I woke up Sunday morning knowing that I had many very important tasks to accomplish.
My first order of business was to clear the air with Dalton. I had been so wrapped up in what was happening with Tristan that I hadn’t taken the crown prince of Landsbury’s feelings into consideration at all. Despite my complaints about him when he’d first arrived, he’d grown on me as a person, but now I had yet another dilemma.
Because despite how much of my attention had been focused on the possibility of my best friend finding out that I had been in love with him for years, I wasn’t completely oblivious to the fact that Dalton had similar feelings towards me.
Or at least, he liked me, as more than a friend, which was a bit problematic, considering that’s all I really wanted us to be. One weekend wasn’t enough time for my adoration of Tristan to shift to Dalton and I was afraid just being friends wouldn’t be enough for him. Which was a shame, because I had enjoyed the time we’d spent together and I thought being friends with him would be entertaining at the very least. We made quite a pair, Dalton and I, and if we could stay good friends, I’d be happy beyond belief.
So as I stood on the tarmac from which Dalton’s private jet would be departing momentarily, my hands shoved into the pockets of my jacket, I tried to figure out a natural way to bring up his feelings for me.
In a few minutes, he would be on his way back to Landsbury, but until the plane actually left Astorian soil we still needed to keep up appearances for the sake of the tabloids, so I’d accompanied him to the airfield to say goodbye and was managing to completely ignore the crowd of people with large cameras standing on the other side of a chain link fence a few hundred feet away. Mostly because there were a few things we still needed to iron out.
“So this is it,” I said vaguely, rocking forward in my favorite combat boots.
If he could tell there was something on my mind, he didn’t mention it, instead leaning forward, he lowered his voice as though he had a secret to share, his lips kinking to a smirk. “What are the chances that you won’t slap me if I ask for a goodbye kiss?”
Technically, it would make sense for a girlfriend to kiss her boyfriend goodbye, but I also didn’t want to lead Dalton on any more than I might have already, so I compromised by pulling my hands from my pockets, flattening my palms against his shoulders and pressing a soft kiss to his slightly stubbly cheek.
He seemed to understand why I didn’t go for the lips, smiling softly when I pulled away, his expression assuring me that he was in no way hurt. “I’ll take it.”
Letting out a sigh of relief, I smiled back as I stuffed my hands into my jacket pockets once more, still wanting to hear him confirm that there was no tension between us out loud. “Hey, Dalton, are we okay?”
“Of course,” he shrugged, raking his hands through his dark curls, “Why wouldn’t we be?”
“It’s just…,” I spoke slowly, not entirely convinced, and not entirely sure how to say it without sounding full of myself and insensitive, “I know how you feel about me and I’m…”
“In love with my cousin?” he cut in before I finished, “Yeah, I’m painfully aware.”
I winced. Here I was trying not to be a shitty friend right before he left and instead I was bringing up something he probably had no desire to talk about. “You’re right, I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m sorry.”
“No, look,” he shook his head, reaching out to grab my shoulders and squeeze them lightly, “Jules, you don’t have to apologize for how you feel. You don’t owe me anything. I’ll cope. I’ve been doing it for years. Besides, it’s hard to be heartbroken when it wasn’t as though I had any chance with you in the first place.”
Logically, that made sense and I’d never really thought of Dalton as the romantic type anyway, but there was something in his response that caught me off guard. “Years?”
“Yeah,” he smiled sheepishly, retracting his hands from my arms and sticking them in the front pockets of his khakis.
“Wow,” I blinked, dumbfounded that I’d never noticed, “I’m pretty oblivious, huh?”
“I guess you and Tristan have that in common.”
“I guess so,” I replied quietly, finding it amazing that he didn’t seem at all uncomfortable bringing up his cousin. Perhaps I’d spent way too long not giving Dalton enough credit.
He stared at me sternly, his expression more serious than I’d ever seen before. “Do me a favor, okay? Don’t wait too long to tell him. Your time is running out. Once he marries Alisha, it won’t matter if he does feel the same way because he won’t break a vow of marriage.”
I knew that. In fact, the thought that Tristan’s marriage would lock in both of our destinies had been weighing heavily on my mind since the engagement was announced. It wouldn’t matter whether or not he was happy; Tristan took his vows seriously and would therefore never divorce Alisha. Partly because it would look bad and partly because he wouldn’t want to put her through that kind of humiliation either.
Though I wasn’t sure that an engagement was an entirely different matter. There were no contracts involved, nothing legally binding, but it was still a promise and I knew Tristan would consider that to hold the same weight as a vow. “But what about a promise of alliance?”
It wasn’t as though royal engagements were unbreakable. Calling them off was actually pretty common practice. Sometimes rulers had falling outs before the unions could become official or a prince or princess decided to make their own destiny and ran off with a secret lover. It had happened plenty of times throughout history, so it wasn’t as though Tristan doing it would cause the earth to crumble.
But I realized I was getting a bit ahead of myself by assuming that he would do so at all once I told him what truly lay in my heart. For all I knew, it was entirely possible that my revelation wouldn’t change a thing.
“I guess you’ll find out,” Dalton said, having no idea what would happen either, “I’m sure Alisha’s parents would much rather have Tristan break off the engagement than end up trapping their daughter into a marriage where neither of them would ever be happy.”
’Don’t you think that if they cared about Alisha’s feelings, they wouldn’t have arranged the marriage in the first place?”
Despite the hint of disgust in my tone, Dalton answered with a surprising level of calm. “Not necessarily. Marriages are a powerful tool. They give royals access to vast resources that can help them in times of need. Two kingdoms united by marriage are a force to be reckoned with and rulers know that, but it doesn’t mean that the happiness of their children isn’t important. If Alisha truly hated Tristan, I’m sure her parents would have allowed her to end the engagement ages ago. The only reason it’s ongoing is because they respect each other and they both figure it could be worse.”
“How romantic,” I snorted.
“Romance isn’t something we usually get to think about,” he said simply, his voice holding no notes of regret or sadness.
“I’m sorry, I’m not thinking big picture,” I replied quietly, feeling a bit ashamed.
My words had sounded harsh and I mentally scolded myself for being judgmental. I had no idea what it meant to be royal and I shouldn’t be voicing my opinion about things I didn’t understand. The truth was that it would never make sense to me why Tristan might choose to honor his agreement even if it made him miserable because despite growing up together, I’d never been thought to prioritize duty over my heart.
Letting out a soft laugh, he reached out to tuck a stray strand of hair behind my ear. “It’s okay. It’s not really how normal people think.”
He was being extremely mature about this entire situation and it occurred to me that maybe I’d let the impression I’d formed of Dalton as a teenager cloud my judgements about him in the present for too long. Although still overly cocky and unabashedly flirtatious, he had developed a newfound awareness of his position and no longer seemed to be determined to use his title solely for the purpose of receiving as many perks as possible.
So when he said, “I should probably get going,” I realized I was actually a bit sad about saying goodbye.
“Hey,” I smiled up at him, “thanks again for doing this.”
“No problem,” he shrugged, shoving his hands into his khaki pockets again, “I figured I should be useful to Tristan while I’m still unattached.”
“What do you mean?” I furrowed my brow in confusion as I recalled what Tristan had told me about Dalton’s relationship status when the whole fake relationship idea was first brought up, “I thought your parents weren’t pressuring you to marry.”
“They weren’t,” he replied, “up until Tristan and Alisha announced their engagement. Now my parents are realizing that I need to get started on the whole finding a queen business before it’s too late.”
I understood how seeing Tristan get engaged could spur Dalton’s parents into action, but what I didn’t understand was why Dalton would agree to very publicly get cozy with me if he was in the process of finding a wife. “Won’t that be difficult if everyone thinks you’re dating me?”
A smug grin stretched his lips, as though he were letting me in on the world’s juiciest secret. “Exactly.”
“You’ve thought this all out, huh?” I let out a soft laugh, all the puzzle pieces starting to snap into place.
There were very few royal families who would be willing to arrange a marriage to a prince who seemed otherwise occupied with someone else, because despite romantic feelings not being a priority, image was everything and royals couldn’t risk making alliances with people were indiscreet for fear of lessening the public opinion.
“Not really,” he admitted. “I just know I’m not ready for marriage just yet.”
That I understood. We were still young, after all, and I was pretty sure that if Tristan and Alisha were given more of a choice, they wouldn’t be engaged right now either. We all still had so much to figure out about ourselves before we committed to one person for the rest of our lives. “Fair enough.”
His smile widened and he glanced back towards the stairs which led to his private jet to see his security looking very impatient and shot me an apologetic glance. “Okay, this time I’m actually going to leave.”
Nodding, I stepped forward to wrap my arms around his middle for one more hug, speaking with my cheek pressed against his chest. “Don’t be a stranger, okay?”
“Come on, Jules,” he laughed, his arms encircling my shoulders to squeeze tightly and sway me lightly from side to side before he let go and took a step backwards, calling out to me as he headed towards the steps, “you know I can’t stay away from you for long.”
Laughing, I lifted one hand in a wave as I watched him climb the stairs to the plane, keeping my eyes glued on him until the door closed and staying on the tarmac until the jet was nothing but a spec in the northern sky. Letting out a deep exhale, I turned to return to the car in which we’d come, mentally preparing for the next task on my list: telling Tristan what lay in the depths of my heart.