Summary: It’s the night of the coronation and secrets come to light.
Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit. Also, fair warning, this is a long post.
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, Part 21, Part 22
A few weeks later, Alice found herself en route to the palace for Liam’s coronation. Her bruises had faded, but the memories were still sharp as ever. It seemed unfair, really that something that still hurt so painfully was no longer painted across her skin. She also hadn’t seen or heard from Bastien since the royal family had left Ramsford a couple days after the Beaumont bash, and she was finally starting to consider a life that didn’t have him in it. However, if she was honest, Alice didn’t know what was going to be next for her after the coronation. She’d promised Liam she’d stay until he was crowned king, but then…what? In spite of everything that had happened, Alice felt more and more like she didn’t want to go back to New York. But, at the end of the day, she knew she didn’t belong at court. The idea of leaving depressed her, not because she was going to necessarily miss the exorbitant parties or formal events, but she knew she was going to miss everyone. Well, not Madeleine so much, but Alice had grown to love her friends in Cordonia. The rational part of her knew that those friendships would likely fizzle over time; they’d stay in touch a lot after she first left, but then the texts would grow fewer and fewer and their relationships would eventually be relegated to likes on Instagram. The thought was almost too grim to bear, and Alice did her best to push it from her mind. Of course, there was one person she couldn’t completely forget. She wondered if she ever would.
“I can’t believe the coronation ball is tonight,” Maxwell said wistfully from his seat in the limo.
“I can,” Bertrand said. “Everything we’ve worked for this season has led up to this.”
Alice had planned to tell Bertrand and Maxwell about her talk with Liam about dropping out of contention, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to do it. He didn’t talk about it a lot, but Alice had gotten the impression that some financial opportunities had started to arrive for Bertrand, the house sponsoring a front runner for queen. It seemed that her plan was working–for everyone but her.
“The other ladies won’t know what hit them,” Maxwell said with a grin.
“As long as Alice sticks to the plan,” Bertrand said before turning to her. “There’s still ample time for you to disappoint me.”
“There’s that pep talk I’ve come to know and love,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.
Bertrand ignored her. “I trust you’re ready for the coronation?” he asked. “Have you prepared your gift for the prince?”
“Maxwell!” Bertrand snapped.
“Oh, right! Sorry,” Maxwell apologized.
Bertrand sighed, annoyed. “Every guest traditionally presents the crown prince with a gift befitting his station. Some houses spend months cultivating rare flowers or crafting elaborate culinary delicacies.”
“So…hypothetically speaking, if I didn’t do that, I should still be able to find something good, right?” Alice asked.
Bertrand glared at his brother.
“Alice, how are you at poetry?” Maxwell asked.
“Writing or reading?”
“I was thinking maybe you could resent him with a poem in one of those fancy envelope thingies!” Maxwell said hopefully. “Now, what rhymes with Liam…?”
Alice thought back to the hours she’d spent reading with Bastien in his quarters, the times he’d shared a quote or a poem with her that he’d said reminded him of her. Alice’s heart twisted, but she said nothing.
“I think I might be onto something here,” Maxwell said, deep in thought. “With teeth so straight and white, his smile was ever bright…”
Bertrand pinched the bridge of his nose. “I think we’re in trouble.”
Bastien stood near the back of the throne room while Liam discussed the upcoming coronation and ball with Constantine and the event coordinators. He tried to keep his focus on the present, but he couldn’t help but think about the arrival of the palace guests; one guest in particular. No matter what he did, Alice still consumed his thoughts. It terrified him that she was still in Cordonia and easily within Constantine’s reach, but she could be safe soon. If Alice had talked to Liam and taken herself out of contention for queen, she’d likely head back to New York after the coronation.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He opened the photo app and looked again at the picture he knew so well he could describe it down to the smallest detail. Bastien wished desperately that she would look at him like that again, just one more time. But it wasn’t worth the risk.
That night, Alice had dressed carefully for the ball. Bertrand hadn’t been thrilled about her choice of a gray dress, but he’d been somewhat mollified by the amount of lace. She knew he was nervous and doing his best to keep from putting too much pressure on her, but at the end of the day, Bertrand was still Bertrand.
“Don’t worry, I think you look amazing,” Maxwell told her as their limo pulled up to the red carpet in front of the palace. “Ready to talk to the press?”
“Am I ever?”
When the limo came to a stop, Bertrand exited first, nodding to the press before making his way down the red carpet. Maxwell got out next before extending a hand back to Alice to help her out of the car while the press questioned some of the suitors that had already arrived.
“Lady Olivia, how does it feel to referred to as ‘The Scarlet Duchess?’” one reporter asked.
“It feels good,” Olivia said. “Red’s always been my color.”
“Countess Madeleine, how does it feel to be attending the coronation ball as one of the leading suitors…again?” another reporter asked.
Madeleine smiled coolly, but Alice noticed the tightness around her mouth at the reference to her previous engagement. “Words can’t begin to describe the feeling. All I know is that my love for Cordonia will never die.”
Oh my god, that woman is exhausting on every level.
Alice glanced at Maxwell, who squeezed her arm a little tighter in a silent plea not to say what she was really thinking.
“It’s busy,” she said instead.
“It’s a big night,” Maxwell said as the reporters noticed her and cut off their other interviews before clamoring for Alice’s attention. Alice glanced at Madeleine and saw her eyes narrow and darken with anger.
“Lady Alice, how are you feeling going into tonight’s big announcement?” one reporter asked.
“I’m excited to be here supporting the prince as he prepares to ascend into such an important role,” Alice said.
“Oh, come on, give us a little more!” another reporter said. “You’ve been a front runner for some time now–do you think Liam is going to choose you?”
“There’s only one person who can answer that question, and that’s Prince Liam,” Alice said, politely evasive as ever. “But I do have faith that he will choose whomever is the best fit for Cordonia.”
“Thank you, everyone, but we should be heading inside now,” Maxwell said with a smile. The reporters snapped photo after photo as Maxwell led her away down the red carpet towards the doors. “You couldn’t have said something more…I don’t know, affectionate about Liam?”
“Oh, sorry, Bertrand,” Alice said. “I was trying to be polite and gracious in the event Liam doesn’t pick me.”
Maxwell shuddered. “Oh, god, I did just sound like Bertrand…”
“Don’t worry, I’ll never tell him,” Alice promised.
“He wouldn’t believe you if you did.”
Once inside, Maxwell and Alice were ushered into a receiving line to greet the king and queen and found themselves behind Kiara.
“…so of course, the prime minister told me I shouldn’t even think of eating the chocolates! As if all our trade talks would collapse if I sampled a truffle,” Kiara said with a laugh. The queen laughed with her.
“You have the most amusing stories,” Regina said, pressing her fingers to her mouth to hold back more laughter.
“Merci, Your Majesty,” Kiara said before glancing over her shoulder. She curtsied to the king and queen before stepping aside to allow Alice and Maxwell space to greet the monarchs.
Of course I finally get the hang of curtsies right before I head back to New York, Alice thought as she curtsied before Constantine and Regina.
“Lady Alice, your curtsy has really improved since you first arrived,” the queen said.
Oh, fuck off. “Thank you, Your Majesties,” Alice said graciously. “And thank you for having me here this evening.”
“We wouldn’t dream of keeping you away,” Constantine said with a beatific smile. “I must say, you’ve been a real fixture at court lately, Lady Alice, and it’s been delightful. I hope your station will become more permanent in the future.”
“Thank you, sir,” Alice said, noting the way Regina’s smile tightened at her husband’s words.
A short time later, Alice was seated in the dining hall with the other suitors as they waited for dinner to begin. She didn’t want to, but she found herself scanning the room for Bastien. She found him almost immediately and felt her heart twist at the sight of him. But, of course, Alice knew she couldn’t let herself stare at him, so she tore her gaze away and tried to focus on the conversation at the table.
“Even though I know he’s not going to choose me, I’m still so nervous,” Penelope said.
“One never knows, ma cherie,” Kiara said. “There’s still a chance.”
“You’re delusional if you think that,” Madeleine said as she took a sip of her water.
“For someone who really prides themselves on propriety and etiquette, you do have a flair for being the most obnoxious woman in the room,” Alice said sweetly. Beside her, Olivia smirked. Madeleine glared at Alice but before she could say something in return, servers placed the first course of crisp, fresh salad topped with crushed walnuts and cranberries before them.
“Lady Alice, I wanted to compliment you on your dress,” Penelope said with a small smile. “I wouldn’t have thought of wearing gray, but it really suits you and the lace is so beautiful.”
“Thank you, Penelope,” Alice said.
“Yes, it’s unusual to see the combination of such a drab color with such a…provocative style,” Madeleine said.
“I’m so going to miss our little conversations once this is all over,” Alice said as she rolled her eyes.
“Unfortunately, that won’t be for a while,” Madeleine said as she took a bite of her salad. “We’ll be summoned back for the engagement tour and the wedding and we’ll all be called upon to show our support for whoever the prince chooses.”
“We will?” Kiara asked, surprised. This was news to Alice as well, who had simply been planning to go back to New York.
“Of course,” Madeleine said. “I’m sure we can put our petty differences aside to support stability in Cordonia no matter who the winner is. Even you must appreciate that, Olivia.”
Olivia raised a perfectly arched eyebrow at Madeleine. “It’s no matter at all, Lady Madeleine, since he’s going to pick me.”
“That’s almost sweet that you think so,” Madeleine said
Once the first course finished, servers cleared the plates before handing out servings of roasted pheasant.
“Oh!” Penelope exclaimed. “I just had a thought–what if he doesn’t choose anyone at all? Wouldn’t that be scandalous?”
“He’ll pick someone,” Madeleine said curtly. “It’s his duty to do so.”
You seem fairly confident considering you’re his brother’s sloppy seconds, Alice thought. Madeleine was pissing her off, but she didn’t want to cause a scene in the middle of dinner. Just a few more hours, and everything will be over, Alice thought.
After dinner finally drew to a painful close, a trumpet sounded, heralding everyone to head into the ballroom. Maxwell reappeared at Alice’s side as she stood up from the table.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Am I ever?”
Maxwell escorted Alice into the ballroom and joined her in line behind the other suitors as Liam received his gifts.
“Thank you, Lady Penelope for this…uh…gem-encrusted poodle figurine,” Liam said graciously.
“I have the matching lady poodle, so now you can always think of me when you look at it!” Penelope said with a wide grin, looking supremely relieved.
“I’m sure I could think of no one else,” he assured her.
“Penelope and her poodles,” Alice said, not without affection.
“To be fair, it’s hard to know what to get for a prince,” Maxwell said.
“True,” Hana agreed. “I had to talk my parents out of sending a full-grown bull elephant as our family’s coronation gift…I thought that would be far too awkward to bring into the palace.”
“What, elephant tamer isn’t one of your many talents?” Alice teased.
“Unfortunately, it is not,” Hana said with a smile. “There doesn’t seem to be a high demand for elephant training at court.”
“Well, yeah, especially since no one gave Liam an elephant,” Maxwell pointed out.
As Penelope moved forward, Madeleine stepped up to greet Liam.
“Prince Liam, congratulations on this most momentous day,” she said with a smile.
“Thank you, Lady Madeleine,” Liam said politely.
“Please, accept this small and humble token of my house’s admiration,” she said as she handed Liam a small, velvet box.
“Diamond cufflinks,” Liam said, nodding. “An elegant and sophisticated gift befitting your house.”
“I hope you wear them in good health,” Madeleine said.
“You’re too generous, Lady Madeleine.”
“Barf,” Hana whispered to Alice and Maxwell, causing Alice to clap her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. Madeleine heard the snicker and momentarily glared at Alice over her shoulder.
“Nonsense, Liam,” Madeleine said when she turned back to the prince. “You deserve all this and more. Much more.”
“As always, you’re far too kind,” Liam said.
“I know it was you,” Olivia hissed at Alice from behind her in line.
“What?” Alice asked, turning to look at the striking redhead.
“That stupid note,” Olivia whispered. “I’m sure you were behind it. But don’t think I can be intimidated so easily.” She paused, looking Alice up and down. “And to think, I thought you were above that.”
“Olivia, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Alice said. “I never sent anything.”
“Play dumb all you want. It won’t help you win.”
“Honestly, Olivia, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Alice said again.
Olivia stared at her, eyes hard, but then they began to soften. “I…actually believe you.”
“What’s going on?” Alice asked. “You can tell me.”
“Just forget about it,” Olivia snapped, the anger seeping back into her face. “I can handle it on my own.”
“You don’t have to,” Alice said, but her words were lost as Olivia stepped in front of her just as Madeleine curtsied and moved forward. With one last look over her shoulder, Olivia approached Liam.
“Liam!” she said, her face melting into a smile. “How lovely to see you here.” She held out her hand and Liam kissed her knuckles gently.
“Olivia, it’s always a pleasure,” he said warmly, looking relieved to be with a friend.
“I hope you enjoy the gift I’ve selected for your coronation,” Olivia said as she handed him an ornate golden box.
“You probably don’t remember, but a long time ago when we were children, someone teased me and said I was as prickly as a cactus. Then you said that you loved cactuses because they were tough and on one messed with them,” Olivia explained.
Liam smiled. “Of course I remember.”
“I wanted to give you this to thank you for always looking out for me,” Olivia said. “You’re one of the only people who ever has and…well, it means a lot to me.” She took a breath and smiled at him. “Congratulations on your coronation, Liam. You’re going to be the best king that Cordonia has ever seen.”
Liam grinned. “I wouldn’t say that in front of my father.”
“Of course,” Olivia said, winking conspiratorially at him.
“Thank you, Olivia,” Liam said. “I’ll treasure this cactus always.”
Olivia leaned forward and kissed Liam on the cheek before moving aside. As she left, Alice stepped forward.
“Lady Alice,” Liam said happily as she curtsied. “Thank you for being here to celebrate with me.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t miss this,” Alice said, reaching out to squeeze his arm. “And, I also have a gift for you.”
“Your presence is more than gift enough, but I can’t wait to see what you have,” Liam said. Alice handed him an envelope. “What’s this?”
“It’s a letter,” Alice said. “I know it’s not as fancy as some of the other gifts you’ve received, but I hope you like it anyway.”
Despite only having met you a short while ago, I can’t tell you how much your friendship means to me. You are one of the kindest people I have ever had the fortune of knowing and your generosity humbles me again and again. I know you’ve been preparing to become king for some time now, but your ascension to the throne is coming sooner than you anticipated. I hope you remember that there are so many people who are rooting for you and supporting you as you take this next step. I might be new to Cordonia, but the country’s love for you is overwhelmingly evident.
I have faith that you’re going to be an excellent king, and that’s mostly due to how you treat everyone regardless of their nobility. When I met you in New York, you were exceedingly kind to me when I was little more than your bartender. I know that that kindness is automatic for you, but trust me–there are many people who don’t share that quality. I have a feeling that your compassion is going to be your greatest asset as a ruler and I can’t wait to see what you do next.
Thank you for being my friend; I don’t know what I did to deserve to have someone like you in my life, but I’d do it again a hundred times over.
“Alice…this is…” Liam said as he searched for the words.
“I know it’s not much, but the other option was a poem,” Alice said. “But, in Maxwell’s defense, he did come up with several verses praising the whiteness of your teeth.”
Liam laughed. “This is better. Thank you, Alice. I know things didn’t…well, our relationship has evolved differently than I’d first hoped, but I value your friendship so much and I’m glad you’re here.”
Alice was fairly certain she was breaking about six different etiquette rules, but she reached out and hugged Liam anyway. He returned the embrace without hesitation. Finally, he pulled back.
“I’m fairly certain we just caused a scandal,” Liam joked. Alice glanced over at Madeleine to see her face had turned satisfyingly furious.
“Oops,” Alice said nonchalantly with a shrug.
“Save me a dance later?”
Liam bowed to her and she curtsied again before moving away from the prince to join Maxwell.
“Did he like the poem?” Maxwell asked as she looped her arm through his.
“He loved it. Especially the part about his teeth.”
“I knew he would!” Maxwell exclaimed.
Bastien watched on as Liam and Alice talked. They were out of range of his hearing, but it seemed like things were going well. Had Alice changed her mind and decided to put herself back in contention to be Liam’s bride? Bastien didn’t think so, but he couldn’t know for sure. When Alice and Liam hugged, Bastien could practically feel the ripple of their embrace through the ballroom. Some of the nobles smiled as they looked on; Bertrand in particular looked like he couldn’t decide between elation and embarrassment at the break in decorum. Madeleine looked like she’d swallowed something that was still alive. Worst of all, Bastien noticed the way Constantine watched the hug, jaw clenched.
Please, Alice, Bastien thought. You just have to survive for a little longer.
Alice turned around to see Drake. “Hey! How are you?”
“I guess I should congratulate you,” he said.
Drake chuckled. “Come on, Ayers. You know what for.”
“I really don’t.”
He sighed. “You look really nice tonight.”
“Is that what you wanted to congratulate me on? Successfully dressing myself?”
“Alice, don’t play dumb. This time tomorrow, you might be the future queen.”
Alice glanced around to make sure no one was listening and she lowered her voice. “Drake, Liam isn’t going to choose me.”
Drake laughed bitterly. “Right.”
“Seriously,” Alice said, bringing her voice down to a whisper. “I took myself out of contention a while ago.”
Drake stared at her, confused. “What? Why would you do that? Is it because of…what happened?”
“No, I didn’t drop out because of…because of him,” Alice said. “I dropped out because…look, this isn’t a good place to talk about this. But Liam has known for a while.”
Alice shrugged. “Now, I’m here to support Liam at his coronation as his friend. After that, I’m not entirely sure.”
The band struck up a waltz and couples began to pair off on the dance floor. Alice and Liam watched as Madeleine quickly whisked Liam away as her partner.
“Want to dance?” Drake asked as he held out his hand.
“You’re willing to dance? In public?” Alice asked as she put her hand in his.
“I’m making an exception,” he said as he led her onto the dance floor. “Don’t make me regret it.”
Drake led her through the steps, his feet agile and smoother than she’d expected.
“You’ve been holding out on me,” Alice said.
“Like I said, I’m making an exception,” Drake said. They danced in silence for a moment before Drake looked at her, meeting her gaze. “Why would you give up being queen?”
“I’m in love with someone else,” Alice said quietly before correcting herself. “Was in love with someone else. It’s over now, but I felt like Liam deserved to be with someone who was committed to him.”
Drake considered this. “Who was it?”
“Does it matter?”
“I guess not,” Drake conceded. “But, um, if you ever want to talk…I’m here for you.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that,” Alice said as she squeezed his hand.
“You know, you’re not a bad dancer considering you just learned how a few months ago,” Drake said.
“I know, it’s like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs.”
Drake laughed as he gently twirled her in an elegant circle. “That’s not exactly how I would’ve put it, but sure.”
The final strains of the song wafted across the dance floor and Drake stepped back, bowing slightly. “Thank you for the dance, Ayers.”
Drake and Alice walked back over to the edge of the dance floor to join Maxwell and Hana as servers began to unveil a table of hors d’oeuvres.
“Who’s ready for snacks?” Maxwell asked as he rubbed his hands together.
“Great, more fancy finger food,” Drake said. Alice poked him in the side. “Ow, what?”
“It’ll be fun!” Hana said. “Come on!”
Alice, Hana, and Maxwell dragged Drake towards the hors d’oeuvres table. They each piled plates with an assortment of snacks before they sat down at a nearby table.
“You know, I’m really going to miss you all,” Hana said sadly.
“Miss us?” Maxwell asked.
Hana sighed. “I heard from my parents and they’re not exactly pleased with how the social season panned out, so tonight is my last night at court. I leave tomorrow morning.”
“That sucks!” Maxwell exclaimed.
“What about what Madeleine said about sticking around for the engagement tour thing?” Alice asked.
Hana shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they figured I’ve embarrassed them enough and they’d rather not risk having me here.”
“Hana, that’s ridiculous,” Alice said. “Look, I know that they’re your parents and I’m not trying to insult them, but I really don’t understand how they don’t see what I see. You are such a brilliant, accomplished, and kind person–you’re an asset at court, even if you’re not queen.”
“Thank you, Alice,” Hana said as she mustered a smile.
“Hey, if this is your last night, we should live it up!” Maxwell said. “What do you have to lose?”
“Only my dignity,” Hana said.
“If you didn’t lose it at the Beaumonts, I’m pretty sure you’ll be fine,” Drake said.
“Besides, dignity is overrated,” Maxwell added as he stood up and crammed a few more snacks into his mouth. “Let’s go dance!”
“I’m going to go find Liam,” Drake said. “I’ll see you all later.”
Once the other three had left, Alice was joined by Kiara and Penelope.
“Lady Alice, we want to congratulate you on coming this far,” Kiara said with a friendly smile.
“It was no small feat,” Penelope added.
“Oh, thank you,” Alice said, gesturing to the open chairs. “I’ve really enjoyed my time here and I’m glad I’ve gotten to know you both.”
“I hope you’ve enjoyed the ball so far,” Penelope said as she and Kiara sat down. “And it’s so exciting–the prince might choose you!”
“He could choose any of us,” Alice reminded her.
“That’s kind of you to say, Alice, but we…well, we know we’re not really contenders tonight,” Kiara said.
“Do you have any plans for what you’ll do next?” Alice asked, hoping to divert the attention away from herself.
“Once the wedding is over, I’ll split my time between court and my family’s estate,” Penelope said. Then she brightened. “It’ll be nice to finally see my poodles again!”
“I miss having a dog,” Alice said. “We had one when I was a kid, a golden retriever.”
“Poodles are the best! I mean, I respect other breeds,” Penelope said quickly. “But I connect with poodles on an emotional level.”
“Well, I’m glad you’ll see them soon,” Alice said. “What about you Kiara?”
“Once the wedding is over, I’ll stay at court for a little while before searching for a position with the foreign ministry,” she said.
“How many languages do you actually speak?” Alice asked. “I’ve only ever heard English and French.”
“Those are the dominant regional languages, but I also speak German, Spanish, Italian, and Finnish,” Kiara said.
Two less than Bastien, Alice thought idly.
“We should probably visit with some of the other ladies before the coronation ceremony begins,” Penelope said, rising to her feet.
“It was nice talking to you, Lady Alice,” Kiara said with a smile as she followed Penelope.
“Good luck tonight!” Penelope called back over her shoulder.
Alice got to her feet and began to meander around the room, looking for a friendly face. Without meaning to, she found Bastien again only to discover he was watching her. She stared back at him, challenging him, but he didn’t back down. She was about to walk over to him when Bertrand and Maxwell hurried to her side.
“Alice, we have to talk,” Maxwell said.
“What is it?”
“We just intercepted a courier with a letter addressed to you,” Bertrand said.
“To me? What for?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Bertrand said as he held it out to her. “I’d have held onto it until after the coronation, but it says it’s urgent.”
Confused, Alice took the letter and opened it.
The prince will never be yours and you will never be queen. Leave court now.
“What does it say?” Maxwell asked. She held out the note to the brothers who leaned in to read it.
“How dare anyone send a letter like this to a member of our house!” Bertrand seethed.
“Someone’s clearly just trying to intimidate me,” Alice said with a shrug.
“How are you not more upset about this?” Bertrand asked.
“Because this seems like such middle school bullshit,” Alice said. She didn’t like how much she relished the way Bertrand flinched when she swore, but it was still a little satisfying. “It’s probably from another suitor or something.”
“Even if it’s simply an envious debutante trying to ruin your night, I won’t stand for it,” Bertrand said, anger creasing his brow. “I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”
“Wait,” Alice said, reaching out to catch his arm before he walked away. “Olivia got a note, too.”
“That’s right!” Maxwell said. “She thought you wrote it to intimidate her.”
“Hmm,” Bertrand said, considering the new information. “Most interesting. You, Olivia, and Lady Madeleine are being viewed as the three favorites in contention for the crown. If someone’s targeting the three most likely suitors to win, then Madeleine may have also been given a note.”
“And if she didn’t, that might mean she’s the one messing with you and Olivia,” Maxwell added.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Bertrand said. “We don’t want to accuse anyone of anything undue. It could simply mean that whoever is behind the notes wants Madeleine to win.”
“Yeah, and no one wants that more than Madeleine herself,” Maxwell grumbled.
“Maxwell, take the letter and put it somewhere secure,” Bertrand said. “I don’t know if we can get anything off of it, but it’s worth it to hang onto it just in case.”
“Got it. Be right back,” Maxwell said as he hurried out of the ballroom.
“Now, Alice, for the time being, you must continue on as though nothing has happened,” Bertrand instructed. “It could be that distracting you from the ball is exactly what the culprit desires, so you should continue to keep up all appearances of enjoying the festivities.”
“Okay,” Alice said, completely nonplussed by the letter’s appearance.
“I suspect this is nothing more than a childish prank, but I will investigate it,” Bertrand said, his anger flaring again. “You just stay focused on tonight and the prince.”
“Yes, sir,” Alice said, saluting him. Bertrand sighed and left. Shortly thereafter, Alice was joined by Maxwell again.
“Letter is safe and sound,” he announced. “Where’s Bertrand?”
“Off to investigate, I assume,” Alice said. “I’m under strict orders to enjoy myself.”
“Excellent! Something I’m really good at,” Maxwell said as they were joined by a blond, painfully handsome man.
“Hello, my lady, Lord Maxwell,” the man said with a bow.
“Leo!” Maxwell exclaimed. The man smiled and hugged him. “Where have you been?”
“Oh, you know how it is,” Leo said. “One moment, you’re off wandering Grecian ruins, then you end up on a cruise in the Mediterranean…but that’s a story for another time.”
“You must be Liam’s brother,” Alice said with a smile. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m–”
“Lady Alice Ayers,” Leo finished for her. “I’ve heard a lot about you from my brother.”
“Mostly good, I hope.”
“Well, he did mention something about donuts,” Leo said.
“Cronuts!” Maxwell exclaimed as Madeleine joined their group. “Man, we should go get more of those.”
“Leo…how fortunate you found the time to join us,” Madeleine said, her glare icy.
“Madeleine, you know I wouldn’t miss my brother’s coronation,” Leo said lightly, avoiding eye contact with her.
“Just your own,” she said. “I’m glad there remain a few sentiments that’ll make you return to court. Your brother will be elated to know you’re watching him choose Cordonia’s future queen.”
“I heard you’re one of the potential brides again,” Leo said, this time staring her down.
“Cordonia has lovingly granted me another chance to be her queen,” Madeleine said.
“Speaking of,” Alice said. “Have you received any correspondence tonight?”
“Correspondence? No,” she said. “I’ve had quite enough on my hands with the ball tonight, especially seeing as how I’ve been fortunate enough to spend so much time with Liam this evening. However,” she said, looking Alice up and down, “it seems you’ve had more down time than I. Now, it was a pleasure seeing you three, but you’ll have to excuse me.”
“Try not to open any extra portals to hell before the coronation,” Leo said. Madeleine glared at him before walking away.
“You were really engaged to her?” Alice asked.
Leo sighed. “Yeah. I only saw the polite, pulled-together side of her during the social season. Then, once we were engaged, I learned she was Satan.”
“I mean, we all make mistakes in relationships,” Alice said. “I once dated a drummer who lived on his mom’s couch.”
“But did he summon fear and panic from the depths of hell?” Leo asked.
“Only on very special occasions.” She paused. “That’s not why you abdicated, was it?” Alice asked.
“Oh no, that was just a fringe benefit,” Leo said. “I abdicated because I really didn’t feel like I was suited to being king. I was tired of having my whole life decided for me. Besides, Liam has always been better at the family business than I have. I just hope he remember to have some fun along the way.”
“Yeah,” Maxwell agreed. “He’s never even really let loose at a party before.”
“From what I hear though, Alice, it sounds like you’ve been good for him in that regard,” Leo said. “In the past, I never would’ve imagined the day when Liam would tell me about sneaking out of the palace.”
“That sounds like I’m just more likely to get him into trouble, not that I’m being a good influence,” Alice said.
“Maybe, but Liam has always been so…careful,” Leo said. “It’s good for him to relax a little with people that treat him like a person and not a prince. Besides, another reason he’s so much better suited to being king than me is that in the morning, he shows up for his duties again. Try ditching your security detail and disappearing from court for weeks at a time.”
“Wow,” Alice said, impressed. “How’d you manage that? We didn’t even get as far as a pastry shop.”
“If you find Bastien, he has some good stories to share about hunting me down. The time he scaled a dormant volcano is particularly good,” Leo said with a wistful grin. Alice felt her heart crack at the mention of Bastien, but she was momentarily distracted by another detail of the story.
“A dormant what now?”
“Let’s just say that I really put him through his paces,” Leo said. “I’m sure his assignment to Liam has been a walk in the park compared to me.” His face grew more serious. “But, in truth, I couldn’t have asked for a better brother. It really is fitting that he’s the one to take over the throne. I would’ve been downright irresponsible and, quite frankly, it’s better for everyone this way. Cordonia will be well-served by him.”
“We’re lucky to have him,” Alice said.
“Hear, hear!” Maxwell agreed.
“Leo!” Liam admonished with a smile as he joined the group. “What are you telling Alice about me? Nothing too embarrassing, I hope.”
“Good things only,” Leo assured his brother. “Truthfully, there’s nothing else to tell.”
“Liam,” Olivia said as she joined the group. “I need to talk to you.”
“Maxwell, let’s go get some appetizers,” Leo said.
“But I already ate!”
“Well, I haven’t, come show me what the best ones are,” Leo said as he took Maxwell by the elbow and steered him away.
“I’ll join you,” Alice said but Olivia shook her head.
“No, Alice, you may as well hear this, too,” she said sadly.
“Olivia, what’s going on?” Liam asked, “We’re supposed to start the ceremony soon.”
Olivia took a deep, steadying breath. “I’m officially withdrawing from this social season.” She swallowed hard. “I don’t know if you were planning to propose to me…I don’t know if I ever even had half a chance…but it doesn’t matter now. I’m resigning from this immediately.”
“Olivia, wait, why are you doing this?” Alice asked, but before Olivia could say anything, Bastien appeared at Liam’s side while Alice did her best not to throw up or cry.
“I apologize for the interruption, sir, but it’s time,” Bastien said to Liam, avoiding Alice’s gaze. “Your father requested to speak with you.”
“But–” Liam started to say, but Olivia interrupted him.
“It’s okay, Liam,” she said. “I’m leaving now.”
“Olivia,” he tried again.
“Just go,” Olivia said, tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. “Please. You’ll be a wonderful king. I know it.”
Resigned, Liam allowed Bastien to escort him away and Alice slowly exhaled a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“Olivia…” Alice said as she reached for Olivia’s arm, but Olivia shrugged her off.
“Just get out of my way,” Olivia snapped as the tears spilled down her face. “Don’t pretend like you care.”
Alice watched as Olivia’s face crumpled before she turned and hurried out of the ballroom. Alice went after her, following her out the doors and into the ornate gardens beside the palace.
“Olivia! Stop!” Alice called as she tried to catch up. She wasn’t sure how Olivia was able to run so fast in heels, but she made a mental note to ask her later.
“What do you want?” Olivia asked, finally stopping near the palace gates.
“I just…god damn, you’re fast in heels,” Alice said breathlessly. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“That’s…decent of you,” Olivia said slowly. Then she narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Why?”
“You don’t seem like the kind of person to just give up so easily, so it doesn’t make sense that you’re leaving before Liam makes his announcement.”
Olivia faltered a little. “I…I couldn’t stay and watch Liam pick someone else.”
“How do you know he wouldn’t have chosen you?”
“Don’t patronize me, Alice,” Olivia snapped. “You and I both know he wasn’t going to. I’ve spent my whole life loving him, and he’s been the best friend I could’ve asked for, but he’s never looked at me the way he looks at…well, you.”
“If you love him, why are you leaving?” Alice asked. “The Olivia I know would never go down without a fight.”
Olivia looked down at a crumpled piece of paper in her hand. “Because I’m being blackmailed. I got a letter tonight telling me to leave the coronation and withdraw from Liam’s consideration for queen.” She brushed away an errant tear. “At first I thought it was just a stupid prank, but then I got a second letter.” She held it out to Alice. “It says it’s my last chance to leave or else they’ll reveal the truth about my parents.”
“I thought Liam said they died in a political assassination? What does that have to do with anything?” Alice asked.
“Well, according to the note and the documents that came with it, my parents…they…they were traitors,” Olivia said as she momentarily closed her eyes as if that could block out the truth around her. Without considering how she might take it, Alice stepped forward and hugged Olivia. To her surprise, Olivia not only accepted the hug, but she collapsed on Alice’s shoulder, sobs wracking her body.
Finally, Olivia pulled away, staring down at the papers in her hands for a moment before she started tearing them to shreds.
“Apparently, they were plotting a rebellion. More specifically, an assassination so they could step in and claim the throne. They didn’t die protecting Cordonia or serving the crown like I’d always been told–they died trying to overthrow the king. They died because they wanted more power and were willing to risk everything to get it.” Olivia sighed shakily. “I just feel like such a fool for not knowing.”
“How could you have known?” Alice asked. “You were so little when they died and everyone was told the same story.”
“Another thing I have the king to thank for, I suppose,” Olivia sniffed. “I don’t know why he did it.”
“You’re Liam’s friend. That has to count for something, right?”
Olivia laughed bitterly. “Maybe. It’s more likely that revealing the plot would’ve been worse for Cordonia’s stability than covering it up. But, whatever the reason, someone found out the truth. I didn’t want to believe it, but there was proof along with the instructions to withdraw and whoever sent the note said that if I didn’t leave, every tabloid in Cordonia would have the story.”
“But that’s on your parents, not you,” Alice said. “Not to downplay a foiled coup, but you’ve been a loyal friend to Liam. Hell, he’s the only person you actually seem to care about.”
“None of that matters,” Olivia said. “The daughter of traitors would never be allowed to stay in Cordonia, let alone marry the prince and rule.” She glanced back longingly at the palace before turning to Alice again. “Leaving is the only option. At least this way, I can salvage my family’s reputation…even if it is a lie.”
“Olivia, we have to figure out who did this,” Alice said firmly.
“Trust me, whoever did this on my list.”
“Good,” Alice said. “Because this is completely bullshit.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll find out who did this,” Olivia said, a hint of her usual self starting to creep back in. “I am a Nevrakis, after all.”
“I don’t know what that means but if you’re an accurate representation, then I’d hate to be whoever sent you those letters,” Alice said.
“I’m not sure I even know what that means anymore,” Olivia said, her shoulders slumping slightly.
“Then that means you get to decide what that means,” Alice said. “Start your own legacy.”
Olivia tried to smile, but failed. “I should go.”
“I know you’re not one for hair braiding or friendship bracelets, but you can call me if you need anything,” Alice offered.
“Thanks, Alice,” Olivia said. She hesitated before reaching out to squeeze Alice’s hand. Then, without another word, she left. Alice watched her go until Olivia got into her car and then she turned to look at the palace. She thought about her own note, and wondered if there was a second that hadn’t reached her yet. Either way, she couldn’t stay out there all night even if she’d wanted to, so she headed back into the palace.
“Liam, I need to speak with you,” Constantine said as Bastien led the prince into his study. Bastien didn’t want to think about the last time he’d been in there for a meeting with the king.
“Excuse me, sir, I’ll be outside,” Bastien said with a bow.
“No, Bastien, you might as well stay,” Constantine said as he opened a folder on his desk. “Close the door.”
Bastien closed the door and sat beside Liam at the king’s insistence. He didn’t know what Constantine was doing, but he didn’t like it.
“We received these photos,” Constantine said as he slid a sheaf of pictures across his desk. “They’re going to press tonight and we’ve been unable to stop the story.”
Bastien didn’t want to look, but he glanced over at the photos. He felt like the wind had been knocked out of him when he saw who was in them. Alice, dressed only in her underwear, in her room at Applewood Manor with Tariq. Bastien’s stomach roiled and it took all of his effort to not be sick. The photos had been carefully selected; there were no photos of Alice crying or fighting back or trying to get away. Without the context of the truth, these photos could have been taken of a consensual encounter between a couple who liked things a little rough.
The truth suddenly hit Bastien and he didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to him before. When Constantine asked him to arrange a photographer for leverage, it was for this. Bastien had done this to her.
“Sir, would you excuse me?” Bastien asked. “I need to–”
“No,” Constantine said, his eyes locked on Liam. Bastien looked over at the prince to see…what? Confusion? Acceptance?
He still doesn’t know, Bastien realized. Alice told him she was in love with someone else and now he sees this…
“Liam, I’m sorry, I know you like the waitress, but she’s been making a fool out of you,” Constantine said gravely.
Liam nodded before setting down the photos. “I understand.”
Constantine smiled sadly. The man deserves an Oscar, not a crown. “I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this.”
“Don’t be,” Liam said, his eyes still on the photos. “Would you excuse me? I’d like to take a minute before I speak to everyone to announce my decision.”
“Of course,” Constantine said. “Bastien will keep me company.”
Liam smiled and nodded to them before he left, closing the door behind him. Constantine turned back to Bastien.
“You used to be better at maintaining your composure,” the king said. “I suggest you get yourself under control. You’ve obeyed my instructions so far, but I can’t allow for any loose ends.”
Bastien nodded, trying to will the bile back down his throat.
As Liam walked down the hallway, Drake rounded the corner.
“Liam! I’ve been looking for you, I need to talk to you,” Drake said.
“Drake, I’m sorry, but…not now,” Liam said.
Drake studied his friend. “What happened?”
Liam looked around to make sure they were alone before he motioned for Drake to follow him into a nearby library. He shut the door behind them and turned to his best friend. “I probably should’ve told you this sooner, but…Alice dropped out as a suitor. A little while ago, actually. She told me she was in love with someone else, but even knowing that, I didn’t want her to leave so I asked her to stay until the coronation. I just…I think I just found out who it is.”
“Who?” Drake asked, curious.
“Tariq,” Liam said.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Drake said quickly. He desperately wanted to tell Liam the truth, but he remembered his conversation with Hana at the jamboree.
“Drake, after you left, Alice asked us not to tell Liam about what happened.”
“Are you kidding? 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. And we need to respect that. This is her story to tell, not yours.”
“Fine. But I’m not happy about it.”
“Thank you. And no one cares if you’re not happy about it. This isn’t about you.”
“Drake, I saw the photos,” Liam said.
“Photos of them…together,” Liam said. “They look like they were taken at Applewood. And that’s when she told me she was withdrawing from contention and…I don’t know, it makes sense.”
Alice, I’m so sorry, Drake thought. “Liam, I have to tell you something.”
“Where were you?” Maxwell asked Alice when she re-entered the ballroom.
“Outside, talking to Olivia,” Alice said. “She–”
“It doesn’t matter, you’re here now,” Bertrand said brusquely. “The king and queen are about to give their address and after that, Liam will propose to his future bride.”
Across the room, the king entered and cleared his throat. “If I may have everyone’s attention, please…”
“Front and center, Alice,” Bertrand said with a smile. “This is it!”
“Whatever it is, it’ll be fine, Alice,” Maxwell assured her. Alice opened her mouth to say more when Hana and Drake joined them.
“It’s finally happening,” Hana said.
“What’s wrong with you?” Alice asked, noticing that Drake wouldn’t meet her eye.
“I have to tell you something,” Drake said.
“What is it?”
“Alice, Drake, please,” Bertrand begged as the crowd around them hushed and the king began to talk.
“The moment we’ve been waiting for all season has finally arrived,” Constantine said with his winning, politician grin. “It has been my great honor to serve Cordonia these last few decades. We’ve had turmoil, but Cordonia has pulled together even during our toughest times. I couldn’t be more proud to have been Cordonia’s king. And I only now pass the crown to Prince Liam because I know he’ll carry on exactly as I have. I couldn’t ask for a better successor.”
“Father…” Liam said, touched.
“It’s true,” Constantine said. “I love your brother, but you will be the king that Cordonia needs. Reliable, steady, wise, and just. Though you weren’t born to be my successor, it feels as though this outcome was inevitable.”
Alice glanced over at Leo who smiled and rolled his eyes at her as Constantine continued.
“Liam, you are every bit the king I always hoped you’d be. Today, I pass the royal signet ring to you. Cordonia is yours, my son.”
The room burst into applause as Liam accepted the ring from his father before turning to the crowd.
“Thank you all for being here tonight,” Liam said. “This is an incredible honor and a responsibility I don’t take lightly. I only hope that I can serve Cordonia with the distinction that my father did.”
Liam bowed to his father and Regina, both of whom embraced him.
“And now the time has come,” Regina announced. “Your prince will choose his bride.”
“First, let us thank you all for spending the social season with us,” Constantine said.
“And particularly for all of the young ladies, thank you for your time. I could imagine any one of you being a fitting queen for our prince,” Regina added.
I think her nose just got an inch longer, Alice thought as a royal advisor suddenly approached the king and queen, whispering to them.
“If you’ll excuse us one moment,” Regina said.
The king and queen waved Liam over. As the three royals conferred, the room around them was suddenly filled with the buzzes and chimes of countless cell phones and one by one, the people in the crowd began to check their devices.
“Oh my!” Madeleine gasped loudly.
“No, she wouldn’t…” Kiara said, staring in disbelief at her phone.
“Bertrand,” Maxwell said, showing his phone to his brother. The color drained from Bertrand’s face.
“What’s happening?” Alice asked. “Give me the phone.”
“No,” Maxwell said, stuffing his phone into his pocket.
“God dammit, Maxwell, give me your fucking phone,” Alice said.
“Alice, you don’t want to see it,” Drake said quietly.
“Because…” Drake swallowed, hard. “That night when Tariq…someone got photos of it. But they made it look like…”
“Like what?” Alice demanded. “Will someone give me a fucking phone?”
Hana silently handed over hers and Alice looked at the screen.
PRINCE HUMILIATED BY UNFAITHFUL AMERICAN SUITOR
Alice handed the phone back to Hana, her hands shaking violently.
“Alice, I’m so sorry,” Maxwell said. “I don’t know what happened–”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Drake snapped. “She was set up! There was no lock on her door, a photographer just ‘happened’ to be there–”
Just then, three guards appeared at Alice’s side. She looked around for Bastien, but he was nowhere to be found.
“My apologies, Lady Alice,” one of the guards said. “We’ve been ordered to escort you out immediately, along with the representatives from House Beaumont.”
“This is absurd!” Bertrand hissed.
“You can’t do this!” Maxwell argued.
“We can and will,” the first guard said as the other two guards grabbed Bertrand and Maxwell and started to drag them towards the door. The first guard reached for Alice but she flinched and Drake immediately stood between them.
“She’ll go. Just don’t touch her,” Drake nearly growled.
“Fine,” the guard said, motioning for Alice to follow him. She glanced at Drake gratefully before walking out of the ballroom. Alice looked back over her shoulder; if she’d looked up at the front of the room, she would have seen Liam searching for her. Instead, she looked for Bastien, but she still couldn’t find him.
“Given the circumstances, I’m sure Lady Alice has withdrawn from consideration,” Regina announced.
“Wait, no, I need to speak with her,” Liam said. The queen pulled Liam aside and whispered to him before turning back to the crowd.
“And now,” Constantine announced. “Despite the antics we’ve had to witness tonight, Prince Liam must make his choice.”
“I choose…” Liam hesitated, “…Lady Madeleine.”
“I’m deeply, deeply honored to accept,” Madeleine said with a gracious smile as she leaned in to kiss Liam on the cheek.
Bastien sat in the central command office, watching the security cameras for the grounds. He watched as the Beaumonts climbed into their limo while Alice was led to a sleek town car, alone. Even through CCTV, she still looked impossibly beautiful. He watched as her car pulled away, his fingers anxiously tapping against the desk.
“Fuck it,” he muttered, jumping to his feet. He pulled his phone out of his pocket as he hurried down the hall, dismissing the seemingly endless stream of notifications.
“It’s me,” he said into the phone. “I need a car. Now.”
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