Juat in case you didn't know--I am going to ComicCon!!

This all happened quite suddenly. If you had told me a few weeks ago I'd have a reporting job lined up with an online site for the upcoming Comic-Con International in San Diego, I'd have said you're dreaming. But it's true. I do.

I will be a press associate for Comic Book Resources, which is providing me a four-day pass and free event food and even a little pay. Of course, I am hoping to see a certain TDHBEW as part of the planned Hobbit panel on Saturday, July 14 and plan to bring back as much info as I possibly can from the event, including photos and video.

It's all thanks to RA Frenzy, who posted a link to their site after seeing they were looking for reporters for the event.

I knew I had the credentials for the job with ten years of reporting experience under my belt--but traveling the 2,000 miles and having a place to stay seemed insurmountable obstacles. After all, I am still not gainfully employed. Money is tight.

Frenz told me, "Apply for it and if you get it, we will get you there."
So I did apply and got accepted and now fellow bloggers and fans are helping make a dream a reality.

Frenz set up a donation button at my blog site to allow anyone who wishes to donate ( you need either a PayPal account or international credit card). My major expenses--the plane ticket and the hotel--are covered, thanks to your generosity.

Now I am trying to make sure I have enough to cover non-event meals and transportation costs to and from the convention center. The most affordable hotel I could find in a decent location and with rooms available is ten miles from the SDCC.
So I will have to take railine/taxi to get "there and back again."

If you'd like to help me with my "unexpected journey" to see RA and other members of The Hobbit cast and crew, your donation would be greatly appreciated. Every little bit helps, I assure you.
And even if you can't donate, please stop by the blog and say "hello." I think you'll find it a fun place devoted to all things RA.


The Lady & the Panther~Chapter 19~Ranelagh Rendezvous

The Lady & the Panther ~Chapter 19~ by fedoralady

Yes, at long, long last—the continuation of our story. Lizzie, now aware she is expecting Guy’s child, is both anticipating their next meeting and dreading sharing her unexpected news with her lover. The weekend has arrived and their rendezvous at Ranelagh is only a few hours away . . . thank you, Leigh, for your invaluable assistance as beta. I again apologize to everyone for the delay in getting this posted and I hope you will enjoy.

~I find myself dressed in servant’s garb and once again in that dark wood. I clutch a bundle of rags tight against my breast as I dart between the trees. The stars shine in the clear icy dark. They give enough light for me to make my way among the frozen roots and bracken.

Am I fearful and running away from some danger? Or running to some place of safety? I cannot tell you. I must not stop running. The stitch in my side is so sharp, more painful with every step. Brambles and nettles cut into my bare feet.

And then I hear a voice calling. “Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi.” The voice of a child. A boy.

“Where are you?” Who are you, I wonder, as I stop to listen, straining to tell the direction from which the cries are coming.

I cannot bear the thought of a frightened child alone in the wood, in the dark and the cold. Where is his mother? Why is he here?

“Where are you? Where are you?” I call out. Suddenly the bundle of rags I am clutching moves and I hear a soft sigh. I gasp as I realise I am not clutching rags, but a baby . . .~

I awoke with a start. One hand slipped beneath my pillow to clutch Guy’s pocket watch whilst the other crept across to press against my belly.

Saturday morning had arrived. In a few hours, I would see my Panther again. And give him my news.
~Oh, Guy. What will you think? What will you say?~

Tucking Guy’s watch back beneath my pillow, I made my way to the window, parting the curtains. After two days of clouds and dampness, the skies were clear. I hoped that was a good omen.
Taking the latch, I pushed open the window. Looking out onto Dillingham Place’s back garden, I listened to birdsong and drank in the morning air.

I needed it to clear my giddy head.

I really did feel quite the fool. Why had I not thought of my courses being late? They were usually so tiresomely reliable.

My increased appetite and fatigue, my repugnance for food I usually relished and my cravings for dishes I would normally never touch—all those signs pointed clearly to my condition.

~You have been with child enough times. You should have known~

I closed my eyes. I could see myself sitting on the marble bench in the garden below, cradling little Alexander in my arms, his plump fingers curled around my finger, his blue eyes wide as he gravely studied my face . . .

I had never been so in love before he came into my life.
Or so devastated as when he left it.

I opened my eyes, biting my lip hard.
~Perhaps that is why I was blind to all the signs. I could not bear the possibility of that sort of pain returning~

Horace had been away from my bed for a number of months, never even hinting he wanted to make another attempt at begetting a child. It was as if I had forgotten I could even conceive, discarding the image of myself as mother.

I wanted this child; of course I wanted it. It was my own beloved Guy’s child.

“But--how shall I tell him? ‘Dearest Panther, we shall have to take into account the baby in my belly as we make our plans?’” I murmured to myself. It was a deuc’d complication for an already complicated situation.

I turned and looked at the parcels from Guy sitting on my chaise longue, items delivered to me the day before.

A sacque gown of floral silk for the opening of the Chinese pavilion, a blonde wig the colour of cornsilk to hide my dark hair, a large and lovely Oriental silk fan . . .

~The better to disguise myself~

Whilst my husband spent a debauched evening at his club that night, I would conceal my identity once more to meet my beautiful highwayman turned “French nobleman “at Ranelagh.

In the midst of my worries, the thought of tonight’s visit to Ranelagh Gardens exhilarated me. I seemed to have an affinity for such duplicity; I am not quite sure what that said about me.

I simply knew I never felt more truly alive than when I was with Guy. I hadn’t felt such a spark within me since—

~Since I lost little Alexander~

I sighed as I turned back to the window, and pressed my palm to my forehead, rubbing it lightly.

~What will Guy say? Will he be pleased? Distressed?~

“My lady, are you feeling unwell?”

I turned to find Amelia standing behind me holding my breakfast tray, her forehead beneath those unruly curls creased with concern.

“Oh, Amelia. I did not hear you come in. Lost in my thoughts.”

“How long have you been up, my lady? You look a bit pale. You know it’s important yew get yer rest.”

I smiled. ~Amelia. My ever-faithful guardian angel~

“I am well, I assure you. I awoke, the chamber seemed stuffy and I decided to get some fresh air. It is as simple as that, dear Amelia.”

She gave a small nod and held up the tray, motioning towards the bed.

“Well now, milady, why don’t you pop back into bed and enjoy yer breakfast? A good strong cup of tea and some victuals will do yew good.”

I nodded and gave a small laugh as I walked back to the bed. “Needless to say, I am starving once again. I hope you’ve plenty of butter . . .”

“Of course, milady. Plenty o’ butter and sugar and milk just as you like, extra toast, two eggs--”

I sighed as I settled back against my pillows. “You will, of course, have to let out the laces to my stays yet again so that I can breathe, Amelia . . .”

“Yew are going out this morning, milady?”

I took a huge bite of well-buttered toast and chewed it with satisfaction. “Hmmm. Yes. I’ve a few errands to do and a few visits to pay. Trying to keep up my typical routine, nothing too out of the ordinary.”

I glanced up at her. “Amelia—I am so eager to see Guy again tonight and—so anxious about sharing my--news.”

She gave me an encouraging smile as she perched on the edge of the bed.

“I am sure he will understand, my lady. He loves yew. He wouldn’t wish to give up his profession and take yew away with him if he didn’t. P’rhaps he has been wanting a little’ un of his own.”

I sighed. “Perhaps. It is not a subject we have ever discussed.” I bit my lip. “Perhaps—I should not even fret over it. We both know there is a very good chance I will not carry the child to term . . .” Closing my eyes, I pressed my napkin to my mouth.

~I have sustained so many losses. So much sorrow in my efforts to have children~

I felt a small hand on my shoulder and opened my eyes.

Amelia was at my side now, her concern evident in her lovely grey eyes.

“Oh, milady. Please don’t cry. I just know—somehow—everything will come a-right for yew. This time. It is meant to be.”

Blinking back a tear that threatened to fall, I raised my hand to pat Amelia’s as it rested on my shoulder.

“Amelia, my incurable romantic.” I smiled up at her. “What would I do without you?”

She lifted her sharp little chin and gave me a stout response.

“I’ve already told yew, milady. Yew need not find that out for a long time to come.” She paused as she moved towards my dressing room and looked back at me. “And--whot if yew were never the problem?”

I took a long sip of the tea as she disappeared into the dressing room.
“Hmmm, hot, strong and sweet--perfect.” Mulling over Amelia’s words, I frowned and called out to her.
“What did you mean, Amelia, about me not being the problem?”

She reappeared with a couple of morning costumes and a fresh chemise draped over one arm, a pair of stays in her hand.

“Whot I mean is—it could be his lordship that was—lackin,’ milady.” Amelia’s thin cheeks reddened slightly and she averted her eyes as she laid the clothing across the chaise longue.

“His—well, his seed might not be up to scratch.” She lifted her sharp little chin. “My cousin Hepzibah says it can happen, although no man t’would ever admit it, o’ course. Sometimes their seed just isn’t—quality.”

I forced back the laugh I felt bubbling up in my throat. My maid did have a way of sending mirth my way even when she did not intend to do so.

How despicable such a notion as she suggested would be to my proud and snobbish husband!

“I-I mean, milady, some of his family are a pretty sorry-lookin’ lot. Compared to the Chadwicks.” Her eyes met mine, thrusting out her chin as she folded her arms.

I tilted my head and raised a brow. “And the Panther is certainly not—sorry-looking—is he?”

Amelia blinked and cleared her throat. “Not from whot I have seen of him, milady. I reckon yew would know best about such matters.”
In spite of her demure expression, my maid’s lips were twitching dangerously.

~Impudent bit of baggage~

And yet her words did give me a spark of hope. Maybe this time, things would be different.

“Amelia—I sometimes fear Panther and I may be corrupting you. Learning bawdy songs and how to cheat whilst playing cards, helping me prepare for trysts with my lover and now—discussing the—the merits of—a gentleman’s--seed . . .”

I expelled a breath as I shook my head in a bemused fashion. “What would your mother say?”

She shrugged her shoulders, a sober expression on her countenance.

“She always said I had a mind of my own. Headstrong, she called me. I reckon Mother wouldn’t be too surprised.”

Amelia’s lips curved into a half-smile, the teasing glint returning to her grey eyes.

“And I reckon I am the only one of the family who knows a notorious and handsome highwayman.” Her smile broadened as she added in a quite saucy manner, “A highwayman who thinks I have very fine grey eyes.”

I smiled. “Amelia, I reckon that is true.”

She gave me a brisk nod. “Now, do yew wish to wear the pale green print or the lavender this morning, milady?”

“The—green print, I suppose.” I eyed the stays on the chaise longue with a certain trepidation.

“And do be gentle with those laces, Amelia. I shan’t wish to have a fainting spell while paying my calls. It might set tongues to wagging . . .”

She gave me an impish grin. “I’d best put your salts in your reticule, my lady, as the Panther could make you swoon, stays or no.”
Clean-shaven and scented, my dark hair hidden beneath a periwig Horace would surely have envied for its fashionable elegance, the merest touch of rouge on my cheeks and carnelian on my mouth (my own special concoction that was kiss-proof, as one must always be ready), I studied my reflection in the looking-glass of my bolt-hole.

If I did say so myself, I was quite a sight from the top of my bewigged head to the tips of my elegantly-shod feet.

My coat of powder blue silk with gleaming silver buttons had wide cuffs of deep sapphire blue, trimmed in silver braid. Beneath it I wore a matching sapphire waistcoat shot through with intricate silver embroidery and deep blue satin breeches. I confess I took pleasure in how perfectly all the garments fit.

My shirt linen was, of course, immaculate, the Mechlin lace attached at the neck and the cuffs of my shirt sleeves displayed to great effect.

The finely-spun white silk stockings hugged my calves and the black leather of my shoes was so highly polished one might use them as a looking-glass, too. The gem-encrusted shoe buckles sparkled like diamonds--quite possibly because they were diamonds.

I found a rather smug smile crossing my face as I recalled the toad-faced viscount to whom those gems had once belonged before I had liberated them and had them reset . . . they suited me so much better.

~I wonder whether I shall be able to achieve such sartorial splendour in my new life. I rather doubt the typical colonial wine merchant would be quite so dandified as this “Frenchie”~

As I affixed a beauty patch close to my mouth and another at the corner of one of my kohl-lined eyes, I had no doubt my dearest Lizzie would laugh at my musings, call me a coxcomb and chide me for my little vanities.

~And yet, she tells me I am beautiful. A glorious heavenly creature. Lizzie, I will gladly abandon the latest fashions in order to have you as my own. All my own~

I looked at my pocket watch and exclaimed at the time. My hired carriage would be there at any moment.

Drawing on my gloves and taking my stick in hand, I made a playful bow to the foppish fellow in the mirror.

“Au revoir, mon ami. L’aventure vous attend!”

Once Horace left for his club in our coach, the rest of the servants were given the evening off, save his valet and my Amelia. As far as the Horace and the staff knew, her ladyship was “sufferin’ from a terrible headache and is restin’ in her chamber and she is not to be disturbed.”

As for Grey, he was waiting downstairs in the kitchen, enjoying a glass or two of ale whilst Amelia attended to her “ailing” mistress’s needs.

The sacque gown Guy had sent to me was a deep green silk with a delicate floral design in pale pinks, yellows and blues, its graceful Watteau pleats cascading from my shoulders in the back. The skirt opened in front to reveal the pink satin petticoat, lavishly embroidered in blue and yellow threads, beneath it.

I smiled to myself as I took care to perfume the swell of my breasts. The very low cut of the bodice and the gown’s pale pink stomacher demonstrated Panther’s penchant for my ever-ripening bosom.

~Perhaps he shall have the opportunity to explore with that lovely great nose of his—and those soft lips. We shall see~

“Don’t yew worry a bit, my lady. I will keep Grey well occupied whilst yew make yer escape,” Amelia said as she fastened the clasp of the emerald necklace, my gift from the Panther, around my neck. As soon as I had seen the colours in the gown, I knew the gemstones I would choose.

~Although he would prefer to see me in nothing but the jewels~
Even amidst my anxiety over that night, thoughts of a carnal nature seemed to possess me. Just the sort of thing that led me to my unexpected predicament . . . I felt those queer fluttering in my belly again as I thought of seeing Guy again. And of telling him my news.

I gave Amelia a half-smile as our eyes met in the reflection of the looking-glass.

“Oh, I have no doubt you will see to Grey, Amelia,” I said in dry tones as I put on the matching earrings. “Do try not to win all of the poor lad’s wages from him now that you have learned to cheat at cards, won’t you?”

Amelia adjusted my wig, tidying a few errant curls.

“I would not dream of it, my lady. But—I might teach Grey some tricks he could use on that footman who is such a git.”

A tight little smile appeared on Amelia’s face as she tweaked another curl. “T’would serve him right, I reckon.”

I expelled a breath and shook my head. “Remind me to never cross swords with you, my dear Amelia.”

“ Don’t move yer head too much, my lady, I’ve got yer curls just right,” she scolded, putting her hands on her narrow hips. “And I don’t know the first thing about swords, milady,” she added loftily, lifted that pointed chin of hers.

I studied my reflection in my dressing table’s looking-glass. With my face framed in those artfully arranged fair curls and powdered, painted and patched in the manner of some nobleman’s flirtatious mistress, I did not look like myself, which was, of course, the object.

I left the house by the servants’ entrance, where a sedan chair arranged by Guy was waiting to take me to Ranelagh in Chelsea—my first visit since the early days of my marriage.

My destination had opened some nine years earlier on the grounds of Ranelagh House as an alternative to the wildly popular New Spring Gardens at Vauxhall.

Unlike the Vauxhall pleasure gardens, which charged no admittance, one had to pay a fee to enter Ranelagh—helping to keep out the “undesirables.”

No doubt that was part of the appeal for Horace when he taken me as his new bride to Ranelagh in what now seemed a lifetime ago. It would be an opportunity to show off his latest acquisition—me—surrounded by those he deemed worthy of his lordly company.

~What would the ton think if they knew they had an infamous highwayman in their midst to-night?~

As the sedan chair bumped along the cobblestone streets, I smoothed the skirts of my new dress as I must have done at least half-a-dozen times since leaving Dillingham House. My fingers fairly ached to play with my new curls, but I could hear Amelia scolding me and thus resisted.

I thought of the message Guy had sent with my garments and wig. I could hear his voice, like a velvet caress, murmuring intimately into my ear.

~Your appearance will be quite different this evening, Mon Ange—and perhaps not entirely that of a respectable lady? There will be nothing familiar in your attire for those with whom you may be acquainted.

Give them enigmatic smiles, gracious bows. Speak with your fan and coquettish tilts to your head, but say nothing, as if you are not altogether familiar with the language.

Turn in the card I have enclosed with your frock when you arrive at the entrance gate and they will grant you entrance. I have already seen to your admission fee.

I have arranged to arrive by carriage shortly after your expected arrival . . . I look forward with the greatest of pleasure of seeing you, Mon Ange, by the garden’s canal and its Chinese Pavilion. We shall discuss more concerning our future plans~

The night at Ranelagh would be a test of sorts, one that would help prepare me for assuming a disguise when we made our escape from England.

~And a test of Guy’s attachment to me when I share the unexpected part of our “future plans?”~

Suddenly I was flustered and a touch giddy-headed once more. Unfurling the beautiful fan with its Oriental figures—most appropriate, given my destination—I waved it to both cool myself and give me something else to do with my poor hands.

I thought of Amelia’s words earlier that day.

~Perhaps—perhaps it is meant to be, our child, a strong child. A new life with a family~
I had to hold on to hope. And keep my wits about me if I did not wish to give the game away . . .

Offering the card Guy had given me with a smile designed to charm and a flutter of my fan, I had no difficulty gaining entrance to the pleasure gardens.

As night fell, the gardens of Ranelagh were glowing. Lime trees, their pillar-like trunks lining the walkways on either side of the canal, were decorated with many colourful Chinese lanterns suspended from tree branches above long rows of neatly-trimmed shrubs.

Elegantly-dressed ladies and gentlemen paraded up and down, pausing to bow, to converse, to flirt, all clearly enjoying seeing and being seen.

Jugglers and acrobats amused the guests. Peals of laughter mingled with the strains of music—I recognised Handel—that came from within the garden’s grand Rotunda.

I made my way to Ranelagh’s new addition, adhering to Guy’s advice to remain a silent coquette.

The Chinese Pavilion had been constructed on pillars in the centre of the canal that ran through the gardens. With posts and balustrades crafted of white-painted wood, the pavilion’s slate blue roof with its curious Oriental design mirrored the colour, if not the style, of the dome atop Ranelagh’s rotunda.

More brightly-hued lanterns hung from the new pavilion’s eaves, and a number of garden patrons had entered it to mill about amongst individuals garbed in the attire of the Far East—a most exotic sight.

I stopped close to the walkway that led onto the pavilion. There I waited for Guy, watching guests glide by in long, narrow boats, piloted by attendants.

It was a beautiful night, unseasonably warm and tempered by a balmy breeze that threatened to tousle the artfully arranged curls of my wig. I smiled to myself at the image of Amanda’s scowl at the damage to her hard work.

“A touch of Venezia, as well as China, here in London.” A voice rumbled in my ear. I turned my head and looked up into Guy’s heavy-lidded eyes. They seemed to be smouldering particularly well that evening. And his scent. A mélange of sweetness and spice.

~Oh, Guy. I find you so difficult to resist. Which is exactly why I have ended up with your child in my belly~

“Bonsoir, Madame Legrande. Vous semblez belle ce soir, ma petite fleur . . .” Speaking with a faint growl in his throat, Guy lifted my hand to his lips, his kohl-rimmed eyes glinting. Pressing an ardent kiss to the back of my hand, he then turned it over to kiss my palm, his eyes never leaving mine. Even through my glove the heat from his mouth nearly seared my flesh.

I caught my breath, my eyes fluttering closed.

~Perhaps ‘tis a good thing Amelia tucked my salt of hartshorn in my reticule. I am feeling a little—light-headed again~

“Mon Ange—qu’est-ce qu’il y a? Tu n’es pas malade?”

I opened my eyes and saw his alarm. I was at once touched and unnerved by the concern.

I lifted my chin and unfurled my fan as I gave Guy a smile. “No--I am not ill.” I expelled a breath and gave him a flirtatious bat of my eyelashes from above my fan. “Simply—overwhelmed by your splendour this evening. You are a true dandy from head to toe this evening.”

Guy struck an exaggerated pose, one hand at his waist and the other clasping his stick, his handsome aquiline nose raised high in the air, a supercilious expression on his face as he gazed upwards towards the heavens.

“Mais oui. Je suis—magnifique, n’est-ce pas?”

In spite of myself I began to giggle, and Guy cast a look of mock reproach in my direction, giving a grand sniff.

“Madame—vous osez rire?”

“Excusez-moi, mais--” I gave up on my French and kept my mouth hidden behind my fan as I lazily waved it.

“Forgive me, my French has been quite neglected, I fear. It’s just that--you looked a bit like Horace. Terribly haughty.” Guy’s eyes widened in surprise and I bit my lip before quickly adding, “Only—you are much grander and more handsome, of course.”

Guy’s mouth curled into a lop-sided smile as he raised a single brow. Leaning down, he murmured in my ear, “Surely I am an improvement in every way on Lord Montrose?”

I drank in his smell once more. As fashionable as his wig was, I longed to pluck it from his handsome head so that I could tangle my fingers in his dark mane of hair and hold him close to me.

I needed to feel Guy’s strong arms wrap around me as I rested my head against his broad chest. I relished the feel of the taut, hardened muscles beneath the sumptuous luxury of his attire.

~Surely, the most dangerous and delicious fop in England?~

I simply raised my hand to his face and ran my fingers lightly along the curve of his jaw.

“Oh, yes.” I whispered. “In every way.”
How splendid it was to see my lovely Lizzie standing there beside the canal that at Ranelagh, her blonde curls dancing in the soft breeze.

She was quite fetching in her guise of slightly disreputable lady. And the dress displayed her physical charms in a most enticing way—just as I had known it would.

I confess Lizzie’s momentary pallor and the swaying of her body after my greeting did cause me concern. Perhaps the anticipation of this evening—of all that was to come for us—was weighing on her mind?

I would try to put her at ease—and tease her along the way.
I looked at the beauty patches she had applied to her face, one beside her eyes and the other, by that very tempting mouth.

“I--see you have put your patches in the same spots as I, Madame.”

“Indeed,” she breathed softly.

“And they mean, as I am certain you know, that you are passionate--” I touched the tiny heart affixed to the corner of her eye.

“And you like to kiss.” My finger grazed the star-shaped patch beside her lips before lightly tracing the outline of her pretty mouth.

Lizzie raised her etched brows, a smile tugging at her mouth once more.

“Surely, the same must be true of you, Monsieur le duc?”

I smiled as I tilted my head.

“’Tis true.” I took one of her blonde curls and twisted it around my finger, expelling a slightly regretful breath.

~Oh, how I want to simply whisk her away and indulge our desires. But there are matters that we need to discuss . . .~

I presented my arm to Lizzie with a small bow.

“Shall we take a stroll to the Rotunda to listen to the lovely music?”I queried.

“Perhaps partake of some libations to quench our thirst . . . we can return here to enjoy a ride under the stars in one of these bateaux, n’est-ce pas?”

She smiled and nodded, her hand firmly clasping my arm.

I leaned down to murmur in her ear.

“And later, Mon Ange, we shall find some quiet place where we will not be disturbed, to talk and—for other things. We do not want to call too much undue attention to the peacock and his lady-- would you like that?”
His blue eyes were dark and luminous, his voice, warm and silken. And his smile, oh!—It made me want to weep and to bury myself in his arms, to be comforted by his strength and warmth and beauty. He was my sweet haven.

And part of me wanted to run away. But where would I run to? My husband, who was clearly not the father of my unborn child? Hardly. I had to face my fears.

~Oh, what a coward you are, Lady Montrose . . .~

I forced a coquettish smile on my face as I gazed up into his eyes. “That all sounds lovely. I would like that very much, Monsieur le duc.”
Lizzie and I spent a pleasant half-hour in the Rotunda, listening to the musicians perform Handel’s Water Suite.

The huge circular room was illuminated by hundreds of candles flickering in a dozen great chandeliers suspended from the lofty ceiling. Their soft glow mingled with the starlight beginning to shine through the Rotunda’s ring of windows set just under its ceiling.

Even with the mildness of that evening, one might have caught a slight chill inside the cavernous structure, save for the massive fireplaces with a communal chimney built into its central column.

Only two of the four were lit, the burning embers enough to keep the rotunda comfortable on that balmy night.

We strolled about, enjoying some of Ranelagh’s best wine and light-hearted conversation. My concerns over her earlier pallor and tremor now seemed unfounded.

Lizzie’s cheeks were now flushed beneath the paint and powder and I could not fail to notice the lovely swell of her ivory bosom as I leaned down to hear her soft voice. She smelled of jasmine. She was delectable. And she was mine.

“You certainly look quite different this evening, Mon Ange—very much the naughty charmer,” I said, lifting her hand to mine for another kiss.

“You seem to bring out such naughtiness in me, Monsieur le duc,” Lizzie said from behind her fan, cutting those verdant eyes at me. She gave a small sigh and shook her head.

“I do not think I am ready to appear before the lime-lights, however. I confess I am a little on edge, fearing someone will know me in spite of all our efforts. Amelia laboured mightily to conceal my identity. “

I gave Lizzie’s arm a reassuring squeeze as I bowed my bewigged head in the direction of an imposing lady approaching us. She returned the nod, her narrow mouth forming a sharp smile before she sailed past us.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lizzie raise a quizzical brow.
“You are acquainted with Lady Caroline?”

“In a manner of speaking. I robbed her and the duke on the road to York. I never forget the faces of those whose possessions I have liberated,” I murmured in explanation.

“It could be my undoing if I did.”I patted her arm.
“Now, let me assure you that you and Amelia are doing well, Mon Ange. You clearly have a taste for this play-acting. “

I shot her an approving smile and she blushed charmingly in response.

“Although-- we may have to come up with a way to better conceal those distinctive emerald eyes of yours. And we shall need to brush up on your French and your weaponry skills . . . just in case.”

She laughed softly. I glanced down and saw the wry expression on her face behind her fan. “My skills in such matters could certainly benefit from your tutelage, I am certain.”

“I have learnt you are a very apt pupil, Lizzie. I have every confidence in you.”

I heard a small sigh escape those lips. Was that a shadow crossing her face, or merely a trick of the candlelight?

“Shall—shall we go outside and find that quiet place now, Guy?”

Her lips curled upwards, but her smile did not quite reach those lovely eyes.

~Where was that mischievous glint to which I was so accustomed?~

Tilting my head, I replied in a jocular tone: “I am delighted at such a prospect with such a ripe, delicious creature, but-- you do not wish to first ride in the bateau, Mon Ange?”

Lizzie shook her head and gave me a rather shy glance through her dark lashes.

“No—I, I want to be alone with you now—if that is possible, Guy.”

She gave me a half-smile before her lips parted, those wide eyes studying my face. I thought she was on the brink of some query and I raised my brows in expectation.

Instead, Lizzie expelled a breath and, taking my hand in hers, she pressed a gentle kiss to the back of it.

I lifted her hand to my mouth and gave it a lingering kiss, my eyes never leaving hers.

“Votre souhait est mon commandement, Madame . . . to our private place we shall go.”

My heart was pounding in my chest as Guy and I left the Rotunda and walked towards a more remote section of the gardens. We found a secluded corner, well away from other guests, beneath a spreading chestnut.

There were no lanterns here. Perhaps that would be a blessing. Perhaps I would not want to see the expression on Guy’s face when I told him.

The fluttering sensation in my belly was growing worse and I fear I only half-listened to what Guy was saying. An expert on fortified wines. Renaud’s progress on our papers for travel. Clothing and the hiding of money. The one final grand adventure he is planning—

I bit my lip and caught his hand in mine.

“Guy. Please, tell me—will this be very dangerous? I mean—this daring enterprise of yours?”

“Perhaps—a little more than others, but you know how I plan and prepare. And it will help secure a comfortable life for us.”

Guy pulled me to his chest and wrapped his arms around me.

“Please, do not fret. I want to do this—for us.” He pressed a kiss to my forehead, his broad hand stroking my back. “It shan’t be the life of a great lord and lady, but I do want to be able to take proper care of my angel.”

I closed my eyes, my head pressed against his chest, and drank in his scent. Queer how it did not bother me the way other scents did when I was with child . . .

With child.

I screwed my courage to a sticking-place and drew a deep breath.

“Guy—I have something I must tell you. And I hope—I hope it will not upset you.”

There was a pause. His hand stilled. “You have not—changed your mind, have you?” The forlorn edge to his whispered words made my heart constrict.
I raised my head and reaching up, cupped his face in my hand. I could feel the tension in his jaw.

“Oh, Guy, no. I still want to go away with you, more than ever. That will not change.” I sighed.

“But something else has. I cannot say why I did not recognise the signs much sooner.” Stepping back, I took his broad hand in mine and slowly, hesitantly, pressed it to my belly.

“I am going to have a child. Your child.”

His face was unreadable in the dimness, but I heard his sharp intake of breath and felt his hand pull away from my stomach, felt him turn away from me. Felt a chill wrap around my heart.

~He does not want it. Of course, he does not. Not at such a time~
I willed myself not to cry and took another deep breath.

“I—I—there are measures I can take. Some preparation that Amelia’s cousin Hepzibah knows of--”

“No!” The violence of his response startled me and it was I who gasped this time.

Guy spun around on his heel and grasped my arms tightly, his voice hoarse.

“You will do no such thing, Lizzie. If you were to—to harm yourself--”

He crushed me against him. I could feel him trembling, his chest heaving as if he was struggling to catch his breath.

“But—it is such a very inconvenient time, Guy. With all our plans--” I felt a sob rising in my throat and silently cursed it.

“Hush . . .” Guy murmured, his hand stroking my back once more. “It’s my fault. I am to blame, I should have been more cautious.” He expelled a long breath.

“Ordinarily, I am more cautious. There are ways, devices for a man to help prevent something like this.” A sigh—of regret? “T’was foolishness on my part.”

He gripped me by my shoulders and thrust me away from him, trying to read my face before giving a hiss of frustration.

“Come out from beneath this tree, Lizzie, where you and I can see each other better. I want you to fully understand what I am saying and to believe it.”

I was taken by surprise, for I did not expect Lizzie’s news. But surely I should have done, should have at least considered the possibility? I knew full well she had been with child several times before. I cursed myself for my thoughtlessness. I was to blame for this.

I should have thought, as I had done with so many other lovers, to pull out of her before spending myself, to use the French letters Antoinette had taught me about all those years before.

I had no desire to bring a bastard into the world. A bastard like me. I knew full well the world could be a cruel place.

“Lizzie . . .” I cupped her face in my hands, tipping it back so that the moonlight illuminated her features. She had grown pale beneath the rouge, her eyes, wide and dark and filled with such—emotion. Fear. Hope. Confusion.

“Please know this. I love you. I want a life with you.” I paused and expelled a deep breath. “And I do want this child. Our child.” I smiled into her eyes. “Of course I want it.”

I felt her body relax as she sighed softly. “I-I have been so—worried. Fearful of your reaction. The signs have been there, but it took Amelia to help me see what was happening to my body.” She shrugged her shoulders.
“I suppose I have been so, so—happy, it has been like some glorious dream.”
She glanced down and then looked up through her lashes at me, her mouth twisting.
“I had forgotten about—that possibility.”

“Oh—Lizzie.” I leaned down and pressed a kiss to her soft mouth. “It has been glorious for me as well. You make me so—very, very happy.”

I licked my lips and gave her a nod.
“We shall simply have to set the wheels in motion sooner than I expected on our plans for Horace.” I paused, expelling a breath. “Have you heard from our friend the Chequered Domino?”

Lizzie shook her head. “No. He has apparently been laying low as we suggested. I shall dispatch a message to him tomorrow if you wish.”

She gave me a half-smile. “I suspect he is going to enjoy all this. I think he also has a flair for the dramatic.”
I tilted my head, stroking her cheek, and smiled.

“Oh, Mon Ange, I suspect he will enjoy it much more than Horace . . .”

The Lady & the Panther~Chapter 18~Into the Future (PG-13)

We return to our story with Guy and Lizzie making plans for the future as their special day together winds down. There is plenty of preparation that must be made . . . and some interesting developments are on the horizon.
This chapter rated PG-13 for a scene of a sexual nature. All rights reserved; thank you, Leigh for your continued help.

The Lady & the Panther
~Chapter 18~

“A new beginning for us, Guy. A new life together.”

We were once more sitting on pillows in front of the fire in the borrowed townhouse. I was snuggled between Guy’s long legs, my arms loosely wrapped around my knees. As I leaned back against his broad chest, I thought of how comfortable I felt.

~As if this is just where I belonged all the while~

We watched the flames and talked of our plans for the future.

Plans to leave England and our old lives behind, to take new identities and with them new lives. Plans for the Panther to pull off one more daring escapade—his greatest yet--before his retirement.

“If only I did not have to return to Dillingham House. To Horace,” I said. I rested my head against Guy’s silk-clad shoulder and gave a regretful sigh.

His hands lightly caressed the curve of my hips through the bed sheet--my makeshift dressing gown—as he spoke in a honeyed rumble.

“I know. I wish you would never have to spend another night under the same roof as his lordship.” Guy trailed soft kisses along my shoulder.
“I would love to sweep you off your feet one dark night, Lizzie, and simply race away astride Rogue. Leave Horace and Barkley and—our old lives behind.”

He expelled a breath.

“However, that would not be a wise course to take, Ma Cherie.”

Watching the tongues of the flames dance before us, I smiled at Guy’s words.

“Do you know, I dreamt of something very much like that. I was on some road, alone and in the dark—and you and Rogue appeared. And took me away with you.”

I laughed softly as I hugged my knees.

“I was hanging on to Rogue’s mane for dear life and I had never before felt such exhilaration.”

“Have you dreamt of me often, Lizzie?” His hand moved up to capture a ringlet of my hair and lazily wind it around one of his fingers.

I slowly nodded.

“Yes, Guy, I have. Some very—interesting dreams.”

“These dreams. Have they been of--an intimate nature?” His voice was a teasing, husky whisper.

“Why ever would you think that?”

He pressed another kiss to my shoulder as he nuzzled my neck.

“Perhaps—because my dreams of you are. Intimate. Passionate. Wild, and yet—so oddly reassuring, Mon Ange.”

I entwined the fingers of one hand with Guy’s as I reached back and stroked his jaw with the other.

“It is the same for me, Guy. Do you know, I once dreamt of you as a little cat that appeared in a meadow--”

“A LITTLE cat?” He interjected with a growl as he made a move to nip at my ear.

“Wait, Monsieur.” I spoke in a reproving tone.

“Allow me to finish. A little cat that changed into a powerful panther standing over me—yet I was not afraid. I welcomed the panther as he licked me with his big, rough tongue and grazed me with the talons of his paws . . .”

“And what happened after that?” Guy breathed, his hand stealing up to cup my breast through the sheet. I smiled.

“The panther turned into a tall and beautiful man, a man like some--glorious heavenly creature, who made passionate love to me in the meadow. It was wild and yet--I knew I was quite safe.”

“A heavenly creature, you say? Interesting . . . what a fortunate woman you are, Mon Ange.”

I laughed and squeezed his hand. “I should never have mentioned such. You are quite vain enough, my darling.”

He pressed a kiss to the top of my head, his voice huskier than usual.

“Perhaps. But honeyed words mean more when spoken by the woman you love. Who loves you in return.”

The wistfulness in his words tugged at my heart.

~He has had lovers, many of them. But has he had enough love? Have either of us?~

“Oh, Guy.” I turned so that I faced him completely and cupped his jaw in my hands, looking intently into those fathomless blue eyes.

“I do love you so very, very much. In the very beginning, I suppose it was the excitement, the thrill, the sense of danger. And now, yes, my glorious, heavenly Guy--”

Guy raised a brow and smirked as I paused, a smile tugging at my own lips. “Yes, I feel a strange sense of security with you. Safety and—freedom. Even in my present circumstances with Horace.”

Guy took one of my hands and pressed it to his mouth for an ardent kiss, giving me one of those dark angelic smiles I found hard to resist.

“I believe I understand you very well, my Lizzie. I have shared more of what is in my heart with you than I have with anyone in—well, a very long time.

“It seems I can be myself with you. The wild part of me--and the part of me I have kept hidden from most people. I do believe my secrets are safe with you.”

I smiled, pleased to hear him speak of his trust in me. “And mine are safe with you, Guy.” I leaned in to press a soft kiss to his cheek and laid my head on his shoulder as he stroked my hair.

“Guy—do you think you will miss it a great deal? Being a highwayman, I mean. You will not feel as if you have had your wings clipped, will you, living an, an—ordinary life?”

Expelling a deep breath, Guy spoke, his voice faintly mocking.

“Will I miss constantly looking over my shoulder, trying to stay one step ahead of the thief-takers and hangmen? Trying to remember which name and history I am using that day? Wondering just whom I can trust? Wondering who would betray me for his own ends? Look at me, Lizzie.”

I lifted my head. The expression in his eyes was a sober one even as Guy’s mouth twisted into a wry smile.

“No, sweet Lizzie. Whilst it has its pleasures, it is not an occupation that gives one expectations of a long life. I have been clever and careful. But I am not fool enough to think my good fortune will last forever. Too many others like me have not died peacefully of old age in their own beds.”

He took my hands and clutched them tightly in his own, the earnest tone of his words reflected in his beautiful eyes.

“I believe an ordinary life t’would suit me just fine. If I can live it with you.”

“You know I long for that very thing, Guy. And if all goes well with our plans for Horace—and with all else—I hope to live my long and ordinary life with you—and Amelia, of course.” I gave him a mischievous smile.

He nodded, laughing. “It goes without saying, milady. I shudder to think of what might happen if we attempted to flee without her.”

He tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear and caressed my cheek lightly with his knuckles.

“I promised to tell you something of my history. You deserve to know the truth of my life, as much of it as I know. I have been trying to learn more, bits and pieces . . . it has been akin to trying to solve a difficult riddle.”
I pressed another soft kiss to his lips. “We still have some time before we must prepare to leave. Tell me a tale, Panther.”

He expelled a breath, and gave me a half-smile.

“When I was a young child, Lizzie, I lived in a small coastal village in France . . .”


It was the third day after our visit to the townhouse. I was back in my usual role of the model wife, hostess and mistress of the manse. Only in my dreams—and in the moments Amelia and I stole to talk together—was I able to unmask myself.

Amelia, who had, as Guy prophesied, thoroughly enjoyed her “wonderful” day complete with “masses of good food, and the naughtiest songs, and ever so clever the card tricks they were,” was wide-eyed at the stories I had to share of our plans and of Panther’s past as we settled back into the routine at Chadwick Place.

I had awoken that morning as I oft had of late—absolutely famished and still drowsy.

As I ate my breakfast, Amelia bustled around the bedchamber, dashing in and out of my dressing room, chattering all the while, albeit in lower tones than usual.

“You never know, milady, who might have bigger ears than they should,” she had informed me with great seriousness.

“So that’s why he speaks French so well, milady. He lived there as a little boy. Bless him, he didn’t even know who his mother was or who he belonged to . . . do yew reckon he’s right? That his father was some titled gent who ruined a young lady and she had his child? And who were those little girls? Oooh. It is all quite mysterious and romantic . . .”

“Not quite so romantic for Guy’s poor mother,” I murmured to myself before taking a bite of my poached egg. I thought of my husband and hoped, for their sakes, he did not indulge himself with vulnerable young women such as Celestine.

I always felt the horse-faced Widow Fleming and her kind could take care of themselves.

“Do you reckon he will ever find out who his father really was—if it was the mysterious Monsieur? Terrible that he was thrown out of his school like that, with never a word as to what happened . . . it’s no wonder he fell in with thieves and the like.”

I took a sip of my tea and eyed Amelia over the rim of the cup. “Dear Amelia, if you wish to talk about Panther, come here instead of all that flitting about. I am already a bit giddy-headed and watching you is not helping. That must be the fourth time you have straightened my secretary this morning. And how many gowns can I possibly wear in one day?”

She flushed a little, clutching a bronze-coloured overskirt in one hand and a pair of ivory shoes with silver buckles in the other, and bobbed a quick curtsey.

“Beg pardon, milady. Sometimes it is as if my life is changin’ so much, I can’t quite take it all in. And, of course, I can’t talk to anybody else about it all, what with it being a secret. And—I am accustomed to being busy.”

I gave her a reassuring smile. “I am not chastising you, Amelia. Get the chair with the petit point back and draw it up beside me.” I gave a little sigh as I eyed it.

“I laboured over stitching the blasted thing long enough it might as well get some use.”

Amelia took her seat. Folding her hands demurely in her lap she looked at me expectantly.
“Now, what--” I was interrupted by a knock on my door.


“It’s Daisy, milady, wiv a message fer yer.”

I raised my brows and glanced at Amelia.

“Come in.”

The downstairs maid, a rather stork-like London girl who had just recently gone into service, stepped in and bobbed an awkward curtsey.
“Beg pardon, milady, but a small boy ‘as brought a letter for yer.”

I frowned.

“A boy? Who is he? What does he look like?”

The maid shrugged. “‘E didn’t give no name, milady. As to ‘is looks, the boy’s got a mop o’ curls the colour of carrots, teeth like an ‘are—and ‘e was in a right state o’ filth.”

Daisy wrinkled her freckled snub nose with disdain. “Smelled like it, too. I surely wouldn’t let him in the front ‘all, I’ll tell you that. Shoulda come to the tradesmen’s entrance.”

I motioned for her to bring the letter to me. “Thank you, Daisy. That will be all.”

“Yer welcome, milady.” Just as she bobbed another curtsey and turned to go, Daisy paused. “O, ‘e did say it were from a Mister Jasper. About some wine you were orderin’ fer ‘is lordship.”

I smiled. “Ah, yes. Mister Jasper. I was expecting to hear from him—about the fortified wine. Thank you.”

After the maid exited the chamber, closing the door behind her, I listened as her footsteps faded away.

“Is that our Mister Jasper, milady?” Amelia breathed, her eyes bright with curiosity.

I gave her a broad smile. “None other . . .”

As I had told Lizzie, I was certainly willing to leave behind my profession as a notorious highwayman and thief.
I would gladly exchange its excitement and dangers for an ordinary life, as she calls it, in the American colonies, working as a wine merchant in one of the seaports.

Coming home each evening to a proper house instead of another inn or one of my bolt-holes.

Coming home to the woman I loved.

However, I was not quite ready to give up my life of lawlessness.

After all, starting a new life in the New World with Lizzie (and Amelia) would be costly. Obtaining identification papers in our new names, paying for our passages across the Atlantic on one of the better ships, establishing that new home and business once we arrived: it would all take money.

Whilst I enjoy good food, drink and a well-tailored wardrobe—all of which require an outlay of money--I do not over-indulge. I enjoy the occasional card game, but a gambler, I am not—at least, not in that sense. I have had no home to furnish, carriages to maintain, servants to pay or enormous debts to settle.

Thus, I had managed to put aside a not inconsiderable cache of gold coins over time, enlarged by the sales of the re-set gems from the king’s ransom of jewels I had liberated.

I must say, without boasting, that I was very good at my profession. If you are going to break the laws of the land by taking from the privileged few, you might as well do a proper job of it.

I am not an excessively greedy creature. However, a nagging fear, small yet ever-present in my mind, has always served to remind me of my dark days of impoverishment. I have no desire to experience such days again.

And so I formed my plans to relieve more of those in the haute ton of the burden of their riches. One last adventure . . . before I bade a life of lawlessness adieu.

An adventure with a very select victim in mind. My Lizzie deserved nothing less than my best effort.

~“I cannot stay here any longer, ‘Toinette. You have been so kind, but you cannot keep me hidden from the baron forever.”

We are in her bed, the first light of dawn peeking through the curtains of her boudoir’s windows. The air is sweetly scented from her perfume, the scent of violets, mingled with a faint, enticing muskiness.

I am going to miss her so.

I hold her tightly and wish I did not have to let her go. But as she herself has told me, our intimate acquaintance cannot be a permanent attachment.

I must strike out on my own. But what can I do?

Educated as a gentleman, fit for no useful trade. Gentlemen do not work for their daily bread.

“C’est vrai, mon petit,” she replies with a sigh and turns over to face me, softness in those lavender eyes as she tenderly caresses my jaw with the tips of her fingers.

“But—where will you go? Are you still determined to find out more about your famille?”

“I—hope to know more. I want to go back to France, to my old village. I speak French fluently enough that I can manage. Perhaps there is someone who remembers me there. Who remembers my mother . . .”

I expel a breath and give her a grateful smile. “Thanks to you, ‘Toinette, I still have what little money I had when I left my school.”

My lips twist. “When I was thrown out of my school.”

I give a disdainful sniff. “As if I would bow and scrape before my former classmates.”

She presses a kiss to my mouth, and I feel a pang at the thought of forgoing the taste of her sweet, ripe lips. “Do not dwell on their mistreatment, Mon Coeur. What’s done is done, Guy. As I have told you—prove that you are, in the end, the superior man.”

‘Toinette threads her fingers through my tousled locks as she nuzzles my throat. I sigh. Even after our numerous trysts, her touch excites me as much as it did that first time she brought me to her home.

She lifts her head, tossing back her tumble of fair curls, her brow creasing in thought.

“I have some money put aside . . . one must be prepared for any eventuality, you know, Mon Coeur. This I can give to you--”

I start to protest and she presses her fingers to my mouth.

“No arguments. We are friends, n’est-ce pas? Friends help each other. Maybe one day—you can return the favour, eh?”

“I promise you, Antoinette. I will repay you.” There is a huskiness in my voice and I blink hard.

She kisses my cheek, rubbing her face against my stubble on my jaw like a violet-eyed feline bestowing her scent on me.

“I am quite certain you will, Mon Coeur. But you must find some form of employment.”

I raised a brow. “I suppose I might—tutor someone’s miserable brats. Except they would want references. I am quite good at fencing . . . p’rhaps I could teach that. Except I would need equipment . . .”

Her lips curve into a sly, teasing smile as she shrugs her pretty white shoulders. “Or perhaps you could become a thief . . .” Her fingers graze my bare chest, pausing to tease my nipples.

“I think—I think you could certainly be a thief of hearts, if you wished.”

I capture her hand and raise it to my lips.

~So could you, Antoinette~

“Tell me, ‘Toinette—will you miss me at least—a little?”

Her eyes glint as her hands trail down my body. “Perhaps—even more than a little. And not merely for your physical charms, either.”

I lean down to take one of her hardening nipples in my mouth, laving and sucking it before raising my head to look into those beautiful, heavy-lidded eyes, her ripe rosebud of a mouth curved into an smile of anticipation.

“But you will miss this—with me?”

A throaty laugh. “You know that I will, Guy.”

“Then show me.”

“Avec plaisir . . .”


“It seems Guy has one last escapade planned,” I told Amelia as I perused his letter.

“Ooh, what’s he got planned now?”

I looked up into her eyes, bright with curiosity.

“He does not provide the particulars. Only that ‘this will help make M. and Mme. Brouchard and their maid very comfortable in their new home. Although milady and her maid will likely have to make use of their seamstress skills if all goes well.’”

I sighed and gave a rueful shake of my head.

“There he goes, teasing me again. What do sewing and robbery have to do with each other?”

“Whot else does he say, milady? When will you see him again?”

I looked at the cryptic message at the end.

“He says, ‘We shall meet on the green, in China, Mon Ange and dance once more three days hence.’”

“Three days. On Saturday then, milady?”

“So it would seem—but China?” I shrugged my shoulders, furrowing my brow.

I adored my Panther, but he could be maddening at times.

“That seems rather a great distance for an assignation. And rather impossible to get there in three days.”

Amelia, her eyes narrowed, had folded her arms across her narrow chest, her small foot tapping the carpet. My little maid was in deep thought.

Suddenly she clapped her hands together and gave a crow of excitement.

“I know—green. Gardens. Ranelagh Gardens. They are openin’ up a Chinese Pavilion. I saw it in the paper! We’ll have to choose something lovely for you to wear . . .”

Ah, the pleasure garden in Chelsea, considered a more desirable destination for the upper classes than its competitor, Vauxhall Gardens. I had been there once with Horace. I looked forward to sharing its delights with Guy.

I looked up at her and smiled. “Clever creature. Whatever would I do without you, Amelia?”

“I don’t reckon you will get to know that for a long while, milady,” she replied stoutly.

“Amelia . . .” I paused and studied her face, wondering if I was being selfish by taking her away from everything she had known.

“You do realise that when we leave, it’s for good. We shan’t be returning to England. It would not be safe for Guy. You will be leaving your family behind just as I am my own.”

Amelia straightened her shoulders and gave a firm nod of her dark head. “I understand, milady. I’m not sayin’ I won’t miss my family, but there are so many of us they would hardly miss me. And I reckon—well, under the circumstances and all, you need me more.”

I leaned my head back against the pillows and gave my maid a rather sheepish smile.

“I must seem incredibly useless to you sometimes, Amelia. I can’t get dressed or undressed by myself, or arrange my hair--”

Amelia shrugged. “I reckon most ladies are the same. That’s part of bein’ a lady. Bein’ a bit helpless.” She smiled, that impudent dimple appearing in the top of her cheek.

“And yew certainly do have skills as a seamstress, milady. Look at my dress for our special day.”

“Hmmmm. Yes.” I took another sip of my tea, my lips twitching at the corners. I fear I was in a teasing mood once more. “You never told me. Did your new beau admire your dress, Amelia?”

Amelia’s cheeks pinked as she thrust out her sharp little chin and clasped her hands more tightly together.

“He’s not my beau, milady, just a fellow I enjoyed talking to and flirting with a bit. We are not goin’ to run away together or nothin.’”

I took another bite of my toast, heavily slathered in butter. For some reason I was craving butter of late.

“And Grey? Is he at all jealous of this flirtation?”

Amelia raised her dark brows, her eyes cutting away from me. “Oh—he might be. A little. But I am not plannin’ to run off with him, either.” She tossed back her head, her maid’s cap bouncing atop her unruly dark curls.

“Besides, I might take a fancy to one of those red-skinned savages they have in the colonies.”

I laughed. “I don’t think there are many Indians living in the
cities in America.”

Noting Amelia’s slightly crestfallen expression, I added, “But I am very likely wrong. There may be one on every corner.”

I looked at my empty teacup and plate and patted my stomach. “Do you know, I am still famished! I don’t know what is wrong with my appetite of late.”

“I’ll pop down to the kitchen with yer tray, milady, and get yew something else. Whot would yew like?”

“Oh—two more pieces of toast. Plenty of butter. And some of that quince jelly.”

“No pear preserves, milady?”

I shook my head. “Oh, no. The smell of the pears. I find I can’t abide the smell at present. And another pot of tea.” I smothered a yawn. “I simply must renew my energy.”

Amelia had lifted my tray and turned to go. She paused and slowly turned back to face me.
“Yew—yew have been very tired of late, milady.”

I sighed. “Yes, yes I have. I said so.”

“And yew are very hungry.”

I nodded wearily. “Very. Famished. You were on your way to replenish my food, I believe?”

Amelia did not appear to acknowledge my hint about my breakfast.
A curious look came into her eyes as she spoke in a slow, deliberate manner.

“Yew are bloomin’ like a rose these days, yew are, milady.”

I blinked. My maid appeared to be as addle-pated as her mistress. “Well, Amelia, the poets say that love is a great beautifier,” I said.

Glancing down at my belly, undeniably more rounded than it had been, I patted it. “I have certainly put on more flesh. However, Guy does not seem averse to it, thank fortune,” I added, with no small amount of self-satisfaction.

~Why is Amelia gawking at me in such a manner?~

“Your—bosom, milady. It is—bloomin,’ too, one might say.”

“Yes, Amelia, I am—blooming--everywhere and I am still famished and ready for a nap--”

Oh, my. How very, very stupid of me. Of course.

I heard my maid’s anxious voice as I closed my eyes and pressed my hand to my forehead. I gave a little groan as my head fell back against the pillow.

“Oh, milady—milady, are you going to faint? Should I get the smelling salts?”

Mutely, I shook my head and opened my eyes slowly.

“No, I think not.” I sighed and gave her a half-smile.

“After all, I have never been prone to swooning when I was with child, have I?”

(no subject)

Hello, all!

Just a note concerning two things:
First, yes, I am still working on The Lady & the Panther--as I near the end of Lizzie and Guy's escapades, it is taking me longer between chapter postings. I am trying very hard to keep a good story flow and keep the characterizations consistent (unlike some of the writers on RA's shows). I am more than half-way through Chapter 18 and should be posting in the next couple of days.

Second, I have started a new project. I now have a blog entitled "The Armitage Effect." Yes, I am keeping this blog going here at LJ; but I will be doing some different things at my new site that I hope people will find fun, interesting and thought-provoking.
Here's the link:


My YouTube Channel is "Lovin' the Armitage
Effect" and I have my latest video embedded here, too.

Drop by and set a spell. :D

The Lady & The Panther~ Chapter 15~A Chequered Past (Rated R)

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.

~*~*Chapter 15*~*~
“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.

~Mon Ange,

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.

No, Seriously. Lady Writer is So NOT Dead.

I have not actually fallen off the face of the earth. It just seems as if I did. Amazing how cut off from civilization one can feel these days when there is no internet access.

After several events in which we lost our connection for anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, it went completely kaput in the Lady Writer household during the wee hours of December 30.

No checking of email, or responding to messages or reading/commenting on blogs. No watching videos on YouTube. No uploading or downloading of videos, or cruising iTunes; no doing any additional online research for my novel, beyond the stack of reference books by my bed. (Knowing that Mr. A apparently has had similar stacks of reading material by his bed always makes me smile. We bookworms have to stick together.) No sending a portion of a chapter to my friend to read and check for any major bloopers.

Having always been a cinephile, I have become a truly dedicated viewer of Turner Classic Movies during my unemployment and recovery from a busted tailbone (American Movie Classics—your original programming is just dandy. But repeats of CSI:Miami every afternoon? Really? Come on . . .).
I find I enjoy doing additional research on some of the films and their casts and crews. Doing it online. *sigh*

I can’t tell you how many times I very nearly picked up my laptop to look up a particular film, only to remember I couldn’t.

Or I wanted to look up a term or word to see if its use would not be an anachronism in my period story. Only I couldn’t.

Call me “frustrated.”

After more than one conversation back and forth between here in the boonies and tech support at Centurylink, hey presto! We finally have the issue resolved as of tonight. Now 250 emails in my box (and a few more in another account) later, I’m baaa-ck!

I’ve had a good hot shower, washed my hair and pin-curled it, applied lots of girly body lotion, put on my cozy Christmas PJs and fired up my laptop.

It’s good to be back in the saddle again.
Which reminds me of Guy—and Thorin—in the saddle. I feel fanvids and trailers calling me. *mmmmmmmmmmm*
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Sloth Fiction 12: Santas, Santas Everywhere! (PG)

Sloth Fiction: Santas, Santas Everywhere! By fedoralady
Rated PG
It’s been quite a while since I wrote an installment of SF, and this holiday season seemed a perfect time to share. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a joyous time together with family and friends. God bless you . . .

“Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, please put a penny in the old man’s hat . . .” Harry Kennedy, the world’s most adorable accountant, sang with a cheeky gusto on a wet, stormy late December morning in LA (Lower Alabama).

He had a mug of cocoa in each hand and a sunny smile on his handsome face as he strolled into Lady Writer’s guest bedroom.

It was the place she’d been more or less camping out for since her car accident, better known as “The Great Crown Vic Offroading Misadventure” or “LW’s Unexpected Journey,” back in early November.

Recovery had been slow and frustrating. Occasionally, in the wee hours, she would have a little weep.

Still, the support of her own dear Harry Kennedyesque husband, the therapy provided via her cuddly felines-- not to mention all the inspiration given by the Creator and the ChaRActers--helped tremendously.

And on this gloomy morning, Harry’s attire alone was a day-brightener.

“Harry, I swear, it looks like that sweater—excuse me, jumper-- of yours should light up,” said Lady Writer as she took a sip of her cocoa (laced with a dash of Bailey’s Irish Cream).

Harry gave her a cheeky grin. “Funny you should mention that, LW . . .” Swapping his mug of cocoa from his right hand to his left, Harry then squeezed a spot on the neck of his jumper.

Suddenly, the ornaments and lights hanging from the antlers of the smiling reindeer on his chest began to twinkle red, green, gold and silver.

Sitting her mug down on the bedside table, LW clapped her hands in delight.

“Oh, Harry, that’s great!”

He waggled his eyebrows. “Ah, but wait. There’s more,” he said in a husky, teasing voice.

Reaching into the neck of the jumper a second time, he gave it a squeeze.

The strains of “Jingle Bells” could be heard coming from Harry’s chest.

“It plays a medley of six Christmas tunes,” he said, and holding up one long and elegant finger, he added, the merry twinkle in his eye belying the solemn set of his mouth. “And notice-- the lights blink in time to the music.”

“Oh—Harry—I—love—it!” LW was giggling so hard she was having a hard time getting the words out.

Harry shrugged his broad shoulders and took another sip of his cocoa. “Well, I know things have been a bit hard of late. Thought a bit of Christmas cheer would do you good, dear LW.”

“Well, I think it is marvelous. Only you, Harry, could pull that look off, only you,” she replied, wiping her eyes with a tissue.

“You’ve made me laugh ‘til I cried.”

Harry grinned. “My vicar always says a merry heart does you good like medicine.”

LW nodded. “I have to agree. And –like cuddly cat therapy-- much cheaper than some of my meds from the pharmacy.”

There was a sudden ruckus from the vicinity of LW’s front entrance.

She raised her brows. “Wonder what that could be? It doesn’t sound like the dogs bumping against the storm door . . .”

“I’ll go and see, LW.”

Moments later, she heard the sound of several baritone voices mingling and then a loud “shhhhhhh,” followed by a mysterious whispering.

LW suspected a certain group of ChaRActers was up to something.

Harry’s smiling face reappeared as he peeked inside the bedroom door.

“Just the lads, LW. No worries.”

There was a curious clanging sound from the vicinity of the living room, followed by a muttered oath.

“God’s tears! Watch what you’re doing!”

“Sorry, mate. You need to watch where you put those gigantic feet next time . . .”

A loud snort. “MY gigantic feet? Have you taken a look at your feet lately?”

A deep sigh. “Will both of you please be careful and not step on my cadmium red? Monet is coming over later to paint with me.”
A loud grunt.

“Lift with your legs, lads, not with your backs. Otherwise, you could end up injuring your back.”

“Well, you’re the doctor, I guess you would know . . .”

“Ah—things are back to normal, I see,” Lady Writer murmured wryly as she took another sip of her cocoa.

“Let the bickering begin . . .”

Harry disappeared from the doorway, no doubt to referee.

She could hear him shushing his fellow ChaRActers and more rather noisy whispering going on along with intriguing sounds of—furniture being moved about?

Suddenly another head was peering around the door at her. His silky raven mane grazed broad black-clad shoulders; his azure eyes were rimmed in smoky kohl and his mouth was made for smirking, amongst other things.

“Guy of Gisborne. I see you are wearing your funereal holiday black.”

He raised one brow in clear consternation. “It is a colour extremely flattering to me. You’ve certainly never minded dressing me in it in your stories, LW.” Guy gave a manly sniff and tossed back his mane.

LW never tired of seeing him do that. It was a bit like having a beautiful wild stallion hanging out inside your house.

At least with Guy, she didn’t have to worry about him soiling the carpets (he took endless delight in the mechanics of the flush toilet. Such an improvement over Nottingham Castle’s garde-robes).

Although, he could eat as much as a horse . . . where did he put it all?

“Guy darling, I am teasing you . . . of course, I love you in black. Dark, dangerous, mysterious—bad ass. That’s my dark knight.”

Not surprisingly, Guy’s lips curved into a rather smug smirk at LW’s words. He slipped inside the room and folding his arms, lounged against the wall with a devil-may-care attitude.

A deep voice rumbled from the vicinity of the living room, the words tinged with more than a touch of sarcasm.

“Oi. Sir Loin of Beef. We could use your help if you’re not too busy.”

LW was not the only one who enjoyed teasing Sir Guy.

She saw her favourite knight’s nostrils flare and that ominous glint appear in his eyes. Good thing the sword she had given him last year for Christmas could only be employed when SHE said so.

He was apt to fly off the handle every now and then and it was wise to kept sharp objects out of Sir Guy’s grasp.

“Guy. Remember. Play nice.” Lady Writer put down her mug of cocoa and folded her arms, giving Guy as stern a look as she could manage.

“’Tis the season, my dear boy. A time for peace on earth, goodwill towards your fellow chaRActers.”

“Uhmmm—yes. Of course.” Guy gave her a courtly little bow.

“And if you would excuse me, LW, I shall go and see what Sol-, errr-- Sgt. Porter wants.” Guy gave another affronted sniff as he turned on his heel, then paused and looked back at LW, his eyes not quit meeting hers as he gave a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders.

“I—don’t suppose you would care to drop a few hints regarding our Christmas presents, would you, Lady Writer?”

LW pressed her lips into a thin line in an effort not to laugh.

In some ways, Guy was very much like a boy inhabiting a man’s body. Lady Writer found it slightly maddening at times, and yet, endearing.

“If you behave yourself, perhaps you WON’T get a lump of coal and a bag of switches. Anyway—you know I like to keep things a surprise. That’s part of the fun of Christmas. So—no snooping.” LW wagged her finger at Guy.

He gave her another little bow, his eyes glinting with mischief. “Yes, milady. Just remember—the no snooping rule can go both ways . . . but I will say no more.”

And with another sly smirk and a toss of his jetty locks, Guy made his exit.

Lady Writer crinkled her forehead (which, sadly, didn’t look nearly as nice as the Creator’s forehead bearing a similar expression) as she absently wrapped a strand of hair around her finger and pondered Guy’s cryptic words.

“OK, just what ARE you boys up to?” She mumbled to herself before giving in to a sizeable yawn.

It had been a sleepless night, the unsettled weather not helping; Lady Writer decided a little nap might be in order.

She would sleep on the mysteries implied by her Dark Knight.

That is, if he and the rest of the lads could keep the noise down, of course . . .

It had been an eventful year for Mr. Lady Writer and his missus.

Some of which they would gladly have done without.

Mr. LW’s summertime “sprained ankle” which turned out to be a broken leg; Lady Writer’s unanticipated loss of her job, and the freakish accident that left her feeling as if she’d been put to the question with a visit to some medieval ruler’s torture chamber.

And then, the sudden, unexpected loss of Lucky Cat, Mr. LW’s last tie to his late parents. Big, stolid, stoic Lucky, with those impossibly huge eyes, the cat who smelled inexplicably of hot buttered popcorn.

If it had been a pickup truck instead of a Crown Vic, and a blue tick hound instead of a cat, I think I’d have the makings of a great little country song, LW thought as she slid her sleep mask into place and pulled the snuggly fleece throw over her.

She couldn’t complain about a dull life, that’s for sure . . .

“Lady Writer . . .”

She opened her eyes and looked up into a bearded face.
A big, fluffy white beard, a lot like—


The blue eyes twinkled merrily beneath the fur-trimmed red cap. “Tell me, Lady Writer, have you been a good girl this year?” Santa’s voice was deep, warm and as velvety as the familiar costume he wore. He sat down on the bed beside her, taking her hand in his gloved palm and patting it.

“I-I’ve tried, Santa.”

Santa crinkled his brow as he studied LW’s face.
“You had that freakish accident in the autumn . . . have you been taking proper care of yourself? Taking things slowly and striving for progress in manageable increments, using hot and cold therapy as needed, taking your pain medications before the pain reaches high levels?”

“Y-e-esss. My goodness, Santa, you sound like a doctor.”

He laughed, a big, jolly belly laugh (although LW had to say that Santa didn’t seem to have much of a belly).

“Well, let’s just say Santa has had to look after quite a lot of reindeer and elves in his time. He wants to make sure all the boys and girls he visits—no matter their age—are in good health. Nourishment and nurturing, that’s my motto . . . now, close your eyes and just relax . . .” His voice caressed her ears and bathed her in a delicious warmth.

She could feel herself drifting away, even as Santa seemed to be—taking her pulse? Odd . . .

“Lady Writer . . .”
A very tall, lanky angel was smiling down at her. An angel with tissue paper and tinsel wings and a coat hanger turned into a slightly askew halo, like a very overgrown member of a primary school nativity play.

Only this angel was also wrapped in old-fashioned C7 bulbs as if he’d had a collision with a Christmas tree. And the lights were shining in a rainbow of colours.

“Must have a battery pack on him,” she murmured drowsily. “Or a really long extension cord . . .”

“Hullo, LW. How are you this lovely morning?” the angel inquired with a sunny smile.

“It’s actually a rather dismal morning—but you certainly brighten things up. You know, I have always thought you were something of an angel. Even dreamed you were one, once,” LW said, smothering a small yawn.

“Excuse me, darling. I am just so tired. But I certainly am having an interesting dream . . .” She narrowed her eyes as she looked up at her angelic visitor.

“You wouldn’t happen to be my guardian angel by any chance? Because if you are, I wouldn’t know whether to thank you or fuss at you after my accident.”

She smiled up at him. “Actually, considering it could have been a lot worse, and I am still in one piece, I guess I should say thank you.”

He gave her another cheeky grin. “Well, there you go.”

LW’s angelic visitor took her hand and bending over, lifted it to his mouth for a hearty kiss.

“Sadly, I cannot lay claim to being your official guardian angel. But I do like trying to look after you. Merry Christmas, dear LW—and best wishes for a better 2012!”

“Merry Christmas,” she said, feeling her eyelids growing heavy once more.

“Ho, ho, ho!” Santa was back, it seemed.

Only this time he appeared to be clad in head-to-toe black leather, topped off with an especially plush Santa hat, his face largely hidden beneath luxuriant false whiskers.

But he definitely was not wearing any false padding under that sleek, form-fitting leather.

Ho, ho, ho indeed.

“So, tell me, Lady Writer. Have you been a naughty girl?” Santa’s voice was deep, honeyed rumble.

LW suddenly realized she was lying there with her mouth hanging open.

“Uhmmmmm . . . why do I think I should say ‘yes’?”

Santa tilted his head and started to tug off his gloves (black leather, naturally) with his incredibly perfect teeth.

“Because—I like naughty girls best of all . . .”

LW’s eyes grew very wide. “Ahhhhh . . .”

Suddenly she felt something soft and fuzzy rubbing against her cheek.



“Huh?” She opened her eyes and found herself nose-to-nose with Puddie Cat, who standing on her chest, kneading the fleece blanket whilst purring loudly.

“Ouch! Watch those claws, Missy,” LW said with a small yelp.

“Seems my dream is over with—dang it. And it was just starting to get really good, Puddie.”

She glanced over to the right and saw her sleep mask lying there. Did she take it off in her sleep? LW shrugged. Stranger things had happened . . .

“Lady Writer . . .” Another Santa stood in the doorway. LW blinked and shook her head a little. OK, maybe the Lor-Tabs and muscle relaxers were making her a bit loopy.

“We’d like you to come in the living room. You’ll have to close your eyes, so I will assist you,” said Santa.

“Ah, I must have a surprise in store.” She stood up a bit slowly and creakily and took Santa’s arm.

“Close your eyes, LW. We won’t rush. Take your time.”

They stepped out into the little hallway and rounded the corner into the living room. She could hear more whispering and the clearing of throats.

“OK, LW. You may open your eyes now.”

“Merry Christmas!” A chorus of baritones rang out from—what? Five Santas, identically dressed? And an angel in tinsel and lightbulbs?—all standing in a semicircle in front of the Christmas tree, which seemed to glow with at least a thousand white fairy lights, ivory and gilt ribbons and all the treasured ornaments she had collected throughout the years.

The Christmas tree? Wait a minute . . .

LW’s mouth dropped open. “The—tree. Where did it come from? I mean—I wasn’t going to bother with a tree this year because of my back—and we won’t be here for Christmas. It’s—beautiful.”

“We knew you’d scaled back things due to your back injury--” said one Santa.

“And we also knew you were feeling a bit down--” chimed in another.

“And we wanted to help out--”

“So we went tramping through your woods to find a tree.”

“And got into an argument over which tree was the best.”

“But we think this one is a corker, Lady Writer.”

Lady Writer nodded. “It is, indeed, a corker, lads.”
She felt the tears forming in her eyes and a major sniffle coming on.

“Lady Writer, you are not going to cry, are you?”

“No—well, maybe just a little, you guys.” She heaved a big sigh. This was—incredibly sweet and thoughtful of you all.”

She glanced around the room with a bemused expression on her face.

“Only—I don’t know exactly who is who underneath all that Santa gear. You all do bear a striking resemblance to one another in your street clothes, much less matching suits and beards.”

The Santas looked at each other, nodding. Then, one by one, each Santa lifted his cap and wig and tugged down his beard.

“Ahhh—Guy’s stubble—and now I see those kohl-rimmed eyes a little better. And—Dr. Track! I dreamt about you when I napped. Is that a stethoscope I spy? Lucas—do I detect a spot of paint on your cheek?”

Lucas smiled and nodded his head. “I’ve been painting with Claude.”

The next Santa lifted his cap to reveal rumpled brown locks and neat little goatee. His blue eyes were positively incandescent.

“And a very fine painter he is becoming, too, Madame.”

Lady Writer crowed with delight. “Monsieur Monet! How delightful to see you!”

“Mon plaisir,” he said with a sweeping bow and sweet smile.

There was one more Santa (and Harry the Angel, of course).

“And who do we have here?” Lady Writer said.

The last Santa tugged down his beard.

“Cheers, Lady Writer. Nice to be out of that bloody desert . . . and away from terrorists—and certain scriptwriters.” He gave LW a wry smile.

“Portah! Oh, Sergeant, come here and give me a hug.” Lady Writer was soon enveloped in one of Porter’s bear hugs, the sort that made a girl feel safe and cherished.

“Thank you—and all the other admirers of our Creator—who Loved Me Into Being, granting me SND status. I think that’s the best gift ever, LW,” Porter murmured into her ear.

“Well, we have to give credit to the Ultimate ChaRActer Strike Force, John—led by Lucas and Guy. Once again, all the lads came together in support of their brother,” LW said, her eyes shining with pride as she smiled up at Porter.
“That is definitely one of the high points of my year, John. You are a soldier who so many admire and love. Your Creator gave us a true hero in you.”

John looked down at his feet with a lop-sided smile. “And you gave me the love of my life and a family and a future.” He pressed a kiss to her cheek.

“It was my pleasure, John. And my readers. You are a very popular character, you know.”

There was a sudden sharp rapping at the front door.

“Were you lads expecting someone else?” LW queried.

The ChaRActers looked at each other and shrugged as they shook their heads.

“I shall answer it,” said Guy, clapping on his cap and putting his beard back into place before striding to the door.
Sweeping it open, he looked through the storm door and froze.
“Who is it, Guy? What’s the matter?”

“It—appears to be a bearded creature the size of a child . . .”

“Thorin Oakenshield,” announced the creature, who, though small in stature, possessed a booming voice easily heard through the storm door.

Lady Writer’s eyes grew wide. “Thorin—Thorin’s here. Oh, Guy—where are your manners? Welcome him in!”

Guy’s eyebrow shot up and he gave a sniff—possibly pondering the prospect of the lack of presents for a naughty Guy--before inclining his head. “Of course, milady, I will be happy to let this—diminutive hairy creature in, if you wish it.”

He opened the door and with a flourish of his hand, indicated Thorin was invited inside.

The “diminutive hairy creature” strode purposefully into the living room. He carried himself so ramrod straight in his silver and blue robes and furs, with such a take-no-prisoners glint in his eyes, he seemed much taller than a mere four feet.

Lady Writer didn’t usually feel attracted to such a vertically challenged man. But for Thorin, as for so many other ChaRActers, she was willing to make an exception.
So what if he was a dwarf? Thorin was a proper MAN.

His hand resting on the hilt of his gleaming sword, the warrior dwarf and rightful King Under the Mountain bowed his head before Lady Writer. “My Lady, I am at your service,” he announced solemnly.

She gazed into those keen blue eyes and smiled. “It is a pleasure to meet you . . . and the first time I have welcomed royalty to my home.”

The other characters crowded around Thorin to warmly welcome him as they introduced themselves to this curious new character in their brotherhood.
Everyone except, that is, Sir Guy. He stood back from the rest, those broad shoulders slumping just a little in his Santa suit.

“Guy? Aren’t you going to welcome Thorin?” Lady Writer said softly as she linked her arm with his.

“You—find him quite impressive, do you not, Lady Writer?”

Guy kept his eyes fixed on Thorin as he spoke.

“Oh, yes—the Creator’s newest character knocks my sock off. And a great many other socks, too.”

Guy heaved a sigh and looked at his feet.

“So. I—suppose he is now your favourite.” In spite of the beard masking it, LW was certain the Adam’s-apple was bobbing in Guy’s swan-like throat. “Since he is royalty, after all.”

“Oh, Guy. Don’t you know me well enough by now to realise I am no snob? Thorin is wonderful. So are you.”

She squeezed his arm. “You will always be my favourite, because you will always be the first; the first to earn my love and break my heart. The first ChaRActer to be Loved into Being.”

LW smiled up at him. “So cheer up, Santa Guy. There’s a lot to celebrate. Red velvet cake. Homemade chocolate-covered cherries.”

She saw the familiar gleam in his beautiful blue eyes.

She rose up on her tiptoes and whispered in his ear. “An unopened box of Cheez-Its with your name on it.”

His lips twitched. “Well, between traipsing through the forest and decorating this tree, I did work up quite an appetite . . .”

Lady Writer laughed. “As our friend Angel Harry would say, ‘Well, there you go.’”

“Lady Writer.” John Porter called out to her. “I believe we started a Christmas tradition last year. Serenading you with a song?”

“Oh, yes. Please sing for me, lads.”

“I believe a certain French carol is a particular favourite of yours, cherie?” said Monet.

Harry grinned. “Yep, one that you could say features me.”

LW clapped her hands together. “’Angels We Have Heard on High?’ Absolutement.”

And soon the seven ChaRActers , old and new, joined their honeyed baritones in singing the traditional carol. Lady Writer didn’t think even angels straight from heaven could sound one whit more beautiful than her lads.

What did they get for Christmas? Ah well, that is another tale to tell.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
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