Charlene walked into the grand ballroom of the Royal Victoria Hotel, her elegantly coiffed hair piled high atop her head. Her satin gown was off the shoulder and shimmered with the lights bouncing off the many chandeliers. The semi-precious gems of her necklace settled demurely in her décolletage. Her bejeweled mask hid most of her face, except for her shining red lips and her light green eyes. She had arrived.
She held her folded invitation in her right hand, which she had flashed at the doorman on her way in. She looked the part so much that he had not actually asked to see the invitation up close, which was a good thing since she had not been invited. She slipped the folded invitation back into her small clutch purse.
She had never been invited, but this was the fourth year she had attended the ball. It was always the same doorman and she supposed by now he had come to believe she was invited. Only the first year had been the real test. She had decided to sneak into the ball that year, because she longed to see how the one percent lived. This was like dress up for her, a magical night when she could pretend that she was one of them, that she had style and grace and was accepted.
Everybody just accepted that she was one of them. Year after year, she saw the same people and they no longer wondered from where they knew the mysterious “Antoinette”, since they remembered her from last year. No matter, they believed she had money and believed she had donated the required $10,000 to attend the ball. And so, they were gracious to her.
One man in particular seemed to seek her out each year. She had to admit, she was looking for him now as she gazed around the large and elegant room. She felt like Cinderella, looking for her prince.
And he did not disappoint. Although he didn’t know who she was, he would have recognized those beautiful green eyes anywhere. Her demure smile when their eyes met told him she was happy to see him as well. He walked over to where she stood and look down on her.
“My dear Antoinette, you look ravishing this evening” he murmured as he bent to kiss her cheek.
“You flatter me, Armand” she said, but blushed nonetheless.
Last year, Armand had begged for her full name and address so that he could call on her. It was cruel, he said, for her to make him wait a year to see her again. He wanted to know everything about her, where she was from, who her family was, and when he could call on her.
Of course, he couldn’t. He would be shocked to see the small flat she called her home, or to know that she worked in a dress shop. She could never let him know who she really was, or the spell of the masquerade would be over.
Instead she teased him and told him a different story every year. One of them might be true, she said, but she told them so convincingly he believed that any one of them could be true. She was the fourth cousin once removed from Prince Helmut of Austria, was the story she’d told him last year. The year before she was an exiled member of the bourgeois from France. This year she planned to be the granddaughter of a long-forgotten media baron. She knew he’d laugh and try to guess if it was true or not.
Armand took her elbow and guided her to the dance floor where he held her tight against him and together they glided over the polished parquet floor.
“How is your cousin, Prince Helmut?” he asked, his eyes laughing as he looked at her. “I’ve done some research” he said, “and I couldn’t find a fourth cousin in his family.”
“Perhaps you didn’t look hard enough Monsieur, or perhaps you looked too hard”. Her laugh was deep and convincing, and he laughed with her.
“I won’t stop” he said, “you’ve bewitched me Antoinette”.
Charlene had to stop herself from frowning. Perhaps this should be her last year. She would be devastated if he found out the truth about her. Instead she smiled and gazed into his eyes. “I’ll depend on it” she replied.
Of course, Armand already knew who she was. Some months back he’d been having lunch with his mother, when she’d wanted to stop into a dress shop to pick up a new dress she’d ordered. He waited for her outside on the bench but after several minutes, he had walked up to the window and looked inside.
A beautiful woman with long blonde hair stood behind the counter, assisting his mother. She was tall and slim, dressed plainly but elegantly. She glanced up a few times, but never towards the window. She didn’t need to though; he’d recognize those beautiful green eyes anywhere.