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Chapter 23

“No disguise can long conceal love where it exists, or long feign where it is lacking.”
~Francois La Rochefoucauld


Annalise

At six, I knocked on Will’s door; his eyes widened at the sight of me.

“What?” I asked, glancing down at my dress. “Is something wrong with my outfit?”

“Uh, no. Nothing, nothing. I mean, you look perfect,” Will replied, flustered. “Come in.”

I stepped inside. James lounged on the couch, but he stood when he saw me, bowing with a flourish. “You look stunning, My Lady.”

“Thank you, kind Sir.” I curtsied in return. Fiddling with my bracelet, I said. “I’m not used to wearing designer clothes or having stylists do my hair and makeup.”

“The photographers will love you,” Will stated, wrapping his arm around my shoulders. “Because what’s not to love?”

James checked his watch. “It’s six-thirty-five. What time are we supposed to head down?”

“We should head down now,” I said. “We don’t want to be late.”

The three of us exited the room, heading to the dining room. We had to walk down a hallway filled to the brim with photographers, but thankfully they were cordoned off by rope and security guards.

“Your Highness!” One shouted.

“One picture of the three of us?” Will suggested. “Annie, you’re in the middle.”

“Oh, no. You’re the prince. You should be in the middle.”

“You’re the only girl, so you’re in the middle.” Before I could protest, James and Will flanked me, leaving me no choice but to smile at the cameras while feeling remarkably short compared to the two giants I called my friends. I didn’t mention to Will that being in the middle typically meant you were important, and I wasn’t. I was just a secretary escorting her friend to an event. There was nothing remarkable about me.

“Who are your friends?” A reporter asked, nearly shoving a mic into Will’s face. I barely refrained from serving him a dirty look.

“The gentleman on my right is James, and the beautiful lady is Annalise. They’re my best friends,” Will answered with ease. “If you’ll excuse us, we have a dinner to attend and not only will I be in trouble with my parents if I’m late, but my secretary won’t be too happy I’m late either.”

“No, I won’t,” I said, nudging him to get him moving. Before the reporter could ask any more questions, Will spurred James and me into the much calmer dining room.

“Good evening, sirs and miss,” a waiter greeted. “Please follow me to your seats.”

Please let me be seated next to Will or James. I prayed silently. I could easily make conversation with people, but I was surrounded by dignitaries and people of very high status. I was totally out of my element, and I desperately wanted to avoid saying anything that could embarrass not just me, but Will and his family as well. His father already had a problem with me; I didn’t want to give him any more reasons to.

However, luck was not on my side as I was seated as far away from Will as possible. James sat a few chairs down from me but not enough where we could converse without being considered rude.

On one side of me was an elderly man who seemed content to ignore everyone around him, eat his soup, and listen in on the conversations going on around him. Luckily, the little girl on my other side decided to talk my ear off, which I didn’t mind. She couldn’t have been older than ten, but she held a conversation like a pro.

I learned her name was Zahra, she was the firstborn of the president’s brother, had two cats, a dog, and a horse, wanted to become a vet and travel the world to help animals in need. She was thoroughly entertaining, and I was disappointed when we had to part ways at the end of dinner.

I got swept up in the mass of people exiting the dining room, having no option but to go with the flow. I tried scanning the area, searching for Will or James, but even in my heels, I was too short to see above everyone.

Just go back to your room. You can meet up with them then. I consoled myself while I tried to push down the rising anxiety. Normally, I could handle being in crowded places by myself. But tonight, being in an unfamiliar country in an unfamiliar situation, I was having difficulty.

“There you are,” Will said, his arm slipping around my waist. “You okay?”

Relief washed through me, and I leaned into him. “Much better now that you’re here.”

“Aw, did you miss me?”

“More like I was uncomfortable being around all these people by myself.”

“Let’s get you out of here then.” Will gripped my hand. “Don’t let go.”

“Don’t plan on it.” I let him lead me through the crowd, making sure to keep as close to him as possible. Somewhere along the way, we found James. Or maybe he found us. I’m not entirely sure, but regardless, we all managed to get back to my room in one piece.

James, Will, and I plopped on my bed, groaning in pain from eating so much food, and enjoying the peace and quiet.

“What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” Will asked, turning his head to look at me.

“In the morning, you have breakfast at seven with the president, his wife, and your parents,” I said. “James and I might go explore the palace a bit or head out to the beach while you’re there. Breakfast should end around nine-thirty, and you have the day off until dinner, which will be at seven, but you’ll need to get back two hours early to get ready.”

“Do you store your planner in your head or something?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“What do you say the three of us head into town and look around at some shops tomorrow? The ones that are off the beaten path a little?”

“I’m in. Listen, I’m going to shower, get in my PJs, and read a book before I go to sleep, but you two are welcome to stay and chat.”

James yawned and stretched. “I’m going to turn in too. I’ve had more food tonight than I have the past week, so I’m stuffed.”

“Please tell me you’re joking,” Will said.

“I’m exaggerating, but seriously, I ate a ton of food, and now I’m tired. I’ll see you two tomorrow.” James rolled off the bed and left. I sat up and began taking off my jewelry.

“Did you enjoy tonight?” Will asked, still lounging across my bed.

“I did. It’s certainly different than what I’m used to, but I’m not complaining. Did you?”

“Yeah. Wish I was sitting next to you or James, but diplomats and politicians have this weird tendency to split everyone up at dinner except for husbands and wives. I don’t understand it.”

“It’s probably to encourage people to talk to new people.”

“Did you like who you were sitting next to?”

“I did. The old man didn’t say a word to me, but Zahra kept the conversation going. Who were you sitting next to?”

“Some people from the president’s cabinet. Nice but kind of dull.”

“I’m sorry you had to deal with that, but I’m glad I didn’t.” Will smiled, but it didn’t reach across his face like normal. ” What’s on your mind?”

“It’s nothing.” Will stood up. “I’ll head to my room, so I don’t bug you any longer.”

“Believe it or not, you don’t bug me anymore.”

“How did I manage that?”

“I’m not sure, to be honest. It’s a mystery.”

Will laughed as he hugged me. “Good night, Annie.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” I prodded, looking up at him. “You seem like something’s on your mind.”

“I’m fine, promise. Besides, what’s on my mind, I don’t want to talk about. At least not yet. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Will kissed my forehead, and my heart fluttered.

What the hell was that about? It’s not like I had any feelings other than platonic towards Will. Sometimes, though, I wondered if his old feelings towards me still remained, mostly when he showed any form of affection to me, but I convinced myself it was just that: affection towards someone he cared about.

Besides, nothing could happen between us, even if there were reciprocated feelings. First off, Will was my boss. Best friends we may be, but I couldn’t date my boss. Second, he was a prince, I was a commoner. Will had a choice of who he wanted to marry, but I hardly was a contender. His parents would encourage him to marry a duchess or lady or aristocrat, not some commoner who knew nothing about the first thing about being royal. Third was Will’s dad. Even after their talk, while the King tolerated me, there was no denying that he was still not a massive fan of me. Whatever I’d done to him to make him dislike me, it seemed impossible to reverse.

Shaking my thoughts from my head, I pushed down and ignored whatever feelings might be bubbling up in the depths of my soul for Will. It could never happen between us, and it never would.

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