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Chapter 16

"Christmas isn't a season. It's a feeling."
~Edna Ferber


Annalise

"Anna!" Mia exclaimed. "I'm so happy you're here!"

"Is everything okay?" I asked, shrugging off my coat. The London winter had taken a nasty turn after having a few mild days. I could barely feel my face.

"Yeah! Everything's great. I invited the Griffiths, the Stewarts, the Wallaces, James, and Will, and we need to wait for all of them to get here. Will and James won't be here until six, so we have a while."

"That's fine. You know I love spending time with you," I said, pulling a chair up next to the bed. "Why do you want everyone here, though?"

"Because I have presents for all of you, and I didn't think you'd all be available on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, so I'm doing it now. I mean, what's the difference between opening a present on the twenty-first and opening one on Christmas Day?"

"I see." I smiled at her. "How are your numbers?"

"Fine. Hey, has Will talked to you about the Christmas dinner?"

"Yes, but that's on Christmas Eve. I want to spend it with you."

"Anna, it's four or five hours for dinner. I can promise you I will still be here when you're done with the dinner. You should go! You don't do enough for yourself."

"I don't even have anything to wear, and if I'm going to be surrounded by royals, I need to wear the right things."

"You know Will or Everly would get you something."

"I know, but would we honestly be able to find something in three days?"

"They're royals. Of course, they could. Besides, Will would do anything for you. I don't know why you just don't date him."

I shook my head. "I can't date my boss."

"Sure, you can."

We bickered back and forth until my stubbornness and obstinacy won out much to my sister's chagrin. We chatted for a while before watching television. Around four, I fell asleep, only waking up to some commotion around me. I blinked my eyes open, only to discover everyone was there. Will sat on the arm of my chair.

"Sleeping Beauty awakes!" He declared. I hit him lightly on the arm.

"I guess I'll start handing out gifts to everyone," Mia said. She handed out the gifts one by one. Everyone got a tea mug because it's Verona, and we all drink tea.

Will's coffee mug said, 'I Solemnly Swear I'm Up To No Good' when it was filled with hot liquid. Once it cooled, it said 'Mischief Managed.' Will was in love with it.

Mark's mug said 'Have a Nice Day' on the sides, but on the bottom, it had a middle finger.

Ellen's mug said 'Sassy, Classy, and a bit Smart-assy,' which was highly accurate.

Frank's mug referenced his extreme organization skills by saying 'Organized people are just too lazy to look for things.'

Jane's mug said, 'What would life be without a little bagpipe?' It referenced her being from Scotland. Larry muttered "a lot quieter," which made him receive the middle finger from his wife.

Larry's mug didn't say anything, but it had a compartment to put cookies in since he always seemed to be snacking some. None of us had any idea where he got them from.

Patty's mug said, 'You people must be exhausted from watching me do everything.' She really enjoyed that.

Walt's mug said, 'Of course I talk to myself. Sometimes I need expert advice'.

James' mug said, 'I drink coffee for your protection.'

My mug said, 'I'm not a Princess. I'm a Queen.'

I could tell Mia was thrilled that everyone enjoyed their gifts because, in the past, we hadn't been able to afford much, if anything at all, except for cards. Mia loved giving gifts, so being able to this year made her the happiest girl on earth.

Turning to me, Mia said, "Annalise, I have one more present for you. Here."

She handed me a red envelope with my name written in golden ink. I opened it, unfolding the letter. As I read each word, a knot form in my throat. I met Mia's gaze when I finished, silently asking if it was true. When she nodded, I buried my face in my hands.

"Annie?" Will exclaimed in alarm.

"Read it," I said, waving the letter in front of his face as I got up to hug my sister. It took a few seconds before he said, "This is good, right? These numbers are good?"

"It means Mia can go home soon. Really soon," James explained, elated.

"Wait, how do you know that? You haven't even read it," Will pointed out.

"Everyone but you and Anna knew," Mia admitted as I pulled away from her.

"I get not telling Annie, but why not me?"

"Because you have no filter around Anna. You tell her everything," James snorted.

"I do not," Will declared indignantly.

"Yeah, you do."

"Do the doctors know when you can go home?" I asked.

"December 31."

I broke down into tears, unable to hold them back. I buried my face in my hands, and Will pulled me into a hug.

"I'm so happy for you, Mia! That's fantastic!" he said. One by one, I felt myself pulled into a hug by a different friend.

No…

Family.

These people were my family. They were there for me when I needed them, no matter what they were doing or where they were. They always had my back.

"Anna, stop crying. You're making me cry," Mia said. I laughed through my sobs and tried to do what my sister wanted, but I was too happy to stop. "At least now you know why I wasn't telling you anything about my numbers."

"I was wondering," I admitted.

"I know you were." Mia proceeded to say, "Thank you for coming, everyone. It means so much to have all of you here. You've been so supportive of not just me but Anna as well, and we owe you so much. Thank you, and Merry Christmas!"

We echoed her statement and gathered into a group hug. Afterward, the Stewarts, Wallaces, and Griffiths left. Will, James, and I stayed, however. We sat around Mia's bed, chatting about this and that. Around nine, Mia said, "Anna, I know you've bought all my Christmas presents already, but I want one more thing, and it won't cost you a thing!"

"What is it?"

"I want you to go with Will and James to that Christmas dinner at the palace."

"But it's on Christmas Eve. I want to spend that time with you."

"I want you to do something for yourself. You're always thinking about me or Will or-" Mia paused- "Will, get that smirk off your face."

"What smirk?" he countered, barely holding it back.

"That smirk." Mia poked him. "As I was saying, you're always thinking about me, Will, James, the Griffiths, or the rest of our family. You're allowed to have fun once in a while."

"I don't have anything to wear," I pointed out.

"Everly can take care of that," Will said.

"Please, Anna?" Mia begged. "Go have fun!"

I sighed, wanting to argue but knowing it was pointless.

"Mark was invited, too," Will said.

"Why was Mark invited?" I inquired.

"Everly invited her new boyfriend, what's his face… Erin?"

"Eric."

"Yeah, him. She invited Eric, who in turn wanted Mark to be there. Hence Mark is going. I'd like to get to know him better. Seems like a cool guy."

"Mark's wonderful. He's practically a big brother to Mia and me."

"Then it's settled. I'll have Everly take you to her place tomorrow and get your outfit squared away. It's going to be wonderful, you'll love it!" Will declared, standing up. "I should probably head back. Mia, lovely to see you as always. I can't wait to give you your Christmas gift in a few days." He hugged her goodbye. Giving me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, he added, "Annie, James, I'll see you tomorrow."

The moment Will left the room, Mia asked, "What was that?"

"What was what?" I answered innocently.

"Since when does he kiss you on the cheek?"

"It's just a sign of affection."

"Uh-huh. Will's totally in love with you."

"No, he's not. I made it very clear a long time ago that I was not interested in that manner."

"But why? He's changed so much. Maybe you haven't noticed, but ever since you came around, he's completely turned his act around."

I laughed at the absurdity of her implication. "Are you saying Will stopped drinking and partying because of me?"

"Yes."

"Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds?"

"Yes."

"All right, I think your tiredness is getting to your head." I stood up and stretched. "I should be heading home. Get some sleep, Mia. I'll see you tomorrow. I love you."

James and I left. He walked me home to make sure I got there safely. I showered and put on my pajamas, happily crawling into bed. I reached for my phone to set my alarm but found a text from Will waiting for me. He informed me he'd already contacted Everly, who'd be coming tomorrow with a bunch of dresses for me to try. I replied back to him to tell her I say thanks.

The image of me having dinner at Windsor Palace refused to leave my mind, and I fell asleep smiling.

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