A Mask, A Marquess, and a Wish Upon a Christmas Star – Ingrid Hahn

A ways outside London, 2 July 1814 Dreams really might come true… That was all Abigail Sutton could think as she waited in the glen. Edward was cutting across the field, the grasses long with neglect, his figure shadowed by the encroaching night. She was a gamekeeper’s daughter who’d risen to become a lady’s companion. That’s where her life was supposed to be—so Society thought. She had no money. No name. No connections. What right did she have to love? Every right. So she hoped. Her heart lifted as he came near, his sandy hair catching glints of gold in the last blaze of light from a sinking sun. He took her hands. “You came.” She caught a hint of the scent he wore. It wasn’t something that made her want to draw nearer. On the contrary, it was something that made her want to step back. But she would become accustomed to it. In time. He was a reasonably good looking man. Not the sort she’d pictured when she’d dreamed of someday finding love as a girl, but he was good and kind. Moreover, he didn’t care about what she lacked. He only cared about her. If he was the one chance for her to have a marriage and family, she wasn’t going to allow the opportunity to pass. Abigail smiled. “How could I not?” He tilted his head as if he might kiss her, but she stayed his approach by pressing gloved hand against his lips. There were some things for which she was not ready.

“I’m leaving tomorrow.” His brow furled. “So soon? But when will I see you again?” “I don’t know.” Visibly distraught, he turned, pressing a fist against his forehead. He licked his lips and turned back to her. “I don’t wonder if…no. No. Never mind.” “What?” “It’s nothing. Impossible. A silly idea.” “Tell me.” “Well.” His eyes implored her. “Have you heard of the Christmas Ball the Marquess of Harland hosts every year?” A niggling feeling pulled at the back of her brain, but nothing surfaced. “Maybe. I’m not sure.” “It’s a masked ball held on Christmas Eve.” She shook her head. “I’m always in London over Christmas. So even if I could find a way—” “But the ball is held in London. It won’t be easy, but you must find a way of meeting me there. Do you think you can?” A masked ball. How was one such as her supposed to find a way to such a thing? Her clothing was all plain and practical, a visual reminder to herself and others of her inferior status. The sun finished its descent, leaving the world cloaked in darkness, with only a smudge of bruised purple across the horizon.

But she wasn’t about to let those trifling details keep her from love. If she was to continue her relationship with Edward, she would find a way. With the stars above as thousands upon thousands of witnesses, she would. “No, I don’t think.” Abigail spoke with conviction she didn’t feel. “I know. I’ll be there. I promise.” 1 London, 24 December 1814 The night was different between country and town. In the country, the quality of the dark on any given night was deeper. Usually. Tonight, though, the still and silent display cast over the London rooftops could almost have been mistaken for a pastoral sky. Abigail stared up at the low-hanging stars and fastened her gaze upon a single offering. She squeezed her eyes shut. “Please. Just one last chance. Please.” There was no absurd bargaining, no offer of promises she wouldn’t be able to keep in exchange for being granted this one wish. Only begging. Edward’s last letter had come three months ago and contained a description of the mask he would be wearing wearing to the ball tonight. Three months without another letter with him had been almost too painful to bear. She had to find him—had to reclaim what they had lost. If it didn’t happen tonight…well, it was too terrible to imagine. Hope would die. She would put the dream behind her forever and accept the rest of her life for what it was.

Fate would have spoken through silence. But she wouldn’t allow her heart to become burdened. Not yet. She latched the sashed window, pulled the heavy drapery closed, and took another turn before the mirror. The candlelight in the small room set the gown’s material aglow. The blue silk was turned into a tide pool with the silvery threads woven throughout. It’d been a gift from her employer, this gown, but had plenty of wear left in the fabric. The mistress’s castoffs were supposed to pass to her lady’s maid. This gown, however, had been different, and both parties agreed the color would suit Abigail, though nothing but a hired companion, far better than anyone else. Wrapped to protect herself from the cold, she stole through the back of the house. This night represented two years of wages, part already vanished to a seamstress who’d re-made the gown into a more current fashion. The money didn’t matter. With no family who’d claim her, on what else had she to spend her earnings? The lady’s maid, Carter, an older woman with warm eyes and deep lines around her mouth from a lifetime of generous smiles, met Abigail in the shadowy doorway outside the kitchens to buss her cheek. “Good luck, my girl.” Carter clasped Abigail’s hand one last time. Then she went, slipping into the biting night air and rounding the corner where she hired a hackney. A few blocks away from the Mayfair residence, the hired conveyance stopped, just as she’d instructed the driver. She emerged and paid the man. The jarvey thanked her by way of an unintelligible grunt. At least, the noise seemed as if it might have been gratitude. The horse snuffled. As they drove away, the clop of hooves upon the street faded behind her. Abigail walked the rest of the way. Turning a corner into Bonheur Square, her destination came into view. Carriages stretched the length of the street where guests of the infamous ball were making their way toward Mandeville House in all its grand state.

The house represented old money. It was the town residence of a line of powerful men holding a marquisate dating back to the seventeenth century, and the current Marquess of Harland would not take kindly to an intrusion into the night’s festivities. Then again, with so many guests, how would he know? And what else were the masks for but to enjoy a night of anonymity? Still, Abigail couldn’t move. She stayed just beyond the streetlamp’s glowing ring, her heart warning her away from danger with an insistent beat. Go home, it said. Turn around. You don’t belong here. It was too cold to stay still, yet she could not move. How easy it had seemed when she’d only imagined herself doing this. Though plenty accustomed to finery in her work as a companion, this wasn’t her world. What on earth had possessed her to act on such a notion? Everyone else in Society had better sense than to go where they didn’t belong. They’d have stayed in their place, happy with what they had, grateful in their contentment. Why did Abigail have to want more? Oh, it wasn’t riches. A comfortable life meant something, no mistake, but she’d endure hardship and penury so long as he was there. She conjured Edward’s face in her mind—or tried. It’d been so long. She might not belong here, true enough, but she had every right to take this one last chance. The most important thing was to see him again. One look would set her alight—would recapture all those feelings from the past. This time, she wouldn’t let love fade. Determination spurred her forward—determination to reclaim what she’d lost, to find him and make him remember. Detouring around the square to the back of the house because going through the front wouldn’t do, the walk sent much-needed blood into her extremities. Back by the mews, with the light scent of horses and hay in the air, she secured a mask over her face. It was a Venetian creation, peacock blue and green and gold, feathered and bejeweled with glistening paste gems. The piece represented almost as much of an investment as her gown.

And it would be worth every last farthing if tonight went as planned. Avoiding the terraced areas, Abigail crept along the path skirting the kitchen gardens. The back of the house blazed in a creamy glow, light catching on the little white stones along the path. By the wall of the stone terrace, Abigail stashed her cloak and half boots behind a bush and stepped into delicate slippers. Being winter, the roses in the beds lining the length were nothing but wick. But the small bundle would be as unlikely to draw notice as it would be for anyone to come out here on such a cold night. Shoulders straight, head high, she assumed the unhurried small steps of a perfect lady and went around to the steps leading up to the back of Mandeville House. Through the French doors, the guests were visible in the massive ballroom. She let down the gown’s train. Abigail stole inside, warmth enveloping her in the scents of perfumed exertion. The descriptions of the Harland Christmas Eve Ball had been apt enough. A deafening commotion of voices, spirited music, and boisterous dancing filled the room. Masks covered the faces of each person. Gilt covered the walls and ceilings of the room, tracing curves and swirls of sumptuous ornamentation. It seemed every last candle in London had been put to use here. The light set the gold shining from within. Her hand went to her throat. Another mistake. No gemstones. A bit of paste would have done beautifully. Never mind. The mask would suffice for decoration. Abigail stayed to the side. It would be impossible to find Edward among such a crowd. She scanned the room again.

The raised musician’s gallery would do very well for her purposes, but using it wouldn’t exactly make her inconspicuous. Was that an upper balcony hidden behind those dark curtains on the north wall? Asking someone the way would be out of the question. It was all right. She had plenty of time. A general sense of where she was going was good enough. She crept along the outskirts of the crush. Years as a companion had trained her in the art of invisibility. Think of going unnoticed, and more than likely one would remain so. Nevertheless, her heart pounded with the worry that she might be fooling herself— that she might be found out, alone and unprotected, and not belonging here. A ruddy-faced man tumbled before her, spilling punch that narrowly missed the hem of her gown. The woman with him formed a strange posture in her howling laughter, body bent forward, head bent back, arm outstretched to lightly rest her hand upon the man’s back. It was a picture out of a ghoulish dream. A bit early to be as foxed as that, wasn’t it? Then again, it was the home of the marquess. He wasn’t a man known to take half measures. Unease rippled down Abigail’s spine, and she perused the room. Any one of these men could have been Harland. Goodness. She’d been so sure she wouldn’t see the marquess tonight. What if she did? It’d been years, though. He wouldn’t recognize her, surely. And if he did? He could easily discover where she worked and inform her mistress of having seen her. He’d probably issue the order to a footman and have her caught inside of an hour. The risk would have to be acceptable, for the only thing that mattered was seeing him again—Edward, of course, a man as different from the marquess as could be. The din faded as she slipped from the ballroom into an unlit corridor. It didn’t seem to lead anywhere, but appearances were always deceiving in these old places.

Sure enough, an archway went through to another passageway that doubled back around to a narrow stairway. There wasn’t much light to go by, the steps quickly fading away to darkness, but it made no matter. No lighting meant nobody would be coming or going by this way tonight. But the big house was more of a challenge than anticipated. Abigail wandered this way and that, past galleries and through corridors lined with doors no doubt leading to private apartments for the family. She tiptoed by more than one trysting couple making what Abigail’s late cousin would have euphemistically termed barn noises. Either she’d dreamed the balcony above the ballroom or she wasn’t going to find it. Abigail frowned. As much of a shame as it would be to give up, it would be far worse to lose the entire night to searching for a place she’d never find. A place? Or a person? The thought snagged on her insides like the sharp end of a hook catching on a bit of precious silk. Best to find her way back down again. She turned. And there it was—there around the corner. A gallery covered alongside with those same dark curtains she’d seen from below, their velvety green becoming apparent at her approach. At one end, she took a corner of the fabric, luxurious under her hand. Please let him be below. She opened the drapery and peered down.


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