Pretender to the Throne - Page 25



“Well, I’ll do what I can to help. Though, it’s not for you.”

“I’m sure it’s not.”

“It’s for my country.”

“Do you owe this country anything?” he asked. “After the way they treated you, do you really owe them anything?”

“One man with a cup of acid isn’t Kyonos, Xander.”

“And one man with a cup of acid shouldn’t be your whole life, Layna,” he said, his voice rough, his eyes suddenly serious.

“To what do I owe the sincerity?”

“I don’t like seeing you hurt.”

“Then why are you so often the one who hurts me?” she asked, her newly unfurled heart closing tightly again. Like a flower suddenly deprived of sunlight.

“It’s a gift I have,” he said, looking away from her, out the window. “It’s what I seem to do. I hurt people who genuinely don’t deserve it.” He looked back at her. “I guess that’s your warning. You can back out now if you want.”

Something in his eyes sent a shock through her. It was a window into his pain. It hadn’t been there fifteen years ago, but it was there now, as obvious as if he’d spoken about it out loud. In that brief moment she had the sense that she was standing on the edge of a chasm, looking down into an abyss that had no end.

It frightened her. And it made him impossible to turn away from.

“You couldn’t possibly hurt me any more than I’ve already been hurt.” Even as she said it, she had a feeling it was a lie. She hadn’t kissed him yet, much less gone to bed with him. She hadn’t heard about the wounds he carried deep inside of himself.

He knew it was a lie, too. She could tell by the way his lips curved up, could tell now, that the expression was false. That there was no real humor in it. No real warmth. “Well then, we had better make a formal announcement.”

“I suppose we’d better.”

“You will need a dress, for the engagement party. I trust you won’t mind if I use a professional shopper to select one for you?”

She blinked. “No.”

“Then I shall have your measurements done and that will be taken care of as quickly as possible.”

“What about your father?” she asked.

“I should go and visit him alone.”

Except she had a feeling that he shouldn’t. She wasn’t sure why. And moreover, she wasn’t sure why she should care. Why his pain should interest her or concern her in any way, and yet over the course of the past few seconds she found that it did.

“I’ll go with you. It will help solidify your plans. When you announce your engagement... I think your father felt very bad about what happened to me,” she said.

“He did?”

“He was consumed by his own grief.”

“Yes,” Xander said, “I know.”

“But he came to see me once. I...I didn’t want to talk to him so I pretended to be asleep, but I knew he came.”

“Why didn’t you want to talk to him?”

“I was just starting to realize, really realize, that nothing in my life was ever going to be the same. That my face wasn’t going back to normal. That...that I had maybe twenty surgeries ahead of me.”

“Twenty?” he asked.

“It ended up being twenty-one. Skin grafts and reconstruction. Some of the grafts didn’t take and...anyway. I knew that I had all kinds of hell ahead and that everything I knew was behind me. I didn’t...it was hard to face people. That way you looked at me at the convent, when you realized it was me...it was ten times worse than that every time someone saw me right after the attack happened. I looked like something from a bad zombie movie. And the press said that. More than once. I hardly looked real at all. And it made my mother cry. It made my father sick. I got tired of seeing the expressions so I would close my eyes when visitors would come. And then it was just easier to keep them that way.”

“Then of course you can come,” he said, his tone light, as though he was content to skip over the graveness of the subject matter. And that suited her just fine. Being with him had forced her to relive her past more than she was comfortable with. “I’m sure my father will be happy to see you.”

“I’m sure he’ll be overjoyed to see you.”

That smile again. That fake smile. “I wouldn’t bet on it. But it will be nice to have you there to take some of the focus off of me.”

* * *

Xander kept finding reasons to put off visiting his father, although, Layna was hardly going to judge him for avoidance since she was a pro at it.

Not that she could blame him. She imagined he was hardly going to have the fatted calf slaughtered in his oldest son’s honor when he learned of Xander’s return.

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