"Mistakes are always forgivable if one has the courage to admit them."
"Okay, watch your step…" I said, carefully escorting a blind-folded Everly through the entryway to the Windsor Palace Gardens. "All right, you ready? Open your eyes!"
Everly ripped off the blindfold, and all the guests shouted, "Surprise!"
My friend's mouth dropped open at the sight before her: family and friends surrounding a mountain of presents. She turned to me and asked, "What is all this?"
"Your baby shower!" I replied happily. "You didn't think we weren't going to throw you one, did you?"
"I-I hadn't really thought about it. How long have you been planning this? How this all so perfect?!"
"You know that baby shower I kept getting your input on? Like what dishes do you like from Spain? What color scheme do you think would be best? Well, that was all for this. Your shower."
"Oh my god! This is amazing! Thank you!" Everly exclaimed, pulling me into a bone-crushing hug.
"You're very welcome! Now, go socialize! I have to check on some of the hors d'oeurves, and then I'll be back out," I said. Everly nodded and meandered over to the guests in a daze. I watched for a few seconds, smiling to myself at the sight of her so happy. After learning half her apartment had been destroyed in the blaze, she'd been dangerously down. Nothing any of us could do could cheer her up. To see her smiling again warmed my heart.
"You did a fantastic job," Duke Bryan said, bowing and taking my hand. He kissed the back of it. I couldn't help but smirk at the actions Duke of Brietta, one of Everly's close friends, and the young man who helped me get everyone here. He even funded some of the party itself.
"Thank you, Your Grace," I replied, giving him a small curtsy.
"Please, you don't have to do that. We're not in public, and you're hardly a stranger."
"We've met twice over Skype."
"Yes, which means we've met, and you're hardly a stranger," he repeated, grinning at me. "Why aren't you mingling? I'm sure people want to meet the woman who pulled this magnificent party off."
"Oh, I'm not looking for praise. This day is for Everly, not for me, and everyone here knows exactly who I am. I'm just waiting for someone to question me about that infamous day. In an attempt to avoid it, I am finding every possible way to avoid the people here and make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible."
"Just stick by me. I'll make sure no one bothers you about it."
"How are you going to do that?"
"I've become a master at dominating conversations and diverting it away from specific topics. Now," Bryan said, "if I know you, you've already gotten everything down to a tee, and the only reason you're going to check on things is to avoid the people."
"You might be right," I said.
Bryan held out his arm. "Then allow me to escort you to some people you know. You deserve to enjoy the fruits of your labor, and if any problem arises, the employees will come find you."
Hesitantly, I took his arm. Bryan escorted me over to Mark and James, who looked like deer in headlights. Both boys raised an eyebrow at me on the arm of a man but said nothing when we approached other than, "Thank God you're here! We don't know any of these people, and they're all staring at us like we're criminals."
"You're not, but you're affiliated with a would-be criminal if I hadn't been proven innocent," I pointed out.
"You would've been the prettiest criminal in Verona's history, though," Bryan remarked, nudging me gently with his shoulder.
I was grateful for the makeup I wore, which covered my furious blushing. Slipping my arm out of his, I said, "I'm going to load my plate up with food and pig out. Any of you want to join?"
All three men raised their hands and tailed me to the banquet table, comfortably covered by a tent, shielding us from the hot sun. As I said, I filled my plate up to the brim, hoping that if my mouth was constantly filled with food, I wouldn't have to respond to any questions directed my way. In the meantime, I let the boys talk while I scanned the party to make sure nothing was going wrong. Bryan appeared to get along incredibly well with Mark and James. They were all discussing sports and hobbies and things I really had no interest in. Even if I was, my mouth was too full to say anything.
"Annalise, who all was on the invite list?" Mark asked, staring over my shoulder.
"I can't remember everyone off the top of my head. Why?" I replied once I swallowed my mouthful of food.
He nodded at something. "King George is here, and he's making his way over to us."
Mark and James knew about what happened between the King and me, but Bryan didn't, and I intended to keep it that way. "I have to go check on the kitchen and see about the cake. Cover for me?"
"I don't know what's going on, but count me in," Bryan said.
Giving the boys a rushed 'thank you,' I scurried off to the kitchen, using the crowd to hide me on the way. I made it there without any issues, happily taking refuge amongst the chefs who were still sending out dish after dish of appetizers. I'd probably gone overboard with how much food I ordered, but my biggest fear was that we'd run out of it at the party, and that was unacceptable. Besides, if we didn't eat it all, there'd be leftovers that I know we could take home or snack on in the middle of the night.
For the next hour, and I managed to avoid the King when Everly made her speech thanking everyone for coming and me for organizing the party, and when we cut the cake and passed it around. Mark, James, and Bryan helped shield me from King George's line of sight when we ate it and encircled me like bodyguards while Everly opened her presents.
I would've been worried about Mia had she not managed to charm practically everyone in attendance; she'd made quite a few, new, friendly acquaintances. Plus, I saw Will keeping an eye on her. I think he was keeping an eye on me too because more than once, we caught each other's gaze when our attention diverted from Mia. We'd hastily look away, and I'd pretend like nothing happened.
However, my luck on avoiding the King finally ran out.
I was walking from the bathroom back to the kitchens to help clean up when the King entered the hallway, approaching me. I stopped in my tracks, tensing myself for yet another argument and altercation.
"Miss Stark, you're a hard lady to track down," King George said. "You did a lovely job on the shower. I know Everly thoroughly enjoyed it. I haven't seen her smile like that since the incident with her apartment."
"Yes, I noticed that, too," I replied, trying to sound as normal as possible. I curtsied to him. "I'm glad to see her happy again."
"I'm sure you're wondering why I want to talk to you after our fiasco last time. Please, let me apologize for my behavior and for any harm I caused you."
"Thank you, Your Majesty. Will stopped you from doing anything other grabbing me."
"Yes, I saw the aftermath of what I'd done to him. You patched him up, didn't you?"
"Thank you for that. He wouldn't have let anyone else do that, I believe. He's taken on a lot of responsibilities recently, and ever since his argument with you, refuses to burden people with his problems, his mom and I included. Will used to go to you for that until he falsely accused you of leaking my secret to the press."
"I thought you believed I did that?"
"I do, sometimes, when I'm not sound of mind. When I forget things. My hatred towards you, when you first came around, had nothing to do with you. My Alzheimer's made me- makes me- paranoid. I forget people, and I forget their intentions. For some reason, I always seemed to see you on my bad days. Unfortunately, they've become more common over the years, but occasionally, like now, I remember everything. Will told me everything you've done for him, both now and in the past, and I want to properly thank you for it. I truly believe he is the man today because of you, and I hope, one day, you two will be able to reconnect. I want to see my son happy again, and I haven't seen him truly happy since the day before everything went to hell in a handbasket."
"I appreciate your apology, Your Majesty," I said, stunned. I was still trying to process his words when Will rounded the same corner his dad had come around just moments prior.
"What's going on here?" He demanded, stepping between the two of us, his back to me.
"I was apologizing to Miss Stark for my actions a couple weeks ago. I wanted to do so while I still remembered," King George said.
Will turned around for my confirmation, and I nodded. He moved beside me, allowing his dad to see me, but I could see how tense Will remained.
"I should really get going to help clean up, but thank you again for your apology, Your Majesty." I curtsied to him and made my leave, but I heard Will say, "Allow me to escort you back."
"I can find the kitchens just fine on my own," I said when we were out of earshot of King George.
"I know, but I don't trust my dad not to flip like a switch and come after you. His memory is getting worse by the day. I'm surprised he came to the party, actually. Speaking of which, you did an amazing job. Did you enjoy it?"
"I did. Admittedly, I was avoiding your dad for the majority of it, but I had help."
"Ah, yes, I noticed Mark, James, and Bryan were guarding you quite protectively, especially Bryan. You two seemed quite cozy with each other," Will observed. He kept his eyes straight ahead, but I heard the implication in his voice.
"That was all him," I replied. "I didn't mind having an extra guard, and he diverted any unwanted topics when other people talked to us, but I'm not interested."
"Does he know that?"
"I think so. I'll let him know if he doesn't. Why do you want to know?"
Will shrugged. "You seemed happy with him, is all. I was keeping an eye on you and Mia since my dad was around, and if he approached either of you, I wanted to be able to intervene straight away if needed. That's why I noticed what I did. I swear I'm not stalking you."
"Like you did as Smith?" I joked lightly.
"Hey now, I went to Donaldson's before I even knew who you were," Will protested. "Turns out, I liked the pie so much, I coincidentally went there the day you were hired at the palace. I enjoyed your company and the food so much, I just continued going. Still my best decision to date."
We stopped outside the kitchen doors, and I said, "Thanks for walking me back."
"No problem. I'll have guards walk you out when you leave. A precaution against my dad."
"You really don't trust him, do you?"
"Not with you. Have a good afternoon, Annalise." Will bowed his head and strode off. I entered the kitchen, mind reeling with the unexpected apology from the King.