"Everyone knew that she was his. She never took off the smile he gave her."
Will spent the night.
And the next.
And the next.
And the next.
My nightmares persisted, but I didn't have a panic attack as long as I saw him there beside me. Something about the sight of him, or at least someone familiar, helped me rationalize my nightmare was just that: a nightmare.
We didn't tell anyone Will slept with me, not even Mia or Everly, because we didn't want anyone getting the wrong idea. It was also kind of nice having it be our little secret. I enjoyed waking up beside him, and the smile he gave me every morning rarely left my face. Mia and Everly took notice but chose to interrogate me about it as we rode to the St. Valentine's Day Festival in our private limo.
"Okay, you have not stopped smiling since the day after you came home from the hospital," Everly said. "What gives? Did you finally kiss Will?"
"Please, do you seriously think I could keep that a secret?" I countered.
"Yes," Mia and Everly responded simultaneously.
I rolled my eyes. "Thanks for the vote of confidence. But no, we haven't kissed. I'm just… happy. Will's been helping me a lot with the nightmares, I've been sleeping, he's hot on the trail of O'Connell, I'm feeling better, and he and I are friends again; there's a lot to be happy about. That's all."
"Uh, huh," Everly replied, unconvinced. "You ready for the paparazzi?"
"I will say, I did not miss them hounding me while I worked at the palace. I guess that's going to start again."
"Yeah, unfortunately. You always handled them like a pro, though, if it's any consolation."
"Are you kidding? If it'd been me in your shoes when they were asking those questions about Lorraine, I probably would've told them to go fuck themselves if they believed I did that. I wouldn't remain Verona's sweetheart like you did."
"I'd hardly call myself Verona's sweetheart."
"No, you are," Mia agreed.
"I… am not going to argue with you two. I need to save my strength for this event."
My sister scrunched her face in worry. "Are you up for it?"
"Yeah, I'm good. I can't back out now, anyway." I nodded at the window. "We're here."
The car rolled to a stop, and the door opened. Everly stepped out first, followed by Mia, and then me. The lights were blinding, immediately disorienting me.
"I've got you, Annie," Will said, his voice cutting through the cacophony. My vision cleared, along with my bearings. I sighed in relief as Will slipped his arm around my waist. "You okay?"
"Yeah, sorry. It's been a while since I've done this."
"I won't leave your side. This will probably go on for about an hour, and then we can explore the festival. I have a surprise for you later, too."
"You'll love it. Come on." Will escorted me to down the red carpet as we posed with the rest of our group. My face hurt from smiling, but my stomach hurt even worse from laughing. Will kept making jokes underneath his breath, ones that only I could hear. I kept looking up at him whenever he did, and Will would give me a cheeky grin in return, followed by yet another joke. He only stopped when the reporters wanted lone pictures of each of us.
As Will and I posed separately from each other, someone from the crowd shouted, "Miss Stark! Do you have plans on kissing anyone tonight? A certain prince, perhaps?"
I merely laughed, trying to insinuate the question was absurd without saying anything. I glanced over at Will to see if he'd heard the question. He did. Our eyes met, and he winked playfully at me, unbeknownst to the paparazzi.
Finally, after an hour of posing and talking to reporters, we broke through into the actual festival. Thousands of people flocked to it every year, and this year wasn't any different. It wasn't my first time here, but it was my first time here with a sort-of date.
"Where do you want to go first?" Will asked. "It looks like everyone else abandoned us."
I saw James and Mia heading to the ring toss while Everly and Mark went to the boat rides. "Hmm… how do you feel about trying the different foods?"
Will kissed the back of my hand. "It's like you read my mind."
The two of us practically ran to the first food booth that caught our eye, or in our case, smelled like bacon. The vendor greeted us jovially and asked, "Good evening, Your Highness, Miss Stark. Can I interest you two in a bacon-wrapped date?"
"Hello, Frankie. Two, please," Will requested. The vendor handed us the dates, and Will said, "Ready?"
"Ready!" I replied. We pulled the appetizer off the toothpick with our teeth, and in that moment, I discovered my new favorite treat at the St. Valentine's Day Festival. "Oh my god, that's delicious!"
"Frankie, can I get six more?" Will asked.
"You got it!" Frankie handed us a plate with the appetizers, and we munched on them as we made our way to each booth, trying each and every dish and dessert we could try, including a chocolate sea salt crostini, mozzarella cheese hearts, Andouille Gougères, cherry and fontina stuffed portabellas, chilled raspberry soup, a red velvet cheesecake bite, a white chocolate raspberry cheesecake bar, a mixed berry crisp, and more. I probably gained ten pounds just from eating, and it was all worth it. Every single piece of food was delicious.
"Oh my god," I groaned as we strolled through the crowd. "I'm stuffed."
"Those were some of the most incredible foods I've ever had in my life," Will said. "Okay, where to next? Ring of Hearts? Heart breakers? Val-o-grams? Love Boats?"
"Why not all of them in that order?" I suggested.
"Why? Do you have another secret passageway to show me?"
"Not until later, and it's not so much a secret passageway as it is a secret place that only we have access to." Will glanced at his watch. "We still have an hour and forty-five minutes before that, so let's go do the activities in the meantime!"
Slipping his hand into mine, Will led me to each booth. He won me a bouquet of roses at the Ring of Hearts, I won him a stuffed teddy bear at Heart breakers, and at Val-O-Grams, we picked the most embarrassing songs we could find for Mia and James, and Everly and Mark. We couldn't wait to see their reactions later.
Finally, at the Love Boats, we took the picture strip as a memento of the ride. Four photos, each of us with different expressions: one smiling, one goofy, one of Will kissing my cheek (with me looking thoroughly stunned), and one of me kissing his cheek in return. He had the same expression I did.
Afterward, Will checked his watch and said, "All right. Time for your surprise. Ready?"
He took me to the clock tower. We slipped inside and walked up the many, many, many steps to the top. Will opened the trap door to the belfry, helping me up. It provided us a stunning view of the festival far down below and the twinkling stars in the night sky above. The air was colder up here, and I shivered. Will took off his suit jacket and placed it around my shoulders.
"I present to you the best spot to watch the fireworks show!" Will said, sweeping his hand out towards the crowd. "Sorry if it's cold up here. You know how Verona weather can be."
"All too well," I said, staring in awe- and slight hesitation- at the ground. I tested the strength of the railing before leaning against it, switching my attention between the stars and the people below.
"Can I ask you something?" Will inquired, joining me at the railing.
"You should know by now the answer is always going to be yes."
He smiled. "That night we were in the kitchen, and I was making chocolate chip cookies, you mentioned there was another reason you didn't like Lorraine. You didn't start the conversation back up, so I figured you didn't want to talk about it, but it's been on my mind ever since. So, I guess my question is: what were you going to say?"
Inexplicably, I laughed. "Of all days, you choose now to ask that."
"Do you not want to talk about it?"
"No, no, it's not that. It's that today is- the topic, it's about-" I sighed to stop myself from stammering further- "It's just cliché, that's all."
Just do it, Annalise. Do it! I took a deep, steadying breath. Here goes nothing.