Summary: Alice attends the dinner with the statesman in Italy and tracks down the photographer before learning of a betrayal close to home.
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, Part 25, Part 26, Part 27, Part 28
As the train sped towards Italy, Alice made her way through the cars with Maxwell and Bertrand, trying not to draw attention from the other passengers. She felt guilty that she still hadn’t told them about Bastien hiring the photographer, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to say anything yet. Despite everything, she still couldn’t bring herself to betray Bastien–even if he had betrayed her.
“The letter said to meet in the boutique, right?” Maxwell asked.
“Yeah, and to come alone,” Alice said.
“It could be a trap,” Maxwell said.
“Or a genuine offer to help,” Bertrand said. “One we could desperately use.”
“People get assassinated all the time,” Maxwell said, annoyance clouding his features. “Do you really want to take that chance?”
“I don’t think anyone would be stupid enough to assassinate her on a train when they couldn’t get away,” Bertrand said as they reached the door to the boutique car.
“As much as I’m enjoying this debate about whether or not someone is waiting in there to off me, there’s only one way to find out,” Alice said.
“I’m not loving that attitude,” Bertrand said.
“Look, just stay here and I’ll yell if anything’s wrong,” Alice said. “Better?”
“Great,” Alice said as she pulled open the boutique door, stepped inside, and closed it behind her. The Beaumont brothers waited, listening carefully.
“Is it just me, or does she seem off since the picnic?” Maxwell asked.
“She’s been off since the night she was attacked,” Bertrand said. “But yes. She’s been especially off kilter today.”
“Any idea why?”
Bertrand shook his head. “No. But if she wants to tell us, she will.”
Maxwell nodded. “I wish there was more we could do for her.”
“We can only help her as much as she’ll let us.”
Alice cautiously stepped into the empty boutique, the dull rumble of the train car echoing in the quiet room.
“Hello?” she said, looking around but seeing no one.
“I should’ve known it’d be too much to ask for you to arrive promptly, Alice,” Olivia said, stepping out from behind a rack of dresses.
“Olivia!” Alice exclaimed in surprise. “I didn’t think I’d see you again!”
“Well, here I am,” Olivia said wryly.
“What’s with all the cloak and dagger stuff?” Alice asked.
“I don’t have a cloak.”
Alice waited for a moment. “Do I dare ask about a dagger?”
“Please, I always have a dagger,” Olivia said dismissively. “I’m a Nevrakis.”
“Right,” Alice said. “So…what’s up?”
“Since the coronation, I’ve been laying low and conducting my own investigation into whoever has been blackmailing me,” Olivia said. “I called you here because the time has come for us to work together and share our information.”
“Did you find anything?” Alice asked.
“It’s small, but it’s a start,” she said. “I was able to extract information from the messenger who delivered the blackmail letter to me.”
“Do I want to know how you extracted that information?”
“No. I traced through it and discovered the letter went through at least six different middlemen before it reached me.”
“That sounds…excessive,” Alice said slowly. “Although I guess that means whoever did it really wanted to hide their identity.”
“Exactly,” Olivia agreed. “More likely than not, it’s someone with a lot to lose.”
Alice thought about Bastien and her stomach lurched. “A disguised noble lady had a maid at Applewood direct Tariq to my room with a love letter.”
Olivia regarded her for a moment. “I’m not really into sharing feelings, but are you okay after all that?”
“After all what?” Alice asked lamely.
“Alice, I’m not stupid,” Olivia said. “I saw the photos and I saw the way you were acting after that night at Applewood. It doesn’t take an idiot to put two and two together.”
“The press thinks I wanted it.”
“The press is full of morons who don’t know their ass from their elbow.” She paused. “Do you know where he is?”
Alice shook her head.
“Are you sleeping?”
“Better than I was.”
Olivia nodded. “Go easy on yourself. It’s okay to not be okay.” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, if you’re dealing with a disguised noble lady and I’m dealing with a chain of blackmail, one cloaked action likely connects to the other. There are layers of duplicity at play here, but it all points to one of the ladies. Which is why I’m rejoining court for the international trip.”
“Is it safe for you to do that?” Alice asked. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re here, but aren’t you worried about whoever it is exposing that information about your family?”
“I’m a Nevrakis,” Olivia said, her expression hardening. “We’re not known for ‘safe.’ We’re known for crushing our enemies.”
A small knock sounded on the door.
“Alice? Everything okay in there?” Maxwell called through the door.
“You brought Maxwell?” Olivia asked, annoyed.
“You idiot, you’ve given away our element of surprise!” Bertrand scolded him.
“And Bertrand,” Alice said as the brothers continued arguing.
“Clearly the word ‘alone’ was too difficult for you to understand,” Olivia said, rolling her eyes.
“They insisted,” Alice said with a shrug. “Guys, I’m fine!”
“Okay!” Maxwell called back.
“Maxwell and Bertrand may consider you their own, but you never know if you can really trust them,” Olivia warned.
“I trust them completely,” Alice said, ignoring the nagging guilt that she still hadn’t told them about Bastien’s confession. “They’ve taken really good care of me.”
Olivia snorted. “Because they’re still hoping you’re going to be queen.”
“It’s not like that,” Alice said. “I took myself out of contention weeks before the coronation because I fell in love with someone else. They know that. They’re just trying to help me clear my name and get justice after…what happened.”
“You took yourself out of contention?” Olivia asked in astonishment.
“Yeah,” Alice said. “But Liam asked me to stay, so I stayed.”
“So you don’t…have feelings for Liam?”
“We’re just friends, Olivia,” Alice assured her. “I swear.”
Olivia considered this for a moment before she turned to the gowns on the rack beside her. “Do you know what you’re wearing to the dinner?”
Olivia rolled her eyes. “God, you’re hopeless, Jon Snow. You’re lucky I’m actually trying to help you this time. You’re going to need the right outfit if you want to make a good impression on this tour and the Italian statesman you’ll meet today loves red,” she said, pulling a red dress off the rack.
“Aren’t you, like, weirdly possessive over the color red?” Alice asked.
“After everything that’s happened, maybe we can share it,” Olivia said. “Plus, any advantage I can give you right now could help me figure out who blackmailed me.”
“Aaand we’re back,” Alice said, taking the dress from Olivia. “Fine, I’ll try it on. Bertrand will be thrilled for me to wear something that isn’t black.”
“You do tend to look like you’re attending a funeral,” Olivia said as Alice stepped behind a rack to change.
“Why does everyone say that?”
“Because it’s fucking depressing, that’s why.”
“Has no one in Cordonia heard of a little black dress?”
“There’s a limit, Jon Snow.”
Alice stepped out from behind the rack in a long, elegant red dress. “So? Less depressing?”
“I’m not saying you wear red better than me, but you wear it well,” Olivia conceded.
“Was that an actual compliment?” Alice asked with a gasp.
“Don’t get used to it,” Olivia snapped. “Listen, I’ll find you when I have more information to share.”
“You know, you’re welcome to hang out with the rest of us,” Alice said. “You don’t have to be weird about it. We can just be friends.”
Olivia looked at Alice as if she’d just suggested she clean the bathroom floor with her tongue. “No, thank you.”
“You’ll come around.”
“I suppose we do have a mutual enemy,” Olivia said. “And the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Alice sighed. “I think that’s the best I’m going to get.”
“Correct. Now go.”
Alice opened the door and left the boutique car to find Maxwell and Bertrand waiting for her.
“You’re back!” Maxwell exclaimed.
“And why are you suddenly dressed up?” Bertrand asked.
“It was Olivia. She’s been running her own investigation into who blackmailed her at the coronation. She thinks we might be after the same person and wanted to share information,” Alice said.
“That still doesn’t explain the dress,” Maxwell said.
“She recommended the dress because apparently the Italian statesman likes red,” Alice said with a shrug.
“That’s…unexpected,” Maxwell said slowly.
“I’ll take any ally we can get, even one as hostile as Lady Olivia,” Bertrand said.
“She’s not so bad,” Alice said. “I think I’m starting to wear her down to where she’ll almost admit to being my friend.”
“And you still have all of your limbs?” Maxwell asked.
“Last time I checked.”
“I must say, I do appreciate her dress recommendation,” Bertrand said approvingly. “I’m just glad you’re not wearing black.”
“Jesus Christ,” Alice muttered as the train started to slow.
“We’re here!” Maxwell exclaimed. “Good thing you’re already dressed for dinner.”
“And for impressing foreign dignitaries to demonstrate your grace and poise to the world,” Bertrand added.
After they disembarked from the train, Justin joined Alice and the Beaumonts in the limo en route to the restaurant.
“Alice, it’s imperative that you charm our Italian hosts tonight,” Bertrand said.
“Really? Because I thought I needed to make them hate me,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.
“It’s also important because the press will be there,” Justin added. “They love lurking around the edges of these events.”
“I bet they do,” Alice said. Maxwell gave her arm a comforting squeeze. “I promise, I’ll smile and wave on my way into the restaurant.”
“Don’t think you’re safe once inside,” Justin warned. “The predators never stop watching.”
Justin’s comment made the hairs on the back of Alice’s neck stand up. She wasn’t entirely sure he was just talking about the press anymore.
“Are they going to criticize my fork placement?” she asked, unable to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
“Yes,” Justin said.
“And you’d deserve it,” Bertrand said. “Always keep your forks ordered properly.”
“Jesus, Bertrand, I’ve sat through enough etiquette lessons with you to know where my forks go, back off,” Alice said.
“I’m sorry,” Bertrand said, reddening slightly. “I’m just anxious.”
“You need to be on guard, but also look at this as an opportunity,” Justin said.
“Is this like therapy where you’re supposed to call stuff you don’t want to do an ‘opportunity?’” Alice asked.
“Whatever gets you to behave like a perfect angel who–”
“Loves Cordonia, I know, I know.”
Bertrand unscrewed the cap from a bottle of water from the limo’s bar and took a sip. “Please make sure that this new loan against the Beaumont estate isn’t for naught.”
“Bertrand! You didn’t!” Alice gasped. “God dammit, I asked if you could afford to do this, and–”
“This is important! You are important!” Bertrand snapped.
Alice watched him as he looked away, taking another drink of his water as an awkward silence settled over the limo. She took a deep breath.
“Okay, so what do I need to do to make a good impression?” she asked calmly.
“With the press, keep it simple,” Justin said. “Don’t give them anything to speculate with. I mean, the pundits will speculate regardless, but if there’s nothing there, they’ll forget about it after the next news break. Just pose, smile, and move on.”
“Okay,” Alice said, nodding. She glanced over at Bertrand, who still refused to look at her.
“The Italian statesman at dinner was a friend of Liam’s mother, and is married to a Cordonian noble,” Maxwell said. “His opinion is important in both Italy and Cordonia.”
“Smooth talk him. Impress him. Charm him,” Justin instructed. “Do you know any Italian?”
Alice and Bastien sat cross-legged on his bed, facing each other.
“Please teach me something! You speak, like, fifteen languages, I need to try to catch up,” Alice pleaded.
Bastien laughed. “I only speak eight.”
“Only eight,” Alice said, rolling her eyes before smacking him with a pillow. “Come on, please?”
“Okay, okay,” Bastien said. “What do you want to learn?”
“How about Italian?”
“Did you just pick that one so you’ll sound less awkward when you order pasta?”
“No!” Alice protested, hitting him with the pillow again. “I’ve always wanted to learn so I could read The Divine Comedy in its original Italian. I have a feeling it loses something in the translation to English.”
“It does,” Bastien agreed. “But I don’t think I’m going to be able to make you fluent in one night.”
“Well, yeah, of course not.” Alice paused. “How long do you think it’ll take?”
Bastien shrugged. “It depends. But I’m not going anywhere, so we can take our time.”
“How much time?”
“Got any plans for the rest of your life?”
That night in Bastien’s room at the palace felt like another life and yet she could still remember every detail from the way his t-shirt felt on her body to the way his voice had sounded when he’d unintentionally chuckled at her horribly American accent.
“I know a little bit,” Alice said.
“Really?” Maxwell asked, impressed.
“I mean, not a lot, but I know some key phrases,” Alice said. “My accent isn’t great though.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Justin said. “He’ll just be impressed you’re making an effort. The man’s also a fan of Italian football, and his favorite team won last night, so he’ll be in a good mood. Compliment him on the game and he’ll be in an even better mood.”
“Any suggestions on what to say about the game? I don’t exactly follow football,” Alice said.
“Tell him ‘that stoppage time golazo was something else,’” Justin said. “Anything after that, just vaguely agree and pivot back to how wonderful it is to be here.”
“He may also ask about Cordonian policy as it pertains to Italy,” Bertrand said, rejoining the conversation but still avoiding looking at Alice.
“Why would he ask me about policy?” Alice asked, confused.
“Liam is working on a deal to trade Cordonian tax incentives for access to EU markets,” Bertrand explained. “As a member of Liam’s court, you’re at least expected to be informed.”
Alice got up and moved over to sit by Bertrand as Maxwell asked Justin a question about the restaurant.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m really grateful you’re doing this for me. I’m just…off today.”
“Anything you want to talk about?” Bertrand asked. Alice shook her head.
“No. But thank you. And I promise to impress everyone with my poorly pronounced Italian tonight while I use the correct fork.”
Bertrand allowed himself a small smile. “Honestly, you’re better at the forks than Maxwell is at this point.”
“Hey, I heard that!” Maxwell protested as the limo rolled to a stop.
“Showtime, folks!” Justin announced.
“Ready?” Bertrand asked.
“Like you have to ask at this point. Of course I’m not.”
Bertrand exited the limo first and turned to help Alice out, who looped her arm through his. Maxwell and Justin soon followed as Alice took in the crowd outside the restaurant of nobles and paparazzi.
“There you are!” Hana exclaimed as she joined them. “I was afraid I’d have to walk in alone.”
Maxwell offered her his arm and she took it gratefully. “Here we go!” he said as a crowd of photographers appeared in front of them. Alice posed with Bertrand for a few photos before Bertrand leaned in towards her ear.
“I see the photographer from the security badge,” he murmured low enough so that the members of the press couldn’t hear him. “She’s at ten o’clock, red jacket.”
Alice smiled radiantly for the paparazzi before she let her eyes flick over towards the photographer. So that was the woman whom Bastien had hired to photograph her in her room. Alice felt a wave of revulsion, but kept her expression calm.
“Make sure you catch my good side,” Maxwell said with a grin, hamming it up for the press, who finished with them before moving on to the next guests. Alice looked back at the photographer, but she’d already disappeared into the crowd.
“I lost her,” Alice whispered to Bertrand.
“That’s okay. We know she’s here, which is the important part,” Bertrand said. “Once you’re inside, I’ll find her again. If she’s covering the party, she’ll be here all night.”
“What’s going on?” Maxwell asked.
“We saw the photographer from the security badge,” Alice said, anxious to stop talking about her.
“Excellent!” Maxwell said with a triumphant grin. “We’ll get her for sure.”
“In the meantime, we should go inside and sit for dinner,” Bertrand said, leading the group towards the doors of the restaurant.
“Alice!” Liam said with a smile as they walked inside. “Hana, Bertrand, Maxwell. Lovely to see you all, as usual. Are you enjoying the spectacle?”
“It’s spectacular!” Maxwell said. Bertrand sighed and Liam laughed.
“I’m glad you’re all enjoying it,” Liam said.
Across the room, someone started tapping on a glass.
“Hello, hello, everyone!” Adelaide called. “Please begin taking your seats.”
“Oh my god, she’s already at least three or four deep,” Alice said.
“How can you tell?” Hana asked. As if on cue, Adelaide stumbled slightly and Madeleine began to argue with her in hushed tones. “Never mind.”
“And now, a word from my darling angel, Madeleine,” Adelaide announce.”
“Thank you all for coming,” Madeleine said, looking slightly flustered. “Please do take your seats.”
“I should go,” Liam said. “But I’ll find you later?”
Alice nodded and Liam left, weaving his way through the crowd.
“I think I’m over there,” Hana said, pointing to a table across the room. “See you later!”
Alice and the Beaumonts made their way over to their table where a man was standing nearby.
“Ah, Lady Alice, there is someone I would like you to meet,” Bertrand said as they reached the man. “This is signor Francesco.”
“Salve, Lady Alice! It’s a pleasure,” Francesco said, taking her hand and kissing her knuckles lightly.
“Buona sera, signor Francesco,” Alice said. “The pleasure is all mine; I’m delighted to be here in your beautiful country.” Out of the corner of her eye, Alice could see Bertrand smile proudly.
“Molto bene!” Francesco said, pleased. “Sit, sit.” They sat with Alice between Bertrand and Francesco, and the latter turned to Alice. “You speak beautiful Italian.”
“Thank you, but you just heard most of what I know,” Alice admitted. Francesco grinned.
“I’m very impressed all the same,” he said as the last guest arrived at their table.
“Hello,” Olivia said. “I guess I’m sitting with you.”
“Welcome, Lady…” Francesco said, trailing off.
“Olivia. Good evening, signor.”
“Please, call me Francesco,” he said. “These dinners are pretentious enough without the ‘signor’ nonsense.” He turned his attention back to Alice. “I must say, Alice, you have excellent taste in fashion. Your gown is bellissima and I would recognize Italian couture anywhere.”
“Grazie,” Alice said, glancing at Olivia who winked at her.
“I thought you said you’d exhausted all of your Italian!” he said.
“I always have a few tricks up my sleeve,” she said, making him laugh.
Servers placed plates of artistically crafted food on the table as garnet wine was poured into their glasses.
“I ordered a special vintage to celebrate this happy occasion,” Francesco said. “What do you think?”
Alice swirled the wine in the glass before taking a sip. “It’s fruit forward and smoky, with hints of rose and and oak finish. A beautiful wine.”
Beside her, Bertrand beamed as he took a sip from his own glass.
“Yes, this Sangiovese is from the oldest vineyards in Tuscany,” Francesco said. “It is an Italian treasure. The name means ‘blood of Jupiter.’”
“Making it the wine of gods and kings?” Alice asked.
“Yes!” Francesco said, delighted.
“I must say, this puts some of the wines in my cellar in Lythikos to shame,” Olivia said as she took a sip. Francesco smiled.
“Alice, Olivia, I didn’t know what to expect of you two after the rumors I have heard,” he admitted.
“Rumors?” Alice asked neutrally.
“I wouldn’t expect someone of your stature to pay attention to idle gossip,” Olivia said.
“A fair point, but when nobles talk, it is difficult to ignore,” Francesco said.
“What sort of rumors did you hear about Alice?” Maxwell asked.
“That she is unfit to be at court, to say nothing of the scandal that developed when she was in contention to be queen,” Francesco said.
Alice felt Bertrand give her arm a comforting squeeze under the table. “Do you believe them?”
“Tell me, should I believe them?” Francesco asked.
“I can only try to show people who I really am,” Alice said. “I can’t change anyone’s mind with words alone.”
“A wise response,” Francesco said, nodding approvingly. “If you want the people to have faith in you, you will need to do more than tell them to. Court may seem like nothing more than ball gowns and galas, but it’s politics. Play or get off the field. Speaking of,” he said, his face lighting up. “Do you watch football?”
“Yes, I saw your team’s last game,” Alice said. “Quite a win with that stoppage time golazo.”
“I was on the edge of my seat!” Francesco exclaimed. “And tying the game with a free kick a few minutes earlier? Magnifico!”
“It was something else,” Alice agreed.
“Very exciting,” Bertrand seconded.
“It truly is ‘the beautiful game,’” Francesco said.
“A beautiful game befitting a beautiful country. I’m honored to be here,” Alice said.
“Ah, yes, Italia is the most beautiful country in the world,” Francesco agreed. “I envy your opportunity to experience my country with fresh eyes. The rolling hills of Tuscany, the shores of Sicily, the bustle and history of Rome…”
“You’re forgetting the crowded streets and annoying tourists,” Olivia said.
“Nonsense. Only someone with a truly narrow mind cannot look past those inconveniences,” Francesco said. “Italy is an unrivaled wellspring of art and culture. Our artisans and craftspeople are world-renowned! But…their tenacity outpaces the local market.”
“What are you suggesting?” Alice asked.
“Honest Italians sell their work in Cordonia, but are disadvantaged by tax incentives that favor native Cordonians. Shouldn’t the crown level the playing field?” Francesco asked.
“Well…shouldn’t Italy allow Cordonia access to new markets in kind?” Alice asked.
“Alice makes an excellent point,” Olivia said.
“It seems only fair,” Maxwell added.
“Impressive,” Francesco said, nodding. “No shrewd politician would consent to such a request without getting something in return.”
A short time later, a server cleared Francesco’s plate and offered dessert.
“No, thank you,” Francesco said. “I am afraid I must pay the happy couple my respects and leave now. I have some business matters to attend to.” He turned to Alice. “Alice, dining with you has been an absolute delight. It is so rare to make the acquaintance of someone with such charm and taste. Arrivederci, signorina.”
“Arrivederci, signor,” Alice said politely. He nodded graciously and left. Once he was gone from the table, everyone turned to look at Alice. “What?”
“You were so great!” Maxwell gushed. “Seriously, I’m so proud of you right now.”
“I’m surprised…and a little impressed,” Olivia conceded. “I’m just glad my days of needing to jump through courtly hoops are over.”
“Those wine tasting lessons really paid off,” Bertrand said with a grin. “You’ve really made House Beaumont proud tonight.”
“High praise,” Alice said with a smile.
“We should celebrate! With tiramisu!” Maxwell declared.
“Before that, I need a word with you, Maxwell,” Bertrand said as he stood up. “Alone, please.”
“Oh, right,” Maxwell said, rising to his feet. “Don’t eat my tiramisu before I get back!”
“No promises,” Alice said.
Once the Beaumonts left, Drake sat down in Bertrand’s recently vacated seat.
“I thought you’d never stop talking to that Italian guy,” Drake said.
“Hey, I’m on a mission with important business,” Alice said. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I’m very fancy now.”
Olivia rolled her eyes and took a drink of her wine.
“Nice dress, by the way,” Drake said.
“I can’t take any credit for it,” Alice said. “Olivia dressed me.”
“Someone had to make sure she didn’t look like she was in mourning,” Olivia said.
“What are you even doing here, Olivia?” Drake asked, annoyed.
“I’m helping Alice,” Olivia said, narrowing her eyes at Drake.
“I’ve seen your kind of help. We’re better off without it,” Drake said.
“Whoa, whoa!” Alice said. “What the fuck is happening right now? We’re all on the same team here.”
Drake looked at her. “Seriously?”
“Yes, seriously,” Olivia snapped.
“We met up earlier because she’s looking for the blackmailer, too,” Alice explained. “We think whoever is after us might be connected.”
Drake pursed his lips but didn’t say anything.
“I was targeted just like Alice. We have the same enemy,” Olivia said curtly.
“If Ayers is okay with it, then fine. But I’m watching you,” Drake said.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” Olivia said, rolling her eyes.
“So, did you find anything?” Alice asked Olivia, trying to divert the conversation.
“I’ve been following a lead,” Olivia said. “During the social season, someone tried to sell photos of Alice and Liam in New York to the tabloids.”
“How do you know about that?” Drake asked, surprised.
“Don’t sound so shocked. I’m the Duchess of Lythikos.”
“But Bastien bought the photos back before they were published. How did you find them when no one else did?” Drake asked.
“The details aren’t important. We’ll leave it at that,” Olivia said.
“I’ve found that the fewer questions you ask about how she gets her information, the better,” Alice said.
Olivia smirked. “I think that whoever sold the photos could have a connection to the person who blackmailed Alice and me.”
“That’s…a possibility,” Drake conceded. “But unless you have something to show us, we’re no further in this investigation than we were before we started talking to you.”
“Funny you should mention that,” Olivia said. “As a matter of fact, I have a copy of those photos with me. And I think I have a hunch about who took them. But I want you two with me on this.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this on the train?” Alice asked.
“Because somebody forgot the meaning of ‘come alone.’”
“And I don’t count?” Drake asked.
“You’re not a threat,” Olivia said, smiling with a poisonously sweet expression.
“Can we put away the boxing gloves and focus for a second?” Alice asked. “Christ, you two are a handful.”
“Besides, I said I’d find you when I had more information to share, and here we are,” Olivia said. “Are you going to help or not?”
“I’ll look into it with you,” Drake said. “Alice doesn’t have to get her hands dirty with this.”
“Please. Alice is a big girl, she can take care of herself.”
“We don’t know where this lead will take us, and Alice could still be a target,” Drake argued.
“Alice doesn’t really appreciate being talked about as if she’s not sitting right here,” Alice said. “But honestly, it’s fine, Olivia, take Drake with you. I need to talk to Hana anyway. But no fighting–I need both of you to focus and not get sidetracked with petty bullshit right now.”
Drake sighed and stood up. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Gladly,” Olivia said.
Alice shook her head and stood up to look for Hana. After a moment, she spotted her near the dessert table.
“Oh my goodness, that food was so good!” Hana said when Alice reached her. “I’m worried I’m going to burst if I eat anymore, but I can’t just leave the tiramisu here all by itself.”
“Hana, I need to talk to you,” Alice said.
“What’s wrong?” Hana asked when she saw Alice’s serious expression.
“Not here…is there somewhere less crowded we can go?”
Hana led Alice through the restaurant until they found a quiet corner. “What’s going on?”
“I…” Alice swallowed, glancing around to make sure no one was listening. “I know who hired the photographer.”
“What?” Hana asked. “You found the photographer?”
“No.” Alice shook her head, willing the tears not to fall. “It…it was Bastien.”
Hana stared at her, dumbfounded. “That can’t be right.”
“How do you know?”
“I put it together and when I confronted him, he confirmed it.”
“Did you ask him who else was involved?”
Alice shook her head. “No. I wish I had, but I was so upset I couldn’t see straight, let alone think clearly.”
Hana frowned. “That might make things more difficult.”
“I know, I know. I can try to talk to him later. I think he owes me that much at least,” Alice said.
“He does,” Hana conceded. “But you might not be able to ask him for a while.”
“What do you mean?”
“I noticed I didn’t see him anywhere tonight so I asked Liam where he was and Liam said Bastien was called back to the palace, but Liam didn’t know why.”
Alice closed her eyes. “God, I’m so stupid, I should’ve just asked him.”
“Hey, you’re not stupid,” Hana corrected her. “You were justifiably upset at the time.” She paused, considering their options. “It’s not going to be as easy as just outright asking Bastien, but I think you should keep trying to find out which noble lady was responsible. I just can’t believe that Bastien is the only one behind everything; there has to be more to the story.”
“Bastien did say I don’t know the whole story,” Alice agreed slowly.
“And since he’s not here to answer any questions, we’re left to our own devices,” Hana said. “Unless…”
“You have his number, right? You could call him,” Hana suggested.
“No,” Alice said, shaking her head. “Bertrand said we should try to avoid written and electronic communications while we figure this out and I think he’s right.”
“Okay, then,” Hana said. “Let’s get back out there. You deserve to know the truth.”
Alice and Hana rejoined the party and made their way off to the side of the room where several other noble ladies stood, sipping their wine as the dinner wound down for the evening.
“I’ve always adored Italy,” Kiara said wistfully. “I wish we could stay longer than a couple of days.”
“Not me,” Penelope said, shaking her head. “I’m ready to leave. These big crowds make me so nervous.”
“You should be used to this sort of thing,” Kiara said dismissively, looking a little annoyed.
“Clearly, you’ve never dealt with anxiety,” Alice said. Penelope gave her a small smile.
“I’m just saying that if she’s going to live at court, she needs to toughen up,” Kiara said.
“What’s your problem?” Alice asked.
“Alice, it’s okay, Kiara’s right,” Penelope said. “If I’m going to be one of Madeleine’s ladies-in-waiting, then I’ll be attending events like this regularly.”
“I wasn’t trying to be mean,” Kiara said, her voice softening. “I just can’t always be here to look out for her.”
“Penelope, you just haven’t found your footing yet,” Hana said. “Just remember a trick my parents taught me about social events: no one cares if you’re actually enjoying yourself, as long as you smile and laugh at the right times.”
“Jesus, Hana, that’s a little messed up,” Alice said.
“Well, I never accused my parents of being the best when it came to emotional advice,” she said with a shrug. “But as odd as it might sound, in this case I think they were right. These events can seem like everyone is perfectly composed and having the time of their lives and it can make you feel so lonely if you feel like you’re the only one not having fun at the party. But look around the room–each noble is trying his or her best to impress and dazzle everyone else. They smile and laugh, but the smiles never reach their eyes.”
Alice raised her eyebrow at Hana, feeling a little called out.
“Just try to remember, Penelope, most people can’t tell if you’re faking it, and that’s because they’re faking it, too,” Hana said.
“That…actually kind of helps,” Penelope said. “Thank you, Hana. You’re so good at this.”
“Hana has a point, but I think you should also be yourself,” Alice said.
“Being myself hasn’t worked very well so far,” Penelope said, her face falling a little. “I’m not like you, it doesn’t come easily to me.”
“What did Hana just say?” Alice asked. “None of this is easy; I’ve just gotten good at faking it. Don’t get discouraged. You’re sensitive to how other people feel and you can put them at ease.”
“Thanks, Alice,” Penelope said as she wagered a smile. “That’s sweet of you to say.” Then a thought occurred to her. “Oh! Alice, you’re close with Maxwell Beaumont.”
“Yes, we’ve met once or twice.”
“Do you think he might…well…be interested in a marriage prospect?” Penelope asked. “He’s such a sweetheart, and a member of House Beaumont.”
“Oh,” Alice said, trying not to let her surprise show too much. “I…I don’t know. I guess I could ask him.”
“Not to change the subject,” Hana interjected, changing the subject, “but…” She nodded across the room and Alice followed her gaze to see Maxwell walking towards her.
“Ladies, excuse me, I need to borrow Alice for a minute,” Maxwell said.
“Oh! Of course!” Penelope said, blushing. “We’ll give you two some privacy.”
Penelope gave Alice a small, hopeful smile as Maxwell led her away from the group and towards the windows.
“Your ears must have been burning,” Alice said with a grin.
“What? Why?” he asked.
“Penelope just asked if you’d be interested in a marriage prospect,” Alice said.
“I’m not interested in talking about nothing but poodles for the rest of my life,” Maxwell said. “Anyway, dinner’s almost over. If we want to catch the photographer, now’s the time.”
“Where did she go?” Alice asked, scanning the restaurant.
“I don’t know, but we can try and draw her out,” Maxwell said. “No photographer can resist the chance to catch a big moment in the making.”
“What do you suggest?” Alice asked.
“Well, I was going to suggest faking a proposal, but now that feels a little weird with what you just told me about Penelope…” Maxwell said, trailing off. “I was going to get down on one knee and give a big speech but then at the last second, I was going to reveal I was talking about my dessert.”
Alice laughed. “That’s actually pretty funny.”
“Have you had the tiramisu yet? It’s not a laughing matter,” Maxwell said.
“I guess I don’t really have any other ideas,” Alice said. “We can’t have Hana start a dance-off every time we need a distraction or everyone will start to get suspicious.”
“Great, let’s go,” Maxwell said, as he led her over towards the door of the restaurant. “When you see the photographer, give me a signal and that’s when I’ll confess this has all been about dessert.”
“This is a weird plan.”
“Yup,” Maxwell agreed. “Ready?” Without waiting for her answer, he raised his voice so as to be heard by the nearby press. “Lady Alice, there’s…something I need to say to you.”
Nearby paparazzi turned their heads to look at them, watching with interest.
“Tonight, I discovered something about myself,” Maxwell said. “Something I suppose I’ve known was true for a long time, but…I couldn’t admit it to myself until now. There was always something missing, some piece of me that wasn’t there.” He paused, taking a deep breath. Alice tried not to laugh. “But then…then something unbelievable happened. Tonight, I realized, what has been missing.”
Maxwell got down on one knee and a crowd of paparazzi began to form around them. Alice glanced past the photographers, sure Bertrand was about to blow his lid, but she didn’t see him anywhere.
“It’s like my eyes are opening for the first time,” Maxwell said, taking her hand in his
“Maxwell, what are you saying?” Alice asked, trying to look confused rather than laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation.
“Alice, now that I know, I need the world to know,” he continued. Alice spotted the photographer in the crowd and winked at Maxwell, who grinned. “I’m saying that I love…”
He reached into his pocket and the nearby crowd gasped, cameras flashing wildly. Then he pulled out a spoon.
“Gelato!” Maxwell exclaimed. He stood up and grabbed a bowl from the platter of a nearby server and ate a spoonful, eyelids fluttering in delight. “Sho derishush,” he mumbled through a full mouth.
“What?” one of the reporters asked, confused.
“How have I lived without your for so long?” Maxwell crooned to his bowl.
“I’ve never seen a love so pure,” Alice said, suppressing a giggle.
The paparazzi groaned in disappointment and began to disperse. Maxwell looked for the photographer and leaned in towards Alice.
“Let’s go get her,” he said.
Maxwell and Alice slipped into the crowd to follow the woman. She glanced back, spotting them, and suddenly began to run.
“Hey!” Maxwell protested, taking off after her.
“Ah, crap, I can’t run in heels!” Alice exclaimed. “Maxwell, don’t lose her!”
The photographer tripped a hostess, sending her crashing to the ground as she made her way towards the door. Maxwell leaped smoothly over the fallen hostess, gaining on the photographer.
“Are you okay?” Alice asked, pausing to help up the hostess.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” the hostess said. “People at these things are always so rude.”
“Excuse me,” Alice said quickly, leaving the hostess behind as she followed Maxwell and the photographer into the moonlit streets of Italy. Alice hurried as fast as she could in her shoes as Maxwell started to gain on the photographer as she ducked into an alleyway.
“Hey! You’re not getting away that easily!” Maxwell called, following her into the alley. When Alice rounded the corner, she realized it was a dead end and the photographer stood at the end, frantically looking for a way out. Finally, she turned around to face them, shoulders slumped.
“I was hoping to avoid this,” the photographer said.
“Who are you?” Maxwell demanded.
“Rosanna. Freelance photographer,” she said.
“No last name?” Maxwell asked.
“Not for you,” she snapped.
“Who hired you to take those pictures of her at Applewood Manor?” Maxwell asked, hiking his thumb towards Alice. Alice braced herself, not looking forward to hearing Bastien’s name.
“Listen, you caught me, and I don’t want to get embroiled any further in whatever is going on.”
“You owe her the truth!” Maxwell exclaimed angrily.
“Settle down,” Rosanna said. “I’m trying to tell you the truth. I don’t know who hired me. Never met them.”
“Bullshit,” Alice said.
“Look, I don’t care if you believe me or not,” Rosanna said angrily. “It wasn’t personal. It was a paid gig. I don’t really have the luxury of caring where my paycheck comes from. Not all of us live in fancy palaces and have everything handed to us.”
“So you’ll take photos of a sexual assault for profit?” Alice asked, her body flushed with anger.
“Look, I’m sorry about what happened to you,” Rosanna said. “I’m really just the photographer. I went where I was told and turned over the photos. I’m not involved any further.”
“You’re disgusting,” Alice snapped.
Rosanna shrugged. “I have to fight for survival in this business.”
“I didn’t realize that meant being willing to be an accessory to violence against another woman,” Alice said.
“Look, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was told to take pictures at a certain time and I did.”
“And the Nazis were just following orders.”
“Seriously? You’re going to compare what happened to you to the Holocaust?” Rosanna scoffed. “You think pretty highly of yourself. No wonder someone set you up.”
“If you don’t know who hired you, how did they even get in contact with you?” Maxwell asked, stepping between them.
“They emailed me,” Rosanna said.
“Do you have the email address?” Maxwell asked.
“I have it, but I doubt it’ll help. I sent a follow-up to ask about future jobs, but the message bounced,” she said.
“You wanted more work from them?” Alice asked, disgusted.
Maxwell put a hand on her arm to steady her. “You have to know something else,” he said to Rosanna.
“I have a digital copy of the receipt from the bank transfer when they paid me,” Rosanna said. “Look, whatever, you can have it. I want to wash my hands of all this.”
“That blood’s never going to come off, Lady Macbeth,” Alice snapped.
Rosanna narrowed her eyes at Alice before taking out her phone and typing a message. “What address do you want this sent to?”
Maxwell gave her his address and moments later, his phone chimed with the notification.
“There. Can I go now?” Rosanna asked.
“Yup,” Alice said. “And feel free to fuck off and die.”
“Whatever,” Rosanna said, pushing past them and disappearing into the Italian night as Maxwell read the email on his phone. Alice leaned against the wall and closed her eyes as angry, frustrated tears fought their way down her cheeks.
“Hey,” Maxwell said when he looked up and saw her. “Are you okay?”
Alice shook her head, crying harder. He walked over and gently pulled her into his arms, rubbing her back soothingly. Alice sobbed into his shoulder, clinging tightly to him.
“We’re going to get to the bottom of this,” he murmured reassuringly. “I swear.”
As Alice cried, she kept thinking of Bastien. She knew she should tell Maxwell and Bertrand what he’d told her, but she still couldn’t bring herself to do it. But he’d hired this woman and it was only a matter of time until this led back to him. Alice knew she had other enemies at court–she wanted to believe Hana when she said she didn’t think Bastien was the whole story–but facing the photographer had been too much.
“I’m sorry for what she said,” Maxwell said quietly. “You didn’t deserve that.”
Finally, Alice was able to calm down and she pulled back, wiping at the makeup smudges under her eyes. “I don’t…I don’t think I can go back into the restaurant.”
“No problem,” Maxwell said as he put an arm around her and led her out of the alley. “Here, go wait in front of that cafe,” he said, pointing to an open table in front of a cozy storefront. “I’ll go get Bertrand and we’ll pick you up.”
Alice nodded and Maxwell gave her another hug before he headed back to the restaurant. She sat down at an open table and waited, trying to focus on her breathing. In and out, in and out, in and out.
Back on the train, Alice sat in her room with Maxwell and Bertrand discussing the bank transfer receipt.
“Well, this is promising,” Bertrand said. “Now, we just have to figure out a way to match the credit card number on this receipt to whoever the owner is.”
“We can’t exactly just ask everyone to whip out their credit cards for inspection,” Alice said.
“True,” Bertrand said. “But–”
There was a sudden banging on Alice’s door that made them all jump.
“Bertrand! God dammit, are you in there?” Drake yelled through the door.
Alice got up and crossed the room to open the door as the Beaumonts stood up. “Drake, what the hell?”
Drake entered the room, eyes blazing and Olivia close behind him.
“Ask him,” Drake said, pointing an accusatory finger in Bertrand’s face.
“What are you talking about?” Bertrand asked, annoyed.
“You know damn well what I’m talking about,” Drake growled.
“Does someone want to tell me what’s going on?” Alice asked.
“If you don’t tell her, I will,” Drake said, glaring at Bertrand.
“What are you talking about?” Bertrand demanded.
“The photos! The bachelor party photos!” Drake yelled. He turned to Alice. “Bertrand’s the one who sold them.”
Alice turned to Bertrand, her jaw slack with shock. “Is that true?”
Bertrand’s face fell. “Yes.”
Alice turned away from him, trying to process the betrayal of someone she cared about for the second time in two days.
“I told you that you know nothing, Jon Snow,” Olivia said, her voice uncharacteristically soft.
“Alice, I’m sorry,” Bertrand said. “House Beaumont is on the edge of disaster and I was desperate. I didn’t really know you then–not that it makes it any better–but I would never do that now.”
“But you were willing to do it before,” she said.
“Asshole,” Drake growled.
“Drake, stop,” Alice said. Drake fumed silently, but said nothing further.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Maxwell said, looking hurt.
“There’s no excuse,” Bertrand said, his voice cracking. “Alice, I’m so sorry.”
She took a deep breath before looking Bertrand in the eye. She saw the tears there, the desperation, the regret.
“I forgive you.”
“What?” Drake shouted. “Ayers, you can’t be serious.”
“I am serious,” she insisted, turning back to Drake. “I’m hurt and I’m pissed, but I forgive him. That’s what you do with family.”
“Alice, don’t set yourself up to get screwed over again,” Olivia said. “I get that you’re friends and all, but you’re an outsider to them.”
“No, she’s not!” Maxwell protested. “She’s one of us now.”
“Oh, please,” Olivia said, rolling her eyes.
“She is!” Maxwell argued. Olivia snorted.
“He’s got a funny way of showing it,” she said.
“Guys, I appreciate you telling me this, but I need to talk to them alone,” Alice said.
“Oh my god, you have got to be kidding me,” Drake muttered.
“Drake, back off,” Alice said. He glowered, furious, before storming out, slamming the door behind him.
“Well, that was…exciting,” Olivia said. “But as much as it pains me to admit it, I agree with Drake.”
“Duly noted,” Alice said. Olivia rolled her eyes and left, closing the door behind her much gentler than Drake had.
“Alice…I’m so sorry,” Bertrand said.
She surprised him by pulling him into a tight hug.
“I understand why you did it,” she said. “I’m pissed, but I’m not going to lose you over this.”
“Thank you,” he said quietly. “I don’t deserve your forgiveness.”
After a few more moments, Alice released him. “I think I’m going to call it a night,” she said.
“Of course,” Bertrand said quickly. “We’ll see you in the morning.”
He left, but Maxwell hesitated by her door.
“You know how much we love you, right?” Maxwell asked.
“I do,” she said.
Maxwell nodded and left. Alice locked the door behind him and lay down on her bed, still fully clothed. She was upset with Bertrand, but how mad could she really be when she still hadn’t told them what Bastien said about the photographer? Everyone had their secrets and everyone was protecting something. In his own desperate, misguided way, Bertrand was trying to help protect his family’s name and legacy. At the moment, that made more sense than Alice trying to protect the man who betrayed her, even if she did love him. Maybe Hana was right and the investigation would lead them to uncover the noble lady who’d talked to the maid. Maybe there really was more to the story like Bastien had said. Or maybe none of it mattered anymore and Olivia was right–Alice would always be an outsider and she was just kidding herself. She pulled out her phone and dialed.
Bastien waited until he was sure everyone in the palace was asleep before he emerged from his room. Constantine was still on bed rest and so far, Regina hadn’t left his side. Bastien might have found that touching if they hadn’t conspired to destroy the woman he loved.
He made his way through the palace until he reached Constantine’s study. He unlocked the door and carefully closed it behind him before flipping on the light. Bastien locked the door behind him before he made his way across the office. The bottom desk drawer was locked, but it took almost no time at all for Bastien to pick it. As he rifled through the contents, he considered how what he was doing might be considered treason. However, he no longer cared. At that moment, Alice was all that mattered to him and he was going to do whatever he could to help her. He’d already failed her and he didn’t have any illusions that she might still love him, but that didn’t make a difference. Bastien was determined to make things right for her.
Finally, he found what he’d been looking for. He tucked it in the back of the waistband of his pants, covering it with his shirt. Then he locked the drawer and, after ensuring the office was as he’d found it, he returned to his room.
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