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Chapter 25

"The things we love are secretly loving us in return."
~Debasish Mridha


South Africa…

Annalise

Will’s second gift was even more stunning than the first: a black dress made of mesh with black lace trailing up my chest and around my neck. The back was only covered by the mesh. The floor-length bottom-half consisted of more lace and tulle.

Admittedly, when I tried it on, I became highly self-conscious wearing something so see-through. Then I reminded myself Everly attended the event before and said it was one for women- even royal ones- to step out of the normal confinements of high society.

With that in mind, I strapped on my black, crystal-embellished stilettos. The jewelry that came with the dress was simple: a pair of cubic zirconia studs and a matching bracelet. I didn’t mind. The dress was a statement enough. I did wonder where Everly and Will found the jewelry, though. A gut feeling told me they weren’t brand-spanking-new. Maybe they belonged to Everly?

At a quarter to seven, Will knocked on my door. He raised his eyebrows at the sight of me, looking me up and down. “You look absolutely breathtaking.”

“You don’t look so bad yourself,” I joked, despite having the breath slightly knocked out of me at the sight of him. Wearing a dark gray suit and black tie, it wasn’t anything out of his normal appearance. Yet, something about him tonight made him appear much more handsome than usual.

He grinned at my jesting and held out his arm. “You ready?”

“Ready.” I looped my arm through his, and we walked down the hallway towards the car. “Where’s James?”

“Right here,” James declared, exiting his room as we approached it. “Annalise, you look fantastic!”

“Likewise.”

“Oh, I see how it is!” Will said in mock offense. “You compliment him and insult me.”

“Would you feel better if I said I’ve never seen you more handsome?”

“Possibly.”

“I’ve never seen you more handsome.”

Will pursed his lips. “It still feels like you’re messing with me.”

“I can’t win with you.”

“Stop your bickering, and let’s get going,” James interrupted. Will and I obliged, and we walked to the car. The King and Queen were already there.

“What took so long?” King George asked, glancing skeptically at me.

“It’s my fault,” Will answered coolly, his hand tightening around mine. “I couldn’t get the wrinkles out of my suit.”

“Annalise, you look beautiful,” The Queen complimented before her husband could come up with a scathing retort. “And I’m so glad my jewelry goes with it!”

It took a couple seconds for her words to fully register. “This… this is your jewelry?”

“Yes. Everly and Will had issues finding jewelry to go with your outfit, so I lent them mine.”

“This isn’t cubic zirconia, is it?”

“No, they’re diamonds,” she replied, thinly veiling her amusement. “I wore them at my bridal shower, believe it or not.”

“Oh, wow...” If the paparazzi made that connection, they’d have a field day... “You’re really okay with me wearing this?”

“If I wasn’t, you wouldn’t be wearing it. Have you been enjoying the trip?”

“It’s been a dream! I’ve never left Verona before,” I admitted.

“You’ve never even left the capital?”

“No, ma’am. My parents were overseas most of the time for the military, and family friends watched over Mia and me. We never had time to travel, and when my parents returned, they were so happy to be home that we didn’t go anywhere.”

“What branch of the military were they in?” the King asked.

“The Royal Navy. They were pilots.”

“I see. I’m grateful for their service, but I’m sorry they made the ultimate sacrifice.”

“As am I,” I said, “but they knew they risked that when they signed up to join.”

“We’re here,” Will announced, ending the train of conversation, which I was grateful for. I didn’t want to continue talking about my parents. As much as I loved them, it was still difficult to talk about them.

The car door opened, and Will alighted first. Thankfully, he helped me out because the flashing cameras momentarily blinded me. Accompanied with the shouting from the photographers, I was completely disoriented. It took a few deep breaths and some blinking to get myself mostly right again.

“Ready?” Will asked. I nodded, squeezing his hand. I was glad Will had a hold of me because I was half concerned about losing him in the chaos and half concerned about tripping on the carpet in my stilettos.

Hard floors were fine; carpet was another story.

“James?” I called out over the cacophony.

“I’m here,” he replied, appearing on my left.

“Your highness!” a photographer called out. Will stopped and wrapped his arm around my waist, as did James.

“Where are we looking at?” I whispered.

“Whoever you want to,” he responded. “Honestly, I never know where to look either.”

For what seemed like an eternity, we stood in place, smiling and posing. We then proceeded down the carpet, stopping every few yards to have more pictures taken. At one point, Will stopped for an interview. James and I tried to hang back, but the interviewer insisted we answer questions too.

“Good evening, Your Highness! How are you today?” she asked cheerfully.

“Very well, how are you?” he answered, sounding perfectly at ease.

“Doing well! How are you enjoying your time here in South Africa?”

“It’s wonderful! I’ve never been here before, so it’s always a pleasure to visit somewhere new. I also have my best friends here with me, making it that much more enjoyable.”

She turned to us. “What are your names?”

“I’m Annalise.”

“I’m James.”

“Are you enjoying your time here?” she asked.

“It’s awesome. I’ve never been outside of Verona before,” James confessed, flashing her a charming smile. The reporter nearly swooned.

“What about you, Annalise?”

“Like James, I’ve never been outside Verona, so to have my first trip be to Egypt, South Africa, and soon Cote d’Ivoire is unbelievable,” I said. “It’s a dream!”

“That dress of yours is a dream!” She countered, giving me an approving look. “You all look fabulous. What are you wearing?”

“James and I are both wearing Ralph Lauren,” Will informed.

“I don’t know what I’m wearing,” I confessed. “This outfit was a gift from Will and Everly.′

“It’s a Philip Armstrong dress,” Will said. “According to Everly, I have the sight of a mole and can’t tell the difference between black and white, so I let her do the outfit choosing.”

“And the jewelry?” the reporter queried.

“A friend lent them to me,” I said, wanting to avoid tipping off the paparazzi that the Queen wore these to her bridal shower in case they made an incorrect assumption about why I was wearing them.

“Have you told her how old they are?” James queried, peering over me at Will.

“Why would you bring that up?!” Will groaned.

“Because I like to see you squirm.”

I narrowed my eyes at the prince. “Will, how old are these diamonds?”

“One-hundred-year-old.”

“They’re a hundred years old?” I demanded. “You’re telling me this now?”

“Yes. I knew you wouldn’t wear them if you knew beforehand,” Will said in a rush. “Now, moving swiftly on before she kills me, any other questions?”

Amusement etched itself onto the reporter’s face. “This is the top question people wanted me to ask Will and Annalise because of the recent trip-”

“Considering everything I’ve seen on the news, I can bet what it is,” James said.

The reporter shoved her mic closer to me. “Are you and Will dating?”

“Called it,” James said triumphantly.

“No, no, we’re not dating,” I replied quickly, laughing off the question’s absurdity. “I’m his secretary, and we just happen to be best friends.”

“People ship you two. Hard.”

Will’s face scrunched up in confusion. “What does that mean?”

“It means people would like to see us together,” I explained.

“Oh, it’s more than just that,” James said. “They want you two together.”

“When did this happen?” Will and I asked simultaneously.

“After the photos of us in the Egyptian market. I can only assume tonight will add more fuel to that fire.” Grinning impishly, he turned to the reporter and added, “These two will kill me for saying this, but they argue like an old married couple. You already saw it with the jewelry.”

I jabbed him with my elbow, and he nudged me in return. I could tell James was joking, but I feared the public wouldn’t.

“I can assure you we’re all just terrific friends,” Will said. “Without these two, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

“Thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it!” the reporter said. “Enjoy your night!”

“Thank you, you too!”

Will led James and me farther down the red carpet. We stopped a few more times for pictures before finally making it inside the building. It was gorgeously decorated in black and gold, and I couldn’t stop ogling everything. Crystals adorned the tablecloths, flowers decorated every column and railing in sight, and the rich aroma of food made my mouth water.

“Your Highness!” a man said enthusiastically, approaching us.

“President Naidoo,” Will replied cheerfully. “I don’t think you’ve formally met my friends, Annalise Stark and James Monroe. Annalise, James, this is President Zuma of South Africa.”

“It’s an honor, sir,” I said, shaking his extended hand. James followed in suit.

“An honor to meet you as well,” President Naidoo said. “Please, follow me. You’re all seated with me.”

The three of us trailed the President to our assigned table. Will’s parents were already there, and their discussion abruptly ended at our arrival.

“What took so long? We were getting worried about you,” the Queen said.

“Reporters and photographers wanted interviews and photos. They’re obsessed with Annalise,” Will replied, smiling down at me. “They’re obsessed with the idea of us dating.”

“Which I shot down that rumor,” I said.

“Along with my ego.” Will winked to let me know he was kidding, but I inexplicably felt guilty.

“You don’t fancy my son?” The King inquired.

“We’re strictly friends,” I said firmly. “Firstly, I’m his secretary. Second, besides the morning he drunkenly hit on me, no romantic feelings have arisen on his side towards me, nor I towards him.”

James’ eyes sparkled with amusement. “Didn’t you say you don’t date children?”

“That’s exactly what she said. Despite my drunken state, I did remember that encounter,” Will said. “Shall we?”

Will pulled out my chair, and I sat down, glad to get off my feet. He and James flanked me, and for the next two hours, we dined on a delicious, five-course meal. President Naidoo and King George dominated the conversation. Surprisingly, Queen Lillian kept me engaged in a discussion for most of the dinner, hardly paying attention to her husband or the President.

Afterward, we mingled with the party attendees while a dance floor was created. That only took about fifteen minutes, and Will was the first to ask for my hand. I worried James would be left alone until I saw him leading a girl onto the floor.

Will and I danced for three songs before taking a small break. Then James whisked me away for another two. We were going for our third when President Naidoo asked for my hand. I was too shocked to say anything but yes. We had one dance before he went to go back to his wife.

Wanting to get off my aching feet, I started making my way to some nearby chairs, but I was stopped by the last person I’d ever expect to talk to me.

“Would you like to dance with me, Miss Stark?” King George asked.

“Yes, sir,” I replied, keeping my voice as steady as possible. I figured if he was asking me to dance, it’s because he wanted to interrogate me.

And I was right.

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