The Lady & the Panther
~Chapter 15~A Chequered Past~
(Rated R for sexual content)
In our last chapter, we saw Guy and Lizzie as they made their preparations for the grand night. During the masquerade ball, the two enjoyed a very passionate rendezvous in the library. Unfortunately, it seems an annoying man in a chequered mask is dead set on capturing Lizzie’s attention. . . Thank you, Lady Anne, for serving as my beta on this chapter. Much appreciated! All rights reserved. Thanks for reading; comments always welcome.
“It appears we shall be ending our evening together earlier than I had hoped,” I grumbled under my breath as I grabbed my cast-off clothing.
“This fellow does not sound like your Horace.”
I heard a faint unladylike snort. “‘My’ Horace would not tear himself from the gaming tables long enough to bother to look for me,” Lizzie pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead as she whispered. “It must be the man in the chequered mask.”
The deep, affected drawl sounded again, the words slightly slurred.
“Dear Lady Montro-ssshe? Are you there? I shtill have not had the pleasure of that dance with you . . .” We could hear the doorknob rattling.
“This door appears to be—stuck.” Another rattle.
“He sounds as if he’s had too much wine punch. I suppose there is no hope he will simply give up and go away . . .” Lizzie murmured beneath her breath as she retrieved her petticoat and panniers.
“Who the devil is he, anyway?!” I muttered, attending to the fall flap of my breeches. I was still aroused enough to make it a difficult task for me, after sharing only a morceau of instruction with my lovely Lizzie.
“Truly, Guy, I do not know. He was--hovering over me just before you and I met in the ballroom,” Lizzie whispered as she struggled to re-lace her stomacher into place.
“He seems to know me far better than I know him.” Lizzie’s brow furrowed.
“Although—there is something about him that reminds me of—well, someone. But, truly--I could not tell you who that is.” She gave a sigh of exasperation. “Oh, bother these!”
I reached for her laces, having considerable experience in both dressing and undressing ladies with little time to spare.
“Here. Allow me to help. So—this deuced fellow at the door is not a long-lost paramour vying for your attentions?”
“You know perfectly well I haven’t any ‘paramour’ except you. No-one but you.”
I looked up from the laces and saw the faintest glimmer of tears in her eyes even as Lizzie thrust out that determined chin of hers.
“Why does he have to spoil our lovely reunion? I have—missed you so very much,” she whispered.
I leaned down and pressed my lips to her soft, kiss-swollen mouth, giving a little groan as my fingers moved from her face to graze the tops of her beautiful white breasts.
“No more than I have you, dearest Lizzie.”
“Oh--Lady Monnn--trose . . .” Another rattle of the door.
Damn and blast that chequered domino. I was of half a mind to march to the door, aim my flintlock square between his eyes and fire. However, such behavior would hardly befit a highwayman whose clever mind had helped to keep me alive and well long after many of my kind were swinging on Tyburn Hill.
With a regretful sigh, I shook my head. “We did not summon this idiot, but here he is, all the same.” I finished lacing her stomacher back into place, straightened her petticoats and skirt and then reached for my mask and domino.
“T’would be best if I make my exit shortly via the window, I think. Give the door knob a sharp twist to the left and a small turn to the right and it will open for you. Have you a story you can tell our troublesome friend?”
Lizzie nodded as she smoothed her disarrayed curls. “I could say I was feeling unwell—too much dancing, perhaps? I came in here to rest and--I fell asleep. I have no idea how that lock became stuck . . .”
She shrugged her pretty shoulders as she looked at me with wide and earnest eyes, her expression completely without guile.
I laughed softly and stroked her cheek with the pad of my thumb.
“You are a woman after my own heart, Lizzie. Shamelessly capable of duplicity when it is required.”
Handing Lizzie her domino and mask, I gave her another longing kiss and whispered in her ear: “I must bid you adieu. Await a message from me, Mon Ange. Tomorrow . . .”
Guy wrapped himself in his domino and slipped his feline mask back into place. After a bow, he moved to the window and out into the night, closing it behind him, swift, silent and quite elegant in all his movements.
My great black cat, gone yet again.
I sighed. ~Tomorrow~
So I would hear from him soon. I could and would take comfort in that.
I rose to my feet, fastened my domino at my throat and slipped the mask back into place. It was time to deal with my determined admirer.
“Pardon me, I—I am coming to the door.” I called out whilst making very little haste to do so.
“Ah, so you ARE in there, dear Lady Montro--ssse.” He sounded entirely too pleased with himself.
I gave a rather Guy-like sniff. Lifting my baout into place, I proceeded to the double doors of the library.
“Almossht--the midnight hour, milady,” the Chequered Domino called out.
I opened the door quickly heeding Guy’s directions. I confess I was delighted when the man, clearly having had his ear pressed to it, stumbled into the library. When he landed inelegantly on his knees, swaying to and fro, I had to stifle a laugh.
~Definitely the worse for wear from drink~
“Oh, dear, pardon me . . .” I murmured, my mask hiding the smirk on my face.
“Oh, no, dear lady—erhm--no need to apologise,” he assured me, rising a little unsteadily to his feet and clasping my hand in his. He glanced around him. “That’s odd—I thought I heard another voice in here.”
“Oh, there is no-one else here, sir.” I waved my arm in the direction of the ballroom.
“With such a hubbub from the great throng of people, and, if I may say so, a little too much wine—it would be easy enough for a gentleman’s mind to take such fancies.”
He gave me a slightly wobbly bow. “Ah, I am--certain that issh the answer, dear Lady Montrose.”
There was a sudden chorus of voices just as the library’s clock began to strike. Midnight had arrived.
“Time to unmask,” he said with undisguised glee, leaning in towards me, the scent of wine and tobacco clinging to him.
“You first,” I said playfully, evading his twitching fingers as I reached up to pluck free his mask and push back the cowl of his domino.
I was both disappointed and vexed to see a face I did not immediately recognise.
Beneath his powdered and elaborately curled peruke was a countenance clearly reddened by sun and wind, with those fair-lashed, pale blue eyes I had already glimpsed.
My mysterious admirer had a hawkish nose above a dissolute yet good-humoured mouth, with an incipient double chin tucked below it. Not unattractive, if one liked rather dissipated gentlemen of a certain age beginning to run to fat.
An oddly familiar face. But where had I seen him?
And then it came to me as I lowered the mask on my own face.
~ Of course. It cannot be. But it is~
He saw the recognition dawning in my eyes and laughed aloud, slapping his thigh.
“I look rather well—all things considered--do I not?”
Baring his large, yellowed teeth, he leered at me in a most amiable manner.
“And may I say you are a far lovelier creature than that rotter Horace ever deserved.”
My mouth curled into a smile as I slipped my arm around his. “Thank you, kind sir, and you do look very well, indeed. I am quite--astonished. Does my husband know of your presence here this evening?”
“No, indeed not, milady.” He squeezed my arm. “Thought I would-- surprise him. P’rhaps--”
He paused to fetch his snuff box—an ivory and gold creation Horace would have envied--from his pocket and inhaled a generous pinch in each nostril before continuing.
“Ah, yes. P’rhaps—not this evening. Just wanted to enjoy myself a bit first, eh? Wait until another day or two to s’prise him?”
“A very wise decision, I am sure . . . but you simply must tell me how you knew it was I under this domino—and of all your adventures . . .” I led him back into the ballroom and kept him deep in conversation—and well away from Horace and the gaming tables. Surely, what my husband did not know would not harm him?
At least, not yet.
I climbed the stairs to my bedchamber, candle held aloft in the dim light of those early morning hours.
A footman on either side of him, Horace walked—or should I say, he was carried—up the steps in front of me. I wasn’t sure if it was the rough surface of the streets or Horace’s monstrous snores that had rattled the conveyance so soundly on our way home.
What is that saying? Drunk as a lord? Never more true than in my husband’s case.
“Put his lordship to bed,” I said as I turned towards my own bedchamber, then paused. “And make sure no candles are left burning in his chamber. We do not want him to accidentally set his bed curtains on fire again.”
~Then again, perhaps I do. But--no. He needs to stay alive to experience all the surprises life has in store for him~
Smiling to myself, I stepped inside my room, leaning back against the door with a long sigh after I closed it.
I felt at once exhausted and elated. The thought of bed was very inviting, even if I was not certain I would be able to fall asleep for hours.
~Even if I do not have a certain beautiful dark angel with whom to share that bed~
Using my candle to guide me, I lit others in the chamber and soon dispelled the gloom. Unfastening my domino, I cast it aside on my chair in front of the hearth, where a few glowing embers remained to take a bit of the early morning chill from the chamber.
Turning, I spied a familiar small figure curled up on my chaise longue, sleeping quite soundly.
I almost hated to wake her. But if I did not, I might never get out of all my dratted apparel and my stays were practically shrieking at me.
Not to mention the fact my ever-inquisitive maid would not forgive me if she was not the first to hear the details of the evening.
Sitting down beside Amelia, I reached over to gently shake her shoulder. “Amelia . . . I am home at last, Amelia.”
With a start, she sat up, blinking hard and then rubbing her eyes.
“Beg pardon, milady. I did not mean to fall asleep,” Amelia said, a crestfallen look on her face, trying to stifle a yawn with one hand as she smoothed her disarrayed dark curls with the other.
“No need to apologise, Amelia. Did you enjoy your evening with Grey?” I asked as I stripped off my gloves, recalling--with no small amount of pleasure--Guy’s wolfish grin, the flash of his gleaming white teeth as he tugged my gloves from my hands with them . . .
“Oh, uhmm, oh yes—very nice, milady.” Reaching for the clasp of my necklace, Amelia’s eyes did not quite meet mine as a flush stained her thin cheeks.
“Amelia. You’re blushing.”
After moving away to place the necklace in its casque, she walked back to me with the opened casque, her face now almost composed. “I find it just a bit warm in here. Yer earrings, milady?”
“I see. Yes, it is a little warm,” I replied as I removed my earrings and placed them in the casque. I would not tease her anymore—at least, not about her blossoming romance.
I tilted my head as she began to unlace my stomacher, smiling to myself as I once again thought of Guy’s hands at work on my wardrobe, both dressing and undressing me.
“Are you not curious as to how my evening went, Amelia?”
Her eyes met mine, the impassiveness fading away as she gave a small wistful sigh, the sigh of a woman keeping far too much in. “I did not want to pry too much.” Amelia mouth curled upwards as she tilted her head.
“But you have an awfully happy smile on your face, milady. I reckon it went well.”
I laughed and nodded. “I reckon you are correct. And the sooner we remove all my finery and frippery, the sooner I shall tell you my tales . . .”
Amelia’s mouth stretched into a broad smile, merriment and avid curiosity dancing in those fine grey eyes of hers.
“Yes, indeed, milady!”
The fog was thick, enveloping me, blinding me. And then it suddenly broke, the skies clearing above me and the pale silver-gold disk appearing.
And there in the moonlight, I saw her. I saw my green-eyed goddess, rising from the waters of the lake. The diaphanous shift she wore was clinging to her lovely body like a second skin, hair in serpentine coils.
Those haunting emerald eyes glittered beneath winged dark brows, that ripe mouth curved into an enigmatic smile. Her soft white hand was beckoning to me.
She never spoke a word, not even as I went to her, the dark, murky waters knee-high, then waist-high, then threatening to close over me and pull me under, just before my hands found her. My hands and my mouth and my sex. I was drunk with desire for her, and she for me, and I did not want it to end . . .
I jolted awake, completely dry, thank fortune. Unfortunately, I also found myself quite alone in the narrow bed in my cramped and untidy London bolt-hole.
Running my hands through my hair, I heaved a great, groaning sigh. I wanted my Lizzie, the scent of her in my nostrils, my fingers entwined in her hair, the taste of her on my lips, her soft, ripe sweet body pressed to mine.
I wanted to talk with her, laugh with her, hold her close and never have to let her go.
Being so much in love and lust is most vexing at times.
Frustrated, my hand stole beneath the bed Iinens to allay my carnal hungers.
“I will have her in my arms again, and soon. In a proper bed, and not merely for a stolen hour or two,” I growled, my breath quickening as I kicked the sheets from my naked body, my fingers curling around my hardening shaft.
As I grew closer to that much-needed climax, I threw my head back, closing my eyes and smiling as I imagined my angel, naked and beautiful, sweet cries of ecstasy from those kiss-swollen lips as she rode me . . .
Panting, I came with a low guttural cry.
~Oh, yes. I will have you, Lizzie. And soon~
As I stretched my long limbs and rose to wash myself and fetch breakfast, my lips twisted into a lop-sided smile. “And I promise there will not be a single, bloody, interfering fool of a domino in sight.”
I smiled into the looking-glass over my dressing table. I do not considerable myself a particularly vain woman, but I was pleased with what I saw that morning. In spite of only a few restless hours of sleep, there was a brightness in my eyes and colour in my cheeks; a sort of glow about me.
Sighing, I closed my eyes and traced my lips—surely fuller and rosier than before?—with the tip of my tongue, and imagined Guy’s tongue and Guy’s hands pleasuring me.
A knock sounded on the door of my bedchamber. “Milady. A message has been delivered for you. From your dressmaker on Jasper Street.”
Ah, Amelia was speaking in our little code. I clasped my hands together to keep them from trembling.
What an effect simply contemplating my highwayman had on me . . .
“Come in, Amelia.”
She bobbed a demure curtsey, those grey eyes gleaming with curiosity. Closing the door behind her, Amelia’s lips were pressed tightly together as if she was fighting to restrain herself.
I raised my brows and crooked my finger. “Amelia . . .”
She broke into the sort of dazzling smile that made one think twice about considering her plain, and hurried to me. A sealed letter was in her outstretched hand.
I broke through the dark blue sealing wax and unfolded the paper.
Seeing you again last night brought me such joy, yet we had to part much too soon.
I still have stories to share and lessons to teach, and gifts to bestow upon you. I believe that you shall enjoy them all.
Let your household know that you and your faithful Amelia are going shopping tomorrow and plan to be out until well into the afternoon.
I have arranged for a hired hackney to come for you, in case his lordship needs the services of your own vehicle. The driver can be trusted to be discrete.
Visit the shops briefly, make a few purchases, and then come to the address listed below. I shall give details of other arrangements after you have arrived.
It has been arranged the hackney will come for you at ten o’clock in the morning. My name for the day, by the way, is M. Brouchard, and M. Brouchard is very much looking forward to seeing Lady Halestone and Miss Garner of the handsome grey eyes.
I must add you should come with a hearty appetite, dear Lizzie, for we shall dine together and I want you to fully savour the experience.
I remain ever your constant servant (and devoted great cat),
I read the note aloud to Amelia. Her eyes were huge, mouth gaping slightly, hanging on to my every word.
“It would seem, Amelia, we are to have an adventure on the morrow—and our own secret identities.”
She gave a rapturous sigh as she clasped her hands together.
“Oh, my lady---this is so exciting! We must choose something absolutely lovely for yew to wear. P’rhaps the ivory silk with the rose pattern and the French lace cap? With—yer most elegant stays beneath, o’ course, with the prettiest ribbons and yer newest chemise . . .”
I tried to stifle a laugh as her enthused words tumbled forth.
My mirth earned me a look of consternation from Amelia as she placed her hands decidedly on her hips.
“My lady, we want every bit of yer costume to be perfect for the Panther, don’t we? I mean—he is going to see—everything, isn’t he?”
I placed my hand on Amelia’s narrow shoulder and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “I most certainly hope so, my dear Amelia. I most certainly do.”
Eyeing her serviceable and singularly unexciting grey maid’s dress, I knit my brow in thought.
“What is it, my lady?”
I tapped my chin with my finger and gave her a conspiratorial smile.
“I think we might be able to arrange something a bit more—interesting for you as well, Amelia. As I said, tomorrow shall be an adventure . . . and we must be ready.”
The morning after the masquerade ball, I made my plans.
I wanted one very memorable day together with my sweet Lizzie. And, if plans fell into place, perhaps many, many more days.
Love, it seems, will lead even a man such as I to contemplate the most extraordinary things . . .
And there were several favours owed to me by certain members of the bon ton. I decided it was time some of them should be repaid.
My Lizzie deserved it.
I have always had a playfulness to my nature, which, shall we say, had been rather dampened by my years as Horace’s wife.
My attachment to the Panther, however, had unleashed that quality, amongst other qualities, in me once more. I was happy for the first time in a long while. I found myself wanting others I loved to be happy, too, if I could manage it.
“Good morning, Amelia,” I said as she bustled in with the breakfast tray (Tea and toast only, as I was heeding Guy’s words). “Would you take a look at the items laid out on the chaise longue?”
“Yes, milady.” She walked over to examine the costume. I saw her biting her lip, her brow creasing at little as she stretched out her hand to finger the material.
“Have you changed yer mind, my lady? Oh, it’s a lovely frock but—not as good a colour for you as the other--”
“Hmmmm. Perhaps you have a point. Hold the bodice up to you,” I said, taking a bite out of my toast, squinting my eyes as I scrutinised the garment.
“Too true about the colour,” I said with a sigh and shook my head.
“That particular shade of cardinal red is not my best.”
I smiled and wagged my toast at her.
“But--it certainly suits you very nicely, Amelia. It is a perfect complement to those fine grey eyes and dark curls.”
Her eyes widened at my words. “You mean this is meant--for me, milady?”
I nodded as I chewed my toast.
“To wear to-day on our adventure, milady?”
I took a sip of my tea. “Yes, exactly so. I know we talked yesterday about you wearing your dark blue dress with my neckline scarf and carnelian pin. But I decided I wanted something a little more special for you.”
I took another sip of my tea, smiling over the brim of the china cup as I saw her stroking the soft fabric, fingering the simple narrow white braid that trimmed the bodice, a look of wonderment in her eyes.
“Of course, Amelia, that old gown of mine would have been too large for you. So--I borrowed the kitchen maid, Betty, to take measurements. She’s very close to your height and size.”
Amelia lifted the open-robe overskirt and the flower-sprigged cream petticoat that went under it, and held them against her at her waist. “It looks as if it is just right, milady. But—who did the work? And when?”
I smiled and held up my hand.
“Believe it or not, my girl, I was the seamstress. I found myself quite restless yesterday evening and I thought I would put my time to good use. I did rather a lot of sewing when I was a girl—we were always letting hems out and taking them up and making garments over in our sizeable household.”
I took another sip of my tea and gave a rather satisfied little sigh.
“I was pleased with how it turned out. Do you know, I found it pleasant indeed to use a needle and thread for something other than the decorative arts. One can stitch only so many samplers and needlepoint cushions without going cross-eyed.”
I gestured to my maid. “Go ahead—try it on, Amelia. Use my dressing room.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you, milady.” Wearing a smile like sunshine, Amelia took the garments and disappeared.
A few minutes later, she returned, walking in an almost stately manner, hands loosely clasped in front of her, her back very straight.
I was right. The cardinal colour was a perfect foil for her hair and eyes and brought a welcome flush to her thin cheeks. And she even seemed taller, somehow.
“You look lovely, Amelia. Truly,” I said, and meant it.
“Oh—milady. I know I am not a lady and never will be—but I do feel very—well, almost grand.” She blinked hard, an anxious expression suddenly crossing her face.
“What is the matter, Amelia?”
She chewed her lip, hesitating for a moment, grasping her hands tightly together.
“Oh, milady. Are yew sure I—I don’t look as if I’m trying to be above my station—giving myself airs and graces?”
“Oh, not at all, Amelia. Many a lady’s maid is given the cast-off gowns of their mistress. I cannot say why I have not thought of it before . . .”
She walked over to the pier-glass and studied her reflection, her lips curving into another bright smile, one that she turned and directed at me.
“Well, then, if you are certain, milady--I shall wear it with ever so much gratitude and many thanks.” Amelia ducked her head, speaking with a shyness I rarely saw in my little maid.
“I know I am not the sort of girl most ladies would have for their personal maid. Not tall enough or handsome enough or, or--refined enough or, or—French enough--”
I raised a warning hand and spoke with mock reproach. “Amelia. Not another word. If I had wanted tall, handsome and French in my lady’s maid that is what I would have. Remember, I chose you to come with me when I married and to be my maid.”
I thrust out my chin as I folded my arms across my chest in my best imperious manner.
“Are you suggesting my judgment and wisdom are impaired?”
“Oh, no, I—no, milady.” She gave me a half-smile and bobbed a curtsey. “I suppose you know what is best.”
“I suppose I do. You suit me very well indeed, Amelia.”
I raised my tray from my lap and smiled.
“And now, if you will kindly take away this breakfast tray, I think we must start preparing for our ‘shopping expedition.’”
“Yes, milady. Right away!”
Amelia and I descended upon the Strand and Fleet Street in the hired hackney for our shopping.
In my eagerness to hear from Guy, I admit I took little pleasure in touring the shops and warehouses when we first arrived for the Season. But one could not fault London’s merchants for my lack of interest.
The bustling city and its craftsmen and shopkeepers offered all manner of luxuries and necessities, homely and exotic, amusing and amazing amidst all its dust and clamor.
There was a constant feast for the eyes, with the new style of long panes of glass set into the shops’ bow front windows allowing us to glimpse the treasures within.
Hundreds, no--thousands of candles glowed to further illuminate the multitude of offerings: gleaming silverware and pocket watches, calf-bound books, clocks large and small, delicate china, sumptuous silks and brocades, elegant glass bottles of scent, reticules and snuff boxes, jeweled shoe buckles, the latest mode in periwigs, all manner of trinkets, baubles and bibelots and so much more.
There was a wonderful Italian warehouse “that makes your stomach roar and your mouth water just to walk in,” as Amelia said, with Italian wines and Florence cordials, olives and olive oil, Parmesan cheeses, sausages from Bologna; you could even pick up some gorgeous silks and fans and a few strings for your violin or lute while you were at it.
Guy had instructed us to make several purchases, and I found myself in the mood to honour his wishes.
I purchased a lovely new fan with a pastoral scene and at the glover’s, I chose several pairs, all crafted of the finest, most buttery soft leather that moulded beautifully to my hands.
I pictured myself using the fan to flirt with my beautiful highwayman. As I wiggled my kidskin-clad fingers, I found myself imagining Guy tugging them off with those teeth. The colour of the length of azure silk I purchased from the Italian warehouse reminded me of his beautiful blue eyes. It seemed I could not escape thoughts of my dashing highwayman even if I had desired it so.
“I think I shall buy Guy a gift. He said in his message he has ‘gifts to bestow’ on me—and I would like to have something for him in return,” I said as Amelia and I strolled along the busy streets.
“I think that is a grand idea. Those snuff boxes are awfully nice, milady,” Amelia said, pointing out a display of artful containers, crafted in everything from ormolu, mother-of-pearl and enamel to ivory, silver and gold, some set with precious gems that sparkled in the candlelight.
A smile tugged at the corner of my mouth as I gave Amelia a sidelong glance. “True. Of course, he already has the snuff box he purloined from his lordship--along with Horace’s pocket watch. Let us see what else we can find.”
I walked a little further down where another display caught my eye.
“What do you think of these, Amelia? Toppers for gentlemen’s walking sticks.”
Amelia peered in the window and tapped the glass. “Ooh, milady. That one in the back—the black one. It’s carved like a cat’s head.”
“So it is.” I studied it and gave a nod of approval to Amelia. “Very handsome . . . and appropriate for the gentleman in question. Shall we inquire within to get a closer look?”
The beautifully carved ebony walking stick topper was soon in my possession. In another shop, I found a gentleman’s robe made of heavy deep blue silk, its sash embroidered in a robin’s-egg hue.
“Ooh, my lady. Very luxurious indeed,” Amelia said as she fingered the fabric. “The sort o’ thing a man could wear whilst enjoying a glass o’ wine by the fire at night, isn’t it?”
“Hmmmm. Yes, indeed, Amelia.”
I thought of how the fabric would look and feel against the Panther’s fair well-muscled flesh. The silk was as soft as his jetty locks, and the colour—ah, you could not go wrong with blue for my beautiful highwayman.
There was, of course, always the possibility the gifts Guy had mentioned would be more along the lines of my highwayman’s specialty in private lessons, to which I would have absolutely no objection.
Still, it would be lovely to have gifts for my highwayman; to see the look of surprise and pleasure in his beautiful eyes. There were so many ways in which I wanted to please him.
As a shop assistant wrapped Guy’s robe in paper and twine, I glanced at a clock on a shelf behind him and expelled a breath.
“Amelia, I believe it is time we continued our adventure.”
She smiled up at me as she took the parcel and tucked it beneath her arm. “To the hackney, milady?”
In betwixt pacing the Persian carpet, I found I kept looking out the window as I awaited their arrival at the Mayfair townhouse that morning. I knew it was too early, of course, yet I could not resist taking out my pocket watch to check the time quite frequently.
I smiled to myself as I looked at the handsome timepiece, recalling with no small amount of satisfaction the day I had taken it from the tiresome Lord Montrose. I remembered the unexpected pleasure it gave me to see Lizzie again on that wet and miserable day, and to discover she was carrying my small gifts in her reticule.
~A sign, surely, that I was more than a dalliance, the whim of a discontented and neglected wife~
Tucking my watch away once more, I looked at my reflection in the gilded mirror, studying my carefully chosen attire for the day.
I wore a peacock blue coat with gleaming silver buttons over a silver and blue brocade waistcoat, pristine white linen shirt and stock, grey breeches and white stockings with silver-buckled shoes so highly polished I could have used them as a looking-glass.
My hair I had washed, lightly pomaded and tied back with a broad blue riband, and I had given my freshly-shaved face a splash of bergamot and citrus scent, with a touch of kohl smudged around my eyes for that air of—mystery.
I wanted to look my best for my Protectress and her faithful Amelia. I had a reputation to uphold, after all . . .
A handsome three-storey townhouse on Hanover Square was our destination. I wondered what connection Guy had to that fashionable address; but then, there were so very many things I wondered regarding my highwayman.
As the coach driver helped us step out of the hackney, the front door opened.
“Welcome, dear ladies—welcome.” The deep silken tones were unmistakable. I looked up into those blue eyes—made even bluer by his elegant coat--and felt that queer tightening of my chest.
“Thank you for the invitation, Monsieur Brouchard,” I said demurely as he lifted my hand and pressed a kiss to it.
“Delighted to have you here, Lady Halestone,” Guy replied in that deep, honeyed rumble with the sort of smile that made my knees go weak.
He looked beyond me to Amelia. “As I am to see the charming Mademoiselle Garner.”
We were all masquerading that morning.
Guy took Amelia’s little hand and kissed it. Her cheeks turned crimson as he purred, “That is a most becoming costume you are wearing today, Mademoiselle. Most becoming . . .”
“T--Thank you, sir,” she breathed. It was all my typically talkative maid could manage to get out, along with a great deal of eyelash fluttering.
~No wonder the wags in the broadsheets advised the fairer sex to take care and not lose their hearts to the Panther . . . if women are his weakness, than he is most certainly ours~
“I appreciate your punctuality, dear ladies,” he said, as he ushered us inside the house and up a flight of stairs to its drawing-room, a well-appointed interior that must have taken up a considerable part of the first floor.
“Don’t tell me this is one of your abodes, M. Bouchard?” I asked as I took a seat, Amelia eased herself down into a chair opposite me, smoothing out her skirts with the greatest of care.
My overwhelmed maid’s eyes were darting with immense curiosity around the room, taking in the hand-painted Chinese papers on its walls and splendid porcelain vases filled with late spring blooms scattered about on polished mahogany tables.
“No, no. This belongs to an old acquaintance of mine who kindly allowed me to borrow it along with some of its staff for the day,” Guy said, striking quite a handsome pose in front of the marble fireplace. “A well-appointed place, is it not?”
Amelia and I nodded our agreement, although I also found myself wondering whether it was a male or female acquaintance who offered the house, which led to thoughts of Guy’s Parisian countess . . .
~Ah, there you are becoming jealous again, Lady Montrose ~
“I thought you ladies might need some refreshment after your shopping excursion, so the housekeeper Mrs. Hart is bringing tea and some light pastries. And here she is now,” Guy said as a stocky, round-faced woman in a brown striped dress, a ring of keys jangling at her broad waist, entered with a tray.
“Mrs. Hart, this is Lady Halestone and Miss Garner. Ladies, this is the housekeeper, Mrs. Hart.”
The housekeeper bobbed a curtsey after setting the laden tray on the small table close to us. “My lady, Miss Garner. How do you take your tea?”
The beverage was hot, flavourful and indeed, refreshing as promised, and the dainty pastries practically melted in your mouth. I did not realise how hungry I was and found myself very much looking forward to the dinner Guy had promised.
Amelia, unaccustomed to being waited on and still adjusting to the idea a very resplendent Panther was a mere few feet away from her, nevertheless put on her best imitation of a genteel young lady. She drank her tea with pinky out, taking delicate sips whilst maintaining that ramrod-straight back and demure expression.
I signaled my approval with a sidelong glance, giving her an almost imperceptible nod and smile.
~Good for you, dear Amelia~
Guy took another sip of his tea and then set down his cup, clasping his hands behind his back as he gave Amelia his most ingratiating smile.
“Mademoiselle Garner, I am afraid I must take Lady Halestone away from you for several hours. However, there will be a companion with whom you shall dine and, I believe, be entertained. I hope that will be to your liking?”
“Of--of course, Monsieur Brouchard.” Amelia blotted her mouth with her napkin and glanced over at me.
I smiled at her and looked up into the azure eyes of our host.
“I am certain whatever you may have planned for our Mademoiselle Garner will indeed be to her liking . . .”
What a fine pair of guests I welcomed that morning. She looked radiant, my angel, a true English rose in her pretty gown; a delightful confection in pink, green and ivory, her chestnut curls peeking out from underneath her lace cap and her ripe mouth so rosy red and inviting.
Mon Ange was like a beautiful cadeau waiting to be unwrapped—by me. Which I would do—but patience, Monsieur Brouchard, patience.
And little Amelia—charming indeed in her scarlet, eyes wide and cheeks flushed. I hoped she would enjoy the day I had arranged for her.
I was certain I would enjoy the day Lizzie and I would share . . .
A young man came into the drawing-room, dressed in livery.
“Ah, Hawkins. Would you escort Miss Garner downstairs?”
Hawkins, a twig of bronze-red hair peeking out from beneath his wig, smiled in a most engaging way as he made a bow to Guy and then to Amelia.
“Of course, sir. Miss Garner, will you come this way?”
Amelia rose to her feet, smoothing her skirts and looking up at Guy. “I enjoyed my refreshments ever so much, Monsieur Brouchard. Thank you,” she said politely, dropping a small curtsey before turning to Hawkins.
Hawkins’ bright blue eyes twinkled and there was a definite cheekiness in the smile he gave Amelia as they left the room together.
I raised my brows and looked at Guy.
“Are you certain Amelia is in safe hands?”
Guy smiled. “Mais oui. Hawkins will teach her how to cheat at cards, sing some slightly bawdy songs with her, share a meal whilst flirting outrageously--yet never take too many liberties. He is really a very good sort. She will have a wonderful time.”
He extended his hand to me and I took it, rising to my feet.
“Ah, Grey might get jealous if he discovers Amelia has been keeping company with another young man.”
He tilted his head and shrugged his shoulders. “Which could work to little Amelia’s advantage if she is as resourceful as I think . . .”
Guy lifted my hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to it.
“And now, milady, shall we adjourn downstairs to the dining room--”
Guy leaned down and whispered in my ear in those dark chocolate tones that made me shiver with anticipation. “And then to the bed chamber? For a few more lessons . . . would that be to my lady’s liking?”
“Mais oui.” I said, just a little breathless and suddenly giddy-headed. “Oh, I almost forgotten—I have gifts for you . . .”
He raised a dark brow as he glanced at the parcels beside the chair and then looked at me, his mouth curling into a singularly sweet smile.
“So—some of those parcels there are for me? How thoughtful of you. I shall open them later—when I present my gifts for you, my lady.”He pressed another kiss to my hand. “And now, on to our repast. I hope you are still hungry.”
I smiled as I took his arm. “Oddly enough, my appetite is always whetted when I am with you.”
He gave me one of those wolfish grins, his white teeth gleaming. “Then, my lady, we must attend to your appetite . . . and my own. To the dining room . . .”
It was quite a feast we would enjoy, the Panther and I, in that sea green room, my great black cat of a lover’s eyes turning ever more the colour of the ocean as he lifted his champagne glass and smiled at me from across the polished mahogany table.
“May I make a toast—to my lady.”
I clinked my glass against his. “And I to my Panther.”
Guy took a long sip of his champagne, his eyes remaining locked on mine.
“I hope you shall enjoy our menu for the day, my lady. I asked Cook to prepare some special dishes—all of which are said to--”
The moist tip of his tongue darted out to capture a drop of the pale golden liquid.
“To--inspire greater passion in lovers.”
I gave a soft sigh. Could I survive any “greater passion?”
I was willing to take the risk. And if I died, I would die happy.
“I am certain I will enjoy it.” As I expelled a breath, I saw Guy watching the rise and fall of my breasts and knew he was imagining them bared and in his hands, those long, elegant fingers cupping them . . .
“Good.” His voice was a deep velvet rumble. “I think I shall get a trifle more comfortable before we begin.” Guy stood up and slipped out of his peacock blue coat, untying his stock and baring his long, white column of throat.
~So lovely to kiss, that pale flesh, working my way downwards, feeling his pulse beat beneath my mouth~
I closed my eyes for a moment as I felt that warmth begin to build deep in my belly.
I decided this might be the most memorable meal of my entire life.
In our next chapter, we will continue Lizzie and Panther’s aphrodisiacal dining and Panther’s unwrapping his gifts—including Lizzie, of course. And Guy will also reveal more about his past to Lizzie—and talk about the possibility of a future together. And we might learn the actual identity of the man in the chequered mask . . . until next time.