‘Thane? Please wait. Don’t go yet. We need to talk. About when I can go back to Arunthia.’
‘I need to leave now. Maybe we’ll talk tomorrow.’
A soft sigh slipped past her lips. ‘I can’t marry you without tying up my life at home. I have my own responsibilities. And you said we’d talk about it yesterday, when you dropped the “we’re getting married on Christmas Eve” bomb on me. As you were walking out of the door, I hasten to add.’
That spark of temper ignited in the pit of his stomach and raged through his body, firing his voice to a blazing pitch. ‘Si, well, you owe me four years, so I’m damn sure you can wait another day.’
Guilt thrashed him and he instantly wanted the words back. He was unsure why he’d said them with such a vicious lash of his tongue. Maybe because she’d called Arunthia home. Maybe because he knew she didn’t want to marry him, only wanted to leave, no matter what excuse she gave herself. Henri was quite capable of tying up her life. She wanted her freedom. Something he could not, would not give her. His son was here to stay.
Moreover, the date was set, their marriage arranged. She would become his wife in less than a week. And if the thought that they had to perform for the crowds tomorrow wasn’t enough to convince him to tame his tongue and start building bridges, the way she flinched as hurt darkened her beautiful eyes certainly was.
* * *
Luciana knew regret when she saw it. Though it still failed to lessen the strike of his words—each one like a knife-blow to her chest.
At the searing impact, his deep pained frown vanished behind her eyelids and the sound of his retreating footsteps gave way to the forlorn thunder of her heart.
Three days of this and she was ready to crack. Living on a knife-edge while a red river screamed through her blood, chanting for her to escape. Sleep was a fool’s dream. One day blurred into the next. And stone-cold silences caromed off the oppressive walls until she felt a relentless ache of loneliness that refused to abate.
The only thing keeping her standing—Nate.
Luckily enough she knew the drill. Had seen it all before. And so, with the asset of royal breeding, she kept her head high and smiled on demand. Her mother would be so proud.
Why was he avoiding the subject of her going home? There was no way she could marry him without renouncing her throne. How would that look to her people? What was more, she at least wanted her sister at her wedding—but had he asked her who she would like there? No. She’d just been told when and where. Truth was, she couldn’t understand the hurry. Why not springtime?
Ah, come off it, Luce, you’re petrified. Scared stiff of committing to a loveless marriage. Where you’ll be eternally powerless. Trapped by invisible shackles. His mistresses secreted behind closed doors…
Slumping against the wall, she slid to her bottom, bending her knees to hug them to her chest.
Stop. Just stop jumping to conclusions. Stop with the portentous predictions.
Problem was, three days of silence had slowly turned her mind inside out—and with it came unadulterated panic exacerbated by Thane’s sporadic vanishing acts. Every day he spent with Natanael, every evening he disappeared until dawn, leaving her with enough bodyguards to secure Fort Knox. His cousin Seve being one of them.
Could the man scream, I don’t trust you not to steal my son any louder?
She felt like a captive, with no way to escape. And, since he couldn’t seem to tolerate the sight of her, was he getting comfort from elsewhere now? Was that where he was? Did she have the right to know who he was sleeping with?
Her mother would say not.
She’d always divined that her mother truly loved her father but it was disastrously one-sided. Luciana could have only been twelve or thirteen when she’d spied one of her father’s mistresses slipping down the hall, seen her mother’s tear-tracks when Luciana had sneaked in her bedroom to ask about her.
‘We don’t talk about such things. Go back to bed, Luciana.’
Considering how cold Luciana had felt in the last few days, Marysse Verbault deserved a gold medal for that cool façade she’d perfected. Imprisoned by duty. Funny thing was, Luciana could have put up with all of that from Augustus. But the thought of Thane being in another woman’s bed…
Squeezing her eyes shut, she dropped her head to her knees and forced air into her lungs, past the heavy, tumultuous maelstrom that swirled like a thick brume. Tried to cling on to the rapidly fraying threads of hope that he’d come round. That they could somehow find each other again.