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Chapter 56

"Her eyes gave her away. There was a drowning girl behind that smile."
~Atticus


New Years' Eve…

I never got a chance to talk to Will after storytime the day of his dad's funeral. For the next few months, Will and I saw each other periodically. When we were around others, we'd joke and share laughs and smile at each other like nothing ever happened between us. Then, the moment he was alone with me, Will would find some excuse to leave.

That became much more difficult for him when Queen Lillian hired me to organize the New Years' Eve Party.

I was at the palace nearly every day, sketching my vision of the courtyard and what the party would entail. Will joined me on a few occasions to see what it looked like, but only when my assistant (which Mrs. Trifle generously gave me) sat with me, which meant he wasn't alone with me.

Finally, on the day of the party, Will made the mistake of entering Everly's bedroom while I was there alone. She was with Mark and Reid at a doctor's appointment. I hid myself in her room to escape being hounded by employees while I emailed some of my other clients.

"Have you seen Everly?" Will asked, scanning the room.

"She's at a doctor's. I'm hiding here for a bit before heading back to my apartment. Can I talk to you for a sec?"

"Is it about the party?"

"No. Something else."

"Unless it's for the party, I really-"

"William Oliver Ward, you're going to talk to me, and you're going to talk to me now." Will appeared taken aback by my outburst. To be honest, I was too, but I was done with him avoiding me.

Hesitantly, Will shut the door. "What's on your mind?"

I'd gone over every possible way to start this conversation for the day it actually happened, but now, with Will standing in front of me, all those beginning sentences fled my mind. Instead, I blurted out, "Where do I stand with you?"

Will frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I mean how you keep avoiding me!" I exclaimed, exasperated. "For a year, you called and texted and begged me to forgive you and to come back into your life, and now that I do, it's like you want nothing to do with me, and I can't do this again, Will. I can't open myself back up to you when you're going to shut me out and act like I don't exist!"

"Annalise, I swear I want you in my life, I do, but I can't do it right now. I can't-"

"Why not?!" My eyes stung, and I blinked by the tears so desperate to fall. All the pent up anger I'd pushed down over the last year suddenly bubbled to the surface, and it was taking every ounce of my self-control not to absolutely lose it on him.

Will's face fell at the sight of me. "Anna, I love having you back in my life right now, but I have to keep you at arm's length because of the things that happen to people I'm close to."

"Because of Lorraine's dad?"

"Yes. Look, I haven't told anyone but my mom this because I didn't want to cause a panic, especially because one has enough to worry about with a baby. I'm going to tell you because I can't stand to have you believe I don't want you here." Will ran a hand through his hair. "The fire in Everly's apartment wasn't accidental. It took some time, but they found a piece of evidence- small as it is- that proved the fire was intentional. It's a method of the Verona Intelligence Agency, and extremely hard to detect. The only reason they found it is because I sent a VIA team to check it out on my hunch. The only reason Everly is alive is because Eliza needed the bathroom. Had Everly stayed in there for another minute or two, she wouldn't be here. Neither would our godson."

A shiver ran up my spine at the thought of someone trying to assassinate my best friend. "That's why you've been keeping Everly here, isn't it?"

Will nodded. "I've managed to convince her to stay for safety reasons and for Reid."

"Okay, don't get me wrong, it's terrible someone tried to kill her, and I hope you catch whoever it is, but that's only one person. How do you know-"

"Lorraine's dead," Will continued, interrupting me. "She died in her cell. The security guards were found dead too. She and her four guards had their necks snapped."

"Oh my god," I breathed, clutching my chest.

"Someone tried poisoning my mom with deadly mushrooms a month ago at a restaurant. Thankfully, the chef noticed the difference in mushrooms before the dish was sent out. He saved her life. We did a thorough check on everyone working that night, and it wasn't anyone there. The only lead we have from that is an elderly chef- a red-head- was knocked unconscious from behind and hidden in a locked closet. He was found the next day."

"A red-head… does that mean Lorraine's dad-"

"Most likely. He's the only one who has a reason to go after Everly, my mom, and Lorraine. I know you helped Everly find a detective to follow Lorraine, and I know you didn't want anyone to know, but people have speculated about it since you two are so close. If there's even a chance that Lorraine's dad believes you had something to do with his daughter being found out, then you could be the next person on his target list. He's failed with two of the people by sheer, dumb luck. He succeeded with Lorraine, and as much as I hate not being close to you right now, I'd much rather have you alive than dead. I don't know what I'd do if-" Will choked up, clenching his jaw and fists in an attempt to gather himself. "I've lost my dad. I cannot and will not lose you too, Annalise."

"Remember when your dad said to keep your friends close when you're going through tough times?" I asked. "This is one of those times. Instead of pushing people away, you need to keep them close. If I'm already on Mr. O'Connell's hit list, then keeping me away from you isn't going to help anything."

"But if you're not, then I can't risk putting you on it," Will argued. "For my sanity, I can't take that risk. Don't you see it, Anna? I'm toxic," Will said adamantly, stepping towards me. "People get close to me, and they die! My dad, Lorraine, and if it weren't for sheer luck, then my mom and Everly would be on that list as well."

"Your dad's death was not your fault, neither was Lorraine's nor would your mom's or Everly's. You are not toxic, Will," I replied firmly. "Maybe it seems that way because you've been through hell in these last few months, but it's still not true. I know if you asked anyone else in this palace, they would tell you the same thing I am."

"He's trying to kill people because of me, people I am close to. I'm not going to risk putting you in more danger than I already have."

"You put me in danger the moment I met you. Any person in the public spotlight is always at some risk for danger. I'm no exception. Besides, if I was such a threat to Mr. O'Connell's goal, he would've taken me out long ago."

"He wanted to!" Will burst out. Running his hands through his hair, he said, "Lorraine stopped him. That's why she drove the wedge between us. We made her take a polygraph test when she was explaining everything. Lorraine knew what you meant to me back then, and if she did, then so did her dad. She knew he'd kill you if she didn't' get you out of the picture."

"He's had plenty of opportunities to kill me before. What makes you think he's going to do it now?"

"I don't know... but I've had guards keeping an eye on you and Mia ever since Everly's apartment fire," he admitted, shoulders sagging. "I've got guards trailing Mark and James too. Patty, Walt, even the Stewarts and Wallaces. I never told you because I didn't want to worry you. I figured you'd think I was paranoid, and you still probably do, but this was my choice. I'm telling you now, so you understand how dedicated I am to catching this monster, so I don't have to keep pushing you away."

"You're making a mistake," I said, my voice hitching. "I need to go. I need to get ready for the party tonight."

I made an attempt to leave, brushing past Will, but he stopped me, grasping my arm. "Annalise, please look at me."

"What?" I demanded.

"Thank you for helping Everly. I never got a chance to say it before, so I'm saying it now." I was all too aware of his thumb, gently moving up and down. I ached to lean into him, to be enveloped in his arms, and return to the relationship we once had. But Will didn't want me near him, and I couldn't keep doing this to myself, letting myself believe that every little touch meant something more than it did.

I pulled myself away. "You're welcome."

"Anna-"

"Don't. Please, don't drag this argument out any further. Just let me leave."

"I-" Will stared at me in anguish, silently debating on whether or not to listen to me. However, in the end, he relented. "I'll see you tonight then."

"I'll stay away from you as much as possible," I promised. Before he could respond, I hurried out of the room, head bowed to avoid letting anyone see the tears falling down my face.

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