‘But…but that’s terrible.’
‘Si. It is. Just one of the spats our countries—or should I say the houses of Verbault and Guerrero—have engaged in over the centuries.’
Her nose scrunched up as she grimaced. ‘Hard to believe we were allies—sister islands at one time. I have heard some gruesome and horrific accounts…’
‘And I bet we were always the villains.’
Thane didn’t bother to wait for her to agree; they both knew he was right.
‘I won’t lie—I imagine we committed many an outrageous act not to be proud of, but most were in retaliation. If you care to go back far enough it all comes down to Arunthia’s greed. Galancia has always been the richer in industry, and many an Arunthian leader has tried to take it by force. Almost succeeded two or three times too. But it just made us stronger. Hence we have an indomitable military presence. Now no one would dare to touch us.’
Those decadently long lashes swept downward, as if his words weighed heavily on her mind. ‘I can see why you wish to be feared, in that case. To protect what you have. No matter what it takes.’
Thane narrowed his gaze on her, sure there was a deeper meaning to her hushed words—which had been spoken in a cracked parody of her usual tone. When she failed to elucidate he ploughed on, riding the imperative desire for her to know. Understand.
‘We stop at nothing. Which has caused a whole new set of problems for us. Because to protect, to build an army, takes an obscene amount of money. More than you could ever imagine. So the crown hoards the land for revenue and taxes businesses until they can’t breathe—until we’ve suffocated our own. All to make us indestructible. More powerful than any other. While our children need new schools and our hospitals are in dire need of repair.’
Sadness crept over her demeanour, making her eyes darken. ‘That makes so much sense it’s scary.’
‘My uncle will never release those bonds on our people. Nor will he let the feud go—just like my father before him. His father before that. The hatred is inbred.’
‘I know. My father is the same. But what I don’t understand is why Franco Guerrero is in power and you’re not. Why haven’t you taken your throne?’
‘Must we talk about this now, Luciana?’
‘Yes, Thane, we must. You brought me here against my wishes. You talk about marrying me…which is ludicrous. We don’t even know one another. And basically all you expect me to go on is rumours and secrets and lies. So here I am blindfolded, smack-bang in the midst of a labyrinth, not knowing which way to turn. Can’t you see that?’
Disquiet hummed through his mind. He didn’t particularly want her to know how dark he was inside, how deeply twisted by it all.
They’d reached a shaded wrought-iron arbour often used by his workers and Thane swung his right leg over the saddle and dropped onto uneven ground, determined to tread carefully over the minefield that was the past.
He was too close to success to risk everything now, by admitting he’d been a trigger away from assassinating her father. Especially when some days he regretted not doing so, since his people had ultimately paid the price. Other days he accepted it would have severed the very last thread of humanity he’d been clinging to at the time. And today, looking at the man’s daughter—the woman he wanted as his wife, the woman who would give him his crown—he couldn’t help but wonder if fate truly did move in mysterious ways.
* * *
Vigilance tautened his striking features, telling Luciana she was trying to open a conversational door best left shut. Then an artful devious light shone in his dark eyes and he stretched out his arms, gripped her waist and lifted her down, dragging her body against his.
The friction charged her pulse and set off a chain reaction she was powerless against. Inside her bra her breasts grew heavy, aching to be touched. Those burning butterflies went wild, flitting in and around her ribcage, and her panties suddenly felt too damp, too tight.
‘Let’s have lunch in the shade,’ he murmured, his voice enriched with sin. ‘It’s stifling out here in the open.’
Translation: I’ll seduce you in the bushes until you forget your own name, never mind this discussion.
Er…no. She thought not.
Though her resolve would be less painful to stick to if she stopped gawping at the man. Thane in a pair of tall sepia leather boots, black riding trousers and a skin-tight red polo shirt—collar flicked up to tease his hair and short sleeves lovingly caressing his sculpted biceps—was a head-rush all on its own.