The implications of that statement roared in him.

But Pia was still talking. “If you are not the father, we have a far larger problem on our hands.” She even smiled, which made the roaring in him worse. “Shall I contact the Vatican to notify them of the second immaculate conception? Or will you?”

Ares stared back at her as that scathing question hung in the air between them, too, joining in with all the rest of the noise. The roar of it. And it wasn’t until that moment that he realized that for all he liked to think of himself as an independent creature, in no way beholden to crown or kingdom unless he wanted to be, he really was a prince straight through.

Because he was wholly unaccustomed to being addressed in such a manner.

It had never occurred to him before this moment how very few people in his life dared address him with anything but the utmost respect. Yet today he had been punched in the face. And was now being spoken to in a manner he could only call flippant.

Pia swallowed as he stared at her, and then wrung her hands in a manner that suggested she was not, perhaps, as sanguine as she appeared.

Ares didn’t much like what it said about him that he found that...almost comforting.

“Happily,” she said in a low voice, “it doesn’t matter whether you believe me or not. There is a selection of tests to choose from to determine paternity, both before and after birth.”

“It is not a question of whether or not I believe you.”

“I’m not sure I blame you,” she said, as if he hadn’t spoken. Another new experience for Ares. Especially as she sounded as if she was attempting to be generous. “I can see how such a thing would be difficult to believe if I was...like you.”

Ares’s brow rose and he suspected he looked like all those pictures of his lofty, patrician, infinitely regal ancestors. “Like me?”

“I doubt you remember the particulars of our night. Or me. And why would you? You must have such adventures all the time.”

He might have been caught on the back foot since he’d arrived in Yorkshire this afternoon, but he wasn’t foolish enough to answer that question.

“Here is what I don’t understand,” he said instead, as a sort of low, heated pounding started up in his chest, then arrowed out into his limbs. His sex. “You claim you were innocent before that night. Why? You’re not a child.”

“Do children prize chastity? Or is it their natural state?”

“I could not say if they prize it or do not,” he growled. “I know I never did. I shrugged it off at the first opportunity. I was under the impression that was the entire purpose of the boarding schools I attended.” He prowled toward her, keeping his eyes fast on hers. “Were you locked away in a convent, Pia?”

Something like humor flashed across her face. “Yes.”

That startled him. He came to a stop before her. “An actual convent? Complete with nuns?”

“Of course with nuns. It couldn’t very well be a convent without nuns, could it?”

“What on earth were you doing in a convent?”

She looked wry. “Protecting and defending my honor and holding fast to my chastity, of course. What else?”

“And what? The moment you walked through the convent doors into the big, bad world, you decided the time was ripe to rid yourself of that pesky hymen? With the first man you laid eyes upon?”

He ignored the other thing in him, dark and male, that didn’t like that idea. Because Ares was not accustomed to being any man, indistinguishable from the rest. Notable only because he was male.

“First I went to finishing school,” Pia said, and for all that her eyes were too big, and her face was pale, Ares noticed that she didn’t back down. “There I learned excruciatingly important things. A bit of political science and economics to pepper my banquet conversation, and how best to talk about books to make myself seem important and intellectual, yet approachable. I learned how to dance graciously, as befits a hostess and guest at any gathering. I learned the various degrees of curtsies, and when to employ them. I was meant to be a kind of weapon, you understand.”

“I do not understand.” But he was too close to her now. He couldn’t seem to pull his eyes away from her. There was not one part of him that wanted to, for that matter, and he remembered that magnetic pull, that night. How could it still affect him? “But I’m feeling the effects of your bombshell, nonetheless.”

“I graduated six months ago,” Pia said quietly, her chin lifting as she held his gaze. “My friends and I decided to take a trip to New York to celebrate. One of my friends knew the person who was throwing that particular party. And there you were. See? There’s nothing nefarious.”

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