"Flowers!" came the loud cry of a street seller as she walked the streets with a large basket tucked carefully under her arm. "Flowers for sale! Come now, a flower for your lady, mi'lord. No? Ah, well, perhaps tomorrow, eh? Flowers! Flowers for sale!"

Natalie Mullins turned about at the sound of the sing-song voice as the lady, obviously a gypsy by her colorful garments, long black hair and dark complexion, made her way slowly down the street with graceful and fluid movements, holding up a single flower in one hand for the eye. The flower she held was a magnificent shade of blue, darker than any other Natalie had ever seen and, as the seller drew closer, she could make out that it was indeed a single blue rose, perfect in every aspect.

"Flowers! Flowers for sale! Come, come, a flower for no more than a silver piece! Flowers!"

Drawing the hood of her maroon cloak away from her face, the young lady made her way slowly towards the gypsy as she continued to sing out her song and walk languidly along the side of the cobblestone street. Now that she was closer, Natalie could make out an assortment of other flowers, just as brilliantly colored as the one the woman held, nestled deeply in her basket that sat perched against her hip. They made her sigh softly with appreciative awe, for it had been quite some time since she had seen a flower at all, much less one as exotic and tantalizing as these. The winter had indeed been cruel this year and had killed off most of their crops, which was yet another reason why these flowers were so amazingly special.

"Ah, good eve to you, mi'lady," the gypsy said as she saw Natalie steadily walking towards her, eyes already observing her wares. "Might I interest you in a flower today? Perhaps a token of affection for a secret lover, eh?"

Natalie gave a soft smile to her and decided not to comment on her teasing quip. Instead she reached out a hand from under the folds of her cloak and carefully stroked one of the soft petals of a flower in her basket that she held out for her to look upon. "Your flowers are amazing. How is it that you have managed to save them from this bitter cold weather?"

There was a merry sparkle in the gypsy's eyes as she gave a broad grin to her. "Mi'lady, that would be telling my secret." Then she lowered her voice with a mischievous wink. "However, I will tell you that there was quite a bit of magic involved."

Natalie tilted her head off to one side, now even more intrigued as she took the blue rose the woman held out to her in her hand to study it. There indeed had to be something magical about these flowers, for each one of them cast off a dim form of a brilliant light that broke through the gray, dreary evening all about them. It was almost as though, by holding the blue rose in her hand, she could feel spring's warmth and light radiating through her body and saturating her very spirit. It held her spellbound and in wonder as she found she could not tear her eyes away from it.

"You like, eh?" the gypsy woman spoke softly with a light smile, almost as though she knew what kind of effect her flowers had on anyone who came within it's power. "I can give it to you for a silver coin."

Natalie blinked her eyes and finally managed to look up at the other woman who gazed at her with careful scrutiny. "A silver coin?," she murmured dully. "That seems like a terrible amount for a single flower."

"Ah, yes, but this flower is special. You see, if you give this flower to a special gentleman, one of two things can happen. If you love him, and he loves you then it will bloom and maintain its brilliance and beauty for as long as you two are alive. However, if you give this flower with love and he has none to return to you, then it will whither away and die just like any other flower ever would."

"What would be the reason for that, then?" Natalie spoke a bit more firmly, her romantic side breaking through. "I mean, if the gentleman loves you, then he should tell you, not some flower."

The gypsy gave a sigh and a shake of her head then spoke as though she was talking to a small child. "Mi'lady, it is true that most men will come straight out and tell us that they love us, but how many are there that won't and can't? How then are we to know? Perhaps they are afraid of rejection, or are below your status, eh? Come now, surely there is someone in your life that you are uncertain of his love and would like to know beyond a shadow of a doubt."

Natalie frowned in thought, her forehead creasing as she worried her bottom lip some between her teeth.

Just then the bells from the local church began to toll the hour, causing her to blink from her thoughts and gasp in realization.

"Oh, no!" she moaned, drawing the hood of her cloak back up about her face. "Maestro is going to kill me – I'm late again!"

The flower seller's eyes widened with alarm as she realized she was about to loose her customer. "Oh, but, Mi'lady, what about the flower?"

Natalie turned back with an uncertain look on her face as the bell continued it's ominous tone. "I- I'm sorry, but I really must go!"

"Wait, wait, wait! Here, you take, okay? You come tomorrow and bring me silver coin, eh?"

"Yes, yes, of course. Thank you…and fare well!" Then, without any more said, Natalie took off at a run as the final bells finished their chime.

Her hood fell away from her face once again, allowing long locks of her curled brunette hair to spill down about her back as she gathered her skirts tighter into her hands in order to allow her with more freedom of movement. She splashed carelessly through a puddle left over from a previous rain fall, soaking her stockings in it's coldness and allowing a bit of mud to splatter across one side of her ankle. The frigid air burned her lungs as she breathed it in and out in great gasps as she weaved and moved her way quickly in and out about the people that clustered all about the streets.

Something in the back of the young lady's head suddenly wondered how long it would take for her mother to hear of how she went 'tearing about the streets in a most unladylike manner'. Then the other part of her simply told that voice to shut up and keep running.

"'ey, watch where yer goin'!" a man baring a crate of eggs cried out as Natalie just barely missed a collision with him.

"So terribly sorry," she called out behind her without breaking her run one step.

Her frenzied steps led her to the outside of a magnificent, yet somewhat dreary mansion. There was a small walkway that led up to it where one got a better view of the gray colored dwelling, already covered in vines from years and years of growth. It was not the brightest and most cheerful of places to look upon, but it had that certain bit of mysterious pull that drew all who passed by to look upon it with curious interest.

The owner of the house, Lord Darius Strauss, was just about as mysterious as the place in which he lived. He was rarely seen except for the occasional party of a close friend of his or on an evening walk about the streets. If one were to go up and talk to him, he would respond in kind with a gentle and soft tone, but then he would turn his head away politely to let the other know that the conversation had come to a close. As far as anybody knew, he had never taken a lover and had no intentions upon doing so either. The only people that were ever said to come to his house were his close friends who were quite few and small numbered.

He was a gentleman of great fortune that enjoyed his privacy - that was all (no matter what any of the gossiping ladies of the town whispered about behind opened fans).

At one time Natalie would have approached the house cautiously, eyeing the gargoyles that guarded the entrance with an uncertain and wary gaze, but now she ran as quick as she could past them without so much as a backwards glance. Having been coming to this place every week for the past five years had taught her well not to judge things by outward appearances. Though others might look upon the building with a shiver it was no more than that to her anymore – a building. It was what was on the inside of that building that she had learned to judge by.

Taking the front stairs that were scattered with dead leaves two at a time she managed to reach the door just as it was opened by the servant, Charles, who peered out at her with a small smile on his lips. "Good evening, mi'lady," he murmured softly just as she ran past him. "His lordship is expecting you."

"Thank you, Charles," she called back over her shoulder as she ran down the long hallway, already beginning to fix her appearance and remove her cloak without damaging the flower she still held.

She bounded around one corner and then came skidding sharply into a large room, almost stumbling over her two feet as she tried to stop on the slick, marble floor.

"You're late."

Natalie turned about to see Lord Darius sitting in his usual chair, a book propped delicately on one knee and a glass of wine in his right hand. He had not even bothered to look up as she made her most unladylike entrance, but instead only took a slow sip of the amber liquid before turning a page of his book.

"I know, maestro," she began to talk quickly, all the while still fighting to undo the small, 'fashionable' buttons on her cloak. "I went into town on the way here with every intention of using it as merely a shortcut, but instead I found one distraction after another and it took everything I could to-."

The man snapped his book shut sharply, causing Natalie to give a small, startled jump as he turned his gray eyes to look upward at her. No emotion was shown on his face, but the look in his gaze was one of irritation and perhaps a bit of anger as he rose from his chair in a slow manner, his long legs giving him an intimidating height, even across the distance of the room. "Tell me who it was this time that caught your passing gaze. Robert, William, Seidrec? Come now, I simply must know who it was that was more important to you than your lessons. Surely he must be a fascinating person to have you come late for the fourth time in a row."

"Please don't be angry with me, maestro, I simply-." She stopped as she felt Charles, who had come in a few steps behind her, lift her cloak away from her as she undid the last clasp. "Oh, thank you, Charles." The old man nodded and walked out of the room as she turned back to the man she addressed. "I simply cannot stand it when you are angry with me."

Lord Darius crossed the room so that he stood in front of his student, towering above her so that she stepped back a single step without realizing it. His gaze caught sight of the rose she held in her grasp and he motioned to it with a large hand. "Ah, and you have received his favor as well I see. Perhaps you would wish to cancel your music lessons so that you may spend more time with him. By all means, it would be one less student to worry about."

A look of pain at that sharp blow flickered through Natalie's eyes as she looked up at her mentor. "No! No, please. Mama would be terribly angry if she found out that-."

"Oh, come now, child, there is no need for us to tell her. Why, you could sneak out every afternoon and instead of coming here you could go straight to your lover's arms. No one need know at all."

"But, Maestro, I truly do love being here. I don't want to leave my - ."

"Then you simply must learn how to be punctual!" he spoke in a slightly raised voice that, for this man, was as bad as a cry of rage. He took two deep breaths to calm his nerves and Natalie could see the fire in his gaze slowly dying away. He turned about on his heel and began to pace back across the floor to where the large piano sat before a window that flooded in with natural light. "Natalie, you do not understand how it is that I worry about you at times," he spoke softly as she lowered her gaze with shame. "I am only your teacher, I know this, but you have come to mean a great deal to me and when you do not arrive at the appointed time of a meeting I begin to worry. What if you were hurt somewhere along the way? I would know nothing of it and would be unable to help you." A deep sigh was heaved from his chest as he sat down at his piano, beginning to play a soft tune out of habit of sitting before the ebony and ivory keys. "You are so naïve at times, child. You view this world as though everything in it were good. You do not see the dark side of man. The side that would wish to harm someone as pure and lovely as you."

Natalie pursed her lips tightly together as a soft shade of red colored her cheeks at what he was suggesting. Her hands knotted together in front of her as she murmured around a large lump in her throat, "I'm sorry, maestro. I truly am. I did not mean to cause you to worry. But you don't know what it's like to be trapped inside a world that your parents have constructed around you without any possible way of escape." Only now did she raise her eyes as he continued to play, his head tilted her way though so she knew that he was listening. "Sometimes I feel as though I simply cannot breathe. Everything begins to close in around me and I'm screaming to be set free, but nobody is listening to me!" She stepped towards him with a sigh as she slumped down into one of the chairs seated just off to the right of the piano, setting the flower down upon the top of the instrument as she did so so as not to have it crushed. "I just want to be able to live out my life with a sense of freedom. Not having to 'go here' and 'do this' all the time. To just be what I want to be!" A very small nod of his head was given in understanding as his gray eyes shut and he began to move almost imperceptibly in time with his music.

Natalie paused for a moment in her passionate speech as she watched his hands move languidly and with such ease across the keyboard. For as long as she could remember she had loved to watch her master play the piano. His long, tapered fingers moved as though in an enticing dance across the keys, caressing them and stroking them with a lover's gentle touch. His passion for the music he played was obvious in every small movement of his hands and body as he played out one pretty melody after another, the transition between the two so small and imperceptible that you would think he was playing one long, continuous song.

"Do you know what I saw today?" Natalie murmured softly, as though afraid to break the hypnotic spell he had cast her into.

His eyes remained closed and he never missed a single note as he again turned his head just a small bit towards her. "What is it that you saw?"

"I saw a gypsy." She now turned her eyes upward to look at his calm, serene face. "And do you know what? I have never seen anybody more alive and free than she was. She walked unescorted through the streets - ."

"Which is something you do everyday," he commented casually with a very small smile on his lips.

"Yes, but that is only because I manage to loose my escorts. But this lady did not even have to worry about that! She walked freely and with such movement it was almost as though she were dancing with joy in her every step. Oh, such joy I have never known. How wonderful it must be to be a gypsy. To see the world and move about as you choose. To come and go without a single worry or thought in your mind."

"To have to wonder where your next meal, if you have one at all, will come from. To be forced to sleep under the carts you have brought along in your caravan because no inn will accept you because you are thought to be thieves and murderers. To be considered a witch because your ancestors practiced magic you do not understand. To have nothing more than the clothes on your back. Ah, yes, mi'lady, such a wonderful life you would lead."

Natalie frowned just a small bit in his direction. "Must you always look upon the bad things in life, maestro? There is so much joy and wonder out there, yet you seem to enjoy dwelling on all that is dark. For once can you not listen to the birds singing outside and - ."

"The only thing I wish to hear singing right now is you. We have wasted far too much time on such matters. Now, begin with the opening of - ."

"No…"

The music stopped somewhat abruptly and Lord Darius opened his eyes to turn and look at her with a mixture of surprise, humor, and annoyance in his gaze. "I beg your pardon, mi'lady?"

"I said 'no'," she returned bravely, holding her head a bit higher as she straightened in her chair. "All my life I have come to you with my problems and heartaches and every time you offer me sound advice and wisdom that I could not get from my parents. Now it is your turn. Tell me what it is that makes you so sad and quiet and allow me to repay you the kindness you have shown me."

A small crease crossed his forehead at these words, an equivalent of a frown for him, and his eyes narrowed somewhat. "There are some things that cannot be helped, mi'lady. Some things that you must learn to take in stride in life and allow it to be." He paused briefly and turned back once more. "Now, beginning with – ."

"Were you ever in love?" she inquired suddenly, pressing him with a newfound courage that she wasn't sure where had come from.

"You are asking questions that cannot be answered."

"Why not? You said yourself that you worry about me…why is it that I am not allowed to worry about you as well?"

"There is nothing to be worried about, mi'lady. Now, if we can - ."

"I think you're afraid."

Very slowly he turned his head towards her so his smoldering gaze met hers perfectly from only a distance of perhaps seven feet. "Excuse me, mi'lady?"

There was a hint of anger burning in his voice and Natalie suddenly wondered if she had perhaps crossed that barrier that she had always been so careful to tread about so as not to provoke her master's wrath that she had only heard rumored about. However, there was no turning back now…and deep down inside she knew he would never hurt her. "I think you are afraid to tell me what it is that has caused you such pain over your life. You have never mentioned your past and I believe you have tried to bury it away from view of all. Is that what it is? You are afraid your past will come back to haunt you?"

"I am not afraid of anything, mi'lady," he almost growled out. "Especially not something that is no more than shadows."

"Then why won't you tell me?" When he did not answer she continued in a softer, less persistent tone. "Please, maestro. I want to know. I want to be able to help you. I can help you carry this burden that I know weighs you down."

He sighed, his voice again soft and dull as he turned away. "The burden I carry, mi'lady, would probably crush you under it's weight and I would never forgive myself if I were to kill your innocence in such a way."

Natalie's expression became even more concerned as she leaned forward, resting a small hand daringly on her master's own hand where it was settled against the keys of the piano. "Please…tell me. I'm not afraid." She gave his large hand a firm squeeze, feeling much like the mouse from the children's story, preparing to pull the thorn from the lion's paw.

Lord Darius' eyes looked down sharply as he felt her hand touched his and it took all his restraint not to pull away. It was the first time another human had touched him in a gentle way in a terribly long time and he had almost forgotten how comforting such a simple gesture could be. The way her tiny hand, so soft and delicate, rested against his own massive, strong one made him start at the revelation of how truly trusting she was. Why, with a simple flick of his wrist he could reach out a break her arm at that very moment before she knew what was happening. He would never bring himself to do this of course, but just the thought of this innocent child being out in such a cold and cruel world made him shudder and blanch at the thought. How much he wanted to protect her from this place, the cause of all misery and sorrow in his life. She did not know how much her small beacon of light meant to him as it pierced through the dark wall he had built up around himself.

"No," he finally spoke with complete resolve and absolution as he tore his eyes away from where her hand held his own. "No, I cannot tell you, mi'lady. Not now. Not while you still have so much to look forward to in your own life."

A very soft sigh was given to this as she brought her warm hand away, causing him to instantly feel the coldness all about him once again. "Then I shall wait for that time, maestro, when you are able to trust me as I have trusted you all these years. After all, what is another few years or even a lifetime when you're world is such a prison as it is with hardly a thing to look forward to."

The bitterness in her tone did not escape him and for a time he was uncertain about his decision not to tell her. She thought it was because he did not trust her, and he knew that was probably a horrible blow to the relationship he had fought so hard to maintain with her. No, it was not that he did not trust her, but simply that he did not wish to see her hurt.

'If there were but some way I could show her…' he thought to himself as his fingers idly began to pluck out a tune.

Then he knew exactly what he should do…

"Come," he said suddenly, rising up from the bench with a motion of his hand to her to seat herself at it. "I will show you what it is that I do when I am unable to express myself any other way."

Natalie turned her large eyes to look up at him with a curious frown as she saw his eyes sparkle with something that was…excitement?…happiness? "But, what about our lesson?"

"We will make up for it next time, so long as you are actually on time. Now, come."

His voice was commanding and left no room at all for argument, so she rose with a smile and walked the few feet over to the piano bench that he gestured to. Very carefully she sat down before it and looked upon it in awe, as though it was some holy artifact, for until now he had never allowed her to touch it, much less play it. She raised her hands very slowly and ran her fingertips very carefully across the keys, amazed at their cool, smooth texture.

Lord Darius watched her carefully as she began to caress the piano very lightly, and he actually felt a small smile form on his lips at her childlike sense of wonder. "Have you ever played a piano before?" he inquired softly.

A very small shake of her head was given. "Once or twice I have tried to make out a song but I am afraid I do not know any of the keys or how it is you properly play it."

"Then we shall begin at the start." He positioned himself directly behind her and took her hands carefully in his own. "Now, when playing, we always place our fingers like this. No, move that one over one and spread that finger out a bit further." He nudged her slender digits carefully so that they covered the keys in the proper place. "There, just like that. Now, this key right here is 'C'." He positioned his hand directly above hers so that it actually covered her smaller ones and he pressed her finger down on the key indicated. "Got it?"

Natalie gave a delighted laugh and nodded her head quickly, her smile broadening as he went through each of the keys with her one by one. She listened to him as he spoke softly right above her ear and again she could catch a hint of excitement at being able to teach another about his prized instrument. She giggled to herself as she thought of how much he sounded like a boy bringing his favorite thing in the world to 'show and tell'. Such moods were hard to come by with him and she delighted in knowing that she was part of the cause of his happiness.

As he continued to talk her through all the different aspects of playing the piano her mind began to drift just a bit and she was suddenly very aware of his closeness. His arms were wrapped about her almost in the form of an embrace, his strong chest pressed lightly against her back, and his lips just a mere few centimeters above her ear, so close that it sent a pleasant chill down her spine as his breath brushed against her temple. She could actually feel his heart beating and the warmth of his nearness flooded through her with a thrill that she had never before experienced. She wondered what it must feel like to be held by him, those two strong arms wrapped tightly and protectively about her small body…his long fingers and beautiful hands caressing and rubbing her back in gentle motions…that soft voice of his, the envy of the lullaby of the wind itself, murmuring sweet words of love into her ear..

"Mi'lady, are you paying any attention to what I am saying?"

Natalie blinked from her thoughts and started just a bit at his stern voice, realizing he had asked her a question. "Oh, forgive me, maestro. I was thinking about something." She could feel her cheeks color and heat at what she had been thinking about.

Lord Darius rolled his eyes upward good naturedly before continuing. "I asked if you felt comfortable trying to play a song alone."

Natalie felt her heart give small flutter as she thought of him standing once more back and away from her, the warmth and gentleness of his touch gone once again. "I – I don't think I can," she murmured in as innocent a voice as she possibly could.

"Very well, we will start with something easy. I will help you along the first few times around." He picked a very slow song with a somewhat repetitive pattern with only a few small variations upon it to begin her off with. Placing the sheet of music before her he once again settled his hands above hers. "Now, you at least know how to read music, which is a step ahead of most beginning piano students. All you must do is follow the notes."

She nodded her head understandingly and with a deep breath began to play the piece before her with careful concentration, his fingers only guiding her or correcting her when needed. Her lips pursed tightly together as she fought to remember which notes were located where, and read the music at the same time, all the while marveling at how easy he made it seem.

"Good girl," he murmured encouragingly into her ear when her mistakes became a bit less as she picked up on the pattern. "Now, careful not to speed up. There, that's better." Then he gave a very small chuckle. "Relax some. The music will never flow the way it is meant to if you sit so rigid and tense."

He could tell she took his advice by the very slow, almost hesitant easing of her body as she relaxed in her seat, leaning somewhat back against him. They continued through the song together, working as one mind and one body to produce the most beautiful music either of them had ever heard. He marveled at the way she began to let the music take control of her movements rather than have herself try and control the music itself.

"There now. Calm your mind of all things…just listen to the music." His voice sank to a soft whisper. "Listen to the music…"

He saw her close her eyes and the frown of concentration passed away to one instead of only thoughtfulness and calm. Her fingers became more relaxed and he took that moment to transition from the song she played into a different one, all the while guiding her and helping her along the way. The song became soothing and gentle, no longer merely a catchy tune used for beginning students to practice.

"That's lovely," Natalie murmured very softly, no longer fighting with her fingers but instead letting him lead her through it.

"Do you like it? It was a song written by a gentleman for his secret lover. Since he was unable to tell her how he felt, he composed the song for her and played it at a party she was attending. The music needed no words accompanied and spoke for itself… She knew that he played for her and no one else in the room." Then he gave a slight smirk. "Or some such nonsense of that kind."

"I think it makes for a terribly wonderful story."

The two continued their duet for quite some time as he led her through a number of other short melodies and songs, some that she knew and some that she had never heard before in her life. He would every now and then speak words of encouragement or correction on her playing, and sometimes he would tell her the story behind this song or that. 'Every good piece of music has an equally good story behind it,' he explained to her.

Finally, after what seemed like only a few minutes of complete bliss and happiness, Lord Darius' struck the final note of the song and allowed it to fade out. A very small smile was given as he stood once more to his full height. "That was wonderful, mi'lady."

Natalie found herself somewhat disappointed when he drew away from her, and again she had to fight down a blush at the thoughts that raced through her mind. Turning about gracefully on the bench she looked up to him with a radiant and sincere smile. "I could not have done it without you, maestro. Without your hand to guide me, I would not have been able to find such happiness in playing."

She seemed to speak somewhat pointedly and Lord Darius tilted his head off to one side. "You are trying to get at something."

Natalie gave a small, shy smile and shook her head. "All I am saying is that sometimes we have to reach out and take the hand of someone that love's us in order to see the world for all the joy and beauty that it truly is."

Just then Charles entered the room with a bow to his master and then a polite nod to Natalie. "Forgive me, mi'lord, but it appears as though it is time for Lady Mullins to be returning."

Lord Darius looked over at his clock and was more than a bit surprised to find that a meeting that seemed like only mere minutes had indeed been two hours. "Ah, well, so it is." Was there a hint of sadness in his voice?

"Her carriage and escorts are awaiting her outside."

"Very well, then." He straightened himself up and once again that stony, solid expression came upon his face as he turned to Natalie, clasping his hands firmly behind his back. "I shall see you again next week, then. And, please, do try to be on time."

Natalie gave him a small, sheepish smile as Charles helped her into her cloak. "I shall be here five minutes early, mi'lord." Then she grinned as her hands reached up to button those horribly small buttons. "So long as you promise to teach me some more on the piano."

A very slight nod was given, very formal and polite. "If that is, mi'lady's wish."

"Come, Lady Mullins," Charles said with a motion of his hand. "I shall see you to the door."

Natalie gathered her skirts carefully in her hands so as not to trip over the excessive amount of material and began to walk out. However, at the last moment she turned back and looked to where Lord Darius was watching after her. "I had a lovely time this evening. Thank you for it." Then she was gone.

For a long moment the tall man did not move, but instead watched the door through which the young woman had just disappeared. He seemed lost in thought as he considered her words.

'Sometimes we have to reach out and take he hand of someone that love's us in order to see the world for all the joy and beauty it truly is.'

"Someone that love's us?" he mused out loud as he went to sit in his chair again in order to think. His gazed flickered over towards the piano where she had sat no more than minutes ago, giving her heart over completely to the music…his music. He smiled a very small smile at the thought of her lithe frame held so carefully in his arms as he guided her through the steps with the ease and grace of a dancing couple.

Then he blinked as he caught sight of the flower she had accidentally forgotten atop the piano. He hurriedly stood to his feet and raced over to the piano and picked it up very carefully before rushing over towards the window. Pulling away the curtains he looked out just in time to see her carriage pulling away and out into the crowded streets.

Sighing he looked down at the flower once more. 'Ah, and you have received his favor as well I see.' He recalled saying at the sight of the beautiful thing. 'Perhaps you would wish to cancel your music lessons so that you may spend more time with him. By all means, it would be one less student to worry about.'

He lowered his head in shame at his words. They had been far harsher than he had meant for them to be and without any true reason behind them except that he had been angered. He would never wish to loose her as a student. She truly was the one ray of light in his bleak existence…and when she was with him, he reveled in her company.

"Mi'lord," Charles spoke softly from the door and Lord Darius turned about. "Lady Mullins is gone. Can I interest you in some tea or coffee perhaps?"

"No, thank you, that won't be necessary. I think I shall go for a walk. I have some things I need to think about."

"Very good then, sir."

"Oh, wait, Charles, before you go, see that this flower is put in a vase of water and help me to remember to return it to Lady Natalie upon her next visit."

"As you wish, sir," he responded as his master handed him the rose very carefully, almost as though afraid of causing a single petal to go awry. Then he clapped a hand firmly to his manservant's shoulder with a grateful nod as he passed him by to gather his coat and walking cane.

The older man shook his head in wonder at the odd man as he looked down at the flower…smiling at how brilliant and fully bloomed it was.