The door closes behind you, trapping you in the Red Room of Pain, not for the first time and probably not for the last. He leads you to the bed and kisses you, pushes you back against the crimson pillows and takes a few steps away, loosening his tie. He disappears into the bathroom and you wait, one second, then another, before you allow your shoulders to slump and your breath to ease, your muscles finally relaxing. You lie back and stare up at the canopy, close your eyes to escape your reflection in that awful mirror and you wonder how long you can keep this up, being what he wants you to be, how long still you can keep up the pretense that everything is fine, that you found yourself when you found him.
It happened only two weeks ago – it felt more like an eternity – at a party held in their own home by the parents of your friend Kate. You remember the people pouring from the outside into the entrance hall, greeting friends and acquaintances, glancing carelessly at the flowers you had helped arrange earlier that evening, bumping into the tables you had set, filling up the bright rooms, making them theirs and drowning all your attempts at existence in their oblivious enthusiasm.
Kate had spent a couple hours before that dressing you up and gushing over your dress and how lovely you looked. She was not wrong, you had to admit as you looked at yourself in the mirror, not wrong at all, and claiming otherwise would have been poor repayment for all of your friend's efforts, but you didn't look like yourself at all. She had been careful not to dress you in anything too excentric or out of the ordinary, and yet, could it be your own hair that hung around your shoulders in such graceful locks? Could your own pallid complexion have that much light and colour in it? Even your eyes seemed different, darker and brighter, and you felt almost as if you had swapped your body with another girl's, a prettier girl, a livelier girl, a better friend for Kate maybe, someone who could move naturally in the same world and the same social circles.
'Elliott invited a few friends tonight, maybe you'll finally meet someone nice', she had said, and you had rolled your eyes dramatically, repeating the same ritual you had been through many times before for as long as the four years you had known each other, ever since chance, or perhaps a decree of fate, had made you roommates during your first year of college.
As the rooms filled up you were submerged in buzzing conversations and bursts of laughter, droning noises and too bright lights, as you tried to stay close to your friend, her plum dress your only lifeline in a sea of panic and confusion. Fortunately she caught your wrist and dragged you to the entrance hall, where her boyfriend Elliott Grey was waiting.
After a smile and a nod in your direction they kissed and embraced and forgot all about you, not that you could blame them. They were so well suited to each other, Kate and Elliott, and you could not help a sharp pang of envy from tearing through your heart.
And so you helped with the drinks to keep yourself busy and the sickness at bay, to not have to sit awkwardly in a corner and look at other people dance. It made you feel safer, having something to do, a purpose more familar to what you were accustomed to.
That was when you recognized him, coming towards you for the drinks no doubt, Elliott's brother, tall and lean in his nice dark suit, his clear grey eyes already set on you. You take a step forward and you stumble on flat ground on your unfamiliar shoes, the tray slips from your hands and crashes at your feet, spilling white sparkling champagne all over his shirt and all over yourself too. You straighten up, mortified, cursing yourself, but he does not scold you, does not threaten to have you thrown out of the house, does not even laugh at your predicament, only raises an eyebrow, asking if he knows you.
The sudden blush on your traitorous cheeks answers for you and his lips stretch in a thin line somewhere halfway between a smile and a smirk.
He speaks to you but you hardly register what he is saying, the mere fact that he is there in front of you is already too much. No, no, no, you think, not him, not you, not now, not in a million years. And yet even after you blink hard he is still there, staring insistantly at you with no intention of going anywhere any time soon.
'Dance with me?'
'I can't', you say, gesturing to your dress. 'I'm soaked.'
'Well, me too. We will be well suited then.'
You look away to escape that piercing gaze and your eyes fall on Kate and Elliott, tied in a tight embrace – the sight washes your irresolution away. You turn back to him and force a smile on your face, you do not protest when he catches your hand in his.
And now you wonder, not for the first time and probably not the last, if it is not too late to turn away and go back to being just yourself, just Ana Steele, well away from him and away from this place. You open your eyes and look at yourself in the mirror above, without any make-up or any ornaments, and yet you do not feel one bit more like yourself than that evening when Kate turned you into that not so graceful swan.
And it makes you wonder if he did truly see the real you underneath, in the awkwardness of your movements and the sadness in your eyes that nothing could conceal, or if all this, this whole relationship is not yet another masquerade under another disguise.