© 2007 by Kristen Koster
Marcia Drummond picked up the ivory invitation from the salver and glanced at it. Her hand trembled as she tossed the alarming card into the fireplace. A sigh of relief escaped from her, as the flames reached toward her offering. She dreaded masquerades.
After eight years, her self-confidence and pride remained in tatters. The night of her first masquerade ball had been begun with a magical quality. The dashing Lord Barrington had plucked her from the vine of wallflowers and swept her off her feet.
No, her mother, the ever-stylish Lady Skeffington, would never understand her daughter’s shy nature. She had never been a wallflower – not with her large court of fashionable admirers. Marcia hated crowds, especially ones filled with unidentifiable strangers.
Her mother’s footsteps sounded on the stairs. “Darling, did you see? Our invitation to Lady Avery’s annual masquerade arrived.”
Oh no! It would be the one invitation her mother looked forward to each year. Marcia scrambled to retrieve the card from the fireplace. It slipped between her fingers but she snatched it up again and tossed it onto the salver.
Her mother swept into the room, heading directly for her correspondence. Marcia groaned, noticing a smudge on the otherwise pristine ivory card.
Her mother arched an eyebrow and shook her head, just as she had done each time she caught her destroying an invitation. “Marcia, darling, my oldest and dearest friend would never forgive our absence. We must not disappoint her.”
* * * *
No details had been left to chance. Her mother had even picked out the costume with an eye to bringing her daughter out of the shadows. Marcia sighed and plucked at the folds of her luminous gown and rubbed her nose where the feathered mask tickled. Why her mother thought she could pull off the role of a Greek goddess named Maia was beyond her. She could have at least explained her choice.
“Darling, you look wonderful! I knew this old costume of mine would look stunning on you.” Her mother looked her over and then reached up to adjust the shoulders and neckline of Marcia’s gown slightly. When her mother turned to the butler to ask how much longer until the carriage was brought around, she shrugged and tugged at her bodice, undoing her mother’s efforts.
“A moment longer, Lady Skeffington.” The butler said, holding her mother’s wrap out for her.
“Good. I should hate to arrive too late this evening.” Her mother smoothed her pale blonde hair back from her face.
The carriage was brought around and the ride to the Avery’s was uneventful and quiet. She wiped her sweaty palms on the seat. Crowds made her nervous enough, but the possibility that she would run into Lord Barrington again terrified her. They’d met several times over the last eight years but he had refused to meet her eyes. She had been mortified by his cut direct.
Marcia followed a step or two behind her mother as they entered the Avery’s house. People milled about creating impossible tableaus. Shepherdesses flirted with Roman senators. Queens held court over demons, pirates and kings. Men dressed in simple dominoes prowled about the room.
The sight brought her to halt. What if he was here tonight? Could she face him again? A flush crept up her neck and into her cheeks. She clenched her fists and forced herself to take a step toward her mother. An elbow jabbed her in the ribs as she bumped into someone. The gentleman flared his cape in a menacing gesture and his stare bored into her eyes through his half-mask. Her throat felt dry and she gulped nervously. Relief flooded her when she realized he had brown eyes, not green. It wasn’t him. She curtsied and stepped around the gentleman. Specters of Lord Barrington were not going to ruin her evening. He might not even bother to attend this year.
The closeness of the crowd and the familiarity bothered Marcia despite, or maybe because of, the anonymity their masks afforded everyone. The event was already turning into a crush – a success by Lady Avery’s standards. Her stomach lurched as she was jostled and bumped as she tried to catch up to her mother.
A Dresden shepherdess caught her eye. “Lovely evening, isn’t it? Don’t you just love masquerade balls?”
She nodded and looked past the girl to study the edges of the room. A satyr minced by in a pair of uncomfortably small boots painted to look like hooves. The shepherdess giggled as he passed, pointing at the scrap of tail peeking out from between his coattails. Marcia mumbled her apologies and ducked away. She squeezed between a pair of Grecian goddesses and sought out her mother’s familiar form. Near the center of the room, her mother was gathering her favorites. She was in earnest conversation with what appeared to be a highwayman from behind.
Satisfied that her mother wouldn’t miss her for the time being, Marcia slipped away and headed toward the alcove that had proven sanctuary in previous years.
She sat on the bench and tried to gather her nerves. A couple strolled past and, noticing the alcove was already occupied, continued past. She watched their retreat with envy. The man’s arm hung loosely around the woman’s waist, his hand resting on her hip. The woman laughed at something the man whispered in his ear and her reply was low and husky. When he caressed her hip the woman lightly swatted at his hand of slapping his face. Then the couple disappeared from view, obscured by the crowd.
Marcia blushed at their intimacy. She could barely voice a response to simple questions let alone allow anyone close enough for liberties. Over the years, it had been easier to haunt the fringes of society and to avoid eye contact with those attempted to draw her out.
Shifting shadows drew her attention. A tall, broad-shouldered gentleman held two glasses of lemonade as he sat down on the bench beside her. The highwayman offered one to her, not meeting her eyes. The glass wobbled in her hand when she accepted it and took a sip.
“My pleasure, Marcia.”
Her head whipped around to stare at him. The deep, husky voice was familiar, but she couldn’t place it. Only when he slowly turned to face her and raised his eyes to hers did she recognize his emerald eyes.
She tried to stand, but his hand grasped her wrist and pulled her back down beside him. She wanted to tell him to release her, but her tongue lay dead in her mouth – the words refusing to form.
She flexed her fingers; his grip was tight and unyielding. Her hand didn’t hurt, but she didn’t like the sensation of physical restraint. He relaxed his grip and dropped her wrist.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Y-you didn’t.” What did he want? Why now? Hadn’t she learned her lesson years ago?
“Will you dance tonight?”
“We once waltzed together. You were so very light on your feet.”
She looked away.
“Come. Join me. I heard the musicians say the next dance would be a waltz.”
“No, thank you. I’m content to remain here.”
“Very well, I shall as well.” He settled in on the bench beside her.
“I can’t imagine why you suddenly wish my company.”
“I wish to apologize, Marcia.”
She turned to look at him. “You missed your opportunity years ago, my Lord.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“Why wait until now?”
He shrugged. “I suppose I wasn’t ready.”
She let out a huff of breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.
“What would you have me do, Marcia?”
“Please stop calling me that. I have not made you free with my name.”
“You were free enough with your kisses after that first waltz.”
Lifting a hand to her mask, she was glad for its presence. Only he would throw her bad judgment back at her when he was the one clearly in the wrong.
“You should not say such things.”
“If I stop, will you accept my apologies for the actions of a callow youth who did not know any better?”
“Again, I must ask, why now?”
“Would you believe me if I said I was afraid to approach you all these years?”
She gasped. He was afraid of her? “Surely, you jest.”
“Every time your gaze passed mine, I felt the cut. You were treated unfairly. I should never have gone along with my old school chums’ pranks. I don’t even know what I was trying to prove that night. With time, it was just easier to avoid you altogether.”
She was astounded that she, Marcia Drummond, had had a peer of the realm at her mercy all this time and never realized it. He had certainly hidden his emotions well. But, then, so had she.
“And how do I know this is not another prank?”
He sighed. “You will have to trust me. Dance with me, allow me this one night to prove I never meant you harm.”
His words rang with sincerity; could she trust him? Should she? She placed her hand over his and allowed him to help her rise. The crowd parted for them as she followed him onto the dance floor. The musicians were indeed playing the beginning measures of a waltz.
She’d forgotten how it felt like to dance like this. The crowd was held at bay, beyond the circle of his strong arms, and she relaxed enough to enjoy the dance. As long as he didn’t attempt to continue their conversation, her tongue wouldn’t have a chance to betray her and leave her sounding like an idiot again.
“As graceful as I remember. It is a crime you sit with the wallflowers, Marcia.”
“It suits me.” She shrugged, as if it didn’t matter. The words had come easily, surprising her.
“I never realized the disservice to you. I hope we can put the past behind us and begin again.”
She looked into his face and tried to read the intent behind his eyes. Their emerald depths shone with a brightness that wasn’t merely a reflection of the room’s numerous candles in the chandeliers and sconces.
As he twirled her around the room, Marcia felt several eyes upon her. Her throat felt tight, but she managed to keep her feet moving to the rhythm of the music. It was simple to follow Lord Barrington’s lead, even after spending so many years away from the dance floor.
She glanced up at her partner’s face. He didn’t appear to be concentrating on the steps, but moved through the figures with practiced ease and grace. The increasing whispers and stares didn’t seem to affect him either.
Her steps faltered as they moved through a turn and she recognized the bright red hair of one of his school chums sticking out from behind the mask of one of the fellows pointing at them and laughing with his friends. Lord Barrington’s arms tightened around her, steadying her.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, just out of practice.”
“We could take a turn on the terrace if you wished.”
“N-no.” She glared up at him. He couldn’t think she would follow him out there again to be surrounded, passed around, slobbered on and pawed by his friends.
He chuckled. “My apologies.”
She stared in horror over his shoulder as the redhead approached and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Mind if I cut in, Barrington? Appears you’ve found a tasty morsel. Shall we share like old times?”
Not again! She broke out of his hold, turned and fled through the crowd. She stopped only when the cool air hit her face and she realized she’d reached to the terrace. Closing her eyes, she counted to ten and opened them again. She was still on the terrace.
At the edge of her vision, a dark figure filled the doorway. She moved farther from the door and turned away from it.
“Marcia? Are you all right?” Lord Barrington’s voice sounded close behind her.
Hugging herself against the chill that ran through her, she stared out over the lawn. A constricted creaking noise was all that escaped when she opened her mouth.
“Marcia?” He sounded deeply concerned.
“Y-y-yes. I’m f-fine.” Every muscle shook with the effort it took for her to get those few words out. Warm arms wrapped around her and she stiffened. Her shoulders brushed up against the warmth of his chest.
“You don’t sound fine. I planted him a facer for you.” Somehow, she could hear the slow smile in his voice. “I should have done it years ago. It felt good.”
He lifted his hands to her shoulders and turned her to face him. “I don’t know why I couldn’t behave the way you deserved eight years ago. I have seen the error of my ways and the responsibilities of the title have opened my eyes to the fact that I have a debt to those around me as well.” He gazed down at her, his emerald eyes shining in the darkness. “I’m sorry for all I’ve put you through, Marcia. Please say you will forgive me?”
“I will consider forgiving you. Not the others.”
“That is better than I had hoped for.”
After a moment, he cradled her hands between his own.
“May I ask your father’s permission to call upon you?”
He was going to ask her father’s permission! This wasn’t another prank to humiliate her, was it?
“You do not inspire confidence, Lord Barrington.” She stood on tiptoe to peer over his shoulder to see if anyone was watching. Her mother and Lady Avery stood just inside the doorway, effectively blocking the terrace to the curious onlookers. Her mother must have seen her, because she smiled before turning back to the room. Apparently, she already had her mother’s blessing.
She licked her lips and tried to answer. She resorted to a nod and gasped as his head lowered to hers and he slanted his lips over hers in a kiss that exceeded any she had ever imagined in its tenderness. He undid the ties on her mask and she let it fall from her face.
“I won’t let you slip back into the shadows.” He gently drew her into the light spilling from the ballroom. “Not unless you take me with you.”