“Lucky that you’re no virgin, then,” she muttered to herself as she helped herself to a heaping plate of seconds.
But after the palace staff had swept all evidence of her private feast away, Pia stayed where she was. She sat up straight in the most uncomfortable chair in her outermost sitting room. She channeled her many years of being taught manners by unimpressed nuns, sat so she wouldn’t drift off to sleep, and waited.
The hours ticked past. The night wore on.
And when she decided it was late enough that even infamous playboy princes—not that she’d worn down her phone battery by Googling him exhaustively—had taken themselves off to bed, if only because there was precious little other entertainment to be had here on the southern tip of the middle of nowhere, she stood. She stretched her protesting limbs, let herself out of her room again, and resolved that she would walk out of this palace if necessary.
It took her a while to find her way through the maze of halls and corridors again, and she got lost more than once. But eventually she found herself on the ground level, where she set about looking for a door that led outside—instead of into yet another courtyard.
Unfortunately, there were courtyards everywhere, as if every member of the royal family who’d ever spent time here had built their own.
There were courtyards that opened up to the sky and others that were really more like squares beneath the floor above. There were courtyards that opened into the sea itself, but Pia couldn’t seem to find one that led to that road she knew they had taken in. She kept getting turned around. She thought she was retracing her steps when she turned a corner and yelped because someone was right there.
“Imagine my surprise,” Ares said darkly, “to be roused from my slumber by my staff, and told that the palace was not under attack, but that one of my guests—my only guest—was creeping about the place like a criminal.”
“I’m not creeping anywhere and I’m certainly not a criminal,” Pia threw at him.
And only then did she take in what he was wearing.
Or more to the point, not wearing.
Because the Crown Prince of Atilia stood there before her wearing nothing but a pair of loose black trousers, slung low on his hips as if to suggest that he had been sleeping naked and had tossed them on when he came to find her.
And everything else was just...him.
Those wide, smoothly muscled shoulders. That broad chest that narrowed to lean hips. Ares kept himself in excellent physical condition—she hadn’t built that up in her fantasies since New York, it turned out—all rangy muscles and that loose-limbed elegance he wore so easily.
He wasn’t the only one who remembered that night in Manhattan. She did, too. How she had crawled over him in sheer, greedy delight. How she had tasted him, tempting them both nearly past endurance. How she had filled her mouth with salt and man and the dark heat that rose between them still.
“Why aren’t you dressed?”
She all but shrieked out the question, half in a gasp, and knew even as it escaped her lips that she’d revealed herself. That she’d given herself away.
“Why, pray, would I be dressed?” he asked mildly, though his green eyes glittered there, in the deserted hall. “Perhaps you have not noticed, Pia, but it is the middle of the night. Why are you still dressed as you were hours before? And more to the point, why are you lurking about as if you are casing the place? Are you?”
Pia didn’t know what came over her. One moment, she’d had a clear sense of purpose. Of direction. Or intention, anyway, no matter if she couldn’t quite find her way.
And then in the next, Ares was standing before her half-dressed. And she was still trapped here in this fairy-tale fortress. And she was an orphan and a mother, both at the same time. And all of that seemed to crash into her.
As if that damned runaway train had looped around and plowed straight into her, flattening her.
Her face crumpled, no matter how hard she fought to keep it smooth. Unbothered. And as she fought off the huge sob that seemed to roll out of her, then on top of her like a great weight, she saw Ares’s expression...change.
Pia kept thinking that she’d reached the absolute outer limit of the shame that any one person could feel. She kept thinking there could be no further depths to plumb.
And then something else happened.
She tried to cover her face, because she couldn’t stand the fact that he was right there, watching her as she quite literally fell apart in front of him.
But his hands were on her, brushing her shoulders and then shifting. Before she knew what was happening he was lifting her up, hauling her high against his chest.