The Perfect Mask I
The music blessed my ears first.
Out on the chilly street the hum of violin strings swirled on the air, the smooth rich spirit seeming to dance in tangible form. My heels clanked in time with the melody, longing to be a part of the enchanting ambience, to float on the wind and bring joy and beauty to every passerby. Drawing closer, the rest of the instruments filled in the missing tones with brass, woodwinds, and timpani. I drank in the sweet elixir of harmonies as I ascended the steps to the hall.
The full effect finally overwhelmed my senses at the door. Every chord sang out with complete clarity, yet the sight stimulated me more than anything else. The ceiling curved at least fifty feet above with murals of the heavenly host playing across it. Sparkling white pillars lined the entryway and along the floor, seeming like ants in such a grand space, every shade of every color whisked across the marble, dresses and coattails flourishing about in merriment. I imagined a rainbow had sprung to life and washed over this hall with its fervor.
“Miss,” a steward welcomed me at the door, “I’m afraid you must put on your mask from this point forward, for the anonymity of our guests.”
“Of course.” I lowered my gaze in embarrassment and slipped the feathery disguise from my handbag. The friendly steward assisted with the bow in the back and fitted it over my eyes.
He watched me closely for a moment before bowing. “You look lovely, Miss.”
A smile teased at my lips. “Thank you, steward.”
I glided through the crowd, sweeping the bustle of my dress from side to side to avoid the other patrons. No one paid me any heed. A mask fashioned with the snout and ears of a grey wolf whispered sweet nothings to a fawn. A flamingo twirled around a shark. All alliances had been made, dons and damsels chosen.
A nearby server handed me a glass of champagne and I nested in the corner of the ballroom, content to witness the frolicking of the graceful and alluring creatures of the upper class.
“Swan,” a low timbre caressed the air somewhere close by.
I circled around myself until a pure black tuxedo caught my attention due to his stillness, and his unwavering gaze on me. Every feature but his chin was covered with a black molding of a cat, complete with yellow tinted lenses over the eyes.
He chuckled at my surprise. “The most breathtaking person in the room hiding in a corner? What has the world become?”
I fiddled with my mask to cover my blush. “You must be the man I’m meant to meet.”
He gently pressed a kiss on my gloved hand. “Of course I will be whatever man you want me to be.”
“Your costume is elegant,” I said, “but isn’t it bad luck to cross paths with a black cat?”
“You can call me Panther,” he mused, “and as far as I know, the legend doesn’t extend to jungle cats.”
“Then I suppose I’ll allow it.”
He lowered his head and offered a hand. “May I have this dance, my Swan?”
“I’d be delighted.”
After setting aside my glass, he guided me to the center of the floor with all the poise of a prince and brushed his fingers along my waist. Our bodies were close enough to cause a scandal, had anybody been paying attention and if anyone knew our identities. The lean muscle in his shoulder flexed under my hold and our opposite hands came together in a fiery grip. My cheek stroked against his for a moment and the two of us giggled at the accidental intimacy. The charm of his gaze, even with the yellow hue shrouding his true look, had my heart pulsing against his chest.
“Tell me, Swan,” he crooned in my ear, “why come tonight if you didn’t plan to join the festivities?”
“To find you, of course.” I smiled up at him. “Finally meeting my secret admirer while keeping the secret intact is a chance that won’t present itself often.”
He spun us around with passion. “What if your admirer hadn’t shown? What would you do then?”
“Enjoy the spectacle and be on my way.”
“Not much for socializing, I take it?”
“I usually find it easier to keep to myself.”
“Yet you made an exception for me.”
I glanced away. “You’re different. Your way with words is like nothing I’ve ever come across before. Our letters are the only time I get to be myself.”
“Are you not yourself here? Among all of these anonymous colleagues?”
“Anonymous or not, they are still in a world that I don’t see myself as part of. We all have the money to be here, but my fortune isn’t by choice, like the rest of them.”
“Inheritance,” he agreed. “Rich, but alone and unhappy.”
“Until your letters came.”
“You seem so sure that those letters were meant for you and not your money.”
“You started sending them before you ever knew about my family or my fortune. I trust you.”
“As you should.” He winked. “I only want the best for us both.”
“Tell me, Panther,” I whispered, “how did you know me well enough to write what you did? How did you even know how to reach me?”
He chuckled a second before replying, “Love finds a way, does it not?”
I tilted my head. “I suppose it does.”
He pulled us to a stop and peered around, still holding me close to him. “And perhaps it’s time we found our way out of this party. As you said, you prefer to be alone, and I would much prefer to have you to myself.”
“But you said in your letters you always dreamed of attending a party like this. I enjoy my privacy, but I would never want to take this away from you.”
His grin became more forced, his teeth clenching together. “Life can’t always be conveyed through letters, my dear Swan. Sometimes a moment carries you somewhere you never expected to be.”
“You confuse me. Those letters are the truest version of yourself, as they are mine. Everything we are is in those pages.”
“I would rather experience life outside of words.”
Despair dragged at my limbs. “Panther, what was the first line you sent me?”
“What does that matter now?”
“If you care for me at all, you will answer.”
He laughed, his eyes flashing with frustration through the yellow filter. “I don’t have time for love notes. I’m much more direct when I want something.”
I shook my head in horror. “You’re not my admirer. Why would you pretend to be him?”
“I never said I was. You assumed and I chose not to correct you.”
I tried to push away, but he furled an arm around my back and wedged me into his chest. I spat in his ear, “Why keep up this charade?”
“Because there is something I want. I did not lie about that.”
His twirling had steadily meandered us to the back of the ballroom and he suddenly yanked me through a side door where we plunged into a darkened service hall. My heart leapt into my throat and I lunged back toward the dance floor, but he hauled me away, clasping a hand over my lips. My lungs tightened and tears collected on the rim of my mask.
“You’re going to make a quick withdrawal, and then you can be on your way to live your lonely life.”
A shudder racked through my spine and I jerked against him, yet he proved stronger in every way. The two of us scuffled toward a back exit with no one the wiser.
The moon shone in on us through the wired window, casting crisscrossed shadows along my silvery gown. He reached for the handle, seconds from stealing me away with no more witnesses to help. I rammed an elbow into his ribs. He merely wrenched me onward with more might.
Suddenly a new shadow joined ours on the tiles. With a gasp, Panther released his grasp and I tumbled to the floor, in a tangled mess of ruffled fabric. I swatted my way free of the dress, slipping off the skirt portion so I could have more freedom to run. After tripping my way to my feet and preparing myself for a fight, I glanced every direction down the hall. Panther had vanished, as did the third shadow that had appeared before. I was completely alone.
I noted a small form on the floor and cradled it in my hands. The black cat mold with yellow eyes glared back at me. Panther had been unmasked. My life and fortune had been spared. But how?
To be concluded in The Perfect Mask II...
© 2021 by Kelsey Garber