Like life was asking too much of her. When she’d already given everything she had.
She leaned forward and buried her face in Phineas’s neck. Maria-Francesca was right. It hurt to admit it. Even in her own mind, it hurt to admit it. She’d never taken her vows. And so much of that was down to herself.
Was down to that piece of her that missed the ballrooms. That longed for a husband. For children. For the life she’d left behind.
If she stayed here, she would be safe. But she would be stuck. She would never take her vows. Because it wasn’t her calling. And she’d been too afraid to admit it for so long because she didn’t know where else to go.
You can go with him.
Not for him. For her. For closure. So that the ache she felt when she thought of Xander, and warm nights in a palace garden, would finally fade.
As it was, he’d been gone from her life with no warning. A wound that had cut swift and deep. An abandonment that had become all the more painful after her attack.
It was safe here at the convent. But it was stagnant. And she saw now, for the first time, that it shielded her, instead of healing her.
She could do this. She would do it. And when it was over...maybe something inside of her would be changed. Maybe she would find the transformation she ached for.
Maybe then...maybe then she would come back here and find more than a hiding place. Maybe then, she would be changed enough to take the final step. To take her vows.
Maybe if she finished this, she could finally find her place.
* * *
All of her belongings fit into one suitcase. When you didn’t need hair products, makeup, or anything beyond bare essentials to wear, life was pretty simple. And portable, it turned out.
She shifted, standing in the doorway, looking at Xander, who had his focus on the view of the sea. “I suppose you have an ostentatious car ready to whisk us back to civilization?”
Xander turned and smiled, his eyes assessing. She didn’t like that. Didn’t like how hard he looked at her. She preferred very much to be invisible.
“Naturally,” he said. “It’s essentially an eight-cylinder phallus.”
“Compensation for your shortcomings?”
The words escaped her lips before she even processed them. They were a stranger’s words. A stranger’s voice. One from the past.
So weird. Being with him resurrected more than just memories, it seemed to bring out old tendencies. In her life at the convent, sarcasm and smart replies were not well-received. But when she’d been one of the many socialites buzzing around Xander, wanting to catch his attention, when she’d moved in such a sparkling and sometimes cutthroat circle, it had been the best way to communicate.
They had all been like that. Pretending to be so bored by their surroundings, showing their cool with cutting remarks and brittle laughter. It struck her then that Xander had changed, too. He hadn’t joined a convent, but he lacked the air of the smug aristocrat he used to carry himself with.
He still had that lazy smile, that wicked mouth. But beneath the glitter in his eyes, she sensed something deeper now. Something dark. Something that made her stomach clench and her heart pound.
“I apologize,” she said. “That was neither gracious nor appropriate. I’m ready to go.”
He shrugged and took her suitcase from her, starting to walk across the expanse of green. She followed him, over the hill and to the lot where a red sports car was parked.
“I’m a cliché,” he said. “The playboy prince. It would be embarrassing if it weren’t so much fun.”
“There’s more to life than fun.”
“But fun is a part of it,” he countered.
He deposited her suitcase in the trunk of the car. “I think you might have forgotten the fun part,” he said.
“You have that covered for the both of us, I think.” She moved her hand in a wide sweep, like she was presenting the car on a game show.
He smiled. “You have no idea.”
For some reason that smile, that statement, made her stomach tight. “I imagine I don’t.”
“Why don’t you get in the car and we can continue this while we head back down to Thysius?”
She hadn’t been to the capitol in a couple of years, and just the thought of it filled her with dread. “What exactly are we doing?”
“Get in the car.”
Fear wrapped its fingers around her throat, the desire to turn and run almost overwhelming. But she didn’t. “Not yet. Where are we staying? What are we going to do?”
“The palace,” he said. “You’re familiar with it.”
“Yes.” Much too familiar. There was a time when it would have been her home. When she would have been the queen. Memories that seemed like they belonged in another life were crowding in, trying to remind her of all the things she’d tried so hard to let go of.