Alice: Old Flames
Alice gazed down at her engagement ring for at least the hundredth time that day. And every day for the past week. Christmas Eve, under the mistletoe, with all the families looking on. Heath down on one knee asking for her hand. It had seemed like a dream. It still did. Alice did not pinch herself because, if it was a dream, she did not wish to wake up. To be loved, to be accepted, to not have to lie anymore. Alice felt her heart warm just thinking of it. She sighed happily and inserted another sheet of paper into her typewriter.
The clacking of the keys masked the sound of the door opening, and she did not realize someone else was in the room until a shadow fell across the paper. "Pardon me," she said, looking up, "but I didn't hear you. . .Freddie?" She stared incredulously at the young man standing before her.
"Hello, Alice," Freddie said shyly, hat in hand. "It's been a long time."
"Yes, it has. What are you doing here, Freddie? How did you find me? And why?"
"Sally Erickson, what used to me Sally Carlson, is living in Stockton now. She wrote me and told me you were here." He looked down at her hands. "I understand congratulations are in order."
"So you heard I was engaged and came to spoil it for me?" Alice said heatedly.
"Now, Alice," Freddie said, "why would I do that? I'm happy for you, truly I am. You deserve every happiness."
The door to the inner office opened and Jarrod stepped out. "Do you require assistance, Miss Knightly?" he asked.
Alice knew Jarrod well enough by now to know that when he became courtly, it was time to watch out. She smiled grimly and replied, courtly in return. "No, Judge Barkley, I require no assistance. Not yet, anyway," she added.
Jarrod bowed and gave Freddie a penetrating look. "Perhaps when you are finished with your visitor, you will step into my office?"
Alice nodded and Jarrod closed the door behind him. "I need to get back to work, Freddie," she said.
"Perhaps you'd have dinner with me tonight? We could talk then?"
Alice frowned. "Talk about what? You said everything that needed saying eight years ago."
"I'm sorry about that, Alice. Truly I am. It's why I'm here - to try to make up for it, if I can. And to see our child, if you'll let me."
"Not on your life." Alice was nearly livid. "You gave up all claim to her, remember?"
"A daughter?" Freddie said. "I have a little girl?"
"You have nothing!" Alice was shouting now. "I remember what you said, even if you don't! You're not coming near her!"
"Now, Alice, don't be like that. I was young, I was foolish. I didn't realize what a good thing we had."
"You were nineteen. Younger men than you were have had the courage to act decently. So don't give me your excuses."
Freddie put his hat on his head. "I know there's no excuse for what I did to you, Alice. I'm not really trying to make any. But I am sorry. I'll be in town a few days - you can reach me at the hotel, if you change your mind." He turned on his heel and went out the door.
Alice covered her face with her hands and wept angrily. This time she did hear the door open, and Jarrod putting a comforting hand on her shoulder. She took the handkerchief he offered and blew her nose into it.
"Come into my office, Alice," he said gently. Alice nodded and followed him, closing the door behind her. Jarrod pulled out a chair for her, and she sat down heavily. Jarrod sat across from her. "That was Lena's father, wasn't it?" he asked.
Alice nodded. "Yes, although why he has to turn up now I have no idea."
"The timing does seem rather interesting, at that," Jarrod said. "Did he say what he wanted?"
"To say he was sorry. To see Lena. He can't make me let him, can he? He is her father, but he has no right to her, does he?"
Jarrod shook his head. "No, the law is very clear on that point - it's up to the mother to determine what her child's best interest is. He can't override that, not without having you declared unfit*, and that would be impossible." Jarrod smiled reassuringly.
Alice heaved a sigh of relief. "Well, that's a comfort, anyway."
"Would it hurt anything for you to let him see her?" Jarrod asked.
"What? I thought you were on my side."
"I am," Jarrod said. "Of course I am, but does it hurt to ask the question?"
Alice considered it. "I honestly don't know," she said at last. "This has taken me by surprise - I don't know why he's really here or what he really wants."
"And he left you with a world of hurt and a big responsibility, so of course there's a natural resentment and anger."
"That's one way to put it," Alice agreed. "He was a louse."
"People can change," Jarrod pointed out.
"I don't want to have to deal with this now," Alice said. "I was happy until he walked in the door. Why couldn't he have left well enough alone?"
"One way to find out," Jarrod said.
"What if I don't want to find out?" Alice said angrily.
Jarrod leaned forward. "I'm not trying to tell you what to do, Alice, what decisions to make. As I said, it's completely up to you to decide what's best for Lena. But I do believe, that when you calm down, you're going to wonder if you're doing the right thing by shutting him out."
"He's shut us out for years."
"I know," Jarrod said, "but don't let your emotions cloud your judgment - that's my only advice."
Alice sighed. "You're right, of course. Oh, I don't know what's the right thing to do."
"Are you seeing Heath tonight?"
Alice nodded. "He's coming over for dinner."
"You might want to discuss it with him," Jarrod said. "He's got a clear head, and a different perspective on these sorts of things than I do. And of course, he loves both you and Lena dearly - I know he wants what's best for you both."
Alice looked down at her ring and smiled. "Yes, he does. I'm sorry, Jarrod, that I was angry with you. This has really touched a nerve."
Jarrod waved a hand. "Think nothing of it. Just know you can call on me, on any of us, for anything. All right?"
"I know, Jarrod. Thank you. All of you have been just wonderful to us, I feel as though you're family already."
Jarrod smiled. "Because we are."
Alice stood. "Oh, how is Molly?" she asked.
"Very well, thank you. Well enough that she chides me whenever I try to coddle her."
"Well, it's understandable that you would. It must have been terrifying for you." Alice looked at him sympathetically. "I was worried about you for awhile - but you seem much more at ease since the two of you came back from San Francisco."
Jarrod sighed. "Both of us have come close to death this year - it has focused us, made us realize what's important, and that time shouldn't be wasted. It almost tore us apart, but now it's brought us closer together."
Alice nodded. "Yes, I see," she said thoughtfully.
"It's getting late," Jarrod said. "Better go on home. Happy New Year, Alice."
"Happy New Year, Jarrod," Alice said, picked up her things and went home.
Alice was taciturn at dinner, finding herself thinking about Freddie when all she really wanted to think about was Heath and plans for their wedding. It was not until late, when Lena was safely tucked into bed, that she dared to broach the subject. "Mother, Heath, I have something to tell you."
"I thought you seemed distracted at dinner," Rachel said. "What is it, dear?"
"Freddie showed up at the office today."
"Oh, dear," Rachel said. "That is awkward."
"Awkward, Mother?" Alice said. "That's an understatement."
"And who is Freddie?" Heath said. "Although I can guess."
"And you'd guess right, probably," Alice said. "He's Lena's father."
"Interesting timing," Heath said.
"That's what Jarrod said."
"Well, what did he want?" Heath asked.
"He said he wanted to see Lena. And to make up for how he'd treated us."
Heath shrugged. "Seems natural to me."
"You're taking this mighty easy," Alice said, annoyed.
"Now calm down, darlin'," Heath said. "No need to get in a stew. After all, whatever's between you is long past - what hurt can he do you now?"
Alice put her hand to her head. "I don’t know. None of you know the things he said to me when, when I told him I was with child. He has a mean streak - I don't want to expose Lena to that."
"I doubt he's gone to all this trouble just to hurt you again. Don't make sense."
"So you think I should believe him?" Alice said incredulously.
"I'm not saying that - it does bother me that he's shown up just now, just as we got engaged. But if the question is finding out what he really wants, there's only one way to go about it."
Rachel had been looking from one to the other. "I think Heath's right," she said gently. "No one knows better than I do how that man hurt you, but you were both so young. Maybe he's sincere."
Heath stood and offered Alice his hand. "Let's go find out."
"You mean right now?" Alice said.
"No time like the present. Let's get the New Year off to the right start. New beginnings?"
Alice took his hand and stood. "The things I let you talk me into."
Heath grinned crookedly and tucked her arm into his.
The hotel was full of party-makers, the air full of smoke and gaiety. Heath pushed his way through the crowd to the desk and sent a message up to Freddie's room. They did not have long to wait before Freddie made his way down the stairs.
"Alice," he said. "I'm so glad you've changed your mind."
"I haven't changed anything yet," Alice said. "I'd like you to meet my fiancé, Heath Barkley. Heath, Freddie MacDonald."
"I go by 'Fred' now, but it makes no difference," Freddie said. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Barkley."
"Heath will do," Heath said, examining Freddie closely. He observed a rather puffy young man, five or six years younger than himself, slightly out of breath. "Pleased to meet you."
"Is there someplace we can go talk, quietly?" Freddie asked. "I don't think we'll accomplish anything here."
"I suppose we could use Jarrod's office," Alice said. "I have the keys."
Heath nodded. "Good idea, darlin'."
Alice took the keys from her purse as they made their way down the street to the courthouse. She unlocked the door and lit a lamp. "Can I get you anything to drink?" she asked.
"Nothing for me," Freddie said, taking off his hat.
"I'll have a whiskey," Heath said, pulling up a chair and slouching into it. Alice poured him a drink then sat stiffly next to him.
"Well," Freddie said, awkwardly. "Here we are. I guess you want to ask me some questions?"
"Yes," Heath said. "How much do you want?"
"How much for what?" Freddie asked.
"How much to leave Alice alone? A thousand dollars?"
Freddie's jaw dropped, then tightened. "I believe I'm being insulted."
"Five thousand?" Heath asked.
"Now I know I am," Freddie said angrily. "Money may talk in your family, Mr. Barkley, but it has nothing to do with this."
"I had to be sure," Heath shrugged.
Freddie scrutinized him. "Did you really think I was trying blackmail?"
"Not really," Heath said, "but it was a possibility."
Freddie hung his head. "All right, I guess maybe I did deserve that. Or appeared to, but really, all I want is to see my daughter. I don't even have to meet her, just let me see her from a distance."
Alice was nonplused. "You came all this way for just a glimpse? I don't understand you at all."
"I think I do," Heath said.
"Well, then explain it to me," Alice said.
"You really don't see it? Alice," Heath said, "this man is dying."
[*] Footnote: This was the state of the law at the time this story takes place. It is NOT true now.
"How did you know?" Fred asked.
"I had a friend who died of rheumatic heart," Heath said. "He wasn't any older than you - he looked like you do, all puffy and easily out of breath."
"Oh, Freddie, I’m so sorry," Alice said.
"I wasn't going to tell you," Fred said. "I don't want any pity. But maybe you can understand now. I ain't led too good a life - I got a lot to make up for, especially with you. And I know it's too late and all that, but let me do what I can, so I can make my peace." Alice was openly crying now. "Now none of that. That ain't what I come for."
"How long, if you don't mind me asking," Heath said.
Fred tapped his chest. "The doctor says I could last a year, if I'm careful. But honestly, I don't think I have that long. I can feel the time slipping away from me."
"You understand, I have to do what's best for Lena," Alice said.
"Lena?" Fred said. "Her name is Lena?"
Alice nodded. "After Leonard, my father."
"What's she like?" Fred asked.
"Oh, she's bright and she's happy - like a little rocket shooting all over the place," Alice said.
"You've done a good job with her then."
"Yes, she has," Heath said, smiling warmly at Alice. Then he sobered, "But it hasn't been easy for her. She's carried a heavy burden - you'll never know how heavy."
Fred nodded. "I know. May I see her?"
Alice looked at him thoughtfully. "All right," she said at last. "If that's all you want, I don't see any harm in it." She stood. "Let me figure out how to work it, and I'll send you a message."
Fred and Heath stood as she did. "Thank you, Alice," Fred said. "You'll never know how much this means to me."
Alice nodded and opened the front door. She and Heath parted ways with Fred at his hotel, and made their way down the street to Alice's house. Alice held Heath's arm, and she could feel the stiffness in it. "You're holding something back," she said. "What is it, Heath? Didn't I make the right decision?"
"I got no quarrel with it," Heath said.
"Which is not the same as saying you agree with it," Alice noted.
"I made myself a promise not to burden you with my feelings," Heath said. "You've done a fine job as a mother - I got no right to interfere."
"It's not interfering," Alice said. "You're going to be her father, none of that has changed. And if we're to be married, you should burden me with your feelings. I intend to burden you with mine." She smiled up at him.
Heath patted her arm and sat her down in the porch swing, seating himself next to her. "You're sure you want to hear it? Because I don't think you're gonna like it."
"What kind of marriage are we going to have if we can't speak the difficult things, Heath? Yes, I want to hear whatever's on your mind."
"All right then." Heath took a deep breath. "I would have sold my soul to the devil for five minutes with my father. I still would."
"Heath, she's seven years old. It would be cruel to let her get attached to someone who's just going to die on her."
Heath shrugged. "I said you wouldn't like it."
Alice gazed down at her hands thoughtfully. "And yet. . .there's probably no one else who would have an inkling how she would feel about it. You've been in her shoes." Alice hid her face in his chest. "Oh, Heath, now I don't know what's right."
Heath wrapped an arm around her. "Don't think about just today. Think about ten years from now - how she'll feel knowing she had a chance to know her father, and missed it."
"I could say that we don't have to tell her, but you're right, I can't lie to her. I've never done that - I never intend to." Alice sighed. "I need to think this through."
Heath kissed the top of her head. "You do that. I know you'll do the right thing." He tilted her chin up and kissed her lips. "It's late - I'd better get on home. I'll come by tomorrow?"
"Yes, please." Alice wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him warmly. "Have I told you today how much I love you?"
"Why no, I don't believe you have," Heath teased her. He kissed her again and then headed for home.
"Come sit by me, Sugarplum," Alice said to Lena the next morning.
"What's wrong, Mommy?" Lena said.
"Why do you ask?"
"Because you only call me 'Sugarplum' when something's wrong. Like when Grandpa died." Lena sat on the sofa next to her mother, a serious expression on her young face.
Alice regarded her soberly. Children could be so perceptive, and sometimes so oblivious, it could be difficult to realize what they noticed and what they did not. "You were only three," Alice said. "You remember that?"
Lena nodded. "I still miss him. Sometimes."
Alice bit her lip. Did that make this harder or easier? It had seemed like the right decision when she awakened this morning, but now that the moment was here, she found herself drawing back.
"Please, Mommy," Lena patted her cheek. "Tell me what's wrong. It's not Heath, is it? Or Grandma Rachel?"
"No, dearest," Alice replied, "no one you know." She took a deep breath. "Your father came to see me yesterday. He wants to see you."
"All right," Lena said.
"You want to meet him?" Alice asked, surprised at Lena's serenity.
Lena shrugged. "I always wondered about him. Sure, I'd like to meet him. I mean, I know Heath's going to be my daddy, but I'd like to know him, too."
"Well, dearest, there's a complication."
"What's a compli - complication?" Lena struggled with the word.
"It's something that makes things not so easy." Alice looked down at her daughter, wishing she could spare her, but knowing it had to be the whole truth or none at all. "Your father's very ill. Probably dying. Are you sure you want to get to know someone who's not going to be around very long? Is not going to see you grow up?"
Lena put her arms around Alice's waist and hid her face in Alice's bosom. She nodded. "I didn't know Grandpa very long, but I'm glad I knew him."
Alice wiped a tear, unsure for whom she was crying. "All right, dearest," she said. "I'll go talk to him and invite him to come meet you."
Alice knocked at Fred's hotel room door. Fred greeted her warmly. "Thank you, Alice, for coming so soon. So, where do you want me to go?"
"To our house, for luncheon," Alice said. "Lena wants to meet you, and I've decided it's all right."
"What changed your mind?" Fred asked, surprised.
"Does it matter?" Alice asked, not wishing to reveal Heath's personal history without his say-so. "My mother will be there, so be on your best behavior."
She turned to go, but Fred took her arm. "And your father?" he asked with some trepidation.
"Died four years ago," Alice said. "So you won't have to contend with him."
"Alice, can I say again that I'm sorry? Sorry for the things I said, sorry I abandoned you?"
Alice bowed her head. "Why did you, Freddie? I thought we were in love. I was, or I would never. . .well, I'd have never done it."
"I'm not sure - I've thought about it a lot. I guess I was afraid of the responsibility. I was stupid - I know that now. I'm glad you've found someone who can love you the way you deserve. I couldn't, and I'm the worse for it, for sure."
"It broke my father's heart, you know that? Oh, he supported me, took care of us, but things were never the same between us afterward."
"I'm sorry for that, too," Freddie said. "I've made a royal mess of things, Alice. I don't understand why you're being so generous, unless it's out of pity."
"I don't care about you," Alice said heatedly. "You used up whatever love I had for you a long time ago. I'm doing this for Lena, understand? So she'll have no cause to reproach me later. Because it's what she wants."
Freddie dropped her arm. "I understand. But it's what I want, too, to know my daughter, my only child. So whether you care or not, I owe you thanks. So thank you."
Alice nodded. "Just be good to her. And be on time." She opened the door and went out, not caring whether it slammed behind her.
Fred was on time. He knocked at the front door just as the town clock chimed noon. Alice admitted him, and Lena took one look at him and threw her arms around his knees. Fred knelt down, and she put her arms around his neck.
"I'm glad you came," she said, "and I'm sorry you're sick."
Fred looked up at Alice. "You told her?"
Alice nodded. "I don't lie to her."
"No, you wouldn't, would you?" Fred said. He held Lena away from him. "Let me look at you. My, you're a fine young lady."
"What should I call you?" Lena asked.
"Why, I hadn't given that much thought. What would you like to call me?"
"I'm going to call Heath 'Daddy' when he and Mommy get married, so I can't call you that. How about 'Papa'?"
Fred smiled. "Papa is fine. I like Papa." He looked up at Alice again. "I can't thank you enough."
Rachel bustled in. "Lunch is ready. Hello, Freddie. Glad you could make it," she said dryly.
"Hello, Mrs. Knightly. Thank you for having me," Fred said, overcome with shyness.
Lunch was a somewhat awkward affair, but not as awkward as Alice had feared. Lena kept up a friendly chatter with Fred, as he asked her many questions about herself - what she enjoyed, about school, about her friends.
"What would you like to do now, Papa?" Lena asked once lunch was over.
"I'm here to get to know you, Honey," Fred said. "What would you do if I weren't here?"
"If it's a nice day, like today, I'd probably go riding with Emma. Usually one of her uncles takes us."
"And Emma is. . . ?"
"Judge Barkley's daughter," Alice filled in. "She's the same age as Lena."
"She's going to be my cousin when Mommy and Heath get married," Lena said. There was a clatter of hoofs on the road. Lena ran to the window. "Here's Heath now." She dashed to the front door and flung it open. "Heath!" She leapt into his arms. "I want you to meet my Papa."
Heath held Lena in one arm and shook Fred's hand with the other. "Good to see you again." He put Lena down and planted a possessive kiss on Alice's lips. "That was quick work," he whispered, smiling approvingly.
"No time like the present, remember?" Alice whispered back.
"You already met him?" Lena asked.
"I met him yesterday, Sugar," Heath said.
"How come everyone got to meet him before me?" Lena pouted. She brightened. "Do you think Emma would like to go riding with us?"
Heath smiled. "You know Emma, of course she would. Anything to do with a horse. Shall we go ask her?"
"Let me put on my riding clothes," Lena said, already dashing upstairs to change.
Alice pulled Heath aside. "You don't have to do this," she said. "He's not your responsibility."
Heath shrugged. "I don't mind. I usually take the girls riding, no need to change that because of him, is there?"
Alice gazed into his eyes, questioningly. "I guess not," she said. "His being here really doesn't bother you at all, does it?"
"It shouldn't, since I urged you to it," Heath said.
"You're an odd man. It may take me the rest of my life to fully understand you."
"I'm counting on that," Heath said with a smile as Lena bounded back downstairs. He planted another kiss on Alice's lips. "We'll be back later. You coming, Fred?"
"Sure," Fred said, "if I'm not in the way."
Lena took his hand. "Silly. You said you wanted to do what I normally do." She grew thoughtful. "Unless you're too sick?"
"No, I'm not too sick," Fred said. "Please don't worry about me, Honey. I'll take care of myself, all right?"
"All right," Lena nodded. "Let's go."
Heath let the girls gallop ahead and he and Fred followed at a more sedate pace. "Is it all right for them to do that?" Fred asked, anxiously. "What if something happens?"
"They're both good horsewomen," Heath said, "and we're only a couple of minutes behind them. Besides, they both know how to get thrown."
Fred stared up the trail ahead of them. "I think I would worry too much to make a good father."
"You'd get used to it, if you gave yourself a chance," Heath said.
Fred shook his head. "What's with you?" he asked. "Here I am, stepping into what I'm sure you consider your place, and you're as calm as calm can be."
Heath shrugged. "Ain't nothing of mine you can take away."
Fred slumped in his saddle. "That's true," he said ruefully. "but I'm a bit insulted that you don't even feel threatened."
Heath chuckled. "We both got Lena's best interests at heart, don't we?"
"Do we?" Fred gazed ahead thoughtfully. "I admit - I came here for myself. I didn't want to die without seeing her, but I didn't really consider how it would affect her. Maybe I am doing the right thing, but maybe for the wrong reasons."
"Hard to consider how something will affect someone you don't know," Heath said. "You'll love her for herself before you leave here, I'm certain."
"I think I'm already beginning to - how could I not? She's completely taken me in, even though I hardly deserve it."
"She's an open-hearted child. That's Alice's doing," Heath said proudly.
"You really love her, love Lena like your own - I can see it. The way she lit up when she saw you. The way you both lit up."
"I'm adopting her when Alice and me get married."
Fred hung his head. "Yes. I see." He slapped his thigh. "I am such a fool! I could have had all of this - so much time wasted."
"So you see why I don't resent you - if anything, it should be the other way around. I'm enjoying everything you should have, but don't."
"Well, I probably would if I thought I would be around long enough - as it is, I want to know that Alice and Lena are in good hands. And they are, so I have no complaint."
The two men rode on in silence, catching up with the girls in next to no time at all.
Fred knelt down to hug Lena goodbye. "This has been the happiest day of my life," he said. He stood and took Alice's hand. "Thank you so much, I can never repay you."
"You're not going away yet, are you? For good, I mean," Lena said.
"I hadn't planned on staying longer," Fred said.
Lena threw her arms around his knees. "Do you have to go? Please stay."
Fred looked at Alice, uncertain what to say. Alice gazed at him a moment, then nodded. Heath put an arm around her and she leaned into him. "All right," Fred said happily. "I'll stay awhile longer, Honey. As long as you want me. As long as I can."
So for the next few weeks Fred became part of their lives - spending days with Lena, going riding with Heath and Emma. When school resumed, he would walk her home and help her with her schoolwork.
"Emma tells me she often sees Lena's 'Papa' at your house," Jarrod said to Alice one day at the office.
Alice nodded. "Yes, they've been spending quite a bit of time together."
Jarrod smiled. "And you're fine with that? You do seem much calmer."
"Yes, I'm all right. He's been good to her - better than I had feared, certainly. It's a bit awkward, but it's what everyone seems to want, even Heath, so I'm fine. It'll be difficult as he gets sicker, though."
"He's ill?" Jarrod asked.
Alice looked at him in surprise. "Heath didn't tell you? He's the one who noticed it. Freddie's rheumatic - he's probably dying. It's why he came in the first place."
Jarrod grew somber. "No, I didn't know. Does Lena?"
"You know I don't lie to her. It's going to be hard for her when the time comes, but at least she has warning." Alice sighed. "I hope this is the right thing for her. There seemed to be no easy answer here."
"Hard not to grant a man his dying wish," Jarrod said.
"That's not why I did it," Alice said vehemently. "If I hadn't thought it was the best thing for Lena, I would never have let him near her."
"I'm sure it is," Jarrod said. "But a good deed can have more than one beneficiary." He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Be sure to let us know if you need anything."
Alice nodded and went back to work.
"It's time for me to go," Fred told Alice and Heath a few weeks after that, as he took his leave of them that evening.
Heath nodded. "I've noticed you've been getting more breathless." He shook Fred's hand. "It's been good to know you."
"Are you sure, Freddie?" Alice asked. "Are you even going to tell Lena goodbye?"
"I don't know how," Fred said. "Will you tell her for me? Tell her I'll write as much as I'm able. I'll miss her, but it's best this way."
Alice nodded, unable to speak. She watched the father of her child walk down the street, knowing she'd never see him again. She turned and hid her face in Heath's chest, and wept bitterly.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
A cold wind blew as Alice watched Lena lay flowers on her father's grave. As the preacher finished speaking, Fred's parents made their way over to them. "Alice," Fred's mother said, hugging her warmly. "We're so glad you came." She bent over. "And Lena, we've heard so much about you, we're happy to finally be meeting you."
Fred's father offered Lena his hand. "Would you like to meet your cousins? They're much younger than you, but I'm sure they'd be happy to see you." Lena nodded, and took the older gentleman's hand and let him lead her off.
Mrs. MacDonald wrapped an arm around Alice's waist as they walked away from the gravesite. "Fred told us what you did for him - I want you to know how grateful we are. He died peacefully because of you."
"I must admit I didn't expect this warm a welcome," Alice said.
"Ah, Alice," Mrs. MacDonald sighed. "Fred was not the brightest of sons, nor the nicest. He could be cruel when he was hurt or frightened. I wish you had come to us, instead of vanishing the way you did. We'd have made him do the right thing."
"Marry me?" Alice said. "I'm not sure that would have been the right thing."
"Perhaps not," Mrs. MacDonald said, "but at least own up and take responsibility. And we'd have welcomed Lena as our grandchild, instead of wondering what had happened all these years."
Alice wiped away a tear. "When did you know?"
"Well, we suspected as soon as you left, but we didn't know until just before Fred came to see you, when he finally confessed everything. I almost hate to say it, but it took dying to finally make a man out of him."
"He was good to her in the end," Alice said, "I have to give him credit. At least she'll have good memories of her father, instead of always wondering."
Mrs. MacDonald looked down at Alice's hands. "When are you getting married?" she asked.
"In the spring," Alice said, "when Heath's sister returns - she's out of the country right now."
"Fred said he was a good man. Would it be too much to ask for an invitation? Lena is our grandchild - we'd like to see her happily settled."
"Of course," Alice said, moved. "And you can come visit us, if you want."
"We'd like that," Mrs. MacDonald said. "We'd like that a lot."