Through the Looking Glass

by

Autumn Dawn

© copyright February 2004, Autumn Beadreault Cover art by Eliza Black, © copyright 2004 New Concepts Publishing 5202 Humphreys Rd. Lake Park, GA 31636 www.newconceptspublishing.com

The glass felt cool and smooth. Ali ran her fingertips over her grandmother’s mirror, remembering the many times she’d seen her grandmother checking her appearance in the old cheval glass. Tomorrow it would be auctioned off, along with all of her grandmother’s things. Back taxes and a lengthy illness had drained Ali’s inheritance to a pittance, leaving her as destitute as the day she’d arrived on her grandmother’s doorstep, an orphan. It was growing dimmer as the storm clouds closed in, and the girl in the mirror became a blue silvered shadow. Her dark hair and eyes became colorless black, almost like the reflection cast on a dark window. This was her last night in her grandmother’s brownstone. Tomorrow she’d start her new job in a coffee house. At least she wouldn’t be a daycare worker--she’d make a terrible babysitter, especially if the children were brats. Her temper would get her fired for certain. Meanness in others always made her want to strike out. "That’s enough of that," she told herself sternly, choking off the urge to mope. Straightening her back, she almost turned away from the mirror, then stopped. A glimmer of movement in the corner of her eye made her turn back. There was nothing there. Frowning, she looked behind her. The window was shut on the storm, and there was no candle to throw shadows. What, then? Hoping to spy the source of movement, she studied the mirror. It was as it always was, except … was that a tree reflected in the glass? How could that be? No windows faced the mirror. Peering closer, she made out details, then color. The tree was moving in a slight breeze, and now there were others, like none she’d ever seen. She chanced a look behind her, saw an ordinary room, then reached out to touch the glass. It was like flowing through water. One moment she was barefoot in her nightgown, the next she was elsewhere.

Tall trees shaded the wood, but the track she stood on parted them enough to allow golden sunshine to warm her face and touch her hair. Gaping at the warm blue sky, which was nothing like the pewter gray one she’d left, she wondered dazedly if she were dreaming. Dreams didn’t come with strawberry-scented breezes, did they? "Hey, watch it!" Ali jerked her eyes down and jumped back, just as a man on a bike swerved, nearly running her down. Staring at the man, whose seated position brought him nearly eye level to her, she tried to figure out where he came from and what the dickens he was riding. Motorcycles she knew, and they didn’t look like his sleek silver beast. Whatever it was, it had a white rabbit painted on the … tank, for lack of a better word. The man whipped off a pair of dark glasses. His green eyes narrowed as he looked her over. "Get out of the road, lady. I don’t have time for hitchhikers." She frowned at his tone. His white hair was crew cut, but his face was young, and he wore an odd black, short sleeved shirt, leather pants, and boots. "Excuse me," she said indignantly, moving aside to let him pass. Just her luck. One of the rare times she dreamed about a good looking guy, and he had to be a jerk. Figured. Instead of taking off, he stared at her. One pass of his quizzical eyes was all it took to make her wonder. She looked down--and stared. "What the--" Her night gown was gone, replaced by black boots, flowing burgundy harem pants, and a clinging black velvet top with red silk sleeves. Stumped, she tried to imagine herself dreaming up such an outfit and failed. Bad fashion sense aside, she’d never worn a shirt that flashed that much cleavage. The man eyed her heart-shaped neckline, seemingly forgetting about his rush for a moment. Defensively, Ali crossed her arms under her breasts, then realized it made the problem worse. He looked away and took a deep breath. "I don’t have time for this." Muttering something under his breath, he shifted into gear. "Fine," Ali said, turning her back on him. Men never looked twice at her, and she’d bet her virtue that he was the first to notice her breasts. Of course, how could he help it? Her top must have had a built in push up bra--either that or they’d learned to defy gravity. Trying to forget it, she looked up, examining the bright red fruit just above eye level. It looked like a red bell pepper and grew from a twisted tree. It seemed to be the source of the wonderful strawberry scent teasing her nose. Curious, she reached for it. "It’s poison, hot stuff. One taste of that, and you’ll never wake up." The biker had stopped and was watching her. Ali snatched her hand away and backed up. "It looked like a pepper!" He grunted. "Whatever that is. Look, princess, just stay on the path and keep your hands to yourself. You’ll get to the city soon enough." His hands flexed on his handlebars, and he started to roll. She looked around, seeing nothing but woods, wondering what lurked within them. Lions and tigers and bears…. "Er, how far is it to the city?" This "dream" was beginning to seem all too real, and she’d never been one to kid herself. She was a Star Trek girl. She knew about wormholes and alternate universes. Suddenly the biker who’d almost turned her into road kill was starting to look like a white knight.

He growled something unpleasant and looked at her with disgust. "Miles, and you don’t have a babysitter coming along at any moment, do you?" He looked forward and flexed his wrist on the throttle. He didn‘t look back. "Get on, before I change my mind." Unreasonably grateful, she straddled the back of his bike and gingerly grabbed his waist. "My name is Ali." "I didn’t ask." With that soothing comment, he took off. Ali clamped her hands around his trim waist and held on. Oh, this had been bright. Romeo here was going to splatter them against a tree, and she had only herself to blame. When would she learn not to throw herself on the mercy of cute strangers? "What’s your name?" In case she survived the crash and he didn’t, she ought to have something to write on his tombstone. "Rabbit. Do you mind? I’m driving here." So much for conversation, though she couldn’t argue with him keeping his eye on the road. Much faster and the machine would take off and fly, and she wasn’t ready for that. It was difficult to see much of the blurred scenery , but she got a general sense of the odd flora and fauna. Ferns of impossible sizes dotted the forest floor and bright red monkey-like things swung from tree to tree. The dirt road they traveled was impossibly smooth and rock free, and she begun to wonder if it was pavement of some kind. It seemed like only a few minutes before they pulled up to a cottage with two men seated before it. The cottage was made of brick and shaped like an upside down top hat. Both men reclined on wooden lawn chairs with worn cushions. An upside-down wooden barrel laden with brown bottles, tall sandwiches, and a plate of brownies sat between them, begging to be eaten. Ali’s stomach growled. "Rabbit!" the first man called, tilting his bottle to him in greeting. His booted feet were crossed, and he wore brown pants and a vest. Light bounced off his bald black head and the earring in his ear. He grinned, flashing a gold tooth. "Who’s the babe?" "Have a brownie?" the second man offered, wiggling his shaggy brows as he held out the plate of treats. His Hawaiian print shirt was two sizes two big and matched his baggy khaki shorts. He wore socks with sandals and badly needed a shave and a haircut. "She’s not hungry," Rabbit cut in, before she could accept. The hippie rolled his eyes and put the plate back. "How about a beer, gorgeous?" the black man offered, snagging one from the barrel top. He tossed it to her. Rabbit caught it and tossed it back. "She doesn’t drink." She glared at him. "I--"

Casually, Rabbit slid a hand around her waist and anchored it on her hip. Stunned by his move, she listened in silence as he spoke to the pair. "Our cousin sent me to make sure you were on the road. You know how it ticks him off when you’re late, Hatter." The black man, Hatter, spread his hands. "I was having lunch first. Bud and I were going to get going right after. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you leave your friend with us? We’ll bring her along after we all eat." He winked at Ali. Bud wagged his shaggy brows in agreement. Uneasy, Ali inched closer to Rabbit. His hand stroked her hip reassuringly, then slapped lightly. "We’ll see you later." Ali wasted no time in swinging on behind him. She waited until they rounded the corner before asking, "Was there something wrong with the brownies?" She could imagine the sardonic grin that curved his lips as he answered. "If you’d had one of those, hot stuff, you’d loosen up considerably, and my cousin would definitely be late." She blushed. "You mean it had stuff in it? Narcotics?" "Magic mushrooms. They don’t call him the Mad Hatter for nothing." Ali declined to ask about the beer. Another few miles passed before they saw another building. This one looked like an English cottage and sported some interesting knotty pine animals on its front lawn. The side yard was full of sculpted bushes and bright flowers bounded by low hedges. People came and went, most on foot, some on thick, squat ponies. No one had a bike like Rabbit. A maid looked up from dumping a pan of dirty water on the flowers by the front steps. "Rabbit!" she squealed. Leaving the pan on the porch, she bounced up, blond ringlets--among other things--bouncing. Those ‘things’ were well displayed in her low-cut peasant dress. "Where’ve you been, honey?" she asked in a throaty murmur. Ali she ignored. "Little bit of everywhere," Rabbit answered with the hint of a purr. He glanced at Ali and straightened up. "We need a quick lunch, Glenda. I can’t stay long." Pouting, Glenda cast an unfriendly look at Ali and flounced back to the inn. "Friend of yours?" Ali asked acidly. Not that it was her business, but she’d rode in with him. The least the wench could do was wait until she was in the ladies room before she hit on her ride. Rabbit cleared his throat. "Thought you were hungry?" Ali snorted and put her hand in her pocket as she headed for the door. To her surprise, her fist closed around coins. At least she wouldn’t have to depend on him for her meal. They sat down and Glenda showed up, carrying a plate and a mug. She set them in front of Rabbit,

bending farther forward than was strictly necessary. "I always know what you want, big boy." She winked and looked archly at Ali. "What can I get you, honey?" Irked, Ali brought the unfamiliar coins out of her pocket and laid them on the table. "I don’t know. What will these buy?" Rabbit and Glenda stared. Slowly, Glenda blinked. She looked at Rabbit with dawning understanding. "Now I get it. She’s a mercy pickup, right? Poor boy, you’ve got your work cut out for you." Shaking her head, she headed for the kitchen. Rabbit recovered his tongue. Scooping up the coins, he demanded, "Put those back! Are you out of your mind?" Noticing the interested stares directed their way, he glared back, gaining their privacy. "Never mind. I’ll hold on to these for you." The money disappeared into his pants pocket. "Saints," he grumbled. "I’ll be the target for every mugger from here to the capital." Unimpressed, Ali said coolly, "I was trying to buy lunch." "Why don’t you just buy the inn while you’re at it? You got any more of that hidden on you?" Unimpressed by her glare, he swore under his breath and swept his gaze around the room. "What idiot turned you loose on the road? Or are you running away?" The idea seemed to gain merit with him. Carefully, he looked her over, as if cataloging her clothes, considering where she might be returned to. He frowned. "Are you married?" "No!" "Engaged?" She blew out a breath. "I’m a free woman, all right? I just woke up one morning and decided it was time to hit the road." Sort of. She could tell he didn’t believe her. "So were did you come from before I found you?" She looked at the post and plaster ceiling and declined to answer. Glenda came back with a plate and mug and accepted Rabbit’s money. Her expression was kinder as she looked at Ali, almost pitying. "Don’t worry, honey. Rabbit will take good care of you. You just listen to him, and he’ll get you back where you belong." Ali frowned at her back as Glenda left, then shrugged and tore into her sandwich and cider. The minute she stood up, Rabbit was by her side. "I’m just heading to the ladies room." "Fine." He stayed by her side. He was outside the ladies room when she finished. Just like at Hatter’s, his hand fell lightly on her hip and stayed there, guiding her to the door. This time she couldn’t ignore it, or what it made her feel. "Stop it," she hissed quietly. "You’ll be safer if they think you’re mine," Rabbit said, sending her a look that made her shiver. Nice acting. Convinced me, Ali thought breathlessly. "You’re still worried about the money?" He raised a brow and bent to whisper in her ear, "You’re either a sheltered noblewoman or the most brainless thief I ever saw, and a thief would know the value of their goods." His brows, dark where his

hair was white, knit. "Probably raised in a convent." She coughed and forbore to mention Catholic school. Still, she was no innocent. "I know about money. I’m just not familiar with your currency." He raised a skeptical brow. "Uh huh." That did it. She stopped in front of his bike. "Look, thank you for the ride. I’m sorry for cramping your style, so if you’ll just hand my money back, I’ll be on my way. I think I’m going the wrong way, anyway. I have a feeling what I’m looking for is in the opposite direction." Pride demanded she say it, but she didn’t really feel it. Like it or not, she’d gotten used to Rabbit’s brand of protection. He looked over her head. Without expression, he said, "Get on." She glanced behind her and waffled. A group of interested looking men stared back, clearly eager to see what she would do. Somehow she didn’t think they wished to welcome her the neighborhood. She looked back at Rabbit. Glittering challenge made his green eyes glow. If she refused, would he toss her on his bike? Shove her out of the way and take all comers? Somehow she knew he wouldn’t just drive away. White knight, indeed. Lowering her eyes, she got on his bike’s leather seat. With one last cold stare at the crowd, he slid on his shades and moved off. Night moved in as they drove, and Ally realized she’d arrived in Rabbit’s world in late afternoon. "I thought you said it was ‘miles’ to the capital. We’ve been riding a long time." He pulled off onto a small, almost invisible trail. "It is. Many miles. We‘ll be there tomorrow." She snorted, but found she was too tired to argue. When he pulled up and parked the bike, she stared around in surprise. "Where are we? Is this a pit stop?" "We’re staying here for the night. The next inn is an hour away, and you keep falling asleep." He swung a long leg over the bike and rummaged in his saddlebags. "I can last an hour," she said querulously, recognizing the peevishness that came from sleep deprivation. He tossed her a snack bar and declined to comment. Grumpily, she crunched on the bar and watched him set up a small tent. It barely looked big enough for one. "Settle in. I’m going to stay up and make sure we’re not followed." Too tired to argue, she slid into the sleeping bag inside the tent and promptly fell asleep. Dawn light woke her. Too cozy to move, she snuggled deeper into the warmth holding her, then rolled over and warmed her back on the wall of heat, trying to rearrange her pillow. Instead, it was pulled away. "Hey!" She rolled to her back and opened her eyes.

Sleepy green eyes smiled back. "Bossy, aren’t you?" His gaze dropped speculatively to her lips. "How old are you? Eighteen?" "Nineteen." Fresh from sleep, she was too fuzzy to remember why his hungry look might be a bad thing. His eyes moved lower, as if remembering what lay under the sleeping bag. "You must belong to someone," he said huskily, with a hint of disappointment. "I told you I don’t." "You’re lying. Women like you don’t wander around without bodyguards and keepers. Some man is looking for you right now." "Nope. Only you." It wasn’t what she’d meant to say, but his eyes kindled. She’d never seen such green eyes. "I’m going to pay for this, I know it," he muttered, but he kissed her anyway. Ali moaned. She’d had a kiss or two before, but those had been like eating liver and lima beans compared to what he gave her. Godiva, champagne, and thou, she though dizzily, then she didn’t think at all. Hot brandy seeped into her blood, then ignited in a flaming dish she just had to sample. His mouth was heaven, and when his tongue slowly entered her, swept inside, and took command, she wanted to die. With a growl, he took more of her, moved over her body and settled in to feast. Ali cried out at the hot weight of him, threw back her head, and panted when he parted her thighs with his knee through the covers. That got the barrier thrown back, and this time there was only his pants and hers between her and heaven. Drowning in unfamiliar pleasure, she struggled to keep up with his hungry kisses. As if sensing her confusion, he lightened his demands, coaxing instead of devouring. Driven by his silent requests for pleasure, her arousal soared. Her resulting burst of kissing clashed their teeth. Rabbit pulled back, breathing hard. "You’re a virgin." Horrified, she pushed back and found neither man nor ground giving. "Am not!" At his chiding look, she muttered, "Well, it’s none of your business, anyway." He laughed in disbelief and moved off her. "I guess it won’t be, will it? At least I know you aren’t married. Is that what you’re running from? A wedding?" "I’m not running," she ground out, getting up. She fished her boots out of the bottom of the tiny tent and crawled outside, refusing to look at him when he joined her. A fresh, fruity smell teased her nose, and she looked up, eyeing the cluster of blue fruits that hung just out of reach. Rabbit reached up and pulled down a cluster. "Here. You worked up an appetite." With a dark look for his teasing, she accepted the bunch and took a bite. Blueberry flavored juice spurted out, dripping down her chest and tickling the slope of one breast. Rabbit grinned. "Allow me." He ducked his head and slowly licked the droplet from the creamy slope. She gasped, freezing with surprise as heat streaked through her belly. She’d thought they were done with

this. Mischievously, her lover took the fruit from her hand and squeezed it, watching with satisfaction as the liquid disappeared into the valley of her shirt. He backed her against a tree and nipped her ear. "Guess I’d better clean you up." His lips swallowed her protest, then worked their wicked way down her chin. Without asking permission, he opened her top. Ali panicked and grabbed his face, but he took her frantic fingers into his mouth and made slow love to them, making her forget what she’d been trying to do. When his clever mouth finally released them, his eyes were smoky with promise. Leisurely, like a pasha inspecting his newest dancing girl, he opened her vest, inhaling deeply. With a lion’s hum of anticipation, he lowered his head and lazily feasted. A choked cry burst from her lips as tongue made contact with her skin, licking here, flicking there. Tender, dominant, he made her want him to do it, made her grasp his shoulders as her world spun at his command. Then his hot, wet mouth closed over her nipple…. Ali cried out and her body arched as pleasure burst in hot, pulsing waves through her whole body. It had to be climax. Was there anything else in the world that felt so indescribably electric, so wonderfully erotic? As suddenly as he’d started, Rabbit stopped. As cheerfully as if he’d just won the lottery, he straightened up, playfully flicking one pink nipple. "Day’s wasting, hot stuff." Staring at him as if he’d lost his mind, Ali watched him dismantle the tent, unable to move even to fasten her top. That was it? He was going to stop right there? Was he insane? When he made no move rejoin her or even look her way, she fastened her shirt. Giving the discarded fruit on the ground a swift kick, she stomped off to use the facilities, such as they were.

Rabbit smiled in amusement and kept his thoughts to himself. His runaway princess didn’t like to be teased, and no wonder. Anyone that volcanic needed to either remain on ice or have regular eruptions. All that pressure couldn’t be good for a woman. He couldn’t blame her for running off before the wedding. Anyone that cloistered was bound to need an adventure, to break loose before settling down. That’s what he was here for--to give the royal miss her escapade and act as bodyguard until he could get her to the capital and safely wed to his Highness. They’d had a good time, she’d seen a bit of the world, and he was confident he could get her to the chapel in good order. The kissing hadn’t been planned, but he didn’t regret it, or anything that had followed. She’d be a married lady soon--a few indiscretions now would soon be glossed over. Unwilling to reveal his smirk, he kept his face averted as he put on his shades and her weight settled on behind him. He could get used to this. They hadn’t gone a mile when the Mad Hatter and Bud joined them, each riding a bike. Hatter grinned and called, "Have a good night’s sleep?" He leered playfully at Ali, who ignored him. Rabbit just laughed and gunned the throttle. Let them concentrate on keeping up--it would keep them from razzing him about his love life.

Their next stop was Flower Gardens, at ritzy dressmaker specializing in hideously expensive gowns. The shop girls greeted Ali with great excitement, eager to serve. Ali herself seemed confused by the trio, who fluttered around in dresses of soft yellow, pale blue, and pink, for all the world like talking flowers. The proprietress herself was more regal in shades of rose, with an upper crustiness that never failed to amuse Rabbit. "We are delighted to see you, your highness," she told Ali. "Allow me to show you your wedding dress." Before Ally could speak, she whipped aside a curtain, revealing a mannequin in a gorgeous wedding frock. Ali’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. Rabbit couldn’t blame her. The gown was white, but draped in a stole of sparkling, rainbow hued gauze. The underskirt was embroidered with a rainbow of flowers, and a matching band of embroidered ribbon trimmed the bottom. The tulip sleeves were plain, except for a tiny ribbon rose on each side. "I can’t wait to see you try it on," one girl gushed. "Come on! We’ll get you bathed and in your undergarments, then you can test the fit." Ali looked wildly at Rabbit as the girl tugged on her hand. "Wait! You’ve got the wrong girl. I just hitched along for the ride. Ask Rabbit--he’ll tell you." The girls just giggled and kept tugging. Rabbit smiled and winked.

Something wasn’t right. Ally wasn’t sure what was going on, but the girls had her stripped before she could work up a good protest, and next she knew she was bathed and climbing into stockings, a corset, and a truly tiny pair of white panties. She had no choice--her clothes had disappeared, and it was either wear the princess dress or strut out in front of Rabbit half-dressed. Recent intimacies aside, she just wasn’t ready for that, so she put on the dress. It fit as if it had been made for her, yet another suspicious coincidence in a string of iffy circumstances. Even the embroidered satin shoes they gave her fit. Rabbit’s eyes glowed when he saw her. Slowly, he clapped. "Well done, Madam Rose. His highness is definitely giving you a bonus for this one." Madam Rose managed to preen and look humble at the same time. "Thank you, your--er, Rabbit." "Can I have my clothes back now?" Ali asked tightly, convinced by now that she was in the middle of a very bad dream. She wasn’t a fool--she saw where this was going, and it was more than time to throw on the brakes. Rose and Rabbit cast her a glance, one disbelieving, one amused, but neither produced her clothes. Hatter poked his head in the door. "Hey," he drawled, looking her up and down. One hard look from Rabbit wiped the leer from his face. "Uh, the carriage awaits. Bud’s ready to go." The carriage turned out to be a white car straight out of League of Dangerous Men. Bud, attired in a Hawaiian print suit and chaffer hat, held the door open. Ali took one look at it and balked. "Uh, no. Actually, I have a pressing engagement elsewhere, so I’m going to have to skip your little get

together…." Rabbit flashed his killer grin and wrapped his hand around her waist, steering her toward the car. "You don’t like my transportation? I’m hurt, baby. Really hurt." Her stupid little slippers couldn’t get any traction, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. With Rabbit sweeping her on and the ditsy flower girls waving them off, Ali soon found herself deposited on the white leather seat. "Should’ve kicked him," she muttered, sweeping her skirt out of the way so he wouldn’t sit on it. "I wouldn’t," Rabbit advised as his henchman shut the door. His eyes swept over her again with pride and pleasure. "I’m almost sorry you’re wearing that dress--it’ll show if I muss you up." She glared at him. "You’re taking me to marry some dumb prince, aren’t you? Admit it! You tricked me. You’ve planned this the whole time!" He leaned back, half turned on the seat, his arm stretched along the back. "I made you run away? I don’t remember that part." Had it been physically possible in a seated position, she would have stamped her foot. "You kissed me!" "You liked it." "But you planned to marry me off to someone else!" He looked at her carefully. "Did you hit your head somewhere along the way?" She looked out the window and grit her teeth. Fine. So he was the kind who would take what he could get. It didn’t matter to him who she was or what she wanted, just as long as he could get a little free entertainment. In the advent she actually set eyes on this mysterious prince, she planned to give him an earful. Maybe he’d chop Rabbit’s head off for her. "Are you pouting?" "I’m brooding." "It looks like pouting from here." She said something very rude, not bothering to look at him. When she could no longer stand his silence, she risked a glance at him, then wished she’d kept her mouth shut. His cool, aristocratic expression made her shiver. "You’re in sore need of some discipline, sweetheart. Maybe I can remind you of a few things." Before she could panic and pound on the black glass privacy screen, he reached over and scooped her up, depositing her rear firmly on his lap. Grasping her chin in one businesslike hand, he bent his head and demanded a kiss with such finesse that she gasped. Leisurely, his tongue swept inside and mastered her with such sweet savagery that she moaned. "Firebrand," he whispered against her wet lips, deepening the kiss. She jerked away, gasping, "You’re giving me to someone else who will want to do this." The knowledge burned.

"Nobody else can do this," he said confidently, taking her mouth again with such mastery that she cried out as hot pleasure lit white sparks behind her eyes. When he let her breathe this time, she was no longer able to argue. The rest of the ride was spent in silence. She kept her head on his chest and didn’t try to convince him to let her go--if he was cold enough to love her and leave her, he surely didn’t care if another man shared her. She cared, in more ways than one, and she wasn’t going to stand by and let them get away with breaking her heart. Sucker, she told herself angrily, still too weak to sit up. It must be true that where a woman’s body led, her heart would follow. Too bad she didn’t have Rabbit’s immunity. Maybe he’d feel a pang when she was forced to the alter, but she doubted he’d charge to her rescue. It would be depressing if she weren’t so angry about it. Talk about a chocolate chip cookie dough moment. A couple of miles later, they were pulling up to an impressive white castle, surrounded by a maze of tall hedges. Guards opened the white, wrought iron gates, saluting as they drove past. Ali had finally slid off Rabbit’s lap, too embarrassed to be seen clinging like a vine. Not that she wanted to impress their blasted prince, but being caught on his employee’s lap would be the last straw. A man in white livery bowed to her as he helped her from the car. "If you’ll come with me, your highness? I’ll show you to a room where you can freshen up." Refusing to look at Rabbit--the snaky traitor--she obediently followed the servant. Then, when his attention was caught by an argument between two gardeners, she darted off into the hedge maze. Ali knew she had only moments before she was caught, so she ran for all she was worth, dodging plant sculptures and darting randomly into alleys, lifting her full skirts so she wouldn’t trip. Everyone here was crazy, and she had the feeling that explaining who she was and where she came from wouldn’t help. Either they’d tune her out and go on about her wedding, or they’d lock her up, and she did NOT want to find out what madhouses were like in this place. Doubts nagged at her while she ran. They had a wedding dress and shoes in exactly her size. Rabbit had come along just after she’d stepped through the mirror. He kissed like a dream … and he had fetched her for another man. Dreamlike, she ran and ran, yet never got anywhere. Was the maze that big, or was she going in circles? Suddenly she saw a gap up ahead and ran for it, bursting out in front of a crowd of people before she knew what had happened. Panting, she looked around wildly … and saw Rabbit, dressed all in white, seated on a throne atop a wide dais. He smiled his Cheshire cat smile. "Welcome, princess." Ali no longer cared if they thought she was crazy. This madness had gone far enough. "I’m not a princess! I work in a coffee shop, for Pete’s sake! This is just a dream." Hatter bowed to Rabbit. He was dressed in priest’s robes, and his earring winked in the sunlight. "Shall we begin the ceremony, your Majesty?"

"Aren’t you listening? I won’t marry him!" Ali shouted, stepping closer. So he was the prince, was he? Or rather the king? No wonder he hadn’t cared that she was getting married. Maybe he did care after all. She shook her head sharply to clear the dancing cherubs. Who cared? He was cute, but even she drew the line at making it with figments of her imagination, and she was now firmly convinced she was dreaming. Seeing Bud in Hawaiian print tights and a doublet cinched it. Rabbit shook his head in mock sorrow, a glint of amusement in his eye. "She won’t have me, she says." A chorus of boos issued from the assembled company. Madam Rose and her flower girl trio were there, as well as the well-rounded Glenda. "Off to his bed!" Madam Rose shouted, and the rest of the company took up the chant. Rabbit’s brows rose in amusement, and he raised a hand for silence. "Shouldn’t she at least get a trial?" "A trial?" Ali demanded, ignoring what that wicked glint in his eye was doing to her blood pressure. Hatter presented himself before the throne as the first witness. "I saw her drinking beer and eating brownies with him," he said. "They were on the way to the wedding. She wasn’t protesting then." "She snuggled right up," Bud added to an indignant surge of muttering, most of it directed at the bride’s fickle nature. "What kind of brownies were they?" someone called, sniggering. "Maybe you were seeing things." The man was immediately shushed. "She was in our inn, flashing her money. Poor thing didn’t know a penny from a pound. He saved her from being robbed. I say the girl needs a keeper," Glenda added. "And what were you flashing?" the unseen heckler called. There was a loud "umph!", then silence. "They spent the night together," Bud added. "I say his Majesty has a duty to marry her." That interested the crowd. The buzz of speculation increased. Desperate to end this mockery of a trial, haunted by heat in Rabbit’s eyes--how dare he look at her like that? He couldn’t possibly be right for her, no matter what he did to her pulse--Ali called out, "Nothing happened!" Rabbit’s brows rose. "Nothing?" Wickedness sparkled in his eyes, and she suddenly wondered if he’d seduced her on purpose, just for this moment. Heat rose in her cheeks, but she countered stubbornly, "Nothing critical." She couldn’t quite meet his gaze. The crowd had heard all it needed to hear. "Off to his bed! Off to his bed!" They began to close in on her. The ground started to wobble like tomato aspic. Ali had the strange feeling of being in a bubble. The crowd blurred, as if their image was seen through a curved sheen. Ali looked up--and saw Rabbit looking back, his gaze so intent that it was all she saw.

In that half place between dreams and waking, Ali saw him. The first kiss of morning’s light curled around him like a silvery mist, softening his face, muting his expression. He saw her on the bed and smiled softly. She rolled toward him as the matress dipped, a strange sense of sadness and anticipation shrouding her heart. "It was only a dream," she said softly, sadly. He cupped her face. "It was a promise. Some things are meant to be, but you wouldn’t receive me if I hadn’t softened your heart." "How can you be real?" His lips slowly touched hers. "This is real. At this moment, we share a dream." The kiss grew, slowly, surely, his passion igniting hers. Languid pleasure hummed in her veins, warmed her heart. He slowly sank down, pressing into her, then through her, until he melted away like a ghost….

Ali sat up, breathing hard. Dawn’s light spilled through the window, filtering through the lingering storm clouds. A glance out the window confirmed the street was wet, the cars dewed with the remnants of rain. Her grandmother’s mirror was as it always was, an unremarkable glass, soon to go to auction. She flopped back on the bed. A dream. Thank God. As soon as the thought came to her, she frowned. In other circumstances…. Sighing with regret, she turned her head … and saw the queen of hearts lying on the other pillow.

The next five days passed uneventfully, days full of serving customers java and nights spent in her cheap efficiency apartment. Some of the details of her dream faded, but she didn’t forget Rabbit. She missed him. Had he left her the card, like a rose left by a lover’s hand after a gentle goodbye kiss? She’d left it by her bedside for the last few mornings, but today she carried it in her back pocket. Twice she’d woken from dreams of a shadowy lover, though she never remembered his face when she opened her eyes. It had to be Rabbit, though. Who else could leave her trembling and sated at the same time? If this kept up she might have to seek professional help. It was a sad statement of her love life that she could only get it on with a figment of her imagination. The bell over the door tolled. Someone had braved the downpour and ducked in for a hot drink. She looked up--and spilled the straws she was adding to the dispenser. It was him. His hair was no longer white, but dark, and he had the same vivid green eyes and killer smile. She knew those lips, remembered what they could do. He glanced at her frozen hands, at the mess of straws on the counter. "Need a hand?" Common sense hit in a wave of mortification. Of course it wasn’t him. She’d dreamed of someone like

him, that was all. Uncanny, but a fact, and if she didn’t watch it, he’d think she was a nut. "Uh, yeah. Yes. Um, I’ll be right with you." He took his time looking at her face, then that slow grin dawned. "No hurry." Breathing deeply to calm her leaping pulse, she scrambled for an explanation for her bizarre behavior. "I’m sorry I stared. It’s just that I thought I’d seen you before." Leaning one hand on the tall bar, he tilted his head in consideration. "I come in here once in a while, but I’ve never seen you--more’s the pity." There went that hot flush again. Could he possibly be? "You wouldn’t know anyone named Rabbit, would you?" "Just the one on my bike," he said with a flash of white teeth. He glanced out the window, frowned at the rain. "Bad day for a bike, though, so the fat boy is home, pouting." "Fat boy?" "My Harley," he said ruefully. "It has a white rabbit painted on the tank--it’s an inside joke. My buddy has one with the Mad Hatter. Are you all right?" he asked in sudden concern, reaching out to steady her as she tottered. "Head rush," Ali said quickly, sitting down right where she was. It was early, they were alone, and she’d just had the shock of her life. He hurried around the counter. "Here, put your head between your knees. Have you eaten breakfast yet? Maybe that’s the trouble." "No, no breakfast," she said faintly. That wasn’t the problem, but she wasn’t going to enlighten him. How would she explain? Gee, did you know I’ve been dreaming of you every night? Have you ever been to Wonderland? Do you remember the Mad Hatter offering me psychedelic brownies? Um, no, I haven’t been sniffing glue this morning. "Well, here." Unaware of her frantic mental scramble, he got up and fixed two blueberry bagels and some coffee, then helped her to a table in front of the window. "I’m buying." She managed a weak smile. "Maybe I should get the tip." They shared a laugh, then had breakfast. "By the way, my name is Brian … Brian Ott. I’m the architect in charge of that new church down on Lime St." "The huge one with the stained glass windows? I love that place! You really designed it?" There were several big churches in town, but none of them had the style of Brian’s creation. Build to resemble a medieval cathedral, it had been two years in the making and was the talk of the town. He smiled. "I didn’t catch your name?" "Oh! Sorry. It’s Ali." "Short for Alice?" He grinned. "Now I know I have to introduce you to my bike. You’re going to love

the White Rabbit. Why don’t you give me your number? Maybe I could take you for a ride this weekend." "Yeah," she murmured, bemused. The glint of amusement in his eyes woke her up from her daze. "Uh, yeah. I’d like that." Quickly, she jotted her number down on a napkin and slid it to him. She risked a glance at him and blushed. Things like this just didn’t happen to her. His eyes sparkled as glanced at the window. "Looks like it’s letting up, and I’ve got to get to work. I’ll call you later." He’d call her. Ali couldn’t stop her grin as she cleared the table. The man of her dreams--literally--was going to call her. No more lonely nights, no more futile daydreams, and if he kissed half as good as she hoped…. Her grin broadened as she greeted the first customer of the day. Sometimes dreams did come true.

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