These Vicious Masks

By: Kelly Zekas & Tarun Shanker

“Welcome to Bramhurst, Mr. Braddock,” my mother said, taking charge. “I hope you are finding the country agreeable.”

“It is . . . yes,” he said, still looking keenly at Rose. My sister is quite pretty indeed, but this felt like something else. “I have heard much about you. I—I hope to see Miss Rosamund’s . . . miracles myself.” His eyes burned bright as he put on a strange sort of grimace that I could only assume was an attempt at a smile. Was he mocking her nursing expertise?

Eager for us to be further acquainted, Sir Winston stepped in to hurry the process along. “Sebastian, why don’t you accompany Miss Wyndham and Miss Rosamund into the ballroom, and Miss Rosamund can tell you all about how she saved your dear old unc—What? Don’t be shy, boy, give her your arm.” Sir Winston gestured to Rose, who was closer to his nephew.

Mr. Braddock took a step back, his eyes flickering between all of us. “My apologies. . . . Perhaps they—you—uh—can find your own way in?”

He gave Rose a stilted bow and whirled away with nary a goodbye. We watched in stunned silence as he attempted to escape the main entrance hall, his initial route into the dining room too slow-moving and his alternative into the obstructed ballroom even worse. On his third try, he crossed back to the other side without meeting our eyes and finally disappeared into the game room.

“Ah, my nephew,” Sir Winston said. “You will have to accept my apologies—”

Rose jumped in to save the floundering man. “Sir Winston, do not trouble yourself. He must keenly feel the pressure of meeting your many friends. I assure you, we are not offended.”

Sir Winston relaxed at her kind words. “As usual, Miss Rosamund, you see straight to the heart of the matter. He is quite overwhelmed. I hope Miss Wyndham will also give him the benefit of the doubt!” Sir Winston beamed hopefully at me, and Mother’s gaze cast a hot warning.

“Of course, I understand,” I said. I believe it even came out sounding somewhat sincere.

With yet another wink, Sir Winston bade us a good evening and steered my father toward the smoking room. I let out a quiet snort that only Rose could hear.

“My, my, what an attractive, eligible young man,” my mother proudly declared, ignoring my dropped jaw. “A bit odd and mysterious, yes? I know that’s very popular these days. Mr. Sebastian Braddock—I shall have to ask about his parents.”

“Mother, are you really trying to marry me off to the man who just snubbed your youngest and ran off in order to appeal to fashion?”

“It was not on purpose, Ev,” Rose said. “He must have been anxious. And even you must admit he is extremely handsome. And tall.”

“As handsome as he may or may not be, he couldn’t simply walk you in like a gentleman?”

Mother glowered at me in an unwitting imitation of Mr. Braddock. “Perhaps he was running from my daughter, who could not make the slightest effort at politeness.”

“There is a troubling Byronic trend you will see next year, Rose, where these men try to appear mysterious and brooding without one true emotion among the lot of them. It will be nothing but exasperating,” I explained.

“Surely it cannot be as exasperating as your complaints about them,” my mother snapped, turning on her heels and all but dragging us into the crush.

The night already felt like an eternity. Yet deeper in we ventured. My mother’s punishment meant deliberately passing the dining room, where the waft of fresh breads and pastries could tickle and taunt my nose before we closed in on a bright waltz tune. If there were a tenth circle of hell, it would most definitely be a country ballroom.

The crowd bulged to the edge of the white marble dance floor, and a flurry of twirling dresses revolved around the center. All eyes fell on Rose when she floated in: The orchestra struggled to concentrate on their unremarkable tune, and a man accidentally stepped on his partner’s foot, while she withheld the yelp for propriety’s sake. Sometimes I wondered if I simply imagined the effect my sister had on a room, but here it was undeniable. It isn’t just her fair curls and bright blue eyes that draw attention; Rose has something indefinably wonderful about her—a coat of goodness she is unable to shed.

As a result, a mass of charmed suitors seemed to slink across the room to Rose. Mother, meanwhile, greeted several friends and fell deep into such giddy conversations about bachelors, one would think they were just out of finishing school. I could see her starting to arrange dances for us, but fortunately, a welcome sight intervened. He bowed before us, dropping his head full of silken brown hair and rising up with his face wreathed in an ever-present smile. Our dearest, oldest friend, Robert Elliot.

“Evelyn, Rose, good evening to you. You’re looking quite lovely tonight.” His brown eyes never left Rose as he spoke.

In fact, his eyes had not left Rose much in his eighteen years. Living on a neighboring estate, Robert had been our constant companion since childhood, suffering through many a doll’s tea party and game of hide-and-seek. He grew into a kind, affable man, if slightly earnest. Not the man for me, but . . .

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