The Girl Who Loved Two Princes: The Her Before You
- 150.6K words
Fresh off the battlefield, Aria Maine is a new queen in need of a king consort to claim her throne. Her brother's best friend… who is engaged. "What are you doing Barry?" she whispered, watching his hands drizzle water up and down her arms after he dropped the shirt in the water. "I have absolutely no idea," he said, laying his mouth down on her shoulder, kissing it for the first time. The bad boy prince she fell for long ago… who doesn't remember her. "Hey asshole! I didn't screw your sister's fiance okay? Nothing happened. Can I go home now?" "Shut up!" he growled, biting her lip. "Just shut up," he ordered, leaning into her, pressing his body up against hers before shoving his tongue down her throat. Prince charming, her ally in war… who is in love with another woman. "My heart won't survive you, Aria Maine. Is there anyone that's not in love with you?" Three suitors. A ticking clock. Every moment she spends away from her home country her life (and crown) is on the line. All complicated by matters of the heart. Boy oh boy, (oh boy) how does a girl choose?
Not my anything
2017, June 4th
Another insufferable ball. And the excuse for it? It was his birthday.
Lord Bartholomew Arden would rather be sitting in his room preparing for midterms than be here with his parents and all of these pretentious people. Duke Arden took Bart around the room, drilling into his head the name of every nobleman and noblewoman in attendance and their current dealings with the Arden House. As though Bart weren't already aware of them all. He would have given many things to not have to endure this night.
Grievances aside, there was one thing Bart looked forward to about tonight. He would get to see her. At least he hoped he would. Things between their families were still very unstable and he hadn't seen her since the last time she came home. Mind you, there was no guarantee he would see her tonight. She had elected to spend this year at a prestigious boarding school abroad, intending to shun her father's wishes for her by attending fashion school next year. He didn't know if his birthday was reason enough to bring her home right before midterms.
Relief washed over Bart as his mother approached with a friend in tow.
“Look who I found,” she said in greeting, shutting down Duke Arden’s potential deal, the nobleman they were talking to excusing himself.
Bart held out his hand, a ghost of a smile on his face.
“Hey Barry,” Ethan grinned, picked up his somewhat larger friend and crushed his arms around his ribs.
Duke Arden scowled at his wife, whose voice he still had not learned to find bearable even after being married to her for 20 years.
“You just have the best timing, don’t you?” Duke Arden hissed.
“Play nice, dear. It’s Bart’s birthday,” she said, holding out her hand to him.
Duke Arden watched his too serious son’s face soften for the first time in days and took his wife’s hand.
“I know,” he said begrudgingly as they walked off.
“Don’t hurt yourself now,” Bart said arrogantly as Ethan set him down.
Ethan held onto his lower back. He wasn’t a freaking giant like Bart, but being the captain of an army necessitated that he look after himself so Ethan’s own routine was rather rigorous. Still, no one could keep up with this guy. Ethan had never seen anything like it. Didn’t matter what it was, Bart seemed to do it better and more efficiently than the rest of them. Bart kept telling Ethan that he’d probably just been slacking off since he got to Terres Somnia, which was likely true. Ethan was sure combat training would be a bitch to get back into when he went home in a few weeks.
“Shit Barry, you must have gained 20 pounds since the last time I saw you three months ago, all of it pure muscle too. Look at you, you’re a fucking beast!”
“Mind your language, Your Highness,” Bart chided. “How was the visit back home?”
“Oh, you know how it is. King’s on my case about coming back full time. Same old,” Ethan said, shrugging the serious stuff off as usual. “I brought someone with me this time that I want you to meet,” he continued, changing the subject. “Better do it quickly too, I bet the chicks are lining up to check you out."
Ethan put his hand on Bart’s bicep. Bart slapped it away. He wouldn’t know if they were and it didn’t matter anyway. They would never be her.
“This isn’t UC, you dweeb. And you’re here representing your country. Act accordingly,” Bart whispered, himself straightening up.
Ethan was about to respond when they walked in and Bart’s deep blue eyes glazed over. Bart folded his arms and zeroed in on her. She was a 6’1” goddess with long, silky, chestnut brown hair pulled back behind her. Her piercing, blue-green eyes and beautiful fair skin. Everything about her seemed to alert you that she’d arrived even before her party was announced. The dress, the shoes, the tiara on her head. Her stance, every elegant step she took. Ethan had seen enough of them to know when a princess walked into the room. She was definitely a princess.
As soon as she heard the announcer say, “Presenting their majesties King Henry, Queen Mary and their highnesses, Princess Caroline and Prince Aaron” she was looking too. Until her eyes found Bart’s. When she found him, she broke out into a dazzling smile. Bart, in true Bart fashion, only continued to stare blankly, making no effort to show pleasure or displeasure. But Ethan was becoming familiar with reading his new best friend.
“That's her then. Your girl,” said Ethan, watching Bart intently.
“She’s not my anything,” Bart returned sharply, turning his back on her.
“Someone should maybe tell her that then. She's coming for you, dude," Ethan said, watching her make her way through the crowd.
Every few seconds, she threw a glance back up to where they were standing on the second floor.
Bart struggled against his rapidly beating heart, telling him to turn back around. To go out and meet her, to give himself a dance with her as a birthday gift. A dance was hardly a proposal. A dance was okay. But Bart was an Arden and Ardens made decisions with their heads. So instead, he pulled Ethan towards him, so that his back was now to her too.
“That bad, huh? Hey I get it. She certainly is a bombshell,” Ethan grinned, throwing another glance at her over his shoulder.
“Stop looking at her,” Bart growled.
Ethan snickered, raising his hands in the air in surrender.
“It’s not me you should be worried about.”
Caroline (CC) Condor was about halfway through clearing the lower level of the Arden House’s grand ballroom, steadily making her way to the stairs. He came out of nowhere. Was in front of her before she knew it. She tried to sidestep him, the way she had every man who had tried to ask her to dance up until now, but this one was not to be turned away. This man was a prince.
He bowed gracefully for her and she gave a quick curtsy, before trying to escape again.
“Prince—” he began.
“I know who you are,” she said hastily, stopping in her tracks.
The prince smiled.
“A woman after my own heart. No introductions needed then, Princess Caroline,” he said, bowing gracefully once more before holding out a hand to her. “However, I certainly wouldn’t say no to a dance.”
Five minutes passed, then ten and Bart finally admitted to himself that he was waiting for her to show up. Why hadn’t she reached him yet? His curiosity getting the better of him, he turned back around and instantly wished he hadn't. It was a waking nightmare. The kind where she laughs at something he said just as you turn around to look at her and you suddenly realize you should be the one holding her, the one making her laugh. That she should be dancing that dance with you.
Ethan threw another glance over his shoulder, saw what was happening and put a hand on Bart’s shoulder.
“Better luck next time man.”
The longer Bart watched, the angrier he got. With the guy, with himself and especially with her. The angrier he got, the less able he was to turn away. Her eyes met his again. She could always see past the deadpan poker face. He knew she knew that he was fuming and that just made matters worse. As the dance progressed, their eyes remained fixed on each other. With the ending of the melody, CC pulled away abruptly. Bart was about to run out to her and ask her a million unfair questions. Make a scene. Hopefully not kiss her.
As if by divine intervention, before Bart could make his move, CC and her partner ran into her brother.
Aaron had a girl on his arm, as Prince Aaron always did. It was a mercy really, when it was just one. As soon as Aaron laid eyes on CC, the redhead was all but forgotten. Bart’s eyes had somehow managed to unglue themselves from CC as he followed the redhead up the stairs. As she ascended to the second floor, the redhead watched Aaron be joined by Emily Maine moments later, her own existence evidently entirely forgotten.
She let out a cackle of laughter, as though Aaron being a dick was amusing. Now on the same floor as him, her eyes met with Bart's. There was hurt in her warm amber eyes as she approached the two men. She blinked once and it was gone as her gaze shifted to Ethan.
“Hey there stranger,” she said, pasting a smile on her face.
Ethan’s mouth broke out into a goofy grin as he picked her up and gave her a similar greeting to the one Bart had received.
“Aria!” he yelled, setting her down with a thump before taking her hand and presenting her to Bart.
“Ria, Barry. Barry, Ria. My sister, who is also a princess,” Ethan said, giving Bart a wink.
“He’s never subtle, is he?” Aria said with a giggle as she held out her hand for Bart to shake.
“No, he really isn’t,” said Bart, taking Aria's hand.
Bart was about to shake her hand, but then thought better of it. The pity swimming around in his eyes was unmistakable as his lips touched the back of her hand. She pulled back sharply, hurt flashing in her eyes again. Ethan rolled his eyes, took her hand and put it back in Bart’s.
“Good! I’m glad you’re both aware. Now do my bidding and dance!” Ethan ordered.
Aria was about to pull her hand away again when Bart pulled her into his arms.
“It’s just a dance,” he said, stroking the vivid, red hair flowing down her back.
Aria's small smile didn’t make his heart hurt as she put her head down on his chest the way CC's did. She wasn’t as beautiful as CC either. Bart understood that that wasn’t her fault. To him, no one could be. Ethan patted himself on the back, giving Bart a thumbs up when he was out of earshot of the pair.
“I’m sorry about Prince Aaron. It is unfortunate that you have made his acquaintance so soon after coming to our country for the first time,” said Bart.
“Are you in the habit of apologizing for other men, My Lord?”
“No, I just don’t do well with crying women,” he replied in earnest.
“Ethan has you pegged alright. You are just what he said you’d be. Handsome, strong, honest. Where do I get one of you?” she flattered boldly.
She looked down to where Bart had been discreetly stealing glances at a couple dancing together and said, with a jab to his chest, “Clearly this one is unavailable. Just my luck.”
CC and Bart were trading outright glares now. It seemed she didn’t appreciate his dancing with another woman either. Bart didn’t like how CC was looking at him, or maybe he did. Maybe he liked it a lot. He wasn’t sure. She was getting into his head and he was having trouble focusing on the woman in his arms.
Aria Maine had been slighted once too many times tonight. It was one thing for The Casanova of Casanova to ditch her for her cousin on the dance floor, but she didn’t appreciate being danced with by a man who was gawking at another woman. She was a damn knock out and she bloody well knew it. Feeling somehow like she knew this man, what with Ethan talking about him nonstop, she felt she could do it. So she did. She pulled Bart’s distracted head down to her and kissed his cheek.
Even Bartholomew couldn’t not look. Her amber eyes demanded attention as he towered over her. When next he laid eyes on CC, he had to do a double take, they both did.
“Wow, you guys are really liberal about what happens at these things huh? And here I was thinking my little peck on the cheek would shock you,” Aria said, looking up at Bart’s face as she grabbed a glass of champagne from a server passing by, downed it and set the glass back down on the tray.
CC’s partner had his hand on her head, his lips pressed against hers. Bart spun back around, his gaze laced with anger and hurt. Aria's hand appeared in front of Bart. He looked down at her. It was her turn to give him a pitiful look. He couldn’t move, couldn’t process what he’d just seen. Was it supposed to hurt so much? CC wasn’t his girlfriend. She wasn’t his anything, just like he’d said earlier. And she never could be. Not with their fathers constantly at each other’s throats.
“Who is this guy anyway?” Bart hissed, more to himself than anything. “I don’t remember him being on my list of invited guests.”
“He’s the second prince of Warlanda, the infamous war makers. Things have been pretty peaceful there lately though. We’re even in talks about an alliance with them. That’s probably why he’s here now. Word is he’s looking for a—"
Aria had been prattling on, wanting to show off that she was knowledgeable. Bart had her wanting to make a good impression. Only right before she said the word did she think that it probably wasn’t something he wanted to hear from a complete stranger.
Bart grabbed her hand, spinning her out into the crowd, away from CC, away from being able to see. He heard the crowd ooh and aah, but he didn't turn back.
"Looking for a what, Ria?"
Bart's voice was calm and controlled, but his eyes betrayed him. She'd already come this far. He wasn't going to just let it be.
"A wife," Aria conceded.
Bart blinked with a tired sigh
When next his eyes opened, the hurt was gone. Like Aria had just been with another man. She smiled, enjoying this similarity between them. It was like a secret, one more to add to the one they already shared. Aria liked her men strong and capable. Quick on their feet. Like Ethan. Like Bart. It was just like her to fall in love with the way a man was in love with someone else. She chastised herself for liking him already, despite whatever was happening with him and this other woman. Whatever had been happening for quite some time from the looks of it.
Not one to stop midway through a dance as he considered it dishonorable, Bart apologized and resumed the dance. She didn’t know if the smiles he offered her as he twirled her across the dance floor were real or not, but just then it didn’t much matter, because hers were. They were very real.
In the next few weeks as Bart prepared for his first midterms at The University of Caines, despite sealing himself off from the world, word reached him. The rumours about CC’s engagement were making the rounds.
What Bart usually considered adequate distractions, his studies and work with his father weren’t doing the trick this time. He was losing his shit, felt himself slipping at just the mention of her. Ethan and Aria were going back soon and then he really wouldn’t know what to do with himself.
With sadness and pity in his heart for his friend and the state he found himself in, Ethan came to see Bart for the last time the day before he was to leave Caines for Satis Est, his home country.
“Want to come with us to Satis Est?” Ethan asked, as they lay next to each other in the middle of the courtyard of the Arden residence, having just sparred.
“You should. We’d miss you if you suddenly weren’t around,” said Aria, laying herself down on the other side of Bart.
Bart had never sparred with or hit a woman before. The latter was still true. That didn’t stop Aria's fist connecting with his face though. It was supposed to be a three way fight, but they ended up ganging up on him.
“I bet you would. Does Satis Est not have punching bags then?” Bart snorted.
The siblings shared a sinister laugh.
Aria came closer and laid her head on Bart's outstretched arm. She kept doing things like that. One moment Aria was Ethan’s kid sister, just hanging out with them and the next she was flirting with Bart. He didn’t know what to make of her. One thing he now did know though, was that she was stunning. CC had gotten into Bart's head like she always did, but now he thought he was a fool for missing it the first time. Maybe it was just spending more time with her, or having more one on one time with her or because they had so much in common. Either way the more time he spent with her, the more attractive she became to him.
“I’d miss you,” Aria said meaningfully, winking at him.
She jumped back up and squatted in front of Bart, her face hovering over his as she reached out for his slightly swollen cheek. His serious, stern eyes met her playful, fearless ones. More than anything, it was her fierce eyes that got to him. The way she looked at him. Bart couldn’t lie, it felt good to have someone show interest in him. Someone that he could actually have. Someone that saw him, not a man who should have been a prince but wasn’t.
“Again, sorry about that,” she said with a grinned before walking away.
Bart returned her grin with an affectionate smile as he sat up to watch her leave. Ethan looked between them suspiciously.
“What?” Bart asked, catching Ethan's eye.
It wasn’t that Ethan had a problem with the flirting exactly. Aria just had this habit of picking guys that were unavailable. And this man, this great guy that he would give his sister’s hand to in a heartbeat, was very much unavailable. Still though, Ethan had been the one to push them together in the first place. Maybe there was hope for them yet if Bart agreed to come away from Caines.
“I mean I’d miss you too, if it matters,” Ethan grinned, laying his head down against Bart’s arm, mimicking his sister's actions.
“Piss off,” said Bart, pushing Ethan away as they shared a chuckle.
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