“Whatever you decide, Xander, decide quickly. I would ask that you do so in two days’ time,” Stavros continued, “but if you want my opinion...”
“I don’t.” He hung the phone up and stuffed it into his pocket.
Then he walked toward the dock. And he wondered where he might find a concrete ball.
* * *
Layna Xenakos dismounted and patted her horse on the neck. Layna was sweaty and sticky, and the simple, long-sleeved shift she was wearing didn’t do very much to diffuse the heat.
But she was smiling. Riding always did that for her. Up here, the view of the sea was intoxicating, the sharp, salty ocean breeze tangling with the fresh mountain air, a stark and bright combination she’d never experienced anywhere else.
It was one of the many things she liked about living at the convent. It was secluded. Separate. And here, at least, lack of vanity was a virtue. A virtue Layna didn’t have to strive for. Vanity, in her case, would be laughable.
She pulled her head scarf out of her bag and wound her hair up, putting everything back in place. The only thing she could possibly feel any vanity about—her hair— safely covered again.
“Come on, Phineas,” she said to the horse, leading the animal up to the stables and taking care of his tack and hooves before putting him in his stall and walking back out into the sunlight.
Technically, that had probably been a poor use of meditation time, but then, she rarely felt more connected to God, or to nature, than when she was riding. So, she imagined that had to count for something.
She walked toward the main building of the convent. Dinner would be served soon and she was hungry, since her afternoon’s contemplation had been conducted on horseback.
She paused and looked over the garden wall, noticing tomatoes that were ready to be picked, and diverted herself, continuing on into the garden, humming something tunelessly as she went.
She froze when a man’s voice pierced the relative silence. They interacted with men in the village often enough, but it was unusual for a man to come to the convent.
For a second, right before she turned, she experienced a brief moment of anxiety. Would he look at her like she was a monster? Would his face contort with horror? But before she turned fully, the fear had abated. God didn’t care about her lack of outer beauty, and neither did she.
And moments like this were only a reminder that she did have to worry about vanity having a foothold. That it was an impediment to the service of others.
That, in a nutshell, was why she was a novice and not a sister, even after ten years at the convent.
“Can I help you?” The sun was shining on her face, and she knew he could see her fully. All of her scars. The rough, damaged skin that had stolen her beauty. Beauty that had once been her most prized feature.
The sun also kept her from seeing him in detail. Which spared her from whatever his expression might be, whatever reaction he might be having to her wounds. He was tall, and he was wearing a suit. An expensive suit. Not a man from the village. A man who looked like he’d stepped out of the life she’d once lived.
A man who reminded her of string quartets, glittering ballrooms and a prince who would have been her husband. If only things had been different.
If only life hadn’t crumbled around her feet.
“Possibly, Sister. Although, I’m doubting I’m in the right place.”
“There isn’t another convent on Kyonos, so it’s unlikely.”
“I find it strange I’m at a convent at all.” He looked up, the sun backlighting him, obscuring his features. “At least, I find it strange I haven’t been hit by a lightning bolt.”
“That isn’t really how God works.”
He shrugged. “I’ll have to take your word for it. God and I haven’t spoken in years.”
“It’s never too late,” she said. Because it seemed like the right thing to say. Something the abbess would say.
“Well, as it happens, I’m not looking for God. I’m looking for a woman.”
“Nothing but Sisters here, I’m afraid,” she said.
“Well, I’m led to believe that she is that, too. I’m looking for Layna Xenakos.”
She froze, her heart seizing. “She doesn’t go by that name anymore.” And that was true, the sisters called her Magdalena. A reminder that she was changed, and that she lived for others now and not herself.
And then he started walking toward her, a vision from a dream, or a nightmare. The epitome of everything she’d spent the past fifteen years running from.
Xander Drakos. Heir to the throne of Kyonos. Legendary playboy. And the man she’d been promised to marry.