Sneaking into the ball had been the fun part. I had used the chance of too many faces and a copied invite from Luca’s table to get past the entrance, and now the evening had been mine. It was a glitzy party of glamour and shining as the many aristocrats used the opportunity to try and one-up each other, as I was twirled around the dance floor by yet another masked man. I asked for no names, merely his attention for the song so I wouldn’t be thrown into any other couples.
Then Luca had apparently lined me up, my hand barely leaving the other gentleman’s before it was encased in his familiar warmth. A traditional waltz started, and his hand was on my waist to keep me close before he was leading me in the dance.
“You are in so much trouble when we leave,” his voice was low in my ear, as several sets of eyes seemed to fall on us from the edges of the room. I recognised two of them as the heads of the Bradley and Cromwell family, but a few others I didn’t.
“You wouldn’t let me attend,” I pouted in response, making sure to keep my feet swift. “I told you I wanted to come, and you should know better than to expect me not to turn up. I’ve behaved myself perfectly thank you, and I’ve been on the dance floor all night with only occasional breaks for a drink of anything nonalcoholic. I’m not here to attract attention to myself,” I quietly snorted before I was suddenly twirled away and then locked back into Luca’s arms. A sign to the other males that I was now occupied for the evening it seemed as I would see the same eyes following us around the room. “I just wanted to dance,” I laughed as our bodies were lightly pressed together. “I was unnoticed until you appeared.”
“Actually the girl with the golden laugh was attracting all the gossip again,” Luca frowned as the music drew to an end, though his arm stayed around my waist as I found that I was being escorted off the dance floor. It was becoming clear that my night was at an end for now. “Especially since you’re wearing the golden dress,” he muttered as the man tried to ensure we wouldn’t be tracked.
“Luca!” I felt the man tense up, though he didn’t let me turn around as his bright facade was plastered on his face. “I thought we’d lost you,” the voice was something of a familiarity. “Oh? Who is this lovely lady?”
I used the surprise to turn around, a soft smile on my face as I had already made sure that my mask was firmly in place. My identity was never going to be amongst the nobility and higher classes, I just enjoyed the parties before giving a small courtesy to the two men.
“She’s just going home,” Luca interjected and turned me around again, a frown on his usually serene face, my laughter attracting all the attention.
He was huffing as we were exiting through the free-flowing crowd. My hand was enclosed in his before we reached the line of carriages waiting to take everyone away back to their manors. Luca was patting his waistcoat pockets down for some money before a hand on his shoulder made him tilt his head back.
“Allow me,” the green hair of Ryan Cromwell was impossible to miss, especially since he had taken note of my dress and used it to track us down. A carriage appeared from nowhere before another gentleman was guiding me towards it with his hand on my lower back.
“Thank you kindly,” I interrupted before Luca could come up with an excuse to refuse, and allowed myself to be assisted into the carriage by the blond haired male who was escorting Mr Cromwell. “Come on Luca,” I brightly smiled, “It would be rude to refuse such kindness.”
My giggle earned me a warning look before my friend, and his acquaintance clambered on in. My mask was still secure as we set off, I had no intention of telling them my address or name, I would merely get dropped off with Luca and then melt away into the background as I usually did.
“I don’t believe we’ve met before,” Ryan was trying all sorts of charm, lifting the back of my hand in greeting before Luca could intercept us.
“I would remember meeting the infamous Ryan Cromwell,” I coyly replied, before politely retrieving my hand back and settling it on my lap.
“Would you allow me to know a name to go with the beautiful laugh that has had me curious for the night?”
Luca was actively glaring at me now.
“Maybe next time we meet, then you could do me the favour of a dance Mr Cromwell, and then I would allow you the knowledge,” I smiled. “If you would just kindly stop by Luca’s apartment then I would be the most grateful.”
“Surely you don’t-” the blond spoke sharply, and was looking at Luca with hostile intent.
“Nothing of the sort. I simply live close to him, and I do not know either of you, merely safety precautions,” I corrected as the driver pulled to a stop at a gesture from Ryan. I made every effort to not fall flat on my face leaving the carriage, though it didn’t mean I wasn’t listening to Luca agree to come over the following evening to discuss some business with the Cromwells. I made certain that appearances were deceptive at times like this before the carriage left again.
“Gia,” Luca called out as I turned to cross the square. “Would you at least stay for tonight?” His voice was low, not wishing to paint the wrong picture.
“Only if you’ll get the dress cleaned for me and keep it in your place,” I replied after a heavy pause, needing to face reality on carting about a ballgown.
“I swear you seem to know where all the parties are happening,” my housemate complained as I finally arrived home in time for her to leave. “Though you lost your dress again,” she huffed while eyeing me up in a spare shirt of Luca’s and a pair of trousers I had left previously at his place.
“I didn’t lose it, it’s being cleaned,” I corrected her. “And Luca’s keeping my dress wardrobe safe anyway,” I shrugged.
“How do you even afford the dresses?” My housemate paused, realising that it was far beyond my wages as a waitress.
“I never wear the same one twice, I’m always trading them in and swapping them,” I shrugged, brushing past her to go and change into my uniform.
“Gia, I had that feeling again last night,” Rebekah spent a lot of her time worrying about me when I went out and paraded as my alternate self. “That you’re going to get caught at a ball, and then you know how it ends.”
“I’m playing a big game, but I never give a name, and I never go home with anyone who isn’t Luca,” I smiled softly, trying to reassure her and patted her on the arm before getting into my room.
We had a tiny two bedroom house, with a kitchen, bathroom and what was called a ‘living space’ but you could barely fit two chairs in the room. It was affordable, and we had seen things in worse shape on our budget. We lived on the edges of the slums, and violence was part of the day. Muggers were around most corners, murders were commonplace, and you just had to know when to give in to demands. Though recently it had been escalating beyond normality, and the police wouldn’t come in alone anymore, and pairs were a rarity to see. Our landlord didn’t force us into things, though my boss had raised concerns regarding my living situation and that maybe one day I wouldn’t make it home or to work.
I didn’t linger, I needed to get to work as soon as I had changed and redone my hair. I had pulled my loose curls back into a ponytail, a professional and clean look for the clients as I glanced at our direct competition across the street. The Blue Bell was a posh looking place, but The White Rose was cosy and warm. The range of teas at Blue Bell was meant to be unmatched, their main waiter was someone who kept rebutting any offers of employment from our boss, not that I was keen for him to join us since he always seemed to be a sourpuss whenever I caught sight of him before or after a shift.
“Gia! Glad you’re here,” my boss was all smiles and a middle-aged male, he had taken me under his wing several years back despite all the warnings from anyone who caught sight of me at the first meeting. I waved brightly and nipped behind the counter to take a glance over today’s special cakes. “I need someone to take a sample of my wife’s cooking- she said mango and elderflower sponge with a passionfruit frosting before she adds it to our list,” he was smiling too much for me to say no.
“How much sugar did she add?” I coughed. The frosting was thick and heavy, and the sponge barely passed off the flavour of the fruits it was meant to, I frowned and pulled back, studying the sponge before my head began to feel heavy.
“Enough to cover the sleeping agent,” he murmured, already catching my falling body before I could hit the floor.
My body was feeling stiff as I began to come around. I was in a dimmed room, on a made-up bed that was of considerable better quality than my own. My head felt as though I had my own collection of miners inside it and I tried to sit up.
“I wouldn’t do that,” a rough voice pushed me back down. “You’re lucky who found you. You need to sleep this off.”
In the darkness, I could make out his figure. It reminded me of the pastor who worked his rounds in the slums as a damp and cool cloth was placed across my forehead.
“Where am I?” I managed to force my voice out before a loud tut told me that the man didn’t care for my stubbornness.
“A safe place,” he abruptly replied. “Now go back to sleep.”
The Sandman had me in his grip before I could ask any more questions, lulling me back into a forced sleep and at the mercy of whoever the male was.
Luca was asleep in the chair as I opened my eyes again. I was still feeling lethargic, but my limbs were moving of a better free will at least as I rubbed my face, trying to chase the sleepiness away enough to be able to get at least a look at the room I was in. It was a large bed, and the sheets felt amazing against my skin as it dawned on me that I wasn’t in my uniform before I went to pull the sheets up.
“Settle down will you?” The rough voice was back, and a firm hand pressed me back before the door to the room opened.
I was surprised to see the blond man who had been accompanying Ryan Cromwell to the ball enter the room. Though he was extremely puzzled by my expression as he glided through the room with all the elegance expected from an experienced butler and bent over to wake Luca.
“Your friend,” he gestured, and then to see Luca’s eyes so wide before he scrambled to grab hold of my hand and make sure I was okay.
“What happened?” I asked, trying to frown but then realising it made my headache much worse and winced slightly at the sharp pain.
“We were going to ask you that,” the rough voice to the side attracted my attention, and I was finally able to get a good look at him. “I saw you being carried by your boss out of his carriage and on the way to one of the rough houses in the slums before I intervened.”
“He gave me a slice of cake, said it was a new recipe to try. Then when I complained it was too sugary, he laughed and said it was to mask the taste of the sleeping draught. I don’t know what it was, but it was rapid-acting,” I explained, shielding my eyes from any light as the pain was starting to get worse. “It was … sudden. I’ve worked there for several years, and nothing untoward has ever happened,” I added on.
“Your boss has a twin actually, a rather unsavoury one,” the rough voice said, drawing the focus of the room. “He had his eye on you and tied his brother up in order to get you. It’s a ring that’s been evading the police for a while, mostly because they can’t get to the girls in time, and it was sheer luck that I was passing to come and make sure you hadn’t been captured.”
“Pastor,” I murmured, closing my eyes again. It was too much to keep them open as someone replaced the cloth on my head, the touch felt like Luca. “My housemate, she’s just as likely to be worried.”
“Rebekah never showed up for her shift, and your house has been ransacked, we already checked,” Luca quietly said, already holding my hand in preparation for the news. “We’re looking for her in the usual suspect places, but this gang tends to go after those who won’t be missed. You don’t fit that profile, but Rebekah does. You’re the only one who would truly miss her, and since you’re just housemates, then there isn’t a lot of weight behind you going to the police.”
“So Miss Rivers is the exception to the rule, why go after a high chance?” the butler pushed his glasses up his nose as I peered through my half-lidded eyes, desperate to read the room.
“A message,” the Pastor spoke abruptly. “It’s a warning.”
“Well then, I’m sure Noel would be interested to hear about this,” the butler nodded before turning to leave. “We should let Miss Rivers rest, it was a powerful drug. I have a room set up for you next door Luca-”
“I’ll sleep in here,” my best friend waved him off.
“It’s just like when I stay over,” I laughed softly. “Only the bed is bigger.”
“Don’t look at me like that. She’s my best friend, and I don’t think of her in that manner,” Luca was scowling at someone as I shifted over in the bed to make some space for him. “Plus if she has a bad turn then I can alert you all. You’ve already said that you aren’t sure what it was that was used.”
“Mr Cromwell will probably insist on coming in then,” the butler sighed.
As though on cue, the green haired male came in wearing a deep frown on his face.
It wasn’t proper, I knew that much, but things were just natural between us. There wasn’t any romance, though I had been the ire of so many of the women that fawned around him. I was often an escape from invitations if I was passing by, and he would always throw his arm around my waist and pull me into him. We didn’t have the chemistry between us that a relationship required. It was safe and secure as Harry was as blank-faced as ever.
“Luca-” the head of the Cromwell household sighed, but then looked stumped as Luca interrupted.
“It’s not proper to sleep with a lady, I get it. But she’s my best friend, and right now, she’s in danger. She’s ill, and I’m the last person she has that she can count as family,” I had to give Luca his dues. He was actively prepared to sleep in the chair again if necessary, it was clear that he wasn’t leaving the room until I was recovered.
“Let the boy sleep in here, he was doing that anyway,” the Pastor snorted, all traces of his softness disappearing instantly much to my surprise. “It’s not like she’s your sister or anything.”
Ryan was staring down hard at Luca, before sighing and shrugging his shoulders in defeat.