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As if he was still the man who had taken her innocence and had intended to claim her as his, for good.

It had all washed through him as if it was new, as wild and deep and darklyright—

But he held it all tightly bound within him. It was one more thing he’d learned how to do these last cold years.

He told himself it didn’t matter if anyone else noticed. Even this woman, who he kept reacting to as if he wanted her to know that he remembered her all too well. No matter how he tried to pretend otherwise, there was that deeply buried thread of need and hunger in him, a glimmer of gold that he did his best to tamp down and forget.

Paris Apollo assured himself there was no gold in him. There was no room for such fripperies. There was only and ever vengeance.

This was what he told himself later that same night.

“Howdareyoukidnapmy child and parade him into the middle of this circus of yours?” Madelyn was demanding, flushed with fury. “Then use him as a weapon against me? I don’t know what happened to make you so delusional, Paris Apollo—though my money’s on isolating yourself in a stone cage for two years—but I’m certainly notmarryingyou.”

Paris Apollo took all that as yet another sign that everything was going swimmingly. And better yet, precisely as planned. Which was good because the plan had been...more difficult to execute than expected.

He had finished his introductory speech to his people. He’d taken all the necessary pictures and spoken to all the reporters. He’d introduced Madelyn, announced her as his future queen, and seen the child—his child—with his own eyes.

Something in him had shifted uncomfortably at the sight of the boy, looking too much like the pictures Paris Apollo had seen of himself at that age for comfort. He’d had the strangest urge to just...go to him, as if he was not in the midst of the most critical performance of his life. As if he would know what to do with a child.

As if, deep down, he recognized his own blood. At a glance.

Or maybe it was that longing in him for family that had been like an open wound in him for two endless years—

But he had not succumbed to the urge. Because the child was there to put pressure on Madelyn, not to be presented to the world as Paris Apollo’s heir.

That needed to happen at precisely the right time.

He had been up the whole of the previous night, working through every possible scenario and all potential outcomes.

The boy’s presence was all part of his plan and was all about exerting his will on this woman. It had nothing to do with thewhat ifsthat plagued him.

He couldn’t allow fantasies of the family he didn’t deserve, not after treating his original one so shabbily, to get in the way of the reckoning he planned to deliver to his loathsome cousin. He would not permit himself to succumb to the lure of the boy, no matter how much he wished he could.

Preciselybecausehe wished he could.

The aide in charge of ushering the child into the great hall at the right moment took the boy and Madelyn’s aunt out again at the King’s nod. When Paris Apollo’s speech was done, he had allowed Madelyn’s attendants to take her to their son—his son—because he’d assumed that would be the only thing she’d want to do.

What he had not anticipated was that it might be what he wanted to do, too.

Paris Apollo had been so sure that he had thought through every possible avenue, but he had not imagined that he would feel this deep, abidingneedwithin him to put his hands on thepersonhe had made with Madelyn.

It made him feel as close to drunk as he’d been in years.

Now the sun was setting over the palace. His home, though it felt new around him after having been gone so long. And having made the excesses of Europe his home for so long before that.

He wanted it to hurry up and get dark. Really dark, so he could begin the second, more hands-on phase of his plan. The part he’d trained for all this time. All those things he’d taught himself to do, high up on that unwelcoming mountain, with no one around to pay attention to the kinds of physical feats the grieving King was learning to execute at will.

He had made himself a creature of the night. A weapon who could do the things that protocol and tradition and the sluggish and inconsistent Ilonian legal system—or even his own royal decree—could not.

But the sunset was taking its time tonight.

Paris Apollo stood out on the terrace that stretched alongside his private rooms, where so many of the Kings in Ilonian history had stood in their time, gazing out on the ocean beyond and all the islands that made the kingdom what it was.

He had changed out of the ceremonial robes and allowed himself some moments of much-needed solitude. He had reflected on the fact that his father had worn the very same historic robes in his time. And that the child even now tucked away in the lesser-used new wing of the palace would wear them someday, too. Troy would stand in the same hall and speak a great many of the same words to his people.

Paris Apollo found that the fact he was a father was a concept far harder to grasp than the reality, two years old now, he was King.

And though he had planned almost every moment of this day down to the minutest details, from who was invited into his hall to exactly what he would say and how, he found that he’d anticipated Madelyn’s arrival for the first supper they would share as an engaged couple almost more than all the rest.

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