Chapter Four

November 16, 2019

“I did the dumbest thing the other day.”

            Esmerie glanced up from her phone to see her roommate strolling through the archway, twisting her mountain of tight chocolate curls into a bun.

            “Yeah?” she asked, turning her attention back to the video she was watching. Daphne landed heavily in the chair across from her at the dining table.

            “Have you ever met a guy that was literally so beautiful that all you can do is hate him?”

            Esmerie frowned and paused the video. She lifted her head slowly, running her tongue along her teeth. “Yeah…”

            “And we all know that you don’t let the hatred show, because he’ll think you’re crazy?”

            “Uh huh…”

            “Well, it turns out I’m really shitty at that.”

            Esmerie pulled on her bottom lip with her teeth, trying to find something useful to say. Daphne laid her head on the table and dropped her hands into her lap, sighing.

            “Did…” she started to say, dancing on the phrasing, “how bad was it?”

            “I don’t know,” Daphne said, not bothering to lift her face from the wood, “but we talked after the party.”

            “Did he seem upset with you?”

            Daphne’s head popped off the table. “Surprisingly, no.”

            “Then why are you worried about it?”

            Daphne opened her mouth and closed it again, her face scrunching up. Esmerie watched and waited, until her roommate eventually gave up and placed her forehead back on the table. She laughed in silence and returned to her video. A few minutes managed to slip by before Daphne lifted her head again.

            “Don’t you have somewhere to be today?”

            “Mhm,” Esmerie responded, not looking up. “Wrap party for the movie.”

            “When do you have to be there?”

            “Couple hours,” she shrugged, “so I’m gonna try and finish this before I get ready.”

            “Well, then I guess I’ll shut up and get out of your way.”

            Esmerie smiled as Daphne left the table, heading to the pantry to find breakfast. She let the video finish, then closed the tab and got up herself, wandering away while Daphne made her daily smoothie.

            She walked down the hall and up the stairs of the apartment, pulling herself in a hard right using the end of the banister. She pushed the door to her room open, and quickly crossed the room and dropped the blinds. Her closet door was open, with the dress that she’d picked to wear sitting in front: a maxi dress with a scalloped bib neck and all-over navy lace, a satin waist sash and trumpet skirt. Daphne had suggested it, since it was long the way Esmerie liked, and hugged her curves just enough to flatter her.

            She pulled it off the hanger slowly, not wanting to damage anything. As she changed, she sighed. She’d much rather stay home. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to go to the wrap party, they were always a good time, but they had been filming for the past several months, and she was tired.

            She made her way into the bathroom to get a look at herself in the dress. She pressed it down around her hips, flattening the creases, then started tousling her hair, trying to decide what she wanted to do with it.

            “Do you want me to do it for you?” Daphne’s head had popped into the door of Esmerie’s bathroom. She turned around for a moment, knowing that her response didn’t matter. Daphne always helped her with her hair.

            She dropped her hands back to her sides. “Sure.”

            Daphne entered the room fully, bringing the last half of her breakfast smoothie with her and setting it on the sink counter. She stood behind Esmerie for a minute, tilting her head back and forth as she pondered. When she’d made her decision, she opened the drawer that held the beauty supplies. She pulled out bobby pins and hair ties, then began her work.

            She pulled the back bulk of Esmerie’s hair up, allowing a few strands to fall down around her face. She twisted the rest expertly, then used a tie to hold it in place. She placed bobby pins and pulled strands out of the bun simultaneously, creating the perfect blend of relaxed and sophisticated. Then, she rounded Esmerie’s body and began pulling at her bangs, fluffing them and shaping them so they laid gently across her forehead and framed her face.

            “There,” she said, stepping back. “Perfect.”

            Esmerie laughed, using one finger to gently flick her bangs out of her eyes. “Thanks, Daphne.”

            “Uh huh,” Daphne said, having already grabbed hold of the smoothie and exited the bathroom.

            Esmerie glided back into her bedroom and sat herself down on her bed, sighing. Getting dressed hadn’t taken as long as she’d hoped. Make-up, she realized, and found herself back in the bathroom. She pulled out her regular make-up, nudes and a brown liner. She wasn’t much for getting dolled up, but she wanted to look nice—especially for a party.

            She took her time, and right about when she was satisfied with her work, her phone dinged from its place on her mattress. She put her make-up away and crossed the room threshold to check it. The friend that was acting as her chauffer to the party had arrived and was waiting in the car outside her apartment building.

            Grabbing her purse and shoes, she made her way purposefully down the stairs, calling a goodbye to Daphne as she opened the door of the apartment.

            “Have fun!” She heard as the door closed behind her.

            She put her shoes on in the hall, then sent a text to her friend as she carefully descended the building’s main stairs. High heels may look beautiful, but that’s about all they’re good for. Eventually, she reached the bottom and left the building, not wasting any time in joining her friend in the car.

            They spent the drive to the hotel trading chat about the upcoming party, how they were glad they were done filming, and about the excitement of seeing the movie hit theaters, but the drive ended quickly, and they found themselves climbing into the hotel elevator.

            The ballroom on the 20th floor was packed, everyone from actors to sound technicians loitering with their beverages of choice. Long tables with satin cloths lined the far wall, towered with food and refreshments. Esmerie found herself immediately abandoned when her ride ran off to join some members of the effects team. She wandered to the tables, picked up a glass of wine, and was browsing the food choices when Maxim joined her.

            “Well, I just heard some interesting news,” he said, grabbing some food from the display plate.

            “Yeah? Like what?”

            “Someone said that Prince—” He was cut off by the crowd hushing, everyone turning toward the door, where the Prince of Charles had walked in, wearing a stunning white suit that accentuated his platinum blond hair. His violet eyes lit up as he smiled—gently, but genuine—and he crossed the room leisurely, saying hello to everyone there.

            “What is the prince doing here?” She asked Maxim in a whisper.

            “Not a clue. But he’s been talking to everyone that’s still outside, congratulating them.”

            “Congratulating them?” she asked, but he only gave her a shrug. She turned back to watch the prince proceed through the crowd, when their eyes locked. He smiled wider, holding out his hands.

            “There, the stars of the show,” he said in a voice like summer wind over a grassy plain. He strode toward them like his feet weren’t touching the floor. With the smoothest of movements, he took Esmerie’s hand in his own and kissed her knuckles.

            “The exquisite lady,” he said in that voice. Heat crept up Esmerie’s cheeks.

            “Your Highness,” someone behind the prince said, “you are making the lady shy.”

            Esmerie glanced over the prince’s bowed head to find the source and came face to face with a man she could’ve sworn she’d seen before, but couldn’t place where. He stood perfectly straight in his three-piece suit, a subtle green vest and tie, navy eyes and black hair that waved out just enough to make his face visible. His attention was focused on the prince more than anyone else, but he caught Esmerie’s gaze.

            “Louis is right, Miss Brodeur. I am sorry.” The prince stood back up and gave her another of his charming smiles.

            “Oh,” she said, snapping her attention back to him. “It’s not a problem, Your Highness. I’m simply not used to such compliments.”

            “I find that difficult to believe, mademoiselle. A flower as remarkable as yours must certainly be admired during every hour of daylight.”

            Esmerie blinked a couple of times, not sure how to respond.

            “Your Highness,” the man named Louis sighed.

            “All right, Louis,” the prince said, waving his hand. “I simply wanted to come by and give the both of you my sincerest congratulations on the film. It is such a magnificent depiction of one of our country’s most beloved folktales, and I am overjoyed to see it carried on to the next generation of our people. Surely, you will be remembered for decades to come for your sensational talent.”

            “That’s quite a compliment, Your Highness, thank you.” Maxim said, and it was then that Esmerie remembered that he was there. She watched as he shook the hand of the prince, then excused himself to a different group of people at the party. That left her once again in the attention of the prince and his butler, and she readjusted her weight, trying to stand up straight and look comfortable at the same time.

            “So tell me, mademoiselle,” the prince said, “what is it you are planning on doing next?” He gave her another smile, apparently missing how much she was surprised by the question, but eventually she found her tongue.

            “I… not much, really,” she lost eye contact with him as she realized how dull her life must seem to someone like him. “I teach at the University of Nobel Michel, so now that the film is finished, I’ll go back to that full time.”

            “That’s marvelous,” he said. “What is it you teach?”

            “Pottery and similar arts. Though the university occasionally asks me to teach the beginning courses of Charlesian language when they have a surge in interest.”

            “You are so incredibly versatile, mademoiselle. Just like my Louis.” He turned to look at his butler, whose dark blue eyes had widened slightly. Apparently, he had not anticipated being brought into the conversation.

            “Louis does so much for me on a daily basis,” the prince continued. “and yet he still finds time for his own hobbies. Only yesterday he told me that he plans on helping out at a local orphanage come the spring.”

            “That’s wonderful,” Esmerie said without thinking. “I’ve been considering some volunteer work myself, once spring break hits.”

            “Why don’t you join Louis? The orphanage would no doubt enjoy the extra help.”

            “I—”

            “Your Highness!”

            Esmerie’s shock and Louis’s protest overlapped, but the prince’s face lit up, thrilled with his brilliant idea.

            “From Charles’s fairytale princess, no less! What a benefit for the organization, not only to be blessed with your grace, but your beauty and your kindness. Undoubtedly, the children would enjoy meeting and playing with the real Lady of the Ashes.”

            “Your Highness, please don’t make the lady’s decisions for her,” Louis said, finally finding time to chime in to the prince’s daydream.

            “I am merely suggesting a solution to her problem, Louis,” the prince said, taking her hand once again with a flourish. “So, what say you, my lady?”

            “I—” Once again, she found herself without words, baffled by what the prince considered to be a problem worth solving. She glanced up and met the butler’s eyes one more time, deep and unmoving. If there was a part of him that didn’t want her to agree, she couldn’t find it. Nor could she find an excuse to turn the offer down. “I would be honored, if Louis and the staff would have me.”

            “And you, dear Louis?” the prince asked, turning to face his butler.

            He looked slightly exasperated, but eventually let out a light sigh. “Of course we would be glad for you to assist, Miss Brodeur.”

            “Excellent!” The prince turned back to her, beaming. “Then Louis will contact you with details, I am sure. In the meantime, sweet princess, I’m afraid I must depart. I have an unfortunately tight schedule today.”

            “Of course, Your Highness,” she said, dipping into a curtsy, which was rather awkward in her tight dress. He gave her one more gentle smile, then turned around.

            “Come, Louis, let us go.” He strode away, just as elegantly as he had come in.

            She watched him walk for a moment, both entranced and slightly glad. The prince had his way, but he was one of a kind. When the butler took a step toward her, she broke out of her trance. He retrieved a pen and a small notepad from his breast pocket and held them out to her.

            “I will need your contact information, Miss Brodeur.”

            “Oh, right.” She took the items from him, and quickly scrawled her phone number and e-mail address down.

            “I apologize for His Highness,” he whispered as she was writing.

            She glanced up at him. “Oh, it’s not a big deal. I just hope that you weren’t inconvenienced in any way, Louis.”

            “Of course not, mademoiselle.” He smiled for the first time, and his navy eyes sparkled. “As long as you and His Highness are happy, it does not matter what I feel.” He accepted the pen and paper back with a simple “thank you,” then he bowed to her and walked after the prince with hastened steps. 

            Only after he was out of her sight did she realize she’d stopped breathing.

 

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