“Not as much as one might have hoped,” Layna said.
“Well, I imagined that’s what I’ll be contending with across the board. Stavros is well-liked. And I am not.” He looked down at his meal. “I do have an idea of where we might increase the funding,” he said, his voice low, only for Layna.
“Better idea, Xander, why don’t you put some money aside to send the hospital cooks through a culinary course? Then they have transferable skills.”
He paused, a half smile curving his lips. “This is why I brought you.”
“I do have my uses,” she said. “Even if I can’t be made a queen.”
He stared at her, for far too long in her opinion. It made her face hot, made her aware of her face. Annoying man.
“Are you ready to leave?” he asked. The hospital administrator had gone back to her office and they were standing in the lobby, staff and patients passing through. Some trying not to stare, some staring openly as they tried to decipher if the larger-than-life man standing there was a Drakos. If he was the long lost heir.
“Yes. As ready as I can be. I appreciated what you said to everyone before we came in. Hopefully they’ll find it in them to be human. To both of us.”
“Aren’t you looking forward to the press ripping into me? They already have, you know.”
She paused, waiting to feel some kind of relish at the thought, but she just didn’t. “I actually don’t want that. A surprise, I know. But I’m tired of this country feeling torn. I’m tired of grieving our losses. Tired of the unrest. Stavros has done an incredible job rebuilding, unifying, and the people love him. But there is a sense that everything isn’t settled. That the royal family itself isn’t healed. With the king so sick... Xander, I would rather you be accepted with open arms. And then I would like for you to take the people’s trust and use it well, not abuse it. That’s what I would like.”
“And you want to go back up to your mountain then?”
“It’s my years on the mountain that are helping you now. You have to admit, this wasn’t your area of expertise.”
“I’ve been a patient in hospital emergency rooms,” he said, looking around them, “but I’ve been short on philanthropy in them.”
“You have?” She was honestly shocked by that.
He laughed. “I’ve done no shortage of dumb-ass things in my time away, Layna. Just trust me on that. Too much speed in cars, too much drink, too much...everything.” He paused. “Another advantage, I suppose to your being committed elsewhere. If you aren’t my queen, you don’t have to deal with my past.”
“Is it so bad?”
He nodded slowly. “And there’s a lot of it. Ready?”
She knew he was talking about facing the press. “Yes.”
He walked out of the hospital and she followed slowly, dread filling her, her brain fuzzy, the world titled slightly.
“As has already been reported, in less than flattering words,” he said, his voice loud, the microphones unnecessary, “I have returned, and I intend to take my place as heir to the throne. Of course, while my father is unwell, that doesn’t mean it will happen now, or even in the next year, but I am here, and I’m here to stay. Layna Xenakos has graciously agreed to partner with me as I get familiarized with my home again. She’s been living in service to this country, and she is the best choice, in my opinion, to show me where the greatest needs lie. If Layna can forgive me my choices, and welcome me back, I hope that her forgiveness is the start of my earning forgiveness from everyone. Though, I know that is a lot to ask. We all want what is best for the country. If you can’t trust me, at least, for now perhaps, we can stand united in that.”
The air roared with questions as the press crushed in on them both. Xander took her hand and pulled her through the crowd. She tried to keep her head down, tried to keep them from being able to snap shots of the worst of her damaged face. Tried to let all of the questions blend into an indistinct blur so that she didn’t hear any of them.
But she heard words. Attack. Scars. Beauty. Ugly.
She’d never spoken to the press after her attack, and neither had her family. There were so many unanswered questions for them. Between her and Xander the press had the most salacious bits of the past, right there before them, and they were rabid now.
“In the car,” Xander said, opening the door. She obeyed and slid inside. He followed, slamming the door behind them. “Back to the palace,” he said before putting the divider up between them and the driver.
He let out a rough breath and put his head back on the seat. “Well, that went a bit better than anticipated.”