Jefferson’s eyes caught sight of the splash of icy blue the moment he reentered the ballroom with her father. Baron Liddel, he learned, only through the whispers of the servants who had helped him dress in the Baron’s deceased son’s clothes. The man had offered the clothes very kindly, and they spoke about the Duke and what it was like to grow up on some faraway estate. Jefferson had lied through his teeth, and he had a suspicion that the old Baron was well aware of the lie. But he continued to supply Jefferson with answers whenever he paused between sentences. He seemed to have a soft spot for outcasts, and he appeared both kind and gracious to his staff.
They had, thankfully, parted when reentering the ballroom. The Baron had business to attend to, and no matter how much he liked “Mr. Jefferson, cousin of the Duke,” it was his private business. And so the young man had found his way back to the ballroom, and his eyes instantly darted to where Alice sat at the other end of the long room.
He caught glimpses of her through the dancers that had taken over the center of the room. They moved back and forth to the music, but Alice remained still. She sat in a shaded corner by a table piled high with sweets. She had her hands neatly folded in her lap, and she looked lovely and elegant and so very lonely.
It didn’t strike him as odd until he’d made it halfway across the ballroom. There were women everywhere. Younger women who smiled and batted their eyelashes at him as he passed. They huddled in groups and everywhere they went, at least one man inevitably followed as he tried to write his name on a dance card or catch the attention of a particular interest. He passed a whole group of gentlemen talking and laughing about which women they thought would make the best wives, and which they thought might make the best lovers. But none of them, not a single one, spoke of Alice.
She was lovely. Beyond lovely. She was stunning. Beautiful. In any realm. He couldn’t understand why they weren’t shoving each other to get near her. Just to flirt and smile and hold her hand. It was almost as if she wasn’t even there. And her expression was serene as she sat watching the dancers until her eyes found his as he approached. She looked so sad and so very alone.
“Miss Liddel,” he said when he reached her side.
“Mister Jefferson,” she replied with a smile, elongating the “mister” of his name just to mock him. “My brother’s waistcoat suits you well.” He smoothed out the front of it. It was a bit tight in the shoulders, and the length of the arm was off, but it helped him blend in just a little bit easier.
“I feel guilty for accepting it. I think your mother might want my head for it.” The smile widened and for a moment she didn’t look so sad anymore.
“Oh, she most certainly does. And she knows you’re a liar as well. You should leave before she gets her hands on you. She’ll make a mockery of you in front of the entire attendance.”
“I’m positive I can handle it. I have no reputation to uphold in this land. At least not with these people.” She snorted a very unladylike laugh. She had to disguise her face behind her white gloved hand to let it out. Her cheeks pinked, and he smiled as he took in the sight of it. Even though Wonderland wasn’t making his head rush with the scent of apple blossoms, he still couldn’t take his eyes off of her. “Your mother said something about a dance card? Could I write my name?” Her expression relaxed, and the laugh faded.
“There’s no need to write your name,” she told him. “You’re the only one who’s asked.” He stretched out a gloved hand, and she took it and stood to her feet.
“I find that hard to believe.”
“If you stay here much longer, I’m sure you’ll find it very easy to believe.” The song ended, and he led her out onto the dancefloor. “Are you certain this is a good idea?” she whispered as she positioned her hands. One on his shoulder and one in his. The feel of his hand on her waist was warm and sent a shiver through her spine. “Do you even know how to dance in this realm?”
“I’ve visited plenty of different lands. I’m fairly sure I can figure it out.”
“You best hope you’re right.” The music began, and Jefferson led her into the dance. Her eyes lit up when she realized that he knew exactly how to dance to the exact waltz that was playing. The corner of her pink lips lifted into half a smile. She was impressed.
“You’ve been to this realm before, haven’t you?” she questioned. He smiled smugly.
“I’ve been to a lot of different realms, Miss Liddel.” Her smile fell.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she told him once they began to spin away from other dancers and out of earshot.
“I couldn’t wait,” he admitted. “In all the years that we’ve worked in Wonderland, we’ve never crossed paths until now. I couldn’t rely on chance again.”
“What could possibly be so important that you had to find me here?”
“How about we save the conversation for Wonderland? Where no one can overhear us?” The truth was that he hadn’t actually figured out a lie yet.
“Yes, of course.”
“When can you meet me there?”
“I planned on going through again tomorrow night. Provided that I get the chance. Tonight would be too inconvenient. Thanks to my mother’s garish party.”
“Tomorrow. There’s really no telling time in Wonderland, is there?” She laughed.
“No, there isn’t.”
“You know where the road branches off and heads toward the Queen’s hedges? By the rude pansies? That group of mushrooms that are bigger than horses?” She smiled.
“I know the place.”
“I’ll meet you there. Whenever our times happen to overlap.”
“That sounds good to me. In the meantime, you should be cautious. After we finish this dance, you should find your belongings and go back to where you came from. You may not have a reputation to uphold in this land, but I do. My mother already suspects that you and me—and there are plenty of people between you and that portal. If she gets her hands on you—I’m not certain you’ll make it.”
Her expression had gone serious. The candlelight flickered through crystals from the chandeliers and lit up her skin in a warm yellow glow. The color in this realm wasn’t as vibrant as Wonderland or even the Enchanted Forest, but she was still the most beautiful woman in the entire room. She may have been the most beautiful woman Jefferson had ever laid eyes on. He didn’t want to ruin her reputation, but he wanted to save her from this place. He could see the pink mark on her chin and the way she had gone so still and tense when her mother appeared. He would have given anything to save her. Even then, that night, in that place, when he barely knew her at all.
“But if you want me to go,” he continued, “I’ll go.” She shook her head once, quickly, so fast he almost didn’t catch it. She didn’t want him to go, but she couldn’t tell him that. She was putting logic above her own desires.
“Can I ask you a question, Just Alice?” he asked as they danced along and she turned her attention to the people in the room, searching the crowd for her mother. He couldn’t see anyone else. Only her. And if he had his way, he’d never leave that place or that moment.
“What would you like to know?” she answered. She turned her dark eyes back on him.
“I told you why I do what I do. Now I want to know why you do it.” She pinched her lips. It was obvious to him now why she took to a life of thieving and trading through Wonderland. But he wanted to hear her confirm it if just to settle the madness that was telling him to save her from the beautiful house and all the food and jewels she could ever want.
“Have you ever wanted to change your destiny?” she asked him.
“All the time,” he replied, without even having to think about it.
“I was born with certain expectations. I had my whole future planned for me before I ever got to decide who I was or who I wanted to be. I have never been in want of food or clothes. But I have dreams and hopes and desires. And I have never met a single person who wanted to know them. I will have to find a husband, be an obedient and quiet wife, bare him children, and disappear into the shadows. I will be nothing. No one will ever remember me, know who I am. I will be the Baron’s daughter and my husband’s wife until I die.
“If I’m lucky, my husband may actually like me. He may actually want to know me. Perhaps my memory will live on for another generation or two if I happen to produce children who think me worthy of remembering. That’s all. Nothing more. My life does not belong to me. Not here.”
“This house,” he stated. “It’s a pretty cage for a bird to be trapped in.”
“What good is a pretty cage if the bird can’t fly and the other birds have sharp beaks and claws?”
“You steal so you can avoid marriage and a family?” She laughed, though it did not sound very amused.
“Certainly not,” she told him. “I do it for the freedom of my own choice. I do it because I can. That alone is my rebellion. Someday I will be forced to take one of these men as my husband, and I will have to bear him children and mind his estate, and I will wither and die with a man I do not love. Wonderland is all I have that is mine alone. It is all I will ever have.”
“Why not jump through the portal and never come back?”
“Believe me, I would. But—I’m not like you. Wonderland is the only realm I’ve ever been able to reach. There are no people there. Not like you and me. I’d go mad in a place like that with talking animals and a queen who wants my head because I painted her white roses red. Not exactly the kind of life I’m looking for either, I’m afraid.”
“What are you looking for then?” She looked back at him, and almost answered, but held her tongue. She stepped back and out of his grip as the music ended. Then she curtsied low and gave him the truth, though not nearly all of it.
“A place to fly,” she told him. “I do not want to live my life in a cage. I want a forest. Full of trees to land on and open skies to fly through. A nest I built for myself. A flock I chose for myself. Not a cage. No matter how pretty.” He returned the bow like the other dancers, but he didn’t want her to slip away. Though he knew more than one dance might be seen negatively by the watchers. “You should go,” she said as she stepped back. “Now. Not all the cages in this realm are pretty. You don’t want them to catch you and lock you up.”
He would have listened to her warning as he watched her slip through the crowd and disappear behind all of the beautiful gowns. He planned to go back for his clothes and hurry back to his portal. But he felt a hand on his shoulder as the woman turned him around. Helen stood behind him, with her green eyes shining and a wicked grin.
“Mr. Jefferson,” she said in a falsely welcoming tone. “You are a marvelous dancer. I would be delighted if you would share this next dance with me?”
“Lady Liddel,” he said, lifting his hand to lead her into a dance. “I would be honored.” She smiled and placed her other hand on his shoulder, but his stomach clenched, and he nervously searched for Alice’s face as the music began. Helen pulled him into the dance, a bit roughly.
“She is beautiful, isn’t she?” she asked. He looked back down at the older woman, who looked nothing like Alice.
“I beg your pardon?”
“My daughter. Alice. Beautiful.”
“Yes, indeed. She is.”
“Such a shame. A wasted beauty.” His eyes creased as he looked at her, confusion written on every feature of his face. “Her sister was envious of her when they were growing up. She didn’t get the beauty, but at least she has her sanity. It was easier to find her a suitable husband.”
“What do you mean?” She feigned surprise.
“You mean you don’t know?”
“Alice—the poor girl. Went quite mad a few years ago. We’d hoped to have her married by now, but no one wants to risk having a mad wife or insane children. The poor girl can’t even hold onto a friend, let alone find a man willing to wed her.”
“I’m not surprised she hasn’t told you. We had to have the poor dear committed to an asylum. I know it must sound so absurd. My other two children were just fine. Perfectly normal. I am blessed to have had them. But Alice. The poor girl. She’s never really been all there in her mind. Used to say silly things about a place she’d visited where rabbits could talk. She fell into a rabbit hole, is what she said. She saw monsters and creatures. There was a cat who could smile and vanish. A rabbit who wore a pocket watch.” She sighed dramatically. “She never did recover from it. There was a name she had for the place as well. Underland? Something of that sort.”
“Wonderland,” he said. Her eyes lit up with genuine surprise.
“So she has told you?”
“No, she hasn’t said anything,” he admitted as he twirled her around faster than the dance called for. He leaned in close, his blue eyes alight with mischief. “She got there through a rabbit hole. I got there through a hat. It’s a strange place, Wonderland. Did she ever tell you about the hare who drinks too much tea? Did she tell you that the white rabbit’s pocket watch goes backward? And he wears a waistcoat! What about the Red Queen? Did she tell you about how the Queen tried to take her head for painting all her white roses red? What about the Jabberwock? Oh, I bet she didn’t tell you about the Jabberwock.”
The woman stumbled over her feet and stopped in the middle of the dancefloor to stare at him. Alice never spoke about Wonderland anymore. And Helen didn’t know what to make of this. Either Alice had hidden her madness from them all, as she sometimes suspected. Or she lied and had told this man all about her silly stories.
He leaned in close to Helen’s face. Dangerously close. Jefferson’s reputation in this realm meant nothing to him. But Helen’s meant everything to her. And the close proximity would probably have the party gossiping for weeks.
“You know what they call me there? In Wonderland? They call me the Mad Hatter,” he told her.
Then he laughed as he stepped away. It was a boyish giggle where his eyes had gone wide, and she swore she saw his sanity slip. Just like Alice. Though Alice had learned to hide it. She said nothing as the man disappeared into the crowd and wasn’t seen again for the rest of the night.
So uh... I got to thinking about this story. And like there are still some things I'd like to add, but wouldn't fit into this storyline. So a sequel may or may not be a possibility at this point. Just know that... I haven't let go of the story yet. And I may want to explore these characters in another story. Might be kind of short, though. No idea yet. Just that the thought is there.