A chill shimmied up Elizabeth’s spine, causing her shoulders to contract in a tremulous shudder. She felt oddly disoriented. Massaging gently, careful not to stain her white evening gloves with makeup, she worked her fingertips across her forehead to her temples. If she could relieve the tightness, maybe she could stave-off the damn headache hovering just behind her eyes.
Sighing with impatience at herself, Elizabeth squared her delicate jaw with determination. She tucked a straying ringlet back into place and tugged on the low-cut bodice of her Victorian-era costume: a peacock-blue, silk ball gown. Elizabeth Stanley could barely contain her exasperation at feeling so out-of-sorts, tonight of all nights. The Victorian Grand Summer Ball was her baby. She’d been the heart, soul, and sometimes drill sergeant of event planning for the Pasadena Social Daunce Irregulars for the past fifteen years. This event was the shining star in her personal firmament. This night was hers, if only she could clear her head enough to enjoy it.
Partially hidden in the shadow by the huge stone fireplace, Elizabeth studied the room. It was the ideal vantage point to chart her path across the dance floor. Gathering up the edge of her tiered skirt, she lifted her head, adjusted her posture, and began her sweep of the ballroom. Eyes lighting on no one in particular but watchful for admiring gazes, she circled the floor, each step calculated to show off her costume.
The lighting in the room was soft and flattering. Someone had dimmed the chandeliers and opened the heavy burgundy drapes to allow silvered moonlight to spill across the hall. The gold and brown grain of the polished wood floor gleamed. The swirl of color as the dancers assembled was almost dizzying: gowns of every hue, tiaras catching the light and reflecting rainbows back, men in period costumes ranging from brocade jackets to full tuxedos. Elizabeth caught sight of a classic polonaise gown, circa 1876, in the deepest of emerald greens with a white overskirt, and there was Daniel Taft in full Civil War military regalia. Bruce Anderson was, of course, sporting kilt.
The band members had begun to seat themselves; the scraping of their wooden chairs rose above the buzz of voices. The Band of the California Battalion was playing tonight, in full uniform, authentic down to their period instruments. Light reflected in starry bursts from their brass instruments and medaled chests. Someone new was on second chair cornet. Odd. She knew everyone. Elizabeth nodded towards the musicians but, too absorbed in her own thoughts, failed to notice that her greeting was not returned. The strangest sensation of déjà vu had swept over her. Maybe it’s a past-life memory. She smiled at herself. She’d been living in California for too long. It must be the historical ambiance of old War Memorial Building Elizabeth silently congratulated herself on her event-planning skills.
As she moved through the crowd, Elizabeth’s disquiet grew. Was it her imagination or was she actually being ignored? Had she been a bit too heavy handed at the last meeting? She could swear two of the committee members had looked right through her. Poise shaken, Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed with momentary embarrassment. No. If they had decided to slight her, she was damned if she would acknowledge the snub. She calmly redirected her gaze across the room, discreetly searching the crowd for Peter. Had he told her he would be late? Now she couldn’t remember why she had arrived alone. There was something just at the edge of memory that she was missing tonight. She hoped a migraine wasn’t coming on. Where was Peter, anyway?. Once she found him, everything would be alright. For now, she would pick up her dance card at the reception table and—
“Booking this hall was Elizabeth’s brainstorm. It’s the perfect setting, so we didn’t change.”
Elizabeth paused. Lydia Mercer and some woman she didn’t know were deep in conversation at the reception table. Could they be so engrossed in their gossiping that they didn’t notice her approaching? Elizabeth lowered her eyes and turned slightly away, pretending absorption in adjusting her evening gloves. She leaned closer, just within earshot.
“It was a year ago tonight.” Lydia wasn’t making much of an effort to keep her voice down. “I know you never met her, but you’ll hear about it sooner or later anyway.”
The tiny woman in the pink flounced gown was all ears and eyes, leaning closer to Lydia. “So, what happened exactly?” she said.
Lydia stopped fiddling with the dance cards and focused all her attention on her friend. “Rumor has it that she and Peter—her long-time dance partner—had a terrible fight on the way over. He jumped out of the car, and she drove the last two miles herself. Evidently both she and Peter had been drinking. They say she wasn’t wearing her seat belt, so when she rammed the car into that large oak tree behind the hall, she was thrown thirty feet down the rocky drive.
Elizabeth turned slowly, raising her eyes to the ornate wall mirror just in front of Lydia and the smaller woman. She could see their faces clearly, their voracious expressions.
Lydia continued, breathless with excitement, “She managed to stagger up to the back entrance and collapsed just inside, over there by the fireplace. She died before the paramedics got here. Horrible. Peter never forgave himself. He moved to New Mexico a few months after the funeral.”
Their reflections. Elizabeth saw their reflections. Her head pounded. For the first time she noticed the dirty grass stains on her lovely white gloves, the ruined skirt. Her disquiet became terror. The room spun.
“What was her name again?”
“Elizabeth.” Lydia replied. “Elizabeth Stanley.”
© Copyright 2010 Lynn Nicholas. All rights reserved.
Lynn Nicholas, a LiveJournal blogger, is also active on FanStory.com as “allinmyhead,”where she posts work for critique and reviews other writers’ submissions. She is the author of “Jumping the Tracks” and “Round One: The Cookie” which appeared on this blog. An experienced technical editor, she is now enjoying honing her writing skills, specializing in humorous commentary. Lynn’s fiction and poetry are inspired by real-life experience. Motto: when life throws you curves, find a way to use it in your writing. She lives in Tucson, AZ.