Story Title: Masquerade

Ship: Trory

Summary: Rory obtains a dance lesson from a masked man. Trory.

Rating: T

Emily Gilmore having knowledge of one's dress size was a very dangerous prospect. An expensive one as well, but luckily her generosity was matched by her insane attention to detail and her desire to attain the highest social status while maintaining the utmost decorum. All that was simply a fancy way of saying that her granddaughter, Rory Gilmore, had agreed to fill a seat at yet another charity event that was on Emily's social calendar, only to find herself in an outfit that cost more than she'd spend on a half a year's rent, surrounded by virtual strangers in equally fine clothing at a fancy venue in Hartford.

Rory had to admit, the event that evening wasn't to be like all the other often mind-numbing proceedings where some old man droned on and on from a podium about the need to preserve some rare collection of instruments from a village she'd never heard of or a woman dripping in jewels who thanked her along with the rest of the audience for her generous donation on behalf of very sick children. Rory never personally made these contributions, as she barely afforded paying for food and rent and had little left over after doing that, but she knew very well that Emily Gilmore had taken care of it all. Donations were always made in her name, buildings erected as proof, and fashionable outfits were delivered to her address. The outfit she'd been given by messenger earlier that afternoon had included a bejeweled black-and-white mask, which matched her floor-length black-and-white ball gown, as well as a hand-written note on personalized stationary that informed her where to arrive later for the masquerade ball to raise funds to restore the Hartford library.

Normally having little to say at such events, Rory was relieved to be supporting, if in name and chair-filling capacity only, a cause she believed in and therefore at least there was potential for her to be able to discuss her first love: books. The extra advantage of the evening being that she would be hidden behind a mask, with perhaps less pressure to get stuck in the series of conversations involving name-dropping and endless questions about what part of the social hierarchy she had either achieved or aspired to.

She'd arranged to meet her grandparents there, as she had a drive up from New York—where she was currently on staff for an online publication. She'd been in Chicago for a couple of years after coming off the presidential campaign bus beat she'd taken after college. At the time she'd been glad to have a regular address, but she had to admit it was nicer now to be back on the East Coast, if only for the time being. She made no promises to her family in regards to where her work would take her, but they'd taken advantage of her proximity to invite her to every single event they were tied to since she had been back. With her mother, she'd attended bake sales and knitting circles and a Stars Hollow Elementary school production of Alice in Wonderland. Emily had bombarded her with DAR luncheons, charity dinners, and the occasional soiree/cocktail hour at the Gilmore house where their friends with eligible sons or nephews or neighbors just happened to also be in town were also in attendance.

But she was hopeful that night there would be no talk of her continued single status or the transitory nature of her career if she could help it. At least, not until the masks were allowed to come off, which was well past the dancing portion of the evening, where they were required to remain on—Rory assumed out of whimsy on some bored society wife's part. Whatever the reason, she found herself looking forward to the evening. She'd had a rough couple weeks at work, scraping together stories to turn into a hard-to-please editor and coming home late to frozen entrée dinners for one. For one evening she'd be dining on fancy dishes and wearing clothes that were tailored to her form and dancing with mysteriously masked men. It was a welcome change of pace, to say the least.

The ballroom was more breathtaking than she'd envisioned. There were two staircases on either side of the orchestra that led up away from the dance floor, to an upper area where dining tables had been set up. The upper area had dimmer lighting, illuminated mainly by candlelight on a per-table basis, drawing all the attention to the dance floor. She had checked her wrap and clutch and taken to the edge of the magnificent showpiece of the evening where a number of couples had already taken to the floor, their true identities obscured from the viewing public. She had no doubt that her grandmother was somewhere watching from a distance, knowing even with masks just who each and every single guest was and whom they were doing it with.

It only took a few minutes for someone to ask her to dance. Few pleasantries were exchanged as she focused more on moving her feet correctly to dances she'd long since forgotten the steps to from her cotillion preparation days. She'd forgotten how taxing it was to engage in witty conversation while trying not to crush her companion's feet. The first few men, all seemingly at ease in their own movements, allowed her a full dance, but moved on quickly after realizing that her lag in following their lead was her signature style. She was sure she was flushed from effort under her mask, but there seemed no shortage of male counterparts willing to show up and try their hand at taming her unskilled grace.

She'd forgotten how many different partners she'd had, as with their masks they all tended to blend into obscurity. All the men wore tailored tuxedos and seemingly identical black masks. The women seemed to be the ones that had gone for differing styles. She wondered if Emily had managed to find a mask maker; some high-end niche market professional that only sold their wares to the lucky few. By the time she was not only ready for a break, but probably retirement from her fantasy of ever being able to glide gracefully about the room in the arms of any masked man, yet another willing victim caught her elbow.

"Care to dance?"

She gazed up at his face—his a strong jaw prominent underneath his black mask. His dark blonde hair had been slicked back in a style that was older than her grandparents' time, but with the theme of the evening it fit. There was a glint to his blue eyes that pushed off her initial reaction to beg off in search of a drink and a seat. After all, she'd yet to cause permanent physical pain to any of her partners thus far. She assumed mostly she had incited frustration at her lack of grooming in the art form. After all, a woman that had the ranking and money to be at this sort of event had surely been raised and trained as a proper lady. Along with the ability to follow a lead gracefully, she was also expected to be able to run a house with a staff and any number of charity organizations, all while maintaining a youthful exterior. Her generation was also free to pursue a career, as long as it didn't interfere with any suitable marriage prospects. She was a mere observer of that world; her mask could only go so far in hiding her shortcomings to these men. As was usually the case with her participation in these events, she merely looked the part.

"Of course," she answered with what good humor she had left. A moment later she was settled in his arms, the only part of formal dances she had ever hoped to get right, with her right hand nestled in his left and his right arm properly set to guide her at her waist.

Once again, after at least a dozen attempts at just allowing her body to move in time to the music of the waltz and to depend on her partner to guide her from there, her stubborn limbs moved a good half a second after every last fluid motion her new partner made.

"Something on your mind?"

She realized she was fully focused on trying to match her steps to his—so much so that her eyes were glued to their feet as he effortlessly steered them backward without so much as nearly colliding them into any nearby couples. "Excuse me?"

He smiled, setting her at ease. "Are you worried I'm going to step on your feet?"

She let out a deep breath and shook her head. "Actually, it's the exact opposite. I was trying to get my feet to do what yours are doing."

He shook his head with a tsk. "That's not how to get better at dancing. It's got very little to do with the actual footwork."

"You're an expert?" she asked, chiding him a little.

He hesitated before speaking, but the glint in his eyes remained. "I've certainly never had any complaints."

She noticed that his grip on her altered. He pulled her closer to his body—not indecently so, but it was a noticeable adjustment. She could better anticipate the direction of his movements, and it was harder to struggle against him in her attempt to match his steps. Suddenly what had seemed a battle of wills had shifted into a consenting of her will to his. It was unsettling to feel her body give way. "Okay. Give me a lesson, then."

He lifted his chin slightly. "And what will you give me in return?"

She thought for a moment at his presumptuous request. "Less bruised feet?"

He gave a throaty chuckle and a curt nod. "Fair enough. Your first task is to stop looking down."

She raised her chin. "Where should I look?"

"In my eyes," he offered easily. "Again, I've never gotten any complaints."

She rolled her own eyes, but she acquiesced after that. Once she intently met his eyes, which were the color of the ocean during a storm, she decided, she felt her stomach tighten. She was sure he probably didn't get too many complaints from women, save for when his interest faded. She could tell by the way he carried himself that he was self-assured, and most likely whatever features were blocked by his mask were just as fine as what she could see clearly. It didn't hurt that she was nearly molded against all his fine features.

"See, already you're moving a little easier," he said with a small amount of praise in his voice.

"It's a miracle," she said with a light dousing of sarcasm. "There are at least a dozen nameless men in this very room who would attest to the fact that I was a hopeless case."

"I don't give up on beautiful women that easily," he said with a hint of conspiracy.

She swallowed, unsure as how to respond to the blatant compliment. "Do you have any other kernels of wisdom? Perhaps you could get me a spot on Dancing with the Stars by the time the night's over," she teased, more comfortable in jest than receiving adulation for her looks.

"Are you otherwise famous?" he inquired.

"Not even a little bit," she said with a grin.

"Well, then we have two obstacles in our way. And with only one evening to work with, you might have to settle for infamy," he suggested.

"I'd be satisfied with not injuring any future dance partners, actually," she assured him.

"Just using me for my dance moves. Shameful. I should leave you to your own devices," he said, still holding her just as close and still enabling her to move with more poise than she'd ever thought possible across the large dance floor. If she had to hazard a guess, she would almost assume they would appear to be fitting in with all the other couples. Not under Emily's eagle eye, but to someone who hadn't picked out her outfit, perhaps she could nearly blend in. "As it is, I might not tell you the true secret to being a great dancer."

She eyed him suspiciously. "Now you know the true secret to dancing?"

He nodded solemnly. "Of course. I know lots of secrets."

"Is that what you do, keep secrets?"

He seemed to mull her question over for a moment. "In a matter of speaking."

"Hmm. And here I thought you just prowled society dances to come to the aid of women in distress," she offered.

"Hey, don't knock it. It has its perks," he said, winking under his mask. She got the feeling that he normally had no trouble in finding female companionship for an evening or more after one of these events. In truth, she was surprised that he hadn't come there that night with someone else. If he had, he seemed in no hurry to get back to anyone as the music changed to a second song as they remained attached to one another.

"Okay, lesson two. Lay it on me," she insisted.

"You think you're ready?" he checked.

"You said yourself that I'm already moving easier," she pointed out, pleading her case.

"True. Alright, the second step to better dancing," he continued as if he had taught a whole course on the matter before, "is to stop thinking. It doesn't matter where you think you're going, or when you should get there. Let me do that."

"I'll have you know that goes against everything my mother ever taught me," she said as she took a breath and squared her shoulders to his.

"Really?" he asked, bemused. "Not from around here, then, are you?"

She couldn't help but smile. "Not exactly."

"It explains so much. I've never met a woman as beautiful as you that was as terrible a dancer."

"Thank you," she said, though clearly not meaning the sentiment.

"Lucky for you, you've found me. Soon you'll just be a beautiful woman, with yet another talent under her belt. Surely your mother would approve of that, right?"

"There isn't much my mother doesn't approve of," she said with a light shrug. "As long as I'm happy."

"And are you?" he posed, taking her mind yet again off having to force her feet into any rhythm.

She met his eyes again. For such a dark, stormy color, they were rather inviting and playful. She pursed her lips briefly. "I suppose so."

"We're going to have to work on that," he said seriously.

"We're already working on my dancing. Now I have to be happier as well?"

"Those are the rules," he said as if he couldn't help the matter.

"Whose rules?" she inquired, under the guise of playing along with his mock sincerity.

"I don't like seeing beautiful women unhappy. Especially when they're dancing. I don't know if anyone ever told you, but dancing is supposed to be fun."

She regarded him again. She wasn't sure he was joking anymore, just from his eyes. They were still the same deep blue, but they were more intense than playful now. "You keep referring to me as beautiful, but you can only see half my face. What if I had some hideous scar?"

"First of all, not all scars are hideous. I have one of my own, which is often concealed as a matter of propriety," he offered, leaving her imagination to work overtime wondering just how far undressed he'd have to be in order to lay sights on said imperfection.

"Are you offering to show it to me?" she asked, attempting to sound scandalized. She was sure she had failed thanks to her overactive imagination.

"That depends. Am I going to get to see what's behind your mask?" he asked, his voice lowering half an octave as he whispered in her ear.

She was certain she was blushing under said disguise at that point. "It's against the rules of the evening, at least, while we dance," she reminded in a somewhat chaste manner.

"I can wait," he assured her. "Besides, your disguise suits you."

"How can you possibly know that?" she asked. "You don't know me, other than my failings as a graceful dancer."

He smiled again. She liked the way that even with the mask his smile extended to his eyes. "Reformed failings. You're moving with me now, have you noticed?"

She had noticed, in fact. Her body had trained to his, in a way that surprised her. It felt intimate in a fashion that was shockingly deemed appropriate for public sight. Her mind went to the Victorian novels that she'd read and loved in her younger years—stories of slight touches and longing looks riveting her attention more than more blatant forms of sexual advances ever could. Being close to this man, nameless though he was to her, was intoxicating in a way that was yet undiscovered to her until that night.

"I admit the dancing is getting easier, under your tutelage. But I still say it's impossible for you to know that my disguise suits me. After all, it by definition masks everything distinctive about me," she argued.

"You like definitions, don't you?" he posed, studying her from behind his own disguise.

"I do. But you're evading the point," she reminded him.

He gazed into her eyes for a while. "I can't speak to any flaws, but it's not true that everything distinctive about you is hidden."

Her chest felt tight at his words. She realized that she was gripping his hand a little too tightly as well. "Is that right?"

He nodded. "Your eyes are quite distinctive. Even so, they remind me of something."

"Something or someone?" she inquired, feeling she was tuned into him. Maybe it was the way her chest was lightly pressed against his or the way his hand had moved to rest across her lower back.

He gave her a half a smile, one borne of nostalgia. "Someone."

She smiled in kind. "Someone special?"

"Quite."

"And why are you dancing with me and not her?" Rory asked, truly curious.

"She was the one that got away, I suppose, in a way."

"In a way?"

He tilted his head. "Technically it was me that went away. It was years ago. We all have those stories, though, don't we?"

Rory was quiet then. She'd only really let one man get away from her, in any real way. At least, only one man that she'd envisioned marrying. It seemed a heavy topic for a dance lesson. "I suppose we do. Maybe after you tell me the secret to dancing, you should find a way to get back to your special someone."

He smiled, catching her out. "You almost got me to give it up. You're good."

She smiled in return. "It's part of my job, getting people to tell me things."

"Ah, more personal information. I might emerge with your name, if not a look behind your mask."

"How shockingly bold," she teased him.

"It's not the worst thing I've been called," he said. "My question for you is, are you ready for something a little more challenging?"

Her interest was stoked. "Such as?"

"A little twirl, a lift," he suggested. "I am inclined to dip you as well."

"Are you?" she asked, intrigued by the idea.

He smiled at her coy attitude. "What do you say?"

"I'd say it would be less nerve-wracking to just take my mask off and spare myself the embarrassment," she managed with full honesty.

"Don't you trust me by now?" he asked, a bit impatiently, for the first time not toeing the line between playfulness and sincerity. She could tell he was sincere. So much so that her stomach fluttered a little.

She wanted to say that she didn't know him, but that wasn't completely true. She was almost certain that if they were to part suddenly she'd be able to pick him out of the crowd of hundreds of similarly clad men at this point. After all, he was the only one that her body had responded to, not only that evening, but for the longest time. She'd not moved with a man in tandem like that, if ever, in too long. "I suppose I do."

"We really need to work on all that supposing you do," he murmured into her ear once again. "Just hold on to me. I've got you."

Her eyes met his in a silent acceptance. She'd hold on and he would have her. A shiver went down her spine at the implications of that thought. The longer she danced with him, the more she wished the evening could go on indefinitely. It wasn't anything like she'd anticipated, better than even the promise the evening had held in her mind. Dinner, which she knew would be delicious, was now something she would put off as long as possible. Leaving without his name seemed unthinkable, though she was positive that her grandmother could provide her with a whole dossier on him at a later date if she so desired, just based on his height and eye color. She was probably taking in the whole exchange, she thought wistfully to herself. Emily Gilmore made it her business to know everything that went on at these events. She did not care for second-hand information.

It took a few more turns as Rory was lost in thought, but all of a sudden, he leaned in ever so slightly to put his lips at the edge of her ear. "Here we go."

He never stopped moving, not until the last possible second. He used her body as an extension of his own, easing her out and down—almost as if he planned to release her. His hand splayed just so, protectively, across her back as he held her only as far as he allowed her to fall away from him, remaining completely in control. Her eyes widened as he held her there. In the brief second that he held them still, a smile widened across his face.

The moment she was righted and once again moving along under his sure-footed guidance, she couldn't help but feel the effects of the attraction that was brewing between them intensify. It was as if protecting their identities had allowed them to learn each other in a whole other way.

"Was it harder than you thought?" he inquired.

"The dip?" she asked.

He shook his head. "Relinquishing control in general."

"I don't have control issues. I admit that it does often seem more pragmatic to take care of things myself most of the time," she consented, doing her best not to sound like a control freak. It was a quality that looked good on a resume, but in truth it made relationships more difficult. Not that she was about to unload any of that on a man whose name she'd not yet been offered, no matter how much lust was involved.

"Then I am honored to be one of the few you trust."

She did her best to portray her indignity from behind the confines of a mask. It was quite limiting, as far as sending nonverbal cues. Though she had to admit, his body spoke much louder to hers than she'd thought possible. "My only trust in you so far is to not drop me," she corrected.

"Well, if that's the case, I can't teach you much more about dancing," he relented.

"That doesn't seem fair. After all, you can hardly expect me to put my full trust into someone that I haven't been properly introduced to," she said in earnest.

"I assumed that like me you were enjoying the added mystery element of the whole night. Masked strangers, in close contact, that kind of thing. If you'd like me to tell you my name, I'm more than willing, but I don't see where my name has any bearing on the fact that you couldn't dance with anyone else in this entire building as well as you could with me."

His little speech rendered her without a proper response. She wet her lips, first tasting and then feeling the remnants of her best lipstick still offering full coverage as she pressed them together. Her eyes met his without challenge, though it was clear he was awaiting her rebuttal.

"And why is that?" she asked finally, not willing to challenge the basis of his argument. In fact, it was refreshing. She wondered if he, too, were here in name only. Just because he looked like he belonged and had some skill in partnered dancing, that didn't mean anything really. He could easily be as out of place as she, and her previous assumption made her feel foolish. The truth was that from their limited time together, she would be left wanting to know what brought him to be there alone; eager to teach her the finer points of the waltz, in addition to his name and just how he got the scar he spoke of. If she were being truly honest, the idea of her fingertips skimming lightly over the marred skin also entered into the list of what she would be left wanting to do.

"Dancing is just another test of compatibility. It's like a conversion or sex," he explained.

"I was just as awful with you at first as I was with all the other men I danced with," she pointed out, not willing to offer up her concession that easily.

"But it felt different, right away, didn't it? Tell me, did you hold a conversation with any of these other men?" he asked, knowingly.

She bristled at his assumption that he knew more about her than he really could. "Jealous?"

"That depends on your answer," he said, though she was unsure just how serious he was being, yet again.

"Not past general greetings. Would you want to speak to someone who was stepping on your feet?" she asked, adding in the qualifier.

He kept dancing, but his eyes nearly stopped her in her tracks. "I'd want to talk to you, regardless of what you were doing to me."

Surely her blush was visible underneath her mask, as it extended from her ears down to her chest, which was minimally covered thanks to her strapless gown and what she was sure Emily had considered a modest necklace; a piece she still could have pawned in order to place a sizable down payment on a new car. "That's just the mystery of the evening talking. I'm not normally wearing all this fancy stuff. This isn't who I am at all."

His lips parted effortlessly in a smile, suggesting he wouldn't mind seeing her without the gown either. "Is that an offer, or merely a suggestion that I'm shallow?"

"I didn't mean to call you shallow," she managed, not meaning to quite blatantly make the other implication either.

"That's what I was hoping you'd say," he admitted, his eyes still playful and a deeper blue than any eyes had a right to be. She'd always been complimented on her own azure eyes, but his were dark where hers were bright. They begged to be delved into. Perhaps her offer was more than subconscious, she realized.

"That means based on a few dances, you want to find out who I am? More than just taking off my mask?" she asked, trying to find out if they could possibly be on the same page. If he were only interested in sex, that was one thing. She wasn't in the habit of such careless dating methods. She'd never been good at the lack of investment that one-night stands called for. The pull of lust that she felt for this man was one strong, sure, but it was merely a flirtation. He would find himself sorely disappointed if he thought she would just go home with him for one evening. As fun as she was sure it would be, given how her body responded to his while upright and fully clothed, it just wasn't her scene.

"Are you afraid I honestly won't like what I find?" he asked softly, genuine in his concern.

"I don't really fit in here. I'm only here because of who my family is," she offered honestly.

"Most of the people here can say the same. Just because I bought my own ticket doesn't mean my family wouldn't have included me in the table they purchased," he said without judgment.

"You did, though, buy your own ticket?" she reiterated.

He let out a breath. "It's a cause I care about. I don't usually come to many of these things, unless it's something I could actually give a whip about."

"You like to read?" she asked, encouraged.

"I believe someone once said that we read to know we aren't alone," he remembered. "It's something that should be accessible to everyone. And I like the Hartford library. I used to spend a lot of time there when I was younger."

"See, now I feel like I know more about you already," she offered with a wistful smile.

He offered a small groan. "You've got to stop with the mixed messages. You're killing me. One minute we don't know enough about each other, and the next you seem to know enough. You don't strike me as the kind of woman who doesn't know her own mind."

"I know that there's no one else in this place I want to dance with," she offered, chancing another peek into his eyes. She realized that his eyes were more than just attractive—they were familiar somehow. She wondered if she might simply be transposing his earlier sentiments about her eyes reminding him of someone. She blinked and tried again, focusing keenly on the dark blue irises. Nope, they were definitely familiar. Still soulful and playful, but familiar. Her fingers itched, so great was her urge to just nudge his mask up to get a better peek at his whole face.

"Are you gazing into my eyes?" he asked, long past the point of amusement. He seemed downright giddy.

"I thought that was the first rule," she retorted, not even blinking to avert his intensity.

"It was merely a suggestion," he defended his innocence. "I simply complied with your wishes, remember?"

"I was trying to do you a favor," she protested.

"Is that so?" he asked, not buying her argument.

"Yes. I would hate it if you were all bruised tomorrow just because you asked me to dance," she explained.

He nodded slowly, but with triumph. "I see. So now you care about me."

She rebuffed, if weakly. "I never said that."

"It was implied," he assured her. "Don't worry, I won't hold it against you."

She had the thought that he was holding her against him, and she blamed that nearness for her lack of persuasive argument skills. Arguing with him felt natural, though honestly she wouldn't mind seeing just how well they could get along together. "I hardly know you."

"I thought we'd been through this," he said, now openly dismissing her arguments.

She gave a gasp of exasperation. But she did not let go of his hand or make any move to free herself from his embrace. In some odd way, his challenging of her made her even more intrigued. "You're kind of arrogant, aren't you?"

He smiled. "So I'm shallow and arrogant?"

She bit her lip and gave him an apologetic look. "I don't mean to insult you. Again," she added.

"I can think of one way you can make it up to me," he said, not missing a beat.

She wanted to call him presumptuous, but she held her words. "Like an apology?"

"I was thinking dinner. You're pleasant company, but you probably aren't much at apologies, are you?"

Her eyes widened and her steps faltered. "Do you know me?"

He hesitated as well, his tongue skimming his teeth. "I hope to."

The music ended at that point, not just to change tempo or style, but a break for the musicians altogether. A woman stepped up in front of the orchestra that had been tirelessly performing, and she led the crowd in an ovation of applause for their efforts. Rory stepped back as he let go of her, allowing them both to join in the gesture. Once the room quieted down, they listened to the chairwoman of the event, still in disguise for show only, give a welcoming speech about how much money their generosity had raised, what good works it would accomplish, and then she invited them all to eat, adding that after a short break they could return to dance more if they were so inclined. There was more applause, for themselves, Rory supposed, and then the crowd began to slowly make its way up the staircases. She knew she should make an attempt to find her grandparents' table. He was probably expected at his own family's table, even if he did pay his own way. Time was officially short.

Regardless, neither was quick to join the wandering masses. She turned back to face him. "So, thank you."

He nodded once, in a chivalrous manner. "My pleasure."

She chewed the inner edge of her cheek. "We should probably go upstairs."

He nodded again, this time seeming as reluctant as she to part. "Probably."

"My grandparents are expecting me," she offered lamely. What kind of adult said that, especially to an attractive member of the opposite sex? Yet again, she was glad of the mask. She wished she had a word filter as well.

"You're declining my offer," he said regretfully, making an assumption.

"No, I just wasn't sure if you meant tonight, or," she said in an up-ended manner.

He cocked his head. "You want to see me again? Will we have to wear the masks then, as well, so as to recognize each other?"

"It's not necessary, after all, there is my hideous scar," she teased. "Oh, and my unibrow."

He gave a laugh. "Now I definitely have to see you again," he said, his eyes shining behind his mask.

She shifted her weight to the toe of her right foot, knowing that as the crowd thinned, they were going to have to make their way up one of the two staircases and part ways. And as good as Emily Gilmore was, Rory didn't want to be solely dependent on her for information about the masked man she wished to date. But at the same time, she couldn't find the words to ask him to reveal himself.

"So, what do we do now?" she asked, hoping that gallantry would prevail. After all, the rest of the evening had followed some notion of chivalry from another age. He'd asked her to dance, he'd offered his lead, and it had worked. She was definitely a fan of the process.

"Well, either you could leave one of your shoes behind on the staircase," he offered, causing her to smile. "Or you could give me your phone number."

"Right, that's probably the easiest way. It's 212-," she began, but stopped when he frowned.

"You live in New York?" he said, surprised.

"Yes. Is that a problem?" she asked, confused.

"No, it's just the way you talked about your family, I just would have guessed you were from around here, if not actually from Hartford," he explained.

"I am, originally, from near here. But I work in New York, so I live there now."

"Now, not forever?" he questioned.

"I'm not asking you to come down there for dinner. I'm up here a lot. It's not a long trip."

"Oh, I'll make the trip. Distance isn't an issue for me. I just wondered."

She felt relief, which seemed unnecessary. "You'd go all that way just to have dinner with me?" she asked, touched at the concept.

"You just said it's not far. And remember, I've already learned my lesson about letting people get away. Haven't you?"

She had. It had taken her quite some time to accept the reality of that particular lesson. She nodded. "So, dinner. In New York."

"Tristan!"

The exclamation came from the upper floor, and it drew their attention instantly, as if they shared an attachment to the name. A woman, who appeared to be in her mid-to-late forties, was leaning over the railing, sans-mask, waving at them in an indication that his presence was required. Rory's spark of familiarity burst into an inferno of association. Perhaps ten years earlier she might have felt hoodwinked, having had the exchange they'd had with him of all people, but as it was, she was still quite charmed. "You should go. I'll call you," she said sincerely, as she changed their agreement.

He frowned as he watched her curiously. "What?"

She indicated to what she assumed was his mother. "Trust me, Mr. Dugrey," she said simply.

She wasn't sure what she expected him to do, be it nod and take his leave silently or ask her name in return. She wondered if he'd already guessed her identity, but wanted to know she was willing to offer it instead. She had many questions, but those would be answered later. She watched curiously as he picked up her hand and brought the back of it to his lips. He kept his eyes on hers as he pressed her skin against his soft lips, and then he brushed lightly across to the flat of her hand as he pulled away.

By the time she reached the top of the stairs on the opposite side, she had little trouble finding the familiar stature of her grandfather across the space, still wearing his mask with a shock of grey hair parted to one side as he laughed with some associate no doubt, and her grandmother, who was stepping away from the table where her mask lay next to her salad plate.

"Did I see you dancing with Tristan Dugrey?" Emily asked, excited in the way that she tended to get any time Rory showed any interest in any association to Hartford society life.

Rory smiled wistfully. "Yes, you probably did."