Summary: Alice does her best at the masquerade and learns the truth about the stakes.
Notes: I again used a lot of the original PB dialogue, but I bedazzled it a bit.
When Alice re-entered the ballroom, Maxwell intercepted her immediately.
“Come on, quickly! This is your chance to see Liam,” he said, gently tugging at her arm.
Liam. One kiss with Bastien and Alice had already forgotten the whole reason she was in Cordonia in the first place. She smiled, willing herself back into the moment. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but Alice knew that for the moment, she had to fulfill the role she’d been brought to play. Maxwell urged her forward and Liam’s attention turned to her.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Liam said, a wide grin spreading across his face. “Alice…I thought I’d never see you again.”
“This has been a day of surprises,” Alice said. “It’s certainly turning out far different than I thought it would when I woke up this morning.”
“Good different, I hope?” Liam asked.
“Absolutely.” Guilt twisted in Alice’s stomach. Liam seemed really nice and she didn’t want to lie to him, but staying here as a suitor was the only way she could stay close to Bastien. When did I turn into such a manipulative bitch? she wondered, keeping her face calm to bely her thoughts.
“So, how did you get here anyway?” Liam asked.
“Maxwell and his brother are sponsoring me,” Alice said, relieved to be able to answer a question truthfully.
“Really?” Liam asked, surprised. “That’s…I can’t believe you came all this way for me.”
Alice simply smiled in response. I am definitely going to hell.
“So,” Liam continued. “How much do you know about this whole process?”
“Maxwell has been filling me in when he can, but his attention can be…well, limited,” Alice said. Liam chuckled.
“That sounds about right,” he said. “Well, this entire series of events in the social season is set up not just to give me time with my potential matches, but also to give my parents, the council, and the people of Cordonia time to get to know the future queen. Basically, from now on, everyone will be watching you.”
“Sounds like reality TV.”
Liam laughed. “You’re not far off. It’s important to get the press on your side. I’ve seen the gossip mill fell more than one person throughout a social season.”
Alice shrugged. “Luckily, I’ve got tough skin from years of bartending. I’ve been called pretty much every name in the book.”
Liam looked shocked. “People would…call you names? Are you serious?”
“Liam, it’s no big deal,” Alice said. “Really. It was usually some drunk jerk who was mad I wouldn’t keep serving him. I’ve never taken it personally.”
“I admire that,” Liam said. “Being a part of the royal family, there are always people with…less than favorable opinions. It’s hard not to take it personally.”
“You might be too nice to be a public figure,” Alice teased. Liam chuckled.
“You might not be wrong, but it is what it is,” Liam said. “Maybe you can teach me how to deal with negative press like they’re drunk bachelor parties.”
Alice unconsciously touched her wrist, her bruises hidden by a large bracelet. “I’d be happy to.”
Liam smiled at her before he sighed and glanced around the room. “I’d love to just hang out with you all evening, but duty calls and I must make the rounds. Can I find you later?”
“Sure,” Alice said, returning the smile. “I’ll be the one making sure everyone behaves by the bar.”
Liam laughed. “Now that you mention it, Drake might need a babysitter. He hates these things.” He took Alice’s hand in his and squeezed it briefly before he turned to circulate around the room. Alice glanced over her shoulder at Bastien. It was definitely time for another drink.
“Liam looked really happy to see you!” Maxwell said hopefully as he joined Alice on her way to the bar.
“Yeah, but evidently I also need to impress the royal court, not to mention all of Cordonia’s citizens,” Alice said. “I’m much better one on one.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time for that during the social season,” Maxwell said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Besides, you’ll have my brother and me to help you every step of the way. Remember, we want you to win this thing.”
Alice felt even worse than she had after talking to Liam. Not only was she supposed to be falling for Liam, Maxwell and his brother were relying on her to win this absurd competition. The amount of people she could let down…It’s like disappointing my parents all over again, but on a national scale. Literally, she thought. She tried to focus back on Maxwell who was still talking.
“For now, it’d be a good start to get to know the other courtly ladies,” he said. “They’re your competition, but you might be able to make some of them your allies.”
“Sure thing, comrade,” Alice said wryly.
“You joke, but at court, everything is political, even friendships,” Maxwell said.
“It doesn’t have to be,” Maxwell said. “Have you met anyone else yet that you like?”
“Well, I met Hana this afternoon while I was at the boutique,” Alice said. “She seems really nice.”
“Okay, good, anyone else?” Maxwell asked.
“Um…the redhead. Olivia, I think?”
Maxwell shuddered slightly. “She’s a little scary, but Olivia would be someone powerful to have in your corner.” He squeezed her arm. “I know this is a lot, but I think you can do it. I think a bunch of the ladies just went outside; you could probably talk to some of them there if you go now.”
“Aye aye, captain,” Alice said with a salute. Maxwell grinned and saluted her in return.
Alice followed Maxwell’s directions out behind the palace and into lavish, ornate gardens where Hana, Olivia, and several other noble ladies stood near a refreshment table.
“Hey!” Hana said brightly as Alice joined them. “How are you liking the ball so far?”
Before Alice could respond, Olivia interrupted her.
“Alice, you were awfully familiar with the prince. You didn’t say that you knew him.” Her voice was civil, but Alice could practically see the barbs in her tone.
“I didn’t realize I had to inform you every time I met someone,” Alice said sweetly. Olivia narrowed her eyes.
“I just can’t imagine when a girl like you would’ve met the prince,” Olivia said.
“That’s a shame your imagination is so limited,” Alice said politely as she picked up a drink from the table and took a sip. So much for making friends, she thought. Hana brought her own drink up to her face to conceal her smile.
“It sounds like you’re hiding something,” Olivia countered. “I don’t like secrets.” She slowly looked Alice up and down as Alice raised an eyebrow at her. “Listen, you should know that whatever happened between you and Liam, you don’t really have a chance with him. You might’ve been able to capture his attention when it was just the two of you, but you can’t keep up with the ladies here. We’re from the finest families in Europe, and we’ve been training and preparing our whole lives to marry a prince. You can’t just waltz in here at the last minute and steal him from us.”
“First of all, if your whole life has been about training to compete to marry one man, we need to find you a hobby,” Alice said. “Secondly, Liam is a human being; he’s not a thing to be stolen. And third,” Alice continued, narrowing her eyes at Olivia, “why don’t you turn the bitchiness down from an eleven to about a four?”
Olivia took a step closer to Alice, but Alice held her ground and kept her face even and impassive. “Who are you to talk to me like that?” Olivia snarled. “Kiara here is the daughter of a diplomat and is fluent in ten languages,” she said, pointing to one of the women with dark hair in an elegant black dress. “Penelope can track her lineage back through six hundred years of royalty,” Olivia continued, pointing to a slightly nervous but very beautiful young woman. “Even Hana’s been training to learn the courtly graces of conversation and seduction.”
“Olivia, you make me sound like an escort,” Hana said.
“All women are whores, Hana. Some of us are just better at it than others,” Olivia said, smiling coldly. “And I’ve known Liam for his entire life. We grew up together,” she added.
“So you’ve known him for his whole life and he still hasn’t asked you out?” Alice asked, keeping her voice light. “Sounds like he’s already made a decision about you.”
Olivia glared at Alice. “You know nothing about what it takes to be here. You’ll be on a flight back to New York by the end of the week with your tail between your legs, I guarantee it.”
Alice burst out laughing; she couldn’t help it. The whole thing seemed so absurd, Olivia threatening her like this. Alice knew she was the interloper in this whole situation, but the whole thing just seemed so…high school mean girl.
“And what is so funny?” Olivia demanded.
“Olivia,” Alice said. “Your intimidation tactics might work on everyone else, but I’m not so easily impressed.”
Olivia glared at her but instead of replying, she left in a huff. Alice turned back to the rest of the women who were staring at her with wide eyes.
“Why do you all let Olivia talk to you like that?” she asked.
“She’s only stating the facts,” the nervous-looking Penelope said. “There’s no point in being emotional about it.”
“We all knew what we were getting ourselves into when we came here, Alice,” Kiara added. “Didn’t you?”
“I don’t think that excuses someone talking down to you like you’re trash,” Alice said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to head inside. It was nice to meet you all.” She glanced at Hana who gave her an encouraging smile before turning to head back into the ballroom. So much for making friends.
Bastien surveyed the room from his post by the wall. He’d seen Alice walk outside a while ago, but she hadn’t come back in yet.
He turned to see a member of the guard looking at him. “The queen asked me to to have you join her and His Majesty.”
Bastien nodded. “Thank you.” He headed towards the king and queen, the former of which was looking a little pale.
“Your Majesty,” Bastien said, bowing slightly to the king when he reached them. “Your Majesty,” he said again, nodding to the queen.
“Bastien, would you please escort my husband to our quarters?” Regina asked. “I think we’ve had about as much excitement as we can handle this evening.”
“Of course.” He reached to help the king to his feet, but Constantine waved him off.
“I’m not so feeble that I can’t stand on my own,” Constantine grumbled. Bastien said nothing, but stepped back respectfully. He knew he was one of only a handful of people who knew about Constantine’s illness. Bastien didn’t even think Liam and Leo knew yet.
“I’ll be in shortly,” Regina said. Constantine nodded and he and Bastien made their way out of the ballroom, pausing every so often so greet various nobles. When they were finally alone in the corridor, Constantine turned to Bastien.
“Bastien,” Constantine said. “What do you know about that girl with Lord Beaumont? The American.”
Bastien did his best not to give anything away with his tone. “Until recently, she was a bartender in New York. The prince and his friends met her during their recent trip, and Lord Beaumont decided to sponsor her for the social season.”
“So, what is she, some crown chaser?” Constantine asked. Bastien felt a tiny flare of anger in him, but he suppressed it.
“I don’t think so,” Bastien said evenly. “It seems to me that it’s as simple as the prince liked her so Lord Beaumont brought her.”
“Hmm,” said Constantine thoughtfully. “Well, I can’t imagine she’ll make it very far in the competition anyway,” he mused as they reached the door to his quarters where two other guards stood at attention. “Goodnight, Bastien.”
“Goodnight, Your Majesty.”
Bastien couldn’t quite say why, but he felt uneasy.
“There you are!” Maxwell exclaimed when Alice came back inside. “How did it go?”
“I don’t think Olivia and I are going to be braiding each other’s hair or trading friendship bracelets anytime soon,” Alice said. “Sorry,” she added.
“It’s okay, the social season is long, a lot can change,” Maxwell said, although his tone was doubtful. Then he brightened. “But, the last dance is starting up and now would be a good time to see Liam.” He glanced over towards Liam and Alice followed his gaze to where Liam was talking to Penelope. “It might be rude to cut in, but…”
“Say no more, I’ve got this,” Alice said.
“Go get ‘em, tiger!” Maxwell said, giving her an encouraging push towards the prince.
“…and so that’s when my family acquired it’s fifth golden poodle statue!” Penelope was saying.
“Don’t get me started on antique collections,” Liam said with a good-natured roll of his eyes. “The queen’s acquisitions are extensive, and–”
“Excuse me,” Alice said politely. “May I cut in?”
“If you must…” Penelope said, looking a little disappointed before she reluctantly walked away. Liam turned to Alice with a smile.
“I was hoping you’d find me,” he said.
“Well, I hear it’s the last dance,” Alice said. Liam held out his hand and Alice accepted it, allowing him to lead her onto the dance floor as the orchestra struck up a dreamy waltz.
“I probably should have mentioned this sooner, but…I don’t exactly know how to dance,” Alice admitted.
“Just follow my lead,” Liam said. He put his hand on her waist and gently guided her through the steps. Before long, Alice was easily following the rhythm. “Are you sure you don’t know how to dance?”
“I’m notorious for having two left feet,” she said. It was nice, dancing with Liam. He was a careful dancer and excellent partner, but if she was honest, there was someone else she’d rather be dancing with. Liam spun her in a circle and Alice used the opportunity to survey the room, but she couldn’t find Bastien anywhere.
“I’m very glad that I got a moment alone with you, Alice,” Liam said.
“Well…relatively alone,” Alice corrected with a smile. “There’s only about a hundred people watching us right now.”
“That’s pretty incredible privacy for the royal court,” Liam said with a laugh. “However…I do have a trick up my sleeve.”
Before she knew what was happening, Liam guided her across the ballroom floor and waltzed them out of a set of French doors to an unoccupied balcony.
“We can get a little more privacy out here at least,” he said, closing the doors behind them.
“It’s so quiet out here,” Alice said, surveying the gardens from the balcony. Most of the revelers had gone back inside and the only sounds were muted music through the closed doors and the settling nighttime sounds of the gardens.
“A welcome break, to be sure,” Liam said before turning to her. “Now, I want to know how you are. I trust you’re being well taken care of here?”
“You’re sweet to ask,” Alice said. “Maxwell’s been taking very good care of me. He flew met out here and set me up with a room and everything. I haven’t met his brother yet though.”
“Ah, the Duke,” Liam said, nodding. “He’s…different from Maxwell. More serious.”
“Everyone is more serious than Maxwell,” Alice pointed out. Liam laughed.
“True. But House Beaumont has an excellent reputation, mostly due to Bertrand.” Liam paused before asking his next question. “What about Cordonia? What do you think so far?”
“It’s beautiful,” Alice said honestly. “I love the architecture, the music…it’s like something out of a fairy tale.”
“Really?” Liam asked, a smile growing across his face. “I’d hoped you would love Cordonia as much as I do. It’s…well, it’d be rather unfortunate for a queen to dislike her kingdom.”
Shit, shit, shit, Alice thought. She had no idea how to be a suitor without leading Liam on. She liked Liam well enough, but…he wasn’t Bastien.
“Especially considering Cordonia’s recent history,” Liam added.
“What do you mean?” Alice asked, relieved to not be talking about herself for a moment.
“These last few decades have been somewhat rocky for us…the first queen abandoned my father and older half-brother, Leo,” Liam said. “I’m not clear on the exact details, but from what I’m told, Leo’s mother couldn’t handle the pressures of courtly life. She came from a lesser noble family, so she hadn’t been at court long before the marriage.” He paused. “Then my own mother passed away when I was still a child.”
“Oh, Liam, I’m so sorry,” Alice said. Without thinking, she put her hand on his and squeezed it reassuringly. He smiled softly.
“It was a long time ago.”
“I’m still sorry you had to go through that,” Alice said.
“So then the current queen…” Alice said, changing the subject.
“Regina might not be my mother, but she’s a wonderful woman who’s done her best to lead Cordonia alongside my father,” Liam said.
“I’m sorry, but that sounds like a rehearsed line if I’ve ever heard one,” Alice interjected.
Liam looked at her with an eyebrow raised, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “You don’t miss much, do you? You’re right, it is a bit of a canned response. What I said was true, but we’re not close. I like her well enough, but…I don’t know. I don’t often get to say what I feel because instability in the monarchy is always dangerous for a small kingdom like ours. Weakened currency, a rise in crime, a drop in tourism…all because of the lives of the rulers.”
“That’s a lot of pressure for you to be under,” Alice said.
“It is,” Liam agreed, “which is why it’s so important to find the right queen. There’s so many other people to think about, and I need to do what’s best for all of them.” He glanced at her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to burden you with this.”
“Hey, I’m a good listener and I try to be a good friend,” Alice said reassuringly. “Feel free to talk to me anytime.”
“Thanks,” Liam said. “I might take you up on that.” He glanced back at the doors behind you. “We should probably get back in there.”
“Lead the way,” Alice said, taking his proffered arm.
As the final waltz came to a close, the guests in the ballroom applauded the musicians and began to clear out.
“Tomorrow will be very busy, but I should be able to see you for a little bit,” Liam said, turning to look at her.
“I’ll see you then,” Alice said. Liam smiled and raised her hand to his lips, kissing her knuckles gently.
Back in her room, Alice removed her mask and made a beeline for her phone but before she could pick it up, there was a sharp knock at her door. She reached for the handle but then it burst open, making her jump.
“Christ, Maxwell!” she exclaimed, putting a hand to her chest. “We have to work on your knocking!”
As she said that, Alice realized she wasn’t the only one scolding him. “Really, Maxwell, you’d think you were raised in a barn instead of a noble house,” the frowning man from earlier said from the doorway.
“I know, I know,” Maxwell said, rolling his eyes. “But you guys need to meet!” He turned to Alice. “Alice Ayers, meet my brother, Duke Bertrand Beaumont. Bertrand, this is Alice!”
“Hi, nice to meet you,” Alice said, offering her hand. Bertrand didn’t take it and instead looked Alice over with a careful, scrutinizing eye.
“This is the girl you’ve chosen to represent our house?” Bertrand asked Maxwell.
“Alice,” she corrected, trying to hide her annoyance. He’s your sponsor, you have to be nice. He’s your sponsor, you have to be nice. He’s your sponsor, you–
Bertrand finally looked her in the eye. “The proper way to address a duke is ‘Your Grace.’”
“The proper way to refer to someone is by their name when you know it, not ‘the girl.’” Alice immediately regretted saying it when a furrow of worry creased Maxwell’s brow. “Sorry, it’s been a long night, Your Grace.”
“You’ve got a lot of long nights ahead of you, but at least it looks like you can be trained,” Bertrand said with a sniff.
“I’m not your pet,” she said, narrowing her eyes.
“He didn’t mean it like that,” Maxwell interjected quickly. “He–”
“Maxwell, a word with you in private?” Bertrand said, interrupting him. He grabbed his younger brother’s arm and practically dragged him into the hallway, slamming the door behind him. The voices were faint, but Alice could still hear them through the ornate wood.
“That’s the girl you picked to represent our family?” Bertrand demanded. “Have you completely lost your mind?”
“Yeah!” Maxwell said happily. “That’s Alice. Liam really hit it off with her when they met during his bachelor party in New York. She was our bartender.”
“A bartender?” Bertrand asked in disbelief. “You brought a bartender? I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you with this. We could’ve had our pick of any unsponsored duchess or countess in half of Europe.”
“I know, but, like I said, she and Liam hit it off. I think he really likes her,” Maxwell said.
“You’d better hope that this foul-mouthed bartender doesn’t ruin everything for us,” Bertrand snapped.
The door flew open, nearly smacking Alice in the face, but she jumped back just in time.
“Were you listening at the door?” Bertrand asked, appalled.
“Depends,” Alice said, refusing to back down. “Were you talking shit about me on the other side of it?” Bertrand turned a dark, angry, and somewhat satisfying shade of red. “If you think I’m such a disappointment, why don’t you just find someone else? Apparently you have your pick of women across Europe.”
“We can’t do that!” Maxwell exclaimed. “We already said you were our pick so if you go, we’ve got no one. And we really need you to stay.”
“Maxwell is, unfortunately, correct,” Bertrand grudgingly confirmed. “We’re stuck with you. Perhaps Maxwell didn’t fully explain this to you, but if our house puts forth the prince’s choice, we’ll win fame and recognition.”
“Something we could really use right now, because we’re kind of…broke,” Maxwell added.
“Maxwell!” Bertrand hissed.
“Sorry,” Maxwell said meekly.
“There’s no shame in being broke,” Alice said. “I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world–everyone I know is broke.”
Maxwell mustered a small smile but before he could say anything, Bertrand spoke up.
“It’s entirely different for us,” Bertrand said, calmer than before. Alice noticed he had the same furrow from stress in his brow as Maxwell, but Bertrand’s was cut much deeper than his brother’s.
“Do you get money if I marry Liam?” Alice asked.
“Not…directly, but we can leverage the prestige to great effect. It would be best to get that leverage before others find out our situation,” Bertrand said.
“No one else knows you’re broke?” she asked.
“No,” Bertrand said quickly. “And I’d like to keep it that way. In the circles we run in, if word got out of our financial ruin, it would be a scandal.”
“But our name is still worth something in Cordonia!” Maxwell added, ever the optimist. “At the very least, we can introduce you to the right people and get you invitations to the right events. I just wish we could offer you more,” he added, his face falling.
“Maxwell,” Alice said, putting her hands on either side of his face. “Look at me. I’ve made do with way less. Your ‘nothing’ is still more than I’ve ever seen in my life.” Maxwell tried to smile at her, but he still looked crestfallen.
“Speaking of which, have you prepared for tomorrow’s event?” Bertrand asked.
Alice let go of Maxwell and looked at Bertrand. “Event?”
“The derby,” Maxwell said.
“You know what a derby is, right?” Bertrand asked skeptically.
“It’s the one with the ponies, right?” Alice asked with mock confusion, twirling a lock of her hair. Bertrand rolled his eyes.
“It’ll be your first opportunity to make an impression on the press; they’ll be there covering the event,” said Bertrand. “They don’t get a lot of opportunities to see the royals, so they’ll jump at this chance, especially since it’s the start of the social season. And what they write about you is very important because what they say will have a direct influence on how Cordonia views you.”
“We’re a monarchy, but we serve the people. You’ll need their approval if you’re going to become queen.”
Alice felt sick.
“We’ve taken up enough of your time this evening,” Bertrand said. “We’ll speak more tomorrow before we head out for the derby.”
With that, Bertrand turned and left with Maxwell in his wake, offering a wave goodnight. Alice closed the door behind them and sat on the floor, leaning her back against the ornately carved wood. What had she gotten herself into? She suddenly had an idea of what the noble ladies had been talking about at the ball. Somehow, an idea to seize an opportunity and make a crazy choice had railroaded her towards a path someone else had decided for her.
Alice considered her options. She could leave and go back to New York. Liam might be disappointed, but he’d ultimately be fine. Maxwell and Bertrand would be left without a contender for the crown, leaving them with even fewer options for their finances. Not that the Beaumont money problems were her problem or responsibility, but she still felt for them. And then of course, there was Bastien.
In that moment, Alice knew she couldn’t leave, not yet. She closed her eyes. Maybe there was a way for everyone to get what they wanted. She could be Liam’s friend and help nudge him towards the best woman to be his bride. Lord knows it wasn’t her; she didn’t know the first thing about running a country. Hana maybe? And even if Alice didn’t marry Liam, there had to be a way she could still help Maxwell and Bertrand. If the press liked her, maybe she could reflect really well on House Beaumont for choosing and still help them get some of that leverage they needed. Alice opened her eyes, feeling a little bit better. This could work, she thought hopefully.
Behind her, the door knocked, jarring her out of her thoughts.
“Just a second,” she called as she stood up, careful not to rip her masquerade gown. “Maxwell, did you finally learn how to knock?”
Alice opened the door and discovered that it wasn’t Maxwell at all and her face broke into a wide grin.
“Sorry it took me so long to get here,” Bastien said with a smile. He glanced down the hallway, ensuring the coast was clear, before he quickly stepped inside and shut the door behind him. “You wouldn’t believe the traffic.”
Alice wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him into a soft kiss.
“You’re here now, Dorian. That’s what matters.”
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