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It was that damned hunger inside of him that only seemed to sharpen with every moment he spent in her presence. It was that delirious need that he could recall only too well.

He could remember every sigh. Every touch. Every flicker of every flame that had danced between them. In them.

She hadn’t disappointed him.

Madelyn hadn’t changed from the gown she’d worn to the press conference, and he liked how it fit her. How it made her look like the very dream come true of a truly modern queen. Perfect for the kingdom, perfect for him.

He would have married her either way, naturally, so as to confer the necessary legitimacy upon his heir. He couldn’t risk paying her off while he found another queen, not when the palace knew of her—giving any enemy with a DNA test a weapon to use against him in the future.

Even if he’d wanted to do such a thing, which he did not.

He didn’t like the very idea of it.

What he did like was that Madelyn was a true commoner. A regular person, like so many of his subjects. And in time, the story of their separation—the massaged version, of course, filtered through the best royal spin there was—would make her even more dear to his people. For kings were necessarily icons. Relatable symbols, at best.

But Madelyn was a real person who had struggled and emerged victorious to take her place at his side, and he knew this would resonate with the kingdom. They would take to her and champion her, and this could only make his work easier.

Even the hint of scandal that would follow them, thanks to the existence of his child, could—if properly handled—make her all the more sympathetic to his people.

She really couldn’t be more perfect.

He told himself he enjoyed what she brought to bear here, that was all. Nogolden threadsrequired.

Paris Apollo even appreciated the way she barreled past his guards and into his rooms, as if he was a regular person, too. As if there was no need to stand on ceremony when they were alone. His parents never had, not when it was only them. He liked to imagine that they might look down upon him and—though they would feel sadness for the path of justice he had set himself upon and would not be impressed with the fact he’d allowed his heir to go astray for all these years, he knew—he flattered himself that they would approve of his choice of queen. Of a real woman, wholly unlike his usual conquests.

A man can only get so far with a cardboard cutout on his arm, King Aether had told him long ago, when Paris Apollo had been splashed all over some magazine with an actress whose name he barely knew.

But I like cardboard, Paris Apollo had replied, grinning.It is so undemanding.

That is not what a king wants in a queen, his father had said, peering at him with his usual concern.I pray that you understand this before you find yourself trapped and miserable.

Father, please.He had laughed then. For he’d believed he had so many decades left to keep laughing.I am not capable of misery. Surely you know this.

He had been wrong about that, too.

Now he was trapped, sure enough, though he did not intend to succumb to further misery on that score. He intended to enjoy it. And her. Surely that was the gift in all of this.

This time, he would enjoy her without losing his footing. This time, he knew better.

Paris Apollo could feel his body responding as she vented her spleen at him, reminding him in no uncertain terms that whatever else he was, he was a man first and foremost.

And she was...not a cardboard cutout.

She was real and she was his, like it or not. And he had already enjoyed Madelyn—too much, he would have said before her return. He saw no reason he should not enjoy her again. Surely that was the one thing their affair had been good for. It had shown him that he could indeed enjoy something a bit more substantial than cardboard.

That didn’t mean he needed to lose the plot and start telling himself she was any kind of lodestone.

He’d already learned that lesson.

All of his plans were coming along swimmingly, he assured himself as the sky above them played with pinks and oranges and yellows and seemed in no hurry to surrender to the night.

Paris Apollo could relate.

“You’re not even listening to me, are you?” Madelyn was demanding then, her hands on her hips and a distracting high color on her cheeks. “How dare you drag my son into this mess? In front of all those people andcameras? In this palace that isn’t fit for children in the first place!”

“I was raised in this palace,” he said very mildly. “Though I’m guessing you won’t think that much of a draw.”

He turned away from the view, leaning back on the rail so he could look at her instead. And also so he could practice that indolence that had once been such a part of him, because it no longer felt like second nature.