His Exalted Highness King Chryós Protokia of Akilandos was trying not to look as bored as he felt.
It wasn’t fair. Thanos and Leonidas were two of his oldest and closest friends—in truth, two of the only people he could generally tolerate—and naturally he was happy to have come to this celebration of Thanos’s child. Even when he found himself surrounded by just the kind of sycophantic dullards he generally did everything he could to avoid.
Conscious that people were watching him—people always were—he kept the same smile plastered to his face as he listened to Hans Kelshner, the heir to one of Germany’s biggest fortunes and a renowned bore, extol the virtues of the solar array he’d installed at his French chateau.
“It doesn’t strike you as the least bit ironic to have gone to such environmental measures when you have American bagels flown to you every Sunday for breakfast?”
“Bagels are a necessity, though,” Hans laughed, elbowing Chyrós in the side in a way that had his ever-present security guard shifting slightly, preparing to cross the distance and wrestle Hans to the ground. Chyrós had to dip his head to hide his smile—the idea that he needed any kind of protecting from Hans was ludicrous. The man stood all of five and a half feet and looked like the only exercise he got was lifting his bagel knife to spread cream cheese.
“But really, Your Highness, I did want to talk to you about the possibility of collaborating. I’ve looked into some of the Akilandos manufacturers of solar and I think there’s potential for us to work together.”
“You and me?” Chyrós queried with a lift of one dark brow. He was poking fun at the other man and he ought to stop. Though he might generally disdain this kind of gathering of Europe’s most elite, it wasn’t wise to show that. Not given the media’s incessant interest in his private life and their insatiable appetite for any gossip regarding his behaviour. Briefly, he thought of the scandal that had ensued the previous summer when his engagement had come to a spectacular end. Prince of Heartbreak, the headlines had read, reporting that he’d been sleeping with Anastasia’s best friend and had apparently fully intended for the arrangement to continue once they were king and queen.
He’d seen no point in refuting the piece, even to his mother, who had seen it as the latest blow in her hopes of raising a respectable son.
“Your people and mine.” Hans leaned forward so Chyrós couldn’t help noticing the way spittle flecked enthusiastically in the corner of his mouth. “There’s no need for us to get our own hands grubby, eh?”
Disapproval quirked at Chyrós’s lips. He greatly disliked being tarred with the same brush as degenerate-inheritance types such as this. Inheriting a throne was entirely different to inheriting a fortune. For while one offered great wealth and not much else, becoming ruler to a kingdom was an enormous responsibility, a burden with which he’d spent a lifetime grappling.
But he couldn’t grapple with it for much longer. His mother was right. One of his duties was to ensure the succession of his family line; he needed a wife.
Anastasia had been a poor choice. He’d thought their easy friendship would make her an excellent candidate, but she was spoiled and demanding, insisting that his staff bring her breakfast in bed every morning, deciding on a whim to cancel her royal speaking commitments, tossing aside designer outfits to charities after she’d worn them only once. While the scandal of their separation might have discomforted his mother in the short term, it was nothing to the ignominy that would have come from making Anastasia his wife, and the queen of his kingdom.
No, she hadn’t been a good choice.
Which meant he was back to square one, exactly where he’d been eight months ago, except it was worse, because the country was growing impatient.
As was he.
All this talk of his marital prospects was severely disrupting his ability to do the only thing he cared about: rule.
He had been born to command his people and without the obstruction of this damned marriage quest, he would undoubtedly have a lot more time for the work he really cared about. At one time in his life, he’d thought there was an alternative to a sensibly arranged marriage, but he’d been wrong. That relationship had been a disaster—but at least it had taught him not to take people at face value.
“Well, Chyrós!” At Thanos’s instrusion, he turned away from Hans gratefully. “What do you think?”
Chyrós’s eyes dropped to the robust little baby in Thanos’s arms. The child had a swarthy complexion, like Thanos and Leonidas, his Stathakis genes obviously dominant over Alice’s far more delicate appearance. His eyes were an inky black, his hair thick and curled even when he was only three months old, and his cheeks wore deep dimples.
“I think fatherhood suits you, old friend.” His eyes moved across the crowd. “As does married life, if the smile I have observed moored permanently to your face is anything to go by?”
“How can it not?” Thanos lifted his shoulders and the little boy, Nicholas—named for Thanos’s grandfather—made a tiny scowl of disapproval. “When my wife is an angel on earth?”
Again, Chyrós found himself hiding his grin, this time behind his Scotch glass.
“You don’t look at all sleep deprived—I thought that was a given when you have an infant?”
“Nicholas sleeps well. He is a very good baby.” Thanos’s smugness about his son’s ability to sleep deepened Chyrós’s smile. He suspected there would be very few areas in which Nicholas would not excel—by his father’s reckoning, at least.
Then, in a more hushed voice, Thanos said, “Sorry you got landed with Kelshner. I tried to get to you before this young man required my attention.”
Chyrós sipped his whisky. “He’s harmless,” he said noncommittally.
“Harmless as a hole in the gut.” Thanos laughed. “Have you tried the loukoumádes?”
Not in years. Not since…Ivy. He didn’t want to think about Ivy then, just as he hadn’t wanted to think about her in the three years since she’d left. It had taken a willpower forged from iron but he’d managed to relegate her to the back of his mind, for the most part. Except for every now and again, when the strangest, smallest thing would bring their brief affair to the fore of his brain in a way that was so intense it was almost crippling.
She’d been the first and only woman he’d ever loved. What a fool he’d been to believe she loved him back. Ivy hadn’t cared for him. She’d wanted what he could give her: his fortune. What other explanation was there for the fact she’d taken a two-hundred-thousand-euro payment from his mother in exchange for never contacting him again, and disappearing completely?
Ivy had made the best Loukoumádes he’d ever eaten. The trick was the way she added pistachio to the honey drizzle, so they were soft and sweet with a salted nut crunch.
“No. I don’t care for them.”
Thanos’s face showed cynicism. “Are you forgetting the time we stole a whole tray for your kitchen and ate them under the olive tree behind your quarters?”
Chyrós lifted his shoulders. “We were children. Things have changed.”
“Liar,” Thanos laughed. “What, are you watching your weight or something?”
It was Chyrós’s turn to laugh. Neither man had even a hint of vanity about them.
“Here.” As luck would have it, a tray was being circulated by a young waitress with shining brown hair. “Try one. Trust me. You won’t be sorry.”
It was on the tip of Chyrós’s tongue to refuse when the fragrance of the sweet delicacy wafted towards him. His stomach lurched with a visceral recognition and he found himself reaching for the tray on autopilot. “Fine, if you insist.”
He lifted it to his mouth, and the memories grew stronger, for these loukoumádes were dotted with pistachio in the exact same way Ivy had used to make them.
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