“Answer me, Xander,” she said. “I have a right to know why you’ve crashed back into my life.”
“Because there was nothing out there,” he said. “No answers. It fixed nothing. If Stavros wanted the throne, if it didn’t throw Eva’s future into disarray, I would never have come back. But I don’t do any good by being gone. I’m not sure I’ll do much good being back. I’m not sure I’m even capable of doing good. I think that where I’m concerned, all of the bad might run too deep.” When he said it like that, she believed he might be right. “But I came back, because if I didn’t it would stay broken. And now that I’m here, it might all remain that way, but at least it’s my broken mess and not theirs.”
“You love them, don’t you?”
“I don’t love easily,” he said, his voice rough. “But I would die for them.”
“A sliver of humanity?”
“Yes,” she said, taking a deep breath. “What am I doing here, Xander? You’ve given me a reason. The press. But I have to tell you, I’m not sure I believe it.”
“It’s part of it,” he said.
“I need all of it.”
“Do you want an honest answer?”
“If you know how to give one.”
“I don’t lie, Layna, it’s the one sin I don’t indulge in. Do you know why?”
She put her fork down. “I’m on the edge of my seat.”
“Because people lie to protect themselves. To make people like them. To hide what they’ve done because they’re ashamed. I have no shame, and I don’t care if people like me. My sins are public property.”
“Then give me an honest answer.”
“I thought I might marry you,” he said, his tone conversational, light. As though he’d mentioned that it was a clear night and the food was lovely, and not that he’d been considering asking her to be his wife.
“You did?” she asked, her lips numb, her entire body numb suddenly, from fingertips on down.
A wife. Xander’s wife.
It was impossible. And she didn’t want it anyway. Her life was in the convent, it was serving people and living simply. It was shunning the frivolous things in the world. Denying passions and finding contentment in the small things. In the things that were worthy.
It was this palace. This man. They washed those old memories in brilliant colors, where for years they’d always been faded.
And now she could see again, so clearly, how lovely it had all been. She could taste the excitement of it. That secret ache bloomed, flourished, let her dream. Let her see the glitter, the sparkle and what might be for one beautiful moment.
But it only lasted for a moment. Until a root of bitter anger rose up and choked out the bloom.
“Obviously,” he continued, “that can’t happen now.”
She felt the sting of his words like a slap. “Obviously not. What would people think if you took me as a wife?”
“I only meant because you’ve chosen to forego marriage by joining a convent. Had I found you anywhere else I would have stuck to my original plan and proposed on the spot.”
She bit down hard and tried not to say what she was thinking. Tried. And failed. “I would have told you to go to hell. On the spot,” she said.
“You haven’t changed as much as I initially thought.”
She stood up. “That’s where you’re wrong. Everything’s changed. I’ve changed, my whole life has changed.”
He stood and started to walk toward her, dark eyes pinned to hers. “No, Layna, see I don’t think you’ve changed as much as you think you have. When I look at you, I can so easily see the girl you were. You were blond then.”
“Because I used to dye it.”
“I suspected. But it did suit you.”
“It’s pointless vanity,” she said, waving her hand.
“How is it pointless if you enjoy it? It can still be vanity, but it doesn’t mean it’s pointless.”
“Yes it does. But make your point and be done.”
He took another step toward her and her heart climbed up into her throat and lodged itself there. “You had fire. Beneath that airhead, mean-girl surface, you had more to you than anyone guessed. You were a little flame ready to become a wild fire.”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve changed now and...”
“No. You’re still doing it. You’re still hiding who you are beneath something else. Beneath a shield. The flame is still there, you just want to hide it. Up in the mountains.”
“It’s not my fire I’m hiding. It’s my face. And if you want to pretend it doesn’t matter then I’m going to tell you right now, Xander, no matter what you said before, you are a liar.” Rage rattled through her, fueled her, spurred her on.