‘It must exhaust you, avoiding the demons haunting your bed.’
She planted her feet, readying herself to fight against a lifetime of remembering to keep quiet and do what had to be done. Don’t argue, don’t fight—just to get on with it. She’d been readying herself for this confrontation for nine long years. And she hated confrontation. But here it was.
His mouth flared into life. Not a grin, but a tilt of those sensuous lips as he leaned in. A hair’s breadth away from her mouth, he whispered, ‘My stamina has yet to be a concern.’
The air hissed from her lips. She knew what he was doing. He was intent on reminding her how she’d shared his bed. He had slept then. Wrapped around her like a second skin.
‘What you do in your bed has nothing to do with me,’ she said, Because it didn’t—not any more. ‘But you’re not welcome here.’
‘Am I not?’
His features were unmoved—a vision of innocence. But she knew better.
‘No.’ She moved her head from side to side in small, quick flicks. ‘My father wouldn’t have wanted you here, nor your condolences.’
‘My condolences are for you,’ he corrected, ‘not him.’
‘I’m surprised you have anything for me, let alone that you think of me,’ she countered, and prepared herself for the bit she’d practised the most. The biggest and best lie. ‘Because I don’t think of you at all.’
If she’d felt nothing at the graveside she was feeling everything now. Her sixteen-year-old self was bursting out, reminding her twenty-five-year-old counterpart that it had unfinished business.
And here he was—the unfinished business—now undoing the top two pearl buttons at his neck. Slowly, he revealed his bronze throat, thick and pulsing inside the crisp white collar of his shirt.
He didn’t respond. He simply watched her for a beat too long. His eyes searching hers. And a magnetic pull urged her to close the distance between them, to step inside the earthy scent of wood and sand and touch him.
The words had been easy, but what she hadn’t expected was the primitive reaction her body was having to him. This wasn’t part of the script. But she wouldn’t show it! She wouldn’t break on the outside, even if her insides were melting.
‘I think of you often, qalbi,’ he admitted, his voice low and soft, and she felt it like a physical caress on her cheek. ‘I think of the life you chose.’
‘The life I chose?’ she repeated, and she hated the crack in her voice. It had been nine years. She couldn’t blame him entirely that she’d stayed where he’d left her. But she did.
She pulled her lower lip between her teeth.
She blamed him for everything.
He nodded, his dark head dipping only once. ‘This pitiful existence you call a life.’
She stepped back then. Only slightly, but enough to give her room to strike him. Squarely, on that beautifully chiselled chin of his.
She knew how pitiful her life was, but—‘You have no right to judge my life,’ she said, finishing her thought out loud.
‘Don’t I? You could have been anything. Anything,’ he stressed. ‘Instead you continued to nurse a man who belittled you at every chance he got for another decade.’
She blinked hard and fast. ‘I...’
She could have been anything?
‘I’m twenty-five,’ she reminded him, ‘not dead.’
But his words curdled in her gut, despite her feigned confidence. She didn’t know what her life might have looked like now. She knew nothing apart from the all-consuming fact that she had no one and nothing to call her own.
‘Tell me it’s not true and regale me with your exciting plans now you are free. Are you still drawing?’
She gasped. Drawing? He remembered. He remembered the one part of herself that had allowed her freedom. Her pencil had been her ticket to adventure. Her escape. And she’d given it up. Her drawing. Her art. Her one talent. Because her dad had called her drawings stupid, a waste of time when she should have been caring for him. He’d destroyed all her work. Crushed her dreams. And she’d let him because she’d felt selfish, taking those precious moments to draw and dream for herself.
How could she have taken time for herself when her dad had needed her help to survive? How could she have chased her foolish dream of becoming a portrait artist when her reality had been so heavy?
‘Are you still chasing your dreams?’ Akeem continued, and she swallowed the memory of what she’d lost. What her dad had taken from her. Not only her art, but her identity. Because the only thing that had defined who she was—not a daughter, not a carer—had been her art.