The night of the masquerade was a kind of mad, risque waltz, the voices louder and the laughter giddier than anyone would have expected. That was the nature of masks.
Michael Dansky leaned against the wall with a Guinness in his hand and studied the ebb and flow of the bright costumes and the body language beneath them. There was something about a masquerade that changed people. Inhibitions slipped away, and not only because of the alcohol present. The question, Michael thought, was whether putting on a mask allowed the wearer to lose themselves in the pretense that they were someone else, or if hiding their faces let them show more of who they really were, down inside.
The Wayside Inn was a charming spot where one could imagine the nineteenth century had never ended. From across the ballroom, Michael watched his wife Jillian move through the masquerade in her Elizabethan gown, smiling beneath an elegant half-mask. Michael had never thought of her as anything less than sexy, but tonight she was more than that. There was a sultriness to the way she moved across the floor, a sensuality in her eyes behind that mask, that took his breath away. As she passed through the room another woman caught her arm and the two struck up a conversation of smiles and moving lips, words lost amidst the churning voices of the masquerade. Jillian's hair was a rich chestnut brown, and her hazel eyes seemed alight with mischief. The woman she spoke to was a thin blonde dressed as a genie.
Michael pushed away from the wall and started across the ballroom toward them. He was vaguely aware that the bottle of Guinness in his hand undermined the effectiveness of his own costume: the cape, boots, hat, and blade of the dashing D'Artagnan of Three Musketeers fame. Yet there was a swagger in his walk that might have sprung from either the ale or the costume, or more likely both.
The ballroom was accented by a pair of grand staircases that curled up either side of the room to a second-story balcony that looked down on the main floor. There were chandeliers, but nothing so garish as what he had seen at weddings held in hotel ballrooms. The masquerade was an annual event held in support of the Merrimack Valley Children's Hospital, and in the three years since their marriage he and Jillian had never missed it. It was Saturday night, three days before Halloween, and though the holiday had become overrun with more modern costumes, the organizers of the event insisted that no one wear a disguise inspired by something post-1900. The music in the room was under the same restriction. Some people Michael had spoken to were bothered by the lack of familiar dance music, but others made the best of it, attempting minuets and waltzes, and even a quadrille, which Miri Gallaway and Victoria Peristere taught the attendees every year.
Michael loved it all. The music and the period costumes harkened back to a simpler time, an era in which people believed in mystery. He worked as an art director for Krakow & Bester, an advertising firm out of Andover, and though his work allowed him to explore the history of styles and images, it also exposed him to far too many people whose minds were an arid desert of imagination.
This was sheer joy.
As he crossed the room toward his wife, he bowed in courtly fashion to a beautiful lady pirate and one of Dracula's brides. In the midst of her conversation with the blond genie, Jillian caught sight of him and a playful smile touched the corners of her mouth. She gave him a tiny wave.
Abruptly, his view of Jillian was blocked by several couples dancing to a jaunty tune. He tried to find another path toward her and nearly ran into a portly Henry VIII and a blood-smeared Anne Boleyn. Michael laughed hard enough that he nearly spilled his Guinness.
"What's so bloody funny, peasant?" demanded King Henry.
"That beard, for starters," Michael replied.
The king sniffed at this insult, but touched at his glued-on beard with concern. His real name was Teddy Polito, and his lovely corpse bride was his wife Colleen. Teddy was a copywriter at Krakow & Bester, a semineurotic whose face seemed etched in a perpetual grimace that was deceiving. Despite his various ticks and peeves, the burly forty-something had a kind heart.
"It took me an hour to get this damn thing on right," Teddy muttered.
Michael tried to conceal his smile, but failed. "That's . . . that's pretty astonishing."
Colleen arched an eyebrow and shot an appraising glance at her husband. "I'd say. You'd expect it to be much more time-consuming to really get that perfect Elmer's glue look."
Teddy put a hand across his heart. "You wound me."
His wife bumped him with a curvy hip. "Big baby." She was a brunette with auburn highlights in her hair, a woman with a face that would have been ordinary if not for her large, green eyes.
"Very true, Colleen. I don't know why we put up with him."
"I'm an enigma," Teddy said happily.
"It's part of your charm," Michael said. He glanced around. "Now where has my beautiful wife got off to?"
Jillian was still with her blond genie friend, halfway up the right-side staircase with a drink in her hand. Even as Michael caught sight of her, Jillian began to laugh. Her face flushed and she raised the back of her hand to cover her mouth-a habit left over from the braces of her youth-and took a step away from the genie.
His heart stopped as her foot missed the stair. From the ballroom floor, in the midst of those dancers and with the sound of lute and fiddle and pennywhistle in his ears, he held his breath and watched her begin to fall.
Jillian let go of her drink and her glass tumbled out over the edge of the banister, falling to shatter on the floor below. She caught herself with that empty hand, the other still covering her mouth, her eyes wide with fear. And then an awful sort of embarrassed amusement lit her face and she turned her back to those below her, attempting to pretend the incident had never happened. She kept her hand to her mouth, and Michael knew she was hiding a smile. The genie was laughing in relief and disbelief. She took Jillian by the arm and led her further up the stairs.
Only then did Michael exhale.
"Somebody might be having too good a time," Colleen said, but there was no accusation in it. Jillian wasn't much of a drinker, and became tipsy if she had more than one glass of wine. The Politos knew that.
"I'm going to see if she's all right," Michael told them.
"You do that," Teddy said. "In fact, we'll come say hello."
"Not to worry," Michael replied, eyes still tracking Jillian, whom he could see talking to Ned Bergh, a local realtor, and his wife, Sue. Jillian was talking rapidly with her hands, her whole face animated as she told a story-possibly about dropping her glass only moments earlier. "We're not ready to turn into pumpkins yet."
Michael turned with a flourish of his cape and the three of them set off toward the stairs. He threw himself into the character of D'Artagnan, one hand on the pommel of his sword, channeling the arrogance of a musketeer.
D'Artagnan led King Henry and the resurrected Anne Boleyn up the stairs. Several people called to Teddy and he waved. Once he paused to lean over and mutter something into the ear of a man Michael vaguely recognized as a local politician. The man responded with a knowing laugh, full of insinuation. Teddy had a flair for dirty jokes. Colleen hadn't heard whatever her husband had said, but she gave him a jab to the shoulder on basic principle.
Michael also saw people he knew, though with the costumes and masks it was difficult, sometimes, to tell who they were at first. Gary Bester, son of one of his firm's founders, waved to him from the opposite staircase, and Michael was pleased to be so far away. Gary was dressed as the Big Bad Wolf and his girlfriend, Brittany, as Red Riding Hood. The girl was nineteen, the agency's receptionist, and the sort that even the most decent-hearted man had trouble keeping his eyes off of. Gary was annoying as hell, a talker without any stories to tell, and insanely jealous of any guy Brittany gave the time of day. It was best to just steer clear of both of them.
From the top of the stairs, the view of the masquerade was extraordinary. The colors in motion, the sounds of fiddle and mandolin, accordion and harpsichord, and the antique decor of the ballroom, all combined to take his breath away. Teddy and Colleen were pulled away by a fiftyish woman Michael did not recognize, and so he paused a moment at the balustrade to soak it all in.
His reverie was broken by the sound of his wife's laughter, and he turned to see her still talking to the Berghs. They had been joined now by several others, including a heavy, olive-skinned man with a bulbous nose and curly graying hair, and a thin Irishman with wispy white hair. Michael did not know the first man, who wore the sombrero and clothing of a Mexican peasant, but the older fellow was Bob Ryan, a city councillor.
Ryan was clad in faded denim, weathered boots, a long jacket, and a hat that shaded his startlingly blue eyes. At his waist, Michael could see leather gun belts that crisscrossed one another. If there was anyone at the masquerade who looked more authentic in his costume, Michael hadn't seen him.
"Lawyers are just the mouthpieces," Jillian announced as Michael joined the circle that had gathered around her. They laughed with her and she favored them with a sardonic grin. "It's just like modern medicine. Nurses do all the work. Doctors get the glory. In a law firm, paralegals do everything, and lawyers just show up for the face time and to sign the paperwork."
The Mexican peasant narrowed his gaze. A lawyer. That much was obvious. "I don't see many paralegals arguing cases in front of a judge."
Jillian waved him away. "Please, Benny. That's the showbiz. I'm talking about the work. Sure, we're not doing the song and dance, but we choreographed it, honey. We wrote the music and the lyrics. Anyway, that's not my area. I do corporate law. There are just as many criminals, but they're behind desks instead of bars."
Even as she said this last, she noticed Michael and her eyes lit up. "Well, hello, my handsome musketeer."
With a flourish, Michael bowed. "Mademoiselle."
"Ah, D'Artagnan," Bob Ryan said, tipping his hat, "Se–or Bartolini and I were just trying to convince your lovely wife what a wonderful candidate she'd make for city council next fall."
Michael raised an eyebrow and glanced at Jillian. There was a sparkle in her eye that he knew instantly. She had once set her sights on law school, but after becoming a paralegal and witnessing firsthand the long hours and the stress required of first-year attorneys trying to make it on staff, she had realized she simply wasn't masochistic enough to be a lawyer. Still, she enjoyed learning about the process and she embraced her work at the firm. Paralegal work was a compromise, but it was one she could live with.
Jillian had climbed, in a very short period, to the top of the Boston legal scene. She commuted into the city every day, came home late almost every night. She was the paralegal manager at Dawes, Gray & Winter, the largest and most powerful firm in Boston. And though she did not discuss it often, Michael knew she coveted the top spot, the position of paralegal director.
That sparkle in her eye was her quiet ambition.
"So you're a politician now, huh?"
"Nope," she said. "But I am a woman of the people."
She reached for his hand and Michael offered it to her. As she came toward him, disrupting the circle of people who had been involved in that conversation, there was a sway in her walk that he knew sprang from alcohol, rather than any sultry intention. If she had been a drinker by nature, it would have alarmed him. But instead there was something sweet, even innocent, about her inebriation. Jillian wrapped her arms around him and kissed his temple softly, then languidly unfurled herself from him and stood at his side, facing the others.
"Well, sweetheart," Michael said, gazing at his wife. "You've got my vote."
At midnight the masquerade was still in full swing. Michael and Jillian had danced for hours, spinning around the ballroom together. The Politos had joined them, but the Danskys were younger and in better shape, and soon enough Teddy and Colleen had taken a breather and spent much of the balance of the night with other friends.
The dancing took its toll. Michael's feet hurt in his D'Artagnan boots, and sweat dappled his forehead, his chest, and the back of his neck. Yet with his wife in his arms it seemed to him that they were both like marionettes, that whatever magic had transported them back in time filled them with a childlike glee that made it impossible not to dance.
They did manage to rest from time to time, at least long enough to socialize, and to whisper silly things in each other's ears. They were both burning off some alcohol with their
dancing, so Michael didn't worry much about the additional drinks that friends bought them. It would have been rude to decline.
But, eventually, the alcohol caught up to Jillian.
"Time to go home," Michael whispered in her ear.
Her face scrunched up. "Honey. It's still early. Nobody's leaving yet."
She'd had to stop dancing to say this, and when she did she swayed against him. A frown creased her forehead and she glanced down at her feet as though they'd betrayed her. Then she laughed softly and raised her eyes once more.
"On the other hand . . ."
Jillian slipped her arm through Michael's and they began to work their way toward the door, bidding good night and happy Halloween to friends and acquaintances. Her eyes were glazed and, now that she had stopped dancing, Michael could almost see the alcohol affecting her. When she said "see you" to Ned Bergh, Jillian slurred the words. It was a first since he had known her, and Michael resolved never to mention it to her. He knew she would be mortified.
At the base of one of the staircases he saw gunslinger Bob Ryan again, but he averted his gaze and steered Jillian more quickly toward the door. Ryan might not urge Jillian to run for city council if he thought she was a drinker.
Excerpted from Wildwood Road by Christopher Golden Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Golden. Excerpted by permission.
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