Summary: The Unity Tour makes an unscheduled stop in Applewood and Alice is forced to revisit the past. (NSFW)
Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit.
CW: references to terrorist attack, references to sexual assault and violence
New to the series? Catch up here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8,Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20, Part 21, Part 22, Part 23, Part 24, Part 25, Part 26, Part 27, Part 28, Part 29, Part 30, Part 31, Part 32, Part 33, Part 34, Part 35, Part 36, Part 37, Part 38, Part 39, Part 40, Part 41, Part 42, Part 43, Part 44
Alice stared out the window of the train as the Cordonian countryside rushed by, only half-listening as everyone else discussed their impending visit to Applewood Manor. She knew she’d eventually have to go back—hell, this wasn’t even her first visit since Tariq had attacked her—but that didn’t mean she wanted to go anywhere near that manor. She wanted the terrorist group eradicated, but part of her wished they’d burned the whole estate to the ground instead of just the orchard. Alice felt terrible for thinking that, but guilt didn’t change how she felt.
“I want to know who burned down the orchard,” Liam said, his voice low and angry.
“I know, and we’re doing everything we can to find those responsible,” Bastien said. “Right now, we’re pursuing leads in both the Liberation Core and the Sons of Earth, but we’ve still been unable to locate Olivia’s aunt.”
“I wish I could be more help,” Olivia said. “Damn her.”
“I’ll let you know as soon as we have more information,” Bastien promised.
“I know. Thank you,” Liam said. “And I appreciate you staying on with the Royal Guard while we deal with this. I feel much better about this situation knowing that you’re working on it.”
“I’m happy to help,” Bastien assured him as his phone buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go brief the security teams before we arrive at Applewood.” He turned to Alice and gently took her hand. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Alice lied. Bastien regarded her for a moment, but he didn’t push it. He knew she’d talk about it when she was ready. He gave her hand a squeeze and stood, nodding to the rest of the group before he left. Alice glanced over at Olivia and saw her staring at her.
“What?” Alice asked.
“I can’t believe someone would burn down the apple orchard,” Hana said sadly.
“It’s a low blow,” Drake said, his mouth set in a hard, angry line. “Attacking the orchard when the real target is the monarchy…”
“Their assassination attempt didn’t work, so they’ve resorted to terrorizing our citizens,” Olivia said.
“The people who live at Applewood must be so scared,” Maxwell said sadly. “How are we going to get through this?”
“We have to be a united front,” Alice said, trying to keep the tiredness out of her voice.
“Alice is right,” Liam said. “If the terrorist group sees any fissures, that’s where they’ll aim. We have to put the people at ease and assure them that their rulers are strong and aren’t afraid…at least, not publicly.”
“On that front…” Hana said as she opened a binder in front of her. “I’ve already made the necessary calls and every news outlet in Cordonia will be in attendance when we arrive at Applewood.”
“Thank you, Hana,” Liam said. “We can’t personally visit every Cordonian, but this news coverage will at least let us reassure them from afar.”
“Plus, it gives us control of the story,” Hana said, before glancing at Alice. “I think everyone will feel better once they’re reminded that apples aren’t the only symbol of the crown’s strength. Just because they’ve burned an apple orchard doesn’t mean they’ve won.”
“The orchard was obviously chosen specifically to undermine Liam and the stability of the crown,” Drake said.
“At least no one was injured in the fire, but…those poor farmers,” Hana said sadly.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a rough year with no apples to harvest,” Maxwell said.
“Our staff is already working on a plan to help the farmers, but they’re understandably afraid about the future,” Liam said.
“That’s why our priorities for the event are to establish order and to show our enemies that we won’t be intimidated,” Olivia said.
“Luckily, I have you,” Liam said as he looked at Olivia, his face softening as he looked at her. “I don’t think you’ve ever been intimidated in your life.”
“So, Hana, what’s the plan for the press?” Olivia asked as she took Liam’s hand in hers.
“My idea was to begin by having you and Liam make a statement and then end it with Alice planting a baby apple tree,” Hana said, glancing cautiously at Alice.
“Me? Why?” Alice asked. “Wouldn’t Liam and Olivia be better for that?”
“Well…” Hana hesitated. “Alice, I hate bringing this up, but I have to warn you about something.”
“I feel like I’m not going to like this,” Alice said wryly.
“No, you’re not,” Hana agreed. “When I was contacting the news outlets, many of them wanted me to make a statement about you returning to Applewood again, especially now that the truth about Tariq is out.”
Alice sighed. “I guess that’s to be expected.”
“I didn’t make any statements, but I wanted you to be prepared just in case,” Hana said.
“Thank you,” Alice said.
“But…that’s also why I think it’s important to have you involved at the press conference,” Hana continued. “There are still some news outlets publishing some…unflattering…editorials about the crown’s role or lack thereof in your attack. Planting a tree with Liam and Olivia would be a sign of unity and support.”
“Alice, if this isn’t something you want to do, you don’t have to,” Liam said gently.
“What about the importance of a united front?” Alice asked.
“Your well being is also important,” Liam said. “Olivia and I can make the statements; plus we’ll have Bastien as well as Maxwell and Bertrand; they could be your proxy.”
“I’ll be fine,” Alice said as she rose to her feet. “I’m sorry, would you all excuse me? I want to lie down for a bit before we get there.”
“Of course,” Liam said as he rose to his feet. “But think about what I said—if you don’t want to handle this, you have options.”
Alice smiled weakly at him and left, heading back to her room. She’d barely closed the door behind her when she heard a familiar, rapid-fire knock.
“Come in,” she called as Maxwell opened the door. “Everything okay?”
“I wanted to ask you the same thing,” Maxwell said.
“You don’t seem fine.”
“I just…god, this is stupid. It’s not even the first time I’ve been back to Applewood since it happened and there’s clearly other problems to worry about,” Alice said as she sat down heavily on the bed. Maxwell sat down on the small sofa across from her and waited patiently while Alice gathered her thoughts. “I hate going there,” she finally said.
“What can I do?” Maxwell asked.
Alice shook her head. “I’m not sure if there’s anything to be done, but I appreciate the offer.”
“You and Bastien are together now, but just in case he has to work or something, I’ll make sure I have several episodes of The Office downloaded and ready to go.”
“Thanks, Maxwell,” Alice said, finally able to muster an authentic smile. “I might need you to keep those on deck.”
A sharp knock at the door interrupted them. “Alice? I know you’re not sleeping.”
“Come in, Liv.”
Olivia opened the door and entered, closing it behind her. “Are you sure you’re okay with doing this?”
“Aren’t you the one who told me I needed to get my shit together when we were in the safe house?” Alice asked.
“Yes, and you do, but I still want to offer you a lifeline if you want it,” Olivia said. “I can have cars waiting at the train station to take you ahead to Castelsarreillan.”
“Thank you, but no,” Alice said as she straightened up a little. “You were right before. I need to go to Applewood.”
“I love being right, but the option stands,” Olivia said. “If we get there and you change your mind, just tell me.”
“Olivia, that’s so nice of you,” Maxwell said, sounding genuinely touched.
“Shut up.” With that, Olivia left, shutting the door behind her with a bang.
“So…I guess while I have you here, I should probably get your opinion on what I’m wearing today,” Alice said. Maxwell visibly brightened as he sat up.
“Yay! What do you have?” Maxwell asked as he immediately started pawing through her suitcase.
“I don’t know, I was hoping you could find something in there that would work,” Alice said. “How do you dress for a serious press conference after a national tragedy and also be prepared to plant a tree?”
“Like this!” Maxwell exclaimed triumphantly as he held up an outfit, laying it out on his own body to give her the full effect. “The darker pants portray the somber mood of the tragedy, but if you roll up the sleeves of this shirt, you won’t get it dirty when you plant the tree.”
“A white shirt? Are you sure?” Alice asked. Maxwell shrugged.
“It’ll be fine. And, hey, if you get any dirt on it, maybe it’ll show people you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty or something,” he offered.
“Good enough for me.”
When the train began to slow, Bastien rejoined Alice in their room.
“Are we here?” she asked as she stood up from where she sat on the couch.
“Yes, but I wanted to talk to you for a minute before we get off the train,” Bastien said, gesturing for her to sit down again. He sat beside her. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get back here sooner, I had to deal with the security for today. Whoever did this could still be nearby, anticipating a visit from Liam. I had to make sure everything was in place.”
“As if I needed another reason to dislike Applewood,” Alice muttered, rolling her eyes.
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Bastien said as he took her hand in his. “Are you okay? Being back here, I mean.”
Alice sighed. “No, but yes. I don’t want to be here, but I have other responsibilities as well.”
“I know this isn’t easy for you, but I wanted to tell you how much I love and admire you,” Bastien said. “You’ve had to face so much since coming here and the fact that you’re still standing…well, I don’t know if I would be.”
“Says the man who took two bullets.”
Bastien smiled and squeezed her hand. “You know what I mean.”
“I do. And thank you,” Alice said as she lifted his hand to her lips and lightly kissed the pen ring that circled his finger. “Hey, this isn’t all bad though; the last time we were here, we weren’t together and now we’re engaged.”
“Waiting until we get to Valtoria is excruciating,” he said. She smiled and ran her fingers through his hair.
“‘I do love nothing in the world so well as you,’” she quoted.
He leaned in and kissed her softly, gently cupping her face in his hands as if it was more delicate and precious than anything else in the world as the train finally came to a halt. Maxwell’s rapid knock returned and Alice and Bastien finally broke apart.
“Ready?” Bastien asked as he stood and held out his hand to her. She took it and let him help her to her feet.
“With you? Always.”
As everyone disembarked the train at Applewood, the acrid tang of smoke scratched Alice’s throat with each breath.
“It’s strange how the manor still looks so…normal,” Hana said. “I know they only burned the orchards, but somehow I was expecting…well, I don’t know what I was expecting.”
“For the loss we feel to be reflected in the world around us?” Liam asked sadly as he put his arm around Olivia’s waist.
“Yes,” Hana said quietly.
“I have a feeling it will be,” Drake said. Alice followed his gaze to the charcoal haze that hung over the manor. At least the building looked as foreboding as it felt. She felt Bastien’s hand tighten around hers.
“Still doing okay?” he asked quietly. She nodded.
“Hey.” Alice looked at Olivia, standing on her other side. “You’ve got this, Jon Snow.”
Alice nodded and took as deep of a breath as the air would allow as she reached over and squeezed Olivia’s hand. “I know.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready to see the orchard…like that,” Maxwell said, the usual excitement long gone from his face.
“We have to face it one way or another,” Bertrand said, although Alice noticed him place a comforting hand on his brother’s arm.
“We should head over, the press is waiting,” Hana said.
Hana led the way down the path to the orchard and before long, their group reached the charred remains.
“Wow,” Alice said quietly. Despite her feelings about Applewood Manor, she still knew what a devastating loss this was for Cordonia—her country—and it seemed so surreal to see the orchard this way after previously celebrating the Apple Blossom Festival there. She looked over at Bastien and her heart nearly broke when she saw him. His face had gone completely still, his jaw clenched and his mouth fixed in a thin line. “Bas?”
He shook his head slightly. “I…I thought I’d prepared myself to see it, but it’s worse than I’d imagined.”
“How can I reassure everyone that Cordonia is well-protected when I let this happen?” Liam asked, pain threatening to break his voice.
“You’re not in this alone,” Olivia said, her tone gentle yet strong. “People will be reassured just by seeing you up there. No matter what else happens, they’ll know that their king came to them when they needed him most.”
“That’s going to speak greater volumes than any words you could say,” Alice added. “You can say all the right things but if you don’t follow through, it’s just bullshit.”
“Plus, we can remind people that I’ll bring the wrath of House Nevrakis down on these spineless vermin with the power of a thousand burning suns,” Olivia said. “If they think they can attack us without consequences, they’re dead wrong.”
“Emphasis on the ‘dead?’” Alice asked.
Liam smiled and held Olivia a little tighter. “Thank you, both of you.” He looked over to where a throng of reporters and citizens waited near a row of burnt-out tree husks. “Shall we?”
Liam led their group over to where the reporters were waiting and they were immediately inundated with a barrage of questions as Liam and Olivia stepped forward.
“King Liam, are we safe? Are the attackers gone?” a woman asked, hands clenched worriedly in front of her.
“My family has been harvesting this orchard for generations!” a man yelled. “How am I going to feed my kids?”
“King Liam, have you apprehended those responsible?” a reporter asked.
“Duchess Alice, how does it feel to be back at the scene of your own attack in the wake of the orchard burning?” another reporter called out.
Alice froze, feeling like the wind had just been sucked from her lungs. She held onto Bastien’s hand tightly and was about to speak, when suddenly Bertrand pushed past her.
“How dare you?” Bertrand demanded, glaring at the reporter who had spoken to Alice. “We are here in the wake of a national tragedy and you have the gall—“
Bastien grabbed Bertrand’s arm, stopping him, as Mara stepped forward. Alice watched as Bastien leaned in and said something to Bertrand and, as furious as Bertrand looked, he nodded and stepped back, standing protectively on Alice’s other side.
“Step back, give them some breathing room,” Mara snapped as she urged the crowd back a few feet, but the growing audience was clearly angry and scared. Liam raised his hand and they fell into an uneasy silence.
“Citizens of Applewood, our hearts are with you in this difficult time,” Liam said. “This orchard is as dear to me as to any of you. Duchess Olivia and I grew up playing among the trees which, just yesterday, stood where we stand now. We will begin replanting the orchard immediately, and we will provide for those who are out of work. Your families will not go hungry.”
“As for those responsible for this deplorable attack, know that we will not rest until we find them and bring them to justice,” Olivia said, her face determined. There was a smattering of applause, but the audience was still tense. “They came for our apples, so now we’re coming for them,” Olivia continued. Applause sounded again, stronger this time.
“I’m sure you all have more questions, and answers will be forthcoming as our investigation progresses,” Liam said. “For now, we have prepared a special finale for this press conference.” He turned and motioned for Alice to join him and Olivia and together, the three of them walked a short distance to where a baby apple tree sat beside a freshly dug hole, followed by the crowd. Alice let her gaze wander over the empty, blackened land where a similar tree had been planted after she’d been crowned the Apple Queen during the social season. Staring out at this charred relics of what had once been, she felt like she’d aged a thousand years since then.
“Duchess Olivia, Duchess Alice, and I will now take the first step in replanting the Applewood orchard,” Liam announced. The three of them turned towards the tree when the same reporter from before called out again.
“Duchess Alice, why would you want to rebuild the orchard after what allegedly happened at Applewood during the social season?”
This time Bastien had to grab Drake’s elbow to stop him from stepping forward. Alice glanced at Liam and Olivia, and Olivia nodded encouragingly to her.
“Despite the slant some have chosen to pursue, today is not about me,” Alice said, the strength in her voice surprising her. “Although I did not grow up here as our king and future queen did, Cordonia is my home and I will fight to protect it and do everything in my power to rebuild it at every level. I’m honored that King Liam and Duchess Olivia asked me to join them today as we all move forward together with Cordonia.”
There was a smattering of applause as Alice turned and, together with Liam and Olivia, picked up the small tree and carefully lowered it into the hole. Alice noticed the shovels nearby but ignored them, choosing instead to sink to her knees and begin covering the roots with ashy dirt. Olivia and Liam immediately joined her and together they worked to plant the tree. Alice was vaguely aware of the flashbulbs of cameras, but she ignored them, focusing instead on burying the past and growing the future alongside her friends. When they were done, all three rose and turned back to the waiting crowd.
“The planting of this tree symbolizes our anger and fear transforming into strength in the face of our enemies,” Liam said as Alice looked down at her hands, blackened with ash and dirt. “Whoever did this thinks that by attacking us, they’re revealing our weaknesses…but what they don’t realize is that ash enriches the soil, allowing the trees to grow back sturdier than before. They burn down our orchard? For each tree lost, we’ll plant two more.”
“We will not allow these cowards to wreak havoc on our country,” Alice said, her face hardening with determination as she looked up at the crowd.
“They think they can break us, but they’re wrong,” Olivia added fiercely. “They have no idea who they are dealing with.”
“That’s right!” a woman yelled from the crowd as the audience cheered, roused by righteous anger.
“Thank you so much for your time today,” Liam said with a dignified nod.
The crowd began to disperse and Liam immediately turned to Alice.
“Alice, I am so sorry, I know Hana said the reporters were anxious to talk to you about what happened, but I really didn’t think they’d do anything during the press conference,” Liam said, his expression both pained and furious. “The nerve of—“
“It’s fine,” Alice said, cutting him off. “I mean, it’s not fine, but I’m sorry that the reporter took the focus off of what matters right—”
“Don’t apologize,” Olivia interrupted. “You did nothing wrong.”
“For what it’s worth, you handled that really well,” Liam said. “Apparently all that media coaching from Justin amid off, because you seem like you’ve been doing this for your whole life.”
“Okay, let’s not give Justin too much credit,” Alice said. “Hana’s been much more helpful and way less creepy.”
“God, this is something off about that guy, right?” Olivia asked. “He smiles too much. It’s unnerving.”
Alice glanced around as the rest of their friends joined them by the sapling. “Hey, where’s Bastien?”
“He had to take care of something,” Bertrand said as he came to stand by Alice. She raised an eyebrow at him.
“What sort of something?”
“He wasn’t specific, and I think that was intentional,” Bertrand said as he pulled out his phone. “I have to go call Savannah and check in, but text me if you need anything.”
“Will do,” she said. “And thank you.”
“You three were so inspirational!” Hana exclaimed, pulling Alice’s attention back to the group as Bertrand left.
“I got chills,” Maxwell said, holding up his arm as proof. “You might still be able to feel the goosebumps.”
“Even I’ll admit, it was pretty stirring,” Drake said. “Still wish Bastien had let me hit that reporter though,” he muttered.
“So, what’s the plan for the rest of the day?” Alice asked as the group started to head back towards the manor.
“Nothing specific,” Hana said.
“We have a free day?” Maxwell asked.
“More or less.”
At the edge of the orchard, Alice noticed a dejected-looking boy and girl raking their fingers through the dirt as a soccer ball sat by their feet.
“It’s not fair,” Alice heard the girl say as their group drew closer.
“What are we supposed to do now?” the boy asked, sniffling. “Everyone bailed.”
“There’s no point in crying about it,” the girl snapped. “Don’t be such a baby.”
“I’m not a baby!” the boy protested.
“Hey, what’s wrong, you two?” Alice asked as she walked over.
“Your Grace, you’re leaving the security perimeter!” Mara hissed at her, but Alice ignored her as the little girl stared up at her with awe.
“Whoa…Jiro, look who it is?” the girl said.
“Wow…Camellia, say something!”
“I don’t bite, I promise,” Alice said as she crouched down beside them.
“Lady…Lady Alice, we’re big fans of yours,” Camellia said earnestly.
“Welcome to the fan club,” Maxwell said as he crouched down by Alice to talk to the kids.
“I’m very honored,” Alice said with a smile. “Are you two okay?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Camellia said quickly. “You don’t have to worry about us.”
“You’re my fellow Cordonians, of course I worry about you,” Alice said as she sat down on the ground by them.
“It’s the orchard,” Jiro explained. “Us and some of the other kids used to come here and play soccer together.”
“But now it’s burned and nobody wants to join us,” Camellia added.
“Man, that’s rough,” Maxwell said.
“If you’re up for some boring grownups to join you…we’d love to play,” Alice said.
“Really?” Jiro asked, eyes wide.
“Yeah,” Alice said. “We’re not going to let a little disaster stop us.We’re Cordonians, right? That means we have to keep moving forward and continuing to do things we love, like playing soccer together.”
“Can we still play here? We don’t have any goalposts,” Camellia said.
“Let’s stick some branches in the ground,” Drake suggested. “That’s what Liam and I would do when we were kids.”
“Or…we could open up the courtyard at the manor instead,” Liam suggested.
“We get to go to Applewood Manor?” Jiro asked incredulously.
“Yes, we do!” Alice said as she and Maxwell stood up. She held out her hands to the kids and helped them to their feet. “Let’s go!”
The group headed back up to the manor, both kids still hanging on to Alice’s hands. As they entered the courtyard, both Camellia and Jiro’s eyes widened at the sight.
“Wow…this is what it’s like to be royalty,” Jiro said in a low, reverent voice.
“That courtyard is where the nobles play games…where we’re going to play games!” Camellia said excitedly. She and Jiro let go of Alice’s hands and sprinted ahead as Liam waved to a couple of staffers, who brought out two goals for the field.
“Let’s draft teams!” Jiro said excitedly.
“I’m team captain! I call Alice!” Camellia announced immediately.
“Hey! I want Alice on my team!” Jiro protested.
“Why don’t the three of us be on a team together?” Alice suggested. “We’ll all be co-captains.”
“Deal!” Jiro said happily.
“We need one more person for our team. Who do you think is the best?” Camellia asked Alice.
“Hana, hands down,” Alice said confidently.
“Me? Really?” Hana asked, surprised. “I mean, I guess I’m okay at soccer. I haven’t really played much.”
“She’s being modest,” Alice assured her teammates. “If she’s not already a master soccer player, she’ll probably be one before we finish.”
“It’s true,” Maxwell said. “Hana’s good at everything. I wanted her on my team.”
“We got her first!” Camellia said worriedly.
Maxwell grinned. “Don’t worry, she’s all yours,” he assured her. “I’m looking forward to her beating me.”
“Hey!” Drake protested as Hana walked over to join them. “What about us?”
“You have me,” Olivia said. “You’re welcome.”
“I don’t remember you playing a lot of soccer when we were kids,” Liam said with a smile as he bumped her shoulder.
“No, but I play to win.”
“Okay, team, huddle up,” Alice said as she and Hana got into a huddle with Camellia and Jiro. “Let’s talk strategy.”
“Okay,” Jiro said. “Who’s the worst on the other team? Just so we know who to target.”
“Is it Olivia? She sounds like she has the least experience,” Camellia asked.
“Yes, but she’s really tough,” Hana said. “I’d vote Maxwell. Mostly because I think he’s a softie and he’ll have a hard time going full force against us.”
“I agree,” Alice said. “Plus, he’s a little afraid of Hana when we play games.”
“Are you scary?” Jiro asked Hana.
“I’ve been told I’m…competitive,” Hana said with a wink.
“Perfect!” Camellia exclaimed.
The two teams took their places on the field beside the manor and Camellia placed the soccer ball at Alice’s feet.
“Lead us off, Alice!” Camellia said.
Alice kicked the ball down the field and Liam and Drake immediately took off after it, each jostling the other to get into position to head the ball. They jumped at the same time and crashed into each other while the ball landed harmlessly behind them as they fell onto the grass.
“Alice, please don’t give my fiancé a concussion!” Olivia called as she and Hana took off after the ball.
“Hey, I’m not the one who head butted him,” Alice called back as she ran down the field.
“Watch where you’re going,” Drake said, rubbing his head.
“All you have to do is stand aside,” Liam said with a grin as he climbed to his feet and held out his hand to Drake.
“No, no, Your Royal Highness, don’t trouble yourself with such strenuous activity,” Drake said as he accepted Liam’s help up. “It’s only more embarrassing when you lose.”
“We’re all on the same team!” Maxwell cried as he received a pass from Olivia and promptly had it stolen by Hana, who passed it to Jiro.
“Me? Lose?” Liam asked, offended. “Now you’re asking for it, Drake.”
“Try me,” Drake challenged. “I don’t need to be one hundred percent to win the next duel.”
“Famous last words,” Liam said.
“Hey!” Camellia called. “Are you two playing or what?”
“Yeah!” Alice said. “No blood, no foul!”
“Damn, Ayers! You’re really out to win.”
“Duh!” Jiro said as he did a fancy move around Olivia and sent the ball sailing into the goal.
“Yes!” Alice cheered as she jogged over to high five her team. “Jiro, that was amazing!”
“It was,” Olivia conceded with a grin. “But I’ll be ready for you next time.”
“We’ll see!” Jiro said, laughing.
“That kid just kicked my ass,” Olivia said, lowering her voice so only Alice could hear.
“Dude, no kidding,” Alice said. “I’m just trying not to breathe so heavily that I sound like I’m dying.”
“God, I’m going to have to start working out before Liam and I have kids,” Olivia said as they watched Camellia steal the ball from Maxwell and pass it to Hana. “Otherwise, I don’t have a chance in hell of keeping up with them.”
“Same,” Alice said. “Either that, or I’m going to leave the bulk of the chasing kids around to Bastien. He’s already in great shape and does a lot of cardio.”
“Alice! Come on!” Jiro called.
Alice and Olivia jogged back over into the action. Noticing her, Hana passed the ball to Alice with a powerful kick, but Maxwell leaped in front of the ball to block it. Unfortunately, he ended up taking the full force directly in the face. He fell to the ground, dramatically rolling around.
“Maxwell! Oh my gosh, I am so sorry!” Hana called as she ran over to him.
“This is the end! My playing days are done!” Maxwell cried. “Tell…Bertrand…I’m sorry…about the peacocks…”
“Oh my god, you’re fine,” Alice said, holding out her hand to him. “Well, except for the slight soccer ball imprint you have on your forehead.”
“No one has ever come back from such a grievous ego injury!” Maxwell declared, swatting her hand away as Jiro and Camellia laughed.
“It’s okay, Maxwell,” Liam said. “We’ll get you into therapy, you’ll work hard, and you’ll show the world it can be done.”
“You’ll come back from this,” Alice said, rolling her eyes. “I have faith in you.”
“You’re right,” Maxwell said bravely. “I’ll find a way to carry on.” He leaped back onto his feet without using his hands like a breakdancer, causing both Camellia’s and Jiro’s jaws to drop.
“Whoa!” Jiro exclaimed. “That was so cool!”
“Can you teach me to do that?” Camellia asked.
“Sure,” Maxwell said, grinning. “To start, you have to—“
“Hey!” Drake called. “Are we playing soccer or what?”
The game resumed with promises of dance lessons to follow. Soon, Alice got the ball and dribbled past Maxwell, searching for a spot to shoot the ball. On the other side, she noticed Jiro standing by the goal and waving his arms.
“Over here!” he called.
Alice quickly passed him the ball and Jiro kicked it into the goal.
“Yes!” Hana cheered. Jiro stuck his arms out like an airplane and “flew” around the field while Camellia directed him like an art traffic controller. He finally landed by Alice and high fived her.
“Great pass, Alice!” Jiro exclaimed.
“Only because you were there to receive it,” Alice said with a grin.
Eventually, the game finally drew to a close as everyone began to tire, with even Drake and Liam bent over, hands on their knees and breathing hard.
“I don’t think I can move another muscle,” Liam said.
“I’m sure you’d find a way once I got the ball,” Drake said.
“You two are exhausting,” Olivia said.
“They’re exhausting and I’m exhausted,” Alice said as she fell to the ground dramatically. “I need oxygen! Oxygen!”
“I stand corrected; you’re all embarrassing,” Olivia said as she eyed Alice splayed out on the grass.
“The human body wasn’t meant for this,” Alice said. “Why did we think it was such a good idea to run so much?”
“We were consumed by hubris,” Maxwell said as he fell onto the ground beside her. He turned and looked at Camellia and Jiro. “How are you two not tired?”
Camellia shrugged. “We do this all the time.”
Laughter and clapping at the edge of the field suddenly drew everyone’s attention. With Mara overlooking them, a small crowd had gathered unnoticed by the participants on the field. People waved when Alice and the others looked over.
“Camellia…Jiro…your adoring fans are here,” Alice said, pointing weakly.
“Is this what it’s like to be you?” Jiro asked, amazed.
“I wish people clapped for me all the time,” Camellia said.
“Yes, cheer our team’s glorious victory!” Maxwell said, raising a triumphant fist into the air from where he lay on the ground.
“You lost,” Hana said, nudging him gently with her foot.
“I thought we weren’t keeping score,” Drake said.
“Oh…well, you lost, in case you were wondering,” Hana said with a shrug.
“I hope we can keep playing here,” Camellia said. “This was so fun!”
“Well, the grounds crew probably wants to keep the orchard closed while it regrows,” Olivia said, looking at Liam as she raised her eyebrows questioningly. He smiled.
“Agreed,” Liam said. “Anyone who used to play there should be invited to play at the manor.”
“Yes!” Jiro cheered as he jumped up and down.
“All the kids will want to play with us now,” Camellia said happily.
“Come on, let’s go tell everyone!” Jiro said as he ran over to Alice and practically fell on top of her as he and Camellia gave her big hugs.
“Thanks for playing with us!” Camellia said. “We had so much fun!”
“Oh, me, too, guys,” Alice said as she hugged them back. “Thanks for picking me for your team.”
“You’re welcome!” Jiro said as he and Camellia stood up.
“Good game, everyone!” Camellia called as she and Jiro started to run off to look for the other kids. “Bye!”
“Alright, we should probably get up,” Alice said as she reached over and tapped Maxwell’s arm. Olivia held out a hand and helped her to her feet.
“Are you sure I can’t just lie here until I die?” Maxwell asked.
“Nope,” Alice said as she held out her hands and hauled him to his feet.
“Does anyone else feel like a sweaty mess?” Hana asked.
“Yup,” Drake said as he ran his sleeve over his forehead.
“You know…” Maxwell said, perking up a little. “That amazing spa we went to after raising the barn is still nearby.”
“Oh, that was a really nice place,” Hana said. “I’d love to go back.”
“As would I,” Liam said. “Liv?”
“Sure, why not.”
“Ayers? You in?” Drake asked.
“Definitely,” she said as she pulled out her phone. “Let me just text Bastien so he can meet us there.”
Spa day? We just finished playing soccer with a couple of local kids and I’m all sweaty. Join us?
He wrote back almost immediately. Ooh, I love it when you talk dirty. I’ll meet you all there.
After a short limo ride to the bathhouse, everyone showered and changed into towels. Alice paused for a moment, remembering the last time she’d been in the dressing room. She glanced over at the available robes and smiled slightly. She didn’t need one this time.
“Ready?” Hana asked, following Alice’s gaze to the robes.
“Yeah,” Alice said. “I am.”
She, Hana, and Olivia left the dressing room and headed into the co-ed room where the guys were waiting.
“It’s still so beautiful here,” Hana said as she sat at the edge of the pool and dangled her feet in the water.
“It is…although I think I prefer the spa in Lythikos,” Olivia said as she eased into the warm water, Liam quickly following suit. “Oh, god, that feels so good after running around.”
“Hey, where did you disappear to after the press conference?” Alice asked as she sat beside Bastien on a bench along the wall.
“I had to…take care of something,” he said noncommittally.
“What sort of something?”
“Nothing,” he said as he put his right hand on her knee. Alice glanced down at his hand and noticed that his knuckles were a little swollen.
“Is this ‘nothing’ the same as a certain reporter from the press conference?”
Alice picked up his hand gently kissed where one knuckle had split. “Dorian, you don’t need to do that.”
“In fact, since you’re going to be a duke, you probably shouldn’t do that.”
Bastien shrugged. “The Nevrakis family used to have fighting pits in some of their strongholds. It could be worse.”
“True, but I still don’t want you getting hurt because of me,” Alice said. Bastien didn’t miss the way her eyes flicked to the scar on his shoulder.
“I know,” he said as he kissed her temple. “But, in my defense, I at least waited until there were no witnesses and then I deleted the security footage. Bertrand and Drake were both ready to hit him mid-press conference.”
“Did you say something about the Nevrakis family?” Olivia called from the water. “Stop being antisocial and get over here.”
“Wait, you want to hang out?” Alice asked with exaggerated amazement. “Is it because we’re friends?”
“I take it back.”
“Actually, Gray…before we get in, I had an idea,” Bastien said before Alice could stand up. “When we walked in here, I passed by a sauna…I hear steam is really good for tired muscles.”
“Oh, do you?” Alice teased.
“That, and I’d love to have some alone time with you,” he said. “I feel bad about missing your big soccer debut and I’d like to make it up to you. I can promise you a massage…for your tired muscles, of course.”
“Alone time with you is incentive enough, you don’t have to sell it so hard,” Alice said as she stood up. “But now that you’ve offered, I’m going to hold you to the massage.”
Alice and Bastien left the pool room and made their way through the bathhouse until they reached the private sauna. Warm, refreshing steam washed over them as they stepped inside and Alice immediately felt more relaxed.
“Wow,” Alice said as she sat down on the bench. “I seriously didn’t expect this to feel that good.”
Bastien smiled as he poured water onto the coals, causing them to erupt in a stream of warm mist before he sat down beside her. “Have you never been in a sauna before?”
Alice shook her head. “No, Frankie and I kept meaning to treat ourselves to a spa day but at the last minute, we’d just buy sheet masks from the drugstore and queue up some garbage TV show on Netflix in one of our apartments.”
“That sounds nice though,” Bastien said as he took her hand in his.
“If you want, we can do that at Valtoria,” Alice said. “You’d look incredibly sexy in a sheet mask.”
Bastien laughed. “No one looks sexy in s sheet mask; everyone just looks like Leatherface. Although…if anyone is going to look good in one, it’s you.”
Alice smiled. “That was smooth.”
“I have my moments.”
She leaned over and kissed him lightly. “Hey…I’m really glad to be here with you. Today was kind of a rollercoaster for me, and being here with you…the last time I was at this spa was when I told Hana about you and me.”
She nodded. “I also might have agreed to get matching tattoos with Maxwell.”
“What are you getting?”
“Well, Frankie will be here in a few days…”
“I already have plans to get matching tattoos with someone while she’s here,” Alice said, bumping his shoulder with hers.
“I can’t wait.” He paused. “You know, I think I promised you a massage…”
“I believe you did,” Alice agreed. “Where do you want me?”
He raised an eyebrow at her and grinned wickedly. “Everywhere.”
Alice grinned and kissed him, setting her hand on the bare skin of his thigh. “I meant for the massage.”
“Here is fine, just turn around,” Bastien said. Alice turned and loosened her towel, lowering it to expose her back. She closed her eyes as she felt Bastien’s hands begin to knead the muscles up and down, rubbing out knots along the way.
“You are so good at that,” she said, feeling as if she was slowly melting beneath his touch.
“I’m glad you like it,” he said. Alice felt his lips brush against her shoulder.
“I’m liking it even more now,” she said, biting her lip. “Although I get the feeling our towels might be in the way…”
“I can fix that for you,” he said, his voice low beside her ear, making her shiver. He slid his hands around to the front, gently tugging down her towel before his fingers trailed across her breasts. “God, the sight of you never gets old.”
“I could say the same about you,” Alice said as she turned around and slowly slid her hand up his bare thigh. He kissed her and groaned softly against her lips when her fingers grazed over his already hard cock.
“I want you,” he whispered against her lips.
“How do you want me?” she asked, tugging his hair to pull his face back from hers so she could look him in the eye. He said nothing, but pulled her on top of him to straddle his lap. Alice reached down, taking him in her hand as she teased his tip along her entrance.
“Fuck, please don’t make me wait, Alice,” he begged. “I can’t wait, not right now.”
She sank down onto him, nails digging into his shoulders at the feel of him inside of her, filling her. He captured her lips in a bruising kiss as she began to rock her hips against his, sliding up and down his shaft. Bastien dragged his lips away from hers, sliding them along her skin to her chest as his fingers dug into her hips. She moaned softly, dropping her head back as he licked the salt from her skin and slid one hand down her front, thumb pressing against her clit as she continued to rise and fall on top of him.
Then they heard familiar voices outside the door of the sauna. Alice met his eyes, trying to suppress a giggle as he grinned wickedly at her and picked up the pace. She bit back another moan.
“I’ve got you,” he whispered.
The climax crashed through her as she raked her nails over his shoulders as he kissed her, swallowing her moan as he pushed her further and further until he met her there, pulsing inside of her. He dropped his forehead onto her shoulder, both of them trying to catch their breath in the thick, steamy air. Outside the door, they could hear Maxwell’s voice over all the others.
“…and that’s how I accidentally befriended an Italian mobster,” Maxwell said proudly. The other voices picked up in a heated discussion before slowly fading away from the door.
“Close call,” Alice said with a grin before she leaned down to kiss him, cupping his face in her hands. “It reminds me of when I first arrived in Cordonia and we had to keep us a secret.”
“I’m not gonna lie, that was kind of hot,” Bastien said as he traced lazy patterns up her thighs with his fingertips. “But I’m much happier now that we can openly be together.”
“Me, too,” she said. “Although…that doesn’t mean that we can’t still sneak around a little together.”
“Oh, yeah?” Bastien asked as he ran a hand up her spine. “What’d you have in mind?”
“Well, if courtly life has taught me anything, there are always large, intimate parties and plenty of dark corners…”
He grinned. “If you’re there, then so am I.”
Later, as the limo drew closer to Applewood Manor, Alice felt her heart sinking. At the spa, she’d been able to temporarily forget where she was, lost in Bastien’s embrace, but now, as the manor loomed ahead, she was reminded once again of where she was. She felt Bastien’s hand close around hers and squeezed it, holding on to him like a lifeline as she forced herself to listen to her friends’ conversation.
“I thought the spa would help my muscles after the game, but I’m still exhausted!” Hana said as she leaned her head back against the seat.
“Aha!” Maxwell exclaimed triumphantly. “I’ve found a weakness! The Hana is not immune to sustained physical activity. I’ll add this to my field notes.”
“Yeah, this break from all the courtly stuff has been nice, but I think I’m gonna go collapse on my bed for…just about forever,” Drake said as the car rolled to a stop. They climbed out and the group began to head towards the manor, but Liam held back.
“Alice, do you have a moment?” Liam asked.
“Sure,” she said, glad to turn away from the manor. Just a few more hours and then she could leave. Bastien squeezed her hand before he let go, heading up the walkway with Olivia and the others. “What’s up?”
“I’ve been thinking…everything since the Homecoming Ball has been a bit of a whirlwind,” Liam said. “You’ve barely had time to settle into being a duchess, and you’ve been thrust to the forefront of a national crisis…not to mention coming back here,” he added, glancing up at the manor. “I’ve been asking a lot of you, and I wanted to check in and make sure you’re okay.”
“Thank you,” Alice said. “I’m not gonna lie, this has been a lot, but with Bastien and the rest of you, I’ve been doing okay.”
“You’re not just saying that, right?” Liam asked. “I don’t mean to doubt you, but you and Liv are a lot alike. You keep some things close to the chest and I want to make sure I’m not pushing you too hard right now.”
“That’s sweet of you, but I knew this was going to be a big job when I accepted your offer,” Alice said. “You and everyone else has taken such good care of me and if anything, I feel like I’ve been kind of a burden on all of you with everything I’ve been dealing with since Tariq and—“
“You are not a burden,” Liam said firmly. “The terrible actions of other people are not reflective of you, they’re reflective of what terrible people they are.”
“Speaking of…I hate talking about him, but what’s going on with your father?” Alice asked slowly.
“Constantine is still on house arrest,” Liam said dismissively. “His health is deteriorating so I’ve had to arrange for medical care, but he still won’t be present at any court events unless absolutely necessary.”
“I meant how are you doing with all of that.”
“I’m…” Liam sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t regret my decisions regarding him, but every once in a while I’m reminded of some good memory of him, even if I don’t want to think about it.” He paused. “How do I reconcile the good memories with the knowledge of what a terrible person he is? He killed my mother, he manipulated me, he conspired with Regina and Madeleine to set you up to be raped…why can’t I hate him the way I want to?”
Alice motioned to a nearby bench and they sat down together. “Because people are complicated. I know this isn’t quite the same thing, but my mom took off when I was little and left me with my dad. I loved my dad and I wish he could be here to see me now…to meet Bastien and the rest of you…but part of my still misses my mother. I spent a lot of my life being so angry with her for abandoning me, but I still have a few memories of her that I can’t help holding on to.” Alice paused, lost in thought for a moment. “Before my mom went out, she had this whole ritual of getting ready. I used to love sitting on her and my dad’s bed and watch her do her hair and makeup…it was like watching my mom transform into a princess.” She swallowed and looked down at her hands. “One night, while she was getting ready, she offered to put makeup on me. I was so excited and I felt like she was letting me into this secret club with just her and me…but that was the night she went out and didn’t come back. I think she wanted to give me one last good memory of her before she left. For the longest time, I hated her because I couldn’t hate her because she’d tried to give me something before taking everything away.”
“Alice, I’m so sorry you had to go through that,” Liam said. “But what you said makes sense. I think I hate my father because I can’t fully hate him.”
“On the bright side…you and I have both been able to create our own families,” Alice said. “Whenever I start to feel down, I remember the phrase ‘blood is thicker than water.’ A lot of people think that means your bonds to your biological family are the strongest, but the full quote is ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,’ which means the opposite. I had my dad and you have Leo, but we have Olivia and Bastien and the rest of our friends.”
Liam looked over at her and smiled, hugging her with one arm. “Thanks for being part of my family.”
He let go of her and stood up, offering a hand to help her up. “Thanks for this. I intended to try to check on you and cheer you up if necessary, but you ended up doing that for me instead.”
Alice accepted his help and stood alongside him. “Don’t worry, you did.” She glanced up at the manor. “But I guess I can’t delay going inside any longer.”
“If it helps, I promise you won’t have to come back here again unless absolutely necessary,” Liam said as they started up the walk towards the door.
“No, it’s alright,” Alice said, her desire to be okay battling her revulsion at the visceral memories that still plagued her. “Tariq doesn’t get to take this away from me.”
“No, he doesn’t,” Liam agreed.
When Alice returned to the room, Bastien looked up from the book he was reading in bed and smiled.
“Hi,” he said as he set down the book.
“Hey,” she said, kicking off her shoes before climbing onto the bed beside him and collapsing onto the pillows, one arm thrown over his stomach. “God, I’m so tired. Those kids really wore me out today.”
Bastien smiled as he gently rubbed her arm. “Did you have fun though?”
“I did,” Alice said as she snuggled into his side and closed her eyes.
“On the plus side, some photographers got some photos of you all playing with the kids; you’re gaining a lot of public support for the unity tour.”
“I’m glad, but it wasn’t about that,” Alice said. “I just felt so bad for those kids who had something special taken from them and I wanted to cheer them up.”
“I know, which is one of the many reasons why I love you,” Bastien said as he kissed the top of her head. “Oh, before I forget, Bertrand and Maxwell both stopped by to check on you.”
Alice smiled. “That’s sweet of them.”
“Maxwell also told me to make sure you knew that his offer for an Office-themed slumber party with everyone still stood if you wanted it.”
Alice opened her eyes and looked up at Bastien. “I’ll have to ask him for a raincheck; there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now than right here.”
He smiled and pulled her closer, wrapping her in his arms as he kissed the top of her head.
“What are you reading?” she asked.
Bastien reached over to the nightstand and held up the book of poems to show her the cover. “I was looking for some wedding vow inspiration.”
“Is it working?”
“I’m actually feeling much more inspired now that you’re here.”
Alice smiled. “Will you read to me?”
“Sure,” he said, opening to the page he’d marked. “This one is called ‘Unending Love’ by Rabindranath Tagore:
“I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times…
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs,
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms,
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
“Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, its age-old pain,
Its ancient tale of being apart or together.
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge,
Clad in the light of a pole-star piercing the darkness of time:
You become an image of what is remembered forever.
“You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount.
At the heart of time, love of one for another.
We have played along side millions of lovers, shared in the same
Shy sweetness of meeting, the same distressful tears of farewell-
Old love but in shapes that renew and renew forever.
“Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you
The love of all man’s days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life.
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours –
And the songs of every poet past and forever.”
Bastien glanced down and realized she’d drifted to sleep to the sound of his voice, her breath slow and even as she lay wrapped around him. He smiled and set down the book before turning off the lamp. Bastien slid down beside her and held her close, glad she was safe and sleeping in his arms.
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