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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16. Chapter Sixteen

Jefferson had the notion that this was not one of his better ideas, and Alice probably wasn’t going to be very happy about it. So, for the first time in his life, he decided not to act on a whim. Instead, he made a plan.

He proposed the idea to Alice one afternoon when he walked her back to her portal after a long day of hunting for wares to sell and, more importantly, kissing. She had a furious pink blush on her cheeks, and he couldn’t keep his eyes off of her as they walked hand-in-hand. He was so caught up in her radiance that he tripped over a wayward stone and recovered to the sound of her giggling.

“I want to see you again,” he said as he smoothed out his vest and pretended he hadn’t almost fallen on his face.

“You will see me again,” she promised. She retook his hand, and he immediately got distracted again. Though this time he tried to pay more attention to the road.

“I meant—I can’t wait for us to meet up in Wonderland again.” She turned to him. Her expression turned serious and concerned.

“What do you mean?”

“I want to see more of where you come from.” She shook her head before he could finish explaining himself.

“That’s not a good idea.”

“I don’t mean I want to come to another party. I want to see—your apple orchard. I want to see your bedroom.”

“My bedroom?” Her voice had gone shrill and high pitched, and he realized how improper it was for him to want to see her most private space.

“I mean—I just want to see more of what makes you-you. Not that I want….”

“I know what you meant.” The blush had returned, but it left the smile behind. She quickly hid it behind her hair so that he had to lean forward just to see her face.

“If I could take you to the Enchanted Forest, I would. I’ve told you everything about it.”

“And it sounds wonderful.”

“I just want to know everything there is to know about you.”

“I understand that.”

“Part of that means I want to know where you come from.” She stopped in the road and turned to face him. She had her lip pinched between her teeth, and she couldn’t keep her eyes on him. She looked around at Wonderland, vibrant and alive, but her expression was dark, and a cloud rolled over the sun and cast a shadow on the land below. “You’re afraid,” he stated.

“It’s just that—my mother already suspects something is going on between us.” His eyebrows rose in surprise. He didn’t think her mother gave him a second thought after that party.

“I haven’t seen her in over a year. How could she possibly be concerned about me?” She looked down at her feet and shuffled her black shoes nervously.

“She confronted me about it in the rose garden. She knows I sneak out at night. She hasn’t figured out how I get away or where I go. She mentioned you by name. As fault.”

“She met me once.”

“Yes, but….” She shook her head again. “She knew. That I—that I was sort of—taken by you. And since you’re the only man who’s ever really shown me any attention besides this ancient viscount who seems to be on the market to replace his departed wife with someone to take care of his estate she sort of placed all the blame on you and I….”

“Alice, Alice. Slow down. You’re not making much sense, love.” She warmed at his words. She looked up at him, and her expression faded into anxiety. She took a deep breath before speaking again.

“I just can’t begin to imagine what would happen if she caught us together. I’d be ruined, and she’d have you locked up in an instant.” He reached out and ran his thumb over her cheek. She went silent and her breath caught in her throat.

“What are you more afraid of? Being ruined or me being caught?” He moved his thumb over her lips with a feather-light touch. Her eyes fluttered closed, and she breathed heavily.

“I’m more afraid of—losing you—than anything else.”

“Would you be able to get out of your room without being caught?”

“Of course. I’ve done it loads of times.” He smiled.

“I’ll stay away from the house. You meet me in the hedges and show me the orchard.” Her eyes opened again, and he pulled his hand back.

“Why do you want to see the orchard?”

“Because it made you happy.” She nodded quickly.

“Tonight,” she decided. “Wait for me. I can’t give you a time. I’ll find you. Stay in the space behind the hedges. Close to your portal so you can leave quickly if I can’t get out. The gardener comes at sunrise. So leave before then if I can’t make it out.”

“But you’ll try?”

“I will.” She took his hand and pressed a kiss to his knuckles. Then she slipped into the looking-glass and disappeared.

He waited in the hedges as promised. It was dark in her world when he stepped through and found himself behind the vines. The house was still and silent this time, and only a few windows twinkled with candlelight. He didn’t know which window Alice would come from, but he kept his eyes on the house as he paced behind the hedges waiting and hoping she’d be able to make it out before sunrise.

One by one, the lights were snuffed out all except for one. He kept his eyes on that one and waited, listening to the sounds of crickets and biting his thumbnail. Finally, the light went out, and a moment later the window opened. He stilled and watched her climb out of the window on the second story. His heart jumped into his throat when he imagined her falling from her place and hurting herself. He knew he loved her already, but that moment, watching her dangle from an open window, he regretted asking her to meet him. If she fell, it’d be all his fault. And he didn’t breathe again until both of her feet were on the ground, and she was running across the lawn toward the hedges.

He hurried around the bend to meet with her. Then he spotted her coming around the corner. She wore a long nightdress and a robe that was tied tightly at her waist. It was the first time he’d seen her in anything other than constricting gowns and petticoats. When their bodies crashed together, he felt every inch of her. Nothing between her skin and his fingers but the thin fabrics. She held him close, and he kissed the side of her head and shut his eyes.

“For a moment there, I thought you might fall,” he said. She shook her head.

“The bricks provide a ledge to stand on,” she told him. “I’ve done it hundreds of times. We’re just lucky my mother stopped barring my window. She used to put a guard beneath it just to make sure I didn’t sneak out. But she’d still find mud on my clothes in the morning.” He smiled and pulled away, taking her face in his hands so he could examine her in a world that wasn’t as bright as Wonderland. Where the air alone didn’t make him feel things more intensely than he should.

But he still felt it. Looking at her shining eyes in the dark. The feel of her loose hair in his fingers and the softness of her body against his chest. The way his heart still pounded from that momentary fear. He loved her. Wholeheartedly. He leaned forward and kissed her nose. She gripped her fingers in his coat as he shut his eyes again. Just savoring the feel of her.

“You wanted to see the orchard?” she reminded him. He didn’t open his eyes or let her go.

“I’m content staying right here with you.”

“We’re less likely to be caught in the orchard. The farmers go home at night. Servants sometimes lurk in the gardens.” He sighed heavily.

He didn’t care if they were found. The worst that could happen is that her parents insisted they married. And he wasn’t afraid of that. But he was a commoner in their eyes. And he realized then why she feared it so much. Of course, they wouldn’t force him to marry her. They’d force her to wed someone else. Quickly. In the hopes that they’d be able to cover up an unexpected pregnancy. He gripped his hand around her waist, feeling her skin beneath the fabric of her robe and nightdress. He wouldn’t let that happen. If she were ever going to bear his child, they would be together.

“How do we get into the orchard?” he asked.

“I’ll show you. Follow me.” She pulled away and took his hand. Then she led him past his open portal to the other side of the house. She peeked out through the hedges and turned to face him.

“This is the opposite side of the house from the family apartments,” she explained as she looked up at the wall above them. “And the servants’ quarters. We’re close to the kitchens, so we have to stay quiet just in case someone is lurking about. But we should be able to do this quickly.”

“How?” She smiled at him.

“Give me a lift?” He was more than happy to. He leaned against the wall and held out his hands. She wasn’t wearing any shoes, and somehow that didn’t surprise him. The air was chilly but not cold and even though he’d never seen her take off her shoes. She didn’t seem the type to wear them when she didn’t have to. She slid a bare foot into his interlocked fingers, and he hoisted her up. “Splendid,” she said from above. He watched her clamor onto the wall, where she sat perched like a beautiful bird. Her gown and her hair fluttering in an apple scented breeze. She looked back down at him as he pressed his back against the hedges and sized up the distance. “Think you can make it?” He pulled off his coat and tossed it up to her. She caught it and draped it over the wall.

“Sure,” he said as he shook out his fingers and rolled up his sleeves. “I used to be good at this. Back when I was young.”

“I can’t imagine you’re much older than twenty.”

“Twenty-one.”

“I rest my case.”

“At least I think I am. I’ve spent a lot of time in worlds where time doesn’t seem to move.”

“Wonderland is all the rage in anti-aging these days.” He laughed and made a running jump. Though he didn’t get a very good head start, he managed to push off the wall with his boot and lock his fingers at the top. She watched as he pulled himself up and then sat huffing beside her.

“Lovely cage,” he remarked at the estate sparkling in starlight. She grimaced.

“Sure. If you like that sort of thing. We shouldn’t stay up here long. Someone will spot us eventually.”

“Good idea. I’ll catch you.” He hopped over the other side, hitting the dirt on his feet and recovering quickly from the impact. The wall wasn’t as high as he thought it would be. She threw the coat down and he tossed it aside and lifted both his hands. She climbed over the side, turning her body and holding on with her hands until his were on her waist again. Then she let go and he set her down on the dirt. She didn’t move.

“Jefferson?” she said as he pressed his lips against the back of her head. He was trying not to think about pulling her against his body and sliding his hands around the front of her. He could feel every bit of her beneath the robe, but he kept his hands in place on her waist.

“Yes?” he asked.

“You know what happens to an unmarried woman in this land if she’s caught in a compromising situation?”

“I considered it.” She took a deep breath, almost as if she was considering it herself. Not the repercussions of being caught with him in the orchard, but the compromising situation itself.

“It doesn’t frighten you?” It did. But not for the reasons she thought.

He didn’t want to lose her because he’d been foolish enough to come to her land. He didn’t want to scare her away by being too forward. So he released his grip on her waist and stepped away. He located the coat he’d left abandoned on the ground and wiped off the dirt and leaves while she tried to hide her blush. Then he lifted the coat and set it on her shoulders. She sent him a quiet smile, and he led her into the trees.

“So this is your orchard,” he remarked as he took in the sight of the trees above. The night was alive with the sound of crickets and frogs. The noise was almost deafening. She stepped carefully into the twigs and leaves but kept moving farther from the house and the wall.

“This is my orchard,” she said.

“Tell me about it.” He walked ahead of her and then turned to walk backward so he could watch her. He didn’t care if he tripped or knocked into a tree. She’d seen him fumble over her before.

“It’s been in my family for generations,” she said. “Most of the Liddell’s spent their time in the city. Just owned the land. All the land in the area belongs to my father. So all the farmers work for him. We used to travel here just for the summer months. Until I went mad. Then they decided to stay permanently. So no one had to see. But servants talk. Rumors spread.”

She went quiet, and he frowned. Thankfully, he hadn’t fallen yet, though he had slipped a few times on the uneven ground. They passed a tree, and the house was now deeply shaded by them. They were in full fruit. Thick apples hung low on the branches. He stopped by one of them and reached up to pick a pink apple from a nearby tree.

“Looks like you’ll be doing harvest soon,” he said as the apple popped off its stem.

“In a few more weeks, yes. My parents like to throw a party to celebrate the harvest. Something almost primitive about it, you know? I always felt like we should light fires and leave offerings for the fairies.” He turned around to face her and held the apple out.

“Is it any good?”

“Have you never tasted an apple before?”

“The apples in my land are red.” She smiled.

“My brother John actually bred these apples. He had a real talent for it. He wanted something sweeter than what we used to grow, but still tart. He called them ‘little queen’ apples. This is the only place in any realm that grows apples like this. Try it.” She pushed his hands up, holding her delicate fingers beneath his.

“Just right off the tree?”

“Why not? Live a little.” He smiled and wiped the apple on the front of his vest to make sure it wasn’t dirty or had any holes for worms. Then he took a bite.

“Mm,” he said. “Sour.” She smiled.

“They’re not ripe yet,” she explained. “Give them a few more weeks, and they’ll be the sweetest, tartest apples you’ve ever tasted. I’ll bring you some when they’re done.” He handed the apple out, and she took a small bite.

“I don’t know about that,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I bet you’re sweeter.” She smiled.

“I’m afraid I’m not an apple.” He took the apple out of his hand and leaned down to press his lips to hers.

“You taste like one. Sweet. And tart.” She blushed again.

“You spoil me rotten you know. What good is an apple if it’s rotten?” He tossed the apple into the air and caught it as it came back down.

“My love,” he said. “I haven’t even begun to spoil you yet.” She put her hands on her hips and watched him toss it around.

“So am I an apple or am I a bird?” she questioned. He thought about it for a moment before answering.

“We’ll just add that to the growing list of pet names,” he decided. She reached out and caught the apple before he could. She brought it back to her lips and took another bite.

“Race you to the river,” she said.

“What do I get if I win?” he asked.

“Maybe I’ll let you kiss me again.” So he reached out and yanked the coat up over her head before taking off at a run. “You cheated!”

“You shouldn’t have made the prize so enticing!” he called back.

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