Alex took the garden in with a sweeping glance. The sun was just setting, but the heat was still oppressive. People moved about in the lengthening shadows, lending even more mystique to the event. There was a time when a masquerade would have held little mystery for her. She knew people by their walks, voices, gestures, but things changed quickly in the city. That change once drove her; now it made her feel as if she was standing outside the movement of time.
A glaze of sweat condensed on her back as she pushed through the heat, as she told herself that this was where she was meant to be—in society, with her colleagues, with her peers. But Alex was glad of the mask just as she was glad of the smell of summer in the city to remind her that she was really there. She took a glass of champagne from a white masked waiter passing with a tray. It was cool against her fingers, cool and thick in her throat.
The sun had disappeared quickly, almost startlingly. Alex had not noticed the paper lanterns hanging from the trees before, nor had she noticed anyone lighting them. It was as if they appeared. And with them appeared the moon in an almost cloudless sky. She gazed at it, content in the solitude of the moment even though voices, not so distant sounds of traffic, and deliberate piano notes surrounded her. But somewhere in her mind, the garden was quiet, more spacious. It was like being in the space between two worlds, and since her return to New York, Alex had wondered when that feeling would disappear. It never quite did in the program.
Couples were beginning to dance in a section of the garden in which the grass had been cut as a floor. Alex had never felt compelled to pair off, to seek that sort of affection. She watched them, bodies lightly pressed together despite the heat.
"You never danced so close."
The voice came from behind her, but Alex did not have to turn to discover to whom it belonged. She knew; she would always know it.
"You never complained."
She could not remember what it felt like to have danced with Liz Donnelly. But she remembered the heat of their bodies against the cool sheets, the way she shamelessly pressed into Liz's hands, her lips. Condensation from her glass trickled down her palm onto her wrist. Alex imagined Liz flicking it away with her tongue, replacing it with soft leather. Perhaps not everything had changed. She turned, the image—possibly a memory—still in her mind.
What she expected was to find Liz's unmistakable smirk standing out from a mask. But her former lover was watching someone else approach, was reaching out her hand to meet the other woman's.
"Let's dance." The voice, peppered with smoke, was familiar to Alex, but Liz's smile, the look in her eyes, was not. She had never looked at Alex that way.
"It was good to see you, Alexandra." The other woman snaked her arm around Liz's as they stepped towards the dance floor. Alex saw the soft glow of dark red hair as the two began to dance, their cheeks touching.
She turned away. The job had been hers, but Liz...Liz never really had. The feathers of her mask stuck to her cheeks and her hair to the back of her neck as she walked away.