“Julianna, are you listening to me?”
I blinked a couple times to bring myself back to the present and smiled widely as I lied through my teeth. “Of course, Madam Willis.”
The truth was that as soon as she’d informed me of my duties for the afternoon, I’d completely zoned out, wondering if there was any way I could possibly get out of performing them. Generally, I would just offer to help out MW if she seemed extra stressed, but today I’d returned to the palace around lunch time after the only class I’d had that day to find her tapping her foot impatiently as she waited outside my apartment door. She didn’t even give me a chance to greet her before she grabbed my hand and tugged me down the hallway, stating that I had work to do.
I hadn’t had any objections to being of use to her until she had told me what my task was: to be Princess Alisha’s personal assistant.
“What?” I had blinked, sure I had heard her wrong and because it was highly likely the princess already had someone to do that job. “Why me?”
“Because,” MW had replied quickly. “Prince Tristan requested it especially that you be the one to make sure the princess is as comfortable as possible.”
It was then that it all began to make sense. Because Tristan had asked me to get close to Alisha, so he probably thought that making it so I couldn’t leave her side would make that inevitable without realizing that literally the last thing in the world I wanted was to be at someone’s beck and call. So I had tuned out MW as she listed off my multitude of duties and thought up excuses for why this was a bad idea while also wondering if sneaking into the prince’s chambers to shave off his hair in the middle of the night was a crime that was punishable with any amount of jail time.
“Alright,” she sighed in response to my lie and I could tell she didn’t believe me in the slightest but was too tired to argue. “Go put away your things and then head towards the guest suite we had prepared and wait for us to get up there. The princess’s car is scheduled to arrive from the airport within the next ten minutes.”
“Will do,” I nodded in response, saluting her for good measure and holding in a laugh when she replied with a glare as I turned towards the door of the parlor where the lecture had taken place to find my way back to my apartment.
“Oh, and Julianna,” she called out before I could step into the hallway, scanning her eyes over the rips in my jeans and the scuffs on my combat boots. “Please wear something…cleaner.”
Understanding what she was really implying with her disapproving tone, I flashed her a small smile before turning down the hallway and hurrying to the apartment. My father wasn’t home, as he hadn’t been quite a lot for the past week, in preparation for the princess’s arrival. Apparently adding one more royal to the mix added about a million new security risks for which my father had to be entirely prepared.
Tossing my backpack on my bed, I stripped out of my clothes and shoved them into my laundry hamper before turning to inspect the options in my closet, wondering what classified as an outfit appropriate enough to wearing when I greeted the future queen of Astoria. Knowing that I owned no pairs of pants that didn’t have rips in them, I decided a dress was a safe option and pulled on the one I always wore when I was required to look presentable because it was the most conservative one I owned.
Slipping into a pair of flats, I untwisted my hair from the braid I usually wore it in under my motorcycle helmet and ran a brush through my perpetually untamed curls before deciding this was as good as it was going to get and heading up the staircase to the floor with the royal suites, just like MW had instructed.
I came to a stop outside the guest suite designated to Alisha just as the last of the maids were leaving, having unpacked all of the princess’s belongings, which were shipped a day early so everything would be ready for her arrival. Although I knew the four digit passcode to access the suite because, despite the fact that I had tuned out much of what MW had said, I had retained that information, I decided not enter until the princess was present.
Each of the royal suites could only be opened from the outside by a typed in code which was changed every few months for security purposes. I knew this partly because my father had designed the entire system and partly because Tristan had always made sure I knew the codes to his suite. Though I supposed that as long as the princess was staying at the palace, it would be inappropriate for me to enter the prince’s suite as casually as I did usually.
I stiffened at the sound of voices coming from the elevator down the hall and inhaled deeply as they approached. The king and queen had decided to make themselves scarce after greeting the princess at the back gate, so her only company at the moment was Tristan, who had his hands shoved into the pockets of his khaki pants as he talked to her easily, Tucker, and Declan, the security personnel assigned by my father to keep watch over Alisha during her visit.
Tristan kinked his lips into a smirk when he noticed the glare I was sending him for putting me in this position before returning his attention to Alisha. “Princess, this is Julianna. She’s here for anything you need.”
“Your highness,” I curtsied quickly, stretching my lips into a warm smile, deciding that starting off friendly was always the best way to go. “I hope your journey was pleasant.”
Widening her light gray eyes, she reached out to grab one of my hands and squeeze it lightly between both of hers. “Oh, please, call me Alisha. It’s such a pleasure to meet you.”
I parted my lips to tell her that calling her by her first name would be highly inappropriate before realizing I had absolutely no problem with that and smiling widely and nodding. “Sounds great. Wanna see your room?”
She grinned excitedly, so I turned to punch in the code and pull open the door, gesturing for her and Tristan to enter and waving to Tucker and Declan before I slipped into the suite behind the prince and princess.
“It’s pretty great, isn’t it?” I asked, deciding that her response would tell me a lot about her.
“Amazing,” she sighed softly, turning in a slow circle and sliding one of the many silver bangles on her wrist up her arm as she stretched her lips into a slow smile. “Simply wonderful. Thank you, Julianna.”
“What for?” I lifted my eyebrows in surprise, flicking my gaze momentarily to Tristan, who looked just as confused. I hadn’t done anything yet.
“For agreeing to help make me comfortable,” she replied, tucking a strand of short auburn hair behind her ear. “I know you don’t work here, but the fact that you help out whenever they need you is incredible and I want you to know that I appreciate it and I hope we can become friends.”
The cynical part of me wondered if she was just being this nice because Tristan was in the room, but there was no insincerity in her eyes when she spoke, so I couldn’t help but feel just a little bit lighter with happiness as I replied. “Well, it’s my pleasure. And I hope you have a great time while you’re here.”
“I’m sure I will,” she grinned. “Besides, Tristan says you’re the best.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound like Tristan,” I smirked, glancing towards the prince to see him rolling his eyes.
“I’ll take that as my cue to leave,” he shot me a glare, turning his attention back to the princess and smiling sweetly. “I’ll see you at dinner?”
“Sounds good,” she nodded.
Flashing her one last grin, he looked at me and tilted his head towards the door. “JJ, can I talk to you for a minute?”
Holding up a finger at Alisha, I followed Tristan to the door, holding it open as he stepped into the hallway and leaning towards him so I could speak softly. “I like her.”
“Yeah, she’s pretty cool,” he admitted, laughing quietly. “Thanks for doing this. I know I didn’t really consult you before I told MW to give you this job.”
“It’s alright,” I shrugged, shifting my gaze to the side to watch Alisha, who seemed fascinated by the lace on the window curtains in the common area. “She’s not bratty or anything so it could be worse.”
“Awesome,” he grinned, leaning in to peck my cheek quickly. “I’ll see you later. Keep me updated.”
“Will do, boss,” I lifted my hand in a wave as he turned to walk around the corner to his own suite.
Winking at Declan, who turned to look at me as Tucker followed Tristan, I shut the door and spun on my heel to see Alisha had sunk down into the overstuffed leather couch which sat in the center of the room.
“Comfy?” I grinned as I wandered towards her, sitting on the couch beside her when she patted the vacant space to her right. “Tristan has one of these in his room and it’s the best place to take naps.”
I wondered if I should be referring to him by a more formal title, but she didn’t send me any horrified glares when I used his name casually, so I figured it was fine.
“I bet,” she laughed softly, hesitating for a moment before continuing. “So you and Tristan are pretty close, huh?”
“Yep,” I nodded. “We’re best friends. My dad has worked for the family since I was five, so we kinda grew up together.”
“That explains why he asked you to help make comfortable. I’m guessing you’re gonna report your impression of me back to him?”
Blinking, I briefly contemplated lying my ass off, but if she was bold enough to bring it up, I figured she would probably appreciate my honesty, so I crinkled my nose apologetically. “He is my best friend…”
“It’s alright,” she laughed, reaching out to place a hand on my knee and squeeze lightly. “I completely understand. And I’d probably do the same if my best friend was in this situation.”
It occurred to me that Tristan wasn’t the only one being thrust into marriage with a complete stranger. Alisha was in the same boat and probably scared shitless and considering all of that, was handling it quite well. Placing my hand on top of hers, I stretched my lips into a supportive smile. “Well, I can be here for you, too, if you need it. I’m sure this entire situation is kinda freaking you out.”
“Yeah,” she let out a shaky sigh, bringing her hand back to her lap to fiddle with her bracelets. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I knew this was probably going to happen eventually, I just figured I’d have more warning or a little say in the matter. This is the rest of my life we’re talking about, after all.”
Nodding slowly, I twisted my torso to face her more fully before I spoke. “I can’t pretend I have any idea what you’re going through, but for what it’s worth, you could have been in this situation with someone a lot worse than Tristan.”
“Yeah?” she quirked an eyebrow upwards, the corners of her lips lifting into a small smile. “I suppose that’s pretty high praise coming from his best friend.”
“He’s pretty great,” I laughed, “But you can’t tell him I said that.”
“It’ll be our little secret,” she grinned, leaning back into the couch. “So are you gonna be at this ball tomorrow?”
The ball to which she was referring was the annual Prince’s Ball. It was thrown a few weeks after Tristan’s birthday every year and was a combination of a celebration of the birth of the heir to the throne and a fundraiser where tickets could be purchased and all the proceeds would be given to the charity of Tristan’s choosing. It was a grand affair for which the tickets were far above my price range, so I usually settled for watching all the fancy people arrive from my bedroom window and then seeing if I could sneak some extra food from the kitchen and watch the goings on through a cracked door.
“Nope,” I shook my head. “It’s a little over my budget.”
“Oh,” she whispered, her expression going blank for a moment before lighting with an epiphany. “I can totally take care of that. You should come.”
I blinked at her, sure I misheard. Surely she wasn’t offering to pay for my ticket. Because that would be ridiculous. This was literally the first conversation we’d ever had and you didn’t shell out that much cash for someone you barely knew.
Unless you were royalty, apparently.
“Oh, that’s completely unnecessary,” I managed to stammer out, feeling extremely uncomfortable that a princess that I had talked to for all of fifteen minutes was offering to pay for my ticket to a fancy party. “I’ve gone nearly twenty years of my life without attending, I’ll survive.”
“Nonsense,” she shook her head. Apparently Princess Alisha didn’t take no for an answer. “You must come. It’s settled.”
“B-b-but,” I sputtered, eyes wide in disbelief. “I don’t have anything to wear.”
That was a lame excuse, but a true one nonetheless. The last event that I had attended which required formal attire was my high school’s end of term dance and although I still had the dress I wore, I was pretty sure it would be inappropriate for a ball, what with its spiky studs and shredded skirt because I was going through my rebellious phase at the time.
“That’s an easy fix because they always bring me multiple dresses to choose from, so one of them can surely be altered to fit you.” she smirked, clearly enjoying the fact that I had absolutely no excuse to refuse. “Got anything else?”
“I should really run this by the king and queen?” I offered weakly. “I don’t know that they’d want me there.”
The truth was that I’d never really asked them if I could go, I’d just assumed that if I couldn’t afford a ticket, I couldn’t attend. But considering the king and queen’s history, they probably would have paid for my ticket if I’d actually bothered to ask.
“Oh, please,” she rolled her eyes. “You’re like a daughter to them, I’m sure they’d love to have you there. Besides, you’ll be my guest. Please, Julianna? I won’t know anyone there besides Tristan and the twins and their parents, so it would make me feel so much comfortable if you were at my side.”
It was strange to think that we’d known each other for such a short amount of time and she could already find my presence comforting. But I supposed that was a good thing and I wouldn’t really mind hanging out with her for an evening, so I sighed and reluctantly agreed. “Fine. I’ll come.”
“Great!” she squealed, extending her arms to pull me into a hug and rocking me slightly from side to side, smiling so widely that I could feel it against my cheek before she pulled away. “Thank you so much. And I promise, it won’t be that bad. We get to dress up and drink champagne and eat a fancy dinner. Who knows, you might even have a good time.”
I couldn’t help but smile as she pushed herself off the couch to go explore the bedroom, deciding that between Tristan and Alisha, having a good time was probably inevitable.