Resisting the urge to let out a disgruntled sigh as I placed the plate I had just rinsed off into the dishwasher, I shook my hands to rid them of water and scurried towards the front of the kitchen, where the palace’s head housekeeper was practically burning a hole through my face with her eyes.
Due to mass flu epidemic, the royal household staff had been reduced to about half its usual size, which meant that Madam Willis, housekeeper extraordinaire, was more on edge than usual. Add to the table the fact that the royal family was hosting some very important guests for dinner that evening and I was pretty sure that if I stuck a diamond up MW’s butt at this very moment in time, she’d poop it out a diamond.
Still, I didn’t particularly enjoy being on her bad side, so when she’d cornered me on my way back to my room when I returned home from my university classes and asked if I could help out, I’d agreed. I was afraid the poor woman would spontaneously combust any minute now and I didn’t want to be the one responsible for such an event.
“Yes, Madam Willis?” I said when I came to a skidding stop in front of her, keeping my tone as even as possible and trying not to glare over my shoulder at the other members of the kitchen staff who were snickers quietly as they chopped the vegetables which would later be sautéed for dinner.
Keeping her gaze steady, she held up a wine glass by the stem, rotating it slowly to allow me to inspect it from all angles. “What kind of impression does this give?”
My lips parted in confusion because I genuinely had no idea what she meant until I noticed the fine layer of dust which was settled over the cupped part of the glass. “That dust settles on stationary objects?”
I instantly regretted that response, knowing I shouldn’t be raising her blood pressure, no matter how entertaining it was to see her face go red.
“Julianna,” she scolded, and I winced at the use of my full name. She was the only person who used it one hundred percent of the time, other than my dad when I’d done something wrong. “Tonight is absolutely crucial for the king and queen, so I would appreciate it if you would get on board with making things go as smoothly as possible. We don’t want our guests drinking from dirty glasses.”
“Of course, ma’am,” I replied, reaching out to carefully remove the stem of the glass from her grasp. “I will go make sure all of the glassware to be used for dinner is wiped down immediately.”
Seeing as I spent my weekends bartending at a pub in town, where all the glasses were already chipped and dirty and broken, I had absolutely no experience with crystal glassware, but I figured I could make it work. Besides, I wanted dinner to go well just as much as MW. If tonight was important to the royal family, than it was important to me too.
My father had taken a position as part of the royal family’s security team when I was five, which meant I’d grown up in the palace. We’d been given an apartment inside the palace and upgraded to a larger one when Dad became head of security the year I turned fifteen.
I didn’t really know what to expect when we were first driven through the palace gates, because up until that point, the whole idea of the royal family seemed like a fairy tale. I imagined grand balls under crystal chandeliers and dresses with large skirts that fanned out when you twirled and crowns and tiaras and thrones and gems, which was why I was surprised to find that the royals themselves were…very normal.
Queen Eliza was quite possibly the sweetest woman I’d ever met. She made me feel at home right away, scooping me into a big hug when we were first introduced and letting me know that I could come to her if I ever needed anything. It had always been nice to think of her as a pseudo mother, seeing as I’d lost my own before I even had a chance to form memories of her. Eliza certainly helped to fill the void, though, even making it a point to personally bring me presents she’d picked out on every single one of my birthdays.
Despite the fact that he’d never been anything but perfectly cordial towards me, I couldn’t help but feel like I needed to act a certain way in front of King Robert, perhaps because he didn’t exude the same warmth and compassion as his wife. Still, I did feel as though I owed him a lot because he always made sure I had a quality education, sending me to the best school in the kingdom, and despite my father’s protests, even paying for my university once I graduated high school.
“Thank you,” Madam Willis exhaled deeply, probably glad that I didn’t plan on raising her stress levels any higher.
Lifting the corners of my lips, I flashed her a smile, looking over her shoulder to spot a familiar figure entering the room and widening my smile even further. “Hey, Tris.”
As a result of my casual greeting, every single person in the kitchen tensed and MW’s eyes widened in horror as she realized who I was greeting and she scolded me for what I was sure wouldn’t be the last time in the next twenty four hours. “Julianna! We do not address members of the royal family so informally.”
I blinked as I realized my mistake, but I was so used to thinking of him as a friend that I often forgot that I needed to treat him like royalty when we were with others. Clearing my throat, I dropped my hands to my sides, wine glass included, and dipped into a curtsy, bowing my head quickly before lifting my gaze to meet his, doing my best not to roll my eyes at the sight of him smirking. “Your Highness.”
His smirk remained for only a few seconds longer before he shifted his gaze to the rest of the kitchen staff and a wide grin spread across his face, causing the tension levels in the room to dissipate, as they always seemed to do in his presence. “Hello, everyone.”
“Prince Tristan,” Madam Willis immediately gushed, becoming the epitome of professionalism in the presence of royalty. “Is there something we can help you with?”
“A snack?” he asked hopefully, reaching up to tug down the sides of the black beanie that was covering his mop of sandy curls before shoving his hands into the pockets of his sweatpants. He was so often forced to look impeccable while off palace grounds that any time he spent at home, he remained as comfortably dressed as possible. Besides, it wasn’t as though people generally made unannounced visits to a palace.
A few members of the kitchen staff behind me began to bustle about in order to give the prince what he wanted, but froze when Madam Willis shot them a stern glare before softening her expression and smiling sweetly at Tristan. “But your Highness, if you eat now, you’ll ruin your appetite for the feast tonight.”
“Oh,” he exhaled lightly, rocking forward on his sock covered toes and pulling at the heartstrings of everyone in the room with his crestfallen expression. Fresh off his twentieth birthday, Tristan, the crown prince of Astoria, was a constant beacon of light around the palace. His presence was calming and often much needed after people were exposed to the hyperactive mischievousness of his ten year old twin brothers. “Alright, then…”
“Maybe you just need something to distract you,” I piped up, rolling the stem of the wine glass against my fingers and noticing MW visibly tense at the action. “I have to go check that all the glassware has been dusted. Wanna keep me company?”
Madam Willis scoffed at the suggestion. “I hardly think that the prince should be bothered with such trivial– ”
“I’d love to help,” Tristan cut in, flashing me a smile and nodding towards the kitchen door to indicate I should head out and he would end the conversation with the housekeeper diplomatically, turning his attention back to her and stretching his lips into his most charming smile. “I’ve seen all of the arrangements for tonight’s dinner, MW, and they look wonderful. Thank you so much for all of your hard work.”
Smiling to myself, I let out a laugh once I had stepped into the hallway, thinking that Tristan was the only one who could get away with calling the housekeeper ‘MW’ to her face, and headed towards the parlor where the china, glassware, and silverware were kept and inspected before they were laid out in the dining room where the guests were usually served. I figured I’d probably caused Madam Willis enough headaches for one day, so I could try to be useful and actually inspect all the tableware like she’d asked.
I hummed to myself as I took a towel to the silverware, ensuring all the forks and butter knives were gleaming, looking up when I heard the parlor door open and lifting my eyebrows in surprise when Tristan joined me in the room.
“Are you actually going to help?” I laughed, when he made his way over to me and picked up a soup spoon from tray on which all of the silverware was laid out. I had only asked for his assistance because I figured it would get him away from the tension which had mounted in the kitchen; I didn’t expect him to actually follow me while I worked. It wasn’t as though I doubted his good intentions, but he also hadn’t been raised to polish silverware, so he wouldn’t be particularly useful and if the utensils and china and glasses didn’t end up spotless, I was the one who would be on the receiving end of Madam Willis’s wrath.
“Do you want me to?” he lifted an eyebrow, already knowing my response.
Shaking my head, I laughed lightly as he took a step back to watch me work, keeping me company as promised. “So, are you excited for this dinner?”
The entire palace had been buzzing about it for the past week and my father had been extra stressed about the security arrangements because the king and queen of Aberdeen were paying a visit. It wasn’t as though the palace didn’t often get visitors from other kingdoms, but the fact that they were bringing along their daughter, the very accomplished, very beautiful Princess Alisha had stirred up a few whispers.
Of course, everyone, including Tristan, knew why she was coming, even if he refused to acknowledge it. He had been officially announced as the heir to the throne on his eighteenth birthday, and every day since, his parents had been hinting that it was time for him to get serious about choosing someone to rule beside him when he inevitably became king.
It wasn’t as though his parents had sat him down and made him choose a wife, but I wouldn’t doubt that it would come to that eventually. For now, they were settling for introducing him to as many prospects as possible.
It was strange to think about, that the boy I’d known since I was five would someday be the ruler of a kingdom. We’d been raised together, playmates until I started school, and even then, I would come home each afternoon to find him sitting on the floor outside the apartment I lived in with my father, begging me to tell him all about the outside world.
Due to the fact that everyone was concerned about the safety of the future king of Astoria, Tristan was never allowed off palace grounds without security and his parents were so concerned that sending him to school would be a risk that he was tutored inside the palace, even when it came to earning a university degree. Still, despite his sheltered upbringing, he had the most carefree, positive spirit of anyone I’d ever met and it was still hard to wrap my head around the fact that the boy who had become my best friend would one day go on to lead a nation.
Lifting one shoulder into a shrug, he leaned back against the wall beside me, crossing his arms over his chest and watching as I lifted plates from a stack and inspected them for chipping. “It’ll be alright. They’re nice people.”
“Nice enough to be your future in-laws?” I replied easily, not needing to look up from my plate inspection to know he was glaring in my direction.
“It’s not that serious,” he mumbled.
I didn’t bother adding ‘not yet’. I could joke about it all I wanted, but there would come a day where Tristan was forced to make a decision and when he did, our relationship would be forever changed. While he was still a prince his personal life was just fodder for tabloid gossip, but once he was king, he would be watched constantly and I wasn’t naïve enough to think that a royal with that level of power would still come to my apart in his pajamas every Saturday morning to eat sugary cereal and watch cartoons with me, despite the fact that we were no longer children.
Of course, I knew Tristan didn’t think of our friendship as restricted within class boundaries, and perhaps while we were growing up, the fact that I was a commoner and he was the future king didn’t matter, but it sure as shit would once he was the ruler of the kingdom. He might object to that idea, but I knew the reality of the situation and I couldn’t help but feel like our story was slowly but surely coming to a close and this dinner was just the beginning of the end.
Still, I didn’t want him to know I was thinking that way, so I was going to make the most of the time we had together before he stepped into a much bigger role.
Lifting my gaze from the newly inspected stack of plates, I stretched my lips into a comforting smile. “Relax, Tris. I’m just messing with you. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Plus, Alisha’s hot.”
He quirked an eyebrow upwards, a smirk twisting his lips as his muscles relaxed, but he didn’t say anything, allowing me to lift one shoulder in a shrug as I turned my attention to the linen napkins. “I looked her up online. The two of you would make pretty babies.”
“I’ll make pretty babies no matter who I marry,” he scoffed, his expression soon breaking into a joyous laugh.
I rolled my eyes, but chuckled alongside him, glad that despite the topic of conversation, things between us seemed to be as they always were. My lips parted to correct him and assert that the princess was the one who would provide the beauty in the relationship – which was a blatant lie, because with his sharp jawline and deep dimples and clear green eyes, Tristan was the epitome of a heartthrob – but before I could, the parlor door opened and my father poked his head inside.
“Your highness,” he said softly, shooting me a quick, questioning glance before returning his attention to the prince. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
“Nope,” Tristan shook his head, pushing himself off the wall, tucking his hands back into his sweatpant pockets. “I was just keeping JJ company. Is everything alright?”
I could tell my father was trying not to smile at Tristan’s nickname for me. The prince was the only person in the world who called me JJ and I still wasn’t entirely sure how he came up with it, but my father was well aware that I absolutely adored it; it was nice to have something that was just between me and Tristan, that meant something to us, or at least to me.
“Yes, sir,” my father nodded. “I’ve just come to tell you that the king has requested your presence in his office. There’s something he’d like to speak to you about before dinner tonight.”
“Alright,” Tristan sighed, reaching up to pull his beanie off his head and causing his sandy curls to fall across his forehead. “Let him know I’m on my way. Thank you, Peter.”
With one last nod, my father disappeared, shutting the door behind him as he left. I lifted my lips into a wry smile. “Duty calls.”
Sometimes I wondered why the king always sent people to get Tristan, because if my father needed me, he just texted. But then I imagined King Robert texting and the lack of use of technology made perfect sense.
“So it seems,” he let out a shaky laugh, shoving his beanie into one of his pockets before reaching up to comb his fingers through his curls, hoping to tame their state of disarray because he needed to look presentable in front of the king. He always went into the king’s office assuming that he was going to talk to the ruler of the kingdom, not to his father, and he had to mentally prepare in order to make that distinction.
He shot me a tightlipped smile. “I’ll see you later?”
“At dinner,” I replied, grinning when he looked surprised. I wasn’t permitted to eat in the royal dining room, so the only time Tristan and I ever had meals together was when his parents weren’t around. “I told MW I’d help out with the serving since half the usual staff is sick.”
“That’s great!” he smiled widely. “It’ll be good to have you in the room because maybe it’ll make the entire situation a little less awkward.”
“Tris, it’s not like I’m gonna be sitting at the table,” I replied, carefully folding one of the stark white napkins. “Can you imagine the Queen of Aberdeen’s face if the girl pouring the wine tried to participate in the conversation?”
He paused as he contemplated my words, trying to figure out why that scenario would be so horrible. One of the many things I loved about Tristan was that he treated everyone equally, to the point where he often seemed to forget that he would one day be their king.
“Huh. Well, still, I’m glad you’re gonna be there. You always make a room brighter.”
Before I could respond, he dropped one eye in a wink and headed towards the door, disappearing from the parlor and leaving me alone and blushing profusely. I sighed as I turned my attention back to the napkins I was meant to be folding, once again resigning myself to the fact that he would never mean those words to be anything but purely friendly.