Summary: Alice deals with some of her issues and heads to Fydelia with the Beaumonts.
Notes: 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, Part 21, Part 22, Part 23, Part 24
A few weeks later, Bastien was in his office attempting to focus on the plans for the upcoming trip to Fydelia, but his mind was elsewhere. He hadn’t seen or heard anything about Alice since that day at the airport, but he assumed she was still in Cordonia and that the Beaumonts still intended to bring her to court. At the very least, Bastien had noticed that Drake still had yet to return to the palace. Bastien sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He hated the gnawing jealousy that wound around him like a cobra, but he couldn’t help it.
She’d be better off with Drake, he thought, his heart hammering its protest in his chest. Really, though, she’d be better off in New York, further away from Constantine’s reach. However, there was a part of Bastien that was proud of her for not backing down despite everything she’d endured. Alice was so much tougher than Constantine gave her credit for–Bastien just hoped that wouldn’t be her downfall.
He pulled out his phone and although he desperately wanted to call her, instead he pulled up the photo of the two of them from New York. It was the only one he had of them together and he couldn’t bring himself to delete it. This isn’t over. It can’t be, he thought as he looked at the picture. Bastien didn’t know how he was going to be with her–or if she even wanted him anymore–but he knew he couldn’t just walk away from her. Constantine’s health was rapidly deteriorating, keeping both him and Regina fairly occupied for the time being, but Bastien knew Constantine wouldn’t hesitate to follow through on his threat. Bastien had to be careful, but she was worth it.
The night before they planned to leave for Fydelia, Alice was preparing to go to bed in the tub as Drake sat on the bathroom counter.
“I have…a proposition for you,” he said slowly, trying to choose his words carefully.
“What sort of proposition?” she asked as she sat on the edge of the bathtub.
“Tomorrow, we’re heading to Fydelia to kick off the engagement tour.”
“Yes, Bertrand, I know,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.
“So I was thinking that maybe you want to try sleeping in your bed tonight,” Drake continued, ignoring her teasing.
Alice stiffened at his suggestion, her shoulders tight. “I, um…I don’t…”
“Hear me out,” Drake said gently. “You’ve been making a lot of progress lately–letting me sleep on the bathroom floor is a big step.”
Alice winced. “God, that sounds awful when you say it out loud.”
Drake ignored her. “At some point, you need to be able to take back your life. Tariq doesn’t get to have this kind of control over you. Staying in Cordonia is a huge step, but pretty tomorrow you’re going to have to start facing the rest of the court and they’re…well, you know how I feel about the court.”
“What?” Alice asked, sarcasm dripping from her voice. “Wait, do you…not like the people at court?”
“Ha ha, very funny,” Drake said. “But I’m serious. I think if you slept in your own bed, it would go a long way in making you feel more confident before you face the firing squad. I can sleep on the sofa out there if you want, or in here if you want the room to yourself, or even out in the hallway–I really don’t care where I am. But I think it’s time for you to try to move back in there.”
Alice took a deep breath and considered this. “You’re right, I know you’re right, but…I don’t know. I’m so sick of being scared all the time, but I can’t help it.”
“Let me help you,” Drake said as he hopped off the counter and held his hand out to her. “Please, Alice.”
Alice hesitated before she took his hand and let him help her to her feet.
“Fine. But I’m not happy about it.”
Drake helped her remake the bed and once she climbed in, he lay down on the sofa on the other side of the room, pulling his sleeping bag up around him. Alice felt her heart racing as she lay in bed, the softness of the sheets a sharp contrast to her crackling nerves.
“Can you tell me a story or something?” she asked, feeling ridiculous.
“At this point, I think I’ve told you everything there is to tell you about me,” Drake said. “Including every priceless artifact Liam and I broke as kids.”
“Okay, okay, let me think,” Drake said. He paused for a moment. “Once upon a time, there were three little pigs. For some reason, these pigs had to build their own houses so they went–”
“Seriously? The Three Little Pigs?” Alice asked, smiling in spite of her nerves.
“Shush. If you want a story, you’re getting a story. Anyway, the pigs went out to build their houses. The first one–”
“You can sleep over here. If you want,” Alice interrupted.
Drake looked over at her. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I just…my anxiety is really bad right now.”
Drake climbed out of his sleeping bag and walked over to the bed before lying down on top of the sheets while she stayed safely tucked beneath them.
“More story, please.”
“Okay, so the first little pig was named Maxwell and he loved to dance. He was worried that building his house would take away from his party time, so he quickly built a house made of straw.”
Alice burst out laughing, but Drake shushed her.
“Excuse me, I’m telling a story here!” he protested with mock indignation. “The second pig was named Penelope and she couldn’t be bothered to build a sturdy house because she was too busy playing with her poodles, so she built a house of sticks, which the poodles promptly began chewing.
“Finally, the last pig, named Olivia–”
“She would murder you with her bare hands for calling her a pig.”
“–built a strong fortress out of bricks and spikes, complete with a chimney for a massive fireplace to combat the Lythikos winters.”
“So this takes place in Lythikos?”
“You know, you are terrible at story time,” Drake said. “I’m the one telling the story here–you’re just supposed to listen quietly and then applaud at the end.”
“I’m supposed to applaud?”
“You will when I’m done,” Drake said. “Anyway, if there are no more interruptions, one day, a big, grumpy wolf named–”
“–Bertrand came along and wanted to eat the pigs because they were lazy and used the wrong salad fork. He came to the first house of straw and knocked on the door and said, ‘Maxwell, open this door right now! I’m a duke!’”
Alice laughed again and Drake smiled before continuing.
“‘Not by the hairs on my chinny chin chin!’ Maxwell called back through the door. ‘Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down in the name of House Beaumont!’ Bertrand called back. Then he huffed and he puffed and he blew down Maxwell’s house. But before Bertrand could scold Maxwell for doing such a shoddy job, Maxwell ran down the lane to Penelope’s house. She opened the door and let him in. Soon, Bertrand arrived at Penelope’s house.”
“I’m surprised there’s anything left with all those poodles,” Alice said, amused.
“I know, right?” Drake asked. “So Bertrand comes to the stick house, knocks on the door, and says, ‘Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in! This building is not up to code!’ So then Penelope yells back, ‘Eeeek!’”
Alice laughed again, momentarily forgetting about anything but the story.
“So then Bertrand says, ‘Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow this house down before I report your building to be condemned!’ Then he huffed and he puffed and he blew down Penelope’s house. But, using his lightning fast reflexes from breakdancing, Maxwell helped Penelope gather the poodles and they ran down the lane to Olivia’s house.
“When they reached Olivia’s house, Maxwell and Penelope banged on the front door, begging her to let them in. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ she said. ‘Sorry, I can’t have visitors, I just had the floors cleaned.’ ‘Please, please let us in!’ Maxwell and Penelope begged. Olivia sighed. ‘Fine, but you owe me a favor.’”
“That’s all the convincing it took?” Alice asked.
“Time is of the essence,” Drake said. “And who is telling the story here?”
“Sorry, sorry, go on.”
“Anyway, Olivia lets them in and along comes Bertrand. He bangs on the door and says, ‘Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in!’ Then Olivia yells back, ‘How dare you talk to me like that? I’m the Duchess of Lythikos and I’ll use you for target practice!’ So then Bertrand, unfazed, shouts, ‘Then I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!’”
“Wait, I thought Bertrand the big, bad wolf was mad at Maxwell and Penelope for building shoddy houses,” Alice said. “Shouldn’t he be impressed with Olivia’s brick house?” Drake leveled his gaze at her but said nothing. “Right, sorry, go on.”
“So Bertrand huffs and puffs, but the house won’t fall down. He tries yelling at the bricks, letting them know he’s Duke Ramsford and how dare they disobey him, but the house won’t budge. Furious, Bertrand takes a step back and surveys the house. There, on the roof, he sees the chimney, so he decides to sneak down that way.’”
“Are they really going to cook and eat Bertrand?”
“Shush. So Bertrand climbs up on the roof and inside, the pigs can hear him. Maxwell and Penelope and the poodles are all freaking out, convinced they’re about to die, but Olivia stays calm. She considers starting a fire, but decides against it because that won’t be as satisfying.”
“Bertrand lowered himself down the chimney, surprised to find it cold. ‘Stupid pigs,’ he thought to himself. ‘They’re no match for the intellect of the big, bad wolf…duke.’”
“This story is starting to go off the rails.”
“Bertrand makes it to the bottom of the chimney and bursts into the house, ready to eat the pigs. However, he notices that he got a lot of soot on his suit–”
“A wolf is wearing a suit?”
“–and while he’s distracted with his clothes, Olivia throws a dagger at him from across the room, killing him instantly. Then she skins him and turns his pelt into a wolf cape that she wears for special occasions and Maxwell and Penelope and the poodles spend the rest of their lives as indentured servants as repayment for her saving their lives. The end.”
“Wow, that was…”
“Yes, yes it was,” Alice agreed with a laugh. “Thank you.”
The following morning, Alice awoke as the first early gray light began to filter through the windows. She was momentarily disoriented to find herself in her bed she remembered the night before. Alice looked beside her to see Drake sleeping peacefully on top of the blankets and then she realized his hand was on top of hers, an affectionate, unconscious gesture. Alice smiled softly but gently pulled her hand away. It would be so much easier if she felt the same way about him that he did about her. But, at the end of the day, he wasn’t Bastien.
“Okay, first of all, I’m really proud of you for sleeping in your bed last night,” Frankie said over FaceTime later that morning when Alice was alone in her room. “That’s a big step and I’m glad you did it.”
“And second,” Frankie said, barreling over her words, “we need to talk about Drake.”
“What is there to say?” Alice asked.
Frankie raised an eyebrow at her. “Don’t play dumb, you’re not stupid.”
Alice sighed. “I know. I…I don’t know. I want to like him as more than a friend, I really do.”
“Al, you can’t make yourself feel something that isn’t there,” Frankie said gently. She hesitated. “Okay, I have to ask–if it weren’t for Bastien, do you think you’d be interested in Drake?”
“I don’t know. I think so, but I can’t say for sure. Even though Bastien and I broke up and I haven’t seen him since that day at the airport, I still can’t get him out of my head.”
“I really think you need to talk to him,” Frankie said. “You’re going to see him soon, right?”
“Tonight, yeah,” Alice said. “Bertrand and Maxwell are packing the car up now.”
“Look, I don’t want to set you up with any false hope or anything, but I saw the way Bastien looked at you when I was there. I don’t think he’s over you.”
“You didn’t see the way he looked at me at the airport,” Alice said.
“Did it occur to you that he might know more than he’s telling you?” Frankie asked. “Think about it–he’s the head of the royal guard. And didn’t you say there was a little bit of unrest in Cordonia? Something about how the royal family has to have a very carefully cultivated image in the press? Maybe there’s something bigger going on.”
Alice smirked. “Leave it to you to turn a breakup into a political revolution. I think you’ve been watching too much TV.”
“Hey, truth is stranger than fiction!” Frankie protested before her face grew serious again. “Seriously though, just talk to him. Maybe it’ll just be more of the same, but then at least you can give yourself some closure and move on.”
“Didn’t I already try that when you were here?”
“Yes, but that was before he chased you to the airport. I mean, he didn’t know the other guys would be there when he arrived, did he? Why else would he have followed you to the airport?” Frankie asked.
“To make sure I got on a plane?”
“Or…” Frankie prompted.
“Maybe he was coming to go with you,” Frankie said.
“Oh, come on, there’s no way,” Alice argued. “His whole life is in Cordonia.”
“What if he wants something else now?”
“Frankie, you’re projecting. I appreciate that you’re on my side and you want to come up with a best case scenario, but I think you’re reaching. If that’s what he wanted, why didn’t he just say that?”
“In front of Maxwell, Bertrand, and Drake?”
“Okay, fine, I see your point,” Alice conceded. “But that doesn’t mean that’s why he was there.”
“Alright, alright,” Frankie said, holding up a hand in surrender. “Still, I think you should talk to him.”
“If you’re wrong and I get my heart broken all over again, are you going to fly back out here?”
“I’ll do you one better and bring Seth with me,” Frankie said with a grin. “He’s a pretty good boxer.”
“I still can’t believe you’re dating a jock. That’s so not like you.”
Frankie shrugged. “Yeah, but maybe that’s a good thing.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Yes?” Alice called.
“Alice? We’re all packed, are you ready to go?” Maxwell called through the door.
“Yeah, just a second!” she said before turning back to the phone. “I have to go. Text me later?”
“Sure thing,” Frankie said. “Good luck! Keep me posted!”
The Cordonian countryside flew by the windows as the limo sped along the road, but Alice wasn’t taking much note of it. It took her entirely too long to realize that Drake, Maxwell, and Bertrand were all staring at her.
“I’m sorry, what?” she asked.
“I asked how you’re feeling about returning to court,” Bertrand repeated.
“Very well prepared,” Alice said. “I feel like I can recognize a fish fork from fifty yards.”
“I’m glad to hear that, but that’s not what I meant,” Bertrand said.
Alice shrugged. “I guess I’m as ready as I’m going to be.”
“On the plus side, it’ll be easier to do some investigating when we’re on the engagement tour with all the major players at court and can see how people act around you,” Maxwell said.
“True,” Alice said. “Although I’m willing to guess I don’t have many friends left at court anymore since the photos came out.”
“Hey, you have us!” Maxwell exclaimed. “Plus Liam, so that’s already a good start.”
Alice nodded, only half paying attention as her thoughts returned to Bastien as they always did.
“While I’m thinking of it,” Bertrand said. “You should avoid talking to too many people at court.”
“Why?” Drake asked.
“Because someone wanted Alice to fail and it’s likely someone at court,” Bertrand said. “We all have to be extra careful. Anything Alice says, texts, or does might be used against her. Conversations can be recorded, texts, can be intercepted…if it’s written or spoken over a phone line, we must assume that it’ll eventually fall into the wrong hands. Ergo, we must keep any electronic communications to a minimum.”
“So what you’re saying is that we should’ve spent the last few weeks learning sign language?” Drake asked. “How is she supposed to clear her name if she’s on a communications lockdown?”
“I’m not saying she shouldn’t speak at all,” Bertrand said, exasperated. “But any communication should be done in person and with caution in regards to who might be listening.”
“Oh, man, we should’ve gotten invisible ink pens and cool decoder rings!” Maxwell exclaimed. “Do we have time for a detour?”
When they arrived at Fydelia, Alice tried not to gawk as Maxwell helped her out of the car.
“Wow,” she said. “This is…something.”
“Madeleine’s family home is considered one of the finest in Cordonia,” Maxwell said.
“And, lucky for us, she’s been gracious enough to grant us rooms in the main house,” Bertrand said.
“Why?” Alice and Drake asked simultaneously.
“I don’t know,” Bertrand admitted. “I’m still not certain if we should take this as a good sign or not.”
“You mean she might be keeping her friends close but her enemies closer?” Maxwell asked.
“Precisely,” Bertrand said before he turned to talk to the staff that approached to unload their luggage.
“I should go find Liam,” Drake said. “I’ll see you later?”
Alice nodded and as he left, Maxwell held out his arm to her. “May I escort you to your room, Lady Alice?”
She smiled and looped her arm through his. “Thank you, Lord Beaumont.”
Inside the massive house, Maxwell and Alice made their way to Alice’s assigned room. She noticed that the first thing he did was glance down to check the lock on the door and couldn’t help but smile a little.
“Well, this is lovely!” Maxwell said when he turned his attention to the room, decorated in blues and whites with gold accents in understated elegance. “I kind of expected Madeleine to put you in a broom closet or something.”
“For all we know, this is what passes for a broom closet around here,” Alice said as Bertrand joined them. “Either that, or the room is bugged.”
Bertrand glanced around suspiciously before speaking loudly into a decorative vase. “AN EXCELLENT REMINDER THAT WE HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE, SHOULD ANYONE BE LISTENING! THE TRUTH WILL COME OUT!”
“Jesus, Bertrand, if that thing is bugged, I’m pretty sure you just blew out the eardrum of anyone who might be listening,” Alice said.
“Besides, I think Alice was joking, Bertrand,” Maxwell added.
“One can never be too careful!” Bertrand protested before switching gears. “Alright, it’s time to focus. You need to start getting dressed for tonight’s welcome party. Remember, this is your grand re-entrance to courtly society.”
“Got it. I’ll wear my jeans with the fewest holes,” Alice said earnestly, nodding her head. Bertrand ignored her.
“The others in court don’t know you’re here, so it’ll be quite a surprise,” Bertrand continued.
“But Madeleine knows I’m here–don’t you think she would’ve told people?” Alice asked.
“Not necessarily,” Maxwell said. “I think she figures the less attention she pays to you, the less attention everyone else will pay to you.”
“Which is why it’s imperative that you look your finest,” Bertrand said.
“Because my worth as a human is reduced entirely to my clothes,” Alice said. Bertrand said nothing and stared at her until she sighed. “Okay, fine, yes, I get it. I have to make a good impression at court and the easiest way to do that is with sequins.”
“We got you a dress!” Maxwell exclaimed as he clapped his hands, unable to keep it in any longer.
Bertrand shot his younger brother a look. “That isn’t quite the way I wanted to unveil it, but yes, we did,” he said.
“Does it…is it like the Apple Queen dress?” Alice asked hesitantly.
“No,” Maxwell quickly assured her as Bertrand reached outside the door of her bedroom for the garment bag he’d hidden there. Bertrand brought the bag over and unzipped it to reveal the dress.
“It doesn’t have any sequins, but I’m sure you’ll make do,” Bertrand said.
Alice admired the dress and had to admit that they Beaumont brothers had chosen well. The dress was a beautiful blue, knee-length dress with a high neck and delicate cutouts near the shoulders. Simple yet elegant, modest yet sexy without being too overt.
“We talked about it and thought blue would look really good with your hair,” Maxwell said, beaming.
“That, and I can’t very well send you out in yet another black or gray dress,” Bertrand said.
Alice smiled as she touched the delicate fabric. “You guys…thank you so much. I’m really touched.”
Bertrand coughed awkwardly. “Yes. Well, here you go,” he said, pushing the garment bag into her arms. “Anyway, we should all dress for the party. Just make sure you don’t pick terrible shoes. The wrong accessories can ruin an outfit.”
“And we’re back,” Alice said good naturedly as she rolled her eyes. “I’ll see you guys in a bit.”
“I’ll come get you when it’s time,” Maxwell said as he waved goodbye, Bertrand on his heels. When they’d gone, Alice shut the door and locked it. She tested the handle, making sure the lock held. It did and she felt a little better, but she missed the safety and security of her room at Ramsford. She glanced over at the ensuite bathroom and could just barely see the edge of the bathtub through the open door.
I’m not getting back in there, she thought determinedly. I’m not.
She hoped her resolve would hold.
A couple hours later, Maxwell returned to escort Alice to the grand hall of Madeleine’s manor.
“Ready?” Maxwell asked as they paused outside the doors.
“That’s the spirit,” he said as he squeezed her arm and nodded to the attendants. They opened the doors and Maxwell led her inside. All around the room, Alice could hear the gasps and whispers as all eyes turned to stare at her.
“It’s Lady Alice!” Penelope gasped.
“Mon dieu!” Kiara exclaimed. “I can’t believe she’d dare show her face here.”
“You’ve got this,” Maxwell said quietly, leaning over to her ear.
“Lady Alice?” one reporter asked, shocked.
“This should be interesting,” Ana de Luca said to him, intrigued. “I suppose we’ll see what she intends to accomplish tonight…”
Alice’s hand tightened on Maxwell’s arm and he grinned at her reassuringly.
“You’re doing great,” he said.
Alice nodded, straightening up a little as they walked. She couldn’t help glancing around the room and she found Bastien almost immediately along the wall near Constantine and Regina. Had she paid attention, she would’ve seen Regina’s eyes narrow in anger, but she only had eyes for Bastien, who couldn’t pull his gaze away from her. But before she could do anything else, a refined older woman approached them.
“Excuse me,” the woman said. “You must be the infamous Lady Alice.”
“I suppose I am,” Alice said.
“How bold of you to attend…but it’d be a boring party without a little scandal, don’t you think?” she asked. “Welcome to Fydelia.”
“Are you…Madeleine’s mother?” Alice asked.
“Oh, forgive me,” Maxwell said. “Alice, this is Duchess Adelaide of Krona.”
“Also known as Madeleine’s mother,” she said with a smile. “I suppose the family resemblance must be what gave me away and hopefully not my age. Please, call me Adelaide.”
Alice curtsied, grateful for the Beaumonts’ coaching. “My lady, it’s an honor to be here.”
“The press said you were an uncouth American who jilted King Liam,” Adelaide said, sizing Alice up. “But now that I’ve met you, I’m not sure I believe them.”
“Thank you…” Alice said slowly. I think.
“Now, you,” Adelaide said, turning her attention to Maxwell. “I believe everything they say about you.”
“You’re looking lovely as ever, Lady Adelaide,” Maxwell said politely.
“Lord Maxwell Beaumont, you have quite a bit of explaining to do!” she admonished him. “How is it that I’m never invited to any of those Beaumont parties I’ve heard so much about?”
“It must have been a terrible oversight on our part,” Maxwell apologized. Alice could feel him tensing up beside her.
“See to it that I’m on the guest list for the next one, if there are any more parties now that you’re more…settled,” Adelaide said. She took a step backwards to look at Maxwell and Alice before placing a hand on each of their arms. Alice couldn’t help but notice how unusually soft Adelaide’s hand was, no doubt beaten into submission with hand creams worth more than everything Alice owned.
“Don’t the two of you make a darling couple,” Adelaide said with a tight smile.
“We do look cute together, don’t we?” Alice said as she squeezed Maxwell’s arm a little tighter. She could practically hear Bertrand’s blood pressure rising, but Alice couldn’t ignore how uncomfortable Adelaide was making Maxwell.
“We do?” Maxwell asked. Alice pinched his arm out of Adelaide’s sight. “I mean, of course we do!” he corrected, grinning at Alice.
“Just adorable,” Adelaide said. “Now, you two should go pay your respects to Madeleine. Don’t let me keep you any longer.”
“Of course,” Alice said. “Thank you again for hosting us.”
When they walked away, Alice felt Maxwell physically deflate when he released the breath he’d been holding.
“Sorry, I couldn’t help it,” Alice said. “I could tell she was bugging you and I was hoping that would help get her off your back for a minute.”
“My back isn’t what she wants to be on,” Maxwell muttered as he led Alice away. She turned to him, jaw dropped.
“Maxwell! That might be the nastiest thing I’ve ever heard you say!” she said. “God, I’m so proud right now.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Maxwell said. “Alright–game faces. It’s time to talk to Madeleine.”
“Can’t I just send her a note?” Alice asked. “Preferably one attached to a burning brown paper bag full of–”
Maxwell poked her in the side as they approached Madeleine. “Just please don’t call her names today,” he whispered.
“Fine,” Alice whispered back as they reached Madeleine.
“Oh, Lady Alice,” Madeleine said with a perfectly practised smile. “I’m so pleased that your recent fall from grace didn’t keep you away. A lesser woman more well-versed in courtly politics might have gone into hiding. It’s so very brave of you to be here”
Alice felt Maxwell’s hold on her arm tighten, begging her to not give into the temptation to rip Madeleine a new one.
“Congratulations on your engagement,” Alice said pleasantly. You condescending bitch. “You must be so happy.”
“Thank you, dear,” Madeleine said. “I’ve never been happier.”
“Except for the last time you were engaged to a prince, right?” Alice asked sweetly. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Maxwell close his eyes.
“With all of the royal commitments, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind lately,” Madeleine said. “But you know how King Liam is. He makes me feel like I’m in a fairy tale…I know we’ll be very content. Won’t we, darling?”
Alice turned and saw Liam join them. “Lady Alice,” he said genially. “It’s lovely to see you, as always.”
“Likewise,” Alice said. Liam’s cool and professional demeanor felt unusual and she wondered what he was thinking.
“Lady Alice, could I perhaps borrow you for–” he started to say before Madeleine reached out and put a hand on his arm.
“We need to see the rest of our guests, sweetheart,” Madeleine said as she looped her arm in his and leaned in to kiss his cheek. “Being the royal couple of the hour has its obligations,” she said to Alice. “You understand…well, at least I’m sure you can imagine.”
“She’s right, we should keep making the rounds,” Liam said apologetically. “I’ll find you later.”
“I’m sure he won’t have time,” Madeleine said to Alice as she tugged Liam’s arm. “Lovely to see you both, as always.”
After they walked away, Maxwell turned to Alice.
“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” Alice apologized before Maxwell could say anything.
“It’s fine, you did pretty well even with that,” he assured her. “Although, we’ve got to be careful around Madeleine right now. Even if Liam wants you here, we’ll all be tossed out of the engagement tour if Madeleine throws a big enough fit.”
“Okay, I promise to do better,” Alice said. “Although I might need a retainer to keep from grinding my teeth.”
“I’ll get you a blue one to match your dress,” Maxwell said. “Oh, look, there’s Bertrand–let’s go get our seats.”
Bastien managed to pull his eyes from Alice and return to his duty. He noticed Regina watching Alice, her mouth tight with displeasure. Regina leaned over to whisper something to Constantine, who shook his head. She looked like she was about to say more when they were joined by Adelaide, diverting their attention. Bastien glanced back over at Alice, who was talking to Penelope and Kiara. God, he missed her.
“Alice! I’m so excited to see you!” Penelope exclaimed as she and Kiara reached her. Maxwell hesitated but Alice nodded for him to go ahead as Penelope wrapped her in a hug. “Wow, I love your dress, it’s so pretty!”
“Thanks, the Beaumonts surprised me with it,” Alice said.
“Penelope! What are you doing?” Kiara hissed at her. “Even if Lady Alice was someone we deigned to associate with, we’re on Madeleine’s side now.”
“Kiara, you know I can hear you, right?” Alice asked.
“I’m sorry, Lady Alice, but it’s not personal,” Kiara said curtly. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but Madeleine made us her ladies-in-waiting.”
“It’s a huge, huge honor,” Penelope said happily. “We’re basically her closest confidantes!”
“It also means we’re beholden to be loyal to her,” Kiara said. “Penelope, let’s go.”
“Sorry,” Penelope said quietly as she allowed Kiara to lead her away towards the head table.
“How did that go?” Maxwell asked when Alice joined them, sitting between him and Bertrand.
“Weird,” Alice said. “They’re ladies-in-waiting now, which means Madeleine gets to choose their friends.”
“It seems Madeleine has hasted no time consolidating power,” Bertrand said. “Unfortunately, she has us at a disadvantage. We don’t have anything to offer potential allies.”
“That’s okay!” Maxwell said quickly. We don’t need anyone else. We’ve got each other!”
“As wholesome as that is, we’re going to need more support to clear Alice’s name and set the record straight about those photos,” Bertrand said. “I spoke briefly with some of the reporters and they haven’t been able to reach Tariq for comment.”
“No one knows where he is, right?” Maxwell asked. “Have you asked Bastien? He might be able to find him.”
“Bastien has other things to worry about,” Alice said lightly. She caught Bertrand looking at her, his expression unreadable, before he continued.
“Obviously, Alice, you haven’t given the press an official statement yet,” Bertrand said.
“So then she’ll make a statement,” Maxwell said.
Bertrand hesitated. “Yes, but…not yet. These sorts of situations are very delicate and Alice is, unfortunately, at a disadvantage because not only is she American, but she’s a woman.”
“Do you really think that rallying support from other people at court is going to help me?” Alice asked.
Bertrand nodded. “I do. Their supportive voices can only make yours stronger.”
Alice took a deep breath.
“Are you doing okay?” Maxwell asked quietly.
She nodded. “Would you both excuse me? I think I need some air.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Maxwell asked, but Alice shook her head.
“No, I’ll be fine, I just need a minute.”
Bastien watched Alice leave the ballroom. He desperately wanted to follow her, to check on her, but as soon as she left the room, he noticed Constantine glance back at him. Bastien kept his face neutral and Constantine nodded slightly before turning back to his plate. Rage flared inside him, but Bastien stayed calm.
“Hey, are you okay?”
Alice turned to see Drake had followed her outside.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked.
“You looked upset, I followed you,” Drake said with a shrug.
“I just…needed some air,” Alice said.
“I know the feeling,” he said as he sat down on a nearby bench, motioning for her to join him. “Well, not exactly what you’re going through, but I know what it’s like to need a break from a fancy party.”
Alice sat down.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Drake asked.
“Do you want me to go back inside so you can be alone?”
The night settled around them and they sat in silence while Alice’s own thoughts thundered in her ears. She felt like she was about to run out of her skin. Alice thought she’d known what she was getting into by coming back to court, but now she wasn’t so sure. Could she really face all this? She could handle Madeleine, but with the press and how much she’d have to deal with those photos…they were still everywhere, the Cordonian news cycle not yet tired of plastering them on the front page of every newspaper and website. Alice hoped they’d move on with the start of the engagement tour, but what if they didn’t? She closed her eyes for a moment, focusing on the cool air settling on her skin. It might get worse before it got better.
For a moment, Alice let her thoughts slip to Bastien. What if Frankie was right? What if she’d misread the situation at the airport? She’d have to talk to him, but Alice knew she had to be careful. She didn’t exactly want to start sporting a tinfoil hat, but it wouldn’t be unfounded–after all, someone had set her up to be photographed when Tariq attacked her. Alice still didn’t know who might hate her enough to do this. Madeleine was her best guess, but Alice couldn’t believe that she would have set up Alice to be attacked like that.
Alice opened her eyes and took a deep breath.
“Ready to go back into the viper’s nest?” Drake asked.
“Please, I wish it were vipers,” Alice said as she stood up. “Shall we?”
“Actually, I think I might stay out here for a bit longer,” Drake said. “Are you okay to go in on your own?”
“Yup,” Alice said, surprised by how confident her voice sounded. “I’ve got this.”
Later that night, when Alice returned to her bedroom, she was surprised to see a small, wrapped box sitting on her nightstand. She tore off the paper before opening the box and was momentarily confused to see a doorstop. Then she saw the note.
I learned this trick when I was young and dumb and traveling around Europe in hostels. Put it on the inside of your door to help secure it. It’s not perfect, but it’ll buy you time so you can call me.
“In case you ever foolishly forget: I’m never not thinking of you.”
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