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You're Insufferable

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“Lady Madeleine,” a soft familiar whisper was heard besides my bed. A pair of hands then went to gently shake my blanket covered body. I groaned.

“Hngh… Not now.”

“My lady, it is time to wake up. It is seven in the morning. Your mother ordered me to my lady.” Further shaking ensued.

I groggily opened my eyes a little to see my personal maid, Eloisa right in front of me kneeling down on the floor as she continued to shake me aggressively now. I closed my eyes again. I couldn’t be bothered.

“It’s a Saturday, Eloisa. What is it that mama planned that I have to wake up this early? On a Saturday?” I forcefully pulled back the covers and turned to the other side of the bed.

“Do you not remember, my Lady? It is your 25th birthday today, happy birthday. Anyways, you need to get up early so you can prepare for your party held in this manor.” I groaned again. If my eyes weren’t closed, I would be rolling my eyes.

Right. The birthday party mama planned it without telling me. Apparently, all my parents’ business connections will be there. So will the royalty. The princes from seven nations will attend the party. That’s what my mama said or so last night.

“The party? Do you mean my parents’ next attempt in finding their daughter a suitor? Please!” I hmphed. I heard a tired sigh.

“They are not wrong. My lady, you are almost nearing thirty and about to take your parents’ businesses. Your parents are worried that the businesses would not continue after my lady. You need an heir. A husband to help you run the businesses.”

My eyes opened quickly. No longer groggy and now irritated, I sat up and glared at my smirking maid.

“Listen here, Eloisa. Studies have said that women are getting married later because they have a career and I planned to do that. I can handle my parents’ businesses on my own without any man! I mean that is what the prestigious degree I got two years ago is for right? I am very capable and strong thank you very much! And I’m still 25! Children can wait later! They shouldn’t worry too much after all I am still ovulating every month. Jesus.” Eloisa who was still smirking shook her head. Her slowing greying hair swung back and forth.

“Got you. Knew my Lady would do that. I would never underestimate you. I am just…too tired to put up a fight. God knows how strong you are.” My eyes playfully glared at her, my lips frowning.

“That was a low blow, Eloisa. You know I hate when people underestimate me.”

“I apologize, but I know it will get you up,” she giggled in response. Her eyes wrinkled.

“Yeah, yeah whatever,” I waved my hands up and down nonchalantly as a way to dismiss what happened earlier. I pulled down my blanket and laid my feet onto the cold marble ground. “As long you don’t do it again.”

I put on my salmon-coloured slippers onto my feet and stretched my arms out.

Why do I have to wake up this early?

As I continued my way into the bathroom, walking slowly like a zombie with my eyes swollen and barely opening and my back hunched, I asked the question that was on my mind.

“Tell me Eloisa. The party starts from 7 at night and I am already awake this early morning. 7 o’ clock precisely as you said before. What is so important that my mama ordered you to wake me up this early?” Soft footsteps were heard following behind me.

“Your mother told me that you have to attend beauty appointments-,“ I rolled my eyes as I put on toothpaste onto the toothbrush. I gently put the brush under the running tap and then brushed my teeth.

“You mean the beauty appointments my mama made without my notice and now forced me to go to?” Bubbles spat out from my mouth.

My maid, as seen from her reflection in the bathroom mirror, disapprovingly frowned at my manner and ignored what I said before.

“-Lady Madeleine that is not very ladylike! Speak after you brush your teeth. As I was saying, yes you have seven beauty appointments you have to attend before the party.”

Seven?

I spit the foam from the toothpaste out and gurgled my mouth with water. After spitting out the water, I looked at my maid through the mirror.

“Seven? Is she serious? What are those seven beauty appointments?”

“Facial at 8 am, massaging at 9.30 am, waxing at 10.30 am, body scrub at 12 pm, manicure and pedicure at 2 pm, makeup and hair styling both at 4 pm in the manor.” I let out a big whimper and slouched my back.

This is going to be painful.

“Tell me I won’t be going alone.”

“Your mother contacted Madam Garcia for her daughter to join my lady in the treatments. Madam Garcia has agreed. So, lady Anna is joining my lady.” I let out a relieved sigh.

“God bless my mama and her merciful soul.”

•••

After finished getting ready, I went down the staircase in my lilac blouse and faded denim skinny jeans with Eloisa following behind me. The housemaids and footmen were seen rushing around the manor bringing items for the party in the Jade ballroom. I found my mama in her silky red bathrobe ordering the housekeeper and her own personal maid probably on the preparation. I made my way to my mama.

“Good morning Mama.” I kissed her on the cheek. My mama jumped and looked at me in surprise. She then smiled at me.

“Good morning my lotus and happy birthday to you.” My mama hugged me tightly and kissed both my cheeks and my forehead. From behind my mama, I can see the housekeeper, Sumin and mama’s personal maid, Lou bowing their heads and smiling as their way to greet me a happy birthday. My mama then took a step back. I looked around to find my baba. My mama caught what I’m doing.

“Your baba is at his office upstairs. He said he needed to finish his work so that he will be free tonight.” I pouted in disappointment.

“Oh.”

My mama looked at me with a comforting smile and held my cheek gently.

“I am sure your baba is happy and proud of you turning 25 today. You have grown and matured into a capable woman, maybe a bit childish sometimes, but a woman nonetheless. We are very proud of you.” I bit my lips. I wanted to say if they were proud of me, why did they keep putting effort in finding me a suitor. But I kept it inside; afraid it would ruin the atmosphere at the very start of the day.

“Thanks ma.” I looked at my mint Olivia Burton watch only to see it’s almost 9 am.

Shit I have to go. Anna is probably at the beauty spa already.

“Ma, I have to go now. I’ll see you later in the afternoon after I am done going through the pain,” I kissed my mom again on the cheeks and went to the door. My mom rolled her eyes.

“It’s not so bad Madeleine. You’re just being dramatic as usual when it comes to this stuff.”

“Why don’t you try it then ma? Plus I got this dramatic flair from you, ma. As a saying goes, like mother like daughter.” As I opened the door, I looked at mama with a smirk. My mom only chuckled and shook her head.

“Fine, fine. If you say so, my lotus. Off you go now! Didn’t you say you have to leave?” My mother raised her eyebrows in question.

“Yeah yeah okay I will! Bye ma! Love you!” I turned back and raised my hand as I closed the door. I walked toward the white BMW, my family’s car, which is in front of the entrance of the manor. As I got closer, Xinhua, the old driver opened the car’s door and bowed his head.

“早上好Lady Madeleine. 生日快乐.” I smiled brightly.

“谢谢 Xinhua and good morning to you too. I hope your day starts off well?”

“Of course my lady. After all, it is your birthday today.” I shook my head and entered the car.

“No need to flatter me Xinhua.” I laughed. Xinhua just smiled. He closed the door and went to the driver’s seat. He then looked at the rearview mirror to look at me.

“Where to Lady Madeleine?”

“The usual beauty spa.”

“Understood.”

As the car exit the manor, I became nervous and dreadful in what’s to come in these beauty appointments. I looked out to the window, seeing trees and hills passing by.

“I hope I don’t die.” I sighed.

•••

“Girl, I have been waiting for you the past 20 minutes. Did you read my messages in Line? Did you even open your phone? Let me guess it’s on silent is it? I can’t believe you didn’t even notify me whether you’re on the way or have arrived.” The minute I walked into my usual beauty spa, my best friend Anna Elizabeth, bombarded me with questions with her olive-skinned arms raised and her thick brows scrunched.

I looked at my smartphone’s lock screen to see that Anna did actually send multiple messages in Line.

Anna G.: Happy Birthday you bitch!!1!!! Hope you get some tonight ;-)

I chuckled at Anna’s first message. Typical of her to send something like that. If her mother knew, her mouth would be duct-taped. I then looked at the rest of the messages.

Anna G.: Mads your mom told my mom that you’re going to the beauty spa for the party tonight. I know you didn’t appoint them. Since I’m your saviour, I will join you so you won’t die lmao.
Anna G.: I am on the way now. You better be there when I arrive.
Anna G.: Almost near
Anna G.: Ok I’m totally shit sure that you don’t know you’re getting these messages.
Anna G.: I’m here.
Anna G.: And you’re nowhere to be found.
Anna G.: Seriously man you should really fix your timing like how the hell you going to run your parents’ empire if you can’t even be here on time.
Anna G.: Lit
Anna G.: Dude where the hell are you ??????
Anna G.: Don’t tell me you’re canceling out on me. After all I have done for u
Anna G: You kno what, I’ll just wait. Like I always do for the 24638th time.

I looked up and guiltily smiled at my friend, who by the way appeared very unimpressed with her arms crossed in front of her chest.

“Disappointed but not surprised.” I scratched my head.

“Sorry! I maybe spent a little too much time in the bathtub.” I scratched my head. Anna just scoffed and raised one of her eyebrows.

“What, you masturba-,” my jaw dropped in shock as my cheeks heated up. I immediately covered her mouth with my hands out of embarrassment. My friend struggled to push my hands away as she made struggling sounds.

“Anna! What the hell? We’re at public, you asshole!” I whispered harshly to her as I uncovered her mouth. “People are looking!” Anna only looked smug as ever.

“Whatever it’s not a lot of people Mads. I am pretty sure everyone does that in their spare time...” I looked around to see some looking uncomfortable and horrified. Although some, especially the workers here tried to hold their laughs. When they went back to their usual business, Anna came closer to me and whispered.

“Well did you?” I pushed her face away, looking scandalized.

“No! God no! I fell asleep and played with the foam bubbles. That’s it,” I quickly denied it. Again, my best friend did not look impressed.

“Wow why am I not surprised?” I just shrugged. We both walked toward the reception.

“I don’t know Anna. I just don’t really have any desires or arousal like you. I don’t really find anyone sexually attra-,” Anna stopped and turned to me.

“Yea yea I know, you find it hard to find someone sexually attractive. It’s hard for you to desire someone. I understand. Take your time sis.” Anna comforted me by putting her hand on my shoulder but it was soon followed by a frown. “I am just worried that you won’t find someone and your parents will start getting-,” I rolled my eyes yet nonetheless I grinned. At times, she worries too much like a mother hen. I put both hands on her shoulder to stop from rambling.

“Anna, don’t worry too much! I’m sure I’ll find someone sooner or later. Who knows maybe at the party tonight, I’ll find someone good-looking. Like you said before, I’ll try to get some.” I winked playfully. Anna just slapped my hands away from her shoulder and shook her head, her voluptuous wavy hair swinging. We both continued to walk again.

“Maybe you should also try to get some with that particular butler,” I teased.

“And who’s that butler you’re talking about?” Anna replied. As if she doesn’t know!

I leaned into her ears and seductively whispered a particular butler’s name.

“Oh you know, Zain.”

In an instant, Anna lowered her head to hide her reddening cheeks. I mean I can’t really deny her reaction. Uncle Mike, I mean Nobel Michel’s head steward is gorgeous. Hello, his name even means ‘beautiful’ in Arabic. With his slick black hair, jade green eyes and that gentle smile Zain can weaken any women’s knees, including Anna’s. Not only that, he’s super capable and elegant, as it seems that he knows what we want without even telling. He’s always one step ahead of us. Every time Anna and I visited the Kingdom of Nobel Michel and stayed at Uncle Mike’s castle, it’s mostly because Anna wanted to see or more accurately, to be close to him. God knows how long she had a crush on Zain.

Anna looked up and quickly waved her hands to dismiss what I said.

“It’s just a small crush. It’ll pass.” I just scoffed.

“Small crush? Tell me when did you start crushing on the head steward? Don’t lie.” I smirked. Anna only rolled her eyes and tried not to smile.

“….17,” she mumbled quietly.

“And how old are you now Anna Garcia?” I brought my hips out on one side with my hand on it. My best friend pulled her head back and groaned in annoyance.

“24. I am so fucked.” I snickered teasingly and as a result, I received a glare and a push to the shoulder.

“Shut up man. I can’t help it!”

“Yeah yeah whatever, you should really strike an actual conversation though with him. It’s been years Anna. You should make a move or something tonight,” I side-eyed my friend. The party was a great opportunity, all the rulers and princes will be coming and obviously, their head stewards and butlers will accompany them too.

I looked to see her in thought and then sighing.

“Yeah I’ll try, just hope I don’t freeze and back out the last minute.” I put my arm around her and pat her on the shoulder for support.

“You can do it. I’ll be your wing woman and I’ll try to make sure your parents are far away from you guys.”

Anna beamed, both her dimples showing.

“Thanks boo.”

When we finally reached the reception, Luna the spa receptionist greeted us with professional smile.

“Welcome back Ms. Zhang, Ms. Garcia. Ready for your appointments?

Anna and I looked at each other giggling quietly.

“You ready to die, Anna?”

“I think it’s just you Mads, but whatever sure.”

I nodded at Luna and the said receptionist led our way to the facial room.

“Right this way ladies.”

•••

The hours Anna and I spent in the beauty spa attending back-to-back the treatments were the longest and most gruelling. It’s not that the aestheticians and masseuses did a horrible job or were rough with us, they did great! They knew my pain tolerance is shit and were going gentle on me. And yet still, I would never get used to it. Even after so many times just for special occasions like tonight. Ana on the other hand, I think she’s just a rock. Anna didn’t feel anything throughout the treatments hence she either kept giggling or poking fun at me, especially when the aesthetician scrubbed the dead skin cells off me. Nonetheless, I felt cleaner, fresher, and smoother like a newborn baby that came out of my mama.

After finishing all the treatments, Anna and I, actually mostly me, awkwardly wobbled our way into the locker room to change back into our clothes and get our belongings. Continuing our way back to the reception area, we saw both our aestheticians and masseuses.

“Thank you for trusting our services at Solamoo’s Beauty Spa and we hope to see you again Ms. Zhang and Ms. Garcia.” All of them smiled and bowed their heads at us.

As we paid for the treatments, give our thanks, and made our way out, we stretched our now smooth and hairless arms and legs. As we heard both our bones cracking, we sniggered.

“God that was painful yet refreshing. I look way much cleaner now. I don’t understand why I do I get my nether region waxed though. It’s not like I am going to have sex with someone immediately tonight. Ugh shit, that hurts like hell.” I awkwardly make my way towards the BMW car, with my said region pulsing in pain.

Anna just laughed at me as she also made her way to her car.

“You’ll get used to it, Mads.”

As I was about to enter my car, I heard Anna asked. I turned my head.
“By the way what will you be wearing tonight?”

“I think you know, Marchesa.” Anna just sighed, bored and tired that I kept wearing gowns from Marchesa to almost every special occasion.

“Again? I swear you and that brand.” I shrugged.

“You’re the one to talk. How about you? Oscar del la Renta again?” I raised my eyebrows. This girl is shit obsessed with his dresses.

“Yeah okay touché. I get it,” Anna pouted but she continued. “Anyways see you tonight! Make sure you’re not late for your own party!”

I giggled and waved my hands as I finally entered the car and sat on the passenger seat.

“I’ll try not to!”

•••

By the time I have arrived at the manor, it was already almost 4 o'clock in the afternoon. As I entered the manor, Eloisa immediately swooped me in for my next appointments taking place in my personal chamber.

Makeup and Hair.

Apparently my usual stylist duos, Gonzales and Latisha have arrived at the manor an hour ago.

I only knew a single thing or two about makeup and hairstyles, so I hired them since university whenever I have parties to attend. After showing the dress I am going to wear tonight and the back up (A maroon Oscar de la Renta dress) in case I clumsily spilt some expensive wine, and telling them to do whatever that matches with the dresses and bring out my features, we went through makeup and hairstyle trials.

That took long enough. By the time we have chosen the perfect makeup and the hairstyle, my eyes were already clouded with sleep and my head nodding down. I finally let sleep take over my mind and body. Weirdly, I was able to sit up straight and kept head up high. I did wake up few times so Gonzales can do my makeup. It’s the least thing I can do trying to make an easier job for him.

While I was sleeping, I heard both Latisha and Gonzales announcing their leave to Eloisa before tapping my cheek and the top of my head gently.

“Hey Mads, we’re going to leave now. Good luck tonight and please don’t fuck up the makeup and the hair.”

There was a fake cough. Probably from Eloisa.

“Language.”

“Sorry Eloisa. Anyways-,” Latisha leaned closer to my ears. “Go get ‘em boys tonight. You look stunning.”

“Bye!” “Bye boo! Have fun!”

A click from my chamber door announced their department.

Which leads up to this moment.

“Madeleine, it’s time to get up now…You need to put on your gown now.”

I felt someone shaking my shoulder.

“Madeleine…”

Another shake to my shoulder.

Then a tired sigh.

Brought close to my ears, an alarm started to ring and I instantly jumped up and accidentally hit somewhat a gadget away from my ears.

“I’m up! I’m up!” I looked around to see Eloisa grabbing her smartphone from the floor while trying to hold in her laugh.

“That wasn’t nice, Eloisa.” I turned back to the vanity mirror to see that my makeup and hair were done.

How long was I out? And how the hell did the makeup artist did my makeup when I am asleep? That... take skills.

From the mirror’s reflection, Eloisa shrugged and walked towards my back.

“I had no choice, my lady. You were not waking up.”

I replied with an annoyed huff.

“You and your waking up antics.” Eloisa only grinned mischievously. She then gently dragged me out of the chair.

“Anyways, up you go. My lady, you need to put on your gown. It’s almost 7. I’ll help you know that you can’t put it on yourself.” I gasped.

“I’m not a child. I can put it on myself.”

“Yea while at the same time smudging your makeup and messing up your hair my lady.”

I frowned at the truth. I really am horrible at getting ready.

As my maid carefully helped me in putting on the floral-appliqued tiered ruffled gown from Marchesa Notte, I silently stared at my reflection in the floor-length mirror. I donned an old Hollywood glamour look, those looks you see in actresses from the Golden Age. My hair is styled into those Hollywood glam waves and all my facial features looked bigger with the make-up, especially my eyes and lips. With the full satiny scarlet lips, cut crease eyeshadow, large false lashes, peach blush on my cheeks, a tinge of highlighter and brow action, and a beauty mark, I really looked like an actress that jumped out from a 1940’s Hollywood movie.

I couldn’t deny it. I looked goddamn gorgeous. Gonzales and Latisha did a shit load of wonders to my hair and face. Although still, I couldn’t help but wonder.

If I took all of these away, the dresses, the styled hair, the makeup, my status and its benefits, would the person I want to be with still like me? Love me?

Would they still accept me and love me for me? For who I actually am without all this stuff? For my heart?

Or would they leave me? Just like my previous lover did years ago?

“You’re frowning and your forehead is scrunching.”

What?

I looked away from the mirror and turned to Eloisa. It appears to me I was so in deep thought that I didn’t notice even Eloisa was done helping me with my dress.

“Huh? Yea Eloisa?” I confusedly asked.

“You were frowning. And your face was in a scrunch, my lady. You’re going to age faster if you keep doing that. You’re going to end up like me,” Eloisa gently smiled at me while pointing her wrinkles.

“Oh haha sorry,” I chuckled embarrassingly as I scratched the back of my neck. Eloisa furrowed her eyebrows worriedly.

“Were you thinking about what happened years ago?”

I was guilty as charged.

I sulked and looked down to my slippers while I covered my upper body with my arms.

I’m not going so deep into this as this remains a sensitive subject but about five years ago, my ex, Nick Young left and ghosted me once I found out that he was only with me for the connections my family had with important people and for my status. What hurts me even more, was that I genuinely thought the lovely and touching things he did for me was genuine and real. I thought he really loved me but I was fooled. All of it was his plan to get closer to my family and our connection. I was used and manipulated without even noticing. It sucks that I even gave all my first times to him and I would never get them back.

“Yeah. I was just thinking. I know that mama and papa organized this party tonight not only to celebrate my 25th birthday but also to find me a suitor. I’m just afraid the suitor I pick to be my partner will be like Nick. You know how that ends up, Eloisa. I am wary. What if my partner wants to be with me just for my looks, for my fortune, for my status, and not me and my heart?” I scratched one of my arms slowly. It’s a habit of mine when I’m worried and anxious.

Eloisa noticed through the mirror and stopped my hand before the red marks start to appear if I kept on.

“Stop that my lady, you’re going to hurt yourself.” She then turned my body to her while putting one hand on my shoulder and another calmly caressing my hair. She had a firm and determined expression.

“Lady Madeleine, I know you are worried what will happen tonight and in the future, if you were to found a partner you like. And I know that you are still a bit in pain from what that fool did to you. But my lady, you have matured into a wise and strong woman after all these years, especially from that event. My dear lady, do not worry so much. I fully believe that you will find the right partner that will truly love you for who you are through your choices and your capabilities. You are smart.”

I was truly touched with what Eloisa said. That was enough encouragement to squash my worries for tonight. If it weren’t for my make up, I would’ve let some tears to fall down. Instead I hugged her tightly and whispered to her right ear.

“Thank you, Eloisa. That means a lot to me.” Once I unwrapped my arms around her, I let out a small grin. She proudly smiled back at me, as if I was like her second daughter.

“You are welcomed, my lady. I am very proud of you and how far you’ve come.”

A knock and the sound of the door opening sadly cut our moment short. The head steward, Chen smoothly slid through the spaces and into my room. Eloisa and I stepped away from each other to look at him.

“Lady Madeleine, I came here to announce you that the guests for your party have arrived. Your mother and father are waiting for you in the Crystal Room.

If you were wondering, the Crystal Room is like the waiting room and it leads to the Jade Ballroom through this huge ass stairway. So if you’re looking for a grand entrance, the Crystal Room is the place to go. If you don’t fancy that dramatic flair, you can just go through the entrance of the Jade Ballroom.

The minute I heard Chen said my parents were both waiting for me, I quickly glanced at the digital alarm clock on the bedside table only to widen my eyes.

6.50 pm.

Shit!

I immediately put on some jewelry and my 6-inch high heels and dashed through the doors. With my dress and heels, it was a bit of an obstacle to jog fast to the Crystal Room. I had to slow down, as my feet were already hurting. By the time I entered the Crystal Room, I was most likely limping and wheezing a bit, taking huge breaths.

I hope I didn’t break a sweat and ruined my makeup.

I wasn’t really quiet, so both my Mama and Baba heard and turned around. They were both stunning. Mama was in a Vionnet one-shouldered draped evening dress while Baba in a black Calvin Klein Suit. Baba went up to me first and hugged me.

“Ah finally! There you are my little lotus! I thought you’re going to keep us waiting.” Baba kissed both my cheeks and my forehead. Mama walked toward us and took her turn kissing me on the same places.

“Happy Birthday Madeleine. I wish you great fortune and success in the future. Mama and I are very proud of you and your achievements. You have become a strong matured woman every day.”

As they both smiled at me, Baba wrapped around his arm around Mama and another holding Mama’s hands. I beamed. I am thankful that I have both loving and supportive parents in my life. Even if they’re busy throughout my whole life, I still feel the love, care, and respect they have for me. Subconsciously, I also wished that I had a loving relationship like my parents have.

It will happen. Think positive. It will surely happen.

While waiting for the time to strike 7 and for someone to announce the time to us and our entrance to the guests in the Jade Ballroom, my parents and I converse throughout a huge range of topics while sitting on the sofas provided. I was fidgeting out of nervousness. I was moving my body back and forth. Both my parents noticed and started to rub my shoulders.

“Relax Madeleine. You’ll be fine.”

“Don’t be tense, my lotus. If you don’t relax, you’ll be more nervous.” I rolled my eyes and scowled.

“Easy for you to say ma, ba. You’re used to this kind of thing. I’m not, especially now that I am the center of attention tonight!”

My parents looked at each other and tried not to laugh.

Wow supportive.

Baba patted my back as if to comfort me.

“You’re going to be okay.” He brought my hand and covered it with both of his. Raising my hand in front of his lips, he kissed it. “You got this. We believe in you.”

Mama raised both thumbs up. I tried to smile.

“Thank you.”

It was then Sumin, the housekeeper entered the Crystal room from the hallway to announce that it is time and Chen is about to announce our entrance to the guests in the ballroom.

My parents and I went back into our positions. Baba and Mama enter the ballroom first so they’re in front of me. Baba lent his arm for Mama to hold it, which she graciously accepts it. As they lovingly looked at each other, Chen was announcing my parents’ entrance outside the Crystal Room, in the Jade ballroom.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting you both owners of Red Lotus Hotel Group, Imperial Lotus Restaurant Group, and Zhang Education … Mr. and Mrs. Zhang!”

Applauses were heard.

The doormen slowly opened the doors to the ballroom and both of my parents walked through. Before the doors closed again, Mama briefly turned her head to playfully wink and mouth ‘good luck’ to me.

Once the doors closed again, I went through a breathing exercise and shake my arms and legs to remove all my nerves.

You can do this Mads! You can do it.

When Chen finally announced my entrance to the guests, I was calmer and more determined. I didn’t want to mess this up and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of the guests, especially knowing there are royalties and potential suitors out there.

“And finally now, ladies and gentlemen, presenting their daughter who turned 25 today and is the star of the party, Lady Madeleine Zhang!”

Really Chen? The star of the party?

As the doors opened again, I took a deep breath, put on a confident smile, and entered the ballroom.

Here I go.

Chapter Text

“Ladies and Gentlemen. Presenting the star of the party, Lady Madeleine Zhang!”

The doors opened again. I took a deep breath, put on a confident smile, and entered the ballroom.

•••

Once I entered the room, I heard loud applauses. I stopped to look around at the guests present. Indeed there were many officials, my parents’ business partners and connections, other families of our status, and of course the royals. The princes from the seven kingdoms stood out with their respective uniform. And there was Wise Ol’ Uncle Mike smiling at me. It’s nice to see a familiar face.

I bowed my head gracefully before slowly going down the stairway holding on to my dress and trying to look elegant, relaxed, and confident as possible. I think I did an okay job with the entrance despite the fact I was internally freaking the hell out.

I finally saw my best friend Anna and her parents. Anna, being extra as always, waved her one of her arms wildly while holding a glass of red wine before making a funny face. Little did she know, Uncle Mike’s head steward near the entrance and a few meters behind her was watching her silly antics with a small smile.

That’s cute.

I tried not to burst out laughing. Instead, I put on a bigger grin. I can’t help it!

This must be a sign that the party is off to a great start.

As I finally reached the end of the grand stairway, a server gave me a glass of red wine and Chen gave me a microphone.

Right, the speech. Forgot about that.

Well, I’m just going to wing it.

“Good evening everyone. Let me begin by telling all of you how wonderful it is to see that many of you took out time from your schedules to celebrate my 25th birthday. From the bottom of my heart, I am very grateful and thankful that you all are here. Today is a very special milestone for me. As I turned 25 today, my parents, baba and mama, think I am ready for my next chapter and therefore will be handing their control of their businesses to me in the next couple of months.” I looked around to see a lot of my guests whispering to one another. With the exception of my parents, Anna and her parents too, who appeared proud. I continued.

“For the past 25 years, I have grown into a strong, capable, and an independent woman. I have learned and flourished a lot from my past experiences and mistakes and I am truly happy and proud with whom I am now. I am deeply honored and touched to be given this great responsibility from my parents and I will make sure that I will do the best I can with my capabilities in managing, developing, and expanding my parents’ businesses to continue the Zhang legacy and of course to make my parents and myself proud. There are important people who have helped me throughout this journey I would like to give special thanks to my parents, baba and mama for giving me love and support since the day I was born. I also would like to thank Eloisa for looking out for me and giving me comfort. My best friend Anna, you’re like a sister to me. Thank you for getting me through a lot of dark days. And lastly, to those who served my family, you make this manor and my life livelier. Without you, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, standing in front of you all.

Again, I greatly appreciate your presence here with me for this celebration and the gifts you all have given me. That is all I have to say. For now, let the party begin. Cheers.” I raised my glass.

“Cheers!” The guest raised their glasses and took a sip of the wine.

Once that was over, the musicians started playing music my parents chose and I made my rounds to introduce myself and interact with new and familiar faces.

When I reached Uncle Mike, the old ruler was sitting on the provided chair with Zain by his side. Even despite his age, Uncle Mike was still cheerful and positive as ever and yet he also has this wise aura. Zain as usual appeared graceful and neat with him holding Uncle Mike’s glass and cane. Both of them put on a small smile as they finally noticed me coming to them.

“Happy Birthday my dear. You have grown into a fine woman and I am sure you will keep flourishing in the future too.”

“Happy Birthday Lady Madeleine. I hope you have a wonderful birthday.”

“Hello Uncle Mike. Zain. Thank you for your birthday wishes.” I gave the old ruler a quick hug and a nod to Zain. “It’s been a long time since Anna and I visited you in Nobel Michel. I apologized. I hope you’re not too lonely.” I chuckled. When I mentioned Anna’s name, Zain quickly and secretly glanced at me. If it wasn’t for my sharp eyes, I would’ve missed it.

Huh. Interesting.

Uncle Mike replied with a hoarse laugh and waved his wrinkled hand in front of his face.

“No need to apologize my dear. I know you have been busy learning the crafts of your parents’ businesses. After all, in a couple of months you’ll be the one handling them.... Although you and your friend Anna are always welcomed to visit and stay at my castle. You both are like daughters to me. Right Zain?” Uncle Mike turned his head to his head steward.

Zain bowed his head. “Yes your highness, I’ll be delighted and honoured to serve you Lady Madeleine and Lady Anna again if you wish to visit and stay at the castle.”

I grinned brightly and wrapped both my hands around Uncle Mike’s.

“I am happy to hear that and I am sure Anna is too!” I cheekily glanced at Zain to see that his cheeks are a bit flushed. It appears like he’s flustered.

I better tell Anna about all of his reactions. It seems to me that he might be interested.

I laid a hand on Uncle Mike’s shoulder.

“Well uncle, I have to leave you both since I still need to meet and converse with one or more guests.”

As I walked away I turned my head to shout something.

“I’ll make sure to notify Zain when Anna and I will visit you!” I looked at Zain for confirmation in which he replied with a nod.

“Will do, my dear. We will be waiting for you and your friend’s arrival,” Uncle Mike gleamed.

I finally made my way to Anna and her parents. Anna saw me coming and dragged me to their circle. Mr. and Mrs. Garcia took their turns in hugging me and patting my shoulders.

“Happy Birthday Mads!”

“Happy Birthday darling.”

I beamed.

“Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Garcia.”

Before I even wanted to turn to Anna, my friend did it forcefully for me.

Anna checked me out from head to toe and nodded approvingly.

“Looking good hot stuff.” I took a look at my friend who’s wearing a maroon ruffled flared gown from Oscar de la Renta. It looked incredible with her olive complexion and the way the dress showed her curves. Damn!

“You too hot stuff!” I playfully bumped my hips to hers before hugging her tightly (while trying to balance the wine glass).

“Pssh I need to tell you something..” I whispered softly. Anna leaned her ear closer to my mouth.

“So, I went to Uncle Mike… and there was Zain.” Anna scoffed.

“No shit.”

I smacked her back roughly.

“Ow!”

“Shut up let me finish!” I harshly whispered. “Anyways whenever I mentioned your name in front of them, Zain looked flustered and immediately straightened himself.” I heard a gasp.

“Ohmygod don’t fucking lie… Are you serious?”

I leaned back so I can show her my unimpressed face.

“Bitch would I lie to you when it comes to Zain. Don’t offend me!”

“Ok I’m sorry!” I went back to my old position and continued whispering to her ear.

“Continuing, when I went down the stairway and you were being childish and extra as fuck—,” I was interrupted by a slap to back. I slapped her back and I felt the satisfaction as she flinched. “—Zain was smiling at you. You didn’t see it because he was behind you.” I unwrapped my arms around her and took a step back. Anna looked too happy and maybe also a bit shy after I told her my observations. I held her hands.

“I think you should really talk to him. He seems interested as you are.”

“Should I? I am afraid though,” she mumbled. I tightened my grip. I gave her a look.

“You should! Trust me. He seems interested in you as you are in him. And hellooooo despite the many antics you did when we stayed in Uncle Mike’s castle, he never got angry at you!” Doubt and conflict were clear in her eyes.

“But that’s his personality Mad! He’s gentle and he doesn’t get angry easily! Maybe he’s actually annoyed but he kept those feelings in!” Getting a bit tiny irritated, I squished both of her cheeks and pulled her face closer to me.

“Listen Anna. If you talk to him, then you can ask him. You can’t assume shit about someone. This party is a great opportunity for you to talk to him and maybe get even closer to him. I am pretty sure there’s 0.1% failure because based on my observations; he looked enamoured with you okay? This is your chance. If you leave it, you’re going to regret it. I know you’re going to. So, go! Talk. To. Him.”

I let go of her and her hands immediately to her reddened cheeks to soothe the pain.

“Fine! Fine I’ll go! But my parents…”

I waved my hands dismissively.

“Don’t worry, I’ll tell Zain to meet Eloisa to talk about our plan in visiting Nobel Michel. Eloisa is waiting near the Chrysanthemum Quarters. You know where it is,” I winked. Anna squealed and tightly wrapped her hands around mine, shaking them.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Truly you’re the best wingwoman! I am going to tell my mother and father that I am going to the loo! Bye!” Anna immediately dashed towards her parents to ask (probably an excuse). Before they could even turn to reply, Anna has already left for the kitchen.

I rolled my eyes. I went back to where Zain and Uncle Mike are to tell about “the details of Anna’s and my visit and stay in Nobel Michel” and to confirm it with Eloisa.

“Hi Uncle Mike! I just want to talk to Zain for a bit on our plan to visit and stay at your place.” Uncle Mike allowed me to take Zain into a corner so we can discuss.

Once I was done telling the details of the visit and stay, I executed my next action. Before Zain turns back, I hurriedly grabbed his arm. He stopped and looked at me confused.

“Lady Madeleine, is something wrong? Do you perhaps forget to mention some details?” I shook my head.

“I think it’s better if you immediately notify my maid, Eloisa on the details.”

Zain was about to say something, probably to object, but I immediately made an excuse.

“Eloisa will be busy once the party is over as she will help in the cleaning. She’s not busy right now.”

Zain nodded in agreement.

“I see. Well, I will notify her right now lady Madeleine. May I ask where is her location at the moment?”

“Near the Chrysanthemum Quarters, where the maids, footmen, basically helpers reside.”

“Thank you, my lady.” Zain gracefully bowed his head before going to Uncle Mike for approval. Once he has gotten the approval, as seen from the ruler’s hand waving him away and nodding, Zain left the ballroom.

Yes! My work is done. Hopefully, everything goes well.

Now that I got nothing to do, I felt awkward. Then I realized something.

Huh. Weird. None of the princes came up to me.

I did pass by them when I made my rounds but they were all huddled up that I felt intimidated. I am afraid I’ll leave a bad first impression.

As I continued to think and take sips from my wine, I didn’t notice the music changed into a waltz. It was then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a handsome man with a soft smile and silver-colored hair.

Prince Edward from the Kingdom of Charles.

“Oh!”

“I apologize for surprising you, princess. I tried to call you but it appears you were in some sort of daze,” Prince Edward bowed.

Princess? But…

“Oh I am not a princess… you c-can just call me Madeleine, your h-highness!” I stuttered out of nervousness. I didn’t know a prince would come up to me and nonetheless call me a princess! I was totally caught off guard.

Prince Edward let out a small chuckle and took my hand before kissing its knuckles. My eyes widened in shock.

This prince is smooth!

“Nonsense princess. You are fitting to be called a princess. From your earlier speech alone, you acted like one. Not only that, you look as beautiful as the roses in my garden. Maybe even more.”

Uh... How to reply?

I could feel my pale cheeks burning up. If it weren’t for my blush and foundation, my whole face would have resembled to a tomato. I let out an embarrassed giggle.

“Why thank y-you your highness. I am flattered by your compliment.”

Prince Edward shook his head.

“Please. Just call me Edward, no need the formalities.” My mouth formed into an O.

That was … fast.

I soon nodded.

“As long you also call me Madeleine, then we’re good, Edward.”

“Madeleine then,” we both laughed.

As we recover from laughing, Edward gently smiled at me and lent his arm to me.

“Would you like a dance?”

I quickly nodded. If it weren’t for the talk we had, I would’ve refused it. I put my hand on his arm as he led the way to the dance floor. As we passed by a group of princes, I heard one saying “that’s not fair!” and one shushing him and another one saying “we didn’t notice Edward because you all kept fighting who’s going to be first dancing with her.”

Oh, so that’s why they didn’t come up to me earlier. They were fighting the whole time? Amazing.

I released my hold on Edward’s arm and went back to the group, leaving him perplexed. The group of princes noticed and straightened themselves out before bowing and greeting me with birthday wishes.

Prince Wilfred of Philip, Prince Keith of Liberty, Prince Joshua of Dres Van, Prince Roberto of Altaria, Prince Glenn of Oriens, and lastly Prince Yakov of Sanct Sybil.

Okay... They’re all handsome. They could literally melt anyone’s heart with just their looks.

I bowed my head and smiled at them.

“Gentlemen.”

“Lady Madeleine.”

“I’ve heard that you gentlemen were fighting with one another on who will be the first one to dance with me. Is that right?” I giggled.

Prince Wilfred and Prince Glenn both turned their heads away from me to hide their reddening cheeks. Prince Joshua and Prince Keith both huffed while looking down to their polished shoes. Prince Ivan and Prince Roberto just sheepishly smiled.

Aw, they’re so cute.

“Look, I am really flattered that you all wanted to dance with me. I thought no one would.” I smiled shyly while rubbing my arms.

“Of course we would-,” Prince Joshua was about to protest on something that I said before I raised my hand.

“Believe me, I am not really special. Anyways, I will dance with all you of tonight. I can promise you, gentlemen, that. Besides, maybe we can be friends after we danced.”

Once I’ve said that all the princes brightened up and put on their charming smiles.

Damn, they could charm the entire ballroom with just their smiles.

Prince Roberto came up to me and held both my hands.

“I am honoured, my lady. I shall wait patiently for my turn.” Roberto then kissed my hands. The other princes have said the same testament to me.

“Well then I shall take my leave as you can see, Prince Edward is waiting for me. Once Prince Edward and I finished a song, one of you gentlemen can ask me. I’ll gladly accept your proposal.”

Prince Wilfred gave a small gentle smile.

“We shall do that.”

I took my leave and went back to Edward who again lent his arm to me. As we finally reach the dance floor, I gave my glass of wine to a server. Edward repositioned his arm around my waist to pull me close and the other one raised up. I put one arm up for our hands to intertwine and another arm on his shoulder. He smelled of roses and if it weren’t for the guests watching, I would’ve put my head on his shoulder and come closer so I could revel in his smell.

Edward could sense that I most likely I have never danced with a prince, as my posture was awkward and stiff like a board, so he rubbed my waist gently and his other hand tracing circles on my hand with his thumb. He reassured me with a smile.

“Relax princess. You’ll do fine.”

I nodded shyly and tried to relax my body, taking deep breaths.

As a new song played, my body was finally loose and started to dance gracefully with Edward across the dance floor. I really did feel like a princess, a royalty since all the guests were watching us.

This party really turned out to be great.

•••

By the end of the night, my feet and legs were already starting to hurt. I was also beginning to sweat due to the dancing. When I said I would dance with all of the princes, I truly meant it. They also took it seriously when I previously said, once I was done dancing with one prince, another can ask me.

Which means I had no breaks in between and now I’m extremely parched and exhausted.

While that may be so … I didn’t regret spending my time and energy dancing with all of the princes. It’s safe to say we became good friends by the time we finished a song. I’ve learned a lot about them and their kingdoms through each dance.

Prince Wilfred, the one with the blonde hair and really blue eyes, seems cold and indifferent when you first look at him. But once you continue to talk to him, he’ll open up. Throughout the whole dance, he was such a gentleman and very calm. He’s also very perceptive. As we danced, he pointed out things in the party and my habits I didn’t even notice. He was able to spot my emotions too.

Prince Glenn, who’s the youngest, was a bit similar to Wilfred. He’s quiet but he’s easily flustered. He can also be a smartass, totally good with comebacks and bantering. It’s understandable he’s still a teenager.

Prince Roberto boy oh boy. That prince is one energetic fellow. Not only that, he’s really flirty yet friendly. Throughout the whole dance, he complimented me yet also made jokes and silly faces. Sometimes I would lose my focus because of him.

Prince Joshua well is cute in his own way. He was quiet at first and I could tell he’s one to follow rules and traditions. He’s easily flustered whenever I smiled at him or told him to relax a little. My dance with him was very informative as he explains on all the rules in Dres Van. Interesting indeed.

From the rest of the princes, Prince Keith has a personality that’s a total opposite of mine. He can come off as arrogant and selfish to others, but I guess he’s just proud of himself and his kingdom. I understand to an extent. Despite the difference in how we see ourselves and just basically personality-wise, we still managed to work it out, to talk about a huge range of topics like politics.

Prince Yakov had this sense of confidence and charm around him and it was attractive. Not only that, from the way he talks about Sanct Sybil, I can feel his passion and care for the kingdom and his sense of duty. I was sad to hear about his parents and sister, but I really respect how he got through those times and became stronger for the kingdom.

And of course, Prince Edward. Whenever he spoke, it sounded like it came from a Shakespearean play. Truly poetic. Like Prince Roberto, Edward was flirty but he has ways with words. I always ended up being flustered and embarrassed whenever he says something nice to me. He’s also very gentle. I could see from the way he spoke and hold me when we danced.

Still being parched and exhausted, I excused myself from the party to get a glass of iced water. If I drink any more red wine, I would be even drunker yet still thirsty.

The minute the doors to the ballroom closed, I immediately made my way to the kitchen and Chrysanthemum Quarters as they’re close to one another. I took my goddamn heels off and held them along the way as my feet were starting to hurt and my legs were already wobbling. Hopefully, by the end of the night, I won’t get any blisters. I entered the kitchen to see the chefs cooking small bites for the guest and the servers going in and out bringing new and dirty glasses and plates. No one bothered me as they’re used to seeing me getting food from the refrigerator and asking the chef to make my favourite food when I am craving. I grabbed a clean cup and put it under the tap of the water dispenser. As the water dispenser fills the cup until half, I put some ice cubes from the freezer into the cup. Straight away I drank the water until it’s half before exiting the kitchen with it.

As I make my way back to the party with one cup on one hand and my heels on another, I heard two familiar voices in the hallway to the right followed by a giggle.

Huh… the Chrysanthemum Quarter is near there. I tiptoed to the wall and hid behind the corner.

I peeked my head out of the corner bit to see Zain and Anna alone, both at close proximity to each other. Both having lovey-dovey expressions, especially my friend.

I leaned my head forward and squinted my eyes more to see they were holding ha-

Someone tapped me on the shoulder from behind.

“Ms, it is inappropriate to peek and eavesdrop on people’s business.

I gasped from surprised at being caught that I stumbled back into the vase behind me and in the process, I also threw my cup backwards across my shoulder. I turned around to see the vase crashing down loudly into the marble floor, smashed into sharp little pieces. In a distance, I could hear Anna let out a startled gasp.

“What was that?”

“I am not entirely sure, lady Anna. Let’s check it out.”

“You know you can just call me Anna.”

“R-right… A-Anna.”

“That’s better.”

I stared at what’s left of the vase, horrified and shocked, the consequences finally dawning on me.

Oh my god. That’s…a vase passed down from generation to generation in my family. I totally fucked up this time.

Trying to rack my brain on how to solve my mess or hide it because I am a coward, I didn’t realize the person who caught me was still here with me until he loudly coughed (probably to get my attention).

The cough had interrupted me from my thoughts and caused me to turn to where the person is.

I was about to go off on him to tell him to mind his own business (yes, I am a hypocrite) until I saw his appearance.

Besides the fact that half of his face and his suit are drenched in cold water and he had this withering look aimed at me, I was stunned (actually captivated is more accurate) by how…handsome he is. Long light navy coloured hair that reached the nape of his neck and styled with bangs swept to his right, sharp blue eyes, pale skin, arched eyebrows, thin lips… and tall and lean…

Never in my entire life, I found myself in this situation where I’m this stunned. Any guy can have a navy-coloured hair and blue eyes and I would be whatever, but here I am stunned? Captivated? Despite the fact, the guy is glaring holes and scowling at me?

What the fuck is happening?

I continued to stay frozen in place, visibly staring at him until he scoffed and took the dry laced napkin from his jacket’s pocket and tried to dry both his face and clothes off.

“It is also rude to just stare at someone and do nothing when you’re the one who made this mess. Tell me Ms. Are you really a lady? Are you really the daughter of the Zhangs?”

After saying that, he went down on his knees to pick up the broken pieces of the vase with his bare hands.

Just like that, I woke up from my trance and narrowed my eyes.

“What?”

Once he picked up most of the pieces and put them on the table where the vase was originally placed, Anna and Zain have arrived at the scene and looked from the leftover pieces of the vases to the mysterious man, then to me.

Perplexed at the situation, Anna asked.

“W-What happened?”

The man straightened himself and dusted off his suit. He bowed his head to Anna and Zain.

“Ms. Anna, Zain. I caught Ms. Zhang eavesdropping on you and because I startled her, she clumsily bumped into the table holding the vase causing it to fall and shatter. I must say this is entirely Ms. Zhang’s doing.” He shot me an icy glare. While that supposed to scared me, instead it sent weird tingles down my spine and my entire body felt hotter.

Both Anna and Zain were left dumbfounded and yet flustered by the fact I caught them.

“Oh, I see…”

Realizing no one is going to say anything as Anna, Zain, and I were still processing what happened here, the man announced his leave.

“Well then, I am done here. As the party is almost over, I shall make a call to the driver to ready the car for the prince.” The man was about to turn back when Zain worriedly called out.

“But your hands. You have fresh cuts from picking up the pieces. I’ll help you cl-,” the man waved his hand dismissively.

“It’s fine. It doesn’t hurt that much. I’ll clean them soon.”

As he walked away from us, he turned his head to shoot daggers at me.

Again, tingles.

“And Ms. Zhang, if you’re truly a lady of status, please act like one.”

From my side view, I could see Anna’s jaw opened at the insult while Zain appeared … normal although his eyebrows are furrowed.

As for me, I didn’t even react to the insult, as it went in from one ear and out from another. And that’s because I was too focused on my reaction of him, how his strict and cold personality and his glares did something to me. It’s like something carnal is storming within me as if he brought something out that I didn’t even know it existed.

I don’t understand. I have to tell Anna about this later. For now, I need to know who this man is.

When the man disappeared out of our views, I spun to Zain.

“Who is that man?” Anna quickly glanced at me with suspicion in her eyes.

“That man Ms. Zhang, happens to be Claude. He is the head steward of the Spencer family and Prince Wilfred’s royal butler. Why do you ask, Ms. Zhang?”

I stared to where Claude was and tried to shrug nonchalantly.

“Nothing. Just curious.”

“Is something the matter? Do you want me to call and reprimand him?”

“No! It’s fine. I’m fine.”

I continued to gaze on that darn spot.

“Oh no you don’t,” Anna grumbled. She kissed Zain on the cheek and whispered something to his ear before grabbing my arms and dragging me away, leaving poor Zain perplexed and embarrassed.

As she dragged me roughly to the party, I pulled away from her grip.

“Why did you say ‘oh no you don’t’?”

Anna huffed with annoyance.

“Mads, I am sure you already know.”

“No, I don’t know. What are you talking about? Why did you say that?”

Disbelieved, Anna came closer to me and whispered.

“Mads you have that look! That look when you like a guy and found him attractive! It’s the same look when you saw Nick years ago! You were also staring at where he used to be as if you’re in this trance! Plus you didn’t even fight back or get mad when he insulted you… That’s so unlike you! Mads… I think… I think you like …”

Realization finally dawned on me and Anna could tell by the enlarging of my eyes and my jaws hanging down a bit.

“Holy fuck. Holy fuck.”

“Yea holy fuck!”

I started to panic and grabbed Anna by the shoulder roughly.

“Anna what do I do? I have no idea what’s going on and why and I am just confused!”

“Don’t panic! Stay calm, breathe in and breathe out. I know it’s been years since you like a guy or find him attractive. Just… we’ll figure out okay tonight? I’ll be staying in your house anyways. I can help you figure out.” Anna released from my hold and rubbed both my shoulders and back, trying to calm me down.

“I-I felt something weird during my interaction with him…” Curiosity was clear in Anna’s eyes.

“Yea… and?” She encouraged me to continue.

“Whenever he sent me those glares, and whenever I looked at him, it gave me shivers. Tingles throughout my spine. And… And my whole body becomes heated. I don’t understand. There was something about him…” I rubbed both my arms. I felt conflicted, helpless, and confused.

The expression on Anna’s face had me panicking a little because she just stared at me flabbergasted and shocked. She shook her hand to get rid of that expression and put on a small smile.

As she wrapped around her my shoulder and move me along to go back to the party, she said something that left me curious and if so a bit anxious for the rest of the night.

“Mads, I think I might know what you were feeling but you gotta be more clear.”

Chapter Text

When we arrived back at the ballroom, both Anna’s and my parents rushed to us asking where we went, looking worried. I noticed the guests were looking at us, including the princes. Some whispering to one another.

I didn’t realize we took a long time, I was out to get some iced water and Anna excused herself to go to the toilet earlier....

Right. She was talking to Zain and I clumsily dropped a vase and stupidly stared at Claude for a long time. They wouldn’t believe me that I was out to get iced water, so I lied and maybe tell some truth.

I sheepishly grinned at them and pulled Anna closer by the shoulder.

“I was worried about Anna since she was taking a long time in the toilet. Turns out she was having an emergency and I tried to help her! On our way back, I ... uh..” I scratched my neck out of embarrassment to make it realistic.

“... I might have dropped and broke the vase passed down by ye ye and nai nai... So we went to alert the staff before coming back...”

Mr. and Mrs. Garcia were speechless and just turned to my parents waiting for them to say something, only to get disappointed sighs. Mama took a step toward me and grabbed a hold Anna’s and my hands to inspect them.

“You girls aren’t hurt right?”

We both shook heads.

“Well then, because you two will address the guest right now why you have been missing.”

I blinked at Mrs. Garcia.

“That’s not necessary, tell me I don’t have to, ba.” I pleaded to baba only for him to shrug.

“It’s better if you do, the guests are whispering.”

“Fine,” I muttered dejectedly.

I walked towards the center of the ballroom and cleared my throat loudly to get everyone’s attention. I didn’t even have to do that as most of them were already watching me since I entered.

I bowed my head to apologize.

“Ladies. Gentlemen. I apologize for my rude behavior as I was briefly missing from the party for more than a couple of minutes. It was not my intention to leave the party, but I had to attend a problem that’s considered … urgent and needs attention immediately. So please excuse my sudden departure.”

“That’s okay Madeleine!” I looked at Prince Roberto. “We too, sometimes escape from the party!”

Most of the guests laughed and forgetting what happened, they went back to their usual business chit-chatting with one another.

I gave a grateful smile to Roberto for saving me there.

For the rest of the night, nothing grand really happened besides me conversing and having a fun time with the guests, especially the princes and Anna. Potentials suitors also came up to me, and some were asking me for a dance.

Even I was having a good time, I subconsciously kept thinking about my reaction to Claude in the hallway and his goddamn blue eyes.

•••

When the party ended, Anna stayed over trying to help figure what happened back in the hallway. As we both lied down on my queen-sized bed, I tried to recount my interaction with Claude and how I felt before Anna and Zain saw us.

“So basically I heard you and Zain talking or flirting after I got my water and I eavesdropped on you.” Anna’s cheeks both reddened at the mention of Zain. “I continued to eavesdrop until Claude interrupted me out of nowhere telling it’s rude. Obviously, I was startled and bumped into the vase because I didn’t see anyone in the hallway and POOF suddenly he’s there behind me? But that’s not the point! It’s my reaction! There was something about his looks that left me stunned? Captivated? Breathless? I don’t know! It’s weird because navy hair is normal, blue eyes are normal, pale skin is normal on any guy, but on him, it’s just different in a good way? Attractive maybe? This is so embarrassing Anna! I was just staring at him.” I hid my face with a pillow. Anna giggled and took the pillow away from my face.

“Hey relax Mads! It’s a normal reaction. I mean it is embarrassing since you were visibly staring at him-”

“Ugh please don’t remind me!” I groaned and covered my face with my hands.

“But it’s a normal reaction when you find a guy attractive and fits your ideal type. It like every guy becomes dull after seeing him.”

“Ok that makes sense….”

“There’s more isn’t it?”

I looked conflicted and confused in explaining what I wanted to say next.

“Well yea but I don’t know if you’ll understand it.” Anna just rolled her eyes impatiently.

“Just say it.”

“Fine! I felt my reaction is a bit fucked up? When he said something mean or sent me a glare that’s supposed to make me scared or small, it didn’t?”

“Well that’s good isn’t it?”

“No it’s not!”

Anna furrowed her eyebrows and frowned in confusion.

“What why?”

“Be-Because they actually gave me tingles down my spine! They gave me the shivers in certain parts of my body and… and when he frowned and glared, it left my body feeling heated…He made me feel an unfamiliar feeling traveling through my body… I don’t know but he had this aura that left me breathless, especially when he did those. Powerful and dignified…”

A brief silence ensued.

I turned to the right where Anna was staring at me with her jaws slacked and her eyes blinking. I puffed my reddening cheeks and faced away from Anna.

“That’s not normal isn’t it?”

I then heard a loud laugh from Anna. I scowled at her in annoyance.

“What’s so funny?”

Anna continued laughing hysterically, at this point wheezing and already almost out of breath. Tears were starting to collect in her eyes.

I grumbled.

No way was this funny! I am totally at lost!

Once realizing she’ll keep laughing, I grabbed my pillow and smacked her hard with it.

“Anna! Why are you laughing?” I kept smacking her while she covered her body in defense.

‘Okay wait! I’m s…sorry… just give me a mi....minute to calm down…” She panted.

When she finally did calm down although a few snickers here and there, she grabbed my shoulders and let out a smirk.

“Well Mads, it seems to me you were aroused by his looks and what he did. Huh didn’t know you were into in that kind of thing, being turned on when someone scolds and is strict with you. I guess you’re a bottom!”

Aroused?

I have so many questions.

Anna patted me in the back.

“I know you have questions since not once in your life you were aroused by a guy or find anyone sexually attractive, even Nick the puta…but you can ask me… Man, if Claude was able to turn you on after 25 years of feeling nothing sexual towards boys, there must be something damn special about him.”

“Yea… I do... But I don’t know,” I murmured. I was overwhelmed a bit. I thought my entire life, I wouldn’t find anyone sexually attractive or I wouldn’t be aroused, but here I am. Everything about this was new to me. So everything just seems overwhelming and Anna seemed to sense it, as I seemed to scrunch my eyes. She rubbed my shoulders and back to calm me down.

“It’s okay…Just take your time to explore what you felt…. And maybe spend more time with Claude to figure it out?”

I snorted at the last suggestion.

“What, like out of nowhere I go to Philips and the chateau and say hi to Claude as if we’re best of buddies now?”

Anna smacked my head.

“No you fool, I didn’t mean it like that!” She tugged my nightgown so she could lean into my ears.

“Obviously we need a plan make sure that the way you two meet again is like a pure coincidence.”

Doubtful, I raised my eyebrows and crossed my arms at her.

“How are we going to do that? I’ve never crossed path with the Philips until the party and that’s only Prince Wilfred. And my family aren’t very close to them personally, although they’ve done business with them, regarding developments of hotels and restaurants.”

“Well that’s good at least your parents have interacted with them and you’re not like total strangers. It’ll make this plan a bit easier to figure out.”

“Yea…” I mumbled. I was still unsure about all of this. What if this turn out wrong?

“… But Anna, what if turns out I don’t like him suddenly? Maybe what happened back then was just you know, caught in the moment?”

I knew I am making excuses but I would feel embarrassed if at the end, nothing would come out of it and I would be the only one feeling heartbroken… and that Claude would end up being more annoyed with me. So many things could go wrong if I were to meet him again.

Anna sighed catching my bullshit excuses.

“You don’t know that unless you meet him again and spend more time with him. Now stop making excuses. The plan will be good. And you’ll do fine! I’ll make sure you won’t get hurt.” She patted me on the back for reassurance.

Trusting her, we came up with potential scenarios and plans for the rest of the early morning before we gave in to sleep.

•••

A week after the party, when I said Anna and I really spent our past days on coming up plans on possible meetings and interactions with Claude, I really meant it. We came up with 20 of them. Anna continuously insisted (forced actually) that we should so that I would’ve come prepared if those possible meetings and interactions were to happen. It’s ridiculous I know, but I would’ve probably thanked her. I knew that if I came unprepared, I would end up looking like a dumbass again, like what happened during the party.

Speaking of the party, I didn’t really remember or even notice what Claude said until Anna reminded me when we were in my family’s library downstairs. Anna was busily scribbling some ideas for the plans when she asked me.

•••

“Hey Mads, did you remember the insult Claude made towards you?”

I briefly looked at her puzzled before continuing to read a novel I’m holding.

“He did? I don’t remember. Maybe I did but I didn’t really notice it.” I dismissed.

“Why you ask?”

I heard a pen dropped and I looked up from the novel to see her smirking mischievously.

I gave her a questioning look. “What?”

“You mean you were so caught up with his looks that you didn’t notice what he said to you? That you didn’t hear his insults?”

I opened my mouth but then closed it because I couldn’t even deny it. I was indeed caught up with his appearance. I was also then too caught up in thinking about my reactions when he sent me a glare and a frown.

I immediately covered my face with the novel and pretended to read to hide my reddening cheeks. Anna tried to cover her laughter only for me to huff at her.

“Yea go on, keep laughing,” I muttered embarrassingly.

“Do you still want to hear what he said?”

“Does it really matter?” Anna just shrugged and put on a devious grin. She placed her head on her arm that’s been resting on the table.

“I don’t know, I think it might matter to you.”

“Pfft.. It can’t be that bad.”

“Well he implied that you are not fit to be a lady of your status.”

My eyes twitched.

“It’s not so bad.”

“He also questioned whether you really are the daughter of the Zhangs.”

The minute she said that I slammed my novel to the table and looked up to her again with an irritated scowl.

“How is that any of his business? What does he know about being the daughter of my parents? Just because he’s the head steward to the Spencers household doesn’t give him the privilege to be rude and arrogant,” I spat.

“Told you so that it’ll matter to you.”

Ignoring, I continued ranting.

“I think I am fit to be a lady of my status! I completed my education—even got an award! I did charity work and volunteered. That was my choice! Unfit to be a lady of my status he said? I was taught proper etiquettes since I was a child, even attended an etiquette school! Although I didn't want to, but still!”

“Okay Mads, that’s enough. There’s no use doing that. It’s already in the past and there’s no Claude. You’re just wasting your breath.”

“I’ll show him how ladylike I can be.”

With a dramatic flair, I flipped my hair.

“And that’s why we’re coming up with plans so that if he ever insults you, you’ll be up for the challenge instead of being frozen because of his pretty face.”

I snorted.

“Trust me the second time he’ll do that, I’ll be ready.”

Anna patted my head and I swiped her hand away. She then put on a smug grin.

“Atta girl! Who knows maybe he’ll find it hot that someone dares to fight back.”

The minute she said that I pushed her from the chair to cover up my flared cheeks.

“Hey!”

•••

So basically, that’s how it went.

When I was in the bathtub, enjoying the warm water, I kept thinking about the plan Anna and I made for 22nd of March.

Apparently starting from the said date to 25th, Zain will be evaluating the butler and head steward from each royal family. And of course, it will take place in the Nobel Michel Castle. Every head steward and butler even from the royal families are required to come.

How did I know this? Anna. And how did she know about this? Of course, Zain.

Ever since that party, they had been contacting with one another… Well, that is if Zain wasn’t busy at the moment, which is almost close to none. Nonetheless, at least they know how genuine they feel about one another. My job is done and now it’s their own business to handle.

I have this Claude thing to figure out.

And how to not fuck up the second time we’re going to meet. I did not want to end up like a dumbass.

The plan was... Well, we’re going to visit and stay over at Uncle Mike’s place (aka the castle) tomorrow to make it seem like it’s a coincidence and that we didn’t purposely go there to see the evaluation (and me meeting Claude). And once I finally meet him, all I had to do is just really fight back and make an insult. Annoy him purposely and accidentally (Anna added that and I am not sure why….). That’s it. I’m confident enough that everything will go smoothly. I wouldn’t be caught in a trance anymore because I know how he looked like. Everything would be easy peasy lemon squeezy!

How hard can it be?

•••

20th of March
Nobel Michel Castle

Screw that I took back my words on how hard can this plan be. It’s been four days I stayed over at Uncle Mike’s place and I only have two days left until the head stewards and butlers arrived at the castle. Most of the time, I have been left alone by Anna as now she’s spending a lot of her time with Zain. I, because I had nothing to do, I became more nervous, anxious, and antsier each day.

How do I act as if I didn’t know there would be a head steward evaluation? How do I act as if bumping into him was just an accident? What if I froze again even though I was super confident before?

Do I just walk through the halls, the gardens? Do I just pass by the ballroom and dining room where the evaluation would be taking place?

The chances of me bumping into him are literally close to none!

Conflicted and in doubt, I head towards the castle’s garden to take my mind off.

For a few minutes, I tried focusing on the scenery and scent of different flowers and plants along the pathway, but still, I couldn’t get the plan out of my mind.

Will it be successful?

Knowing that attempt on not thinking about anything is futile, I tried thinking about other things.

Ever since meeting Claude, I continuously felt an itch to scratch, especially in my nether region whenever I subconsciously thought about him. It’s worse at night when I had dreams of him looking domineering and strong. I would end up heated and in sweat. My hair would look like a birds nest, my nightgown sticking to my whole body, and my inner thighs would be covered with some sort of sticky substance.

I tried consulting with Anna again and she would just tell me to uh play with myself. Embarrassed and ashamed, I refused to do it.

Suit yourself, she said. It’ll definitely help with your frustration.

I don’t understand. Despite him being an ass, why am I still attracted to Claude? What is it about him? I have met guys that have blue eyes and navy hair and I wouldn’t even blink an eye… But what makes Claude different? For me to just dumbly stare at him?

A domineering and powerful aura from a man would piss me off as alway. But why did Claude’s aura left me heated and aroused? What the hell is special about him? He’s a complete d-

“Ms. Madeleine are you alright?”

A gentle hoarse voice distracted me from my thoughts. I looked up to see Uncle Mike standing in front of me with a worried expression, his wrinkles showing.

I stood up and bowed immediately.

“No! It’s okay uncle. I am fine. Just thinking.” Uncle Mike furrowed his eyebrows.

“What were you thinking for you to frown and clench both of your fists?”

Ohmygod.

I raised my hands to see that indeed there were nail marks on both my palms. I grinned sheepishly at Uncle Mike as I fixed my hair.

“Don’t worry Uncle. It’s nothing really significant. Well-,” I dusted off my yellow sundress. “I shall take my le-,”

“Is it about a guy?” Uncle Mike cut me off. I froze.

“Huh? What made you think that, uncle?”

Uncle Mike just put on a wise and maybe a bit nostalgic smile.

“I remembered my daughter, Sybilline looking like that whenever she thought of her husband before they got together.”

Ah Ms Sybilline. I remembered attending her wedding last year! I never really saw her around after that but I guess she had to move out as she renounced her royal status to marry her now-husband….

Wait…

Did Uncle Mike make an assumption that I like a guy?

I blushed.

Well technically he’s not in the wrong, but he’s not right too.

“Oh I uh-,” Uncle Mike stopped me by raising his cane.

“That’s alright my dear, no need to explain. I hope you’ll figure out something with him.” I stared at him as he strolled even further to the garden.

“More like I hope I figure myself out and how to deal with him,” I mumbled before I walked back into the castle, even more conflicted.

Walking to the guest room Anna and I shared (Uncle Mike and Zain insisted us to have separate rooms but we need to prepare for the D-Day so…), I pulled out my phone from the sundress’ and sent a message to Anna.

Mads: Meet me back in the guestroom ASAP. Having doubts already.

Mads: Or maybe now would be better.

Chapter Text

“You can do it Madeleine, you can do it. You can do this. You can face him.”

Anna was lying on the bed, her head facing the ceiling as she scrolled down her feed on her phone. She tilted her head up so she could see me.

“Mads you’ll do fine okay? We’ve been through this many times for the last few days! Could you stop walking back and forth? You’ll be okay!”

She was right, we went through the plan for today many times due to my insistence. Mornings, afternoons, nights were all spent on going back and reviewing everything we planned. Even with that, I was still nervous and panicking like hell. Imagine if Anna didn’t insist this, I wouldn’t be even here! Probably ran home already!

It was about seven in the morning and for the last ten minutes, I have been pacing back and forth and shaking both my hands to trying calm my nerves.

The head stewards would be arriving in more less than fifteen minutes.

… Claude would be arriving in fifteen minutes.

Oh my god. He will be here in fifteen minutes!

The fact that I was the one who told myself this was the stupidest thing I ever did. Even more nervous, I paced even quicker in front of her as I now harshly play with my hair. You know put my hands into good use or they’ll fidget.

Anna got up from the bed and stopped me.

“Stop it. You’re going to mess up your hair I just styled!” She then placed her hands on either side of my face and squeezed it making me look a goldfish.

Did she not realize she also put light makeup on me?

Wait... Setting spray.

Pulling her head closer to mine, she gazed me in the eyes, her expression determined.

“Look Madeleine Zhang. We can do this. You can do this. Relax. You got this. I’m rooting for you, I believe in you okay? You will not freeze, you will fight back like you always do when men underestimated you. Claude is the same except that you find him attractive, but that’s not the point. You can do this man. We have prepared a lot for this.”

Once she was done, she let go of my cheeks. I closed my eyes and took some deep breaths to relax and clear my mind of doubts. I opened my eyes and shook my shoulders.

“I can do this. I won’t back out. I’m a fighter. I can do this.” I turned to Anna and raised my fists. “I can do this. I won’t let this plan go to waste. I’ll kick Claude’s ass for sure.”

Anna nodded with pride.

“Atta girl!”

When our pep talk ended, we heard a loud car honk from below. Both of us stood still before looking at each other and then dashing to our window. We pulled the curtains to peek a little.

There they are.

One by one, the head stewards gracefully left the van. As I glanced at most of them, I realized one thing.

Why are they all attractive? … They’re as handsome as the princes? Is being handsome a requirement to work for the royal family???

The man that kept staying in my thoughts (annoyingly) finally stepped out of the car. I stifled a gasp.

My gaze stayed with him.

Even though all of the head stewards headed towards Zain who’s standing in front of the castle’s entrance, I focused only on Claude. Again, his navy-coloured hair is perfectly combed, his intricate tie done perfectly, and his suit all prim and proper with no wrinkles visible.

The way he strode, legs extending and contracting and steps filled with purpose and confidence, his eyes sharp, dark, and powerful.

Imagine if he walks toward me like that and his eyes on me the entire whole time.

A set of shivers went through my whole body. I felt the heat travelling down my body right to my special region.

God, it’s so hot in here.

I heard a snort. I twirled to see a smug Anna, her arms crossed over her chest.

“God Mads, you are so whipped for Claude.”

Knowing that I have no argument, I turned away from her view to hide my reddening face and huffed in embarrassment.

“Shut up… I can’t help it. He looks so… powerful. Besides you’re also whipped for Zain! I mean whipped for 7 years? Amazing.” I teased her. Anna responded by pushing my shoulder with hers while rolling her eyes.

“Whatever, at least my feelings are reciprocated,” she beamed shyly as she admired the golden necklace around her neck, her hand holding a rose charm.

Did Zain give her that…?

Anna then grabbed onto my shoulders and continued. “Anyways, this is your turn now! Go get yourself a guy.” She fixed my hair and nodded approvingly. “Pretty. Yes go get Claude BUT after you show him who’s boss.”

I laughed and shook my head.

“Okay okay!”

I held up my arm to Anna.

“You ready?” I winked. Anna tangled her arm on mine.

“Ready as you are.”

We headed towards the door, all confident and prepared.

Operation C starts now.

•••

To pretend as if we’re staying in the castle without knowing there would be an evaluation, we didn’t immediately go straight towards near the dining area. Instead, we just aimlessly strolled around the hallways, starting with the ones furthest away from the dining area. We then lounged in the garden and the library to waste some time before finally heading towards the dining area for “lunch”.

If you were ever wondering, Zain knew about the plan (and therefore knew more less about the Claude thing) and decided to help us by acting.

Making our conversations and laughters as noticeable as possible, we opened the doors to the dining room to see all the head stewards immediately turning to us looking surprised, most raising their eyebrows and their mouths shaped into a small O. With the exception of Claude, who immediately furrowed his eyebrows and frowned out of irritation for being interrupted, and it became more prominent the second he recognized me.

Trying to act shocked too, we halted mid-laughter and glanced surprisingly from one steward to another.

“Oh.”

“Uh, sorry we thought we’re going to have lunch here as usual.”

Zain pretended to look apologetic and bowed.

“Lady Madeleine and Lady Anna, I deeply apologize for not telling you beforehand about the evaluation and prepared your lunch elsewhere. It seems to be I was all caught up with this…”

Okay I know it’s not realistic that Zain made a silly mistake because he’s known to be impeccable and efficient, but he’s doing it for us. Okay maybe a bit more to Ana but you get what I mean.

Nonetheless, all the head stewards looked shock that Zain committed a small mistake.

Zain continued.

“Perhaps, I should go to the chef now to prepare your lun-,” I was about to raise my hand to stop Zain when in the same time Claude spoke.

“Nonsense! I disagree, we are currently in the middle of the evaluation. It would take more than 5 minutes to prepare for their lunch and it will definitely delay our schedule for today. I apologize Zain, but I cannot allow it. We all still have duties after the evaluation. The ladies can wait.”

I raised my eyebrows. I wasn’t really offended that he told us we should wait. Although, it threw me off a bit the fact he’s very strict and outspoken… the fact that he can stand up to Zain with much confidence and fierceness.

I couldn’t help but feel a bit …

Worked up.

And I also felt a sudden urge to scratch an itch.

Refusing to stay silent, I spoke.

“That’s alright. We can wait…. And since we’re waiting and we have nowhere else to go, we’ll just stay here in the dining room. If you don’t mind Zain,” I looked at the said head steward for permission. I could see Claude frowning in disagreement in my side view. Every other head stewards just look at Zain for his answer.

Zain held a conflicted look.

“I am not sure, my lad-,” Zain was cut off mid-sentence by Anna.

“Do not worry, Z. We will not bother you or them,” Ana flashed a charming smile to Zain, who’s already flustered after she addressing her nickname for him.

“Yeah, we’ll stay quiet,” I nodded in agreement.

“Well... I guess that’s alright then, Lady Anna.”

Claude stood up from his seat and clenched his teeth.

“Now wait a second, Zain. You’re allowing these two … two little girls here? This would not do!” He then directed his glare at me. “Especially Lady Madeleine. Leaving her own party unattended, eavesdropping on someone, and breaking an expensive vase! Is that how lady of your status supposed to act?” I heard some of the stewards taking sharp breaths and Ana gasping beside me.

I sent a dirty look back at him.

“That was only once! I was actually going to get a glass of iced water and I heard something along the way! And I didn’t mean to break the vase on purpose! Accidents can happen to everyone, including you Mr. Oh so Perfectionist Know-it-all!”

Claude pursed his lips and clenched his fists as he heard my nickname for him. I continued.

“I can assure you, I know how to act like a lady and not a girl! Do not underestimate and judge me based on only that night. You do not know me.”

“Excuses,” Claude scoffed.

My eyes twitched in annoyance.

“Maybe you’re the one acting like a child in a tantrum!” I shouted.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard it right, maybe you’re the one being childish and making demands even though Zain is the one in charge!”

By this point, all the stewards including Zain and my friend Ana were looking back and forth between Claude and I’s heated exchanges. Claude appeared even more irritated and a tiny bit angry. A strand of his neatly combed hair had fallen from its place to his face. His veins started to appear. He had his eyebrows furrowed, pupils slitted, and his mouth set into a scowl.

If it was in a different situation, I would’ve shivered at the intense look.

“You called me—How dare you, you-,” I felt like he wanted to swear at me but being the head steward… Well, he knew his place.

Knowing that there’s nothing he can do to make me leave and that this quarrel has caused a scene, Claude tried to calm himself and fix his attire and hair. He soon sat down and sent a glare to me.

“Knowing that you’re a stubborn little girl and insist on staying here, please do keep quiet and please try not to disturb this session like you did just before.”

I gritted my teeth.

“I know how to keep quiet. I am not a child, Claude. I thought head stewards are able to do their job perfectly even when being disturbed.”

Claude looked at me and scowled.

“It’s called being respectful and considerate. Did you ladies not learn that?”

I was about to lunge at him when Ana grabbed onto my arm and pulled me away to the opposite side of the long table. She pulled one of the chairs and forced me to sit on it with much struggle.

I began to protest when Anna sent me a look.

“Knock it off will you? You keep on fighting and you’ll be proving his point.”

…. She made a point.

Defeated and irritated, I sat down and crossed my arms over my chest while sending a glare to a smug Claude.

I really want to smack that smirk off his pretty face.

Anna took the seat beside me and sheepishly grinned at the head stewards situating on the opposite side of the table. At this point, most of the stewards appeared looking downright uncomfortable and lost.

“Please. Continue what you’re doing. We apologize for disrupting the session.”

A scoff was heard from Claude. Of course, it was him.

“You should be.”

I stood up to make a comeback only to be dragged down again to my seat by Ana, who then sent me another look.

Save it. Not the right time.

I turned my face away from both Anna and the head stewards and grumbled a few curses under my breath.

Sensing that the argument was over, Zain loudly cleared his throat to redirect all the head stewards’ attention to him.

“Let us continue our session again. Now, where was I… Right I shall see inspect the way you prepare and serve the meals…” Zain paused for a moment as if he was thinking. He then looked at us. “Well, ladies…”

Anna and I turned our heads to Zain, sending a curious and quizzing look at his way.

“Since you both are here and not exactly doing anything, do either one of you ladies mind pretending to be the guest being served?” Zain continued.

Knowing that my friend wanted to get closer to Zain, she would agree…. But if I were to agree, then I would be able to disprove that asshole’s point.

Before Anna could even open her mouth, I stood up and answered.

“Sure, I’ll do it.” Zain nodded and smiled gratefully.

“Wonderful. Thank you, Lady Madeleine.” He gently pulled out a chair near Luke. “Lady Madeleine, do you mind sitting here?” I nodded. I was about to take a step forward when Anna pulled me down and huddled me.

“What are you doing Madeleine? I was about to say yes!” Anna whispered harshly. I looked at her with a deadpan face.

“Anna, you have spent most of your time with him ever since we arrived here, leaving me alone.” Ana opened and then closed her mouth flustered, realizing what I said was true.

A loud annoyed voice cut the moment.

“Do you mind not wasting our time with your pointless chit chat gossip?” I stood up and poked my tongue out at Claude’s direction. I then quickly strode over to the chair Zain pulled for me and sat on it, posture like an elegant and refined lady, knowing that a particular someone would scrutinize my every words and action.

After expressing my thanks to Zain for pushing my chair forward (even though it is part of his job), Zain resumed the session and called on each steward one by one to perform how they prepare and serve a meal.

Maybe to anyone, it would be a bore to stay still and watch each steward doing their own thing, their own way of preparing and serving, but I wasn’t. I filtered out Zain’s voice and observed the movements of each steward (and steward-in-training). Jan, the head steward of the Lieben household went first and he was pretty laid-back, unlike Joshua. Louis, Levaincois’ head steward was as gentle as Edward. So did Yu, the Casiraghi’s head steward, although he seems less shy. Alberto, the Button’s head steward was stiff and professional. Luke, well he seems to be flustered and fumbling, maybe a bit awkward, but I guess it’s understandable. After all, he’s still training to become the next head steward of the Alford household.

When it finally came to Claude’s turn, I badly wanted him to make a mistake at first which I know it’s very unlikely.

But still.

As Claude came closer to me, I immediately made my sentiment of wanting to see him slip a mistake clear.

“I hope you fail,” I mumbled under my breathe. I know Claude could hear me, but he chose not to reply. Instead, he rolled his eyes at me and sent me a determined challenged look.

Watch me.

He walked to my right side and slightly bowed.

“Good evening, Lady Madeleine. Would you like some tea or coffee?” He elegantly gestured to the teapot and kettle with his gloved hand. His voice changed to something more smooth and polite… Huh.

“No thank you. I actually would like to drink iced water,” I smiled. I expected him to get annoyed but it seems to me I underestimated him. He has been doing this profession for his entire whole life.

He nodded and let out a small polite smile directed at me. I unknowingly sucked my breath at the sight of his smile.

“I will be right back my lady,” Claude went to the kitchen less than a minute and appeared back to my side with a regular wine glass filled with iced water. I didn’t even realize he went to the kitchen as I was still frozen in shock with the fact that he smiled.

Claude could smile?

He gently placed the glass on the coaster and went to grab and unfold the emerald-coloured table napkin. He then looked at me for permission while holding the said napkin.

“May I, my lady?” I silently gulped and nodded. He slightly bent his body toward me and placed the napkin onto my lap. Despite the fact my thighs were covered by my dress and his hand is gloved, I could feel his finger grazing my thighs. It sent another wave tingles down my spine.

This wasn’t how I want it to be.

“My lady, would you like your meal served now?” I raised one of my eyebrows.

“What am I having?”

“It is pasta with lamb ragù, my lady.”

“That would be alright. Please bring it to me Claude.” I nodded again.

Claude brought in an empty plate in one hand and smoothly set it in front of me. He also placed the utensils one by one. I can’t help but be enraptured by the way he moved. It was precise yet it was effortless and calm. It held a sense of elegance. And the way his long slender fingers delicately moved and held the utensils… it made my mind goes elsewhere inappropriate and my body goes into overheat. Without realizing, I rubbed both my thighs together.

Wait.

Is this arousal?

Am I getting turned on by… his fingers? Oh my god.

“Enjoy your meal, my lady.” I am pretty sure he changed his tone when he said ‘my lady’. Not sure if it was meant to be mocking or not but all I know for sure is that when his voice dropped an octave and emphasized the words slowly, it did something to my body, especially my core.

“I uh t-thank you, Claude. You’re dismissed.” I stuttered embarrassingly. Claude nodded and left to go back to his own seat. While hearing what Zain was saying, he gave me a smug look.

That asshole.

I let out an annoyed huff and stood up to go back to my original seat beside Ana, lightly stomping and my arms crossed throughout the way.

Does he know I am … sexually attracted?

The second my bottom hit the seat, Anna glanced at me with one eyebrow raised and a small knowing smirk gracing her lips.

“So…..”

Deciding not to entertain what she already knew, I replied the same thing.

“So…..”

Anna rolled her eyes, unamused with my answer… or the lack of.

“Stop acting as if you don’t know what happened before. I saw the way you reacted towards him during his demonstration.” I pretended to admire my manicured nails, to avoid answering the revelation she made, ignore what I admit was true. I still didn’t know how to deal something like this. I didn’t know what to think about it.

Ana softly shoved my shoulder with hers.

“You do realize if you keep ignoring me, I will keep bothering you?”

With a sigh, I redirected my attention from my nails to my friend.

“I wish to tell you, but not right now… Especially the fact that the topic of our chat is in the same room as us…” I made a quick side glance to Claude. Ana followed my gaze and her mouth formed into a small ‘o’, understanding finally dawning upon her.

“I see….”

“Yea..” I nodded slowly. Ana faced away to me and let out a small smile.

“We’ll talk later after lunch.” Humming in agreement, I laid my back against the chair, discreetly observing the person who have been recurring in my thoughts.

As the session went on, I followed his long stride around the opposite side of this table, gazing from his perfectly combed hair to his intricate tie encasing around his neck and his prim and proper suit that deliciously fit both his upper and lower body to his pristine gloves that hugged both his hands and fingers. The way his leg muscles contracted and extended and his steps confident and purposeful. And how he moved his arms held so much elegance yet strength. His fingers were slender, delicate, flexible, graceful, and when they curled and wrapped around objects… it made me wonder how his fingers might be useful somewhere else. I watched the way his muscles ripped underneath that fitted jacket, the clothes stretching over his shoulders and back as he raised his arms to carry the dishes.

Without realizing, I let out a loud contented sigh, and everyone including Claude stopped what they were doing and glanced at me. A small gasp is torn from my throat when his eyes connected with mine. His dark eyes held such immense intensity and power within them. I immediately casted my gaze from his and dipped my head down, my whole body heating up in embarrassment from getting caught.

Anna placed her hand on my shoulders for reassurance. I peered my eyes up at her and slightly bobbed my head, mouthing that I am okay.

“Is something the matter, Lady Madeleine?” Zain curiously called from the opposite of the room.

“I am okay just-”

“Tch, Lady Madeleine. Just say this was uninteresting to watch and go. You are free to leave this room. Your sighing and yourself are a distraction to this session.” Claude cut me off, his words were sharp and his tone barely hiding his annoyance and anger at me. Bristled from the jab, I threw a withering look at him.

“Indeed, it was very tiresome and dull watching you.” I retorted, my words, sharp and crisp. “Maybe if you did things more interesting and stimulating like the other head stewards, I wouldn’t be sighing...”

Look, even deep within me, I knew that this was a lie. Everything about him and what he did leave me bewitched. Ensnared. Enraptured. While his words left me trembling in anger, his body and the aura he holds set my body on fire in a very inappropriate way. Looking at him brought me shaking to the very core.

Nevertheless, my jibe caused him to widen his eyes in shock before he recovered and narrowed his eyes into slits. If I wasn’t so embarrassed from being the centre of attention, I would have laughed at his reaction.

“I beg your pardon! You dare to look down on my expertise and my training?” Claude barked, his glare dark and full of distaste. “What do you know about being a steward, Lady Madeleine?”

Suddenly the atmosphere of the room became thick with tension, so tense you can cut it with a knife. Everyone in the room stiffened after Claude’s outburst. Sensing an upcoming war of words between both of us, Zain tried to intervene.

“Claude, Lady Madeleine. This is not the appropriate ti-”

I stood up and raised my hand, cutting off Zain. I crossed my arms across my chest and jutted my hips to one side, face looking smug that I was able to provoke Claude, get on his nerves, get his blood boiling.

“I do know a thing or two about stewardship. After all, my father is a shareholder for a known household staffing service and Zain told me a few things during my stay here over the years.” I arched my eyebrow at him and leaned forward. “What do you know about being a steward, Claude?”

I could hear a small stifled gasp from Anna. On the other hand, Claude looked even more infuriated with my rhetorical question (or was it insult?).

“You are insufferable,” Claude gritted his teeth. I only shrugged in response.

“Well, that makes the two of us. Takes one to know one.”

“You-,” he growled before Zain covered his mouth.

Stifling my snickers, I walked to the door leading to the hallway. “Anyways, I’ll be taking my leave since it appears that I’m getting on Mr Oh-so-Perfect Snob’s nerves.” I waved my hand lazily to the group of stewards who appeared even more perplexed, some amused. Zain was still covering Claude’s mouth, who now appeared to be struggling to get Zain’s hand off him. As I went through the door with Anna following behind, I turned back and mockingly blew Claude a kiss when he made eye contact with me before the door closed with a soft click.

Going further away from the dining room, I heard Claude’s annoyed voice, bickering about my attitude and all I could do was smirk.

A few seconds later, I could hear hurried footsteps getting closer before I am pulled back to look at Ana heaving slightly.

“Mads…”

“Yes?”

“I can’t believe you did that.”

“Wasn’t that our goal?” I raised one of my eyebrows.

“Well yea, but I didn’t expect for you guys to go that long. You guys did not back down.”

I shrugged in response.

“Well, I guess he easily brought out that within me…” At my response, it was Anna’s turn to raise her eyebrow and jerked her hip to the side.

“Uh huh,” She turned her head away and tapped her chin with her fingers acting as if she’s thinking. “Now that you mention it… I know you’re quick witted, but you rarely show it...unless someone really struck your strings. And not only that, no one was able to respond to your wit until him…...”

“Oh come off it, get to the point.”

Anna turned back to me and smirked.

“I must say, you both seem like a match. That interaction back there was pretty charged.”

Oh god. Was she trying to insinuate there was something sexual between him and me?

Well… I did feel hot when he looked at me when I looked at the way he moved back there… Wait, no stop it.

Rolling my eyes and puffing my cheek at the assumption, I turned away and kept walking to the guest bedroom with Ana soon following after while letting out a snicker.

I can’t say there’s something sexual between us. I know for sure that my reactions toward him were not … pure.

Sigh. I really need to figure all this sexual stuff out.

Finally reaching our destination, Anna and I went straight to the bed and laying down side by side.

“So… what are we going to do now?” Anna lifted her head with a questioned look. I shrugged.

“Well, we did what we have to do for today. Let’s just wait and chill until we get called for dinner.”

I hope she forgot what she wanted me to say…

Anna hummed in agreement and laid her head again. It was only a few seconds before she let out a small gasp and turned her whole body to me, eyes wide and sparkling.

“So you said, you’re going to tell me about what happened during that demonstration during lunch… But technically we’re not doing anything now. So tell me, Mads,” she grabbed my shoulders to prevent me from wiggling my escape. “What actually happened during that little demonstration?”

Man, I jinxed myself.

“I uh-why do you really want to know?”

“Because you really looked enraptured and captivated by him? No offence you actually looked really whipped for him,” she deadpanned. “What was going on inside your mind?”

I sat up, so Anna won’t see me. I sighed and played with my fingers to hide my shyness.

“I am not sure. I just, all my interactions with him, when he’s near me always seem to have this effect on me. It’s like he has this some sort of aura that pulled me, that made me feel heated. The way he handled the demonstrations, the way he walked, and the way he looked… it was powerful… and capable it left me craving for more. And then he smiled, and it left me floored and at awe. His smile was unexpected but it was gentle and...I have to say... very charming and beautiful. It made him even more attractive in my eyes … and I lowkey wished that I would see his smile again someday. Let’s not forget about his fingers, they were smooth and practiced in movement, so elegant. It made me think how I want him-,” I stopped myself from saying something inappropriate and blushed.

Ohmygod. I was thinking about how I want him to run his fingers all over my body…

“I can’t believe I was thinking about that just now….” I mumbled.

I heard the bed and the sheets crinkling behind me before Anna forcefully took a hold of my shoulders and spun me to her.

“You want him to what? You want him to what! Why did you stop!” I aggressively shook my head in response.

“No! I don’t want to say it. It’s embarrassing!” I tried to pull myself away from her but I am pulled even closer.

“Say it!”

“No!”

“Say it!”

“No! Never!”

“It can’t be that bad!”

“I would say it if it wasn’t that bad! But it is! And embarrassing too!” Anna only rolled her eyes before shaking me roughly.

“Come on Mads. We’ve known each other for 20 years! Just say it!”

“I still don’t want to say it!” I huffed.

“Fine. Suit yourself.”

It was only a few seconds before she started to tickle me on both of my sides. I gasped out of surprised, trying to pull her hands away from me but failing.

“That’s a... Low blow!”

“I don’t care! I will keep doing this if you still refuse to tell me!” As she said that, her tickles became harder.

All attempts of trying to get away failed as I kept on laughing and losing focus from the lack of breath. Anna soon toppled over me causing both of us to lie down on the bed with her straddling on top of me.

“Say it!”

“... C-can’t…”

“Say it or I’ll keep tickling you.”

“....Breathe..”

“Say it!”
I am not sure if it’s possible, but Anna tickled my sides with more intensity.

“FINE! I...WILL...TELL...YOU,” I shouted at her between breaths. With my last effort, I successfully wriggled my way out of her grasps. “Just… Just give me time to let me breathe and compose myself before I embarrass myself.”

Anna moved to the side and gave me some space while muttering “Finally”.

After a few minutes, I finally composed myself and faced her, who looked like a child on a Christmas morning.

“So? What did you want to say?” I took a deep breath. And by deep, I really meant deep.

Who am I kidding, I am going to humiliate myself for saying something so... inappropriate.

“I said…,” I looked down with my hair covering my face and gulped nervously. “I said… I wanted Claude to u-uh run his fingers all over… my… b-body… After watching him in the … demonstrations..” As I reached the end of the sentence, my voice grew progressively smaller. I could feel my face burning from the humiliating confession.

Getting wary and nervous from the lack of reply from my friend, I looked up to her and saw her dumbfounded expression, caught off guard from what I said.

“Anna?” My friend broke her stare from me.

“Huh?”

“You were staring. I know it’s weird and your stare is making me feel even weirder and uncomfortable,” I huffed out in irritation.

Anna’s lips formed into an ‘o’ before letting out an apologetic smile.

“Sorry Mads… It’s just… holy crap… This is the first time I have probably hear something like that from you,” she shook her head out of incredulity.

I exhaled a restless sigh.

“I know it’s something we never expect for me to say. Not in a million years,” I continued. “But it happened, and it’s because of this frustrating butler… Anna I tell you! There’s something about him that drew me in… And I didn’t even want this to happen!”

While covering her mouth, she let out a quiet chuckle.

“Yeah I know. It’s astonishing but I am happy. I was getting worried that you won’t find anyone.”

I furrowed my eyebrows. Realizing the misunderstanding, she corrected herself.

“Wait that’s not how I wanted it to come out. It sounded so different from I what thought in my mind,” she scratched the back of her neck. “I know you are fully capable and a strong on your own. What I meant is that, I just want you to have fun and enjoy what’s love have to offer. It’s been years since you experience something like that,” Anna smiled tenderly at me and grabbed one of my hands tightly as a gesture of care. I could feel my heartstrings being pulled. I was touched.

I returned the gesture by covering her hand and clenching it tightly.

“Thank you Anna. That means a lot to me,” I looked out to the windows, contemplating what I wanted to say next. “Of course, deep inside me I want to...feel something for someone. I want to feel what I felt years ago for someone…”

I hesitated.

“But…?” Anna encouraged softly and I gulped nervously as a reply.

“But I...just don’t want another repeat of that incident five years ago. What happened that day, when I found out … It completely destroyed m-me,” I could feel my throat suffocating, tightening. “It’s like I’ve got my heart stabbed many times without care. I felt like I was thrown around… I felt betrayed and felt like a fool. God knows how bad my trust and confidence were crushed. To finally discover that someone I genuinely loved and trusted only “loved” and wanted me for the status and fortune my name held…. It made me feel like I am not genuinely special being myself. I revealed all of me to him and all he wanted, all he found attractive was my money? That was brutal.” By the end of the confession, I felt vulnerable. My voice, once stable, was hoarse and broken. I felt Anna leaving my grip and wiping my tears from my eyes and cheeks.

Oh.

I didn’t realize I was crying. That still affected me huh… No wonder I avoid talking about it.

After drying my tears, she gently hugged me, placing my head on her shoulder. I immediately wrapped my arms around her as a source of protection and comfort.

As I felt her comfortably rubbing my back, she spoke.

“You don’t have to continue anymore. Seeing your expression when you were talking about it, I couldn’t stand it. It seems like you were reliving through those awful memories... Let’s not talk about that, including that asshole anymore. Okay? Sorry, I told you to continue,” she regretted.

I waved my hands in disagreement.

“No it’s fine, it’s bound to come out soon. Besides,” I looked at her shyly. “If I want to..uh you know… see someone, I must let go of the past… right?”

She laughed.

“You’re right and also…” Anna gave me a teasing look as she got closer to my ear. “You probably need a vibrator, now that you have some scandalous and impure thoughts about your naughty butler these past recent weeks,” she whispered. Feeling the burn coming to my face, I forcefully pushed her away causing her to fall back onto the bed while sniggering at my reaction.

“A-Anna!” I stuttered embarrassingly. “I-I don’t need a vibra-”

A couple of knocks cut me off. We both turned to look at the door.

“Who is it?” I shouted.

“It is Zain, lady Madeleine.” I looked at Anna questioningly.

“It’s so weird, you guys already told one another you like each other and you still haven’t told him that now he can address me by my name.”

Anna raised her hands in defence. “Hey, I did, but you know him… Besides he is doing his job.”

“Yea but it’s only us, we’re not strangers.”

“But-”

“Lady Madeleine?” Zain asked again after getting no reply from both of us.

We both went to fix our clothes and hair before I ordered him to enter.

The second the butler closed the door, Anna dashed to him and intertwined her arms around the unsuspected butler before greeting him with a peck on the cheek.

“L-Lady Anna?!” Zain, whose cheeks are turning pink, flusteredly exclaimed.

Anna pulled back before pouting playfully. I only could laugh at her antics.

“Ah Zain, is this how a boyfriend greets his girlfriend?”

I am not sure if it was possible, but the butler grew even redder.

“N-No, I am happy to see you my dove, but Lady Madeleine is here and I am currently working…” Zain smiled apologetically at her.

Seeing my opening to tease him, I took it.

“So when you said when I am here, are you implying that when I am absent, you and-,” I nodded my head to my best friend with a mischievous smile. “-your dove would do something more...inappropriate, more risque?”

At the instance, the couple grew red like cherry tomatoes.

“Mads!” “That’s not what I meant! I meant-”

As they tried to embarrassingly defend themselves, I continued.

“Is this why you always come late at night, Anna?” Her jaw dropped in shock.

Wow, she really thought I did not notice. She really thought I was asleep. Did she know I was a light sleeper?

“But you were-”

“I am a light sleeper remember?”

Anna mumbled a curse. I laughed at their reactions before dismissing the teasing. I turned to Zain.

“So Zain,” his attention turned to me. “What brings you here to this humbled guest room? Did you actually have something to do or did you actually want to see your dove?” I grinned sarcastically. Anna just sent me a dirty look. Zain ignored the emphasis and went back to his butler mode. He gently unwrapped Anna’s arms around him, causing the former to pout. He fixed his attire and cleared his throat.

“While it was a pleasure and a joy to see Lady Anna-,” sending her a loving gaze, he soon continued. “I am actually here to inform you both that lunch is served.”

Oh. Has it been that long? Or did the demonstration ended shortly after we left? Nevermind that. I am starving after those emotional talk and of course that encounter with Claude. Still need to think about what’s going on…

I nodded in response. Soon after, I heard my stomach quietly growling. Not wanting to delay this any further, I walked to the doors.

“Okay lead the way, Zain! Come on An!” I dragged Anna’s arm as I opened and went through the doors.

“Hey!”

“Wait a minute!” Zain’s shout was heard from behind before I hear his hurried footsteps getting closer. It was only a few seconds before he was in front of us, leading us to the dining hall.

As we continued our way there, there was only one thought in my mind.

It’s like things are getting interesting…

Chapter Text

Few days have passed since the last day of the evaluation. I must say a lot of things have happened during my stay in Uncle Mike’s place… mostly just my interactions with a particular someone (and also Anna, who embarrassingly gave me a "gift") …

Thinking about them brought a blush back to my face.

•••

5 days ago

It was a sunny afternoon when Anna placed a wrapped rectangular box right in front of me, causing me to look up from the novel.

“What’s that?”

“It’s your birthday gift.”

I fixed my gaze upon her with suspicion and a little bit of curiosity.

“You always give me gifts like months late, or actually maybe even never.”

She only poked her tongue out at me before pointing her head towards the gift, signalling me to open it.

“Come on Mads. Just open it.”

“Fine,” I reached out to the box and warily tore the patterned wrapper. I held the box and shook it.

There’s no sound. I looked at her again. She just shrugged.

I already have a bad feeling about this…

“What the hell is in-,” I muttered as I slowly opened the lid before letting out a horrified shriek.

No way, she didn’t.

Laying there inside the box, was a baby pink vibrator.

With a scented tube of lube, a set of maroon lace lingerie, and a steamy romance novel.

Ohmygod.

As I observed even closer, She even put some condoms, pills, and a written note stating “Mad’s Emergency Horny Kit”!

Pushing the box immediately away from me, I then roughly threw a pillow to her.

“Anna, what the hell! I-I don’t need this!”

She threw the pillow back at me while giggling.

“Sure you don’t. You did tell me a few times in the past that you ended up sweaty and flustered and w-,” I cut her off by throwing a small pillow at her, in which she blocked it before continuing. “AND I remembered you saying that you wanted Claude to run his fi-,” I dragged her arm, pulling her to the bed and covered her mouth before she says anything embarrassing.

“HUSH! Anna, stop bringing it up! It’s embarrassing,” I whispered harshly to her. Anna’s muffled complaints go unheard as she strugglingly tries to remove my hands from her mouth. It was only then when she pinched me lightly, that I finally let go of her and while eliciting a pained ‘argh’ from me.

“What was that for…” I whined. She raised an eyebrow at me, looking deadpanned before pushing the box back to me.

“Look, deny it all you want but I know, you know deep inside, that this might be useful in the future.” I was about to argue when she raised her hand giving me the look.

Shutting my mouth, I let her continue.

“I am helping you here, Mads. I know you will find it too hard to purchase these items because,” she pinched my cheeks. Making her voice more high pitched and cutesy, she teased. “You’re a big shy baby when it comes to these stuff.” I slapped her hands off me with indignance.

“Shut up! I am not a big baby… I was just busy with other stuff.” Not buying my excuses, Anna gave me a sarcastic look.

“Sure you are.”

“I am!” I weakly protested only to receive a rolling of eyes.

“Anyways,” she drawled. “I sensed this thing between him and you might take longer than you expected… knowing where you guys stand.”

I slouched miserably, letting out a weak chuckle. Romance isn’t easy and it doesn’t appear after a command of a finger snap.

“I suppose you’re right. Clearly, we both can tell that Claude doesn’t have the best impression of me. I on the other hand …. Of course, I think he’s a jerk but …” I shook my head, not wanting to continue. Nevertheless, Anna got the point I was trying to make and rubbed my back out of comfort.

“There there. He will come around. For now, just enjoy the chase and the insults.”

“You’re right,” I nodded in agreement.

Silence filled the void of the conversation before curiosity filled my mind… About that box.

“By the way, how did you sneak this here?” I glanced at her questioningly.

If we were in her manor or mine, it would be fine. But this wasn’t our place. It’s Uncle Mike’s. This box is bound to be searched unless… Zain.

Noticing that I was making that assumption, she scoffed.

“Please! I wouldn’t use my boyfriend like that. I just privately messaged the business to drop it off at a location and I picked it up.”

“Ah… I see. Okay.”

As she was about to reach the sofa near the window, she suddenly spun around her heels facing me again, as if something just reminded her.

“By the way, the vibrator is waterproof. So you know, it’s spicier and more intense,” she smirked, enjoying the embarrassing sputtering reaction she evoked out of me.

“Anna!”

•••

While she did say that the vibrator might be useful someday, I still haven’t used it until now. Neither I have put batteries on it or touched it.

Although I was tempted. There were times I actually wanted to uh try it now that I finally admit I am sexually attracted to that insufferable butler.

And because of my confession, I have had more recurring dreams, explicit recurring dreams that featured him and I during the nights.

I would always end up worked up when I wake up during those nights.

Me breathing heavily. My face burning from the realistic imagery my brain conjured up. My body was sticky with sweat and feeling overheated. Of course not to mention, my inner thighs covered with my other bodily fluid. That being said, so were my underwears.

Thank goodness, Anna was a heavy sleeper.

Or should I say thank goodness for Zain?

She always came late at night. It makes sense the night was the only time he was free, but 1 am? Really? I am pretty sure they did some rated 18 stuff like I suspected.

I mean, four day ago, I spotted a red mark on the side of her neck as she was fixing her navy turtleneck.

Just to remind you, it’s not even cold in Nobel Michel. But she’s wearing a turtleneck.

Didn’t even ask, knowing she will deny it. Besides, I had other thoughts that kept my mind occupied the whole time. I was just beginning to calm down after waking up from a dream and bumping into him later in that day didn’t help at all.

•••

4 days ago



Pure blackness surrounds me and yet my eyes are opened. It was then I felt the silky sensation around my eyes. Appears to me, I am blindfolded by some sort of cloth.

But why?

Trying to move from the bed, I realized that both my hands are tied to what seemed like the headboard. I wriggled even more, in the hopes that the cloths tying my hands would come loose.

Soon I heard a chuckle from afar, stopping me.

“My. what a bad little lady are you, Ms Madeleine?” A familiar voice spoke out. Truly it was a voice I heard before… It had a commanding tone, it was velvety and smooth… the only voice I encountered something like that was…

Oh no.

“Claude?” I asked aloud.

Footsteps came closer to me. Soon, I felt the side of the bed dipping beside me and his warm minty breath upon my ears, sending me tingles.

“Yes…”

“What are you doing? Why am I blindfolded and tied? Can you untie me?” I was only replied with a deep chuckle.

“Unfortunately I cannot do that, my lady,” he slowly caressed one of my arms, leaving goosebumps in their wake. “You asked for this,” he cooed before licking the shell of my ear.

I let out a gasp, startled at the wet sensation.

What?

“What did I even do?”

“Tell me, Madeleine. Was everything before part of your plan?”

Claude’s breathe travelled down my neck, inciting a shiver from me.

“To drive me insane with your silly antics and your smart mouth?”

I felt his nose and lips grazing upon my skin before leaving a little butterfly kiss on my nape.

“To constantly make me think of you?”

He then gently bit the skin near my collar bones causing my breath to hitch.

“To try make me lose control when you’re around? Claude growled.

Silence ensued. I mean… That was actually what I wanted…

Taking the silence as a yes, Claude smirked.

“What a sneaky little lady.” The bed moved for me to feel him hovering above me, his delicate fingers playing with the buttons of my blouse. “Now that I know this was on purpose, I can’t wait to punish you,” he whispered darkly, leaning in again as he attacked my neck.

His actions caused me to unconsciously moan as I tilted my head back, giving him more access to my neck. His hand then went to efficiently unbuttoned the first top buttons of my blouse, exposing my ample cleavage and my lacy navy bra to his eyes. The slight touches of his fingers on my heated skin when he unbuttoned me have left me aching for more.

After he nuzzled his nose to my cleavage and inhaled the scent of my skin, he groaned.

“You smell intoxicating. I can’t wait to taste you.”

Opening the rest of the buttons and tugging down the cups of my bra, revealed my mounds, my peaks hardening from the sudden difference in temperature and excitement.

Claude slowly covered one of my breasts with his large hands, feeling the brush of my hardened nipple against his palm as he roughly massaged it. I arched my back from the bed at the pleasurable sensation. Not wanting to leave my other breast abandoned, he playfully flicked his tongue upon my nipple before taking it into his mouth, and causing a small cry to leave my lips.

As he swirled his tongue around in a clockwise direction and brushing his teeth along my current nipple, he slowly used his thumb and index finger to tug another, rolling them between his digits.

My body continued to writhe out of ecstasy, my hands tugging and fighting against the grip of the cloth around them, and my mind becoming more muddled with pleasure and lust. Soon, I was constantly letting out moans as his actions became more intense. Enjoying the reaction he was receiving from me, he released my nipple from his mouth and cooed teasingly while I whimpered weakly at the loss of the sensation.

“So responsive…”

Claude slid his hand down my shuddering body reaching the edge of my skirt. Stroking my thighs, his hand travelled under my skirt, getting closer to my covered nether region.

I gave out a shrill cry of pleasure as I felt his fingers rubbing my core through my arousal-stained lacy thong before tugging the top of it, causing it to rub roughly against my now swollen clit.

“Look how wet you’re getting and I haven’t even properly touched you,” he teased.
I felt my eyes rolling to the back of my head as desire consumed me, my body heaving heavily. After the slow continuous torture of him tugging my underwear, making it even more soaked in my juice, he finally pulled it down my legs while placing soft kisses during the journey. Once it’s off, his hand immediately reached out for my wet folds, sliding his fingers up and down, letting them coat in my juices.

Desperate for more stimulations, I shifted my body and opened my legs, giving him easier access and better view of my lips. Pleased at my eagerness, he rewarded me by making small and slow circles and stroking my lips surrounding my mound with his thumb.

Realizing I am positively dripping, Claude’s mouth watered. He quickly decided that using his fingers won’t simply do it anymore. Using his fingers to open my quivering cunt, he changed the position of his body, allowing his head to face my cunt. He leaned his head and pushed his nose into my slit, relishing in delicious scent it released. As Claude’s and my hormones beckon him and so were my begging cries, he licked one strip, from top to bottom. His entire body shuddered in ecstasy at the taste while my body jerked from the sensation of his tongue against my most private place.

“G-God! More!” I pleaded. “Please!”

Raising his eyebrows, he continued to go down on me, quicker and more intense, wanting to hear pretty words coming out from his lover, words that will send blood straight to his hardening member. He soon licked my clit, flicking it and moving around it clockwise with his tongue, prompting a loud moan from me.

“You like that?” With his mouth still on my clit, I could feel the vibrations of his voice upon my clit.

As I was about to answer, it was cut off by my own startled yelp as Claude pinched my clit, making my cunt to gush a bit more fluid.

“I guess you do,” Claude commented playfully, noticing and feeling my body’s reaction. He then used his fingers to spread the wetness around my wound before gently inserting one into my cunt. Multiple loud sobs left my lip as he groaned at the tightness of my walls, clenching his finger sporadically.

“You’re… So… Tight,” he gritted his teeth. He wished it was his member feeling this, but that can wait. “Just the way I like it.” He then started to move his finger in and out before inserting another in.

“C-Claude!” I whined, feeling full. Moaning at the erotic tone I had when his name dropped from my lips, he increased the speed and intensity of his thrusts, hitting my inside deeper. Soon all we can hear were the sounds of my moans and cries, his groans, and the filthy yet delicious squelching sounds of his fingers sliding in and out of me. The smell of sex was the only scent we both inhaled and exhaled.

I gasped as his fingers hit the g-spot deep inside me.

“C-Claude! There! Right there!” I tried to angle my body to make it easier for him to hit it again. He could feel my body trembling, my cunt clenching even harder as I neared my climax. Forcing through my clenches, he repeatedly hit my sweet spot with accuracy.

“Cum for me Madeleine. Show me you’re a good girl,” he commanded while he rubbed my clit harshly before tugging and pinching it. And with that, I fell over the edge.

“Claude!”

I sat up from my bed with a gasp, breathing heavily. My heart pacing fast and hard.

Holy fuck. That was too fucking real.

I took a glance at Anna, who’s sleeping on a separate bed beside mine, only to see her undisturbed and snoring lightly.

Thank god that she’s a heavy sleeper. God knows if I made … Noises. Speaking of noises, I hope I wasn’t so noticeable.

Now that my worry for being caught is over, I finally felt the stickiness between my inner thighs and how my soaked thong was uncomfortably clinging to my nether region. To say the least, it wasn’t the best feeling to go back sleeping, but good god. That’s probably the most intense and the filthiest dream I experienced ever since bumping him that night.

Just remembering what happened have caused the walls of my nether region to clench a few times.

Can you imagine if I bumped into the butler? I would die out of embarrassment.

I checked the clock on the side table only to see it that it was 7.25 am in the morning. There’s not enough time to go back to sleep (besides it’s also useless), so I hopped out of bed to get ready for the day. I remembered the forecast predicting today would be sunny and hot. To match with the weather, I picked out a lacy peach Alice McCall dress that featured a sweetheart neckline with short puffed sleeves. To go along with it, I paired it with Sophia Webster’s champagne glitter rosalind 100 leather sandals. Grabbing along some strapless nude bra and thong, I took off to the bathroom.

•••

It was later in the morning and Anna and I had finished our breakfast at the dining hall. Leaving the room, we both were caught up conversing and discussing our plans (not that plan, I meant plans for activities we might do outside). As I kept my sight down onto the small sheet of paper containing our plans, ignoring my surroundings, I bumped into someone’s back, prompting a surprised yelp to leave my lips while falling to the marble floor. The same time, the man also let out a grunt.

“Mads!”

Immediately recovering from the impact, I looked up and flusteredly tried to utter an apology.

“I am so sorry! I didn’t see where I was going. I was too focused-,” I was cut off by own small gasp when a familiar face turned around. The man I just bumped was the only person I wanted to avoid. Right then and there, I wanted to dig a grave and buried myself there.

You know it seems to me like my ancestors or some sort of deity above really wanted me to suffer.

Could it be because I accidentally destroyed the vase passed down by my ancestors? It’s reasonable but it was just an accident! It happens to everyone!

Claude, in all his cold (and powerfully attractive) glory, with his suit and hair perfectly in place, had an annoyed expression. It became more prominent when he looked down and discovered it was me in his presence.

“You’re still as clumsy and unladylike as ever I see,” he jabbed. “Did you not learn from your eavesdropping incident during your birthday?”

Could he stop bringing that incident up?

Bristled from the comment over a little accident, I fixed myself on the floor to appear more proper before shooting back a remark with equal fervor.

“You’re still as stiff and cold as ever, I see. I am surprised people still want to talk to you during their spare time, nonetheless hang around you,” mockingly raising my eyebrow, I peeked behind him to see Louis and Alberto. Both seemed to appear at lost and in discomfort (probably with my exchanges with Claude).

Eat that. Oh how I enjoyed seeing his reaction.

Claude expressed his annoyance and displeasure at my comment through his scowl and twitching of eyes.

“You should also frown less, Claude. Not only it prevents wrinkles around your mouth, it also makes the atmosphere less cold and suffocating,” I smirked as I crossed my arms in front of my chest. Claude, tempted to say something, bit back and resolved on just giving a nasty glare my way.

“I would say something, but I don’t want to stoop to the same level as a ungrateful, unsophisticated, and immature little girl. Tell me, did you hit your head in the past?”

What a hypocrite!

“You called me immature and yet you still make that kind of insults? Who’s the immature one now?” I pointed out. “To answer your immature question, no. I did not hit my head, but something must have happened to you in the past for you to be such a cold downer now.”

If I wasn’t so observant and sharp-eyed, I wouldn’t have noticed how Claude slightly stiffened and his fists clenching before he quickly recovered with a glare.

I think I ruffled his feathers because that glare seems to be darker and more intense. Maybe that was too far.

“How rude of you to assume about me and my past. I am simply being dutiful and professional in my job as a butler for the royal family. As for you,” Claude paused while shooting a judging glance at me. “It seems to me, you’re not doing your job, behaving like a lady of upper class.”

I scoffed. The nerves!

“Excuse me? I am sprawling on the floor because of you!”

Technically it was my fault for being unaware of my surroundings, but let’s keep it quiet. Anyways, I continued.

“If you are so professional and dutiful as a butler, shouldn’t you help me get up? Was that a slip up from Mr Oh-So-Perfect butler?”

Claude responded by bending down so his face is near to mine, his lips sneering. Surprised at the sudden close proximity, I slightly leaned back with a faint blush on my cheeks.

With a mocking tone, he replied.

“You? Didn’t you ever mention that you were a perfectly capable lady? Or was that a lie?” He leaned even more towards my ear to whisper. “Besides, I only serve the Spencer royal family, not you, Lady Madeleine…. But since everyone is watching and you’re embarrassing yourself staying on the floor like that, I’ll help you,” ending with a muffled chuckle. As he rose back to his height, he suddenly grabbed my hand.

It was so sudden that I didn’t even have time to react at how big his hand was and how it completely covered my whole hand.

Not to mention, he grabbed my hand with more force than needed, causing me to stand so quickly. So quickly, I stumbled on my high heels. And I know you know what that led to.

I lost my balance again, falling backwards with my arms flailing for help. As I closed my eyes while anticipating the impact of the cold marble floor, someone tugged me forward, causing my body to be thrust forward into someone’s chest and his gloved hand coming contact with my back.

Sensing that the person thrusting me to his chest was the same person who insulted me and yet helped me (out of forced and probably mock) just seconds ago, I refused to look up out of humiliation and (now fragile) pride. I could imagine his smug face.

Okay, maybe another reason I refused was the close proximity between our faces if I did look up. There was a huge likelihood that I would gawk at him, making everything more awkward and downright mortifying. Because despite how mean and an ass he is, he’s still goddamn attractive.

Anyways going back to the current situation, I definitely dug a deeper hole for myself.

As I was deep in thought, thinking about how I actually wanted to find a shovel and a perfect place to dig my grave, I was interrupted by Claude’s sarcasm.

“Somehow, you always manage to astonish me with your clumsiness and your manners.” His arm dropped since I no longer felt the touch of his hand on my back. “Now, will you please stop clinging to me?”

Oh fuck. I didn’t realize I’m still leaning against his chest. It literally flew from my mind. This couldn’t get any worse…

Immediately, I drew back from him, putting a fair amount of distance between us. As I did that, I realized there were few more people spectating our commotion. All of them either had a shocked or an amused expression, including Anna.

Oh my god. This got even worse.

I spun my head away from everyone, my long locks of hair covering the side of my flushed face.

“S-sorry…” I sputtered. “I am not always this clumsy.”

Claude just sent me a look, not believing a word I say.

“Sure, you’re not.”

“I am not-, you know what. Fine! Believe what you want!” Annoyed how this situation ended up and my pride all battered, I gave up arguing with him and instead acknowledged Louis and Alberto before stomping away from them as I clutched my purse tightly.

“Madeleine wait!” Anna cried out after me after she breaking out from her shocked stupor when I passed by her.

“Will you excuse me.”

Soon, I heard a quick pace of footsteps getting closer to me before Anna came in my view, her chest heaving.

“You should stop doing this, running off while leaving me there! Running in wedges aren’t comfy you know!” She took a deep breath. “And wow, I really need to exercise more.”

“Sorry, that was so embarrassing,” I groaned.

Anna faced me. “Hey! At least, you were able to shoot some comebacks and remarks out!” With a sheepish smile, she continued. “But yea, that was brutal. I know you’re not the most graceful person, but damn I didn’t know you were that clumsy.”

I stopped and turned to Anna, causing her to halt her stride too.

“It’s not that I am clumsy. It’s just that something embarrassing happened earlier before we bumped into him,” I puffed my cheeks to hide my fluster. “I was hoping we didn’t bump to him ever today.”

She regarded me with suspicion yet intrigued, arms on her hips.

“Why is that?”

I scanned the surroundings warily only to see that we were alone. I realized that I dashed so far from the commotion, that we ended up in front of the grand library. I tell you, the library is literally on the opposite side of where we were.

“I… I had a dream about him last night.”

Anna slumped in disappointment.

“Oh. So? You had a couple of dreams about him in the pa-”

 

“-No! This one is different!” I cried out. She raised her eyebrow.

“Enlighten me.”

I took a step towards her, closing the distance between us before I lowered my voice.

“This isn’t just like any dream… Okay maybe similar, but still! This one is… uh explicit-” Anna cut me off after leaning her head back, confused.

“I thought you told me before that all your dreams about him were dirty?”

“They are, but they were more like teasing!” I tugged her back so she could hear what I say next. “This one is more explicit. The real deal… W-well the o-oral real deal,” I stammered out the last words. Saying oral in public gives me anxiety.

The second I said the word ‘oral’ in my confession, Anna let slip a gasp before leaning back again looking at me with her eyes widened and mouth wide opened.
“No way,” she exclaimed in disbelief. I just moaned.

“It’s true!”

Anna had a thoughtful look before shooting me a question.

“Is that why you looked like a ghost when we, actually you, bumped into him earlier? You looked like you wanted to be in anywhere but there with him,” she ended smugly.

I rolled my eyes before nodding in agreement.

“Yes Anna, that’s why I didn’t want to meet him,” I drawled. “Seeing him would trigger my mind into remembering him blindfolding me and eating me-”

It started to occur what I was about to ramble next was unsuitable and inappropriate to be spoken out loud. So I shut up before it’s too late. Unfortunately, it’s Anna and she caught what I was about to say next. I silently cursed. On the other hand, Anna had a smug shit-eating grin.

“Ohohoho! Kinky,” she teased. “Didn’t know you’re into this kind of stuff when it comes to sex.”

My cheeks flushed, not only because she’s speaking so loudly but also the fact that I mentally agreed that I like being eaten out and blindfolded. Argh!

“Can you keep your voice down?” I scolded her. “This isn’t our room! We’re lucky people don’t go here often.”

Anna raised her hands in defence. “Okay fine… But...,” she sent a mischievous gaze. “I remembered you falling and him pulling you to his chest, his arm ended up on your back… so how did it feel like? Was his hand as big as you dreamt?”

“Anna!” I shouted, my entire being growing hotter by the second.

•••

Over the course of the next two days, let’s just say Claude and I did not get along whenever we come across one another. Believe it or not, our encounter was more than I expected or planned and I couldn’t help but shoot snide comments every time I got the chance causing his nose to flare and his permanent frown to be more prominent. It’s very clear to me that he regarded me as a thorn in his flesh, often firing back some biting remarks at me. I admitted some of his infuriating sharp-witted remarks did sting my ego a bit, but… there’s just this fierceness and confidence (maybe arrogance) in his expression when he says them that caused me to feel something different, igniting a desire within my very core. It made me wonder if he also carries them behind doors.

Wouldn’t that … be exciting…?

Unknowingly, the thought of it brought desirable shivers down my spine and a sigh to leave my lips.

And whenever I had the chance to watch the demonstrations going on from the background, my gaze would always end up transfixed on him. Be it peeking from the windows, behind the doors, or through the keyholes. There is just really something about him that left me entranced as always. The way he carried himself exudes confidence and dignity and you can see it from his movements.

He executed all his task with such ease, sureness, and such grace, clearly knowing his crafts. Especially when he prepared tea! His ability to quickly identify flaws in preparations and resolve them made me feel at awe of him. I knew he’s been trained as a butler for all his life, but I couldn’t help but be utterly impressed. And I genuinely thought he enjoys doing what he does and I could feel pride and confidence emanating from his entire being. If Zain didn’t tell me he’s a butler at the party, I would have assumed that he’s a prince.

I noticed when the demonstrations or evaluations were over, Claude would stay the longest and have a back and forth discussion with Zain for feedbacks. I would hear them exchanging and recommending techniques. From that, it showed me a new side of Claude that I admire. He was passionate, hard-working, and serious about his profession. To be honest, I genuinely respect someone if they have that kind of attitude and ethics toward their work.

Little did I know, my newfound admiration for him would grow into something more as time passed and the more I interacted with him.

Chapter Text

Knock knock knock.

“You may come in.”

The door to my study room clicked open. I glanced up over my glasses from my desktop to see Eloisa coming with an envelope in her hand. As she walked closer, I minimized the business documents my father sent to me.

I slightly rolled my office chair away from the desk to see her properly. She extended her hand towards me, handing the envelope.

“You got a letter from Prince Wilfred, my lady. It seems like an invitation to a party.”

I took the envelope from her, giving thanks, before inspecting its appearance. The back had my full name scripted in gold letterings, the flap in front is sealed with a wax stamp of the Spencer’s family crest.

“Who delivered the letter?”

“The Spencers' messenger.”

Hm. I thought it was the butler’s job to do that. I guess I was wrong. I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed.

“I see.”

I cautiously opened the flap, making sure the seal didn’t ruin the envelope so much. I took the letter out and unfolded it.

Ah. It’s handwritten. How lovely!

Dear Lady Madeleine,

Accept my deepest apology for not contacting you soon, but I would like to thank you for inviting me to your 25th birthday party. It was a pleasure and a honor to be there, especially dancing with you, Lady Madeleine.

To return your gesture, I would like to personally invite you to my 27th birthday party on the 5th of April. I have placed three passes for you and the Zhangs in the envelope with all the details stated on them. You will need to show your pass to the royal guards at the entrance.

I took the envelope and opened its mouth to see the three passes. They look more like cards though with fancy letter engraving and the royal crest. I turned my gaze again to the letter.

Furthermore, it would be a missed opportunity if I didn’t ask you this. It would be my greatest pleasure if you stay at the royal manor beforehand. That way, you do not have to worry about accommodation. Our kingdom is busy during the spring.

And speaking of spring, our kingdom is bustling with activities and celebrations during this time around and I would be delighted to show you around the kingdom to show what we are known for.

I hope to see you there, Lady Madeleine.

Sincerely,
Wilfred A. Spencer

Oh.

I glanced at Eloisa, appearing confused yet surprised. I don’t know how to react to this. Not only I am invited to a prince’s birthday party, I am also invited to stay at the royal household… Despite the fact I only met and dance with him once.

Eloisa raised an eyebrow. “Yes, my lady? Will you confirm to the event? Shall I start the preparation?”

“Y-yes, I will be attending to his birthday party but,” I replied with a stutter. “But there’s more besides this… Prince Wilfred invited me to stay in the Spencers Chateau, days prior to the party.”

Eloisa blinked, processing the information in. “Oh.”

A short silence ensued.

Oh,” she repeated, now with a mischievous tone, her grin playful.

“Seems to me the crown prince of Philip wants to spend more time with you,” she cooed.

I rolled my eyes, scoffing at the ridiculous suggestion.

“Please, I don’t think there’s anything to it beside him being a gentleman and a good friend,” I shrugged, only for Eloisa to chuckle.

“You keep telling yourself that. You know what’s one way a man could capture a woman’s heart besides food? Being an actual gentleman to everyone.” I just shook my head in amusement.

“Okay Eloisa, don’t go so deep into this... While I do think being a gentleman is an important trait a woman look for in a man, I don’t think now that’s enough to get a woman’s heart immediately. I think it takes time and trust,” I wondered, remembering my past awful relationship.

“Anyways, will you notify my confirmation to both the stay and the party to Claude? And will you please start the preparation for both? I will be leaving tomorrow.”

Eloisa nodded slowly. “Of course, Madeleine.” She spun around to the door before she stopped and turned her face to the side. Her grin, prominent.

At the smile, I raised an eyebrow questioningly.

“I just realized that you refer the head steward of the Spencer family by his name.”

I froze what I was doing.

Shit. I didn’t even realize that I said his name instead of his title. It just came out so naturally from my mouth…

Cheeks red from being caught, I tried to come up with a reasonable excuse as I moved my hands around to help explain.

“I-I didn’t mean to! It’s just, there was this b-butler evaluation thing that resides the same date as my stay in Nobel Michel’s palace… and…. and Anna and I often bumped into them …. especially him.”

Eloisa seems content with my excuse (or just decided not to poke into this embarrassing matter for the sake of my pride) that she nodded and left the study room without a word.

When the door finally clicked close, I flopped onto my office chair groaning, covering my eyes with my hand.

“You’re so stupid Mads. I can’t believe I did that when Eloisa was there! And even worse, my expression was obvious as ever after being caught! Now, she might suspect something! You’re truly so stupid.”

As I kept berating myself, I realized that I told Eloisa I was leaving tomorrow. I took a brief glance at my watch to see it’s already almost 4 in the afternoon and I only have a few hours left to pack.

“Shit!”

I immediately hurried to walk-in closet in my bedroom (the study room is connected) and started choosing out attires. Let’s just say, I stayed in that room for more than 2 hours with Eloisa arriving later to lend a hand.

•••
Rewind to 26th of March,
Prince Wilfred’s study, Spencers Chateau

It was like any other day in for Wilfred A. Spencer. When he has no duties to attend to outside of the manor, he would spend most of his time at his study to work on a pile of documents or meet with an official.

Out of his royal attire, he donned a black sweater with a light yellow shirt underneath. Most of the time, a pair of black dress pants would go with them.

It was later in the morning, and the prince was scribbling notes on a report when he heard a familiar pattern of knocking.

It seems like Claude is finally here,’ he thought to himself.

“You may come in.” The door softly creaked open and there appeared Claude all prim and proper.

Wilfred glanced over his reading spectacles at the butler before straightening up his back, hearing a resounding yet satisfying cracking noise. He released his grip on his fountain pen and stretched both his arms

“Ah, Claude. You’re finally back. How was the evaluation?”

Claude replied blankly.

“The evaluation went mostly smoothly,” his eyes then twitched with his lip showing a slight frown of disapproval. “However, there was a source of distraction… So insufferable,” muttering the last two words under his breath, a slight annoyance evident in his tone.

The prince raised his head in curiosity and leaned back after catching his butler’s unusual comment. Especially that last two words.

‘He went to the evaluation every year, and only this year, he had a problem… I find it hard to believe for Zain to slip up. So what could it be? Or maybe who?’

“Why is that?”

“Lady Madeleine and Lady Anna were there.”

Oh?

Wilfred furrowed his eyebrows in confusion.

“Oh, Lady Madeleine. I don’t see what’s the problem? I recalled them being lovely when I met them at Lady Madeleine’s party.”

At his comment, Claude scoffed out of disagreement.

Lady Madeleine? Lovely?

“I frankly find that hard to believe.”

How interesting. It seems like Claude and Lady Madeleine… have become well “acquainted” the past few days.

Interested and curious, the prince inquired, poking deeper into this matter.

“It seems like you’ve come to known Lady Madeleine quite well during your time in the Nobel Michel palace. Enlighten me, Claude. What did she do to disagree with my view on her? She can’t be that different.”

Claude hesitated, contemplating whether to confess or not. It’s highly unprofessional for a butler to rant during his duty, but on the other hand, the prince had asked.

His sense of duty to fulfil the prince’s request won over him. Maybe he’ll make it short as possible…

“Very well, if your highness wants to know,” he sighed. “If you allow me.”

Wilfred nodded, giving him an okay signal.

Claude pondered. How can he describe Lady Madeleine without his irritation seeping through his tone. He can’t help but whenever he thought back to his time at the Nobel Michel palace and how frustrating that woman was. Maybe the smallest blow.

“Lady Madeleine does not act like a lady of upper class. She would use every chance she gets in annoying me and shooting me distasteful remarks. Not one day during my stay in the palace, we had a civil conversation I believe. We would always end up bickering. It’s safe to say, your highness, I do not want to do anything with her.”

By the end of the rant, Claude’s looked absolutely downright annoyed, his mouth in a prominent frown, and his eyebrows scrunched. Even throughout the rant, there were times, his eyes twitched and even discretely rolled. Was he becoming a bit red?

For the first time in his life, never have Wilfred seen the head steward so worked up over anyone or anything this much. I mean sure, he occasionally gets annoyed and uses his sharp tongue to come up with clever and awful jabs but that’s it! He would forget (or let go) about people or things that annoyed him and move on!

Wilfred can’t help but feel interested and curious, and maybe a tiny bit amused.

No cross that out, he was very amused. So Claude finally met someone who can cause a rise in him and doesn’t back down even after he throws snarky comments.

Wilfred had already planned to invite her to stay at the manor and attend his birthday party in return of her gesture. He even had already written a letter for her with the passes inside.

...But after listening to the butler’s rant on Lady Madeleine? More reason for him to invite her and see the bickering between Claude and her.

Trying to hide his smile, he replied.

“Seems like you and Lady Madeleine get along well.” There was a slight teasing in Wilfred’s tone. At the comment, Claude spun his head at the prince, disbelieved and slightly peeved.

“Your Highness, did you not hear what I said about her? We-,” Claude stopped mid-sentence as he finally noticed the look on Wilfred’s face, absolutely trying to conceal his smile, but utterly failing. “You find this funny,” Claude appeared unamused.

Wilfred just shrugged, chuckling a bit, as he found this whole situation very entertaining.

“Well, of course, it’s not always an everyday occurrence to see you getting completely irked and worked up by someone. We grew up together, and I know you. You’re very hard-headed, demanding, and thick-skinned-”

“Thanks for the boost of confidence, your highness,” Claude cut off, his tone sarcastic.

“-But what I noticed is that even though you get irritated easily by people and things, you tend to let go and forget about them easily,” Wilfred pointed out. Claude didn’t have time to ponder before the prince continued.

“So, seeing you like this was quite a refreshing sight.”

“What you’re saying is that you enjoy me being annoyed,” the butler deadpanned.

“Don’t twist my words. It’s just new to see you getting so worked up this time over someone. Your tone held so much irritation for her. Usually, when I asked you about what happened or what someone did, that irritation wasn’t this obvious or intense. Lady Madeleine really must gotten under your skin during the evaluation huh?”

Claude rolled his eyes.

“That’s an understatement, your Highness. If I may be frank, Lady Madeleine completely drives me up the wall. She makes my blood boil. I would have to calm myself down for a few seconds every time after we have a spat,” he exclaimed with exasperation.

Interesting. For him to have the need to calm down, Lady Madeleine must be quick-witted and sharp with her tongue. And possibly have a fiery personality, for she was able to stand down against Claude. Wilfred looked even more forward for her stay here. That is if she chooses to accept.

Speaking of invitation… The letter!

Pretending to look conflicted, his mouth in a grimace, Wilfred opened his desk drawer and grabbed the letter. “That’s… upsetting… But unfortunately, you both have to try to get along with one another … or at least try to be civil, as I am going to invite her to stay here and attend my birthday.” A sheepish smile played on his lips as he placed the letter on top of the desk and slid it to where Claude was.

“Would you give this to Max? Make sure the letter arrives at the Zhangs residence in two days.”

Claude had his mouth slightly gaped open in disbelief. Did the prince not hear what he said? Or did he jinx himself for saying that he did not want to do anything with Lady Madeleine? No, the prince was already planning to invite her when he was away since he wrote a letter….

Unbelievable.

Composing himself, he tried to look unbothered, although concern and disagreement were seeping through his expression. He had his eyebrows slightly furrowed.

“Setting my feelings aside, are you certain about Lady Madeleine staying over here prior? Attending the party seems reasonable but your highness, for Lady Madeleine to stay here … People will make incorrect assumptions about you two. Words about it can spread outside the manor…,” Claude paused before looking befuddled. He must have realized something.

“Besides, wouldn’t Lady Madeleine find this offer odd? It just seems out of the blue and you both just met for the first time during her birthday party.”

If this was any person questioning his decision, Wilfred would be peeved. But this was Claude and he was just looking out for him after the scandal with his older brother, Stephen giving up his royal status. Thinking about his brother’s action still left a bitter taste in his mouth.

That may be so, but Claude too was worrying over how the public perceives him. He noticed that Wilfred and the Spencers’ royal designer were getting more comfortable with each other and with Lady Madeleine now in the picture … The press would be having a field day!

But anyways, Wilfred had to agree that Claude was right. It might seem odd to everyone, but that won’t deter Wilfred from not inviting her still. Now that he really wanted to see Lady Madeleine not backing down against the butler.

And so, the prince dismissed the butler’s concern with a wave of a hand.

“We’ll figure it out later. For now, let’s just think of this as a way to return her gesture. I also recalled Lady Madeleine confessing to me that she never visited Philip outside of business-related reasons. This is a great opportunity to show her around, especially in spring.”

Claude still felt unsure, but he would let go of the decision for now. Knowing from past experiences, the prince too was stubborn and he also would get upset if he’s questioned too much.

But why did he feel like the prince had another reason for the stay?

Maybe he’s thinking too much. He shouldn’t suspect the prince over a gesture.

“Very well, your highness,” he grabbed the letter from the desk. “I’ll be taking the letter to your private secretary. Will you be needing anything else, your highness?”

“Would you mind brewing your special herbal tea? I think I might be getting a headache from looking over the documents all day,” taking off his reading glasses, Wilfred let out a tired sigh. Claude couldn’t stop the gentle smile forming on his lips as he took a bow and left the room. He owed so much to the Spencer family for freeing him from a traumatic situation and providing him a roof, food, and care in the manor. Most importantly, he got someone whom he thought of as a brother.

From that day on, Claude decided he would repay the Spencers back through his service and loyalty.

•••
29th of March
The Zhangs’ Residence

“You know, I still find everything about this odd,” I heard Anna’s sudden comment behind me as I gathered all my essential items into my handbag. She was at the residence to help me pack some last minute items and wave me off.

Wallet, ID, lip balm, lipstick, sleeping pills, birth controls, earphones, mints, wet wipes and tissue, portable phone charger, compact mirror, sanitary pads …. All checked!

“Hm? About this whole staying offer?” I asked. Anna confirmed it by with an “mmhmm” sound.

“Yeah. Don’t you think it’s odd Mads? I mean no offence, you guys just met during your birthday fiesta and suddenly he’s inviting you over to stay in Spencer’s royal palace slash manor whatever it’s called. I feel there’s something more into this.” There was some sort of insinuation in her tone. “Could it be he’s interested in you?”

Not this again. I already had to deal that with Eloisa.

I let out an exasperated groan before spinning on my heels to face her.

“Anna, I really find that hard to believe. He’s just being nice since I think I told him I never really visited Philip outside of business reasons during that night. So maybe he thought this would be a good opportunity to offer with his birthday party?” I guessed. Anna just shrugged in response, unconvinced.

“Maybe but you know after the whole situation with his older brother, the citizens of Philip is urging Prince Wilfred to find a suitor…. Not only that, a suitor born from the aristocracy.”

Again, another insinuation. Hesitation started to tickle the back of my mind, but I refused to give in.

“Anna, could you know maybe drop it? I got the same assumption from Eloisa and it’s getting to my mood for this trip. It will be quite a trip to Philip and I don’t want to leave a bad second impression on the prince,” my voice had a pleading tone. “Besides, somehow words got out that he’s getting close with a woman within the manor, so please, don’t look further into this.”

At my weary expression and tone, Anna dropped the matter and nodded, an apologetic smile visible on her lips.

“Sorry Mads, didn’t mean to irritate you…. But,” a wary expression appeared on Anna’s face. “ But you also find this weird and out of nowhere do you?”
I pondered for a while, my hand under my chin.

Yes, I do find it weird.

I voiced my agreement with a hum and a nod.

“It is, but I am just going to forget how weird it is and take advantage of this trip because I deserve it,” I cheekily winked.

In response, Anna just rolled her eyes, amused. “Deserve from what? You told me yesterday you were lazing around.”

I was about to argue when we both heard a knock on my door, with Eloisa’s head popping out once the door is opened.

“My lady, your car is ready. We should leave now before it gets too dark.”

Nodding my acknowledgement, I grabbed my handbag and followed her out with Anna. As we went on our way to the entryway, Anna prompted a question out of curiosity.

“I was wondering why are you taking the car, instead of a plane to Philip and why leave in the afternoon?”

“I thought it would be better for both of us if I arrived in the kingdom under the radar. If I use a car, a mini cooper at that, and leave later in the day, it would attract less attention. By then I would arrive at the prince’s place maybe about 5 or 6 in the evening with no paparazzi and wandering people in sight. Claude would definitely appreciate my effort,” I shot a smirk. Anna sent a mischievous grin my way at my last comment.

“How considerate of you, Lady Madeleine. Now that’s what I called a proper lady.” It seems like Anna was trying (but failing) to imitate the head steward of the Spencer family as she deepened her voice, while she raised her head, chin jutting forward, looking as snobbish as ever.

I couldn’t help but let a snicker escape and I joined in. I tried to look like how Claude is when he’s angry with me, eyes narrowed and twitching, lips glowering, with my voice deepened and very posh. “You dare mock me? How childish.”

We briefly glanced each other with our dramatic impression of Claude before bursting out laughing. From afar, I could see Eloisa shaking her head, probably at our antics. When we finally reached the doors, two butlers opened them as we slipped through. There was the red vintage mini cooper parked in front, with the passenger door opened. My usual driver, Xinhua was holding onto the door’s handle. Behind, the day was becoming less bright, the sun not shining and hot as before.

Welp, I guess it’s time to go.

I wheeled my body to face Anna and threw her a big smile.

“Well, I guess I need to go. Don’t miss me too much,” I teased, only for Anna to scoff.

“Miss you? It’s not like we’re not going to see each other for years. Besides,” there was a playful glint in her eyes, her lips set into a coy smile. “I will be having fun with Z. Oh please, don’t be so childish,” Anna jokingly chided me when I made vomiting noises.

“I am not! I just did not want to hear that. That detail was super unnecessary.” I pulled her into a hug so I could whisper into her ears. “But now that you mention that, just make sure you stay safe. Use protection, kay?” Anna’s arms soon wrapped around me after that, before I felt her patting my back. “Don’t worry mom, I know the drill. Thanks for worrying though.” We leaned back giving each other a tender smile. Even though we make fun of each other a lot, we deeply care for one another, always having each other’s back through thick and thin.

“By the way, make sure you bring the toy I got you. Did you bring it? You might need it since you’re going to see C more often now.”

And then the wholesome moment was broken.

At least she lowered her voice into a soft whisper, but man, do I sometimes want to tell her off to not talk about that outside.

“I am not sure if you realized, but your timing to say things like that are awful... Or are you doing this just to get a reaction out of me?” I squinted my eyes.

“Maybe. Maybe not. But seriously. You really should bring it.” The fact she’s actually serious about me needing to bring that was amusing and weird.

“Relax, I did bring it. Just for uh emergencies,” I awkwardly ended it while scratching the back of my neck. “As you said, I am going to be around him more… Not sure where I am going to put that once I arrived.”

“Wait so does that mean you already used it befor-”

“No, I haven’t Anna. There weren’t really any urgent emergencies. Few dreams here and there but not as frustrating as that one.”

Anna slumped in disappointment.

We must have lost track of time as Eloisa cleared her throat loudly to get our attention. I glanced at my watch. Indeed, I was supposed to leave minutes ago.

“Okay for real, I have to go. You don’t want me to face the wrath of a certain butler.”

A chuckle escaped from my best friend. “Yea I don’t want you to experience that the first thing you arrive there.” She gave me a quick hug before I went inside the car. As Xinhua closed the door, Anna shouted at me to have fun.

I only replied by sending a grin and a thumbs up.

Oh, I will definitely have fun.

As the car drove away, further from the residence, I smiled to myself.

•••
6 pm in the evening
Philip and the Spencers’ Royal Manor

Throughout the whole 2-hour trip, I passed the time by conversing with Xinhua, listening to music with my earphones on, text messaging Anna, munching some granola bars, and sleeping. Okay, most of the time was me sleeping. There were times we stopped by resting stations. I insisted, not only because I needed to stretch and get some fresh air, but also for Xinhua. Driving for two hours straight isn’t fun. I know he’s used to it, but I couldn’t help but feel I should tell him to stop the car since I noticed that he discretely tried to stretch in the car. While at the rest stops, I tried to buy some quick bites for Xinhua and me, to which he accepted his graciously. After the third resting station, we drove to Philip without stopping.

I was a bit worried when we reached the boundary and stopped by the border officials, I thought the identification process would take longer, but fortunately, it didn’t? It was then I remembered I am staying over at the royal family’s place and the prince must have told the officials about my visit.

Quite convenient I must say.

After we were allowed to enter the kingdom, we went through a vast area of meadows with occasional small villages, farms, and crops here and there. And then it transitioned to more buildings. No, not those tall skyscrapers or office buildings made of modern glass and steel, like the one seen in New York or Shanghai. The buildings here are the ones I saw in France, two-storeys, stone, and steep roofs. They definitely have a sort of classicism influence in here, although more toned down. Even the infrastructure is something you would see in France. The sun was already setting down, and the sky turning into a dark shade of purple, and yet the town’s still bustling with activities. Vendors were still shouting their prices in the public market, locals laughing and relaxing as they enjoy their hot drinks in the cafes, musicians playing slow songs as an audience gathered by to listen, some dancing. The atmosphere seemed really warm and it’s further amplified by the yellow light ignited from the street lamps. I gazed at the sight in front of me in awe. If I could see myself, my eyes were probably sparkling, my smile is something you see in a child who’s about to open their Christmas present. I will definitely go out and explore the town tomorrow!

As I continued to admire the surroundings and drank in the welcoming atmosphere of Philip, I didn’t realize we arrive at the royal manor, well the gates. The sound of windows rolling down and the royal guards, all in white uniform and their bayonets slung to their side, leaned down to ask for our identification and purpose. After stuttering my full name nervously giving them my identification card with a shaky hand the same time, while Xinhua calmly stating our the purpose, the guard extracted a piece of paper and glanced back and forth between my card and the paper, and then back at me. I guess the piece of paper is a picture of me…..

The guard then grasped a small flashlight and flash the light onto the identity card, inspecting it fully to see whether it’s forged or not. Once he was satisfied, he pressed his earpiece to speak to somebody.

“Your royal highness, your visitor is here,” he uttered gruffly. Voices were heard on the device before the guard nodded and ordered the gates to be opened.

Passing through everything, I observed the buildings, including where the family resides were influenced by classicism. Although it was already dark, I could see the Spencers appreciate nature and art, there were a quite number of gardens and statues throughout the vast area. I also noticed there’s a forest nearby.

When we finally reached the main manor, the crown prince and the head steward were already standing up at the front. Wilfred had his royal uniform on, with the white coat, gold embeddings and medals attached to it, and ruffles on his shoulders. His blonde hair was the usual, a bit messy. Like his personality, the prince had a calm gentle smile. On the other hand, Claude well is Claude. I would describe him, but then I could ramble on …. And that’s not exactly healthy for my mind…

But anyways, surprisingly, he didn’t look annoyed, rather expressionless. I guess it might be because of the prince being present and he’s still on duty. As I stepped out of the car, Wilfred and Claude went down a few stairs. It was not long they were standing right in front of me, face to face and I finally took notice of a box wrapped in silver paper with a white ribbon tied around it being held by Claude.

This couldn’t be for me…. I mean we’re not exactly close friends (yet) and I also didn’t even bring a gift…

“Good evening, Lady Madeleine. I hope your trip to Philip went well,” prince Wilfred gently greeted me before taking one of my hand and placing a kiss on top. I tried to muffle my surprised gasp. I wasn’t still used to uh good-looking guys, nonetheless princes, doing things like that. Hiding my inner turmoil from his previous action, I tried to reply back with calm, sending him a small yet flustered smile.

“Good evening, your royal highness. And thank you for asking, my trip was indeed well. And thank you for inviting me to your birthday and for me to stay here… I felt I am undeserving to receive such an offer from your highness.”

After all, we both just met once…. Also felt a bit odd about this, but I’m just going to keep it inside.

The crown prince quickly denied my comment with a shake of his head.

“Nonsense, my lady. You are perfectly deserving. Ever since you confessed to me during your party that you haven’t truly seen Philip, I felt the urge to invite you here. It was perfect timing that my birthday was near, so I can use that opportunity for you to stay and explore my kingdom.”

“Oh, that’s really nice of you. Can’t believe you still caught that despite my rambling during our dance that night.”

Wilfred responded by shooting a grin. However I saw, it’s a bit of teasing?

“Why of course, our conversation was quite a blow of fresh air. I had a pleasurable time dancing and conversing with you, my lady.”

At his first comment, I wasn’t sure if he was making fun of me, but after detecting his tone was genuine, I gave him a smile.

“Likewise. By the way, are all princes this charming and smooth? Is that one of your responsibilities as princes?”

From afar, I caught Claude rolled his eyes inconspicuously, resulting in me arching an eyebrow.

So, he still finds me annoying. How nice.

An entertained chuckle escaped from the prince, before he answered back cheekily, although maybe a bit cheesy.

“Only to those that I like.”

“Well, I am honoured.”

After thanking Xinhua for placing my suitcase beside me, I finally turned to Claude, our eyes meeting. I greeted him with the sweetest smile, causing him to be slightly stunned for a brief moment before his face went neutral.

“Hello, Claude. I can see you’re still good at greeting guests. Not sure if you’re happy to see me because of your expression, or lack thereof.”

At my remark, the butler’s irritation shown through despite his facade. The corners of his mouth are curved down, and his hold on the box tightened. On the other hand, the prince appeared to be enjoyed. There was also a glint of excitement in his eyes…

Huh.

“I only properly greet guests that do not start fights every time,” the butler shot back calmly. I gasped with much exaggeration, my hand is placed on my chest acting as if I was offended.

“I was only pointing out what was obvious so maybe you could improve. No need to be defensive,” I tilted my head before presenting him a sarcastic pout. “And favouritism isn’t a good look on you.”

I could sense that Claude’s patience was almost close to snapping, as now his eyes narrowed and his lips now in an obvious scowl. His body slightly shook.

“It’s not favouritism. I just don’t bother with guests who act like children. Immature and disrespectful. Maybe you should go back to finishing school? Clearly, you’re starting to forget some etiquettes.”

Now, it was my turn to frown from his sharp jab. As we continued to shoot snarky remarks back and forth, the prince just stayed silent, observing the spectacle right in front of his eyes. It looked like the bicker was really quite an odd yet fresh sight for him. I forgot the prince was there as I was super caught up in this snark battle with the head steward.

Seems like the prince was also too caught up as he didn’t intervene until he felt the gust of wind and saw the sky darkening.

“Excuse me,” he interrupted, cutting Claude off from finishing his insult. As like I said, the head steward and I forgot the prince was there.

So when we focused our attention onto him and comprehended that he saw this whole situation unfold, we stiffened. We both then quickly fixed how we present ourselves with me fixing my skirt and my stance and him with his tie even though our clothes weren’t even wrinkled and out of place. Probably to act like nothing weird happened.

Sending a glare my way, Claude tried to apologize before Wilfred waved him off.

“Your royal highness, I apologize you hav-”

“That’s fine,” the prince’s tone was nonchalant, resulting me to slightly gape from surprise. On the other hand, Claude appeared to be downright bewildered, with him tilting his head to the side and opening his mouth to argue.

“But your highness, what you saw, was completely improper! Both in Lady Madeleine’s part,” the head steward coldly emphasized my name. I knew the timing was inappropriate, but the way he said my name and his intensity sent chills down my spine. Claude continued to his argument. “-and my part. The situation shouldn’t ever happen!”

He then threw a look at me, to take responsibility for the situation I created. Yes, I admitted. However, I didn’t expect it to be that long.

“Um, yes, I too, apologize for what happened between Claude and I. I was just teasing him for good fun-”

“-Which is still highly inappropriate for a lady of aristocracy to act like that-”

“Excuse me, it’s highly rude and inappropriate for a head steward of a royal family to act like that,” I shot back. “As I was saying, your royal highness, I intentionally meant no harm. It was really for good fun. Seems like your head steward is too serious to take a joke.”

Before Claude could even answer, Wilfred intervened swiftly knowing that this could start another bicker.

“Like I said before, it’s fine. It’s not a huge problem.” For a prince who just saw something like this, perhaps he looked too calm. I would assume he would be at least a little bit disgruntled since Claude immediately apologized (or was that butlers supposed to do when something goes awry?), but no. He just shrugged it off. What’s even weirder is that he looked completely entertained now, sporting a small smirk.

“While indeed it’s not a common proper behaviour I see from a butler or a lady like you,” in spite of my cheeks burning from embarrassment, I continued to listen, anticipating what he’s going to say next. “I am going to overlook that because truthfully, I found the whole argument shockingly amusing to observe and hear.”

Now that’s a revelation. Of all the people, the crown prince of Philip. I wasn’t sure how to react, so I just stood there gaping like a goldfish, clearly dumbfounded. I tried to find the words but nothing came into my mind. From my side view, I could see Claude sputtering.

“What… But…-”

Wilfred didn’t even bother letting him speak as he took the wrapped box out of Claude’s grasp and offered it to me, breaking me out from my stupor.

“As a welcoming gift to Philip, please accept this. Inside the box contains our kingdom’s various special tea blends, something we are known for. Claude prepared and made them just recently. During your stay, if you ever feel like drinking tea, you can call Claude. He brews tea very well.” At the mention of butler’s name, I gazed at Claude, who appeared very proud yet the same time bashful at the compliment.

I must say the sight was cute.

“Why thank you, I gladly accept your gift and I cannot wait to try one of the tea blends,” I smiled appreciatively. Since Claude was the one who made it, obviously I have to express my gratitude too. I spun on my heels to him. The second my attention was on him, the butler regarded me with suspicion, assuming I would make a biting remark. I rolled my eyes at his reaction before giving a crooked flustered smile and nod of appreciation.

“Umm I know we just had a silly argument, but I still would like to offer my gratitude and acknowledgment for preparing the tea blends inside… And um I look forward in trying them in the future. Of course, also during my stay here … I look forward trying your freshly brewed tea ...” By the end, I was already mumbling. I stared elsewhere but Claude to distract myself the fact that my whole body was burning from awkwardness. I wasn’t used to saying stuff like this to someone, especially to someone I picked up a fight with just before. And especially to someone who more less I found attractive….

Or maybe I am just naturally awkward and uncomfortable complimenting people of the opposite sex…

Anyways, I got the impression that the butler didn’t expect I would say something nice to come out of my mouth, because he currently displayed a stunned expression, his mouth opening and closing, eyes widened, eyebrows raised. Not knowing how to react, he composed himself before nodding, acknowledging what I said while displaying a slight flush on his cheeks.

“It’s nothing, Lady Madeleine. It’s what I do.”

Glancing back and forth between us, the crown prince’s interest sparked. We were at each other’s throat, and suddenly we’re acting civil and even shy towards another. What in the world? He would think about it later since they were still outside the manor even though he attempted to bring us all in earlier.

Breaking the moment with a clap, the prince announced that we should go and continue the conversation inside. I immediately agreed, noticing the weather here is a tiny bit chillier than back home. I was about to grasp my baggage when Claude strode to where I was standing and took it with him.

“Here, let me take it for you. The thought of you breaking your stickly arms on the first day doesn't thrill me at all.”

“Wow, thank you for looking out for me,” I mockingly replied at his comment. From a distance, my ears caught the prince chuckling at the brief interaction.

As we made our way into the Spencers’ manor, my stay here starts now.

Let’s see what this kingdom has for me.

Chapter Text

In all honesty, I expected that I would be exploring the kingdom on my own as I thought Prince Wilfred had duties to attend. I would understand if it happened and I was already grateful that he let me stay here. I didn’t really want to make a big fuss… But when he wrote in the letter that he would show me around Philip, he really actually meant it. And I found out that yesterday.

He cleared all his schedule for the day, and brought me to two or three places around the kingdom. I could tell the head steward was quite upset with the prince, his expression showing disapproval as he accompanied our trip. His reaction was justified since he’s supposed to watch over the prince. For a prince to neglect his duties for a whole day just to show me around… I mean I enjoyed the sentiment, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty about this whole thing, like it’s my fault. My sense of guilt is further amplified due to the amount of times I caught Claude frowning at me.

I knew that I shouldn’t blame myself, or feel awful about it, and that I should just enjoy everything on this trip, but really, it’s becoming hard to ignore with the gloomy atmosphere he’s emitting. I wasn’t sure if Wilfred noticed it or not. If he did, he clearly paid no attention to it. Maybe he was already used to Claude being moody, after all, they have known each other since they were children.

In fact, thinking about it now, I think Wilfred was trying to distract me by throwing me some questions regarding my life or various topics. He would even go to an extent to persuade me in partaking some activities in the places we went to, which I gladly accepted. It was truly a fun and memorable experience, trying different cuisines the kingdom has to offer, wine tasting, sightseeing historical places and museums, and participating in local festivities. Of course, at those moments, I had forgotten about the butler’s negative presence until we both arrived back at the manor and the prince had to finish his paperwork. I was left alone when Claude sent me a judgmental look before following the prince.

It couldn’t always be like this. If this continued, then what’s the point of enjoying this whole trip? What’s the point of relaxing?

I didn’t want the prince to worry too much or fuss a lot. He already had done much so far. The best thing I could do is actually approach and confront the butler. I made the decision that I would do that when he comes to the guest room in the morning to serve me tea. I asked the prince the day before if Claude can brew some tea for me, to which he gladly agreed. Not sure if the butler shares the same sentiment though…

Since Wilfred informed me the night before he will come at eight, I took my time to freshen up, doing my usual routine. I was unsure if Wilfred is going to take me out again for sightseeing, so just in case, I donned a white voluminous frill dress with a v-neck from Innika Choo, pairing the dress with spherical dangly earrings and white strapless heels.

As I observed my reflection on the vanity mirror, and unsuccessfully attempted to style my hair, the sound of knocks from the door resounded throughout the room followed by Claude’s smooth baritone voice.

“Lady Madeleine, I have arrived to brew you some tea.”

Glancing at the clock on the side table, the time showed it was precisely at eight. The fact he literally arrived on the time mentioned, not a minute late amazed me. I wondered if he calculated the time needed to prepare the tea and walk here.

“Come in!”

The doors opened soundlessly with Claude coming in seconds later pushing a quite fancy tea cart.

“I must say I am quite impressed with your punctuality. I expected to wait for a long time outside knowing you,” the butler threw me a comment with much sarcasm, causing me to make a face before shooting back with the same amount of sarcasm.

“Well good morning to you, nice to know you’re being yourself. And by that, I mean constantly having low expectations of me.”

“You’re welcome as always.”

I noted that the cart held all the items needed to prepare the tea as he continued to push the cart to where the small round table resided.

Loose leaves, a tall kettle filled with boiling water (since there was steam coming out from the hole), sugar, cream, teaspoons, a teapot, and a teaspoon. Not only that, but he also brought a 2-tier high tea tray filled with delicious treats to go along with the tea, causing my stomach to grumble a bit.

Shortbread cookies, chocolate earl grey truffles, macarons, …. and dry peanut-coated glutinous rice balls?

Catching my confused stare on the cart and the items, the butler arched an eyebrow in question.

“Is there a problem, Lady Madeleine?”

I broke out of my reverie only to furrowed my eyebrows at him.

“Oh, I just thought that you were preparing the tea beforehand. I mean I have no problem with you preparing it here. I just thought it would be a fuss for you to bring all of these,” I made hand gestures towards the cart before continuing. “And I notice you brought glutinous rice balls, which seems like an odd one out from other pastries…”

Acknowledging her confusion, the butler nodded before replying.

“While I agree to bring these seem a bit of trouble, I don't really mind. I believe that the taste and the aroma of the tea would be finer if I serve it to you right after it is brewed,” he placed the tea tray onto the small round table next to him with much gentleness and elegance. “As for the rice balls, I thought you might want something familiar to you. I researched beforehand that it’s a popular snack and dessert in your culture. I made sure it suits the tea.”

Speechless, I just gawked at him in awe and wonder.

The fact he went so far to research snacks and desserts from my culture and have them here for tea…. And ensure that it is an appropriate match with the tea….

My heart skipped a beat and my stomach, fluttering at the thought of it. That was… really considerate and kind of him.

It appeared to be that I have stared at him for more than a few seconds as he quickly turned his head to the side, away from my gaze. He tried to hide his slightly flushed face by letting out a small awkward cough before frowning.

“Did anyone ever teach you staring is rude?”

Breaking the trance I was in, I shook my head as to push it away and recover my awareness of the surrounding. Realizing he said something that straight went out of my ears because I was too busy visibly staring at him, I displayed a sheepish smile while scratching the back of my neck.

“Uh, sorry, I didn’t hear what you said before…and sorry for staring,” my cheeks burned. “I was just surprised. Actually, to be honest, I was at awe that you would go as far to research and bring one popular dessert from my culture, and nonetheless my favorite one, for tea… I must say that’s really considerate of you.”

And it warmed my heart too.

I wasn’t sure if it’s just me, but I don’t think he’s ever used to getting praises or compliments from anyone besides Wilfred. The second he heard everything I said before, he froze with his eyes slightly wide in shock, as if he was thrown off balance. Soon his face, especially his cheeks, flushed pink. And then he would awkwardly try to deflect the received compliment and the attention from himself.

“It’s just part of my job,” he exclaimed, to which I raised my eyebrow in disbelief.

“Just part of your job? I don’t think so. Any butler, well the ones that served me, would just prepare my tea before they arrive at my room with general pastries to go with it. You, on the other hand, you went as far to bring a cart here with all the items needed for brewing despite the trouble, because you truly believe the tea is finer right after it’s brewed. You also went as far to bring me black sesame glutinous rice balls, assuming that I would prefer the snacks and desserts more from my culture. Also, you made the tea blend Wilfred gifted me two days ago when anyone could just buy it from stores. I say it’s more than ‘just part of your job’,” I gave Claude a shy smile before quickly continuing, not giving a chance for the butler to reply (or probably disagree).

“You are really dedicated, detailed, passionate, and hard-working in what you do. You always strive to do the best in your duties… I can tell you enjoy and are proud of serving as the butler and most importantly the head steward of the royal family.”

It’s quite rare that I had spoken and give a compliment to someone that wasn’t close to me, especially someone who I, uh, found attractive yet irritating (mixed feelings, indeed). So by the end of my long speech, I was as awkward as Claude right now. I focused my attention on anywhere besides him as I unconsciously played with the strands of my hair. My body felt jittery and hot, and my heart beating so fast. The fact there was not a reply from him soon after, caused a huge amount of anxiety and dread to gather in my stomach, the need to run away and hurl seemed tempting.

As I couldn’t stand the uncomfortable silence I created anymore, I directed my gaze back to the butler.

Oh wow. He really couldn’t handle receiving compliments.

I have never seen someone’s entire face flushed so red and expression so stunned after being complimented. I’ve seen shy smiles, awkward laughs, and blushing, but this...What I saw from Claude was new. At this instance, his whole body was frozen and his mouth kept opening and closing, resembling a goldfish breathing. He was sputtering incoherent words, trying to form sentences to deny what I proclaimed but failing.

Giving up after nothing came to his mind, besides the same excuse that it is part of the job, he furrowed his eyebrows and set the corners of his mouth down. He redirected my attention on the tea preparation, something he was supposed to do minutes ago, as a way to further prevent me from seeing him being embarrassed.

That's cute.

“Excuse me, Lady Madeleine. Will you let me prepare the tea now? It would only become colder if you keep blabbering away, thus making this inconvenient for both of us, actually.”

Ah, there he is.

Just to tease him, I playfully pouted at him.

“Aw, not even a token of appreciation for my compliment? I am hurt.”

Clearly, he wasn’t having it. His mouth curved into a small frown and one of his eyebrows was in an arch. It’s like he’s saying “Are you done now?”

Not wanting to irritate him even further especially since it’s only the start of the day and that I wanted to talk to him about his tantrum yesterday, I silently nodded.

And just like that, the butler started doing his magic, while I, on the other hand, took a seat on the chair near him and observed.

Look, I’m no expert in preparing tea perfectly. Probably the only things I can do when it comes to that, are boiling water in a kettle, pouring the water into a cup, and then putting a tea bag in the cup for few minutes … And that’s pretty much it.

I have watched the butlers preparing tea during that evaluation from afar, so I didn’t get to see the details up close.

When I actually saw Claude doing his thing very closely, I couldn’t help but think what I’m seeing was a performance. Call me exaggerating or dramatic, but that’s how I felt seeing it. To start it off, the butler smoothly grabbed a teaspoon and took a teaspoon of jasmine loose leaves to the teapot. He then held the handle of the kettle and pour some boiling hot water into the teapot. Any normal people could do that, but when he did it, the kettle was centimeters away from the pot. Yet there were no spills or splatter of water droplets seen as a stream of water continuously and uniformly fell to the opening. It amazed me how he was able to hold that kettle with just one hand without his hand trembling. His expression too, showed no sign of struggle. Obviously it takes practice, but the sheer strength and perseverance he holds gave me shudders of desire down my spine, causing me to clench my insides and bite my lips unconsciously as I briefly imagined what he could do in private…

Stop it. Stop thinking about him like that when he’s literally right in front of you.

I scolded my mind as I continued observing.

After the boiling water warmed the teapot and steeped the tea for a few minutes, I can smell the wonderful aroma of the tea seeping into my nose. I can feel it’s more intense and stronger, which I definitely didn’t mind. It reminded me of when I visited my now past grandma and she brewed me tea. As I took in the scent, with such grace and smoothness, Claude raised the teapot high above the teacup. He held the lid with another hand and pour the tea into the cup, the bright liquid flowing into it. At that moment, with him donning a serious expression and effortlessly pouring tea, he was beautiful. He looked like a work of art and the very sight of him in his element left me mesmerized.

Placing the teapot back, he soon grabbed a new teaspoon and carefully swirled the tea, no clashing or screeching noises were heard. How he did it so effortlessly and not awkwardly, I would never know. While continuing to swirl the tea, he briefly glanced at me to ask my preference, only to arch both of his eyebrows at the sight of me being wide-eyed from awestruck, my mouth slightly opened and my eyes fully focused on his hands.

“Lady Madeleine.”

The sudden call of my name had caught me off-guard, resulting in me to break my gaze from him. I must be super focused that I didn’t even realize his attention was on me already… Which meant he noticed my shameless staring of him, especially his hands and arms.

I tried to cover it up by answering his call, despite the slightly embarrassed flush on my cheeks. Claude responded with a smug expression at my reaction, probably completely confirming his assumption that I indeed had my eyes on him the whole time.

“Pardon?”

“You know, my lady-,”

Cue the involuntary shivers and the clench of my insides again.

“-taking a picture would last longer than just ogling unless you also don’t know how to do that discreetly?”

I scoffed.

“As if! Truly, your arrogance is oozing from your pores. Besides, I am perfectly capable of taking pictures of men I like in complete discretion.”

Wait.

That sounded like I was implying out loud that I like him! And Claude seemed to think so too as I saw his eyes slightly widening, his whole body frozen.

Ah, crap. Well I mean, we’re not entirely wrong… But that didn’t mean I want to admit it out loud and in front of him…

At his reaction, I quickly came up with an excuse (a really unbelievable one).

“I-I, this doesn’t imply I like you! I just uh, stared at you because I want to see you making a mistake?” I sputtered with panic and embarrassment.

Wow, that didn’t sound awkward and unconvincing at all.

An uncomfortable silence ensued before Claude let out a brief reply.

“I see.”

My ears perked up at histone. It was... dejected and disappointed although it was disguised very well.

Was he hoping that I would admit…? No, don’t make things up. Maybe you’re just making things up in your mind. Don’t get your hopes up.

“Yea…,” my voice trailed off as I directed my gaze towards the floor and my hands nervously playing with the strands of my hair.

Oh my god, I really do make things awkward. I swear I can’t handle a normal conversation with a guy.

Another silence enveloped the guest room before the butler broke it with a clearing of his throat, suddenly remembering the question he wanted to ask.

“Do you have any preferences?”

What?

Never have I ever spun my head so fast and hard to the person in front of me, causing me to whiplash. After what happened just seconds ago, I only could think that he was asking what my tastes are in men. The question was so direct and unexpected, I was left feeling absolutely taken back, and Claude could tell it from my expression, albeit a bit confused why.

“Is there something wrong with the ques-”

“Oh.” Finally, realization dawned on him. Because of what happened earlier, the timing of his question, and how it is worded, Claude realized it must have been misinterpreted by me, hence the reaction.

It was totally an unintentional blunder, but it appeared that he treated as a mistake he made considering the grimace and the faint redness on his face. Plus the curse he muttered softly under his breath.

“Uh, my apologies. I meant to ask your preferences for your tea. I should be more clear in what I asked. Besides, I would never want to pry into your personal matters. It is not my place. Again, my apologies.”

Of course, why would a head steward ask a personal question? That’s unrealistic. I really must be thinking too much into this. Now, I am super flustered that I even thought it that way and reacted in a wrong way to such an innocent question.

“It’s not your fault. The timing for your harmless question was just off, and there was nothing we can do about it… So don’t beat yourself up for it… Besides, to answer your earlier question, not the preference on men one,” I let out a snicker in the process, to which Claude bashfully grinned. “If it’s jasmine tea, It is best when it is served plain. Adding anything unnecessary would interfere with the tea’s taste.”

Claude nodded in agreement.

“Indeed, jasmine tea tastes better alone. I am surprised you know about it.”

“Excuse me? Of course, I know about it! After all, jasmine tea originated from China and my grandma would brew it for me whenever I’m down… Besides that, I enjoy reading on different kinds of tea and tasting them, well except those really sweet and fake Nestea ones. Those are horrible,” I shuddered at the thought of drinking that again.

Since my attention was on him when I said those words, I saw that head steward’s eyes on me had softened, whipping up some butterflies in my stomach.

“You’re interested in tea, then?” He responded with a question, expressing curiosity and anticipation at my answer while handing me the cup of tea with its saucer.

As I took them both from his hands, I confirmed his question with a nod, letting out a big excited grin the same time. Thinking about it, I don’t think anyone until now ever discussed tea with me besides my grandmother. So, for someone to finally to bring it up, I was delighted. Before speaking up, I looked down on the tea, admiring the color and the calming smell it gave. The smell was even stronger up close as the steam wafted up my nose. The temptation to take a sip from it became increasingly harder to ignore.

“I do. I am very interested in it. I really love learning about them and how can different factors change the tea’s aroma and taste. I am very invested in learning how one can balance all those factors to truly bring out the tea.” Without even realizing, I continued to ramble. I was so focused and passionate talking about tea, I didn’t even notice the butler’s gaze on me was one filled with awe and respect.

“Usually whenever I go to different countries, I would try different varieties of teas and tea blends in their cafes and restaurants, and try to pick the tea’s taste and aroma apart, identifying the techniques used to prepare and serve the tea. I would jot them down onto my journal, in case if I ever want to learn and try preparing some in the future but,” I sighed, my expression immediately switched from excited to a downcast look. “But, I never got around it now that most of my time is filled with learning and helping my parents’ businesses.” I glanced away from the tea to ponder, my gaze not focusing on anywhere, to be honest.

“Don’t get me wrong. I am actually proud and happy that my parents trust my abilities and will be passing down their businesses to me. I’m super grateful and all, but I wish… I wish time would stop for a while or I wish there was time for myself to do the things I always desired to do before duties call and engulf me. Am I being selfish, Claude?” I turned my attention back to the butler, who was silently looking at me the whole time I was talking. Well, he looked like he was looking the entire time.

With the attention now on him, and my eyes meeting his navy ones, Claude was shaken off from his trance.

Somehow, I could sense that this would be a recurring event between us in the future…

It was his turn being caught staring, so I just raised an eyebrow at him out of amusement, only for him to redirect his eyes somewhere else. I had to stop myself from smiling as he became more flustered as time ticked by, his whole body was fidgeting. His whole presence was radiating embarrassment and nervousness. He was finding it difficult to find his next words, his mind went blank the second I called his name.

What did Lady Madeleine say before… Crap. I must have been too caught up. I haven’t been in this situation before ever since… Nevermind. Not the right time.

“Claude?” I called his name again after I noticed him frowning. Hm, what made him frown so deeply?

At the mention of his name being called again, the head steward recomposed himself and set his expression to neutral and professional.

“Yes? I am sorry, I am afraid-,”

“You apologize too much,” I cut him off. “My question wasn’t really important to answer anyways. Although…” I gave him a teasing glance. “Were you really that enraptured with my beauty and voice that you didn’t even hear a single word I said?”

I know it was a joke, but it’s really fun to get a reaction out of him. And I did! He sent me an indignant look and was about to open his mouth to argue before again, I cut him off with a dismissal of a wave. “It was just a joke. Loosen up a bit, the day just started.”

To be honest, we both knew his argument would be fruitless and of course, pointless. His reaction to being caught was enough evidence that he, indeed was busy being enraptured by me, Whether or not if it’s because of my looks or something else, I would never know.

“Anyways, somehow we always seem to delay everything we do. I am going to take a sip of the tea before it gets cold,” I looked down at the cup of tea I was holding. It was already starting to become lukewarm.

I was a bit surprised I was able to balance the cup and the saucer as I talk without spilling any of the content. Raising the cup closer towards my mouth, I still could smell the calming aroma of jasmine. I let out a small smile, reminiscing the times I visited my grandparents when I was younger. The scent of jasmine would envelop their whole house. From my peripheral vision, I could see Claude holding his breath in anticipation.

As the first sip of tea hit the taste buds of my tongue, I was hit with a sense of calmness. I was amazed that the tea wasn’t so bitter or left an after taste that requires me to rinse my mouth with a glass of water, despite the fact Claude used loose leaves. I might have expected the taste would be a bit more intense or stronger, but it wasn’t. The level of bitterness truly showcases what this tea is known for, without causing me to flinch or make a face. It was just the right amount. The tea was already warm due to the fact we were too caught up talking and awkwardly staring at one another. I’m not really annoyed although because I couldn’t stand when drinks or food are too hot, my tongue is just weak at tolerating heat. I also have little patience waiting for my food and drink to cool down.

And that’s why I took a long sip, eyes closed while completely savoring the taste and aroma of this jasmine tea and enjoying the feeling of calmness, peace, warmth, and nostalgia that envelope my whole mind and body.

At that moment, I forgot Claude was waiting for me to say something regarding the tea until he cleared his throat and asked.

“How did you find it?”

Opening my eyes, I placed the cup and saucer onto the table and directed my focus onto the butler. A satisfied and impressed smile appeared on my lips.

“I enjoyed it very much. It was perfect. The loose leaves make the taste and aroma stronger but it still tastes wonderful,” I complimented. At the praise, Claude’s eyes lit up as he released the breath he was holding. He gave a small proud smile before quickly covering it up with a smirk. I guess he wanted to keep up with his act.

“I know. I never make a mistake. ”

I made a face at his reply.

“Okay, Mr. Oh So Perfect Tea Master. No need to boast even more. Your tea preparing performance was enough,” I drawled sarcastically. I brought up my cup again to my cup and continued to take sips. Caught up with drinking the tea, I didn’t see the butler’s amusement at my new name for him. He soon went to tidy up the kettle and the box of loose leaves, placing them back onto the cart. He left the teapot in case I want later. Once he was done clearing up, he glanced at me.

“Do you want anything else, Lady Madeleine?” I shook my head, to which he nodded his head.

“Then I shall take my leave.”

As he started pushing the cart to the door, I had this nagging feeling that I was supposed to say something at the start.

What was it…


Oh right! About him yesterday! … But I don’t really want to ruin his mood today, the conversation we had just now was really nice. On the other hand, I want to clear up some things…

Ah, I’m going to say it.

“You know about yesterday, I didn’t know Prince Wilfred cleared his schedule so he could tour me around the kingdom. Nor did I expect him to do that too. I expected that he just continues his princely duties and I’ll do tourist activities alone when I first arrived.”

Claude had his back turned on me and the second I opened my mouth, he stopped the cart and turned to me, knitting his eyebrows. I continued to speak.

“I didn’t mean to disrupt into his duties, and it was not my intention. I didn’t even know he cleared his schedules without anyone knowing. He just told me that he didn’t have anything important to do, which okay sounds a bit odd and suspicious, but I believed him anyway. Anyways you appeared very upset, to the fact I can sense your irritation from afar. So, I would like to clear things up and ap-”

“You don’t need to apologize for something the prince chose to do,” before I could even say sorry, the head steward cut me off.

“What?”

“Did you not hear what I said or are your ears filled with wax?” He retorted. I was about to complain when he continued. “I said, you don’t need to apologize for something Wilfred chose to do, albeit it was irresponsible, but it was not your fault.”

“Oh.”

I was relieved that there was really never a problem to begin it, and it’s just me overthinking, but again ….

“If you said it wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t my place to apologize, then why didn’t you stop me earlier? I assumed you knew where this was going,” I fixed him with a questioning stare, maybe I was a tiny bit irritated. Claude’s lips curled into a small smirk, his chin jutted up a bit to look superior. He responded in the most nonchalant tone.
“I don’t know. I found it quite enjoyable to hear from you like this. It’s an enjoyable change from you being … quarrelsome.”

“Wow, you just found it satisfying to be in a position of power, huh? Do you have a thing for dominance?” I mocked. I didn’t realize the full impact of what I said until I saw Claude’s expression was a mixture of downright shocked, uncomfortable, and scandalized. Sooner, his face went back to his default face when he’s with me. A huge frown filled with disapproval and annoyance, and his eyebrows furrowed.

“That was highly inappropriate, especially coming from you.”

I dismissed his comment with a shrug.

“You know maybe you’re just the one who’s thinking of something lewder. I never really refer to dominance or position of power in the context of sexual intercourse. I said them in a more general context,” my lips are pulled into a smug smile.

Claude opened his mouth to argue but realizing I made a fair point and he did think of something else more inappropriate, he quickly shut his mouth, breathing out a ‘hmph’ noise in the process. I lost count how many times his cheeks turned pink. Hiding his embarrassment, he cleared his throat.

“Since there’s nothing else important and you’re being unbearable, I shall take my leave.”

He turned around to push the cart again. Because the room was pretty silent, I could hear Claude scolding himself under his breath, which made me chuckle.

Trying to prevent myself from turning the chuckles into big fits of laughter, I didn’t notice that the head steward stopped his track and was standing outside the door before he brought my attention by calling my name. I regarded him with curiosity. He wasn’t even looking at me, rather the hallway, but I recognized that he looked awkward and maybe nervous? I suspected he’s not used to what he’s going to say next.

“Yes? You have more insults for me before you leave?” I tried to lighten him up but he ignored my effort. Or rather he was too caught up… But with what? What is he about to say that cause him to be like this?

“You said, you wished that you had the chance to try brewing tea properly before, am I correct?” There was a nervous stutter in his voice.

Oh! So he did remember!

I nodded in response, although now I held a puzzled expression. Why did he suddenly bring it up? His next words answered my question and left me surprised and …. moved.

“Well, I can teach you a lesson or two about it during your stay, preferably the day after the prince’s birthday party. That is if you want,” the butler ended the suggestion timidly. His whole body was fidgeting and his face all flustered.

The adorable sight showed me a new side of him that left me wanting more. Not in a sexual sense, but in a sense that I want to see him outside of his butler duties. I want to see him being himself in a casual setting.

“Oh,” I replied. It took me a while to process everything before giving him a wide grin. I am pretty sure, my eyes lit up the second I realized he’s willing to teach me.

Alone.

Call me cheesy, but the idea of us alone doing something we both love and have passion left me tingly with butterflies fluttering wildly inside my stomach.

I couldn’t even give a sarcastic reply to him because I knew his offer was genuine, which did something to my heart.

Instead, I nodded quickly, a wide grin still on full display.

“I would love to. Thank you … Although I hope this doesn’t cause any trouble on your schedule?”

Claude, who looked relieved at my answer, shook his head in disagreement.

“No, it won’t. The days after the party is generally slower and uneventful,” he then glanced at me before sending a teasing smile my way. “Worst case scenario is probably you messing up the brewing and preparation. Using the wrong temperature, steeping the tea too long, putting too much sugar … The list goes on.”

Joining in, I pouted playfully, pretending to be upset at his comment.

“Oh, please don’t underestimate me. That would not happen. I know my stuff pretty well.”

My confident remark led to him arching his eyebrow out of skepticism.

“Learning through theory is different from learning through practice.”

“I know, but I can guarantee I won’t make a huge amount of mistakes.”

“I don’t believe you. Even when I started, I committed many errors.”

I set the cup onto the table before placing my hand on chest, I faked an astonished gasp.

“Claude, the head steward of the Spencer family, making a mistake? That is unheard of! I was already suspecting that you were actually a robot... ”

I knew the joke was old but hey at least I got a response from him in the form of an amused eye roll and a sarcastic remark.

“Haha. Hilarious. You deserve an award for originality and creativity.”

It should be concerning that somehow we managed to delay again. The butler was supposed to leave minutes ago, and yet he’s still standing outside the door.

I guess he must have become aware as he immediately raised his left wrist to look at his watch, making a surprised noise.

“It appears to be I stayed longer here than I thought,” he muttered. He turned to me before bowing his head to acknowledge his leave. “This time, I will actually take my leave, before you delay me again.” As he said that, he pushed the cart moving further away from my door and to the hallway.

After a scoff escaped me, I hurried to the door and put my head out and shouted in my loudest voice.

“You could have chosen to ignore me, but you replied anyway. So basically, it’s partially your fault!”

While he continuously strode further away from me, I continued to yell at the top of my lungs.

“I look forward to the lesson and proving you wrong.”

To which he replied with some disapproval and irritation in his tone. And maybe hidden amusement?

“Likewise. Now, will you quiet down before I go deaf?”

I shouted an “okay” to tease him before quickly closing the door, thus escaping his scolding.

As I went my way back to the chair I was sitting on, I replayed the conversation that occurred previously in my mind, leaving me in a cheerful mood for the rest of the time.

It's safe to say that this was definitely progress.

Chapter Text

The day before, I stayed at the manor as Wilfred invited me to join him in a game of tennis. It was quite an interesting yet embarrassing spectacle because I am absolutely downright awful in tennis. If it was something like swimming or skating, I would be decent.

But tennis?

No, my hand coordination is horrible and unfortunately, Wilfred and Claude had to witness that.

•••
Rewind to a day before
Chateau’s tennis court

I was trying to hit the ball Wilfred served from the other side, but I swung the racket too hard (and probably also incorrectly), I lost my footing. A surprised yelp escaped my lips as I gracelessly fell onto my bum. The racket soon landed on the ground few centimeters away from me, causing me to flinch at the loud sound it made.

Ah, I must have lost my grip on it as I tried to soften the impact of my fall with my hands. Claude who has been observing us on the sidelines immediately strode to me, kneeling down next to me. Seconds later I saw the crown prince quickly walking his way to me. Both of their faces showing concern.

“Are you alright, Lady Madeleine?”

“Madeleine! Are you hurt?”

Claude gently took both of my hands to inspect them, causing me to gasp at the sudden skin contact. He didn’t have his gloves on. If I remembered, he told me that he didn’t want them to get stained from this occasion…

With a gentle and careful grip, he rotated my hands and let his eyes wander around them. The intensity his eyes held as he looked over my hands, left me feeling breathless and flustered. My heart staggered at the touch.

I had never seen someone… so serious and intense over something like this. As I continued to stare at him, he soon grimaced at the scratches and cuts on both my palms, his eyebrows furrowed. A hiss of pain escaped through my gritted teeth as he touched the injury to inspect the severity of them with the butler quickly muttering a ‘sorry’ after my reaction.

“It appears to be you have quite deep cuts. Did you put your hands on the ground to cushion your fall?” He was still holding my hands as he turned his attention to me.

Oh god. Not only he’s still holding my hands, but now he’s looking at me with much intensity. I will actually combust.

I nodded silently, too flustered at the situation I’m in.

The butler sighed while shaking his head. “You are really clumsy.”

I was about to open my mouth to argue but Claude beat me to it.

“You still could hurt yourself. You could’ve sprained your wrists from the fall… Thankfully, they’re not bleeding too much,” he placed my hands on top of my legs with my palms facing up.

As soon he released my hands, I exhaled the breath I was holding, relieved.

(To which the prince noticed and discreetly arched an eyebrow)

… But I was also a tiny bit disappointed it ended sooner than I thought.

What was wrong with me? I am both relieved and disappointed? How was that even possible?

I was broken from my reverie as Claude stood up and announced his brief leave to get first aid kit.

“I will be right back, your Royal Highness, Lady Madeleine. I will get some antiseptic and bandages for the cut. Please stay right here.”

“Uh okay. Thank you...”

His departure left both the prince and me alone. I continued to stare at Claude until he took a sharp turn, disappearing from my vision. It was then the prince leaned his body forward so his face was on the same level as mine.

“You alright?”

“Yes, I am fine. Just a few cuts,” I briefly raised my palms to show him. “It’s really nothing serious… I can handle these. I’m a strong woman.”

Wilfred expressed his amusement by raising his eyebrows.

“A clumsy one although,” he teased only for me to scowl and nudge him.

“I already told you at the start I am horrible at tennis but you kept on insisting. I was not lying or making any excuses to not join,” I let out an irritated groan as I sat on the ground, my legs sprawled on the floor like a child.

At the moment, I couldn’t care less. It’s not like anyone was going to scold me and clearly, from the looks of the prince, he didn’t mind. He tried to muffle his snicker before giving me a ‘guilty’ smile.

“My bad. I am terribly sorry for dismissing your concern.”

I rolled my eyes at him and replied to his apology, putting as much sarcasm in my tone.

“Sure you are. Sure as I just saw you laughing just seconds ago.”

A brief yet content silence accompanied the two of us as we waited for Claude to come back with a first aid kit. It was only then, the prince cleared his throat followed by a “so” after. I turned my head to him, glancing at his neutral expression, but his eyes held some humor and curiosity in them.

“What was that reaction by the way?”

Now that was a super vague and confusing question.

At that question, my eyebrows furrowed in confusion, my mouth tight-lipped and in a frown.“What? What reaction?”

Yet… Somehow, why do I get a bad feeling from this?

“You do realize, you held in your breath the whole time Claude was clasping your hand as he inspected your cuts.”

Ah there it is-

“-Not to mention, you made a breathy sound the second he touched your hands-”

Oh my god no-

“And if I noticed correctly, your whole face had a shade of re-”

“Ok, that’s enough, you don’t need to go into that much detail,” I grumbled, cutting him off immediately from spilling anymore embarrassing observations of me. “I thought I was being discreet … ”

“I’m just observant,” he shrugged.

“You know what they say,” I teased. “The quiet ones are always the observant ones.”

To which, the prince chuckled in amusement. “Huh is that so?”

“Yep.”

After my response, Wilfred soon took a seat beside me on the ground (which surprised me a bit that, because well he is a prince…), his curious yet serious expressing reappearing once again, his body turned to me.

“If you don’t mind, going back to the question-”

I cut him off with an exasperated huff. “You’re not letting that go huh?” The prince just beamed at me.

“I am afraid not, my lady. Your reaction brought up some interest and curiosity within me. It’s interesting and odd I might say. If I may, you and Claude are constantly bickering with one another, and yet it appeared to be, you were affected by his touch … I also noticed two days ago that Claude took a longer time preparing your tea in your room…”

“Oh.”

Okay I didn’t expect him to be that observant. Suddenly I’m not so sure how to explain to him without revealing so much…

“Perhaps, you are interested in Claude but you just hide it by fighting with him?”

Jesus Christ, he’s too goddamn observant and sharp. He’s not entirely wrong… But it’s not exactly accurate though.

It took me a couple of seconds to organize my thoughts, finding a way to express them in words.

“Well… Regarding my reaction previously, it’s well, I am not used to receiving physical touches from someone, in this case from the opposite sex, regardless an attractive one… All my life, I have been surrounded by mostly women from when I was little to now. Aside from my father and…” My face instinctively soured at the next two words, putting as much distaste in my tone, my mouth set in a deep scowl. “My past partner.”

Before the prince could even inquire, I answered for him. Don’t beat around the bush you know? Besides, in the past few days we spent together, we had become good friends.

“He used my feelings for him for personal gain and connections. He was too much of a coward to face me when I finally found out, cutting off all contact with me at once.”

I attempted to make my voice as impassive as possible but it was fruitless, as anger and hurt seeped into it. Bringing up those two words opened up thoughts I wanted to forget and avoid, opening up a few old wounds in the process.

Tell me, how could you get over one who you spent 6 years with in just an instance?

I continued with a bitter laugh. “As if he could explain anything to redeem himself. It’s pointless.”

Our relationship was never real, what we had was just an act to him.

I was drawn back to reality, from my thoughts, when Wilfred briefly placed a hand on my back, rubbing it gently.

“I am sorry that happened to you. Your former partner is truly a horrible and deceitful man, a cowardice. How low and barbaric of him to take advantage of a lady. I am glad he is out of your life now, you deserve someone better, much better for a lady like you.” At his words, I gave him a small gentle smile, grateful at his effort to comfort me.

“I appreciate your kind words… I too am glad I found out about it and that he is out of my life… but,” my voice faltering at the end. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t soon enough and the damage is done.” Wilfred continued to rub my back instead.

“If I may, Lady Madeleine. We may not know each other for a long time, but from the time we spent together in the past days, I know for sure you are a strong woman.” I opened my mouth before closing it back when he raised his other hand. “You’re a fighter and unapologetic. You’re not afraid to speak your feelings, your opinions around people, including me. You’re not afraid to be yourself, not letting anyone to define who you are and validate your existence. You decide for yourself on what you want and you work hard to achieve it. It’s inspiring. Of course after hearing your story about your former partner, I’ve come to admire you even more. It confirms my judgment of how strong you are. I know you still often have trouble getting over it, but hey, you were able to bounce back onto your feet. You continued to push forward, you keep going like you’ve never been hurt before, despite having been and here you are now, thriving and growing. Lady Madeleine, you are strong and I admire you.”


It’s safe to say, the impromptu speech Wilfred delivered left me at loss for words. The entire time, I was gaping at him, my mouth opened slightly out of shock. Not many people except my parents, Ana, and Eloisa have said something so… heart-warming and encouraging to me. It took me a couple of seconds to process his words before it finally registered, my cheeks turning to various shades of red and my eyes shyly redirected their attention to the floor.

“Y-you flatter me too much with your kind words, Wilfred, but that all can’t be possibly true...”

Because my attention was away from him, I didn’t see him rolling his eyes at my response, letting out a puff of air that sounds exasperated (and a little bit dramatic).

“You’re just like Claude.” At that statement, I turned to him eyes widened.

“How on earth am I like Claude? We’re tota-”

“Oh no, you’re both the same when it comes to taking compliments. It would take you guys quite some time to register the compliment before you both become flustered, denying the compliments at the end.”

My argument died out in my mouth when I thought it over. How many times in my life have I did what Wilfred pointed out? The fact he was able to call me out over it in just a short time while I didn’t notice it my entire whole life…. It’s a bit unnerving and (lowkey) impressive. And Claude … I did experience something like that from him …

That tea session. Heh.

The mention of my time spent with him that day brought a smile to my face unknowingly, until I felt a finger poking my cheek.

“You’re smiling. Were you thinking of Claude?” At his teasing tone, my cheeks flushed a deeper shade of red (not even sure if it’s possible, but they were burning), my words spilling out all at once in an incoherent manner.

“N-no! What, what are you talking about? I was t-thinking about something else!”

Okay I know that was a weak excuse and from the prince’s unimpressed expression, he held the same sentiment and as a result he scrutinized me even further.

“Really? What exactly was that ‘something’?”

Why do I feel like I am falling into a trap? But if I don’t answer, he will continue to press me...

“I was thinking about what you said! Days ago when Claude came to my room to prepare me tea, I complimented him… And like you said, he did the exact thing you pointed out.” The mention of his reaction brought back the image of him all flustered to the front of my mind, causing the corners of my mouth to turn up. “It was quite funny to see him lose his composure over a compliment, his whole face was red and his body fidgety. It’s cute.”

Wait.

Did I just take the bait? Did I just fall into his trap?

I took a glance at Wilfred horrified to see him with a smug expression, his mouth curved into a victorious smirk and his eyes gleaming.

“So something did happen between you two a day ago.”

“This was your plan all along, was it? To make me slip whether or not I am interested in your head steward?

“And also about that tea session. Yes, that was my plan.”

I only groaned to his response, covering my face with my hands. “You’re a cunning jerk. What if Claude heard everything?” Wilfred dismissed my concern with a wave of a hand.

“He won’t, don’t worry. He would have to announce his presence when he arrives,” my forehead creased, doubting his words of reassurance.

(Actually, Wilfred lied. His sharp eyes caught Claude approaching before he stopped and quickly hid behind a divider when I mentioned the butler’s name.)

There’s a feeling in my gut that he arrived earlier but hid behind some pillar to avoid intruding upon our conversation… about him. It’s just so impossible and unreasonable for someone like Claude taking this long to get a first aid kit.

“No offense, but I find it hard to believe a butler as good as Claude would take this long to just get some alcohol and bandages. It’s a bit suspicious,” I exclaimed dubiously only for Wilfred to reassure me again, plastering a half smile on his lips.

“Trust me. Probably he was caught up with something along the way,” Wilfred then leaned his head towards mine, his smile now playful. “Or are you that excited to see him again?”

I pushed him away quickly, hiding my embarrassment with a scoff.

“Excited? As if! I just want him back soon so he can clean these cuts. As you can see, We’ve been waiting here for more than 5 minutes and at this point I think my cuts are infected. Soon enough I will be sick and I won-”

“Oh hush, you’re being dramatic,” interrupting my rambling, the prince shook his head out of amusement.

“Hey-”

“You’re right, Prince Wilfred. Lady Madeleine is being dramatic over such small matter. If you’re that impatient, you could’ve just clean the cuts first with water while I was gone.”

Claude’s voice reached our ears, causing a sudden gasp to escape my throat while I flinched. Unlike me, Wilfred appeared calm and composed.

“Ah there you are finally. What took you long?”

“I apologize for my tardiness, there was an issue reported by the staff. I took a detour to inspect it.” At that response, Wilfred sent me a knowing look.

See? I told you not to worry.

With a first aid kit in one hand and a glass of water in another, the butler sauntered his way towards where we are before kneeling down in front of me and placing the kit onto the ground. He then glanced at me, his gaze leaving me fidgeting.

“My Lady, do you mind giving me your hands?”

Gulping nervously, I nodded and raised one of my hands to him. Claude gently grabbed it, again causing me to inhale sharply and Wilfred to muffle his snicker. While the butler paid no mind, I shot the prince a glare, who raised both his hands in defense. My focus went back to Claude’s tending of my wounds, the feeling of his fingers on my skin. Throughout the whole time, I remained silent, observing him work. He knew what he was doing (what can he not do?). He washed my wounds with the water he brought before pouring few drops of antiseptics onto the cotton. He then picked the antiseptic-stained cotton, patting them on the wounds. Despite his gentleness and cautiousness, I still occasionally wince and hiss from the pain. Once he’s finished applying antiseptics, he opened the covers of the bandages while scrutinizing at my hand, his lips pursed and brows drew together.

I guess he’s figuring out where to place the bandages in such a way they cover more than one cuts...

He looked so focused and serious, I couldn’t help but find the spectacle endearingly adorable, causing me to bite my lips, to prevent myself from grinning. I’m pretty sure, Wilfred also saw that reaction but at that moment, I didn’t care.

I found it interesting how his touch is soft and gentle, unlike his words.

When he finally figured out where to put the bandages and applied them onto my cuts, he lightly placed my hand back onto my lap before grabbing my other hand, repeating the whole process again.

Me? Oh, I just will subtly admire him tending, the degree of care and carefulness he showed left my heart fluttering and in awe. A couple of minutes later, Claude leaned back and released my hand.

“There. You are all patched up, my Lady,” he announced. I gave him a small appreciative smile.

“Thank you, Claude… It’s very neat.”

“Of course it is. After all, I am the head steward. I can’t make mistakes.”

I snorted.

“Okay Mr. Perfect. Are you sure you’re not a robot disguised as a human butler?”

“Funny. Don’t you have other original jokes?”

“I do, but someone serious like you wouldn’t understand humor.”

Claude scoffed, but didn’t continue the bickering.

“Make sure you clean your cuts once or twice a day. And lastly, stop falling over the tiniest things will you?”

“Oh I’ll keep falling for you.”

Wait. That sounded weird and wrong.

Oh god, why do I keep embarrassing myself in front of him?

Once we processed the words together, Claude’s eyes stared at me, widened in shock while his mouth gaped open and his body frozen in mid-action. On the other hand, Wilfred beside us, who saw the whole scene unfold, had his eyebrows raised and mouth curved into an amused grin, chuckling soon afterwards.

“I-I, that came out wrong!” I sputtered embarrassingly as I waved my hands vigorously. “Please don’t take it the wrong way! I m-meant that since you told me to not fall... I’ll continue to fall just to irritate you…. You know what, I’ll shut up now.”

We maintained our eye contact for many seconds before I looked away, my face and body burning from embarrassment. With the eye contact broken, it appeared Claude finally realized he have been openly staring at me, at loss for words, causing his cheeks to go scarlet. He soon shouted out of indignance at me.

“I-I know that’s not what you meant, I am not dense! But please refrain from speaking thoughtlessly! ... How embarrassing,” he mumbled out the last two words.

“Alright! Alright!”

No one said anyone after that. Claude and I avoid eye contact when Wilfred, who was still standing besides us (probably still amused) decided to butt in, defusing the awkwardness of this situation.

“Well then. Now that this entertaining miscommunication is resolved and Lady Madeleine is bandaged, let’s go inside shall we?”

“Uh right, we should...”

“Yes, Your Highness. A great idea...” Claude cleared his throat, I must say quite uncomfortably, as he stood back up. He then proceed to lend a hand to me. “Lady Madeleine?”

I don’t know why but I just stared at his hand before he raised an eyebrow and called my name again.

Except now, he didn’t include my title (there was a bit irritation seeping into his tone, but let’s just skim over that), causing goosebumps to rise and shivers run down my body.

“Madeleine?”

“Oh yea. Sorry.” I took his hand, my whole body flushed and stiff. Using his strength, he easily pulled me up before holding my arms to balance me.

I swear to God, if I am this close to him with this continuous skin contact, I will actually combust to pieces. Or shove a tennis ball inside my mouth to prevent myself from screaming.

“Thanks..” I mumbled embarrassingly as I took a step back resulting Claude to release his hold on my arms. His hands now free, he scratched the back of his neck while his eyes reverted somewhere else, away from me.

“It’s no problem…,” Claude too mumbled, his cheeks pink.

God this is really getting awkward. The tension between us is so suffocating!

Wanting to escape, I spun on my wheels and marched hurriedly towards Wilfred, grabbing one of his arms. I dragged him along with me to the court’s entrance eliciting a surprised yelp from him, and leaving the butler behind, dumbfounded.

“Let’s not waste more time, I am starving!”

 

•••

Who could’ve really thought something like that would lead to that absolutely awkward interaction between Claude and I? I felt like the rest of my stay here will continuously consist of these interactions… And at this point, I think the prince is setting all this up. Maybe it’s why he invited me in the first place to stay at the Chateau? It’s most likely Wilfred asked Claude how the evaluation went once the steward returned.

Anyways, I went my way to Wilfred’s office. He asked me the night before to go to his office in the morning as he had plans for us to see the planetarium together, and to which I squealed in excitement. I heard a lot of wonderful things about the kingdom’s planetarium when I researched for tourist attractions before I left.

I gently knocked Wilfred’s door while calling out his name.

“Prince Wilfred? It’s Madeleine.”

“You may come inside.” As quietly as possible, I entered his office and walked to the front of his desk where he was working on some documents with his reading glasses on. Sensing my presence in front, his eyes glanced up at me, his mouth curved into a half-smile. “Did I tell you before, you can just refer to me by my name?”

“There was staff around doing their duties outside. And who knows Claude might also be hiding somewhere, watching my every move, all prepared to give me an earful.” The corner of his mouths quirked up.

“It is possible, but luckily for you, Claude is busy with preparations at the moment.”

“For the planetarium?”

“Yes, both of you will be going,” the prince then directed back his attention to the documents at hand.

“Okay.”

Soon the realization of his words hit me, causing my mouth to fall open and my eyes to bug out. “Wait, what? What do you mean ‘Claude and I are going together’? How about you?”

Wilfred only gave me a sheepish grin, tilting his head towards a pile of documents. I glanced at the documents then to him, scrutinizing him.

“You’re not doing this on purpose right because of what happened yesterday?”

“Hmm… While I do think it’s entertaining to see you two go somewhere together, unfortunately, all of this wasn’t done intentionally. I thought I was finished with all the paper for today, but this morning, there was a sudden conflict near the borders… So here am I now.”

“Oh. I see.” I chewed my lips before mumbling the next words. “I assume Claude knew about this new arrangement already?”

The prince nodded. “Yes, he is aware of it. After all, he was the one who reported to me earlier about the problem.” He then peered at me with a smile plastered on his face. “I told him we could reschedule the planetarium visit the next day but interesting enough, he instead volunteered to accompany you. In his words, he didn’t want to experience you acting like whiny and childish if I canceled it.”

I stared at him in disbelief, ignoring the insult.

“Did you say Claude volunteered to accompany me? Did I hear that right?”

Seriously, in what alternative universe would Claude ever volunteer to go with me or be in the same room as me?

“Yes, you heard correctly. He actually volunteered. It... surprised you that much?”

“Of course it does!” I cried out. “You’re the witness to our constant bickering and awkwardness towards one another! Remember yesterday’s event?”

“How about the time he prepared you tea? Didn’t it go well? I assume it was since you were smiling when you mentioned it yesterday.”

My mouth snapped shut.

… He made a point.

“That was … pure coincidence... Probably just a good day for us,” I squeaked weakly. At my response, Wilfred only sent me an unimpressed look.

“Madeleine, we both know that excuse you came up with is untrue, and in addition, really horrible.”

I pouted. “Yes, I know. I went blank because you called me out but-”

“Madeleine, you’ll be fine. Everything will go smoothly. Claude made sure of that,” he reassured me gently and yet it did little to calm my nerves and dispel my worries. I only heaved out a sigh.

“Okay. I am just hoping this whole trip wouldn’t be a repeat of yesterday. Or two days before.”

“It won’t.”

“Well then, now that I know the change of plans for today,” I raised my hand and pointed a finger to the door, while moving backwards. “I am going to go now and get ready.” The prince inclined his head, acknowledging my leave.

“Claude will see you at eleven. I hope you will have fun.”

“Not sure about that, but thanks anyways!”

Before I closed the door completely, the prince sent me a brief glance, mischief in his eyes, before shouting something teasing, which caused me to groaned.

“Make sure you dress well for your date!”

Wilfred, please.

•••
11 am

You thought I would follow what Wilfred said before?

You’re right. I did dress nice. I was in a navy v-neck ruffled hem dress from Cin a Sept, paired up with some strappy suede sandals and a black box-styled tote bag. Thanks to him, now I thought of this trip to the planetarium (and other places) as a date.

And now, I am internally panicking. I was sitting down on a chair because my legs were shaking. My hands are constantly clenched and unclenched. I could feel them getting sweaty.

Is it me or is this room really cold?

It was any second now, he would arrive and knock on my door. At the moment, I’ll just occupy my mind with thoughts to calm down.

You’ll be fine. Everything will go smoothly, I mean it’s Claude. I am pretty sure he arranged everything well.

But then it’s also Claude. I am going to be with him, just the two of us. Alone…. There’s two ways this could go, either we will be constantly fighting or either we don’t and are actually civil to one another...

I wonder if he’ll don his butler outfit or something casual? What am I thinking? He’s just accompanying me, it’s his duty as a butler…. Obviously he’s going to be in his butler outfit! Who am I kidding?

This is not a date.

I was soon startled from my thoughts by the multiple knocks on my door, my heart caught in my throat.

Not sure whether it was both my excitement or nervousness, I hurriedly stood up from my bed with a bounce, grabbing my bag in the process, and rushed to the door. After fixing my hair and dress again, I finally opened the door and-

Oh.

Holy shit.

He’s out of his butler outfit.

No gloves, no intricate tie, no suit, no polished black shoes, nothing. His hair too, while it’s not too far off from his usual, it appeared to be a messier with a single strand of hair out of place. In exchange, he had a navy colored blazer on with a white collared shirt underneath paired with blue chinos and some loafers. I took note he had a golden wrist watch around his hand. Without his usual butler uniform, Claude appeared (adorably) awkward and tense. His head is turned to the side, directing his shy gaze somewhere else, his lips pressed tightly together into a small frown. Not to mention, his whole body was stiff as he slightly rocked back and forth with the sole of his feet.

Oh my god… Now, this actually felt like a date, a first date to be exact…. Oh god.

I guess I was openly and silently gawking Claude for a quite long time as his cheeks soon flushed even more, opening his mouth to snap at me. There was a sense of anxiousness accompanying the sharpness of his tone.

“Do you mind not standing there and stare?”

I snapped out of it and dumbly pointed out the most obvious observation of him, my eyes still wide from shock and also awe (at how good he looked).

“You’re not in your steward uniform…”

This earned a snort from him.

“I can see that, Ms Obvious. I don’t do everything in my uniform. Just like you, I have other clothing. Now, it would be great if you can refrain yourself from speaking any of your unsolicited opinions about my appea-,”

“No, you actually look… Nice.”

“-rance, wait. Pardon?” Claude cut himself short before staring at me incredulously as if I just grew three heads.

Realizing that his response would have to make repeat what I said before, I faced away from him, cheeks flushed and my mouth set into a slight pout.

“... I said you look nice. Please don’t make me repeat it again or I will take back those words.” I didn’t receive any response as Claude still continued to gape at me, still stunned and in disbelief.

“Is it really that shocking to you for me to say something nice…?” I murmured in wonder. Catching what I said, the steward cleared his throat, his brows knitted together.

“Considering our previous interactions since the night we met, yes. I indeed find it unbelievable for you, Lady Madeleine, to say something nice–nonetheless civil–to me.”

“Hey!” I argued. “I am nice!”

“Are you sure?”

 

“Yes! You’re just insufferable and you constantly pick out my smallest mistakes. So might as well do the same thing you done to me,” I continued. “And besides, I do occasionally give out compliments to people. Despite you ruffling my feathers, I still have respect for your capabilities as a head steward and I expressed that sentiment two days ago, did I not?”

At my argument, Claude briefly fell silent before finally admitting.

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Now that this is settled,” I stepped out from the door, closing it in the same time, and reached out to one of Claude’s sleeves. “We should get going!”

With a tight grip onto it, I dragged Claude behind as I marched my way to the Chateau’s main entrance, drawing a surprised cry from him.

 

•••
11.45 am
McGill Space Center

“Woah.”

Finally standing in front of the place I looked forward to, I only could gaze the dome-like building with admiration. No words could express how much better this place looked in comparison to the pictures on Google. It didn’t capture how goddamn sleek yet functional this building is.

Really, kudos to the architect who designed the place.

As I was super caught up with full-on admiring the building and the details (try imagining a child staring at the newest toy in store, yep that’s me right now), I have forgotten about Claude standing beside me. We both arrived at the place about five minutes ago, so I’m pretty sure the head steward’s getting a bit impatient.

(He wasn’t. Rather he was subtly glancing at me, taken by her face lighting up from excitement and wonder. He couldn’t help but feel the corner of his lips quirk up.)

“You weren’t overreacting yesterday when Prince Wilfred announced we will be going to the space center. You really were looking forward to visiting this place, huh?”

I tore my gaze away from the building and redirected it to the butler. I had expect his expression to be judging or irritated, but it was nothing like that. His facial expression leaned more towards curiosity and interest, catching me a bit off-guard.

“Was it that obvious?” My shy response earned a small chuckle from him, the corner of his mouth lifted. The sudden presence of his smile made my heart race in an instant. Probably also made me feel even shyer.

“If I remembered correctly, you let out a loud high pitch squeal yesterday when His Highness told you about the visit. In addition, we have been standing here for more than five minutes. I am very sure, I saw your eyes sparkled everytime they landed on different details of the place.”

I knew he had to be exaggerating the last part (it had to be right?), but he’s … Joking with me. I wasn’t so used to people joking with me, nonetheless people I found attractive, so I only stayed silent while I bit my lips. I could feel my whole face heating up.

Telling you the truth, that it left me feeling overjoyed and ecstatic. If the atmosphere between us continues to be like this for the rest of the day, then perhaps I would extremely be on cloud nine. Perhaps, I would always remember this day for the rest of my life.

“Shall we go inside now, Lady Madeleine?”

At the mention of my title, I frowned and shook my head, earning a confused look from him. It felt odd for him to refer me by my title when he’s out of his steward outfit (even though I’m not sure that if he considered this part of his duties).

“Lady Madeleine?”

“Please call me Madeleine.” Shock briefly flashed across his face before grimace took its place at the end.

“I couldn’t possibly do that, my Lad-”

“Madeleine.”

“But in Philip, we hold tradition and manners above anything else-”

“Look Claude, I respect your tradition and all but I am not from Philip,” I argued. “Besides, you’re out of your usual attire and it would earn looks from other people if you were to refer me by my title. The last thing we want to do is to be the center of attention. I am sure you want everything to go smoothly as planned, am I right?”

Silence fell between us, with Claude appearing more conflicted as ever.

“I-uh I guess you are right, but-”

I raised and positioned my finger close enough to his lips, instantly stopping him from saying something as his eyes, in which followed my finger.

“Nu-uh. You already agreed I am right,” I paused. “Just... Just for today, please Claude?”

For best measures, I leaned a bit to him and put on my best sad puppy-eyed expression, which as a result, caused my finger to slightly graze his lips. A quick sharp inhale is heard from the butler as his face went noticeably redder. He hurriedly pushed my finger away while taking a step back.

“U-uh. V-very well, La-,” he stopped when I raised my eyebrows.

Really?

“-I-I mean, Madeleine.”

I hummed, giving him a satisfied smile. On the other hand, Claude still appeared troubled but alas, resigned with a sigh escaping from his mouth.

“It will take me a while to get used to it.”

“That’s alright, we got the whole day.”

“I still think this is highly inappropriate and going against my conduct as the he-”

Not this again.

I didn’t let him finish the sentence as I immediately groaned and put my finger back against his lips, to which he swiped my finger away out of embarrassment. “Would you stop doing that?”

“I will if you stop making excuses and just let go of this for today.” I set my hands on his shoulders before continuing. “You’re not in your steward outfit, which means you’re just like any regular locals in this area. Just for today, let’s act like one okay?”

“Fine. Now, would you kindly take your hands off me? You’re going to … wrinkle my outfit. I put effort into coordinating them.”

“I can tell,” humming my approval as I studied his outfit in appreciation. “As I said before, you look nice.”

At this point, I didn’t mind freely giving compliments (despite some shyness in my part) to Claude because of the cute reactions I get from him. Like now, he nearly lost his composure, almost looking like a flustered mess, at the nonchalance and unexpectedness of my compliment. If I could snap a picture of him like that, I definitely would.

“Anyways,” I moved closer to him and looped my arm around his. “let’s head inside before we miss the time for the live show in the planetarium.”
Without giving him time to settle down from the previous compliment or even process my arm around his, I immediately started dashing to the entrance, prompting him to utter some surprised noises as he tried to match up with my pace.

“Ah! Would you-”

“We can’t delay even further!” When we finally slowed down to a stop, we were already inside the main entrance. Since Claude was behind me the whole time, I didn’t catch sight of him. So, turning to face him had elicited a laugh out of me as I regard the state he was in. He had the biggest disapproving frown on, but it was such a sharp contrast to the flush that crept up his face (and getting more obvious by the second). I couldn’t take him seriously due to the fact his styled hair is now disheveled (which in my opinion, increased his sex appeal), and that his attempt to chide me ended up futile as he was panting between words and stumbling over them.

“You… r-really… should stop doing … t-that. Just dragging me … all out of… sudden. It’s highly inappropriate.”

(Under his breath, he then went on to grumble the next few words. “It’s … highly inappropriate and unhealthy for my mental well-being too…”)

I pretended to act as if nothing happened, expressing innocence and confusion through the tilting of my head. “Hm?”

“Oh come off it, Madeleine.”

“Heh, we’re in a normal casual setting, so just relax... Or,” I looked closely into his face with a full on teasing smile displayed. “Could it be you’re not used to a lady, nonetheless a polite and attractive lady, having her arm around yours? Are you touch-deprived, Claude?”

Cue the scoff from him.

“Whether that was a joke or not, I will not entertain your inappropriate question. What happens in my personal life is strictly none of your concerns. And really, Madeleine. You, a polite woman? I hardly agree. Until you’re able to refrain saying such deplorable things in public, I will consider,” releasing a dramatic sigh, he continued. “I really am starting to doubt whether you did actually go to a finishing school.”

“Hey! I am polite and nice and I did go to finishing school.”

“Uhuh.”

“It’s true!” I cried. “I just tend to let loose when I am around people I am comfortable with!”

It was then I realized what I said (or in this case slipped). Claude must finally realized too as he froze when he was in the middle of repeating “Uhuh”.

I really should filter my mouth. I always slip.

As a way to save myself, I hurriedly added something. “Or, or people I find annoying! Yea!”

I knew already the damage is done, because butler failed to laugh it off or even crack a smile. Claude’s just stood still and stiff in his place. While his face appeared unreadable from afar (because he’s just damn good in concealing his emotions), the slight slackening of his jaw and the rising of his brows gave away his stupefaction.

We should probably put a count on the number of times I made him speechless and the number of times I failed to filter my thoughts.

An awkward silence fell between us for a few seconds before he timidly faltered an “oh”.

More awkward silence ensued and staring on his part, while I, on the other hand, stood there squirming under his gaze and contemplating whether I should smash myself into a wall or jump off a cliff.

Oh boy, I really did jinx myself. It’s just the start of this day out thing and I am already making it uncomfortable. Good job, Madeleine. Good job. Now, fix this! This is your fault!

In my attempt to cut the uncomfortable silence and him staring so blatantly, I loudly cleared my throat. “So… Yea. That’s that. Would be great if you stop ogling me. I know I am attractive but-” I took hold of his arm again, causing him to step closer to me, and thus breaking off his stare. “-we’re literally in the center of the room and people are staring at us.”

At my claim, Claude swept his eyes across the room to see that a couple of people’s eyes were on us before turning away to avoid the butler catching their stare. Spinning his head back to me, he offered me a sheepish smile as he murmured an apology.

“My apologies, that was rude of me.”

“And we both thought I would be the one with no proper etiquette and the one attracting unwanted attention,” As I retorted, I let go of Claude’s arm. “Anyways, the entry tickets are with you right?”

He nodded while taking out the two ticket from his front pocket slowly to prevent them from getting creased.

“Okay, let’s go now.”

As we got closer to the ticket gate, a blonde-haired lady in her late forties, wearing the staff uniform and waiting there, noticed Claude. Recognition dawned on her with delight soon lighting her face, giving him a huge friendly grin and greeting when we reached her.

“Claude, my dear boy, it’s been a long time since I last saw you!”

For the first time, I witnessed his perfectly mastered neutral expression fell when he registered the old lady’s voice and face. Then and there, I felt my heart being set on fire as he eased into a small, genuine, bright smile and gently greeted back.

I need a breather at once...

“Mrs. Graham. It’s lovely to see you again and indeed, it has been a long time since we last saw each other.”

The old lady, Mrs. Graham, spread and wrapped her arms around Claude in an embrace, to which he also did the same.

Yep, my heart will burst seeing this whole interaction.

When they separated, Mrs. Graham looked up to him with her hands placed on each side of Claude’s arms. Her wrinkled eyes held so much tender and affection for him, as if she sees him as her own son. She must have known him since he was really young then. The steward still has a smile on, albeit more laid-back. Regardless, it’s still a wonderful sight to me. The old lady was the first one to speak.

“Tell me, my boy, how have you been doing? And His Royal Highness, Prince Wilfred?”

“I have been well, busy now that I am the head steward, but I enjoy my work and the gratification I get from it. His Royal Highness is doing well, Ms. Graham. Thank you for asking. I will notify His Highness of our encounter. I am sure he’ll be delighted.”

Well, it looked like she also knew Prince Wilfred personally.

“Oh why, that’s very sweet of you. Has he been treating you well?”

“Yes, he has been treating me well and so is the His and Her Majesty. They had done many things for me, to which I am very grateful.”

The answer brought a bigger grin to her face and a nod of approval.

“That’s wonderful to hear. The Spencers are kind and I am happy to have them governing this kingdom.” At the sentiment, Claude gave her a warm smile, agreeing what she said. “I share the same thought, I am honored to serve them.”

Soon, the old lady’s expression changed to one of teasing and wistfulness. She brought her closer to him to whisper something.

“Is Wilfred still giving you a tough time as when he was still a child?” The question caused the butler to leaned back and shook his head, chuckling.

“I wouldn’t say he’s mischievous now that he has more responsibilities as the new crown prince. He’s a lot more serious, but he does occasionally tease. However, he’s still as stubborn as ever.”

His statement earned a raised eyebrow from Mrs. Graham and also a quiet snort from me.

How bold of him to state about Wilfred’s stubbornness when he’s also stubborn.

The noise caught the attention of the old lady, her eyes briefly went to me, inciting a sharp inhale of air from me, before focusing back on the butler. Now, the corners of her mouth are quirked up more visibly.

“Did I not remember correctly you were also stubborn, my boy? If not, more stubborn than Wilfred?”

Claude paused before stammering his next words.

“.... Well, you are right, but I have to be firm as a head steward and someone who watches over the prince…”

“Back then, you weren’t a head steward and yet you’re still the same. I know because this nice lady you brought as a date-,” the old lady turned to me beaming with a teasing glint in her eyes. “-made a noise when you commented on Wilfred.”

I didn’t register the fact, the old lady refers me more less as ‘Claude’s date’ due to her sudden acknowledgment of me and the noise I made… Which redirects his intense gaze on me (probably annoyed)... To which I shrunk while raising my hands in defense.

“Sorry? I can’t even argue because you are stubborn, and I couldn’t help but let out a sound when you comment on His Highness’ stubbornness as if you’re also not. It’s absurd!”

“Why Madeleine, thank you for your continuous support,” he mocked. It was sarcasm, so I just went along with him and mocked him back.

“It’s an honor and pleasure to always boost up your ego.”

Witnessing the interaction between us, Mrs. Graham released a short closed-mouth laugh before she gently took hold of my hand while looking at Claude in anticipation.

“Oh Claude, do please introduce your date to this old lady.”

At once, both Claude and I stiffened. Before Claude could even open his mouth, I quickly shut down the lady’s assumption, although a bit flustered. I could imagine my cheeks blossoming some pink hues, because they are on fire.

“O-Oh, Mrs. Graham, I am not his date...”

“She’s right. We’re not on a date … I am just here to accompany her because His Highness had an emergency to do.”

Okay, putting that way was a bit harsh. Yes I know, this was never a date in the first place but he was the one who volunteered. When he put it like that, it sounded like he’s forced to do it….

I tried to not let it get to me, maintaining a neutral expression. On the other hand, Mrs. Graham wasn’t having it, appearing skeptical with one brow raised.

“No? Are you sure it’s not a date? It’s just only both of you alone,” the teasing glint made an appearance again in her eyes. “I assume you guys were together as you both fight like a couple.”

Both of us immediately became a stammering mess, safe to say, trying to refute the old lady’s claim in the same time.

“Mrs. Graham! I-I assure you we’re not a couple-e nor we are on a d-date!”

“W-we’re not a couple! We alway fight like that because… We can’t stand each other..”

Okay Claude, that sounded really believable.

By then, both of us looked red in the face (I assume I was). Mrs. Graham just appeared more amused by the second, snickering at our reactions. After watching us struggle coming up with excuses, she let out a smile before speaking up.

“You can stop now. This old lady was just playing with you. Anyways,” she glanced at me. “I still haven’t gotten your name, my dear.”

Before I could even open my mouth, Claude beat me to it, which caused me to give him my incredulous look. By incredulous look, I meant the ‘what the hell’ look.

“This is Lady Madeleine Zhang. She will be staying in Philip as a guest of His Royal Highness.”

He even had the nerves to refer me by my title despite the fact I told him earlier to just call me by my first name.

At this point, I was just staring at him pointedly with a small frown displayed on my lips.

“Excuse me, Master Claude, but did this nice old lady asked you for my introduction? I don’t think so. I am fully capable of introducing myself,” I folded my arms across my chest, my hip jutted out to one side. “And did I not tell you to just refer me by my first name just for today?”

Now, it was the steward’s turn to look at me with incredulity and then annoyance, his eyes twitching.

“Why, it is formalities. It’s custom here in Philip to introduce one with their title and it’s also my responsibility as a butler to introduce His Highness’ guest.”

“Fine, I understand the first one but we’re not in a formal setting and you are not a butler at the moment. You’re just any regular person.” Claude was about to start up again with another excuse, so I beat him to it first, my eyes flashed warningly at him. “And no excuses, you already agreed earlier to just call me by my first name.”

It’s not often you see me feeling and looking very annoyed (it’s very difficult to annoy me, but somehow Claude has the ability to tick me off). So when Claude saw my fierce intense expression aimed at him, it startled him to the point he immediately pressed his lips together, all words died off on his tongue.

“Well?”

Claude released an exasperated sigh before raising his hands in defeat, too tired to argue anymore. “Alright. I’ll try to stay true to my words. Satisfied, Madeleine?” I shook my head before putting out my pinky for a pinky promise.

After staring at my pinky gesture for a few short seconds out of disbelief, he then sent me an unimpressed expression.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

“That’s absolutely ridiculous, childish, and unnecessary! I will not do such thing.”

“Just do it, Claude.”

“No, I will not.”

“Claudeeee.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I said it before. It is ridiculous.”

“Just do it once, Claude. Pleaseee.”

“I will not!”

“Just once and you won’t do it ever again!”

“Did you not hear me before? I won’t do it!”

“Pleaseee?”

“I said no!”

As our voices get progressively louder, people started to notice us, some curious, some irritated. Thankfully, there’s only a small of number of people in the place since it was a weekday.

“Look, if you don’t do this, more people will stare at us. You don’t want that do you?” I persuaded while wiggling my pinky. Claude briefly glanced around, then contemplated for a few seconds before glaring at me. He soon released an exasperated groan, then muttering “I can’t believe I’m doing this” while begrudgingly presenting his (long and delicate) pinky to me. Finally, we hooked both our pinkies together, signifying his promise.

Despite his irritation expressed through his face and his grumblings, I noticed the blossoming hues on his cheeks while he did the pinky promise. Pretty sure it’s from both embarrassment and the skin contact.

I was a bit surprised, Mrs. Graham, a staff who witnessed this whole interaction didn’t intervene. Turns out, when I turned to face her, she was completely enjoying this. And by that, I meant the old lady had a huge smile that light up her face, and her brown eyes twinkled with mirth and somewhat affection.

After letting out a short laugh, she finally spoke up.

“You two are some firecrackers. You both really do fight like a married couple.”

Huh. Maybe we do argue like a married couple…

Knowing that we no longer have any reasonable excuses, considering she observed the whole scene unfold between us, we stayed silent with the steward giving her sheepish grin and I releasing an awkward chuckle.

“Anyways,” she continued, putting out one hand to us. “You should hurry inside, the planetarium live show is about to start in a couple of minutes.”

Claude hand in our tickets to her, which she immediately verified with a scanner she held. She gave them back to him.

“Tell your children and the children in the orphanage, I said hi.” In response to Claude, the old lady put on a gentle smile.

“Thank you my boy and will do.” When she gazed at me, she had a knowing expression, as if she knew something about me or the future.

“It was nice meeting you Mrs. Graham!”

“Likewise. It seems like I will be seeing you around more often in the future.”

What…

My face scrunched in confusion. Despite not understanding what she meant by that, I decided not to ask her for clarification out of fear. Instead, I just bobbed my head out of agreement with a corner of my mouth quirked up.

“Most likely, Mrs. Graham. Philip is beautiful and I would like to visit it again in the near future.”

As we set off, I caught her eyes, which now held some barely hidden mischief.

I have this huge feeling she’s going to say or do something…

Just literally a second I thought of that, she sent us off with a wink and a cheerful greeting.

“Enjoy your date!”

By then, there was already quite a distance between us and the old lady, so we couldn’t really do anything about it but try to make ourselves appear small and maintain a neutral expression (despite our faces assembling some ripen tomatoes).

In the uncomfortable silence, we walked our way to the planetarium.

•••


“Ah, that was a really good show. It exactly felt like we’re sitting on the ground watching the real stars above us! Even though it’s not the real thing, this whole experience feels so out of this world.”

As we exit the planetarium after the show ended, I immediately went to gush about it. I glanced at Claude, with a question in mind.

“What do you think, Claude?”

By then, the weird and uncomfortable atmosphere between us has dissipated because of the live show. Since the show demanded attention and silence from the audience, we just did that. We were both so focused on listening the presenter’s narration and the moving pictures of the stars projected above us, that we immediately forgot the incident earlier. I occasionally let out some ooh and aah sounds as I gaze at the stars in adoration and excitement. I could imagine my eyes all wide-eyed and glittering with the same emotions. I became aware that Claude was really silent then, so I discreetly spun my head a bit only to be struck at his side profile. He was so absorbed and concentrated in the projection above that his eyebrows are furrowed and his mouth slightly gaped.

But there and then, I found him extremely attractive. (My attraction to guys being and looking serious is showing)

The darkness, the close proximity, and his deep focus to the show offered me an opportunity to admire his profile closer and longer, without the fear of getting caught.

With the lights from the projection above, I could see his face. Defined jaws, refined nose, slightly full lips, rosy cheeks, and his eyes, had this intense navy color. The lights reflecting off him made him even more surreal, ethereal. His hair fit his face perfectly with some strands falling in front of one of his eyes. It looked so luscious and smooth, there was this urge within me to glide my fingers through them.

Even though, he’s not one of royalty or nobility, he looked so poised and regal, sitting on his seat. Along with his good looks, anyone would think it otherwise.

I guess I was staring a bit too long and too obvious, that Claude had his head slightly turned to me with a curious and puzzled expression.

“Do you need something?” he whispered questioningly.

I inhaled sharply before profusely shook my head.

“No.. I uh had something to ask but … I forgot,” I lamely excused. Sensing nothing suspicious with it, he nodded before focusing back to the show. I too turned my attention back, my body hunched and my cheeks all heated.

That was a close call.

Nevertheless, everything was worth it. As I tried to embed his image into my mind while watching the projection above, I displayed a warm smile. A smile that remained on my lips for the rest of the show.

It didn’t dawn on me I, in fact, was so lost in thought, reminiscing what happened earlier, that Claude called my name and softly shook my shoulder. “Madeleine?”

His voice brought me back into present time.

“Huh?” My eyes refocused to see the steward in front of me, his hands now on his sides. Concern briefly flashed across his face before it disappeared.

“Are you alright? You looked like you were in some sort of daze with a smile on your face when I answered your question. You’re not unwell, are you?”

He then reached out to touch my forehead which I immediately swat it with my own, shaking my head no in the same time.

“I am not sick!” I blurted. “I was just remembering something nice. Guess I must have been too caught up.”

“Your cheeks are turning red.”

“Don’t worry about it, I’m not sick.” Claude gave me a skeptical look before I reassure him. “I am serious… Anyways what were you saying before?”

Sensing my eagerness to change the topic, he decided not to press me and repeated his answer.

“I told you previously, it was still impressive from the last time I visited. They improved a lot with the quality of the projection. The stars are looking more realistic and beautiful although it’s still unmatched with the real ones in Philip.”

“Ah I see. That’s nice to hear,” I glanced at him as we walked to no place in particular. A dreamy sigh escaped my lips. “I wish I could see the real constellations. I bet they must be even more magnificent in real life.”

At my confession, he appeared surprised. Maybe stunned is more appropriate.

“You’ve never stargazed, Madeleine?” I shook my head slowly before forcing a smile on my face. I could tell it appeared sad and embarrassed as his mouth soon curled into a small frown, his forehead creased.

“No, I never got the chance to back at home. Just like Prince Wilfred, I wasn’t allowed to do many things when I was younger. I attended a prestigious private school and most of my time would be spent on studying. It was only then when I attended university, I got a little bit of freedom and did few things I wanted to do. Things normal young adults would do. I remembered the first time I tasted takoyaki from a stall during a trip to Oriens with my friends from university,” I let out a chuckle as I recalled the memory. “You should see their shock reactions when I told them it was my first time to eat takoyaki or eat any food from food trucks and stalls. After that, they brought me to every single food truck and stall available until I felt like my stomach is going to explode.”

At my last comment, Claude said nothing and instead snorted with laughter. I carried on. “It was funny then, but looking back at it now, it’s a bit tragic because it registered that I didn’t get the full experience of being a normal young adult if you understand what I mean... Anyways, university workload are always heavy and strenuous, so I dedicated most of my time to that. And I also immersed myself in learning my parents’ businesses out of interest… Always had a knack for business, so might as well put my skills and knowledge into use, right? At the end, again, I missed my chance to do the things, other people my age do. That includes stargazing.”

It suddenly occurred to me that, once more, I rambled. So I stopped there.

“So yea… I uh sorry for babbling. I could’ve just replied with ‘oh the sky back in my country was always filled with smog’, but no. Instead, I just told you my whole life story, which probably irked you...”

“No… It didn’t irritate me.”

“Huh?” I took a glimpse at the steward’s face, puzzled at his response, only to see he was gazing at me already. To my surprise, there were no signs of irritation on his face. However, he seemed serious and somewhat a bit tense and awkward.

“I said it didn’t bother me. To tell you the truth,” he cleared his throat while scratching the back of his neck, probably to alleviate the embarrassment from the next words that would escape his mouth.

There was a brief pause.

Seeing he’s having trouble getting the words out, I gently urged him. “To tell you the truth and…? Go on..”

Another gulp.

“To tell you the truth, I uh don’t mind you telling your story. Rather I appreciate and was quite flattered that you would share something personal about your life.”

At this point, I was stunned. I really thought he would reprimand me along the lines of impropriety. Maybe I should stop assuming the worst of him….

Anyways, Claude continued with what he’s saying so I kept my mouth shut and listened (I couldn’t even say anything anyway because I was still stunned).

“And besides, we both more less were in a similar situation. During his yearly visit to my orphanage, the head steward of the royal family before me saw potential in me and decided to take me under his wings with the approval and acceptance of the royal family. Soon after, I spent most of my time training to become the next head steward while also serving His Highness as his butler ever since we’re both young. Like you Madeleine, I had never done things people my age did back then, aside my time at the orphanage.”

Oh. Well, I didn’t expect he would confide about his past.

As a result, I blurted something he mentioned without thinking.

“I didn’t know you were an orphan.” To which, Claude responded with a sarcastic grin plastered on his face.

“It’s not something you want to talk about to people.”

“Right… So were you there since…?”

“Since I was a baby.” I stopped, which also caused him to follow. Soon he was staring at me, probably anticipating my next words.

“Oh, Claude. I’m so-”

Claude didn’t let me finish as he raised his hand and shook his head. “Please, do not apologize. I do not need anyone’s pity. They must have a reason to leave me there. I understood back then, the kingdom wasn’t as financially stable as now. So, I forgive them… Besides, my time in the orphanage was quite fun and fulfilling. The workers, the volunteers, the nuns there took great care of us. They helped me grow, and thus that’s how the previous head steward took me in. For that, I am entirely grateful.”

The response Claude offered left me filled with amazement, allowing me to view him in an entire new light. There was no bitterness or anger detected on what he endured, and instead he saw it in a positive angle. He was filled with gratitude and understanding. I never thought I could view it that way, but he showed me it’s possible. Hearing him speak that way helped me realize how mature and strong this man next to me is.

His attitude towards his past (and probably just in general) was so endearing and so positive, it drew me closer to him. I felt something within my heart blooming even more. It set a fire burning in my heart.

I must have appeared awestruck as Claude hid his face away from me, his cheeks staining red. To save him from further discomfort, I sent him a small smile.

“You’re a good man, Claude. Strong too.”

And because of that, my attraction and affection for you will continue to grow even more. I thought internally.

If it was possible, Claude appeared even more flustered as he mumbled his thanks. Again, his reactions towards compliments for him would always be adorable to me, that I couldn’t prevent a giggle from escaping my lips.

Once my giggling died down and saw that the head steward seem to be more composed from earlier, I changed the subject.

“Shall we go visit other exhibits? I recalled you telling me that you’ve been here before, somewhere along those lines.”

He had a contemplative expression as he tried remembering the exhibits. “Indeed, I visited the center a couple of times, but it was long ago. Although I am familiar with one of the permanent exhibit this place has. I think it was called ‘Journey Through Space’.”

My eyes light up with excitement. “That sounds really interesting! I look forward to seeing it.”

Sensing my approval through my enthusiasm, he immediately started heading to our destination. I called Claude, who then spun on his heels and cast a questioning look at me.

“Since you’re a head steward, I assume you have a vast knowledge on a variety of subjects?”

“Yes, it was required… And may I know why you’re asking about this suddenly?”

“Well, since you know a lot of stuff and visited the exhibit we’re going to now before,” I sang-song, a teasing smirk plastered on my lips. “I challenged you to explain all the artifacts presented there in the said exhibit.”

At first, he had one of his eyebrows quirked up, amused at my challenge, but soon it was replaced with a smug grin and eyes glinting with determination. With his arms folded across his chest, he accepted my challenge with much pride and confidence.

“That would be effortless.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes.”

“Well words don’t prove anything, so let’s see you’re not all talk and you walk the walk.”

“You are on.”

As we headed to our destination with him, I couldn’t help but think how this trip brought me even closer to him.

•••

I’m not exaggerating, that Claude knew a lot of things. As we went through each artifact, he pointed out everything and was able to explain them so smoothly as if reciting knowledge was second nature to him. I have become more and more impressed by the time he finished with one. Not only that, but he also inserted his commentary on each piece and asked for mine, leading to quite a lot of intellectual discussions that I thoroughly enjoyed.

That being said...

Seriously, what can he not do?

It seems like every time I’m with him, he pulls out a new skill out of his sleeves.

And that being said again, my heart’s gravitation towards him grew stronger and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to ignore or resist this the next time.

By the time we finished up going through almost all the exhibits, it was already half past two and since Claude have planned us to go somewhere else (this really felt like a date..), we decided to leave the space center.

Did I mention that we used his own car to and from the space center? No? Well we did. He insisted, which I really didn’t mind. It’s better that than a limousine when it comes to avoiding drawing crowds. Besides, no one would disagree on riding in a car that belongs to someone they’re attracted to. And obviously no one would say no to being alone with someone they’re attracted to in some small space.

Even if we’re both silent in the car, not a word spoken between us, I was still elated to be in close proximity with the head steward.

It was only in this instance that I broke the comfortable silence to ask him about our next destination.

“So...”

Claude briefly stole a glance at me before focusing back to the windshield.

“Hm?”

“You didn’t say where we are going next.”

“Oh. I apologize. We’re going to Cassiar Street.”

Seeing that I was still lost with my head tilted to the side, he explained.

“It is known for antique and crafts stores, stalls, workshops set up along the road. You don’t hear about it as the locals treasure the place, wanting to keep it a secret. Outsiders will know only if they ask the locals. Anyways, I thought it would be a good idea to bring you here. I have seen you admiring the portraits along the hall of the Chateau the other day.”

Once again, he’s successful in making me feel all fuzzy and warm inside. How considerate and sweet of him to do that. And for him to bring me to a place where not many outsiders know, I felt very special…

My heart grew warm at his thoughtfulness and unbeknown to me, it was clearly communicated through my smile.

“That’s really thoughtful and sweet of you to consider my interests. I didn’t even know you were there… Maybe I was too absorbed on the paintings.”

Struck at the warmth radiating from me, his cheeks grew pink before turning away to hide his blush. At the same moment, the car stopped. Still a bit flushed, Claude murmured that we have arrived at the place.

I swear his unintended cuteness will be the death of me.

As we exit from the car, I observed the surrounding around me. The buildings appeared more rustic and medieval, it’s as if we’re traveling back in time about 700 years ago. Half-timbered and stone buildings with wisteria growing over some of them, the streets were made of cobblestones, and lined up along the sides of the street were art galleries, studios, workshops, stalls catering to different crafts. There were also many small restaurants and cafes scattered with locals relaxing. As mentioned by Claude, there weren’t a lot of tourists milling around, mostly locals. It seems like most of them are familiar with one another, friendly chatter and laughter here and there.

Everything about this place was warm and beautiful.

“Wow…This is...” I couldn’t even finish my sentence, too awestruck by my surrounding. Nonetheless, Claude was able to comprehend what I wanted to say.

“It’s beautiful isn’t it?”

I only nodded in silence, my eyes still gazing at the view in front of me.

“It’s like stepping back into the medieval ages.”

“Indeed. Shall we stroll the street now? Regretfully, businesses here close a tiny bit earlier.”

I broke my eye contact to see a rueful frown set on his face. Thinking about it, it took some time even by car to reach here and the sun is about to set.

“You’re right, we should go.”

The next twenty to thirty minutes are spent on wandering the streets, stopping by on almost every studio, stall, and workshops to admire different crafts. As we go through each one, some artists, craftsmen, locals came up to Claude and struck a small friendly conversation with him.

So basically, he knew almost everyone. Maybe he went here often during his free time… That is if he had one.

As I was pondering, the said butler was in the middle of conservation with one of the shopkeepers selling ceramic potteries. Not wanting to bother them or waste any more time, I gave Claude a hand gesture of leaving, although I wasn’t sure if he saw it. From the looks of it, they were both absorbed in the conversation.

I went further down the street to look at more stuff. It was then a bracelet displayed on a shop’s window, caught my eyes. It was a charm bracelet made out of fine gold. What stood out to me were the charms, they were all symbols and objects that represented the Philip Kingdom. There were small gemstones encrusted in each charm but they didn’t overshadow the finely carved details of the charms, rather they complement each other. You could tell how much love, attention, time, and effort was put in designing and creating this bracelet.

As I continued to admire the charm bracelet from the store’s display window, I consequently became unaware of my surroundings. I didn’t notice there was a grown man lingering on the other side of the street who had been eyeing me rather creepily ever since entering his view. Since my back was facing him and my eyes are glued to the jewelry, I jumped out of shock when I heard a man’s nasal voice at close proximity to me.

“Hey little lamb, what’s a beautiful woman like you doing out here alone?”

I briefly took a glance at the man’s appearance. Attire-wise, he didn’t seem shady with some plaid shirt and some long brown pants. However, his facial appearance was unkempt… And the way he’s leering at me was downright uncomfortable and predatory.

I need to get away fast.

I couldn’t ignore him. Even though I badly wanted to ignore him and his unwanted attention, doing so would only provoke further aggression from him. It could turn ugly if he found my response offensive. I didn’t want to look vulnerable either, as that would also make me an easier target in his eyes, and he’s already eyeing me as if I am his prey.

Just thinking about it elicited shudders down my spine and cold sweat to form. It made me sick to the stomach.

Determined to get out of here, I faced him head-on with an impassive expression to act as if I was unaffected and unimpressed. I made sure to sound bored and composed in my response.

“As you can see, I was looking at some pieces of jewelry.”

He must be not used to getting such responses like this, as the shock has frozen his face and body. It’s a win because thanks to his reaction, I was able to quickly inspect my surroundings.

Shit, I really walked into trouble.

Despite the fact I only walked down the same street, no turns or anything, the area was already almost deserted. Some of the studios and store were already closed or about to close. I really did walk into trouble.

What were you thinking?

I soon quickly focused my attention back to the man who had gotten over his shock and unfortunately pressed on with a sleazy smile plastered on his face. I guess my response wasn’t enough to stir him off, rather it spurred him on. So he was that kind of man. The man who wouldn’t take no as an answer. The man who thinks a woman saying no to his advance as a sign of playing hard to get. Ugh.

While I am a bit more cautious, I still stood my ground.

“Say, little lamb,” I narrowed my eyes at him after hearing his nickname for me.

Really? Little lamb? How predatory and creepy can he get?

He took a step toward me while he continued trying to make advances, to which I took a step back.

“Why don’t we go somewhere else so you can focus on something better?”

At that moment, I felt sick to the stomach, and the urge to smack him in the face out of anger and disgust was so tempting. The stony and impassive mask I put was starting to crack at his suggestive words, with my mouth twitching into a small scowl and my hands clenching tightly into fists.

Good God, I really want to insult him and hit him, but I know it would be a horrible idea seeing that this place is almost deserted.

“No thank you. I have something better to focus on. Now, will you excuse me.”

With a firm voice, I rejected his advance and strode pass by him. As I headed back to where I came from, it was then the man roughly took hold of my arm and tug it with much force, causing me to yelp in surprise and stumble back.

I immediately whipped my head to him, still in shock, to see him flashing me with an unsettling grin before saying his next words.

“Oh come on, little lamb. Why are you playing hard to get? We’ll have fun, trust me.”

Just like that, the shock I felt disappeared and it’s replaced with anger. Waves of anger and irritation started to roll off me at him and his disgusting advances. He even had the nerves to touch me. His grip on my arm felt like poison, seeping and burning through my skin.

My patience finally snapped and I unfurled my snark at him.

“You must be delusional and dull to think that women saying no would equate to them playing hard to get. No is no and nothing more. I don’t want to do anything with a guy as disrespectful and revolting as you. Now. Would. You. Let. Go. Of. My Arm,” I gritted out and emphasized each word with a tug of my arm, each tug harder than the previous.

His grin soon dropped and in retaliation, he tightened the hold on my wrist even stronger, to the point he was painfully squeezing it, making me utter a sharp cry of pain.

Okay I knew to retort back was a bad idea but I couldn’t help it! This man deserved it! Clearly, he didn’t get what he did wrong (see, he’s not that bright), because he appeared insulted, anger flashing in his eyes with a huge scowl on his face.

“What did you say?” He threatened, his voice loud.

I already had an idea in mind that he wanted me to repeat what I said before, but I wouldn’t let him have the satisfaction.

“I said, let go of my arm, you fool.” I made sure to put as much venom and threat into my words while shooting him daggers.

He growled. “Why you-,”

Everything after felt like a blur. One second he shouted at me and now he had his other hand raised and positioned to hit me. I wasn’t given any time to react. With my inability to move because of his tight grip on me, I only could turn my head away while using my free hand to protect myself. I scrunched my eyes closed waiting for the impact… only for nothing to happen.

What? I swore I saw his hand was about to come down on me…

Soon after I thought of that, I no longer felt the man’s grip around my wrist followed by the man’s cry of pain and a familiar voice of Claude.

“The lady had told you to get your hand off her... Or is your skull so thick that you weren’t able to comprehend something so simple?”

His voice was crisp and cold as ice, and the fact he lowered his voice and slowed down his speech made his word even more threatening and chilling. If I was the man, I would’ve wither.

I immediately opened my eyes and lowered my arm to see the head steward had the man in a shoulder lock, with his knees touching the ground. It was clearly evident as the man’s face scrunched, and tugging away would only tighten Claude’s hold on him. Clearly, stunned at how this situation took a turn (grateful although) so quick, I remained frozen in place while watching everything unfold in front of me.

Despite in pain, the man was still able to speak.

“Let go of me you bastard! This is none of your business!”

Claude only responded with a displeased look, eyes narrowed into a glare, brows furrowed, and mouth set into a deep scowl. He then tightened the hold on the man who soon after let out a yelp.

“How barbaric. Have anyone ever taught you manners? Respect? Some common decency? Or is your brain also too small to understand those simple concepts also hm? Get up.” He commanded as he roughly tugged the man’s arms up for him to stand. Once he finally stood on his feet with much difficulty, Claude laid his hand on the man’s back and pushed him forward, guiding him back to where we came from. I heard the head steward saying something to him, his voice lowered and cold.

“Also it becomes my business the moment you disrespect women.”

I was still standing in the same place, still in disbelief at everything. First of all, he appeared out of nowhere. Second, he appeared at the exact time I was in trouble. What- How on earth did he do that?

It was only then Claude realized that I haven’t been following them after briefly glancing to his side. Releasing an exasperated sigh after seeing me at the back, he called my name, pulling me out from daze.

“Coming!” I ran after them and throughout the way, no one really spoke. Surprisingly, the man remained silent nor he even attempted to shake Claude off. Once we finally reached to back we’re from, we received looks from the locals that I found odd. At first, it was curiosity before it turned to displeasure when they focused on the man, some rolling their eyes. It’s as if like they know who the man was and the awful things he did. With the man now in an arm lock by him, the steward told me to stay here before leaving me to bring the man to the nearest police station. I could clearly notice the increase in volume when he said “stay here”, accompanied by the stern look he directed my way, treating as if I am a troublemaker child.

Even though I was a bit peeved at the treatment, I guess I could understand his concern. If it wasn’t for him and his scarily perfect timing, things would’ve gone… You get the gist. Sigh, I wish I could go anywhere without fearing for my safety or experience a situation like that. It gets really exhausting….

Complying with his demand, I headed over to stand beside his car and waited for him there while he deals and hands the creep to the officers. Once satisfied after seeing me stay still in my place, he left with the creep.

Now that I’m alone with nothing to do, I observed the surrounding. It was already dark and some artists and shopkeepers were already closing and packing up their stuff, calling it a day. The street now was quiet and nearly deserted, however, it didn’t make me uncomfortable as now the street lamps along the pavements lit up, giving me a sense of safety. With everything settling down, and the tension and adrenaline leaving my system, exhaustion started to set in and it’s only a matter of seconds for my mind to wander off to dreamland. It was also starting to get cold too….

My eyes were already losing focus and my eyelids felt heavy like lead. I tried to keep my head upright, stopping myself from bobbing to the side or the front. A gust of wind passed through me, causing me to shiver and hug my body tightly with both my arms.

Few more minutes have passed by and there was still no sign of Claude. Despite the streets being light up and there were still two or three people lingering, I refused to fall asleep after what happened… But it was really getting more difficult to keep me awake with sleep now completely pervading my mind. Soon enough, I gave in, too tired now to even try.

Maybe a few minutes will do...

I hoped Claude doesn’t mind me leaning against his car as I could no longer support myself upright. With my arms still hugging and rubbing my body to preserve warmth, I finally closed my eyes, succumbing to a few minutes of sleep.

It really was only a few minutes before I was easily awakened (I’m a light sleeper remember?) by Claude, softly calling for me seconds after feeling a blazer being placed over my shoulders, quickly warming and protecting me from the cold. His voice pulled me out from the darkness. I opened and rubbed my eyes to get rid of the blurriness from sleep. With my eyes refocused, I finally could see Claude’s face expressing concern and what appeared to be guilt?

I slightly stretched my body while taking a large inhale… which led to me accidentally taking a whiff of Claude’s blazer and it smelt a pleasant mix of peppermint and jasmine. It smelt like him…
“Are you finished?” I asked, my voice was still groggy from sleep. He nodded.

“Yes, the man was already handed to the officers and will be dealt with…” At his response, I gave him a small satisfied smile.

“That’s good, I hope he will get some sort of punishment.”

It appeared that he didn’t feel the same as he still looked the same, concerned and guilty. His brows are furrowed and his forehead was creasing. Not only that, he had a huge frown. I looked at him puzzled.

“Claude? Um are you okay?”

He turned his face away. Although he was trying to hide his face, I still could see that it was filled with regret and disappointment. But why?

“I should’ve come to you faster. No, I should’ve accompanied you back there. This wouldn’t happen if I was with you….” He then turned back to me. It was even more evident that he it was his fault that this happened to me. His voice was soft and filled with regret and sadness. Just seeing him like this brought a pang to my heart. It’s not even his fault… Oh Claude. “And now… I have ruined this experience in Philip for you… I apologize.”

What?

Out of habit, I took hold of his right hand with my left (I avoid using my right hand since there’s the bruise around the wrist and I didn’t want to worry him even further) as a way to comfort him. It must have been unexpected for him as his eyebrows shot up from surprise.

“Hey, please don’t beat yourself for what happened before. It wasn’t your fault,” I reassured him, sending along a comforting smile. “As a matter of fact, It was mine. I went alone and wasn’t aware of my surround-”

He immediately shook his head in disagreement, cutting me off. “No, it is neither your fault. You should not have to feel wary every time you go out. You’re supposed to enjoy doing the things you want without having to fear for your safety,” his hand once stilled from shock, wrapped his finger around mine with his other covering it. “None of this was your fault.”

His voice and eyes held unwavering conviction, it left me speechless and pinned in my place. No words came out of my lips as I stared at him. This time he didn’t look the least embarrassed or bothered at my action. It appears he held those beliefs very strongly, which I too held close to my heart. Knowing that, my heart soared and felt even more drawn to this man in front of me.

His intense gaze continued to focus on me as he continued. “I will assure you, Lady Madeleine, that he will be taken care of by the police,” a dark shadow passed over his face, a disgusted scowl visible as he spat the next words. “Apparently, this is not the first time the man have approached a woman the way you experienced. Disgusting.” His hold slightly tightened around my hand with reassurance. “I swear I will make sure the police will lock him away or at least won’t let him be in near vicinity of women.”

I gently squeezed his hand and gave him a grateful smile, albeit a tiny bit amused that he went as far to as swearing. Nevertheless, it brought warmth to my heart at his considerateness.

“You don’t need to swear it to me,” I tittered. “I know very well that you are capable. So is the police. I believe and have trust in your abilities. After all, you are the head steward of the royal family.”

Again out of habit, I placed my other hand on top of his, patting it. At my gesture and compliment, Claude’s face turned a shade of pink before he murmured “flatterer” under his breath. I forgot that I have placed my injured hand on top of his (since it didn’t exactly hurt unless I touch it probably), so when he finally calmed down and lowered his eyes to our hands, he donned a horrified expression with a quiet gasp escaping from his mouth. The color in his face drained once he registered the condition of my wrist.

Huh.. It couldn’t be that bad… I directed my eyes to my hand and indeed…

Yeah okay It looked quite nauseating.

There were blotches of purple, some smaller, some bigger and some lighter and darker encircling my wrist. Despite the fact it was already dark outside and the only light source was from the street lamps, the bruises stood out as my skin was very fair.

Never have I ever seen him so dejected, so upset with himself as his eyes continued to gaze at the bruises circling my wrist. He glanced at me. “May I… hold your wrist?” Nodding my consent, he took hold of my wrist with tender and care, bringing it closer for him to inspect. By the second, his face looked even more downcasted and graver. His frown deepened as he saw me wince from the pain when he carefully traced the bruises as part of the inspection. “This wouldn’t happen if I was there with you… This looked painful…” he murmured quietly.

“Oh Claude, don’t be so hard on yourself. This wasn’t your fault either. We both didn’t expect something like this would happen, so it’s out of our control. I am already grateful that you intervened just in time before it escalated to something worse. So, thank you Claude.”

The head steward, who still looked upset and unconvinced, was about to argue before I beat him to it. I gently pulled my wrist away from his hold and took his hand before squeezing it.

“It’s okay, I’m okay. These bruises are nothing. I’ve had worse ones because of my clumsiness.” At my confession, he slipped a wry smile as he watched me chuckled from embarrassment. “But seriously, I will be alright. They soon will disappear. Please don’t worry so much and don’t beat yourself up over this…”

Seeing my pleading expression and me squeezing his hand, his face turned to one of bashfulness before quickly hiding it. He still appeared a bit upset and concerned but nevertheless, he gave in to my reassurance. I soon let go of his hand with much difficulty in my part, The loss of warmth and comfort causing me to release a quiet sigh. It left me feeling pretty cold and empty somewhat.

“Alright…. But” his words trailed off but soon he continued, now with a determined look in his eyes. “The least I can do is tend to your injury once we are back at the Chateau.”

This didn’t even sound like permission and from the looks of his face, it looked like he won’t be taking no as an answer.

“Okay… That actually will be great. Thank you.”

If that meant I get to spend a little more time with him, then sure.

“It’s alright.” He peered into me, his forehead creasing out of concern. “Shall we go back to the Chateau now? You look exhausted.”

A weak laugh escaped me, to which he quirked one of his eyebrows.

“Exhausted is an understatement, but yes I couldn’t agree more about going back to the Chateau. I can’t wait to lie down on my bed and feel the softness and plushiness of the pillows and the mattress.”

Claude chuckled, shaking his head in amusement as he saw my exaggerated dreamy expression. “Very well.” I stood upright taking a step back for him to open the car’s door on the passenger side. As he waited for me to go in, I reached out my arms to take off his blazer from my shoulder when he stopped me.

“No, keep it on you for now. You’re cold. I don’t want you getting ill.”

“Oh.. Okay..” I hurriedly stepped inside the car, accidentally bumping the top of my head against the car’s interior in the process.

“Ow…. Darn it..”

Outside, Claude tried to stop himself from snickering as he held the door, resulting in my already flushed face to redden even further if that even was possible.

“You really are clumsy.” From his tone, I could tell that he had a smug grin, clearly humored from my mishap. A grin I gladly would smack off his pretty face.

He didn’t give me enough time for me to shoot back as the door closed beside me. In an attempt to hide my blush, I snuggled further into his blazer as the warmth and his scent enveloped me completely.

Not sure if keeping this close to me is a good idea to when I am trying to calm myself down...

Seconds later, the door to the driver seat opened with Claude entering into the car. Whether he saw me snuggling so comfortably into his blazer or not, he made no comment about it and instead started the car. Soon enough, we were already on the road going back to the Chateau.

As we drove in silence, I gazed out the window, the lights and landscape slightly blurring altogether from how fast we’re going. The silence allowed me to think back about today.

It was nice.

Scratch that, it was more than nice.

It’s probably one of the most fun time I ever experienced. Look, the times I went out with Wilfred too was also fun, but there’s something different when you’re going out with someone you’re attracted to, with someone you… like. I am not entirely great at expressing how I feel into words, be warned, but being with him felt mostly comfortable, warm, and safe (I said mostly because there were times we were awkward, but I guess it’s because we’re both already awkward individuals to begin with). It felt like I could just be myself around him and he wouldn’t judge me. Sure we occasionally do make fun of each other and argue over the silliest things, but I felt no malicious intent. It’s all in good fun, it’s exactly like bantering with someone close to you. Claude is exactly that ‘someone’. It’s as if it’s only us two in the world and time have slowed down when I’m with him.

Alongside that, he does things that made me feel all tingly and fluttery inside. Even the smallest things he does or say could send my heart pounding against my chest, left me feeling breathless. His very smile, voice, personality, his very whole being sent me in a spiral of feelings, strange but pleasant and warm feelings. It’s only a matter of time for these feelings to reach one that’s even more intense and stronger, a feeling I haven’t felt for a long time and I’m afraid of.

This trip had allowed me to be closer to him… I saw him just being himself outside his work and I learned new things about him anything from his quirks to his skills, and parts of his past. I was quite surprised he confided in me, but…. I also felt happy and special that he somehow could trust me.

I couldn’t believe he would think that the incident before was his fault and that he had ruined today’s visit when it’s nothing like that when it’s so different from that. He had made this day, this visit special and memorable. In comparison to the wonderful things that happened today, that incident was nothing.

I’m sure inside, Claude’s still feeling like he’s the one to blame for the incident, so I faced him, my eyes filled with determination.

“Back in that street, you told me that you felt you ruined my experience today because that incident happened.”

Claude briefly glanced at me before turning his eyes back to the front, his face immediately grimaced. “Yes, I a-”

“Well I just wanted to say, you didn’t.”

“What-”

“Claude, you didn’t ruin today or my experiences today. In fact, you made this experience special and memorable. I really had an amazing and fun time with you. That incident is a small speck, it’s nothing in comparison to how much fun or how happy I am spending time with you. It was really… nice getting to know you outside a formal setting.”

By the time I had finished what I was saying, especially the confession at the end, my voice became a soft murmur due to my bashfulness. I felt my cheeks burning from the confession.

“So please don’t pass the blame onto yourself. It isn’t healthy you know.”

I didn’t really see Claude’s reaction as I immediately leaned back against the seat with my body facing the window on the side, announcing that I am going to take a nap.

I was too embarrassed, shy, and afraid of his reaction.

While I didn’t plan to sleep actually, the darkness, the silence, the exhaustion, and the comfort of his blazer pulled me into a realm of sleep.

 

•••

In the driver seat, with his hands on the wheels, Claude sat there stunned. He was at loss for words at Madeleine’s admission. It’s been a long time since someone has said they had fun spending time with him. It’s also been a long time that he shared the same sentiment. To hear that from someone, nonetheless from someone he found himself growing attracted to (and this has no relation to the revelation he learned at the tennis court, she's just that enthralling... and different in a good way), made him feel all sort of things, mostly happy and relieved. It sent his heart stammering when those words escaped from her mouth.

And of course, he finally could finally let go of the guilt and feel relief instead when the incident was none of his faults and that it didn’t ruin her experience. How did she know he was thinking about it?

Nonetheless, he thought it was very thoughtful and heartwarming for her to do that, looking after him.

When he finally recovered from the initial shock and processed what Madeleine said, he waited for the next traffic light to glow red. Once it did, he stopped the car and turned to Madeleine only to see her deep in sleep.

Well…. He guessed what he wanted to say can wait.

In the exact right moment, he caught her squirming and snuggling even deeper to his blazer, her face serene and at ease against the piece of attire. The whole scene he witnessed somewhat created a strange, fluttery, warm feeling in his guts. It also sent a tender smile to his usual serious face.

He must have been so caught up on watching how cute she is that he didn’t see the traffic light turning green and a car honking loudly behind them. He broke out from his reverie and immediately pushed the gas pedal. Worried that the honk woke her up, he glanced to his side only to feel relief.

She really must be tired, he thought. I will brew her some soothing tea to help her get back to sleep when we return.

•••

And just like that, the visit concluded on a very pleasant note, something both of them didn’t expect. Regardless at the end, both Madeleine and Claude felt the same, deep inside, that perhaps they’re getting closer to one another, little by little.

Chapter Text

3rd of April
The Chateau

First thing first, I should thank Wilfred for yesterday. Honestly, I never thought my time with Claude outside would ever turn out the way it was yesterday. Could it have been the prince had known something?

Was he some sort of mind reader? Or maybe he’s just too perceptive...

Or maybe, I was already expecting the worse when it came to being with the butler... I really should stop doing that after how wonderful my time went yesterday aside from the incident.

Even after we returned back to the Chateau last night, he still looked after me... Waking me up when we arrived and putting his arm out for me to hold as drowsiness messed up my coordination. And of course, he also tended to my bruises with such gentleness and care... If I wasn’t so sleepy that night, I would’ve squirm with my face all flushed... Not only that, but he also took his time to prepare tea for me to help me get back to sleep easier. He didn’t have to do that, but he insisted.

I wasn’t sure if my mind’s doing tricks on me or what, but last night, after he woke me up, there was a sense of gentleness and tenderness around him. It’s not so obvious but I noticed it from his actions. I wonder what happened when I was asleep during the drive back?

Nonetheless, it made my body all fluttery inside. I didn’t care whether these were his duties as a butler. I did tell you that everything he does, even to the smallest things, set my heart racing, didn’t I? It didn’t help he occasionally has a burst of awkward cuteness out of nowhere and it also didn’t help when he smiles so bright like that time in the planetarium, or when he showed his warm yet gentle side to me.

It’s safe to say, these feelings I have towards him would only continue to grow stronger with every moment in time I’m in close proximity with him.

It’s strange, isn’t it? I found it strange how I could go on from just being attracted to him physically yet also not being able to stand him at first to feeling all fuzzy and warm whenever I think of him.....

I only planned to get back at him and charm him … (I just realized perhaps we didn’t plan this through enough) I’m unsure if this whole thing was even working—aside from the former—since all I ever did was either be clumsy and embarrassing in front of him. All I know for sure, that it’s me that became more attracted to him and this attraction I’m feeling is now more than physical. And it’s quite alarming how quick this is growing...

That sudden realization of this emotion rearing into something more intense instill some worry and fear within me.

I felt it once before, I jumped head-on into it and crashed so hard.

Super caught in my thoughts, I must have stopped along the way to Wilfred’s office as I stared at nothing in general, probably the ceiling or some painting hanging on the wall. It was only then one of the royal staff, happened to pass by and caught sight of me. She gently tapped my shoulder while calling my name softly, concern evident in her voice.

“Lady Madeleine...? Are you alright, Lady Madeleine?”

I pulled myself from my thoughts, pushing them to the back of my mind before facing to the staff, a maid. Embarrassed she had to see that, I hurriedly stammered out a response to her, shooting her a small reassuring smile in the process.

“Y-yea I am alright... Was just deep in thought. There’s nothing to worry about, nothing serious.”

“Are you sure, Lady Madeleine? Your face is flushed.”

Damn it, Madeleine. You, your pale skin, and your tendency to get flustered so easily!

“No, really. I am alright.”

Somehow, the maid still appeared unsure with my answer. Maybe my complexion wasn’t turning back to its original color fast enough….

“...I can fetch Master Claude—”

She didn’t even have to finish for me to know. Sure, I get butterflies when his name rolls off someone’s tongue but at the moment, it’s nothing compared the horrified feeling of him witnessing me in this state… And besides… Besides, he’s probably busy with more important tasks! I could imagine so vividly of him narrowing his eyes on me with his lips set in a deep frown, annoyed that I have disturbed him.

Yeah no thank you!

With that terrifying image of him easily embedded in my mind, I immediately interrupted her, shooting down her suggestion.

“NO!” I must have accidentally shouted at her out of panic, that the maid jumped from the shock, her face frozen in shock before it quickly shifted to one of worry and fear. Worried that she might have said something that offended me when it’s nothing like that.

Oh my god… She’s trembling. I really must have scared her…

Seeing that I have scared the maid, I frantically shook my hands in front of her, trying to clear the misunderstanding. “I-I’m so sorry Ms! I didn’t mean to shout at you a-and you said nothing wrong! It’s just uh…,” my voice faltered, not knowing how to explain my situation.

But how do I tell her without revealing anything?

“You see, well uh, I really don’t want to bother C-Claude or anything. I am sure he has other important things to do as the head steward.”

The maid scrunched her face in confusion.

“I am sure he won’t mind… Lady Madeleine is a royal guest here.”

“Well yes, I understand, but you don’t need to get him. I am fine really!” I pointed my fingers to my cheeks. “These are red not because I am ill, but because I’m embarrassed from before. So…. Please don’t tell him?”

At my pleading tone and my pout, the troubled maid gave in, accepting my request hesitantly, but before she could respond, the sound of a door opening behind us was heard. It was soon followed by the gentle familiar voice of the prince.

“Is there a problem?”

We both stiffened.

The maid recovered faster than me as she faced to the direction of the prince’s voice and giving a practiced bow. “Your Highness.”

I spun my heels around to see Prince Wilfred with his arms crossed and leaning against the door frame. One of his eyebrows cocked up out of curiosity.

Oh right… I was heading to his office to give my thanks before I was interrupted by my thoughts…. Right.

“Oh Wilfred, I m-mean Prince Wilfred…Hi?” I flusteredly added his title at the end as I caught the maid giving me a nervous side glance.

Wow, they really do take traditions and etiquette really seriously here… I wonder what happens if one of the staff slips? Nevermind, I’ll push that thought at the back of my mind for now. Right now, I have this situation to deal with.

Wilfred still glanced at us, mostly me, in question, his eyebrow still raised. It finally registered in my head, that I have not answered his question earlier.

“Oh! It’s nothing. She just asked me if I was okay since I was uh,” my cheeks burned again as I recalled my memory. “She saw me staring into space.”

The maid nodded, confirming what I said before adding more to my answer. “I asked her if Lady Madeleine was alright and whether she wanted me to get Mr. Claude, Your Highness. To which Lady Madeleine said no, citing she didn’t want to inconvenience him...”

At the indirect mention of Claude, Wilfred instantly redirected his eyes on me, looking very much entertained and mirthful. It is even more prominent as I squirmed nervously under his attention.

“I see. Well if it’s only that, then you are free to leave.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” the maid bowed her head before taking her to leave. Once she was nowhere in sight, Wilfred’s lips curved into a mischievous smirk. “So, inconvenience huh? Or are you just too shy after yesterday’s date?”

Making sure there was no one watching in the hallway, I shoved the prince inside and closed the door. I shot him an annoyed glare once I turned to face him.

“Wilfred,” I hissed. “You could’ve said that inside, where no one can listen.”

“Madeleine, there’s no one in the hallway. Many of the staff avoid passing my office unless needed.”

“Yeah but still! You forgot to mention that your butler isn’t just one of your ordinary staff! He’s the bloody head steward. What if he suddenly appeared out of nowhere the same time you said that?”

There was no verbal response from him, except a raise of an eyebrow. It seemed he want to ask a question about decided against it. He raised both hands as a sign of surrender.

“Okay, okay, I apologize….” Wilfred trailed off. He took a seat on one of the sofa before looking up at me questioningly. “So, what brought you here? I am assuming you wanted to talk to me about something?”

“Oh. Oh yes, I did.”

A pregnant silence ensued.

“And….?”

“Wait, give me a few seconds.”

What I am about to say will be embarrassing on my part…. Hence I found it difficult to uh say it loud to someone and make it in a way that’s somewhat less embarrassing…

Once I organized my thoughts, I took a seat across him, who was already staring at me in anticipation.

“First thing first…. I just want to say thank you for yesterday…” Memories of yesterday surged to the front of my head, causing the corners of my lip to quirk up. Wilfred noticed and returned a smile back that showed hints of interest.

“From your reaction, It looks like the visit to the space center with Claude went well? Unlike what you expected yesterday morning?”

The confusion was clearly expressed on my face.

“I assumed Claude must have told you about what happened earlier.”

“He did report to me about yesterday, but it was only a rundown of things, the logistics.”

Well, I guess it made sense. It wouldn’t really be professional if he expressed what he felt when he’s still on duty, but the prince sounded a bit disappointed.

“So, I want to hear it from you. Claude told me you were involved in a confrontation with a man and gotten an injury.” His eyes briefly glanced at the bruise on my wrist before his gaze was back on me, now concerned.

I instinctively held my injured wrist, inspecting the bruises on them. It still appeared the same, still fresh, still a very vibrant purple. However, the bruises have reduced a little in size after Claude compressed ice onto them. He also applied aloe vera gel, which reduced the pain and inflammation.

The way he tended to my bruises, so attentive, so gentle, so warm… Every time I recalled it, my heart seems to start racing. And when he to— No, stop it. Now is not the right time to swoon.

“Yes, I was involved in some altercation with a creep. Some men just don’t understand the concept of ‘no’ and personal space. Thankfully, Claude intervened before it got worse. I am alright, the bruises will disappear,” I reassured him, but the prince furrowed his eyebrows, a bit bothered at one detail.

“He wasn’t with you when it happened?”

I immediately responded, trying to clarify everything as his tone sounded a bit accusatory? If I didn’t clear this up, it’s a high chance he would talk to Claude.

“Please don’t reprimand Claude! He didn’t do anything wrong! I was the one who decided to walk further down the street while he was busy talking to one of the shopkeepers… I didn’t tell him, I didn’t want to interrupt the chat between them…” I stared intensely at Wilfred, a pleading look in my eyes. “Please don’t reprimand him for this… He already blamed the incident on himself when it’s not his fault. I finally convinced him last night it wasn’t his fault after so many times. I ask of you not to undo what I did last night.” By the end, I had my gaze lowered onto my lap with my voice growing soft.

I didn’t want Claude to get in trouble. He already blamed this on himself yesterday even though it’s not his fault. So if he were to be reprimanded…

Just remembering how upset and guilty he was with himself after the incident struck pain and sadness in my heart.

He’s too hard on himself. I wish I could do something about it… I wonder if there’s more to it and not just the demanding pressures of being a head steward.

There was a silent awkward atmosphere enveloped between us before it is cut short with the sound of muffled laughter from Wilfred. My head shot up at the sound, throwing a puzzled look at him. Once he recollected himself, he had a knowing smile on his face.

“Alright, I won’t. I did not plan to anyway.” My mouth formed a small ‘o’.

“Oh…. I see. That’s good…”

Maybe I was reading into his tone too much…

A blush rose to my cheeks before I could feel it spreading to the rest of my face, making it red.

That was quite… Embarrassing.

“But it’s pleasant to know that someone cares for him.”

If it was even possible, my face grew even redder than before. It was so red I thought it might catch flames. He’s not wrong, but to be called out like that in the open… That’s so unfair.

“It’s been quite a long time since someone did…” Wilfred murmured softly to himself albeit holding a tinge of sadness and worry. I caught what he said, but my face scrunched, not really quite understanding the meaning behind it.

It’s been a long time since someone cared about him? What did he mean by that?

“What did you say?”

The prince stiffened upon me catching what he said.

“Damn it… She shouldn’t have heard that…” He muttered under his breath before turning to me with a carefree smile, acting as if nothing happened. As if what he said wasn’t important.

“It’s nothing for now, Madeleine. Do not think about it too much. So…Anyways, I am glad you’re okay. Other than that, how did yesterday go?”

His obvious attempt to change the subject made me even more curious but also unsettled about the prince’s admission on Claude.

… What happened to him in the past? It couldn’t be when he was a child since he told me … Maybe when he was older?

To think that for a long time no one really looked after him or cared for him—besides Wilfred—as an individual outside his butler duties, weighed my heart heavily.

As much I wanted to press Wilfred on about it, I decided against it. It’s not my place to know and it is not Wilfred’s place to tell me. I greatly respected Claude and his personal life. If I did truly care about him (after a short time), I would have to wait for him to trust me and when he’s ready to open up. If that won’t ever happen, so be it. I didn’t want to betray nor hurt him.

Even if my heart took a bit of a hit.

“Madeleine?”

Oh. I got caught deep in my thoughts again.

“Yea, sorry. You were asking how yesterday went did you?” My cheeks flushed from embarrassment as I played with my fingers to distract the burning of my face. The prince made no comment of it but sent me another knowing smile and a nod my way.

“Well as I said before, I would like to thank you for yesterday. I expected it to go downhill, no offense since we bicker a lot. But I guess the interaction when he prepared tea for me was an indication that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. And it didn’t. Yesterday was perhaps one of the most fun I had experience. We did bicker though, although it felt like two people who know each other kind of bickering, you know? It felt natural. There were times it was awkward but it made sense. I haven’t gone out with someone I like after a couple of years and I generally suck at socializing. He’s serious and loyal to his duties as your head steward that he probably never go out in his spare time. He also has a sharp tongue… Okay, I also do too. But anyways, everything felt right, everything flowed.” I was so focused on recounting my experiences that I didn’t notice the widening of the prince’s grin as he listened silently. The corners of his mouth quirked up even higher after he caught me accidentally revealing my growing feelings for his head steward.

“I really had an amazing time with him, he was wonderful… I only know about him so little, and only him as your head steward, but after spending the whole day out with him outside of his butler uniform and his duties… After spending it with him in a more casual setting….” Pleasant memories of us together started to trickle in, putting a dreamy smile on my face. “... It was a different experience, a pleasant one. He was so considerate… Although he doesn’t show it through words, his actions say a lot. He’s accepting, even with my childish shenanigans, he put out with it and occasionally poke fun or act as if he’s annoyed. I think he gets irritated at my antics but I don’t think he takes it seriously, because soon he forgets about it and everyone just goes back to normal.”

Huh. Thinking about it, now Claude doesn’t seem very angry or annoyed with me for a long time, nor has this icy atmosphere. He also didn’t have this “I don’t want to be in the same room as her” look as of recent.

Huh… Maybe I’m growing on him—No, Madeleine. Don’t make your hopes too high. Shake those thoughts away, shake them off.

“Every moment was an entertaining and humorous one with him, shooting snarky and witty comebacks every chance we got. And the feeling you get from it is exhilarating. I enjoyed that we are able to keep up with each other’s sharp tongue and quick-witted mind. He also his occasional unintentional bursts of cuteness,” A giggle escaped from my lips as I vividly recalled Claude’s flustered face as he stumbled on words.

“Especially when I complimented him on something or grabbing his hand. We both know how impressive he is and huge skill set he has, so when he went to teach and explain the displays from the exhibitions, I couldn’t help but feel at awe at how much he knows and how easy it was for him to just spit out facts like its nothing… It’s amazing. However…” I frowned. “I still can’t fathom why he couldn’t accept a compliment or feel deserving of these compliments even though he consistently works hard and excels in almost everything he does? And based on his reactions, it appears that it’s not often he gets genuine praise, which is mind-boggling and makes me mostly sad… Anyways, he deserves all these praises… There should be more appreciation towards him because not only he’s an amazing head steward, but also an amazing person. I saw his interactions with Mrs. Graham—she says hi by the way—and also with the locals and he’s just so genuinely warm and engaging with them. And I get to see him smile… which was breathtaking,” I quieted down my voice on the last three words, with the shyness washing over me. “He also told me his time in the orphanage and when he was training to be a butler.”

Wilfred’s eyebrows shot up in surprise hearing what I said.

Claude, the same man who takes his privacy seriously, shared his past to someone he didn’t know for long?

“Don’t get me wrong, I was also surprised that he shared his past with me. I already can tell he was a private person, but we were talking and somehow it led to me confessing how I wasn’t able to do many things when I was younger and then he told me he was in the similar situation and told his past… But I was also happy that he felt comfortable and found me trusting enough to share a part of his past. I was happy because I was able to see another side of him. He’s so positive and strong after what he went through. He’s also accepting of his past, wasn’t bitter nor ashamed of his past, of him being an orphan, rather he was grateful and so mature about it and I find it very endearing and admiring. There’s nothing shameful about being an orphan, but I don’t see a lot of people who once were orphans who accept or embrace it. Anyways… Yea.”

After finishing my rambling, I had come to realize that I talked about Claude more than the trip itself to the space center and Cassiar Street. Before I could even have time to feel flustered and horrified, Wilfred spoke up, looking a little taken back but also entertained.

“Wow. That was … a lot.”

“Yes… It was.”

“It’s more about Claude.”

“I noticed.”

Another pregnant silence enveloped around us before he spoke up again.

“You really like him for you to say all these things earlier.” I could hear the smile in Wilfred’s voice. He sounded happy and relieved at the same time. I, on the other hand, felt a bit vulnerable after the prince called me out. I slumped forward, letting out a groan.

“It’s that obvious, is it?” I mumbled softly. I knew deep inside, I was starting to like him even more, the feeling is stronger after yesterday. However, I didn’t want to admit out loud just yet… If I did, there’s this fear that this feeling for him would grow more rapidly and more intensely.

“Well yes, after listening to you ramble and swoon over Claude when I asked how the trip went.”

“Okay Wilfred, no need to be a smarty pant and rub it in my face,” I grumbled. He only smiled at me teasingly.

“Hey, I was only stating real facts.” I rolled my eyes playfully at him.

“See, you’re still being a smarty pant.”

“Alright, alright,” he raised his hands in surrender. As he calmed down, his smile had changed from a teasing one to something soft and a bit hopeful. “But really, Madeleine. Even though we haven’t known each other for a long time, I am happy and relieved that you are enjoying your stay in our kingdom. I am also happy for you found someone that you find physically and mentally attractive, happy that you are able to move on and open your heart again.”

“You make it sound Claude and I are together,” I commented before muttering the next words. “As much how good it sounds, I don’t think it will ever happen.”

“Who knows? It could happen.”

“Or it could not.” An awkward laugh tinged with a bit of sadness escaped my throat. “I don’t want to get my hopes high. Besides, even if I move on mostly and am starting to like him more, I still have my fears. I still have reservations. Even if I know Claude is a good man, I will still have worries. I don’t want to jump just right in. I don’t want to end up hurt as bad as before…”

My voice trembled from the pain, as I recalled the terrible state I was in days after I found out. I was afraid that I will tear up in front of the prince, so I lowered my face to hide it.

“I don’t want to pick up my pieces all over again… It hurts.”

Soon I heard the sounds of someone lifting themselves up from the sofa and the shuffling of shoes, getting louder as they near me. It was only then I watched a pair of brown laced up suede shoes coming into my view and felt a hand placed on my shoulder. I glanced up to see Wilfred’s gentle smile. His expression radiate so much comfort and warmth, I felt it seeping into my heart, calming my troubled heart. He spoke with his voice just as gentle as both his smile and eyes.

“I understand your pain and fear. You are right, Claude is a good man and I trust that he won’t betray or cause you pain like your past lover did. As much as I think that you both are compatible with one another, I have no say in this. You’re the only one who has the say, the control over you and your feelings. I also want you to look after yourself. I want you to take your time, as much as you need to sort out and explore your feelings. I want you to see where your feelings will go. Alright?”

To say I was shocked was the understatement of the year. I was left at loss for words, staring at the man in front of me. This man had been nothing but be kind (and playful if I have to be honest) to me through my stay. And it wasn’t the type of kindness you use with a guest (even though I was a guest, it’s the kindness you see with a friend, with someone close to you.

Again for someone like him to treat me with so much warmth, so much kindness, to treat me as if I was someone close to him even if we only just met weeks ago…. It touched me.

He’s a good friend.

Once I recovered from the shock and processed his advice, I returned his smile with gratitude written all over my face.

“Thank you for your kind words, Wilfred. I very much appreciate them and will try to keep them in mind. Thanks to you, I feel a bit more at ease with my situation.”

“It is no problem. I am glad I was able to help a friend.” At the mention of 'friend', I beamed. My heart is filled with joy to know that he also considered me as a friend.

“Likewise. If you ever need help, you can come to me,” my tone took a teasing turn in the next words escaping my mouth. “Especially with the romantic situation with your private designer.”

It was now the prince’s turn to be stunned to silence, his eyes widened and his mouth gaped from the shock of being caught. His reaction had elicited a snicker from me.

“H-How, wha--”

“You think I didn’t notice? Need I to remind you that I am also quite observant and sharp-eyed as you are, Prince Wilfred? However, I happened to find out about you two just by coincidence. It was in your very own hallway, I found Claude grumbling so irritatedly under his breath about you abandoning your paperwork and responsibilities to sneak out and spend time with Danielle.”

“Ah, I see... That fool, I will need to talk to him later,” he muttered.

I knew he wasn’t totally serious and strict, so I continued now with a teasing smirk on full display. “After that, I started noticing the smallest things. The corners of your mouth always curve up into a tiny smile when Danielle is mentioned. Or when your name is mentioned, she would immediately raise her head to listen. Of course, obviously when the head steward is not present.”

I rested my chin on my hand with my fingers tapping against it, pretending to act as if I’m in deep thought. “I wonder what the atmosphere will be like when you both are in the same room. Hmm… I wonder…”

“Alright alright, that’s enough teasing for one day,” Wilfred cut my fun short, his voice frantic yet bashful. I let another snicker escape as his cheeks blossomed to a prominent shade of pink. I couldn’t resist in reaching out and pinching his cheeks softly.

“Aw, Your Royal Highness, you’re so cute blushing!” The prince lightly scowled at my remark, immediately pushing my hands away, making his cheeks out of my hands’ reach.

“I-I am not cute!” he protested. It’s quite entertaining because his voice sounded even more flustered than before. “And also you should be grateful that Claude is not here with us. If he were to see this, he will definitely give you an earful!”

“Is that the best comeback you can think of? Huh, you’re right Prince Wilfred, only Claude is the one who can keep up with me. He would not only give me an earful but also probably a very sharp and witty comeback after.”

I didn’t even allow him to respond as I lifted myself off from the sofa right after, causing his hand to leave my shoulder. “Well then, I’ll be taking my leave.”

I strode my way to the door before opening it. As I slid between the door, it was then I remembered something I have to ask of him and halted my movement. I glanced back at him to see him still in the same spot. It looked like he’s trying to make a good comeback? Heh.

“Do you happen to have like a spare room that can be used for dancing?”

Wilfred stopped from what he was previously doing to look at me quizzically, finding my question odd. Nonetheless, he answered. “Yes, there’s one. If you keep going left and then take a right turn, you’ll find it. Why? What do you need it for?”

I shrugged.

“Probably to brush up on my ballroom dancing or the waltz for your birthday. Anyways, I am going to go now! See you later! I enjoyed talking to you!”

“Wh--”

Before he could even get the first word out, I already had closed the door behind me and started walking to the spare room.

Ah, it really was nice chatting with Wilfred.

•••
Near the Servants Quarter
Sometimes after Madeleine and Prince Wilfred finished talking in his office

“I don’t know, Michelle… I am so conflicted....”

“Maybe you really should leave it behind. You did say before that the guest told you she was fine?”

The first maid nodded her face in a conflicted grimace. It was the same maid who caught Lady Madeleine earlier looking dazed. “Well yes… But--”

“If Lady Madeleine says she’s fine, then she’s fine. Do not worry so much, Sophie,” the second maid, Michelle reassured the younger maid as she continued dusting the windows.

“But Michelle, Lady Mad—”

“And what are you two ladies gossiping on about that could be so important as your duties?”

The sharp and cold reprimanding voice of the head steward cut into the comfortable silence. The two maids immediately stiffened at the sound of his voice and his imposing presence. They immediately turned around to face him before him, standing upright and their heads lowered. They didn’t see his face, but they knew the steward had his usual blank expression on. What terrified them more were his eyes. His eyes were so intense when it comes to expressing his annoyance and disapproval, that both maids felt even more ashamed if they were to make eye contact.

Claude happened to pass by the hallway the two maids were in as part of his inspection morning routine, making sure that everything was at the right places and running smoothly. As he surveyed the hallway, see if there were things out of place, he overheard the two maids talking with hushed voices. His froze mid-action when the name of a certain lady is mentioned.

The same lady who has been occupying his thoughts as of recent… it became even more frequent after yesterday’s event…

‘Dealing with her in real person is already enough for me, now I have to deal with her inside my mind? What a pain,’ he internally complained. ‘Nevermind that for now, why did these two maids bring up Lady Madeleine in their conversation?’

Because the maids had their backs facing him, they didn’t notice him coming to them, nor they heard the sounds of his polished shoes against the marble floor.

The older maid, Sophie spoke up apologetically. “We apologize Master Claude…We won’t do it again in the future—”

“I hope so,” Claude interrupted the maid firmly.

“—However, Master Claude,” she continued, causing the steward to raise an eyebrow. “We weren’t gossiping. Sophie here told me her concerns for Lady Madeleine.”

‘Lady Madeleine? Did something happened to her?’ Worry briefly flitted across his face before his blank expression returned.

Sophie went to glance at the younger maid beside her signaling her to continue, to which the latter instantly nodded her head, her words coming out in a frantic and nervous stumble.

“Sophie is right, I only asked for her advice whether I should alert Master Claude because I was concerned for Lady Madeleine. The lady appeared to be in a daze… And her face was flushed when I asked her… I immediately thought she didn’t have enough rest. She refused my offer to get help from you, Master Claude.”

Listening to what the younger maid said about Lady Madeleine did not bide well with Claude. At this point, the steward could no longer hide his concern. His mouth was set into a frown and a crease appeared on the space between his furrowed brows.

‘Did yesterday take a toll on her? She should be resting in her room if she’s not feeling well.’

‘What a stubborn girl,’ Claude was feeling a tiny bit irritated that Lady Madeleine refused the maid's offer.

“Do you know where Lady Madeleine is now?” Claude asked Sophie. Although his voice sounded calm and flat, there was still a tinge of urgency that slipped through.

“When I left, Lady Madeleine went to His Royal Highness’ office.”

“Alright, I will go find Lady Madeleine at once. You two continue with your duties,” I ordered. “And just as a reminder next time Miss Sophie and Miss Michelle, if the guest is feeling ill and yet refuses to get help, you should still come and alert me at once. Our responsibility is also to make our Masters’ royal guest’s stay as comfortable as possible. Make sure you tell the other maids. Do you understand?”

At his stern tone, the two maids quickly bowed their heads to him. “Yes, Master Claude.”

The maids then went back to their work with their backs turned as the head steward took his leave, as he made his way to his Master’s office. Perhaps, he was going a little faster than usual. When the maids no longer hear the sounds of his shoes on the floor or see him, Sophie turned to Michelle, her eyes were big and filled with interest and curiosity.

“Did you see that, Michelle? Did you see Mr. Claude’s face when I described Lady Madeleine’s condition?”

The corners of Michelle’s mouth pointed up, forming a small smile as she continued working.

“Indeed I noticed it… It’s the first time Mr. Claude shows that he’s troubled and concerned, rather than just his usual professional blank expression.”

“Don’t forget his usual tiny annoyed scowl,” both of them giggled at Michelle’s additional comment. They always saw him with a frown most of the time. It felt like it has a permanent residence on his lips.

“Yes, you’re right. Perhaps, Lady Madeleine is having quite an effect on him.”

“Didn’t he go out with Lady Madeleine yesterday? It seems like something good happened,” Sophie guessed, only for Michelle to shrug in response.

“Probably. All I know is that I see this is as a good thing,” Michelle smiled, there was a tinge of nostalgic sadness in it as she recalled the past in her mind. She had been serving the royal family as a maid far longer than Sophie did. So she had seen everything that happened in the household…. Including what happened to Claude years ago.

Sophie, who had no idea the former was referring to had confusion written all over her face. “What do you mean?”

The older maid only replied with a vague answer.

“It’s been a long time since then for Mr. Claude to care for someone or something besides his duties.”

•••
Outside Prince Wilfred's office

Knock knock knock.

“Your Highness, it’s Claude,” the head steward announced himself outside the prince’s office.

The prince immediately replied his consent for Claude to enter. “You can enter.”

The head steward soon quickly yet quietly entered the prince’s office as to not disturb him, who at the moment was behind his mahogany desk, working on some documents.

‘Good, he’s performing his duties.’

He glanced around the office only to find Lady Madeleine was nowhere in sight. She must have left already.

“So Claude,” Wilfred’s blue eyes briefly looked up at me with intrigue as his hand continued writing. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? Changes for tomorrow’s schedule?”

“No, Your Highness… I came here to ask for Lady’s Madeleine’s whereabouts.”

His hand halted before he raised his head at his butler with both his brows raised.

“Oh?”

“One of the maids told me Lady Madeleine appeared flushed and dazed. I came here as fast as I can after she told me Lady Madeleine was with Your Highness.”

‘Ah so the maid really thought Madeleine was feeling ill instead of embarrassment and told Claude about it,’ the prince thought. ‘But didn’t I hear her refusal earlier? Maybe he has overheard it from the maid when passing by…’

Nevermind that, what really caught Wilfred’s attention was Claude’s tone. It held a tone of urgency and concern as if he’s a bit shaken? Maybe he’s being more attentive after yesterday? Who knows, it’s still unusual regardless. It was rare for the prince’s guests to fall ill during their stay here, but if it happens…. In the past, Claude’s voice remained strictly professional, completely flat, stable, and clear when he reported to the prince.

‘Not only that, it seems that he really did come here as fast as he could because his breathing was heavy with his chest rising and falling quickly from the exertion. Even if he tried to hide it, it was still noticeable. His usual kempt hair too was now untidy with strands of his hair falling over his eyes,’ Wilfred commented as he observed the state Claude’s in.

He no longer could hide his smile on his face. It was just a new sight, highly amusing but also highly adorable.

Suddenly a devious idea popped up in Wilfred’s mind. He could tell his butler that Madeleine wasn’t feeling sick, but it would be funny to see his reaction when he finds out she was never sick to begin with and very interesting to see them again together alone. Maybe a repeat of yesterday (not that incident) could happen. Entertainment aside, the prince really did want to see them together…

‘It’s a plan.’

With his mind set on making that happen, he slowly set his face into a realistic grimace.

“If you think about it, she did appear a bit red when we talked.”

“And you didn’t say anything about it or asked Lady Madeleine if she’s alright Your Highness?”

Wilfred shrugged, ignoring the butler’s irritation.

“I did, but she was stubborn like you. She refused my help and reassured me that she was fine. I knew she’s going to keep saying no despite me insisting, so I gave up the first time.”

Claude muttered at his master’s response, ignoring his jab.

“I swear her stubbornness will be the death of me.”

Not sure if he didn’t care, was on purpose, or that he didn’t realize his voice wasn’t quiet enough, because Wilfred clearly heard it. If he was alone, he would probably let out a laugh because he just witnessed Claude, a stubborn man complaining about Madeleine being stubborn.

“Did Lady Madeleine tell you where she was going after, Your Highness?”

‘Bingo.’

“She did ask me if there was a spare room for dancing. I gave her the directions to the usual room I used for practicing when I was young…”

“Thank you, Your Highness. I will immediately excuse myself from your office and seek Lady Madeleine.”

Without a beat, after Wilfred finished his sentence, the butler bowed and headed towards the office’s doors. It was just so quick, the prince couldn’t even get a word out and decided to watch his butler, a bit stunned at his immediate reaction.

Once the door clicked close, he still continued to stare where Claude stood before exiting for a couple more seconds before he broke his gaze, turning back to the documents in front of him.

Returning back to his work, a quiet chuckle escaped Wilfred’s already smiling lips.

‘It affected him that much huh? For someone like Claude, who’s extremely good at being professional and concealing his expressions to react like that… Sure is a rare spectacle. Lady Madeleine must be quite an extraordinary lady then.’

•••
The Chateau’s Multipurpose Room

You really didn’t think this through Madeleine. Of course, you need a speaker louder than your phone’s! Of course, you also need a partner!

“I didn’t even bring a drink… What was I thinking…” I heaved a frustrated sigh as I slumped down against the wall. A ballroom song came to a sudden halt after I hit the pause button on my phone. “I didn’t want to use their speakers, I probably need permission for that. Just using it without asking would be rude… And I know no one except Wilfred and Claude. Wilfred is working and Claude… is definitely out of the question, even if he seems like someone who’s good at dancing. But then again, this is Claude we’re talking about.”

I repeat, what can this man not do? Besides not being able to take compliments of course.

I pulled up a snicker from my throat as I remembered the many times I made Claude into a stammering blushing mess after complimenting him. It really was cute.

Okay, I’m getting distracted. I should continue practicing if I don’t want to embarrass myself at Wilfred’s birthday party. Partner or not, I will try.

With strong determination, I leaped onto my feet and went to the center of the room. I fixed my posture while I position my arms, imagining there was a dancing partner with me.

Imagining a certain navy-haired steward dancing with me.

My body started to move to some imaginary music I came up in my mind. My focus went to my feet, trying to recall and execute the steps learned during my dancing lessons days at finishing school. Unfortunately, as a consequence, I neglected my upper body posture. I was super concentrated on my feet that now my whole upper body and my arms looked stiff and awkward.

And before I could even realize and fix them, Claude’s silvery voice cut through the comfortable silence of this room.

“You look like that tin man character from Wizard of Oz if he tried to dance.”

A gasp tore out from my throat as I jumped in shock causing my feet briefly leaving the ground. I let my arms fall before swiftly turning my whole body to the direction of his voice. In all his glory, he was standing near the entrance of the room, while his face was showing a look of disapproval, there were flickers of amusement in his eyes.

The first thing he does when he sees me is to poke fun at me. Of course, how typical of him. Anyways... when did he even come here and how the hell was he able to turn up without making a sound? Or am I just really that oblivious to my surrounding?

“How long have you been standing there?”

“Not long but enough to see you dancing so stiffly that it pained my eyes.” I frowned at him with indignation despite the reddening of my face. I was a bit mortified that he had to see my attempt to dance without a partner.

“Hey-”

“You really think you can practice dancing waltz without a partner?”

My retort died off on my tongue. My silence only confirmed Claude’s assumption, to only which his only response to was a sigh of bafflement.

“There was no one I can ask to be my dancing partner…,” I murmured softly. “Prince Wilfred has documents to look over and you probably have other more important business to attend to. I didn’t want to cause inconvenience to you or anyone in general.”

Claude knitted his eyebrows, perplexed at my reply.

“Lady Madeleine, you could have asked me to be your dancing partner. I would not treat you and your request a nuisance nor do I see you as one.”

“Really? Even when we first bumped into each other and during the butler evaluation?” I asked him with one brow cocked up.

Claude paused.

“I thought so.”

“That was then. Now, I do not consider you a nuisance.”

“Even if I tease you, poke fun at you, and shoot a retort?”

Claude knew I was just teasing him at this point, so he rolled his eyes at me. “No. May be quite annoying, but no.”

(Claude learned not only to get used to it, but also to enjoy it now that he found a worthy contender that could keep up with his sharp and quick-witted tongue. He enjoyed the adrenaline rush he gets every time he participates in the battle of wits with Madeleine.)

Knowing that now, I gave him a satisfied nod and a smile. “Good, because I feel the same way more less.”

A pleasant silence fell between us. Now being with him felt comfortable.

“So….” He spoke up, breaking the silence. He gazed his eyes at me with some sort of expectation. “Since I am already here, do you uh…. Want me to become your… Dancing partner? And help you practice?”

By the time he finished, his voice had softened into a shy murmur, occasionally stammering on some words. His cheeks sported some pink blush that made him even more adorable.

I would have either tease him or swooned (internally) at his bashful reaction, but because of the nature of his question, I only could gape at him while also mirroring his expression. While the prospect of being at close proximity of him again sent a wave of excitement into my system, it also brought a wave of nerves.

“Oh… Um uh—”

“—That is if you want to, Lady Madeleine. I-I can just guide you on the side,” the flustered butler quickly inserted after seeing my reaction.

I guess if I want to fix my posture and learn to dance without looking a ‘tin man’, I would have to push aside those nerves and accept his offer. Besides even if I don’t really need it (not the case now), I wouldn’t be able to say no because he’s just so goddamn thoughtful and the way he asked me was so goddamn cute!

I pulled myself together and gave him a shy gracious smile. “That will be great… Thank you, Claude.”

He only nodded, as he was too afraid that his voice was still not steady yet. I walked my way to the center of the room while the butler approached the huge audio system situated against the wall the opposite of us. As I waited for him to turn on the speakers and searching for the appropriate music, I could feel the anticipation and nervousness rising inside me. And because of habit, I twirled the strands of my hair as I paced my body back and forth, trying to distract myself from the pounding of my heart. My heart pounded faster and stronger when the sound of Edelweiss Waltz echoed throughout the room and I saw Claude, who appeared more composed, striding towards me. Once he stood in front of me, he bowed so elegantly before offering a hand to me. “May I have this dance, Lady Madeleine?”

And there goes my heart. Good God, he looks like a prince. His movements are so graceful and smooth and his looks… No words can fully encapture Claude’s beauty… He could really give Wilfred and the other princes a run for their money.

Anyways… Going back...

I only could nod meekly at the butler in front of me, as I placed my hand on his outstretched one. He instantly intertwined our fingers, positioning them in where they should be. If that only caused my breath to be caught in my throat, his next action had caused a sharp gasp to escape from my lips. He snaked his free arm around my waist, gently situating his hand on my lower back. With his hand, he pulled me closer to him until our chests are a couple of centimeters apart from one another. I could feel and hear the puff of air he exhaled. At this point, my heart’s running a hundred kilometers per hour (I know it is unrealistic but hush. That’s really how I felt). Any faster and my heart will combust into a million pieces.

“You already know where to step right?”

I didn’t trust my voice at this situation, I knew it would squeak if I use it. So I only nodded silently to his question.

“Very well then, just follow my lead Lady Madeleine.”

And so I followed him, trying to keep up with his pace and with the beat of the music. Even though I had a dancing partner with me now, my movements still felt stiff. My whole body felt tense (raise your hand if you think it’s because of me being close to Claude) and it was only a few minutes into the dance before Claude commented on it.

“Your body is stiff from the tension.”

Obviously, I am tense because I am literally so freaking close to you.

“Try doing deep inhales and exhales. It might help with your nerves…. And also try not to concentrate so much on remembering the steps or on making a mistake. Listen to the music and follow its flow.”

I did as what he advised but it doesn’t seem to really change anything, which quite embarrassed me a bit. The butler too appeared briefly perplexed but it was soon replaced with an encouraging expression. “That’s alright, Lady Madeleine. We still have time before the song ends.”

Hmm… Maybe I need someone talking to me so to relieve my nerves?

“How about this. Maybe you could strike a conversation, or ask me a question…? That way it might help me relieve my nerves and tension?” I suggested. Claude thought about it for a second before agreeing to it.

“While it may seem unconventional to hold a conversation during a dance like this, perhaps this will be an exception if it helps you at the end.”

After hearing his go sign, I immediately asked him a question that may or may not occupied my mind recently. “So, how were you able to find me here? And what caused you to come here? I find it hard to believe that you happened to found me by coincidence.”

Regardless of the nature of the question and the suddenness of being asked a question like that, Besides the fact his eyes are slightly widened, he remained calm.

“I happened to pass by a maid and overheard her concern of you looking red, both of us thinking you weren’t well, Lady Madeleine.”

I frowned.

“I told the maid I was fine though! She happened to bump into when I was embarrassed...”

“I understood her concern however as she reported you were in a daze.”

“Oh…”

Well, I couldn’t explain that one as I was deep in thoughts about this fool in front of me and he would have found it ridiculous if he found out why I was like that and why have I done it in the hallway. Moving along…

“Hearing that, it didn’t bide well with me…” his tone suddenly took a soft turn, one that is filled with concern and flustered shyness. The shyness is mirrored on his face as his eyes darted elsewhere while his cheeks sported another deep blush. “I must confess, Lady Madeleine. I was quite concerned that about you, especially after yesterday… So I quickly went to His Royal Highness and asked for your whereabouts and here I am, only to see you actually well and dancing so stiffly. Quite a relieve.”

Claude…. Worried about me?

His words and the feelings it held brought a wave of warm fuzzy feelings over me. Or were they just butterflies stomping in my stomach? Just hearing how concerned he was for me that he hurried to the prince to ask where I was set my heart soaring. It’s been a long time since I ever felt my heart, my whole body this warm. It’s been a long time since I felt this kind of joy.

It made me feel… Loved.

I gave him the biggest smile accompanied by a small giggle, both filled with all the emotions I’m feeling, especially my affection for him. I hoped too that my eyes were able to express them too.

“Thank you, Claude… For looking after me. That’s really sweet of you. I am actually fine.”

Claude, who first only stared at me looking a bit starstruck, only nodded as he could not get any sound out. His blush got even darker! Soon after, he returned my smile with one of his own, a smile so genuine, shy, and tender that it took my breath away as I gazed in awe.

Almost all the tension and nerves I felt before immediately dissipated into nothingness. He took notice of me relaxing, which delighted him. Claude could have stopped talking now that I felt more relaxed but he didn’t. We both conversed back and forth so comfortably as we easily dance and sway to the music. By then all the nervousness I experienced were gone and replaced with the feeling of bliss from being so close to him and talking to him.

It’s like there’s a tiny bubble that envelopes us from reality, in our own world that only consist of us alone. I never wanted this to end.

It was difficult in my part to separate from him when the music finally eased into a finish and soon a stop. I felt a pang in my chest when I could no longer felt his arm on my back or his hand around mine and the comfort it brought along.

We both took a step back and stood there, at loss for words. I didn’t know what to say, it was just an overdrive of emotions, good emotions. I couldn’t put them into words. He, too, appeared like he couldn’t get the words out and so he only resorted to scratching the back of his neck while he made eye contact with me. His smile was still there, albeit now it’s smaller and more flustered.

We can’t stand like this forever, can we? If we continue, this awkward atmosphere will only thicken.

“So,” I spoke up. “I uh, thank you for sparing your time to dance with me… I know you’re always busy since you’re the head steward… But yes, it was really nice dancing with you… Oh and also talking with you!”

“It’s… It’s no problem, Lady Madeleine.”

...

Another awkward silence has befallen us.

Not again.

“Well t-then, I am going to uh my room—,” With a shaky hand, I gestured to the door before taking steps back. “—and thank you again for being my danc—Oh!”

My heel stepped on the ends of my dress’ skirt, resulting in me to slip and fall backward.

A horrified sharp gasp escaped Claude’s throat seeing me fall. As he anxiously shouted my name and his eyes widened with fear, he swiftly sprinted towards me. He caught one of my arms, tugging me forward, as his other arm wrapped around me. The strength of his tug had me colliding against him with my head against his chest. Not sure I was shocked speechless because everything went so fast or because I was this close to him. My head is literally resting against his chest… I could feel his chest rising and falling so rapidly and deeply, and his heart beating at a fast pace.

Damn, I must really scared him.

It took a couple of seconds for Claude’s breathing to slow down and when it’s stable, he opened his mouth to scold.

“I swear you are the clumsiest woman I ever met. If it weren’t for me—,” I sucked in my breath when his arms tightened around me, pushing me closer to him if that was even possible. But as he continued, his voice had softened considerably. “—you could have hurt yourself even more.”

In turn, my heart started to race at the vulnerability and worry he held in his voice… The level of worry he has for me was touching that I wanted to reassure him, comfort him, apologize to him. So I did.

“I am sorry I scared you or caused you trouble.”

His head lowered to the sound of my voice. When I looked up to him to say something more, all the words died on my tongue. Instead, we both froze when we saw how close our heads are from another. There were only a couple centimeters between us before our nose would bump and our lips would graze. His breath caressed my skin.

Somehow, we couldn’t break off our eye contact. No matter how hard I tried to turn my head away, I just could not. It’s like some invisible force was keeping my head there. On the other hand, there’s just something compelling about this too, that I also didn’t want to break the contact. If I did, the moment would’ve come and gone so fast. And no, I didn’t want that if that meant I’m no longer this close to him, enveloped in his familiar warmth and scent.

There were still no words exchanged between us and the silence felt as if time had stopped and everything stood still. Every second, the atmosphere got thicker with anticipation and tension that’s not necessarily bad, but I still couldn’t put a finger on it… However, I can confirm that it resulted in the urge to squirm and me nervously wetting my lips with my tongue.

This very action broke Claude’s eye contact, causing him to glance at my lips, with him looking a bit enraptured. I held in my breath as he continued to look at my lips. Never have I ever felt this much anticipation and tension, it was so thick and intense that I only stuck frozen in place. I could only wait what’s going to happen next.

Oh my… His eyes. They're so blue...

The look he had in his eyes was something I only could dream of, never thought I would experience it in real life. His eyes that were already burning so fiercely before, had darkened with desire flickering in them. His pupils also had dilated slightly.

The sight set a fire in my heart and body, sending shivers of excitement throughout. I want that look for myself.

At that moment, he slowly leaned into my lips as I gazed at him with widened eyes. Each second, his lips got closer and closer to mine until all I could view was him and feel his breath intermingling with mine.

I closed my eyes as I waited for him to press his lips onto mine…

Only for nothing to happen. Even after a few long seconds, nothing.

I opened my eyes a bit confused and disappointed only to see him frozen in shock, his whole body had gone stiff as if he finally realized the position he was in or what he was about to do. Just like a snap, the shock that washed over him disappeared and so with the desire and want. His face, especially his eyes were replaced with badly concealed vulnerability and… pain. Claude’s mouth was set into a frown, the saddest I have ever seen and his hand on my back had tightly scrunch the fabric in his fist.

The little bubble of bliss around us popped.

Huh…?

“I can’t. I can’t do this. I-I won’t let this happen again… Never again...” His words were spoken with so much unconcealed pain and sadness, so much distrust, so broken. To watch someone whom I like a lot with expression and voice like that, it’s as if someone had stabbed my heart with millions of sharp pieces. To see him suffering and agony…. sent waves of grief and darkness over my heart, washing what’s left of the excitement and the disappointment. All I wanted to do is to protect him and comfort him and before I could reach out to him, to speak up, his expression changed again so quickly back to a blank one. All evidence of emotions are wiped off from his face, nowhere to be seen. His eyes too appeared cold, clear of any emotions.

It’s as if he built a wall around himself.

I was too dumbfounded to move, seeing how this turned out, him in pain and him concealing it… was just so overwhelming.

In a flash, Claude removed himself from me and put as much distance between us, treating me as if I’m poisonous to touch which stings. But I know it’s nothing compared to the butler’s pain and how’s he feeling inside at the moment.

There were no words exchanged between us and the silence that followed was deafening.

He excused himself with the smallest voice possible, it was nothing like Claude I hear every day.

“I shall be taking my leave, Lady Madeleine…” His eyes were focusing on anywhere except me before he turned around and headed straight to the door in quick hurried strides. By the time my mouth started working and called out Claude’s name, I was already too late. He slipped through the door with the door clicking closed behind him, leaving me standing alone in this stifling silence, overwhelmingly dazed, confused, and troubled.

What just happened?

Chapter Text

4th of April
Philip Chateau

“I can’t. I can’t do this. I-I won’t let this happen again… Never again.”

His haunting words echoed inside my mind over and over again. Ever since I left the multipurpose room the other day, his words and the pain he expressed were all I can think about. And it has been making me feel restless and helpless.

“Claude…” A tired sigh escaped through my lips as I listlessly stared to the ceiling above me. “What happened to you to experience pain like that?”

It was only eleven in the morning and I’m still lying on the bed. Despite the comfort the pillows and comforters provided, I did not get a wink of sleep last night as I tossed and turned restlessly. Like I stated before, Claude’s words kept bothering me. In addition, I kept trying to figure out what his words meant and why he said them. It has been eating on my nerves.

So yea, here I am, feeling all sluggish and gross. I could imagine my hair looking like a birds nest from all the thrashing last night and my pajamas looking all crumpled. My eyes were already feeling heavy and dry. I am literally the picture of elegance.

Feeling absolutely horrible, I chose to forego eating breakfast in the dining room with Wilfred at 9 am. It was the first time I had missed it, so I can assume that my absence would garner some concern from the prince.

… And sure it did. Later at about 10ish, a maid knocked softly on the door announcing that she brought me breakfast that Wilfred ordered.

That voice sounds familiar.

Despite my lack of appetite, I still had to eat with my stomach growling in agreement.

“You can enter!”

As the door is gently pushed open, a maid entered my room carrying my breakfast on a tray before placing them on a small round table.

It’s not any maid. It’s the same maid that caught me lost in thought yesterday. No wonder her voice was familiar when she announced herself outside.

If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have come that close to the butler… Yet I too wouldn’t have seen him during his brief moment of… Suffering.

“Lady Madeleine, I have placed your breakfast on the table. His Royal Highness had picked out the food you usually eat.” Her voice pulled me out of my thoughts. It sounded as if she’s trembling from nervousness. For what reason though? Ah, I’ll think about that later. Now… Food. I stretched my neck to take a look at the breakfast and indeed, Wilfred had picked my usual breakfast. Plain crispy croissant with a square of butter and slices of honey ham on the side. There was also a small bowl of various berries and... A glass of juice? Usually, it’s freshly brewed tea that Claude prepared… Oh.

That’s odd.

When the maid noticed my confused frown and me staring holes at the glass of juice, she spoke up, her voice trembling with nervousness.

“Master Claude, unfortunately, was busy at the moment My Lady, so he didn’t have time to prepare your tea. I-I hope this will still suffice you, My Lady.”

Could it be perhaps she’s afraid of getting scolded? Anyways, this is the first time also, Claude had not brewed some tea for me…. It’s not that I’m forcing him… But even when he has other things to do, he still had time to brew my tea… While I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t be savoring the taste of Claude’s fruity tea blend, I was more worried about him.

Something’s wrong.

My gut feeling told me it’s probably because of yesterday.

“Lady Madeleine?”

“Oh, uh yea.” My head turned back to the maid, who has her head tilted with confusion and curiosity peeking through. I reassured her with a small smile. “That’s fine. The orange juice will do.”

In response, the maid nodded, letting out a relieved sigh as the tension left her body. “I will be taking my leave now, Lady Madeleine.”

She then bowed her head with practice before moving towards the door. When she reached almost the door, she eased into a stop before turning around, her long skirt swirling in the process. She appeared flustered.

“I forgot to also mention that His Highness asks for you to see him when you have finished getting ready, Lady Madeleine.”

Surprise quickly flashed across my face before returning back to neutral.

Hmmm is it because I skipped breakfast today….?

“Okay thank you for telling me.”

The maid again bowed gracefully and finally left the room.

Well if she said, the prince wanted to meet me, he’s probably waiting for me in his office. Not wanting to cause any inconvenience to him by letting him wait for so long, I reluctantly hopped off from my bed—already missing its comfort and warmth—and went straight to the bathroom.

•••
30 minutes later

“Really, what could possibly Wilfred want with me?” I wondered loudly as I continued munching on my croissant (if Eloisa were here, she would totally disapprove of me). But really, what’s going on? I just had a talk with him yesterday….

This was really messing up my mind. I already have the Claude thing to worry about already and here I am worrying on another thing that could end up being trivial. Might as well find out and get over it as soon as possible. Besides, Wilfred’s probably expecting too. After all, he’s the one who asked for me.

With my mind made up, I finished what remained of my breakfast and drank the orange juice (still lowkey wishing it was the head steward’s tea). I got on my feet and left my guest room for Wilfred’s office.

•••
5 minutes later
Prince Wilfred’s office

“You wish to see me, Wilfred?”

The prince jumped in surprise at Madeleine’s voice, almost dropping the book he was reading.

He didn’t hear her knocking or stating her presence outside the door… Huh. Maybe he was too focused on his work, he lost his awareness of his surroundings.

He looked up to the opened door and saw her head peeking through.

“Oh, yes please come in.” Wilfred gestured his hand to the sofa in front of him as she entered the office. “Please, take a seat.”

Once she’s settled, he noticed how bothered and worried she looked no matter how much she tried to appear curious to hide it. It seems to him, something must have bothered her for quite a while since yesterday. The energy around her wasn’t as bright and cheerful as before and she looked like she didn’t get enough sleep with her eyes glazing over.

While Claude didn’t show his exhaustion, the prince also noticed that he seems so out of it. It couldn’t be a coincidence.

Something did happen yesterday after Claude went to meet Madeleine, but what?

“So,” Madeleine started. “... You want to see me for…?”

Well let’s get straight to the point. No use beating around the bush.

“What happened yesterday after Claude met you in the multipurpose room?” He intensely stared at his friend, who was taken back after listening to the question. After the shock of his sudden question pass by, Madeleine furrowed her eyebrows as if she’s asking why.

“When Claude came back to me sometimes after, he appeared shaken despite trying hard to hide it. This morning, I noticed he seems more out of it like he was lost.” Hearing the current state of the butler caused Madeleine to frown deeper and slump her shoulders. Nonetheless, she answered Wilfred’s question with a meek voice.

“Oh…. Well, it started off nicely. He caught me dancing—awkwardly might I add—and offered to help by dancing with me,” she let out a dreamy sigh. “It was magical. We talked as we swayed and dance to the music. Somehow, me being clumsy, tripped over my dress and he caught me during my fall. We … didn’t realize how close we were until we made eye contact and then we were stuck at the moment…. He l-leaned in and stopped himself when his lips almost … touched.”

At this point, the troubled expression returned to her face as she recalled Claude’s words accompanied by his pained look, his eyes filled with sorrow and betrayal. Her hands instinctively clenched into fists and her chest tightened. “And then he spoke to himself loudly in this most miserable voice saying how he can’t do this and how he won’t let this happen again. Never again…”

‘Oh… So that happened. Claude…,’ Wilfred thought sadly. ‘I didn’t know it still hurts him to this extent.’

“Wilfred,” Madeleine’s voice made the prince look up, his eyes now connecting with hers, now burning fiercely. “...What…exactly happened? I don’t need to know everything, that’s his place to tell me but… Could it be that…” Madeleine nervously gulped before stuttering the next words. “C-could it be that he went through the same ordeal as I did or maybe something worse in the past?”

Wilfred sharply sucked in his breath. If he thought about it, they really had a similar experience… Should he tell her? Never being in this type of situation, the prince had no idea what to do. He followed Claude’s wish to keep his past situation hush-hush and he didn’t want to break his trust, his one, and only friend and confidant. On the other hand, Madeleine…. He didn’t want to keep her in the dark, she won’t know what she’s walking into. What are the chances of her unintentionally hurting him and as a result him pushing her away?

Deep down inside… Wilfred really desired to see them happy. He cared about Claude, he’s a friend and a brother who had been there with him since they’re children. He cared about Madeleine even though they just recently met. She’s one of the nicest and most genuine people he ever met. She’s a breath of fresh air in this stuffy place. It’s selfish, he knew. It’s not his place to interfere with their interactions…

Okay, he admitted that he already did interfere with some, one that’s unintentional and another one that’s not. But hey, if that will lead to good results—by good results he meant the two people he cared about finally finding happiness—so be it. To him, it would be worth it. It’s what they deserve after the tormenting obstacle they went through in the past.

In truth, he wondered whether this was fate’s doing for them to meet. Not only they had almost similar experiences of love and betrayal, they also could keep up with one another and their quick-witted minds and their sharp tongues.

‘It’s settled then,’ Wilfred nodded internally, his mind made up.

Mistaking the lack of response as her going over the line, Madeleine was about to apologize when Wilfred silenced her with a raise of his hand. He then gazed at her with a serious face. After seeing that face, she knew what’s he going to say next will be heavy.

“Madeleine,” his voice lowered into a whisper but it lacked the cheerfulness and gentleness she usually hears, causing her body to stiffen from the tension. “What I am about to say, needs to be kept between the two of us. As you can tell, Claude is a private person and he’s the one who wished to keep this under wraps. What happened in the Chateau, stays here. So, I need you to promise me that you won’t tell anyone, including the staff as some are still new. You also need to promise me that you don’t discuss this to Claude himself until he’s open to you.”

Madeleine nodded.

“By telling you, I am already at risk of losing his trust and possibly our friendship. That is if he found out I told you. Therefore I ask of you to keep this to yourself and yourself alone.”

‘Oh.’ At his words, Madeleine felt herself squirm, realizing how grave this was. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have asked... This felt wrong. I do not want to ruin the prince’s relationship with Claude. They’re like brothers.’

Wilfred noticed her hesitation. Before she could even open her mouth to tell him to stop, he quickly continued in a firm voice, resolve set in his gaze. “This was my decision and I believe it will be worth it at the end. I want you both to be happy. If you knew less what happened to Claude, it’ll help you somewhat be more understanding and avoid hurting him accidentally.”

Madeleine could only gape at him, taken back.

‘I...I… He would do that?’

She was unable to say anything, too shocked that someone like Wilfred would do that….

Soon gratitude and warmth enveloped her whole body. There was still a bit of guilt that she’s hearing something so important from Wilfred and not Claude himself, but then she felt also touched at the prince’s words.

He really did care about the people close to him.

“Wow… Wilfred. I.. I don’t know what to say. All I can say is thank you. It-It really means a lot to me.” The prince only shook his head, shooting her a small gentle smile.

“It’s nothing. You deserve it,” he paused, his face turning serious again. “Anyways, do you promise to keep this secret to yourself, Madeleine?”

“Yes, I do. No one will know about this,” she promised firmly, her eyes glinted with determination.

‘I promise that the things you told me will never leave my mouth. Ever.’

The prince watched her, feeling satisfied after seeing the truth in her expression (hey there need to be extra measures sometimes) and how serious she’s taking this.

“Very well. I will only tell you what I know and the rest will be for Claude to tell. That’s alright for you?”

Madeleine nodded. “That’s totally fine with me. Even brief is fine...”

Wilfred then stood up from his chair and made his way to the door to lock it before returning to his seat.

“Wouldn’t that make Claude suspicious if you lock the door?”

He shook his head no. “Claude’s out on an errand. He won’t be back soon, don’t worry.”

‘Ah so maybe that’s why he didn’t prepare tea for me…?’ Madeleine assumed.

There was a brief silence between them as Madeleine waited for the prince to confess while he organized his words. When she heard him gave a heavy sigh and saw a concentrated look painted on his face, she tried to steel herself. Her body stiffened in anticipation when he finally spoke up.

I guess she didn’t prepare enough for the bombshell Wilfred’s about to say.

“Years ago, about three years ago, Claude almost got married.”

•••

All the blood drained from my face as I processed the news. I felt both my heart and stomach drop to the floor.

Claude was in an engagement? What….

When I tried to speak, I couldn’t. It’s as if my mouth and throat stopped working. As a result, Wilfred saw this as a sign for him to proceed (even though I was still not over the first bombshell).

“Claude had known a woman since he was young, she came from the neighborhood Claude’s orphanage was in. I am not going to mention her name as it holds no importance to you. Let’s just say she had a big influence on his path to where he is now. It was her who convinced him to take our past head’s steward offer to be trained as a butler. Even if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have a friend and a brother nor you wouldn’t have met him. So I would like to thank her for that. Anyways, even from when I was young, I could tell that they were very close to one another, they had a special bond. We both know he’s a serious person most of the time… but back then she was able to make him let loose and have fun for a brief time. He would relax and be himself around her.”

Oh I feel I know where this is going…

“As they grew older together, obviously you know with puberty and getting over the idea of ‘cooties’, they soon grew attraction to one another. Claude doesn’t show it but I knew it after spending so much time with him. When he sees her, when her name is mentioned, all his reactions…”

Wilfred trailed off looking at me pointedly. He didn’t have to finish his sentence for me to understand what he’s trying to say. I experienced it too. It’s that warm fuzzy feeling you get inside. You feel happy, blessed, and so in love with the person. That’s what love does to you.

I know this was in the past, but I couldn’t help but feel… dejected. My heart ached at the thought of not being able to live up to this mysterious woman. It ached that I might never have a chance to see him like that with me… It ached that I would never get a reaction like that out from him...

“Days passed by, this attraction amounted to love and soon enough Claude informed me they were a couple. I remembered the smile he had when he came to me that day… It was full of joy.”

I…

There were so many emotions accumulating within me as I continued to listen to the prince. I’m happy that he was happy he found someone he genuinely loved…

But my heart burns that it wasn’t me. What’s wrong with me?

Just hearing the word couple made my throat constricted and my head spin.

Get your grip together, Madeleine! This was in the past already!

… But still.

“May I ask how long were they together as a couple before he proposed?”

As soon I spoke ‘together’, my voice started to crack and I had to take a deep breath to calm myself down.

“2 years.”

Another sigh left me.

2 years… But he loved her more than that. Will I ever…?

“Do not worry. You will have something like that soon, with or without him. It’s only a matter of time,” he only sent me a comforting smile before he continued. “As I answered your question before, they were in a relationship for two years before he proposed. It was the happiest I had seen from him. It’s like there’s a glow to him. Even when he worked, his excitement and happiness showed through... Unfortunately—,”

Oh no… I feel a sense of foreboding coming.

“—the timing of his engagement was not the most appropriate. It was the same time for his preparation to become the next head steward. I could only assume that he knew about it beforehand and decided to propose so they could get married right after he’s appointed… Or because he believed he would be able to support her better... I do not know.”

Oh no…

This awful feeling just got stronger.

“More or less than a year has passed by, and I haven’t heard of plans about a wedding. I stayed quiet. I didn’t want to interfere in his personal affairs despite sensing something wrong and how much I wanted to ask. At the start, I offered my help if he needs it..... I also noticed a difference in him. I told you earlier right he was happy and excited?”

I nodded slowly as my heart raced nervously.

“That was only when he was newly engaged. As we near closer to a year, it’s as if all the energy seeped out from him and the time spent on the training only worsen the situation. He was restless, distant, constantly worried, and showed signs of mental exhaustion like something must be keeping him up all night. He had frequent slip-ups. I was getting worried so I asked him a couple of times, but you know him,” the corner of his lips quirked into a fond smile, albeit it was sad.

“He’s a stubborn and private person. He would tell me not to worry every time I ask. I gave up soon after. He‘s the kind of person who keeps issues to himself, not wanting to cause anyone trouble...”

I can feel it coming.

“I didn’t know anything and he remained silent about his issues until…” he paused as sadness flashed in his eyes. “Until he told me, she had broken off the engagement… and the relationship without telling him the reason why. It was the first time I saw him scared, pained, and downright miserable.”

The moment the prince finished his sentence, my heart dropped, crashing onto the floor. I could only imagine Claude’s confusion, shock, and hurt at that time. Just thinking about the emotions that went through him when she told him… was like a knife to my heart, it ached for him.

I thought this was the worst of it, but alas I was proven wrong as Wilfred continued with the story.

“Obviously Claude and I were confused about how this came to be. We didn’t have to find hard enough, however…”

Oh my fucking god, why do I feel like I know where this is going. I am going to vomit. I feel suffocated.

“We… both found out she was in an affair with a commoner. It was days after she broke it off and moved out. I had some business to attend in town and Claude saw them together while I was in the meeting.”

I swore I let out the loudest gasp, probably so loud it hid the sound of my heart cracking.

Oh god.

This got even worse, and at this point, my heart is shattered into pieces for him. It wasn’t even me, but the feelings of betrayal and hurt clawed through my whole body, making an appearance again. Can you imagine how must Claude felt then seeing the love of his life holding another man’s hand? Can you imagine how much pain and betrayal must he felt? They’re now being amplified by seeing them together in public.

I clenched my hands so hard I could feel my nails digging painfully into my palms, now anger pulsing through my veins.

The betrayal of a lover always afflicts the worst pain.

I couldn’t believe there are people out there who would do such a thing. The least thing that lady can do was offer an explanation to Claude. The truth, the betrayal would hurt less.

“Did C-Claude ever confront her?” My voice was trembling. The prince responded by shaking his head, giving me another sad smile.

“No, he did not. I insisted, he chose not to. For what reason, I do not know. That’s for him to tell.”

“So basically… He never had any closure...He hasn't tied the loose ends…”

Claude…

So this was why he reacted yesterday. He hasn’t made peace nor has he completely move on from what happened. Rather he only pushed it to the back of his mind.

“Yes…”

There was a heavy silence that followed as I digested everything while the prince watched me, waiting for me to speak up. The atmosphere was so depressing and tense, it’s suffocating. So suffocating I couldn’t swallow properly. I just wanted to get out of there.

I’m so overwhelmed, all at once all these awful emotions coursed through me. The same awful emotions that haunted me in the past. Sadness. Pain. Betrayal. Anger. I didn’t notice my body was visibly shaking from all these emotions.

“What happened to Claude… is… I don’t know how to describe, Wilfred. It’s horrible. It’s… It’s worse than mine.”

Huh? My eyes feel heavy and unfocused..

“Wilfred, could that be the reason why,” my voice cracked, the fear and nervousness peeking through. “Could that be the reason he looked down on himself? That he beat himself too hard when he makes a mistake? That he couldn’t accept a compliment because he believed he doesn’t deserve it? Does he think he will never be good enough?”

No matter how hard he tries, he will never live up to the man that took the love of his life away. He’ll think everything he does will never be good enough...

My vision blurred with fresh tears at the thought.

You fool, why did you think about that now. Now here you are, on the verge of tearing up in front of a prince.

Wilfred, who was still observing me, is caught off guard at my question and the reaction it elicited from me. He was shocked that this had a huge impact on me… The fact he saw me feeling all these extreme emotions to the point of crying for his butler… He underestimated how much I come to care for him and probably I do too underestimated myself.

Worry immediately fell over him at that moment, his mouth was set into a deep frown. It seems like he wanted to comfort me but instead, he answered me, his tone unsure and hesitant.

“I do not know, Madeleine… But I can tell you this. That incident had changed him after that. He was more serious, distant, colder, and works even harder to the point of overexertion, although rare. He now puts all his time to his duties. And yes, I realized that he looked uncomfortable and doubtful when receiving compliments after the incident. A big contrast from before.”

It looks to me that he had put all his time to his duties as an attempt to push his emotions, his pain to the back of his mind. An attempt to forget about it. This isn't healthy. They can come all at once if someone or something triggered him. Just like what happened yesterday.

… Or was he trying to prove himself that he’s good and worthy enough?

I lost count how many times my heart clenched from anguish the whole time Wilfred explained. It just got worse and worse every time he opened his mouth.

I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Is this all Wilfred? I don’t think I could handle anymore,” I stood up from the sofa, my voice feeble. The prince too lifted himself from his seat before nodding. There was a sense of worry and unease in his small smile.

“Yes, that will be all.”

“Then I will be leaving, I need some time alone to digest all this.”

“Take the time you need. It’s a lot to take in,” he agreed. He then accompanied my way to the door. When the door is unlocked and I stepped out, I turned back to the prince to give him a weak wave.

“Thank you for telling me… See you later.”

With much gentleness, he placed his hand on my shoulder, rubbing them while giving me a comforting smile. “See you later. Make sure you get some rest, don’t want you getting sick or feeling down for tomorrow.” At his small quip, a short-lived chuckle escaped me.

“Will try.”

I swirled my feet around and headed to the direction of the guest room I was staying in. The sound of the door closing behind me echoed throughout the empty hallway, making me aware of how quiet and empty it was.

What used to feel comfortable and relaxing walking here alone now felt very unbearable and lonely to me at this moment. Not being able to stand the stifling heavy silence any longer, I dragged my feet faster to the guest room while carrying the weight of Claude’s (heart-breaking) past on my shoulders.

•••
5th of April
Chateau’s Guest Room
1 pm

With the prince’s birthday party happening tonight, you could say the whole Chateau was very lively. Just before sunrise, I could hear the staff, maids, and butlers rushing outside my room, occasionally communicating in frantic voices.

I did not desire being stuck in the middle of their preparation and end up disturbing them, so I decided to hole myself in the guest room and wait until it’s time for the party… Besides, I didn’t really want to see someone at the moment.

The whole day yesterday, after I had a talk with Wilfred, I stayed in the guest room. That way, I wouldn’t somehow bump into a certain steward and then breaking my promise to Wilfred. But mostly, it’s really me trying to calm down from my emotions after hearing what happened to Claude (that was a total shitstorm).

Yet, on the other hand, it also made me think. Made me realize how I will be carrying this whole revelation on my shoulders and keeping it to myself for not sure how long. Wilfred told me so that it’ll prevent me from getting caught, but that would mean that I need to act as if nothing happened, as if Wilfred didn’t tell me anything. And that, my friend, would be an extremely difficult task because all I wanted to do is give him a huge hug and words of comfort. All I wanted to do is tell him that he’s not alone in this. I just wanted to give him all the good, wholesome things that life has to offer because he deserved it so much after the awful things he went through alone.

Alas, that’s not possible at the moment. I had to be normal with him, teasing and bantering with him just like any other day. I felt a bit guilty that I knew about this without him telling. I did promise before I wouldn’t find out until Claude finally opens up to me, but then it was the prince who insisted…

Ugh, stop it, Madeleine. Don’t transfer the blame onto someone else. You could’ve firmly refused it.

I heaved out a sigh.

There’s nothing I could really do now, besides keeping Wilfred’s promise.

Knock knock knock.

The sound of someone knocking on the door pulled me out of my thoughts (thank god or else I’ll be tearing my hair out).

“Yes?”

A familiar feminine voice answered. “I am here to bring your lunch as you requested of us, Lady Madeleine.”

Oh, it’s that same maid from before! Is she like assigned to take care of me…? Will this be a repeating occurrence?

“You can come in!”

Hearing my consent, the maid softly opened the door and entered with a tray carrying my lunch. Her usual bun is left arrayed with some strands falling in front of her brown eyes. Her cheeks are flushed red and her skirt was out of place, probably from running around the Chateau.

She placed the tray on the same white round table before taking off the steel dome covering the dish. In an instant, the delicious aroma penetrated the room and my nose, causing my stomach to growl from hunger. “The head chef prepared baked sea bass with lemon caper dressing.”

I felt myself growing hungrier as I listened to the words rolling off the maid’s tongue. I peeked over at the dish and good god it looked so vibrant and downright mouth-watering. I then noticed the steaming cup of tea beside it. My eyes lit up at the sight.

Did Claude…

Following my gaze, the maid spoke up with regret laced in her voice. We have your favorite tea blend as Lady Madeleine appeared a bit disappointed the other day. Master Claude is unavailable at the moment due to tonight’s preparations, so Master Claude had assigned another staff to brew it.”

Well there goes my hope.

All the excitement and hopefulness disappeared from my face as my shoulders slumped in disappointment.

“Oh… I see.”

The maid creased her forehead at my reaction, a mixture of curiosity flashing across her face. ‘So it’s not the tea then… But Master Claude? That’s … really interesting. Does Lady Madeleine like him?’

She shook her head at the thought. ‘Don't be ridiculous, Sophie. That would ne--’

“Ms?”

I didn’t think she realizes that she’s deep in thought with her face all scrunched up, that is until I went up to her and waved my hands in front of her face. The movement caught her eyes, shaking her back to reality. Immediately, her whole face turned a very bright shade of red with her frantically stammering out one apology after another. I tried to hold in my laughter as I watched the whole scene, finding her reaction really cute and entertaining.

“Ms, you can relax. I am not going to scold you or anything.”

“But--”

“No buts, it’s really alright. In fact, I find everything about this funny.”

The maid let out a confused noise. “Huh?”

I clarified while grinning lopsidedly at her. “You caught me the other day dazed and deep in thought, and now here I am catching you like that, probably with the same expression I donned.”

Her reaction was not what I expected. I wanted to ease her embarrassment at her slip-up by cracking a joke, but it only did the opposite. She appeared even more flustered with her eyes now darting around and her fingers clenching her skirt.

This poor little girl is trembling!

“Hey, hey, hey…” my voice softened while I gently placed my hand on her shoulders. The maid straight away looked at my hand before she set her gaze on me, her eyes widened in disbelief. “I didn’t mean to humiliate you. I was only trying to make you relax and forget about your blunder, which by the way, isn’t a big deal!” I felt her stiff tense muscles relax at my words. “Besides, I am not going to go monster on you. Everyone makes mistakes! ... Even someone like…”

“... Even someone like Claude makes mistakes. I’m sure when he was still training to become a butler, he made many mistakes.”

The maid’s ears perked up at my comment at the end. She was a bit dubious as never in her life from the time she started working here until now had she seen this man fumble. But what surprised and intrigued her was the warmth, tenderness, and the fondness in both my voice and look when I mentioned the steward.

Now she’s probably thinking something is going on between these two. When she was about to open her mouth to ask (it didn’t cross her mind at the time, she was too caught up), when I hurriedly changed the subject.

“So what’s your name? I can’t keep calling you Ms always and I feel we’re gonna meet many more times in the future.”

She frowned. “Uh, you don’t need to know my name, just calling me Ms is fine. I am not that important…”

“Nonsense!” I immediately argued. “I want to treat you as my equal.” The maid could only stare at me dumbfoundedly.

Is it really that strange to know a maid’s name because of that? Is this one of the strict rules or tradition..?

It took a brief silence before she finally got over the shock and gave me her name, her voice soft and unsure. “It’s Sophie, My Lady.”

I hummed in satisfaction.

“Good, that’s a really cute name, very fitting.” Sophie’s plump cheeks flushed to the color of apples at the compliment. “Now you can call me Madeleine.”

Her eyes bugged out. “W-What? I couldn’t possibly do that, My Lady! It’s against—”

I dismissed her with a wave of a hand.

“You can. We’re both equals and you’ve been nice to me.”

“But I’ll still be reprimanded and I could get fired!”

“Ah you’re right, well then you could always call my name when no one’s around! After all, I want you to be the one taking care of my stay here, starting from now.”

Really, every sentence that came out of my mouth got even more surprising to Sophie. I didn’t even know it was possible for a human’s eyes to get as big as hers at the moment. I’m not even exaggerating that I felt like her jaw’s going to drop any moment.

A short silence overtook us as she continued to stare at me and me waiting for her response.

“You’re actually serious are you…?”

“Yep.”

I watched Sophie’s face scrunching (really cutely like a child), considering whether to accept this request. Once she thought over it and finally made a decision, she nodded her head with nervous excitement.

“Okay… although I am not sure why you would choose me over other experienced maids. I am still new here...”

“That doesn’t matter, I chose you because you seem like an easy person to get along. You’re nice,” I comforted her by patting her shoulders while beaming. “You’ll learn and gain experience along the way, so don’t worry.”

(At that moment, it’s safe to say that Sophie gained admiration and respect for the lady in front of her. The lady was the nicest guest she interacted with. Even though she was only a maid, the lady treated Sophie as an equal.)

I don’t know why but there’s something about her that made me want to look after her. She looked so young.

Sophie returned my smile with her flustered one before bowing her head, her cheeks still red from the compliments. “I uh thank you… Madeleine. I am really honored that you want me to do this task.”

“Now Sophie...This might be embarrassing, but can you help me put on the dress for tonight?” Now it was my turn to feel flustered, rubbing the back of my neck to ignore the heat burning my face. “... I tend to wrinkle it every time I put it on myself.”

Sophie muffled a short giggle with her hand, before giving me the most endearing eye smile. “I would be happy to help.”

Kindness really goes a long way because who would’ve thought she would help me a lot in the future.

•••
5.50pm

Crap, I am getting nervous. There will be more important guests at his party, more royalty, more government officials and diplomats, and more esteemed people… What if I messed up? What if I embarrassed myself in front of them? Oh god what if I messed up my talking or dancing? Will my gift be even enough for the prince?

Near the wall, stood Sophie who worriedly watched Madeleine pacing back and forth as the nervousness overwhelmed her. She was starting to sweat and her face was pale … If she continues at this rate, she could ruin her make-up.

‘I need to intervene before it’s too late.’

“L-La-I mean Madeleine, you’re going to ruin your makeup and your hard work if you don’t calm down. You’re starting to perspire.”

Madeleine was so caught up in thoughts, she forgot about the fact that the little maid was still in the same room as her. She halted her steps before turning her feet to Sophie, an apologetic look plastered across her beautifully painted face.

“Sorry, the pacing is just a habit of mine when I’m feeling nervous and anxious, but the perspiring... probably this time around these emotions are stronger, knowing the fact I’m mingling with people I don’t know. And more important might I add. I’m afraid I'll humiliate myself in front of them.”

Sophie could only empathize with her. Being around people of importance intimidated the heck out of her. When she first started serving the royal family, she would tremble most of the time. Back then, she couldn’t even get the words out properly without stuttering. Many times have the head maid and Claude reprimanded her. She’s surprised they haven’t gotten tired of her and dismissed her. However, thanks to both of them and the desire to avoid further embarrassment, she worked hard to improve. She still may be timid, but at least she’s not stuttering or profusely sweating.

“You’ll do fine, Lady Madeleine! I heard if you remain calm and if you don’t overthink, you’ll less likely to mess up! Or you can take this!” Sophie dug her hands into her pocket, spending a few seconds rummaging before taking out a small round candy wrapped in pink paper. She then proceeded to place it onto Madeleine’s hand. “I usually suck on this when I am nervous or anxious. Along with the taste, the sucking helps take your mind off.”

Madeleine studied the candy’s appearance.

Flavor Breeze. Strawberry flavored.

She opened the wrapper before putting the red-colored candy into her mouth. Immediately the sweet delicious strawberry flavor invaded her taste buds which caused her to suck the candy with vigor, the anxiety and nervousness totally slipping away from her mind.

“Thank you, that actually helped.” The maid flushed bashfully from the appreciative smile Madeleine sent her way, before returning with her own elated one.

“It’s nothing!”

As the lady continued sucking the candy in the background, too focused on it to be aware of the time, Sophie glanced at the clock, seeing the shorter hand getting very close to six.

‘It’s nearly time.’

“Madeleine, it would be best to head your way down to His Highness’ party before more guests arrive.”

Sophie was right. As she spoke, there were the sounds of the cars' engines humming, car doors opening and closing, followed by the chattering of people downstairs. It would be absolutely horrifying and nerve-wrecking for Madeleine, navigating through most likely a crowded hallway as guests stream into the ballroom. It would also be horrifying for her to arrive at the same time the prince starts his commencement speech…

The thought of those disapproving and intimidating stares brought cold shivers down her spine. She immediately stood upright and fixed her appearance while swallowing the small remains of the candy. She turned to Sophie, with her hands gesturing her entire body.

“How do I look, Sophie? I didn’t mess up anything did I from that near nervous breakdown?”

Sophie observed her. The lady is dressed in a stunningly long royal blue strapless dress with flared ends from Marchesa Notte. The dress is paired up with Jimmy Choo’s metallic fiber ‘Cloud’ clutch and some pointed strappy pumps from Francesco Russo, both in gold. Since she was in Philip and attending the crown prince’s birthday, she had decided to go with an attire that consisted of the kingdom’s color.

Thought it would be fun, she excitedly said.

Her long wavy jet black hair had been styled into an elegant updo, allowing her to showcase the intricate diamond necklace hanging around her neck and her earrings dangling from her ears. Her face was fairly done simple besides the eyes, not like she needed any as she was already beautiful without trying, according to Sophie. With the dramatic eye make-up and the rogue lipstick, they made her eyes and lips stand out.

Safe to say, the maid thought Madeleine looked devastatingly stunning. She exudes elegance, regality and yet also sensuality from the way the dress accentuated her curves and the amount of skin exposed. If Sophie didn’t know, she could have mistaken Madeleine to someone of royalty. She could give actual princesses a run for their money!

… She really could charm anyone, even the princes from different kingdoms (well except His Highness, because you know… Lady Danielle). And with the personality she possessed, she could have both men and women falling onto their knees. Who knows, she could even take away the breath of man she liked. And by the man she liked, Sophie assumed it was Master Claude.

‘I mean, what reason did Madeleine has for saying his name with such tenderness and admiration? And looking so disappointed that someone besides Claude had brew her tea?’

The little maid gave her an okay gesture with a bright smile plastered on her face. “You look wonderful, Lady Madeleine! If I may be frank, you look like a modern princess. I am very sure you’re going to captivate everyone in attendance including Master Claude!”

It didn’t cross Sophie’s mind that she blurted the last three words out until she caught the lady’s face, with her jaw dropping and eyes widening from shock. Soon, Madeleine’s whole face turned red with more blood rushing to her cheeks.

“W-Wha-t…”

The response, in turn, caused the maid’s eyes also bugged out, mortified that she spilled those words out loud instead of saying it in her mind. “Forgive me, Lady Madeleine! That wasn’t supposed to come out from my mouth! I am so sorry!”

Madeleine only shook her head and displayed a bashful smile at the maid lowering her head. “It’s no worries, just a bit taken back. I just thought my attraction to him wasn’t so obvious… Guess it wasn’t that discreet.”

“Oh I can reassure you it’s not so obvious! I only notice because your tone when you said his name, it reminds me of the tone my mother used every time she gushes about my father,” Sophie raised her head up to look at Madeleine. She had a fond look as she remembered all the memories of her parents. She really did miss them. “It’s really endearing! You must like him a lot… Am I right?”

‘Well there’s no denying it now,’ Madeleine thought.

“You could… say that, I guess?” An awkward laugh left her mouth. “Believe it or not, we couldn’t stand one another, always at each other’s throats, always bickering and throwing jabs at one another… Don’t get me wrong, I already found him attractive, but the more time I spent time here and the more time I spent with Claude… The interactions with him, the annoyance just fades away. There was a shift in the way I looked at him as I get to know him more, as he reveals more of his personality… It just happened that I like the qualities he possesses and now I enjoy the times we have this jabbing competition.”

By the time she finished her sentence, Sophie saw a smile on the lady’s face. It radiated the same fondness and warmth she heard before when the steward’s name is mentioned. It was really cute to see that.

“Anyways, enough of that already, you may not see it because of the foundation, but my face is burning!” Madeleine exclaimed as she fanned her face frantically. “We should probably really go now.”

She went to grab the small gift she prepared for the prince and the invitation from the side table and strode towards the door. Sophie soon quickly followed behind her. As they left the guest room together with Sophie guiding, Madeleine took a deep breath, trying to push the nervousness away. Sure she’s nervous with the fact she’ll be surrounded by people she didn’t know, but she’s more nervous about seeing Claude and making eye contact with him after that. He definitely would be in attendance, watching over the party at the sidelines.

It was crucial for her to act normal. She really hoped she’s able to do that throughout the night.

•••

“Woah.”

When Sophie reached the entrance to the ballroom, she couldn’t help but suck in my breath as she studied the sight in front of me. There were so many guests, more than she expected.

There are so many people here already…

Most of them seem to be higher government officials, political figures and leaders, diplomats, people of royalty and of noble birth. Occasionally there were a few well-known business figures. Madeleine was already lining up to go in with her invitation and gift in hand, both hands shook as her nerves set in again. Sophie had parted from me when we got near the ballroom as that would receive strange looks if we did appear together. Knowing the maid, she wanted to avoid that. It was cute for Sophie to give Madeleine another of her candy while wishing me luck before she left.

‘Good luck! Not that you need any if I am honest...You’ll do fine, but just in case you get another case of anxiety…’ she said.

This might be a good time.

Balancing the gift and invitation in one hand, Madeleine somehow was able to open her clutch and grab the candy with still trembling hand. She hurriedly popped the candy into her mouth, instantly sucking (with discreet mind you) on the sweet flavor after unwrapping it. It wasn’t the ideal time to pop in, she realized as the line kept moving with her getting closer to the entrance, but she didn’t mind if it helps to calm her down. So what did she do? She bit hard onto the candy, turning them into tiny bits that are easier to dissolve. When the couple in front of her finally entered the ballroom and it was her turn, one of the royal staff politely asked for her invitation.

“Enjoy the party, Lady Madeleine,” the staff had his head bowed as he returned the invitation to her, to which she grinned, giving her thanks.

Slowly sauntering into the ballroom, she noticed the musicians positioned at one side of the wall had started playing music. The guests have formed groups and were chattering to one another with a glass of champagne or wine in hand, some serious and some laughing. Servers roamed around carrying trays and offering sophisticated finger foods, cakes, and glasses of red wine and sparkling champagne. The very front had a huge stage with a stairway behind it. It looked like the royal family will enter from there before the prince comes up the stage to make a speech. On the other side of the wall, there was a very long and narrow table covered in a cream-colored mat. On one end of the table, there laid a number of 3-tier plate stands holding more finger food and desserts and also glasses of red wine for the guests to munch and sip on. On the other end of the table were well-wrapped gifts for the prince, all neatly placed and all coming in varying sizes.

I wonder if my gift is good enough for Wilfred… I want to give him personally but it would be difficult and tiring for me to hold them all the time…

I wasn’t given enough time to come to a final decision when a maid offered to take the gift away and placed it on the table with the rest. I just hoped my gift is able to reach him in the end…

With the gift out of my grasp, I decided to wander around the ballroom, trying to find a familiar face in the crowd, although at the end it was fruitless.

I really do not know anyone here... Charm them they say. It’s really hard when you’re awkward as heck. The princes are the only ones I know and yet they’re not here yet. But even then, they probably would be surrounded... Sigh even Ms. Danielle hasn’t arrived yet. Wonder where they could be?

Despite the lively atmosphere, I could only feel the awkwardness and loneliness and they were starting to suffocate me and eating me inside out. Out of habit, I marched towards to the refreshment table, seizing a glass of red wine before taking a huge sip of it. The bitterness and sweetness of the drink immediately invaded my mouth as it tried to wash away the emotions I’m feeling, trying to make me forget about them. I then gazed at all the tiny pastries the party has to offer, trying to choose one. I was too concentrated on picking, that I didn’t even hear the sudden hush whispers, gushes, and squeals from the female guests around me nor the sounds of footsteps getting closer to where I was.

“Oh my god, Daisy! Look who arrived! It’s Prince Roberto!”

“Prince Roberto looked so dreamy…”

“He really is... One of the nicest princes too.”

As I was about to bring the chocolatey goodness into my mouth, a playful “Boo!” is heard behind me the same time a gloved hand is placed on one of my shoulders, which startled the hell out of me and made me drop the chocolate.

For a few seconds, I stared down at the wasted chocolate with a frown, making a mess of itself on the ground before swirling around to see Prince Roberto indeed with his signature friendly smile (a bit guilty at the moment) and his wavy brown hair that hugged his face. Instead of his uniform, he’s in a black suit with a grey vest underneath and a golden necktie.

I didn’t get any words out before the prince guiltily apologized.

“I didn’t see you were holding onto some food when I surprised you, my bad.” He then went to scratch the back of his neck shyly. I only could arched my eyebrows in amusement, to be honest. Yeah, I may be a bit upset, but it’s not a big deal. Could always get another one…

“And good evening to you, Prince Roberto. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s nice seeing you again,” I gave him a reassuring smile. The crown prince of Altaria’s expression brightened up, the relief washing over him.

“Oh good! I really did feel bad about it… I just wanted to play with you, all in good fun. And yes, it has been some time since we last met,” he took one of my hands, wrapping his around mine before raising it to his lips and giving it a kiss. “It’s also nice seeing you again! How have you been, Lady Madeleine? May I say you look absolutely beautiful tonight.”

Cue the dreamy sighs from the guests.

Oh. Right, I forgot he’s also the flirty one.

Due to the gesture, I stammered on my reply, still not used to this kind of touch and attention. If it wasn’t for the full coverage foundation covering my face, I would’ve looked like a cherry tomato.

“O-oh, I am alright and… Thank you for your compliment, Your Highness. You look good yourself.”

Prince Roberto released my hand as he returned my flustered smile with his charming one.

“Why thank you! I dressed up well just for you!” He winked.

“Must you always flirt with every lady, Roberto?” I wasn’t given enough time to reply to the crown prince of Altaria--not that I could think of any to be honest, I was at a loss for words--before Prince Glenn of Oriens interrupted us. As he strode closer to us, his frown of disapproval was even more visible.

The older prince whined his nickname for the younger prince while pouting.

“Aw Glenny-poo, you are no fun. It’s a party, we’re supposed to let loose! Right, Lady Madeleine?” His sudden question aimed at me caused me to let out a surprised noise.

“Eh?”

Why am I brought into this….

“Would you stop calling me ‘Glenny-poo’? It’s embarrassing and childish!” Glenn groaned out of embarrassment and irritation, the redness in his cheeks stood out like a sore thumb due to his pale complexion. It’s funny that he’s the youngest among the princes and yet… He’s more serious… Heh.

“Why not? It’s cute, like you,” Prince Roberto tilted his head as he glanced at Glenn with a surprised look.

From the looks of it, he is actually being serious asking that question. He looked genuinely puzzled.

The comment appeared to have struck a nerve in the young prince. His whole face turned red, this time it’s not from embarrassment. His face scrunched up in displeasure at the word before giving Roberto the deepest scowl I had ever seen in my entire life.

So he doesn’t like being called cute. I see.

“I am not cute!” he shouted angrily. “I am not a kid!”

Okay scratch that, he doesn’t dislike being called cute. He downright hates it.

At the outburst, a couple of guests close to us three turned, earning a couple of curious and annoyed look. Before I even got the chance to defuse the situation, and by that I mean calming Prince Glenn down, I heard Prince Edward’s calm voice from the side.

“Now, now, Glenn. I know you distaste being called that but now isn’t the appropriate time to show it.”

I glanced at the direction of his voice not only to see the crown prince of Charles but also of Dres Van and Liberty behind him, all donning expensive yet distinct suits. Prince Joshua still looked as serious as ever while Prince Keith on the other hand, also had the same aura of arrogance around him (not that it bothered me anyway). Now with all the princes gathered around, excluding Wilfred of course, the gushing and swooning from the guests increased in volume. None of the princes took notice of it, or simply they didn’t appear bothered, probably used to the attention, it became normal to them…

Anyways, Prince Edward went up to the youngest prince, placing a hand on his shoulder while a brotherly smile is displayed on his lips.

“Edward’s right,” Joshua nodded in agreement before giving Glenn a firm look. “If you continue shouting, you’ll end up actually acting like a child.”

“What are you talking about, Joshua? He is a child,” Keith pointed out with a muffled chortle, which caused the youngest prince’s eyes to twitch, his hands clenching and unclenching. Before he even mouths Keith off, Edward stopped him in time. He then sent a frown to the prince of Liberty.

“It would be best for you to refrain from saying any further comments that will rile Glenn up. We all are already aware that he doesn’t like being compared to a child.”

“You know I am right here,” Glenn grumbled in exasperation. Roberto went to put his arm around the Oriens prince before ruffling his hair as a way to cheer him up. Personally, I wasn’t sure if that was a great idea.

“Aw Glenny-poo! Cheer up a little! This is a special occasion for Wilfred!”

Yep, totally a bad idea now that he called him ‘Glenny-poo’ again despite being told off. Glen literally swat Roberto’s hand off!

In spite of all that, I couldn’t help but feel entertained at the exchange among the princes. Let’s just say I found their friendship quite interesting. At the scene, a soft amused chuckle escaped my mouth, finally catching the attention of all the princes, well mostly the ones who arrived later.

“Oh, Lady Madeleine!” Edward exclaimed out of surprise. He soon took his hand off the young prince’s shoulder and came up to me, gently taking one of my hands. “It’s lovely seeing you again, nonetheless still beautiful like a fairy princess.”

With a gentle smile, he raised my hand to his lips before giving a kiss upon it. In the background, I noticed Keith and Joshua rolling their eyes at Edward’s typical behavior while Glenn groaned “not again”. Roberto, even though he did the same thing to me earlier, whined how unfair this was to which Glenn cried out “You did that too! How is that unfair?”

And of course, I could hear the squeals and more dreamy sighs from all the female admire--I mean guests observing.

Really, I would thank God for full coverage foundation, because my face is literally on fire! And my heart is pounding many beats per minute! Prince Edward and Roberto will be the death of me… That is after Claude. I am just saying because Claude didn’t even do anything intentionally and yet he still can make my heart flutter and set the butterflies in my stomach free. It’s totally unfair.

Again, I stammered out a reply once the silver-haired prince let go of my hand and leaned back, too flustered from what he did seconds ago.

“Um thank you, Edward... That’s very nice of you. You’re still charming as always,” my mouth curved into a shy grin before glancing behind the prince’s shoulders. “It’s nice seeing you also Prince Keith, Prince Joshua.”

The Dres Van prince nodded his head in acknowledgment while the Liberty prince gave me a short wave, both had small friendly smiles on their faces.

“Likewise, Lady Madeleine.” “That goes the same for you, Lady Madeleine.”

Hmmm someone seems to be missing.

“Where’s Prince Yakov?” I curiously asked the princes to which Joshua answered, a small frown on his face.

“Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it as he’s working on the unification of his kingdom.”

“Ah, I see. I understand.”

Well, his kingdom should be his first priority of course.

“So Lady Madeleine,” I turned to Prince Roberto who spoke up, his voice full of curiosity. “I was actually quite surprised to see you here. I apologize if it sounded rude…” His voice trailed off.

Prince Keith furrowed his eyebrows as if he was in thought. “You’re right, Roberto. In all honesty, I didn’t expect to see you here, Lady Madeleine.”

I shrugged before sending Roberto a reassuring smile. “I take no offense to that, do not worry. I know you must be all wondering. To sate your curiosity, Wilfred invited me to stay at the Chateau and do some sightseeing in Philip.” Some of the princes had their mouths slightly open in surprise after hearing my explanation, some had their eyebrows raised as they stared at me.

Huh is it really that odd for Wilfred to invite me?

My face scrunched in confusion at their reactions, but I continued.

“He remembered during my birthday that I never had the chance to explore Philip outside business-related affairs…. Um, why are your reactions are like that? It’s as if you couldn’t believe Wilfred did that ...”

Keith broke off his gaze before letting out a snort. “That’s because he rarely does that to anyone unless they made a good impression on him. Or in other words, he likes them.” The other princes expressed agreement to Keith’s words.

Now it was my turn to arched my eyebrows up high. “Oh? But I thought he already has someone--,” Glenn cut me off before I finished my sentence, giving me a deadpanned look.

“Not like that, you dull egg. We all know he fancies that royal designer.” At the word ‘royal designer’, Glenn’s voice lowered into a harsh whisper. “What Keith meant is that he trusts you and that he can see you as a friend… And probably by now, you guys are actually friends, right?”

I didn’t really hear the whole thing except the last part, to which I nodded. I was too caught up at Glenn’s name-calling.

The prince of Oriens just called me a dull egg... How unique.

While I found it amusing and maybe a bit puzzled, Prince Edward, however, seems to think the opposite. It was not so obvious, but there was a quick flash of disapproval that crossed his face. The others seem used to it though… Hmm. Maybe Edward’s not okay with it being aimed at me? Who knows.

“Speaking of Wilfred,” Joshua pulled up the sleeves of his suit to glance at the time on his watch, a small frown set on his lips soon after. “It’s his party for goodness sake and he’s running a bit late.”

Edward smiled at Joshua’s complaint. “It is his party, He can choose to be a bit late. The guests seem to have no problem with it. He’ll arrive soon.”

“Yea! What’s wrong with being a bit late? As long as he comes, that’s all that matters,” Roberto added.

The Dres Van prince expressed horrification at the nonchalant responses of the two princes before making an irritated ‘tch’ noise. “That simply won’t do! If I had a party in my kingdom—”

“Yea, yea, yea, if you had a party in Dres Van, you have to be there on time. That’s one of your kingdom’s many odd rules isn’t it?” Keith interrupted with sarcasm dripping from his voice.

“Hey! Our rules aren’t weird! It’s completely necessary in maintaining the order of our kingdom!”

Glenn and Keith appeared dubious at the lavender-haired prince’s argument.

“Uhuh…” “Right.”

Again, the responses spurred Joshua to argue even more, but before he could let the words rolled off his tongue, that familiar loud silvery voice echoed throughout the whole ballroom.

“May I have your attention, please?”

The voice that instantly set my heart racing… and the commanding tone in his voice… I couldn’t help but shudder, a spark of desire flickering inside my body as I imagined what can he do with that tone outside his duties.

Stop it! Not the appropriate time, Madeleine!

I didn’t care if I wasn’t graceful nor the princes looking at me, but I immediately whipped my body to the direction of Claude’s voice.

And there he was, standing in front of the staircase, which I assumed the king, queen, and Wilfred will use later. He’s only standing there, and yet the sight of him, his presence already cause my heart to flutter crazily, making me feel all warm and tingly inside. It took great effort for me not to heave out a dreamy sigh.

He looked devastatingly handsome. I guess since it’s a special occasion, he exchanged his usual butler suit I see daily with a black tailcoat and a white bow tie. He paired then with high waisted trousers, double braiding at the sides, white Marcella shirt and waistcoat, and of course white gloves to complete the look. His shoes or pumps looked like to be made from fine and shiny patent leather. His whole formal attire seems to be new, or rather rarely used, as there are no wrinkles in sight nor the colors had faded. He still had his signature hairstyle with some strands of his hair almost falling upon his right eye, although for tonight, it’s styled more neatly.

But good God, he looks downright swoon-worthy. How can someone look this good in a tailcoat and high waisted trousers? This is so unfair to my heart (and my friend down there). I am not the only one who shares this sentiment. I heard many compliments spoken in soft whispers from a few female guests near me.

And not only that, the aura around him was so intense and commanding, it captured everyone’s attention, including the princes’ and mine. Especially mine.

I wondered if he was able to see me in the crowd… The refreshment tables—where I’m currently at—were a bit far back on the side. It didn’t help once Claude got everyone’s attention, all the female guests surged forward, excitedly anticipating for Wilfred’s arrival.

My whole focus is zeroed on the head steward, as he surveyed the crowd in the room, making sure almost all the guests were present. His eyes darted around, surveying from a couple of guests to another before they landed on the group of princes.

… And then his blue eyes landed on me. The second our eyes met, a shot of electricity went through me, tearing a soft gasp of shock from my throat. I wasn’t sure if the princes had heard it, but if they did, I couldn’t do anything about it as I couldn’t move away from his gaze. It’s as if I’m trapped and bound to one spot. Claude didn’t express so much besides having his brows raised before his face went blank again.

In all honesty, his lack of reaction disappointed me a bit. I mean okay, fine, he’s still on duty and he’s supposed to be professional, but… It’s sad that he has that much of an effect on me, but it’s impossible for me to do the same. It’s impossible for me to get a reaction--a pleasant reaction--out of him, even when I am all dressed up.

Am I… not that attractive …?

A sad sigh unintentionally escaped through my lips, catching the attention of the silver-haired prince, who now had concern etched in his facial features.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Claude bellowed. “It is an honor and pleasure for you all to attend this special birthday celebration of our crown prince, His Royal Highness, Prince Wilfred A. Spencer. The royal Spencer family is delighted to have you all here tonight. Without further ado, let us welcome His and Her Royal Majesty, King Frederick Spencer and Queen Diane Spencer.”

The royal staff gently opened the door a floor above us and there came out the king and queen of Philip, both of them exuding power, wisdom, elegance, and regality. As we bowed, the queen rested her hand on her husband’s arm and soon they slowly ascended down the grand staircase with so much poise. Queen Diane donned a stunning velvety sapphire caped gown while King Frederick was also in a tailcoat and high waisted trousers. However, he had a sash displaying Philip’s colors worn over his shoulder and the Spencers royal crest pinned to his suit. Prince Wilfred had so much resemblance to his father, it’s quite terrifying, to be honest. Once they were on the same floor as us, they stepped aside from the stairway. The queen sent a lovely smile to the crowd while the king nodded his head as a greeting.

“And now, please welcome His Royal Highness, Prince Wilfred A. Spencer.” The doors opened again with the crown prince coming through. I expected him to wear his royal attire, but surprisingly he was in a dark grey coat with a handkerchief-like tie and a light grey vest and white dress shirt underneath. His usual slightly messy blonde hair is styled neater tonight. Around me, I could hear squeals, gushes, and dreamy sighs from all love-struck guests. The noise increased in volume when his mouth curved into his signature gentle smile. Me, I couldn’t care less. After Wilfred came out, I only gave him a glance before my eyes discreetly directed back to his head steward, admiring his profile.

He really is handsome… And he holds so much power in his stance.

I didn’t realize the prince had already gone down the grand stairway and had made his commencement speech until the sound of applause erupted throughout the ballroom, startling the life out of me and thus breaking off my gaze from the head steward. Whether Claude’s aware or not that I had been focused on him the whole time, he didn’t show any indication.

Which I’m thankful, since the last time he caught me staring (cough ogling), my whole face flushed crimson. It was super obvious due to my pale ass complexion.

Whether it was Philip’s tradition or not, it didn’t cross my mind that the celebration started with a dance. Claude quickly headed somewhere else, moving away from my eyesight as the musicians started playing a known waltz. The crowd had dispersed with both female and male guests rushing to find their own dancing partner, and here I was left standing feeling lost and not fully comprehending what’s happening. While the king and queen made their rounds greeting the guests, Wilfred had asked Danielle for her hand. And when she shyly said yes, he led her to the dance floor. This caught my attention, pulling me out of my daze. I quickly stepped away to the side as more guests with their partner in arm moved toward the dance floor and positioned themselves.

They were a cute sight, really, Wilfred and Danielle. The way Wilfred gazed at her was full of love and awe. Danielle, who looked gorgeous in her own custom floral embroidered dress and her hazelnut hair styled in a loose side braid, had a bashful smile plastered on her face as she returned the prince’s gaze, also full of love and awe for him. The sight was so tender and sweet that it filled my heart not only with warmth but also longing. Longing to experience something similar to that, to have what they have. They were in their own world as they dance across the dance floor, their eyes solely focused on each other. Unknowingly, I let out a sigh, yearning to be in the arms of someone I have strong feelings for and dance with him. I yearned for him to pull me closer, with his hand placed on my lower back and the other one holding my hand, our fingers intertwined. And then we would dance the night away as the surrounding around us blurred, our eyes locked to one another, holding so much tenderness and affection for each other within them. Both of us displaying warm smiles that are only reserved for one another.

It felt so strange to feel something like this again after a long time, yet at the same time, it’s rejuvenating. It’s as if life is breathed into me.

Never in recent years, not ever since that painful day, that I so badly wanted to experience being in love again. That I so badly wanted to feel loved and cared for by someone who loves me just as much as I love him. I wanted to feel that again… I wanted to give my heart to someone I love and trust, putting my faith and trust in him to not inflict pain, but cherish it (yea call me cheesy, go on).

And there’s only one person I could think of to be that ‘someone’. While the feelings I have for him couldn’t be described as love yet, I still have strong and intense feelings for him that continued to grow even stronger each day.

As I continued to watch the couple dancing with a longing smile on my face, I felt a hand tapping lightly on my bare shoulder.

“Lady Madeleine.”

At my name being called, I spun on my heels to see Prince Edward with a gentle smile on his face and his hand put out in front of me, his palm facing up.

He’s offering me to dance again.

“I noticed the way you were looking at Wilfred and Danielle dancing together and how you wanted to dance with someone. I couldn’t leave you after witnessing that. So, Lady Madeleine, would you like to dance with me?”

I still couldn’t believe that a prince would want a dance with me, so my whole face was in disbelief. Behind the prince, I could see Prince Roberto’s pout, whining that it wasn’t fair for Prince Edward to dance with me before the others again. Glenn only rolled his eyes at the older prince. The other two princes were no longer with them. It’s most likely they headed off to socialize with officials. I then turned my attention back onto the prince in front of me before timidly saying yes. As soon I placed my hand onto his, with such gentleness, he wrapped his hand around mine and led me to the dance floor.

Look, Edward was one sweet gentleman, very charming and has his way with words that could make many women of all ages go into cardiac arrest. I should be ecstatic or swooning that he wanted to dance with me… But as he put his arm around me to pull me closer towards him, and our hands are raised and intertwined, everything just felt wrong. His touch felt wrong. It wasn’t right. The way he looked at me was a look of affection, yet all I could feel was nothing. This just wasn’t the same as when I danced with Claude. It didn’t set my heart racing nor it released thousands of butterflies in my stomach.

He wasn’t Claude.

When we finally danced across the floor, I was completely distracted and out of it. I constantly kept wishing in my mind that it was Claude dancing with me and not the prince. I felt guilty because I think Edward sensed that I wasn’t interested from the way I responded to his attempts in small talks and from the way I allowed my eyes to dart around, trying to search for the person I wanted to see among the sea of guests. I knew it was really unfair for him that I was acting so selfish and rude, but he said nothing. He was such a gentleman about it, pretending as if what I’m doing wasn’t bothering him. He still has his usual gentle smile on. After a few minutes into the dance and me discreetly turning my head from side to another, glancing each and every single person, Edward finally spoke up about it. There was no anger or irritation evident in his voice, although there was a tinge of sadness and pain seeping through it.

“You’re looking for Claude aren’t you, Lady Madeleine?” I turned my attention back onto him again, shock flashing across my facial features and my body stiffening.

Guilty.

The smile on his face, also reflected the tone of his voice, causing the guilt I now felt to intensify.

“I-I…” There was no point in denying as he saw the whole thing (quite embarrassing, really), so I only lowered my eyes while I forced a tight-lipped smile upon my lips, my cheeks flushed from being caught. “Yea… I was searching for him.”

At my response, the prince followed up with another question, that resulted in me stammering nervously and my cheeks to turn to a deeper shade. “Do you perhaps have feelings for him?”

“Huh? W-What made you think that, Prince Edward?”

He only arched an eyebrow at me before chuckling, probably in amusement at the fact that I was still pretending to be clueless and that I did no such thing earlier.

“Please, just call me Edward. Anyways, going back, I don’t think you were being that discreet hiding your feelings for Wilfred’s butler. I had noticed it during the time you instantly turned your head at his voice and the reaction you got from seeing him. You also kept your eyes on him most of the time, completely not giving a care about your surroundings. And now you were hoping that it was Claude who‘s dancing with you instead of me, am I right?”

My face grew pale at the prince’s admission with my jaw going slack. It was either I am downright horrible in being secretive or he’s just sharp.

Are all the princes this sharp and observant? Is this a skill they all must have?

Welp, there’s no way to escape out of this except to admit it!

“Okay… You got me,” I nervously laughed, the corners of my lips quirking into a small flustered smile. “I mean, there’s no way I could deny it with all the evidence out there… So yes, I might have feelings for Claude.”

“Might?”

“Fine…” I let out an exasperated sigh before lowering my voice into a whisper. I’m literally confessing in public, and in the same room with the head steward. “I have feelings for Claude. I was too obvious, was I?”

“Well…”

“It’s okay, you can be honest with me. Wilfred said I was, but I thought he’s just too observant.”

“To me, yes. Although, I don’t think anyone would notice since they’re all busy focusing on Wilfred. Everyone except you, that is. I just happened to be near you, so it caught my attention.”

“Ah great.”

“Do not worry, my Lady,” he squeezed my hand as an attempt to reassure me when he saw me frowning. “I can assure you no one noticed it.”

“If you say so…”

“... Claude huh?”

If I could scratch my neck to relieve the awkwardness, I would. I glanced up at him to see him grinning, however, there was a hint of disappointment and sadness to it…

“Mmhm...”

“Was this a result of your stay in the Chateau?”

I thought about it in silence as the prince waited in anticipation, his purple eyes filled with curiosity.

“Yes and no. I already was attracted to him before I stayed over, physically though. Mentally, I couldn’t stand him and from what I remembered, he felt the same. But… ever since the first day I stayed in the Chateau, there was a gradual change in our dynamics and our interactions. And because of how often we bumped and interact with one another… Pass his sharp tongue, his serious and icy facade, and him being a butler, I was able to see a side of him that pulled me towards him.”

Suddenly all the memories I had of him, of us together surged to the front of my mind, sending me a rush of fuzzy warm feelings to every part of my body, especially my heart. If it was possible, my affection for him grew even more now as my mind recalled all the memorable moments that happened in the past few days.

The prince must’ve realized how serious and deep my feelings were as my whole face lit up so brightly when I started talking about the butler.

‘She’s beaming,’ he thought. ‘Love looks good on her.’

He smiled at her sadly.

“I am happy for you, Lady Madeleine. You must really like him for you to light up that much talking about him and I assume remembering your time with him. Simply glowing. For a second, it left me breathless and loss for words.”

My face flushed crimson at his compliment, while a flustered incoherent noise escaped me. I knew that it’s no use to hide the blush with my hair as it was in an updo, but I still turned my head to the side, away from him. Edward only chuckled at my reaction, finding me cute. At least, he was nice enough to give me some time in calming me down.

He’s just too smooth. One day, he could actually cause a heart attack in someone.

And when I recomposed myself, it was only then he dropped another bombshell confession.

“I am quite unlucky, am I?” His question left me tilting my head to the side, puzzled and intrigued, my brows furrowed.

“Why do you think that?”

“I actually took a liking to you.”

“Oh as a friend?”

He shook his head. “No, more than that.”

Oh.

… Oh.

My mouth opened and closed, resembling a gaping fish. I couldn’t find the words to reply, too stunned at the revelation. It’s just like my brain stopped working at that moment.

What…

“I planned to ask you to let me court you by the end of the night, but I guess I was too late, seeing that someone had taken your heart already.”

Oh my god… Wow… I didn’t know he saw me in that light… I… Oh gosh.

It finally clicked in my mind why the smile I saw earlier looked sad just like now. He liked me but never had the chance to ask me out until now. And by then, it was already too late.

“Oh Edward, I… don’t know what to say, to be honest. Your confession truly caught me off guard…” An awkward smile plastered across my lips before I continued. “I am flattered you saw me in that way, but as you already know… I cannot reciprocate your feelings. I only can see you as just a friend.”

I knew he was a gentleman but I couldn’t help but hold my breath in hearing his response, whether he could take the rejection. I had a few horrible experiences in the past where men couldn’t accept a “no” from me and as a result, became terrifyingly aggressive and violent. Just recalling brought me uncomfortable shudders.

Thankfully the prince proved me wrong (I should’ve expected it). He instead accepted courteously and left it at that. I did feel a bit bad though as I noticed the dejection on his face, but there’s really not much I could do about it. The last thing I could do was to cheer him up.

“Don’t fret so much. You’ll find someone soon enough that will return your feelings and let you call them a fairy princess!”

The prince laughed, finding it funny that I used the nickname he had for me before showing an appreciative grin. “You’re right, Madeleine. I will find someone who I can call my fairy princess. There’s still plenty of time.”

“That’s the spirit!”

By this time, the waltz had eased into a stop. It seems both the prince and I lost track of time as we focused so much on our conversation while we dancing. At the same time, we both untangled from each other. Along with the others, we both bowed to one another. I took a brief glance at Wilfred and Danielle, and still, they looked as loved up as ever, or maybe even more. I could feel the love radiating from them. As I parted ways with Prince Edward, I shouted at him some parting words while putting on a playful grin.

“Good luck on your romantic endeavors! Invite me to your wedding when you finally found your fairy princess!”

Walking away, I heard his laughter from afar. Few heads turned around to his direction.

“Will do!” He shouted back.

Seeing that the other princes weren’t on the same spot as before and busy socializing with other guests, I made my way to Wilfred to greet him a happy birthday. Both the prince and Danielle were seen leaving the dance floor with beaming smiles on their faces as they headed towards the refreshment table.

… I might have taken a brief glance here and there, making another attempt in finding Claude among the crowd to no avail.

There’s just too many people here and tall too! I don’t consider myself short but goddamn, most of the people here are giants!

When I arrived back to the table, the couple were seen in their own world. They didn’t realize I was coming up to them until Wilfred turned his head and immediately a delighted grin emerged from his lips. Soon, Danielle followed his line of vision and her lips quirked up into a cute shy smile.

“Madeleine! How lovely to see you actually come!”

I rolled my eyes at his banter.

“Wilfred. I’m literally staying at the Chateau. Obviously, I will come.” The prince just shrugged.

“Who knows?”

“Yeah okay whatever. Anyways, happy birthday, my friend.” I reached out to place my hand onto his shoulder, giving him a few pats. “I wish you good fortune, luck, happiness, and love. Actually, about the last one, I don’t think I need to wish it anymore.”

With a teasing smirk, I briefly side glanced at Danielle, who caught it. Her face turned red at the implication.

“You already have found it with Ms. Danielle. You guys are just adorable.”

Wilfred let out a sheepish smile before fondly gazing at his blushing designer, his gaze full of awe and adoration. “I agree, indeed I already found love with her.”

The comment sent Danielle into another breakdown. She gently nudged her shoulder into the prince as she stammered out her reply. “Oh s-stop it you two!”

“What? That is true,” the prince teased her while circling one arm around her waist, pulling her closer to him.

At that instance, all the words died off on her tongue, as she stood there gaping at him her eyes all bugged out and her cheeks burning. The guests around them could be heard muffling their laughs while others, especially the ladies, squealed at the prince’s charm.

God, they really are the cutest.

My smile deepened at the sight of the couple. Not wanting to disturb them any further, I excused myself, making a leaving gesture.

“I’m going to go now and leave you two lovebirds alone.” I already had my back turned when I realized something and faced Wilfred, who glanced at me with curiosity. “Oh and by the way, Wilfred, I have a gift for you. I wanted to give it to you personally but one of the staff took it at the start of the party and so it’s with the other gifts you received.”

“Oh you didn’t have to—”

I didn’t let him finish his sentence as I knew what he was going to say. I wasn’t going to accept it.

“But I want to,” I argued. “You invited me to stay at your home and toured me around the kingdom. This is the least I can do. Besides, you’re my friend, or am I wrong?”

“But—”

“Nope, nu-uh. Not going to hear any excuses from you! This is your birthday. It comes with presents. Did you actually forget about that?”

Clearly, my stubborn self won’t be backing down and Wilfred, who knew and had earlier experienced this first hand, gave in and instead put on a defeated yet thankful smile.

“Alright, alright. Thank you.”

I nodded in satisfaction, my grin then turning into a full-on smirk as I gave Danielle a pointed look. “No problem. I hope you will like my gift, although it’s not so much in comparison to the gift fate has given you. You look beautiful by the way, Danielle.”

Before they could process what I said, I spun on my heels after giving them a wave. And soon after, even with my heels clacking against the floor, I could hear the sounds of Danielle being a flustered mess and the prince’s chuckles (I never ceased to make him laugh).

For the next thirty minutes, I strolled around the ballroom and talked with a bunch of new and familiar faces but I was really getting restless and stuffy. The urge to escape and be alone was temptingly high at this point. It’s getting really exhausting to behave and act in such manner, like a proper aristocratic lady, when I all wanted to do is just take off these painful shoes, stuff some good fine chocolate into my mouth, and maybe gulp some nice red wine without any care.

Few minutes ticked by and now I couldn’t stand being in this room any longer as my energy continued depleting after so many social interactions, I decided to quietly escape from the ballroom, my eyes surveying around the room, to make sure I go unnoticed. When I’m sure nobody was watching, I made my way to the door. I opened it slightly before slipping between.

Little did I know, a certain head steward who I thought was no longer in the ballroom caught me going out, a frown now prominent on his face.

‘What’s wrong now?’

•••

Once I heard the door shut closed behind me, I instantly beelined to the nearest garden for some time alone. I took my heels off my sore feet and carried them in one hand because it was impossible to make no sound in this goddamn hallway. It echoed even from the smallest sounds and the fact Claude was still able to move silently with those oxfords was something I ponder a lot on.

What sort of magic is he practicing? I want to know.

When I finally reached my destination, all the lampstands and the outdoor string lights positioned around the garden had lit up, giving the place a romantic atmosphere as they illuminate the flowers. The light also reflected off the water flowing from the fountain, giving it some kind of shimmery look.

I would say this had to be the best spot for couples to get away and spend time alone from others… But here I am, very single and alone.

I was surprised there were no couples lingering around here, but eh, that’s better I guess. The idea of me possibly disturbing a very intimate moment was highly unappealing. I would’ve become stiff as a board and awkward as hell trying to make an excuse.

“Oh hey… Sorry for interrupting your uh… moment. I’m just gonna leave now and find another place to be alone… You two go back to what you’re doing as if nothing happened…”

Yeah, no thanks. I would have buried myself a grave there and then die from the embarrassment.

In my line of vision, I saw an elegant French Victorian style ornate gazebo up front and shuffled my way there, still bare-footed, passing by many works of art. If the sun was still out, I would have stopped by and admire each of the sculptures. I then took a seat on the stairs of the gazebo, dropping my heels and clutch to the side in the process. I didn’t care that sitting on the ground would wrinkle and stain my dress, I’m too drained to notice. Placing my hands behind me, I leaned back and closed my eyes while breathing in the fresh air. The feeling of the wind blowing upon my skin and the gentle sound of water streaming with the crickets chirping in the background brought a sense of calmness and peace upon my heart and mind, completely re-energizing me. When I opened my eyes again, a relaxed smile was present on my lips.

My eyes took in the blue and purple hydrangea that bloomed from the shrubs beside the gazebo, admiring its star-shaped petals and relishing on the fragrant they gave off, again making me completely unaware of my surroundings…

“What is it with you and escaping from parties?”

… Which led to me getting the scare of my life when I heard Claude’s voice oozing with disapproval. My whole body jolted from the suddenness, a frightful gasp tearing from my throat. In a flash, I rose to my feet before whirling my body around to the direction of his voice, my eyes landed on him, who had his arms crossed in front of his chest and hips jutting to one side. I could feel the displeasure radiating from his very pores. I mean look at that scowl.

In this situation, I was supposed to be at least nervous or intimidated by his stance, but I was not…?

Okay maybe I was a bit intimidated, but that emotion was nothing in comparison to the desire and want I felt in that moment, all coming to me in full force after seeing him in that pose and with that outfit. Looking all dignified, dominant, intense, and just positively intoxicating. Jesus. I prayed to God that my body doesn’t betray me in showing any signs. And I sure hoped that Claude couldn’t hear my heart pounding (or my little lady friend throbbing).

I swear to God, this man and his power… Or maybe I am just completely whipped. He didn’t even do anything and here I am already completely fired up.

It didn’t dawn on me that I was shamelessly staring at the man in front of me until he called out.

“Well? Will you stop gawking at me?”

At his impatient tone, I lifted up my head, causing me to make eye contact with him. I wasn’t joking when the snarky reply I wanted to throw at him never saw the light of day the second his piercing intense gaze locked onto mine. It’s as if I lost my ability to speak.

It took every single effort for me to hold myself back from gasping (this time not from surprise) or licking my lips. I made another attempt to use my voice but to no avail. Only incoherent noises came out from my mouth.

Yep, it’s official. My brain finally short-circuited.

“Lady Madeleine.”

“I… Uh sorry?”

Great Madeleine. Now he’s going to think that you are an absolute fool, a child.

And from the incredulous and unimpressed look, he’s sporting on his face, I could only assume he shares the same sentiment. He gave me once over of my appearance and when his eyes finally landed on my bare feet and then at the heels lying uselessly on the ground, he was appalled.

“Wha--You have no shoes on! First, you leave the His Royal Highness’ party unannounced and now you have no shoes on. How improper can you be?” He glared angrily.

His words cut through my thoughts so quickly, the implication of it leaving me bristled. “I apologize that I am not the kind of lady you expected me to be,” I sarcastically shot back. “But then, I couldn’t care less about what you think of me. I am not sure if you know, but wearing heels is painful. You wouldn’t understand.”

The butler’s eyes narrowed, his pupils turning into slits.

“Would you stop being sarcastic and shoot snarky remarks to me?” He began. “You are a guest and I expect you to at least be respectful.”

“I’m being sarcastic? I’m the only one shooting snide comments? Oh, don’t be a hypocrite, Claude! You have done those to me too! Stop putting all the blame on me,” my shoulders trembled with fury at his claim. While there was some truth to it, what pissed me off was him acting as if he did nothing wrong. “Anyways, why are you here? Why does it matter where I had gone? Why do you care?”

“What, you’re being ridiculous! It matters because you're a guest who's been invited! The least thing you can do is attend the party! And what made you think I care? I am just-”

“Why are you here then? And how did you know I was here? If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be here. Instead, you’ll still be at the ballroom, looking over the celebration! I’m not wrong, am I?”

He opened his mouth before closing again after realizing he had nothing to argue. He had fallen silent after processing what I just said earlier.

‘Why did I do that?’ he pondered. ‘I didn’t think so much about it… I just saw her exiting and followed her… Was I worried for her?’

“I… I don’t know.” My eyebrows knitted together at his confused response.

“What?”

“I said I don’t know… It didn’t cross my mind what I was doing. I just… I saw you taking your leave in the middle of the celebration, and there was this--,” the head steward briefly paused as he struggled to find the right words to describe what he was going to say next. “--There was this sense of unease and worry I got. Annoyed, yes a bit, however, I was more worried. You were out of it but at the same time restless when you danced with Prince Edward with your eyes darting around the room. At first, I thought nothing of it, but as the party continues through the evening, you appeared even more drained and restless… And that’s when the concern started to set in, thinking you still might be sick. So I followed you, in case something happens to you.”

Oh. Well, that was unexpected.

Unexpected but welcomed.

I sucked in my breath at his confession as I stared at him again (note to self, I really should stop doing that). On the other hand, all the irritation and anger he felt before vanished and had been replaced with bashfulness with the flush creeping up his face. His eyes were on anything but me. After hearing that, it’s bound that my anger for him too would disappear. In fact, the feelings going through me were one of delight and fondness. I was touched by his concern for my well being. The idea of him rushing to me to see whether I was alright, sent a shot of warmth straight to my heart before it spread everywhere, now making me all warm and fuzzy.

… Wait a minute.

“You saw me dancing with Edward--I mean Prince Edward? From where?” I immediately added the title when I noticed the displeasure flashing in his eyes. Soon after, the look of disbelief returned.

“I revealed how I felt and the only thing you got from that was me seeing you dancing with His Highness Prince Edward?”

I mean if he put it that way…

“O-of course, I understood everything that you said before and I am touched by your concern!” I cried out. “It’s just, I was actually searching for you because… Because it no longer felt right when I danced with the prince after dancing with you two days ago …. I thought you weren’t in the ballroom, so when you mentioned earlier that you saw me, I was stumped...” My voice had lowered into a mumble at the end. Now, it was me next to feel flustered as I confessed to him the reason behind my behavior during the dance. I tried to puff out my cheeks to alleviate the sensation of burning.

“A-ah. I see now.”

“Yea...”

Silence enveloped us, turning the whole atmosphere from romantic to awkward in no time. With the various sounds coming from the night critters and the fountain in the background, they did nothing but to point how quiet we had become.

My hands played with one another, folding and unfolding, clenching and unclenching, fingers intertwining. My eyes darted everywhere, to the flowers, to the lights, to the building behind the butler, before lowering them to the ground, watching my toes wiggle.

As seconds passed by, the silence became unbearable.

Why aren’t we saying anything? Man, are we this awkward when we admit our feelings out loud?

Fine. I’ll do it.

And before I could break the silence, I heard him clearing his throat, loud but hesitant, getting my attention. He’s not faring well either handling this. His fair complexion made the blush even more prominent, the color rivaling the roses in this garden. It’s not even on his cheeks anymore, but it has spread everywhere on his face. He had his face turned away from me but I still could make out his pinched lips and knitted eyebrows. Both his facial features and body posture conveyed shyness, and honestly, I found it extremely cute. My lips quirked up at the rare adorable sight.

“I don’t exactly know how to say this eloquently, but I am glad that you find me a good dancing partner… And that you were looking for me. However … I-I,” Claude’s voice trailed off before stopping mid-sentence, struggling to articulate his thoughts.

I patiently waited for him to go on.

“But you should know that it is highly inappropriate for an aristocrat lady like you, Lady Madeleine to be seen dancing with … a butler, someone who’s of a lower class. I do not see why you feel uncomfortable dancing with someone like Prince Edward.”

I wasn’t sure which cut my heart into half… Hearing the insecurity and pain in his voice as he brought himself down.

He didn’t believe he’s worthy to be seen with someone like me.

Or the cold hard reality slapping me in the face. We both came from different classes, from different worlds. The likelihood of us being together was very small. There’s bound to be obstacles. Even if I didn’t care so much, Claude, on the other hand, cared. To him, it mattered.

I was aware of a rule or a tradition in Philip, outdated it may be, that citizens should marry a partner with the same social and economic standing. Although it’s not strongly enforced among the working class and the newer generations, it still did occur, after all, it has woven into their minds.

For the upper class, the aristocrats, and the royals, this rule should be followed with no exception. It’s strongly enforced with arranged marriages being made. It was a very rare occurrence for one to find and love someone with the same standing without any interference. It’s depressing.

Even though Claude wasn’t born a noble or royal, he’s still a Philipian who served the royal family as their head steward.

He’s bound to follow the rules, the traditions of Philip. He wouldn’t dare to break them. I’m already aware of our past interactions that he held them to the highest degree.

The implication sent my heart into another gut-wrenching pain.

Romantic feelings aside, the probability of us being together is small if this is what stops us.

But...

“But Claude, I’m not a citizen of Philip. It doesn’t matter to me if I am a noble lady and you’re a butler. It’s 2019. No matter where we station in life, I see you as my equal,” I reasoned with him. “I don’t see me dancing with you inappropriate.”

Why does it matter so much how they see us…?

“I’m sorry, Lady Madeleine,” he weakly murmured. “I cannot do that… It’s expected of me adhere to the rules and traditions of Philip. I cannot taint the image of the royal family for my foolish careless behavior…”

I already had expected it but to hear it directly from his mouth still stung. It took me more than a few seconds to come up with a response. Perhaps what I was about to say next would be either the dumbest and the most random thing I ever said in my life...

“You said that it is improper for us to be seen dancing with each other because of our differences in standings? Did I hear right?”

He lifted up face, forehead creasing in puzzlement. “Yes, I did say that... Where are you going with this?”

“That means you’re implying there are people around.”

“And...?”

I’m going to say it.

I gathered up all my courage to speak the next few words, making my voice as stable as possible. It’s now or never.

•••

“Since there’s no one around besides just the two of us, I want you to dance with me in this garden. Now. No one will see us, since that’s the thing worrying you.”

At once, Claude’s whole body stiffened, his eyes blinked, feeling taken back at Madeleine’s daring request.

“W-What?”

“You heard me, Claude. I want you to dance with me.”

“I can’t possibly do that, Lady Madeleine. This goes against the tradition and code of con-”

Please, Claude?” the lady pleaded softly, her eyes doleful. “Just for tonight and I won’t bother you about any of this again.”

This is my second last night here.

The head steward felt very conflicted, both his mind and heart sent into a chaotic emotional mess from the pleading look and voice. “I-Madeleine I don’t know, I can’t.”

Sure, he’s meant to say that but Claude’s resolve was starting to weaken by a considerable amount. The way she looked tonight for His Highness’s celebration… When he noticed her in the crowd earlier and when she danced with Prince Edward, all words were stolen from him. It took a great effort for the head steward to maintain his neutral expression. He had to stop himself from staring at her for a long time.

To Claude, there was no way he could deny that she looked beautiful tonight. How the color of the dress contrasted with her complexion made her stand out. How it complimented her figure sent tendrils of desire throughout his body. The makeup done to her eyes and lips gave her a sense of sensuality that couldn’t be ignored yet it also accentuated them… He couldn’t take his eyes off her when she smiled and laughed. How could he? It was so hard.

Claude really believed Madeleine looked beautiful tonight. Yes, she always has been beautiful, but tonight was different. Among all the female guests invited tonight, she was the one that stood out the most with her beauty and her aura. No other woman could compete with her.

… When she earlier confessed to him that she looked for him while dancing with another man, he went into overdrive. Immediately, his heart skipped a beat.

‘But why would someone like Madeleine want to dance with me when there are other princes? It didn’t make sense. I’m not a noble or a royal, so why would she pick me?’

‘Even if I have the urge to dance with her, I still can’t. My reputation as a head steward… I can’t lose that. Being a head steward is all I have left. Giving in to my foolishness by breaking our tradition would only result in ruining the image of the royal family. I cannot allow that. No, after all, what they have done for me… Besides… I don’t want any more pain. Not again.’

And yet, with the way she’s looking at him right now… All his resolve to honor the Spencers, to follow the tradition, and to protect himself wavered.

Madeleine took a step forward closer to him, causing his eyes to widen but his body refused to move. “Just one more dance with me. I really want to dance with you and I want to end tonight nicely. Please, Claude?”

Her heart pounding can be heard through her ears. Both her hands and feet tremble with nerves as she anticipated his reply. She continued to move closer with shaky legs.

He couldn’t think, there were so many things going through him, so many emotions going through his mind, causing him to blank out. Previously it was the request, now it was the reducing proximity between the two.

Then she was in front of him, her feet were few centimeters away from touching his shoes. He could smell the faint scent of berries from her. She lifted up her head to look at his face and instantly their eyes met. Claude inhaled sharply at the intensity of her eyes. Why were her eyes like that? Why did they hold so much… tenderness and awe? He didn’t understand.

She opened her mouth and in an instant, his resolve finally crashed onto the ground. A shiver went down his spine from the way his name rolled off so nicely from her tongue. When she subconsciously licked her red lips, it took so much of his control for his eyes to not stare. It took so much willpower for him to pull her closer and kiss her.

“Claude. It would make me happy if you gave me the last dance of the night. It would mean the world to me.”

He couldn’t do it anymore. God, she had him wrapped around her finger. For now, he would give in. As for the consequences? He would think about it later. Right now, he didn’t care for he no longer could resist her.

Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back before taking a deep inhale. Madeleine gazed at him, her eyes conveying trepidation and excitement as she waited in silence. When he finally opened his eyes back and his eyes connected with her again, she sharply sucked in her breath, startled at their intensity and passion.

In a soft voice, his next words would cause her heart to skyrocket into the sky and the butterflies to flutter more powerfully.

“Alright. If that’s what you want... Madeleine.”

Instantly her face lit up, her mouth had curved into a huge grin while her eyes shone with joy. Her happy reaction took Claude’s breath away, leaving him speechless as he studied her in awe. She was glowing.

“Thank you.”

Not wanting to waste any more time, he wrapped an arm around her, placing one hand on her lower back, eliciting an “Oh!” from her. With such gentleness, he led her hand onto his shoulder. This resulted in her taking an unintentional step forward and instinctively putting her other hand on his chest. She could feel the muscles in his chest tensed under her, and him sucking in another breath.

And oh, the warmth he emitted even through his dress shirt and vest … So comforting.

As another act of courage, she proceeded to put her hand onto the opposite side of his shoulder.

‘Might as well do something brave again, am I right?’

Yeah okay sure she thought that but soon, her cheeks flushed scarlet and her smile turned into a shy one, Madeleine’s cute expression doing things to Claude’s heart. He returned her smile with one of his, the genuine and warm one. The one she saw when he greeted the old lady in the space center.

Yep, she could melt right then and there.

When the butler was about to place his other hand on her lower back, he remembered she wasn’t wearing her heels. In fear that he would hurt her by stepping, which was very unlikely ‘cause it’s Claude, he leaned back and took his shoes off one by one before putting his hand around her. Just like that, they started swaying slowly, shoeless, one barefoot and the other with black socks on.

He caught Madeleine giving him a questioning look and told her as he led her away from his shoes lying beside them.

“Don’t want to hurt your feet.”

Her mouth formed an ‘o’, understanding dawning on her when she glanced down at her feet.

“Ah, right. I forgot I’m barefoot,” she chuckled embarrassedly. “And here I thought you felt left out.”

Madeleine joked as an attempt to cover up her the beating of her heart, a direct result from his gentleman act. Claude only responded with a sarcastic eye roll before scoffing, albeit jokingly. She’s elated that he’s playing along.

“Excuse me, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have done this, for I find it awful getting my feet filthy from the dirt. It’s an unpleasant feeling.”

Madeleine knew he was bantering with her but she felt herself getting fuzzy on the inside from the fact he’s doing this for her. She beamed at him, blinding him.

“How sweet and endearing of you,” she leaned her face closer to him, her nose almost touching against his. Her lashes fluttered as she gazed at him, a teasing glint in her eyes. “I appreciate it very much.”

‘Oh…’

Claude gulped at both her teasing expression and tone before he broke eye contact, his face turned away to hide the redness his face was sporting. If only she knew the effect she has on him. What used to be his blood boiling, now he felt the rush of blood pumping through his whole body and the sensation of him being set on fire. The rush of hormones he got whenever he saw her would send his heart racing.

And now she hit him with an expression like that and when she’s so close to him? If he didn’t break the eye contact, Claude was sure that he wouldn’t keep his desire at bay, causing him to give in to his urges.

“I-It’s nothing… D-do you mind moving your face away? … A-Are you fine with no music?” the steward stuttered on his reply. He tried to be firm but his throat had suddenly stopped working from its dryness.

‘Damn it.’

On the opposite end, Madeleine was overcome with satisfaction as she continued studying him after leaning back again, a smug look visible on her face.

“How cute,” she cooed. “And yes. Doesn’t matter if there was music as long as I have a cute and wonderful dancing partner like you.”

“Stop that.”

“But it’s cute seeing you all flustered, Master Claude. It’s not often you see the serious head steward of Philip looking like this, flustered and bothered.” Madeleine purposely emphasized his title and the last word, the word rolling her tongue off slowly, hoping the innuendo would reach him.

And oh boy it sure did. The dual meaning didn’t disappear on him. Immediately he faced her, halting all movements and thus their dance, the pupils in his eyes were already dilated as soon their eyes connected again. Madeleine stifled another gasp as she no longer could see the blue color in his eyes. His eyes were completely dark with what she hoped was want. His depths held so much fervor, she couldn’t take her eyes away from them. All she could do was wait, and she subconsciously licked her lips from the anticipation and excitement she felt.

The small action caused Claude’s eyes to glance on her lips, and with his mind so clouded with lust, her lips appeared even more luscious. More kissable.

‘This woman…’

He gripped her hips, tugging her body closer to him until their chests were touching, with her hands now on his chest. All the gentleness he possessed in his previous actions was absent.

“You,” he growled. Shivers of pleasure went down Madeleine’s spine at his voice, which now had a deep and husky quality to it. “You truly are a wicked woman, a temptress.”

“Why thank you. I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“You think you’re so cheeky aren’t you?” He hissed, his eyes darkening even more at her smart-ass comment. “You really drive me nuts with your smart mouth and your maddening attitude, yet you somehow manage to sneak yourself into my mind and occupy it…”

The sexual tension was palpable in the air between them as they continued to stare, with the desire throbbing and coursing through their veins, the want and lust reflected both reflected in one another’s eyes. They could feel their hearts pounding against their chests, their breaths intermingling and brushing across one another’s face.

“Tell me, Madeleine? How were you able to do that?”

‘How was it possible for you to get pass through my defenses? How were you able to make my blood boil yet at the same time still make me think of you? You have the ability to drive me up against the wall and ignite my loins, my whole body on fire.’

Madeleine kept silent, both her mouth and mind refused to work. Even if they could, she wouldn’t know what to say. She didn’t expect that she had an effect on him to that extent. She assumed she failed.

“I… have no idea. I didn’t do anything special besides being myself?”

She really was telling the truth. Aside from dressing up to catch his attention (not sure if it worked or not), she was herself all throughout the stay. Sharp-tongued and clumsy.

One of Claude’s eyebrows arched at my response. “You don’t know? You didn’t plan all of this?”

“I didn’t… I don’t know,” her whole body quivered at the commanding tone. A tsk sound escaped from his mouth as he gritted his teeth.

“Well, either way, you did this to me and you’re going to feel the consequences.”

Claude grabbed the back of Madeleine’s neck while his other hand tightened his hold on her hips. She held her breath when he redirected his darkened eyes onto her lips, eliciting a soft wanton whimper from her.

‘What a sweet sound.’

The whimper triggered something carnal in Claude causing him to growl and dive in with much urgency. Her heart thumped so hard as she saw his face, his lips getting closer to hers.

Before his lips could even touch hers….

“Master Claude?”

… An alert, followed by a male voice from his walkie talkie resounded throughout the garden, causing both of them to stiffen, with Claude halting his movement. He pulled back with an annoyed groan before pulling the walkie talkie from the back pocket. He turned on the speaker, only to raise his voice. He was this close to kissing those lips, so obviously, he was irritated. Even though he moved away from her to take up the call, hearing the icy and angry tone in his voice, a tiny part of Madeleine felt bad for the person on the other hand, but the rest, well… Let’s just say they saw it coming.

‘Really?’ Madeleine complained internally. ‘Seriously? This happens every time he’s about to kiss me! Look at me now, I am completely sexually frustrated!’

She really was. She could feel her lady friend throbbing down there, the lust and adrenaline still coursing through her veins.

While standing awkwardly there, waiting for Claude to finish talking with the male staff on the speaker, she let out an exasperated sigh. Now with the moment broken, there was no chance they would go back to where they left off. He’s not going to kiss her.

“Got it. I will be there,” he turned off the speaker, putting the walkie talkie back to his pocket before facing me. Just like me, he appeared awkward too. After all, we were in an intimate position, about to kiss, and the atmosphere was charged with sexual tension. It took him some time for his eyes to meet mine and level his voice into something more stable.

“I need to go... A problem came up when I was gone,” he frowned. “It appears to be I have lost track of time.”

She knew his duties as a butler was important to him, so she didn’t protest. Instead, she nodded in understanding, giving him a small smile, albeit sad and disappointed. She was sad that this ended so abruptly… Nevertheless, she enjoyed the time she spent with him.

“That’s alright, don’t want to delay you any further with your job,” she reassured him, trying to sound nonchalant as possible as an attempt to cover up her frustrations. However…

‘I already did some brave acts earlier, maybe I can do this one? He didn’t get to kiss me… So maybe...’

With her mind settled, she made her way to the steward as he went to grab and put on his shoes, and he was a bit taken back when he stood upright to see her in front of him.

“Yes?” he gave her a quizzical look, only to which she responded with a shy smile.

‘But her eyes hold some mischief within them?’

Before he could even open his mouth, asking her what she’s going to do, she grabbed onto the lapels of his tailcoat, causing him to bend down to her, their faces now closer and more leveled to each other.

‘Huh?!’

“I had a wonderful time dancing with you, so thank you. Thank you for making my night.”

Claude didn’t have time to process what she said when he saw her face moving quickly towards him and soon felt her lips pressed against his left cheek. The kiss was brief but it still, along with the sensuous tone she used brought a huge surge of emotions through him. Immediately, the want reignited in him.

She then pulled back, chuckling softly at the wide-eyed head steward, whose hand immediately flew up to his cheek, to where he felt her lips. The sensation still lingered…

While he stood here still in shock, Madeleine picked up her heels and walked back to the Chateau after giving him one last mischievous smile. “Good night, Claude. Sweet dreams.”

And just like that, she disappeared inside, leaving him very conflicted and frustrated, his hand still holding onto his cheek. But most important of all...

’What did I bring myself into… What have I done...’

He lowered his eyes to his now painfully tight pants and swore at his awful predicament.

‘Now, how am I going to hide this?’

•••
Bonus Excerpt

“Wilfred! Where are we going? You can’t just leave your own birthday party!” Danielle protested.

The prince in question who has his hand wrapped around hers, continued to jog, while she tried to keep up with him. Danielle was starting to feel nervous. Not only they escaped the party, the prince’s own party, she also had no idea where he was taking her! He only told her to follow him and she did!

“Wilfred?”

Danielle really didn’t want to get caught and scolded by Claude. She lost the number of times before the engagement and now of her getting chewed out by the head steward. Just recalling his fierce disapproving glare and his deep frown brought shivers of fear throughout her body.

On the other hand….

Danielle glanced at her fiance, scrunching her face in concentration.

Wilfred didn’t care about Claude getting mad at him. Or more like he got used to it.

Throughout the whole way, Wilfred said nothing. Besides dispelling Danielle’s worries from time to time, he mostly kept quiet as he led her along familiar path…

It was the same path a noble lady and the head steward had used earlier.

It’s not an everyday occurrence Wilfred got to experience Claude being MIA. He was nowhere to be found when both Danielle and the prince were still inside the ballroom. Hence, that’s why he was taking advantage of it, taking his partner to the garden they always go and spend some quality time alone, away from the eyes of other people.

When the couple finally reached their destination and Wilfred was about to step into the garden, he heard two voices inside. He immediately hid behind a bush that overlooked the area of the garden. Danielle, who had no idea why her fiance is hiding behind some bushes yet still followed him, opened her mouth.

“Wil-”

She didn’t even his name when his hand flew over her mouth, muffling her voice. “Shh… Someone... More specifically a couple is at our special spot.”

‘What? Why do we still have to hide then?’ That’s the question Danielle wanted to ask.

The prince placed his other hand behind his ear to listen into the conversation.

‘Isn’t this too much, Wilfred?’

Danielle tried to pull his hand off from her mouth, wanting to speak out her opinion, but to no avail. This was getting ridiculous!

“Don’t want to hurt your feet.”

“Ah right. I forgot I’m barefoot…”

Wilfred’s forehead creased at the familiar voices.

‘Wait, why do they sound familiar... like …. Claude and Madeleine…’

‘Oh!’

Wilfred peeked out from behind to bush, to see indeed the voices belonged to Claude and Madeleine. However, what really stunned him the most, was the intimate dancing position they were in and the way they were looking at one another as they chatted and joked. It was affectionate and tender. He glanced down to their feet and what he found…

What he found was probably the most amusing, strangest thing he ever witnessed. They were dancing without shoes. His steward only had black socks on while Madeleine went barefoot.

‘Claude not wearing shoes outside. That is a first. I know he hates getting his feet and socks dirty, so to see him like this…. Amazing.’

He turned back to Danielle, a huge grin on his face. He took his hand away from her. Immediately, she threw a piece of her mind.

“Wilfred,” she whispered harshly, her annoyance evident. “What on earth are we doing! This isn’t right listening to a couple.” At the word couple, the prince’s face transformed, now sporting a mischievous expression.

“Oh Danielle, this isn’t any other couple.”

“What. What do you mean by that?”

Wilfred gave no further explanation besides nodding his head towards the garden. “Why don’t you take a peek? Once you see it, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.”

She huffed.

“Fine,” Danielle crawled passed him and peeked from the bushes, her eyes bugged out and jaw slacked as soon realization hit that the couple was Claude and Ms. Madeleine. She whipped her head around to Wilfred, appearing even smugger.

“See?”

“That’s Claude and Ms. Madeleine!” she whisper-shouted.

“Indeed. Interesting isn’t it?”

“Why does it feel like you know about this?”

“Because I do know.”

“Does this mean they-”

Wilfred shook his head.

“No, they’re not. Although you can tell they attracted to one another.”

“From the way, they’re dancing and looking all lovey-dovey at each other, yeah! How come it is only now that I know about this?” Danielle pouted cutely at him, to only which Wilfred smiled tenderly at her, finding her adorable.

“That’s because you, my love, have your nose--,” he playfully tapped her button nose, causing her to scrunch it. “--deep in your work. If you took a break once in a while and take a walk around the Chateau, you probably would’ve noticed.”

“You’re right, I will do that. Besides, after seeing this, now I am highly interested in them,” Danielle playfully grinned.

“So am I. When they do get together, we’ll become their number one supporters. Can you imagine what their reactions would be?” Wilfred snickered, as he tried to imagine Madeleine shouting at him from embarrassment. On the opposite hand, Danielle could only picture Claude glaring at her, bringing another wave of fear.

“Oh boy, I can,” she shuddered. Once their soft laughter died down, the prince offered his hand to her, sporting his usual gentle smile.

“Now, shall we go and leave these two lovebirds alone?”

Danielle returned his with one of her warm ones, the smile the prince loved, before putting her hand onto his. “We shall.”

Soon, they both got up and tiptoed back to the Chateau with their hands joined together, trying to make as little noise as possible. Once they were at a reasonable distance, Wilfred turned to Danielle.

“Did you see their feet? They weren’t wearing any shoes while dancing!”

She thought about it first. “If you think about it, you’re right! They weren’t wearing any. That was so odd… Especially from Claude. He’s always so serious and proper, perhaps Ms. Madeleine is good for him?”

“Certainly, she is good for him. In fact, they’re actually perfect for each other.”

The royal couple beamed to one another before walking their way back to the party.

Pushing the shoes or no shoes while dancing aside, Wilfred was thrilled at the progress between Claude and Madeleine. Later into the future, he was sure, that they will confess to one another and get together. He didn’t know when that will happen, but he’s sure this will happen.

After seeing that odd (The shoe thing? Yes, it’s still weird to him) romantic spectacle in the garden, Wilfred couldn’t wait to tease both of them the next day.

Chapter Text

6th of April
Guest Room
7.30 am

Remember the second time Claude and I had a moment and he was about to kiss me? And by that, I meant yesterday?

Yes? Alright.

Now, do you remember the predicament I was left from what that damn walkie talkie had done? Because I sure did remember very vividly. When I left him in the garden (with him probably in the same difficult situation), it felt as if my body was set on fire, my skin was flushed and sweaty from the desire and adrenaline. It felt as if there was an itch that needs to be desperately scratched, but I was unable to find it. And let’s not forget about my friend downstairs, who also didn’t fare well from our time with him. I decided to forego returning back to the party, seeing my condition was, in Claude’s words, improper.

It was a good decision, really. If I had gone back to the party, I would’ve just made an embarrassment of myself, not because from the way I looked, but because my friend down there was throbbing so goddamn hard it’s getting in the way of me thinking and functioning properly. In addition to that, my mind still is clouded with lust for the man, that I’m tempted to stomp my way back to him, grabbed him and kiss the life out of him, running my hands over his body. So, yes you can say I was severely sexually frustrated.

My journey back to the guest room was uncomfortable with my nether region throbbing every time I recalled the way he gazed at me. My insides would clench onto nothing, probably thinking it was something else.

I desperately needed something to get off.

And thank God, I brought the vibrator Anna gifted with me. Just using only my fingers would not be sufficient at that time. Once I arrived at my room, I immediately locked the doors and stormed to my suitcase. My hands were trembling but somehow I was able to grab the unused vibrator and put some batteries inside it. With the working sex toy at hand, I wobbled to the bathroom, slamming the door in the process to do serious business...

●●●
Flashback to last night

At a speed of light, I got rid of my clothes and pieces of jewelry, with the dress lying messily on the floor while the diamond necklace carelessly placed onto the countertop sink. For now, I couldn’t care less at how they’re being placed, as I was too preoccupied in getting rid of this frustrating itch.

Somehow I was able to zip down my dress in less than a minute and let me tell you, that was a rare occasion. You know why? Just like getting in, I also suck at getting myself out from evening dresses. I always ended up getting the zipper stuck or accidentally making a tear from tugging it too hard.

Anyways… Going back to the current situation.

Once the dress was off me, I turned on the faucet of the bathtub and made adjustments to the temperature of the water. A stream of water from the faucet started pouring and filling the tub to the brim at a fast rate. While then, I unclipped my bra and yanked down my slightly damped thong before they joined the dress on the floor, and also cleaned the toy with some alcohol (stay safe ladies). When I finally deemed the level and the temperature of the water good enough, I shut the faucet off before going in the tub with the vibrator in hand. The water sloshing back and forth around me as my butt finally resides on the bottom of the tub.

Now, about that vibrator…

I studied the pink vibrator. It’s not too thick or too slim, I guessed Anna picked the size in my consideration since I haven’t gotten any uh action down there for a while. By awhile I meant more than a year. The toy’s body was curved and had two heads that were subtly pointed, although one was shorter, so I could only assume the longer one was for vaginal penetration and g-spot stimulation and the other one was for clitoral stimulation. Well, the box did say the product is named something along the lines of ‘Dual Action’. There were two buttons. I could assume one was for increasing the intensity of the vibration and the other was the power button (boy I was wrong).

How times have changed. Compared to my old magic wand vibrator I purchased when I was in university, this one was sleek and advanced. It’s also super safe as it appeared to be made with silicone.

But because it looked so different, it’s a bit daunting, having no idea how I will use it properly… Also a bit nervous as it had been a while since I inserted something there.

Just take it slow, Madeleine. You can do it. Besides, you’re horny as hell…

I gave myself a pep talk, trying to qualm my worries and doubt. If I stop myself, then how am I supposed to know how to use it, right?

I pressed the toy’s lower button, bringing it to life. Immediately, the toy started vibrating on the lowest level and yet it still caused a tremor throughout my body, which at the moment was really sensitive.

Hmm… Maybe I should start with my fingers first? That way, it’ll be less intimidating and allow slowly get me back into the groove of this? Okay, let’s do this.

I turned off the toy before placing it onto the shelf beside the tub. tried to conjure up an image of the head steward. Instead of the garden, I imagined him in this very room with him trapping me against the wall. He had his arms gripping my hips so tightly as he tugged me closer to him. His gaze locked onto mine. His once blue eyes had darkened and are clouded with lust and his mouth set into a hard line.

“You really are a minx aren’t you?” Claude leaned closer, murmuring into my ears. “Trying to make my blood boil with all your sarcastic retorts… Tempting me into wanting you all to myself every time you look at me like that..”

I trailed my fingers into the water, down my body, slowly leaving behind a path of goosebumps as I let out a whimper at the image.

“The disrespect that comes out from this sinful lips,” his finger traced my lips so sensually, smearing the lipstick on it. “I ought to punish you for being a smart mouth.”

My fingers continued its journey down, passing my hips, and finally reaching my nether region. Spreading my legs as much the tub allowed it, I delved between the folds before experimentally sliding my fingers across the slit, spreading the slickness around. While the entrance was getting taken care of, I used the pad of my thumb to gently brush my now swollen and sensitive clit, eliciting a loud gasp from me as my nerves came alive, my toes curling in the process.

“Let’s not forget your eyes. You think you’re so subtle, but I didn’t miss the way you study me when you think I am not looking…” His head leaned into my ear, his hot breath caressing it before licking its outer shell. “So hungry, so much desire in them. Making me lose all my concentration… You want that do you? To lose my cool during my job and devour you here and there?”

A moan passed by my lips, imagining him growling so huskily as my fingers rubbed my clit, getting rougher and faster each time. As a result, the warm water too sloshed along more violently.

“Nngh...Claude…”

My breasts rose and fell with deep heavy breaths, synchronizing with the quick movement of my hand. I circled, pressed, and pinched my nub, causing my nether region to clench and unclench on nothing, my body arching from the jolt of pleasure. I could feel myself pushing out more fluid, mixing with the lukewarm water. If I wasn’t masturbating in the water, my whole pussy would probably look downright drenched.

“God, you look divine…” Claude groaned the sound was muffled as he left kisses and bites against your skin on your neck. He continued to leave behind a trail of sensitive red love bites, reaching my bare breasts. He leaned back to get a full look of them before his hungry eyes zoomed in on my nipples, pupils dilating even more. My nipples hardened into pebbles at the gaze while a shiver traveled down my back. “Can’t believe these were hiding from me, look at these pretty breasts…”

“Fuck!”

I wished those marks were real. God, that would be so hot.

I imagined his hand when I led mine to my breasts, fingers tracing the swell of them before cupping and squeezing both of them, one at a time, my palm brushing against my nipples. I could feel them hardening into pebbles under my palm as I continued to keep playing, all the whines that escaped me were uncontrollable, needy, and loud now.

“And these perky pink nipples… How cute,” he cooed.

I pressed one index finger onto one of them, before rubbing it in circles, at a slow yet sensual pace.

“Looks like they’re already hard for me.” A ripple of pleasure robbed me of my thoughts when I roughly pinched the peak between the pads of my thumb and index. I wasn’t sure if it was possible for it to look that pointy, but here it is. I then did the same treatment to the other one as I still maintained rubbing my entrance and clit. My body arched as the rush of pleasure traveled through all parts of my body, my head falling back against the tub.

“Aah…”

Slowly he lowered his body down mine, feeling his nose brushing against my skin… When he finally reached down there, coming face to face with my pussy, sinfully soaked with my arousal, another moan escaped me as I clenched. He growled hungrily after wetting his lips with his tongue as if what he saw was his meal. “So pink and pretty. Not only that, you’re already so wet for me, a soaking glistening mess.”

Thinking I’m already lubricated enough, I inserted one finger into my entrance, wishing it was the butler’s long dainty fingers. Despite the tightness, my finger easily slid in deeper… I must have been so wet.

However, it really felt so foreign to feel something inside, filling me. It really has been a long time since another person or my fingers did that.

He took his finger out before raising it up to see my arousal coating it reflects against the light. “What a good girl, taking all my finger in… Look how much you slick you produced despite me barely doing anything..” With a devilish smirk on his face, he took his finger into his mouth, sucking on it with such eagerness before a delicious groan tumbled out. “You taste so sweet. I could eat this forever and still crave more.”

Visualizing this made my walls clamper around my finger, making it difficult for it to thrust deeper. I could feel my walls throbbing against my finger as I twist and wiggle, trying to navigate my way around and see what I like.

And just like that, I brushed against my sweet spot. My body jerked as a spark of pleasure shot into my lower abdomen.

“Oh my God… Yes… More!” I panted, my voice sounded breathless. My mind blanked out and all I could think about is wanting more. I wanted to feel his fingers inside me, stretching me, touching my g-spot, making me tremble. I wanted him to make my body ache for him, begging for him to fill me up with his …

“You can take one more, right my Lady? Two is always better than one.”

“Ah!” A second finger joined the first, inching inside, and my body writhed as I felt the foreign stretch. They twisted, curled, they stroked my inner walls, causing me to buck up my hips.

They pumped in and out of me as my other fingers continued their ministration on my breasts and my nub, not giving a care about the noises I made were increasing in volume and tumbling so carelessly.

Claude positioned his mouth closer to my drenched pussy, admiring the slickness spread around the folds and inside it, my clit looking enlarged and up for attention, his hot breath washing over them. He used his fingers to part the folds apart.

“And now for the main course.” He did an experimental lick against the slit, before he burrowed his face, sliding his hot tongue inside me. He let out his own moan at how wet and sweet I taste as he pumped his tongue in and out with so much fervor. “It tastes even better coming right from the source.”

The vibrations traveled around my lower region, causing the muscles in your legs to tense. I was tempted to press my legs together from the overwhelming stimulation, but it was only then I felt him rubbing his nose against my clit getting a bigger response out of me. I let out the loudest neediest whine while I raised my hips, allowing his tongue to penetrate deeper. The movement of his tongue created a squelching sound and if it weren’t for my preoccupied mind, I would’ve been so scandalized at the fact that lewd noise came from me.

I pretended my fingers angling towards my g-spot and stroking it vigorously were his tongue instead and as my body convulses with my eyes rolling back into my head, I could feel myself reaching my climax. The heat in my belly began to grow into a full-on fire and it was only a matter of time, the flames would consume her whole.

“You’re going to be a good lady and cum for me?” His deep voice sent vibrations to my insides, making me utter a cry, my legs shaking.

When I believed I was nearing the edge, I halted all movements, pulling my fingers out with a needy whine before grabbing the vibrator back with a shaky hand and turn it on to the lowest setting. I dunked the toy into the water, placing the shorter head onto my clit, giving a dull throb of pleasure. Soon after, the longer head brushed against the entrance, the vibration jerking me a bit, before slowly sinking it inside.

My breath sharply hitched at the size as it stretched my walls. It was much thicker than both the fingers I used earlier and the feeling of the material felt so odd against her insides… When I finally adjusted to the size and the material, I started moving it deeper, trying to twist it around against my snug walls to find the g-spot. Once I found it, I increased the settings and pumped the toy such that it would hit the spot every time.

My moans got shamelessly louder, calling and whining for Claude, yearning for his presence. With the continuous intense vibrations bringing me even closer and closer to the edge, I quickened my attack on my nipples, pinching them, tweaking them, scraping the points with my nails, picturing it was his teeth the ones grazing them.

The pressure that built over time at the pit of my stomach was starting to get uncomfortably too much as I continued to ram the vibrator with so much speed and force, nailing that same spot with perfect precision. It registered in my melted brain, that not only would this leave me unsteady on my legs, but my hands would probably be sore for the night.

But was it worth it? If that means I could sleep peacefully later without thinking how about I want that goddamn insufferably steward to dick me down, then yes. Yes, it was worth it.

Now that I was on the very edge of the cliff, I needed something to push me into orgasm.

And envisioning Claude making the most debauched sound with his skillful mouth as he wrapped his lips around my clit, really did the trick.

“Cum for me, my Lady.”

Pushing down the vibrating toy’s head against my overstimulated nub, the dam within me finally broke, uncontrollably releasing waves of my fluid while my body stiffened. Once I came down from the intense orgasm, all my legs and hands refused to function, with them laying so limply. It’s as if my nerves stopped responding. I exhaustedly withdrew the vibrator from my pussy causing me to flinch at the sensitivity. The sudden emptiness too was weird, leaving the inner walls to clamp together a couple of times. I rested my head against the tub with my mouth open, inhaling as much air possible to get my labored breathing back to normal.

For the next few minutes, I sat in the bathtub not doing anything besides staring at the ceiling above. My body was still not cooperating with me, besides the occasional twitches, so here I was stuck with my thoughts.

And really, with my mind still so disoriented from the stimulation overdrive, all I could think of was this:

Holy fuck.

Holy fuck.

Jesus, I honestly forgot how intense orgasms can be… But then the feeling you get after it… It’s just pure bliss. You just feel so relaxed and light afterward, as if you’re made from clouds.

“Oh gosh,” I murmured to myself, a bit amazed. “That was… wow. I made so many noises too.”

The second I said the last word, it finally registered that besides making so many noises, these noises were loud too.

Oh no.

The embarrassment and anxiety started pooling inside me as I freaked out.

What if someone heard it? I don’t think this room is soundproof. Oh god. If someone heard it and inform Claude, I’m literally never going to show my face in front of him. That would be so humiliating! How am I supposed to explain the reason behind me calling out his name so many times and also late at night? That just doesn’t sound innocent at all!

And before I could panic even further, I was suddenly hit with dizziness out of nowhere, my head feeling a bit heavy. I guessed I have been in the tub for so long, that the water was now a bit chilly. To get a fever from staying too long in the water seems pathetic if someone happened to hear it, so I forced myself to move and get out of the tub with the vibrator before quickly cleaning myself up in the shower. Once I’m in my nightgown and finished with my night routine, I wobbled my way out, my nether region still feeling sensitive, from the bathroom to the bedroom. My pieces of clothing were still on the floor, along with the jewelry and the toy, but they could wait ‘til the morning. It’s not like anyone would see it, right?

Finally settled on the bed, the exhaustion from previous activities and the drowsiness started setting in, and before I knew it, my eyes drooped to a close as sleep enveloped me.

●●●

So yea, basically that’s how last night ended. It really did end with a big bang, and by “big bang” I meant having a masturbation session and a full-on intense orgasm all thanks to the one and only Claude.

With the charged sexual tension that occurred last night, it was bound to happen. But as I said before, despite my hands being sore from the activities, it was worth it.

Why? I woke up feeling light and refreshed, ready to take on the day.

No one can ruin my good mood.

As I’m about to rise up from my bed, stretching my limbs, I heard a couple of knocks on the door before my name being called.

At that time, I was a hundred percent sure my brain wasn’t fully functioning because it didn’t cross my mind that the voice didn’t belong to Sophie or the fact it sounded masculine. As a result, I didn’t get a robe to cover myself up nor tidy up the mess in the bathroom with the vibrator just sitting there on the sink…

“Coming,” I walked to the door, rubbing the drowsiness from my eyes before pulling it wide open.

“Oh!”

Standing in front of me wasn’t Sophie, who I thought was in front of the door. But no.

It was Claude.

For a long ten seconds, I only stared at the man, my eyes wide and unblinking from shock. All the drowsiness that clouded my eyes and mind disappeared in a snap of a finger.

He, on the other hand, creased his forehead seeing my reaction before appearing stony as usual. He was about to speak but as soon he briefly lowered down his eyes to realize how underdressed I was, his eyes bugged out, the words from his mouth coming out like a broken stammer.

“And Good Morning to you, Lady-Lady Madeleine?! W-what in the—You-You’re indecent! Do y-yourself a favor and cover y-yourself u-up!” Claude snapped, his whole face completely red and mortified as he looked away.

If you want to know, I was only in a pretty short sleeveless nightgown (but very comfortable) that only came down to my thighs. The fabric was also thin and I wasn’t wearing a bra under, so… you get the gist.

Immediately at his raised voice, I broke off my stare, rushing to cover my chest with both arms while grabbing a robe off a chair to put on. Once the front is covered and sash is tied, I told the butler.

“You can look now…”

I only gave the steward a sheepish grin when he turned to me again, his frown very prominent on his still flustered face.

“That was very indecent Lady Madeleine,” he grumbled after awkwardly clearing his throat. “Please see that you cover yourself up the next time. Who knows next time it wouldn’t be me.”

“Ah yeah, sorry about that. I assumed it was Sophie behind the door.”

“Even though you heard the voice, you still think it’s her?”

“I… My mind wasn’t fully operational, okay? I just woke up.”

His face may show disapproval, however, I saw a flash of amusement (and maybe fondness?) in his eyes as he shook his head at me looking all sulky while whining.

“No tea?” I asked after observing that he has no tray at hand. Usually, he would bring freshly brewed tea almost every morning. From the remorseful frown, I could tell he wasn’t planning to.

I was really looking forward to that though…

“About that, His Highness ordered me to not brew anything.”

Seeing my surprised yet puzzled expression so evident, with my eyebrows drawn together, he quickly continued. “His Highness along with Lady Danielle has invited you to join them for afternoon tea in the Hydrangea Garden.”

I didn’t notice him stuttering on the last two words as I lit up with delight that he still would be brewing and serving me tea. “Wait does that still mean—?”

“Yes, I will be present to make and serve you tea, my Lady,” he confirmed. My face immediately broke into a huge grin, excitement filling me up. I didn’t care it had only been two days nor Wilfred and Danielle were going to be present, I still couldn’t wait to watch Claude again performing a task that he’s passionate about. I was sure if I could take a look at myself at this moment, my eyes were sparkling.

And from how taken aback the steward was at my reaction, I didn’t think he expected it, which was disheartening after what happened last night. He still didn’t believe that he’s someone special.

That will change.

“I’m thrilled! See you in the afternoon, Claude. Can’t wait to drink your seasonal tea blend!” Without giving him any time to register or respond to what I said, I hurriedly closed the door. I was about to squeal when I heard him speaking up again behind the door, his voice muffled.

“The afternoon tea will be at two in the afternoon. One of the maids will be at your door five minutes before to bring you there. Be sure to arrive on time.”

“Alright, can I request the maid to be Sophie?”

There was a brief silence before he finally responded.

“As you wish, Lady Madeleine.”

My ears picked up the sound of his footsteps moving further away until it no longer could be heard and immediately I leaped while squealing in excitement.

Not only I will be drinking his tea again, but I will also be with him! After last night, I can’t be any happier.

Knowing that I dashed to the closet, trying to pick out an impressive outfit for the occasion.

Yep, no one’s going to ruin my mood today.

●●●
1.55pm in the afternoon

As Claude said, someone was knocking on my door exactly five minutes before two.

“This is Sophie, Lady Madeleine. You requested me.”

I pulled the door open to see the little maid beaming at me. She had little pigtails on each side of her head, giving her a bright youthful look. She looked absolutely adorable.

“Good afternoon, Lady Madeleine!”

I returned her smile with one of my own, expressing the same feeling as her.

“Good afternoon to you too, Sophie.”

“Are you ready to go now? His Royal Highness and Lady Danielle are already at attendance.” I nodded.

“Yes, I’m ready. We should leave immediately. I don’t want to make them wait any longer.”

I shut the door behind me and just like that, we both started walking towards the destination. As we walked side by side with Sophie one or two steps ahead of me, she glanced at my attire before grinning at me.

“If you allow me, but you looked really amazing today.”

Aside from tidying the bathroom, picking up the clothes from the floor, putting my vibrator back to my suitcase, and eating meals brought to me, I spent the rest of my time on picking out a look that perhaps might or might not catch the steward’s attention. Honestly, I really didn’t know where I was getting so much confidence. Maybe from his reaction last night?

… But anyway, I decided on a powdered blue moab off-the-shoulder mini dress from marysia along with a pair of white leather slingback sandals and a white natural straw hat.

I mean you always do, but it feels like you put extra effort for today, and you also seem glowing.”

“Ah really? Hmm, I just think today’s going to be a good day. But regardless of that, thank you. You’re too kind.”

Do I really seem more cheerful today or in Sophie’s word, glowing? Well, last night ended so well, too well… Alone with him and then that. So who wouldn’t I be happy the next day?

“Something good happened with him yesterday, did it?” I glanced sideways to the maid, who was already looking up to me, her eyes glinting with playful mischief. My cheeks flushed rosy pink.

“You could say that… We might have had a moment.” Sophie hid her giggle behind her hand.

“Make sense why you’re glowing, Lady Madeleine.”

In spite of the bashfulness I was going under, I played along as I gently nudged her shoulder.

“Oh stop it, you! One day, you’re going to go through the same thing like me!”

“Okay, okay, if you say so.”

“You will.”

For the rest of the journey, we walked in a brief yet comfortable silence. It was only less than three minutes before we finally reached the entrance to the garden. At a distance, I saw Wilfred and Danielle seated inside the gazebo overlooking an open area. At the side, stood Claude.

… Wait.

This is the same garden as yesterday.

Wait, is that why Claude stuttered on “Hydrangea Garden” earlier? Because the afternoon tea will be here? The same place where we danced and about to kiss? It makes sense now! But then, wouldn’t this be awkward for both of us now?

As realization dawned on me, I shakily exhaled, which caught the maid’s eyes. Sophie sent me a concerned look as she saw my cheeks.

“Are you okay? ...You’re not ill, are you Lady Madeleine?”

“No…. Just,” I nervously gulped. “It’s just we were at this garden last night…”

Her mouth formed an ‘o’.

“Oh. I see now…”

“Yep…”

“Well, there’s His Royal Highness and Lady Danielle with you. If you keep talking with them, the thought will definitely slip off your mind?”

“Maybe… ”

Sophie only gave me a small reassuring smile after an anxious sigh escaped me. “You’ll do fine. Here.” Her hand dove into the front pocket of her apron before coming up with that familiar candy and transferring it onto my hand. “If you’re still feeling nervous.”

“How many sweets do you even have in that pocket of yours?” I stared at her in disbelief, to which she displayed a secretive grin.

“Enough. I still have plenty of stock of it in my room, so don’t worry about it. Anyways…” She glanced to the gazebo before resuming. “I’m going to leave you here now.”

By then both of us were already in view of the prince and Danielle, who were both waving at us with cheerful smiles on their faces. I faced the maid before bringing my hand onto her shoulder.

“Thanks for accompanying me, Sophie.”

“It’s no problem, have fun with the … Um, double date?” At her bold reply, my jaw dropped. She didn’t give time for me to respond as she quickly bowed and left, but I could hear her trying to muffle her laughter.

Since when did she get so brave? Oh well, at least she’s more comfortable around me now.

Soon after I recovered from her teasing remark, I shook my head from amusement as I watched her scuttle away back inside. I then made my way to the gazebo.

•••

“There you are, Madeleine! Good Afternoon,” the corners of Prince Wilfred’s lips raised up into an excited grin. Danielle also greeted me, also sharing the same excitement as the prince.

“Good Afternoon, Madeleine. We’re very glad that you can join us!”

“Good Afternoon Wilfred, Danielle. Thank you for inviting me.” Madeleine was about to pull a chair, but the head steward beat her to it.

“Let me, Lady Madeleine.”

“Oh.. thank you, Claude,” she sat down on the chair, smiling shyly with blush prominent on both cheeks, while the butler gently pushed the chair back, giving her a nod then going back to where he was. In the background, both Wilfred and Danielle discreetly gave each other knowing side glances.

“So,” Madeleine briefly gazed at the number of pastries prepared before glancing at the couple with curiosity. “What’s the special occasion for this afternoon tea?”

“Since you’re leaving tomorrow early in the morning, we, Danielle and I wanted to spend this afternoon with you,” Wilfred replied. The designer nodded in agreement, followed by an apologetic smile after.

“Yes! I thought this might be a good opportunity for us to bond. I apologize I didn’t talk to you so much during most of your stay.”

To be honest, while they really wanted to spend some time with the heiress, they actually invited her so they could tease both her and the head steward. The couple, especially Danielle, was very much interested in the interactions between the steward and the heiress.

Madeleine dismissed her apology with a wave, giving her an understanding smile. “Hey, you don’t need to apologize Danielle. I am pretty sure you’re busy with your job as a designer and let’s not forget you’re also learning to be a princess. You’re already a princess though, but you know what I mean.”

A flush crept up the designer’s face while her nose crinkled when I mentioned “princess”. Wilfred, on the other hand, has a soft and warm expression, his eyes filled with pride and love for her.

“Oh stop it you. I’m not a princess yet. I still have a long way to go.”

“Well, your Wilfred here think otherwise,” I teased, my eyes darting to the prince before going back to her again. Danielle followed my eyes only to see the prince’s tender gaze aimed at her, which only deepened her blush.

“Madeleine is right, you’re already a princess, my princess in my eyes.”

“Oh my God Wilfred, you’re so cheesy!”

“It is true.”

As the couple went back and forth, Madeleine could only sigh longingly at the sight, the corner of her lips quirked up. Claude who was silently observing the whole scene at the side, caught her sigh. He stared at her, puzzled and maybe a bit curious.

‘Could she perhaps ... want something like His Royal Highness and Lady Danielle has?’

As he watched the prince and the designer together, he felt a pang in his heart. Sure Wilfred’s corniness made him frown, but seeing them together, deeply in love with one another, dug out some painful and bitter memories of his past.

His ex-fiancé and he once were like that.

Who would have thought that his ex-fiancé would hurt him later? He really believed she loved him as much as he loved her. He believed they were content and happy with one another. That’s why it’s even more painful. The head steward didn’t expect it one bit.

Claude couldn’t help but allow his bitterness and pain to rise up in him watching His Royal Highness and Lady Danielle as the memories kept coming.

After that day, he promised himself he won’t let anyone get so close to his heart. He wouldn’t love another woman. Instead, he would dedicate his life in serving the royal family.

Even if he was already attracted to the woman, who’s also watching the couple, he couldn’t. It would stay as an attraction and nothing more. This feeling would pass.

‘But goddamn, this insufferable woman is making this difficult for me. With the stunt she pulled off last night, my thoughts of her are now more frequent. So full, it has been interfering with my focus on my work, my Master, and my place… And now she looks breathtakingly cute… Agh!’

He didn’t realize he was deep in thought with a very prominent frown on his face until Madeleine called his name, trying to catch his attention.

There was no response.

“Claude?”

Despite him being in the background, Madeleine could catch his expression from afar. It wasn’t his usual stony one, but it was the same dark painful expression she seen in the multipurpose room, although she sensed a tinge of bitterness. His eyes are solely focused on the couple between them.

‘Doesn’t matter if this is his master and his fiancé, perhaps witnessing something like this would leave an awful aftertaste for someone like Claude… A bittersweet reminder of what he used to have…’

“Claude?” Madeleine tried again. This time, her call caught his attention, finally pulling him out from his thoughts. The head steward whipped his head to her. The heiress’ forehead creased, concern etched on her features. “Are you alright?”

The call had also caught the attention of his master and the designer, both of them also turned to him, feeling the same sentiment as Madeleine.

‘Ah shit, got caught up in my thoughts and emotions… This happens so often whenever I see two people together. How unprofessional to behave like this while serving...’

No time to be embarrassed, the steward immediately stood upright while masking his face to a blank expression. It was soon followed by a deep formal bow with his hand placed on his chest.

“I apologize for the blunder, Your Royal Highness, Lady Danielle, Lady Madeleine. It won’t happen again.”

Madeleine tried to stop herself from frowning at his response.

‘He didn’t answer my question… Oh Claude…’

“That’s alright, Claude,” Wilfred dismissed the steward’s apology by a wave of a hand. “I’m not angry over something like that. We all have those days.”

The butler wanted to disagree, arguing that it shouldn’t be tolerated, especially for someone who served for more than ten years, but he decided to stay quiet. He didn’t need any further commotion.

It was fortunate Wilfred was an easy-going and a gentle person. He wasn’t the type of person who would get angry over the smallest things or mistakes. Besides, he saw Claude more than just his butler.

And speaking of that, since the prince saw him as both a friend and brother, Madeleine supposed she can tell the prince about the butler’s reaction to the couple’s display of affection later. She didn’t want to upset the happy couple by suggesting they shouldn’t show their display in front of the butler. She knew Claude’s supposed to tolerate it, but she couldn’t help but have this urge to tell the prince. Clearly, you could see that Claude’s affected by it. Just recalling his expression brought another heartache to Madeleine.

‘I hope Wilfred and Danielle will understand my concern. For now, I am going to try to divert Claude’s attention onto something else so he won’t think anymore of his past.’

“Oh, I’m thirsty,” I spoke up. “Claude, do you mind brewing one of your tea blends for me?”

The sudden request from the heiress had caught the butler by surprise but he soon recovered, going straight to work in brewing her tea.

“As you wish, Lady Madeleine.”

For the next few minutes, all the heiress’ attention was on Claude preparing the tea, observing with so much awe. It still didn’t cease to amaze her how graceful he looked when he’s just pouring piping hot water into a cup and steeping the tea. He’s so attentive to details and focused, and that’s how she knew he loves what he’s doing.

‘He made everything look so easy when it’s nothing like that. It takes so much practice and skill.’

Was it possible for a person to grow more fond of someone just by watching them work? Was it possible for Madeleine feel even more attracted to Claude just by seeing him in his element? And this isn’t only physical attraction she was talking about. She was also talking about emotional attraction. She could sense her feelings for him getting stronger and much harder to control, to be kept inside. And after last night, those feelings intensified by a huge amount. She hoped that the connection she felt last night was also felt by the steward. She prayed she isn’t alone with these feelings.

An involuntary and not to mention a dreamy sigh escaped Madeleine’s lips, so taken at the sight of the steward smoothly working. She didn’t even notice Wilfred and Danielle observing her, both sending each other knowing smiles from time to time.

The royal designer leaned into the prince.

“Okay, when you told me she likes him, I didn’t know it was to this extent. Wilfred, she’s practically heart-eyed for him,” Danielle whispered softly into his ears. The prince only chuckled at her comment.

“But it’s endearing, isn't it?”

“Yes. Yes, it is really cute. It reminds me of the time before we’re engaged when I admire you eating.”

“Really? You like seeing me eat? What’s so special about me eating?”

“Well, I mean… You just look elegant… No, I am not going to explain now. Now hush, I want to see this unfolds. I want to see his reaction when he sees her like that.”

The butler, too focused on preparing the tea, also paid no attention to the fact a certain heiress was observing him with warmth and admiration in her eyes. So when he was finally done with her tea, he poured the tea into her teacup and was about to offer her it.

“Your tea is done, Lady Madeleine. I have brewed you mint and ginger gree-,” Claude abruptly stopped speaking as he finally raised his eyes, only for them to meet hers by accident. He sharply sucked in his breath at the emotions residing within her depths. His heart started to pound against his chest.

‘This is like a scene straight up from a popular romantic movie,’ Danielle mused, feeling entertained at the sight. ‘And we’re just the audience on the front row. All we need is some popcorn. Jesus, the tension is thick.’

“M-My Lady… ?” Claude’s whole face had flushed red. He was unable to tell her off like he used to. Not just because his master was present but because the look Madeleine gave him left him feeling all sorts of emotions that he went speechless. He was flustered but most of all he was confused and conflicted. Why would she look at him like that? Full of adoration and awe… What did he do to deserve that?

“L-Lady Madeleine... Y-Your t-tea is ready…” The head steward stuttered awkwardly. When he turned his face away, her expression becoming too much for him and his heart, Madeleine woke up from a trance. Maybe she watched him too deeply…

“Huh? What…?” The heiress asked, feeling a bit dazed.

“Your tea, Madeleine,” Wilfred answered for the flustered butler. She turned to the prince only to see him displaying a full-on smirk.

‘Oh no, I have a bad feeling about this. He’s going to say something teasing.’

“I must say, Madeleine, you had quite a passionate staring session. Do you enjoy watching Claude prepare tea?”

Danielle covered her mouth with her hand to muffle her laughter.

‘What is this call out?’

Wilfred’s teasing resulted in the heiress letting out a couple of gibberish noises when all she wanted was to make a retort. It’s like her mouth refused to cooperate in forming a coherent sentence. So there she was, gaping at the prince with her whole face flushed crimson from embarrassment. She actually almost resembled a goldfish. Not to mention, the heiress wasn’t the only one who has been affected by the prince’s teasing. Claude who still didn’t recover yet, flushed even redder, the color now rushing to his neck.

It was a really amusing scene for the couple.

Finally, after a couple of seconds, Madeleine’s voice started working again, albeit breaking at some point and defended herself indignantly.

“Well, what’s wrong with watching him prepare tea? Like Claude, I have an interest in tea and its preparation. So, seeing him work was a pleasant experience. You could tell he had years of practice and knowledge under his belt. His techniques and skills are impeccable along with his fluid and graceful movements. It was truly an amazing performance, one that could rival a tea master.”

After my remark, silence had fallen upon us. Wilfred and Danielle stared at me, appearing a bit taken back, but Claude here… He was gawking at me, in utter astonishment, disbelief. The moment Madeleine defended herself and praised him, Claude whirled his head to her, with his slackened jaw, widened eyes, and eyebrows so raised up his forehead. He couldn’t believe what he’s hearing. He didn’t know the heiress held so highly of him in her eyes. Sure, he did get praises and compliments from the royal family, but their tone didn’t hold as much fierceness and conviction as hers did.

Not even his former fiance.

He felt as if she really did believe in his abilities. She appreciated and admired in what he does.

And that honestly, softened his closely guarded heart. It was becoming more difficult for him to stop his attraction towards her and to keep his promise to himself. How could he if she looks at him, think of him like that? In spite of all the jabs, they sent each other earlier, in spite of his coldness and his sharp tongue… How could she still see him that way?

‘How… Why?’

With his mind so preoccupied with the number of emotions going through, it was a miracle he was able to answer.

“I… Thank you… Lady Madeleine… for your words… It’s an honor, but I still have ways to go before I could reach the level of a tea master… I just enjoy making tea. That’s all...” Claude murmured timidly, his face resembling a tomato.

It still saddened her that he thought of himself like that. Call it humility but she wished he would have more pride and confidence in himself and his abilities because, with certainty, she believed he deserves it. He’s truly exceptional in what he does. For now, she’s not going to say anything as it will start a likely heated argument where neither of them will back down. Plus, there’s also the prince and his fiance present… Madeleine didn’t want to be rude, especially since she was invited.

‘Maybe in the future, if I ever get closer to him… or he opens up to me, I will try hard to make him see his worth.’

Madeleine shrugged, giving the butler a small smile.

“No problem. I am just telling the truth.”

She wondered if she went too far, considering the other two people with her were still staring at her, which now was making her flustered.

“Uh, may I have the tea now, Claude?”

“I, uh, yes… Here’s your tea, my Lady. It’s mint and ginger green tea,” the butler’s voice still held a tinge of awkwardness as he placed the filled teacup in front of me, along with a teaspoon. Did she see his hand trembling?

“Thank you.” In an instant, the heiress brought the teacup closer to her mouth. She gently blew the tea before taking a whiff of its aroma. She then took a sip. A pleasant smile formed on her lips as she approved of the taste. It was amazing. It tasted so different but refreshing. She turned her head to beam at the butler. “It tastes great as expected.”

Claude responded by bowing his head, his mouth curving into a small shy grin.

“Thank you, My Lady. I am pleased to hear that.”

‘What a cute sight. I wished he would just call me by my name only, but I know his job won’t allow it. If… If only…’

“Now,” Madeleine glanced, brows arched at the couple in front of her before continuing. “Are you going to keep gawking at me and make me uncomfortable?”

Immediately, they turned away while pretending to cough or clear their throat. Wilfred put on a sheepish smile. “We apologize for our reaction. Let’s just say we’re a bit surprised, that’s all.”

‘Wow, is it really that surprising? Did no one ever praise him like that?’

The heiress wanted to speak out her thoughts but chose not to. She instead gave a short reply before going back in sipping her tea.

“I see.”

There was an uncomfortable silence that enveloped the gazebo, and Wilfred wasn’t sure if he should ask the question, but then when will he ever get the chance to ask if not now? It was perfect. There are the heiress and his butler!

“So Madeleine,” Wilfred started, his voice calm and nonchalant as ever. Danielle knew what he was going to say and waited in anticipation, maybe a bit nervous after reading the atmosphere. At her name being called, Madeleine raised her eyes to glance at him as she held her teacup to her mouth, drinking the tea. “How did your dance with Claude shoeless go last night? In this garden?”

As soon as she finished processing his question, Madeleine choked on her drink, feeling the hot tea rising and going through her nose. She thumped her chest to get rid of the coughing. Claude on the side immediately stiffened in shock.

Seeing the heiress struggling, Danielle jumped into action, rushing to her side to pat her back. “Oh gosh, Madeleine are you alright?”

‘Maybe it would’ve been better if Wilfred waited for her to finish drinking…’

As Madeleine was trying to stop her coughing, the butler regained most of his composure before he sputtered out frantic apologies.

“Y-Your Royal Highness! I-I apologize for neglecting my d-duties! I lost—”

Wilfred interrupted him with a raise of his hand, a mischievous smile forming. “It’s fine, I didn’t really mind. It’s a party. It’s good to let loose right?”

The butler furrowed his eyebrows in disagreement. “But I am a head steward Your Highness, I was supposed to make sure—”

“Yes, yes I know that already but what you did is not a grave mistake. Far from that. I’m actually quite satisfied you did that.”

“What?”

‘What on earth is His Highness saying?’ Claude grumbled, feeling lost. ‘It’s a mistake I am not supposed to make! He’s supposed to be angry!’

Madeleine continued coughing but with the help of the designer, it receded quickly. She waved her hands frantically telling Danielle she’s fine now.

“I’m fine. I’m fine now,” she took a deep breath before glancing at the prince. There were confusion, embarrassment, and curiosity swimming in her brown eyes. “How… did you know about that? We didn’t hear you...”

“Danielle and I saw you when we wanted to go to this garden and then we hid behind some bushes near the entrance. That’s called being discreet, Madeleine. Something you still need to learn.”

“Oh… H-Hey!”

Wilfred ignored Madeleine and continued.

“We didn’t want to disturb your moment so we left and went somewhere else.”

Another silence followed. No one really, well Claude and Madeleine, had anything to say while the couple gazed at them, anticipating another response from either. Madeleine was quite flustered, her cheeks scarlet, that they had to see an intimate moment. Claude too also felt this way but it was also accompanied by guilt and confusion. He neglected his duties as a head steward during a special event. That shouldn’t be tolerated, but why was it okay for his master?

Claude didn’t regret dancing with Madeleine last night but if he didn’t follow her to the garden and stayed at the ballroom last night, the prince wouldn’t—

‘Wait a second.’

The realization hit the butler.

‘If His Highness and Lady Madeleine saw them together, then that means…’

He narrowed his eyes at Wilfred in disapproval, his mouth had set into a deep scowl.

“Your Highness, does this mean you and Lady Madeleine escaped your own party also? Did you use my absence as an opportunity to get away, Your Highness?”

The people in question froze from being caught.

“We didn’t think this through…” Wilfred mumbled gloomily to himself. Danielle remained silent, her whole being was struck with both shame and fear as she felt the displeasure exuding from Claude’s glare. The iciness and the sternness in his tone still continued to bring chills down her spine. He must have been really hard on her in the past for her to react like that.

It was when the butler called the couple out that Madeleine finally understood. Her expression turned to one of amusement with her arms crossed against her chest. “Yea that made sense… That backfired on you guys, huh?”

“Well?” Claude demanded. The increase in volume showed the butler’s impatience and aggravation from getting no response.

It was honestly bad timing since Madeleine about to witness the duo getting reprimanded, but the butler sounded so commanding and fierce that a surge of desire went through her.

Finally, after a few more seconds, Wilfred spoke up.

“Yes, we did,” he admitted. “I just wanted some time alone with Danielle. She had no part in this, so please do not get angry at her.”

Claude appeared even more unimpressed at the prince’s excuse and it was clearly visible to everyone around him.

“Your Highness, you do realize, you two live together in this Chateau? And Lady Danielle occasionally sleeps in the same room as you? You have a lot of time to spend with Lady Danielle alone after the party,” the butler sternly scolded the prince. “Your Highness, do you realize how damaging your irresponsible behavior is towards the image of the royal family?”

“Claude, you’re being too harsh—,” Danielle was about to defend Wilfred only to stop when the latter placed a hand on her arm, sending her a reassuring look. He didn’t want Claude to unleash his wrath on her too. She didn’t deserve it.

“He’s right. It was irresponsible and selfish of me escaping during my own party and bringing you with me. I was not a good host. I apologize, Claude. It won’t ever happen again.”

“See that you will keep your promise,” he warned. His eyes then darted to Danielle, which caused the prince’s brows to furrow in wary. “As for you Danielle, I am not going to scold you but please stop His Highness if he tries to do something reckless.”

It didn’t occur to Danielle that she has been holding her breath in out of terror, but after realizing the butler wasn’t mad at her (for once) and instead requested her to look after the prince, she exhaled out of relief before quickly nodding. She didn’t want to anger him even further.

The whole time, Madeleine watched the whole scene unfold before her eyes as she continued to drink her tea. She felt a bit bad for the prince as he was the one taking the hit, facing Claude’s temper. Any person would wag their proverbial tail after experiencing something like that, but not Wilfred. For most of the part, he appeared unfazed and maybe she saw a bit of regret in him. As for Danielle, Madeleine didn’t know what she went through before getting together with Wilfred… But seeing her so intimidated and nervous, the butler must have been really hard on her…

The heiress agreed with Danielle that Claude might have been a bit too harsh on the prince. Not to mention, he was treating the prince like a child.

However… She guessed she could understand where the butler is coming from. Although he’s harsh with his words, he’s just trying to preserve the image of the royal family, especially Wilfred since he’s going to be the next king soon enough.

He only has the best interest of the Spencers.

Anyways…

Speaking of Claude and his temper, that combination really did something to the heiress. She was sure she mentioned this already some time ago, but there’s something so hot about him riled up. The tone he used whenever he’s angry, was downright commanding and stern. The growl that escaped his throat, the clenching of his jaw, the frown, his eyebrows drawn together, just everything about him drove Madeleine crazy with desire. She would have the urge to rub her thighs together as if it’s trying to alleviate an itch.

God, what would she do to tug him closer by the collar and kiss him senseless. There was just something about this man that made her feel things unlike any other.

‘Maybe I am constantly drinking my tea because I am constantly goddamn thirsty for him. It makes sense.’

‘Okay Madeleine, focus now. It would be nice if you lighten up the atmosphere right now.’

“So my dear children,” she drawled sarcastically while letting the cup down on the table. “What lesson did we learn today?”

I only received wry smiles from both Wilfred and Danielle, so I proceeded.

“If you’re planning to tease someone, make sure you thought this through. Especially if you’re teasing someone like Claude... You guys literally just tasted your own medicine.”

“Yeah, yeah we get it, Madeleine. No need to rub more salt into our wounds,” Danielle grumbled wryly, her shoulders slumped.

“Did you guys planned this afternoon as a way to tease Claude and me about last night? And you covered it up by saying you want to spend time before I leave?”

Wilfred nodded in confirmation, looking guilty.

“We did want to spend time with you, especially Danielle since she’s been holed up in her office the whole time during your stay—,” the prince halted his mouth as soon as he saw Madeleine’s deadpan expression. He knew that wasn’t the answer she was searching for. “—Okay, yes we did. We thought it’d be entertaining to make you two flustered… But… It didn’t turn out as we expected.”

“Oh why you two cunning little—”

“Madeleine,” Claude’s stern voice cut me off, causing her to turn her head at him. He sent her a warning look, which did everything other than actually scaring her off. Instead, it only sent a shiver of desire through her. What was wrong with her?

“What?”

“Do not even try to act innocent with me. I know what you’re going to say to His Highness and Lady Madeleine and I will not allow it.”

‘Fuck that was hot. I’m not supposed to be turned on… Does this mean I have a power fetish? Shut up, Madeleine.’

“But Claude,” I argued. “Don’t you think it’s childish for Prince Wilfred and Lady Madeleine to play with us?”

“Actually, we did want to see you—”

“While that may be so, you should not stoop to their level of immaturity and you shall not call them insulting names towards the prince and his lady.”

“Hey! We’re not that imma—What Wilfred? I am trying to defend us here,” Danielle gazed at the prince questioningly after he tugged her arm, successfully getting her attention.

“Danielle, look,” he nudged his head towards the butler and the heiress. The designer followed his gaze. “No matter how much you’re going to defend both of us, they will ignore you. Just look how heated they are.”

Danielle studied them closer in silence, focusing on what they were saying and also the atmosphere.

Wilfred was right. They paid no attention to what Danielle was saying and there was no way they would notice her over their fast-paced argument. The air between them is charged with tension and both of them are spitting venom at one another. It was a total spitfire! Their words were sharp like knives. Honestly, if those words were to aim at her, she would’ve just crumbled right then and there along with her ego. She couldn’t believe her fiance had to go through all of that since young.

While her face appeared horrified hearing them fiercely go at one another with none of them planning to back down, Wilfred here was nonchalant about it. Moreover, he seemed more intrigued at Claude’s and Madeleine’s body language, or more accurately, their body reactions.

It was oddly interesting, they both were sending retorts back and forth with barely hidden anger seeping through their voices, and yet their body reactions were expressing something else differently. Both of their chests were heaving. Both of them have sported flushed looks, on their cheeks and necks (and chest for Madeleine, the prince assumed Claude has it too). Most importantly, their eyes had turned a shade darker, pupils dilated. All these signs pointed to one thing, and that’s arousal.

‘Oh my…’

Guess what? Wilfred was right. What used to be a pain in the ass, now both of them find arguing with another quite exciting with the adrenaline running through them, blood pressure rising, heart beating. It’s such an exhilarating feeling, a feeling that closely resembled the one you experienced during sex.

It didn’t help that Madeleine already found him super desirable when he puts on firm commanding tone and she was already feeling a bit turned on after watching him scold the prince. So, to see him angry… Well, let’s just say it ignited a whole damn raging fire within her. To her, when he looks angry, he appears even more dominant and stronger. More in charge. And to her, that’s extremely arousing.

For Claude, it’s not often he encounters a woman who wasn’t afraid to throw punches (not physical, don’t do violence kids), who refuses to back down so easily, who can keep up with his sharp, crisp words, attacking him back with her own ones. Sure it was maddening at first to meet a woman like Madeleine, but now the only thing he felt was the thrilling sensation. There was a fierceness in the heiress that’s so highly intoxicating to him.

Both couldn’t help but let their mind wander somewhere inappropriate. They wondered how would these translate to their performance in the bedroom…

Although a bit slow, Danielle sensed something was amiss.

“Is it just me imagining things or does these two seem to have some weird sort sexual tension?” Danielle asked softly while she watched the two continue to bicker.

Wilfred shook his head slowly. “You’re not imagining things. I do think they’re feeling a bit … heated.” Intentional or not, the dual meaning received a snort from Danielle. “Put extreme emotions and their physical attraction to one another into the mix, it’s bound to stir up their lust.”

The designer hummed thoughtfully before nodding in agreement, a smile formed on her lips.

“That makes sense. You know when you told me how entertaining the dynamic is between those two, you really did mean it. I have to say, it’s very out of the ordinary. Very … explosive.”

“Of course I mean it. They are truly one of a kind.”

“Thanks to this I am totally invested in seeing both of them together.”

“So do I.”

As time passed by, it really seemed like the argument went to something else entirely, no longer focused on Madeleine calling the prince and the designer “insulting” names.

In Madeleine’s defense, the names she was about to call the couple wasn’t even that insulting, to begin with. She only wanted to call them “cunning snakes”, but no this point they’re just exchanging sarcastic and sometimes borderline vitriolic jabs at each other, most of them really brutal in Danielle’s standards.

‘It’s amazing how they went from arguing over something insignificant to battling their wits out.’

“Do you think maybe we should stop them before it gets too far…?” There was a slightly nervous expression painted on the woman’s face, occasionally flinching at some of the retorts traded. She also had noted an increase in their voices’ volume as time passed by. “I’m afraid it will cause further discomfort in the atmosphere. We didn’t expect their small argument to build up like this. Nevermind that, we didn’t expect an argument to erupt!”

Wilfred mused silently for a while before agreeing with a grimace. “You’re right my love. Perhaps we should intervene before this gets far too uncomfortable. Although I’m not sure if they’ll notice us if we did over the sound of their voices…” The prince heaved out a sigh. “Let’s give it a try.”

The prince cleared his throat as loud as possible in an attempt to catch the butler’s and the heiress’ attention.

No response.

“Claude, Madeleine. Maybe it’s time to stop.”

Another attempt went unheard.

“Guys,” Wilfred slightly raised the volume of his voice.

Nope, still wasn’t enough. They didn’t even take a glance.

‘How the heck are they so into this?’ He was dumbfounded. He turned to his fiance for help, who also appeared to sport the same expression as him, lips parted in disbelief. ‘How are we supposed to snap them out of it?’

“Me?” Danielle pointed her finger to herself, feeling puzzled at the prince’s request for her assistance. “You’re asking me for help? Will, if they didn’t listen to you, what are the chances of them ever listening to me? It’s very unlikely.”

Both of them contemplated in silence, figuring out their next course of action with creased foreheads. It was only then the designer whipped her head to Wilfred, her eyes wide as an idea popped up in the designer’s mind. The prince looked at her curiously, sensing she got a solution.

“You wouldn’t probably like it...” She trailed off nervously. She knew her lover didn’t feel comfortable being disruptive or loud but what other choices do they have at that moment? With a small encouraging smile from him, Danielle proceeded with her suggestion.

“...Why don’t you try slamming the table while shouting at the same time, pretending you’re angry? The impact of the slam would cause the tableware to clang against one another and it would be a total shocker for them to hear you get “angry”. Let’s admit it, you rarely get angry or ticked off like Prince Keith.”

Wilfred said nothing as he pursed his lips tightly and furrowed his eyebrows in thought. “Hmmmmm…”

At the response or lack of, Danielle immediately took it back, feeling a bit conscious. “B-But if you feel uncomfortable, you don’t have to! We can fig—”

“No, let’s go with your idea.”

“Wha—Really?”

He nodded before sending her a gentle and maybe a bit amused grin at her astonished expression.

“Yes. I mean sure I’m not used to doing something like this, but I think it’s a pretty good idea under this circumstance. Do not worry my love, your ideas are always great. You should be more confident in yourself.”

“Always?” Despite her cheeks slightly burning from his remark, her eyes were filled with mirthful skepticism. “Have you forgotten the time I thought matching your tie and pocket square was a good idea? Or the time square toe—”

“Alright, alright! Most of the times,” Wilfred rolled his eyes jokingly.

“I am still mystified why you didn’t say anything about it that day.”

He only shrugged with nonchalance. “I mean yes it was odd but I trust your judgment. Besides, how I look is the least of my concerns.”

“Yes but I really got the fright of my life when Claude approached me at the end of the day and chewed me out on your outfit and then went on to say it will damage your image badly,” the designer winced at the horrible memory. From then on, she promised to not make any more silly style mistakes. “He even shoved an article about it to my face.”

The prince hid his frown, irritated that his butler would go as far as showing his princess an article about the prince’s styling choice. If he knew, he would have a serious talk with the butler. Thankfully, in recent months, he hasn't been so hard on her aside from the princess lessons. Even then, the prince firmly warned Claude to go easy on her.

Wilfred pulled Danielle closer by the waist before pecking her on the cheek before whispering comforting words into her ear, his voice gentle and tender. “Don’t listen to him. You were still new to your job as my private designer. You told me in the past that you had never done this. Claude should have been more sympathetic with you. Anyways, look at you now. You are an amazing, creative, and talented designer. The best one I ever had. The second I laid eyes on your unique designs during that Monsieur Pierre’s fashion show, I knew at that moment I want you as my private designer. And here we are now… Not only you’re an outstanding and respected designer, but you’re also going to be a princess to the kingdom though you’re already a princess to me when I realized I had fallen for you. Your presence has made my life in the Chateau significantly better. With you by my side, following my duties as a prince feels more tolerable. You are one of a kind, Danielle.”

“Oh Will…”

A surge of love for the prince filled Danielle’s whole body, heart, and soul, his words so genuine and touching that she felt the back of her eyes burning, her vision blurring from the tears formed. She pulled back a little only to beam at Wilfred, her eyes filled with deep affection and adoration, before embracing him tightly, ensuring he felt the love she has for him. Wilfred gladly responded as he wrapped his arms around her, placing her head on his chest for her to listen to his heart racing. Something only his lover can do.

‘I would like to thank Fate for bringing us together. I am… No. We are so lucky.’

The couple stayed in that embrace for quite some time (really it’s only 20 seconds) before parting, both realizing that there were still two other people bickering in the background. Somewhere along the way, Madeleine had risen to her feet, coming face to face with Claude.

Danielle let out a chuckle, her cheeks still flushed, as she took a brief glance at those two quarreling. “Anyways...I think you should do the slamming thing now since they’re not stopping anytime soon as far as I can tell…. Jesus we really had gotten sidetracked.”

“Ah yes, I shall do that now. But just so you know, we’ll be continuing where we left off in our room,” Wilfred sent Danielle a mischievous look, his eyes full of promise. Crimson crept up Danielle’s face as she squeaked at the insinuation.

“You mean continue hugging?” She knew it was useless to ask that, but she couldn’t help it. Her brain short-circuited.

“Oh my love, we’re doing more than just hugging.”

As Danielle sat there, red-faced and lips parted, a smug-looking Wilfred went to push the tableware in front to the side, giving him some space to slam.

“You know why you’re always mad? Because you can’t take a joke! You always take things so seriously! You have the humor of a grumpy old man! My grandfather has a better sense of humor than you!”

Wilfred set his face to appear furious before glancing at the designer for approval, to which she timidly gave him a thumbs up. She was still recovering from his tease.

“At least I am taking things seriously! How about you? You’re careless, clumsy, and childish! Even children these days are a bit more mature than you are! And they actually have manners!”

He then took a deep breath, then nodding at Danielle to signal he was about to start.

Just not a minute passed by, the prince jumped up to his feet while slamming his hands hard onto the table and roaring out “WOULD YOU GUYS STOP FIGHTING?” in his most stern and ticked off voice.

As expected, the impact of the slam caused the tableware and utensils to clank against the table and each other with some tea spilling over. Most importantly, along with the shout, it got the attention of both the heiress and the butler after the sound reverberated the surrounding. They both jerked at the huge sound, before whipping their heads at the prince, and both soon stiffened—not sure whether out of shock or fear—at the rare sight of the prince’s deep scowl. All the color drained from Madeleine’s complexion as she continued to stare on, anxious and terrified. She could’ve sworn she peed her panties a little.

It took so much energy for Wilfred to withhold himself from bursting out laughing at Madeleine’s and Claude’s expression. It was the butler who recovered from his shock first before doing a deep bow, his head lowered. It was then soon followed by a frantic apology he gushed out, embarrassment and shame tangible in his tone, reflecting the expression he has on his face.

“Your Royal Highness! I-I deeply apologize for my deplorable and inappropriate display of conduct! I lost control of my emotions and acted unprofessionally in front of you and Lady Madeleine. I will fully accept any consequences that fall upon me for my shameful behavior.”

Exasperated that Madeleine hasn’t done anything but stood there like a statue, Claude put his hand on her back, giving her a slight push while softly hissing at her.

“Lady Madeleine, do you also have anything to say in regards to your behavior? Like I don’t know, an apology?”

Despite how lightly he pushed her, the heiress still stumbled forward, resulting in a surprised cry to escape from her as she broke out of her stupor.

Glancing at both the butler, who’s giving her daggers, and the prince who was still acting, she immediately lowered her head into a bow also, with her hair falling to cover her face.

She ignored the tingle of desire that she felt from Claude’s stern gaze due to not only the unfavorable circumstance she was in but also the mortification and guilt that washed over her whole body. The fact she was able to hold on to the argument for a long time in front of the prince and his fiancé… And the fact she started to get excited somewhere along the way…. The urge for her to crawl into a ball was tempting.

‘God that was embarrassing!’ Madeleine groaned internally. ‘I hope it wasn’t so obvious.’

On the other side of the spectrum, both Wilfred and Danielle observed them, their eyes glittering with amusement. While they tried to maintain their angry and blank facade respectively, they couldn’t help but feel a bit startled over their reactions. I mean sure both of them expected shock, but not to this extent, where they also looked like they were given the fright of their lives. Madeleine practically clamped up. Claude, who has been with the prince since young is left unsettled. It was one of the rare times his facial features truly expressed what he felt instead of his usual aloofness. The other times the steward was being reprimanded, he displayed almost no emotions besides the brief flash of shame, frustration, or dejection in his eyes.

In addition to what happened earlier, it was the first time (if Wilfred remembered correctly) the steward uttered his apology with so much franticness and apprehension in his voice.

‘Wow, people around here must really think of me as someone who’s calm and collected… Someone who doesn’t snap easily,’ Wilfred mulled over thoughtfully. ‘… It made sense their reactions were like that. I rarely get angry...’

“Great,” the prince clapped his hands, catching the attention of the heiress and butler. Both of them raised their heads to stare at him. They were already confused at the sudden shift in his tone, but now they were absolutely floored when they saw his usual gentle and laid-back expression, huge smile present on his lips. Wasn’t he angry just seconds ago? “Now that you’re no longer arguing, we can continue our afternoon tea. The idea turned out well did it, Danielle, my love?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“What?”

A question mark hung over their heads as they watched the prince turning to Danielle as he sat back down, his ocean blue eyes glinting with mischief, only for her to respond with a knowing smile and a chortle.

“Yes. As a matter of fact, the idea worked too well.”

Now, they were even more lost.

‘What the hell is going on?’ Madeleine creased her forehead. ‘First, he looked like he was about to explode and now suddenly he’s all back to his usual self.’

“Wilfred… But… Didn’t you just slam the table? Didn’t you look mad...? How—What?”

The prince bursted out laughing as he saw how lost Madeleine that she was unable to form a proper question. Even Danielle joined in, letting out another giggle. When he finally calmed down, he answered the heiress with a smirk.

“Keyword looked. Yes, I looked mad but I wasn’t actually mad.”

“What? So that slam of the table and you scowling… That was only part of an act then?”

“Yes.”

“But why would—”

Before she could finish, it’s as if a light bulb lit up in Madeleine’s mind. She finally understood what Wilfred was trying to do.

“You were trying to break us apart, weren’t you?”

“Yep.”

At the confirmation, Claude who had been silent the whole time spoke up, a displeased frown visible. “Your Royal Highness, you could have just gone between us instead of doing something so disruptive.”

Madeleine nodded in agreement before adding more to the steward’s statement.

“Yeah! There were other alternatives to stop us without my heart going into cardiac arrest.”

'Did I hear them right? Did they just imply we could’ve just talked to them?’

The engaged couple couldn’t believe what they heard. They glanced at one another, disbelief reflecting off each other before staring at Madeleine and Claude. The comment made their eyebrows rise so high up their foreheads, they probably could disappear into their hairline.

“Except that we did try breaking you guys apart. Twice. I even raised my voice by a little, but I have gotten no response from you two. You two were so caught up in your bickering and in that heated tension, you didn’t even notice me,” Wilfred sent Madeleine a look at the same time he said ‘heated’ as if he was trying to say “I know what you felt”. At the knowing look, the heiress sucked in her breath, her eyes darted elsewhere. The prince then nonchalantly continued. “So last resort, we did that and it worked.”

Claude caught the hidden meaning and besides his body stiffening, he decided to stay quiet. While he betrayed nothing on the outside, it was a different story on the inside. A mix of different emotions, mostly confliction and uneasiness, swirled inside him. Little by little, his control over himself, his emotions, and his desires slips away whenever he’s near the heiress.

‘This is bad...’

“O-Oh… I see...” Madeleine murmured softly, her embarrassment apparent in both her voice and a flushed face. Claude said nothing although his frown seemed to deepen and the crease between his brows was more prominent.

“Well then,” Wilfred glanced at everyone. “Shall we continue with our afternoon tea?”

It totally slipped Madeleine’s mind she had been standing the whole time and once realized, the soreness sets in, with her legs feeling like jelly. With shaky legs, she wobbled back to her seat and sat down before giving Wilfred a nod. Claude walked back to where he was stationed, at the edge of the gazebo. He stood still, watching over the trio.

At the start, the heiress felt a tiny bit awkward at the start after what happened earlier, only listening silently to the couple conversing and giving brief answers when asked. However, as the minutes passed by, Madeleine felt herself loosen up, thanks to the couple’s friendly easygoing attitude and their never-ending effort to make her comfortable. Soon enough, recollections of the earlier incident are being pushed into the back of her mind as she eased into a light conversation with both the prince and the designer, bantering and laughing with one another. Even though Madeleine and Danielle haven’t met properly before, they were able to bond so well, sharing many interests with each other. While she may be shy at first, Danielle’s bubbly and positive attitude was infectious. It’s no wonder Wilfred loved her. She could liven up any place, including a stuffy place like the Chateau. Both the prince and she were perfect for each other.

And speaking of them… Madeleine noticed the number of times the couple gave each other brief yet heated glance during the whole time they were chatting. Sure they were discreet but hello, she was right in front of them! In addition to that, there were the “accidental” touches. She could feel they were getting antsier as time passed by. Madeleine wasn’t sure what happened before the prince slammed the table as you know she was busy arguing, but surely something must have happened. Either one of them had promised something suggestive to the other.

Madeleine chose not to bring up the sexual tension between the couple and tease them, not that she wanted to take revenge... She wasn’t going to stoop to Wilfred’s level. Besides, she’s too nice for that.

It was only a matter of time before they finally cave in and wrapped everything up.

And you know what? The heiress was right. Ten minutes later, the prince pretended to look at his wristwatch, putting on a frown as he noticed how “late” it was getting.

“Oh, would you look at that, it’s three forty-five already,” the prince raised his head to send me an apologetic smile. “I apologize but I just remembered I have a planned fitting with my private designer. Am I right, Danielle?”

‘And there it is. The excuse.’

When Wilfred gazed at Danielle, the designer let out a surprised noise, not expecting to be part of his excuse. Nonetheless, she went along with it, because who was she to deny some private quality time with the love of her life? Did she ever mention that he was also very skilled in the bedroom?

“Ah yeah!” Danielle scratched the back of her neck as she tried to sheepishly giggle. “I totally forgot about your fitting session!”

As much as she put the effort in making their excuse believable, the stiffness and nervousness in her voice gave it away. It didn’t help that everything about this was so sudden. Claude who was already dubious at His Highness’ excuse, rolled his eyes after listening to Danielle’s response. He was able to see right through the cracks.

“We both apologize that we have to leave so sudden. You are free to stay here if you still wish to relax and drink your tea…? Claude will accompany you until you have your fill.”

Madeleine shook her head, shooting down the prince’s suggestion.

“That’s alright, Wilfred. Perhaps now is also the right time for me to pack my items into my suitcases since I am leaving tomorrow morning. Sad that I’ll be leaving this place.”

The thought of Madeleine leaving this place had suddenly left her feeling dejected, causing her to heave out a soft sigh. This trip ended too fast for her liking. She wanted to stay here longer. So many amazing things happened here and so many amazing memories are made here. She befriended Wilfred and Danielle, both wonderful human beings. Most importantly…

‘Most importantly, I got to know Claude and understood him a bit more on a personal level. Not him as the head steward of the Spencers, but just as only him… I couldn’t help but feel closer to him… The more I know about him, the more I gravitate towards him, and the more I long to be with him.’

Seeing her sad smile, Wilfred and Danielle stood up from their chairs and strode to her, who also stood up. While indeed they both were also sad to see her leave so soon, they gave her comforting smiles with a tinge of hope in them.

“Don’t worry Madeleine. We’ll be sure to invite you here again,” Wilfred put his hand on Madeleine’s shoulders before patting them.

“Wilfred is right. We love having you here. You’re always welcome to visit and stay in the Chateau,” Danielle warmly added. As soon as the prince let go of Madeleine’s shoulders, she immediately wrapped her arms around Madeleine in an embrace, to which the heiress quickly returned. The sight brought a huge grin to Wilfred’s face. He was extremely happy that his fiance and his new friend, two people he cared about, bonded so well over a very short period of time.

When both women untangled their arms from one another, breaking the hug apart, Madeleine spoke first, her voice wavering a little from feeling so touched. Soon after Danielle was back beside the prince, Wilfred had put his arm around her waist, bringing her closer to his side.

“Thank you so much. You both have been very so sweet and kind to me. It means a lot.”

The prince only nodded before giving me a gentle smile.

“It’s no problem, Madeleine. You are our friend now.”

No matter how many times she had heard it, being called a friend by the prince and his fiance would always make her happy. She knew that Wilfred doesn’t trust people easily and puts a distance between them and himself… So the fact he trusted her and saw her as his friend, it really did mean a lot to her. She promised she would cherish her friendship with him and now, also with Danielle.

“I feel the same way with the two of you.”

The couple beamed.

“Shall we go now, everyone?” Wilfred asked. At both the women’s approval, the prince along with Danielle stepped out of the gazebo before strolling to the entrance of the garden.

“Claude.”

Even though the prince didn’t verbalize the order, Claude still understood what he had to do, as shown by him bowing his head.

“As you wish, Your Highness. I shall clear these up.”

Madeleine soon followed the couple, exiting the gazebo. Before she left the garden, she took a quick glance back on the butler, her gaze full of longing as he started to tidy up the dirtied utensils and tableware.

Now that Claude was completely alone, he was left to navigate his own thoughts while he continued to clear the table. Today’s event had made him feel troubled. It was getting more difficult for him to stop his attraction for Madeleine from growing even stronger. He was losing his control over himself and his emotions. Just before, when he saw the sorrow on Madeleine’s face, he felt his heart aching. The urge to reach out and comfort her was so tempting, the butler had a hard time resisting. The butler swore under his breath.

‘This is becoming so hard. I can’t stop my attraction to her… But… But I need to. For my sake.’

He was supposed to be happy that she’s leaving tomorrow. He rationalized if he didn’t see her anymore for a long time, all the thoughts about her and his attraction to her would disappear…

He should be excited, and yet he’s not? Instead, the thought of her leaving tomorrow morning sent a shot of pain to his heart. He could already imagine what the Chateau would be like without her. It would feel different. Empty. Cold. Lonely.

Or maybe that would be the state of his heart when she left? He’s not sure. Maybe.

One thing he knew for certain, he didn’t want her to leave.

Claude won’t ever admit this out loud, but deep inside, he realized her departure would leave a hollow hole in his heart.

He’s screwed.

‘Shit.’

•••
One of Chateau’s hallways
A couple of minutes after afternoon tea ended

After leaving the garden, I soon caught up to Wilfred and Danielle, who appeared even more touchy-feely. They were literally glued to each other as they hurried along the hallway. It’s fortunate, most of the time the hallways are empty.

So, you may be wondering why I haven’t parted ways with them? Well, I needed to talk to Wilfred. I wanted to ask and request something from him.

I was thinking... Despite the many times Claude and I have bickered throughout the span of my stay, he played a huge part in making my stay amazing. In my eyes, not only he had been a lovely head steward, but he also had been a lovely person. A man I grown attraction to emotionally. I would always remember and cherish the times we interacted or spent together.

The first time he prepared tea for me in the guest room.

The time when he treated my hands when I fell during a tennis match with Wilfred.

The time we went out on a “date”, bringing me to the space center and then to Cassiar street.

The time he protected me from a sleazy man.

Both times we danced together and almost kissed.

Of course, even the times we argued.

Throughout those times, I was able to get to know him more beyond him as a butler, but as a person. And let me tell you, it only served to make my feelings for him grow stronger, harder to keep under wraps. Every time I got to learn something about him, I admired him even more.

That being said, I wanted to bake something for him as a token of my thanks and affection for him… And maybe as something for him to remember me.

“Wilfred!” I yelled out, my voice echoing throughout the empty hallway. The prince and Danielle halted their steps and looked back, surprise etched on their facial features. As I hurried my way to them, they turned around to face me.

“Yes?” He asked, curiosity laced his question.

“Do you think I can have a few minutes with you alone…? I want to ask you something about … You know… Since you know him for a long time...”

Even without my flushed cheeks giving away, both Wilfred and Danielle were able to grasp who I was referring to from the looks they are giving me. They had their eyebrows raised and their mouths curved into amused smirks.

“Oh?”

“Yeah Wilfred, you know who I’m talking about. Now, can I get a moment with you alone? This is important,” I then faced Danielle, an apologetic smile plastered on my lips. “I’m sorry Danielle, I hope this doesn’t offend you.”

To which she waved her hand, reassuring me with a smile of her own.

“No! It’s okay. I totally understand.”

“Thank you. So, Wilfred?”

The prince pretended to contemplate in silence—making me roll my eyes—before he finally voiced his agreement to my request.

“Okay, but first,” he leaned into Danielle’s right ear, whispering something. I assumed it was explicit as her cheeks immediately reddened. She even let out a squeak! When the prince moved away, he had a devilish smirk on, satisfied at his lover’s squirming reaction.

“You understand?”

Danielle nodded quickly.

“Okay, I will see you in your office.”

Just like that, she ran off into another hallway—probably the one leading to their bedroom—disappearing from our eye views. It’s astonishing how open and chill Wilfred was as he turned to face me as if that didn’t even happen.

“So, how may I help you?”

“Well, I want to bake something for Claude as a gift, so uh maybe he could remember me?”

Not sure if it was possible, but I could feel my cheeks burned even more. Now that I said my idea out loud, it sounded ridiculous… Why would he even remember me?

On the other hand, Wilfred appeared enthusiastic but soon scrunched his face in confusion at my reaction.

“Wait why do you look embarrassed? It’s a great idea. If you didn’t give him anything, he will still remember you. Trust me. But anyway, yeah it’s a great idea. It shows how much you appreciate and cares about him. Go for it.”

At his encouragement, the corner of my mouth curved into a shy appreciative smile.

“Thanks, but the thing is—”

“You don’t know what to bake for him and that’s why you’re here asking me?” He arched an eyebrow in question.

He already knew what I was going to ask! Damn.

“...Yes.”

“Hmmm,” Wilfred pondered as he repeatedly tapped a finger to his chin. “You could never go wrong with butter cookies. That’s actually Claude’s favorite snack. He doesn’t admit it but I always have seen him going for that.”

“Oh, his favorite snack is butter cookies…” I repeated what Wilfred said, surprise tangible in my tone.

“You looked surprised. Was that unexpected for you?”

“Yes…” I admitted honestly, a sheepish smile visible. “However, I think it’s cute that he likes them. You know what they say, it’s the simplest things that bring the greatest joy in life.”

Huh, he likes butter cookies. God, can this man be even more irresistible?

I heard a chuckle coming from the prince.

“You’re right, it is indeed the simplest things that bring the greatest joy, just how I enjoy Danielle being at my side. Even if we do nothing, her presence already fills me with happiness.”

I hummed in agreement.

“So… Is this it? Is there anything else you need?”

“Well yes... I was wondering if I could borrow a kitchen? Does the maids’ quarter have its own kitchen? I rather not use the main kitchen as the chances of Claude catching me is high and I want this gift to be a surprise.”

“Ah,” Wilfred pondered before nodding slowly, finally understanding what I said. “I see. I can confirm there’s a kitchen in the maids’ quarter. Feel free to use it. I will notify one of the maids when I’m on my way to Danielle’s work office.”

“Um, can you tell them to keep this a secret?”

The prince only gave me a reassuring smile after bowing his head.

“Do not worry, it shall be done.”

At his answer, I let out a relieved sigh while my body relaxed. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath in nor my muscles tensing. I must really felt nervous, anxious that the prince wouldn’t approve of this. I knew it was dumb, but hey, our fears and worries could be irrational.

Before he could even say anything, I assaulted the prince with a tight hug, resulting in a surprised noise to come out from his mouth.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

I released him from my arms and in an instant, I scurried off to the other end of the hallway with so much excitement in my steps. As I made my way there, I decided to tease him with a shout.

“You know, you don’t have to lie about going to Danielle’s office! I know what you two are going to do in your private bedroom! Have fun!”

I also didn’t give him time to process nor respond to what I shouted, as I disappeared around the corner, running to find any maid to get Sophie before going to the guest room.

However, it’s most likely Wilfred would only chuckle in amusement at my antics before leaving.

But whatever, right now, I couldn’t wait to bake some butter cookies for Claude.

Chapter Text

7th of April
Guest Room
8 am

“And I’m done!”

Lowering my pen on the table, I grinned in relief at the A4 paper with a message freshly written in blank ink. Say, why a normal white A4 paper and not a small card?

Good question.

At first, I did want to use a card, but since this whole gift thing was something I thought of last minute, I didn’t have anything with me and neither did Wilfred (a bit odd but okay). And obviously, we couldn’t ask Claude for a card as it would raise suspicion and thus have a possible chance of ruining the surprise for the butler. At least the prince was gracious enough to give me a blank sheet of A4 paper, a letter envelope, and a punch holder last night after I finished baking the cookies and delivered him the extras. No, I didn’t come up to him in his private room. As told by the other staff, he was already in his office working. Might I add, he was properly dressed. Thankfully.

I didn’t think anyone could have sex that long… could they? They must have huge stamina and libido to achieve that… Okay, let’s just leave it at that.

Besides, I was planning to write a long message for him… So, of course, a small card wouldn’t do.

Afraid of smudging the newly fresh ink, I cautiously grabbed it by the edge, raising it up in the air. I then gently blew air onto the paper to speed up the ink’s drying process. Once it was dry enough, I read the message out loud, making sure it didn’t sound awkward.

‘God it better be! I almost spent the whole night typing and erasing drafts on my phone!’

Dear Claude,

As a token of appreciation for making my stay here a lovely experience, I baked you an assortment of cookies. I know you prefer butter cookies (which by the way I think it’s endearing), so I made lots of them. Don’t ask me how I know, because I won’t tell you. And besides, I think you already have a feeling by the time you finished the previous sentence.

I also added some hétáo sū and xìngrén bǐng into the mix. These are traditional Chinese-style walnut and almond cookies, both of them are very popular snacks and desserts in my culture, especially during Chinese New Year. They’re both my favorites ever since childhood. I always remember eating the ones baked by my grandmother every time my family and I visit her home in Guangdong province. They’re the best!

Anyways… I hope you enjoy these cookies as much as I do. If they’re not your taste, then you can just eat the butter cookies. That’s why I put more of them.

I never really got the chance to express my thanks to you. Even then, I am also not brave enough to say them directly to you. So through these baked goods, I hope my feelings of gratitude and appreciation were able to reach you.

I think no words can express how much I enjoyed my time here… I apologize if I am being too forward but I especially enjoyed when I spend some time with you alone. Thank you for brewing your tea blends for me, for accompanying me to the space center and Cassiar street and most importantly…

Thank you for dancing with me in the Hydrangeas Garden during the night of Prince Wilfred’s Birthday Celebration. It was… really beautiful, magical even. I’m going to cherish those moments with you, including the times when we bicker. It’s honestly very hard to forget that.

It was really nice knowing you, not as the head steward for the royal family or Prince Wilfred’s butler, but as a person. As Claude. Hopefully, I will get to know more about you. Besides occasionally driving me up to the wall, you’re a good, hardworking man. You’re passionate about what you do, and I find that really admirable.

Until we meet again.

PS. I’ll make sure to bring a pack of herbal tea from China the next time we meet. And if you like the cookies I made, I’ll bake another batch for you.

 

Sincerely,
Madeleine Zhang

“I think this is good enough,” I hummed in satisfaction. “My cheeks feel like they’re on fire though.”

‘Wow, I really must be not used to saying such words...Heh. Hope he’s able to feel my feelings through this message.’

After folding the paper, I carefully placed the letter inside the envelope before sealing the envelope. With Wilfred’s punch holder, I punched a hole on the edge followed by a thin lilac ribbon being inserted through the hole. Now that the envelope was hanging from the ribbon, I tied the ribbon around the opening of a clear plastic bag containing the cookies.

“And finish!”

I leaned back onto the chair, taking a complete good look of the gift.

‘It looks nice for something so last minute. I admit the long envelope hanging from the bag looks oddly unique,’ I giggled to myself. ‘I don’t know. Maybe this way, he’ll remember me more. It’s ridiculous, but hey! A girl can dream.’

Now that the gift was all done, it was finally time to pack my stuff. I did say to Wilfred I was going to pack yesterday but well… As you can tell, both my hands were both occupied. Anyways, better start packing now before Claude arrives to accompany me to the main entrance.

I stood up from my seat, stretching both arms and legs, before walking towards my suitcase with the gift in one hand. Along the way, I slipped the gift inside to my large white tote bag. After the suitcase is opened wide, I took my clothes that had been laid down on the bed, all folded and laundered by the maids last night and placed them inside.

“Time to get to work,” I murmured.

And so the packing began.

•••
Flashback to last night
Maid’s Quarter’s Kitchen

Ding!

The sound of the oven behind me echoed the kitchen, causing me to flinch and wake me up from my light nap. It appeared to be that the sound too also woke Sophie up as she was now rubbing the sleepiness from her eyes.

“Ah, it’s finally done,” she mumbled groggily to herself, her voice hoarse.

It was already pretty late at night. There was a huge window beside the kitchen and outside was completely pitch black.

I had probably spent about three to four hours in the kitchen baking three batches of cookies. Sophie had accompanied me throughout the whole time, and I was entirely grateful because not only she assisted me in some parts of the baking, she along with another maid did grocery shopping for the ingredients and some clear plastic bags. Not only that, they accepted my request immediately with no hesitation despite the fact I didn’t explain the reason behind it... They were only aware of me using their kitchen.

‘I really owe them.’

Once they arrived with the things I needed, it was already 6 in the evening. I couldn’t complain as they already did so much. It was probably hectic for them to find all the ingredients and do quickly. Plus, I recalled how long it was to travel from the Chateau to town during the “date”. I hoped both Sophie and the maid—who now I found out is named Lyla—used at least some sort of transportation there. I tried asking Sophie out of concern when we spread out the ingredients and the appliances on the marbled kitchen counter, but she only waved me off with a soothing smile, saying it’s nothing. Knowing that she wouldn’t give in soon (and that I didn’t have a lot of time left), I decided that I would just give her and Lyla cookies as a way to express my thanks.

As mentioned before, I spent the next three or four hours on baking the cookies with no rest breaks in between. I started on the butter cookies as it was easier and had a shorter cooking time. The whole time, I got curious glances from the maids passing by, some of them whispering to each other. But besides that, no one bothered me and they just continued on with their own personal businesses. Maybe they were ordered to… Who knows?

And… So far it seems that the head steward remained unaware as one maid informed me Claude stayed away from the guest room. Along notifying about me using the kitchen in the maids’ quarters, it was possible the prince ordered the head maid to make an excuse that would deter the butler away (probably me not wanting to be disturbed …).

If Sophie wasn’t being called by the head maid to undertake some errands, she was here most of the time, lending a hand in some of the simpler tasks. Other times, she would just observe me in silence with amazement in her eyes. She occasionally attacked me with compliments out of nowhere, making me flustered. When dinner time rolled by, one of the maids was so kind as to make me ham and cheese sandwiches (a delicious one at that). By the time I finished eating, which at this point I realized I was savoring them, the butter cookies were done baking in the oven as signaled from the ‘ding’ sound.

If it wasn’t for me remembering that I baked these as a gift for the butler, I would have brought some to my mouth and munch on them…

Because god, the second I pulled the oven’s door open, the sweet buttery aroma of the butter cookies hit my nose at full force before it wafted through the whole kitchen and every maid, including Sophie who was at close proximity sighed. Not only that, the cookies had that delicious slight brown color, which only made it harder for me to resist. The color and smell of the cookies were mouth-watering. I knew I was not the only one who thought so. When I pulled out the tray of butter cookies with my mittens on and turned around to lower it on the counter, a surprised “oh” rolled off my tongue at the sight in front of me.

A couple of maids (about eight of them) had gathered together at the kitchen’s doorway with one or two peeking out. I couldn’t help but let out a giggle at their hungry expression. Pride washed over me seeing that I was able to whip up a reaction from my butter cookies.

‘This means I would get a similar reaction out of Claude…?’

With a mix of wonder and hunger taking residence within the depths of her eyes, Sophie was the first one to speak up.

“Oh my… Lady Madeleine, they look delicious! And the smell… They smell divine. I wish I could try them.”

Based on the nods and murmurs around her, it seems that the other maids agreed with her sentiment.

I bashfully beamed at them.

“Ah, thank you. That was very kind of you all. And not to worry,” Sophie and the others tilted their heads in curiosity, lips parted as I sent them a mischievous look. “You all will get them, especially you Sophie and Lyla.”

Sophie immediately stood upright with her jaw opened both confusion and shock.

“What? But why? I-I didn’t—Aren’t you baking these for someone?”

“You will get them, no exceptions,” Sophie shut her mouth after my firm declaration and remained silent, knowing I wouldn’t take no for an answer. “You and Lyla helped get the ingredients from town without any explanation on my part. You also did help me bake. Yes, I did bake these for someone but I made a lot. I am only going to take about 20 of them. You all will get the rest. Think of this as a token of my gratitude for making my stay pleasant.”

There was a brief moment of silence as they gazed at me somewhere between amazement and disbelief.

“Um… Are you sure about this, Lady Madeleine?” One of the older maids asked unsurely.

”Mmhmm.”

“Yes…? What? Is this really odd? Oh, wait! Don’t tell me you ladies aren’t allowed to receive anything from guests?”

The maids frantically shook their heads, some of them waving their hands in front, rushing to deny my claim.

“No! It’s not like that!” Sophie cried out. “It’s just that this is probably the first time a guest of the royal family is giving us something. I am not sure about the others but I don’t think I’m deserving to get something from you, Lady Madeleine. I’m just doing my job, nothing special…”

“Oh, I see...” I couldn’t help but frown at Sophie putting herself down, but I soon quickly masked it.

“Whether you’re just doing your job or not, you still deserve a reward for your hard work. It takes so much energy and effort to keep this Chateau running smoothly every day. You all contribute to that. Believe it or not, it takes some skills to do the chores you ladies undertake perfectly. For example… I can fold clothes, but they never end up as neat as yours. Mine would always look misshapen and my grandmother would make fun of me for it, even to this day.”

At my confession and the blushing that resulted from it, some of the maids broke into small smiles while others pursed their lips together, stopping themselves from laughing. Nonetheless, I continued and tried to exaggeratedly imitate my grandmother.

“You’re about to take over your baba and mama’s businesses, but you cannot even fold any clothes properly. I worry for them,” I shook my head out of disappointment while heaving out a hopeless sigh.

From my dramatic reenactment of my beloved nainai (which made me miss her even more now), it was as if the mood in the kitchen lighten up, their reservations quickly disappearing into thin air as they now broke into huge grins while others finally erupted into fits of giggles, their shoulders shaking.

“Moving on,” I proceeded. “As I said, you all will be getting these cookies as a present from me for your hard work and dedication. Alright?”

Even though I made my voice light, it still held some firmness, giving the maids no chance to argue. However, it seems my effort was unnecessary as this time when the laughter finally died down, they agreed to it. Happily, might I add.

“Here, have one of these. Make sure you give it to others.” One by one, the housemaids present moved towards the counter to receive one or two warm butter cookies from me, all expressing their thanks before leaving. When it was Sophie’s turn, I gave her ten.

As expected, she started to complain, disbelief etched on her face.

“What I can’t take all of these—”

“The other five are for Lyla,” I clarified. “Tell her I said thanks.”

“Oh,” realizing she jumped into conclusion, crimson crept up the young maid’s cheeks, embarrassment flooding her features. “Sorry…”

“Aw, it’s okay!” I cheerfully comforted her. “It’s nothing serious. But really, if you want some more, I’ll bring them when I visit the Chateau again.”

Sophie raised up her head, staring at me, eyes wide with hope and excitement. Seeing her childlike expression like this made me realize how much younger she was than me, which made me even want to treat her more like a sister.

“Really?”

“Yes. That’s what friends are for, isn't it?”

The young maid’s lips quivered, feeling touched from what I said before it transformed into a huge grin. She must be so touched that her eyes glittered with joy and admiration.

“It is… Thank you for being my friend... Oh and also for the cookies! I am sure they taste delicious as they look and smell.”

“It’s no problem. Now shall we start baking the almond and walnut cookies?”

Sophie’s whole face lit up as she nodded with so much enthusiasm. Both her hands were on her chest, clasped together.

“Yes, let’s!”

Her excitement was so infectious that it energized me up, pushing away my weariness. With more vigor, we started on the almond and walnut cookies that took about two hours….

… Which led to the current situation. While waiting for the goods to be done baking in the oven, we had fallen asleep. As minutes passed by, our eyelids grew heavier and heavier. I didn’t think making eighty cookies while standing up could drain so much energy out of you. By the end, both our legs and arms were sore and I was pretty sure we both looked like a mess. Flour on our faces. Batter on our arms and clothes. Our hair resembling a nest. Yep, an absolute mess.

“I guess they are ready,” yawning, I tiredly dragged my feet towards the oven. I put the mittens on and opened the door. For the second time, the smell of the cookies assaulted all our senses as it drifted around the surroundings.

And in an instant, hunger washed over me, shaking me up from my sleepiness. In the background, my ears caught Sophie breathing in the smell before sighing blissfully.

“Mmmm… They smell magnificent, Madeleine,” she commented. As soon I brought the tray over and placed it on the counter, Sophie rushed over to me from the other side of the counter to take a peek at the cookies.

“Oooh they look different!” She turned to me, eyes filled with childlike interest and curiosity. “I thought they are walnut and almond cookies.”

“They are!” I confirmed. “They look different from the usual typical cookie you see here as they are traditional Chinese-style walnut and almond cookies. They’re very popular snacks. These ones came out straight from my grandmother’s recipes.”

“Ah …. I see now! Well, they still look delicious anyway. I assume your grandmother taught you how to bake these?”

I nodded my head in confirmation while smiling fondly at Sophie. At that moment, I remembered the times I spent on watching my grandmother, mother, aunties bake many traditional cookies and desserts as a child.

“Yes. Actually, both my nainai and mama taught me how to bake them and other traditional food when I was younger. And soon enough I would help mama prepare when guests and other family members visit my home for Chinese New Year or any other special occasions.”

As I talked to her, I busied myself on counting all the cookies before dividing and putting them into two clear individual plastic bags to about 20 cookies. For Claude, I had put ten butter cookies and three each of the walnut and almond cookies. As for Wilfred and Danielle, I am just going to combine into one bag.

‘That means… fourteen butter cookies, three walnut cookies and three almond cookies…’

“Madeleine…?”

“Hmm?” I briefly glanced up to her, an eyebrow raised in question. She looked like she wanted to say something but was on the fence.

“...Can I ask you something?”

“Yeah sure, go for it.”

“The cookies... Are they for Master Claude and His Highness and Lady Danielle?”

My hands, which were in the middle of placing the cookies inside Wilfred and Danielle’s plastic bag, froze mid-action.

It totally slipped me that I still haven’t given her any explanation on why I was doing this. I guessed I was too focused on finishing all the batches before it’s too late…

‘Welp, she already guessed it right, so might as well be out with it.’

“Yes… It was a last minute thing. At the start, I only wanted to do it for Claude… But since His Highness and Lady Danielle and I are now good friends and have made this stay more pleasant, might as well give something back to them.”

At the mention of the head steward, her expression changed to one of surprise that she was correct.

“So I was right!”

And just like a snap, once again her expression is replaced with one of mischief. She sported a playful grin as she clasped both her hands on her chest, her brown eyes glinting.

“Aw, how cute,” she cooed teasingly.

My cheeks went bright red over her teasing.

“H-Hey!” I sputtered flusteredly. “It’s not anything weird… I just want to give him something the same reason I’m giving something to Prince Wilfred and Lady Danielle… I want to thank him for making this trip amazing…”

We both knew that my excuse was weak. Not because there was so much trailing off as I continued defending myself. Not because my voice held a tone of unsureness. But because the maid already knew about my feelings toward the steward.

“Yeaah… Sureee…” Sophie drawled dubiously, unconvinced at my answer. “Are you sure that’s the only reason? Are you sure it’s not also because you like—”

At the speed of light, I instantly dropped everything I was currently doing and covered her mouth, muffling her last word. Her eyes widened in shock at my extremely quick movement.

“Sophie! Not now!” I hushed worriedly as I glanced around, checking if there were any other maids present.

When I felt confident enough the young maid won’t say anything after, I removed my hands away from her. Thankfully, she stayed quiet as she listened attentively to what I was about to say.

I inched a bit closer to her before lowering my voice into a whisper.

“Look, I am delighted you’re getting more comfortable with me and that we’re bantering around. However, we’re not entirely alone. Even if it’s already late at night, maybe there are a few still out for their night shift….I…” I cleared my throat, somehow finding difficulty in speaking the next sentence.

“If words got out here about what I feel for him and it somehow reaches him… It would make things awkward between him and I… And a possible chance that he would distance himself further away from me.”

I paused, I looked at her with a weak smile. I then took a deep breath, trying to steel myself from what I was going to say.

“Sure, the probability of him ever reciprocating my feelings and us getting together is already low… I still don’t want our relationship between us to be strained. I don't want him to push me away.”

‘I should learn to accept this realization already, but somehow I can’t bring myself to do it. I know it’s almost impossible for us to be together…

We’re just so different. We’re from two different worlds. And then there’s the issue of tradition, something Claude strongly follows. While I don’t care that much for traditions, deep down I have a feeling my parents, my grandmother desire me with a man who shares the same class and culture.

Even if they joked I should bring a “good Chinese man” the next time I visit, they must actually have felt that way inside… You know what they say, sometimes when people joke, they reveal who they truly are and what they secretly desire.

And what my family desires are for a “good Chinese man” to court me and then ask for my hand in marriage.’

Honestly, every time I brought myself to remember this, it never failed to send a jolt of pain to me, going straight to my heart. It never failed to send a wave of hopelessness and sorrow over me.

‘Who am I to control who I am attracted to? Who am I to control who I like? Attraction knows no boundaries. It knows no bounds.’

I must have been silent for so long looking miserable from my thoughts, guilt flashed across Sophie’s face. It was because of her previous teasing that we ended up in this current situation, in this somber atmosphere, which to be honest was far from the truth.

It was my own doing for bringing myself into thinking some depressing (but realistic) thoughts that I ended up feeling upset. In other words, I have inflicted myself with anguish and pain. How pathetic.

Sporting a grimace, Sophie apologized.

“I’m sorry, Madeleine. If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be feeling like this.”

I shook my head in disagreement before grabbing her shoulders. This caused the young maid to look up at me.

“No no no. It’s not your fault, Sophie,” I reassured her with a light voice. “It’s mine. I didn’t stop myself. One thought just led to another. Don’t worry.”

The young girl still looked unsure but said nothing. Instead, she nodded her head once.

“Okay… If you say so.”

Sophie went on to envelope me in her arms as a way to comfort me. When she pulled away, her mouth quirked into a huge cheerful grin. As I mentioned before, her smile is infectious. Seeing her like this instantly lifted up my mood, bringing a smile to my face.

“Whatever happens, whether it works out or not with him, at least you tried. That’s what matters the most. I am not giving you any false hope, but I do think… I believe you’re having an effect on him.”

From the last statement, my ears perked up. I furrowed my eyebrows at Sophie, sending her a questioning look.

“Huh? If you’re talking about ‘effect’ in the sense of being an annoyance, I already know that.”

“No… I didn’t mean it like that… Well… This happened before we became friends…”

I watched her struggle to form a coherent sentence as she played with her fingers, her feet moving back and forth out of nervousness.

“You know when I caught you dazed in one of the hallways that day? And I thought you were ill?”

“Yes…”

“I was unconvinced that you were alright. No offense.”

“None taken,” I chuckled at her sheepish smile.

“Anyways, I asked one of the older maids for her opinion on what I should do when we’re both dusting at one of the hallways…”

‘Okay why I do feel like I know which direction this is taking…’

“Of course I didn’t realize he was passing by as our backs were facing him…”

“Uhuh…”

“So he heard me worrying over you… and he asked me what happened to you.”

‘Yep, my gut feeling was right.’

“This isn’t an exaggeration, but never in the last two years I have been here, have I ever seen him appeared shaken with worry. No offense, but I always saw him with a permanent frown, furrowed brows, eyes glaring at everyone,” the maid shuddered as she recalled details of the butler. “If he wasn’t angry, then other times he would just look emotionless.”

At her observation of the butler, I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Sounds about right,” I agreed fondly. “Seems like you experience it first hand based on your reaction.”

Sophie stiffened before she let out a sheepish grin with her cheeks all flushed. “Oh, many times… Haha… He along with the head maid would reprimand me on the first few weeks I worked here… just because my nervousness led to me making a bunch of mistakes… I remember the very first time he gave me his infamous angry look, I felt my heart stopped. At that moment, I wanted to crawl into a wall and bawl my eyes out. It was … terrifying.”

I didn’t know why but the fact she tried to laugh in between sentences—maybe to minimize her embarrassment—was somewhat endearing and yet also amusing to watch.

“You’re not being dramatic aren’t you?”

“It’s true! I’m not being dramatic!” Sophie whined indignantly. “It was absolutely scary, especially for a scaredy-cat like me!”

“It can’t be that ba—”

Oh, it is that bad. You just don’t find it scary because you’re attracted to him! A-And and perhaps you even find him even more attractive when he’s angry!”

This time, it was my turn for my whole body to go stiff, not expecting her to blatantly expose my kink out loud. She was only guessing too!

All my teasings died off on my tongue, never seeing the light of day as I stared at her in shock. I couldn’t even argue because she was right.

Even though I didn’t want to admit it verbally, my silence was already a good enough indication for the young girl that she guessed it correct. Let’s just say she had a mixture of incredulity, bafflement, and horror expressed on her face at her newfound discovery.

“Oh my god! I was right! You find him more attractive when he’s mad! That’s—”

Her scandalized—might I add also dramatic—reaction brought me a new realization that I was probably the only one who found Claude insanely attractive (cough I wanted to say hot but I didn’t want to expose myself as being thirsty) when he looked all angry and irritated. Just thinking about it always manage to cloud my mind with lust.

“H-Hey Sophie!” I hissed flusteredly. I could feel my whole body burning from embarrassment. It’s as if it was set on fire. “You’re going to wake this whole quarter up knowing that I have a kink for your master being all angry! Besides, I can’t be the only one who finds a guy attractive when he’s angry...”

“Yeah maybe, but not him!” She lowered her voice. “Madeleine, he’s downright frightening. His glare could send anyone running with tears down their faces! It probably could wither flowers! Is it really so necessary for him to be so extreme with us?”

“Oh, now you’re just exaggerating, Sophie!” I rolled my eyes. I didn’t know why but I was starting to feel a bit defensive. “You make it sound like he’s a big bully when he’s nothing like that.”

I turned around to face her once I finished tying up the filled bags. The second Sophie saw how serious I was, my face void of my usual mirth and playfulness, she knew she knew she was about to get lectured by me.

Well, she was kinda right…? I wanted to rethink her views on him and see him in a different light, free from all off-base assumptions.

It was crystal clear to me that she and the others saw the head steward as nothing else but a villain just because he’s doing his job properly. I did not particularly enjoy listening to that.

“He’s strict with all the staff because he needs to be. You have to understand that as a head steward for the royal family, he has big responsibilities. Not only he has to perfectly carry out tasks directly ordered by the royal family and look after the crown prince, but he also has to ensure everything runs smoothly and efficiently in the Chateau. He can’t have the staff slacking off. If you and others did that, mistakes are bound to be made.

“Whether the mistakes the staff made are grave or not, they still can cost the family thousands of cruz. In addition to that, since he’s responsible for all of you, he is accountable to the family for your mistakes. And guess who will be the one fixing your mistakes?”

Sophie already knew the answer to my question. While she and the staff got away with just a sharp scolding from the steward and the head maid, it was the latter who have to deal with their mistakes. Mistakes they didn’t make and yet they were the ones who suffer from the consequences.

Guilt and shame pooled inside her as the realization dawned on her, causing her to lower her head. She felt selfish that she and the others only thought about themselves, prioritizing their needs at the expense of the steward.

“Claude…” Sophie mumbled softly.

‘Based from how crestfallen and ashamed she looks now,’ I studied her. ‘If it wasn’t for me telling her about this regarding him, I don’t think it ever occurs to her. But then again… She’s still young and it only makes sense for her to put their needs first before others. We all had been there.’

“You’re right. It’s Claude who has to clean up your mistakes. It isn’t fun, is it? On top of all the tasks he has to do, now he has to add one more to the list. Not only it is time-consuming, but it is also energy-consuming.”

“Yeah…”

“Look, I know Claude can be harsh with his criticisms, and I do wish that he could mince his words, but he means well. He’s not doing it to hurt you and the other. Think about it. He doesn’t spew out rude unsolicited remarks on your flaws. He only points out your mistakes that impact your job’s performance. He only wants you all to improve. Yes, it’s upsetting and embarrassing for you to get called out on it, but if it wasn’t for him, would you notice the mistake you were making?”

Sophie heaved out a sigh.

“I guess not…”

“Right. Sometimes it’s difficult for us to detect our own mistakes. You should trust Claude when he gives you input for the mistake he pointed out. He knows what he’s doing. After all, he went through many years of training. Might I add, he trained since he was still a child… Do you understand now?”

“Yes. I understand...I…I…” Sophie trailed off. After having no luck trying to find the words, she gave up and only nodded.

Heavy silence has befallen upon the two of us. I couldn’t help but feel worried that maybe I went over the line. She really looked upset after what I said… A shadow casting over her face.

“I-Sophie,” I told her, a concerned frown visible on my lips. “If I sounded too harsh, I’m so—”

“No.” She interrupted me in disagreement. “No, don’t be sorry Madeleine. You weren’t harsh. What you told me before about Claude, I must say it was an eye-opener. I never thought about it that way… And now because of you, I see him in a different light.”

Hearing that caused my body to relax as I breathed out a sigh of relief.

“I am glad you see that way about him now. But really, Sophie, if I sounded a bit harsh, I didn’t mean to. I just… It upsets me when others badly mouth a person behind their back for performing their job well. Sure, Claude wouldn’t care less about how others view him but… I just feel it’s unfair for him. Do you get what I mean?”

“No, it’s okay. I understand what you’re feeling. It isn’t nice. And again,” Sophie reassured me with a smile. “Don’t worry. You didn’t sound too harsh. Yes, I am upset, but it’s not because of you. I am upset at myself because I was selfish, only thinking about myself and not others.”

“Oh, Sophie… At least, you know now. Just don’t beat yourself too much alright? You’re still growing after all.”

“Yes okay. Thanks for telling me. I needed that. I’m going to try to be more understanding of Master Claude and others.”

I responded by returning her appreciative smile with one of my own.

“It’s my pleasure.”

After a few moments have passed, I glanced up at the clock beside the doorway only to frown at how late the night was getting. We had spent a long time talking despite the fact we were practically done with everything. I decided to wrap this session up as I still needed to hand one of the bags to the prince.

“It’s getting late,” I addressed. “Perhaps we should start tidying everything up now that we’re finished.”

The young maid hummed in agreement.

“You’re right. We should.”

Before we started cleaning the counter, I took the tray that still has the remaining cookies, offering it to Sophie, who currently appeared puzzled.

“There’s still some walnut and almond cookies left on the tray, you and the maids should have it.”

“What? More? No it’s fine, Mad—” She objected wide-eyed.

“It’s fine. Take them. Come on Sophie, give yourself and the maids a reward. You all deserve it.”

“We can’t!”

“Take them.”

“But—”

I gave her a look.

“Sophie. You will take them,” I told her once again. This time, my tone was firmer. I made sure that arguing with me would be pointless. And to drive that point even further, I shoved the tray onto her hands. It was so sudden that all Sophie could do was to immediately hold on to it before it fell to the floor, destroying our combined efforts. Once she was able to balance the tray, she gazed at me baffled. I only responded by giving her an innocent smile, trying so hard to stop myself from cackling.

She couldn’t believe I would use that tactic on her.

“Now that the cookies are with you, you can’t return them. Returning a gift is rude. So, just accept them alright?”

“Are you sure about giving these to us?”

“For the millionth time, yes Sophie. I am sure about giving the cookies to you all. Take them,” I rolled my eyes in exasperation as I proceeded back to picking up the dirty appliances and placing them onto the sink. “Now that is settled, can you kindly help me clean?”

“Oh right,” finally relented, she hurriedly put the tray away into the refrigerator and rejoined in helping me by wiping the counter. “Thank you, by the way, for the cookies. We will be sure to eat all of them.”

“As I said, it’s no problem. You all deserve a reward for your hard work.”

For the rest of the time, we cleaned up in comfortable silence. Satisfied that the kitchen returned back to its original squeaky clean state, I turned to Sophie.

“Well… I will be going now. I am not sure if I will see you tomorrow knowing I will be leaving in the morning… So…”

Before I could even finish what I wanted to say next (even then I didn’t think I could. I was too sad), she attacked me with a tight bear hug. My breath hitched at her suddenness and the tightness of her grip around me.

When she pulled back from me, a warm yet sad smile came over her features.

“Not going to lie but I will miss you a lot. It was nice knowing you and I am glad we somewhat became friends, which to this day I still don’t understand.”

“You make it sound like we’re never going to meet again,” I teased at her choice of words while my hands reached out to squish both her cheeks. “And also we’re friends because you’re literally a ball of joy. Aw, you’re so cute.”

Sophie let out noises of protest as she tried to swat both my hand away that was currently pinching her chubby peach-like cheeks.

“Hey! Stawp dah!” Seeing her attempt to speak properly at this current state while her hands frantically trying to pull my hands off was probably one of not only the most amusing but also the cutest thing I had ever seen in my entire life. Needless to say, it took a huge amount of whining from her for me to relent and release my grip on her cheeks.

In an instant, she placed her palms on her cheeks, rubbing the soreness away.

“That hurts, you know… Why are you obsessed with my cheeks?”

Her grumbling elicited another chuckle from me.

“That’s because your cheeks remind me of peaches. I just want to squish and poke them.”

If it was possible, her scowl deepened even further after I had affectionately poked one of her cheeks.

“Stop it will you? You’re going to burst my cheeks,” she whined.

“Okay okay!” I raised my hands in surrender. “I’ll stop! I can’t help it. You’re just so adorable.”

“I-I’m not cute! I’m eighteen! Which means I am almost a woman! I am anything but cute!”

“No offense but you complain like a child and what, eighteen years olds can’t be cute?”

“Eh? But aren’t we supposed to look sexy…?”

“Who said?” I challenged. “You can look however you want, as long as you’re comfortable with yourself. If you change your appearance based on what others tell you, you won’t be happy. Now, what have you been reading?”

The young girl shrank back at my stern expression while I waited for her answer.

“There were Teen Philippians and other beauty magazines loitering around the quarter…”

“Of course those kinds of magazines! Why am I not surprised?” I placed my hand on Sophie’s shoulders before looking at her with intent, the motherly attitude activated within me.

“Listen here, Sophie. The articles you read there in those magazines? Articles dictating how you should look at a particular age? They’re all full of unhealthy crap. They only serve to tear you down and as a result, many girls like you have become victims of body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, and mental disorders. And let me tell you Sophie, those issues don’t go so easily as you think. Unless you get proper help and care, you will suffer for the rest of your life. So promise me, you won’t read those articles? I don’t want you to fall victim. You’re already beautiful just the way you are.”

The maid didn’t respond and instead only stared at me with parted lips and wide eyes. It seems every moment she spent with me gets more and more surprising.

When I said Sophie was both my equal and my friend, I really meant it.

After getting over from her disbelief that a person like me cared about her, Sophie’s features softened. She felt touched.

(Everyday she grew more in awe of Lady Madeleine, seeing her more than just a friend, but an older sister she now looked up to.)

“Okay. I won’t read them,” the young maid promised while her mouth curved into a warm smile.

I then presented my pinky to her.

“Pinky promise?”

Sophie quickly glanced down at it before sending me a deadpanned look.

“You can’t be serious.”

“I am. You don’t want to be Claude 2.0 do you?”

At the slip-up, the young girl cocked one of her brows in interest.

“You forced Master Claude into a pinky promise…? How did that even go?”

“Yes, but that’s a story for another time,” my face burned bright red at Sophie’s sly tone and at my dumbass mistake. “Now can you just do this pinky promise? My hand is getting tired.”

“Sometimes I wonder if there’s a child occupying your body.”

I only responded by poking my tongue out at her.

Despite the eye-roll she gave because of my childish reply, Sophie still intertwined her pinky with mine after, signifying her promise to me.

“Done. It’s a promise. Happy now?”

“Yes! Once you pinky promised, you can’t break it.”

She sent another eye-roll my way.

“I’m not a toddler, Madeleine. I know how it works.”

“Hey, who could have known?” I shrugged. “Last time I checked, you still complain like a petulant child.”

“Hey!”

Her indignant glare along with the full-on pout on display and her arms folded across her chest sent me into a fit of giggles, which only caused her pout to be even more prominent.

‘Eliciting a reaction out of her never gets boring.’

After a few moments had passed by and I finally came down to earth, chest heaving heavily from lack of breath, my eyes are greeted with a grumpy Sophie.

“Finished laughing?”

I nodded silently. Still out of breath, I couldn’t say anything.

“Hmph. You and Master Claude should just get together already. Totally made for one another…”

I knew I wasn’t supposed to catch that remark—hence the mutter—but alas my ears picked it up and as a result filled my heart with longing and hope. I tried so hard to mask my grin from appearing to make as if I heard nothing of it.

‘I hope someday, we will get together… Someday. I wonder how that will be like… Being with him as more than just an heiress and butler...’

My mind wandered imagining different scenarios of us together. Teaching me how to brew tea… Going to different garden, museums, parks, markets… Watching a tea ceremony… Picking out herbs and creating different blends with them… Having a conversation for hours and enjoying each other’s presence… Holding hands… Waking up beside him…

Just thinking of doing all those activities with him made me all fuzzy with warm feelings, my heart soaring at how nice it would be.

“Uh… Madeleine? Are you okay?”

A pair of hands waved in front of me, breaking me away from my daydream and alas leaving me a bit disoriented.

“Huh?”

“You suddenly went into a trance out of nowhere… And there was this silly smile on your face… Maybe you should go give the cookies to His Royal Highness now ‘cause it is clear to me you need some rest.”

“Oh.”

A surge of mortification went through my body, freezing me in one spot.

‘Oh… Oh no… I can’t believe I went off into a trance in front of someone again… And nonetheless in a trance about Claude!’

Seconds after, Sophie gasped, panic and concern written all over her face after noticing the color of my face… Or the lack thereof...

“Madeleine! Your face is pale!” Accompanied by a shout, the young maid gripped onto my arms and shook me frantically, and to be frank, vigorously also.

“O-Okay you really really need to go now!”

It was heaven-sent that Sophie had mistaken my pale face for exhaustion instead of humiliation. The young maid hurriedly went to grab the two bags of cookies laying on the counter and pushed them onto my hands before giving me a powerful shove to my back. It was enough force to budge my uncooperative legs from their spot.

Perhaps it was too much force that moving wasn’t just the only thing I did. I would be concerned at the sheer strength this girl has in her small body.

If it wasn’t for Sophie’s fast reflex, I would have landed on my butt with much grace all thanks to my clumsiness and I could easily imagine Claude being unimpressed with me once again for literally tripping over nothing, probably commenting that I have a coordination as good as a newborn fawn’s (I should stop thinking about the butler...).

If this was some other time where I wasn’t in such an undesirable situation, I would be concerned at the amount of strength this girl has in her petite body.

Letting out a surprised strangled noise, I was dragged out of the kitchen and to the entrance of the maids quarter by a tiny maid. The sight was unusual, to say the least as a few remaining maids stopped what they were doing and observed a fairly tall woman—a royal guest too—getting pushed by a small and young maid. It was safe to say, there were a mixture of bewildered and judgmental looks among them.

At the moment, Sophie couldn’t care less as she was a woman on a mission, too focused (and worried) on getting me back to the entrance before I actually “fall ill”.

Once we arrived at the entrance to the maids’ quarters, Sophie had let go of me and turned my body around to face her. For the first time since we first met, she was the one worrying over me, treating me like I was the younger sister. Not that I didn’t mind, it was a comforting change.

“Now Madeleine, you should hurry on and give the cookies to His Highness. And go straight to your room when you’re done. I don’t want you getting sick when you leave in the morning,” the young maid firmly ordered in a tone that closely resembled both my mother and Eloisa before sighing with exasperation.

“God knows how awful it feels when you need to go somewhere while sick even though all you wanted to do is stay in bed…Soooo off you go now,” ending with a pointed look that offered no arguments to be made, I conceded readily. It wasn’t as if I’m going to defy her in the first place. While I was nowhere being sick, I was drained after afternoon tea and baking. A long nice rest was desperately needed.

‘Besides, I currently don’t want to know how she will respond if I said no. The fierce look she has on really gives the same energy as mama and Eloisa. I still can remember the earful they gave me when I disobeyed after… Best to listen to her now or we’ll probably wake the whole Chateau up… and Claude.’

“Alright. I’ll go now,” I reached out to tousle Sophie’s hair, my fondness for the young girl showing through. “Thank you for looking out for me… If you ever want to communicate with me or ask for help, you can write me a letter anytime, okay?”

She nodded her head before giving me a smile.

“I will.”

“See you next time I visit. Take care,” I immediately reached forward to hug her. I then turned around to walk my way to most likely the prince’s office (hoping he was there), leaving her with one last warm smile from me before I disappeared from her sight.

•••
Flashback end
9.30 am

After spending an hour and a half packing all my things and fixing the room up, making it at least presentable, I brought my Rimowa suitcase to the door. I was told that Claude would come to get me at ten in the morning… But since there was nothing left to do besides waiting patiently, which was something I wasn’t really good at, I could just approach the head steward and give the cookies privately…? That’s if I’m able to find him in this huge place…

Honestly, I didn’t think I would have the nerves to give cookies to him, out in the main entrance when I leave. In additional to Wilfred and Danielle seeing me off, the entrance was so out there. Which meant anyone could observe… Yeah, I won’t be able to do with so many eyes on me, I would literally combust.

‘Then it’s settled. I’m going to find Claude.’

With unwavering resolve, I gripped onto my suitcase’s handle and move it behind me as I leave the guest room to find Claude’s room… or office. I practically had no idea where his room was but if I had to make a guess, it was probably somewhere in-between Wilfred’s office and the staff’s residence. Better than wandering mindlessly and getting lost, I headed towards the hallway leading to the prince’s office, suitcase in one hand and a tote bag in another.

‘If there’s a maid along the way, that would be great…’

•••
9.40 am

It had been ten minutes of walking and by the minute, I was getting antsy and nervous as Claude’s office was still nowhere in sight. I had already passed the prince’s office a few minutes ago and asked a couple of maids on the way and yet here I was, clueless.

Speaking of the maids, albeit they concealed it very well, their interest peaked when I had asked where the head steward’s office was. It became more obvious (and maybe I saw some confusion too) when I declined their offer to take me there. Aside from the brief raised of their eyebrows, I was thankful they said nothing of it although I was very sure they were going to dish to one another later on. I couldn’t care any less at the moment. I was lost and I needed assistance.

And I was starting to regret my decision on declining. Either way, they’re going to talk about me going to his office with or without them right?

“They told me to keep going straight…” I muttered under my breath. My eyes carefully surveyed around, trying to find the painting one of the maids mentioned before. I was supposed to go left, if I had seen it. The thing was… I couldn’t really differentiate which lake was which as I passed by a number of paintings that showcase the kingdom’s many lakes, all in different shapes and sizes.

‘Maybe that was the reason behind the confusion expressed in some maids when I declined their offer… Now they assume I know which lake is Lake Victoria… How great!’

“Where is that painting of that goddamn lake…” I grumbled under my breath in annoyance while my other hand ran through my tousled hair.

Now look, I have no dislike towards lakes and all natural sceneries. I actually quite enjoy visiting and admire them. However at this moment, if I see another goddamn lake and it’s not Lake Victoria, I will literally lose my mind. The urge to tear my hair out was tempting.

That’s how frustrated I was getting. Who could’ve thought spotting for a painting of a famous lake could be such a difficult task?

Okay, maybe it was difficult because of how huge and complex this place was with all these many hallways. It was like those intricate mazes you see in fancy parks.

I know that continuous reciting of the lake’s name over again like a mantra would never ever make the desired painting materialize out of nowhere, but I still did it anyway.

No, I never noticed the strange looks I received from other staff that I walked by. I was either too caught up in my desperation and anxiety. Time was ticking and I was nowhere near the steward’s office.

Both my brain and eyes were putting extra effort on picking apart the scrutable details from each portraits hanging on the walls and deducing which of it was the right one.

Another few minutes passed by and my shoulders slumped more and more as I lost all hope of actually finding the one. I was on the verge of just giving up and go back and wait in the guest room, when my sharp eyes caught the words “Lake Victoria” engraved on the golden frame, causing me to abruptly halt my steps. I turned to face the painting, making sure I wasn’t hallucinating, that what I saw was real.

‘Oh my God! This is it! I finally found it!’

As I squealed in joy, a celebratory party going on in my head, I looked up only for my jaw to drop at the sight of the painting.

I kid you not it was gigantic. The painting was about one meter and a half in length and the golden frame had nearly touched the ceiling. How I didn’t notice it from afar still boggled me. Probably because at that point, I wasn’t even trying anymore.

‘Huh,’ I mused while gazing appreciatively at the piece in front of me. ‘You don’t need to look closely to know this is the painting we’re looking for. Putting the size aside, the contrast between the lush green forests surrounding the bubble gum pink lake makes the whole piece eye-catching.’

No wonder why the royal family commissioned having a painting of this lake big. It was stunning. Imagine if I were to see it in reality, I bet it would be even more stunning. Next time I would be sure to visit it… Might need to ask Claude about it…

And speaking of the steward… I almost forgot the reason I was searching for this painting in the first place, which was to get to his office. God, I get distracted too easily…

Not wasting any more time, I recalled what the maid instructed.

“Once you passed the painting, you’ll see another corridor on your right…”

And just as she said, indeed there was a hallway on my right. I grabbed my suitcase, quietly strolling it behind me as I turned to the right before walking down the path towards his office.

I must say, the corridor was very lonely and depressing. It had only one lone door, which I was sure it was to the office. The walls were also lacking in decoration and there wasn’t that much lighting here.

As I reached closer almost to the end of the corridor, where the office was, I could feel myself getting jittery and my heart pounding so hard and fast against my chest. By the time I finally reached the door, the sound of paper being rustled and scribbling could be heard through the wall, which only served to make me even more nervous. More butterflies erupted in my stomach. Needless to say, I was a walking bundle of nerves.

I stood in front of the door for god knows how long. I couldn’t get myself to knock on his door with anxiety and nervousness getting the best of me.

‘Okay Madeleine,’ I gave myself a pep talk. ‘You’re already here. You can’t back down now after the struggles you went through on finding his office. You can do this. Calm down and take a deep breath.’

I slowly inhaled and exhaled, trying to get rid of my nerves while I steeled myself for possible unpleasant situations.

“You can do this,” I encouraged myself under my breath. “What could go wrong? I am just giving Claude some cookies, and it’s his favorite too! Butter cookies!”

After taking a gulp, I raised my hand to the door and knock on it a few times.

“Claude? It’s me, Madeleine.”

•••

Claude halted his pen mid-writing at the sound of knocking on his door. Soon after, he raised his head up to the door only to furrowed his eyebrows in irritation at his concentration being disturbed. He was in the middle of fixing his master’s schedule for next week. So many changes had to be made…

‘Who could possibly have the nerves to disturb me at this time? I had told them not to.’

The head steward was about to speak up when Madeleine beat him to it, her voice, timid and uncertain, could be heard through his door.

“Claude? It’s me, Madeleine.”

At the sound of Madeleine’s feminine voice, he couldn't stop his body’s reaction. He felt his body stiffened and his heart jumping out of his chest.

Once the shock had passed and his heart had calmed down (albeit it was still beating a bit faster than normal), he grasped his pocket watch from his pant’s pocket, worrying that he was late to pick Lady Madeleine up.

Claude clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, an irritated frown appeared on his lips when he saw that it was still ten minutes before the scheduled time. He furrowed his eyebrows even further, feeling puzzled now.

‘It’s not yet time, what could be so serious for Lady Madeleine to come find me now…’ A grunt escaped the steward as he rose from his seat and walked towards the door. He swung the door open.

“Lady Madeleine! I’m not sure if you can read time bu—,” the head steward was about to reprimand her but stopped mid-sentence when he saw the current state of Madeleine.

Sure, Madeleine prepared herself to knock on his door, but did she prepare herself to actually see him face to face? Nope!

Just thinking about it caused a redness to creep up her face.

As she waited for the door with bated breath, she felt the anxiety coming back, overwhelming her to the fact she lowered her head. Her eyes watched her feet fidget while both her hands clenched and unclenched.

So, that was how she ended up looking now in front of the steward. While he couldn’t see her face, Claude saw her whole body tremble. He felt the anxiety and nervousness radiating around her. When Madeleine lifted her head up after hearing his voice (not caring he was about to scold her), the steward finally was able to take a look at her face. Not only her cheeks are flushed red, but the corner of her lips had also curved into a small bashful smile. Her wide eyes darted to his office behind him as she was too shy to maintain eye contact with him.

‘... Cute…’

It was the first time Claude had seen Madeleine looking like this. Yes, the past few days, he had caught her blushing but she wasn’t as shy and delicate as now. He couldn’t help but think about how cute she was at the moment, his breath hitched quietly at the rare sight in front of him. Soon he realized he had been staring for so long at her and attempted to cover it up by the clearing of his throat, looking firm at her.

“There’s nothing inside, but I insist you to stop peeking into my office. Now Lady Madeleine, do you mind explaining why are you here before the scheduled time? If it’s something of no importance, I am afraid I need to go back to work.”

At his words, Madeleine’s eyes finally met his after surveying (it was unintentional) the inside of his office. Knowing Claude, it was expected that everything inside was neat and organized. However, the heiress closely observed that there was a lack of his personal belongings. There’s not much customization done to the room. It was as if he had left the office as it was since he got it…

“No!” Madeleine shouted loudly, perhaps too loud that both she and Claude winced. Too loud that her shout slightly echoed throughout the corridor they were in.

Realizing that, Madeleine went bright red from embarrassment. She continued speaking in a now softer voice while Claude regarded her with silent reproach from her previous action. Well at least now his attention was on her, waiting.

“Um it is something important… Do you mind if we go inside? I don’t want any uninvited eyes seeing this…besides you.”

A look of confused skepticism flashed across the butler’s face at her vagueness…. But…

Was it just him or did that last sentence sounded a bit inappropriate?

Nevertheless, Claude opened the door wider and stepped aside for Madeleine to enter.

The heiress walked to the front of his desk and while she waited standing for Claude to close the door shut, her whole body started to fidget again with the soles of her feet moving forward and backward and the tightening of her hand’s grip around her bag’s straps.

When Claude finally headed back to her, he caught her jaw clenching and unclenching followed by the biting of her lips (he might be a little concerned at how hard she was biting them), causing his eyebrows to knit in a mixture of befuddlement and curiosity.

As he said before, he had never the heiress so anxious and flustered in the past where her body started shaking slightly. Not even the time when after he caught her peeking on Zain and a friend of hers.

Claude admitted he found it cute at first but now he couldn’t help but feel concerned for Madeleine. It was very disconcerting for him to observe the flusteredness and anxiety—more intense than usual too—persisting within her longer. Usually, she would snap out of it so quickly… but this… It was odd. Whatever she wanted to tell him, it must be seriously important and nerve-wracking.

“My Lady,” Claude began gently. “Do you have something to say to me? Is there a problem?”

Madeleine pulled her bag closer as she nodded timidly, the unsureness clouding her eyes.

“I do. I… have something important to say. Actually, I want to give you something…”

‘Huh?’

He wasn’t given time to ask for clarification as she soon opened her bag and the next thing he saw was a small plastic bag filled with cookies being offered to him or rather shoved at…

“H-Here!” the heiress’ flustered voice filled out the office, her words spilling out in a nervous spitfire. “I-I am giving you some cookies to thank you for making my stay a-amazing!”

Claude stared down on the gift for the next few seconds, feeling unsure of what to make of it. Incredulous that, an heiress, a lady of aristocracy would give him a gift. He then lifted his head, eyes wide, to see her face turned to the side. Since she had her long hair tied into a sleek ponytail, he could see the obvious red flush of her cheeks, now spreading everywhere. Her mouth curved into a (cute) pout as she let out a huff of air. Here and then, her eyes would briefly meet his before moving away again as the shyness overwhelmed her.

After a moment of speechless silence, he found his voice to stammer out a question.

“This is… F-For me…?”

Madeleine gave a small timid nod, her head still facing away.

“I can’t accept this...I—I am not worthy of such gifts,” Claude murmured after finally processed her answer, nonetheless his face still burned from her gesture. “—Are you sure it’s for me...?”

Uncertainty and insecurity laced through his words, causing the heiress to whipped her head at him, a frown visible on her lips. She was prepared to make a smart comeback but when she heard the emotions in his voice and his face, the same emotions reflecting off...

It never failed to send a knife to her heart every time she saw him, so unsure, so insecure when it comes to himself. It upset her so much to see that he still doesn’t believe in himself.

So badly did she want to embrace him in her arms and comfort him with words. She could go on persuading him how he’s worthy and deserving until he truly believes it. She could list down all the good things about him...

How much of a good and hard-working leader he was.

How he was skillful and confident when performing any task. What could he not do?

How he was positive and accepting of his past. How he felt grateful because it led to where he was now.

How he was loyal to the prince and the royal family, keeping their best interest in mind. And sure it might be a pain in the ass on some situations, Madeleine still admired how he never wavered from his values and beliefs.

How he was knowledgeable in almost every topic and mostly like could hold a stimulating discussion, something Madeleine looked forward to.

Let’s not forget how sharp-witted and scathing he could be with his remarks that she couldn’t help but feel impressed even though it burned.

How he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, so honest and straight-forward.

Madeleine loved the way he’s passionate about tea and its brewing process, just as much as she did. She loved it even more when she watched him brew a perfect cup of tea with so much ease. She loved it even more when she found out he could create his own tea blends. She couldn’t wait to at least try each of his creation.

She saw how caring and gentle he was from the way he treated her and Mrs. Graham during their trip. She remembered how he protected her from the sleazy man. She remembered how swift he took care of such unpleasant situation and looked after her, tending the bruises she received with care. She remembered during the night of Wilfred’s birthday when he followed her to the garden because he was worried about her. That led to probably one of the most unforgettable and beautiful nights Madeleine ever had.

He was considerate by showing her around Cassiar Street, where all the local artisans and merchants were. He knew she was interested in art the second he saw her admiring the portraits along the corridors.

And when Wilfred was about to cancel the whole trip, Claude could’ve have said nothing but he volunteered to accompany her. She found it adorable how he tried to make an excuse.

She saw how friendly and social he was to the locals. It was as if he knew and treat everyone in town as friends. It was such a happy sight that all she could do was smile with adoration for this man. It seemed like she wasn’t the only one who got under his spell.

And that smile…. That huge genuine smile she witnessed during his chat with Mrs. Graham where his eyes also crinkled. It was radiant like the sun, and perhaps even more. It was so full of warmth and affection and you could see the joy clearly written all over his face. God, that moment she wished that she would see more of his smile next time. She wished that maybe he could reserved smile like that for her.

Madeleine could go on listing down what she thought about him and tell him but with where they were at currently… and with current circumstances…

… That was not possible.

Alas, she settled by making eye contact and giving him a tender smile, making sure she put all of her feelings into that very smile.

She made sure she put all her warmth, affection, happiness, comfort, passion into it, hoping it would reach his heart and soothe it.

Not sure how but a sudden surge of courage coursed through me and the next thing she knew, she was reaching out for his hand.

Taking his hand with hers, Madeleine placed the bag of cookies on his palm. She then took his other hand, wrapping hers around it and place it on top of the bag. With a soft push from her fingers, Claude’s fingers gently enclosed around the bag of cookies, making sure the cookies aren’t crushed.

There was no denying that both of them felt the electric shock going through them the second their hands touched. While Madeleine tried to downplay the reaction aside her cheeks going red. Now wasn’t the time to think about how she felt during that moment. All her focus was on consoling Claude.

As for the said steward, it was a whole different story. It was already startling enough when Lady Madeleine had come to his office to give him a gift.

But when he saw Madeleine’s smile and the intense gaze she had that held such intense passion, tenderness, and affection (perhaps even yearning?), it was as if all the coherent words Claude knew just flew out from his mind, making him at a loss for words. It appears that her smile and gaze had the power to knock out logic since he was completely blanked out, all his thoughts are mushed together into one incoherent mess.

If that wasn’t enough, the shock of electricity he felt the very moment her hand touched his… and the way she held it with such tender gentleness, it had knocked him breathless, letting out a sharp gasp as his blue eyes went wide. He was stunned.

It wasn’t that he never experienced something like that. Yes, he did experience it with his former fiancé but that was history.

Yes, he experienced tenderness and fondness from His Highness, but that was because they had known each other since they were just children. For years, they saw each other as brothers despite the fact Claude was there only to serve His Highness and soon become the head steward. Also….

‘Isn’t the love felt between siblings different from the love felt between partners?’

The reason why he reacted this way was because…

It has been a long time since someone had expressed their warm feelings of affection and tenderness towards him. Someone he grew feelings for…

And the fact it’s someone from a higher social standing than him, who deserved so much better than him, that was expressing them, it brought him waves over waves of stunned confusion and conflict, throwing him off…

...

He had been so caught up with burying himself into work as a means of escape from the storm that raged on in his heart. So badly did he want to forget and move on from what happened with his ex, both the good and the very bad. Nothing really hurts more than finding out your partner so loved up in another man’s embrace. It truly hurts because all along he thought everything was fine. His partner had acted the same way she usually was when she’s with him, the same way he loved. She even reassured him everything was okay when he felt bad from being away for training. She even turned down his offer to ask the prince for more time with her.

So why did she lie to him? How did it ever come to that? All the loving things she had done for him and with him during the duration of their relationship, was that an act? … But why?

For many days when he wasn’t working and nights after, he spent it on agonizing whether he did something wrong. If he did it unknowingly, his ex would always tell him (unless she kept some inside) and he would make it up to her. That went the same for her. And of course, all relationships were bound to have fights and arguments but at the end of the day, the two of them would reconcile.

Everything was perfect.

When Claude couldn’t find the faults in their relationship, he could only come to a painful conclusion that he simply wasn’t enough for her. What other reason could explain her running to another man? What did that man have that he didn’t? What was he missing?

Just like a snap, untrue or not, the belief that he wasn’t enough for anyone was strongly ingrained within him. He believed that he couldn’t ever fulfill his partner. He was undeserving and unworthy of any love and attention.

He soon then made a promise that he would never love another person and never enter into a relationship with them, simply because he didn’t deserve it.

Simply because he feared another repeat of betrayal. He refused to suffer from the anguish and the misery again for the second time.

He wouldn’t know what to do if he had to endure his partner breaking things off out of nowhere when things are fine. He wouldn’t know what to do if he had to endure them leaving him for a (better, more deserving) person the second they suddenly found him boring and unfulfilling, reminding him one more time that he would never be enough.

Not going to lie, when Lady Madeleine entered the picture, he found her to be the most infuriating person with her sarcastic comments and her loud and unruly attitude, so unfitting for an aristocrat lady. Oh, he still found her infuriating but it no longer bothered him that much because along with getting to know her in the past few days, that same attitude of hers had allowed her to creep into his mind unannounced. It was even difficult to get her off his mind, his strong resolve to keep his promise wavering every time he witnessed her endearing moments.

He really did try to stay loyal to his promise, he really did.

But every goddamn time this woman opened up to him…

Or the time she gave him that warm tender smile that could melt any person’s heart...

Or the time she regarded him with so much gentleness, so much affection and longing…

Or also the time she spoke nice words about him, praise him, lift him up when he brought himself down (she didn’t need to do that)…

Every goddamn time she did them, ribbons of his resolve on keeping his promise started to unravel one by one. So easily she knocked down all his hard efforts to keep his control of his feelings at bay.

“Claude,” Madeleine’s soft voice spoke to him.

The steward felt a finger pressed lightly against the space between his eyebrows. Pushing his thoughts aside, he looked up only to catch sight of her soothing smile and her gentle gaze, causing his heart to beat faster.

“As much as I find you attractive with a frown, I would rather see you with a smile. You frown too much.”

Claude’s lips parted as he stared her wide-eyed and yet he could not utter anything at the moment. He was sure he felt his heart skipped a beat after listening to her sweet words.

“Anyways...” Madeleine pressed on in spite of the shyness she was feeling inside. “Yes Claude, this is really for you… and believe me when I said you’re worthy. If I didn’t think you were, I wouldn’t be here nor I wouldn’t even make your favorite cookies last night.”

‘And I like you. I like you a lot.’

“So please,” the heiress gently persuaded the steward. “Take my gift… accept my token of appreciation…. Aside from that, it would be a waste of cookies if you refuse it.”

‘Please… please accept my feelings.’

While Claude still felt troubled inside, the genuine in her voice compelled him to accept the bag of cookies.

“I-Uh thank you… for the cookies, my Lady.”

Madeleine deeply sighed out of relief after finally hearing him gave in. She had no idea what was going on inside his mind, but she was thankful this turned out alright in the end. A smile bloomed across her face when she observed his change of expression from one of the doubt to one of bashfulness. It was too much to handle for her heart when his lips curved into a small shy smile while his cheeks turned red. He must be so shy that he had his eyes glancing around.

“See, much better when you smile.”

His blush grew even darker.

At the sound of my giggle, finding his reaction adorable, the steward let out a huff of air from exasperation, his frown coming back.

‘So cute.’

When her laughter finally subsided and as a result, Claude's grumbling had stopped, Madeleine tugged her suitcase, prepared to leave his room since she finished with my objective.

“Well, that’s that,” she uttered awkwardly. “I hope you enjoy the cookies I made. There’s butter, walnut, and almond cookies inside. I'm ...”

The heiress took a deep staggering breath before she held him in her gaze.

“I’m not good with expressing my feelings out loud so everything I wanted to say about you is inside that white envelope tied around the bag…”

Claude’s eyes followed her finger being pointed at the envelope. How he did not notice the paper despite being so out of place, the two of them would never know. However, now that he noticed it, he reached his hand out to the envelope with the intention of opening it and reading the letter inside.

Horrified, Madeleine rushed to interject with a shout.

“No!”

Claude had his hand barely touching the corner when he stopped and looked at her with one brow raised in question.

“What?”

“Don’t read it!”

The butler only responded by sending me his typical unamused “are you that dumb” look.

‘Ah there it is.’

“Lady Madeleine, what was the point of that letter if not reading it?”

“I-I mean, you might not want to read it now… in front of me… It’s going to be awkward between us afterward…”

Claude contorted his face in suspicion as Lady Madeleine finished with a mumble while her cheeks burned red. It was even more suspicious that her eyes now refused to make eye contact with his.

“Lady Madeleine, what—”

“Just don’t read it now!” Madeleine hurriedly cut him off before he could even ask in that authoritative tone. If he had continued, she would probably hear a hint of accusation in his words.

“Is it something improper?!”

“No! Why would I do that?! It’s nothing like that!”

“Then why can’t I read it?”

“J-Just because!”

“You can’t be serious. You’re really going to use that excuse with me?” The steward regarded her in disbelief. “Is your critical thinking this awful early in the morning? Or… has it always been awful?”

Madeleine gasped. Feeling insulted, she pointed my finger at him, not caring it was rude. From Claude’s eyes twitching, you could tell he was ticked off at the gesture.

“Y-You! I can tell you right here that my critical thinking works completely fine!”

“Then tell me one valid reason why I can’t read it now?”

The steward finished by jutting his hip to one side while his arms are loosely folded across his chest, the bag hanging from one hand. If she could, she would smack the cocky and challenged expression off Claude’s face.

“Are your ears full of dirt? I mentioned before that I wrote my feelings on that paper! Hence, it’s embarrassing for you to read it in front of me!”

“What’s so embarrassed about speaking your feelings out loud? Unless it’s something inappropriate...”

Madeleine couldn’t believe the sentence that came out from his mouth.

‘Claude? The same person who’s expressionless almost 24/7 saying something like that? And what, pigs are flying now?’

The heiress exploded in laughter at his previous remark, which irked him even further from the way the corners of his lips were twitching. Once she calmed down, she gazed at him with a sardonic smirk.

“It’s hilarious you’re telling me that when you’re known to be emotionless most of the time. I could have mistaken you for some AI robot,” Madeleine retorted with so much sarcasm dripping off her words. Without a blink, her current expression drastically turned into an unpleasant scowl and her brown eyes now glaring fiercely at him. She was getting tired of his same old accusation.

‘Doesn’t he get bored of it?’

“And also, would you stop accusing me of writing inappropriate things for you? I am not that shameless.”

If his mouth was only twitching before, it was now in full-on scowl accompanied by his eyes narrowing slightly.

“If your brain finds it so hard to remember, let me refresh it for you. I am the head steward for a royal family. Expressing my emotions during my job is unprofessional. Now, if you say it’s not inappropriate, then do tell, Lady Madeleine. Why aren’t you allowing me to read now?”

Madeleine groaned in annoyance. She rolled her eyes so hard she could feel them at the back of her head.

“You’re being so unreasonably stubborn! You just can’t alright! Not now!”

“You didn’t even ans—”

“Just drop it will you! Please, Claude?”

“I will not!”

It was funny how every single time both of them talk, the mood of the room could drastically change. At one moment the atmosphere would be oddly intimate and then moments later, it would be explosive with both of them as they quarrel back and forth.

‘This is so useless,’ Madeleine whined inside. Her eyes darted quickly to the clock on the side.

Nine minutes left to ten. She no longer remembered whether they should be at the main entrance by ten or for Claude to pick her up by ten…

A light bulb suddenly went off in her mind.

If she kept avoiding Claude’s question by giving him vague answers, they would only go around in circles and the longer this took, surely sparks would fly between them and no, she wasn’t talking about the good kind of sparks.

It was clear, he wasn’t going to back down. For what reason, she had no idea. All she could think was how unreasonable he was acting for something so trivial.

“Fine! You want to know why you can’t read the letter now?”

He nodded, as he gazed at me with anticipation.

‘Well, he’s about to be annoyed.’

“You know why?” Madeleine paused for a while acting as if she was about to say some shocking confession. Besides the dramatics, she wanted a payback at Claude for being so unrelenting. Why couldn’t he easily accept that she didn’t want to talk about the letter?

“That’s because…” Claude now sent me an impatient look, urging me to spit it out at once. “Because we have no time! Oh, would you look at the time! It’s only a few minutes to ten and we already should be going.”

Claude should have remembered that she was just as hard-headed as he was. She wasn’t going to back down either. No way in hell or in any other alternative universe was she going to tell him what she wrote in that goddamn paper. She rather smash her head against a table than indirectly confess her feelings. Besides, he has a pair of functional eyes! He can read it on his own!

As Madeleine predicted, he was indeed annoyed. After the shock wore off, he pressed his lips into a tight line, a crease forming in his forehead. He also had a brief moment of disappointment but couldn’t put a finger on why. Could it be he was expecting something else deep inside?

Nevertheless, he pushed the disappointment to the back of his mind and tried to make his irritation more apparent instead. His eyebrows knitted together after seeing Madeleine wasn’t lying. The steward gave up with a reluctant grunt.

“Tch, indeed it’s almost ten. We have to go immediately.”

He had to give it to her for being sly. She managed to escape her predicament at the end.

‘How infuriating. And here I thought I could succeed in getting a word out of her.’

“Finally!” Madeleine exhaled with much exaggeration.

Given how dramatic the heiress could be, it wasn’t a surprise when she then pretended she was thanking the deities up there by clasping her hands together into a prayer gesture while facing the ceiling with eyes squeezed shut.

“To any deities up there, thank you for listening to my plead, for getting me out of this petty argument.”

After finishing her “prayer”, she casually went on to grab her suitcase again and started pulling it behind her to Claude’s door.

Everything was so quick and absurd that he only stood still watching her performance at a loss for words. Did she suddenly pray ...? In front of him…?

Had it been not for noticing the absent sound of footsteps coming behind her, she wouldn’t have glanced back and yelled “You coming? The clock is ticking, Claude!” and he would’ve stayed in frozen in that one spot, still baffled at the heiress.

Thanks to her, Claude’s senses returned back to him. With the way she was acting afterward as if she did nothing weird before, the steward brushed what happened before off as nothing except being one of many Lady Madeleine’s silly theatrical antics. He was out of his mind if he really thought that she was seriously praying with all those flamboyant motions. She even purposely uttered her prayers out loud and her eyes peeking to see his reaction!

Rolling his eyes at her silliness, he let out a derisive snort, placing the bag of cookies on his desk before he hurried towards the door, trying to catch up after the woman.

‘That woman is always full of surprises… She never fails to leave me baffled.’

Without realizing, a small font smile appeared across his lips as he thought of her. As Claude exited from his corridor and into the main hallway, he saw Madeleine walking further down with a suitcase in one hand, each small step she took forward had made her appear tinier and tinier in his view.

He wondered if she still remembered the way back…

His office was a bit far out from anything and there wasn’t many staff in his part of the hallway. Then again, unless they had cleaning duties or something important to inform him, he ordered them to stay away from this area.

Whether she got lost or not It was a miracle that Madeleine managed to locate him despite never visiting this part of the Chateau since the day she arrived.

With long and quick strides, Claude was able to catch up with Madeleine, now taking his place beside her.

“So Lady Madeleine, I assume you know your way back?”

She wouldn’t admit out loud that she had no idea how to get back so she stayed quiet. Her sense of pride wouldn’t allow it, especially since it was only a fairly short distance and then there was Claude beside her… Yep, not going to happen.

‘You focused too much on finding that lake painting! Now you don’t know how to go back!’ Madeleine mentally berated herself. ‘How can I be so reckless!’

With his question being met with silence, the steward took a glance at her.

She could’ve fooled him with her blank face if it wasn’t for her eyes wandering around her with discretion or at least attempted to, and her head turning slightly to check each corridor as if she was trying to retrace which way she took. Her grip around the straps of her tote bag had alternately switched from tight to loose, a telltale sign of nervousness. Those were enough to confirm his suspicion.

‘Well, there is my answer. She has no idea where she’s going.’

The steward waited a few more seconds for her to give an answer and to no avail, her mouth still remained shut into a tight line while she continued eyeing each corridor.

Claude breathed out a weary sigh.

“I really can’t leave you alone for a moment… You’re lucky that I am accompanying you. You would have been a lost child.”

“It’s not my fault for being unable to journey back. This place is just too big and too complex,” Madeleine excused her inability in reading and remembering directions with the size of the palace. Not going to lie, the heiress wasn’t entirely incorrect. Like she stated before, the Chateau was like a huge maze.

Claude gave her a pointed look as they kept walking to their destination side by side. Well, it was more of Madeleine trying to keep up with his pace, despite him already slowing down.

“Which means you should be more aware of your surroundings… Perhaps Lady Madeleine, if you’re having trouble with that, I can help by giving you a spool of red thread? To avoid you from getting lost?”

The heiress tilted her head at him in confusion. His odd question had certainly vexed her.

“What? How will some thread help me?”

Madeleine noticed the smirk slowly creeping into the steward’s face as he saw her getting more clueless with time passing, giving away that he was just teasing her. But what? She couldn’t fully grasp the joke, its implication flying pass over her head.

This left her digging through her thoughts, her mind working hard to connect the dots.

‘How does using a thread stop me from getting lost? It makes no sense…’

And then it hit her.

‘Oh.’

Claude was implying that she should bring along the spool with her when going to someplace, unwinding the thread along the way… So when she planned to return back, she could just retrace her steps by following the line of the thread she left behind… And it’s red so she could see it...

‘That brat!’

Madeleine made her displeasure known to the steward—which only confirmed to him that she finally caught on—by humphing with a pout settling on her lips at the same time.

“Ha ha very funny,” she responded with sarcasm.

Yet, the pout didn’t remain for long once she saw Claude snickering, her pout now replaced by a smile. She didn’t care that he was laughing at her. As long as he was looking all mirthful, feeling at ease, she didn’t mind. She loved seeing him like that, especially since his job demanded so much from him. It was truly a rare sight to see him act this way.

“It is funny. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be a smile on your face, am I right my Lady?”

‘Oh Claude, only if you knew. You being happy and relaxed is the reason why I am smiling.’

That was what she wanted to say out loud but she only opted for an eye roll, pushing her thoughts to the back of her mind.

“Oh why yes, indeed did I find it hilarious. Hilarious that you pulled out a joke my late grandfather would likely to do.”

“Lady Madeleine, are you enunciating my humor as old-fashioned?”

Claude glanced at her from the side, looking quite affronted at her previous remark, but he knew not to take it too deeply by heart. It did hurt his ego a bit, but however, he brushed the feelings away. It was all lighthearted fun and he was pretty sure he had done that to a couple of people, and by that, he was referring to his master, Lady Danielle, and Lady Madeleine.

Madeleine only shrugged in response.

“Depends on how you process what I said before,” she then smirked. “You may have powerful jabs that hit hard, however your jokes… Still, need a whole lot of work. But not to worry...”

The heiress assured the deflated steward by showing him a grin although there was an edge of mischief to it. “If it comforts you, outdated or not, I still enjoyed hearing my grandfather’s jokes.”

Which meant…

“Yes, I still enjoyed your joke… or your effort to joke.”

At her words of admission, Claude felt a bit more comforted. His ego, which was previously bruised, now healed up very nicely. Despite feeling elated inside, the steward didn’t express it outwards, hiding it with an eye roll. He didn’t want Madeleine to know how much the heiress’ words had affected him.

“Anyways,” Claude cleared his throat loudly, expressing his desire to change the subject, his voice now back to being professional. “I would appreciate if you keep an eye on your surroundings, so you won’t wander around like a lost child the next time you visit the Chateau and my office.”

Madeleine’s eyebrows shot up after she registered what he said, especially the last few words. At first, she was bummed out at the sudden end of their playful banter after noticing the change in his tone, it ended too soon for her liking. But then… he went on to say that and in an instant, she felt giddy and fuzzy inside. The warmth from her heart had spread throughout her whole body.

Madeleine stopped walking making the steward to also halt his steps. He then went on to face her and give her a questioning look only to find out she was already looking at him with a smile on her face, but he sensed there was a tinge of allure to it. Her brown eyes too gleamed with mischief.

Claude stiffened. Why was she looking at him like that? He could feel his started heart racing and his blood pumping faster. Whatever was going to happen next… he had a bad feeling about it.

“Oh Claude, I didn’t know you want me to visit here again. Nor did I know you want me to come up to your office again,” Madeleine cooed teasingly.

“E-Excuse me?”

Claude’s cheeks burned hot and red, yet he still felt perplexed. What was she saying? What did he say for her to respond like that?

The steward thought back to what he said earlier. He was definite all he said was normal. He only instructed Madeleine to be more mindful of where she was going so she wouldn’t lose her way on her next visit.

The next visit…

‘Oh shit!’

It dawned on him how his words can be misinterpreted, and that was what happened with Lady Madeleine. She thought he was looking forward to her next visit to the Chateau!

If it was even possible, the steward’s turned a deeper and darker shade of red, his jaw dropped as the mortification set in. He didn’t really think about his words carefully!

“It-It’s not like that!” he stammered out an excuse flusteredly. “I-I just assume that since L-Lady Madeleine and His Highness are now good friends, you’ll visit here a-again!”

He could see how well both his master, along with Lady Danielle, and Lady Madeleine got along with one another. He would be a blind fool if he didn’t catch it. He had known Wilfred since childhood and had grown up alongside him. He kept his distance from everyone and with his quiet and cold demeanor, it was safe to say he didn’t have many friends besides the other princes (due to their status as future kings, they were forced to get along and they truly did become friends at the end). Now, he had made no effort not only because of the huge responsibilities he has to bear as crown prince, but also his dislike for most people. He found out many people only saw him as nothing more than a prince and it just got nauseating that people only tried to befriend him because of his royal status and the benefits that came with it. He only wanted that there were people who see and like him as a normal person, a normal human being.

Lady Madeleine treated the prince like any other person and that was why he liked her. She wasn’t walking on eggshells around him. She wasn’t being overly nice to him that it was suspicious and uncomfortable. Both the prince and the steward himself she was genuine as they had seen her treating everyone in the Chateau, including the staff (particularly Sophie) and Lady Danielle with the same kindness and friendliness she exhibited for them.

Okay, perhaps it was almost accurate. The heiress was nice to Claude, that was if they weren’t at each other’s throats and actually partake in a friendly and civil conversation. Thankfully there had been more of the latter in recent times.

In addition to those, the woman wasn’t afraid to speak out and be brutally honest with others (and sometimes herself). She wasn’t afraid to get comfortable and banter around with the prince, like what normal friends do. Claude guessed these were the reasons why he liked her and got along so easily with her.

So… the excuse he made wasn’t entirely invalid. It was very reasonable.

But he must confess, from time to time, he caught himself wondering how the Chateau would be like after Lady Madeleine’s departure. It would be quiet definitely without her and her loud headstrong personality absent.

Sure, it would go back the way it was before she arrived, but would it really be the same?

No longer there would be teasing and bantering nor there would be lively chatter in the air. With her gone, the prince and Lady Danielle would resume back spending almost all of their time on performing their duties.

It should be a good thing that she no longer could interfere with Claude during his job, that she no longer could drive him nuts. None of his time and energy would spend on bickering with the heiress. His mind too wouldn’t be so occupied with her. He would strengthen his resolve and keep his promise... or so he thought.

He tried to convince himself it was good for him, but was it really?

Diving further, all he could think about how he would no longer see her smile, how he would no longer listen to her voice and her laugh. Even if they quarrel so much, sending each other their most sharp-witted retorts, at least it brought a thrill to the seriousness of his life. He was thrilled he found a worthy competition when it came to sarcasm and wit.

He couldn’t help but then recall those intimate times she had expressed such affection and warmth to him. It was not difficult to remember. When it first happened, it had thrown Claude off balance and to this day, he still shared that sentiment. Why would Lady Madeleine, a woman with such high status, show him attention? Why did she show such tenderness for him?

Yep, it had really thrown him off, but that was another time for him to think about. For now, he could agree that he preferred all those moments with her over the loneliness, the dullness of his life before her appearance. He yearned for them.

Perhaps Claude secretly did want Lady Madeleine to visit the Chateau again...

The heiress said nothing. She decided not to tease him any further, having no desire for him to get irritated and started mouthing off at her. She sure had no desire to see him in a foul mood before she leaves. It was not the best image of him to remember. Whether Claude’s reason was actually the truth would remain unknown to her, but it didn’t matter. The fact he was anticipating for her next visit filled her with joy and excitement, putting a bright smile on her face. Now she could not wait any longer to plan for it.

Feeling cheerful, Madeleine walked down the halls with a visible bounce in each step. Claude said nothing of it out loud as he continued striding alongside her in silence.

However, inside he found the reaction cute, especially when he realized it was the result of what he mistakenly said before. A smile threatened to bloom across his lips.

Ah yes, he was truly doomed.

•••
Main Entrance

When Claude and I arrived at the main entrance, the prince and Lady Danielle were nowhere to be seen except my car and my driver, Xinhua. I had no idea what time was I supposed to be here, so I couldn’t mark myself as early or them as late. I had my bag and suitcase loaded in the car’s trunk by Xinhua but once that was done, it felt a bit awkward. While we both waited beside the door for Wilfred and Danielle to arrive, we said nothing to each other despite being side to side.

It was such a different atmosphere from before, so uncomfortable and serious. I guessed since we were out in the open, Claude became an image of a perfect butler. His body didn’t move one bit in his place, even his hand which had been placed on his chest (I assumed that was some sort of a butler pose). It didn’t seem awkward or stiff however which amazed me. His face too was serious and devoid of emotions but dignified. Not going to lie, if this was in a more private setting, I would stare at how attractive he was. For brief glances were enough.

After a few more minutes of waiting in awkward silence, Wilfred and Danielle finally stepped out of the door. Immediately, Claude greeted them.

Their expressions on their faces had given away their surprise in seeing us here already.

“Oh, how long have you been here?” Wilfred asked, his eyebrows knitted.

“Only a couple of minutes. Don’t worry,” I assured him with a smile after I saw him frown. “I think Claude and I were just a bit early.”

“Nonetheless, we still apologize for our tardiness.”

I raised my eyebrows at Wilfred.

“I literally said we were just early, Wilfred.” The steward beside me interjected me with a disapproving “uhum”, reminding me about using the prince’s title. “I mean Your Highness. You don’t need to apologize. You’re probably on time.”

“It’s still common courtesy to—,” Danielle’s voice started but before she could continue, I raised my hand, silencing her.

“It’s really alright, Lady Danielle. No biggie,” I faced the designer with a reassuring smile. That was when I noticed a red mark on her lower left side of her neck. It was almost hidden from view due to her hair’s shadow casting over. If it wasn’t for my sharp eyes and recent experiences (Anna really thought I wouldn’t notice the hickeys she got from Zain… she truly was Boo Boo the Fool). From the looks of it, it seemed fresh… which meant they were really active yesterday.

I wasn’t sure if she was in a hurry or she was as bad in make-up as I was, but the concealer wasn’t exactly doing a great job hiding the redness considering how thin and unevenly blended it was…

‘Aw sweetie…’

I grimaced at the thought of Claude’s reaction if he were to find it. She would receive a combination of one hell of a scolding and glare from him. It didn’t help that she's still not used to it, still terrified every single time.

Saving her from a possible wrath, I immediately tugged the white scarf hanging around my neck and put it around hers, eliciting a surprised sound out of her.

While I tied the scarf around her neck, making sure the cloth covered her love bite, Danielle gazed back and forth between me and the scarf, perplexity in her eyes.

“W-Wha—Lady Madeleine?!”

‘She must really think the mark’s concealed completely…’

The prince and the steward looked at me with the same bewilderment expressed in Danielle’s although there was an edge of curiosity to it.

‘Ah so Claude hasn’t caught it yet. Thank God I immediately saw it and acted fast.’

“I thought the scarf would be a nice finishing touch for Danielle’s look.” I offered no time for her to respond since I tugged her forward into a hug so I could whisper into her ears.

“Your concealer isn’t blended well.”

I pulled my head back to see her face appearing even more confused, still not getting my drift until I inconspicuously redirected my gaze towards the marked area of her neck.

She finally realized what I was referring to after following the direction of my eyes and just like a snap of a finger, her entire face bursted in red. No, Madeleine wasn’t talking about those light shades of red, she’s talking about those bright shades of red, ones that resembled a ripe tomato. While the redness now spreading into her neck, she frantically then went on to fix my scarf with shaking hands before lowering her head in shame. Poor baby...

‘Why did it feel like she was blaming herself for the hickey?’

I made my displeasure apparent after catching the knowing look in his eyes, accompanied by the smugness albeit hidden.

‘If one has to be blamed, it’s that man beside her for being reckless in placing it. If it wasn’t for her long hair, that hickey would have been out in the open for everyone to see. And clearly, from the way Wilfred is looking at her, he has no regrets doing it. Must be proud huh?’

So badly did I want to swat his head as the irritation boiled inside me, but I repressed the urge knowing a certain steward was beside me. It would be a death sentence if I did it. A more discreet way should do it.

I turned my whole body to face Wilfred, putting on a bright ready smile. His gaze immediately redirected to me. Thankfully he sensed nothing was amiss.

I gave him a deep bow while giving my thanks.

“Your Highness, thank you for inviting me over to stay in the Chateau and also for touring me around your kingdom. Not to forget, I appreciate you inviting me to your birthday and letting me celebrate it with you and Lady Danielle. All of them have been wonderful experiences.”

I took a step forward with opened arms and energetically pulled him into a hug, completely ignoring the angry shout of my name from Claude, berating me over my complete dismissal for propriety.

I guessed he didn’t expect the hug (found out he wasn’t used to it) since I felt his body freezing and his muscles tensing under me for a very short moment. I then heard the prince letting out a short chuckle near my ears and soon enough I felt his arms wrapped around me, reciprocating my hug.

“You are really a ball of sunshine.”

As Wilfred spoke those words, I could hear the steward behind me muttering complaints under his breath and even though I had my whole body facing away from him, the sensation of his icy glare on me was unshakeable. I could feel them piercing a hole through my back. I was surprised he made no attempts to drag me away from Wilfred. Maybe he was holding back his temptation since the prince welcomed the hug. Well anyway, it’s good there wouldn’t be any interruptions from what I was going to do next.

Transferring all the strength onto both my arms, they wrapped tighter around the prince’s body, squeezing out a choked noise from him.

“Lady Madeleine! What on earth are you doing?!”

Before Claude could take a step forward and put his hands on me, I quickly leaned back to face him completely and fixed him with my sternest gaze.

“You should watch where you bite Wilfred,” the prince’s eyebrows shot up in surprise after hearing the chiding tone in my voice. They shot up even higher once my tone changed to one of warning when I uttered his name. “Look at Lady Danielle. If you weren’t so reckless, so big-headed, she wouldn’t be embarrassed like she is now.”

It was no doubt that Claude was fuming inside and would probably unleash his wrath on me for literally breaking one etiquette after one another: Improper touching, not using his title, speaking to him in other tones besides respectful, and lastly calling him big-headed.

Yep, he definitely would unleash his wrath. Unless I didn’t give him a chance to.

But you know what? I didn’t regret one bit. I felt bad for Danielle.

As I said earlier, not wanting the butler to tug me off from the prince by force, I immediately loosened my arms’ grip around and unlatched myself from him when I finished giving him a piece of my mind. Wilfred said nothing except just to stare at me, still in a state of shock. Must be not used to getting a scolding from a woman.

Danielle who lifted up her head after hearing her fiance’s shout, silently watching my confrontation on the sideline, a dumbfounded expression plastered across her face. Once it ended, the designer tried to assure me, a mix of awe and nervousness evident in her voice.

“I-I Uh Lady Madeleine… You don’t have to do that! It’s fine, nothing serious.”

I took a step forward towards her before taking her hands into mine.

“Nonsense, Lady Danielle,” I smiled at her reassuringly. “Your feelings are as important as his.”

It was only a quick moment of her staring at me in the face, still donning same dumbfounded expression before a grin appeared on her lips, so big the corners of her eyes crinkled. Her eyes sparkled with warmth and appreciation, possibly admiration too.

“Thank you, Lady Madeleine. That was very thoughtful of you. I appreciate it very much. Perhaps, I should be braver speaking my mind out like you.”

I giggled lightly while I gently squeezed her hands as a sign of affection.

“Perhaps you should. I will support you in this.”

I, too, also embraced her, which she responded with a huge amount of enthusiasm.

“Thank you, Lady Danielle. You and Wilfred have been very wonderful and it’s safe to say you two are both my friends,” I beamed warmly at her after pulling away.

“No, thank you for just being the way you are. You’re like a breath of fresh air in the Chateau. We’re honored that you consider us your friends and I believe we share the same sentiment. You, Lady Madeleine are also our friend. We truly hope you will visit us again.”

“Yes, Danielle is right. And might I add ‘soon’? We enjoy your presence here and how you liven up the Chateau,” Wilfred who had been silent the whole time after the scolding, joined in the conversation. He put his arm around Danielle’s back, drawing her closer to him and causing her to rest her hand on the center of his chest. Danielle glanced up at the prince only for her to catch his adoring gaze at her. In spite of her blushing cheeks, she returned his gaze wholeheartedly, with possibly more love.

The warms words they have for me and the tender moment between the couple had stirred my heart in ways that were different from one another.

Wilfred’s and Danielle’s words had touched me deeply, filling my body with warmth and joy. They made me feel in such a way I was content and grateful for having friends that care for me and appreciate me for being myself.

On the other hand, the intense loving gaze shared as they held one another stirred my heart, more precisely it tugged on my heartstrings evoking a sense of longing in me.

Not going to lie, witnessing the moment right in front of me has also made me feel a bit envious since it sent me a clear reminder of how my life has been a complete void of a lover’s touch and affection in the past years.

Don’t get me wrong, I received an abundance of love and attention from my family and friends and I am grateful, but it wasn’t the same when you receive it from a lover.

My heart panged at the loneliness, but I brushed the feeling off, pushing it to the back of my mind as I decided to come down from my thoughts. If I didn’t, my feelings would’ve become too overwhelming to handle.

“Oh don’t you worry. I’ll come back here soon! After all…” Both Wilfred and Danielle turned their heads to me after I spoke up. With a mischievous grin plastered on my face, I leaned in to whisper. “After all another person is looking forward to my next visit.”

I then tilted my head slightly to where Claude stood, catching my message, they looked behind me before turning their attention back to me. However, both sported very different reactions. The royal designer appeared pale and yet, on the other hand, the prince… was blank, it was like he was used to it. Although his eyes held some amusement.

I would be dumb to not realize that the steward was angry with me. But… clearly, from their reactions, it seemed like he was more than just angry.

“About that…” Danielle trailed off, to which Wilfred picked up after.

“I don’t think he’s feeling that now at the moment.”

I spun my body to the steward and saw that the prince was right. He was clearly not feeling that after the stunt I pulled on the prince right in front of him, despite the prince looking unbothered.

The whole time I had been talking to the couple, the steward silently fumed in the background as his body go rigid, trying to keep his anger, his irritation at bay. This time, he made no attempts in masking his disapproval on his face as he glared harshly at me, his eyes burning with much anger. His scowl too was so deep, I’m afraid it would stay that way.

‘Oh boy, I must really have crossed the line this time.’

I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t wince at the withering look he sent me when our eyes met. I couldn’t help but gulp nervously. I awkwardly moved closer to him with a tight sheepish smile on my face.

“Claude—”

In an instant, the steward opened his mouth spewing harsh words like spitfire, just one word after another with no breaks in between. He gave me no time to say my next word.

“Lady Madeleine! How dare you try to injure His Highness and even have the nerves to insult him! Have you forgotten your place? You must have a memory of a goldfish if you had forgotten what I told you earlier. I do not care if you’re a noble lady, you are still a guest in this kingdom and therefore tradition and propriety must be observed. What you did to His Royal Highness was despicable and unforgivable. As a head steward, I cannot let you get—”

“Claude. That’s enough.”

Wilfred’s commanding voice rang out behind me.

The whole time, I bore all the steward’s berating in silence. Not that I even had an opportunity to speak up since he went on and on. Besides, even if I could interrupt him and speak up, I would just fuel his anger even more and honestly I didn’t want to dig a deeper hole for myself. I knew what I did was wrong, there’s no denying that. He had every right to feel that way.

I cast a glance to where Wilfred was. He was no longer in that embrace with Danielle, instead, he was in a very assertive and domineering pose, as if he’s ready for a stand-off with the steward. His face no longer held any hints of his usual laid-backness. Nor is also held any hints of amusement he had shown earlier. He was serious.

After hearing the prince’s response, the steward whipped his head at him to stare at him like he’s out of his mind, his disbelief and dismay were visibly displayed across his face. Even then he was able to send another cold glare my way.

“Your Highness!” Claude argued fiercely. “Lady Madeleine here disrespected you and it—”

“I have no quarrels with what she did earlier. They were all good-natured fun.”

“Well I do, Your Highness! You are the crown prince of Philip and for her, a noble lady, to do something so ill-mannered and uncivil even if it was only a joke is not only shameful but also inexcusable! I cannot stay silent at the disrespect shown towards you.”

“That’s enough, Claude,” the prince repeated. “If I said Lady Madeleine hasn’t done anything deemed offensive to me, then that’s final.”

I watched Wilfred and Claude clash one another, my head going back and forth between them as they heatedly argue. The air was crackling and so thick with tension, anyone could cut it with a knife. It was suffocating. All I could do was just stand there frozen and observe, my voice refusing to cooperate with me.

Their gazes almost caused sparks in the space between them, none of them wanting to back down yet, even though Wilfred was Claude’s master.

“I am the head steward whose duty is to not only serve you but also protect you, to look out for you since young. I cannot allow this to pass. I wouldn’t be doing my duties properly if I let this offense go. There need to be consequences Lady Mad—”

“If you were looking out for me Claude, you wouldn’t upset me even further on this. You would’ve stopped fighting me on this. Now, drop it, Claude.”

“But I only have your best—”

“I said drop it. That’s an order. Don’t make me repeat it one more time.”

You remember when I said that people who are kind and calm don’t easily get angry but when they do, it’s terrifying? Well, I stood by it.

It was the first time I had seen the prince this angry and aggravated and I honestly wanted it to be my last time. I couldn’t explain it. His anger was silent and controlled in such that he didn’t lash out immediately nor he completely expressed his emotions through his face. Instead of doing those, the prince ventilated his anger through his eyes and his voice. When he snapped an order to Claude the second time around, it was so much more commanding, more severe, his fury felt through his tone. And the way his bright blue eyes grew piercingly colder and darker when he sent his last warning to the steward, it brought cold shivers down my spine.

It was just so damn terrifying and intense that even someone like Claude froze in his spot. With just that one glare from Wilfred, the steward bit back his words and conceded. It was so clear the steward didn’t want to let this matter go, too important to him from how conflicted he looked. But then again, he also has no desire to rouse his master’s ire even further. He has no desire to make their dispute even more explosive. He just had to suck it up.

After shooting the daggers my way, the steward finally composed himself, successfully concealing his emotions from his face, with his lips pressed together into a hard line and his eyes cold and apathetic. No more puckered eyebrows, no more creasing of the forehead. Nothing. His face was completely blank.

Laying his right hand to his chest, he bowed deeply to Wilfred.

“As you wish, Your Highness.”

Soon after he straightened his body up, he spun his body around to face me completely only to repeat the same thing he did before. With his hand on his chest and eyes closed, he bowed to me an apology.

“I apologize for the rude manner I treated you with, Lady Madeleine. It was over the line.”

I didn’t respond as I continued watching the steward. The only thing I was capable to do was a nod as a whole lot of uneasiness and guilt clouded my mind.

He shouldn’t be forced to apologize for what he did. It was a justified reaction for him to blow up and scold me. He was only doing his job to protect the prince.

I deserved it for doing something so disrespectful and reckless even if it was a joke the prince was okay with. Noble lady, guest, or friend, I still shouldn’t be excused from facing the consequences of my actions.

Unfortunately, Wilfred was not on the same page as mine as he too apologized for his steward’s behavior. My mind thought for a split second on how I should be concerned he was able to extinguish his angry and go back to his usual calm self so fast. He currently has a small apologetic smile as he bowed his head.

“Lady Madeleine, I deeply apologize for my butler being so awfully rude to you. His treatment towards you was appalling and unnecessary. I will have a talk with him later.”

As he said those words, the prince took a quick albeit firm glance at Claude, which caused the steward to lower his eyes in shame while his hands on each side are balled into fists. My heart felt heavy as I gazed at him. Yes, he may be harsh… but what he did was right and to still get reprimanded for that… It just didn’t settle right with me. I must speak out on this unfairness.

Taking a deep breath, I made eye contact with Wilfred, who seemed slightly puzzled after seeing the conviction and determination in my eyes. I steeled myself to say the next word.

“No,” I firmly objected.

“Pardon?”

“That’s right. No.”

The crown prince looked even more confused at my vagueness as he cocked his head.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand what you’re getting at Lady Madeleine…”

“What I meant is that… Wilfred, you shouldn’t be angry at Claude nor he should apologize for his actions.”

At the mention of his name, Claude glanced at me only for surprise to overcome his face when he finished listening to what I said. The prince too shared the same sentiment with parted lips. Nevertheless, I pushed on, my voice unwaveringly firm.

“I strongly believe it’s unfair for Your Highness to get mad at Claude and berate him for doing his job properly as your butler, which is to look after you. Yes, I agree that his words were harsh, but it was justified. His angry reaction to my appalling treatment towards Your Highness, even if it was just a joke, it is justified. What I did was over the line. Even if we’re both friends and we both treat each other as normal people, I still should know my place because, at the end of the day, you are still the crown prince of Philip, the future king of this kingdom. I shouldn’t harm you in any way. Not to worry, my treatment of you will remain the same as before, however, I will think more carefully of the way I interact with you when there are people around. I know how tradition and propriety are very important to this kingdom and I will uphold it with respect because I am a guest. That’s the least I can do…. And another thing, just because I am a lady of high status and a good friend of Your Highness, doesn’t mean I should be excused for my bad behavior or any of my actions. I refuse to have that kind of privilege. That’s only for spoiled people who abuse their power and status. I’m not going to stoop that low and use my high status for something so petty. I have morals... If I were to be excused all the time, I would never be able to learn from my mistakes nor I would never be able to fully grasp the severity of my mistakes, thus my inability to handle the consequences.”

As I practically took no breaks between talking, by the time I finished all I wanted to say, I was wheezing. My chest was rising and falling deeply as I gulp huge amount of oxygen to prevent my lungs from collapsing. When I finally got my breathing back to normal, I started to become aware of how quiet everyone was. I hadn’t seen anyone’s reaction when I talked earlier since my eyes weren’t really focused on anything in particular. I was too caught up in speaking out my mind, that the surrounding just blurred together around me.

So when I really focused my eyes on everyone, I had already found my answer for the dead silence pertaining to the area.

They were all busy staring at me.

Surprise is etched on everyone’s facial features. Wilfred’s and Danielle’s slightly wide eyes were blinking rapidly at me. It was more expressive on Claude’s face. Accompanied by his parting lips, his eyes were wider and his eyebrows had shot up higher. None of them moved, it was as if they’re stuck in their spot.

Now that I was aware, the longer the attention was me, the awkward it became. It was so awkward that I was tempted to just leave. My habit of fidgeting and playing with my hair started making their appearance. When the awkward silence has become unbearable and the people around showed no signs of breaking off their stare, I made my voice as loud as possible when I spoke up.

“Well, that’s that. Since there’s really nothing else that keeps me here, I am afraid I will have to leave now.”

And just in a blink of an eye, all of them snapped out from their staring trance. I wasn’t really lying when I said I need to leave. As much as I wanted to stay here, I couldn’t. I already had gone over the scheduled departure time. The longer I stayed here, the more traffic Xinhua and I would experience as we travel our way back home. And the more traffic it is, the later we arrive back and I honestly had no desire. I still had some matters to look over first.

Hearing the urgency in my voice, Wilfred nodded understandingly. However… he then let out an amused chuckle as his eyes glinted. What’s so funny?

“Very well, Lady Madeleine. You should hurry on. We apologize for keeping you back.”

I shook my head reassuringly.

“It’s okay, things just went out of hand. We’re a bit late but it’s fine.”

“Alright then,” he smiled gently.

I turned to Danielle who took my hands and wrapped my hands with hers before squeezing it once. She looked up at me bright-eyed with a huge cheery grin on her face.

“Come back soon okay? It gets lonely around here with no female friend around.”

I nodded after soft chuckles escaped my mouth.

“I will.”

Once she let go of my hands, I headed towards my car. Xinhua immediately rushed to open and hold the door to the passenger seat. As I was in the middle of going down a couple of short stairs, I stopped. I forgot something.

I rushed to Claude who looked at me with a mixture of puzzlement and wary. He still also wasn’t over your speech earlier and it showed.

“I just wanted to say I’m sorry for how I treated His Highness and you have every right to be mad with me for that. The next time I do that, don’t be afraid to do scold me,” I purposely made my voice small so the prince wouldn’t hear it. I reached out to awkwardly pat his shoulder before giving him a small shy smile. I chose to not hug him since it just felt too intimate and it didn’t seem like the right time.

“Again, thank you for making this stay wonderful and I hope you enjoy the cookies I baked for you.”

Scared to see his reaction, I immediately spun my heels around and literally ran down the stairs, not caring if I fall, then to my car. Without looking back, I slid into the passenger’s seat and hear the door behind me shut closed.

Seconds later, Xinhua slid into the driver's seat and closed the door. As the car came alive and the engine started running, I looked out the window. Embracing once again, Wilfred and Danielle waved at me with their free hand. Claude was still in his butler stance, but his gaze was on me.

The car started moving away and yet my eyes are still glued to the steward. When he became smaller and smaller in my eyes and it became harder for me to see him through any of the windows, I sat back down properly on the passenger’s seat, facing the windshield. As we drove away from the Chateau, through many towns and scenery, many thoughts came and went.

I worried that I had undone all my work in getting close to Claude after the stupid reckless stunt I pulled on the prince. It was clear how important the prince was to him not as his master but also a brother and friend. I did try to apologize and defend him, but I wonder if that was enough. I wonder if his image of me changed for the worst after that?

Just thinking about going back to where we started… When he actually couldn’t stand me and was very cold and harsh to me… It brought my mood down, my heart heavy with sadness. I just hoped it would not come to this.

Now that I won’t be seeing him every day anymore, I wondered what would happen to me now? Will this crush die down over time? Or it will only make me think of him more, miss him even more? Will I lose interest in him? It’s possible… I tend to lose interest in guys so easily in the past… Or would this be an exception? Would distance made me like him even more?

‘Ah! I don’t even know anymore!’ I shook my head vigorously while my hands messed up my hair as if it could banish my thoughts. The behavior received me a concerned side-eye glance from Xinhua, albeit he decided not to ask. It wasn’t his business and besides he was driving. Tired and overwhelmed with the thoughts going through my head, I decided to sleep it off.

With the back support pulled back for me to lay down more comfortable, I closed my eyes and finally, after five minutes, I was able to drift off into a deep comfortable slumber thanks to the lulling rhythm of the car.

I was finally getting peace as my mind along with my thoughts shut down for the day.

‘Finally some peace and quiet after a roller coaster of a day. Didn’t know departure day could be this stressful and wild.’

Chapter Text



Rewind
7th of April
Claude’s office
10pm at night

Flinging himself onto the chair behind the desk, Claude sighed out of exhaustion as he leaned his back against the chair.

Just like any other night, when the clock struck ten, the steward would excuse himself for a good night’s rest after he finished all his duties.

And before he actually went to his cottage—which was a bit further out (it was a fifteen-minute walk, passing many gardens)—to sleep, he always stopped by his office to do some minor last-minute tasks or to unwind like he was now.

This time around, he did neither of these things as his mind was too occupied with today’s recent events. It kept replaying inside his mind just because he couldn’t seem to fully grasp what happened today. It was a wild perplexing ride from start to finish. He should’ve expected it nonetheless since it’s Lady Madeleine he’s talking about, but today…

Today was more confusing, more surprising, probably because she did more than the usual.

First, she surprised him with a gift. Then she has that same tender look he talked about before when she soothed his doubts on accepting it. She was able to convince him otherwise from his unworthiness to accept her gift. She even bantered with him!

Perhaps the most surprising—astonishing would be a more appropriate term—thing she did was at the main entrance that noon when she defended him out loud to His Royal Highness in spite of the fury he had unleashed on her.

Maybe he was a bit too harsh on her even though he knew they had become good friends over the duration of her stay here. But thinking about it more, can you blame him though? His master was the crown prince, and Claude swore to look out for him, small or big, intentional or not.

Lady Madeleine could’ve stayed silent when she watched the crown prince angrily chastising him for his reaction. She could’ve acquiesced to the fact his master was granting her immunity from facing the consequences of her actions.

But she did neither of those things. She stood up to Wilfred, telling him not to get angry at Claude for doing the right thing, justifying his lividness towards her. Not only that, she even demanded not to be exempted from facing the consequences of her actions just because of her status and most importantly her friendship to the prince and his fiancé.

At that moment, he saw her humility and mentality shining through her so brightly. Might he added he also felt the fearlessness and conviction in her voice that by the time she was done speaking, he was left in awe. It seemed like she was on a mission to make him stray further away from his resolve in keeping his promise as he felt himself becoming more attracted to her.

Now the question was, why the hell did she do all those things?

It was still the same old question and he still couldn’t figure out why. Why would she go so far to make him an assortment of cookies as a gift? Or why would she go so far to stand up for him?

There was a subtle change in her treatment towards him, however, she wasn’t alone in this. Claude too sensed that change within him in the last few days. While their fights are still fierce and intense, a lot of their interactions had grown friendly and sometimes even intimate and personal to an extent. It was a telltale sign of the closing distance between them, which he admitted, frightened him.

It was quite unnerving how in the span of just over a week, that woman, a total opposite of him in pretty much everything, was able to crawl into his closely guarded heart and mind. It’s frightening how at the start he remembered being so fed up with her and here he was now! His feelings towards her began with something along the lines of irritation and displeasure… but in just over a week, it had turned to tolerance and now it strongly resembled feelings of attachment and affection…

It’s not love yet but it was getting there… and it terrified him.

Claude had an inkling of what had caused the said change in the heiress’ demeanor to him but he quickly dismissed with a self-deprecating laugh, shaking his head at his foolish wishful thinking. He was absurd to think Lady Madeleine would see him in a romantic light. He was absurd to think he had a chance with her.

He was only just a butler. Sure he was the head steward, but still a butler regardless. Lady Madeleine was on the opposite end. She was a woman of nobility and admired by many. It became very apparent when she was able to befriend one of the royal maids.

Yeah, why would he think he was capable and worthy enough to court her? How could anyone see him besides being a butler? What other qualities did he even have?

What did Lady Madeleine see in him that she would do many nice things for him including spending last night to make cookies for him?

Speaking of the cookies…

His desk had been cleared off everything except one item, Lady Madeleine’s gift. His eyes trained on the small bag of cookies with an envelope attached to the string tying the bag, all lying alone. Despite the conflict occurring inside his mind, he felt it would be a waste of the woman’s efforts if he didn’t eat them and leave them for the rest of the night. They would no longer be dry and crunchy like freshly-baked ones.

Claude inclined forward and reached for the bag, moving it closer to him. As the plastic crinkled in his grasp, the steward went on to untie the string around the opening before getting the envelope off.

A small mirthful smile blossomed on his face, letting out a snort in the process as he studied the envelope. It looked so mismatched when it was attached to the bag due to the fact it has the same length as the bag itself. This was probably a last-minute thing but he had to credit her for being resourceful.

The steward ripped the envelope on the side then took a small piece of paper inside. He unfolded the paper to its original size, revealing a very neat yet small cursive handwriting spanning an entire page.

‘What on earth did she even write in here?’

Claude gulped as the nervousness and anticipation took hold of him, his heart pounding hard that he felt it through his ears. He remembered Lady Madeleine telling him earlier all of her feelings she had difficulty expressing verbally, however he still had no idea what to expect. What kind of feelings was waiting for him?

Best to find out. Hopefully, it’s nothing weird...

The steward took a deep breath. It’s insane how a letter written by a woman could bring him the jitters with his pulse having the speed of a runaway horse and his throat dry. It’s even more insane that he had to gather up the courage to read the message! What has the world come to?

Not wanting to delay any further since he still needed to go back to his cottage (if he did, the self-doubts would start crawling into his mind and make him back out), he began to pore over the message slowly.

‘Dear Claude…’

The steward mumbled out the message, imagining it was Madeleine’s bright voice speaking as he flickered through each word one by one. As he got nearer to the end of the message, his eyes got visibly rounder and when he actually reached the end, he could only stare at it in astonishment. He was sure they would stay round like saucers. Madeleine had put so much of her thoughts and feelings. It was no wonder she fiercely refused for him to read it in front of her. They were so personal, so intimate, and all directed to him that his heart leaped out of his chest and his cheeks went up in flames.

When Madeleine mentioned the nice times they had spent together, just the two of them… it only pushed the memories of those times to the forefront of his mind with the intense feelings that come along with them.

When he brewed her tea in the guest room, when they visited the space center and the local merchants on Cassiar Street, when they danced together both times in one of the rooms and in the Hydrangea Garden, especially the garden…

Now that the memories had resurfaced, it only resulted in his heart pounding even harder and faster with the warmth blossoming throughout his body, burning him up. A fond smile threatened to appear on his face from the recollection.

It seemed day by day, his muddled feelings toward Lady Madeleine got clearer. He was in a losing battle against his will to stop himself from catching even more feelings. How could he stop himself when all this time… these past few days she gave him her undivided attention. She had shown him kindness and warmth. She showed him affection and tenderness. She showed him all of the things he hadn’t felt since before the breaking down of his engagement.

He wasn’t deprived, he could assure you. He just really didn’t want anything to do with those things after that incident, and therefore tried to stay away from them as much as possible. However as Madeleine continued to gradually break his guard down around his heart unnoticed by him, his craving for some warmth and affection materialized and he craved them from no one else but her. He craved the intimacy and so when they opened up a bit to each other during their day out, it only served to intensify that desire. The letter and the gift also gave him a small glimpse into her culture she grew up in, a culture different from his.

He couldn’t help wanting to know more about her and her childhood.

Last but not least, she wasn’t afraid of him when he’s present with her nor did she feel intimidated when he was cold and harsh towards her. When he shot a biting remark her way, she stood her ground and shot him back her own remark that was as vitriol as his.

Claude released his tight grip on the paper (he didn’t realize he was holding it so hard, there were wrinkles) before bringing the plastic bag closer to him. He widened the opening of the bag and picked out a butter cookie from the bag.

The steward moved it closer to his face to study for a while, his face slightly scrunched in concentration as he absorbed the details.

The butter cookie had a light golden brown tinge accompanied by a tender crispy yet dry texture to it. Even though he was already holding it gently between his fingers, small crumbles still fell onto his lap.

All good indications pointing to a fresh and perfectly baked butter cookie.

He accidentally caught a sniff and although it was already faint, he still was able to smell the sweet buttery aroma coming off the cookie. Claude could feel his mouth water and wasting no time, he stuffed the cookie into his mouth, not giving a care at how boorish he appeared. Once the treat completely crumbled after two to three munches, it completely melted in his mouth, immediately bombarding the steward’s taste buds. An involuntary soft moan escaped through his lips as he tasted—more like savored—that richness and sweetness coming from the cookie. They were just the right amount such that they didn’t make the steward nauseous.

Excited on trying more, he went to pick up more cookies, actively avoiding the butter cookies. He was curious about trying the other ones Madeleine baked. The first thing he instantly observed is how much heavier those cookies were after shifting them onto his palm.

‘These were called he..tao su and xingren … bing?’ The steward tried to recall, his face briefly contorted at how horrible his pronunciation was when saying the names. ‘Maybe I should just stick to saying Chinese-style walnut and almond cookies…’

Doing the same thing as before, he inspected the treats in front of him, his eyes twinkling with fascination. It was bound to happen as he never has seen those kinds of cookies before.

They were thicker and denser, which made sense why they were heavier too. One of them reminded him of scones and macaroons combined… And another one, well, it was round like a ball.

Both of them have a variation of brownish golden yellowish color to them and there were cracks to them, indicating the crispiness. He was one hundred percent sure that one with a slivered almond on top would be the almond cookie and the other one dotted with crunchy grounded walnuts would be the walnut cookie. He would be a fool if he didn’t know.

The almond cookie had more of rough sandy texture unlike the butter cookies and while the walnut cookie was almost as smooth as the butter ones, it has more shine to it probably due to the egg yolk being glazed on it before baking.

Claude took a bite on each cookie one by one, slowly breaking each down inside his mouth with thought. Just as expected, both of them were a tiny bit softer and less crumbly, just like scones. However, they were still sweet with a nuttiness touch to them, and the single sliced almond and grounded walnuts only served to enhance their tastes along with their crunchiness.

Nevertheless, they just taste as wonderful as the butter cookie he ate. And knowing Madeleine had baked these only for him, allowing him to discover a more personal side of her through her passion for baking and her Chinese heritage, they tasted even better.

He was touched.

As time flew by, one by one, Claude delightedly devoured the cookies with much vigor and speed while occasionally letting out grunts of content. Generally, he was the type of person to slowly relish food he liked but this wasn’t the case. He didn’t know what came over him.

All he knew that he regretted eating so fast because, by the time his hand dove into the bag for some more delicious goodness, he was left empty-handed. All he felt was just air. He frowned, feeling crestfallen when he finally saw the plastic bag, now empty and deflated as it laid lifelessly onto the table.

‘Well, maybe it’s for the best. If there were more, who knows how long I will stay here… But still...’ With eyes closed, the steward sighed his disappointment while brushing the crumbs off his lips and lap.

‘I still wish there were more...’

Claude rose up from his chair and onto his feet. Shuffling towards the door, he grabbed onto the plastic bag along with the letter and the envelope from the desk. On his way out, he crumpled the bag and envelope into a small ball before throwing it into the trash can and switching off the lights.

As the door clicked shut behind him, the steward proceeded walking to the cottage. Somehow he didn’t feel so drained anymore now that his heart and stomach were full. He felt light and warm inside thanks to a particular heiress.

Envisioning the said woman with her usual bright grin and her sparkling brown eyes, her cheeks dusted with flour, the steward couldn’t stop the smile forming on his face while releasing a chuckle, an edge of affection detected.

‘And here I thought it would be easier to let my feelings and attraction toward her fade now that she left… But it seems Lady Madeleine has other plans in mind, ruining mine in the process. She really wants to make it difficult for me to forget her huh? What a cunning woman...’

●●●
Present day
10th of April
Morning
Zhangs’ Residence — Madeleine’s Living Quarters

“God Mads, snap out of it!”

Not even a second had passed, I felt a finger flicking hard against the center of my forehead with a huge amount of force that it really succeeded in snapping me out of my reverie. Might I add, the flick also forced a pained cry out of me while my face contorted.

Kneading the tender spot on my temple, I felt it throbbing under my fingers. Wow, she really went all out on me…

While I continued tending the spot, I shot daggers at my best friend, which didn’t faze her one bit. Instead, she had a very unapologetic on.

“What was that for? And why did you flick me so hard?” I protested. Anna only rolled her eyes at me as her face transformed into a more unimpressed expression.

“You’re really going to ask me that dumb question when I am sure you know why I did it? You went off in a trance. Again for the nth time!”

...

Welp, I knew now Anna was frankly getting sick of my random reveries. I had no idea how many times has she caught me staring vacantly into space, completely lost in thought in just one day.

It has been three days since I left the Chateau and I was already missing the place and everyone residing there, especially the head steward. Dramatic to say but I desperately missed Claude’s presence more than Wilfred’s, Danielle’s, and Sophie’s. Thoughts of him continuously pass through my mind, keeping me preoccupied day and night. They would either be about his quirks and features I have grown to love about him or glimpses of the times I spent alone with him, trying to keep those memories alive. Occasionally, I unconsciously conjured up scenarios of him and I together doing wholesome couple-y activities.

‘Oh Lord, I’m totally done for. I’m really whipped for him…’ I whined inside.

It felt pretty weird now that I was all alone again in this huge residence. Before the trip, I was used to it. In fact, I enjoyed being alone. I didn’t have to worry about how I looked and acted. I could do what I want. The quietness also offered me peace of mind after a long day.

But now, it just didn’t feel the same anymore. The quietness that came with the solitude no longer offered me the same comfort and peace I felt before.

I was used to the liveliness and the chatter in the Chateau because of the people around me. Wilfred, Danielle, Sophie, and Claude... I was used to talking and joking with them. Let’s not forget how often I bickered with the said steward… At least we started talking and joking already…

So going back, it was such a drastic change of atmosphere. Not only I could no longer see the recent familiar faces I had grown to care for, but there were just not a lot of people here in this mansion. If not for Anna randomly frequenting and sometimes stayed over here for a night, this mansion would mostly be deserted (every time I asked to stay over at her place, she would use the same excuse… something along the line of “Mi casa siempre es tan ruidosa”). Now that I’m an adult, I didn’t need Eloisa to be with me 24/7. She now ensured everything in the residence is in order along with the head maid. With the exception of personal and head staff, and of course Eloisa, the rest of the staff were never seen lingering around by day. They would usually clean either early in the morning or late at night.

And my parents… They were mostly out five days a week. Thankfully, they spare their weekends to spend time as a family. But other than that? As I said before, the place was dead quiet as if no one lives here.

Just thinking about how I’m all by myself with no one to chat, laugh, or joke to, like in the Chateau, it made my heart ache with loneliness.

Without realizing, I exhaled a puff of air while the corners of my mouth, which was already in a frown, curved down even deeper. Seeing my expression like that (again), Anna narrowed her eyes at me, her right arm outstretched to point her hand at my face.

“See! You’re sighing and frowning again! Stop it!”

Both of her hands now making contact with my lips as they unsuccessfully try to pull it into an unnatural smile and only for me to slap her hands away.

“Ow! You don’t have to smack me that hard you know!”

I only sent her the same unimpressed look she had on before as she hugged her left arm to her chest with her right hand rubbing the red print I left on her.

“Well, you didn’t have to flick my forehead so hard then!” I snapped. “Besides, I could smile on my own. Was it really necessary?”

“Excuse me, do you know how many times have I seen you like that in just one day?” Anna rested her clenched fists on her hips, with one eyebrow arched at me. I noted the sassiness radiating around her. I couldn’t really take her seriously due to the fact she was in really baggy pajamas and her face was dotted with some face cream.

“You’re being dramatic as always. It can’t be that many...”

“Yes I know I am dramatic but I’m being serious! I’m not exaggerating! Three times I have caught you blanking out while we were in the middle of a conversation! Three times!” My ears rang when my best friend shouted the last two sentences at point-blank. I almost forgot how loud she could be. Well, it made sense why we’re so compatible with one another.

Nevermind that, the olive-skinned woman still went on and on spouting about my recent behavior.

“You haven’t been acting normal since you arrived back home, Madeleine. It was as if there’s a storm cloud above with rain pouring down over you when you sulked. Other times, you looked like you dissociated with your mind left somewhere. You don’t pay attention to anything. What’s up?”

‘Wow, it’s that bad? I’m that obvious? I know already that I daydreamed here and there since I arrived, but I didn’t know it was to this extent. It was more frequent than I thought...’

The lack of response coming from my end only prodded her to ask a bunch of questions. This time, she swapped her casual light tone for a more serious and apprehensive one.

“Are you alright? Did something bad happen back at Prince Wilfred’s place? Didn’t you text me you were having fun there? And yet… Shouldn’t you feel more refreshed and happy?”

‘Oh no, she’s taking this the wrong way.’

With a wave of my hands, I shot down Anna’s assumption.

“It’s nothing like that, Anna.”

“Then what?”

After grabbing onto one of my pillows, I rested my chin on top while I hugged it close to my body.

“I did enjoy my time there. I had fun with Wilfred and his fiancé, Danielle around. We chatted, we laughed, we teased. The place was full of life with them around. I did tell you I befriended with one of the younger maids, right? She was a shy ball of sunshine. And yes, there’s also Claude… even though it started out rough, I think I can say we got closer. He was… He was amazing during my stay...Do you see? Nothing bad happened.”

Anna nodded her head in understanding, but there was still a bit of confusion lingering in her face.

“I see… But it doesn’t answer my question why you’re the opposite of happy and re-energized after the stay… Even though you had fun…”

I lifted up my head to properly gaze at her and answer.

“That’s the thing! The Chateau was always lively and loud. There’s always some type of occasion every day. Either going sight-seeing, having tea, attending Wilfred’s birthday… And when there’s not, I still have people around me to interact with. So when I came back here and see how different it was compared to Wilfred’s place… It was disheartening. I was used to, no I enjoyed, the energy there that going back here dampened my mood. I no longer liked the quietness and solitude after that knowing how happy I was and how much fun I had when I’m surrounded by people I cared about. Instead, I feel even more lonely here and since there’s really nothing else to do here besides working, the feelings intensified… I really miss the people there.”

By the time I finished speaking, there was a moment of silence as Anna processed what I said while she studied me.

“So that’s that…” I awkwardly concluded. “Now you know why I have been acting unusual recently.”

Her initial concern gave way to a warm smile, releasing a relieved sigh. All the tension escaped her body as her gaze softened.

“Makes sense now. Gosh, you must have had the time of your life there in Philip for you to no longer revel living as a hermit.”

“Hey! You’re calling me a hermit? You’re the one to talk! You’re here because you want some peace and quiet from your loud family!” I pointed out indignantly.

Anna blinked in realization before she settled with a sheepish grin.

“Touché, mi mama never stops yapping. It’s like she can find something to say about anything.”

“You’re forgetting that you too rarely stay quiet. The same as your mother.”

A small throw pillow was thrown my way, which I managed to block it on time.

“I did not ask for your opinion.”

I teasingly poked my tongue out at her, to which she ignored and proceeded to change the subject.

“Anyways, I’m also here because I miss you! It’s been over a week since we last saw each other and I want some quality time with you.”

I jokingly scoffed at her sentiment.

“Oh just admit it that you just want the deeds of my trip.”

At the accusation, the Latina emitted a loud gasp while placing her hand on her chest, feigning offense.

And that’s why we’re best friends.

“How dare you doubt me and my feelings! I have no—”

Anna shut her mouth as I regarded her with an arch of an eyebrow, unconvinced.

‘I know her. Putting up a dramatic act like that, I know she’s only fooling with me.’

“I’m serious!”

“If you really missed me, then would you mind explaining to me why it took almost four days for you to reply to my suggestion of a meet-up after the trip? You were pretty much MIA during my time in Philip.”

……

“Okay fine!” Anna admitted while her cheeks puffed out into a pout. She then went on to clasp my hands together with hers, squeezing them. “I’m here because I want details of your time there. Desperately. Now that I know how much fun you had.”

She then paused in thought.

“And also I want to talk to you about my time here with Zain.”

My nose crinkled in disgust at the lewd tone in her words, now knowing full well her adventure with Uncle Mike’s head steward was anything but modest.

“Gross. Please spare me the details. I do not want to know your rated-18 exploitations with Zain. Just seeing the hickies when we visited Nobel Michel last time is enough.”

Shock registered on her face.

“W-What? You know?”

“What, you really think I didn’t notice them the whole time? Man, you underestimate me. I don’t think any person would wear a turtleneck or a scarf on a sunny day. I should also add that you swore to never wear a turtleneck of any kind because of, I quote, how ugly they are. You can’t hide from me for so long. We were literally sleeping in the same room back at the castle. I’m bound to see your hickies, intentional or not. And Jesus, the number of them on your neck and they’re so dark and so randomly—”

Like the speed of light, Anna muffled my voice by covering my mouth. It was just so fast, so sudden, I thought my heart would jump out from my throat.

“That’s enough,” I stared wide-eyed at the olive-skinned woman, whose cheeks seemed to catch fire while she hissed at me. “You didn’t have to go into that much detail.”

I thought I would have to try moving my head to remove her hand, but she pulled it away in her own volition, sensing I wasn’t going to spill anything. Not that I wanted to. Just describing it already brought unwanted visualization in my head. Besides, I’m nice.

“Just stating real facts,” I shrugged my shoulders nonchalantly.

Anna ignored my comment (this was a common occurrence) and went on to mumble me a question. I detected a trace of meek embarrassment (or was it shame…) in her words.

“Does this mean you’re aware of me sneaking out and arriving back to our room so late at night? You knew what I was doing out all this time?”

“Yep,” I quickly added something comforting after seeing her shoulders slumped.

“Believe me, you weren’t being obvious when you sneaked in and out. I just happened to be a light sleeper—which by the way you should’ve known by now—and so when the door clicked shut, it revealed me your activities. After noticing you covering up your neck and catching the glances exchanged between you and Zain, I just connected the dots that you two slept together.”

Okay, maybe I didn’t make her feel any better, because right after that, she buried her burning face with a pillow before groaning into it.

“That is so embarrassing. Why didn’t you tell me?”

I could feel my gaze softening at her. For real this time, I would comfort her. I rested my hand on her shoulder, causing her to look up at me smiling.

“I don’t think it’s a big deal. You must have had a reason to hide it from me and to be honest, I have no idea why. If it’s because of shame, then you should know me better. I would never judge you. It’s your own body. It’s your own choice. Sex is normal.”

“Really? You don’t mind knowing if I’m going to do that?”

Hesitance crawled over her features.

“Really. You can tell me you’re going to have sex and I’ll just give you a thumbs up and say ‘have fun’! Oh oh oh! Also ‘be safe’! Safe sex is important.”

Immediately after we gazed at each other, a grin threatened to appear on our face and soon after we both exploded into giggles that pretty much took a whole ten seconds. When it finally died down, getting our breathing back to normal, Anna shot me another smile, this time more appreciative.

“You’re such a mother hen. Thanks though, now I don’t have to sneak around when we’re in Uncle Mike’s place.”

I returned the gesture before nudging her shoulder in a playful manner. “You forgot the ‘cool’ in ‘mother hen’. I’m a cool mother hen. And hey, it’s no problem! I’m totally fine with you making out, having sex as long as I don’t have to hear any details of your smutty escapade.”

‘Because frankly, I would need to mix bleach and holy water and pour it on my mind and ears.’

Just right after I said that my eyes caught my best friend pressing her lips together to stop a smile (most likely a devious one) from breaking out. Her eyes were glinting with mischief as she intentionally stared somewhere else.

She was practically sending out a message she’s going to do what I told her not to!

Anna instinctively raised both arms to cover her front after seeing me take a pillow, moving my occupied hands into a throwing position.

“Alright! Alright!” She piped up in a frantic. “I won’t tell you anything about it! But… Don’t you want to know a little? Maybe you can learn a thing or two?”

I knew she was joking again from the way she was wiggling her eyebrows. This time around, I really did smack her hard with the pillow, right into her face but she only burst out laughing at my reproachful reaction, especially at the groan I released.

“God Anna, I can find out on my own! I still have that romance novel you gifted me with the ‘emergency horny kit’.”

At that, she ceased her laughter and stared at me. I couldn’t put a finger whether it was out of dismay or astonishment or both.

However, for sure, I could sense a lecture coming.

“What? Madeleine, it’s fiction, not a learning material. It’s bound to be unrealistic. I gave the novel to you so it could relieve your frustrations about Claude—and there’s the vibrator to help you get—”

I didn’t allow her to finish as I felt the blood rushing up my neck and to my face, coloring it red.

“I get it! You could’ve just stopped at ‘unrealistic’. I’ll find other means to learn other than listening to your private endeavors.”

Anna sighed in resignation.

“I don’t understand why you can just get it from me, but as you wish. At least it’s not from a novel. Now that’s over,” the Latina laid down on her stomach with her head propped against her hand, her eyes full of expectance and excitement. “Will you tell me everything about your trip? What’s your progress with your special butler? I want all the teensy bitsy details, especially about Claude.”

I was a bit taken aback at the sudden change of topic (although I should be ‘cause she always did that), but at the same time relieved. She wasn’t going to try to persuade me into hearing her sex life or talk about my frustrations about Claude. Anything was better than those at this point.

“Very well,” Anna let out a deafening squeal, causing me to roll my eyes at her. Yet, I still grinned at her enthusiasm.

For the rest of the morning, my best friend listened soundlessly to me retelling my stay at the Chateau from the very first day to the last before she had to go for volunteer work. I told her literally almost everything from the people (Wilfred, Danielle, Sophie, and Claude), my interactions with them, the sight-seeings around the kingdom, and things that happened in the Chateau. Everything except about Claude’s past.

Yes, Anna might be my best friend but I had already sworn to Wilfred that I will keep this only to myself and I shall see it to the end. I didn’t want to hurt his privacy even more. I still felt guilty that I knew about his heartbreaking past without his consent. So yea, I told her everything except this.

I observed she paid extra attention to parts where I talked (so lovingly) about Claude or anything that included him, so she definitely saw all my reactions. And from the knowing smile plastered across her face, I could tell she had caught on to my now strong feelings for the head steward and how much I had grown fond and care for him. To be honest, it was super obvious. I guessed all these fuzzy warm feelings I felt inside must have gotten transferred (or escaped?) into my words. It didn’t help that I kept smiling the whole time that I felt my cheeks hurting and that my whole face felt like burning. This happened every time I spoke and thought of him.

When I completely finished talking about Claude and she had to go (I saved him for the last), I found her looking at me with such tenderly gentleness and pride, her smile trembling, like a mother looking at her daughter. I admitted I was surprised since in the past, she would bombard me with her teasing.

Before she left, Anna had abruptly pulled me into a tight hug and I remembered what she said to me.

“I’m so happy for you, Mads. I’m so happy that you found someone you really like. I only hope from here on, it will be a smooth journey for you.”

The sentiment in her words deeply touched every inch of my heart, that I kid you not, I felt myself tearing up.

Immediately, I snaked my arms around her, returning her embrace that was even tighter, feeling so grateful to have her in my life.

I also could only hope that everything is going to be alright for me.

•••
10th of April
Same time
The Chateau — Prince Wilfred’s Study

Wilfred swore that he would try not to intervene in helping Claude and Madeleine get together, but it was getting difficult to hold on to that after observing the steward for the last two days.

It wasn’t like the prince planned to study him in the first place. It was already hard to get a read on him and what was on his mind with his impassive facade on. He had always been skilled at concealing his emotions and recovering from it fast if it ever makes an appearance on his face. And due to unpleasant circumstances in the past (yes you know what he was referring to) he had become extremely skilled with that ability. You would never know if he was feeling off.

However, as of recent, Wilfred registered a subtle yet unusual change in his demeanor ever since Madeleine left, this place becoming quiet once again. There was something different in the air around him. He was a bit out of character.

Right after she left, Claude had been normal for the rest of the day. Yes, he was visibly shaken after the event back in the main entrance and it made sense.

It was the first time after a long time he lost his composure and aggressively spoke his mind. It was the first time he clashed with the prince, a clash he didn’t back down instantly.

It was the first time Wilfred was actually angry with him (and he meant angry angry) and reflecting back now, a reprimand was definitely unnecessary, opposite of what he thought of at the time. He must have been caught in his anger that he swept aside all rationality. He understood his butler’s explosive reaction and the argument that came along with it. No one should disrespect nor made any physical contact him.

He understood that Claude was only looking out for him since he was the crown prince and his master… But Madeleine was a friend. He would allow it because it was anything but malicious. It was only a banter between friends.

Or maybe he didn’t see it that way? She did speak to him very firmly like a mother scolding a child but perhaps from afar, it appeared like she was threatening him when it is accompanied by her squeezing him…

Oh, nevermind that! The main point was Claude shouldn't have reacted like that to her.

However, what was really surprising was Madeleine thinking otherwise.

The heiress was one unusual woman. Any person would be relieved, delighted even if the prince exempted them from facing consequences just because they’re his friend.

Anyone except her.

He vividly remembered the apparent shock etched on the butler’s features when Madeleine stood up for him over his anger at her. After all, it was the first time in years did someone defended him. And soon after that, his shock then gave away to disbelief after she went on to say how she shouldn’t receive any special treatment or immunity. Wilfred admitted he was gripped both by surprise and admiration.

‘It’s not often I meet an aristocrat who’s down-to-earth like her. It was quite refreshing after experiencing all those condescending attitudes of other aristocrats and high position officials.’

Anyways, going back to the topic at hand, after the whole thing happening earlier, Claude soon recovered and seemed normal for the rest of the day.

It was only the day after, probably at noon if Wilfred had to pinpoint when his butler started acting off. There were a couple of times he stared into spaces as if his mind was somewhere else and at times, the prince caught his butler’s scrunching face. Either he was at thought or just bothered over something.

He just didn’t have his usual firm commanding air around him. He was more… subdued and maybe a bit blue.

Do you know what was most interesting in his findings? It’s the way Claude perked up (slightly although) and side-eyeing (briefly too) Wilfred and Danielle every time Madeleine is mentioned in their conversation.

The prince could only conclude that perhaps his butler was missing the said woman and the energy she brought into the Chateau. He knew Claude would never admit it if he ever asks.

‘I wonder if Madeleine is feeling the same thing at the moment…’ Wilfred mused.

She probably was, knowing the magnitude of her feelings for him.

Not a lot of people (unfortunately) would say their thanks to the staff or in this situation, a butler. And yet this woman right here last-minutely (was that even a word?) spent the whole night before departing baking tons of cookies for him as a token of appreciation. The fact she even asked Wilfred on the butler’s favorite snack before then showed this was more than just about thanking him. She was trying to convey her feelings to the butler!

At the thought of Madeleine and his butler missing one another, Wilfred burned with determination to solve their predicament.

Screw about not wanting to interfere anymore! If this progressed their connection further, so be it!

And… that’s what he did for the next hour or so.

Wilfred had asked Danielle a favor to scan an old picture (she melted at how adorable it was) he possessed for the letter he wrote to Madeleine. Once Danielle was done and gave the newly scanned photo to him, the prince inserted it inside a white envelope along with the written letter before sealing the slip while waiting for Claude to come as ordered. His fiancé had decided to stay in his office instead of returning to hers. She was eager to see how this scene would unfold between those two after Wilfred had told her about his cheeky and if not, borderline outrageous plan. If she hadn't known better, she would’ve thought this plan was Prince Roberto’s.

Danielle, who was lounging on the sofa, immediately picked up some random wedding magazine from the creme-colored coffee table and flipped it onto some random page, pretending to read when a knock on the door broke the silence.

The door opened and then entered Claude, standing tall and poised with one hand on his chest, ready to assist his master. As expected he had a stoic expression on and his physical appearance was all prim and proper. There wasn’t a single wrinkle in sight.

“You called for me, Your Royal Highness?” Claude called out to Wilfred.

“Ah Claude, yes I need your help.”

With a small smile on his face, the prince nodded while gesturing the butler to come forward, which the latter quickly obeyed. In the last sentence, Danielle secretly peered over the magazine and onto the two people. There was anticipation running in her blood as she watched them interact. So far her presence didn’t elicit any reaction from the butler, which was good.

“In what do you need my assistance in, Your Highness?”

Wilfred handed the envelope to him.

“I want this letter sent today.”

The butler glanced down on the envelope in his hand, only to see ‘Lady Madeleine’ written neatly on the back. His heart skipped a beat at the sight.

“To Lady Madeleine?” He looked back at Wilfred with questions in his eyes. Why was the prince sending a letter out of nowhere?

“Yes, to Lady Madeleine,” the prince nodded in confirmation. “I… have something to say to her. Please make sure it’s delivered to her by the end of today.”

‘That sounds a bit suspicious… especially how His Highness paused in the middle.’

Claude kept his skepticism inside with his face still impassive and instead, he bowed his head at his master.

“As you wish. I shall give this letter to the messen—”

‘Oh, this is where it gets interesting!’ Danielle squealed inwardly. At this point, the designer didn’t even try to pretend anymore. She was too invested.

“No,” Wilfred quickly interrupted in objection, causing Claude’s eyebrows to rise slightly, and they raised even higher after hearing the next part. “I want you to personally deliver the letter to her.”

His poor heart again skipped a beat at the same time he sucked in his breath.

‘What…? He wants me to deliver it? But for why?’

The apparent shock Claude felt is then quickly replaced with suspicion as he narrowed his eyes at Wilfred, who appeared unfazed. He already had expected the reaction.

“I don’t mean to be rude, Your Highness, but is there a reason why you’re asking me to deliver this letter to Lady Madeleine instead of the messenger?”

“Simple. The letter contains sensitive information, so I only trust you to deliver it.”

Even though the prince was putting an effort into hiding his smile, he still caught on to it when he squinted. Not to mention, he also noticed the exchanging of conspiring glances between Wilfred and Danielle.

He did not like the feeling he was receiving from any of their actions.

‘They’re hiding something.’

Claude furrowed his brows with his lips pressed together. He was now more skeptical and perhaps displeased that they might be fooling him.

“Isn’t it reckless to share sensitive information with someone outside the Chateau? You only had known Lady Madeleine for a quite short time, Your Highness.”

“Don’t worry Claude,” Wilfred replied assuringly. “It’s nothing that would jeopardize the kingdom. It’s only personal information and some memento from the past.”

‘... Is he serious?’

At this point, Claude really thought they were joking with him and let’s just say the deep scowl on his face was enough evidence that he wasn’t having it.

“Your Highness, I can’t seem to follow your line of reasoning. Doesn’t matter if it’s your personal information or whatsoever, sharing information outside the Chateau is still reckless. You should know that by now.”

Oh, yes, Wilfred knew that too much. He recalled that one time before he and Danielle got together, it was during their contract period. Even though they weren’t at the Chateau rather a beach resort at the time, somehow words spread out that they were acting intimate in a more hidden area of the beach and soon enough there were pictures taken by paparazzi of them holding hands, and all posted on gossip websites and tabloids. The press was having a field day in front of the palace and safe to say, Claude was severely displeased. He went ballistic at Danielle for ‘completely destroying the progress he had made with the previous press conference’ followed by how she ‘certainly made his job more challenging’.

It was not easy for Danielle to forget. His fury was clear in every line of his face and his glare was so cutting and burned with so much icy anger, she felt the cold sweats forming at her back. It was terrifying, so terrifying she was pinned to one spot, her limbs refusing to move from the fear.

That was certainly unpleasant.

“Loosen up will you, Claude. Everything will be safe as I wrote the information in another language. And the memento well, it’s not that serious so you have one less thing to worry about.”

By language, Wilfred meant Mandarin. Basically, most of the time spent was him practicing to write the characters he wanted to put on the letter.

Claude only raised one eyebrow at him, looking very cynical.

‘Did the prince forget there is software that could translate one language to another?’

So badly did he want to say it out loud and press him more questions. Instead, he only sighed in exasperation, keeping his doubts inside. He didn’t want to make a fuss about it, afraid he’ll just get more irritated at Wilfred’s answers. The steward bowed his head.

“As you wish, I will have the letter personally delivered to Lady Madeleine… But…” He trailed off thoughtfully before conflict registered on his face. “Doesn’t it take almost two hours by car to reach the Zhangs’ residence? It’ll be a four hours round trip just to deliver a single letter.”

‘So he does know how long it takes,’ Wilfred concealed his small smirk.

“I must be frank, it is highly inconvenient Your Highness.”

“Hmm… I agree it is quite inconvenient,” the prince slowly nodded in agreement, acting concerned by having his eyes closed and a frown on his face. “I suppose you can use the helicopter.”

Silence filled the entire room.

Danielle, who had been watching the whole exchange on the side, pressed a hand to her mouth to stop herself from laughing at the disbelief expressed on Claude’s face.

He just… gaped at Wilfred after hearing the suggestion.

He admitted his master wasn’t entirely wrong. Riding a helicopter would be convenient as it reduced the travel time by a huge amount. But it’s a helicopter.

He was going to ride a goddamn helicopter just to deliver a letter to Lady Madeleine. It was as ridiculously dramatic as it sounded. It would be absolutely mortifying for the navy-haired butler.

Then again, what other options did he have?

Traveling by ship was out. Philip did have trains but it was only within the kingdom. If only there were bullet trains that connect to all kingdoms like the ones in Japan. He read an article on it and he found himself impressed by the end. Maybe all the kingdoms should start investing in something like that…

While Claude found the whole traveling by helicopter ordeal absolutely embarrassing, both the prince and designer found it entertaining at best. They were totally on the other side of the spectrum (well it’s easy for them to say because they weren’t the ones riding the helicopter).

Imagine Lady Madeleine watching the usual stern and well-groomed butler taking off his helmet when the chopper landed, and immediately he’s hit with a strong wind coming from the rotor blades, messing up his entire appearance. Danielle could imagine the pure distaste on his face, after all, she had been the victim of it many times. Sad, she knew.

Going back again, let’s not forget the loud sounds coming from the spinning of the rotor blades. It made everything even more dramatic and Danielle wished to see it happening. That would be peak entertainment for her, especially after seeing the heiress’ reaction. Would Madeleine be astonished? Swooning? Both? She would only have a faint idea.

Claude who had been staring in disbelief the whole time finally composed himself back to normal, completely wiping off all emotions and returning his face back into his normal collected yet impassive look. It wasn’t entirely successful though. When he bowed his head in acceptance, Wilfred saw a bit of leftover traces of resigned exasperation.

“I shall use the helicopter as Your Highness suggested. Do you want me to depart now?”

“Yes, that’ll be great. Thank you, Claude,” Wilfred gave him a grateful smile.

“The pleasure is mine, Your Highness. Is there more I can do for you and Lady Danielle?”

After receiving no’s from the both of them, Claude excused himself with one last respectful bow.

“Then I shall take my leave.”

Once the prince and the designer could no longer hear the sounds of the steward’s footsteps from inside the office, they turned to each other with their eyes making contact. Broad giddy grins erupted on both their faces. Danielle spoke up first, excitement evident in her voice.

“Now let’s see what Madeleine will reply to you later.”

“Indeed we shall see. For now, at the current moment, we can plan our wedding no?”

•••
About 2 hours later
Zhangs’ Private Library

Do you remember that one library scene from that Beauty and the Beast live-action movie released around 2017? That one library the Beast showed Belle around?

Well, that’s how our private library looked like but smaller. I was pretty confident that perhaps my parents were inspired by that scene. If you had a hard time imagining, think of the library in St. Florian Monastery located in Austria. It’s a bit similar to that. Just like in any other parts of the residence, the family library has baroque elements to it with elaborate carved-wood bookcases and balustrades that was accompanied with gilded details.

The ceiling above contained a beautifully painted fresco that featured Chinese allegorical objects. It might not fit with the whole theme but it was important to my family. It was an ode to our roots. It served to remember and appreciate where we came from. It served to respect our culture.

The library was the only room that didn’t have any artificial lights but the long arched windows on the side allowed a substantial amount of natural light from the sun to shine through, brightening the entire place. And by afternoon with the sun setting down, the light would wrap the place with a warm glow.

It was no wonder I could spend hours here and perhaps even almost a whole day.

Being surrounded by books, old and new, and their distinct smell.

The natural sunlight illuminating and warming the whole room.

On the other side of the windows, I got a beautiful panoramic view of the Chinese imperial-style garden my mother championed.

After a long day of work or traveling (mostly business trips) or a slow day, the library was one of the only places aside from my private room and the garden that I could really unwind. Just reading the many books my parents have collected over the years, sipping herbal tea, and enjoying the view while the sounds of birds chirping and water streaming resounded in the background.

Exactly what I’m doing at the very moment.

When Anna had left to volunteer in an animal shelter, I went out for errands and by that, I meant visiting one of the corporate branches of my parents’ company, did some paperwork on my parents’ behalf, and shadowed a senior director. And once everything is settled, I went home. I didn’t want to laze around and do nothing as it would cause my mind to drift off to Claude and the others—making me miss their presence more badly—so when I arrived, I immediately dashed to the library, not caring that I was on heels.

I was currently leaning my back against a bookshelf with my butt on top of a flat pillow, reading one of the business journals I recently obtained. Since it was noon, there were no insects and birds chirping, making the whole library dead silent, so silent that the turning of pages echoed throughout.

Then out of nowhere, I heard a familiar noise of a helicopter flying from afar and it got louder and louder as it—I assumed—was heading closer to the residence. Once I dismissed it off by thinking it was Baba returning home from looking over some properties, Eloisa entered the library with a troubled yet puzzled look on her face. My eyebrows furrowed at the expression present on her after I lifted my head up with the book laying still on my lap.

“Yes?”

“Well, Lady Madeleine… Apparently, there is a helicopter that belonged to the Spencers royal family heading here and the pilot notified us that the head steward is on board and he’s here to give you a letter from Prince Wilfred.”

It seemed that every word that came out from the old woman’s mouth became more incredulous that by the time she finished the whole sentence, my eyes were as wide as saucers with my lips parted.

‘What on earth?!’

“Did I hear that right, Eloisa? Wilfred sent a helicopter just to deliver me a letter?” I rephrased her sentence into a question, with traces of disbelief apparent in my words.

The old woman confirmed it with a wry smile.

“Yes, Lady Madeleine. I am as incredulous as you are right now. A bit too much isn’t it to send Claude with a helicopter just to bring a letter addressed to you? What could possibly be in the—”

My body perked up when my ears picked up on the name of the butler that has been occupying my mind almost 24/7. I would be lying if I said my heart didn’t jump to my throat.

“Claude?! He’s here?!”

Eloisa’s body jumped, startled at the sudden rise in my voice’s volume.

I must have not noticed the butler being mentioned the first time around but honestly, it wasn’t my fault. I was too caught up with Eloisa describing the whole situation at hand. It was just downright ridiculous and wild, something I thought couldn’t happen in real life (but here we are).

When my maid had gotten over her shock, patting her old frail heart, as if she’s trying to still her fast-beating heart, her eyes zoomed into the awed excitement exuding from my features.

“Yes, my Lady. Claude is here… Well almost.” There was a knowing look on her, but I didn’t give much thought because the second she voiced her confirmation again, I instantly sprung to my feet and clumsily put on my heels. I did not care much for fixing the straps, so they flung around when I sprinted out of the library, leaving Eloisa in the dust.

Knowing how clumsy I was and that I wasn’t properly wearing my heels, it was a miracle that I didn’t trip on the way to where the helipad was. I was so overcome with excitement that I ran harder than I ever did in my entire life. Everything passed by me like a blur as the air hit my face. I could hear the helicopter nearing, which only caused me to fasten my pace, now exerting myself to the limit. I would worry about my limbs aching later once I’m done meeting Claude. right now all I could think of was seeing Claude. It only had been three days and yet I’m treating as if I didn’t see him over a year. How embarrassing!

My heart was now speeding like a horse in a race. Sweat has started forming around my face and limbs. I was unsure if it was just because of my anticipation or the exertion of physical exercise, but the butterflies erupting in my stomach was a strong indication that perhaps it was leaning towards the latter.

Although… I could feel the fatigue setting in my body. I was already panting heavily, trying to get more oxygen into my deprived lungs. My head felt light-headed. Damn, I must be really out of shape. Maybe I should’ve accepted Anna’s repeated offers to exercise with her in the gym. Ugh.

As that thought crossed my mind, I had reached the back of the mansion. I quickly exited and again dashed to the open field, with heels—which might I add, was a really bad idea—where the helipad is located.

‘Oh thank god, I was able to reach here on time.’

Once I stopped all motions, my body immediately slumped, all the ache and exhaustion finally crashing down on me in full force. My legs were shaking, minutes away from giving up. As I was trying to catch my breath with my body bent down and my hands on my thighs for support, my head was still facing up. My eyes kept their focus on the helicopter carefully coming down from the sky before landing on the pad. Now that I was near to the vehicle, the noises from the main rotor and the tail rang through my ears. It was super loud that perhaps if I was at closer proximity, I would actually go deaf.

And the wind! The continuous blast of strong wind coming from the blades caused not only the rustling of plants and grass around it but also the rumpling of my appearance. Many strands of my hair had escaped from my now messy updo, some of them sticking uncomfortably to my sweat stricken face. My white long-sleeved mandarin-collared shirt was slightly wrinkled but thankfully my black high rise trousers showed no signs with them being made of faux leather. Let’s also appreciate that I chose to go with trousers instead of dresses or skirts. I barely avoided public indecency! Oh god, the nightmare of exposing my thongs out in the open! Just imagining it gave me the cold shivers.

Hmm, now I wondered how my make-up looked like with all the sweat, the wind, and the hair coming to my face… I must have looked like a clown. Or… Do you know that one scene you could find in every chic flick movie where it showed a woman post-breakup? And her make-up is ruined from her tear with mascara running down her face. Think of Elle Woods from Legally Blonde after she got dumped by the asshole (Was it Warren? Meh, he’s insignificant).

Yep, that was probably me right now.

Except I didn’t get dumped since technically, I had no lover boy in my life.

Just all the sweat my face collected from the hardcore sprinting. Bleh just saying it felt gross and it also made me very aware of how the shirt’s fabric was clinging to my skin because of the perspiration. I definitely need a cold shower after this… Well after I read the letter.

A moment later, there was a sudden silence brought by the helicopter being turned off with its rotors slowly coming to a halt and it made me realize how in a matter of seconds he would come out of that very vehicle. So obviously, I frantically made me look as presentable as possible. Or at least attempted to. I had no mirror with me, so I couldn’t really fix the mess of my make-up besides patting my hands on my face to get rid of some of the sweat.

I didn’t want my face to glisten alright.

I too tried fixing my hair by putting the escaped strands behind my ears while tightening my updo. There was pretty much no hope for the top besides running my hand over the fabric, somehow imagining that the action would magically disappear the wrinkles.

Yeah right.

And let’s not forget the situation on my back. The fabric at the back was almost drenched and I prayed to the deities up above me that no one would notice it, especially Claude, and also that I wouldn’t get sick. Getting a fever was not fun.

While I was crouching down to properly put on my heels and latched the straps around my ankles, the door shut open. After I rose to my original height, everything then seemed to go into slow motion the second the butler came into my view.

I kid you not, immediately I sharply sucked in my breath when he still had the headpiece on. He was wearing his usual suit, which made him even more attractive. Did I tell ever mention about my thing for suits? Well, now you know. It was no wonder I was physically attracted to Claude in the first place. Every time I saw a man with a fitted suit and white gloves like Claude….. I wouldn’t take my eyes off them. It was so aesthetically pleasing it deserved a chef’s kiss.

It was a simple normal gesture but when he took the headpiece off followed by sweeping the escaped hair strand covering his face to the back, it was absolutely intoxicating. The pulsating of blood could be heard through my ears just because of how hard my heart was beating.

‘Ugh, I just got my heart calmed down and now it was back to beating so abnormally fast. If this continues, I am bound to get a heart attack.’

With his suit still looking so crisp as heck, Claude walked towards me in long confident strides, his whole presence screamed attention and dominance and I was positively swept by it. Instead of butterflies in my stomach, it was a whole family of elephants stomping and kicking around. While his face was inexpressive with his lips set into a hard line, his gaze was so intense, so fierce that it lit a spark, sending little electric shocks through all of my limbs. It came to a point where I could no longer meet his eyes, so I directed my focus on the ground, cheeks inflamed.

‘How is it possible for a man to have this much effect on me? He’s not even doing anything! He’s just walking! Oh now I sound like a young teenager who just had her first cru—’

“Uhum.”

A loud clearing of one’s throat broke me out of my thoughts. My eyes flickered back up only for me to jerk up while letting a cry of surprise.

He was already in front of me.

‘Great, I’m already embarrassing myself again in front of him and it’s not even five minutes. I haven’t even talked to him yet.’

A corner of my lips curled up into an awkward smile while I waved my hand at him. Back and forth, my feet shuffled.

“Hi Claude… What brings you here?”

The butler arched an eyebrow after seeing my appearance and my unusual jitteriness. There was a quick flash of amusement in his eyes before it disappeared again… and did I see his lips twitch?

“Lady Madeleine, I see you’re doing well… Still the same as ever,” he bowed his head once before continuing. “I’m sure one of your staff has informed you about my reason for coming, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if you forgot about it. In any case, I’m here to personally deliver the letter from His Highness to you, my Lady.”

For a really short moment, the navy-haired steward opened his jacket a little before his hand dived in—probably a pocket—to retrieve a white envelope. There was my name in cursive handwriting that only can be recognized as Wilfred’s. He then reached his hand with the envelope out for me to get it.

“Isn’t riding a helicopter just to deliver this letter perhaps a little too extreme? Also, why did Wilfred send you instead of the usual messenger?”

“N-Not that I don’t want to see you! I am just curious what makes this letter special for you to deliver it instead,” I quickly clarified before mumbling out the last part under my breath “In fact, I’m actually happy to see you…”

The crimson crept up my neck before spreading to my whole face at my own confession. Claude must’ve caught it since he appeared frozen in spot, taken back from the abruptness with his widened eyes and a slack jaw. Soon enough, his face turned as red as mine with his eyes breaking contact. Although he had his face turned away to hide his bashfulness, I still could see his blush and his mouth set into a frown.

‘Oh Lord, that was cute,’ I inwardly cooed.

The butler stumbled for a while, not knowing what to say or what to do. All his words came out as just stuttering incoherent noises.

“I-I…Lady M-Madeleine... Uh… Uh…”

He completely lost all of his previous cool.

My heart fluttered at the rare sight.

‘Can this be a sign that he might like me? Maybe I, too, have an effect on him like he has on me?,’ I hoped.

His lost behavior went on like this for a couple more seconds while I stood there waiting for him to calm down. It was really hard to stop myself from expressing the giddiness I was feeling inside. I even tried to bite my bottom lip as an attempt to make my smile disappear.

Finally, he was able to stammer out actual words that I could make out, although the order… was still a bit of a mess. His voice was so shakily soft; all the firmness and conviction I usually detected couldn’t be found at this moment.

He really had no idea how to respond.

“I… Lady Madeleine… That was—T-Thank you for the… nice sent..iment… Uh… It was a pleasure—no, too formal… It was… nice seeing… you again.”

Ignoring the skip in my heartbeat, I couldn’t help but feel bad at how deep his embarrassment was; the way his voice trembled or the way he faltered between words… Yea it was bad, but god I found this whole thing so goddamn cute. It was so rare to see him so out of character, which made this even cuter and also special.

Okay, I must have said my praise out loud instead of saying it inside my mind since the butler stiffened before he straightened himself out.

“Cute?!” Claude shouted. “You found me being embarrassed cute?!”

It was giving me a whiplash how that one comment I was supposed to keep inside was able to break him out of his embarrassment and revert back to his usual self. Was this one of his skills too?

I mean sure, his face was still red, and maybe it got redder, but he wasn’t trembling or stuttering. Nor his eyes were avoiding mine. He was staring me down. And his voice was back to being firm except it had a bit of incredulity and peevishness to it now. What’s wrong with being cute?

“I was supposed to keep that remark inside, but since it’s out in the open… Yes, I do find you being embarrassed cute.”

“You’re not making fun of me, aren't you?” He accused.

My face contorted in confusion. I was also a bit affronted that he was questioning my feelings but then I remembered why he was like that, guarded and skeptical.

“Uh, I am very sure I said it was cute and not funny. If you thought I was mocking you, I wasn’t. I genuinely find your embarrassment cute.”

“Oh.”

I heaved out at his short response, a bit sad and disappointed that he found it hard to believe it. It was obvious from both his face and tone. I’m not going to try arguing with him this time. I didn’t want this encounter to turn uncomfortable, so I changed the subject by repeating the question I asked earlier.

“So… About that helicopter and Wilfred sending you question…”

The butler picked up where I was getting at and relaxed. He returned back to his professional self, you know what I meant at this point, with his blank face, unwavering voice, standing tall and poised.

“Right,” he cleared his throat. His gloved hands then went to run over his suit before patting it… even though there weren't any wrinkles to be seen. “Regarding the first question, it was the most convenient and fastest type of transport. I am aware of how dramatic it is but I had no desire to spend two hours traveling back and forth by car just to deliver a letter.”

Hm, made sense.

“Second, in regards to His Highness sending me, apparently that letter—,” the butler paused, briefly eyeing the letter in my hand before looking back at me. “—contains private personal information and therefore His Highness only trusted me to deliver it.”

My forehead creased.

“Private personal information?”

“Yes and?”

“Why would Wilfred, I mean Prince Wilfred, send private information. Sure we’re friends but that’s still kinda…” I trailed off, not finishing the sentence.

“You wanted to say something along the lines of dumb and reckless, did you?”

“... Yea… I thought of it, but I didn’t want to say it at risk of offendi—”

“For once, we agreed on something, my Lady.”

The butler noticed the disbelief painted across my features.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I just thought since you’re his butler and the head steward, I thought you would always defend him.”

Claude stayed silent, gazing at me. It was like he was working something out in his mind, but soon enough a small snort escaped him followed by the shaking of his head. There was an amused smile on his face.

“Just because I’m his butler or the head steward, I have to blindly defend him. I will call him out if he’s going to do something foolish and I am not afraid to do just that. That’s the part of guiding him. Like you said three days ago, Lady Madeleine. If I keep excusing his actions all the time, he will never grow.”

“Oh, you still remember what I said that day.”

The butler pursed his lips at my response bewildered.

I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it!

I completely paid attention to him and I agreed with what he said, but I got thrown off at the last part. So yea, that was the only thing I was thinking about.

Human minds work in such mysterious ways aha!

It wasn’t much of a surprise that Claude’s next response was a mixture of incredulity and annoyance.

I really really should stop making a fool of myself.

“Wha—Really? I responded to your assumption and you only focused on me remembering what you said?”

My mouth opened before it shut closed.

I had no excuse. There’s nothing I could defend myself because that was a hundred percent accurate like I could’ve come up with “ah, it makes sense.” or “oh I see.” or “I completely agree.”, but I didn’t. Instead, my mind went “let’s just forget all the other meaningful things he said and focus on the last part!”.

The only thing I could do was admitting he was correct (or was it more confirming his suspicions?) by throwing a sheepish look at him, to which he huffed.

“You still really are the same, Lady Madeleine.”

‘Huh? What does he mean by that? I’m not even sure if that was a compliment or an insult.’

“Anyways, now that I finished carrying out the task at hand, I must be going.”

I was pretty much occupied with breaking down his previous remark in my head as it was cryptic as hell, however, his announcement startled me. Just like that, my mood plummeted from cloud nine.

“You’re leaving already?” I whispered sadly.

He was about to greet me goodbye but my question (and maybe the emotions in my voice) stilled him for a while before he glanced at me questioningly, head tilted.

“Well, I already did what I’m ordered to do, Lady Madeleine. I wouldn’t want to keep His Highness waiting.”

“Right… You’re still on your duties,” my shoulders slumped from dejection. My heart was sinking to the ground. I bowed my head to hide my disappointment and sadness at him leaving, refusing to see him walk away. I think what made this difficult to bear was the fact I skimmed over him being here because it was an order. It must have slipped somewhere as the excitement ran through me with the thought of seeing him again. And yea, over time my love-struck, wishful thinker of a mind had foolishly conjured up an idea that he was visiting because he wished to see me.

And we both know how that turned out now. My hopes had been devastatingly gashed and I blamed it on myself. Really, what was I thinking? Why did I do that to myself? What is your argument, Madeleine?

“Um, I guess you can leave now. I’m sorry for keeping here and delaying your other duties back at the Chateau,” I said, and my voice shook with barely controlled emotions. I imagined my frown was so deep that I thought it would never revert back.

Goddamn it, I wanted him to stay longer. I wanted to talk to him more… I wanted to be with him.

There was another moment of unbearable silence, that felt too long when actually it was only like ten seconds (are we that awkward?). He didn’t move. I didn’t move. We just stood there. I had zero ideas about what he looked like now since my only view consisted of grass and his polished black oxfords.

‘Why wasn’t he moving? I did say he can leave now.’

Just as I thought maybe he was figuring out what to say next (deciding he won’t leave yet? Yea I know, what wishful thinking), he finally spoke, announcing his leave.

“Thank you… I shall be leaving now. Have a good afternoon, Lady Madeleine.”

“You too… Claude,” I spoke softly as I sadly inclined my head. Overwhelmed with emotions, I spun my heels around and took off before he could. My hand gripped on the enveloped tight as I dragged my feet back to the same door I used to go here. Moving closer, I then caught Eloisa standing meters away from it, perceptive eyes trained on me.

Her face betrayed no emotion but her eyes were telling a different story. The interrogative look she was sending me gave away that she observed the entire interaction between the butler and me and perhaps had a clear idea of what was happening with us…. Or mostly with me.

I sensed that there would be an impending questioning session from the old lady later when it’s just us two.

As I was about to walk past Eloisa, Claude’s calling of my name reached my ears and also Eloisa’s.

“Lady Madeleine!”

Seconds after Eloisa cast an interested glance behind me, I whirled around so fast with the hopes of a change of mind about him leaving now, only for my breath to get caught in my throat at the sight. He was still standing there at the same spot and with the same position as before, but the expression on his face… It was different from before. His gaze on me was soft and his mouth, that was once set in a straight line, slightly curved into a tiny smile that radiated a huge amount of warmth. The way he was regarding me, even though it was subtle, it was so tender and it made my heart beat like millions of butterflies’ wings. The heat I felt from that very smile had now spread to all parts of her body, enveloping me in a gentle embrace.

Aware of the fact that Claude was a very reserved man, and at times could come across as cold, which was why it made the look he was giving me at the moment even more special and intimate. He’s displaying a glimpse of his guarded emotions in a public setting while he’s on duty because of me.

I understood there wasn’t a lot of people—just him, me, the pilot which I was sure gave no f’s, and Eloisa—but it was still out in the open where anyone could just walk accidentally into this scene and stayed to watch, just like what Eloisa did.

Here he was revealing his smile just for me! Even if it was so subtle, I didn’t care. It still made my heart flutter and caused my gut to somersault many more times than what was normal. He made me feel, a grown-ass woman, like a smitten schoolgirl, feeling all fuzzy and giddy over her first crush.

And then he went on to exclaim about the cookies, which I was very confident, had actually turned me looking like a smitten schoolgirl.

“I greatly enjoyed the cookies you baked for me, all of them… and I think they’re probably the best cookies I have ever eaten.”

Really, with just these two sentences from him, it successfully overwhelmed me with so many feelings—mostly joy—made me combust, especially my poor heart. I had a feeling, it wasn’t going to recover for quite a while. A huge grin blossomed across my face as a rosy blush dusted on my cheeks. If I could see myself, my eyes were probably lighting up and all sparkly.

Before I could come up with a reply, or to be honest, try to make my mouth work again, Claude already had turned around, quickly striding his way back to the helicopter. He acted as if he said nothing special as if he was keeping his cool. I didn’t care. I heard it and I would keep it locked up in my mind and heart. Best believe it, it was going to replay in my head every single day.

“I’m happy that you enjoyed them as much as I enjoyed making them!” I cried out with so much enthusiasm. “I will be sure to give you some again!”

He might have not replied back to me as he effortlessly leaped and stepped inside the helicopter, but it did not matter to me at the end of the day. I was too happy with how everything in this encounter panned out. As I skipped back inside and passed by Eloisa with a huge dreamy smile on my face and the envelope clasped against my chest, the old maid made no comment except giving me a knowing smirk.

I purposely ignored the maid. I had to because I knew that if I did give her the attention, like a quick side glance, she would tug me into some quiet corner it and force me to spill the beans on Claude. Oh, how I knew that you say? Personal experiences.

Even if I did fight back, it was fruitless. Eloisa may be nearing sixty-eight years old, but believe me when I said she has the health of a twenty-something fitness trainer and a strength of a weightlifter. Resisting would only cause one of my arms to become sore and me to get carried off on her shoulder like a potato sack. She may looked thin from afar but under all that uniform, consisting of a long-sleeved emerald tangzhuan blouse and loose-fit black trousers, she has quite an impressive set of muscles any person wouldn’t probably guess. She once confessed that my unruly and mischievous self when I was still a child, was the sole reason for her athletic build, but I didn’t believe her one bit. It has to be more than that. She has to be following some sort of work-out routine.

But never mind that, going back to the situation at hand, when I had made some distance between us, I immediately bolted across the hallways and to my room as fast as I could, with an envelope in hand, out of the fear of her following me.

‘Sorry Eloisa, I need to read the letter immediately.’

•••
Private Bedroom

When I said I need to read the letter immediately, I really meant it. After I arrived back in my room, panting heavily, I went straight to grab a cutter from my desk and cut one side of the envelope. While the cutter clang against the table, my hand turned the envelope in which the cut was facing down, causing the contents to fall onto the wooden surface of the table.

Immediately my eyes simultaneously zoomed in and widened at the palm-sized photo.

“Oh my god…” I whispered to myself, overcome with shock.

… It was a photo of Claude and Wilfred when they were still children.

With trembling hands, I gently picked the picture up like it was the most precious and fragile thing in the world (news flash, it was) and raised it in front of my eyes to get a more detailed look.

‘Oh my god… They’re adorable.’

They almost looked the same as they were now but of course smaller and more child-like. They held a sense of innocence here. My eyes gazed at Wilfred first. Even when he’s still a child, the little blonde prince was already in some grey trousers and a navy blue blazer with a white collared button-up underneath. He had one arm around Claude and the other thrown up in the air. With his eyes closed and his mouth wide open, it seemed he was in the middle of laughing when the photo was taken. His grin radiated so much unrestrained joy and excitement unlike now. It’s like he was more carefree there with fewer responsibilities weighing on his shoulders.

I then turned to look at Claude and in just a snap, I found myself with a huge grin plastered across my face, overjoyed at seeing him happy.

He pretty much kept the same except it was a bit more untamed than now. At first, I thought he would have a cute pout with his cheeks puffed out but what I was seeing now, it was better. Way better. It was similar in such that it reminded me of the one he had shown towards Mrs. Graham during our time at the space center. While the smile back then revealed his teeth a bit and caused the areas around his eyes to wrinkle, this one in the photo didn’t. Here, he had his lips pressed firmly together with its corners curled up faintly, hence the relaxed cheeks. Although it was more subdued, his smile shared the same genuineness and warmth that consumed me whole. It didn’t help that his cheeks and nose were flushed pink, and yet despite the bashfulness, his eyes shone with much mirthfulness.

Oh, and we couldn’t forget the butler apprentice get-up he was in, with that little striped black vest and the black bowtie placed around under the white collar of his white button-up.

It was downright adorable. He was downright adorable. I couldn’t help but allow my heart to soar. It felt light but at the same time, it was heavy and languid with affection.

This boy in the photo had grown into such a fine young man whose physical attributes and movements could rival any prince. But I think what was more important, was the traits he possessed. He was hard-working and determined. Firm but also thoughtful. The time spent with him alone revealed me so much about him, especially with the care and tenderness he treated people close to him.

He has flaws alright, but then so did everyone. He’s stubborn. He’s short-tempered. He’s very set in his values and ways. There would be times those traits would drive me crazy, but I wouldn’t change him… Okay maybe I would want him to be more flexible and open but you get the point. But yes, I wouldn’t change his flaws because they weren’t so bad when he has so many good qualities. He wouldn’t be the same Claude I have grown to adore if I were to change him. I loved the way he was now and I wished he could finally see that.

As I longingly gazed at the butler in the picture while my thumb unconsciously stroking him, a realization dawned on me that perhaps that the feelings I have for him could be categorized as love now. I could no longer deny it or hide it anymore. What happened earlier was a clear indication of that and so was my behavior during the last three days. When with him, it felt like I was walking on air, on cloud nine. Everything seemed right in this world.

I wanted to be with him and I would do anything to see him happy, to see him smile, and to make him believe in himself again. I wanted to stay by his side and lift him up when he’s at his lowest. I wanted to see him grow to be the best man he could ever be and I would be there to support him in every way. And I would be there to witness when he finally achieves it. I just… I wanted the best for him because he deserved it.

‘God, I really love him.’

I pulled the picture against my chest, hugging it tightly while I flung my back against the chair. If the deities could see me, they would probably think I was unwell because of the wide love-stricken grin I was sporting and the squeals that erupted through my very lips.

Of course, I had my reservations. There was a seed of fear and doubt that this love could go unrequited or end up badly like what I experienced years ago… But you know, this love could also lead to something beautiful. It could lead to a fruitful loving relationship between two people who loved, accepted, and lifted each other up. I wanted to experience something like that and this time, it would be real.

That being said, I was willing to take the risk.

After coming down from my elation brought from the realization of my love for Claude, I took the letter. Once unfolded, I started reading the content.

 

Dear Madeleine,

I hope this letter reaches you safe and sound, my friend. Actually no, I’m sure it will reach you safe and sound because it’s Claude delivering it and he never fails.

To start off, I wanted to say Danielle and I thought you were a joy to have in the Chateau and we are delighted to have you back again. We missed you already and I believed Claude missed you too. I noticed how absent-minded and gloomy he was for the past few days now that you are no longer here, no longer gracing this place with your liveliness. It’s just not the same without you.

And I am sure you miss us too, especially Claude, am I right?

Anyways, We also wanted to tell you we enjoyed your cookies and pretty much devoured them all in less than a day. It makes a good fulfilling snack after an exhausting day. I will be anticipating more baked goods from you the next time you visit us again in the near future.

I hope you are healthy and doing well, Madeleine. If there’s anything you need, whether it’s just a chat or help, you can call or text my personal number written below. I wished you have a great evening.

Sincerely,

Wilfred

Sure enough, when I shifted my gaze below, there was the prince’s phone number present.

I silently gaped down on his number with open-mouthed wonder, not believing what I just saw with my very own eyes. When my bewilderment had passed, giving away to amusement, my shoulders shook from the laughter that took over my whole body.

The crown prince of Philip had written his phone number in Mandarin.

All twelve digits in simplified Chinese characters.

I could tell the amount of time he put in it from how the ink in each stroke was thick to the point some become blotted. He went carefully slow so that the strokes were perfect. But you know what, I’ll give him credit for the effort and the entertainment.

My hand reached out for my phone to insert his number and contact him via text message. Out of excitement, my fingers quickly typed on the keyboard, sending the first message in no time.

•••

3:35 pm Madeleine: I can’t believe you wrote your number in Chinese.

3:35 pm Madeleine: And I can’t believe you sent me a childhood photo of Claude and you.

3:42 pm Wilfred: I can see you read the letter already. Did you pick up the letter or the picture first?

3:43 pm Wilfred: Wait, don’t answer that. You definitely went for the picture once you saw Claude, did you?

3:45 pm Wilfred: I hit the spot, didn’t I?

3:45 pm Madeleine: … You’re not entirely wrong.

3:45 pm Wilfred: ?

3:45 pm Wilfred: That’s quite cryptic.

3:45 pm Wilfred: Just admit I’m correct.

3.45 pm Madeleine: Fine! You are right. >:-( I did pick up the picture first!

3:45 pm Madeleine: Like come on! Claude in that tiny butler outfit? Striped vest and a bowtie? That’s absolutely adorable. I just want to squish his cheeks when I saw him.

3:46 pm Wilfred: I thought so.

3:46 pm Madeleine: Haha got me.

3.46 pm Madeleine: On another note, I appreciate you giving the picture to me but I’m curious why you did it... What made you decide to be like “Oh I want to give this picture to Madeleine” out of nowhere?

3.47 pm Wilfred: It wasn’t done out of a whim. I was only helping a friend. :)

3.47 pm Wilfred: I just had this feeling that you missed him the past few days, so I thought why not send you a picture including us when we’re children. Every time you get this pang of longing or sadness, you can always look back at the picture.

3.47 pm Wilfred: Oh and also feel free to cut me out from the photo. I don’t mind.

3.48 pm Madeleine: NO! I will never cut you out from the photo. That’s a crime of the highest level.

3:49 pm Madeleine: But seriously, I will never do that. I have a feeling this picture was taken during a special moment and I know how much you meant to one another. You’re practically brothers. Me cropping you off would mean I’m erasing your significance in Claude’s life. For me to do something like that, it’s just plain wrong.

3:49 pm Madeleine: Plus you’re my friend. So I’m giving you immunity.

3:50 pm Wilfred: I never thought a joke would turn deep and serious, but I have no qualms about it. It was a surprise but a welcomed one. You’re truly one of a kind, Madeleine.

3:50 pm Wilfred: You have a big heart. I appreciate what you said about me and Claude. You’re right about how we both mean to each other. He’s not only a brother but also a friend and a confidant. I care about him. Thank you.

3:50 pm Wilfred: Plus, I am humbled that you consider me a friend. I shall repay you for giving me immunity. Is 1000 cruz enough? Hahahaha

3:51 pm Madeleine: Oh stop it! Hahaha

3:51 pm Madeleine: And it’s no problem. I can tell how strong your bond is with Claude and I never want to destroy that… I would also like to THANK YOU for letting me have this special picture of you and Claude. That was very sweet and thoughtful of you.

3.51 pm Wilfred: It’s my pleasure, Madeleine. I will never get tired of saying this but you are my dear friend, a wonderful woman. I will always help you and be there for you.

3:52 pm Wilfred: And that includes helping you with your feelings for Claude. I’m confident my butler has feelings for you. However knowing his past, I know he’s fighting against those feelings. You too have fears of your own right? Do not worry. You have all the time in the world to overcome them.

3:52 pm Wilfred: You, Madeleine, deserve to be happy. Claude deserves to be happy. I want you to be together. I believe the two of you meeting was Fate’s doing. You and Claude are meant to be with each other.

3:54 pm Madeleine: You and your comforting words, Wilfred. You’re going to make me tear up.

3:54 pm Madeleine: I… I don’t know what to say. All I could come up with is thank you. Thank you so much. It means a lot.

3:55 pm Wilfred: You don’t need to say anything. Sometimes, emotions can’t be expressed well into words. And again, I would do anything for you because you are my friend.

3:56 pm Wilfred: I am afraid I need to go now. I have duties calling for me and I’m sure as heck don’t want to be in Claude’s warpath for catching me text you.

3:56 pm Madeleine: Ooh brutal. I can imagine that haha. Alright, I’ll let you off now. I apologize for disturbing you when you’re busy.

3:57 pm Wilfred: Nonsense. You don’t need to apologize. I enjoyed our little chat and I will look forward to the next time we message.

3:57 pm Madeleine: Okay okay. Likewise, my friend. Have a good afternoon, Wilfred. I hope your duties will run smoothly.

3.58 pm Madeleine: If Claude ever finds out about this, with me possessing a picture of you two as children, I will put this entire blame on you.

3:58 pm Madeleine: Now for real this time, have a good afternoon.

4:00 pm Wilfred: Haha I will gladly take the blame. Have a good afternoon, Madeleine.

•••

Chapter Text

17th of April
10 am
Maybelle Spin Studio

After many months of setting aside Anna’s offer to join her in exercising, I finally took upon it as an attempt to keep my mind off Claude. It became much more of a difficult task after the big revelation.

However, I wanted to do something but daydream and mope. That would only worsen my predicament I was in and by that I meant missing that insufferable man 24/7, longing to see him again. Was this how it feels like to be newly in love again?

I needed to take a more active approach in keeping the thoughts at bay, because clearly just reading books and being stuck to my desk, working and organizing on files weren’t enough.

I needed more action. I needed more moving around.

When I didn’t have any tasks assigned by the company and my parents, I kept myself busy for the rest of my time by taking on many activities outside, most of them requiring physical exertion like running and boxing. Not going to lie, the first few days of continuous exercise really had kicked my ass. I was panting so hard and for so long that my personal instructors were perhaps a bit concerned. It also didn’t help I was breaking out in cold sweat (a lot of sweat) and my head felt light-headed at the end of each session. And despite the proper warm-ups done at the start, all my limbs were throbbingly sore. My legs felt like they were made of jelly that they would just give up at any moment.

I was in no way in shape and the past few days, including the embarrassing stunt I pulled upon meeting Claude, was a clear indication of it.

I guessed pushing myself to work out has a side benefit. I felt much lighter and more rejuvenated. Oh it also filled all my body parts really well. Especially my butt.

“So…”

Hearing breathless Anna’s voice over some known pop song blasting throughout the spin studio and the instructor’s continuous shouts of encouragement, I questioningly turned my attention to her. Just like mine, her legs were cycling as fast on her bike as she tried to keep up with the pace set by the instructor.

“Hm?”

“What made you decide so abruptly out of nowhere that you want to join me in this workout? I find it hard to believe you wanted to. You must have another hidden reason.”

My forehead creased.

“Why do you find that so hard to believe? Maybe I do want it! Maybe I finally realized how unfit I was.”

“Mads,” the olive-skinned Latina flashed me her deadpan look. “Last time I told you to go out and exercise, you reacted as if I told you something disgusting. You said and I quote, I don’t need exercise nor the sun to stay healthy. There are fruits and vegetables.”

“I… I don’t think—I would never say that!”

“You did. It was after we ran a block to catch the transit bus in Vancouver and you were literally gasping for air once we made it. Sounds pretty childish now, right?”

Indeed, hearing what I said in the past from someone’s mouth made me cringe inwardly at myself. That was perhaps one of the dumbest and the most immature thing that escaped through my lips. I was a grown-ass woman but I sounded like a thirteen years old girl being a smart ass.

I nodded my head shamefully in agreement.

“Very…”

Sooo?” Anna pressed as she arched an eyebrow. “Why are you really here? And seeing from how toned and resilient you are now, I’m assuming you’ve begun this days ago. What’s the deal?”

Even though I knew no one in this spin class had no idea who Claude was or what we’re talking about, I didn’t feel comfortable spilling the reason I’m here in public. Of course, knowing Anna, her reactions were always outrageously loud and dramatic followed by her shooting me more questions.

Besides… the reason I was here was to keep my mind off Claude and now because of her, I’m on the verge of failing this very task.

“Well, mi niña?”

I groaned in irritation at how persistent Anna was being.

“I’ll tell you later after this class is done. It’s really hard to talk while cycling my legs at the same time.”

As I said that, I turned my face back to the front again, ignoring the sulky huff that escaped her lips.

“Fine.”

For a few seconds of silence, I really thought she would leave me alone now and focus back on the exercise… But it wasn’t like that at all.

Out of nowhere, she suddenly slowed down her cycling and stared at me with speculation.

“Don’t tell me you’re here because of Claude. Are you trying to look fitter because of him?”

Immediately I could feel the whiplash setting in from how fast I spun my head towards her, my face painted with dumbfounded horror. My pace also slowed down causing the instructor to yell at me, but I paid no attention to her.

“W-What?! No! I mean yes I am here because of him but not that way!”

A couple of heads turned to us with annoyed and confused stares due to the rise in my voice’s volume. I gave a quick sheepish yet apologetic grin at them before mouthing sorry.

“Stop lying, your cheeks are red.”

Indeed they were. I could feel them burning as if they were on fire.

“I am not lying! Yes it is related to Claude but I’m not trying to be fit for him,” I harshly whispered. “Just be patient okay! I will tell you when this ends!”

Satisfied that she knew more or less why I was here, she had her face focusing back to the instructor in front and cycled fast, sporting a smirk.

‘I swear… This girl.’

•••
Locker room

“Let me get this straight… The reason you’re here and have been working out the past few days is to keep your mind off Claude.”

“For the fifth time, yes Anna…,” I grumbled out of exasperation. “I don’t know why you need to say it over and over again.”

As promised, once the spin class had ended, I finally told her the reason. I really had no other choice because if I didn’t, she would keep pestering me for the rest of the day. You had no idea how persistent she could be when she wanted to know something. You know might as well get over it now and avoid losing my sanity from the predicament she would put me through.

So here we were in the locker room with Anna repeating what I said for the nth time in just her lacy bra and underwear while I continued freshening up. I already had my trousers and blouse on, so that kinda said something about how long she had been doing the thing I mentioned. Really, I couldn’t see why she thought what I was doing is out of the ordinary.

“But why?”

My hands froze in the midst of gathering my hair into a sleek ponytail before facing her with a frown, perplexed at her question.

“What do you mean ‘but why’?”

“Well isn’t that good to have him in your mind? You like him very much. Why are you shutting those thoughts out?”

Sometimes I forgot my best friend was a hopeless romantic.

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“How so?”

“It’s just that I need to get work done. I haven’t gotten any real work done with my mind constantly thinking about him…”

I scrunched my nose in distaste at how sappy and cliché I sounded. I could imagine myself starring in a badly produced chic flick. Anna hid her smile behind her hand, trying to stop herself from giggling.

“God that was so cheesy,” I interjected.

“Sure is.”

I continued rambling while gathering my hair back again, dismissing my friend’s additional yet unnecessary comment.

“Anyways, I wasn’t a hundred percent in the present, you know what I mean? It was either me busy daydreaming or moping around and with Claude visiting days ago and the letter I received from Wilfred, it became even more diff—Ah!”

I was in the middle of buttoning the cuff on my left wrist when she jerked my other wrist, forcing me to face her with a surprised cry.

“How come I know nothing about this Claude’s visit and this letter from Wilfred…?”

She had one of her eyebrows arched at me. It was like she was communicating me something between “What else are you hiding from me” and “Spill it”.

My nervous laughter filled the now empty locker room.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell her or hide it… I just didn’t have time to due to the fact, I spent the past week being occupied with work and exercise that my phone’s left untouched (unless it was urgent). I had no time to chat with friends. And when the day was done, I ended up being so exhausted, going straight to bed after a nice warm shower.

… But maybe… Deep inside, I wanted to be selfish for once. I wanted to keep everything that happened to myself first. I didn’t know how to explain it, but if I were to tell someone, I felt like the warm magical feeling that accompanied it would disappear in a poof.

With that saying…

I yanked back my hand from Anna’s grip and pretended to be startled as I observed the time on my watch.

“Wow, would you look at that! It’s time to go! Duty calls!”

Not giving her time to react properly besides a baffled “huh”, I grabbed my black duffel bag from the locker before shutting its door. As I walked quickly towards the exit, I shouted my now alone best friend goodbye. It was then she shook off the shock from the abruptness of the situation by yelling out.

“Hey! Get back here! You’re clearly trying to avoid!”

“If you dress up fast enough before I leave in ten seconds, then maybe I will tell you!”

We both knew that she would be unable to achieve that. After all, she dressed really slow.

“You jerk!”

With shoulders shaking from the giggles that erupted from me, I headed outside the studio, greeting the instructors and the receptionist along the way.

Waiting in the parking lot was my vintage red mini convertible. I strode up and unlock the car with my keys. Once I got in and brought the car rumbling into life, a ping from my phone resounded inside. Another round of mirthful chuckles began while I drove, after glancing at the notification on my phone screen.

Anna G.: The moment I meet you again, I will keep you in one room and force out answers from your mouth.

•••
11.30 am
Baba’s Office

Okay, when I said duty calls to Anna, I actually didn’t have any, not that I know of. It was only an excuse to get away from her.

But I guessed I jinxed myself because the moment I stepped foot into the house while handing the duffel bag to one of the maids, Baba’s personal butler, George came up telling that Baba requested me to see him. Not that I mind anyway.

After taking a pit stop to my room to freshen up a bit more, I went to my father’s office which was actually near the library. I let myself into his office after knocking on the door.

“You wish to see me, Baba?”

At the sound of my voice, my father’s head raised up from the bound report he was reading before turning to me. My eyebrows furrowed at how exhausted he looked. The lines around his face appeared even more prominent, especially between his thin brows and his temple. There were dark bags under his now bleary amber eyes, which stood out against his honey skin. His glasses hung over his strong nose, which I was pretty sure he didn’t care at the moment. It unsettled me how slightly sunken his cheeks were and his shoulders were slumping. His salt and pepper hair too, usually styled to the back, was now messy after what seemed the many times of him running through it.

He gave me a tired tight-lipped smile with his thin lips while putting down the report on his desk.

“Ah Maddie, thank goodness you’re here!”

I immediately rushed to his side and briefly bent down to peck his cheek as a greeting. I took a step back and frown.

“Hello Baba, I can’t help but notice the exhaustion radiating from you. Plus you haven’t been eating a lot, have you? Your cheekbones are protruding. It isn’t a pleasant feeling to kiss something boney.”

Even though I was teasing, there was still worry evident in my voice. And I was pretty sure my face made a clear indication of it too.

My father let out a resigned sigh, his whole body slumped against the office chair.

“You’re right, I haven’t been eating and sleeping well for the past two days. There seems to be a troubling issue about our business. An urgent decision has to be made among the directors.”

‘Two days? The issue is that bad? I went to the main branch the past few days and no one told me about it?’

It annoyed me that I didn’t hear any of this trouble but now wasn’t the time to mull over it. I didn’t want to make it a big deal in front of him, considering the current state of my father.

“Ba… You still should rest and eat. You wouldn’t be able to concentrate properly without sleep and food. You surely know that… After all, you and mama drilled that into me throughout high school and university.”

Baba’s loud yet tired laughter filled my ears. He then gestured me with his finger to bend down and when I did, I felt his hand on top of my head, messing up my hair with playful affection.

“Ah! Ba!” I squeaked in complaint with my bottom lip protruding into a visible pout. “I just brushed my hair before I went here!”

Baba let out another laugh and I couldn’t help but let the corners of my frowning mouth quirk up into a ghost of a smile.

“Aha… I’m sorry, my lotus... But you’re right. I should have gotten some sleep and food. Not following what I say… Makes me a hypocrite eh?”

I shook my head in objection.

“No Ba. Perhaps you forgot.”

There was a short moment of silence as Baba tilted his head pondering while I waited for his reply.

He soon bobbed his head in agreement.

“Perhaps so… Seems I have lost track of time. I was too focused on the problem, I forgot about eating and sleeping.”

“And mama?”

“I must have zoned Mama out…”

Baba immediately raised his hands up in defense with a wry grin after seeing a frustrated look donning my face. My eyes narrowed.

“I know I know, Maddie. I didn’t mean to do that.”

“Baaaa still…. You know how worried Mama gets over you, especially when you’re like this,” I scolded gently. “Your health haven’t always been stable. You should go talk to mama later.”

“I will. Do not worry,” Baba gave me a tender look as he bopped my nose. “You’re just like mama, always thinking and looking after everyone. What would I do without you both.”

“Well, you’d probably still be working now, zoning everyone out,” sarcasm dripped from my voice, but it quickly vanished as I firmly glanced at my father. “But in all seriousness, we’re just worried about you, Baba.”

“I know you and mama are. I’m sorry, my lotus for making you worry about me over and over again.”

He reached his hand out again to stroke my hair with affection. I rose up from the ground, causing his hand to fall onto his lap. I offered my hand to him.

“Yes, that’s why Ba, you will get some hours of rest now. No exception. The issue can wait a while.”

Baba stared down my hand and then at the report on the table. A flash of conflict and uncertainty crossed his face, debating with himself whether he should go or continue.

“Ba…”

It was a bit ridiculous I need to put on my stern tone like how Mama did (she said it works every time on Baba), treating my father as a child, but the situation called for it. He was planning to resume working and I could not allow that when he’s on the verge of overexertion. It would be detrimental to both my family and the company.

Hearing my tone, my father turned his back on the report while sighing heavily.

“Alright, alright. I will nap for a few hours before continuing.”

I wasn’t satisfied that it was only a few hours but hey at least it was better than no rest at all.

Baba took my hand to stand up. With all my (new-found) strength, I easily pulled him up to his feet. Now, he was towering over me by a few centimeters. Peering down at me with an appreciative smile on his face, he gently set his hand on my cheek before patting it.

“Thank you, Maddie.”

I responded by returning a smile while I placed my hand over his, patting him back.

“No problem, Ba. I will notify Kun to cook something light but healthy for you. Maybe some shrimp and vegetables with black bean sauce? You like that... Hmm, maybe I’ll let Kun figure out…”

Baba soon let go of my cheek causing both of our hands to drop back to our side. A chuckle escaped him after watching me dwell over the food choices. He interfered.

“Do not think so much about it. I will be fine with anything as long as it’s not burgers. I am sure Chef Kun knows what I prefer.”

“Oh… Okay then…”

We both walked our way to the door. When we’re outside and before my father could greet me, I shot him a question.

While you take a break Ba, do you want me to help on anything? … Like the issue you were looking into?”

Baba shook his head with an apologetic smile. The motion caused some of his hair strands to fall over his forehead.

“I am afraid you cannot help with this one… This issue is very sensitive.”

My shoulders sank as I felt my spirits drop to the ground. Sensing my utter dejection, he set his hands on my shoulders, rubbing them as a way to comfort me.

“I’m sorry Maddie, but this requires more…”

“More experience Baba?” I interjected.

“Yes, yes. More experience,” he nodded. “When you have more experience, you can help me with problems like this. I promise you that.”

I gave him a weak smile, choosing to believe his words.

“Alright. It’s a promise.”

“I will now go to sleep.”

After releasing my shoulders, he was about to swivel around when he stopped. He turned to me again with a thoughtful frown.

“I just remember… You can help me with something.”

I tilted my head questioningly.

“Oh? What is it Ba?”

“You still remember how Ba visits orphanages and donate them books and other supplies?”

“Yes…”

“Well, I was planning to visit one orphanage in the Kingdom of Philip today, but seeing my current situation…”

He didn’t have to finish his sentence for me to get the point. His remorseful grin and him scratching the back of his neck were enough indications. I made an exasperated noise.

“Aish Ba! I can’t believe you still planned to travel a long distance even though you look like a zombie! I swear you don’t know your limits! Leave this to me! I will go to Philip and give supplies. As for you, your only job is to get sleep and food in your system!”

As I said that, I swiveled his lanky body around and pushed him to the direction of his and Mama’s room, forcing him to walk with the same pace I set.

“Ah! Okay okay! I will. Now, will you please release me before I trip over something?”

I did as he said, drawing my hands from his back, causing us to ease into a halt. By then we were already a couple of meters away from his office. Baba angled his body so that I was still in his field of vision.

“The boxes for the orphanage are situated at the front door.”

“Alrighty!” I nodded in confirmation. “Well then, I’ll be going now since it’s a two-hour trip to Philip.”

Before I depart, I tiptoed and leaned forward to his side, planting a kiss on his cheek.

“See you tonight, Baba!”

With the distance widening between us as I moved away from him, my ears caught him shouting at me to stay safe. I shouted back.

“You better eat and sleep while I’m gone! I will call George to see if you did! And also you better talk to Mama when she’s back. I don’t want to come back to you getting ignored by Mama.”

His laughs echoed around the empty hallway.

“I know I know, my lotus. You’re such a worrywart like Mama.”

I turned my face to the side so I could look back at him. I poked my tongue out.

“We wouldn’t be worrywarts if you knew how to take care of yourself.”

Realizing I was correct, he only responded with an embarrassed grin.

“Good point.”

I could only chuckle before facing the front again, striding my way over to my room to get my bag.

“Bye Ba.”

•••
3.10 pm
Kingdom of Philip
White Lily
Orphanage Home

“Ms. Zhang, on behalf of all my sisters here, I thank you and your family for your constant donation of books, toys, and stationery. We are very grateful.”

I briefly glanced at the older nun to give her a shy smile as I walked alongside her with both my hands occupied on carrying one of the supplies-filled boxes as we made our way to one of the buildings where the Montessori room is located. The nun too was also carrying another, this time it was filled to the brim with books. Following behind us was Xinhua, my driver, who was holding two smaller boxes that held—I assumed—toys inside.

“It’s no problem, Sister Josephine. And please, you can just call me Madeleine.”

At my request, the nun turned her head to me with a disapproving frown. Maybe I saw some traces of surprise too.

“I can’t possibly do that after everything your family has done for us, Ms. Zhang!”

“But…. it feels so formal and stuffy in a setting like this. Please Sister Josephine, just call me Madeleine.”

“I… I…” The nun trailed off, unsure before speaking up again to suggest something. “How about I call you Ms. Madeleine?”

Well, it still wasn’t Madeleine but I guessed it’s okay. It was still less formal.

I nodded my head in acceptance.

“That works.”

I almost forgot that this kingdom was strict with propriety.

“Wonderful!” The nun exclaimed with relief. “I hope our orphanage wasn’t so difficult to find for Ms. Madeleine and your driver.”

I shook my head.

“Don’t worry, Sister Josephine. We didn’t have a hard time finding the orphanage home.”

It really wasn’t. Despite the fact that Xinhua and I never had gone to any areas of Philip besides the ones Wilfred and Claude took me to and the town area, we were able to find the orphanage home with the power of the car’s GPS system and my Google Maps app. And to be honest, the orphanage wasn’t totally invisible. It was the opposite. The place stood out like a sore thumb from how big it was. It was in a neighborhood and one side had many houses lined up neatly, but the whole other side? The whole orphanage covered the whole area with many small yet wide buildings linked together. Out in the front yard, there were children of all ages playing either with toys or with one another. Their shouts and laughs of happiness could be heard. The black gates held a sign made out of stone with White Lily Orphanage Home engraved.

‘Well if that wasn’t obvious enough, then I don’t know.’

When we arrived at the orphanage home, a plump ebony-skinned woman donning a black habit and a veil, which was Sister Josephine, was waiting in front of the gates. A polite smile painted her full lips as soon as she saw our car. I assumed Baba had notified the orphanage in advance regarding the change of plans because of that. Not to mention that she already knew my name when she greeted me the moment I stepped out of the car.

“I am glad to hear that, Ms. Madeleine.”

“I must say, Sister Josephine. This orphanage home wasn’t really inconspicuous considering how massive it is. And also… While all the other houses in the neighborhood are painted with mostly neutral colors, the orphanage was the only one or the front of it was made of bricks.”

My comment elicited a burst of short laughter from the ebony nun beside me, her shoulders shaking.

“You’re right, Ms. Madeleine. This place stands out among the others in the neighborhood. It didn’t help that there were children in front was it?”

I nodded in confirmation while my eyes roamed around the surroundings.

“Yep, the children and the big sign in front make it glaringly obvious that this place’s an orphanage.”

It was quite interesting how the buildings at the front were older but as we went deeper into the back, the buildings’ architecture got more modern.

“Say, Sister Josephine…” I started with the nun’s name, catching her attention.

“Hmm?”

“Does the orphanage renovates and build more facilities every year or couple of years? I can’t help but notice how more buildings at the back are a bit more modern with the glasses and steel…”

“Oh!”

I would like to mention that all the walkways connecting all the facilities were in the open area, so the nun’s orotund voice could be heard throughout, which caused many a couple of heads—children, nuns, and volunteers—to stop what they were doing and turned towards us. Sister Josephine paid no attention to the commotion she had created as she answered my question while we kept walking. Sensing nothing was out of the ordinary, everyone just resumed their daily activities, although I felt some lingering glances from the children. Probably curious at the boxes we’re carrying.

“About that, you’re correct. Every two to three years, we would renovate and build more facilities to accommodate more children, making sure they live comfortably. The royal family always funds the construction and renovation, although occasionally we receive ample of donations from many.”

“The Spencers royal family?”

“Why yes, of course, Ms. Madeleine. The royal family established White Lily Orphanage Home and many other orphanages back when the kingdom was facing an economic slump. It has resulted in many cases of child abandonment. We would get inspection visits from officials to see if there were any fixing.”

“Ah… I see. How very kind of them,” I commented honestly, a corner of my lips quirked into a friendly lopsided smile.

The nun reflected back with a smile of her own, a smile full of pride. I couldn’t see her eyes properly, only her side profile, but I could tell her eyes held so much respect and admiration.

“They are. The Spencers are merciful and I am happy to have them as rulers of this kingdom. God bless the royal family.”

‘Wow… The King and Queen and of course Wilfred must have done something right for its people that they revered them.’

I believed her. After seeing how Wilfred acted towards everyone, towards me during my stay at the Chateau…. I could understand why everyone loved him and I assumed the King and Queen were just like him.

By the time the nun finished giving her praise to the royal family, we had already entered one of the newer facilities and finally the montessori room. It was super spacious that it probably could accommodate more than thirty children. The room is brightly lit because of the sun shining through the sliding glass doors on one side of the walls. At all three sides, there were shelves and cabinets leaning against them containing educational and interactive activities. Five round tables that only reached up to my knees, were all spread out across the wooden tile floor, with flat pillows and chairs pushed into the table. Around the room, I saw many drawings and posters being pasted randomly on the newly painted white walls.

The room at the moment was pretty empty—with the exception of two toddlers and a young female volunteer with a pixie cut supervising them—now that it was break time for the children.

“Good afternoon, Sister Josephine,” the volunteer cheerfully greeted the nun when we stepped in. The children (they were twins!) angled their heads up to us for a short moment before they went back to work on their buttoning activity.

Sister Josephine responded to the volunteer’s greeting with the same amount of cheerfulness.

“Good afternoon, Kristen. I see Luna and Delilah are staying in again.”

“Yes Sister, they’re still shy around other children. I’m sure when they’re used to this place, they’ll warm up to others.”

The nun nodded before she turned her attention towards me.

“We can place the boxes there,” showing her muscle power, she transferred the heavy box to one hand so she could point her now free hand at the corner of the room. “My sisters and the volunteers will unpack them later on.”

As instructed, Xinhua and I followed her to the corner and put down the boxes on the floor carefully to avoid disturbing the toddlers. The driver went to excuse himself soon after now that the task was done. I watched the nun organize the boxes. It urged me to speak up.

“You know, I can help you with unpacking them,” I offered, to which Sister Josephine declined with courteousness.

“It is alright, Ms. Madeleine. We don’t want to impose you any further. Besides, you travelled a long distance to go here. Please Ms. Madeleine, just relax for now before your journey back.”

“Oh… Okay then…”

There was a brief moment of awkward silence in the room as I had no idea what to do next. The nun seemed to sense it probably due to my unintentional fidgeting. She directed me a warm smile.

“Ms. Madeleine, please make yourself comfortable while I fetch you some refreshments.”

“Oh, you don’t have to, Sister—”

She cut me with a shake of her head.

“Please, I insist Ms. It’s the least thing we can do. Your family has been generous to us by giving books and supplies every year.”

Well, now she put it that way… I couldn’t refuse it. It would be disrespectful to refuse her hospitality.

I conceded.

“If that’s okay with you. Thank you.”

“It’s totally fine. While I prepare, you are free to look around the facilities. I am sure the children are ecstatic to see a friendly new face.”

Just like that, the smiling nun too excused herself from the Montessori room, leaving me with the volunteer and the two children. Clearly the children were absorbed in the activity so it was best I leave them alone. And knowing that, they were still timid… Yes, it would be best to not force them into talking with me, a stranger.

With nothing to do in the Montessori, I took upon Sister Josephine’s suggestion to look around the facilities. I stepped out of the room and went to the right. All sides of the walls are covered with bulletin boards, posters, and finished works of the children. Wall decals and portraits of either the nuns, volunteers, or children were also present throughout.

Most of the rooms I passed by were fairly new and range from a playroom to a hybrid between a classroom and Montessori. There were also libraries that included a lounging area. It was clear that this building focused on the education and entertainment of the residents.

‘So I’m guessing the other buildings are the sleeping dorms, nursery, dining area, and other functions…’

I was walking towards the exit door, in hopes to explore others when my ears caught the sounds of laughter around the corner. Thinking nothing of it besides young children horsing around, I kept walking.

Just as I passed by that very corner to reach the exit, my whole body immediately came to a stop the second a young girl shouted a name.

“Claude! Claude! Please tell me there’s more to this!”

“Yeah Claude! What happened to the knight? Was she able to defeat the evil wizard?”

A name that has the ability to make my heart jump up to my throat, stealing my breath away.

‘Claude…?’

I shook my head vigorously as if it seems like I was getting rid of my hallucinations.

“No, I must be hearing things…” I muttered nervously. “He can’t be here…. Right? What are the chances?”

My heart raced wildly as I tiptoed closer to the room where the voices came from, anticipating for the reply.

“Now, now calm down everyone! While I am happy you’re all excited about the story, I can’t narrate the next part when you’re interrupting, can I?”

My breath hitched sharply as I recognized that familiar deep voice that could only belong to the head steward. But it lacked the sharpness and sarcasm I was used to.

“No…”

“That’s right! Now children, would you all please sit nicely for me so I can proceed with the story?”

“Okay!”

Knowing that it was indeed Claude with the children in the room, I got closer until I reached the frame of the window. I positioned my body against the wall beside it and peeked through the window which was mostly covered by a polka-dotted curtain. The navy-haired butler is angled away from my view, but I still could make out his side profile.

My lips parted in awe at the sight. His expression held so much gentleness towards the children in front of him. And that smile I wished to see again since the McGill visit… It was there. It was bigger and more carefree this time around… And it held so much warmth and joy, my heart fluttered so intensely. His eyes were unguarded, allowing me to see the care and affection he has for the children in front of him. It was obvious anyway from how absorbed he was and the amount of effort he was putting in storytelling.

There was no storybook at hand. Instead, both his hands were occupied holding and moving a doll of a female knight and a dragon figurine as he continued narrating, excitement visible in his voice. In between, he put dramatic sound effects that elicited reactions from the young ones.

Without realizing, my once parted lips turned into a huge smile that my cheeks started to hurt. It was a smile that you could see from someone in love. And I was in love. Perhaps even more after this. As I kept peeking through the window and observed the tender scene in front of me, my love for this man soared until it knew no bounds. The affectionate gaze and smile he has for the children whose eyes were sparkling with captivation and wonder. If I had to be honest, I too would be looking at him the same way. I spent the next few minutes watching them.

“So Claude’s good with children too…” I sighed softly. “What can he not do…”

“Oh so you know Claude?”

My body jumped in shock at the loud whisper close behind me before swirling around to see Sister Josephine with her hips jutted to one side and one hand placed there. It was a miracle that no sound escaped me from the fright she gave me.

The nun had an innocent grin on her face, but inspecting closer, her brown eyes had a knowing gleam to it. Seeing that I won’t be replying any soon while I held my beating chest, she continued whispering… Well, it wasn’t a whisper, to be honest. It was more like an indoor voice. Thankfully, it wasn’t enough to rouse the people inside. It was either they’re too absorbed or the walls were a bit thick.

“I was looking for you after going back to the room to give you tea and biscuits but you weren’t there anymore. I asked Kristen of your whereabouts but she had no idea. I thought Ms. Madeleine would be staying at the same spot since you appeared skittish earlier.”

She then went to quirked up one of her brows.

“Lucky for me, you didn’t venture so far… Apparently got too caught up with something else, or shall I say… someone else.”

The dart of her eyes towards the window along with the suggestive tone in her voice pulled me out from my stupor. My cheeks turned red. If it was a sin to drag a nun away, I would have to pray to God later (or the small cross hanging on one of these walls) because that was what I did. Knowing my reaction would perhaps be a little too loud, I had to.

Besides a small yelp, the nun made no qualms about me pushing her. I was very confident she had no qualms because her surprised expression when she turned her face to me quickly gave way to a mischievous one. I tried to ignore it despite the further reddening of my face.

Could nuns be this cheeky?

When there was quite a distance from the room Claude was in with the children, I halted my steps, causing the nun to stop too as I released her from my grip around her. The nun turned around with her tunic swirling. The same expression was still on her face, although there was a faint excitement to it.

“Well? About Claude?”

“I-,” my voice broke. I embarrassingly cleared my throat and tried again. “I… do know Claude.”

“And?” The impatience was evident in the nun’s voice.

“We… met during my birthday party… All the princes were invited and I bumped into him when I was uh outside the ballroom… And then we met again at Nobel Michel Castle where the butlers had the evaluation… and then I stayed over at the Spencers’ Chateau since Wil—I mean Prince Wilfred invited me…”

As I kept rambling on, the nun listened on without saying anything. However, she seemed unsatisfied with my answer, which made no sense. She asked me if I knew him….

Sister Josephine crossed her arms before she raised one hand to her chin into a thinking gesture, with her fingers tapping against it.

“Hmmm… It still doesn’t explain your lovesick gaze on him.”

“Oh…. Haha..” A short nervous laugh escaped me. “About that…”

‘Wait, am I really gonna confess my feelings to a nun? Will a nun be the first person to hear me admit out loud I love Claude? And speaking of the man, he’s literally meters away from us!’

“Yes…?”

“Um during the span of the meetings, some things happened...and yea. I now developed some feelings for him?”

Sister Josephine’s thick eyebrows raised up out of surprise as she gasped. She brought her head closer to me before whispering in a hushed voice.

“Don’t tell me you both had sexual intercourse during those meetings and you caught feelings!”

I pulled away, jaw dropped and eyes wide as saucers at the nun’s assumption. The burning sensation crept up my neck to my cheeks and ears as the mortification set in.

“What!? No! We didn’t do that sort of thing! Never! What made you think that?!”

“You said meetings before! And ‘some things happened’! I thought you were implying that!”

And suddenly it clicked how my words could be taken the wrong way… Meeting could be used for one night stands… or hook-ups… affairs...

She thought I was hooking up with Claude (as if he wanted to). Oh god.

I waved my hands in front of me frantically in objection.

“No! I didn’t mean it like that. It’s far from sexual intercourse! Far from that!”

“Then what do you mean?”

I couldn’t believe I’m doing this with a nun. This was probably the strangest situation I had been ever put in.

“Meetings as in like our interactions during my time at Nobel Mitchel Castle and the Chateau! And I don’t mean those types of interaction! I meant PG-13 interactions!”

“Oh... So that’s what you meant…”

“Yeah… Our interactions had allowed me to see that there’s more to him than just being the cold, strict, and sarcastic head steward of the royal family… During my stay at the Chateau, the times I spent with him although brief… The way he treated me… Which was a far contrast from when we first talked... That was when I realized I was developing feelings for him…”

“And now?”

The whole time, I was looking past the nun. I still have a hard time verbalizing how I feel out loud, nonetheless to someone I just met. When I finally did glance at her, she has this encouraging yet anticipating look.

“And now…” I paused, taking a shaky breath to calm my nerves. I could feel my throat constricting as my voice came out small and vulnerable. “And now… I love him. And perhaps I love him even more after seeing him with the children.”

As I confessed my feelings out, my head had been facing the floor, hiding the shy smile that appeared across my lips; a result of the memories of us together replaying through my mind one by one.

‘Crap, I really do love him.’

At the thought, I automatically felt my cheeks burning again and I was pretty confident my face would permanently stay red like a tomato from the number of times I did it in the span of five minutes.

It was dead silence right after my confession, that it made me uncomfortable. I covered my mouth as I tried to fake a cough out to change the subject but it was fruitless since it still didn’t provoke any response from the nun. When the silence really became too awkward for me to withstand any longer, I steeled my resolve and shifted my eyes to her.

And what I saw was the reaction I least expected, causing me to draw back in puzzlement. Disbelief? I didn’t know.

Standing in the middle of a corridor, a middle-aged nun with watering eyes and a touching yet quivering smile plastered on her plump lips. Her nose started to sniffle as she wiped the tears running down her cheeks.

Distressed that I was the cause since I was the only one there standing, I called out to her.

“Sister Josephine! Wha—Are you alright? Did I do something?”

“No, no, no,” she denied quickly by waving her hand in front. “I’m just…”

“I’m just…?”

The plump lady took a moment to calm herself down; doing some sort of breathing exercise as she fanned out her flushed face. “Give me a moment.”

While I didn’t object to her doing all those breathing exercises first and I patiently waiting for her to finish her thing, my mind was literally all over the place, screaming “what the hell is going on”. It was like every second, our interaction got more and more bizarre. Her reaction was undeniably extreme for a circumstance like this, and by circumstance I mean my confession on Claude.

Really, what could possibly elicit such a response like this? All I could come up with was one, I did or said something I didn’t notice. Two, something to do with Claude and lastly three, the nun have read too many romance novels.

Wait could nuns read romance novels? Were they allowed? A lot of them included sex and their covers were uh quest—

“—Alright I’m better now.”

Sister Josephine interrupted my train of thought, causing me to look back at her. Once again, my body tensed because any second she would say something important. Could you imagine if it wasn’t anything but trivial? I would be downright devastated.

“Sorry for that,” she apologized, to which I waved it off ad nothing serious. “Just got a bit overwhelmed with emotions.”

“Yeah… If I have to be honest, Sister Josephine. Your earlier reaction caught me off-guard. It made me question whether my confession caused you discomfort…” I said.

The nun quickly squashed my worries.

“No, nonsense. It didn’t cause me any discomfort. In fact, it made me happy,” she took a short second pause before adding a short statement at the end with a laugh. “Perhaps a bit too happy.”

For the nth time, my lips parted in surprise but instead of freezing, I pressed on albeit with cautious curiosity.

“I don’t mean to be nosey, but do you … have a reason why were you overwhelmed earlier…? If you don’t mind.”

The older nun just blinked at me blankly but soon there was a smile on her face. Except it lacked the cheeriness and joviality I observed before. It was more restrained and to an extent, it appeared somber.

‘Uh…’

Before I could interject, she beat me to it. She gestured me to come closer and when I did, she placed her hand on my back, giving me a gentle push to start walking.

“It’d be best if we take this talk somewhere else more private, away from peeking eyes and eavesdropping ears. Shall we go to my office?”

I cast her a confused glance.

“Nuns have offices?”

“No, just me. After all, I am the head of this orphanage.”

“Oh. Makes sense now.”

•••
White Lily Orphanage Home
Sister Josephine’s Private Office

If anyone were to ask me the strangest situation I ended up in, it would be this very situation happening right now; having a girl session with a nun.

Never in my entire life would I have ever prepared something like this and that was because I didn’t expect this coming.

The walk to her office was a pretty long one due to the fact her office was on the opposite side of where we were. I told you, this orphanage home is enormous. We passed two gardens, two more medium-sized buildings and many pathways to get to our final destination. I’m kinda worried about how I’d get back to my car once this visit ends.

But for now, that concern didn’t matter because I was about to listen to something serious from Sister Josephine and if I had to be honest, I was guessing there had to be some connection to Claude.

So yeah, here I was sipping over some hot chamomile tea Sister Josephine had provided, watching her rummage through her belongings from her desks to the cabinets and the bookshelves.

When we arrived at her office, she had told me to wait on the sofa while she went to look for “something important”, something along the lines of a book. I wasn’t sure if I heard it correctly as she muttered the last part under her breath. Nonetheless, it piqued my curiosity. Why would she need it for our talk? What was so important about it?

“Found it!” With a relieved exhale, Sister Josephine held the item in front of her, turning it around to inspect the condition. The item appeared to be a hard-bound A5-sized book. The cover was made out of weathered leather, which only meant she had it for so long. The book had no title engraved to the cover and that only added fuel to my burning curiosity.

The nun walked towards and sat on the sofa across me, setting the book on her lap…. Just right in my point of view, drawing my attention towards it. If I had to be honest, the urge to just grab the book from her lap is high.

Noticing where my eyes are being glued on the whole time (I thought it was pretty obvious), Sister Josephine grabbed my attention back by starting off with a simple question.

“What do you know about Claude?”

I blinked taken back but I soon recovered. I didn’t give her an immediate answer as I tried to think, remembering what I know about the head steward. Aside from the things he shared with me during the McGill trip and what Wilfred told me, there was so little I know about him. From his favorite food, hobbies, or interests (I’m only aware of one and that’s tea) to his past, I practically knew almost nothing. The realization made my shoulders slumped a bit, feeling disheartened. I gave her an honest answer.

“Well… As you can see… Claude is a very private and reserved person. He keeps a lot of things to himself from what I observed. So I don’t know much about him...”

She didn’t respond except to nod her head. Her eyes urged me to go on.

“What I know about him…” I trailed slowly, rephrasing the nun’s question. “It’s not much, to be honest. He once revealed to me when we visited the space center that he was an orphan but he told me he wasn’t ashamed of it, saying he had a great time there because of the people. I remembered him being grateful to the orphanage. Wasn’t it for the orphanage, he wouldn’t be here now as a head steward.”

There was a glimpse of a smile the nun tried to cover up when I recalled those words of Claude, but I shrugged it off as nothing but her agreeing.

“And when he said he didn’t feel resentful towards his parents for leaving him when he’s just a baby, but understanding… I think that was the moment when my view of him shifted… It was a starting point for my feelings. I no longer felt attracted to him physically, but emotionally as well after listening to him. While he didn’t divulge me any more of his past, the rest of the day was spent on me discovering little bits of his true personality… It was wonderful.”

You know I could’ve just only mentioned him being an orphan and ended there but I didn’t. I couldn’t stop myself from rambling on and on about Claude and my times with him. I couldn’t control myself from spilling out my feelings for him. It’s like my mouth had a mind of its own. I wondered if it was because of the fear that I wouldn’t be able to ever express my feelings to him.

“There was also another thing I knew about his past. However…”

I didn’t finish the sentence. I knew that Sister Josephine knows Claude but I wasn’t sure about the nature of their relationship. What were they to each other? Were they close? Did they know each other for a long time? I was conflicted and uneasy to tell Sister Josephine about the incident.

The nun picked up on my hesitance probably from the prominent frown on my face. She also seemed to pick up what I wanted to say, so she did it for me. The sad smile returned to her face.

“Does this have to do with his former partner having an affair?”

I felt a whiplash coming from how fast I whipped my head towards the nun. Pure shock was evident on my facial features with my wide eyes and slackened jaw.

She hit the mark.

“Sister Josephine, how did you know about that?”

“I should be asking that question to you. You said Claude was a private person am I right? I wouldn’t believe he’ll tell you something so vulnerable to him. So how did you know about the affair?”

My breath hitched in my throat. She was astute.

“Prince Wilfred told me…” I cautiously said. “He told me after I heard Claude saying ‘I can’t do this’ and ‘I won’t let this happen again’ when we uh finished dancing.”

I didn’t say that one bit where he leaned in to kiss me, thinking it was too personal. Still, despite the fact I left it out, the memory of it was there. Clear as ever in my head, making my cheeks burn.

“How about you?” I asked again. “How did you know about this, Sister Josephine?”

“Maybe this will answer,” she grasped the book on her lap and handed it to me.

I quickly glance at the book both in confusion and doubt. Okay yes, I was curious before but how would this answer my question?

I flipped open the book to the first page to see pictures of children smiling at me. I assumed they were the children of this orphanage.

“Oh. It’s a photo album. What does this have to do with my question? Or this whole conversation?”

“Just keep flipping through the pages and you’ll see, Ms. Madeleine.”

And I did. I flipped through the album, seeing many pictures of babies being held by volunteers and nuns, children smiling brightly to the camera, children playing and doing lots of activities around the orphanage home (which at the time was smaller), and them going on field trips to parks and other attractions around the kingdom.

As I went over a page quickly figuring out what I was supposed to find, one picture caught my eyes on the previous page. I flipped back again to do a double-take on the picture. I squinted my eyes to have a clearer view of each person present and when my eyes finally laid on a very young Claude, I let out a gasp.

He was surrounded by others as they all hugged him. He was the oldest in the picture yet he still looked younger than the photo Wilfred gave me days ago. My eyes gazed at the grinning nun.

“I’m guessing you found the answer.”

I nodded.

“This is the orphanage home Claude’s from.”

“You’re correct.”

Having that new information now, I scavenged the album for more photos Claude was present in. I took a moment to gaze at the pictures once I found them, absorbing the details into my mind. There were a couple of things I noticed. There were very few pictures of him and each of them looked like they were taken one or two years apart. And due to that, I could see him maturing. It was a bit strange and maybe even a bit personal looking at the pictures as if I was intruding, but at the same time, I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

It was cute how almost all of the pictures where he had to smile, his smiles were still reserved and awkward just like in the one Wilfred gave. The rest of the pictures were mostly candid, unaware he was getting his picture taken as he fed, taught, played, and helped the kids. My heart swelled at the sight. These pictures only served to make my love for him grow by the exponential.

“There’s not a lot of photos of him, is there? And his smiles are well…” I chuckled lightly. “Awkward.”

The nun agreed, letting out her own boisterous laugh.

“You’re right, Ms. Madeleine. Claude didn’t like getting pictures of him taken ever since he was young. And when I insisted, he ends up like that. I’d say he’s camera shy. I would have to resort to being sneaky in order to take photos of him. Most of the time, it was fruitless because that boy is like an eagle.”

As she elaborated tenderly about the head steward, I looked over one particular picture. I also noticed it was the same girl I seen with Claude in the last few pictures. Her skin was rosy and she had curly sandy blonde hair that hovered above her shoulders. Her facial features reminded me of a feline, with her large emerald cat-like eyes, small nose, and a heart-shaped face. She was almost as tall as him in this picture as she put her arm around his shoulders, pulling him closer to him so she could muss up his neatly combed hair. Clearly, she was getting the fun out of his exasperated reaction since she has her mouth set into a wide grin.

Who was she?

“Sister Josephine, may I ask you a question?”

“You may. What is it, my dear?

“I’ve seen the same blond-haired green-eyed girl with him in a few of your photos. She’s wearing the same blue volunteer shirt I saw on Kristen so I know she’s a volunteer also but—”

The nun fully understood where I was leading this, so she didn’t let me finish the sentence. Look, I knew I was being nosy, but I couldn’t help but ask who the girl in the picture was and her connection with Claude after picking up how close and friendly they were towards one another. Was I being too much? Was I being too meddlesome and clingy?

There was a weird unpleasant gut feeling in me that I mayhaps knew who the girl was but I ignored it. I wanted to hear it from someone else.

“The girl you’re referring to is Fiona. She volunteered for us since she was a child,” there was a brief pause before she said the next few words with hesitance in her voice. “She also happened to be… Claude’s former partner.”

It was short and direct, but those eight words managed to knock the wind out of my lungs despite the fact my guess was correct.

I glanced back and forth between the nun and the pictures of the two, especially on this Fiona. I flipped back to the rest of the pictures that featured her and inspected her closely to see if there were any indications of her being a bad guy but I came out empty-handed. I was confounded. She looked like an angel, someone who’s easily liked by everyone.

“How….”

“You’re wondering how a woman who looks so kind could ever want to inflict pain on Claude, did you, my dear? You wondered why would she ever want to do that to him?”

My mouth opened before shutting again. Instead, I chose to just nod my head because I was not confident I was able to articulate properly from how dumbstruck I was.

Sister Josephine let out a resounding sigh as she shook her head.

“You know Ms. Madeleine, us, humans are complex beings. We do unpredictable things that go against our own image we project towards others. When I found out about what happened from Claude himself, believe me. I was in disbelief as you are right now. The same Fiona I knew for a long time who loved him so much left him for another man? I couldn’t believe it. I was left dazed for a day or two since I really believed they would stay together for the rest of their lives. I have no idea what were her reasons for doing that ‘cause shortly after the incident, she didn’t visit the orphanage to volunteer again. It’s like she disappeared out of nowhere. And even days prior, when she visited us… She was her usual self. She made no indications something was wrong.”

My mind processed slowly to what she said after she finished talking. She now eagerly awaited my response. Everything about her explanation sounded like something straight out of a Korean drama, except this was actually real life. This was really happening to me. Who would’ve thought? It’s mental.

“She’s just gone like that?”

“Yes.”

“There’s no way to contact her either?”

“No… I made a couple of attempts but they were all fruitless. All of my calls went into voicemail.”

“But isn’t she from around the neighborhood? Prince Wilfred told me that.”

“That’s her parents’ house. She had moved out years prior to the incident. She never disclosed her new address, but at that time that didn’t matter to us.”

I could only stare at the nun, feeling at a loss of words. These kinds of situations existed?

“Wow… What about asking Prince Wilfred for help? He might—”

She immediately shut down my suggestion with a stern voice.

“No. I would not resort to that, Ms. Madeleine. Claude wouldn’t want it either. He didn’t want to burden His Highness. Besides… When I told Claude that I could find other means to contact Fiona, he asked me not to and just forget about it. I don’t think he wants to see her ever again if that meant never knowing the reason.”

“...Or no closure,” I added softly. “Oh, Claude…”

My heart hurt for the head steward.

“Sadly yes… When the time is right, Ms. Madeleine, the truth will come out.”

“I hope so.”

There was a feeling that this was the end of our discussion, thus I glanced down at my wristwatch.

4.45 in the afternoon. Oh, I should go now if I don’t want to arrive home so late at night. I would feel terrible about Xinhua too.

“I’m guessing you need to go now, Ms. Madeleine?”

I looked up and gave her an apologetic smile, confirming her question.

“Unfortunately. As much as I want to stay here longer and have a chat with you, Sister Josephine, the trip back home is two hours. I’m afraid if I go later, I wouldn’t be able to reach home before the sky turns pitch black,” I handed back the photo album to the nun before standing up from the sofa. “Here. It was nice seeing Claude when he was younger. Thank you for that.”

Sister Josephine soon also stood up and waved her hands in front saying “It’s my pleasure.”

“Do you need some assistance going back to the entrance?”

I nodded.

“Yes, please. I’d probably get lost.”

Before we headed out to the door, I gulped down the remaining tea, not wanting it to go to waste. If that meant going to the toilet in the middle of the trip, so be it.

Throughout our way back to the reception, where the entrance was, we made small talk mostly about the nun’s job and the orphanage. Occasionally she would retell memorable moments of the children and Claude, easily getting a laugh from me. A fluttery feeling filled my stomach as I tried to visualize what the nun said of Claude inside my head. I didn’t need to ask whether the butler visited the orphanage often because she immediately followed up on how he made a couple of visits when he had spare time. He had done it throughout the years since he was recruited and would spend a couple of hours with the children. It was so often that all the residents still remembered him and warmed up to him. They all saw him as their older brother.

Please cue the sounds of my heart combusting and me swooning internally. I swore if I was alone in my bedroom, I could imagine myself squealing around my bed with freaking heart eyes. This man was perfect.

Anyways, besides that, she also revealed to me that she was in her mid-fifties which gave me the biggest surprise because she appeared youthful. She followed my comment by joking “That’s what being unproblematic does to you”. I couldn’t help but let out an amused snort.

When we finally reached outside, Xinhua was already standing beside the car (I had contacted him along the way), waiting for me. The children on the playground were less in numbers now that the sun was about to start setting. It was getting dark soon.

I turned to the nun and shot her a grateful smile. I extended my hand out to her for a handshake.

“Well, Sister Josephine. Thank you for your hospitality and telling me stuff,” the nun just blinked at my extended hand before at me with an arch of an eyebrow. She then suddenly grabbed my hand and pulled me into a bear hug. A breathless incoherent sound escaped my mouth. I couldn’t move my arms from how shocked I was to the fact when she finally released me, I still stood frozen.

The nun found my reaction entertaining as she attempted to muffle her laugh by pursuing her lips.

“I don’t usually hug people but for you, Ms. Madeleine, you’re an exception.”

“Oh?” My face scrunched in puzzlement.

She leaned into my ear and covered her mouth with her hand to whisper.

“When you said that Claude told you about him being an orphan, I knew you’re special. Sure, he’s not ashamed of being an orphan, but he just doesn’t tell that to anyone that’s not close to him. Not to mention, I saw how genuine your love is for Claude from the way you look at him through the window earlier. Your whole face just lit up. I saw how much you care for him, Ms. Madeleine. The troubled and pained expression on your face and your jaw clenching. I saw them clear as day.”

I blushed red at her words. Done whispering, the nun drew back beaming.

“I am that obvious huh?”

Sister Josephine shrugged before giving me a wink.

“I may be a nun, but I wasn’t always one. I had seen and experienced a fair share of romance back when I was actually ‘youthful’.”

I busted out laughing.

“Never have I ever meet a nun as playful as you, Sister Josephine.”

“Sometimes it’s good to joke around when your celibate life’s dedicated to praying and managing the orphanage. It’s fulfilling but it can get dull.”

“Are you sure you’re allowed to say that?” My eyebrows shot up at her laidback tone once I recovered from my fits of giggles.

The nun only put her finger against her lips to make a hush gesture. “As long as none of my sisters heard me.”

“Sister!” I gasped jokingly. We immediately both broke into fits of giggles and it was so long, we were out of breath. Our chests were panting heavily in efforts to get the oxygen we lost back into our lungs. I wiped away the tears gathered at the bottom of my eyes.

When we actually recovered and by that, I meant getting our breathing back to normal, Sister Josephine put her hand on my cheek and pat it like I was her child (did that make sense?). She presented me with a tender look.

“Take care of Claude for me, will you? But take care of yourself first of course.”

I tried to play my bashfulness off with a tease.

“You make it sound like he and I are going to get together in the future. As much as I desire the idea, I don’t think it’ll ever materialize.”

There was a knowing glint in her eyes that made me swallow nervously.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that! He doesn’t go around telling people he’s an orphan. I was surprised that the boy told you. Plus, His Highness confiding you about the incident? Now that’s out of the ordinary, Ms. Madeleine. The prince must have seen something in you that might be perfect for Claude.”

“Oh, stop it you! You’re hoping too much.”

“It’s true. Just you wait and see, Ms. Madeleine. It won’t be too long when it happens.”

“Alright! Alright!” Before departing for my car, I quickly embraced her. “It was nice talking to you, Sister Josephine. Make sure you look after yourself.”

“Likewise, my dear. I hope to see you around,” the jovial nun sent me one last smile. “Goodbye! Have a safe trip back.”

•••
5 pm
Philip Town Center

So about the plan of going back home immediately after the orphanage visit… Yeah well, that didn’t really happen. I decided to take a detour after remembering how much I desired to visit the town center when I came to stay at the Chateau. Somehow, Wilfred took me everywhere around the kingdom except here, which was a bit odd. Considering how the town was always bustling with people even during weekdays, I could only think that maybe he didn’t want any attention towards us. Plus, I heard the gossip press here were awful.

As I said before, despite the fact it’s 5 pm on a Wednesday, there were still many people around. The sun was already setting down, causing the street lights to light up the town. Just like the time I passed by here with a car, the town held a warm and lively atmosphere with vendors shouting deals, locals enjoying themselves with sweet treats and drinks from the cafés and pubs, and music playing from street musicians.

Usually the public markets and stalls in other countries I visited close around this time, but apparently not in Philip. A mixture of locals and tourists were present in all of the vendors.

‘Maybe I will check them out.’

I strode towards the market and slowly, I scanned through each vendor’s products ranging from fresh produce to seafood. My lips parted in awe and wonder at how fresh they looked. I could feel my saliva collecting under my tongue as I admired the display of cheese and other dairy products. It was so much, I had to swallow it down. I might had stared at the cheese products for too long because one of the stallholders offered me a free sample.

Hesitance prevented me from taking it but the stallholder reached the sample out further, encouraging me to take it.

“It doesn’t hurt to have a taste, Ma’am,” he said. “It’s brie!”

Did he say it’s brie?

‘Screw my lactose intolerance, I’m gonna accept it! I can worry about my stomach later back at home!’

Shooting him an appreciative grin, I extended my hand out to take the toothpick with the piece of brie on it from the man. “Thank you.”

The man nodded in response, a satisfied smile visible on his face. “It’s my pleasure, Ma’am.”

As I walked away and strolled along the aisle, I brought the cheese into my mouth. I had to stop myself from moaning loudly (and crudely) once I bit into the cheese. Immediately my taste buds were hit simultaneously with the cheese’s nutty and earthy flavor and perhaps I tasted a tinge of mushrooms. It was also so creamy and buttery, it just melted on my tongue.

God, that was heaven.

It was such a shame I didn’t savor it slower because now my mouth felt empty and I was craving for more. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t brie. I would’ve gone back to purchase their cheese but then I realized my home was like two hours away and I had no desire to quicken its rotting process. It would be such a waste!

I still wanted to get something though… Could you believe if I didn’t get anything from a public market even though everything looked and smelled so good? It’s blasphemy.

What product should I purchase that could withstand the whole trip back?

‘Dairy and meat products are out of the question,’ my mind pondered as I eyed all the produces offered. ‘You can find vegetables and fruits too back at home. So that‘s a no… What about…’

My feet stopped walking at the distinct yet heavenly smell of bread and pastries fresh out of the oven reached my nose. I searched where the smell was coming from and I felt my whole face lit up to discover a bakery far out on my right. It wasn’t just any ordinary bakery, it was a bakery that specialized only on Philippian pastries and bread! Even from a distance, I could make out how mouthwatering the pastries looked inside the display.

‘That’s it! I’ll just buy lots of scones, tarts, and mille feuilles! That’s what this kingdom is known for!’

Decided, I opened my tote bag and shoved my hand to search for my cardholder, at the same time making my way over to the bakery. Having difficulty finding it, I inclined my head down to see what items I was shuffling through, totally ignoring my surroundings. I just let my feet do the walking, which I knew was a bad idea. Why? Because when I finally found the holder and lifted it up in a victorious motion, I collided with someone a bit shorter than me with an “oof”. And like the klutz I was, my grip around the cardholder slipped causing it to fall onto the floor with a slide. It ended up in front of the person’s shoes.

You know how like if you use the same cardholder for many years, the pockets get somehow looser? Well yeah, I had used the same one for over six years and its pockets for the cards? They were so freaking loose that when the holder flew in the air, my credit, debit, and identification card slipped out and ended up on the floor with a clatter. Without any hesitation, I bent down to grab my cards before someone takes it as a mousy feminine voice behind me apologizing.

“Oh my god! I am so sorry! Here let me help!”

I saw the woman crawl onto her knees at the corner of my eyes, both her hands roaming around searching for my cardholder.

“Got it! This is your cardholder am—,” the woman didn’t finish her sentence as it was cut off by their own gasp and followed by a brief moment of silence.

When at last, I finally got all my cards, she spoke up.

“How do you know Claude?”

My body tensed at the steward’s name coming out from the woman’s mouth.

‘Huh?’

I twirled around to her with a questioning look. I was about to open my mouth to ask her why she asked that when I saw her looking down at the picture I put inside the display pocket.

Then it hit me why she did. There was a picture of young Claude and Wilfred together.

I forgot I put that picture there days ago. With my high tendency to lose things so easily because of how disorganized I was and wanting to keep my feelings for the head steward a secret, I figured the cardholder would be the right (and the only) place. Besides, like Wilfred said, when “missing Claude hours” or in other words my longing strikes hard, I could just reach out my item out of my bag and look at the picture of him.

Still, it didn’t answer how she knew it was Claude on the picture… My confusion quickly turned into one of suspicion and reservation. I tried to discern her face but her thick untamed blue-black hair falling over prevented me so.

“He’s a… a friend. Both of them are my friends… Why are you asking Ms? Do you know him?” I asked while rising up to my feet. She soon followed, but she still has her head lowered. I noticed her grip tightening around my cardholder, which caused an uneasy foreboding feeling to gather in my gut. It didn’t help that there was a dead pause where neither of us said anything. It was so long that I gave in and interjected.

“Ms? Do you know C—”

At the same time, the woman lifted her head up. One clear look of her face and my unfinished question died off on my tongue. All of the wind was knocked out of my system, resulting in my breath to hitch in my throat. I stilled, my body froze with tension.

Her hair may be different now but her face never changed. The same cat-like facial features I saw on those pictures.

There was no mistake that she was the blonde girl in all of the photos Sister Josephine presented me.

She was Fiona.

‘Claude’s former fiancé slash lover is right in front of me.’

While I still was in the moment of pure stun, Fiona finally replied, her green eyes swirling with emotions.

“I know him.”

•••
5.30 pm

Claude opened the door wide and spun his heels around to say his a couple of last words. As much as he desired to stay with them until night, it was time to go back to being a head steward and a butler. He was grateful for His Highness approving his request for this visit and letting him spend time here with the children he has grown to care for almost a day.

“Now everyone, while I am gone, please be nice to another and the sisters here okay?”

“Okay Claude!” One of the girls, Aaliyah who donned a frilly bow on her luscious black hair shouted out. The others nodded in agreement.

“If that means you will be visiting us soon again, then I will be nice!” A boy with freckles grinned mischievously with his two front teeth missing. Billy always had been a troublemaker.

“Yeah! If that also means we get more toys from you, sure!” The rest of the children cheered.

“Behave you rascals. You won’t be getting any if you’re just nice because of that,” the head steward chided them. Despite the stern facade he put on, his voice betrayed his act. His affection for the children slipped through and soon enough his face broke into a huge smile laced with mirth.

The orphans broke into fits of laughter at Claude’s reaction, knowing that he could never actually scold them for real. They also knew he would never fail to bring them new toys every time he visits their home despite the (harmless) threats he told. That was one of the reasons they look forward when he visits, but more importantly, they get to spend almost a whole day with him. Ever since he became a full-fledged head steward of the royal family, his visits became even less frequent. His day off had become so less that he could only visit them at least once a month. That was why the visit was so valuable to them.

“But don’t you get toys always from donations every year?” The butler asked them while leaned against the door frame with one eyebrow arched in interest. “What makes the ones I give you guys different?”

“Of course yours are different!” A frail girl with rosy cheeks and cute pigtails walked up to him, holding onto a worn rabbit plush by its ear. She had hung on to it ever since Claude gave it to her four years ago. “You’re our brother, which means the toys you give us every visit will always be special.”

He was happy they thought of him as their older brother. Feeling so touched with her words, he took a moment before he ruffled her hair while giving her a fond smile.

“You and your words, Lola. Always manage to make people speechless. I’m glad you children think it that way. It makes me happy to hear that.”

“Besides gege, you know what we like and don’t like. It makes it even more special!” The boy with a buzzcut, Zuko, interjected.

The rest of the children voiced their agreement through their shouts. Some nodding eagerly. The sight was so lively, the tingly warm sensation spread throughout Claude’s body. He really had grown to care for them and treat them as if they were his little brothers and sisters. There were some who were still here since babies and he had watched them grow.

If only he could spend the entire day with them and visit them more often… If only…

Claude frowned apologetically as he heaved out a sigh.

“I’m sorry I can’t visit you children often. If I could, I would…”

The oldest of the group, a ten-year-old girl with a pointed nose and curly blonde hair, Naila stopped braiding Abby’s untamed hair to shake her head at him. He noted how very mature and intelligent she was for her age.

“That’s okay, Claude. We know you’re working hard as a butler and a head steward, so just visiting us is enough.”

“But still—”

“Also, we don’t want to interfere with your duties.”

“And who knows? If you spend more time in the palace or spend your day off elsewhere, you can find a new girlfriend!”

Upon hearing that, the head steward choked on his saliva. His arm that was against the doorframe slid down, resulting in his loss of balance.

“Richie!” Naila and some of the others hushed the lanky eight-year-old boy. His shy blue-eyed friend, James nudged Richie with his elbow.

“What?” The boy looked around clueless. “It’s true!”

When Claude finally steadied himself, he glanced down at the children with wide eyes and a gaping mouth. He couldn’t distinguish whether this was a joke or just plain honesty.

Laia’s dress bounced as she stomped her way to where Richie was. She leaned into his ear and harshly whispered. “We talked about this! You can’t say that when Claude’s here!”

The whole atmosphere that once was upbeat turned silent as they waited nervously for the butler’s response. Others glared at the still clueless Richie.

People underestimated how attentive and bright young children could be.

Sure no one told them what happened to Claude and his now former fiancé Fiona, but don’t think they didn’t notice the subtlest things. Some of the children the steward spent time with saw the dark bags under his eyes and despite how much he tried to be cheerful and positive with them like in all his past visits, acting like everything was okay, there was still a sense of despondent atmosphere surrounding him. When he thought they weren’t looking, the cheerful front he put on would come off and he would just appear absolutely downright exhausted. They would catch him staring into nothing with vacant eyes.

At first, the children brushed Fiona’s absence off as for medical reasons or wedding planning stuff but time after time, it continued this way. One of them, Mason, who took a shine on the woman, finally lost his patience and asked the steward where Fiona had gone. Naila still remembered that day so vividly. Claude took a long time to answer and even then, it never really answered the boy’s question. He told them not to worry about it, excusing her absence as just being busy. She remembered the grimace of hurt that appeared and disappeared in a flash of an eye.

Still, everyone was unconvinced deep inside but they chose to stay silent. Just like Naila, a lot of these children came from ‘broken homes’ and they definitely knew what Claude said was a lie. An excuse. The eleven-year-old girl heard that same old lie from her deceased mother regarding her father’s blatant unfaithfulness.

Alas, Claude finally spoke up, his eyes bouncing from one child to another.

“You guys… know about what happened?”

He received a bunch of soft no’s and shaking of heads.

“It’s not that we know...” Naila clarified slowly. We just had a hunch what was going on, with you looking really tired and Fiona’s prolonged absence… We just pieced it all together.”

“Oh.”

Claude heaved out a solemn sigh with his shoulders slumping a bit.

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“We know it’s a touchy subject and we didn’t want you to be reminded and be sad… We never brought it up because we want your visit to be good always.”

“We don’t think it’s our place to say anything…” James added with a timid voice.

Claude had mixed emotions after hearing that. Half of him is stirred from how considerate and understanding they were of him. He greatly appreciated what they had done. However, on the other hand, he felt guilty for worrying them and then hiding what was going on from them.

The steward pushed himself away from the door frame and proceeded to squat down in front of the children, regarding them with a downcast face.

“I am sorry for making you all worry and hiding this from you all. You’re all dear to me and you deserve to know what went on years ago…”

Lola who remained on the same spot right in front of him shook her head, and so did the others.

“No, don’t be sorry Claude,” she said. “You have a reason to keep it inside.”

Naila voiced her agreement.

“Lola is right. As much as we want to know, we all still didn’t want to force you, Claude. We’ll listen when you’re ready.”

Claude looked at the others and saw them nodding and smiling at him.

The sight was too much for him to handle. His heart swelled up with fondness for them. It continued to amaze him how mature and empathetic these kids were, perhaps even more than some adults.

His expression softened into a warm smile. With the utmost affection, he ruffled Lola’s hair.

“Thank you everyone,” he said. The children more or less knew about it, so might as well he should tell them. “You’re right, something happened and things between us didn’t work out.”

The children caught a quick flash of hurt cross his face before he masked it. Whatever happened between him and Fiona, it must have been really bad.

Lola wrapped her arms around him in an embrace.

“It will be alright. You got us.”

“Yeah!”

Everyone soon stood up and simultaneously hugged the steward while giving their words of encouragement. The weight became too much for him at the front, he lost his footing and stumbled. His back landed on the floor with a soft thump but nonetheless he laughed and so did the children. When they all released him, he got up beaming. A few chuckles would escape from him as he fixed his attire.

“You have no idea how heavy you are altogether,” Claude joked lightly.

“That’s because you always give us tasty snacks!” Richie shouted.

“You’re correct, maybe I should stop giving—”

“Noooooooo!”

The steward burst out laughing as he raised his hands up. “I’m kidding! I’m kidding!”

Few of the children made a humph sound while others crossed their arms across their chests, but he knew they were playing around since the corners of their lips were twitching to curve up.

When his laughter died down, Claude looked down at his watch before back at them. “I have to go now. You guys be good alright? I’ll come back to visit.”

As he made his way back to the door, he heard the resounding yes from them.

“Naila, you know what to do.”

The girl in question nodded and saluted him mischievously, a huge grin present on her face. “Aye aye captain! I will look after these rascals when you’re away.”

“Good. You all be nice,” Claude redirected his attention to Billy. “Especially you Billy. Don’t make any more trouble for Sister Josephine, the sisters, and the volunteers.”

“Fine,” Billy slumped causing the steward to roll his eyes. Always the dramatic. Even if he promised not to, he would still make trouble.

“I’m going now. See you again soon. I’ll bring back more snacks and toys for you guys,” Claude opened the door and before he stepped out, Richie called out.

“Claude!”

The steward turned back to face the blonde boy with questions in his eyes. The others glanced with curiosity.

“I’m not joking when I told you to find a girlfriend!”

Claude sharply sucked in his breath and his eyes became wide open again.

An image of a certain heiress with her dizzying smile came into his mind effortlessly and when he realized that, specks of pink dust spread across his cheeks and everyone gasped at the sight.

Claude rarely blushed!

“Does this mean you already found someone you like?”

“Who is she!”

“Tell us! Tell us Claude!”

They were now pestering him with so much eagerness but he had no answer, too flustered to think of anything. Instead he a stuttered out an excuse.

“I-I really need to go. Goodbye, kids!” He went out of the door and quickly closed it with a click, and immediately he took rapid steps away from the room and to the entrance. But before then, he needed to stop by Sister Josephine’s private office.

•••
6.05 pm

“You got yourself an admirer after they saw you with the kids,” she sang out.

That was what Sister Josephine told him when he came to inform her and say his goodbyes. The nun said nothing else but her eyes were gleaming with mischief after Claude asked her to elaborate. She told him cryptically that he would find out sooner or later, which only made him even more muddled.

The butler left the orphanage home with a lot of questions and thoughts in his mind. Why would she say that? What was she getting out of this? He knew Sister Josephine had always been a jokester, so he wondered if this was one of her jokes as he made his way to the public market at the town center.

And if it wasn’t…

He was curious who was the person who saw him with the children. It was rare for visitors to visit the orphanage home on a weekday.

Well, it was also rare for him to visit the place either in the middle of the week. It had always been Fridays or weekends for him. Just as he expected, the nuns were surprised to see him there. There was really one single reason behind his unusual visit, to be honest.

And that one reason was to keep his mind off from something. Someone.

An image of Lady Madeleine resurfaced again to the front of his mind and he couldn’t help but get flustered when he remembered what he did earlier. He immediately thought of her when Richie said “girlfriend”. He guessed the plan to keep his mind off her failed.

That day he visited Lady Madeleine in the open field of her home, using the helicopter (he still found that absolutely ridiculous), he recalled how out of breath she looked. As much as she was trying to fix her appearance, the heavy rise and fall of her chest and the redness of her face betrayed the fact she ran to see him. The prospect of her wanting to see him so eagerly made him flutter. And despite how disheveled Lady Madeleine was that day because of the exercise, he still found her exceptionally radiant. The sun put a glow to her that made her look like a deity and her smile and flushed cheeks only added up to it. It stirred something inside of him and it tempted him to do something that he would’ve regret.

He also couldn’t get his mind off the dejection in her voice after he told her he had to go immediately. Nor he couldn’t get his mind off her downcast expression with her bottom lip jutting out slightly into a pout and slumped shoulders. Her eyes conveyed for him not to go and stay here for a bit longer; he could be imagining but mayhaps he saw traces of longing within her depths.

Besides trying to make his face neutral to look like he wasn’t affected, it took all of Claude’s efforts not to give in. He so badly wanted to stay a bit longer but he couldn’t. He still had his duties as the head steward.

The least he could do was to soothe her before he left by conveying his feelings about how good her cookies tasted. And you know what? It was worth it. The way her whole face lit up with delight at his praise. The smile she returned to his one was so genuine and warm, the steward felt him inhale sharply at the sight. It made Lady Madeleine even glow more. If her pouty face took all of his strength, then this was something else. This was on a whole other level.

No longer able to maintain his passive facade, Claude quickly swirled around and walked back towards the helicopter. He had his back facing the heiress, which was an effective way to prevent her from seeing the blush on his cheeks or the hand on his chest, trying to still his then rapid pounding heart.

“Oof!”

The steward bumped into someone, causing his reminiscence to come to an abrupt end. He earnestly apologized to the person, who turned out to be an old lady holding a little boy’s hand. The lady only shot him an annoyed glare before walking away with a hmph. The boy followed ran after her and along the way, he gave Claude one last look.

Once they disappeared into the crowd, Claude breathed out a troubled sigh. He lost count the number of times his mind had wandered off to Lady Madeleine whether it was when he’s performing his duties or having a short break. He couldn’t escape.

Where was he going again?

Ah right! The Loose Leaf Company! He planned to go there and purchase a can of peppermint leaves as his supply was already running low.

Claude went over to the tea vendor and ended up getting more than just a can of peppermint leaves. Because the owners knew him very well from how often he bought tea leaves from them, they gave him a can of rooibos leaves, mountain berries leaves, and cherry blossom leaves. The steward gratefully gave his thanks before departing with the store’s bag on one hand, a satisfied grin on his face.

Mountain berries… He couldn’t help but be reminded of how Lady Madeleine liked her teas fruity. She would definitely enjoy this flavor.

Again, without realizing it, the steward thought of the heiress one more time. It should be worrying that somehow he managed to link almost everything to her.

Now that he got what he came for, it was time for him to depart and go back to the Chateau. He promised the prince he would return by supper.

Claude exited the public market and speed-walked his way to his car, which was parked two blocks away. As he was about to turn a corner, his steps paused when he heard his name and His Highness’ name. It came from the alley on the left. Alert, the steward moved closer without a sound. He leaned his whole body against the wall and discreetly peeked behind it.

Let’s say the sight he saw almost gave him a heart attack that he withheld a gasp.

Never in a million years, he would ever think he would see Lady Madeleine and Fiona standing face to face, nonetheless meeting one another. Why was Lady Madeleine in Philip? What was she doing here? Did she know who she was talking to? There were so many questions. He knew he shouldn’t eavesdrop but once it involved him and his master… Well…

It’s good that where he’s hiding wasn’t within the women’s line of sight however, he still could see their side profiles. They were both staring at one another in oppressive silence and Lady Madeleine particularly appeared cold, with a slight frown. This made his former fiancé a bit uncomfortable.

“You’re Fiona, aren’t you? You used to volunteer at the White Lily Orphanage Home. Am I right?”

Surprise registered in both Claude’s and Fiona’s face. Sooner than later, Fiona’s expression switched to one of uneasiness.

“How do you know my name?”

She took the words out of Claude’s mind.

“Sister Josephine but it doesn’t matter.”

‘Now hold on,’ he furrowed his eyebrows.

More questions popped up around the steward’s head.

How did she know Sister Josephine and when did she ever meet her? Did this mean she visited the orphanage? This conversation just got even more confusing with each answer… For sure he couldn’t leave just here.

(Yes, Claude could’ve figured out by now who was the admirer but that’s the least of his problems. Right now, he was too preoccupied with the scene unfolding in front of him.)

Lady Madeleine’s eyes studied Fiona and when they landed on the hands for perhaps a tiny bit too long, Claude followed her gaze. The sight caused his throat to constrict. Her ring finger donned a simple golden band with a small diamond on top. He felt a subtle pang of hurt in his heart. His hands on his sides unintentionally balled into fists. Yes, he may no longer loved her anymore and he may no longer wished for her, but the sight of her ring brought him back to the moment when she returned his engagement ring to him on his day off with no explanation but just four words.

“This isn’t working out.”

The longer he gazed at the ring, the more nauseating it became, mocking how he could have ended up like that. Married. He immediately tore his eyes away from the wedding ring in fear of spilling his guts out, and instead focused on the conversation.

“I see you’re married now,” the heiress lifted her head back up to meet Fiona’s eyes.

Fiona nodded as she covered her left hand with the right. “Yes… I am. We’d been married for almost two years now...”

That could only mean they got engaged only after less than a year of courting. A year after she broke their engagement.

‘I…’

Claude had no words. What could he say?

“I see. Well, congratulations on your marriage. I hope you’re happy with your husband,” Lady Madeleine said. Although she congratulated Fiona, her tone lacked the happiness and warmth and her face was stiff.

The steward noticed the atmosphere felt even tenser. He wasn’t accustomed to seeing the heiress’ face looking stony. Even when he riled her up, she looked nothing like that. From the way Lady Madeleine was seizing Fiona in front of her up, Claude felt the heiress knew who she was and what she had done.

“Tell me, Ms. Fiona,” she started. “Why did you do that?”

He sucked in his breath.

Was she referring to… No, that couldn’t be. She didn’t know about that.

“Do what?”

“I think we both know what you did.”

Adrenaline ran through his veins.

“N-No… No, I don’t,” Fiona faltered.

“Three years ago. Why did you cheat on Claude?”

He felt his pounding heart dropped to the ground. She… She knew… But how…

“What—”

“Don’t lie, Ms. Fiona,” Lady Madeleine cut her off sharply, not taking the excuse she was about to spill. “Did you think you would never get caught cheating days after you broke your engagement? Claude saw you in another man’s arms when he was in town for his duties.”

While her voice now held a slight biting tone, her face still remained the same. Expressionless. It was a bit unnerving.

The black-haired woman remained silent, the mortification was etched onto her face. Sooner than later, guilt started setting in causing her to bow her head.

“Why did you do it?” Lady Madeleine crossed her arms.

Silence answered her but she persisted.

“He trusted you. Loved you. You both had known each other since young, since he was still in an orphanage,” the heiress’ voice cracked at the start, alarming Claude.

“Why did you cheat on Claude? Did you think it was fun?”

At the last accusation, Fiona’s head whipped up and because Lady Madeleine had a couple of centimeters more to her height, the latter had to tilt her chin up to scowl at her.

“I didn’t cheat for fun! I didn’t mean to!”

Lady Madeleine narrowed her eyes.

“If you didn’t mean to, then you wouldn’t have stayed with the man and married him. But you did. And not to mention, there’s no such thing as ‘mean to’ if you made the conscious decision to cheat behind Claude’s back.”

“You don’t understand.”

The heiress let out a derisive chuckle. “What do I not understand? Do explain.”

“I… I thought I was fine with him being away for training to be the head steward. I thought I could handle with us living apart… But as the months go on, I wasn’t so sure anymore. I was alone almost all of the time. I started becoming insecure and unhappy especially after hearing a few of my friends gush about their married life and their partners. I realized then and there, I wouldn’t be able to have that knowing Claude would have to stay at the Chateau and dedicate almost all of his time to performing his duties… One night, I went out to a bar alone and a man—my husband—approached me and one thing led to another… I ended up going to his place.” By the end of the last sentence, Fiona’s voice had become quieter and more strained as the shame and guilt ate her up.

Lady Madeleine’s expression darkened.

“It didn’t stop there, am I right?” She pressed.

Fiona timidly shook his head. “No…”

“How long was the affair?”

Claude’s former fiancé took a shaky breath, her hands trembled.

“Six months prior to me I breaking off the engagement…”

All at once, it felt as if someone punched Claude in the stomach, all the wind knocked out of his lungs. He felt the familiar pain of getting his heart shredded into pieces. When he saw her that day in another man’s arms, he had a feeling Fiona was having an affair behind his back. However, he thought it was only a week or two prior. He didn’t think it would go as far as six months…

And then it clicked. Everything fell into place.

‘Is this why she seemed distant?’

Five or six months prior, although they didn’t get to see each other as often because of his duties as His Highness’ butler and his training to become head steward, he noticed how Fiona’s text messages had dwindled down from many to two, and at times none. All her replies were curt and halfhearted. He was concerned of course, but he didn’t think so much of it. He reasoned that maybe she was busy with her current projects and clients’ commissions.

But when Claude finally visited her during his day off from his duties and training… The atmosphere didn’t feel the same to him... It was off. Thinking about it, she didn’t even sound the least bit excited when they planned to meet and it translated to the atmosphere. She didn’t look exhausted, but she was out of it. She was distant and it felt as if she wanted to be anywhere but with him.

What used to be an easy flow of conversation between them where they talked over a range of topics, from trivial to serious, it was reduced to uncomfortable silence and stagnant dialogues that led to nowhere. Throughout that day, he wondered about what went wrong. He wondered what happened in the last few months. Before he left, he finally voiced his concern to Fiona only to receive an implausible excuse (or was it a lie?).

“Everything’s fine. It’s nothing to worry about,” she told him with a strained smile.

He berated himself over how stupid he was to let go of it despite knowing everything was infact not fine and it was something to worry about. It hurt him that she was hiding from him and it hurt him even more that she stiffened when he reached for an embrace.

“You know Ms. Fiona, you remind me very much of my former partner.”

At this point, after hearing what Fiona had to say, the heiress’ blank facade finally cracked. She had her fists balled so hard, her nails were digging deep into her palms. Fury boiled inside of her as she narrowed her eyes and clenched her teeth at the woman in front of her.

“You’re a selfish coward, just like my ex. Do you know what he did? He ghosted me after I found out he had been using me, using our relationship to get business connections,” Claude could hear the tremor in her voice as she spat those words out. Hurt and betrayal seeped through them.

‘Oh… So we’re in the same boat…’

“All this time he didn’t love me. He only pretended to be so he could get what he wanted. He just disappeared with no explanation. Just like you did.”

Claude didn’t know if it was possible for someone to narrow their eyes even more, but Lady Madeleine was able to that as her brown pupils were now slits. Claude was not sure whether to feel terrified or at awe or even both. He soon chose the latter after listening to calling Fiona out.

“You could have chosen to speak out your concerns, your worries to Claude! He would have understood you and sort the problem out! You were his partner, his best friend. You were someone he loved and trusted. He would’ve done anything for you to make you happy!”

“I didn’t want to get in the way of his duties!” Fiona shouted in defense. “Knowing how sensitive he actually is, I didn’t want to hurt him!”

Even to Claude, that was the most feeble excuse he ever heard. Yes, he can be sensitive however like Lady Madeleine said, he would have understood. His mentor albeit strict would have understood. Even Prince Wilfred! He also would’ve understood, after all, she was his goddamn fiancé!

It was clear that Lady Madeleine was on the same page as him because she appeared more livid, a prominent scowl evident on her lips.

“No, you hurt him by hiding things from him! You hurt him by your dishonesty! You hurt him especially by your unfaithfulness!” the heiress snapped with her ever raising voice. Her shouts echoed loudly throughout the alley and it was lucky that they picked an alleyway that was further away from the town center. “You truly don’t know him well if you think he would be overly upset over this!”

The heiress’ nose flared as she breathed heavily.

“For you to resort to cheating instead of communicating your troubles, that’s deplorable especially coming from someone he trusted,” Lady Madeleine stepped closer to Fiona. There was little distance between them and with the extra centimeters, the heiress appeared intimidating. She had to tilt her chin down to meet Fiona’s eyes, which were filled with uneasiness and regret.

“You don’t have any idea how much pain you have inflicted upon Claude,” she lowered. “Because of your cowardice and selfish behavior, he believed it was his fault you left. He believed he didn’t do enough. And now… And now…” Both the heiress’ face and voice abruptly turned soft, surprising the other two people present.

“He doesn’t believe in himself. He works so hard and performs everything perfectly… and yet he still deems himself to be unworthy and undeserving of anything… of affection.”

Just in a flash, Lady Madeleine’s face hardened again. She glared at the woman in front.

“We both are aware of what a private and reserved man Claude is, but because of you Ms. Fiona, he had closed himself off even more.”

“... And what do you want me to do? Apologize?” Fiona asked.

“In fact, yes you should apologize to him.”

“What?” The black-haired woman looked taken aback.

“You can’t keep hiding Ms. Fiona. You started this mess, so you should be the one cleaning this up too.”

“He wouldn’t want to see me.”

“I agree after all the crap you put him through, but he still would appreciate you admitting your wrongs. You’re an adult woman. Start acting like one,” she shuffled back and fixed her attire. She’s done with what she had to say.

“I hope you’re satisfied with the man you’re married to, Ms. Fiona. I wish you both well.”

When Lady Madeleine rotated to head out of the alleyway, where Claude was at, the steward quickly moved away and hide behind the walls. At the same time, Fiona finally spoke up, suspicion laced her mousy voice.

“From the way you speak about him… defended him… It seems to me you think of him as more than a friend. Be honest with me, Ms. You love Claude, do you?”

Claude wished he could see their expressions.

After a moment of pause, Lady Madeleine responded and the steward held onto his breath in anticipation.

“Frankly Ms. Fiona, whether I do have feelings or not for the steward is none of your business. I am looking out for him because no person deserves to experience something like this. Especially someone who did nothing wrong.”

•••

Chapter Text

Rewind to
17th of April
Spencers’ Chateau
8.12 pm

With what went on in the alleyway and the traffic congestion along the road, Claude was unable to get back to the Chateau in time for him to serve dinner and it didn’t help the palace was a bit far out from other places in the kingdom. On the other hand, the long drive back to the palace offered him a substantial amount of time to leave him to his own thoughts.

The confrontation between the two women was a big explosion of revelations and he didn’t exactly know how to feel about it. A mix of different emotions swirled inside him like a storm.

He was first overcome with bewilderment about his ex and Lady Madeleine’s coincidental meeting and also the latter’s awareness about his past engagement. At the same time, he was also in awe of the heiress during the confrontation. In spite of the fact they weren’t close and he hasn't opened up to her so much, she still fiercely stood up for him. He had never seen her this (terrifyingly) serious and menacing. Even when they were both fighting with one another (over the most irrelevant things), she wasn’t this flared up. She really didn’t take any of Fiona’s—pardon his word—bullshit. Maybe it was because she had experienced the same betrayal and pain as he did. That was what his mind came up but why did he feel like deep inside, this was more than just empathy? It felt as if Lady Madeleine genuinely cared about him and his heart stirred at the foolish possibility.

But once it hit that she knew, the shock and awe switched to anger. The only people Claude told were Prince Wilfred (and possibly Lady Danielle), Sister Josephine, and now the children in the orphanage. It had to be either his master or the head nun that must have divulged the heiress to that. Lady Madeleine already had revealed she knew Fiona’s name because of the nun, but that could be it.

Nonetheless, he was still irritated. He didn’t care that Lady Madeleine now knew his tragic love life, it was more about how she knew it and no one thought about seeking him first.

He had explicitly told Wilfred and Sister Josephine not to say a word about the engagement to anyone and now either one of them broke the promise. He really didn’t want anyone getting involved in his personal life. Look what happened to him years ago.

Claude somehow got this impression his master confide in Lady Madeleine about unsuccessful engagement to push him into another relationship. This might be false but still, he didn’t appreciate the idea.

“Wilfred…” the steward had growled the prince’s name while his grip on the steering wheel tightened.

As much as Claude desired being close to the heiress and he knew as much that she was a good person at heart, he couldn’t get into another romantic relationship. He was left with lingering fears and doubts.

‘What if the things I do still won’t be enough for my partner? What if I am still unable to satisfy her? What if… What if I am just still not enough for her? What if we’re both not on the same page? What if she doesn’t understand the gravity of my duties to the royal family? What if all of this lead to her seeking another partner?’

There were so many what-if’s. He couldn’t face the risk of another heartbreak nor another betrayal. He refused to go through that crap ever again.

He needed to get to the bottom of this and that was what he did.

When Claude finally returned back at the Chateau, dinner had already ended and he was told by one of the staff, the prince and Lady Danielle were up in his office. That could only mean the couple was currently looking over their wedding plans. He ordered the staff to inform them of his return and that he would be at the prince’s office as he needed to go to the cottage for a change of clothes.

Back in his steward uniform, Claude left his cottage and marched towards his master’s office. His body was strung and stiff with tension knowing that he would confront Wilfred about his unwanted actions. Those who saw his dark and serious face and sensed the foreboding air around him either fled or make efforts to not make eye contact with him.

He was not happy and he was on a warpath.

He knocked on the door to the office and announced his presence. He didn’t give time for the blonde prince to reply before he let himself in. Claude really couldn’t care less. All the formalities and proprieties he championed all flew out of the window as he was being consumed with lividity. His master really went over the line with this one.

Danielle, who was standing next to Wilfred behind his desk was the first one to notice the steward’s current state since she tried to greet him cheerfully. Just one look and her “good evening” ended sounding wary. One look and her grin was immediately wiped off from her face. One look and her mind instinctively went “oh no”. From the way he ignored her and the way he glared at her unsuspecting fiancé, she realized sparks will fly and most will be coming from the steward. She had never seen him appearing so furious at her fiancé.

The royal designer gulped nervously.

Whatever Wilfred did, it must be really personal and unwelcomed.

The prince who had his head down over fabric samples, was still oblivious until he saw Claude’s shadow looming over him. He still didn’t look up when he acknowledged the steward.

“Oh, Claude you’re here! How was the trip to the orphanage? How were the children?”

“Was fine, Your Highness. The children too.”

Wilfred furrowed his eyebrows at the response from the navy-haired steward. Usually, after every time, he returns from the orphanage, he would sound energized and talk fondly of the children. But this time around, it lacked either. His response was terse and cold causing the prince to finally glance up. Similar to Danielle’s reaction, his smile also dropped. Was it just him or did the temperature of the room dropped by a couple of degrees?

This was going to be unpleasant.

“... What’s wrong?”

Claude narrowed his eyes more on his master. He didn’t appreciate him trying to act innocent; it only put more fuel to the flames.

“Why did you tell Lady Madeleine about my past engagement with Fiona?” He demanded with a growl. Wilfred stiffened as he felt his stomach dropped from being caught.

‘How did he… Madeleine couldn’t possibly…’ He didn’t want to believe she told Claude already despite promising to the prince.

“Did Lady Madeleine tell you?”

The steward’s eyes twitched in irritation at Wilfred’s avoidance to respond to his question but nonetheless, he answered to the latter’s.

“I happened to overhear their conversation by accident when I was in town after the visit. How they met, I have no idea but that doesn’t matter. All I heard was Lady Madeleine defending me. Now, will you answer my question? Why did you tell her?”

Unable to handle the intensity of his butler’s gaze, Wilfred angled his head away as he spoke hesitantly to him.

“I thought it would be best to let her know ever since she heard you mumbling ‘I can’t do this anymore’ after you both danced that day in the multipurpose room.”

“You could’ve just dismissed it as nothing or tell her an excuse instead, Wilfred!” Claude put his hands up in the air. “I asked you not to tell anyone! You had one simple task!”

“I saw how genuine her worry was for you, so I revealed it to her!” The blonde prince reasoned. “Besides, I thought this would be good for you!”

“And how do you know what’s good for me?” Claude scoffed. “How did you think that was good for me? You broke my trust!”

“Claude, Madeleine genuinely cares about you! She sees you more than just a head steward! I saw the way she looks at you! And I also saw you doing the same!”

The butler grew more livid as he now fully understood his intentions behind his master’s actions.

Wilfred was trying to push him and Lady Madeleine into another relationship.

“Is that it? You revealed my past to her so we can just… get together!?” he roared so loud, Danielle winced.

“Yes!” The prince pushed himself off the desk chair, causing the chair to roll back. “You should stop being stuck in the past and move on! Stop mulling over your relationship with Fiona. Not every relationship is going to end up like that.”

“You are selfish, Wilfred! Did you ever consider my feelings that perhaps maybe I don’t want to court anyone? How about Lady Madeleine’s huh? Did you ever consider her or were you just thinking about how this would satisfy you?” Claude moved closer to the prince and poked a finger against the latter’s chest. They were now head to head and the prince could see how angry the steward was getting with his reddening face and his teeth clenched together.

“Just because you’re so drunk in love and getting married to Lady Danielle doesn't give you the right to play cupid! Just because you’re a goddamn prince or my goddamn master, it doesn’t give you any goddamn rights to match up me with another woman. It doesn’t give you goddamn rights to push me into a relationship I don’t want,” he gritted out his words with ice-cold venom seeping out. He pressed his finger harder, giving Wilfred a nudge every time he got a sentence out.

“Claude, please s—,” Danielle who was taken aback by the swearing coming out from Claude’s mouth, tried to intervene but Wilfred gently laid a hand on her arm.

“It’s alright, Danielle,” he gave her a brief assuring smile. The brunette designer nodded grudgingly and stayed silent after that. It was painful and unfair to watch her lover getting flack for his attempt at helping. She felt helpless.

Wilfred redirected his attention back to his butler, his mouth had returned to a serious hard line. “I just want to help, Claude. I see you as my brother and all I want is to see you happy again.”

“It still doesn’t give you any goddamn rights to freely meddle with my private life. I am satisfied with where I am now… You would know that if you just ask me instead of sneaking behind my back,” Claude spat.

“Why can’t you let go and see that you and Madeleine are good for one another? I saw the way you both interact with each other during her stay!”

Claude has no answer for that. Yes, he knew he enjoyed Lady Madeleine’s presence. He knew he was developing some sort of feelings for her but he just couldn’t take the leap. Did Wilfred think it’s easy to “let go” and get over his broken engagement? Fiona’s cheating?

It wasn’t that simple. He had known Fiona for many years. He grew up with her. He was with her almost all his life. He was her best friend and later his first love.

He fucking trusted her. He fucking loved her.

Her affair fucking shattered everything and she left him on his own to pick up the shards of their relationship and his heart while she continued living with another man.

The navy-haired man instead ignored the prince and instead left him with one demand.

“Whatever you’re doing, Wilfred, please stop.”

“But—,” Wilfred shut his mouth after receiving another threatening glare from the steward.

“I said stop,” he snapped sharply. “If you truly care about me, then I suggest you to stop being selfish and meddling into my private life. Stop with all this relationship bullshit.”

The swear elicited a surprised gasp from Danielle but Claude couldn’t care less; he was too occupied in his rage. Not giving them one last glance nor a greeting, the steward left the office.

For a minute or two, the office was enveloped in uncomfortable silence as the couple stared at the door.

Once they wrapped their heads around just what happened, Wilfred flopped back onto his chair, looking all upset. He released a defeated sigh.

Danielle placed her hand on her fiancé’s shoulder, glancing at him with a concerned frown. “Are you alright?”

“No…”

Everything wasn’t fine. Wilfred was already aware he could lose the steward’s trust when he told Lady Madeleine that day, but when he saw the anger and betrayal edged in his features during the outburst, the reality began to set in. He knew, at that moment, he had lost his friend’s trust and now their friendship was jeopardized; it was hanging on a thin thread. The only thing he could do was to respect and follow Claude’s wish if he still wanted to salvage their friendship.

He didn’t expect for him to find out so soon. Scratch that, he didn’t expect him to ever find out. He thought he got everything under control.

‘Shit,’ Wilfred inwardly swore while his hand ran through his hair in frustration.

Things were about to get tense and awkward between the steward and him for the next couple of weeks. Maybe it could go over for months.

Danielle returned to her seat to pull him into a half hug. “Everything will be better soon. He’ll come around.”

Wilfred gazed at her with a weak yet grateful smile. He grabbed his fiancé’s arm only to rest it on his lap, his hand covering hers. “I hope so.”

•••
24th of April
Beaucoup Café
2.45 pm

“UGH!” I plopped on the chair with an irritated groan. Anna who was on the other side of the table cocked an eyebrow at me while she continued munching on her frites, which was just basically fancy parmesan fries.

“Bad night?”

“More like a bad day,” I huffed.

“Spill,” she ordered as she pointed a fry at me. I pushed my body forward from the chair’s back.

“Remember when I told you my parents want to find a suitor for me?”

“Uhuh, I remember. You told me you made a deal with them that you’ll ‘actively search for a partner’,” she air quoted the last part. “What’s up?”

“Well, according to them, I am not searching hard enough. So, they set up an arranged date for me with one of their friends’ son. And guess what? They only told me on the same day as the date.”

“No, they didn’t!” Her eyes widened in horror. It was quite a comical sight since a fry was hanging out between her lips and when they parted, the said fry fell back to the plate.

I nodded grudgingly.

“Yes, they did.”

“Tell me! How did they say it?”

For the next couple of minutes, it was spent on me recalling all the crap that happened yesterday from my parents to the date, followed by my angry rants.

•••
Rewind
23th of April
Dining room
8.25 am

For the last three minutes, two pairs of eyes silently watched me across the table as I spread butter on my french toast. Even though I felt a bit uncomfortable, I pretended not to notice and continued what I was doing. It was early in the morning, give me a break!

Alas, Mama broke off her stare to gaze at Baba beside her.

“Should we tell her?” Mama whispered discreetly to him.

“Of course we should! Can you tell her?”

“Why me?! You’re the one who set it up! You tell her, Ba!”

At this point, I didn’t think they were trying hard to be discreet because I could hear them very clearly. And literally, I was right in front of them and they acted as if I’m blind!

“I suggested it and you agreed! Don’t put this all on me!”

“But you were the one that set it up!”

“Fine, how about we do it together?”

“Okay.”

There was complete silence as none of them wanted to speak up first. I’m guessing they’re just looking at each other to see who speaks first.

Tired of the chase, I set my knife down onto the plate. The sound made their eyes darted back to me. I reclined my body against the chair and crossed my arms over my chest, with an unimpressed expression on my face.

“You do realize I am in front of you? I don’t need glasses or hearing aids to know you both are talking about me. What’s going on?”

My parents pulled away from one another and angled their bodies to face me properly. Both of them were nervous, which only put a bad feeling in my stomach.

Baba cleared his throat.

“Maddie… Do you remember when you promised us Mama and I that you will find someone?”

“Yes…” I trailed off questioningly. “What about it?”

“Well… Mama and I thought you weren’t uh…”

“Oh for god’s sake, let me do it! You’re taking too long,” rolling her eyes in annoyance, my mother spoke out.

“Hey it’s hard when we set this up without her permission!” He argued with a hiss.

“Set what up?” I asked. I was uneasy now.

“We think you’re actually not taking this seriously, so we took it to our hands—”

“What?”

“—by arranging a dinner between you and one of our friends’ son.”

“WHAT?!” My jaw dropped in disbelief. “B-But why?!”

“What do you mean ‘but why’? I just said it before. We notice you haven’t done any effort to find a man.”

Like a snap, my disbelief transformed into a mix of irritation and exasperation. I scowled at the indignancy.

“I can’t believe you did that! And without even telling me! Why do you insist so much on me finding a partner and getting married?”

“Maddie… These businesses we’re handing to you, it’s a lot to bear. You need someone.” My eyes narrowed at Baba.

“Are you saying I am not capable to handle your business on my own?”

“No!” He objected. “We believe you are capable but running a business this big is exhausting and difficult to handle. We just don’t want to see you burned out and feel overburdened.”

“But why does it have to be my romantic partner? If that’s your concern, I can just appoint someone worthy in the company to work alongside me. It’s easier.”

After I said that, they refused to look at me in the eye.

When I finally caught on to their implication, the reason they keep pushing me to find a significant other was not to help me manage my family’s company (okay maybe a little), but to have children...

‘Oh for fuck sake.’

“Oh my god. All this time, all you want is a grandchild,” incredulity dripped from my voice.

They appeared like guilty children who got caught taking cookies when they stayed silent.

“What the—” I was about to swear when Mama flashed me a warning.

“Language, Madeleine.”

I ignored her.

“Y-You can’t be serious! Ma, Ba, I just turned 25 a month ago! You can’t be thinking of grandchildren already!” I pushed myself from the chair to stand up as I shouted at them.

At my outburst, my parents grew more flustered and Baba tried to soothe me down. I didn’t care if I was not acting my age. This was absurd! They’re already pressuring me for motherhood, a chapter in life I wasn’t ready for. This was my life.

“Lotus… please calm down…”

“No, I can’t!”

“If you just—”

“I can’t believe this. Here I thought you’d be supportive or understanding—”

“Please understand—”

“Why do you want them so bad? What’s the rush?”

“Well we want to tell you but you keep cutting us off,” Mama snapped. Usually, my mother looked youthful, but the irritation was showing her age. “Now would you calm down and let us speak?”

Not wanting to upset her further (trust me, you wouldn’t want to see her in that state because it’s terrifying), I unwillingly sat back down with a grunt before gazing at them, impatient. The atmosphere was charged with thick uncomfortable tension. The ticking of the clock on the wall suddenly sounded louder.

“So?”

Mama took a deep breath before she spoke slowly. “We are aware of how much of a pressure this is asking you to have a child, but Baba and I are just concerned.”

“Concerned for what?”

“We don’t want you to get pregnant when you’re older. Studies have shown that older mothers have a higher risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. Babies born to older mothers are also at a higher risk of genetic disorders.”

‘Well, she does make a point but…’

“I can just do IVF or freeze my eggs in a women’s clinic.”

My casual suggestion elicited a horrified reaction from Mama. On the other hand, Baba just looked downright uncomfortable.

“Come on! It’s 2019! It’s normal! I know a lot of women, families who do that!” I argued. “Besides, what made you guys think I want children?”

They appeared even more horrified and perhaps even panic-stricken.

“Are you saying you don’t want children?”

“No! I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just a possible hypothetical scenario… I do want children but you can’t just dictate when I’ll have them, you know…” I clarified. “Look, I understand your concern, but I’m not ready yet to settle down and enter motherhood. I’m not ready to handle that kind of responsibility.”

I held my gaze with them, serious and determined.

“I want to focus on my career first. Marriage and children can wait.”

My parents turned to each other, conveying some telepathic message. I held my breath anticipating their response, hoping they would understand me. As I thought of that, they heaved out a collective defeated sigh. Baba shot me a strained smile while Mama expressed her disgruntlement with her burgundy-painted lips set into a hard line.

“Very well. We won’t force you anymore.”

My posture stood upright at their reply. “Thank you for understanding.”

I was filled with relief and gratitude that my parents understood where I was coming from and let it go even though it was not what they desired.

I couldn’t emphasize how important it is for a woman my age to have a family and children in my culture. Relatives and family friends would ask me whether I have a boyfriend followed by if I plan to ever get married and have children. And whenever I answered no to both, they would have a look that can only be expressed as somewhere between disappointment and disapproval. It was as if my decision was bringing shame to my family and to be honest I was getting really exhausted of it. Times were changing and people should too. If men could focus on their career first, why couldn’t we women do that too?

With my appetite all gone from the argument, I took one last bite from my toast, gulped my remaining tea, and excused myself from breakfast. And before I could step out of the dining room, my father called me.

“By the way Maddie, you still have to attend the meeting with our friend’s son. It would be discourteous of us to cancel it at the last minute.”

I groaned.

“Real nice you guys for springing up this on me last minute,” I sarcastically used Baba’s own words against him. I couldn’t help it, they were being hypocrites and I was still upset.

“We wanted to tell you earlier b—”

“You know what? That doesn’t matter anymore. I’ll go,” I gestured him to stop. “Just tell me you won’t do something like this again.”

Baba nodded. “This is the last time. We promised.”

Without a word, I left the room.

•••
Present

“... For the rest of the day, I spent my time inside my room until I had to dress up for the meeting at The Plaza. I was too annoyed to do anything. I still couldn’t believe my parents did that.”

“Holy fuck,” Anna remarked, disbelief traced her features. “Holy fuck.”

“Someone really needs to put a bar of soap in your mouth,” I joked to which my best friend rolled her eyes.

“Oh shut up! I’m being expressive! No but seriously, that’s awful. I’m sorry that happened to you,” Anna pushed her basket of fries across the table towards me.

I shrugged my shoulders as I brought a fry to my mouth. “No matter what year we’re in, cultural traditions and beliefs will always remain the same. Even awful ones. It’s up to us now to pass them or not.”

“That is true… But still Mads, that sucks for Mr and Mrs Zhang to rush you on marriage and children when you’re just 25. 25! And here I thought your parents were modern!” Anna paused before quickly adding, “No offense.”

“None taken. If you think my parents are not as modern as you expected, then you should see my relatives from China. I dread visiting them every time I come to Guangdong for Chinese New Year and Qingming,” my face twisted in displeasure as I remembered all my horrible encounters with most of my aunts and uncles. Anna tilted her head in confusion—and if not, also cutely—at the foreign word.

Qingming?”

“It’s like…” I tapped my fingers against my lips, thinking how I could simply describe the festival or relate it to something similar in Anna’s culture.

‘Hmmm… what was it… Ah!’ I sat upright after I was able to recall a similar famous festival in Mexico.

“It’s like Day of the Dead in your culture! Día de Los Muertos!” I blurted. “The whole family would visit the graves of our ancestors, sweep them, offer prayers, burnings with either incense sticks, silver-leafed paper or spirit money, and their favorite food and drinks. After that, we would spend the rest of the day in an outing, by singing, dancing, and eating. It’s like that too right in Día de Los Muertos?”

The Latina’s brown eyes lit up, instantly understanding where I was getting at. “Oh, I see! Yes! All of my family would come and gather in Mexico City to visit our departed ancestors’ graves and build an ofrenda for them. It’s a celebratory holiday! Aren’t Qingming and Chinese New Year supposed to be fun? Since everyone is all gathered?”

Her face fell when she saw me looking at her as if she uttered something absurd.

“...They’re not?”

‘Fun? The concept of fun is foreign to my aunts.’

“No no, I agree with you they are supposed to be fun and celebratory. I have no problem with my cousins as they’re mostly around my age or younger, but the older people… my aunts and uncles...” I let out a scornful hmph. “They’re unpleasant… except my nainai of course.”

“What do they do?”

“Oh Anna, If I had to put it nicely… they’re very traditional, very stuck to their ways.”

“So basically ignorant,” she pointed a fry at me.

“Basically! I’d try to surround myself with my cousins if that means I don’t get to converse with them. They’d ask me questions—might I add intruding and condescending also—and if I don’t give an answer they like, they would express their disapproval. Then they proceed to scrutinize me whether it be my appearance or my behavior. They make it so fucking clear I am not—and I quote—a perfect Chinese daughter. I am not even sure what that implies! If that’s because I have modern values, then I apologize!” I paused for a moment before taking back my words. “You know what, screw that! I’m not going to apologize!”

“Oof,” she grimaced. “I can see why you wouldn’t be excited to go back to Guangdong. Is that why you keep saying there was nothing good to share from your visits during those times?”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

Seconds after I said that, Lorraine, the owner of this café, came to our table with my smoked salmon egg hollandaise. “Here is your usual, darling.”

The red-head smoothly placed the dish in front of me. As always, the food both looked and smelled so mouth-wateringly delicious. And is that…

“Am I hallucinating or do I see an extra egg hollandaise? Not that I’m complaining though,” I glanced back up at Lorraine with a quizzical look. She shot me a motherly smile.

“I might have heard about your horrible day yesterday so I asked Bastien to cook up another egg hollandaise to cheer you up. Besides, you’re also one of our loyal patrons, Mads. It’s on the house.”

“Hey! Why don’t I get an extra? I’m also one of your loyal patrons!” Anna complained in a childish manner.

It was true that both of us frequently dine in the kind lady’s café at different times of the day. We were third-year university students when we stumbled upon this hole-in-the-wall place one day and let me tell you, we considered this café to be one of our best finds. Despite having the small menu, all their dishes were delicious and extremely fresh and their beverages were refreshing. Not only that, all of the ingredients are locally sourced. Locally sourced! Obviously we’d come back for more and because of that, Lorraine and her husband, Bastien, who was the chef, treated us like family.

“Oh hush you whiny child!” I muffled my snicker as the older woman proceeded to pinch my friend’s cheeks, receiving a glare from her. “You’re not having a bad day like missy there. Finally having Zain as your boyfriend is not ‘bad news’.”

“Thank you so much, Lorraine. That means a lot. You and your husband’s hospitality and food will always lift up my mood,” I smiled gratefully at the woman mentioned who at the same time released her grip on Anna’s poor cheeks. With a pout, the Latina rubbed her cheeks to ease the pain.

“We’re glad to hear that, darling. Just come to us every time you are upset and we’ll be right here to cook you a hell of a good meal!” Lorraine filtered out my friend’s moans knowing she was just being dramatic. “Enjoy your food, my darling.”

I thanked her again as she turned to leave. When she was finally out of sight, I gazed at Anna with amusement. “You told her about Zain huh?”

She grew shy with her cheeks going red. “I was just so happy…”

“Aw, how cute.” Saving her from further embarrassment, I changed the subject, going back to what we were talking about before Lorraine came. “As I was saying, yeah. I dread meeting my aunts and uncles.”

“Dios mios, imagine if that was me…” she shook her head.

“Oh boy, they’ll probably tear you apart for swearing and being loud like a sailor. Speaking of which, I am surprised Zain have no problem with you swearing considering the fact that he’s probably the most polite man I’ve ever met.”

Anna just shrugged nonchalantly as I went to pick up my glass of peach iced tea. “I’m surprised about it too, but I guess since we’ve known each other for quite a long time, he accepted it. You forgot the fact he’s also probably the most understanding man.”

“I see. That’s sweet.” I took a sip.

“And I have no idea why he likes me swearing when we’re in bed… Something along the line that it’s proof he’s doing