“Xander and I have an understanding, based on our desire to see the country succeed. It has always been our goal. We were just derailed for a while.”
The back of her neck prickled and she looked up—Xander was standing the doorway.
“Forgive me if I’m interrupting. But I’m ready to retire. I had thought you might come with me, Layna?”
There was something strange in his eyes. A raw, wounded look that she could see behind the careful facade he had in place.
She always saw through those walls, and sometimes, she wished she didn’t.
Sometimes she wished she could go back to simplifying him. To not seeing him. Or at least to seeing him as nothing more than a playboy. Now she saw all of his wounds. Now she saw he was just as scarred as she was and it made it hard for her to hold onto her anger. Hard to keep her shields up.
And she needed her shields. Because when they were down, it burned like acid. And she knew, better than anyone, just how that felt.
Because she couldn’t deny him now, even if she should. Even if they needed distance from today so that she could make sure she felt shored up again.
But she couldn’t deny him. And she wouldn’t.
“Of course, Xander.” She stood and looked back at Eva and Jessica, who were giving her saucy raised eyebrows. She wanted to tell them it wasn’t what they thought. Except it was what they thought and she knew it. Xander needed her, and if he needed her, it would be her body he required.
And she would give it.
She made her way to the door and took his arm, allowing him to lead her up the stairs and down the winding corridors until they were at his bedchamber.
“I had a maid send your things,” he said. “I didn’t see any point in pretending things weren’t like this between us.”
“Of course not.”
He started to undo his tie, the one she had done earlier. It was a strange thing, to be a part of both rituals. The dressing and the undressing.
It made things feel very serious.
“I suppose you want—” She was going to say “sex” but he sat on the edge of the bed on a heavy sigh that seemed to demand silence.
Then he tented his fingers in front of his face, staring sightlessly ahead. “I feel like it’s wrong not to tell them.”
He wanted to talk? That really did shock her. More than that, it wasn’t what she wanted. It was too much. Too challenging.
“Maybe you should think on it. You’ll feel better after—” Again, she was going to say “sex,” but he pressed on.
“Stavros is well-suited to the position. Listening to his thoughts on the economy I found myself quite humbled. I am not uneducated in these matters, but he’s a man who has examined the way things function on every level. From the workforce to the day-to-day running of things. Stockholders and traders, different kinds of industry. He’s truly a man now and not the boy I often see him as. He makes me feel like the stupid boy, to be honest. He’s been here holding everything up while I’ve been...” He paused and looked down. “Layna, I’ve done less than nothing. I didn’t even have the decency to get employed somewhere, I gambled for room and board. And Mak...he’s not royal and yet he’s got a core of steel. Nothing would ever break him. His children, his and Eva’s, would be well-suited to taking the throne one day.”
“But they don’t want it,” she said.
He nodded slowly. “I know it. And I find myself in an impossible situation where I feel I must become a better man to make up for the fact that Stavros won’t be the one on the throne, and I don’t know how to be better.”
Her heart ached, her throat tightening. This was too much. He was making her feel too much. Not in the delicious pleasure-pain way that came through sex. This was all in her heart. A heart she’d kept protected for so long that every lash of emotion felt like being hit with a battering ram.
“It doesn’t seem like something we can solve tonight. Maybe we can—” She was going to say “have sex,” but this time he cut her off with a kiss. And when he swept her into his arms, and into bed, she could focus on that.
On the sensations he created on her skin, not beneath it. The smooth and sensual, the rough and hard. And she let it all fill her. Until she was conscious of nothing more. Until the pain in her heart was overshadowed with sweeter physical pain, and much sweeter physical pleasure.
And when it was over, they didn’t talk. They held each other until they fell asleep.
Layna’s last thought before drifting off was that it was very strange not to be alone.
* * *
This was the second time in his life that Xander Drakos had woken up with a woman in his bed. The first time had been the previous afternoon, when he and Layna had napped after their pretty intense sex session.