But quickly she had let her dreams go as if they’d never existed—what would have been the point of holding on to them?
She zeroed in on his face. On the man determined to make her remember. To make her regret.
His eyes, intense, were moving over her face. ‘Or have you been wasting your life filling those empty whisky bottles with cold tea to fool your drunken father? Have you been wasting your life, qalbi, trying to save a man who did not want to be saved?’
He raised his hand, those long, elegant fingers moving towards her cheek. She backed up, one step at a time. He was too close. Too intimate.
But his questions spoke to her at her deepest level of consciousness. Because she hadn’t done—still wasn’t doing—any of the things they’d whispered about late at night, hidden in her bedroom...those dreams and hopes of being...more.
Her insides twisted and snaked around her lungs.
Her dad had needed her when no one else had, even if he’d never recognised her sacrifice. Her time. Her art... He’d never seen that it was her keeping him alive and forgetting to live her own life. Never acknowledged how she’d managed their minimal income by getting to the bank before he did to withdraw their welfare benefit money before he spent it on whisky so they couldn’t eat. He’d never seen her visiting food banks when she’d been too late and her father had taken the money before she had.
She’d made things work on a frayed string of hope and prayer, and not once had he thanked her. The daughter who had become the parent instead of the child. Who had worked in temporary jobs from catering, to retail, to office cleaning as soon as she had been old enough to get a job.
She’d worked in one meaningless job after another... She’d stood still for nine years. Exactly where Akeem had left her...
Her chest heaved.
She hadn’t had a choice!
‘I did what I had to,’ she said, feeling the past snarling between them. ‘I stood by my father as a daughter should.’ She exhaled heavily, felt the cheap cotton of her shirt loosening on her chest. ‘He was all I had left.’
‘No,’ he corrected, his voice laced with steel. ‘Your father was all you allowed yourself to have.’
‘Stop!’ she demanded breathlessly.
She didn’t want to hear this—any of it. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. This wasn’t it! Why wasn’t he on his knees, begging her forgiveness for leaving her behind?
‘Are you the woman you wanted to be, Charlotte?’ he asked, ignoring her.
She’d dared to believe she could be someone else once—that life had more to offer her than being her father’s keeper—and Akeem had smashed those notions to smithereens. She had no clue who she was now, or what she was going to do. But she wouldn’t admit that to him. It was hard enough to admit to herself that caring for her father had become her life.
‘Stop,’ she said again.
She rubbed forcibly at her exposed collarbone. She hated him. Hated what he’d done to her.Akeem had made her question everything. Not only question why he’d broken his promise to take her with him, but question herself on who she was and what she could never be. And he still was!
‘Stop it, whatever this is, and leave.’
‘But I’ve only just arrived.’
She glared at him. ‘I didn’t ask you to come.’
‘You’d rather mourn alone—’ he spread his hands wide, arching a thick dark brow ‘—in a room like this?’
‘How graceful of you to remind me.’ She smiled unkindly. ‘But you have no right to tell me how to grieve.’
‘All you should feel is relief.’ His nostrils flared, but she watched him shutter the exasperation glazing his eyes. ‘But you’re right,’ he conceded. ‘I have no right to tell you how to grieve, or where, because I am not sorry he is dead. But I am sorry you have lost your father, Charlotte,’ he continued, keeping his voice low and firm. ‘I know you loved him for reasons I’ll—’
‘This is not the time.’
‘What better time is there?’ he asked.
She watched the white shirt and black jacket becoming taut over his shoulders, hinting at the hard and muscular body beneath. The body she’d once coveted so wantonly.
Letting out a harsh breath, she uncurled her hands and scrubbed them across her face. It was time to end this.
‘What do you want?’
He closed in, removing the space she’d created between them. ‘It’s not what I want that matters. It’s what I have that you need, Lottie.’
‘What is it that I need, Akeem?’ she echoed back at him. His use of the name he’d used to call her by was doing things to her insides she didn’t want to recognise.
‘You need me.’
‘You?’she whispered, disgusted that her body was having such a visceral reaction to his statement.
‘Yes.’ He smiled, his brown eyes burning black. ‘Me. Akeem Abd al-Uzza.’ His voice, deep and proud, oozed masculinity. Power.
‘Not Akeem Ali?’ she asked.
‘Abd al-Uzza is my father’s name.’
‘Your dad’s? But your mum—’