I didn’t tell Tristan about going to the ball. I don’t know why I felt weird about it, though, because it wasn’t as though it was some big secret. Besides, he was going to see me there anyway.
My excuse was that he was so busy getting ready that I hadn’t seen him in person since he walked Alisha to her room and this wasn’t the type of news that seemed appropriate to deliver over text.
Of course, that was a bullshit excuse. And it was probably more polite to let him know that I was crashing rather than catch him off guard, but for some reason I was a bit anxious about how he would react. After all, he’d never seen me in a formal setting before.
Which was why I couldn’t stop smoothing down the skirt of my dress as I stood in front of Alisha’s trio of full length mirrors. It was the first I’d ever seen myself look so…polished. It wasn’t as though my job required me to be the epitome of elegance and school was rarely worth the effort, so seeing my reflection completely made up was a slightly surreal experience, perhaps partly because I’d never really spent an entire day pampering myself with another girl. Seeing as my best friend was a male and I didn’t remember my mother, this wasn’t an experience I’d ever had the privilege of partaking in before.
I’d been a little wary when I’d woken up to a text from Alisha that morning saying I should come to her suite as soon as I’d eaten breakfast, but I’d smiled nervously at Declan as I entered her punch code and stepped into the main room of her suite to see her inspecting a rack of designer gowns. She’d smiled brightly and told me to take my pick, saying that I had first choice, and after I’d chosen, we spent the rest of the day getting manicures and pedicures and our hair and makeup done and now here I was, looking like someone who actually belonged at masquerade ball at the royal palace.
“You’re so pretty!”
My lips stretched into a smile as Alisha entered from her bathroom, where she had just been putting on the last of her jewelry, her mask securely tied in a bow at the back of her head, the same shade of pale blue as her ball skirted, beaded bodice gown.
“Thanks,” I grinned, turning to face her and running my palms down the silky skirt of my own gown, still a little unable to believe that I was wearing something which probably cost as much as my university tuition. “You look beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Her smile widened and she tilted her head towards the door. “Ready to go?”
We stepped out into the hallway, turning to the right with Declan close behind, but stopping before we turned the corner which would lead to the grand staircase. Alisha had to meet the king, queen, and crown prince at the double doors so that she could be announced to the rest of the party guests and seeing as I wasn’t royalty, it didn’t make sense for me to accompany her. Besides, I wasn’t sure I was ready to see Tristan yet. Although he’d been texting me about his preparations all day, we hadn’t actually set sight on each other and I was still pretty nervous about how it would all go down.
“Just take a left up here and the entrance to the staircase will be on your right. You can’t miss it,” I reached out to squeeze her arm reassuringly. “Knock ’em dead.”
“Thanks again, Jules,” she grinned, leaning forward to give me a quick hug. “Come find me inside, alright?”
Nodding, I waved as she and Declan disappeared around the corner, inhaling and exhaling deeply to calm my nerves as I turned to take the stairs down to the main level. Pulling the ticket Alisha had given me earlier in the day from my small clutch, I handed it to the usher as I walked through the doors to the palace’s largest and fanciest ballroom, feeling instantly awestruck. Despite the fact that I had spent many an afternoon when I was a child gawking at the gorgeous paintings on the walls and the crystal chandeliers, I had never before seen the room look so dazzling. The lighting reflecting off the crystals combined with the beautiful people in their beautiful fancy clothes and the waiters walking around with trays of champagne and appetizers made it truly seem like a fairy tale.
Using the hand which wasn’t holding on to my clutch a little too tightly, I swiped a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and began to sip it as I observed my surroundings. Everyone seemed to know everyone else and although I didn’t mind being alone, I felt completely out of place as I stood against a side wall and watched the royals and nobles do their best to seem interested in their conversations and counted the number of fake smiles that were being flashed.
It was all pretty entertaining, actually, and I found myself easily amused as I placed silent bets on who would crack first and wondering how they all spent so much time being so utterly polite to everyone. I knew that I really should have learned that sense of decorum by now, but I still found it difficult to pretend to be interested in a conversation in which I was actually completely uninterested. Perhaps this ball would help me hone my skills.
A silence fell over the crowd as a footman standing beside the double doors at the top of the grand staircase which descended into the ball room tapped his staff against the floor to draw everyone’s attention and indicate the royal family, minus the twins because it would soon be their bedtime, was about to enter.
I held my champagne glass a little tighter than necessary as I held my breath and waited for the announcement to be made.
“Presenting, their royal highnesses, King Robert, Queen Eliza, Crown Prince Tristan, and his fiancé, Princess Alisha of Aberdeen.”
The double doors were pulled open and the king and queen stepped through first, grinning widely as they made their way down the stairs and were closely followed by Tristan and Alicia, who didn’t look nearly as comfortable in front of the large crowd of people. There was clapping as they entered, but the music soon restarted as the guests returned to their conversations, knowing that the hosting royal family would soon be making the rounds.
I inhaled deeply as I weighed the options between going to find Alisha now or inevitably running into Tristan later and decided that I would keep my word. So I downed the rest of my champagne and placed the empty glass on the tray of a passing waiter before weaving my way through the crowd, spotting Alisha standing beside Tristan at the bottom of the staircase, her fingers curled around the base of a champagne flute as she laughed lightly at something the Duchess of Drummond was saying.
But, of course, it wasn’t her spotting me that I was worried about. It was Tristan, standing beside her, looking like the epitome of the crown prince of Astoria in his black tuxedo and black eye mask, his smile wide and his jade eyes sparkling. He didn’t notice me approach. In fact, it was Alisha who saw me first, her expression lighting as she reached out to grab my hand and pull me close to her side, the movement drawing Tristan’s attention, causing him to do a double take as he took in my appearance.
Blinking a couple times, he widened his eyes behind his mask, his lips parting slightly and his voice coming out in a soft whisper. “JJ?”
“Hey, Tris,” I blurted out nervously before realizing that greeting was completely inappropriate and curtsying quickly. “I mean, good evening, Your Highness.”
“Good evening,” he nodded when our gazes met again, the hand which wasn’t holding a champagne glass digging deeper into his trouser slacks. “I wasn’t aware you were coming.”
I couldn’t really place the tone of his voice, so in my mind I just decided that he was pleasantly surprised and stretched my lips into an easy smile. “The princess graciously invited me.”
Alisha nodded to support my statement, shooting Tristan an apologetic glance. “I figured it would be nice to have someone I knew nearby. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Of course not,” Tristan laughed lightly, breaking his gaze from mine momentarily to notice that the Count and Countess of Glenshire were approaching before shooting me another smile. “Your presence always makes everything better. And you look beautiful. Have a great time.”
I parted my lips to respond, but he had already turned his attention to the count, so I stepped behind Alisha, figuring that was a safe place to spend the rest of my evening. For the next hour, I sipped champagne and ate small food portions and watched in awe as Alisha and Tristan always found something to discuss with a bunch of people they barely knew. It was at that point that the king leaned over and whispered that for the sake of appearances, at the very least, Tristan needed to ask Alisha to dance.
So I held her purse as Tristan gently led her around the dance floor, not for the first time wondering what it would be like to be in his arms. Which was why I felt a bit stunned when they returned after two dances and Tristan held out a hand and nodded towards the dance floor. “May I have this dance, my lady?”
He had never before called me any sort of title, so that in itself caught me off guard, but throw in the fact that something I’d literally been daydreaming about a few minutes before was about to come true and I was completely speechless. Nodding, I looked around for a place to set down my purse, finally, reluctantly handing it to Alisha, a move for which I would undoubtedly get scolded for if MW were ever to find out, and slipped my palm against Tristan’s.
He slipped an arm around my waist and curled his fingers over my palm as he pulled me close to his chest, beginning to sway me lightly. I was glad it was a slow song, partly because it meant I got to truly savor the feeling of being held by him and partly because it gave us the chance to talk, something we hadn’t been able to do thus far because Tristan had been otherwise occupied with his princely duties.
“Hey,” he spoke into my ear so that I could hear him over the soft guitar strums and sent shivers of warmth down my spine. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I replied, just as quietly, thinking that this was slowly turning into one of the best moments of my life, so he had absolutely nothing to apologize for.
“For not inviting you to one of these myself,” he replied, his hand rubbing comfortingly up and down my bare back. “I would have if I knew you wanted to come, I just never thought you would be interested.”
“Why wouldn’t I be interested?” I asked, genuinely intrigued by his response.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, the whole dressing up and sipping champagne thing isn’t really your style. You like parties with kegs where people get so wasted that they end up in brawls.”
This was all true, but it saddened me a bit to think that the reason he’d never invited me to the ball was because he didn’t think I’d fit in, further underscoring the fact that I could never be the kind of girl who actually ended up with a prince.
Seeing as he’d always been pretty good at reading my emotions, except for the ones of adoration, of course, he almost immediately noticed the shift in my expression and winced apologetically. “That wasn’t supposed to be an insult. I just meant…”
“It’s okay, Tris,” I cut him off, laughing lightly and squeezing his shoulder to assure him that I wasn’t offended. “I get it. And you’re right. This isn’t really my scene. But for the record, if you ever wanted me to come to events like this for moral support, you know I’m always here for you.”
“Thanks, JJ,” he grinned, leaning in to kiss me quickly on the cheek and leaving me wishing my mask covered more of my face so that my flushing cheeks would be less noticeable. “You’re the best.”
I returned his grin briefly before resting my forehead on his shoulder to hide my embarrassment, deciding that no matter the environment or situation, I would always feel like I belonged when I was in Tristan’s arms.