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His Drakon Runaway Bride(10)

By:Tara Pammi

“Because at the height of his regime my father had been a magnificent statesman. Nik had a better measure of him far before I did. He hated that Theos alienated him from me.” The regret in his words stunned Ariana. “All I saw in Theos was the man who equipped me to rule Drakon. A man who’d worked tirelessly for years to make me perfect. A man who only wanted me to have the world and rule it.

“Only later did I realize that in his personal life, Theos was a manipulative monster.”

Ariana bit her lip. She didn’t have much time. Not if she wanted to stop him from parading her next to him come coronation day in front of all of Drakon. “I would have given anything for you to see that side of King Theos back then, Andreas.”

“It must be so tempting to put this all on him, but he only aided you, Ariana.”

She caught his hands on the table and laced her fingers through his. To anchor him to her, to not lose him to the memory of a cruel old man. “That’s not true. He knew everything that was going on between us. Every fight, every disagreement. Petra relayed everything to him.”

“He was a ruthless bastard, yes, but do not put your faults on him.”

When he jerked his hand away, she held fast. For a man who spent hours at his desk signing treaties, he’d always had such rough hands.

“Andreas, it was never my idea to fake... I never agreed to pretend that I was dead. I only signed the papers dissolving our marriage. I took the money your father offered, yes, but I...”

He pulled his hand away from her as if she was poison.

Ariana stood up and blocked him. “If you’re determined to make us walk through this hell again, at least listen to my side.”

His hands fisted. “How did you realize what he had done if you didn’t even look back?”

“I received all the paperwork through a lawyer. God, I didn’t even completely understand the ramifications for a month. I panicked and called Giannis who told me what Theos had done behind my back.”

Such bleak rage emanated in his black eyes that Ariana stepped back. “Of course, you kept in touch with your little security guard friend.”

The insinuation in his tone cut bone deep. “Giannis was my friend. He understood what I was going through. He...”

“What happened when Giannis told you of Theos’s convoluted lies? Why didn’t you call me then?”

“It was too late.”

“Too late to tell me that you were alive?”

“Your engagement had been announced. I was not in a good—”

“What, Ari?” His voice caught, his words clipped like hard gravel. “You thought I deserved to continue believing that my young wife was dead. Probably at my own father’s hands or because of my own negligence, of which you’d been complaining for months.”

“You thought he killed me?”

“Yes.” The haunted look she’d thought she’d imagined was back in his eyes. The pain there...it was a knife in her chest. “He didn’t hide his satisfaction that you were out of my life for good. After all his rages for weeks because I had ruined our legacy—because I had...” He ran a hand through his hair roughly. “It was the first time I saw Theos for what he could be.

“But it was only a suspicion. I threw myself into my work, I alienated Nik, I hurt Eleni. I thought I was going mad, suspecting my own father of a terrible thing.

“Theos hated the thought of you as my wife. It was as much a shock to him as it was to me that I...married you. That I could make such an unprecedented, uncharacteristic decision with my life.”

“Then why did you, Andreas?” The question burst from her lips. A question she should have asked instead of running away. “You could have had me for as long as you wanted and walked away. I wouldn’t have made a peep.”

“I told you. You were a virgin that night and I didn’t use protection.”

“We could have waited to see if there were any consequences.”

“I seduced you!”

“You took me to bed after I threw myself at you for months. Repeatedly.”

“Still, you were eighteen, my father’s neglected ward. You had no one in the world to look after your interests. What I did was—”

“Don’t you dare take that away from me. I wanted you, God, I needed you just as much you needed me that night.

“But after, you...could have walked away. You could have paid me off. You could have... Why marry the shallow, ditzy, reckless failure that I was? Why marry me when you knew what your real life was like, when you knew how wrong I was for you?”

His breath was rough, his eyes blazing with an unholy light. “Because I got used to it.”

Her heart thumped so hard against her rib cage, Ari could hardly breathe. “Used to what?”

“Used to being adored by you. Used to being loved by you.” Shoulders tense, he rubbed his nape. For a man who exuded arrogant self-confidence out of every pore, the gesture was disconcertingly hesitant. “I was the center of your universe and it made me lose sight of who I was and who you were.

“Thanks to Theos, I had tasted every kind of power that was to be had in the world. But you, Ariana...your adoration for me even as you mocked everything I was in this world, it was a drug I couldn’t give up on.

“I thought I could keep that, keep you for myself. One selfish indulgence that I would allow myself.

“It was the biggest mistake of my life. In that, Theos was right.”

Ariana wound her arms around her trembling body, something deflating out of her. Hope, after all this time. Hope that he would admit that he’d married her because he’d loved her, too. That he had been shattered at the loss of her not because he felt responsible or guilty but something else.

“Then put a stop to that mistake. Don’t continue the farce of our marriage.”

“What do you suggest? That I marry another woman, make her my Queen and keep you on the side?

“Should I give you the place you’re so determined to prove is yours, Ari? Should I visit you in the dark as if you were a paid whore, a kept mistress my father encouraged me to make of you?

“Would you have me become the monster Theos and you made me out to be? Because nothing has changed, pethi mou. I still want you with that same madness.

“You’re still a weakness—the only one that I can’t overcome.”

* * *

Her hands boldly reached for his face, the scent of her skin a familiar twining in his blood.

With his fingers on her wrist, he stayed her movements. He could not bear to be touched by her. Not yet, and not like this. Not when he felt like a cauldron of volatile emotions, not when all he wanted was to push her into the bed, and bury himself in her.

“I shouldn’t have run away like that, not with his help. But...but it was not a bid for freedom because I got bored with you or because I was shallow enough to fall in love with another man who was nothing but my friend. It was not a fickle game.”


“No. I...loved you. You. But loving you... I realized, slowly began to kill me and in the end, I chose survival.”

Her words pinged through his mind like a bullet ricocheting through a closed room. Puncturing and tearing, scraping and scorching the walls of his mind.

He wanted to hate her as he had done for two years. He’d opened the Pandora’s box of their relationship willingly and it seemed there was no end to the things that could come crawling out.

Things Andreas wasn’t sure he wanted to face. “How was I killing you?”

Utter helplessness filled her face. And it was seeing that in her eyes, when Ariana never stopped fighting, that made him believe everything she’d said.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” she whispered.

The pilot broke the tense silence with an update that they were landing soon.

Between mourning her death for eight years and the discovery of her treachery, he had forgotten that he was at the root of this.

The enormity of his marrying Ariana had only sunk through when his father had confronted him. Had shown him the hopeless state of the treasury of Drakon, the mounting national debt. The alliance that Theos had carefully cultivated with Gabriel Marquez, to make his sister the Queen of Drakon, crumbling to dust.

So he’d immediately tried to right his world.

He’d been prepared to do anything for Drakon but not give her up. She was only a small part of his life, he’d told his father. After all, the Queen’s role was only titular in Drakon.

For the first month, it had worked. She became his escape from the weight of his nation’s problems. From his father’s spiraling moods and sudden rages. Then slowly, things had changed.

It was as if he’d lived in two different realities, one as the Crown Prince and one as the man obsessed with his young wife.

As long as they didn’t merge, he’d convinced himself his world would be all right.

As long as he didn’t let her take over his life, as long as she meant nothing more to him than physical relief at the end of a hard day, a pleasure he looked forward to at night, as long as he didn’t let her disrupt his duties ever again... Thee mou, he’d made so many promises to Theos just to keep her.

I chose survival.

Like a bone-deep bruise, those words lingered.

Was he prepared to face what he’d done to make his bright, cheerful, eighteen-year-old wife flee the moment his back had been turned, to learn that he was the one responsible for putting those shadows in Ari’s eyes?