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Chapter 24

"Wealth is the ability to fully experience life."
~Henry David Thoreau


I fell more in love with Annie by the day. Seeing her interact with dignitaries and leaders and the paparazzi, seeing how well she handled it, made me think that she would be a phenomenal queen. The only way she’d ever be queen was if she married me, and I was fairly certain Annie had no interests in me other than platonically. If she, did she hid it very well.

Annie was all I could think about during the breakfast I had with the Egyptian president, his wife, and my parents. When the meal ended at nine-thirty, I made a beeline for Annie’s room. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there. I pulled out my cellphone to call her when I realized she’d texted me saying she and James had gone to the market. It’d only been sent about twenty minutes ago.

Hurrying outside the palace, I booked it to the market, texting Annie and asking her where she was. It wasn’t difficult to find her or James, mainly because they stuck out with their blonde hair and pale skin. Annie stood frozen in place, smiling nervously as she glanced down at her pink sundress. James was cracking up next to her, and the vendor they were talking to kept animatedly explaining something.

“What’s going on here?” I asked in amusement.

“I have a massive tarantula on my dress, and I want it off,” Annie said, squealing a little when the arachnid moved. Finally noticing how stressed my friend was, the vendor removed the spider. Annie calmed down almost immediately, but she continued to shake ever so slightly.

“God, I hate spiders,” she said.

“Then why did you let her put one on you?” I asked.

“Because tarantulas don’t bother me too much, but this one kept walking up my dress.”

“You’re a strange one.”

“I know. How was breakfast?”

“It was good. The president asked about you and James. You’re invited to breakfast tomorrow before we leave.”

“Really?” James asked. “But we’re nobodies.”

“I guess my raving reviews about you two convinced them otherwise.”

“What all did you say about us?” Annie queried as she studied some necklaces for sale.

“Oh, just how wonderful you two are, how you’re my best friends, how you two are the reason my days go so smoothly.”

“Okay, the meals going smoothly is my doing, but your days going by smoothly is all Anna because I can’t plan to save my life,” James pointed out.

“Regardless, you’re both invited to breakfast tomorrow, and you’re both coming.”

“Do we get a say in it?” Annie asked.

“No,” I said shortly. “Please don’t leave me by myself with the adults.”

“You are an adult.”

“They’re the… adultier adults. Plus, they have a tendency to either forget I’m there or include me in the conversation, and it’d be nice to have someone to chat with when that happens.”

“Will your parents mind us being there?′

“Sure, and even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t care because you’re my guests, so you’re technically under my custody.”

“Being in custody sounds like I just got out of jail or something.”

“Does ‘under my protection’ sound better?”

“It’s more like I’m under your bodyguard’s protection.”

“Ouch,” I said, clutching my heart in mock hurt. “I can protect you if need be.”

“I know you can, I’m messing with you. I-” Annalise stopped and peered over my shoulder. I followed her line of sight, half dismayed, and half angry at what I saw.

Father, with mother trailing behind him, strolled through the market towards us. They knew I’d been heading out to spend time with Annie and James, and I knew they weren’t coming just to hang out with us. There was an ulterior motive. I intended to find out what it was.

“Hello, Your Majesties,” Annalise greeted with a curtsy.

“Hello, Annalise,” mum replied sweetly.

“Miss Stark,” dad said curtly.

“What are you two doing here?” I asked, hiding my annoyance.

“We decided your idea of walking around the market sounded pleasant, and we wanted to join. You don’t mind, do you, son?”

“Not at all,” I lied.

James held up a glass pyramid with a Scarab Beetle in the middle of it. “Hey Anna, think Mia would like this?”

“I think she’d love that!” Annie exclaimed, walking over to him.

When she and the others were out of earshot, I leaned over to my dad and whispered, “Why are you here?”

“Because you’re obviously interested in the girl, and I want to get to know her to see what’s so intriguing about her. She seems ordinary to me.”

“That’s because anyone who’s not royal or doesn’t have a title is ordinary to you. I told you all she’s done. That’s got to count for something.”

“It makes me think there’s a hidden motive as to why she’s gotten so close to you when you said she couldn’t stand you when she first started working here. You don’t find that suspicious?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Don’t be naïve and let yourself be tricked by a girl you think loves you. Do you realize how many people would kill to be in the position we are?

Do you know how many girls would take advantage of you so they could be queen?”

“Annie isn’t like that,” I argued quietly, clenching my fists. I couldn’t let him see or hear that his words were getting to me.

“And how do you know that?”

“Because I know Annie. She’s too honest, and she’s too focused on providing for her sister.”

“You don’t think she’d leak your secrets to the press for some extra money?”

“No, I don’t. Now can you please drop this? I trust her, and nothing you can do or say will stop me from doing so.” I strode away, trying to hide my irritation, but Annalise picked up on it. The moment we were alone, or as alone as we could be, she brought it up.

“Dad still doesn’t trust you. It’s really ticking me off,” I explained.

“Will, I don’t think he’ll ever like me, no matter what,” she said, flicking through the clothing racks.

“You’re my best friend, and you make sure I don’t deviate from what I’m supposed to do. That alone should be impressive enough considering my past, but no. He’s being an obstinate fool.” I sighed, rubbing my face with my hands. “Okay, enough of my whinging. What does Mia want as a souvenir from here?”

“James got her a glass pyramid with a Scarab in it. I don’t see anything else here that I think she’d like or want, so I might wait until South Africa and Cote d’Ivoire to buy something for her, although I’m looking at this necklace for her. What do you think?”

“Get it for her because if you don’t, I will.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll get it.” Annie walked up to the register with me on her heels. While our bodyguards kept people at a distance from us, I still felt an urge to protect Annie, not from the citizens, but from my dad. I watched him as he kept his eyes on her. More than once, he caught me staring him down, and he’d avert his eyes for a while. But sooner or later, he always returned to observing her, as if waiting for Annie to mess up.

The rest of the afternoon, we shopped and walked around the city, seeing some historical sights and eating Egyptian delicacies.

It was nice to be out in the open, but my favorite part was spending time with Annie and James, and seeing how relaxed they were outside the formalities of palace life. Both were much more animated, getting excited over the smallest of things. I reminded myself neither of them had ever traveled much outside of Verona, if at all. Their enthusiasm rubbed off on me, and despite being here once before, I felt the thrill of the sights and sounds and smells as if this were my first time as well.

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