‘My wife, Charlotte Hegarty, left behind her life to make a home here—for her love of your Crown Prince.’
Oh, he felt it now. Love. All around him. In every caress...every word.She had not let him forget just because he had not taken the good parts with him. She had shown him he needed the good parts of his past.
He needed her most of all.
‘The Queen understands struggle,’ he continued. ‘She also understands what it means to overcome it. She has kept her promise to you. She has offered comfort and support to your Crown Prince. She has reminded me why I can be the King you need, if not the King you want, because your struggles are my struggles. And unlike my father, who stood above you in fine silks and then shut you out, closed the doors and forgot about you, I will not forget. Akeem Ali, the son of Yamina Ali and the late King Saleem Abd al-Uzza stands here today along with your Crown Prince. Because I am both in one body—in one flesh—and I will not choose one over the other.’
There it was, all out in the open, and he did not feel shame. He felt lighter. Better. Stronger than he ever had. But he needed to know. He needed his people to tell him... And even if the answer was not what he hoped for, at least he would have given them the choice. The choice of who was their King, their leader, regardless of blood or legitimacy. It was their right to choose and he would give them the choice his father hadn’t when he’d thrust him upon them.
He would ask them now.
‘Do you want me—this half-man, half-son-of-a-king—to be named your leader today? Your King? Because it is your choice and yours alone, people of Taliedaa. I will not demand to be King as my father did. So, tell me now, is this Prince of both worlds enough? Is he who you want to lead you into the future? Because I can be no one else? I am Akeem Ali Abd al-Uzza.’
The crowds roared.
He was their King.
He saw her then. Not her face, but her eyes. A simple black headscarf covered her hair and her face, and a black dress fell to her ankles.
But it was her.
She was here.
Running with him...
Charlotte slid back the scarf.
He moved, and the crowd parted, and then he stood before her. Before his wife. His Queen. He had no words left. None. So he dropped to his knees and swore his allegiance to her. To the only woman who had cared enough to see him.
The true him.
The man and the King.
Akeem Ali Abd al-Uzza.
For nine years she’d wanted him on his knees. And now he was, Charlotte did the only thing she could. She got down on her knees too.
‘The new King,’ she said, in her newly found authoritative voice, even though her insides were trembling. She bowed, her chin to her chest, her knees turned to stone. ‘Akeem Ali Abd al-Uzza—rightful heir to the throne.’
His hand sought hers. His fingers pushed through hers. And she let them.
Together, they raised each other up.
The surrounding crowds roared.
She hadn’t intended to stay in Taliedaa, but she hadn’t been able to leave. Leaving the palace with Selma, travelling into the city...every step had been agony. Every step taking her away from him. She hadn’t been able to bear it—the thought that another decade might pass before she saw him again. If she saw him again. So she’d stayed close to Selma. Hidden in plain sight.
She hadn’t intended him to see her today—hadn’t wanted him to think she was there because of duty, to hold the hand of the Crown Prince. Because the King didn’t need her to hold his hand. He would be the King with or without her. She was here for Akeem the man. To offer her support even if he didn’t know it was there.
But she was holding his hand anyway—and he was holding hers.
His expensively tailored black suit was moulded to every inch of his body, a golden tie was at his throat, and he was every inch a king, surrounded by opulence, with the power of the people in his hand. But not because of his lineage, because of him.
The man they had never seen coming.
The only man she had ever loved. Still loved.
The boy and the man. Both in the same skin. Her husband the King.
She leant into him and whispered, ‘I’m proud of you.’ And she was proud of him. Proud of him for embracing who he was and what he could become.
Black eyes held hers, and she saw herself in their reflective depths.
Did he want her there—inside him? Because he’d always been inside her. He’d never left.
Wordlessly, he took her elbow and led her inside. And she let him walk her in with fear in her stomach.
This might be the last time he guided her anywhere.
This could be their last goodbye.
She would not cry.
The doors closed behind them and she inhaled a stunted breath.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.