"For a star to be born, there is one thing that must happen: a gaseous nebula must collapse. So collapse. Crumble. This is not your destruction. This is your birth."
I paced back and forth, anxiously waiting for James to call me back. Maybe it was my paranoia, which had been rampant ever since I learned of Everly's apartment fire, but I couldn't shake the feeling something was terribly wrong with Annalise. She would've called me back by now- no matter how mad she was- if James had told her to. Since he hadn't returned my call either, it set me on edge.
Giving in to my concern, I called the guards I'd assigned to trail Annalise. The phone rang and rang and rang.
My hand shook as I dialed again.
Still, no answer.
"Markus!" I called out. My head bodyguard entered my office, bowing, and asking what I needed. "Send some of your men to check on Annalise and her guards. None of them are answering their phones, and I have a bad feeling about it."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
I shook my head. "Please, it's still Your Highness or William. I'm not King of Verona yet."
"But you will be soon, and you'll be a great one, sir," Markus said sincerely.
"Let's hope. Now go send those men, and let me know when you get an update."
Markus bowed once more and left me tapping my fingers on my desk, staring at the picture of James, Annalise, and I in South Africa. It'd never left my desk, not even when I foolishly and briefly thought Anna had leaked my dad's condition to the press. I wished for those simpler times, when she and I were still close, and when I hadn't made a dumbass decision to date another girl to get over my feelings for Annalise.
Unable to stop myself, I reached for my phone and redialed James, praying he'd pick up. Like Annalise and her guards, he didn't answer. Sheer panic now started settling in, sending my stomach roiling. An uneasy queasiness formed in my heart, slowly radiating until my whole body shook with fear.
I glanced at the time.
Half an hour before the party was supposed to start. Half an hour before I was supposed to greet guests at the door. Could I do that in the state I was in? I felt if I moved even a little from my current chair, I'd be sick. I hated that I'd let myself get to this point, but the terror of losing anyone else after my dad died increased by a tenfold, and it affected me more than I cared to admit, and more than I could control.
"Sir!" Markus burst into the room, eyes wide in panic. "My men found Miss Stark's guards unconscious in their room. Miss Stark isn't in her apartment, but it looks like there's been an attack."
"What do you mean 'an attack'?" I demanded, standing up.
"All I know is Miss Stark was taken away in an ambulance. I'm trying to find out if she's at a hospital right now."
"St. Charles Memorial Hospital," I said quickly, remembering its proximity to her apartment. I sprinted out of my office with Markus on my heels. "It's the closest one to her. That's where they'll take her. Go tell my mom where I'm going and what's happened, and-"
"But sir, the party-"
"I don't give a damn about this party!" I roared, sliding to a stop. I clenched my fists, reigning in my temper. More calmly, I said, "I don't care about a party when Annalise could be dying. I'm going to see her, and I don't care who disapproves. Now, you either come with me or you go tell my mom what's happened. Your choice."
Before he could respond, I dashed off again, the hallways a blur as I made my way to the garage. I hopped on my motorcycle when six guards burst in. I glowered at them and warned, "If you're here to stop me-"
"We're not, sir," Deacon interrupted, holding up his hands. "We're here to escort you. Markus is telling the Queen what's happened."
I nodded. "Thank you."
In the blink of an eye, we were geared up and flooring it to the hospital. The guards turned on their sirens, effectively stopping traffic and giving us a clear path to our destination. My speedometer never dropped below eighty, and within a few minutes, I made it to St. Charles Memorial Hospital. I pulled into a vacant parking spot and, without waiting for my guards, raced to the front desk.
"Has an Annalise Stark been admitted?" I asked the nurse on duty.
She stared at me for a moment, registering my identity before responding, "Yes, Your Majesty. She just arrived and will be going into surgery momentarily. You're welcome to wait upstairs in the-"
I didn't let her finish, already tearing my way through the building. I took the stairs two at a time, going up to the fifth floor. I'd learned from coming to visit Mia so often that it was the ICU floor. If Mia wasn't on this floor, she'd be on the seventh, the surgical floor.
"Will?" A familiar voice asked in shock. "How did you-"
"James!" I exclaimed, skidding to a stop. "What-"
Running a hand through his hair, he said, "I'm sorry I didn't call you back! It's been so hectic since-"
"It's okay. I'm not mad," I promised. "Where's Annalise? What happened to her? Where's Mia? Is she okay? Are you okay?"
James took a shaky breath. "Um, yeah. No. Not really. I've never seen anything… I can't believe she's alive, Will. The amount of blood in her apartment…"
My heart nearly stopped, and in a voice barely above a whisper, I asked, "Is she going to make it?"
"I-I don't know," James admitted, crestfallen. I leaned against a wall, desperate for any support as my legs turned to jelly, threatening to give out on me. James continued. "Police are canvassing the apartment now for any leads. I haven't heard anything. All I know at the moment is she was shot multiple times. From what I remember seeing in the chaos, it looked like the fight started in the bedroom and ended in the kitchen."
I nodded to acknowledge I heard him, but I couldn't bear to ask any more questions about her. It would lead me down a dark path I couldn't afford to go down unless I wanted my sanity to spiral out of control. "What about you and Mia? Where's she at?"
"We're okay, just in shock, I guess. She's in the bathroom, washing the blood off. I've called everyone already, and they're on their way here."
It took me a moment to register his words: She's in the bathroom, washing the blood off. It made me do a double-take at James's appearance. What I at first thought was a decoration on his suit was a far cry from that; it was blood.
A lot of it.
The sight made me nauseous, and a shudder ran through my body. I had to keep it together, though. I needed to stay strong for James and Mia, who had witnessed something horrific.
"Do you need to go wash the blood off too?" I asked.
James glanced down at his hands as if realizing he, too, was covered in the red substance. "I-yeah, I do. But if Mia or the doctors come-"
"I'm not going anywhere. I'll be here when either of them returns."
"Thank you, Will." James disappeared around the corner, and I found the nearest chair to sit down in, unable to hold myself up any longer. I braced my head in my hands, trying to force the dark thoughts out of my head.
Annalise is going to die! They criticized viciously. She's going to die all because you couldn't protect her! You should've told her and everyone else about Lorraine's dad the moment you found out about him. You should've given them more protection. You should've done more than you did!
"Will?" Mia said, her voice cracking. I looked up to find her blurred. Blinking, she came into focus. Mascara ran down her face, her eyeliner was smudged underneath her bloodshot eyes. Her black dress masked the blood spots, but I could still see the faint outline of them.
"Mia!" I exclaimed, jumping up. "I came the second I heard. James will be back in a second from the bathroom."
Something inside Mia broke as tears spilled ferociously down her cheeks. She threw herself at me, wrapping her arms around my torso. I held her tightly, letting her sob as much as she needed. I loved Annalise without a doubt, but it could never compare to how much Mia felt for her sister. They were all each other had, and now there was a chance Annalise could be taken away from her.
Fury ripped through me. The culprit had to be Lorraine's dad, and if it was, I'd make him pay if it was the last thing I ever did. He hurt too many people I cared about. I was going to make sure he rued the day he was born.
Mia slowly gathered herself, pulling away as James returned. He wrapped an arm around the younger Stark's shoulders and said, "I just checked with the nurses. Annalise will be in surgery for a while, so I think it'd be best if we all went and sat down."
"I'll join you in a moment. I need to make a few calls," I said, pulling out my phone.
"Who are you calling?" James asked, furrowing his brows.
I involuntarily snarled as Lorraine's father flashed through my mind. "Every intelligence and military agency under my authority. I'm going to find this son of a bitch."