Just who would Stephanie run into after book group?
Count Pierre des Montagnes stood outside the damp dungeon and surveyed the scene around him.
Five guards he had slain single-handedly lay at his feet: a sixth cowered in a corner by the cell door.
“Pour l’amour de Dieu ayez pitié de moi!” the man cried.
“Ouvre la porte!” the Count yelled. “Maintenant!”
Obediently the wounded guard opened the cell door.
Francine rushed into the Count’s powerful arms and he crushed her to him, the heat of his breath millimetres from her open mouth.
“Mademoiselle Francine.” He smiled. “We must leave. My horse and château await.”
Moments later they were riding away from the castle and her captor, the recently deceased Baron le Breton.
Behind them the sun sank low in the sky, soon to arise again as a new day dawned… the first day of their new life that they would share forever.
Stephanie ended her reading with a small sigh, adjusted her glasses and gently placed the paperback down.
The three other women in the room sat silently, their minds filled with the mental images Stephanie’s reading had conjured.
Finally it was Beth who broke their trances.
“Wow!” she exclaimed. “Francis Henderson is one heck of a writer.”
“Well, I thought the whole plot was absurd!” said Stephanie, placing the closed book to one side. “It was too far-fetched, historically inaccurate and unnecessarily explicit.”
“You didn’t like it?” asked Beth.
“Like it?” grinned Stephanie. “I loved every swashbuckling second of it.
“It was pure escapism and I have to agree with you: Francis Henderson sure knows what his female readers want. I honestly believe this is his best novel yet.”
“D’you really think he’s a man?” asked Vanessa.
“What made you ask that?” asked Stephanie.
“It’s hard to believe that anyone other than a woman could write stuff like that. It’s a real turn-on… for me, anyway.”
“Happily married with four kids,” Donna interrupted.
“I’ll put money on it that he’s not like that in reality,” said Beth. “He’s most likely no different to our husbands and just writes that way for his readers.”
“You’re probably right,” agreed Donna. “You take my Harry, for example. At parties he’s quite the charmer opening doors, positioning the chair, hugging spontaneously and smooching discreetly during slow dances.”
“So what’s your complaint?” asked Stephanie.
“I just wish he’d do it for me sometimes,” said Donna. “Instead of the prettiest women in the room.”
The others expressed their indignation and their opinions that Donna should make a stand.
The book club was Stephanie’s idea and had started when their weekly badminton session began to lose its appeal. All four women were avid readers and readily agreed to the monthly meetings hosted in rotation at one or other of their homes.
Apart from the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of the latest bestsellers, it was a chance to socialise and talk about various issues… especially their respective husbands.
“Harry does occasionally buy me flowers,” conceded Donna. “Only they’re always chrysanths.”
“Oh, yuck!” groaned Vanessa. “Don’t you hate them?”
The others nodded understandingly.
“Roger’s excuse is that he’s too tired,” said Stephanie. “He really does work very hard. The practice was in bad shape when he took it over and still isn’t bringing in enough money to pay for another vet.”
“Oh, I know,” said Beth. “He’s incredibly dedicated.”
“Just not terribly romantic.” Stephanie smiled.
“Just not terribly romantic,” Beth repeated in full agreement.
“I’m always telling him about the books we’ve discussed to see if he can take a hint or get some ideas,” continued Stephanie, “but his mind’s always on a whelping whippet, a deaf Dalmatian or some ailing pet. So far it hasn’t worked.”
“Yeah, they’re all alike, aren’t they?” said Beth. “Men! But by the same token… you’ve still got to love ’em.”
Stephanie and Roger’s house was a renovated eighteenth-century gamekeeper’s cottage. They’d lived there for almost three years.
Roger’s dream was to build an animal hospital adjacent to their home and go into partnership with another hardworking and dedicated veterinarian… but first he had to establish his local reputation.
“Roger?” Stephanie called, closing the front door behind her and switching on the living room light. “I’m home. Anybody here?”
Silence greeted her call.
“Oh well.” She sighed softly. “It won’t be forever –”
Roger appeared in the doorway, the rubber rapier in his right hand pointed towards her.
“Aha!” he cried, waving the wobbly weapon. “It is I! Ze great Zorba.”
Startled, Stephanie stepped back and stared at the sight in front of her.
Slowly, disbelief replaced her initial fear and she began to chuckle.
Roger was dressed like some character from a Franz Hals painting complete with false moustache, a broad-brimmed sombrero, tights and a black cloak.
“Roger,” she began, frowning. “What on earth –”
“Be silent, wench,” he shouted, wiggling the sword. “I am Zorba ze Great and I ’ave come to rescues you! Where is ze varlet what ’as ’eld you prisoner? I will carve ze letter ‘Z’ on ’is gluteus maximus.”
“Ah – it’s Zorro,” she said, stifling her laughter and cupping her mouth as though giving him stage directions.
“Who?” Roger asked, peering from under his sombrero.
“Zorro. Zorba was Greek.”
“Damn!” he said, then quickly slipped back into character. “I am ze great… Zorro… I ’ave come to take you away wiz me… are you sure he was Greek?”
Stephanie slid slowly down the door post and sat on the floor, unable to control the tears of laughter that ran down her face. She nodded.
“What’s with the Inspector Clouseau accent?” she at last managed to splutter.
“Cause I can’t do a Greek one,” Roger mumbled.
“Zorro was Spanish.”
Roger looked at her despondently and made a half-hearted thrust with his rapier which waved like a willow wand in her general direction.
He twirled it in a series of small circles and watched in frustration as it described them.
Stephanie saw the look of disappointment on her husband’s face. She stood up and took a pace forward.
“No, go on, Roger!” she encouraged. “You’re doing great!”
“Really?” he asked, adjusting his moustache. “D’you mean that?”
“Eat your heart out, Banderas!”
“Who?” His large black fake eyebrows drew together.
“Antonio Banderas. He’s the latest actor to play Zorro.”
“Oh,” said Roger, then, “I ’ave come to zis ’ouse…” He hesitated and looked hopefully at her, his eyes reminding her of the cocker spaniel he’d operated on the previous week, then reverted to his normal voice. “D’you think I can drop this phony accent now?”
“That would be just fine,” she acknowledged.
“Oh great,” he said. “Only I’ve never been very good at –”
“You were about to rescue me?” she reminded him. “Or have you forgotten already?”
“Oh yes. So I was.”
Roger glanced around the room and saw the antique wicker chair in the corner by the stairs that led up to their bedrooms. Then, struggling to control his cape, he crossed over, grabbed its back and brought it closer to the table.
“I ’ave come…” he began, putting his right foot onto the reed seat. “That is, I’ve come to take you away from this evil place.”
“Roger – I don’t think that’s –” Stephanie began but it was too late.
Roger had put his foot right through the fragile chair up to the knee.
“Ouch!” he yelled, dropping the rubber rapier and clutching at his leg that was wearing the small chair like a lobster trap. “Now that hurts!”
Stephanie ran across the room and began to pull at its frame. Roger yelled out again in pain.
“That’s making it worse,” he said, grabbing her hands. “Just get the pliers from my toolbox and I’ll cut myself out, one broken reed at a time.”
Thirty minutes later Roger was in his dressing gown dabbing antiseptic on the numerous small puncture wounds that orbited his right calf muscle.
“How on earth am I going to explain to the owner of the shop where I rented this stupid costume, the ladders in my tights?” he pondered.
“Tell him you were ravaged by an amorous Chihuahua?” Stephanie suggested.
“And why was I treating a patient dressed like a Greek – I mean Spanish –folk hero?”
“Well the Chihuahua is sort of Hispanic, isn’t it?” She grinned. “Maybe you could tell him you were trying to put it at ease.
“What I’d like to know is why you were dressed up like that. It’s not Hallowe’en for months.”
“Romance,” he said. “You’ve been hinting for the longest while that I should be more romantic, like the characters in those books you and your group read.
So I decided to give it a shot.”
“I meant I’d like you to buy me flowers now and then, you idiot.” She laughed. “Or take me out to a nice restaurant. Not leap all over the room like some confused Cavalier.”
“Oh well.” He sighed. “At least I tried.”
“Yes, you did,” she agreed, leaning forward and kissing him on the cheek. “And it was very sweet of you.
“Unconventional, but definitely romantic. I love you, Roger.”
“And I love you too, Steph,” he said. “I know being married to me hasn’t been a bed of roses so far –”
“Oh, it’s a female joke.” She smiled.
“But things are picking up,” he continued. “The practice is really doing well and once we get planning permission for the animal hospital –”
“I know, I know,” she said. “Honestly, Roger, I’m not complaining.”
“So this Zorro bloke wasn’t Greek?”
“Umm,” said Roger. “I was convinced he was, you see.”
“Why? Was it important?”
“Well, it was all part of my plot you see,” he said, pretending to look sad. “I had it all figured out.
“ If you can remember between your fits of hysterics, I had come to rescue you?”
“See, if he had been Greek he would have been about to whisk you away from here to his island in the Aegean. Well, for a fortnight, anyway.”
Stephanie stared at her husband.
“Zorba… you mean you were going to take me to Greece?”
“Still am, if that’s OK with you.” He grinned like a schoolboy. “To Crete, a week on Saturday. Got a locum to sit in. Young chap just graduated. I told him he could stay here while we’re away, so I hope that was all right.”
Stephanie felt her tears begin to well as she gazed into her husband’s eyes.
He wasn’t a devil-may-care cavalier, pirate or any of the fictional fantasies she and millions of other women read about. Maybe he did mess up when he tried to be romantic.
But at least he’d made an effort and he was real… he loved her and she loved him… plus she would never have to share him with anyone.
“That’ll be fine,” she said, hugging him. “Just promise me that you won’t wear that ridiculous costume while you’re whisking me away?”