— Destiny —
Ernie and I were in the studio preparing my new song for recording when his secretary, Kerry, brought the mail to him. Tucked inside the pile was an invitation to a Spooky Day masquerade ball in five days. Ernie was perpetually single, but the invitation included a “plus one.” Since I was closest to him in and out of the studio, he extended the invitation to me.
At first, I wasn’t going to say yes. After all, I’d been put through the wringer with my love life, but I also knew Ernie wasn’t interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with me. We’d go as friends and nothing more. If nothing else, it was an excuse to dress up in a fancy gown, have my hair and makeup done, and have some fun for a change. Spending weeks in the studio was tiring for both of us.
Ernie read the invitation out loud. “Dress is formal. Everyone must disguise themselves to the best of their ability, wear a masquerade mask of some sort, but,” he laughed and shook his head, “here’s the kicker; speaking is prohibited. The entire night is silent, excluding music, of course.”
“Is this a normal thing for a masquerade ball, Ernie?”
“To be honest, Des, I don’t know. I’ve never been to one of these before.”
“Who is throwing this shindig?” I cringed as soon as the word left my mouth. I really needed to stop talking like a hick.
Ernie chuckled at my pickled expression. “Oh, you’re going to love this.”
“Wanna take a guess?”
I cringed. “Jeff?”
Ernie smirked. “No, he wouldn’t be caught dead in Starlight Shores. No, it’s none other than Aiden Chandler. At least we know he won’t be asking you to sing.” He gave me a deadpan stare; we both burst out into laughter.
“Wait… if this is a silent party, how do we communicate with other party goers?”
Ernie scanned the invite. “It… doesn’t really say. I guess we’ll find out together, eh?”
I rolled my eyes. “I guess so.”
The day of the party, I went to the salon to have my hair rinsed with a temporary black dye, my makeup done, and my nails filled. I stopped on my way home to pick up the gown and shoes I’d purchased for the ball, and then went home to prepare for my evening of music and silence. Poppy must not have recognized me, because she hissed and bristled her tail when I walked in the door.
“Poppy, it’s okay. It’s just me.” My voice and scent were familiar to her, so it didn’t take long for her to settle down. I trudged up the steps, noticing the time on the wall clock. Forty-five minutes was more than enough time before Ernie’s limo would arrive to retrieve me.
When I was ready, I walked down the stairs to wait for my ride. I checked my hair and makeup in the mirror before I slipped my mask over my eyes; a horn sounded outside at the end of my driveway. Ernie, like Jared, didn’t know how to be late for anything; I smiled as I said goodbye to Poppy, locked the front door, and walked into the chilly evening air to meet Ernie.
He was standing at the limo, waiting to help me in as I approached. I knew he didn’t really recognize me by the look on his face. “Who is this raven-haired beauty, and what have you done with my red-headed girl next door?”
I blushed fiercely at his compliment. “I guess my plan for total disguise worked!”
“Yeah, if I didn’t know I was at your house, Destiny, I wouldn’t have known it was you. Watch Chandler be taken with you, not knowing who you are.”
“Psh,” I scoffed. “Even if he did, I’m not interested in that pompous jerk.” I wanted no one but Jared, if he was even still an option. Somehow, I doubted he was.
We got into the limo together and rode to a mansion in the western hills belonging to Aiden Chandler. The outside architecture was ornate, but garish and overdone. He had spotlights outside the house, making it feel like the huge social event it was. I slipped the mask back onto my face before we walked from the car.
“I’ll have to introduce us to the host at the door, Des, but let me talk. I’m hoping they’ll explain how communication is done tonight. Though I like the guy, Chandler’s an odd bird.”
“That’s a nice way to say he’s kooky,” I said. Ernie chuckled under his breath before he knocked on the mansion’s front door. A butler dressed in a well-tailored tuxedo answered our call.
“Welcome, sir, and ma’am. This way, please.” He showed us into a vast foyer, minimally furnished and adorned with festive decor. An old coffin with cobwebs stood at the bottom of a curved staircase, alongside a skeleton dressed in a sexy maid outfit. If that wasn’t creepy, I didn’t know what was.
We approached a table with a young lady awaiting our arrival. Before her were dozens of place cards and objects that looked like paper ping pong paddles. Each one was printed with a common phrase, but none of them asked questions that needed anything but a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. So that’s how we were to communicate with other ball attendees. It sounded like fun, and I was delighted Ernie asked me to attend with him.
“Mr. Gonzales and guest, you’re at table three. Each one is marked. You may choose whichever seat is empty at your table. Once you leave this foyer, speaking is prohibited. Do you have any questions?”
Ernie shook his head. “Just one. How many of these paddles do we need?”
She gave Ernie a crooked smile. “You each only get one paddle. You’ll need to figure out how to get your message across to another guest if your paddle doesn’t ask the correct question.”
He rolled his eyes. “This is going to be a pain in the a—”
“Don’t say it!” I said, giggling madly. “I think it will be fun.”
He sighed deeply and turned to me. “Shall we?” he said and offered his arm.
I nodded in response.
A six-piece stringed ensemble played festive music in a small alcove. Waiters roamed the grand hall with platters of champagne and hors d’oeuvres while other waitstaff walked around collecting dirty plates and glasses.
I hadn’t been in the music business for very long, so I didn’t figure I’d know anyone there, even if we could speak to others. I felt shy and a little out of place in such a fancy home, and I silently wondered if I’d ever have a home like it someday. If I did, it wouldn’t be anywhere near this flashy and swanky.
Ernie and I were together for the first half hour of the party when he found someone he recognized. He excused himself as best he could and left me standing alone. I took a stemmed flute of champagne from a passing waiter and decided to roam around and admire some of the artwork hanging around the hall. A mirror hung amongst the paintings; I gazed into it, stopped dead and stood there, my mouth hanging agape. I didn’t even recognize myself with black hair, crystal blue contact lenses in my eyes, and the masquerade mask.
The musicians announced the end of their set and took a half-hour break. One of them, a man wearing a top hat and matching gray tuxedo with an ivory scarf, approached me. The musicians were bound to silence as well, except for the leader, who made announcements for Aiden as requested. It was a bit awkward trying to greet someone with no formal introduction. However, my country twang would likely be offputting for an opener, so I was thankful I didn’t have to open my mouth to speak.
I hadn’t looked at my paddle before that moment to find what phrase it had printed on it. On one side, it had a standard question; on the flip side, it had either “yes” or “no.” Mine asked for a dance, with a “yes” printed on the reverse. Soft music played from a wired system within the house. In the eerie quiet of the party, the music’s volume was still rather understated. I gave this gentleman a sheepish grin and showed him my sign. He smiled and nodded in return, placed his glass of champagne on the fireplace mantle and, taking my hand, led me to the dance floor.
On the small parcel of floor around which other guests congregated, the mystery man took me into his arms for a dance. Without speaking a word to one another, it was clear there was chemistry between us. I hadn’t felt anything like it before in my life, but the timing was terrible. Until he told me otherwise, Jared was still my boyfriend.
The soft, classical music was barely audible from speakers set into the ceiling. The mystery man pulled me closer still, his hand on the small of my back. In his arms, it felt like home, but nothing like I’d ever known before. There was comfort there, a warmth I’d been missing since I left Appaloosa Plains. I rested my head gently on his shoulder; he, in turn, rested his head next to mine. His natural, musky scent mixed with his cologne —a delicious woodsy, spicy fragrance— was heavenly on him. Daddy wore something similar on occasion, but I couldn’t remember it smelling quite like this.
We must have spent his entire break together, because when the band leader announced their return, he gestured a smile with a frustrated look. He pointed at the alcove, then his watch, and made a breaking motion with his hands, as though he was snapping something in two. Understanding him to mean that he wished to spend more time together at his next break, I nodded. He gave a ‘thumbs up’ of approval, turned to walk away, and tripped over a chair on his way back to the alcove. I couldn’t help but giggle, excited for the next moments we’d spend together.
Ernie caught up with me about ten minutes later, tugged my arm and pointed to a balcony just beyond a set of French doors. I nodded and followed him outside; the crisp, fresh air was invigorating. He closed the doors behind him and let out a sigh of relief.
“I know we’re not supposed to talk, but I needed to let off some steam. Des, we need to get out of here. Chandler cornered me in the hallway on my way back from the restroom, and he really ticked me off. Do you mind if we get going?”
No! I thought. “What’s going on?”
“He wanted to talk about you, naturally, because he thinks I’m wasting my time with your music. I told him to mind his own damned business, but of course he won’t. Then he started asking about who I brought tonight, since he clearly didn’t recognize you. Apparently, Des, he was interested. He has a better chance of flying around the moon tonight! Who does he think he is, anyway?!”
My mind went back to the mystery man. If I didn’t see him again tonight, how would I ever know who he was? Ernie was my ride, so I was obligated to leave with him. “Yeah,” I said. “Whenever you’re ready, we can go.” I tried to hide my stinging disappointment. He must have seen it because he patted my back.
“I saw you dancing with that violinist. You looked like you hit it off.”
“Any idea who he is?”
“Nah. Chandler likely knows, but getting him to tell me might be a moot point. Let’s just get out of here. We should be at the studio in the morning anyway.”
I glared at him. “Tomorrow’s Sunday, Ernie. I have church tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, right. Well, it’s a good thing we’re leaving early, isn’t it? We can’t have our little songbird all tired out!”
“It doesn’t matter,” I reminded him. “I stepped down as worship leader a month ago. I can’t keep up rehearsals, singing, song writing and regular attendance with my new schedule. Work, unfortunately, comes first.” I winked at him, a coy grin on my face.
Ernie laughed. “Whaddya mean ‘unfortunately’?!” I side-glanced at him and giggled. “Come on, Des. Let’s get out of here.”
The ride back to my house was quiet, and I spent the time wondering the big ‘what ifs.’ What if this man was the one I was supposed to meet? What if he felt the same about me? Or worse, what if he thinks I left early because I wasn’t interested? The limo dropped me off at the house; though it was pointless, I wished I had a way to get back into the party. I thanked Ernie for a fun evening, walked to the door and unlocked it. Poppy was nowhere to be found.
I dropped my keys into the bowl I kept on Mama’s old side table, kicked off my shoes, and locked the front door. Though we’d only just met, the thought of not seeing this mystery man again gnawed at me. “It’s just an infatuation,” I muttered under my breath as I slipped out of the gown and into my pajamas. I knelt beside my bed to pray, asking God to allow me to see this man at least one more time. My heart needed to know if what I felt with him was real. Would our paths ever cross again? I sincerely hoped so.
— Arthur —
My position as the proprietor at the swanky private club where I worked — and my father’s connections with the Starlight Shores symphony orchestra — sometimes brought opportunities I wouldn’t ordinarily be afforded. It was no surprise to me when Aiden Chandler — the CEO of Soundwave Records — called with a job proposal. He wanted the best six-piece string ensemble in the city to play at a Spooky Day masquerade ball at his mansion in the western hills. If perfection was what Mr. Chandler wanted, he didn’t need to look further than our group. The offer came with generous compensation; after consulting with the guys, I accepted with no hesitation.
The confirmation email arrived a few nights before the ball. I didn’t know Aiden Chandler very well; I worked at a private party the night Soundwave Records introduced a new, up-and-coming artist. That night had been my first and only personal contact with the man. Chandler was well known in town for his music business acumen and his quirky, but entertaining, gatherings at his lavish mansion. The Spooky Day masquerade was no exception. Each guest and employee — myself included — had two rules to follow; the first was to take reasonable care to conceal their true identity, and the second was to refrain from all verbal communication during the party. Only Chandler knew the reasons behind the odd rules, but they were acceptable.
The dress code was formal, so I borrowed one of my father’s many tuxedos. I needed something more suave than my normal performance attire. The one I chose had a top hat that coordinated, though I’d never seen Papà with it on his head. He retired from the orchestra a few years ago, so he seldom wore such finery anymore. On a lucky break, I found a mask at a local shop that coordinated with the tux.
The night of the party, I drove my sports car to the Chandler mansion, where I was met with a valet. It was something I didn’t expect, being private property and all. I should have, though, seeing as Aiden Chandler was one of the richest men in all of Starlight Shores. I handed the keys to the attendant and walked inside the mansion carrying my violin.
Chandler met with the sextet as a group once we had all arrived. We had just an hour to gather and practice; since we played together regularly, we needed little time. He led us to a small alcove where he’d set up chairs and a microphone for Dave, the group leader, to make announcements.
Once Chandler walked away from us, Dave started to laugh. “This is the weirdest arrangement I’ve ever seen, gentlemen. Who throws a party where there’s no talking?”
“I know,” Ben said in agreement. “I guess this Chandler guy is eccentric, to say the least.”
“What are we playing tonight? Are we sticking with our original pieces, Dave?” I asked. I pulled the bow and violin from its case and tuned it. The acoustics in the hall were fantastic.
“That’s a yes on the originals, Arthur. We have about half an hour before we need to be set up. Let’s run through some of the shorter ones, just to make sure we’re on the same page.”
There was a certain advantage to having a set group of musicians that always played together. The biggest perk was knowing no matter what the circumstances, we’d be a good fit. We knew each other’s habits, play styles, and quirks. Master cellist Dave was the most outspoken and acted as the group’s leader. Ben, a brilliant cellist in his own right, was the shy one. Lee, one of two viola players, only participated in the group when we needed a sextet. Warren and I played the violin. Rounding out the group was our second viola player, Harry.
Ten minutes before they opened the doors to guests, Chandler dropped by to check everything one last time. He pointed at Dave as he approached.
“Do you have the script for the ball?” he said to Dave.
“Um, yes sir. I understand I’m the only one permitted to speak?”
Chandler nodded, narrowing his glare at the rest of us. “That is correct, but only to make announcements that are predetermined, and to announce a break. During your breaks, your musicians must not speak to the guests, though they may interact with them. There are six conversation paddles for you. You only get one each, so choose your questions carefully. Any concerns or issues?”
“Um, no sir. W-We understand the rules and are prepared to obey them.” Dave, with good reason, stuttered when talking to our host; Aiden Chandler was an imposing, intimidating chap.
“Good man,” Chandler said. “We open the doors in five. Begin your first set when you’re ready.”
We all settled down into our seats in the alcove, ready to play the screwiest gig we’d ever worked. The music was nothing famous or well-known, but original pieces we’d composed and practiced together. Guests filed into the great hall where we played, occupying tables that accommodated six guests each.
During one of the movements in our second piece, I noticed a familiar face. One could not mistake Ernesto Gonzales even with a mask. My eyes immediately went to the woman accompanying him; to my great disappointment, she was not the red-headed charmer I’d met twice before. Ernie’s newest client, Destiny Hill, was definitely on my radar. The woman by his side, with jet black hair, a burnt orange, fitted gown, and sparkling blue eyes, was certainly not her. Yet, something drew me to the mysterious lady like a moth to a flame. I couldn’t explain why if I tried. Finally, Warren’s gentle nudge returned my attention to our music. I, however, had a plan for our first break.
Dave called our pause in sets about an hour into the party. By the time I got a paddle, the rest of the guys had already picked them over. My paddle said, “Can I get you a drink?” on one side, and “No” on the other. I suddenly understood why they left it for me. No matter, though. I was determined to connect with the woman who had held my interest since I first spotted her.
A waiter walked by with a tray of champagne flutes and offered one to me. I nodded my appreciation and took one. This particular vintage was beautifully dry and refreshing on the palate. Feeling confident, I strolled over to where the lovely, dark-haired lady stood. She already had a glass of champagne in her fingers when I approached, so my paddle would render me useless if I depended upon it alone. Perhaps I had flustered her as I walked to her; she smiled at me, her cheeks blushing lightly.
This was actually when speaking would have been helpful. I wanted to know everything about the beautiful creature standing in front of me. Imagine my delight when she lifted the paddle she held, asking me for a dance. I nodded and placed my nearly empty champagne glass on the fireplace mantle. I took her hand and led her to the dance floor, miniscule as it was.
Other party guests stood around in awkward silence. Music piped in from a built-in sound system was barely audible even in the quiet of the hall. It might not have been our stringed sextet playing, but the muted melody was still sufficient for a dance. She trembled when I held her close to me, but I couldn’t perceive if it was excitement or dread that caused it. Her perfume, floral and slightly musky, was heady and intoxicating. My hand slipped down to the small of her back, pulling her closer. I couldn’t get enough of her.
I held her as we swayed to the background music, wishing for the moment to last forever. She was so soft and delicate; she melted my heart when she rested her head on my shoulder. I interpreted that as a sign of being comfortable with me. Mine rested near hers, returning the gesture.
Way too soon, Dave stepped back in front of the mic and announced another music set; that was my cue to go, though I could have held her all night long. I longed to kiss her, but I knew I shouldn’t. With regret, I pulled away from her before I did something so forward, I might get slapped for it. Instead, I tried to communicate the best I could that I’d love to see her on my next break. She giggled at my hand gestures, but I think she understood. I turned to walk away, and tripped over a chair that I swore wasn’t there moments before. This woman had me so flustered and feeling giddy, and I didn’t even know her name. Suddenly, I couldn’t wait for my next break.
Our next set ran much longer than the first; every new arrangement made me more anxious to see the lovely lady I’d desired to hold again. In my distracted daze, I missed a cue and a couple of measures and cringed at the blatant error. Dave glared at me; I shrugged my shoulders and continued on as though nothing had happened. The guests were none the wiser, not even detecting the mistakes. Perhaps we were simply ambient background noise and nothing more.
Dave finally announced the end of our set. I placed my violin back into its case and ventured off, sans paddle, on a mission to find the lovely young lady I’d met earlier. A brief visual search turned up empty. Finding her without the privilege of speech was a bit more daunting than I’d hoped.
I searched high and low, making three circuits around the ground floor of the house when I gave up hope of finding her, at least for now. Ernie had been there, and I knew she had accompanied him. I just needed to hope that they weren’t romantically involved, though I suspected they weren’t. I made a mental note to contact Ernesto Gonzales the first thing on Monday morning. Who was this bewitching, enchanting lady? I had to know, and I was prepared to stop at nothing to find her, with or without his help.
Halloween Background by QuinceCreative at Pixabay
Special thanks to Chris for putting the finishing touches on my cover photo. I’m so grateful to you for all you’ve done for this blog. You’re my unsung hero.
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