Hackett exited the courtroom and ripped off his tie, then gripped it tightly in his hand as he rested his arm against the wall, pressing his forehead against the cold marble as he slowly took in a deep breath with his eyes closed. The echo of clacking high heels surrounded him, and he whipped around to face the lawyer approaching him.
“Miranda,” he growled. “I never expected you to sink this low.”
Her smug grin failed underneath his gaze, and she pushed her glasses higher up onto her nose. Her pant suit was pale blue, and her blonde hair was pulled back into a chignon. “Me?” she asked, her voice shrill. “You’re the one who exploited your position to start having sex with a young woman. What did you expect to happen after you dove head first into such a scandal?”
“It’s my private life!” Hackett hit the wall with his fist. “I have conducted myself honorably in regards to Alice, and our relationship has absolutely nothing to do with what you managed to achieve in there.”
“The judge thought that I brought up some very valid concerns, and I’m only looking to ensure that this case is handled properly. You have too much personal investment.” Miranda placed her hand on Hackett’s sleeve. “Now calm down, Basil, and be sensible about this. There really is no way of proving that you acted reasonably when you tasered him, so this is the best way to ensure he is treated fairly in the system.”
Hackett stared hard at her, his eyes growing cold as he said slowly, “You have no right to be jealous.”
“Jealous?” Miranda laughed. “Why would I be jealous?”
“Come off it. I was with you for long enough to know your moods, and you can’t stand the fact that I’ve moved on, so you’re using this as your chance.”
“Ha, ha, Basil.” Miranda placed her hands on her hips. “That’s just absurd. If anything, it astonishes me that, for all of your high morals, you went jumping into bed with some slut who got herself knocked up by another man. Clearly, you’re the one who has fallen.”
Hackett continued to stare, then moved towards her. She set her jaw, turning her face upwards in defiance, but as he drew even closer, her lips parted and she let out a heady breath.
His expression changed, and he whispered, “You honestly didn’t expect me to break up with you back then.”
“Shut up,” she snapped, taking a step back.
“You actually believed that I didn’t want a family and would be relieved that you had terminated the pregnancy,” he said incredulously. “It never even occurred to you to talk to me about it first.”
“Shut it, Basil! That was three years ago, and I’ve moved on, too.” Miranda glared, tilting her head up haughtily. “You know full well that I got the promotion I’ve always wanted, and I’ve never been happier in all my life. You never let me have room to breathe and be myself, and everything always had to be up to your standards. I didn’t realize how much you had taken away from me until I was out on my own again. I was right in prioritizing myself first.”
“That’s total bullshit, Miranda, and you know it.” Hackett turned back to the wall, and placed his arm against it once again. “I gave you everything that you wanted out of me, including the prestigious job with all the right connections, and the flashy car to impress everyone you knew, all so that you could feel important. You kept pushing me and pushing me, so you could ride on my coattails.”
Miranda sneered. “That was all because you didn’t want me to be successful, and the best that I could do was try to live vicariously through you instead. You deliberately held me back because you felt threatened by me.”
“Threatened? I helped pay your tuition so you could become a lawyer in the first place.” Hackett rubbed the bridge of his nose as he let out an exasperated sigh. “The reason why I broke up with you, Miranda, is because I realized that after everything I did for you, you still weren’t going to give me any of the things that I wanted, and our relationship was never going to go anywhere. I want something else out of life than what you were willing to offer.”
Miranda’s folded her arms defensively across her chest. “Having a baby would have changed my entire life, forever. It was totally unreasonable to ask that of me.”
“And you think that becoming the warden didn’t change my life forever? Do you think that I aspired to endless budget meetings, and figuring out how to keep good-for-nothing thugs from killing each other? Do you think that I wanted to sacrifice my name for the sake of a title?”
Miranda rolled her eyes. “You are far too good of a warden to argue that you hate it. I was with you long enough to know that you love your job despite the frustrations. It fits in too well with all of those silly idealistic notions you’ve got swimming around in your head.”
Hackett lowered his voice to murmur softly, “You could have enjoyed being a mother.”
“Not a chance in hell,” she spat.
He remained quiet, watching her as his hand tightened around his tie. The soft ticking of the clock filled the space in between them, until he finally spoke, “You know, I can’t imagine you actually sacrificing anything for another person, so maybe you’re right.” He stuffed his tie into his pant pocket, then briefly pulled out his phone to check the screen. He couldn’t help the small smile that flitted across his face when he saw that Alice had sent him a few text messages, all of them brimming with excitement. “I found someone who isn’t like that, and I married her as soon as I could. You’ll just have to deal with the fact that I traded you for a younger model.”
Miranda made a choked noise in her throat, her eyes flashing with fury, but she didn’t move or speak.
Hackett turned to leave, then stopped. “Oh, and Miranda, stay away from Damon. He’s too smart for you to handle.”
Alice plopped down into a wooden lawn chair next to Kate and nibbled from her plate of food, grateful to be out of the spotlight. In addition to the hamburger that Hackett had proudly assembled for her, there was an assortment of salads for her to choose from, including one that looked like crushed cookies in whipped cream. She felt particularly excited to try that one, but felt reticent to admit it for fear that it would make her look like she belonged more with the kids than the adults. While she felt secure when she was alone with Hackett, being surrounded by all of his friends made her feel like she was barely older than her baby.
“You look stunning today,” Kate murmured, happily patting the baby’s back as she slept. “When Basil put my ring on you, I thought that you looked exactly like a bride.”
Alice forced a small chuckle. “Honestly, Basil’s the one who chose this dress for me to wear, and I guess now I know why.”
“I hope you didn’t mind gesture, especially since you were so tired this morning.” Alice blushed as Kate spoke. “I wanted you to have a piece of our family, and my wedding ring seemed like the most appropriate thing. Basil is so madly in love, he wanted to shout it to the world.”
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Alice said, holding her hand up to look at the ring and admire the small diamonds set into a delicate gold band. “Are you sure you want to part with it?”
“Don’t worry about it. William will always be in my heart, but it’s time to move forward.” Kate stroked the baby’s hair as she added, “I’m a grandma now.”
“I promise that I’ll cherish it. And I’ll take good care of Basil too, especially after everything that he’s done for me. He really helped me turn my life around, and saved Alicia’s life as well …” Alice choked up a little, so she cleared her throat and turned to watch Hackett, still manning the grill. “I don’t know how much he’s told you about my past.”
“Not a whole lot. All he really said was that you had been taken advantage of by a bad sort who got you into a lot of trouble.”
“Yeah.” Alice paused to continue eating, and to think of how she wanted to explain her history to her mother-in-law. “I don’t know why, but I did everything Damon wanted me to, even when it was scary and painful. At first he seemed so experienced and smart, so I told myself that he knew better than I did, and it became a habit to always give him what he wanted. Then I met Basil, and he – I don’t know – woke me up, I guess. I started to think about what I wanted, and when I found out I was pregnant, I realized that I wanted to keep my baby more than anything else.”
“I’m glad that you and Basil found each other. It makes me sad to think that I live so far away from you and won’t be able to see you anywhere near often enough.” Kate sighed. “I don’t know if I can leave William and Jasper, though.”
Alice didn’t know how to respond, and hoped that Kate wouldn’t misinterpret her silence as something negative. She got the feeling that Hackett had asked his mother more than once to move closer to him, and that her unwillingness to leave her deceased family members had become a solid blockade. But, she wasn’t going to open her mouth without first knowing what Hackett actually thought about the matter.
“Anyway, this is supposed to be a happy day, so let’s not linger on such topics.” Kate patted Alice’s shoulder. “Go ahead and eat up. This little one is still sleeping peacefully with me, and I’m enjoying every minute of it. There’s no rush at all.”
“Thank you.” Alice couldn’t resist the temptation any longer, and finally scooped up a forkful of the cookie salad and popped it into her mouth. “Oh wow! This is really good! Did you make it?”
“Mm hm. It’s quite easy, just mix vanilla pudding with whipped cream and add crushed cookies.”
“You need to show me how to make it. Both you and Gertie are really good at cooking, and I want to learn too. It must be so awesome to be able to eat food like this any time you feel like it.”
Kate laughed. “Absolutely, I’ll teach you anything you want to learn. I’ve always wished that I had a daughter I could pass on all my secrets to.” She grew quiet for a moment, then said, “Alice, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take you out to lunch tomorrow, and we’ll go shopping, too. All of the other ladies back home take their daughters out, and I’ve always been rather envious of them. I do hope that you’ll indulge me.”
“I’d love to!” Alice gushed. “My mom was always too busy working to do any activities with me, so I’ve never done anything like that either.”
“Basil!” Kate called out, waving an arm in the air. “Basil, come here!”
He saw her and waved as he finished putting the last of the meat patties on a plate then turned off the grill. After he placed them on the buffet table, he jogged over and asked, “What is it, mom?”
“We need to use your car tomorrow,” Kate answered.
“I suppose I can get Rob to give me a ride …” he mused. “What are you planning?”
“Just a little mother-daughter date is all.” Kate grinned over at Alice. “I’m sure we won’t get into too much trouble.”
“In that case, my car is all yours.” He turned to Alice, placing his hands on the arms of her chair as he leaned down to softly ask her, “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Oh, yes.” Alice nodded, meeting his gaze. “Even despite you.”
“Despite me, huh?” His voice was almost like a purr, so Alice couldn’t help but half-close her eyes as she lifted her mouth towards him.
“Yeah, for springing a big surprise on me in front of everyone,” she murmured. “You’re lucky I love you.”
“I guess I am.” He placed his lips against hers.
Behind him, two teenaged boys snickered as one of them took aim with a foam football, then threw it to hit Hackett square in the butt. He bolted upright as he barked, “Hey!” then fetched the ball and tossed it as the boys dashed to catch it. After giving Alice a wink, he ran after them with Dr. Westley hopping up to join in.
“Oh goodness!” Kate exclaimed with a laugh. “I haven’t seen Basil this carefree since he was little.”
Alice giggled as well, then reached for her baby. “I want Alicia back. My arms are starting to feel empty without her.”
Kate passed the sleeping infant over, who gave a small fuss then settled back down against Alice’s chest. They sat for a moment in silence, watching the game of football that had spontaneously began, until Kate commented, “Basil and Rob grew up together, you know; he lived down the street from us. It’s great to know that they still play together.” She chuckled.
“Rob?” Alice asked.
“Doctor Westley. They kept in touch, and after Basil became the warden, he somehow managed to sweet talk Rob into becoming the prison doctor. Must have offered him a nice salary, because he moved his whole family out here for it.”
“So they are good friends! I suspected, but Basil was always so proper around me in the prison. It was all business with him in there.” Alice stroked her baby’s back, feeling more confident now that she had Alicia with her again. “I didn’t even know that he loved me until he asked me to marry him.”
“That sounds like Basil. He’s so conscientious with his work, and always has been.” Kate stood and stretched. “Excuse me, but I need to get myself something to eat as well. It’s fun talking to you, Alice, and I’m very much looking forward to tomorrow.”
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.