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Chapter 57

"New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings."
~Lao Tzu


Mia stood next to me in my bathroom, applying her make up as she got dressed for the party. Upbeat music played from her phone, but I couldn't seem to get into the mood after my heated discussion with Will. Unfortunately, Mia picked up on my melancholy. Glancing at me out of the corner of her eye, she asked, "What's wrong? Are you worried about the party?"

"Yeah," I replied. It wasn't a lie because I was worried about seeing Will after earlier today, which had to do with the party itself. Plus, I didn't want Mia concerned about me all night when all she wanted to do was have fun for her first New Years' Eve out of the hospital.

"What about it is bothering you? Maybe I can talk you out of it," Mia offered.

"It's nothing you can solve, I promise. I just need to work things out myself."

"Does it have anything to do with Will?"

"Why would you ask that?"

"Because he's the only one who can make you this quiet. Did you finally talk to him about why he's avoiding you?"

"Yeah. It's complicated, though. I'll tell you tomorrow, okay?" I said. Turning to her, I added, "Tonight, I want you to have nothing but fun. You deserve it after everything you've been through."

"So do you!"

"And I will! Once I get there, I'll be fine. I'll have so much to preoccupy my thoughts, and I'll work this out with Will sooner or later. It's not a permanent thing. It's just… frustrating. Seriously, don't worry about me. I'm going to be fine. I promise!"

Mia narrowed her eyes at me, suspiciously, searching for any deception in my statement. Not finding any, she once more faced the mirror again and said, "Plan on kissing anyone tonight?"

I snorted in amusement. "Very funny. What about you?"

"Oh, there's someone I want to, but I don't know if he wants to kiss me."

"Who is it? Do I know him? Is it Duke Bryan? Duke Kyle? Duke Tyrell? Duke Paolo?"

"No, no, no, and no. It's not a duke."

"Hmm… okay, is it-"

A knock on our door interrupted my sentence, and Mia exclaimed, "James! He must be here early. Shit, I'm nowhere near ready!"

"I'll go answer it. You finish getting dressed," I said. Mia thanked me profusely, and I went to the door. Opening it, I found James standing there in a sharp gray suit with a silvery sheen, perfect for the festive New Years' atmosphere.

"Don't you look snazzy!" I complimented, moving aside.

"Why, thank you, milady," James replied, bowing dramatically. "Are you two lovely ladies almost done?"

"Mia is. I'm running behind because I got home later than I anticipated. You're welcome to relax in my bedroom, or we can start pres while Mia and I finish our hair and makeup."

"Pres, of course. It involves some much-needed drinking after this crazy year. And-" James swung out a bottle of prosecco he'd been hiding behind his back- "I have just the stuff to start."

"I didn't think it was possible to love you any more than I already did, but you're proving me wrong. Grab the glasses in the cupboard, and meet us in the bathroom."

"Will do!" James and I briefly parted way. I rejoined Mia, who was working on her eyeshadow. I was barely done with my foundation and realized how far behind I actually was. James entered the bathroom a few seconds later, three glasses in hand. He gave one each to Mia and me, filling them up to the top before treating himself. We clinked glasses and took a swig.

"I never understood why it took girls so long to get ready, but watching you two, I'm starting to," James remarked, staring in fascination as I applied eyeshadow, and Mia touched up her eyeliner. "Honestly, how are you two getting it so straight? And free-handed at that."

"Lots and lots of practice. I watched a ton of YouTube videos when I was in the hospital. There's probably not much on there that I didn't discover. Some things, I wish I hadn't come across," Mia said, digging through her makeup bag for blush and lipstick. "There are some terrifying things on the internet."

"My senior photo for high school being one of those," James joked.

"I'm sure you were as cute back then as you are now."

"Thank you for the compliment, but unfortunately, I thought a mullet was a good look for me. Add in my punk rock clothing style, and you had a weird as hell combination."

"You do realize I'm going to search for this the second I get a chance?" Mia asked, smirking mischievously.

"I'll delete it."

"I'll ask your friends for a yearbook."

"You wouldn't dare."

"And miss an opportunity to show that lovely photo at your wedding one day? Never."

"Here I thought you were the nice sister," James said.

"Hey!" I protested, whirling around and throwing my hands up in the air. "I'm nice!"

"You are, but… I don't know how to put this…"

"She has a resting bitch face?" Mia suggested.

I opened my mouth to argue her point, but thinking about it, I realized she was right. "Okay, fair point."

With a triumphant smile, Mia nearly skipped into the closet, shutting the door so she could get into her dress. Meanwhile, I finished up with my mascara, turning my attention to my tightly curled hair. At that moment, Mia came out, dressed to the nines in a sparkling black, long-sleeved mini-dress with a plunging open back. Paired with black peep-toe stilettos, she looked incredible. Even James appeared flabbergasted at my sister's transformation.

"What do you think?" Mia asked, spinning around. She pulled the sleeves down over her fists as she stared at us expectantly.

"You look stunning!" I said. "The boys aren't going to know what's hit them when they see you."

"I can see that," Mia remarked, cocking her head at a still speechless James.

Noticing we were both staring at him, James cleared his throat and said, "You look beautiful."

Mia flushed so much, it showed under all her makeup. "Thank you."

James took a large swig of his drink. "I'm going to call Mark and see if he and Everly are going to come here or meet us at the palace."

"I'll come join you. I need to get my purse situated. Meet us out there when you're done, Annalise?"

"You got it," I said. The two of them left me to my own devices, and I started working on brushing my hair out until it fell in beautiful, silky waves. Then I turned to my eyeliner. I was good at it, but not near to the degree Mia was. After she was released from the hospital, she'd spent every waking moment for a full week practicing her eyeliner until she could do anything she wanted with it.

"Anna, you almost ready?" Mia shouted as I finished my eyeliner.

"Sort of, but I need to swing by the office on my way to the party. Why don't I just meet you there?" I suggested.

"Are you sure?" Mia asked, poking her head into the bathroom.

"Yeah, I'm good. I'm not far behind you anymore, but I don't want you to miss out on any of the party. You go ahead," I insisted. Mia hesitated but agreed. Giving me a quick hug, she excitedly rushed out the door with James. I entered my closet and slipped on my dress- a one-sleeved, silver cocktail dress. I tugged the dress down, feeling slightly self-conscious at the short length. While not risqué by any means, I still felt unsure about it. I'd never worn such an outfit before.

I slipped on my shoes and made my way to my dresser, where I started getting my purse in order. I should've done this last night, but I'd gotten sidetracked by everything else going on.

The front door creaked open, and I called out, "What did you forget?"

No answer.

A chill settled in my bones, and gut instinct told me it wasn't Mia or James in my apartment with me. My conversation with Will flashed briefly through my mind, and I couldn't help but think: It's my time...

As quietly and quickly as I could, I grabbed my pepper spray, something I'd started carrying on me after the mugger attacked me all those years ago. I lifted it up, pointing it at my doorway as a shadow slowly moved past the crack, the unmistakable glint of metal flashing in the dim light.

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