Finding Alice

“Every time I close my eyes
It’s like a dark paradise
No one compares to you
But there’s no you,
Except in my dreams tonight.”
-Lana Del Rey

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8. Chapter Eight

The world between worlds was nothing more than a room full of doors. Some of them weren’t always doors, though. The entrance to Wonderland, for instance, appeared as a looking-glass. Whatever land Alice came from wasn’t a door either, but a hedge. He held the cloak as he stood before it. He’d never seen the hedge before and knew it must be because he’d focused so sharply on Alice and her cloak. Something was telling him she was just beyond.

So he pushed through the vines and dropped into the dirt on the other side. His fingers buried in tangled vines and warm damp earth. He could smell it on the air. Not the same earthy scents as the forest back home. Not of moss and wild, untamed nature. But the smell of freshly trimmed grass and a meticulously watered garden.

His eyes took a moment to adjust to the color of the desaturated color of the world, and then he found himself completely surrounded by plants. Crawling ivy made up the space behind him, where he could make out the outline of his portal on the bricks through the leaves. There was an even space of dirt before a row of hedges.

The sound of laughter came from somewhere beyond the hedges. There were voices and the sound of music and clinking dishes. Light twinkled through the spaces in the leaves. He stood and held the cloak as the enormous brick mansion came into view. Ivy crawled up the side in uniform patterns and lattices. The windows flickered with golden candlelight. The air was warm and heavy with the scent of roasted meat, wine, and just the slightest hint of apples.

He pushed through the hedges, slowly and cautiously, as he took in more and more of the large house. There was a vast open lawn beyond the hedges and a rose garden hidden behind tall bushes. The house had more windows and balconies than he could count. People in full gowns and expensive coats walked in and out through the tall glass doors. It reminded him of a royal ball. He could hear the tinkling of a harpsichord and people laughed and danced within. The tops of barely blooming apple trees wrapped around the wall that stretched around the property.

He was slow as he made his way to the edge of the hedge and out onto the lawn, giving someone just enough time to spot the bushes shaking and reached for the closest object that could be used as a weapon. In this case, a croquet mallet. As soon as he stood to his full height, it struck him on the shoulder. He hit the soft padded grass with a thud, landing face first on the ground. He spun back around just as Alice aimed to strike again.

She was standing above him in an ice blue gown with white silk gloves, clutching the croquet mallet tightly above her head. Her golden hair was twisted into perfectly shaped coils and ringlets. Jewels sparkled off of her neck like glittering stars. She dropped the mallet on the lawn and gasped.

“Mr. Jefferson?” she asked. Then she dropped to his side and wrapped her hands around his arms. “Did I hurt you?”

“No, I’m fine,” he assured her. So she smacked his bruised shoulder.

“What are you doing here?” Her voice was shrill and panicked. He took a moment to catch his breath. The croquet mallet had knocked the wind out of him, but she was also kneeling beside him, looking divine and lovely in the lingering twilight.

Only royals wore gowns like hers where he came from, and he’d never been invited to a royal ball before. Her bodice looked uncomfortably tight, and he wondered just how many buttons this one had. The sleeves reached her elbows in layers of ruffled lace. Her hands disappeared into long white silk gloves. The neckline plunged dangerously low so that he could see where the diamonds rested in the space between her breasts. He swore he’d never seen anything so beautiful in all his life.

But her expression was panicked. Her dark eyes were wide and terrified. She gripped her gloved fingers into his arm as he stood and regained his balance. She didn’t let him go as he used his free hand to wipe dirt and grass from his clothes.

“I came to find you,” he explained as if it were obvious. Then he held out the blue cloak he’d kept tucked under his elbow.

“Are you mad?” she asked, taking him in as he stood there dressed like a man who was clearly from a different land. His clothes were always dark and his hair messy from the hat he used as a portal.

“So they say.” He gave her a lopsided grin, but she didn’t return it. She put her hands on her hips and huffed. She was breathing heavily. Her heart must have been pounding in her chest. She never took the cloak.

“You have to leave this instant,” she decided. She shoved him back toward the hedges, forcing him to trip over his own clumsy feet. “You’re lucky I was the one here to see you crawl from the hedges. My mother would have you arrested, you foolish man.”

“Alice, wait,” he said as she continued to push him in bursts until the hedges were pressed against his back. “I needed to speak with you.”

She had her hands on his chest now, and her fingers gripped into the front of his vest. He thought that meeting her somewhere other than Wonderland might make the feelings less apparent. Her world didn't seem to have as much magic as Wonderland, but all the same. Her hands felt heavy on his chest. He couldn’t say that it was love. But lust most certainly.

“Speak with me?” she questioned, finally going still. The vines pressed against his spine, but she stopped trying to shove him into the hedges. She kept her hands firmly placed on his chest. “You didn’t come all this way to return a silly old cloak?”

“Of course not. I came to see you.”

“Whatever for?”

He couldn’t come up with an answer. He didn’t want to tell her the truth, that he had no other way to reach her. His intentions had been innocent enough. He only wanted to speak to her, but now he could see he had made the wrong choice. She didn’t want him there. So he only smiled.

“Mad as a hatter,” he said instead.

“Alice?” someone called from the rose garden beneath the widest balcony. Alice tensed and turned to look. “Alice, darling?” a woman called.

“You need to leave. Now,” she whispered as she pushed him back toward the hedge. “You should never have come here.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry,” he said. He was always doing things without thinking them through. His mother used to say he was a reckless thinker. “Why did you throw stones at the wasp nest, son?” “I don’t know, mama. It seemed fun at the time.”

“Find me in Wonderland,” Alice said, shoving him and tangling his coat in the vines.

“I will—It’s about a business proposition.”

“We’ll speak business where we do business, Mr. Jefferson.”

The two of them struggled for just a moment too long. Jefferson’s coat had become tangled in the hedges, and Alice was relentless in trying to be rid of him. It was too late. A woman stepped out onto the grass just as the hem of his sleeve gave a loud tear.

“Alice, what exactly is going on here?” the woman asked, lifting her emerald green gown and marching across the lawn to the two young fools tangled in the hedges. Alice released him immediately and stepped back. Her shoulders and her spine went straight. She lifted her chin. She looked more like a toy soldier than the free and playful young woman he’d met in Wonderland.

The woman didn’t look much like Alice at all, but Alice’s reaction to her presence made Jefferson suspect this was her mother. Her hair was dark black with strands of silver. She was lovely but fiercely stern.

“Who are you, young man? What are you doing in the garden with my daughter?” she demanded to know. She spoke with a sense of power that Alice’s voice lacked. But Jefferson had traveled to many lands and knew how to blend in. Or at least how to pretend to until he learned their ways.

“My name is Mr. Jefferson, madam. I was simply hoping your daughter would join me in a game of croquet,” he replied with a bow.

The woman stopped short and glanced at Alice. But Alice was busy staring at the grass, her hands folded neatly at her front. The woman didn’t believe a word. She looked at the man with his strange clothes, and the cloak she knew had gone missing from Alice’s wardrobe. Then she looked back at Alice, who had her hands on the man’s chest only moments before.

But the woman masked her doubt and concern with the pleasant smile of a hostess. Jefferson got the feeling he was about to be torn apart by wolves.

“Of course, Mr. Jefferson,” she said. “I think it’s rather late in the evening for a game of croquet, don’t you think? Especially with an unmarried woman who lacks an escort. I do believe you’ll find better company inside. Won’t you come in and join us? My dear Alice has plenty of space left on her dance card. Perhaps she would like for you to fill in your name.” Alice shot her mother a pleading glance, but if the woman saw it, she didn’t let on. Jefferson opened his mouth to reply, but she was determined to call him out. Publically. She set her daughter’s hand in the crook of her elbow. “Come along, Mr. Jefferson,” she said. “I’ll introduce you to my husband.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, stretching out a long leg to hurry after them. The woman bent her neck and turned toward her daughter as she led them back toward the rose garden.

“You’re lucky I was the one who found you, Alice,” she whispered in a low and cold voice. Jefferson heard, but said nothing. They seemed to be complete opposites. And not just in looks. Alice was warm, and her mother was cold. “Your reputation is already hanging by a thread. Don’t make another stupid mistake.”

“Yes, Mother,” Alice replied obediently.

Jefferson was starting to understand Alice and all her strangeness. She told him she didn’t steal for food, but she had reasons. It was clear that her goal was freedom. He followed the two women into the rose garden and wondered what he could do to help her achieve that.

The party inside was extravagant. The women led Jefferson into a large ballroom with high ceilings and twinkling chandeliers. Tables were lined with more food than he’d ever seen in one place. People in gowns and expensive suits wandered around or danced. The music was soft, loud enough to be heard by dancers, but not so loud it would drown out conversation. Groups of young women flitted by in clumps, hiding behind their fans and sending coy inviting smiles at every available young bachelor. Men scurried along after them, desperate to get their names on dance cards before they were full.

It was challenging to keep up with the women. At any moment he could reach out and slip something into his pocket. An abandoned silver fork here, a loose bracelet there. He could quickly get his hands on something shiny enough to feed him like a king for weeks. But he kept his hands clenched behind his back. He didn’t want to ruin Alice’s reputation any more than he already had.

Alice stood beside her mother with her spine straight and her breathing tense. She looked uncomfortable, and Jefferson was sure it was his fault. She didn’t speak as she followed her mother dutifully and the older woman smiled and waved at passersby. She led them both to a group of influential looking gentleman congregated near a punch table.

“Darling,” the woman said as she reached her husband’s 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 the way she’d emphasized his lack of title. The man in question looked the boy over, and Jefferson searched his face for a hint of Alice. Perhaps in the nose or the eyes, but he wasn’t so sure. The man’s hair was graying but had never been gold. His eyes were light like water. He extended a plump hand.

“Mr. Jefferson, eh? Wouldn’t happen to be any relation of the Duke, by any chance?”

“Actually, he’s my cousin,” Jefferson replied. Alice shot him a panicked look, and he only smiled back. The woman watched them closely, checking for a sign that they were more familiar with each other than Alice let on. “I’m afraid I didn’t receive a title,” Jefferson said, turning 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.

“My boy. With wit like that, I’ve no doubt you’re cousin of the Duke. 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, the odd patterns and fabrics, the torn sleeve, and knew he must stand out amongst all the glamour.

“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 and I haven’t the heart to put him out of work.” The man appeared to love him instantly. He reached out to slap the boy on the back.

“Well, if you’re going to attend a Liddell party, you must dress like a Liddell. Helen, my darling, are there any of John’s old clothes left upstairs in his room?” The woman gave a tight smile.

“Of course. I never did clear his room of his things. But they are a bit behind on current fashions, I’m afraid,” she said.

“No matter. Fine boy he was, my son. You look about his height. Bit broader in the shoulders, but it would be quicker than calling for a cab at this hour. Don’t you think?”

“Yes, sir. I would be honored.” The man wrapped an arm around his shoulder and led him away from the group.

“Of course you would. You may have known John in your youth. Or perhaps an older brother. You look to be about his age when he passed. Though that was some years ago now.”

The Baron led the young man out of the ballroom, but Jefferson risked another glance at Alice. She looked as beautiful and regal as a fairy, but terrified. And when his eyes drifted to her mother, who was staring back at him with eyes like a hungry hawk, he understood why.

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