Something had shifted. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, but something was definitely different.
People were staring at me at university. I didn’t start noticing until I was sitting in my strategic business class, looking over my notes from the last lecture and felt discomforted, as though I was being watched. Sure enough, I glanced up to see the people in the row to my front quickly look away and begin to whisper to each other.
Ordinarily, I might have asked what the hell they were talking about, but I was still in such a good mood from the ball, that I ignored the whispers. Unfortunately, it persisted outside of class. Even while I was walking between lecture rooms and buildings, I could hear people talking quietly to each other as I passed, sending me glances out of the corners of their eyes and hoping I wouldn’t notice.
Part of me wondered if I was paranoid, but another part of me was pretty sure I was being gossiped about, so by the time I’d parked my motorcycle in the palace garage, I had decided that the next day, I was going to figure out why.
Humming to myself as I twirled my key ring around one finger and headed for my apartment, I came to a sudden stop at the sight of Tristan leaning up against the wall outside my door, holding a bouquet of tulips, which he was well aware were my favorite flower. For a full ten seconds, I was sure I was hallucinating, because surely one dance at a fancy ball couldn’t have made his feelings for me shift from platonic to romantic, but after I blinked a couple times, he was still there, so I took a deep breath and decided to just roll with it.
“Hey,” I said tentatively, causing him to look up from his phone, which he quickly stuffed into the pocket of his athletic shorts. Besides the text I’d gotten from him Sunday afternoon saying that he was glad I was at the ball, we hadn’t talked much, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to say, a problem I didn’t usually have around Tristan.
“Hey,” he grinned widely, holding out the bouquet as he pushed himself off the wall. “These are for you.”
Blinking a few times, I reached out to grab them slowly, wondering what the hell was going on. “Thank you, they’re beautiful. But what are they for?”
“Just because,” he shrugged, only further confirming that something was definitely wrong.
“Come on, Tris,” I shot him a knowing look, sticking my key in the lock and pushing the door open. “What’s going on?”
He didn’t answer right away, following me inside and shutting the door behind him, sticking his hands in his pockets again and rocking forward on his sock covered toes as he watched me toss my keys and school bag on the kitchen counter and begin to search for a vase.
“You haven’t, by any chance, seen the news today, have you?” he asked slowly.
“Nope,” I called out over my shoulder, laying the bouquet down on the counter and filling a vase with water from the sink. “Haven’t had time yet, today. Why?”
Sighing, he pulled his phone from his pocket, using his fingers to find something before turning the screen to face me, indicating I should read. Setting the now full vase on the countertop, I stepped towards him, taking his phone and furrowing my eyebrows as I scanned the words.
It was an article written for a website which reported on celebrities and the royal family and this particular story covered the ball. The beginning gushed about the dresses and the glitz and the glamour and how absolutely charming Alisha was, but it was a paragraph near the end which caught my eye.
But perhaps the most interesting moment of the evening was seeing Prince Tristan’s sizzling dance with a mystery woman. The prince and the woman pictured with him below only shared one dance, but it was filled with longing glances, tight holds, and lingering touches, begging the question: Are Tristan and Alisha on the rocks?
I scrolled down further to see a photo of me and Tristan dancing together, not crystal clear because it was taken with a cell phone camera, but clear enough to tell it was me.
Blinking in confusion, I lifted my eyes from the screen. “I don’t understand. What does this mean?”
“Apparently,” he replied as he took his phone back from me and tucked it into his pocket once more. “They think there’s something going on between us. Because it’s impossible that I could just have a female best friend.”
That explained the weird looks I’d been getting all day. As well as made me feel as though I’d been sucker punched in the gut because Tristan was once again confirming that his feelings for me had never strayed beyond platonic.
“But you’re engaged,” I whispered in reply, turning away to go put the flowers in the vase.
“Exactly,” he nodded. “Which makes the entire situation even more complicated. I got a very stern talking to from Holsten this morning.”
Fletcher Holsten was the official public affairs officer for the royal family, handling all of their dealings with the press. Generally speaking, he had a briefing with the king and queen every morning, but he only interacted with Tristan when the prince did something wrong, which wasn’t very often. So the fact that Tristan had been talking to Holsten meant that this article had a pretty wide ranging impact.
“It’s that bad?” I asked, finding scissors to cut the flower stems. “What did Holsten say?”
He parted his lips and hesitated before responding, as though he wasn’t quite sure how to explain. “That we need to attack this thing head on. The public now thinks that things between Alisha and I aren’t great and we need to prove to them that our relationship is fine and that you’re not a threat and the easiest way to do that is for you to already be in a relationship with someone else.”
I blinked as I processed this information, using a bit more force than necessary to snip off the end of the flower stem and shove it into the vase. “So you want me to fake date someone?”
“Kinda,” he sighed, scrunching his nose apologetically and stepping forward to lean against the counter across from me. “It wouldn’t be a long term thing. Just one really public date would do. I’m so sorry that it’s come to this, JJ. I really didn’t want you to have to be involved.”
I knew he understood how uncomfortable I was with the public eye. Despite having grown up in the palace and around the royal family, I’d never had to deal with large cameras on me while I was out and about, so going on a date where the entire purpose was for my picture to end up on the front page of a tabloid would definitely be different. Still, I would do anything to help Tristan and if this would cause the media speculation on his relationship with Alisha to die down, then I would do it.
Sighing, I placed the last of the flowers in the vase and positioned them on the counter, leaning forward on my forearms to look him in the eyes. “I’m assuming Holsten has someone in mind?”
Tristan’s lips stretched into a wide grin as he reached out to squeeze my hand gratefully, his expression soon faltering again as he realized he’d have to tell me who the person in question was. “Yeah, about that…”
“I assume I’m not gonna like this?” I deadpanned, standing up straight and crossing my arms over my chest.
“Not exactly…,” he replied softly. “Dalton is flying in for the weekend.”
My eyes immediately narrowed at the mention of Tristan’s cousin. He was a prince in his own right; the son of the queen’s younger sister and heir to the throne of a neighboring kingdom. He was also one of the more annoying people on the planet.
He and his family had spent summers at the palace while Tristan and I were growing up and Dalton seemed to get some sort of sick pleasure out of figuring out new ways to get on my nerves, whether it be constantly pulling on my hair or stealing my toys or chasing after me with wildlife that I’d rather not be close to. Thankfully, he was sent to boarding school the year he turned fourteen and hadn’t visited since.
“Look, I know you’re not his biggest fan,” Tristan began.
“That’s the understatement of the century,” I muttered, shooting him daggers out of my eyes.
“But,” Tristan continued. “He’s the only person we could get on such short notice that would be believable.”
“Believable?” I cocked an eyebrow upwards. “What does that mean?”
“It couldn’t just be anybody,” he shrugged as though his words made complete sense. “If you went on a date with some random guy, then it would seem like a set up. But if you’re dating the Crown Prince of Landsbury, then you and I would have no reason to have something going on between us, since Dalton and I are technically of the same rank.”
The fact that they were of equal social standing seemed like a really idiotic detail, but I supposed Holsten knew more about public perception than me. Still, I didn’t particularly enjoy the thought that the public would assume I was with either Tristan or Dalton simply because of their titles. “Dalton isn’t already promised to someone?”
I refrained from adding commentary on how his lack of engagement was unsurprising. Being a prince didn’t make up for his irritating personality.
Tristan shook his head, drumming his fingers on the countertop. “His parents don’t have the same timeline for his life that mine do. Plus, he’s not really into settling down. He agreed because he’s family and well, he’s kind of always had a thing for you.”
Snorting with laughter, I walked around the counter to stand next to Tristan on the other side. “Yeah, well, I’m not really into guys who use tormenting as a means of flirtation.”
“Fair enough,” he smirked, reaching out to pull me against his chest for an embrace, squeezing me tight and swaying me softly from side to side as he spoke. “Thank you so much, JJ. You really are the best best friend ever.”
“Any time,” I whispered, resting my head against his shoulder and reveling in the feeling of his arms wrapped around me.
We still hadn’t really talked about the ball and despite the fact that I knew now wasn’t the right time to bring it up, there were still a million things I wanted to ask him. Because surely the fact that a completely objective observer assumed there was something going on between us meant that my feelings weren’t completely one sided, right?
Or maybe I was just reading too much into the situation. Maybe I had mistaken what was purely platonic affection and desire to see me have a good time for something romantic. Either way, I was dying to know the answer; to finally open up and tell Tristan exactly how I felt. But years of bottling in my emotions because I knew the moment wasn’t right kept me from doing just that, so instead, I hugged my best friend as tight as I could and decided that was a conversation for a different day.
I did promise myself that it would happen eventually. At some point, I would muster up enough courage to tell Tristan the truth; I owed it to myself to do so, the only trouble was figuring out when. With Tristan’s impending wedding and coronation, my window of opportunity was growing smaller and smaller and it wouldn’t be long before it closed completely. My biggest fear was that I would wait too long to confess my true feelings and by the time I finally did, it would be too late, because I would have already lost Tristan forever.