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A Night Not at the Opera 24/12- Xmas 1677

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Lord Langdon was not an admirer of the opera; or, at least was unsure whether he was. In truth, he had never attended one before. He had been led to believe that it was a series of loud voiced singing in foreign languages, for hours. Still, he had considered attending nevertheless for the spectacle of seeing the flower of the court turned out in all their finery. The deciding factor had been that, had he attended, it was likely that Catherine would be at his side. This risked irking both the Duke of York and Davina. It was one thing to carry on with Catherine and quite another to rub it in the face of her former lover and his current lover.


So it was that he found himself in a plush bed in one of his two private suites in Somerset Palace. It was two hallways from the one he would be sharing with Davina 12 hours hence. Fortunately, he had thought not to use the same suite for both lovers, just in case they might both arrive simultaneously. Though he had instructed the backstairs servants carefully, what if they were unable to stop a lady's progress? The palace had perhaps 50 bedrooms of various sizes and Charles had selected two of the better ones with views, leaving the best suite for the King should he require it.


Movement in the bed beside him reminded him of the other occupant. Catherine and he had shared their typical greeting -- a rough and tumble lovemaking. It had been a precursor to a more relaxed state of mind more conducive to conversation. Already the sweat on his brow was drying and the chill in the air caused him to pull the sheets over his naked body more fully.


"You do not miss going to the opera do you?" He had already explained the concern about angering York needlessly. She had seem to agree. Until they knew better the disposition of the Duke to each of them, it was best to act with a bit of discretion. "It would not be seemly to have had your hands all over me during the performance, as I know you cannot help yourself in my presence." Their game had not been forgotten. "I suppose you will be demanding a dance from me tomorrow," he continued, thinking of the ball.

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As usual, their lovemaking had been wild, exciting, and boisterous, and Catherine had rolled from on top of Charles to lie beside him, not even bothering to cover her nakedness. She was hot and sweaty, and only when she cooled down would she pull the sheets over her.


She liked this suite. It was far more luxurious than their cottage, although that rustic location would always hold a special place in her heart. Now that she was his official mistress, she didn't have to sneak around to see him anymore, and she was able to spend time with him out of bed as well as in it. Catherine had expected him to take her to the opera, but she much preferred spending the evening here with him. There would be other events they could attend together during the season.


It also wouldn't do to anger York at this point, as she fully intended to charm her way back into his bed. Charles had been wise to suggest that they stay away tonight. She knew that Lady O'Roarke was back and seeing Catherine with Charles might drive the Duke back into the redhead's arms … assuming he had ever left them. Catherine's goal would be more difficult to achieve now, but Charles had helped her before. She hoped he would know the best way to proceed.


Unless he was purposefully coming up with reasons to avoid York so that he could have her all to himself.


His voice brought her out of her reflections and she turned toward him, slipping under the covers and nestling close, her body pressed against his side. No, she didn't miss going to the opera. She liked plays and music, but she didn't think she would have enjoyed hearing all the parts sung instead of spoken. It would probably have been difficult to follow the story. “I wouldn't have minded going,” she chuckled, “but it would have been hard to concentrate and fight you off at the same time.” Catherine didn't think she would ever tire of their little game.


“Only to save you embarrassment,” she replied with a melodramatic sigh. “If I don't dance with you, you'll follow around begging me for one until I finally relent.”

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They had not discussed her plans for York very much. Langdon knew that she harbored a desire to win back the Duke. Whether that would ever succeed, who was to know? Charles would help Catherine, of course. He would help most any lady, let alone one for whom he was fond. There would be time enough for plotting during the merry holiday season.


Their game caused him to pause in trying to conjure a witty rejoinder. Nothing especially humorous came to mind, and their game did not involve belittling the other, so he was left to seize upon her reference to touching at the opera. "I suppose I would have been forced to have my hand wander up your skirts during the performance to see if you could hold still," he chuckled as he imagined the scene in his mind. He was a boy at heart and enjoyed pranks upon ladies. As if the replicate the moment, his hand wandered slowly up her nearest leg.


"What shall be our new year's wish I wonder?" he asked aloud as he stared at the ceiling. Most men had ambitions. Charles had most of what he wanted, so he did not have a ready answer. A new title or office would not be important to him. He supposed he could use more money, but that seemed hardly worthy. He had all he needed with ladies and soldiering. Had he, at the ripe old age of 23, achieved all that he had wanted? That would be a sad statement. There must be something more. What it was eluded him in that moment. Was he truly content?

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“Forced?” she asked with a little chuckle. His fingers whispering slowly up her leg made her tremble with pleasure. “Just like now, you wouldn't be able to resist.” Was he ready for another go? If he kept teasing her, she would climb on top of him and ride him until they both achieved ecstasy. Maybe that was what he hoped for. He would have more ammunition for their game if she forcefully had her way with him. It would be difficult, but Catherine would not give in so soon.


Our New Year's wish. Her heart fluttered in her chest at that one simple word. She was still becoming accustomed to her new position as his mistress, and she loved how he included her in his plans for the coming year. Perhaps she should forget about York. Charles would want to marry again eventually …


In truth, she wasn't sure how she felt about the Duke. Catherine did want him back, but was it because she cared for him or because she abhorred rejection? She didn't want their relationship to end with her disgrace and she believed that he would not be immune to her charms if she could just break the spell that Lady O'Roarke had cast upon him. Since she had given him a son, she had even more power over him now.


“More nights like this one,” she replied with a saucy smile. Propping her head up on her elbows, she lifted a long dark curl that had fallen over her shoulder and tickled his chest with it. “What do you wish to accomplish personally during the coming year?” she asked him. “Do you have any specific goals?”

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When she suggested that he could not resist playing with her leg, the movement of his hand ceased. I will show her who is in control. He was not ready to resume their play. He was just teasing her. In fact, he did not wish to resume lovemaking, wanting to save much of his energy for Davina in the morning. He was more interested in the company, and the reason to avoid the opera.


When Catherine expressed her wish, Charles was not sure whether to credit it or not. She might just be saying that as a form of flattery. "An easy enough wish to fulfill," he remarked with an amused voice. Then she turned the tables on him.


"I should have goals shouldn't I?" he mused aloud. "I do not know whether to be disappointed in myself or not Catherine, but I feel mostly content." He was quiet for a moment as he contemplated a more comprehensive answer.


"I suppose I should like the King to continue thinking well of me. Perhaps I might save a damsel or two," he uttered as he smiled to himself. "I do not know that I can expect to rise more in title or office for some time." He was a young man still. He liked being a soldier, and it satisfied his thirst to be a hero. There was the subject of marriage; but, he preferred the freedom of having mistresses openly. A wife would be adverse to such things. Surely there was no rush to marry until a perfect situation presented itself.

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She should have known he would stop his delicious trek up her leg when she called attention to it. It was for that very same reason that she didn't pounce on top of him. He would comment on how she couldn't control herself when he was with her, which wasn't far from the truth. His kisses, his touch ... even the sound of his voice … incited her passion for him. Catherine did intend to seduce him into a second round before she left the palace, but she was in no hurry. Their first bout had exhausted her and she was content for the moment just to talk. There was more than being a mistress than just sex.


They were friends as well as lovers. Or at least, that was how she saw their relationship.


Her eyes narrowed teasingly when he promised that her wish would be easy to fill. “Of course it will. You want nothing more than to keep me here forever so you can have your way with me whenever it pleases you.”


She smiled when he claimed he was content. That state of satisfaction, she believed, was mostly due to her. Catherine had no idea that she shared his affections with another lady and that he planned to meet with her here as well. She had long since told herself that she didn't care if he had other lovers because it wasn't fair for him to be true to her when she wasn't true to him. But York was out of her life now (temporarily, she hoped), and if she knew that he was using their affair to cover up his dalliance with another woman, she might rethink that particular philosophy.


“There is nothing wrong with being content. I'm sure you will rise in title and office eventually. And most gentlemen probably envy you for being in favor with His Majesty.” Her hair was not having the desired effect on him, and she tossed the curl back over her shoulder and leaned forward to rain little kisses across his chest, finally settling down with her head upon his shoulder. “I have a few goals of my own. Would you like to guess what they are?”

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"Keep you here forever?" Charles responded to her playful remark. "I see no guards at the doors keeping you prisoner. No, you are a prisoner to my charm," he exclaimed boastfully. "You cannot resist it." It was hard to keep score in their game but he was certain he was winning.


Her words were encouraging as to his contentment. The Earl had likly already accomplished so much as a young man that he needed more time to pass before he could advance further. As for his love life, he felt comfortable enough, but the Duke of York was a concern to them both. If he had a Christmas wish, it would be that the Duke of York would understand; or, perhaps be glad that Langdon was looking after his former mistress.


The kisses to the chest were a nice treat. Catherine was a different type of lover than Davina. He supposed that he liked the differences.


As for guessing her two goals, the first begged to be a playful one. "Two goals beside worshiping me, or does that count as one?" he laughed, readying himself to be struck. He was pushing the limits with that one. "I suppose one would be to make York jealous or at least regretful for letting you slip away." That one seemed natural. The other goal seemed more elusive to his thoughts. "Perhaps a greater chance to demonstrate your wit?" She was developing a reputation of being skillful with words. If she did that, it would only help her enter more circles.

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“No one is holding me here, but that doesn't mean you'll let me go.”


Catherine had to admit that he was winning this round of their little game. She was usually quite witty after sex, but York's public rejection still rankled and it was interfering with every aspect of her life. The only solace she found these days was in Charles' arms. It was only with him that she could talk about her hopes and dreams, her fears and sorrows. He understood her better than anyone else and had in fact, saved her from ruin by not renouncing her as well. She had actually been surprised when he wanted to continue their affair after their secret liaisons had been discovered.


So she could allow him a small victory in their war of words. She would turn the tables on him later.


When he least expected it.


“No, of course not,” she laughed. “Although perhaps one of my goals should be discouraging your single-minded devotion to me.” Maybe she did need more opportunities to practice her wit. It was definitely not at its best this night.


With a soft smile, she reached out and traced the outline of his lips. “You've guessed one of them. I think it's better that we stay out of York's sight for awhile except at court events. If he does become jealous, I don't want him to take it out on you. I want him to try to seduce me back into his bed. It's time for him to put a little effort into our relationship.”


Her dark eyes expressed worry. “But do you think he will? Now that Lady O'Roarke is back, there is no reason to pursue me. Sometimes I think I should give up on him, but at others, I want to provoke him into getting excited over the thrill of the chase. He is complacent with the Countess. But winning back my favor would be a challenge, and all gentlemen adore challenges, don't they?”


She sighed, draping one leg over his. “Do you think I have a chance, Charles, or am I just holding on to a hopeless dream?”

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Maybe he had missed something because it did not seem like she uttered two goals. The recapture of York's interest was but one.


"You could do it," he encouraged, "but to capture him, I would shift tactics." He wondered how blunt he should be about his thoughts.


"I think you demean yourself if you try and win him with sexual allure. He has women aplenty for that. No, to win a man back, you must become more popular than his current mistresses." A plan was formulating in his mind as his hand stroked her naked leg. "Use this season to be seen everywhere in expensive clothing with expensive jewels. It shows that you do not need him, and suggests that you have multiple admirers. Convince your father to break loose with some of your dowry," he laughed.


"Throw a party, use Nell and the Merry Gang to do something fun that will show you to be the center of attention. Be generous with gifts and use your wit to belittle enemies of York at public gatherings," the young Earl suggested. "That will show you are still loyal to him, even though you say nothing about it. He will come, in time, to rue letting you go and seeing how popular you have become. As long as you are hidden from court, he will never credit you. Make him see you dance with a dozen men and be surrounded by the finest wits at court." It all sounded grand as he unveiled it.


"The problem is that Lady O'Roarke is quite a wit as well. It might turn into a war between you ... or perhaps you might even come to like each other and then see the Duke become confounded," he laughed. Catherine was a bit too plain and mousey to catch the eye of royalty, but York had a taste for plain women with nice legs. Her best path to popularity, in Langdon's mind, was through conspicuous consumption, adornment, and presence.

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Catherine did have two goals, but so far she had mentioned only one of them. She wanted his opinion on winning York back before she revealed the second. Charles always been honest with her in the past and he could give her a gentleman's point of view on how to seduce him.


However, he suggested that she not seduce him at all. Her leg tingled beneath his caresses, a pleasurable distraction that made it a bit troublesome to concentrate on his words, but she did understand what he was proposing. It had occurred to her to show York that she didn't need him, but she thought she was doing that by becoming another man's mistress.


She smiled as Charles continued to outline a plan that could possibly make her irresistible in the Duke's eyes. It could work, Catherine had kept a rather low profile last season. Perhaps it was time to be seen everywhere and with everybody, proving that she could get along fine without him. Throwing parties would be no problem, and her father was a part of the Merry Gang. He could help her think of some interesting ways to attract York's attention, and maybe she and Nell could get up to a bit of mischief at the next ball. Belittling York's enemies with witty comments was an absolutely brilliant idea.


“I don't think Lady O'Roarke and I will ever become friends,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “But with a bit of effort, I should be able to outdo her in the popularity department. I could even get gentlemen I know to pretend to give me gifts so I can publicly refuse them. Then it will look as if I believe nobody is good enough for me.”


Turning her head slightly, she kissed his neck lightly. “Except for you, of course. I think we should go more places together this season so that everyone will see how happy we are together. When they talk about us, he will remember the pleasant times we shared and become jealous. We just need to stay out of his way.”

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The good thing about his plan was that it would help Catherine with all suitors, not just the Duke of York. Becoming popular was a goal in and of itself.


"Perhaps you might," Charles declared softly. "Lady O'Roarke is also a friend of mine," he confessed. "We arrived at court together in the spring of 1675 and met each other during the first days. She was a different person then, shy and unsophisticated about the ways of court." As he recalled, she was a widow that escaped her brother's wish to marry some country lord.


"We have remained friendly over the years," he acknowledged. "These days you both have wit, are liked in libertine circles, have been mistresses to royalty, and likely have the same enemies. You have each borne York a child. I cannot say how you women view such things but you might be either great rivals or great friends. It seems to me that you should not cast aside so readily the possibility of alliance. The question is what you can do for her and what she can do for you," he mused aloud. He did not have ready answers.


"Do you think that each of you might tire of keeping the Duke entertained all the time and might like another to take your place? Maybe you could take turns?" It sounded illogical as soon as he uttered it. Would he share a lady he admired so readily? Yet, was that not what he had done with Catherine already? "I wonder if York and I might be friendly in the same way, that I look after you when he is with the other and am willing to step aside if he desires you, if you so wish." He had not given it much thought but it had some logic to it. Sadly, logic had little to do with emotional relationships.

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Charles might have felt Catherine's body tense momentarily when he confessed that he was friends with Lady O'Roarke and had known her for nearly three years. So much for asking him to help her discredit the redhead so that York would cast her aside, leaving the way clear for her to finagle her way back into his good graces. She knew that he would never betray a friend.


Now she wondered if he had taken her as his mistress so that Heather would have York all to herself. Had they planned this all along? No, he would not betray her either. And if that had been his plan, why would he suggest that she and the Countess might become friends? It would snow in hell before that ever happened.


And sharing York between them? Not a chance. Taking turns, indeed! Most likely, York would only call for her at Lady O'Roarke's time of the month. Catherine didn't want her sloppy seconds. And she doubted that Heather wanted hers. Charles didn't understand ladies at all.


Still … if she pretended to be the Countess' friend, she might be able to discover something that would poison York against her. That plan was definitely worth a try. Lady O'Roarke was clever, though. It would be difficult to gain her trust, but not impossible if Charles helped her by speaking well of Catherine in Heather's presence. Instead of warring with her, why not ride her coattails to success? Maybe it would snow in hell, after all.


“And you would take care of Lady O'Roarke when York is with me?” Although she said it jokingly, there was a nearly imperceptible edge to her voice. “I'm not certain if we could share the Duke between us, but I don't have anything against her personally. As you said, we have quite a few things in common. I just don't think she would want to socialize with me considering my past with York.”


Idly, she traced little circles on his chest, kissing the center of each one. “Maybe you could mention me to her the next time you see her. Tell her what you just told me and that we should be allies instead of rivals. Our children are half-siblings. They should grow up as friends. Maybe she will listen to you.”


Catherine laughed. “Can you imagine the look on York's face when he sees the two of us conspiring together? It would be absolutely hilarious.”

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Catherine was correct in judging the Earl's character. He would not betray a friend. He might sleep with a friend's wife, but only if she were being ignored and lonely. In that case he deemed himself doing a service for a friend, although that view was particularly convenient.


Catherine seemed a bit suspicious of his relationship with Heather. Charles had not considered that a possibility because he was still attempted to fathom the female mind. With luck, he would have a firm grip on the female mind before he passed away as an elderly man.


"We are friends but have never been lovers," the young officer sought to clarify. It was true. Perhaps both had ample other lovers that there had been no need to consider each other in a different light. "I do not know if she would tolerate you or not," he confessed. "I have not broached it with her. Now that we are in the open, I am able to do so, but I wished to consult you first. You both have other lovers. You have me and she likely has someone on the side," came the speculation. "Would you each not enjoy a respite? I know that you are totally infatuated with me and could never imagine being anywhere but in my arms," he declared playfully. "The Duke of York can hardly be so exciting that you would wish to be with him always. He was never true to you at any rate. He has any number of mistresses at one time. So, I do not understand why either of you would care, other than fight to be his favorite perhaps. Let York have other lovers. You cannot stop him any more than his wife can. So, why not work a partnership to keep him too occupied to take on yet another lover." It made logical sense to Langdon; but, logic had little to do with feelings of intimacy.


Charles knew that he would be happy if his two lovers could become friends, so why not York? "The Duke of York and I can be friendly, even with my knowing that you share his bed too. I came to accept it Catherine. You need only come to terms with the fact that York wants multiple lovers. You can either fight it and lose, or come to accept it," he argued. Ironically, he might be making similar arguments to her one day as to why he needed multiple lovers.


"I will speak to her then," he agreed. "It might be fun to conspire against him in playful ways." He tried to imagine how they might accomplish this. Perhaps they could dress up as one another and wear masks to fool York, he supposed. Obviously, he had given too little thought to the possibilities.

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Catherine felt a profound sense of relief when he informed her that he had never slept with Lady O'Roarke. She didn't think she could bear sharing both of her lovers with that woman. Strangely enough, she would rather share York with her than Charles. She knew the handsome Earl had other lovers in the past, but she rather hoped that she was now his only one. Her feelings for him were a bit puzzling. She knew that she couldn't expect him to be faithful to her when she was scheming with him to get back into another man's bed, but she didn't like to think of him with other women.


Her ears perked up when he said that Heather had other lovers. Had she told him that? No, he only suspected that she did. What would York think if he knew? He had cast Catherine aside after he found out she had been seeing Charles. Would he oust the Countess if he knew for a fact that she was sleeping with another man? Perhaps it would be advantageous to become friends with her. Catherine could speak about her relationship with Charles now that it wasn't a secret anymore and maybe Heather would confess that she had another lover as well.


She playfully swatted his arm when he professed how infatuated she was with him. “Of course you would say that, considering that you are so obsessed with me that you don't mind if I sleep with York as long as I always come back to you.” And it seemed as if she had just summed up her own feelings about Charles. Let him have other lovers as long as she always came first in his affections.


In a way, it was the same with York. “I know he has other mistresses, Charles. I can accept that. What I can't accept is that he favors Lady O'Roarke more than he has ever favored me. I think she would feel the same if our places were reversed. But … if we get to know each other, maybe she'll think I will be less of a threat to her than other ambitious ladies and we can happily share him between us.” Heather was prettier than Catherine. What could she fear from a plain woman such as she?


Quite a bit, actually. But she didn't know that.


“Please do talk to her. But don't be surprised if she just laughs in your face.” Lifting up her head, she nibbled on his earlobe and gently blew into it. "Would you like to know my other goal for this season?"

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Charles supposed that it was human nature to want to be first in the affections of another.. It prevented him from arguing that, perhaps, it might be better to be second in the Duke's affections. As for Heather, the Earl imagined that she would perceive no threat from Catherine. Thus, they might be able to become friends after all. It was a relief that Catherine seemed to want to seek an alliance with his redheaded friend. He found himself nodding in agreement.


It was then that his lover mentioned that she had a second goal. He had not missed it after all. "Do tell," he encouraged, wondering what she had in mind.

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Catherine propped her head up on her hand again. “I want York to visit Caroline. She's eight months old now and he's never shown the slightest interest in her. It's as if he wants to pretend she doesn't exist.” She would bet that he didn't ignore Lady O'Roarke's child, although that might be because she had given him a son.


Still, Caroline deserved his attention as well. She had feared that he would disown her when he had found out that Catherine was Charles' lover, but he had not done so. Their affair was supposed to be fairly recent. He would believe that she had been faithful to him when Caroline was conceived, even though in truth, Charles might be her father. The baby didn't resemble either of her fathers ... yet. She didn't look much like Catherine either.


She had brought the baby back to court with her, for she couldn't imagine Christmas without her daughter. Motherhood had mellowed Catherine a bit, but it had also made her more ambitious. “She's beautiful and charming and has the most adorable smile. I just know he would fall in love with her.”


Catherine hoped he got her hint. She wanted Charles to visit Caroline too. He had only seen her once and she had grown so much since then.


“I just don't know how to bring her to his attention.”

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The second goal was made clear. It was a simple enough thing to accomplish. The only question was how to do it.


As she described Caroline, Charles could not help but flatter a lady. The game between them was forgotten for a moment. "Just like her mother."


As to strategy, Charles could think of but two suggestions. "You know, it may be that a simple letter to His Grace telling him that his child is in London and would he please call. Surely York must have some curiosity, even if it is to judge whether it is his or mine," he chuckled. "Of course, the story is that she could not be mine," he acknowledged. "Or, simply approach him at the ball and inform him that his daughter wishes to meet him."


"Alternatively, he is certain to attend Queen's Chapel Sunday for Catholic service. Perhaps you could be in a coach outside with Caroline and waylay him." It occurred to him belatedly that the Duchess might be with him then, causing a frown. That would be bad form. "Or ... perhaps some court event."


As for his visiting Caroline, Charles would be happy to do so, though he was reluctant to take much interest in the child for fear of stoking whispers that she was his. "Perhaps I could meet you in the park again and you might have her with you."

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His compliment came out of the blue, unexpected but definitely appreciated. Catherine could have made a witty retort and continued their game, but she refrained, Whether he meant what he said or was just spouting meaningless flattery was hard to tell, but she decided to believe that was the way he saw her, except maybe the part about beauty.


Then again, beauty was in the eyes of the beholder. He would have denied their affair instead of bringing it out of the open if he believed she was as ugly as sin. She didn't think that she was bad-looking; she just didn't meet the standards of beauty in the English court, which in her opinion, were unreasonably high. York hadn't minded that she was plain, and neither, apparently, did Charles. Wit was more important to Catherine than appearance. Most beauties were not very clever.


She leaned forward and lightly kissed his lips. “Why thank you, Charles.”


He gave her a few suggestions about how to bring Caroline to York's attention. “I'm in disgrace. He's probably told his servants to burn any letters I send him. And if I do send him one and he is told about it but doesn't read it, he'll think that I wrote to beg him to take me back.”


Her face took on a thoughtful expression. “If I can manage to talk to him at the ball, your second idea might work. But ...” she sighed in frustration. “He'll probably be with her, and she will never let me near him. He might even try to avoid me himself.”


Catherine shook her head when he suggested the chapel. “I don't want to force her on him. He must wish to see her and if we argue, it might upset her. Caroline's at an age where she reacts to the emotions of the people around her. When her nurse accidentally cut herself and cried out, Caroline started wailing. She was also fussy when I was angry about York's rejection. When I left the room, her nurse told me later that she had settled down.”


She grinned when he took her hint and suggested that they meet much as they'd had the first time he saw Caroline. “That can be arranged. Shall we meet on Sunday again or would another day suit you better?"


Rubbing the leg that was draped over him sensually back and forth, she met his eyes. “If there is a ball tomorrow, Charles, will you escort me? We need to be seen together, and it may be the best chance I have of speaking to the Duke. If he is with Lady O'Roarke, we can approach him together and you can draw her aside to ask her how she's been. Then I'll have a few moments to speak privately with York.”

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"You never know." Why would York burn her letters? Would Charles ever do that? It did not seem logical. "What do you have to lose?"


As for the ball, "he will likely be with his wife. I could ask her to dance and then you could speak with him," he offered. He supposed he could do the same with Heather.


"Sunday afternoon would good for a stroll in the snow in the park." He would see how Caroline had grown. He had reason to suspect that she was his. After all, did not Catherine love him more than York? Would not the body recognize that? It was a theory more grounded in folklore than science. Perhaps he might father another child upon Catherine and, then, there would be no question as to paternity.


"Yes, I do think I should escort you to the ball tomorrow," he agreed readily with a smile. They needed to be seen together so as to better disguise his affair with Davina, and to help Catherine seem more popular at court. "I would not want you crying all night if I declined," he added in jest. The game was no longer suspended.

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“My pride,” Catherine stated as if it should have been obvious. “I don't want him to even suspect that I'm begging him to take me back, and if he doesn't read my letter, then that's what he'll think. A letter is also easy to dismiss. Even if he does read it, he might put off answering it and forget about it. And if she sees it, she will destroy it or talk him out of visiting his daughter. I'm sure she doesn't want her son to have any competition for his father's favor.”


If York did arrive at the ball with his wife, she doubted he would stay with her for long. He would seek Lady O'Roarke at first opportunity. Unless he was tiring of her already. Oh, how Catherine hoped that he was! Her task would be much easier then. “If you ask whomever he's with to dance, that will give me the time I need.” Her eyes narrowed playfully. “As long as he's not in the company of a gentleman, of course.” The very idea of Charles asking a man to dance was ludicrous but it was amusing all the same.


She couldn't hide her happiness when he set a date for seeing Caroline again. At least he was eager to see the child who might be his. In truth, Catherine hoped that Charles was her father. She would be prettier when she grew up than if she was York's. And there was a certain appeal in knowing that the Duke claimed another man's child as his own … especially if he didn't take Catherine back. Most of all, though, Charles seemed to actually care for Caroline, and Catherine genuinely cared for Charles. A child was a living representation of that affection, a treasure to be cherished always.


“A stroll through the snow sounds lovely.” So he didn't mind being seen with Caroline now? She supposed there was nothing wrong with spending time with his mistress and her child and it would be nice not to have to hide her in a carriage again. Usually she stood on the seat now and looked out the window. Concealing her would not be as easy as it had once been. “You can make a snowball that she can hold in her hands. She has never touched snow before.”


And he also agreed to escort her to the ball. Catherine had been a bit afraid that he would want to go alone, but he seemed eager to flaunt their relationship in front of the entire court. Could it be that he was falling in love with her? “You're so obsessed with me that you couldn't bear it if I went with anybody else. It would ruin your evening to see me with another man.”

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Apparently, Charles had forgotten that Catherine's pride was vulnerable in a written outreach that could be rejected. He nodded his understanding silently.


"We shall look for an opportunity at the ball then," he declared. Whatever happened, it would likely be spontaneous.


The effect upon Catherine was clear when he spoke of seeing Caroline again and escorting his mistress to the ball. I should be careful not to make her fall more in love with me. That could lead to awkward situations surely. he did not love Catherine. They were friends and lovers, which was enough. York might take her back and they would cease being lovers potentially; but, he hoped they might stay friends. As for York, Charles was more than a bit apprehensive about the reception the prince might give him. If it was a cold one, then he would need to work through York's men to repair any damage. On the other hand, male logic was clear -- how could a man object to another man picking up a woman that was previously cast aside? York should thank him, or so Charles imagined.


"Obsessed, hardly," came the rejoinder to their game. "Distressed more likely, that in the company of other gentlemen that you should turn them all against me by making moon eyes at me all night and speaking of nothing but me. Better you do so in my company than insult other gentlemen thereby," he declared with an air resignation designed to further their game.

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Catherine smiled when he nodded his understanding. York's repudiation had hurt her deeply; her pride couldn't take yet another blow. Nor did she want the Duke to gloat over the thought that she would deign to plead for his forgiveness. She had done nothing that he hadn't done. If she was forced to share him with Lady O'Roarke, he should be willing to share her with Charles.


She wasn't certain if she loved Charles or not. Her feelings for him was confusing. She enjoyed their no-strings-attached relationship and treasured his friendship but sometimes she felt something deeper for him as well. Maybe it was because he could be Caroline's father, or maybe it was indeed love. But would a woman in love be so eager to jump into another man's bed? Maybe there were different degrees of love. She knew she was not in love with York. Being his mistress had its perks and its allure, and that was what mainly attracted her to him.


If Charles asked her to marry him, she knew she would say 'yes' in a heartbeat. Was that evidence that she loved him?


She didn't want York to cause trouble for Charles either, which was one reason she had been glad he had asked her to spend this evening with him instead of taking her to the opera. Tomorrow at the ball, Catherine would pay careful attention to how he reacted when they were seen together. She cared too much for Charles for him to suffer for her sake. If the Duke poisoned the King's mind against him, he could lose everything he had.


“My admirers would only turn against you when you try to take my attention away from them.” He was definitely winning their game tonight. Her wit was not at its sharpest. Maybe it was clouded by her growing passion.


“Do you have any plans for tomorrow?” she asked him, shifting position so that she was lying nearly on top of him, her curves pressed enticingly against him. If he didn't, she wouldn't mind spending Christmas with him right here in this chamber. Or anywhere else he chose.

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Catherine's rejoinder in their game was not inspired, causing a secretive smile to flicker on his lips. I am winning. Yet, in their game, there were no permanent winners or losers. It was but a way to practice wit between them.


As for his plans on Christmas Day, he was not about to confess that he was going to be with his secret lover. The fact that he was eager to be with Davina only made it worse. "I fear I shall need to catch up on my duties. I have been negligent of late, no doubt due to the holiday season," he offered with a guilty smile.


"But we shall meet in the evening for the ball. I plan to wear my uniform," he informed her. He was so pleased with his uniform that Catherine would have no reason to suspect otherwise. Of course, if she wished to object, he was providing a basis for doing so. Otherwise, it would help her pick her own dress and jewelry. He had encouraged her to look wealthy and fine.


"Which dance shall we share? Shall it be the last?" That was usually the most meaningful one.

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He knew he was winning this round. She could tell by his smug smile. Well, he could have one little victory. The next time they played their game, Catherine would make sure he didn't fare as well. Although she blamed her ardor for her lack of wit, it was more likely that York's public rejection had caused it to suffer. It was hard to be witty when you were depressed.


Yet that depression was lifting with every moment that she spent with Charles. Soon she would be back to her usual clever repartee. And then he wouldn't stand a chance.


Her lips turned down into a seductive pout when he told her that he would have to attend to his duties tomorrow. She found his guilty smile adorable and believed that he would much rather be with her than with his fellow soldiers. Leaning forward, she kissed his lips lightly. “I know you can't stand the thought of being away from me, but the King must always come first.”


His uniform? Again? Unlike some women, Catherine did not have a weakness for men in uniform, but she did like the way he looked in his. Still, it would be nice to see him in something else now and then. “I was thinking of wearing a beaded green gown I just had made for me recently. It is an extravagant confection that will hopefully make the right impression on York. And I have a lovely diamond and emerald necklace to go with it.”


She smiled sweetly. "Perhaps we should compliment each other than clash?” It was a subtle attempt at manipulating him into choosing another outfit, even though it didn't matter what he wore as long as he was with her. In truth, she liked him best the way he was right now.


“Yes, the last dance,” she agreed. Perhaps York would be jealous if she and Charles shared the most meaningful dance together. “Or ...” she grinned saucily. “We could dance together twice.” Catherine doubted he would agree to that, as it was frowned upon for a single gentleman to dance with a single lady more than once. If he did, though, it was possible that York would be furious and realize what he had lost when he so callously cast her aside.

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Fortunately, Catherine did not press for them to be together Christmas Day. He returned her light kiss whispering "this will give you a whole afternoon to daydream about dancing with me." He fought a chuckle as he uttered the words countering her own boast.


When she mentioned her own choice of clothing, and recommended that they harmonize, Charles smiled. "We will compliment each other then." He had little eye for fashion, thinking that red and green would make a wonderful set of holiday colors. "I will wear a diamond cravat pin then." It would be obvious that he was missing her point.


"Try not to display your infatuation with me too openly," he laughed in response to her suggestion for two dances. "One at the ball and then, if you are nice to me, perhaps we'll share another dance after I take you home." The meaning was obvious, though it was one he would regret seconds later as he realized that he would likely be drained by Davina earlier in the day.

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“I just hope you can keep your mind on your duties instead of fantasizing about all the things you want to do with me after the ball. I know ...” Her eyes wandered below his waist. “... how hard that will be.”


He hadn't taken her hint about wearing something other than his uniform and Catherine sighed. Red and green did not compliment each other. They clashed. She could always wear something else. Purple, perhaps, or gold. She had gowns in both colors. They just weren't as opulent as the green one. Perhaps she could convince him in a more playful way. “If you wear your uniform, you'll look like all the other Life Guards. I might inadvertently dance with another gentleman thinking that he's you, and then you'll be heartbroken for the rest of the night.”


She hadn't thought that he would agree to two dances, but it had been worth a try. “You say that, but I know you hope I'll stay beside you all night.” Catherine's heart leapt in her chest when he suggested a private dance after he took her home. “You just can't get enough of me, can you? I know it's no use to refuse for you'll just sweep me into your arms and have your wicked way with me anyway. After an entire day away from me, you won't be able to resist.”


Nor would she, but she couldn't tell him that without giving him ammunition to fire back at her.

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Their game was in full swing and Catherine had regained her form. "Yes, what should I do with you when I get you home I wonder," he played along. "I suppose that if you are a good girl at the ball that I might reward your hunger for me, modestly of course. Your appetite for my company and lovemaking is insatiable, so I will need to ration my affection." He chuckled as he tried to outmatch her again.


As for her other ploy, Charles scoffed "I do not look like other Life Guards. My officer tunic is quite grand and unique," he insisted. "There is no chance that you would mistake another for me as you are hopelessly infatuated with me and no other could hold a candle to me." It was also clear that he would be wearing his uniform.


As for having his wicked way with her on the morrow, it did sound appealing. "Well then, you will just have to wait and see what happens. Just promise me that you will not faint tomorrow night at the ball by getting too excited dreaming about what I might do." He showed his teeth in a broad grin. Beat that.

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His words filled her mind with many tantalizing images of what they might do after the ball. Would he bring her here again or would he take her in the carriage on the way home? “You are so obsessed with me that you will want me even if I'm a bad girl.” Catherine grinned impishly. “Especially if I'm a bad girl. And you may think you can exercise restraint, but you will so starved for my attention, you'll pounce on me as soon as we're alone together.”


So he was determined to wear his uniform. Although there were other ploys she could use, she doubted she could sway him now that his mind was made up. She would wear the green gown anyway. It was more likely to attract York's attention than any of her others, and maybe his eyes would be drawn to her because her attire and Charles' would clash. “Don't be so sure. You're so smitten with me that you can't see how easy it would be to mistake you for somebody else..”


Their banter was arousing her and she sat up on top of him, straddling his waist. Catherine hoped that he would have his wicked way with her at least once more tonight. His grin made her smirk. His retort would be difficult to beat, but she thought she could equal it, if not surpass it. “You secretly want me to faint so you can rush to my side and hold me in your arms.”


She leaned over and kissed his forehead, her small pert breasts dangling invitingly close to his face. “I do hope that you don't step on the toes of other ladies you dance with because you can't take your eyes off of me. And please don't call them Catherine. Most of all, promise me that you won't rip my gown when we dance because you're so eager to tear off my clothes.”

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Catherine was correct that he would likely have his way with her even if she were bad, He tried not to think of it. In the back of his mind, the young earl knew that there would be only one other lady that would jeopardize their plans. If Davina wanted to be with him after the ball, he would need to invent excuses to drop his plans with Catherine. "We shall see," was his cryptic reply.


Catherine's retorts in their game were well done and Charles smiled as she strove mightily to overcome him, both physically and in their game. "I shall be nimble on my feet, have no fear, for I shall know that you will be watching me ... constantly."


She was trying to arouse him again; he could tell. There was a conscious desire to save his powder for the morrow with Davina, so it emboldened him to raise the stakes in their game. "Look at who is infatuated with whom right now," he declared, pausing to blow on her pert nipple. "It seems that I am but a prisoner to your unrelenting passion," he laughed. "Your thirst for me can never be quenched." Content that he would win no matter what she did next, Langdon waited for the lady's response. If she decided to exercise self-control in a ploy to show that he was the one smitten, then he would have more reserves for Davina on the morrow. If she attacked, he would join in, of course, promising himself to be extra good about resting Christmas morning.

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“Yes, we shall see,” she whispered into his ear, “whether you can wait until we get here or whether you will be so hungry for me that you devour me right in the carriage.”


Her wit had returned as well as her energy. Perhaps it had been sheer exhaustion that had dulled it earlier. Their unique brand of lovemaking was vigorous and intense, and Catherine had been unusually tired when she had rolled off of him. Or had he rolled off of her? Their bodies had been so closely intertwined and her mind had been completely consumed by the ecstasy he had given her that it was impossible to tell.


However, she was on top of him now. “Or so you hope. Just thinking of me watching you makes you want to impress me so that I will give you the affection you desire above all other things.”


She laughed when he blew on her nipple, arching her back as the warmth whispered over the sensitive nub. Catherine sat up again and began to slowly slide back and forth, rubbing herself against him, bare skin slipping over bare skin as smoothly as silk. “I am doing you a favor. If I don't satisfy you now, you'll be pining for me all night and won't be able to sleep. You'll be so tired, you will miss the ball altogether and I know you will be devastated if I go without you.”

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