Guarded Hearts, Part 51

Summary: After a harrowing escape from the Nevrakis vault, the Unity Tour finally arrives at Valtoria.

CW: threatening with a gun

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

New to the series? Catch up here: Part 1,Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8,Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13,Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31Part 32Part 33Part 34Part 35Part 36Part 37Part 38Part 39Part 40Part 41Part 42Part 43Part 44Part 45Part 46Part 47Part 48Part 49, Part 50

“You know, it occurs to me that this might be massively stupid,” Alice said as she followed Olivia through the secret passageways of the Nevrakis manor before they emerged onto the ground floor of the estate. Alice followed as Olivia turned down a narrow hallway, taking confusing and seemingly arbitrary turns until they finally arrived at a plain, nondescript door.

“If we were anywhere but my home, I would agree with you,” Olivia said as she pulled out a dagger.

“Liv, if your plan was to stab me all along, you could’ve just done it while I was still comfortable in my bed,” Alice pointed out.

“You know nothing, Jon Snow,” Olivia said as she slid the dagger into a keyhole in the door. The door swung open to reveal a dark stairwell. Olivia removed a lighter from her pocket and lit it, raising it to light a torch just inside the stairwell.

“Afraid of running up the light bill?” Alice asked as she followed Olivia down the narrow stone steps.

“More like I never bothered to update it,” Olivia said with a shrug as she led the way. “It’s not like when this place was built and you could just have the workers murdered when they were done so they couldn’t reveal your secrets.”

“I don’t know why I bother to ask.”

At the bottom of the stairs they found a large round vault door. Olivia spun the large lock, the mechanisms inside clicking until finally she pulled it aside to reveal a cavernous vault. Olivia set her torch in a holder and, using her lighter, lit several waiting candles which illuminated the room with a soft glow. As her eyes adjusted, Alice could see the walls lined with dusty tomes.

“What exactly are we looking for down here?” Alice asked as she leaned closer to skim some of the labels.

“I’m not exactly sure,” Olivia admitted. “Let’s see…there’s taxes…tithes…old treaties…a history of the Five Kingdoms…”

Alice looked over Olivia’s shoulder to see for herself. “Oh, and the history is complete with graphic accounts of battles and a chapter on torture. What a lovely thing to see before going back to bed.”

“Be thankful we haven’t found an actual skeleton,” Olivia said.

“To be fair, we haven’t opened any of the chests yet,” Alice said, gesturing towards some chests stacked near one wall.

“Wait a second, come here,” Olivia said suddenly as she grabbed a piece of paper that stuck partway out of the history book. “This is my father’s writing. ‘Inheritance Clauses and the Cordonian Crown’…it says that if Liam’s family has no heir, the crown can pass to a Nevrakis.”

“What? Let me see,” Alice asked as Olivia handed her the paper.

“I swear, they never told me any of this,” she said as she examined another page. “This looks like an old certificate of betrothal…no, wait…” When she fell silent, Alice looked up at her and was surprised to see that Olivia’s pale skin had lost what little color it had.

“Liv, what?”

Olivia swallowed hard and continued reading. “‘On their respective eighteenth birthdays, the betrothal will pass over into a legally binding marriage between—“ She stopped, seemingly unable to continue, so Alice leaned over her shoulder to read the next line.

“‘Olivia Nevrakis and…Anton Severus’? Do you know an Anton Severus?”

“How is this possible?” Olivia asked, her throat thick with angry tears she refused to cry. “I was only four when this was signed.”

“So then your parents would’ve been able to sign on a minor’s behalf…god, that’s fucked up.”

“Who the hell is Anton Severus?” Olivia demanded. She opened the history book and from the spot where she’d drawn the papers, a photo waited for them. “Oh my god…”

“Justin? Are you fucking kidding me?” Alice exclaimed as she snatched the photo and brought it closer to a candle to study it. He was dressed in an unfamiliar military uniform, but it was undoubtedly him. “Oh my god, I knew there was something wrong with him and I swear to god I am going to beat the ever loving shit out of him.”

“Unless I get there first,” Olivia growled.

“But why does this clause even matter?” Alice asked. “You’re going to marry Liam, which unites the Rys and Nevrakis lines.”

“But the children will carry Liam’s name—not Olivia’s.” Olivia and Alice whirled around to see Lucretia standing in the doorway of the vault, looking supremely pleased with herself. “I told you she’d take the bait.”

Justin emerged from the shadows and without thinking, Alice started to advance on him but Olivia grabbed her arm and held her back.

“You were right,” Justin said. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here, Alice. It’s always a joy to see you.”

“Oh, fuck you, you little weasel,” Alice snapped. Her bravado quickly drained from her body when she realized he was holding a pistol.

“You know, I never understood why you didn’t like me,” Justin said. “Considering how well you get along with my wife—“

“Don’t call me that,” Olivia interrupted in a low, warning tone.

“—I’d hoped to keep you around, but I can’t have this kind of insubordination as I claim my kingdom,” Justin continued.

“It’s not your kingdom!” Olivia snapped.

“That’s true, I suppose,” Justin said as he looked at her and smiled. “Our kingdom.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Can we keep this moving?” Lucretia asked, sounding bored.

“So you knew about everything,” Olivia asked her aunt, eyes dark and angry.

“Obviously,” Lucretia said. “Anton—your husband—will ascend the throne with you as his queen.”

“I’m already going to be queen. Liam’s queen.”

“You stupid girl,” Lucretia said pityingly. “It’s high time you learned the truth.”

“What truth? That you’re a traitorous bitch? Because I managed to figure that one out on my own, thanks,” Olivia said as she rolled her eyes.

“Don’t act like such an ungrateful child,” Lucretia said, her tone frosting. “I’m going to make you queen—as a Nevrakis. One of the conditions outlined in your certificate of betrothal that your children will carry the Nevrakis name. This is what your parents wanted. It’s what you should want. It’s what the Nevrakises have always wanted.”

“What I want is to marry Liam and remain faithful to Cordonia,” Olivia said evenly.

“You know, if you keep talking about Liam like this, you might make me jealous, Olivia,” Justin said with a smirk. “But I’ve had about enough of this discussion for now. I think it’s time we tie up some loose ends.” He turned his attention back to Alice and pointed the gun at her. Her vision started to swim as she stared down the barrel of the gun, but she forced herself to keep herself on her feet. Alice was cornered without protection, but she would never show weakness to a little shit like Justin. Dorian, I’m so sorry.

But before Justin could shoot, Olivia quickly stepped in front of Alice.

“Really, Olivia?” Justin asked irritably.

Alice noticed a slight movement out of the corner of her eye but she kept her focus on Justin. If Olivia noticed it as well, she didn’t give it away.

“Yes, really,” Olivia said.

“Oh, my darling niece,” Lucretia said with a disdainful laugh. “It would serve you well to remember that even you are expendable.”

“Oh? And how exactly do you expect to continue the Nevrakis line without me?” Olivia asked.

“Unless you learn to play nicely, your value expires as soon as you—“ Lucretia began to say, but she didn’t get any further. Bastien lunged out of the shadows and with movements as fast and precise as a viper, he snapped Justin’s wrist and disarmed him, holding him at gunpoint as Mara and another guard grabbed Lucretia.

“Lucretia, you said the vault was secure!” Justin growled, cradling his injured wrist as he seethed like a wounded animal.

“It was,” Lucretia snarled back at him before her eyes settled on Bastien. “Ah, Bastien. So good to see the king’s favorite pet.”

He ignored her, keeping his eyes trained on Justin. “Alice, are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” she said, releasing the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.

“I’m fine, too, thanks,” Olivia said sarcastically.

“See, Olivia? They don’t care about you,” Lucretia said as she backed up against the wall. “They only—“

“SHUT UP!” Olivia screamed at her aunt, her cool composure finally breaking.

“Screw this,” Justin said, his eyes wildly darting around the vault. “I didn’t come this far just to give up.”

Lucretia leaned against a spot on the wall and the floor began to shake. Olivia stumbled and Alice reached out to grab her, keeping her on her feet. Dust and debris began to fall from the ceiling and Alice looked up in time to see the ceiling crack and give way as hidden charges within the vault’s walls detonated. Bastien grabbed for Justin, but Justin dodged out of the way as a chunk of stone fell, diving toward a widening crack in the vault wall. Lucretia scrambled to follow, but Mara caught her arm and yanked her out of the vault as more guards struggled to follow Justin into the wall. Alice could barely see anything through the dust aside from Olivia beside her but she felt Bastien grab both of them and pull them out of the vault just as the ceiling gave way with an overwhelming crash. Breathing hard, Bastien pulled her into a tight embrace.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice muffled by her hair.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” she said, squeezing him hard. When he finally pulled away, he cupped her face in his hands.

“Why is it that whenever there’s trouble, you always seem to be at the center of it?” he asked, looking equal parts exasperated and relieved.

“Because I’m a little bit of a dumbass?”

“No arguments from me,” Olivia muttered.

“Hey, this was your idea!” Alice protested.

“Irrelevant detail,” Olivia said dismissively. Alice took a step toward her and hugged her tightly.

“Thank you, Liv.”

“For getting us held at gunpoint by your shitty press secretary? You’re welcome.”

“You stepped in front of a gun for me.”

“You stepped in front of a what?”

The two women released each other and saw Liam hurrying into the room. He ran to Olivia and embraced her.

“It’s really not a big deal,” Olivia said, her usual cool demeanor returning.

“You are my favorite pain in the ass,” Liam said as he kissed her temple, holding on to her like he might never let her go. “What happened down here?”

Olivia and Alice quickly explained what happened, Liam’s expression unreadable as he listened to what Lucretia had revealed.

“Sir, what would you like us to do with her?” Mara asked. They all turned to see Mara gesture to Lucretia, who was out cold on the floor.

“Lock her up and we’ll take her back to the palace,” Olivia said. “I’d rather not leave her here.”

“What about Justin?” Alice asked. Bastien shook his head.

“He got away,” he said. Although he didn’t say it out loud, Alice could see the guilt at the edges of his expression. She took his hand and he gently squeezed it, but the frustration didn’t fully leave his face.

“For now,” Liam said as he stood up a little straighter, his arm still around Olivia. “We’ll get him and then he’ll have to stand for his crimes.”

“Dibs,” Olivia said.

“Liv, you can’t call ‘dibs’ on a political prisoner,” Liam said, although he was smiling.

“I just did.”

They headed up the stairs, Olivia and Liam leading the way, but when they emerged on the main floor of the Nevrakis manor, Alice tugged Bastien’s hand.

“Come on, let’s go.”

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“We’re waking up Frankie. I’ve had two ceilings nearly collapse on me; I’m not waiting any longer to get our goddamn tattoos.”

Alice sat back in her chair and admired the simple band Frankie had tattooed on her ring finger as her best friend set to work on Bastien.

“So your skeezy press secretary is actually part of a treasonous plot to overthrow the Cordonian government,” Frankie said over the buzz of her tattoo machine. “Jesus, Alice, can’t you just have a boring life for five minutes?”

“Apparently not,” Alice said.

“I still can’t believe we slept through an explosion,” Seth said with a yawn.

“To be fair, the vault is really far down,” Bastien said. “I only knew where it was because of Liam, who only knew because of Olivia.”

“I’m kind of impressed you managed to keep Liam out of there before the shit hit the fan,” Frankie said.

“Trust me, it wasn’t easy,” Bastien said. “When it comes to Olivia, it’s hard to keep him from hurling himself into danger.”

“Seems familiar somehow,” Frankie said, her eyes flicking from Bastien’s finger to his shoulder.

“I had no idea Cordonia was so dangerous,” Seth said. “You guys seem so chill and peaceful in the media, but on the inside it’s like Game of Thrones without the dragons.”

“Who says we don’t have dragons?” Bastien asked. Alice and Frankie laughed and, a beat later, Seth joined in.

The following day, Alice, Bastien, and the others met with Liam and Olivia in the council room of Lythikos.

“This is all my fault,” Maxwell said miserably. “Bertrand and I hired Justin—Anton—in the first place.”

“He fooled us all,” Alice said.

“Not you, you hated him,” Maxwell pointed out.

“Yeah, but I just thought he was a smarmy little weasel, I didn’t know he was planning to overthrow the government,” Alice said. “He’s obviously been plotting and training for this since he was a child. I was just the opening he needed to get close enough to the royal family to…well, you know.”

“He had plenty of reason to target you, too, Gray,” Bastien said. “You caught the public’s attention when you came to Cordonia, and since you became their newest duchess and became the face of Cordonia’s Me Too movement alongside Olivia, your popularity and influence has only grown.”

“Your idea for the Unity Tour has helped to keep Cordonia united in the face of danger,” Liam added. “You’ve worked so hard to help us and Liv and I can’t thank you enough for that.”

“I mean, Liv did shield me from a gun with her body,” Alice pointed out.

“You did what? Really?” Drake asked incredulously.

Olivia sighed, annoyed. “Jon Snow, if you keep telling people that, they’re going to think we’re friends,” Olivia said. “Can we move on please? Bastien, what do we know about Anton’s current whereabouts?”

“Unfortunately, not much,” Bastien said. “But I’ve officially briefed the press as well as the Cordonian guard so everyone is on the lookout for him.”

“And I have the Royal Guard doing a sweep of my estate to see if we can uncover anything else that might help,” Olivia said.

“Did anything come from interrogating Lucretia?” Drake asked.

“Only that there is a backup plan in the event this one failed, although we don’t know any concrete details yet,” Bastien said.

“I have thumb screws,” Olivia offered helpfully.

“With much of the main palace still under repair, Anton and Lucretia likely expected that the court would take shelter at Applewood,” Bastien continued, ignoring Olivia’s offer. “That’s likely where they’re staging their next move.”

“We’re due to go to Valtoria anyway,” Liam said. “Did Anton get a copy of the tour’s itinerary?”

“Not that I know of,” Maxwell said. “But I honestly can’t be sure.”

“I’ve already sent a team ahead to secure Valtoria,” Bastien said. “On our own terrain, surrounded by our allies, we should be safe there.”

“I agree,” Liam said.

“What about our allies?” Alice asked. “How can we keep them safe? I don’t want to have my first visit to my duchy to involve a terrorist attack; that’s not exactly the sort of thing that would inspire confidence in their new duchess.”

“Actually…traditionally, at this time of year, the people of your duchy come together for a lantern-lighting festival,” Liam said. “If you and Bastien host the court there for the festival, it’ll give us a chance to protect our allies and show strength.”

“Doesn’t that put us in a sitting duck position again?” Alice asked. “Don’t get me wrong, I want to go to Valtoria, but I don’t want to set us up for another attack.”

“It’s a little different now that we have more information about Anton and Lucretia’s overall plan,” Liam said. “If we call a press conference to answer some of the public’s questions about Anton and show unity within the court, that could help reassure the Cordonian people.”

“Well, I do love a press conference,” Alice said.

“That’s the spirit, Jon Snow.”

“How are you feeling?” Bastien asked as their car approached Valtoria, finally alone.

“I’m excited to see our new home,” Alice said as she took her hand. “Although I have to admit, even though we didn’t get to spend a ton of time living there, I’m going to miss your place at the palace.”

Bastien smiled and kissed her forehead. “If you’re nostalgic, we could reduce our quarters down to a single room at Valtoria.”

“That sort of seems like missing the point of having a duchy…but I reserve the right to change my mind later.”

“That sounds fair…but that’s not what I meant when I asked how you’re feeling,” Bastien said gently. “How are you doing after everything last night?”

“Okay, I guess. The whole thing down in the vault was so scary, but Liv handled it so well. I don’t know how I’d feel if I’d found out that my parents had married me off when I was four.”

“How do you think she’s doing?”

Alice shrugged. “It’s hard to say with her. She’s so proud to be a Nevrakis, but I think she feels really betrayed by her parents, especially after everything she’s learned about them in the last year.”

“What about her technical marriage to Anton?”

“Liam already put in the orders to have it annulled, so that’s being taken care of. I think Liv would rather pretend that didn’t happen…but I’m a little worried that if Anton gets word of the annulment, that might set him over the edge and make him more dangerous if he gets desperate.”

“And how are you feeling? Physically, I mean. I know you’ve been feeling so rundown lately and I want to make sure you’re not pushing yourself too hard.”

“Well, going on a jaunt in the middle of the night to the Nevrakis vault and then getting held at gunpoint by terrorists wasn’t exactly great for the sleep debt I’ve built up, but I’m okay. It’s weird, my brain is awake and excited for Valtoria but my body just feels so exhausted,” Alice said.

“I still think it’d be a good idea for you to see a doctor, just to get checked out,” Bastien said. “If you want, I can have one come to Valtoria so you’ll only need to take a quick break from everything.”

“A house call? My, my, my, aren’t I fancy,” Alice said with a grin.

“I mean, there are certain perks to being a duchess,” Bastien said. He looked down at her left hand and lightly tapped her finger, careful to avoid touching the new tattoo. “Gray…I was thinking. If everything feels too overwhelming, we could postpone getting married until things calm down a little.”

Alice turned to him, surprised. “I don’t want to postpone. Do you want to postpone?”

“No! Definitely not,” Bastien quickly assured her. “I just want to make sure I’m not adding any stress on you right now. If you want, I’ll call Liam and we’ll stop this motorcade and I’ll marry you on the side of the road right now.”

“Unnecessary, but thank you,” Alice said with a smile. “But I like the idea of getting married after the festival.”

Bastien leaned over and kissed her gently. “Me, too.”

The motorcade finally arrived at a glittering lake sheltered among gloriously lush hills and as Alice looked out the window, she could see a gorgeous estate across the water.

“Holy shit…is that ours?” Alice asked.

“Welcome home, Gray.”

When their car pulled up to the front of the estate, Alice forgot her earlier exhaustion and nearly bounded out of the car, Bastien close behind her.

“So? What do you think?” Liam asked as he and Olivia walked over to join them as the rest of their friends climbed out of their cars.

“This is…holy shit, it’s like I’ve stepped into a painting!” Alice exclaimed.

“It’s no Lythikos, but it’s decent,” Olivia said.

This is yours?” Frankie asked as she joined them. “I might never leave.”

When they walked towards the estate, a woman in a stiff-looking suit greeted them at the front door with a deep bow.

“Welcome, Duchess Alice, Sir Lykel,” the woman said.

Bastien looked questioningly at Liam, who feigned innocence.

“I’m Gladys,” the woman continued. “It is my honor to serve as your majordomo.”

“She served the previous duchess with distinction and wished to stay on for you,” Liam explained.

“Oh, well, thank you very much,” Alice said graciously.

“The pleasure is mine, Your Grace,” Gladys said humbly. “I will do my best to make sure your every whim is seen to.”

“Oh, you can just call me Alice. I’m really not that formal.”

“I’m not either,” Bastien said. “Bastien will be fine.”

“Are you sure?” Gladys asked, surprised. “The previous lady of the house wished to be referred to as Empress Bjornabas Gambolputty von Gesamtkunstwerk, Rex Potatorum. I can refer to you however you wish.”

“That…sounds excessive,” Frankie said.

“Really…Alice and Bastien will be fine,” Alice assured her.

“As you wish,” Gladys said with a nod, looking more than a little relieved. “Now, if you’ll please follow me, your new home awaits.”

Alice and Bastien followed with the others as Gladys led them into the main hall.

“Wow…Alice, this is amazing!” Maxwell exclaimed as he looked around at the elegant red and gold decor.

“It’s a little fancy for my taste, but even I have to admit this puts half the estates to shame,” Drake said as he eyed the room appreciatively.

“I thought Valtoria’s sigil was a phoenix,” Seth said as he pointed to one of the banners that hung on the wall.

“It was, in older times,” Gladys said. “But it was changed when one of the owners favored a more peaceful sigil.”

“Oh,” Alice said, disappointed, although her disappointment was short-lived when she caught sight of an ornate chair at one end of the room. “Wait…is that…”

“Your throne,” Gladys said proudly.

“Can I touch it?” Alice asked hesitantly.

“Jesus, Jon Snow,” Olivia said, rolling her eyes. “It’s your throne. You can sit in it.”

Alice ascended the steps and sat in the soft, velvet chair. She looked at Bastien, who was admiring her with a bemused expression on his face.

“So? How does it feel?” Liam asked.

“Completely weird,” Alice admitted.

“You’d look the part if you didn’t look like you were worried about wrinkling the fabric,” Olivia said.

Alice turned her head when she saw the flash of a camera and saw Frankie holding her phone.

“What? It’s not every day that my best friend gets to sit on her very own throne for the first time, give me a break,” Frankie said as she returned her phone to her back pocket.

“Alice, if you are satisfied with your throne, I would like to continue the tour,” Gladys said.

“Oh, of course,” Alice said, quickly leaping to her feet. Bastien stepped forward to offer a hand to her as she descended the stairs.

“You look good up there,” he said, lacing his fingers through her as they followed Gladys.

“I’m hoping I’ll feel less weird when you’re sitting up there with me,” she said.

“Now that is weird,” Bastien said.

They followed Gladys through the building as she showed them to a private study.

“This study has served as a home to exiled scholars since it was added in the early 1500s,” Gladys said. “There’s a small room behind the bookcase in the event that residents needed to hide.”

“No way! Your study has a secret passage? That’s so cool!” Maxwell exclaimed.

“Just one of many such passages for you and your guests to enjoy, Alice,” Gladys added.

“Can you get me a map of those?” Alice asked. “Because I’m pretty sure I’m going to end up locked in the walls or something.”

“How very Cask of Amontillado of you,” Bastien teased, squeezing her hand.

Next, Gladys led them into a beautiful sitting room decorated in a soft cream color, a beautiful piano tucked into one corner.

“This parlor served as a place for nobles to socialize. Lord Byron himself is said to have stayed here…and to have thrown up on that piano and passed out on that couch.”

“Dorian, did you hear that? We have Byron’s vomit piano,” Alice whispered.

“Based on Byron’s reputation, I’d be willing to bet we’re not the only ones with a vomit piano,” he whispered back.

“They’ve been cleaned…right?” Drake asked, eyeing the couch warily.

“The room underwent extensive renovation and repair after the Romantic era,” Gladys said.

“Eh, I’ve sat on worse,” Frankie said as she and Seth sat on the infamous couch.

Gladys continued the tour, taking them through one ornate room after another before finally leading them upstairs to a pair of heavy double doors.

“And finally…your living quarters,” Gladys said as she opened the door with a flourish.

Alice wasn’t entirely sure what she had been expecting, but it certainly hadn’t been…

“Holy shit that’s a lot of purple,” Frankie said as they surveyed the large foyer.

“Yes, the previous duchess had an affinity for that particular color,” Gladys agreed. “Of course, we can redecorate in whatever style you wish.”

“We wish, for sure,” Alice said. She looked at Bastien, who nodded. They mad their way through the living quarters with its large kitchen, multiple bedrooms each with their own bathroom, two living rooms, and finally the master suite.

“Nothing says nobility like a bed with a canopy,” Alice said. “That bed is very…” Her words faltered as she took in the sight of the enormous bed atop a raised platform.

“Louis XIV?” Bastien suggested.

“Yes, that’s it,” Alice agreed. “It’s very ‘let them eat cake.’”

“I can arrange for you to meet with an interior designer,” Gladys assured her.

“Thank you,” Alice said gratefully.

“In the meantime, I do have one more thing to show you and Bastien,” Gladys said.

“We’ll meet you downstairs,” Olivia said as she tugged on Liam’s arm.

“Aww, I want to see!” Maxwell complained.

“You can test the bannisters while you wait,” Alice offered.


“You know he’s really going to do it, right?” Drake asked.

“Of course,” Alice said. “How else can I be sure the place will hold up when the Beaumonts visit us for holidays?”

The rest of the group left, leaving only Gladys, Alice, and Bastien behind.

“If you’ll follow me, please,” Gladys said. She led them across the master bedroom to a sliding glass door and out onto a magnificent balcony with the most breathtaking view Alice had ever seen that stretched out over vibrant gardens and the point where the lake met a river that wound through the mountains like a blue ribbon. She tightened her grip on Bastien’s hand as a cool breeze drifted through the mountains and plucked at her hair. Roses crept up along the stone columns to reach ornate carvings of angels, birds, and flowers.

“Wow, this is…” Alice said.

“Wow,” Bastien finished.

“I’ll leave you two to enjoy the balcony and I’ll meet you downstairs when you’re ready,” Gladys said, quietly excusing herself and closing the balcony doors behind her.

“So…are you happy to be home?” Bastien asked as he stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist.

“This is incredible…but home is wherever I’m with you,” Alice said as she leaned back against him. “I would’ve lived with you in your quarters back at the palace or in my tiny New York apartment or even in a tent in the woods.”

“Hey, unlike the tent, this place has indoor plumbing, so that’s a perk,” he said as he nuzzled against her neck.

“The rest of it…I don’t know, it’s kind of intense,” Alice said.

“Intense in a bad way?”

“No, just…intense. Everything is so fancy; I feel like I’m going to smudge or break something.” She paused for a moment, taking in the view as she absentmindedly ran her fingers up and down Bastien’s arm. “I can’t believe this is real. I mean, I know Liam made me a duchess, but actually being here and seeing this estate…I literally never thought I’d end up in a place like this with someone like you.”

“I could say the same,” Bastien said. “I’m used to seeing this kind of opulence, but it was always for other people; I was always on the fringes of this world. Part of it, but not really part of it at the same time. I’ve always felt like I was a supporting character in other people’s stories, but now it’s like I get to write one of my own.”

Alice turned in his arms and wrapped her arms around his neck. She smiled at him. “This is going to be disgustingly cheesy, but I have to tell you that you’re the hero in my story.”

Bastien smiled at her. “Funny, I was about to say the same about you.”

She rose up on her tiptoes and kissed him, his mouth a warm contrast to the cool mountain air. He deepened the kiss, pulling her tighter against him, but before they could escalate, they heard a polite knock on the balcony door. The broke apart as a woman with a medical bag apologetically opened the door.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt, Your Grace,” the woman said. “My name is Dr. Louise Perrin—your majordomo said I would find you here.”

“Yes, of course,” Alice said as she extended her hand to shake hers. “And, please, call me Alice.”

“Bastien,” he said as he reached out as well. “We spoke on the phone.”

“Yes, of course, it’s nice to put a face to the voice on the phone. Shall we go inside?”

“Finally,” Olivia said when Bastien and Alice finally rejoined them downstairs in the main hall. “Are you hosting a ball or aren’t you?”

“Oh, shoot, that’s right,” Alice said. “I completely forgot about that—do we still have time to get everything ready?”

“Not to worry,” Gladys assured her. “I’ve already seen to the menu, decor, libations, and entertainment.”

“Oh…wow, thank you,” Alice said, her stress leaving as quickly as it had arrived. “I guess we’re more prepared than I thought.”

“That being said…since this is your inaugural event at Valtoria, there is still time for minor renovations to the estate, if you so desire,” Gladys said.

“Oh, we don’t need to redecorate our living quarters before the ball,” Alice said quickly. Gladys smiled.

“I was thinking something more localized to the main hall,” Gladys said. “Your predecessor had ambitions about rigging trapeze bars among the chandeliers, but sadly they were never finished. I suppose we could open up the alligator pool again…” she said hesitantly.

“That would be almost as cool as fighting pits,” Olivia said.

“You know, the more I hear about your predecessor, the more I like her,” Maxwell said. “I feel like we would’ve gotten along well.”

“Maybe let’s keep this an alligator-free zone,” Alice said quickly.

“Spoil sport,” Olivia muttered.

“What kind of renovations were you thinking?” Bastien asked Gladys.

“Well, I have been working on a sketch of this hall,” Gladys said as she retrieved a folio from a nearby table and handed it to Bastien. “The ancient phoenix sigil of the house is so inspiring and it would be lovely to see it fly again.”

Alice leaned over Bastien’s shoulder to see the designs. “Wow, Gladys, that’s incredible!” She looked at Bastien. “What do you think?”

“I think it’s your decision,” he said, smiling at her. “But, that being said, I do think the phoenix is a more fitting sigil for you than a dove.”

“I agree.” Alice turned to Gladys. “Let’s do it.”

“Excellent,” Gladys said, beaming proudly. “I’ll get to work and it should be ready for the festival.”

“Thank you,” Alice said. “So…is there anything else we need to do to prepare for this thing?”

“Unless you have changed your mind about the alligator pool, I have everything covered,” Gladys assured her.

Everyone left the main hall to continue exploring and Bastien and Alice fell to the back of the group. She squeezed his hand.

“Happy?” she asked. He smiled and leaned down to kiss her cheek, the fingertips of his free hand brushing briefly across her stomach.

“I can honestly say I’ve never been happier in my whole life.”

Part 52

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