‘Masquerade’ by Madeleine Taylor will be out on 27/08/2020 and is now available for pre-order through the link at the bottom.
I’m a little nervous as I follow my friend Tessa past the long rows of enormous properties that make up the Garden District in New Orleans. She insisted we come here tonight and although I was excited while we were shopping for our costumes and masks this afternoon, my normally self-assured demeanor is starting to crumble now that I’m about to enter a party in a city that I only stepped foot in last night and where I don’t know anyone apart from Tessa.
“These houses are out of this world,” I murmur, peeking through the gates to admire the huge yards and pristine pools. “Are you sure we’re dressed appropriately?”
“Are you serious? You look fabulous, Ivy.” The masked party being thrown in her friend’s huge house is supposed to be the place to be tonight and we’ve gone all out, following the ‘Black & White masquerade’ dress code printed on the formal invitation.
“Thank you. So do you.” I stare down at my long, black dress and decide that I do indeed, look fabulous. It’s vintage and has lace trumpet sleeves that match the skirt part. The black corset I’m wearing over it makes me look a little gothic, and in combination with my black Venetian style feathered mask, long, dark hair and naturally pale face I could very well pass for a ghost in the dark. “And I can’t believe how fast you’ve managed to make friends, considering you only moved here just over five weeks ago.”
“What can I say, people are just naturally drawn to me.” Tessa bats her eyelashes at me before she pulls her mask over her face, letting me know we’re close. She’s wearing a white dress we found in the same store. With her blonde hair and white feather adorned mask, we’re quite the pair, and passers-by are staring at us from a restaurant terrace as we turn a corner looking like ballerinas about to audition for the leads in Swan Lake.
“This one?” I ask incredulously as she stops in front of a huge house that looks stunning and even grander than the pastel-colored French colonial buildings next door.
“Yeah, I think this is it,” Tessa says, checking the details.
“How can you not be sure? I thought you knew…” I take the elegantly designed invitation from her and read the name of the host. “Countess Montgomery, which I assume is an alias.”
“Knowing is a strong word,” Tessa says as the heavy cast-iron gates open, and we’re asked by the security team to step into the front yard. An enchanting fountain sits on the lawn to our right. It’s lit up from below, the five cherubs in the middle shooting jets of water through their raised trumpets. The beautiful mansion is painted white with pastel green windowsills and shutters. A wide balcony with ornate railings runs along the second floor with French doors painted in the same shade of green. Large trees covered in Spanish moss are lined up on both sides of the long driveway that leads to the front door, and the many lanterns in the trees make for a spectacular sight.
A dozen or so women who have just arrived are hanging out by the gates. Some are wearing suits, but most of them are dressed in skimpy dresses, or very little but an elaborate mask and elegant lingerie with a separate train or a tuxedo jacket. Although they’ve all respected the black and white theme, their outfits are a lot more daring than ours, and I’m starting to wonder if we got the dress code wrong.
Studying the guests, I make a second observation and voice it. “I don’t see any men here.” Not that I mind; men are not my thing and I’m here to have some fun.
“You’re right. I think we may be in luck tonight.” Tessa smirks. “It’s been a while since I’ve been to a women-only party.”
My eyes are drawn to a woman in a short, black latex dress, smoking a cigarette under one of the trees by the gates. She’s wearing a mask that looks like lead has melted over half her face; silver wax-like drips run down her dark cheeks to complete the effect, but I can see from what’s exposed that she’s very pretty. Wild curls frame her mahogany face, and the mask accentuates her full lips. Another woman joins her wearing a sharp-tailored black suit. She has short, slicked back dark hair and is wearing a distinctly shaped Phantom of the Opera mask. Her eyes are so black that I wonder if she’s wearing contacts as she stares at me, sizing me up like prey. It’s giving me chills, yet I can’t help but look at her, too.
“Good evening,” Tessa says, flashing the invitation at one of the female security guards.
“Good evening.” A woman the size of a tree looks down at Tessa and raises a brow. “Password?”
I glance at Tessa, whose eyes flash back and forth between me, the talking tree and the street behind us. “It’s ehm…” Tessa shuffles on the spot, then lets out a deep sigh. “Fuck.”
I groan at her, because by now, I know exactly what’s going on. “Where did you get that invitation from?” I whisper at her. “Be honest. It’s clear you weren’t invited.”
“I found it,” Tessa says in a thin voice, looking deflated as her shoulders drop. “On the floor of the public restrooms, in the hotel I was staying at before I got the keys to my apartment.”
“No password, no entry,” the tree-like woman says in a friendly but pressing tone, gesturing to the gates for us to leave.
“I can’t believe you pulled this on me again,” I mumble in embarrassment, remembering New Year’s Eve, the last time she falsely claimed to have been invited to an exclusive party in New York, where we both lived at the time. “I’m thirty-five and you’ve made me try to crash a party for the second time in a year. It’s embarrassing beyond belief.”
Tessa doesn’t reply, clearly mortified herself, but just as we’re about to leave, the woman in the suit walks up to us. “Wait, they’re with me,” she says to the security guard before taking my hand, bending forward and kissing the top of it. Her lips press so softly against my skin that I can barely feel it, yet a shiver runs through me as I watch her bow. Something about her is incredibly sensual, and I’m curious to know what’s behind the mask.
“Miss…?” Her voice is low and husky.
“Miss Black,” I lie, not feeling entirely comfortable giving my surname to a stranger, even if the stranger has just saved us from humiliation.
“Welcome to the party, Miss Black.” The woman turns to Tessa. “Then you must be Miss White?” An amused smile plays around her lips. “Are you… together?”
“No,” I’m quick to say, unsure why I desperately want her to know I’m single. Tessa is my ex, but our attraction faded over twelve years ago and we’ve been best friends ever since. We recently agreed during a drunken night that we’d rather chew our arms off than sleep with each other again, so there’s never even been as much as a flirty comment between us since we were in our early twenties.
“Good.” The woman’s smile widens. “Let me introduce myself. In case you hadn’t worked it out I’m the Phantom, and this is my friend Stephanie,” she says when the woman in the latex dress joins us. “Stephanie, will you show Miss White to the bar, please? I’ll make sure Miss Black gets a drink.” She holds out her arm and instinctively I hook mine through it as I glance at Tessa, who is being whisked away by the other woman.
I can’t say I’m entirely comfortable around the Phantom, as she calls herself; she’s persistent, acting as if she’s already got me in her pocket, and I’m aware of the heavy gates closing behind me. When I observe guests entering the mansion, I note that they have a strange air about them, and that the atmosphere is way darker than I expected. The idea of finding Tessa and sneaking out after one drink crosses my mind, but first, I need to apologize. “I’m terribly sorry about gate-crashing the party,” I say, looking up at her. “My friend told me she knew the hostess, but that’s clearly not the case.”
“Don’t worry about it.” My handsome companion takes a tighter hold of my arm as she leads me to the entrance. “I know most people here and you’re with me, now. I couldn’t have wished for a better surprise than a gorgeous stranger showing up unexpectedly, so please allow me the pleasure of your company, at least for a little while.”
“Cocktail?” The Phantom hands me a tall glass with a black liquid that smells faintly of licorice. “There’s champagne at the other bar if you prefer, but I thought this suited your looks tonight.”
“Thank you.” I take a sip and let it roll over my palette. “It’s good.”
“Of course.” She says it as if it’s a given that anything this party has to offer is good. “It has a couple of secret ingredients, but don’t worry—it’s all natural.”
“Are you telling me the drinks are spiked?” I raise a brow at her and tilt my head.
“No. I’m saying the cocktail contains certain herbs. There’s nothing synthetic in there and it won’t make you go crazy or do anything you don’t want to do.” She winks. “It might enhance your desires, though.”
As her words linger between us, I contemplate handing the drink back and leaving, but I can’t seem to tear myself away from her. She has an air about her that draws me in, and I find her incredibly attractive. In desperate need of liquid courage, and for no reason other than that my intuition tells me it’s okay, I decide to trust her and take another sip. “Very well, I’ll take your word for it.”
I must admit, the place looks very, very impressive as she offers her arm and shows me around. Two bars are set up in the spacious living room that is dimly lit and decorated with antique furniture, rich tapestries, huge chandeliers and exquisite, old oil paintings. Despite the opulence, I can see that the furniture is worn-out, and that there has been little maintenance done in the past years. It must be terribly expensive to maintain a house like this, but the paintwork that is chipped in places and the slightly damaged wallpaper, only adds to the charm.
The scent of incense hangs thick in the air and my sight is blurred by the occasional clouds of mist coming from the dry ice machine behind the DJ booth, which is set up in a corner of the room. An androgynous looking woman dressed in nothing but a pair of black shorts and a tuxedo jacket, is playing a slow, eerie tune that adds to the mysterious, laid-back vibe. In the middle of the room, the furniture has been cleared, and women are slow dancing, which is something I haven’t done since my high school graduation party.
People are everywhere, loitering on the sweeping staircase that leads up from the grand hallway and we spot others in various rooms as we pass their open doorways. The staff hired for tonight are dressed in simple black suits and black masks, and it’s kind of intriguing not being able to see anyone’s faces. Perhaps my companion is the most intriguing of all; her nonchalance and total confidence making me more and more curious by the minute. She’s clearly interested in me too, as she hasn’t taken her intense black eyes off me for a second and is blatantly ignoring everyone else.
“So, does the Phantom have a first name?” I ask.
She tilts her head and takes a sip of her drink, and her smile sends shivers down my spine. “Not tonight. Tonight, I’m just the Phantom.”
“Right.” I chuckle. “So, is The Phantom of the Opera your favorite musical?”
“Okay,” I say, wondering why it’s so damn hard to get any information out of this woman. She’s clearly not one for small talk. “Well, my name is…”
“Shh…” She hushes me, placing her thumb on my lips and it’s making me tingle all over. “Don’t you like the anonymity we’ve got going on here?” She leans in closer to whisper in my ear. “Don’t you like the idea of having a mind-blowing night with a stranger who will please you in ways you can’t even begin to imagine?”
Her last question makes me take in a quick breath, and as my lips part, she keeps her thumb there, wedging it between them. It sets me on fire and parts of me that have been neglected in the past year suddenly come to life, reminding me of what I’ve been missing. I can’t say the thought of kissing her hasn’t crossed my mind in the ten minutes I’ve spent in her company. Her lips are alluring, and her eyes have something dark and dangerous about them that arouses me each time she looks at me. Sex with a stranger is not something I’d normally even consider, but still, I make no effort to remove her thumb. Quite the opposite; I fight the urge to suck it into my mouth, and when she straightens herself and pulls her hand away, I feel a flicker of disappointment.
“I don’t know what to say to that.”
“But it’s simple.” Again, there’s that stare. “Does that idea turn you on, or not?” Awaiting my answer, she takes my drink from me and puts it down before she pulls me in by my waist, drawing me against her. “Never mind, where are my manners? I should at least offer you a dance to give you time to think about it.”
I’m grateful for the dancefloor as I’m not sure I can manage to hold a conversation after her indecent proposal, so I let her lead the way.
“Do you know how masked balls started?” she asks, pressing her hand firmly into the small of my back.
“No,” I whisper, aware of the alarming lack of distance between our lips. “Tell me.” I’m not a great dancer and I have no idea what I’m doing, but it doesn’t matter. There’s music, we’re moving, and our physical closeness feels amazing. It’s been a while since I’ve felt a woman’s body against my own, and hers does not disappoint. Strong arms, her thigh brushing between my legs each time she takes a step forward, her hips against mine…
“Balls have a long history, but masks were first worn during carnival season, where big indulgent celebrations were held before Lent; generally seen as a time of somber fasting,” the Phantom says. “People wore masks to hide their identity, so they could drink as much as they wanted, express controversial opinions and even have sex with people from different social classes, without having to face the consequences. Masks gave them the anonymity they needed to be free. Eighteenth-century masked balls were especially of an erotic nature.” She pauses, and her lips pull into a smile. “I feel like indulging tonight. Do you?”
“I think I do,” I hear myself say, but I’m not sure if I mean it. Although my body wants to, from the way it’s reacting to her, it seems a little extreme for me. I came here with the intention of maybe meeting some new people, to have some fun, to flirt a little but not to dive under the covers with a stranger.
Scanning the crowd and simultaneously searching for Tessa, I notice a lot of people are making out and, in some cases, it’s getting very heated. Considering it’s not even ten pm, I doubt any of these people are too drunk to realize what they’re doing. There’s a voyeuristic atmosphere, as if by some silent understanding, it’s okay for them to do whatever they want here tonight. “What kind of party is this?” I ask, not sure if I’m ready for the answer.
“The fun kind. The hedonistic kind.” The Phantom moves her hand lower, so that she can caress my behind and she then roughly squeezes it. “Are you okay with that?”
I bite my lip and nod, then realize what I’ve just done and shake my head. “Not my scene,” I say, still drawn to her mouth. It’s like I can’t take my eyes off her lips, and I’m dying to know what’s under the mask. Her short hair is gelled back, the way a fifties salesman would wear it, or perhaps phantoms, if they were real.
“Then you shouldn’t have gate-crashed.” She winks, letting me know she’s joking. “If you want me to walk you out, I will, but I can’t help thinking it would be a waste of a wonderful opportunity for both of us.”
I choose not to answer, buying myself time. Finally, I spot Tessa on a chaise in the corner of the room, talking to Stephanie. They’re sitting next to each other and Stephanie already has her arm around her. Seeing how engaged Tessa looks, I know that I won’t be able to drag her away from the woman if I try, but I have a spare key to her apartment, so it doesn’t really matter. I’ll leave when I want to leave, I tell myself, although I’m not totally sure what I really want regarding anything at this point. My seductive temptress of a phantom has planted a seed in my mind, and I keep wondering what it would feel like if she kissed me.
The song comes to an end, and the Phantom takes my hand and leads us back to the bar. “How about another drink, Miss Black?”
“So, what do people talk about without giving anything away about themselves?” I ask when we’re sitting on a couch in something that looks like a reception room. There are fewer people in here, but the vibe is the same; steamy, heated, sexual. No one is taking it any further than kissing so far, but their hands have started to wander now, and it’s hard not to look. “I can’t ask you about your name, how you know the hostess, or what you do for a living,” I continue, desperate to take my mind off the woman opposite me, whose hand is now making its way up another woman’s thigh.
“We could talk about what you’d like me to do to you in bed,” she suggests matter-of- factly, making my heart rate go up so fast that I clutch onto my chest. “I take it from your reaction that public intimacy isn’t your thing, but I have a nice room upstairs. Countess Montgomery is fine with me using it and it’s very private.”
“Of course you do.” I can’t help but laugh because she’s simply not giving up. After my second drink though, I’m feeling more relaxed and the chemistry between us is explosive.
“Well?” She arches a brow. “What do you want, Miss Black?”
A blush rises to my cheeks and I hide behind my glass. Being a professional nightclub singer, I’m not normally the shy retiring type, but I seem to have lost my ability to speak tonight. “I’m not sure if I know what I want. Not right now, anyway.”
My seductress nods, the corners of her mouth tugging up. “Then maybe you should let me decide what you want. Do you like handing over control?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You know very well what I mean. Does the idea of me being in command appeal to you?”
“No.” As the answer leaves my lips in a breathy whimper, I know I’m lying. Although I’ve had many fantasies, I’ve never submitted to anyone. “Maybe.”
“Maybe means you’re curious. Are you curious, Miss Black?” Her eyes flash back at me and I let out a quiet breath before I finally give in.
It’s just one word, but somehow, I feel like that one word is about to change my world. A rush of heat spreads between my thighs, making me quiver. Clearly, I want this more that I realized, and if I’m ever going to try something totally out of my comfort zone, it might as well be with an anonymous stranger who I will never see again.
“Are you sure?” Her hand slides up my thigh, making my chest heave. “You know what? It doesn’t matter; you can change your mind anytime.” A gentle squeeze is all the encouragement I need, because all I can think of now is having that hand in other places. I have no idea how she’s done it, but within the span of an hour, I’ve agreed to go upstairs with her and let her do God knows what to me.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Then let’s explore together.” Taking my glass from me, the Phantom stands up and holds out her hand. “Let me show you to the room.”
My legs are trembling as I get up, but deep down, I know I’ll regret it if I don’t do this tonight. I told Tessa earlier I was ready to have some fun again, after my girlfriend left me for someone else eight months ago, and this woman is not only devilishly attractive and charming, but the sexual chemistry is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. My body is craving to be touched again, and her fleeting caresses and dark eyes have set me on fire. “Wait… I need to check on Tessa.”
“I have no doubt she’s enjoying herself.” The Phantom leads me to the living room, where I see Tessa making out with Stephanie in a big armchair. She’s draped half on top of her and she seems to have been sucked into the same sexual energy as everyone else. It’s typical Tessa, throwing herself into the arms of the first woman who pays her attention—she’s always been that way—but Stephanie is smoking hot and I’m happy for her. Besides, I’m in no position to judge her as I’m about to do exactly the same thing myself.
“Tessa,” I say, gently nudging her shoulder.
“Oh, hey.” Tessa looks from me to Stephanie and back as if I’ve just woken her up from a spell. Realizing her bra is visible, she frowns and pulls the shoulder strap of her dress back up. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll just be gone for a bit. Do you mind?”
Glancing down at Stephanie, she grins before she turns back to me. “No, I don’t mind. I’ll be right here if you need me.”
“Are you okay?” I have to ask, because even for her, this is unusual behavior. “Do you feel weird in any way?”
“No. I feel…” Tessa takes a moment to think about it, then says, “I just feel immensely turned on, that’s all.” Then Stephanie pulls her back toward her mouth and they fall into another heated kiss like I’m not even there.
The Phantom doesn’t seem to think this is strange at all, and judging by the situation in the room, I know we need to either leave or join in, being the only voyeurs among many heated bodies. Groups have started to form naturally, a mysterious organic attraction pulling women together and I can see where this is heading. Concluding Tessa is fine, I take a deep breath and give my new friend a look that tells her I’m ready.
We walk up two flights of the broad staircase and head for a door at the end of the corridor. There’s nothing but silence between us, but it’s not uncomfortable. On the contrary—it only adds to the excitement and anticipation that is growing inside of me. I’ve just surrendered to my fate for the night, even though I have no idea what will happen. She takes a key out of her pocket and unlocks the door. “After you.”