Continuing Tales

One Promise Kept: Book 3

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 17 of 22

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Alice’s eyes snap open as Tarrant’s exclamation interrupts her first sip of her first and bloody only! cup of tea of the day.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Helen asks politely, looking up from her plate of fruit.

“Mialta,” Tarrant repeats, ignoring the presence of Alice’s mother and sister and looking very Deeply into Alice’s eyes. “Or Almita, if it’s a girl.” He searches her expression for a reaction. “And, perhaps, Tamial. If it’s a boy.”

“Oh,” Margaret muses aloud. “Those sound like... lovely names. Unique.”

Alice continues staring, tea forgotten.

“What do you think, Alice?” Helen prompts.

“Mialta, Almita, Tamial...” she muses aloud, rolls the odd similarities over in her mind. The same three pairings of letters, arranged in three different ways...

“Tamial...” Alice draws in a quick breath as realization hits her. Tamial, Almita, and Mialta! Of course! “Ta” from “Tarrant.” “Al” from “Alice.” And “Mi” from...

“If you’re still wanting to name our littlin’ for the queen,” he murmurs, looking anxious. “Or at least name in part. Partly. A part of a name. A partly named sort of name. A—!”

Alice leans forward and kisses him. Her mother coughs and turns her attention to her teacup. Margaret helps herself to another cookie.

“They’re Perfect,” she tells him when she leans back.

His gaze is slightly unfocused with the intensity of his happiness – his pupils delightfully mismatched in size and orientation – and his eyes are so utterly green! He grins his tea-stained and gap-toothed smile... and then sighs.

“I’m so happy you like them, my Alice.”

“How could I not, coming from your mind as they did?”

The sight of his smile and weakly fluttering hands and slightly twitching fingers is response enough.

“Tarrant, the tea is lovely,” Alice’s mother comments to fill the awkward silence. “As always.”

“Thank you, but... oh! Actually, it was Alice who did the honors today.”

“Alice!” her mother gasps, glancing down at her cup. “Wherever did you learn to make proper tea?”

Margaret also regards her tea with surprise.

Alice replies, placing her bare right hand on his gloved left one, “Tarrant taught me...” And at this moment, she grins widely, inviting him to share the coming joke. “ to listen to the tea leaves steeping.”

“I beg your pardon?” Helen manages.

Margaret sighs with fond exasperation. Suddenly, Alice feels like an over-imaginative six-year-old girl again. “Oh, honestly! What sort of sound is that?”

The question is meant to be an impossible one, Alice knows. She answers anyway. “It has a kind of rhyme to it... How does it go again?” She tilts her head in Tarrant’s direction and squints, digging through her memories, “Hush and brush, hiss and kiss...”

Tarrant turns his hand over on the tabletop and interlaces their fingers. Gently, he corrects her imperfect memory: “’Shush and hush they brush, lest the best be rest, hiss and kiss, lips from cup sip.’

Alice smiles. “Yes, that’s it. The sound, I mean, of tea leaves steeping.”

Her mother and sister gape at her and Tarrant.

“It’s there if you listen closely,” he asserts, his brows dancing with the force of his convictions and humor.

Margaret recovers first. “Goodness, Alice. You’re still mad,” she comments in a fond tone.

“Undoubtedly.” And she’s not alone in that madness, either. However, no one remarks on Tarrant’s eccentricities as it would be frightfully impolite to do so!

“I imagine this place you’ve yet to tell me the proper name of – this country where you live now – looks more favorably upon that sort of thing,” her mother muses with a small smile.

Alice returns the gesture. It’s odd to see a satisfied gleam in her mother’s eyes when speaking of madness. “You could say that.”

“How far is it?” Margaret asks.

Alice considers her answer. She recalls Mirana’s advice to confide the truth to her family. She feels Tarrant’s encouraging nudge via the heart line. Still, bluntly informing them that she now lives in a world that exists through the looking glass and yet far underground would not be... prudent.

Instead, she chooses a riddle: “It is further than you could ever imagine, yet closer than a dream.”

“Oh, why won’t you just tell us?” Margaret fusses. Beside her chair, Winslow waves his chubby little arms and she passes him a small piece of orange to distract him.

“Where’s the adventure in that, dear?” Helen replies and then, leaning back in her chair, invites, “Give us another hint, Alice. What sort of place is it?”

Alice fiddles with her cup. She looks up at her husband who merely smiles and nods. After a moment of contemplation, she selects a page from Tarrant’s wonderfully eccentric book of Thoughts.

She says, “I’ve been considering things that begin with the letter ‘M’...” She rests a hand on her belly, grins, and says, “Miracles...”

“Muchness,” Tarrant immediately contributes.

“Madness,” she counters and then looks across the table at her mother and sister.

“Marvelous?” her sister contributes after a moment of thoughtful silence.

“Magical,” Alice is surprised to hear her mother say with great assertion. In reply to Alice’s no doubt flunderwhapped look, Helen huffs. “Oh, come now, Alice. You can’t expect me to believe you’d be happy anywhere boringly normal, can you?”

Alice laughs, nods, and – daringly – adds, “Mirrors.”

Tarrant’s fingers tighten around hers.

“Mirrors?” Margaret echoes. Even Helen frowns at the word.

“Yes, mirrors. And I’m afraid that’s all the help I can give you at the moment.”

Margaret rolls her eyes. “Magnificent. Now I’ll have M-words on my mind all day.”

Tarrant giggles.

Alice hides her grin behind her cup.

Tea continues. Minutes of companionable silence later, before Helen can make a move in the direction of the teapot to refill her cup, Tarrant rises and serves her.

“Thank you, Tarrant.”

“My pleasure, madam.”

Alice watches as her mother’s gaze flickers toward his gloved left hand. And then Helen takes a deliberate breath and smiles.

Something deep within Alice’s chest unlocks and dissolves. The sensation echoes from her Heart Mark as Tarrant resumes his seat.

The sound of the doorbell, however, interrupts whatever might have been said next.

“That’ll be Hamish,” Helen predicts. “Off to the club today or will you be purchasing more furniture?”

Tarrant chuckles. “The club, madam. I’m afraid, were I to disrupt your fine home with another addition, that item would be a loom.”

“A loom?” Margaret parrots, blinking at him. “You... can weave as well?”

“Oh, no! Not well at all!” he protests. “But it’s an Out—er, Hightopp custom that a bolt of fabric be made for a new littlin’ and I’ve yet to get started on it!”

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” Alice asks.

“Yes,” her mother continues. “Why, my grandmother’s loom is up in the attic. I brought it with me when I married Charles, hoping...”

Alice sighs. “Hoping one of your children might take to it.” She shares a knowing look with her sister. In this both she and Margaret had been in complete agreement: a loom is nothing more than an medieval torture device!

Speaking of which...

Alice reaches for Tarrant’s hand and brushes his fingertips with her own. “You won’t... again will you?” Not only does she hate the thought of him deliberately hurting himself, shedding blood for even the best and most noble of reasons, but it would be Dangerous to risk revealing the color of his blood here.

He covers her hand with his. “I won’t. It will be white. A blank canvas, so to speak.”

She releases a breath and nods.

“Shall I ask Mr. Brown to have it brought down, then?” Helen asks.

“Yes, please, madam!” Tarrant enthuses. And then, after a moment of considering: “Perhaps to the sewing room if it won’t be too much of an imposition?”

“That will be fine.”

And just then the dinning room door slides open. “Lord Hamish Ascot,” the butler announces.

“Hamish!” Margaret greets with a grin. “Have some tea.” She waves across to the seat between Winslow’s bassinet and Helen’s chair.

“Thank you. I will. Good afternoon, Mrs. Kingsleigh. You’re once again looking well today.”

As Hamish slides into his seat and exchanges pleasantries with Margaret, Tarrant squeezes her hand – still lightly clasped in his – and takes a noisy sip of tea. Alice frowns briefly but forces herself not to think about her husband’s suspicions on that front. At least, not here!


They discuss Lord Ascot’s health and general wellbeing: “He’d like another visit with you next week if you can spare the time and trouble,” Hamish informs her and her husband. They discuss Lady Ascot’s next social function: “Well, that’s just as well,” Helen comments upon hearing her friend’s schedule. “I’ve arranged a luncheon with the Young Ladies Professionals Society on that day. Your mother needn’t feel obliged to attend what with her tea function to see to.” They discuss people Alice has not seen or spoken to in years, people who are eager to see her again and meet her husband, people who had glimpsed them at the Ascots’ soiree... but they do not discuss one person in particular:

No one says a single word about Lowell.

It’s well into the afternoon before Hamish remarks on the time.

“So,” Margaret says and Hamish watches as she offers an insistent Winslow a finger sandwich. “You’ll be fencing this afternoon with Tarrant?”

“No, I’m afraid not,” Hamish differs and glances across at his usual sparring partner. “I wasn’t able to reserve a lesson with the instructor. It’ll be either boxing or billiards today.”

“Boxing!?” Alice sputters before Tarrant can do more than twitch a brow in reply. “Absolutely not!” She struggles to hide her fear – dear Fates, what if someone discovers Tarrant is Different: blue blood! – beneath her outrage.

“Goodness, Hamish, I’d have to agree,” Margaret comments with shockingly fortuitous insight. “Suppose you two got carried away! However would you explain a broken nose to your father’s investors?”

“The rakish look is fashionable these days,” he replies with daring madness Alice would never have expected of him a mere month ago. “Or so I’ve heard.”

“You’ll be well raked-over indeed if you don’t give up that idea!” Alice asserts.

Tarrant giggles. “Never fear, Alice, we shall engage in nothing but utterly bloodless, boringly masculine pursuits. Like... backgammon!”

“Oh, a boisterous bout of backgammon. Behave yourselves,” Alice replies in a droll tone which doesn’t match her relieved smile.

Tarrant snorts a giggle.

Hamish ignores her. “Hightopp, last call. Are we trouncing each other or not today?”

“Trounce him,” Alice commands her husband with a smile.

“Be safe,” he answers suddenly very Serious.

She nods. It’s an easy concession to make. “Just a brisk walk around the park. Nothing for you to worry about. Enjoy yourself.”

He brushes his fingers over her cheek. “I shall endeavor to do so.” And smiling, Tarrant reaches over and collects his hat from the empty seat between him and the end of the table. Alice collects their right gloves from the empty seat beside her and passes Tarrant’s to him. He helps her up from her seat. Hamish attends to her mother and Margaret. Winslow is gathered up in his grandmother’s arms.

At the front door, where Mr. Brown is still hovering, Hamish offers, “Shall I give you a hand into your carriage, Lady Manchester? Mrs. Kingsleigh?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“That would be much appreciated.”

Alice feels Tarrant cover her hand with his own, pressing it into the crook of his arm, and he leans closer to murmur, “Would you happen to require similar assistance, my Alice?”

“Yours and no other’s,” she replies.

His smile widens and his eyes glow. “And, should you require anything else of mine...”

“I’m sure I shall and when I do, you shall know it, sir.”

“Then I shall look forward to Knowing it, my Alice.”

A smile, a caress of his gloved thumb over her gloved knuckles, and a closed carriage door later, Alice and her sister are off and on their way.

Grinning like a complete ninny, Alice leans toward the window and waves good-bye. Tarrant’s replying wave is quite... vigorous and, if Hamish’s expression is any indication, manages to sour the man’s stomach.

“It is so very good to see you happy, Alice dear,” her mother comments.

She smiles and leans back against the seat beside her sister.

“She makes a lovely mother-to-be, doesn’t she?” Margaret remarks.

Alice swallows a bubble of laughter: iambic pentameter!

She clears her throat and rallies, “And yet, for so long, you both despaired that I’d end up an old maid!”

“True enough,” Helen admits without taking her attention off of Winslow who is fussing in her arms.

Margaret contrarily adds, “I rather thought you’d never find a man who would be mad enough to have you, little sister.”

“Luckily, he found me,” Alice rebuts and their laughter sets the tone for the remainder of the afternoon.


“Hightopp, I’ve something... important to discuss with you,” Hamish announces on their way to the club.

“Oh?” He’d been expecting something like this. Why, ever since the day he’d warned Hamish away from indulging in counterproductive pity, the man has had Something on his mind. Quite obviously. And had been insufferably rude in not sharing his thoughts!

Uplanders, Tarrant mutters to himself. And not for the first time since becoming... acquaintances with Hamish Ascot.

“Yes. You see, I’ve had Lowell Manchester’s finances looked into.”

Tarrant wonders how that would be possible. “Looked into?” he queries, wondering at the odd turn of phrase in relation to financial matters.

“Investigated,” Hamish clarifies, not longer bothering to mince words. “I’ve also had an investigator follow him and report to me over the last month.”

“Oh. I see.” But only vaguely! However, he senses that full comprehension of this point will not be entirely necessary for what is to come.

He’s right.

Hamish explains his planned course of action and Tarrant turns the man’s rationale over in his mind.

“Ascot...” he begins. “I am not well-versed in these London-ish customs of yours, but... it seems to me that even Lowell will object to your... proposal.”

“I’m sure he will. However, this is all for a good cause, is it not? And, truly, how else can it be done? And who else will be willing to do it? Aside from yourself, obviously,” Hamish allows when Tarrant opens his mouth to add his own contribution. “Unfortunately, you do not have the funds for this particular enterprise.”

Tarrant objects cautiously, “I would have the funds... if you would loan them to me. That way you might avoid... difficulties.” He thinks of Lady Ascot’s reaction to what her son is planning. “Lady Ascot...”

Hamish winces. “With any luck, we shall be able to confine this matter to the sphere of gentleman’s influence. She never need know.”

“I see. Is that why you’ll proceed with this mad plan of yours at the club?”

“Yes. I can’t have a maid or butler overhearing this and reporting back to Marg—ahem, Lady Manchester. If the venture fails... If the absolute worst should happen, I would not wish her to be aware of the role she’s played... albeit unwittingly.”

Tarrant sighs. “You know I have to tell Alice.”

“Will she keep it in her confidence?”

“Alice is quite skilled at keeping secrets,” Tarrant replies. Too skilled.

“Very well. I have no objection. Only, please do not tell her where anyone can possibly overhear.”

“We’re due for another carriage ride soon,” Tarrant comments and tries to keep the lascivious grin from peeping out.

“That should suffice. Now, when we arrive, I shall need you to do the following things, Hightopp...”

Again, Tarrant listens. Listens and marvels.

“But, Ascot...” he finally manages when the man pauses to take a breath. “If... that is, if Lowell should take Offense and demand...? You would choose me to...?”

“Yes, Hightopp, I most certainly would. If you’ve no objections.”

“I...” Objections? No, he doesn’t. He would be glad to do this for Hamish, and, by extension, for Alice’s sister. However, Alice will object. Of that he is sure. “If I refuse, who will you select?”

When Hamish cannot think of an immediate reply, when no reassurance comes forward, when a flicker of fear crosses the man’s face, Tarrant knows what he must do.

I’m sorry, Alice. Forgive me.

“Never mind. I accept,” he declares.

Hamish relaxes. “I... thank you, Hightopp. It may not come to that.”

Tarrant nods but does not agree. They both know the sort of man Lowell Manchester is. And they both know the likelihood of this plan being met with peaceful, mundane success is very... small indeed.

And, as it turns out, their instincts on this matter prove to be entirely correct.

In a small, private study of the club, Hamish Ascot endures Lowell Manchester’s shock, affront, and fury.

“You... you are offering...! In exchange for my wife and son, Ascot?!” the man hisses, red-faced with lingering spirits and rage.

“No. If you’ll read the contract again, sir, you’ll realize that I am offering you a way to avoid debtor’s prison and a fresh start for yourself and your family. In the event that you find yourself incapable of that, I am attempting to allow your wife and son to seek a more... stable and financially secure protector. But only should you continue to be as monumentally foolish with their future as you have been thus far!”

Lowell barks out a laugh. “And I suppose you’d happily offer yourself for the position, Ascot?”

“No, sir. I will not. This would be Lady Manchester’s choice. In every sense of the word.”

Tarrant doesn’t point out that Margaret may still choose Lowell, despite the fact that he has neither met nor maintained his responsibilities toward her thus far in their marriage.

Lowell grits his teeth. His hand curls into a fist, crumpling the paper that, with a few signatures, will guarantee the man an advance on his annual allowance which will permit him to repay his debts which will give him a fresh start. And all that Hamish asks in return is the reimbursement of the original loan by the second week of December. It’s a simple agreement, really. And a feasible one as Lowell will be receiving his annual income in three months’ time. All the man must do is stop his excessive gambling and other... unsavory expenditures.

However, Lowell does not appear to see it that way. He sees only the price of his failure to repay the loan. A price his pride – for Tarrant cannot possibly believe his heart gives a damn! – is unwilling to allow him to consider!

This—” Lowell indicates the crushed contract in his hand. “—is an insult! I demand satisfaction, Ascot.”

Tarrant watches as Hamish, expression neutral and utterly unsurprised, nods. “Very well, sir.”

Tarrant lets out a silent sigh of regret. Alice will not be Pleased with this. No, not at all!

“Choose your Second,” Lowell instructs him. “Mine will be around on the morrow with a formal challenge.”

“I understand. Have him deliver it to the Kingsleigh residence. Hightopp will receive it.”

Lowell glares, snarls, “As I thought.” He throws a nasty glare in Tarrant’s direction before tossing the now-worthless document at Hamish’s feet and storming from the room.

After the door closes behind him, Tarrant turns toward his... friend.

“Are you truly ready to meet him, lad?”

“I’ll be perfectly fine,” Hamish replies. “Besides, he may yet reconsider. Between now and tomorrow.”

He may, Tarrant acknowledges, but doesn’t believe he will...

Again, he is proven correct.

Tarrant greets the man who calls the following morning and accepts the letter. The formal challenge. He reads it there in the parlor as Hamish had explained custom dictates.

“Will Ascot be issuing a formal apology for this slight?” Lowell’s man inquires. Tarrant thinks he recognizes him from the gaming tables. He’d never sensed much of an affinity between Lowell and any of his fellow gamblers. In fact, the man seems utterly uninterested in the proceedings.

“Not at this time,” Tarrant replies.

“Then I believe we shall meet on the morrow at the time and place given.”

“Undoubtedly,” he replies. The man sees himself out.

Tarrant folds up the letter, tucks it into his jacket pocket, and then heads upstairs to where Alice is currently drafting a letter to Townsend, arranging for a visit next week. He opens the bedroom door and blinks. For Alice is not composing the letter he’d left her working on only a few minutes ago: she is standing in the center of their room, her arms crossed over her now-clearly swollen belly and a stern expression on her face.

“Who was that just now? And what are you Dreading?” she asks.

He sighs. “Come for a carriage ride with me?” he asks, knowing they’ll need privacy for this, more than they’ll get here with Brown and the cook and the chambermaid hovering about.

“Where to?” she asks, reaching for her coat.

Tarrant helps her into it and bundles her in a scarf and woolen gloves. “To Ascot’s house in town.”

He summarizes the scene from the club yesterday in the carriage. She takes it far more calmly than he’d expected she would. Far more calmly that he would have, had their positions been reversed. He knows what he’s Asking of her: Trust. Trust of the deepest sort. Trust that, as Alice’s mind and their littlin’s future hang in the balance, Tarrant will do the Right thing, that he will Choose Them. Again. If it comes to that.

Failure is un-contemplate-able: he can guess what will happen to Alice, should the heart line break... permanently. They had both received a taste of that unbearable future...

He shivers even though Alice is a warm weight tucked up against his side.

“May I see the challenge?” she asks quietly.

Flunderwhapped by her apparent acceptance of the situation, he passes it to her, watches as she opens and reads it. “It doesn’t say what Hamish did or said to cause this reaction from Lowell.”

“Oh, it doesn’t?” he attempts to stall.

Alice has none of it. “What happened?”

Tarrant explains – as best he can considering his limited understanding of Uplandish customs and logic – the nature of the contract Hamish had had drawn up.

“Ah...” she finally says.


She sighs and returns the letter to him. “Tarrant...”

“I’m sorry, Alice! It’s just... Hamish needs... and I’m the only one who...!” Tarrant snaps his mouth shut and, closing his eyes, takes a deep breath before attempting to explain his rationale in a rational manner.

Alice’s bare fingers, still warm from being protected from the early autumn chill by her woolen gloves, press against his lips. “I know.” She doesn’t look happy – not at all! – but he can see and sense and Feel that she Understands. “It’s Hamish’s right to choose the weapon in this case. I trust him not to choose pistols.” She looks him in the eye. “I would not be able to stand by knowing you might be facing a handgun in a duel to the death,” she informs him. “Lowell demands satisfaction to the last man standing. Which means that there will be a physician present to rule one man or the other unfit to continue fighting; you should not have to take his place and...” Here, she draws a slow, deep breath. “And fight Lowell.” The idea is obviously abhorrent to her but all she says is: “You’ve stood by while I’ve fought. By the sword, the knife, the staff... And I named you my Champion. I suppose that makes you Margaret’s as well... because, well... you know I’d protect her – do this for her – myself if I could.”

“Alice, Hamish is Margaret’s Champion. I’m just—”

“—his Second. I know.” She shakes her head but doesn’t move out of his arms, for which he’s very, very thankful. “But I’ll be coming with you.”

“What?! No! Alice...!

She turns toward him, her eyes blazing with temper and the mark over his heart is suddenly broiling him alive! “Whenever possible, you have always attended my duels. I claim that right now, Tarrant. You won’t dissuade or deny me.” She sits back and, closing her eyes, whispers, “If you have to fight, you may need to be healed afterwards. I need to be there to do that. If it comes to that.”

He feels her rage-fear-anger-pain-need-denial-fury-terror! subside. But he knows it’s not Gone. No, she has merely wrestled it back under control.

“You’ll stay in the carriage?” he asks.

“Yes,” she agrees. “Unless you need me.”

“I need ye teh b’safe. Teh b’all righ’.”

“And the very same applies to you, Raven.” She tucks her head under his chin and nuzzles his coat. “Please keep that in mind.”

Tarrant tucks his head down, breathes in the scent that rises up from his wife’s now-wavy hair. “’Twill b’jus’fine, my Alice.”

She nods but her hands tighten on his jacket sleeves.

She Worries.

So does he.

But they’ve reached an Agreement.

And not a moment too soon, for, at that moment, the carriage slows and pulls over in front of the Ascot townhouse.


“Let me make sure I understand this, Hamish,” Alice says, subtly struggling with a storm of emotions. He Feels the occasional rumble, the brief flashes of heat, like an electrical storm within his chest. “According to this contract you presented to him, if Lowell can’t pay you back, you would force him to offer Margaret not only a divorce, but permanent custody of Winslow?”

“No!” he huffs. “Blast it, Alice! Haven’t you been paying attention?”

She grins knowingly at him. “Perhaps not. It’s hard to think past the part where you asked my husband to stand up with you and possibly fight on your behalf if circumstances demand it.”

Hamish has the grace to look abashed. “I will not permit any harm to come to your Hightopp, Alice. I give you my word. This is between Manchester and myself.”

“Yes, back to that. What is, or rather, was the purpose of this contract?”

Hamish leans back into his armchair and sighs. “I was attempting to give Manchester a fresh start. I’d advance him the sum of his salary from his father’s company. He’d need only use it to square his debts – get his feet back under him and his head back on his shoulders. I intended that he finally manage to curtail his rash and foolish expenditures when he realizes how very close he is to causing his family profound public humiliation.”

“Why hasn’t Lord Manchester stepped in? He’s Lowell’s father,” Alice points out and Tarrant Understands her perfectly: This is not your responsibility, Hamish Ascot, so why had you decided to take it on nonetheless?

“I’m afraid he already has. Stepped in. Advanced funds to his son already this year.”

Alice shakes her head. “And yet you persist with this mad idea? What made you think Lowell would be able to pay you back if his habits have become that bad?” She narrows her eyes at him. “Unless, you were expecting that he wouldn’t...?”

Hamish glares at her.

“If he had chosen this contract of yours over debtor’s prison, you would be, you realize, essentially forcing the man to divorce his wife and abandon his son?”

“I didn’t intend to force him to do anything! The decision whether or not to proceed with a divorce would have been Lady Manchester’s! Should she have required legal representation, I would have happily employed a solicitor on her behalf, but... However... Why are we still discussing this blasted contract? Manchester rejected it – very soundly! – so it’s a moot point!”

“Humor me.”

Hamish glances at Tarrant who merely shrugs and admits, “I’m rather curious myself. About how these things work here in London.”

Obliged to satisfy his guests’ enquiries, Hamish huffs to himself and starts over, straightening his shoulders. “The contract was intended to force Manchester to finally come to his senses. If he didn’t pull himself together, he’d have to disclose his personal bankruptcy to your sister. And she may yet choose to stay with him but – bloody hell! – I’d like to see her with the option of doing what she feels is best for herself and her son. That is all, Alice!”

“An admirable goal,” Alice admits. “And, perhaps because of that, it seems to have been more than enough to anger Lowell. It also seems more than enough reason to endanger my husband’s life. And, were it not for the fact that you obviously have my sister and nephew’s welfare in mind, I would probably kill you in cold blood for even daring to think it.”

Tarrant fists his hands and resists the urge to shudder. He knows that Tone of voice. He’s heard it before:

“Good boy. I suppose you can be taught after all.”

Madness. Alice is dancing upon the very Line between being a mercenary and a Champion. A wife – a mother! – and a sister, a heroine.

“And yet,” she continues, leaning forward as far as her belly and their seven-month-old child will comfortably allow, “I wonder if you’ve truly considered the implications of your actions, Hamish. Do you realize you just tried to buy my sister’s divorce? You presented yourself as Margaret Manchester’s protector...?

“Stop it, Alice. We grew up together, the three of us. Our fathers were close friends and sometimes business partners. For obvious reasons, my own father cannot stand in for yours. Hence, this situation falls to me to be dealt with.”

“Do you really believe that?” Alice challenges. “You honestly see yourself as a surrogate father to Margaret?”

His mouth works. His expression turns quite consternated.

“That’s what I thought,” she replies to his eloquent silence. “You won’t be able to keep this – the duel and the reason for it – from my sister, you know.”

“You won’t tell her,” he dares with more bluster than confidence.

“No, I won’t. But I hear Lowell’s awfully talkative when he’s on his second bottle of scotch. Rather enjoys shouting all sorts of things at his father’s portrait in the library. Who knows what might come out?”

“Blast,” Hamish mutters. He shakes his head. “No. No, he won’t dare. We’ll keep this between ourselves.”

“Famous last words,” Alice counters.

“Excellent,” Hamish replies. “That means you’ll be on your way soon then, does it?”

Alice barks out a laugh. “Very well, Hamish. We’ll leave you with your foolishness. Perhaps you’ll come to your senses...”

Hamish sighs. Deeply. “Alice, Manchester has failed your sister and she doesn’t even know the true extent of it!” He runs a hand over his cravat self-consciously. “I merely tried to help.” Tarrant thinks he hears Alice mutter something about terminally heroic males, but he can’t be sure... Hamish rallies, “Or would you rather see her and your nephew suffer because of that man’s selfishness, short-sightedness, and lack of self-discipline? Our families have been tied together for too long for me to do nothing. Unfortunately, that contract was the best option available to me... Unless you’d like to simply do away with the cad entirely!”

Hamish is only half-serious. But Tarrant is startled to actually see and Feel his Alice consider the option!

After a long moment, she finally says, “I’d rather you not be called down to Floor to explain yourself in front of the House of Lords. Margaret would not be able to bear the shame of it. The accusations. The scandal would be even worse in that case.” She sighs. “No. Don’t kill Lowell. He’d be made out to be a hero and you and my sister...”

“Yes,” Hamish agrees shortly.

Brangergain i’tall but how did you ever manage to get yourself into this mess?” she asks weakly.

“That,” Tarrant says, speaking for the first time since they’d crossed the threshold, “would be my fault. And a small comment about productivity, if I’m not mistaken?” He glances at his startled-looking friend. “If I had merely encouraged you to continue pitying Margaret’s situation, you would not have felt the need to hire an investigator... and then a solicitor... and then approach Manchester with that contract... and then... ahem, yes, yes, exactly!”

For a long moment, the silence is Absolute.

And then Alice laughs. “Oh, bulloghin’ boggletogs. I should have known.” But when she turns and looks at Tarrant, her smile is genuine. “You started this mess, did you, Raven?”

“I... believe so, yes, my Alice.”

She shakes her head, but not in denial or disappointment but in wondering disbelief. With an arc of her brows, she declares, “Then we’ll have to see it through.”

“We?” Hamish parrots. “I dearly hope you’re not including yourself in this, madam!”

“I am,” she replies mildly. “So make room in the carriage.”

“For an unreasonable, obstinate, irrationally stubborn lady in a delicate condition?” he clarifies accusingly. And when Tarrant giggles at the utter accuracy of Hamish’s proclamation, the man glares and – eyes promising something utterly nasty – draws a breath to speak.

Alice cuts him off. “Speak your mind with regards to me all you like, but you’ve not the experience or the wisdom required to accurately judge Tarrant. Besides,” she concludes, “you’ve insulted enough of your peers for one twenty-four hour period, haven’t you?”

“I suppose I have,” Hamish replies, deflating.

Alice moves as if to stand and Tarrant leaps up to help her. She surprises him by not moving toward the door to the private study, however. She approaches Hamish’s chair and lays a hand on the back of it. “We’ll stay with you if you’d like,” Alice offers with sudden compassion. “You don’t have to be alone in this house today. And I’ll swear not to speak another word concerning tomorrow.”

Hamish leans his head back against the chair. He smiles. For nearly a minute, the man says nothing. And then: “Well, in that case, tea anyone?”

Tarrant cackles. “I was wondering if you’d forgotten entirely!”

Apparently, it’s too much trouble to look affronted. Hamish shrugs. “Blame your wife. She wouldn’t stop harping at me long enough for me to offer.”

Alice returns his smile. “My condition must be muddling my priorities.”

Hamish laughs.

Tarrant lets out a breath, expelling his tension and then drawing in the fortitude necessary for What Comes Next.  What Alice had promised she will not speak of.  And what must be done in order to avoid thinking of it as well. Perhaps... yes, perhaps... Tarrant decides: “Well, that’s settled then. We’ll stay for a bit and, in exchange, you will permit me one liberty, sir.”

“What’s that, Hightopp?”

“No, no! No objections!” Tarrant forestalls him. “For I will be teaching you how to make a proper pot of tea!”

Alice bites her lip but her humor dances within his chest. Hamish groans. “Bloody hell. Domestic torture. I should have known.”

“Yes, you really should have,” Tarrant agrees. “Even you cannot stomach that shukm you brew!”

Hamish harrumphs. “That is not even a proper word,” he objects, standing.

“It is where we come from,” Tarrant counters. “Now, to the kitchen! March ‘Hare’!”

Alice laughs out loud. Hamish gives Tarrant a blank look then, with a shrug and a toss of his bright red hair, leads the way.

One Promise Kept: Book 3

A Alice in Wonderland Story
by Manniness

Part 17 of 22

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