Pretender to the Throne - Page 11

“Really?”

“I’m not exactly given to materialism these days, and unless you were dead set on looking at my figure,” she said dryly, as though it were the most ridiculous thing on the planet, “I fail to see why you should be disappointed. I’m clean, my clothing is serviceable. I don’t know what more you could possibly need from me. If I am to be an accessory in your attempt at being seen by your people as palatable, then I’m sure my more conservative style could be to your advantage.”

“I don’t think that was what people liked about you.”

“Perhaps not, but it can’t be helped,” she said, her voice tart.

She bowed her head, brown hair falling forward. “You used to sparkle,” he said, not sure where the words came from, or why he’d voiced them.

She looked up at him, fire burning in her golden eyes. “And I used to be beautiful. Things change.”

He pushed away from the door, and images from the past fifteen years—the casinos, the women—rolled through his mind. “Yes, they do. I’ll see you at dinner.”

He turned and walked out of the room, back down the corridor. And he got lost again on the way back to his room.

This damned palace was never going to feel like home. But he’d been a lot of places in the past fifteen years and none of them felt like home, either.

He was starting to believe it was a place that simply didn’t exist for him.

CHAPTER FOUR

HE’D MADE HER feel self-conscious about her dress. More than that, his words had sliced through her like a knife, hitting her square in a heart she’d assumed would be invulnerable to such things.

I used to be beautiful. Things change.

Yes, they certainly did.

She was realistic about the situation with her face. Fifteen years of living with it, and there was no other option. It had been hard. She’d been a woman defined by her looks, by her position in the public eye, and in one moment, it had all changed.

She was still a woman defined by her looks. But people didn’t like what they saw.

The press called her disfigured. The former beauty. The walking dead.

Going out into the town had meant a chance she’d get her photo taken, and that meant a chance she’d appear in the news the next day.

It had driven her deeper into her own darkness. Into isolation. It had been hell. And she’d had to escape.

Finding a way to a new life had been the hardest thing she’d ever done. Her family hadn’t known what to do with her, they hadn’t known how to help her. Their existence had been shaken, too. Their promised position as in-laws to the royal family vanished.

In the end, they’d all moved to Greece. Her mother, father and sisters. But Layna had stayed. And what she’d weathered should have made her immune to things like Xander’s comments.

She was thirty-three. She wasn’t a child. She knew now that life wasn’t defined by dresses, balls and beauty. She did know it. So curse Xander for making her feel insecure. For making her feel like she should make an effort to look pretty when she met him for dinner.

Those things, they didn’t matter. She had changed, and at the end of the day, she liked herself better now. At least now she didn’t think the only way to live was by shopping the day away before going to a ball and pretending to be bored by all of it.

In some ways, she had more freedom now. If something made her feel joy, she had no problem showing it. Her face made it impossible for her to blend in, impossible for people to do anything but judge her. So why worry about trying to seem cool and unaffected? There was no reason at all.

“I’m glad you could make it.”

Layna paused at the entrance to the grand dining room. Another unholy mash-up between her life then and now. The expansive banquet table held no one but Xander. In the past, there would have been fifty dignitaries in attendance. And Layna would have worn her best dress. Xander would have worn a tie. They would have sat beside each other.

He was wearing a black suit jacket and a crisp white shirt open at the collar, revealing a wedge of golden skin and a dark dusting of hair.

She tried to remember if he’d had chest hair during their engagement. He certainly hadn’t been as broad or muscular. He’d been lean. Soft-faced and handsome.

His face was more angular now, his jaw more pronounced thanks to the black stubble there. And his eyes, those eyes were so much sharper.

He was a man now.

“I’m not late,” she said, walking slowly into the room. She wasn’t sure if she should walk up to where he was, at the head of the table, and sit near him or not.


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