These Vicious MasksBy: Kelly Zekas & Tarun Shanker
“Thank you, Robert,” Rose replied. “A lovely evening indeed.”
My sister never mentioned her feelings for Robert, but the attachment between them had always been obvious. Even when we were children, I often felt as if I were sneaking into their secret society without an invitation. I wondered whether tonight would be the night he finally made his intentions clear.
“It really is a lovely evening, isn’t it?” Robert continued with far more passion than the topic called for.
I glanced at Robert, who looked at Rose, who looked back at Robert. Well, odd one out, then. Maybe he would propose if I disappeared.
“Oh look! Upholstery,” I declared, feigning fascination with a side chair in the corner of the room. “I will be right back.”
Creeping toward the chair, I looked around to be sure no one was paying me any mind. Then, ever so subtly, I slid behind a large green plant. Good. A place safe from dancing, where I could make sure Rose and Robert’s romance flourished. The two were a good match, even if Robert was a little wanting in confidence. They were never at a loss for conversation, and when they got into the thick of things, Robert would actually relax, looking as if he were at home by a soothing fire instead of standing right in the center of a blazing one.
I gave a small, quiet cheer as he worked up the momentum to ask her for a dance, and her eyes lit as she nodded yes. Or at the least, I supposed she did. A large leaf was currently obscuring a quarter of the scene. She took his hand, while many disappointed faces watched her glide into the center of the room for the next song.
I sighed and patted the plant. Healthy, green, and stout as it might be, it was not the best company. If only Catherine weren’t galloping across Moroccan plains or attending a risqué Parisian salon. My only other choice was to rejoin my mother and listen to fascinating facts about every eligible man passing by. (Apparently, Mr. Egbert collects gentleman’s bootlaces! The wonder of it all.)
I peered glumly through the foliage at Rose and Robert, twirling on the dance floor. They seemed marvelously happy, and I had to question my own dissatisfaction. Was I simply too disagreeable, as Mother claimed? Would I grow just as bored of the Continent? And why was there a giant man staring through the window?
Him. The one who had lifted the carriage. I hastened toward the wall, maneuvering around conversations to afford myself a better angle, but when I reached the next window, he was nowhere to be seen. Nothing outside but night falling over Sir Winston’s estate. I didn’t know whether I wanted it to be him or my boredom manifesting itself as madness again. Hoping for any sort of answer, I spun back around for the first window and collided directly with a sleek black suit, and the gentleman in it.
“Dear me. I had no idea my absence would cause such distress.”
Pulling back, I could see he also carried a surprisingly unspilled wineglass, despite the collision. He was just my height, but the confident way he held his square chin made him seem taller. Yes, it was certainly him. Mr. Nicholas Kent.
“What on earth are you doing here?” The question left my lips before I could decide if it was too blunt.
“I wanted to see the reaction my arrival would get, and I must say, it did not disappoint,” he said with a smile.
I couldn’t suppress the jolt of pleasure. Mr. Kent was one of the few people who managed to make these social functions tolerable. I hadn’t expected him to make the trip all the way to Bramhurst. My plan to find no enjoyment in the evening was suddenly in danger of failing. “You’ve come all the way from London just for a joke, then?” I asked. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“No, no, my reason is of much greater importance. The entire city is in chaos. Buildings collapsing, streets flooding, the population plague-stricken, the Thames ablaze. But it was when an orphan boy I rescued from the rubble asked me, with his dying breath, ‘Why did this all have to happen, sir? Why did Miss Wyndham leave?’ that I solemnly promised to bring you back and restore peace.”
“You must have spent quite some time on your long train ride thinking that up.”
“Not exactly. The greater part was spent forming and rehearsing a plan of convincing you to dance with me.”
“Oh, I cannot wait for this. Let’s have it.”
He turned around, drained his drink, took an exaggerated breath, and then whirled back, eyes filled with false surprise to find me still here. “Ah, Miss Wyndham, hello, would you like to dance?”
“No, not really.”
“Hmm. Then let me ask you this: If someone went through the trouble to compose you a letter and you were to receive it in front of them, would you callously toss it out without reading?”
I shook my head, playing along. “No, of course not, that would be shockingly rude.”
He set his empty glass on a passing footman’s tray. “Then is that not the same impolite behavior as refusing to dance to this beautiful music that was composed and is now being performed expressly for your waltzing pleasure?”
“There are plenty of dancers. I can’t possibly be offending anyone.”