Sarah swiped a glass of champagne from a passing tray as she ducked through the crowd. She had had enough of her mother's simpering theatrics to last the entire summer.
Linda Williams, B-list stage actress who once upon a time played the role of her mother until something better had come along. She was so full of herself that she was completely blind to her mediocrity. They all were. All of her mother's "friends" were cardboard cutouts, like paper dolls to entertain the masses in their pretty costumes with their made-up speeches. Did they even know how to be real people?
She doubted it. Sarah took a long swig from the champagne flute, coughing as the effervescence exploded in her throat, the force making her eyes water. It was much stronger than she had expected. She took another swallow as she headed toward the buffet table, and away from her mother.
It was only day three of her forced summer vacation in sunny Santa Carla, California. She didn't know what would be worse, spending the summer with her mother, or spending it babysitting Toby as her dad and stepmother gallivanted across London. As it turned out, they didn't give her much of a choice, mostly her stepmother's doing, she imagined. When her dad's firm had offered him an overseas assignment for the summer, Karen all too casually mentioned what a fantastic opportunity it would be for Sarah to visit her mother.
Sarah downed the last of the champagne in her glass. So fantastic. Admittedly, it probably was better than babysitting Toby, though not by much. Not that she had anything against the little squirt. It wasn't his fault his parents were ladder-climbing narcissists. She felt kind of bad for him. He was such a happy little kid, but she knew they'd twist and pull and poke at him until he was their idea of the perfect son. At least, as the constant reminder of a failed marriage and a previous lover, they left her alone.
And so here she was. Sarah scanned the room stoically, her eyes skipping over the sea of faces. While all of her friends from high school were enjoying their last summer before heading off to college, she was at some bizarre summer solstice masquerade party with what looked like nearly all of those in the local theatre circuit in attendance. They were all dressed in various period costumes, most likely quietly kept after a final performance, or swiped from the costume department of their respective theatres. Some wore masks; most didn't. Sarah tugged at the slipping shoulder of her own costume. It was her mother's and too big. Her boobs had never grown to quite the size that she had hoped, and she suspected she wasn't going to inherit her mother's sex kitten curves. At eighteen, Sarah had lost hope of another growth spurt. The dress hung on her, dragging on the floor, the toes of her black Converse trainers peeking out from underneath.
She felt ridiculous. But, more than that, this party was ridiculous. Her mother had paraded her around like a new pet, cooing over her and saying all the right lines. She had been introduced to actors, directors, producers, backstage crew, owners of the local theatres . . . not one of them made an impression. She didn't bother to remember their names, or even register their faces. She simply smiled and tuned them out until she made her escape.
Sarah swapped out her glass for a full one from a passing tray. This side of the large ballroom was quiet, the voices muffled and the conversations coalescing into a discordant hum, nearly drowning out the soft song of the orchestra. She turned to peruse the buffet table, ultimately popping some kind of pastry wrapped meat into her mouth. Perhaps it wasn't fashionable to eat.
Leaning back against the table, she folded one arm across her chest as she sipped at her drink. She was feeling a little more mellow, and a little less like she wanted to scream. Even her mother's loud, grating laugh rising up from across the room to mock her lost a little of its sharpness. She turned slightly to grab another of those meat-pastry things, pulling back when she saw something small and dark run under the table, the heavy velvet tablecloth swaying in its wake.
Setting her glass on the table, she bent down, slowly lifting the edge of the tablecloth to peer underneath. Empty. She could have sworn she just saw . . .
Sarah straightened, her fingers tapping against her lips and her brow wrinkled in confusion as she thought. When she had nearly convinced herself that she hadn't actually seen anything at all and was about to resume her solitary post and disparaging internal commentary, she looked up to find someone watching her from across the room. She froze, staring back at him.
If anyone at this party could make an impression, he could. He was dressed much like the others, except more elegant, somehow, like his clothing had been tailored expressly for him rather than grabbed off a costume rack. His bedazzled navy blue coat fit snug on his torso, emphasizing the breadth of his shoulders and the slim line of his waist, ruffles spilling out from his sleeves and along his chest. Gray tights hugged slim, muscular thighs, disappearing into dark leather boots. His hair was electric, a shock of wild blond, sticking out every which way, seeming to catch the light from the chandeliers and sparkle. His thin lips moved, creating shadows along his angular face, as he answered the masked woman at his side, all the while watching Sarah. She had never seen anyone quite like him. He seemed to command the room effortlessly. She swallowed, fumbling behind her for her champagne glass to ease the dryness of her throat. The intensity in his mismatched eyes made her nervous, and she moved, slinking toward the end of the table where she'd be out of sight, grabbing a mini-quiche along the way.
Around the corner from the buffet table was an alcove, empty except for a small table and chair, a tall potted plant reflected in the mirror on the wall. Sarah leaned against the archway, popping the quiche in her mouth and thinking about the man who had been watching her. She wondered who he was. Just as she brought the champagne glass to her lips to wash it down, she caught that same movement out of the corner of her eye, a dark shadow dashing from between the table and wall into the alcove behind her. She jumped and spun around.
Abandoning her glass on the table, she stepped tentatively into the small room, discovering that it wasn't really an alcove at all--a long narrow passageway ran alongside the wall. It was dark, and the walls were rough. She laid a hand on the entryway, leaning forward in an attempt to see through the darkness. She could just make out a small figure running down the hallway away from her. She took a few steps inside, the urge to follow it tugging at her. What the hell is that . . .
"Looking for something?"
Sarah gasped, startled, as she spun around to meet the face of the man who had been watching her moments before. She sunk back against the stone wall, her hand pressed to her chest in a vain attempt to calm her racing heart. She glanced up at him from under her lashes, catching her breath. "Damnit. You scared me."
He narrowed his eyes, studying her for a long moment before he spoke. "Who are you?" His voice was quiet, but resonant. It seemed to crawl under her skin, pulling her in, demanding her attention.
She straightened, slowly sliding up the wall, unnerved at the thinly veiled threat underlying his tone. "I'm . . . just a girl."
He smiled, condescendingly, she thought, with a slight tilt of his head. She watched him warily as he leaned in so that his face was next to hers, his words a whisper in her ear, "You expect me to believe that?"
His breath against her skin sent shivers trilling down her spine, settling to flutter about in her stomach. Sarah tried to back up, but the wall behind her wouldn't relent. "Believe what you want." Her voice sounded weak and she silently cursed herself.
"Do you have a name, girl?"
"That's . . ." She swallowed, steeling herself before slipping out from under him. She wasn't going to play any of his pervy games. "That's none of your business." Satisfied that there was adequate strength behind her declaration, she offered him a brief derisive glance before stepping around him and out of the alcove. Before diving back into the sea of people, Sarah cast a quick glance over her shoulder to find him leaning against the archway, watching her. She looked away, chewing absently at her bottom lip. She didn't like the way he made her feel.
Weaving through the crowd, she soon spotted her mother surrounded by a few of her cast mates. She came up beside her, interrupting whatever asinine story she was telling this time. "Can we leave?"
Her mother pursed her lips before smiling indulgently at her daughter. "Why would you want to leave? The party's only just beginning."
"I'm not feeling well."
Her mother leaned in, smelling her breath. Sarah pulled her head back at the invasion. "Have you been drinking, Sarah?" She made a small clucking sound with her tongue, still smiling. "What would your father say?"
He would probably sympathize, since you drove him to drink first. Instead of voicing those thoughts, Sarah chose not to answer. If you don't have anything nice to say . . .
"Sarah, dear, why don't you get something to eat? You'll feel better." She patted Sarah on the cheek. "Have some fun."
Right. Fun. Getting accosted by pervy older men in drag at the buffet table was loads of fun. Giving her mother a parting glance that said, in no uncertain terms, that she was not happy, Sarah turned away to seek out the bathroom.
She really was feeling a bit shaky. Her cheeks felt warm and her head felt light and wobbly. Reaching the hallway that lead to the bathrooms, she paused as she stumbled upon a couple getting very friendly against the wall. He had to be at least twice her age, balding, and looking absolutely ridiculous in his ruffled knickers and buckled shoes. The girl, not much older than Sarah, was giggling as he traced a finger back and forth along her cleavage as he whispered in her ear. Sarah rolled her eyes before moving to the door and pushing inside. Gross.
Stepping up to the sink, she took in her reflection: pale skin beneath pink flushed cheeks, glassy eyes. It had to be the champagne. That's all it was. Turning on the faucet, she cupped her hands under the running water, bending to splash it over her face. She repeated the action a few more times, the cool water making her feel a little less out of sorts. After drying her face with the towel hanging from a hoop on the wall, Sarah looked resolutely back at her reflection. That's all it is, Sarah. You aren't seeing things, you're just intoxicated. You're a lightweight. Mystery solved.
Feeling a little better after her pep talk, though if she were completely honest with herself, not wholly convinced, Sarah pushed the door open, stepping back out into the hallway. She pulled up short when she discovered the couple from before had been busy while she'd been away. The girl's eyes were closed as the man kneaded her breast, fully exposed to anyone who might happen by, his other hand up her skirt. He was breathing heavily from his efforts, his balding head flushed red and his comb-over clinging damply to his skin.
Oh, for the love of . . . She looked away quickly, shaking her head in an attempt to dislodge the mental image. "Get a room, people!" Sarah hurried past them into the ballroom, suspecting that they were much too involved in being gross to give any real thought to her suggestion.
As luck would have it, she walked right into the direct line of sight of her mother heading toward her from across the room, waving unabashedly. "Sarah! There you are! There's someone I want you to meet."
Sarah sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. This really wasn't her night. She waited for her mother to reach her before speaking, much more quietly. "Who?"
Her mother was positively beaming. "Our host has asked to meet you. It's quite an honor, you know. He's a great patron of the arts." She reached out to straighten the dress over Sarah's shoulders. "You would be smart to . . . encourage him, since he's taken an interest."
Sarah looked blankly at her mother. "You want me to whore myself out?" She looked away, scanning the crowd, wondering who this host was. "Sure. Can do."
"Sarah, don't be so crass. Of course I don't want you to 'whore yourself out'. Just be your charming . . ." The pasted-on smile slid from her face as she assessed her irreverent daughter. Sarah could almost see the weight of it, the glue melting, the mask slipping down over her face to reveal the creased, sagging skin, the tired eyes. What effort it must take to play that role every day.
Before the mask slipped completely, her mother lifted the corners of her mouth forcefully, slamming it back into place. "Just be nice, please." She reached out to fluff her daughter's hair and Sarah batted her hands away. With a small sigh, her mother linked their arms, pulling Sarah along beside her. "At least smile. You're so much prettier when you smile."
Sarah plastered a smile on her face, batting her eyes at her mother. Her condescension was wasted as she simply smiled back at her, squeezing her arm. "That's my girl." She watched as her mother turned her head, her stage-ready smile ratcheting up a few notches. "Oh, Jareth! Perfect timing."
Sarah's smile dropped from her face as she locked eyes with the strange man from earlier.
"Jareth, this is my daughter, Sarah."
"Miss Williams." He took her hand, brushing his lips over the back of her fingers as he bowed slightly, holding her gaze. "Enchanted."
Sarah snatched her hand away as she continued to stare at him. A slow smile crept across his lips, and she could see the amusement in his eyes. Her scrutiny faltered as she caught a shadow of movement near the floor. Looking down, her eyes grew wide as some sort of creature scurried up, latching itself onto Jareth's leg. She took a small step backwards, watching as Jareth reached down and stroked the red tuft of hair on top of its gnarled head, almost affectionately, before pulling out a single strand and letting it go to drift slowly to the ground. The little creature rubbed his head, glaring up at him.
Sarah's mouth hung open, and she blinked, shaking her head at the sound of her mother's keening voice.
"Sarah's going to be an actress, just like her mother."
She looked around the room frantically, scanning the oblivious faces before settling unbelievingly on her mother's. Doesn't anybody else see that thing--creature? goblin?--standing right there in plain sight? What is wrong with everybody? How can they not see it? It's right there!
"No, I think not." Sarah whipped her head around at the sound of his voice, low and deep and beckoning. His eyes searched hers, and she felt something like a shiver sweep though her mind and over her skin as his lips curved into a smile, his pointed teeth flashing. "I think she's destined for something else entirely."