Pursing my lips, I exhaled deeply through my nose as I examined my reflection in the mirror, wishing I had any sort of sewing skills to make the monstrosity of a dress I was being forced to wear look any better. After I’d volunteered to help serve that night’s dinner, MW had dropped off the uniform that she required all of the serving staff to wear in order to look appropriate in the royal dining room.
I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t so damn uncomfortable. The material was itchy and clingy and although I normally didn’t mind tight dresses – in fact, I preferred them because I never had to worry about the skirt flying up while I was riding my motorcycle – this one made me feel as though someone had poured a tub of maple syrup over me and I just couldn’t seem to wash it off.
“That’s a good look.”
Glancing over my shoulder to see my father standing in the doorway to my bedroom, his lips kinked into an amused smirk as he took in my unfortunate outfit, I shot him a glare as I turned to face him, crossing my arms over my chest. “Someone really needs to tell Madam Willis that these uniforms need to be updated, or at least made out of more comfortable material.”
“I’ll be sure to inform her of your opinion,” he laughed quietly as he stepped into the room, playing with the ends of the black tie which hung open around his neck. His usual work uniform consisted of a button up shirt under a jacket, but since the royal family was hosting important guests tonight, all of the staff had to be impeccably dressed, which for my dad, meant he unfortunately, had to wear a tie.
I watched as he tied the knot perfectly, stepping forward to help him push it to the top of his buttoned shirt before patting his shoulders lightly. “Looking good, Pops.”
“Thanks, sweetie,” he grinned, leaning forward to press a kiss to my cheek. “And thanks for helping out MW. I know the flu going around and half her staff has her more on edge than usual.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” I flashed him my most innocent smile as I turned to check my phone, which was buzzing on top of my bed, raising my eyebrows at the sight of a message from Tristan, asking me to come to his suite. I didn’t want to be late to help with dinner for fear that MW might drop dead from stress, but his message was in all caps with a bunch of exclamation points at the end, so I sighed as I slipped into a pair of flats and kissed my father quickly on the cheek. “Gotta go. My prince is calling.”
That comment was meant as a joke, but my father’s eyes still glinted knowingly and I rolled my eyes as I tucked my phone into the front pocket of the dress – one of its only good features – before exiting my room, thinking I really needed to be more careful about my word choice. And get a better handle on my emotions, because if my father could figure out how I felt about Tristan, then it wouldn’t be long before the prince did too. Then again, he was one of the world’s more oblivious people.
Shuffling my feet against the carpeted floors with my hands stuck in the glorious pockets of my dress, I ascended the stairs to the third floor of the palace, where all of the royal suites were housed, and wound my way to the back corner where the crown prince lived, coming to a halting stop in front of Tucker, Tristan’s military trained personal bodyguard, who stood outside the suite doors, his face expressionless.
“Hey, Tuck,” I smiled brightly, vowing that one day I would make him show some sort of emotion. “He said he needed to see me.”
With any other of the royal bodyguards, that might not have been enough reason to let me pass, but Tucker was well aware that Tristan and I were close, so he kept his expression stony as he stepped to the side, indicating that I could enter. Grinning widely, I thanked him by rising to the balls of my feet and kissing his cheek before stepping forward to pull open the door to Tristan’s suite, shutting it behind me as I stepped over the threshold.
“Tris?” I called out, wandering through his common area and turning towards the bedroom, laughing when I walked through the open doors to find him standing in front of the full length mirror in the corner, looking extremely frustrated as he attempted to knot his emerald green tie. “Need some help?”
It figured that the emergency would be something of the fashion variety. He was kind of hopeless when it came to clothes and although there was a royal stylist who picked what he wore to public events, when it came to anything that didn’t involve being in front of cameras, he was on his own and completely clueless. This wasn’t the first time he’d asked me to tie his tie before an important meal.
“Yes,” he sighed as he turned away from the mirror, smiling sheepishly as I stepped forward to help him out. “Thanks.”
“How are you supposed to rule a kingdom if you can’t even tie a tie?” I teased as my fingers quickly crossed and knotted the piece of silk.
“That’s what I have you for,” he shot back, turning back to the mirror to inspect my handiwork, nodding in approval at the mirror before stepping towards the bed to pick up the dark grey blazer which would complete his suit.
“Ah, yes,” I crossed my arms over my chest and quirked an eyebrow upwards, watching as he shrugged on the jacket. “That is my calling in life: to be the person who knots Prince Tristan’s ties.”
He shot me a glare as he straightened his lapels. “You know that’s not what I meant.”
“I know,” I smiled softly, because we’d had many late night heart to hearts where Tristan had heard me gush about how my ultimate dream after graduating from university with my business degree was to open my own bakery. “Well, I should get going before MW blows a gasket.”
“Wait, JJ,” he called out as I turned towards the door and I lifted my eyebrows in silent response. “I need to tell you something.”
“Tell me later,” I called out over my shoulder, continuing towards the exit. “I really gotta go.”
He parted his lips to protest, so I blew him a kiss as I waved goodbye. Leaving a member of the royal family hanging probably wasn’t at all appropriate, but I did want things to run smoothly at dinner, and the first step towards that was reporting for duty on time. So I hightailed my way down to the kitchens just in time to hear MW spouting out the individual tasks.
I was assigned to beverages, meaning I had to ensure that the glasses of everyone at the table remained sufficiently filled throughout the entire meal. This also meant that I had to stand very quietly to the side of the room while I scanned the table for empty glasses, and being still had never come easily to me.
As per tradition, cocktails were served in the lounge room specifically for guests and the only staff present were security guards, such as my father. So an hour after our assignments had been given out, the table was set and the food was being kept warm in the kitchen and I was standing to the side of the dining room, fidgeting with the itchy collar of my dress and wishing the two royal families would enter so I would have something to do.
My wish was granted ten minutes later when the doors leading to the lounge room were pulled open and the royals began to enter, and as was in accordance with royal etiquette, I bowed my head and curtsied quickly as they did.
The twins, Jeremy and Jaden, zoomed in first, waving enthusiastically to me as they claimed their seats on the side of the table. I cracked a smile, but knew better than to respond with any more motion than that, straightening my posture further when the kings entered next. Alongside King Robert was Daniel, King of Aberdeen. His wife, Larissa, followed closely behind, chatting happily with Queen Eliza and looking as though they had been friends for life, despite the fact that this was the first time they had met.
Tristan and Alisha came in last. The princess, a slender, quiet looking creature, had her hand slid against the crook of the prince’s elbow, as though if she held on any tighter, she might catch some sort of terrible disease, both of them looking decidedly uncomfortable. It was a strange situation all around, because despite Tristan’s objections to his father’s scheming, he was always the epitome of the diplomat and could probably hold a conversation with a brick wall, so the fact that both he and Princess Alisha looked as though they were queasy was concerning.
Pursing my lips, I furrowed my brow in worry, wondering if there was a way I could subtly signal to Tristan to ask him what was wrong, but knowing that according to my duties, I was supposed to be all but invisible. Resigning myself to the fact that I would have to ask what was going on later, I stood straight against the side wall and watched as the food was served.
All of the wine glasses had been filled when the table was set, so I didn’t have much to do until I noticed that the princess’s glass had been emptied because she had all but chugged the red liquid down before the main course arrived, seeming to need the alcohol to smooth over some nerves.
Launching into action, I grabbed one of the open wine bottles from the silver cart where all of the beverages were kept and walked slowly towards the table, leaning forward between Tristan and Alisha to speak to the princess. “More wine, your highness?”
When she turned her head to face me, I was shocked to notice that her gray eyes were flooded with desperation, as though she wanted to be anywhere but here, so I wasn’t at all surprised when she nodded rapidly as a response to my question, her voice coming out barely above a whisper. “Yes, please.”
After refilling her glass, I turned to ask Tristan the same question and he nodded silently before I could speak. I poured slowly, shifting my fingers against the side of the bottle to make an okay symbol with my hands, and feeling as though my heart was being squeezed when he shook his head, almost imperceptibly, from side to side.
I still had no idea what was going on, but I had no time to figure it out as the main course arrived and I was forced to step back into my position against the wall, placing the bottle back on the cart and doing my best not to show my concern on my face.
King Robert tapped his fork against his wine glass before the royals could dig in, causing the volume level of the room to subside as he grinned widely and raised his glass for a toast.
“This truly is a joyous occasion,” he spoke, his voice booming across the large table, causing King Daniel’s lips to stretch into a smile as well. My gaze flitted to Tristan and I noticed him shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “Tonight, we celebrate the union of our two families and the promise that on Tristan’s twenty first birthday, he and Alisha will be wed, solidifying their roles as the King and Queen of Astoria. To Tristan and Alisha.”
Everybody at the table raised their glasses and repeated the last sentiment, though maybe not as enthusiastically, before bringing their glasses to their lips to drink to the toast.
It took me about two minutes to process what the king had just said, but when I did, I found myself faced with a reality that I had hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with for many years to come. I had hoped that I would have time to sort out my feelings for Tristan, perhaps come to terms with the knowledge that we were never going to be more than friends, but now it seemed I would be forced to move on quicker than I had previously imagined.
Because Tristan was getting married, and it was finally crystal clear that it was only in my dreams that I would ever be his queen.