"Her courage was her crown, and she wore it like a Queen."
I woke up at the crack of dawn, the beginnings of daylight peeking through the curtains. Annalise slept soundly beside me, her head resting on my chest. I brushed some hair out of her face, unable to help myself as I smiled at the sight of her. Not even in my dreams did I ever see her becoming my girlfriend, let alone allowing me back into her life at all. I didn't deserve her, but she'd still chosen me, and I'd do everything to make sure she always knew how grateful I was to have her in my life.
We'd continued our make-out session the moment we returned back to the palace, only breaking apart to change into our pajamas. However, we made the decision to take the relationship slowly, not wanting to move too fast. That was more her choice since she'd never dated anyone before, but I respected that. I didn't want to push her to do anything she didn't want to do.
Kissing her lightly on the forehead, I whispered, "I love you, Annie."
"I love you, too," she murmured.
I frowned. "You're awake?"
"I don't want to be," Annie said, her eyes fluttering open sleepily, "but I really need to pee."
Groaning, she rolled over and got out of the bed, shuffling to the bathroom. I flipped onto my stomach, stretching out. My muscles were cramped from staying in one position all night, but I hadn't wanted to disturb Annie or let her go, in fear she'd disappear, and I'd never see her again.
She came back and stretched out on her back, swiveling her head to look at me. I propped myself up and stared at her in disbelief. Annie ran her fingers through my hair as she asked, "Why are you smiling at me like that?"
"I don't know," I replied, dropping my head back onto the pillow. "I'm happy. Happier than I've been in a very long time."
"That makes two of us. What time do you have to get up today?"
"I always take today off, although if any emergencies pop up, then I have to be ready. Why?"
Annalise rolled over onto her side, and I mimicked her action. She leaned forward and planted a gentle kiss on my lips. "Because I want to know how much time I have with you today. One day, we won't have all this peace and quiet to ourselves, and I want to use the time we do have to its utmost potential."
"I think I can get behind that," I said playfully, pushing her onto her back and propping myself above her. "We have six years of making up to do. Well, at least I do. I don't know about you."
"I don't either. Like I said, I'm not sure when it happened, but I vividly remember when I realized it." Annie chuckled to herself. "You know, of all the novels I've read with slow-burn, angst-ridden romances, I never thought I'd have the same kind of love life."
"Did you think it'd be much simpler?"
"I hoped it would be, but I'm glad it wasn't. Otherwise, it wouldn't have led me to you. If someone ever writes a story or biography about us, how many chapters do you think it'd take for us to reach that first kiss? Sixty?"
"Oh, seventy, at least. You have to have our tragic backstories, our enemies-to-friends-to-lovers trope, and all the shit that happened in between. You'll have to include all the side characters because their arcs influenced ours. It'd be a very convoluted love story, come to think of it."
"But we got there, eventually," Annie said.
"Eventually. Like I said, I have six years to make up for. I intend to do just that today." I leaned in to kiss her again when my phone rang. I sighed, bracing my forehead against her chest. "I swear to God, we are always interrupted at the worst possible times."
"Don't I know it, but you should still answer. Someone wouldn't be calling you today unless it was an emergency," she said.
"I hate it when you're right sometimes." Kissing her chest, I sat up and answered my phone. "Hello?"
I listened to the voice on the other end, feeling myself become more alert by the second. Noticing my change in demeanor, Annalise sat up, staring at me, perplexed. When I hung up, she asked, "Who was it?"
"Idina Odmundson. Head of the Verona Intelligence Agency. She just received a call from the CIA saying they apprehended O'Connell at the US-Mexico border. They're transporting him to Verona now. He should be here in the next eight or nine hours," I said, the reality of the situation sinking in. If they truly had him, it meant the search for him would be over. It meant my family and friends could go back to living their normal, everyday lives.
It meant Annie could go home.
"That's amazing!" She exclaimed. "Why aren't you celebrating?"
"I don't know. I… it just hasn't set in yet. I'm going to see him when he arrives. I guess I should give the option to the others in case they want to come too. After all, they're in this predicament because of him."
"It's only six in the morning. He won't be here until at least two this afternoon. Why don't we sleep in and tell them at breakfast?"
"I'll send them a text, at least, telling them the news. I learned not to keep anything from any of you when it comes to Chuck O'Connell, especially Everly."
"Is she still not talking to you?"
"It's not her favorite thing in the world. It's almost as bad as when you and I broke up. Almost." I grabbed my phone and shot a text to our group before leaning back amongst my pillows. Annalise joined me, lacing her fingers through mine.
"How much time do you think we have before they come barging in?" She asked.
"Maybe an hour, if we're lucky."
"Oh, that's better than I expected. Sleep?"
"Sleep," I agreed. Pulling her into my arms, we both closed our eyes, fully intending to get another hour's rest. I swear I was right on the edge of falling asleep when a furious knock banged on my door.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," I muttered.
"I got it," Annie offered. Before I could protest, she went to the door, narrowly moving out of the way in time to let Mia, James, Mark, and Everly in, with my cousin leading the charge.
"Chuck's been caught?" Everly demanded, looking between Annalise and me. She did a double-take on the latter and cocked her head. "What are you doing here? There's no way you beat us."
"I crashed here last night. We fell asleep talking," Annie said.
"Uh-huh… so you weren't doing any hanky-panky?"
Annalise covered her face with her hand. "Oh my god, Ev. No."
"Just checking. Now, back to Chuck, how was he caught? Where was he caught?" She demanded, fury alighting her eyes.
I sighed and explained everything I'd just told Annalise. I didn't actually know much about how the capture went down; it'd be fully explained to me in person. I finished by saying, "I'm going to see him because I want to face the man who tried to ruin my family. I wanted to give the rest of you the option to come as well."
"Hell no," Everly declared. "That man has taken enough of my time and energy, and I'm not going to waste any more time on him."
"I'm with Ev on this one," Mia agreed. "I don't know if I could look at the man who damn near killed my sister without trying to kill him myself."
James wrapped a comforting arm around Mia's shoulders; she leaned into him. He said, "I have to agree with the girls. I know I couldn't refrain myself from throttling him, and I'm not going to let him take up more of my life than he already has."
"I'll go," Mark said. "He tried to kill my wife and son. As long as I'm granted immunity if I accidentally punch him, I want to go."
"Immunity granted," I agreed. We all turned to the last remaining voice in the room. "Annie?"
"I'm going," she said, meeting my gaze. "I have questions for him."
Mia bit her lip. "Are you sure you're up to it in your condition? You're still recovering from-"
"I'm positive. I want to do this."
I nodded. "Then it's settled. Annie, Mark, we'll leave half an hour before they're supposed to arrive with O'Connell in tow. It's time this ends once and for all, and it's time he faces punishment for his crimes."