The party was extravagant. The women led Jefferson into a large ballroom with high ceilings and twinkling chandeliers. Tables were lined with more food he’d ever seen in one place, and people in gowns and waistcoats wandered around or danced. The music was loud enough to be heard by the dancers, but not so loud that it would drown out conversation. Groups of young women flitted by, hiding behind their fans and sending coy smiles at the strange man with his funny clothes. Men scurried after them, desperate to get their names on dance cards before they could fill up.
He found it difficult to keep up with the women. At any moment, he could reach right out and slip something into his pocket. An abandoned fork here, a loose ring there. He could easily get his hands on something and eat like a king for weeks. But he kept his hands behind his back and told himself not to steal until it was time to go. He didn’t want to tarnish Alice’s reputation by doing what was already in his nature.
And though the girls smiled and flitted by, giggling behind their fans, he couldn’t keep his eyes off of Alice. She stood beside her mother with her spine straight and her breathing tense. She looked horribly uncomfortable, and he guessed that it was the result of his own presence in her home. She didn’t speak as she followed her mother dutifully, and the elder woman smiled and waved at passersby. Until she led the both of them to a group of noble and powerful looking gentlemen.
“Darling,” the woman said as she reached his side and turned to face Jefferson. She pulled Alice along like an extra limb that obeyed at the slightest urging. The girl kept her eyes on the polished floor. “Darling, this is Mr. Jefferson.” He couldn’t help but notice how she emphasized the “mister” of his name. Highlighting his lack of a title. The man looked the boy over, and Jefferson searched his face for a hint of Alice. Perhaps in the nose or in the eyes. But he saw nothing. The man’s hair was graying, and had clearly never been gold. His eyes were light like water. He extended a friendly hand anyway.
“Mr. Jefferson, eh? Wouldn’t happen to be related to the Duke, by any chance?” the man asked.
“Actually, he’s my cousin,” Jefferson replied. Alice shot him a panicked look, and he only smiled back. The woman was watching the two of them closely, checking for a sign that they were more familiar with one another than Alice let on. “I’m afraid I didn’t receive a title,” Jefferson said as he turned back to Alice’s father. “But I did receive a fair bit of money.”
The man studied him for a long moment before breaking out into a wide grin. He enveloped Jefferson’s hand in both of his gloved ones.
“My boy. Wit like that could grant anyone a fair bit of money. But I must ask, why are you dressed so odd? Is this the style among the youngsters these days?” Jefferson looked down at his clothes and laughed at how different he looked from the other men in the room.
“It’s a pastime of mine,” he said with another laugh. “That, and my tailor is a bit eccentric. Been in the family for years though and I don’t have the heart to put him out of work.”
The man seemed to love him instantly. He reached out and slapped the boy on the back.
“Well, if you’re going to attend a Liddel party, you must dress like a Liddel. Helen, my darling, are there any of John’s old clothes left upstairs in his room?” The woman replied with a tight smile.
“Of course. I haven’t yet cleared the room of his things,” she said.
“Of course not. Fine boy, my son. You look about his height. Bit broader in the shoulders, I’m afraid, but it would be much quicker than calling for a cab. Don’t you think?”
“Yes, sir. I would be honored,” Jefferson replied. The man wrapped an arm around his shoulder and led him away from the group.
“Of course you would. You might have known John in your youth. You seem about the right age…” Their voices were drowned out by the sound of the crowd as they disappeared. Alice stood staring at the dance floor, feeling the weight of her mother’s arm in her hand. She waited for the inevitable moment that Helen sunk her claws into her skin.
“Alice, my darling, take a walk with me,” she said, and Alice knew the time had come.
“Yes, Mother,” she replied as the woman led her away from the group of gentlemen, who nodded to the women as they departed. They walked along at a leisurely stroll and Helen smiled at her guests as if they were simply enjoying their walk and not that Alice was about to be verbally torn apart.
“This man,” Helen said as she swayed her hips and sent a wave to a group of older women attempting to find spouses for their eligible children. “This Mr. Jefferson. I should have expected your father would like him. He always does stick to the underdogs and the strange men. The orphans.” Alice bit her lip and said nothing. “How did you meet him?”
“In the garden, Mother.” The woman reached a delicately gloved hand up to squeeze her daughter’s. From the outside, they appeared close and happy, but Alice’s hand began to ache from the strength of her mother’s grip.
“You could have been seen. By any one of the guests here tonight. And then what would have happened, Alice? You could have caused a scandal. They would have wanted you to marry the boy.” She laughed, high-pitched and carefully practiced. “Can you imagine? Cousin of the Duke. That boy is not quite as clever a liar as he believes himself to be.” Still, Alice said nothing.
“He is handsome, though, isn’t he?” her mother continued. “I could see how you would be easily swayed into the garden by a boy like that. Striking blue eyes, even if he is a bit odd. Sharp jaw. Tall. I knew men like that when I was young. If I had been born to any other station, I might have lifted my skirts for them the first chance I got. But then I wouldn’t have you, would I?”
She turned to face her daughter and reached out a hand to touch it to her chin. Her fingers were forceful and rough as she moved her daughter’s face to hers so she could examine her dark eyes.
“If I had been foolish,” she said in a whisper so that no one could hear whatever threat she was going to make to her youngest daughter. “If I had been stupid. I very well would have lifted my skirts for a handsome man with a mouth full of lies. And I might have been caught and caused a scandal. Or worse, pregnant. And then all of this—this beautiful home—with my two lovely daughters and my precious—my John—I never would have had any of this. Am I so wrong, Alice? To want this life for you?”
“No, Mother.” Her fingers pinched into the girl’s skin hard enough so that Alice knew she would have a mark, though she forced herself not to wince from the pain.
“Then listen well, child,” she warned. “Be cautious of who you allow to lead you into shaded gardens without a chaperone. Be wary of beautiful blue eyes and sharp jaws. Of lying boys who claim money and love. Men are incapable of love. And once you give him your body, if you haven’t already, he will cease to love you. Husband or not.
“They never love you once you’ve given them all of yourself. Once he has it, he will turn on you. So you best make sure you have his money and his title before he does. Do not go looking for love with strange boys in gardens. The only way you will ever be happy is if you have wealth and comfort. And you will not find that in a barn with the servants. That is where you’ll end up if you keep wandering off with strange men. Understood?”
“Good. I’ll allow the boy this one night because he’s smart and has your father under his spell. Dance with him, if you must. Let him steal the silver. Let him bask in this one night to satiate your father’s generosity. But then you must never see him again. He doesn’t want your heart. He wants your body. And you must never give it to him.”
“I understand.” Helen smiled and gently patted her daughter’s cheek as if she hadn’t just left a pink mark on her chin where she had gripped the girl too hard.
“You’re a good girl,” she said, though Alice knew she didn’t mean it. Alice had been nothing but a source of frustration for her since her birth. And Helen’s smile fell too quickly as she moved off and began mingling with her guests.
Alice wanted to flee. She wanted to run to her room, to find her portal, to slip into Wonderland and be free from her world forever.
But Jefferson was still there. He entered the ballroom at the other side with her father in tow. He wore her dead brother’s waistcoat, looking more proper and suited for this world than Wonderland.
She couldn’t leave him there for her mother to rip apart. Helen knew she was lying about where she had met him. Helen knew that Alice snuck away at night once everyone had gone to bed. She complained so often about the state of Alice’s clothes and shoes after she would return home from Wonderland. And now she was going to place all of that blame on Jefferson. The first person Alice had any contact without outside of her own family and her mother’s parties.
Of course Helen couldn’t blame Alice’s favorite looking-glass for her daughter’s late night excursions. She had tried barring Alice’s doors and windows and setting a servant outside of her door to listen to her sneak away. Alice had never been caught, and now Alice knew she was forming her own ideas in her head.
Helen was going to try and call him out before the Duke himself. Alice had to try and convince him to leave, but Jefferson seemed the type to crave a challenge, and she didn’t think she would win.
I meant to have this chapter out yesterday but I had like the worst day and I didn't want to tempt fate to make it worse.