Masquerade Ball: Part 2
Dancers swirled, their masks glinting in the firelight. They were metallic, haunting, sinister. Zara adjusted her headpiece, hoping nobody would recognise her under the painted papier mâché. She’d worked on it for weeks, lovingly lacquering it and adding fringes and bows. It was slightly garish, but the project had lifted her spirits and helped whittle away her nervous energy. She’d scoured a craft shop and decided on a cat mask with pointy little ears. In contrast, her dress was square-necked and made from pale-green silk. Lace cascaded from a tightly fitted bodice, and tulle beneath the skirts made them billow romantically.
‘May I have this dance?’ a tall man asked, extending his hand.
‘Uh, OK,’ Zara replied, her voice breathy. She wanted to meet someone, she really did, but she spent most evenings hiding out in the flat above her gift shop Treasure Hunt. Cream Puff, her ragdoll kitten, kept her company, and right now, he was all she needed. Zara and her mysterious companion weaved between the couples, and before she knew it, he was spinning her on her toes. She nestled into his neck, and as they swayed together, she detected a note of fragrance. What was it? Davidoff Cool Water or Calvin Klein? Pulling away from him, Zara smiled.
‘Is that you, Harry? Your voice sounded familiar, and I’m pretty sure you wear that scent.’
‘I didn’t realise I was that transparent,’ Harry said, removing his mask. He had light-grey eyes, a warm smile and a thick crop of curly hair. He was only in his thirties, but his skin was prematurely aged from the sun, and he had a forthrightness that made Zara feel instantly at ease. Harry was a local farmer, and his apple orchards were the largest in the district. He’d bought some perfumed soaps from her gift shop, and she had assumed they were for his girlfriend. Zara had made a sly comment as she handed him his change, and Harry had said they were a birthday present for his sister. After that, she’d chatted with him at the markets and the post office.
Peering through her mask, Zara surveyed the room. Her peripheral vision was severely hampered, but she didn’t want to take the mask off just yet. For some reason, she’d been jumping at shadows, and nothing could calm her down.
‘Are you alright?’ Harry asked.
‘Oh, I’m just a bit tired, that’s all. I’ve been working overtime at the shop.’
It wasn’t true, but it sounded better than adrenal exhaustion fuelled by paranoia.
‘Well, why don’t we sit down for a while? There’s a drinks table over there.’
Harry’s hand enveloped hers, his callouses hard against her soft skin. Pushing up her mask, Zara grabbed a glass of Champagne and drank greedily. The liquid burned her throat, but she needed to numb herself and still the constant whirring of her mind. Setting it on the table, she reached for another. As she did so, Harry leant forward.
‘Have you had anything to eat?’
‘Well, you might pass out on me, that’s all.’
‘Thanks a million.’
Was it that obvious? It was true she’d guzzled three Bacardi Breezers before she arrived, but she’d needed them for courage. It was the first time she’d been at a large gathering since she’d ejected herself from her former life, and it had given her the chills.
‘Oh, alright. I’ll try a canape.’
She stuffed an artisan cracker smothered in brie and quince paste into her mouth, but struggled to swallow it. Her mouth felt like a scrunched-up paper bag: withered and scratchy and dried up. A waitress with a tray of Perrier glided by, and Zara caught her eye. She took two bottles and handed one to Harry. Winking at her, he unscrewed the lid and took a long swig. What powerful forearms, Zara mused. His broad shoulders filled out his cape, and his Adam’s apple moved when he talked. Harry was far more alpha than Oliver had ever been, and something told her he did the right thing both in front of and behind closed doors.
Leaning back against the chair, Zara felt the alcohol starting to work its magic. Her arms were heavy, and she began to hover outside her body. How lovely, she thought. I could get used to this. Harry swivelled his chair closer and gazed into her eyes.
‘You look like you need to go to bed.’
Zara’s eyes widened.
‘No, not with me, but maybe sometime in the future,’ Harry said, grinning.
‘But Reggie will be so disappointed. I’ve only been here about half an hour,’ Zara said.
Reggie was a wealthy older man with a Gothic manor that was the envy of many in the town of Bonnybrook. It perched on the edge of a river, and his sprawling estate played host to the annual town fair, show jumping competitions and university rowing.
‘Half an hour too long in my book.’
For some reason, Harry felt protective of Zara, which puzzled him greatly. Even when he’d seen her at the markets, she’d seemed lost, afraid. There were dark smudges beneath her eyes, and her complexion was pasty rather than luminescent, like when he’d first met her. In addition, her voice had been lyrical, but now it was shuttered and quivery, reminding him of a caged bird. What is your secret? Harry wondered. Are you on the run from the law, or worse still, escaping a predator of some kind? Glancing around the room, Harry hoped it was nobody nearby.
Deirdre tightened her corset. Her ample bosom spilled over the bodice, and she applied some powdered foundation to exaggerate her cleavage. I’ll be the belle of the ball, she thought, grinning wickedly. All that surgery had been worth it after all. She’d nabbed Oliver, who was dripping in money, and had caught the eye of a neurosurgeon where she worked. Before Deirdre had ‘augmented’ herself, as she liked to put it, he’d never looked twice at her, but now that she had some booty, he had developed X-ray vision. Moreover, so had the ambulance officers who she routinely bumped into in Emergency.
Dave, the newest recruit, had stammered and stuttered, but he was smooth as silk once she’d cornered him in the nearest broom closet. It was funny how shy, awkward men could be incredible lovers, unlike their cocky, extroverted counterparts! At one point, Oliver had tried to convince her to give up her job, but Deirdre wanted to maintain her independence. And besides, she was always on the lookout for a better offer anyway. There were plenty of wealthy patients she could flirt with in the private section of Glengoyne Community Hospital, and relatives at a loose end were easy prey as well. Oliver thought he was so suave, but he was so caught up with himself that he greatly underestimated her.
Deirdre had convinced him to come down for the weekend to attend her uncle Reggie’s masquerade ball, and now that he was here, he seemed OK with it. She walked into the bedroom and found him lying on the bed, leafing through a golfing magazine.
‘Almost ready?’ Oliver said, without looking up.
‘Almost. I’ll just shimmy on my dress, and then we can make our appearance.’
‘Our appearance? You make us sound like royalty.’
‘Well, we are in a sense. I’m my uncle’s guest of honour and the only one of his relatives who makes any effort. He invited all my cousins, you know, but none of them have bothered to even RSVP.’
‘Well, get on with it, then. I’ve been waiting for hours,’ Oliver said, a bored expression on his face.
‘Hardly,’ Deirdre commented, hurt by his arrogant and dismissive tone.
In five minutes, she had completed her look and grabbed her mask from the hallstand in the foyer. It was a delicate cerulean, which matched the satin of her gown. She’d hired it from a costume shop near where she lived and had tried it on several times in the past few days. Tossing the magazine aside, Oliver grabbed his wallet and slipped a cheap cardboard mask into his coat pocket. He had always hated fancy dress and wasn’t about to start liking it now. As they descended the staircase, it was clear that guests were thin on the ground. Who would notice her now? Deirdre had always been prompt and despised those who came fashionably late. Now, however, she wished she was more the latter than the former.
Oliver’s phone pinged, and he leant over the railing, furiously texting.
‘Are you serious? I told you not to bring that thing with you,’ Dierdre said, narrowing her eyes.
‘I’m trying to negotiate a deal with my buyer. Go and grab me a drink, why don’t you, and make yourself useful.’
‘I can’t believe you’re treating me like this! I hardly ask anything of you.’
A micro expression of fury rippled over Oliver’s features, and he shoved her harshly. Stumbling forward, Deirdre almost lost her footing. She grabbed the handrail, straightened her skirts and ran into her uncle’s arms.
‘Sweetheart, what’s wrong?’
‘Oh nothing,’ Deirdre said, her eyes welling. She didn’t want to make a scene in front of the other guests, but her mind began to whir. What lovely things I’ve got planned for you, Oliver, she thought, grinding her teeth.
‘Come with me,’ Harry whispered.
Zara followed him up the imposing staircase and stifled a yawn. She’d been frantically cleaning all afternoon and had collapsed in a puddle, but she’d had no time for a power nap. Perhaps it was time for one now.
‘I feel bad,’ Zara said, glancing around the room.
‘Reggie. He put this event on for me.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself. It was just an excuse to get you to come and see him. Reggie makes a fuss of all the new girls in town.’
‘Oh,’ Zara commented, embarrassed.
Standing close to her, Harry kissed Zara on the forehead. ‘He’s taken a real shine to you, though. Don’t worry, you’re prettier than the others, which is probably why he wanted me to meet you.’
‘But we’ve already met!’
‘We know that, but old Reggie doesn’t. So, let’s not steal his thunder.’
Zara laughed, feeling like a naughty schoolgirl who was planning some kind of prank.
‘Now, here we are.’
Opening a door, Harry walked into a large room with a fireplace, plush reading chair and a four-poster bed, complete with mosquito net and elaborate headboard. Zara glanced at him. Would Reggie mind if she slept in here?
‘He keeps this for special visitors like you. This place is massive, and his maid will change the sheets in the morning.’
‘But I don’t want to create more work for her. Surely…’
‘She won’t mind. I’ll slip an extra fifty in her wallet, and she’ll be more than happy to oblige.’
Hugging herself, Zara wondered whether she should lie down in her gown. After all, she had nothing with her, save the petticoat that lined her dress. As if reading her thoughts, Harry walked over to a nearby wardrobe and swung it open.
‘Here you go,’ he said, tossing her a filmy cotton night dress.
The fabric smelt musty, and Zara sneezed. How long had it been since anyone had worn it? Five years? Ten? Harry turned on the gas fire and offered to leave the room while she was undressing. Once he had closed the door, Zara hastily unzipped herself and threw on the cotton nightie. It was empire-waisted with frilled sleeves that were embellished with tiny chrysanthemums. I feel as if I’m stepping back in time, Zara mused. She hung her dress in the wardrobe with the spare coat hanger and slipped in beneath the sheets.
‘You can come in now,’ Zara called.
Striding in, Harry unlaced his shoes and lay down next to her.
‘You’re a bit presumptuous.’
‘I know, but I thought I’d take my chances.’
Closing his eyes, Harry knew he’d taken liberties, but his Spidey senses had been aroused. There was something Zara wasn’t telling him, which made him feel uncomfortable. A customer had taken a photograph of her standing behind the counter for her Instagram feed, and Zara had asked her to delete it. It would have been great publicity since the young woman clearly had a large following, but Zara had been adamant. At that point, he hadn’t known Zara, but he had watched her carefully. Who are you? Harry had thought. Where have you come from, and why are you running a jumble store in Bonnybrook, nowhere?
Zara’s features were fine, but there was a determination in her voice and an authority in her stature that suggested a previous occupation. Teaching, policing? He wasn’t sure, but her ease with customers, photographic memory and ability to contradict, albeit in a diplomatic, carefully constructed way, made him wonder whether she had been involved in public life. Many of the people who ran businesses in Bonnybrook were friendly and convivial, but it was clear they’d led a sheltered life. Zara, on the other hand, was an unknown quantity. Nevertheless, of one thing he was certain: parochial, she was not.
Before long, Zara’s breathing was even. Harry debated whether to return to the party, but something made him stay put. Sliding his phone from his pocket, he selected an ebook and tried not to make any sudden movements. After what seemed like an age, Harry began to feel restless. It was nearing midnight, and he could hear violin music spiralling up from downstairs. He peeped into the corridor and was startled as two people clattered by. The man’s steps were bold and brusque and the woman’s were a quick trot. Moments later, a door slammed, and they began to shout.
‘How dare you flirt with that good-for-nothing waiter! You had no right to chat him up like that,’ the man bellowed.
Harry moved towards the door, hoping they couldn’t hear his footsteps on the wide floorboards or his rapid breathing.
‘I wasn’t. I can’t help it if he kept plying me with Prosecco,’ the woman replied.
‘Don’t be coy. I can’t stand it when you attempt false modesty.’
‘I thought you’d like coming here. It’s such a beautiful manor, and Uncle Reggie’s been so kind.’
‘Kind? He’s got a roving eye, if you ask me. I bet half the women in this backwater have shacked up with him,’ the man countered.
‘Don’t speak about him like that. He’s been loyal to his wife all these years, even though she ran out on him decades ago.’
The woman began to cry, her sobs desperate. Edging away, Harry decided to go back to Zara’s room. However, before he had gone very far, the woman said something that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
‘You know, I’ve located your ex-girlfriend.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Louise. The bitch who left you without a word.’
‘Where is she?’ the man’s tone was brutal, menacing.
‘She was at the party. The girl in the cat mask. She took it off while she was having a drink with some guy. He was around six foot two and really built.’
‘Well, where is she now?’
‘I…I don’t know. I haven’t seen her in ages.’
‘She’s probably left, or you’ve just made the whole thing up.’
Silence followed, and then suddenly, the man began to cough. The fit lasted a couple of minutes, and then he said, ‘Louise wouldn’t come and live somewhere like this. It’s too quiet for her, too provincial. She was a top lawyer, you know. She loved the city. Shopping, concerts, rubbing shoulders with celebrities.’
‘I’m sure it’s her. And by the way, her name’s Zara, not Louise. And she runs the bric-a-brac shop Treasure Hunt on Treacle Road,’ the female countered.
‘There’s no way she’d do something like that. She’d be bored out of her mind. She’s probably a doppelganger. Apparently, we all have them; you just have to search online, and bingo! – you’ve found your other half.’
‘I’m sure it’s her Ollie. Please believe me.’
‘Don’t call me that!’
Harry hid behind a marble statue and clenched his fists. Why had Zara changed her name? Was Oliver some sort of criminal? Or worse yet, violent? Should I tell her or say nothing? Harry debated. Either way, Zara was in clear and present danger. Perhaps she could hide out at my place. Those vile people would never think to search there. Before he had a chance to mull it over any further, the odd pair streamed out the door, suitcases in hand. Creeping behind them at a safe distance, he watched as they flew down the stairs and into the bowels of the mansion. Harry walked out onto the balcony and stood in the shadows.
As the tyres of their Jaguar squealed down the drive, he took off his mask. Would they return? The air had a nip in it, and Harry’s teeth began to chatter. Just as he was about to go back inside, some young women streamed onto the tiles. One of them caught Harry’s eye, and he smiled politely. Oh great, he thought. Please don’t walk this way. However, as he had predicted, she began striding towards him, and he groaned inwardly. Turning on his heel, he scooted back to Zara’s room. As he entered, Zara stirred. Propping herself up against the inlaid oak, she was surprised when Harry came and took her hand.
‘What is it?’ Zara said, leaning forward.
‘I think you’ve just had a near miss.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Did you used to go by the name of Louise?’
Zara’s face went from pale to ashen. Eyes pooling, she swallowed hard. ‘Um, how did you know?’
‘It doesn’t matter now. I think Reggie’s got a niece who doesn’t like you very much.’
‘Well, I didn’t catch her name, but she was with some guy who was part Mick Jagger, part Robert De Niro.’
Zara’s blood ran cold. Grabbing the sheets, her eyes went wild. ‘Where are they? Do they know I’m here?’
‘No, no, they’ve just left, and something tells me they’re not coming back.’ Taking her into his embrace, Harry could feel the pounding of her heart. Small mercies, he thought, small mercies.
‘You must wonder why I haven’t said anything, but really, I just wanted to keep a low profile,’ Zara said, looking at the door and hoping nobody would enter unannounced.
‘That’s completely understandable. It’s none of my business anyway,’ Harry said.
‘Well, it kind of is, especially since you’ve been so nice to me. It’s not like I’m in witness protection or anything; I just wanted to get away from my abusive boyfriend. I met Deirdre in my shop and then again at Reggie’s. She’s a nasty piece of work, but I had to be polite in front of her uncle.’
‘Yeah, she sounded quite catty,’ Harry said, glancing at Zara’s mask, which was propped up against a pillow.
‘She must be his new girlfriend.’
‘I definitely got that impression.’
‘Well, she’s welcome to him. I guess she thought finding me was some sort of coup. Now I realise why she looked at me so strangely while I was trying on masks at her uncle’s.’
‘It must have been very unnerving.’
‘Hmm. It was. I had nightmares all night and was terrified of coming to the ball. It was illogical of course, but now it all makes sense. I wonder if Oliver spends as much money on her as he did on me? Not that I’d care of course,’ Zara said.
‘Perhaps they deserve each other.’
And with that, Zara told Harry all about her old life, working as a criminal lawyer and the difficulty she’d had extricating herself from Oliver’s clutches. Harry was understanding and offered to let her stay with him, but Zara refused. It was one thing to run, reinvent herself and hide away but she wasn’t a complete coward. If she ensconced herself with Harry so she didn’t have to worry every time an owl cried or a possum scuttled over the roof, Oliver would have won. And besides, with Deirdre by his side, he wouldn’t roam very far. From what she could tell, Reginald’s niece was the jealous type and would do everything in her power to keep Oliver right where she could see him.
Deirdre threw her bags in the boot and slid into the passenger seat. She was still in her dress and regretted not having changed, but Oliver was in a foul mood. As such, what were a few hours of discomfort? In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter.
‘Don’t ever drag me down here again,’ Oliver spat, his features contorted with rage.
Glancing at him, Deirdre pursed her lips. She had hoped they could have regular weekends away playing croquet and fishing, but sadly, that was not to be. Instead, she would have to bide her time. Perhaps the neurosurgeon would enjoy a spot of river sport. She’d simply play nice, stroke Oliver’s ego, and then she’d pounce. Gerry, her unsuspecting neighbour, had left her all his money, and nobody had noticed the tiny prick under his toenail where she’d injected him with insulin. Although, poisoning was probably too kind for Ollie. Perhaps she could punish him in some other way. In light of this, were all his business activities entirely above board? I’m watching you, Deirdre thought.
Reclining her seat, Deirdre sighed heavily. Perhaps Zara was a doppelganger after all. Conversely, even if the jumble store owner was Louise, she was likely a fickle bitch who swung from man to man like a green tree python. Sneaking a peek at the diamond necklace she had pilfered from Reggie’s ex-wife’s jewellery box, Deidre wondered how much it would fetch at her local pawnbroker’s. More importantly, what would she spend the money on? A tracking device for Oliver’s car and installing monitoring software on his computer would be a good start. However, getting hold of his phone would be more difficult. Glancing at her boyfriend’s craggy profile, Deirdre clutched the jewels, jutted her chin and smiled.
If you would like some creative writing prompts, check out my 100 Creative Writing Prompts on Teachers Pay Teachers.