"He had beautiful eyes, the kind you could get lost in. And I guess I did."
I jolted awake at the slightest of sounds, scaring both myself and Will. He stared at me in bewilderment as I cowered, scanning the room for any sign of danger. Placing a hand on my shoulder, Will said, "It was just the wind. A snowstorm sprung up."
"Oh," I breathed, sinking against him. "I thought-"
"I know." He kissed the side of my head. "You don't have to explain."
"Earlier, when I told you I haven't been sleeping, it's not just because I'm afraid of the nightmares," I said. "I jump at every little sound, thinking it's my attacker coming back to finish the job. I know it's stupid to think that when I'm here at Windsor Palace, which arguably has the best security in the world, but anxiety is being a real bitch right now, and I can't control it. I used to pride myself on being a rational person, you know? I was able to think things out, and anything causing me stress or anxiety, I fixed the problem to stop it, but I can't seem to do it for this."
"I wish I knew how to help, Annie," Will replied sympathetically, a mixture of pain and fury crossing his face. "If there's anything I can do to help, let me know. I promise I'm not going to stop searching for your attacker. He's going to pay for the harm he has brought to you. The moment he's caught, you can go home, too. I'm sure you miss being in your own apartment."
"I do, but I kind of missed here too. There are places I've never seen before that I want to explore still."
"Believe it or not, the portrait room and the antiques library. I never got around to it when I worked here. I never even cleaned them as a maid."
I could practically see the gears in Will's head spinning, silently debating something with himself. Finally, he said, "Are you up for a little adventure?"
"Always. Why? We're not sneaking out of the castle, are we?"
"Have you seen the weather outside? No way am I going out in that. Besides, what I'm going to show you is a hundred times better, and it's a secret no one but my mom and I know about." Will stood up and extended his hand out. "May I?"
"You may," I said, taking his hand. I couldn't help but notice it dwarfed mine.
He led me to a bookshelf, where he placed his ring against a matching insignia and twisted it around. The unmistakable noise of gears grinding and latches unlocking sounded from behind the bookshelf before it swung open.
Will beamed at my awestruck expression, closing my open mouth with his finger as he said, "When I say adventure, I deliver."
"Where does this lead to?" I queried, staring into the black abyss.
"Mostly anywhere in the castle. Funny thing is there are secret passages in the secret passage. It was used by our ancestors in ancient times to make a quick escape if need be. Now they're mostly used for fun by us royals. I spent a lot of my childhood trying to find every secret passage there is. Shall we?"
I could only nod, still amazed about the hidden passage before me. Will switched on his phone's flashlight and took my hand. We entered together, shutting the bookcase behind us.
"We're not going to find any skeletons of people who were trapped in here, are we?" I asked cautiously.
"Nah, we got rid of those a long time ago."
"Kidding. Kind of."
I shuffled closer to him. "If only royals are allowed in here, why are you showing me?"
"Because I trust you, and I promised an adventure," he said matter-of-factly. He stopped at an entirely new entryway. "Here we are!"
Pushing a button, a hidden door creaked open to reveal the portrait room. We stepped into the dark room. Will shut the portrait and switched on a light.
"So, what would you like to know about my ancestors?" Will asked, walking alongside me as I stared up at the imposing paintings. I couldn't help but feel they were looking down at me, wondering what the hell a commoner like me was doing in here.
I stopped in front of a woman wearing a red cape and a white dress. Her blonde hair was wrapped in a tight bun, giving me a headache just looking at it. I leaned forward and read the plaque. "Queen Georgiana Ward."
"My great-great-great-grandmother," Will said. "She's one of the most revered among my family. She's the reason we have three libraries. One for classics, one for modern stories, and one for politics. Of course, as the years have gone on, we've shuffled around what's considered modern and classic."
We strolled forward to King Tyler Ward. "He was Georgiana's youngest son. He became King after his brother, Wilson, died in a shipwreck. Tyler was the life of the party until he became King. More than once, he got so drunk, he was seen running around the palace gardens butt naked."
"What about Queen Paulina?" I asked, moving forward.
"Georgiana's mother, also known as the Recluse Queen. The only times people saw her was on her coronation day and the day of her funeral, which was open casket. Her husband, Victor, was much more visible, but that's probably because he possibly had an affair with every single woman in our lovely capital. It's one of the reasons they called him Victor the Vast."
I grinned, highly entertained by the colorful people in Will's family. "I see where you get your personality from."
"I'm hoping for something more along the lines of Will the Great, or Will the Wise. I'd like to avoid Will the Drunk."
"You're well on your way to being Will the Great."
He shrugged. "We'll see."
"Give yourself some credit. You may've had a rough start, but you're excelling now."
Will thanked me, but I could sense he still didn't truly believe me, or in himself. Instead of continuing down that path of conversation, however, we returned to discussing his ancestors. There was King Matthew the Magnificent, Queen Alexandra the Ambiguous, and my personal favorite, Queen Jane the Joker, who literally died laughing at her own prank on her husband.
Will and I left the portrait room after that, both mutually deciding it was time for bed when we yawned simultaneously. On the way to my room, a question formed on my lips. "Can I ask you something?"
"What changed for you? It seems like one week you were partying every day, and the next, you never went to another party again."
"One day, while I was wallowing in denial over my dad's health, I met this incredible girl," he said, smiling to himself. "She paid no attention to me, or as little as she could, at least. There she was, working two highly demanding jobs, supporting herself and her sister because her parents had passed away, and not complaining about a single thing. She just… did what she had to do, and she did it with a smile on her face. Well, until I'd appear. It dawned on me that I had both my parents; I didn't have to worry about paying bills or putting food on the table. I had such an easy life in comparison to her, and I was complaining about it. Seeing her, I wanted to change. It shouldn't have taken her to change, but I did. Part of me did it because I wanted her to like me."
We stopped outside my room, and I studied him curiously. "Would I be too brazen if I said that sounded a bit like me?"
Will shook his head. "No, considering I am talking about you."
My eyes widened, stunned by the revelation. Mia and Everly both mentioned at one point that Will stopped drinking when I came into his life, but I never considered it was actually because of me. I always assumed it'd been a coincidence. How could someone like me have an effect like that on someone like him?
"Why did you never tell me?" I asked softly, still processing the information.
"I don't know," Will replied, shoving his fists into his pockets. He stared at a spot on the floor, unable to meet my gaze. "I guess I didn't know how to bring it up. It was probably some of my embarrassment getting in the way. It shouldn't have taken me seeing someone with less than I have to change my ways."
"You were dealing with your pain in your own way. It doesn't matter if my situation was worse or not. Your pain was and is still valid. There's nothing embarrassing about that."
"I should've told you this a long time ago-" Will finally met my gaze- "but you changed me, Annalise. I am a better man because of you, and I'm going to be a better King because of you. I guess what I'm trying to say- what I've always been trying to say- is thank you."
My heart melted at his words, and before I could stop myself, I threw my arms around his neck, hugging him with all my might, which wasn't much in my weakened state, but Will returned the affection wholeheartedly, burying his face in the crook of my neck.
"Thank you, Annie, for everything you've ever done for me," Will whispered, pulling away. He wiped a stray tear off my cheek. "Don't cry. We've all been doing enough of that lately. I should head to bed, and let you get some rest. Is there anything I can do for you before I go?"
"No, I'm okay. Good night, Will," I said softly. Smiling, he kissed me on the forehead and began walking off. I placed my hand on the doorknob, fully intending to go to bed when an overwhelming emotion took over.
"Will!" I blurted out. He stopped instantly. There was no turning back now. "There is… one thing you could do to help if you're up to it or willing..."
"What is it?" he replied immediately.
I bit my lip. "Stay."
"In your room?"
"Yes. I'm terrified of going to sleep, I'm terrified of every noise, and the first time I ever got an ounce of sleep was with you around. Maybe it was a coincidence, I don't know... but I'd really, really appreciate it if you stayed the night with me…"
"Yeah, of course," he said sincerely, walking back up to me. "Could I at least go shower first? These are the same clothes that were in the hospital, and they're probably gross and germy, and the last thing you need is to be near germs."
"Absolutely not. I want you and all your filth in my bed."
Will narrowed his blue eyes at me; they danced with amusement. "Are you trying to talk dirty to me?"
"Only if it's working," I countered.
He laughed good-naturedly. "It could probably use some work."
I grinned. "Joking aside, you can go shower. Trust me, I'll be up when you get back."
"I'll be back in a flash, Annie." Will leaned down and kissed me on the cheek, sending shivers down my spine. I watched him walk off before entering my room. Then, and only then, did I let out a small squeal of giddy delight.