And why are you like this? Because of him. Because he left. Because he left the country to rot in its own hell. And he never once thought of you. You needed him and he was gone.
Yes. It had been his decision to leave. To steal the future she’d always dreamed of for herself. Why couldn’t she have it back? But if she was going to take him, the decisions wouldn’t be his alone. Not again. He’d had enough control for too long.
He would sacrifice, too. She would not be a martyr. She would have something for herself. And why not? Why ache for a man’s touch when she could have it? Why long for the glitter of the palace in deep, secret parts of herself when it could be hers? Why wish that she could have a baby when it could be her reality?
“You can have me,” she said, her voice hard, “on one condition.”
“What is that?”
“I am the only woman you’ll ever have in your bed again.”
“I told you already...”
“Yes, and I already told you I wouldn’t marry you, but that didn’t stop you from building your case and asking again. You don’t get to name all the terms, Xander. I am giving up my future at the convent and as much as you belittle it, I did find something there. Peace. With myself. With God and with those around me. You’re asking me to leave that, and I’m consenting. To put myself out there before the world and expose myself to ridicule. And I won’t do it for free. I won’t make all the concessions. From this moment on, you will have no other woman. And you won’t have me until vows are made. As I know well given the current state of my life, nothing is final until vows are spoken.”
“And if I am unfaithful? If I agree now, but transgress later?”
“I will shame you in the media, your children will know you for the faithless man you are and I will ensure I sign a document that means I get your worldly assets. That’s expensive sex, Xander, she would have to be well worth it.”
A slow smile curved his lips. “You are quite ruthless under those plain clothes, aren’t you?”
“Life has a way of making us that way, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose it does.”
“You’ve managed to live through all of this with very little in the way of consequences. Well, consider me your punishment.” She turned and walked away from him, shaking with rage and sadness, with the tears that were building inside of her, a hard knot of pressure in her chest that she could hardly breathe past.
She’d just agreed to marry Xander Drakos, to become queen of Kyonos. To share the bed of a man who didn’t truly want to be with her. She would never be able to go back to the convent. To the women she considered her friends. Her family.
But she was resolved. She’d made the right decision.
She was taking back a piece of the life that she lost. The life she should have had. It wouldn’t be everything, not for either of them. But if felt like her right. She would be queen. A goal she’d fixed herself on at sixteen, from the first moment she’d seen Xander in person at a ball. She would bear the heirs to the throne, children for her to love. The children she’d given up hope of having.
And she would force Xander to face the consequences of his actions, every morning when he woke, and every night when he went to bed.
And she would try to ignore the crawling humiliation that thought made her feel. Tried and failed. As she walked into her bedroom and closed the door, she dissolved into misery, and gave in to her tears.
* * *
“I won’t be coming back,” she said into the phone. It had been hours since she’d accepted Xander’s proposal. And now she’d realized she had to call Mother Maria-Francesca and confess.
“I thought you might not.”
“He’s the reason you were running all this time,” she said, her tone calm, steady. “And he’s the reason I never advised you to move ahead with your vows.
“You are dedicated, and I have never doubted your faith, so please don’t take me wrong, but I always felt you were driven by your inner demons, and not your convictions. It was good that you had us, to give you the shelter that you needed. But this is a calling that requires your whole life. And it requires a drive that goes beyond fear of the world outside.”
She nodded slowly. “I know.”
Deep down, Layna had always known it was true. Because she had ached for other things. She used convent life to hide from her desires, desires she felt could never be met. So that she didn’t have to see gorgeous men, and mothers with babies, clothes there was no point in her wearing, hairstyles that would make no difference because she would never be pretty again.