Thinking of his mother didn’t bring the stab of grief it normally did. Possibly because he kept thinking that his mother would have loved Pia unreservedly. Ares could almost see them together, sitting in this very room, passing that laptop back and forth and discussing who next to help.
He found he was clenching his jaw so hard he was surprised he didn’t snap a tooth.
“If you can help, you should,” Pia said quietly, so much an echo of his childhood that Ares had to blink to make certain he wasn’t sitting with his mother again, letting her quiet goodness cancel out his father’s latest tantrum.
“I had no idea when I met you in New York that you were such a saint,” he heard himself growl then.
Pia blinked, then flushed a deeper shade of red, and he felt as if he’d slapped her. That made him feel monstrous again. A cartoon beast, all fur and fury.
But he couldn’t seem to stop himself from making every one of these moments with her...worse.
“Did you not?” she asked, lightly enough, though her gaze had gone cool. Wary. “I felt certain I was wearing my halo.”
“I don’t recall you wearing anything at all.”
And that electric thing was back, bright and hot between them. Ares could feel his pulse thick and hot in his temples. In his chest.
In his greedy, hungry sex.
“I sit here every day,” she said, though her voice was scratchier than it had been a moment before and there was a light in her eyes that made his pulse...worse. He decided to take that as a kind of victory. “I read a lot of tabloid takedowns. Alternate reality versions of me. Versions where I cold-bloodedly trapped a prince with my uterus. Then pitted said prince against my own brother, using my unborn child as collateral. I spend a lot of time wondering how it’s possible that a person who never appeared in a single scandalous story before, ever, could attract the hatred of so many so fast.”
“Is this about to veer into sparrows and parrots again?”
“I already feel stripped naked, is what I’m trying to tell you.” Pia swallowed, hard. “It’s bad enough that every time I pick up my phone or open a search engine I’m treated to more side-by-side comparisons between me and my mother, who, you may have heard, is still widely held to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived. I don’t need you to come in here and taunt me.”
Ares hadn’t expected that. Just as he didn’t see it coming when Pia rose to her feet, betraying a gracefulness he felt certain she didn’t know she possessed—but he could feel. All over him like a caress. She picked up the laptop and clutched it to her chest, then looked at him as if he was still very much that cartoon monster.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” she said, so quietly that it felt like condemnation. As if she could see the poison in his blood from where she stood. “I don’t think you know either, which is the only reason why I’m tolerating this.”
“This palace, renowned the world over for its beauty and never made available to the public. A life of ease, waited upon hand and foot. This is what you feel you must ‘tolerate.’”
“You didn’t liberate me from a gutter,” Pia said, in that same quiet, deliberate way. “I’m not dazzled by your material possessions. I can see quite clearly that this is a prison no matter how lovely the furnishings might be.”
What Ares didn’t understand was why he felt as if he was in prison, too, when he was the one who came and went as he pleased.
“Consider this a grace period,” she told him, very much as if she was the one with the control here. “I had months to get used to the fact that I was pregnant with twins. It wouldn’t be fair of me not to accord you the same span of time to come around to the notion. But the clock is ticking, Ares. You can’t keep me here forever and even if you could, there will soon be three of us.”
“I would not challenge me if I were you.” And his voice was a dark ribbon of sound he hardly recognized.
“You will have to make a decision,” Pia replied as if she couldn’t see the threat in him. Or didn’t care. “Or do you think that I will have these babies locked away here, and then raise them like this, isolated from the world? As if we don’t exist? You may be ashamed of them. Of me. But I am not.”
“I never said I was ashamed.”
She drew herself up, which only made him more aware of her lushness.
“Your indecision might keep me here,” she said, as if she hadn’t heard him. “I might even like it, as it keeps me from having to have unpleasant conversations with my older brother and everyone else who is suddenly dying to know my personal business.”