“I understand,” he said, astonishing her anew.

Pia wanted to believe that, too. With a fervor that boded ill for her.

A faint smile moved over his mouth as he saw her expression. “When my mother died she lay in state, as is the custom here. And then my father and I walked through the streets as we transported her to her final resting place. I wore the typical regalia of my station, a uniform I have never found comfortable in the least. And yet, when it was over, when I was out of the public eye and back in my private rooms, I found I couldn’t bear to move. I couldn’t bear to change out of that uniform.” His gaze seemed particularly green then. “Because I knew that doing so would indicate that I was moving on in some way.”

“You loved your mother very much.”

“I did. Did you not love your father? Or your own mother?”

He moved a hand to rest it on her thigh, and Pia was...astounded. She could feel the heat of him, all that power and strength, and be aware of him as a man. But she could also find that grip of his comforting, apparently.

She felt too many things to choose one, much less name it.

“There is no right answer,” Ares said. “I had an excellent relationship with my mother. I have no relationship with my father. Parents are complicated.”

And Pia was sure she wasn’t the only one of them who was painfully aware that they were soon to be parents themselves. That they could inflict God knew what on their own children.

It was an unbearable intimacy to share with a man who was as good as a stranger.

“My parents had children only as an afterthought,” she heard herself blurt out.

Anything to stop thinking about herself and Ares as terrible parents. Or any kind of parents.

What she’d said was true, of course. She’d read articles that had said as much, and less nicely. But she had never said it out loud herself before. And in a way, it felt like grief to hear her own voice, speaking that truth.

But somehow, she wanted to keep going. “Or at least, I was an afterthought. I suppose they always planned to have my brother. The heir of my father’s dynastic dreams, et cetera.”

She stared down at Ares’s hand, and wanted to slide her own on top of his more than she wanted to breathe. She would never know how she kept her hands to herself. Or how she pushed on when she wasn’t sure how or why she was speaking in the first place.

“When they focused on me at all, I think they saw me as a project,” she told Ares as the scent of the lavender bath salts filled the room. “I don’t honestly know that they were capable of loving anything but one another. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I loved them both, I think. But it was always bound up in the ways I disappointed them.”

His green eyes were grave. “How could you possibly be a disappointment?”

Pia didn’t know how to answer him. And she knew that the reason for that was ego, nothing more. Pride. She didn’t want to tell this man what he should have been able to see with his own two eyes.

And would, now. Now that he knew who she was. And therefore knew who her mother was. It was one thing to be herself, Pia knew. She could do that. It was when she was compared to Alexandrina that people felt the most let down.

Her parents most of all.

But she couldn’t bring herself to point that out to Ares. She didn’t have it in her.

“I’m glad I’m having boys,” she said instead. “I think that must be easier.”

Whatever light she’d seen in his gaze shuttered then. He moved his hand, which struck Pia as yet another tragedy she was unprepared to face, and reached into the water behind her.

He tested the temperature, then moved back, rising to his feet in a lithe rush that was nothing short of dazzling, with all that muscle and grace.

“You should get in,” he told her, sounding distant and royal again. “Then I suggest you get some sleep. I cannot promise you that grief goes anywhere, but the sooner you start the process of moving on, the sooner you’ll get to the part that’s easier. Eventually, you’ll find it hurts a lot less than it did.”

“I think that must feel like losing them all over again,” Pia said, without thinking.

Ares’s gaze was too hot, too arrested as it snapped to hers.

“It does,” he bit out.

And he left her there, sitting in her funeral dress on the side of a hot bath, wondering how and why he’d made drawing her bath feel like a gift. And why she wanted nothing more than to sink into it, fully clothed, and lie there until she stopped feeling.

When she stood, she felt unsteady on her feet. She found herself crying all over again as she pulled the dress off, then folded it neatly, placing it much too carefully on one of the nearby counters.

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