His gaze was intent on hers. “I never wanted to marry because I watched a royal Atilian marriage play out right in front of me. My father was a brute, always. And my mother was always so sad. I never wanted that for any woman bound to me, whether by duty or desire.”
He reached over and brushed her hair back from her face, and Pia didn’t want to see the look on his then. It was...too open. Too complicated.
It made her heart pick up its pace.
“But I am willing to take the chance that you and I can make something different, between us. Something better, Pia.”
She shook her head at him, afraid that if she investigated any further she would discover that the lump in her throat and the glassiness in her eyes could tip over too quickly into tears. And would.
Because she kept telling herself that he was joking. Or if not joking, precisely, saying these things she’d always wanted to hear because he thought he could convince her that way. Not because he actually believed them.
But the trouble was, she wanted to believe him. And the more of these sorts of things he said, the more she wanted to believe.
When she knew better.
“Ares,” she began.
“We are magic in bed, Pia,” he said, in a voice as intense as the way he looked at her. “That is how we came to be here in the first place. Is the worst thing in the world to think we might as well make it official?”
“You’re the one who gave me a lesson in the lines of Atilian succession.” She wanted to roll out of the bed and storm away. But it took her too long to do such things—or anything—these days. So she settled for rolling away from him, and pushing herself up into sitting position.
And as she did, she was suddenly too aware of how naked she was. How huge her breasts had become. How misshapen her belly was, sticking so far out, with her belly button protruding.
“Yes,” Ares was saying, watching her. “I’m concerned about the lines of succession. Should I not be? I told you the day of your father’s funeral that it was no small thing to claim you carry my child. That hasn’t changed. If anything, the closer we get to your due date, the more serious the matter becomes.”
“Because all of a sudden now you care deeply about these things?”
“I may not have set out to make myself heirs.” And there was something granite in his voice. In the gaze he leveled on her. It made something deep inside her start to tremble. “But they exist. They will be here sooner rather than later. And I would prefer it if they had access to all the rights and privileges their position as my heirs allows them.”
“Why?” She was rubbing her belly, and made herself stop. “You felt one way about all of this, then you interacted with your father and everything changed. It’s hard not to think you simply want to defy him.”
His expression changed, and she wondered if he’d thought she didn’t know. That she hadn’t seen the pictures of the two of them—King Damascus Takes Errant Heir to Task! the papers had cackled—and seen the dark look on Ares’s face.
“What do you think will happen?” he asked her, and she thought she hated it most when he sounded so patient. So reasonable.
“Do you need me to explain to you where babies come from, Ares?” she asked him, proud that she kept her voice calm.
“The world already believes you are pregnant with at least one of my children,” he replied, only that cool gleam in his eyes indicating that he was even aware of the question she’d asked. “Let us say, for the sake of argument, that I let you go right now. And you set out into the world, footloose and fancy-free as you claim to want. You’re lucky enough not to be impoverished, which means you will no doubt be capable of raising these babies just fine on your own.”
“I’ve been making this argument for months.”
“But the world will continue to think they are mine, no matter what lies we tell or lengths we take to conceal that truth. And what then?”
“What do you mean, ‘what then?’ Rumors are just rumors—”
“Rumors are rumors, yes. But thrones are thrones, cara mia.” And she didn’t know what that note in his voice was then. Or that look in his eyes. Only that it made her tremble—again. “And we may have grown progressive in these latter days. We prefer to have our fights in ballot boxes rather than in the streets or on poppy fields. But that does not change the fact that you will be raising two boys with a direct claim to the throne of Atilia. I understand that means nothing to you, but I assure you—it will not only mean something to my people, it will mean even more to whoever succeeds me.”