“I don’t understand. You...?”
There was the sound of footsteps beyond the door, and darker clouds began to pull together over the hills in the distance. And Pia stared back at her brother, her cheeks so hot they hurt.
“You don’t understand?” she asked him. “Really? I’ve certainly seen your face and photographs with different women in the tabloids, yet you remain unmarried. How can this be?”
“If you’re going to act like we’re Victorian, Matteo, I should have every right to ask about the state of your virtue. Shouldn’t I?”
“I beg your pardon. I am not in the habit of having intimate relations with women that I do not know.”
“Well. Okay, then.” She drew herself up even straighter. “I guess I’m just a whore.”
“I doubt that very much,” Matteo growled.
But the word stayed in her head, pounding like a drum, because the doors to the library were tossed open then. The staff that Matteo had kept at bay came flooding in, his erstwhile assistant was there to whisper in his ear, and it was time to do their sad duty.
And she knew their father had thought exactly that of her, at least for that moment. He’d looked at her—really looked at her, for a change, because Eddie Combe had usually preferred to keep his attention on himself—only three days before his heart attack. And called her a common tart to her face.
She kept telling herself that wasn’t cause and effect. That the heart attack hadn’t had anything to do with her condition. And that, if he’d had more time, he would have found her in the next days or weeks and gruffly offer some sort of olive branch.
Yet as she rode down in her brother’s car, tucked there in the back with him while he tended to the business of running the family company and his assistant Lauren handled calls for him, she accepted that she couldn’t know for sure. How could she?
The last thing Pia knew Eddie had thought about her was that she was a whore. He’d said so. And then in a matter of days, he was dead.
Her mother had called her fat, which wasn’t anything new. Then again, that was the worst thing Alexandrina could think to call another woman, and she hadn’t yet cycled through to the usual affection before she’d passed.
Either way, Matteo and Pia were orphans now.
And Pia was still terribly afraid it was her fault.
But she snuck her hand over her belly because whether it was or wasn’t her fault, that didn’t extend to the next generation. She wouldn’t allow it.
The funeral service was simple and surprisingly touching. It made Eddie seem far more approachable than he had in life, and Pia wondered if she would understand the man more as time went on. If her memories would mellow him into more of a father figure, lingering on his gruff affection. Or if he would always be that volcanic presence in her mind. The one that had thought his only daughter was a trollop right before he’d died.
The ride back up the hill toward the Combe estate was somber, and Pia was glad, in a fierce sort of way, that it was a moody day. The dark clouds threatened, though the rain held off, and they stood in a bit of a brisk, unpleasant wind as Eddie’s casket was lowered into the ground in the family plot.
The vicar, who Eddie had hated in life, though had requested in his will in some attempt to torture the holy man from beyond, murmured a prayer. Pia kept her eyes on the casket that was all that remained of her father—of her childhood—until she could no longer see it.
And somehow kept her tears at bay. Because there were too many cameras. And how many times had Alexandrina lectured her about red eyes and a puffy face?
It hit her again. That Alexandrina was gone. That Eddie was gone. That nothing was ever going to be the same.
Then Matteo’s hand was on her back and they moved away from the grave site to form the necessary receiving line for those who might or might not make it back to the small reception at the house. It was times like these that her years in finishing school came in handy. Pia was infinitely capable of shaking hands and making meaningful eye contact with every royal in Europe without noticing them at all.
“May I offer my condolences on the part of the Kingdom of Atilia and His Majesty King Damascus, my father?”
Something about that voice kicked at her.
Pia’s hand was already extended. And even as she focused on the man standing before her, his hand enveloped hers.
And she knew that sudden burst of flame. She knew the shiver that worked its way from the nape of her neck down to pool at the base of her spine.
Her eyes jerked up and met his.
As expected, his gaze was green, shot through with gold. And as shocked as hers.
Pia panicked. How could this be happening? The last time she’d seen this man, he had been sprawled out, asleep, in a penthouse suite high above Manhattan. She had gathered her things, feeling powerful and shaken at once by her daring and all the things he’d taught her, and had tiptoed away.