Alex sat inside her plush limo and sank back into the leather seat. She was more nervous than she had anticipated, which was ridiculous, of course. Alex had met ambassadors, presidents, lords and ladies – the Knight family shouldn’t be any different.
But they were.
Alex was on her way to meet her future. If Stellan’s family was anything like him, they would be warm and welcoming. But if they weren’t…
A shudder went through her.
Alex found herself laughing lightly – she was overthinking again. It wasn’t anything new, but she was always nervous before a big meeting. Stellan’s family would be amazing, no doubt. It had been a few days since she had seen him, so she had had a lot of time to ponder every single situation possible.
“Here we are, Your Ladyship,” The chauffeur noted as he turned the wheel and brought the limo to a smooth stop.
“Anytime, ma’am. I’ve been driving you around since you were a wee baby, you know. If you need more time to think, I can drive around the block again.”
Alex smiled indulgently. It was true – she and Frank had gone way back, all the way to the day she was born. No doubt he was able to sense her unease and was trying to lighten up the mood.
Frank hopped out and came around to her door, opening it. Alex slipped out of the limo and breathed in the salty ocean air. A large house rose above her, and she found herself smiling. This was something she was used to, and in a single moment, all her anxiety melted away.
Before she could knock on the door, it swung open. Stellan stood in front of her, beaming.
“Alex! Come on in,” He gestured, stepping aside to allow her entry. “It’s so good to see you.”
Alex perked up at his excitement. As soon as she entered, two more men were waiting. Stellan gave her a quick hug before turning to make the introductions.
Eugene came over and wrapped his strong arms around Alex. “It’s so great to finally meet you!” He said, patting her back comfortingly.
“Thank you so much for having me,” She answered diplomatically.
Alex turned to the final man and extended an arm. “I’m Alex.”
“Tucker,” He answered, shaking her hand firmly. “Stellan’s brother.”
Alex’s eyes widened involuntarily. She turned to Stellan and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You never said you had a brother,” She whispered.
“Long story,” He said simply. “I’ll explain later.”
“As for right now,” Eugene cut in, “You’re just in time for lunch!”
Stellan placed a hand on the small of Alex’s back and led her towards the dining room. The couple let Eugene and Tucker pass them before Stellan stopped. He took a few minutes to explain the Tucker situation, praying Alex would understand.
“Looks like we both have a pariah in our families,” Alex whispered.
Stellan smiled out of pure relief. If anyone understood the token outcast in a family, it was Alex.
“Maybe Aunt Margaret can talk some sense into him,” Alex chuckled.
At the dinner table, Alex seemed to fit right in as if she had been meant to fill the seat she sat on.
“It was awful,” Alex said, recounting the story of her first day at Knight Palace. “I was so sick.”
“We ended up painting together a few weeks later though,” Stellan chimed in.
“I don’t think you can call what you did a painting,” Alex laughed.
“Oh come on,” Stellan whined. “It was amazing!”
“It was a rabbit.”
Eugene watched the two banter back and forth – they certainly had a wonderful relationship where they could bug each other without getting on the other’s nerves.
“Gramps, I can paint, right?” Stellan asked, looking to his grandpa for reassurance.
“Sure, son. You can do whatever you set your mind to.”
Alex laughed harder as she patted a hand on Stellan’s head. “See that? When you become a big boy, you can do anything you set your mind to!”
“Shut up!” Stellan laughed. “Gramps, I’m not two.”
“You sure act like it sometimes,” Eugene fired back.
“He paints like one too!” Alex laughed.
Tucker had remained quiet the entire lunch, observing the conversation. Even he wasn’t blind to the successful relationship, and the more they all talked, tendrils of jealously curled in him. He was by far the superior Knight brother, and no one ever seemed to realize it. Not his grandpa, not the kingdom, not the two women Stellan had brought home. No one.
“I paint,” Tucker eventually chimed in.
“Yeah,” Stellan mumbled. “Graffiti.”
Alex snorted and kicked him under the table.
“What medium?” Alex asked, attempting to be as polite as possible.
“Spray paint,” Stellan muttered.
“I’m done with this,” Tucker finally said, throwing his napkin on the table.
“Tucker,” Eugene warned.
“I can’t even have a simple meal with you!” Tucker ground out. His chair screeched on the floor as he got up and stormed away. “I’m sick of it,” He called over his shoulder.
A hush fell over the dinner table as Eugene shook his head. “I’m going to go check on him.”
Stellan leaned back into the chair and tipped his head up, staring at the ceiling.
“We’re off to a great start,” Alex quipped.
Stellan snorted. “Got that right.”
Through the stain glass window, Alex could see the inviting waves of the ocean and the bright rays of the sun.
“Look, it’s perfect weather for a beach photoshoot,” Alex pointed out.
Stellan followed her gaze and nodded. “I think that’s the best idea I’ve heard in a while,” He agreed.
Alex ran up to the guest room she had been assigned to and pulled out the camera she always traveled with. Stellan had agreed to meet her outside, and was standing on the sand when she arrived.
“Ready for this?” She teased.
Stellan struck a pose, sticking his hip out and flipping a fake lock of hair.
“Maybe let’s try something more natural,” Alex suggested.
Stellan scoffed. “I think I look great.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Alex retorted, fiddling with her camera settings. “Now, smile!”
And so for the next few hours, Stellan and Alex took dozens of pictures on the coastline. They laughed and joked with each other, enjoying the summer sun. At one point, Stellan threw Alex over his shoulder and charged towards the water as Alex squealed.
“Stellan Knight I swear if you-”
Stellan stopped abruptly at the water’s edge.
Stellan placed her down gently and shrugged. “We can’t go any farther.”
“What do you mean?” Alex asked, feeling cold dread surround her.
Stellan pointed at the water. “We can’t swim in the ocean yet. There’s no coding for it. We can fish, though!”
Alex laughed and took another picture. “You scared me for a second.”
Stellan winked and gave her a quick kiss. “One day we’ll swim in the ocean.”
Alex wrapped her arms around his neck. “One day.”
After their impromptu photoshoot, the two held hands as they walked back up towards the house. Out of the corner of her eye, Alex saw a beautiful garden bursting with vibrant colours. She hesitated for a moment.
“Something wrong?” Stellan asked.
“Oh, no. Why don’t you go on ahead?” She encouraged. “I want to take a few more landscapes.”
“I can stay with you if you want.”
“No, no. I do my best thinking on my own.”
Stellan nodded and kissed her forehead. “Then I’ll see you later.”
Alex watched Stellan walk into the house before she made her way back to the garden. A huge arch of red roses arced over her head, meeting a statue on either end. Alex admired the exquisite garden and relished in its privacy.
She carefully made her way in, afraid to disrupt the peaceful oasis. Alex felt the cool water running from the fountain and smelled the delicate scent of delphiniums wafting through the air. It was perfect, heaven on earth.
A large, domed structure seemed to beckon her forward, and she obliged. It was covered with tendrils of ivy and flanked by steel armor.
Two graves were perched on the grass right in the center of the dome. She knelt down and ran a hand over the careful engravings.
“Benjamin and Elyssa Knight,” She whispered to herself. “Stellan’s parents.”
Alex had assumed his parents had passed, but seeing their graves made everything much more real. She found herself wondering what they would think of her, if they’d welcome her like Eugene had, or if she’d have to prove herself first.
“They were wonderful people.”
Alex jumped. She whipped around to find Eugene standing by the fountain, looking on with sad eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” Alex said earnestly. “I didn’t know this was a gravesite.”
“It’s fine,” Eugene assured her. “It was meant to be a place where people would want to visit and pay their respects.”
Eugene made his way over to one of the stone benches and patted the spot next to him. Alex practically tiptoed over to join him.
“You remind me of her,” Eugene said.
“Yes. She was always able to put Ben in his place,” Eugene smiled. “But she was strong, too.”
“I wish I could have met her,” Alex said.
“Me too. I think she’d really like you. Ben, too.”
Inside, Stellan was in Eugene’s study. He pinched a dart between two fingers and aimed at the dartboard, eyeing the bullseye. The afternoon he’d had with Alex had been amazing, but he found himself thinking back to lunch. Why had Tucker even shown up to meet Alex? He had no business lurking around like a ghost in the shadows.
Unfortunately, Stellan had never played darts before, and found his frustration bubbling over as he missed the target over and over again. He picked up the last dart and launched it at the board with as much force as he could muster.
It missed completely.
The dart veered left and embedded itself into the spine of a book on the bookshelf. Stellan sighed and walked over to the shelf. He grabbed the book to take it off the shelf, but found it was practically stuck. He used both hands and pulled as hard as he could.
But the book wouldn’t come out.
Instead, a switch clicked and the bookshelf swung outwards.
A secret door.
In all his years growing up in the house, Stellan had never come across a hidden passageway like this. He wasn’t even sure it was around when he was a kid.
As the sun set, he quietly made his way down a set of stairs tucked behind the grand staircase.
It was sterile. That’s all Stellan seemed to be able to think. The walls were white, the floors white, the ceiling white…and it all seemed to refract the lights, blinding him. Stellan shuddered at the damp cold as he looked around.
“Sir, you can’t be down here.”
Stellan finally saw a professional of some sort seated at a desk.
“Who are you?”
“I’m sorry, sir. You don’t have the clearance to know that information.”
Stellan rolled his eyes and walked over to the door, peering through the small window. There was a long hallway with the same door at the end of it, begging him to come forward. He reached out to open the door, but the handle wouldn’t budge.
“What is this place?” He asked, jiggling the door handle harder.
“Sir, you must leave.”
“What the hell is this place?”
Stellan had made his way to the front of the desk and slammed his palms down on the counter. “Open that door.”
The woman took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t do that for you.”
“If you don’t open that door right now, I swear to plum I’ll come around there and get the keys myself!”
The woman – Dr Wayfind, Stellan noted, looking at her nametag – was growing angrier.
“Don’t make me call security.” She warned in a low voice.
“Don’t make me banish you from the kingdom,” He fired back.
Dr Wayfind rolled her eyes and began typing on the computer, ignoring him.
Stellan gave up and charged to the door.
“Sir, what are you-”
Stellan shoved his shoulder into the door, feeling something give. He kicked a foot right beside the handle before trying with his shoulder again. He continued the combination, even as the doctor began calling for security. Eventually the door swung inward, and Stellan bolted through it.
His breathing was labored as he looked into the small window. Stellan gasped.
“Kaden!” He yelled, slamming a palm on the door. “Kaden!”
The young boy looked up. He practically jumped at the sight of his older brother. Stellan gestured for him to pull the handle. He continued to kick and shove the door while Kaden pulled, and it took no time before it was broken down.
“Stellan!” Kaden cried, rushing forward.
“What are you doing in here?” Stellan asked, looking around. A bunch of medical equipment was scattered around the room, and a crude bathroom was tucked into the corner.
“He put me here! He pretended I died and then put me here!”
Rushed footsteps clamored into the room. Stellan looked to find the doctor storming in, clipboard in hand. “Security-”
“Enough!” Stellan yelled, shuddering as his voice echoed through the room.
He took a deep breath and looked over at his brother. Kaden was shaking with fear, and Stellan felt his heart plummet.
He took a deep breath. “Look – I’m taking this patient with me, and we’re going to go peacefully. Just move out of the way.” He paused for a moment. “Please.”
“I can’t let you do that,” the doctor shrugged.
“You can, and you will,” Stellan said carefully, pulling Kaden behind him. He motioned for him to start walking.
The doctor charged forward and slammed her clipboard on Stellan’s head. Stars burst in front of him as his vision wavered. It wasn’t a clipboard at all, but a slab of smooth marble.
Stellan shook off the stars and stumbled forward, reaching for the doctor. She sideswiped him, ducking by the desk. Stellan lunged again, grazing her wrist.
“Let me go!” She screamed.
Stellan looked at his empty hands, confused.
“I’ve got her!” Kaden yelled. Stellan forced his eyes open and saw two Kadens with two doctors locked in front of them.
With as much force as possible, Stellan pushed onward and grabbed the doctor’s wrists, firmly enough to keep her in place but gentle enough that she wouldn’t be hurt. “Grab her keys,” He whispered.
Kaden obliged and reached into her side pocket, pulling out a ring of keys.
“The one that fits in there,” Stellan said, jutting his chin the direction of a small cell.
Kaden nodded and grabbed an antique silver key. He rushed over to unlock the door and wheeled it open. Stellan forced the doctor into the room and slammed the door in her face. He then turned to Kaden and held out a hand. Kaden dropped the ring of keys into his open palm and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
“My room.” Stellan choked out.
“Wait!” The doctor called, wrapping fists around the bars. “You can’t leave me here!”
Up in Stellan’s room, Stellan stumbled over to his closet and pulled out some clothes. “Here,” He said, handing them to Kaden. “Go change.”
As Kaden was changing, Stellan sat down and put his head on his knees, trying to force the dizziness out of him. A large bump had started to form on the back of his head that was pulsing with pain.
“So, what happened?” Stellan mumbled once Kaden was back in the room. “I thought you were dead.”
“Everybody did. But it was Tucker,” Kaden said. “We were out by the rocks when he shoved me. I fell and completely blacked out. Next thing I knew, I woke up being dragged somewhere. I had to pretend I was still passed out while they pulled me. I could feel us going downstairs, and I could hear Tucker talking. He was saying ‘fake his death’ and ‘bring Stellan home’.”
“Bring me home?” Stellan asked, sitting up a little straighter. The pain had begun to ebb.
“Yeah. You were on some sort of mission trip far away, trying to put on a brave face when mom and dad died.”
“I remember that,” Stellan said, feeling the memories flood him. “Dad had just died in the war, and I was off speaking to the army.”
“Mm-hm,” Kaden acknowledged. “So m-”
“Stellan?” A voice called.
Stellan froze and turned slowly, looking through the panes of glass. He gasped in relief at the petite form of Alex.
“Come on in!” He yelled.
Alex opened the door and smiled. “I just came to say good…”
“Come here,” Stellan gestured. “And close the door. Quickly!”
Alex did as told before joining the two men on the couch. “What’s going on?”
“Yeah, what’s going on?” Kaden asked.
“Okay.” Stellan said, preparing himself for a speech. “Alex, this is my brother, Kaden. Yes, I have another brother, and I just found out he’s not dead half an hour ago. Kaden, this is Alex. I’m going through the bachelor competition-”
“Just like grandpa?”
“Yeah, just like Gramps. We’re down to the final two.”
“Does Lyric know about this?” Alex asked, looking at the young boy who was almost a carbon copy of his brother.
“No, but I’ll update her.”
“Good.” Alex said. “Now, onto other things. You thought he was dead?”
Stellan nodded. “I think Tucker faked Kaden’s death to lure me back home.”
“To kill you,” Kaden finished. “Then he would’ve brought me out of hiding. He would get to be king.”
Alex covered her mouth, suppressing her shock. Tucker had seemed hot-headed, of course, but not murderous.
“We don’t know that yet,” Stellan said. “It’s plausible, though.”
“So what do we do?” Alex asked.
Stellan paused for a minute, wincing as the pain came back. “We’re going to stay safe,” He got up and began to pace.
“Do you think Eugene knows about this?” Alex asked.
“There’s no way.” Kaden said.
“He’s right. Gramps wouldn’t have let him move back in if that were the case.”
“Then he’s in danger, too.”
Stellan nodded. “Here’s what we’re going to do: Gramps has two guards watching him day and night – there’s no way Tucker can get to him without going through them, so he’s safe. Alex, do you need anything from your room?”
Alex narrowed her eyes in thought. “No, not really.”
“Perfect,” Stellan said. “The three of us are staying in here tonight.” He looked at Alex. “If that’s okay with you. I can sleep outside the door, if you want.”
“No way,” Alex said, standing up and laying a hand on his shoulder. “We’re all staying safe in here.”
Stellan nodded. “Okay.” He walked over to his bed and pulled two blankets off, leaving the rest. “Alex can take the bed. Kaden, you take the couch.” He tossed his brother a blanket as he went to lock the bathroom and bedroom door. Then, he took his own blanket and laid it on the ground. “You guys go to bed, and I’ll keep watch.”
Alex sat on the bed and peered over at him. “Wake me up in two hours and I’ll take the next watch.”
“It’s okay,” Stellan assured her. “I’ll be fine.”
Alex rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out. “Suit yourself.”
The night passed uneventfully. As the sun rose, Stellan rubbed tired hands over his eyes.
“Alex,” He whispered, gently tapping her shoulder. Alex groaned and flipped over, throwing an arm around her eyes.
“Two more minutes.”
Stellan laughed. “Alex!”
This time, she pulled her arm down and squinted before smiling brightly. She pushed herself off the bed and gave Stellan a huge hug. He had already changed into his clothes, and Kaden was coming out of the bathroom, stretching as he walked.
“I’m going to bring you to your room,” Stellan said. “So you can get changed. I called your limo already. I didn’t want you to leave like this, but I think it’s the best way.”
Alex nodded. “I agree.”
Stellan and Alex made their way to the guest room, keeping an eye on Kaden as they went.
Alex quickly collected her things and met Stellan in the hall.
“I can’t believe this is goodbye,” She said.
“It’s horrible,” Stellan admitted. “But I’m glad you’re leaving. I wouldn’t want to put you in danger.”
“I’ll tell Lyric what’s going on,” Alex said.
“And I’ll tell my grandpa.”
The two shared a small smile and a kiss, the ending to a not-so-perfect visit.
But a visit nonetheless.