Summary: The Cordonian Court arrives in Shanghai, Liam reveals his plan to deal with Constantine and Regina, and Alice and Bastien fully reunite. (NSFW)
Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit. Also, look! Smut!
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, Part 31, Part 32, Part 33, Part 34
The next morning, Alice watched the clouds pass by outside the private plane’s windows as she flew to Shanghai with Bastien, Maxwell, and Justin.
“Are we there yet?” Maxwell asked.
“You’ve been asking that since we took off,” Alice said.
“I’m just excited,” Maxwell said. “Hana’s parents are pulling out all the stops for us when we get to Shanghai.”
“They must take hosting the Cordonian court pretty seriously,” Alice said. “Although, I guess I’m not surprised based on what Hana’s told us about them.”
“They do sound pretty intense,” Maxwell said. “Everyone who comes to court has been through their share of tutors, but her parents have really taken being over-prepared to the next level.
“I know you’ve heard a lot about Hana’s parents as, well, parents…but there’s more to them than that,” Justin said “It’s time to think of them as potential allies. If you want to strengthen your reputation to fight these allegations against you, you’ll need connections and allies far and wide. Her mother belongs to a minor Cordonian noble house, and her father’s an obscenely wealthy businessman. Though, word around court is that her mother will be out of town for the festivities, so we’ll focus on Hana’s dad.”
“What do I need to know?” Alice asked.
“He’s likely well-aware of the story the press has spun about you, so he may have concerns about your influence on Hana,” Justin said. “Furthermore, given his business ties to Cordonia, I’m sure he’s planning to suss out various nobles for future business deals. If you can win him over on those two fronts, you’ll be golden.”
“Okay,” Alice said slowly, unsure of how she could possibly be helpful in regards to business deals.
“As far as introductions go,” Justin continued, “it can’t hurt to greet him in Chinese. Even something as simple as saying ‘hello’ in Mandarin could go a long way. I’d be happy to demonstrate.”
“I can teach you a few phrases,” Bastien said to Alice, ignoring Justin.
“Remind me why you’re here?” Justin asked. “I don’t mean to be rude, but aren’t you usually with King Liam?”
Bastien said nothing, choosing instead to stare down Justin. After an uncomfortable silence, Justin shifted awkwardly under Bastien’s gaze until Maxwell finally broke the tense silence.
“There’s supposed to be a big stately dinner tonight, and the former king and queen are scheduled to be there,” Maxwell said.
“Wonderful,” Alice said sarcastically as the overhead seatbelt light turned on and the plane’s trajectory slowly began to shift. Maxwell peered out the window.
“Oh man, finally!” Maxwell exclaimed. “I wish Bertrand was here though.”
“Me, too, but I think it’s good he stayed behind,” Alice said. “I’m glad Savannah is actually letting him see the baby.”
“It’s alright, you have me!” Justin said cheerily. Alice tried not to dry heave. Beside her, she could practically feel the tension in Bastien’s body. It was clear he didn’t much care for Justin either and although Alice knew she had to play nice with her press secretary for Bertrand’s sake, it helped to know she wasn’t the only one who found him obnoxious.
Soon after they landed, they all headed to the hotel where a familiar face waited in the lobby while Justin left to check them in at the desk.
“Welcome to Shanghai!” Hana exclaimed as she hurried over, wrapping Alice in an excited hug before giving one to Maxwell and smiling at Bastien. “I’m sorry I couldn’t fly over with you guys, but I promised my father I’d arrive early to help with the preparations.”
“How’s everything going?” Alice asked.
“The preparations couldn’t be going more smoothly. Things with my father, however…well, not much has changed.”
“Well, no matter what, I’ll be right there with you,” Alice said.
“And I’ll be behind Alice backing her up. And you by proxy!” Maxwell declared.
“Thanks, guys. I hope it’s enough,” Hana said. “My parents are really counting on me to make things work at court.”
“Hey, don’t worry! This is going to be awesome!” Maxwell exclaimed.
“Is he a little more hyper than usual?” Hana asked Alice.
“Yes,” Bastien said, not looking up as he checked the messages on his phone.
“Oh, come on, the plane was fun!” Maxwell protested.
“Did we need two different renditions of ‘99 Bottles of Beer’ on the plane?” Alice asked.
“I barely slept on the flight but somehow I’m super awake,” Maxwell said, ignoring her question.
“Oh, boy. Someone is going to crash later,” Alice said, rolling her eyes as she nudged Maxwell.
“I know I definitely will,” Justin said as he returned with their room keys and began to hand them out.
“Sweet, time for a pillow fort!” Maxwell declared. “Who wants to race me to the elevators?”
The group dropped Alice off at her room first and she began to unpack as Hana kept her company, leaving half of the dresser for Bastien. Not that he had much to store–the man was almost annoyingly minimalist aside from his books.
“So, this is where you grew up?” Alice asked as she wandered over to the window and stared out along Shanghai’s coastline.
“Yes!” Hana said proudly. “Well, not right here,” she clarified. “Closer to the financial district. But my parents have lived in Shanghai since I was born. My dad loves it here.”
“Any advice on how to impress him?” Alice asked.
“Oh, you don’t need to impress him,” Hana said.
“Justin would disagree with you,” Alice said. “And you’ve become one of my closest friends, I want your dad to like me.”
“Honestly…” Hana said, chewing her bottom lip as she hesitated. “He’s had some mixed feelings about me being around you ever since…well, ever since the photos came out. I didn’t tell him everything, but I tried to explain that it wasn’t what it looked like, but I don’t know if he believed me. But I really hope that meeting you in person will change his mind,” Hana added quickly.
“So what do you think, should I play the ‘perfect angel who loves Cordonia’ like Justin wants or should I just be myself?” Alice asked. “I promise not to swear if you say the latter.”
Hana laughed. “I want you to be yourself, but it might not hurt to play into Justin’s narrative,” she said. “My father’s kind of…tightly wound.”
“Ah, got it,” Alice said as she sat down on the bed.
“But I do want him to get to know you,” Hana said as she sat in the desk chair across from her. “You’re such a good friend to me and I want him to see what I see.”
“Aw, thanks, Hana,” Alice said, smiling. There was a knock at the door and she quickly stood and crossed the room to look through the peephole. Bastien. Alice’s smile grew wider as she opened the door to let Bastien in.
“Justin took forever to leave,” Bastien said as he kissed her cheek. “Hey, Hana.”
“Hi!” Hana said with a small wave.
“So when do I get to meet him?” Alice asked as she turned back to Alice while Bastien started to unpack.
“Later today,” Hana said. “He’s really excited to show the royal family our local nature reserve. We should probably head over there soon. Oh! I almost forgot!” she exclaimed as she jumped to her feet and hurried past Bastien to the closet. Hana pulled open the door and pulled out a garment bag.
“I was literally just unpacking, how did I not notice that?” Alice asked.
“Late onset insanity after listening to Maxwell sing for several hours?” Bastien asked.
“That must be it,” she said with a grin as she walked over to Hana.
“Because you’ve been so supportive of me and helping me get together with Rashida, I wanted to give you a present,” Hana said, beaming as she unzipped the bag to reveal a delicate, gossamer blue dress.
“Oh my god, Hana!” Alice exclaimed as she examined the dress. “You shouldn’t have, this is too much.”
“Trust me, it’s not enough,” Hana said. “Go try it on.” She pushed Alice towards the bathroom and Alice obediently went inside, closing the door behind her. She changed into the dress and admired herself in the floor length mirror on the back of the door. Hana certainly knew how to shop and the dress fit like a glove. Alice was about to open the door to show everyone when the bathtub’s reflection caught her eye in the mirror. Alice’s fingers froze over the doorknob as she stared at the tub. She was surprised by how calm she felt when she looked at it. For the first time in a long while, she didn’t have an urge to climb into it and bury herself under blankets until everything felt safe. In spite of the plot against her, Regina’s new threats against Olivia, and the fact that Tariq was still out there somewhere, Alice realized how she actually felt safe in her own room. She smiled and opened the door.
“Alright, what do you guys think?” Alice asked as she stepped back into the room. Bastien looked over from where he sat on the edge of the bed and his eyes went wide as Hana clapped her hands in front of her.
“Yay! You look amazing!” Hana said. “Oh, I’m so thrilled! Do you like it?”
“I do, thank you so much,” Alice said. “Dorian? What do you think?”
“I think you look…wow,” he finally said.
“I should go take care of a couple things,” Hana said, winking at Alice. “Meet you downstairs in an hour?”
“Sounds good,” Alice said. Hana waved goodbye to them before she left, closing the door behind her. “So, you like the dress?” she asked again, turning to Bastien. He grinned and held out his hands to her. She walked closer to him and he took her hands, pulling her close to him.
“I love the woman inside of it,” he said. “But yes, I like the dress.”
“A whole hour until we have to be downstairs,” Alice said. “Whatever shall we do?”
Bastien let go of her hands and lay back on the bed. “Is there enough time for a nap?”
“Probably not,” she said as she grinned and pulled the skirt up higher and out of the way of her knees as she climbed on top of him, straddling his lap. Bastien smiled at her, biting his lip at the sight of her.
“I’m suddenly not feeling very tired,” he said as she leaned down and kissed him lightly. His hands found hers and, remembering what he’d said on their camping trip, she gently moved his hands up and over his head, pinning them to the bed. Bastien moaned softly and appreciatively as she deepened the kiss.
“Good,” she murmured as she trailed her lips along his jaw before brushing against his ear. “Because I’m not either.”
Alice sat up and let go of his hands, looking down at him.
“You okay?” he asked softly, running his fingertips down her forearms.
“Yeah,” Alice said, realizing it was true. She smiled. “I am.”
Bastien sat up and wrapped his arms around her. She, in turn, ran her fingers through his hair before she kissed him.
“Thank you for loving me,” she said quietly as she hugged him tightly.
“Thank you for letting me love you.”
A little while later, Bastien and Alice headed down to the lobby to meet Hana and found both her and Maxwell waiting for them.
“Hey!” Maxwell said when he saw them approaching. “I guess I fell asleep for the last hour? But now I’m back! And awake!”
“Is that it?” Bastien asked slowly.
“I also drank a whole pot of coffee to help with the jet lag,” Maxwell added.
“I’m a little concerned you’re going to pass out and face plant today,” Alice said. “Are you okay?”
“Never better! Let’s go!” Maxwell said as he headed for the door, the rest of the group trailing behind him.
“Why do I get the feeling that I’m going to have to carry him later?” Bastien asked, already sounding tired.
“Oh, come on, you won’t have to carry him,” Hana said.
“Yeah, I’m sure you can borrow one of those luggage carts from the hotel,” Alice said. Bastien shook his head and sighed.
After a short taxi ride, Bastien, Alice, Hana, and Maxwell arrived at the edge of a towering grove of bamboo where a crowd of familiar people had gathered.
“I’ll be nearby if you need anything,” Bastien said to Alice before they climbed out of the car as he squeezed her hand. She hated not being able to be with him in public, but she knew it was for the best.
“I was wondering when you all would get here,” Drake said as they joined the group.
“That’s one way to say hello,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.
“It’s a very Drake way of saying hello,” Hana said as Liam stepped out at the front of the crowd and cleared his throat. Madeleine joined him as everyone quieted down, and Alice felt anger crackle in her fingers. Too many witnesses, Alice reminded herself.
“It’s a great honor to be granted a tour of this sanctuary,” Liam said with a wide smile. “I hope this visit will help inspire Cordonia’s own conservation efforts. Now, if you’ll all follow our hosts…” Liam said, nodding respectfully to a group of staff members in matching slacks and shirts. A man in a suit standing near them bowed to Liam.
“I swear none of the bamboo looked this tall form the outside,” Drake murmured.
“Whoa,” Maxwell said, looking up at the bamboo in awe. “This place would make even Bertrand feel chill.”
Alice pulled out her phone and texted Bertrand.
How’s it going?
A few minutes later, she was rewarded with a photo of Bertrand holding Bartie. His hold on the baby was a little awkward, but Bertrand was beaming.
I don’t know how much he likes me, but he’s amazing.
“Dad!” Hana said happily.
Alice dropped her phone back in her bag and the group turned to see the man in the suit from earlier chatting with a group of nobles. Hana excitedly waved him over.
“Ah! There you are,” Hana’s father said.
“Everyone, this is my father, Xinghai Lee,” Hana said proudly.
“Ni hao, Mr. Lee,” Alice said, grateful for the quick language lesson Bastien had given her before they’d met Hana in the lobby.
“Ni hao,” Hana’s father said, nodding to her. “You must be Drake, Lord Maxwell, and…Lady Alice.” He paused. “You know, Lady Alice, I’ve heard a great deal about you from my daughter…and from the tabloids. Hardly ideal to have one’s name in such publications.”
“Honestly, paying attention to them just adds fuel to the fire,” Alice said, careful to keep her tone light. She hadn’t expected to be grilled about the photos the moment she met Hana’s father, but at least now she knew Xinghai wasn’t a man who danced around uncomfortable topics.
“An interesting strategy,” Xinghai said. “You devalue the rumors by refusing to grant them a response. I’ve used similar tactics on occasion when false claims were pressed against my business.” He nodded approvingly. “I didn’t expect you to have such a mind for public relations.”
“One of the advantages of working with the public for the last several years,” Alice said.
“However…it’s clear you have enemies. I worry that my daughter’s association with you puts her at risk. The scandal may affect her reputation just as much as yours.”
“Mr. Lee, if Hana wants me to give her space, I will,” Alice said. “But she’s an excellent judge of character as well as an adult and she can choose who she hangs out with.”
“I’m only trying to look out for her,” Xinghai said, his eyes narrowing with annoyance. Drake tugged on Maxwell’s sleeve and the two men quickly and quietly left the group.
“Of course,” Alice agreed. Good going, idiot, she scolded herself. “But, in her defense, Hana has been successfully navigating the Cordonian court since the last social season. She’s told me how well-prepared you ensured she was, and I think she’s doing beautifully.”
Xinghai glanced at Hana, who looked supremely uncomfortable at being talked about like she wasn’t there.
“I suppose time will tell,” Xinghai said.
Peals of delighted laughter up ahead caught their attention.
“Alice!” Maxwell called. “Come here! You have to see what we found!”
“Excuse me,” Alice said to Xinghai before hurrying up ahead to join Maxwell outside of a small enclosure. Inside, Liam was cuddling a fluffy panda cub while a second but wandered out from behind the bamboo and pawed at his shoes.
“Cute,” Olivia said as she joined them.
“So are the pandas,” Alice said, poking her in the side. “Hey, Liv.”
“Poke me again and I’ll break your finger.”
“Alice, I think I’m dead,” Maxwell said, grabbing hold of her arm as he stared at the panda cubs. “Our plane must’ve crashed on the way here. I am in heaven. Panda heaven.”
“So in this scenario I had to die with Justin? No, thank you,” Alice said.
“Remarkable, aren’t they?” Xinghai asked as he and Hana joined them.
“They’re adorable!” Hana said, her face lighting up. “Can we go inside, too? Please?”
“Hmm…” Xinghai said. “Ordinarily, the staff doesn’t allow many visitors. They made an exception for King Liam, but…I might be able to convince them to make another exception.”
“Woohoo!” Maxwell cheered, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he still held onto Alice’s arm.
“Quick reminder, those are bears,” Drake said. “They could be dangerous.”
As if on cue, one of the cubs tried to grab Liam’s pant leg, missed, and did a somersault across the ground.
“Positively terrifying,” Alice said as the panda rolled to a stop next to a sprig of bamboo and immediately started chewing on it.
“Okay, fine, maybe not,” Drake conceded. “I guess they are kind of cute.”
“So?” Hana asked hopefully. “Who wants to go play with panda cubs? Alice?”
“Sure, I’m in,” Alice said. “Ow, Maxwell! Stop yanking on my arm, you’re going to dislocate my shoulder.”
“Sorry!” Maxwell apologized quickly as he let go. Alice looked back over at the enclosure where the cub Liam is holding pawed at his hand. Liam grinned and shook the paw with his gloved hand.
“It’s very nice to meet you, too,” Liam said.
Alice glanced over at Olivia and saw her watching Liam with a small smile on her face. Then Olivia noticed her.
“Stop looking at me.”
“You joining us?” Alice asked.
Olivia glanced over towards Madeleine, who was talking with a few nobles outside of the enclosure. “I don’t think so. I feel like I’m already pushing my luck just by being here today.”
Alice followed her gaze, thankful that Constantine and Regina weren’t in attendance at the nature reserve. With Madeleine distracted, she allowed herself a quick glance back at Bastien, standing towards the back of the group for a better view of the setting. Alice hated how every moment of normalcy and fun she had seemed to be punctuated by the looming threat of something more sinister. She still didn’t know what Liam planned to do about everything, but knowing that she was going to see Constantine again later for the first time since learning the details of the plot against her…it was a lot.
“This way,” Xinghai said as he rejoined the group with one of the khaki-clad staff members in tow.
Alice and the others followed the staff member to the enclosure. The staff member unlocked the gate and handed each of them blue gloves and a thin smock to wear over their clothes as Liam waved them over as they stepped inside.
“Everyone, I’d like you to meet Yue Yue,” Liam said, nodding towards the panda cub in his arms. “And her brother, Yang Yang,” he said, inclining his head towards the panda on the ground.
“They’re both so precious!” Hana exclaimed as Liam handed Yue Yue to her. “Oh, hello, little one.”
“I’ve never seen anything cuter in my entire life,” Maxwell said as he sat down to see Yang Yang, who ambled over and snuggled into his lap. “Hey, buddy! I read that pandas like having their bellies rubbed.”
“And you read that…where?” Drake asked as Liam set down Yue Yue.
“On the internet,” Maxwell said as he tickled Yang Yang’s belly. Alice watched tensely, hoping that the cub wouldn’t bite his hand, and was relieved when instead he batted playfully at Maxwell’s hand. “I think I’ve found my calling.”
“What, playing with baby pandas?” Alice asked.
Alice glanced over at the other cub, who was wandering around a little sadly. “Is she okay?”
“She’s probably hungry,” Liam said. “One of the tour guides was saying that eat for hours every day.”
“Okay, that is my calling,” Maxwell said.
Alice noticed a few smaller stalks of bamboo growing at the edge of the enclosure. She walked over and snapped off one of the stalks, Yue Yue practically on her heels. Alice knelt down and handed it to the panda cub who immediately took the bamboo in her paws and started munching it. Drake retrieved another stalk and brought it over to Yang Yang, who was still comfortably nestled in Maxwell’s lap. Yang Yang happily grabbed for the bamboo and started chewing.
“So, how’s your first day in Shanghai?” Liam asked as he sidled over next to Alice.
“Everything has been incredible, but now I’m just hoping I’ll be able to make it through dinner tonight without falling asleep in my salad,” Alice said.
“You didn’t get to sleep on the plane?”
“Between Justin’s strategizing and Maxwell’s…entertainment…there wasn’t really much time to sleep,” Alice said. “What about you?”
“Actually, I didn’t sleep either,” Liam said. “Maybe we can convince everyone to end the dinner early tonight. Have Maxwell create a diversion or something.”
“Good luck getting him to leave the pandas,” Alice said, nodding over to Maxwell who was still cuddling Yang Yang. Liam grinned.
“I’m glad the reserve’s staff allowed all of you to join me,” Liam said before lowering his voice a little. “I wish Olivia had come in, too.”
“She said she didn’t want to push her luck with Madeleine here,” Alice said. “But I know what you mean. I wish Bastien was in here experiencing this with me instead of staying out there.”
“I’m sorry everything is so complicated right now,” Liam said, then paused. “I’m planning on talking to my father while we’re in Shanghai.”
“Is that a good idea?” Alice asked hesitantly.
“I came up with a plan to keep him and Regina…contained,” Liam said.
“‘Contained’ in a figurative way or ‘contained’ in a Nevrakis way?” Alice asked. He chuckled.
“Somewhere between the two,” he said as they watched Hana offer a woven bamboo ball to Yue Yue, who gnawed on it for a moment before batting it across the ground and trotting after it.
“I didn’t think these cubs could get any cuter, but I was wrong,” Hana said with a smile.
“Maxwell, are you…crying?” Alice asked.
“No!” he protested, brushing at his eyes with his sleeve. “I just have some bamboo dust in my eyes.”
Alice knelt down beside him and gave him a tight hug. “Sure you do.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Alice noticed Yue Yue clambering up a small rock on one side of the enclosure. She reached the top and began to sway as she lost her balance.
“Drake!” Alice called, pointing. He turned and hurried over just in time to catch the panda cub, who let out a delighted squeak.
“Hey, you should be careful,” Drake said gently before he set the panda down. Yue Yue immediately started toddling towards the rock again.
“I think you guys have a new game.” Hana said with a grin as Yang Yang crawled out of Maxwell’s lap and headed for Drake, eager to join in the fun.
“Hey, I’m not a tree!” Drake protested half-heartedly as Yang Yang tried to climb up his leg. He tried to walk away but the panda cub cling to his leg.
“It’s okay, Drake, I’ll rescue you from the scary monster,” Alice said as she walked over and carefully unwrapped the panda from his leg.
“Aw, you’ve hurt his feelings,” Maxwell said.
“Drake! You made the baby panda sad!” Hana added, trying not to laugh.
“Okay, okay!” Drake said. “Sorry, little guy, I didn’t mean it. How about this?” he asked as he sat down on the ground. Delighted, Yang Yang quickly crawled into his lap. “Oof. He’s awfully heavy for such a little guy.”
“He likes you,” Hana said.
“If any of you take a picture of this, I will never forgive you,” Drake said.
“Too late,” Alice said, phone already in hand. She snapped a quick picture before one of the nature preserve’s staff members opened the gate and looked at the group expectantly. “I guess that’s our cue.”
“Already?” Maxwell asked, disappointed.
“We don’t want to wear the cubs out,” Alice said as she gave Yue Yue one last pat on the head. They all exited the enclosure and removed their gloves and smocks once the pandas were secured behind them.
“So? What did you all think?” Xinghai asked as they rejoined the nobles and began to stroll through the reserve.
“That was an incredible experience,” Liam said, Hana nodding in agreement. “Thank you so much for arranging this.”
“My life has been forever changed,” Maxwell declared.
“They were pretty cute for glorified balls of fluff,” Drake admitted, glancing back at the pandas.
“That was unforgettable. Thank you, Mr. Lee,” Alice said.
Xinghai smiled. “I’m always glad when visitors appreciate the wonder of such creatures,” he said.
“You seem very at home here,” Alice said.
“I’m one of the reserve’s chief investors,” Xinghai said. “I contribute to many non-profit organizations, but this reserve is something of a passion project for me. I like to keep a close eye on it.” He paused, regarding her for a moment. “Tell me, Lady Alice, if you were in a position to do so, what sort of organizations would you invest in?”
“I’m most interested in organizations that support women,” Alice said. “My friend and I volunteered as escorts for patients at health clinics back in New York and, in light of recent events, I’d like to be more involved with helping victims of assault, although that wouldn’t necessarily be exclusive to women.”
“Recent events,” Xinghai said as he considered her words, his eyes never leaving her face. “I think that’s…admirable.”
“Thank you,” Alice said. She felt stronger having said it aloud, but she was also ready to change the subject. “So, what drew you to conservation?”
“I have a general interest in conservation, but my interest in the giant panda is a bit more personal,” Xinghai said.
“Dad, she doesn’t want to hear that old story,” Hana interjected.
“So what you’re saying is, ‘This is an adorably embarrassing baby Hana story?’” Maxwell asked hopefully.
“Oh, now I definitely want to hear this,” Alice said, winking at Hana.
“It’s not that embarrassing,” Xinghai said. “Years ago, when Hana was maybe six or seven, I took her to the local zoo to see pandas for the first time. I’d been working non-stop on a major acquisition for my company, but I had promised Hana I’d take a day off to spend with her. So we arrived, and, as it turns out, a new cub had been born only a few weeks earlier.”
“I remember that part,” Hana said. “It was this tiny little thing covered in fuzz.”
“She was so excited,” Xinghai said as he allowed himself to smile. “She kept asking me if we could go introduce ourselves to the cub.”
“I can picture it,” Drake said.
“Aww, baby Hana was polite and adorable!” Maxwell said.
“We spent the whole afternoon at the zoo,” Xinghai continued. “Listening to the zookeepers talk about how rare those cubs were, and seeing Hana watch them, all starry-eyed…It might sound strange, but it made me think about just how precious my time with her was. I wanted to honor that memory by helping to preserve these incredible creatures, so others can experience the same joy and reflection they brought me.”
“When the reserve was founded, Dad made sure his company was one of their first investors,” Hana said proudly.
“That’s really sweet,” Alice said.
“That’s what I thought when he brought me here,” Hana said. “I was really proud to see our family supporting a place like this.”
“See? That wasn’t too embarrassing, was it?” Xinghai asked as he smiled at his daughter. Up ahead, the towering bamboo stalks began to open up as the path led them back towards the reserve’s entrance. “Ah, this is where I must say my farewells. I need to double-check a few things at the restaurant before the court arrives.”
“Do you need any help?” Hana asked.
“I can help, too, if you need it,” Alice volunteered.
“Thank you, but no, you should both stay here with the court,” Xinghai said. He gave Hana a brief hug before shaking hands with Drake and Maxwell. “I’m glad to have met you both.” Then he turned to Alice. “And I’m especially glad to have met you, Lady Alice. Considering the rumors about you and some of the things I’d heard from Hana…I wasn’t sure what to expect. But now I can see why my daughter considers you a respectable friend.”
“Thank you, Mr. Lee. I enjoyed meeting you as well,” Alice said, nodding graciously. Xinghai held out his hand to her and she shook it before he left, quickly striding away towards a waiting car outside the reserve’s entrance.
“Alice! That was an actual compliment!” Hana exclaimed. “He really liked you!”
“Of course he did!” Maxwell said as he slung an arm around Alice’s shoulders and kissed the top of her head. “She’s very likable.”
“And you didn’t even swear once,” Drake said, impressed.
“Oh, fuck off.”
“Anyway, where’s this dinner everyone keeps talking about?” Drake asked. “We’ve been walking around all afternoon.”
“It looks like the royal motorcade is leaving for the restaurant now,” Hana said, gesturing to the line of sleek, expensive-looking cars outside the nature reserve’s entrance.
“Yes! Take me to the food!” Maxwell exclaimed as he led the group over towards an open car. They slid inside and, a moment later, Bastien joined them, closing the door behind him.
“Did you like the reserve?” Alice asked as everyone else fell into their own conversations.
“I did,” Bastien said. “It’s really beautiful out here. Did you have fun with the pandas?”
“Yes, but I wish you could’ve been in there with me,” Alice said.
“Next time,” he said as he took her hand in his, threading his fingers between hers before he raised it to his lips to kiss her knuckles.
Alice remembered her conversation with Liam and she felt her good mood start to fade away. “Liam said he’s planning on talking to his father while we’re here, something about a plan to keep his parents ‘contained.’”
“‘Contained’ in a Nevrakis way?” Bastien asked, one eyebrow raised.
“That’s what I asked, but he was vague on the details,” she said, before she hesitated. “What if it doesn’t work and someone gets hurt?”
“I’ve got you,” he promised quietly. “No matter what.”
Once they arrived at the restaurant, a waiter quickly ushered Alice, Maxwell, Hana, and Drake to a table as Bastien took up his post. At the front of the room, Liam and Madeleine sat beside Constantine and Regina. As soon as Alice saw them, she felt her stomach lurch.
Breathe, she reminded herself. You have to breathe.
“Hey,” Drake said quietly, leaning over to her. “You’re safe here.”
She nodded and took a shaky breath. “I know. Thank you,” she added, reaching over to give his arm a squeeze as the last member of their table joined them.
“I have to say, I’m a little surprised Madeleine sat me with all of you,” Olivia said as she sat down. “I half-expected her to stick me in the kitchen.”
“Well, she did put you next to Drake,” Alice pointed out.
“I think that punishes me more than it does her,” Drake said as he took a sip of his water.
“See? Two birds with one stone,” Alice teased. “Seriously though, I’m glad you’re here Olivia.”
“Me, too,” Hana said, smiling warmly at her.
“Hey, where’s Rashida?” Alice asked, glancing around. “I haven’t seen her yet.”
“Over there,” Hana said, subtly pointing across the room. “She’s with some of her business associates.”
“Including the elusive business partner?” Alice asked.
“Unfortunately, no,” Hana said. “But according to the texts I’ve been getting, this is turning into a working dinner for her. There’s a new deal she’s trying to secure.”
“Isn’t every dinner a working dinner for her?” Drake asked.
“Almost,” Hana said, allowing herself a small smile.
“Not to change the subject, but when is the food happening?” Maxwell asked.
“It should be coming soon, and there’ll be plenty to share. Dinners here are usually served family-style,” Hana explained. “I promise, it’ll be delicious!”
“What’s that?” Olivia asked as she gestured to an ornate bottle at the center of the table carved with intricate, interlocking dragons.
“Rice wine!” Hana said as she took the bottle. “Would anyone like to try some?”
She poured some for Maxwell and Olivia but when she reached Drake, he hesitated for a moment before shaking his head.
“No thanks,” Drake said. “I’m good with water.”
“Me, too,” Alice said. He smiled briefly at her in thanks for the solidarity as Hana returned the bottle to the center of the table. Soon after, a waiter brought the first course to the table.
“Hana…you promised me down-to-earth food,” Drake said hesitantly as he stared at the heaping dish in front of them.
“I promised you good food, Drake,” Hana said. “This is a traditional Chinese banquet; it’s time for you to have an open mind.”
“If Olivia can learn to love pandas, Drake can learn to appreciate gourmet Chinese food,” Maxwell said.
“Who said I love pandas?” Olivia asked. Alice raised an eyebrow at her. “Shut up, Jon Snow.”
“I know you’ll all love it. This is my favorite dish here,” Hana said.
“This looks more like art than a meal,” Alice said. “I’m a little afraid to ruin it by eating it.”
“Exactly,” Drake said. “It looks like it belongs on a pedestal in a museum, not someone’s plate.”
“Just watch and learn,” Maxwell said confidently as he took a serving spoon and carefully pulled a few pieces of food onto his plate, leaving the rest of the delicate arrangement intact.
“That was like food Jenga!” Alice exclaimed, impressed.
“You don’t get through childhood with Bertrand without picking up keen utensil reflexes,” Maxwell said with a grin.
“That does make sense,” Alice said. “Alright, if you can do it…” She took a serving spoon and cautiously helped herself to a portion of crispy noodles and steaming vegetables before passing it along the table. She took a bite and immediately closed her eyes in ecstacy. “Holy shit, Hana, you were not kidding when you said this was good.”
“I told you!” Hana said victoriously as everyone else began to taste their food.
“I have to admit that for gourmet food, this is really satisfying,” Drake said, surprised. “Usually places like this only have teeny tiny portions that leave you hungry.”
“For once, you and I agree,” Olivia said.
“Did you just say something nice to Drake?” Alice asked with mock surprise.
“Let me remind you that I always have a dagger on me,” Olivia said. “I will not hesitate to stick you with the pointy end.”
At the head table, Constantine coughed several times. Liam turned to him, concerned, but Constantine waved him off. He tried to say something but another violent coughing fit took him, drawing the attention of the room. Constantine tried to brace himself against the table, one hand clutching at his chest as his face grew pale.
“Oh my goodness!” Hana exclaimed. Her words seemed to shake the room into action as several members of the royal guard sprang forward, Bastien included as he pulled out his phone to call for a car. Within moments, several guards helped Constantine out of the room with Regina following close behind. Liam spoke briefly to Bastien, who nodded and made his way over to Alice.
“We need to go, right now,” he said as soon as he reached her. Maxwell started to stand up with Alice, but Bastien stopped him. “Just Alice. All of you should stay with Olivia,” he said before turning to the redheaded duchess. “Call Alice immediately if anything happens.”
Olivia nodded, looking unsurprised, and Alice quickly followed Bastien out of the restaurant where a valet was waiting with the keys to a small, nondescript black car. Bastien opened the passenger door for Alice and closed it behind her once she was safely nestled inside before jogging around the car to get into the driver’s seat.
“Bastien, what’s going on?” Alice asked as she buckled her seat belt and Bastien pulled the car away from the curb.
“I’m not entirely sure,” he admitted. “But Liam arranged for this car and told me to drive you to the hospital. He also had me arrange for specific guards for tonight.”
“What kind of guards?”
“The kind that are loyal to him over his father.”
“What happened to his father?”
“I don’t know.”
They were quiet for a long time.
“What did Liam do to his father?” Alice finally asked.
Bastien shook his head. “I know as much as you do right now.”
When they arrived at the hospital, Bastien and Alice were ushered into a private waiting room where Liam sat alone, staring down at his folded hands. He glanced up when he heard them before rising to his feet.
“Hey, sorry about all the subterfuge,” Liam said as soon as the nurse left, hugging Alice before he shook Bastien’s hand. “I wasn’t entirely sure that was going to work.”
“What happened? And where’s Regina?” Alice asked, looking around nervously.
“She’s back in the room with my father,” Liam said. “And my father ingested GHB.”
“GHB? The date rape drug?” Alice asked, feeling a little queasy.
“Yes,” Liam said. “Liv thought that made it somewhat poetic.”
“I’m going to need you to back up a little,” Alice said, shaking her head. “What are you talking about?”
“I told you I had a plan,” Liam said, his smile looking more like a grimace.
“Your plan was to roofie your father?” Alice asked, lowering her voice to a whisper. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that I needed to get my father and Regina away from everyone at court,” Liam said.
“And their schedules were too busy for a meeting?” Bastien asked.
“I made a choice,” Liam said. He opened his mouth to say more, when a doctor entered the room and motioned for Liam to join him. Liam left them to confer with the doctor and Alice turned to Bastien.
“What the actual fuck is going on?” she asked. Bastien shrugged.
“Gray, at this point, I know what you know,” he said as Liam rejoined them.
“The doctor said he’s stable and we can go in,” Liam said as he held out his arm to Alice. “Ready?”
“I have no fucking clue.”
“Me, too,” Liam said as he took a deep breath. Alice took his arm and the three of them left the waiting room and headed for a hospital room at the end of the hallway where two guards stood at attention on either side of the door. They nodded to Bastien and one sprang forward to open the door for Liam, who entered with Alice and Bastien before the guard closed the door.
“Liam? What is going on?” Regina asked, her gaze narrowing and hardening at the sight of Alice with Bastien beside her. “Lady Alice, it’s very inappropriate for you to be here. This is a family matter.”
“Actually, it’s not,” Liam said. “Your illness would have been a family matter if you hadn’t tried to use it as justification for hurting someone I care about.”
“Liam–” Regina started to say, but Liam put a hand up to stop her.
“Shut up,” he said. “I’ll get to you.”
“Fine, son,” Constantine said as she struggled to push himself up to a sitting position, his face dark and angry. “I don’t know what exactly you hope to accomplish with this and why you think it’s appropriate to discuss this while I’m in the hospital because of an attack from a terrorist group–”
“You’re not here because of a terrorist group,” Liam said calmly. “You’re here because of what I did to your rice wine.”
“What are you talking about?” Constantine asked, his voice a low growl.
“I drugged you,” Liam said. “I needed to get you out of there and away from court. Both of you,” he added, glancing at Regina.
“You did this?” Regina asked, her face falling slack with shock. “How…how could you?”
“I did what I had to,” Liam said.
“Poisoning your father was what you had to do?” Constantine asked angrily. “This is treason!”
“Actually, I’m the ruling monarch now,” Liam said. “As the former king, you’re now expendable. Besides, you’ll be dead soon anyway, so why does it matter?”
Constantine glared at Bastien. “You told him.”
“No,” Liam said, pulling his father’s attention back to himself. “I’m not an idiot; I knew you were sick. I just didn’t realize you’d go this far.”
“I did what I had to in order to protect this family,” Constantine spat. “I did what was necessary to preserve the reputation of this family. I wasn’t going to let some slutty waitress come in and make us look like fools because she decided to go slumming.”
Bastien took a step forward but Alice put a hand on his arm, stopping him.
“You stupid old man,” Liam said, his eyes never leaving his father’s face. “Alice had already withdrawn from the social season. I invited her to stay as my guest because she’s my friend. In turn, she agreed to stay and keep up the pretense of being a suitor to avoid the negative press. But you decided to intervene so that I would choose Madeleine.”
“She was the only acceptable choice,” Regina said as she squared her shoulders confidently. “We did what was necessary.”
“How was that necessary?” It took Alice a moment to realize she was the one who had spoken. “Why did you have to go that far?”
“Constantine insisted on keeping Bastien out of it, so Tariq was Madeleine’s suggestion,” Regina said, leveling her gaze at Alice. “We made a choice and did what we had to in order to protect you and Cordonia.”
Alice felt too present in the moment, too hyper-aware of every detail in the room. The slight burn of sterility in her nose, the harsh fluorescent light above, the dress on her body that suddenly felt too tight, too wrong, too inappropriate for what was happening. Then she felt Bastien’s hand close around hers, anchoring her to him. She squeezed his hand, unable to do anything else.
“And now I’m making a choice,” Liam said. “With the recent threats we’ve received, I can’t afford to publicly drag you through the mud the way you deserve. So, I have an alternate plan.”
“Liam–” Constantine tried, but his son stopped him.
“Be quiet. As you are unfortunately needed for public functions, you will be allowed to attend. However, effective immediately, you are both on house arrest. The guards outside your door have ankle monitors that will be placed on you. As soon as you are discharged from the hospital, you will be sent back to Cordonia. You may remain in the palace, but you are relegated to your quarters and your quarters only. You will not have contact with anyone other than the guards I have appointed and you will be under constant surveillance. You will not so much as sneeze without my knowing.”
“You can’t do that!” Regina protested.
“I can and I will,” Liam said. “And if anything–and I mean anything–happens to Alice or Bastien–or Olivia,” he added, glaring at Regina, “then I will lock you up and do to you what you did to my mother.”
“Eleanor died from an undiagnosed heart condition,” Constantine said, his voice low and warning.
Liam smiled humorlessly. “You never were a good liar.” He knocked on the door and it immediately opened. The two guards from outside entered and began to put ankle monitors on the former king and queen.
“You can’t expect me to wear this in public!” Regina protested, her eyes fiery. “People will see.”
“Wear a long dress,” Liam said dismissively. Once the ankle monitors were in place, Liam led Alice and Bastien out of the room, followed by the guards. Liam, Bastien, and the two guards quickly conferred with one another, but Alice was unable to listen. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears and she felt a little lightheaded as she leaned against the wall.
“Hey,” Bastien said. “Are you okay?”
Alice nodded as Liam joined them. “Yeah, I just…I can’t believe that just happened.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you both sooner,” Liam said. “I just…well, if I’m honest, part of me wasn’t sure if I’d be able to go through with it.”
“Liam…you didn’t have to do that,” Alice said.
“Yes, I did,” Liam said. “They’ve caused enough damage and it needed to come to an end.”
“What about Madeleine?” Alice asked.
“I’m going to break off the engagement, obviously,” Liam said. “Past that…it’s really up to you.”
“Up to me? Why?” Alice asked.
“I’m having trouble locating Tariq,” Liam said. “But I’m still looking. Once I find him, I’m going to file formal charges against him and have him extradited to Cordonia to stand trial. I’d like to charge Madeleine, too, but I don’t know if there’s enough of a case to really charge her with anything since all she did was suggest Tariq go to your room.”
Alice nodded. “She’s an evil bitch, but it’s not like she told Tariq to attack me. That’s on him.” Bastien put his arm around her and she leaned into him, grateful to feel him so solidly beside her.
“I’ll figure something out,” Liam said. “Unfortunately, I still have to play to the press’s proclivities, so I can’t end the engagement until we get back to Cordonia.”
“The threats have gone a little quiet, but I suspect this might be the calm before the storm,” Bastien said. “There’s no telling what they’ll do, but we have to be vigilant.”
“Exactly,” Liam said. “And a united nobility will inspire more confidence in the people of Cordonia than a broken engagement mid-tour.”
“This is…a lot,” Alice said. “I’m sorry I can’t say more right now, but everything still feels kind of surreal.” She stepped forward, wrapping him in a hug. “I don’t know what I did to deserve a friend like you, but thank you.”
Liam hugged her tightly. “You’re welcome.”
Later, as Bastien drove Liam and Alice back to the hotel, Alice pulled out her phone.
Thank you, Jon Snow
It only took a couple of minutes for Olivia to respond.
The north remembers.
Back in their hotel room, Alice sat on the bed as Bastien went into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She felt like she still couldn’t fully process what had just happened, and yet she knew it was real. Her mind was awash with so many thoughts but she couldn’t focus on any of them except for one.
Alice stood up and reached behind her back to unzip her dress, letting the airy blue fabric float to the floor around her feet. She removed her underwear and pulled a robe from the closet, her heart beating rapidly with anticipation. She wrapped herself in the soft terrycloth and took a deep breath. Finally ready, she knocked on the bathroom door.
“Can I come in?”
Alice opened the door and was momentarily stilled by the sight of Bastien through the clear glass of the shower door, water coursing over his toned body. He looked over at her, concerned.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
“Just wondering if you might want some company,” she said, her voice steadier than her nerves. However, that all faded away as soon as the smile lit up his face.
Alice untied the robe and let it fall to the floor before she crossed the room and stepped into the shower, welcoming the patter of water against her bare skin as Bastien wrapped his arms around her waist. He trailed his lips over her neck before capturing her mouth in a kiss as she slid her hands around his shoulders. Alice lost herself in the feel of his hands on her body, his fingers tracing watery pathways that ignited sparks across her skin. She ran her hands down to his hardening length and he moaned softly against her tongue as she touched him.
“Are you sure?” he asked softly, pulling back to look her in the eyes. She nodded.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m sure.”
Bastien kissed her, hands cupping her face as she continued to touch him slowly and deliberately before his hands slid over her slippery skin, calloused fingers brushing over her breasts. Alice arched her back into his touch as he began to kiss his way down her body, flicking his tongue over each hardening nipple in turn until her moans filled the steamy air. Then and only then did he continue moving down, licking the water from her skin until he knelt in front of her. He flicked his eyes up to hers and she met his gaze and nodded. He braced her against the wall with one hand as he lifted one of her legs up and onto his shoulder. Bastien kissed her inner thigh, moving closer and closer to her center until he finally reached it. He brought his tongue to her, urged on by her sigh of pleasure as she raked her fingers through his wet hair. He reveled in the taste of her, the taste he’d missed during their time apart, and he forced himself to take his time instead of devouring her like he desperately wanted to do.
When her hips began to rock against his mouth, he teased her entrance with a finger, waiting for her approval.
“Please,” she begged, her voice barely audible over the rushing water of the shower.
He slipped a finger inside of her, then another as he continued to caress her with his tongue. He was rewarded with a desperate moan as her hips bucked against his mouth and her fingers knotted in his hair. Bastien sucked hard on her clit and curled his fingers as he pumped them in and out of her, sending her over the edge, her cries echoing across the tiles.
When her orgasm faded, Bastien finally, regretfully, trailed his lips away from her, carefully setting her shaking leg back down on the ground as he kissed her hip, her stomach, her chest, her neck, and finally her mouth again as she clung to him. Alice pressed him to her, as if she could fuse them together into one person.
“Are you okay?” he murmured, his lips brushing against her ear. She nodded.
“I want you,” she said breathlessly. Bastien reached over to turn off the water, but she stopped him. “Here. Please, Bas, I can’t wait. I’m on the pill. Please.”
He kissed her, hard, as Alice wrapped her leg around his waist, drawing him to her. She reached down to guide him into her and he went slowly, giving her time to adjust, inch by delicious inch.
“Still okay?” he asked. She nodded, kissing him deeply as she rocked her hips against his. “Fuck, you feel so good,” he groaned. Bastien set a slow pace, taking his time to savor the way she felt, focusing on the way her breath caught with each push.
After a while, it was hard to go slowly anymore as Alice’s body undulated against him, her nails digging into his shoulders. Bastien could feel he was close, but so was she so he held himself back as he slipped a hand between their water-slicked bodies, thumb circling her clit.
“Yes…Bas–” Alice tried to say, the rest of his name melting into a wordless moan as she came again, her orgasm pulling him into his own release, pulsing inside of her as his fingers dug into her hip.
Still breathing hard, Bastien pulled out and carefully set her leg down, wrapping his arms around her as he rested his forehead against hers.
“More than okay,” she said as she tried to catch her breath. She kissed him and he held her tightly, wishing they could stay there forever.
Later, as they lay in bed together with limbs intertwined, Bastien kissed her forehead.
“Do you want to talk about what happened at the hospital?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Alice said. “I guess I’m still in shock that that really happened. Do you want to talk about it? I can’t imagine what this is like for you.”
He shook his head. “Not really. I’m relieved though; I feel like I don’t have to keep watching over my shoulder to make sure Constantine and Regina aren’t coming for you anymore.”
“Do you think Liam’s plan will work?”
Bastien nodded. “I do.”
“So that means…we can be together?”
He smiled and pulled her closer to him. “We are together.”
“You know what I mean,” she said. “We don’t have to sneak around anymore.”
“No,” he agreed as he lightly brushed the hair back from her face. “We don’t.”
She was quiet for a long time, long enough that he thought she might have fallen asleep until she spoke again.
“I love you.”
“I love you so much, Alice.”
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