“Both of us,” she said, confirming it.
“I was going anyway. For my part, Xander, you’re not going to be alone anymore. And neither am I.”
HE COULDN’T HIDE the headlines from her forever. But he would do his best. He had expected...something triumphant. Something about Layna’s bravery. About her beauty, at least her inner beauty, to grace the pages of the newspapers. But he was disappointed.
There were before and after photos. Layna, young, radiant and golden, and Layna as she was now. With the scars that had changed the landscape of her face.
And they asked would she now be the face of the nation. And suddenly...suddenly they were acting like he was a saint. Honoring past commitments in spite of present circumstances.
Isn’t that what you wanted?
His blood boiled. Rage spiking through him. At the media. At himself. He had used her. He had exposed her to this.
And he would protect her from it as long as he could. Because he needed her. Of that he was certain. He had no idea how he would rule without her.
He couldn’t dwell on it now. Today he was seeing his father. Today, he was facing the hardest part of his past.
At least Layna would be beside him.
* * *
His father was an old man. That was his first thought when he walked into the hospital room and saw the man he’d always thought of as so imposing, hooked up to all the machinery.
He was asleep. Or maybe he was unconscious. Xander wasn’t sure. He wasn’t certain he could get close enough to find out.
Delicate fingers wrapped around his hand and he looked down at the top of Layna’s head. Shocked that she was there. Shocked that she was touching him.
“I told you,” she said. “You aren’t alone.”
“You don’t owe me anything, Layna.”
“I know. This isn’t about owing you. This is about getting you through.”
“I didn’t help you get through.”
“And I didn’t help you. But that was then. And we’re both here now.”
He wanted to tell her he didn’t need any help getting through, but the words stuck in his throat. “What do we do exactly? He isn’t awake.”
“Talk to him.”
“I would feel stupid.”
She approached the bed, small and regal. Yes, it was she who belonged in this position while he...he was not sure he had a place in life much less in Kyonos.
“It’s Layna Xenakos. And I’m here with Xander. He’s home. He’s here for you. For Kyonos.”
She turned back to face him and the sun caught in her hair, catching the deep golds that were woven in with the browns. She was practically glowing, and he had a feeling he couldn’t even blame the sun. She seemed to glow from the inside. “I don’t feel silly.”
“No,” he said. “I can see that. But it’s been longer since I talked to him so...”
“Yeah, like a week longer.” She reached out and grabbed his arm, squeezed it. “I understand, though. I know you left on poor terms.”
He looked at his father and tried to find one part of himself there. Because part of him had always hoped his mother had been wrong. But he could see nothing of himself in the old man. Eva’s stubborn chin, so many of Stavros’s features. But nothing of himself.
The king wasn’t his father.
He’d never for a moment believed his mother would lie about his parentage, but he had hoped off and on that she might be mistaken. Denial was a beautiful state. The one he chose to live in.
Suddenly, the room seemed too small. The beeping machines all too loud and antiseptic burned his nose. “Let’s go,” he said, undoing the top button on his shirt. Damn. He couldn’t breathe. “I have to go.”
He pushed through the curtain and out into the halls, gasping for air. It was a luxurious environment for a medical center. The sort of place you sent kings, of course. But no matter how comfortable, it couldn’t ease him now.
He walked down the hall with long strides, pushed open the doors and went out to the parking lot, leaning forward with his hands on his knees.
“What happened, Xander? I know he looks sick...he’s your father and...”
“No...Layna...” He couldn’t say it. He could barely think it. He could barely think at all. So instead he did what felt right. And it felt right to take her arm and pull her up against him.
He stroked her cheek—the undamaged side—and he really couldn’t see the point in holding back on what he wanted. Not now. Not when everything felt terrible and he just wanted to lose himself again.