She shook her head and looked at her hand touching his chest. Crashing into this flesh and muscle nine years ago at the children’s home had opened a whole new world for her. They’d become each other’s secret. They’d been each other’s escape.
Akeem had offered her companionable silence in a world that had refused to be quiet, offered her comfort in the endless task of worrying about her dad by just letting her be still with him. They’d sat watching TV in the communal lounge, or talking in the garden, and she’d offered him a reprieve too, from the care system he’d been so eager to escape, by listening to his dreams. He’d wanted to build. That had been his dream. To go from labouring on a renovation site to building skyscrapers in the sky.
She’d never imagined that nearly a decade later this was where she’d be. A stranger to him.
Her fingers moved of the own volition. Testing the firmness—the realness—of him.
She’d wanted a family to call her own...a career that fulfilled her fanciful dream of becoming a portrait artist... And then the one person who’d believed in her dreams had vanished and so had they. Her dreams. Vanished as soon as she’d dared to believe they were possible.
Charlotte encircled the pearl button in the middle of his shirt with the pad of her thumb. Lifting her gaze, she eyed him cautiously, the pink tip of her tongue poking through her mouth to moisten her lower lip.
Akeem had made her believe.
She swallowed—hard. He’d made her believe in lots of falsities. Her breath caught and she pushed a finger inside the buttonhole. Her finger met a fine fuzz of hair. And heat.
But this was real.
‘You know me,’ he declared. ‘You still want me and you are looking for a way to justify your desire. The connection still between us should dispel any shame attached to spending the night with me.’
She gasped, unable to contradict his pinpoint accuracy over her tumultuous emotions. Could he read her so easily? Could he see her?
‘We are not strangers,’ he continued. ‘Your body knows mine.’ He placed the pad of his thumb on her top lip and instinctively she opened her mouth to accept him. He pulled his hand away and reached for hers, placed it on the hard length of him beneath his trousers. ‘And my body knows yours.’
She couldn’t move. The heat of him mesmerised her. The hardness. The open conviction with which he wanted her.
‘There is no shame or guilt to be found here, qalbi,’ he promised, ‘only pleasure.’
She didn’t answer. Couldn’t. And the silence stretched, palpable with the heaviness between them.
‘We’ve arrived,’ he informed her, nodding towards the window.
And before she’d caught her breath he was opening the door on her side and offering her his hand. She stepped out to join him.
They were everywhere she looked. Small ones, big ones, and some bigger still.
She rounded on him. ‘Where’s the hotel?’
‘There was never a hotel.’
‘Then where—?’ A plane in the distance took flight, and she watched as it ascended into the skies. How had they got to an airport?
Her heart hammering, she turned her eyes on him. ‘You said one night?’
‘Yes,’ he confirmed. ‘For one night I mean to have you in my bed. There is no trickery at play. No deception.’ His voice was low. Gruff. ‘My bed. Not one anyone else has enjoyed, and one where only my body knows the dips and springs.’
‘Sounds like you need a new mattress!’
A sting of heat worked its way from her chest to slash across her cheeks. She was reacting to him. Her traitorous body had hardened and softened in places she’d forgotten could melt with the mere sound of his voice.
‘I need you, qalbi,’ he contradicted. ‘And I mean to have you in my bed. In my desert kingdom.’
‘What?’ Her heart hiccupped.‘Your desert kingdom?’
‘I am Crown Prince Akeem Abd al-Uzza, son of the late King Saleem Abd al-Uzza and soon to be named King of Taliedaa.’
‘How?’Her mouth gaped as she reeled from his announcement. ‘When your birth father contacted you on your eighteenth birthday I thought—’
‘You thought wrong. It was not my parent who contacted me. It was my father’s senior aide, who’d been watching over me my entire life. Waiting.’
‘Waiting for what?’ Anger replaced her shock. ‘To see how much life could kick you?’
She knew how much life had kicked them both. And he was saying someone could have saved him from that. But hadn’t.
‘Your first thought is how it was unfair to me?’ Thick brows arched over coolly observant eyes. ‘And not what you could have become?’
‘What I could have become? It’s not about me...’ she dismissed easily, with a wave of her wrist. ‘He left you—a child—alone to fend for yourself when you are of royal blood? You’re a prince—’ she pressed a trembling hand to her chest ‘—and they let you be tossed from children’s home to foster home to children’s home again because they were...waiting?’
‘Spare me your pity, Charlotte. I do not need or want it.’
‘It’s not pity I’m feeling.’ And it wasn’t. It was hot rage, with a cooling dose of empathy.
Red lines shadowed his high cheekbones. ‘Then do not look at me with those eyes.’
‘They’re the only eyes I’ve got.’ She shook her head. ‘Why did they—he,’ she corrected, ‘wait so long after your mother died?’
‘My mother was of no consequence to the crown.’
‘Wasn’t she a secret royal, too?’
‘No.’ The response was dry—husked. ‘My mother was a plaything of my father’s—a commoner working in the palace. She left my father’s kingdom the minute she discovered she was pregnant for fear of being ostracised.’ Harshness contorted his face. ‘Her death changed nothing.’
The confession was low and deep. She could see how much it had cost him to admit that.
Confusion narrowed her eyes. ‘What about you? Why did they leave you in the care system until your eighteenth birthday?’
‘Kings do not trouble themselves with their bastard sons unless they are a security risk or they suddenly need them.’
He hadn’t said want and that chafed at her skin.
Had they both been unwanted by their fathers?