Love in Masks

redflower

For today’s writing prompt, “Almost,” I thought I would offer up something from a work-in-progress. It’s a romance–the woman is nouveau riche and the man, while his family name is respected, is broke as a pauper. The woman has a dark secret–she is dying of cancer–and she knows the man, Ethan Dyle, is only trying to marry her for her money. But Patricia Anders has her own secret habit of disguising herself as “Susan Louise,” pretending she is someone else to escape the worries and realities of her life. Through various misadventure, Patricia Anders (“Susan Louise”) and Ethan Dyle fall in love. Of course Ethan Dyle has no idea Susan Louise is only a disguise.

This is the scene of his proposal.

***

He didn’t know how he had the courage. It was a prompting outside of himself. There in the bitter cold with his hat on her head and the stark winter sun shining fierce, he lowered himself on his knees. The earth felt harder than he expected, like stone. It made him weaker, that unexpected discomfort. The too-bright sky made him squint if he raised his head.

“Susan,” he said, “will you marry me?”

She stared at him. Her hands were numb in their gloves. Ethan licked his lips as if there were something more to be said. But he had kept nothing from her, not as she was. It was a bitter kind of sweet irony that while she was herself as Patricia Anders he was not the Ethan Dyle who presented himself to her at Four Banks, and when she was not quite honest as Susan Louise he was naked to her. He looked uncomfortable and cold, and lost for words.

“I love you,” he said simply, honestly. “I love you.”

“You don’t know me,” she said.

He squinted up at her, confused.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He was searching for something, anything. He was trying to find words for a proposal, for substance worth proposing. It would have been comic to see him struggling there, if it had not been real.

“You know what I am,” he said at last. “I would understand if you were unwilling because of me. I’ve never lied to you. Tell me. Is it me?”

“No,” she replied. “It isn’t you.”

That was honest. He raised his head, shading his eyes from the sun. He took her gloved hands in his bare ones, pink with cold.

“Do you love me?” he asked.

A word was on the tip of her tongue. She knew now was the time. This was the moment. She had let this go too far, because she had been a child. Perhaps, as a child, her reasons were selfish. But now she would end it, she must end it, because there was no choice. Susan Louise was not real. And yet Susan Louise was more precious to her now than Patricia Anders had ever been.

“Yes,” she said. “I love you.”

His face collapsed. She hadn’t realized how tight he had held himself until his face twisted like that, and he looked down, ashamed. Seeing his shame, she did not hold back.

“I’m dying,” she said.

His head jerked up.

“I have cancer.” She pulled her hands away from him. “They give me two or three years.”

His breath was visible on the cold air.

“There’s nothing they can do,” she said. “I’m okay with it.” She shrugged as if gravity itself were okay with it.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She had heard that a thousand times before. “It’s okay,” she repeated, softly.

He shook his head. She didn’t understand the motion. He tried to stand and his legs wobbled. His gaze swept the gray grass to the edge of the trees. Then he knelt again and reached for her hands, and held her fists against the breast of his coat as if he were protecting them.

“God bless you,” he said.

That touched her. It wasn’t the words themselves—they were tried and as common as “sorry.” It was the way he said them, as if he were blessing her, as if it was prayer. He was holding her hands so tightly she could feel human heat through the wool. He raised her gloves and kissed them. He pressed them to his forehead as if he were blessing himself.

She knelt down beside him. She put her arms around his neck and kissed the tears on his face, the helpless tears that were hot on her own. She had meant to break his heart and she had done it. He shook, broken by her gentleness and pain. His arms went around her and she felt the desperate grief that pressured him, that made him hold her as tightly as if she were being pulled away. But then he pulled back as she had known he must, flushed and disheveled, pained in his weakness by the light.

It surprised her when he leaned towards her once more. He kissed her brow, kissed it again, again, and lifted her chin to kiss her lips. He tasted of salt, of her tears and his. She could not kiss him back. She was shocked, numb and strangely faint.

He took something from his jacket. She knew what it was without looking, and he opened the case, not looking himself.

“You have been a friend to me,” he said. “More than a friend. You gave me hope and courage at a time when I had no strength, nothing. I don’t mean that you should do this for my sake. I know that I am selfish—selfish in wanting you—selfish because I can’t let you go.”

His voice broke. She placed her hand on his mouth. She spoke and did not know how she was steady.

“You don’t know what you’re asking,” she said in a whisper.

He moved her glove. “I do know,” he said. “And I am begging you for it.”

She kissed him. Her answer was in her kiss. He was aware of the significance of her urgency and thrilled, an almost violent spasm that went through his slender, frail body like wind through a leaf. She met his eyes and they were still weak, but shining like light on a washed, sky-colored pier. She couldn’t question him. Some doubting part of her whispered Patricia Anders. But she was Patricia Anders, and he was Ethan Dyle, and he was touching her with the trembling and frozen fingers of a lover who has nothing but his love to offer, and he tried to fit the ring on her but it was a size too small.

She choked on a laugh. She took the ring from him and held it to her heart—“Did you really think I had fingers like these?”—but she softened the question with a smile.

“I’ll keep it,” she said. “It’s your promise to me. Your promise that you love Susan Louise.”

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