Hackett touched Alice’s shoulder and startled her awake. She immediately looked down at Alicia, who was still snuggled against her breast, and took comfort in the sight of the baby’s pink lips. “I guess I dozed off without meaning to,” Alice said sheepishly, smiling up at Hackett. “What have you been up to?”
He shrugged. “Thinking, mostly.”
“Me too. Until I fell asleep, anyway.” Alice stretched out her legs and raised her free arm above her head. “Next time I’ll nap in bed, and save myself these cricks.” When she stood, she caught whiff of a familiar scent, and with a sense of shock she grabbed the front of Hackett’s shirt collar and pulled him closer. “Have you been drinking?” she asked incredulously.
“Hm,” he grunted, looking away.
“You were!” Alice closed her eyes and took in a big breath. “Some sort of hard liquor … smells too classy for me to guess exactly what, though. The stuff I used to drink was like being punched in the stomach.” She pulled him even closer, so her nose touched his cheek. “Smells really nice.”
“You don’t mind?” Hackett asked, his eyes shining unusually.
“Why would I? If anything, it’s a huge relief that you have at least one flaw that brings you closer to my level. Though why did you have to lock yourself in your office? It really upset me that you just up and left like that!”
“I thought that you wouldn’t approve,” he murmured, his hand closing around Alice’s and holding it against his neck.
“Oh puh-lease! You can always drink with me. I’m a mother now, so I must conduct myself with restraint and propriety, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to judge you for it. Especially ’cause you apparently get the fancy stuff.” Alice giggled.
“Hm. Sorry.” Hackett’s other arm circled around her waist and pulled her closer against him.
“Instead of just up and leaving, next time you should say, ‘Alice, I need a stiff drink.’ And I’ll reply, ‘Absolutely, Basil! Lets go hide under your desk, and we’ll be naughty together.’”
“You should be screaming at me instead.”
Alice frowned. “Why? You don’t seem that drunk.”
“Because it’s all my fault.” Hackett let her go and turned away.
“What?” Alice swayed slightly before she caught her balance, and her arms instinctively tightened around her baby.
“When I tased him, I wasn’t thinking objectively in the way that a warden should. He was threatening you, so I reacted. And it turned out to be the wrong move.”
“I don’t remotely blame you for that. In fact, I’m glad that you tased Damon – he deserved it.”
“And I goaded Miranda.” Hackett covered his eyes with his hand. “Deliberately, because she’s so infuriating to deal with.”
Alice grabbed hold of Hackett’s sleeve. “Hey, it doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter!” he suddenly yelled, causing Alice to withdraw and back away. “I tried so hard to give you every opportunity to change yourself, and now because of me that prick is coming back into your life when he’s supposed to be in prison. Miranda sought out Damon because of me!”
“Basil …” Alice bit her lip.
“And to make it worse, it didn’t even occur to me to arm you in some way to keep you safe when I’m not here. What if he had already come by? He could have done anything he wanted to both you and Alicia.”
“It’s not that bad, Basil, really,” Alice protested weakly. “I’m resourceful enough; I could have stabbed him in the eye with a knitting needle, or something.”
“It’s my responsibility to take care of my wife!”
Alicia awoke with a squall, and Alice was quick to comfort the baby and rub her back. When she looked up again, she said, “Basil, please, you’re being too scary right now.”
“I’m sorry.” Hackett slumped down onto the sofa and held his head in his hands with his elbows propped on his knees. “I keep remembering about how Jasper died, and I couldn’t handle it if I suddenly lost you or Alicia like that. Maybe I should put you back in the tower.”
“Even I know that’s not really a solution. Besides, I don’t think Damon is crazy enough to murder his own baby.” Alice had intended it to be reassuring, but the second the words passed her lips she realized her mistake and wished she could take them back. Unfortunately, they hit their mark, and Hackett forced a wry laugh.
“His baby. Maybe that very first time we met, when you tried to sit in my lap and unzip that stupid pleather top, I should have locked the door and impregnated you myself. It would have saved us this grief, and Alicia truly would be mine.”
“But then I wouldn’t have fallen in love with you,” Alice said quietly. “And I wouldn’t have figured out what dignity was, or who I wanted to be. I would have stayed under Damon’s control.”
Hackett remained silent. Alice bit her lip again, then turned and left for the bedroom. When she returned a few minutes later without the baby, he was still sitting motionless on the couch. She walked up to him, wrapped her arms around his head, and pulled him against her chest.
“You need a hug,” she murmured, stroking his hair.
He went slack and closed his eyes, letting out a deep breath as he placed his hands on the small of Alice’s back. She looked around the living room as she held him against her, at the packages of diapers and wipes, the stacks of burp cloths, her box of yarn and knitting needles that she had placed next to the couch, and realized how completely she and Alicia had taken over Hackett’s life. She had first come home to the house of a bachelor, and now it was full of things for her and her baby, ranging from the crib in the bedroom to the pink razor in the bathroom. She wondered if Hackett, who had experienced far more loss than she could imagine, was terrified that Damon would somehow take it all away from him – everything from the wife and child, down to the pink razor and bottle of baby shampoo.
“You know …” Alice said slowly. “I’m still glad you tased him.”
He shook slightly as he looked up at her, but he was smiling. “Even though it caused us this trouble?”
“We’ll get through it. We’re both tough sorts, aren’t we? Absolutely no one in their right mind would think that Damon could be a good influence, so once we get this out of the way, it will be over and done with for good – just like you said.”
“Miranda is going to be the real problem. She’s a good lawyer,” he mused, settling back against the couch and pulling Alice into his lap. “I should have managed myself better around her, so she wouldn’t have felt the need to get involved.”
“From what I’ve heard, she’s kind of a bitch,” Alice said softly, kissing Hackett’s forehead. “Whatever you said, I’m sure it was plenty restrained compared to what she deserved.”
Alicia’s wails sounded from the bedroom, so Alice gave Hackett a quick squeeze before scampering to her baby. He watched her as she went, and the corners of his mouth turned upward slightly.
You’re always so worried that you don’t deserve me,” he whispered to himself. “But it’s me who doesn’t deserve you, Mrs. Alice Hackett.”