Men and women from fifteen to thirtyfive mixed and mingled, all in jewelry and dresses that tinkled and shone. All with a glass of champagne that tinkled and a smile that shone. Bright light glinted its reflection on crystal and white teeth. Perfume rose in hot, sharp clouds from shoulders male and female. Between all the ornaments, half-hidden by a fashionably low-hanging chandelier, stood Anne.
She watched the crowds with sharp slate eyes, a voluminous pony, as fashionable as the chandelier, hung low over her brow. She could have drawn a map of the room, and the currents and eddies of the human sea. Instead, she clutched her champagne a little tighter each time a tinkling lady swept by, or a shining gentleman's strides brought him too close.
Ms Anne Golightly made herself the anonymous wallflower. She'd held her head down during her entrance and descent down the majestic stairs, the white marble centerpiece of the room. While the evening went on, she'd hidden in a corner, not to be accosted by potential suitors. She wished she was allowed to go home, to a life as a spinster with a knack for teaching geography. She might have been happy, had it happened.
Instead, Anne stood in the line of sight of Mr Golightly, and an old acquintance. One whose gaze she absolutely would not meet. She knew his features well. A narrow face that tapered into an a stong chin with an easy grin, hair always slightly mussed. Brow-crinkles and eye-crinkles that appeared as quickly as they smoothed, changing with his mood. Searching eyes that had scanned her face every day before he left to try his musket against the coyotemen that plagued the south of their country. Only his tan had changed, and the edges of him had sharpened.
By daylight, they fought, at night, they fell in love, every day the same.
She swallowed the last of her champagne. If she stayed here, she could be sure they'd come over. If she risked a dance, he might request to be her partner. Instead, she gathered up her skirts, and made for the talking floor, where standing tables and servants with trays served knots of bright, shining guests. She ducked her head so her foxbrown hair disappeared behind the shoulders of the crowd.
She imagined the gazes of him and her father as laserbeams, cutting her if she would break cover. A snort escaped her. She covered her mouth to hold in the unwanted amusement. She came, bent over, to where the crowds was thickest, bathed in the cool breeze of open garden doors. She ducked through them. Once out, she darted around a door and into the narrow space behind it. She held her white skirts hoisted up so they would not be visible underneath the door. Her dark slippers blended into shadow well enough.
She let out a soft breath. They would think she had fled, into the maze or the fountain, someplace quiet, but open enough not to risk her reputation. Here she could wait for the end of the evening, and slip back in in time for a superficial goodbye, if that.
After half an hour, she felt chilled. She uncurled her fingers to rub warmth back into them, her skirt held between her legs. That done, she waited for the long, slow minutes to drag their lazy seconds by. Movement on the other side of the door. More people came out into the cool night air. She froze entirely, not even rubbing her hands.
No sound, only a glimpse of a shadow blotted out by a darker shadow warned her before a solid shape slid next to her. It blocked the exit while it breathed warm air in her ear. She expected a hand to grope her. She pushed desperately at the door. The pin that held it in place in the floor rattled.
“Anne,” said the shape. She abruptly stopped the rattling. She'd last heard that voice saying goodbye to her when she saw him off, sitting on the wagons going south. She hadn't expected to hear it again. He had gone to die for his country.
“You,” she said, her voice an accusation.
“Hi, Porl, it's nice to see you again, how was your journey?” Porl mimicked her voice.
“Leave.” She hoisted her skirts higher. What would people think, if they discovered them behind the door?
“You should really speak with two words.”
“Leave now.” She kept her gaze on the door in front of her.
“Why? This is our first conversation in three years.” He started toying with her hair, the twin row of curls required in front of the ear for single women.
“Because I can't walk through wood, obviously.” She decided against slapping him. He'd only grab her hand.
“Hm, yes, I like that fact.” He let go of her hair. “I finally managed to talk to you.”
Anne held her peace. How had he found her?
A pause. Then her mouth overpowered her better sense. “You wanted to talk to me.”
“Yeah, not at you.” He brought his mouth closer to her ear, so she could feel his breath there. “What are you afraid of, Anne, that you've avoided me all evening?”
She froze at the blunt question. Where had his politeness gone? He'd probably shot it like the coyotemen he'd killed, she thought bitterly. “Leave,” she repeated. There, a request thrice made could not be refused by any but the lowest churl.
He remained exactly where he was. He did straighten up. “I've waited to talk to you for months,” his voice was lower now, pleading. “I couldn't find you at the normal spots. The park, the fountain, the racing course.
She snorted, not hiding it now. “It's a very long time since I went to those places. People change, Porl, especially after three years.”
He laughed. “No, not really, you're still rude to a fault. I still love that about you.” He put a warm hand over hers. “Come, give me a chance. Dance with me.”
She elbowed his arm and hand away from her. “Be sensible, man. Leave, before I make you.”
“Anne,” and it was the low-pleading whine he made when she wouldn't put mint in his tea because it was a hideous concoction, or because she wouldn't forgive him for elbowing her in the stomach during a play-fight. She'd never whined if he begrudged her giving him a black eye. She wanted very much to do the same thing now, even as her knees wanted to buckle at the noise. It had been three years. It's just the familiarity, she told herself. “Give me a chance.”
“Sir, go away. I've nothing to say to you. I'm standing behind a door to avoid you. I would hope that's enough of a hint.” There, she'd admitted to a slight. If that would not make him leave...
“M'lady, you've made yourself plenty clear, but it's not enough.” He sighed. “Refuse me, and any attention by me, outright, if you want nothing more to do with me.”
“I-” She choked. Did she really want to go that far? It would make social occasions where they'd both attend very awkward. After a while, she realised she couldn't hear the soft sound of his breath in the night. “Are you holding your breath?”
“Yeah.” His answer was rough.
“Don't,” she said. One dance wouldn't hurt, perhaps. She put a hand over his. He was trembling. “Perhaps I should ask if you are afraid of me,” she said.
“Of course I'm bloody scared. You're standing behind a door to avoid me,” The remark held the return of her challenge.
“Why aren't you running away then?” she taunted. She bit her tongue. She really didn't want to descend into a childish argument with him. “Never mind,” she muttered.
“I do mind,” he sat hotly, “'Cause this isn't a childhood crush, woman.” He shifted closer, so she moved away until she was truly wedged into the shallowest part of the hiding place behind the door. Her face twisted to him out of necessity. “Tell me, why hold me at bay?”
“Because you put me there, boy,” she said, spitting him in the face. He cried and retreated. She pushed forward and made to slip past him. He grabbed her by the upper arms.
“Please,” he whispered. “Please, give me another chance.”
“Give me one good reason,” she growled, “while you let go of me.”
He suddenly dropped his hands and sagged against the wall. They faced off, more beside than behind the door now. “Because these last few years,” he whispered, “I've been in love with a fairytale, a girl I couldn't reach that I spent all my life with, that I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
She blinked. “And you simply want me to forget that three years didn't happen. That you didn't decide they were better spent killing than loving?”
He shook his head. “No, I'm asking you to give a guy a second chance.” he smiled and held his hand out in the narrow space between them. “A last dance, if you will, or a first, however this falls out.”
She cocked her head. “You will have to do one thing.”
“Anything,” he answered.
“You won't leave again, ever.” Perhaps that would be a start. However this fell out.
“Not planning on it.” There, the smile appeared that made weak knees wherever it appeared. All for her.
Anne accepted the hand.