Summary: Alice helps the Beaumonts prepare for the upcoming party and receives a surprise visitor.
Notes: Brace yourselves, everything is still awful. I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit.
CW: references to sexual assault and violence
New to the series? Catch up here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8,Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20
Hana wandered around the grounds of Applewood Manor amongst the other nobles. The atmosphere was lively and festive, but she was distracted, her thoughts still back in Alice’s bathroom. Hana hated feeling so helpless; she wanted to do more for her friend, but she was at a loss. Alice told her to go to the jamboree, so she was at the jamboree. Ordinarily, this is the kind of event Hana would have enjoyed, but today she was distracted. Everything around her, all the games and activities and laughter of the rich and privileged and it just felt…wrong. Profane. Hana couldn’t stop thinking about the photos saved on her phone of Alice’s injuries. She didn’t even need to look at her phone–she saw them everywhere.
Hana sighed and looked around. If she was forced to be at this stupid event, she may as well find something to do to pass the time. She let her eyes drift past the various activities and refreshments and had nearly decided to relieve some of her anxiety through archery when she noticed Drake’s arrival. She was about to wave when she saw the look in his eyes: searching and determined. Hana followed his gaze and saw he was zeroed in on Liam, who was chatting with Olivia. Alice’s request to keep Tariq’s attack rang in her head and as Drake began to make a beeline, Hana hurried to intercept him.
“Hey, Drake, I need to talk to you,” Hana said quickly, grabbing his arm.
“Hana, not now, I have to talk to Liam,” Drake said. He tried to shake her off, but she held firm and lowered her voice.
“Drake, after you left, Alice asked us not to tell Liam about what happened,” she said. Drake stared at her, dumbfounded.
“Are you kidding?” he asked. “Of course Liam needs to know! He’d want to know!”
“I know, and he will–eventually. But right now, Alice doesn’t want to tell him.” Drake opened his mouth to protest but Hana barrelled on before he could say anything. “And we need to respect that. This is her story to tell, not yours.”
Drake seethed, running a hand through his hair. “Fine. But I’m not happy about it.”
“Thank you,” Hana said, finally releasing his arm. “And no one cares if you’re not happy about it. This isn’t about you.”
Drake sighed, deflating in front of her eyes. “I know. I just…when I went in there and he had her pinned down…”
“I know,” Hana said gently. “Maxwell told me you stayed there all night to watch over her. That was a really honorable thing to do.”
“No,” Drake said, shaking his head. “It wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough.”
“Drake…” Hana said. She’d suspected Drake had feelings for Alice; Hana wasn’t blind or stupid. She was also pretty sure they weren’t talking about last night anymore.
“Hey, you two!”
Drake and Hana turned to see Liam and Olivia approaching them. Hana relaxed and put an easy smile on her face, silently thanking her parents for the years of lessons and training that allowed her to put on the face she needed in that moment. Drake, on the other hand, continued to sulk. Fortunately, that was his usual mood, so that was hardly out of the ordinary.
“How are you enjoying the jamboree?” Hana asked them.
“It’s…quaint,” Olivia said reluctantly.
“Have either of you seen Alice?” Liam asked. “I haven’t seen her all day.”
“She wasn’t feeling well, so the Beaumonts decided to take her back to Ramsford early so she can rest while they prepare for the upcoming party,” Hana said smoothly.
“Why is she traveling when she’s sick instead of resting here and then going with everyone else in a few days?” Olivia asked.
Hana shrugged. “I’m not sure, but that’s what she and the Beaumonts decided to do.”
Olivia eyed her suspiciously, but didn’t push the issue further. Then she turned her attention to Drake.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “You seem crankier than usual.”
“Nothing,” Drake said. “I just didn’t sleep well.”
“I was just about to check out the archery station,” Hana said. “Drake, why don’t you join me?”
“Yes, because nothing goes well with sleep deprivation like sharp projectiles,” Olivia said, rolling her eyes.
“I’ll be sure to keep an eye on him,” Hana said, taking Drake’s arm. “Excuse us.”
Hana dragged Drake off towards the archery station until they were safely out of earshot of Liam and Olivia. “You have to hold it together a little better in public,” she said.
“I’m thinking of leaving here early,” Drake said, ignoring her. “The Beaumonts are going to need help setting up, and–”
“Drake,” Hana interrupted. “You can’t bombard Alice right now. She wants space, so we need to give her space. Do you think I want to be out here at the jamboree instead of in there with her? Of course not, but she asked me to be here, so I’m here.” Hana sighed. “She’ll still be there in a few days. So in the meantime, you and I are going to suck it up and we’re going to enjoy this stupid jamboree and we’re going to drink a lot until we can get to Ramsford.”
“Fine,” Drake begrudgingly agreed. “Can I at least go to Ramsford a day early?”
Bastien stood to the side of the jamboree, the dark circles under his eyes hidden by sunglasses. He was watching Liam and Olivia when out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Drake’s arrival. Drake began to walk quickly towards Liam but then Hana hurried over and intercepted him. From the heated way they appeared to be talking, Bastien was able to surmise Liam didn’t yet know about what happened last night. He couldn’t quite figure out why Alice wouldn’t want him to know; he wondered if it had anything to do with what she’d planned on telling him yesterday.
Are you okay?
Yeah. It’s actually a good thing, I promise. I’ll tell you later
What had she meant? He’d likely never know now. He took a deep breath and tried to refocus on the event at hand. Thinking about Alice made him feel hollow, like he was missing a major part of himself, something crucial to his core structure and without her, he was in danger of crumbling. And yet, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Even though he knew she was gone–he’d watched her leave–he kept looking for her amongst all the guests at the jamboree. Hers was the only face he wanted to see and the only one he couldn’t.
From behind his sunglasses, Bastien briefly refocused his gaze from Liam to Constantine and Regina. Bastien watched as they paused to speak with a few people. The king and queen presented the perfect royal facade. Their smiles were right, their posture was right, and although he couldn’t hear what they were saying, he knew their words were right. Bastien could feel himself harden as he watched them. If looks could kill, Constantine’s would have stopped. Instead, the king made small talk, laughing with his guests, while Bastien looked on silently.
Alice rolled over in bed and reluctantly checked the time. Nearly noon. She flopped back on the pillows and pulled the blankets over her head. It had been three days since they’d arrived at Ramsford and she’d barely left her bed since then. At some point, she knew she’d have to eventually get up and rejoin the world. Part of her had been hoping that the mattress would absorb her so she wouldn’t have to ever talk to anyone again, but so far no luck.
The party is tomorrow, she reminded herself. You have to get your shit together.
For all intents and purposes, she shouldn’t give a shit about the party. It was the last event of the social season before the coronation and it wasn’t like she was in contention to be queen. She didn’t even have Bastien anymore. But she did care about Maxwell and Bertrand; they’d been trying so hard over the last few days to take care of her. The least she could do was get her shit together and make an appearance at the party. Two parts of her plan had completely fallen though, but she could still possibly help elevate House Beaumont. Admittedly though, positively representing the Beaumonts might have to include a shower.
Alice pulled the blankets off her face and pushed herself up to a sitting position. A shower felt too out of the question at the moment, but maybe she could stand up. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and slowly got to her feet. Her right leg still hurt a little, but she pushed through it. So far, so good. After several more rounds of convincing, Alice managed to pull on a pair of jeans and a hoodie. She crossed the room to her door and paused, her hand on the lock. Bertrand had had a new, sturdy lock put on her door for her, and for that she was grateful. Not that she was afraid of either Beaumont, but the irrational part of her brain kept expecting Tariq to show up. Bertrand had assured her that Tariq was gone, but what did that even mean? That he was gone from Applewood but was on his way to Ramsford? Bertrand told her he was permanently banned from Ramsford, but Alice also knew the staffing here was lighter than most places due to the Beaumonts’ finances. Who was to say Tariq wouldn’t be able to get in? Even with the added measures of the royal guard…Alice squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t think about Bastien right now; she’d never leave her bedroom.
Alice took a deep breath and unlocked the door.
Downstairs, about a dozen staff members bustled around the estate, trying to prepare for the party the following day. Alice wandered through the rooms, looking for Maxwell and Bertrand, and the staff members politely ignored her and her less than stellar appearance. Finally, she wandered into the kitchen and found Maxwell attempting to assemble appetizers.
“Hey,” she said.
“Alice! Hey!” Maxwell said, startled. He nearly dropped a toast point, batting it into the air before catching it one-handed. “You saw that, right?”
“I’m very impressed,” she assured him with a small smile as she sat down at the counter across from him. She could tell by the way Maxwell was looking at her that he wanted to hug her, but he kept his distance.
“I’m glad to see you,” he said as returned to preparing the appetizers. “Can I get you anything? Bertrand would freak out if we ate any of these,” he said, gesturing to the food in front of him, “but I could make you something else?”
Alice shook her head. “No, but thanks, I’m okay.”
Maxwell sighed and put the food down again. “Alice, you’ve barely eaten since…you’ve barely eaten in days.”
“Thank you, but I’m not hungry,” Alice said. “Really, Maxwell–I’m okay.”
Maxwell studied her for a moment, but said nothing. Just then, they both turned at the sound of Bertrand yelling.
“You can’t be in here!” Bertrand yelled from the other room. “How dare you just come into my estate pretending to know–”
“Alice!” another voice called, cutting off Bertrand. “Alice?”
The owner of the voice entered the kitchen, Bertrand hot on her heels, and Alice’s jaw dropped.
“Frankie?” Alice asked in disbelief. Frankie turned to look at her, her face breaking into a wide grin as she hurried over to Alice, pulling her into a tight hug.
“Oh thank god,” Frankie said. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to find you in this place?”
“Alice, who on earth is this?” Bertrand demanded, some of his fight fading when he saw the stranger hugging Alice.
“Guys, this is my friend, Frankie Parker,” Alice explained. “Frankie, this is Maxwell and Bertrand. What are you doing here?”
“Alice, you should really address people by their titles,” Bertrand said with an exasperated sigh, but both women ignored him.
“Like I wasn’t going to come out here after what you’ve been through,” Frankie said, rolling her eyes. “I would’ve been here sooner but I had to get someone to cover a couple of my shifts.” Frankie studied her for a moment. “Have you been eating?”
“No,” Maxwell said.
“Snitch,” Alice said. He smiled and shrugged.
“Why don’t you two go out on the back patio to talk and Maxwell can bring you some food?” Bertrand offered.
“That’s really nice of you, Bertrand, thanks,” Alice said.
“It’ll get you out of the way of the crew setting up the party.”
“And we’re back,” Alice said, hauling herself to her feet. “Come on, Frankie, I’ll show you the way.”
Alice led Frankie through the massive estate until they reached a covered back patio, complete with an outdoor kitchen, comfortable furniture, and a view of the vineyards.
“Jesus, this is not what I think of when I hear the word ‘patio,’” Frankie said with a low whistle as she surveyed the area. “This looks like something out of HGTV’s most expensive…something.”
“Fancy, right?” Alice asked as she sat on one end of a couch. “Even though I’ve been here for a while, I’m still constantly terrified I’m going to leave a peanut butter handprint on something that’s worth more than my apartment.”
Frankie sat down on the other end of the couch. “I’d be worried about the same thing except I think Bertrand is going to assign someone to follow me around to ensure I don’t spill anything.”
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Alice said with a laugh.
“So, enough of the small talk,” Frankie said. “How are you really?”
Alice sighed. “I don’t know. It comes and goes. Sometimes I’m okay, sometimes I feel everything at once, and other times I feel nothing.” She took another deep breath, briefly retreating back into her own mind. “Mostly, I hate knowing that he’s just…out there.”
“Does anyone know where he is?” Frankie asked. “I mean, I know you told Liam you just want to be friends, but he seems to care about you a lot; I’m sure he’d send whatever the Cordonian equivalent of Jason Bourne is to go find him.”
Alice shook her head. “No one seems to know. The only thing anyone will tell me is that he’s ‘gone,’ but I don’t know what that means. And…I haven’t told Liam.”
Frankie stared at her. “Alice, I love you, but you’re fucking dumb. Why wouldn’t you tell him?”
“He has so much going on with the upcoming coronation and he’s really stressed out, I don’t want to burden him,” Alice said, leaning her head back on the couch.
“Hey, look at me.” Alice looked. “You are not a burden. You did not cause this situation. That pile of garbage masquerading a human is the only one at fault.”
Alice looked down at the ground. “I mean, logically I do. But I can’t help but blame myself for what happened. I antagonized him, I wouldn’t let Maxwell or Bastien get extra security detail for me, I–”
“Stop,” Frankie said quickly, leaning over to put her hand on Alice’s arm. “Just stop. You did nothing wrong. And I swear to god, I will repeat that as many times as it takes to get through to you. I know that might take some time, but I can talk a lot.”
Alice looked up at her and wagered a smile. “Thank you. I might need reminders.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“Lunch is served!” Maxwell called as he walked out onto the patio with a tray that he set on a nearby table. “We have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off, cut fruit, and glasses of milk!”
“Maxwell, how old do you think we are?” Alice asked, a grin starting to spread across her face.
“I was thinking comfort food!” Maxwell explained. “I would’ve made mashed potatoes, but that would’ve taken too long.”
“You are so sweet, thank you,” Alice said. “It’s perfect.”
“Are you actually going to eat it?” Maxwell asked hopefully.
“Yes,” Frankie answered before Alice could say otherwise.
“Good,” he said happily. “I should get back to the party prep, but let me know if you guys need anything else.”
“Thanks, Maxwell,” Alice said.
“Yes, thank you,” Frankie said.
Maxwell smiled, bowed, and headed back inside.
“That is incredibly sweet,” Frankie said once Maxwell was out of earshot.
“Yeah,” Alice agreed as Frankie reached over for the plates, handing one over to Alice. “He’s a really good friend. Bertrand is, too, in his own way.” She took a bite of her sandwich. “Hey, I realized I haven’t asked you anything about you. What’s been going on back in New York?”
“Absolutely nothing, we’re still talking about you,” Frankie said as she picked up a strawberry and popped it into her mouth. “What do you want to do now?”
“Finish my sandwich?”
“You know what I mean, smartass.”
Alice hesitated. “I’m not sure. I’m thinking about going back to New York.”
Frankie set down her food. “If that’s what you want, I will one hundred percent take you home with me. But–”
“There’s always a but,” Alice teased.
“Shut up, I’m still talking,” Frankie said. “But…I do think you should stay.”
“You were the one who was convinced I was going to end up sold into a sex trafficking ring,” Alice pointed out. “Which, by the way, Maxwell was very saddened and offended by when I brought that up as a joke.”
“I know, I know,” Frankie conceded. “Look, you’re under no obligation to stay, but this asshole who attacked you doesn’t get to define your life or who you are. You don’t have to make your life smaller because some fuckwad exists.” Frankie paused, carefully choosing her words before she continued. “Plus, there’s a strong argument for pursuing charges against him. I can’t even imagine what it would be like for you to face him again,” she added quickly. “But if he did this to you, I’m sure he’s done it to other women and will likely do it to others in the future. You don’t have to shoulder that responsibility–that’s on him–but I would encourage you to report him. Especially because you have support here, including a witness. Not that you should have to have one, but you and I both know assault victims aren’t necessarily taken at their word in a he-said-she-said situation.”
Alice took a deep breath, considering her friend’s words. “I don’t know…I’m terrified to see him again, but I know you’re right. I just…I just can’t right now.”
“And I totally understand and support you,” Frankie said. “Like I said, if you want to go home, I’ll take you with me. But you also have the option to stay. You don’t have to decide right now, but think about it.”
“What do I still have here?” Alice asked. “I came for this insane opportunity and stayed for Bastien, but now…”
“What’s the deal with Bastien anyway?” Frankie asked.
Alice shook her head. “I haven’t heard from him at all since it happened. I didn’t even see him before we left Applewood Manor to come here.”
“Isn’t everyone arriving here tomorrow? Him included?” Frankie asked.
“Yes, but I don’t like the way the gears are turning in your head,” Alice said. “Please don’t do or say anything.”
“I won’t,” Frankie said. Both women pretended like she was telling the truth.
“Ayers.” Both women turned at the sound of the voice to see Drake standing in the doorway. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, I just wanted to say hi.”
“You’re not interrupting, come on out. Drake, this is my friend, Frankie. Frankie, this is Drake.”
“The Drake?” Frankie asked, looking from Drake to raise an eyebrow at Alice.
“How many Drakes do you think I know?” Alice asked.
“I don’t know!”
“What does ‘the Drake’ mean?” Drake asked. “I’m not sure if that’s good or bad…”
“Definitely good,” Frankie said as she stood up to offer her hand. “Alice told me how you stepped in to save her. Thank you.”
Drake blushed, looking supremely uncomfortable. He coughed. “Um, no problem. It’s, uh, nice to meet you.”
What are you doing here?” Alice asked. “I thought everyone was getting here tomorrow.”
“Maxwell said something about being short staffed so I decided to come early to help,” he explained. “How, uh…how are you?”
“I’m okay,” Alice said.
“Good,” Drake said, nodding. “Okay, I should probably get back inside to help. I’ll see you later?”
Alice nodded. Drake raised an awkward hand in goodbye and headed back inside. Once he was out of earshot, Frankie sat back down and turned to Alice.
“Is it just me, or is everyone in this country fucking gorgeous?” Frankie asked. Alice shrugged. “Forget taking you back to New York, I might just stay here with you.”
“What about that guy you started seeing? The boxer.”
Frankie smiled a little in spite of herself. “Seth? He’s…gah, I don’t know. He’s great, he really is. I just feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know?”
“Not everyone is Thomas.”
“Are you in a position to be handing out relationship advice?” Frankie asked. Alice swatted her with a pillow.
“Alright, I think I’ve lounged around enough,” Alice said as she climbed to her feet. “I should probably go help set up.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” Frankie pointed out. “If you need more time to hibernate, you’re completely entitled.”
“I know,” Alice assured her. “But I’m starting to feel like I want to rejoin the human race a little.”
“Alright, but go shower first,” Frankie said. “And brush your goddamn teeth. I love you, but you’re gross.”
Alice stuck her tongue out at Frankie but headed upstairs to follow orders.
Freshly showered and in clean clothes, Alice felt almost human when she headed back towards the main hall. But when she reached the top of the stairs, she paused, cocking her head to one side like a confused dog at the sight that met her. Bertrand was obsessively scrubbing the tiles on his hands and knees.
“What?” Bertrand asked, not bothering to look at her as she began to descend the grand staircase.
“I’ve just…never seen you do manual labor before,” Alice said.
“Laugh all you want,” he said sullenly. “I’d expect nothing less. But this house is something special, and I’ll get down on my hands and knees to preserve it if I have to.”
“Hey, I didn’t mean to upset you, I was just surprised is all,” Alice said. “Trust me, I’m not above manual labor. I’ve mopped many a floor in bars…and trust me, you do not want to think to hard about what’s on those floors.”
“I’d say not.”
“Anyway, I’m here to help,” Alice continued. “What do you need?”
“You don’t need to do anything,” Bertrand said, glancing up at her for the first time. “You shouldn’t have to…I mean, if you don’t want to you, you can just rest, or–”
“Bertrand, please, I’ve been spending too much time with my own thoughts. I need a task. Please, you’d be doing me a favor.”
He sat back on his heels. “Well, if you’re going to insist, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt,” he said, gesturing to a second scrub brush near the bucket. “Remember to get in between the tiles.”
Alice knelt down beside him and grabbed the brush. She pushed the sleeves of her shirt up to keep them from getting wet, inadvertently revealing her bruised forearms. Alice noticed Bertrand look at her bruises, taking them in for the first time, but he said nothing and Alice was grateful.
“Sorry Frankie just showed up unannounced like that,” Alice said. “I didn’t know she was coming and she’s…well, sort of a force of nature.”
“So I gathered,” Bertrand said. “It’s fine. I’m glad she’s able to be here. She seems like…a lot…but you’re lucky to have her.”
“I’m lucky to have you and Maxwell, too,” Alice reminded him. Bertrand reddened, but said nothing. Alice assumed he wasn’t used to accepting compliments. What was it with everyone in Cordonia being unable to take praise?
They scrubbed in silence for a while, each of them spreading out to cover the floor of the main hall.
“Hey, Alice, I–” Maxwell said as he and Frankie started to walk into the main hall. Alice sat up on her knees and pointed back towards the door.
“No shoes! Get out!”
Maxwell spun around, nearly smacking into Frankie as he pulled her out of the room. “We’ll ask you later!” he called over his shoulder.
Alice heard a chuckle and turned to see Bertrand smiling as he scrubbed the floor.
“Bertrand! Are you…laughing?” Alice asked.
“I do, occasionally, have fun,” Bertrand said, immediately suppressing his smile.
Shortly thereafter, they finished scrubbing the floor and Bertrand walked over to join her.
“Nice job,” he said. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“No problem,” Alice said, tugging her sleeves back down over her arms. “Glad I could help.”
Bertrand nodded. “We should probably find Maxwell. He’s been unattended for too long.”
“He has Drake and Frankie.” Bertrand raised an eyebrow at her. “Okay, yeah, let’s go find them.”
Bertrand and Alice headed into the dining hall to find Maxwell and Frankie waiting for them.
“Kitchen’s clean,” Maxwell said.
“Good,” Bertrand said. “Now we need to do a thorough dusting. Just be careful with our displays. I have a few things to attend to, but between the three of you, it shouldn’t be a problem. But remember: this house needs to be in top condition before guests arrive.”
“I’m guessing you don’t want a shabby chic kind of image?” Alice asked.
“‘Shabby chic’ is an incredibly stupid oxymoron,” Bertrand said before he turned and left the room. Maxwell shrugged at them and handed out rags. The three of them spread out and began dusting, taking care to avoid breaking anything.
“Uh…Maxwell?” Frankie asked as Alice dusted off some picture frames.
“What, uh…what’s with the wall of weapons?” she asked. Alice turned to see Frankie standing in front of an impressive display of swords mounted on one wall.
“Those are a selection from our armory,” Maxwell explained. “They’re very important to our family and Cordonia’s history. But the best thing about them is that they act as a variety of exciting bottle openers!”
“I’m sorry, what?” Alice asked. “Okay, I’ve heard rumors about Beaumont parties, but what exactly am I getting myself into here? Because, Maxwell, I love you, but this sounds like a trip to the emergency room waiting to happen.”
“Nothing is more important than safety here at House Beaumont,” Maxwell said. “Okay, having fun is first. Second is keeping Bertrand from getting mad. Then probably something about dancing…” He faded off for a moment, lost in thought. “But right after that is definitely safety,” Maxwell said as his phone chirped from his pocket. He pulled it out and read the message on the screen. “Anyway, Bertrand just said he and Drake need help in the ballroom when we’re done. How much more do you guys have?”
“I’m done,” Alice said.
“Me, too,” Frankie added.
“Great!” Maxwell said. “Let’s go!”
In the grand ballroom, the group joined Bertrand and Drake, who was arranging centerpieces and setting the tables.
“Wow, it looks great in here,” Alice said as she surveyed the lavish tables and towering floral displays.
“Thank you. Maxwell, these tables in the back corner are ready for napkins. Can you help?” Bertrand asked.
“On it!” Maxwell said with an eager salute before heading for his assigned tables.
“Alice, why don’t you and Frankie help Drake?”
“On it!” Alice said, duplicating Maxwell’s salute. Bertrand sighed.
Alice and Frankie headed over to where Drake was arranging flowers in a vase.
“Why, Drake, I never knew you had such flair with peonies,” Alice said.
“The things I do for you people…” Drake muttered.
“Excuse me, ‘you people?’” Frankie asked.
“Don’t take it personally, Drake hasn’t had his afternoon nap, so he’s a little fussy,” Alice said. Frankie laughed and Drake muttered something under his breath. “What was that?”
“I’m not sure how I feel about there being two of you,” Drake said, nodding in Frankie’s direction.
“Thrilled?” Frankie asked as she reached for an empty vase to start a new arrangement.
“Tired. I feel tired,” Drake said with a sigh. He glanced over his shoulder towards the Beaumonts before leaning in closer to Alice and lowering his voice. “Hey, does something seem off to you?”
“What do you mean?” Alice asked. He nodded towards the other side of the room and Alice followed his gaze to see Bertrand and Maxwell arguing in hushed tones.
“What I don’t get is that the money was in our account yesterday!” Bertrand hissed, his voice carrying a little across the empty ballroom.
“I don’t know anything about our finances, Bertrand!” Maxwell said defensively. “You know that!”
“You might not know anything, but you’re still causing me problems!” Bertrand argued. “You’re the only other person with access to that account! This better not be to pay off one of your idiotic credit card purchases. Last month you said you spent three thousand on a jet ski. What is it this time?”
“I told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Maxwell snapped, angrier than Alice had ever heard him.
“You’re lucky I don’t have time to deal with you right now,” Bertrand said.
Drake looked at Alice, raising an eyebrow. “Well?” he whispered. “Doesn’t it seem like something weird is going on?”
“It seemed like Bertrand being Bertrand,” Alice said calmly, not wanting to let on that she knew more about the Beaumont finances. Frankie, to her credit, was suddenly very interested in the flowers in front of her. “Being grumpy and yelling at Maxwell is kind of Bertrand’s thing.”
“Yeah, but this time it sounded like he actually had a reason,” Drake said.
“So, that means something odd is going on here,” Drake said. “And I intend to find out what it is.”
“Is that really your business?” Frankie asked.
“It sounds like Maxwell might be in over his head this time,” Drake said. “I think he might really need some help. Of course, knowing him, he’d never ask.”
“Yes?” Alice asked as she, Frankie, and Drake turned to look at Bertrand.
“Why are you three standing around chatting like ladies at afternoon tea?” Bertrand snapped. “You all said you’d help, so help.”
“Cool it, Bertrand,” Alice said as she rolled her eyes. “We’re just finishing the floral arrangements and need I remind you, I scrubbed the floor on my hands and knees with you.”
Bertrand exhaled loudly through his nose before he turned and stormed out of the room.
“Is he…always like that?” Frankie asked.
“He’s crankier than usual right now, but…yeah, sort of,” Alice said. Then she turned. “Hey, where’s Drake?”
Frankie pointed to where Drake was quietly opening a door at the end of the hallway before he slipped inside.
“What the…” Alice said, staring after him.
“He’s probably snooping to try to figure out what’s going on with them,” Frankie said.
Alice sighed. “I’ll go get him. Coming?”
Frankie shook her head. “You go ahead, I’ll keep working here so Bertrand doesn’t go completely apoplectic.”
Alice followed Drake down the hallway and into the room in which she’d seen him disappear.
“Drake, what are you doing back here?” she asked. Drake whirled around, nearly knocking the lamp off the desk.
“Jesus, Ayers, you can’t sneak up on me like that!” he said as he steadied the lamp. “This is the Beaumont study.”
“Okay, so that tells me where we are, but not why we’re in here,” Alice said.
“We used to spend a lot of time here as kids,” Drake said, ignoring her question. “My sister, Savannah, used to think the Beaumont brothers were the epitome of courtly life. She practically worshiped them.”
“And you didn’t.”
“I found them to be…more of an acquired taste,” Drake said.
“So they annoyed the hell out of you?”
Drake touched his nose and pointed at her. “Exactly. Whenever I got tired of their antics, I’d sneak off and come here to the study.”
“You were the life of the party even back then,” Alice said.
“Ha ha, very funny, Ayers,” Drake said. “Whenever Savannah found me in here, she would try to get me to join in on the fun.” He hesitated, his face falling. “I don’t even know where she is now.”
“You don’t have any way of finding her?” Alice asked. “I mean, being Liam’s best friend, I’d think he could–”
“I’m not going to bother him with something like that,” Drake said, cutting her off. Frankie’s words echoed in Alice’s ears: You are not a burden. “Anyway, she stopped answering my calls and deleted all of her social media accounts. Wherever she is…all I know is that she doesn’t want to be found. Even by me.” Drake’s face darkened. “And you know what? I don’t blame her.”
“What are you talking about?” Alice asked.
“I failed her. I don’t even know how, but I know that I failed her,” Drake said. “I didn’t protect her from…from whatever it was that made her leave.”
“Drake, you’re much too hard on yourself,” Alice said. “Sometimes people just…deal with things on their own.”
“I’ve spent hours trying to figure out if I could’ve done something different. If I could’ve done more,” he said.
“Do you have any idea what it was about?”
Drake shook his head. “She was so happy…and then one day, after one of these Beaumont parties, she wasn’t. She locked herself in her room and I could hear her crying. Then, a couple days later, all of her things were packed and she was just…gone.” Drake sniffed, composing himself. “Anyway, enough about that,” he said as he headed to the far side of the room. Alice’s eyes followed him before roaming the study.
“Are we even allowed in here?” Alice asked. “This seems like the sort of thing Bertrand would definitely yell at us for.”
“I mean, they never lock the door, so I guess they don’t care that much about who comes in,” Drake said. Then he froze, realizing what he’d said. “Oh, god, Alice, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. An unlocked door isn’t–”
“Drake, stop, it’s fine, I knew what you meant,” Alice said quickly, tugging self-consciously on her sleeves to keep her bruises hidden.
Drake’s face was flushed and he stuffed his hands in his pockets. After a painfully long silence, he finally gestured to the walls, which were lined with ribbons and medals. “I think they like leaving the door open so people can come in and see those,” he said. “As you can see, the Beaumont family has a lot to brag about.”
Alice walked over to a lit display case to admire the set of gleaming trophies and framed photos of younger versions of Bertrand and Maxwell, both on horseback.
“A family tradition of excellence,” Drake said awkwardly, still looking supremely uncomfortable at his unintentional gaff.
“I can see why Bertrand is always so worried about upholding the Beaumont name,” Alice said.
“Their house goes back a long way,” Drake explained. “I could never pity a rich kid like Bertrand, but I come very close to it sometimes. He’s got a lot of pressure on him. I think his parents gave him a lot of talks about his heritage and Cordonia…and it’s not like Maxwell’s much help with anything.”
“Hey, he tries,” Alice protested. She knew what Maxwell was like, but she felt protective of him.
“Maxwell has always been more interested in having fun,” Drake said. “He couldn’t care less about prestige and honor. That’s actually one of the things I like about him…” Drake trailed off and Alice turned to see him looking at her, his eyes lingering on her until he caught her gaze and quickly looked away, embarrassed. “Anyway, I didn’t come in here to reminisce about the Beaumonts.”
“You just came in here to investigate something that’s none of your business,” Alice said. Drake ignored her and started to rifle through the stack of papers on the desk.
“Whoa!” he exclaimed, picking up an envelope.
“If I’m not mistaken, this is a fat envelope full of cash,” Drake said. “But why is it just here in the study?”
“Because a study is a good place to store fat wads of cash away from prying eyes?” Alice asked.
“There’s an address on the back…a French address. It looks like someone was going to mail this today,” Drake said as he studied the envelope. “This has got to be the missing money that Bertrand was talking about.”
“Which also means it’s none of our goddamn business,” Alice argued. “Put it down and let’s get out of here.”
“Aren’t you curious why this is here?”
“Since when are you so freaking nosy?” Alice asked. “This is a serious invasion of privacy and–at the risk of repeating myself–none of our goddamn business.”
“Fine,” Drake said, putting the envelope back where he found it. “I still think it’s weird.”
“You’re entitled,” Alice said as she walked over to him and grabbed his arm. “Now let’s get out of here before Bertrand notices we left Frankie alone with the flowers.”
Later that night, after everything had been cleaned and set and prepared, everyone lounged on the chairs in the ballroom.
“So what do you think, Bertrand?” Alice asked. “Are we ready for tomorrow?”
“I suppose,” Bertrand said with a sigh.
“I’m guessing that’s the closest we’ll get to a thank you?” Frankie asked, leaning over to Maxwell.
“Pretty much,” he said.
Everyone turned to the doorway to see Liam standing there.
“Your Highness!” Bertrand exclaimed as he jumped up to his feet. “Did I…did we know you were arriving tonight?”
“No, and I hope that’s okay,” Liam said sheepishly. “I heard Alice was sick, so we came early to check on her.”
We? Alice wondered, but before she could consider this, the answer walked into the ballroom.
“Excuse me, sir, I have a message for you from your father,” Bastien said.
“Oh, of course, just one moment,” Liam said, turning to look at Frankie. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Liam,” he said with a friendly smile, holding out his hand.
“Liam, this is my friend, Frankie,” Alice said as Frankie shook his hand and smiled back. “She’s a friend of mine from back home and decided to surprise me here.”
“It’s very nice to meet you,” Frankie said. “Alice has said a lot of nice things about you.”
“The feeling is mutual,” Liam said. He glanced over at Alice, who didn’t miss the flicker of sadness in his eyes. “Oh, how rude of me, this is Bastien,” Liam said, gesturing to him. “He’s the head of the royal guard.”
“Nice to meet you,” Bastien said stiffly. Frankie glared at him, but said nothing. “Anyway, sir, I should really give you the message from your father…”
“Oh, yes. Excuse me,” Liam said with a nod to everyone before he and Bastien left the room.
“I’m feeling kind of tired,” Alice said as she stood up. Bertrand, Maxwell, and Drake all jumped to their feet. “Guys, thank you, but I can make it up the stairs.”
“I’ll go with you,” Frankie said as she stood. “Goodnight, everyone.”
Alice and Frankie left the ballroom and as soon as they reached the main staircase, Frankie turned to her.
“Are you okay?” Frankie asked.
“I’d be better if you didn’t make it so fucking obvious and glare at him,” Alice replied.
“Sorry, couldn’t help it.” Frankie didn’t even sound remotely sorry. “Seriously though, are you okay?”
“No, I’m not,” Alice answered honestly. “I don’t understand how he made such a fast 180 on me.”
“Maybe it wasn’t his choice,” Frankie said.
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe someone found out about your relationship and wanted to put a stop to it. Is it possible Bertrand did it?”
“Come on, Alice, think about it,” Frankie said. “He’s really hellbent on you becoming queen, right?”
“Yes, but I’m pretty sure he would’ve yelled at me first, not gone behind my back to convince Bastien to break up with me.”
“Is there anyone else?”
Alice considered this for a moment as they started to walk down the hall towards her room. “Not that I can think of.”
“Hmm,” Frankie said.
Later that night in his room, Bastien sat on the edge of the bed. It had taken everything he had to hold himself together when he saw Alice. She looked like she’d lost weight, and he was worried. But he couldn’t check on her, not if he didn’t want to put her in danger. Fortunately, she had other people who could check on her. And now with Frankie here…Bastien thought of the way Frankie had glared at him and he shuddered slightly. He’d seen a lot of things and faced down some formidable people during his tenure with the royal guard, and Frankie was intimidating, to say the least. Bastien lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, wondering if Frankie came to take Alice back to New York. He closed his eyes. The idea of Alice leaving Cordonia made him feel like he was going to shatter into a thousand pieces, but it also made him feel relieved. Back in America, Alice would be further from Constantine and Regina’s reach. They’d also feel less threatened by her…she’d be safer there. Selfishly, he wanted her to stay. He wanted to see her, hold her, kiss her, take care of her…but it wasn’t worth her life. Bastien had already given up so much for the crown; he wouldn’t sacrifice her life as well.
A knock at the door made him open his eyes. He couldn’t imagine who would be knocking at his door, but he hoped it wasn’t Frankie coming to verbally rip him a new asshole. Bastien got up off the bed and headed for the door. But when he opened the door, he froze.
“What are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you,” Alice said.
“You can’t be here,” Bastien said as he tried to shut the door. Alice stuck her foot out, catching it.
“I don’t give a shit,” she said, pushing past Bastien. He quickly closed the door behind her.
“Alice, seriously, you can’t be here,” Bastien said quickly. “If anyone sees you–”
“Why did you break up with me?” Alice asked.
Bastien hesitated. “I told you already.”
“No, you sent me a bullshit text. Tell me the truth.”
“I already did,” Bastien said, trying to make his words sound convincing. “I never should’ve gotten involved with a suitor.”
“I offered to quit,” Alice said angrily. “I offered to quit to be with you, but you said no. But then you broke up with me because I’m still a suitor? That doesn’t make any sense and you know it.”
“Alice, you don’t understand,” he said, desperation creeping around the edges of his words. “Because of my job, I have certain obligations–”
“Fuck your obligations!” she snapped at him. “What about us?”
“Alice, I already said everything in that text,” Bastien said, feeling the bile rise in the back of his throat.
“I’m not. And you need to go.”
“You’re not telling me something,” Alice said, eyeing him suspiciously.
“Alice, please, you have to go.”
“Do you know what I’ve been through over the past few days?” she demanded. “You don’t seem to be checking your phone, so allow me to fill you in. A few days ago–the night you broke up with me, by the way–Tariq tried to rape me.” Alice yanked up the sleeves of her shirt to show him her bruises. “Those are from when he pinned me to the bed with my arms twisted behind my back.” She pulled up her pant leg, showing him the dark marks across her calf and heel. “Those are from when he kicked me after I tried to fight back.” She let go of her pants and straightened up, staring Bastien right in the eyes. “The only reason he stopped is because Drake heard me screaming and crying and he burst in and saved me.”
“I know, and I’m sorry that happened,” Bastien said, trying to force the mental images from his mind, although he couldn’t stop staring at her uncovered arms. “But that doesn’t change the fact that you have to go.”
“Alice, please,” he begged, tears springing to his eyes. “You have to go. I can’t do this.”
“Tell me you don’t love me,” she challenged, her voice shaking with unshed tears.
Bastien tried to steel himself, but he couldn’t keep from crying. “I don’t love you.”
He thought she might slap him, but instead she closed the distance between them, wrapping her arms around him. He pulled her to him tightly, burying his face in her neck. Bastien breathed deeply, trying to memorize the feel of her in his arms and the smell of her hair before he finally pulled away.
“You have to go,” he said, his voice firm. “This is over. I’m sorry.”
Alice studied him. “This is what you want?”
No. “Yes,” he said with as much conviction as he could. “This is what I want.”
She bit her lip and nodded. Then she opened the door and left, closing it behind her. Bastien leaned against the wall and sank to the floor, his face in his hands. He squeezed his eyes shut and prayed no one had seen her come to or leave from his room.
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