Between the Lines

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Chapter 15

“Hey, Jules, can you get me a belt?” Alisha’s voice rang out softly from where she was standing in the bathroom, leaning over the marble countertop to put the finishing touches on her mascara, the closing to her daily beauty routine. When I didn’t answer after about thirty seconds, she turned her head towards me and called out my name again. “Jules?”

“Uh, what?” I blinked myself out of my trance and pushed myself from my perch on the edge of her bed as I registered her request, striding towards her walk in closet to find the rack of belts. She had a pretty extensive collection of them, with every kind imaginable, ranging from beaded to leather to ribbon. “Yeah, sure.”

I selected a thin black one to complement her floaty lavender dress, knowing that she wanted to wear her favorite ankle booties and it would match nicely, and brought it to her in the bathroom, just as she finished applying the second coat of mascara to the tips of her lashes.

“Thanks,” she nodded, sticking the wand back in the long black tube and tossing it into her makeup bag before pulling the belt from my grasp and beginning to fasten it around her waist. “You can talk about it, you know.”

“About what?” I replied automatically.

I was bit caught up in my own drama, so I was out of it in general, which meant it took me a few seconds into the ‘don’t-pull-that-crap-with-me’ glance she shot me to realize what she was referring to. Plus, she said it out loud so that I couldn’t possibly play dumb. “About your conversation with Tristan. You can tell me what happened.”

I knew that. After all, Alisha had been the one to tell me to have that conversation in the first place, so of course she would want to know how it went down. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about it, so I stalled. “He didn’t tell you?”

It had been a little over a week since my fateful confession in the treehouse and I’d neither seen nor spoken to Tristan. The official excuse was that he was preparing for his diplomatic visit to the neighboring kingdom of Pressia, which would take place in a few weeks. But I knew he was avoiding me. And I was giving him space, just like he asked, so our paths hadn’t crossed.

“It’s kind of a weird topic for him to bring up to me,” she admitted, smoothing down the skirt of her dress once her belt was properly positioned and stepping around me, back into the bedroom.

That would make sense for any normal couple, but Tristan was the kind of guy who took full disclosure very seriously, so it was actually kind of odd that he hadn’t mentioned my revelation to Alisha. I lifted one eyebrow as I turned to follow her. “But it’s not weird for us to talk about it?”

On some level, I understood Alisha’s curiosity because all of this had been her idea, but that didn’t make the idea of telling her that I confessed my love to her fiancé any less weird.

“Well, I’m the one who told you to talk to him the first place,” she shrugged, meandering towards the dresser to find a pair of socks, “so I can’t really be mad that you took my advice.”

“I guess that’s true,” I muttered, still not entirely comfortable with the situation.

“So spill,” she smiled over her shoulder, pulling out one blue sock and one green sock and shutting the dresser drawer with her hip. “What happened?”

I decided that if she was gonna make me tell her, I was gonna be as vague as possible. “It was kinda anticlimactic, honestly. I told him how I felt and he told me he needed some space to figure everything out and I haven’t talked to him since.”

“He’s avoiding you?” She perched herself on the edge of the bed and pulled the socks over feet, before reaching to the side to grab her favorite ankle booties.

“Seems like it,” I sighed. “You’ve seen him, though? Has he been acting strange?”

They’d made a couple public appearances in the past week as a part of Fletcher Holsten’s plans to assure the public that Tristan and Alisha’s relationship was completely stable. So if anyone could tell if our conversation was weighing heavily on his mind, it was Alisha, who had endured a lot of long car rides with him over the course of the last week. Which was why I felt a pang of heartache when she pursed her lips and shook her head. “Not that I can tell.”

“Oh.” I masked my disappointment by busying myself with tying my hair up into a messy bun, using one of the hair ties I’d gotten in the habit of keeping on my wrist.

“That doesn’t mean anything, though,” she continued reassuringly, “First off, I don’t know him nearly as well as you do, so it’s entirely possible that he is bothered by something and I just haven’t noticed. And second, he’s a royal. We’re practically trained from birth on how to hide our emotions in public.”

That I knew. After Tristan’s first pet died when he was six, he’d been given an emergency bootcamp on being polite and happy and charming in order to ensure he wouldn’t burst into tears during a visit from some important nobles. So it made sense that Alisha knew how these things worked, seeing as she was probably given the same crash courses anytime the public just needed a smiling face. “Does that mean you do that too?”

“Hide how I really feel?” she laughed lightly, zipping up the second of her shoes. “Of course.”

She said those words with absolutely no bitterness, but I felt a weight around my heart nonetheless. Because maybe Alisha wasn’t as cool with all of this as she seemed. Maybe years of being taught how to control her emotions in public had made concealing her true feelings second nature and this whole calm and rational side of her was just a façade, because really she had developed feelings for Tristan and she hated that I had been the one to admit it first. “Shit.”

“What?” she seemed startled, cocking her head to the side and pushing herself to her feet. “What’s wrong?”

I scrunched my nose apologetically, fiddling with one of the bracelets on my non hair tied wrist. “Alisha, I’m such an ass. I’ve been so wrapped up in myself and my drama with Tristan that I never once thought about you.”

She let out a small sigh of relief, reaching out to squeeze my upper arm gently. “It’s alright.”

“No, it’s not,” I insisted, “I should have asked you this when you told me to tell Tristan the truth…how do you feel about him?”

That was a question I probably should have asked a long time ago, which would explain why she looked understandably confused. “About Tristan?”

“Yes, about Tristan.”

“I’m not in love with him, if that’s what you’re wondering.” The way she crossed her arms over her chest contradicted the lightness of her tone.

“I know,” I said, because they hadn’t known each other for long enough for that to be a possibility, plus the awkwardness of the entire situation wasn’t exactly conducive to falling in love in the span of a few weeks, “but could you be? In the future, I mean. Do you think that you could love him someday?”

Eventual love, on the other hand, was entirely reasonable. Especially seeing as Tristan was pretty easy to fall for.

“I…,” she trailed off, trying to decide the best way to respond, “does my answer really matter?”

“It matters to me.” I nodded.

“Why?” she let out a frustrated sigh, “How I feel about Tristan won’t change how you feel about him.”

But it might have changed whether or not he ever found out. In the grand scheme of things, my confession would just ruin everything for Tristan if Alisha felt that way about him too. It was his destiny to marry a princess and if it was a princess who happened to love him, then I didn’t have a shot in hell. “If I had known before, it might have changed my decision to tell him.”

“Exactly,” she said matter of factly, “And that’s not what I wanted. I don’t want you to have any regrets.”

I didn’t understand how she could possibly be that selfless. For me, sacrificing how I felt for the greater good was a no brainer, because any relationship I could possibly have with Tristan didn’t have the potential to change the course of history. Not the way Alisha and Tristan’s relationship inevitably would. Plus, I thought of her as a friend and I didn’t want her to be unhappy because of me. “What about your regrets? I don’t want you to have any either.”

“I don’t,” she smiled softly.

I wasn’t convinced. “Promise?”

“Look, Jules,” she said, sitting back down on the bed and patting the space beside her to indicate I should join her and continuing when I was seated, “you have nothing to feel bad about. I didn’t come in to this engagement with any expectations of falling in love with Tristan. Our relationship wasn’t set up that way. It’s politics. A marriage alliance between Astoria and Aberdeen could strengthen both of our kingdoms and that’s all that matters. If Tristan and I were to fall in love, it would have just been a bonus.”

“And that would have been enough for you?” I asked, knowing full well it would never have been enough for me, “Never knowing for sure whether your relationship would extend beyond politics?”

“It had to be,” she shrugged, “I wasn’t raised to think that I could ever marry for love.”

Neither was Tristan. The whole using marriage as a strategy thing was one of the reasons I sometimes thought people who weren’t royal were better off. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it.”

“I know that,” she whispered, “But what I deserve and what my kingdom needs are two entirely separate things.”

I could tell this topic was making her sad, but I was still curious. “Have you ever been in love?”

Her expression softened and she nodded slowly, still keeping her gaze direct. “Yes.”

“What happened?”

“Reality,” she said, with just the tiniest hint of regret, and I wondered if she’d called things off because the person in question wouldn’t have met her parents’ standards for marriage, “Love doesn’t mean anything to princess. It can’t. My heart was never mine to give.”

That was quite possibly the saddest thing I’d ever heard in my life. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she exhaled deeply, sitting up a little straighter, “The point I’m trying to make is that you have the freedom to say how you feel all the time, so you should make the most of it.”

“Noted,” I laughed, wanting to break some of the tension in the room, “The only problem is that Tristan doesn’t have that freedom either, does he? I mean, he said that he never allowed himself to think about me that way because he knew it could never happen.”

“I suppose not,” she pursed her lips thoughtfully, “Can I give you my honest opinion as an objective observer?”

“Sure.” Objective observations were always enlightening. After all, reporters at the ball had thought Tristan and I had some sort of chemistry, so maybe Alisha saw the same thing.

“He feels the same way about you as you do about him, he just doesn’t know how to deal with it,” she began, “He says he never let himself feel that way about you, but he did fall for you. I think he’s been falling for you since the day you met and he just never considered it a real possibility because he didn’t want to admit to himself that he was in love with someone he could never be with.”

“That’s sweet and romantic,” I laughed softly, wishing like hell that was true, “but there’s still a fundamental problem with all of this: we can’t be together.”

Her lips kinked into a smirk. “You sure about that?”

“Yeah…,” I furrowed my brow in confusion because it seemed like she knew something I didn’t, “I mean, you’re the one who said all that matters is the alliance between Astoria and Aberdeen.”

“Engagements fall through all the time,” she replied nonchalantly, “Hell, next week, my father could decide that Landsbury has more to offer us and I could end up engaged to Dalton.”

I snorted. “That would be quite the plot twist.”

“And utterly ironic,” she laughed in agreement, “I mean, I would have to have some really bad karma to end up engaged to another guy who will never really love me because he’s too busy being in love with you.”

There wasn’t actually any cruelty in her voice as she spoke, but her words still left me feeling as though she’d plunged a dagger into my heart. Like behind the softness and sweetness, she really hated my guts. “Wow.”

“I’m sorry,” she winced, “I didn’t mean for that to sound so bitter. It’s not your fault.”

“It’s okay, I get it,” I admitted, thinking it was a wonder that we weren’t mortal enemies.

“Are we okay?” she asked earnestly, reaching out to grab my hand, “I really want us to be okay, cause you’re kinda like my best friend here.”

“Yeah, we’re okay,” I assured her. “Can I ask you a question, though?”

“Sure.”

I was glad that things between us were fine, but there was still one aspect of this entire situation that I hadn’t figured out. “Does this mean you’re going to end the engagement?”

“Because I think Tristan has feelings for you?” she whispered.

“Yeah.”

That seemed to be the most logical course of action. After all, she had said that she wanted to know as well, so if she was sure about Tristan’s feelings, then I was actually surprised she hadn’t called it off already. And I was even more surprised by her response. “I can’t.”

I gaped at her. “But you just said…”

“I know, but it’s not simple,” she shot me an apologetic glance, shifting uncomfortably on the edge of the bed, “I wasn’t lying when I said engagements fall through, it’s just, how I feel about Tristan and how Tristan feels about me matters very little to my father. And Tristan not being in love with me won’t be a good enough reason for him to break an alliance. Plus, technically, it was Tristan’s family that arranged the engagement, which means, only they can break it.”

“So, in the grand scheme of things, my confession was entirely inconsequential?” Those words came out sounding angrier than I meant them to, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had every right to be upset.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, that I finally told Tristan the only secret I’ve ever kept from him the entire time we’ve been friends; a secret I kept because I knew it had the potential to change our relationship forever, and now that it’s out there, it still doesn’t matter because the two of you are still going to get married.” It wasn’t fair, really. That I had to sacrifice my relationship with my best friend and Alisha would still get everything she wanted. I probably should have known that this was always how the story ended. Silly me, thinking that she really had my best interests at heart. “Why did you tell me to tell him?”

“Because I didn’t think you should live with that secret for the rest of your life,” she said quietly, her face emotionless.

“Is that really it?” I spat out, “Your motivations were really that pure?”

Her face fell. “What exactly are you accusing me of?”

She looked hurt at the implication, but I was way past the point of feeling sorry for her. “I think that, maybe, there was a part of you that wanted me to confess because you thought that if he knew how I felt that he would immediately call off the engagement and get you out of it.”

Maybe that had been her plan all along, or at least since she figured out how I felt about Tristan. Getting Tristan to end the engagement would serve a dual purpose in that she wouldn’t have to get married and she’d come out looking hurt and vulnerable, made broken hearted by an indecisive prince, while Tristan would seem like a douchebag who just led her on with absolutely no intention of following through on his word.

I wasn’t sure that Alisha was capable of being that cunning and deceitful, but I was still reeling from the revelation that my confession could have no impact on the impending royal wedding, so I didn’t bother to consider whether my thought process was rational.

“I didn’t use you, Jules,” she sighed, reaching out for my hand again.

I pulled it away before she could touch me, jumping to my feet and taking a step backwards, shaking my head in disbelief. “That’s not how it feels right now.”

“Jules…,” she pleaded, standing as well and trying to step towards me, only to have me back up further.

“I have to get to work,” I lied, wanting to get out of the room as fast as possible, “Is there anything else you need, your highness?”

She parted her lips, as though meaning to say something which would prove her sincerity, only to decide it wasn’t worth it and shaking her head. “No, that’s all.”

“Good evening, ma’am,” I curtsied, turning and practically sprinting towards the door, wondering how it was possible that I’d lost two close friends in such a short amount of time.

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