She moved toward him then, the laptop in one arm and the other one wrapped over her belly.

“Pia—” he began, as if her name in his mouth didn’t remind him too much of her taste. As if he didn’t ache.

“But you will not lock these babies away from the world, Ares. They will not be victims to your indecision. Do you understand me?” And he had never seen that expression on her face before. Fierce. Sure. Maternal, something in him whispered. “My children will walk in the sun. They will be loved. They will not be hidden away like someone’s dirty secret, and I don’t care if it is in a palace. I won’t have it.”

And he wanted to stop her. He wanted to somehow talk his way through the great mess inside of him, but he found himself frozen solid.

Unable to do anything but stand there, more monster than man.

And Ares wasn’t sure that ratio was moving in his favor as she swept past him and disappeared down the hall.

Leaving him to feel the true weight of this palace he’d made a prison, as surely as if he’d fitted it with bars.

* * *

Ares had learned a long time ago not to read tabloid interpretations of his life, but he still found himself flipping idly through the worst of them on his tablet the next day as he flew to the Northern Island for the grand dedication of something or other.

A bank, perhaps. A monument.

He didn’t care about that. Because the tabloids were filled with base speculation and nasty insinuation. Nothing new, but Ares found it clawed at him in a whole new way when the subject was Pia instead of him.

His own face was everywhere, with shots of him laid out on the ground and the bloody lip Matteo Combe had given him.

Matteo had been taken to task by his own Board of Directors, who were muttering about a no-confidence vote. They’d even gone so far as to sic an anger management specialist on him for a time, which Ares couldn’t help but find amusing.

But there was nothing amusing about the things they almost but not quite called Pia. Because instead of fading away with nothing new to add to the story, it seemed the tabloids had only gotten bolder in their coverage during the time he and Pia had been in the Southern Palace.

Playboy Prince’s pregnancy scandal! the headlines screamed.

Ares supposed he should count himself lucky that no one had dared mention the tabloids to his face.

He was congratulating himself on that as he stood in the grand, marble lobby of the Royal Bank of Atilia that was being dedicated to the King, where he was meant to say a few words. But there was a change in the crowd, suddenly, as he prepared himself to speak. He could feel it in the air. The ripple effect. The whispering and the gasping, followed by deep bows and curtsies all around.

Ares swore beneath his breath.

But he knew that he betrayed not a single emotion on his face when his father came in all his considerable state to stand beside him. Ares turned, as was required, and performed his own bow to his monarch.

“Prince Ares,” the King said by way of greeting, and only because people were watching and would likely expect him to greet his only son.

“I did not expect to see you here, Your Majesty,” Ares said beneath his breath as they stood for a rousing go at the Atilian national anthem. And he should not have seen his father, because it was well-known amongst the palace staff that the crown prince and the king preferred never to be in each other’s company. “My secretary must have made a mistake.”

“There was a mistake, all right,” King Damascus retorted, making no attempt to hide his glare and no matter that the crowd was on the “long may our king in grace and wisdom preside” part of the song. “It’s about time you and I have a word.”

Ares could think of very little he would like less.

But they were in public. There was the brief ceremony to get through, made ten times worse by the presence of his father and all the extra pomp and circumstance that went along with the presence of the King of Atilia at such a banal event. And when it was done, he had no choice but to exit several steps behind his father as custom dictated, then follow him as commanded.

Because a son could rebel against his father. But Ares’s father was also his king, and what the king decreed was law.

The old man insisted that they return to the Northern Palace, where Ares had made it a point not to set foot since his mother had died.

He knew his father was well aware of this.

But King Damascus wanted to draw it out, because he was as sadistic now as he had ever been. He marched Ares straight back to that private sitting room of his, where he had been lecturing Ares in between bouts of temper for as long as Ares could remember.

This time, Ares took the seat his father indicated and lounged in it. Not insolent, necessarily, but not reverent, either.