Guarded Hearts, Part 15

Summary: Alice competes in the Royal Regatta and enjoys the beach party, but someone else might be planning something…

Notes: I again used a lot of the original PB dialogue, but I bedazzled it a bit. We’re also racing towards the Apple Blossom Festival and I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for that…but more will be revealed soon!

New to the series? Catch up here: Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8 , Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14

Liam led Alice down the docks towards gate B where they found Maxwell waving from a large, impressive-looking yacht.

“Alice! Over here!” he yelled. Beside him, Bertrand shook his head and sighed.

“Looks like your ride awaits,” Liam said as he smiled at Alice. “I wish I could go with you and witness your victory firsthand, but I have to go sit with my father.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “I shouldn’t say this because of the other suitors, but I hope you win.”

“Your secret is safe with me,” Alice assured him. He grinned and wished her luck before he walked away, glancing over his shoulder at her when he was halfway down the docks. However, Alice didn’t see because she’d already climbed aboard where she found Drake and Maxwell preparing to set sail.

“What, uh…what’s going on here?” Alice asked.

“Nice to see you, too, Ayers,” Drake said.

“No, sorry, I don’t mean it like that,” Alice apologized. “I just meant…I didn’t expect to see you. I thought Bertrand said something about a crew?”

“Yeah, Maxwell,” Drake said pointedly. “What happened?”

“Well…I have good news and bad news,” Maxwell said slowly.

“Bad news first,” Alice said. “Let’s rip off the band-aid.”

“So the bad news is that the actual crew dropped out…something about not paying upfront? I don’t know the specifics,” Maxwell said, shaking his head. “But the good news…you still have a crew! In fact, Drake volunteered to help out!”

“You volunteered?” Alice asked in shock as she turned to him. Drake blushed and cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Let’s not make a big deal out of this,” Drake said. “Maxwell begged.”

“In a very dignified way becoming of a lord,” Maxwell said.

“You were practically in tears,” Drake said.

Maxwell shrugged. “You have your version, I have mine.”

“And you both know about sailing?” Alice asked hesitantly. “Because this is literally the first time I’ve ever gotten on a boat.”

“I used to own several boats and Drake is an excellent boatman!” Maxwell said proudly.

“Ah, yes, so I’ve heard,” Alice said as she turned to Drake. “Thank you for doing this.”

“It’s nothing,” Drake said. “I couldn’t exactly leave you up a creek without a paddle…or whatever the yacht-equivalent is.”

“Well, I appreciate it,” Alice said. “Hey, Maxwell, where’s Bertrand? Why isn’t he here?”

“His words were, and I quote, ‘Have we fallen so far? Is this what becomes of House Ramsford?’” Maxwell said. “The he muttered something about ruin and reducing our name to rubble and then I hope he went to get a drink or something after that.”

“Okay…” Alice said. “So it’s just us?”

“So it would seem,” Drake said as he straightened up. “I’m sorry to say, Ayers, but you’re not going to be cruising around like the other ladies. We don’t have enough people to do the work without you, so I hope you’re up for it.”

“You heard what I said about never being on a boat, right?” Alice asked. “I swear, every time I’ve said that today, everyone acts like they can’t hear me…”

“No, I heard you,” Drake said. “But I also know you’re smart and capable and there’s no way this is going to be more stressful than running a bar at 1 AM.”

“Was that…a compliment?” Alice gasped, clutching at her heart. “Multiple compliments?

“Hey, I wonder if Bertrand needs a drinking buddy…” Drake said as he started to head for the dock.

“Wait, I’m sorry! I’m sorry,” Alice said, grabbing his arm. “You and Maxwell are the only thing between me and certain death on this boat.”

“We have life jackets!” Maxwell called from the other side of the deck. Alice turned back to Drake, eyebrows raised.

“I need you. Please stay?”

He glanced down at her hand on his arm and she immediately let go. He sighed with faux resignation. “Fine. But only because I’m pretty sure Liam wouldn’t forgive me if I let you drown.”

Drake finished tying off the ropes before steering the boat to the starting line. To their left was Olivia’s boat with Hana on the right.

“Good luck!” Hana called brightly with a wave.

“Don’t need it!” Olivia called back.

Alice snickered. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” she said to Olivia. Alice saw Olivia suppress a smile as she looked out at the water ahead of them. “Okay, Maxwell, how do we win this thing?”

“Okay,” Maxwell said as he waved her over. “You’re going to watch the wind indicator for us,” he said, pointing at the apparatus. “Whenever it shifts, tell us so we can adjust the sails.”

“Sounds doable,” Alice said.

“We’ll tell you what else needs to be done as it comes,” Drake added.

“Looks like the race is about to start!” Maxwell exclaimed, pointing to the king. Alie followed his gaze to see King Constantine standing on another elevated platform by the starting line with Liam and the queen. Constantine held the starting pistol above his head.

“Racers, ready!” Constantine called.

“Ready?” Drake asked Alice.

“Not even a little bit.”

The king pulled the trigger and the starter pistol rang out with a crack across the water.

The sails on the boat unfurled and caught the wind as the boat began to glide forward. Alice glanced over at Olivia to see her smug smile as her boat took an early lead.

“See you at the finish line!” she called.

The wind picked up, propelling Alice’s boat forward.

“Hold it steady,” Drake instructed. Suddenly, Alice saw the wind indicator shift.

“The wind changed!” she called to Drake and Maxwell.

“Adjusting sails!” Maxwell called back as he set to work alongside Drake before handing her a rope. “Alice, tie this down, we need to hold the sail in place.”

“I feel like we should’ve discussed nautical knots before now,” she said as she knelt down, wrapping it around the notch on the deck Maxwell pointed to.

“Tie it in a figure eight knot,” Drake called to her. “Hold the rope with the ends up. Wrap the tail end around the rope, then pull it over and down through the loop you made.”

“Got it!” Alice called back. She looked up at the water ahead and saw a buoy floating not far in the distance. “What’s that?”

“The halfway point!” Maxwell said happily. “We just have to turn around the buoy and head back to the finish line.”

“We’re coming in too fast!” Drake called. “Brace yourself!”

The boat turned hard to the right, the edge of the deck skimming along the water’s surface. Alice grabbed some rigging and held on tight as the ocean sprayed across all three of them.

“Still with us, Ayers?” Drake asked as the boat righted.

“You can’t get rid of me that easily, Walker,” she said.

Drake grinned. “Alright, let’s keep going. We’re almost there.”

“Wind’s picking up in our favor!” Maxwell announced.

“Back to stations!” Drake ordered. “Ayers, secure the jib.”

“What the fuck is a jib?”

Drake pointed at the headsail. “Catch the wind coming from behind us!”

Alice hurried to the front of the boat to redirect the front sail into the wind. The sail stretched and swelled with air as the boat raced forward, overtaking Olivia just in time to sail over the finish line first.

“We did it!” Alice exclaimed. Maxwell whooped in delight, scooping up Alice in a tight hug as he swung her around in a circle on the deck.

“Yes!” he cried.

“You really pulled through for us, Ayers,” Drake said as Maxwell finally set her down.

“Okay, come on, you don’t get to be a curmudgeon right now,” Alice said, waving him over. “Get in here.”

Drake rolled his eyes but he came over and let Alice hug him while Maxwell threw his arms around both of them. From the shore, Liam and his father applauded their victory. However, if she’d looked, Alice would have seen the queen standing stoically beside her husband and stepson, not clapping. But Alice didn’t see that because instead she was looking just to the side of the royal family where Bastien was smiling, applauding with the rest of the crowd.

After returning to the harbor, Alice and the other ladies disembarked their boats and headed over to where Liam and his father were waiting.

“Congratulations, Lady Alice,” Constantine said. “That was some impressive sailing out there.”

“Thank you, Your Highness, but I can’t take all the credit. I had an excellent crew,” she said as she glanced over her shoulder at where Drake and Maxwell were tying up the boat.

“A gracious winner, I like that,” the king said. “Lady Alice, I commend you and your crew. Please enjoy the rest of the festivities.”

“I wish we could stay and chat more, but the official races are about to begin and we need to take our places,” Liam said apologetically as his father started to walk away. “However, Olivia has offered to host all of the suitors on the Nevrakis yacht, so you’ll have a wonderful view of the events.”

A fanfare of trumpets erupted. “I think that’s your cue,” Alice said. Liam smiled at her, bowed quickly, and hurried after his father. Alice felt a gentle tap on her shoulder and turned to see Hana. “Hey! Are you heading to Olivia’s boat?”

“Unfortunately, no…my parents wanted me to host my own viewing party. However, I’m not as popular as they expected; Olivia’s really got her hooks in the ladies here,” Hana said sadly. “My parents invited dozens of nobles, but no one accepted. But it would be the ultimate embarrassment to not even go to my own party!”

“Aw, Hana, I’m so sorry,” Alice said.

“It’s not so bad,” she said. “There’s going to be lots of appetizers and champagne and a lovely viewing deck…all just for me, I suppose.”

“You and me, if you’ll have me,” Alice said.

“Are you sure?” Hana asked, surprised. “But Olivia…”

“Please, you’d be doing me a favor,” Alice said. “I’m pretty sure Olivia’s planning to hip check me overboard into shark-infested waters the first chance she gets.”

“There aren’t usually any sharks in this area…”


She smiled. “Okay! Well, if you’re sure, then please, follow me.”

Hana led Alice down the docks towards her family’s boat when they ran into Drake and Maxwell.

“Hey, where are you guys going?” Maxwell asked. “Didn’t you hear about the party on Olivia’s boat?”

“I found a better one,” Alice said, grabbing them both by the arms and turning them around. “Come on.”

“Yes, please!” Hana said excitedly. “The more the merrier!”

Hana led them onto the yacht and Alice whistled appreciatively as she looked around. Decadent chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne flutes sat next to cushioned seats with silken pillows.

“Welcome, everyone!” Hana said with a smile as she gestured around her. “Please, make yourselves at home and if there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to let me know.” Drake started to open his mouth and Hana held up a hand. “There’s whiskey at the bar.”

“Thank you,” Drake said before making his way across the deck.

“Hana, this is incredible,” Alice said.

“Really spectacular,” Maxwell mumbled around a mouthful of chocolate-covered strawberries.

“Well, it’s a public appearance, and my family wants to look good in front of the royal family,” Hana said modestly.

“Are your parents here?” Alice asked, looking around.

“No, they couldn’t attend,” Hana said. “However, they think it’s of the utmost importance that I impress everyone here, no matter how extravagant the display.”

“Well, I’m very impressed,” Alice said.

“Me, too,” Drake said as he rejoined the group, whiskey in hand. “But like Ayers, I’m a lowly commoner, so I don’t know how much weight that holds.”

“I’m a lord and I’m impressed!” Maxwell chimed in, swallowing his strawberry.

“Thanks, everyone,” Hana said, blushing. “Well, please, enjoy whatever you want, what’s mine is yours.” A waiter arrived at their side and Alice, Hana, and Maxwell each took a flute of champagne. “Cheers!”

In the distance, boats gathered at the starting line, their brightly colored sails dotting the horizon.

“I think they’re starting!” Maxwell said as he moved closer to the railing. Hana followed, leaving Alice behind with Drake.

“Thanks for bringing me to this,” Drake said. “I wasn’t exactly looking forward to hanging out on Olivia’s boat.”

“Well, thanks for helping me win today,” Alice said. “I definitely would’ve run the boat into Olivia’s or something if it weren’t for you and Maxwell.”

“When you put it like that, maybe I should’ve just left you to your own devices,” he said as he took a sip of his whiskey. Alice eyed his glass.

“Have you eaten anything today?” she asked lightly. Drake reached over and grabbed a couple strawberries from a nearby table and popped them into his mouth.

“Yes,” he said through a full mouth. Alice rolled her eyes and he chewed and swallowed. “Don’t worry about me, Ayers. I’m fine.”

Alice regarded him silently.

“Come on,” he said, putting a hand on her elbow. “Let’s go watch the races.”

Alice let him lead her over to join Maxwell and Hana, but she couldn’t fully shake the ominous feeling she had

After the races, Alice and the other suitors gathered on the dock.

“Now the real party begins!” Hana said excitedly.

“Maxwell already told me how pumped he is for the beach party,” Alice said. “Is it a big deal?”

“Oh, it’s not just a big deal,” Olivia said. “It’s an extravaganza!”

“Olivia…are you actually excited about something that doesn’t involve bodily harm?” Alice asked.

Olivia smirked. “Calm down, Jon Snow, the party hasn’t even started yet.”

“Is the press is going to be there?” Penelope asked, looking more than a little nervous.

“No, but we’ll get to see the prince!” Kiara said. “I hope we get to spend more time with him…”

“Excuse me, ladies,” Maxwell said with a bow. “Alice, can I borrow you for a minute?”

“Sure.” She followed Maxwell who led her off the docks and into the crowd.

“So, are you ready for the beach party?” he asked.

“I think so?” Alice said slowly. “But if you’re asking me, I’m guessing the answer is no…Is there something I should have prepared?”

“Nope! It’s just a fun party on one of the most gorgeous private beaches in the area,” Maxwell said. “The water is so beautiful, you’ll love it–oh, crap, that was what Bertrand reminded me of. Alice, you have a swimsuit, right?”

“Of course.”

“Perfect. Go get changed and I’ll meet you out here to walk down to the beach,” Maxwell said as he pulled out his phone and skimmed a message. “Shoot…Bertrand wants to talk to me. Okay, go change, I’ll be here.”

Alice saluted and headed inside. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust after spending all morning in the bright sunlight. She headed up to her room to change into her bikini, tossing a lightweight cover over herself so Bertrand wouldn’t have an aneurysm if she did something inappropriate like wear an uncovered bathing suit through the hallowed halls of the palace. Alice made her way downstairs and was nearly out the door when someone else entered the front hall.

“Lady Alice,” Tariq said, stepping in front of her. He raked his gaze up and down her and Alice fought back a gag. “You look…exactly how I thought you would.”

“I don’t know what that means and, frankly, I don’t give a shit. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go,” she said. She tried to step around him but he moved in front of her again. “Seriously? Fucking move.”

“You know, I’ve decided to forgive you for that little stunt you pulled in Lythikos,” Tariq said.

“Neat. Get the fuck out of my way,” Alice said as she tried to step around her again. He blocked her again. “Fucking hell, dude, I’m not interested. Fuck. Off.”

Tariq narrowed his eyes. “You–”


Alice and Tariq both turned to see Maxwell standing in the front door. She breathed a sigh of relief.

“Maxwell, hey, let’s go,” she said. This time, Tariq didn’t stop her when she left and she hurried out.

“Was…everything okay in there?” Maxwell asked once they were outside, glancing back over his shoulder.

“Tariq is just an asshole who can’t take no for an answer,” Alice said. “I’m fine.”

“Do you want me to do something about him?” Maxwell asked. “I could talk to him, or Bertrand could…or maybe I could ask Bastien about extra security?”

“Maxwell, really, I’m okay,” she assured him, putting an arm around his waist. Maxwell responded in kind by putting an arm around her shoulders. “I’m a bartender; guys like that are par for the course.”

“As long as you’re sure…” he said, glancing over his shoulder again.

“Hey, I did want to ask you about something else though,” Alice said, ready for a subject change.


“It’s about Drake,” Alice said, choosing her words carefully. “Does it seem like he’s drinking…kind of a lot?”

Maxwell considered this. “I haven’t necessarily noticed that he’s drinking more than usual. But now that you mention it…maybe it’s been a little more since we got back from New York? I’m not sure though.”

Alice nodded. “Okay. Just…will you help me keep on eye on him?”

“Yeah, of course,” Maxwell said.

When the king entered the guards’ headquarters in the palace, a young man sitting by a bank of computers immediately jumped to his feet.

“Your Highness! Um, what can I do for you?” he asked. “Are you looking for Bastien? He’s over at the beach party with Liam, but I can call him if you–”

Constantine waved away the young guard’s words. “No, no, I came to see you. Andrews, right? You head up our IT security?”

“Yes, sir,” Andrews said.

“We’ve been dealing with some…security leaks lately, and I was hoping you could take care of something for me,” Constantine said.

“Yes, of course, sir. Anything.”

Constantine pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Andrews. “I need a rundown of the following people’s phones. Emails, texts, photos…that sort of thing.”

“Absolutely, sir,” Andrews said as he unfolded the paper and started to scan the list.

“How soon can you have them to me?”

“Tonight, maybe tomorrow morning at the latest,” he said. Andrews hesitated when he reached the last name on the list. “And you want…all of these?”

“Yes,” Constantine said firmly. “Of course, I hope I can count on your discretion. You report directly to me on this matter, and no one else.”

“Of course, sir,” Andrews said with a curt nod.


When Maxwell and Alice arrived at the beach party, she was surprised not to immediately find Bastien at the edge of the crowd. Then she saw him; rather than wear his usual suit, he was in light-colored pants and a printed shirt, a pair of aviator sunglasses on his face. As soon as Maxwell was distracted by the music, she pulled her phone out of her purse.

Almost couldn’t find you without your suit

It’s hard to save someone from drowning in a three piece suit. Where are you?

By the entrance, we just got here

“Alice,” Maxwell said, turning his attention back to her. “It looks like Liam is tied up with Madeleine and the queen right now, so do you want to grab some food?”

“Absolutely,” Alice said as she felt her phone buzz in her hand. “I’ll never turn down food.”

“See, this is exactly why we’re friends,” Maxwell said. “Let’s go!”

Alice followed Maxwell through the crowd and tried to surreptitiously check her phone at the same time.

Holy shit, how did I not see you the second you arrived? You look…wow.

She was about to put her phone down when it buzzed again with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“You are the finest, loveliest, tenderest, and most beautiful person I have ever known–and even that is an understatement.”

Alice bit her lip and slipped her phone back into her purse as she reached the food tables, trying to keep her face from betraying how she really felt.

“Hey!” Hana said, smiling brightly. “Have you tried the appetizers yet?”

“Not yet, we just got here,” Alice said, but when she glanced over at Maxwell, he already had a mini quiche in his mouth. “Well, I just got here.”

“Here, try one of these,” Hana said as she picked up a plate and piled three of a small, unrecognizable something. “I haven’t tried it yet, but I figured we could all give it a shot.”

“It smells…fishy,” Alice said slowly. “But, I’m up for it if you are.” Alice, Hana, and Maxwell each took one. “Cheers.”

They tapped appetizers and popped them in their mouths.

“Squishy!” Maxwell said, considering the bite.

“Is that a good thing?” Alice asked.

“Well, it tastes like cavier…and very expensive caviar at that,’ Hana said after she swallowed. “Alice, what do you think?”

“Kind of like a fresh, salty sea Jell-O…”

“Is that a good thing?” Maxwell asked, repeating her own question back to her. Alice swallowed.

“I think so,” she said. “I’ve never had caviar before.”

Just then, she noticed Drake waving to them from another table, this one piled even higher with food. The three of them made their way over to him.

“I hope you all came hungry, because the real food has arrived,” he said.

“There’s so much of it,” Maxwell said, his voice hushed and reverential.

“Is this barbecue?” Hana asked.

“Oh, yes, classic Americana,” Drake said. “You’ve got your pulled pork, chicken kebabs, brisket, ribs, vegetables, and sauces unique to regions around the world.”

“Do you always have barbecue at parties like this?” Alice asked, confused.

“No,” Drake said quietly while Hana and Maxwell examined the food. “But Liam requested it especially for you. Thought you might like a little taste of home.”

Shit, shit, shit, Alice thought. Liam doesn’t deserve this. I have to tell him.

“Hana, have you ever had barbecue before?” Alice asked.

“No, never!” she said. “It looks messy…but intriguing.”

“It’s really good,” Drake said. “It reminds me of family cookouts in the summer from when I was a kid.”

“That’s sweet,” Alice said. “My dad and I used to do the same thing. He’d spend all day preparing the ribs. He had this special seasoning rub that he’d spend all day perfecting.”

“What was in it?” Hana asked. Alice shrugged.

“No idea. It was his secret recipe, but he never wrote it down, just kept it all up in his head. After he died, I searched his house from top to bottom, convinced he’d hidden it somewhere, but I never found it.”

“Alice…if you want, I could help you try to figure it out sometime,” Hana offered. “I don’t know much about barbecue, but I’m a pretty good cook and I could try and figure it out. If you want.”

Alice smiled. “Thanks, Hana, that’s so nice of you. I might take you up on that.” She paused. “When you say you’re a ‘pretty good cook’, does that mean you have two Michelin stars or three?”

“Four,” Drake said with a smile.

Hana rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Alright, alright, let’s eat.”

Later, after the food had all been eaten, the four of them sat around a table, nearly lapsing into food comas.

“Again,” Maxwell said. “That was so good!”

“I agree,” Hana said. “I’m going to have to ask the chefs back home to add barbecue chicken to the rotation.”

“I don’t know about you all, but I’m ready to enjoy the water,” Drake said. The other three turned to stare at him. “What?”

“You ate almost as much as Maxwell, how can you have the energy for swimming?” Alice asked.

“Yeah, I’m ready to stretch out like a beached whale,” Maxwell said.

“Suit yourself,” Drake said. “You coming with me, Ayers? Hana?”

“Sure, let’s go,” Alice said. Hana pulled off her dress, revealing a swimsuit underneath, and Alice did the same. Out of the corner of her eye, Alice saw Drake try to avoid looking at her as he pulled off his shirt. “Are you sure you won’t come, Maxwell?”

Alice looked over and found him with his head down on the table.

“Can’t…food coma…taking hold…” he murmured. Alice reached down and squeezed his shoulder before she turned and headed down to the water with Drake and Hana.

“Oh, wow, it’s colder than I expected!” Hana exclaimed as they waded in.

“You just need to adjust,” Drake said. “Here, let me help.” He splashed her, water crashing against her face. Hana shrieked, spitting water out of her mouth.

“That was a cheap shot!” she protested.

“Sorry,” he said, not looking apologetic. “I–”

Before he could finish, Hana returned fire, splashing him with a wave of water.

“Oh, come on!” Drake protested. “Now who’s taking cheap shots?”

Alice laughed and they both turned to look at her, still mostly dry. “Oh, shit.”

“Get her!” Hana cried.

Alice turned to run but Drake caught her around the waist and hauled her over his shoulder. Alice tried to protest but Hana hit her with a wave of water as Drake carried her out into deeper water.

“Two on one is not a fair fight!” she yelled. Drake ignored her and tossed her into the water. The cold water was a shock, flooding her senses, and Alice came up, spluttering. “I don’t think I like either of you anymore.”

Hana laughed as Drake dove under the water.

“There,” he said when he resurfaced. “We’re even now.”

“Fine,” Alice said, before turning her gaze on Hana. “But she’s not.”

Hana realized too late what was happening before Drake and Alice grabbed her and tossed her in.

“Alright, alright! I give up, you win,” Hana said. “Who’s up for some sunbathing? I could use a warmer activity…”

“Right behind you,” Alice said.

Back on the beach, Alice sat down beside Maxwell on a beach blanket. She was surprised to see him still fully dressed, including his button up shirt.

“You seem a little overdressed for the beach,” Alice said as she dug into her bag for her phone.

Remind me that I want to come back here later and swim with you, she texted.

Are you sure? I have a feeling that that swimsuit of yours is going to vanish into the waves if we do that…

Only if I wear one

“Huh?” Maxwell asked. He glanced down. “Oh, right. Gotta keep it on. Can’t risk a sunburn. No amount of SPF is strong enough for me.”

“Well, sun safety is important.”

“It’s more that Bertrand would be mortified if I were to appear at royal functions as red as a tomato,” Maxwell said.

Alice lay back on her beach towel. “Is Bertrand always such a spoilsport?”

“Usually,” Maxwell admitted. “But I’m having fun now that you’re here. Are you having a good time?”

“I am,” Alice said. “It’s nice to just relax and take a break for a bit.”

“Good,” Maxwell said. “But…”


“Okay, I want you to be able to just chill out, but we’re still in this competition,” Maxwell said, turning to Alice. “Penelope is over there and looking a little weepy,” he continued, pointing. “This could be your chance to make another ally! You can always use more people at court who will say nice things about you to the press.”

Alice shielded her face from the sun and cracked one eye open. “Now?”

“Please!” Maxwell pleaded. “If I could tell Bertrand I helped you bond with the other suitors…”

“Okay, okay,” Alice said with a sigh. She got up and scanned the party, quickly locating Penelope who looked as if she was on the verge of tears.

“Hey,” Alice said. “Are you okay?”

“Oh, it’s you,” she sniffed.

“That’s…one way to greet a friend,” Alice said, resisting the urge to smack her.

“We’re not friends,” Penelope said. “Wait…er…are we?”

“I mean, okay, not technically,” Alice said. “But I’d like to be friends.”


Slow breath in, slow breath out. “Because why not? Do you have a cap on how many friends you can have? Besides, it looks like you’re having a tough time today.”

“I suppose it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” Penelope asked as she tried to brush the tears from her eyes. “I got terribly seasick from the regatta and now, I’ll be stuck here on this beach in the sun for hours. My advisers said I only needed to look pretty at the balls and flirt with the prince, but it hasn’t gone that way at all.” She sighed. “Between you, Olivia, and Madeleine, I don’t have any chance at all. What’s the point of even staying here?”

“Penelope, things could still work out between you and Liam, but there’s more to this than just the prince,” Alice said gently.

“Like what?” Penelope asked, confused.

“Like forming friendships and bonds with the other women here?” Alice offered.

“I don’t know…” Penelope said slowly. “I don’t make friends as easily as you.”

“Look, Penelope,” Alice said. “Even though we’re competing now, it won’t always be that way. One of us will marry the prince and then it’s over. We should at least try to get something more out of it, don’t you think?”

“That sounds…right,” Penelope said. “But I–” Her eyes suddenly went wide and she dropped her plate of appetizers with a shriek. “Oh my goodness, help! Something’s attacking me!”

Alice looked down to find a sand crab’s claw latched onto her foot. “Come here, little guy…” she said as she crouched down, gently detaching the crab before sending it on its way towards the water.

“Ow, that really hurt!” Penelope exclaimed as Alice stood back up. “Alice, that was…thank you! I can’t believe you’re so level-headed all the time, how do you do that?”

Alice shrugged. “It’s all smoke and mirrors. None of us know what we’re doing.”

“Lady Alice, Lady Penelope, is everything okay?”

The two women turned to see Bastien standing beside them.

“Alice just saved me!” Penelope exclaimed.

“There was a sand crab,” Alice explained.

“Ah,” he said with a nod. “I heard a scream and wanted to check things out.”

Alice noticed a little bit of sweat beading in the hollow of his throat and had to resist the urge to lick it off. “Thank you for checking.”

“Yes, thank you,” Penelope said. Bastien smiled slightly and bowed before he left, walking back towards the edge of the beach party. “Gosh, he’s really good-looking isn’t he?” Penelope said, her eyes still on Bastien as he walked away. “Oh no, that was so inappropriate of me to say! We’re here for the prince and–”

“Penelope, it’s okay,” Alice assured her, glad to have an excuse to watch Bastien. “We’re here for Liam, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admiring the…objective attractiveness of another person. And you’re definitely not wrong, he…” she trailed off, forgetting her words.

“Yeah,” Penelope sighed. “He is.” Her face darkened with disappointment. “I’m just so disappointed though. I’m not going to win the prince’s heart and I’m going to leave here a failure.”

“Hardly,” Alice said. “You can still use your time here to your best advantage.”

“And what’s that?”

“By making allies. Only one woman will marry the prince, but there are other opportunities here to forge friendships, improve your reputation, and maybe even secure another position in court. Maybe you’ll even meet someone else you like.”

Penelope glanced in Bastien’s direction again. No, not that one, Alice thought.

“You’re right,” Penelope said. “Maybe we could put in a good word for each other here and there.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Penelope nodded, pleased. “I think I’m going to like being friends.”

Alice smiled, feeling the buzz of her phone in her bag. “Me, too.”

Penelope excused herself and Alice turned to rejoin Maxwell, pulling her phone out of her bag.

It’s taking all of my restraint not to take you right here in front of everyone.

She blushed and was about to reply when she suddenly ran straight into Liam.

“Alice! There you are,” Liam said with a grin.

“Were you looking for me?” Alice asked as she dropped her phone in her pocket.

“I was,” Liam said, suddenly looking a little shy. “I brought you a drink…it’s hot out, so I thought you’d like something refreshing.”

He held out a sweating glass to her and Alice took a sip, surprised by the minty lemonade that played across her tongue.

“Wow, that’s really good,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had mint lemonade before. It’s really sweet and tart at the same time.”

“Just like you,” Liam said.

“Are you calling me a tart?” she asked, raising a teasing eyebrow. Liam laughed.

“Not like that. I meant more in your personality…you’re very sweet, but you have an edge to you that I find really refreshing.”

“Like an adorable, fluffy kitten that’ll shred your hand if you try to pet it?” Alice asked, making him laugh again.

“Yes, just like that,” he said. “So, are you enjoying the party?”

“I am,” Alice said. “I especially loved the food–thank you, that was so sweet of you.”

Liam blushed. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“I wasn’t the only one,” Alice said, trying to divert attention elsewhere. “Hana had never had barbecue before but now she wants to add it to her meal rotation at home, Drake actually smiled for a second, and Maxwell has been stretched out like a lion after eating an entire gazelle.”

Liam laughed. “That…sounds about right.” He glanced around them. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to spend more time with you today. But if you’re up for it, would you like to go for a walk along the beach?”

“Seriously, you have to stop apologizing, I get that you’re in a weird position,” Alice said. “And that sounds–”

Before she could finish, they heard Liam’s name.

“Liam!” the king called as he walked towards them across the warm sand.

“When did my father get here?” Liam asked, confused. “He said he wasn’t going to attend today, something about business at the palace…”

“Maybe he finished early?”

“Father! I’m surprised to see you on the beach,” Liam said as Constantine reached them.

“I have been known to leave the palace to grace our shores from time to time,” Constantine said. He nodded towards Alice. “You’re going to give Lady Alice here the wrong impression of me.”

Liam’s face flushed. “I just meant we rarely get the honor of your presence at the beach party after the regatta.”

“You have me there, but I thought it might be warranted today,” Constantine said. “I’m sure you heard my announcement earlier about my retirement.”

Literally everyone heard, you announced it at a public event in front of the press, Alice thought, keeping her face neutral.

“I did,” Liam agreed.

“I feel I owe you an explanation. Lady Alice, please pardon us, but I’d like to have a moment alone with my son.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” Alice said. “Excuse me.”

“I’ll find you later, Lady Alice,” Liam promised. Alice gave him an encouraging smile before she left, heading across the beach to join Maxwell. She was surprised to see Bertrand with him.

“Bertrand!” Alice exclaimed. “Aren’t you worried that all this direct sunlight is going to make you disintegrate into dust?”

Bertrand sniffed. “Very funny, Alice. Anyway, I’m here because we need to start preparing for the next event.”

“The next event?” Alice asked. “We’re still at this one.”

“Yeah, Bertrand,” Maxwell said. “Can’t we at least take tonight off? It’s been a long day and we all deserve some rest.”

“You can rest when Alice is crowned Queen of Cordonia,” Bertrand snapped. “And from where we’re standing, that’s not going to be anytime soon.”

“Absolutely loving the vote of confidence, Bertrand,” Alice said, rolling her eyes. She didn’t want to be queen, but he was pissing her off. “I honestly don’t see what’s so bad right now. Liam and I are friends, I’m getting along with the other suitors, the press likes me…we even won the race today!”

“Today’s good reputation can be destroyed in an instant,” Bertrand said. “Things have gone alright so far, but we need to be constantly vigilant.”

“Constant vigilance!” Maxwell shouted. Bertrand stared blankly at him. “Like…from Harry Potter? Mad-Eye Moody?”

“I’m with you,” Alice said with a smile.

Bertrand pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “I really need you two to focus. We need to get ready for the Apple Blossom Festival”

“What’s that?” Alice asked. Bertrand rolled his eyes. “Dude! For the last time, I didn’t grow up here! I don’t know what the fuck an Apple Blossom Festival is!”

“Please don’t call me ‘dude,’” Bertrand said. “You remember that apples are important to Cordonia, yes?” Alice nodded. “Well, this is the festival that celebrates this heritage.”

“It’s really fun,” Maxwell added.

Alice smiled. “You think everything is fun.”

He shrugged. “Most things are.”

“Finish up here and meet me back at the palace,” Bertrand said. “We need to start strategizing.”

Alice and Maxwell saluted him. Bertrand sighed.

“Oh my god, Gray,” Bastien said as he examined her red skin. “Didn’t you put on sunscreen?”

“I put some on before I went to the beach, but I forgot to reapply.”

Bastien picked up the bottle of aloe and squeezed some onto his hands before he carefully applied it to her back. “How do you forget something like that?”

“In my defense, someone kept sending me suggestive text messages,” Alice said. Bastien grinned as he kissed the top of her head.

“What sort of depraved miscreant sends texts like that?” he asked innocently.

“My favorite kind.”

Bastien walked around to her front and kissed her lightly before he continued applying the aloe. “So how bad is this, is Bertrand going to hit the roof because you’re going to be red in photos?”

“My sunburns usually fade into tans pretty fast, so I should be okay when we leave for the Apple Blossom Festival in a couple weeks.”

“You’re going to get skin cancer if you’re not careful,” he warned.

“I know, I know,” Alice said. “Lesson learned, I swear.”

“Good,” he said as he knelt to add aloe to her legs. “I want my girlfriend to be safe.”

She smiled. “I don’t think I’m ever going to get tired of hearing you call me that.”

He planted a soft kiss on her hip. “Good.”

Part 16

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