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Morning Mischief | 30/12, morning- Xmas 1677

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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.


Once more, Sophia sat upon a bench near the entrance to the gardens waiting for Lord Chatham. Her entire body trilled with excitement, and her heart fluttered in anticipation. She had looked forward to seeing him again since the moment they had parted after their stroll on Monday. He had never been far from her thoughts and had danced through her dreams almost every night. When she awakened, she had been consumed with a desire that was both thrilling and frustrating, for she had no way to assuage it.


Did he still feel the same way about her, or had he decided that it was too dangerous to dally with an Ambassador's wife? It would crush her if he had reconsidered, but she would understand. Whether potential lovers or just friends, she would enjoy their time together.


Her cane rested against the bench beside her, covered with ribbons which matched the light dove gray and pink of the gown that was hidden beneath her silver fox cloak. Her ankle was a bit better today, but it was still painful when she put pressure on it. She had hoped that it would be fully healed by the banquet tonight, but it looked as if she would be sitting down most of the evening.


On the ground at her feet were two baskets brimming with brightly colored bouquets and flower garlands. Sophia and woven the blooms together very early this morning while practicing her singing. Her voice had echoed through the orangery, sweet and clear, and she had liked it so much that she planned to sing there again.


Karl and Anna had carried the baskets for her, and now they stood nearby, talking softly in German. Sophia paid them no mind, her eyes glued to the entrance. At any moment, she hoped, the handsome Earl would walk through the gates and smile at her ... and she would be content.

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Charles hummed softly as he sauntered his way to the garden at sedate pace. He had had just enough time to change into his current outfit (dove grey justacorps and patch over mint green waistcoat and breeches) and tie back his hair in lieu of attempting anything more complicated with it. The fatigue that had resulted from the previous night's levity had been dispelled with a dose of coca leaves.


I shall shortly have to get more if this keeps up.


He would have liked to attribute the delightful wild energy coursing through him to the stimulant, but knew it had far more to do with what he was going to do, and (most importantly) who he was doing it with. Charles could admit to himself that Sophia, and the feelings she inspired in him, confused him almost as much as they excited him. Was it merely his soul rebelling at the thought of the cold, passionless existence he imagined she led that lit such a fire in him?


It had better be.


Charles was very good at ignoring uncomfortable questions, though, and the sight of Sophia waiting on the bench helped immensely. He quickened his pace, lips quirking into a smile.


"Lady Toledo! You look absolutely radiant, the sun must feel envy." He caught sight of her cane. "But tell me I have not dragged you from your sickbed," he said, sounding dismayed at the thought.

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And there he was, looking as dashing as ever! Her heart leapt with a joy she had never felt except with Juan. What was it about the one-eyed Earl that captivated her so? Sophia didn't understand why she was so drawn to him, only that she was.


She didn't attempt to rise as he approached, but she did smile up at him warmly. Why thank you, my dear Lord Chatham. And I am surprised that the snow doesn't melt when you smile.” Her lyrical voice lowered to a sultry whisper. “Just like my heart.”


Her eyes followed his to her cane. “I would not miss this opportunity even if I was on my deathbed, but I assure you my injury is only minor. I fell yesterday morning and twisted my ankle.” Sophia playfully held up one delicate hand to be kissed. “I just need a little support to walk without pain.”

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His eye flared with delight at Sophia's whispered words, smile momentarily sharpening into an altogether less innocent expression.


"Ah, that explains the upturn in the weather," Charles laughed in reply, before continuing in a whisper. "My smile is merely a reflection of what fires you set in me. The lack of you has been unbearable."


Charles nodded as Sophia explained the cane.


"I am relieved to hear it is not serious," he told her as he stooped to kiss her hand. (One long fingertip reached out to briefly caress the inside of her wrist.) Straightening, he frowned. "But you must tell me at once if it begins to pain you in the slightest. I shan't have you suffering on my account."


Settling himself down on the bench, Charles flicked an idle eye over the servants and the woven garlands. "Those are lovely," he opined of the latter. "Is there no end to your talents?"

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His wicked smile sent bright little thrills rippling up and down her spine. “Perhaps you are right. It has been so dreary lately because we have been apart. Now that we are together again, the sun shines brightly.”


Sophia's heart continued to do little flips in her chest. It was an intriguing feeling. “I have been consumed by darkness during the last two days, but now I feel as if I have stepped into a golden light. Your very presence sends flames licking through me, a lovely fire that only you can quench.”


She barely suppressed a moan when his finger caressed the sensitive skin on the inside of her wrist. The petite Baroness was sure he could feel the way her hand trembled. It tingled delightfully, as if his lips had left a permanent but invisible imprint upon it. Perhaps they had.


“It feels less painful already. Your company is good for me, and I will only suffer for lack of it. I have been lost without you.” It was true that her ankle didn't ache as much now that he was with her. Perhaps the adrenaline rushing through her body dulled the pain. “The cane is awkward, though.”


Her ice-blue eyes sparkled mischievously. “I might be more comfortable if I can lean on you instead.” She would use any excuse to get closer to him, and she didn't think that Karl would protest if Charles assisted her with walking.


“Thank you, my lord.” Sophia could feel his warmth as he lowered himself beside her. “I assure you I have other talents that I cannot wait to show you.” She looked down at the flowers. "I wove these together while I was singing this morning."


Her voice became even softer. “I have been avidly reading Ovid's poetry since you sent the book to me, even though it only makes me want you more.”

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Delight danced in his eye as he settled himself down.


"Oh, do be careful," he whispered. "Keep talking like that and you'll give me a swelled head." A slight twist in his voice suggested that he was not using the phrase purely in its traditional sense. "But yes, canes can be very awkward at first. I should be only too pleased to act as support should you require it." His eye sparkled in mirror of hers.


Charles could not help but chuckle softly at Sophia's response to his compliment. "Oh, I have no doubt of that, darling Psyche, and I too cannot wait for the moment of revelation. The anticipation may drive me mad." A pause. "More mad," he corrected himself.


It was a wonderful thing, to sit next to a woman like Sophia and hear her bluntly admit that she wanted you. Charles allowed himself to glory in the pleasurable feeling for a moment before responding.


"Store up those feelings Psyche. I will see all of them gratified, and all the more pleasurably for the wait." He swallowed the urge to kiss her and continued, voice light. "And how did your lord husband like his book? Assuming he has had time to read it of course. He is doubtless a very busy man."


Idly, Charles gestured again to the garlands.


"What exactly did you have planned for those?"

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Sophia's grin was saucy and her eyes briefly lowered to his lap. “Perhaps that is my intention.” She understood English innuendo quite well now, and her own double-entrendre was as deliberate as his. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the sparkle in his eye. She could drown in that beautiful blue orb and he would have to bring her back to life with a kiss.


“Thank you, my lord,” she said when he promised to give her his support. “Your arm will be more comfortable than a cane. And you can catch me if I fall.” She doubted that she would take a tumble, but she might pretend to lose her balance so that she could feel his arms wrapped around her.


She chuckled. “Oh, I do not think you are mad at all, but if I drive you crazy with desire, I know the perfect cure.” They just had to find an opportunity to be alone together, which meant ditching her ever-present bodyguard. She believed she had come up with a way to do that if Charles couldn't convince Esteban that having her followed made it look like he did not trust either her or the English. It would take a bit of planning but she thought it would appeal to his adventurous nature.


Her young body trilled with bliss at his words. Yes, he would be a fantastic lover. Juan would certainly forgive her one indiscretion, assuming he ever found out. They were both playing a dangerous game but the outcome would be worth it. Sophia glanced briefly at his lips, licking her own before returning her gaze to his face. Maybe she would take him to the Grotto again so he could kiss her.


“As soon as I handed him the book, he started looking through it. I think he was impressed. I told him that you wished to meet with him and he seemed quite interested in talking with you. He is very busy, but he should have time to speak to you at our party tonight. I do hope you will come. It will be so dreary without you.”


She leaned over and plucked one of the flowers from a wreath, a bright orange bloom that she stuck into the neckline of her gown so that it rested against her cleavage. “I thought we would lay them at the feet of the muses and drape them over benches, but now I think we should weave them into some of the bare bushes. It will look like they are blooming in winter and everyone will think it's a miracle before they realize that someone played a prank on them.”

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"If you think that," Charles purred, "it is merely because you have only seen me on my best behaviour." His lips curved as Sophia continued. "That will change should you keep talking like that."


God, but this was deliciously frustrating! To sit and flirt like this, unable to do anything more, was to understand the torment of Tantalus. But the anticipation promised to make the eventual (inevitable, if Charles had anything to say about it) fulfilment of their passions all the more satisfying.


And it will do you no harm to have to wait for your gratification for once.


It was an effort to tear his gaze from Sophia's lips and focus on her answer to his question but Charles somehow managed, nodding in a satisfied manner.


"Well, that's to the good then. I rather doubt that he and I will have much other common ground on which to build. As to the banquet, if I'm alive I'll be there, and if I'm dead I'll still be there, though my entrance will be unbearably melodramatic."


Involuntarily, his eye was drawn to the blossom Sophia placed on her gown, nigh-overcome with the desire to replace it with hands or mouth. He gave himself a mental shake and smiled at her.


"That sounds wonderful," he said of her plans.


Actually it sounded childish and frivolous, but this was the season for such things, and Charles liked childish frivolity anyway.


"Shall we?"

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“Perhaps that is why I keep teasing you, my charming Eros,” Her eyes narrowed coyly. “I want to see your naughty side, your passionate side, the part of you that wants to devour me whole.”


Being so close to Lord Chatham but unable to touch him was nearly unbearable. Her fists clutched at the folds of her skirt so that she would not reach out to him. Sophia yearned to feel him inside her, to ride together on the waves of ecstasy. Having to wait was the most excruciating torture that she had ever experienced. He was simply irresistible.


“With my lord husband, you do need on your best behavior. If you can gain his trust, he may let you escort me while I'm riding, or shopping, or painting. Without my bodyguard following me around, we will be free to do as we please. My maidservant can be trusted. She is loyal only to me and she will enjoy having some extra time off.


“If he doesn't listen to you, then I have another idea.” She grinned mysteriously. "it is risky, though, and there are many things that could go wrong. I will tell you about it before we part ways today.” They could get away with only so much whispering together before Karl became suspicious.


He seemed to like her impromptu plan for the garlands. At sixteen, Sophia had not lost her childishness or her frivolity. It was possible she never would. “Yes, we should get started while the garden is nearly empty. You can choose which bush we should decorate first.”


Calling for Karl and Anna, she told them to take the baskets and follow her. This was done on purpose so that their hands would be full and they wouldn't be able to assist her to her feet. She held out both hands to Charles: “Will you help me, up, my lord? I do not need to put too much weight upon my ankle.”

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Charles flicked his gaze over in the direction of the irritating bodyguard.


"He is remarkably inconvenient, isn't he? It will take time and effort to charm your lord husband, but it will be worth it to be rid of that irksome looming." A frown creased his brow. "But you are certain of your maid's loyalty? It would be a fine thing to be undone by negligence after going to such lengths in removing our other obstacles."


His frown cleared as Sophia continued, replaced by a thin smile.


"Oh, now I'm intrigued. What have you sketched out in that beautiful head of yours Psyche, hmm? Shall I disguise myself as a highwayman and carry you off to some secret bower, and keep you there clad only in your hair?"


Considering the garlands, he shrugged.


"It seems simplest to start with the nearest and work our way around, no?"


Charles stood easily as Sophia gave the servants their instructions, swallowing another smile as he guessed at her purpose.


"Of course my lady," he said with a nod, reaching down to take her hands.

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“At first I welcomed his presence because of the riots and because someone tried to kidnap me this summer. I felt that I needed protection, but I do not believe that is only duty. I think he that he is my lord husband's spy and that he gives reports of everything I do, which could be a good thing where you are concerned. He will think that we are only acquaintances and there is nothing but friendship between us.”


Sophia nodded. “Anna has been with me since I left Germany, long before I married Lord Toledo. She is devoted to me and will keep my secrets. I think she senses how unhappy I am now. I trust her implicitly. But I will not tell her of our intentions. I will just give her the day off to visit her family.”


Her eyes widened at the idea he came up with. “Actually, you are close. Let us start decorating a bush and I will tell you more.”


As she had known he would, Lord Chatham agreed to help her up. Sophia placed her small hands in his and rose a bit awkwardly to her feet. Grasping his arm, she picked up her cane and began to walk toward one of the rose bushes that was in plain view of the garden's entrance.


“You may put the baskets down here,” she instructed her servants. They did as requested and moved a short distance away. Picking up one of the garlands, she handed it to him. “Lean close to me as we weave these through the branches, darling Eros, and I will tell you how I might be able to slip away. If you think my plan is ridiculous, then perhaps we can come up with something better together.”

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Charles nodded in acceptance of Sophia's assessment of her maid.


"So long as you are certain of her." A thought struck him. "Might we be able to use her as a messenger in the future?"


Charles had made his remark teasingly, as a joke. (Well, mostly. The image of Sophia with nought but her hair for covering was going to haunt his dreams.) The fact that she apparently had been planning along those lines was interesting.


"Well now I'm doubly intrigued," he purred hungrily.


It was a very pleasant thing to have Sophia on his arm, even in her current ungainly state. Possibly more pleasant because of it, actually, as Charles took advantage of the pretext to linger more closely than he might otherwise have. Nothing objectionable or blatant, of course, merely appreciating her presence.


Accepting the offered garland, Charles set to work on the bush, speaking out of the side of his mouth.


"Speak on sweet Psyche. I'm quite curious."

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Sophia nodded. She had already used Anna as a messenger once and she had performed that task admirably. “She can be trusted to carry messages between us, either written or verbal. I often send her out with the letters I want delivered personally. She can stop by your rooms on the way back, unless there is some other place where you are more likely to be found. Somewhere where no one will see the two of you speak together.”


The petite singer was trying her best to suppress her feelings for Charles, but it was impossible. A provocative image of the two of them in a beautifully furnished tower with a huge curtained bed insinuated itself in her mind. Although he was sitting on the bed fully clothed, she stood before him nude, her long thick flaxen ringlets falling over her shoulders to cover her naughty bits. He smiled in that way that melted her heart and crooked his finger, beckoning her forward. She stepped closer and he reached out to push back her hair …


His hungry rumble brought her out of her thoughts and sent a hot little thrill shimmering down her spine. Maybe they could act out that scenario when they finally had some precious time alone together. If only her husband wasn't so paranoid (though she supposed he had good reason), she would beg Lord Chatham to take her to his room and rip off her clothes right now.


Sophia pretended to be more awkward than she actually was so that she could lean toward him more often, stumbling occasionally so that she could press her bountiful bosom against his arm. The texture of the fabric of his sleeve caused a delectable friction upon her cleavage. He seemed to be taking advantage of their closeness as well, tantalizing her in subtle but delightful ways, all on the pretense of helping her walk.


She plucked another garland out of one of the baskets and began to weave it through the branches of the bush, moving her face toward his as if by accident. She made certain that she was turned away from Karl and Anna so they couldn't see her speak. “You will probably laugh at this, but I was thinking that we could stage some sort of distraction, perhaps when I am out riding in the forest with my bodyguard. I could pretend that my horse is out of control, and lose him among the trees where you will be waiting with a cloak to disguise me.


“I could leave Acapella and ride with you and we can go back to your room or to an inn or somewhere where no one can find us. If I know Karl, he will keep looking for me, hoping he will come across me so that he does not have to admit that he failed to keep me safe. Then after a couple of hours, you can take me home, claiming that you rescued me from an attempted kidnapping. You will be a hero and my lord husband will be more likely to trust you in the future, for you protected me when my bodyguard could not.”


“A couple of hours will never be enough, but it might be all we can manage at first.” Sophia glanced up at him briefly before returning her attention to the flowers. “So do you think it is an absurd plan or could it possibly work?” If Charles didn't think it was feasible, maybe he could come up with a better way for them to steal away together. The young Baroness suspected he had done such things before.

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"It might be simpler if I have my manservant leave messages at the Red Lion or some other inn, and you have her do the same with the replies. We would have to use pseudonyms, of course, and it slows things down a tad, but it is a more certain method. Less risky too." Charles clicked his fingers as a thought occurred to him. "My written Italian is considerably better than my spoken, so we could use that as an additional precaution, if you like."


Ideally there would be at least one more link on both ends of that chain so as to better protect both of their identities, but that did not seem possible.


And always remember, the perfect is the enemy of the good.


That thought returned to him as he considered Sophia's plan, frowning pensively as they wove their garlands into the bush.


Distraction, evading the bodyguard, disguise, mutual satisfaction, return and deception...


"It's perfectly workable in principle," he said at last, speaking slowly, "Once we iron out the details, anyway. What sort of distraction were you thinking of, firstly?"

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“So you can trust your manservant too? Your idea sounds perfect. Anna knows so many people in London, she is probably acquainted with somebody who works at the Red Lion. If so, it will not seem odd if she is seen going there occasionally.”


Her eyes lit up at the thought of pseudonyms. “We can be Psyche and Eros!” Sophia sighed as she realized the implications of those names. “Or perhaps that is not such a good idea. If anyone intercepts the notes, they might suspect that they are secret love letters and have them translated if we write them in Italian. It might be better to pick out Italian names instead.”


Lord Chatham didn't like her plan. Why else would he be frowning? She had thought such shenanigans would appeal to his adventurous spirit, but maybe he saw dangers in it that she had not considered. The last thing she wanted to do was to put him in peril. She couldn't live with herself if anything happened to him because of her.


Her flaxen brows creased in worry as she waited for him to say something, and when he finally spoke … claiming the plan did have merit, at least in principle ... she exhaled deeply, unaware that she had been holding her breath.


“I am not certain,” she admitted about the distraction. “If we go for an attempted kidnapping, it should be something mysterious, like a rustling in the trees or an object such as a rock thrown upon the path that will give me an opportunity to pretend that my horse has been spooked and I lost control of him. If you did it yourself, then we would not have to involve anyone else. If something goes wrong and Karl sees you, you can just say you are out for a ride."


She stole another glance at his handsome form. “How would you suggest we sneak away? Your ideas are probably much better than mine.”

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Charles considered the issue of pseudonyms for a moment before grinning widely.


"I will be Stefano, and you can be... Caterina," he suggested. "That should provide an acceptable level of obfuscation."


Sophia's plan bore further pondering. It did appeal to his nature, and the potential rewards were immensely tempting, but he forced himself to take a rational approach and think about it at length. It was not solely, or even primarily, himself at risk, after all. (And it was certainly not gentlemanly to think, but it was immensely flattering how much his opinion clearly mattered to Sophia, and so Charles tarried a little, savouring the feeling. Cruel of him, but he had never claimed to be kind.)


"Whereabouts exactly in the forest do you mean for this to take place?" he asked. "And how good a horsewoman are you? Can you fake a loss of control convincingly and, more importantly, safely?" He paused to admire their handiwork, reaching out to make minute adjustments. "As for the distraction, a pistol without a ball should do a capital job."

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Sophia grinned at his choice of names. “Perfect.” Stefano started with the same letter as Sophia, and Caterina with the same letter as Charles. She wondered if he had meant it that way or if he had other reasons behind his selections. Had he known people with those names in Italy, perhaps?


She was glad that he had not suggested that she be called 'Giuliana.' It was highly unlikely that anyone who found the letters would connect them with her former stage persona, but if they did, she didn't need rumors that the rising opera star who had mysteriously disappeared from Venice over a year ago had fled to England. Because, in truth, she had.


As he contemplated her escape plan, Sophia stole covert glances at him as she placed a flower on a branch and arranged its leaves so that it would remain anchored there. She liked the way the morning sun cast highlights in his dark hair, and she admired his profile and his fine broad-shouldered figure. What would he look like beneath his fine clothing? Would his legs be hairy like Lord Dundarg's? Would his beard tickle her when he …?


His compelling voice shattered those naughty thoughts and replaced them with exciting sensations. “Somewhere not too far outside of London and relatively close to a road so we won't have to ride a long time to reach our destination. There are always plenty of carriages and people on horseback entering the city. We will not be recognized, especially if we both wear hooded cloaks. I am so small everyone will think I am a child."


Her hand not-so-accidentally brushed briefly against his. “Asking travelers whether they have seen a lady who matches my description could keep my bodyguard occupied for hours if he thinks that I have been kidnapped. We will have to leave Acapella behind where he can easily be found. Lipizzans are not very common here."


Sophia's smile was confident when he asked if she was a good horsewoman. “I am quite accomplished on horseback and I believe that I can fake losing control convincingly, especially since it will be unexpected. I really did lose control of Acapella last spring when he was spooked by some boys banging pots together for some religious fanatic, but he has not given me any trouble since then. A pistol shot might frighten him, but since I will know it is coming, I will be able to handle him even if he bolts, guiding him where I want him to go.”

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"Sound thinking. I'll ride out today or tomorrow and have a bit of a scout, see if I can find a good place." Charles hummed thoughtfully. "I'll have a look around for good potential love nests as well." He grinned at Sophia.


He nodded along as she expressed her confidence in her horsewomanship.


"Good. I could not bear anything happening to you."


Casually, he moved to stand between the servants and Sophia before crouching down to add blossoms to the lower reaches of the bush. Their scheming had gotten his blood flowing. With a swift, smooth motion his hand reached out to briefly brush off Sophia's ankle and calf before returning to its work.


"You're burning away what little sense I had Psyche," he told her. "My restraint hangs by a thread. As much as your plan appeals to me, I hope your husband is reasonable when I speak to him. I do not think I can long more endure being without you. You haunt my dreams."


One would think you have been celibate.


Oh do shut up. At least half of that was true.


Standing again, Charles offered Sophia his arm.


"Shall we move on?"

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“When you find the perfect spot, write a letter to me in Italian telling me how I can locate it.” Sophia smiled sheepishly. “I have no sense of direction and any nearby landmarks will be helpful. I may also need to ride there the day before we are to meet so I know I can find it. I often go into the forest to paint and I can say that I wish to paint that area. Then it will not seem strange when I return the next day.”


A delicious heat suffused her being at the mention of love nests. “I do not care where it is as long as it is warm, has a bed, and nobody asks questions.” Going to his room, which they had spoken about before, was probably a foolish idea because someone he knew might see them. There were few ladies at court as petite as she, and her identity might be revealed by her small stature alone.


“I feel the same way about you.” Her eyes met his, worry apparent in her ice-blue eyes. If they were caught, he would be blamed and Esteban would want revenge. He had already killed two men who had attempted to take advantage of her. “If you think we are about to be caught, you must abandon me and ride to safety. I want you more than anything, dearest Eros, but I would never put your life at risk. If this plan fails, we can come up with another one.”


Her body trilled pleasurably at the thought of being with him at last, and it tingled delectably when she felt his fingers whisper gently over her ankle and calf. His touch seemed to burn through the silk of her stockings and Sophia barely repressed the moan that hovered upon her lips. The worry in her eyes transformed into desire and she held his gaze for a moment before returning it to the flower-bedecked bush.


His words were stirring, a beautiful verbal caress. “And you dance through mine,” she said about dreams. “I hope he is reasonable too. My passion for you grows stronger with each passing moment. It consumes me always and I can think of nothing else but being close to you. So close that no space remains between us at all.”


The bush was now completely adorned in flowers. As Sophia stood, she pretended to stumble so that she could briefly press her curves against him. Then, as if embarrassed, she stepped away so that Karl and Anna would think it had been an accident.


“Yes, of course. Would you like to go to the grotto again?” She longed for more forbidden kisses, “We can drape the remaining garlands over benches and low-hanging branches when we return.”


She motioned her servants to pick up the baskets again and when they had retreated into the background, she took Charles' arm, keeping a respectable distance between them and leaning mostly on her cane.


As they began to walk, her expression was thoughtful. "There is another way to make our escape which will not require abandoning my horse. When I get close to the chosen spot, I can tell my bodyguard I need to ...” A rose-colored blush flowered across her cheeks and she hesitated just a moment before continuing. “I can tell him I need to answer nature's call. He will let me out of his sight for it would not be proper for him to follow me. I can leave Acapella with him, and join you. Then you can shoot your pistol, I will scream, and we ride away together.”

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"I shall bear that in mind," Charles murmured, lips slowly curving into a small smirk.


The smirk faded at Sophia's worry. It was... bemusing, this idea that his well-being could be a matter of concern to anyone. Charles himself had ceased caring about his mortality long years before. To him, it had always been more about living well than living long. But explaining that to people only seemed to upset them. It was easier to pretend.


"Very well. I shall be cautious and patient."


It was a deliberate effort to shift the mood that had him surreptitiously caress Sophia. A successful one, too, to judge from her words. He grinned wolfishly at her.


"Think extensively of what you want to do when we are that close Psyche. And then put pen to paper, that I might prepare to fulfil those desires."


He reached out to catch Sophia as she 'stumbled.' Despite the immense temptation, Charles kept his hands in plain view and placed as innocently as circumstances permitted.


"I suspect the grotto is the only way I shall get you to rest that leg, so yes, let us go," he told her, just a hint of protective exasperation leaking into his voice for the benefit of the servants.


He considered Sophia's latest adaption of the plan as they walked.


"That could work," he agreed. "But in that case I would rather we make our escape in silence and wait for him to notice something is wrong. We'll be riding double, so we'll need as large a lead as can be arranged."

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Relief suffused Sophia's fair features when he promised to be cautious. He seemed like the reckless type to her, which was another reason that she had thought he would like her plan. She didn't want him to take any chances that would put his life in danger. The plot they were concocting was perilous as it was. If it didn't work out, they would come up with other ways to be together.


Maybe Lord Chatham would be able to convince Esteban that he came across as suspicious because he had her watched all the time. The entrancing Earl most certainly had a way with words and she believed that if anyone could sway her husband, it was he.


His wolfish grin sent more tantalizing sensations careening through her small form, intensifying in that sacred place between her thighs. You will devour me and I will love it, she thought, intrigued with the idea of writing out her fantasies for him.


“Very well. Caterina will describe in exquisite detail what she wants Stefano to do to her and what she wants to do to him.” Her own grin was saucy and coquettish. “I hope you are not easily shocked.” Sophia read a lot of racy Italian novels where the characters made love in creative ways. She had tried some of them with Juan, but there were others she had thought he wouldn't approve of. Charles, however, might adore them and would probably have some inventive ideas of his own.


“The grotto is the warmest place in the garden.” This, too, was said for the benefit of her attendants. “And in truth, my ankle is aching quite dreadfully.” It wasn't. “It will be a relief to sit down for a bit before we continue our mischief.”


With their backs turned to Karl and Anna, the servants would not be able to see the way her fingers teasingly stroked the fabric of his sleeve. “Yes, that would work much better. I can tell him that I might be awhile. Then we will have plenty of time to get away. By the time he realizes I'm gone, we could already be entwined together in bliss.”

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Charles gave a low laugh of delight at Sophia's words and flirtatious grin.


"Not particularly," he told her, "but I look forward to your efforts. Give me your most lurid imaginings Psyche. You are a creature of passion, and that passion has obviously been restrained too long. Let it out."


It was just as well that they agreed to move to the grotto. Passion of a somewhat different sort was leaking into his voice. Charles generally did not indulge in proselytising of any sort, but on the topic of personal freedom, which was in his opinion the very essence of libertinism, he could and would happily wax lyrical. (Though he was generally a damn sight less sober when he did.)


Spare me. You're quite sufficiently drunk on her at the minute. Thoroughly foxed, in fact.


Charles ignored the voice in the back of his head with the ease of long practice, focusing his attention instead on the warm, pleasant sensation of Sophia's stroking fingers as they made their way to the grotto, before being distracted from that in turn by the latest changes to the scheme.


"That's about as much as we can plan for now. We can firm up the details once we have the lie of the land."


For now I would much rather direct my efforts to becoming reacquainted with your lips.

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“Good.” Her grin changed from saucy to wicked. Sophia was, indeed, an exceedingly passionate young lady, and her husband neglected her sexual needs. He rarely shared her bed, and when he did, he was distant and aloof and cared little for her own pleasure. She understood his reluctance. He probably felt as if he were betraying his master every time he slept with her, but her desires remained unfulfilled.


This was not what drew her to Lord Chatham. Even if Juan was here, she believed she wold still be attracted to him and that she would long to find bliss in his arms. She had felt the sparks fly as soon as he approached Esteban and herself at the ball. There was an affinity between them that was impossible to explain.


“I hope you will write down your fantasies too. I wish to know your cravings so that I can satisfy your hunger entirely.” Sophia wondered if he would be as eloquent in Italian as he was in English. His letters would most likely stir her ardor more than those racy novels she liked to read.


She continued to lean mostly on her cane and stroked his arm until they had entered the Walled Garden. Again, Karl and Anna waited by the gates, but they didn't speak together as usual. Much as they had last time, she and Lord Chatham would have to keep up a normal conversation and whisper what they didn't want the servants to overhear.


A soon as they strolled into the grotto with its beautiful shells and mosaics, she let go of his arm and sat on a bench that was cloaked in azure shadows. “Ahhh, this is much better. I guess my ankle did need a rest after all.” Propping her cane beside her, Sophia held out her hands. “Kiss me, darling Eros,” she whispered. “You have pierced my heart so completely with your arrow that I can think of nothing else.”


“Did you go to Lady Kendishall's party last night?” she asked in a louder voice. “I wasn't able to attend because of my stupid foot.”

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"All I crave now is you, wet and wanton," Charles told Sophia, wickedness dancing in his eye. "But if you desire it I'm sure I can conjure up a suitable scenario." He grinned roguishly. "After all, you provide such wonderful inspiration."


They could not reach the grotto fast enough for Charles, and he almost cackled with delight when they finally entered. He seated himself alongside Sophia, taking full advantage of the newfound privacy to press himself close.


"Best to keep the weight off it as much as possible," he said of her injury, only partially for the benefit of the servants.


For all his earlier urgency, Charles felt no need to rush now that the moment had arrived. No, some perverse part of his nature insisted that he spin it out. He grinned thinly, a hint of playful cruelty shining through as he took Sophia's hands in his.


"I did, yes," he said in answer. "A pleasant way to pass an evening. A surprisingly distinguished crowd, too. Buckingham was there, among others. But speaking of court events, how go preparations for your banquet?"


Still seeking to draw the moment out he kissed each of her fingertips in turn before moving to the inside of her wrists.


"You say such sweet things my dear Psyche," he murmured, moving his lips to her ear. "My blood is afire with you."


He kissed down her jawline to finally claim her lips.

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Sophia liked the idea of being his muse as much as she liked that delightful roguish smile. His smile, his voice, his words … everything about him called to her, making her nubile young body dance with tantalizing sensations.


She couldn't wait to get to the grotto either, so perhaps it was fortunate that her injury prevented her from walking too fast. Her anticipation grew with each step she took, and it was torture not to feign stumbling again so that she could press her curves against him. Too much playacting and Karl would become suspicious. She had not stumbled much when they had left the carriage and entered the gardens. Now she wished she had.


Maybe Lord Chatham's thoughts had been similar to hers, for he sat down beside her and pressed himself close. Sophia leaned toward him as he took her hands, certain that he would kiss her immediately. She pouted when he grinned at her mischievously. Was he going to torment her by prolonging her expectations? There was a certain appeal in such flirtatious tactics.


Her answer to his question froze in her throat as he kissed her fingertips and she looked up at him with passion-filled eyes when she felt his lips upon the sensitive skin of her wrists.


She had to say something soon or Karl would check in on them. With every ounce of willpower she possessed, she schooled her voice into a conversational tone. “So far, everything is going according to plan. When I left the house this morning, tables were being set up at the Embassy and the cooks were beginning to prepare the food.”


Sophia trembled with bliss when she felt his hot breath in her ear. A sudden wetness blossomed between her thighs, surprising her. It was a good thing that she wore so many petticoats under her skirts. “And desire for you pulses through my veins. You fill my senses and my heart is racing with joy.”


His lips trailed along her jawline, and when they finally met hers, she kissed him hungrily, greedily, releasing his hands and placing one of hers upon his thigh. With the other one, she impishly pulled at his cravat before gently stroking the nape of his neck.

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Charles reluctantly broke off his ministrations to keep up his end of their deception.


"Good. What sort of food, if you don't mind my asking? It's dreadfully unpatriotic of me to admit, but I have a passing fondness for Spanish cooking."


Duty attended to, he resumed his more enjoyable activities, glorying in Sophia's pleasured tremblings. She was so wonderfully responsive. He could not wait to see how wanton she could be when they set to in earnest.


"I'm drunk on you Psyche," he whispered. "Completely and utterly intoxicated."


For all that he had sought to provoke it, the raw hunger in Sophia's kiss was a surprise. Not an unwelcome one, though, and Charles let his mouth his mouth yield easily before hers. A hand crept up to palm at a breast through the bodice of her gown while slid to rest lightly on her hip. He could feel Sophia tug at his cravat, but could muster no complaint with her other hand resting on his thigh.


Barely swallowing a groan, Charles broke away, bowing his head as he mastered his breathing.


"I want to mark you," he growled out, lips perilously close to her throat. " I know I can't, but I very much want to."

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“All of the courses served will be Spanish in origin.” He was so distracting that Sophia could not recall the names of the dishes that she and her cook had agreed on. “Some of them will be spicy, but toned down for English tastes. However, there will be extra spices that you can add to your food if you wish.” Lowering her voice, she whispered: “Assuming that you like it hot.”


She was certainly hot for him. It felt that her entire being was engulfed by exquisite flames as he teased her with his feathery kisses. His beard tickled her skin, causing it to tingle sublimely. “Then drink your fill of me, so that you will become addicted and keep coming back for more. You have captured my heart and captivated my soul. I wish for nothing more than to please you, sweet Eros.”


Her kiss proved how much he had enthralled her and her tongue quested against his lips, yearning to taste the nectar of his mouth. The touch of his hand on her breast was unexpected but welcome, and the divine ache between her thighs thrummed steady and rhythmically. The heat of his hand on her hip seemed to burn through the layers of her gown and spread throughout her body. She moved her fingers to his inner thigh, stroking gently,


When he pulled away from her, Sophia felt bereft, but she regained her breath before he did, probably due to her many years of vocal training. “There will be Spanish entertainment as well. I do hope there is a good turnout and that everything goes well.”


His desire to mark her send a bright little shiver rippling down her spine. Some of her friends had showed off their love bites, and she had always wondered what it would feel like. She had been told it was very pleasurable. Juan had never done it, probably because it could be considered an insult to Esteban. Spaniards were as obsessed with honor as Sophia was with the dashing Earl of Chatham.


“I want your mark upon me.” Her voice was low and sultry and she lifted her head, exposing the entirety of her creamy throat. “I want you to claim me in so intimate a fashion. But I would never be able to hide it, no matter how much I crave it."

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"Oh good. I acquired quite the passion for spice on the Continent."


Charles kept his voice conversational, despite the temptation to growl at Sophia's verbal provocation. There was a strong streak of minx to go with the nymph in his little Psyche.


He did allow himself a low chuckle between kisses when she invited him to drink his fill.


"My fill, Psyche? I could glut myself on you from now until doomsday and still not be satisfied. And as for pleasing me..." he paused word and action both for a long, teasing moment. "Well, you have made a most excellent beginning, and I have no doubt that you will prove as talented at that as you are at everything else."


It would have been wantonly cruel to put off kissing her any longer after that, and Charles believed in carefully rationing his cruelty. He leaned in to claim Sophia's lips and was pleasantly surprised at how well he appeared to have stoked her ardour.


A wonderfully passionate creature this.


An idle thought proved true as Sophia's hand began to caress his inner thigh. He did growl then, and shifted into her hand, redoubling his own fondling.


Breaking away was an effort of will, and Charles could not bring himself to remove his hands from her. How he managed a polite, amiable tone for deceiving the servants he would never know.


"Spanish entertainment? Now I'm curious. Not bullfighting, one assumes." A huff of mannered amusement. "And I would not worry about the attendance. The political set will be desperate for anything that so much smells of matters of state, and this seems their best bet."


He might have said more, but Sophia's words and actions drove the thought from his head. His eye traced the slender column of her throat, burning with suppressed desire. He leaned in, letting his lips just rest on her pulse point in a horrific self-imposed test.


"Don't say things like that when we can't act on them, unless you want me to steal you away in truth," he breathed out.

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“So did I. There's a shop in Westminster that sells exotic spices, and I bought a blend that I sprinkle on almost everything I eat. I'll give you some to take with you tonight at the banquet. Then you will never have to suffer bland English food again.”


Sophia didn't have to worry about her servants taking offense at her words. Anna was German and Karl was Austrian. German food not as spicy as that of Italy or Spain, but much tastier than English fare, at least in her opinion. They didn't even have sauerkraut here. Their own version of cabbage was tasteless.


“It is fortunate that my fountain overflows with a passion for you that will never wane. I do not think I will ever get my fill of you either. You are my nourishment and without your kisses, I doubt that I would survive.” A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but the young Baroness was not at her wittiest while in pain.


She pouted again when he made her wait to hear how she pleased him. “I will try to prove worthy of you. You are much more experienced than I am, but what I do not know, you can teach me. You will find me a most willing student, and a gifted one as well.”


Their kiss was certainly inspiring. His caresses excited her and when she felt him press into his hand, she began to stroke the bulge in his breeches with teasing fingers. How she wished she could release it from its prison and lavish all of her attention upon it! Soon, she told herself. Soon we will be able to fulfill each other's desires in every imaginable way.


She continued to stroke him even after he pulled away. If he wanted her to stop, he would have to remove her hand and place it somewhere else. Changing back to a conversational tone, she laughed, giving him an impish smile. “Well, I did want a bullfight, but the bull wouldn't fit on the ship.” In truth, she hadn't. Although she had not seen one while she was there, it seemed like a brutal sport to her. “You will like what I have planned. It is a secret, so I cannot say more than that.”


Moving her lips to his ear, she nibbled on it playfully. “I am hoping that it will not become a political affair. It is supposed to be fun, not dull.” In a softer voice she added: “But I am certain it will not be as satisfying as this.”


Could he feel the way her pulse quickened beneath his lips? So much pleasure rippled through her that she thought she might expire of sheer ecstasy. “If you stole me away, I would be the happiest captive in the world and I would never attempt to escape. You have already ensnared me in your sensuous web. I would follow you anywhere if I could.”

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"I would be most obliged, if you are certain you can spare them," Charles laughed. "I am by birth somewhat inured to the... failings of English food. It must be even more uninspiring to one used to more flavourful fare."


And that, he decided, was quite enough deceptively pointless natter. The grotto was a perfect setting for a spot of intimate Shakespearean flirting, and there was a deeply frustrated actor somewhere in Charles who rather enjoyed that sort of thing.


We tread perilously close to being a cliche.


Oh, never mind that. After the verbal intimacy comes the physical kind, after all.


Sophia had a wonderfully alluring pout, but her words put it to shame. Charles felt his eye flash with desire and approval both.


"Well the most important quality in a student is eagerness to learn. Everything else the teacher can supply or compensate for," he drawled softly in reply, before blowing lightly in her ear. "Do you promise to be an enthusiastic pupil?"


The kiss certainly seemed to indicate that she did, as did her continued fondling through his breeches. Charles made no move to remove her hand, luxuriating in a not un-catlike manner.


"Difficult animals to transport, one would imagine," he agreed as they resumed the tediously necessary business of pulling the wool over her escorts' eyes. He went on, tone shifting to an elder's amused tolerance for a child's games. "But I see it is pointless to wheedle at you further. You may keep your secrets my lady."


He laughed as Sophia's teeth found his ear. "You think politics is dull? Would men like Buckingham expend so much effort for it were it so?" Smirking, his voice dropped to a whisper. "But no, it is nowhere near as fun as this."


Slowly, Charles ghosted his lips up along Sophia's throat and jawline to her ear, applying no real pressure, merely resting them on her skin.


"I want you so very badly," he murmured. "I'm no more than a heartbeat or two from trying to hike your skirts up here and now."

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