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Winter Wonderland [27/12, noon]- Xmas 1677

Sophia de la Cerda

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The Privy Garden at Whitehall is laid out in ordered blocks with statues in the center of each square, the classical creatures easily draw the eyes of lovers of art. The different statues depict the nine Muses (Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania) and the three Graces (Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalia), each holding or surrounded by that which is most associated with her, such as a lyre or scroll. As one wanders, it is often noted that the red roses remain on one side of the garden while the white ones remain on the opposite side, thus creating a pleasant contrast throughout. About the garden are scattered several benches, but none are secluded.


It was still snowing when Sophia arrived at the entrance to the Privy Garden, trailed by her bodyguard Karl and her maidservant Anna. She did not see the handsome figure of Lord Chatham among the few courtiers strolling down the pathways, but then she was a bit early.


After her visit to the Chelsea Veteran's hospital, she had returned home, where her cook had a warm spicy lunch waiting for her. When she had finished eating, she had gone to the orangery and picked two bouquets, tying the stems together with golden ribbons. She remembered their conversation about presenting offerings to the statues of the Muses, and if he still wished to do such a whimsical thing, there would be a bouquet for each of them.


Karl brushed the snow from one of the benches and Anna placed a cloth upon it so that her mistress's clothing would not become wet or soiled. Sophia sat down, placing the bouquets on her lap. She did hope Lord Chatham would find her. With her porcelain skin, flaxen hair, and ice-blue eyes, and wearing a white fur cloak and hat, she imagined that she blended in well with the scenery. The flowers, however, were brightly colored, and her amber silk underskirt peaked out from the front of her cloak. The bejeweled golden brooch that fastened it gleamed in the winter sun, as did the matching ornament on her hat.


The snow was falling softly, and Sophia held out one gloved hand and watched the flakes disappear as they landed upon her palm. She didn't like the cold, but she was fond of snow. Karl and Anna stood a short distance away, talking quietly in German and giving their mistress a semblance of privacy as she waited for the intriguing Earl to join her. Idly, she wondered if his eyepatch would match his clothes like it had at the ball.

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"Lady Toledo." a rich baritone voice behind her spoke. Turning she might see the debonair Earl of Winchilsea bearing down on her, his smile like a crocodiles. "I adored your performance the other night, you are quite the dark horse arent you?"


Tall dark and handsome, the Earl was a known womaniser, though featured remarkably rarely in court gossip in recent years. Attaining her proximity the predator made a deep bow and reached for her hand.


"I am transfixed...." he uttered, his eyes lifting with raised eyebrow, before he bodily arose before her. Brief appreciation of her cleavage was then given, before admiring her ever so pretty eyes, "... and find it such a pleasant state."

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Just the sound of that familiar voice sent bright little shivers rippling down Sophia's spine. She hadn't seen Lord Winchilsea since Lord Basildon's party last spring, but neither absence nor marriage seemed to have lessened the effect he had upon her. His wife was her friend, and she felt guilty at the way he made her feel, but her body had never listened to her mind when it came to him. It was, perhaps, fortunate that they met so rarely.


She turned her head toward him, admiring his handsome figure as he walked toward her. “How delightful to see you again, Lord Winchilsea,” she said in greeting. A pleasurable heat suffused her small form when he praised her performance at the opera. “I am glad that you enjoyed it. I do hope I did the goddess Diana justice.”


Sophia didn't understand his next comment but before she could ask him about it, she was distracted by the elegant way he bowed to her. When he reached for her hand, she grinned coquettishly and placed her tiny hand in his. His warmth seemed to penetrate her white leather glove and her hand tingled quite pleasantly.


Another thrill shimmered down her spine when he claimed to be transfixed by her. She noticed how his gaze dropped to the cleavage revealed through the opening of her cloak, and she unconsciously sat up a bit straighter, which gave him a better view. His gaze moved to her face and when her eyes met his, Sophia was unable to look away.


“I find that enchantment is always a most pleasant state.” Could he tell that she was as captivated by him as he claimed to be by her? Remembering his earlier remark, her head tilted to the side. “What did you mean when you called me a 'dark horse?' Is it a compliment in English to tell a lady she looks like a horse?”

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While it may have been some time since she'd seen him, it was not so long since he'd seen her. She was one of those women that were enjoyable to watch, she moved with an unknowing sensuality that drew any man's eye. If she ever learnt to harness her womanly prowess she'd be unstoppable.


A cloud of condensation puffled from her lips with gushed reply. Prettily she blushed and downturned her eyes. Daniel sensed the tremor of joy upon her body. So innocent still, it was an utter marvel, his smile widened. "Diana? Pah, You were a goddess in your own right...” his eyes danced as he awaited the reaction of his words upon her. She was so responsive, it was arousing to behold.


"May I?" he gestured to the seat alongside her, and settling then casually he leant his arms out along the backrest, and co-incidentally behind the lady herself.


"Being a dark horse is most certainly a compliment. It means you are a woman of unexpected attributes. Of mysteries yet to be discovered. Of depths that an appreciator of the arts like myself, yearn to plunder." his eyes were not upon her at that moment, but looked casually out at the wintery landscape of the garden. An eyebrow however raised... was she truly as ripe as she had seemed upon the stage?

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Why did her body betray her every time she saw him? Sophia felt much the way she had felt when Lord Arundel had kissed her yesterday, and Lord Winchilsea had done nothing but call her a goddess. “Do you think so?” Her eyes sparkled with amusement. “And what was I the goddess of?” Now her lips were betraying her too. She shouldn't say such things to him. He might think she was flirting with him when that was the farthest thing from her mind. Wasn't it? Oh how confusing … and compelling … he was!


She nodded when he asked if he could sit down. “Of course. The pleasure of your company is always most delightful.” The petite blonde could feel his warmth as he settled beside her, and when he placed his arm behind her, she sat up even straighter so that she would not inadvertently touch him, even as she longed to lean against him.


The compliments kept coming, and her body positively hummed with pleasure. Sophia adored the idea of being mysterious and alluring, especially to him. His eyes traveled around the garden as he spoke and she gazed at his handsome profile, wishing he would look at her again. She didn't understand his innuendo and took his words at face value. “I did not know you were an opera aficionado, my lord. Do you want to plunder the depths of my voice by listening to me sing again?”

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Yes she had that unfettered thirst for attention that many a scoundrel like he made use of.


"Perhaps the goddess of Desire..." his eyes slid over her form, "though you might equally be the goddess of Temptation. What is a mere mortal like myself to do?" his eyes came to rest upon her's seeking out perception of her desires.


However innocent her demeanour, and sweetly spoken her flirtation, she was not a maiden so knew full well the pleasures they might share. Was she neglected? Frustrated perhaps. Had she unquenched desires he might tend to?


With growing confidence he settled on the chair, sensing her warmth even as she adopted rigid posture, he crossed ankle over knee and ruminated with exaggerated indifference. Goading her, successfully even, if her question was anything to go by. "Your voice is revealed madam, no, it is those other, more concealed depths that I would delight to see. I imagine them to be like the spring crocus, concealed beneath the pristine snow of this garden, just awaiting a change of climate under which it shall gloriously unfold it's startling beauty." A fingertip came to touch upon her shoulder, a soft stroke given.

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It was true that Sophia craved attention and today, she was particularly vulnerable. Her husband obviously didn't care for her, her royal lover was far away, and her tantalizing encounter with Lord Arundel was still fresh on her mind. She had dreamed of him last night and her body was tense with unfulfilled desire. Lord Wichchilsea was feeding those desires with his honeyed words and she was pleased that he found her so enticing.


“Perhaps you should flee before my I weave my enchantment around you and you are completely under my spell.” Her smile was a winsome combination of shyness and flirtatiousness. “Unless you are one of those gentlemen who likes to court danger.”


He was the very personification of danger, and she was drawn to him like a moth to a flame. Instinctively, she had known that he had not been talking about her voice, and he made that clear when he described her as a snow-covered flower just waiting for the right time to burst into bloom.


Sophia was so entranced by the lovely image he had painted in her mind that she gasped softly when she felt his finger upon her shoulder. She knew she should pull away, but she did not. “The crocus does not grow until it is encouraged by the heat of the sun. I fear there has been precious little light in my life to inspire me to spread my budding petals.”

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She suggested he flee.


He smirked and an eyebrow rose, she did not really want that did she? He could almost see Sophia's mind double-take, then search for a reason he could remain. While she was sweetly spoken as a maiden, she still possessed the cunning of a woman with desires... she suggested he was a devil-may-care adventurer.


"Yes, that is precisely who I am." Daniel purred, the smile leaving his lips as his dark eyes fastening upon hers with simmering promise.


Yet then in the game being played, he removed his gaze from her, speculating upon snow dusted garden. His finger tip took an effect upon her, he could sense her attention upon the touch. And her voice, her sentiment, expressed an agony of yearning.


He turned his head, unable to resist it, and leant in to whisper, "you taunt me with such words." she'd said spread on purpose surely, a vision of her legs cast wide being placed within his mind. "And here I, a furnace, seeking hearth. Would that I had opportunity to tease you to fulfillment." his voice had changed a little, a fierceness of spirit that came with raising passion. Yet still, his touch on her shoulder was feather soft.


Another entered the gardens.


Daniel leaned back on the bench, and gave a silent nod as they passed hurriedly by.

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His gaze was like a visual caress and her young body sang with sweet sensations. Those dark passionate eyes were irresistible and promised delights that Sophia had not experienced since she had left Madrid. “Then we have something in common,” she whispered when he admitted he found danger appealing.


When he looked away again, she felt as if despair had wrapped its dark tendrils around her soul and squeezed painfully. Why do I feel this way? What is it about this man that captivates me so? She didn't love him like she loved Juan, like she believed she could love Lord Arundel. And she had no doubt that he didn't love her either or ever would.


In truth, she hardly knew him. But she wanted him anyway, wanted him with a passion that was nearly impossible to resist. And yet she knew she had to break his hold on her somehow. If she didn't, she was afraid that she would eagerly fall into his arms if he gave her even the slightest incentive.


Her innuendo was intentional, designed to turn his gaze toward her again. And indeed, his eye met hers, and it was as if the sun had just emerged from behind a cloud. A delicious heat suffused her small form and she wanted to take off her cloak so that his fingers could roam lower. Sophia could feel the warmth of his breath against her ear, and she trembled with pleasure at the desire in his voice.


“Yes,” she breathed, but the intense moment was broken by the sound of footsteps. Was it Lord Chatham? If there was ever a damsel that needed rescuing, it was she, although she wasn't in the least bit of distress. But it wasn't him. She smiled as the others passed, sitting up straighter as Lord Winchilsea leaned against the back of the bench. Her eyes wandered over to where Karl and Anna stood, still conversing in German. She saw them looking over at her occasionally. They knew she was here to show a gentleman around the gardens.


Sophia looked down at the two bouquets on her lap. If she met his eyes, she was certain that he would see the longing in their ice-blue depths. “How is your lady wife?” she asked, her voice still a bit breathless. Her ample bosom heaved and the cleavage peeking from the lace-trimmed bodice of her dress jiggled enticingly. “Did she come to court with you this season?”

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Daniel Finch had little doubt that had there been the slightest chance of privacy, he might have rushed her to an alcove in with to discover mutual joy. She was even riper than he'd ever imagined...


Gah! Women did choose the worst locations to revel their inner temptress!


The whisper of Yes only caused his person more agitation in the trowsers region. But then some nobody rushed through upon passing errand, and he was forced to play a neutral part. Till finally the footsteps left the area and he was alone (well relatively) with her once more.




Where had that come from? He'd not expected her cordial enquire of his wife. With a frown he shook his head, "We have had a row, no doubt it shall be all around court soon enough, she is to the country affording me time to think about it. Her words, not my own." he sighed, the moment was lost, it seemed not to become an impossible mirage.


Unless, could she be suggesting that she might visit him there, for privacy?


He kept sill a moment, before turning to the young beauty. "You were wearing turquoise, with bead pearls, when first I met you. I would give anything to see you thus in my dining room once more." Though there could be no mistake he was not thinking of anything so mundane as sharing a supper.

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Sophia had hoped that talking about Lady Winchilsea would cool her desire for her husband but her body still trilled with delectable sensations, even when she learned that they'd had an argument that had been so serious that her friend had fled to the country. What had been the cause of it? Had he seduced another woman with his potent virility? She rather hoped he had not, for that would mean that his flattery was only meaningless drivel meant to lure her into his bed.


Surely she meant more to him than that? Durng their previous encounter, she had felt the same inexorable pull toward him, and had believed he felt the same about her. Sophia had heard no gossip about him, no rumors of affairs or libertine tendencies. His quarrel with his wife must have been about something else.


“I am sorry to hear that and I hope that the two of you reconcile soon.” Although she sounded sincere, she wasn't sure if she meant those words or not. “What does she want you to think about?” To a German, the direct approach was always the best way to get answers.


Sophia was surprised that he recalled what she was wearing the night they met. How foolish she was to think he just wanted to get up her skirts. Gentlemen never remembered a lady's clothing. They could wear the same gown every day and their husbands would not notice. She must have made quite an impression on him.


“You wish to have dinner with me? I would be delighted, but I do not think my lord husband would approve unless he was invited as well. And I am rather busy for the next several evenings” Her innocent smile turned sultry, inviting. “Will you be attending Lady Kendishall's party? I will be there, and I imagine my husband will not spend any more time with me there than he did at the ball. I imagine I shall be quite lonely.”

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But he did not want to talk about Lady Winchilsea, for any number of reasons at that moment. At the moment, he looked again to the Ambassadors wife, the smouldering woman who might surely melt the deepest freeze.


"Then it would need to be our secret." he spoke huskily, discovering frustration in the realisation that it had not been what he'd hoped. She'd not been suggesting a private rendezvous at his abode, but instead she suggested they meet at a future venue that was even more crowded than this, where the chance of consummating their attraction was nigh on impossible.


"Ah." he slumped back into the seat, "I understand Lady Toledo. The crocus is shy and retiring, perhaps even a little frightened of the heat that might arouse."


Unsatisfied, the agitation traveled to his legs. Arising from the bench he took a bow then, reaching for her hand, "Is it vanity, that I shall pray that in my absence you shall feel wanting? Know, my door is ever open to you madame." he pressed his lips with passion upon her hand.

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Sophia barely resisted the impulse to reach out to him when he slumped onto the bench. He didn't understand what she was suggesting. Esteban had been angry when she had left the house alone on Sunday afternoon. If she went out at night, his suspicions would be as aroused as her young body was now. Meeting Lord Winchilsea alone at his house was not the only option they had. Why was it so difficult for gentlemen to think outside the box?


“The crocus craves the heat. She longs for it more than anything.” A hint of bitterness crept into her voice and she glanced casually over at Karl and Anna. “But the cold and heartless frost has her well and truly trapped.”


Her words did not get through to him. Perhaps it was for the best. Sophia watched him as he stood and bowed to her and she didn't protest when he took her hand. Yet when his lips whispered over it with unexpected passion, she wanted to beg him to stay. “Sometimes vanity speaks true,” she whispered. “My lord husband insists that I never go out without my bodyguard. It is why I cannot meet you at your house. But at the party, he will be occupied with politics and will leave me to my own devices."


She smiled slyly. “So meet me at the party, Daniel.” He had asked her to call him by his given name at Lord Basildon's party, and now it slid smoothly from her lips. “It will be much easier for me to slip away.”

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So he lingered, eyes sliding towards the man with her maid, understanding their gravity.


A fresh intensity came into his eyes. Had that been what she'd meant when she spoke of danger? "I was blinded to any but you..." he uttered, "a pleasant state to which I hope to return to. At this party then, until then this man shall smoulder for the crocus." his fingers slipped from her hand with exaggerated reluctance, while the man's gaze he'd hers with a desire edged with knowing.


The realization that her husband placed a double guard upon her, was encouraging to Daniel, it confirmed she was more than a mere tease.


"Until then, my lady."




OOC: aaaand thats for me, til the party *claps hands*

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Charles strode swiftly through the gardens, just short of hurrying. He had changed after his... eventful morning. He had kept the boots and navy cravat, which had been joined by navy frock coat, stockings and eyepatch. His waistcoat and breeches were of dove grey. (In effect, he had simply reversed the colours of what he had worn that morning.) After careful consideration, he had opted to go without a hat and let his hair fall loose about his shoulders. It suited his image, so long as he did not end up catching a sniffle. He had, however, worn gloves. One never knew when dextrous fingers might be needed.


A flicker of colour drew his attention to one of the benches. Sophia. He lengthened his stride and approached, smiling broadly. He gave a florid bow.


"Lady Toledo! Do say you shall forgive my tardiness, fair Diana. I had an unexpected caller and simply could not get away. I had to tell him I was meeting a goddess before I could effect my escape."


He straightened, taking note of her appearance.


"Diana I named you, but Chione seems more appropriate today. But do tell me you have not been waiting long. I could not bear the thought of you suffering in the cold, especially on my account."

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Finally Lord Winchilsea understood why sneaking away from a party was easier for her than sneaking out of her house. “And the crocus shall look forward to feeling the heat of the sun. She will open her petals only for him.” Would he like being compared to the sun? His gaze entranced her and she felt bereft when he reluctantly released her hand.


“Yes, until Wednesday, my lord.”


Sophia watched his retreating form until he had disappeared from sight. Her body was still on fire. If not for the snow, she would have thought it was summer in Venice. Looking back down at the flowers on her lap, she began to question the promise she had made to him. Why had she done it? She had always been attracted to him, but only since the opera had she thought of acting on her desires.


Was she so desperate to banish the emptiness inside her that she was willing to betray her Prince? He had another mistress now … Spain … and she felt that she was no longer the most important person in his life. She knew his duties had to come first. Such was the lot of a royal mistress. But she was young and full of suppressed passion. It needed an outlet and her husband refused to provide it.


Her thoughts were interrupted by the increasing cadence of approaching footsteps. Looking up, she smiled as Lord Chatham walked up to her and gave her a sweeping bow. He looked dashing in navy and dove gray, and she liked the way his dark hair flowed around his shoulder. The sudden impulse to run her fingers through it was difficult to suppress. The heat coursing through her blood did not abate. It just grew stronger.


Sophia practically preened when he addressed her as Diana again. “Of course, you are forgiven, my lord, although I have to admit I was beginning to think you had forgotten all about me.” She held up her small gloved hand for him to kiss. “I was quite despondent until my eyes beheld you strolling toward me. Now my soul is filled with joy.


“And no, I have not been waiting long. Nor was I alone.” She subtly tossed her head in the direction of her bodyguard and maid so that he would know that they were being watched.


Sophia patted the place beside her that had been recently vacated by Lord Winchilsea. “You are quite perceptive to call me Chione. I will be portraying her at Lord Maldon's snowball fight at the end of the year. Will you be attending as well?” If so, she wondered what side he planned to be on.

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Sophia seemed pleased to see him despite his tardiness, though it might just have been the flattery. Charles laughed quickly as he stooped to kiss her hand. (Did his lips linger perhaps a moment too long? He certainly took advantage of the opportunity to appreciate her cleavage.)


"Forget you, my lady? I should sooner forget my name. You blaze like the sun against the grey drudgery of duty and polite, stilted conversation that is court's backdrop." His smile widened as she claimed her soul overflowed with joy. "Speaking of memory, I see that you recall what I told you of flattery."


His eye flickered in the direction Sophia indicated, taking note of the hovering servants. The maid was expected, the bodyguard less so.


Which of us does your husband not trust?


"Two chaperones? I don't look that dangerous, do I? Or is your husband always this solicitous of your safety?" Charles asked idly as he seated himself, attempting to judge it so that the distance was intimate without being obviously improper. He stretched out his legs and crossed them at the ankles. He was unsure if he should be insulted by the presence of the bodyguard or not. Fortunately, perhaps, Sophia continued their conversation before he made a decision.


"There is little perceptiveness in voicing an obvious truth, my lady. And if you will permit me to continue to do so, I am sure Chione is flattered by the comparison. She certainly should be." He cocked his head to one side, as though mentally comparing the two. "Most certainly. But I have not heard of this planned snowball fight. Tell me of it, if you would be so good."

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A hot little thrill rippled down her spine as his lips brushed over her fingers. Even through the silk of her gloves, Sophia could feel the heat of his breath, and her small hand tingled pleasantly where his lips had touched it. That lovely sensation spread throughout her young body, suffusing it with pleasure. Her reaction to his kiss was more profound than her reaction to Lord Winchisea's.


Ahh, that silver tongue of his! Combined with his rakish good looks, was it any wonder that he charmed her so? The blonde Baroness blushed becomingly, but her gaze did not leave his. “Of course,” she said softly. “And do you recall that I vowed to uncover all your secrets? Maybe I am not the one who needs guarding. Perhaps you should have brought a bodyguard of your own.”


As to her husband, her voice became more serious. “It is not you he seeks to protcet me from. He fears that Spain's enemies will try to kidnap me and use me against him. What better way to get what they want from him than by threatening to harm his wife? I was almost kidnapped this summer, and my lord husband and my former guardian killed the man who tried to abduct me. Sometimes I feel as if I am walking around with a target on my back.”


She grinned saucily, refusing to dwell on that unfortunate incident. “However, if he knew how dangerously distracting you are, my lord husband might make me take an entire entourage of bodyguards along with me.” Did he remember that she had told him that she was attracted to danger?


“Well, she has not buried me in an avalanche yet, so I suppose she does not mind the comparison. However, if you see a wall of snow bearing down on me and pull me out of its path, I will be forever grateful.”


Her hands fiddled with the two bouquets in her lap. “Lord Maldon is going to build a snow castle and hold a siege. He will be a Turk who has captured some princesses. The heroes will try to rescue the princesses from the castle. I will be Chione, whom he has called for assistance. He told me that I could invite my friends, so you will not be intruding if you decide to join in.


“What role do you think you would like best? Will you fight with me against the heroes, or will you be Helios, the god of the sun whose enticing heat is the only thing that can melt Chione's cold heart?”

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Sophia really did have a most fetching blush, Charles mused as he released her hand.


"Oh, rest assured that every detail of our meeting is etched in my memory. I did consider bringing a companion to safeguard my secrets but abandoned the idea. You would charm them into defecting, and I am hard pressed to resist as is, without being outnumbered to boot."


He settled himself on the bench, listening closely as she explained her husband's paranoia. And paranoia it was, for Charles could not imagine any civilised country striking out in such a way. It would be utter madness. Frankly, if Charles was an ambassador (and married) he would pray for his rivals to act so. He would shout it from the rooftops, trumpet it to the skies, and make of them pariahs.


"He fears that foreign powers will make an attempt on you? Truly?" His bemusement showed in his voice. "It would strike at the very foundations of modern diplomacy and at a minimum make an enemy of England! More likely, all of Europe would make them an example of what happens when ambassadorial inviolability is violated. They'd have to be mad!" A momentary pause to resist the temptation to launch into a discussion on international relations, and the proper place of underhanded skulduggery in such. "Of course, if a previous attempt has been made, his caution is understandable."


He laughed when she complimented him. He rather enjoyed being called dangerous.


And I'm rather enjoying that provocative grin as well.


He leaned in slightly, voice lowering.


"Were I minded to be dangerous, a score of bodyguards would not suffice." He leaned back. "The point is moot, of course, as you yourself could disarm me with a smile. Or a blush," he added, smirking.


He laughed again as Sophia brushed off the comparison to Chione.


"I shall bear that in mind, though London is poor terrain for avalanches, a fact I now regret for the first time. I so rarely get to play hero."


Her fidgeting drew his attention to the bouquets briefly, before he switched back to her explanation of Lord Maldon's plans. He grinned at her, expression full of childish delight.


"What a capital idea! I haven't had a snowball fight in years. But which side..." He paused to consider, became aware that his gaze had wondered to Sophia's lips and decided to answer before his thoughts drifted to what they would look like swollen from kissing.


"Hmm. I am sorely tempted your talk of Helios. Warming Chione would be a worthy, rewarding undertaking. But Helios should be blond, and I despise periwigs. Besides," he turned to present (and accent) his sharp, hawkish profile, "I have thoroughly villainous features, don't you think?"

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Sophia remembered every detail of their last meeting too. He had even danced through her dreams last night, probably because she had been anticipating this meeting with him. What they had done in those dreams was better kept to herself. She wondered if he looked as magnificent wearing nothing but an eye patch as he did in her imagination.


“Then all your secrets belong to me,” she replied with a smug little smile. “But if you want mine in return, I will not relinquish them without a fight.”


She was surprised that a gentleman who had seen as much of the world as he had didn't believe that the enemies of any country wouldn't resort to nefarious means to get the upper hand. “Last spring, Don Juan was poisoned twice, both times in public places, but very few people are aware of it. Spain's enemies are a sneaky lot.


“They did not try to kidnap me this summer, though. Two Italians tried to swindle me out of my money, but Lord Kingston captured one of them. The other one apparently wanted revenge.” She shivered visibly. “There is no telling what he would have done to me if his plan had succeeded.”


Sophia loved Lord Chatham's laugh, and she could tell that he thought being called dangerous was a compliment. “So you admit I have power over you! I almost wish that I did not, for I have to admit that I am curious about that dangerous side of yours. Maybe if I am lucky, I can coax it out of hiding.”


As she had expected, the snowball fight appealed to him. His enthusiasm was contagious and she watched his face avidly as he considered his options. When his gaze fell to her lips, she couldn't resist licking them. It was too bad there wasn't a sprig of mistletoe over the bench. She doubted Karl would step in if a gentleman gave her a playful holiday kiss.


The young Baroness was a bit disappointed when he refused to be her Helios. He seemed to desire a darker role, and she grinned when he turned his head to the side. He did have a wickedly handsome profile. “You are definitely a dashing rogue,” she admitted. “You would make a splendid Turk. Perhaps you can be Chione's protector, and strike against anyone who tries to subdue her.”


Perhaps he would even carry her away at the end. That notion was alarmingly exciting and bright little sensations meandered down her spine.

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Charles, if asked, would attribute his seeming innocence to pragmatism. Striking at the diplomats of your enemies was tacitly stating that such was acceptable, and thus invited others to do the same to yours. No one would be able to trust you, for diplomacy was founded on the principle that ambassadors were inviolable. It was the sort of thing you could do only if you had decided to relate to other countries solely via war. No, if one was to employ nefarious methods, there were better options- blackmail was good, as was framing others for scandal.


As a result of this reasoning, Charles was surprised by this news of poisonings. He thought for a moment, fitting the new fact into his worldview.


"Hmm. Last spring you say, so before he held any official position? There is a small difference between a foreign nobleman and a foreign diplomat. Small, but important. And I can think of at least two explanations that do not involve foreign enemies." Charles frowned suddenly, disappointed in himself. "Gah! Listen to me. I will rant on such topics all day if you let me. A happier topic, pray."


They duly moved to lighter chatter. Almost without realising what he was doing, Charles uncrossed his legs, letting his limb brush softly off Sophia's. He looked at her through a half lidded eye.


"I have never denied being utterly in your thrall, my lady, whether you call yourself Diana, Chione or Lady Toledo," he told her, voice soft. "And if you want to see me dangerous, it would be a simple matter for you to draw it out."


Damn it, I thought we agreed that we weren't going to seduce her!


Actually, we never came to a decision.


Perhaps fortunately, the conversation moved to snowball fights. Less helpfully, Sophia licked her lips.


Alright, the little minx has to be goading me.


Well, Charles had never been thrown a gauntlet he had not picked up. He leaned in closer again.


"A role that would require me to stay near you and observe you closely? How could I refuse?" He met her eyes. "Fighting together is an excellent way to build a relationship. 'Twill be quite chaotic, of course. Siege assaults always are. All but impossible to keep track of all the comings and goings. One can do almost anything without being observed."


He relaxed back and snatched one of the bouquets from her lap.


"Now, these are lovely. I assume you have a purpose for them?"

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Sophia believed what Esteban had told her: that he wanted her to take a bodyguard with her in case she was attacked, either by enemies of Spain or Catholic mobs. Because of the poisonings and the attempt to abduct her, it seemed logical to her that she might be used against her husband, or even against Don Juan. If anyone discovered their affair, she would be more vulnerable … and more valuable as a hostage.


It didn't occur to her that her husband might be trying to protect her from dishonorable gentlemen and her own youthful desires. However, if there was a will, there was a way, and the tiny Baroness was getting quite adept at sneaking away for a bit of adventure.


“No, he was only a bastard Prince at the time, but I think everyone knew that he was gaining support to overthrow the former Spanish Queen. I would not be surprised if she was behind those attempts. The people loved Don Juan and she must have known that her days were numbered.”


Sophia nodded emphatically when he said he would prefer a happier topic, and a thick platinum ringlet fell becomingly over one shoulder. Their conversation became subtly flirtatious, and when his leg brushed against her skirts, its warmth seemed to permeate the layers of fabric and spread deliciously through her body. Sophia was so hot now that she almost expected the snow to melt around her.


And his words, coupled with that sultry half-lidded blue eye, made her tremble with pleasure. “Then perhaps I shall unleash that danger,” she whispered a bit breathlessly, “when the right opportunity arises.” She nudged his leg with her own, which might have been perceived as accidental if not for the playful smile that curved her full lips.


“Oh yes, you will have to stay beside me at all times.” She held his gaze. “I imagine that fighting is only one activity that we will do well together. Perhaps in the chaos of the siege, we can discover a few others.”


The petite blonde laughed when he grabbed one of the bouquets out of her lap. “These are offerings for the muses of our choice, fresh from my orangery.” Nudging his leg again, she stood up. “After we have presented our tributes, I will give you that tour of the gardens I promised you.”


One golden eyebrow quirked curiously. “So which muse's blessing do you seek today?”

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How did such a wonderfully sensual creature end up bound to an iceblock like Toledo?

The slight tremble, the breathy voice, the innocent contact betrayed by mischievous lips... A part of Charles was becoming increasingly angry at the waste of good womanhood. (The rest of him, of course, was too busy appreciating the aforementioned good womanhood.)


"We are already perilously close." He reached out to delicately brush the loose ringlet back into place. "I'm sorely tempted to do something foolish."


Charles leaned back, urge to tease satisfied and now perfectly content to let the conversation dance them towards whatever it was they had drawn back from at the ball.


"If we can't find more pursuits at which we are excellent partners, frankly we aren't trying hard enough."


Sophia's laughter as he snatched up one of the bouquets was a wonderful sound, and Charles vowed on the spot to hear more of it. He nodded appreciatively as she explained and stood, legs once again brushing off one another.


"Wonderful idea." Charles admired the bouquet again as he stood. "Almost as beautiful as the lady who made it, which speaks volumes of her talent for such things."


He laughed when she asked him which Muse he intended to honour.


"Why, Erato, of course."


The Muse of romantic and erotic poetry struck Charles as a singularly appropriate choice.

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Sophia could feel his fingers brush against her neck as he flicked the errant ringlet back over her shoulder. Another of those lovely little thrills shimmered down her spine and her heart fluttered in her chest. She wanted him to kiss her again, but more passionately than he had at the ball. Yet with Karl watching, that was impossible.


“And I am sorely tempted to let you.” Her eyes lowered demurely, but that mischievous smile still caressed her lips. Maybe she could convince her bodyguard and maidservant to wait in the Walled Garden while she showed him the Grotto. There was a chance they could have some privacy there, although it would likely not last long.


“Do we even have to try?” she asked. “It seems to me that we are quite compatible already. We just need time and a place to explore that affinity. Lord Maldon's snowball fight may provide the perfect opportunity.” Her voice lowered. “My lord husband will not be attending.”


Her blush deepened. “You had better watch the flattery, my lord. It works both ways, you know.” If he did indeed want to get everywhere, he was definitely heading down the path that would take him to it.


“Then let us go to her.” Erato's statue stood in a square surrounded by hedges only a short distance away. Sophia gave him a sly sideways grin. “When she blesses you, I hope the first poem you write will be about me.”


She glanced around the garden. “And who do you think should get my offering? Euterpe is the obvious choice, but she has blessed me enough already. I am feeling a bit daring today. Maybe I should choose one of the three graces, but which one's blessing do I need the most?”

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"Oh, our compatibility is beyond question, but we must discover which form of cooperation brings us the most joy."


I cannot believe you just said that. Even your subtlety is blatant.


All the better to disguise my actual subtlety.


That would be more convincing if you ever were subtle.


He nodded as she announced that her husband would not be attending. He had expected as much- somehow, one could not envisage Toledo at a snowball fight.


"A pity, though his dedication to his duties remains an example to us all."


An example of what, Charles did not say.


Sophia had a most becoming blush. He could have spend hours bringing that lovely flush to her cheeks and count the time well spent.


"I'm rather counting on it. Attack is the best form of defense, or so I'm told, and if I give you a moment to gather your faculties, I shall be kneeling at your feet."


Erato had been a good choice, going on Sophia's reaction. But how best to capitalise? He gave Sophia a direct look and spoke, voice soft.


"I do not expect Erato to offer up her gifts upon the first offering. She is a lady of surpassing quality, and such need and deserve to be wooed anew each day. No, it will be some time before I taste of her rewards, but they shall be all the more prized because of it. And if and when I am gifted with inspiration my lady, I can think of no better subject than you."


And that makes three goddesses you've more or less explicitly compared her to.


Her question on who she should make her offering to prompted a moment's thought, head cocked slightly to one side.


"Hmm. Thalia, I think. You clearly have a surfeit of gifts from both Aglaea and Euphrosyne, but everyone can use more Good Cheer in their lives, wouldn't you agree?"

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“I can hardly wait to start experimenting. There are many different things we can try that will make the process of discovery most delightful.” Sophia's innuendo was about as subtle as his. She knew she shouldn't flirt with him so shamelessly, but he was rakishly alluring and she felt even more drawn to him than she was to Lord Winchilsea.


She had felt it at the ball as well, a mutual attraction that they had tried their best to deny. The petite Baroness had always been partial to the tall, dark, and handsome types, but Lord Chatham enthralled her on a much deeper level. Esteban had not seemed to notice, or her husband wouldn't have allowed her to dance with him and he would have refused her request to show him the gardens.


“He is definitely dedicated to his responsibilities as an Ambassador,” she agreed, “although he tends to neglect those duties that have nothing to do with politics.” Would such a blatant statement of her husband's lack of interest in his marital obligations scare her intriguing companion away? Or would he be more inclined to indulge in those experiments she had just spoken of?


“You wield your tongue with such precision that I doubt I can prevail against you.” Her eyes narrowed teasingly. “But I do adore a good challenge, and there are many advantages to having you kneel at my feet. If you keep it up, though, I will be the one falling at yours.”


He didn't seem very confident about his ability to write poetry. His spoke so eloquently that Sophia thought he would be excellent at it … particularly the erotic variety. Now she wanted to hear him recite one to her, even if it was a poem written by somebody else. There were probably books of erotic poetry in the palace library. She had a volume written in Italian, but after hearing him butcher that language at the ball, she would need to help him improve his pronunciation before she showed that book to him.


“Perhaps I shall be your inspiration,” she whispered. “Maybe that is what Erato intended all along.” She held out her hand, hoping that he would offer her his arm so that they could commence their tour. Sophia longed to touch him, even in such a polite and innocent way.


It was refreshing to talk to someone who knew as much about mythology as she did. Once again, his compliments brought color to her porcelain cheeks. “Thalia,” she mused. “Yes, she seems appropriate, considering that she is also the Grace of banquets. I should like the one I will be hosting this Thursday to be a great success. Shall we go to Erato first, and then Thalia?”

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Charles arched an eyebrow at her admission and shook his head. it was not entirely unexpected, but it still offended what remained of his soul that such a wonderful specimen of femininity as Sophia should be neglected so. It was like denying a flower the sun he thought, unwittingly echoing Winichilsea.


"Viewing that as a duty is bad enough, but to then neglect it? There is no hope for him," he told her softly before continuing, voice rising. "Of course, if a man fails to fulfill his responsibilities, he might well find them passed to another."


Happily, they soon moved on from Toledo to more amusing topics. His eye glittered as Sophia confessed to feeling somewhat outmatched. He spoke, his voice a teasing purr.


"You doubt you can prevail? My lady, you had prevailed. I was merely fighting a rearguard action, seeking only terms that would allow me my dignity. But now that I know you doubt your own strength, I am tempted to make one last death or glory effort for victory. Such a prize would be worth the risk, I think."


He offered her his arm as they prepared to move off. He smiled at her whisper and answered in kind.


"If anything can inspire me to create poetry worth the ink, it will be you." He laughed. "Just be prepared to be subject to some appalling dreck first. There is no flow to my work."


Another blush brought forth, another moment's idle wishing for the gifts of a painter. His eye shone with the almost cruel pleasure of affecting her so.


"You are hosting a banquet? I am certain it will be the talk of the season. I have yet to find anything at which you do not excel, after all. But making an offering to Thalia cannot hurt. You give her cause enough to be jealous, but homage should turn away her wrath."

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“He obviously doesn't consider that very important,” she sighed. There was a plausible reason for Esteban's lack of intimacy. Sophia was Don Juan's beloved mistress. He could think that shagging her was betraying his master. Or perhaps Juan had asked him to sleep with her only infrequently, hoping it would keep her from straying. If he was a marvelous lover, once a week might be enough. But her husband was a minute man, and it was over almost before it began.


A saucy sideways smile was her response to Esteban's responsibilities being passed to another. “One can only hope,” she replied wistfully.


“Perhaps then, we are even, because I consider you already victorious. With every word you say, my heart races and the blood pounds in my veins. My knees feel so weak it is a wonder I can still stand upright. If you continue to attack me with your delightful flattery, I fear that I will swoon.” To demonstrate, she swayed melodramatically, clutching the back of the bench as if to regain her balance.


When he offered his arm, Sophia transferred her hand from the bench to his sleeve and they began to make their way to Erato's square. Karl and Anna walked behind them at a respectable distance. The hedges were weighed down with snow and they glittered like diamonds in the light of the sun. “I doubt you could write dreck if you tried. As I told you at the ball, my own attempts at poetry have been rubbish.” She favored him with a coquettish grin. “I will show you mine if you show me yours.”


She had not told him about the banquet at the ball? How dreadful of her. Now that she knew him, any court event would be positively dismal without him. “My lord husband and I are hosting a banquet at the Spanish Embassy on Thursday evening. A full dinner will be served as well as all the drinks you can handle. There will also be entertainment direct from Spain. You are invited, of course. Please tell me that you will come. It will not be any fun without you.”


The square around Erato was covered with a thick blanket of snow. It was pristine and untouched until they left imprints of their footsteps as the approached the statue. The Muse, dressed in classical Greek style, wore a wreath of flowers on her head and was strumming her kithara. Sophia gazed up at her. “Look!” she exclaimed. “I think she is smiling at you. She knows why you have come.” At least in Sophia's overactive imagination, it looked as if Erato was smiling.

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Charles laughed delightedly at her mock swoon.


"Perhaps, then, I should draw back, lest your attendants whisk you away. I do not think I could bear to be parted so soon." His eye flared. "However delightfully tempting the thought of putting you to swoon is."


The gardens were lovely, wrapped in their ermine robes of snow, but Charles had never been one for appreciating the beauty of the landscape when he had warmer, human beauty close to hand. He snorted in amusement as Sophia contested his assessment of his poetic skills and met her coquettish look with a roguish grin.


"Well, put like that, how I can demur? When and where shall we reveal ourselves?"


Already his mind was frantically attempting to summon up what he had read of Dryden and Aphra Ben for inspiration. (His pride, alas, would not allow for outright theft, making this one of the few occasions his better nature had betrayed him so.)


This banquet sounded diverting, even without the added allure of Sophia's presence. Who knew what sort of interesting tidbits he could pick up at such a gathering? Charles had no difficulty silencing the little voice in the back of his mind suggesting that further contact with the Spanish was a bad idea.


"I do not think I could refuse you anything my lady, especially something so simple as my presence. I should be delighted to attend."


He smiled at Sophia's enthusiasm as they reached Erato's statue. Conversing with her, it was easy to forget that he had the better part of a decade on her, at least.


"If she is smiling, it merely shows that she has never had to suffer through my previous attempts," he commented dryly as he stepped forward. He paused a moment before kneeling smoothly before the statue and bowing his head, offering up the bouquet.


"Oh lovely Erato, you who are charming to the sight, accept from my unworthy hands this offering and hear my fervent prayer. I beg you, o Muse, to grant me the talent to match my inspiration, that I might produce works to delight both the ear and the soul. Grant me this boon, and I shall spend what days that remain to me furthering your glory."


He stood and brushed the snow from himself before once again offering Sophia his arm, smiling.


And now for another bit of theatre.


Turning to walk to the statue of Thalia, Charles stiffened suddenly, looking back at Erato. He inclined his head.


"My thanks, honoured Muse." He returned his gaze to Sophia. "The Muse works swiftly, it would seem. Already the words begin to course."


A pause to draw breath.


"From your lips one whispering sigh,

Would give my heart wings to fly.

Your voice, sweet as Apollo’s lyre,

Stirs in my breast love’s fell fire.

Your shining eyes do stop my breath,

And in your absence I die a death."


He smiled in self-mockery.


"Journeyman work at best, but a beginning."

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Sophia was tempted to swoon just so he would catch her and swing her up in his arms, but Karl and Anna would think she was ill and insist that she return home with them. Perhaps if they were left alone in the grotto and he flattered her, she would do it. And maybe … “I have heard that the best way to awaken a lady who has fainted is with a kiss. I wonder if it is true.” If she did pretend to swoon, she would also feign unconsciousness, hoping that he might take her words to heart.


His roguish grin increased the fire already burning within her. She wanted to reveal more to him than her dismal attempts at poetry. “I will have to write something first. I do not remember the poems I composed in Venice. They would have bored you anyway.” She blushed again and grinned sheepishly. “They were mostly odes to my cats.


“But now I have a new inspiration.” Sophia squeezed his arm. “I do warn you that I have never written anything but letters in English before. I am most comfortable writing in German and Italian. You mentioned at the ball that you wished to improve your Italian. I shall write a poem in that language and recite it to you. Or would you prefer that I sing it instead?”


Her eyes lit up when he agreed to attend the banquet and as they reached the statue of Erato, she chuckled when he told her why he thought the Muse was smiling. “Surely, you jest. I think she has been waiting for you.”


She smiled as he knelt in the snow and placed the brightly colored bouquet at the statue's feet. His plea to the Muse was so lovely it made her sigh. Oh, if only she had his way with words! Whatever she said to Thalia would fall far short of his eloquence. “After that beautiful speech, how can she refuse your request?” she asked as she took his arm and they began to stroll toward Thalia's square.


When he suddenly stiffened, Sophia glanced up at him in concern, wondering why he looked back at Erato and inclined his head as if he were listening to something that only he could hear. She chuckled inwardly as he claimed that the Muse was already influencing him. He was as theatrical as she was, it seemed, and eager to play a game of pretend.


He then launched into a poem that nearly took her breath away. Her heart skipped a beat and now her knees really did feel weak. Her hand tightened slightly on his arm and without thinking, she moved a bit closer to him. “If that is only the beginning, then I can hardly wait to hear it when it is finished. Erato has truly blessed you."

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