"I'm just not used to wearing anything this low-cut. I don't know why you talked me into coming to this party. Who throws a masquerade ball anymore?"
"I talked you into this party because I'm tired of hearing you mope about Daniel, your pajamas were starting to smell, and the mini-mart is completely out of rocky road ice cream." She turned to me, and adjusted the glittery mask that obstructed half my face. Her tone gentled. "Jess, you need a change of pace. He wasn't any good for you. Besides, you look gorgeous in that thing. I wish I could pull off red."
I had to admit that I'd felt a little like a courtesan at a London soiree when I shimmied into the dress that evening. The silk had slid tantalizingly over my skin, and the gauze that skimmed over it made me feel like a princess. I looked down at the alarming amount of skin it exposed. A moderately illicit princess, but still. She was probably right. I needed to get out of our apartment. I'd done nothing but binge on ice cream, cry, and watch terrible romantic comedies ever since I'd caught Daniel with that woman from work.
Emily snagged two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter, and put one into my hand. "Drink this. You'll feel less nervous, and for heaven's sake, stop pulling on your dress!" Her smile deepened. "And look, here comes a masked man our way!"
Sure enough, a not-very-tall man stood before us. He was dressed in a blue suit that looked like it had been pulled from his father's closet, and his blond hair standing up from his head left the general impression of a chicken. "Hi," I offered weakly after draining the glass of champagne. Emily nudged me with her elbow. "Nice party, huh?" I asked in an attempt at conversation. What was I supposed to say?
"Are you hurt?" he asked with concern. Did I look hurt? I opened my mouth to answer when he added, gesturing to the dance floor, "Because you look like an angel fallen from heaven."
Really? I mouthed to Emily, but she only laughed. "Go on," she whispered, taking the empty glass from my hand. "They say good things come in small packages."
Chickenman introduced himself as Ted before pulling me toward him in an embrace on the dance floor. As the music played and I attempted small talk, Ted busied himself with staring down the top of my dress. Honestly. His hands kept sliding down my waist to rest on my rear end, and I kept putting them back. His breath was hot in my face and I wrinkled my nose in distaste. The smell of beer was heavy. How much had this guy had to drink? I tried to step out of his grasp, but he was a lot stronger than he looked.
"Let me go, please," I murmured. But he just bent his head to nuzzle at my neck. Quite unwanted, I assure you. Struggling to loosen his grip, I was surprised when I saw a large hand grasp Ted's arm and wrench it away from my waist.
A deep voice sounded from behind me, "I don't think the lady is interested."
A sneer came over Chickenman's face. "What, so you can have her? I saw her first."
Before he could reach toward me, I stepped behind my hero's body. "I think the dance is over actually."
"There's more than you here, anyway," he returned, stalking off to find another unsuspecting target.
"Thank you." I turned to the man who had come to my rescue. He seemed very tall, dressed in black slacks and a white shirt open at the collar, with a black velvet cape sweeping down his back. He could have passed for Prince Charming, were it not for the mask that gave his costume character. "It was very kind of you to step in, but I really could have handled him."
He laughed. "Oh yes. You were doing a fine job of that, Miss." He bowed with a practiced flourish. "I do believe that, as your knight in shining armor, I am entitled to one dance in repayment. However, I give you my word to act the part of the gentleman."
I curtsied with equal exaggeration. "I'd be delighted to repay your gallantry... do you happen to have a name?"
As I put my hands on his shoulders, I cocked my head toward the rapier at his side and smiled. "The sword's a nice touch." I studied him a little more closely. His square jaw wasn't quite clean-shaven, but more like fine sandpaper that would give just the barest of sensation against your skin if you ran your hand over it. Where his shirt lay open against his chest, the skin underneath was tan-- a light brown, but nowhere near orange.
Mostly, I closed my eyes and felt. It seemed like a long time since I'd been in male arms. His were hard and strong and warm where they rested at my waist. He spun me around the dance floor, and the cologne that wafted through my senses smelled so good. I opened my eyes to find him looking down at me with amusement before catching him glance down to my dress.
I glared at him accusingly. "I thought you were going to be a gentleman."
"I'm just a man, Red. I can only be so strong." He made a visible effort to pull his eyes back to mine, and I laughed. He was alright.
The music came to an end, and I sighed inwardly. It had felt nice to dance in this man's arms. I made a move to return to Emily's side, but Zorro stopped me. "Wait," he said, his eyes serious for the first time. "Would you-- It feels a bit warm in here. You wouldn't be willing to step out on the balcony with me, would you?"
I hesitated, but what would it hurt? He seemed nice, and it was a masked ball, after all. He'd never even know who I was. I nodded, and let him lead me outside. At the edge of the balcony, I stopped at the stone ledge and looked out. From this high, we could see far into the night across the river. The stars seemed to shine like diamonds.
"It's beautiful up here," I said quietly.
He stood behind me and I felt his hand stroke slowly through my hair, sending a shiver down my back. "Yes, it most definitely is," he agreed, but a husky tone had crept into his voice. "I'm really sorry, Red."
I glanced back at him, "For what?"
"I promised you I'd be a gentleman." With that, he bent his head and pressed his lips against the skin at my shoulder.
I probably should have been offended. I probably should have stopped him. But he was tall and big and strong, and warm. I'd had champagne. I'd just been mauled by Chickenman. Did I mention Zorro was strong and wow? So I didn't stop him. No, I closed my eyes and I leaned against him, his hands sliding down my arms.
Turning to face him, I rubbed my hand along the side of his jaw. Just like I'd thought, it felt like the finest sandpaper. His eyes locked onto mine and he slowly pressed his lips against mine. They were soft. Our mouths parted and the kiss just kept going.
"Masked balls are stupid, anyway," he whispered between kisses and reached up to untie the mask that covered his eyes. He reached for me to remove mine as well, but then my vision cleared and I really saw him.
"Oh god," I whispered, backing toward the door to the party.
Confused, he asked, "I don't understand... is there something wrong?"
"N-No," I stammered. "I'm so sorry, but I have to go!" I rushed through the party, grabbing Emily who was happily dancing with some seemingly-goodlooking guy. "Come on. We have to go. Now."
"What-?" she asked, but I didn't even stop to explain. We ran outside and flagged the first cab in sight. Only when we were safely inside did she demand an explanation. "WHAT is wrong with you?? The last time I saw you, you were all dreamy with that Zorro guy." She looked closely at me. "Did he hurt you?"
I sighed. "No, no, he didn't hurt me. He was wonderful and handsome and warm and strong. And he kissed me and he smelled like... like... MAN."
Emily raised an eyebrow at me. "And this is why we had to escape? I'm not following."
I stared miserably at the skirt of my dress. "No. He took off his mask. Em... it was SETH."
She stared at me and and then dissolved into laughter. "Oh Jessica... come on, you have to admit that's a little funny."
It most definitely was not. Seth Chambers. The most beautiful man I've ever seen. A man who has never even spoken a word to me.
And a man who lives two floors above us in our very own apartment building.