With the problem of the flowers resolved, Antonius could now relax a bit, confident that the preparations were proceeding as scheduled and barring disaster, his plans for the evening would be successful. He decided that to ensure he was fresh for the evening, he would take a short nap before getting up to what beginning to promise to be one of the most memorable nights of his life.

Later that afternoon, having finished with Monsieur Mickey and confirming with the hairdresser, the time of her appointment, Lady Elena was at the perfumery speaking with the proprietor. He was in the back of his shop retrieving a new perfume he had received from Paris that he promised would make her irresistible to any man who smelled it. He had confided to her that he had this on good authority from a local courtesan who was widely regarded by several members of the royal court. Since she only desired the attention of one man this evening, she thought that perhaps if she did wear this scent, that she would not do so until she left for her tryst with Lord Anton. As the shop owner returned, she had already decided on the scent she would wear for the ball and before he presented his new find, she asked that he bottle some of it for her. Once finished with that task, the perfumer said, "This scent is the one I wanted you to try."

Lifting the stopper from the small crystal bottle he offered, Lady Elena waved it slowly in front of her face and noticed immediately that it was a very subtle fragrance, but unique in her experience and not easily described. Not too flowery, or in any way harsh, it intrigued her, but the real test was to smell it on herself, so she touched the stem of the stopper to her wrist and inhaled. She thought that it smelled even better on her skin and waved Mirabelle over to get her opinion.

"What do you think, Mirabelle", she asked, holding out her wrist?

Mirabelle leaned forward and sniffed softly, and Lady Elena watched as a small smile played on her lips. "That's very pretty, milady," she said, "but I can't say that I've every smelled anything like it before."

The girls honest opinion confirmed her own, that such a scent would be a good choice and she immediately asked the perfumer to bottle some of it for her as well. Happy with her purchases and noticing the lengthening shadows outside, she headed back home to begin the lengthy process of dressing for the ball. She was starting to feel a bit of nerves and was glad she had only had the light breakfast this morning. Anticipation was building within her to a fever pitch and it took considerable self control to keep from yelling at the carriage driver to go faster. She still had plenty of time and it seemed to drag on interminably.

Chapter 3

As the sun was setting, Antonius stood for a moment and admired himself in the long looking glass in his bedroom. The costumer had outdone himself. So different from the normal dress of the royal court, it was sure to cause a stir when he made my entrance.

"I am one handsome rogue, if I do say so myself," Antonius mumbled to myself.

"Sir," questioned Jameson, putting away the clothing Antonius had removed to don the costume.

Antonius waved him away and picked up the mask he had selected and holding it to his face for a moment, he grinned at the effect. He could not wait to see the reaction of Lady Elena when he presented himself to her at the ball. It was customary at these events that guests not be announced by name, but that they present themselves to the members of the court and not remove their masks until the appointed hour. But by that time, he hoped to be away with Lady Elena and en route to their rendezvous at his home.

"Jameson, I'm ready for the carriage now. Go inform the driver and hand me my cape."

"Yes, your lordship," he replied, picking up his lordship's cape and affixing it to his right shoulder, then departing to follow the instructions of Antonius. With the cape in place, Antonius picked up the small spray of orchids from the florist delivery earlier in the day that he planned to present to Lady Elena upon his arrival. She would be holding one of the fire and ice roses Antonius had sent the prior evening. He had asked that she be holding a single flower to ensure that he recognized her, although he was certain he would now matter how deft the costumer's art. It was also a signal that she was still willing to accept his invitation for after the ball. Would she be? Antonius could not bear the thought that she had changed her mind and put it away quickly lest he sink into despair.

Heading outside, Antonius saw that his carriage was waiting, and stepped inside quickly, signaling to the driver with a tap on the floor with his cane that they should depart. As the carriage and four got under way with a crack from the drivers whip, Antonius sat back, savoring the thought of seeing the object of his admiration and desire that awaited at the end of the journey. What would she be wearing? What scent would adorn her? Would she approve or be shocked by his costume? He could not stop his heart from quickening in anticipation and sat on the edge of his seat, willing the carriage and the hours to move more quickly. Only time would bring the answers to these and the dozens of other questions that were buzzing around his brain. Would this ride never end?

In the wings of the grand ballroom of the castle, Lady Elena, having finished being poked, prodded, wrapped and stuffed into her costume over the last couple of hours, was impatient for the ball to begin. She paced slowly back and forth, hearing from the musician's balcony, the players tuning their instruments and warming up. Soon, very soon, the ball would begin and she would be required to take her place in the receiving line with the Prince and other members of the court in attendance. Then would come the long procession of guests, the men all bowing and scraping to win the favor of the Prince, and the ladies all eager to fall under him into his bed. And only after this would the dancing and merriment begin. Lady Elena would have found any excuse to forgo this ordeal, if not for it being the first chance to see Lord Anton that evening. For that, she would endure.

Tiring of her pacing, she decided to head to her parlor and to try to relax. Difficult to do in fancy dress, since she was loathe to risk damaging the costume, she opted to lean against the cool granite of the fireplace mantle. While she enjoyed the thought of how enticing she looked in her costume, it was a bit warm and her thoughts of what lay ahead this night weren't helping to cool her. As she was standing there relaxing, Mirabelle appeared with a large frown wrinkling her face.

"Is something wrong, Mirabelle," Elena asked gently?

"My mother told me I can't be in the ballroom this evening," she said in a pouty voice, "and I wanted to see all the pretty costumes".

Seeing her so deflated caused a sympathetic pang in Elena's heart and since Mirabelle had been so helpful in making the plan for tonight come together, she decided to help her out. Moving over to wrap one arm around Mirabelle's shoulder, Lady Elena leaned close and whispered, 'Don't fret dear, I have a plan to help you."

"You do," queried Mirabelle, starting to brighten.

"Yes, mon petit, I do. Go fetch me a piece of paper and bring it over to the desk," Elena said.

While the girl ran off to get the paper, Lady Elena tried to think of a good excuse she could give to Mirabelle's mother and looking about the room, she noticed a bouquet of flowers and one struck her. She would tell her that Mirabelle was needed to make a count of all the ladies and gentlemen at the ball, so that at the unmasking hour, each lady could be presented with a rose and each gentleman a carnation from the greenhouse as a token of the court's esteem. This would allow Mirabelle to sit in the balcony and see all of the guests like she wanted. Lady Elena remembered being thirteen and how exciting it was to watch from the balcony at such events in the past and wanted to give Mirabelle the same pleasure.

When the girl returned, she quickly wrote out a note to Mirabelle's mother and another for one of the gardening staff, because although she had ulterior motives for doing so, she thought it would be a lovely gesture for the guests, nonetheless. Mirabelle stood nearby, curiosity as to the contents of the notes, visibly excited.

"Now take this note to the gardener and the other to your mother and then get another paper so you can keep count from the balcony," Elena instructed Mirabelle.

Mirabelle quickly read over the notes and broke into an elated smile, "Yes milady, and thank you ever so much." Quickly hugging Elena in gratitude, she then ran off, almost skipping in her delight.

Lady Elena couldn't help but smile as she watched Mirabelle and chuckled to herself. She felt good about doing this small kindness for her. It was the least she could do for the child who served her so well and for whom she felt great affection.

As she was standing there pleased with herself, she heard a bell ringing in the hall. It was the signal for the members of the court to gather in the hall for the beginning of the ball. Her heart skipped a beat, then calming herself, she smoothed her costume and made her way towards the ballroom, feeling inside almost as giddy as she thought Mirabelle must be.

At that moment, in the castle courtyard, Antonius glanced out the window of the carriage as we entered the castle courtyard and noted that there were about a dozen or so carriages in front of his, slowly disgorging their passengers. A smile played across his lips as he waited for his turn and his feet tapped a merry rhythm, looking forward to dancing with his adored one. Giving his costume a quick glance, Antonius sat up and picked up the orchids from the seat beside him. Just a few more moments.

Inside the ballroom, Lady Elena took her place in the receiving line with the other members of court and with the rose in her hand, she eagerly awaited the arrival of the first guests. The musicians had started to play softly and the merry sounds of the flute and strings seemed a appropriate accompaniment to her excited and gay mood. She was tremendously excited and was almost trembling in anticipation of the arrival of Lord Antonius. Had it not been unladylike, she would have squealed in delight. As it was, she was grinning broadly and as the Prince saw her, he wondered what had put such a look on her face.

With a clearly resounding boom, the court sergeant at arms struck the floor at the top of the stairs with his heavy and ornate staff and announced in his loud, clear voice. "Your Highness, Lords and Ladies of the court, and honored guests, it is my privilege and honor to announce the start of the annual grand masquerade ball of the house of Incruentus. I wish you all an evening of merriment and long life to my liege and the kingdom."

As he finished, there was a smattering of applause and cries of "Hear, Hear," and the guests began queuing up to greet the court.

Lord Anton awaited his turn, standing relaxed in line and noted that he seemed to be attracting attention. Men glanced at him askew and from some of the ladies nearby, he hear tittering and noticed more than once pair of eyes following his every movement. While he only cared for the attention of one lady tonight, it still stroked his ego that his choice of costume was causing such a stir. He casually slid one of his thumbs into his belt, his other fingers extended and resting on the top of his thighs with his forefinger moving back and forth slowly, and as he did so, had to suppress a laugh as he saw a young woman in front of him stumble a bit as she was intently watching his hand and what was next to it instead of where she was going. He thought to himself, "You certainly are a devil," and an impish smirk adorned his face. From beneath her mask, he could see her embarrassed blush and she turned away as her escort asked if she was alright. It was going to be an interesting evening indeed. With his thoughts returning to Lady Elena, he moved slowly forward with the line of guests, hoping to inspire in her such a reaction.

Lady Elena heard a murmuring from the guests and her curiosity was piqued at what might be causing it, but each time she tried to steal a glance down the line of guests, the one in front of her would speak, drawing her eyes back. She turned for a moment and glanced up at the balcony to see Mirabelle there, grinning in delight as she watched the guests and gave her a little wave. Mirabelle smiled brightly, but suddenly her expression changed and she blushed crimson, her eyes rivet on a spot just to the right of Elena. At that moment, the guest in front of her gave a rumbling sigh that almost sounded like a purr and she turned her eyes to see who it was.

Lord Anton noted as he approached Lady Elena, recognized by the rose in her had, that she was glancing up at the balcony and looking up, he noticed Mirabelle standing there. He bowed his head slightly towards the young girl and blew her a kiss, causing her to blush profusely. Then he turned his attention to Lady Elena and stared appreciatively at her appearance, which he had noticed was drawing as much attention from the gentlemen in attendance as his was with the ladies. He took a moment to admire the deep purple of the outer skirt, which was open in the front, and the bodice, with it's embroidered embellishment of golden leaves covering it, the high collar and daring neckline that dipped provocatively between her breasts, so unlike the square necklines of the other ladies, with finely crafted lace that trimmed the collar, neckline and cuffs. He admired the lighter colored underskirt showing from the opening in the outer one, and the tiny silver star bursts that adorned it, bringing to mind the evening sky and the first appearance of stars in the heavens. Looking up again, he took in her fiery red hair, piled on her head, but not too high, and her tiara with a large opal in the center of it and of the thin wires attached to her hair with dangling stars at the end that moved and twinkled in the light. The sight took his breath away and he was struck speechless for a moment, but then sighed contentedly with a soft rumble and gazed into her eyes as she turned to face him. His only regret was that he couldn't see the whole of her face behind the mask.

As she turned, the first thing she noted was that unlike the bright colors of the rest of the gentlemen in attendance, that this costume was a deep blue, almost black. His pants, which were of a glossy material, instead of being loose as was the fashion, were much more form fitting and showed his muscular legs to advantage and as her eyes approached his waist and the belt there, with it's jeweled buckle, she felt a pleasant tingling sensation and a stirring in her loins. Her eyes took in his form and moving up, noted his doublet of black silk with a fiery applique in gold with bits of red silk interspersed, making him look almost as if he were on fire. His collar, instead of being high and buttoned up, was open a bit, allowing the tiniest peek at the sprinkling of hair on his broad chest. His mask was also in black and it gave him a rakish appearance. His dark brown hair was pulled back from his face and tied with a small blood red ribbon at the back of his neck and atop his head was a golden coronet inlaid with rubies and black pearls. Completing his outfit were his calf high boots, polished to a mirror shine and a cape draped over his right shoulder, black with a deep maroon lining.

Lord Anton, bowed to Lady Elena, never taking his eyes from her face and spoke, "Good evening most fair Lady. It is an honor and a privilege to make your acquaintance'" and as he did so, he held out his right hand, palm up towards hers.

Lady Elena lightly placed her hand in his and felt a thrill as he brushed his lips lightly over it, replying, "Good evening kind Sir, but I am not so fair as this rose I hold."

"It is indeed beautiful, dear Lady, but be careful, lest you be pricked by it's thorn," he said, giving the agreed upon signal to let her know that it was he who stood before her. He continued, "If I may be so bold, I would offer to you this spray of orchids in it's stead," pulling the delicate light purple flowers with their mouths of deep red and softer pinks, from behind his back and holding them out to her in his left hand as he stood once again before her.

His words confirming what her heart had already known, she said, "Thank you kind Sir," and with that, she held out her hand for the offered orchids and handed the rose to a servant standing nearby.

As Lord Anton placed the orchids in her left hand, he covertly also pressed a small folded note into the palm of her right, shielding it from the view of the other people standing nearby and only withdrawing his hand when he felt her close her hand over it.

Feeling the paper pressed into her hand, Lady Elena closed her hand over it and taking the flowers, she brought them to her nose to smell them. They were very beautiful and as she inhaled their delicate scent, she secreted the note in the folds of her skirt, burning with curiosity as to its contents. Glancing quickly down the line of guests still to be received, her face fell for a moment as she did a quick mental count, but she steeled her heart to endure. Looking back to Lord Anton, she winked at him and he winked in return before moving on to the next person in the receiving line.

The remainder of greeting line was a blur for Lady Elena, as her thoughts were occupied with Lord Anton and when she could, she looked for him in the growing press of guests. It wasn't difficult to spot him in that distinctive costume or the crowd of ladies vying for his attention. It thrilled her to notice that his eyes kept returning to her as he moved about the room and as the last guest passed her, she was grateful. At a signal from the sergeant at arms to the musicians, the music changed and people began to move to the dance floor and dance. Unable to wait any longer, Elena slipped into a quiet corner of the ballroom and quickly opened the note.

The paper of the note had a faint scent of sandalwood and she held it to her face for a moment, finding the scent tantalizing. No fancy script, the note was simply a handwritten one from Antonius, which read, "Dearest Elena, I have instructed my driver to wait for us at the west wall gate. He will be there shortly before midnight. I will meet him there and wait for you to join me so we can head to my estate. I cannot express how much I am looking forward to it. Your ardent admirer, Antonius." She shivered as she considered the meaning of meeting Lord Antonius at his estate, away from the eyes of the other members of the court and the servants. They would be truly alone for the first time since they had met.

A delicious shiver ran down her spine reading those words and she quickly tucked the note securely in her bosom, then turned back to the crowd of guests and sought out Antonius with her eyes. She saw him standing across the room, his eyes locked on her and for a moment, she felt almost naked under his gaze as if he had stripped her to bare flesh and was greedily devouring her with his eyes and she felt her knees get weak. Taking a deep breath, she recovered slightly and saw him crossing the room heading in her direction.

Antonius had waited as patiently as possible for the receiving line to end so he could claim the attention of his beloved Elena and when he spied her in a corner by herself, he felt his passion stir and stood for a moment gazing at her fiercely before slowly starting across the room to where she stood. He was oblivious to everyone and everything around him, his whole being focused on her. Finally standing next to her, he stood entranced at the vision she was and was for a moment at a loss for words.

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