Guarded Hearts, Part 17

Summary: The competition is on for the title of Apple Queen, but others are conspiring.

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, Part 16


The following morning, Alice awoke to the sounds of Maxwell and Bertrand’s voices in the hallway outside her bedroom.

“Alice!” Maxwell called. “I’m knocking! Are you awake?”

“Maxwell, that completely defeats the purpose of knocking when you yell ‘I’m knocking,’” Bertrand said exasperatedly.

“Yes, I’m awake, come in,” Alice called out from beneath a pillow. She was looking forward to coming clean about her and Bastien for a lot of reasons, but at that moment she wanted most of all to be able to go to sleep without having to wake up at 4 AM to sneak back to her own room. Maxwell burst into the room, the door hitting the wall with a crack. Bertrand followed, too annoyed to reprimand his younger brother again. Then he hesitated by the door, examining it.

“Did you know your door doesn’t have a lock?” Bertrand asked, confused.

“Don’t care,” Alice mumbled, still half-asleep.

“In any case, it’s day two of the Apple Blossom Festival,” Bertrand said, forging on. “I hope you’re prepared to fight for your time with the prince, Alice.”

“And for all the apples!” Maxwell added. “You’ve made an apple pie before, right? And you’re pretty good at planting apple trees?”

“Wow, one thing at a time, Maxwell,” Alice said as she sat up in bed, trying to get her eyes to adjust to the light. “Yes, I can bake. No, I’ve never planted a tree.”

“That’s something, I suppose,” Bertrand said. “We’ll wait for you outside; get dressed and then we’ll head down to breakfast.”

Alice nodded and Bertrand ushered Maxwell out of the room, gently shutting the door behind them. She reached over and picked up her phone to read the text that was waiting for her:

I only miss you when I’m breathing.

Alice smiled, reading the words over and over. She was about to text back when she heard Maxwell knock on the door.

“Hang on!” she called, throwing back the covers. Even when she and Bastien weren’t together, there was never enough time.

Down in the dining hall, Maxwell, Bertrand, and Alice sat apart from everyone else.

“Are you ready for today?” Bertrand asked.

“Well, I’m eating an apple tart with apple cider and whipped apple butter, so I’d say I’m pretty appled out at this point,” Alice said as she took a bite.

“Your diet alone isn’t enough to perform well today,” Bertrand said.

“Whaaaaaat?” Alice asked, only barely resisting the urge to open her mouth mid-chew like a five-year-old. Sleep deprivation did not bring out the best in her.

“Anyway, the best dressed lady today will be crowned the Apple Queen,” Bertrand said as Alice swallowed her food.

“The Apple Queen?”

“It’s an amusing tradition where the festival-goers vote on who will run the Apple Court,” Bertrand explained.

“Usually, if something is actually amusing, you’re supposed to laugh or smile, not just keep deadpan your tone,” Alice pointed out.

Bertrand ignored her. “If you win the title of Apple Queen, you’ll get extra publicity, the favor of the actual queen, and the ability to boss people around for an hour.”

“Even you?” she asked with a slow grin. Maxwell snickered beside her.

“Come on, you two, focus!”

“Sorry, sorry,” Alice said. “Okay, so I have to be the best dressed. What exactly does that mean?”

“It means, I’ve decided to be in charge of your wardrobe today,” Bertrand said. Maxwell and Alice both froze, staring at him. “It’s not that bad,” he snapped. “Through a series of promises and threats, I was able to procure a historically accurate rendition of a Cordonian peasant’s best gown from the country’s most prestigious stage production company.”

“That sounds kind of fun,” Alice said.

Twenty minutes later, Alice had changed her mind.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Alice said as she stared in the mirror.

“It’s traditional!” Bertrand protested.

“You look…” Maxwell said, faltering a little as he searched for the right words.

“Like a tavern wench?”

“I was going to say kind of cute, but yeah, okay, it is a little tavern wench-y,” Maxwell admitted.

“I don’t know why that’s so strange,” Bertrand sniffed. “Weren’t you a bartender?”

“I’m going to let that slide only because I’m still impressed that you’ve retained that I’m a bartender, not a waitress,” Alice said. She sighed, examining herself in the mirror. “And you’re sure you want me to go in public dressed like this in front of the press?”

“Absolutely,” Bertrand said firmly. “The festival-goers will appreciate your–meaning my–efforts to connect with Cordonian history.”

“Well, okay then,” Alice said.

“I’ll take that as a thank you,” Bertrand said.

“Live your best life, dude.”

Bertrand sighed. “Please don’t call me dude.”

“What if I add ‘Your Grace’ in front of it?”

“We should probably get out there,” Maxwell said, taking his brother’s elbow. Bertrand let Maxwell lead him out of the room and Alice hung behind for a moment to take a photo of herself in the dress. She then texted the photo to both Bastien and Frankie. Bastien wrote back almost immediately.

You are the most beautiful peasant I’ve ever seen. But I might like that dress better if it was on the floor…

Alice grinned. She was about to put her phone away when it buzzed again with Frankie’s response.

😂😂😂😂😂😂😂

Alice laughed and shoved her phone in the pocket of her dress. Well, at least it has pockets…


“You said you know how to bake, right, Alice?” Maxwell asked.

“Indeed I do,” Alice said.

“Does that mean you know how to follow the directions on a box or does that mean you actually know how to bake?” Bertrand asked.

“Oh, wait, did you mean with a grown-up stove and not an E-Z-Bake Oven?” Alice asked. “Yes, Bertrand, I actually know how to bake.”

“I’m just clarifying, I don’t know what you do back in America.”

“We spend all of our time thinking about ways to drive foreigners crazy.”

“Mission accomplished.”

“Anyway,” Maxwell interrupted. “The next event of the Apple Blossom Festival involves baking an apple pie for the queen.”

“Yes, today is all about gaining the queen’s favor. As we draw closer to the coronation, she’ll be testing all the potential candidates. Be careful what you say around her.” Bertrand narrowed his eyes. “This means please do not call the queen ‘dude.’”

“Don’t worry, I’d never share your nickname with anyone else,” Alice said.

“Winning the pie-baking contest will also go a long way when it comes to impressing the queen,” Maxwell added.

“No problem,” Alice said.

“However, you won’t have to do the contest alone,” Maxwell said. “It’s a team event, so you can rely on the other ladies if you need to.”

“I’d be willing to bet money that half of them couldn’t locate the kitchen in their own homes if they tried,” Alice said. “Except for Hana, of course.”

“Well, maybe you can get on her team,” Maxwell said. “If you’re good at baking and she’s…well, good at everything because she’s Hana, you two should be unstoppable.”

“Make House Beaumont proud,” Bertrand said. Alice assumed he was trying to be encouraging, but it sounded more like a threat than anything else.

Oh well, close enough, she thought as Maxwell directed Alice to where the other ladies were gathering for the royal bake-off. Just as she joined them, the queen arrived.

“Greetings, ladies,” Regina said. “I’m glad to see everyone here again. We will soon be dividing into two teams to partake in the apple pie baking contest. I’ve decided that Olivia will captain one team and Madeleine the other. Ladies, please select your teams.”

“Lady Kiara,” Olivia said.

Merci,” Kiara said as she took her place beside Olivia.

“I choose Lady Penelope,” Madeleine said.

Damn! Alice thought when she realized she and Hana would have to be different teams. She wagered a glance towards Maxwell, who shrugged.

“Yay!” Lady Penelope squealed. “We can bake poodle-shaped pie crumpets!”

“No.”

Penelope’s face fell, but she said nothing.

“Look at the two strays,” Olivia said with a smile. “Come on, Alice, I’ll adopt you. You’re not as mangy as Hana.”

Alice’s face darkened and she was about to say something to Olivia when she glanced over to see Bertrand’s eyes nearly popping out of his head, reminding her that the queen was watching.

“Good luck,” Alice said to Hana, reaching out to squeeze her hand.

“You, too!” she said before going to join Madeleine as Alice walked over to Olivia.

“What is your problem?” Alice hissed at Olivia through a smile.

“What? I complimented you,” Olivia said. Alice glanced at her and she realized that she wasn’t lying–Olivia literally thought she’d complimented her.

As everyone headed towards the outdoor baking setup, the queen approached Alice.

“Lady Alice, are you going to exceed expectations like last time?” Regina asked, her expression unreadable.

“I suppose that depends on what your expectations are, Your Highness,” Alice said. “But I hope so.”

To most, the queen’s expression would look like a small smile, but Alice could see the grimace for what it was.

“Best of luck, Lady Alice,” the queen said.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“What was the queen saying to you?” Olivia asked when Alice rejoined the team at their outdoor kitchen.

“Just wishing me luck,” Alice said with a shrug.

“That’s it?” Olivia asked skeptically. “Why would she wish you luck and not the rest of us?”

“I honestly have no idea,” Alice said.

Olivia shook her head and returned to the task at hand as the queen addressed the crowd.

“Let the great Cordonian bake-off begin!” Queen Regina announced.

The women sprang into a flurry of activity and Olivia slammed a basket of apples in front of Alice.

“Here, cut these,” Olivia said. “That’s a simple enough task that even you should be able to handle it.”

Alice rolled her eyes and began to peel and slice the apples, deftly making quick work of the fruit.

“Wow, you’re fast!” Kiara exclaimed as she gathered ingredients for the dough.

“Not my first rodeo in the kitchen,” Alice said with a grin as she finished slicing the last apple.

Kiara greased the pan while Alice made quick work of the crust and Olivia prepared the filling. Before long, the pie was assembled, baked, and being handed to the queen by Olivia as Madeleine presented her team’s pie.

“Thank you,” the queen said as each woman set down her dish. “Now, we will judge both pies, beginning with Madeleine’s.” She examined the pie for a moment, admiring the decorative crust. “The design on this is lovely! Are those roses?” Regina asked.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Hana said with a smile.

“You are exceptionally talented, Lady Hana,” Regina said.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Hana said graciously as the queen carved a slice of pie and ate a piece.

“Oh, that is delightfully scrumptious,” the queen said. “A perfect blend of sugar and spices.” She swallowed and politely patted her lips with a linen napkin. “Now, for Olivia’s team.” Regina examined the pie. “Hmm…not quite as decorative as Madeleine’s pie, but it has elegant construction despite its simplicity.”

Alice suppressed an eye roll.

“And the crust is in splendid condition,” the queen continued as she cut a slice and sampled a small bite. “The perfect amount of apples with exquisite flavoring!” she said, sounding slightly surprised.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Alice said politely, ignoring the barb.

The queen dabbed her mouth with her napkin again. “After weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each side…I declare Olivia’s team the winner!”

Alice’s jaw dropped in surprise but she quickly recovered when she saw Bertrand glaring at her. She had to get it together; Alice was fairly certain one could see the vein in his forehead throbbing from space.

“This is one of the best apple pies I’ve had in a long time,” the queen said. “Very well done, ladies.”

“Thank you, ma’am, you honor us all,” Olivia said as Kiara and Alice echoed their agreement.

“Now, ladies, if you’ll proceed across the grounds for our next event,” Regina said, gesturing to a nearby pathway. A cleaning crew immediately swept in to clear the area and as the suitors began to walk away, the queen approached Alice.

“Lady Alice, may I have a word?” she asked.

“Of course, ma’am.”

The queen led Alice away from the ladies for a stroll through the apple orchard, the dappled sunlight breaking through the leaves of the trees. As they walked, Alice let her eyes drift around the orchard. Off to the side, she caught sight of Bastien speaking with Penelope. Not who I meant when I said you might meet someone else, Penelope, she thought, smiling a little as she shook her head.

“What are you looking at?” Regina asked.

“I’m just admiring the orchard,” Alice said smoothly. “I don’t often get to see anything like this back home; it’s beautiful.”

“Yes, it is,” the queen said. She cleared her throat. “First, I’d like to compliment you on your historically accurate costume,” Regina said. “It’s nice to see you embracing the traditions.”

“Thank you,” Alice said. “Although I suspect this isn’t what you took me on this walk to talk about though, is it?”

“Ah,” Regina said. “You’re direct, but not incorrect. I wanted us to get to know one another better. I’ve been impressed with how you’ve comported yourself so far. You’ve demonstrated grace and composure unlike most.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“But a queen, no matter how graceful and composed, cannot be everywhere at once,” Regina said. “I’ve needed to appoint advisers and ambassadors to act in my stead.”

“One of the best qualities in a leader is knowing when to delegate,” Alice said, an uncomfortable suspicion prickling at the back of her neck.

“Precisely,” Regina said. “That is why I’d like to hear your opinion on some of those around you.”

“Of course.”

“Madeleine is your strongest competitor,” the queen said. “What’s your opinion of her?”

She’s a manipulative bitch. “She’s a valuable asset,” Alice said. “She has the pedigree and skills to thrive at court, and she knows how to use that to her advantage.” By being a manipulative bitch. “She could be a valuable ally or a difficult enemy,” Alice added.

“Interesting assessment,” Regina said. “Now, Hana has been a competitor since the beginning, and you two seem closer than the others. What do you see in her?”

“Hana is extraordinarily talented,” Alice said, relaxing a little at the thought of her friend. “She’s basically a court prodigy and she’s helped me find my footing when I didn’t know where to step.”

“She’s someone you would hypothetically want to keep in your inner circle, I assume.”

“Absolutely, I’m very lucky to have her for a friend,” Alice said.

“What you say about your friends can reveal more about you than about them,” Regina said, thinking for a moment. “What about Prince Liam’s commoner friend, Drake? You’re by his side quite often despite him having little to do with the competition.”

“Drake is reliable, if a little rough around the edges,” Alice said as she carefully stepped around the queen’s conversational landmine. “He can be moody, but he’ll come through for his friends in a pinch. Drake is a loyal friend and I understand why the prince trusts him; I do, too.”

“It’s good to surround yourself with people you can trust,” Regina said lightly. “A true queen must have a network of allies she can call upon.”

Alice wasn’t entirely sure which one of them they were talking about. Either way, this conversation was making her very uncomfortable.

“You may return to the other suitors, Lady Alice,” Regina said. “It’s time I announce the next event.”

“Of course. Thank you, ma’am.” Alice curtsied and left the queen to rejoin the other ladies among a gathering crowd of onlookers. Regina made her way to the front of the crowd before turning to address everyone.

“The Apple Blossom Festival symbolizes the growth vital to keeping our small nation thriving. Now, as is tradition, we will honor one distinguished, best dressed lady as this year’s Apple Queen. This is a ceremonial position for the people to decide. Last year, it was our very own Lady Madeleine.”

“And I very much appreciated the honor,” Madeleine said with a beatific smile.

Madeleine, if you don’t stop kissing the queen’s ass, you’re going to become vacuum sealed to it, Alice thought.

“As for this year…” the queen continued. “Citizens of Cordonia, who do you wish to honor with this title?”

The crowd erupted into while cries, a frenzied cacophony of names, cheers, and boos. However, chants for one name began to overpower all the others.

“Alice! Alice! Alice!”

Alice glanced around, trying to hide her surprised. Seriously?

“I think we have a clear winner,” the queen said with only the smallest whisper of a smile. “Lady Alice will be this year’s Apple Queen!”

The nearby reporters immediately started their broadcasts, all of them discussing Alice’s ascension to Apple Queen and the possible connotations this could have for the social season.

“Yes!” Maxwell cheered as he and Bertrand joined her. “Party like it’s 1299! All hail the Apple Queen from the Big Apple!”

“Maxwell…” Bertrand warned.

“Oh, come on, this is literally everything we wanted to happen,” Maxwell said. “You have to celebrate a little.”

“I don’t have to do anything,” Bertrand said. “But…fine. Congratulations, Alice, you’ve done very well so far.”

“Wow, that was like pulling teeth,” Alice said. “But thank you.”

The queen called for everyone’s attention once more before turning to Alice. “Lady Alice, please join me for your ‘coronation.’” Alice walked over to the queen who presented her with an apple-shaped scepter. “Lady Alice, I pronounce you Queen of the Apples. Long live the Apple Queen.”

“It’s an honor,” Alice said graciously before turning to the crowd. “Thank you for electing me to represent you as the Apple Queen. I’m happy to accept this esteemed position, and I will treat it with the utmost respect.” She meant it sincerely, but worried the words had inadvertently come out sarcastically. However, Alice chanced a look at Bertrand and since he didn’t look like he was about to spontaneously combust, she figured she was fine.

“My queen,” Regina said, the words looking as if they left a sour taste in her mouth. “I will now serve as your acting seneschal and guide you through the ceremony. But before we proceed, we must fill out the Apple Court. These are the courtiers who will parade behind you. Who will be your cup-bearer? This person should be a close confidant you’d trust with your life.”

“I couldn’t choose anyone else but Lady Hana.”

“I humbly accept this position, my queen,” Hana said with a grin as she joined Alice beside Regina, who gestured for a nearby servant to hand her a bright purple fool’s cap with bells on the end.

“My queen, if you’ll name your court jester,” Regina said.

“Lord Maxwell Beaumont,” Alice said without hesitation. Maxwell’s face broke into an excited grin.

“Step aside, plebeians,” Maxwell said as he made his way over to Alice. “Three-time jester MVP, coming through!”

Nearby, Drake rolled his eyes as Maxwell gleefully plopped the jester cap on his head. The bells jingled as they fell down his face.

“My queen, with your court assembled, it is your right to issue an edict before your people,” Regina said.

Alice turned to the crowd. “My people, thank you for selecting me as your Apple Queen. I’m here because of you, and I will faithfully represent and serve you.”

The crowd cheered and although she didn’t let her smile falter, she couldn’t help but search for Bastien. Where is he? she wondered as Regina summoned a horse pulling a wagon of apples.

“Oh, magnanimous Apple Queen, please show your generosity and share your bountiful harvest with us,” Regina said.

A large part of Alice wanted to mock the whole event, but she found she couldn’t. There was something sweet and wholesome about a celebration in an orchard with an Apple Queen, and Alice didn’t want to get down on it just because she was a jaded asshole from too many years behind the bar. I’m getting soft, she thought as Hana and Maxwell helped her onto the wagon. The horses began to pull, parading the cart through the crowd, and her friends handed her apples, which she tossed to the flood of clamoring hands.

This feels very “let them eat cake,” Alice thought. Maybe she wasn’t going soft after all.

Towards the end of the line, Alice saw Drake among the crowd. She grinned and tossed an apple at him when he wasn’t paying attention. It thudded into his chest and he scrambled to catch it.

“Whoa, Ayers! A little warning next time?”

“Uh-uh, that’s your own fault for not not being constantly vigilant,” Alice said.

“Constant vigilance!” Maxwell cried.

Alice laughed. “Eyes on the Apple Queen, buddy,” she called to Drake.

After the apples had all been handed out, Alice saw Madeleine standing at the end of the line beside Regina and a young, potted apple tree.

“Your majesty, please honor your ancestor, last year’s Apple Queen, and plant a tree for the next generation,” Regina said as Maxwell helped her down from the cart. Madeleine curtsied as Alice approached.

“My queen,” she said without even the smallest hint of a smile. “Happy wishes for you.”

“Thank you, my ancestor,” Alice said. Peasant.

“The labor of your forebears will help you build a better world,” Madeleine said, before lowering her voice. “Not many get the pleasure of being addressed as ‘my queen.’ Savor these moments; you may never hear the phrase again.”

“How does the saying go?” Alice asked. “Always a suitor, never a bride?”

Madeleine glowered but stepped back to reveal a hole for the sapling. “The ground is yours, my queen.”

Alice took the baby apple tree from the pot and placed it into the hole before scooping the dirt in around it. She stood, turning to the crowd. “The work we do today will benefit future generations,” she said. “They deserve something worth inheriting.”

The crowd clapped and once the noise settled, Regina spoke again.

“Thank you, gracious Apple Queen,” Regina said. “As for your final honor…”

Liam stepped forward and knelt before Alice. “You are entitled to a kiss, my queen.”

Even though they hadn’t yet finished the conversation they’d started the day before in the gardens, Alice could still see the sadness around his eyes and her heart sank. She hated hurting him, but she’d made her choice. Made it, in fact, before she’d even met Liam.

“I humbly accept your offer,” Alice said with a smile.

“As my queen wishes,” Liam said, rising to his feet. He took her hands in his and leaned in, kissing her tenderly on the cheek. “You are an excellent Apple Queen,” he whispered.

“Thank you,” she said as she squeezed his hands and he pulled back to look at her.

With the tree planted and the kiss received, the crowd began to disperse and Regina turned to Alice and Liam.

“It’s time I head back to the manor, but please feel free to enjoy the festival as the reigning Apple Queen,” Regina said. “Past queens have been popular at the apple bobbing contest.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Alice said, wondering if that was true. The queen nodded and left, Madeleine close on her heels.

“There’s our glorious Apple Queen!” Maxwell exclaimed as he broke through the crowd to join them. Alice realized she was still holding Liam’s hands and let just in time for Maxwell to scoop her up in a bear hug.

“Thank you for all your support,” Alice said. “I heard you cheering out there and you were an excellent jester.”

“Anything for you,” Maxwell said. “So, what do you way, do you want to go enjoy some of the festival before it’s over?”

“Of course!” she said. “Liam, are you coming?”

“I wish I could, but I can’t,” he said. “I have to meet with some nobles in the conservatory. But please, enjoy the festival. Maybe we could…talk later?” Liam asked.

“Definitely,” Alice said. The prince smiled and left as Alice looped her arm through Maxwell’s. “Shall we?”

“We shall.”


There was a knock at the study door.

“Who is it?” Constantine called as he unrolled his sleeve while the doctor packed up his bag.

“Bastien, sir.”

“Come in.”

Bastien opened the door and stepped inside, closing it behind him. He noticed the doctor, but said nothing.

“What is it Bastien?” Constantine asked.

“It’s done,” Bastien said. “Lady Penelope is making the arrangements.”

“Excellent,” Constantine said. Bastien nodded and left the room. The doctor soon followed, leaving the king alone. The king unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk and removed several manila envelopes. He opened the one labeled “Bastien Lykel” and removed a photograph. In it, Alice and Bastien lay in her bed back in New York, time stamped from the weekend of the bachelor party. She was grinning at the camera, hair tousled, eyes half-lidded with satisfied exhaustion. Bastien was smiling too, but his attention was turned towards her, nuzzling against her.

Constantine couldn’t believe Regina had been right. Now, it was up to him to correct this mistake.


Part 18


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