Summary: Alice gets a crash course in decorum and is off to the races.
Notes: I again used a lot of the original PB dialogue, but I bedazzled it a bit.
“I swear, your life makes zero sense to me right now,” Frankie said over FaceTime. “I can’t believe Bastien is actually there.”
Alice quickly grabbed for her headphones and plugged them into her phone, tucking an earbud into her ear. She couldn’t be sure Maxwell wouldn’t come barging through the door at any moment and she certainly didn’t want him to overhear her conversation.
“The whole thing is surreal,” Alice agreed. “And not only did I go to a masquerade ball last night, but apparently I’m going to the derby today.”
“The derby,” Frankie said, completely deadpan. “Like the horse races for rich people. Secretariat. Fancy hats.”
“One and the same,” Alice said. “Although I’m pretty sure Secretariat’s been dead for a while.”
“Oh, hey, are you going to run out onto the track and stomp the divots like they did in Pretty Woman?”
“That was a polo match,” Alice said. “And I’m pretty sure they’d prefer I stay off the track today. Although that would probably get me a lot of press…”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure you don’t want your headline to read ‘STUPID AMERICAN TRAMPLED TO DEATH BY FANCY HORSES,’” Frankie said.
“Yeah, probably not.” Alice checked the time. “Frankie, I’ve gotta go. I have to pick out an outfit for today.”
“If you don’t pick the biggest, stupidest hat in that store, I might have to question the very nature of our friendship,” Frankie said. Alice flipped her off and Frankie laughed. “Seriously though, I hope you have some fun today. And if you don’t, just be sure to remember all the terrible details so you can tell me about it later”
When she arrived, Alice discovered that the boutique was already occupied by a beautiful woman in red hair. Olivia wore a pale green dress with a large yellow fascinator and she turned around with pretend shock when she saw Alice’s reflection.
“Oh! I’m surprised to see you here; I would’ve thought you’d have been gone already,” Olivia said, placing a delicate hand on her chest. “I figured you surely would’ve realized that you don’t have a chance at winning.”
Alice smiled sweetly. “I figured you surely would’ve realized there’s a bird nesting in your hair,” she said.
“That just shows how ignorant you are. The derby is basically a fashion show,” Olive smirked, eyeing Alice from head to toe with disdain.
“I’m sure you and the other horses will look very beautiful on the catwalk,” Alice said.
Olivia glared at her. “It doesn’t matter. Before long, the trash always blows away.” With that, she left the boutique, shoulder-checking Alice on the way out. Alice rolled her eyes and turned to the racks of clothing.
“Something fashionable…but Bertrand also said to get something modern…” Alice muttered to herself. She sighed, wishing she could just wear jeans and her leather jacket, but she was pretty sure Bertrand would have an aneurysm. She pulled a hat off of the shelf, a large, white, floppy one adorned with a spray of delicate flowers, and put it on her head. Alice surveyed herself in the mirror, feeling ridiculous, and pulled out her phone to snap a photo of her reflection. She texted it to Frankie. A minute later, her phone buzzed.
That is the best goddamn thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Alice smiled and replaced the hat on the shelf. She found another one, a smaller, more modern interpretation of a derby hat, black with white ribbons. Alice put it on. It wasn’t awful; in fact, it set off her blonde hair nicely and made Alice look far fancier than she actually was. Feeling a bit cheered, she rifled through the dresses until she found something that didn’t make her feel ridiculous: a tight black dress, embroidered with the outlines of roses with black thread, noticeable only in strong light. Admittedly, Alice knew she looked like she was going to a fashionable funeral, but she couldn’t bring herself to choose one of the dresses that looked like piles of frothy watercolors. Each one was objectively beautiful, but none of them felt like her. If she was honest with herself, nothing about her current setting felt like her, but she hoped she could find a happy medium.
Bertrand’s eye twitched when he saw Alice in her bedroom before the derby.
“What are you…” Bertrand started to ask before Maxwell interrupted him.
“You look so modern and…edgy!” he exclaimed, trying to smooth over an argument before it began.
“Women usually wear something more…colorful,” Bertrand said through gritted teeth.
“Didn’t you want me to wear something modern to impress the queen?” Alice asked.
“Impress her, not depress her,” Bertrand countered. “But, I suppose it is what it is. Now, it’s more important that we discuss your manners at this event.”
“It’s proper to run around naked with my underwear on my head at formal events, correct?” Alice asked. Bertrand ignored her and continued.
“Conduct yourself politely, eat your food with the utmost decorum–”
“Jesus, Bertrand, it’s like you think I’ve never been in public before,” Alice snapped. “I know how to act like an adult.”
Bertrand sniffed. “That remains to be seen.”
“Hey, I did just fine at the masquerade ball, even without your tutelage,” she argued.
“Even a broken clock is right twice a day,” Bertrand said. “Now, this is valuable information I’m giving you, so pay attention.”
Bertrand hesitated. “What?”
“Pay attention, please,” Alice repeated. “If we’re discussing manners, then it might be worth remembering that if you want someone to do something, you should ask them nicely.”
“She’s got you there,” Maxwell said with a tentative smile. Bertrand glared at them both, but bit back his anger.
“Please,” he muttered. Alice nodded and Bertrand glowered at her, but continued. “Alice, let’s pretend I’m meeting you for the first time.”
“If only,” she said. Maxwell nudged her. “Okay, fine, we’re meeting for the first time.”
“Hello. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Alice Ayers,” Bertrand said.
“The pleasure’s all mine, Duke Ramsford,” Alice said pleasantly. She curtsied and held out her hand for Bertrand to take, which he did with his right hand.
“Curtsy is a little weak, but passable, I suppose,” Bertrand said. “But what did I do wrong?”
Alice thought about this. “You…didn’t bow?”
“I only bow to someone of a higher rank which you, Alice, are not,” Bertrand grumbled. “Guess again.”
“This lesson would go a lot faster if you just told me,” Alice said.
“I took your hand with my right. I should’ve taken it with my left,” he explained.
Alice frowned. “I suppose I can objectively understand that that’s a rule, but I don’t understand what’s the point in me knowing that? I’m not going to be kissing Olivia and Hana’s hands, am I?”
“No, but you should recognize the insult. It’s not enough for you to know your role; you have to be able to read the other person. The slightest shift could signal disapproval,” Bertrand said.
“Ah, no wonder you were so anxious to take my hand with your right hand,” she said. Bertrand smiled wryly and Alice figured that was the closest she’d get to a smile from him. His phone chimed from his jacket pocket and Bertrand retrieved it, frowning at the screen. “Our limo is here to take us to Honeyhill Downs.”
A few minutes later, Alice was tucked into the back of a large limo with the two brothers.
“Now, as we mentioned earlier,” Bertrand said, returning to the task at hand, “how you come across to the Cordonian people is very important, and the press can make or break you. What the press writes, the people read. If the people love you, then it’ll be easy to convince them you deserve their prince.”
Alice kept her face neutral but her stomach twisted uncomfortably as she remembered her plan. Even though she had no intentions of being with Liam, she did want the press to like her enough to help the Beaumonts.
“The press will be there the moment we arrive, so brace yourself for the flashbulbs when we arrive,” Maxwell said.
“What kinds of questions should I be expecting?” Alice asked, feeling nervous. She hoped she’d be able to hold her own in front of the reporters. It was strange–she had no problem yelling at a bar full of customers, but reporters felt like too much. The idea of being scrutinized to such a degree was unsettling.
“It’ll depend on who’s doing the interview,” Bertrand said. “They’ll start with easy questions, asking who are, where you’re from. That sort of thing.”
“People want to understand your story, so think about how you want them to see you,” Maxwell said.
“I’m guessing ‘foul-mouthed bartender’ isn’t the right persona,” Alice said.
“Hardly,” Bertrand said, completely missing the sarcasm. “Then, after the easy questions, the reporters will ask harder questions.” He paused. “I don’t know what they’ll ask, but…”
“Be myself?” Alice asked.
“Heavens, no,” Bertrand said, appalled. “Be a future queen who loves Cordonia and acts with grace and poise. And for the love of king and country, if they ask you about Cordonian apples, make sure you take the question seriously.”
“Apples?” Alice asked slowly. “Really?”
“It’s the national fruit, and one of our most important exports,” Maxwell explained. “It’s very important to us.”
“Noted,” Alice said as the limo slowed to a stop.
“Ready?” Maxwell asked with a grin.
“Nope, but here we go.”
When Alice opened the limo, she was momentarily blinded by the wall of lights and voices that waited on the other side. She slid out of the car, and stood up straight, smiling broadly at the cameras.
“Over here!” one man yelled, waving his arm to catch Alice’s attention. “Daniel Brine from the Cordonia Broadcasting Center. We’ve heard about the new lady on the social scene! What’s your name?”
“Lady Alice Ayers from House Beaumont,” Alice said.
“Oh, come on,” the reporter said conspiratorially. “Our viewers want to know the real story; tell us about yourself!”
“I’m…just a regular person, like many out there,” Alice said, unsure of what else to say. She inwardly grimaced at what Bertrand might say when he saw that. Focus, Alice. Focus, she scolded herself. “A girl from New York who was swept away in a fairy tale.”
“How’s that going for you?” the reporter asked.
“It feels like I’m living in a fantasy,” she said, which wasn’t entirely untrue. The ridiculousness of the situation pressed upon her. A few days ago, she hadn’t even met Bastien. Now, she was in the middle of some live action game show and trying to fit in with royals.
“A fascinating spin…” the reporter said, nodding his head.
Is that good? I think that’s good.
“Now, I’ve heard early rumors that you’re Prince Liam’s favorite,” the reporter continued. “What do you think makes you stand out?”
“That sounds more like a question for the prince,” Alice said with a self-deprecating chuckle. “He first noticed me because I was his bartender, just like thousands of other girls in New York City.”
“A bartender?” the reporter asked with a smile. “This sounds like a real Cinderella story–especially if Prince Liam chooses you. Can I get a photo of you?”
“Of course,” Alice said, striking what she hoped was a dignified, appropriate pose and an open, welcoming smile. The cameras fluttered furiously around her.
“Wonderful, just wonderful,” the reporter said as he took photo after photo. “You’re very photogenic.”
“Thank you.” Alice desperately wanted to look past the reporters and search for Bastien, but she knew it wouldn’t look very good to appear distracted in front of the press. Just then, a woman in an expensive suit extended her hand to Alice.
“Lady Ayers, Ana de Luca here on behalf of Trend,” the woman said. “As an outsider, what do you think of Cordonia?”
“It’s beautiful here,” Alice said honestly. “And everyone has been so welcoming,” she added, a little less honestly.
“The readers will be delighted to hear that,” Ana said. “If you marry Prince Liam, you’ll be our next queen. What qualities make you fit to rule Cordonia?”
“I’m used to working under pressure,” Alice said. “The people can trust me to look out for them and to keep a cool head in times of crisis. I’m also honest–sometimes to a fault–and I’m devoted to those I care about.”
“Last question…” Ana said. “Hypothetically, how would you handle news about low crop yields from the Cordonian apple orchard?”
“My first act would be to comfort the people,” Alice said, grateful the Beaumonts had warned her. “I know how important the Cordonian apples are to the country and its people, and they deserve to know I’d take this problem seriously. Then, of course, we’d talk about ways to deal with the crisis at hand.”
“Great, I can use that,” Ana said. “Thanks so much.”
Alice started to reply but the line of people arriving behind her on the red carpet forced her down the pathway and into the stadium. She surveyed the area, searching for anyone familiar. Crap, she thought. Definitely should’ve asked Bertrand where to go. Alice walked around, looking for anyone familiar, and ended up making her way towards the stables. She was fairly certain she wasn’t supposed to be there, but the crowd was already feeling a little overwhelming.
She glanced around to make sure she wasn’t being followed and ducked into the stables. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darker light and she was relieved to find the stables empty, save for one horse who retreated deeper into its pen at the sight of her.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” she said softly to the horse before she continued to walk through the stable. Alice was a little surprised; as a city girl, it wasn’t like she was necessarily comfortable or familiar with horses, but she felt more relaxed in the stable than she had since arriving in Cordonia. She realized in that moment exactly how out of place she really felt surrounded by the opulent luxury of the palace. Was she really going to be able to go through with all of this?
Suddenly, a gust of wind blew in, swirling errant stalks of hay on the ground and slamming the door behind her. Alice yelped in surprise, nearly tripping on her high heels. The horse neighed in panic, startled, and kicked at its pen door.
“Shhh, it’s okay!” Alice tried to soothe the horse, but to no avail. “It was just the door, you’re okay–”
“Thinking of entering the derby?”
Alice turned to see Bastien standing in the now open doorway of the stable, an amused smile on his face.
“No, I didn’t know where to go and I’ve scared the horse–”
“Whoa there,” Bastien said, tangling his fingers in the horse’s mane and gently pulling its head down to look him in the eye. “You’re okay, she’s not going to hurt you. You’re okay.”
To Alice’s amazement, the horse stopped kicking the pen door and began to calm down, agitated air whooshing from the twin teacups of his nostrils.
“So what, you’re a horse whisperer?” Alice asked once the animal had calmed and retreated to the back corner of its pen.
Bastien smiled. “I wouldn’t go that far, but I’ve been around horses since I was a kid.”
“Yes, I see that.” Bastien laughed when Alice playfully swatted him on the arm. “Seriously though, what are you doing in here?”
“I didn’t know where to go after I talked to the press and ended up wandering over here,” Alice explained. “What are you doing in here?”
He shrugged. “I saw you come in here.”
“I didn’t see anyone watching me when I came in.”
“Gray, there’s always someone watching you when you’re a suitor,” Bastien pointed out.
“Who’s watching us now?” Alice asked as she took a step closer to him.
“Other than the horse? It’s hard to say,” Bastien said. “But we can’t be too careful.”
“I know,” Alice said resignedly, taking a step back. “It’s just hard not to be able to touch you. Not like that,” she added quickly, making Bastien chuckle. “I mean, yes, I like that part too, but I mean not being able to touch your hand or be affectionate with you…it’s hard.”
Bastien nodded. “It’s not going to get any easier.”
Their eyes met and held in the darkened stable. Alice reached out and let her fingers brush against his and he bit his lip as he studied her face, trying to hold himself back. Then he started to lean forward, closing the short distance between them…
Bastien stopped short as Alice looked past him to see Drake in the doorway, blinking his eyes as he adjusted to the darker light.
“Hey, Drake,” Alice said lightly, hoping her tone belied her hammering heart as he came over to join them.
“What are you doing in here?” Drake asked, glancing from Alice to Bastien and back again.
“I didn’t know where to go after I talked to the press and I ended up here,” Alice said. “Bastien saw me come in here and figured I was lost, so he came to corral me. What are you doing here?”
“Bertrand was looking for you so I volunteered to find you,” Drake said.
“Drake, would you mind showing her where to go? I have some business to attend to,” Bastien said smoothly, his confident professionalism firmly back in place.
“Sure, no problem” Drake said.
“Thanks,” Alice said as she started to walk to the door with Drake. She glanced over at his usual outfit with his blue button up shirt. “I thought we were supposed to dress up for today.”
“You are,” Drake countered. “No one cares what a lowly commoner like me wears.”
“You forget, I’m not exactly a noble lady,” Alice said. As they left the stable, Alice let herself fall a step behind Drake so he wouldn’t see her glance back through the door. Bastien gave her a half smile as she left and Alice wished desperately that she could just stay there with him, but knew she couldn’t.
“Could’ve fooled me, Lady Ayers,” Drake said. He looked over at her. “Although I have to admit, you look nice today.”
“Ah, yes, I do enjoy compliments when they’re paid so grudgingly,” Alice said, rolling her eyes.
“Sorry, I’m not great at small talk. But I do like your dress. It’s not as…frilly as some of the other women.”
“I’m not a very frilly person.”
“No,” Drake agreed. “You’re not.”
They walked in silence for a while until they reached some white tents near the starting line. Alice could immediately see Olivia’s red hair in the crowd and she sighed. Drake looked over, suppressing a small smile.
“Good luck over there,” he said. “I think you’re going to need it.”
Alice thought he was right.
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