Summary: The Unity Tour arrives at Kiara’s family’s estate in Castelsarreillan and Alice and the others sample wines from the vineyard.
Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit.
CW: references to terrorist attack and the resulting injuries
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, Part 45
“I swear, for as long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever get over the fact that this train has a goddamn boutique,” Alice said as she rifled through the clothing racks with Hana and Maxwell.
“At least it’s convenient,” Maxwell said from behind a pile of dresses.
“So, what’s on the agenda?” Alice asked Hana. “You said we’re going to see Kiara’s family, right?”
“Yes,” Hana said. “Our trip is coinciding with the International Arts and Food Festival, which is tomorrow.”
“Yes!” Maxwell said as he joined them with several dresses draped over his arm. “Am I the only one who’s excited to eat?”
“Definitely not,” Alice said. “But this sounds like I’m going to meet a lot of people again.”
“You are, but you’ve got this,” Hana said. “Now, for Kiara’s family. Her father, Hakim, is a duke as well as one of Cordonia’s most long-established diplomats.”
“He’s kind of a big deal,” Maxwell added. “Bertrand has invited their family to a couple of our parties, but Hakim’s never shown up. He always makes excuses like ‘border treaties’ this or ‘economic summit’ that.”
“I mean, those do sound like legitimate excuses,” Alice said.
“Then there’s Kiara’s mother, Joelle,” Hana continued. “She’s an award-winning painter who has used her art connections to solidify alliances for Cordonia.”
“Wow, that’s pretty cool,” Alice said.
“I intend to someday do the same thing with dance,” Maxwell said. Alice smiled at him.
“Any other family members I should know about?” Alice asked.
“Kiara also has an older brother, Ezekiel,” Hana said. “From what I gather, he’s not very well-known at court, or anywhere outside their duchy, for that matter.”
“So I have to help Olivia and Liam impress a career diplomat, a famous artist, and a mysterious brother we know nothing about,” Alice said. “Neat.”
“Well, as usual, fashion can be useful when making a first impression,” Hana said as Maxwell held up the hangers for her to inspect. “Like most of the noble houses, everyone loves to see their own colors on guests and Hakim and Joelle are no exception.”
“And their house crest,” Maxwell added.
“An owl!” Maxwell said. “It’s adorable.”
“So…do I wear glasses or something? Vomit up a dead mouse when I meet them?” Alice asked.
“Close,” Hana said as she took a long black dress from Maxwell and handed it to Alice before reaching into her bag for a delicate arm band adorned with an owl. “Wear these.”
Alice headed into the changing room before emerging in the selected outfit. “So? Do I look impressive enough?”
“You look great!” Hana said happily.
“So, are we just ignoring the mouse idea?” Maxwell asked. “Because that would be hilarious.”
“Speaking of food, can you tell me anything I need to know about the festival tomorrow?” Alice asked. “Artistic feuds to avoid, food to get excited about, that sort of thing.”
“Oh, man, I hope there’s funnel cake,” Maxwell said.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any info about the menu,” Hana said. “But since this is going to be an international event, there are going to be a wide array of visitors from all over. It’s an annual testament to the work Hakim and Joelle do, so showing interest in the festivities will demonstrate enthusiasm about their efforts.”
“Okay, so enjoy the food and compliment the paintings…I can do that,” Alice said.
“You’ll be great,” Hana assured her.
After they arrived in Castelsarreillan, a motorcade carried Alice and the others from the train to the sunlit grounds of Kiara’s family’s chateau.
“Have I told you yet how beautiful you look in your dress?” Bastien asked as he helped her out of the car.
“About four times, but it never gets old,” she said as she smiled at him. “Plus, I’m thrilled I get to wear black.”
“Remember this is the exception, not the rule,” Bertrand said as he got out of the car behind her.
“Basic black works for everything!” Alice protested.
“Funny, ‘basic’ is exactly the word I was thinking of, Jon Snow,” Olivia said as she and Liam joined them.
“Liv, you’re wearing black.”
“So this is Kiara’s home,” Hana said as she surveyed the chateau. “It’s really beautiful.”
“I was expecting more flags,” Drake said. “Maybe signs in a couple dozen languages.”
“We haven’t gone inside yet,” Olivia said.
The front door opened to reveal Kiara and a young man, who descended the stairs to greet them.
“You’re here! Bienvenue!” Kiara said, smiling at them as the young man nodded to them politely.
“It’s nice to see you,” Liam said graciously. “Thank you so much for hosting us.”
“Of course, we’re happy to do it,” Kiara said.
“How are you feeling?” Alice asked. “We heard you were injured in the attack at the homecoming ball.”
“Ah, oui. What a terrifying night, no?” Kiara said, shaking her head. “But I was lucky. After some time resting at home, I am back in one piece.” She turned to Bastien. “You seem to have recovered as well, thankfully.”
Bastien nodded. “Thank you. I was lucky—and I had a good nurse,” he added, looking at Alice as he squeezed her hand.
“Are you going to introduce me to your friends, Kiara, or should I start guessing names?” the young man asked.
“I’m so sorry, where are my manners?” Kiara said. “Everyone, this is my brother, Ezekiel.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Ezekiel said, smiling shyly at the group. “Kiki told me all about you guys.”
“All good, I hope,” Alice said.
“Mostly,” he said. “She told me how nice Liam is…Alice sounds like a bit of a wild card…She also said there’s a would-be breakdancer, a pretty trivia champion, a hot one named Drake…”
“Zeke!” Kiara hissed. She had to visibly stop herself from burying her face in her hands as Ezekiel loudly cleared his throat.
“So, anyway…” Ezekiel said. “Um, it’s an honor to have all of you here. Especially you, King Liam—this is basically Dad’s dream come true. Not that he’s the only one who wants to see you all!” Ezekiel added quickly.
“A little less talking, Zeke,” Kiara said quietly as another car pulled up in front of the chateau. “More smiling.”
After the car rolled to a stop, Penelope stepped out, holding two leaches in her hand.
“Sorry I’m late!” Penelope exclaimed as she hurried over to join the group. “I had to take the dogs for a quick walk after that train ride.”
“I don’t blame them,” Alice said, smiling at her. “I could probably use a walk right now.”
“Salut, Penelope,” Kiara said, her smile widening at the sight of her friend. While everyone was distracted, Bastien leaned over and whispered in Alice’s ear.
“Did you say you wanted to go for a walk or a ride, wild card?” he whispered. Alice felt her face grow hot and she bit her lip to suppress her smile.
“We are in public!” she whispered back.
“Hi!” Penelope exclaimed as she hurried over to hug Kiara, nearly lifting her off her feet.
“Mon dieu!” Kiara exclaimed. “You’re stronger than you look.”
“That coat texture…that poise!” Ezekiel said, amazed. “Kiara, you didn’t tell me Penelope’s dogs were purebred miniature poodles!”
“I…can’t say I noticed,” Kiara said slowly.
“Merlin and Morgana will shake your hand, if you’d like,” Penelope said. “They’re very good dogs.”
Ezekiel’s face lit up for just a moment before he composed himself and put on a more polite expression.
“I…thanks, but maybe later,” Ezekiel said, sounding disappointed.
Alice glanced at Hana, who met her gaze and shrugged slightly.
“We should head inside,” Kiara said. “The cocktail reception’s just beginning!”
Everyone headed inside and Kiara led them into a bright sitting room. Several elegantly-dressed guests are already milling around, each with a cocktail in hand.
“Wow. This place is like a museum,” Maxwell said as he looked around.
“I still don’t see any flags,” Drake said.
“I thought the globe bar would be more your speed,” Olivia said as two men approached them.
“Buon pomeriggio!” Francesco said, making a beeline for Alice. “Alice, it is so good to see you again.”
“Thank you, it’s nice to see you as well,” Alice said as Francesco kissed her hand.
“You must be Duchess Alice,” the second man said. “I’ve heard a lot about you from both my daughter and Francesco.”
“Everyone, this is my father, Duke Hakim of Castelsarreillan,” Kiara announced.
“Welcome, everyone…and thank you for coming, Your Majesty,” Hakim said as bowed a little towards Liam. “I hope your journey was comfortable?”
“A pleasant trip to a pleasant destination,” Liam said.
“Excellent,” Hakim said. “Duchess Olivia, Duchess Alice, I’m honored by your tasteful nod to our house colors. My compliments, Your Graces. The subtler forms of flattery are a rare sight in my line of work and it’s very nice to meet you both.”
“Likewise,” Olivia said.
“Now, Alice, I hear you have taken the lead in rallying the Cordonian spirit,” Francesco said.
“That’s kind of you to say, but I’m just honored to be assisting Liam and Olivia as they prepare for their upcoming wedding,” Alice said. “Although, I didn’t realize the unity tour was international news.”
“It is for those of us with an interest in Cordonian politics,” Francesco said. “And…well, I hesitate to bring up unpleasant matters, but I have to say the unity tour is not all that has caught my attention, Alice. Both your and Duchess Olivia’s positions at the head of the movements that empower those in need of a voice has been very inspiring to see.”
“Thank you,” Alice said, anxious to change the subject.
“Cordonia is a lucky kingdom to have you on its side,” Francesco continued, smiling warmly at Alice before turning to Hakim. “I must say, Hakim, I was on the fence about attending this festival, but my partner spoke so highly of the artists that I simply had to see it for myself.”
“I trust we’ll make the trip worth your while,” Hakim said.
“We shall see,” Francesco said. “I’ll make my decision on the International Art Association after the festival…and no sooner.”
“What’s the International Art Association?” Alice asked.
“It’s a program that facilitates the sharing of culture and ideas across borders,” Liam explained.
“It’s quite prestigious,” Bastien added. “But Cordonia’s never been nominated for entry before.”
“It took some doing, believe me,” Hakim said. “Francesco’s a board member, so pending his approval…Cordonia is in.”
“Yes, but even for personal friends, that approval must be earned,” Francesco said. “I’ll see you for my assessment tomorrow, amico mio.” He bowed politely to the group before wandering away to chat with some of the other guests.
“Speaking of tomorrow…” Hakim said. “Is the king father traveling separately? I thought he’d be with you, Your Majesty.”
Liam kept his face polite and composed. “Unfortunately, my father will be unable to attend.”
“Really?” Hakim asked, shocked.
“He sends his deepest apologies, but he simply wasn’t feeling well enough,” Liam said as the surprise on Hakim’s face turned to disappointment.
“I’ve invited him every year since we began hosting this festival a decade ago,” Hakim said. “This year…the first year we’re eligible for the International Arts Association…he gave me his word he would attend months ago. I understand that the life of a king is a busy one, but it’s a shame when an old friend breaks a promise.”
“For what it’s worth, this king offers you his apologies for his father’s behavior and my fiancee and I are honored to be your guests,” Liam said smoothly.
“Don’t mistake my comments as disappointment to see you,” Hakim said. “I’d just hoped that this year would be the year Constantine finally attended. But, the show must go on, no?” He rubbed the back of his head and sighed. “On the bright side, this gives me an opportunity to get to know my other guests better. Please, all of you, help yourself to some refreshments,” he said as he waved to a server bearing a platter of various drinks. Alice noticed Drake take a glass of water and she followed suit, as did Bastien.
“The rumors I’ve heard of your hospitality are true, Duke Hakim,” Liam said.
“I’ve always said that the first step to being a good diplomat is being a good host,” Hakim said. “Now, let me see…you are Lady Hana, I believe? And Duke Ramsford and young Maxwell Beaumont?” he asked as he looked to each in turn.
“That’s us,” Hana said with a smile.
“Then you must be Drake Walker,” Hakim said, looking to Drake before his gaze settled on Bastien. “And Bastien, I must say, I’m surprised to see you here in a social setting.”
“My role at court is changing,” Bastien said lightly. “But it’s nice to see you again, Duke Hakim.”
“You’ve risked quite a lot for Cordonia recently,” Hakim said. “Kiara told me about what happened at the ball…I’m relieved to see you appear to have recovered well.”
“Thank you,” Bastien said.
“And you must be Penelope,” Hakim said, turning to the final member of their group. “I’m pleased to meet you; I’ve heard so much about you from my daughter.” He turned back to Alice. “I hope you’re enjoying the reception so far, Duchess Alice.”
“I always appreciate it when a host rolls out the red carpet,” Alice said, unsure of why he was returning his focus to her.
Ezekiel glanced quizzically at his father. “Red carpet? I didn’t realize the color scheme was so important. I can go find one!” he offered. “There might be something in the attic…”
“It’s an idiom, Ezekiel, and a compliment, at that,” Hakim said genially.
“I’m sorry,” Ezekiel said, looking at Alice. “I’m not half the diplomat my dad is.”
“It’s alright, Ezekiel,” Hakim interjected before Alice could speak. “These things take time to learn.” He clapped his son on the shoulder fondly and Alice watched as Ezekiel smiled at his father, but she noticed that his expression was strained. “And to that end, I expect a full, written analysis of any political deals at the festival tomorrow.”
“Duke Hakim…once your responsibilities there are concluded, Olivia and I were hoping you and your family would attend our wedding,” Liam said.
“We’re trying to rally Cordonia’s spirits, and we can’t do that without the help of its leaders,” Olivia added. “Your attendance would mean more than you know.”
“An invitation to your wedding? I’m deeply honored Your Majesty, Your Grace,” Hakim said. “If the timing were different, I would accept in a heartbeat. But, unfortunately, we’ve already made other plans.”
“More important than unifying the country?” Olivia asked.
“Certainly not more important, but difficult to change on short notice,” Hakim said. “I’m expected at a legal summit in Switzerland, along with my family. We must leave as soon as tomorrow’s festival is concluded.”
“You’d be fine without me, Dad, really,” Ezekiel said. “I could just call in from—“
“We’ve discussed this, Ezekiel,” Hakim said. His tone was even, but Alice could hear the warning underneath. “Researching the summit proposals will be excellent practice for you.”
Ezekiel nodded, avoiding his father’s eyes as he stuffed his hands into his pockets.
“Again, I am so sorry to disappoint, but canceling our plans now would be quite difficult,” Hakim said.
“Won’t you have to cancel if we get into the International Art Association, Father?” Kiara asked. “All the paperwork and confirmation meetings and—“
“No point in making assumptions, Kiara,” Hakim said. Alice couldn’t help but notice how often he interrupted other people for a diplomat. “Despite our friendship, Francesco’s a notoriously exacting judge…I’ve been planning every detail of the festival for weeks just to impress him.”
Bastien glanced at Alice and squeezed her hand encouragingly.
“Maybe…don’t pack your bags just yet,” Alice said. “I have a good feeling about tomorrow.”
“Your faith in us is touching, Duchess Alice,” Hakim said. “Time will tell if it’s deserved.” He glanced around the room. “I should see to my other guests, but thank you again for coming. Kiara and Ezekiel can show you to your rooms after they’ve given you the grand tour.”
Hakim bowed and quickly vanished into the crowd. When he’d gone, their group dispersed a little and Hana joined Alice and Bastien.
“So, that’s Kiara’s dad,” Alice said. “He’s…something.”
“Yes, but you did great!” Hana said. “He seemed to like you.”
“You think? He’s hard to read,” Alice said.
“You do have an advantage though,” Hana said. “Hakim and Francesco are good friends and Francesco likes you. Plus, apparently Francesco is going to be the deciding factor as to whether or not Hakim attends Liam and Olivia’s wedding.”
“Yes, but he said that he couldn’t let friendship sway him when it comes to the art association,” Alice said.
“He said that, but I think you might still have an advantage anyway,” Hana said. “He likes you.”
“I barely know him,” Alice said.
“I mean…he did greet you before he greeted Liam and Olivia,” Bastien said with an amused smile.
“So, that’s a huge etiquette breach,” Bastien said. “I’m surprised Bertrand didn’t clutch his pearls in horror. But you could use this to your advantage.”
“Just think of him as a possible resource,” Hana said. “At the very least, it can’t hurt if he likes you…which reminds me, I should go talk to Kiara a little and see if I can learn anything else useful for later. I’ll catch up with you guys in a bit.”
Hana left them alone and Alice turned to Bastien. “Was it really that bad that Francesco said hello to me first?”
“Kind of,” Bastien said. “I know Liam wasn’t offended by it, but Hana’s right—your influence could end up being what tips the scales in our favor.”
“You weren’t bothered by it, were you?”
Bastien smiled and shook his head as he slid his arm around her waist. “No. If I felt less secure about our relationship then I might have been, but I’m not bothered. Frankly, I don’t blame him for wanting to talk to the most beautiful woman in the room.”
Alice felt a warmth in her chest that radiated through her body, the heat rising in her cheeks. “You realize I’m completely spoiled by how often you shower me with compliments, right?”
Bastien leaned in and lightly kissed her cheek. “That was the idea.” He looked past her for a minute and tried to suppress a smile. “I think Olivia needs you.”
Alice turned to follow his gaze to see Olivia sitting with the others. The redheaded duchess was trying to hide her boredom and failing miserably. Alice grinned.
“Alright, let’s go rescue her.”
“Kiara, you didn’t tell me you were going away,” Penelope was saying as they approached, her expression sad as she looked at her friend.
“If the art association thing doesn’t work out, are you seriously going to leave?” Maxwell asked.
“It wasn’t my idea,” Kiara said. “But Father was invited to the summit, and after I was wounded in the attack at the palace…he thought it would be nice for all of us to get away.” She glanced up at Bastien. “I don’t know how you were able to stay; your injuries were worse than mine.”
“The only way to truly survive is to keep going,” Bastien said. “Finding a way to continue to live your life after enduring something like that is the only way to keep from being defined by the anger of other people. Plus, I needed to do what’s best for Cordonia—which I know you want, too.”
Kiara nodded. “I do.”
“I don’t blame your dad for making other plans, but you were always one of the smartest people at court,” Alice said. “You get what nobles leaving the country will look like to our attackers, right?”
Kiara sighed and wrung her hands, her brow furrowed as she weighed their words.
“I…you’re right. You both are,” she said. “This is my home and I’ve dreamed of serving in the foreign ministry since I was old enough to pronounce its name.”
“She’s not kidding,” Ezekiel said. “When she was five, she was already drafting trade treaties with me over our toys.”
Kiara smiled faintly at him. “Going off to Switzerland won’t do Cordonia or my dreams any good.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll stay. Ticket cancellation policies be damned.”
Alice looked over at Olivia and raised an eyebrow at her. Olivia nodded.
“Thank you, Kiara,” Olivia said. “We really need all the support we can get. I know you and I have had our differences, but I really appreciate it.”
“What about your support, Ezekiel?” Liam asked, turning to Kiara’s brother.
“Mine?” Ezekiel asked, surprised. The question seemed to catch him off guard and before he could respond, his sister interjected.
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up, Your Majesty,” Kiara said with an apologetic smile. “He might be the heir to our estate, but my brother’s never taken much interest in courtly politics. He is, however, a decent tour guide if you’d like to see the rest of the estate.”
Ezekiel visibly relaxed as he stood up. “Anyone up for some fresh air?”
Penelope’s dogs stood up eagerly.
“I think that’s a yes,” Alice said.
“Then follow me,” Ezekiel said.
He and Kiara led them out through the back of the chateau. They crossed a well-manicured lawn to a hillside overlooking rows upon rows of grape vines.
“Wow, this is all yours?” Alice asked as she admired the scenery.
“Every single vine,” Kiara said proudly. “Mother imported the soil from her childhood home in Loire just to grow this varietal of grape.”
When Kiara wasn’t looking, Alice looked at Bastien and mouthed, “Imported soil?” He smiled and shrugged.
“I didn’t know your mom was French,” Maxwell said. “But I guess it does explain a lot.”
Ezekiel led them across the patio where they saw a woman standing to one side, paintbrush in hand, easel and canvas in front of her. The woman stayed still for a moment, studying the canvas, before leaning forward to make a confident flurry of brushstrokes.
“Maman?” Ezekiel asked. “Is this a good time?”
“Attend…attend…” she said, staring intently at the canvas as she approached it again with the brush. “There!” She set her brush down and Alice managed to catch a brief glance of the painting before she turned the easel away from view. Alice wasn’t sure why she’d expected anything else, but she saw that the painting was, of course, of an apple.
“Ah, our guests have arrived!” the woman said as she turned to the group. “Magnifique.”
“Everyone, this is our mother, Joelle,” Kiara said proudly.
“So sorry I wasn’t there to greet you, my dears,” Joelle apologized. “When the muse calls, it’s just impossible to hear anything else. You understand, I’m sure.”
“I’m sensing a kindred spirit,” Maxwell said with a grin.
“You didn’t have to hide your work. I would’ve loved to see it,” Hana said. Joelle laughed warmly and patted Hana on the shoulder.
“Oh, not before it’s finished,” Joelle said. “I can’t stand spoilers. But if all goes well, you’ll see it in the festival tomorrow.”
“How exciting!” Hana said with a wide smile.
Joelle surveyed the rest of the group and curtsied briefly to Liam before her gaze fell on Alice.
“My, my, Duchess Alice, I see my daughter did not exaggerate your fashion sense,” Joelle said. “You look lovely and I’m particularly fond of your arm band with our house symbol. It’s such a pleasure to meet another creative soul.”
“Thank you, but I can’t take the credit for this,” Alice said. “Hana found this for me; she has a knack for…well, everything.”
“Yes, but it takes a certain kind of person to carry bold accessories,” Joelle said. “Do you paint, by chance?”
“My own talents are limited, but I have always enjoyed the art of others,” Alice said. “I actually got my degree in art history.”
“I’ve always admired how a deliberate series of brush strokes can perfectly capture a feeling,” Liam said. “I’m especially fond of the bold artwork at Lythikos,” he said, smiling warmly at Olivia.
“Ah, yes!” Joelle said. “It’s been too long since I’ve been able to visit your home, Duchess Olivia, but I’ve always admired the work you have there.”
“Thank you,” Olivia said, smiling at her. “I’m very proud of the Nevrakis artwork.”
“Kiara, you should’ve told me your friends were connoisseurs!” Joelle said. “I must get your thoughts on the art opening tomorrow. But, speaking of tomorrow, we should save my husband from the last of the preparations. I adore the man, but he has the color sense of a rabbit. Perhaps Ezekiel could share some house wines with you while Kiara and I handle the rescue mission.”
“Right now?” Ezekiel asked. “There’s a documentary on custom canine orthotics I wanted to—“
“Oh, I’d love to stay and watch the sunset,” Penelope said as she looked out at the vineyards.
“Oh, then…sure,” Ezekiel said, blushing as he smiled at her. “How about I open a few bottles for everyone to try?”
“So accommodating,” Kiara gently teased her brother. “I like this new side of you, Zeke.”
As the others asked Ezekiel about wine options, Olivia sidled up next to Alice.
“Yes, Jon Snow?” Alice asked.
“I need a favor,” Olivia said. “Liam just suggested we pick a wine for our wedding while we’re here.”
“Okay…” Alice said slowly. “And you want me to…watch you do it?”
Olivia sighed. “You know nothing, Jon Snow. Liam doesn’t really care what we serve, but he said it would be a good idea for unity or whatever if we picked one here. He also brought it to my attention that I might be a little snobby about Lythikos wine because it’s far superior—“
“Please don’t open with that when you talk to Kiara’s family about supplying the wine.”
“—And you know your way around alcohol, so I thought you could help.”
“Way to make me sound like an alcoholic.”
“Come on, you know what I mean,” Olivia said. “You even impressed Godfrey and he’s an asshole.”
“That was whiskey, not wine,” Alice said. “They’re two different monsters.”
“Will you help me or not?”
“Of course I will, I’m just giving you a hard time,” Alice said as they turned their attention back to the group.
“…and that’s how I taught Morgana to carry a purse in her paws!” Penelope concluded her story.
“That’s just like the technique Binet suggests in her book on the canine mind!” Ezekiel said, impressed.
Bastien leaned down to whisper in Alice’s ear. “I think we just found a way to get Ezekiel’s support at court.”
Alice nodded, smiling, before she addressed the group. “So, what are we drinking?”
Ezekiel led everyone over to a long table on the patio and, as the sun began to set, he brought out an assortment of the winery’s finest bottles.
“Is it…would it be alright if my poodles stayed out here with us?” Penelope asked.
“Of course!” Ezekiel said quickly. “They’re family, aren’t they? I’m not gonna turn away family.”
“Thank you,” Penelope said, looking a little surprised. “That’s very kind of you.”
Liam leaned across Olivia to whisper to Alice and Bastien. “Can I make a joke about puppy love yet?”
“I think they really ‘dig’ each other,” Alice said.
“Is it because they find each other so ‘fetching?’” Liam asked.
“I hate you both,” Olivia said.
“Look at them, they can’t ‘terrier’ themselves away from each other,” Bastien added with a grin. Olivia glared at him.
“You sound…surprised,” Ezekiel said to Penelope.
“I am,” Penelope admitted. “We just met, but you understand how much these two mean to me. And you’re so nice! It’s just…it’s rare than you might think.”
“It shouldn’t be,” Ezekiel said. “And actually…I rustled up a few treats for them, if you don’t mind me spoiling your dogs.”
“You should see their accommodations back in Portavira,” Hana said, smiling at Penelope as the dogs started prancing at the word “treat.” “Trust me, I don’t think you’re in danger of spoiling those dogs.”
“I can’t say no when they’re so excited,” Penelope said.
Ezekiel knelt down and offered a dog biscuit to each of the poodles. While they munched on the biscuits, he patted their heads.
“Pavlovian conditioning is the fastest way to any dog’s heart,” he said.
“I don’t think you need Pavlov to make them like you,” Penelope said.
“Maybe, but it’d be mean to make them watch us drink without some treats of their own,” Ezekiel said.
“Hey, speaking of ‘watching us drink,’ what about us humans?” Maxwell asked.
“Right! Sorry!” Ezekiel apologized. “For the humans…” He set a glass in front of each of them and began by pouring a white wine. “Here. This one is my mom’s favorite.”
Everyone took a sip, including Drake for the sake of politeness.
“Mmm!” Penelope said.
“Nice.” Maxwell said, nodding approvingly.
“Notes of pear and apricot, if I’m not mistaken?” Hana asked.
“That’s right!” Ezekiel said, pleased. “Our oak wine barrels are sourced straight from France. You wouldn’t normally think a wood barrel would make the wine taste fruity, but because of the barrel aging process, it allows for the addition of flavor compounds—er, sorry. I have a tendency to ramble. Yes, notes of pear and apricot.”
“It’s okay, I find it interesting,” Alice said. “I used to be a bartender, so I’ve always been interested in the way different elements in the creation process can impact the flavor.”
“That’s right, Kiara did mention that,” Ezekiel said. “Yes, it’s a fascinating process. Even the variance between French casks or, say, American oak can really create a huge difference.”
“I do really like this one,” Liam said as he took another sip of his wine. “Very elegant, with hints of caramel as well. This wine is exquisite; I’ll have to purchase a case, if you’ll let me.”
“They normally sell for six hundred dollars a bottle…but for you, King Liam, it’s free,” Ezekiel said. “Mom will be over the moon when I tell her you all enjoyed it.”
Alice tried not to choke on her very expensive wine when she heard the price.
“Please, we’d love to pay you full price,” Liam said. “This wine is more than worth it.”
“I have to say, I don’t usually drink much white wine, but Liam’s right, this one is exceptional,” Olivia said. “Alice, what do you think?”
“I agree,” Alice said. “I’ve served a lot of wine in the past, but this one is by far the best. Of course, each bottle of wine is unique and delicious in its own way, but if we’re picking a winner…this one is definitely it.”
“It’s true,” Liam added. “Even the least-expensive bottles of wine have their own distinct flavors.”
“Even a Two-Buck Chuck,” Alice said. Everyone stared blankly at her. “Two-Buck Chuck? Just me? God, I’ve never felt so American before. There’s a chain of grocery stores in America called Trader Joe’s and they have a two dollar bottle of wine from a winery called Charles Shaw and fans have nicknamed it ‘Two-Buck Chuck.’”
“A two dollar bottle of wine has fans?” Olivia asked skeptically.
“Oh yeah, it’s a whole thing,” Alice said. “Frankie and I have gone through many bottles over the years.”
“That explains so much,” Olivia said drily.
“How about a sparkling wine?” Ezekiel asked, changing the subject. “We made this one in the traditional champagne style,” he said as he passed out glasses of the next wine.
“So festive,” Penelope said. “A moment like this calls for a proper toast, if you ask me!”
“Agreed. Let’s see what Cordonia’s newest Duchess has to say,” Olivia said, turning Alice.
“I am never doing another favor for you again,” Alice muttered before raising her glass. “Let’s toast to good friends and good wine, as well as Liam and his pain in the ass bride-to-be, Olivia.”
“Here, here!” Maxwell said.
“I can definitely get behind the second half of that,” Drake said as he raised his water.
“Cheers,” Bastien added as everyone clinked their glasses and drank.
“Oh, I love this one!” Penelope exclaimed.
“This one has always been my favorite,” Ezekiel said.
“You two seem to have a lot in common,” Hana said.
Penelope blushed and turned to her poodles. “You two are having fun too, aren’t you?”
The dogs wagged their tails happily as she scratched each of them behind the ears in turn while Ezekiel poured the next tasting, an old vine zinfandel.
“You saved the best for last,” Hana said after taking a sip.
“You like it?” Ezekiel asked.
“This wine would easily sell for two or three thousand dollars a bottle,” Hana said.
“That’s, uh…wow. You should be on Jeopardy,” Ezekiel said, amazed.
“She’s basically magic,” Alice said as she tried to suppress her privileged guilt at drinking a wine that was worth more than the car she’d driven in high school.
“It’s nothing,” Hana said modestly. “Aside from wine appreciation as a necessary courtly skill, my mother also thought it was particularly important. She had a saying…’When it comes to wealth, suitors may boast and lie to you, but wine, diamonds, and stock options will always tell the truth.’”
“Your mom sounds…intense,” Ezekiel said slowly.
“She is,” Hana agreed.
“So you’re pretty much a wine expert?” Penelope asked.
“I suppose you could say that,” Hana said. “However, my girlfriend puts me to shame. I think I know a lot about wine, but she’s like a wine encyclopedia.”
Alice smiled at Hana’s mention of Rashida. Only a few months ago, Hana had been too scared to admit she was even interested in women and now, here she was among friends, openly talking about her girlfriend.
“I bet Rashida’s tried just about every kind of wine there is,” Maxwell said.
“Probably,” Hana agreed. “You know…it’s funny how people are all a little bit like wine.”
“How so?” Bastien asked.
“Do not make a joke about me being a Two-Buck Chuck,” Alice warned Olivia when she saw the redhead open her mouth.
“Well, for instance, Liam would be a very respectable old vine zinfandel, smooth and sweet. Drake would be a bold Cabernet Sauvignon.”
“Thanks?” Drake asked skeptically.
“Olivia would be…”
“Which wine comes with a dagger?” Alice asked.
“Lythikos wine,” Olivia said.
“Penelope would be a sweet riesling,” Hana continued. “Bastien would be a dark and mysterious Syrah, and Maxwell would be kind of a fun and light…um…”
“So Maxwell is the wine spritzer of our group?” Alice asked with a grin.
“Woohoo!” Maxwell cried. “That’s just another way of saying I’m the fun one.”
“Alright, what about me?” Alice asked, holding up a preemptive finger at Olivia.
“You’d be a bubbly champagne because you light up any gathering,” Hana said with a grin.
“Aww, thanks, Hana,” Alice said.
“You certainly light up everything in my life,” Bastien said as he smiled at her before bringing her hand to his lips and gently kissing her fingers. Alice blushed as the rest of the table devolved into a chorus of “Aww!” with the exception of Olivia, who gagged.
“I’m with Olivia on this one,” Drake said. “How much of that wine have you had?”
“I haven’t eaten,” Bastien said.
“What about Ezekiel?” Penelope asked.
“We’ve only just met, but I’d say a sophisticated meritage, “Hana said.
“Ouch,” Ezekiel said. “A blend?”
“I don’t mean it as an insult,” Hana assured him. “It’s because you seem so proper one moment, but you’ve obviously got a soft spot for animals. Not many nobles wear their affections so openly.”
Ezekiel blushed. “I shouldn’t, really…it’s just…I love animals. I’d spend all day hanging out with them if I could.”
“I’m actually with you on this one,” Olivia said. “I prefer animals to most people.”
“Do you have any pets?” Alice asked.
“I wish,” Ezekiel said, disappointed. “You never know when a guest might be allergic, and Dad wants all our visitors to feel at home here. I spent months showing him ads for hypoallergenic cats, but you can see how that turned out.”
“Well, at any rate, there’s nothing wrong with being yourself,” Alice said as Bastien squeezed her hand. Ezekiel smiled ruefully.
“You try telling that to a lifetime’s worth of familial expectations,” Ezekiel said.
“I’m sorry, Ezekiel,” Hana said. “I know what that’s like. But I think Alice is right; as scary as it can be, sometimes you have to be willing to branch out and be yourself so you can be happy.”
“Thanks,” Ezekiel said, trying to muster a smile. “I’ll figure something out. But I appreciate you saying that. Most people don’t care about what I want or how I feel. We’ve had a lot of guests here and it’s usually the same old thing.They try to impress us with their worldly knowledge. They compliment the wine. But they’re so busy trying to look important or convince us of something that they don’t take the time to get to know us. But you’re all so different from that. I’d heard you would be.”
“Well, we still want to compliment the wine,” Maxwell said. “But if we can do anything to help, just let us know.”
“I will, thank you,” Ezekiel said, looking lighter than he had all evening.
Everyone continued talking and wine tasting until the evening began to draw to a close and Liam turned to Olivia.
“So, love of mine, what do you think about the wine for the wedding?” he asked.
“Well, we should obviously have some of the chardonnay since you love it,” Olivia said as she took his hand. “Alice, what did you think of the last one?”
“It was really good,” Alice said. “Plus, according to Hana, it’s Liam’s signature wine.”
“I agree, so let’s do that one, too,” Olivia said, turning back to Liam. “But I also want some Lythikos wine.”
“Of course, but let’s keep the daggers to a minimum,” Liam said with a grin as he leaned over to kiss her cheek.
“You remember that you’re marrying a Nevrakis, right?”
Everyone began to clear out from the patio and Alice looked over to see Bastien standing at the railing, looking out across the darkened vineyard, illuminated only by the soft glow of the moon. She walked over and Bastien put his arm around her.
“You doing okay?” Alice asked. He looked down and smiled at her.
“More than okay,” Bastien said. “I just feel really lucky that this is my life and I get to be here with you.”
“I feel the same way,” Alice said. “But, for the record, I’d feel just as lucky if we were living in my old studio apartment in New York and I was still bartending. As long as I’m with you, that’s all I want.”
He pulled her a little closer to him as they gazed out over the vineyard, content and quiet together.
“Hey, Alice…” Penelope said tentatively behind them. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I think everyone’s heading back to the chateau for dinner.”
“Oh, of course,” Alice said as she and Bastien turned around. They followed the group hand in hand as they made their way back to the chateau.
“You know, this has been fun,” Ezekiel said. “It’s not every day I get to nerd out about wine with nice guests.”
“Thank you for sharing these with us,” Penelope said. “They really are exceptional.”
“Oh, um, of course,” he said nervously. “Anytime.”
“I think they labra-adore each other,” Bastien murmured in Alice’s ear. She grinned.
“Alright, mister, I think this is good timing for us to go have dinner.”
Later that night after dinner, Bastien went to a short staff meeting with the security team and as Alice wandered through the chateau, she found Penelope searching for something in the sitting room.
“Where could you be?” Penelope asked as she ducked down to look under the couches before standing back up and sighing.
“Lose something?” Alice asked.
“I was looking at some fashion plates in the library and I guess I lost track of time. When I turned around, Merlin and Morgana were gone,” Penelope said worriedly. “It’s not like them to wander off on their own, and Morgana was limping a bit earlier…you haven’t seen them, have you?”
“No, but they’re probably just exploring,” Alice said. “Dogs like to roam a little, right?”
“Not my dogs,” Penelope said. “They like treats and bubble baths and sitting on dog-sized couches.” Alice resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “I’m worried something’s happened to them.”
“I’ll help you look,” Alice offered. “Two people should be able to find them faster than one.”
“Oh, thank you!” Penelope said, relieved.
The two of them searched the house, but neither found any evidence of Penelope’s poodles. Finally, they headed outside where they found Ezekiel sitting on the front steps, tying a strip of gauze around one of Morgana’s front paws.
“That’s not too tight, is it?” Ezekiel asked Morgana, unaware of Alice and Penelope standing behind him. “Let me know if it feels okay.”
They watched as the dog tentatively put some weight on her paw before taking a few steps, tail wagging. Then the dogs noticed Penelope and hurried over to her, barking excitedly.
“You found them!” Penelope exclaimed as she dropped to her knees to hug the poodles.
“Is Morgana okay?” Alice asked.
“Good as new,” Ezekiel said. “Poor girl got a thorn stuck under her metacarpal pad, but it was easy to get out with a pair of forceps.”
“You carry emergency tweezers around with you?” Penelope asked, surprised.
“You…don’t?” Ezekiel asked, equally surprised.
“Ezekiel, you’re a pretty talented dog whisperer for an heir to a ducal estate,” Alice said, an amused smile playing across her lips.
“I guess the cat’s out of the bag,” Ezekiel said. “Or rather, the dog. I was serious when I said I’ve always liked animals. When Dad wanted me to get involved in international outreach, I picked the World Wildlife Fund on the spot.”
“You know, Hana’s dad has a soft spot for endangered species if you’re looking to raise money,” Alice said. “He was one of the main people behind the giant panda rescue in Shanghai.”
“That’s good to know, but it’s not just that,” Ezekiel said. “I mean, conservation is a big deal, but what I really want is to be a veterinarian.”
“That sounds like it’d be perfect for you,” Alice said. “After all, you’ve already got one happy patient,” she added, gesturing to Morgana who wagged her tail at the attention.
“All I did was take out a thorn,” Ezekiel said dismissively. “I’d have to go back to school, spend years in training…”
“So?” Alice asked.
“So, although it would be a dream come true, I don’t know where I’d find the time,” Ezekiel said.
“Every dream has to start somewhere. If this is what you want to do, I think you’d be great at it,” Alice said.
“That’s what Kiki always says, but I appreciate hearing that from someone who doesn’t have to be nice to me,” Ezekiel said, smiling at her before turning his gaze to Penelope.
“She’s right, you’d be an amazing vet,” Penelope agreed, making Ezekiel blush.
“That’s, uh…thanks. It means a lot,” he said, never taking his eyes away from her. Alice looked back and forth between the two and decided to take her cue.
“I need to talk to Hana about tomorrow, but maybe you two could keep chatting about this vet thing. Especially since I think Morgana needs some aftercare instructions,” Alice said. “Goodnight.”
They said goodnight to Alice and when she’d reached the front door, she turned to see Penelope sitting down on the step beside Ezekiel, each of them with a dog on their laps.
Alice headed back inside and, while trying to remember where her and Bastien’s room was, turned down a hall and smacked straight into Liam.
“Oh god, I’m sorry!” Alice said.
“No, it’s my fault,” Liam said, steadying her. “Although, I have to say that you are very quiet on your feet.”
“I worked in the service industry, I should really know better,” Alice said. “When you’re in a restaurant or a bar, you have to announce yourself all the time and let people know if you’re behind them or coming around a corner. Palace life has made me soft.”
Liam grinned. “I think you maybe got used to walking around with Maxwell when you first got here. You always know where he is at any given moment. Bastien, on the other hand, is even quieter than you. I’m surprised Maxwell hasn’t recruited you two for pulling pranks yet. I know Leo would if given the chance.”
“I can only imagine what he was like as a brother,” Alice said, smiling at the thought.
“Oh, you have no idea,” Liam said, shaking his head as he chuckled. “Older brothers have a reputation for a reason. But, actually, I’m glad I ran into you because I wanted to see how you were holding up with Kiara’s family.”
Alice shrugged. “So far so good, I think. Kiara’s coming to the wedding and I’m pretty sure her brother will, too, since Penelope’s going and they seem to be getting along well.”
“They do seem to have a ‘rebarkable’ connection,” Liam said with a grin. Alice groaned and rolled her eyes.
“I think I’m starting to side with Liv with the puns…but you’re right, they do,” Alice said.
“That one was pretty bad,” Liam said, laughing. “I think we used up all the good ones earlier.”
“But, to go back to your earlier question, I think I’m doing alright with Kiara’s parents. Her dad is really fixated on the festival tomorrow, so if that goes well I think we have a chance to get them both to the wedding.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Liam said. “I appreciate you taking this on to help us out, it really means a lot.”
“Just doing my part to help out,” Alice said. “Although it’s getting late, and I think I need to head to bed soon, otherwise I’m going to need coffee in an IV to make it through the festival tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to keep you,” Liam said quickly, but Alice waved off his apology.
“You’re not, I’ve just been really tired today and I just searched the whole chateau for Penelope’s dogs,” Alice assured him.
“Well, get some sleep then,” Liam said. “And thank you again for everything you’re doing for Olivia and me.”
“I’m happy to do it,” Alice said before bidding him goodnight.
She finally made her way to her and Bastien’s room and was a little surprised to find it empty. Figuring Bastien was still in his meeting, she kicked off her shoes and changed into one of his undershirts. Alice was about to climb into bed when she looked down at the heap of black fabric on the floor. She sighed and picked it up, hanging it in the closet before neatly lining her shoes up beneath it.
“Are you actually hanging up your own clothes?” Bastien asked from behind her, startling her.
“Jesus, you scared me!” Alice exclaimed as she whirled around. “God, Liam wasn’t kidding, you are quiet.”
“Sorry,” he said as he shut the door behind him and crossed the room to kiss her. “Although, that’s been beneficial in my line of work.”
“If this is what happens when I hang up my clothes, I’m never doing it again,” Alice teased as he slid his arms around her waist, one hand slipping beneath the t-shirt she wore to caress her bare skin. “I don’t need the heart attack.”
“What if I promise to loudly announce myself every time I enter a room behind you?” he asked.
“Nope, the damage is done,” Alice said. “I might never recover.”
Bastien rolled his eyes and, without warning, scooped her up and threw her over his good shoulder.
“Hey!” Alice protested, laughing, but he ignored her and carried her to the bed and tossed her on top of it. He climbed on top of her with a grin and leaned down to kiss her.
“What am I going to do with you?” he asked when he finally pulled away from her and lay down on his side beside her.
He grinned. “I’m already doing that.” He leaned in and gave her one more light kiss. “However, you did just remind me that I wanted to talk to you about that.”
“What, are you getting cold feet?” Alice teased.
“Never,” he said. “If anything, I have the opposite. But, we only have a couple more stops on the tour before we get to Valtoria, and it occurred to me that we haven’t really planned anything.”
“You’re right,” Alice said as the realization dawned on her. “God, does that make me a bad bride?”
Bastien smiled. “Hardly. I think you and I are both more focused on what comes after, but hearing Liam and Olivia talk about wine selection tonight, I thought we should at least figure out a few details.”
“That’s a good idea,” Alice said. “Okay, so far we’ve decided we’re going to ask Liam to officiate and we’re writing our own vows…what else?”
“Do you want to have a wedding party?”
Alice shrugged. “I mean, everyone I’d choose for a wedding party are going to be our only guests, so I don’t think it makes a lot of sense. But if you want, we could do a maid of honor and best man.”
“I’d like that,” Bastien said. “But you’re right, anything more than that might get a little ridiculous. Should we talk about who all we’re inviting?”
“Frankie and Seth, Liam and Olivia, Maxwell, Bertrand, Drake, Hana and Rashida…” Alice said, counting off on her fingers.
“Savannah and Bartie.”
“Right, them, too,” Alice said.
“Gray, she’s practically my niece, not to mention the mother of Bertrand’s kid. I know you’re not her biggest fan, but I want her there.”
“No, you’re right, I need to get over it,” Alice said. “She should be there. Anyone else?”
“Actually…I’d like it if Leo were there. Our next stop on the tour is back to the palace for the annual Costume Gala, and he’s coming. Or, at least, he’s supposed to,” Bastien said. “He’s planning on taking off again, but I might be able to convince him to go to Valtoria since it’ll be your first time there.”
“If you need to, you can tell him why,” Alice said. “I think it’s more important to have him there than to risk having him skip it because he doesn’t know how important it is to you.”
“I’ll try to get around actually telling him since Leo has kind of a big mouth, but I’ll keep that as a backup plan,” Bastien said as he brushed a lock of hair back from her face. “Hey, are you okay? You look a little off.”
“I’m just tired,” Alice said. “I don’t know what it is, I woke up this morning just completely exhausted and I feel like I’ve been running on fumes all day.”
“Do you think you might be getting sick?”
“It’s probably just the tour,” Alice said. “Between terrorist attacks and having to be ‘on’ all the time, we’ve been going nonstop lately.”
“You spend so much time taking care of me and everyone else that you’re forgetting to take care of yourself,” Bastien said. “Are you eating enough? Drinking enough water?”
“Yes, I promise,” Alice said. “I didn’t even drink very much wine tonight out of solidarity for Drake. I know he’s trying to drink less these days and it can’t be easy for him since every event we go to is practically drowning in alcohol, and—“
“I like that you’re drinking water, but let me worry about Drake so you can focus more on yourself,” Bastien said. “Seriously, there’s a lot going on right now and I don’t want you to get run down.”
“I won’t, I promise,” she said, her words fading into a big yawn.
“Alright, let’s get you into bed,” Bastien said as he climbed off the bed. While Alice slid under the covers, Bastien got her a glass of water and set it on her nightstand before he took off his suit. He carefully folded and hung his clothes before sliding into the bed beside her and turning off the light.
“Hey, I just realized we didn’t talk about what we want to do after the ceremony,” Alice said as she snuggled against him and rested her head on his chest. “We should probably do something.”
“Hmm…well, with the ball that night, everyone will have already eaten, so we could probably get away with drinks and desserts,” Bastien said. “But we can do whatever you want.”
“No, that sounds perfect,” Alice said, yawning again. “Dancing?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Bastien said as he kissed the top of her head. “I’m not missing a chance to dance with my wife at our wedding.”
“Good,” Alice said as she hugged him a little tighter. “Maxwell can play DJ, he’ll love that. He’s been making playlists ever since I told him we’re engaged.”
“Of course he has.”
They lapsed into silence and for a while, Bastien thought Alice had fallen asleep until she spoke.
“I love you.”
He smiled and held her tighter. “I love you, too. You are everything I’ve ever wanted and more…so make sure you take care of yourself.”
“You already take such good care of me,” Alice said sleepily, the last of her words fading as she drifted off to sleep. Once her breathing had grown slow and even, Bastien reached for his phone, careful not to disturb Alice, and sent a text to Hana.
I need a favor.
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