These Vicious MasksBy: Kelly Zekas & Tarun Shanker
Distressed, I wove through bodies, squeezed past fences of guests, and searched for my sister. She wasn’t among those finishing the remains of dinner in the dining room. She wasn’t dancing in the center of the ballroom, nor was she resting on the side. And she wasn’t playing or laughing at the whist tables in the crowded game room. This was ridiculous. A ball with hordes of guests everywhere—half of them in love with her—and she somehow vanishes. Rose should have been in one of these rooms. She was the responsible one. She wouldn’t have run off, unchaperoned, to some part of the house that was open to family only.
Twisting down another corridor, I calmed at the sight of her blue satin dress and blond head. But my heart quickly regained its rapid pace when I saw the two men who blocked the path to her, for it was not only the unwelcome Mr. Braddock but also the carriage lifter who had been slinking about outside the house. Fear knotted in my stomach as I gained on the trio.
“Rose!” I called. “What in heaven’s—”
My words were drowned out by Mr. Braddock’s: “Again, sir, as you were not invited, I must ask you to leave.”
The giant studied Mr. Braddock, saying nothing. Behind them, Rose looked pale and uncomfortable, but unharmed.
“Now, sir.” Mr. Braddock took a step forward, still not acknowledging my presence behind him. Rage lined his voice with a jagged edge. “I would hate to remove you myself.”
It felt dangerous standing in the middle of the hall, directly between him and the giant’s potential exit. Nervously, I shuffled to the side. A tense silence followed, and something indecipherable seemed to pass between the two until at last the giant conceded. His expression softened as he turned to Rose. “Thank you for your assistance, Miss Rosamund,” he said with a light French accent. “It appears I must be leaving.”
“But how might I help further?” she asked, glancing cautiously between the two men.
“I will send a message with my information,” he said, giving her a quick bow. As he passed Mr. Braddock, he gave a final nod. “I’m sorry for the intrusion.”
Mr. Braddock did not let up. “Leave the way you came in, and do not disturb our guests.”
The giant passed me with a great whoosh of air and padded down the hallway, the wood floor crackling as he disappeared around the corner. The corridor went silent. No drone of the orchestra, no pattering of raindrops, no explanation from Mr. Braddock. He simply glared past me, making sure the uninvited guest departed for good. What on earth happened? Whatever it was, I was getting my sister away from it.
“Rose, we must be going,” I said, slipping by Mr. Braddock. “The ball is almost over, and Mother will be searching for us.” I pulled my sister by two fingers back toward the ballroom, passing Mr. Braddock and the roiling energy emanating off him. I avoided all eye contact and any reflective wall hangings that might lead to it.
“Miss Rosamund, a word, please. My apologies for that man,” he said, following close. “I don’t want to bother you, but about your healing, your special power, really—”
My head snapped up. Her special power? “Mr. Braddock, that was much more than a single word,” I said. “And it is much too late. Good night.”
I pulled Rose along, but still the man stalked her, ignoring me entirely. “Please, this is important. Miss Rosamund, you have a rare gift—a miraculous power to heal—and I would be grateful for your assistance. I have a friend in London who is very sick—”
In a fury, I stopped and swung Rose behind me, putting myself between the two. “Rose, go find Mother. I will meet you in a moment.”
She pressed my shoulder with concern but made no protest. She headed down the hallway, and Mr. Braddock began to follow until I blocked his path, glaring at him.
“Mr. Braddock. My sister is a talented nurse. I don’t know whether you’re trying to mock or deceive her with this miraculous power nonsense, but I suggest you take your brooding act and odd fixations elsewhere. You and that man have obviously upset her—now leave Rose in peace.”
His eyes flashed fire, and I found myself thinking for the briefest moment that Mr. Braddock’s behavior might not be an act. He strained a smile. “Your . . . interest is most appreciated, but this matter doesn’t concern you.”
He attempted to brush by me, but I sidestepped with him and drew myself up, annoyed to see that he was one of the few men my height had little effect on.
“Unfortunately, you don’t get to decide that.”
“Miss Wyndham, I will speak to her, with or without your leave.”
“Of all the outrageous, presumptuous things to say—” But this time I was the one cut off as he gave a curt bow and turned, striding down the corridor toward the gardens and, I hoped, off a nearby cliff. Good riddance.
Exhausted from the whole horrible evening, I hurried back to find Rose before Robert could. Somehow, I managed to grab her, then hurried Mother and Father along to the carriage with no more than a hasty good-bye to a poor, perspiring Robert, who no doubt desired a tête-à-tête with his newly confirmed love.