The only good thing about Ethan’s absence was that it had freed up my time to concentrate on the remaining two paintings for the gala. Ms. Woods was anxious to have them done, so I’d stayed after school almost every day for a week and a half until they were completed. I left when she did though; there was no way I would allow myself to be alone in the gym at night anymore. I was sure that Ethan was close by, even if I couldn’t see him, but it was still too eerie.
I was pleased with the painting of the dancing group. I’d given all the people masquerade masks as they twirled around on a dreamy, cloud-like dance floor. And the other painting, of the young couple on the balcony staring out at a starry sky, had turned out excellently. The woman held a mask down at her side, so every one of the paintings fit the theme of the evening.
Four days before the gala, I arrived home from school to find Ethan sitting on my front porch, a large flat rectangular box beside him. As soon as I saw his dark head of hair and caring green eyes, I wanted to rush over, throw my arms around him, and tell him all was forgiven, but I restrained myself, curious to hear what he had to say.
“Could we talk?” he asked tentatively, picking up the box and standing as I approached.
“Sure,” I replied coolly, walking past him up the steps to open the front door. I took a quick peek at the box to try to figure out what it was, but there were no markings on it; all I could tell was that it looked old.
I unlocked the door and went in to hang up my backpack and coat. Ethan followed, and set the box down on our front hallway table.
As happy as I was to see him, I wanted to know why he had come back before I let him into the house any further. I turned around and crossed my arms, waiting for an explanation.
“Hannah, I have to apologize. I’ve failed you as your protector and as a friend. I know now that I made a grievous mistake in the conclusions I jumped to about your integrity.”
I wanted to stay mad at him, but he looked so ashamed and remorseful I felt my anger slipping away. “Evelyn told you the truth?” I shifted my weight from foot to foot, and stared at him.
“She didn’t need to. As soon as the accusation was out of my mouth I knew how wrong I was.”
I hadn’t expected that. I had thought he’d need to confirm the truth with Evelyn before he would believe me. It made my heart skip a little that he hadn’t gone to her.
Ethan took a step toward me, his eyes blazing. “I don’t really understand what happened with Evelyn that night, but you are one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. The way you’ve handled learning about your peculiar circumstances with poise and calm is remarkable. From my observations of you and the way you treat your friends and family, you have exhibited nothing but the highest moral character; for me to have thought anything less was inexcusable.”
“Ethan, I don’t know what to say.” I lifted the back of my hand and pressed it against my warm cheek.
“You don’t need to say anything. All of this was completely my fault.” His words were kind, but his quickness to jump to such negative assumptions about me still stung.
I took a deep breath. “You want me to trust you with my life, and I do, but I thought that you had that same amount of faith in me. Now I know you don’t, and I don’t know what to do with that.” I kept my eyes locked with his for a moment and watched as they clouded over with regret.
He nodded and looked down at the ground. “I understand. You deserve someone in your life that you can rely on in every situation. I’m just sorry I wasn’t that person for you. I’ll contact The Three about a replacement for me as soon as possible.”
I blinked in surprise. I’d been worried that he wouldn’t want to be my Hleo anymore; it hadn’t occurred to me that he would be worried I wouldn’t want him. My eyes widened and I raised my hands. “What? No, that’s not what I want.”
“Hannah, it’s okay. You don’t need to say that.”
“Ethan, I never want you to leave.” A shudder moved through me. One day, he could simply be gone for good. I reached out to touch him, but then thought better of it and dropped my hand to my side again. “Let’s just start over. Wipe the slate clean and try to move forward from here.”
“I’d like that, if you’re sure you’re okay with me still being part of your life.”
“Good.” Ethan’s smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. “Okay well, in an effort to reestablish myself in your good books, I wondered if you would do me the honor of allowing me to escort you to the Masks Gala.”
My mouth fell open. “Yes, of course, I’d love to go with you.” I thought of Adam, and relief rushed through me. I had come so close to asking him to take me.
“I was hoping you would say that, because I have a gift for you.” Ethan picked up the box from the hallway table.
“A present? You really know how to apologize, don’t you?” I studied the box, my curiosity piqued.
“I’ve had years to perfect the art.”
I laughed. “I guess that’s true.”
“Besides, I know you still need a dress for the gala.” Ethan handed me the container.
Even though I’d known in the back of my mind that he’d been watching over me, even when I couldn’t see him, it was nice to get the confirmation.
I took the box from him and carried it into the living room. It was big, and it would be awkward to open if I was standing in the hallway, so I went into the living room and sat down.
Ethan stood at the end of the couch, watching me intently.
The thick cardboard box looked like it had once been white, but age had faded it to ivory. I lifted the lid off carefully and set it beside me. Whatever was inside was wrapped in tissue paper. I gently pulled the tissue back to reveal the bodice of what looked to be a formal gown.
I gasped and pulled the dress slowly out of the box, standing so I could hold it up and see what it looked like.
The delicate cotton material was pale ivory-pink, like the lightest of pink hues that paints the sky at dawn. The bodice was fitted at the waist in a corset style and had beautiful, soft gatherings across the chest, with scooped ruffles on the shoulders for sleeves. Multiple layers of the same material, like petals on a flower, belled out from the waist so the skirt was quite full.
“Ethan.” I couldn’t think of anything else to add. It was perfect; it was the dress I’d been picturing in my mind.
“It was my sister’s, or it was supposed to be,” Ethan confessed, still watching me closely.
My breath caught in my throat. “What?”
Ethan sat down in the chair beside the couch and scrutinized the dress before he started to explain how he could possibly have possession of an article of clothing that would now be close to one hundred and thirty years old.
“Stanley never got over the loss of my sister. He never married, never even really courted any other women as far as I know. He had purchased this dress as a wedding present for Mary, since he knew how much she loved elegant gowns, and was going to surprise her with it after they were married. When she was murdered, Stanley was left with nothing but her memory and this dress, so he held onto it. He remained a good friend and confidant to me for the rest of his life, and when he died at the ripe old age of ninety-three, he made special provision in his will that it should go to me. I guess he figured it would mean as much to me as it had to him, and that if it was in my possession he wouldn’t need to worry about the memory of the dress fading, because I would never age.”
“Ethan, I can’t accept this,” I breathed. The tenderness in his voice revealed the depths of his feelings for his sister, which made the generosity of his gift almost overwhelming.
“Hannah, I have no use for the dress. It should be worn by someone beautiful, and allowed to have its moment to shine. This gala seems like the perfect opportunity, and I know you’ll take better care of it than I ever could.”
My heart skipped a beat when he called me beautiful, and I studied the dress one more time. It was absolutely perfect for a gala all about old-fashioned elegance, Ethan was right about that. I gently rubbed one of the ruffles between my fingers. “It’s so delicate; are you sure it’s okay to wear, after all these years?”
Ethan nodded. “Stanley always kept it in an airtight vault, and when he gave it to me I stored it away carefully as well. It should hold up as well as a new dress.”
I clutched the gown to my chest. “Thank you, Ethan.” The words weren’t enough, but I hoped he could tell by my voice how much I appreciated the gift. I folded the dress up and placed it back in the box, then moved it from my lap onto the couch. The dress was beautiful, and it was perfect.
“You’re welcome.” He smiled, and his expression grew a little mischievous. “So does this mean I can come back out of the shadows again?”
“Hmm.” I scrunched up my face like I was debating the idea.
“Because the nights are getting colder …”
I rolled my eyes. “Come on, I’ll make us some tea.” I headed off to the kitchen with Ethan in tow.
I was happier than I’d been in over a week. I was truly touched by Ethan’s kind gesture, and relieved that for now he would remain a fixed part of my life. Now I couldn’t wait for the Masks Gala and whatever that night might bring.