He’d hardly thought Layna would present a temptation to him, all things considered.
And yet...when he’d kissed her the other day, she had been a surprise. A burst of flavor on his lips unlike any he’d ever tasted before. And newness, to a man as jaded as himself, was so unexpected it was an aphrodisiac that was almost unmatched.
“Congratulations are in order, I suppose.”
Xander turned to face Stavros, and Eva, who was standing next to him, a glowing smile on her face, her hand over her rounded belly. He wanted to embrace them both. But he didn’t know if he could. And that was a strange thing.
Who didn’t feel they could hug their siblings if they wanted to? Who didn’t speak to their siblings for fifteen years?
Eva had gone from a child to a woman in that time. Having a child of her own. Stavros was a man as well, not the teenage boy he’d been.
Theos. He felt old.
And more than a little bit tired.
“For both of you as well,” he said, keeping back, his hands clasped behind him.
“I’m surprised she agreed to marry you,” Stavros said, his eyes flashing over to Layna, who seemed to be shrinking into the corner under the watchful eyes of their many guests.
“Are you?” he asked. “We had an agreement before I left.”
“And things have changed.”
“I’ve noticed,” he said.
Eva smiled, shy but with a glimmer of that old sparkle in her eyes. “Xander, I’m glad you’re back. I don’t want things to be weird between us. So let’s skip all of the regret and angry stuff. I’ll leave that to you and Stavros, since I doubt he’ll let it go as fast as I will. I, for one, have missed you for too long, and I won’t waste a second of you being back here with anger.”
“I appreciate that, Eva,” he said, feeling strangely tight around the chest. “I plan on staying.”
Stavros frowned. “I would love to never speak to you again. But you’re going to be the king. And my wife tells me that I should be nice because not only are you the future king, you are the uncle to our children, and it would be wrong of me to deprive you or them of that relationship.”
“She threatened you, didn’t she?” Eva asked, smiling.
“I don’t want to sleep on the couch for the rest of my life,” Stavros said, his tone dry. “But someday...we’ll have to talk more. And someday, perhaps I will not be so angry. But not today.”
Xander nodded. “Yes.” But he knew they wouldn’t talk about everything. Never about everything.
He made the rounds with Stavros and Eva, meeting Stavros’s wife, Jessica, and their two children, and Eva’s husband, Mak.
He looked back at Layna, who was slinking into the wall now, fading. “Excuse me,” he said, “I have to go and ask a woman to dance.”
He didn’t want to see her do this. Didn’t want to watch her try and disappear, and he wasn’t even certain why. Why it should matter.
It shouldn’t. She would get him the positive press he needed, she was a worthy choice to produce heirs. Nothing beyond that should matter.
But it did.
“Are you trying to turn into another coat of paint?” he asked, when he was near to her.
“You look like you’re trying to become part of the wall,” he said.
“You left me alone and I feel...I feel self-conscious.”
She shook her head. “Don’t.”
“But you do.”
“Compared to the way I usually look.”
“So I’m not allowed to win?”
She blinked, dark lashes fanning over high cheekbones. “Thank you.”
“Of course. Now, you will come and dance with me and stop acting like you wish you could melt into the floor.”
She looked stricken. “We’re really going to dance?”
“That’s why we practiced, darling.” He extended his hand and she looked at him like he was offering her forbidden fruit. He felt like he was. Like he was on the verge of bringing her into something he had no right to drag her in to.
But it was too late. She was here. In front of hundreds of people, his ring glittering on her finger, tomorrow’s headlines being created right now, in the moment.
He didn’t deserve to use her like this. To have her as a buffer between himself and the unflattering headlines about his past behavior. But he didn’t see another choice.
Delicate fingers wrapped around his and she allowed him to lead her to the dance floor. He pulled her to him, much more gently than he’d done in her room.
“Relax,” he said, his lips near her ear.
He breathed in deep, and her scent teased him. It wasn’t false, or floral. It was the wind. The sea. The grass. Skin. It was Kyonos. It made his stomach tighten, opened up a well of longing, a strange sense of need and homesickness that washed over him like a wave.