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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14. Chapter Fourteen

Working with Alice was one of Jefferson’s most brilliant ideas. To be completely honest, he’d concocted the plan as part of a lie. It was an excuse to see her again, but he did have to congratulate himself on his moment of brilliance.

They worked well together. Sometimes she found jobs from her realm, but more often than not, the jobs were his. And having the two of them together brought in a faster revenue. They were quicker as a team and began devising their own techniques for locating objects or haggling prices. Whoever made the deal and got the pay would bring in half the share to the other. Alice was hesitant to trust Jefferson at first, but she didn’t have nearly as much to lose. After a while, he seemed to gain her trust as well as her friendship.

But the increase in gold wasn’t the best part of his plan. Not only was he getting more gold than usual, but he had someone to spend his time with. He’d been lonely most of his life, and he hadn’t even noticed it. It had become such a regular part of himself. People were messy and complicated and had a tendency to leave. He only secured ties that would give him better deals and tried not to get emotionally attached to anyone. Just in case he had to back out of a deal and they turned on him. It was easier to make enemies than friends.

He couldn’t do that with Alice. He tried to get the hang of Wonderland’s unusual time just so they could spend as much of it together as possible. But sometimes they would spend a whole day looking for their next catch. Sometimes they had it within an hour and would spend the rest of the day exploring Wonderland until they got tired and laid out her cloak under a mushroom to rest.

Jefferson was always touching her in some way. He would reach out to hold her hand before the two of them raced down a hill. Or when he’d tuck her head beneath his chin while they spoke to an animal about a deal. Or like he was at that moment, lying on her cloak in the sunshine with his eyes closed as he gently brushed his fingers against her arm absentmindedly.

They’d been hunting for their latest catch for days. It was possibly the largest, most profitable hunt they’d ever taken together. It took them days just to track the object down, and once they got it, Jefferson had rushed right through his portal to exchange it. He’d shown up the next day as promised and gave Alice half her pay, but he hadn’t made another deal, and neither had she. So they decided to waste the day in a clearing in the sunshine. The air smelled like an apple orchard.

She was lying on her stomach, reading a book he’d brought her from the Enchanted Forest. She liked to read the stories from his land, so he’d begun to collect them for her. She hummed as she read, and kicked her feet back and forth in the air.

He was lying next to her, close enough for her mother to call it improper and scandalous. But Alice told him she liked that about him. That he didn’t force himself to act a certain way around her. He acted on his thoughts as they came, and she began to relax into the same patterns. He hadn’t been at all startled the first time she took his hand to trace patterns onto his palm. He’d merely wrapped her up in his arms and carried her down the path from her portal, laughing along with her joyous giggling.

Now he was dozing on the cloak as he listened to her hum. He was lying on his back with his knee up, moving it back and forth. His arm stretched out in front of her so that his fingers touched her forearm whenever she moved to turn a page.

He was enjoying the moment and the piece he found with Alice. They’d fallen together so quickly and so easily. She’d brought a warmth into his life he didn’t know he was missing. He thought about love before, but never in a realistic way. People were always talking about finding true love and having families and things like that. But it never appealed to him. He couldn’t imagine finding a woman who’d want to marry him after learning all the things he’d done in his past. Or even one who could put up with him for long. Despite all that, he didn’t think he’d ever find someone worth giving it all up for. Love was even messier and more complicated than friendships. He usually avoided it.

But that was the problem with love. It couldn’t be avoided.

He wanted Alice from the very start. Even though some part of his mind reminded him how much he didn’t want to trouble with love. Or how it wasn’t real or just not meant for him. He never forgot that Wonderland could exacerbate emotions, but it didn’t stop him anyway. His heart jumped whenever he’d find her waiting for him by their mushroom patch. Or when he caught sight of her walking down the road from her looking-glass. Even when he was back home in the Forest, she was on his mind.

Sometimes when they were together, he found that he couldn’t stop talking. He’d drill her with questions about her life and her passions. He wanted to know all about her and all her thoughts. She returned the interest with the same enthusiasm. They would chatter for hours, even while they worked. And sometimes they didn’t need to. They would lie under the mushrooms or bask in the sun, and it would be enough. He was satisfied with just being near her, and dreaded when she had to go home.

She always had to go home. He’d spent nights in Wonderland before. It was always risky since the strangest and most dangerous of Wonderland’s creatures came out at night. But he could do it. Alice never could. She always seemed to know exactly what time it was in her land, despite the oddness of Wonderland’s day cycles, and she’d be on the road to her portal again before dark.

He hadn’t asked her yet, but he wanted to. Sometimes he thought about the family she left at home. She came through the portal when her mother had her locked up in her room, or whenever she found the time to sneak away. He knew she had an older sister and a dead brother. Once or twice, she’d mentioned a cat named Dinah that she loved. But she never talked about them in depth. And their odd differences from her made him curious.

“Tell me about your brother,” he said, feeling her skin beneath his fingers as she turned the pages of her new book.

“What about him?” she asked.

“His name was John?”

“Yes, his name was John.”

“What happened to him?” She went silent, and there was nothing but the sound of bird songs and the flap of flutterby wings from a nearby patch of purple mushrooms.

“He did,” she said, turning another page.

“Tell me about him.”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I want to know everything there is to know about you. Even the things that make you sad.” She paused, and even though his eyes were shut, he could feel her gaze on him.

“He was much older than me,” she told him. “Already a man by the time I fell through the rabbit hole. He was the only one who believed me about Wonderland. Or at least he was convincing when he pretended to. But he told me not to tell anyone what I’d seen. I didn’t listen. I was just a child. I didn’t know they’d lock me up. When I came home, they told me he’d died. Just like that. Never told me how it happened. He just wasn’t there anymore.”

“And you loved him?”

“I loved him very much. I love my family of course. But my father is a busy man, and my sister has always been very different from me. She’s always so narrow and perfect. John was too, but he liked to play with me. Sometimes we’d ride out into the orchard together and play hide-and-seek in the trees. I miss him even now.”

“Seems like a good man,” he stated. “You were lucky to have someone like that in your life.”

He could feel her skin under his fingers and longed to pull her closer. To burrow his head beneath her arm and tangle their legs together. She said she didn’t mind when he touched her, but he didn’t want to overstep a boundary. He wanted her to be as comfortable with him as he was with her. To love him even. And it was strange how desperately he wanted her to love him.

So he was startled by her for the first time since they met. When he felt her lips touch his. His eyes shot open, and he looked up at the girl with dark eyes and golden hair. She leaned over him as she smiled.

“What was that for?” he questioned. Though his lips still tingled and his heart danced in his chest.

“For being beautiful,” she said. He laughed.

“Wonderland really has made you go mad.” She huffed but was still smiling.

“I’m not mad! Perfectly sensible!” He reached up to brush his fingers on the soft skin on her cheek.

“Sure you are,” he said. “As sensible as I am.”

“No. You’re the only mad one here, Just Jefferson.”

She poked him in the ribs. He laughed and wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her to him so that her weight rested on half of his body. She gasped but didn’t push him away. Instead, she put her hands on the ground at either side of his head and grinned down at him.

“Just Alice?” he said.

“Yes, Just Jefferson?”

“Would you kiss me again?”

“Absolutely not.” His heart dropped for just a moment, but she still had that sneaky smile on her face. “You kiss me.”

So he did. He smiled and lifted his head. She came down to meet him, and their lips touched. The first time she kissed him, she’d been gentle and curious, and soft. But now. Now he couldn’t stop himself from kissing her roughly, parting her lips and tasting her. She melted against him, lowering her arms so that he could rest on the cloak and there was nothing between them anymore. Her hair surrounded them, and he could see the sunlight filtering through the gold even with his eyes shut.

Her body was warm, and she smelled like an apple orchard. He could feel the buttons of her dress and longed to pull them apart. He knew no one in her land would know, and her reputation wouldn’t be soiled by his hands. But he wasn’t sure how she’d feel if he loosened one of the buttons. It just wasn’t the right time. Not until she was ready.

The realization of what he really wanted struck him as he kissed her deeply and tangled his fingers in her hair. He didn’t just want to pull open her buttons. He wanted to love her. Properly. And he had a gut feeling that he already did. He just wasn’t sure that she loved him back.

She pulled away and smiled down at him again. Her lips were pinker from his rough lips, and so were her cheeks from blushing.

“Just Jefferson?” she asked as she leaned on her elbow at his side and slipped her leg between his. He still had his arm beneath her shoulder, and so he pressed his hand against her back and pulled her in, just to rest his head on her arm and feel her heart beating. She fiddled with the silver buttons on his vest as she waited for him to get comfortable.

“Yes, Just Alice?” he replied.

“You like me? As a person?”

“Of course I do. That’s an odd question.”

“I just mean—you like spending time with me, yes?”

“Yes, I do.”

“But do you like me?” He shifted his head so he could look up at her, but she was gazing off through the blades of grass instead.

He wanted to tell her she was mad. Of course he liked her. He loved her. He thought it was obvious. But love was different where she came from. And he remembered the brief glimpse into her life that he’d seen. Marriage was an exchange of assets and titles and nothing more than ensuring the continuation of blue bloodlines. She’d likely been taught that love didn’t matter.

His other hand was still resting on her hip, so he lifted it and took her hand in his. He brought her fingers to his lips and thought of all the ways he could tell her he loved her without saying it. To prove to her that it wasn’t just her beauty or their working relationship. Titles and blue blood meant nothing to him. He just couldn’t find the words to say what he felt. And she’d gone silent as she waited for his answer.

He didn’t want to lie. Not to Alice. She made him want to be good and kind. Maybe even give up his dangerous life of stealing and trading just so he could take her home and be a worthy prospect for marriage. If she ever learned that marriage could, and should, be an exchange of love.

So he worked up the courage to tell her the truth.

“I like you,” he said, dragging her knuckles across his lips. “And I love you.”

She didn’t say anything, but she sucked in a gush of air and never let it back out. She didn’t pull away from him, but she didn’t move either. Not for a long time. So he held her fingers to his lips and waited for her to speak.

“But—why?” she finally asked when she was breathing again.

The question was a surprise, and he really wished she’d just drop the subject, so he didn’t have to keep telling the truth. He knew that would be the best way to deal with it. It was usually how he did things. The worst thing that could happen is that she wouldn’t want to see him again. He wasn’t sure if he could handle that.

But if that’s what she wanted—he’d give it to her. He’d do anything she asked. And not just because she had a pretty face and sly wit that matched his own. But because he could feel the ache deep within his heart. Even if Wonderland was causing him to mistake attraction for love, he didn’t care. Alice deserved happiness. He wanted to love her. He’d stay in Wonderland for the rest of his life if it meant he could keep loving her.

“Because,” he started. He lifted his head to look around at the view. They’d come to rest on a hill. So that between the blades of grass they could see far and wide. Even the Queen’s maze from far off, the hare’s burrow nestled in the valley, the forest where the smiling cat stalked the strangely thin trees. “Because I would give all this up—if that’s what you wanted. I’d become a farmer. A stable boy. I’d hunt for mushrooms and squirrels for a living. I’d give it all up.” She scooted down to his level so that he had no choice but to meet her gaze. He was nervous, and she was curious, and it was evident to the both of them.

“You would do that for me?” she questioned.

“I’d do anything for you,” he admitted. She pulled her hand from his grasp and pressed her palm against his cheek. Her skin was warm, and he shut his eyes.

“You know you’re the only man I’ve ever known who truly wanted to know me,” she told him. He opened his eyes again, studying her. “Every man I’ve ever met outside of my own family has treated me like property at an auction. But not you.”

“Women aren’t property where I’m from, Alice.”

It was always serious when they used each other’s proper names. “Just Alice” and “Just Jefferson” were used in fun and games, but when conversation grew serious, they would drop the joke. He wanted her to know that he meant what he said. He loved her and never wanted to own her. He just wanted to be close to her. Her happiness meant more to him than all the gold in any realm. The only thing he truly, selfishly wanted was for her to love him back.

“Even still,” she said with a shake of her head. “I doubt all the men in the Enchanted Forest are like you.”

“Don’t be silly. I’m the worst of them. The scum they scrape off the trees. Next to the ogres, of course.” She laughed and leaned forward to kiss him again. He dropped his head back onto the cloak so she could hold his face in her hands. The kiss left his mind dazed and his heart soaring. She pulled away and smiled down at him.

“And that obnoxious humor is one of the many reasons I love you,” she said.

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