"Who is it, Mum?" Alice asks. "It doesn't look like Vanessa. Have you found a new model?"
Holly laughs. She can remember fondly now, paint achingly familiar features and just see the beauty, not the heartache. "No," she says. "That was someone I knew a long, long time ago. Before I met your dad."
"What was her name?" Alice tilts her head and admires the painting. "She's beautiful."
The painting is for Holly's next exhibition. She's never risked painting Karen before, not after the scandal. Trying to hush up a scandal in a town like Margate was impossible—she'd left the town, left teaching. She just has the one sketch, taken from life. Karen, asleep in Holly's bed, head nestled into the pillow and her hair fallen loose around her face. She'd meant to give it to Karen, the day they said goodbye, but she couldn't bring herself to part with it. It's tucked in the back of a copy of Edgar Allen Poe, slipped between a book on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and a collection of Ansel Adam's photographs. She might show it to Alice one day.
"Her name was Karen. And she was very beautiful." Holly puts her arm around Alice, takes a deep breath. "And I loved her. I loved her very much."
Alice leans into Holly. "Did you teach her?" she asks quietly. She has always been very perceptive.
Holly nods. "Yeah," she sighs. "It was—" She refuses to say foolish or wrong or a mistake, because Karen had made her happy, and she'd made Karen happy, at least for a little while.
"But you're happy now?" Alice asks, and Holly thinks that might be the most important question Alice has ever asked.
She doesn't have to think about the answer. There was heartache back then, but she's happy now. "I am," she says. "I have you and your dad and my painting, and I am incredibly happy."
"I'm glad," Alice says. She's quiet for a while. "Can I tell you something?"
"Promise you won't tell Dad?"
Holly squeezes her. "You can tell your dad anything too, you know. But yeah, I promise."
"There's this girl," Alice says slowly. "At school. I—I kinda like her. A lot."
"Then I think I like her too," Holly says, and presses a kiss to the top of Alice's head. Alice is almost as tall as she is now.
"I can talk to her about anything, and she doesn't judge me, or laugh at me when I'm geeky. She makes me happy," Alice says.
Holly remembers how hard she had to fight to find happiness. How she found it and had to give it up. She'd thought she'd never find it again, and then James had come along and gradually she'd started smiling again, started laughing.
"Karen once told me that true love is finding someone you can trust with all your secrets."
"Then I think I might have found it," Alice says. "True love, that is. That's good, right? I mean, I know I'm young, but—"
"It's wonderful," Holly says, and means it with all her heart.