Winter's Delight

For Liz, a fellow devotee of Sir Percy and Marguerite's romance, and with thanks to Kate, eagle-eyed beta-extraordinaire!

"Mon Dieu!" Marguerite Blakeney gasped as she stepped into the entrance way of the Upper Rooms. "Suzette, cherie! Come and look!"

As Lady Ffoulkes drifted forward with a quizzical smile to meet her friend, Sir Percy Blakeney caught the eyes of his fellow chevalier and shared a silent moment of amusement.

"Andrew!" Suzanne called over her shoulder, beckoning her husband to her with an impatient waggle of her gloved fingers. "Look at the snow, it must be at least ankle-deep!"

The two men obeyed, letting an attendant and two gentleman pass before weaving through a separate party of anxious women in silk skirts and dainty slippers. The covering of white beyond the doors that their own ladies were regarding with amusement, wonder and not a little vanity, seemed to have fallen all at once in a generous blanket. When the two couples had made the short journey from the Blakeney's Bath residence in the Circus around the corner to the Rooms, the evening air had been clear with a biting wind and now, only some few hours later, the road was hidden and bright flakes danced before the streetlamps.

"Lud!" Percy laughed. "I wonder if there are link-boys buried beneath that perishing mantle?"

"We have no need of being carried in a chair for the short journey to our own door," Marguerite replied hesitantly, opposing her husband's jest whilst watching the falling snow. "How deep can it really be, after so short a time?"

"Ffoulkes, my good man, show the lady," Percy suggested carelessly.

"After you!" Sir Andrew riposted, smiling.

Percy, his eyes laughing at Ffoulkes' own enjoyment of the situation, placed his hands on Marguerite's shoulders, lifting her heavy, fur-trimmed mantle closer about her form. "A hired chair would save us having to set one foot outside, m'dear," he spoke close to her ear. "Why chance the elements for the sake of a small fare? It's not even double time for the chairmen!"

"Oh, but –" she started, turning in his arms to face him. "It is not so far, is it? We could be home in front of the fire before we even noticed the cold! And there are others here in greater need of the chairs and carriages."

Percy regarded her earnest face, tilted up to look at his, and caught the lustre in her tender gaze. "And what of your poor feet?"

"You can buy a new pair, to match the slippers and gown I shall also require," she told him, holding her mouth perfectly straight until he laughed.

"We cannot walk home, Andrew," Suzanne quietly told her husband. "It's too far."

"Nonsense!" Percy interjected. "Who is going home? You must both come to our house, and stay as our guests."

"It might be deeper in the morning," Sir Andrew intoned, holding his wife close to him and absently caressing her arm.

"Then you shall be stuck with us until the spring, and we shall see just how firm our friendship really is," Percy told him in mock challenge, with only the relaxed line of his lips betraying his cheerful humour.

He returned his attention to Marguerite: "However, I shall make the journey first, to cut a path and to collect your overshoes. I shan't be long, and you and Lady Ffoulkes – Lady …" He frowned, glancing at Suzanne. "Do you have a spare pair of shoes, or boots, m'dear?"

"You know I do," Marguerite answered dryly. "I have a well-stocked wardrobe in every house, for every type of weather, and in addition to the capricious replenishments necessary for a successful London season."

"Quite," Sir Percy sighed, feigning the exasperation of a put-upon spouse. "Then I shall gather suitable trappings for both fair ladies, and return for our group expedition across the Pole."

"Shall I come with you, Blakeney?" Sir Andrew volunteered.

Percy, with a quick glance at his friend's protective embrace around his young wife's arms, shook his head. "Nay, man, I exaggerate the dangers," he offered in good-natured refusal.

"It seems a rather excessive venture to make the trip twice," Marguerite sighed. "Ask Lucy to fetch what you think I shall require to brave the elements, or we might never see you again."

"Aye, what is the coldest wind, the deepest snow, to a woman's dressing room?" he laughed again, taking her hand. "Return to the tea room, and I shall collect you anon."

"Thank you, Sir Percy," Suzanne told him, placing a hand on his arm before reaching out for Marguerite's proffered embrace. The two women giggled like schoolgirls, and made for the rooms beyond.

Sir Andrew shook his head in wonderment. "I do believe they want to go out in this dreadful weather, even just to struggle around the corner!"

"Don't you?" Percy asked in all seriousness.

The air was chill with a clean, pure aroma, and the sharp wind had settled to allow the flakes of snow, grey against the night sky, to flutter and whirl gently to the ground. Marguerite, taking her husband's arm, was first to venture into the cold, gingerly compacting with the toe of one booted foot the fragile frozen layer that covered the path. Furrows and stray prints in drifts not so easily replenished marked the progress of those hardy souls caught out in the worst of the blizzard; Marguerite fancied she could follow Percy's earlier trudging step across Bennett Street.

With her first full step, Marguerite sank nearly mid-calf, the snow rising over the top of her leather over-shoes. "Oh!" she exclaimed with the initial shock of the cold, and then she gave way to laughter.

Percy tilted his head to watch the delight on her face, but she was shrouded behind the capacious folds of her hood. He could easily imagine her expression – the dancing light in her wide blue eyes, a glowing blush to her cheeks, an unrestrained smile lifting her happy mouth – but Marguerite threw down the warm protection of its covering at that moment, turning to look at him. Beneath the lanterns that hung above the north colonnade, with the light of the flickering flames picking out the precious shades of her hair and melting snowflakes as added jewels to adorn the sculptured curls, his wife's beauty betrayed even his fondest memory. Forcing himself to swallow, Percy touched her face with a light, fleeting caress and then reached for the hood.

"No, don't," she whispered, smiling, with her eyes holding his.

"I wonder if Tony has noticed the snow at Combwich?" Sir Andrew asked loudly.

Percy glanced over his shoulder at Ffoulkes and Suzanne on the step behind, and then returned his fond gaze to Marguerite. "It's only ten miles away, Ffoulkes," he laughed.

"Of course, he would have to tear his attention from Yvonne to look out of a window," Marguerite added, turning back to send a knowing glance at Suzanne.

"Attentions," the other wife corrected her friend, and the two women laughed.

"Can I hire chairs for you, gentlemen?" Another voice chimed in from behind Sir Andrew. An attendant was stood in the open doorway, squinting against the floating snowflakes at the four figures beyond.

"No, we are only across the way," Sir Andrew replied. "Thank you."

"Well, here we go!" Percy announced.

The glistening snow beneath their feet creaked with every step, and Marguerite clung tightly to Percy's arm as they ploughed ahead. Droplets of cold water, from the melting ice in her hair and stray flakes finding ingress down the collar of her cloak, trickled onto her neck and made her shiver. Her feet were tingling with the deposits of snow piling into her boots. Yet Marguerite could also feel the comforting firmness of her husband's arm in hers; their step, though awkward and dragging, was in time, and his every muscle seemed to echo into hers through his touch. When she looked sidelong in his direction, her eyes found his broad shoulder, the immaculate cut of his caped greatcoat sprinkled with diamonds of ice and freshly landed flecks of white. And if she but dared to lift her face and seek his hooded eyes, she knew she would find a flame of passion there, discreet yet real enough to melt the falling snow.

Instead she closed her own eyes and tilted her head back slightly, to meet the gentle, glimpsing kiss of the sky. Only his shy laughter brought her back to the world – to cold feet, wet hair and their best friends trudging on behind them. She looked to him, smiling, and then turned to see Sir Andrew and Suzanne with their own arms tightly linked.

"What did Frank and Lucy have to say, when you returned for our shoes?" Marguerite asked lightly, as they rounded the corner into the Circus.

"Probably not as much as they had to say when I set off back for the Rooms," Percy laughed. "Your hair is nearly white, Margot, it will be wet through when we get indoors," he added, with a note of distraction in his low voice.

"Nay, 'tis only water, I shall not melt," she assured him. "I enjoy the feather touch of the snow against my face, and the silence in the air as it falls – so peaceful, so undisturbed."

Percy studied her profile with such intensity that she grew embarrassed from the attention, and had to feign an interest in the towering facades of the neighbouring houses to recover herself. Her cheeks and the tip of her nose were already tinged with pink from the cold air, but the tremble in her lips that she had perforce to hold firm was from the thrill of his gaze upon her.

"Are you cold, dear?"

"No, no," Marguerite shook her head, lifting her lashes to give him her eyes. They had paused beneath the lantern outside their own doorway, with the warm glow of candlelight in the window of the reception room and the bedroom above proclaiming their destination, and were waiting for Sir Andrew and Suzanne to join them. Marguerite, watching for their dark silhouettes amidst the snow, glimpsed the curious tracks that her and Percy's own passage had etched on the ground; the hem of her gown and cloak had cleared a weaving, sweeping path at either side of her ruffled steps, with Percy's determined stride cutting the snow at regular intervals close by.

She felt the dull touch of a suede glove beneath her chin and looked up. Taking her shoulders, Percy stepped around to face her, and a delicate shudder ran up Marguerite's spine. He arched his magnificent figure, inclining his head as he bowed, and brushed her cold nose with a delicate kiss.

She smiled. "I couldn't feel anything."

"We shall have to get you thawed out, my blessing," he whispered, his expression mirroring hers. Then, as on a shared impulse, they both drew in a gasp of cold air, until their faces began drifting almost imperceptibly closer and the warm plumes of their slowly exhaled breath mingled inches from their lips.

"For pity's sake!" Sir Andrew called, exploding a handful of snow against his friend's strong back. "Let us get to a fire, I'm all but numb from the cold!"

Percy turned, taking up his wife's arm once more. "Be our guests, old man!" he laughed cheerfully, spreading his free arm in a dramatic flourish before him. "This winter's delight will seem all the more picturesque from within."