All fine silk and satin turning elegantly in a brightly lit room. Every colour available in fashion all squashed into one horrible clash.

Marian stayed silently in her corner of the room; glad of the mask that obscured her identity…obscured everyone's identity. She had long ago lost Walter and Laura in the throng and made no effort to find them. After all it was their party and Laura had made her swear to stay until the unmasking at midnight. A small groan escaped her lips. She had already been here ages with what seemed like hours left to go and it was insufferable.

The alcohol had been flowing freely and most were more than slightly on the relaxed side, already emboldened by their hidden faces.

As yet Marian felt no different with the addition of the mask. Uncomfortable, bored and ignored summed it up nicely, certainly not confident.

"Excuse me Mademoiselle?"

Marian jumped and she turned quick to meet the electric blue eyes set in a black velvet mask. The rest of the costume was red and black over an ample frame.

"May I have this dance?" He held out one hand gallantly.

The words of refusal were on the tip of her tongue just as her hand took his own. That must have been the mask working, drawing her out. Marian scolded herself mentally, but finally allowed that maybe she wouldn't be so bored if she danced.

He led her for two dances, not just the one. His style was smooth and confident despite his size, and his manner was charming. He reminded her of someone she had not let herself think of for five years, except in her weaker moments when lonliness threatened its worst. She pushed the thought away.

Fosco had gone through a dramatic change in five years. After a slight miscalculation in one of his exploits in Venice he had been forced to flee to France, adopt the mannerisms and accent of a Frenchman, and lose some weight, not much, but just enough to alter his appearance. He had always enjoyed a masked ball and so not very much convincing had been needed to attend this particular party, since it was one of the social highlights of the year…oh, but of course it was hosted by the Lady Walter Harkwright, once Glyde. A gamble if ever there was one – but he felt confident of his disguise and sure he would not be recognised. He would leave before the unmasking and none would be the wiser…

So he had entered and strode amongst the throng looking for entertainment, and there she was in the corner. She had not very much changed in the years since he had seen her last, with such bitter farewell. She looked delectable in a scarlet gown and mask, hardly fitting for a virgin. He was so sure it was her, wished that it were. His fingers itched to touch her again, to kiss her soft skin. A gamble wouldn't be any fun without any risk, and so with a smirk he crossed the room to her side, under his mask, and asked Miss Halcombe to dance.

The song ended and her masked partner bowed low, placing a kiss on her upturned hand and Marian felt her heart foolishly jump. His eyes captured hers as his lips lingered over her skin and a long forgotten feeling stirred in her veins.

"If everyone would care to be silent the unmasking shall commence at the last strike of midnight…"

Marian glanced up at the announcement. So soon? She had barely noticed the passing of the hours. She would see her partner…a small smile tugged at her lips as she focused back to him.

There was something wrong. The masked man had frozen, still holding her hand, and now he dropped it.

"Mademoiselle," he bowed abruptly and turning on his heel strode away from her.

The shock left her momentarily immobile before her temper flared. As the first strike filled the room she was already pursuing him.

The stranger was almost at the front door when she entered the corridor behind him.

"Leaving already?" The chime of the clock echoed in the background.

The figure paused at the door and turned back to her.

"I have places to be."

The disappointment-turned-anger fizzed in her head.

"So you were going to leave? Just like that?"

I want to see your face…

A wicked, mischievous smile flashed across his face and before she could react he had reached her. In those few strides he grasped her shoulders and kissed her hard.

Marian stood with wide eyes as his eyes glinted a few centimetres from her own.

"Is that what you expected?"

Furious, she raised a hand to strike him but thought better of it and placed it to her burning cheek.

"Ah…I have disappointed you."

The last chime rang out and in the next room Marian knew everyone was removing masks. Her eyes met the stranger's, desperately hoping they only showed defiance and not the disappointed ache in her chest. She felt like this had happened somewhere before…

"You did not hear the last strike?"

His voice had turned gentle, silken. She stared as memory fluttered. "It means, Miss Halcombe, that you remove your mask.

Surprise made her open her mouth to ask how he knew her name but the words never left. Hands slipped into her hair and a light intake of breath betrayed her. The mask fluttered to the floor as his eyes drank in every detail of her face.

"Still so beautiful…"

A feather-touch on the back of her head where his fingers still lingered and she was tilting towards him. Her eyes slid shut against her better judgement as his mouth pressed against her own. Hands trailed from her hair down her neck, her back, until he'd gathered her to him completely. Her head swam dizzily as she was aware of only him and the need to be closer, to have more.

"Miss Halcombe," came the light breath of air as he moved his lips to her ear.

"Cara mia" smooth, beautiful Italian curled its way through her senses.

"Fosco?" a light exhale of breath, and he chuckled.

"How could I not?"

Then he was gone, out of the door, leaving her stunned and alone. It was some time before her sister wandered in behind her and asked what she was doing.

"Playing Solitaire," Marian whispered back and touched her lips.