“It means taking less than you deserve because you’ve had a sudden attack of conscience,” she said, shocked at the words coming out of her own mouth. Shocked at the vehemence behind them. She didn’t know why she cared so much. Why it felt so vital and frightening.
“I can’t argue with you about this.”
“Because I can’t change my mind.”
“You’re just running,” she said, anger and fear swirling in her and making her panicky. “You’re running again.”
“No, Layna. I’ve finally stopped.”
Xander got up from his seat at the table and walked out of the room.
* * *
His father was awake this time when he went to see him.
“I suppose you didn’t hear that I was back,” Xander said, standing in the doorway.
His father lifted a hand. Strange to see King Stephanos like this. So diminished and pale. But he was awake. Perhaps he would recover. Then, at least, the need for Xander, or Stavros to rule wouldn’t be so pressing.
Then, at least, he might have some time left with this man. Time he’d wasted in fear.
“Are you back?” his father asked, adjusting his position in the hospital bed, fiddling with the lines from his IV.
“Yes. I am. But...and I know that this is a bad time to drop bombshells on you....”
“Xander, from where I’m sitting, there may be no time. I’m only glad you’re here.”
“You seem better,” Xander said.
He nodded. “Better. I can speak again. Though it took a while. It was a bad stroke.”
“So say what you need to,” he said, “and then I’ll tell you what I need to say.”
Xander took a breath. “It’s about me. And mother.”
King Stephanos closed his eyes and nodded. “Yes, we need to talk about that.”
“Not the things you might think. There was a reason for the crash. And that is that we were fighting, and I was reckless.”
“No, I need to finish. It was my fault, but I could never truly explain it to you. Not when the circumstances...not when I felt I couldn’t tell you the truth of the matter. It seems cruel to tell you now, and if it weren’t for the way things work in our family, if it weren’t for the importance of royal blood, I wouldn’t. I found out that day that I am not your son. She was certain of it.”
King Stephanos nodded slowly. “I had suspected, of course. You were born quite early and yet quite healthy.”
“Yes. But I was hardly going to accuse my new bride of faithless behavior. In truth, Xander, ours was a marriage of convenience. In the beginning. I do think we grew to love each other very much.”
Xander nodded. “She did love you.”
“There is no reason to condemn her for a sin that’s thirty-seven years old.”
“I’m afraid I didn’t feel that way at the time.”
“Of course you didn’t. How could you?”
“You understand now why I had to leave,” Xander said.
“You had to leave because of me,” the king said, his voice heavy with regret. “I was hurting and I said things to you... I was not a loving father.”
“But you aren’t my father at all,” Xander said.
King Stephanos frowned. “Xander, no matter what, you are my son. No matter the revelations, or the years that have gone by, or angry words that passed between us, you are my son.”
* * *
Layna hung up the phone, her hands shaking. She had no idea how the reporter had gotten her line here at the palace. No idea why he’d felt the need to call and tell her they were doing a story, why he’d needed to recite the ugly things being written about her.
That they had photos of her, standing on the balcony off of Xander’s room in a thin nightgown, her hair pulled back revealing the worst of her scars, no makeup on her face. And that they were publishing the photos.
Does he make love to you in the dark?
That was when she’d hung up. Her fingers had felt numb.
She hated this. Hated the way they were exploiting her. The way it made her feel. At first, she’d helped Xander’s reputation, but was she helping him now?
He said he needed her, but when his rule was taken over by gossip about her looks, about their marriage, how would he feel then?
She sat down in her office chair and tried to catch her breath, failing as it dissolved into a sob.
What would happen when he didn’t need her anymore? When he knew he didn’t? When he could have any woman, why would he want her?
And he’d gone to confess all to his father. If that lost him his spot on the throne...he would never keep her with him. Never.