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"Either die or abdicate. I'm not particular about which one you choose, but you'd better make a decision, and quickly."
Alexander Drakos, heir to the throne of Kyonos, dissolute rake and frequent gambler, took a drag on his cigarette before putting it out in the ashtray and dropping his cards onto the velvet-covered table.
"I'm a little busy right now, Stavros," he said into his phone.
"Doing what? Throwing away your fortune and drinking yourself into a stupor?"
"Don't be an idiot. I don't drink when I gamble. I don't lose, either." He eyed the men sitting around the table and pushed a pile of chips into the pot.
"A shame. If you did, then maybe you would have had to come home a long time ago."
"Yeah, well, you haven't seemed to need me."
It was time for the cards to go down, and those who hadn't folded earlier on in the round put their hands face up.
Xander laughed and revealed his royal flush before leaning in and sweeping the chips into his stack. "I'm cashing out," he said, standing and putting his chips into a velvet bag. "Enjoy your evening." He took his black suit jacket off the back of the chair and slung it over his shoulder.
He passed a casino employee and dropped the bag into the man's hands. "I know how much is in there. Cash me out. Five percent for you, no more."
He stopped at the bar. "Scotch. Neat."
"I thought you didn't drink while you gambled," his brother said.
"I'm not gambling anymore." The bartender pushed the glass his way and Xander knocked it back before continuing out of the building and onto one of Monaco's crowded streets.
Strange. The alcohol barely burned anymore. It didn't make him feel good, either. Stupid alcohol. "Where are you?"
"Monaco. Yesterday I was in France. I think that was yesterday. It all sort of blurs together, you know?"
"You make me feel old, Xander, and I am your younger brother."
"You sound old, Stavros."
"Yes, well, I didn't have the luxury of running out on my responsibilities. That was your course of action and that meant someone had to stay behind and be a grown-up."
He remembered well what had happened the day he'd taken that luxury. Running out on his responsibilities, as Stavros called it.
You killed her. This is your fault. You've stolen something from this country, from me. You can never replace it. I will never forgive you.
Now that that memory had surfaced another shot or four would be required.
"I'm sure the people will build a statue in your honor someday and it will all be worth it," Xander said.
"I didn't call to engage in small talk with you. I would rather strangle myself with my own necktie."
Xander stopped walking, ignoring the woman who ran into him thanks to his sudden action. "What did you call about then?"
"Dad had a stroke. It's very likely he's dying. And you are the next in line for the throne. Unless you abdicate, and I mean really, finally, abdicate. Or you know, chain a concrete ball to your neck and hurl yourself into the sea, I won't mourn you."
"I would think you'd be happy for me to abdicate," Xander said, ignoring the tightness in his chest. He hated death. Hated its suddenness. Its lack of discrimination.
If death had any courtesy at all, it would have come for him a long time ago. Hell, he'd been baiting it for years.
Instead, it went after the lovely and needed. The ones who actually made a difference to the world rather than those who left nothing but brimstone and scorch marks in their wake.
"I have no desire to be king, but make no mistake, I will. The issue, of course, lies in the production of heirs. As happy as Jessica and I are with our children, they are not eligible to take the throne. Adoption is good enough for us, but not sufficient per the laws of Kyonos."
"That leaves Eva."
"Yes," Stavros said. "It does. And if you hadn't heard, she is pregnant."
"And how does she feel? About her child being the heir?"
"She hates it. She and Mak don't even live in Kyonos and they'd have to uproot their lives so their child could be raised in the palace, so he or she could learn their duty. It would change everything. It was never meant to be this way for her and you know it."
Xander closed his eyes and pictured his wild, dark-haired sister. Yes, she would hate it. Because she'd always hated royal protocol. As he had.
He'd taken her mother from her. Could he rob her of the rest of her dreams, too?
"Whatever you decide, Xander, decide quickly. I would ask that you do so in two days' time," Stavros continued, "but if you want my opinion."
"I don't." He hung the phone up and stuffed it into his pocket.
Then he walked toward the dock. And he wondered where he might find a concrete ball.
Layna Xenakos dismounted and patted her horse on the neck. Layna was sweaty and sticky, and the simple, long-sleeved shift she was wearing didn't do very much to diffuse the heat.
But she was smiling. Riding always did that for her. Up here, the view of the sea was intoxicating, the sharp, salty ocean breeze tangling with the fresh mountain air, a stark and bright combination she'd never experienced anywhere else.
It was one of the many things she liked about living at the convent. It was secluded. Separate. And here, at least, lack of vanity was a virtue. A virtue Layna didn't have to strive for. Vanity, in her case, would be laughable.
She pulled her head scarf out of her bag and wound her hair up, putting everything back in place. The only thing she could possibly feel any vanity about-her hair- safely covered again.
"Come on, Phineas," she said to the horse, leading the animal up to the stables and taking care of his tack and hooves before putting him in his stall and walking back out into the sunlight.
Technically, that had probably been a poor use of meditation time, but then, she rarely felt more connected to God, or to nature, than when she was riding. So, she imagined that had to count for something.
She walked toward the main building of the convent. Dinner would be served soon and she was hungry, since her afternoon's contemplation had been conducted on horseback.
She paused and looked over the garden wall, noticing tomatoes that were ready to be picked, and diverted herself, continuing on into the garden, humming something tunelessly as she went.
She froze when a man's voice pierced the relative silence. They interacted with men in the village often enough, but it was unusual for a man to come to the convent.
For a second, right before she turned, she experienced a brief moment of anxiety. Would he look at her like she was a monster? Would his face contort with horror? But before she turned fully, the fear had abated. God didn't care about her lack of outer beauty, and neither did she.
And moments like this were only a reminder that she did have to worry about vanity having a foothold. That it was an impediment to the service of others.
That, in a nutshell, was why she was a novice and not a sister, even after ten years at the convent.
"Can I help you?" The sun was shining on her face, and she knew he could see her fully. All of her scars. The rough, damaged skin that had stolen her beauty. Beauty that had once been her most prized feature.
The sun also kept her from seeing him in detail. Which spared her from whatever his expression might be, whatever reaction he might be having to her wounds. He was tall, and he was wearing a suit. An expensive suit. Not a man from the village. A man who looked like he'd stepped out of the life she'd once lived.
A man who reminded her of string quartets, glittering ballrooms and a prince who would have been her husband. If only things had been different.
If only life hadn't crumbled around her feet.
"Possibly, Sister. Although, I'm doubting I'm in the right place."
"There isn't another convent on Kyonos, so it's unlikely."
"I find it strange I'm at a convent at all." He looked up, the sun backlighting him, obscuring his features. "At least, I find it strange I haven't been hit by a lightning bolt."
"That isn't really how God works."
He shrugged. "I'll have to take your word for it. God and I haven't spoken in years."
"It's never too late," she said. Because it seemed like the right thing to say. Something the abbess would say.
"Well, as it happens, I'm not looking for God. I'm looking for a woman."
"Nothing but Sisters here, I'm afraid," she said.
"Well, I'm led to believe that she is that, too. I'm looking for Layna Xenakos."
She froze, her heart seizing. "She doesn't go by that name anymore." And that was true, the sisters called her Magdalena. A reminder that she was changed, and that she lived for others now and not herself.
And then he started walking toward her, a vision from a dream, or a nightmare. The epitome of everything she'd spent the past fifteen years running from.
Xander Drakos. Heir to the throne of Kyonos. Legendary playboy. And the man she'd been promised to marry.
Quite literally the last man on earth she wanted to see.
"Why not?" he asked.
He didn't recognize her. And why would he? She'd been a girl last time they'd seen each other. She'd been eighteen. And she'd been beautiful.
"Maybe because she doesn't want people to find her," she said, bending down to pick tomatoes off the vine, trying to ignore him, trying to ignore her heart, which was pounding so hard she was certain he could hear it.
"She's not hard to find. Simple inquiries led me here."
"What do you want?" she asked. "What do you want with her?"
Xander looked at the petite woman, standing in the middle of the garden. She had mud on the hem of her long, simple dress, mud on the cuffs of her sleeves, too. Her hair was covered by a scarf, the color given away only by her eyebrows, which were finely arched and dark.
One side of her face showed smooth, golden skin, high cheekbones and a full mouth that turned up slightly at the corners. But that was only one half of her face. That was where her beauty ended. Because the other side, from her neck, across her cheeks and over the bridge of her nose, was marred. Rough and twisted, her lips nearly frozen on that side, too encumbered by scar tissue to form a smile. Not that she was smiling at him. Even if she were, though, he imagined that grimace was permanent, at least on that part of her face.
This was the sort of woman he expected to find up here. Not a giggling, glittery socialite like Layna. She'd practically been a girl when they'd been engaged-only eighteen, on her way to womanhood. And beautiful beyond belief. Golden eyes and skin, and honey-colored hair that had likely been lightened via a bottle. But whether or not it was natural hadn't mattered. It had been beautiful- shining waves of spun gold mingled with deep chocolate browns.
He'd known even then that she would make a perfect queen. What was more important was that she'd been loved by the people. And she came with wonderful connections, since her father had been one of the wealthiest government officials in Kyonos, much of his success derived from manufacturing companies based out of the country.
As far as he could tell since his return two days ago, the Xenakos family was no longer on the island. Except for Layna. And he needed to find her.
He needed her. She was the anchor to his past. His surest ally. For the press, for the people. They had loved her, they would love her again.
They would not, he feared, feel the same way about him.
"We have some old business to discuss."
"The women who live here don't want to discuss old business," she said, her voice trembling. "Women come here for a new start. And old old anything is not welcome." She turned away from him, and started to walk into the main building. She was going to walk away from him without answering his questions.
No one walked away from him.
He started toward the garden, and blocked her path. She raised her face to him, her expression defiant, and his heart dropped into his stomach.
He hadn't realized. Of course he hadn't. But now that he could see her eyes, those unusual eyes, fringed with dark lashes, he knew exactly who she was.
She was Layna Xenakos, but without her beauty. Without the laughing eyes. Without the dimple in her right cheek. No, now there were only scars.
Not very much shocked him. He'd seen too much. Done too much. He and the ugly side of life were well-acquainted. And he knew well that life's little surprises were always waiting to come and knock you in the teeth.
But even with that, this wasn't anything he'd expected. Nothing he could have anticipated.
From the time he'd left Kyonos, he'd very purposefully avoided news regarding his home country. Only recently, when his sister had married her bodyguard and when Stavros had married his matchmaker, had he read articles concerning his homeland, or the royal family.
Because he hadn't been able to stop himself. Not then. But every time he opened the window on that part of his past, it was like scrubbing an open wound.
And it took a lot to wipe his mind and emotions free of it all again. A lot of drinking. A lot of women. Things that made him feel like a different man than the one he'd once thought he was, than the one he was trained to be. Things that created happiness. Before they created a gigantic headache.
One thing he'd never thought to look for had been the fate of the woman he'd left behind. But obviously, something had happened.
"Layna," he said.
"No one calls me that," she said, her tone hard, her expression flat.
"You do not now, your highness. You don't have that right. Do you even have the right to a title?"
That burned. Deeper than he'd imagined it could. Because she was edging close to a pain he'd rather forget.
"I do," he growled. "And I will continue to." His decision was made. Whether or not it made sense to anyone, including himself, his decision was made. He had come back, and he would stay. Though, no one knew it yet.
He'd felt compelled to come and see the state of things first. And then and then he'd felt compelled to find Layna. Because if there was one thing he knew, it was that he had grown unsuitable to the task of ruling. And if he knew anything else, it was that no one was more suited to be queen than Layna.
He had thought it unlikely she would still be unmarried. He hadn't counted on her being both unmarried and at a convent, but he supposed it wasn't any less likely than what he'd been doing with his time for the past fifteen years.