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Duplicity and the Duchess | 29/12, 8pm- Xmas 1677

Charles Audley

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The Residence of Barbara, the Duchess of Cleveland


The house is a mansion by any standards. Upon several acres that leave it feeling quite secluded, the grand structure stands surrounded by pleasant gardens. It consists of several apartments, as well as the grand public rooms, an elegant ballroom, and a vast gallery. Adjoining the house is a large walled-in Dutch garden, with a summer-house in the north-western corner, in the rear. Berkshire House is most lavishly and sumptuously adorned and decorated in the latest fashion.


The Drawing Room - A liveried Footman leads guests through several sumptuously appointed chambers, to a richly paneled salon, where the Duchess of Cleveland entertains guests in inclement weather. The Footman opens the double doors to the room, revealing a warm and welcoming fire burning within the great fireplace, and announces the arrival of guests to his mistress. Barbaba is often found awaiting her guests in a chaise lounge, situated near the fireplace and upholstered in deep burgundy velvet. A similarly sumptuous chair sits opposite her chaise. Between them sits a table, already set with a bone china service and nibbles for tea. It is a rich but welcoming room.


Charles resisted the urge to re-check his appearance in his snuffbox mirror as the carriage approached Cleveland's residence. He was as well-dressed and groomed as he and Wodehouse could contrive. Blue had been the theme for this ensemble, cornflower waistcoat and stockings under justacorps, breeches and cravat of navy. Freshly washed hair had been carefully organised into affected disorder, falling loose about his shoulders.


Though the wind is likely to reduce that to genuine disorder, alas.


Charles shook his head irritably. He had successfully denied the impulse to sink a draught of laudanum before he left his apartments and was beginning to regret his fit of willpower. He felt uncharacteristically... skittish, and needed something to steady himself.


Good God, am I nervous? Surely not.


It had been so long since Charles had had any trouble from his nerves that he could not remember it, or recognise the symptoms in himself. He bared his teeth in annoyance at the temporary weakness. Why on Earth should he be nervous? Cleveland was exceptional amongst her type, but that was a type that Charles had dealt with a thousand times before. He was good at these little intrigues. What was one more?


The carriage came to a halt and Charles dismissed the thought, adopting his customary courtly mask of forthright amiability. His hand reached up to unconsciously (and needlessly) adjust the fit of his patch. Lacking an appreciative audience for a pithy one-liner, he dismounted wordlessly and strode with firm, confident steps towards the door, whistling a half-remembered marching tune from Flanders. A brief pause for another unnecessary adjustment, this time to his cravat, and Charles rapped smartly on the door.

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John Churchill was expected. A liveried footman opened the door, "Good evening milord." lazy-lidded eyes did not shift as he regarded the man who was not Churchill, but gestured him to step in from the chill. He'd long since stopped trying to guess at the revolving door that was Barbara's.


"May I take your cloak, and hat sir."


Hearing the arrival of her guest a voice called from an upper level room, "Is that you darling, come right on up!" By up, she might mean ascending the sweeping round staircase that disappeared into gilded and scroll-worked ornamentation. Barbara Palmer was sat at in a party dress at her mirror, perfecting her lipstick, eyes dark with anticipation.


The footman turned to regard Charles at that, his expression marvellously banal. "I'll see refreshments are brought up."

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Charles had been hoping for some sort of reaction from the servant, some sign of discomfiture that he could feed off of to assuage the nerves he adamantly denied he was feeling. No such luck. Barbara's servants were apparently too well trained for that, and had likely seen stranger things in any case.


Still, one cannot help but feel slightly cheated.


Dismissing the thought, Charles stepped across the threshold and nodded to the footman as he divested himself of his now extraneous outer wear.


"Thank you," he acknowledged, handing the garments over and then relegating the man to the status of moving furniture as Barbara's invitation rang out. He moved to ascend the (wonderfully gaudy, as part of his mind noted) stairs, waving a hand in vague recognition of the suggestion of refreshments. There was no pausing now, Charles grinning with puckish glee as he climbed. The game was afoot, and the joy of it sang in his veins. He almost danced up the steps.


Reaching the door from which Cleveland's voice had issued Charles knocked and immediately threw open the door without waiting for an answer. He swept an exaggeratedly florid bow to the seated duchess. (Who looked absolutely ravishing. So much for the thought that he might find her less attractive now than he had at a distance when he was fourteen.)


"Sorry to disappoint, your grace, but our mutual friend has been unavoidably prevented from attending." By the fact that he knows nothing of this. "I have been dispatched to render his profuse apologies, and to offer my comparatively meagre services as a substitute."


He straightened and smiled.


"Charles Audley, Earl of Chatham, at your service."

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The clatter of footsteps up the stair; their speed of which betrayed her visitors eagerness, which in turn brought a satisfied smile to Barbara's face. She had time to angle her shoulders a little, and extend her leg to peek a silver slipper’d toe from beneath pool of skirts, all in prepare for lovers ardent arrival.


A knock, and then in flew the door.


But it was not Churchill at all?!


Lesser women might have screamed.


The Duchess's eyes flared and then laughter at the surprise filled the air. "And pray whom is the Earl of Chatham to me?" She admired his elegant bow that he'd a certain air of reverence to it that she enjoyed, further he was exquisitely dressed in Navy, a colour that fell amongst her favorites. Indeed, she was wearing sapphire satin herself, the steams of which strained marvellously at her voluptuous curves, practically begging to burst with fleshy revelation. Her physique was very fine for a woman of her age, even if there were signs of age upon her face and hands...


Her dark eyes slid past his shoulder, then returned to the man who seemed to be alone.


"Has my Churchill taken to hiring Earls now, as his messengers? Heavens I seem to have missed much in my absence." Was that a slight arch of pitch? Was that an eyebrow raise of irritation? Yet she smiled like the trained professional that she was.

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Charles grinned widely at Barbara's arch response to his introduction, taking a moment to acknowledge and appreciate the artistry of her pose. It was always a pleasure to dance with a skilled partner.


"Why, whatever you want him to be, your grace," he replied, playing his role of blithe, relaxed confidence to the hilt, the light of enjoyment shining in his eye. "He's an obliging sort of fellow, or so I'm told."


Signs of ageing or no, Barbara was still a nigh-overwhelmingly sensual creature to be in close quarters with. Charles did not do anything so gauche or overt as gawk or leer, but he noticed. It was the polite thing to do, a formality every bit as necessary as the bow had been.


And doubtless she's noticed me noticing, which means we've both observed the preliminary courtesies.


Charles laughed with genuine good humour as Barbara continued her acerbity. As expected, she played the part of the Grand Dame to perfection, all sharply sweet.


"Oh, John and I were at school together, and long ago stopped keeping track of the favours owed between us. This was no imposition compared to the last service I did him. Besides, it was me or his brother as replacement, and I couldn't in good conscience allow that. However well I may or may not compare to John, even at my worst I am worth a score of Georges."

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She noticed him noticing, and approved of his audacity. Turning up in her bedroom like that, and then flirting wildly.


Turning her elegantly long neck, Barbara returned to regarding herself in the mirror, hint of pleasure revealed in the tension of her lips. "I would beware Chatham, men who have placed themselves at my mercy have not always fared favourably." she fairly purred. A pause. "You do realise that my door is watched by that abominable Rochester? Your visit shall be all over Whitehall by morning." She messed a lock of hair, and then looked back at him.


"I need admit that you are not a complete unknown to me." frankly Court was too small for any Earldom to be unheard of, and she was an astute woman, not one of those ditsy airheaded sorts.


"Very well then, I shall bite your hook and ask to what was this last service you did for John? With what are you comparing me, hmmm?” she spoke in a fashionably lazy-relaxed fashion, though with an ever present tension (or was that passion) that was Barbara Villiers, “It had best be marvellous, or I shall tell the rascal George all. Delinquent he may be, but so amusing when ired, yes and prone to a dual. I might best compare you then, when your sword is drawn…" she tipped her head a little.

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Charles knew no way other than audacity, as evidenced by the way he permitted himself the momentary pleasure of trailing his eye along the lines of Barbara's neck before replying. His earlier appraisal had met with approval, and


"Oh, what's life without risk, hmm? And I can stand a little harsh usage in any case, I think." He grinned fiercely. "And as for Rochester and the other gossips..." He dismissed them with an airy gesture. "For my part, they may find their fun wherever they are able, poor dears."


Frankly, anonymity bothers me far more than notoriety.


Charles had always found a simple pleasure in watching women order their appearance, possibly because it brought to mind thoughts of how they might look in disorder. Watching Barbara toy with her hair (and idly imagining what it might look like in disarray), he gave a mock wince at her next pronouncement.


"Oh dear. Dare I ask?" he said, laughter bubbling in his voice. But there was genuine curiosity under the amusement. It was always interesting to hear the gossip about one's self, particularly when one's recent past was as... checkered as his.


Charles had not meant that as a hook at all, merely a throwaway comment, but he did not allow that to wrong-foot him, sweeping along smoothly.


"He is a temperamental fellow," he agreed dryly, "and most entertaining when it gets the better of him. But it is bad form to duel your friend's brothers, and I hate duelling in winter anyway. Far too cold, and the actual business never lasts long enough to get the blood flowing." Charles smiled thinly as suitable embellishments occurred to.him. "So I shall simply have to hope the story is more 'marvellous' in the retelling than it was in the doing. It involved cannon fire and angry Germans, you see, each of which I find is generally a good indicator that one's good nature has been taken advantage of."


"It was the battle of Enzheim, and we were skirmishing with the Austrians over possession of a small wood. They'd sited a battery there, you see, and it was wreaking havoc. We'd initially driven them off it, but then they came back in greater numbers to turf us out again. We were regrouping when suddenly John cried out, stricken. He'd lost his pocket watch, a gift from his father, in the wood, and now Turenne was calling him away. No fear, I assured him, I'd have the wood back presently and then I'd find the watch for him." Charles shook his head.


"Three times I captured that stand of trees in the teeth of cannon, musket and pike, and three times I scoured every inch of it without finding that damn watch. I'd ruined my best boots rooting around in the mud and lost my good hat and a twenty guinea bet that my regiment would take more ground than Peterborough's. Worst of all, in the end it transpired that he'd left the bloody thing in his tent." A snort of amusement.


"This is an immense improvement on all fronts."

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"I don’t object to being muse for an actual poet, it's just that mans filth is not worthy of that description. He relies far to much on dirty language for laughs, rather than any true wit, or for that matter substance." Barbara replied.


This Lord of Home Invasion chattered away like he was sat over tea and scones. As she mentioned she had heard of him, he quizzed to what. "You have an ego, Lord Chat-em, quite likely that is what." Barbara was not going to feed that ego with tale, at least not until she knew there was something in it for herself.


Quips this way and that, resulted in Charles recounting of a tale. Her lips pulled into a smile hearing of the lost watch. Concern over a sentimentality was so very John, the dear. And then Chatham’s part in it, while very likely embellished to his favour, did speak of loyalty to the friendship - which was something the woman appreciated. There were far too many turncoats in the world, and she, fresh from France the very capital of reversible jackets.


"You tell a good tale." The lady had arisen from her seat during his telling, and collected up a shawl.


"Boots, hat, and twenty guinea. Now those are quite some stakes to supersede in your eyes." she passed him her shawl with unspoken request, before turning her back to him, presenting pale shoulders that were far too bare for the middle of winter (in the lady's opine the flattering cut of the gown made it with the chill.) "yet what of Our Churchill, am I less to him than a pocket watch? And yet his letter he wrote me was so... ardent."

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Charles shrugged carelessly at Barbara's rejoinder, laughing merrily at her pun on his title. 'Lord Chat-em.' He rather liked that. (He would have been even more taken with his new title of Lord of Home of Invasion had she voiced it.)


"If that is what you heard your grace, then it was considerably more accurate than the usual run of gossip."


But if it is all you heard then I have been docile too long.


The (only lightly embellished) story went down well if he was any judge. Shrugging modestly, he took her shawl and stepped in to place it on her, fussing minutely over the way the garment hung. (And if he took a moment to savour the minor intimacy, well, Barbara would know that for another step in the dance.)


"Practice," he offered by way of explanation, smiling wryly as he took a jab at himself. "I'm sure you've noticed that I'm rather fond of talking."


Charles cocked his head to the side as Barbara played the part of the wounded lover. (He could not suppress the briefest flicker of pride when she described the letter. It was, in his opinion, a wonderful piece of work.)


"I assure you, your grace, that there is nothing John would rather do than pass the evening in your company, and no one he holds in greater esteem and affection. He was stricken to realise he must disappoint you. But just as Turenne prevented him from doing as his heart willed at Enzheim, so has his current master here. I have never seen a man so frustrated."

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"I hardly need gossips to advise me of that." Barbara replied, revealing that she answered only with her own opinion of him. Of course she was a woman who was most comfortable around men of ego, and so her judgment upon him was placed highly. "I dare say that you leave a colourful trail of stories in your wake, enough to amuse those that are content to live vicariously. I for my part, have ever been one to live upon the razors edge."


Hearing herself flirting, she caught herself short and stepped away from his inspection... the shawl draped nicely without concealing anything of her assets - while her eyes flared of his familiarity.


"That, and other things." He came across as a man who liked to talk, and more. No hollow words in this one.


Yet of John, she was disappointed after all. She'd anticipated a delightful evening of toying with his heart before finally relenting. But now, what was to become of an evening.


Rouged lips pouted as Charles supplied his explanation "And you have seen many frustrated men?" She was yet unsatisfied with the answer, "So where, or rather, whom is he with instead."

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Charles nodded in acknowledgement of the point, still smiling. He did not exactly take pains to conceal his ego.


"I try," he said lightly. "God knows the poor dears have little else to break the endless grey drudgery of their lives." His smile sharpened, gaining for a moment a wild, fey aspect. "But like you, I've personally always found the dancing sweeter on the edge of a sword."


Charles could not keep his eye from flaring in appreciation as Barbara stepped away. It might have been youthful infatuation talking, but he still found her every bit as desirable now as he had as a teenager. He covered the reaction with a cock of his head and a wry grin.


"Oh, I'm fond of more active pleasures as well. Hunting, riding, fencing... Huh. Listed like that, it sounds depressingly conventional. I shall have to take up wrestling or some such."


Her pout at his entirely fictitious explanation for John's absence was a thing of wonder. For a brief fraction of a moment Charles was almost tempted to reveal everything. (Idly, he wondered how many affairs of state had been settled by and in favour of that pout, before concluding that he was more comfortable not knowing.)


"More than most. I tend to produce them as... collateral. Entirely unintentional, of course." He let his levity fade, assuming a more serious attitude. "As I said, John is about the business of his master, though more than that he would or could not tell me."

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There was no mistaking that this was a sporting man, the sort that thrived at Whitehall, though he was possibly too reckless to make true advances in the household. Still, he was entirely engaging. "A man like that might go far... alas those little things called principles hinder far too many an ambition." her eyebrow rose.


Stepping away, she was aware of a strain between them, like a cord that tugged. Glimpsing his expression, he seemed almost goofy at that moment, and she relished the sense of power given her. "Wrestling, really? I once knew a lord-come-pugilist, alas that was the only aspect to the man the least bit interesting. Of new public hobbies to recommend you, I'd rather see you in a debate. While in private - one can only hope you are no novice to a tussle."


Barbara was now exiting the room, swanning out into the hall, expecting him to follow, pausing briefly atop the grotesque beauty of the baroque staircase.


Pfft. she made the little noise with her lips, response to his continued secrecy to Johns whereabouts. (She hardly believed that he was oblivious to his friends whereabouts, but was hiding some other affair John was engaged upon.) "In that case I am obliged to make him regret his lack of attendance, and you, my charming Lord Chatham, shall be my means."


Turning, she viewed the stairs, and extended her arm. "Shall we?" Though it was not really a question.

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'A sporting man.' There was no title or honour Charles bore more proudly. As for recklessness, he would much rather overreach himself and tumble from the Heavens in splendid ruin than act only when it was safe and pass quiet and unremarked.


"Oh, I have principles," he replied dryly, arching an eyebrow. "Just somewhat unconventional ones."


He hummed thoughtfully as Barbara suggested he take up debating, before breaking into amused grin at her little innuendo.


"Oh, I've been told that I'm useful at close quarters," he told her, eye dancing. "And you're likely to see me debate when Parliament resumes, if not sooner. I'm... opinionated."


He moved smoothly after her to the staircase, admiring her stately carriage, and disguising the satisfaction he felt. Of course Barbara did not believe his story- it was damnably thin- but the point had been to conceal the truth rather than convince her of the lie. An elaborate deception might well have tipped her off, and whatever reason Barbara had decided was responsible for John's absence would prove all the more robust for being her own creation.


In theory, at least, but the intangibles and unknowns are what make this fun.


"By all means," he agreed, taking her arm and smiling. "I have been put to harsher usage, and John evidently needs a lesson in not toying with a lady's affections, so you may consider me entirely at your disposal for as long as you have need of me."

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