Between the Lines

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Chapter 17

I had to do it: I had to grow up and go talk to Alisha. I owed her that much. If she was going to find out about what happened between me and Tristan, she deserved to hear it from me.

So as soon as I was let out of my afternoon glass, I tracked her down, asking various members of the royal household if they’d seen the princess and finally found her in the gardens, looking like something out of a woodland fairytale with her feet bare and her legs stretched out in front of her as lay on top of a blanket in the grass and bathed in the sunlight.

She sat up when she heard me approaching, leaning back on the palms of her hands and nodding to her ladies to leave us alone. I plopped down on the blanket near her ankles, crossing my legs beneath me and nervously twisting one of the rings on my finger. “Hey.”

“Hi,” she said softly, looking relieved to see me. “I’m sorry,” she continued at the same time that I also said, “I’m sorry.”

There was a moment of silence before we both burst out laughing, but it was Alisha who was the first to speak again. “Can I go first?”

“Of course,” I nodded, hoping I didn’t forget the speech I’d been mentally practicing all day.

“Look, you were right,” she began, leaning forward and tugging at a loose string on the hem of her flowery sundress, “I might not have realized it at the time, but there was a part of me that figured that if you confessed your feelings to Tristan, it was kind of a way out for me. Because then, surely, he’d be the one who broke the engagement and I wouldn’t have to feel guilty. But I didn’t consider how you factored in at all and I apologize for that.”

“And I may have overreacted a little,” I admitted as well, glad that we were both setting aside our pride. If I was in Alisha’s situation, I might have done exactly the same thing, so I couldn’t really fault her for not considering how her plan would affect me. But in the heat of the moment, I hadn’t given any consideration to her feelings either and I’d realized Alisha wasn’t the only one at fault in the situation.

Despite the fact that we’d cleared the air, she was looking at me like she didn’t believe that I forgave her. “Are you just saying that because everything worked out?”

It took me a moment to realize the implication of her words and my eyes widened in horror as I responded. “You know?”

“Technically, no one’s told me anything,” she shrugged, “but Tristan did come by my room this morning and say that he had something he wanted to discuss with me, but he needed to talk to his father first.”

Of course. Tristan was the kind of guy who would want to give her a heads up and Alisha wasn’t stupid, so of course she’d figure it out before I got the chance to tell her myself.

“Well, I’m glad I got to talk to you before he does,” I replied, “I just don’t want there to be any bad blood between us.”

And I honestly meant that. In the short time we’d known each other, Alisha and I had become close friends and it would be a shame to let anything ruin what I was certain would be an amazing ongoing relationship.

“Oh, Jules, there never could be,” she assured me. “I’m glad you’re getting your happy ending.”

That was such a strange thought; that I could ever have a happy ending. I’d spent so much of the time I’ve been in love with Tristan believing that there was no way we’d ever end up together that the mere idea that I was one kiss away from a literal dream come true was unimaginable.

“So we’re good?” I asked, wanting to be one hundred percent sure.

She smiled softly and nodded, her tone holding absolutely no bitterness. “We’re great.”

“Does this mean you’ll go back to Aberdeen?” If she and Tristan were no longer engaged, there wouldn’t be much reason for her to stick around Astoria. After all, the entire purpose of her being here in the first place was for her and Tristan to get to know each other better.

Her response echoed my reasoning. “It won’t make much sense for me to stay here once the official announcement about the engagement ending has been made.”

I understood why she had to leave, but I was saddened by the thought of not getting to see her every day. Even the past couple days where we hadn’t been talking had been difficult. Alisha had become a part of my routine and I was certain my days would feel empty without her. “I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” her smile widened, her eyes a bit shiny as though she was about to cry.

“But you’re kind of glad, aren’t you?” I asked. “Because there’s someone waiting for you, isn’t there?”

It was a suspicion I’d had for a while now. During our first conversation, I’d assumed that her nerves about the arrangement were due to the fact that she didn’t know Tristan at all, but when I reflected on it later, I realized there had been sadness in the way she spoke. She wasn’t hesitant about the situation because she was on the verge of marrying a man she barely knew; she was hesitant because her heart already belonged to someone else.

She didn’t bother acting surprised that I figured it out. Lifting one shoulder in a shrug, she sighed and spoke just barely above a whisper. “I don’t know if waiting is the right word. There’s someone there who has at least a part of my heart, but for all I know, by the time I get back, he’ll have moved on.”

I couldn’t assure her that wasn’t the case. This guy she left behind obviously thought she was going to marry someone else, so unless he was like me, who pined for years, he might not have been waiting for her to come back. But she looked too heartbroken for me to give her a rational response, so I smiled softly and said, “I don’t think anyone could easily move on from you.”

That much was true. I couldn’t imagine there was a single person on earth who had met Alisha not been affected in some way. She shot me a grateful smile as thanks.

“So how come you guys aren’t together?” I asked. I was genuinely curious because Alisha knew so much about my love life and felt like I knew absolutely nothing about hers. Or at least, I didn’t know about anything that didn’t involve Tristan. Which I now realized was very self-centered of me.

She picked at a blade of grass. “Because he’s not royal.”

“That sounds familiar,” I laughed. It made perfect sense, though. Apparently Alisha and I were destined to be kindred spirits all along.

“Doesn’t it?” she scrunched up her nose as she laughed, though her joy was only momentary because her mood soon clouded over once more. “I guess I’m just not as strong as Tristan. I don’t have the guts to tell my parents what I really want.”

It was strangely fascinating to know that social standing didn’t make a difference when it came to how children interacted with their parents. Maybe the stakes were higher in Alisha’s case, but she was still young and not quite sure how to stand on her own two feet when it came to expressing her opinions.

I’d never really had these issues with my dad, because he’d always been pretty hands off when it came to the decisions I made for myself. But I understood the nerves that came with not wanting to let down the people who raised you. And I could never truly understand Alisha’s situation because it wasn’t as though any of my decisions had the potential to shape the lives of future generations.

I might not be able to empathize with Alisha, but I did know that if anyone in the world deserved a happy ending, it was her. And I didn’t want her insecurities about telling her parents the truth to be the reason she didn’t get it.

“I think you do,” I said, keeping my gaze direct and my tone soft and supportive. “Look, Alisha, you deserve to be happy and if you never tell your parents what you want, then you’ll never know how they’ll respond. Who knows? Maybe they’d be fine with it.”

I said that pretty casually for someone who was actually scared shitless about how Tristan’s parents were going to react to the same news. At this very moment, he was probably in his father’s office, telling the king and queen that he wanted to call of the engagement and I could almost guarantee that they weren’t just ‘fine with it’. They might let him end things with Alisha, but that didn’t mean that they would be happy about me and Tristan being more than friends.

Breaking a royal engagement was enough of a headline. Breaking a royal engagement in order to date a commoner was a full on scandal.

“Thanks, Jules.”

Alisha’s gratitude brought me out of my inner turmoil and I realized that I was once again being self-centered. I could deal with the repercussions of Tristan’s confession to his parents later. Right now, my focus should be on Alisha.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t spend too much more time with her because I had a shift at work, so I told her that I’d happily go back to being her assistant for the rest of the time she was in Astoria before hugging her goodbye and rushing off to get ready for my job.

After what had happened in the early hours of this morning, I had thought about calling Sterling to see if he could get someone else to cover for me, but now I was glad I had somewhere to go and something to do. Keeping busy would stop me from coming up with every possible worst case scenario of what could happen between me and Tristan.

So I threw myself into getting the pub prepped for its evening opening. I wiped down all the tables and glasses and restocked the liquor and beer and counted the cash on hand and when I was done, I wiped down the tables again for good measure.

“You alright?” Sterling asked, his eyebrows furrowed in concern and his arms crossed over his chest as he watched me rewipe the tables and chairs for the second time. “You seem a little distracted?”

I guess it was only a matter of time until someone noticed. “Sorry, just got a lot on my mind.”

“Wanna talk about it?” he asked, watching as I moved to a new table.

I shook my head. “Not right this second.”

It wasn’t as though I didn’t want to voice all of concerns and elation and conflicting emotions, but I wasn’t sure here was the best place to do it. Besides, if things didn’t work out, I didn’t want the story of what almost happened to be public knowledge. Not that I didn’t trust Sterling, but there were just some things which were better left unsaid.

Luckily, he seemed to understand, nodding and turning back towards the storage room. “Okay.”

“It’s not that I don’t wanna talk about it, I just can’t,” I called out after him, feeling bad for rejecting him so quickly.

He let out a short laugh as he turned to face me again. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know what it is yet,” I admitted, sighing and standing up straight, tossing the rag I was using from hand to hand and wishing I could be more specific. “I know that makes no sense, but I don’t know what else to say.”

“It’s alright,” Sterling shrugged. “If you ever want to talk.”

I smiled softly. “Thanks.”

The tinkling of the bell over the front door announced a visitor, saving me from having to awkwardly change the topic of conversation.

“Sorry, sir, we’re not open yet…,” Sterling began his usual spiel to people who walked in before we officially opened, only to stop short when he realized the person now standing just inside the doorway was no regular customer. Eyes wide, he spoke in an awed tone. “Your Highness.”

My heart rate immediately spiked at the sight of Tristan, looking a bit nervous as his gaze shifted from Sterling to me and his easy smile faltered.

“Tris, what are you doing here?” I asked, amazed I was able to get a word out because my breathing had completely stopped.

He spoke softly, as though he didn’t want anyone else to hear. “Can we talk?”

“Of course,” I nodded, tilting my head towards the door on the side, “we can go into the break room.”

Shooting Sterling a grateful smile, Tristan silently followed me into the break room, stepping inside and waiting for me to close the door.

“Is everything alright?” I asked once we were alone, my heart rate at an all-time high.

My mind was immediately going to the worst possible answer to that question, but Tristan didn’t answer it, instead stepping towards me and placing his hands on my waist. “I’m going to kiss you now, if that’s alright with you.”

Any capability I had of forming coherent thoughts vanished, so I settled for nodding as a response. I’d imagined this moment for an embarrassing part of my life and now that it was here, I had no idea how to feel. Because maybe it would be incredibly uncomfortable, like kissing my brother, and everything I felt for Tristan was built up in my head so much that the reality could never live up. Or maybe it would be absolutely perfect and one day I’d look back and wonder how I ever could have lived not knowing what it was like to feel his lips against mine. All I knew was that I would definitely remember what happened next for the rest of my life.

The corners of his mouth lifted into a small smile as he lifted his hands to my cheeks and lowered his lips to mine. I closed my eyes to soak in the moment, melting against his chest and gripping the front of his button down shirt and smiling as I felt his entire life vibrating through me. It was short and sweet and left my legs feeling like jelly and me grinning like an idiot when we pulled apart.

“So?” he asked, apparently nervous that I was completely repulsed.

“Wow.” That was all I could say because my mind was a little hazy.

He still looked concerned, lifting an eyebrow upwards. “Good wow?”

“Yes,” if possible, my smile got wider and I flattened my palms against his chest. “Good wow.”

“Okay, good,” he let out a sigh of relief, “because I was kind of worried…”

“That there would be all this expectation and the reality just wouldn’t live up to it?” I finished his sentence for him.

“Exactly,” he laughed, his hands shifting so his fingers could lace together at the small of my back. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you can read my mind.”

Of course not. Because us being romantically involved wouldn’t change the fact that we’re best friends. It wouldn’t change the fact that we know more about each other than we know about ourselves.

“It’s a superpower,” I agreed. “So did you talk to your dad?”

Now that I knew that the physical aspect of our relationship would be fantastic, I needed to know how his parents felt about the situation. And it didn’t bode well for me that his expression darkened at the mention of his father. “Didn’t go well?”

“It’s not like he can force me to marry Alisha,” he replied immediately, assuring me that the engagement was officially over, “but he’s not happy.”

“I bet,” I muttered bitterly, knowing this would always be our biggest obstacle. Because we were standing here embracing like we’d been a couple our entire lives and it occurred to me that maybe we had. Maybe everything that happened before this moment happened because it was supposed to lead us here. To each other. And it sucked that everything could be screwed up because his parents didn’t approve.

“What?” he asked, sensing that I was concerned.

I wasn’t sure how to phrase what I wanted to say, so I just blurted it out before I could lose my nerve. “I just don’t want you to end up regretting any of this.”

He was risking so much by defying his parents and more than anything, I wanted it to be worth it.

Sighing, he stroked his thumbs over my cheekbones, looking me directly in the eyes and speaking softly and reassuringly. “I won’t regret it. Look, I don’t know where things between us are going, but I want to find out. And I wouldn’t be able to do that I were getting married.”

As much as I appreciated what he’d done to be with me, I couldn’t help but feel apprehensive about how his parents would respond. “I just feel like he’s not going to be very supportive.”

I owed a lot to King Robert. He was, after all, the entire reason I was able to get such an incredible education. I didn’t want him to think that I took that for granted or that I wasn’t grateful for how much he’d done for me and my father.

“He’ll come around,” Tristan assured me, leaning in to press another sweet kiss to my lips.

I exhaled deeply, sighing contently and speaking against his mouth. “Did you tell him about this?”

So far, all Tristan told me about his conversation with his parents was that he’d called off the engagement with Alisha. He’d said nothing about his relationship with me.

“No,” he admitted, pulling away so that we could lock eyes and I could see that he was being sincere. “Not because I’m ashamed or anything. I just…I don’t know what this is yet.”

That was fair. I didn’t know what it was either. I mean, I’d already told him I loved him, but he hadn’t said it back to me. Plus, we hadn’t technically been on a date yet. So adding all of that up equaled…well, I had no idea.

“Of course,” I nodded. “That’s very…practical.”

“But not romantic,” he replied, seeming worried that I was upset.

“Tris, chill,” I laughed lightly, scratching my fingers gently against his chest. “I’m not angry. I’m sure you telling him you were calling off the engagement was upsetting enough for him. There was no need to pile it on.”

The truth was that I was kind of relieved the king and queen didn’t know that Tristan and I had moved past friendship. If it had been literally anybody else, I probably wouldn’t care what their parents thought. But the king and queen had been nothing but kind and generous and welcoming to me my entire life and I didn’t want to let them down. So I needed a plan; a way to prove to them that I was good enough for their son.

“Thanks for being so cool about all this,” Tristan said, pulling me in for a hug and squeezing me close. “It’ll all work out. I promise.”

I didn’t say anything as I buried my face into his neck, hoping that was a promise he could keep.

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