"Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things."
I tensed up, ready to defend Annalise and my godson at a moment's notice. I took some comfort knowing Will and James were here to help if need, but I prayed it didn't come to that. After all, my dad seemed to be in not only in good spirits but also right in his mind. He'd already seen Annalise holding Reid and hadn't flinched.
"He's good, Your Majesty," Everly said.
"What's with the formality, Evie? You know you can call my Uncle George," dad replied, shuffling over to us. Turning his attention to Annalise, he asked, "May I see him?"
"Of course, sir," she said, starting to hand Reid over, but my dad stopped her.
"Oh no, I don't trust myself to hold him with my condition. You continue holding him. I just want to see him."
Annalise pulled Reid back to her as my dad peered over him, a gentle smile on his face. "You look just like your mother, but you don't have the set of pipes on you like she did when she was born. Perhaps you take on after your father?" Dad looked up at Mark. "Son, were you a crier when you were born?"
"Uh, no, sir. Not that I know of. I was just hungry all the time," Mark said.
"Then Reid definitely takes on after you. I don't know where he puts all the milk he drinks," Everly remarked.
"Will was a crier like Everly. Perhaps it's a family trait," dad mused, turning his attention back on Reid. "You are surrounded by so many people who love you. You're going to be spoiled rotten, you know that?"
I glanced over at Everly, who met my gaze. Both of us were obviously confused by my dad's behavior. I'd never seen him this… tender before, not even when I was a child. He'd always had some air of urgency or formality about him. What was going on with him?
"Everly, I hope you know how proud I am of you," Dad said. "You've always been there for Will, and you've always been protective of our family. I know Reid will have your loyalty and fierceness, and that will serve him well in life."
Although I could see Everly's puzzlement about this sudden declaration of pride, I could also see her relief and gratefulness. "Thank you, Uncle George."
"You're very welcome, my dear. Mr. Stewart, may I call you Mark?"
"Absolutely, sir," Mark said, standing up.
"I may not have approved of your relationship with Everly in the beginning since it started in such an unorthodox manner, but in the end, you have proven yourself to be an incredible boyfriend and caring father. Everly could not have chosen a better man to start a family with. I know you'll take care of both of them."
Mark bowed. "I promise I will."
"James, you've proven yourself a loyal friend, and you kept Will out of trouble when he was younger, which wasn't an easy task. Will mentioned to me you have dreams of one day opening up your own restaurant. To show my gratitude for taking care of my son, and to help you fulfill your dreams, you will not only be receiving a pay raise, but I have also put in a word with the head chef here to take you under her wing to teach you everything she knows."
James paled. "That's- that's amazing, Your Majesty! Thank you!"
Dad smiled at him and then turned to Mia. "You must be the younger Stark. I didn't get a chance to talk to you at the Everly's baby shower, but I've heard a lot about you from Will. I would like to congratulate you on being cancer-free, first and foremost. As I understand, you have the hopes of becoming a doctor?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," Mia replied, eyes wide. "I want to find a treatment for cancer patients that yields the same or better results as chemo, but I want it to be less harsh."
"I have no doubt you will. I would also like to apologize for the hell I put you and your sister through. My outburst towards her recently and in the past have no excuse, and I know she means the world to you. My wife informed me that before Annalise started working here, you had a lot of financial difficulties. While that no longer exists, I would still like to lessen the burden on you and your sister. Therefore, I'm paying your tuition at the University of Verona; any payments already made will be reimbursed."
Mia gasped. "Oh my god! That's- we couldn't- I couldn't possibly-"
Dad held up his hand and said, "Please. For an old man's sake, please accept it. I know it won't change the past, but I hope it helps provide for a better future."
"It absolutely will! Thank you so much!"
I glanced down at Annalise, who had tears welling in her eyes. She gulped and said, "That's an amazing gift, Your Majesty. Thank you. You have no idea…"
"It's the least I can do for you and Mia. It's true, I put you both through hell, you in particular. I've already told you how much I appreciate what you've done for Will, but I don't think you understand just how much you did. No matter how we meet again in the future, know that when I say you are the most incredible woman is how I truly feel about you. You should be proud of who you are, and be assured your parents are looking down on you and Mia with pride. I'll never be able to repay you for everything you did for Will, nor will I ever be able to make up for my behavior towards you, but I can do this." Dad gave a full, respectful bow to Annalise. I'd never seen him do that even to another ruler or diplomat.
Annalise understood the significance of the gesture. Her voice cracked as she replied, "Thank you."
"Will, my boy, you've made mistakes, and we've never been on the same page for most of your life, but that's my fault. I should've trusted you, and I should've told you the truth about my condition the moment I was diagnosed. You have made me so proud, and I can't think of a better ruler to inherit the throne. The people of Verona are lucky to have you, and you're going to be a better King than I could ever dream of being myself. In fact, you already are. You're going to experience tough times. Every King does. However, I believe that as long as you keep this group of amazing people around you, you'll get through whatever is thrown at you. These people are your family, and at the end of the day, they are all that matters."
I stared at my dad, perplexed, wondering why, of all days and times, he chose now to voice this. However, his words struck a chord in me, and I realized he was saying the words I'd wanted to hear from him my entire life. All I ever wanted to do was to have him be proud I was his son, and now, he'd just confirmed it.
"Well, I should get going. I'm getting sleepy, and I fear if I don't get to my bed now, I may collapse and take a nap on the floor. Have a good afternoon, everyone." Dad bowed his head and then left the room. We all remained rooted in our spots, half stunned and half bewildered by what we'd witnessed.
It was only when the door had been shut for a good ten seconds before James spoke. "I'm going to come right out and say it. What the hell was that about?"
"Beats me," Everly said. "I've never seen him act like that, not even when I was younger."
I frowned, trying to figure it out but coming up empty-handed. "I have a meeting and dinner to get to, and I'm going to check on my dad, but I'll come back later to see Reid."
"Be careful," Annalise whispered so softly I barely heard her. Our eyes met once more, and I was shocked to see the concern in them, concern for my wellbeing. I'd all but started to believe Annalise still hated me, but maybe she was warming up to me again. I'd been told to let her come to me, and I know some of Everly's get-togethers had been ploys to get Annalise and me in the same room again. My cousin hadn't said it outright, but she didn't need to. I knew her well enough to know her tactics.
"I will," I promised. Kissing Reid on the head and gently, briefly rubbing Annalise's back to reassure her, I left, wishing I knew what the future held.
The meeting and the dinner lasted for hours. All I wanted to do was go to see Reid and then go to bed, but I needed to find my dad. He'd been MIA at dinner, which wasn't typically unusual, but for a meeting of this magnitude, it was. Mom and I both started searching for him after it concluded, and I checked with Everly first to see if dad had been back by to see Reid.
"No, he hasn't," Everly said. She turned around and asked, "Anna, have you seen him?"
"No, but I haven't left your room. Want me to call James and check? He's been down in the kitchens, so maybe your dad went there," Annalise offered.
"Would you mind?"
"No, and I'll text you what I find out."
"I appreciate it. Good night, you two." I left Everly's room and headed to my dad's study. Maybe he was working late and had fallen asleep at his desk. It wouldn't be the first time it happened. For as long as I could remember, dad always worked late, which is probably where I got it from. On more than one occasion, when I was little, I'd sneak out of my room and join my dad in his study, watching him work. That was well before I discovered his condition, and long before we lost the ability to communicate with each other. As formal and non-affectionate as my dad had been, those moments in his study reminded me he loved me back then, and his speech earlier reminded me he loved me still.
Entering his study, I found all the lights off. He didn't like having a big, overhead light in there, and preferred working strictly by daylight or by lamps, so I made my way over to his desk. My foot bumped into something on the floor, and my other foot nearly slipped on a slick surface I didn't remember being there before. However, I reached his desk without any further mishaps and flipped the switch on for all the lamps.
I wish I hadn't.
I wish I'd never set foot in that room.
I saw something no one should ever see, especially someone's kid.
Paralyzed, I saw my dad's body on the floor, unmoving and ashen. A huge pool of blood surrounded him, smeared by my shoe.
Now I know what I'd hit on my way in. Now I know what I slipped in.
"Dad?" I croaked out, movement beginning to return to my limbs as I started to register everything I was seeing. "Dad!"
I rushed to his side, slipping in the blood and landing hard on my knees. I shook him, pleading desperately for him to wake up as I shouted at the top of my lungs for someone- anyone- to help.