She couldn't get a good look at his face, and it was driving her crazy.
Esther Allen was glad she'd chosen the peacock mask. It allowed her to stand atop the grand staircase of the Warwick Hotel and peer at the stranger secretly through a mist of feather ends. Yellow silks and red satins fluttered by her; a lace petticoat flashed over a high-button shoe. She could smell camellias mingling with car fumes, followed by streaks of perfume as women rushed by her into the lobby. Some of the hands she'd just shaken in the receiving line were cold and clammy, others fat and sweaty. She tried to recognize eyes behind the masks, a timbre of voice. Except for the new fellow down there in the leather jacket, everyone was wrapped in fantasy to attend tonight's masquerade ball, the Nineteenth Annual No-Tsu-Oh Carnival of 1928. Her eyes kept flicking to him parking his car under the porte cochere—although parking didn't really describe what she was seeing. It was more like a plane landing on water as the speedster came flowing to a stop, wearing its chrome like jewelry.
It was without doubt the most beautiful car she'd ever seen. Top thrown back, all cream and whitewall tires, fenders gliding up and down, the spare bolted on its side like a shield. She had to know what kind of man would drive a car like that, but when she looked through the crowd, the brim of his hat was snapped down on one side so all she could see of his face was the linear thrust of his jaw. Mentally, she sketched in the features hidden there.
"Hetty? Hetty!" Esther's date, Lamar Rusk, caught her attention with the nickname all her friends used. Hetty dipped her feathered mask in his direction as he bounded up the stairs, shaking the bells on his court jester's hood.
"Do you mind?" said Hetty's sister, Charlotte, trying to keep up with Lamar as she clung to his elbow. Hetty turned her head to look at them directly—the mask cut off her peripheral vision. Having just stepped off her flower float from the parade, Charlotte was attempting to ascend the grand staircase with the kind of hauteur appropriate for the one Houston debutante destined to be crowned Cotton Queen later in the evening. We're getting too old to share the same boyfriend, Hetty thought, locking arms with Lamar and steering him toward the solarium so they could sit in the wicker chairs and have a smoke. But Charlotte hitched them back toward the top of the reception line, where their parents waited. It's starting, Hetty thought—little trickles of irritation beginning to erode her party spirits—the usual push-pull I always feel with my sister. She slipped a glance back at the driveway, but the car was gone and the driver had disappeared into the crowd.
When she stood before their father, Hetty had an absurd urge to curtsy. He took up the space of two men, one hand holding a scepter, the other gripping his sword. Conscious of his descent from Augustus Chapman Allen, one of Houston's founders, Kirby Allen—or Kirb, as everyone called him—had draped himself in the robes of state worn by Edward VII at his coronation. A grand cape of ermine and crimson plunged from his shoulders; chains and coronets swept a silver light across his chest. That same light was in his gray eyes as he greeted his daughters with his usual aloofness. Hetty kissed him on the cheek above the full beard he'd tacked on with spirit gum to resemble his idol.
"Have you been smoking?" he growled into her ear.
"Of course!" Hetty laughed and turned her lips away from his. Somebody needs to tell him about the world war, she thought. He's still living in 1913, when only prostitutes smoked. Moving on to take her mother's hand, she realized that it wouldn't be his wife. Nella Ardra Allen had adorned herself in harem pants and jeweled slippers straight out of the Ballet Russe, but Hetty scoffed. Mamá may parade around as a Belle Epoque bohemian—but I know it's only a pose. A smile played over Nella's delicate white face as she reached for Hetty's sister and said, "Congratulations, darling." She drew back and gazed at Charlotte for a long moment, eyes unfathomable. "You have no idea what a triumph this is." Hetty waited for someone to comment on the tasteful silhouette of her silver kimono, but was quickly upstaged by Jessie Carter, who was in line just behind her.
As Lamar drew the sisters toward the ballroom, Lockett Welch latched onto the three of them. She was their neighbor, inhabiting the suite across the hall from their own spacious apartment on one of the residential floors of the Warwick. She was dressed in high Gothic, her sleeves sweeping the ground, her crowned hat broad as a cake plate and hung with veils that danced as she bobbed her head about, talking incessantly.
"Congressman Welch!" Lockett shouted at her husband. "Here are Nella's daughters. And they're both with Lamar Rusk." Her veils trembled at the thought.
"Don't surprise me at'all," he said, waving a fat palm toward Lamar. "How's the joker tonight?"
"Ready to frolic," Lamar said, kicking up a leg sheathed in green and yellow striped hose.
Hetty was swallowed up in veils as Lockett leaned over to kiss her on the cheek. "Don't feel bad, Esther. Princesses have more fun than queens. And look at you, darlin' Char, you clever thing. What a blue blood! Snatching that little ol' tiara away from simply everybody in Houston!" HEWStun. She continued chattering as they walked away.
Once through the great bronze doors, the revelers drifted in spangled clusters through the hotel lobby and into the candlelit ballroom. Hetty lingered by a potted palm, telling the other two to go in without her. Charlotte flounced off in her wide hoop skirt, Lamar dancing a jig around her. Hetty hung about the lobby hoping to spot the strange man again. She fell into a sofa and slipped her mask off. Out of her beaded evening bag, she pulled a pack of her favorite cigarettes, Lucky Strikes, and lit one, tugging on her turban. She thought her costume was so much more sophisticated than her sister's, who'd been allowed to spend a fortune on petticoats and flounces because she was to be enthroned on giant petals in the parade. Hetty had scrounged her outfit from her mother's closet: a Paul Poiret kimono-styled silver lamé gown that draped so beautifully and dragged a little on the ground. She loved that period before the war, when women had unlaced their corsets to cultivate an air of seduction and danger. Hetty had an ancient memory of her mother wearing this very same dress, glissading into their twilit bedroom as she often did before going out for the evening. She hovered over Hetty like a silvery shade in the floor-length lamé. Sometimes Hetty only dreamed she was there, and sometimes she really was. She appeared for an instant and was gone, leaving behind her a haunting musk of Nuit de Chine.
Hetty sank a little deeper into the sofa when she saw the stranger step up to the check-in desk. He nodded and reached for his billfold. The hat still eclipsed his face, but now Hetty could see that he was wearing, of all things, the gear of an oilman: boots laced up under riding breeches and a leather jacket. Was it only a costume or was this the man she'd been waiting to meet? As soon as he turned toward the elevators, she withdrew behind her mask.
When Hetty entered the great hall, revelers were parading about to waltz music, showing off their costumes. She joined them. The ballroom wore a disguise, too. They could have been anywhere but on the prairies of Texas—a hall of mirrors in France, a palazzo in Venice during carnevale. Dark green leaves gleamed in the candlelit shadows all around. Bushes like no one had ever seen in a cotton field offered up bolls made of white roses.
Hetty walked among tables clustered subtly by class: closest to the dance floor, place cards for the old cotton barons of Courtlandt Place circled by a tier for the nouveau riche of oil. She ended up on the sidelines near her parents' table, earmarked for the officers of the Citizen's Bank of South Texas. She laid her mask down and lit another Lucky, moving out of the shadows so she'd be under a chandelier. Across the room, she caught a glimpse of the stranger with the congressman's son, Glen Jr. She sent out some smoke signals, but he didn't notice her. Three young ladies huddled in the middle of the dance floor did. Winifred Neuhaus came tripping over first, a slender boyish blonde in a satin tux and top hat. She was followed closely by a pair of amber eyes smiling behind a white silk mask.
"Hey, Doris Verne." Hetty grinned back. "How's my favorite person?"
"Jealous, honey child," Doris said, lifting the white mask to her forehead. "As usual, you've upstaged us all. Look at you!"
"Just something I found in Mom's closet."
"Did you know you have charcoal all over your eyes?" asked Winifred.
The last to glide their way was Lockett's daughter Belinda Welch, cool and decorous in a towering powdered wig. Winifred slid a pack of Luckies out of her mannish tux jacket and passed them around. The three girls lit up, their smoke blazing in the light of the chandelier. They blew out as much as they could, knowing it would irritate their parents, taking long sensuous drags out of red, puckered lips. Winifred floated smoke rings above their heads. Hetty soon noticed her father frowning at her from across the room. She struck the pose of the Statue of Liberty, holding her cigarette as the torch. The other three girls followed, their four arms raised in smoldering sisterhood. Nobody was going to tell them they couldn't smoke in public anymore. Not in 1928. This was war.
"Lucky girls!" they all chanted together before lowering their arms.
"Liberty's still our lady, isn't she, girls?" Winifred asked.
"Only till we find someone better," Hetty said. "She was a gift from the French." Winifred was referring to their search for a local seraph who could hold them rapt with uncanny magic. It had started when they were classmates at the Kinkaid School and found out that Athens, Texas, had been named for the Greek goddess of wisdom.
"And whadda WE have?" Hetty had scribbled in a note to Winifred. "Hugh's town?" The four of them always sat Indian-style, one behind the other, so it was easier to pass notes. "Why weren't we born in a place called Aurora?" Doris Verne had added to the scrap of paper. "Or Juno?" Belinda had responded. "Too Greco-Roman!" Hetty had replied when the note returned to her. "I want a goddess for MY time and place." Winifred had giggled and written back: "Good luck with THAT in Harris County! Only Jesus saves here."
Belinda twirled with her cigarette in the air. "You could do worse. At least Liberty gives us freedom."
"I don't know how you expect to dance in that skirt, Bel," Hetty said, "since nobody can get within four feet of you."
"You think I want to dance with these college freshmen?" she said, putting on her usual air of bored contempt.
"Says you," piped in Winifred.
"I just want to get canned as soon as possible," Belinda said, sweeping them with her ice-blue eyes. "Who's got some hooch?"
"Probably just the college freshmen," Hetty said, dropping her smoking butt into a spittoon. "But that new fellow with your brother—he looks older."
"The choice one? Forget it, Hetty. I've already got my sights on him."
When the band struck up a fox-trot, they started arguing about who would ask him to dance. Lockett Welch sashayed into their group, tripping over her endless medieval sleeves. "Be quiet, y'all. You can't dance with that gate crasher sitting at the Rice Institute table ...?" She raised her voice a tad at the end, turning the statement into a question and looking from one to the other for a response.
"Was there something you wanted to tell us, Mother?" Belinda asked.
"I'm just so put out with your brother for inviting this person into our festivities. Anyone can see he doesn't belong here."
"Oh? Aren't they old friends?" Hetty asked.
"Hardly. He showed up at my door one day completely unannounced, saying he was new in town. It was the most awkward moment I've experienced in years!"
"But he did have a letter of introduction," Belinda said.
"From someone I didn't even know—his mother Arleen."
"But Dad knew his father."
"Vaguely. They were in the Senate together."
"Ah, a senator's son," Hetty said.
"He doesn't act like a senator's son, I must say," Lockett declared. "The first thing he did was take Glen on a bear hunt in the Big Thicket—why, that's somewhere in East Texas!" Her veils quaked as she spit the words out.
"Mother, he's not a Thicketeer."
"He's not? What did you hear?" Lockett said, her eyebrows raised like question marks.
"Glen told me his father was in mining in Montana and made a fortune ..." Belinda said.
"Mining? Fortune?" Lockett's ears perked up.
"And he moved here to wildcat ..."
"Wildcat?" Winifred chuckled. "He's only about twenty years too late."
"At any rate, I beg you to remember he's a gate crasher," Lockett admonished them. "I want to go on record that I did not invite him to this party," she said, herding her daughter toward the congressman's table.
As she was pulled away, Belinda made a face and said, "He's mine."
Doris Verne Hargraves murmured to Hetty, their heads tipped together, "Look—he sat down with Melba and Butch and those kids. The ones who put on petting parties."
"I'm moving in," Hetty said and sauntered over to the buffet. She grabbed a cup of punch and sipped it while eyeing the cluster of hunters and their friends, all in a huddle. They had the noisiest table in the room. The stranger openly handed a bottle around. They all laughed. Hetty felt drawn irresistibly in their direction and started to drift that way, but was cut off by her father. He brushed past her, followed by two waiters. She paused to see what they would do. Kirb rounded the Rice table and, tossing his heavy cape aside, confiscated the bottle from a girl about to take a swig. One of the waiters tapped the man from Montana on the shoulder and motioned for him to leave. Instantly, the table grew quiet. Words shot back and forth. As the waiters reached to lift him out of his seat, he stood on his own and brushed their hands away. Heads turned from all over the ballroom. The music played on.
Everyone watched as the stranger—with a defiant swagger—was escorted down one side of the dance floor. Hetty veered over to get a better view. His face wasn't quite as suave as she'd pictured—a first rough cut at handsome. His black hair was worn sheik-style, parted down the middle and slicked back, the firm jaw clean-shaven.
Kirb tried to block her view of the interloper, but she was able to crane her neck to see his eyes. Crystalline blue, in spite of his black hair. The color you see when light strikes a prism. He locked eyes with her. Finally, he's noticed me, Hetty thought. She was about to pursue him when her mother materialized at her arm.
"Esther, dear, stop staring at that man. You know what I've always told you girls: The eye is a sex organ. You're being wanton and don't realize it." Nella spoke smoothly as she entwined her arm in Hetty's and gracefully escorted her back toward the dance floor. She smelled of whiskey and roses.
"Why are they throwing that fellow out? Everybody's drinking—including you, Mother."
"He doesn't look like he belongs here, anyway."
"And we do? If they knew the truth about us, they'd probably throw us out, too."
"Shhh!" Nella's eyes darted about, but her mouth wore a gracious smile as she murmured, "How would anyone find those things out?"
"Don't worry, Mamá, I may be wanton, but I'm not stupid. I won't reveal your little secret."
Nella's fingers caught Hetty's arm in a vise. "Ah, here's Lamar. I think he's wanting to fox-trot with you."
Hetty was passed from one arm to another. Lamar led her onto the dance floor jingling, her kimono ashimmer in the pale light as it trailed behind her.