Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 3

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 16 of 22

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Sometimes he still Sees her blood on his hands.

Tarrant flinches away from the sight of his own fingers and palms and cannot-possibly-be-stained! cuffs. It’s the angle of the light. Or perhaps the shape of a shadow. Or maybe the glimpse of something innocently red out of the corner of his eye... But that’s all it takes for him to See it again: Alice’s blood – red, red, red! – on his hands.

The silence doesn’t help. Neither does idleness. He needs distractions! Occupations!

He reaches for Alice’s hat and examines the mooring of the dodo feathers. She’d left it behind today, had specifically asked him to take a look at it and mend it if necessary. He focuses on the task, and on her Presence within him. He wants to Reach for her, to Touch her heart and feel her Reply, but...

Alice is working now!

Yes, another meeting with the railway. Details to be finalized. Dates to be set. Supplies and materials to be ordered – and this is an area especially requiring attention now that the chief logistics man seems to have inexplicably disappeared! There’s also a digging crew to be recruited and trained. Those sorts of things.

And, anyway, why would he bother her with... with this... nothingness? This... this need to touch her, to know that she is alive and safe and Here and With Him and...!

He shakes his head. Decisively.

Stop this, lad. It’s been nearly a fortnigh’ since tha’... ‘Tis time teh pull i’tehgether!

He’s trying.

Put yer back inteh it!

He has.

‘Tis as easy as believin’ ye’ll be righ’tas warm summer rain on th’morrow!

He doesn’t think he will be...

This injury, this hurt, this tragedy goes Deep. Deeper than he’s felt in such a long time. Sharper than even the worst of his pains. Worse than Horvendush Day. Not that the attack and the deaths of his family and the innocents from the other Clans hadn’t been horrific. It had been! Still is! But now, now...!

He puts the hat down before he surrenders to the need to tear something apart with his bare hands. He turns his back on it for good measure. He even feels himself Seeking out his wife and has to strangle the inclination before he interrupts her meeting with those boorish bureaucrats.

Tarrant closes his eyes, focuses on the strong, steady pulse around his own heart.


He’d almost lost her. His Alice. Their littlin’...!

Yes, the memory of what had happened before he’d twisted Time is so much Worse than that Horvendush Day. So much Worse all because of the existence of two small words that he has never applied so totally and absolutely to anything in his life: his Alice and their littlin’... His and theirs.

“Mine and ours,” he murmurs to the overcast sky that hangs over the darkening city like a cat too lazy to evaporate. “Chessur could teach you a thing or two,” he informs the clouds.

They don’t answer him. Nothing here does. Not the doorknobs or the dogs or the dust rags. He sits down on the bed in this flat, grey world and wonders how Alice had survived a childhood here with her imagination and curiosity in tact.

Or, perhaps not so much in tact, but starved...!

Yes, it’s no wonder she’d chosen Underland over this... place. It’s no wonder she wants to return.

He wishes it were possible to do just that!

He sighs and glances down.

Flinches at the blood that’s not on his hands.

Resigns himself to enduring the subtle torture of his memories.

He wanders from the bedroom and downstairs into the library where he aimlessly flips through the pages of whatever book snags his listless attention.

She finds him there, standing in front of the book stacks with a tome in his hands, when she returns. He’s not sure how late it is when that happens. It’s dark outside.

“Tarrant?” she asks, placing a hand on his shoulder.

He blinks, stares at the illustration open on the page before him: a depiction of a child in the womb. He recalls the book’s title – A Compendium of Surgery – and recalls opening it to this page, as if directed by Fate...

But no, there is no Fate here. None that he recognizes at any rate! For what sort of being would permit a woman who carries a child to be slain by a... to be foolish enough to risk... to allow herself to be...?!?!

“How coul’ye do it?” he grates out, his expression grave one instant and furious the next. “How coul’ye risk our littlin’s life th’way ye did? Followin’ me out onteh tha’ terrace knowin’ Valereth ’as slurkin’ abou’ jus’waitin’ teh...”

He can’t even say the words.

And, when Alice seems to finally digest the source of his rage, when she finally formulates and answer, she cannot say the words, either. “I’m sorry you had to do... what you did. I am truly sorry, Tarrant.”

And he Knows she is; he can Feel it. It doesn’t make a bit difference, however.

“But it would have been impossible for me to do otherwise. You know me. You know my nature.”

He makes a concentrated effort to calm himself. And is angered anew when he realizes he cannot manage it half as well as Alice can.

“I do,” he agrees through gritted teeth. “I e’en encouraged ye teh b’come this way. ‘Ye don’ slay...’ I said. ‘Ye don’...’

“Stop,” she says, raising her hands to his shoulders. “Stop, please. It was a long time ago. And you believed in me when no one else did, including myself.” She shakes him gently. “You Believed in me. You gave me your muchness.”

“Nay,” he counters softly, feeling his anger transform into something softer and gentler under Alice’s direction. Perhaps it is weak of him to give into it, to allow her to do this for him, but he can’t resist. Doesn’t wish to resist!

Tarrant slowly lifts his hands – no longer bandaged or be-thimbled Up Here – and frames her face in his palms. “I merely helped ye find yer own. Nae more than tha’.” He takes a deep breath and sighs it out. “I’m sorry I shouted. I’m sorry...”

“Shush, it’s all right. You’re right to be angry with me. I’ve been monumentally foolish.”

“Promise me ye willnae risk yer safety again,” his whispers intently and then winces when he realizes what he’d just said.

Ye fool! Ye swore ne’er teh ask her fer a Promise again!

“I promise,” she replies softly, “to always choose us.”

He catches the distinction as easily as she catches the slight twitch of the muscles surrounding his right eye, but he doesn’t argue. To do so would be futile. To ask for more would be to ask for the impossible.

His rage finally abandons him completely. He sighs. His shoulders slump. Alice removes the book from his hands and replaces it upon the shelf.


He squeezes his eyes shut and clenches his jaw. He swallows. “I’m sorry, Alice. I shouldn’t have lost my temper with you. I...”

She waits, holds onto him while he struggles with words and thoughts and ideas and feelings and...

“I need you,” he finally says. “Every day. Fer th’ rest o’m’life. The madness ne’er really... I was stronger once, bu’nauw I cannae control it wi’out ye... I thought I was healed bu’ I’m... ye’re my Sanity, Alice, an’ tha’ moment... when I couldnae feel ye anymore... In an instan’ I was Lost an’... an’...”

“And you saved us nonetheless,” she interrupts, reaffirms her grip on his shoulders. “You saved us.

He shakes his head. His hands move to her sides, as if he needs to hold himself steady, as if the room rocks and sways like a boat in a storm as she is his only anchor. “I’m Mad, Alice. Irreparably. I’ll ne’er be healed, be whole fer ye. An’ if a mahn cannae b’angry o’er his own broken-ness then I d’nae ken wha’ he can rage o’er!”

“Tarrant,” she whispers, stepping closer. Between them, the heart line weaves and twists as if it could shatter under the weight of their combined heartache. “We are both broken. I... you have no idea how frightened I was when you were just suddenly... Gone. From my heart, from my sight, from the room and I... I... I’m not The Alice without you. Perhaps I rely on you too much for strength, but I... I...”

Words appear to abandon her. But his Alice – his Champion! – she rushes after them and hauls them back!

“Fates, but I do not want to think about This!” Alice closes her eyes and mutters, “I’ve tried to not remember that... that moment of... fear. When the heart line just... vanished. When I couldn’t... feel you anymore and...” Her fingers tighten on his shoulders. “I’d thought I was stronger – that I’d become stronger – than that! But... I wasn’t. I’m not. I...”

Tarrant doesn’t move, barely dares to breathe. Is it possible his Alice...?

She opens her eyes. Confesses: “I Need you just as much as you need me. For the rest of our life.

His answer is to lower his mouth to hers, to pull her close, to wrap his arms around her. He hears a soft noise rise up from her throat, a moan-ish breath and he doesn’t care that they’re in the library, that Alice’s sister is due to arrive soon, that Hamish – who had accompanied Alice to that blasted meeting! – is no doubt waiting in the parlor with Helen, that dinner will begin on the hour...

Her arms tighten around his shoulders. Her fingers clench in his soft, wavy hair. Her body moves toward his in ways that are meant to drive him out of his mind! Their mouths devour each other’s breaths and but for their bothersome clothing they can be no closer to each other – a situation he knows just how to address! Or, rather undress...

The sound of the door opening and a huffy exclamation of “Oh-dear-Lord!” finally manages to make an impression on both of them. Regretfully, Tarrant leans back, his fingertips brushing over the buttons of her dress and one of Alice’s warm, skillful hands just an inch shy of Tarrant’s belt.

“Impeccable timing, Hamish,” Alice grumbles, sending a glare in his direction.

“You see? What did I tell you, madam? If we’d waited in another five minutes to fetch them for dinner, there’s no telling what sort of impropriety we might have been subjected to!”

Margaret bites her lip to keep from laughing at Hamish’s scandalized tone.

“Only five minutes?” Alice mutters and Tarrant giggles. With seven years of practice at it, undressing one’s spouse as speedily and efficiently as possible becomes a source of pride!

She turns toward Hamish and accuses, “Next time, don’t make it a point to play hide and seek in someone else’s house and you won’t risk being so offended!”

And, perhaps this is Not the Time for it, but Tarrant can’t help the swell of masculine pride at the vehement way his wife prioritizes his touch, his kisses. Yes, his Alice does need him. And she damns anyone who would judge her poorly for that!

“Alice! Listen to yourself! You are...” Hamish visibly searches for a term that is both an accurate description of their activities and something he can tolerate uttering aloud. “... embracing in your mother’s library. A common room of a residence not your own! Have you no shame?”

Tarrant watches as she pretends to consider that. “No, I don’t believe I do.”

“Yes, yes, I’m afraid we’re both rather short on Shame. Bothersome fellow as he’s often followed by Regret,” Tarrant asserts, his eyes sparkling. “Or perhaps Embarrassment or both and an assortment of unpleasant Cousins until you’ve run out of teacups and serving sets!”

Alice chuckles and glances at him, grinning knowingly. Which, she really shouldn’t have done as that particular smile never fails to evoke certain reactions from him. For instance...

His mouth mindlessly presses against hers again, and she swiftly grants his tongue entrance and...!

“Alice, please!” Margaret announces on a laugh. “If you don’t pry yourself away from your lord-tailor-husband, we shall leave you right here and start dinner without you!”

That gets Tarrant’s attention! He pulls back and gently informs his wife, “You must eat, mogh’linyae.”

And, miracle of miracles, his stubborn wife does not argue with him over it, despite the naughty sparkle in her dark eyes. Yet, it’s that sparkle that renews his heart, calms him, reassures him...

His Alice is safe and well and Needs him and their littlin’ is fine and occasionally Futterwhackens beneath their hands, within her belly!

Tarrant grasps onto that sensation of... contentment and holds on as tightly as he can!

Sometimes, his grip is stronger than others, but – over the course of the following weeks – it slowly strengthens.

For the most part, he manages to quash the faint uprisings of uneasiness and frustration before they – twining together – grow too great for him to Contain. It is true that he will never be whole, be healed. He knows that it is the heart line and his Alice that hold him together: a mercury-less glue. He knows he will never survive her death.

But, at the very least, he’d like to be strong enough to control his own emotions! Well, most of the time. Under normal circumstances!

They have tea with Townsend again and Tarrant points out the deeply interesting coincidence of the man’s given name: “I suppose Fate has always meant for you to live in the country, sir. As you’ve been Sent from Town, Townsend.”

Alice had snorted so hard she’d nearly dribbled tea on herself – poor timing, really, after all, he’d warned her through the heart line not to take a drink right then – during his moment of Delightful Insight. Of course, she might have – must have! – misinterpreted the nudge he’d sent her.

Townsend had laughed. “Perhaps you are right, Tarrant. I wonder then, according to your name, what fate has planned for you?”

Now that is something to ponder! Which he’d done during the carriage ride home as Alice had looked over the contracts Townsend had managed to convince her to review over for him:

“Truly, dear Alice, with a mind like yours applying itself to the task, I would feel much more confident about the venture.”

She tries, his Alice. She truly does, but when he finishes his evening bath – again, she’d insisted he bathe first while she finished just one more section – Tarrant finds his wife slumped over the writing desk, her head pillowed in her arms. For a moment – a brief yet Eternal moment! – Tarrant thinks... fears... panics...!

And then her brows draw together and a small noise of distress escapes her lips.

She’s o’ly sleepin’, lad.

Yes, yes. Sleeping. Or... nightmaring?

‘Tis yer own panic she’s feelin’. Are ye tryin’ teh wake her?

What? No, no. Mustn’t wake Alice. She needs the rest.

He lays a hand against her disheveled hair – longer now than it has been in years! – and calms himself. When she settles again, Tarrant carefully rolls her out of the stiff, wooden chair and into his arms. It’s but two steps to the bed where he lays her down and attends to her shoes. Unfortunately, when he tries to pull them off, a great deal of force is required. Noticeable force.

“Hm? Tarrant?”

“I’m gettin’ ye ready fer bed, love.”

“Oh... sorry. Tired...”

The boots tumble to the floor and he gently rolls her onto her side so that he can get to the buttons of her dress. “’Tis all righ’. Sleep, Raven. Sleep.”

She does.

He dresses her in a nightgown – his gaze lingering over the gentle, convex curve of her stomach – and then he tucks her into bed. He doesn’t sleep, though. He’s not tired yet. He sits beside her with her dress on his lap and looks over the seams before deciding they’ll be too much trouble to let out. No, he’ll simply have to send a request to the Royal Seamstress for another set of dresses. Alice will need them. Soon.

“I’m goin’ teh be a fa’her,” he muses softly, his gaze moving over Alice. Alice. His wife, his Champion, his lover, his Everything... even the mother of his child.

Tarrant clenches his fists, grits his teeth and tries not to wake her – again! – with emotional over-spillage. After a few moments, the Thought moves toward the back of his mind, and he lets out the breath he’d been holding. The sense of accomplishment is small, but it makes him smile.

“I’ll be strong fer ye again, Alice. I will.

And his determination seems to be enough to drive away the nightmares – the memories! – for another night. However, it cannot keep them away indefinitely. No, they sneak up on him at the worst possible times: at tea with Helen when Alice reaches across the table for the cream without bothering to ask him to pass it; in the bath when she stands up in the slippery tub without waiting for him to extend a hand to help her; when her stomach grumbles with hunger that she hadn’t mentioned despite the fact that she must have been hungry for some time!

“Alice,” he reminds her again and again. “You Promised to tell me when you needed something...”

“It’s only a small thing,” she answers with a smile.

Not for the first time (and certainly not the last!), he fits his palm against her belly and whispers, “’Tis th’ little thin’s I most wan’tae look after.”

Sometimes, she lets him. And sometimes...

Sometimes... he has to make her let him.

“Honestly! I can run my own bathwater!”

“Tarrant, you don’t have to rub my feet...”

“No, really, I can make up the tea tray. I was taught by a master, you know!”

“Stop. Please. There’s no reason – no rational reason – for me to not go for regular walks in the park with Margaret!”

In that particular instance, Tarrant had replied, “Yes, yes, but the name of the park in question is most... unfortunate.”

“Hyde Park?”

“Yes. Hide! Who knows how many people have gone missing in such a place! Or what if you Call me and I’m unable to find you because the park has Hidden itself or—!”

“I don’t panic whenever you go galumphing off with Hamish,” she’d reminded him. Then had paused and, regarding him with a playfully suspicious look, had asked, “Or should I?”

Yes, perhaps he is a bit overprotective. But, considering recent events, Tarrant thinks he’s entitled! And it’s doubly annoying that his Alice rarely asks for anything. (Irritating in the extreme!) He would be happy to do-make-give! her whatever she wants.

Unfortunately, the only thing she’s asked for is for him spend hours away from her, several times a week, engaging in utterly pointless exercise!

Fencing. Tarrant sighs as he recalls the introductory lesson to this odd and poorly named activity.

The lecture had begun with: “Gentlemen, the point of swordsmanship—”

And had, from the onset, unfortunately lacked in both clarification and accuracy! To which Tarrant had thought to enlighten the man:

“Oh! I do beg your pardon, sir, but if it’s these rather annoyingly whippy, oversized hatpins to which you are referring, I feel I must alert you to the fact that they are... well, that is to say... Their points are – unfortunately – missing.

The club’s fencing instructor had not appeared to take this information seriously. The man had stared – in a rather unfriendly manner! – at Tarrant, who, with an affronted frown, had turned toward his companion.

Hamish had sighed. “Hightopp, for the last time! These are swords and their tips are not missing. They are capped! For our safety!”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes! This exercise will be perfectly safe!”

“No, no, no. What I meant was are you sure this is the last time you’ll be insisting on that nonsense?”

“Nonsense!” Hamish had blustered in a very Helen-Kingsleigh sort of way. “Now, see here, Hightopp! We’re here to learn how to fence—!”

“Yet with no boards or slats or hammers or nails or bricks or mortar or logs or pins or wire or even marzipan in sight!” Tarrant had argued. “What sort of fence is one without – at the very least! – gingerbread bricks and molasses? I ask you!”

Hamish’s response had been to blink uselessly at him.

The fencing instructor had made a rather rude noise which he’d attempted – poorly! – to cover with a forced cough. “Ahem, yes, thank you for that, Lord Hightopp. Now, as I was saying, the art of fencing—”

Tarrant had opened his mouth to protest the nonsensical misclassification of the activity they’d been about to attempt.

Hamish, however, had cut him off, “The fence comes later.”

“We’ll be building fences?”


“Fighting on the tops of fences?”

“If it’s possible, I’m sure you’ll find a way to do so.”

“Then I fear you’ll have to cut back on cake at afternoon tea, Ascot, or I doubt you’ll manage it without tumbling off and skewering yourself with this... this...!” Tarrant had scowled at the sorry excuse for a weapon and swished it through the air, making it whoosh! as it had traveled this way and that.

Hamish had glared at him.

But, in all honestly, Tarrant had already become accustomed to it by that time. He’d smiled back.

The instructor had cleared his throat again. “Perhaps... yes, let’s just begin and... see how things go from there. Lord Ascot, if you’ll demonstrate the correct posture for Lord Hightopp?”

He’d done so.

Tarrant recalls that his eyebrows had twitched with amusement. “What in all of Und—er, this room lacking in fences is that supposed to be?”

Hamish glowered at him. “This is how one begins a fair fight. Now, will you just—!?”

Tarrant hadn’t been able to prevent himself from snorting out a cackle.

Hamish had responded by groaning and straightening. “What is it now, you barbarian?” His tone had been weary and not a little annoyed.

Tarrant, waving a hand as if batting away a wisp of smoke from Absolem’s hookah, had obligingly stated, “A fair fight? Goodness! You people do have the strangest ideas!”

“I beg your pardon?”

“If a fight were fair, there wouldn’t be a winner, now would there? Both opponents being equal and such, which rather defeats the point of fighting, wouldn’t you say? Rather, negates it altogether. In fact, one couldn’t really call it a fight now could they? It’d more of a—!”

A rather high-pitched growl had been Tarrant’s only warning.

He’s not given the same courtesy this time, however.

Hamish, obviously having grown tired of waiting for Tarrant’s attack, slices his foil through the air, right at Tarrant’s nose!

Scowling – for Alice won’t like it if he returns home with bruises – Tarrant uses his own implement – for it is most definitely not a sword; why it’s not even a sickly cousin of his broadsword or Frabjous Day claymore! – to block the attack – Parry! he remembers the move is called – and, with a flick of his wrist, steps forward into a lunge.

“Foils up, gentlemen!” the instructor calls.

Foils! Tarrant thinks with a amused smirk. And just what precisely are they meant to foil? The opponent’s concentration?

As the instructor rambles on about posture and whatnot, Tarrant allows that it might just be the case that foils are meant to discombobulate one’s adversary. The things are rather difficult to keep one’s eye on...!

“Hightopp! Are you paying attention?”

“I’m afraid not,” he admits. “I was just contemplating—”

“Perhaps,” Hamish says, rudely interrupting him to comment to the instructor, “a practical approach rather than theory would better serve us today, sir.”

“Perhaps you are right. Very well. Do you worst to each other. No doubt the one of you who minds my instructions will emerge the better for it.”

Tarrant huffs a bit at the implication that he’s unable to focus adequately and refuses to accept criticism! Why, the very notion is ridiculous! Especially since Alice had asked him for his specifically! Why, she’s counting on him to—!

With a surprised yelp, Tarrant counters Hamish’s sudden thrust and the paltry sword-fight-that-does-not-utilize-proper-swords-and-is-more-a-dance-than-an-actual-fight continues. Why Alice would fancy learning this useless sport is Beyond him!

A half an hour later, after Tarrant has “broken the rules of engagement” five times in various manners – purposefully tripping his opponent, grasping Hamish’s wrist, and elbowing him in the ribs – and despite his protests to the contrary – “This is a fight! You can’t expect me to simply wave this oversized hatpin at him, glaring as I do so!” – and the foils have been safely stowed away, Hamish says:

“I’d say ‘good show, old man’, however...”

“I’m neither old, nor was it a show, and it would have been rather worth our while had we been permitted to use an actual sword.”

“Foils are swords, Hightopp,” Hamish continues, his voice flat with repetition.

“Next you’ll be telling me that the sun rises in the east!”

“It does.”

“... ah. So. I’m quite unsurprised to hear you make that assertion.”

Hamish pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He sighs. Heavily. “I don’t know why I bother to put up with your oddness.”

“Perhaps you might consult Alice on that point? I’m sure she’ll provide a few justifications.”

“I highly doubt Alice and I would be able to see eye-to-eye on your... better qualities.”

“Oh! Yes, yes. Perhaps not. She’s considerably shorter than you and seeing things eye-to-eye rather implies an equality of height, doesn’t it?”

Hamish snorts. “That may be, but I believe she makes up for her shorter stature in strength of stubbornness.”

Giggling, Tarrant agrees.

They finish getting cleaned up from the lesson and on Hamish’s suggestion – “We’ve time for a game or two of billiards yet.” – wander into the games room. Hamish leads him to an unoccupied table and Tarrant glances curiously through the open door on this side of the large room.

“Is that...?”

“The card tables through there? Yes,” Hamish replies shortly, disgust in his tone, as he hands Tarrant a cue stick.

Foregoing his usual remark on Londoners’ apparent affinity for long, slender, point-less objects, Tarrant instead observes, “Is that Lord Manchester...?”

“Gambling away his wife’s affection, his son’s future, and his own self-respect? Yes. It is.”

Tarrant raises his brows and, turning toward Hamish, comments, “You disapprove?”

Hamish sets up the table, frowning most viciously at the balls and felt-covered surface. And it’s just as well items cannot speak here in London or he’s sure Hamish would have been warned that if he continues to scowl in such a manner his expression will become stuck that way for a Good Long While!

“I do not approve,” Hamish replies. “Of gambling, drinking hard liquor in the middle of the afternoon, blatant infidelity, or idiocy in general.”

“Ah... so that would be why you don’t take fencing lessons with Lord Manchester,” Tarrant summarizes.

“Were the caps removed from the points of the foils, I might consider it, however,” Hamish comments darkly.

Tarrant, wisely, says nothing. Hamish performs something called “the break” with a bit more force than Tarrant has grown accustomed to but, other than that, the game continues quite pleasantly. Well, as pleasantly as a game wherein sticks are used to push balls around a table can be.

“I still can’t fathom why one mustn’t throw the balls into the proper holes,” Tarrant complains to the cue stick in his hands. “It’s far more direct. Imminently more satisfying as well. Throwing things.” He thinks of Thackery and Mally and grins wistfully.

“Perhaps the point,” Hamish returns as he studies the layout of the table, “is not to achieve one’s goals through direct means. I do believe such pursuits are intended to hone one’s skills at strategy and coordination.”

“Ah...” Well, considering their regular lessons with those ridiculously whippy excuses for swords perhaps a bit more coordination would be quite useful.

“Hightopp! It is you!”

Tarrant startles as a hand claps him on the shoulder. He turns and finds himself in the company of a rather intoxicated Lowell Manchester. He twitches his chin to the side when his nose encounters a veritable cloud of Bandersnatch-bile on the man’s breath.

“Didn’t expect to see you here, in a place like this, chap. However did you...?”

Hamish sets the end of his cue against the floor with a smart bang! and tightens his fingers around the stick. “Manchester,” he greets with surprising civility.

“Ascot.” Lowell sends a cursory glance at Tarrant’s companion then looks back again. Comprehension dawns: “Oh, but of course. On Ascot’s invitation, yes? Very kind of you, sir.”

Lowell turns back to Tarrant and grins. It is not a friendly expression. Or perhaps, the trouble with it is that it is too friendly. Tarrant watches the man warily, remembering the snide remarks (in the Kingsleigh library) and disdainful silence (during dinner at the Manchester residence in town) and says nothing.

“In fact, I’ve been quite remiss in my duties as a brother-in-law, haven’t I, Hightopp?”

“That’s Lord Hightopp,” Hamish reminds him, his bland tone utterly ruined by the narrowing of his eyes.

“Lord—!” Lowell guffaws. “Well, certainly, but we’re family, are we not? Those sorts of formalities aren’t necessary! Now! Hightopp, what say you sit down and join me for a game of cards. We’re in need of a fourth.”

“Thank you for the invitation,” Tarrant says as neutrally as possible despite his uneasiness and rolling stomach. “But, as you can see, I’m in the middle of a game of billiards at the moment.”

“But you won’t mind me borrowing Hightopp for a bit, will you, Ascot?” Lowell replies, grinning.

“I’m afraid I will. As will Lady Hightopp as she’s expecting his return soon.”

Lowell snorts. “I’m sure Alice will understand.”

Tarrant, oddly enough, feels the urge to send his fist through Lowell’s teeth at the very sound of his wife’s given name being slung about so casually by this... this...! “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll have to count me out. I’ve no affection for card games.”

Which is true. The last deck he’d met had not survived him, actually.

“I’ll show you the way of it, Hightopp! No need to be anxious. Now, you’ve got an hour, haven’t you? Come along and bring your quid. The opening stake is—”

“Leave off him, Lowell,” Hamish growls.

“You’ll not patsy up to your brother-in-law to help you win back your quickly-lost pounds!” Hamish slams his cue stick down on the tabletop, making Tarrant jump and Lowell scowl. “Hightopp, if you’ve don’t mind, I’ve had quite enough of this nonsense for today!”

“You needn’t shackle yourself to this... fellow,” Lowell advises Tarrant. “Why, I wouldn’t mind having my driver drop you off home in a bit.”

Tarrant gently but firmly shakes Lowell’s grip from his arm. “A generous offer, to be sure,” Tarrant says. “But I’m afraid I must decline. Ascot has promised to assist me with something very important this afternoon and, as he’s cleared his schedule for it, I’d hate to waste his time.”

He bows himself just out of arm’s reach. “Best of luck with your cards, sir. Although, if you find yourself having difficulties, might I suggest that another set might be more accommodating? Just a thought. Have a pleasant day.”

And with that, Tarrant nods to Hamish, who turns on his heel and marches from the room. Tarrant doesn’t try to keep up with him.

It’s not until they’re in the Ascot carriage that the man lets loose:

“That... that rotter! That utter bounder! How dare he attempt to cozy up to you in a blatant appeal for funds in a public venue!”

Tarrant is unsurprised to hear this; he’d thought Lowell must have had some sort of ulterior motive for being... pleasant to him.  Hamish contines, “Has he no shame – no sense of propriety – whatsoever?” “Perhaps not,” Tarrant agrees cheerfully. “And while I’ve never found a lack of shame to be Regrettable, I’ll make an exception this once.” And then allows: “Everyone has faults of some kind,” he observes, marveling at the intensity of Hamish’s irritation. Why, it’s very nearly Irritation rather than simple London-ish irritation.

“That Lowell has his fair share and more!” Hamish grumbles, glares out the window, then rubs a gloved hand over his face and sighs. “I pity Margaret and Winslow. The man is less than worthless.”

“Now that – Pity, I mean ­– is less than worthless!” Tarrant answers. “Utterly counterproductive to anything worth having or doing.”

“True.  There are other, more productive avenues to keep in mind,” Hamish agrees. He inspects his walking stick – a gesture that Tarrant has learned he uses to reorient himself and sometimes to distract himself from inexplicable bouts of embarrassment and occasionally to assist him in puzzling through some troublesome idea – and, after a moment, says, “Well, you were right earlier: I have cleared my schedule for the day. When you spoke of an important errand on which I could accompany you, had you done so in earnest?”

Tarrant grins. “Why yes, I had! And I’d be delighted if you would!  Accompany me, that is.”

“I should be honored. Where to?”

Tarrant tells him.

Hamish coughs out a disbelieving bout of laughter. “And here I thought I’d run the gamut of humiliation and other assorted unpleasantness already today.”

Before Tarrant can do more that frown quizzically in reply, Hamish grumbles, “You’d better not tell anyone about this.”

Then he knocks on the roof of the carriage and shouts the new destination to the driver.

“Don’t worry!” Tarrant assures him. “This will be excellent fun!”

“What concerns me,” Hamish replies slowly, “is that you obviously believe that to be true.”

Tarrant snickers, shakes his head, and smiles.


“I envy you, little sister.”

Alice looks up from the embroidery she’s currently butchering. Normally, she wouldn’t have had any patience for it, but as she’d agreed to spending the afternoon with Margaret and Margaret seems to enjoy the domestic torture...

“I’m sorry? What?”

Margaret sighs heavily and, lowering the fabric and needle to her lap, confesses, “Tarrant. I envy you him.”

Alice blinks at her. “I... you... Why would you say that?” For, as surely as Alice knows the sun rises over Mamoreal from Witzend and sets in Queast, she knows that Margaret would never long for – let alone allow! – an impoverished man with wild eyebrows and long hair and a tradesman’s hands to touch her. It’s not vanity or discrimination, Alice believes. It’s simply that Margaret has only ever had an interest in her own kind. And, if there’s one thing Alice has learned from a lifetime of being compared to her older sister, it’s that Margaret is a Lady. And the proper companion for a lady is a gentleman. Which Alice is very thankful Tarrant is not.

“I’m sorry, Alice!” Margaret whispers and Alice sees tears of shame in her sister’s eyes. “I didn’t mean... I don’t...” She stops, takes a deep breath, controls herself. “I meant, I envy your marriage. It’s... it’s a marriage of substance and I wish... I wish Lowell would... would just once speak to me as if... as if...!”

“As if you have at least one interesting thought in your head,” Alice suggests, reaching across the space between their chairs and grasping her sister’s hand.

The tears return and Margaret only nods.

Alice reaches for a handkerchief – one of several she now keeps in her handbag and gently dabs the tumbling tears from her sister’s face. Margaret smiles her thanks and, her gaze darting to the bright blue handkerchief, releases a sobbing laugh.

“There, you see, Alice!” she nearly shouts. “This is exactly my point! Those aren’t your handkerchiefs – I’ve noticed Tarrant handing them to you before. They’re his and he gave them to you, didn’t he? Knowing you’d be away with me and you might need them and he wouldn’t be here himself to offer them to you and do you have any idea what I would give to receive even half that regard from Lowell?”

Alice rubs her sister’s shoulder and does her best to catch as many tears as she can. “Oh, Margaret. You were happy with him once, weren’t you? What happened?” Although, Alice thinks she already knows.

Margaret hiccups and wrestles once again for control. “Winslow happened. My beautiful son... after he was born, Lowell started... or, no, actually I don’t believe that! He no longer bothered to keep his affairs from me. That man makes a mockery of our marriage. Humiliates me with his philandering! Everyone is aware of it! And they probably laughed at me long before I ever suspected!”

Alice hides a wince. I should have told her about that scene at the engagement party...

Yes, she should have.

Damn you, Lowell, for forcing that decision on me.

Yes, she should have told Margaret, but would she have believed her then? Probably not.

“With an heir to the Manchester name, he doesn’t need me anymore,” she says. “It was all a lie, anyway. He never wanted me. He never even wanted to be married. That’s not so much to ask for, is it? For a husband to care for his wife, to want to be married to her?”

Alice shakes her head. “No, no, it’s not an unreasonable request at all. In fact, I’d say it’s your right to expect that.”

Margaret swallows thickly. “We always want what we can never have...”

Alice hesitates to ask the question she knows she has to. No one else will ask it and Margaret desperately needs to Face it. After a moment of awkward silence, she does: “What will you do, dear sister? Will you leave him? Divorce...?”

Margaret emphatically shakes her head. “No. No, I won’t. I won’t do that to you and mother.”

“Margaret, don’t use us and an excuse to delay finding your own happiness. You know I don’t care about what’s proper! And you know mother will support you in your decision, whatever it is! I’ve no doubt she wishes she could have spoken to you about this herself, but you know she can’t. She’s our mother, after all. I’m your rebellious devil-may-care sister, so I can say whatever I please!”

There’s a hysterical note in Margaret’s helpless laughter. Alice smiles for her and waits for her to calm down.

When she does, her sister whispers, “Even if I wanted to... end it, how could I? Winslow...”

Yes, Winslow would stay with his father. Alice is sure the man would never release his son and heir. And, certainly, his family would never permit it even if Lowell himself had no interest in the boy. In fact, Alice is almost completely sure he doesn’t. She’s never seen him touch the child at all, not to pick him up, not to play with him, not to kiss his brow or soothe his tears. No, Winslow is Margaret’s son. Lowell had simply been contracted labor on the part of his conception. It’s quite obvious to Alice that the man believes his job is Done.

Alice sighs. “I hate this place. These rules and restrictions.”

Margaret turns and gawks, utterly gob smacked. “Alice, don’t say such things! This is our home!

And, however fleeting the thought of inviting her sister to Underland may have been, it no longer matters. It dies, unexplored, unvoiced, in that very moment.

“It’s not Society’s fault I’m trapped in this loveless marriage, that my husband shames me, that he treats me as if I’m a nothing more than a fixture of this house! I did this to myself, Alice. I saw what I wanted to see in him.” Margaret sighs. “I almost wish I’d never found out. I wonder how long the dream could have lasted if I hadn’t. Or if I’d borne a daughter first before Winslow...”

“Those aren’t very helpful thoughts to be having,” Alice gently scolds her. “What’s done is done. Now you have to think of Winslow. And, I’m sorry to say this, Margaret, but Lowell isn’t much of a father to him, and he needs one.”

Margaret nods, her shoulders slumping in dejection. “I know. I’d ask Lowell’s father to spend more time with him except...”

Alice sighs right along with her this time. “Yes, I know.” The man obviously hadn’t had much of a hand in his own son’s upbringing, not with the veritable empire he’d built out of what had once been a modest family business.

“If only papa were...”

Alice feels tears come to her own eyes at that. “Don’t, Margaret,” she manages through the painful tightening of her own throat. She wants to say more, to beg her sister not to torture both of them with such thoughts, but she can’t.

“I’m sorry.”

Alice nods.

The clock ticks. They sniffle and soak Tarrant’s borrowed handkerchiefs in tears. And when it seems like the morning has been completely ruined beyond repair, Margaret sits up and takes a deep breath.

“Well, this is getting maudlin. Come with me, Alice. There was a reason I asked you over today.”

Curious and still dabbing at escaping tears, Alice follows Margaret out of the small sunroom and into the parlor. Margaret smiles as she picks up a wicker basket and sets it on the sofa. Alice joins her.

“What’re those?”

Margaret lifts out the tiniest baby bunting Alice has ever seen. “Winslow’s baby clothes,” she says. “I thought you could use them... I know you and Tarrant don’t have much money with you...”

Alice doesn’t even have the presence of mind to search for something to say out of gratitude. Instead, she idiotically observes, “They’re so... small.”

Margaret laughs. “It certainly doesn’t feel like it when they’re on their way into the world!”

Alice hears a small, frantic snort and assumes she must have been the one to make it. However, her attention is focused on a boot. A little fur boot. For an impossibly small foot. Hands shaking, she reaches for it and lifts it and its partner from the neat stack.

“For winter,” Margaret explains unnecessarily.

Alice nods, feeling the burn of tears again. “It’s... so... so...

Dear Fates, her and Tarrant’s child – their child, still within her – will wear this tiny, precious, unbelievably sweet pair of boots to keep tiny toes warm from the chill and tiny ankles from getting chapped by the wind and tiny shins from becoming...

“Alice? Are you all right?”

And then it’s Margaret’s turn to hold the handkerchief to her sister’s cheek.

“I’m—sorry—Margaret—I don’t—know—what’s wrong—with me?!” she sobs.

And of course, as that’s the moment when Alice is most decidedly Not Together and her emotions are scattered and floundering like fish out of water, the front door opens and a voice calls out, “Hello? I hope it’s all right that we’ve let ourselves in!”

Brangergain i’tall! Hamish.


And Tarrant. Naturally. Well and truly, thoroughly panicking from her sudden loss of Control.

“We’re in here!” Margaret calls too helpfully. Alice wishes she had the fortitude to summon a glare at her.

But then it’s too late to bother with it because Tarrant fairly runs into the room. And Alice feels a stab of panic-relief-confusion! from him before he’s there, wrapping her in his arms. And, useless fool that she is, she clutches the pair of fur boots and sobs onto his shoulder.

Alice? Wha’s th’matter, lass?!

“N-n-nothing!” she babbles.

“It’s only the boots,” Margaret supplies as Hamish walks into the room.

“Wha’ boots? Alice? Is there sommat wrong wi’yer boots, love?” He leans over to inspect her feet.

Marshalling herself, Alice thumps the little fur boots against his chest. “Th-these b-b-boots!”

He blinks at them, a puzzled frown pulling at his brows. “I’m sorry, Alice, but I fear even I can’t adjust those to fit you. Not with the size you’re currently at. They’re far, far too small for your right-proper-Alice–”

And whatever composure she’d managed to gather is dashed to bits at the reminder of how small and helpless and precious these boots are and their child will be!

“What in the name of the queen is going on in here? Alice? Are you all right?”

“Of course she is!” Alice hears her sister reply. “She’s expecting. She’s allowed to marvel at the miracle of life!”

“The miracle of...!” There’s a slight pause and then Hamish blusters, “You gave Hightopp a right scare, Alice! Now calm yourself before the man loses his mind with worry! And here we thought you were upset over something important.

Margaret, bless her, comes to her little sister’s rescue. “Important? Important, Hamish? What could be more important that realizing one’s a part of bringing new life into the world?”

Hamish flounders.

Alice barks out a laugh, which, oddly enough helps her get her tears under control. She leans away from Tarrant and laughs. “Boots for our Hightopp,” she informs him, holding them up properly.

Tarrant’s suddenly misty-eyed stare as he looks at the little shoes in her grasp nearly sends her into an over-emotional bout of insanity... again.

However, he manfully blinks back his own tears and, looking up, smiles. “I like ‘em!”

He says nothing about their size or how they will fit their child or the important role they will play during winter... and for that, Alice damns convention, wraps her arms around his shoulders and kisses him in her sister’s parlor.

“Now,” Alice says decisively, knowing that Tarrant will never allow her to apologize for crying on his jacket, “What did you and Hamish do while you were out?”

“Yes,” Margaret says. “Let’s have some tea and then you boys can tell us all about your manly activities that have nothing whatsoever to do with babies.”

Tarrant giggles.

Hamish narrows his blue eyes at him. “Don’t say it, Hightopp. I forbid you.”

“So sorry! Must! Alice must know!” he snorts out, shaking with laughter.

“I must know what?” she demands, looking from her husband to Hamish and then back again.

“We bought a bassinet,” he whispers out in a high-pitched voice just this side of insane cackling.

“A bassinet? Whatever for?”

He sighs and gives her a long-suffering Look.

“No, I meant, why so soon? We’ve months yet.” Over three of them, if she’s counted correctly.

“Perhaps I was merely attempting to be productive.”

“Was fencing not?”

He snorts. “Fencing. The most utterly useless, senseless, nonsensical...!” He sighs and gives her a wry smile. “You will realize exactly how much I love you once you are able to permit me to teach you this... custom.”

“I can hardly wait!” She grins back, delighted.

“Yes, let’s tell Alice how very much you enjoy contradicting the instructor and then stomping on my toes, Hightopp. Very sportsmanlike of you.”

Tarrant doesn’t deny it.

Alice laughs.

Hamish harrumphs.

Margaret pats his shoulder. “Let’s get that tea on, then.”

Hamish glances down at her hand in the instant before she pulls away. “While the offer is very welcome, madam, I’m afraid I must be following Hightopp’s example – just this once!” he asserts with a mild glare in Tarrant’s direction. “– and attempt to accomplish something... productive this afternoon.”

Alice is a little surprised by the fact that Tarrant suddenly straightens. His green eyes narrow as he examines Hamish in contemplative silence.

“Well,” Margaret replies, ignorant of Tarrant’s sudden change in mood. “Far be it from me to attempt to waylay a gentleman on a mission. I’ll see you out.”

“Thank you, madam.” He turns toward Tarrant and Alice. “Will you borrow the Manchester carriage to get home or...?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Alice tells him. “The Kingsleigh carriage should be coming around on the hour.”

“Ah. Very good. Until Friday, Hightopp.”

“I look forward to it, Ascot,” Tarrant replies amiably but with a sly grin tickling the corner of his mouth.

Alice waits until her sister and Hamish have moved out of the room and down the hall. “What is it?” she asks him.

“Something productive,” Tarrant replies.

“What about it?”

“I suggested that very course of action to him earlier today.”

“Did you? How is that odd?” she asks for, by the look on his face, he had most assuredly not expected Hamish to seriously consider the suggestion at all.

“Because, Raven,” he answers, giving her a delighted yet slithy-mad smile, “I made it in reference to your sister and her... unfortunate choice of spouse.”

Alice feels her mouth drop open as Comprehension begins to dawn. First in lime green, then buttercup yellow, and then blushing rose...

She chokes, “You... you...”

And at the sound of the front door closing, Alice finds coherency and whispers urgently. “You don’t think he’d do anything... rash would you?”

“Out of my presence? I certainly hope not! I’ve been rather looking forward to seeing how Rashness suits him!”

“Tarrant!” she hisses.

His brows arc and his expression morphs into the epitome of Innocence. “Yes, love?”

Alice sighs through a grin that’s quickly becoming one of Wonder. “You are Mad.”

He giggles. “I’m glad to hear you say so, my Alice. Very glad!”

“Oh dear,” she muses. “I’m afraid we’ve made a rhyme.”

And when Margaret steps back into the room, she’s greeted with the sight of her sister and brother-in-law knee-deep in tears of helpless mirth on her sofa with a pair of baby’s winter boots still held in their hands between them.

Alice imagines they must be quite the sight if Margaret’s teary smile is anything to go by.

One Promise Kept: Book 3

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 16 of 22

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