Guarded Hearts, Part 43

Summary: The Unity Tour arrives in Fydelia and Alice must play peacekeeper between Adelaide and Godfrey. (NSFW)

Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit. Also, smut!

CW: references to terrorist attack, brief reference to character death, mentions of sexual assault

New to the series? Catch up here: Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8,Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13, Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31Part 32Part 33Part 34Part 35Part 36, Part 37, Part 38, Part 39, Part 40, Part 41, Part 42


“Remind me again why I have to wear this goddamn dress?” Alice asked as their car neared Fydelia. Bertrand sighed.

“Because green and black are Adelaide’s house colors and she’s likely to be receptive to you if you show you’re making an effort,” Bertrand said.

“But I’m not trying to convince her to come to my wedding,” Alice said.

“True, but she does seem to like you the best out of all of us—“

“That’s not saying much.”

“—and you have the best chance of getting her to attend the royal wedding,” Bertrand continued.

“Remember, you’re doing this for Liam and Olivia,” Bastien said as he took her hand in his. “This tour was your idea.”

“And I’m about to be appropriately punished for it,” Alice said.

“Alice, you look amazing,” Hana reassured her.

“For what it’s worth, I agree with Hana,” Bastien said as he leaned over and kissed her temple. “Green looks really good with your blonde hair.”

“Thank you,” Alice said, somewhat mollified.

“I hate to add on another task…” Hana said. “But we’ll also need a commitment to attend from her husband.”

“Until this moment, I literally didn’t think of Adelaide as having a husband,” Alice said. “Especially since she can’t seem to keep her hands off Maxwell.”

Maxwell winced.

“Duke Godfrey is a rare sight in Cordonia. He spends most of his year at his holdings, the duchy of Karlington, in England,” Bertrand explained.

“From what I gather, it sounds like he and Adelaide don’t get along very well,” Hana said. “However, that’s why it would be even more impactful if you can convince him to come to the royal wedding. I received word this morning that he’ll be at Madeleine’s estate for the party, so this will be your one opportunity to ensure his attendance.”

“He and Adelaide are notoriously adversarial, and I’ve heard whispers that things are more tense than ever since the end of Madeleine’s engagement to Liam.”

“Yikes,” Alice said. “So all I have to do is convince Adelaide and Godfrey to attend the wedding of their only daughter’s ex-fiance who also happens to be the king?”

“You’ve dealt with worse,” Hana reminded her gently. “I had an idea that you might want to talk to them individually to gain information…you might learn something you can use to help our cause.”

“I have to say, I’m loving this espionage version of you,” Alice said with a smile. “Although it makes me think your talents are greatly wasted as my press secretary when you should be working for Bastien in the intelligence sector of the Royal Guard.”

Hana blushed. “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s simply a matter of using psychology and strategy to create the outcome you want. Really, it’s basic stuff from The Art of War.

“Seriously, I’d hire you,” Bastien said.

“Oh, stop,” Hana said, although she was still smiling. “Anyway, Alice, when you talk to them, I think it would be a good idea to figure out what their grievances are with each other and, if possible, help to resolve them.”

What? Hana, I’m not a marriage counselor!”

“But you’re really good at helping people to resolve their issues!” Hana protested.

“Yeah, you got Savannah and Bertrand to talk to each other,” Maxwell said.

“That’s not the same…you know what? Never mind, we’re here,” Alice said as the limo pulled up to the front of Madeleine’s family’s estate.

“Ready to solve decades of marital bullshit in an evening?” Bastien asked.

“Oh, sure, piece of cake,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.

“That’s the spirit!” Hana exclaimed as their car rolled to a stop behind Liam and Olivia’s. “Go get ‘em, tiger.”

After they climbed out of the car, Maxwell let out a low whistle as they headed for the door. “Wow, look at all this. The decorations have decorations.”

“Madeleine’s estate was already gorgeous, but this is an entirely new level,” Hana agreed.

Bastien slowed his pace and Alice fell back in step with him. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Bastien said. “I just wanted to check on you. Are you doing okay with this? It’s a lot to ask of you.”

“Yeah, I’ve got it,” Alice said. “Hey, what do you know about Godfrey? Besides the fact that he spawned the devil and is married to Adelaide, that is.”

Bastien shrugged. “He’s a renowned English duke, and his marriage to Adelaide was a political one. He’s kind of a prick—pretentious, entitled, and very self-important.”

“I see his daughter takes after him.”

“You’re not wrong,” Bastien said. “But you really are better at this than you think you are. Just think of him as some jerk in a bar.”

“Except I can’t exactly call him a fucking asshole and kick him out when I’m a guest in his house.”

“Think about it like this—court is a lot like the American south. In the south, you say ‘bless your heart’ when what you really mean is ‘fuck you,’” Bastien said.

“Spent a lot of time in the south?”

“I visited the Walker ranch in Texas a few times,” he explained. “Seriously though, just think of Godfrey as someone you can’t tell off, but you can’t let him walk all over you either.”

Alice nodded. “Got it. That kind of reminds me of when the owner would bring in some of his buddies. They were always awful, but I had to put on my customer service face because I didn’t want to get fired.”

“Well, Liam definitely won’t fire you, but that’s a good way of looking at it. Remember—you’re a duchess now, which means you’re at the same level in the royal hierarchy.”

Alice straightened her shoulders as they reached the door. “I might need you to remind me of that.”

“I’m with you all the way.”

Once inside, their group was ushered into a lavish ballroom dripping with green and gold decorations, although Alice was surprised to find the room nearly vacant.

“Wow, it seems so…empty,” Alice said. “I was expecting there to be more people here. It’s a ball, right?”

“Low turnout is to be expected,” Liam said as he and Olivia walked over to join them. “Fear is still pretty high after the attack.”

“Some of the nobility don’t want to risk being seen supporting the monarchy,” Drake added.

“Right,” Alice said. “So, all the more reason for this tour.”

“Exactly,” Liam said.

Alice surveyed the room and saw Adelaide holding court with a few guests. Adelaide looked over and, upon noticing Alice, waved her over.

“Well, I guess I’m up,” Alice said. “Wish me luck.”

“You don’t need it,” Bastien said. “Ready?” he asked, holding out his hand to her.

“Ready,” she said as she took his hand, lacing her fingers between his. They headed across the ballroom, Bastien’s cane tapping on the ornate marble floor.

“Alice! It’s lovely to see you,” Adelaide said, leaning in to kiss Alice’s cheek, her breath heavy with chardonnay.

“You as well, Adelaide. You remember Bastien Lykel?”

“Of course,” Adelaide said with a grin. “It’s hard to miss this sexy specimen skulking around the perimeter of every party.”

“It’s lovely to see you, Duchess Adelaide,” Bastien said politely. “How are you?”

“Oh…you know,” she said, her face falling a little. “Even though we didn’t always get along, it’s been hard without Regina.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Alice said as she bit back her own feelings.

“Thank you, dear,” Adelaide said. “But life goes on, does it not?” she asked as a silver-haired man entered the room and took his place at Adelaide’s side. “Alice, I don’t suppose you’ve met my husband before…this is Godfrey.”

“Duke Godfrey,” he corrected his wife.

“Godfrey, this is Duchess Alice Ayers of Valtoria and Bastien Lykel,” Adelaide continued, ignoring him.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Alice said.

Godfrey looked her up and down, but said nothing and turned to his wife. “Adelaide, the appetizers are cold. I thought you had this party under control.”

“I do,” she said, annoyed. “Don’t worry, we’re serving dinner soon so you can be disappointed by the entrees as well.”

“Try to slow down on your wine, dear,” Godfrey said. “We don’t need you causing a scene tonight.” With that, he turned and walked away. Adelaide watched him go, hurt evident on her face, before she quickly composed herself.

“Please let me apologize for my husband,” Adelaide said. “He’s been very tense lately since the attack, and with Madeleine gone on assignment…well, it’s a lot.”

“Of course,” Alice said smoothly as she smiled reassuringly at her. “I have to say, the decorations in here are stunning. We were all floored by them when we came in.”

“Thank you,” Adelaide said, brightening a little. “I like your dress, by the way. Wearing our house colors…I appreciate the gesture.”

“Thank you. Just a small token of my appreciation for you welcoming us all back to your home,” Alice said as Adelaide drained the last bit of wine from her glass.

“I’m pleased to have you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to speak to a bartender about a refill,” Adelaide said, waggling her fingers at them in a wave before she turned and walked away.

“That…uh…could’ve gone worse,” Alice said.

“You did well,” Bastien assured her as Olivia walked over to join them. “Hey, Olivia.”

“Hey,” she said. “Enjoying the party so far?”

“Nothing’s on fire yet, so I guess it’s so far so good,” Alice said. “Where’s Liam?”

“He’s off making the rounds. We’re both supposed to be making ample time for the nobles who attended tonight, but I wanted to stop by and check in on you to see how you’re doing,” Olivia said. “I saw you talking with Godfrey.”

“That implies that there was a back and forth resembling a conversation,” Alice said. “Any advice?”

“He’s like a less chaotic Joffrey Baratheon inside Stannis Baratheon,” Olivia said.

“That actually helps,” Alice said, nodding. “I’ll make another pass at him later.”

“Good. Anyway, I just wanted to say hello. Good luck, Jon Snow,” Olivia said, putting a hand on Alice’s arm and nodding to Bastien before heading back out into the sparse crowd.

“Am I the only one who feels like every eye is on me because the room isn’t very full?” Alice asked.

“‘I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy,’” Bastien quoted.

“Alright, Gatsby, let’s go find our seats for dinner,” Alice said. “But you’re not wrong. It’d be much easier to sneak out of a large party for a moment alone with you.”

Bastien held out his arm to her and she looped hers through his. “I think our first party at Valtoria should be an excessively big one for that exact reason.”

“Agreed.”

They made their way over to their table and after helping Bastien with his chair, Alice took her seat between him and Bertrand.

“How’d it go?” Bertrand asked.

“Godfrey and are going to exchange friendship bracelets later,” Alice said.

“Really?”

“No, he’s a dick who didn’t want to acknowledge my existence.”

Bertrand sighed. “Well, at least there’s still time. For appearance’s sake, Adelaide and Godfrey will be seated together during dinner, but I’ll devise a way to ensure they separate after the meal so you can talk to them individually.”

“As long as the plan doesn’t involve sacrificing Maxwell, that sounds like a good idea,” Alice said.

“Yes, please,” Maxwell said as the servers brought out the first course.

“Is that…pasta? At a noble party?” Drake asked, surprised.

“Yes! I got a copy of the menu earlier today, but I wanted you all to be surprised,” Hana said. “It’s truffled pasta.”

Alice took a bite. “Oh my god.”

“Oh my god good or oh my god bad?” Hana asked.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had anything this good in my life,” Alice said.

“Duchess Alice! I was hoping to see you here,” Neville said as he approached their table, resting a possessive hand on Hana’s shoulder. She flinched. “I didn’t get the chance to offer my felicitations at the Homecoming Ball, what with the…unfortunate turn of events.”

“Thank you,” Alice said slowly, not taking her eyes away from the hand on Hana’s shoulder.

“I just wanted to say bully for you! What interesting times we live in when a lowly commoner can rise to such heights…even more so when we see who your escort is for the evening,” Neville continued,  glancing disdainfully at Bastien. “Mr. Lykel, aren’t you looking…put together? Especially after that bold display you put on at the Homecoming Ball.”

“Weren’t you one of the first ones to run out of the ballroom?” Bastien asked. “In fact, I’m fairly certain I saw you push several noble ladies into harm’s way in your hurry.”

“As a lord, I’d say my safety was more important than theirs,” Neville said.

“Well, as a duchess, I’d like to cordially invite you to get your hand off of my friend and go choke on a bag of rancid dicks,” Alice said sweetly. Neville glared at her, but he let go of Hana. Both Bertrand and Drake choked on their food at her words, although the latter’s was due to laughter.

“Ah, yes, Mr. Walker,” Neville said, turning to Drake. “I’ve always pitied the dogs whose owners insist on dressing them up in silly little suits. It’s cruel, really. The dogs don’t enjoy it, and the novelty is fleeting at best. Besides, there’s no point to it. After all, you can put a mongrel in a suit jacket, but you still shouldn’t seat him at the dinner table.”

“Hey!” Drake said angrily, starting to rise to his feet, but Bastien caught his eye and shook his head slightly.

“Angry, are we? Oh, please, I’d love to see you settle this with your brute strength,” Neville said. “After all of the honors and privileges that King Liam has heaped on you, how nice to repay him by causing a disgraceful scene.”

“Did you just come over here to insult us?” Hana asked, annoyed.

“Heavens, no,” Neville said. “As I said, I simply wanted to offer Lady Alice my well wishes, and to thank her for organizing this tour. Now that I’ve said as much, I’ll take my leave.” He bowed low, though his smile was mocking, and strode away.

“Eat bees!” Alice called sweetly after him before she turned to Hana. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m just glad he’s gone,” Hana said, looking equally angry and relieved. “Thank you…for what you said.”

“I don’t normally condone language like that, but in this case I think it was warranted,” Bertrand said. “Hana, are you sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah, just…would you excuse me? I need to go call Rashida,” Hana said as she stood up and hurried out of the ballroom.

“I heard he’s not even planning to go to the wedding,” Maxwell said.

“I’m not exactly heartbroken over that, but then why come on the unity tour?” Alice asked.

“I overheard him saying that he’s not sure he’ll support Liam, and he just wanted to go on the tour to find a wife.”

“To prey on women is more like it,” Bastien said, narrowing his eyes as his gaze followed Neville across the room. “Excuse me, I’m going to go talk to the security team about putting someone on him at all times.” He stood, waving off Alice’s help. “I’ve got it, Gray. Thank you,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “I’ll be right back.”

“Can you check on Hana too if you see her?” Alice asked.

“Of course.”

“Did you hear him say anything else?” Alice asked Maxwell as Bastien left the table.

“He was talking about…well, about Liam giving handouts to commoners instead of honoring the nobility,” Maxwell said.

“Well, he’s a dick,” Alice said dismissively. “I hate that we’re going to have to see him on this tour, though.”

“No kidding,” Drake said sullenly as he stared at his food.

“Drake, what he said is not a reflection of you, it’s indicative of his own character or lack thereof,” Alice said. “Hey—look at me,” she said, tossing a bread roll across the table at him and hitting him in the forehead.

“Alice!” Bertrand admonished her. “We do not throw food at formal functions!”

“Hey!” Drake protested.

“Drake, I’m serious, I need you to hear me. Neville could never hope to be half the man you are, and I think he knows it which is why he’s so awful. You, on the other hand, are brave and kind and generous. And if you fucking forget that, I’m going to keep throwing stuff at you.”

“Okay, okay,  Ayers,” Drake said as he held up his hands in resignation, although he was smiling a little. “I got it. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now, if you all will excuse me, I’m going to go check on Hana and Bastien,” Alice said as she stood up.

Alice made her way out of the ballroom and wandered down the halls, looking for either of them. She ended up outside where she found Bastien sitting alone on a couch by a cozy fire burning in a fire pit in the gardens to stave off the crisp evening air.

“Hey, you,” Alice said as she walked over and sat beside him.

“Hey,” Bastien said, smiling at her. “Did you see Hana? She just went back inside.” Alice shook her head. “You must have just missed her.”

“Is she okay?”

“Yeah, she called Rashida and I think she feels better.”

“Did you set up the security detail?”

Bastien nodded. “I was about to head outside and figured I’d stay out here for some air.”

“Are you doing okay? You’re not bothered by what Neville said, are you?”

“No, I’m fine,” Bastien said with a shrug. “He’s just an annoying little shit and his opinion has no effect on my life.”

“Good,” Alice said as she leaned against him. “Hey, look, we found a way to sneak away even though it isn’t a large, intimate party.”

Bastien smiled as he wrapped his good arm around her. “We did, didn’t we? Although we probably shouldn’t stay out here for long; we’ll be missed pretty quickly.”

“I know,” Alice said, making no move to get up. “But let’s stay out here for a few minutes.”

“All of my minutes are yours,” Bastien said as he tilted her face up to his and kissed her softly.

“‘There I was, way off my ambitions, getting deeper in love every minute,’” Alice said when they finally parted.

“Now who’s quoting Gatsby?”

“I’m just trying to keep up with you.”

“‘I love her and that’s the beginning and end of everything.’”

“‘He looked at her the way all women want to be looked at by a man.’”

“‘You are the finest, loveliest, tenderest, and most beautiful person I have ever known—and even that is an understatement.’”

“‘They’re a rotten crowd’, I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’”

“‘I knew the moment I kissed her my heart would be married to her, so I waited just a moment longer, and then I let myself go.’”

“‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’”

Bastien laughed. “Seriously?”

“Fine, you win! I’ve already used all the romantic Gatsby quotes I can remember!” Alice exclaimed.

Bastien grinned and kissed her again. “Believe me, I won the first time you looked at me.”

Alice kissed him one more time before she stood up and held out her hand. “Shall we?”

Bastien took her hand and allowed her to help him to his feet as he leaned heavily on his cane. “Yes. Let’s go back inside so you can invite more people to eat bees.”

“Meh, I should’ve said wasps.”

“You’ll get it right next time. I have faith in you.”

***

Once they were back inside, Bertrand hurried over and nearly crashed into them.

“Alice, there you are! I’ve been looking all over for you,” he said, slightly out of breath.

“Is everything okay?” Alice asked. “Jesus, Bertrand, breathe.”

“Adelaide is talking to Olivia and Liam is talking to Godfrey,” Bertrand said. “Now would be a perfect time to go talk to them.”

“Alright, I’ll see what I can do,” Alice said.

“Do you need backup?” Bastien asked.

“No, I’m good,” Alice said, then reconsidered. “Well, for now anyway—keep an eye out for desperate hand gestures.” She looked over to where Liam and Godfrey were drinking near the side of the room and sighed. “Here goes nothing, I guess.”

Alice made her way across the room and approached them as Liam took a sip of his drink.

“This is an excellent choice of scotch,” Liam said, nodding approvingly. “I’ve never tasted such a perfect blend of smoky and floral before.”

“Yes, I had a case imported from my duchy,” Godfrey said. “It was the only way to find anything worth drinking in this country.”

“That’s what I like so much about scotch,” Alice said. “Once you start to develop a palate for it, there are so many complex subtleties—or at least there should be.”

Godfrey sniffed disdainfully. “I hate to inform you, but that swill Americans pass off as whiskey isn’t of this caliber.”

“Of course not,” Alice said. Fucker. “I’m not really much of a bourbon drinker myself; I’m much more partial to Irish whiskeys. However, I am particularly fond of Speysides like Balvenie and Macallan.”

Liam smiled at her. “Duchess Alice has, by far, one of the most refined palates of anyone I’ve ever met.”

“I would’ve presumed you to be a wine drinker like most of the ladies at court,” Godfrey said as he took a sip of his scotch.

Alice shook her head. “I can appreciate wine for what it is, but I’m much more partial to whiskey.”

“Do you drink it with ice?” Godfrey asked, leveling his gaze at her. Alice recognized the challenge and straightened her shoulders a little.

“I can appreciate how a few drops of water can open up more complex flavors in whiskey, but I prefer it neat,” Alice said. “For me, ice has a tendency to dilute the liquor too much.”

Godfrey nodded and signaled to a passing waiter, pointing to his glass. “One for the duchess,” he said.

Alice glanced over and saw Liam smile encouragingly at her. “Excuse me, but I need to touch base with my security team,” he said as the waiter returned with a glass. Godfrey handed it to Alice and nodded to Liam before the king took his leave. Alice brought the snifter to her nose and inhaled slightly, keeping her mouth slightly open.

“Describe it,” Godfrey said, his face impassive.

“Wood and villa with a hint of spice, a little bit of peat, and…I believe blackcurrants,” Alice said. She took a sip. “It starts out sweet and decadent with vanilla, fudge, and toffee, but they’re quickly followed by peppercorns and, if I’m not mistaken, a little bit of citrus and fruits. But the peat that follows at the end leaves it a little dry, which I like, especially considering the viscous mouth coating. A Macallan, if I’m not mistaken.”

Godfrey nodded. “The Macallan 50. You have an exceptional palate. I’m impressed, considering you’re the woman behind Cordonia’s downfall.”

“The devil has many talents,” Alice said, smiling wryly at him. He chuckled.

“You’re amusing. Although, I suppose you’d have to be,” he said.

“All I’m missing is the clown nose.”

“I hardly think that would match your dress,” Godfrey said. “But I do appreciate you wearing our house colors.”

“I wanted to show my support for your house,” Alice said. “I think unity is important at a time like this.”

Godfrey sniffed, but said nothing.

“Can we expect to see you at King Liam and Duchess Olivia’s upcoming wedding?” Alice asked as she took a sip of her scotch.

“I must say, a verbal invitation is quite unconventional,” Godfrey said.

“It might be unconventional, but I think it brings an element of personal investment,” Alice said. “As you know, these are tumultuous times in Cordonia. Your presence would go a long way in showing both our citizens and our enemies that we remain strong and united.”

“I appreciate the situation our king and his betrothed find themselves in, but I won’t be attending,” Godfrey said.

“May I ask why?”

“You may ask anything you want, but that does not necessarily mean you’ll get an answer,” Godfrey said.

Jesus Christ, I see where Madeleine gets it. “Is it because Liam broke off the engagement with Madeleine? I imagine that must have been embarrassing for you.”

Godfrey glowered at her. “Not that it’s any of your business, but as a matter of fact, I am. I am utterly humiliated. Madeleine is my only child,” he said. “Her legacy, and consequently mine, will consist of losing two crown princes.”

“I can only imagine this must have been difficult for your family,” Alice said evenly. Having an evil cunt for a daughter would be difficult for anyone.

“Adelaide seems to think there’s nothing wrong with Madeleine’s failures,” Godfrey said, glancing over at his wife as he took a sip of his scotch. “In fact, she seems to think it would be best for Madeleine to give up on her ambitions altogether. This new position as a diplomat…it feels like such a weak consolation prize, and I’d rather not expose myself to the indignity of courtly gossip after my daughter’s defeat. Second defeat,” he clarified, before nodding towards her glass. “Enjoy your scotch. Good evening, Lady Alice.” With that, he left, striding off across the room. Alice took another sip of her drink and surveyed the room for Adelaide. She quickly located her near the fireplace, where she was talking to a very trapped-looking Maxwell.

Uh-oh. I’m coming, bud, Alice thought as she made her way towards them.

“I can’t tell you how delighted I am to find you here,” Adelaide said, putting one hand on Maxwell’s arm. Maxwell swallowed uncomfortably.

“You know me, I never miss a good party,” he said weakly. When he saw Alice approaching, his face lit up. “Alice! There you are,” he said, relieved, as he put an arm around her shoulders.

“Hey, having fun?” Alice asked.

“The most fun,” Maxwell said. “Duchess Adelaide, please excuse me, I need to find my brother.”

“Hurry back!” Adelaide called after him as Maxwell all but jogged away across the room. “I’m always happy to see him and even happier to see him walk away…” She turned to Alice. “So, dear, how are you enjoying the party?”

“Everything’s lovely, Adelaide, the food was incredible,” Alice said.

“I wouldn’t know, I didn’t eat much of it,” Adelaide said.

“Everyone at my table was raving about it,” Alice assured her. “You certainly know how to throw a ball.”

“We all have our talents,” Adelaide said. “Alright, out with it—I can tell you want something.”

“I wanted to talk to you about Liam and Olivia’s upcoming wedding,” Alice said.

“I like that you’re direct, at least, but I won’t be attending,” Adelaide said. “As though the disgrace of attending a formal wedding alone wasn’t enough to deter me, things are simply too fraught in my house to prioritize something like that.”

“You and Godfrey aren’t getting along?” Alice asked, hoping Adelaide would continue to appreciate her forthrightness.

“You saw our exchange when you arrived,” Adelaide said as she took another sip of her wine. “And things with Madeleine are…well, you’re no stranger to that particular dynamic.”

“It sounds like things must be pretty tough for you,” Alice said.

“Watching Madeleine go through a second failed engagement is no picnic,” Adelaide agreed. “I know there’s more she isn’t telling me, but whatever else is going on, she’s still my daughter and I want to be there for her.”

Alice felt a twinge of sympathy for Adelaide. Despite how much she hated Madeleine for what she’d done to her, Alice still felt for the sad woman in front of her who only wanted to connect with the one person in her life she seemed to truly love.

“It’s only made worse by the fact that she won’t let me help,” Adelaide said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think the diplomatic assignment she’s on was little more than a ruse to get away from me.” Something in her expression shifted, anger seeping around the edges of her sadness. “As if that wasn’t enough, Godfrey chose now of all times for his annual visit. As though I didn’t already feel like a failure of a mother. And of course, my husband is already putting pressure on Madeleine to return to court when what she needs is to put herself first for a change. I know she’s honored to be a diplomat, but the girl never takes any time for herself. I wish she’d just talk to someone. You know, open up.” Adelaide fixed her hazy gaze on Alice. “It’s too bad the two of you don’t get along; she’d probably benefit from having a friend like you.”

Too bad she tried to set me up to be raped, Alice thought, struggling to keep her face neutral.

“Never mind, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t bother you with this,” Adelaide said. “Please, go enjoy the party. Someone has to.” She offered Alice a hollow smile before heading off, leaving Alice alone by the fireplace.

“How’s it going?” Hana asked as she and Bastien joined Alice from where they had been waiting nearby. “That looked…tense.”

“Tense, but informative,” Alice said. “I guess I just have to figure out how to turn this information into some kind of truce.”

“What’d you learn?” Bastien asked.

“Godfrey is embarrassed that his daughter was publicly dumped by both Leo and Liam, partly because it reflects poorly on him,” Alice said. “Plus, he thinks Adelaide wants Madeleine to give up on all of her ambitions, which, again, reflects poorly on him. Adelaide, on the other hand, just wants Madeleine to open up to her and take time for herself. Plus, Godfrey is being a real dick to her, so that’s definitely not helping.”

“Hmm…let me think on this for a minute,” Hana said. “Clearly, they both love their Madeleine, so maybe there’s some way we can bond them over that.”

“Plus, Godfrey gave you some of the good scotch,” Bastien said, pointing at her glass.

“So?”

“That’s his version of a friendship bracelet,” Bastien said. “He only shares with people he likes and members of the monarchy who rank above him.”

“He did call me the woman who caused the downfall of Cordonia,” Alice said.

“True, but he still gave you the scotch,” Bastien said. “The man does not like to share.”

“Well, well, looks like you’ve resorted to drinking in order to deal with your inadequacies,” Neville said with a smug smile as he joined them. “I see you’ve decided to take after Adelaide.”

“Oh, fuck off, you little weasel,” Alice said as she rolled her eyes. “Don’t you have anything better to do than be annoying?”

“As it happens, the scotch Alice is drinking was gifted to her by Godfrey from his private selection,” Hana said, her voice even and her gaze steely. Neville’s face slackened with surprise but he recovered quickly.

“Bastien, I feel like I should warn you,” Neville said, turning to face him. “If Alice continues down this path to be like Adelaide, you certainly won’t be the only one warming her bed. After all, I don’t buy this Me Too nonsense and we both know she already has the reputation of being somewhat of a slut…”

Bastien’s foot moved so fast Alice wasn’t entirely sure she’d seen it move at all, but Neville suddenly grunted with pain bending over to clutch at his shin. He gagged, but kept the contents of his stomach down.

“You should probably go sit down,” Bastien said calmly as he leaned on his cane. “Muscle spasms are the worst.”

“You’ll pay for that,” Neville grunted, his voice thick with pain, but he left, limping away. Alice and Hana both turned to Bastien, eyes wide.

“What did you do?” Hana asked, impressed.

“I hit the pressure point on his tibialis anterior muscle,” Bastien said. “A harder blow might’ve broken his leg, but I just hit him hard enough for it to hurt like hell. Plus, pain in that spot can cause nausea. If I’d broken his leg, splinters could have torn blood vessels, but I decided to let him walk away…this time.”

“God, I have never been as attracted to you as I am right now,” Alice said as she looped her arm through his.

“Can you teach me to do that?” Hana asked excitedly.

“Yes. Actually, all of you should probably do a self defense class at some point, but I think we still have another mission to accomplish tonight,” he said.

“Ugh, fine, but nearly making Neville vomit from pain is way more interesting,” Alice said. “Okay, back to Adelaide and Godfrey. Any ideas?”

As if on cue, they suddenly heard a heated argument building behind them. All three of them turned to see Adelaide and Godfrey arguing.

“Uh-oh,” Hana said.

“You know what, Godfrey? Screw decorum,” Adelaide snapped. “You act like you care about Madeleine’s future, but it’s clear that you feel nothing but contempt for your family.”

“Will you please keep your voice down?” Godfrey hissed. “I thought this party couldn’t get any more disastrous, but then you have to go and make a scene!”

“Get in there,” Hana said, pushing Alice towards them.

“What? No, I—“ Alice started to say, but Adelaide and Godfrey suddenly turned to see her approaching and she had no choice but to compose herself. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear—“

“This is a family matter; it’s very inappropriate for you to intrude like this and your input is far from welcome,” Godfrey said, glaring at her.

“Don’t talk to her like that!” Adelaide exclaimed. “You’re the one arguing with me in the middle of a goddamn ball.”

“Why don’t you have another glass of wine, Adelaide?” Godfrey said. “You’re well on your way to breaking your record, so why not just go for a personal best?”

“Perhaps I could help,” Alice tried again.

“Duchess, Alice, your reputation as a meddlesome imp certainly precedes you,” Godfrey said, annoyed.

“I think some outside intervention would be good for us,” Adelaide said, lifting her chin. Godfrey glared at his wife.

“Fine, but can we get out of this goddamn ballroom?” Godfrey asked. “We’re causing a scene.”

“Great idea, let’s go this way,” Alice said, grabbing each of them by the elbow and gently steering them out of the ballroom and into a nearby hallway. Once in the hall, Godfrey wrenched his arm away from Alice and led the way to a door, which he opened to reveal a study. Adelaide and Alice followed him and he all but slammed the door behind them.

“You have thirty seconds,” he said, pointing an angry finger at Alice’s face. She resisted the urge to bite him.

“Adelaide, let’s start with you,” Alice said. “You seem more open to talking things out.” Adelaide nodded. “Okay, so it seems like you’re upset because Madeleine won’t relax and has been…distant lately.”

“She’s always been closed off…” Adelaide said. “I just want to help her.”

“I understand,” Alice said, nodding. “You love her and want to help her. But you also can’t make her into someone she’s not. Some people just aren’t wired for slowing down and taking a break. In fact, some people thrive off of working and keeping busy and it’s hard for them to open up. If you want her to open up to you, it’ll likely have to be on her terms. And if she needs some time to process things before talking to you, you have to accept that instead of trying to force her before she’s ready.”

“It just…it brings me so much pain to see my daughter like this and not be able to help,” Adelaide said.

“I get that, but this isn’t about you and your needs—it’s about her,” Alice said gently. Fuck, I can’t believe I’m doing something that might actually benefit Madeleine. “She copes with things differently from you, and that’s okay. Everyone is different.”

“Not everyone wants to find solace in the bottom of a bottle,” Godfrey muttered. Alice turned to him.

“Alright, I guess it’s your turn now,” Alice said. “Look, it’s reasonable to be disappointed that Madeleine isn’t going to be queen.”

“I didn’t raise my daughter to be second-best,” Godfrey said.

“She’s not,” Alice said. She’s the absolute best at being a terrible fucking human being. “Your daughter is a force to be reckoned with. She and I may not get along, but I respect her drive and ambition,” Alice said, holding back a dry heave. God, Liam and Olivia fucking owe me one. “Isn’t that worth something?”

“The respect of a commoner who’s somehow been given leave to judge her betters is hardly meaningful,” Godfrey said disdainfully.

“Madeleine and I have been competitors and rivals since the moment we met. She’s a fierce adversary, and she takes no prisoners when it comes to getting what she wants. She’s very smart and calculating and has accomplished more in a quarter of her life than most people do in all of theirs.” Selling your soul does have its advantages. “If I, of all people, can look past our differences and see how impressive and formidable she is, I think that means something.”

Godfrey considered this for a moment, softening slightly. “I suppose you have a point. The respect of one’s enemies is a sign of strength and integrity. I know that my daughter has both in spades, but…perhaps I needed a reminder.”

“Families are supposed to face both successes and failures as a unit. That’s the whole point,” Alice said, thinking briefly of Bertrand and Maxwell. “Think about the long histories of your houses. I’m sure they’ve survived wars far bloodier than this one, and their legacies still carry on.”

“Alright, alright, I see your point,” Godfrey said. “I suppose we owe it to our forebears to stand strong in the face of conflict.”

“Godfrey, I know this hasn’t all played out quite the way you would have preferred, but I think we’re better off with everything out in the open,” Adelaide said. “You and I have managed to parent through our differences for years…and Madeleine needs us behind her now more than ever.”

“If we can ever get her to stay home for more than ten minutes,” Godfrey said, although Alice could see the ghost of a smile around his mouth.

“I think you two can take it from here,” Alice said, politely backing away towards the door to the study.

“Alice…thank you,” Adelaide said, catching her hand and squeezing it just a little too hard.

“If this conversation is any indication of your conflict resolution skills, then perhaps King Liam wasn’t completely misguided in elevating you,” Godfrey conceded, the words seeming to sour his mouth.

“Maybe only a stumble instead of a complete and total downfall,” Alice said.

“That remains to be seen,” Godfrey said, although his tone was far less acidic than before. He took a deep breath and straightened up. “You can tell King Liam that we will attend his wedding to Duchess Olivia.”

“Really?” Adelaide asked hopefully.

“Yes,” Godfrey said.

“They’ll be thrilled to hear that,” Alice said, smiling.

She left the study and headed back into the ballroom where she was immediately accosted by Bertrand, Maxwell, and Hana.

“What happened?” Bertrand pleaded as Maxwell grabbed her arm.

“Whoa, chill,” Alice said. “I had to say a lot of nice things about Madeleine, but they’re coming to the wedding.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Bertrand said, visibly deflating with relief.

“How many nice things did you have to say?” Hana asked.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to take a shower hot enough to wash the shame off of me, but I did what I needed to in order to get them there,” Alice said.

“I knew you could do it!” Maxwell exclaimed as he wrapped her in a tight hug and kissed the top of her head.

“Thank you, thank you,” Alice said, smiling. “Hey, do you guys know where Bastien is?”

“He’s sitting over there with Drake and Liam,” Hana said, pointing to a table across the room. “Oh, but before you go, it’s getting late, so I wanted to let you know where we’re heading tomorrow.”

“Valtoria?” Alice asked hopefully.

“Close, but no,” Maxwell said.

“How is that close?” Bertrand asked.

“We have a few more stops to make, but we’ll be in Valtoria in about ten days,” Hana said. “Next, get ready to meet the poodles, because we’re going to Penelope’s estate in Portavira,” Hana said.

“Ugh. Remind me to pick up some extra lint rollers before we get on the train tomorrow,” Bertrand said.

“Not a dog person?”

“Not really,” Bertrand said.

“But they’re so cute!” Maxwell protested.

Alice laughed. “That’s my cue to leave before another pet debate starts…I’ll see you all tomorrow.”

Alice left them and walked over to where Bastien, Drake, and Liam were sitting.

“How’d it go?” Bastien asked as he took her hand and kissed her palm.

“They’re coming to the wedding.”

“Really?” Drake and Liam asked almost simultaneously.

“Really.”

“Thank you so much, Alice,” Liam said. “I know that wasn’t easy and this was a lot to ask of you, but I’m so grateful you made this happen.”

“You’re welcome,” Alice said.

“Ayers, do you want to join us?” Drake asked, leaning over to pull out a chair, but Alice waved him off.

“Thanks, but I think I need to go upstairs and attempt to scrub away the fact that I had to say so many nice things about Madeleine.”

“I’ll walk you,” Bastien said as he pulled himself to his feet. They bid Liam and Drake goodnight before leaving the ballroom, hand in hand.

“I knew you could do it,” Bastien said as they made their way through the estate to their room.

“I’m glad you did because I wasn’t so sure,” Alice said.

“I just wish I could’ve done more to help you,” Bastien said. “I feel like I’ve been slacking.”

“Dorian, you’re still recovering from two gunshot wounds. You’re entitled to take it easy for a minute,” she pointed out. “Besides, it’s not like you didn’t do anything. While I was dealing with the Adelaide and Godfrey situation, you supported me, helped me check on Hana after Neville was a slimy little fuck, and you nearly made him vomit from pain.”

“Actually, I’m pretty sure he went outside and threw up in the bushes.”

“See? Even better,” Alice said as they reached their door. “We’re a team—you’ve got my back and I’ve got yours.”

“Speaking of…” Bastien said as they entered their room and shut the door behind them. “Since you mentioned wanting to wash away tonight, I wanted to draw a bath for you. If you’re up for it, that is.”

Alice grinned and slid her arms around his waist. “I’m always up for it. Although, if you want to get me naked, all you have to do is say so. I’m yours whenever you want me.”

“If I had you every time I wanted you, we’d never leave our bed,” he murmured, leaning in to kiss her, but then he stopped, teasing her as he stayed just out of reach.

“Don’t tempt me,” Alice said as she darted forward, nipping at his lower lip. “Hey, is your leg healed enough to get in the bath with me?”

“As a matter of fact, it is,” he said. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll get everything ready.”

While Bastien went into the bathroom, sat on the edge of the tub, and turned on the water, Alice kicked off her shoes and pulled off her dress, dropping it into a heap on the floor before she flopped down onto the bed.

“You are so incredibly sexy I’m willing to ignore the fact that you didn’t hang up your dress,” Bastien commented with a grin as he watched her through the open bathroom door. Alice turned her head and smiled smugly at him before she reached behind her back to undo her bra, tossing it onto the floor as well. “This isn’t fair, you know. I can’t move as fast as I want to right now, otherwise I’d pounce on you.”

Alice sat up slowly and walked over to him. “I can come to you,” she said.

He leaned his cane against the wall and slowly slid his hands up her thighs. He hooked his fingers in the waistband of her panties and leaned forward to softly kiss her stomach, tugging down the lacy fabric until it fell to the floor around her feet.

“You seem to be wearing too many clothes,” Alice said as she ran her fingers through his hair. “Unless you’re planning on taking a bath while fully dressed.”

“Definitely not.”

Alice helped him slide his jacket from his shoulders before unbuttoning his shirt. When she went to help him remove it, he winced a little when he had to move his left shoulder.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it just twinges a little now and then,” Bastien said. He caught the way Alice was looking at him. “Really, Gray, I’m fine. My leg is more of a problem than my arm.”

Alice knelt down in front of him and removed his shoes and socks before unbuckling his pants and gently tugging them down along with his boxer briefs, careful to avoid the injured part of his leg. Bastien turned off the water and Alice stood up, offering him her hands. She helped him stand and carefully supported him as he climbed into the tub and, once he’d lowered himself into the steaming water, she climbed in and settled in front of him, leaning back against his chest with a blissful sigh.

“God, I hope the tubs are this good at Valtoria,” Alice said. “Otherwise, we’re going to need to do a renovation ASAP.”

“It’s been a while since I’ve been to Valtoria, but I’m pretty sure there are decent bathrooms there,” Bastien said as he wrapped his arms around her. “Although, if you want, we could still rip out everything and start over. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”

“Oh, trust me, I’m very happy,” Alice said. “Hey, I was talking to Hana earlier and she said we’re heading to Valtoria in about ten days, so I was thinking about inviting Frankie and Seth to come visit while we’re there. I know it’ll only be a couple of days, but I’m assuming there’s going to be a ball or something while we’re there, and I thought it’d be fun to have her there.”

“I think that’s a good idea,” Bastien said as he slid his hands up her arms before starting to knead the tension in her shoulders.

“Mmm, that feels fantastic,” Alice said, relaxation spreading through her body.

“I think you’ve earned some relaxation after everything,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

“A little short on kisses.”

“Oh no, we can’t have that,” he murmured, sliding one hand up her neck to tilt her face towards him. His lips found hers and he kissed her slowly, hand trailing down her chest. She sighed against his lips as he began to slowly caress her breasts, one hand sliding further down her body. His fingers brushed her entrance, not quite parting her lips.

“Tell me what you want,” he said, his voice low.

“I want you to touch me,” she said, voice pleading.

Bastien slipped two fingers inside of her and she moaned softly as he slowly moved them in and out, the water lapping against the sides of the tub.

“Oh god, Bas…” she whispered, leaning her head back against him as he trailed a line of kisses down her neck, licking the water from her skin.

When she couldn’t stay still, he pressed his thumb to her clit, rubbing in slow circles.

“More,” she begged, reaching back to thread her fingers through his hair and tug it. “Faster. Please.”

Bastien complied, pulling her tight against him as he increased the pressure, water starting to splash over the sides as she couldn’t hold her body still anymore.

“Fuck, Bas…yes…” she moaned just before she crashed over the edge, clenching around his fingers as he kept up his pace, pushing her climax further and further until she finally begged him for relief.

“I love watching you come,” he murmured as she lay against him, breathing hard as he trailed his fingers over her bare skin. She turned in his arms, straddling him in the water but remembering to be careful of his injured leg.

“Yeah?” she asked as she leaned down to kiss him, reaching down to take his hard cock in her hands. He groaned at her touch as she slowly moved her hands up and down his length. “What else do you love?” she asked as she dragged her lips over to his ear, gently biting the lobe while she rubbed her thumb over the tip of his cock.

“That,” he said, gripping her hips in the water. “The feel of you wrapped around me…coming inside you, making you mine…when you—oh, fuck,” he moaned as she guided him inside of her. He buried his face in her neck as she began to glide up and down along his length, her nails dragging across his back. The water sloshed over the sides of the tub, neither of them noticing or caring as they moved together with increasing speed.

Bastien could feel she was close and he slid one hand down between them, making her moan at his touch.

“Come with me,” she begged breathlessly. “Make me yours.”

As she came undone he finally let himself go, pulsing inside of her as he clung to her slippery skin in the water, her face buried in his neck. When he could move again, he cupped her face in his hands, turning her to face him as his lips slid against hers in a heated kiss.

“You know,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “I think we’re going to need to do a thorough investigation of every bathtub in Valtoria.”

She laughed, kissing him again. “I think that can be arranged. Although…” she said, glancing over the side of the tub. “We’re definitely going to need to invest in more towels. Or at least a mop.”

Bastien peeked over the edge of the tub to see water all over the floor. “Oops.”

“Totally worth it,” Alice said as she carefully stood up and climbed out onto the soaked bathmat. She grabbed three towels, wrapping one around herself before she helped Bastien up out of the tub, steadying him as he climbed out before wrapping a towel around his waist. Then she retrieved his cane and lay down the third towel across the wet floor to enable them to get out of the bathroom.

“I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be the one laying down a cape for you to cross a puddle and not the other way around,” Bastien said as he let Alice lead him back into the bedroom.

“Too bad you left your bath cape back at the palace,” Alice said. “I guess you’ll just have to get the next puddle.”

“I guess so.”

Bastien sat down on the edge of the bed and reached for a pen on the nightstand before taking Alice’s hand in his and redrawing the ring.

“I was thinking…” he said as he handed her the pen so she could draw his back on. “I’d still love to get you a ring, but you keep insisting you don’t need one.”

“Right,” Alice agreed.

“I had another idea,” Bastien said. “If Frankie is able to come to Valtoria, what if you have her bring her tattoo stuff with her?”

“Thinking of getting my name tattooed on your bicep in a heart?” she teased. He smiled.

“Not this time…but I was thinking we could make these pen rings permanent. If you want to,” he added quickly. “Is that weird? I don’t want you to think I’m trying to brand you or something.”

“I love it,” Alice said as she finished drawing the ring on his finger and tossed the pen back onto the nightstand. “Let’s do it.” She cupped his face in her hands and kissed him.

“If we’re going to do the rings then…we may as well get married,” he added, watching her carefully to gauge her reaction.

“Bastien Lykel, are you asking me to marry you again?”

“Think about it,” Bastien said. “It’d be kind of like eloping, but we could have our friends there, Frankie and Seth included. Liam could officiate. Everyone will already be dressed up for the ball and we could even keep it a surprise until it’s time for the ceremony. What do you think?”

“A surprise wedding?” Alice asked, considering the idea. “I think I love it.”

“Really?”

“Really. As long as I end up married to you, I’m all in,” she said. Bastien slid off the edge of the bed and started to get down on one knee. “Oh my god, what are you doing? I already said yes!”

“Oh, shush, I didn’t get down on one knee before and I really should have, so now I’m fixing it,” Bastien said, waving her off. He knelt before, wearing only a towel, and steadied himself with one arm on the edge of the bed as he took her hand. “Alice Ayers, love of my life, will you marry me in a secret surprise wedding ceremony in Valtoria in ten days?”

Alice knelt down on the ground in front of him. “Yes, Bastien Lykel, I will.”


Part 44


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