I step nervously out of the black Lincoln town car and look skyward at the massive five-star Manfredi Hotel that ascends before me. Standing at a staggering thirty-five stories, it’s the swankiest hotel in the city. Its modern architecture of shiny steel and windows looms over me.
I still can’t believe I let Casey talk me into this. I look down at my long strapless emerald green gown that hugs all my curves perfectly and accentuates my bust line. It even has a long slit cut right up to my thigh. It’s beautiful and sexy, but not something I would normally choose for myself. I’m a regular jeans and t-shirt type of girl, but tonight I felt daring.
Daring is a new thing for me, and this party is the epitome of daring. An exclusive soiree, hosted by the hotel owner and billionaire Spence Manfredi himself. It is an invitation-only black-tie party; only a few select people are ever invited to this thing. Casey’s new boyfriend Lucas, whom I have never met, works for Mr. Manfredi and was able to snag four invitations.
However, even if you have an invitation, you are required to send a photo of yourself to the party organizers for further approval one week beforehand. I sent in an awkward photo of myself standing in my living room that Casey took last week when she told me about this party. Why? I have no idea, because this party is so shrouded in mystery, that any type of media outlet is strictly prohibited. Luckily, they deemed me worthy, was finalized on the guest list, and sent a little black card with the hotel name written in gold.
Neither Casey nor I have ever been to something like this, but according to Casey, her boyfriend is quite hooked up on the Houston social scene. I would finally get to meet him tonight, along with a mystery man intended to be my blind date. Blind dates…ugh! I just haven’t found the time to date lately. My job as head chef at a popular, and therefore busy steakhouse has taken care of that. Casey hassled me until I caved, so I managed to get the weekend off.
I steady myself on my five-inch matching satin green heels that make me feel like a giant; adding to my five foot six inches and make my way into the hotel lobby. The doorman smiles appreciatively as he opens the door for me. Before I head to the ballroom, I decide to quickly re-inspect my appearance. Just off to the side of the expansive lobby, I find the restrooms. Standing in front of the full-length mirror, I carefully check that my hair and make-up are still perfect. My make-up is still fresh looking on my fair-skinned face, the smoky eye shadow highlights my green eyes, and my lips are still glossy. My long red hair still perfectly in place in a tight bun on the top of my head. I spent a good three hours getting ready this afternoon, and it has paid off. Feeling pleased, I decide it’s finally time to make my way to the party. I pull my cell phone out of my small black leather clutch and check it. There is a text from Casey.
*Roxie, I’m going to be a little late. I’m stuck in traffic. Go in without me, I’ll be there soon I hope!
The message came only six minutes ago. I wonder why I didn’t hear it, then I realize my phone is on vibrate.
“Guess I’m on my own for a little while.”
Approaching the huge brushed steel double doors, I sigh to myself as I shove the phone back in my clutch and take a deep breath. There are two intimidating guards in matching tuxedos standing watch at the door. I tentatively approach them.
“Invitation?” the man on the left asks me in a deep booming voice.
I pull it out of my bag and hand it to him. He studies it for a second then nods, handing it back to me. The one on the right opens the door for me.
I step across the threshold, and into another area that is sectioned off from the party. In here it’s a little different. The walls are covered in a rich red fabric; against the wall is a very large shelving unit filled with shiny black boxes. In front of the shelves is a long table draped with white fabric with four women in identical black gowns behind it, they all wear matching masquerade masks. Not sure what to think about this, I approach the table, where one of the girls has a clipboard.
“Name?” she asks me, all business, as one of the other women starts scanning the shelves.
“Roxanne Vice,” I answer the woman, and she checks her list.
She eventually finds my name and her demeanor completely changes from business to friendly.
“Welcome to the Manfredi Hotel Miss Vice, and welcome to the Manfredi Masque.”
Her red lips curl up, revealing a perfect set of white teeth. The woman who had been scanning the shelves comes over, places a box on the table in front of me and lifts the lid, revealing a beautiful mask completely adorned with peacock feathers and gold sequins around the eyes.
“Wow, it’s beautiful, and it matches,” I say happily as I carefully take it out of the box.
One of the women comes out from around the table and helps me to put it on.
“We have a vast selection,” she murmurs, securing it to my head.
“Now there are a few rules,” clipboard lady says as the mask is adjusted on my face, “First of all, do not remove your mask, at all,” she states, serious again.
“Second of all, don’t reveal your last name,” she continues; “only the party organizers have that information. The guests who attend this party like to stay as anonymous as possible, some even use false names if they wish.” I frowned behind my mask, starting to feel a little trepidation. What kind of party doesn’t allow you to reveal your last name? If I wish to reveal it, then that should be up to me.
“What kind of party is this exactly?” I ask anxiously.
“It’s a masque ball, and it can be anything you want it to be.” She smirks and will not reveal any more.
“Thanks, that helps a lot,” I say dryly, but decide not to press her any further. A couple walks through the door behind me. I wonder if I should just wait for Casey, but my curiosity gets the better of me, and I decide to go on in.
Another large man in a tuxedo, who I hadn’t noticed before, slides the red fabric aside. Revealing another door, he opens it, waving me through. I take a few steps into the room before I stop and let my eyes adjust to the lighting before taking in my surroundings. It’s dark except for the colored lights that twinkle around the room in all sorts of blues and purples, creating a very nightclub type of scene.
There is a giant dance floor in the center, and a DJ in the corner, playing some thumping bass-filled dance song. What? No string quartet? Surrounding the dance floor are tables adorned with white satin tablecloths and large white pillar candles in varying lengths. All the walls around the room are shrouded with black satin material that goes up to the roof and hangs in swags into the center of the ceiling, where a massive contemporary chandelier is hung. Against the walls are various groupings of fancy cerulean and aubergine sofas and chairs.
More women dressed very much the same as the women who checked me in are walking around with trays of champagne, handing them to the many guests who already inhabit the space, all of them in tuxedos and gowns, each with a mask. All of the men wear a simple black mask, and all of the women have differently designed masks that seem to accent their gowns nicely, not unlike my own.
Not knowing where to start, I head to the bar, where the bartenders are also in tuxedos and masks. I can see that it’d be easy to lose somebody in here with everyone dressed so similarly.
“What can I get you?” one of the bartenders asks me smoothly as I approach the counter.
“I’ll have a glass of white wine please,” I ask politely.
The man nods and quickly goes to the cooler to grab a bottle. I turn and lean against the bar, examining everything going on around me. Besides the masks, so far it seems like a regular black tie affair, not that I’ve been to many of those before, but one thing that stands out is the fact that everyone that I see, appears to be attractive. Was this the reason for the photo submission? Only those deemed attractive enough are permitted to attend? That seems kind of unreasonable, who are they to decide? Of course, this is just my speculation, and it could just be a coincidence.
I hope that Casey arrives soon since I don’t know anyone here.
“Here’s your wine miss,” the bartender slides the glass toward me as I reach into my purse for some money.
“Open bar miss,” he informs me and shakes his head as I pull out a twenty.
“Really?” I gasp, disbelievingly.
“Of course. Mr. Manfredi wouldn’t have it any other way for his guests tonight.”
“Well, that’s a bonus,” I say happily back to him, and he nods and wanders off to help another guest.
I take the glass from the counter and take a sip. Wow! This is the best wine I have ever tasted; I wonder what it is, probably too expensive for my taste. I set my glass back down and look around again, not feeling brave enough yet to try mingling with the beautiful strangers. I glance down the bar, and I spot a man leaning against the bar, watching me from the end. From what I can see of his face, he’s got a smooth angular jawline, a nice straight-edged nose. His dark brown hair and full lips remind me of a young Marlon Brando.
When I lock eyes with him, he smiles and raises his glass of what looks like whiskey or something on the rocks, and I raise my own glass slightly. Blushing underneath my mask, I offer him a smile. He pushes away from the bar and saunters over. When he reaches me, he stands very close, too close for a stranger, but I don’t move away.
He takes my hand in a very smooth, gentleman-like manner, and dips his head to kiss the top of my hand, “I’m John, what’s your name?” he asks, his voice deep liquid silk.
“Is that your real name?” I ask him, remembering the woman telling me of the fake names. A slow grin spreads across his face and he shrugs.
“Guess that’s for me to know, and you to find out…or not, I haven’t decided yet.”
“Oh really? Well, my name is Roxanne,” I tell him.
“Is that your real name?” he teases, rubbing his bottom lip with his index finger, and I can’t take my eyes off of it.
“I guess that’s for me to know, and you to find out or not… I haven’t decided yet either,”
I find myself flirting with him, feeling bold. I think it’s the mask. I use my real name because I don’t care to use a fake, but he doesn’t have to know that…yet, maybe. I hated my name growing up, it reminded me of the Police song about the prostitute. My mother always had a thing for Sting, but she really didn’t need to take it that far. I’ve grown to like it now, but my best friend Casey calls me Roxie, and that reminds me of a stripper’s name.
“Well, Roxanne, would you care to join me for a drink?” John, if that’s his real name, asks me.
“I thought that’s what we were doing?” I gesture towards my glass, and he laughs.
“I mean, would you care to take this to a more cozy location?”
He smiles and points to a dark corner with some empty sofas, lit only with the candles on the table. I swallow and nod my head at him.
“Great,” he offers his arm for me to take it.
I notice that he’s quite tall, just over six feet. He leads me over to the cozy area and gestures for me to take a seat. I carefully sit down, trying not to rumple my dress too much, and cross my legs, causing the slit of my dress to ride up, revealing a lot of thigh, and the top of my black stocking. I notice this and try to pull my dress down a little to cover it up. I look up at John who hovers over me, watching me.
“Please, don’t cover up on my account, I kind of like it.”
He smirks as he takes a seat on the sofa next to me, again very close. I lean into the sofa; it doesn’t have much give though. John makes himself more comfortable and drapes an arm over the back of the sofa behind me.
“So, Roxanne, tell me about yourself,” he says as he takes a sip of his drink.
“What do you want to know?” I reply, lifting my own glass to my lips. I feel nervous and excited at once. John’s cologne starts to drift to my attention, and its heady aroma causes me to shiver, although I feel quite warm.
“Tell me anything. Let’s start with something easy like, what do you do for instance?” he encourages, while staring at my legs.
“I’m a chef.”
I feel his eyes burning into me. He lifts his gaze from my legs and to my face.
“Really? Well, I love a woman who can cook,” he says with a smile. I stare at his eyes and notice they are dark chocolate brown, but that’s all I can tell from the protection of his mask.
“I’ve always enjoyed cooking, so I figured I could do something with it,” I explain, and he nods thoughtfully.
“What do you do John?”
I turn the attention away from myself, eager to know more about this handsome mystery man. He hesitates, seeming to think about it for a second before answering me.
“I’m in the hotel business,” he says finally.
“The hotel business? That’s pretty vague.”
I smirk at him as I take another sip of the cool delicious wine.
“Well, it’ll have to do for now,” he says smugly.
“Okay fine, if that’s how you wanna play it.”
I shake my head. I feel his fingertips skimming my bare shoulder from where his hand rests. His touch sends tingles down my spine, but I’m surprised by his forwardness, and the fact that I’m okay with it. Usually, a move like that would cause me to call a guy out on it, especially from a stranger. But this is a night of being brave, and to maybe have some kind of adventure with this mysterious John.
“So, how old are you Roxanne?”
The way he emphasizes my name like he doesn’t believe it’s real amuses me, and I can’t help but to giggle quietly.
“Isn’t it rude to ask a woman how old she is?” I ask him.
“I don’t know. Is it?”
“I’m twenty-six,” I answer him anyway, “how old are you, John?”
“Oh? No ambiguous answer there?”
“Nah, I’m fine with my age. How about you? Are you really thirty-five, but saying your twenty-six?”
“No, I’m really twenty-six, and my real name is Roxanne,” I inform him. He doesn’t say anything about it and just smiles.
“Well Roxanne…” he starts, but is cut off when another man comes over and plops himself down on the other side of me, again, too close.
“Hey John,” the other man says conspiratorially, eyeing me up, “who is this?”
He smiles, revealing another perfect smile, complete with a set of dimples. This guy also has dark hair, but it’s styled into a messy faux hawk.
“This is Roxanne,” John tells him, “Roxanne, this is my friend er… Joe,” he says.
“Really? Is that what you’re going with?” I ask, turning to Joe.
“I guess so.” Joe laughs.
“Well, nice to meet you, Joe,” I offer my hand, and he takes it, kissing the top of my hand reminiscent of John.
“Roxanne,” he smiles wolfishly, “I like it.”
Joe doesn’t move over, and I’m squished into a John and Joe sandwich, feeling increasingly warm.
“I was just going to ask Roxanne to dance before you so rudely interrupted,” John tells Joe.
“Don’t let me stop you,” Joe says, and John looks at me.
“So Roxanne, would you like to dance with me?” he asks.
“Um, sure, I guess so,” I say.
Suddenly John shifts and stands up, offering his hand to me, and I take it, grateful for the hand since it’s slightly hard to stand gracefully in this tight dress. John leads me away from the sofas and on to the dance floor where a fast thumping pop song plays. The dance floor is filled with other people dancing and grinding around the dance floor. It seems a bizarre sight with everyone dancing the way they do in their formal wear. It just doesn’t seem to fit. You think black tie, and you expect a classical band or something like that. This is more like an extremely formal dance club, with nothing but good-looking patrons.
Everyone sways and moves together provocatively, and I begin to feel nervous again as John slides his hands around my waist, pulling me closer to him. We start to dance along to the beat, and soon I’m into it. John is a surprisingly good dancer, not looking awkward or out of place at all. He pulls my body towards his and continues to move. Then, I feel two more hands around my waist from behind. I turn my face in shock, and I see that it’s John’s friend Joe.
“Just go with it,” John whispers into my ear, his lips brushing my earlobe slightly, “this is what tonight is all about, letting go of your inhibitions, and just having a good time, no matter what that might be.”
“Yeah, don’t worry,” Joe whispers in my other ear, “we don’t bite...unless you want us to.”