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His Drakon Runaway Bride(14)

By:Tara Pammi

Did she want it this time? Did she want to carve a place for herself in Drakon by his side?

Turning around, she saw Andreas, leaning against the high arch, his gaze studying her intently. Hands tucked into his pockets, dark shadow outlining his jawline, he was heartbreakingly gorgeous.

And determined to keep her in his life. The little fact weaved its own web around her.

“You look... I don’t know what that look is, to be precise,” she heard him say as she walked around the room, checking where the myriad doors led.

She stilled, stunned that he had recognized her...confusion.

Slowly, she turned around, ready to face him. “I thought you would be furious with me.”

He didn’t move, just raised a brow.

“I didn’t mean to...wash our dirty linen in front of everyone.”

“Then why did you?”

She ran a fingertip against the arm of a huge wingback chair. “Being here...unsettled me. Seeing your family look at me with accusing eyes...disconcerted me. I was ashamed of what I did and it just came pouring out.

“I... I’ve never been part of a big family and if they’re going to be mine, I need them to understand that what I did was cowardly but not malicious.”

“I’m not angry, Ariana. At least not with you.”

Her head jerked up, their gazes colliding across the vast room. Was it that simple to give his forgiveness?

He shrugged, sensing her disbelief. “My family knows what Theos made me into. You’ve already turned them.”

Only Andreas could ever bear his rigorous requirements and stay standing.

Nikandros’s flyaway remark hit her hard.

“Nik? What did he mean by it? What did your father do to you?”

“It’s irrelevant, Ari.”

“It is not, Andreas. Our pasts have made us this. We hurt each other...because of what was done to us. Please...let me understand, too.”

His face tightened, his gaze far away. “He isolated me from everyone else. I had no friends, no playmates. I was not even allowed a pet, because my father thought it would weaken me.

“He put me through rigorous physical routines, harsh enough to chill a grown man, much less a boy of ten, because he thought I was becoming a bookworm. He thought the Crown Prince could not be all brains and no brawn.

“He made me join a military unit at fifteen because he thought it would toughen me up.

“He sought to make me invincible.”

And he had, in a way.

Ariana sat in the chair, stunned, the implications whirling through her head. That’s why there had always been such a wall around him. In the beginning, she had thought it was his station in life, his privilege that made him oblivious to the world.

“No wonder you thrived on the isolation in that cabin.” The words fell from her mouth without conscious thought.

“I do not thrive on solitude, as much as it is all I’ve ever known,” he offered. “For years, I had no one for company except books and tutors and my father. I had no other role in life except being the Crown Prince. Not even a son to Theos. Not a brother, not a friend.

“I rarely even heard anyone call me by my name. It was always Your Highness.

“I learned to keep myself happy with my books or go crazy.

“I was not allowed to see Nik unless they were supervised visits. Anything that was assumed could be a weakness, anything that I could depend on, I was forced to get over it.

“Then slowly as I grew older, I began to chafe at Theos’s restrictions. Drakon was still everything to me but Camille, Nik’s mom, made me see that I could have a life outside it, too. Then Eleni, who was always there, who never asked for anything. I began to realize how different life could have been. But it was too late by then.

“Being alone became second nature.

“It became who I was.”

She felt like crying. “How did you survive it?”

“How did you survive being locked up?”

Even having known the best part of him, she had so easily stereotyped Andreas into that uncaring role. In her naive stupidity, she had barely even tried to understand the pressure he must have faced from Theos, the duress of having to fix the gaping hole of Drakon’s economy.

She had always blamed Andreas for knowing her so little. Had she been any better? But suddenly, it was as if she was seeing the true Andreas for the first time.

The man at the village, and the Crown Prince—it had always seemed like two polarizing opposites that she could never understand. She had struggled to fathom how she’d misjudged him so terribly.

He had wronged her, yes. But she had done just the same.

Suddenly, she wanted the past cleared between them. She wanted a fresh start. She walked back to him, purpose in every step. “Do you believe me? That it was never my intention to deceive you?”

His jet-black gaze held hers for what felt like an eternity. Something had changed in his perception of her, she realized now. The truth of their marriage? “Does it matter to you that I believe you?”

Frustration flared and she forgot to temper her response. “Of course it does.”

Only when he smiled, a soft light in his eyes, did she realize that she had betrayed herself in the now.

What he thought of her had always mattered to her.

Still mattered, it seemed.

He traced her cheek with his knuckles. As if that small fracture in her resistance of him was a prize. As if he would give her the world if only she became that Ari again.

I got used to being loved by you.

What did that truly mean? she wondered now. For a man who’d had everything, had her love meant something? Did he want that again?

His gaze searched hers, as if he wanted to see through to her soul. “Because it alleviates your guilt?”

Her hands rose to his chest. His heart thundered under her palm. She wanted to pull away the layers of clothes, feel the silk of warm skin tightly stretched over muscle. Emotions battered at her from all sides, and only this awareness of him was constant, this heat and hardness of his body the only real thing. “No, because I...never wanted to hurt you. Because I need you to know, even after all these years.”

He didn’t say she hadn’t hurt him, and in his silence, in the things he said without saying anything, Ariana found a world of hope. The moment stretched between them, wanting and morphing, his heart thundering away under her palm, her own beating a thousand a minute.

A moment between the past and the future.

His fingers crawled to her nape, not pressing, not moving. Just touching. His other hand moved to her hip, the tips of those long fingers reaching the jut of her hip bones.

Her entire being wanted to melt in his arms. To curl up in his heat. God, this was it. This was exactly what had been missing from her life.

What her heart and soul had desperately needed.

She had needed him to understand the truth of what she had done. But given up all hope that he would look at her like this...like she still mattered.

“Andreas? Please, you have to—”

Gently, he pushed her back until he could see into her eyes. “Yes, pethi mou. I believe that all you did was run away the moment I turned my back,” he replied, twisting her words.

She sensed his confusion and something more in that. A loss that she hadn’t stood and fought for them? She waited for him to say more, to call her a coward even. After all, she’d declared again and again that she loved him, hadn’t she?

But no more came from him.

“Your father went through an elaborate scheme to make me unforgivable in your eyes. He couldn’t have been worried that you would chase me. You’d have hated me too much.”

Something glittered in his gaze. “Are you asking me or telling me?”

It was one of those moments that defined life. A door opening. Years of tightly suppressed hope unfurling. “I’m asking you,” she whispered, hiding her face in his chest.

God, she was so tired of staying strong. Of...denying, even now, that he meant something to her, after all these years.

“I would have come after you, yes.” A long sigh fell from his lips. “There’s no moving forward without facing the past, is there?”

A rush of tenderness filled her. “No.”

He did care. He cared that he had hurt her. He cared that he had driven her away. Too little, too late, but God, she hadn’t been without culpability. She hadn’t made it easy with her flights of rage and her sulks and that fear that she had fallen in love with a man so horribly wrong for her. So much a despot like her father.

“I’m sorry for what I let him do to you.”

But what about what you did? she wanted to ask. What about your incapability to love me? To see me as anything other than an obsession or a weakness. Incapable of giving me a tiny, tiny piece of your heart.

But she wouldn’t be, she wasn’t that needy girl anymore.

She didn’t need to be loved by him to know her worth. Maybe she’d even lost her own ability to love, to trust someone else with her happiness, the ability to share fully of herself.

Seeing her son’s small, unmoving body had done something to her.

She had lost her ability to love and he’d given up his dream.

Sanitized and sterile, weren’t they perfect for each other now? “You could have any woman in the world. Why me?”

He grinned, suddenly looking incredibly boyish. “Is this one of the reasons then? That I didn’t compliment you enough?”

“Compliment me enough? Andreas, our entire dialogue was comprised of you usually warning me off something or the other. What we excelled in truly...” she raised her brows “...was nonverbal communication.”