“You’re making my point for me,” Pia said, wishing she hadn’t tossed the coverlet aside. She could hardly go scrabbling after it now she’d made such a show of casting it off. She was forced to stand there instead, tall and proud, when she wanted nothing more than to curl up in a ball and cringe away into oblivion somewhere. “The world is filled with beautiful women, and you ought to go out and find yourself one of them.”
“Pia. Cara mia.” And Ares looked as if he was biting back a smile, which Pia couldn’t understand at all. “Perhaps you do not understand to whom you are speaking. I am Crown Prince Ares of Atilia. I have dukedoms and earldoms to spare. I am, by definition and royal decree, possessed of the finest taste. Any woman who graces my arm is beautiful by virtue of her presence there. Obviously.”
Pia opened her mouth to argue, but stopped when he rolled himself up to sitting position, never shifting his gaze from her face.
“But you? The mother of my children? The only woman alive I have ever asked to be my queen? Of course you are beautiful.” He shrugged again, so arrogant and assured that it should have hurt him. Yet clearly did not. “It never occurred to me that you could imagine otherwise.”
“You can’t throw compliments at me and think that it will change the fact that I am not, in any way, the kind of woman a man like you goes for.”
“I suggest you look down at your very pregnant belly,” Ares said, his voice slightly less patient and mild. “I have already gone for you. Repeatedly.”
“Stop saying these things!” She threw the words at him, unable to control her voice—or anything else—any longer. “I know what I look like. I know what I am. Pretending that I’m something else isn’t going to get me to marry you.”
“Then what will?”
And Pia kept trying to suck in more air. She couldn’t seem to form another word.
And that was when Ares moved again. He rolled to his feet, then came to her, wrapping his hands around her shoulders and holding her up.
“You are the only woman I have ever asked to marry me,” he told her, his voice serious and his gaze darkly intense. “But if that is not enough for you, think back to the party where we met. Why do you think I was drawn to you? At first, before we spoke a word to each other? If you are so misshapen, such a hideous troll—do you imagine it was curiosity that drew me to your side?”
This was ridiculous. Tears were spilling over, tracking their way down her cheeks, and Pia wanted to die. She wanted to sink to the floor of the palace, and be swept out to sea.
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice cracked and much too thick. “I looked up and you were...there.”
“I was there because I saw you smile,” Ares said. “I heard you laugh. I was there because I followed that smile across the room, simply because I wanted to get close to it. And then, when we met, I wanted to get even closer. None of that has changed.”
“Marry me because every time I have asked you to follow me so far, you have,” he said, words in his eyes that she was afraid to believe in. “Follow me because I have yet to lead you anywhere you didn’t like. You call this palace a prison, yet here we are, together—and it feels more to me like an escape. Marry me, Pia, and we will make our marriage another kind of refuge. The sort we can take with us wherever we go.”
“You only want—”
“Our sons,” he finished for her. “Yes, of course I want them. Let’s raise them together.”
And maybe she had always been this weak. Maybe it was the way he made her feel, and she couldn’t help herself. She liked it too much.
She knew better, but Ares looked at her as if she was beautiful. And when he did, she was tempted to believe it. Here, now, she did believe it.
And that belief trickled down into her, making her feel warm. Safe.
And there were worse things, surely. There were men who didn’t want their own babies and who went to great lengths to avoid their responsibilities. There were men who didn’t make her heart kick at her the way it did whenever Ares was near.
A whole world full of them, in fact.
There were marriages, especially amongst the sort of people she knew, that were little more than business transactions. There were cold, brittle union s, husbands and wives who were faithless, others who exulted in causing each other pain.
There were a thousand ways to have a terrible marriage.
But maybe what that meant was that Pia could decide how to make hers a good one. Or a decent one, anyway. Better than most. And maybe there wasn’t only one fairy-tale way to get there.