These Vicious MasksBy: Kelly Zekas & Tarun Shanker
“What about my coming all this way?”
“So you’re offended?”
“Incredibly. If you refuse, I’ll be forced to dance alone,” he said, holding up his arms as if he were leading an invisible partner. “It will be dreadfully embarrassing, and it will be your fault.”
I snorted. “Threats are only going to make me refuse you more.”
His hands dropped to his side, and he let out a sigh. “Very well. What would you do if you could do anything at this ball?”
“I’d eat cake.”
“Unless you eat upwards of two hundred cakes, that particular activity will not occupy your entire night.”
My mind shuffled through all the possibilities—cards, suitors, copious amounts of wine—but nothing appealed. This was exactly why I avoided every ball I could.
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
“Then I present you with two choices. We stand here, observing our dull surroundings, racking our minds for ideas. Or,” he said, putting his hand out, “we do our thinking while spinning in circles and forgetting where we are.”
“As persuasive an argument as any,” I said, surrendering my hand. He clasped it for an inordinate length of time before putting it on his arm, and I didn’t mind where he led me. As we moved toward the dance floor, a new song hummed to life, and Mr. Kent, unable to restrain his smile, pulled me into a waltz.
With gentle pressure on my waist, he guided me in slow circles, weaving us through the dizzying stream of couples, our every step and turn on point with the beat. My head felt light, almost giddy with the rush of motion. His light brown eyes met mine, and they seemed to dance along with us.
“You were right, this is absolutely dismal,” he said.
“Don’t be so quick to judge,” I replied. “Here comes the exciting part, where we continue to twirl in the exact same manner as before.”
Mr. Kent scoffed. “Would you like to reverse our direction? Knock a few couples down?”
“But then there’ll be nowhere to dance, with bodies all over the floor.”
“My God, you are impossible to please.”
As we bounced to the swells and dips, the room and its crowd revolved with us. Poor Rose whirled by in a flash of silks as another infatuated dance partner tried desperately to win her approval with his footwork. Robert stood idly on the side, eagerly awaiting his next turn with her. Mother, breaking away from her group of matchmakers, made her way along the outskirts of the room. And Mr. Braddock stood determinedly by himself, a slight space between him and a gaggle of giggling schoolgirls. He seemed to be directly in my mother’s path. Or even worse, her destination.
“I’ve changed my mind,” I told Mr. Kent. “We’re dancing forever now.”
“Ah, that’ll be a difficult life, but very well, I will let no other claim you.”
“Good, for I can see my mother getting ready to arrange a dance with Mr. Braddock.”
“I see.” Something lit behind his eyes as they landed on Mr. Braddock, and I couldn’t tell if it was amusement or jealousy. “Would that be the fellow over there? He certainly seems to have gathered a following.”
“Indeed, it is.” And Mr. Kent was right. It wasn’t just my mother and a few young women. Every mother in the county was eyeing him, fans fluttering and bosoms quivering. Simpering misses subtly pinched their cheeks and smoothed down their hair. How absurd.
A tall, plain girl bravely stepped from the pack and marched toward him. She turned and stared daggers at her companions, who had renewed their giggles. Mr. Braddock scanned the crowd closely, as though looking for someone, but his stiff posture suggested that he knew what a stir his presence had created and wanted to leave immediately.
Mr. Kent and I watched with some delight as the brave girl came up behind him and very impolitely grabbed his arm. By reflex, he wrenched his arm away, but the girl held on as she fell into a paroxysm of coughing. And though Mr. Braddock tried to step away, she managed to climax her performance with a none-too-graceful faint directly onto his person with some well-practiced gasps for breath in his arms.
For his part, Mr. Braddock seemed unequal to the task of dealing with the creature and unceremoniously let her drop to the ground, where it seemed her false swoon became a true one. He hovered above her, shock and guilt lacing his features. The ballroom lay deathly still for a brief moment until he wordlessly whirled and dashed straight out of the room, guests hopping out of his path. I looked at Mr. Kent and saw my own puzzlement mirrored on his angular face. Then a small, gloved hand grabbed my own, and Rose pulled me toward the fallen girl.
THE GIRL SHOT up from the divan.
“Whe—what’s happened?” she asked. “Why—”
“Slowly, slowly,” Rose said, easing her to a comfortable position. “You had quite a fall.”
Rose held her fingers on the girl’s wrist, taking her pulse. A slight wrinkle appeared between her brows. “Your pulse is still quite fast, Miss—”
“Reid.” The girl looked around the drawing room dizzily.