These Vicious MasksBy: Kelly Zekas & Tarun Shanker
Rose held up her hand. “How many fingers do you count?”
“Good. Are you in any pain?”
Miss Reid looked quite distraught still, though that was likely embarrassment. Many guests had trickled into the room to stare. “No, miss.”
Rose nodded. “Then there’s no reason to be alarmed. You just have a mild fever, and I suspect a day of rest is all you need. I will call on you tomorrow morning to be sure your condition has improved.”
Behind us, the crowd murmured their approval. Some even began to clap, which our mother seemed to take as a personal affront to our family. Bursting through the spectators, she called with operatic tones, “Evelyn, Rose, come along. I am sure her family will help her to the carriage.”
Rose and I exchanged looks but quietly obeyed. We followed Mother out of the drawing room and into a long, empty corridor, where she stopped and turned her full height upon us like a wrathful Hera.
“Rose, I am ashamed of you. While I expect this stubborn disregard for decorum from your sister, it is an extremely unpleasant shock to see you display yourself in such a way!
“I have allowed you to nurse our friends and neighbors so long as it was modestly, humbly performed as an act of ladylike charity. But to commandeer the room in front of all those eyes, actually ordering men about! I daresay you were excited, and your innate good sense took leave for a moment. It will not happen again. Do I make myself clear?”
“Thank you, Rose. Evelyn, I expect you to set a better example.”
“I’ll insist Rose lets her die next ti—”
She interrupted me with her deadliest glare and snapped, “We will return to the ball, and there will be no such spectacle again.”
With that, she drew herself up, pasted on a sickening smile, and took our arms. After hauling us back to the bright lights of the ballroom, she immediately called over a nearsighted young lord, who eagerly asked Rose for the next dance. With Mother’s attention on them, I escaped unnoticed to the dining room.
I was just filling my plate with far too many desserts when a voice spoke directly into my ear. “Ah! The hero has returned. And found her cake.”
I jumped slightly, nearly dropping my precious food on Mr. Kent’s shoes. Beside him stood Robert, glancing around as though Rose might suddenly appear out of a tapestry.
“Yes, I am extremely heroic and wonderful,” I declared. “It certainly wasn’t my little sister who handled the whole thing beautifully and was then set down by my angry mother.”
“Ah,” Mr. Kent said lightly, “she was not thrilled that your sister’s talents were on display?”
“No,” I said, taking a bite of cake, “she was not.”
“If it’s at all reassuring,” said Mr. Kent, “the ballroom is far more preoccupied with Mr. Braddock’s sudden departure.”
Robert frowned. “Yes. It was rather odd. Perhaps he went to find a doctor?”
“Or he was simply being dramatic,” I countered. “Hoping that we would fall all over ourselves, wondering what could have possibly been the matter.”
A particularly loud babble of conversation rose, and I turned to see Mr. Braddock entering the dining room as though summoned by our talk. Indeed, a swarm of eager guests converged to speak to him, and he hurried back out of the room in a matter of seconds.
“This entire ball has gone mad,” I muttered.
“Why, Evelyn, he seems like the perfect man for you!” Robert teased gently.
“Ha! That mysterious act is a mockery of men who have suffered any real grief or pain.”
The slightest gleam appeared in Mr. Kent’s eye. “And yet your mother wanted you to dance with him—what is she thinking?”
“Oh, she thinks him highly eligible. Though she thinks nearly everyone is suitable as long as they propose soon. But because Mr. Braddock is now in Bramhurst, she’s going to pester me about him this whole winter. It’s already unbearable.”
“I see.” Mr. Kent met my gaze before I looked down at my pudding. “Is there anything I might do to help?” All the usual lightness had left his voice.
“No, thank you, Mr. Kent, I simply must wait and hope she’ll learn patience,” I replied.
He gulped down the last of his wine. “What would make her more patient?”
“If Rose were to finally promise herself to Robert,” I blurted out.
I paused for a moment to contemplate. Dear God, did I really just speak those words aloud? No, no, I’d never. But Robert’s slack jaw and wide-eyed expression confirmed the truth.
“Miss Wyndham, I’m—I’m sorry. I did not mean to—” Mr. Kent said, looking rather distraught.
“Excuse me,” I muttered, thrusting my desserts into his hand and rushing away, deeper into the crowd.
Blast. Blast. Blast! What an idiotic mistake. I didn’t even know why I said it. I’d had only one glass of wine! Possibly two. And a half. But it was foolish! Exceedingly! It was the truth, but it was not my business at all. Rose. I needed to find Rose and warn her before Robert tried to surprise her with a sudden proposal. This was not the way it should have happened.