Guarded Hearts, Part 44

Summary: The Unity Tour arrives in Portavira and Alice and the others participate in a celebrity polo match for charity.

Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit. Also, fair warning, this is a long section (I don’t know when to stop, haha).

CW: references to terrorist attack

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 36Part 37Part 38Part 39Part 40Part 41Part 42, Part 43

“Do I want to come to a fancy party at your new palace? Of course I fucking do!” Frankie exclaimed over FaceTime.

Alice sat back on the bed in her and Bastien’s train car and crossed her legs, laughing. “It’s not technically a palace; I think the proper term is the estate at the duchy.”

“Whatever, it’s a fucking palace,” Frankie said. “I’m so there.”

“I’m sorry for the late notice, but everything’s been crazy since the attack and I just found out our schedule yesterday,” Alice said.

“Dude, don’t even worry about it. But speaking of, how’s Bastien doing?”

“His arm is mostly healed, but he still needs a cane to support his leg most of the time. I’m worried he’s pushing himself too hard.”

“Where is he now?”

“He’s in a meeting with Liam and Olivia as well as a few members of the security team. I think they’re still trying to locate Olivia’s aunt.”

“Ugh. Poor Olivia, that can’t be easy for her.”

“It’s not, but she doesn’t seem to want to talk about it very much. I’m hoping she’s at least talking to Liam about it instead of keeping it all bottled up.”

“I’m sure she is. At least, I hope she is,” Frankie said.

There was a knock at the door. “Alice? Can I come in?” Hana called through the door.

“Yeah, the door’s open,” Alice called back. “I’ve gotta go, Hana’s here to make sure I don’t look like a total fucking idiot when we arrive in Portavira,” she said to Frankie as Hana opened the door.

“When she’s doing being your press secretary, can Hana come run my life for me?” Frankie asked.

“I’d love to! Hi, Frankie!” Hana said as Alice turned the camera around while Hana attempted to wave from underneath the weight of far too many clothes hangers in her arms.

“Hey, Hana! Can’t wait to see you when I visit. You two have fun!”

“We will, and hey—don’t forget to bring your tattoo stuff when you visit,” Alice reminded her.

“I still can’t believe you’re going to let me tattoo you,” Frankie said. “And I promise, I’ll bring everything. Text me later!”

“Will do,” Alice promised before she hung up the phone.

“Frankie’s coming to visit?” Hana asked.

“Yeah, I invited her and Seth to come visit when we stop at Valtoria,” Alice said.

“That’s such a good idea! I wish I’d thought of it,” Hana said as she flopped the armload of clothes onto the small sofa in the room. “Okay, I brought a few options for you from the train’s boutique.”

“Did you bring the entire boutique?” Alice asked as she warily eyed the pile of clothes.

“Nope, I couldn’t carry all of it and I didn’t want to recruit Bertrand because I think he’s about to burst a blood vessel in his eye,” Hana said.

“Seriously, the man is way too high strung,” Olivia said as she breezed into Alice’s room and shut the door behind her.

“Liv? I thought you were in a meeting with Liam and Bastien,” Alice said.

“I was, but we finished and Bastien said something about you getting read for Portavira, so I thought I’d come along to help,” Olivia said. “After all, you’re going to help me convince Penelope’s parents to come to my wedding.”

“You can just admit you want to hang out, Jon Snow,” Alice said, amused.

“Shut up. Despite Penelope’s obsession with poodles, I’ve decided to let her stay at court…as long as you don’t mind,” Olivia said. “I know she was part of everything in the plot against you, so if you don’t want her there, she’s out.”

“No, it’s fine,” Alice said. “I genuinely think she didn’t know what was going on and she’s tried to make up for it.”

“Alright,” Olivia said, nodding. “Anyway, having an entourage at court isn’t about vanity—it’s about influence and showing that I—and, subsequently, Liam—have support from the houses around me. Which is why it’s important to win Penelope’s parents over. The recent earthquake caused floods throughout their territory, so they’re more focused on relief efforts than courtly politics. I know a wedding isn’t as important as a natural disaster, but having their support is still important in order to demonstrate unity amongst the nobility.”

“I had an idea that we might need to make them an offer they can’t refuse, so to speak,” Hana said. “We need to find out what they need in change for what we need.”

“That makes sense,” Alice agreed. “What do you know about Penelope’s parents?”

“Penelope’s mother is tough may take more convincing, but her father, Landon, has a soft spot for his daughter. We may be able to use that to our advantage,” Hana said. “And Penelope likes you and still seems eager to win your friendship back after…everything that happened. If you convince Landon you have Penelope’s best interest at heart, he might take your side.”

“I’m good at being tough, but you’re better with all that friendship crap, so I think you could be really helpful here,” Olivia added. “You, too, Hana.”

“Thanks, Olivia,” Hana said with a smile. “Okay, so, now that we have that all established, it’s time to talk about first impressions.”

“How does no one think I know how to dress myself yet?” Alice asked.

“Because you love to wear black too much and that’s not the look we’re going for today,” Olivia said.

“This was my first thought,” Hana said as she pulled out a purple dress and fished a necklace out of her pocket. “But I have other options if you don’t like it.”

“Is that a narwhal on the necklace?” Alice asked, amused.

“It’s Penelope’s house symbol,” Olivia explained. “And purple is their house color.”

“Love it. Alright, I’ll try it on,” Alice said. She quickly undressed and Hana handed her the dress.

“Is that a bruise on your hip?” Hana asked, concerned.

“That’s a hickey if I’ve ever seen one,” Olivia said, laughing. Alice grinned and shrugged.

“Oh well, the dress will cover it,” she said.

“Even if it didn’t, I have makeup that would cover it…but tell Bastien to keep them out of sight until we’re done with this unity tour,” Hana said, winking at her.

“Tell me to keep what out of sight?” Bastien asked as he re-entered the room. “Wow, Gray, you look incredible in that dress.”

“Nothing, Dorian,” Alice said with a smile as she kissed him hello. “All done with your meetings?”

“I am,” he said. “I just wanted to let you know we’re about to pull into Portavira.

“I should go finish getting ready. I’ll see you at the restaurant,” Olivia said, nodding to all of them before making a quick exit.

“Restaurant? I thought we were going to Penelope’s family’s estate?” Alice asked.

“We are, but first we’re heading to what I’m told is the best seafood restaurant in Cordonia,” Hana said.

“Sounds great,” Alice said as she sat down to slide on a pair of heels. “Alright, do I look like I can convince Penelope’s family to come to the wedding?”

“Yes…but you could convince me to do anything, so I don’t know if I’m the best person to ask,” Bastien said. “Shall we?”

After the disembarked the train, the royal motorcade carried them to a restaurant perched atop a pier and as soon as Alice exited the car, she could hear the sea gently lapping at the rocks and wooden beams below.

“I can’t believe this view,” Alice said as she surveyed the scenery.

“It’s breathtaking,” Hana agreed.

“Portavira is said to have the clearest waters in all of Cordonia,” Liam said as he and Olivia joined them.

“Too many windows, if you ask me. This is hardly a defensible dining location,” Olivia said.

“Are we expecting a siege?” Alice asked, raising an eyebrow at her.

“I thought we were already under one, considering the company,” Drake said as he and the Beaumonts joined them.

“Ha ha,” Olivia said. “Quick reminder, Drake—I’m always armed.”

“Please don’t stab my best friend at a formal function,” Liam said as he kissed her cheek.

Before Drake or Olivia could respond, Penelope dashed across the restaurant to greet them.

“You all made it!” Penelope said happily. “Welcome to Portavira!”

“Thank you,” Bastien said. “We were just talking about how beautiful the view is.”

“It’s so peaceful here, I’m so glad you like it,” Penelope said. “Welcome to Cordonia’s premiere yacht club!”

“Thank you,” Hana said. “It’s nice to see you again, Penelope.”

“You, too!” Penelope said, pulling Hana into a hug. She stepped back and turned to Alice, looking like she wanted to hug her, but she hesitated. Alice felt Bastien poke her in the side and she stepped forward to hug Penelope. If I’m going to say I forgive her, I may as well actually do it.

“It’s so good to see you,” Penelope said, smiling warmly at Alice. “Let me introduce you all to my parents!”

She led the group across the restaurant to where a smiling couple waited beside a set of reserved tables.

“Mom, Dad, this is Alice! Alice, these are my parents…Landon and Emmeline,” Penelope said.

“Duchess Alice, so nice to meet you at last,” Landon said. “Are those our house colors you’re wearing?”

“And the narwhal from our crest,” Penelope said proudly. “It looks so cute as a necklace.”

“Thank you, but I can’t take all the credit,” Alice said, smiling at Hana. “Hana helped me put together my ensemble, she really has an incredible eye for fashion.

“I see that all the compliments we’ve heard about you were well-deserved,” Emmeline said. “Both of you,” she added, nodding to Hana. “It’s wonderful to meet Penelope’s best friends.”

“It’s lovely to meet you as well,” Alice said smoothly, wondering what exactly Penelope had told her parents.

“What about us?” Maxwell asked, sounding a little hurt.

“People can have multiple best friends, Maxwell,” Hana assured him. Landon chuckled.

“That’s what Penelope told Kiara when she started becoming friends with all of you,” he said. “You’ve certainly made an impression on her.”

“On behalf of ourselves and the rest of the court, Olivia and I would like to thank you both for your hospitality,” Liam said as he took Olivia’s hand in his.

“We’re all very happy to be here,” Olivia agreed.

“It’s an honor, King Liam, Duchess Olivia,” Landon said. He gestured to the tables and everyone took their seats at the exquisitely-set tables. No sooner had they sat down when uniformed waiters quickly brought out a round of crab legs for an appetizer.

“These deserve an award!” Maxwell declared. “I could eat nothing but crab legs for a year.”

“You wouldn’t survive all that cholesterol,” Drake said.

“But I’d die happy,” Maxwell countered.

“These are even better than the ones I had when Frankie and I took a road trip to Maryland,” Alice said as she savored a bite.

“What were you two doing in Maryland?” Bastien asked.

“We rented a beach house with a couple other friends for a long weekend,” Alice said. “We needed to get out of the city and decided to go to the beach and gorge ourselves on seafood. I never though anything would top the food we had there, but this definitely proves me wrong.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying the food,” Emmeline said, smiling warmly at the group.

“I only wish we had a wider variety to offer you,” Landon said, his face growing somber. “The recent floods have taken quite a toll on our fishing industry.”

“These are hard times for all of Cordonia, as I’m sure you’re aware,” Emmeline added.

“Of course,” Alice said, nodding. “That’s actually why we’re here.”

“Yes,” Olivia agreed. “You’ve probably seen the news about the wedding.”

“We did!” Landon said, his face brightening a little. “Congratulations to you both, Olivia.”

“Thank you,” she said, sharing a small smile with Liam before turning back to Penelope’s parents. “We’re inviting the whole court to the ceremony, and we were hoping your house would attend.”

“It’ll be a demonstration of Cordonian unity to our allies and enemies alike,” Liam said.

“As well as a demonstration of the love that brought these two together,” Alice added.

“We’re delighted for you, but…” Emmeline hesitated, glancing at Landon. His brow creased with worry and he sighed.

“I’m not sure we can leave Portavira while it’s in such dire straits,” Landon said.

Alice watched Olivia and saw the anger flare at the edges of her expression and before Olivia could say anything about unity and strength and not being cowards, Alice quickly stepped in.

“We understand and sympathize with the situation you’re in,” Alice said. “I mean, how can you think of a wedding when so many of your people are suffering?” Emmeline and Landon nodded. “But we’re here because we believe it’s important to unite Cordonia in the face of its newest threat that has already claimed a life. There’s no time to waste.”

“I appreciate what you’re trying to do, Alice, but Portavira needs our undivided attention. I’m not sure how we could leave,” Landon said.

“It’ll be hard enough parting with Penelope now that you’ve come to return her to court,” Emmeline said, her words tinged with sadness.

“What?” Penelope asked, surprised.

“Well, that’s part of why you’re here, isn’t it?” Emmeline asked Alice before turning to her daughter. “I told you everyone at court would miss you!”

“But I only just got home,” Penelope said. “Merlin and Morgana still haven’t forgiven me for leaving! At least they’ll play with me now, but they keep giving me these sad puppy dog eyes.”

“They’re dogs, darling,” Emmeline said. “Those are they only eyes they have.”

“Does Penelope really have to go back to court?” Landon asked, looking at Olivia.

“Well…only if she wants to go back,” Olivia said slowly. “I could really use more friends in court right now. Cordonia could use more friends. But if she’s not ready to come back yet, I understand.”

“Thanks, Olivia,” Penelope said, looking touched at Olivia’s words but also still a little afraid of the future queen. “I’ve just missed being home so much, and then when the attack happened…”

Landon gently put a hand on his daughter’s shoulder as waiters began to bring out the main course, setting a different seafood dish on the table in front of each of them. “You’re safe here, sweetheart. Like Olivia said, you don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to.”

Alice took a bite of her salmon, trying to resist the urge to moan as the filet nearly melted in her mouth. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to change the subject, but this is phenomenal. Bastien, you have to try this.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” Landon said, smiling at Alice.

“I agree with Alice,” Hana said as took another bite of her bisque. “In fact, Portavira as a whole seems really lovely.”

“From what we’ve seen so far, it’s as welcoming as our hosts,” Liam said.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Landon said, obviously pleased.

“If you don’t mind, Emmeline, I’d love to hear more about Portavira,” Bastien said. “I know this estate has been in your family line for generations.”

Emmeline and Landon smiled fondly at each other before she spoke. “We may not be the richest or grandest of houses, but we’ve always lived on the water…and we’ve always looked after our people.”

“We like to judge our success by their prosperity,” Landon added proudly.

“Of course…that makes it even harder to see them struggling now,” Emmeline said as her expression grew sad. “Between the earthquake and then the persistent flooding, our funds can only go so far.”

“About your relief efforts…is there anything we can do to help?” Alice asked.

“That’s very kind of you, Duchess Alice,” Landon said, a little surprised.

“I’ve allocated all the resources the crown can spare, but if there’s anything we can personally do, we’d love to be of assistance,” Liam said.

“Thank you both, but we’ll just have to hope that tomorrow’s charity polo match raises the money we need,” Emmeline said. “So far, we’ve barely sold half the tickets…”

Liam’s eyes met Alice’s across the table and she noticed the glint in his eye as his grin grew wider. Liam, no…no, no, no…

“What if we played in the match tomorrow?” Liam asked. “We could use our titles to your advantage; if Cordonia’s king, future queen, and newest duchess are playing in a charity match, people won’t be able to ignore it.”

“Of course,” Alice said, trying to recover as she put a smile on her face. “I’m happy to spend a few hours on horseback if it’ll get Portavira the relief money you need.”

“I have to say, I’m honored to see other nobles taking an interest in our little province,” Landon said, warming to the idea.

“I’ll gladly use the crown’s influence to help serve its people,” Liam said.

“This is all a very generous offer, Your Majesty,” Landon said.

“A celebrity match would help draw a crowd…” Emmeline said thoughtfully. “As long as you’re sure you’re up for it…well, who are we to refuse?”

“Great! It’s a plan then,” Liam said happily.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Alice said, purposely avoiding the looks Bastien and the others were giving her.

Well, fuck.

Once Alice was back in the car with Bastien and Hana, Bastien turned to her as soon as the door was closed.

“Have you ever played polo before?” he asked, concern furrowing his brow.

“Oh, sure, I played it all the time while working doubles behind the bar—of course I’ve never played!” Alice said. “God, I could smack Liam.”

“I mean, it’s a good idea though,” Hana said. “All three of you participating in the match will be a big draw for ticket sales.”

“But polo can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Bastien said. “What if I played for you?”

“You’re not serious,” Alice said.

“I’d be sitting down!”

“No fucking way,” she said, shaking her head. “Dorian, you still have to take it easy.”

“Um, guys?” Hana said, waving her hand slightly to get their attention. “Look, I know this is unexpected, but, Alice, I can gives you some tips before tomorrow.”

“I’ve only ever ridden a horse once!” Alice protested. “How am I supposed to play a game on horseback when I’ll be too worried about falling off and being trampled to death?”

“You’re not, which is why I can play for you,” Bastien interjected.

You’re still recovering from two gunshot wounds!

“HEY!” Hana shouted, clapping her hands and startling both Alice and Bastien so they turned to her. “Bastien, Alice is right—you need to focus on your recovery. Alice, no one is expecting you to be the star player and I saw you on the royal hunt—you have some natural agility and can at least stay on the horse. This is not the hardest thing you’ve even had to do in the last two weeks, so even though Liam sprang this on you, you need to suck it up and play polo like the rich white girl you now are so that you can convince Penelope’s parents to come to the royal wedding because Cordonia needs unity behind the crown. So suck it up!

Alice and Bastien stared at her in wide-eyed silence. Finally, Alice found her voice.

“I absolutely love this side of you, but I’m also terrified to be on the receiving end.”

Hana blushed. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to yell.”

“No, no,” Bastien said. “I…think we needed that.”

Hana brightened a little as she straightened up her in seat. “Good. Also, Alice, you did well with Penelope. She sounds reluctant to return to court, but you’ve always been sensitive to her anxiety issues…if you can convince her to return to court, it might help sway Landon and Emmeline to attend the wedding.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”


When they arrived at Portavira, Mara was already waiting for them, muttering into her headset as they approached.

“I have visual confirmation. The Fledgling has returned to the roost,” Mara said quietly before clearing her throat. “Good evening, Your Grace.”

That’s your code name for me? I’m the ‘Fledgling?’ That name sucks!” Alice protested.

“You…weren’t supposed to hear that,” Mara said, blushing slightly.

“Did you know that was my nickname?” Alice asked, turning to Bastien, who was reading a message on his phone.

“Hey, I didn’t pick it,” he said, amused.

“Oh, come on, can’t I have a cool code name?” Alice asked.

“We don’t let our charges pick their code name,” Mara said apologetically.

“Standard protocol,” Bastien agreed.

“Okay, but hear me out…what about ‘Khaleesi?’”

“Screw you, you can’t be ‘Khaleesi,’” Olivia said as she walked over to join them. “I want that one.”

“Yours was recently changed to ‘Queen of the North,’” Bastien told Olivia. “Liam requested it for you.”

Olivia smiled. “Never mind, I like that better.”

“Come on, let me be ‘Khaleesi,’” Alice said as she wound her fingers between Bastien’s. “Please?”

“I’ll think about it,” Bastien said as he squeezed her hand. “Actually, I’m glad you’re here, Mara, because I have an update about the video from the assassins. Based on their choice of rhetoric, I initially thought it might’ve been made by the Liberation Core.”

“But you don’t anymore,” Alice said.

“No, I don’t,” Bastien said. “When we analyzed the video, we found something interesting…we’ve seen its location before. Last year, the Sons of Earth filmed a video in what appears to be the same building. There’s a task force on its way to the location right now.”

“They probably aren’t stupid enough to stick around after filming,” Olivia said.

“Most likely not. But we’re hoping they left a few shreds of evidence behind,” Bastien said. “Hopefully we’ll know more soon.”

“Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to aid in the investigation, sir,” Mara said.

“Thank you, but your top priority is keeping the Khaleesi safe,” Bastien said. Alice smiled happily as Olivia rolled her eyes good-naturedly.

“You caved immediately!” Olivia scolded him. “Remind me to have Alice take the lead on negotiations.”

“Of course, sir,” Mara said, nodding her head before she bowed and walked away.

As they wandered through the estate together, Alice, Olivia, and Bastien found Hana, Maxwell, and Penelope chatting by the courtyard pool.

“Maxwell, I was sure I’d find you surrounded by poodles by now,” Alice said.

“I wish!” Maxwell said fervently.

“My mom didn’t want me to bring them to the restaurant, so they stayed in their room with some treats,” Penelope explained. “But it’s so good to have you all over…my favorite people in my favorite place! I only wish you weren’t leaving so soon…”

“I’m sorry, I wish we could stay longer, but we have a lot to do on this tour,” Alice said apologetically.

“Not to mention back at court,” Olivia added.

Penelope sighed heavily. “I…I know,” she said regretfully.

“Well, we’re not leaving just yet. Why don’t we do something fun tonight?” Hana suggested. “We could catch up, you could tell us more about your home…”

“Are you guys feeling an ice cream night?” Maxwell asked. “Because I’m feeling an ice cream night.”

Alice laughed. “You’re always feeling an ice cream night.”

“I could order sundaes from the kitchen!” Penelope exclaimed. “And we could go eat them and play with my poodles!”

“You all have fun; I have some work I need to attend to,” Bastien said.

“And I just don’t want to,” Olivia said.

“Sure, I’m in,” Alice said. “Let me just walk Bastien to our room and then I’ll come back.”

“Gray, I can—“

“Shush, you,” Alice said.

“Great!” Penelope said. “Oh, this is going to be so much fun! I’ll go talk to the kitchen staff and you all can meet me there!”

As Alice and Bastien made their way through Penelope’s family’s estate, Bastien lifted her hand to his lips and gently kissed her knuckles.

“What was that for?” Alice asked.

“I just love you, that’s all,” Bastien said. “I think it’s good that you’re going to hang out with them tonight. It’ll probably go a long way in convincing Penelope to rejoin court. Plus, I think she could really use someone like you to support her. However…”

“There’s a however?”

“Even though I’m going to be waiting for news of the task force and you’re going to be eating ice cream and playing with poodles in order to repair the fragile relations within Cordonia…I’m going to miss you while you’re gone.”

“Dorian, I won’t be gone for that long,” Alice said as they reached their assigned room. She pulled the key out of her bag and started to unlock the door when she felt Bastien’s hand on her hip as his other hand brushed the hair from her shoulder.

“Doesn’t mean I won’t miss you,” he murmured, planting a soft kiss on the curve of her neck.

“You’re a terrible influence,” Alice said as she slightly leaned back into him.

“I never claimed to be anything else,” he said in a low voice, kissing his way down to her shoulder.

“They’re expecting me…and you know Maxwell will come looking for me if I don’t show up soon,” Alice said as she unlocked the door. She stepped inside but turned, tugging on Bastien’s lapels to bring him into the room. He kicked the door shut behind him with his good leg, slamming it. “Subtle, Dorian.”

“I think I’ll be forgiven, considering how beautiful you look and how well behaved I’ve been all day,” he murmured against her lips before he kissed her again. Alice slid her arms around his waist, fingers running along the top of his trousers before bringing her hands back to the front, looping her fingers around the buckle of his belt.

His phone rang.

“Dammit,” Bastien muttered as he fished in his pocket for his phone. He sighed when he saw the screen. “I should take this. It might be intel about the Sons.”

“I need to go anyway,” Alice said, kissing him one more time. She turned to leave as Bastien answered his phone, but paused when she got an idea. She looked back at Bastien who was walking away from her to sit at the small desk in their room and she quickly reached under her dress, shimmying out of her panties so that they fell to the floor. Alice picked them up and balled them up in her hand before walking over to kiss Bastien’s cheek after he sat down in the chair. He smiled at her and then his expression grew confused when he felt her slide something into his pocket. Alice grinned and walked away. No sooner had she put her hand on the doorknob when she heard Bastien behind her.

“Oh, come on! That’s not fair!” he whispered, holding the phone away from his mouth, her underwear wound around his fingers. Alice blew him a kiss and left, quietly closing the door behind her.

Penelope led the group into a lavish dog room that was not only bigger than her studio apartment in New York had been, but it would’ve put doggy day cares on the Upper East Side to shame. Little dog houses shaped like replicas of the estate lined the walls, with gilded food bowls, an absurd number of toys, and what looked like dog-sized fainting couches were strewn across the floor.

“This gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘dog house,’” Maxwell said as he surveyed the room.

Penelope giggled. “I spend most of my time with Merlin and Morgana when I’m at home, so we redecorate this room a lot. I call it the Poodle Palace!”

Alice made eye contact with Hana who bit back a smile and quickly looked away.

“I get the palace part,” Alice said, “but where are the poodles?”

As if waiting for their entrance cues, they heard a faint yawn from one of the doghouse villas and a sleepy bark from the other before a fluffy poodle head poked out of each doorway.

“Oh. My. God,” Maxwell said, grabbing onto Alice’s arm.

“They’re adorable!” Hana exclaimed.

The poodles, dressed in complementary outfits, trotted over to Penelope and sat at her feet. She smiled and leaned down, scratching both of them behind their ears.

“It’s okay, you two,” Penelope said soothingly to the dogs. “These are my friends. Do you want to go say hi?”

“Yes, please!” Maxwell said, trying to contain his excitement.

“She’s talking to the dogs,” Alice pointed out.

Penelope gave the dogs a gentle nudge and the dogs took a few tentative steps towards Alice, Hana, and Maxwell.

“Can we give them some treats?” Alice asked as she knelt down on the floor.

“Of course!” Penelope said as she retrieved a bag of small dog treats from a nearby shelf and handed it to her. Alice took a few out and held them in her hand towards the dogs. She felt her phone buzz in her clutch under her arm, but she ignored it for the moment. Merlin took a step forward and immediately wolfed down a treat before sitting happily by Alice while Morgana sniffed hers daintily, eyeing Alice with suspicion, before delicately eating hers as well.

“This might be the cutest thing I’ve ever experienced,” Maxwell said gravely as he knelt down beside Alice. “And I’ve seen baby pandas. Baby. Pandas.” He paused, studying the dogs. “Are we supposed to bow to them? I don’t know what to do in the presence of such cuteness.”

“You can just play with them, Maxwell,” Penelope assured him. “It’s fine.”

“So, how long have you had these two?” Hana asked as she sat down on the ground and Merlin immediately climbed into her lap.

“Oh, since they were puppies,” Penelope said. “They just turned six a few months ago. I’ve had other dogs over the years, but I think these two might be the sweetest,” she added, ruffling Morgana’s fur.

“Their outfits are so cute!” Hana said as Alice pulled out her phone to check her texts.

That wasn’t very fair of you, Gray…

Oops 🤷‍♀️ 😇

“Yeah, this is the kind of stuff Bertrand would wear if he were a dog. Like a dog, but…classy,” Maxwell said.

“Did you make them?” Alice asked, putting her phone back down and reaching over to pat Merlin on the head.

“I did! Thank you,” Penelope said, beaming with pride.

“I wish we could’ve met your dogs sooner, Penelope,” Hana said.

Alice’s phone buzzed again. But having these here is giving me an idea for later…


I mean, as much as I love the smell of these, I think I’d rather have you on my face…

Alice felt the heat rise in her cheeks as she quickly put her phone away and tried to rejoin the conversation.

“Me, too. It would’ve made getting through the social season a lot easier,” Penelope was saying as Alice tried unsuccessfully to push Bastien’s texts from her mind. “I’m just glad Merlin and Morgana weren’t at the ball when those awful people attacked.”

A knock at the door brought the arrival of a servant from the villa’s kitchen with a tray full of sundaes.

“Now that’s what I call room service,” Maxwell said with a grin.

Alice pulled out her phone. You’re being very distracting…


I’m supposed to be socializing for the benefit of the crown here! Alice texted back as she accepted the bowl Hana handed to her. Inside was a waffle cone bowl shell heaped with scoops of ice cream, topped with freshly baked cookies and a trio of sugary sauces.

Says the woman who stuck her panties in my pocket while I was on a work call…

“This is delicious,” Alice said around a large mouthful of ice cream, hoping the dessert would cool her off.

“I guess when I couldn’t choose just one ice cream flavor, the kitchen decided to give us all of them,” Penelope said.

“They might’ve given me too many,” Hana said. “I don’t know how I’m possibly going to eat all this!”

“Speak for yourself!” Maxwell said, already a third of the way through his sundae. “Ow, brain freeze!”

“Put your tongue against the roof of your mouth,” Alice said.

“Really? Does that work?” Penelope asked curiously.

Alice nodded. “You get a brain freeze when the roof of your mouth is too cold and your body thinks you’re freezing to death, so it sends a rush of blood to your brain to help protect it. If you warm up the roof of your mouth, the brain freeze should go away.”

“But my tongue is cold!” Maxwell protested.

“Just hang in there, it’ll work,” Alice promised as her phone buzzed again.

You know, as much as I love the way you smell, I love the way you taste even more…

“How’s Bastien doing?” Penelope asked, jolting Alice’s attention back to the present.

“What? Oh, he’s fine,” Alice said as she took another bite of ice cream.

“I’m glad he wasn’t injured further at the ball…that attack was so terrible,” Penelope said. Alice noticed the way her hands tightened around the bowl when she brought up the attack.

“Me, too, but he’s doing much better now,” Alice said.

“He’s lucky he has you,” Hana said.

“I’m lucky I have him,” Alice said. She glanced down and saw Merlin and Morgana staring hopefully at her. “And we’re all lucky you two are so cute, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to have any ice cream.”

“No, it’s not,” Penelope agreed with a smile. “But, of course, that never stops them from trying.”

“Here, puppies, try this,” Alice said, reaching over to grab one of their chew toys. The dogs’ eyes followed her hand intently. “Fetch!” she said as she tossed the toy across the room. The dogs bounded happily after it, Morgana just barely edging out her brother. She trotted back to Alice and daintily set it down in front of her before sitting down, ready for more.

“Oh, boy,” Alice said with a grin as she picked up the toy. “What have I gotten myself into?”

She alternated between taking bites of ice cream and tossing the toy for the dogs as they all finished their sundaes.

“Thank you all for hanging out with me,” Penelope said. “This has been really nice.”

“Do you not usually have people over?” Hana asked.

“I…” Penelope hesitated. “I don’t have a lot of friends here in Portavira, so it’s mostly just been me and my parents. And these two. At least I had Kiara at court…that was one of the only good parts about being there.”

“Was it really that bad?” Maxwell asked gently.

“I mean, the food was always nice…and the palace is really pretty,” Penelope said. “But the pressure to find a suitor, then trying to make Madeleine happy…all the loud, crowded parties…” She trailed off, clasping her hands tightly in her lap. Without a sound, Merlin and Morgana moved over to her. Merlin rested his chin on her knee and Morgana put a paw on one of Penelope’s hands. “Thanks, you two,” Penelope said mustering a smile at her dogs. “I’ll be okay.”

“I can relate,” Alice said.

“Really?” Penelope asked. “But you’re so good with crowds. At least, I’d think you’d have to be considering your former profession.”

“I still found—find—court to be really overwhelming sometimes,” Alice said.

Penelope shook her head. “That’s so surprising to me. You always seem so cool and confident.”

“I might look the part, but let’s be honest—that’s all Bertrand and Hana,” Alice said, nudging Hana. “But sometimes it freaks me out. One bad dinner party and your whole life could go off the rails. I know me being stressed isn’t necessarily the same as what you’ve been through…but I just wanted to let you know that I get it. Any sensible person would worry about being stuck in a room with dozens of nosy, powerful strangers.”

“I thought I was the only one who was having a hard time,” Penelope said, her shoulders relaxing a little. “It’s nice to know I’m not alone.” She sighed, face falling again. “I wish my mom understood all of that.”

“Is she the reason you stayed after the coronation?” Hana asked.

“Yeah,” Penelope said. “She thought that the more time I spent at court, the easier it would get. I know she loves me, but even after I got my first poodles to help with the anxiety, she never understood how hard it was. She still doesn’t.”

“People who have never experienced anxiety can’t fully understand what it’s like,” Alice said gently.

“When I was little, she got really bad pneumonia right before a big charity ball. Dad told her not to go, but she insisted on it. She was bedridden for days afterward, but she still made it through the event. That’s always been her thing. ‘Stand up for Portavira no matter what.’ And she thinks that if I really tried, I could do the same.”

“She went to a ball while she was that sick and contagious?” Alice asked incredulously. She felt Hana elbow her and she backed up a little. “I mean, I admire her dedication, but there’s nothing wrong with taking time to heal first.”

“Right?” Penelope asked. “Honestly, that’s what I thought, but…well, she’s my mom.”

“Of course, and I’m not trying to insult her,” Alice said quickly. “I just…well, mental health is just as important as physical health.”

“Thanks, Alice,” Penelope said, smiling a little. “It’s nice to have someone besides my dad and these two who understands me.”

“Hey, we’re here for you, too,” Maxwell said. Hana nodded.

“I know that now,” Penelope said. “Thank you, I really appreciate having you in my life.”

“You know…if you came back to court, your poodles could come with you,” Alice offered.

“Really? But Madeleine always said—“

“Madeleine doesn’t have any power anymore,” Alice said firmly. “She can’t tell you what to do.”

“But what about Olivia?” Penelope asked.

“Please, Olivia likes animals way more than she likes people,” Alice said. “I’m sure she won’t mind. And if she does…well, I’ve got your back.”

“That’s good to know. Thanks, Alice,” Penelope said, smiling. At her feet, Merlin and Morgana had settled down and were beginning to drift off to sleep.

“It’s getting later than I thought…maybe we should let these puppers get some sleep,” Alice suggested.

“I should put them in their pajamas,” Penelope said. She stood up and headed to the closet where she pulled out some dog-sized snuggies while Maxwell collected the empty ice cream bowls. With the other two distracted, Hana pulled Alice aside.

“If she’s going to help us, I think it’s now or never,” Hana whispered. Alice nodded.

“Hey, Penelope…I know I’m asking a lot, so this is the last time I’ll bring it up,” Alice said. “You coming back to court would mean we could all be together again. Kiara, too.”

“Life at the palace just hasn’t been the same since you left,” Hana added.

“We could all use more laughter and niceness and poodles right now,” Maxwell said.

“‘Oy, with the poodles already,’” Alice said, chuckling. The other three stared at her. “Gilmore Girls? No? Just me? Alright, moving on. In all seriousness, Penelope, please come back with us.”

“I…okay,” she said, smiling. “I’ll come to court with you.”

“Really?” Alice asked hopefully.

“If this show of unity stuff is really important…and if you promise things’ll be different now that Madeleine’s not in charge…I believe you. I’ll be there,” Penelope said.

“Thank you,” Alice said. “Really. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”

“I’m happy to help Cordonia. And you,” Penelope said before checking the time. “But I guess we should get some sleep before the match tomorrow.”

“Good idea,” Alice said, nearly blushing as she remembered Bastien’s texts on her phone.

“Goodnight, dogs!” Maxwell said as he knelt to pet the poodles one last time.

“I think they like you,” Penelope said.

“Best. Day. Ever,” Maxwell said with a huge smile on his face.

Outside the poodle room, Penelope bid them goodnight and left as Hana and Maxwell walked Alice to her room. As they rounded the final corner, Alice was trying to calculate exactly how quiet she had to be with Bastien until Maxwell and Hana were out of earshot when they found Drake talking to Bastien outside of their room.

“Are we all having a sleepover?” Alice asked.

“Not exactly,” Hana said. “I invited everyone over to brainstorm. We need to make sure tomorrow’s polo match is a success.”

“About that…” Drake said slowly. “Penelope’s parents spoke to Liam after we got here.”

“Because we’re getting front row seats?” Maxwell asked hopefully.

“You could say that,” Bastien said. “They want all of you to play.”

“Oh, thank god,” Alice said. “If Hana’s out there making spectacular plays, no one will notice when I get bucked into a topiary.”

“That’s not funny,” Bastien said.

“Fine, sorry, I mean it’ll be fun to have everyone nearby my untimely death,” Alice said.


“I’m sorry. For real this time,” she said, reaching out for Bastien’s hand. “Hey, do the rest of you all know how to play polo?”

“Yes,” Hana, Maxwell, and Drake said in unison.

“That’s creepy,” Alice said.

“I don’t disagree,” Drake said. “Anyway, Liam’s offer to participate made Emmeline and Landon rethink the nature of the match. For an exhibition game like this, the more well-known the participants, the better. They’ve asked several other nobles to join in as well.”

“That makes sense,” Hana said. “Do we know the teams yet?”

“That’s what I came here to tell you,” Drake said. “On one team it’ll be Liam, Penelope, Alice, and Hana—“

“Oh thank god we have Hana,” Alice said.

“—and the other team will be me, Maxwell, Olivia, and Neville,” Drake continued.

“Hana, can you teach me to aim a polo ball at Neville’s face by tomorrow?” Alice asked.

“Drake, don’t let him get to you,” Bastien said. “Whatever he says has no real impact on your life.”

“But he sucks,” Drake protested.

“Hey, teach him the kick thing,” Alice said.

“I think that’s important to remember is that the game tomorrow is about raising as much relief money as we can,” Hana said. “Not just for the sake of the unity tour, but for the people of Portavira. You’re all nobles and you need to suck it up and think about the people you represent and serve.”

“I’m not a noble,” Drake said.

“Yeah, we know, but you may as well be, professional best friend,” Alice said.

“Hey!” Drake protested.

“We need to draw a crowd,” Hana continued, ignoring them.

“Say no more,” Maxwell said. “I’ve been practicing riding stunts for a moment like this.”

“For a charity match at Penelope’s place?” Alice asked, raising an eyebrow at him.

“Okay, fine, for a moment similar to this,” Maxwell said. “Point is, I know some cool tricks. I can almost do that move in cowboy shootouts where they hang off the side of the saddle.”

“Almost?” Bastien asked.

“Yeah, I didn’t like that word either,” Alice said.

“So, crazy idea, we could just play to win,” Drake said.

“Where’s the showmanship in that?” Maxwell asked.

“You know what, I agree with Drake,” Alice interjected. “Let’s focus on winning instead of dangerous stunts that will definitely result in injury.”

“Winning includes literally knocking Neville off his high horse, right?” Drake asked.

“He’s your teammate,” Hana said sternly. “Like it or not, you have to play nice during the game.”

“It’s fine, we’ve got this,” Maxwell said, although Alice couldn’t help but notice how uncertain he looked.

“We all need to give this match our best effort,” Hana said. “The crowd will want to see a real competition—between the teams, not within the teams.”

“Fine,” Drake said.

“So, Alice, I thought it would be a good idea to go over some of the rules of polo with you,” Hana said, turning to her.

“Now?” Alice asked.

“Yes,” Hana said. “I know it’s late, but this is important. As your press secretary, I’d be remiss if I didn’t help prepare you for every event.”

“Is it too late to fire you?” Alice asked.

“Yes,” Hana said.

“I don’t think you all need me for this…I’m going to go sit down,” Bastien said. “Alice, I’ll see you inside when you’re done.”

She wanted to protest but she also wanted him to rest, so she accepted his kiss on the cheek. As the others talked amongst themselves for a moment, Bastien leaned in close to her ear.

“Don’t take too long,” he whispered. “I haven’t forgotten about earlier…”

“Alright, Alice, here are a few rules about riding,” Hana said.

“What?” Alice asked, face hot. She could hear Bastien snicker as he went back inside.

“To begin, polo is a low-contact sport,” Hana said, oblivious to Alice’s expression. “There are very specific rules about bumping into other players’ horses. Actually…” Hana’s face lit up with inspiration. “No one is going to use the field until tomorrow and the stables are probably empty—why don’t I teach you some things now? We could all go if anyone else wants to brush up on their basics,” she offered to the group.

“No thank, I’m going to bed,” Drake said.

“I’m just going to watch some videos online,” Maxwell said.

“Just for fun, right? Not to try to finish learning that cowboy trick?” Alice asked sternly.

Maxwell hesitated. “Fine, I’ll just go watch The Office.”

“Thank you.”

“Alright, then. Alice, are you up for it?”

Alice thought longingly of the man on the other side of her bedroom door and barely managed to keep from sighing with longing like a cheesy romance novel. “Yes, I’m in. I don’t actually want to die tomorrow. Let me change my clothes first—I’m not going riding in this.”

“You’ll actually be wearing a dress tomorrow, but I guess it’d be okay if you wore something else for tonight,” Hana said.

“A dress?” Alice asked as the guys waved goodnight and left them in the hallway. “Hana, you can’t be serious. Do I have to ride side saddle?”

“No, no, don’t worry,” Hana said. “But it’s a whole thing about women in dresses at polo matches…it’s very archaic, but it’s a thing. However, I already have a perfect dress picked out for you, and you don’t have to worry about accidentally flashing the court or something.”

“That’s…encouraging, I guess,” Alice said. “Hang out here, I’ll be right back.”

Alice walked into their room and couldn’t help but smile at the sight of Bastien stretched out on their bed, reading. She shut the door behind her and crawled up onto the bed beside him as he put down his book.

“Hey,” he said as she leaned forward for a kiss. “All done?”

“Unfortunately, no,” Alice said. “Hana is taking me over to the stables to teach me how to play polo. I just came in here to change.”

Bastien groaned. “Gray, you’re killing me here,” he said. “Are you seriously telling me that I’m going to watch you get naked, but then you’re just going to get dressed again and leave?”

“Hey, you’re the one who doesn’t even want me to play tomorrow,” Alice said as she straddled his lap.

“I don’t, but since you’re going to, you should probably take all the help you can get,” he said, running his palms long her thighs. “I’m just being selfish.”

“Trust me, I’d rather stay here right now and be selfish with you,” Alice murmured, brushing her lips against his. “But I need to get changed and get out there.”

“It’s okay, we could always pick this up when you get back,” Bastien said as he slid her dress higher, pulling it up over her bare hips. “Unless you’re too tired after your polo lesson.”

“I’ll find the energy,” Alice promised. She pulled the dress up and over her head, tossing it to the floor.

“You’d better get dressed,” Bastien said, biting his lip as he forcibly taking his hands off of her.

“I don’t think you’ve ever said that to me before,” Alice teased as she slowly slid off the bed, taking her time.

“And I never will again. So hurry up and go so you can come back,” he sat up suddenly grabbing her around the waist and pulling her back to him. He kissed her as he slid one hand up between her thighs. “And when you come back, I will make you come…and come…and—“

“Alice?” Hana called through the door. “Are you ready?”

“One second,” Alice called back. She gave Bastien one last kiss and headed for her suitcase to pull out a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. “You’re terribly persuasive when you want to be,” she said as she pulled on her clothes.

“And yet somehow not persuasive enough,” he said. “Have fun with Hana and I’ll see you later.”

“Thanks, Dorian,” Alice said, crossing the room to kiss him one more time. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

When they arrived at the polo field, it was deserted apart from Alice, Hana, and a few horses whinnying quietly in the field’s stable

“I still can’t believe you brought that outfit on tour,” Alice said, eyeing Hana. After they’d left Alice and Bastien’s room, they’d made a quick stop by Hana’s room so she could change and Hana had dressed in full riding gear.

“It’s my riding outfit!” Hana protested. “You never know when you might need to jump on horseback.”

“And yet I have to wear a dress tomorrow?” Alice asked.

“We both do, but it’ll be fine,” Hana said. “Anyway, follow me.”

Hana led Alice over to a small shed at the edge of the field and pulled out two long, T-shaped sticks.

“A polo mallet, I presume?” Alice said as she accepted one from Hana.

“See? You’re already well on your way to becoming an expert,” Hana said.”Now, watch me.” She slipped the handle’s strap over her thumb and wrapped it around her wrist. She then gripped the mallet at a slight angle, letting it slant downward in her hand. Alice mimicked her grip.

“Like this?” Alice asked.

“Exactly! Now try a few swings,” Hana said as she retrieved a few polo balls and tossed them onto the ground in front of Alice. Alice steadied her grip on the mallet, aimed, and was delighted that she connected with the ball. Even more so when she watched it roll across the field.

“That was a beautiful swing!” Hana exclaimed proudly.

“Honestly, that went a lot better than expected. Beginner’s luck, I guess,” Alice said, although she was pleased.

“Nonsense, you’re doing great,” Hana said as she headed towards the stables. “Wait here!”

Soon after, Hana returned with two horses. Alice mounted a little less gracefully than she would’ve liked, but she managed to get on the horse without assistance.

“Alright, next lesson. Hitting the ball from horseback can be difficult at first, but it gets easier with practice,” Hana said. “One of the keys to polo is watching the line of the ball. You can only cross its path if there’s no chance of someone running into you, or if no other players have the right of way.”

To demonstrate, Hana knocked a ball down the field from atop her horse. She urged her horse into a trot and followed the ball, but Hana kept the horse just behind the ball or to its side, careful not to cross its path.

“You make it look so easy!” Alice said.

“Oh, yeah?” Hana asked, grinning. “If it looks so easy, try to get the ball away from me!”

Without warning, Hana hit the ball again and Alice took off after her, trying to remember everything she’d done during the royal hunt. Alice rode up alongside Hana until she saw her chance and swung, connecting her mallet with the ball.

“Ha!” Alice cried triumphantly.

“Good form!” Hana said, impressed.

The two friends trotted their horses down the field, slowly batting the ball back and forth across the grass.

“Okay, so far I can hit the ball and not fall off my horse…this seems too easy,” Alice said. “Am I missing something?”

“The rules aren’t complicated,” Hana said. “You just want to score more points than the opposing team. Each team has four players, technically made up of attackers and defenders, but realistically all members of a polo team are expected to be flexible and do whatever is needed. Oh, and teams change field direction every time a goal is scored.”

“How long does a game last?” Alice asked.

“Each polo match consists of four plays, or chukkas, each one lasting seven minutes of actual play,” Hana explained.

“And hitting Neville in the face is…okay?”

Hana laughed. “Unfortunately, no. Players may challenge opposition team members by ‘riding them off,’ which is when a player rides their pony alongside their opponent’s and attempts to move them away from the ball or even take them out of play. Player may also ‘bump’ the opposition, which is sort of akin to the body check in hockey. Players may also hook an opponent’s stick when they are attempting to hit the ball,” Hana added. “However, the face is off limits. A foul against a member of the other team will result in a free hit towards our goal.”

“Fine,” Alice said with an exaggerated, disappointed sigh.

“Of course, what matters most isn’t how well you play polo tomorrow,” Hana said. “Even if our team doesn’t win, you can still put on a show.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to master Maxwell’s cowboy trick by tomorrow,” Alice said.

“Try this instead,” Hana said. With a few careful tugs of the reins, her horse moved across the field with an elegant gait, his body facing forward while his legs moved on a diagonal line.

“What kind of witchcraft is that?” Alice called after her.

“It’s called a half-pass,” Hana replied. “It’s not the fastest way to get across a field, but if you can pull it off at the right moment, I bet the crowd will love it.”

Hana rode her horse back over to Alice and, after several tries, successfully coached her through it until her polo pony was doing a half-pass on command.

“Holy shit!” Alice exclaimed.

“See? I told you you’d be great!” Hana said proudly.

“Only because of your coaching,” Alice said. “Any other fancy moves I should know?”

“Riders don’t usually do anything showy, but I do know one trick that might work,” Hana said. She nudged her horse into a trot and held up her mallet. Hana then tossed it into the air, end over end, before catching it with a flourish just in time to strike a ball.

“On a scale of one to Neville, how likely am I to accidentally hit myself in the face with that if I try it?” Alice asked skeptically.

“It looks far more complicated than it actually is,” Hana assured her.

“If you say so…what’s that move called? The Hana Lee?”

Hana laughed. “More or less, actually. It’s just something I made up back when I took polo lessons. I call it the windmill.”

“Right, so the Hana Lee.”

“I suppose I can’t really argue with you,” Hana said with a smile. “Well, I think we’ve covered most of what you’ll need to know for tomorrow. The rest just comes down to teamwork and practice.”

“Luckily, you’re on my team, but I don’t know if there are enough hours left between now and tomorrow,” Alice said.

“Well, if it’s any consolation, you’re with Liam, Penelope, and me, and we’re all experienced players,” Hana said. “We’ll be able to keep an eye on you, and it’s not like Drake or Maxwell are going to go too tough on you. Well, at least Maxwell won’t.”

“I noticed you left Olivia and Neville off that list.”

“Olivia is…competitive, but you shouldn’t be surprised about that. Neville is Neville, but he can’t be helped,” Hana said with a dismissive flick of her hand. “In the meantime…ready to run through a few more drills?”

When Alice returned to the room, she unlocked the door quietly to find Bastien asleep, his book open on his chest. She smiled tenderly at him before carefully closing the door behind her. Alice crept around the room, taking his book and marking his place with his bookmark before setting it on the nightstand. She retrieved some clothes from her suitcase before clicking off the lamp beside the bed and heading into the bathroom for a shower.

Later, after she’d washed the polo field from her skin, Alice quietly slid into the bed beside Bastien, careful not to disturb him. She nestled into his side and he shifted slightly in his sleep, wrapping an arm around her. Before long, she drifted off, safe in his arms.

The following morning, Alice hurried to Hana’s room on legs that were still a little shaky after the number of orgasms Bastien had insisted on giving her to compensate for falling asleep the night before. She hadn’t minded finding him asleep, but who was she to refuse?

“Hana! I’m sorry I’m late!” Alice said, slightly out of breath as she burst through the open door of Hana’s room.

“It’s okay! We have plenty of time,” Hana said. “Are you okay? You didn’t have to run all the way here.”

“I’m fine,” Alice said, trying to force herself to breathe normally. “You wanted to go over the plan for today?”

“Yes,” Hana said, reaching for an agenda on her desk. “Alright, so we talked about this last night, but just to review, you’ll need to please the crowd at the polo match today.”

“Right,” Alice said. “Put on a show, raise relief money, et cetera.”

“And impress Penelope’s family,” Hana added. “But you’ll have the rest of us helping you, namely Liam and Olivia. But, as the newest duchess, all eyes are going to be on you to prove you can not only handle courtly life, but to reinforce Liam making you a duchess was a good decisions. Which, of course, we know it was, but we want everyone else to see that, too,” Hana said. “Also, since this is our last day in Portavira, you’re going to really need to turn up the charm with Emmeline. Landon seems to like you, but you really need both of them on your—and subsequently Liam and Olivia’s—side.”

“I’m hoping you have a brilliant plan for that?” Alice asked hopefully.

“I don’t know if I’d say ‘brilliant,’ but I do have a dress for you,” Hana said as she turned to her closet and pulled out a garment bag. She unzipped it to reveal a chic floral dress. “Now, before you say anything, I know you’re not really into pastels and florals, but this dress is really going to look great on you, especially with your blonde hair and—“ She paused, reaching for a couple of velvet jewelry boxes on the desk. “—these accessories.

“This all looks beautiful, Hana, thank you,” Alice said. “But I have to ask…any chance I can add my leather jacket to the look?”

Hana laughed. “Maybe later, but you’ll be way too hot during the match. But I promise, everyone will still know you’re tough in florals.”

“I’m feeling very called out right now,” Alice said as she quickly changed into the dress.

“Olivia’s not here, so someone has to do it,” Hana said as she helped Alice fasten the jewelry around her neck and wrist. “Ready to go play polo in a dress for stupid, archaic reasons?”

“I suppose I can’t get any more ready than I am now,” Alice said. “Let’s do this.”

When the arrived at the polo field, Alice was surprised to see how different it looked not only in the daylight, but full of people. The stands were packed the spectators, some chatting excitedly while others snacked on expensive snacks. She was starting to feel a little overwhelmed when she saw Bastien waiting for her by the entrance to the field and she immediately relaxed.

“Dorian! I wasn’t expecting to see you until after the match,” Alice said, pleased, as he leaned in to kiss her cheek. “Where’s your cane?”

“Hey, Gray, hey, Hana. I’m feeling a lot stronger, so I’m trying not to use it today,” Bastien said. Alice opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off. “I know, and I promise I’m going to take it easy—I’ll be sitting for most of the match. I wouldn’t have left it behind if I thought I’d need it.”

“That’s a lie and we both know it, but I’ll let it go,” Alice said as she took his hand.

“I know you’ve got to get in there and saddle up, but I just wanted to wish you luck,” he said as he reached into his pocket. “Also, you left in a rush this morning,” he said, winking at her and making her blush, ”so I didn’t get a chance for this.” He pulled a pen out of his pocket and re-drew the line around her finger before adding a heart above it. “For luck.”

“Thanks, love,” she said, giving him a quick kiss as they were joined by Drake. “Now, go sit down.”

Bastien smiled at her and nodded to Drake before heading into the stands.

“Hey, Hana, hey, Ayers,” Drake said.

“Hey yourself,” Alice said.

“Feeling ready for the game?” he asked.

“I’m…trying not to freak out,” Alice admitted. “But Hana gave me a crash course last night, so hopefully I’ll do her proud.”

“You’ll be great,” Hana assured her.

“Also, I know I got off to a good start with Landon, but this game’s a big deal,” Alice continued. “Not just for Penelope’s family, but for their whole duchy.”

“You’re right, it is a big deal,” Drake agreed.

“You are not helping!” Hana hissed at him.

“But…if there’s one thing I know about you, it’s that you never give up,” Drake said. “If anyone can turn this polo match into a win, you can.”

“Thank you for the belated vote of confidence,” Alice said.

“Seriously, you’ll be great,” Drake said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make your nerves worse.”

“No, it’s fine, I’m just a little wound up,” Alice said. She glanced down at her hand and looked at the heart Bastien had drawn and felt a little better. “Alright, let’s get out there.”

The three of them headed over to the field where stablehands brought out horses for each of them.

“I arranged for you to have the same horse as last night,” Hana whispered. “Thought it might help if you were paired with a horse you already knew.”

Alice smiled and reached for Hana’s hand, squeezing it gratefully. “Thank you.”

“Good morning, everyone!” Penelope said brightly as she joined them with a horse of her own. They were soon joined by the rest of the polo players.

“How’s everyone feeling?” Alice asked.

“Kind of nervous…but good nervous,” Penelope said, smiling.

“I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a while since I got to play polo instead of watching from the stands,” Liam said. “Which reminds me…Alice, can I talk to you for a second?”

He led her slightly away from the group. “I want to apologize…I should’ve checked with you before volunteering you for this match. I…” He sighed. “If you’re at court long enough, it’s possible to forget that not everyone grew up playing the same sports you did. It didn’t occur to me until after lunch yesterday that you’d never played polo before. If you don’t want to play, I’m sure I can find a substitution for you, I’d hate to put you in—“

“Liam, stop,” Alice interrupted. “It’s fine. Yes, I was caught a little off guard, but Hana brought me out here last night for a lesson and I’m fairly confident I won’t fall off and be trampled to death.”

“Okay, good,” Liam said, visibly relieved. “I’m sorry, with the tour and the attack and the wedding…I’m not as on top of things as I should be.”

“Seriously, stop apologizing,” Alice said. “You have a lot on your plate right now. If I can alleviate some of that by taking a crash course in polo with Hana and playing in a charity match helps that, I’m happy to do it.”

“I feel like I ask too much of you.”

Alice shrugged. “You’re my friend, I’m happy to do it. Besides, you gave me a whole freaking duchy. It’s the least I can do.”

Liam hugged her. “Thank you.”

“Oh, come on, Drake it won’t be that bad!” Maxwell said.

“Uh-oh, sounds like we should get back in there,” Liam said.

They rejoined the group as Hana was in the midst of reassuring Drake. “You’ll be great!”

“You say that now, but Neville’s ego is on my team…” Drake said, scowling at Neville who was waiting with them umpire at the center of the field.

“You know, it’s a shame I didn’t think to pack my mallet from Lythikos,” Olivia said as she studied the polo mallet in her hand.

“Let me guess—it has a secret knife hidden in it?” Alice asked.

“Oh, it’s not a secret,” Olivia said.

Alice stared at her. “I was kidding.”

“I’m not.”

“Let’s get started,” Liam interrupted, smiling fondly at Olivia. They all mounted their horses and rode over to join Neville and the umpire.

“It’s a nice day for a game,” Hana said politely.

“Quite,” agreed Neville. “Though I could think of nicer company.”

“Save it, alright?” Drake snapped. “We have a game to win.”

They divided into their teams, with Alice, Liam, Hana, and Penelope on one side and Drake, Maxwell, Olivia, and Neville on the other.

“May the best team win,” Alice said.

“Hear, hear!” Liam said with a grin.

“We will,” Olivia said, smiling sweetly at her fiancé.

“This is going to be so much fun!” Penelope said.

The umpire stepped forward and held up a hand to quiet the crowd in the stands. The horses stamped their feet in anticipation and Alice scanned the crowd, looking for Bastien. She couldn’t find him in the sea of people, but she glanced down at her finger instead.

“Ready?” Hana asked.

“Aye aye,” Maxwell said with a salute.

Liam nodded to the umpire, who rolled the ball into play. The voices began to cheer as everyone raced after the ball. With a practiced swing, Hana sent the ball spinning down the field.

“Sorry, Hana,” Olivia said, not sounding the least bit apologetic as she swept the ball away, nearly running into Penelope.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Penelope said gleefully, her usual fear of Olivia fading away in the heat of the match.

“Dammit!” Olivia cried, and Alice saw her opening.

“I’ll just take that,” Alice said as she knocked the ball away from Olivia in the confusion, but then Maxwell was quickly at her side, both of them riding after it.

“Race you to it!” Maxwell exclaimed.

“Maxwell, look! A puppy!” Alice said, pointing to an empty spot on the field.

“What?” Maxwell asked, concerned. “Who let a puppy on the field? That’s so dangerous! Even a big puppy would be too small for the horses to see!”

When he turned around in his saddle to look, Alice deftly knocked the ball away from him and through the goal posts, sending the crowd into a frenzy of cheers.

“Alice! You did it!” Hana cried proudly. Alice glanced back over at the stands and was finally able to locate Bastien, who was on his feet, cheering loudly. She grinned and sat up a little straighter in the saddle.

When the umpire tossed the ball back into play, Maxwell knocked it down the field to Neville.

“Neville, over here!” Drake called. “I’m wide open!”

“I’ve got it!” Neville snapped.

“Do you?” Liam asked politely as he guided his horse alongside Neville’s, nudging him away from the ball. Alice could see the look of frustration on Neville’s face, but even Neville wouldn’t dare say something rude or inappropriate to the king.

“Neville, dammit, pass me the ball!” Drake yelled.

“I said I’ve got it!” Neville yelled back.

As they continued to argue, the ball began to roll out of Neville’s reach. At that moment, Hana raced forward, her horse arriving just in time to snatch the ball away from Neville.

“Hey!” Neville protested.

“Hana! Over here!” Liam called. Hana neatly passed it to him and he sent it straight into the goal for another point as the crowd roared its approval.

The two teams went back and forth and, after an hour, the last round was upon them. Alice was a bit surprised how tired she was beginning to feel despite the fact that her horse had been doing the running instead of her.

“The horses make this look so easy!” Penelope said, looking a little winded herself.

“I’ve heard a diet of oats is great for one’s stamina,” Hana said, sitting as poised as she had at the beginning of the game. Alice glanced around at the group and wasn’t surprised to find that Olivia was the only one besides Hana who didn’t look tired.

“Hana, how have you barely broken a sweat?” a sweaty Drake asked.

“Duh, she’s Hana,” an even sweatier Maxwell said with a shrug.

“Okay, team, huddle up,” Liam said, motioning for Alice, Hana, and Penelope to join him. “The game is almost over, but we’re two points up. As long as we can keep our lead, this’ll still be a win. Are you with me?”

“Through and through!” Penelope said.

“Let’s show them what we’ve got!” Hana said, her face darkening with determination.

“God, I love scary Hana,” Alice said. “Let’s go kick some ass.”

They and the opposing time rode onto the field for the final time and the umpire tossed the ball back into play. Alice could barely keep track of the ball in the mad scramble.

“Hey, I had that!” Olivia protested.

“Your backhand’s always been a little too slow,” Liam said with a triumphant grin. “Get ready, Alice!”

With a powerful swing, Liam hit the ball towards her, giving her a clear line to the opposing team’s goal. She took aim and swung, connecting the with ball and sending it straight into the goal. The crowd erupted into cheers as the umpire blew his whistle to signal the end of the game. After a quick tally of the points, the umpire pointed to Alice’s team as the victors, causing the cheering in the stands to escalate even further.

“Oh my goodness! We actually won!” Penelope exclaimed.

“Well done, everyone,” Liam said, looking first to his team and then the opposing, always the consummate gracious winner.

“If I absolutely have to lose to anyone, I’m glad it’s you,” Olivia said to Liam.

“That sounded almost like ‘congratulations,’” Alice said.

“Don’t push it.”

They all dismounted their horses and returned them to the stablehands before leaving the field to be greeted by a smiling Landon and Emmeline, with the exception of Neville, who stormed off to sulk.

“You all played magnificently out there,” Emmeline said. “Duchess Alice, I had no idea you were such a talented polo player.”

“Believe me, it was my team that made me look good,” Alice said. “I only hope that the match was able to help the relief efforts.” A sudden barking drew her attention. “Oh, hello, you two!” Alice said as she noticed Merlin and Morgana at Landon’s feet, waiting somewhat patiently for attention.

“I thought Penelope would want to see them,” Landon said as Penelope noticed her dogs and rushed over, giving each of them a hug. The dogs’ tails thumped happily against the floor of the stands.

“Oh, I missed you two,” Penelope said. “Did they get to see me out there?” she asked her parents.

“Of course,” Landon said, smiling affectionately at his daughter.

“You know, I don’t believe I’ve seen a game like that since Landon hung up his mallet,” Emmeline said.

“You flatter me, dear,” Landon said, although he couldn’t suppress his grin. “Even in my heyday, I had nothing on this lot. Lady Hana, your form in particular was impeccable!”

“I’m just happy to put these skills to use for a good cause,” Hana said modestly.

“I’ve received the projected total of donations from today, and it’ll be enough to shore up our relief funds,” Emmeline said.

“That’s fantastic! I’m so glad we were able to help,” Liam said as he took Olivia’s hand in his.

“We can’t tell you how much of a difference this will make for Portavira,” Landon said. “Thank you so much, all of you.”

“We’ve talked this over,” Emmeline said, “and we’d like to officially offer our support to the crown. King Liam, Duchess Olivia, we would be honored to attend your wedding.”

“Thank you,” Olivia said graciously.

“Your support means so much to us,” Liam added.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Landon said. “Honestly, it’s been a while since we went on a trip, and we’re delighted it will be for such a happy occasion.”

“If it’s alright…I’d also like to return to court,” Penelope said.

“Are you sure?” Landon asked. Penelope nodded.

“Yes. After talking it over with Alice, Hana, and Maxwell last night, I think it’s the right move for me,” Penelope said.

Alice looked at Olivia and raised her eyebrows. Olivia nodded slightly at Alice before turning to Penelope.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Olivia said. “And if you want…you’d be welcome to bring your dogs with you.”

“Really?” Penelope asked excitedly. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Olivia said. “Honestly, they’re better behaved than some of the members at court, so I’d be glad to have them come with you.”

“Oh, thank you, Olivia!” Penelope said before returning her attention to her dogs. “Do you want to go to court with me?”

The dogs panted happily and wagged their tails.

“If you’ll excuse us, we have some travel plans to make,” Landon said as he put an arm around his wife. They nodded goodbye to everyone before leaving the group alone in the stands, Penelope following behind them with her dogs.

“First Adelaide and Godfrey, and now Penelope’s family,” Liam said. “Thank you, Alice.”

“Me? I’ll take credit for Adelaide and Godfrey, but this one was a group effort.”

“Seriously, Alice,” Olivia said. “I’m not really a ‘people person’ so your help has been really valuable so far.”

“Did you all hear that?” Alice asked as Bastien walked over to join them. “You’re all witnesses, Liv just complimented me. In public.

“I’ll still stab you,” Olivia warned her.

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Bastien said as he put an arm around Alice’s waist. “Can I borrow you for a moment?”

“Sure,” Alice said before turning to the group. “I’ll see you all later.”

She and Bastien left their friends and started to head back towards the estate.

“So, I didn’t get trampled to death in the exhibition match—are you proud of me?” Alice asked. Bastien laughed and kissed the top of her head as they walked.

“Extremely. You looked fantastic out there,” he said. “You’re sure you’ve never played before?”

“Just last night with Hana,” Alice said. “I didn’t do any of her fancy moves, but I didn’t embarrass Liam and Olivia either.”

“You have to stop talking about yourself like that, Gray,” Bastien said as he threaded his fingers through hers. “You need to give yourself more credit. This is so much to take on considering you haven’t been raised in this environment like everyone else, and you’re doing so well. It’s one of the many reasons I’m so honored you love me.”

Alice stopped walking and turned to face him. “Can I at least give you credit for my good luck?” she asked as she held up her left hand. He smiled and leaned in, kissing her softly. He started the deepen the kiss, when his phone chimed and he broke away.

“Sorry, I have to check this,” he apologized. “I’m waiting on some intel from—“ he stopped suddenly, staring at the screen.

“What is it?” Alice asked, concerned.

“It’s…a new video from the terrorist group,” he said, frowning. He turned the phone they could both see and hit play. A familiar masked man faced the camera, his hands clasped behind his back.

“Look to your king, Cordonians. He could not protect his own court…and he cannot protect the crown’s most prized possession.”

The man slowly held out a closed, gloved hand towards the camera, then opened it. In his palm sat the charred husk of an apple.

“Let the destruction of the orchard at Applewood serve as a message. Your government is weak. Divided. And soon…”

He slowly crushed the burned apple in his hand.

“It will meet the same fate as the Cordonian Ruby.

The video ended as Bastien and Alice continued to stare at the screen.


Part 45

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