Hackett checked on Alice in her room late that night, and she immediately motioned him over to her bedside.
“Look,” she said, motioning to the sleeping infant snuggled against her breast. “The baby has her mouth hanging wide open.”
He leaned over, but Alice shook her head. “You have to see her from this angle. It’s the cutest darn thing ever.” She scooted herself forward a bit, and patted the bed beside her.
Silently, he sat down beside her and very slowly wrapped his arms around her, careful not to disturb the baby. Alice settled herself against him, and a warm buzz began building inside her heart, along with a deep sense of belonging.
“I finally figured it out,” she whispered. “What you meant way back then.”
“Hm?” Hackett grunted.
“When we first met, you said something like, ‘I hope you learn how to act with dignity.’ It took me an embarrassingly long time, but I finally figured out what you meant.”
“Tell me then,” he whispered, his mouth touching the top of her hair.
“It means knowing that I’m worth something, and acting like it too.” Alice closed her eyes. “Before, I lived like I was disposable, so it was no wonder that I was used and thrown away. But for Alicia, I’m her whole world. I’m the reason she exists, and I can never be replaced as her mother. When I think about myself from her perspective, it makes me want to be a totally different person – the sort of person who’s worthy of that love.”
Laying against Hackett’s chest with his arms around her made her feel so cozy and secure, the weight of the events over the past week pressed down against her like a heavy blanket. Alice felt herself dozing off in the peaceful moment that followed.
“Will you marry me?” he asked so quietly she barely heard him.
“Mm, yes,” she murmured in reply.
“Alice … I want you to say no.”
His words roused her, and she realized that the question hadn’t been a dream but reality. “I don’t understand.” She lifted her head up and twisted around to look at him.
“It’s easy to be a hero in here; all I have to do is eat breakfast and take you on a walk through the woods. But the outside is different. Outside, you’ll be alone while I work long hours, and you’ll discover disappointment after disappointment in me. Not to mention, you’re in the bloom of your life, and I might as well be middle-aged. You deserve better than what I can offer.”
“But, Basil …” Alice paused to carefully set Alicia down on the bed next to her, arranging a pillow to keep her from falling off the side, then pulling the blankets farther away from the baby just in case. Satisfied, she turned to fully face him. “Why ask if you don’t want to?”
“I do want to marry you. That day when I gave you the baby things, and you wrapped the blanket around your stomach while chatting away to your unborn child, I thought to myself that I’d be a fool not to ask for your hand. I couldn’t live with knowing that I never took the opportunity. I had to ask, Alice.”
“I had no clue you felt that way,” Alice whispered.
“Wasn’t it obvious?” Hackett let out a sad chuckle. “I was certain that everyone knew I was madly smitten with you.”
“Dr. Westley knew, of course, as well as all the guards and the prison board … the judge in charge of your case knows, too.”
“Why else would I go so far above and beyond for you?”
“I don’t know …” Alice’s head was swimming. “At first I thought that you wanted to sleep with me, but you never made any advances in that direction.”
“I have no interest in exploiting you, and it would have been horrendously unprofessional. I wanted you to have the space and time to heal yourself, not to break you completely.” Hackett cupped her cheek with his hand. “I love you. I’m sorry that I was too distracted to give you a proper reply when you said it to me, but I’m telling you now: I love you, too.”
“But … why?” Alice protested weakly. “I was a slut, and I just gave birth to another man’s baby. Why would you want me?”
Hackett shrugged. “You caught my attention when you tried to steal my books. You were so clumsy and obvious about it, and all because you thought it would be fun to read them. I confess, I immediately sought out Rob – er – Westley to tell him about the unusual girl I had encountered. You stayed on my mind over the next few weeks, until unexpectedly you were back, looking thoroughly terrified and contrite. I found the answer in your admissions paperwork: pregnant.
“I’ve seen a lot of pregnant inmates. There are plenty of prostitutes who pass through here, and frankly most of them don’t give a damn. They give birth to babies who are already tormented by drug addiction, give them over to the State to be never heard from again, and continue on the same. But you were different, Alice. You cared. You wanted your baby, and were willing to change yourself completely to give her a good life.
“I wanted to help you. I wanted you to have every opportunity to succeed, so you could give yourself and that baby a decent future. That’s why I kept you isolated from the other inmates, why I practically bribed the judge to delay your trial for so long, and why I ate breakfast with you every morning. You’re actually pulling it off, too. You’re changing for the better, and that takes an enormous amount of strength.”
“Don’t understand why you asked me to say ‘no.’” Alice felt as if she could start crying with confusion. He had been so eloquent and so passionate in his explanation as to why he loved her, it didn’t make any sense. She wiped her eyes, and silently blamed hormones for her inability to reign in her emotions.
“I want you to remember me fondly for everything I did for you, instead of spending the next several years building resentment over everything I didn’t do,” he replied.
The sentiment in what he said made Alice’s heart hurt. She couldn’t imagine hating him for any reason, but she had witnessed enough relationships end in such a way to know that it wasn’t impossible – it had happened to her own parents, after all. Still, she couldn’t stand the thought of saying a final goodbye to him. “Basil …” She reached over to place her hand against the side of his face, and she touched her forehead to his. “I’m afraid that I can’t give you what you want. You asked me to marry you, and I’m answering ‘yes.’ I’m going to be Mrs. Alice Hackett, whether you like it or not.”
Hackett quivered with silent laughter. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
“But doesn’t it bother you that Alicia isn’t yours?” Alice asked, turning to snuggle against his chest once again.
“Given my druthers, you know. But, I was the one who was there for every prenatal appointment, and I was just as nervous as you were when we found out the baby’s sex, truth be told. I was the one who rushed to your side when you were in labor, and I was there when you gave birth. She’s more mine than anyone else’s.”
“I spent months fantasizing that you were the real father.” Alice giggled. “I was terrified that you’d figure out that I was infatuated with you.”
“I knew.” Hackett wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly against him. “No offense, but ‘coy’ is not a word that could be used to describe you.”
“Apparently ‘oblivious’ is though. Seriously, I had no idea that you loved me. I really couldn’t figure you out.” Alice closed her eyes again and listened to the sound of Hackett’s heart beating.
“I don’t think that you’ve ever truly been loved,” he whispered. “Don’t belittle yourself for not recognizing it.”
“How about you, then? Have you truly been loved?” Alice asked.
She wanted to bristle with jealousy, but sleep was creeping up on her again and robbing her of her steam. Instead, she drowsily asked, “By who?”
He kissed the top of her head and answered, “My mother. I told you that she was an amazing woman, and I have every confidence that you’ll be the same with our children.”
Alice blushed. “I swear I’ll do my best.”