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“Yesterday you were storming around your stone tree house, grim and dangerous. Now you’re lounging around at dinner tables, making remarks I have no doubtyouthink are entertaining. Which is the real you? Or is there nothing real to you at all?”

That was a bit more on point than he found comfortable. Especially when she was the only person alive who had ever managed to see beneath all of the masks he wore. He had spent years telling himself he had been mistaken. That he had lost himself in a pretty face, as many had done before him and would again.

It had not occurred to him that this woman would still be capable of seeing him clearly when no one else managed to do it.

Thiswas most certainly not a part of his careful plans.

Paris Apollo swirled his wine around in his glass and eyed her over the top of it, ignoring the drumbeat inside him that seemed to take him over. “I am the King of Ilonia,” he said simply enough, despite that low, insistent pounding that filled him up. “That’s the only thing you need to know about me.”

“I don’t care if you’re a king,” she told him, her gray eyes solemn, and he hated that she could make that feel like some kind of conviction. When she held no high ground here. How could she imagine otherwise? “The only thing that matters to me about you at this point is that you’re some kind of a father to Troy. That he is never hurt by his connection to you. That’s it.”

He thought of his own father, a man whose greatness had never been in doubt. For the young Aether had taken the throne when his own father had died unexpectedly, then made his youth and inexperience a selling point. He had invited his subjects to approach him with their concerns, reviving old traditions that brought his people to him. Like allowing anyone who wished to stand in line at the palace on certain days of the month for an audience with him. Where they could say anything they wished, and did. That had been his public face.

In private, Aether had been kind and fair, if perhaps too indulgent. But always possessed of a sense of humor. As if it was not a kingdom he carried, but a minor concern that paled next to his wife, his child. He had allowed Paris Apollo to feel as if, truly, his father was available to hear each and every one of his silly concerns when he was a child. He had not been shunted off to tutors and boarding schools like so many royal children were.

Paris Apollo hadn’t had the faintest idea how unique this was until he met the children of other wealthy men—whether royal or not—at Cambridge.

“I intend to be an excellent father to my son,” he said, because he didn’t know how to put his admiration for his own father into words. Not when he was still too focused on dispensing the necessary justice for Aether’s untimely death. “One way or another.”

“Do you really.” That came out a challenge, not a question. “When you couldn’t even take it upon yourself to meet him. After dragging him all the way here just so you could use him to keep me in line.”

She pushed back from the table and stood in a sudden clamor of the chair against the stone and her own obvious temper. Paris Apollo found himself rising as well, tracking her as she whirled around and stomped toward the doors that led into the public rooms of his apartment, though she did not go inside.

Instead, she turned back to face him. The last of the sun was still clinging to the horizon, a deep glow in the distance. The night air around them was cool, and the terrace was lit all around with the great hanging lanterns his people favored.

The only storm here tonight was in Madelyn’s gaze.

And that drumbeat deep inside him, low in his sex, as if the only hunger he would ever feel was for her.

Always for her.

As if she hadn’t ruined him long ago.

“This is real life.” And though her voice was quiet, he could hear the undercurrent in it that told him how deeply her feelings ran. But then, so did his. “It is Troy’s real life, Paris Apollo. This isn’t whatever game you think you’re playing with us. His life matters more than whatever dies are cast or whatever court intrigue is happening here. He has nothing to do with any of it.”

“That is where you are wrong,” Paris Apollo replied, and he sounded almost regretful, there in the gathering night. Though he was not. There was nothing here to regret. Not when there was vengeance waiting in the coming night and, here between them, this same, simmering desire that had been there from the start. “You have had five years to enjoy being the sun and the moon and the whole of the stars for that little boy.Thatwas not real life, Madelyn. That was only ever a fantasy, and had I known sooner, it would not have lasted as long as it did. Because for all your talk of fairy tales and the things that should have occurred yet conveniently slipped your mind, I remain the King of Ilonia.”

“You keep expecting that to impress me—” she began hotly.

“I am stating a fact. You keep glossing over it. My son is the Crown Prince whether you marry me or not, because he is my heir apparent by virtue of his blood and his very existence.”

“Wonderful.” Her tone was no less spicy then. “Even less reason to get married.”

He allowed himself a long-suffering sigh. “You marrying me gives the whole enterprise a gloss of respectability, of tradition. And ensures that no other potential heir could claim they have more right to the throne than Troy does in the event of my death.”

She scowled. “I don’twanthim to have anything to do with your stupid throne.”

Paris Apollo only smiled, ignoring that. “It is also not lost on me that while my people were remarkably tolerant of my behavior as a single man, as a mere prince to my parents’ King and Queen, things are different now.” More different than he wished, or could reconcile himself with, but that was a separate conversation entirely—and one he did not intend to have. Not with a woman who looked pink and hot andhis. “It will serve all of us better if I present myself to them now as a man grown. Settled and steady, with the wife and child to prove it.”

Madelyn surged toward him, her scowl something like ferocious. Then, to his utter astonishment, she extended one finger and poked it into the center of his chest.

Once, then again.

He peered down at his own chest in amazement.

And not only because she dared touch him, as the King. But because she dared touch him as a man when she claimed to remember exactly how it had always been between them.

A conflagration from the very start.