“I can’t be the woman for you.” She pulled out of his hold, and he let her go. “I can’t live like this. With...with the press closing in around me all the time. They took pictures of me, Xander. And a reporter called and...”
“He asked if you made love to me in the dark.”
“So even if the people love me. Even if they love you being with me. Even if I don’t end up embarrassing the nation I can’t...I can’t do this to myself. They’ll never leave me alone. They’ll harass me. Forever. For all of my life and I can’t...do it.”
“And you don’t love me?” he asked, his tone flat.
She shook her head, the walls around her heart strengthening, folding in around it like a concrete blockade. “No.”
“I’m going to go.”
“To your room.”
“No. Away from here. Just...away from you.”
“You’re running?” he asked, his tone even, deadly. “I thought we agreed we weren’t going to do that anymore. I thought we promised.”
“No, Xander,” she said, her voice a whisper. “You promised. I didn’t. I don’t want any of this. I don’t want to be in the public eye, I don’t want to be under scrutiny like this. I don’t want your love.”
“But you have it. I want you to want it all, Layna, I want you to have it all.”
“How dare you?” she screamed, angry now, cracking apart inside. “How dare you take my safety away from me! How dare you pull me from my home, from my quiet life and bring me here! You said we would be partners, you didn’t say you would demand my soul.”
“Nothing less, agape. Because you have mine.”
“Well, you don’t have mine. And I’m going. Goodbye, Xander. I wish you the best of luck in ruling, and in finding your future queen. She won’t be me.”
“What can I do?” he asked, a desperate thread in his voice that seemed tied to her heart, squeezing her tight, making it impossible to breathe.
“Show me the future. Show me nothing will happen. Show me that if I choose to want again, to feel again, to need again, that I won’t have it all ripped from me. Prove to me you won’t leave, you won’t cheat. Prove to me that things will be well. Show me. Show me that when you don’t need me anymore, when your reputation isn’t helped by me, you won’t want someone else. You won’t regret me.”
He ran his hand down his face, looking so impossibly tired, so defeated. “You of little faith,” he said, laughing bitterly.
“I don’t know how you can say that to me.”
“I don’t know how you can claim to be anything different. You spend fifteen years in a convent, pretending to be a woman of faith when you don’t have enough to feel an emotion that transcends anything more than basic contentment. You’re afraid to take a deep breath, Layna Xenakos, afraid to make a ripple for fear God might notice you and strike at you again. Afraid to live.”
“I’m not. That’s not it....”
“The hell it’s not. At least I can do this. At least I can put the past behind me and walk forward. You don’t want to go back to that hell you were living in, but you keep one foot in it to remind yourself. You keep yourself afraid. You keep yourself from ever feeling happiness. From ever feeling love. What’s the point of protecting yourself if all you’re protecting is a life half-lived?”
“Tell me why I should trust you,” she spat, “when all your history proves that when things get hard, you’ll leave. You haven’t earned my faith, so don’t stand there and talk about how I don’t have it.”
He jerked back like he’d been slapped. But he was only stunned for a moment. “I haven’t earned your faith?” he asked. “All that I have given you, all that I have promised you, my body, my soul, and I have not earned your faith? Think of what I promised you before I ran the last time. Nothing. Engagements end, which happened with ours. I had not made vows to you, I had not promised undying love. I hadn’t even promised you undying lust. I promise it all to you now and then some. I give you my word, my vow, that I will never leave you, no matter what comes. I give you everything I am. I’m laying it at your feet here, Layna. But now you tell me I have not earned your faith.”
She looked at him, at his eyes, blazing with anger and hurt, burning inside her so that she had no choice but to look away. Because what she’d said was worthy of anger. Insults he didn’t deserve.
She took her ring off. Shaking, she put it in his hand, forcing his fingers to close around it. “This is the second time I’ve returned a ring to your family. Maybe...maybe don’t offer me one again.”