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Anne-Elisabeth Devereux

Off With Her ... | 4th April, afternoon (Open)

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St James Park

 

The Park was once a marshy water meadow, but now is a thriving attraction with all of London's elite. Charles' grandfather, James I, improved the drainage and controlled the water supply. Other royalty had made improvement to the park over their reigns, but it was Charles II who made dramatic changes. The Park was redesigned, with avenues of trees planted and lawns laid. The King opened the park to the public and is a frequent visitor, feeding the ducks and mingling with his subjects.

 

In summer, it was fashionable to drink warm milk, freshly drawn from herds of cows placidly grazing in the London parks, at a kind of milk bar provided for the purpose. The milk sellers would advertise their wares by calling: "A can of milk, ladies, a can of red cow's milk, sir!"

 

 

Delilah had done so well in the Kings Mews yesterday that Anne-Elisabeth decided to take her on a ride in the park. It had been too cold to explore it during the winter and now seemed like a perfect time. Her fuchsia riding habit, decorated with black braid and gold beads. contrasted nicely with the mare's chestnut coat and mane. Her jewelry consisted of a black ribbon around her neck from which hung a golden filigree pendant with a fuchsia glass rose in the center and matching rose earrings. A black hat sat atop her raven curls, its brim wrapped with a long golden ribbon which blew behind her. Fuchsia fabric flowers were attached to one side of the hat below golden feathers that fluttered in the wind.

 

As Delilah trotted down one of the avenues, Anne-Elisabeth lifted her head and briefly closed her eyes, savoring the warmth of the sun upon her face. While sunshine had been plentiful in Barbados, it was rare here in England and she enjoyed it when she could. As she lowered her head, a swift gust of wind blew her hat from her head, sending it dancing behind her upon the breeze. “Oh, bugger,” she muttered, trying to figure out how best to retrieve it.

 

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The sunshine was entirely too fine (and too rare) to waste the day indoors, regardless of how much he had to do. Charles found he thought better outside, anyway, and so had opted to stretch his legs in the park. Green had been his chosen colour for today, sea-green for justacorps, stockings, cravat and eye patch, and mint for waistcoat and breeches. He had, as usual, not bothered with a hat, though in deference to the wind he had queued his hair to keep it from being blown in every direction. There being no formal occasion to worry about, he had forgone any ornamentation other than his pocket watch.

He was admiring the sun, and pondering the best way to construct a reference to Cimon sacrificing his bridle for Lords the following day, when he was struck in his blind spot.

"What the devil?" he exclaimed, snatching the offending missile from the air. A hat, as it transpired. He cast about for its owner and caught sight of Anne-Elisabeth. He held up the hat to catch her attention, and approached.

"Yours, my lady?" he asked, offering it up to her with a smile.

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Anne-Elisabeth watched, horrified, as the hat whirled and spun upon the breeze in the direction of a finely-dressed unsuspecting gentleman, hitting him right in the face. When he caught it and turned toward her, she saw that it was Lord Chatham, whom she had first met at the sleigh race last year. She wasn't acquainted with him well enough to recognize him from the back, though perhaps she should have. He had a very nice arse.

 

He approached her with a smile. At least he was not angry with her. “Yes, it is. It seems to have a mind of its own today. Thank you for retrieving it for me, Lord Chatham.” After taking it from him, she impulsively held out her arms, the hat dangling from one hand. “Do you mind helping me dismount? When I put it back on, I would like your opinion on whether or not it sits at a proper angle.”

 

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"Not much of a mind, to forsake your company for mine, it must be said," Charles replied, grin widening. He waved aside her thanks with an airy gesture. "Bah. I benefited most, to tell the truth. I was away with the Greeks, contemplating Lords tomorrow, and you are a much better conversationalist than Cimon or Aristides."

An imp of mischief seized him as Anne-Elisabeth asked for help dismounting, and he refrained from pointing out that he could give his opinion just as easily were she to remain mounted. "Certainly my lady," he told her, and reached up to gird his hands around her waist, swinging her softly to the ground from her saddle. She was a slender little thing, and it was no great exertion.

"There," he murmured, letting his hands linger for a moment before stepping back.

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Anne-Elisabeth laughed. “Maybe it recognizes a fine gentlemen when it sees one.” Lord Chatham had an adorable grin and his eye patch enhanced his appearance rather than detracted from it, giving his striking countenance a roguish touch. “I'm sorry I wasn't able to control its impulses.” She gave the hat a stern look. “I shall chastise it as soon as I get home. If I do it now, it might feel so guilty that it droops over my eyes.” She hoped he had an excellent sense of humor and a vivid imagination. Otherwise, he might think she was mad.

 

“I'll take that as a compliment, though I think that their advice would serve you better in the House of Lords than my own.” She winked impishly. “Unless you wish to discuss the fickleness of hats, that is.”

 

Yes, he could have given her his opinion while she was mounted, but it would be more easier to converse with him if he didn't have to look up at her all the time. The Countess also wanted him to know that she was in no hurry to resume her ride. He was much more intriguing than the trees that lined the avenue. And I want to feel his hands around my waist, she admitted.

 

Lord Chatham obliged her and swung her lightly to the ground as if she was as light as a feather. She didn't miss the way his hands lingered briefly around her midsection before he removed them and put a respectable distance between them. A bright little thrill meandered down her spine. “Thank you again, my lord.”

 

Grinning mischievously, she held out the hat to him. “Do you mind putting it back on for me? You can adjust it yourself instead of instructing me on how to do it. It saves time that we can better spend on other things.”

 

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Charles laughed along with Anne-Elisabeth. It was an absurd image, but he did not mind a bit of absurdity, now and then.

"You might be surprised," he told her in reply to her comment on the value of her advice verses that of the ancient Athenians. "They both managed to get themselves exiled at one point or another, and that seems a frightful hassle."

Charles had relatively few rules in life, but one of them was that any opportunity to wrap your hands around a pretty woman's waist was to be seized. His tastes normally ran to the more voluptuous, but slenderness had its appeal. Besides, variety was good for the palate. 

"It was no great exertion, my lady," he said, again waving away her thanks. The light suited her eyes better now that she was afoot, he decided. The colour made him think of honey.

He arched an eyebrow as she offered him her hat, but grinned and took it, humming thoughtfully as he considered. After a long moment he settled it on her head at a jaunty angle and then reached out to brush the trailing golden ribbon off her shoulder. He stepped back to admire his handiwork and nodded in a self-satisfied manner.

"There. Positively rakish, I think." He looked at her, merriment shining out of his eye. "Now, what are these better things of which you speak?"

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Lord Chatham had an excellent sense of humor, Anne-Elisabeth was pleased to discover. To her, being able to laugh at the absurdities of life was more attractive than a handsome visage. “They still knew more about war and military strategy than I do, though I am very interested in politics. Were I knowledgeable enough to give you suggestions, at least they wouldn't get you thrown out of court.”

 

Was that a veiled barb aimed at her unfashionable thinness or was he simply telling the truth? She decided to take his words at face value. If he had been put off by her appearance, he would not have let his hands linger upon her waist. Nor would he agree to set her hat upon her head. Another little thrill ran down her spine as he studied her from that gorgeous blue eye of his. Idly she wondered what had happened to the other one.

 

Anne-Elisabeth remained still until the hat was on her head again. One of the ribbons cascaded over her shoulder, but before she could brush it behind her, Lord Chatham did it for her. The brief caress of his fingers upon her sensitive skin sent a pleasant heat coursing through her and she wished that he had not stopped there. Oh, what am I thinking? I'm supposed to be enjoying a ride, not anticipating a more pleasurable one.

 

“Rakish? Hmmmm, I like the sound of that. I hope it doesn't shift or fall off again so that I can see it when I get home.”

 

As for better things to do: “I've heard there is a gazebo around here somewhere. Perhaps you can help me find it? I can either walk with you or you can ride with me, though it might be a tight fit."

 

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Charles shrugged. 

"There is very little difference between war and politics, if the truth be told. In the end, they both boil down to the same questions. What do I have, what do I want, and how do I use the former to get the latter? Or alternatively, what does the enemy have, what does he want, and how do I stop him?"

He grinned at her comment on his handiwork and glanced about conspiratorially before reaching into his coat and pulling out his snuff box.

"Tell no one, or vengeance shall be swift and terrible," he mock-warned her, and flipped open the snuff box to show her the mirror mounted on the inside of the lid. He was a horribly vain creature, he would cheerfully admit, and the best way to defend against being mocked for it was to do so himself.

"I am familiar with it," he said of the gazebo. It had been a popular place for discreet assignations when he had first come to London. Was that what the Countess intended he wondered? A pleasant thought, but unlikely he decided. In all probability she had just been exploring, and was now simply inviting him to accompany her.

"Best we walk, and lead the horse," he told her. "It would not do to overburden your mount." He would not have minded being pressed against her, but he did not know how skilled a horsewoman Anne-Elisabeth was, or what sort of temperament the beast had, and thus had no desire to test either.

He offered her his arm.

"The footing is better than when last we were here, but perhaps you will allow me to play support anyway."

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Anne-Elisabeth chuckled at Lord Chatham's opinion on politics and war. “You could apply the same explanation to everyday court life as well. Then again, the two often intermingle. There will be one form of politics on the floor of the House of Lords and quite another in the viewing area. I am quite looking forward to attending.”

 

Now why was he looking about as if somebody might notice that they were speaking together? Did he have a jealous wife? Her gaze followed his but she saw no angry woman looking in their direction. Or anyone at all for that matter. The sound of the Earl reaching into his pocket drew her attention back to him. He had pulled out a snuff box, warning her that she should tell no one. Why? Many gentlemen carried …

 

Oh! There was a mirror inside. Was he as vain as she was? It would seem so. “Don't worry, your secret is safe with me,” Anne-Elisabeth grinned, peering into the small looking glass to check her hat. “You are quite right, my lord. It does look quite saucy tilted like that. I like it and it's much better than I could have done on my own.” Her eyes narrowed teasingly. “Perhaps you should position all of my hats from now on.”

 

Anne-Elisabeth was glad that he preferred to walk. She was only a passable horsewoman and she had Delilah were just getting to know each other again after an absence of about six months. The chestnut mare was also in the process of becoming comfortable in London. The city was much busier than the estate in St Ives where she had spent her life. The young Countess had no idea how she would react to carrying two people, one of them taller and heavier than her usual rider. So why had she asked? Out of politeness or because she wanted to feel his body pressed against hers? Or a bit of both?

 

“Very well,” she agreed. “I'm sure that Delilah will enjoy the break.” She smiled as he offered her his arm and placed her hand casually upon the sleeve of his justacorps. “Of course, my lord. I wouldn't want to trip over a tree root or lose my balance if a small animal crosses my path.” Raising her eyes to his, she added. “I will probably not look down at all, when what I see when I look up is much more intriguing.

 

“So do you know where the gazebo is already, or will be both be going into unknown territory during this little adventure?”

 

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"It should be an... enlightening session, if nothing else," Charles agreed. He did not think that there would be much overt opposition to funding the navy, but there would be opposition of some sort, and he was quietly looking forward to seeing what form it took.

He grinned back at Anne-Elisabeth as she teased him, his own eye glinting with glee at the easy repartee.

"I fear, my lady, that should my services be further required in that regard, I shall require recompense."

She was a pleasant presence at his side, Charles would admit, slender figure or no, and he allowed himself a moment to appreciate the feel of her fingers through his sleeve. He had had no end in mind when he had approached, and he still had none, but he was greatly enjoying the journey.

"The creatures of the park are fascinating," he agreed drily, matching her gaze and grinning down at her, "and the trees look as though they could conceal anything."

"Better to say that I knew," he replied to her question as they moved deeper into the park, "and hope that I remember correctly. It has been some years."

He grinned boyishly.

"So you see, it is still an adventure."

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“Maybe even surprising,” Anne-Elisabeth predicted, remembering her conversation with Lord Chichester. It was possible that more had been discovered about Danby's crimes or that he had finally been found. Or perhaps someone else had committed some atrocity that needed to be dealt with. Maybe it wouldn't be all about the war. She did hope that she learned more about current political views while attending. There was only so much you could figure out on your own.

 

The Countess' smile turned saucy when Lord Chatham said he would need compensation for adjusting her hat again. “Oh, I think we can come to an agreement that will satisfy both of us.” Let him make of that what he would.

 

Leading Delilah by her reins, she let the Earl lead her further into the park, enjoying their easy banter. He was quite charming and not bad-looking either. Simply walking by his side was a pleasurable experience. Silently, she thanked the wind for blowing her hat off her head.

 

“Yes, they most certainly are,” she replied, grinning up at him. “Come to think of it, the trees do look like they have secrets. I wonder what they are hiding beneath those lovely leaves. Perhaps one day we will find out.”

 

His boyish grin was adorable. “When we were first introduced, I remember Lord Kingston telling me that you had arrived at court last season just as I did. Or were you just returning after a long absence?”

 

Her hand tightened slightly upon his arm. “In truth, my lord, I think every moment I spend with you will be an adventure.”

 

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Charles felt his grin widen at Anne-Elisabeth's reply, letting just a hint of tooth show in a mirror of her own saucy smile.

"Oh, I'm sure that a little bit of back and forth would give us both what we want," he told her, and laughed. There was an earthiness to the Countess that he found charming, a certain vital carnality that had no need for false piety and the appearance of demureness that was powerfully attractive. She was perhaps a little unrefined, but some had said the same of Charles himself, and he was neither hypocrite nor snob enough to allow that to interfere with the simple fun of their repartee.

"The thing about trees," he said meditatively, "is that they are entirely silent, and are therefore perfect secret keepers. One could do almost anything in the shadow of one without any fear that their deeds might be bandied about, however... improper they might be." He swallowed a laugh at his own absurdity. "Alas, horses are rarely so discreet."

He glanced about the park, getting his bearings.

"Left here I think," he said, and shrugged carelessly at her question. "I went to school in London, and spent some little time in the city before I went to the continent," he told her, "hence why I merely hope that I know where I am going. But I seem to recall that you came to court from Barbados. Did you grow up in the Carib?"

It was pleasant to feel her hand grasp more tightly to his arm, however slightly, and Charles let his free hand fall easily atop hers, intertwining their fingers.

"Weighty expectations you have for me, my lady. I only hope that I do not disappoint."

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“Absolutely,” Anne-Elisabeth agreed. That cheeky smile made her entire body hum pleasantly. She thought about adding a bit of flirtatious innuendo, but she didn't want to come on too strong, leading Lord Chatham to think that a tryst awaited them at the gazebo. It was possible that all they would do there was talk. There were a lot of things she would like to know about the rakish one-eyed Earl that had absolutely nothing about how good he was in bed. Yet sometimes in the heat of the moment ...

 

“Ahhh, but if they could speak, imagine what they would say. Or perhaps they would still elect to remain mute. I think most courtiers would leave offerings before their trunks to ensure they spoke not of their indiscretions, whatever they may be.” As for horses: “Oh, I don't know.” She looked back at her chestnut mare. “Despite her name, you can trust Delilah. She is quite loyal and would never betray a confidence.” How silly they were being, and how much fun it was.

 

She let him lead her where he would. “So you have been to the gazebo before, when you were in school?” The Countess narrowed her eyes playfully. “Are there trees around it? I wonder if they will remember you and if you have any reason to be wary of what they might remember.”

 

Anne-Elisabeth didn't expect him to place his hand on hers. The warmth of his fingers entwined with her own seemed permeate languorously through her body. “That, I believe, is impossible,” she remarked about disappointing her.  She punctuated her statement by squeezing his fingers gently.

 

“Yes, I did grow up in Barbados. I only moved to England a year and a half ago.” A trace of sadness colored her voice. “It was supposed to be a joyful occasion, celebrating my new marriage, but a shipwreck took the lives of my husband and the rest of my family as well. I came to court to build a new life for myself after the period of mourning was over.”

 

She sighed. “Oh, but I don't mean to depress you with my tale of woe. We must speak of happier things. Tell me more about yourself, my lord. What sort of things do you enjoy and what do you hope to achieve at court besides the usual fame and fortune?”

 

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Charles laughed easily, his eye shining with delight at their easy banter. Anne-Elisabeth had wit, and she did not take herself or anything else over seriously. Besides, he had always appreciated a good biblical allusion.

"Then her name is singularly misleading," he mock groused, "but perhaps she will redeem it. I reserve the right to run, however, if she comes anywhere near my hair."

He adopted the closest thing he could manage to an expression of angelic innocence in response to her playful teasing. It was doubtless ridiculous on him, but that was entirely in keeping with the nature of their conversation.

"Once or twice," he answered her, "and a few other occasions thereafter. I promise, though, that I have never done anything there of which I am ashamed." He drew a finger over his heart with overwrought solemnity, as he might have done when he was a schoolboy.

Her squeezing of his fingers was pleasant, both in and of itself, and for what it might signify. Charles had always been a great believer in the importance of small victories, and this little interlude had him feeling properly alive.

That warm feeling dampened slightly at her answer to his question.

"Ah. I did not mean to stir up such dark memories. My apologies."

He cocked his head to consider her questions, shrugging. He had had answers for those questions, once, not so long ago, answers he had been certain of, but he was no longer so sure that those answers were the entirety of the truth. Still, they would suffice for idle conversation.

"Oh, my pleasures are much the same as any other man's, I assume. Good food, good drink, good company, good competition, and the opportunity to exercise my talents, such as they are. If my appetites are in any way exceptional, it is that I satisfy them without anything in the way of piety, shame or hypocrisy. As for my ambitions..." he shrugged. "Those are almost depressingly pedestrian. Fame and fortune, as you said. And, I suppose, I aspire to achieve them without compromising myself, or ever spending a day feeling less than entirely alive."

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“I named her Delilah because when she was presented to me as a gift, the first thing she did was nibble on one of my curls,” Anne-Elisabeth laughed. “Don't get too close and your hair will be safe from her.” She studied his ebony hair with melodramatic fascination and grinned teasingly. “But maybe not from me.”

 

In her estimation, Lord Chatham fell a bit short of innocence, no matter how hard he tried. The sharpness of his features did not lend themselves well to angelic purity. Instead, the Countess thought he looked dashingly devilish, pretending to be guileless in order to lure unsuspecting ladies into his trap. And it worked. She had been well and truly caught, unable to resist that mischievous charm.

 

Her bright laughter rang once more through the air at his feigned solemnity. “My dear Lord Chatham, I do believe that you are never ashamed of anything you do. If I am correct, then it is because that I can sense that you are much like me. Like calls to like, as the saying goes.” Anne-Elisabeth didn't ask him to elaborate on his adventures at the gazebo. She believed she knew what most of them had entailed.

 

She squeezed his hand again. “No apologies are necessary. Every time I tell the story, I heal a bit more. Keeping their memories alive by speaking about them helps ease the pain of their passing.”

 

Oh, he was a lot like her indeed and they enjoyed many of the same things. Anne-Elisabeth had already known he was competitive from his performance in the sleigh race. He had won, but had only beat her (and her dim-witted partner) by a hair. He also confirmed her earlier comment about not being ashamed of his actions. “You are a man after my own heart,” she said, sliding her entwined fingers against his. “My hat knows how to pick the good ones.”

 

Were they getting close to the gazebo? Or would they wind up lost in the park together? Why did the latter notion appeal to her? “I suppose I should tell you something about myself, now that you have bared your soul to me.” The last was said playfully, for she didn't think he had revealed anything that he wouldn't have told anyone else.

 

“I, too, rejoice in the feeling of being delightfully alive. After coming so close to death, I try to live every moment to the fullest. I see no reason to analyze my actions or to dwell on how they are seen by others. I have the morals of a cat and I indulge myself however I wish and whenever it pleases me.” Another laugh. “If you look up 'merry widow' in a dictionary, you'll probably see my portrait.

 

“Unlike most ladies, I have no interest whatsoever in marrying, bearing children, and being a good little wife. I want to gain fame and fortune and rise at court on my own merit, by using my intelligence and wit. I can't sew a straight stitch, sing on key, or paint better than a five-year-old. Some of the things that intrigue me are astronomy, politics, and business.  I have my own telescope and I am looking for somebody to help me invest my money in profitable ventures.”

 

(OOC: Since Charles is leading the way to the gazebo, I'll leave it to you to decide when or if they find it.)

 

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Posted (edited)

"I suppose I shall have to content myself with that, then," Charles murmured, looking sidelong at Anne-Elisabeth. "Just promise not to nibble on it."

He inclined his head in acknowledgement of her words, smiling broadly at her laughter. This was proving to be a pleasant little distraction.

"You are correct. Shame is a stranger to me." His eye twinkled. "And it is good to meet another such. I always feel so sorry for those who feel otherwise, and that pity does put a damper on one's mood."

He said nothing more on the topic of her history, merely nodding his understanding and squeezing her hand back. Help her to heal it might, but such topics were entirely unsuited for this light-hearted conversation, and Charles had no intention of dwelling on it.

Thankfully, it appeared that neither did Anne-Elisabeth. He laughed richly at her remark on her hat.

"Most would say that your hat has a passing strange definition of 'good.' But I will take the compliment, and thank your headpiece most profusely for bringing us together." He stroked a thumb along the back of her hand and laughed again.

"Well, I should be delighted by the revelation of anything you might choose to bare in return," he told her, eye shining with merry wickedness. That was about as subtle as a cavalry charge, but if Anne-Elisabeth was as like him as she claimed (and he believed her), then she should not be offended.

He listened to her recounting of her character, still smiling. She was interesting for more than her merry earthiness, he decided. Astronomy, politics, and business were decidedly unfeminine interests, and that intrigued him.

"Astronomy? Have you met Baron Grey? He is another with such interests. He is planning a stargazing event, I understand." He waggled his eyebrows at her. "But what is it you meant by 'morals of a cat?' I have never kept any pets you see, and am thus woefully ignorant of their ethical character."

He looked about quickly as she answered. They should be nearing the gazebo by his estimations, but he could see no sign. Listening carefully, though, he could pick out the burbling of a stream.

We are close then.

Adjusting course slightly, he smiled down at Anne-Elisabeth.

"Nearly there now."

Edited by Charles Audley

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Anne-Elisabeth sighed melodramatically. “But it looks so tasty. I shall try to restrain myself.” She would have reached out to stroke his dark tresses if she wasn't enjoying the warmth and gentle pressure of his hand upon her own. She didn't want to lose that delightful contact. Maybe when we get to the gazebo, I'll do it,.

 

Lord Chatham's wide smile was charming in a feral sort of way that made her tremble with excitement. “I don't feel sorry for them at all,” she countered, raising her chin arrogantly. “They chose their lives just as we chose ours. The difference is that we find joy in doing as our instincts bid us, while they find satisfaction in denying their baser natures. I think they're missing out on the best parts of life, but if they're happy in their narrow-minded world of rules and restrictions, why should I pity them?

 

“And when they ridicule me for my unconventional ways, then I've done my good deed for the day if insulting me makes them feel better about their miserable little lives. If they don't like me, then who cares?” She grinned wickedly. “Why do I want to spend time with people who have absolutely no taste?”

 

She reached up to pat her hat. “It's a clever and perceptive hat. It knew exactly what both of us needed this afternoon. If it thinks you're good, who am I to protest? And anyway, you're good to me.” And good for me. "Not every gentleman would be willing to drop everything and go off on a harebrained adventure with a lady he hardly knows.”

 

The back of Anne-Elisabeth's hand tingled pleasantly when he stroked it with his thumb. Now she hoped that they did find the gazebo and that it would be in good repair and deserted. “Perhaps one day, we will both bare everything to each other.”

 

He didn't seem the least bit shocked by her revelation; nor did she expect him to be. “I met Lord Grey in Norrington's of all places. He was looking for the men's department but neither of us knew that there wasn't one. He didn't mention a star-gazing event, but that was a few days ago and maybe he hadn't thought of it yet.” She shrugged. “If he doesn't invite me, then I'll crash, but I think he will since we are both fascinated by the nighttime sky.”

 

The Countess, too, could hear the bubbling of water in the distance. She had not known the gazebo was close to a stream. “I don't have pets either. In fact, I'm not fond of cats at all, probably because they have the same principles as I do. Nobody can master a cat. They might make you think that you've tamed them but before you know it, you'll be doing exactly what they want you to do. They have amazing but subtle powers of persuasion and they don't know the meaning of monogamy. Watch a cat in heat and you'll know what I mean.”

 

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"Why indeed?" Charles asked rhetorically, teeth bared in one of his more lupine grins. "There is no helping some people."

He shrugged easily at her compliment, adopting an expression of quizzical innocence.

"I suppose some gentlemen are boring, yes," he agreed in a tone of faux sagacity, lip curling upward. That curl increased, wickedness shining through, as Anne-Elisabeth mooted the prospect of their baring all to each other. Neither of them had much patience for subtlety, it seemed.

"An enticing prospect," he told her silkily, holding her gaze. "I look forward to it." They had to be near the gazebo by now, surely, didn't they? He hoped it was still intact. 

The conversation turned to Anne-Elisabeth's hobbies, and thence to their mutual acquaintance, Lord Grey. Charles's eyebrows shot up into his hair as Anne-Elisabeth explained how and where she had met the baron.

"Does he not have a tailor?" he wondered aloud, and grinned ruefully. "In retrospect, that seems rather obvious," he reflected, and shook his head to clear away such unimportant thoughts.

"I am sure, Hypatia, that the good baron will not neglect to furnish you with an invitation, nor will he mind your presence even should such slip his mind."

His wolfish grin returned in full force as the countess described cats, though really herself. 

"Watch a cat in heat?" he murmured. "I doubt I shall have the opportunity. Perhaps you can explain your meaning further..." He gestured theatrically as they entered a glade, hoping he had calculated correctly.

 

Quote

 

Oriental Gazebo

Tucked away in St. James' Park, away from the oft-traveled avenues and sprawling lawns, is a grove of ancient trees. The quiet burble of a stream draws the curious explorer into a hidden glade to discover a forgotten pavilion. Its ornate construction is evocative of the Far East, and beneath the lichen, colorful paint and peeling gilt reveal that it was once a festive destination. Now, however, flowering vines have overgrown the lattice walls creating a whimsical hideaway. At some point, an especially decadent and generous visitor left an assortment of plush pillows on the bench seating, laid an old Persian rug on the plank floor, and hung a pair of lanterns from the crossbeams. The result is a perfect spot for a lovers' rendezvous or some other covert exchange.

 

 

 

He had been half right, he saw. They were in the right glade, but on the wrong side of the stream. They were here, though, and that was what mattered, surely?

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“That's an understatement,” Anne-Elisabeth laughed. “Some gentleman … and ladies too … are so dull that I can hardly keep my eyes open when they're speaking to me. But not you.” She squeezed his arm again. “Never you. I don't think you could be boring even if you tried.”

 

As for baring all to each other, the Countess' gaze locked with his while the only answer she gave him was a sultry and slightly wicked smile. Oh yes, she would like to see what he looked liked under those colorful clothes. Did he have as much hair on his body as he had on his head?  Would his beard tickle when he kissed her? Was he a good kisser or one of those gentlemen who kissed like a dead fish Not that she had ever actually kissed a dead fish, but that had always been the comparison that came to mind when a man's lips felt soft and clammy. Her eyes fell to his lips and lingered there briefly. No, he had firm and well-formed lips, and she imagined that his tongue could do the most delightful things …

 

For some reason, she felt a bit defensive of her fellow astronomer, but she couldn't deny the truth of Lord Chatham's words and couldn't fault him for stating the obvious. Lord Grey's wardrobe was woefully out of fashion. “Maybe you can recommend yours if he hasn't found one already.” Her eyes lazily roamed down the length of his body and then up again. “Yours is quite brilliant. I think most courtiers need new clothes when they first come to court. I had new gowns made while I lived in Cornwall during my year of mourning. The fashion in Barbados is about five years behind London, I think.”

 

Anne-Elisabeth grinned when he called her Hypatia. She had always admired the Greek philosopher and astronomer and considered her one of her most important role models. If a woman could achieve scientific greatness in ancient times, why could not one do so now?  And why could it not be her?  “I hope you're right. But if I show up and he's angry about it, I'll just tell him that you brought me along as your date.”

 

He had never seen a cat in heat? Didn't felines roam the streets of London like they did in Barbados? Or did the poor of the city keep the rat population in check by cooking them for supper? Maybe Lord Chatham was just trying to tease a more explicit reaction from her. “I think you would understand it better if I ...”

 

Before she could say 'show you' to finish her center, they arrived at the gazebo. Sort of. There was a bubbling stream between them and the charming structure. Were those pillows she saw on the benches? It looked as if it was made for romantic trysts. Anne-Elisabeth grinned up at her companion. “Well you did know the way, just not the direct route. Delilah can get us both across the stream if you don't mind riding with me.”

 

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"I am not so sure of that," Charles laughed, heat coiling in his voice as Anne-Elisabeth squeezed his arm. "You have not heard me pontificate, my lady. I am perfectly capable of droning on at length, and if you think otherwise it can only be because you yourself are such a stimulating conversational partner."

That smile was a sweet thing, a promise that this aimless banter now had an aim. Charles answered it in kind, his lips curving lazily. He considered kissing her, but decided that he could wait until they reached the gazebo. Anticipation thrummed through him, and he trailed his fingertips over the back of her hand.

It was difficult to resist the urge to preen under Anne-Elisabeth's gaze as she admired his tailoring (ostensibly). He managed it, somehow, but did allow himself to return the favour, running his eye over her form. She was slender, which was a pleasant contrast, and her sun-kissed skin was pleasingly distinctive, but it was her eyes he found most alluring, with that wonderful golden brown colour. He imagined what they would look like darkened and half-lidded in pleasure, and smiled that slow, hungry smile again.

"I shall pass your compliments along. My tailor will be delighted. But do not speak of fashion. It is merely a form of ugliness so intolerable that we must change it every few months. Style is eternal, and thus style is what matters."

He laughed.

"In the unlikely event that it is required, I will extend whatever protection I am able," he promised.

Things were going swimmingly when they arrived at the gazebo, though unfortunately on the wrong side. Charles could not help it. He threw back his head and roared with laughter at his navigational error.

"In my defence, it has been some years since I was last here," he said once he had recovered. He eyed the stream. 

"I had thought I might carry you across, but yours is an eminently more sensible suggestion. Let us mount," he agreed.

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“I can't imagine finding anything you say less than fascinating. But if you do drone on about something I have no interest in, I know how to stop you.” Her gaze lingered upon his lips again and she sensuously licked her own. “And thank you for the compliment. I like to think that my conversation is not the only stimulating thing about me.”

 

Since when had their innocent banter dissolved into innuendo? Anne-Elisabeth was enjoying the witty camaraderie between them. Though they were barely acquainted, they seem to understand each other on a deeper, primal level. And his touch … As his fingers fluttered upon the back of her hand, a sweet ache blossomed between her thighs and her entire body felt blissfully alive.

 

Those sensations intensified when he turned the tables on her and let that beautiful blue eye of his wander over her small form. She, too, fought the urge not to preen, but she unconsciously stood up a bit straighter, her bosom thrusting pertly upwards. Though confident about most things, she was a bit insecure about her body. Not only was she unfashionably thin, but she had a long scar running down the length of her right leg. Quite a few gentlemen had seen it, and not a single one had called attention to it so far. Why should they, when she gave them so much pleasure? Still, she sometimes worried that somebody would be appalled by it.

 

“That's an interesting theory on fashion,” she chuckled. “I've often wondered if a person with style would be copied even if he or she wore a flour sack or a barrel. Style can't be learned. You're either born with it or you're not.”

 

As for Lord Grey and his stargazing event, Anne-Elisabeth was pleased that the Earl would vouch for her if she had to crash. “We could always go together,” she suggested with a saucy grin. “That would solve everything.”

 

The Countess found his solution for crossing the stream appealing, but hers was more practical. “It might be difficult to do while I'm leading a horse, but once I've tied her to a tree, you can carry me into the gazebo.” Letting go of his arm, she gazed up at Delilah's saddle. “Perhaps you could mount first, and I can sit on your lap?”

 

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Be patient, Charles chided himself, his eye drawn to Anne-Elisabeth's upthrust bosom. She was not buxom, but her breasts were pleasingly perky, and Charles found himself eager to examine them more closely. They could not reach the gazebo soon enough. He returned his gaze to her eyes before he began staring and smiled, doing his best not to look like a demented satyr.

"Hmm. An interesting question. As you say, style is an inherent quality, and so I would say that no, they would not be copied. But, should they have sufficient style, nor would they be mocked, I think." He laughed. "The trick, of course, is having sufficient style."

He answered Anne-Elisabeth's saucy grin with one of his own.

"So it would," he agreed, "though I fear I might find myself admiring terrestrial rather than celestial beauty. But I am sure the baron would understand." He waggled his eyebrows.

He frowned internally at her suggestion. Charles did not trust horses, for in his experience they were among the most stupid creatures in existence, but it was a very short distance, and he would be lying if he claimed not to be looking forward to having Anne-Elisabeth pressed close to him. On the other hand, of course, the horse was unfamiliar with him and would be bearing a much greater weight than was usual. The stirrups would be at the wrong height for him, as well.

Bah. I'm getting old if I'm even thinking about this. What is life without a little risk?

"If that suits you," he agreed, nodding. He reached out and ran a soothing hand along the mare's neck, hoping to accustom her to him, and then swung himself into the saddle.

Throw me and I'll see that your mistress has you made into glue.

 

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“You are probably right,” she agreed. “And we'll never know unless someone tries it.” Anne-Elisabeth doubted anybody would unless she herself became famous for her style. She would think it amusing to wear a flour sack to a party or a barrel to a ball.

 

“Whether we arrive together or separately, I think that will be a temptation for both of us.” Allowing her eyes to roam over him again, she grinned. “We shall have to endeavor to keep our eyes on the sky or Lord Grey will wonder why we came at all.” She shrugged nonchalantly and added: “though coming brings a delight of its own.”

 

Lord Chatham agreed with her suggestion on how to get across the stream. It really was the best solution. She hoped that Delilah would behave. The young Countess watched as he stroked the horse's neck, imagining him stroking her instead. Delilah seemed to enjoy his touch and stood still as he mounted. Anne-Elisabeth followed, settling herself in front of Charles and wiggling her arse a bit just to tease him.

 

She kept hold of the reins as she coaxed Delilah into the water. The mare tossed her head, but obeyed. When they were halfway across, she suddenly snorted and reared up on her hind legs. Anne-Elisabeth felt herself hurtling through the air, a sharp cry escaping her lips. She landed flat on her back in the stream, which was freezing cold to a lady who had grown up in the tropics. Lord Chatham! she thought as she sat up. Is he okay?

 

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Inevitably, the horse threw them. Charles grabbed for the saddle pommel and missed, his fingertips scraping off the leather as the horse reared. Sailing backwards through the air, he had just enough time to reflect that he had, in fact, seen this coming and still managed to fall victim to it before he crashed down into the stream.

Bollocks.

The sudden immersion did as much as the impact to drive the air from his lungs. He gasped instinctively and then choked, having swallowed what felt like half the Thames. Hacking and coughing, he sat up convulsively, fighting for breath. There was a deep, throbbing ache around his left kidney, where he had landed on his snuff box, Charles realised. He probed the area gently with his fingers and hissed in discomfort.

He managed to get his feet under him at the second time of asking and rose, glaring at the horse.

Glue, I promise you. Glue.

"Are you alright Hypatia?" he asked, offering Anne-Elisabeth a hand to her feet and hiding a wince as the motion aggravated the pain in his side.

 

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Although Anne-Elisabeth's fall did submerge her underwater, she didn't swallow any of it. When you swim regularly in the ocean, you learn to hold your breath whenever you see a sudden wave coming your way. Eventually, it becomes instinct. And so, when she sat up, she exhaled as she looked around for Lord Chatham, who had, unfortunately, not fared so well.

 

She flinched when she heard him coughing. The way he hissed when he examined his side meant that he was probably injured as well. The Countess believed she was unharmed, though her entire body screamed in agony. This must be how it feels to be mowed down by a carriage, she thought.

 

He stood before she did. If she had not been so concerned about him, Anne-Elisabeth would have laughed at the way he glared at Delilah. The horse was on the gazebo side of the stream now, gazing placidly at them. A hand entered her field of vision and she gratefully took it, rising to her feet a bit awkwardly. “I think I should be asking that question,” she replied, glancing at his side. “Are you hurt?”

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Charles waved aside Anne-Elisabeth's concern, smiling thinly.

"Merely bruised, I think. Well, bruised and soaked." He laughed.

It was painful, in truth, but there was nothing to be done about that, and thus no point in admitting to it. If the pain persisted, or he found himself pissing blood, then he would seek out a physician, but for now he was content to ignore his discomfort.

"Shall we join our assailant?" he asked, gesturing at the pile of soon-to-be leather and glue on the far side of the stream. "It would be a great shame to quite literally fall at the last hurdle before our destination."

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“Then we're both in the same boat,” Anne-Elisabeth said, and then laughed and added: “Or at least the same spring.” She was soaked to the skin, her sleeves and skirt plastered to her legs. And oh, was it cold. As soon as she was certain that Lord Chatham wasn't injured she began to feel the chill seeping into her bones.

 

“Y-y-yes,” the Countess agreed, her teeth chattering. “I-if we don't get o-out of the w-w-water soon, I th-think I will literally f-f-freeze to death.” He would probably feel her shivering as she took his hand and led him across the remainder of the stream. Delilah was still watching them as they stepped onto the grass, dripping water all over it.

 

Anne-Elisabeth could now see the gazebo clearly. It was quite lovely, even if the paint was peeling. She glared at her horse as she passed by. What had gotten into her? Perhaps a fish had brushed against her legs and spooked her. “W-we should get out of th-these wet cl-clothes and l-let the sun dry them a b-b-bit.”

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It would not have been so bad, Charles reflected, if not for the wind. He could have dealt with sodden clothes. The stiff breeze against wet cloth, though, sent a deep chill through him. The cold was almost painful, and he could feel stiffness setting into his joints. Getting old, he thought, must feel like this.

On the bright side, the heat from my aching back offsets it somewhat.

Anne-Elisabeth seemed to be suffering even more than he was, judging from her chattering teeth. No real surprise there, he supposed. She was from the Carib, which never came close to being so cold, and she was a slender little thing besides. It was no great mystery that she might find the cool spring air utterly frigid after their dunking. Charles reached into his justacorps and came out with his flask. He offered it to her smilingly.

"Brandy? It might help."

He took a swallow himself, savouring the burn.

Her suggestion that they strip off their clothes to let them dry was eminently sensible. Besides, he would lying if he claimed that the thought of her unclad was not warming in and of itself.

"A practical suggestion," he agreed. "Here, let me get your laces."

He stepped in close behind her to do just that.

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Anne-Elisabeth didn't notice the wind until they stepped inside the gazebo. The structure offered some protection, though the breeze still whispered through the lattices. However, the lessening of the wind did nothing to warm her up. She was still freezing cold and felt as if she were a statue made of ice. Or she might have been if she was not shivering so much. If ice statues shivered, they would shatter into little shards.

 

Lord Chatham's smile dispelled the chill a little and she gratefully took his flask when he offered it to her. “T-t-thank you, my l-lord.” Lifting it to her blue lips, she took a long gulp, sighing as the sweet liquid slid down her throat, leaving behind a trail of much needed warmth.

 

Large puddles were forming under their feet.  She stepped closer to one wall, peeling off her riding jacket and tossing it so that it landed on a dry part of the floor. “Let's undress here, away from the pillows.  We don't want to get them wet.” At least the brandy had stopped her teeth from chattering.

 

“Yes, please,” she agreed when he offered to undo the lacing on the back of her gown. He moved behind her and she could feel the delectable heat of his body so near her own “I hope you will let me help you remove your clothes as well. It's going to be difficult with them stuck to your skin.”

 

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His fingers were numb and clumsy with the cold, and Charles flexed them and rubbed his hands together to restore the blood flow before setting about Anne-Elisabeth's laces. There was little worse than clumsy, freezing hands, in his opinion, and it would be most unbecoming to inflict such on a lady.

And I do so worry over what is and is not becoming...

"I make it a policy never to refuse a beautiful woman who wants to strip me," he told her, laughing. His fingers were warmed enough to be nearly dexterous again, he judged, and so set them to work. He might ordinarily have lingered over the task in the name of slow sensuality, but there was a practical need for haste here, and so he worked quickly and efficiently.

"There," he murmured in satisfaction, even as his hands hesitated a moment.

Oh, hang the practicalities.

He should have stepped back, or set to work on the laces of her corset, but he tarried, his arms sliding out to gird her waist. He dipped his head, lips almost brushing her ear.

"Corset next?" he asked, purely to prolong the moment, and dragged his fingers back over her hips to resume his work on her undergarments.

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