Squeezing my eyes shut, I opened them slowly, hoping I was hallucinating, but when my vision cleared, Tristan was still there, his back to the bar as he gazed out at the festivities occurring on the main floor of the pub. Seeing as the general public hardly ever saw him when he wasn’t styled to perfection, his casual outfit of a black hoodie over a white t-shirt and black jeans was actually doing a pretty good job of keeping him from being recognized. The only reason I knew it was him from across the room was that I was pretty sure I’d be able to pick him out from a crowd a mile away.
“I might just be seeing things,” Lydia admitted, her gaze shifting back to me. “I mean, I’ve only ever seen the guy on television, so maybe that’s just someone who looks a lot like him. Should I ask?”
“No!” I blurted out instantly, shaking my head. If Tristan had snuck out of the palace, it was because he didn’t want anyone to know his whereabouts. Taking a deep breath in, I reached out to squeeze Lydia’s upper arm supportively. “If it is him, we don’t want to cause a scene by pointing out his presence. Just treat him like any other customer.”
“I don’t know if I can,” she admitted, glancing towards him once more. “Now that I’ve made that connection, I’m gonna get all flustered around him.”
“I can handle it,” I offered, glad I’d had the chance to do so, because it would give me a chance to figure out what the hell was going on. She flashed me a grateful smile and turned towards the bar to take the order of a burly man to her front, so I took a deep breath and made my way to the end where Tristan was sitting, flattening my palms against the bar top as I leaned forward so he could hear me. “Can I get you another drink?”
He spun around on his barstool to face me, the happy grin stretching his lips immediately fading when our gazes locked. “Hey, JJ. What are you doing here?”
Tristan knew I worked in town on the weekends, but I’d never specified the place, so his surprise at finding me behind the bar of the pub that he’d gone to most likely because he’d heard it was the most popular in town was understandable.
“I could ask you the same question,” I replied pointedly, pushing myself off the bar and crossing my arms over my chest.
“You told me to live,” he pointed out, setting his glass down on the bar top. “So I’m living.”
“This isn’t exactly what I had in mind,” I countered. “What if you get recognized? I don’t know enough jujitsu to protect you if your presence causes some sort of frenzy.”
He shot me an unimpressed glare and rolled his eyes. “You’re being a little dramatic don’t you think? Besides, protection is what Tucker is here for.”
I followed his gaze to where he was nodding and held in a laugh at the sight of Tucker sitting at a table nearby, looking utterly annoyed as an intoxicated patron chatted to him happily.
“Remind me to tell my dad to give Tucker a raise,” I mused, leaning forward to rest my elbows on the bar top and realizing it now made sense that Tristan had happened to show up at my place of work on his night out on the town. Although the prince knew that I worked on the weekends, I had never told him where, but Tucker knew the details. Because Tucker knew everything. And he probably figured directing Tristan to a place where he’d have someone else on his side if things went wrong couldn’t hurt. “I can’t believe he let you come here.”
“Tucker’s job isn’t to tell me what I can and can’t do, it’s to make sure I don’t get killed,” Tristan pointed out, lifting his pint glass to his lips to take another sip of his beer. “You don’t think anyone here wants to kill me, do you?”
As much as I wanted to believe his rebellious attitude, he had never really been the defy authority type, so he probably had no clue that it was more than likely that Tucker had realized he wouldn’t be able to stop the prince, so he might as well suggest Duffy’s so I could help mellow him out.
“Not yet,” I laughed. “But that might change once you’re king.”
Although Tristan supported many charitable foundations, mostly dealing with education and funding for the arts because he had a passion for songwriting and playing the drums in which he rarely got to indulge because neither were hobbies that his father considered to be suitable for a royal, as a prince, he didn’t really have the power to make decisions that would truly affect the people of the kingdom. Still, I was pretty sure he was gonna turn out to be an amazing king and I couldn’t wait to find out.
He pondered that thought for a moment before nodding matter of factly. “I’ll just have to keep you around as an advisor, then. You do have a knack for talking me out of doing things that are extremely stupid.”
Although this was true, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about being put in that situation. Of course I wanted to be a part of Tristan’s life and I wanted Tristan to be a part of mine, but being a member of the king’s council meant that I would forever be a part of the royal household, and once Tristan got married, I was pretty sure I’d want to experience more of life outside the palace.
“I’ll think about it,” I scrunched up my nose in mock contemplation. “So is your night of adventure living up to its expectations?”
“It’s not bad,” he grinned, turning his neck to scan his gaze over the packed pub. “Is it always this crazy?”
“It’s always crowded,” I replied, pushing myself off the bar top and twisting to reach for a glass so that I could pull a pint for a customer a few seats down who was signaling she wanted another. “But it’s especially insane tonight because everyone’s celebrating your upcoming nuptials.”
His expression shifted to one of brief sadness at the mention of his engagement and I immediately felt guilty for bringing up the one topic that he had probably snuck out of the palace to avoid.
“Hey, look, will you do me a favor?” I sighed once I’d passed the customer her freshly filled pint glass. “Will you hang tight for a minute while I see if I can check out early and then I’ll go back with you?”
I was sure Tucker would appreciate me removing Tristan from the current situation.
“I don’t wanna go back,” he jutted out his lower lip childishly because he had a tendency to become immature when he got a bit tipsy. “This place is fun.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Alright, then we won’t go back to the palace. We’ll go somewhere else. Anywhere you want.”
His eyes lit with excitement at the thought. “Anywhere?”
“Anywhere,” I nodded, feeling slightly relieved that he was down with that plan. “Just give me a second to tell my boss I have to go.”
Nodding, Tristan turned his focus back to finishing his beer and I turned away from him to approach Sterling, who was at the other end of the bar, flirting shamelessly with a group of older women as he filled their orders.
“Sterling, can I talk to you for a minute?” I asked in a low voice once he had slid the last woman her mojito.
Dropping one eye in a wink at the flushing lady, he turned his attention to me. “What’s up?”
The fact that Sterling was aware of my less than normal backstory was actually a huge asset in this case. Turning to the side, I nodded down the bar to where Tristan was sitting. “See that guy in the black beanie. That’s Tristan.”
It took him a few seconds to fully comprehend why that name had any importance, but when he did, his eyes widened in shock, shifting between me and the guy in question. “As in the crown prince of Astoria? What’s he doing here?”
“Attempting to rebel,” I sighed, not bothering to elaborate, despite Sterling’s confused furrowed eyebrows. “I need to take off early so that I can get him out of here.”
Sterling blinked at me in disbelief. “Jules, the place is absolutely packed. We need you.”
“I know,” I scrunched my nose apologetically. “And I wouldn’t ask normally, but it really is better if I remove him from this situation before it turns into a news headline. Right now, everyone may be too drunk to notice, but eventually someone is going realize why he looks familiar and then this place is gonna be even more chaotic. I promise I’ll make it up to you; I’ll work a double shift next weekend.”
He stared at me for a moment before letting out a frustrated sigh and shaking his head. “Fine. Be discreet.”
“Thankyouthankyouthankyou,” I grinned, leaning forward to press a kiss to his cheek before making my way back to Tristan, who had drained the last of his beer. Popping open the horizontal latch which kept the customers out from behind the bar, I gestured for Tristan to come through. “Come on, let’s go.”
Nodding happily, he slid off his barstool and made his way around the counter and I ushered him back into the employee break room as quickly as possible, grabbing my helmet and jacket and shoving my messenger bag into his arms before guiding him out the back door towards my motorcycle. Tucker had undoubtedly noticed our quick exit and although he trusted me to keep Tristan safe, it was still his job to ensure no harm came to the prince, so I was fully expecting to see the headlights of his blacked out SUV following us wherever we ended up going.
“Oooh, cool!” he exclaimed, wide eyed with excitement at the sight of my bike. “Can I drive?”
“Not while you’re drunk,” I shook my head, handing him my helmet in exchange for my bag and holding it between my knees as I shrugged on my jacket and pulled the strap of the bag over my shoulder. “Sober up a bit and then I’ll consider it.”
Figuring that was a fair enough suggestion, he pulled the helmet over his head and watched as I swung my leg over the motorcycle, following suit and keeping himself steady once I turned on the engine and pushed us to a start by holding the seat.
“Where to, your highness?” I called out as we pulled out of the alley behind the pub and onto the main road.
“Can we just drive for a bit?” he asked, his voice muffled by the helmet. “I’ve never been on a motorcycle before.”
Despite the fact that I’d had the bike for years, I was well aware that if I ever offered Tristan a ride, I’d be on the receiving end of a lot of disapproving glares from the king and queen, so I’d refrained from doing so until now. Still, everyone deserved to feel the freedom of the open road at some point in their lives, so I obliged with his request, not bothering to stay in a particular lane as I weaved through traffic, veering off on a side road so we could enjoy the passing forests and the way the moonlight snuck through the thick barriers of trees.
“Wait, hold on,” Tristan pressed his hand to my shoulder about twenty minutes into our ride. “Stop here.”
I did as I was told, pulling the motorcycle off the road and coming to a stop beside a section of the tree lined roads which extended towards the airport, lifting my eyebrows in surprise as Tristan pulled off the helmet and looked around with his eyebrows pulled into a furrow. “What’s going on?”
“I’ve been here before,” he murmured, leaving the helmet on the seat as he slid off the bike and stepped towards the trees.
“Really?” One of my eyebrows arched upwards as I followed suit, clutching the keys in the palm of my hand and wondering what business a prince had with a stretch of forest miles away from the palace. “Why?”
“Not on purpose,” he laughed, sticking his fingers into the pockets of his jeans and rocking forward in his boots. “We were on our way back from a trip to Lakewood and the car broke down and the twins ran off, so I chased them through these woods and I remember we ended up at the most beautiful creek. Wanna go see if we can find it?”
Trudging through the forest in the dark to find a creek that we didn’t know the exact location of didn’t sound particularly appealing, but I’d never been able to say no to Tristan, so I lifted the corners of my lips into a small smile and nodded. “Alright, let’s go.”
I rolled my bike towards the edge of the forest and leaned it up against a tree, figuring that if worst came to worst, I could use the alarm option to locate it if we got truly lost.
We began to walk, winding our way through the trees, and I had absolutely no idea where we were going, but Tristan seemed sure of himself, so I followed his lead, listening with a perpetual smile playing at my lips as he jabbered on about the latest pranks his brothers had played on the members of king’s council and thinking that if I had ever had siblings of my own, I would have loved them just as much as Tristan loved his brothers.
“Hey, JJ,” Tristan said quietly a few minutes later, once we were standing beside the creek that he’d found with impressive swiftness, listening to the water flow. “Thanks.”
“For what?” I asked, curling my fingers around the strap of my messenger bag and tilting my head to the side.
He shrugged, reaching up to adjust his beanie over his curls. “You just always have my back, no matter what. You’re one of the few people in the world that I trust completely.”
I appreciated the compliment, but there was a certain sadness to the way he said it that made my heart ache. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah,” he sighed, keeping his gaze on the water. “I’m just coming to realize that the more important I become, the more people want to use me for their own personal advantage and next year, when things change, it’s going to be harder and harder to know who likes me because of who I am and who likes me for me.”
“Well, you got me,” I replied, not adding the world ‘always’, because I wasn’t sure how much longer that would be true. “And you got your future wife. She seems sweet.”
At least, I hoped Alisha like Tristan for who he was, but the truth was that the only time I’d spent with her was at the dinner a week ago and she seemed as genuinely dissatisfied with the entire situation as Tristan, so I didn’t get the sense that she was using him for his title.
Chewing on his lower lip, he shifted his gaze to the side to look at me. “She’s coming to live with us.”
“Alisha?” I lifted my eyebrows in surprise, not having heard any rumors about the princess coming for an extended stay.
Tristan nodded. “Yep. My father invited her to stay for a couple months. He thinks if we’re living under the same roof, it’ll give us a chance to get to know each other better.”
“That makes sense.” I smiled, despite the fact that the idea of living in close quarters with Tristan’s future wife wasn’t exactly high on my list of ideal situations. Though, I supposed she would be in the royal chambers, which meant I wasn’t likely to run into her very often.
“I guess it does,” he whispered, not sounding too pleased. “Will you do me a favor, though? Will you get to know her too?”
“Me?” I blinked in response. “Why?”
Of course I would do it if he really wanted me to, but it wasn’t really necessary, seeing as once he was king, I wouldn’t be nearly as involved in his life.
“Because I value your opinion,” he replied simply. “And you’re an excellent judge of character. For all I know, she’s putting on an act with me, but you’ll be able to see things I don’t and I know you’ll be straight with me.”
I supposed he was right, because if Alisha was acting, she would be more likely to let her guard down around someone who she didn’t think was important. Still, it wasn’t as though my opinion of her would matter in the long run. “Tristan…it’s not like I can tell you not to marry her. I don’t have any influence over your father’s decisions.”
He turned his torso to face me, keeping his gaze direct. “But you have incredible influence over mine.”
I parted my lips to ask what the hell that meant, but was interrupted by a flashlight shining in our direction, indicating Tucker had found us, even in the depths of the forest, just like I expected he would.
“Come on,” he nodded into the trees, towards the direction of the light. “We should get back. You said you’d let me drive your motorcycle.”
Figuring he was now sober enough to operate heavy machinery, I flashed him a smile and turned to walk towards Tucker, and following the bodyguard silently back to where my bike was parked. Before he could object, I had tossed Tristan the keys and the two of us had hopped up onto the seat and I held in a laugh as I heard Tucker groan, but reluctantly head back towards his SUV to follow us back to the palace.
I wrapped my arms around Tristan’s middle as we sped down the road, throwing my head back into the wind and grinning widely as we weaved through the traffic, the smile remaining on my face until he parked the motorcycle in the garage.
“That was amazing,” he breathed out once he’d pulled off the helmet, his eyes shining with excitement. “Now I see why you love it so much.”
“Told you,” I grinned, watching as he placed the helmet on top of the seat and stepping into stride beside him as we headed towards the back entrance to the palace. “You should get one for yourself.”
He snorted with laughter, both of us turning briefly to note Tucker pulling his car into the garage as well. “Like my parents would ever approve of that. If they ever find out that I was anywhere near yours, I’m in for the lecture of a lifetime.”
“Then I guess you’ll just have to sneak out more often,” I teased.
“I guess so,” he replied, and I decided I was excited for any future adventures he might have. If he was truly determined to make the most of the time he had before he became king, then I was determined to help him.
Grinning as we came to a stop outside my apartment door, he reached out to pull me into an embrace, squeezing me tight and pressing a kiss to my cheek as he pulled away. “Tonight was fun. Thanks for indulging me. You’re the best.”
“My pleasure,” I smiled widely, lifting one hand in a wave as he took a step backwards. “Goodnight.”
“Sweet dreams, JJ,” he called out over his shoulder as he continued down the hallway towards the main part of the palace.
I watched him until he disappeared, wondering why it was that I was so fearless in other aspects of my life, but when it came to admitting to Tristan how I felt about him, I never seemed to be able to find the right words. Perhaps it was because despite the fact that I had strict rules about being upfront about how I felt about things, I knew that my feelings for Tristan would never result in anything. Sighing, I stuck my key into the lock and pushed open the door to the apartment, shutting it as silently as possible as not to wake my father and tiptoeing towards my bedroom, resigning myself to the fact that, as always, Tristan was my exception to the rule.