“JJ, wake up.”
I woke with a start at the sound of Tristan’s voice and it took me a minute to realize I wasn’t in my bedroom. I lay curled up on a tan leather couch, my cheek resting against a soft pillow and Tristan squatting in front of me, his face illuminated by the light streaming in through a small window on the right, reminding me that we’re on the royal jet.
We’d left for Pressia in the middle of the night, wanting to arrive in time to have lunch with the king and queen. Although I was used to being up late, I wasn’t used to waking up early, so as soon as we were settled on the jet, I’d fallen asleep. And now I was a bit groggy and disoriented.
“What’s going on?” I mumbled, pushing myself upwards into a seated position.
The voice of Morgana, one of the queen’s handmaiden’s rang out from behind Tristan. “We need to get you dressed, Miss Julianna.”
“Dressed?” I squinted in confusion, shifting my gaze first to Morgana and then back to Tristan, wondering why I had to change on the plan and also why I had to change at all.
Tristan smiled softly, reaching out to gently squeeze my wrist. “Astoria’s ambassador to Pressia is meeting us at the airfield, so we have to be ready to go as soon as the plane lands.”
“Gotcha,” I nodded, attempting to rub my tiredness from my face. “Um, what should I be wearing?”
Of course I’d brought clothes for the weekend, but I guess I assumed I’d have a little more time to figure out what to wear. And right now I was completely blanking on every article of clothing I owned. Luckily, Morgana seemed to be on her game.
“I’ve brought clothes for you, Miss,” she said, tilting her head towards the bathroom. “Right this way.”
Pushing myself off the couch, I followed her to the plane bathroom, feeling a bit nervous as she locked the door and turned to unzip the garment bag hanging on a hook to the side. In general, I didn’t own any clothes that might be appropriate to meet the king and queen of a neighboring kingdom, so I’d done a bit of shopping before I left, looking for clothes which were cute, but a bit more conservative than what I usually wore.
Morgana had picked out one of the dresses I’d brought along. It was a dark forest green which made my skin glow, although the skirt was to the knees, longer than I normally liked to wear, and the cap sleeves and scooped neckline were just high enough to cover the tattoo on the back of my shoulder. I smoothed out the skirt over my thighs and looked in the mirror as Morgana zipped up the back and walked around my front to begin applying makeup to my face.
Twenty minutes later, Morgana had worked her magic and my transformation was complete. As I stared at my reflection in the mirror, wondering what it meant that I hardly recognized myself. I looked so mature and elegant, my hair pinned back and my makeup kept to neutral tones as to make it look as though I was barely wearing any. It was a little alarming, but I supposed if I was going to date a royal, I had to look the part.
So I smiled tentatively as I stepped out of the bathroom, twirling slowly for Tristan. “So, what do you think?”
“Beautiful,” he smiled widely, reaching out to take my hand and pull me down into the seat beside him. He linked our fingers together atop the arm rest and glanced out the window. “We’re almost there.”
“That was fast,” I commented, feeling as though it was only an hour ago that I sleepily got on the plane in the first place.
He turned to face my again, one side of his mouth lifting into a smirk as he squeezed my fingers gently. “You were asleep for four hours.”
“Wow,” I blinked in surprise, because it had felt like four minutes. Reaching out with my free hand, I brushed one of his curls from his forehead, noting that although his eyes were as beautiful as ever, they were tired as well. “Did you sleep at all?”
“A little,” he shrugged. “I never sleep well before stuff like this.”
“Understandable,” I nodded. Seeing as I felt sick to my stomach, I could only imagine how nervous he was.
He seemed to notice the tension in my face, because he furrowed his eyebrows in concern and said, “You okay?”
“Yeah, just a little queasy,” I admitted.
Smiling softly, he leaned forward to press a comforting kiss to my lips before returning his gaze to the window as we began our descent into Pressia. “It’s just as beautiful as I remember.”
I leaned over him so I could look at the view, in awe at the birds eye view of the clear blue waters and white sand beaches. “When was the last time you were here?”
“I think I was like, eleven,” he replied, “I don’t really remember much.” He held tight to my hand as the plane landed, smile at me softly when we came to a stop. “You ready?”
Taking a deep breath, I stood alongside him, not letting go of his hand. “What do I do?”
“You don’t really have to do anything,” he told me, lifting my hand to kiss the back of it, “Just hold my hand and keep smiling.”
I exhaled softly and felt my entire body relax as I grinned. “I can do that.”
Keeping his promise, he held my hand as we walked down the plane steps and kept holding it down the carpet lined with photographers until we were out of the way of the crowds and approaching a small, balding man standing just outside the hanger beside a large black SUV.
“See?” Tristan whispered, squeezing my hand lovingly and shooting me a smile. “Not horrible, right?”
“I guess not,” I laughed as we came to a stop in front of the man.
The man in question bowed his head at Tristan, smiling widely as he reached out a hand for a shake. “Your Royal Highness. What an honor to have you visit. It’s been far too long.”
“Thank you, Ambassador,” Tristan replied, dropping my hand to shake the ambassador’s hand with both of his. “It’s always a pleasure to come visit.”
The Ambassador kept his smile wide as his gaze shifted to me, his eyebrows twitching slightly as he was forced to keep them from furrowing in confusion. “I’m sorry, sir, I wasn’t aware you were bringing a guest.”
“Yes, it was a bit last minute,” Tristan explained, placing a hand in the small of my back for support. “Ambassador Gershwin, this is Julianna Bradford. JJ, this is Astoria’s ambassador to Pressia.”
“Ambassador,” I smiled sweetly, reaching out to shake his hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Lady Julianna,” he replied with a friendly smile.
“Oh, I’m not a lady,” I corrected him out of habit, and then clarified when I noticed his eyebrows dart upwards in surprise. “I mean, it’s just Julianna.”
Shooting me a comforting smile, he nodded and gestured for us to slide into the car.
What followed was eight straight hours of car trips and hand shaking and posing for pictures and making small talk. It started with breakfast at the embassy and then a meeting with the directors of the school board, followed by tea with the heads of the unions until we finally arrived for a small, private dinner with the king and queen of Pressia.
For most of the day, I was in the background. I didn’t mind really. It was kind of fascinating to watch Tristan effortlessly flatter and charm person after person. He always introduced me, making sure they were aware that I was there, but inevitably they all ended up more interested in what Tristan was saying, a routine with which I was perfectly fine, because it meant that I wasn’t necessarily forced to come up with conversation topics and got to be a fly on the wall.
Until dinner, of course. The guest list was small, with only four other invitees along with me and Tristan, and I was seated next to Miriam, the Queen of Pressia, I couldn’t exactly just stay quiet for the entire evening.
Luckily, she started the conversation, leaning towards me as she cut into her chicken breast. “So, Julianna, how long have you been acquainted with the prince?”
“Since we were children, ma’am,” I replied, automatically using a formal title, because despite the fact that we had been introduced, I was used to referring to royals, with the exception of Tristan, in that way.
“Please, call me Miriam,” she smiled kindly when she swallowed her food. “And how wonderful that you’ve remained friends all these years.”
“Well, we grew up together,” I explained, spearing a carrot with my fork. “My father works for the king.”
She nodded. “I see. And what do you do?”
“I’m in school finishing my degree in business,” I replied. I paused, wondering if I should add what I do outside of school and deciding that there’s no point in hiding who I really am, even if it wasn’t something someone associated with a royal would do. “I work as a bartender in a tavern to make extra money and I hope to one day own one of my own.”
I’m not sure how I expected her to react, but I let out a sigh of relief when she smiled dreamily and said. “How wonderful. I wanted to own a pet store when I was young. I love animals.”
“Sounds amazing,” I grinned. “Do you keep many animals around?”
“Unfortunately, no,” she replied, her voice becoming soft with sadness. “I don’t have much time to care for them.”
It broke my heart a little to know that she’d given up something she cared so much about and I briefly wondered I would one day have to make the same choice, as I responded, “I guess that makes sense. It is a shame, though. Especially as Pressia has one of the largest marine life habitats in the world.”
“You’re right, we do,” her smile lifted in pleasant surprise. “How do you know that?”
The honest truth was that I’d done research on Pressia before we left, not wanting to seem as though I didn’t know anything about the kingdom I was visiting, but I decided not to let her in on that particular secret, and instead said, “I’ve learned a lot in my classes.”
She could probably telling I was hiding the whole truth, but still grinned widely and said. “Good.”
The rest of the meal was marvelously comfortable. Queen Miriam and I chatted easily and I even managed to have a lively conversation with King Peter and before I knew it, Tristan was holding my hand and walking me to my room.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this exhausted in my entire life,” I sighed, feeling a bit more at ease now that my heels were hanging from the fingers of my free hand. Every muscle in my body was sore and I was pretty sure I was going to fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
He laughed quietly, swinging our arms lightly. “You get used to it.”
“Are all of your diplomatic visits like this?” I asked, wondering how he kept up his energy the whole time.
“Pretty much,” he lifted one side of his mouth into a smile as we came to a stop outside the room that had been made up for me. “Tomorrow will be better. You’ll see.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” I replied honestly. And that was the truth. As out of my element as I’d felt today, it was exciting to get a look into what Tristan’s life as a prince was actually like. Plus, today had only confirmed what I already knew about Tristan’s readiness to be king. He was absolutely amazing at being a diplomat; charming and poised and completely in control of his actions, yet also warm and friendly and eager to hear what everyone else had to say.
He dropped my hand to reach out and place both his palms at my waist, pulling me in. “You were such a champ today.”
“Yeah?” I asked, glad that he hadn’t regretted me being around.
“Yeah,” he nodded, squeezing my hips comfortingly. “I know that the stuff I have to do isn’t exactly thrilling all the time, but it’s important.”
“I know,” I replied, hoping he didn’t think I’d been bored at all. “And I get it. I’m really trying.”
“I know you are,” he smiled, leaning forward to press a soft kiss to my lips. “Thank you, baby. You’re the best. And I promise that we’ll find some time to hang out, just the two of us, before we go.”
To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure he could keep that promise, seeing as the only time we’d been alone today was on the plane this morning and right at this very second. But I appreciated the optimism, so I smiled and leaned in for another kiss. “Okay.”
“I should let you get some sleep,” he said, kissing me one more time before dropping his hands from my waist and taking a step backwards. “Goodnight.”
“Sweet dreams,” I called over my shoulder as I turned to enter my room. I blew him one last kiss and grinned as I shut the door behind me, thinking that just maybe, I could do this after all.
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