“If you wish to be kept up-to-date on everyday concerns, you would have to actually make that known,” Matteo retorted. “Instead of running away from your own father’s funeral and hiding out somewhere.”

Pia had never thought of herself as a particular heir to the famous Combe temper. But she was so angry then, and possibly something else that she didn’t know how to name, that the rest of the conversation stayed something of a blur to her.

And when she hung up, all she could think about was her mother.

Vain, beautiful, magnetic, impossible, deliriously compelling Alexandrina, who Pia had always wanted so desperately to please. And who Pia had always failed to please.

And who Pia had always thought had locked her away in that convent out of shame. Spite, perhaps. Or simple disinterest in a daughter who was so much less.

It had never occurred to her that when her mother told her that wrapping her up in cotton wool was a gift, Alexandrina had meant it. Just as it had never crossed Pia’s mind that her mother’s life could ever have been anything less than perfect. Or if not perfect, exactly as she’d wanted it.

Pia hardly knew how to think about a different Alexandrina. A woman who was...a person. A woman who had carried a child, just as Pia was doing now, and had given it away. An act of grace or shame, sorrow or hope, that Pia literally could not imagine living through herself.

Thinking of Alexandrina so young, and faced with such a tough decision...knocked Pia’s world off balance. The Alexandrina she’d known was so smooth and polished. Even when she fought with Eddie. And had certainly not been harboring any deep hurts.

And maybe that was the hardest part of grief. It was always changing. Growing, expanding, shifting to fit whatever little pockets it found.

She had to assume it would always be that way.

And she was still sorting through what it meant to have a brother she didn’t know—who, for all she knew, might want nothing to do with the family that had abandoned him long ago—when she looked up to find her very own Prince Not Quite Charming standing there in the doorway. The way he liked to do.

“How long have you been standing there?” she asked, her hands on her belly, still caught up in those confronting thoughts about her mother.

“What does it matter?” he asked, brooding and dark.

Pia forced a smile she didn’t feel. “I’ve resigned myself to the cyber spying. It’s your laptop and I have nothing to hide. Look through it at will if you feel you must. But I don’t understand why it’s necessary for you to lurk about your own palace like this.”

“I do not lurk.” His voice was even darker then, and there was a considering sort of gleam in his green gaze. “It is not my fault you are unobservant when it comes to your surroundings.”

“Well, Ares—” she began, hotly.

But he held up a hand before she could continue down one of their familiar little paths that always led to the same place. Parry, retreat, regroup—and parry again. Back and forth they would go, until it was difficult to tell who struck whom. And who left the most marks.

“Come dine with me,” he said, to her shock.

That did not usually happen. Ares was usually out for dinner, at this or that ball that Pia could follow on social media or in the papers the next day—not that she did such a thing. As that might be interpreted as too much interest in the man.

And maybe it was the novelty that had her biting her own tongue. She shifted, standing up—which took leveraging herself off the arm of the chaise these days—and then crossing to him.

He held out his hand as she approached. And Pia took it.

And it was as if the balance shifted. Or her world, still off its axis, tilted even more sharply. It felt as if the floors beneath her feet suddenly slanted terrifically, leaving her head spinning.

It wasn’t just his touch. Or it wasn’t only that. It was that solemn look, grave and intent, in those green eyes of his. Pia was sure she hadn’t seen him look at her like that since...

But she didn’t dare say it. She didn’t dare think it.

And as Ares took her hand, then led her down the halls of the palace, she was buffeted by the memories of what happened between them that night in New York. When he had taken her hand like this and led her out of that party, and then all these restless things inside her had shifted into heat. Fire.

All that longing and need, greed and revelation.

It all kept washing over her, memory after memory.

He led her to the wing of the palace she knew was set aside for his exclusive use, and into a private dining room. It could have comfortably fit a crowd, but the table was set up to feel intimate, with a view over the ocean as the last of the sunset spread pink and orange over the horizon. Pia couldn’t help thinking about the fact that they had skipped this part in New York. The sit down, have a meal, and learn about each other part.

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