a customary acknowledgement of one's opponent
Vauxhall Garden, London
"Somewhere in heaven, Maestro Angelo weeps."
"Who said that?" Young Lord "Figgy" Figburt, demonstrating a parry for his teenage companions, wheeled about. He peered down Vauxhall Garden's dimly lit Lovers Walk to see who'd invoked the name of the last century's greatest swordsmaster.
"I did." A tall, graceful figure detached itself from the surrounding shadows, like darkness coalescing into form and substance, and glided toward them. "I tried to refrain from interfering; I meant to pass mutely by," the stranger purred in elegant Scottish accents. Teeth flashed white in the Scot's shadowed face. "But, as there is life in me, I cannot let a sport I hold dear be so blasphemed."
"What d'ya mean, 'Angelo weeps'?" Hulking Thom Bascomb, dressed for the evening's masquerade as a rather hirsute shepherdess, demanded tipsily. "Whadda ya implyin' 'bout Figgy's swordplay?"
"I imply nothing. I say his remiss is an abomination. Still...it's not beyond redemption."
The man glided nearer, and the muted light from the gas lanterns strung through the trees revealed one of the most extraordinarily handsome men Figgy had ever seen: a tall, whipcord-lean and athletic-looking fellow who'd eschewed the costumes worn by the other attendees of this night's revels. Instead, he wore dark trousers, a black frockcoat with a blue waistcoat beneath, and a simple white stock about his neck, pinned by the only ornamentation on his person, a small gold stickpin in the shape of a rose.
Everything about him made Figgy feel gauche and, therefore, rather surly. "This is a costume ball, sir! It means you have to be in costume," he pronounced irritably. "See Thom there? He ain't really a gel, and I ain't a rajah."
"You don't say."
Thom wobbled forward and glared at the Scot. "Just what is it you're rigged out as, mister?"
The Scotsman, nearly as tall as Thom but at least three stone lighter, let his gaze slide down the young man's thick, corseted trunk to the layers of pink flounced skirts below. "A gentleman?" he suggested mildly.
Guffaws erupted from the other lads as Thom's face turned brilliant red, but Thom did not demand satisfaction for the insult. Something about the Scot pierced the alcoholic haze clouding what little good sense he owned. Here was something dangerous. Something outside his experience. Something...lethal.
"Who're you?" he demanded.
"Ramsey Munro." The man inclined his head slightly. "I am the owner of L' école de la Fleur. A small salle in White Friars. At your service, young sirs."
"You're a swordsman?" Thom sneered, handing Figgy the flask he'd produced from beneath his skirts.
"I am," Munro replied. "I chanced to be walking by when I overheard you young gentlemen discussing the forthcoming International Dueling Tournament. You are considering entering?"
"And what if we were?" Figgy asked. "What's it to you?"
"Nothing. But as an instructor of the art of swordplay, I was interested. I paused and saw you execute a remiss a child could counter."
"I s'pose you could do better?"
The man's shoulders lifted in an elegant gesture. "More to the point, I could teach you to do better."
Figgy, seeing a bit of sport to be had, grinned. He was by far the best swordsman of the lot of them. "Could you teach Thom to counter my remiss?"
Munro glanced over. "The milkmaid? Absolutely."
"Or any of these others?" Figgy waved at the rest of his companions, milling drunkenly about the periphery.
"Any of them."
He sounded far too sure of himself, and Figgy's confidence wavered. Perhaps the Scot had some secret botte, an uncounterable move that needed little practice but only a few whispered words of instruction?
Fiend seize it, he couldn't back down now. He only wished he wasn't quite so bosky. On that thought, he lifted the flask and emptied the remains into his mouth. As he did, he spied a movement at the end of the gravel path. A figure dressed in the fashion of a young footman from the previous century hurried toward them.
Figgy watched her gratefully. Her, because, despite the masculine attire, there could be no doubt that the figure beneath the ruby velvet pantaloons and tight-fitting surcoat was decidedly a "her" -- a sweetly curving, luscious "her." She'd stuffed her hair beneath a black cap and a black silk mask covered her eyes, but nothing could disguise the sway of her hips or the bosom that made a mockery of whatever device she'd used to bind it.
Lady or ladybird, it made little difference. She was here, unattended at a Vauxhall Garden masquerade, on the infamous Lovers Walk. Which meant she was at best a barque of frailty looking for a shoal to wreck herself upon, or at worst a Haymarket scow seeking new passengers. Either way, she was fair game, and the game he had in mind would prove fair, indeed. He smiled.
"You could, in fact," he addressed Munro, "teach anyone?"
"Well then, how about her?" Figgy pointed at the woman.
Her pace slowed. A glint of lantern light caught the sapphire flash of her eyes behind the mask. Ah, he did fancy blue eyes.
Munro turned his head. "A woman?" he asked with a bored look of contempt. "No."
Figgy grinned with relief. Having shown the stranger up as a blowhard, he could now send him off and investigate the evening's suddenly more interesting prospects.
"Just as well," Figgy replied amiably. "I'd as soon teach her some skills she could put to better use."
His friends laughed while the woman, after a second's hesitation, veered off sharply, quickening her pace. Thom grabbed her, wrapping his great arm about her waist.
"Young man, take your hands off me." Her voice was low pitched, composed, and unexpectedly forceful. If Thom hadn't been quite so ale blown, he very probably would have dropped his hand and sidled sheepishly away. But Thom was drunk. Very drunk.
"Come now, sweetmeat," he crooned. "We're who you've been looking for."
"You most certainly are not." She did not struggle. She simply tipped her chin up above her lace-edged cravat and gazed calmly from behind her black silk mask into Thom's sloppily grinning face. "Come now," she continued in a voice just a shade above a whisper. "Haven't you better things to do? Night watchmen's boxes to tip? Lanterns to throw rocks at?"
"Did that last night," Thom confessed, pulling her into the light.
Figgy felt Munro tense and glanced at the Scot curiously. For a second, Figgy could have sworn Munro looked startled.
"Young sirs," the woman said, "you have obviously taken me for someone, or something, else."
A little color had developed in the visible part of her face, but she spoke without trepidation. Old hand at this sort of thing, was she? A habitué of pleasure gardens and lively entertainments? Lovely.
"No, we ain't." One of the lads shook his head. "We know'd you straight off. A bird of paradise looking for a roost."
She looked the part of a Cyprian, that was certain. Her legs were long and her bottom rounded, and the pantaloons encased them just tight enough that imagination provided what eyes did not. She had smooth skin, too, pale and cameo clear, and her mouth was deep pink, a short, bowed upper lip crowning a lush, full lower one.
"You are making a mistake," she repeated, pulling away.
"Not so soon!" Thom protested, tugging her back.
"This is ridiculous. I don't have time to play with little boys. Let me go." She jerked her hand free.
Little boys? Figgy stepped in front of her, blocking her way. Why, he'd be eighteen this very month! He'd teach her who was a man and who a boy! Marchioness or scullery maid, she had come here, they hadn't sought her out. If a girl didn't want to play at a bit of slap and tickle, why, then, she hadn't ought be out on Lovers Walk alone, ought she? Nor dressed in so indecent a manner, one that shouted for men to take note...and anything else they could get away with.
Besides, he'd let his sword fall to the gravel path, and it wasn't as if he was going to hurt her, just taste those incredible lips --
"I have changed my mind." Munro was suddenly between Figgy and the girl. "I can not only teach her to counter your remiss. I can teach her to disarm you."
"What?" Figgy blinked. He'd forgotten Munro. Forgotten everything but his intention of having a bit of sweetness off this uppity honeypot. And that was exactly what he meant to do.
"That is," the urbane voice continued, "if you're the neck-or-nothing fellow I take you to be."
Neck-or-nothing? Figgy, in the act of reaching for the girl, stopped. He had the unpleasant notion Munro had just questioned his mettle.
"What? Certainly I am," Figgy mumbled, frowning. Of course he was. Who could doubt it?
"And a betting man?"
Figgy promptly nodded. Like any Pink of the Ton, he considered himself a regular Captain Sharp, if a temporarily unlucky one.
"I have ten pounds," the Scotsman said, "that says with fifteen minutes of instruction this woman will be able to disarm you."
"And I have twenty pounds that says give him his ten and send him on his way!" Thom exclaimed, his eyes feasting on the girl.
"A hundred," Munro shot back.
At this Thom and the rest of Figgy's friends quieted. A wager of a hundred pounds sounded interesting. Especially when they knew that Figgy had been dished up proper the night before last and would be leaning heavily on his companions to finance tonight's play.
"Do it!" someone shouted.
A woman disarm him? A hundred pounds? Too easy by half.
"This is absurd!" the girl declared. She turned around, and even though she still wore the mask, Figgy could tell the exact instant she saw, really saw, Munro. She stopped, trapped by his curst handsome vis like a dove in a net. For three heartbeats she stood frozen, and then she was pushing past Munro, declaring hotly, "I am not -- "
Munro clasped her upper arm, drawing her effortlessly to him, abruptly stopping whatever she'd been about to say.
"I am afraid what you are or who makes no difference at this point, my dear," he said, tipping her back over his forearm. "Now, be a good girl and a better sport."
Even half drunk, Figgy could see the hot retort rising to her lips. But this, too, Munro halted by dipping her back even further.
"For luck," he said and kissed her.
Copyright © 2004 by Connie Brockway