A/N: Thank you so much to my new (and very thorough) beta, Leon. Amazing. Thank you!

On another note, I refuse to beg for reviews…But I really like getting them. That's all I'm sayin' on the matter.

Hopefully you enjoy, or at least tolerate, my Alice & Jasper.

Chapter 1

Here

Alice's Point of View

Often I look back on my life and wonder how I got here. Here, people say they are lost. Don't know where they are. Don't know where they're going. Don't remember where they came from. But is that lost? If it is, then I sure as hell am lost inside the most insane labyrinth imaginable. But I don't believe that I am lost. I believe that I am here. Some days, it is the only thought that keeps me going. I am here. I came from there, somewhere behind me. I am going there. Where or what there is, I'm not quite sure, but I am not lost. I am fully aware of where here is. And here is not somewhere I love, but somewhere that I am stuck. Like a deserted island, with no way out, no boats, no bridges, not even anything to build a raft out of sea turtles, or whatever it was that Jack Sparrow claimed to have done when his crew committed the mutiny. And I couldn't even blame acrew of pirates for this mutiny; this mutiny was all my own doing.

My life was a constant string of mistakes. Choices I made that somehow got twisted around and mangled until they no longer resembled what I initially intended. There were times I wished that I could see the future, and days that I was afraid that if I could, all I would see would be gray, bleak, clouds.

I gasped and swore under my breath. I needed to start paying attention before I sliced through my hand with the paring knife. The knick on my knuckle was bleeding heavily down my hand and dripping off my wrist. I flipped the faucet on and ran my hand under cold water, cursing my stupidity and the waste of time. He would be home soon, and he did not like anything to be late.

I wrapped my finger in paper towel to avoid dripping blood on the carpet, and hurried to the other end of the house to find a band-aid in the bathroom. I dried my hand and laid the sticky bandage on my finger, wrapping it around and testing the flex. Sighing, I headed back toward the kitchen to finish up the salad.Before I was finished, I heard the ominous click of the lock.

"I don't understand why you feel the need to lock the door. It's just plain stupid. We live in the god damned suburbs. Who the hell is going to break in when we have ten thousand neighbours watching our every move?" His voice. He was home. I heard him drop his brief case in the foyer and started tossing the salad.

"I just prefer to have the door locked," I told him, leaving out the part where it gave me warning that he was coming home.

"Whatever. Grab me a beer, will ya? And is dinner not ready yet? Christ Alice, I work all fucking day long, and all you have to do is look after this place and you can't even get dinner ready on time?"

And he was right; becauseof him I didn't need to work. Sure, I had the education and the skills, but he made it pretty clear that he made more than enough money to support the household and whatever 'meager' amount I would bring in would make no difference anyway. I lived here, he provided me with a house, and beautiful things, and a nice car. He had the right to be a little bit demanding.

"I'm sorry,"I told him. He scoffed and rattled the beer bottle down on the granite counter top a little bit too hard, causing me to wince.

"I'm not going to break it, Christ!" He threw up his hands and sat himself swiftly down in the chair at the far end of the table. "What are we eating? Or did you not get any further than salad?" His voice was mocking, his face angry. A man, who should be incredibly handsome, had slowly transformed in front of my face. His large, dark eyes were flat and lifeless. His smile never met them and was too toothy, false and intimidating. His hand held mine too tightly in public. His muscles, which I had once found so sexy and appealing, were now terrifying. What he could do to me if he chose made my skin crawl. But Carlos had never hit me. I had seen firsthand what happened when he got angry, and he was a physical person. Vases had been smashed, chairs had been thrown. Did he scare me? Absolutely.

But he loved me. Couples fought, but it didn't mean they didn't still love each other. The question was, did I love him? And I think I did, but I loved the man I'd met more. Theone who had wined and dined me. The one who told me he loved me and that I was beautiful. He didn't do that anymore. He complained. He got angry. He was set in his ways and I needed to learn to respect and accept that, because he accepted me. Too-skinny, too-short, too-simple"me.

"I made pork tenderloin and glazed carrots and mashed potatoes."

He grunted. And then we ate in an awkward, air-buzzingsilence.

The rest of the evening was tense. Just like it always was when Carlos got himself into a state. I did the dishes and went upstairs to shower. He sat on the couch and watched television, completely oblivious to my actions. I finally gathered my courage and went downstairs.

"I'm going to go to bed. I'm tired," I told him.

"Alice," he said without turning around.

"Yes?" I was almost to the foot of the stairs now.

"I'm sorry about tonight," he told me. I turned around, gaping. "I shouldn't have gotten so angry. It was only a few minutes late."

I stepped a little bit closer. "Oh," I said brilliantly. "It's okay. I understand. You work hard." I wondered if maybe he was seeing the error in his ways.

"Come here."

I lifted my eyes to meet his, peering at me over the back of the couch. I nodded and crossed the room to settle myself beside him. He pulled me to him and lay me down in front of him, his big hands combing through my long, dark hair.

"You have beautiful hair," he murmured, his lips playing over the top of my head and down my neck. "And you smell good." I knew what he wanted now. I knew, and it had been a long time, and I wanted it too. So often I didn't believe that he wanted me, desired me in the physical way. I needed to know. If I knew, then his beauty would return. You couldn't find the person you love unattractive. You couldn't find the person who loved you unattractive. I loved him. He was beautiful. I chanted it over and over in my head like a tape loop.I felt his hands drift lower and raise my pajama top, fingers tracing along my belly. And I relaxed into it.

Because I wanted it. I needed it.

And later, after we'd made it to bed and he grunted in release, I lay there, feeling no better than I had before. Maybe even worse.I longed for the time when he made me weak in the knees, when just thinking about his touch made me restless. Instead, he drifted off to sleep, his snores biting into the silence, and I lay beside him, hands clasped in front of me, staring at the ceiling and wondering why it had gone so wrong.

Four years ago I'd met Carlos at a conference he was at for work, back in Baltimore. I'd grown up in Baltimore, gone to school in Baltimore, was working as a server for a catering company in Baltimore,and wanted nothing more than to get out. And Carlos was older, settled, and thought I was the "most beautiful thing he'd ever seen." I was swept away by expensive dinners and nice wine. He stayed in Baltimore after the conference. We spent two weeks together. I was sure I was falling in love. And what wasn't to love? He was charming, attractive, well off. He had a good job, a nice car, and he liked me a whole lot. It was definitely a few steps up from the pot smoking band guys I usually spent my time with. So when he asked me to come to Phoenix with him, who was I to say no? My parents were horrified, naturally, but I was going through a phase where I didn't care what they thought, and that I knew best. I flew home after a month to gather my few belongings that I required and didn't look back. Until about a year into the relationship, when everything changed.

But I was twenty two and he was forty. I had nothing to show for my life. He owned the house, he owned my car. He even owned my clothes. He paid my credit card; he managed my meager bank account. And he loved me. He was doing all of these things because he loved me. He even told me so. And I believed him. But now, three years later, I'm twenty five, and he's forty three, and things are worse, and I was still stuck -here.

And, just for arguments' sake, say I wanted out. Where would I go? I had no money, no job, no car. I hadn't spoken to my parents in four years. I had no close friends. Because he'd told me, all he needed was me, and all I should need was him. It was a lonely existence. Sometimes I found myself talking to strangers in the grocery store about the tabloids because at least it was contact with another person. And I was that strange girl that never left her house. I didn't know our neighbours. I knew the family next door to the left had an obnoxious little boy named Jason, mostly because I heard his mother screeching at him constantly. The family to the right had a white cat that pooped in my flower beds. Sometimes Carlos would yell at him when he came home from work. I sighed and rolled over onto my side, pressing my face into the pillow and praying for sleep to come.

****

I got out of my car in the heat of the July morning and swung my purse over my arm. It was so hot and so dry, I could literally feel the weather sucking the moisture from my skin. I hurried towards the cool, air-conditioning of the grocery store and sighed once inside. Maryland had been hot, but with the humidity it was a different heat than the desert. I'd heard so many people say the dry heat didn't feel as hot, but I missed the rain. I gathered the few groceries I needed and headed for the checkout. The older lady behind the counter smiled kindly at me, and I tried to smile back.

"How are you today?" sheasked as she scanned my items.

"I'm great,thank you," I replied, trying to sound chipper. No need to bring down strangers with my rotten mood.

"You look tired, dear," she commented as she checked the price on the red peppers. "Are you a student?"

I shook my head. "I guess I just didn't sleep well. I'm fine. Thank you." She nodded and took the money from me, never looking me in the eye. She handed me back my change and I looked at her name tag. "Thank you,Delia."

"Have a nice day dear. Oh… and dear…" she called as I was almost to the door.

"Yes?"

"It's a hot day. Why don't you stop in at the café across the street and have a cold beverage. You look like you could use one."

I wasn't sure how to take that comment, but I nodded and thanked her, and went toput the groceries in my car. I checked the time and realized that it was still early, and I was quite thirsty, so Idecided to check out the caféthat Delia had suggested.

It was a quaint,little out-of-the-wayplace, with checkered curtains and game boards on the tables. There was a shelf of old, well-used novels on a wall near the door, and a friendly bell when I opened the door. Carlos would never darken the door of a place like this. At the thought of Carlos,I almost turned around and bolted. Almost; instead I made myself take the next step up towards the counter. The teenage girl behind the counter smiled and asked what she could get me. I glanced around quickly before telling her that a small iced coffee and a brownie would be great. She nodded and got my order.

"Are you new around here?" she queried. She seemed to be about eighteen or nineteen, and a little bit overly friendly.

I shook my head, and then added."I live in the suburbs on the other side of the freeway."

"The mansions?" She looked impressed. I giggled a tiny bit.

"I guess so, yeah."

"Wow," she replied. "Well, here's your drink. And your brownie. I'm Maria." She held out her hand and I shook it.

"I'm Alice."

"It's really nice to meet you."

I smiled back to her and went to a table near the wall. The meeting with Maria had been strange and I wondered if I were really that out of touch with reality that a thirty second conversation with the girl in the café was that hard to wrap my head around. I picked apart my brownie as I read the comics in the newspaper and sipped at my iced coffee. The next time I checked my watch it was well past when I needed to be home. I jumped up, left a tip and my dishes on the table,and hurried out the door. As I was driving back to the house,I realized that I hadn't felt so comfortable since I'd lived in Baltimore.

I peeled in the driveway and gathered the groceries in my arms, rushing towards the house and fishing my key from my purse. I got inside and kicked my shoes off before hurrying to put the groceries away and fix dinner. I didn't have much time to find something to make,and hoped Carlos would not kick up too much of a fuss over grilled pork chops, even though we'd had pork the night before.

As it was, he complained. Something about how pork two nights in a row was bad for your intestines. Whatever it was,it was bullshit. He also told me that he hated balsamic dressing. I tried to point out that he'd requested I buy it, but he told me to shut up and that he was watching the game. I sighed and got ready for bed.

****

The next week, on grocery day, I stopped in at the café and was greeted by a man with red hair and glasses. He handed me my iced coffee and my brownie,and smiled a half smile.

"Do I know you?" he asked, cocking his head to the side in curiosity. Taken aback I looked at him closely, and shook my head.

"I don't think so," I answered, taking the coffee and sticking a straw in.

"I'm Peter," he told me.

"Alice," I mumbled, before turning and heading to a table in the middle of the room.

"Where are you from?" he asked, following me.

I looked up at him, confused. "I live in the suburbs on the other side of the freeway."

He shook his head. "No, originally. You have that tiny hint of an accent." Realization must have hit my face.

"Outside of Baltimore, Maryland,"I told him, a tiny smile pulling at my lips. "I thought I'd lost it."

"Most of it," he told me, sitting down opposite me. "But you still have a tiny twang, when you said 'think.'" I laughed, a tiny laugh, but a real laugh all the same. "My friend is from Texas," he continued. "Awful twang. Yours is nothing compared to his." I smiled at his comment. "Alice?" he asked.

"Yes?"

"Are you seeing anyone?" I blinked twice and slowly nodded.

"Yes. I am."

He laughed. "Don't look so happy about it," he joked.

****

My visits to the café became more regular;eventually I was talking myself into two shopping days a week, and therefore two visits to my favourite café. Sometimes it was Maria behind the counter, and sometimes Peter. Once Peter's wife, Charlotte,served me, but she didn't have the people skills that the others did. By October I was a regular, Carlos still didn't know my weekly ritual, and I'd switched to hot coffee, not iced. It was Hallowe'en the day he walked through the door.

"Miss Maria, how are you?" Thedrawl was obvious, andhe leaned over the counter and placed his order, tapping his work boot clad foot on the tile floor.

"Fine, thanks," Maria squeaked, tripping over herself to get his coffee.

"Busy day today?" he continued, straightening up and leaning his hand against the counter. Maria didn't answer, and I finally turned around to see what was going on.

Maria slid his coffee across the counter, and he handed her a bill to pay for it. From the back he was mostly non-descript; blond hair curling slightly out from underneath a well worn, ball cap, blue jeans hanging low and a little bit loose, rips in the pockets that definitely hadn't been there when he'd bought them, anda navy t-shirt stretched across what I assumed was a well muscled back. Normal, perhaps slightly above average, but not really anything to write home about. And then he turned around. And I nearly spat out my mouthful of coffee. Because I'd never seen anything like him in my entire life.

His shoulders appeared broader from the front, perhaps because he was standing up straight, his arms were tanned and muscled, and I could see the blond hairs on them, catching in the lights. And I briefly wondered why I was thinking about his arm hairs. And then he did the unthinkable, and even though there were four empty tables, he came and sat down right beside me. I put my nose right back in the novel I was reading and hoped he would go away. I didn't need the trouble associated with ever being caught talking to someone like him.

"Mornin'," he drawled, reaching over and prying the book from in front of my face.

"Hi," I replied, pulling the book back up and staring blankly at the page. This guy had nerve, and he needed to learn some manners.

"Good book?" he asked, leaning forward and resting his chin on his hand. I quickly yanked my eyes back to the print on the page.

"Yes," I replied curtly, turning the page and reaching for my coffee without diverting my eyes. My blood was pounding in my veins, and I could hear water rushing in my ears, and my fingers were starting to tremble ever so slightly.

His hand rose again and he plucked the book from my hand, closing it and placing it beside him on the table. "I'm not a fan of being ignored," he told me. I didn't respond. I could feel the tips of my ears turning red, and I pushed myself to lean back in my chair. Then I lifted my eyes to his face.

The top half of his face was shadowed from the peak of his ball cap, but I could make out slightly sleepy, bright blue eyes, framed in long, fair lashes. His nose was straight, almost childlike with a tiny swoop, and he had full, pink lips, with one side pulled up in a smirk that I wanted to slap right off, and kiss at the very same time. And I realized that I couldn't be around him, because I couldn't deny that he was attractive, and I couldn't risk being seen with him. I was already taking a risk just coming to the café, but if Carlos were to find out I was spending time or having conversations with other men, he would be inconsolable. Because I was his, and Carlos made it very clear that he did not share.

"I'm sorry," I told him, not sounding sorry at all, I was sure. I took one more look at his sleepy eyesbefore rising from the table and tucking my book under my arm. I crossed the room, opened the door to the happy sounding bell, and hurried towards my car.

***

The house was empty when I got home, as per usual, but I was feeling uneasy. Who was the man with the drawl? Why did he sit with me? Was that normal behaviour? Was I so detached from the real world that I didn't understand a social gesture when it hit me right in the face? Why did I feel attracted to someone who had been so outright rude? Was it normal behaviour to yank a book out of someone's face? And hadn't he ever learned to take his hat off indoors?

Thoughts of the mystery guy swam around in my head as I stacked the toilet paper in the bathroom closet, and reached as high as I could to slowly wiggle the bottle of bathroom cleaner towards the edge of the shelf. It toppled off and I caught it, part of my perfected routine for being so tiny. As I scrubbed the already pristine, white sink, I thought about how his eyes, although sleepy, met mine with intensity like I had never experienced before. Like he had found something he'd been looking for, and couldn't quite believe he'd found it. But that was ridiculous, because I was just Alice, and I'd never seen him, or even someone who looked like him, before in my life. So he couldn't have been looking for me.

I moved on to the shower, scrubbing the grout between the tiles vigorously, ridding the too white bathroom of any germs that could possibly have accumulated since the last time I'd cleaned it. Back and forth, up and down, foam and rinse, and I tried to push the blond stranger from my mind.

That night, for the first time in months, I was late having dinner for Carlos, so I was extra jumpy when he came home from work. And to make matters worse, he was in an excellent mood, or so it seemed. I was still grilling the vegetables when he came in the door. The lock clicked, the briefcase dropped with a thud, and I heard him stride down the hall to the kitchen.

"I'm sorry!" I blurted out as I heard him enter the room. He only shrugged, and I felt his arm go around my waist and his lips touch the top of my head.

"It's fine," he told me, letting me go and opening the fridge to get a beer. I let out a breath I didn't realize I had been holding and continued to move the vegetables around the pan. He loosened his tie and popped the top off his beer, before taking a long drink.

"It's almost ready, I just got busy cleaning," I told him, hoping this wasn't the calm before the storm.

"Hmm," he hummed in response. "Okay."

He was quiet for a while; the odd flip of the page of the newspaper was the only sound above the sizzle of the vegetables. And then: "I need to ask you a question."

I turned off the grill, and tossed the vegetables into a dish.

"What's that?" I took my place at the end of the table, opposite him,and looked at him, trying to keep the crease of worry from between my brows.

"I need to go away for a while, on business. Will you be alright by yourself?"

I cocked my head to the side and looked at him. A million thoughts were flying through my head. Was this a test? Where was he going? When was he coming back? Would he somehow keep tabs on me?

"I think I should be fine," I said quietly, looking down at my folded hands.

"My sister offered to stay with you."

My eyes shot up to his. I wasn't a child. I didn't need to be babysat. "I said, I think I should be fine," I said through clenched teeth.

"Don't," he boomed, standing up and leaning towards me across the table, "take that tone with me!" His face was twisted in fury, his eyes two hardened slits. "You're practically a child. Do not fault me for caring." His voice was a growl, menacing and furious.

"I just didn't want to be any trouble," I replied, because I didn't, but more than that, I wanted him to calm down.

He scoffed at my reasoning and stabbed a steak from the plate in front of him. "You over cooked it," he said after a while of tense silence. I said nothing, just bowed my head in submission and chewed in silence. "Steak isn't rocket science, Alice." I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from saying anything. I was angry, but mostly at myself, because neither of us would be in this position, if I'd just cooked the steak a little bit less, or wasn't such a terrible girlfriend. It was my fault. It always was. He always reacted to something I did or didn't do, and if I could just figure out how to be perfect for him, then we wouldn't have these problems. We could be perfect.

"I leave Thursday morning. I'll be gone for two weeks."

I only nodded.