Pretender to the Throne - Page 53

And now, here it was, morning. He’d slept with her all night long, with her curves pressed up against him, his arms tight around her. Very tight. Like he was afraid she might escape.

But she wouldn’t. Layna was so constant. So faithful.

If anyone could teach him how to be a better man, it was her. She didn’t have royal blood and she was the epitome of steadiness and temperance. Well, maybe not really. But she did a wonderful job of acting like she was and maybe that was enough.

All he’d had practice at was indulging his more selfish whims.

Layna had spent years denying hers.

Perhaps he could learn something about restraint from her.

He shifted and looked down at the top of her head, at the golden highlights he could see, revealed by the shaft of sunlight breaking through the drapes.

“Layna,” he said.

“What?” she mumbled sleepily. She wiggled against him then startled, drawing back to look at him, blinking like a mole who’d just come out of her burrow. “I forgot you would be here. Or that I would be here. With you.”

“I was quite surprised to wake up with someone myself, but I find I don’t mind it.”

“You’ve slept with lots of women,” she said.

“I’ve had sex with a lot of women,” he said, heat bleeding over his cheekbones. “I don’t sleep with them.”

“Oh. Well.”

“They never mind. They’re usually staying in the same hotel.”

“That’s right. I forgot you didn’t have a home.”

“And if I had, I wouldn’t have brought them to it.”

“You are quite something, you know?” she asked.

“That’s the thing, Layna, I do know, which leads me to what I was going to ask you.”

“Which is?”

“Make me better.”

“What?”

“I need to be...better. I have to be able to justify the fact that I’m the one taking the throne and not Stavros.”

“No,” she said, “you don’t. You don’t have to justify anything. Not to me. I talked to Jessica and Eva last night and they explained very clearly why they don’t want it differently. Eva doesn’t want her children raised in this environment and Jessica can’t stand the idea of her husband being king while his children can’t inherit because they’re adopted. There. You’re absolved.”

“No, Layna, I’m not. Because that’s not what ruling is. It’s not being comfortable or making everyone happy. It’s doing what’s best. Stavros knows this. He would accept it if I were to leave.”

“You said you wouldn’t run,” she said. Not accusing, just a fact.

“Is it running if you’re simply trying to protect your country? Your people.”

“What is it you need to do to feel like a better man?”

“I guess it’s too late for me to join the church.”

She blinked. “A bit. If you still plan on marrying me.”

If he left, he would have no reason to marry her. Which drove home the point that he had to stay. Whatever happened. She was too important to him, and he didn’t want to stop and examine why.

But she was changing him. Just being near her was changing him, and he needed that. Needed to be with her. Otherwise, what was there? Nothing more than that endless haze of neon lights and booze. And the idea of going back there now felt like the equivalent of walking into hell of his own free will.

He held her tighter. “And I am planning on it,” he said. “You have my ring and my word.”

“I’ve had both before.”

“The man I was,” he said. “Not the man I am now. And I’m vowing to change.”

“So you’ll stay.”

“Yes. And does it matter to you so much that I do?”

She frowned. “I want you to have a place in the world, Xander. Everyone should. I don’t want you to go back to the life that you were living. I don’t want you separated from your family.”

“And you tell me, since I imagine you know more about this than either of us, where is truth in all of this?”

“I don’t know, Xander. Maybe there is no place for it.”

“Seems like that might be heresy.”

“Maybe. But isn’t all of this? Life dealt us both an impossible hand. We either fold or we cheat. I’m becoming convinced of that.”

“A gambling metaphor. You know me so well.”

“Well, you were asking about the church, I thought I’d bring in the casino.”

“Since we’re aiming for heresy?”

She sat up, the blankets clutched to her chest. “Not exactly aiming for it.” She pushed her hair off of her face.


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