“No, but I was still wondering if you would bother to join me.”
“I said I would. So I did.”
“You aren’t a soft girl, are you, Layna?”
“Have I ever been, Xander?”
A half smile curved his lips and it sent a strange, tightening sensation through her stomach. “No. Now that you mention it, you never were. Though you used to look like you might be.”
“All that blond hair dye and the pink gowns. I suspect it was deceiving.”
“Maybe to some. I remember, though, standing out on the balcony with you while you looked at the other guests.”
So did she. Making snide observations about how Lady So-and-so had worn that gown to a previous event, and how Madame Blah-blah-blah’s hair looked like a bird had chosen to nest in it.
Yes, she’d had opinions on everyone’s looks. Specifically their shortcomings. The irony of that still burned.
“Yes, well, I was young. I had a lot of growing up to do. And I’ve had a lot of years to do it.”
“And have you?” He leaned back in his chair, an arm rested on the table, an insolent expression on his face.
“See, I thought you might be playing hide-and-seek.”
She stiffened and walked toward his end of the table and sat down, leaving an empty place between them. “What about you?”
“That’s certainly what I’m doing. But I’ve been found, and I am now ‘it,’ as they say. Means I have to face all this.”
“You sound about as thrilled as a man facing the gallows.”
Several servants entered with food on trays, laid out in front of them grandly, their glasses filled with wine.
“Are you permitted?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yes. So long as it’s not to excess. And anyway, I haven’t taken my vows yet, remember?”
He nodded slowly. “I do. That is significant.”
“It is.” The servants uncovered the platters and began to dish portions of rice, quail and vegetables onto her plate. She was surprised by how hungry she was. She hadn’t eaten all day and she hadn’t felt it. Because she’d been too filled up with nerves to do much of anything but worry.
“Why haven’t you?”
Her face heated. “I haven’t been permitted to take them yet.”
“So it isn’t your choice?”
She shook her head. “No. I’m committed.” She hesitated to say the words because they felt false somehow. Especially after her revelation just before she left the convent. That part of her still wanted something from this life. From this palace. From Xander. She pushed her doubts away. “I was miserable before I went to the convent. I had no idea what to do with myself, no idea what I was supposed to...do with my life. Everything changed for me after.”
“After I left,” he said.
The servants cleared the room and they were left alone in the vast dining area. Layna looked out the windows, into the darkness, trying to find a point to focus on, something to anchor her to earth. Something to make her feel like the world hadn’t changed entirely in the past twelve hours.
It was night out. There were still stars. She was still breathing.
“After you left,” she said. “And then after the attack.”
“I didn’t think of you when I left,” he said.
She laughed, and she surprised herself with her own bitterness. She’d done nothing but think about him. Worry for him. Pine for him. She’d lied a bit when she’d said he hadn’t broken her heart. As much as she didn’t believe she’d truly been in love with him, she’d cared.
Her heart and her future had been bound up in him. He’d been the man she’d imagined going to bed with at night. The man she’d thought she would have children with. The man who would make her a queen.
And then he’d gone, and taken with him her dreams. Her purpose.
Followed closely by the attack that took so many other things...gaining traction again had been nearly impossible.
“I didn’t imagine you had.”
“It was easier not to. But now I want to know.”
“It was your father who told me you’d gone,” she said. “And he asked that I return the ring.”
“Did he?” Xander asked, his voice soft, deadly sounding.
“Yes. It was part of the Drakos family crown jewels, I could hardly keep it.”
“Well, I’m sure it was badly missed in that dusty cabinet they keep it all in,” he said, his tone dry.
“Are you really offended on my behalf?” she said, her throat tightening, anger pouring through her, hot and fast. “A bit hypocritical since you were the one who left.”