Summary: The Homecoming Ball!
Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit. Also, parts of this chapter are rough. Sorry.
CW: Violence, guns, blood, character death. I think the references to sexual assault and violence are very minimal, but I’ll throw that in here too just in case.
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, Part 35, Part 36, Part 37, Part 38, Part 39
Alice was dragged out of a deep sleep by a loud, insistent knocking on the door.
“Oh my god, Gray, you have to talk to Maxwell about all the surprise knocking,” Bastien groaned as he buried his head under the pillow.
“That’s not Maxwell’s knock,” Alice said, barely conscious.
Bastien groaned again and hauled himself to his feet. He pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt and headed for the door. Alice heard the door open followed by staccato of stilettos on the floor.
“Jon Snow! I cannot believe that you are still in bed!”
Alice slowly cracked one eye open. “Jesus Christ, Liv, is someone we know in immediate danger?”
“No, but you will be if you don’t open your goddamn eyes.”
With considerable effort, Alice opened the other eye and hauled herself up to a sitting position. She was immediately rewarded by Olivia sitting beside her and nearly shoving a large diamond ring up her nose.
“Liam proposed!” Olivia announced, her face naked with joy.
“Oh my god!” Alice exclaimed, the surprise shaking away some of the fatigue in her brain. “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you,” she said as she put her arms around Olivia to hug her. Olivia froze for a moment but then returned the embrace.
“I would’ve waited until later, but I had to tell someone,” Olivia said, beaming. Alice noticed that behind her, Bastien was shuffling around their small kitchen and adding water to the coffee maker.
“Am I the first person you told?” Alice asked, touched.
“Yes, but don’t make this like…a thing,” Olivia said.
“Sure, Jon Snow. Okay, start from the beginning and tell me everything,” Alice said.
Olivia looked down at her ring and smiled. “We had dinner together last night and afterwards, he asked if I wanted to go on a walk with him. I did, and he took me out to the gardens and into the hedge maze. We were talking a lot about stories from when we were kids, and he reminded me of this one time when we were around seven. We’d been playing war—“
“Let me guess, you were winning?” Alice asked.
“Obviously. Anyway, Liam met me at a neutral territory—the fountain at the center of the maze—to broker a peace treaty. He offered a solution that involved joining our countries and I said yes, on the condition that I remain the queen. Liam immediately got down on one knee to swear fealty to me.”
“That is so cute!”
“Well, it was until a warring faction broke out when I wanted Drake to stand trial for war crimes, but that’s another story,” Olivia said, dismissively waving her hand. “Anyway, last night Liam took me back to that spot. He got down on one knee and told me that he loved me and although it had taken him too long to get back to that spot, he was ready to be mine if I would agree to be his queen just like that day in the maze.”
Alice sniffed as Bastien handed her a cup of coffee and kissed the top of her head before handing a cup to Olivia as well.
“Cream or sugar, Olivia?”
“Should’ve guessed that,” Bastien said with a smile before he walked back to pour a cup for himself.
“Alice, are you crying?” Olivia asked.
“No,” Alice said petulantly as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’m just…okay, you know what? Fine. I’m crying because I’m not a soulless fucking robot, Olivia!”
“If I’m honest…I cried when he proposed,” Olivia said conspiratorially in a low voice. “But if you tell anyone that, I’ll stab you.”
“I’ll keep it a total secret that you love your fiancé,” Alice promised. “Let me see the ring again.” Alice set down her coffee cup and switched on the lamp on the bedside table as Olivia held up her hand. “Holy shit, that’s the size of a small dog.”
“It was his mom’s ring,” Olivia said. “Passed down from his grandmother.”
“Liv, I’m so happy for you,” Alice said. “Seeing you and Liam together…you’re a really good team. You balance each other out and bring out the best in each other.”
“He makes me so happy,” Olivia said. “Honestly, I didn’t think I could ever be this happy.”
Alice squeezed her hand affectionately. “When are you announcing it?”
“Tonight at the Homecoming Ball,” Olivia said. “Which reminds me, I need you to wear something that isn’t completely embarrassing.”
“Have you been talking to Bertrand?”
“Despite his unfathomable love for sweater vests, Bertrand does sometimes know what he’s talking about when it comes to fashion and image,” Olivia said. “Liam is announcing you as a duchess tonight, and you have to wear something appropriate.”
“Jesus, Liv, it’s not like I was going to show up in clown shoes and pasties.”
“But you could come home wearing those and that would be fine with me,” Bastien called from where he sat at the table with his laptop.
“You’re not helping,” Alice called back.
“Seriously, Alice,” Olivia said. “If you don’t look the part, people might question your ability to take this role seriously and if it looks like Liam made a bad choice by making you a duchess, it’ll call his judgment into question as king,” Olivia said. “Liam knows he made the right choice and I know he made the right choice, but you have to show everyone else that.”
“I see your point,” Alice said. “And I’m guessing this means you hate all of my current clothes and we’re going shopping.”
“It’s intelligence like that that’ll make you an excellent duchess,” Olivia said as she rose to her feet. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Now? Is the palace boutique even open right now?” Alice asked.
“Yes. Now get up.”
Alice and Olivia turned down the hallway to the boutique and Alice felt annoyance flare within her when she saw Justin waiting outside the doors.
“Alice! I thought I might find you here,” Justin said.
“At this godawful hour of the morning? You just happened to be here?” Alice asked dubiously.
“I figured you had to come by sometime,” he said with a shrug. “Anyway, I’m here because I want to congratulate you…and to thank you.”
“Why?” Alice asked, her voice deadpan.
“As I’m sure Bertrand told you, this is my last night working with you and I wanted to tell you what an honor it’s been to work with you. I’ve learned a lot through the engagement tour and more of it than I expected was from you, rather than from the circumstances. You really impressed me, kid.”
“It’s like a compliment, but terrible,” Olivia said brightly with sarcasm.
“Justin, first of all, don’t fucking call me ‘kid.’ Secondly, I agree that you were helpful through a lot of the tour, but I’m still really pissed at how you took it upon yourself—despite explicit instructions otherwise—to share the Tariq information before I had a chance to make my own statement. So, frankly, I’m not sorry to see you go.”
“I understand,” Justin said, nodding contritely. Alice couldn’t help but feel like he was a bad little boy apologizing to his teacher, even though the only reason he was sad was because he’d gotten caught—not because he regretted his actions. “But I hope I’ll get to work for you in the future…maybe our paths will cross again.”
“God, I hope not,” Alice said as she pushed past him and into the boutique. Behind her, she heard Justin yelp when Olivia kicked him in the ankle. She smiled.
“My offer to cut out his tongue still stands,” Olivia said when the boutique door closed behind them.
“If I see him again, I might take you up on that,” Alice said. “Alright, let’s find a dress.”
“Oh, thank god, there’s new stuff in here,” Olivia said as she began to dig through the racks. “Hey! What about this?”
Olivia held up an ice blue ruffled ball gown with delicate detailing on the bodice.
“Wow,” Alice said, reaching out to gently finger the beadwork. “That’s a Cinderella dress.”
“Do you not like it?” Olivia asked.
“No, no, I really like it,” Alice said.
“Good. Go put it on,” Olivia said, pushing the hanger into her arms and turning her towards a nearby dressing room.
“Christ, you’re certainly bossy enough to be queen,” Alice muttered, but she did as she was told. She quickly changed into the dress and stepped back out into the boutique. “So? What do you think?”
“I am so good at this,” Olivia said with a satisfied grin. “Here, I’m getting it for you.”
“What? No, Olivia, it’s too much,” Alice tried to protest, but Olivia tugged the tag from the dress and headed over to the register.
“Shut up. Consider it my my first act as the future queen to the newest duchess,” Olivia said. “Besides, you keep insisting we’re friends. This is what friends do.”
“Thanks, Liv,” Alice said, smiling. “I really appreciate it.”
“Don’t make this a thing,” Olivia warned for the second time that morning.
“Sure, Jon Snow.”
Once they were done, they left the boutique and started to make their way back towards Alice and Bastien’s quarters.
“I’m sure you assumed this, but Constantine and Regina are going to be at the ball tonight,” Olivia said.
“I figured as much,” Alice said, a heaviness settling in her chest. “I’m not exactly looking forward to it, but I know they have to make an appearance for something like this.”
“Liam assured me that he’s going to keep their ankle monitors on and they’re going to be heavily monitored all night. If they so much as sneeze in your direction or attempt to discuss their current incarceration with anyone, they’re going to be removed immediately.”
Alice nodded. “I know, I trust you and Liam. I’m just…they really suck.”
Olivia smirked. “Yeah, they do,” she agreed. “But you’re safe. Between Bastien, Liam, and me, I think we’ve got you covered.”
“Because we’re friends.”
“I told you not to make that a thing.”
Later that afternoon, Alice was walking through the halls of the palace when she rounded a corner and found Maxwell holding his fist out towards Bartie, who stared blankly at his uncle from Savannah’s arms while Drake watched with one eyebrow raised. Maxwell balled Bartie’s tiny hand into a fist and bumped it with his own.
“Teaching Bartie the art of the fist bump already?” Alice asked as she approached them.
“Gotta start early,” Maxwell said with a grin.
“Hey, Savannah,” Alice said, forcing a friendly tone into her voice.
“Alice! It’s so good to see you,” Savannah said, smiling.
“You have good timing, Ayers,” Drake said.
“Well, the gang’s all here,” Drake said, failing to suppress a smile when he looked at his sister. “For the first time in a long time. I’m…I’m really glad you’re back, Savannah.”
Savannah pulled her brother into a one-armed hug, her other arm still supporting Bartie. After a long moment, they parted.
“Wow,” Alice said. “I don’t know the last time I saw Drake willingly participate in a hug.”
“I know!” Maxwell said. “I’m pretty sure I even saw him smile…”
“I hate you both,” Drake said. “But…it isn’t every day your sister and nephew come back to court.”
“I feel honored,” Savannah said as she elbowed Drake. “So, Alice…congratulations on becoming a duchess. The court could use more people like you.”
Alice couldn’t help but notice the tightness around Savannah’s mouth. Was she…jealous? “Thanks,” Alice said, keeping her tone light.
“You know, Alice, between Maxwell and Drake, you’re practically all I hear about. I feel like we’re friends already.”
“Oh…thanks, I’m flattered,” Alice said. Be nice. You told Bertrand you’d be nice. She’s trying.
Savannah opened her mouth to say more but suddenly stopped, her eyes going wide as she stared down the hallway behind Alice. Alice turned to see Bertrand, who had just rounded the corner.
“Savannah…” Bertrand said, frozen to the spot.
“Hello, Bertrand,” Savannah said, quickly regaining her composure. In her arms, Bartie smiled and held his arms out towards his father. Bertrand took a few tentative steps forward, wagering a small smile at his son.
“Hi, Bartie,” Bertrand said softly. He started to reach out a hand to Bartie but Savannah shifted him to her other hip, further away from Bertrand, and he stopped. “I…I just came to speak with Alice. I had no idea you would be here, Savannah.”
“Oh…I thought maybe—“
“Bertrand, just say whatever you came to say to Alice and get out of here,” Drake snapped.
“Whoa, you want to back up a little bit, Walker?” Alice asked.
“We are not having this fight again,” Alice said, her tone icy. “Back off.”
“Hey, Bartie, do you want to go see the gardens?” Maxwell asked a little too enthusiastically. “I’ll tell you all about how I created a squirrel army…”
Maxwell quickly led Savannah, Drake, and Bartie away, leaving Alice and Bertrand alone in the hallway.
“Are you okay?” Alice asked.
“Yeah, I just…wasn’t expecting to see her so soon,” Bertrand said.
“I mean, you knew she might be back in time for the ball tonight,” Alice said.
“Yes, tonight, not right this second when I’m walking through the palace hallways,” Bertrand said. “And…thank you. For what you said to Drake.”
“Drake’s a good guy, he just has a stupidly big blindspot when it comes to his sister,” Alice said dismissively. “Anyway, what did you want to talk to me about?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were ready for tonight,” Bertrand said, straightening up slightly as he regained his composure.
“Olivia took me shopping so I won’t completely embarrass myself, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“She didn’t let you get a black dress, did she?”
“As a matter of fact, she did not.”
Bertrand looked visibly relieved. “Thank the gods for small favors. Do you need anything else for tonight? I’d be happy to give you an etiquette refresher or something if you want one.”
“I think I’m good, but thank you,” Alice said before she pulled out her phone to check the time. “Crap, I need to go start getting ready. But I’ll see you later?”
Later that evening, Alice and Bastien made their way arm and arm through the palace to the Homecoming Ball.
“How are you feeling about tonight?” Bastien asked.
“Excited. Nervous. A little nauseated,” Alice said.
“So, in other words, completely normal.”
Alice laughed. “Exactly.”
When they reached the doors to the ballroom, he squeezed her hand. “Ready?”
She smiled at him. “Absolutely.”
They entered the ballroom and Alice was momentarily stunned by the room’s beauty. The room seemed to shimmer with gold and soft lighting that spilled outdoors as people milled around, sipping champagne and sampling appetizers. She didn’t want to, but Alice started to scan the room, searching for Constantine and Regina.
“I don’t think they’re here yet,” Bastien said.
“Constantine and Regina. They won’t be present until later when Liam makes his announcements about your duchy and his and Olivia’s engagement. Liam wants to ensure that they’re seen, but their presence will be minimal.”
Alice nodded. “That’s good, I guess. I just hate the anxiety of knowing I’m going to see them.”
“I know, but I’ve got you. Hell, if necessary, I’d take a bullet for you.”
Alice laughed. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
They were quickly spotted by Maxwell and Bertrand, and the former waved them over.
“Please just talk to her,” Maxwell was saying to Bertrand as Alice and Bastien joined them. “Tell her how you feel.”
“What could I possibly say at this point?” Bertrand asked.
“Just be honest,” Maxwell said. “Alice, please, back me up here.”
“What’s going on?” Bastien asked.
“Savannah,” Alice explained.
“How do you—“ Bertrand started to ask, but Alice cut him off.
“Because you have a one track mind,” Alice said. “I swear to god, if you and Savannah don’t start being honest with each other I’m going to lock you in a closet until you’re forced to talk.”
“I hardly think that’s necessary,” Bertrand sniffed.
“True,” Bastien said. “They might starve to death first.”
“Bertrand, listen,” Alice said. “You had a connection with her before. Just talk to her like a regular fucking person. Stop talking about House Beaumont and obligations and just talk to her.”
“I remember what you two were like before…everything,” Maxwell said. “I know there’s something there.”
“And even if there isn’t, at least you won’t be in this stupid limbo forever,” Alice said. She softened her tone. “Look, I don’t know her well, but I do see the way she looks at you. She might be selfish and immature and—“
“Alice,” Bastien warned.
“But she likes you. Maybe even more. But you won’t know unless you have a goddamn conversation. So sack up and get over there.”
Bertrand stared at Alice, horrified. “Did you just tell me to sack up?”
“Would you have preferred ‘nut up?’” Alice asked sweetly.
“Fine, I’ll do it, but only because now I’m too appalled by your language to feel nervous,” Bertrand said. He started to say more but was interrupted by the delicate chime of silver on glass. Their group turned toward the sound to see Kiara standing beside a stage with a champagne flute in one hand and a microphone in the other.
“Bonjour!” Kiara said brightly. “It is my honor to kick off tonight’s toasts to King Liam. On behalf of my family, who expresses their regrets for being unable to attend tonight, I want to cordially thank King Liam for the opportunity to participate in the tour.”
“Oh, no…” Bertrand said weakly.
“What is it?” Maxwell asked.
“House Beaumont is expected to participate in toasting King Liam tonight,” Bertrand said.
“You forgot?” Alice whispered incredulously.
“You’re not helping!” Bertrand hissed back at her.
“Well, I’m sorry, I’ve literally never known for you to forget something like this!” Alice whispered back as Kiara wrapped up her toast to polite applause. “Next thing you know, you’re going to tell me that Frankie is your best friend.”
A staff member took the microphone from Kiara and held it out to Rashida who squeezed Hana’s hand before letting go and moving forward to accept it.
“I echo Lady Kiara’s sentiments…” Rashida began.
“It completely slipped my mind,” Bertrand whispered, his face pained. “I’ve been so preoccupied since you told me Savannah and Bartie were coming to Cordonia…but that’s no excuse to be unprepared when the reputation of House Beaumont is on the line.”
“Do you want me to do it?” Alice asked. Bertrand shook his head.
“No, but thank you,” he said. “It’s my fault for being unprepared; I know better.”
“To a beautiful tour filled with history and culture,” Rashida concluded as she held up her champagne flute. The audience cheered and sipped their drinks as the staff member brought the microphone to Adelaide.
“What a delightful party, King Liam,” Adelaide said. Alice could already hear the thickness in her voice. “You have excellent taste in booze.”
“It’s okay to ask for help,” Alice said. “I could do it with you, if you wanted.”
“I…yes, maybe that would be alright,” Bertrand said. “Thank you.”
“To good champagne and good company,” Adelaide finished, holding her glass aloft before she chuckled and drained her glass before handing off the microphone. The staff member brought it over and offered it to Bertrand. He accepted it and turned to face the waiting crowd.
“Hello, everyone,” Bertrand said, his voice faltering for a moment before gaining strength. “I want to thank King Liam for hosting House Beaumont and the rest of court throughout the tour. But I also want to say a few words about our beloved Cordonia,” he paused and swallowed. Alice glanced over at Bastien who shrugged slightly. “Many of us have been away for some time, and…”
He trailed off and Alice followed Bertrand’s gaze to see that his eyes were locked on Savannah, who stood at the edge of the crowd with Bartie on her hip. Oh my god, dude, this is not what I fucking meant. Bertrand cleared his throat awkwardly.
“Ahem…apologies. I was just saying that many of us have been away, and…well…I can’t speak for everyone here, but I know that I, for one, have desperately missed Cordonia.”
“Bertrand?” Maxwell whispered tentatively.
This is not happening right now.
“Which is not to say that the tour was a disappointment!” Bertrand added quickly. “What I mean is that I regret ever leaving our beautiful country…and I want nothing more than to care for her and…her people…for the rest of my life. I promise that as long as Cordonia wants me…I will be with her.”
Alice glanced over at Savannah to see the surprised expression on her face as she watched Bertrand.
“We’re all very happy to be home,” Maxwell said quickly, taking the microphone from his brother. Now, I think Alice had something to add.” He shoved the microphone at Alice so quickly that she nearly didn’t catch it in time.
“Yes,” Alice said, once she recovered the microphone. “As an honorary member of House Beaumont, I would like to propose a toast. Everyone, please raise your glasses to king and country.”
Polite applause filtered through the crowd as the nobles all raised their glasses and took a drink. Alice noticed Olivia standing with Liam, the former barely concealing her laughter at the House Beaumont toast behind her hand. With the toasts finished, the conversation in the room once again swelled along with the music.
“So, that was…” Bastien said, hesitating as he searched for the right words.
“Yeah,” Alice said.
“I think ‘atrocious’ is the word you’re looking for,” Bertrand said.
“Hey, it wasn’t all bad!” Maxwell protested.
“Really? Which part?” Bertrand asked drily.
“Um…Alice’s part was good,” he said.
“Thank you, Alice,” Bertrand said. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“Rather than have a one-on-one conversation, you decided instead to declare your feelings for Savannah in front of the entire court?” Alice asked. “For the record, that is not what I meant when I told you to ‘sack up.’”
“I certainly didn’t plan to do that!” Bertrand said. “I just…I started talking and then I saw her and I forgot everything except how I feel about her.”
“I know the feeling,” Bastien said. Alice glanced at him and squeezed his hand, warmed by his words.
Their group turned to see Savannah standing there.
“Oh!” Bertrand exclaimed. “You…uh…heard the speech, I suppose?”
Oh my fucking god.
Alice quickly led Maxwell and Bastien away from Bertrand and Savannah, although the former didn’t go quietly.
“Hey! What are you doing?” Maxwell protested when they were out of earshot. “I can’t hear anything!”
“I think those two need to have a private conversation. Well, as private as you can get in the middle of a giant party,” Alice said.
“Oh, come on!”
“You’re both missing this,” Bastien said, gesturing towards Bertrand and Savannah. The three of them watched as Bertrand started to reach for Savannah’s hand before he stopped himself, his expression tormented.
“Oh my god,” Alice muttered.
“Is she apologizing?” Bastien asked.
Alice focused on Savannah’s mouth, trying to read her lips. “I think you might be right.”
“We’d know for sure if you hadn’t insisted we leave,” Maxwell pouted.
“Oh my god, you are such a little brother,” Alice said. Then the three of them watched as Savannah reached out and took Bertrand’s hand.
“Finally!” Maxwell exclaimed loudly enough to attract Bertrand’s attention. “Whoops. I’m going to go find some appetizers,” he said before quickly fading into the crowd.
“Hey, do you want to go somewhere more private for a minute? I want to talk to you about something,” Bastien said.
“Sure,” Alice said. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I just feel like I need a breather.”
Bastien led Alice through the party and out onto an empty terrace that overlooked the gardens.
“It’s really beautiful out here,” Alice said as she leaned on the railing to look out at the view.
“It is,” he agreed as he stood behind her, wrapping his arms around her. “It’s funny, I’ve been at the palace for so long that I can’t always see the beauty of it anymore. But with you, everything feels new again.”
Alice turned slightly in his arms and gently kissed his cheek. “I love you.”
They were quiet for a while, listening to the distant, ambient sounds of the party, before Bastien held her a little tighter and recited a quote from Christopher Marlowe’s poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”
“’The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing/For thy delight each May morning:/If these delights thy mind may move,/Then live with me and be my love.”
Alice smiled. “I do live with you and I am you love.”
“I’m serious, Alice,” Bastien said. “Marry me. Tonight.”
“What?” she asked, turning to face him.
“I told you I’d wait forever for you and I will if you’re not ready yet. But we could still have a big wedding here in Cordonia or in New York or we could get married by Elvis in Vegas for all I care. All I know is that I don’t want to wait another day to be your husband or for you to be my wife. Please—marry me.”
“You’re insane,” she said, a grin slowly spreading over her face. For all the times she’d felt uncertain, for all the times she needed reassurance that she was doing the right thing, this was the first time she completely sure of the choice she wanted to make.
“I don’t disagree, but that doesn’t answer my question…”
“Of course I’ll marry you!”
He kissed her fiercely, backing her up against the railing. When they finally broke apart, Alice was surprised to see his face glistening with tears.
“Dorian…” Alice said softly as she brushed them away with the tips of his fingers.
“Sorry, I just…I wasn’t entirely sure you’d say yes,” he said with an embarrassed laugh. Alice gently kissed the salt of his tears before she pulled him into a tight embrace.
“Of course I’m saying yes,” she whispered. “You and me, always.”
Bastien pulled back and reached into his pocket. “I don’t have a ring for you yet, but…here.” He pulled out a pen, took her left hand in his, and drew a thin line around her ring finger. “This is a very temporary place holder and I promise to get you a better one soon.”
When he was done, Alice took the pen from him and drew a matching line on his ring finger. “Is the ball over yet? Because I’m ready to go.”
Bastien grinned. “It would probably be bad form to miss Liam’s announcement of you becoming a duchess, but we’ll go the minute it’s over.”
“I can’t wait.”
When Alice and Bastien returned to the ball, they made their way over to the bar where they found Drake sitting alone at the bar.
“Hey, guys,” Drake said, brightening a little when they joined him.
“How are you holding up with all this courtly finery?” Alice asked.
“Well enough, I suppose,” Drake said. “Can I get you guys a round?”
“Thanks,” Bastien said. “Actually, we’re celebrating because—“
At that moment, they were interrupted by Kiara and Penelope joining them at the bar.
“Bonjour,” Kiara said. “How are you enjoying the ball so far?”
“I’m having a ball,” Alice said. Bastien and Drake smirked, but the joke was lost on Penelope.
“Well, yeah, we’re at a ball…” Penelope said as the bartender approached them.
“Let me guess, you’re drinking one of those pink things with an umbrella,” Drake said.
“How’d you know?” Penelope asked.
“It’s hard not to notice when someone drinks one of those travesties instead of a real drink,” Drake said.
“What my incredibly rude friend means by a ‘real drink’ is ‘whiskey,’” Alice said, lightly smacking Drake on the arm.
“Personally, I’ve always preferred wine to cocktails,” Kiara said.
“Look, you can drink all the top-shelf Barbaresco you want, but it’s still going to be old grape juice,” Drake said.
“I’ll…” Kiara’s face reddened. “I will take a Barbaresco, oui.”
“You’re being crankier than usual,” Alice said in a low voice.
“Sorry, I’m a little partied out,” Drake said with a sigh as the bartender returned with Kiara and Penelope’s drinks.
“So, Alice, I hear congratulations are in order,” Kiara said.
Alice glanced at Bastien. “But how did you…”
“Liam and Olivia just told us,” Kiara said. “I think you’re going to make a wonderful duchess.”
“Oh, right. Thank you,” Alice said.
“You deserve to be in Cordonia, Alice,” Penelope said, smiling tentatively at her. “I’m happy you’re staying.”
“Thank you,” Alice repeated. Penelope still wasn’t her favorite person, but the poor girl was clearly making an effort.
“Maybe you can come visit my estate sometime!” Penelope continued.
“Are you going back home?” Bastien asked.
“Hopefully soon,” Penelope said. “It’s been a long time since I visited my parents.”
“I’m sure they can’t wait to see you,” Kiara said. “And for what it’s worth, Alice, you’re always welcome at my family’s estate, too.”
“Thanks, Kiara,” Alice said as another person joined their group.
“Alice! Buona sera, bella,” Francesco said, leaning in to kiss Alice on each cheek. “It’s lovely to see you again.
“Buona sera, Francesco,” Alice said. “Have you met Bastien Lykel?” she asked, gesturing to Bastien behind her.
“Not yet, but it’s a pleasure to meet you, signor,” Francesco said, holding out his hand to Bastien, who shook it.
“Piacere,” Bastien said.
“Ah, parli italiano?”
Francesco and Bastien quickly lapsed into conversation in Italian, with only Kiara able to follow their conversation.
“Do you know what they’re saying?” Drake asked, leaning in towards Alice.
“Nope, I exhausted all of my Italian with ‘buona sera,’” Alice said.
“Still more than I’ve got.”
“Alice, I have heard rumors that you have cause for celebration tonight,” Francesco said, turning his attention back to her. “Now that you’re among the Cordonian elite, do your old friend a favor and put in a good word for Italy with your King Liam.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Alice said with a smile. Francesco beamed at her before excusing himself from the group. Kiara, Penelope, and Drake drifted away as well, leaving Bastien and Alice alone.
“Is it just me or do you keep thinking when people congratulate me, they’re talking about us getting engaged?” Alice asked. Bastien grinned.
“It’s definitely not just you, but I’m glad you’re getting recognition as the newest duchess—even if Liam hasn’t officially announced it yet.”
“How does everyone already seem to know?”
“Because this is court,” Bastien said with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Hello,” Liam said with a smile as he joined them. “How are you enjoying the ball so far?”
“Everything is beautiful and a little overwhelming,” Alice said.
“So, in other words, it’s a success,” Bastien said. Liam grinned.
“Excellent. Well, I wanted to let the two of you know that the fireworks are about to start, if you want to head outside.”
“Thanks, Liam,” Alice said just as Maxwell hurried over.
“Fireworks! In the garden! Thought you ought to know!” he exclaimed.
Alice laughed and they headed outside where they found Drake along with Bertrand, Savannah, and Bartie. A little ways away, Alice saw Hana and Rashida standing together, holding hands as they waited for the show to start. Hana glanced over and saw Alice, giving her a small wave. Alice waved back and squeezed Bastien’s hand a little tighter. However, a frown settled over her face when she noticed Constantine and Regina at the edge of the crowd.
“God. With everything else going on, I forgot they were going to be here,” Alice said quietly to Bastien. He wrapped a comforting arm around her.
“I know, and I’m sorry you have to deal with that tonight,” he said. “But hey, you can just focus on what’s happening after the ball.”
The smile returned to Alice’s face as she looked up at Bastien. “I don’t think we actually decided where we’re going yet.”
“Where do you want to go?” he asked. “I was serious about Vegas, but we could go to New York or Paris or anywhere else you want.”
“Hmm,” Alice said, considering. “I think I want to go to—“
At that moment, a herald stepped out of the palace and announced the countdown.
“Sixty seconds!” Maxwell exclaimed as he waved Alice and Bastien over to join them on the grass. They sat down and Bastien took Alice’s hand, weaving his fingers between hers. She lifted his hand to her mouth and placed a gentle kiss on the line she’d drawn around his finger. Moments later, the fireworks exploded across the sky. Bastien leaned over to whisper in her ear.
“‘The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.’”
“You just read that one last night,” she teased.
“Yes, but it’s even more appropriate tonight,” he said, smiling at her.
“If I’m mad, you’re mad, too,” Alice said, smiling back at him as another firework burst above them.
“‘We’re all mad here.’”
“Do you have the perfect quote for everything?” Alice asked.
“Almost everything,” he said with a grin. She rested her head on his shoulder as they watched the fireworks spider across the stars together.
When the display ended, everyone made their way inside for Liam’s closing speech.
“Have Bertrand and I told you enough times how proud we are of you?” Maxwell asked as they found spots near the stage where Liam was preparing.
“It never gets old,” Alice said. “And to think Drake was so worried about me when I first came here…”
“If anyone was going to prove me wrong about this place not being a fairytale full of happily ever afters, I’m glad it was you,” Drake said.
“I don’t know, I still think Alice is ending up in a fairytale,” Hana said as she and Rashida joined them. “From bartender to duchess…it’s a pretty fantastic story.”
“More importantly, Alice, I feel like you’ve proved how strong you are over and over again,” Rashida said. “I’m not really one for titles, but I’m very impressed with how you’ve handled everything while still managing to stay grounded.”
“Thank you. Both of you,” Alice said.
“In fact, I wanted to talk to you about some nonprofit work I do for a women’s shelter,” Rashida said. “We don’t have to discuss it tonight, but sometime soon I’d love to get together with you if that’s something you’d be interested in.”
“Absolutely,” Alice said. But before she could say more, the chime of silver on glass once again claimed their attention as Liam stood on the stage, smiling out at the crowd.
“Before the evening draws to a close, I want to take the opportunity to thank you all for coming together to celebrate our return,” Liam said. “And to celebrate our new Duchess Alice of House Ayers of Valtoria.”
The room broke into applause and Alice blushed, trying to remind herself to stay composed and look like she knew what she was doing.
“She has shown true strength in the face of adversity, a trait which we born Cordonians know well,” Liam continued. “Revitalizing the old Houses of Cordonia is just one of the ways in which I plan to reinvest in our beautiful country. Please join me in raising a glass once more to her. To Duchess Alice…the newest member of the Cordonian nobility!”
The partygoers echoed Liam’s sentiment and drank to Alice. Liam motioned for her to join him on the stage and she glanced at Bastien who smiled encouraging at her and finally let go of her hand so she could join Liam.
“Thank you, everyone, for your support as I take on this new role,” Alice said to the crowd. “I am incredibly honored to serve Cordonia and I am grateful for everything Cordonia has given me.”
Liam raised his glass to Alice once more before turning back to the crowd as Alice stepped down to rejoin the crowd. “I have another announcement I would like to share with all of you. As you know, I ended my engagement to Countess Madeleine of Fydelia, but Cordonia will not be without a queen.” He paused and turned to look at Olivia, who was standing in the front row. “I am elated to announce my engagement to a woman who is completely unparalleled in all facets, who complements me in every way, and is, above all, my best friend and true love. I only hope that throughout our marriage we will not only serve the Cordonian people well, but that I will be able to show her how much I love her every day. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in raising a glass to my fiancee, Duchess Olivia Nevrakis.
Olivia joined him on the stage and Alice joined the court in raising a glass to the happy couple before leading the applause as Liam bowed to Olivia and gently kissed her hand. Alice looked at Bastien who winked at her.
Suddenly, the ballroom was plunged into darkness. An explosive popping tore through the air, then another. Screams erupted and Alice could hear people starting to flee as the crowd surged around the stage.
“Alice! Get down! Now!”
She could barely make out Bastien’s voice over the cacophony, but she could clearly hear another voice, cold and unfamiliar.
“Now! Take them out!”
The lights flickered back on, illuminating the chaos. Alice looked around frantically but she couldn’t find Bastien or her friends.
“Liam! Get down!” Drake shouted as he pushed through the crowd to reach the stage. At the front of the room, Alice saw Liam and his security team fighting off a dozen assassins. She quickly scanned the area, looking for Olivia, but she couldn’t find the redhead anywhere. Alice watched as Liam ducked under a knife and threw an assassin over his shoulder. She looked to the side and saw Regina lying in a pool of blood, unmoving.
Then time seemed to slow as Alice turned to see one of the assassins aiming a gun directly at her.
“Alice!” Drake shouted, but she was frozen, unable to move.
The assassin pulled the trigger.
Before Alice realized what was happening, Bastien threw himself in front of her, putting his body between her and the bullet. They collided, hard, as the shot hit him, the force of his body on hers knocking the wind out of her.
“Bastien! Oh my god, no!” she gasp, the jolt snapping her back into action. Bastien rolled to the side, clutching his shoulder. When he pulled his hand away, it was slick with blood. “No, no, no, no…” Alice moaned, putting her hands on the wound to stop the bleeding.
“Bastien!” Drake exclaimed as he finally broke the crowd and fell to the floor beside them.
“Drake, help me, we have to get him out of here,” Alice begged.
“No, I—“ Bastien started to protest, but the other two ignored him.
“I’ve got him,” Drake said, helping Alice to her feet first before carefully helping Bastien up. Bastien wobbled slightly on his feet and Alice immediately stepped in, supporting his other side. “There’s a servants’ entrance to the left; we have to stay low.”
Alice carefully kept one hand on Bastien’s injured arm as the three of them hurried through the ballroom and out of the palace. When they burst out through the side door, they nearly crashed into Olivia.
“What happened?” She said when she saw Bastien between them.
“He was shot in the arm,” Alice said before fully registering Olivia in front of her. “Oh my god, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, why?”
“You’re covered in blood!”
“It’s not my blood.”
“Ladies, quick reminder, Bastien is still bleeding,” Drake snapped.
“Drake, I’m fine,” Bastien said as he tentatively touched his wound and winced. “I think the bullet when through my shoulder.” Alice ripped one of the long ruffles off of her dress and quickly tied it around Bastien’s arm as a tourniquet. He grimaced, but seemed to welcome the pain. “Thanks, Gray.”
“There’s an SUV over here,” Olivia said as she quickly led them around the corner. Bastien ducked into the car and punched an address into the console.
“What are you doing? Why are you getting out?” Alice demanded.
“I need to talk to Olivia about Liam. You and Drake get in, Olivia can drive,” Bastien said, doing his best to stay calm. Alice eyed him suspiciously, but she did as he said. Once they were inside, Bastien breathed a sigh of relief.
“What’s going on with Liam?” Olivia demanded.
“He was okay when I left, but I need to get back in there,” Bastien said in a low voice.
“The hell you are.”
“Olivia, I’m not screwing around. You three need to get out of here immediately. I typed in the address for a safe house—I’ll follow you with Liam in another car as soon as I get him.”
“He has a whole security team and you’re injured; you need to come with us,” Olivia said. Bastien sighed, unwilling to look at the car.
“I can’t leave, and I can’t let her stay here with me. It’s too dangerous.”
“What’s to stop her from jumping out of the car?”
Bastien smiled weakly. “When I put in the address for the safe house, I activated the child locks. I am begging you, Olivia—get them out of here.”
Olivia breathed out slowly through her nose, visibly angry. “Fine. But if you die, she’s going to murder you with her bare hands.”
Inside the car, Alice watched Bastien’s exchange with Olivia with growing unease.
“Why aren’t they getting in the car?” she asked.
“He said he needed to tell her something about Liam.”
“That he couldn’t have said in front of us?” Alice asked. Then she saw Olivia turn towards the car as Bastien turned back towards the palace. “No!” she shouted, yanking frantically at the door handle, but it didn’t budge. “Olivia, you let me out of this car right fucking now,” Alice demanded as Olivia quickly climbed in and started the car.
“I’m sorry,” Olivia said, refusing to look at her.
“Fuck your apologies. Bastien! BASTIEN!” Alice screamed, slamming her hands on the window, leaving smeared handprints with his blood in their wake. She scrambled for the window and hit the button to lower it. “BASTIEN! STOP!”
He paused and turned back towards the car. “I’m sorry, Gray. I love you.”
“BASTIEN!” Alice screamed. She tried to climb out of the window, but Olivia hit the gas and Drake had to grab her around the waist and pull her back into the car so she wouldn’t fall out. Even when the car was out of sight, Bastien could still hear her screaming his name. He ignored the tears that fell from his eyes as he double checked the tourniquet she’d tied around his arm with her dress. The wound still hurt like hell, but the bleeding had slowed at least. He pulled his side arm out from the holster under his jacket and took a deep breath before heading back into the ballroom.
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