“Akilandos?” She stared at him with obvious disbelief, ignoring his suggestion that she not speak. “No way. Not in a bazillion years.” She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him, an outward show of strength when inside her emotions were rioting well beyond her control.
He angled his face away from her, his symmetrical features set in an autocratic mask, and she was struck by how clear it was to anyone who cared to look that this man had been born to rule. There was a latent power within him and it exuded itself from every one of his pores. It was impossible for Ivy not to complete an inventory, quickly categorising the changes that had taken place in the last three years. For the most part, he was exactly the same, physically at least. But there was an underlying tightness within him she hadn’t been conscious of before.
That was to be expected, she supposed. Then he’d been a prince on the cusp of assuming his role as King of Akilandos. Now he carried the full weight of that position and all it entailed. She could only imagine what ruling such a prosperous kingdom would entail.
He was so different now to when they’d lain together in his bed with the sunshine streaming in, warmth and salt gently breezing through the room. Then, he’d smiled until his eyes were creased at the corners and her heart had skipped so many beats it had probably shortened her life by years.
He didn’t look like he smiled much at all anymore.
A shiver ran down her spine, and it felt a little as though the sun had been swallowed by a dark grey cloud. Fortunately, her temper was far too inflamed for her to want to question the subtle changes in his persona, and her mood only worsened when he didn’t give her the courtesy of so much as a response.
“Damn it, Chyrós. No.” Emotions strained at her voice. “I won’t go with you.”
Slowly, he turnedo face her, his eyes like coal in his handsome face. Her stomach lurched uncomfortably. “It would seem you have very little choice.”
“You’re seriously kidnapping me?”
A muscle jerked in his jaw and for several seconds neither of them spoke, so there was only the sound of the fast-moving blades. “Apparently.”
She had very little say in the matter, given they were already up in the air. It was infuriating and outrageous but as soon as they’d touched down, she’d simply refuse to go with him to the palace, or wherever he planned on taking her. She’d get a cab to the airport and book herself onto a commercial jet. Exhaustion at the thought of that threatened to swarm her and she felt ludicrously close to tears. She was so tired. The early morning start hadn’t helped, but it was more than that.
It was three years of fighting these memories, trying not to think about the day she’d done exactly that same thing—been driven to the airport and booked herself on a flight back to England, knowing she wouldn’t see Chyrós again.
She knew she had to do it all over again, that she didn’t want him in her life any more than she belonged in his life, but sitting opposite him again now, the idea of turning her back on him so quickly was bordering on cruel.
None of this made any sense. “But why?”
“Why?” His eyes narrowed and a frisson of apprehension danced along her spine. “Three years ago you took a small fortune from my mother and then went into hiding. You don’t think I deserve some kind of explanation?”
She was gobsmacked. Shame and hurt bounced through her—how she hated that she’d taken that damned cheque. She’d been so tempted to tear it up, but knowing what good it could do for children like she’d once been, how could she? She assumed an expression of hauteur. “You could have called me at any point to ask for that explanation. This is a little extreme.”
“I did call you,” he pointed out sharply, and her heart sank because he was right. How had she forgotten? “You refused to answer and then changed your number.”
“Well, then, you could have come to London to ask me in person.”
“First of all, I had no earthly clue where you lived—”
“Like your National Guard wouldn’t have been able to find that out in three seconds flat.”
His features were stern. He was not used to being interrupted and it showed in his disapproval. “You made it obvious you wanted nothing to do with me. You let my mother pay you off, for Christ’s sake. What would the point have been?”
If he’d said the words angrily, she’d have responded in kind, but there was a bleakness to his tone that pulled on every single one of her heartstrings. She turned her face away from his, needing a little breathing space to rescue her drowning lungs.
“There would have been as much point,” she said eventually, without looking at him, “as there is in kidnapping me now. No, there would have been more of a point because three years ago we were—”
“Yes, agape? What were we three years ago?”
Urgency slammed into her. She swallowed in an attempt to bring moisture back to her dry mouth but it was in vain. She’d been about to say “in love,” but of course they weren’t.
“We’d been intimate,” she substituted, her cheeks heating involuntarily as the words conjured a thousand and one images she wished she could repress. “It might have mattered.”
“But it wouldn’t have changed your mind?”
She had to dig her fingernails into her palm to stop herself from looking at him. My son has a penchant for doing this, you know. Finding strays, bringing them under his wing, making them feel loved and cherished before he grows bored and moves on. Do you think you’re the first woman he’s charmed into believing herself to be a modern-day Cinderella?
“No.” She closed her eyes, her foolish naivety at the forefront of her mind. “Nothing would have.”
His smile was grim. “Because two hundred thousand dollars was too good to refuse?”
“Because leaving you was the right decision, for both of us.” He cannot marry you. My son has the weight of the world on his shoulders. He knows it, I know it—you are the only one who seems to think he has any say in his choice of a bride. Whatever he’s promised you, it’s more than he can give.
Except he hadn’t promised her anything. When she looked back on their time together, she realised he’d taken great pains to avoid giving any kind of indication that they would live together, happily ever after. It had all been in her head.
“You don’t think I deserved a say in that?”
“What would you have wanted?” She stared at the sparkling Mediterranean beneath them, trying to get her bearings. Akilandos formed a long, straight island in the middle of the Mediterranean. From memory, it should only be another ten minutes or so before it came into view. She ignored the fluttering in her belly—a betraying fluttering that spoke of excitement to see this place she had once loved with all her heart. The place she’d secretly believed she would become queen of.
“Not to wake up with you completely gone from my life.” His voice rung with condemnation.
Her lips twisted into a cynical half smile. “You didn’t want it to end yet. It wasn’t on your terms and you’re used to things being on your terms, always. It galled you that I made the decision, not you. Right?”
In response, he frowned and her stomach flopped.
“Well, that’s tough,” she barrelled on without giving him a chance to reply. “I had every right to walk away from you then, just as I do now. You can fly me into Akilandos but even you aren’t dictatorial enough to expect me to stay. Why don’t you save us both the trouble and have the pilot take me to an airport so I can go home.”
His face was stony, his eyes revealing nothing. “I have no intention of keeping you in Akilandos against your will. For long. But you will stay long enough to sit with me in private—” he shifted his gaze briefly towards the cockpit “—and you will explain, until I’m satisfied, exactly why you felt it was appropriate to walk out on me without so much as a ‘goodbye’.”
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