Guarded Hearts, Part 18

Summary: Alice comes clean to Liam and attends the royal hunt.

Notes: I again used a lot of the original PB dialogue, but I bedazzled it a bit. I’m not gonna lie, to me this feels like a bit of a filler chapter, but in the next one, shit is about to go DOWN, so stay tuned!

New to the series? Catch up here: Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8,Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13, Part 14Part 15Part 16, Part 17


One week later at Applewood Manor, Alice was in the shower but she couldn’t scrub away her frustration. Ever since the Apple Blossom Festival, she’d been trying to get Liam alone for a few minutes to tell him about Bastien, but it had been impossible. Of course, Alice understood Liam was preparing for his coronation, but she also had a suspicion that he was avoiding her. Suddenly, a sharp knock on the bathroom door pulled Alice out of her thoughts.

“Alice? Is that you in there?” she heard Maxwell call through the door.

Alice sighed. “Maxwell, who else would be showering in here?”

“Just checking! And letting you know Bertrand and I are here!” he called.

Alice shook her head and washed away the last of the shampoo. She was determined to talk to Liam. Today. Once she told Liam, she’d tell the Beaumonts. Alice knew she’d waited long enough. She glanced down at the hickey on her hip, the one Bastien had left behind the night before. She liked having it there, a physical reminder she belonged to him.

When she re-entered the bedroom wearing a robe, she found Maxwell and Bertrand waiting for her.

“It’s about time,” Bertrand snapped. “Today’s events start earlier than usual and you need to be ready.”

“That’s one way to say ‘good morning.’”

“Today’s going to be awesome, Alice!” Maxwell said, trying to diffuse an argument before it started. “You’re going to commune with nature along Cordonia’s majestic countryside…”

“I thought you said today was a fox hunt,” Alice said.

“We’ll be following one of the historic hunting trails the old nobility would use. It’s ancient,” Bertrand said. “Even before there was a Cordonia, nobles would hunt their quarry along these trails.”

“Are we actually hunting? Because I’m not sure I’m really on board for that,” Alice said slowly.

“It’s more ceremonial than anything else,” Maxwell assured her.

“Hunting is forbidden these days,” Bertrand said. “Besides, the dangerous wildlife has migrated elsewhere in the years since the great royal hunts of centuries past. Instead, you’ll be riding on horseback through some of the most gorgeous countryside in Cordonia.” Bertrand glanced at Alice, tiredly surveying her. “Any chance you have a riding uniform?”

“What do you think?”

“It’s okay, I have something for you!” Maxwell said, reaching into a bag near his feet. “Hana had an extra uniform and offered it to you if you want it.”

Maxwell handed her a pair of brown riding pants, a white shirt that looked like the buttons went all the way up to her chin, and a plum colored riding jacket.

“Alright, great,” Alice said. “Remind me to thank her later.”

“Hurry up and get dressed,” Bertrand said. “We’ll meet you downstairs.”

The brothers left and Alice put on the outfit, examining herself in the mirror. She picked up her phone and took a photo.

You look like you just fell off the cover of a Saddle Club book, Frankie texted.

Bastien was more encouraging. Does that outfit come with a riding crop?

Alice smiled and texted him back. Only if you ask very nicely.

Please, ma’am, may I have another?


“You look so great!” Maxwell exclaimed when Alice exited the manor to meet the brothers.

“It’s acceptable,” Bertrand said. “Anyway, if your ego is sufficiently tended to, we’ve another more pressing matter and time is of the essence.”

“Isn’t it always with you?” Maxwell asked.

Bertrand ignored him and continued. “I noticed Prince Liam was preparing his ride when I went to inspect the mounts just now. Maxwell can take you to the stables.”

Alice felt the nerves fluttering in her stomach and she took a breath. She hadn’t planned on telling Liam everything at this exact moment, but this might be her only chance for days. “Sounds good, let’s go.”

Maxwell escorted Alice through the grounds of Applewood Manor until they reached the stables. He peered through the window, surveying the stalls.

“Coast is clear, Liam’s alone,” Maxwell said. “Head on in; I’ll stall anyone who tries to enter to give you a little time.”

“Thanks, Maxwell,” Alice said, her heart hammering in her chest. She opened the door, inadvertently startling a few of the horses. Liam looked up, surprised.

“Alice! What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Apparently scaring the shit out of the horses,” she said. “I accidentally did the same thing before the derby. I’m like a witch in The Crucible or something.”

Liam chuckled. “If it’s any consolation, I’d vouch for your character.”

“So,” Alice said, unsure of how to start. “Ready for the ride today?”

“I am,” he said. “I hope you’re looking forward to the royal hunt today as well.”

“I…Liam, I’m sorry, I can’t do small talk, I need to talk to you,” she said. Liam nodded and glanced down at the floor before looking back up at her.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “I know.”

“Can we sit?” she asked, gesturing to a bench towards the back of the stables. He nodded again and they walked over and sat down together.

“Liam,” Alice said. “I–”

“Alice, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but you really don’t need to explain anything,” Liam said.

“Yes, I do,” she said. “You deserve that.” Alice took a deep, steadying breath and let it out slowly. “I want to start by telling you how appreciative I am for everything you’ve done for me. You’ve put me up in your house…well, houses,” she corrected herself. “You are so kind and generous and I hate that I haven’t been honest with you.” She paused and took another breath. “I came to Cordonia with the intention of seeing you and getting to know you, but there were…extenuating circumstances.”

“What do you mean?” Liam asked.

Alice anxiously tapped her fingers against her knees. “The night before I met you, I met someone else. I didn’t think it was going anywhere past that night and I didn’t think I’d ever see him again. Then Maxwell showed up at my job with this crazy proposition to fly me halfway around the world, and I decided to take the opportunity. Then I got here and…that person I’d met before you was here.”

Liam considered this for a moment. “If you saw this person when you got here, why didn’t you say anything sooner?”

“It’s complicated,” Alice said, not wanting to out the Beaumonts’ finances. “But I thought that I could be your friend and help you find someone you wanted to be with…Liam, I’m so sorry, I never meant to use you or hurt your feelings. I’ve grown really fond of you and I love being your friend, but…”

“…but you don’t have feelings for me,” Liam finished for her.

Alice nodded, feeling the tears welling up in her eyes. “I am so, so sorry,” she said as the first tear spilled down her cheek. “If you want me to go, I will.”

Liam took her hand and squeezed it gently. “No, I don’t want that,” he said. “I’m not going to lie, I’m…” he hesitated, searching for the right word. “Disappointed. But I understand what an unusual situation this is with the social season and my having to choose a wife from a pool of competitors. I also understand that you can’t control who you fall in love with.” He looked down at their clasped hands and gently brought her hand up to tenderly kiss her knuckles. “But I’m not going to lie, I wish it was me.”

Alice took her hand back from and fruitlessly wiped at both of her eyes. “God, Liam, I am so sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize,” Liam said softly. “And for what it’s worth, I’d like you to stay in Cordonia. The social season is almost over anyway and I’d like you to be here for my coronation. And hey,” he said, mustering a smile. “Maybe you actually can help me pick someone.”

“That’s not…weird or something if I stay?” Alice asked.

“Honestly, it’d be more of an uproar in the press if you officially dropped out of the competition,” Liam said. “Of course, if you want to go, I won’t stop you. I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do. But if you would be willing, it would be really helpful to have you stay as a suitor. The social season has generated a lot of positive PR for the royal family, which we desperately need because there has been some…unrest.”

“What kind of unrest?” Alice asked.

“I’m not sure yet,” Liam said. “There are always dissenters to the crown, but we’ve gotten some intel on some concerning groups lately. Again, I don’t want to ask you to stay if you want to leave–”

“Of course I’ll stay,” Alice said.

Liam tried to smile. “I’m glad,” he said. He stood and offered a hand to help her up. She took it and they stood together in silence for a moment. “Alice, I might be upset right now, but your friendship is really important to me.”

Alice pulled him into a hug and he squeezed her tightly to him. When she finally pulled back, Liam looked down at her before carefully using the edges of his thumbs to wipe away the last remnants of her tears.

“Friends?” he asked.

“Friends,” she said, feeling an odd combination of relief and gut-wrenching guilt at hurting him.

“You know, I just realized I didn’t even ask–who is it?” Liam asked. Alice opened her mouth to reply but before she could tell him, there was a small commotion outside the stable doors that drew both of their attentions. A moment later, King Constantine entered the stables with Maxwell on his heels, desperately trying to capture the monarch’s attention.

“If you’ll just hear me out, I can explain the finer points of freestyle dancing,” Maxwell insisted.

The king sighed. “Lord Maxwell, if you’ll please allow me to inspect my horse.”

“At least let me recommend some videos!”

“Father,” Liam said with a nod.

“Your Majesty,” Alice added politely.

“Liam. Lady Alice,” the king said, not looking entirely thrilled to find them in the stables. Then he composed himself. “Are you ready for the ride today?”

“I believe so,” Alice said.

“We’ll see you shortly, then,” Constantine said. Alice noted the dismissal in his voice and curtsied before exiting the stables, Maxwell quickly falling into step beside her.

“I’m sorry, i could only hold off the king for so long,” Maxwell apologized.

“You did great,” Alice assured him.

He looked at her sidelong as they walked. “Hey, your eyes are kind of red–are you okay?”

She nodded. “I think the hay triggered my allergies,” Alice lied. “Come on, let’s go meet up with the others.”


Bastien stood near the edge of the group, surveying the scene. The king and Liam were due out any minute and he was trying to watch for them, but he noticed Maxwell and Alice’s arrival instead. Something was wrong, that much was evident from the weight on her shoulders. He pulled his phone out of his pocket.


Maxwell led her around to the front of the manor where the queen, Bertrand, the suitors, and a host of other nobles had gathered. As they approached, Alice felt her phone buzz and heard Madeleine holding several people captive with a story.

“…and then he demanded a one percent surcharge on all exports from my county,” Madeleine said before allowing a smile to play across her lips. “As if he was negotiating from a position of strength!”

“Merchants can be so fussy sometimes,” Regina agreed.

Pot, meet kettle. Kettle, pot, Alice thought.

“How are you always the last to arrive, Alice?” Olivia asked. “Maxwell, you should really get her a watch.”

“Punctuality is the mark of not only a responsible leader, but a responsible individual,” the queen said, pursing her lips slightly.

Oh, fuck off.

The crowd fell silent as the king and Liam arrived on horseback and a stream of servants followed, leading horses for the crowd. One servant leading a calm, gray horse stopped in front of Alice, extending the reins to her, which she accepted.

“Please join me on this special day when we honor the rich history of those who came before us,” Constantine announced to the crowd. The nobles and suitors began to mount their horses.

“Hey, I should’ve asked…” Maxwell started to say before Alice interrupted.

“No, I don’t know how to ride,” Alice answered. Maxwell quickly directed her into her saddle, boosting her up before getting on his own horse. Alice took advantage of the momentary break to read the text on her phone.

Are you okay?

Yeah. It’s actually a good thing, I promise. I’ll tell you later

“Let’s ride!” the king called before leading everyone onto a trail that disappeared into the forest.

“Just follow my lead,” Maxwell said. “Use your heels to make your horse go forward, pull back on the reins with both hands to stop.”

“That can’t be all there is to it,” Alice said as she dug in her heels and the horse began to stroll forward.

“No, but luckily the horses are really well trained, so you should be okay,” he said.

“Here’s hoping.”


After following the trail through the forest, the trees cleared and Alice found herself on a winding mountain trail. Maxwell and Bertrand had fallen a little behind her, looking like they were deep in conversation. At the head of the trail, Liam rode alongside his parents and Madeleine and Alice looked over just in time to see them laugh at the king’s story. Shortly behind them was Bastien, looking impossibly attractive on horseback. Alice had never really been one for cowboys, but she was ready to saddle up at the sight of him.

As they approached a curve in the trail, Alice managed to hear part of their conversation.

“…and that’s how I rescued Liam from the visiting delegation’s border collie,” Constantine said.

“You enjoy that story too much,” Liam said with a smile.

“I wanted to commission a painting of the dog nipping at your heels, but your mother thought it would be too humiliating,” the king laughed.

“It’s a sweet story,” Madeleine said. “Tell me more about the prince when he was younger.”

Before Alice could hear more, Olivia rode up alongside her.

“I can’t believe Madeleine,” Olivia said in a low voice to Alice. “She’s playing dirty, using her friendship with the queen to spend time with Liam. I want to wipe that smug look off her face.”

“You and me both,” Alice said.

Olivia allowed herself a smile. “Good. I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees through her.”

“Oh, come on, give me a little more credit, Olivia,” Alice said. “When you have the kind of job I do, you have to get good at reading people.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Olivia conceded. She nodded to Alice before spurring her horse forward, moving closer to the front of the line. As soon as she left, Hana took her place.

“Hey, so far so good on the horse!” Hana said encouragingly.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that I won’t die during this ride,” Alice said. “If I could survive sailing a yacht, this should be easy, right?”

“Right!” Hana agreed.

“Let me guess, you’re an expert equestrian,” Alice said. Hana shrugged modestly.

“I know the English, Arabian, and Mongolian riding styles,” she said with a modest shrug. “My family made me learn so I’d be able to impress the different courts around the world.”

“Hana…do you have any happy memories of your family? It seems like every time you bring them up, it’s in reference to them training you to become the ultimate aristocrat.”

“Once, during a dressage competition, I was thrown off my horse. I landed badly and broke my arm.”

“Okay, see, I think you maybe don’t understand what I mean by ‘happy.’”

Hana smiled as she continued. “My parents immediately rushed me to the hospital and stayed by my bed while I recovered. I was certain they were going to lecture me about losing the competition, but instead, they got me ice cream and told me how relieved they were that I was okay.”

“That’s sweet,” Alice said earnestly.

“It was really nice,” Hana agreed. “I didn’t even mind the broken arm.” From up ahead, Kiara and Penelope waved to Hana.

“That’s a new development,” Alice said.

“Yeah, but it’s been kind of nice,” Hana said. “Since the three of us have fallen out of the running, we’ve become a little friendlier with each other.”

“Good!” Alice said. “Well, not good that you all feel like you’re out of the running, but I like that you’re making more friends.”

“My parents would think of them as political alliances,” she said with a shrug. “But in either case, I should probably go join them. Coming?”

Alice shook her head. “No thanks, I feel like I’m pushing the limits of my riding skills just by being in motion, but you go on ahead.”

Hana gave her a small wave and pushed forward.

“Ayers.”

Alice turned to see Drake pulling up beside her. “What, is everyone just taking turns to talk to me on horseback?”

“Of course, you’re very popular,” Drake said, rolling his eyes. “But I will say you look…uh…very dignified today.”

“Sarcasm and a compliment all the same breath,” Alice said. “You do spoil me, Drake.”

“Careful, if your head gets any bigger you might fall off your horse,” he said. They rode in companionable silence for a couple minutes.

“I’m surprised you’re out here with all the nobles today,” Alice said.

“Turns out, I had an opening in my schedule today,” Drake said.

“Oh, good, I’m glad you were able to push your morning sulk until later.”

“Plus, there’s something oddly satisfying about watching nobles fuss over their stuffy blazers,” Drake added with a wry grin.

“Stuffy? I thought you said I was dignified,” she said. “In any case, that does explain why you seem to be in a better mood than usual.”

“It has more to do with the company I keep.”

“A second compliment?” Alice asked, clutching her chest.

“One more and you win a jackpot,” Drake said.

“I hope it’s all of your whiskey.”

Drake smiled and sighed. “You know, when we first met, I wanted to dislike you so badly.”

“Yeah, I got that memo,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.

Drake chuckled. “I guess I wasn’t subtle about it, was I?”

“Subtle like an air horn.”

“That feels like a long time ago,” Drake said. “Somewhere along the way…I don’t know, things changed.” He sighed again. “Hell, Ayers, I don’t even know why I’m telling you any of this.”

“It’s because I coerced you into riding a mechanical bull on your birthday,” Alice said. “That’s how I trick everyone into being my friend.”

“Yes, that must be it.” Drake looked up ahead towards the front of the group. “I should go rescue Liam from his family for a couple minutes.”

“Feel free to ‘accidentally’ knock Madeleine over the edge.”

Drake looked at her. “Ayers, you’re not threatened by her are you? Because Liam–”

“No,” Alice said quickly. “I just think she’s a pain in the ass.”

“You’re not wrong.”

Drake rode ahead and Alice tried to slow down a little so she could fall back with Maxwell and Bertrand.

“Do I make myself clear?” Bertrand hissed at Maxwell.

“Yeah…” Maxwell said, sounding defeated.

Before Alice could say anything, Bertrand rode ahead, ignoring her.

“What was that about?” she asked.

“Oh, you know, estate things…” Maxwell said. “The consequences of failure and eternal ruination of our family name and fortune.”

“That’s all?”

Maxwell smiled. “Yup. You know, the usual.”

“You seem like you’re doing okay though,” Alice said slowly. “Are you?”

“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to succeed,” Maxwell said. “You and Liam are getting closer and even when he’s busy talking to his family, he keeps sneaking glances back at you.”

“Maxwell…what if I’m falling for someone else?”

“What?!” Maxwell exclaimed. A few other nobles glanced back over their shoulders at his outburst and he lowered his voice. “No…Alice, please don’t say that!” He paused, composing himself. “Look, the social season can be a confusing time. It’s easy to bond really quickly with people here through the activities…you can’t trust how you might be feeling right now.”

“But–”

“Even if you’re having doubts, you’re here for Liam,” Maxwell said. He looked ahead. “Hey, we’re coming up on our stop.

The trail rounded the mountain pass and on the other side was an old village in a breathtaking valley. King Constantine drew his horse to a stop and everyone else followed suit. He turned to face the group.

“Everyone, we’ve reached our hunting lodges. Our forebears would done on the day’s hunt here, and though we no longer hunt, we will still have a great feast. But first, we race to celebrate our ancestors!”

Alice watched as Liam led his mare to the trees across the village before stopping and turning back to the crowd.

“The first suitor to reach Prince Liam will be served first at the feast!” the king announced.

“You didn’t say I had to race on the horse!” Alice whispered to Maxwell, who looked at her pleadingly.

“Please, Alice! You’ll be fine, I’m sure of it!”

“Fine, but if I break my neck and become paralyzed, you have to take care of me.”

“Deal. Now go!”

Alice managed to maneuver her horse to the starting line alongside the other suitors.

“Ready?” Hana asked.

“Nope. Any advice?”

“Try posting when your horse goes faster,” Hana said quickly. “Stand up in your stirrups on every other stride of the horse’s forelegs. It’ll make the ride smoother.”

“Begin!” Constantine yelled.

Alice squeezed her heels against her horse who began to walk forward. She urged the horse to pick up the pace and when it began to trot, Alice tried to follow Hana’s advice. She was surprised to discover how much smoother the ride was, but her legs were already starting to burn like she was doing squats. No wonder Hana is in great shape. Alice looked up in time to see that although most of them were only halfway, Hana was already galloping past Liam on her horse, winning the race.

“That is some superb horsemanship in action,” the king said with a wide smile. “Servants, prepare the first plate for Lady Hana at dinner! But before that, let’s all take some time to rest; dinner will begin shortly.”

All the riders dismounted as the servants approached to collect and care for the horses. In the shuffle of horses and people, Alice found herself next to Tariq.

“Ah, Lady Alice,” he said slowly.

“Fuck off.”

“Manners,” he chided. “The polite thing to do would be to say hello and ask how my ride was.”

“Don’t care, dude.”

He ignored her. “It was a long journey, but I happen to own a pair of boots as soft as a newborn kitten.”

“Did you eat the kitten yourself?”

He smiled wryly and opened his mouth to reply, when Liam tapped Tariq on the shoulder.

“Tariq, may I have a word with Lady Alice?”

“Of course,” Tariq said before turning back to Alice. “Lady Alice, I will see you again soon.”

“Not if I can help it.”

Alice saw a flash of anger across Tariq’s eyes before he bowed and left.

“Everything okay?” Liam asked, concerned.

Alice nodded. “Yeah, it’s fine. He’s just…a lot.” She looked at Liam. “Sorry, I know he’s your friend.”

“No, it’s okay, I get it,” Liam said. “That’s why I came over; you looked like you were in need of a rescue.”

“Thank you,” Alice said with a smile. “I very much appreciate it.”

“Appreciate what?” Drake asked as he, Hana, and Maxwell joined them.

“I appreciate that the food is coming out,” she said quickly, pointing over to the tables where servants were arranging the feast.

“They’ve got dishes supposedly blessed by the spirits of the nearby ruins,” Maxwell said.

“That’s so cool,” Alice said quickly, inwardly thanking Maxwell.

“As long as they’re edible, I don’t care who blessed them,” Drake said.

The group headed over to join the nobles shuffling around the food tables.

“Wow…that’s a lot of meat,” Alice said. Maxwell opened his mouth but she held up her hand. “Don’t you dare say, ‘that’s what she said.’”

“But you did!” Maxwell protested.

“It’s not exactly a feast without it,” Drake said.

“I mean…a little more fruit couldn’t hurt,” Hana said. “It’s very…carnivorous.”

“I wouldn’t mind putting a bunch of fruit on a stake and waving it around like a sword,” Maxwell said.

“I think you’re starting to go crazy from hunger,” Liam said with a chuckle. “Let’s go.”

“And then I could wear a watermelon as a helmet…” Maxwell said, lost in thought as they headed for the food. “I’d be unstoppable!”

Drake sighed.


Later that night, after indulging in a decadent feast, everyone made their way back to Applewood Manor. Alice had enjoyed the day, but she was looking forward to taking off her boots and lying down.

“That was a long ride,” Alice said as they drew closer to the welcoming lights of the manor.

“For once, I agree with you,” Bertrand said.

“Plus, it’s getting dark,” Maxwell said. “Good thing the last part of the trail had lights.”

“I don’t know about all of you, but I’m going to go soak in a tub for the rest of my life,” Alice said.

“Or…until the country jamboree tomorrow!” Maxwell exclaimed. “I hope you’re ready for another party!”

“This is how I die…” Bertrand muttered.

Once she’d dismounted her horse and handed the reins over to one of the stable hands, Alice pulled her phone out of her pocket.

I could use a hot bath and a massage–you in? I feel like I’ve barely seen you today and I want to show you I missed you.

***

Bastien felt his phone buzz in his pocket. He pulled it out and felt a warm glow when he read Alice’s text.

“Bastien.”

He turned to see the king standing beside him. “Yes, Your Highness?”

“Come with me,” Constantine said. “There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”

“Of course, sir,” Bastien said, slipping his phone back into his pocket. He’d have to wait to text Alice back, but he was sure this wouldn’t take long.


Part 19


Click here to support me on Patreon and get writing tips, prompts, and exclusive content available only to patrons! 

I can’t guarantee that supporting me on Patreon will cause you to have endless good hair days . . . but I can’t guarantee that it won’t either.


Back to Shorts Index

Advertisements