Maybe there were twin boys. A palace fit for Rapunzel. And months spent doing nothing but circling around and around the inevitable. Maybe there were wild, hot nights of sex and longing with the only man she’d ever wanted to touch.
Already that sounded better than half the marriages she’d ever heard of.
And Pia loved him, though she knew better than that, too. She loved him even though she was sure that the years would pass and whatever protestations he’d made here tonight about her supposed beauty would fade. He would regret this. He might take his own father’s path.
Pia knew that she would still love him then. That she would always love him. So what would be worse? Never having any part of this? Or losing what little she had?
In front of her, Ares shifted. He dropped onto his knees, his gaze locked to hers as the afternoon sun poured in and highlighted every last perfect, glorious inch of him.
Both of them were naked. Pia’s belly was so big it could take over the whole of the room on its own, and maybe the world. Ares didn’t put his hands there. Instead, he reached up and took hers in his.
“Pia,” he said, very gravely. “Marry me. Be my queen and mother to my sons. And promise me that from time to time, you will smile at me the way you did in a stranger’s party in Manhattan.”
And her heart kicked at her, but she couldn’t tell if it was signaling danger or excitement. Hope or anxiety. All of the above.
And she knew better. She knew better.
The worst thing she could possibly do was believe.
But her hands were in his much bigger ones. And his gaze was so serious that it made her flush a little.
And she had two baby boys inside her who deserved their father.
What do you deserve, dear girl? that voice inside asked her, the way Alexandrina would have. Do you really think you deserve a prince?
But Pia shoved that aside.
Right here, right now, he believed she was beautiful.
She didn’t have to believe him to hold on to that for as long as she could.
For as long as he’d let her.
“Very well, then,” she said, surrendering. Or, if she was honest, taking a leap into faith, despite everything. And having no idea where she might land. “I will do it, Ares. I will marry you.”
* * *
Ares didn’t realize until Pia finally agreed to marry him that a part of him had worried that she would not. That she would actually refuse him.
And it was one thing to make pronouncements about how he wished to live his life wifeless and childless and alone. It was another to be rendered such things because the woman he wanted would not have him.
But she had agreed at last. And he was ready—had been ready, in fact, since the day he’d met with his father and had decided on a different future.
And two days after Pia finally acquiesced, he found her on an achingly perfect morning by the sea, having her breakfast out on one of the palace’s many terraces. For a moment he stood away from her, taking her in as she gazed out toward Kefalonia. This woman who had made him into a man he didn’t recognize. A crown prince who wanted to claim his throne. A man who was no longer content to step aside for the father he had always hated.
Pia sat in the loose, flowing dress he had chosen for her, her dark hair back in a loose braid. The breeze from the ocean picked up strands and made them dance, this way and that, and he thought the sea itself paled beside her.
He could not believe she had ever imagined she was anything less than beautiful. Stunning, even.
He had met her mother. And he had found Alexandrina San Giacomo beautiful, yes, but brittle with it. Expectant. Her beauty was her currency, and she had been well aware of it. There was nothing wrong with that, to Ares’s mind. He admired it, as he certainly knew when his own looks worked in his favor.
But Pia was beautiful in a different way altogether. Her beauty was unstudied. Artless. Her gray eyes were dreamy, her sweet mouth soft. Right now she was gloriously pregnant, ripe and lush, and it only added to her many charms.
Alexandrina had been a weapon. But Pia was a precious gem. As perfect as she was pretty.
And soon to be his princess. And one day, his queen.
He must have made a noise, because she glanced over then. And Ares had the pleasure of watching the way her eyes glowed with pleasure before she blinked it away to something far more guarded.
But the smile that curved her mouth was as bright and engaging as that first one back in New York.
It made something in him seem to turn over, then hum.
This one, a voice in him said, like some kind of gong. This one.
Mine, Ares thought.
He moved over to her, sliding a hand over her cheek and loving the way she leaned into his touch. The way she always did. She had no walls. She held nothing back. She was heedless, hedonistic in bed, and he found that she made him insatiable.