The engagement had been announced. On that he hadn’t procrastinated. And the date of the ball had been set.
In spite of the fact that he was being hammered by the press, he was soldiering forward.
Prince Stavros and his wife, Jessica, and Princess Eva and her husband, Mak, were set to attend. Which would make for an interesting evening, Layna was sure. She imagined that things wouldn’t be easy between Xander and his brother.
She tried to breathe around the terror that started constricting her throat when she thought about exposing herself to all of those people. All of that scrutiny. And Xander had said a selection of dresses would be here soon.
As if cued by her thoughts, there was a knock at the door. But rather than the woman who had come in to take her measurements earlier in the day, she was greeted by Xander, who had a black garment bag in his hand.
“Where’s Patrice?” she asked.
“Downstairs having a coffee. I told her this would be between me and my fiancée.” He stepped into the room and closed the door behind him and her heart collided with her breastbone.
“It doesn’t sound like she’s busy. Perhaps you’d like to trade places with her.”
“No,” he said.
“You work too hard,” she said, no conviction in her voice.
“Now, agape mou, you and I both know that’s not true.” He sat down on her bed, the grin on his face wicked, and she felt her entire body tighten like a spool of wire.
That endearment. He’d called her that during their first engagement, too. My love. He hadn’t meant it then and she was sure he didn’t mean it now.
“So what...I’m supposed to put on a fashion show for you?”
“If you wish.”
“Some might call it a freak show.”
He stood quickly, the motion fluid, shocking. “Let us get one thing straight here and now,” he said. “I will not stand for the press speaking of you in any terms that are not flattering. I will not hear it from you, either.”
“Why should you care?” she asked. “It’s true enough. I’m more sideshow than beauty pageant and we both know that.”
“I damn well do not,” he growled, advancing on her. “Is that truly what you think?”
“Can you tell me I’m beautiful?”
The fire in his eyes cooled. “No,” he said, his voice hushed now, an extinguished flame. “Can you tell me I’m good?”
“No.” She ached now. His denial like salt on a wound, but then, what would it have mattered if he would have said yes? It wouldn’t have. It would have been a lie all the same and they both would have known it.
“You are, though,” he said. “Good, that is. And isn’t that the better thing to be?”
“When a camera is pointed at me I think I would prefer the beauty.”
“When trials come, it would be better to be you, trust me. Now—” he handed her the garment bag “—it is time for us to preview your dress.”
She held the bag to her chest and walked into the bathroom. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was good. Wasn’t the sort of woman to drive a man to passion, but she was good. She turned that over in her mind as she put on the dress, too distracted, too numb to pay much attention to it.
The trouble was, with Xander, she didn’t feel particularly good. He made her feel edgy. Angry. Hot and unpredictable. With him around she did things like accept marriage proposals and demand he sleep only with her.
Which meant he would be sleeping with her.
Her hands shook as she did up the zipper at the back of the dress. She’d sort of bet on dying a virgin. She wasn’t thrilled with it, really, but she hadn’t seen another way.
The idea of being with him... She wanted him. No point in denying it. She just wished she was certain he wanted her.
She opened the bathroom door and stepped out into the bedroom. She caught sight of herself in the reflection of the mirror just behind the bed, behind Xander, and froze for a moment. The dress was...well, it was much more revealing than anything she’d worn in ages. And more sophisticated than the saucy dresses she’d chosen as a teenage girl.
It was black, with a neckline that plunged down to the middle of her chest. “I would need duct tape,” she said, looking at her breasts, which were attempting to make an escape. The chiffon fabric skimmed her curves and fell to the floor in a ripple, flowing as she moved. It was nearly demure, understated. If not for that neckline.
She looked to Xander and realized that his focus was also on her breasts, not that she should be terribly surprised. Because he was a man. Still, she was surprised because he was a man who was looking at her. And she was even more surprised because far from being offended, it made her feel warm and a little bit excited.