By: Cheryl B.

Elizabeth walked up the steps to the grand mansion, where a big charity masquerade ball was being held that evening. She had won two tickets to the event from a radio contest, and her best friend Lynn was to have joined her, but she came down with a nasty cold at the last minute, and couldn't join her, so Elizabeth was on her own.

Her prize also included the use of her choice of masks, costume jewelry and gorgeous ball gowns from a costume rental shop, full hair, nail and makeup treatment from the best salon in town, and limousine service to the ball.

Elizabeth had chosen an emerald green crushed velvet gown, low-cut with a full skirt, accompanied by a multi-colored sequined and feathered mask, a faux diamond and silver tiara, and faux diamond and emerald necklace with matching earrings. The color set off her shining ebony ringlets perfectly, and she had an excited lilt to her step as she entered the ballroom.

A live orchestra was playing, and the room was filled with beautiful people in beautiful costumes, dancing and having a wonderful time. While Elizabeth wasn't the type to be star-struck, there were many celebrities at the party, and she amused herself for several minutes identifying many of them from beneath their masks - there was that hot young actor from her favorite soap opera, over there was that newly-married Hollywood couple, and at that table was the actress who'd just won the Oscar last year.

While it was fun to see them, Elizabeth felt no particular need to go up and meet any of them. She walked over to the punch bowl and reached for the ladle to pour herself a drink, when a hand came from behind her and took it before she had the chance.

"Please, allow me," said a male voice, raspy, soft and undeniably British. His warm breath on the back of her neck made her shiver slightly. She turned, and saw before her a distinguished-looking man, vaguely familiar behind his black sequined mask. His hair was slightly, beautifully graying, and he was dressed in a black tuxedo, red bow tie and cummerbund, and black cape with red satin lining.

"Thank you," she smiled, eyes sparkling as she accepted the cup that the gentleman had poured for her, "My name is Elizabeth." She extended her free hand to him.

He took her small hand in his and raised it to his lips, kissing it softly, his gray-green eyes gazing into hers though his mask.

"I'm Richard, and it is indeed a pleasure, my lady."

She looked at him for a moment. "Richard... Richard Dawson?" she asked, the voice and the eyes suddenly coming together in her mind.

He smiled. "Guilty as charged. Not tall or handsome enough to pass for Richard *Gere* I'm afraid..."

"You're tall enough, thank you, she grinned, "and between you and me, you're much more handsome than Richard Gere, any day."

Richard took her hand and chuckled. "Remind me to wear this mask more often, would you, darlin'? It seems to have some great sort of power over women, 'Objects wearing this mask may appear better looking than they actually are,' and all that." He gave her hand a squeeze.

Elizabeth laughed. "Trust me, you don't need any help in that area."

Richard's eyes grew serious, his gaze hot upon her. "What a lovely thing to say, and from such a beautiful lady..." He bowed gallantly, bringing a blush to her cheeks and a warm smile to her crimson lips. God, she thought, he's just as amazing and charming in real life as he is on television, even more so.

Hearing the music swelling as a new tune was about to begin, he extended a hand.

"May I have this dance, my fair Elizabeth?"

"I thought you'd never ask," she replied as he led her to the dance floor. He held her tightly and maneuvered her masterfully across the floor to the strains of a lilting waltz.

It was thrilling, his expertise and precision, as they danced and twirled and spun, moving as one in fluid motion, cape and skirts flying, until she was dizzy - whether from the dancing or the feeling of his strong arms around her, she wasn't sure. She did know that she felt free and exhilarated, and that Richard was probably the sexiest, most handsome man she'd ever laid eyes on.

And more than anything else, she knew that if she was to keep herself out of trouble tonight, she'd do well to keep her mind on dancing, and off of other all-too tantalizing things she could imagine enjoying in perfect rhythm within his commanding embrace...

The music stopped, and Richard and Elizabeth applauded. "My, what a workout you've given me, luv!" he panted, "How about another glass of punch?"

"Yes, please, thank you." she replied, catching her breath as he went to retrieve some liquid refreshment for them.

He returned in a moment, and they found a vacant table. Richard held her chair and scooted it in as she sat down, then took his own seat across from her as they sipped the cold, fruity concoction.

"You're an excellent dancer, Richard," she exclaimed, "That was amazing - thank you!"

He grinned at Elizabeth. "You have no idea how much good it does this old heart to hear the words 'That was amazing' coming from a gorgeous woman who's out of breath..." He winked and laughed.

"Somehow, I'd wager that you get that a lot," she said with a mischievous lift of her brow and a smile.

"Not nearly enough... Now, you'd best just be a good lass and drink your punch before I need to pour it over my head," he laughed with a twinkle in his eye.

She grinned. "You started it..."

"Did not!"

"Did so!"

"Did not!"

"Did so!"

They both collapsed into laughter until their sides ached. "Uncle!" Richard cried out, "I can't take any more!" wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.

"Neither can I," she giggled, "So now that we've established the fact that we're both obviously in possession of great maturity," she rolled her eyes with a grin, "how about another dance?"

Richard smiled, arose and took her hand. "Absolutely..." But instead of leading her to the main floor, he took her to a small, unoccupied drawing room to the side of the main room, closing the door behind them.

"We'll have a little more quiet and privacy here." The music was slightly muffled, but still quite easy to hear.

He put his arms around her for a slow dance, and she felt a shiver run through her body. It was pure electricity, being alone with him in this room, tight within his strong embrace. They swayed together, his body pressed against hers, the scent of his cologne nearly driving her mad.

Richard lifted her chin with one gentle finger and looked deeply into her eyes. He removed his mask before gently taking hers from her face, setting them both on a small side table.

"My God," he exclaimed in mock horror as he looked at her, "you're hideous!"

Elizabeth giggled and elbowed him in the side as she shot him a withering glare.

"Sorry, just a little tension reliever...." he grinned, rubbing his side with a wink. "Now, where were we?"

"I was about to kill you, as I recall," she smiled.

"Fair enough," he replied. "But how about before that? Oh yes, I remember now..." he whispered softly as he leaned in to press his mouth to hers. He gazed at her again, and she smiled softly, closed her eyes and returned his kiss. She parted her lips with a sigh to allow his warm, probing tongue to enter, to explore as he willed. They kissed deeply and passionately as they danced.

"Elizabeth," he breathed, "you are so beautiful..."

"And you, sir, are a toad... " she teased him, holding him fast, seeking his lips again.

"Touche'," he chuckled softly, "But kiss me again, my love, and I shall become your prince..." he whispered as his mouth found its way to her soft, bare neck, covering it in hot kisses.

"I trust I'm not keeping you from anyone special..." he asked softly.

", I came here alone." she breathed. "You?"

"I'm here with the most beautiful girl at the ball," he whispered hoarsely, taking her mouth in another sweet kiss. "And I'm the luckiest man in the world."

After a few moments, Richard put his mask back on and slipped out to the main room, returning with two glasses of champagne. He removed the mask again and sat beside her on the mauve love seat as they sipped and talked.

"So, what brings you here to the masquerade ball this evening, Elizabeth?" he asked with a kiss to her hand, "I'd say it was pure kismet."

She smiled. "Actually, I won tickets from a contest. And you can call me Liz, if you like."

Richard looked into her eyes, and touched her face gently. "No," he protested, "'Elizabeth' is such a lovely name, I couldn't possibly bring myself to surrender a syllable of it." She blushed.

"Are you enjoying the party?" he asked. "I mean, that is, when I haven't stolen you away from all the fun?"

Elizabeth smiled. "I think the fun is all in here," she said softly, "right here with you."

He caressed her cheek tenderly. "And I agree. But I'd hate for you to miss out on seeing all the celebrities."

"Who cares about celebrities?" she replied. "Not me."

He feigned a hurt expression. "Well, now, either I've slipped down to the Hollywood "Z" list, or I've just been rejected by a lovely lady... either way, I think I'm deeply wounded by that remark."

Laughing, she shook her head. "Richard, I'm not here with you because you're a big star. I'm here with you because you're a handsome, charming, delightful man who has made this a very special evening for me."

He grinned. "Better than Richard Gere, right?"

"Oh yes, absolutely..." she purred.

Richard looked into her eyes and stroked her dark hair. "You are an incredible woman, Elizabeth. A beautiful lady and a charming conversationalist, with a deliciously sharp wit to top it all off - what more could a fellow like me ask for?"

As he took her in his arms for another tender, passionate kiss, they heard the emcee announce that the party was just about to end.

"Well," he said, "I suppose they'll be kicking us out the door pretty soon if we don't leave on our own accord." His eyes were full of great tenderness. "I had such a marvelous time with you, Elizabeth, thank you so much for your kind company." He leaned in and kissed her.

"Could I give you a ride home?" he asked.

Only if you promise to stay forever, she thought with a trace of sadness. "No, but thank you Richard, I have a limo waiting outside. Part of the contest and all." She looked into his eyes. "I had an amazing time tonight, because of you, Richard. Thank you."

She kissed him goodnight as they said their final farewells before he disappeared into the night, never to be seen again except within her sweetest dreams. Elizabeth sat alone for a few moments, sad to think such a magical night was over, but unwilling to trade a moment of her brief, beautiful time with Richard. With a sigh, she walked out to the waiting limousine and stepped inside as the driver opened the door for her.

On the seat beside her, there was a single, perfect, long-stemmed red rose and a small card. With a grin, she read the handwritten note.

"My dear Elizabeth, I trust you didn't expect to escape me so easily, after but one lovely evening. I simply won't hear of it. Dinner tomorrow, eight o'clock?"

"Yours, Richard," it was signed, "The Masked Toad who longs to become your Prince..."


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