Chapter Three

November 16, 2019

The neon lights of the casino machines flickered, promising prizes of all shapes and sizes. Whirring, sirens, and the clinking of coins was drowned out by the voices of the group of people in the center of the floor. Daphne found herself at the side of the group, her boyfriend’s hockey arm over her shoulder. She pushed her hair out of her eyes as the laughter died down again.

            “Then what happened?” asked a bleach-blonde with a new nose job. She was leaning forward on her own lap, her dress’s neckline showing off her chest.

            “Then? Then the best part happened. I tell this little staff maid who knows probably as much about wine as she knows about taxes to get us a bottle of Cheval Blanc, and she gets all nervous and starts to scurry off, but this waiter is walking by with a tray, and she runs right into him!”

            The laughter explodes among the group again, and Daphne finds herself chuckling, if only a little, lightly swinging her head to move the hair that had fallen into her vision again.

            “The whole thing spilled all over her,” the story continued, “she was covered in food and champagne!”

            Daphne turned her attention to the flashing casino lights as her boyfriend’s arm shook on her shoulder from his laughter. The same thing had happened to her once, when she was saving money for college. It’s an embarrassing experience, and she felt bad for the girl, but from an outsider’s perspective—she had to be honest—it probably was just a little funny.

            “Oh, Your Highness,” Blondie said, “you are so funny. You tell stories better than anyone I know.”

            Is that because no one you know can remember an entire story? Daphne thought as she watched the blonde flip her hair over her shoulder.

            The prince puffed out his chest from the center of the group, and ran a practiced, carefree hand through his own hair. As it left the dusty brown locks, his emerald eyes lit up with a perfect smile. “It’s who I am.”

            The girls around him giggled and Daphne let out a huff of air through her nose. If that wasn’t the truth.

            Before anyone could think up anymore flattery or insulting stories about the general public, a grayed man in a sharp suit came striding up to the group, his steps clicking elegantly.

            “Your Highness,” he bowed, “forgive the interruption, but the time of your birthday celebration is fast approaching, and we must go over final preparations with you. If you would please come upstairs to the ballroom.”

            “Yeah, alright.” The prince shrugged his arms off the shoulders of the women sitting next to him and picked himself up from the couch. The butler bowed his head again as the prince walked past him, not bothering to say a goodbye to the group.

            Daphne’s boyfriend peeled his own arm from her shoulder. “I’m gonna go hit the slots, you want to come?”

            “No,” she shook her head lightly. “I think I’ll head up to my room and relax for a while before the party starts.”

            “’Kay,” he said, kissing her before he walked away. She watched the rest of the crowd disperse, finding herself alone on the large sectional, the clinging of the machines still ringing loudly in the smoke-filled room. She allowed herself to sit there for a moment, then removed herself from the couch.

            She walked alone through the casino, hearing the airy laughs of the people she had been sitting with and the clinking of glasses as they started the prince’s birthday party early. As she climbed the stairs, the date ran through her mind. February 22nd. It used to be such a normal day.

            The light of the hallway on the base floor was much brighter than the dim casino of the basement. She allowed her thick canopy of tight curls to shield her eyes from the sun pouring in the windows. She walked straight down the center of the hallway, counting the steps that it took her to clear each of the lush rugs, knowing very well where she was going.

            Left, then a right, then another left… She passed maids and staff members with a friendly smile and hello, each one of them taking the time to call her by name. At the end of the hall, she found her room, and entered as if it belonged to her the same way her apartment did. She lay down on top of the neatly straightened covers, then flung the obscene pile of curls behind her head as she made herself comfortable.

            The next thing she knew, her boyfriend was in her room, shaking her awake. She sat up quickly, narrowly missing bumping heads with him, when her mind cleared enough to take a glance at the clock. Only fifteen minutes until the party started.

Scrambling out of the bed, she flung open her luggage, searching for the dress she’d planned to wear. She found it, grabbed her shoes, and disappeared into the bathroom.

            There was no time to deal with her hair—maybe she could just pull the wild curls back into a ponytail. Working quickly, she pulled off her clothes and donned her favorite cocktail dress: classy and sexy, showing off the legs and arms that her years of gymnastics had awarded her. She pulled back her hair and left it, thinking it good enough due to her lack of time. Most people had this delusion about her hair being flawless, anyway, so no one was likely to notice the mess.

            She put on her makeup with the speed of a cheetah in a footrace, lining her eyes and curling her lashes with smooth strokes. Her boyfriend’s voice floated through the door with a thickening impatience. She rolled her eyes as she finished with her concealer and setting spray to make it all stick. She didn’t bother to close it all back up as she flew from her bathroom and out her door, allowing her boyfriend to catch up.

            The heels of her shoes clicked with a purpose as she sped to the ballroom. Being late for the prince’s birthday wasn’t a very good idea. Not that there were really any repercussions that came with it, besides snooty women and their judgmental eyes, which only the prince was immune from in the first place. She slowed her pace when she neared the ballroom, and her boyfriend slinked his arm around her waist. She took a steadying breath and they stepped inside together.

            The ballroom was decorated in the typical, over-the-top, Alford family manner, with the chandeliers glistening brilliantly over the marble floors and extravagantly dressed guests. The windows flaunted their emerald curtains and gold linings, the stage in the back flaunted its set of enormous thrones, and the people flaunted their gaudy jewelry. Her boyfriend pressed his fingers into her waist and guided her to the nearest tray-carrying staff member. As he grabbed two flutes of champagne, Daphne’s eyes drifted across the room, and met with a chocolate set accompanied by a Marilyn-Monroe-level beauty mark sitting atop a left cheekbone.

            They belonged to a young man with copper-brown hair, shaved on the sides but growing long on the top, all flipped over to one side. For the sake of the party he wore a pristine tuxedo, but it sat stiff on him as he stood awkwardly behind the Alford family’s head butler. His thin eyebrows rose slightly as he caught her gaze, and she watched the corners of his mouth tilt up in slow motion. Almost two years in coming to the Manse, and she hadn’t seen him before.

            “Daphne?”

            Her boyfriend’s voice alerted her to the fact that she’d been staring, and she snapped her eyes shut to break the trance. She looked up at him, finding confusion more than concern on his face.

            “I just—” she found herself glancing back over to beauty-mark-boy, but he’d looked away. Her stomach sank and she shook her head, turning back to her boyfriend. “Nothing. Let’s dance.”

            She grabbed his arm and dragged him toward the dance floor, slipping her untouched flute of champagne onto the tray of a waiter passing by. Turning confidently to face him, she took her boyfriend’s hand, pulling him into position for a waltz before he had time to think of it himself.

            They danced, and with every turn she found herself looking back to the boy with dark chocolate eyes, and after a few steps, he caught her gaze again. He bit his lip to stop himself from smiling, but it failed, and he watched her dance, knowing she would be looking when the turn came around.

            When the music stopped, they had locked eyes for the dozenth time, and his shoulders were shaking with his laughter. She inhaled, and his head turned quickly. Someone had called his name. He rushed away, and Daphne let out a breath. This was very bad.

            “Daphne!”

            She turned her head toward the familiar voice, quickly catching sight of the only other “celebrity couple” that she could stand to talk to. They rushed toward her—well, she rushed, but her boyfriend meandered—and wrapped her in a hug that crushed every bone in her back. When she was finally released, Daphne stretched her shoulders back, trying to regain control of her muscles.

            “I’m so glad I found you,” the girl said. Maylie? Was that her name? “Isaac and I have been stuck with Laura all day, and I’m, like, ready to explode.”

            Ah. Blondie.

            “Yeah, she’s always a good time,” Daphne said.

            “By the way,” Maylie stepped closer, dropping her voice. “Have you seen the new butler?” She shot a glance over Daphne’s shoulder, and Daphne turned slightly to see what she was looking at. Their boyfriends had congregated behind them, discussing the upcoming hockey season.

            “New butler?” she asked, just as low.

            “Brown eyes, great hair, beauty mark?”

            Daphne’s heart skipped and she tried not to react in her face. “He’s one of the butlers?”

            Maylie nodded briskly, a smirk on her lips. “Isn’t he delicious?”

            He’s certainly gorgeous, Daphne thought as she glanced back to where she last saw him, but he was still missing.

            “Apparently he just finished the training required to actually start working with the royal family and their guests. He’s been around, just not where we could see him.”

            Daphne nodded. “I knew I hadn’t seen him before.”

            “Yeah, but we can see him now.” She danced her head back and forth, and Daphne laughed.

            “You better be careful how you talk. Remember how he got the last time.” She gestured with her head to the boys behind her.

            “Oh, he’s not listening. Besides, he really needs to let go of that whole thing. I’m not leaving him.”

            Daphne smiled and turned her head back toward the center stage just in time to see the Alford family’s head butler, Alick, step up to the microphone. He’d changed out of his usual suit to a tuxedo, just like new-butler-boy. His grayed hair was slicked elegantly over the top of his head, and his mustache was perfectly trim, as always. With his arms folded behind his back, he cleared his throat into the microphone.

            “Welcome to the much anticipated 21st birthday celebration of His Royal Highness, Prince Keith Alford.” The ballroom quieted around them as Alick’s dignified voice rolled out of the speakers. “We are glad you could join us to commemorate this momentous time in our prince’s life. His Highness will choose a partner to dance with shortly, but first, His Majesty would like to speak.”

            Shuffling commenced on the side of the stage, and Alick removed himself to the back. Liberty’s king made himself front and center, standing stiff in extravagant robes, hard lines over every one of his features. His deep, growling voice began to fill the air, but Daphne’s attention was torn away when Maylie elbowed her in the side. Before she had time to ask, Maylie used her eyes to gesture to the side of the stage that the king had appeared from.

            The new butler had returned, and he looked rather nervous standing next to the other members of the royal family. His face was turned down, and even from the distance Daphne could feel him fidgeting. Laughter around her reminded her that the king was still giving his speech, and she turned her attention back to the stage, but it was a pointless effort. She watched his mouth move, but heard no sound coming from it, and constantly she caught herself looking back to the uneasy newcomer of the staff.

            This is getting ridiculous, she noted to herself, forcing her eyes onto the king. Finally, his speech ended with a call for applause, and the room erupted. The prince rounded the front of the stage, and the single women in the room rushed—sorry, hastened—toward it. Maylie placed her hands on her hips.

            “Look who’s at the front of the crowd.”

            “I see it. She’s certainly good at putting herself in his eyesight, isn’t she?”

            “Doesn’t really look like he minds, though.”

            The two of them watched the prince take Blondie’s hand and lead her away from the group. The rest of the crowd dispersed, looking rather despondent, and coupled up with the men they’d come to the party with.

            “What a sad thing, having to go back to someone who maybe actually cares about you after a self-centered asshole didn’t think you were prettier than another self-centered asshole.” Daphne tilted her head and pressed her lips together in fake pity.

            “Ooh, the judgment is strong with this one,” Maylie said. Daphne widened her eyes and wagged her eyebrows, tilting her chin up. The two of them laughed quietly, watching couples form around the dancefloor. Daphne found her eyes wandering again to the side of the stage and her boyfriend’s voice kicked into life again as the music started.

            “And you’re one to talk,” Maylie said, nudging her again.

            “What?”

            She jutted her chin out. “Butler boy is back.”

            “Yeah,” Daphne said, “I noticed.”

            “Uh huh, I noticed you noticing.” Maylie placed a hand under her chin, giving Daphne a very pointed smile.

            Daphne’s mouth opened, then closed again. She looked away from her friend’s face, her jaw working back and forth, her hands opening and closing. Now would be a good time to give a well-thought out, point-disproving statement, but she had none prepared.

            “Did you hear a single word of the king’s speech?” Maylie asked her. Daphne scoffed and shifted her weight.

            “Of course I did.”

            “Uh huh. And what did he say?”

            “He—”

            “And what’s your boyfriend’s favorite color again?”

            “What does that have to do with—”

            “You’ve got a crush on the new butler,” she sang, a smug smile dancing onto her face.

            “I do not,” Daphne said, trying not to pay attention that it was too quick of a comeback.

            “Yeah, that’s not denial. Not that I blame you. There is something about him.”

            Daphne grabbed a new flute of champagne off a passing waiter’s tray. “You are very clearly delusional.” She took a long swig of her drink. “Besides, did you see the way he was fidgeting? Not exactly what I would consider attractive.”

            “Uh, no, I didn’t,” Maylie said, grabbing her own champagne from the waiter’s tray. “So clearly someone was paying more attention to him than I was.”

            “Whatever. The point is it isn’t cute.”

            “Sure.” She shrugged. “And since it was so uncute the fact that he’s walking straight for us should bother you not at all.”

            “What?”

            Maylie gestured with her glass. Alick was striding purposefully over to them, the click of his steps drowned out by the music in the room, and the new butler looked like he was having trouble keeping up with his superior. As they closed in, Alick’s steps slowed to a peaceful stop.

            “Miss Petrou,” he said, giving a light bow, “it’s nice to see you again.”

            “Likewise, Alick,” she said, trying to focus on his face rather than the outline of the man behind him.

            “I have someone I would like to introduce you and Miss Beltran to.” He turned around and ushered the younger man to step forward. Daphne heard Maylie giggle as he stumbled. When he caught himself, his eyes locked with Daphne’s, and a faint trace of red crept up his face.

            “This is my grandson. He will be starting his work as an apprentice butler tomorrow,” Alick continued.

            “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ladies,” he said, his voice clear as a bell with just enough brass to make it interesting.

            “The pleasure is ours,” Maylie said.

            Daphne had opened her mouth to speak, not knowing what it was she was about to say, when the air around her became stifled. A slight twist of her head showed her boyfriend’s presence directly behind her, and Isaac had taken the same position behind Maylie. Apparently, the new butler’s voice had snapped the two of them out of their intense discussion and they had decided to return to acknowledging their girlfriends.

            “Maylie, let’s dance,” Isaac said, every muscle in his body tense.

            “Isaac—”

            “Come on.” He took her arm and lead her out onto the dance floor, while Maylie distinctly rolled her eyes so everyone else could see and gave a lazy goodbye wave.

            “We should dance, too,” Daphne’s boyfriend said, reaching out for her, but she pulled her arm away.

            “That would be rude. We’re trying to have a friendly conversation.”

            “You aren’t talking.”

            “Yes, because you decided to enter a discussion that was not meant for you.” She turned away to see Alick’s grandson smiling. Her breath caught in her chest—again—and a part of her mind cursed the boy. Her boyfriend scoffed behind her, but she paid him no mind.

            “Do not let us get in the way of your enjoyment of the evening, Miss Petrou,” Alick said.

            “You’re not doing anything of the sort,” Daphne said, switching her empty glass with the full one her boyfriend was holding. “I can’t, however, say the same for him.” She tilted her head back toward her boyfriend.

            “So suddenly I’m the bad guy?”

            “I’m going to let the fact that that doesn’t make any sense go and just jump to ‘yes, you are.’”

            His nostrils flared and he huffed a “fine” before storming off, and she didn’t even bother to watch him go. She began sipping on her new glass of champagne and watched Alick’s grandson smile as her boyfriend retreated. Her tongue found the last drops of alcohol on her lips as she adjusted her posture, fixing her gaze on the new butler.

            “And what are you so smiley about?”

            The question had come out of nowhere, and had rolled harsher out of her mouth than she had intended it to, but it caught the new butler’s attention, as petrification painted itself all over his face. Alick gave him a stern glare, and he shrunk back.

            “Miss Petrou—” Alick started to say, but she cut him off with a wave of her hand.

            “It’s fine. He deserved it. I’m just saying it’s something you might want to train yourself out of doing if this is going to be your profession.” She’d gone to watching the couples on the dance floor, unable to look either of them in the eye any longer.

            “You are absolutely right, Miss Petrou,” Alick said, “and it is something we will work on. However, it is time for us to be taking our leave, as there are things we must attend to. I hope you will enjoy the rest of your evening quite thoroughly.”

            She turned just in enough time to watch the two of them bow lightly and leave, and then she was alone. And she didn’t thoroughly enjoy much of anything other than the alcohol for the rest of the evening. With her boyfriend gone, there was no one to dance with, other than strangers, and she was left feeling a little irritated.

She eventually found a chair and downed probably three-too-many glasses of champagne, prompted by the memory of Maylie’s jokes and her boyfriend’s attitude. Her own behavior hadn’t been much better, which made everything worse. After a while, Maylie wandered over to her table.

            “You’re a hot mess.”

            “I’m fine.”

            “Are not.”

            “Am so.”

            “Come on, we should go.” Maylie gently took her arm and managed to lead her out of the ballroom before she shrugged her away.

            “I can walk on my own.”

            “Daphne.”

            “I’m fine. I don’t need help.” She strutted by herself down the hall, and didn’t turn around once, knowing Maylie was watching. She was not in love with the new butler, and she was not in need of an escort. She was going to go back to her room—by herself—and getting a nice night of sleep.

            She turned confidently down the nearest hall made it a few dozen steps before her pace slowed. Her head was spinning, and for the first time in two years all of the hallways were looking the same. Pressing her eyes closed hard, her thoughts rang: I am not lost. I am not lost. I am not lost.

            “Having trouble, Miss Petrou?” said a voice behind her, pronouncing it “pet-row.”

            “Petrou,” she corrected, clipping the “t” and ending it “oo.” She turned around and came face-to-face with her nightmare.

            The evening lights delicately falling into the hallway lit him up like a night faery as he leaned against the window. The bowtie was undone, the vest and top of the shirt unbuttoned, the sleeves rolled sloppily to the elbows. His jacket was draped over one of the wrists that was deep in his pockets, and those chocolate eyes watched her every breath between a cocked eyebrow and a beauty mark.

            “And no.”

            He nodded slowly. “Your room’s in the opposite direction.”

            “I know.” She turned on her heel and resumed her assured hobble.

            “You look incredibly inebriated.”

            She scoffed, not turning around. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

            The hallway was quiet behind her just long enough to make her stop walking, before:

            “Have I… done something to offend you, Miss Petrou?”

            She sighed, finally turning around again and looking him in the eye. “No. That’s not it.”

            He didn’t seem convinced. “Well, if there’s anything I can help you with, let me know.”

            “I don’t—” she stopped, knowing she was about to tell another unnecessary lie. “You could start by telling me your name. So I don’t have to call you Rolly Sleeves.”

            A smile slowly pulled itself onto his face, like it had earlier that night; the first time he’d been charming. “Luke.”

            “Well, Luke, maybe I am a little… tipsy. So it would be helpful if you could guide me to my room.”

            He laughed lightly. “Of course, Miss Petrou.”

            He stepped toward her and offered his arm, moving his jacket from one wrist to the other. She accepted his help, if reluctantly, and they slowly began their way to her room. There was silence until they rounded the first corner, then he spoke.

            “My grandfather seems to know you well.”

            She shrugged. “I come around every once in a while. The royal family lets me use their facility for gymnastics, and there really isn’t a good gym where I live.”

            “I would think you’d be around more than every once in a while,” he said, slowing his pace again as she faltered. “You train daily, don’t you?”

            “Well, yeah, but I’d practically have to live here to use their facility that often.”

            “Would that be so bad?”

            She caught his mumble just barely, and she looked up to his face. His focus was heavily on the hallway ahead of them, but there was something gentle, almost regal, about the rest of his features. Ahead of them, rather obnoxious shuffling was audible, falling out of a half-open door.

            “So,” she said, knowing the room was hers and that her boyfriend was inside. “Is Luke short for Lucas?”

            A chuckle surfaced from his chest at the silly question. “No, actually, it’s not. Not quite.”

            They stopped a few steps from the door, and he pulled his arm away. She turned in time to watch him bow slowly.

            “Well, Miss Petrou, I hope I will see you the next time you pay us a visit.”

            The hallway lights made his eyes shine, or maybe it was something else, but she said the first thing she could think of.

            “You will.”

            He smiled at her one final time before offering a simple “good night” and walking away. Leaning up against the wall for support, she watched. He walked differently than his grandfather, not quite as proper, but somehow important and powerful in his own right. She rolled around and let her back land fully on the wall. She inhaled, not wanting to walk into her room, not wanting to have the fight with her boyfriend that was surely coming, not wanting to leave the moment.

            But she did anyway.

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