He might even have toyed with the notion of what it would be like to seek her out for another taste, now and again over the past few months—
The next moment he was on the ground, and it took him a moment to understand that the Combe heir had punched him.
Not only that, he’d chosen to do so in full view of the paparazzi, all of whom swooped in closer like the locusts they were at the sight. They took picture after picture and held up cameras to record every last detail of the Crown Prince of Atilia’s inelegant sprawl across the wet grass in the middle of a funeral.
Ares glared up at the man who had laid him out. He wanted—badly—to respond in kind, but restrained himself. Because he might not want to be king, but he was still a prince, whether he liked it or not. And princes did not swing on bereaved commoners, no matter the provocation. Moreover, he preferred to control the stories that appeared about him, especially when the press on his father was so dire these days.
He couldn’t change the fact this man had hit him. But he could opt not to react in a manner that would only make it all worse.
He climbed back to his feet far more gracefully than he’d gone down. He brushed himself off, his gaze on the man scowling at him in case he started swinging again, then put his hand to his lip. When he drew it away, he noted darkly that there was blood.
Because of course there was blood.
Because everything was about his damned blood. Hadn’t his father told him so a thousand times before Ares had turned seven?
Ares noticed movement in his periphery and held up his hand before his security detail handled the situation in a manner that would only make it worse. He glared at the Combe heir, whose name he hadn’t bothered to learn as he’d run over his notes on his way here today.
That seemed like a significant oversight, in retrospect.
“You understand that I am the Crown Prince of Atilia, do you not?” he asked coolly instead. “Attacking me is considered an act of war.”
“That doesn’t frighten me,” the other man retorted.
“What should frighten both of you is that this entire conversation is being recorded,” Pia hissed at the pair of them.
And that was the thing. He could remember her name. Pia.
Such a little name when she had hit him with a good deal more force than her brother had just now.
And the hits kept coming today.
A closer look showed Ares what he should have noticed from the start. That she’d thickened around the middle. And she was a tiny thing—easy enough, if a man had a decent imagination and the necessary strength, to pick up and move around as he liked, and Ares certainly had liked—and her bump was clearly noticeable. Huge, in fact.
It was very clearly...exactly what it was.
But what it could not be was his.
“I have never in my life had unprotected sex,” Ares said with as much regal hauteur as he could manage.
The Combe heir looked enraged. Pia only shook her head, her gaze darting around to their audience before returning to her brother.
“If you two want to roll about in the dirt, flinging your toxic masculinity about like bad cologne, I cannot stop you,” she said, half under her breath. “But I refuse to become fodder for the tabloids for the first time in my life because of your bad decisions.”
And she turned around and marched off, as if it wasn’t already too late.
When Ares looked around he could see the speculation on every face within view. Because there had been a punch, and now Pia was leaving, and it didn’t take a mathematician to put her belly and him together.
But it was impossible.
“I suggest you follow my sister up to the house,” her brother growled at him.
“Or you will do what?” Ares asked, every inch of him the product of at least a millennia of royal breeding. “Punch something again? You do not tell me where I go or do not, Mr. Combe.”
Ares laughed again, more for the benefit of their audience than because he found any of this funny. Or even tolerable.
And then, because he couldn’t see another option, he turned and made his way up the long drive that led from the family plot toward the big, hulking house that sat there at the top of the hill. But he took his time, chatting merrily with other guests, as if he was at a party instead of a funeral. As if he didn’t have what he suspected was the beginnings of a fat lip.
And as if he hadn’t been accused of impregnating a woman by her overprotective older brother, in full view of too many cameras.
He could leave, he knew. No one would keep him here, no matter what Pia’s brother imagined. His security detail would whisk him away at a moment’s notice.
But Pia’s condition was not his doing—could not be his doing—and he felt compelled to make that clear.