Summary: At the masquerade ball, Alice sees someone unexpected.
Notes: I again used a lot of the original PB dialogue, but I bedazzled it a bit.
New to the series? Catch up here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Alice took a deep breath as Maxwell led her into the ballroom.
“Doing okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “This whole thing just feels surreal, you know?”
“Don’t worry, you’re doing great,” Maxwell assured her. He glanced past her and Alice turned around, seeing a dour looking man frowning at Maxwell. “Hey, I need to go talk to Bertrand for a second. You’ll be okay on your own, right?”
“Sure, just point me to the bar,” Alice said. Maxwell smiled and pointed to the far side of the room. “Thanks.” She made her way through the crowd, feeling increasingly paranoid that she was going to step on someone’s gown, and finally reached the bar where she saw a familiar face.
“Hey, Drake,” Alice said. He turned and stopped moving when he saw her. “Are you…surprised I’m here?”
“No, sorry, just…wow,” Drake said awkwardly, swallowing hard.
“Why are you always surprised when I don’t look like I’ve crawled out of a ditch?” Alice asked. “I didn’t look that bad when I was behind the bar.”
“No, I just…um, do you need a drink?” Drake asked, blushing deeply.
“Yes, please. Whiskey,” Alice said. Drake signaled to the bartender and a glass quickly appeared in front of her. She took a deep swallow, relishing the burn in her throat.
“How are you enjoying your first royal event?” Drake asked.
“Mostly just trying not to throw up and completely embarrass Maxwell,” Alice said. “But otherwise, I’m great.”
“Trust me, I’ve been to many a Beaumont party. You can’t embarrass Maxwell,” Drake said with a smirk as he sipped his own drink. “The night’s still early; there’s plenty of time for him to streak through the ballroom while shouting, ‘Release the kraken!’”
Alice froze. “Wait…what?”
Drake laughed. “I’m kidding, Ayers, I swear. I mean, he did that the other night, but Bertrand’s here tonight and he usually keeps Maxwell in check.”
Alice set down her drink on the bar. She turned, surveying the ballroom, but all she could see was a crowd of masked strangers.
“Ayers, are you okay? You look…really pale,” Drake said, concerned. “Honestly, your chances of seeing Maxwell naked are very low tonight.”
“No, it’s not that. Um, will you excuse me?” she asked.
“Thanks.” Alice headed into the crowd, trying not to look too desperate as she searched. There was no way…good lord, it all made sense. Bastien said he was security for a high profile client. He told her a “release the kraken” story and, honestly, she’d have to be stupid to think it was a coincidence. More than anything, she couldn’t believe she hadn’t made the connection sooner. Christ, he’d even left on the same goddamn day!
Then she saw him. Bastien was standing near the wall in a blue suit and her breath caught at the sight of him. What are the fucking odds? She started to make her way across the room towards him when someone caught her arm.
“Forgive me for being forward,” an elegant young woman with red hair said. “But I’ve never seen you here before. I always notice when the heralds announce a new name and I make it a point to know all the ladies at court. I’m Lady Olivia Vanderwall Nevrakis, Duchess of Lythikos.”
“Alice, nice to meet you,” Alice said. She looked over at Bastien and felt her stomach drop when she realized he was looking right at her. “Will you excuse me?”
“Lady Alice Ayers…” Olivia continued, ignoring Alice’s attempts to get away. “I can’t say I’m familiar with your house.”
“I’m a guest of the Beaumonts,” Alice said quickly, gently removing Olivia’s hand from her arm. “Can we talk later? I have to–”
Just then, Maxwell rushed back to her side and Alice groaned inwardly. God, not now, please not now.
“Prince Liam is here! Ready to see him again?” Maxwell asked. Alice took a breath, remembering why she was there in the first place.
“Of course,” she said evenly, not wanting to let Maxwell see her distress. “Nice to meet you, Olivia.”
Alice let Maxwell lead her away but as they went, she glanced back over her shoulder at Bastien. She didn’t miss that his eyes never left her.
“Okay, great, it looks like they’re ready for you,” Maxwell said as they made their way across the ballroom.
“They?” Alice asked, trying to focus back on Maxwell.
“I’m going to present you to King Constantine first. You’ll want to make a good first impression on him so he’ll think you’re a good match for Liam.”
“No pressure, right?” Alice said.
“Right, no pressure, except everything hinges on this moment,” Maxwell whispered as they reached Liam and the king. “Your Royal Highness, may I present Lady Alice Ayers?”
“Of course,” King Constantine said, looking at her curiously.
“Your Highness,” Alice said, dropping into a curtsy. She wished in that moment that she’d reviewed how to curtsy properly with Maxwell; instead, she was forced to rely on old Audrey Hepburn movies.
“It’s a pleasure to meet the suitor Lord Maxwell’s house has chosen,” the king said with a polite nod. “I hope you enjoy your time in Cordonia.”
“Thank you,” Alice said. She glanced at Liam, who winked at her. She smiled and let Maxwell escort her away. “So, Lord Maxwell, huh? I thought your brother was a duke?”
“He is,” Maxwell said. “But there can be only one duke from our house at a time, so I’m a lord.”
“Like the highlander?” Alice asked.
Maxwell laughed. “There can be only one!”
Alice smiled and gave his arm a friendly squeeze. “Hey, Maxwell, can you tell me where the restroom is?”
“Oh, sure! Just out through those doors and to the right,” he said, pointing. “But hurry back, all the other suitors are going to line up to see Liam in a moment.”
Alice swore she’d be back soon and headed in the direction Maxwell had pointed. She made it about halfway before she glanced back to ensure he wasn’t watching her before she doubled back, keeping close to the wall. She looked over to where she’d seen Bastien before but he wasn’t there. Alice stopped, confused. Where was he?
She turned. It was Bastien.
They snuck out of the ballroom and Bastien led her down a hallway into a small library. He closed the door behind him and Alice opened her mouth, ready to explain about Maxwell showing up at her job, but before she could say a word, Bastien grabbed her and kissed her. She sank into the kiss, pulling her to him as he maneuvered her until her back was pressed against a shelf of books.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, finally breaking their kiss.
“Maxwell showed up at my job today and invited me,” Alice said, trying to catch her breath.
“You’re a suitor?” Bastien asked, leaning back to study her, cupping her face in his hands.
“I guess? I don’t know, everything has happened so fast,” she said. She smiled weakly. “I told you I’d had a crazy day.”
“Yeah, you weren’t kidding.” He desperately wanted to kiss her again, but he held himself back, trying to process this. He let his hands drop from her face.
“Bastien, I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” Alice said. She reached for his hand, worried he’d pull it away. She was relieved when he didn’t. “You were gone, Maxwell offered me this insane thing–”
“Alice, you don’t owe me any explanations,” Bastien said gently. “After all, we just met two days ago.”
“Does that matter to you?”
He swallowed. “If I’m honest…no, it doesn’t. But if you’re a suitor…”
“I’ll drop out.”
Bastien reached out and untied her mask, setting it aside on the bookshelf. “I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You’re not asking, I’m offering.”
Bastien leaned his forehead against hers. “That’s not how this works. You agreed to represent House Beaumont. You’ve been introduced to the king. Liam knows you’re here…”
“So?” Alice asked, annoyed.
“So, you don’t want to piss off an entire country six hours after you arrive,” Bastien said.
“Gray, please,” he interrupted. Alice hesitated at his use of his nickname for her. “I–I don’t want you to have to leave.”
“Can I still see you?” Alice asked. Bastien didn’t meet her eyes. “Bastien.”
“Alice, I’m the head of the royal guard. I have certain…obligations.”
She fell silent. Bastien finally looked at her and his heart fell when he saw the tears in her eyes. He kissed her, hating how her lips trembled when she kissed him back.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, pressing his forehead to hers. “I don’t know what to do. Just…please don’t leave.” He swallowed. “It was so hard to say goodbye to you this morning, I don’t think I can do it again.”
Alice tilted her head back to look at him. “We’re totally nuts, right?”
Bastien gave her a small smile. “Completely.” He took a step back and looked her up and down. “You look incredible, by the way.”
“Oh, this old thing?” Alice asked nonchalantly. “It was just something I had in my luggage. No big deal.”
Bastien glanced over at the door. “We should get back in there.” He reached for her mask and Alice held it in place so he could tie it behind her head.
“Can I see you later?” Alice asked. Bastien let his hands slid down from her hair to the bare skin of her arms. He brushed his lips against her neck, smiling a little at her sharp intake of breath. He knew he should say no. He knew she shouldn’t have asked. And yet…
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