"I've learned that we're all entitled to have our secrets."
Mr. and Mrs. Griffiths hit it off with Mia immediately. They talked for over three hours before she started getting tired. James met her a few days later, and I'm pretty sure Mia developed a crush on him. I couldn't blame her. He was sweet, funny, respectful, and he could cook. What girl wouldn't fall for that?
The Griffiths and James offered to visit Mia when I couldn't, and I accepted it because it'd give Mia some variety in her life. Friends were nearly non-existent since her cancer. She'd been away from school so long that all her friends had slowly stopped coming. It pissed me off, but Mia seemed fine by it. She assured me it was their loss, not hers. It gave me some comfort to hear that, but not much.
Between me, James, and the Griffiths visiting my sister, we developed this… family, I guess you could call it. The Griffiths treated me, James, and Mia as if we were their own. I could never thank them enough for their kindness.
On the nights I had off from Donaldson's, I'd go to James' house where he'd cook a scrumptious meal, and then we'd bring the leftovers to Mia. She'd devour them in the blink of an eye, thrilled to have something other than hospital food.
While my new family surprised with their generosity and acceptance of me and Mia, nothing and no one surprised me more than Prince William. Since I'd gotten to know him, he began contradicting everything I used to think about him, and he'd stopped the behavior I'd hated so much.
Drinking himself into oblivion? Nope. Not anymore.
Rude? Not at all.
Ignorant? Knew all these random facts about… everything.
Girl crazy? Hardly talked about them.
Parties? Hadn't gone to one in months.
Admittedly, curiosity nagged me to ask him why he stopped drinking and partying, but although I knew he'd tell me if I asked, I didn't feel comfortable doing so.
Will made a habit of joining James and me for breakfast, even if he'd already eaten. Then he'd go complete his responsibilities and join me afterward for our daily talks. They'd progressed from just discussions about books to other things, including stories about our past.
I was cleaning one of the living rooms. Will sat on the floor to avoid messing up the couches, which I'd just made up. He was regaling me with tales of his younger self, and how much trouble he got in with Everly.
"And that is how we got banned for five years from the armory," Will finished. "I'm going to go get something to eat from the kitchen. You want anything?"
"No, I'm good. Thank you, though."
"All right, I'll bring you some cookies. I'll be back."
I walked briskly to the kitchen. James promised earlier he'd make chocolate chip cookies. Sure enough, when I arrived, two trays filled with the mouth-watering dessert waited on the stove. I couldn't see James, but I heard him talking to Walt.
"I'm going to see Mia today," James said.
"Tell her we say hi and that we'll see her in a few days!" Mr. Griffiths exclaimed.
"I will. Bye, Walt!" James strode into the kitchen.
I bit back a grin. "Who's Mia?"
James blanched. "A friend of mine."
"Right. A friend. And would this friend of yours happen to be more than that?"
"No! Not at all. She's friends with the Griffiths too. That's all. So how are the cookies?" James changed the subject quickly as he shoved one into his mouth.
"Delicious as always. I'm going to make a plate and go back up to Annie. You're a saint for making these. I owe you."
"Will, you're my boss. I couldn't exactly say no, now could I?" he grinned.
"You could've, I just would've overruled it," I said cheekily. Piling a trayful of cookies onto a plate, I went back upstairs to Annie.
"Thanks for the cookies," she said, grabbing one and popping into her mouth.
"You're very welcome." I munched on my own thoughtfully and realized if anyone knew who James' mystery girl was, it'd be Annie. "Hey, who's Mia?"
At the name, my friend paled. "Who told you about Mia?"
"I heard James mention seeing her. I wondered if you anything." Much like James, Annie blanched. I reached out for her. "You okay?"
"Yeah," she said, snapping out of her stupor. The color returned to her face much to my relief. "Yes, I know who Mia is,"
"Is she James' secret girlfriend?"
At this, Annie laughed. "No, she's his friend and nothing more. Mia's my sister."
"Why didn't you tell me you had a sister?!" I exclaimed before remembering what Everly told me. "Is this the… family issue you're having?"
"How do you know I'm having family issues?" Annalise tensed. I needed to tread lightly in my explanation.
"Everly said she talked to you at Donaldson's and that you made an off-handed comment about family and money issues. The way you reacted when I brought up Mia made me think she was part of the family issue. I didn't mean any offense, and Everly told me not to prod because she said you'd tell me when you're ready, so I'm not going to prod. I'm sorry if I brought up a sensitive subject."
"It's okay," Annie assured, giving me a smile. "Can I trust you with a secret?"
"Yes," I said immediately, thrilled she'd even consider telling me something like this.
She sighed. "Mia and I were orphaned after our parents died in the Navy. Mia was diagnosed with acute leukemia shortly after. She's been doing chemo for a while now, but it's not helping a lot. Some days, her tests come back saying the cancer is regressing, and other times, they say it's coming back. The doctors don't know if she's going to make it. Our insurance dropped us, I've already burnt through my parents' money to pay the bills, and I'm in debt. I got the job here because combined with my salary at Donaldson's, I can get out of debt in the next year or two, give or take a few months. I don't talk about Mia because it's hard to think about the fact I might lose my sister, and whenever I do tell people, they look at me with pity, and I don't need pity."
"What do you need?"
"Facts," Annie said. "I want facts. I want to know whether or not my sister will make it. I want to know if her school will continue sending her homework to her. I want to know if I'll be able to remain her guardian."
"You might not?"
"Social services keep a close watch on us. I'm legally allowed, but I know they think I'm not a suitable guardian."
"That's bullshit," I retorted. "If they give you any issues, reference me. I'll get them off your back."
"Thank you, Will. I really appreciate it."
"What will you do when you get out of debt? Will you still work here or…?" I wanted to know. I selfishly wanted her to stay because I feared she'd never speak to me again if she left. I dreaded the thought.
"I'll keep both of my jobs, so I can afford to put Mia through a good university."
I breathed a sigh of relief. "I'd like to meet her one day."
"She'd love that. Don't tell Mia I said this, but she adores you," Annie said with a grin.
"At least one Stark girl likes me." I winked at her.
Annie slapped me lightly on the arm. "Shut up."
"Joking aside, thank you for telling me all this. I know that was a big deal for you. I won't breathe a word about her."
"Thank you, Will. I appreciate it. And if you want to meet her, I'm going to see her tonight."
"I'd love to. I'll dress up as Smith, so no one recognizes me. If the paps realize I'm making special visits to the hospital, they'll hound you and Mia, and I don't want that happening."
"Thank you. But be careful, Will. Someone will recognize you one day, and you're going to be in a world of trouble," she warned.
"I'll be ready." My phone buzzed, alerting me to a text from my mom. I quickly read it. "Hey, I have to go see my mom. If I don't see you before you leave, I'll meet you at the hospital tonight. What time?"
"I'll get off from Donaldson's about ten-thirty, so-"
"How about I meet you as Donaldson's? It's been a while since 'Smith' visited. We can walk to the hospital together. That work?" Annalise agreed. "Great! Enjoy the cookies, and I'll see you later!"
I rushed to my mother's office, where I found her answering letters and emails.
"Have a seat, sweetie," she said. I sat across from her, waiting patiently for her to begin. "It hasn't gone unnoticed by your father or me that you've suddenly taken an interest in your royal duties. While we what caused this sudden change, we're not going to question it. Now that you're taking your position as prince seriously, I wanted to get a secretary hired for you. I have a list of highly qualified people. Go over the applications, and tomorrow, I want you to have chosen some names to have interviewed."
Mom handed me a thick file, and I flipped through it. The applicants ranged from the mid-twenties to the late seventies. I didn't want too young of a secretary because I felt the only reason they were applying was to get close to me. I'd experienced that too much in my life. Hiring an older person worried me because I didn't know how long they'd last… that sounds horrible, doesn't it?
Then I had an epiphany. "I think I have someone in mind already."
"Oh?" My mother raised her eyebrows.
"I'll still look through these, but if I may, I want to talk to the potential candidate I have in mind to see if she would be willing to do it."
"Not because of that, mum. She's highly responsible and organized."
"Do I know her?"
"Does she work here?"
"Is she that new girl…? Annabeth or Annabel?"
"Annalise, and yes, that's her."
"You like her."
"I don't know if I trust you to have a young girl working for you."
"You realize half the applicants here are mostly my age, right?"
"I thought I'd entertain you," my mother said, smirking.
I pretended to be offended. "Mother!"
"You got your humor from someone, Will, and we both know it's not from your father," she pointed out.
"Yeah," I grumbled. My father was all business, which was one of the numerous reasons we clashed so much.
Mom obviously caught on to my trail of thought. "Your father hasn't always been like this."
"Yeah, and I'm not a royal. I'll see you later, mom." I kissed her on the cheek and left. I'd always been close to my mother. She was my best friend, and I told her everything.
I kept one secret from her, something she and my father didn't want me knowing for some unfathomable reason.
When I returned to the living room, Annie had already left. The cookies were gone, though, making me wonder if she took them with her or if she returned them to the kitchen. Hopefully, she took the cookies with her as a treat for herself and Mia.
At the thought of meeting the younger Stark, excitement nearly overwhelmed me. Mia was the most precious person in the world to Annie, and Annie allowing me to meer Mia meant she trusted e.
It was a trust I was determined to keep.