Guarded Hearts, Part 16

Summary: The Apple Blossom Festival begins and later, Alice and the others head out to celebrate Drake’s birthday.

Notes: I again used a lot of the original PB dialogue, but I bedazzled it a bit.

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, Part 15


When Alice awoke from her nap, she was momentarily disoriented. Why am I in a car? Oh, god, Frankie was right, I’m in a real life version of Taken…

“Hey, sleepyhead!” Maxwell said.

Right. Not Taken, she thought. “Hey,” she said as she attempted to stretch out her neck, which was stiff from sleeping against the window. “How long was I out for?”

“A while,” Bertrand said without looking up from his phone. “Thankfully though, you don’t snore.”

“Lucky you,” Alice said, stifling a yawn. “I hate to be that person, but are we almost there?”

“Almost,” Maxwell assured her. “Believe me, I’m as excited as you are to get out of this car…especially since we’re going to Applewood!”

“Is that really the name of the royal family’s country manor?” Alice asked. “I didn’t think people actually named their summer houses.”

“Rich people do,” Maxwell said with a shrug.

“I have to ask though…you say ‘manor’ and that sounds like it’s a cute little country cottage. Applewood is…”

“Not,” Bertrand said. “It’s as large and dignified a home befitting the royal family. However, the name is still appropriate. Applewood Manor borders the largest apple orchard in the entire kingdom, and that’s where they first cultivated the apple varietal Cordonia is most famous for. Which is…” he trailed off, looking at her expectantly.

“The Cordonian Ruby,” she replied automatically.

“Very good,” Bertrand said, nodding approvingly. “It seems you have actually been paying attention.”

“You’ve literally spent more time drilling the name of that apple into my head than anything else since I’ve arrived. And yet I haven’t actually had one yet.”

“Oh, believe me, you will at Applewood,” Maxwell said.

“The Cordonian Ruby is a red varietal–”

“–that’s pleasantly crisp with an intense flavor that has notes of honeyed caramel,” Alice finished. “I swear, I remember.”

“Just checking,” Bertrand said.

“It’s the most poetic thing you’ve ever said, I would’ve committed it to memory out of pure shock.”

“Some subjects call for a bit of poetry.”

At Bertrand’s words, Alice was momentarily taken back to a few days earlier when she and Bastien had lounged on the couch in his quarters, her legs stretched across his lap. They had each been reading their own books when Alice had felt him gently squeeze her calf.

“Can I read you something?” Bastien asked.

“Sure,” Alice said, putting her book down on her chest. She watched as he cleared his throat, then began to read:

“I came to you one rainless August night.

You taught me how to live without the rain.

You are thirst and thirst is all I know.

You are sand, wind, sun, and burning sky,

The hottest blue. You blow a breeze and brand

Your breath into my mouth. You reach—then bend

Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

You wrap your name tight around my ribs

And keep me warm. I was born for you.

Above, below, by you, by you surrounded.

I wake to you at dawn. Never break your

Knot. Reach, rise, blow, Sálvame, mi dios,

Trágame, mi tierra. Salva, traga, Break me,

I am bread. I will be the water for your thirst.”

Alice waited for a moment, letting the words wash over her. “That’s beautiful. Who’s it by?”

“Benjamin Alire Sáenz,” Bastien said. “It’s called ‘To the Desert.’”

In that moment, Alice had been certain of a truth that, if she was honest, had existed from the very beginning: she was in love with him. She’d wanted to tell him then, but the circumstances had given her pause. Alice didn’t feel right telling him while she was still involved in this social season as a suitor. Bastien deserved more than that; he deserved to hear it from someone who could openly love him, not just in the stolen moments in between. She already knew she was painfully overdue in talking to Liam, but the man was impossible to get alone. Even when there wasn’t an active suitor event happening, Liam’s schedule was busier than Alice had realized. Of course, that made sense with him preparing for his impending coronation, but she’d barely managed to exchange more than a few words with him in passing. But now she knew she couldn’t wait any longer; she would have to find a way to talk to Liam alone at Applewood.

“Alice?”

“Hmm?” she asked, pulled out of her own thoughts. “Sorry, did you say something?”

Bertrand’s eyes darkened with annoyance, but he let it go. “Let’s review your role this weekend,” he said. “Since the king has announced his retirement, everything has changed.”

“Yeah, I saw Liam and the king talking about it at the beach party and I know Liam has been really busy ever since.”

“Really, you heard them talking?” Bertrand asked, sounding genuinely interested. “What did they say?”

“I mean, I didn’t really hear much since the king dismissed me before they really started. But I do know that Liam wasn’t expecting this announcement.”

“Hmm, interesting…” Bertrand said. “Anything else? Has he talked to you since?”

“Bertrand, I’ve barely even seen Liam, let alone spoken to him since the beach party.”

“He’s probably really busy with preparations for the coronation,” Maxwell added.

“This is precisely the reason we need to make a more concerted effort. We’re no long playing for the title of princess,” Bertrand said. “If Alice marries him, she’ll be queen. The stakes are higher than ever and we must succeed.”

Alice felt the guilt roil in her stomach. She kept telling herself that the Beaumonts’ finances weren’t her problem, but she still felt bad. But by the time you knew Bastien was in Cordonia, you’d already been announced as their suitor, Alice reminded herself. They wouldn’t have even been involved in the social season except as spectators; at least this way House Beaumont is getting good press… The excuses felt hollow in her mind, weak justifications for lying to so many people.

“Bertrand, you’re talking about people’s lives,” Alice said. “Shouldn’t Liam choose a partner based on how they feel about one another?”

“Your sentimentality is touching, but wasted,” Bertrand said. “When you’re in a position such as the prince, you cannot just go around dating like regular people and you certainly cannot marry someone just because you think they’re ‘fun.’” He spat out the last word as if it had soured. “Liam is choosing not only a wife, but a future ruler of Cordonia. He has to do what’s best for the country first.”

Alice leaned her head back against the seat, too tired to argue with him.

“I’m merely trying to prepare you,” Bertrand said. “The other ladies are only going to get more competitive, and if you care about Liam, then you’ll get serious. After all, we’re running out of time. There’s only about a month and a half before the coronation ball at the end of the season.”

Alice looked out the window as the Cordonian countryside flew by, wondering how she could simultaneously feel like she was running out of time and spinning endlessly in place.

“So what do I need to do?” Alice asked, looking back to Bertrand. “What are my directives for the day?”

“This is no time to play coy,” Maxwell said. “You’ll need to spend as much time with Liam as possible.”

“But if you can’t do that, try not to get into trouble,” Bertrand said.

“I have been very well behaved!” she protested. Both Beaumonts stared at her silently. “Okay, fine, mostly behaved. But you both liked those cronuts, so you can’t be too mad at me,” she said, pointing at each brother in turn.

“We really should’ve gotten some cronuts for this drive…” Maxwell said wistfully.

“Can you two focus for five minutes?” Bertrand snapped. “According to my reports, Alice, you, Duchess Olivia, and Countess Madeleine are the frontrunners.”

“But I still think Liam likes you the best,” Maxwell said.

“However, His Royal Highness isn’t the only one who matters,” Bertrand said. “Olivia and Madeleine may not be foremost in the prince’s heart, but they are popular with other royals, the nobles, and the public. They’re both going to try to undermine you.”

“I’m not worried about Olivia,” Alice said.

“And Madeleine?”

“If she gives me a hard time, I can always just beat her with the stick that’s permanently stuck up her ass.”

“Poetry is clearly a lost art form for you,” Bertrand said as he checked his phone again. “But you really need to watch out for Madeleine. Her mother is Cordonian nobility, which is where she gets her title of countess, and she’s practically royalty on her father’s side as well.”

“And she’s very determined to be queen,” Maxwell added.

“Yes, I can tell by her desire to marry anyone in line for the throne, regardless of who it is.”

“Her family is powerful and she’s grown up immersed in the intrigues and maneuverings of courtly life,” Bertrand continued. “Don’t underestimate her. She’s used to winning. Anyway, you won’t be able to avoid either lady in public, but try your best to keep your cool and be diplomatic, especially when the press is around. You’ve done remarkably well so far, but there’s still room to fail.”

“Excellent pep talk,” Alice said with a roll of her eyes. “Bertrand, I’m taking the press’s perception of me very seriously. I want to reflect well on you both; I’m not going to say or do anything to damage your reputation. We’re a team, remember?”

“Hey, we’re here!” Maxwell said as the limo turned and began to slow down. “Ready?”

“Am I ever?”

“Nope. Let’s go!”


When Bastien stepped out of the car, he turned to see the line of limos and town cars pulling up behind them to the sprawling Applewood Manor. The estate would be fuller than usual with additional guests and he wasn’t looking forward to the additional security detail he’d have to manage for the next few days.

“Bastien.”

He turned to see Constantine approaching him. “Yes, Your Highness?”

“Walk with me for a moment,” he said. Bastien nodded and walked with the king away from the arriving cars. “I need you to take care of something for me.”

“Of course, sir.”

“You know that we’ve had some attempted security breaches here lately, such as with the bachelor party photographs,” Constantine said. “You’ve handled everything well like I expected you to, but I think we’re at a point where we could use some…leverage.”

Bastien nodded. “What do you need me to do?”

“I need you to arrange for a photographer,” the king said. “One of our guests has been deemed a potential security threat, but I want to ensure we’re able to secure the upper hand in the situation.”

“What are you hoping to photograph?” Bastien asked.

“I’m not sure,” Constantine said. “Perhaps nothing. But people do all sorts of things when they think they’re not being watched and I’d like to hedge our bets by placing a camera outside their window.”

Bastien nodded. This wasn’t an unusual request; the king often gathered information as a preventative measure, more so in the last few years. “Understood.”

“Good,” the king said. “Of course, discretion is of the utmost importance. I can’t have this traced back to me.”

“Of course, sir,” Bastien said. “I’ll take care of it.”

The king smiled. “Excellent.”


As she stepped out of the limo, she admired the large stone manor that stood elegantly amidst manicured gardens. Beyond it, vibrant fields of grass and trees stretched out as far as she could see.

“Wow…” Alice said as Maxwell and Bertrand climbed out behind her.

“It’s great, right?” Maxwell asked. “This is where we’ll be staying for the next few weeks. Come on, let’s go inside.”

He led her down the long packed-dirt driveway to the manor and off to the side, Alice noticed Bastien and the king deep in conversation.

“Now, we should settle in quickly,” Bertrand said, reclaiming Alice’s attention. “The Apple Blossom Festival will last today and tomorrow, and the first kick-off event is starting this afternoon.”

“What kind of apple-themed activities are we talking about?” Alice asked. “Ooh, do I get to watch you bob for apples?!”

Bertrand muttered something under his breath. Alice was about to ask him what he said when Maxwell intervened.

“Apple picking, apple pie baking, apple tree planting…you know, apple stuff,” Maxwell said.

“We Cordonians take our traditions very seriously. Be sure to show enthusiasm for all the events,” Bertrand said. “Which means no rolling your eyes.”

“I save all of my very best eye rolls just for you, Bertrand.”


That afternoon at the apple orchards, the Beaumonts escorted Alice past a crowd of people eagerly awaiting the start of the Apple Blossom Festival. All the other suitors were already standing in a loose semicircle under the shade of a large apple tree. Alice felt Maxwell give her a small push in the small of her back and she joined them, squeezing into the only empty space which was, unfortunately, between Olivia and Madeleine.

“What, are you morally opposed to wearing a watch?” Olivia muttered as she begrudgingly made room for Alice.

“Shh, it’s starting,” Madeleine whispered.

All of the women turned to look at the king and queen who were standing in the center of the semicircle formed by the suitors. Constantine and Regina were proudly smiling near several wicker baskets full of brilliant red apples while the press gathered nearby. Everyone grew quiet when the king raised his arms.

“Welcome to the annual Apple Blossom Festival!” the king said with a genial smile.

“As is tradition, myself and several ladies of the court will sample the apples of the first picking of the season,” the queen said. She gestured and the apples were distributed to the suitors, one apiece.

“Wow, it’s so red…it really is like a ruby,” Alice said.

“It looks delicious,” Hana said from the other side of Olivia.

“Oh, it is,” Olivia said. “I can’t wait for you both to try it.”

Alice was immediately suspicious of Olivia’s sudden shift in mood, but said nothing.

“You know, I actually look forward to this every year,” Madeleine said, a small, dignified smile on her lips.

“Ladies, if you will…” the queen said. “Please try your apples.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Alice noticed one of the reporters edging closer with a cameraman.

“Make sure you look over here!” the reporter said. “We’d love some reaction shots.”

Why do I feel like I’m about to get punk’d? Alice wondered. However, she didn’t get the opportunity to think about it for too long before the ladies around her all took a bite and she had to follow suit.

“Oh!” Hana exclaimed, surprised.

“Delicious,” Olivia declared.

“As refreshing as a summer breeze,” Madeleine said. Alice had to fight to keep from rolling her eyes, but only because Bertrand had specifically asked her to. She took a big bite of her own apple and her mouth was suddenly filled with a sharp, nauseating combination of bitter and sour tastes, as if each flavor was competing to be the worst and they were all winning.

God dammit, Alice thought. But she kept her composure and swallowed the bite before putting a smile on her face as the cameras clicked around her. As Alice smiled at the reporters, she noticed Bastien standing behind them, a hand over his mouth as he tried to suppress a smile. Oh my god, he is in so much trouble for not warning me…

“That was wonderful!” Alice said, trying to sound believable.

“It looks like you enjoyed the Cordonian Ruby, Lady Alice?” a nearby reporter asked.

“It has a lot of character,” she said.

“I wasn’t expecting such a sour taste!” Hana said, showing less composure than Alice had ever seen.

“The first crop of the season always has a particular bite to it. I rather like the taste personally,” Madeleine said.

Of course you do, you fucking psycho, Alice thought.

“You would,” Olivia muttered and Alice had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.

The king cleared his throat, calling everyone to attention. “It looks like our ladies enjoyed their apples. I’d like to extend a special thanks to our apple growers and farmers for preserving our noble tradition,” he said.

“And with that…Happy Apple Blossom Festival!” the queen announced. The crowd cheered and when the applause died down, people started dispersing into the orchard to pick apples. Alice was about to join them when the reporters rushed forward, cornering her with Madeleine and Olivia.

“Would it be alright with you ladies if I asked a few questions?” a reporter asked.

“Of course!” Madeleine said. “Fydelia has always generously supported the CBC. I look forward to your favorable report.”

“And I haven’t forgotten the amazing article about the Nevrakis family history in Trend several years back,” Olivia added.

“Well, your family has always been as fashionable as it is noble,” Ana de Luca said to Olivia. “Now, Lady Alice, although you’re new to Cordonia and don’t have the same history here as your fellow suitors, I’m guessing you can still provide a compelling story for us. Now, you’ve quickly emerged as the frontrunner in this competition–perhaps you can give us some insight into what Prince Liam is really like.”

“Well–”

“That is an excellent point, Ms. de Luca,” Madeleine interrupted. “I’d like to remind everyone that we all have a relationship with the prince that could provide a unique spin.”

“Yes, I’ve been Liam’s friend since childhood,” Olivia added.

“And I myself am close to the prince and have the pleasure of calling the queen my friend,” Madeleine said. “Now, any other questions?”

“Just one,” the first reporter said. “You’ve been at court enjoying all the events the social season has to offer, competing for the prince’s attention. At this stage, who do you think the prince will choose?”

“I think the prince will choose whoever will make the best queen,” Alice said. “The prince is loyal and dedicated and he will do what’s best for his country and people.”

“But you’re still wishing it’ll be you?” Ana de Luca asked.

“I think we all are,” Alice said carefully. “But I know Prince Liam will do what’s right, and we’re all trying to be worthy of being his choice.”

“Can I quote you on that?” Ana de Luca asked.

“Of course,” Alice said, hating herself.

“Very well put, Lady Alice,” Madeleine said. Alice glanced over at the willowy blonde and noticed a nick in her polished facade, but only for a moment before she composed herself once more. “I know I find the prince’s devotion to cause and country inspiring.”

“As we all do, Lady Madeleine,” Ana de Luca said. Alice couldn’t be sure, but she thought she detected a hint of sarcasm in Ms. de Luca’s voice. “That’s it for questions.”

“Thank you, ladies,” the first reporter said. “Especially you, Lady Alice. Your answers are always quite interesting.”

Is that good or bad? “You’re welcome.”

The reporters left and Madeleine turned to Alice, considering her thoughtfully.

“That was…informative, Lady Alice. You answered with such grace and poise,” Madeleine said.

“You say that like you’re surprised,” Alice said.

“Well, it’s not often one puts lipstick on a pig and wins the beauty contest,” Madeleine said. “Why wouldn’t I be surprised?”

Excuse me?” Alice asked, remembering just in time to keep herself composed like Bertrand had instructed.

“I only hope you can keep it up without any…mishaps,” Madeleine continued. “Some women can’t handle the pressure.” With that, Madeleine turned and left Olivia and Alice behind, walking into the crowd.

“What is her problem?” Alice asked.

“As Bronn said, ‘There’s no cure for being a cunt,’” Olivia said.

“I’m down for a reenactment of the purple wedding if you are,” Alice said.

Olivia shook her head. “Poison is too delicate of a weapon for a Nevrakis. We prefer steel.”

“Valerian?” Alice asked as she pulled out her phone to read the incoming text message.

How did you like your apple?

I can’t BELIEVE you didn’t warn me!!!

Oops…guess you might need to teach me a lesson…

“Obviously.”

Alice noticed Maxwell and Bertrand on the sidelines. “Excuse me, Olivia,” she said before she walked over to the waiting brothers.

“You did well with the press,” Bertrand said, sounding pleased. “Madeleine didn’t shake you.”

“No, but I’m starting to see what you mean,” Alice said as she felt her phone buzz in her back pocket. “She’s very good at controlling a story and spinning it in her favor.”

“Still, this gives me hope,” Bertrand said.

“Great,” Alice said, remembering something else. “Hey, by the way, what was up with all that poetic bullshit about the apple?” She lowered her voice. “I don’t know what kind of caramel you’ve been eating, but I think it’s gone rancid.”

“I said it had an intense flavor!” Bertrand protested. “Besides, if you can’t handle something as simple as a sour apple, I shudder to think how you’ll crumble when presented with a real challenge.”

Alice sighed. “You’re exhausting. Anyway, what happens now?”

“Right now, I suggest you two go down this path and enjoy a stroll through the royal gardens,” Bertrand said. “I have it on good authority that the prince is there now. I’ll catch up with you later.”

“Shall we?” Maxwell asked, extending his arm. She looped hers through his.

“We shall.”

They headed towards the gardens but hesitated when they heard Bertrand’s agitated voice. Alice glanced back to see Bertrand stalking to Ana de Luca.

“Hey, Maxwell, isn’t that the reporter from Trend?” she asked, nodding towards the elder Beaumont.

“Yeah,” Maxwell said. “But I–”

“Ana, you’re being unreasonable,” Bertrand snapped.

“Not the way I see it,” she replied coolly. Bertrand turned and stormed off and a moment later, Ana left in the opposite direction.

“Any idea what that was?” Alice asked Maxwell.

“Not really,” he said with a shrug. “Bertrand doesn’t let me get involved with House Beaumont stuff. He thinks I’d just screw it up.”

“Oh, come on, that’s not fair,” Alice said.

“I mean, I kind of see his point,” Maxwell said. “I am kind of a screw-up…”

“Maxwell, I means this is all the love in the world, but shut the fuck up,” Alice said sternly. “Don’t let Bertrand get to you! You’re as much a member of House Beaumont as he is.”

“It does look like things didn’t go well with that reporter…maybe I could help,” he said thoughtfully. “Wait, not I don’t want to distract you. We’re supposed to be going to find the prince.”

“Are you sure?” Alice asked.

He nodded. “Yeah. As much as I’d like to help our cause, I trust Bertrand to take care of it.”

Maxwell led Alice into the gardens and it appeared that everyone from court had the same idea to stroll amongst the ornate flower beds.

“Do you see Liam anywhere?” Maxwell asked as he glanced around.

“There are so many people in here I feel like I can barely see you, let alone anyone else,” Alice said.

“Well, Bertrand said he was here…I’ll go look around,” he said.

Maxwell headed off into the crowd and Alice waited, glancing around her. Off to the side, she noticed a gazebo tucked away. There was a cobblestone path leading to it with an “Exhibit Closed” sign hanging on a velvet rope that had been set up to block the way. Alice considered this for a moment before stepping over the rope and making her way over to the gazebo. There, sitting alone, she found Liam staring contemplatively at a pond of golden fish.

“Everything okay?”

Liam’s head popped up. “Alice! What are you doing here?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” she said. “Is something wrong?”

He shook his head. “No. It’s just…it’s nothing. Never mind.”

“Liam, something is clearly bothering you,” Alice said as she walked into the gazebo to sit beside him. He thought for a moment before he turned to her.

“Alice, can I ask you something?”

Am I in love with the head of the royal guard while competing to be your wife? Yes. “Of course.”

“Do you…do you think you could handle being queen of Cordonia? Truly?”

“I don’t know,” Alice said, trying to figure out the best segue into the talk she needed to have with him.

“Ah. The thing is…at the end of the social season, if we’re going to be together…”

“Liam, I’m just a bartender from New York,” Alice said. “I think you need to be with someone who is better equipped to handle this.”

“Alice, you’re not ‘just’ anything,” Liam said. “And I think you could be great. I like that you’re not like the other suitors; you have a pragmatic way of looking at things that I think could be really beneficial for Cordonia.”

“I’m just saying, don’t rule out the other suitors yet,” Alice said.

Liam looked at her and hesitated before asking his question. “Do you…not want to be here?”

“I love being in Cordonia,” Alice answered honestly. “But I think you’re dealing with a lot right now and I don’t want you to make a rash decision.”

Liam took her hand and sighed. “Alice, I don’t want to ask this because I think I know the answer, but I have to.” He swallowed. “Do you still want to be here to marry me?”

“Liam, I–”

“Liam! There you are,” a familiar voice called.

GOD DAMMIT, OLIVIA!

“I was looking for you; I wanted to see if you were interested in taking a turn around the gardens with me,” Olivia said from the velvet rope.

“Of course, I’ll be right there,” Liam called back. He and Alice stood up. “Can we…talk more later?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Alice said. Liam turned to leave but only took a couple steps before turning around.

“Oh! I completely forgot to tell you. Today is Drake’s birthday. He isn’t really the type to celebrate and usually spends the day hiding out in his room. Sometimes I’m able to convince him to have a drink with me, but that’s about as far as it goes. However, I was hoping that maybe this year you could help me? He seems to like you and I want to make sure he has a good day. Maybe we could all hang out later?”

“Of course,” Alice said. “I’d like that.”

“Good. I’ll find you later,” Liam said. He nodded goodbye and smiled, but she noticed it didn’t reach his eyes.

After Liam left with Olivia, Alice wandered through the gardens alone. She paused at a small fountain, watching the water burble down the cascading rocks.

“Enjoying the gardens, Lady Alice?”

Alice glanced over to her left to see Bastien standing there, his back to the fountain as he surveyed the area. She smiled and turned back to the fountain.

“I am now.”

“Which room are you staying in?” Bastien asked.

“I honestly don’t remember which one it is,” she said. “Maxwell got slightly lost when he tried to show me; I won’t be able to find it again without help. Hey, you have access to room assignments, right? Would you be able to look it up for me later?”

“I haven’t actually seen the room assignments yet, but I can let you know when I do.” A tiny alarm pinged at the back of his mind. It was unusual that he hadn’t seen the room assignments yet; he usually received a copy before arrival, but for some reason he hadn’t. “Alice, how are you getting along with the royal family?”

She shrugged. “Fine, I guess. I don’t think the queen likes me very much, but the king seems to like me okay…why?”

“I’m not sure yet,” he said, sweeping his eyes across the garden again. Whenever Liam was with Olivia, it was always easy to find him due to her red hair. “It’s probably nothing.”

“Have you heard something?”

“No,” he said truthfully. “There’s just a couple things that don’t add up.”

“Like what?”

“Lady Alice,” Tariq said as he sidled up next to her. “Enjoying the gardens?”

“I was until about four seconds ago,” she said, taking a step away from Tariq towards Bastien.

Tariq tsked. “I hardly think that’s an attitude befitting a suitor. You should greet someone more important than you with grace and a smile.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for when I meet one,” she said. Tariq smiled and put his hand on her back. “Don’t touch me.” She tried to move away but he kept his hand on her.

There was a quick flurry of activity behind her, faster than a snakebite, and Tariq grunted in pain. Alice turned to see Bastien hand locked around Tariq’s wrist, twisting it back to immobilize him without causing a scene in the gardens.

“The lady asked you to keep your distance,” Bastien said in a low voice. “Sir.”

Tariq yanked his hand away, rubbing his wrist. “You can’t treat me like this!”

“I can and did,” Bastien said evenly. “I suggest you leave.”

Tariq grumbled, rubbing his wrist, but he left. Alice exhaled slowly, her heart still racing.

“Thank you,” she said.

“I fucking hate that guy,” Bastien muttered. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Alice said. She glanced over to see him watching her carefully. “Really, I’m fine.”

Bastien’s eyes flicked down to her wrist. The bruises were long gone, but he still saw them in his mind.

“Do you want an extra security detail?” he asked. “I can’t do it because I’m assigned to Liam, but I could get someone for you.”

She shook her head. “I’ll be okay. I’m almost always with Maxwell anyway and Tariq doesn’t usually bother me when there are other people around.”

“Usually?”

“Bas, please, I’m fine,” she said. “I promise.”

“Hey, Alice!”

She turned to see Hana, Drake, and Maxwell approaching.

“Hey, birthday boy!” Alice exclaimed.

“Oh, god dammit, Liam told you,” he said as he rubbed a hand across his forehead.

“Drake, it’s your birthday?” Hana asked as Liam walked over to join the group. “Happy birthday!”

“Liam, you told her?” Drake asked, pointing to Alice.

“My deepest apologies, Drake, I forgot it was was such a closely guarded secret,” Liam said with uncharacteristic sarcasm tinging his voice.

“It’s fine,” Drake said, not sounding fine at all. “It doesn’t matter because this is the last we’re ever going to speak of it ever again.”

“You don’t want to do something fun on your birthday?” Hana asked.

“Well, I already got to see Ayers eat a Cordonian Ruby on camera, so I think I’m all set,” he said.

“Oh, come on!” Hana protested. “Even I was allowed petit fours and an hour playing with my father’s cat each year…”

“Jesus, Hana,” Alice said. Hana shrugged.

“Man, Drake, even Hana feels bad for you,” Maxwell said.

“I don’t need fun to enjoy myself,” Drake retorted.

Alice cocked her head as she looked at him. “Did you just hear the words that came out of your mouth?” Behind her, she could hear Bastien suppress a snicker.

“Are all Americans as fussy as Drake about birthdays, Alice?” Maxwell asked.

“You’re American?” Alice asked.

“Half. On my mother’s side,” Drake said.

Alice thought for a moment before a wicked grin spread across her face. “I just had an idea…do you have any American western-themed bars in Cordonia?”

Maxwell pulled out his phone and tapped on the screen.

“A western bar?” Drake asked skeptically.

“Think about it,” she said. “Barbecue, whiskey, and mechanical bull riding.”

“Right now I’m only interested in one of those things.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll find you a mechanical bull.”

Drake sighed. “Okay, I guess it doesn’t sound horrible, but I can’t ask you guys to sneak out for that.”

“Hate to break it to you, but I think security already knows,” Hana said, pointing to Bastien. Everyone turned to look at Bastien, who was still looking out at the gardens.

“I’ve heard nothing,” Bastien said. “And I can’t officially encourage you all to sneak out…but I wouldn’t say anything if you did.”

“Are you going to take a turn on the mechanical bull?” Alice asked innocently.

“Don’t push it.” In spite of himself, Alice noticed the corners of his mouth twitch up at the ends.

“Great! I’d love to,” Liam said.

“I’d also like to understand more of Alice’s American culture,” Hana added.

“To be fair, a western bar isn’t exactly indicative of New York,” Alice said. “But it’ll be fun!”

“And I’ll take any excuse to drink and dance the night away!” Maxwell said. “Plus, I just found the perfect place!”

“Come on, Drake, what do you say?” Alice asked. “It’s your birthday so if you really don’t want to, we can stay here.”

Drake sighed. “You said there was whiskey, right?”

“Yes!” Maxwell cheered. “Let’s go!”

The group started to walk away and Alice hung towards the back where Bastien brought up the rear.

“You’re trouble, you know that?” Bastien murmured. Alice suppressed a smile and kept her eyes forward.

“That’s why you like me,” she said.

No, that’s why I love you, he thought.


When they arrived at the bar, Maxwell burst through the door.

“This is amazing!” he exclaimed. The others followed him inside and Alice surveyed the room. She’d been to a lot of themed restaurants, bars, and parties, but this was by far the kitchiest one she’d ever seen. It was clearly modeled after old western movies and decorated with cattle horns, saddles, and, in the center of the room, a mechanical bull.

“I can’t believe you actually talked me into this,” Drake said.

“Right, because we had to twist your arm so hard,” Alice said as she rolled her eyes. “Alright, let’s go get you a birthday drink.”

“I’ll buy the first round,” Liam offered as they headed to the bar. He glanced back at Bastien. “Join us?”

“I can’t drink while I’m working, but I guess I could hang out,” Bastien said.

“Hey, what does everyone want? Are we all doing a birthday shot?” Alice asked. She glanced at Bastien. “What do you want?”

Bastien sighed. “I’ll do one with you. But only one,” he said. He looked up at Drake. “Happy birthday, Drake.”

“She’s good at talking people into things, isn’t she?” Drake asked, a small smile on his face as he looked at her.

“What can I get for you?” the bartender asked.

“Do you have Red Spot?” The bartender nodded. “Six shots, please.”

The bartender lined up the glasses and poured the shots, sliding them across the bar before accepting Liam’s credit card. Alice passed them out and held up her glass.

“To Drake,” she said. “Happy birthday!”

Everyone clinked their glasses and Alice felt Bastien’s fingers brush her lower back as they all downed their shots.

“Wow, that is…whiskey,” Hana said, her eyes watering with liquor’s crocodile tears. The bartender handed her a glass of water. “Thank you.”

“Who’s ready to dance?” Maxwell asked, already popping his shoulders.

“Me!” Hana said as she took a sip of her water.

“Me, too,” Liam said.

“I haven’t had nearly enough whiskey for that,” Drake said.

“Then you definitely need another drink,” Alice said. “We’ll join you in a minute,” she said to Liam.

Liam, Hana, and Maxwell headed over to the dance floor, leaving Drake, Alice, and Bastien at the bar.

“Okay, let’s get this guy something special for his birthday,” Alice said, turning back to the bartender. “What do you have in the way of Macallan?”

“Not much,” the bartender said apologetically. “But I do have the twelve, eighteen, and twenty-five year sherry cask.”

“Perfect, we’ll take two of the twenty-five,” Alice said. “Bastien?”

“Just water for me.”

“Isn’t Macallan scotch?” Drake asked. “I thought you’d want an American whiskey.”

“Oh, god no,” Alice said. “I only drink bourbon as a last resort.”

The bartender chuckled at her comment as he poured the whiskey. “You a bartender?”

“Is it that obvious?” Alice asked.

“It is to me,” he said as he set down the glasses before getting Bastien’s water.

Alice grinned. “You can take the girl out of the bar…what do I owe you?” she asked, reaching for her wallet, but the bartender waved her off.

“It’s on me. Happy birthday, man,” he said to Drake.

“What? No, we got the twenty-five!” Alice protested, but he ignored her. “Well, thank you,” she said, pulling some cash out of her wallet setting it on the bar. The bartender took the cash to drop it in his tip jar and Alice noticed Drake staring at her.

“How did you do that?” he asked. “I’ve literally never gotten a free drink before in my life, especially not something nice like this,” Drake said, pointing to his glass.

“Really?” Alice asked.

“Really,” Drake said. “But I think I figured out the secret.”

“And what’s that?”

“No one says no to a hot girl.”

“Bartenders rarely charge each other,” Bastien interjected without thinking as he remembered the night he met Alice. “They just pass the same wad of cash back and forth as a tip until one of them dies.” He hesitated, realizing what he just said. “But it’s true, it’s impossible to say no to a beautiful woman.”

“See?” Drake said, pointing at Bastien. “Even you took a shot immediately after you said you wouldn’t.”

“Cheers,” Alice said quickly, feeling a blush start to rise in her cheeks. Both Drake and Bastien raised their glasses and clinked them with hers.

“There you two are!” Hana said as she joined them, Maxwell close on her heels.

“Liam just paid the guy operating the mechanical bull,” Maxwell said with a gleeful grin. “Drake, you’re up!”

“What? No, I just got a drink…” he tried to protest, but Alice plucked it out of his hand.

“I’ll keep it safe for you,” she said.

“I told Liam you’d say no, but then he said you’re some kind of expert…” Maxwell said.

“Is that true?” Alice asked.

“There’s only one way you’d get to find out, and I’m not drunk enough to make a fool of myself yet,” Drake said.

“Personally, I’d rather see Hana try,” Maxwell said. “I’m willing to be you’d beat everyone’s time.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t,” Hana said. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin!”

“Okay, what if I go first?” Alice asked.

“Yes! Alice!” Maxwell practically shouted. He took the drinks from her hands and handed them to Drake. “Let’s go!”

Alice let Maxwell lead her across the bar to where Liam was standing beside the mechanical bull.

“You…are not Drake,” Liam said with a smile.

“Your powers of observation are unparalleled, Your Highness,” Alice teased. “I volunteered to go first in order to shame the birthday boy into participating.”

Liam laughed. “That’ll work.”

The man running the mechanical bull ushered Alice over to the machine and helped her mount it.

“Ever done this before?” he asked.

“Nope,” Alice said. “How likely am I to die?”

The man shrugged. “Guess we’ll find out. Hold on with one hand here,” the man said, indicating a strap, “and put your other hand in the air for balance.”

“Got it. Anything else?”

“Don’t fall off.”

He left Alice on the bull and she took a steadying breath.

“You got this, Alice!” Maxwell called.

She looked over at the bar to see Drake, Hana, and Bastien watching her. Bastien took a sip of his water to hide his amused smile.

Dear god, please don’t let me break my neck before I get a chance to tell that man I love him.

“Ready?” the man operating the bull called out.

“Yup!”

The bull lurched forward but Alice held on, squeezing her thighs tightly against the bull. It began to move more, but she managed to fall into a steady rhythm, counterbalancing against the bull’s rising and falling.

“You’ve got this, Alice!” Hana called.

Alice tried to hold her focus, maintaining her balance, until suddenly the bull jerked to the side, tossing Alice off into the inflatable ring surrounding the bull.

“Eighteen seconds!” Liam called as he and the others clapped. Alice stood up and took a bow.

“Thank you, thank you,” she said. Alice pointed across the bar. “Get over here, Walker, you’re next.”

Drake downed the rest of his whiskey and set the empty glass on the bar before he headed over to the bull.

“If I break my neck, it’s all your fault,” he said as he passed Alice.

She shrugged. “We’ll consider it a birthday souvenir.”

Alice sat down by Bastien as Hana moved closer to get a better view.

“Nice riding,” Bastien said, not taking his eyes off Drake as he prepared to take his turn.

“Impressed?”

“I am,” he said. “Of course, I enjoy the view more when you’re riding me.”

“Don’t start something you can’t finish now, Dorian,” Alice warned as she took a sip of her scotch.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Gray,” he said innocently. They watched as Drake went tumbling off the bull after fourteen seconds. He leaned a little closer to her ear so he could lower his voice. “I’m simply thinking about how beautiful you look when you’re on top of me…riding my cock…your tits in my mouth…the way you moan into my ear…”

“I don’t think I’m cut out for the rodeo,” Drake said as he rejoined Alice and Bastien at the bar, sitting down heavily onto a stool on her other side. “Are you okay? You look a little flushed.”

“It’s just warm in here,” Alice said before finishing her whiskey. She signalled to the bartender who brought her a glass of water. “Hey, look, Maxwell’s up.”

Maxwell went flying after only eleven seconds and Liam managed to hold on for twenty-two, but Hana ended up stomping everyone’s time with a whopping thirty-four seconds.

“Hana, are you secretly a professional bull rider?” Alice asked. “It’s okay, you can tell us.”

“I’m not, I swear!” she exclaimed so earnestly it made everyone laugh.

“Alright, who’s ready for more dancing?” Maxwell asked.

“You kids have fun,” Bastien said. “I’m good here.”

“I’m almost drunk enough to dance,” Drake said as he signalled to the bartender for another shot. The bartender delivered it, plus one for Alice. “Seriously, how do you do that?”

“Bartender magic.”

“Alice, are you joining us?” Liam asked. He held out his hand to her and Alice couldn’t help but notice the hesitation and sadness in his eyes.

“Sure,” she said as she took his hand, tugging Drake’s arm as she stood up. “Let’s go.”

On the way to the dance floor, Alice glanced back over her shoulder at Bastien, who nodded to her.

“It’s okay,” he mouthed.

Alice turned back just in time for Liam to face her, taking both of her hands in his.

“I have to admit, I don’t really know how to dance to this kind of music,” Liam said, gesturing to the speakers that were blaring country music from the 1990s.

“You know how to dance, it’ll translate,” Alice assured him.

They started to dance, Liam leading her gracefully through the steps, twirling her before bringing her back again.

“See?” she asked.

“Okay, okay,” Liam said with a smile. “You’ve convinced me.” He spun her in another circle, letting her hand go at the height of the twirl before Maxwell caught her.

“Smooth move,” Alice said with a laugh as Liam began to dance with Hana.

“Having a good time?” Maxwell asked.

“Of course!” Alice said. “You’re so sweet for always checking on me.”

“Well, you’re a good friend,” Maxwell said as they danced. “I like having you here. You’re like the sister I always wished we had.”

“I feel the same way,” Alice said. “I really appreciate you both taking me in. Well, you more so than Bertrand…he does tend to talk to me like I’m an annoying younger sister.”

“That just means he likes you,” Maxwell said. “You’d know if he didn’t.”

“Oh, Jesus, I’m afraid to see how he’d treat me if he didn’t like me,” Alice said.

“Mind if I cut in?” Drake asked.

“Sure,” Maxwell said. Alice turned towards Drake who put his arm around her waist and held her hand, leading her gracefully through the steps.

“Drake, look at you dancing!” Alice said. “Who knew you had it in you?”

“I’m full of surprises,” he said. “Hey…I wanted to thank you.”

“For what?”

“For this,” he said. “I don’t really like celebrating my birthday, but this has been really fun.”

“You’re welcome,” Alice said. “I’m glad you’ve had a fun day even though I completely kicked your ass at the mechanical bull.”

“You barely beat me!” Drake protested. “It was only four seconds!”

“Four seconds is a long time on a mechanical bull.”

“True…”

Alice glanced over at Bastien in time to see him stand up from the bar. “Drake, will you excuse me for a second?”

She left the dance floor and headed over to Bastien. “Time to go?”

“I think so,” Bastien said. “They’re going to close the bar soon.”

“I’ll go get the others,” she said, turning to go, before she felt Bastien’s light touch on her arm, stopping her.

“Hey,” Bastien said as the music surrounded them. “This was really nice of you to do for Drake.”

Alice shrugged. “Everyone should get to celebrate on their birthday.”

“Yes, but Drake doesn’t have a lot of friends. I think it meant a lot to him.”

She smiled at Bastien. “I only wish you could’ve danced with me tonight.”

He looked at her tenderly, glad for the lowered lights of the bar. “Save me a dance for later?”

“Always.”

“You know how badly I want to kiss you right now, right?” he asked. She laughed.

“Always.”


Part 17


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