AKEEM’SSKINTINGLED. The fine hairs on his arms rose to acknowledge her presence before he’d even seen her.
He turned, and saw that at the top of the stone steps someone had been delivered to him. But it was not his Charlotte. Not the girl with ripped tights and ill-fitting clothes.
His breath caught as one of her arms, covered in thin red lace down to her wrist, made contact with the stone balustrade.
She was a vision in cherry-red, with her hair curled around her face, and the candelabra positioned on top of the columns on either side of the staircase appeared to be for her own personal lighting. She glowed almost iridescently. The choker round her neck, its ruby feathering the dip below her throat, and the golden crown on her head, made her the perfect definition of what she presented herself to be.
His eyes travelled down the length of her. From the boat neckline, to the bodice pulled in at her waist by a simple satin bow, to the flaring skirts meeting her ankles. A red-covered foot took a step, and then another, as a feather-light touch guided her down the stairs.
She glided towards him. ‘Will I do?’
He swallowed thickly. ‘Will you do?’
It was clear, from the crown in her hair to her carefully painted lips and her elegantly fitted shoes—which brought her almost to his height, lips to lips—that this Charlotte was...different. She’d been transformed...for him.
His hand moved to her waist. ‘You will do,’ he said, and no god, and certainly no man, would have believed he’d spent all day trying to forget going to her room...spent all day remembering who he was and who he’d become.
Because here it was—everything he didn’t want.
Plush lips hovered just in front of his. She didn’t kiss him, simply kept her mouth just within reach, letting a hint of her sweetness and warmth seep into him.
He cleared his throat, breaking the invisible magic holding them in each other’s aura, and pushed down those feelings of inadequacy that had haunted him his entire life. The reason he’d believed Charlotte’s father so easily.
He held out his hand and offered it to her. ‘Ready?’
A memory of the last time he’d asked her if she was ready pulled at his insides. He would not entertain it. Not now.
Straightening her spine, she exhaled a silent breath through pursed lips. ‘Ready,’ she said, and slid her hand into his.
He felt it then. The slight tremble. Was it him, or was it her? He didn’t know, so he didn’t acknowledge it.
He inclined his head, and the staff who’d been invisible before moved in front of them and swept open the double doors to the formal reception room which led to the royal balcony. They stepped inside, perfectly in sync. But he didn’t see the surrounding room, or the staff standing beside the doors to the balcony, waiting for his signal that they were ready.
His heart hammered. There, on that same balcony, his father had forced his people to accept him, the illegitimate son of the King. Now he was going to demand they accept his Queen.
‘Akeem, you’re hurting me.’
His heart remembered to beat, flushing blood through his veins in a tidal wave. He looked down at the hand beneath his and instantly loosened his hold. ‘I’m sorry.’
His head swam with all the words they’d shared since London. All the angry words and unexpected confessions. His throat was tight, his mouth dry.
‘Ready?’ she whispered, a gentle smile tugging at her full lips.
Was he?Was he ready to put his past in front of his future? To give it a place? A home?
He nodded, feeling a tightness pulling at his cheekbones. He gave the signal. A long blink of his too-wide eyes.
Slowly, the black wooden doors opened onto the city below. His desert kingdom. He entwined his fingers in hers, resisting the urge to bring her hand to his mouth and place a kiss on the back of it. To reassure her that everything was going to be fine. It would be. He’d make sure of it. But he did not want to put doubt into her smile, nor into the confident presence holding his hand. He did not want to acknowledge the hand of doubt pressing down on his sternum.
Stepping forward onto the balcony, he kept her hand in his. Kept her near as he looked at his people, standing toe to toe with nobility and dignitaries, as cameras recorded this moment when the Crown Prince would reveal his bride.
Their future Queen.
His gaze worked over the crowd that filled the palace gardens. More trailed out of the enormous gates and down the mountainside. He did not smile. He pulled Charlotte towards him, into his side, and inclined his head.
The crowd erupted.
Akeem raised his hand and the excitement instantly stilled. He opened his mouth to speak, but it was not his own voice he heard.
It was hers.
‘Shukran...’She spoke clearly, as if trained to make her voice move over each face in the crowd. ‘Thank you,’ she repeated in English. And then, slow and choppy, she continued in his mother tongue.
In his mother tongue.
‘In time, I hope to be as crucial as the rubies mined at the northern border, in the valley of Dalah, where the Dead Sea gifts life. As valuable as the emeralds from the south and the gold mined right here in Taliedaa. Because I intend to mirror those jewels.’
She licked at her lower lip.
‘I will serve you, the people of Taliedaa, by spending my time amongst you, offering support and comfort to your future King.’ She turned to him then, and the green of her eyes was as vibrant as those minerals mined by his people. ‘The Crown Prince,’ she said. ‘The future. The rightful heir to Taliedaa’s throne.’
She bowed to him, dipping her chin to her chest.
A sense of restlessness itched at his skin and locked his jaw. Regret. It ate at him. He’d tricked her by seducing her with the word ‘closure’, and now here she was...the perfect Queen for an imperfect king.
He raised her up and pulled her to him, leant down and brushed his mouth against hers. A touch of softness. Of warmth. Of her presence. There it was—duty’s kiss. Mouth to mouth, lip to lip. Perfunctory.
But it didn’t feel perfunctory.
It felt powerful.
He wasn’t alone.
There was someone on his side. Standing with him—for him.
No one had ever been on his side. Yes, he’d stood with his father on this balcony, but they’d been separate entities. Standing only for themselves. In the group pictures at the children’s home he had been one of many, but they had been alone. Apart. On different journeys. And in the foster families... He’d never been with them long enough to stand with them—to be a part of what they were. Family. But here, with her—in front of his people...
He moved back, his hands still in hers, and stared at her. He’d ripped her from her life, thrust her into his, and she had sold the lie that this marriage was something real because he’d asked her to.
She’d made the people want her.