A short time later, Alice found herself glued to Hackett’s side as he maneuvered through their guests and introduced her to everyone invited. She recognized the judge who had married them, surrounded by a blur of faces that she had never seen before and names that she forgot as soon as she heard them – mostly people who worked with the prison in some capacity or another. It was a relief when Dr. Westley arrived as a familiar face, and it surprised her to learn that he was married with four children. For once Hackett openly joked in front of her, reminding her of how painfully proper he had been while she was still a prisoner.
Kate had taken charge of the baby, and had settled herself into a chair next to Gertie who had brought her knitting bag, and the two women talked excitedly between the two of them. Alice frequently glanced in their direction, to ensure that her baby was still sleeping peacefully, and to wish that she could join them away from the spotlight.
However, once all the introductions were done, Hackett grabbed one of the plastic folding chairs and placed it near the propane grill, simply saying, “Keep me company.” So, Alice sat down and watched him with fascination as he turned the knobs until a click was followed by a woosh sound, then closed the lid. He casually sat down on the grass next to her and held her hand as they made small talk for a few minutes, then he was back at the grill, placing down the meat patties he had made earlier.
Her inexperience must have been obvious on her face, because when he turned to her once again he asked, “Have you ever barbecued before?”
Alice shook her head. “No, never.”
“Here.” Hackett took her hand and pulled her over to stand in front of the grill, then grabbed the apron from a hook on the side. “First, you put on one of these to protect that pretty dress from any splatters,” he said, looping it over her neck and tying it behind her back. “Now, take the spatula and open up the lid. Careful not to burn yourself.” He stood behind her and held her hand around the handle of the spatula as he continued to explain, “Slide it right under the patty, and flip it over.”
Flames flared up and startled Alice, causing her to jump back against Hackett’s chest with a small cry. He laughed and wrapped his free arm around her waist, giving her a squeeze.
“Perfect! Now we do that again with all the rest.”
“You really do this?” she asked. “Aren’t you scared of everything catching on fire?”
“Nah, the flames are the fun part. The burgers are done when the juices run clear. Or, if you’re the paranoid sort, keep them on the grill until the juices run dry. They’ll be nice and tough, and have a great burnt taste to them.”
“You’re pulling my leg, right?”
“Not at all, my princess. There’s an art to successfully making overdone burgers without turning them into charcoal. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to muster up the nerve to keep them on for that long.”
“You!” Alice turned to lightly punch his shoulder. “I know you’re teasing me! Don’t tell me ridiculous things, or I’ll lose my trust in you and it will be your fault.”
“I might be teasing a little.” He brushed a lock of her hair behind her ear. “I like you too much not to.”
Alice blushed as she met his gaze. “I think you should take care of the barbecuing on your own. Fire makes me … nervous,” she said softly, then bit her lip and looked away. “I feel like everyone is watching us.”
“They probably are.” Hackett reached behind Alice to undo to apron tie, then lifted it from around her neck before helping her sit back down in her chair.
“That doesn’t help.”
“They’re here for us, darling, to celebrate our marriage.”
“I know. But it’s been ages since I’ve been around people, and it feels weird. I kind of wish that I could hide back in my tower again, away from everything.”
Hackett remained silent and thoughtful, managing the hamburgers on the grill then closing the lid before he spoke again, “Is it too much?”
Alice shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“There’s no shame in being overwhelmed. Any time that you’d like to, you can hide inside the house; I’ll make your excuses for you.”
Having the possibility of an escape helped Alice feel better, though the suggestion made her realize that she wasn’t ready to use it just yet. As uncomfortable as the spotlight was, she still felt a thrill race through her at the thought that everyone was there to celebrate them joining together as husband and wife.
“Well …” she mused out loud. “I can’t hide forever.”
“I was hoping that you’d say that.” Hackett gave her a grin as he pulled her back up to her feet, then whispered into her ear, “I’m sorry, but you’re going to hate me for this.”
“What?” Alice more mouthed than spoke, her eyes shining with alarm. Hackett took the metal spatula and banged it against the top of the grill.
“May I have everyone’s attention, please!” he spoke loudly, and Alice felt herself shrinking against him in an effort to hide. “Now, as you all know, Alice and I have already legally tied the knot, and this beautiful woman has been my wife for the last couple of weeks. But, there’s something special that I would like to do today, with everyone here as my witnesses.”
Hackett took Alice’s left hand and looked unwaveringly at her as he spoke, “Mrs. Alice Hackett, I solemnly promise to care and provide for you; I will support you in sickness and in health, through the good times and the bad; and I will cherish you always until the end of my days.” He slid a ring onto her finger. “I love you.” When he leaned down to kiss her, their guests began to applaud.
Alice wanted to beam with happiness and die of embarrassment at the same time. “I don’t have any promises for you,” she whispered, then stumbled over her words. “I mean, poetically planned out. Obviously I’m going to …”
Hackett put a finger over her lips. “This was my mother’s wedding ring – she wanted you to have it.”
“Oh wow.” Alice looked down at the ring that he had slid onto her finger. “Just wow. Thank you.”
“I’m hopelessly devoted to you, Alice. There’s no escape for you now,” he said with a wink. Then he turned back to the crowd and announced, “Oh, and uh, one more thing: the hamburgers are done!”
There was another round of applause.