I didn’t sleep at all that night. Dalton’s revelation that he was completely aware of my feelings for Tristan kept me tossing and turning for hours. At one point, I even considered sneaking up to Dalton’s suite to interrogate him further. After all, getting his keypad code would be pretty easy due to my father’s job and seeing as we were supposed to be dating, it really wouldn’t be all that strange if I turned up at his door in the middle of the night.
But on the other hand, I didn’t want Dalton to get the wrong impression, so I squeezed my eyes shut and after what seemed to be the longest night of my life, was pulled out of bed the next morning by the ringing of our apartment’s doorbell.
Figuring it was Dalton, eager to begin that day’s staged couple activities, I swung my legs over the side of the bed and grabbed a discarded hoodie from the floor, tugging it on and zipping it up as I headed for the door, prepared to launch a barrage of questions in my fake boyfriend’s direction.
However, I was surprised when I pulled the door open to find Tristan on the other side. My first assumption was that Dalton had spilled the beans and Tristan was here to confront me about my feelings for him, but considering how quickly his eyes lit up and his lips stretched into a smile, I shook off that scenario, automatically stepping aside to let him in.
“Tris…,” I said slowly as I shut the door behind him. “What are you doing here?”
His expression was one of genuine confusion as he shoved his hands into his navy blue sweatpants pockets and glanced towards the couch and television. “It’s Saturday…”
Of course. I had completely forgotten about our usual weekend rituals. Shooting him an apologetic smile, I scrunched up my nose. “Right. I completely spaced. I guess I figured since we didn’t do it last week…”
“I know,” it was his turn to apologize. “I know things have been kinda crazy since Alisha got here, but they’ll go back to normal soon enough. Besides, I’ve missed you and I think we need some best friend time.”
That sounded amazing. And I would be lying if I said I hadn’t missed him the past week as well, but there was a part of me that couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Tristan was being a little to idealistic. Because more likely than not, things wouldn’t go back to normal. In his future was a coronation and a wedding and once those things happened, well, I wasn’t sure our relationship would ever be the same.
Still, he was making an effort and I didn’t want to ruin it, so I smiled sweetly, parting my lips with every intention of agreeing, only to be interrupted by another knock on the door. Holding up an apologetic finger, I reached for the doorknob and found myself face to face with the person I had expected it to be the first time around.
“Dalton,” I nodded, noting that despite the relatively early hour for a weekend, he was already freshly showered and dressed in a light blue button up tucked into white shorts and navy blue boat shoes. “Where are you off to this morning?”
He had mentioned the night before that we would see each other today, but I hadn’t expected it to be quite this soon.
“Girlfriend,” he returned the nod, his gaze shifting towards his cousin, to whom he sent a wide smile. My heart stuttered a bit as I wondered if he would mention the conversation we’d had the previous night, but apparently he had better things to do than reveal my deep dark secrets to Tristan, so I breathed a soft sigh of relief when he returned his attention to me, grinning proudly as he spoke. “I’m taking you on a romantic adventure.”
“What?” I blinked and took a step back to let him in, not quite following what was going on.
Dalton closed the door behind him as he entered, shoving his hands into the pockets of his shorts and shrugging. “Fletcher’s orders.”
I supposed that made sense. It would be a little odd for Dalton to fly in from another kingdom to visit his girlfriend and only be seen out with her once. Apparently we weren’t convincing enough for the fake dating to be a one time thing. Still, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to reconnect with Tristan, so I turned a helpless gaze in his direction, only to find him smiling graciously.
“It’s alright,” he assured me, nodding towards his cousin. “You should go. We should make the most of Dalton being here. We can have best friend time next weekend.”
I wasn’t so sure. I was no expert at relationships but I had noticed that when it came to moving plans, it wasn’t often that they were actually completed. Sighing, I looked at Dalton once more. “Fine. Give me a half hour to get ready? Tristan can show you where all the food is if you’re hungry.
I hurried towards my bedroom as Tristan and Dalton made themselves comfortable, returning, as promised, thirty minutes later, freshly showered and changed, only to find Dalton sitting by himself on the couch, his feet propped up on the table as though he’d lived here his entire life.
“Where’d Tris go?” I asked, hiking up the strap of my purse on my shoulder and crossing my arms over my chest.
“He decided to give us some time alone,” Dalton winked, his lips kinking into a smirk as he lowered his feet to the floor and stood up straight. “You look gorgeous. Ready to go?”
Holding in a sigh, I nodded, gesturing towards the door. “Where are we headed?”
“It’s a surprise,” he grinned, pulling the door open and placing his hand in the small of my back as I stepped into the hallway.
Knowing that with Dalton, asking questions wouldn’t actually result in any answers, I stayed silent as we made our way out of the palace, keeping my gaze on the ground as we headed towards the car, Dalton’s fingers remaining tightly intertwined with mine until we were safely in the backseat.
I admired the scenery as we sped down tree lined roads, furrowing my brow in confusion when the car came to a stop at the beginning of a nature trail. “Are we going on a hike?”
“Something like that,” Dalton laughed once we were standing on the side of the road. “Do you trust me?”
I thought it better not to answer that question for fear of damaging his ego, so I slipped my palm against his proffered hand and allowed him to lead me down the gravelly path which wound through the trees until we arrived at a gazebo beside a lake which looked like something out of a movie scene, complete with a picnic basket and blanket.
He stared at me, awaiting my response and when I finally regained the ability to speak, I did so in an awe filled whisper. “Not bad, Dalton. Not bad.”
Smiling widely, he tugged me towards the picnic set up and down onto the blanket, letting go of my hand to rummage through the basket and begin setting out the food inside.
“I do have one question, though,” I said, my stomach beginning to growl at the sight of the fresh fruit appearing in front of me. “If the whole point of this relationship is to prove that we are, in fact, in a relationship, then why are we so isolated? No one knows we’re here. What’s the point?”
“They’ll find us eventually,” he shrugged, offering no further explanation, but lifting his gaze to stare at me pointedly. “Plus, the alone time gives you the chance to ask me all the burning questions you’ve had stored up since you found out I know all about your little secret.”
I had to hand it to Dalton, he had a knack for leaving me speechless. Blinking a couple times, I contemplated denying his suggestion altogether before deciding that I might as well take advantage of the opportunity. After all, he was only here one more day and there were about a million things I’d been wanting to ask him.
“Fine,” I let out a breath, reaching for a grape and popping it in my mouth, speaking as I chewed because I was in no way trying to impress him. “How long have you known?”
Raking his hands through his hair, he thought for a moment. “Tristan’s eight birthday, I think. He fell off that pony the king and queen got him for the party and sprained his ankle and you spent the next week being his personal nurse.”
“That’s impossible,” I stammered out, shaking my head. “I didn’t even know what love was when I was eight, so how could you have known?”
“I guess I didn’t know you were in love with him,” he admitted with a shrug. “That was just the first time I noticed how much you cared about him. And the more I watched the two of you together while we were growing up, the more I began to realize what was going on.”
“But you never said anything before,” I managed to whisper, thinking the entire situation seemed a little surreal. I supposed I had always thought that I did a pretty good job of hiding my feelings, maybe not from my father, but most definitely from the rest of the world.
“I guess I never really saw the point,” he popped a blueberry in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “I always figured that if you wanted someone to know how you felt about them, you’d tell them yourself, so there must have been a reason Tristan never knew.”
He was right, of course. I had never had a problem telling guys exactly what I wanted. But then again, Tristan wasn’t just any other guy. The decisions he made, even as the crown prince of Astoria, had the potential to change the course of history and I supposed the thought that I could be a part of that terrified me to the core.
“So why now?” I asked, tilting my head to the side. “Why bring it up now?”
“Because,” he spoke slowly, as though he knew that what he was about to say needed to be shared cautiously. “I think it’s time for you to move on.”
I blinked in surprise because that was probably the last thing I’d ever expected him to say. Dalton was many things, but wise was never a word that came to mind in his presence. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, that within the next year, Tristan is going to be married and crowned king of Astoria, and then what? Are you really going to spend the rest of your life pining after someone else’s husband?”
“Of course not,” I shot back immediately. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t spent heaps of time thinking about what would happen once Tristan was finally married. I had yet to come up with an actual plan, but I did know that my first course of action would be to get out of Astoria as fast as possible. Once I graduated from university, I would look for a job in a different kingdom. There were only two things holding me back: having to leave my father behind and having to explain to Tristan why all of this was necessary in the first place. I inhaled deeply as I continued. “Look, I haven’t completely figured it out yet, but I’m not delusional. I know Tristan and I never had a future together, but it’s not like I can control who I fall in love with. It doesn’t work that way.”
“I know,” he replied softly and if I didn’t know any better, I’d think he sounded a bit sad. “Trust me, I know. I just think that you deserve so much more than a life of unrequited love.”
He was making a lot of sense, which wasn’t something that I thought I’d ever think about Dalton, and I appreciated what he was trying to do, so I leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to his cheek, lifting the corners of my lips into a small smile when I pulled away. “Thanks.”
His cheeks tinted a bit darker which caused my smile to widen and I parted my lips to begin the teasing, but stopped when I noticed him tense slightly. His eyes shifted away from mine for a moment, glancing at something over my shoulder before returning to meet my gaze, his voice coming out in a low whisper as he reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “Paparazzi. In the trees behind you.”
“I guess you were right about them finding us,” I breathed out lightly, wondering if Dalton had something to do with that. If he did, it was kind of ingenious, because we were in a secluded enough place that no one would guess this was a set us, making the romance and intimacy seem completely real.
“They always do,” he said, lightly tugging on my earlobe and leaning in a bit closer. “What do you say we give them a show?”
“What do you have in mind?” I muttered, though I did have an idea of what he was going to suggest next.
“We could try that kiss for real,” he offered, his gaze dropping to my lips.
I knew that thinking about it would just lead to a lot of over analyzing and that the entire purpose of this date was to prove a point to the public, so rather than respond verbally, I leaned forward and pressed my lips to his, smiling against his mouth when I felt him return the pressure and thinking that maybe this fake dating thing hadn’t turned out to be so bad after all.
Dalton dropped me off at my apartment a few hours later, hugging me tight and promising he would come by to say goodbye before he left and I couldn’t help but grin as I waved him farewell and pushed open the apartment door, only to find my calm happiness replaced with surprise and confusion when I found Tristan stretched out on my couch.
He sat up straight as I stepped through the door, pushing himself to his feet and shoving his hands into the pockets of the jeans he’d changed in to for the day, rolling forward on the balls of his feet, his expression displaying a mixture of emotions I couldn’t quite place.
“We need to talk.”
I immediately stopped breathing as one horrifying, terrifying thought raced through my brain. He knew.