Summary: Alice and Bastien tell their friends the truth about the plot against her and they all attend the fashion show in Paris.
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, Part 29, Part 30
Alice was pretty sure the suites on the train weren’t designed for this many people at once, but that didn’t stop Liam, Hana, Drake, the Beaumonts, Olivia, and Bastien from crowding into her room with her. She sat on her bed between Bastien and Hana, the latter finally breaking the silence that had fallen over their group.
“Wow,” Hana said slowly. “We knew it was bad, but I had no idea…”
“That my father orchestrated this entire thing?” Liam asked, his face a constant war of fury and disgust. Olivia put a hand on his back and leaned over, murmuring something in his ear. Liam nodded, still unable to look at Alice.
“I mean, it wasn’t just him,” Maxwell said nervously, already aware of how weak his consolation was as the words left his mouth.
“No, you’re right,” Liam said, his mouth settling into a hard line. “It was also my stepmother who has been a part of my life since I was a child and my fiancee. That’s much better, Maxwell,” he snapped.
“It’s not Maxwell’s fault,” Bertrand said suddenly. Maxwell glanced at his big brother gratefully and Liam sighed.
“I know, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…this is just a lot to process,” Liam said as everyone lapsed into silence, each consumed by their own thoughts.
“So…what now?” Hana finally asked.
“What do you mean ‘what now?’” Drake asked. Thus far, he’d avoided looking at Alice and Bastien, even though the head of the royal guard was sporting an impressive shiner. “We have what we need to clear Ayers’s name. It’s over.”
“It’s not that simple,” Alice said quietly.
“How is it not that simple?” Drake asked, annoyed.
“She’s right,” Bastien said from where he sat, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees as he folded his hands in front of him.
“Nobody fucking asked you,” Drake said, turning to Bastien for the first time as he pointed a finger at him. Bastien didn’t react, keeping his face neutral as he met Drake’s glare.
“They’re not wrong,” Bertrand said. “This is…” he faltered. “I don’t even know what this is yet.”
“Are you seriously still worried about images and reputations right now?” Drake asked, turning on Bertrand. “After everything she’s been through?”
“Drake,” Liam said. Drake turned to look at him, eyes narrowing at his best friend.
“Seriously, Liam? You, too?”
“Drake, you don’t understand.”
“Then make me understand.”
Liam sighed and glanced over at Bastien. “Over the past year, we’ve been getting a lot of threats against the royal family.”
“Don’t you always?” Olivia asked.
“Yes, but this is different,” Bastien said. “The threats are getting more organized and if we’re not careful, they could lead to a full uprising in Cordonia.”
“So, what, you’re going to do nothing?” Drake demanded as he turned to Liam.
Hana reached over and took Alice’s hand, who squeezed it gratefully. Bastien glanced over at the movement, wanting desperately to reach for Alice himself, but he didn’t know if she wanted him to. When he woke up that morning, her arm had been around his waist, pulling his back to her as she slept soundly and deeply. He’d been reminded of a quote from William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch: “If I had my way we’d sleep every night all wrapped around each other like hibernating rattlesnakes.” It had felt so right to be with her again, but he still didn’t know if she’d ever forgive him for what he’d unknowingly done to her.
“I’m not going to do nothing!” Liam protested, offended at the accusation. “I just…god, this is just a lot to process right now. I need a minute to figure out what to do.”
Drake exhaled loudly through his nose, furious, but said nothing further. Liam turned to Alice and knelt down in front of her. Out of context, it might’ve looked like he was proposing to her and Bastien wanted to kick himself for the ridiculous twinge of jealousy he felt.
“Alice,” Liam said as he took a deep breath. “I know this is a lot to ask of you, especially when you’ve already been through so much. And if it’s too much, tell me. You don’t owe me anything.”
She smiled sadly at him. “Don’t I though?”
“No,” Liam said firmly. “You don’t. And if you want to go straight to the press with this, I understand. But,” he added, “if you’d be willing to hold on for a little longer…it would really be a huge favor to me. I just barely became king and the royal family’s image is so fragile right now. But I swear that this isn’t going to just be pushed aside. This is important to me because you are important to me.” Liam paused, swallowing hard.
“What do you want me to do?” Alice asked.
“First, I want to find Tariq,” Liam said. “I don’t know where he is, but he needs to be brought back to face a trial. If that’s something you feel like you can face,” he added quickly. “I don’t want to ask you to do anything you don’t want to do.”
Panic flared in Alice at the thought of seeing Tariq again and she took a steadying breath as Hana squeezed her hand again. “Okay. Do we know where he is?”
“No,” Bastien said. “I’ve been looking, but he’s hiding well. However, I’m fairly certain someone at court has to know something about where he is.”
“And in the meantime, what, do we just wait for Madeleine and Liam’s parents to attack Ayers again?” Drake scoffed. “Great plan, Bastien.”
“As far as they know, Alice doesn’t know anything,” Maxwell offered.
“Didn’t Madeleine admit last night to sending Tariq to her room?” Drake asked irritably.
“Yes, but she was really, really drunk,” Alice said. “I’d be surprised if she remembered that.”
“You’re still forgetting about Penelope and Kiara,” Drake countered.
“Don’t worry about them,” Olivia said as she examined her manicure.
“Why?” Drake asked.
“Because you don’t need to worry about them,” Olivia said coolly.
Liam sighed and glanced over his shoulder at her. “Do I want to know what you did?”
Alice noticed the small smile quirk at the corners of Liam’s mouth before he turned back to Alice and his face resumed its serious expression.
“Because we don’t know where Tariq is right now, we need to be careful while we’re searching for information,” Liam said.
“So we’re back to pretending like we don’t know anything yet,” Alice said, her voice flat.
“I know it’s a lot to ask,” Liam said. “But–”
“No, I get it,” Alice said. She sighed. “I guess I’m this far in, so why stop now?”
“Alice, I swear I am going to make this right for you,” Liam said. “Including with my father, Regina, and Madeleine. They won’t get away with this. I swear on Cordonia they won’t. But keeping up a good poker face for the moment gives us an advantage because they don’t know we know. Well, assuming Madeleine actually doesn’t remember last night. This could help us get information on Tariq without him being tipped off that we’re looking for him.”
“I’ll go find Tariq,” Bastien said suddenly. “I’m the one who threw him out, I should be the one to go get him and bring him back.
“We don’t know where he is,” Liam reminded him. “And, anyway, if we’re going to try and feign normalcy, I need you here.”
Bastien nodded, but Alice felt him tense beside her.
“I hate to be the one to point this out, but if we’re going to pretend like everything is fine, we need to start getting ready,” Olivia said.
“Where are we going?” Alice asked.
“A charity fashion show!” Maxwell exclaimed. Everyone turned to look at him and he visibly dialed back the enthusiasm. “If nothing else, it could be helpful to take your mind off things for a minute,” he offered. Alice smiled gently at him.
“We should go,” Hana said quickly as she stood up. “We’ll see you there, Alice.”
Hana ushered everyone else out of the room, leaving only the Beaumonts behind with Alice. Bastien hesitated at the door, looking back at her. Their eyes met and, unsure of what else to do, he offered her a small smile and closed the door behind him.
Alice turned to Bertrand. “You’ve been uncharacteristically quiet.”
“I’m processing,” Bertrand said.
“That’s it?” Alice asked.
Bertrand sighed, exasperated. “What do you want me to say, Alice?”
“I don’t know. Something. Anything.”
“Well, my first reaction when you told us everything was to punch Bastien in the face, but it looks like someone beat me to it,” Bertrand said.
“That was Drake,” Alice said. “Last night. When he heard Penelope talking about the photographer, he took off and immediately hit him.”
“What did Bastien do?” Maxwell asked.
Alice shrugged. “Nothing. He didn’t even try to defend himself.”
Bertrand nodded, drifting away into his own thoughts. “Bastien probably thought he deserved it.”
“Didn’t he, though?” Maxwell asked.
“I’m not saying he didn’t,” Bertrand said, shaking away whatever was on his mind before turning back to the present. “Anyway, we need to focus. Alice, are you up for the charity fashion show today? If you’re not, you can stay here.”
“No, I’d rather go,” Alice said. “I’m not entirely sure I want to be alone with my own thoughts today. Besides, maybe it’ll be fun,” she added unconvincingly.
“That’s the spirit!” Maxwell said.
“But I’m wearing my leather jacket,” Alice said.
“Can you at least wear heels with it?” Bertrand asked.
“Only if you wear them with me so we can be twinsies,” Alice said sweetly. Bertrand sighed.
“Fine, wear whatever you want. I think you can get some leeway for being American,” Bertrand said.
“No, wait, I’ll wear heels,” Alice said. “The press will like it if I dress up a little and it can only help my case when Tariq is brought to trial to have the public on my side, right?”
“Yes,” Bertrand said, momentarily brightening before his face clouded over again. “However, going today means spending the day with Madeleine. Can you handle that after what she told you last night?”
“I solemnly swear not to claw her face in front of witnesses,” Alice said. “I’m a perfect angel who loves Cordonia, remember?”
“Alice, I’m being serious.”
“I know,” she said, her voice softening. “I’m not going to pretend like I’m excited about seeing that evil bitch today, but I’ll deal. I’ve spent years putting on a polite face for terrible bar patrons, so I guess I’m better prepared than most. Plus, I’ll have Hana as a buffer.”
“Well, if you want to leave at any point, just let me know,” Bertrand said. “We can leave whenever.”
“Thank you,” Alice said as she stood up from her bed. “Okay, I have to get changed, but it’ll only take me a few minutes.”
“Right,” Bertrand said, taking Maxwell by the elbow. “We’ll wait for you outside.” When he reached the door, Bertrand paused before he closed it. “Alice?”
He hesitated, choosing his words carefully. “I understand if you can’t get past this, but if you can…don’t give up on Bastien yet.” Without waiting for her reply, he closed the door behind him. Alice considered this for a moment before brushing the thoughts away as she turned to her luggage.
A few minutes later, Alice thought she looked almost respectable. She wore a simple white t-shirt and gray jeans beneath her leather jacket, but dressed up with a little jewelry and high heels, she thought she looked kind of chic. Very New York. She was just reaching for her shoes when there was a knock at the door.
“Jesus, Bertrand, I’m almost ready! I’m just putting on my shoes!” Alice called.
“Come in,” she called. The door slid open and Drake entered, closing the door gently behind him. “What’s up?” she asked slowly.
“I just…wanted to apologize,” Drake said, running his hand through his hair. “For last night and for how I acted this morning. I’m not proud of how I blew up like that, but…” He stopped talking for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was quieter. “I can’t unsee that night at Applewood and I know how hard you’ve been working to move past it and to find out that Bastien was a part of it…he’s practically family, you know?”
Alice nodded. “I do.”
Drake glanced down at his shoes before looking back at her. “So. You and Bastien.”
Alice nodded again.
“After we left, Liam told me about how you guys met,” Drake said. “I’m honestly a little surprised I didn’t put two and two together sooner.”
“Especially because there’s been absolutely nothing else going on lately.”
The corners of Drake’s mouth twitched up into a smile. “I know, right?” Then the smile fell away and he cleared his throat awkwardly. “Anyway, I should go. I just wanted to apologize.”
“I appreciate that. And, for what it’s worth, you’ve been a good friend to me. I’m not letting go of you that easily.”
She noticed him flinch slightly at the word “friend.”
“Good,” he said. “Alright, I’ll see you at the thing.”
“Sounds good,” Alice said.
Drake left and he was replaced almost immediately by Maxwell as Alice slipped her shoes onto her feet.
“Great, Justin’s waiting for us in the limo.”
“Alice, are you listening to me?” Justin asked.
“What? Sorry,” Alice said, pulling her gaze away from the window. “I was just looking outside; I’ve never been to Paris before.”
“Anyway, as I was saying,” Justin said, “this is a big day for fashion and philanthropy which means the press is going to be there.”
“Fashlanthropy?” Maxwell asked with a grin.
Bertrand rolled his eyes, but Alice responded to Justin before the brothers could start bickering. “I assumed the press would be at a fashion show. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
“See, you’re so on top of it, you make my job easy!” Justin exclaimed, a wide smile on his face. Shit-eating used car salesman, Alice thought darkly. She glanced at Bertrand who was silently begging her to be nice.
“So what should I expect at this thing?” Alice asked. “I’ve never been to a fashion show before.”
“Expect bright lights, well-dressed people, and outfits that are each more impractical than the last!” Maxwell said excitedly.
“The press loves this kind of thing, especially because of the charity angle,” Justin said.
“What is this supposed to raise money for anyway?” Alice asked.
“Disaster relief,” Justin and Bertrand said almost simultaneously.
“You’re going to have to be more specific,” Alice said.
“Recently, there was a major earthquake on the Cordonian coast,” Bertrand explained. “It caused a tsunami and left hundreds displaced.”
“How recently? I didn’t know there was an earthquake,” Alice said, brow furrowing.
“Maybe a couple of weeks or so before the start of the social season,” Bertrand said.
“That’s so awful,” Alice said. “It’s great that we’re raising money and all, but wouldn’t it be better if we actually went down there to help? I’m pretty sure people probably need help distributing donated supplies or rebuilding and that could go a long way.”
“The whole noble social season really does have a ‘let them eat cake’ air when you put it like that, doesn’t it?” Justin asked. Alice noticed the momentary shift in his facial expression, a darkening she couldn’t quite put her finger on before his press secretary face was firmly back in place. “But, in order to fund that kind of aid, we need to raise money. Plus, tonight’s event should give the relief efforts more news coverage,”
“Wouldn’t it be better to donate the cash instead of wasting money dressing up events like this that could go directly to the people affected?” Alice asked.
“Alice…” Bertrand said, exasperated.
Justin smiled, which unnerved Alice. “I like how you think, but for right now, you need to focus on how you present yourself to the press. They need to see you as–”
“A perfect angel who loves Cordonia,” Alice and Maxwell chanted in unison. Bertrand elbowed his brother.
“Exactly,” Justin said. “Just remember, if the press asks you any sensationalist questions, refocus on the humanitarian efforts of the event. But don’t worry if you run into any questions you’re not prepared to answer. I’ll be in your head again today.”
“I think I lost my earpiece at the bachelorette party last night,” Alice said sweetly, remembering the gutter she’d dropped it in. “I hope that’s not a problem.”
“Not at all, I have an extra,” Justin said, pulling it out of his pocket and handing it to her. “I’m always prepared with a backup plan.”
“Oh, come on, I bet it’s fun to have Justin inside your head!” Maxwell said brightly.
“I like to think so,” Justin said with a grin.
“I don’t know if the other voices like him very much…” Alice muttered. Bertrand reached his arm across the back of the limo seat around Maxwell and flicked her shoulder. As soon as Justin looked out the window, she reached over and lightly smacked Bertrand’s hand.
“Alright, folks, it looks like we’re here,” Justin said as the limo began to slow. “Earpiece in–it’s showtime!”
Once inside the venue, Maxwell and Bertrand handed Alice off to Hana and the two women were shepherded backstage, where Madeleine, Kiara, and Penelope waited for them. Alice felt her skin flush with anger when she saw Madeleine. Stay calm, she instructed herself. Don’t let that bitch win.
“Haute couture is such an appallingly under-appreciated art form,” Kiara was saying as they entered.
“It’s true,” Madeleine agreed. “So few are equipped with the acumen necessary to value it.”
“I can’t imagine anything as glamorous as a Parisian fashion show!” Penelope said excitedly.
“No, I don’t suppose you can,” Madeleine said dismissively. Penelope’s face fell but then her eyes went wide when she saw Alice and Hana. Kiara’s composure only faltered slightly, but it was enough to make Alice wonder what exactly Olivia had done.
Nice work, Jon Snow.
Madeleine’s eyes narrowed when she saw Alice and Hana approach. “Ah, Hana. I must admit I am a bit surprised to see you here after last night’s blunder au chocolat.”
“I am terribly sorry, Madeleine,” Hana said smoothly, looking just contrite enough to mollify Madeleine’s ego. “I hope you will allow me the chance to make it up to you.”
“The fact that you’re still welcome here at all is a testament to my merciful nature,” Madeleine snapped. “At least you didn’t ruin the rest of my bachelorette party last night. The fact that you two stayed behind meant that I got to actually have some fun last night.”
Alice studied her, searching for some kind of recognition of what Madeleine had said the night before, but she couldn’t find anything. Maybe she really didn’t remember seeing them by the cab.
“How lucky you survived your brush with death by chocolate,” Alice said drily.
“Alice…” Justin said warningly in her ear.
“I know. What a near tragedy,” Madeleine agreed. “Anyway, you must all be wondering why we’re backstage,” she said, brightening a little. “I’ve arranged for us to have a private tour with the designer!” She slowly eyed Alice’s outfit from head to toe. “And now that we are all finally here, we can begin the tour. Come.”
Madeleine stood and led the group over to an impeccably dressed man in a mauve suit.
“Ah, bonjour, mademoiselles!” the man said. “Je suis Lancelin St. Claire. I am the designer for this haute couture extravaganza.”
“C’est un honneur de vous rencontrer, monsieur,” Kiara said in her perfect French.
“The honor is all mine,” Lancelin assured her. “Let’s begin the tour avec moi.”
He led them through the backstage area, which was aflutter with preparation for the show. Half-dressed models flitted between the clothing racks and the makeup tables like anxious butterflies.
“This is where my models all prepare for the show,” Lancelin explained, before his face momentarily darkened. “Well. Almost all of them.”
“What do you mean?” Penelope asked.
“One of my ungrateful, unreliable, so-called ‘professional’ models was evidently too ‘busy’ to bother showing up tonight,” Lancelin said, annoyance lacing every word.
“Mon dieu!” Kiara gasped as Lancelin pulled a lovely green dress off the rack and stared wistfully at it.
“Je sais,” he agreed sadly. “And now, this piece will never see the stage.”
“Alice, that looks like it would fit you,” Hana whispered. “You should wear it to the show!”
“Did Bertrand tell you to say that so I’d take off my leather jacket?” she whispered back.
“If it isn’t onstage, it is useless to me,” Lancelin said, evidently having overheard their side conversation.
“Alice, this is a great idea,” Justin said. “If you wear it, you’ll be the only one at the show wearing an exclusive, one-of-a-kind dress from the designer’s latest collection. The press won’t be able to contain themselves.”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Alice said. “It’s a gorgeous dress, but you don’t need to do that.”
“At least try it on,” Hana encouraged her. Alice could see Madeleine glowering behind her.
“S’il-vous-plait,” Lancelin said. “I have an idea and I want to see if I’m correct…”
Feeling awkward with the sudden shift of attention to her, Alice accepted the dress and put it on, emerging from the changing room a minute later.
“That looks so beautiful!” Hana exclaimed, clapping her hands together excitedly. The dress was green with a short, full skirt, and Alice felt a little like a glamorous wood fairy in it.
“Très bien,” Lancelin said, nodding approvingly. “Maintenant, shall we continue the tour?”
As they continued through the backstage area, Penelope fell a little behind Madeleine and Kiara to walk with Alice and Hana.
“You look really pretty, Alice,” Penelope said nervously.
“Are you…excited about the show?” Penelope asked.
“Oh, yes, I’m a big fan of Mr. St. Claire’s work,” Hana said, filling in the silence. “What about you?”
“Oh, yes, I love fashion,” Penelope said, relaxing a little despite the fact that Alice refused to look at her. “I wish we could stay here forever!”
“Unfortunately, we have to get back to reality and face the consequences of our actions,” Alice said.
“Alice, please play nice,” Justin said. “Getting along with the other noble ladies will only encourage the press to get on your side.”
She wondered if Bertrand had told him anything about what they’d learned the night before.
“What would you want to do if we stayed?” Hana asked, gracefully diverting the conversation back to lighter topics. Alice felt Hana give her arm an encouraging squeeze.
“Actually, I love to sew and make clothes,” Penelope said.
“Really?” Alice asked, momentarily surprised enough to forget how pissed off she was.
“What sorts of things do you make?” Hana asked.
“Mostly little outfits for my poodles,” Penelope said, beaming. “With little hats and slippers.”
“That’s–” Alice started to say before Hana interrupted her.
“My mother taught me how to sew,” Penelope explained. “It was one of the few things we did together when I was a child. I think she hoped I’d do something more appropriate for a noble like embroidery, but I was always more interested in making clothes. But my mother said that was too common and I shouldn’t be doing something that a seamstress would do,” she said, her smile falling slightly.
“But high end fashion designers are celebrities, practically royalty in their own right,” Hana said.
“I guess you’re right,” Penelope said, the smile returning to her face.
Madeleine glanced back over her shoulder. “Hana, you really shouldn’t encourage her. It’s embarrassing enough to have a lady-in-waiting so obsessed with those ridiculous creatures.”
Alice momentarily wondered how much of an international disaster it would be to punch Madeleine in the back of the head in front of the photographers.
“Penelope, are you okay?” Hana asked. Alice looked over to see that Penelope was near tears.
“Honestly? Not really,” Penelope said, pulling a tissue from her clutch and dabbing at her eyes. “I just…I really don’t think I’m cut out for court and I feel really guilty about…” she paused, glancing uncomfortably at Alice. “Well, you know, and I know everyone thinks it’s silly, but my dogs really are my family. Plus, I get so anxious and it really helps to have them around and being without them for so long…it’s just hard.” She paused for a moment. “I had…a lot of anxiety when I was younger. I’ve been attending courtly functions since I was a child, but they still fill me with dread. I’ve never gotten used to the crowds or all the scrutiny. I used to get panic attacks right before big events, so my parents thought a pet might help me to stay calm. That’s when they got me my first poodles, Lancelot and Guinevere.”
A queen in love with a knight, Alice thought, feeling vaguely amused.
“They helped me so much with the panic attacks,” Penelope continued. “And they were my best friends…I’ve had poodles ever since.”
God dammit, Alice thought, feeling some of her anger deflate. “I get the anxiety thing.”
“You do?” Penelope asked tentatively.
“Yeah,” Alice said. “If your main coping mechanism or support or whatever is gone, it can be hard to readjust, especially in a stressful environment.”
“Exactly!” Penelope exclaimed.
Alice didn’t like her very much at the moment, but more than anything, she felt kind of sorry for Penelope when she put her in context: a scared young woman with anxiety who had been shipped off to court to compete to be the bride for someone she didn’t really even know. Because of Hana, Alice was starting to understand the pressures of being the daughter of one of these noble families, and if Penelope really didn’t know about what Tariq was like and she’d thought that by going along with what she’d been told, she could secure a place at court as a lady-in-waiting…well, it made sense. Alice didn’t think Penelope was actually capable of something as vicious as intentionally trying to set up someone to be sexually assaulted.
Then again, Alice hadn’t thought Madeleine was capable of it either.
“If they help you so much, you should have them with you at court,” Hana said.
“I want that more than anything, but Madeleine forbids it,” Penelope said, lowering her voice. “She says it’s ‘undignified.’”
“Madeline is also a bitch,” Alice muttered. Penelope smiled weakly.
“I don’t have the courage to tell her why I need them, and I’ve been having a hard time again without them,” she said.
“Well, at least you’re not alone here,” Hana said. “You and Kiara seem close.”
“We are,” Penelope said. “But it’s not the same. Kiara is Madeleine’s new favorite and…I’m not even really supposed to be seen talking to either of you,” she admitted.
“Does she remember what she said last night?” Alice asked.
Penelope shook her head. “I don’t think so. At least, if she does, she hasn’t said anything to me.”
“Look, Alice, I’m so sorry–”
“Not now,” Alice said sharply. She took a breath and softened her voice. “Later. Okay?”
The tour wound down to a close and Alice, Hana, and Penelope rejoined the rest of the group.
“Alors, that is the end of the tour,” Lancelin announced. “Mesdemoiselles, it has been a true honor to show you how beauty is made manifest and I hope you enjoy the spectacle,” he said, bowing dramatically. He looked at Alice and seemed to be about to say more, but his attention was diverted by a passing model and he hurried after her to correct the fit of her gown. Moments later, a woman with a clipboard and a headset ushered all of the ladies out of a nearby door and into the main room, which was split in half by a large runway. As soon as Alice and the others entered the room, the press quickly swarmed them like angry flies.
“Ready to talk to the press?” Hana asked.
“Yes, you are!” Justin said into the earpiece.
“Looking sharp today, Lady Alice!” one reporter called out. “Who are you wearing?”
“Monsieur St. Claire was kind enough to offer me this dress,” Alice said.
“Arriving at the show in the designer’s own clothing,” the reporter said, nodding. “That takes confidence.”
“Thank you, but the credit really belongs to Monsieur St. Claire,” Alice said politely.
“Off to a great start,” Justin said encouragingly. Alice wondered if it would be possible to “lose” another earpiece without arousing suspicion.
“Lady Alice, after your fall from grace, you disappeared into the Beaumont estate for some time,” another reporter said. “Now it seems you and Maxwell Beaumont are nearly inseparable. Why all the quality time?”
“They’re looking for a gripping soundbite,” Justin warned her. “Remember, don’t play gossip roulette by letting them set the narrative. Take control of it.”
“We’ve been working on House Beaumont’s charitable contributions,” Alice said. “It’s the least we can do for the people of Cordonia in this time of need.”
The reporter nodded approvingly. “Excellent, that’ll make a great quote in the article. Thanks for your time.”
“You nailed it, kid!” Justin said triumphantly.
Thanks, Sparky, Alice thought as she maintained a smile for the cameras. She and Hana and the others were slowly shuffled further into the room as the reporter turned to Madeleine.
“Countess Madeleine, why did you include a charity show as part of your engagement tour?” he asked.
“King Liam and I want the people of Cordonia to know that we’re with them even when we’re abroad,” Madeleine said with a smile.
Sounds like a threat, but okay, Alice thought as Madeleine continued.
“We feel their hardship. To think of Liam and me, of the family we’ll soon begin to build, experiencing such loss…it is our paramount duty to protect Cordonian citizens, and to provide stability for our people.”
She deserves a fucking Oscar.
“Thank you, Countess Madeleine,” the reporter said.
“Damn, she’s good,” Justin said into the earpiece. “Madeleine really knows how to create a soundbite.”
Alice wanted to rip the earpiece out of her ear, but the presence of all the cameras forced her to wait.
“Anyway, I think they’re done with you for now,” Justin said. “As soon as you’re out of range from the cameras, you can pull out the earpiece and switch it off for now. Call if you need me and please don’t lose this one. Over and out.”
Alice followed Hana towards their seats and as soon as she felt it was safe, she snuck the earpiece out and resolved to drop it somewhere as soon as she could.
“Hana, it’s nice to see you both again,” a familiar voice said. “You, too, Alice.”
“Rashida!” Hana exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
“Isn’t is obvious?” Rashida asked with an amused smile as she gestured around her. “I’m here to pretend I’m more philanthropic than I actually am. That’s what you do at a charity fashion show, right?”
“I think that’s only applicable if you don’t drop off avdonation with the event coordinators,” Hana said smoothly, smiling back at her.
“Where are you sitting?” Alice asked, the wheels in her head already turning as she began to plot.
“Front row,” she said, pointing to some nearby chairs.
“Wow, those are great seats!” Hana said.
“They are, but unfortunately I’m going to be sandwiched in the middle of some clients,” Rashida said. “My business partner is traveling right now, so it’s on me to impress everybody.”
“You’re very impressive,” Hana said. When she realized what she’d said, her face flamed. “Because you’re, um, so good at your job.”
Rashida couldn’t fully keep the smile from her face. She opened her mouth to say something when they were suddenly interrupted by a new arrival.
Alice looked up, startled, to see Lancelin St. Claire standing in front of her.
“Mr. St. Claire,” Alice said. “I’m surprised to see you out here.”
“I’m so glad I caught you and Lady Hana,” he said. “I didn’t get a chance to talk to you further backstage and I know this request is a bit last minute, but I was hoping you both might walk in the show.”
“Walk in the show? Like…on the runway?” Alice asked, deeply confused.
“Oui! It would help with publicity to have some Cordonian presence on the stage,” Lancelin said.
“I understand Alice because she’s wearing one of your new dresses, but I have nothing to wear in the show,” Hana said.
“En fait…I didn’t want to boast earlier, but I happen to recognize your dress,” Lancelin said, gesturing to Hana’s dress. “It was part of my very first collection. It would be the perfect statement for the show. Going back to our roots, remembering where we came from, that sort of thing.”
“I don’t know…” Hana said hesitantly, looking over at Alice. She glanced over at Rashida, who was watching the exchange with an amused expression, and Hana blushed again.
“I’m not really a model,” Alice said.
“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” Lancelin said, waving away their protests with a dismissive hand. “You both move well; just don’t walk off the end of the runway.”
“You should do it,” Rashida said encouragingly.
“It does sound fun,” Hana said slowly.
Alice glanced at Hana, unsure of what to say. “Well, I mean, as long as you’re sure you’re okay with someone as inexperienced as me, I guess I could do it.”
“Magnifique!” Lancelin exclaimed. “Let’s go, the show is about to begin.”
Alice turned to follow Lancelin and as she did, she heard Rashida tell Hana that she was glad to have a front row seat. Alice smiled, feeling genuinely happy for the first time that day.
From his vantage point along the wall, Bastien was mesmerized by how beautiful Alice looked in that dress. It was very unlike her usual style–he’d seen her arrive in an outfit that surely had Bertrand grinding his teeth–and yet it suited her all the same. He pulled out his phone, ready to text her, but stopped. He’d already taken a huge risk in telling her the truth about Constantine’s plan against her and he wasn’t sure if the king father was still monitoring his phone. Bastien tucked the phone back into his pocket. He couldn’t stop thinking about sleeping beside her the night before. He missed her so much that it felt like a physical ache and being so close to her again…
Once she was out of sight, he returned his focus to the room, keeping a careful eye on Liam, who was sitting with Olivia and Drake. But even as he did his duty, he couldn’t keep himself from thinking of Alice. He swore to himself that if there was even a chance she could forgive him, he would do everything he could to earn her love again.
Alice and Hana followed Lancelin backstage which was even more chaotic than when they’d left it. Lancelin quickly pushed them towards the hair and makeup stations where stylists hurried them into chairs and immediately began to work on their hair and makeup.
“So,” Alice said, trying not to move too much. “Rashida’s here.”
“Yes, she is,” Hana said, unable to keep the smile from her face.
“She seemed really glad to see you,” Alice said.
“Oh, I’m sure she was just being polite.”
“No, she was being polite to me,” Alice said. “She was actively glad to see you. She made a point to come talk to you, and did I hear something about her being glad to have a front row seat now that you’re going to be in the show?”
“I…okay, maybe she was being more than polite,” Hana said, unable to fight the smile on her face. “I just feel so stupid, I don’t know what I’m doing! I’ve never…”
“Not with…someone I like,” Hana said. “I’m so used to being in formal, arranged moments that when it comes to actually thinking about what I want or who I like…I don’t know. It’s hard.”
Alice reached over and squeezed Hana’s hand, careful not to pull away from the stylist who was teasing her hair into a wild lion’s mane. “You’re doing great, Han. Really.”
Hana smiled at her. “Thanks, Alice. And, hey, you distracted me for a moment so that I stopped thinking about how nervous I am to go out on the runway.”
“Oh, fuck, we do have to go out there, don’t we?” Alice asked, the color draining a little from her face.
“Here,” the hair stylist said, handing her a bottle of water and a straw. “Don’t spill on the dress and stay hydrated. I’ve seen girls faint out there under those lights.”
“That’s not much of a pep talk,” Alice said as she accepted the water.
The stylist smirked, though not unkindly. “Sorry. I guess I’m a little cynical after doing so many of these shows. If it’s any consolation, things usually go well, so you’ll probably be fine.”
“I guess I’ll take it,” Alice said with a grin as she sipped the water.
Before long, Alice and Hana were herded over to a line of models, all dressed in their first looks.
“Ready?” Hana asked.
“J’ai besoin du prochain modèle!” a man called, pointing at Alice.
“Good luck!” Hana said.
“See you on the other side,” Alice said before taking a breath and stepping forward.
Cameras flashed as she emerged on the runway and Alice tried to remember every episode of America’s Next Top Model she and Frankie had ever drunkenly binge watched at 4 AM after work. Unfortunately, all that came to mind was the girls who had fallen during runway challenges, so, instead, Alice tried to fake a confidence she didn’t feel. With her shoulders back and a hand on her hip, Alice made her way down the runway. She was grateful she couldn’t see the audience and she didn’t hear any laughter, so she figured she couldn’t be doing too badly.
Before she realized it, she had reached the end of the runway. The one helpful thing that came to her from endless ANTM marathons was to remember to pose at the end of the runway to give the photographers a chance to take a photo. She posed, wishing she knew what the fuck it meant to smile with her eyes, and after giving the cameras a moment, she turned and started to head back down the runway, passing Hana as she did so. Hana tossed her a wink and Alice smiled, surprised by how much she was enjoying herself. After wanting to avoid the spotlight and feeling like she wanted to crawl into herself every time people looked at her, she felt like she was reclaiming just a little bit of herself with each step on the runway. It hadn’t been her idea to participate in the show, but she’d chosen to say yes. The distinction was small, but it made a big difference to her. Alice felt like she was finally starting to choose her own life again and, in realizing that, she knew the next choice she wanted to make. The one she’d always wanted to make.
Then she was off the runway and soon after, Hana joined her.
“I can’t believe we just did that!” Hana exclaimed.
“I know, me either!” Alice said. “That was actually really fun.”
“It was such an adrenaline rush! I almost want to go back out there and do it again,” Hana said.
“Maybe go out and take another pass by Rashida?”
Hana blanched. “Oh my god, I completely forgot she’s in the front row.”
“Magnifique!” Lancelin beamed as he approached them, clapping his hands together.
“Merci beaucoup, monsieur,” Hana said graciously.
“Yes, thank you so much for letting us participate,” Alice added.
“Mon plaisir,” Lancelin said. “I would love to have you both back anytime. But, now that your part is over…”
“Get out?” Alice asked. Lancelin grinned.
“Exactement,” he said. “Merci beaucoup, mademoiselles.” With that, he turned and dove back into the fray while Alice retrieved her other clothes.
“Are you okay?” Hana asked. “You look…I don’t know. Different. Not bad,” she added quickly. “Just…I don’t know. Different.”
Alice smiled at her. “I’m not really sure how to explain it, but I think I just had an epiphany or something on the runway.”
“You’re staying in Paris to become a supermodel?” Hana teased. Alice laughed.
“Hardly,” Alice said. “But I feel like I know what I want. Well, one thing I want.” She paused, taking a breath. “I don’t know, is it stupid to want to be with Bastien after everything that’s happened?”
“It’s not stupid at all,” Hana said firmly. “But it upsets me to think that you might not take your own advice.”
“What advice?” Alice asked, confused.
“How many times have you told me that I need to do what makes me happy?” Hana asked. “How many times have you encouraged me to go after what I want because it’s my life and I should spend it the way I want?” Alice opened her mouth, but Hana held up her hand. “That was rhetorical. Look, I’m terrified of putting myself out there and finding out Rashida’s not interested in me, but I’m trying. I know it’s not the same thing and your situation is a lot more complicated, but…well, not everything has to be complicated. You love him, he loves you. He wanted to run off to New York with you and leave everything he’s ever known in Cordonia to be with you.”
“What about Liam’s father’s threat?” Alice asked.
Hana considered this. “I don’t have a good answer for that, except I think this is going to work out in the end. I trust that Liam is going to figure out how to handle everything and let’s be honest, Bastien would take a bullet for you to keep you from ever getting hurt again.”
Alice was quiet for a moment. “Was becoming a certified therapist part of your training for courtly life? Because I feel like you should send me a bill.”
Hana laughed. “The first session is on the house.” She offered her arm to Alice, who smiled and looped her arm through her friend’s. “Come on, let’s go.”
Shortly after Alice and Hana entered the main room, the last model made her way off of the catwalk and a loud voice on the speakers announced intermission.
“Intermission? Is that common for fashion shows?” Alice asked, confused.
“It is at a charity show,” Hana said. “The pocketbooks are pulled out and checks are written during the breaks. Social pressure may be the number one catalyst of philanthropy among the court.”
“Who knew peer pressure could be so beneficial?” Alice asked. “Hey, look, there’s Rashida. Go talk to her!”
“What? Oh, I don’t know if that’s a good idea right now,” Hana said nervously. “She said she was entertaining clients, I don’t want to interrupt.”
“Trust me, you won’t be,” Alice said. “What happened to that confidence pep talk you just gave me backstage?”
“Fine, fine,” Hana said. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders before looking at Alice. “I’m really scared,” she admitted.
“Me, too,” Alice said. “But you’ve got this.”
“So do you.” Hana smiled at Alice before she turned and made her way over to Rashida. Alice watched as Rashida turned to Hana and quickly excused herself from the clients before stepping away with Hana for a moment. Alice couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was hard to miss the way they were looking at each other.
“Alice!” Maxwell exclaimed, nearly crashing into her with Bertrand not far behind. “You were amazing!”
“Yes, you weren’t completely embarrassing,” Bertrand agreed.
“That’s a weird way to pronounce ‘you were incredible and brought pride to House Beaumont,’ but okay,” Alice said.
“I’m certainly more pleased with this outfit than I was with your other one,” Bertrand said, nodding to the clothes in her arms. “How did you end up in the show, anyway?”
“It’s a long story,” Alice said, the adrenaline of the runway beginning to fade along with her energy. “Hey, how much longer do we need to stay here?”
“We can go whenever you want,” Bertrand said as Maxwell offered to take her clothes for her.
Alice looked over at Hana and caught her eye, raising an eyebrow in question. Hana smiled and nodded before looking back to Rashida. Alice glanced around the room, looking for him, but she didn’t see him. It was probably just as well–her friends knew about them, but it was best to keep things under wraps in public around prying, scheming eyes.
“Is now okay?” Alice asked, turning back to the Beaumonts.
“Absolutely,” Bertrand said. Maxwell offered her his free arm and she accepted it before making her way through the crowd with her brothers.
Later that night, after Alice had changed out of her fabulous runway persona, she sat on her bed in her pajama pants and a t-shirt, staring at the dress hanging across the room. She remembered how empowered she’d felt and now that she was out of the dress and away from the flashing cameras, Alice was a little surprised by how her confidence had slowly eked away over the course of the rest of the day. She still felt sure she wanted to be with Bastien, but she didn’t know how to tell him or what to say. He’d told her last night that he still loved her, but that didn’t necessarily mean he wanted to be with her. He’d held her off for all this time, keeping his distance for her safety. Maybe he’d come to the conclusion that everything was too complicated and dangerous and their relationship wasn’t worth it. That she wasn’t worth it.
Alice stood up and bounced on the balls of her feet, trying to shake the nerves out of her hands. If Hana could be brave with Rashida, she could be brave with Bastien. She wouldn’t know unless she talked to him and told him how she felt and if he didn’t want to be with her…well, at least she’d know.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she crossed the suite and flung open the door, nearly yelping in surprise when she saw there was someone on the other side.
“Jesus Christ, Bastien!” Alice gasped, putting a hand to her racing heart. “You scared the shit out of me!”
“Sorry,” he apologized. “I came to talk to you, but I realized it’s kind of late and I didn’t know if you were still up and I was debating about whether or not I should knock.”
“How long have you been standing out here?” she asked.
“I’d…rather not answer that question,” he said, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets.
“Well, come in,” Alice said, stepping aside to let him into the room. She was surprised by how in control she sounded considering how her stomach felt like a writhing tangle of snakes. As Bastien passed her and she closed the door behind him, she smiled slightly as she remembered a quote from William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch: “If I had my way we’d sleep every night all wrapped around each other like hibernating rattlesnakes.”
“You wanted to talk?” she asked, motioning for him to sit on the small sofa as she did the same. He sat beside her and ran a hand through his hair. Was he…nervous? Despite the size of the sofa, he was careful to keep a respectful distance from her, the few empty inches between them an ocean.
“I just wanted to check on you and see how you’re doing with everything,” he said.
“I’m okay, I guess,” Alice said. “Maxwell was right, the fashion show turned out to be a good distraction.”
“How did you end up in the show, anyway?” Bastien asked, smiling slightly.
“It was a strange chain of events,” Alice said. “First, a model didn’t show up for the show, so Lancelin St. Claire gave me her dress,” she said, gesturing to the green dress hanging by the door. “Then apparently Hana was wearing a dress from his first collection so he wanted to put us in the show, something about old and new…I don’t know, it made sense to him.”
“For what it’s worth, you looked great in the show,” Bastien said.
“I’m just glad I didn’t fall off the runway,” she said dismissively, then hesitated. “I didn’t know you saw me.”
“I always see you,” he said quietly. Her heart fluttered a little faster, hummingbird wings in her chest. “You looked like a natural up there.”
Alice laughed. “There is nothing natural about a fashion show. It took forever to comb out my hair after they teased it out like that.”
“I kind of liked it,” Bastien admitted. “You looked like a lion. It was very fitting.”
“How is that fitting?”
“Because you’re really brave,” he said. “You might be the bravest person I know.”
“Says the man whose job it is to intentionally hurl himself into harm’s way.”
Bastien shook his head. “The physical stuff, that’s the easy part. Staying here to face everything…I don’t know if I could do it.”
“You’re doing it now.”
“Only because you’re doing it,” Bastien said. “I was serious when I said I’d leave with you. My first instinct was to leave.”
“I don’t feel brave,” Alice said. “I still feel scared all the time.”
“‘Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t scared. Being brave means you are scared, really scared, badly scared, and you do the right thing anyway.’”
“Is that from Coraline?”
He nodded. “I’m not always very good with my own words, but I’m good with everyone else’s.”
“Says the man who speaks eight languages.”
He chuckled. “That just means I can quote other people in multiple languages. I still don’t know how to personally say what I want to say.”
Alice took a deep breath. Here goes nothing. “I know what I want to say.”
He watched her, waiting patiently. She squeezed her hands together, trying to will them to stop shaking. Just say it, stupid. She tried to choose the right words, but nothing sounded good enough. Finally, she just decided to be honest.
“I’m still upset about everything that happened and I feel like I don’t have much to offer you right now, but I love you and I want to be with you,” Alice said. “I don’t know if you feel the same way–everything is really stupid and complicated and if it’s more than you want to deal with, I get it–but–”
Before she could finish, Bastien knelt on the floor in front of her, gently putting his arms around her waist.
“Alice, you are everything to me,” he said. She saw his eyes flick down to her forearms before he looked back at her. “I can’t forgive myself for the role I played in what happened to you, but I love you so much and if you’ll have me, I’m here for as long as you want me.”
Alice lightly brushed the hair back from his face with her fingertips, not quite touching the edges of the bruise around his eye. “I have to be honest with you though…I don’t think I can handle being very physical with you yet.” Bastien immediately started to pull his arms away from her waist but she stopped him. “No, that’s fine, I just mean that I don’t think I’m ready to have sex yet after…what I went through.”
“As long as I can be with you, I don’t care about anything else,” Bastien assured her. “I’m not in any rush and I want to go at your pace. You are completely in control.”
“What if I’m never ready?”
He shrugged. “Then you’re never ready. I’m still not going anywhere.”
Alice gently cupped his face in her hands and pressed her lips to his. He kissed her softly and sweetly before breaking the kiss to pull her into a hug. She closed her eyes and they stayed like that for a long time as she reveled in how right it felt to be here with him again.
“Will you stay here tonight?” Alice asked when she finally broke their embrace.
Bastien climbed to his feet and held out a hand to help her up. He waited until she was in bed before he turned off the light and took off his jeans, draping them across the arm of the couch, and he lay down on the bed like he had the night before: on top of the covers with his back to her.
“You can get under the sheets if you want,” Alice said.
“Are you sure?” he asked, looking over his shoulder at her. She nodded.
Bastien got under the covers and was surprised to feel her tugging him to face her. He rolled over towards her and he wrapped an arm around Alice, pulling her to him.
“Is this okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said quietly, settling her head into the crook of his shoulder. They lay in silence for a long time, each content just to be in each other’s arms.
“I love you, Dorian,” Alice said.
“I love you, too, Gray.”
Then they fell asleep, curled around each other like hibernating rattlesnakes.
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