone might see you.I let you see me last night, because I think we could be a family, Akeem.’
Eyes narrowed, he scoffed, ‘A family?’
‘If not a family...at least we could be friends.’
‘Friends do not feel what we feel. They do not feel this intensity—’
‘We’re going to get married. We can choose what we are, can’t we?’
His face gave nothing away, but his hands moved, his thumbs and forefingers grinding against one another at his hips.
‘I was alone growing up with Dad,’ she admitted. ‘Glossing over that—what growing up with him was truly like—is a habit that isn’t easily broken. But I want to stop glossing over it. Because telling you set a part of me free.’
She stopped talking for a moment, because she wasn’t sure she was making sense.
‘It will take time to get my dad’s voice out of my head...telling me to keep quiet,’ she continued. ‘But I don’t have to be quiet any more.’ She inhaled deeply. ‘And neither do you.’
‘Our marriage benefits the crown. The people.’
‘It will still be a marriage,’ she insisted. ‘Two people who should be honest with each other. When one wants to run—the other runs with them. Catches them up and tells them they’re worthy. When I ran in the cave, you caught me and told me I was enough...’
And, oh, how those words had moved her. It was the first time she’d ever heard them. But she shook it off. Right now, it wasn’t about her. It was about him. The man who kept coming back to her. In London, to her bedroom ... He had something to say, and she wanted to hear it.
‘We made a deal,’ she said. ‘And now we need to make the deal work. So next time you want to run, Akeem, I’m going to run with you—because whether or not you like it, you might have bargained on getting yourself a temporary queen, but you got me too. A temporary family. So run all you like, but I’ll catch you. Because that’s what friends do. What family does.’
‘Why is it so important to catch me, qalbi?’ he asked, taking back the control he needed, when his urge was to run.
She’d tied her long hair back, and he wanted to release it. Set her curls free until they feathered her waist and the dip in her spine. He longed to explore with more than his hands...
‘You have told me how—why—you have become this Charlotte,’ he continued, ‘but you did not tell me why you’re helping me?’
‘You didn’t give me a choice, remember?’
She smiled. That small, knowing smile. He wasn’t running. He was walking slowly towards her. Slackening the tension on that rope.
‘There are always choices,’ he said—because there were. He could have decided to be a no one. Instead, he’d become this. And he’d made the right choice.
He raised his brow, his heart giving a painful double beat. ‘A diploma?’
‘I can do that on my own,’ she dismissed, too easily. ‘Why are you changing the subject? Stop deflecting.’
‘I’m not deflecting.’ He was. ‘Tell me why?’
Another step. And there it was again. The stray bullet. Her presence. Her scent. He couldn’t help it. He reached out, grasped her by the back of her neck, felt his knuckles cushioned by her curls, and reached up to remove the tie in her hair. It tumbled, heavy and long, around her face. He pulled her towards him.
‘Why are you helping me?’ he asked, and his eyes flicked to the pulse pumping hard at her throat. His lips thinned, and he answered for her. ‘Kindness?’ It was a sneer, because it disgusted him.
The King did not need kindness. The King did not need the emotions tied to family or friends. Because emotions had no place in royal life. His father had administered that lesson, but he had put the teachings into practice. He had decided long ago that to be a true ruler he would set aside the part of himself that needed answers to the question why, because his destiny was to repair a broken legacy—not to weep over his mother or the love his father had denied him.
He didn’t need to know why they’d abandoned him any more because he wasn’t that boy. He was a king. The King.
But here she was, offering help anyway.
‘No, not kindness,’ she rejected. ‘I knew a boy once who became a prince,’ she said. ‘I didn’t see him for a really long time. I owe that boy a great debt, because he showed me once that there was another way to live. He gave me sanctuary, and when I lost him I forgot there could be another way.’
‘The debt stands. I understand that now. I understand it wasn’t his fault,’ she continued. ‘I stood still because of me. It was my fault. And now I hope I can move forward.’
‘With the boy?’ His voice was deep, the words low, conflicted.