Heart Out

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Julianna and Ashton have been best friends since they were five years old. They played together and studied together and knew all of each other secrets and the fact that he was the future king of Astoria and she was a security guard’s daughter had never been issue. That is, until the year Ashton turned twenty and his parents decided that it was time he started taking his princely duties more seriously, starting with finding a future queen. All of a sudden, ranking and station start to mean a lot more than they used to and as class boundaries test Julianna and Ashton’s relationship, they start to wonder if they really can survive anything or if it’s time to let go.

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12. XII

“Are you okay?” Dalton asked, pressing his hand against the small of my back and lowering his voice so that only I could hear him. “You’ve seemed kind of distracted all night.”

That was a fair assessment. He came to pick me up for the festival a half hour ago and I thought I was doing a pretty good job of pretending to be happy, but apparently not. The truth was that my conversation with Ashton had been replaying in my mind on loop. I knew that not telling him the truth about my own feelings was the right thing to do under the circumstances, but a part of me couldn’t help but feel like I’d missed an opportunity that I was never going to get again. For years, I’d been fighting the urge to blurt out my feelings and the one time he tells me he could possibly feel that way about me as well, I did everything in my power to convince him it was a fluke.

“Yeah, I know, sorry,” I said, shaking my head in hopes the preoccupation would disappear, and grimacing, “Ashton and I just had a really weird conversation earlier.”

Reaching down, he grabbed my hand and laced our fingers together as though it were the most natural action in the world, his expression completely blank. “About what?”

I contemplated lying before deciding that Dalton had proved to be a valuable friend and I should learn to trust him more. “Well, I guess he saw that picture of us kissing….”

His jaw got a bit tense, but his voice remained steady, as well as his gaze, which was focused on finding a clear path forward. “Yeah, so?”

“And he said he felt jealous,” I replied, watching the way his throat moved when he swallowed and his gaze immediately averted towards anywhere but my face.

“Really?” he said, the emotion in his voice unreadable. “Huh.”

I had no idea what that meant, but every instinct in my body was screaming that Dalton was jealous. Which didn’t make sense, because he was fully aware that everything happening between us was entirely for show. Or at least, I thought he was. Maybe kissing him had been a bad idea. “Yeah.”

He didn’t say anything for a few moments, as though trying to collect his composure as he spoke. “Well that’s a good thing, right? That he feels the same way about you that you do about him?”

I was surprised he was continuing the conversation, but I was also glad because I had the desperate need to vent. Granted, Dalton was probably the last person I expected to be venting to, but he was there and he was interested and that was good enough for me. “No, because, what’s the good of feeling that way when nothing’s ever going to happen between us. Then both of us just end up miserable for no reason.”

I had actually thought about this quite a lot. No matter how much I dreamed about Ashton and I confessing our love and living happily ever after, I knew it wasn’t meant to be. Because even if we did happen to feel the same way about each other, there was no way in hell that his parents were ever going to let him have a long lasting romantic relationship with someone who couldn’t be queen someday. Which meant that even if we did start dating, he’d eventually break it up to go marry a princess anyway. The best way to avoid mutual heartache was to never go that route in the first place.

Pursing his lips, he nodded, keeping his gaze focused ahead as he guided me through the crowd towards the VIP section near the lake. “What’s the alternative then?”

“I convince him that what actually happened was that he just wasn’t used to seeing me with a guy and it weirded him out and he mistook it for jealousy.” I’d spent an embarrassing amount of the afternoon thinking of that response.

Blinking in confusion, he furrowed his brow as he nodded at the security guards who stepped aside to let us into the royals only lakeside party. “You would do that? Make him think his feelings aren’t real?”

When he put it that way, it just made me feel shitty. Because of course I didn’t want to manipulate Ashton. I’d spent years dreaming about him telling me that he loved me all along, so it wasn’t as though trying to convince him otherwise was an easy decision. I just didn’t think I had any other options. So I shrugged as we made our way towards the open bar. “What choice do I have? His destiny is to be the king of Astoria and mine is…well, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I’m no queen.”

He lifted one shoulder in a shrug, dropping my had when we reached the makeshift counter and knocking his fisted hands against the wooden bar top as he leaned over to check for the nearest bartender. “Are you sure about that?”

“I have to be,” I nodded, despite the twisting in my gut telling me that I would regret this decision forever, “For Ashton’s sake. And for Astoria’s.”

There wasn’t enough time for him to tell me how ridiculously dramatic that statement was because about ten seconds later, Alisha came bounding up to us, Ashton at her heels.

“Hey, Jules!” she sang out, throwing her arms around my shoulders to hug me quickly before turning to do the same to Dalton.

I was excited to see her because we hadn’t spoken since the double date and I was severely lacking in my personal assistant duties, but considering the conversation I’d had with her fiancé just a few hours ago, there was some unnecessary tension. So my greeting in response came out in a soft breath as I shifted my gaze briefly to Ashton, only to acknowledge his presence with the briefest of smiles, before deciding to focus all of my energy on the princess. “Hey, Alisha. Sorry I’ve been kinda MIA all day.”

“No worries,” she smiled softly, glancing at Dalton before returning her line of sight to me. “I noticed the two of you were keeping up appearances.”

Her indication that she too had seen the paparazzi picture made Dalton clear his throat uncomfortably as he leaned against the bar, avoiding eye contact with both his cousin and the princess as he spoke. “Yep. Do you guys want a drink?”

“I’m good,” Alisha shook her head, her eyes narrowing in suspicion before she nodded towards the tables set up near the lake where the candles were set out, ready to be lit by the provided lighters and set afloat on the lake once it got dark. “Jules, wanna come show me how it works?”

“Sure,” I nodded, knowing that she didn’t really need instruction, but glad to get away from the tension being near Ashton was providing, “Are you having fun?”

Her smile widened as she gazed out at the sun setting over the lake. “This is all so amazing.”

“Isn’t it?” I matched her grin, stopping beside her when we reached the water’s edge. “This festival is my favorite.”

“I can see why,” she turned her gaze back to me, swaying lightly from foot to foot.

“And once you’re queen, you’ll get to enjoy it every year.” I don’t know why I said that. Actively ignoring Ashton’s impending matrimony had become a hobby of mine, so it made no sense to point out Alisha’s eventual rise to queenship.

Even she seemed thrown by the statement, her eyebrows furrowing as she fixed me with a concerned stare. “Hm. Are you okay?”

“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” I sighed in frustration, though I already knew the answer.

The corners of her lips lifted into a small smile. “Maybe because you seem extremely out of it.”

Shooting her an apologetic glance, I wondered when I’d become so transparent. “Yeah, I know, I’m sorry, it’s…”

“Ashton?”

“What?” I blinked, swearing that my heart stopped beating. “Why would you say that?”

Her expression melted into a knowing look and she reached out to squeeze my upper arm. “I can tell things are tense between you two.”

That was the understatement of the century. Still, I didn’t feel like going into detail, so I shrugged, hoping to come off nonchalant. “It’s just something he said to me earlier.”

“What did he say?” she pressed, cocking her head to one side.

If this situation had involved literally anyone besides Ashton, I would have told her the truth immediately. Despite not knowing Alisha for very long, I felt comfortable around her and I trusted her and I was starting to think of her as a good friend. Detailing the very inappropriate conversation I’d had with her fiancé would only ruin everything we’d built so far.

“I don’t know if I should tell you,” I admitted, racking my brain for a way out of this conversation. “I don’t want things between us to be weird. Besides, I think he’ll realize soon enough that what he said isn’t even true.”

Maybe making it seem unimportant would cause her to back off.

“Did he tell you that he’s in love with you, too?”

It took me a moment to process her words, but even after I registered what she said, I didn’t completely understand it, which is why my initial instinct was to say nothing happened. “No, he…wait,” I paused, by eyes widening as the full weight of her words finally sank in, “what do you mean ‘too’?”

“I mean,” she spoke slowly, as though trying to explain it to someone with the comprehension level of a three year old, which was fair, because I was currently dumbfounded, “is he in love with you the way you’re in love with him?”

Now that she had spelled it out plainly, I couldn’t very well pretend I didn’t understand, so I went straight for denial. “I’m not…”

“Jules,” she cut me off, smiling softly to ensure me that she wasn’t upset, “you don’t have to lie to me. I know.”

“You know,” I repeated dumbly, my expression completely blank. She knew. Alisha knew I was in love with Ashton. She knew that I had feelings for the man she was engaged to marry. I wanted to bury a hole in the ground and disappear from the face of the earth, but she was still smiling at me, her eyes showing no desire to have me banished from the kingdom, so I decided now would be a good opportunity to have all of my questions answered. “How do you know? How long have you known? Does everyone except Ashton know?”

“Why,” she laughed, not answering any of them, “who else knows?”

“Dalton.”

She scrunched up her nose. “That’s awkward.”

“You’re telling me,” I sighed, refocusing myself because I needed answers. “So how do you know?”

“Cause I’m not blind,” she replied, as though it were completely obvious.

But it couldn’t be obvious, otherwise my relationship with the Crown Prince of Astoria would be very different. “But Ashton…”

“I don’t think he has any idea,” she shook her head.

That was reassuring to hear, but this entire conversation still left me feeling unsettled. Even if Ashton didn’t know, Alisha did, and it made no sense for her to be as calm as she currently was. “You’re not mad?”

“Why would I be mad?” she laughed softly, her expression showing no indication that she was being insincere. “It’s not like you control who you fall in love with.”

“That’s true,” I muttered, wondering if things would be different had I been given that sort of choice. Because I liked to believe that in another time and place, Ashton would still be the one who held my heart.

“And I’ll admit,” she said, “when I first figured it out, I wasn’t too worried because I’m the one engaged to him, but the more I got to know you, the more I realized this can’t go on.”

I scrunched my nose up apologetically. Even if she understood, it made sense that she wouldn’t want it to go any further. Me being in love with her future husband would make our entire relationship uncomfortable if I ever acted on my feelings or if Ashton ever acted on his. “I know. And look, he didn’t say he felt that way about me, just that he felt jealous when he saw me kissing Dalton, and I have every intention of convincing him that he’s just confused.”

She shook her head, playing with one of the silver bangles on her wrist. “No, Jules, that’s not what I meant.”

I blinked. “What did you mean?”

“That you need to tell Ashton how you feel about him.”

Those words were said with so much conviction that there wasn’t really a need for me to ask for clarification, but I did so anyway, because I couldn’t form coherent sentences. “….what?”

“I’m serious,” she stared me down.

I believed her. Alisha may be quiet and gentle, but I didn’t doubt her ability to get things done. It was one of the reasons I was sure she was going to be an incredible queen.

“But,” I stammered out, trying to comprehend what was happening because I felt as though I was in an alternate universe, “why would you want me to do that?”

Telling Ashton the truth served no benefit to Alisha, unless she wanted me to do so as part of some cruel joke because she knew he’d laugh in my face, which didn’t seem like something Alisha was capable of.

“Because,” she said softly, reaching out to take both of my hands in hers, “I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life wishing you had said something. It’s about time you told him the truth, don’t you think?”

Of course I did. I’d spent almost half my life being in love with Ashton and on one hand, it did seem ridiculous to have kept those feelings a secret for this long. But on the other, there was so much at stake if I finally spoke up. Allowing him to consider having more than platonic feelings for me had the potential to shape the entire future of the kingdom, to change the course of history.

And perhaps that’s what scared me the most – that given the chance, I really could change the world.

“I mean, I get it,” I managed to whisper, “but, what if I tell him and…”

“And you find out he feels that way about you?” she asked, reading my mind.

I didn’t know what else to say, so I settled for nodding.

“Then I’ll know,” she shrugged, “I’ll know that there’s no use in me trying to win over someone whose heart was never open to me in the first place.”

“But you’re still going to marry him?”

At the end of the day, that was the ultimate question. Because it was entirely possible that the baring of my soul wouldn’t change a thing, that Ashton would come to realize on his own, that what he felt at seeing that picture didn’t run any deeper than fleeting jealousy. Or, even worse, he would decide that his feelings were irrelevant and that what was best for Astoria far outweighed his heart, and resign himself to a lifetime of being married to someone that he could never love.

“I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” she smiled softly, and for the first time since our conversation began, a glint of sadness crept into her eyes. “First things first, you need to tell him the truth.”

“Now?” I lifted my eyebrows in surprise.

“Maybe not right now,” she laughed, squeezing my hands and letting go as Dalton and Ashton made their way towards us, “but soon. Promise?”

“Promise,” I nodded, forcing a smile to my lips when Dalton stopped by my side and sending a courteous nod in Ashton’s direction before turning towards the table with the candles.

The disappearance of the sun indicated it was time for the official lighting of the candles to begin, so I picked mine out and lit it before holding it carefully between my encircled fingers as I walked towards the edge of the lake. Ashton, Alisha, Dalton, and I stood in a line on the shore, each holding our wishes in our palms.

I glanced to the side to see that Alisha and Dalton had shut their eyes, but my heart stopped when I gaze met Ashton’s and not for the first time, I was grateful that he couldn’t read my mind. I couldn’t place the emotion in his eyes, but I did know it was something I’d never seen before, which scared me, because I thought I knew all of Ashton’s dimensions.

Momentarily, I considered just keeping my mouth shut, because I didn’t want things to change, but then I realized that was cowardly, and I’d be taking the easy way out. Maybe confessing wouldn’t change anything or maybe it would shift the alignment of the earth, either way, I knew I owed it to myself to at least try.

Besides, I had made Alisha a promise and I didn’t want to corrupt our friendship. Also, she was right about being regretful, because if I never told Ashton the truth, I’d be forced to live with that burden forever and I didn’t deserve to carry around that weight on my shoulders for the rest of my life.

So I averted my gaze from his and closed my eyes, keeping my wishes for my father and for Astoria the same, but I changed my third wish. For the first time in my life, I made a wish for myself, deciding that if I was going to let Ashton in on the secrets of my heart, I would need all of the strength I could get.

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