A gentleman of excellent breeding and taste always notices when a lady is bored or shy and makes an effort to include her in the party. Thus, it was not surprising that a well-dressed dandy, with a trim moustache and a very impressive top hat, noticed very quickly that Miss Dashwood was standing in the corner, looking lonely. Noting that her clothing was expensive, though perhaps not of the latest style, and that her countenance was pleasing, though her skin appeared to be slightly wind-burned, he determined that he could engage her in conversation without loss to his social standing.
“Excuse me, Miss, I am Mr. Belcher,” he said by way of greeting.
Oh good, thought Melora, smiling with private glee. A dandy!
“Miss Melora Dashwood,” she introduced herself, her voice a pleasant Southern drawl, extending one gloved hand.
“Are you feeling quite well? I could not help but notice you standing here alone,” he said solicitously, laying a ghost of a kiss across the back of her hand.
Melora’s eyes twinkled. “I am quite well, I assure you. How kind of you to inquire. I am only a little shy, but I quite enjoy watching the guests and I am very happy here in my corner.”
Some gentlemen would have taken this as an indication that she wished to be left alone, but not Mr. Belcher. There was something mysterious sparkling in her luminous green eyes and the curious way she smiled, as if at some private amusement. Intrigued, he leaned in closer, being considerably taller than she, and complimented her on her top hat.
“Oh, thank you,” she said, her smile coy, one hand going to the hat, her fingers toying briefly with the brim. “It’s not nearly so fine as yours, I think.”
“But mine does not possess such handsome goggles,” he replied, without missing a beat.
Melora laughed, a surprisingly low chuckle. “They are more practical than decorative. Easily found in the most common shops, hardly unique.” She blinked, her eyes closing and opening with deliberate slowness, showing off her long, dark eyelashes against her pale cheeks.
Mr. Belcher was caught for a moment in that long blink, admiring her dark lashes and creamy skin, but quickly regained his composure. He groped for something else to compliment without seeming overtly sexual; it would not do to tell her that her skin reminded him of fresh milk, or her eyes the color of bright emeralds. Inadvertently he found himself staring at her chest, where her low decolletage revealed an expanse of pale flesh, the soft mounds of...
“What a lovely key!” He exclaimed, tearing his gaze away from her assets. Luckily for him, an antique key, blackened with age, hung from a black ribbon around her neck, contrasting beautifully with the white of her skin.
Melora, fully aware his roving eyes, touched the key self-consciously and smiled. “Thank you. It is an antique.”
“And what does it open?” Mr. Belcher asked, desperate to maintain a socially-acceptable conversation topic.
He could have sworn then that her eyes flashed with something--was it rage? triumph?--before she replied, her voice still that deceptively pleasant drawl. “A mysterious box. No one knows what it contains, but it is very old.” Her voice had taken on a dreamy quality, and her eyes became unfocused, as if she were staring at something he could not see. “It could contain vast wealth, or a horrible curse. It can never be opened and unleashed upon the world.”
“Vast...wealth?” Mr. Belcher repeated, bewildered.
Melora’s eyes focused on his face and she smiled, like someone just awakening from a pleasant dream. “Nothing is free, Mister Belcher,” she said. “The key was entrusted to me because I am not tempted by treasure.”
“Not tempted?” He asked, sounding rather like a parrot. He shook his head, annoyed at how easily this strange woman seemed to have hypnotized him. “What kind of wealth are we talking about?”
To his surprise, she laughed, but it was not a flirtatious, girlish giggle or a man’s guffaw. It was a sensual sort of chuckle, somehow heavy with mysterious knowledge and promising carnal delights. It made him shiver like a winter draught in an otherwise cozy room.
“The wealth doesn’t matter, because the box will never be opened,” she said cryptically.
“You might consider what that kind of treasure could buy, Miss Dashwood,” Mr. Belcher replied, his mind creating a huge treasure chest stuffed with pirate gold and sparkling gemstones. “It could buy a great deal of comfort for a woman like yourself, or the lesser peons of this world.” He added that last quickly, hoping to make himself sound like the charitable sort, and appeal to her soft nature.
She narrowed her eyes at him, pressing her lips together as if considering this. “And you would help me consolidate my wealth, for a small fee? Am I correct?” There was amusement in her voice, each word precisely measured for sarcastic effect.
Mr. Belcher drew himself up and tried to look offended, attempting to hide his surprise that she had sussed out his intentions so quickly. “I am comfortable myself, Miss, with my own estates. I have no need to poach a gentlewoman’s fortune!”
“Of course not,” Melora replied apologetically. “I am sorry. Forgive me the presumption.”
Satisfied with her apology, but still strangely unnerved, Mr. Belcher nodded and tugged at his moustache a little. “Of course not. But wherever did you find this mysterious box? Some Ancient Egyptian tomb?” He scoffed at the notion, and she laughed, which led him to chuckle, and add, “Did you have to solve the mystery of a magical pyramid and fight a mummy?”
She wiped tears of mirth from her eyes and, once she had caught her breath from laughing, said, “Oh, no, nothing like that. The box was obtained on one of our Material Acquisition and Relocation Missions. We're specialists. Alas, no mummies were involved, though I suspect they might have been for the original acquirers of the item. How disappointing for us, I've always wanted to meet a mummy! No, all we had to do was seduce a statesman, disable a couple of security guards, pick a lock, and banish a protective spirit that, incidentally, said some really nasty things about my Ma! Of course, I do not wish to mislead you, my part in the acquisition was small, and my exploits limited to the destruction of the spirit and removal of a curse. The Captain picked the lock and Miss Van Eycke seduced the statesman, though I do not truly know what became of the guards...”
While she spoke, Mr. Belcher’s face went from amused to surprised to confused. “But...how...” he began.
Melora frowned. “Oh dear. I believe I’ve said too much.” While her male companion struggled to grasp the particulars of her tale, she nodded soberly to someone outside of his range of vision, and when he turned to see the person to whom she was nodding, he felt a little prick on his hand. Behind him was only shadows, and when he jerked back to look at Miss Dashwood he found that she was blurring, and becoming smaller, as if disappearing down a long, dark tunnel. And then he was in darkness.
“I told you not to do this again,” a voice said, decidedly male, a hushed baritone.
“You know she can’t help herself,” said a woman’s voice, deeper than most, but definitely female. There was the rustle of crinolines against silk.
“If I cannot open it, I should at least be allowed to talk about it,” a familiar voice added. She had a Southern accent, and though she was whispering Mr. Belcher realized groggily that it was the mysterious Miss Dashwood.
He tried to sit up to reprimand the strange woman, but when he attempted to move he found his limbs did not cooperate. A frustrated gurgle issued from his throat, the best he could do at speech.
“He lives!” Melora said triumphantly. Mr. Belcher managed to open his eyes a crack--it took enormous effort, as if his eyes had been glued shut-- and found himself gazing up at the offending woman, no longer wearing her top hat, and a dark-skinned fellow, very difficult to see with the midnight-blue sky framing his head. A third face, this of a pale, red-haired woman, wearing the kind of clothes one would expect to see at a Masquerade Ball, appeared over him and then, snorting derisively, moved away.
Seeing the woman’s clothes made him think of the party. Where had they taken him? Had they poisoned him? Would he ever regain use of his limbs? In his anger he attempted to ask these questions, but again, all that resulted was an infuriating gurgle, and a slight twitching in his hands.
“He’ll recover soon,” The dark man said, nodding to Miss Dashwood.
“We’re terribly sorry to do this,” she said, though she did not sound particularly apologetic. “I hope you’re not afraid of heights.”
The dark man crouched by Mr. Belcher’s head, and leaned in so close that he could smell roast beef on his breath. “Tell no one that you met Miss Dashwood. Take the secret of her existence to your grave. Remember that we let you live when we didn’t have to, and that we have no compunctions about changing our minds on that issue. We know your name, and where you live; we have killed men over smaller mistakes. Understand?”
Mr. Belcher gurgled in fear.
“He means it,” Melora added from further away. The dark man turned to glare at her, and she sighed and stood up and wandered away, like a child bored with a toy.
The man stood, walked to Mr. Belcher’s feet, and grasped his ankles. While he was dragged across the floor, Mr. Belcher heard the creaking of ropes, as if aboard a great ship, and wondered how they had gotten to the ocean from land-locked St. Louis. Unless he’d been unconscious for longer than he realized?
He could hear the two women talking under the sound of his clothes sliding against the ship’s deck. “If you can’t learn some self-control you won’t be allowed to go to parties anymore,” the red-haired woman was saying in her low voice. Miss Dashwood replied contritely, saying “I tried to be good. He landed right in my lap! He even asked about the key. I’m not good at lying.”
“You’re not good at resisting temptation,” the redhead replied, a statement that Mr. Belcher would wonder about for the next few hours. He would find it maddening, in light of Miss Dashwood’s story about the key and the mysterious treasure chest, as he spent hours drifting aimlessly above the Earth, unable to control his parachute, the wind pushing him this way and that, until at last he recovered some use of his arms and was able to guide himself to a rocky landing somewhere outside of Atlanta.
By that time, the airship from which he had been unceremoniously tossed had disappeared into the night sky, taking with it the be-damned Miss Melora Dashwood and her mysterious key.
Author's Note: edited for formatting, since blogger hates tabs.
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