“I don’t need a guarantee. Not now. Faith is all about walking without sight. I don’t need to see ahead, I just need to see you.”
“You have no idea how glad I am to hear you say that.”
She laughed. “About as glad as I am to say it?”
“I need to tell you this. I need you to understand—”
“I believe you, Xander, you have nothing to prove,” she said, cupping his face and kissing him again. “I’m sorry I made you feel that you did. I’m sorry I doubted you. I’m sorry I let fear win. But it won’t. Not again.”
“But you need to hear this. I have walked down so many dark paths. I’ve chased pleasure in all its forms, and oblivion. I’ve tasted hopelessness. There was nothing there. No satisfaction. No answer. But with you, I find I am the man I’m meant to be. I find I’m the man I should have been all this time. You gave me the strength to face my father, to face this. I had to come and find you right away because somehow I knew I couldn’t do it without you. I felt it.”
She took a deep breath, of the sea and of Xander.
“I feel like we’re standing at the beginning again. But better. Because I know so much more. I’ve been down those paths, too, and I know how dark they can be. So I know now just how important it is to always reach for the light. I know how weak I can be, but I also know how strong I can be.”
“Very strong,” he said. “You are so very strong.”
“I wouldn’t go back,” she said, another tear spilling down her face. “I wouldn’t take it back now. Because this is who I need to be. This is when we need to be. Not fifteen years ago when we would have made each other more vain and selfish, with equally vain and selfish children. But now.”
“Now that I’m a broken-down playboy and you’re a scarred novice? You are still only a novice, right? You didn’t take vows, did you?”
“Nothing half so drastic, don’t worry. But, yes, the scarred novice and the broken-down playboy with no pedigree. That’s exactly who we needed to be.”
“It was always going to be us in the end, wasn’t it?” he asked.
She nodded. “I think so. How else would we survive all of this if we couldn’t hold on to each other?”
“We wouldn’t,” he said. That simple. That certain.
“I’m just glad we got to become better versions of ourselves before it happened.”
“I’m just glad that we’re finally together.”
“So am I.”
“And we’re together because of how much I love you, because of how much you love me. Not for Kyonos. Not for appearances. Not for any other reason.”
He picked her up, and spun her in a circle, rain falling in earnest now, soaking them both. She flung her hands wide and let it fall on her, let it wash away the years. The regret. The pain. So all that remained was love.
“You know,” she said, “I always felt the most free when I was riding my horse. But now I just feel that way. I just feel free.”
“We both are, Layna. We both are.”
Fifteen years later...
“HE’S GOING TO outlive us all.” Xander sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at his wife. He was exhausted from the ball, a sort of “coming out” affair for Jessica and Stavros’s oldest daughter. His own daughters had been so excited about it they’d been driving him mad for weeks.
Now they were feverishly planning their own, even though it was some years off. Mak and Eva’s oldest son had reacted to the entire thing with the same sullenness of his father, and nothing his squealing cousins had done to entice excitement from him had worked. The same had been true for Xander and Layna’s son, who had copied his cousin’s practiced disdain. They had succeeded very well in annoying the girls, which Xander privately assumed was their goal.
He sighed. How he’d become the father of two teenage girls and a sullen preteen boy he didn’t know.
“Entirely possible,” Layna said. She was standing by the vanity, all long elegant lines. He was always fascinated by the way she removed her jewelry. The way her fingers moved, the way she stood.
But then, everything Layna did fascinated him. Now and always.
“Can you believe the way he moves around the palace in that motorized cart of his? It’s...well, it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
King Stephanos had firmly denied both death and doctors and was a very crotchety old man. Xander was the acting ruler at this point, his father not able to perform most of the functions required by the position, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still acting the figurehead. With gusto.