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His Drakon Runaway Bride(25)

By:Tara Pammi

Drakon and the crème de la crème of its society had bought the story of his romance, hook, line and sinker.

They had seen what they had wanted to see—their stoic, emotionless King, made too much in his father’s mold, and his beautiful wife with whom he’d irrevocably fallen in love.

It was the stuff of fairy tales, and Drakonites loved their tales more than air.

He had done his duty toward Drakon. More than that, he had given Drakonites something to look forward to after decades of his father’s cold, impersonal rule.

Somehow, he’d kept a lid on his exploding temper through it all. No, not somehow. He’d been programmed to behave like this, to put duty to the crown and Drakon above everything else. He’d been programmed until it became a second skin to bury his own emotions, to pretend as if nothing had happened even when he stared at a clinical, cold summary of what his eighteen-year-old wife had suffered.

To find out that she had not only been pregnant when she had left him but that she had almost died delivering his son—his stillborn son—in some godforsaken little village at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with no one around her, it was a picture Andreas could not wipe from his eyes.

And yet, he had carried on like the automaton that he sometimes felt like.

Even Nik and Eleni hadn’t suspected anything as he conversed with cabinet ministers and Crown Council members alike.

But now, in the deafening silence of the cavernous palace that had been a prison in so many ways, another chain around his ankles, a sense of utter unreality descended on him. As if something inside him was disconnecting from everything that had always shackled him.

He took the stairs three or four at a time. But there was no running from the very thing that was fracturing inside of him. Propelled by a whirlwind of emotion he had never felt, much less understood, Andreas strode into his suite and came to a standstill.

The massive doors flew back and crashed together at the force with which he had burst them open.

In the gold dress that rippled over every high and dip of that sensuous body, Ariana stood leaning against his vast bed, his downfall and his salvation together in those stricken brown eyes.

As if she belonged in here.

For a minute, all he could do, even now, was stare at her. Drink her in so that maybe it would keep other ghastly images of her at bay.

She had never looked so breathtakingly beautiful, so poised and perfect as she did tonight.

It was no wonder the media and his very discriminating guests had lapped up the story they had been fed. With that mystifying combination of confidence and innocence, strength and vulnerability, Ariana made it very easy to buy that any man, even he whose heart was made of stone, would tumble recklessly into love with her.

That any man would defy conventions and propriety to own her. And it was not just how she had looked today. It was how she had engaged people. No amount of coaching or being prepped by his team of aides would have made her look more like the genuine article.

Would have made her speak up with more passion about serving the people. About joining her husband in seeing to it that Drakon emerged victorious again after the last decade in a funk.

Against all odds, it was clear that Ariana had finally accepted Drakon. That she had finally come into her own for the role he’d always wanted her in.

She had become everything Theos had wanted in the future Queen.

She’d almost died, something inside him screamed again. It was as if the loss that had nearly destroyed him when he’d returned from the oil summit, he’d have to live through it again.

His brain provided vivid images of her pale and unconscious lying in some wretched hospital, surrounded by strangers.

Afraid and alone, yet determined to not return to him at any cost. Consigning him to a life of loneliness, destroying the little joy she had brought him.

“Get out of my suite.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Defiance and something else screamed from every angle of her body. “Never again. I...” She looked away and then back at up him again. “I was going to tell you today. It’s been killing me to hold it inside. Please, believe me that I was going to tell you today.”

“Your words mean nothing to me anymore.”

The intensity of the fury building inside him, the jagged edge of betrayal, threatened to take him out at his knees.

Was this what he had dreaded ten years ago? Had he always known that she would reduce him to this—the lowest denominator of himself—that his father had worked hard to beat out of him? Had Theos known that Ariana would have the power to bring him to his knees like this?

Her hands went around her midriff, her body faintly swaying from side to side. “No. I want to discuss this.”

Ignoring her, he walked toward his closet and she blocked him. Like a drug addict, he pulled the scent of her skin deep into his lungs.

“Get out of my way, Ariana.”

She stood in front of him, tension radiating out of every pore.

“If you don’t move out of my way, I will not be responsible for what I do.”

“I’m not afraid of you, Andreas. I was afraid of what... I became around you, of what our lives would become if I stayed. I was immature, reckless.”

“Nothing you say or do today is going to change the way I feel.”

A jagged laugh fell from her mouth, far too close to the sound a cornered animal would make in its last bid for freedom. “If only I had known that this last piece of bitter truth was what I needed to spill to get you to talk about your feelings, then I would have done so a long time ago.”

Rage clawing through him like a tsunami, Andreas backed her into the wall until she was caged by his body against it. “What the hell is wrong with you that you would joke about such a thing? How dare you mock me about hiding the fact that you had my son and nearly—” his throat felt like there were pieces of glass in there “—died in the process?”

Finally, she must have seen something of what he was feeling in his eyes for her brown eyes widened. And even that lasted only a few seconds before she tilted her chin up and looked him square in the eye. “I lived through that, Andreas. I know what I suffered.” Tears filled her eyes and ran down her cheeks. “The guilt that something in me made that happen, the grief that drowned me for months...they will not leave me in this lifetime.”

She ran the back of her hands over her cheeks roughly and swallowed. “I’m not defending my decision making at that time. I was—”

“A pathological liar? A woman incapable of thinking maturely?”

“By the time I found out that I was pregnant, you were already engaged to another woman. Think this through, I had already signed papers agreeing to dissolve our marriage.

“If I had come back, if I had told you back then that I was pregnant, you would have made my life miserable as hell. Loving you with nothing in return was already half killing me.

“The fact that I even got pregnant when it was the last thing we needed in our lives is not my fault. The fact that you thought bringing a child into a...rocky relationship would fix everything...that was your fault.”

Every word out of her mouth was truth that raked its claws through him. “I asked you to get off the pill because it was the only other way I could convince Theos to accept you. I knew, in the back of my mind, what he was doing to you. I saw the stricken look in your eyes, I saw how subdued you were becoming. I thought I was losing you.

“If you became pregnant, then I could convince him. Then we could give each other a chance...”

Shock made her lips flatten. Hard. “So my choice was to lose myself or to become your broodmare?”

“At the time, you were good for nothing else, so yes. If I wanted to keep you in my life, those were my choices.”

She flinched at his words but he didn’t care. God, nothing mattered except that he hurt her back as she had hurt him. Nothing mattered except to assuage the pain ripping him open inside.

Even caged against him, she was not feeble. Not fragile. Something glowed in her face, as if there was a light in her again. As if she was that girl who could conquer anything with her very will to live. With her laughter. “How about the simple reason that you loved me just as I was? That you needed me in your life, just as I was? How about standing up to the mighty King Theos and telling him that you were so desperately in love with me that you couldn’t go on without me?

“That despite his every cruel treatment, despite his every effort to make you into stone, you still felt so much for me. That you...you loved me and it made you so off balance, so disconcerted that you immediately tried to push me away when we returned?

“That you’re, after all, human, Andreas.”

Bitterness was a rock in her throat. A jagged-edged one. She was truly lost if she thought he had loved her. “Christos, I ruined your life, Ari. Isn’t that what you’ve been trying to tell me for weeks now?

“If you want to call it love, then you’re as screwed up as I’m, glykia mou. Do you not see that?”

“I loved you so much and your incapability to handle what you felt for me...your inability to accept it for what it was, that’s what drove me away. That’s what terrified me about coming back.

“The fate of becoming my own mother again...dying inside a little every day.”

Andreas turned away from her, just the act of breathing hurting his lungs.