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His Drakon Runaway Bride(13)

By:Tara Pammi

“I found the silence...unbearable. All it did was make me resolute that I’d never be caught again.

“Anyway, when King Theos inherited my guardianship, I don’t think he knew what to do with me.

“He sent me off to a corner of Drakon until I turned eighteen. Only a few months later, there I was, his worst nightmare.

“To find out what his dear heir had done...to see me stand at his doorstep as the future Queen...” A shiver went through her.

“Theos went ballistic,” Nikandros finished for her.

Eleni asked, “What did Father do?”

For the first time since she had blown into the room like a summer storm, Ariana met his gaze. “I was installed in an apartment, away from the gilded walls of the palace, a stain to be hidden away. Theos’s team put me on a diet of history lessons, etiquette lessons, posture training. I was cut off from the few friends I had. Petra and her team had nothing but contempt for me. I was not allowed to leave the apartment. I was not allowed to contact anyone for fear of leaking who I was to Andreas.

“I was in a cage again. And my jailer was the man I loved, the man I had trusted.”

The clatter of his fork against the plate sounded like an explosion in the room.

Her chin tilted up boldly, taut lines carved around her mouth, she stared at him.

Nik’s expression became haunted. “I’m aware of our father’s routine to mold people, Ms. Sakis. His penchant to strip one of every good thing. Only Andreas could ever bear his rigorous requirements and stay standing.” He turned an accusing look toward Andreas. “Where were you when this was happening?”

“If your father thought to mold me,” Ariana answered with a glittering anger in her eyes, “it was only with Andreas’s encouragement. Andreas visited me when he needed—” their eyes met, and he saw the dirty truth there “—a diversion from his busy life,” she finished and looked away.

Why the hell hadn’t she told him any of this back then?

Because he hadn’t been available. Because he had never even asked.

Because from the moment Andreas had realized the magnitude of his mistake in marrying her, he’d tried to limit the damage. To the crown or to himself, he didn’t know to this day.

“It was for your own good,” he said, trying to fight the guilt that settled on him. For the first time in his life, trying to offer justification. “You had neither the education nor the background to survive in my world. You would have been shredded to pieces.

“I had to salvage the situation. I had to make you worthy of—”

Her chin reared down, her body tense. “Worthy of you, Andreas? I never pretended to be anything but what I am.”

No, she hadn’t. She hadn’t even wanted to marry him. Only he had seduced her into it.

This was what he had done—clipped her wings, caged her, and for Ariana, for the girl who had defied her father’s abusive edicts, for the girl who had loved so freely, freedom was everything. She had loved him and he had choked the life out of her.

His father had been right. Andreas only knew destruction.

He’d wanted answers and here they were. The rest of the dinner proceeded in a strained manner, Andreas unable to contribute anything more. Unable to see past the haunted look in Ariana’s eyes.

Grappling with the magnitude of the mistake he’d made in marrying her and refusing to give her up, he’d retreated from her. He had given her over to his father to be molded into whatever the hell Theos thought she should be.

All he’d wanted was to get his life back to normal. Before he’d lost sight of what and who he was, and what he was not capable of.

He had delegated her to a small part in his life. The relief from the loneliness, a respite from the increasing demands of his father, an escape from the fact that Theos’s dementia had begun to manifest even back then, making him feel the burden of Drakon on his shoulders.

“The dragon lore, Ms. Sakis?” Eleni piped up just as Ariana excused herself. “A band of warriors defeated the dragon and made its treasure their own. They provided land and riches to their community. What is there to not crow about?”

Ariana’s gaze pinned him. “You never told anyone what we found in that old library?”

Andreas shook his head, a savage clamor inside him at how easily she had used we. At the light that came on in her eyes when she spoke of those months. At the connection that seemed to have survived between them despite the destruction wrought.

She moved toward him, unconscious of her own movements, he was sure. The weight of her brown gaze, the concern in them, pinned him. “You never finished your book?”

“No,” he replied, shying away from the shock in her eyes.

“What book is this?” Nikandros asked, his gaze shifting between them.

Her fingers pulled his wrist. “You never shared it with anyone?”

Feeling as if his entire insides were being pulled up for display, Andreas stepped away from her. From the emotion ringing in her eyes. “No.” When he had returned and thought her dead, the last thing on his mind had been his research. And after a few years, everything relating to that time had become far too private and precious. A part of his life—their life—that he wasn’t willing to share with anyone.

“But it was your dream, Andreas,” she whispered. The loss of it shone in her eyes, in the tremble of her lips.

Had his dream meant that much to her then? Thee mou, he couldn’t tolerate this turmoil within. Couldn’t stand the weight of his guilt bearing down upon him. Anger had been so much better.

“Andreas came to that village,” she said turning toward his family, her voice pitched carefully, “because he’d found a trail to the warriors’ first settlement leading back hundreds of years there. We...” She colored under his gaze. “He found a manuscript that was written in one of the old Hellenic languages. He spent weeks trying to translate it.

“You know that Andreas can read and write in eight languages, right?”

Everybody in the room looked stunned. But she had eyes for no one else. Nor he for anyone but her. “There was a price to pay for defeating the dragon so easily. In fact, that manuscript suggested the leader of that band hadn’t so much defeated it as made a deal with it.”

“A deal?” Eleni asked.

“The dragon demanded a price. The warrior was to sacrifice his wife to its fiery jaws and it would relinquish the treasure.” Her brown eyes shone with a wet brilliance.

And suddenly Andreas realized why she was so emotional about the story. Why she looked as if she was about to break like a piece of glass.

She saw him as the head of that fierce band of warriors. The man who had so ruthlessly sacrificed his wife for duty and glory, a woman who had loved him completely.

“The warrior accepted,” she finished. “And became the first King.

“He was given the name Drakos and when he married again, his family became the House of Drakos.”

A long sigh left her, her body almost weaving at the spot. Finally, she lifted her gaze away from him. But the recriminations he had seen there had already latched on to him.

“There you are, Mrs. Marquez. That is why I don’t think it is something to celebrate. But of course Drakonites must have their tales.

“And House of Drakos its fairy-tale reputation to live up to.”

Her head held high, she left the room without looking back, leaving Andreas standing stunned.

He had sacrificed her, hadn’t he? He had treated her as a possession to be used when he needed it, a toy he could wind up when he wanted to play.

He’d given no thought, ever, to her dreams, her fears. Even to her needs. Christos, he hadn’t treated her any better than a staff member. Or a mistress, hired for his pleasure.

It had all been about what she could give him. About his desires and wants.

Gabriel was right. He had been, he still was, just like his father. Using people for his own means, hurting the ones closest to him. It had always been hard for him to see beyond his own needs, his privilege. To see anything that he didn’t control as a weakness.

It had never been about Ariana. It had always been about what she made him feel. What she brought to his life.

Now he saw the distinction between what he had done to her versus how Nikandros had been ready to sacrifice his own happiness for Mia’s. Now he understood why Gabriel had been willing to love Eleni even knowing that she might not love him.

The thought of being that vulnerable felt like needles under his skin.

Had Theos destroyed his ability to care for anyone but himself?

Was he willing to do the same to Ariana again?

* * *

Ariana left the dining salon and stumbled into another vast room. She needed to catch her breath. She needed a reprieve from everything Andreas made her feel, despite her every effort to stay rational.

Pink Carrera marble as far as she could see, claw-toothed arm chairs, velvet-upholstered chaise longues, the luxury was unprecedented, understated.

Gilded portraits looked down from the walls, witness to every event. It seemed the walls themselves were seeped with the history of the House of Drakos. And yet, she knew that Andreas had had a quiet happiness in that small village that he had not found here.

Something reverberated in her at being inside the palace. She’d been denied this the last time. Because she had been deemed unfit for its hallowed halls. Denied her rightful place by his side.