Guarded Hearts, Part 27

Summary: Alice meets her new press secretary, attends the barn raising, and visits the spa with her friends.

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 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8,Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13, Part 14Part 15Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20, Part 21, Part 22, Part 23, Part 24, Part 25, Part 26


Later that night, Alice sat in Maxwell’s bedroom with the Beaumonts, having just told them what she learned from the maid.

“Was the maid able to identify the noble lady?” Bertrand asked.

“No,” Alice said.

“But at least this means we’ve narrowed down that we’re looking for a woman, right?” Maxwell asked.

“Yes and no,” Bertrand said. “Yes, a woman was involved, but that doesn’t mean she was working alone. However, this information does give us proof that you were set up.”

“You mean besides the missing lock on my door and the photos that were secretly taken at just the right time?” Alice asked.

Bertrand sighed, exasperated. “All I am saying is that this reinforces what we’re saying. Any information we can gather can only strengthen our case.”

“This is really messed up,” Maxwell said. “It’s sounding like someone not only set up Alice, but they purposely sent Tariq there knowing what he might do. They didn’t just want to cause a scandal, they wanted to–”

“Yes, Maxwell,” Bertrand said, cutting off his brother before Maxwell had to say it aloud. “Unfortunately, a lot of the evidence we have is circumstantial. We’re going to need something more concrete or it’s going to remain Alice’s word against Tariq’s.”

“But we have a witness, doesn’t that count for something?” Maxwell asked.

“One witness,” Bertrand said. “A maid, who would have everything to gain from currying favor with nobles. At best, this would poke holes in the narrative against Alice. We want a clear refutation of any wrongdoing.”

“The pictures,” Alice said quietly. Both brothers turned to look at her. “If they got photos of Tariq and me, there have to be others that show more of what actually happened. The ones in the press are only a select few that make it look consensual.”

“What are the odds we can find the rest of the photos?” Maxwell asked.

“I’m not sure,” Bertrand said. “If we can quickly figure out who did this, we might stand a chance. Or, if luck isn’t on our side, any evidence has already been destroyed.”

“So we haven’t made an progress then,” Alice said.

Bertrand reached over from where he sat and took her hand. “It’s not a lot of progress, but this is still something. Alice, I promise, we’re going to figure this out.”

Alice lifted her gaze and looked him in the eye. “He’s still out there.”

“I know,” Bertrand said gently. “I don’t have a solution for that yet. He’s not in Cordonia though, which I know isn’t enough, but I hope it’s still something. I’m hoping that if we can figure out who did this to you, extraditing him back here and pressing charges can be the next step.”

Alice nodded.

“In the meantime–if you’re up for it–I think it’s best that we keep going through the engagement tour as normally as possible,” Bertrand said. “If we act like nothing’s wrong, we might be able to throw the perpetrators off the scent.”

“Isn’t that just using her as bait?” Maxwell asked, an uncommon note of annoyance tinging his tone. “What if someone tries to do something else to her?”

“I think they just wanted to keep her from becoming queen,” Bertrand said. “Since Liam selected Madeleine, that goal has been achieved.”

“That’s a big risk to take with her safety,” Maxwell argued.

“We’re much more vigilant than we were before,” Bertrand countered, narrowing his eyes at his younger brother. “She’s safer than before.”

“Really?” Maxwell asked, raising his voice. “Because someone just tried to assign her to her original room–which, I’m guessing, still doesn’t have a damn lock.”

“We don’t know that that was an intentional slight,” Bertrand argued. “For all we know, the same room assignments are just being used again. You and I are in the same rooms, aren’t we?”

“Yes, but–”

“Guys, stop. Please,” Alice said quietly. The brothers fell silent. “I knew the risks in coming back to court and the time at Ramsford gave me a lot of time to think it over. I’m here, I’m in this. I just…can we not talk about this anymore tonight? Please?”

“Of course,” Bertrand said, rising to his feet. “We should all get some for tomorrow’s barn-raising.”

“I’m sorry, we’re raising a what now?” Alice asked.

“It’s an important Cordonian tradition where, as a community, we build a barn to symbolize the future of the bride and groom,” Bertrand explained.

“And are any of the nobles licensed contractors?” Alice asked.

“No, but there will be a crew there to supervise to ensure no one gets hurt or tries to use equipment they shouldn’t,” Bertrand said.

“Oh, come on, that was one time!” Maxwell protested. “No one actually got hurt!”

Bertrand ignored him. “Alright, you two. Get some sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.”

He left, closing the door behind him, and Alice turned to Maxwell.

“Are you okay with me crashing here?” she asked. “I didn’t mean to invade your room, I just couldn’t…stay in the other room.”

“Of course it’s okay!” Maxwell exclaimed. “If you want, I can go stay with Bertrand and you can just have this room.”

“Um…” Alice hesitated. “I’d really rather not stay alone. If that’s okay. I can just sleep on the couch.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Maxwell said. “You take the bed, I’ll take the couch.”

“We could share the bed, if you want,” Alice offered. “I’m sorry, is that weird? I don’t mean to be weird.”

“I’m okay with it if you are,” Maxwell said. “Like I said, you’re the sister I always wanted, so I’m cool with it if you are. It’ll be like a sleepover! I wasn’t kidding about that face mask recipe, I could go down to the kitchen and–”

“Would it be okay if we just chilled out and went to bed?” Alice asked apologetically. “I’m pretty drained after everything today.”

“Of course,” Maxwell said. “Whatever you want. You can use the bathroom first.”

“Thanks.”

Alice retrieved her pajamas and toiletries from her suitcase and headed into the bathroom, closing the door. When she took off her bra, Bastien’s note fluttered down to the floor from its hiding spot. She bent down and picked it up, unfolded it, and read it again. Alice thought back to earlier, standing outside with Bastien.

“Because I love you.”

Present tense, not past. Alice knew there was still so much he wasn’t telling her, but she was having a hard time wrapping her head around everything with Bastien on top of her investigation with the Beaumonts. Then again, there was nothing that said they had to figure everything out right now. If he loved her tonight, he’d love her tomorrow. Right now, all Alice wanted to do was lie down and stop thinking for a little while. She safely tucked the note away and finished getting ready for bed.

Later, as she and Maxwell lay in bed, he turned to her.

“Hey, I was thinking–do you want to watch something stupid on Netflix?” he asked. “It might be a good mental palate cleanser before going to sleep.”

“Sure.”

“Awesome,” Maxwell said, climbing out of bed to retrieve his laptop. “Do you like The Office?”

“Absolutely I do.”

He grinned. “I swear, we really were separated at birth.”

Maxwell opened the computer and pulled up Netflix and soon, they were watching the show. After about an episode and a half, Alice drifted off to sleep to the antics of the employees at Dunder Mifflin.


The following morning after breakfast, Alice and the Beaumonts exited the manor amidst a flurry of press as the other nobles arrived, ready for the barn-raising.

“This just in, the disgraced Lady Alice is making her appearance,” Alice heard Ana de Luca say to her news camera.

“Just keep your head down and move quickly,” Maxwell said as the press swarmed around them, putting an arm around her. “The limo is waiting for us at the end of the walkway.”

“Why are you still at court?” Ana asked, pushing a microphone towards Alice.

“Excuse us, sorry, no time for autographs today,” Maxwell said brightly, holding tightly to Alice as they made their way through the crowd of cameras.

“Lady Alice, Cordonia wants to know–why did you betray King Liam?” Ana asked, ignoring Maxwell.

“She didn’t,” Bertrand said curtly. “Now, if you please, we have to go.”

“So you’re claiming there’s more than meets the eye? Why haven’t you spoken out before if that’s true?” Ana pressed.

Suddenly, a young man with dark hair and glasses in a sharp suit pushed his way through the microphones, clearing a pathway for Alice and the Beaumonts.

“Alright, back off, back off,” the man said. “You’ll get your chance to hear from Lady Alice at the barn-raising, and not a minute sooner.”

The man leaned in to Alice, lowering his voice so the reporters wouldn’t hear.

“Keep moving, Lady Alice. Nice and easy. No need to feed the carrions just yet,” he said.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Your new best friend,” the man said with a practiced smile as they reached the limo. He helped her inside and he and the Beaumonts quickly slid in behind her, Bertrand shutting the door to the chattering cameras.

“Alice, are you okay?” Maxwell asked. “That was scary. The press just surrounded us like a zombie horde.”

“I mean, it’s not my favorite way to walk around, but yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “Thanks to…”

“The name’s Justin,” the man said. “And it looks like I arrived just-in time.”

Bertrand muttered something unintelligible under his breath before speaking. “He’s an up-and-coming communications agent in the Cordonian bureaucracy. I brought Justin on as press secretary to help manage your image.”

“Is that…necessary?” Alice asked. “No offense,” she added.

“None taken,” Justin said. “And please forgive the intrusion earlier. The press looked like they were giving you a rough time, and I don’t like seeing my clients being manhandled.”

“Could we perhaps dispense with the phrases ‘intrusion’ and ‘manhandled?’” Alice asked, feeling sick.

“Of course, I apologize,” Justin said. “I want us to have a good relationship because if you trust me, then we’ll have you back on top in no time.”

“Speaking of which,” Bertrand said. “Justin, if you’ll please give her some tips for dealing with the media, that would be most appreciated.”

“Biggest lesson for today…you’ve got to be careful when feeding the press,” Justin said. “They’re like starved tigers, and you’re trying to feed them bits of raw meat out of the palm of your hand.”

“You really do have a way with words,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.

Justin smiled. “You don’t back down easily, I like that. The press is going to steer your answers with questions because they want that perfect soundbite to fit their narrative. Don’t let them do that. You’ve got to be the one who controls your narrative, so stay on message.”

“I don’t have a narrative yet,” Alice said.

“Yes, you do,” Justin said. “You’re a perfect little angel who loves Cordonia.”

“Fallen angel, maybe.”

“You have to drive it home,” Justin continued, ignoring her. “If they ask you about anything else, pivot to your innocence. It doesn’t matter what they ask. Even if they want to know your mother’s maiden name, you stay on message.”

“I guess that’s simple enough,” Alice said.

“I like simple. Simple gets you from point A to point B without ending up on prime time news for the wrong reasons,” Justin said. “Now, press are already gathering at the barn-raising event. It’s a good time to issue an official statement.”

Alice felt her palms begin to sweat. “I, um…what exactly do you want to say? Because I’m not really ready to talk about what happened.”

“You don’t have to go into the details of anything,” Justin assured her. “Just stick to the message: you are a perfect angel who loves Cordonia.”

“Alice, this could really help remind people why they liked you so much in the first place,” Bertrand said gently as the limo rolled to a stop. “But if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. I’m not going to make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

“It’s fine,” Alice said. She’d said it so many times in the past few weeks that the phrase had started to lose meaning for her, but it seemed to mollify everyone else. “I’ll do it.”

“Hey, if you need a distraction, just give me a signal and I’ll bust out some of my breakdance moves so you can make a quick exit,” Maxwell said. Alice smiled at him and bumped his shoulder with hers.

“Showtime!” Justin announced.

The men exited the limo first before Justin turned to offer his hand to Alice, helping her out of the limo. The press immediately flocked to them and Alice struggled to keep a smile on her face.

“Lady Alice, if we could ask a quick question,” one reporter called.

“I believe she would like to issue a statement instead,” Justin announced, one hand on her elbow. The press collectively turned to Alice, microphones and cameras pointed right at her. She took a breath and glanced at Maxwell, who smiled encouragingly at her.

“I just want to say how much I love Cordonia,” Alice said, surprised by how steady her voice sounded. “I spent the social season falling in love with this beautiful kingdom. In fact, faced with the possibility of having to leave, I found that I had begun to think of it as home. I’m very grateful to the Beaumonts for bringing me here and welcoming me into their family…and that’s all I have to say for now,” she finished lamely. Justin nodded approvingly as the press erupted into a flurry of raised hands and shouted questions.

“Thank you all for your time, but Lady Alice has a barn to build,” Justin said genially. He led the way past the press, the Beaumonts flanking Alice on either side.

“Was that angelic enough?” Alice asked Justin once they were out of earshot of the press.

“You crushed it,” he said with a grin. “This is going to be the easiest job I’ve ever had, and I once interned as an ice cream taste-tester.”

“Seriously?” Maxwell asked enviously as they crossed the field to where a partially constructed barn stood. “That sounds incredible!”

Justin chuckled as they reached the building crew. “It was. Okay, time to jump in!”

“I’ve actually had my fill of this heat,” Bertrand said. “I’ll be back at the manor working on a few more things.”

“Seriously, Bertrand? We literally just got here,” Alice said.

“Bertrand’s not really the outdoorsy type,” Maxwell said.

“But what about tradition?” Alice gasped with faux shock, clutching at her imaginary pearls.

Bertrand sighed. “You two are exhausting. I’ll see you later.”

“Bye,” Alice said. “And thanks.”

Bertrand nodded and left, making his way back to the limo. Alice turned her attention back to the barn and noticed Liam and Madeleine giving an interview nearby.

“How does it feel to help build a barn alongside your fellow Cordonians?” the reporter asked them.

“We’re honored to be part of this great Cordonian tradition,” Madeleine said with a regal smile.

Barf, Alice thought.

“There’s someone who knows how to work the press,” Justin murmured.

“Too bad she’s a raging cunt,” Alice muttered.

“Cunt or not, she still knows what she’s doing.”

“This is a way of showing that the crown serves with the people of Cordonia,” Liam said.

“Speaking of the people,” the reporter said. “We want to know if you two are enjoying your engagement together?”

Madeleine wrapped her arm around Liam’s, snuggling into his side. “I couldn’t be happier with my Liam,” she gushed.

“Of course, we couldn’t imagine being with anyone else,” Liam said politely, his enthusiasm a touch lower than Madeleine’s.

“Thank you both,” the reporter said. “And congratulations again on your engagement.”

“Alright, you two, this is where I leave you,” Justin said.

“Afraid of getting sawdust on your suit?” Alice asked innocently.

“As much as I would love to stay and help build the barn, my talents are better suited to subtly directing the press to take photos of you,” he said. “Wish me luck in the hornet’s nest.”

“Good luck!” Maxwell said. Justin nodded and headed over towards the press. Once he was gone, Maxwell turned to Alice. “Okay, what’s going on? Why don’t you like him?”

“I don’t know,” Alice said. “There’s something about him that’s a little…I don’t know. Smarmy, I guess.” She paused, lowering her voice. “Can you guys even afford this?”

“Don’t worry about that,” Maxwell said. “He offered us a really great rate and I think he could really do a lot to help us get the public back on your side while we come up with the hard evidence we need.”

“Alright, alright, I’ll play nice,” Alice said. “But if he makes anymore cheesy jokes, I reserve the right to smack him.”

“Yeah, those are my thing!” Maxwell said. “Look, there’s Drake and Hana, let’s go work with them.”

Alice and Maxwell walked over to where Hana and a shirtless Drake were attempting to operate a pulley system, struggling to lift a beam off the ground.

“Pull!” Drake exclaimed.

“I am!” Hana protested as they strained against the weight of the beam.

“Pull! Pull! Pull!” Maxwell cheered.

“Maxwell? Alice?” Hana asked, surprised. Distracted, she dropped the rope and the beam crashed to the ground. “Oh, shoot, sorry, Drake!”

“It’s okay,” Drake said, pulling his t-shirt from where it was tucked into his belt to wipe the sweat from his face. “I don’t think we were going to get it all the way up there anyway.”

“So what’s the plan then?” Alice asked. “Are you just going to pose shirtless for the press instead?”

Drake’s face immediately flamed red. “What?”

“He had a shirt when we started,” Hana said with a grin.

“Hey, it’s hot out!” Drake protested. “Okay, can we stop focusing on me for a second? We’re trying to build a barn here.”

“One that I’m sure will be very structurally sound,” Alice said doubtfully.

“Drake’s right,” Maxwell said. “Alice, you should do something to give the press a good shot of you. Let’s go lift things and build barns!”

“I think you’re missing a few steps…” Hana said.

“Details, details,” Maxwell said dismissively. “Ooh, look! A hammer!”

“Hang on there,” Drake said, snagging him by the arm. “Let’s get this beam up and then we can discuss letting you use tools. Although, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea after last time…”

One time!” Maxwell protested, but Drake ignored him.

“Everybody ready?” he asked, gesturing to the beam. Alice and Hana took one side while Drake and Maxwell took the other. On Drake’s count, they pulled, slowly but surely raising the beam to the second floor of the barn where another team of people received it.

“We did it!” Hana exclaimed excitedly.

“That was mostly me, but the help was appreciated,” Maxwell said with a grin.

“Uh-huh,” Drake said, rolling his eyes.

“Oh, look! A saw!” Maxwell said, taking off towards the power tools.

“I’ll go make sure he doesn’t lose a hand,” Hana called over her shoulder, quickly following him.

“What do you say, Ayers? Want to try another beam?” Drake asked.

“Sure,” she said as Drake waved over a few professional laborers, who attached a horse to the pulley system.

“Figured we could use the help,” he said.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to embarrass you when I can lift more than you can,” Alice said.

He chuckled. “Exactly. Okay, so I need you to guide the horse forward while I direct the beam. Got it?”

“Guide the horse backward while you drop the beam. Got it,” Alice said.

Drake smiled and rolled his eyes as he moved over to the secured beam. “Okay! Pull!”

Alice took the lead rope and gently led the horse forward. “Come on, beautiful, this way. Good girl.”

The horse snuffled and followed Alice, pulling the beam up as Drake steered it to the second floor. Once the team above had it, Drake walked over to her.

“That wasn’t so bad,” he said. “Nice work.”

“Well, someone has to do all the heavy lifting around her,” she said, rubbing the horses nose affectionately. The horse nudged her, pleased with the attention.

“I think she likes you,” Drake said.

“My new press secretary will be thrilled.”

“Is that who that guy is?” Drake asked, glancing over at where Justin was talking to some reporters.

“Yeah. I’ll tell you about him later,” Alice said.

Drake squinted. “Do we like him?”

“Officially, yes.”

“Unofficially?”

“Undecided.”

“So, no.”

Alice grunted noncommittally. “Hey, look, Kiara seems to be having trouble with that,” she said, pointing to where Kiara was struggling with a smaller beam. She stumbled, twisting an ankle in her heels as the beam crashed down on top of her. Alice hurried over, Drake right behind her.

“Kiara! Are you okay?” Alice asked as she knelt beside her while Drake pulled the beam off and tossed it aside.

“Oh, merci beaucoup,” Kiara said. “I am now.”

“You looked like you turned your ankle pretty good there,” Alice said, holding out a hand to help Kiara to her feet. “Can you stand on it?”

Kiara tested her foot gingerly. “I think so.”

“You shouldn’t carry this all by yourself,” Drake said, gesturing to the beam.

“Well…you know how it is,” she said, embarrassed. “Penelope said she was taking a five minute break thirty minutes ago, and I didn’t want to wait around any longer.”

“If you’re going to carry a beam, even a small one, get someone to help you,” Drake said. Kiara’s eyes momentarily drifted over Drake’s shirtless torso before she cleared her throat and looked away.

“I will. Thank you both for helping me,” she said. “I’m going to go find Penelope…”

As she left, Alice turned to Drake, amused. “I think she liked what she saw.”

Drake turned red again and grabbed his t-shirt, pulling it over his head. “Who wears heels to a barn-raising?”

“Someone hoping to catch the eye of the king’s rugged, manly best friend,” Alice teased, her smile growing wider.

“That’s not funny,” he muttered. Alice glanced back over at the barn in time to see Kiara sneak a peek back at Drake.

“I dunno, I think it’s pretty…interesting,” Alice said, poking him in the side.

“Let’s just finish this barn,” he said. “That’s simple. Just move and build.”

“Okay, okay,” Alice said, putting her hands up in mock surrender. “But we’re not done talking about this.”

“Oh, yes we are,” he said, slinging a sweaty arm around her shoulders as they headed back to the barn. Alice pretended to gag and he laughed. “Come on, let’s go see if Maxwell still has all of his fingers.”


Bastien watched as Drake casually put his arm around Alice and he felt a mixture of jealousy and defeat. He forced himself to look away and he thought instead of the previous night and the way she’d held his hand. Bastien missed her so much it felt like a physical ache. It drove him crazy that she was so close and yet still so far away.

And yet…it felt so good to see her smile. Even if she wasn’t smiling at him.


As the sun began to dip low in the sky, everyone stepped back to admire the finished barn.

“Wow,” Alice said, impressed. “It actually looks pretty good. And I’m about 80% sure it’s structurally sound.”

“That was exhausting, but I’m glad we did it,” Hana said.

“So…tired…” Maxwell said dramatically as he leaned heavily on Alice. “Can’t…hammer…any…more…nails…”

“Oh, please,” Drake said. “If this was a dance set, you’d still be going.”

“Like a heart, I need a beat to keep going, but all I hear is the angel’s choir,” Maxwell said, closing his eyes. “Tell…Bertrand…I’m sorry…”

Alice pinched his side and he jerked upright.

“Hey!” he protested.

“Oh, look, you’re back from the dead,” Alice said as Liam walked over to join their group, wiping the sweat off his brow with a towel.

“Hello, everyone,” he said with a grin.

“You managed to escape after all,” Drake said, sounding mildly impressed.

“Until tomorrow at least,” Liam said. “It’s been a long day.”

“No kidding. I could really use a bath,” Alice said.

“Yeah, you could,” Drake agreed.

Alice swatted at him. “Hey, we can’t all just strip down under the guise of ‘cooling off!’”

“No, but we could all go to a nearby spa I know!” Maxwell said.

“I thought you were on death’s doorstep,” Drake said.

“I caught my second wind when Alice so rudely pinched me,” he said pointedly.

“I regret nothing,” Alice said with a shrug.

“I could definitely go for a relaxing spa visit if everyone else is up for it,” Hana said.

“Me, too,” Liam said.

“Great! Let’s go!” Maxwell exclaimed.

A short car ride later found them at the spa. Alice and Hana split off from the rest of the group to head into the ladies’ changing room. Hana quickly changed into a clean white towel.

“I feel better already,” she said. Then she noticed Alice standing in front of the locker, still fully clothed. “Alice? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I just…” Alice said, shaking her head.

Hana sat down on the bench and motioned for Alice to join her.

“Does this…have to do with what happened?” Hana asked gently. Alice nodded.

“It’s stupid,” Alice said. “I know I’m safe, I just…the thought of getting undressed down to a towel makes me feel really weird and vulnerable.”

“First of all, that’s not stupid,” Hana said. “And you don’t have to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. If you want, you can stay fully clothed and you and I will just go get pedicures or something. Or we can just raid the snack bar and eat a ton of empty calories. Or we can leave! Seriously, whatever you want.”

Alice smiled weakly. “No, it’s fine. I can do this.”

“I know you can,” Hana said. “But I’m telling you that you don’t have to.” She sat up suddenly. “Oh! I just had an idea! What if you wear a robe instead of just a towel? Or both? Both is good! That way you can stay covered up if you want or you can move onto just a towel if you’d rather. It’s totally your call.”

“That’s a good idea, I could do both,” Alice agreed.

“Perfect. Why don’t you go use one of those changing rooms and I’ll go get you a robe?”

Alice stepped into a changing room, securely shutting the door behind her and locking it. She slowly removed her clothes, piece by piece, until she was fully naked. Alice took a deep breath. She’d changed her clothes many times since that night at Applewood, but never in a public place like this. She quickly grabbed a towel and wrapped it tightly around herself. Please hurry, Hana

“Alice?” Hana’s voice called through the door. “I have the robe for you.”

Alice cracked open the door and gratefully took the robe from Hana, wrapping it around herself and tying the belt tightly around her waist. She felt better.

“Thanks,” she said as she opened the door.

“Anytime,” Hana said. “Let’s go relax!”

Alice followed Hana into the pool area and sat down on the edge of the pool, dunking her feet in the water as Hana handed her a glass of sparkling, fruit-infused water.

“Cheers! To a hard day of work,” Hana said.

“Cheers,” Alice said clinking her glass against Hana’s. “Have you ever built anything like that before?”

“No, but I liked it,” Hana said. “There’s something very rewarding about working with your hands and being able to actually see the results of your efforts at the end of the day. So much of my life has been spent refining my courtly skills, but this was different. In a good way.”

“Maybe you should take up woodworking,” Alice suggested.

“This was fun, but I’m not sure I see a long-term career in it for me,” Hana said with a shrug.

“Who said anything about it being a career?” Alice asked. “You could do it for fun, if you wanted to. You should find the things that make you happy, Hana.”

Hana nodded, considering this. “You’re right. Life’s too short to do otherwise. Today has been wonderful.” She slowly swished her feet in the water. “Every day I’m at court with you, Drake, Maxwell, and Liam…it all feels like a gift right now. It wasn’t until I thought I’d lost all of you that I realized how much this means to me. How much all of you mean to me.”

“Well, lucky for you then, you’re stuck with me,” Alice said with a smile. “Seriously, Hana, you’ve become one of my best friends.”

“Thanks, Alice,” Hana said, bumping her shoulder against Alice’s. “I feel the same way.”

Alice took a sip of her water, carefully choosing her words. “Hana…can I tell you something?”

“Of course.”

Alice stared at her feet in the water, watching the ripples they made in the water, and before she knew it, she was telling Hana everything. She told Hana about meeting Bastien in New York, about coming to Cordonia with Maxwell, her relationship with Bastien, how she’d fallen in love with him. She told Hana about the break up text and all the details about Tariq. She told Hana about confronting Bastien at Ramsford and sleeping in the bathtub for weeks and the way Drake had coaxed her back out. She told Hana about the doorstop and telling Liam the truth and the way Bastien had showed up the night before. She told Hana everything and all the while, Hana listened silently and intently, letting Alice be quiet or talk as she needed to. Then, finally, Alice was done.

“Thank you for telling me,” Hana said, setting down her glass to hug Alice. “That’s so much for one person to carry around all the time and I feel really honored that you felt safe enough to share all that with me.”

“I just…I’m so exhausted all the time,” Alice said.

“Let me be exhausted with you,” Hana said. “You don’t have to do this alone. I mean, I know you have Frankie, but I can be here for you, too. If you’ll let me.”

“Thank you, Hana,” Alice said, pulling back from the hug. “I feel a lot better just talking to you.”

“Anytime,” Hana said. She paused. “Are you still in love with Bastien?”

“Yeah,” Alice said without hesitation. “I am. And I know everything is so complicated and we’re not talking and I don’t fully get why it seems like he’s avoiding me most of the time, but I can’t help it.”

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Hana said. “You being in love with him.”

“No, it’s just…complicated.”

“Yes,” Hana agreed. “It is.”

Just then, they heard a noise in the hallway.

“Did you hear something?” Hana asked. “That sounded like…Liam’s laugh?”

“It did,” Alice said. “Should we go investigate?”

“Sure,” she said. The two women stood up and headed over towards a door to the side. Hana opened it a crack and they saw Liam and Drake lounging in towels in an identical room. “Want to go in?”

“Why not,” Alice said, unconsciously pulling the robe a little tighter around herself. Hana noticed, but didn’t say anything about it.

“Room for two more?” Hana asked as she pulled open the door.

“Oh, hey!” Liam said, sitting up. “Of course, come in.”

“Hey, where’s Maxwell?” Alice asked, looking around.

“Hiding. And that was before you all burst in,” Drake said. “For christ’s sake, just come out, Maxwell.”

“You can’t hide forever,” Liam teased.

Maxwell stepped out from around the corner and Alice and Hana both stared at him. Clad only in a towel, Alice was surprised to see a tattoo of a hippo on his chest. Suddenly, his reluctance to ever take his shirt off made sense.

“Go ahead and laugh if you want,” Maxwell said glumly. “Just don’t tell Bertrand you saw it.”

“Is that a baby hippo?” Hana asked.

“That’s adorable!” Alice exclaimed.

Maxwell wagered a small smile. “I know, right? Isn’t this little guy the cutest?”

“I’m guessing there’s a story behind this,” Hana said.

“Kinda…” Maxwell said, his face falling slightly. “When I was a kid, my mom would call me her little hippo.”

“I didn’t think this could get cuter, but it just did,” Alice said with a grin, leaning in to see the tattoo better.

“I was kind of chubby when I was younger, before I got into dancing,” Maxwell explained. “My dad was really hard on me about it, but my mom never made me feel bad. She was really smart and funny. She said I was just like a little hippo…fun-loving, but tough, and always able to make her smile. She just made hippos sound really cool and amazing.” He paused. “Anyway, when she passed away, I wanted to do something to commemorate her. I told Bertrand I was going to get something done and I guess he thought I meant, like, have some artwork commissioned, so he was pretty surprised when he saw this.”

“I can imagine,” Alice said.

“I suppose it doesn’t particularly fit with the image of House Beaumont that Bertrand’s striving to maintain,” Hana added.

“Yeah, this was more or less his second to worst nightmare,” Maxwell agreed.

“Is his first that I’ll say the word ‘cunt’ in front of the press at a royal function?” Alice asked.

Maxwell laughed. “It is now. But yeah, so Bertrand was really upset and he said that if we’re ever around the nobility or servants, I had to keep it covered up.”

“Well, Bertrand’s a butthead and I love it,” Alice said, pulling Maxwell into a hug and kissing his cheek. “I think that’s a really sweet way to honor your mom. She sounds like she was really great.”

“She was,” Maxwell agreed. “And she would’ve really liked you. You, too, Hana.”

Alice smiled. “So now, the only question is…what are you and I going to get for a matching tattoo?”

Maxwell grinned. “How awesome would that be?”

“I can practically hear Bertrand’s blood pressure rising,” Drake called.

“Or is that the sound of the vein in his forehead throbbing?” Liam added.

“Ignore them,” Alice said. “Once this is all over, we’re getting one together.”

“As much fun as it is to talk about Maxwell’s tattoo, I think I’m going to get into the pool,” Drake said.

“Brr, not me, I’m getting into the hot tub,” Liam said.

“Seconded!” Hana said.

“Thirded!” Maxwell added.

Liam smiled. “Thirded isn’t a word.”

“It is now,” Maxwell said.

“Ayers, what about you?” Drake asked.

“I can sit on the side and keep you company,” Alice said.

While the others climbed into the hot tub, Alice followed Drake to the other side of the room where he hesitated at the edge of the pool.

“Trying to summon the courage?” she asked.

“This is supposed to be good for you,” Drake said.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Like most things in life, the best thing is sometimes the most painful,” he said, staring at the water. “Sure you won’t come in?”

“Nope,” Alice said before she unceremoniously shoved Drake into the water. He fell with a splash before he resurfaced, flipping his hair out of his eyes and swearing.

“Fuck, it’s cold!” he exclaimed. Alice laughed and sat down on the side of the pool, dipping her feet into the water.

“Ooh, you’re right,” Alice said. “You’d have to be nuts to get all the way in.”

“Ha ha, very funny,” Drake said as he swam over to her, stopping in front of her feet. “I wanted to ask…why the robe?” he asked.

“It was Hana’s idea,” Alice said. “I was feeling…I don’t know, kind of weird because of…well, because, so she suggested this.”

“Are you doing okay?” he asked, lowering his voice a little. “I feel like I’ve barely seen you over the last couple days and I haven’t been able to check on you.”

Alice nodded. “I’m okay. I was assigned to my old room at Applewood–”

What?”

“But it’s fine,” Alice said. “I’m staying with Maxwell. It’s no big deal.”

Drake relaxed a little. “Well, if you need me, you know where to find me,” he said, giving one of her ankles a gentle squeeze.

“Thank you,” she said.

Just then, gentle bells played over a loudspeaker in the corner.

“I think that’s our cue to go,” Hana said.

“Bummer,” Liam said as they all started to climb out of the water. “This has been really fun.”

“It has,” Drake admitted as he hauled himself out of the water before offering a hand to Alice to help her stand up. “Cold, but fun.”

“Hey, the cold part is your own fault,” Alice said. “You chose this over the hot tub.”

“Yeah, and then someone pushed me in,” he said pointedly.

“I’m certain I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Alice called over her shoulder as she and Hana separated from the group and headed for the women’s locker room.


Back at Applewood Manor, Alice and Maxwell returned to their room to find Bertrand waiting for them.

“Where have you two been?” Bertrand asked, exasperated. “I’ve been waiting for ages!”

“We took a spa detour with Liam, Drake, and Hana,” Alice said.

Bertrand looked a little mollified at the mention of Liam. “Well, I’m glad you two are back. We’ve got big plans for tomorrow.”

“What’s going on tomorrow?” Maxwell asked.

“I’ve been thinking about our investigation,” Bertrand said. “And it occurred to me that although we don’t know which noble lady talked to that maid, someone had to take your picture. Perhaps we can discover something by figuring out where the photos were taken.”

“Can we go now?” Maxwell asked.

“No, the manor’s being patrolled by the royal security team who won’t take kindly to us traipsing around like burglars,” Bertrand said. “We’ll have a better chance if we try during the day during tomorrow’s country picnic.”

“Is ‘country picnic’ code for ‘yet another lawn party?’” Alice asked.

“No!” Bertrand said indignantly.

“Yes,” Maxwell said. “It’ll be fun though!”

“You think everything is fun,” Alice said.

“Because everything can be fun,” Maxwell said with a triumphant smile.

“Get some rest, you two,” Bertrand said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Bertrand rose and left, leaving Alice and Maxwell alone.

“More Office?” Maxwell asked.

“Yes, please.”


Later, as they lay in bed watching Maxwell’s laptop, he suddenly paused the show.

“Alice, can I ask you something?” he asked.

“Of course,” she said, propping herself up on her elbow. “What’s up?”

“How are you doing?” he asked. “And don’t just say you’re fine. I mean how are you really doing?”

Alice lay back down. “I don’t know. Most of the time I’m okay, but then sometimes everything hits me all at once.”

Maxwell considered this for a moment. “Can I do anything for you?”

“You’re already doing it,” Alice said, turning her head to look at him. “You and Bertrand are taking really good care of me and you let me invade your room. Best brothers ever.”

Maxwell leaned over and kissed the top of her head. “Let me know if I can do more.”

“I will.”

Maxwell pressed play.


Part 28


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