Her eyes glistened. Her smile seemed to tremble on her lips. Even her hands in his shook a little.
“Just you and me,” she whispered.
There was a faint breeze from the sea spread out below them. The priest spoke his words, and when it was time for their vows, Pia had stopped shaking.
“I vow to honor you, keep you safe, and pledge my life to yours,” Ares said, intoning the traditional vows of the kingdom.
“And I you,” Pia replied.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out another box. Inside sat two rings. Two bands of gold. He slid the smaller one onto Pia’s finger, so it sat flush against his grandmother’s. And something dark and primitive roared through him at the sight.
He handed her the bigger ring and she took it, shifting her hand to slide it onto his finger.
And that was it, Ares thought. It was done.
“And now, Your Highness, you may kiss your bride,” the priest declared.
And Pia was smiling again as he angled his face to hers, then took her mouth with his.
For a moment there was nothing but that kiss, sweet and perfect. Then another.
There was only the two of them, and the vows they’d made. Ares moved closer, pulling Pia further into his arms, because she was his. And he couldn’t get enough of her.
And he doubted he ever would.
He kissed her again, deeper and wilder—
And that was when the helicopter rose up from below. It bristled with reporters, cameras in hand and pointing straight toward them.
Pia started to pull away, stiff with horror.
“Kiss me again,” Ares commanded her.
“But the paparazzi—” she began.
“Kiss me, Pia,” he told her, and he could hear the satisfaction in his own voice. He could feel it thrumming in his veins. He could very nearly picture the king’s apoplectic rage when he saw these pictures—and understood what they meant. “I want them to see. I’m the one who called them here.”
PIA DID AS Ares asked—as he commanded—because she could see no alternative.
And because she couldn’t think. She kissed him, and the helicopter was right there, and everything was whipping around while she knew there were pictures being taken—
She was sure she could hear them laughing already.
Before she could object, or scream, or do any of the things that clambered inside of her and threated to come out of her, violently—Ares pulled away. He shouted something to the priest over the noise of the helicopter’s rotors.
He even waved.
Then he was leading her back inside the palace, leaving the helicopter and its paparazzi cargo behind. For a moment she let him lead her on, because she was too busy reeling to do anything else. She was blind and her heart hurt and it was a lie.
It was all a lie.
What had happened—what had just happened—hit her, hard.
I called them, he had said.
She dug her heels in, yanking her hand from his, and moving her hands around to the small of her back as she panted a little at the exertion and the low, dull pain that bloomed there. And she didn’t know whether to look at him directly, or do her best to look away, maybe up and down the gallery where they’d stopped.
“What did you do?” she demanded. “What do you mean, you called them?”
“I called them,” he said again, much too calmly for her peace of mind, and even looked a bit quizzical. As if she was the one who had stopped making sense in a dizzying rush.
And he was the man she loved. The man she had married in what she’d foolishly imagined was a quiet, sweet, personal ceremony.
She’d believed his just the two of us, and all the while he’d had a helicopter full of reporters waiting.
Which meant none of this had been romantic.
You knew better, she reminded herself bitterly. And you did it anyway.
Something in her turned over, spinning around in a nauseating loop. For a moment, she thought she might be sick. A kind of cramp ran through her, centering low in her belly, and she moved a hand to curl beneath the heaviest part of it. And she held it there, wishing she could hold herself together as easily.
“Tell me why,” she managed to say. “Tell me why you would do this. We ran away from my father’s funeral to avoid these people and you called them here... You must know that they took pictures that will be everywhere within the hour.”
He raised a brow. “That was my clear intent.”
Pia looked around, wildly, because she thought her legs might cease to hold her. There was a bench to the side, beneath a huge painting that she had studied in finishing school, the better to make sparkling cocktail conversation. She waddled over to the bench and sank down on to it. Gratefully.
Though she looked at Ares—her husband—and that awful feeling in her belly got worse.