‘I feel it,’ she replied. ‘Something bigger...something more...’ Filling her lungs with a fortifying breath full of heat, burning wood, and the scent of death and life, she said, ‘I was always scared I’d never become something bigger. Something more.’
‘More?’ He turned to her. ‘More what?’
‘I used to think there was only one type of “more”. More money to pay the bills so I would never see a red bill again. That would bring me peace. More food so I could have a full fridge and feel full...content. More clothes so I’d feel warm, and—’ The word loved was on the tip of her tongue. She stopped herself. ‘I believed that more...’ she searched for the words ‘...more physical things would bring me to a place of happiness. But after these last few nights in the palace...’
His face twisted into a mangling of harsh lines. ‘The palace wasn’t enough?’
‘The palace was plenty,’ she soothed. ‘But I haven’t slept well there,’ she confessed.
‘The sheets are so soft.’
‘And...?’ he asked.
‘The sheets are so soft I can’t sleep,’ she clarified. ‘Not because they’re uncomfortable, but because comfort itself is very new to me. I haven’t been comfortable. Ever. I’m afraid of it.’ Her eyes turned large. ‘A few days ago I buried my father. I was facing eviction, and the prospect of throwing myself on the mercy of the benefits system.’
‘What does this have to dowith anything?’ he asked.
‘It has everything to do with everything. Because after talking with you this morning...’ She trailed off. This morning felt like another life, not a few hours ago. She started again. ‘After talking with you I realised the “more” I wanted was inside. I needed to believe I was worthy enough to accept the quality of fine cotton sheets.’
‘And do you believe it now?’
She held his gaze. ‘I’ve never believed it. That I am worthy of more. Worthy of the things others took for granted. I was always on the outside, waiting to be let in. Nobody wanted to be friends with a girl whose dad roamed the streets with a can of lager and stumbled and fell into people’s gardens.’ She wanted to close her eyes, but the intensity of his held her fast. ‘I’m still afraid. Inside. That the world will only ever recognise me as his daughter.’
Akeem remained silent. Still. So very still. ‘Why?’
‘My dad...’ Her eyes grew hot. ‘He never loved me. He told me. Told me he could never love something he’d made because it was in my genes—in my DNA—to fail. Like he had at everything. And if he couldn’t love me, his own daughter, how could anyone else?’
‘I was determined to make him live. Determined not to fail my father.’ She closed her eyes tightly. ‘I was determined to make him live and I failed him.’
There—she’d said it. The whole truth. Why she was so adamant that here she would be more. Would be all the things she’d promised herself she would be until her dad had told her she wasn’t capable. He had convinced her that she was his daughter and therefore destined to fail. And in the end she had failed. He’d died because the one time he’d needed her, she hadn’t been there.
‘You failed no one,’ Akeem said quietly.
She opened her eyes and met his. He was watching her intensely. ‘I did,’ she corrected.
‘So, yes....’ She cut him off. ‘I’m still afraid, but I’m no longer scared to try. I’m not scared of being here. I’m not scared of this, or of cotton sheets. I’m not afraid to live any more. I will not live my life in the shadows, in fear of failing—like my dad.’
Closing the space between them with a purposeful stride, he kissed her. Her eyelids first. Then her cheeks.
‘Our brief whirlwind affair,’ she said, ‘was the best time and the worst time of my life. The worst was when social services came and found my dad drunk on the sofa, the house empty of food. They took me into care at the children’s home because I had nowhere else to go. Then I met you.’
‘And you were everything.’ A trembling smile tugged at her lips. ‘Strong. Resilient. But most of all you didn’t care where I’d come from—who I’d come from,’ she corrected. ‘You were kind. You showed me the ropes in an environment I never thought I’d be in. No one had ever helped me before. No one had ever helped me to survive.’
‘I remember giving you a sketchpad and pencils.’
‘And I spent all my time drawing you.’ She smiled. ‘When I got to go home, and we made all those plans to leave when you turned eighteen, I believed that there was more—that I could be more. That I was worthy of a different life. A better life. That I was enough. But after you disappeared it was easier to believe my dad’s version of my life. Because you’d left me behind. Because in the end I hadn’t been worth the trouble. I hadn’t been enough for the one person who’d made me question how I was living my life.’
‘It was not the truth.’
His words scraped at her skin. It would be all too easy to fall back into the heavy ache of worthlessness that had been an unwavering constant throughout her life. But his eyes held fast to hers. Locking her into him. Into the moment.
‘I didn’t know that,’ she said. ‘I was sixteen—you were the only person to make me question my life. To convince me there was more out there.’
He laughed—a gentle sound. ‘I only showed you where to find the best cereal in the communal kitchen.’
‘You showed me there was more,’ she corrected him. ‘That I could be more. If I took a chance the way you were taking a chance. You were leaving the children’s home behind and you were determined to learn your trade as a labourer, so one day you could build skyscrapers in the sky.’
‘And instead I became this.’
‘Is this life better?’ she asked. ‘Being the son of a king?’
Deep lines appeared in the smooth skin between his eyes. ‘Yes.’
He smiled. ‘Why is it better?’