And he too wears a mask... February 1852
Aniela’s hand moved up to readjust her oversized mask yet again. A dark foreboding was setting up to seize hold of her inner stomach and squeeze. She should have considered if she wore a mask. Thus almost everyone else in the ballroom would also be wearing one.
The knot in her stomach swelled with each passing minute, and she fidgeted from one foot to the other. Sigh.
When she and the others entered through the main doors, their view was taken over by an entourage of outlandishly dressed men in their pompous tricorn hats or multi-colored wigs.
While most of the women she noticed were emblazoned with unique and sometimes highly unconventional attire. These same daring women purposely glided across the ballroom floor desiring all eyes to be focused on them. Most gowns and gentlemen attire was a flamboyant spectacle for the human eyes. Aniela had never witnessed so many brilliantly colored materials adorned with feathers, bells, and beads.
Spying all the masked people promenading before her almost rendered her paralyzed by suffocating mental turmoil. She felt an apprehension begin to simmer in her belly and commence to rise in her throat. It caused her tremendous anxiety, and she found herself stepping backward, seeking to remain concealed from all the hooded stares. It didn’t take her long to realize... it was a mistake to come here.
An attendant walked past with a platter of fluted goblets half-full of wine, and she quickly plucked two from his weighted tray.
“Aniela,” Jessie whispered close to her ear. “What are you doing? Are you okay?”
Raising one goblet to her lips, Aniela quickly emptied its contents. “I don’t know,” she responded with lingering unease. “I think maybe I should leave.” She handed Jessie her empty glass, then immediately lifted the full one to her waiting lips.
Jessie’s eyes grew wide as she watched her. “But we only just arrived,” she argued with growing concern.
“I’m not suggesting you and Lucian also need to leave,” she declared, peering down at her now empty glass. “Stay and enjoy yourself, but I need to go.”
Jessie stood on her tip-toes and whispered into Lucian’s ear. Then she turned and grasped Aniela’s hand, dragging her away from the immediate crowd. Once they were somewhat alone, she whispered, “What’s wrong, Aniela?”
Aniela looked down at her gloved hands and massaged the hidden scars on her wrist. “I just-” she wavered, the wine was already starting to cause her head spin, and she battled to force back her building nervousness. “All these masks are causing me an immense amount of anxiety.”
Jessie hesitated, not understanding. “But why-”
“Jessie please,” she whispered as her eyes scoured the ballroom like a hunted deer. “He... the man that held me, he always wore a silver mask. I saw his face one time, and that was only briefly. I can’t recall what he looks like; only the mask is etched in my mind.”
Jessie’s hand shot to her mouth. “My god Aniela!” she gasped, with sudden understanding and feeling her distress. “I am sorry. I didn’t know. We will leave now.” She reached to clutch her hand again, but Aniela pulled away, shaking her head.
“You and Lucian should stay,” Aniela said with a weak smile. “I will send the carriage back for you after it takes me home.”
“That’s insane! We will not permit you to go home alone,” Jessie argued. She turned to fetch Lucian and was almost knocked down by an over-anxious Camille. They both teetered, grabbing onto each other to recoup their balance.
“My words,” Camille laughed, clinging to her arm. “What is the rush?”
“Camille,” Jessie gasped, trying to stifle her annoyance. “I’m sorry we were just leaving.”
Camille glanced at her with eyes drawn, not even trying to shroud her dismay. “Leaving!” she blurted, upset. “Why would you be leaving? The fun is just only getting started.” She craned her neck, trying to peer over Jessie’s shoulder. “Where is Aniela anyway? Did she decide not to partake in these glorious festivities?”
Aniela considered remaining silent as she eyed Camille’s tall and elegant frame. Her former adversary had an ambiance of beauty that surrounded her like a ray of light. As expected, not a golden hair was out of place, and she was a vision of beauty in her cream-colored gown. The hue would have washed out anyone else’s features. Making them appear overly pale or blotchy, but not, Camille. She was thoroughly conscious of how her pale milky skin glowed, and her piercing sapphire eyes stood out, making her a picture of unquestionable beauty.
Aniela couldn’t help but recognize how all eyes, both men, and women, attracted her. It made Aniela uncomfortable to be around someone that prompted so much attention.
Camille turned to walk away, and it dawned on Aniela that she didn’t recognize her with the auburn hair. “Camille,” she said, touching her arm lightly.
Camille spun around at the sound of her voice and again looked past her. “I swear I just heard Aniela? Where did she go?”
Rolling her eyes, Aniela stepped forward. “Camille,” she said. “It’s me!”
Camille turned, peering at the woman before her. Confusion dotted her brow; then, a sudden broad smile passed over her astonished face. She promptly leaned over, holding her stomach with exuberant laughter. “Aniela!” she gasped, trying to catch her breath. She reached up and touched her auburn curls. “Oh, this is too much, and I do love this color on you, though. I swear, could you possibly look more ravishing?” Camille spun around, scanning her surroundings. “Do you see, all the men can’t keep their eyes off you!” The orchestra started performing, and she grasped Aniela’s hand, leading her away from Jessie and Lucian. “I hope you don’t mind, but I am borrowing your sister for a while.” She shouted over her shoulder at Jessie but didn’t linger for a response. Pausing, she captured two goblets from another tray; she handed one to Aniela. “Drink up.” Then proceeded to drag her through the mingling crowd.
“Camille,” Aniela gasped, trying to keep pace and spilling her drink. “Where are we going?”
Stopping, Camille turned and glanced at her. “Do you honestly not know?” she smiled crookedly. Lifting her hand, she helped steer the glass to Aniela’s lips. “I think you need to finish this first.” Waiting until she drained the glass, Camille took it from her hands and then set it on the passing attendant’s tray. “Come.”
Camille led her to the other side of the ballroom, to where a group of five or six men stood with their backs facing them.
Aniela halted, jerking Camille to a stop. “No!” She exclaimed shaking her head and shifting abruptly to walk in the opposite direction. She glanced over her shoulder to see if Camille followed, and she hesitated as she observed her whispering in a gentleman’s ear. When the man lifted his gaze, Aniela’s abdomen muscles clenched, and her heart skipped a beat.
She seized another goblet of wine off a passing tray and hoisted it to her lips, hoping it would give her strength. Laboring to pick up her full skirt, she strove to make it across the ballroom and away from the crowd. But she was abruptly halted when Jaylon grabbed her upper arm and spun her around to face him. For a flash of a moment, she was exhilarated to see him, and her heart fluttered when he touched her arm. But the remembrance of his marriage was like having a cinder block wall between them, and she wrenched her arm free.
He grabbed for her again. “Aniela, please,” Jaylon appealed, imploring her to stop.
She spun around and glowered up at him. “I have nothing to say to you, Jaylon,” she asserted. There was no need to mask her animosity for him. He knew exactly how she felt about him now.
His eyes scanned the ballroom floor, and noticed a crowd of people was beginning to stare. So he grabbed her hand and started leading her away.
She pulled and struggled against his grasp, trying to wiggle her hand free. “Let go of me, Jaylon,” she ordered, working to keep up with his fast pace.
“I wish to speak to you alone,” he urged, advancing his way through the congestion of people.
Panic started to tighten its grip on her. She recognized there was no way she had the fortitude to be alone with him. “I don’t want to go anywhere with you,” she gasped, battling to deter him.
They stepped out into the main foyer, and he took a left, dragging her down a long narrow corridor. He started opening and closing doors, working to discover an area where they could have privacy.
“Let go of me, Jaylon,” she ordered again. “I don’t want to speak to you or listen to any of your feeble excuses.”
Ignoring her, he finally opened the door to a modest room that would suffice for his needs. The dimly lit cloakroom was distant enough away from the hordes of people, so if they started arguing, their shouts most decidedly would not be overheard.
When he shoved her inside, Aniela backed away to the far side of the room. She looked around her minuscule surroundings, then observed him turn and bolt the door. Trepidation took hold of her body, and she swallowed, attempting to squash down her anxiety. “What are you doing, Jaylon?” she gasped, struggling to catch her breath. “I don’t want to be here, and I absolutely don’t want to hear your lies.”
“I don’t have lies for you, Aniela,” he whispered, with calm and penetrating eyes. “In fact, I have never uttered a single lie to you.”
Her eyes wandered the length of him, and she wished now she hadn’t consumed so much wine; her mind was starting to wonder, recalling what he looked like under all those clothes. “That’s odd,” she laughed nervously. “Because I do believe that was just a lie.”
He didn’t miss her appraisal of him and took a few steps towards her. “The only lies spoken here,” he responded, with a throaty laugh. “Are the ones you continue telling yourself.”
Her mouth fell open to refute him, and she shook her head. “I am not the one who lied about being married!” she asserted, backing up.
“I never once claimed that I wasn’t married,” he countered, taking a few more steps towards her.
“That-that is not the same as being truthful,” she stammered, conscious he was drawing closer with every word he spoke. “And you know it’s not!”
With her back to the wall, he was aware now that she could force no more distance between them. “What if I wasn’t married any longer, Aniela?” he whispered, bracing his palm on the wall just above her shoulder. “What would you do then? Would you permit me to court you?”
He was so close now that aura of him overwhelmed her senses. What little opposition she had left was ripped apart when she looked into his sapphire eyes. “But you are married,” she struggled to argue, but the flutter of his breath on her skin crumbled her resolve.
His eyes drifted down her body, taking in her every arch and every contour. “You look beautiful tonight, Aniela,” he whispered close to her lips, allowing his hand to glide up her arm. “This gown reminds me of the one you were wearing the day we first met. Do you remember?”
She swallowed hard as she forced herself tighter to the wall but could only muster to nod her head in response.
His hand moved up to twirl a piece of her auburn hair through his fingers. “This color is a nice touch,” he added, lifting it to his nose. “You create a fire in me, Aniela. One like I have never experienced before.” His hand settled on the nape of her neck and raised her chin.
Aniela tried to look away, but he held her firm. “You are a married man, Jaylon,” she whispered breathlessly. It was her last attempt at putting distance between them, but it was frugal. His lips claimed hers as if she hadn’t spoken a word.
“I am in the midst of rectifying my marriage,” he countered against her lips. “Please, Aniela, you know how much I love you.” His lips claimed hers tentatively at first. Then became more urgent as he suckled her until her mouth opened, and he was able to slip his tongue through her parted lips.
She sighed into him and let her hands wander up his body to fasten around his neck. This response prompted him to intensify their kiss and pull her eager body tightly against his own.
“Just remember, you are mine... and I am yours,” he whispered as he lifted his lips and sprayed kissed along her jaw and neck. “I long to feel your body undermine with your arms and legs folded around me.”
His words plunged her back into reality, and she stiffened, pressing on his chest. “Jaylon, please,” she implored, shifting her head and toiling to regain her composure.
His hands fell to his sides, and he gradually backed away from her. “Why do you deny this?” he charged, pained by her rebuttal.
Squaring her shoulders, she sought to appear rigid and brave. “Because I am not yours,” she whispered with a fractured voice. “And you are not mine.”
Her words hurt him deeply. “I know you feel what I do, so don’t seek to disprove it.” He took a step back towards her and lifted his hand to allow his thumb to graze her cheek and parted lips. “I know it because I feel it in your pulse when I touch you. And I taste it on your lips when I kiss you.” He leaned down, and their lips met with a soft clinging caress. Aniela released a soft moan. The sound flooded Jaylon with desire, but he urged himself to stop and pull away from her. “Someday, you will stop lying to yourself, Aniela. Only then will you be able to recognize that you want me as much as I want you.” He settled his head against hers, clearly toiling with his emotions.
Then he turned and left the room, never to look back.
On the threshold of tears, Aniela struggled to hold her emotions together while she scrambled through the ballroom. Jaylon’s comments reverberated in her mind causing anxiety to tighten its hold on her heart, making it hard to breathe.
She needed to get out of this room.
Keeping her head down, she silently prayed no one would stop her or impede her departure. If she made it to the front exit doors, from there, she was sure could find her coachman and she could depart from this stress ladened festivity. She spied Camille standing in her path and promptly turned in the opposite direction.
“Aniela?” Camille yelled, seeking to halt her. “Aniela, wait!”
Quickening her steps, she didn’t halt her progression but soon felt Camille’s arm linked with her own.
“Where are you rushing off to so quickly?” Camille asked as her eyes scanned the ballroom. “Did you and my brother have a nice conversation? Where is he anyway?”
Nausea took hold, and she felt as if she was going to be sick; Aniela exclaimed, “I am leaving Camille.”
“Leaving?” Camille gasped, working to slow her down. “Why-Why on earth are you leaving?”
“I’m not feeling well,” she answered, purposely being vague.
Rolling her eyes, Camille pulled her towards the foyer and away from the crowd. “What happened?” she inquired with a frown. “I will assume by your bereaved appearance things didn’t go well with Jaylon?”
Aniela avoided her question, not aspiring to explain any part of her and Jaylon’s exchange. “Can you inform Jessie and Lucian I wasn’t feeling well, and I choose to go home?”
Camille grasped both of her arms, and her eyes turned suddenly serious, demanding Aniela listen to her. “What did he say to you? Did he not reveal the feelings he holds for you?”
Aniela stared at her, determined and void of emotion. “He did convey his feelings quite well,” Aniela admitted. “But there is a minor encumbrance on his part. He is married!” She tore herself from Camille’s grasp and turned to walk away. “Please let Jessie and Lucian know of my departure.” Then she turned and quickly sped out the front doors.
Finally making it out to the lower walkway and far away from the main house, Aniela paused to catch her breath. She lifted her chin to stare up at the stars on this cloudless night and drew a couple of long drawn out breaths. The action did little to mollify her surging emotions.
Turning her head, she glanced up and down at the carriage filled driveway, praying her coachman would be pulling up at any moment to escort her home.
But she wasn’t slow in mind and understood it could take him a while before he could get through the congested maze of carriages.
She recognized her timing couldn’t have been more ill-fated. Everyone meant to attend this ball had already arrived, and if you were present, you doubtless weren’t leaving for a long while yet. So, the entrance and driveway appeared inundated with all magnitudes of various carriages.
Blinking rapidly, she told herself; she wasn’t going to cry. She kept reciting the phrase in her head until she unknowingly started whispering it out loud.
“I’m not going to cry,” she gasped. Not until she got home, anyway. Looking over her shoulder, there was no one walking up the walkway and no one standing around the carriages. She couldn’t even see her driver, and she felt suddenly alone as an uneasiness crept into her bones.
Looking back up towards the house, she suddenly spied a lone gentleman walking casually in her direction. She bowed her head, staring at the cobblestones for a moment. If it were any other evening, her intuition would have poked at her, and she would have returned to the ball. But the terrifying prospect of running into Jaylon again tied her abdomen in knots. So she chewed her bottom lip and fretted with her long white gloves.
Looking up at the star-filled sky again, she folded her arms around herself, feeling the chill from the cold night sink in. She heard the man’s footsteps drawing closer to her. So she turned, presenting her back to him. She generally wasn’t so dismissive, but she didn’t feel like making casual conversation with anyone right now. She guessed the gentleman was leaving the ball early, the same as she was. So she stepped aside, allowing him some space. She could never have prepared herself for what was about to take place.
“This color looks exceedingly lovely on you, Rose,” Gordon whispered close to her ear just as he clutched her upper arm. “Don’t struggle. I merely aspire to have a conversation with you.”
Hearing his voice caused her body to freeze with soul-crushing fear. His familiar smell wafted into her senses, and dizziness took hold of her mind and was threatening to send her into blackness. As if out of her own body, she methodically did as he wished. Mentally unprepared to challenge him, she allowed Gordon to drag her away from the common area and into the darkened shadows.
“What a vision of loveliness you are, Rose,” he murmured against her skin as he stroked her auburn hair. “If I had known you cleaned up so magnificently, I would have dressed you up myself.” He hesitated, allowing his to eyes roll with euphoria. “I can imagine myself now peeling this exquisite gown from your lovely body. Oh, how I do have particularly fond memories of you, Rose.” His hand ascended to his lips, and he licked his fingers. “If I closed my eyes right now, I can yet still recall how you taste on my lips.”
Her body quaked in terror, knowing if he somehow managed to whisk her further away; she didn’t have the fortitude to survive his brutality again. A lone tear drifted down her cheek. “You are a vile, sick man,” she whispered between clenched teeth. “How-how did you find me?”
He gripped her tighter against him as his hands roamed up her body, pinching and squeezing until they fixed on her throat. “The day you escaped was the darkest day of my life,” he declared with a weak but threatening tone. He leaned in and licked the tear from her cheek. “What I wouldn’t do to have you back underneath me. Would you like that, Rose? Do you so desire to be back in my possession?”
She worked to wiggle free from his grasp, but it merely created his fingers clamp down harder on her neck. “Please,” she choked, her voice raw from the trauma he was inflicting.
He angled his head and lowered his ear, pressing it to her parted lips. “Please what?” he charged with a wicked smile. “Please, take me home with you, Gordon? Please, take me into the bushes so I can pleasure you like so many times before? What are you begging for Rose?” He chuckled, lifting his head. “How about please Gordon, don’t hurt my family?” He paused, letting his statement sink in. “I presume you have never considered Jessamine as one of my subjects. But I have, and I believe she would do splendidly well. What do you think?” Suddenly his eyes narrowed, and he licked his lips. “Or maybe I’ll wait a few years; I do occasionally have a yearning for young children. Little Olivia would serve my needs just fine.”
Aniela gasped for breath, digging and clawing at his fingers, working on getting him to release her. “Please!” she pleaded in a hissing whisper.
“Do you know what kind of rush I felt when I realized it was you from across the room, Rose?” He rasped, forcing his lips to hers. “You didn’t know I was observing you. Did you?” his breathing was coarse and heavy against her skin. “Do you have any sense of the suffering and jealousy that flooded through me as I watched Lord Veltre lure you away from the ballroom? What did the two of you do in that room, Rose? Did he kiss your mouth or press his hard body to your own?” His lips captured hers again, biting and tasting her. “Did he lift your full skirts and bend you over? Did he fill you up, Rose?” He produced a lust-filled laugh. “A man as virile as Sir Jaylon wouldn’t be content with just a few kisses alone. No, a man like him wants and demands to pluck the whole flower.”
She shook her head, refuting his words. Her vision was fading with streaks of light crisscrossing her line of sight. She was going to blackout. And if she did, she recognized her life as she knew it, was over.
“Tell me, Rose,” Gordon demanded, close to her lips. “How did Sir Jaylon Veltre feel about not being your first lover? Was he filled with disappointment and loathing when he didn’t feel your hymen intact for his manly pleasure? Was he angry and resentful? Did you tell him about us-”
“Miss Aniela,” her coachman yelled. “Miss Aniela, is that you? Whenever you are ready, your carriage is here to escort you home.”
Gordon immediately surrendered his hold, and she dropped to the ground just as the darkness overwhelmed her.