Title: Southern Hospitality

Summary: Jasper picks up a hitchhiker while driving along a quiet Texas backroad. She seems lost, in more ways than one. Can the Whitlock family's southern hospitality help her find her way? AU/AH/OOC

Pairing: Jasper/Alice

Rating: M – mild language, grownup feelings, adult situations

Word Count: 13,947

DISCLAIMER: Twilight and its inclusive material is copyright to Stephenie Meyer. Original creation, including but not limited to plot and characters, is copyright to the respective authors of each story. No copyright infringement is intended.

~ Southern Hospitality ~

(Jasper)

The air is hot—thick and heavy, sitting like a blanket on my skin in the scorching South Texas sun. My old Ford F150, vintage now with its 1978 blue paint and rust, doesn't boast air conditioning or cooled seats or any fancy new-millennium comforts, but the small DC-powered fan duct-taped to the dash is a mild relief to the swelter.

It's a slight inconvenience as I dig through the centre console for my lighter, the truck's built-in socket now serving as a power source instead, but the lukewarm air that hits my face as the fan oscillates is worth it. Finally pulling the old yellow Bic out of hiding, I shake a cigarette out of my near-empty pack, grasping it with my lips and one-handedly flicking a flame to life as soon as the fan turns its blast of air away. I pull deep into my throat to get the smoke going, exhaling in a sigh. The windows are shut against the dust being driven up on this old gravel road, but I crack mine just an inch to let the smoke escape, blowing it upward out of the corner of my mouth with each drag I take.

I see her hair first, a shock of short black against the greens and browns of mid-summer grass and fields, coming into view just as I crest a ridge and start down the other side. She's walking away from me, small but obviously female in shape and movement, a near-bursting backpack swaying cumbersomely with her steps. A runaway? She turns as she hears my truck's approach, her thumb coming out to signal her need for a ride.

It's a surprise to see anyone walking the road out here, let alone a young girl. We're literally in the middle of nowhere, miles between the few homesteads planted this far deep in the country. Even in daylight, the idea of a child on their own in this desolation makes my stomach turn. My thoughts immediately go to my younger sister, with her honey-blonde ponytails and freckled cheeks—a rugged girl of ten, but still.… Bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions: they're a danger to more than just the herds we keep.

I stub my cigarette into the ashtray before pulling up beside this small stranger, leaning over to roll down the passenger window as soon as the truck is stopped. She's so short her head barely peeks over the bottom of the frame, but to my astonishment I'm met with a mature face, a petite young woman I'd guess to be in her mid-twenties. Her wide, dark-brown eyes flick over me in overt assessment.

"You goin' somewhere 'round here?" I ask in bewilderment, wondering how she ever came to be in a place like this.

"Nope," she replies. "Where are you going?" Not a local then, her speech tells me, though a lingering hint of some other distant twang perks my ears.

"Home," I say, pointing with my chin to the sprawling lands just over her shoulder. "'Bout six miles up yonder. Need a lift?"

She nods and opens the door, slinging her backpack up onto the seat before climbing in after it. "Sounds good."

I'm momentarily taken aback, watching perplexedly as she settles herself into my truck, wondering if she actually means to come home with me or if I've just misunderstood her intent. "Where am I taking you then?"

Her eyes, deep brown and rich as freshly turned earth, lock with mine and regard me boldly. "Home. With you. It's that or the road."

"Huh," I say, unable to argue that notion. No one from around these parts would ever turn their back to someone in need—let alone a vulnerable young lady who's looking for a helping hand—that's just not how we do things. Her audacity surprises me, though. For all her small size, she has the conviction of a tornado.

Pulling my eyes away from her audacious stare, I press my foot onto the gas and urge my truck back to the road. I need something to help set my mind right after her sudden and strange appearance, so I reach for my pack of cigarettes and shake the last one up to my lips. "Do you mind?" I ask around it, flicking my gaze to her as I fumble again for my Bic.

"No," she says, watching me light it. "Do you have another?"

I take a deep pull to get it going, shaking my head in the negative and then handing the lit cigarette to her. She plucks it from my fingers, holding it daintily in front of her as she eyes me again. "What's your name?" she asks before bringing the cigarette to her lips. I watch, slightly transfixed, as she takes a drag and blows the smoke out in a curling stream of white.

This little lady is nothing like I've ever seen before. She's tiny for one, unbelievably small for a woman grown, but with a strong demeanour that makes up for it in spades. Her clothes are fine, I can tell even through the dirt and wrinkles, and her boots, though worn and scuffed, must have cost a real pretty penny back when they were new. Her face is quite nice too, but she looks tired, and no wonder. She must have been walking for miles to end up way out here.

After another quick drag, she hands the cigarette back to me and I take it, my eyes and thoughts moving back to the road. "Jasper Whitlock," I reply, darting a glance back to her. A polite smile curls my lips. "Ma'am."

She scoffs and makes a peeved face. "I know it's sweet and all, but don't call me that. It makes me feel like a grandma."

I chuckle in amusement. "What should I call you then?"

"Alice," she says, and holds her hand out toward me. "I'm Alice."

Stowing the cigarette between my lips, I reach over and complete the shake. Once again I'm taken by surprise, this time by her firm grip. She might not look it, but apparently she's got strength both inside and out.

I pluck the cigarette from my mouth before tipping my head politely in her direction. "Pleased to meet you, Alice. Where you from?"

Silence unfolds from her side of the truck, and I look over to see her lips pursed as she stares straight ahead. "You know what?" she says after a moment. "I left, and I'm not going back, so it doesn't matter. Let's just leave it at that."

"Alright," I say slowly, curious and a bit unnerved. We've arrived at the ranch now though, my truck moving slowly under the iron trellis bearing my family's brand, so I let the matter drop.

I pull to a stop alongside the quonset, and Alice hops out without hesitation, lugging her overfilled backpack along. I take one last deep pull of my smoke, stubbing it out in the ashtray before following. When I come up beside her, she's standing at the end of the long metal building, staring out at our lands with an unreadable face. "So this is home?"

"Uh huh," I reply, running a hand over the light stubble on my chin. Our modest, single-story farmhouse sits off to my right, covered in white siding and with a wrap-around veranda, surrounded on three sides by towering Texas Ash trees. From this vantage point you can also see most of our operation: corrals, barns, pens, and fields beyond.

Alice looks up at me. "You're farmers?"

"Ranchers. Three hundred head of cattle. A few pigs and chickens. We got a big garden but it's just for the family, or trade."

"I see…" she murmurs.

My dad's voice reaches me from inside the quonset before I see him, his dark, silvering hair and sun-wrinkled face appearing just behind his words. "You drop them taters down at Dwyer's, boy? We got a load of— Oh." He stops short when he rounds the corner and comes up in front of Alice, turning to a curious eye to me. "You pick her up at Phil's too?"

I shake my head. "Found her walkin' the road up by Crowley's Creek. Says she ain't got nowhere to go."

"Well I'll be…" Dad says, looking Alice over with interest. "You show her inside and let your mama know to set another place for supper. Then you come on back and get done with the next load of potatoes."

"Yes, sir," I say, but he's already turned around and headed back into the quonset. "Find the dogs, too," he calls behind himself. "Make sure they know she's welcome."

"That's your dad?" Alice asks as I motion for her to follow me toward the house. I whistle sharply as we walk, watching carefully for the girls' approach. "He seems… uh…"

I laugh, knowing what she means. My dad is a great man, but he's got a sharp, singular focus when there's work to be done. "Don't let it get to you," I tell her. "He's got the day's jobs on his mind right now. He'll greet you proper come supper."

The dogs find us just as we reach the house, yapping and sniffing excitedly around Alice. She doesn't flinch or seem afraid though, impressive considering the girls—Em, Rose, and Jess—stand half as tall as her or more.

I kneel down to greet them myself, rubbing at Emma's soft yellow fur when she pushes her way to the front of the pack. "Meet the girls," I say to Alice. "Emma here, we call her Em. That other Golden there is her sister, Rose. And the Shepherd is Jess." I give them each some attention in turn, smiling when Alice joins in and offers all three a friendly pat.

With the dogs sent off, we step up to the house and I open the screen door, holding it aside so Alice can go in ahead of me. The air smells of roast chicken and my mom's fresh-baked biscuits, and my mouth waters hungrily as we make our way to the kitchen.

"Mama?" I call out as we round the corner. She's at the white apron-front sink, her auburn hair pulled up tight against her head, and she's peeling potatoes with a paring knife. "Mama, I need you to meet someone."

My mom turns around and sucks in a breath of surprise when her eyes land on the stranger beside me. "Well who's this then?" she asks in astonishment.

"Alice," I tell her. "She was walkin' the road and needs somewhere to stay. Can you set her out a place for supper?"

"Well of course," Mom replies. She wipes her hands on her jeans and holds one out to Alice. "I'm Stephenie. Make yourself at home, honey. Anything you need?"

Alice steps forward and shakes my mom's hand. "No thank you, ma'am," she says, and I suppress a smile. She may not appreciate the term, but it appears Alice knows just how and when to use it. "Actually, could I have a glass of water?"

"Comin' right up. You put down that heavy bag now and sit yourself at the table. You look plumb tuckered out."

I glance over at Alice and she looks absolutely exhausted, worse now than she did back in the truck. More than that though, deep within her eyes, she looks lost. Wary and out of place. Even here, with a table to sit at and a bed to sleep in, she looks strung up, like she can't settle in. There's a tenseness to her that sets me on edge, making me want to smooth it out for her. I want to ease her troubles somehow, even though I have no idea what they might be.

My mom opens the fridge and fills a glass from the Brita, setting it on the table and nodding for Alice to have a seat. Alice drops her bag by the wall and folds into a chair, moving with a fluid grace despite her obvious fatigue. She sighs as she first holds the cold glass to her forehead, letting a bead of condensation drip down her nose.

"There you go, honey," Mom says, watching in satisfaction as Alice takes a deep drink. "You just stay right there now. A good meal and some rest will have you right as rain."

Alice's expression wilts like the thought of food and sleep are enough to pull her under. My chest tightens up for her plight. How much has this poor little thing gone through, and all alone at that? "Thank you, so much," she says, looking back and forth between my mom and me. "You're all so kind. Thank you." She holds my gaze when she finishes speaking, her big earth-brown eyes grabbing onto a part of me I wasn't expecting.

I nod, feeling oddly hot under her stare. "Ma'am." She makes that same disgruntled face again, and I can't help but grin; something about me likes this little game we've started. I wish I could stay and talk more, maybe fish out some details about her or her troubles, but there's work to be done and I can hear it calling even though I'd much rather stay right here.

I turn to my mom and point a thumb over my shoulder. "Dad's waitin' for me to finish up the last load for the Dwyers."

"Alright," Mom says. "Y'all don't be gettin' too far off now; I'm fixin' to have supper on in thirty minutes. And if you see Morgan you send her on in here. Table needs to be set."

"Yes, mama," I reply, talking one last quick glance at Alice before turning and heading back outside.

My dad wastes no time putting me to work. We had a bumper crop of potatoes this year, and Phil and Renee Dwyer have agreed to sell them off for us for a share of the profits. It's a good deal for everyone; their farming takes them to the markets already, while we're too busy with our herds to be running around selling off our extra vegetables. The cash they bring in will help everyone out, though, and we get on well enough with the Dwyers to be glad to share it with them. I was on my way back from dropping off a second truckload down at their place when I happened upon Alice.

Alice.

The thought of her makes me pause, and I take a quick second to mop the sweat running down my face. It's hot as the devil's bathwater in the quonset, and I've been loading sacks of potatoes into my truck for what feels like hours. I lift up the front of my t-shirt and use it to wipe my brow, noticing too late that my grubby hands have left dark stains on the white fabric. There's nothing to be done for it now though; dirt is just part of the life around here, and a filthy shirt is the least of my concerns at the moment.

I get back to work with short black hair and earth-brown eyes swimming in my imagination. I just can't stop thinking about the look of desolation on Alice's face when I left her back in the house. I have so many questions that need to be answered. Who is she? Where did she come from? Why is she alone, and way out in these parts? Then what's really pressing on my mind: Just what put that lost look in her eyes?

With a grunt, I heave the last sack of potatoes into my truck and slam the tailgate closed. My face is slick with sweat again and by now my shirt is soaked through, so I do my best to wipe the sting out of my eyes with a bare forearm. When I look back up again, Alice is standing at the quonset door. I lower my arm slowly, my heart jolting in surprise to see her there.

"Hi," she says, looking around with a wary interest. "Your sister still hasn't come in, so I told your mom I'd come find you and your dad. Supper's ready."

I nod. "Oh, alright. I was just finishing up here. If you wait a sec, I'll walk you back."

Alice smiles slightly, a small sweet grin, and it changes her face in a way that has me looking at her in a whole new light. I hadn't noticed so much before, it being hidden behind the weary determination she wore, but my rising pulse is alerting me to the fact that I find her intriguing in more ways than one. Under the fatigue and wariness and mystery, she's the prettiest girl I've ever laid eyes on.

"What are you doing out here?" she asks, taking a step inside and looking at me curiously.

"Loadin' potatoes."

Alice looks from me to my now-filled truck. "All that?"

"Uh huh," I reply, scratching the back of my head uncomfortably. I feel hotter than ever with her in here, and suddenly I'm regrettably aware that I must look like an absolute mess. "I'm takin' them down to the Dwyers' to sell."

"Hmm…" she says, her gaze roving around the building before settling back on me. "How old are you?"

The question seems out of the blue and takes me aback, but I answer it plainly. "Nineteen."

Her whole face draws up in surprise. "Really? I would have thought you were older."

I chuckle. "Ranchin's hard work. You grow up pretty quick."

Alice smiles slightly again. "I guess you must…"

I'm dying to know something about her—anything at all—but I can't think of a question that won't sound intrusive or insensitive when it's clear she's struggling with something. The easiest thing would be to ask her how old she is in return, but I certainly can't do that; no decent man would ever ask a lady such a thing.

"So, you uh…" I hedge, hoping inspiration strikes me while we stand here staring at each other.

But then my mom's voice suddenly rends the air, breaking our odd moment. "Morga-a-a-n! MORGAN! Girl, where you got off to? Supper's on and the table ain't got a single plate to eat off of!"

"Oh!" Alice exclaims. "Supper. I'm supposed to find your dad too."

"Don't worry," I tell her, gathering my wits back up and heading for the door. "Ain't nobody for miles who won't hear when my mama hollers. He'll be comin'."

I was right, and we meet my dad just as we come up to the house. He looks from Alice to me. "You get the last of them taters loaded up?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. You can drive 'em up first thing tomorrow."

We enter the house through the back door, taking us into the mudroom, and my dad immediately steps up to the sink. Alice hesitates, so I nod toward the small flight of stairs leading up to the kitchen. "You go on in," I tell her. "Dad and I just need to get cleaned up first. Mama don't like no dirty hands at her table."

My dad snorts and bobs his head in agreement, his eyes never leaving the sink as he soaps up and washes wave after wave of dirt down the drain. When he's done I do the same, splashing my face with cool water as well. I have a look at myself as I towel off, and the small mirror in front of me confirms what I'd been thinking back in the quonset: I look like a wet dog. My wavy blond hair is sweaty and scraggly, my face still looks dirty despite the quick rinse, and my cheeks and chin are covered in a thick prickly scruff.

Well, shit.

No help for it though. Supper's on, and I know a lot better than to make my mom wait.

I kick off my boots and bound up the few steps in one long stride. Everyone else is already seated while my sister, pink-faced and wide-eyed in our newcomer's presence, rattles plates and cutlery onto to the table. I take my usual seat to my dad's left, which puts me right across from Alice. She looks straight at me as I sit down and once again I feel like someone has lit a fire under my skin. I return her stare, adding a slight twist of a grin, and I'm pleased to see a slight blush stain her cheeks as well.

That's interesting.

Morgan finishes setting the table and slides into the chair beside Alice, looking her over with a pure, childish excitement. We don't get a lot of strangers around here, and certainly few who are anything like the fine, dainty woman gracing our presence right now. Other than my mom, Morgan has never had an older girl or anyone like a sister to look up to. The thought warms me again, though differently than the feeling I get when Alice's eyes are on me, and I'm not quite sure what to do with it. It seems ridiculous to think of such things—any of it—when she's only just arrived and we know nothing at all about her or her plans.

At the head of the table, my dad clears his throat and we all bow our heads for grace. I catch a quick glimpse of Alice as I'm lowering my eyes, and notice that she doesn't hesitate to follow along.

"Gracious Lord," Dad intones into the silence. "Accept our thanks for this food before us, and may we show our gratitude through our lives. Amen."

We all mutter amen before my mom says, "Alright, y'all tuck in now. Alice, honey, you go first."

Alice's eyes go big like she doesn't know where to start, but then she reaches for the platter of chicken and begins to pile it onto her plate. I watch in fascination as she loads up enough food to feed a football player, until my dad passes me the salad bowl and I'm forced to put my attention to my own meal.

Everyone eats in silence for a few minutes. Long, hot days of toiling under the Texas sun leaves us hungry as a pack of wolves come supper time, and no one can spare the breath to talk while we fill the void in our bellies. My gaze wanders around the table, eventually finding its way to my sister. Morgan's eyes keep darting from her food over to Alice, and I suppress a grin as I chew a buttered biscuit, wondering how long she'll be able to keep herself in check.

Eventually our pace of eating slows down, and my mom speaks up. "You doin' alright there, Alice?" she asks. "Anything else I can get for you?"

Alice looks up from her plate with a mouthful of food, swallowing it down before dabbing her lips with a napkin. "No, this is amazing. Thank you so much." She's managed to devour half her heaping plate already, and she doesn't look ready to quit.

My mom nods appreciatively as Alice takes another bite. "You've met my husband, Chris, then?"

Alice glances over at my dad as she chews. "Um, kind of…" she says once her mouth is free.

My dad, set right now that the workday is done and there's food in his belly, chuckles and puts down his fork and knife. He smiles as he extends a hand to Alice and they shake. "A pleasure. You just make yourself at home now, darlin'. Whatever you need, you let us know, and we'll see to it, alright?"

An indescribable look comes over Alice's face. "Thank you. That means… this all means… so much." It's clear she's trying to hold in her emotion as she looks between my mom and dad, but when her gaze moves to me, her dark brown eyes are so filled with pain and longing that my chest squeezes tighter than it ever has before.

"Think nothing of it," Mom tells her in a gentle voice. "You finish on up there and we'll get you to a room. A good night's sleep will do you good. Tomorrow's a new day, and you can start it fresh."

Morgan, who'd managed to remain quiet all this time even though she'd been sitting in a near quiver, finally bursts. "Is she going to stay with us? Forever?" she demands with all the excitement a ten-year-old can muster.

Alice looks panicked at this sudden suggestion, but my mom fixes Morgan with a stern eye. "Let's just take things one day at a time, shall we?" she says to my sister, and Morgan sits back looking abashed.

The table is quiet once again as we all finish eating, Morgan's outburst having set an awkward air of acknowledgement over us. When the meal is done, my mom packs away the leftovers while I gather the dirty dishes, piling them on the kitchen counter for Morgan to wash. Alice tries to help several times but my mom is having none of it. She pours a glass of sweet tea for Alice instead and sends her into the living room to rest. When I poke my head around the corner a few minutes later, I find her fast asleep on the sofa.

With a smile, I head out onto the veranda, having retrieved a fresh pack of cigarettes from my bedroom. My dad is already out there, rocking slowly on the porch swing while he enjoys a smoke himself. I pull up a weathered stool and drop down onto it, opening my pack and putting a fresh stick to my lips.

"Shit," I mutter, realizing my Bic is still in the truck. "Got a light?"

My dad fishes in his shirt pocket and tosses me a book of matches. The sulphur tastes terrible as I flare one to life and take a deep drag to get the smoke going, but it's soon replaced by the heady warmth of tobacco in my lungs. I hand the matches back to my dad and lean forward, resting my elbows on my wide spread knees as I look out over our lands.

"How long can she stay?" I ask after a moment.

My dad blows out a stream of smoke, ashing his cigarette into an old can sitting beside him. "Long as she needs," he says, taking another drag and this time letting the smoke drift lazily from his mouth. "So long as she don't turn out to be no axe murderer."

I laugh and my dad looks to me with a grin. He shrugs one shoulder. "Never know, do you?"

"Guess you don't," I reply, flicking the ash from my own cigarette and watching it float down through a crack in the floorboards.

"Ah, she seems like a fine little thing," Dad continues. "Got a world of trouble in her eyes, though. Know much about 'er?"

"Nothin'. Picked her up, and she all but told me she was comin' here." I chuckle at the memory of our odd first encounter. "Couldn't much argue with her, though. Ain't like I was gonna leave her on the road."

My dad nods and hums in acknowledgement. He takes a final drag of his smoke and stubs it out in the can before he stands.

"Time will tell," he says, walking past me. He pauses at the door, looking back with a serious gaze. "You just be careful now, Jasper. I know there ain't much for girls round here, but don't be goin' and gettin' any big ideas about this one. Somethin' happened to that little one, and the last thing she needs is you knockin' at her door while she figures it out, you hear?"

I scoff and look away. "I know, Dad. You and Mama did a better job with me than that, don't you think?"

My dad chuckles quietly and I turn my face back to him. "We did, indeed," he says, regarding me with a look of firm approval in his eyes. "We did, indeed."

He goes back into the house and I'm left alone on the porch, just myself and my thoughts about Alice. My dad is right, of course. I can't deny that I feel something for her, even after this one day, but that look in her eyes—that lost, lonely look—I just can't shake it. She's got so much locked up inside, and I need to find a way to get to know her that doesn't push or pry. I need to be patient.

Time will tell.

o –

Alice sleeps through breakfast the next morning, to no one's surprise. I don't know if I've ever seen someone look as tired as she did yesterday, and that's saying something considering the hardworking life I've grown up in. We all get up real early around here anyway, and I have no idea what kind of schedule she's been keeping on the road.

I get on with my day, first driving down to the Dwyers' to drop off the load of potatoes in my truck, and then back up to the edge of our eastern pasture where my dad discovered a break in the fence last week. Thankfully the posts are still sturdy, and it's a quick job to replace the broken boards and restring a line of barbed wire between each one. It's already ten o'clock by the time I get back to the main yard, and I still need to feed the chickens and pigs, then water the horses and muck their stalls before I mount up and head out to the north pasture to help my dad and our other cattlemen move the herds.

It's a busy life, but I wouldn't change it. Besides, the steady work helps keep my mind off Alice, which is no easy feat now that she's planted herself firmly in my thoughts. I keep seeing her face, over and over like a stuck record: big brown eyes, that sweet little smile, a blush staining her cheeks when I grin at her. But I also see that hollow look in her gaze, and it keeps pulling me back, leaving me wondering what exactly lies in the depths of it.

The rest of the morning goes quick, and I'm leaning on the side of the quonset, taking a smoke break in the shade, when I see Alice come out of the house. She's carrying a plate covered in foil and what looks like a glass of sweet tea. I smile to myself; my mom must have seen me here and sent Alice out with lunch. I'd been planning to grab a snack out of the cooler when I met up with my dad later—he always takes a good amount of food with him when he'll be out in the fields all day—but this seems like a much better prospect.

Alice looks a world better than she did yesterday, having eaten and slept and showered, and the change leaves me feeling hot beneath my skin again as I take it all in. Her hair is still a short spiky mess, but I think she's done it on purpose now. The dark circles are gone from under her eyes, as is the weary droop to her face. She's wearing a pretty little flowered top and jean shorts, slightly wrinkled from time spent in her pack, but they're still fine-looking clothes that fit her just right. And those scuffed and worn knee-high boots with her shorts… it does something to me that I can't explain.

"Well, hello there," I say when Alice reaches me, stowing my cigarette in my mouth so I can take the plate from her hands.

"Your mom thought you might be hungry."

I bob my head in appreciation, both for the look of her and for the food she's just handed me. "As a matter of fact, I am."

"Oh, and thirsty," she says, holding the glass out as well.

I smile around my smoke and take the cold glass in my other hand, pushing off the wall and motioning with my head for her to follow. There's an old picnic table under a few big trees on the other side of the building. We make the quick walk over in silence, both perching on top of the table when we reach it. I set the plate down beside me so I can pluck the cigarette from my lips, offering it to Alice when I remember her asking for one in the truck yesterday.

"Thanks." She accepts it and takes a small, quick drag, blowing the smoke out slowly.

"You can finish it," I tell her, swallowing a deep drink of sweet tea before setting the glass down on my other side. I pick up the plate and peek under the foil wrap.

"Your mom said roast beef is your favourite."

I grin. "That it is."

"There's carrot sticks too. She said you might not eat them, but I thought they'd go nicely together."

A peal of laugher bursts out of me. "You bring me carrot sticks, darlin', and I'll eat them."

Her cheeks are pink as she brings the cigarette to her lips again, but a small smile is curving her mouth too. I unwrap the plate and pick a carrot off of it, taking a bite and crunching loudly. She nods in satisfaction, and then turns away as her blush deepens.

I move on to the sandwich, enjoying this small sweet moment with Alice. It was really kind of her to come out here, and I hope it means she might open up to me a little, though I'm still afraid to ask anything too specific. I sit in silence instead, eating and watching her smoke the cigarette down to the butt. She stubs it out on the old weathered table when she's done, then wraps it up in the foil from my plate.

"What do you do for fun around here?" she asks after a moment.

"Well…" I answer, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. "To be honest there ain't a lot of time for fun, at least maybe not the way you're thinkin'. Ranchin's more than a full-time job; it's not like we can take weekends off when there's animals to be tendin' to. There'll be gatherin's over in the town every so often, dinners or dances, fiddlers and other players come to put on a show. We've gone away a few times, but it costs a lot of money to pay our hands for the extra time and care here, so we don't do it much. Mostly we just stick close to home, and enjoy some quiet rest whenever we can get it."

Alice is eyeing me with a concerned expression. "So you just… work, constantly?"

I chuckle softly. "It don't seem that bad, really. I've never known any different. It's just more like life, I guess."

"And you like it here?"

The question takes me aback. "Well yeah, this is my home. I ain't never leavin', that's for sure. I've been savin' my wages, gonna build me a house, just up there." I point to the north, where some of our unused land sits. "This ranch, my great granddad started it. Passed it onto my granddad, who passed it onto my dad… and one day, it'll be mine. I'll start with a house, then I thought maybe if I'm lucky enough to find a wife to share it with…" I trail off, feeling suddenly awkward, like I've implied too much. I clear my throat, staring down at my hands. Half of me hopes that Alice doesn't read too far into it, while the other half of me kind of hopes she does. "Either way, this is where I belong," I finish with a shrug.

She lets out a sad sigh. "That's so nice. I thought I knew that once. But now…"

I look up and she's staring straight ahead, chewing her lip like she's trying to hold back her words. I told myself I'd be patient, and I need to be careful, but I can't ignore this chance either.

"You know you can talk to me," I tell her gently, my heartbeat gathering speed as I wonder if she just might do so, here and now. "I ain't gonna pry, but if you got anything you need to get off your chest… well, I'm a good listener."

A small smile twists her mouth as she turns to face me again. "I bet you are," she says, her gaze roving over my face before her eyes lock with mine. "I'll remember that. For another day."

I nod, transfixed by her stare, by this moment, by the thought that one day she might open up and let me in. I just want to know her. I want to know what to say to make her smile touch her eyes. I want to know what to do to make her laugh. I want to know… other things, but I don't let myself think that far ahead.

"Alright," I say, looking away before I lose my senses completely.

Alice hops down from the picnic table and gathers up my plate and glass. "I'd better get back inside. Your mom's letting me use the washer and my load is probably done."

I look up at the sun, blazing hot and high overhead. It's about noon, and my dad will be expecting me out in the fields by now. "Come on, then. I'll walk you back."

We make it back to the house without speaking another word, but when I hold the door open for her to go inside, Alice turns and looks up at me.

"I'll see you later?" she says, and I swear there's a hint of worry in her voice. Her eyes hold that same lost, lonely, yearning look they always do, only now it's focused straight on me and it burns a path straight into my heart.

"Yes, ma'am," I reply softly, hoping I look and sound as reassuring as I mean to.

Her nose wrinkles the tiniest bit, but she doesn't complain about the word this time. Instead she smiles slightly before turning and stepping into the house. She doesn't look back, but I watch her round the corner to the hallway, rubbing at a twinge in my chest as she disappears from view.

I let the screen door bang closed, exhaling heavily as I walk away.

o –

The afternoon passes quick—the days always do when I'm on horseback. It's my favourite thing in the world to be mounted, up high in the breeze, twelve-hundred pounds of muscle and power moving under my legs.

I caught up with my dad and the rest of the cattlemen about one o'clock, far out in our northernmost fields. The cows had been grazing this pasture for five days now, and it was time to move them to the west. It went easy enough, between us men and the dogs, and by six o'clock we were headed back to the homestead.

Alice is sitting on the veranda when I ride into the yard ahead of everyone else, the dogs coming up close on my heels. She stands and steps up to the porch rail when she sees me, her face a look of wide-eyed astonishment. Curious what that's all about, I dismount and quickly tie my horse to a fence post so I can walk over and talk to her. The dogs follow closely behind me, yapping and dancing around excitedly when they see Alice.

I reach the house and look up to where she's standing, motioning for the dogs to sit behind me. They do, quieting down so I can talk. "Hello again," I say, pulling my hat from my head.

Alice still looks stunned as her gaze trails over me. "You're like… a real cowboy?"

I laugh heartily. "I'm as real as they come, darlin'."

Her cheeks turn pink but she doesn't relent. "It's just… Yesterday, you didn't look… " She motions up and down my body. "I mean, honestly I thought they only dressed like that in the movies."

I laugh again and look down at my outfit: long-sleeve light denim shirt, Wranglers, chaps, boots and my dusty old straw cowboy hat. It's pretty standard wear for cattlemen out in the field, but I guess it is quite different than the white t-shirt and jeans she's seen me in up until now.

"Maybe not for work around the yard here," I tell her. "But you gotta dress right when you're in the fields. Ain't no break from the sun out there."

She nods as she looks at my hat, but then her eyes travel down to my legs. "Chaps?"

"Well, sure. Ridin' will tear your legs up somethin' bad without 'em."

Alice looks back up at me and nods again. "I guess that makes sense."

I grin at her, filled to the brim with amusement. "You really ain't seen a real cowboy before?"

She shakes her head. "In New York? No. I mean, you see all kinds of people there, but—" She clamps her mouth shut in a hurry, suddenly realizing what she's let slip.

My heartbeat hits a full gallop as her face turns bright red, a look of absolute panic washing over her. I'm shocked speechless, with no idea at all what to say or do now that she's let this little tidbit out. However harmless it may seem to me, clearly it's something she wasn't ready to reveal, and as much as I want to know anything she's willing to tell me, the terrified look she's now wearing makes me wish she hadn't said it.

I stand silently, watching in apprehension while her expression undergoes several different emotions in a matter of seconds, finally settling on something I can't be sure of. Her eyes lock with mine, staring so intently at me that I feel raw and raked over, until she finally lets out a shuddery sigh and looks away.

"Your mom sent me out here to watch for you," she says, looking over her shoulder and out into the distance. "I'm supposed to let her know when you're back. Supper's almost ready."

Alice turns and her eyes find mine again for the briefest instant, no longer blazing with intensity but back to their previous hollow loneliness. She looks away quickly as she walks off and into the house, the screen door banging shut behind her. I stare at the door in a stupor for several minutes after she's gone, a complete mess of thoughts and emotions left in her wake.

What on God's green earth could have happened to that girl to have her near fall apart at the mention of where she's from? A jumble of awful scenarios flit through my imagination, each one worse than the last, until I shake my head to make them stop. I can't let my mind run off like that. I need the truth of it, and nothing more.

A clatter of hooves alerts me to the arrival of my dad and the other men. With one last look at the screen door, I turn around and head back to where I'd tied my horse, whistling for the dogs to follow.

o –

Alice keeps her distance from me for the next few days, and though it pains me more than I care to admit, I do my best to stay back and give her the space she needs.

It doesn't help that I seem to be the only one she's avoiding, though.

My dad's not around much during the day, but my mom has seen fit to take Alice under her wing, and you can be sure that Morgan's not far off now either. When I'm working nearby rather than out in the fields, I'll see the three of them together all day long—pulling weeds in the garden, hanging wash out on the line, having coffee on the veranda after lunch.

I try not to let it bother me. It seems ridiculous that it does, seeing I've only known her a few short days, but I miss talking to Alice like it's something I've been doing my whole life long. She's gotten inside of me, under my skin and into my heart, and it's killing me that she won't let me do the same.

Today is Friday and I'm busier than a bee in a hive, but the day passes quick and it's suppertime before I know it. I've finished my work quick enough that I have time to shower and change before we eat; it's nice to come to the table fresh and clean, not feeling like a dirty old dog. I think Alice notices too, because her eyes linger on me longer than they have since the incident on the porch, but when I allow myself to smile at her, she looks away.

Supper is its usual event, ravenous eating followed by general talk, only tonight there's an extra buzz of excitement, because my dad has agreed to light a fire after dusk. Morgan can't stop talking about marshmallows and melting chocolate on a cracker, while all I want is to sit back and let my feet rest with a beer in one hand and a smoke in the other. It's been a long week for both my body and my mind, and though the work will still be there tomorrow, it'll be nice to let go of at least some of it for just one night.

I help clear the table and then get out of the way so Morgan can get going on the dishes, washing while Alice dries. I smile from the doorway as I watch her at work beside my sister, chattering along to a ten-year-old's conversation. Morgan is talking her ear off about toy horses when my mom comes up behind me, leaning her head around my shoulder to see what I'm looking at.

"She fits in well here," Mom says, looking up at me with a careful gaze. "Don't you think?"

I nod noncommittally, because the truth is there's a big difference between what I want and what I think. "She and Morgan seem to be gettin' on fine."

"I thought the two of you were gettin' on fine, up until the other day. Did somethin' happen?"

I shake my head slightly. "Yes and no. We were talkin'. We'd been talkin' in bits here and there. I thought maybe she'd open up, tell me her troubles. But she let somethin' slip and I guess it spooked her, 'cause she shut right down and hasn't said a word to me since."

My mom puts a hand on my arm. "You're a good boy, Jasper. Ah, a man now, I got to remember. I know what you're feelin' about this Alice—I'm your mama, I can see it on your face. You'll make a woman a damn fine husband one day, and I know a good husband 'cause I married your daddy. You just be careful of layin' your cards when you don't know the game though, son. This Alice, I like her—I like her tons—but she's a mess in her head and you might not want to be gettin' all tangled up in that now. Not 'til she gets herself sorted out."

I look down at my mom. "Has she said anything to you? About herself? Anything at all?"

Mom shakes her head slowly. "All I know is she's twenty-four years old. She ain't said nothin' else, and I gave up askin'. She'll let it out when she's ready."

I nod in agreement—or maybe acceptance is more like it—and push off the doorframe. "You're right, Mama, of course. I'm gonna go help dad with the fire. See you out there."

My mom pats my arm again and heads into the kitchen while I turn around and go outside. I find my dad in the quonset with a bunch of folding chairs stacked in the wheelbarrow. "You take these outside and then gather up some firewood," he tells me. "I need to find them skewers. They ain't where they're supposed to be."

I take the wheelbarrow and roll it out to the fire pit, unfolding and setting the chairs in a circle around it. When I'm done, I head over to the woodshed and come back with a full load of wood, stacking it on the ground just outside the ring of chairs. My dad comes out of the quonset just as I'm taking the wheelbarrow back, looking annoyed with a couple of old charred skewers in his hand.

"Found 'em, at least," he says sourly. "Don't ask me how they got where they did."

I chuckle as I pass him on my way into the building, wheeling the barrow over to its place.

When I come out again, my mom, Alice, and Morgan have joined my dad around the pit. There's an open cooler with drinks, and a basket with marshmallows and other fixings sitting on the ground. I take the only empty chair, which happens to be between Alice and my mom. I can see Alice watching me out of the corner of her eye as I settle myself in, but I resist the urge to look at her, even though I want to real badly. I feel like a wall has come up between us since she shut me out the other day, and as much as I despise it being there, she's the one who built it, so she's going to have to be the one to bring it down.

My dad spends a few minutes getting the fire going, and when he's done and settled back into his chair, I reach across and hand him a beer. I help myself to one too, and just as I imagined earlier, I stretch my legs out as I sip and smoke, listening to the casual conversation happening around me. It isn't long before Morgan's face and hands are covered in sticky marshmallow and chocolate, and she excuses herself to go wash up. When she comes back out, she has my battered old guitar case with her.

"Plea-a-a-se, Jasper?" she begs when she reaches us, one look at my face telling her this wasn't what I had in mind. "Just one song."

I groan, preparing to refuse, but then a small voice pipes up beside me.

"You play?" Alice asks, nodding her head toward the guitar.

I glance over and she's looking right at me, holding my gaze for the first time in days. Speaking to me for the first time in days. A warmth blooms in my chest as we stare at each other. Well, shit. This changes things.

I shrug. "Time to time…"

"Now Jasper, don't you be coy. Boy's got a voice to rival Cash himself," my mom says proudly.

The heat in my chest creeps up my neck, settling into my face. "Jeez, mama."

My dad chuckles from across the fire. "Ah, Stephie, let the boy be. No need to be makin' him feel a fool in front of our guest." He looks at me slyly though, and I swear his eyes are twinkling.

"Oh… no!" Alice exclaims. "Don't be embarrassed. I thought it was cool."

"You see?" my mom says triumphantly, looking pointedly at my dad. "He's cool."

Lord have mercy. "Alright, alright… I'll sing! Just spare me any more of this conversation."

Morgan squeals excitedly and dashes around to my side of the fire, thrusting the guitar case into my hands. I open it up and pull out my old Taylor six-string acoustic, stowing the case behind me. The guitar is a family heirloom, passed on from my granddad when he saw I had the talent. An expensive guitar even back in his day, the dark mahogany top is scuffed after years of loving use, but it still sounds rich and full as a good instrument should.

With the guitar settled in my lap, I strum out a cord to test it. It's been sitting for a while now, so I spend a few minutes plucking each string and turning the pegs to get it in perfect tune. Dusk has settled by the time I set it right, bathing us all in the day's last light. I strum a few random cords as I consider what to play, and after a moment I turn my head slightly to glance over at Alice.

She's watching me intently, her eyes glowing in the firelight, a halo of warm, golden sunset surrounding her. She looks… beautiful, as lovely as I've ever seen her, but that haunting void in her gaze still overshadows it all. That lost, lonely look that torments me, telling me she can't be mine. I start to strum a chord, my fingers moving over the frets to sound out the first notes of the song, and then I sing, my voice low and true.

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,

He sounds too blue to fly.

The midnight train is whining low,

And I'm so lonesome I could cry.

I've never seen a night so long,

When time goes crawlin' by.

The moon just went behind the clouds,

To hide its face and cry.

I'm looking down as I play, my eyes on the dirt at my feet, but I can feel the force of Alice's stare. I can feel it in my blood, in my bones, as deep as you can go within me, tearing me apart piece by piece. And I can feel her hurt too; I know this song will hurt her with its sombre melody and mournful words, but I want her to know that I'm singing it for both of us. I look up at her, to the tragic look on her face as she watches me, and I hope, that in my voice, she can hear it.

Did you ever see a robin weep,

When leaves begin to die?

Like me, he's lost the will to live,

I'm so lonesome I could cry.

The silence of a fallin' star,

Lights up a purple sky.

And as I wonder where you are,

I'm so lonesome I could cry.

I let the last chord reverberate into the darkness, ending the song with an unfinished air, because for me, it is unfinished. Her loneliness is now mine. Her hurt is now mine. Her tears are now mine. She never has to bear these burdens alone again, because from this moment on, I share them. I feel them like a knife in the heart, twisting with the pain of how they keep her from me.

My mom and sister are clapping, Morgan is begging me to sing one more, but I can't tear my gaze from Alice. She's staring at me, and I can tell she's struggling to maintain her wall, but there's a crack there and I see something new in her eyes that's holding me: a desperate longing that mirrors my own. It's there, aching to be set free, struggling toward me, if only she would let it go. She knows I see it, and I want to reach for it—for her—but before the wall can break and let me in, she looks away.

"This was really nice," Alice says, standing up and looking around at everyone but me. "I'm tired though, so if you'll please excuse me, I'm going in to bed."

"Of course, honey," my mom replies with a smile. "See you in the morning."

Alice walks quickly up to the house, the screen door slamming behind her with a final bang.

I sit back in my chair, resting the guitar atop my knees. I feel like I just lost a fight with a black bear. I'm exhausted and bleeding, torn open and exposed, but the cuts are on my heart rather than my skin.

"You shouldn't have sang that song, boy," my dad says from across the fire.

I look up at him, chewing my lip and feeling foolish. "Yeah, I know."

To my surprise though, he laughs, a thick booming howl of mirth. "Oh-h-h, you're in for it now, boy. You just broke the dam. That's girl's gonna spill all over you, and you just remember that you asked for it when she does."

"What?" I say in surprise. I glance to my mom and she's smirking, her eyes alight with amusement, twinkling in the firelight.

"You just wait," my dad continues. "I knew you was good, boy, but that was good." He chuckles some more but doesn't say anything else, instead lighting a cigarette and smoking it with a grin.

I sit forward, bringing the guitar back into my lap, picking at random notes as I try to process what he's telling me. It doesn't make any sense, Alice all but ran out of here, away from me, again. My dad's a lot wiser than I am though and I'm smart enough to know it, so if he sees something there that I don't, well… I'll just have to trust that he's right.

"Play Blue Eyes, Jasper," Morgan begs. "Please."

I smile over my guitar, looking into my sister's own big blue eyes, brimming with excitement in the darkness. "Alright," I tell her. "But only if you sing the harmony."

"Yes!" she squeaks, jumping forward in her chair.

I start to strum, playing out the slow and steady melody twice before I find my voice again.

I-i-in the twilight glow I see her…

o –

Alice doesn't talk to me for a week this time, and I'm starting to think my dad was plain wrong.

I catch her looking at me now and then, her gaze lingering when she thinks I don't see, but that wall is not only back up, she's gone and made it a foot thick now too.

Even I'm not bullheaded enough to think I can go breaking through that.

The days are long and hot as ever, but I work myself as hard as I can stand, finding anything and everything I can do to keep my hands busy, and my mind off Alice. Not that it works, but every time I stop I think about her so damn much that I can't help but wonder if she put some kind of spell on me.

I see her face, I see her eyes, I see her wanting me like I want her. I see us both hurting, needing each other, but then I also see her wall.

I've never smoked so much in my whole life.

The old picnic table beside the quonset has become both a place of solace and a place of torment. I go there and stick cigarette after cigarette into my mouth while I try not to think about Alice, only to end up thinking about Alice, and when I realize I'm thinking about Alice, I think about Alice some more.

I've gone stark raving mad over this girl, and I still don't even know her last name.

I'm a damn fool if ever there was one.

Seven days after the campfire I finally come face to face with her on our own, a complete accident on my part when I come out of the house to find her sitting on my sister's tree swing just outside the back door. I honestly didn't know she would be out there; she wasn't when I went into the house just ten minutes ago.

Alice looks up when she hears me coming, but she doesn't look away like I'm expecting her to, she stares right at me and it makes me stop.

"Ma'am," I say awkwardly, not knowing what else might be right under the circumstances.

She smiles her sweet little smile and I can't help that it sets my heart racing. "I told you I don't like being called that," she says playfully. I think she's trying to be teasing, to get back to that silly little game between us, but suddenly I'm in no mood to be playing any more games.

"Did you?" I say, not bothering to keep the annoyance out of my voice. "Well I don't recall."

Alice looks at me sadly. "I deserve that. Look, I'm sorry. I know I'm being unfair to you, and I hate myself for it. I just wish… I wish I could make you understand, but I can't."

I'm standing here, arms crossed, feet spread out, and I must look as confused as I feel because her face goes from sad to frustrated to mad—at herself, I think—and she lets out an exasperated cry.

"I just can't, okay? I can't."

"You can't." I repeat, my voice growing even more annoyed as every conviction I had about being patient with her snaps in two. This sweet little thing comes along here with her big eyes and her cute nose and her fine frame, some secret past and a look of longing in her eyes pointed straight at me… but she can't. Or won't. Either way I'm done. My mind's been a mess ever since she showed up and I need to get it untangled before I lose myself completely. "Well you made that much clear, but you're gonna have to fill in the blank for me here because I'm fresh outta ideas on what you're talkin' about."

She just looks at me, her eyes huge and deep earth-brown, glittering with frustration and anger and… so many things I can't name. But she still doesn't say anything.

"Yeah-h-h," I drawl. "Yeah, that's what I thought."

I turn and walk away, but I'm not even three paces gone when she shouts after me.

"I can't stay here with you!"

Filled with a sudden fury, I turn back and glare at her. "Well why not?!"

"You scare me," she says, and my whole body goes numb.

"You're scared of me?"

"No, I'm not scared of you. You scare me. Because you are just… You. With your nice manners, and your hard work, and that enthralling way you talk. All scraggly-haired and sweaty-faced, your dirty hands looking all strong and capable. It's just… everything I never knew I wanted. And I can't want you. I can't. I can't have you, and then lose you. Ever. Not when I've already lost so much."

My hands are shaking at my sides. I've never felt anything like the cascade of emotions that are flooding me right now. Anger, shock, sadness, confusion, hope… They're all crashing around and I can't get a grip on which one to follow. "Well what… What did you lose?" I ask carefully.

"Everything. My whole life. Gone forever."

"How?"

Alice looks at me, that foot-thick wall dropping back into place over her eyes just when I thought we might be getting somewhere. "It's… It's… It's just gone."

"Augh!" I exclaim, scrubbing my hands over my face. I'm beyond frustrated to be back in this place with her again, back to her secrets and mysteries, back to her pushing me away. "Fine then. You want me, but you can't have me. Your life is gone, but you can't tell me why. Fine. I guess this conversation is over then, so… see you later." I wave derisively and turn to walk away again.

"I was stalked!" she yells to my back, making me stop dead still. My stomach clenches as every hair on my body stands on end. I turn back around slowly, my heart pounding. She's staring at me, her face white, her eyes wide open and pleading. And suddenly, there is no wall. Only anguish and fear and desperation, and I feel it all right to my very core.

"What?" I grind out, my voice barely more than a strangled whisper. I'd been stark raving mad just a second ago, but now all I feel is an icy chill going right up my spine.

Alice sighs heavily, the line across her mouth firming as she looks at me with stark determination. "I was stalked."

"By who?"

She blows out a gust of air. "It's… a long story."

"Okay."

"I haven't told it to anyone, since I left." She looks terrified, but I can see in her eyes that she needs to tell me this as much as I need to hear it, so I press on.

"Since you left New York?"

She nods. "Have you got a smoke? I don't think I can get through this without one."

I doubt I can either. "Come on," I say, motioning for her to follow.

We make the quick walk over to the picnic table, perching on top just like the day with the sandwich and carrot sticks. Only this time I hand her a fresh cigarette and take one of my own, first holding out my lighter to her, and then sparking it for myself. I take a deep drag and reach behind me to grab the old can I've been keeping here, setting it between us.

I sit forward with my elbows resting on my open knees, my cigarette curling smoke up over my hands. I take another drag, and another, waiting for her to start.

"I had a blog," she finally says. "A popular fashion blog. Wait… do you know what that is?"

I snort in wry amusement. "Uh huh. We may not sit on computers all day long, but we know what they're about."

Alice glances at me apologetically. "Okay, sorry. Just checking.

"I moved to New York when I was eighteen. All I ever wanted was to be was a designer, but the small city I grew up in wasn't where I was going to make that happen. So as soon as I finished high school, I left. My mom died a long time ago, and eventually my dad had remarried, only my stepmother and I didn't get along, so it was an easy choice to pack up and leave.

"New York was scary at first, but I found a job quickly, and a room to rent, and eventually I got a loan for school. It was hard but it was amazing. Fast forward a few years and I had made a name for myself in the industry. Alice Brandon—everyone knew who I was. I ran a blog, I'd been featured in all the big magazines, I was selling private designs, and the money just kept coming. I got an apartment, I made friends, I went out and moved in popular fashion circles… It was everything I had ever dreamed of.

"And then… the comments started on the blog. Most of my posts featured pictures of me wearing my designs; I thought it'd be a way to make it more personal for my readers, and it seemed to be a winning idea. My blog was getting thousands of hits a day from all over the world. I'd gotten a few rude or inappropriate comments before, and up until then they'd been no big deal, only these ones just kept coming, and all from the same username: James.

"At first I just tried to delete them, but eventually they got really bad, and I was getting pretty freaked out. I went to the police, and they passed it onto their cyber-division, but it was months before I heard anything back, and by then the comments had stopped. I thought everything was fine.

"Then I got a letter. In my personal mailbox. It was addressed to me, with my full name and address, and it was signed by James. I panicked. I went back to the police, and they started an investigation, but it went nowhere. More letters came, and they even caught him on camera several times, but they could never find him after that. He was like a ghost, haunting me.

"So I moved. And the letters started coming there. I went to stay with a friend, and the letters started coming there too. It was… absolutely terrifying. I couldn't escape him, no matter how hard I tried to hide. I never knew when the letters would turn into more, when he would come for me himself. Then one day, it happened. I saw him. He didn't come close or talk to me, but I knew. I could tell by the way he looked at me; the look on his face was… savage. Ferocious. I knew if he got me, he would kill me.

"I ran. I deleted everything, my blog and all my online profiles. I drained my bank account, packed just the clothes and supplies I could carry on my back, and my friend drove me as far as he could, four hours out of the city before he had to turn back. I hitched a ride then. It was the first time I'd ever done that in my life, and I was so scared. The lady was nice though, and she got me out of the state.

"I hitched all the way through Pennsylvania and West Virginia. I slept in awful motels where I could pay cash. I never stayed anywhere more than one day. I couldn't leave a trail, anywhere, that James might find. I lied my face off to everyone I met. You were the first person I told my real name to since I left it all behind; I'm surprised I remembered it, I was so used to being someone else by then. It was only when I got to Kentucky that I started to think I might be safe, but still… I always wondered. I always felt that prickle at the back of my neck, no matter where I was turned.

"So I kept going. I ended up backtracking a lot, taking rides wherever I could get them. People aren't quick to pick up hitchhikers nowadays, so sometimes I would just walk. I'd walk and walk for miles before someone else would stop. And by then I'd get in the car just to rest my feet, no matter where they were going.

"About a month after I left New York, I ended up back in my hometown. Biloxi, Mississippi. I didn't want to be there, where people knew me, where they might talk or put my name somewhere online. I didn't know where else to go though, and I was so tired by then. I went by my old house. I stood in front of it for an hour. I could see my old room, I recognized the furniture on the porch. But I couldn't make myself go in. I'd left that life behind, and even after losing my new one, I didn't want it back. My stepmother was awful. She hated me and loved my half-sister. My dad was weak and he didn't stand up for me. The road was better than there.

"I left Biloxi that same night. I hitched some more, and I walked. I hitched and I walked, for another month. And then eventually I made it here to Texas. I still had no idea where I was headed, maybe Mexico I thought, but in all that time I sort of gave up on ever having a real home again. I mean, how could I? I couldn't use my name, I couldn't let my face get online, I couldn't contact my friends or family or anyone who'd ever known me— it was like I didn't even exist anymore. Still, I just had to keep moving.

"Then I got a bad ride coming out of Kingsville. It'd all been fine up until then, and I'd actually gotten used to meeting and riding with strangers. This guy though, he scared me. He asked all kinds of weird questions about me, about what I was carrying, and what kind of protection I had. I lied and told him I had mace. I told him I was a black belt, that I'd taught self-defence before I went travelling. Anything I could to make myself sound like someone who wasn't worth messing with. He must have bought it because he dropped me off at the next exit. I was so glad to get out of his car, only then he circled back around, and pulled up to me again about half a mile up the road. He offered to drive me a little further, but I refused. I thanked him profusely and told him he'd done enough for me already, and that I'd find another ride soon. He drove off and that was that, but I couldn't make myself get in anyone else's car after that.

"So I walked. I bought a little food and some water to carry with me, and I walked. I crossed a lot of fields. There were trees there and safer places to rest. I'd been walking for a day and a half when you found me. I don't even know what made me put my thumb out. I'd told myself I wasn't going to accept any more rides. But I did it without thinking. And before I realized it, you'd stopped. One look at you and I knew you were going to be trouble for me, but not like that other guy. You looked so safe. I couldn't stop myself from getting in your truck.

"And then we came here. It was so different than anything I'd ever seen. So fast and yet slow. Your family was kind and generous and amazing. I slept in a way I hadn't done in in months, almost a year, since that first letter showed up at my apartment. I never meant to stay, but I actually felt at peace here. Like James wasn't a threat at my back. Like I could relax. Only not really, because there was you. Every time you were around… it was like I was on fire. My whole body buzzes when you talk to me, in a way I've never felt before. It's intoxicating, and I want to give in to it so badly.

"But…

"I'm scared. I'm so scared of ever having anything again. I loved my life in New York. I loved everything about it. Everything I'd done, and all for myself. And I think that… part of me died when I had to leave. It hurt so bad, even through the fear and running. I missed it; I still do. I don't think I could ever replace what I had. I don't think I can ever start over, ever have anything that is really mine again, because I won't let myself. How can I let myself love anything—anyone—when one day he might come for me and then I lose it all too? I can't face that a second time."

Alice stops talking, letting out a deep, shuddery sigh.

I've smoked four cigarettes while she told her story, and at some point turned my body so my knee is resting on the tabletop and I'm half facing her. I'd just lit up one more time when she finished, and I'm in such a state of shock at her final confession that the cigarette is dangling loosely from my lips, smoke curling up in front of my face while I gape at her.

She glances over, and seeing the look on my face, her bottom lip starts to tremble. "Say something?"

"I'm sorry," is the first thing that comes to my mind, and I say it, just like she asked. "I'm sorry for what you went through. I'm sorry that crazy man ruined your life. I'm sorry for everything you lost. And I'm really sorry that I'm a bullheaded fool who don't know when to shut his fat mouth and let a lady mourn in peace."

Alice gasps out a hiccuping laugh, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. "Don't be sorry. I needed to tell you. You needed to know why I can't be with you, even though I want to. And I really, really want to. "

Another tear leaks from her eye, and I reach out to wipe it away, keenly aware that this is the first time I've ever touched her skin. She turns her face into my hand, and I just sit there, stunned and sad and aching for her to change her mind, while she cries more tears into my palm.

A moment passes and then she pulls away, swiping her face with the back of her arm. "Well," she says. "There you have it. I should probably head out soon. Your family has been so kind to me, but I can't stay here forever. And, well…" She trails off and motions between us. "It's probably easiest if I go."

I jump off the picnic table in a rush, like she's about to bolt right now and I'm going to have to chase her down. It's ridiculous, but the thought of her leaving puts me in a panic like I've never felt before. "You can stay here," I tell her. "There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that you have to go back out there on your own."

She looks at me and opens her mouth to speak, but I stop her.

"Okay, listen. You told me your story, and I see now where you're comin' from, and why you might feel the way you do. But I need to say somethin' now, and I want you to listen real good, 'cause there ain't nothin' in the world that you need to hear more than this right now. Alright?"

I pause and she nods, watching me carefully.

"You're safe here," I tell her, with all the conviction I can muster, with all the strength of my mind and my body and my heart. I mean every word like they're the only ones I'll ever speak again, and if they are that's fine, because I just need her to know. "You're safe with my family, here on our ranch, and with all these lands surroundin' us. You're safe with me. Ain't no crazy man or nothin' else on earth that I will ever let get to you or come between us. That's a promise I will make, and I will keep it 'til my dyin' day and all the days after that. You hear?"

Alice is crying again as she stares at me, and I want so badly to reach out and comfort her, but I need my words to sink in deep without any interference my touching her might cause. I need her not just to hear it, but to believe it, all on her own, and I pledge to myself that I won't make another move until I see that belief in her eyes.

"I'll be here when you're ready," I say softly, and she nods.

o –

The weeks pass, and every day I see Alice I look for it, but along with everything else I see in her gaze, there's still fear and worry and doubt. Not today then, I tell myself, and carry on as usual, but it gets harder every time.

I want her, and I want her bad. So bad I can hardly sleep, especially not when she's there in the room next to mine, warm and breathing and dreaming, nothing separating our minds and our bodies but the wall between us.

Another wall. When I build my house there isn't going to be a single wall anywhere on the inside, except maybe around the bathroom. Otherwise, I've had enough of walls for this life.

In the meantime, Alice has made herself an integral part of this family, taking on chores and becoming close as a bunch of hens with my mom and my sister. The sight of her working hard alongside the family, carving her notch deeper into our doorframe, gives me the hope I need to keep waiting.

And I will wait, as long as it takes.

Months pass, my birthday comes and goes, and I'm a man proper now at twenty years old. No longer a 'teen,' my dad silently marks the occasion and stops calling me 'boy,' which I both appreciate, and to my surprise, occasionally miss.

I watch my bank account grow, saving every last dollar I can, getting closer and closer every month to the first step toward my future. Before long I'll have enough to start the framing on my house, and I hope when that day comes, Alice will be there to tell me what colors she likes.

Christmas passes, and then it's spring on the ranch, which means we're busy tending to the new calves and preparing the pastures for another year of summer grazing, among all the other endless work this place entails. We've hired a new cattleman, and it's my job to get him accustomed to how we work around here, schedules, rotations and the like.

Time keeps moving on, and I'm still waiting.

It's a hot May day when it happens, just a month shy of a year since Alice first came to us. I'm walking out of the garden, having just filched a handful of fresh blackberries from the far end of the crops, when Alice's head pops up from between two thick rows of green beans she'd been weeding. I startle and yell, tossing the berries in shock, while she laughs with absolute glee.

I've been hearing her laugh for months now, and it's a beautiful sound that hits me straight in the heart whenever I catch it, but there's always seemed to be a little more room for her to really let it out. To really let go. Only she hasn't yet, until this moment.

"Darn it, woman," I say, clutching at my chest. "You fixin' to give me a heart attack?"

She jumps up and whoops even louder, her merriment spreading over me until I'm chuckling along with her. Her eyes find mine, and when I gaze deep, looking as I always do, I see it. I finally see it. Freedom. Alice is smiling and laughing, free of the pain and fear and uncertainty she kept locked up in her, and all I see is joy in her eyes. Joy for her new home, her new family, her new life. Joy for the belief and trust she has in those things, and for the belief and trust she has in me.

It's there.

It's here.

This is my moment, and I won't wait another second.

I step into the garden, over the few rows separating us, until I'm standing in front of her. She looks up at me, the joy in her eyes making room for the desperate longing for each other I know is reflected in my stare. I bring my hand up, my palm tracing her cheek, but there's no tears this time. Her skin is warm, flushed with anticipation, heating even more under my touch. I lean down as she stretches her face upward, and when our lips finally touch, I know that every second of pain and frustration and yearning was worth it.

Alice pulls back first, looking up at me, a radiant smile blooming over her mouth. "You kept me waiting long enough," she says.

I grin in return. "My apologies, ma'am," I tell her, and I kiss her again.

The End –

Author's Note:

There was scarcely any information regarding Jasper or his family in his (human) pre-military days, so Stephenie (Meyer) and her husband Chris(tian) played the roles of Dad and Mama Whitlock in this story, with Stephenie's maiden name (Morgan) stepping in as Jasper's sister. Just a little FYI for those who might be wondering.

The first song Jasper sings at the fire is I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry by Hank Williams. It's a hauntingly beautiful song that my own daddy used to sing, and to this day I still can't listen to it without a tear in my eye and a twinge in my heart.

The second song mentioned is Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain by Willie Nelson, another lovely old-time country classic.