One of the many things I’d learned from my years of watching the royal family operate was that every sentence had multiple meanings. So Tristan insisting on having a conversation could actually have a pretty wide range of implications.
For instance, he could want to talk about tonight’s Festival of Floating Lights. It was a yearly ritual where everyone lit a candle and made three wishes and set it afloat upon Lake Eden in hopes that they would come true. It had always been my favorite Astorian tradition, so much so that I’d begged Sterling to let me come into work late, after all the candles had been lit. The sight of the candles floating on the water was magical and wondrous and made me feel as though anything was possible. Which was why I always wished for the same three things: my dad’s health, Astoria’s safety, and Tristan’s happiness.
So far, they’d all come true.
But judging by the way he was looking at me as though he’d just unearthed a terrible secret that could alter the fate of humanity, I could tell he wasn’t here to try to coax out my wishes like he attempted to do every year. I never told him mine for obvious reasons, and because a part of me believed they wouldn’t come true if I said them out loud, so in retaliation, he never told me his either, but I always hoped that, maybe, at least one of them had to do with me.
Shutting the door behind me, I stepped forward and placed my bag on the kitchen counter before crossing my arms over my chest and staring at him intently, afraid to know the answer to the question I asked. “Okay. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he replied a little too quickly.
I knew that was bullshit because he was extremely skittish and Tristan was never jumpy. He watched horror movies without ever changing his expression, so the fact that he looked ready to bolt was a bit startling. “Are you sure? Because you seem a little tense.”
“I’m not tense,” he shook his head, breathing in deeply to calm himself a bit before he continued, shaking his fingers out to the side. “I’m just confused.”
Pursing my lips, I pulled my brow into a deep furrow. “Confused? About what?”
He paused, removing his hand from his front pocket to reach into his back one and remove his phone. After typing in the passcode and scrolling a bit, he stepped forward and turned the screen towards me to show me the picture he had pulled up: a high quality paparazzi shot of me and Dalton engaged in a lip lock on the woods. “About this.”
“Oh.” I blinked, unsure how to respond because I couldn’t really tell how he felt about it. On one hand, it was a bit much to put on that much of a show, but on the other, we were trying to sell the fact that we were a couple and couples did kiss.
“Really?” he deadpanned, locking his phone screen and shoving the device back into his front pocket before crossing his arms over his chest like a disappointed parent. “That’s all you’ve got to say?”
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” I blinked, thinking this seemed a lot like the kind of lecture my dad would give me when I missed curfew as a teenager. And that didn’t make sense at all because I hadn’t done anything wrong. At least, as far as I knew.
“I don’t want you to say anything,” he sighed, uncrossing his arms to lift a hand and drag his fingers through his hair, apparently realizing the ridiculousness of this entire situation. “I just don’t understand…I thought you didn’t like him.”
I didn’t really see what that had to do with anything. “I don’t, or I didn’t.”
Despite not being Dalton’s biggest fan when the idea of being in a fake relationship with him was first mentioned, he had grown on me. The more time we spent together, the more I realized that I enjoyed his company and that when all of this was over, I would very much like to be friends.
Tristan noticed the uncertainty in my tone and leaned forward a little bit. “But you do now?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” The answer was yes, but he was being strangely cryptic about his intentions here and it was freaking me out. “Why do you care?”
He thought about that for a moment before shaking his head and speaking softly. “I just don’t want either of you to get hurt.”
As much I appreciated the thought, I got the feeling that wasn’t his whole reason for confronting me about kissing Dalton. He had never been good at keeping secrets from me. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he struggled to formulate his sentences. “I know how he feels about you and if you don’t feel that way about him, then you shouldn’t lead him on. It’s not fair to him.”
“I’m not a completely shitty person, Tristan.” I replied, getting more annoyed with each word I spoke. I was completely aware of how Dalton felt about me and I had no intention of convincing him that something real could ever happen between us. Even if I absolutely detested the guy, I wouldn’t do that to his heart. And as far as I was aware, I hadn’t given him the impression that I was romantically interested. In fact, we had multiple conversations about how I felt about Tristan, which meant Dalton knew that my heart was taken. “Anyways, I don’t know why you’re so upset when all of this was your stupid idea in the first place.”
That was probably worded a bit harshly, but I was fired up.
“Yeah, I told you to go on one date with him, not have secluded makeout sessions,” he shot back, his eyes narrowing as he decided to fight fire with fire.
“Fine,” I rolled my eyes. I guess I could see how agreeing to kiss Dalton might have sent the wrong message. “Maybe you’re right. I’ll talk to him tonight.”
Exhaling softly, he nodded, his entire posture loosening as our fight came to an end. “Thanks.”
Still, despite reaching a conclusion, there was still tension in the air, as though there was something he wanted to say but he didn’t know how to put it into words. Which was strange, because it was usually me who had that problem, not Tristan. “Is there something else?”
“I just…you’re my best friend.” He said those words as a preface, as though he knew that what he would say next would hurt me in some way.
“And you’re mine,” I whispered, suddenly not able to breathe. I didn’t know why, but this felt like a pivotal moment, like whatever happened over the course of the next few minutes would forever change my relationship with Tristan.
“I know,” he nodded once, keeping his gaze steady to assure me that our friendship status hadn’t changed without my knowledge. “And that’s how it’s always been. You and me. Tristan and Julianna. Best friends.”
“Right…,” I managed to breathe out. “Are you sure there’s nothing else?”
He paused, his lips parting and his eyes flooding with desperation as though he was hoping I would just read his mind and save him from having to say it out loud.
“When I saw the picture, the one of you kissing Dalton,” he spoke slowly and deliberately, trying to find the right words. Or possibly trying to figure out a way out of this conversation. “I felt something…something I’ve never felt before.”
“What did you feel?” I was surprised I could make myself speak because my throat had closed up and my heart was racing and I felt as though I could pass out at any moment.
“I think…,” he paused again and I wasn’t sure if he was building suspense on purpose, but I wanted to scream for him to just spit it out before I had an aneurism. “I think it was jealousy.”
And there they were: the words that changed everything. Because even if nothing ever came of it, he couldn’t take it back. It was out there; he’d said it and I’d heard it and I wouldn’t be able to forget, even if I wanted to.
“What?” was all that came out, which considering how many times I’d dreamed of variations of this exact situation, wasn’t at all eloquent.
“I know how it sounds,” he rushed to explain, probably afraid that I was disgusted at the thought of us being more than friends and he’d damaged our relationship beyond repair. If only he knew “And I know it doesn’t make any sense….and wow,” he stopped to take a deep breath and shoot me an apologetic glance. “I just made things super awkward and I feel like a dick for even bringing it up. I’m sorry.”
I wasn’t sure why he was apologizing for saying how he felt. He’d realized that he could possibly have more than platonic feelings for me all of an hour ago and he’d acted on it almost immediately and I still wasn’t brave enough to tell him that I’d been in love with him for as long as I’d even known what love was.
There wasn’t a point. Declaring my feelings for Tristan now was, frankly, a little unfair. He was engaged, to a princess no less, and telling him that I’d always loved him would just confuse him unnecessarily. As much as it would break my heart, the best thing to do in this situation was to convince him that what he was feeling was entirely fleeting.
It was better this way, really. Because in the long run, he would realize that breaking off his engagement to a princess for the sake of a commoner wasn’t what was in Astoria’s best interest. At the end of the day, his duty to his kingdom was what was most important and I didn’t want to be the reason he ended up making a huge mistake. So I kept quiet about what lay in my heart, to save us both.
“No, it’s okay,” I assured him. My voice was shaking slightly, so I inhaled deeply to calm my nerves and keep myself from bursting into tears. “I don’t want you to ever feel sorry for telling me how you feel, it’s just…what about Alisha?”
Reminding him of his fiancé would certainly bring him back to reality, or at least, my heartbreaking version of it where he was a future king and I was a nobody and nothing could ever happen between us.
“I know,” he whispered, his gaze becoming clearer with each passing second as he swallowed and inhaled through his nose and regained his composure. “No, you’re right. I’m an ass. Forget I ever said anything.”
I wouldn’t. For as long as I lived, I knew I’d hold on to the memory of him telling me he felt something at the sight of me kissing someone else. It was probably what would get me through, what would tide me over until I was ready to give my heart to someone else. But he didn’t need to know that, so I lifted the corners of my lips into a small smile, and I lied to my best friend. “It’s forgotten.”
“Thanks,” he let out a shaky breath, stepping around me towards the door. “I gotta go get ready for the festival. I’ll see you there? With Dalton, I assume?”
He said his cousin’s name uncertainly, as though he was hoping I’d correct him. But I couldn’t, so I nodded and widened my smile. “And I’ll see you there. With Alisha.”
The sound of his fiancé’s name made his eyes momentarily flood with guilt and he returned my smile with a sad one of his own. “Yeah. Later, JJ.”
I lifted my hand in a wave as he walked out the door, stepping forward to collapse onto the couch once he’d closed the door behind him, thinking that I was getting way too good at pretending I didn’t care.