Chapter One

As Antonius sat by the fire in the den, his reverie was interrupted by a knocking at the door. Annoyed at the interruption of his thoughts of the enchanting Lady Elena, he gruffly responded, "What is it?"

The door opened and in stepped his manservant and head of the estate staff, Jameson.

"Pardon the intrusion, your lordship, but a messenger has arrived from the castle and awaits you in the reception room. She said that on the instructions of her Lady, that she could deliver her message to you and you alone."

At this news, his displeasure vanished and like a shot, he rose from his chair and made haste to receive what he hoped to be a positive response to the invitation he has sent to the Lady Elena.

Just short of the room, Antonius paused to smooth his appearance and took a deep breath to slow the racing of his heart. He experienced a moment of doubt, but praying for the best, stepped inside. Standing there, facing away from him, he found a young lady of about thirteen, whom he recognized as a maid of Lady Elena, rather nervously shifting from one foot to the other. Taking pity on the poor child, Antonius smiled and softly cleared his throat to attract her attention.

Turning toward the sound, she demurely blushed and stammered as she curtsied, "Good e, e, evening, Lord Antonius."

"Good evening," he replied in a gentle tone, "Please, won't you take a seat?"

Antonius indicated a chair nearby and offering his hand led her to it. She was still blushing furiously, but once seated, appeared to relax a bit. Taking a chair nearby, he sat and turned to face her.

"Please be at ease," he said in a querying tone and paused, hoping to elicit her name.

"Mirabelle, your lordship."

Antonius smiled and replied, "Then please be at ease Mirabelle and you can deliver the message of your Lady."

Seeing that he was not as scary as his appearance might suggest, Mirabelle visibly relaxed and after taking a moment to compose herself, she stood again.

Antonius watched her curiously as she retrieved a small note from the folds of her dress, which she reviewed briefly. She then stood as tall as she could, she curtsied once again and spoke.

"Your lordship, my Lady Elena asks that I tell you that she would be honored to attend the masquerade ball with you and sends this as her reply to your other inquiry."

With that, she leaned close to his chair and kissed Lord Antonius lightly on the cheek, then stepped back, blushing a deep crimson.

At that, Antonius laughed merrily and took her small hand in his. Mirabelle was a sweet child and seeing his happiness, she smiled too, her eyes sparking.

"Mirabelle, please convey to your Lady my sincere gratitude," he stated as he released her hand.

Antonius stood slowly to walk with Mirabelle to the front door and calling to Jameson, instructed him to escort her home in his carriage, because it was evident from the lack of a waiting carriage, that she had arrived on foot. At first, she wanted to decline, but Antonius insisted and helping her into the carriage, gave her a small kiss on her hand as farewell, which led to a small bout of giggles and blushes. He stood watching the carriage for a moment and raised his hand in response to her shy wave as she drove out of sight. Then returning inside, he went back to the den, took out paper and quill and began writing out instructions to his staff on the preparations they would need to make for the Lady Elena and himself.

A short time later, surrounded by the crumpled evidence of my efforts, Antonius reviewed his notes a final time and with a smile on his lips and desire in his heart, leaned back in his chair and soon fell asleep to dream of bringing those plans to fruition.

At the castle, Lady Elena was sitting in the parlor with her brother, trying to distract herself with some needlework, which was not progressing quickly at all.

"Oh, I do wish that Mirabelle would hurry and return," Lady Elena whispered.

"Did you say something, Elena," inquired Heckler?

"Oh nothing," she replied, "nothing at all."

Heckler, in true form, grinned and said, "As I would expect from you dear sister, empty words from an empty head."

Smiling innocently, she picked up a spool of thread from her sewing basket and flung it at him as his head was turned away, then studiously concentrated on her needlework, grinning like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.

"Owww! That smarts," he said as the spool bounced off his head, then laughed loudly, for though he enjoyed making jest at his sister's expense, it was only because he cared for her deeply.

"Well you deserve it you lout," Elena said sweetly, "and perhaps it will knock a bit of sense into your head for a change."

Heckler rose, stretched, and noticing her agitation, said, "I don't know what has you on such pins and needles, but I will leave you to your thoughts. I must go attend to the guards and make sure they aren't slacking in their duties."

Elena stood and briefly embraced her brother, then as he left, turned to the window to see if she could spy Mirabelle as she returned and was about to turn away when she noted an open carriage approaching the garden gate and spied Mirabelle sitting in the back, kicking her feet gaily. The young girl was obviously happy and for some reason, she kept extending her right hand out in front of herself, then bringing it to her cheek and smiling.

Resisting the urge to run, Lady Elena took her time returning to her own room to meet Mirabelle, giving Mirabelle time to reach it ahead of her. She assumed that the gay attitude of her young maid was indicative of successful delivery of her message and was eager to hear the details of that meeting. Taking a quick glance around to see that no one was looking, she took out an invitation card from her bosom and read again the message from Lord Anton.

The card was printed on a heavy linen paper and on the front was a formal invitation that read, "Lord Antonius hereby requests the pleasure of accompanying you, Lady Elena Farspire, to the Incruentus Horde's Grand Masquerade Ball to be held a fortnight hence." That alone would have been enough to make her happy, but it was the words written on the back of the card that thrilled her. On the back of the card, in his own handwriting was an addendum to the invitation that said, "And to an intimate dinner for two at my estate after the dance. Your ardent admirer, Antonius." The idea of spending an evening alone with Lord Antonius, away from prying eyes at the castle, touched something in her that caused her heart to race and her legs feel weak.

Lady Elena remembered receiving the invitation ten days prior, but had waited until just four days before the ball to reply and was still a bit shocked at the unexpected invitation to dinner and the declaration of his admiration that it contained. She had not really known Lord Anton for as long as some of the others who vied for her attention, but something about him intrigued her and she finally decided to accept his bold proposal. With these thoughts filling her head, she made her way to her room, arriving just as Mirabelle came dashing down to corridor.

Ushering Mirabelle into her private chambers, she shut the door and turned, demanding of the giddy girl, "Well Mirabelle tell me everything that happened before you bounce out of your shoes."

Mirabelle sheepishly looked down and gave the tiniest pout, but then started to smile broadly and to twirl slightly left and right, replying, "Yes milady."

Lady Elena listed intently as Mirabelle related her encounter with Lord Anton and noticed how she blushed and giggled as she described giving him the kiss and her departure. Elena grinned at her and gave a stroke to Mirabelle's cheek, as it was quite obvious that the young girl seems to have developed a slight crush on Lord Antonius, accounting for her gay mood. Elena was happy to see her so and also happy at the message which she relayed from Lord Antonius. She was sure that her little adventure with Lord Antonius would soon be the subject of much gossip among the younger court attendants and would probably raise Mirabelle's standing among her peers, to have been treated as a lady by a lord, especially one as handsome and dashing as he. She must remember to thank him for his graciousness towards Mirabelle, whom she loved as a younger sister.

But now it was time to start the preparations for the ball and she told Mirabelle to send a message to Monsieur Mickey, the costume designer, and ask him to meet with her later to plan what she would wear to the ball. She giggled herself for a moment at the thought how much fun she was expecting, then sat down and began organizing her thoughts and making plans. Daydreaming a bit, she lay back on her bed after a time, and smiling softly to herself, drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Two

Sunlight streamed into the room as Mirabelle drew back the curtains in Lady Elena's room, and stretching languorously, she slowly opened her eyes, reluctant to leave the dream she had been enjoying. Then remembering that this would be the day of the masquerade, she slowly sat up and brushing the hair from her eyes, grinned mischievously to herself and then hopped out of bed to stand next to it, her hands on her hips.

Noticing her Lady's expression, Mirabelle said coyly, "Good morning milady" as she stood trying to stifle a grin of her own. She had learned to recognize when Lady Elena was in a good mood and perhaps plotting some deviltry.

"Good morning Mirabelle," Elena replied, realizing from Mirabelle's tone that she was letting her thoughts creep into her face and blushing slightly. Then recovering her composure, she started thinking about her day. As Mirabelle helped her to brush her hair and lay out her clothes, she went over in her mind the preparations to be made for this evening and felt a delicious shiver as she recalled a small portion of her dream. Mistaking the shiver for cold, Mirabelle lifted a shawl from the dresser and placed it over her Lady's shoulder, causing Elena to laugh at her childlike innocence, not daring to reveal the true reason.

"You're in a very good mood this morning milady," said Mirabelle.

"Yes Mirabelle, I most certainly am, but we have a lot of work to do before this evening, so let's hurry and get me dressed so we can be about the business of the day," replied Elena.

Not wasting time to reply, Mirabelle, finished brushing out Elena's hair and using some combs, pinned it back out of her face. She then helped her step out of her nightgown and held up the day dress for her to step into. It was a secret known only to her that Lady Elena detested wearing the many layers of undergarments that the others of the court did, and she blushed slightly at the thought of dressing herself in the same fashion. If her mother even suspected that she might do so, she would surely get her backside tanned as punishment. Pushing aside the thought, she quickly helped Lady Elena finish dressing and held up the large mirror for her to look into.

Lady Elena gave herself a critical eye and seeing nothing out of place, she smiled to herself and said, "Thank you Mirabelle....now go ask cook to have my breakfast ready."

As Mirabelle rushed off to do her ladies bidding, Elena made her way to her parlor, and sat down to wait for her breakfast. She reached down and gave a light pinch to her side, thinking of the form fitting costume for the evening. She is tempted to get up and forgo breakfast, but sits back down as Mirabelle enters the room pushing a tray. She glanced longingly at the eggs and bacon, sausages and muffins, alongside the bowl of fresh fruit. Steeling herself, she took the fruit, but as she leaned to do so, the smell of the bacon was so enticing, that she decided she had to have at least a little bite. Selecting a slice, she nibbled at it slowly, savoring the salty goodness. Reluctantly putting the bacon down and taking the fruit, she then sat down to eat. It would be disastrous to faint from hunger tonight considering that it will be her long awaited evening with Lord Anton. As she sat thinking on that, she starts to enjoy the fruit and finds the sweet taste a good compliment to the saltiness of the bacon.

Leaning back after finishing her scant breakfast, she waved over to Mirabelle to come clear the food away and once that was completed, she said to her, "Sit down here, so we can go over the schedule for today."

Mirabelle sat and took from the desk a piece of paper on which to take notes. She knew how much Lady Elena wanted tonight to be perfect and she didn't want to miss any details. Looking up from the paper, she waited patiently for Lady Elena to speak. Seeing Mirabelle waiting with quill and paper to take notes, Lady Elena began.

"First, we need to see Monsieur Mickey for the final fitting of the gown for this evening," she stated, followed by, "and remind me to thank him for all of his hard work."

"Yes milady," Mirabelle replied, making a quick note on her paper.

"Next, we need to check with the hairdresser to confirm that she will be here on time and then I want to make a short stop at the perfumery. The proprietor there said she has a new scent he thinks will suit me," Elena said, watching Mirabelle making further notes.

"I will also require a rose from the bouquet that Lord Anton sent yesterday," Lady Elena said. These roses were like none that Elena had ever seen, with petals that were white near the stem, but with reddish orange tips that made it look like a white flower set aflame. This was to be the agreed upon signal that would allow him to find her among the costumed party goers. When he found her he was to use the word thorn in his greeting and thus confirm his identity. Mirabelle scribbled down another note on her paper.

"And finally, I want you Mirabelle, and no one else, to lay out the other dress I told you I wanted and a light hooded cloak in case the night turns chill."

Mirabelle looks up and smiled as she realized she has become a co-conspirator with Lady Elena to sneak out of the castle later. The idea of helping her to meet privately, without chaperons, with Lord Anton at his estate gave her a thrill. She still remembered how chivalrous Lord Anton has been towards her and blushed in remembrance of the farewell kiss on the hand. Secretly she wished she was old enough to catch his eyes, and amidst her reverie, she noticed that Lady Elena was staring intently at her, causing her to blush even deeper and to lower her eyes.

Having taken Mirabelle into her confidence on her plans for the evening, she suspected the reason for the girl's blush by how she lightly rubbed the back of her hand and had to suppress a chuckle to avoid embarrassing her further. Mirabelle was such a sweet child and she loved her dearly.

Having laid out the day's schedule and seeing that Mirabelle had finished her notes, Lady Elena sent her to notify the coachman that she was ready to depart for Monsieur Mickey's and would be down shortly. Making a brief stop in her room to lightly wash her face and hands, she then went down and departed for town.

At Lord Anton's estate, things were not going quite according to plan and Antonius was agitated. The florist had sent the wrong order and was unsure where his deliverymen were at the moment with the correct one. Lilies simply would not do and if the order didn't get here soon, there would be hell to pay. When he looked at the flowers, all he could think of was death, an impression he most definitely didn't want to make. Taking a deep breath, he decided to focus instead of the rest of the preparations. The box from the costumer with his outfit for the evening had arrived and was ready for him to wear and Jameson had the boots that he would be wearing polished to a high gloss. Seeing this, Antonius made his way to the kitchen to check with the chef, and as he entered, the man gave Antonius a sign that things were well in hand. Lord Antonius leaned in briefly towards the food cooking nearby and inhaled deeply. The aroma was heavenly, so he saluted the chef and set off towards the sitting room to check on preparations there.

The sitting room would be the location for the start of the evening and Antonius checked that there was adequate wood for the fireplace and that the staff had thoroughly cleaned as had been instructed. He ran my finger along the mantle and when it picked up no dust, made a mental note to thank the staff for their fine work. He checked one other item which he had picked up in the market place from an Oriental merchant, then seeing that all was in order, headed outside.

Walking to the carriage house, Lord Antonius ensured that it contained the items he had requested. As he stood there, the coachman approached and asked, "Is everything to your satisfaction your lordship?"

"Yes, very good. And you know when and where I want you at the castle later this evening, correct," Antonius asked?

"Yes your lordship. I will be at the west wall gate at midnight as you requested your lordship," he stated.

Clapping the man on the shoulder, Antonius nodded and said, "Good man. You have my thanks."

At last satisfied that all of the preparations, with the exception of the florist, were proceeding as had been instructed, Antonius went back into the house and sat down in the den. Getting comfortable, he let his thoughts wander to memories of the night he had first met Lady Elena.

Antonius had been asked to the castle by the Prince to discuss some expansion plans he had that would require timber from the mill owned by his estate. As the Prince and Antonius were concluding the arrangements, they were interrupted by the entrance of the most alluring woman Antonius had ever seen. He couldn't take his eyes off of her and noticing that he had lost the attention of Lord Antonius, the Prince laughed and said, "Well, I see that I can no longer hold your interest." Antonius apologized and asked quietly, who the Lady was. The Prince, seeing the keen interest in his eyes, waved for her to come over and made introductions.

"Lord Anton, I would like to present the Lady Elena, recently widowed when her husband, my cousin, was lost at sea. And Elena, this is Lord Antonius, who resides in an estate nearby and will be providing some of the raw materials for the new library that you've heard me talking about," he said.

She offered her hand and bowing, Antonius took it in his and brushed it lightly with his lips, saying, "It is a pleasure to meet such a charming Lady. I am at your service," and stared deeply into her eyes. The intensity with which she returned his gaze struck a chord with him and he almost forgot to straighten up again until the Prince cleared his throat. Antonius felt like a love struck boy and seeing his momentary lapse, the Lady laughed softly before replying, "The pleasure is mine as well, Lord Antonius," before gently withdrawing her hand. With introductions complete, the Lady then excused herself and Antonius returned to conversation with the Prince, but his mind was elsewhere, having become enchanted by the Lady and he knew in his heart that he wanted more. His only hope was that he hadn't made a complete fool of himself in her eyes.

As Antonius was engaged in his memories of their first meeting, Jameson came in through the open door of the den and announced, "Sir, the florist deliverymen are here with the correct order." At this news, Antonius followed him outside and after inspecting the merchandise, he said, "Yes, that's what I wanted. Please get those lilies out of here. It's like a funeral parlor in there." The deliverymen made haste to do as Antonius ordered with many words of apology. His reputation was for having a lack of tolerance with mistakes, but in truth, he was quite slow to anger, and his servants appreciated it, but there was no need to let the deliverymen know that. That slight edge of fear would help to keep them in line in the future.

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