“I can’t believe I let Tristan talk me into this,” I grumbled for the tenth time that day, pacing in a circle around on the side of Alisha’s bedroom.
She lifted her gaze to watch my reflection in the full length mirror where she was putting in her earrings, one side of her mouth lifting into a small smile. “Is Dalton really that bad? I mean, he’s related to Tristan, who’s your best friend, so surely he must have some redeeming qualities.”
Sweet, innocent Alisha had no idea that genetics meant absolutely nothing in this case. Though, I supposed my criticisms of Dalton were a little outdated, seeing as the last time I saw him, he had just barely reached puberty. Maybe reaching his twenties had turned him into a mature adult. I highly doubted it, though.
“Sometimes,” I muttered in frustration, giving up on my pacing and plopping down on the couch. “Sometimes he was kind of cool, but other times, it was like his entire mission in the world was to annoy the crap out of me.”
“Well, people change, right?” Alisha shrugged, pushing the flat back of the earring against her ear and turning away from the mirror to face me, her hands coming to rest on her hips. “Maybe he’s grown up.”
“Hopefully,” I grumbled, sighing and scrunching apologetically. “Sorry if I’m being a downer. I know tonight is important.”
Shaking her head, Alisha stepped forward and reached out with one hand to grab my fingers and squeeze them reassuringly. “Are you kidding? You’re the one that’s doing us this huge favor. And I know you kinda got blindsided by it, but think of it this way, if you’re super convincing tonight, this is the only time you have to go out with Dalton.”
“You really think one date will be enough?” I asked hopefully. “If the whole point is to prove that I’m already in a happy relationship, then won’t it seem weird if I’m only seen with Dalton once?”
She thought about that for a second before shaking her head. “Nah, I think it’ll be enough. Dalton does live in a different kingdom, after all, so people will understand that you don’t see him often. Plus, the fact that he’s Tristan’s cousin means you grew up together, so nobody will question how the romance blossomed. Childhood friends fall in love all the time.”
I wondered if she knew the irony in her last statement. If she had any idea about my feelings for Tristan, she didn’t make it obvious. Perhaps she did know and she was just waiting for me to bring it up on my own because we still didn’t know each other that well, but the truth was that I wasn’t sure that confessing my feelings was something I’d ever get up the courage to do, mostly because I didn’t want to ruin the tentative friendship I was building with Alisha. I liked her and I enjoyed her company and I wanted to be friends with her and I had a feeling telling her that I was in love with her future husband would just make things awkward between us.
“I guess they do,” I whispered, lifting the corners of my lips into a small smile. “You ready?”
“Yep,” she nodded, holding her arms out to the side and twirling to allow the flowy skirt of her dress to fan out. “How do I look?”
“Beautiful,” I grinned, turning to grab my purse and hiking up the strap on my shoulder as I gestured that she should head towards the door first.
Because this date was supposed to gain as much attention for me and Dalton as possible, Tristan had personally made a reservation at the most popular steakhouse in town and we were meeting in the grand foyer and exiting through the front gates rather than through the back as usual.
I hadn’t physically seen Tristan all day, but he had sent me a selfie of him and Dalton to let me know that my fake boyfriend had arrived earlier in the afternoon. Which, on one hand, was good to know, but on the other was a bit problematic because I couldn’t help but notice that Dalton looked hot as hell. Granted, he’d always been attractive, which was one of the major reasons that his personality being so-so had been so unfortunate. He had so much potential.
Puberty had been good to him, I thought as we descended the staircase into the grand foyer where Tristan and Dalton were waiting. The Crown Prince of Landsbury was dressed in his usual level of preppy, wearing a black blazer over a pinstriped blue shirt and dark jeans while his cousin, who liked to remain casual when possible, sported a leather jacket over a plain gray t-shirt. Still, despite their differing styles, both looked as though they had just stepped off the runway and I had to will myself not to stare at Tristan, but instead focus on my date.
Which, I supposed, if I was going by looks alone, wasn’t too difficult of a task. Dalton was nothing if not stunningly gorgeous. He had the same clear jade eyes as Tristan, but they were offset by dark locks which he wore long, giving him an excuse to constantly rake his fingers through them to pull them away from his face, an action which was extremely attractive, and therefore equally annoying.
He let out a low whistle as we approached, his eyes dropping to my feet before his gaze made its way upwards, his lips kinking into a smirk when our gazes finally locked. “Julianna. Don’t you just get prettier every time I see you.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, smiling wryly instead. “I do. It doesn’t look like your hairline receded any further. Congrats.”
From the side, I heard Tristan snort with laughter after telling Alisha she looked beautiful, though he quickly changed into a cough as not to offend his cousin. Dalton didn’t seem to mind my insults, however. In fact, his eyes were twinkling with amusement as he jutted out his lower lip in mock disappointment. “Come on now, darling. Aren’t we supposed to be happy and in love?”
Unfortunately, he was right, so I sighed softly as I stepped towards him, finding myself pleasantly warm as he slung his arm over my shoulder and guided me towards the front door of the palace. Tristan and Alisha followed suit, Tristan slipping his hand against the small of his fiance’s back as he walked.
Paparazzi weren’t allowed through the palace gates, but with their long lenses, they’d be able to see us as soon as we set foot outside, which meant we needed to be keeping up the young, in love couple illusion from the moment the doors opened. Dalton tightened his arm around my shoulder once were out on the front step, turning his head to whisper into my ear. “Don’t look at them, it’ll just make you more nervous.”
Following his instructions, I kept my eyes on the ground, trying not to dwell on the fact that I was kind of enjoying having his arm wrapped around me. Or maybe it had been so long since I’d been on any kind of date that I was just craving affection.
His arm slipped my shoulder and his hand pressed into the small of my back as we approached the car and he held the door open with one arm to block me from view of the cameras, like a protective boyfriend would do. Seeing as they were going to get plenty of pictures of us at the restaurant, there was no need to bask in the camera flashes now.
I slid into the back seat of the car until I was pressed against Alisha, who Tristan had escorted around to the other side, before the princes sandwiched us in and shut their doors, indicating that the chauffer could begin driving.
“So far, so good,” Tristan breathed out as the car started to move.
“Yep,” I agreed with a sigh, “What’s the plan now?”
“Well,” Dalton responded, a slow smile stretching his lips. “We’ll go to dinner, and then afterwards, you and I are going to sneak off to –”
I cut him off with a disgusted groan, elbowing him in the side to emphasize how much I hated where that sentence was going.
“I actually wasn’t going to say what you think,” his smirk widened, apparently extremely amused by how revolted I was at the thought of doing anything with him.
Tristan glanced over Alisha at me, his nose twitching to indicate he was about to say something I wasn’t going to like. “He actually right, JJ. No one’s going to believe you guys are actually together if you’re never alone.”
Shooting me a sympathetic look, Alisha squeezed Tristan’s shoulders lightly. “Is that really necessary? I mean, if people can tell they’re a couple when we’re in a group, then that should be good enough, right?”
“Yeah,” he sighed, looking as frustrated as I felt about the situation. “But seeing as the entire purpose of this is to prove that she and I are just friends, being in a group that has me in it is going to raise suspicion.”
“Fine,” I grumbled, crossing my arms over my chest childishly. “But I’m not going to enjoy it.”
To my surprise, Dalton turned out to be a pretty amazing fake boyfriend. He wasn’t overly affectionate like I expected him to be, instead toeing the line between being intimate and being friendly, so that our interactions didn’t seem to be staged, but rather looked like something that would actually happen between two people who were in a relationship.
He laced his fingers with mine when we exited the car and walked towards the front door of the restaurant, swinging our joined hands lightly, a wide smile stretching his lips and stars in his eyes as though he’d never been so in love. The conversation at dinner flowed easily, despite the strangeness of the situation, and Dalton kept his arm loose around the back of my chair when he wasn’t eating, leaning in every now and then to whisper into my ear or press a kiss to my temple.
After a while, I actually started enjoying myself and I didn’t feel my heart ache at the sight of Tristan whispering into Alisha’s ear or gazing at her fondly. But maybe that was just because I knew he was putting on a show.
Either way, it wasn’t until after we’d paid, or the princes had paid, rather, that I remembered there was a part two to this evening’s festivities.
“Do you wanna walk back?” Dalton asked once we stepped outside, slinging an arm around my shoulders and pulling me into his side. “It’s not too far and I could use some air.”
Taking that as my cue that this was where the double part of the date came to an end, I nodded once before turning my gaze towards Tristan, who dropped his arm from around Alisha to hold out a hand and pull his cousin into an embrace while Alisha and I said our goodbyes. He did the same with me a few moments later, whispering, ‘thank you’, into my ear but making sure not to linger for too long before helping Alisha into the car which was waiting out front.
Dalton and I kept our fingers loosely intertwined as we walked towards the main road which would eventually fork off towards the palace and I found myself laughing quite a lot, despite the fact that there was a car full of people with large cameras following close behind us. He told me about the crazy situations he and his buddies got themselves into while in boarding school and in turn, I told him about the array of fantastic customers we got at the pub and by the time we were walking through the front gates of the palace, I wondered if maybe I had been holding a grudge against him for too long.
“If I ask you something, will you tell me the truth?” I said, smiling at one of the guards as we made our way up the side steps of the palace, still holding hands.
“Don’t I always?” he replied simply.
I supposed that was true, so I didn’t hesitate to speak my question aloud. “Why did you really agree to help? Tristan says it’s because you’re into me, but that can’t be it.”
“Why not?” he lifted one eyebrow, his lips quirking into a small smirk. “You’re not that awful to look at, Jules, and you’re pretty fun to be around.”
I rolled my eyes, squeezing his hand for emphasis, which he hadn’t dropped, despite the fact there were no longer people taking pictures of our every move. “You know what I mean.”
He parted his lips, but didn’t speak right away, taking a moment to formulate his response, his fingers loosening between mine, but staying intertwined. “I know it doesn’t seem like it most of the time, but I do understand the pressures of being the heir to the throne. And I get why Tristan and Alisha’s engagement is so important for Astoria. So when he asked me to help, I said yes because I get it. Plus, he’s family and I’d do anything for him.”
“Good answer,” I said quietly, shooting him a small smile as I wiggled my hand free of his so I could search my purse for my keys.
“The fact that I got to hang out with you all night was just a bonus,” his smile widened and he stuck his fingers into the pockets of his jeans, rocking forwards on the toes of his shiny dress shoes.
I rolled my eyes again, but laughed his time, twirling my key around one finger once I finally located it in my bag. “I’m actually impressed, by the way. You never once grabbed my ass or suggested a public makeout session.”
“Yeah, well,” he smiled sheepishly for a moment before his expression hardened to something more serious. “I’m saving those moves for someone I actually have a chance with.”
I parted my lips to tell him that he really wasn’t that bad, but before I could, he was continuing to speak.
“You know, someone who’s not already completely in love with my cousin.”
It took me a few moments to process what he said, at which point, my jaw went slack and my eyes went wide and my heart rate picked up ever so slightly. It was one thing for my dad to know about my feelings, but the fact that Dalton, who I hadn’t seen for years, had figured it out was problematic. Still, my first instinct was to act ignorant. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, come on, Jules,” he let out a soft laugh, lifting one shoulder in a shrug and shaking his head. “Don’t play dumb. It’s beneath you.”
Truthfully, acting innocent was supposed to buy me time to figure out a way to ask if he planned on revealing this information to his cousin. But since he wanted me to be direct, I decided to just come out and ask. “You’re not gonna tell, are you?”
“Tell who? Tristan?” he lifted his eyebrows in surprise before shaking his head. “Nah, he’s got enough on his plate. There’s no need for me to mess with his head. Your secret is safe with me.”
There were about a million more questions I still wanted to ask, but he seemed to think that was the end of the conversation and stepped forward to press a kiss to my cheek, whispering ‘see you tomorrow’, before turning on his heel and making his way back to his guest suite.
I stared after him, wondering if I could trust him to keep my secret or if I was royally screwed, and not in the way I wanted.