by Kadorienne and the Duchess
Portia Roccanera was a woman who approved of people being jerked around, provided she was doing the jerking but when someone else attempted to turn the tables on her, people tended to get hurt.
Indeed, the only reason Fabrice Dutronc was still alive and kicking was that to eliminate him, she'd probably have to get rid of an entire household of servants and hangers-on as well, to protect her. Being a good Machiavellian, she shrank from unnecessary bloodshed... that it was still deemed unnecessary was a measure of how serene and patient she could force herself to remain when there was something in it for her.
The something in this case was a 4th century BC marble head of a veiled woman. She wanted it; Dutronc had it; a simple cash transaction should have been sufficient to restore the natural order of things. But Dutronc was being difficult. At the root of the problem was Portia's virtue, which had a certain reputation for being negotiable.
She pressed her forehead against the cool marble of the powder room wall, running through a mental catalogue of international foul language as she listened to the latest status report from her negotiators, via the little silver cellular phone that never left her person. That was the only physical manifestation of her frustration that she allowed to surface; a moment spent drawing the marble's chilly strength in through her brow and imagining it dispersing through her bloodstream. The half-formed urge to order Dutronc's execution died a natural death far more natural than the one he'd eventually be accorded if he didn't stop lobbying for a night in Portia's bed as well as a ridiculously large sum in cash, in exchange for a statue that was, admittedly, unique...
Portia abruptly lifted her head and demanded that her employee repeat herself. The catalogue of demands and counter-demands, and thinly-veiled insults and counter-insults, had segued abruptly into suspicions that the statue was no longer in Dutronc's possession.
"You'd better send one of the girls over to see about that, dear," she said tranquilly. The walls might easily have had ears.
"Yes, Madame," replied the negotiator gleefully.
"Call me once you've heard."
They were two words Portia heard an awful lot.
She ended the call, just as the outer door opened and another female guest of the Duke of Schlesteinberg slipped inside to recharge her batteries for a few minutes. By the time the newcomer reached the inner chamber, Portia had tucked an errant curl back into place, (correctly) pronounced herself gorgeous, and was on her way out. The two women smiled as they passed each other, in one of those moments of wordless feminine camaraderie that no mere male could ever hope to understand.
There was a delightful wiggle in her walk, Portia noted as she passed a wall of mirrors. Truly delightful.
In another part of the public rooms of the schloss, Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach was standing stoically beside a window. His third cousin, the powerful Duke of Schlesteinberg, was being married today but that didn't mean that Klaus had to like it.
Family weddings had always been annoying to the Major. There were so many people he had to be polite to, so many boring customs that had to be followed. But in the last few years, they had been worse. Because they invariably prompted his father to remind him of how much younger than Klaus the bridegroom was, and that Klaus's duty to the Eberbach line was still unfulfilled, and that when his father had been his age, he had already been married and had a higher rank.
It had taken some doing, but Klaus had managed to snatch a few minutes of relative privacy, standing alone by the window, examining the well-groomed gardens. Eroica would have hated this garden; his staff put a great deal of effort into making the gardens of Castle Red Gloria look like an overgrown, untended wilderness.
Sharawaggi, the Earl had called that style. Klaus hadn't really paid attention to the thief's prattling about it, not really, but apparently it was a time-honoured tradition in Japan that had enjoyed a brief vogue in Europe a couple of centuries ago. Just like Eroica, to revive an outdated style that was a foreign tradition to begin with.
Before the Major had time to wonder why that thought had occurred to him just then, familiarly firm footfalls sounded behind him. He allowed himself another second of looking out the window before dutifully turning to await his father's commands.
"You've been standing here alone all evening?" his father inquired, disapproval in every line of his face. Klaus's jaw set.
"Only for one minute, sir." Well, three.
"In a few minutes, we shall be going in to dinner." The senior Eberbach gave his son a cold look. "I am certain there are numerous ladies here alone who will need to be escorted into the banquet hall."
Klaus sighed with resignation. "Without doubt, sir. Excuse me, I'll be waiting to see which ladies need escorts."
The Major had only taken a few steps when his father's voice stopped him. "Klaus."
"Escort a young woman."
"Yes, sir," Klaus said without looking back. He loitered near the banquet hall's entrance, along with a handful of other bachelors of varying degrees of contentment. As the couples began to pair off and go through the French doors, led by the bride and groom, unattached women lolled about as if idly, waiting for gentlemen to claim their arms. Klaus tried not to mentally compare the ritual to other, less savoury relations between men and women.
Instead he looked for a suitable companion for the evening. His father's orders had been calculated; he had dodged such situations in the past by partnering elderly widows. Nothing was less pleasant to him than the efforts of young mercenary females intent on possession of Schloss Eberbach. Even Eroica's pursuit was less obnoxious; at least the thief wasn't after his rank and estate, but him himself. Perverted as that was.
Putting that thought aside with the almost-ease of long practice, he evaluated the young women milling about in search of one who didn't look like she wanted a husband. He dismissed most of them instantly, as either too old to fall within his father's requirements, or so young they were obviously here to pursue matrimony. He had to unobtrusively adjust his position several times, in order to see all their faces properly, but there was one in particular, with beautiful pinned-up blonde curls, who kept turning even as he did, so he was forced to almost chase her to get a good look at the front of that slender figure. Normally he wouldn't bother, but he was running out of options.
She was being paid court to by a good half-dozen eligible young men, which perhaps explained the reason there were so many unattached young women floating about the room. Klaus supposed they had reason to cluster around her; she was probably the loveliest one there, if you liked the type: tall, silk-clad, languid and graceful, with a teasing smile that helped her keep all her admirers at a safe distance, despite their obvious eagerness to escort her to the moon if that were where she wished to dine.
As if feeling his gaze, she turned her head to meet his eyes. She looked him up and down, smiled as if amused, and caroled to him over the heads of her panting swains, "Forgive me for being so forward, sir; I don't believe we've met, but I'm in need of someone to take me in to dinner."
Her swains looked utterly crushed. She looked as if she were having a marvellous time. The overture to him was obviously calculated to toy with her admirers, but it was convenient for him; she was young enough to satisfy the letter of his father's order, but he doubted she considered herself in need of a barony. Without a word, he moved to her side and offered his arm correctly.
The woman let out a contented little laugh and tucked her hand through the imposing aristocrat's arm. She remarked to the sea of jealous young bucks who parted to let them pass, "Better luck next time, boys!"
Eroica would like this woman, he thought.
He looked straight ahead as he squired her toward the open doors. In his peripheral vision, he noticed her giving him an appraising look. It stiffened his spine; he hated being looked over like a prize animal someone was considering investing in.
Abruptly she stopped. He stopped with her and frowned at her, waiting to see what the problem was. A slight smile playing on her lips, she looked at him for a moment before beginning to gracefully incline from the waist. It was only after she began to lean over that he noticed that she'd dropped her tiny evening bag. If he had noticed sooner, he would have retrieved it for her, but as it was, he stood still, glancing over at the last few couples who were making their way to the banquet hall.
He was a bit surprised to notice that several of the men were staring at his companion, but when he glanced back to her, all she was doing was picking up her evening bag. Her shapely legs remained absolutely unbending as she swooped down, clasped her jewel-shaped bag, and straightened up in a single, quick movement that, at its conclusion, left her static in a pose that caused male diners thirty feet away to spill their wine and gape as Klaus looked around at them, bewildered. The entire manoeuvre lasted only a second or two.
He was still frowning in perplexity at the hordes of open-mouthed males when his companion reclaimed his attention with a delicate hand on his arm. When he looked back to her, her eyes were shrewd and her smile amused. It was an expression he had seen before, usually on the excessively pretty face of the Earl of Gloria. It annoyed him; it implied that its wearer knew something that he didn't. He held his head higher and let his expression turn grimmer.
As they neared a pair of empty chairs, the lady asked, "Tell me, sir, are you fond of Judy Garland?"
Her purring tone made him certain there was some special significance to the question, but he did not trouble himself with it. He didn't speak Foppese. "Who?" he replied.
In the rarefied atmosphere of a private dining-room at Maxim's, two extraordinary criminal minds and two fabulous hairdos came together.
They were both late, although Dorian, Earl of Red Gloria, was less so. He stood waiting for some minutes, occasionally glancing into a gilt mirror and adjusting his outfit. It wouldn't do to look shabby.
He'd agonised over his attire this evening but didn't he always? In the end he let Douglas Fairbanks be his guide, and selected from his bottomless wardrobe billowy white silk harem pants, and a beige silk T-shirt that would preserve modesty while not diluting the effect of his charming multi-coloured brocade vest. Gold sandals and hoop earrings, a nice wide sash, and, as an afterthought, a jaunty silk scarf tied around his head, and he was ready for anything the evening might throw at him.
It was a peaceful room. There were tuberoses in several carefully-spaced vases. Dorian rather liked tuberoses. With those, the intimate lighting, the faint sound of violin and harpsichord, and the privacy, most people would have assumed a romantic liaison was afoot... but to Dorian, and for that matter his hostess, such things were to be taken for granted as signs of civilisation.
What wasn't civilised, however, was keeping an invited dinner guest waiting so long. The Earl was beginning to feel restless.
All at once the doorway was filled with the red silk and Valenciennes lace of an era long since past, worn by a woman who could carry it off to perfection. Nobel Laureates had written sonnets on the endlessly-fascinating subject of her luminous alabaster complexion not to mention the way her nose turned up at the tip, lending her oval face a refined femininity that even the most ardent espouser of the new, stronger ideal of Beauty would have to concede was ravishing. Add wide, intelligent eyes that vacillated between grey and blue, and curls like spun-gold, place the whole upon a slender white swan's throat, and you were on to something. Include a high-breasted figure with a waist to make an hourglass concede defeat and retire from public life, and legs at least twenty feet long, and you had a woman who couldn't even walk down a street without sending male drivers careening into lamp posts.
Her poise was impeccable. What did a woman who looked like that have to be nervous about? She'd set hearts aflame even if she stuttered and lisped but she didn't.
"I'm Marie-Antoinette," drawled a British accent as correct as Dorian's own. A fan fluttered. "What are you?"
"Dorian Red Gloria. At your service. You and I recently took an interest in the same lady."
"I find that very hard to believe." She prowled slowly around him, silk rustling and fan shimmering in the half-light, examining his outlandish attire from every angle. Her expression was absolutely detached.
"Normally I'd never reveal a lady's age, but this one is about twenty-four... hundred years old."
"And she doesn't look a day over two thousand, if I recall correctly..." The fan snapped shut. Marie-Antoinette's scarlet lips curved in a tiny smile.
"Of course, that's probably the point of the veil." He produced a pale pink card from somewhere and presented it with a flourish, bowing. Portia's suspicions were confirmed when she glanced at it. From Eroica With Love, it said.
"I believe this lady was no happier with M. Dutronc than you would have been."
"You're an astute young man," she said, tucking the card into her bodice for safe-keeping. She never carried a reticule when she was costumed as a queen.
The table was laid with Sevres porcelain and linen hand-embroidered by Ursuline nuns who would expect less from Maxim's? It was set for two, one chair with arms and one without... the one without obviously having been ordered ahead of time to accommodate Madame's panniers. "Shall we?"
They seated themselves, and the Earl smiled sunnily. "I do think you two ladies have a great deal in common, besides a dislike of boorish men. Perhaps I could arrange a meeting between the two of you."
"That would be enchanting," said Madame Roccanera, removing her fitted white doeskin gloves one finger at a time.
What Dorian would have said in reply was forestalled by the arrival of Adonis in the person of their waiter, a winsome young man with wavy hair even paler than Dorian's and eyes the colour of a new leaf. Dorian promptly became so absorbed in contemplation of this wonder that the young man had to repeat his request for Dorian's order before Dorian dazedly replied.
The waiter was already well-acquainted with the lady's preferences one of her staff had telephoned the day before to give precise instructions as to what she would expect to be served. Dorian murmured his own order in a dreamy voice meant for confiding wicked endearments by candlelight. The young man blushed as if "pheasant" was a daring word and departed with a languishing glance at the Earl.
Madame Roccanera laughed a laugh that had more in common with a scale played by a master pianist, than with an everyday chuckle of the kind anyone might emit. "But you must satisfy my curiosity: why did you go to the trouble of getting to know the lady in the first place?"
"It was my aesthetic duty. I just couldn't bear it. I couldn't see a woman like you with a man who pairs patterned with patterned!"
"You're my hero. No, really! But how did you know his price for the piece? Did you merely deduce it from knowledge of his character?"
"And from a few photographs of you, Signorina."
Another little smile appeared. The smile of a pleased woman who really felt she ought not to be. "Really now, Lord Gloria I'm not one of nature's Signorinas." She paused. "Why don't you call me 'Madame'?"
"Your servant, Madame. As a gentleman, how could I do other than rescue two ladies from M. Dutronc? And allow me to commend your taste, Madame. My new lady friend is the only sort of woman who can turn my head."
"I quite see what you mean."
The waiter returned to pour the champagne. Portia proposed a toast: "To Roger Vivier! Your sandals are Vivier, are they not?"
Dorian was too preoccupied by an exchange of looks with the waiter to answer at once. "What? Oh, Vivier. Well, of course."
His companion peered contemplatively into her champagne glass. Then she looked up, her mist-coloured eyes meeting his. "How did you enjoy the theatre, Lord Gloria? Has Paris anything to compare to the West End?"
The Earl considered for a moment, reluctantly dragging his eyes away from their waiter's departing posterior. "Mmm... well, no place has Sondheim like West End Sondheim."
A nod. "And much as I love Ute Lemper, I must admit that she can't sing Sondheim worth a damn. I was most pleased that he didn't enter her set list this evening."
"You know who does justice to Sondheim? Karen Kaplan. An American, but you'd never know it."
"I haven't heard her... I do spend most of my time in Italy and there's little musical theatre there... but the opera!"
"Don't tell me you haven't heard her Norma. You're not keeping up properly, Madame!"
"If I want Norma, I listen to my Callas recordings," Madame murmured. "May I be tiresome and talk a little business now? I don't have very long for dinner this evening... as you might imagine, I'm expected at a costume party."
"Really? What a disappointment; I'd hoped that dress was just for me. Still... I feel certain my new lady friend with the veil is as eager to make your acquaintance as you are to make hers. Provided we can come to some agreement, that is."
"I'm sure two such agreeable people as ourselves are sure to come to a satisfactory arrangement," beamed Portia. "I wouldn't be surprised if you were aware of the sums M. Dutronc and I were discussing...?"
"Naturally." Dorian shook his tumbling yellow curls back from his face, making a fetching picture. "Vulgar sums, really. I think about two-thirds of that would be more reasonable. And, of course, we can quite forget about his loathesome lagniappe."
She inclined her head regally in his direction. "I agree with you on its worth... I didn't intend to offer more than that, but really, one look at him ought to tell you why I was forced to increase my offer..."
"I would have done the same," Dorian agreed fervently.
"Let's not spoil a beautiful evening by mentioning numbers, shall we? I'll have my people bring two thirds of the last sum M. Dutronc and I discussed to a location of your choice... you can bring me the statue at your convenience; I trust you, god only knows why."
Dorian gave his most angelic smile, the one which generally prompted those who knew him to check their wallets and their boyfriends. "It must be my honest face. The Louvre, tomorrow at noon, in front of Winged Victory. My lady friend will enjoy dropping in on you unexpectedly, I fancy."
"It's settled! And we can eat in peace."
As if summoned by her gentle exclamation, the dishy waiter glided back in with Dorian's pheasant and Madame Roccanera's light salad. Dorian smiled demurely. When the waiter departed, he pulled out a slip of paper the winsome lad had cunningly stashed beneath his plate. A phone number, of course. "Nice to run into family abroad," the Earl remarked with a satisfied smile.
Portia smiled benevolently. "One finds persons of certain predilections everywhere if one keeps one's eyes open... why, I encountered an advanced closet case at a ball at a society wedding outside Berlin last week! A NATO Major, if you please!"
A less discerning person than Portia would have missed the stricken look that flitted across Dorian's face for less than a second before his blase expression was restored. "NATO? I don't believe it. Surely you were mistaken."
Portia of course knew she'd struck a nerve... it remained only to determine which. Fortunately, she was good at that. "I'm never mistaken. Besides, only a gay man could be so impervious to the bend and snap." She winked.
Dorian picked up his fork and very attentively fussed with the artful concoction on his plate. Portia noticed, however, that he didn't eat any. "One of us in the military. What a dreadful thought. The dull clothes but then, if no one's dragged him out of the closet yet, as you say, he must not be very prepossessing to begin with." He seemed to wait rather tensely for her answer, though he continued to gaze at his plate as if it were a Bouguereau.
"Oh, he was a perfect dream! Barely had two words to say to me, and grunted those... but he was so decorative it didn't matter. Nothing like you, of course. All granite and emerald..." Her earlier wariness had dissolved into quite an engaging candour, now that business was out of the way.
"Emerald," Dorian murmured as if absently. Then he raised his eyes to her. "So what was he doing there? Looking for a producer of heirs, no doubt."
"No doubt," she agreed easily. "You know who I'm talking about, of course."
Somewhat to her surprise, a smile blossomed on his pretty face at the words. She was later to learn that he usually smiled when caught at anything, like a mischievous child who knows his charm can get him out of any scrape. "I'm quite certain it wasn't Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach," he said, his smile blinding.
She snapped her fingers gaily. "That's the name!"
Impossibly, Dorian's smile grew wider. He sat back for a second, apparently contemplating the thought of the man, before leaning forward, a bit more serious. "How was he? Did he look tired? What did you two talk about?"
"He didn't mention you," she answered mildly. The radiant smile evaporated instantly. Bingo, she thought.
"Of course he didn't," the Earl said. "You say you recognised him as a closet case right off. Is that female intuition, or is he..."
"On the verge of cracking?" she supplied. Then she offered an invitation, in very pleasant confidential tones. "Why don't you just tell me everything, hmm?"
Dorian drew a slow breath... and needed no further encouragement.
For the next hour, Portia heard everything indeed, perhaps more than she had wished to. She listened intently, smoking a little, to a chronicle of seven years of hopeless wooing on the Earl's part and vacillation on the Major's. Her inscrutable eyes never left Dorian's face. The lovely young waiter was surprised and disappointed to find that the Earl paid him no attention whatsoever when he returned.
"He's trying to drive me mad," Dorian finished. "One minute he's saving my life and risking his own while he's at it, or beating someone black and blue for giving me a dirty look. The next minute, he's saying oh, you can't even imagine the vile insults that man comes up with." Dorian looked at his plate for a moment, pressing his lips together. "But just the same... I think an entanglement of a rose vine and a wire rope is a wonderful combination."
Portia pouted and exhaled a series of perfect smoke rings. She was a very good listener when she tried to be... she never gave a single sign of impatience, or tried to hurry the speaker along... tonight she'd exerted all her talents and appeared as the epitome of feminine solicitousness. But now it was time for feminine wisdom to take center stage.
"You know what must be done, of course," she said.
Dorian's eyes widened with the injustice. "If I knew, I would have done it years ago!" he protested forlornly.
"Ah, but you couldn't!"
The Earl looked at her blankly, helplessly.
"It must be proven to him," she intoned gravely, "once and for all, that he could never be happy with a woman..." Her eyes met Dorian's in a timeless exchange of, 'Are you thinking what I'm thinking?'
The glowing smile blossomed again... only this time it was more of a grin. "Madame?" he ventured, trying to keep the hope out of his eyes.
Italy was terrible. It was hot, it was full of paintings and statues, and you couldn't find Nescafé anywhere.
The Major looked at the folded newspaper beside his horrible coffee. He wished he could read it, but his contact was late already, and he couldn't risk missing the man.
Wops didn't know the meaning of punctuality.
No wonder it had taken them so long to realise that Carlo Varozzi was betraying the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. The Major knew better than to think the wops would care that Varozzi had been betraying NATO at the same time.
Just the same, they had told him.
A large black and white hat was approaching his table. It was waving.
"Darling! How enchanting to see you again..." bubbled a delighted British accent. Portia Roccanera folded her long, Versace-clad frame into the seat opposite the Major's, smiling proprietarily across at him.
It took mere seconds to place her. They'd met at the Embassy Ball. He'd taken her into dinner. Klaus grimaced. Of all the rotten luck, to run into someone he knew on a mission, someone to whom he would be expected to be polite.
He inclined his head formally, trying not to glare at her too hard. At least she was chattering about weather and shoe sales, so that he was able to get by with monosyllabic replies, but when his contact showed up, how was he to rid himself of her? Italians, he thought with disgust as he took another mouthful of fried potatoes.
"It is good to see you again, Signorina Roccanera," he said in his most polite growl when she paused for breath, "but I am here to meet an associate."
He made the mistake of putting his fork down. She nonchalantly reached across the table and retrieved it, helping herself to a bite of his lunch. "Mmm. Not bad."
He snatched the fork back. Portia seemed impervious to his worst glare, the one that sent alphabets scurrying to buy warm clothes and enemy agents calling for their mothers. He said nothing. Klaus was never sure how to deal with people who were not afraid of him.
"Snappish," she murmured. Then, deliberately, she let her cheeks turn a pretty shade of pink. "Ah, well! No harm done, I'm sure... remind me; what are your plans for the afternoon? You really ought to see the Capella del Pio Monte della Misericordia at some point. There are some beautiful Caravaggios."
He skewered her with an incredulous glance. This society decoration was the Camorra's representative? "I will go there at the first opportunity," he recited carefully.
"Be sure not to neglect it. It is a fine example of sixteenth century architecture," she finished, winking impudently.
"I'm certain," he said drily. Eroica would love this stupid woman. He looked at her dubiously. "The Camorra is allowing a woman to act as their liaison?"
"I wouldn't say it was their idea," she said demurely.
He lit a cigarette irritably, offering her one as an afterthought. She had the password. There could be no confusion.
"You know a man named Volovolonte... he'll vouch for me, if you really need him to."
Klaus felt his face pale just slightly. To have to see that decadent gangster parading his tall, blue-eyed, yellow-haired women around, all substitutes for that bloody nuisance of a thief.... He nodded curtly. "I'll speak to him if need be. Now, to the point. NATO needs Varozzi alive. We need to interrogate him. The Camorra will have to refrain from their usual methods of dealing with problems."
Portia blew a smoke-ring. "I think that could be arranged, for a consideration... if of course he was returned to friends of mine when your boys are done with him."
Annoyance quickened Klaus's blood. He settled in to enjoy it. In one sentence, the woman had been kind enough to offer him two things he could argue about. He dealt with them in order. "A consideration. Are you suggesting that NATO bribe a bunch of gangsters?"
"I'm suggesting that NATO recognise appropriately the favour friends of mine are in a position to do you," she returned smoothly. "It's only because we're such bloody nice people that we're inviting you to this party at all."
His mood plummeted abruptly. She was right. They could have quietly killed the man on their own, after all. Nothing to stop them.
He took a drag on his cigarette, his traditional method of buying time to think. He found a possible angle of attack after a moment. "And why have you chosen to be nice enough to invite us to this particular party?"
"Because, as I said..." She showed off her pearly-whites. "We're bloody nice people."
This did not bode well.
"NATO people are nice too," he snarled. "How much do you want?"
A captivating laugh spilled from her Coco Red lips. "I'm afraid you're under a slight misapprehension, my dear Major... we don't deal with each other in such sordid ways as that. No, our currency is the exchange of favours. We'll do you this favour... and later, you'll do us a favour."
His glare cooled to contempt. "You know perfectly well that NATO cannot enter into such agreements, Signorina. The favours you would desire would be ones we could not possibly provide. It's out of the question."
"Right, then. It was a pleasure meeting you again and I'm sorry we couldn't do business... and thanks for the cigarette." She rose and picked up her purse, with every intention of leaving him there.
"But perhaps we could agree on a favour right now," Klaus said flatly. His mood was worsening by the moment. It was never good to have to use an ace this early in the game.
The beautiful camorrista smiled, a gloved hand resting on the back of her chair. "Are you sure? I wouldn't want you to have to compromise any of your lofty principles, my dear... any more than you have already, that is!"
Her words were uncomfortably fitting. For a couple of years now, his sleepless nights had been occupied by wondering how serving his principles had led him to break so many of them. He forced his mind to the offer he had to make.
"Please sit down, Signorina. You may have heard of Giorgio Sinopoli."
That got a bit of a reaction. Lifting a brow just perceptibly, she slowly sat back down. Giorgio was the oldest son of one of the Camorra's most powerful capi.
"I'm sure his father misses him," Klaus said amiably. "Germany is not a good place to get caught with certain substances. Still. If NATO can... talk to Varozzi, then Signor Sinopoli can lecture his son about heroin within the month, instead of waiting another couple of decades." Klaus stubbed out his cigarette and promptly lit a new one, trying not to smile.
"Do you know how young Giorgio lost his left eye?" Portia wondered lazily. She helped herself to another of Klaus's cigarettes.
Steel-coloured eyes locked onto emerald ones. "He disrespected me... and now heroin! You'd think Sinopoli's son would know the folly of that! I can assure you he'll be dealt with very severely... it would perhaps have done him some good to be locked up for twenty years, but a family matter is a family matter, isn't it? I think we have a deal, you and I."
Klaus was going to be sick. Bloody criminals, he thought. He decided not to discuss returning Varozzi to the Camorra just now. Once NATO had him, they could find plenty of excuses to hold onto him.
"I have a friend who'd like to meet you," Portia went on. "I think you'd like to meet him, too."
"I think I would," Klaus agreed, rising as she did.
She stepped around the table to slip her arm into his and almost put his eye out with her hat. "We can go there now, if you like."
NATO training enabled him to avoid the hat barely. "Let's go," he barked. And reclaimed his arm.
She took it back again. "I'm sure you didn't intend to disrespect me, did you, Major?" she enquired, eyes twinkling merrily.
"This is not a social occasion," he growled, though he did not withdraw his arm this time.
"Every occasion is a social occasion, darling."
"Don't call me darling," he grumbled.
Her car was just outside. He knew it the moment he set eyes on it it was inevitable that this woman would be driving the reddest, flashiest sports car he'd set eyes on since last time he'd been in cahoots with that damned Limey pervert. It was even a Ferrari.
The top had been left down. She stepped into the driver's seat without opening the door, deftly folding the silk-stockinged legs that suddenly seemed to go all the way up to her ears... The key was in the ignition and they were on the road by the time Klaus had sat down.
Her driving matched her choice of vehicle: she piloted them through the hectic Neapolitan traffic at a speed slightly in excess of Mach Three, all the while chatting away on her cellular phone, dissecting an opera she and whoever was on the other end had both seen the previous evening. She spoke in English, but one word out of every three was Italian: passagio, pianissimo, tessitura, coloratura, fioritura...
He endured the ride with the same air of martyrdom with which he had endured riding in that Limey's gaudy cars. It was much the same: people were staring at them, looking at the stupid car; the driver was carrying on about foppish art nonsense; he was reflecting, though silently on this occasion, about the manifest superiority of Mercedes. But riding with this woman had one advantage: there was no stingy-bug in the back seat exhorting the driver to keep to an economic speed.
"We'll leave the car here," she said suddenly.
She didn't even lock the Ferrari after bringing it to a screeching halt in a No Parking zone... just tucked the keys into her purse and set off across the aged, uneven cobbles in her three-inch stilettos. "Coming?" she called over her shoulder.
Klaus stomped after her, glowering.
The world she led him into was not quite like anything he'd experienced before. Naples wasn't called the heart of the Mezzogiorno for nothing... here, Europe wed Arabia, and it was a marriage very much characterised by domestic strife. This was a filthy, decadent, crime-ridden metropolis, that made its own rules and broke them in a heartbeat. What other environment could have grown an organisation like the Camorra?
They were in the old part of Naples; the centro storico, where the narrow streets still followed old Roman roads, and where visitors to the city were cautioned not to walk alone at night. The quarter teemed with pizzerias, bright neon Madonnas, football posters and sex shops and crumbling medieval churches... Families conducted the everyday business of living in the streets, or on balconies far overhead, sometimes arguing in a peculiar patois of Italiano and dialect, and hanging out laundry and watering bright red gardenias. It was difficult to smell anything besides pizza and coffee... even Portia's perfume had become elusive here.
Hawkers harrassed passers-by with a fervour Klaus had only previously seen in Arab bazaars, extolling the virtues of a dubious array of pirated CDs, semi-legal cigarettes, imitation Gucci sunglasses and Calvin Klein underwear. But none of them came within two feet of Portia (not just because of the hat, either), and every so often a head would bow as she passed.
Klaus was accustomed to people making way on the street, but generally it was because no one cared to obstruct a six-foot-two soldier with a glare that should be a registered weapon. Now, everyone was making way for his companion before their gaze went to him. He had yet to decide whether he approved of that.
Eventually, they came to a tenement that looked identical to fifty other tenements they'd already passed. The front door, warped by woodworm, had been left ajar. Portia pushed it open with a single fastidious fingertip.
They went all the way up to the fifth floor. Inhabitants spilled out onto every landing gnarled elderly men, shy aproned girls, a handful of louche youths in black, the occasional toothless matriarch and hordes of barefooted, bronze-skinned, T-shirted children, to whom Portia dispensed handfuls of lire and small sweets... far more than it seemed possible for her handbag to have contained. Mothers murmured their thanks. Fathers bowed respectfully. It was like stepping fifty years back in time. Or a hundred. Feudalism in action.
At the top of the building, one of the shy young women led Portia and Klaus into a two-room apartment that was far less squalid than the outer appearance of the building led one to believe. It sparkled with cleanliness, and the furniture, though decidedly antique, was solidly-constructed. Pictures of Italian and American film stars were tacked to the far wall, all around the windows.
The girl exchanged a few words with Portia in an undertone, then stepped aside to let her visitors into the inner room. Two quiet soldiers looked on.
The main article of furniture in here was a large bed in a corner. A few chairs were gathered around the door to the gardenia-edged balcony; a man who looked as though he'd seen his first century quite some time ago was sitting in one, reading the newspaper. He lowered his paper on hearing footsteps, and dropped it entirely when he spotted the vast hat that had just sashayed in... and the woman beneath it.
He bowed and greeted Portia in awed dialect. Klaus distinctly caught the word 'Donna.' No surprises there.
Portia was led to her host's own comfy chair. She looked extraordinarily at home here, despite the disparity between her surroundings and her striking monochromatic garb. "Sit down, Major, and be patient just a minute." She waited until both men had sat it didn't escape the Major's notice that their chairs were several inches lower than hers and spoke again to her host. It was probably just as well she didn't seem inclined to make introductions; this fawning wop, whatever his name was, didn't need to know Klaus's.
Then the man rose again and got Klaus's full attention by simply dragging two large cardboard boxes of experimental NATO weaponry out from under the bed.
"This is a good-will present," said Portia kindly, "from me to you."
When he was sure that none of his blood vessels were going to burst, Klaus said, "I suppose Varozzi is under the sofa, Signorina." There was an undercurrent of genuine inquiry in his sarcastic tone.
Portia had taken advantage of his pause to collect himself, to whip out her twenty-four carat gold compact and examine her lipstick. She let him wait for a moment, then snapped the compact shut. "Let's just get one thing straight," she said, smiling composedly at him. "You shouldn't call me Signorina; what do I look like, a girl? I prefer 'Madame.'"
He would call her Glenda, Good Witch of the North if it made her cooperative. "Where is Varozzi, Madame? I need to question him."
"These things take time..."
He allowed himself a contemptuous half-smile. "Ah. Forgive me, Madame. Your display was so impressive that I overestimated you." The challenge of dealing with a worthy adversary was pleasant. This was as refreshing as dealing with that curly-haired bugger, in his better moments. If it weren't for the Earl's... special angle, sparring with him would have been pure enjoyment.
She didn't let herself be needled. There was more at stake here than her ego... although, it had to be admitted, her ego was of extraordinary international importance. "Perhaps if you checked with me again this evening," she said neutrally. "I'm taking a young friend of mine out to instruct her in the finer points of baccarat... I'll have the boys deliver you details of the casino when they deliver your guns and things." She gestured toward the boxes beside which her elderly friend still stood.
Klaus would have preferred to take the 'guns and things' with him at once, but it was true that only a fool would play false at this stage in negotiations. And whatever else Madame was...
He rose and nodded, at once curt and formal. "Then I shall wait for them at my hotel. I'm sure you know the name and the room number." After the henchmen left, he'd have some alphabets move the materials to a safe location. And have them on call that evening, in case Madame was able to make good her boast that quickly.
"I'll drive you, if you like. It's murder trying to get a taxi here at this time of day... even for me." She favoured him with a dazzling smile.
The woman couldn't make the most casual remark without boasting. She reminded him of someone else he knew. And detested.
Still. His dislike of the driver and of her vehicle was less important than getting back to his hotel promptly to brief the alphabets. Besides, she might have something else of interest to say on the drive back. And finally, his position did require him to be polite to her, to the best of his ability.
"I'll take that stony silence as a 'yes, thank you,'" said Portia indulgently. She exchanged a few words with the aged guardian of the weaponry, and then with the timid young gatekeeper, whispering to her so the soldiers wouldn't hear. Whatever it was made the young girl blush. Both women giggled delightedly. Klaus and the younger men were united in their apprehension, in the way of generation upon generation of men faced with blatant feminine conspiracy.
But nothing dreadful happened. The crowds were still gathered around the stairs, eerily silent, not moving at all until Portia's memorable headgear at last disappeared from view.
"Ah!" Portia sighed contentedly as they stepped out into the air, which was as fresh as it ever got in those parts. Dusk was already threatening to fall here, some time ahead of the rest of the city, because of all the overhanging buildings that grew larger with each storey built onto the original, until in some places a resident on the top floor could reach out a window and pass something to a neighbour across the way.
Klaus had nothing to add. He brought up the rear, at least partially because even his keen sense of direction was thwarted by the identical succession of untidy streets and alleys. Portia found her way without really thinking about it. Yet another incongruity: a frivolous socialite with more money than sense knowing the back streets of Naples like a native of their litter-strewn pathways.
The Ferrari was untouched. Portia entered it via the door, this time, suspecting there were things on her shoes that she'd rather not introduce to the leather upholstery. She left Klaus in his silence until they reached the motorway, whereupon the aimless babble of earlier was resurrected. Klaus was on the verge of tuning it out entirely when he picked up a relevant sentence, following close on the heels of an amusing anecdote about Signora Someone-or-other's party the other night.
"Of course, Varozzi wasn't there, although I'm sure she did him the courtesy of inviting him, after all the trouble he's gone to lately to try to get into her skirt; diamonds and tax breaks and so on the only place he's been seen since he went to ground is his favourite pizzeria mafiosi always think first and foremost of their stomachs!"
"Are you going to tell me about this, woman?"
"I keep telling you it's 'Madame'!"
Klaus hardly yelled at the alphabets at all as he dispatched them with the boxes of weapons. He was in an unusually good mood. This night he was going to meet with a worthy adversary. It was convenient that most of his opponents were incompetent idiots, but it exasperated him to have so few challenges to show off his abilities.
Too bad they were going to have to meet in a decadent house of iniquity.
It wasn't difficult to find Portia. He merely headed for the only area of the casino where the noise rose above a dignified hush, and there she was, standing next to the friend she'd mentioned that afternoon; a young woman with the body of a twenty-year-old a lucky twenty-year-old and the sweet face of a fifteen-or-sixteen-year-old angel. Her conservatively-cut rose-pink gown was one of a kind, in a room of women trying to draw attention to themselves in general and their cleavage in particular.
The girl turned over her cards and grinned sheepishly. A Ten and a Six.
Her opponent, a miscellaneous older man, revealed his Nine and his Two.
A chorus of cheers rose up from the small crowd who had gathered at first to admire Portia, but now to toast her companion's undeniable superiority at baccarat. How many million lire had she already won? It was doubtful that even she was keeping count!
Portia retrieved her hand from Klaus's arm and applauded lightly. Her little brunette friend turned at the sound, shyly looking up at Portia and basking in her obvious approval.
"Major, might I present Miss Darcey Kenton? And Darcey, this is Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach."
"Guten abends, Herr Major," said Darcey politely, her accent near-perfect. Then she asked him how he liked the casino and complimented the cut of his tuxedo, all in the one breath, juggling descriptive subordinate clauses like a pro and not mixing up any of the German language's sixteen words for 'the', the way novice speakers often couldn't avoid.
He paid her the compliment of answering her in fast, vernacular German. But however good her German, she hardly seemed likely to be relevant to his mission. "Is this the acquaintance you wished me to meet, Madame?" he demanded, ignoring the young woman's slight wince.
"I don't believe I mentioned anyone in particular for this evening." A little shrug. "What's that you're humming?" she asked Darcey. "Ah, I have it! You ought to tell the Major; he'd like that bit."
"Well er" Darcey began timidly. But she soon got into the swing of things... she generally did, even when very worrying gentlemen were glowering at her from above, as if she were of no more significance to them than a flea in their exalted hair.
"The High Priestess, Norma, takes a great whack at the gong, and her Druids come running. They ask her, what's up? and she says, 'Guerra! Strage! Sterminio!' That is to say, 'War! Plunder! Death!' They're surprised they say, but only a few hours ago, your lips bound us to peace. She says, I've changed my mind. And off they go to war with a rousing chorus! Though personally I think she's rather daft. If one is a Druid High Priestess, one does not incite one's Britons into war against the invaders simply because one's Roman lover is trying to elope with one's best friend... all right, the war is pretty much inevitable at this point, but where are the woman's tactics?" she asked of Klaus and Portia, hands spread wide, palms-up, to emphasise her rhetorical question.
Klaus blinked at her. "Rock music gets stranger every year," he stated.
Both women laughed then, Portia's alto and Darcey's soprano blending into music that turned countless nearby heads. "It's an opera," Darcey managed. "By Vincenzo Bellini."
"Oh. A classic. Well, that's all right then." He turned to Portia. "I understood that there was some sort of purpose to my presence here tonight. Was I mistaken?"
"Of course. Major, I have a mission for you," said Portia with mock solemnity. "Bring Darcey some lemonade, dead or alive!"
The girl's cheeks reddened to approximately the shade of her gown. "Oh, that would be wonderful, sir... these lovely chaps keep bringing me champagne, not knowing that I don't drink! Why, I do believe there were half a dozen glasses standing about for awhile there until Madame drank them." She rolled her eyes at Portia, who threw her head back and chuckled unrepentantly.
On social occasions, the Major was generally grateful for any excuse to escape from conversation for a moment or two. In addition, he was not yet certain that Portia's plans for him tonight were entirely pointless. She enjoyed challenging him. It was entirely possible that she was going to play at frivolity for as long as possible and reveal her true purpose in her own sweet time.
He wasn't entirely inexperienced at contending with such whims. Eroica did that sort of thing a lot. The difference was, he could hit Eroica.
He set off in pursuit of lemonade. It wasn't too difficult to find; there was a bar at the end of the room where beverages of all descriptions were being dispensed for free, to ensure that money stayed on the tables. In addition, waiters circled, to serve those who preferred not to interrupt their play... but no truly chic woman would resort to such extremes when there was a handy man around to dance attendance upon her.
Klaus made his way through the crowded casino back towards his companion of the evening. The place was crammed with elegantly dressed women, but still, she stuck out, in part because those in her immediate vicinity were invariably looking at her.
His progress across the room was halted by a man with gradually silvering black hair and a tuxedo who had the temerity to grasp him by the elbow. Klaus stopped and glared down at him. The man released his arm, but leaned closer to speak confidentially.
"Working with Roccanera, eh? You're a very lucky guy. She's..." He paused in rapt contemplation, eyes closed... then shook his head and elbowed Klaus in the ribs, man-to-man. "You come up with a word for her, let me know."
Klaus drew himself up and moved on without deigning to respond to the man's odious implication. Did he look like the sort of man who tumbled everything female within reach? It was like that creepy Lawrence and his idiot notions about Klaus being the Emperor of the Hamburg Nights. Proof that all Limeys were insane.
He was almost relieved to reach Portia's side. She took his arm, again. He was about to shake it off, not wanting to encourage more speculation along the lines he'd just encountered, when a familiar face caught his eye.
Looking absolutely... Eroican in a white tuxedo no hidebound black for the Earl of Gloria. And huge emeralds in his ears.
But what was far more interesting than the man's habitually gaudy attire was the Earl's expression. He was staring at Portia's hold on Klaus's arm, and he looked utterly devastated.
With a very slight smile, Klaus clasped the slim hand in the crook of his elbow. Dorian's lips thinned, and then his usual blithe expression was back in place.
Darcey won again, to a small round of applause. She accepted the lemonade from Klaus and thanked him profusely, again in her very pretty German. But then she turned back to the play!
Portia murmured drily into Klaus's ear, "My little girl is growing up. She'd never played before tonight."
"You're quite a role model," Klaus said sardonically, sparing a moment to be proud of the general German disinterest in gambling. He himself had made only one bet in his entire life, when he had bet thirty pfennigs on a duel between a corrupt Arab and a maddening English thief. But he only spared a moment to recall this, because aggravation, clad in emeralds and yellow curls, was heading his way.
"She wanted to come. Apparently she saw some film called Goldeneye the other night, saw something she liked, and what harm does it do to indulge her imagination a little?"
Klaus's lip curled. But before he could foul the air with his opinion of James Bond, a familiar English accent rang out like a bell. "Good evening, Major. Fancy meeting you here."
Portia looked Dorian up and down, then snuggled a little closer to Klaus and remarked to him, "You must introduce me to your beautiful friend."
Klaus gritted his teeth. Hard. And recited the formula imposed on Germans of good family from birth. "Madame, may I present Dorian Red, Earl of Gloria. Lord Gloria, Madame Roccanera."
Dorian's charming smile faltered just for a second as he evaluated his 'competition', before taking her hand and bowing over it.
And as Dorian glibly rattled off a few charming phrases, Klaus found himself examining Portia as well. And he noticed for the first time that she was a beautiful woman.
Her complexion was absolutely pure, despite her late hours and taking the sun in her convertible. Her features were arranged in relation to each other with mathematical precision. Her figure showed that somewhere between the opera and the casino and whatever other corrupt amusements she pursued, she found time to spend in a gymnasium. Her posture strongly suggested ballet lessons, military training, or at the very least an adolescence spent walking about the house balancing a book on top of her head.
She took the Earl's hand and held it for a moment, examining a ring he wore... "Bvlgari, I don't doubt?
Dorian tossed his curls back. "You shouldn't. Normally modern jewellery isn't quite to my taste, but some of Bvlgari's creations are simply exquisite with those great stones and the flowing lines of the solid settings, they're like nothing crafted by the hand of man!"
"They're organic," Portia agreed. "Tell me; how do you two know each other?" Polite interest could be read in every line of her properly symmetrical face.
Before Eroica could say God only knew what, Klaus spoke up. "A few years ago, Lord Gloria expressed interest in acquiring a painting from the Eberbach collection." Well, it was true.
Portia nodded. "Darcey?" she prompted, her voice being the only one with any hope of getting Darcey's attention as she babbled away to her circle of admirers.
The girl turned around, a stack of chips of a large denomination still clasped between her pale, manicured fingers. "I've had enough of baccarat," she admitted self-deprecatingly. "It's not really very interesting, let alone challenging, once one has determined a system."
"Lord Gloria Miss Darcey Kenton."
Dorian gave the young lady another appraising look, but it was a bit different this time, Klaus fancied. Then he kissed the girl's hand as if she were a duchess, which made her turn pink.
"I'm charmed to make your acquaintance, Lord Gloria," she said. "I say, is that Bvlgari?"
Before that particular subject could be launched into once again... "Of course it's Bvlgari!" Klaus snapped. "What kind of an idiot doesn't know Bvlgari when they see it? It's organic!"
This pronouncement was greeted with a somewhat dazed silence, which Eroica finally broke. "I do believe this is the Major's attempt at irony." He smiled charmingly at Klaus, who was glaring at him. "You're about as subtle as an American, Major."
Darcey, whose face had fallen visibly at Klaus's outburst, which she perceived to be directed at her, gradually began to smile again. Portia rolled her eyes at the group in general, and said to the girl, "Are you ready to go home?" A vigorous nod. "I'll have Katalin see to those chips for you and make sure you get there safely. Katalin?"
One of the men leaning on a nearby table straightened up and turned around proving to be of Klaus's height, colouring, and general build but female. The lithe, muscular body in impeccable masculine evening dress was, to make matters worse, topped by a stunning Slavic face with fabulous bones and lipstick the colour of blood. All in all, a most singular figure.
She smiled lazily and spoke with an undefinable Eastern European accent. "Yes, Madame?"
"Look after Miss Kenton, will you?"
"Of course, Madame." Katalin prowled across the few feet that separated them and gathered up Darcey's chips, offering the girl her arm.
Of the knot of five people, the two wearing dresses exchanged air-kisses and a whisper or two, then the gallant Katalin whisked young Darcey away.
Portia looked from one of the men to whom she'd been speaking to the other, letting them work out between them who'd take the floor next. She wondered idly if Klaus could look more like a fish out of water if he tried...
Dorian filled the silence. "I never thought I'd see you in a disreputable place like this, Major," he ventured lightly.
"I was certain I would see you in one," the Major grated back.
"Don't rebuke the Major, Lord Gloria it's entirely my fault," Portia put in cheerfully, leaning her head against Klaus's shoulder for a moment.
Dorian's eyes were unguarded for one second, moving from Portia to Klaus and back again, undisguised jealousy displayed just long enough that Klaus could see it. The pervert actually believed that he and this camorrista were lovers.
And that was when Klaus got his idea.
She was beautiful, intelligent, refined and challenging. Every quality that in Eroica had driven him up the wall. If any woman in the world could possibly hold his interest...
"It was delightful to meet you, Lord Gloria," she was saying. "But I'm afraid we must excuse ourselves... I need a little air." Her head swivelled and she smiled up at Klaus, assuming he'd take the hint and lead her out onto the rear terrace. It was seldom actually used; this was a casino that catered to serious gamblers who preferred not to waste time in the moonlight when they could be losing millions.
Klaus's instinctive reaction to moonlit terraces was to flee them at all costs, but before he could take proper evasive action, he suddenly realised that this was just the opening he needed. "Yes, do excuse us, Lord Gloria," he said. This time it was he who took Portia's arm and escorted her, quite correctly, out to the terrace, leaving a rather taken aback Earl far behind them.
As Portia had expected, the terrace was deserted. She went straight up to the edge of the upper level they were on, leaning on the balustrade and breathing in the scent of the frangipanis blooming in the rooftop garden below her. Her head tilted backwards and her eyes closed in bliss she was always affected this way by the sight of the Bay in the distance, outlined by hundreds of bobbing lights. Whoever had decided to put the casino on top of a skyscraper with nothing on the skyline between it and the sea, had had the right idea.
Her companion was standing awkwardly a few feet away, unwilling to intrude into her obvious rapture. She looked like Diana; the aloof virgin goddess bathed in the glow of a protective moon...
Well, it couldn't last forever. "On the subject of our indiscreet friend," she said, referring to Varozzi.
Klaus was a bit startled, though his training kept it from showing. He had been intent on his new mission, and had been making no progress whatsoever. He had no idea how to start an affair.
And now Portia had tossed his other mission back at him, and it took him a few seconds to switch gears. The mental effort made his pulse quicken. A challenge.
Perhaps that had been the problem with all the women who had failed to keep his interest in the past. None of them had been able to challenge him. Being with this woman would always be a high-speed chase, a balancing act, a chess match with the highest stakes in the world.
It would be like dealing with Eroica.
With one vital difference, of course.
"These things do take time," she was saying. "He's in Napoli. But he's a very small needle in a very large and untidy haystack, and it's impossible to say with any certainty who might be supporting him..."
"I expect you can say with a great deal of certainty," Klaus retorted. "Or was today's impressive display a fluke of some sort?" He grinned inwardly as he waited for her reply.
"I have my ideas, of course," said Portia playfully. "There's a war on. There always is but particularly now. And both sides allege he supported the other with his arms! My own views incline more toward him arming his contacts on both sides, then stepping back with his hands over his ears until the dust settles and he can step in to fill the power vaccum... but early success made him careless, and the rest will be history, soon enough."
Klaus studied her for a moment, letting the silence lengthen. After a bit, he lit a cigarette unhurriedly. Briskly exhaling the first cloud of smoke, he said coolly, "What else do you want from NATO, Madame?"
"Nothing too strenuous. Bring back the lad we discussed over lunch, and return the weapons to their proper owners. Those of us with sense have no use for them." That said, she commandeered his cigarette.
He shrugged, lighting another. "I don't believe I've overestimated you. I know perfectly well you could have him here within the hour if you wished to. You have another agenda." And as he spoke, Klaus suddenly got an idea what that agenda might be. He watched her face carefully for verification. She'd leaned on the balcony again, this time backward, her gaze tilted upwards... the porcelain calm of her face was stirred by a small, knowing smile.
Klaus wasn't very good at this sort of thing, but he wasn't an idiot. He knew an invitation when he saw one. Eroica had given him this look on a few occasions. He stepped forward, still not certain exactly what to do. Surely she would discourage him now if she wished to. But she only continued to look at him, smiling.
That was enough. He tossed his cigarette to the ground, stepped on it, leaned closer, and, very carefully, kissed her.
He had never much cared for the taste of lipstick, but the movement of Portia's lips was expert, not too pushy in the way of some women, but an active response. Here, too, a challenge.
He wondered if it would all be like this: no clinging demands that he could resent, but constant, constant challenges.
She left it up to Klaus to break the kiss, and when he did, she said nothing: just took a drag on the purloined cigarette she still held, and looked at him with a slightly larger (and slightly smudged) smile. Feeling suddenly possessive, he took his cigarette back and puffed on it for a moment.
The satisfied feminine smile extended itself yet further. "By the way. I took a call while you were on lemonade duty. Another box of tricks has been delivered to your hotel room. It's fortunate, isn't it, that our absent friend has been keeping such a tight rein on his toys, gathering them all in again following the games that attracted our attention?"
Verdammt. He was going to have to regain some control over this situation.
"Then I'd better go and tend to the box," he said civilly, and turned on his heel to leave the terrace without another word.
With his cigarette.
Inside the casino, Klaus could not resist looking for Eroica. Eroica was watching for him, of course, and looked more dismayed than ever when he caught sight of Klaus.
Klaus kept moving across the crowded room, but the Earl intercepted him. Klaus gave him an impatient look, not deigning to speak.
"I really don't think Coco Red is your color, Major," the Earl said quietly. "I'd say Nirvana is more your speed, or even Tornado..."
Klaus's face must have been as red as the lipstick Portia had left on his mouth as he whipped out his handkerchief and wiped it off. He glanced around, seeking the culprit, and found her amid a knot of laughing gamblers, sipping champagne and giving no sign that she knew he existed.
The Major had studied Sun Tzu.
"He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight."
Elbowing his way past the moping Earl, the Major left without giving her the satisfaction of trying to catch her attention again. Though not without one of her cards, which was handed to him with his coat at the door.
One side bore the legend 'P. Roccanera' and an address; on the other was written in lavender ink, in an exquisite hand, 'Perhaps you might like to stop by my townhouse tomorrow morning, first thing?'
Klaus was on the doorstep of Portia's "townhouse" at noon, correctly assuming that his definition of "first thing" was diametrically opposite to hers, and that he could find far more profitable ways to spend his morning than waiting around for her to wake up after a night's debauchery.
She'd neglected to mention that she inhabited a palace that dated back to the Bourbons, but no one raised in the grandeur of Schloss Eberbach could possibly be intimidated by either its great bulk or its rampant, pointless ornamentation. Schloss Eberbach was furnished with family heirlooms and items of cultural heritage. Many of the furnishings and ornaments here had almost certainly been installed during Madame's regime, clearly chosen for their sybaritic value starting with the painting of the naked woman caressing a swan that had assaulted his eyes the very moment he'd walked in the doors.
Klaus did not approve of such things.
Eroica would no doubt feel at home here, Klaus decided, as a dignified, correctly-attired butler ushered him into a frescoed salon bright with late morning sunshine, murmuring that he would inform the lady of the house of Klaus's presence. That was reason enough to dislike it.
His resolve of the previous night had not wavered. He had spent a good part of the day thus far formulating strategies. It was rather interesting. He knew plenty of women who would fall over at the least hint of interest from him because of his rank and fortune, of course, rather than for anything they saw in him himself. Portia this was like stalking a tigress. Dangerous, risky, and definitely not guaranteed to succeed.
He was, to his surprise, looking forward to it.
Heels clacked on the parquet. "Madame Roccanera isn't yet receiving visitors; is there something I can help" said the voice of Darcey Kenton, launching into her usual speech for greeting visitors before she was properly inside the room. Klaus's identity registered with her and her brown eyes widened. "Major Eberbach! I'll er oh!"
Portia might never be cowed by Klaus's trademark glare, at whatever wattage, but he only had to look in Darcey's direction to bring on a fit of the jitters. Everything balanced itself out eventually.
It took the Major a moment to recall that etiquette required him to say hello.
"Hello," he said.
His duty to the Eberbach name fulfilled, he fell silent, resuming his inspection of the shamefully tasteful room.
"Madame is with her masseuse," Darcey apologised. A pause. "Then she must see her manicurist, her coiffeur, and her astrologer."
You could have heard a pin drop.
"Not that Madame believes any of that planetary claptrap. But the chap who knows all about it also knows even more gossip than the coiffeur..."
Klaus counted to ten.
In ten languages.
Darcey just looked scared.
Someone else was shown in: a young woman of tremendous beauty and style and tremendous tension. Her relief at seeing Darcey and Klaus, as opposed to, say, the woman she'd come to talk to, was palpable.
"Miss Webster, isn't it?" said Darcey, recovering enough to smile. "You're not expected, are you? I'll make sure Madame knows that you're here... this is Major Eberbach. You can keep each other company for a while, I'm sure." Although it must be admitted that she didn't look very sure. It was with considerable trepidation that she left the lion to chat with the lamb the tigress didn't like to be kept waiting.
Miss Webster sat down on the very edge of a chair tapestried with a pastoral scene. She didn't have any more to say for herself than did Klaus.
Being very careful to get plenty of cigarette ash on the Aubusson carpet, Klaus turned on his heel yet again and headed for the door. His hand was on the knob when a voice made him pause.
"Madame says she'll be down in ten minutes if you can just hang on?" squeaked Darcey Kenton, again exhibiting proper fear of Iron Klaus.
He glowered at her for an interminable (for her) ten seconds, then wordlessly, his face a thundercloud, set his watch's timer for ten minutes precisely. He would not stay even one extra second if the fate of the free world depended on it, he promised himself. This woman was entirely too much like Eroica.
"I'm, ah, sure you'd be much more comfortable in the salon," managed Darcey, gesturing feebly.
Klaus almost refused to retire to the indicated room, but the irritating way the chit was hovering about him changed his mind. He stalked to the salon. Miss Webster was still there, looking like she was on her way to her execution.
Precisely sixteen seconds before Klaus would have stalked out of the palazzo for good, Portia sashayed in. She wore a little leather skirt and a matching fitted jacket with, by the looks of it, nothing underneath. Stiletto sandals with spidery ankle-straps completed the ensemble. All of it was pink.
She took one look at her female visitor and said, "Whatever it is, Victoria, come back when you've lost five pounds and tell me then," in a voice that brooked no argument.
Victoria looked at her with a deadpan expression. "I'm getting married."
Portia subjected her to a visual examination of knee-weakening ferocity. "My God," she sighed. "Girls these days. Never mind go home and pack a small bag; I'll send you out of the country for awhile and have a chat with the young man. It's still the same one, isn't it? I'm sure he'll be susceptible to reason."
"But you don't understand!" Victoria blurted out. "I love him"
"Bullshit," said Portia conversationally, putting a hand on her hapless supplicant's back and piloting her toward the door. "You're twenty-two. You don't know what love is. Keep him around if he's that good in bed, but don't shackle yourself to him he's as spineless as he is self-interested, and you know you'd have to take care of the bastard no doubt he admires your salary even more than the figure you used to have. Lose those five pounds! You'll go to London, I think. You'll see the sense of it eventually. Don't cry, you silly girl; you'll ruin your face! I'll send a car at two. And it'll be easier for both of you if you don't try any heroics. Remember those papers you signed. Please show Miss Webster out." This last was directed to the footman on duty outside the salon. The door was closed on the unfortunate Victoria Webster and Portia addressed Klaus.
"Good morning, darling. Did you sleep well? Or did you lie awake until dawn, tossing and turning, tormented by visions of me?"
Years of practice on Eroica allowed him to ignore this sally. "Why did you invite me here today?" he demanded.
"Why, to let you know how things are progressing..." She was looking at the carpet Klaus had vandalised, but she didn't say what she was thinking.
He waited. Getting Klaus to ask questions when he could glare them was like pulling teeth.
There was a vase of calla lilies on a Louis XIV console. Portia wandered over to them and began to deftly re-arrange them. "We've found a man reliable sources place at the site of several of the battles during which NATO weaponry was seen."
"What man is that?"
"And by 'found', you mean...? I'll need to question him. Where is he?"
"Let's just say I was really amazed by how they managed to get all the bits into one box." She grinned wolfishly.
Klaus heaved a sigh. "Do you have anything of actual use to tell me, Madame?" A challenge was excellent, but this was drawing near the border of exasperation.
"Not really." Portia pretended to remember something, and turned to face him properly, still holding a single white lily. "Except that you're a lovely kisser," she confided, "but you probably knew that already."
Once more, Klaus was thrown by her sudden switch of tactics. He could feel his face reddening. He was too flustered to realise that he should probably return the compliment.
She took advantage of his consternation to sample his talents in that direction a second time. Kissing her was... stimulating. She broke it off far too soon for Klaus's liking, just as he was slowly entering into the spirit of it. And this time, she brought out a flimsy silk handkerchief, monogrammed with her initials in the same lavender as her ink, and removed the smudge of red from his mouth herself.
He studied her. Her face was lifted to his just out of kissing range, a challenging smile on her ruby lips. He wondered if he was now expected to try for more, and if more would be forthcoming.
Once more, he retreated into strategy. He straightened and took a step back. "I look forward to seeing you again, Madame... when you have concrete news about Varozzi." With that he turned.
His retreat didn't ruffle her. "You might like to check in again later today... around six or seven, perhaps, before dinner? I might have something for you... in fact, I think it's quite probable."
He didn't turn or pause. "Let me know if it becomes definite," he tossed over his shoulder.
When he reached the entrance hall, an amiable-looking captain of industry had just come in, walking as tall as self-made men generally did. He took one look at Klaus and remarked, "Stayed to breakfast, eh? Don't blame you." He handed his coat to the butler and patted the Major's shoulder, confiding, "I met her first twelve years ago, in Amalfi..."
His eyes glazed over before he could reminisce further.
Understanding of the man's implications spread in concert with the flush on Klaus's face. Why was everyone who saw him in that woman's vicinity assuming they were...? He left before the other man could emerge from his trance and tell him more.
He spent the drive back to his hotel asking himself just what was going on between him and Madame. Her intentions were as clear as mud. Did she imagine she could turn him into a wistful zombie like her various past lovers who seemed to show up at every turn? And did she indeed want to bed him, or was she merely toying with him? A muscle leapt in his jaw.
One did not toy with a von dem Eberbach.
By the time he was unlocking the door to his room, Klaus was seriously considering cutting off all relations with the mercurial camorrista.
He pushed open the door and for a fleeting second wished he hadn't: there was an idiotic, flamboyant, insouciant, and above all familiar pervert sitting on the sofa, filing his nails and humming a waltz.
"Would you like to leave with bruises or without?" Klaus demanded as he stepped inside, holding the door open.
Dorian paused in mid-file. "Madame Roccanera is holding out on you. Varozzi is guilty of a lot more than stealing experimental weapons."
The damned thief always knew when to stop playing and come right to the point.
The Major shut the door and stood just inside it, arms folded, feet planted apart. "You have sixty seconds to convince me not to throw you out."
"He acquired copies of top secret NATO dossiers and has been selling them to the highest bidders," Dorian informed him. "That woman intends to keep the remaining ones for her own use."
"And why should I believe a word you say?" Klaus demanded.
Dorian studied him challengingly for a second before rising with a shrug. "No reason, I suppose... other than that I've worked for you and saved your missions and your life several times in the past. But if that's not enough, I'll go." And the thief actually opened the door and started down the hall.
Klaus let him get halfway to the elevator before saying, "Eroica! Get your ass back here!"
Dorian looked over his shoulder winsomely. "Why? Do you have some use for it?"
Klaus glared, feeling himself redden for what must be the tenth time in the last twenty-four hours. He took a menacing step toward Eroica. Eroica, promptly quelled, turned and walked docilely back into the room without another word.
"What makes you say this?" Klaus growled when the pervert was safely back on the sofa. He was relieved to have an adversary he could yell at. And slug, if necessary. Though he secretly preferred not to do so. It didn't feel... sportsmanlike.
Dorian shrugged elegantly. "Oh, you know how it is. One hears things."
Klaus seized his arm and hauled him to his feet, heading towards the door.
"All right, all right! Look, I can't divulge my sources, you know that, but a good friend of mine actually acquired one of the dossiers himself. He gave it to me in return for a Monet he had the bad taste to want." Dorian reached inside his natty red-and-gold pseudo-military jacket and pulled the dossier out.
Klaus snatched it and looked it over quickly. It was exactly what the pervert had said it was. He used a few words Dorian had heard too many times before lapsing into silent consideration. NATO had believed a Belgian agent had been behind this leak. Apparently they had been wrong.
Klaus glanced at Dorian's attentive face for an instant before resuming his thoughts. The pervert's motives were transparent, but he couldn't be ignored. Still, while the mentioned dossiers were indisputably real, Klaus was not at all certain Portia was in possession of them. Dorian could easily be lying about that detail. God knew he had motive enough.
Klaus regarded the Earl forbiddingly. "And I suppose you just happen to know where they are."
Dorian smiled charmingly.
Uncharmed, Klaus continued, "And you're offering to steal them and deliver them to me."
"For a price," Dorian agreed.
"I'll authorise your usual NATO compensation," Klaus said curtly.
"No." Dorian's eyes were hard. When Klaus waited inquiringly, Dorian informed him, "I will not do this for money."
Why wasn't anyone accepting money these days? Klaus gave him a warning look.
Dorian stood again. His face was tense and serious. "If you want those dossiers, you have to promise me you'll never see that woman again."
"Is it the latest fashion to demand the impossible? You know perfectly well I have to maintain contact for the duration of the mission."
"Do you have to maintain contact with her lipstick?" Dorian demanded, jealousy written clearly across his face.
"None of your business, pervert."
Dorian dropped his gaze. He seemed to consider for a minute before regarding Klaus with a calculating light in his eyes that set off alarm bells in the Major's brain.
"So you're spending time running about with that woman because she's giving you things you need for your mission," Dorian said carefully.
Klaus did not answer, only waited apprehensively.
"Then surely you could do the same with other persons who're offering things you need for your mission," Dorian suggested as if idly.
Klaus glared warningly. "Whatever your perverted mind is cooking up"
"My perverted mind is cooking up a drive through the countryside. Lots of lovely sites of historical note hereabouts."
"Don't be an idiot," Klaus snapped. As if he didn't have enough to contend with.
Dorian smiled sweetly. "Tomorrow afternoon. Me, my convertible, the Italian countryside. It's my price."
"For all the dossiers?" Klaus demanded.
"All of them."
This, Klaus decided, was definitely the most irritating mission he had ever been on. "You realise I am not agreeing to anything perverted," he said, glowering.
"Of course not," Dorian agreed composedly. "I'll fetch you in front of your hotel tomorrow at one." With that, the Earl blew his Major a kiss and sauntered out, leaving a seething German behind him.
"This is Eliza Rosenthal calling for Portia Roccanera," said a crisp, though not quite aristocratic British accent. "Am I speaking to Lord Gloria?"
"You will be in a New York minute," Jones said, and passed the phone to his employer.
"Lord Gloria? Thank you for confirming that, sir. Please hold for Madame Roccanera."
Perhaps thirty seconds of a baroque violin concerto followed.
"Hello, sweetheart," said Portia kindly. "How are you holding up?"
"My manicurist is going to kill me," Dorian blurted. "But you were right. He jumped at the dossiers. He agreed to tomorrow afternoon." Dorian began to lift his free hand to his mouth and stopped himself in time. He hadn't bitten his nails in years.
On the telephone, Portia always felt chatty. "Shall I make you an appointment with mine? She'll make your nails look so delicious you won't dare bite them... you wouldn't believe how many young women in Napoli who have been coaxed out of that habit thanks to her. Tomorrow afternoon? Grand. I'm taking him to church tomorrow morning maybe I'll get lunch out of him. What d'you think?"
Dorian thought about seeing more of that damned Coco Red on Klaus's mouth and bit down on a nail before stopping himself. "I suppose so," he mumbled. "When can I see that manicurist?"
"Tell you what, come around about ten on Monday morning. I always have a double appointment with her because nothing ever runs according to schedule in the morning... Oh, don't sound so gloomy! You know I'm not doing this for the fun of it... you'll be pleased to hear that I have to practically ambush the man to make him kiss me! But other than that, everything's going swimmingly."
"Ambush him," Dorian echoed absently.
"It's no picnic. I hate kissing men... no matter how scrupulously they shave, they're always scratchy!"
"I know," Dorian sighed dreamily.
"Ah! Here's my own personal Health Nazi... Darcey, I'm on the phone! If a girl can't smoke when she's on the phone, when can she smoke? Wretched child," sighed Portia, with no particular irritation, putting out her cigarette and watching as Darcey, smirking, faded out into the garden again.
"You two are going to that lovely ball at the Marchesa's tonight, aren't you? I'll see you there." Dorian hung up, lifted his hand towards his mouth, stopped, looked at the nails he had already ruined, and contemplated tearing his hair out instead.
Running was excellent for the health. One good thing about seeing that damned thief was that it seemed to inspire Klaus to do even more of it than usual.
With his body suitably exhausted into discipline, Klaus returned to his hotel for a quick shower, not bothering to heat the water. Heat and cold were a matter of discipline, after all, and occasional cold showers were good for the health.
He emerged from the shower only when he no longer imagined he could still smell infernal roses clinging to him and dressed quickly, with military efficiency.
As usual, he was precisely on time to meet Madame. He didn't bother waiting for the butler who answered the door to offer pleasantries and lead him to the salon; he strode past the servant purposefully and found his own way there.
None of the chairs looked any more likely to support his weight than they had earlier, so he went over to the closed French windows and scowled out at Portia's lush gardens.
His eagle eye spotted movement under the orange trees. He stepped to one side, to see without being seen, and tensed until he recognised Portia, in a white chiffon dress this time, on the arm of what looked to be your typical swarthy wop. Not worthy of her, he could tell at a glance, but as she tended to grab any arm that came near enough and attach herself to it with the tenacity of a limpet, perhaps it was just business?
She stared passively ahead until they stopped, a few yards from the loggia that led inside. Words were spoken. The man took hold of her slender, mostly-bare white arm, beginning to bend it painfully backwards... Klaus was on the verge of interfering when her head bowed in an act of submission so uncharacteristic it had to be feigned, and he realised she was allowing the assault on her person to occur.
Her captor lingered, stole a kiss, then let go of her and sauntered off in the direction of the loggia fortunately for him, the end opposite to the one at which Klaus lurked. He was soon gone.
Portia hovered in the garden, until a young woman in blue came into the picture, carrying a tray upon which rested all the paraphenalia necessary to clean one's teeth. She did so, reapplied her smudged lipstick, and continued up into the loggia with her usual slightly teasing smile firmly in place.
She opened the doors to the salon, extrapolating from Klaus's position that he'd probably been a silent witness to the circumstances of her last visitor's departure. "You're early," she said. Her lower arm had already turned red where she'd been held.
"Apparently you consider anything less than two hours late to be early," he retorted.
"Guilty," she purred. Then she looked down at her arm and touched the reddened area in a detached fashion. "It'll be the eighteen-button gloves tonight, I think."
Without preamble, he stepped to her side, took her arm, and felt the muscles and tendons with practiced fingers. There was still the sign of the strain, but no real damage. He released her arm. "You may want some liniment for the pain," he announced, "but it'll be fine."
She chuckled, both amused and pleased at his attention. "It doesn't hurt enough to warrant that. And it's a very small price to pay... he's not directly allied with my faction, but he's going to bend all his resources to our quest for Varozzi. If it pleases him to play the pasha with a poor, defenceless woman, where's the harm?"
And what poor, defenceless woman would that be? the Major thought with grim amusement, but he was not in the habit of voicing irony. When he did, it tended to come out as sledgehammer sarcasm. Instead he regarded her evenly and coolly remarked, "A shame NATO could never be certain of your loyalties. You would have made a fine operative." She wasn't even flighty and flamboyant, like some NATO contractors of high value and dubious motives he could name. Another bloody waste.
"You're assuming I'd even want to. I'm quite happy where I am," Portia assured him serenely. "But thank you for the compliment." She sat down, adjusting the silk cushion behind her and folding one leg elegantly over the other. "Being the lean, mean man of action you are, I'm sure you won't want to hang around here any longer. I haven't decided which ball I'm going to this evening, but I'll let you know you can meet me there at any time after ten and I ought to have some concrete information for you. Besides... if you stay much longer, you'll make me late for my tea ceremony lesson." She beamed.
Tea ceremony lesson. People with good taste were lunatics. Klaus turned on his heel and stalked out. It was getting to be a habit with him.
Klaus was following Portia around Naples like a hound on the scent and was probably developing a taste for Coco Red.
The Iron Major was letting that woman squire him around to all the most tediously grand occasions. She had even gotten him to tango, for God's sake. He'd no doubt be in the woman's bed within the week.
Yes, everything was going according to plan, Dorian told himself. In no time at all, the wire rope would be entangled with him.
And Dorian didn't think he could stand it for another minute.
The Major looked very fine in his crisp, dark evening clothes. His partner appeared even more like a bird of paradise as, royal purple and gold, she snuggled against him as closely as she could without putting him off his dance steps. She, of course, couldn't be put off by anything short of having her feet stepped on, and the Major, for all he tangoed extremely infrequently, was slightly less likely to trample upon her than he was to spontaneously break into a Sondheim number.
And the intent way he was looking at her well, tango-ing took a lot of concentration, after all...
The Earl heard a small sigh and realised he wasn't the only one gazing wistfully at the dancers.
Darcey Kenton was standing a few feet away. She wore a long, virginal white silk gown, entirely appropriate to her tender years, as was her discreet maquillage and the way her hip-length auburn hair had been left down, but dressed with pearls. It wasn't fair at all that a figure who might easily have stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece should look so sad... appropriate, perhaps, but not fair.
She lowered her eyes to her clasped hands, and Dorian, sensitive to such things, noted the glisten of tears. Dorian allowed himself a moment of silent sympathy with the girl. He knew what it was to love somebody hopelessly recalcitrant, terribly dangerous, and utterly irresistible.
Abruptly she whirled around, turning her face to the wall to conceal her emotion. Her pale shoulders shook once.
Ever the gentleman, Dorian gave her a moment to catch her breath, then stepped to her side and said gently, "You look like you could stand some air, darling. Why don't we adjourn for lemonade?"
Her head turned slowly and she favoured him with the most grateful expression he'd seen in a long time. "That would be lovely, Lord Gloria," she said tremulously.
Dorian was not accustomed to playing knight errant, but he seemed to be taking to it rather well of late, what with rescuing statues and camorristas from badly dressed Frenchmen and now a sweet young thing from public humiliation. He took her arm, not looking her directly in the face, to give the girl's grief what privacy he could.
The lemonade was fetched from the long gallery in which such things were being served, and then Dorian tactfully led his companion off to find the promised air. That was the good thing about balls held in private villas: you could always find a quiet corner if you looked hard enough. Other people were enjoying the warm Neapolitan night, too, but they stuck close to the villa so as not to miss anything: Dorian escorted Darcey slightly further afield, to a scroll-backed bench amid beds of roses, where she could take as long as she needed to regain her composure, and they could chat without being overheard.
"I I don't know what's come over me," she lied, utterly transparently, clutching her lemonade in both hands.
"I do," Dorian said simply, looking at the rosebushes.
She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief removed from her tiny beaded purse. "D'you know, I rather think you do..."
"Drink your lemonade. Things will turn out all right." Dorian decided not to tell the girl that he'd been carrying his torch for seven years and hadn't won that iron heart yet. She couldn't be more than eighteen at the most; why frighten her?
"Of course they won't." But she did drink her lemonade.
"You're too young to know that," he rebuked gently. "At your age, you should still believe in Destiny."
She smiled up at him as if he'd just said the sweetest thing in the world. "I don't believe in destiny, or any kind of a divine plan... I've read too many Rationalist philosophers for that. I believe in pure dumb luck, and I believe that it can only take you so far. I'm fairly sure I've reached my limit."
He looked at her face, at her skin perfectly taut with youth. He must have been getting old, because he was faintly appalled.
"Proof positive that Rationalist philosophers are not fit reading for the young," he murmured. "Why haven't you told her?" Even as he spoke, he remembered the disastrous results of his own confession, that hellish night in Rome.
"She's... she's so awfully beautiful," Darcey murmured. "And and brilliant, and chic, and cultured... and unafraid... She thinks I'm a child. And she's right. I'm impulsive and temperamental I lose my head at the drop of a hat I know nothing about anything... I'm no fit match for her and I know it." She spoke quickly, as if fearing she'd lose her nerve and her lower lip trembled dangerously.
"Oh, dear. You do have a bad case of it." Dorian took a meditative sip of his champagne. "Surely you don't think she wants someone just like herself? That would be intolerably dull."
"She needs someone to hold her interest; to fascinate and electrify her... I know I could never... but, oh! How I love her," said the girl fervently. She glowed, breathlessly elaborating upon one of her very favourite subjects... although previously she'd voiced these forbidden thoughts only to her mirror. The words tumbled out quite clumsily, as befitted a declaration of first love, whoever it was being declared to.
"I know I'm young, but I'm not stupid... I know love when I feel it. I had a crush on her from the moment I saw her picture... after we met I began to realise what a truly exceptional person she is, and what started off schoolgirlish nonsense developed so many facets I couldn't hope to quantify them. I'm not blind, either. I know where some of the money comes from... and I see her faults, and believe me there are a lot of them, but I love those, too... they're part of her; they've helped make her the woman I love... yes, I love her, all of her, and that's all there is to it... Oh, listen to the way I go on! You'd think I was the heroine of some mawkish novel." She sniffed. "I've stopped now; really I have. It's... too good of you to listen to me; I I shouldn't keep you from the party... oh, hell," she concluded miserably.
Dorian smiled ruefully. It all sounded entirely too familiar. "You think you have an impossible yen," he said wryly.
"Oh! Have I ever... why do we always feel compelled to devote ourselves to the ones who don't give a damn? I've watched her parade about with an endless succession of men, and I could bear it if they made her happy, but they don't... and now, as if she needs another swain she doesn't care for, she's seducing your Major!" Her anguished whisper halted in a blush. "He he is your Major, isn't he?" she asked softly, tucking her fingers, icy from holding her glass, into Dorian's. "Even if he doesn't know it yet?"
Dorian managed a smile, blinking back sudden tears. What a pair of melodramatic idiots they were. He suddenly imagined Klaus's reaction to the entire conversation and could not keep back a little laugh.
"My dear young lady, she's convinced that if a night with her doesn't make that man face the truth, then nothing..." He stopped himself before he could go maudlin too. He drew a breath and endeavoured to channel Oscar Wilde again. Oscar was quite useful at moments like these. "It is utterly unaesthetic for someone so young and pretty to be so... realistic. This will not do. You must fight for her."
An eyebrow raised she was sarcastic as well as realistic, although her tone was straight in the extreme. "What kind of a success rate does fighting have?"
Of all the possible questions she could ask, it would be that one. Dorian studied the girl. It really wasn't right. He was going to have to do something about this situation, for the sake of romantic fools everywhere.
He sighed and extended his hand to her urbanely. "Are you ready to return to the party?" he inquired.
Brisk shake of the head, and determined tightening of the lips. "I'll just sit a little longer, Lord Gloria. But don't let me keep you. You see, if she sees me upset, she'll send me home to bed, I know she will, and that's all very well, but what good's being anywhere she isn't?"
He laughed delightedly. "That's the most delicate innuendo I've heard in ages, love. And don't be absurd; no gentleman could abandon you out here."
"And you're certainly a gentleman," she said admiringly. Then, inevitably, the conversation turned to her shoes and his and the use of light in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, and so it happened that they spent quite a pleasant interlude discussing those and other such subjects of extreme relevance to both of them.
Meanwhile, Klaus had succeeded in getting Portia alone for the first time that evening. Circumstances dictated that the venue of their rendezvous be a small upstairs bathroom with a lock on the door; hence, Portia was far more interested in powdering her pretty little nose than in sharing vital intel with the NATO agent.
He stood behind her, arms folded and posture perfect, watching and glowering. When he deemed her face was as powdered as it could possibly get, he demanded, "I've had it with your games for tonight, Madame. You said you had information for me." He waited, hoping this wasn't just another ploy to entrap him in embarrassing innuendo.
But she did not plague him with innuendo this time. She closed her compact with a little snap, turned around, and without preamble twined her arms around his neck and kissed him. This was a far more intimate posture than that of their previous kisses. Klaus found himself instinctively raising his arms and arranging them across her back, although he regretted it the moment she seemed to take it as an excuse to kiss him even more enthusiastically. He pulled back, a little breathless.
"Do you know what would help?" she murmured into his ear, still holding him loosely despite his efforts.
He could think of a lot of things, but he wasn't sure he wanted to mention any of them.
Whatever he expected to hear from a woman whose lips were brushing his ear, it wasn't: "If you NATO boys could give us some kind of estimate of what you're missing and how many."
He straightened promptly, but gathered his wits enough to phrase his response properly. "You are far too intelligent to imagine that we would do such a thing. I doubt that I could even get that information, let alone pass it on. Do you have anything constructive to say?"
The lower half of her body stayed almost-touching his; the upper half leaned back against the vanity. How did she do that and look so comfortable? "Just that we've found a helluva lot of things that go bang today, but how are we supposed to know when to stop looking?"
He released her abruptly, apprehensive thoughts of what dangerous objects might be floating around Italy and God knew where else in the hands of criminals dispelling his irritation and his interest in kissing.
"I'm afraid you can't have most of this lot until tomorrow, anyway I have yet to complete the transaction necessary for me to gain control of them."
Absorbed in his grim thoughts, it took Klaus a moment to really register that last statement. He looked at her sharply. "Transaction?" he asked suspiciously.
"Uh-huh," she said, correctly deducing that elaboration would open a can of worms it would be unwise to open at that point. "You can pick me up for church tomorrow at quarter past nine, and by the time you return to your hotel, they'll be waiting for you."
NATO training dictated that an operative never show surprise, but Klaus knew he looked completely flummoxed now. The oddest thing was, he didn't think she was doing this just to keep him off-balance. It was an anticipated side effect, yes, but this was, quite simply, the way the woman's mind worked.
And abruptly, he remembered Eroica's startled expression a few years back, on the way to Rome, when Klaus had invited the thief to go to church with him. Well, he had just saved a few hundred lives with a bit of help from the bloody nuisance. It was a proper time to go to church, and it had seemed only right to take his... comrade with him.
It had been a pleasant interlude. For once, the Earl had been serious and tame, apparently a bit daunted by this sign of friendliness from him. Klaus suddenly wondered, if not for that quiet hour in that cathedral, would Eroica have had the temerity to make his declaration the following day?
"Quarter past nine," he grunted at the woman, and stalked out without trying for another kiss. His mind was going in useless directions, and he needed to be alone. He had more important things to think about than annoying perverts right now.
Trying to order his thoughts, Klaus strode through the hall, scattering those idling along as he searched for a quiet spot. This wasn't really his element, but he had a job to do.
Klaus turned a corner and found a deserted nook. It was actually a dead end, but that was fine with him. He leaned against the wall, closing his eyes, drawing deep breaths.
Weapons. Nasty ones. A lot of them, floating around Italy in all sorts of unauthorised hands. He had to get everything possible out of the camorrista and the thief or the situation was going to become very ugly indeed. The two of them were aggravating, but that was nothing to what they could help him prevent. As he had been reminding himself over years of dealing with Eroica.
The Major could clearly hear people talking around the corner, inane chatter, laughter, footsteps. There were no sounds nearby, not until there was the tiniest motion right behind him.
Klaus whirled automatically, right into a warm, firm embrace. Before he even had time to notice it, his mouth was joined with another.
The lips against his were soft and yielding, moving in perfect time and effortless agreement with his. The slender form that pressed against his seemed to have always been there; if it were moved away, that would be a mutilation. And the long fingers combing smoothly through his hair had always been there, and his own hands had always been buried in soft, abundant curls, and he had been breathing the scent of roses all of his life.
It went on for quite some time before he realised that he was being kissed. The fact that he was kissing back, he chose not to examine.
The Major wrenched himself away from Eroica and took a step back, too shocked to know what to do next.
Dorian's hair was as tousled as if they'd been at it for hours instead of seconds, his eyes were dazed, his lips darker and fuller than usual. He gave a tiny gasp of protest as Klaus stepped back, but stopped himself from trying to reclaim his embrace.
When Klaus only stared at him, Dorian drew a shuddering breath and pressed his lips together. His eyes were pleading in a painfully honest way Klaus had never seen from the self-possessed Earl before. Klaus reflected that he should probably punch the other man, but somehow his heart wasn't in it. His usual stock of stinging insults went through his head, but none of them seemed to want to move through the mouth that had just
At that approaching thought, Klaus was able to feel a spark of anger, or at least of something that enabled him to growl, "Try anything like that tomorrow and I'll break you in half. And don't forget that I only tolerate you at all for the sake of my mission." With that, he shoved his way past a woeful thief and stomped out before one more thing could happen.
Klaus suspected he was going to have trouble sleeping tonight. Perhaps he could get another run in before he went to bed.
Madame was running late, naturally, but only by a few minutes, and they left for church within a timeframe that even Klaus recognised as vaguely punctual. He'd wondered dubiously about what she'd consider acceptable attire for a religious ceremony, yet it seemed he'd had no reason to be concerned: her usual slightly outré garb was replaced by a simple fitted 1940's-style suit, in powder blue, with a white fringed silk scarf knotted about her throat. Its ends trailed down her back, below the dainty blue hat that perched upon her sculpted golden curls. A tiny veil hid her eyes.
But all of this was immaterial: what one noticed about Portia Roccanera that morning was that she glowed.
They were driven in a Rolls Royce Silver Phantom II that was, Klaus conceded grudgingly, slightly preferable to that ridiculous Ferrari. She didn't offer more than a composed "Good morning." He took advantage of the silence to scrutinise her narrowly. Anything that had this woman glowing had to mean trouble for him.
They were let out directly in front of a magnificent baroque church, in an area that had lapsed noticeably from its earlier magnificence. It was almost filled by respectful worshippers when they entered: devout locals dressed in black; a scattering of Napoli's nouveaux riches, who were here more to be seen than to pay a call on God; and a heaping handful of tourists intent on soaking up the atmosphere. Only very few pews were left completely empty, but Portia happened to own one of them, quite near the two stupendously gilded pipe organs. It also had a fine view of the grilles on the south aisle from behind which the Benedictine nuns from the convent next door could view the services.
The rituals of Catholicism were similar the world over. Portia performed them with exquisite poise, Klaus at her side, though he might as well not have been there, for all the attention she paid to him. Just when he thought he was beginning to get a grip on her complicated personality, she defenestrated all his deductions by showing him a side of her he'd never had expected or believed, if he hadn't heard her chanting the responses from memory, and seen the way the priest embraced her fondly afterward.
She and the padre stepped aside for a moment to converse in low voices, and whatever she told the man made him beam with incandescent joy. Portia herself looked disturbingly smug as she collected Klaus again, and they moved steadily through the throng of people exiting the church with them. Unlike the others, who swarmed into vehicles of various descriptions, they continued to walk.
They heard small feet, lots of them, running then they were awash in a sea of too-thin children with large dark eyes. Other parishioners were being mobbed, too, particularly those outside the neighbouring convent. This was local tradition and had been for centuries. A few of the adults handed out alms, or gave money to their own children to do so... none possessed the particular fervour of Portia, as she brought handful upon handful of tightly-folded notes out of her handbag and pressed them into oft-grubby little hands. Klaus joined in with contributions of his own, tossing the money at the children when they were too intimidated by the Iron Major to step close enough to take advantage of his generosity.
"Major, may I make a suggestion?"
"Is there any way to stop you?"
"Don't try to look harmless. You frighten people."
Then Portia shooed their supplicants away: "All right, that's your lot! Off you go! And don't just buy sweets, you wretched little creatures!"
Surprisingly enough, they obeyed. She tucked her hand back into Klaus's arm and grumbled, "They know I'm a soft touch."
"When your own interests aren't threatened, you are." Klaus was not actually surprised. He was much the same, feeling a secret and tremendous compassion for the unhappy innocents of the world, their lives trampled by the irresponsible among the major players who ran things.
The woman at his side laughed. "Not precisely. I was a gutter rat myself once, you see!"
He looked at the elegant patrician lady beside him with new interest. "You grew up on the street?"
"I did," she said easily. She was never ashamed to admit it; it merely served to illustrate how far she'd come, under her own steam as it were. Anyone who thought about that admission for a moment would also see it as a testament to the ruthless cunning that had propelled her upward. "I received an inheritance, but that was much later, after I was a wealthy woman in my own right."
She talked like an American, Klaus noted, almost boasting of her humble origins. He'd known Yanks who actually lied to exaggerate how humble their origins had been. "And you're proud of that. With good reason, despite your methods," he conceded.
"Are you impugning my methods?" she accused, playfully nudging him. "You wouldn't know a method if it bit you, my dear scion of the House of Eberbach! Here's the car; let's go: I could murder a croissant!"
Klaus joined her, not troubling to answer her frivolous chatter. Years of acquaintance with the Earl of Gloria had demonstrated that acknowledging such nonsense only encouraged them to spout more of it.
Dorian's manicurist wasn't going to kill him. He was going to have him drawn and quartered and boiled in oil.
Dorian was wondering if stores still sold quinine in Gone With The Wind, that was what they'd put on Bonnie Blue Butler's thumb to make her stop sucking it, so surely it could keep Dorian's fingers out of his mouth when Carlton ambled in and announced, "There's a Miss Kenton to see you, m'lud."
Darcey walked cautiously in behind Carlton. She wore lavender today and looked very well in it, although she'd not quite been able to conceal the dark circles beneath her pretty brown eyes. She was clutching two large shopping bags, one Prada and one Gianfranco Ferre, and as she came into Dorian's presence, she held them out to him. "Special delivery, Lord Gloria," she said gravely.
Taking them, Dorian impulsively kissed the girl on each cheek. "Special deliverance, more like! Do sit down, my dear. Carlton, send in some lemonade."
A delighted blush suffused Darcey's features. She perched on the edge of the chair her host indicated, one eye on Carlton's exit and the other on the shopping bags Dorian was settling across the room. "I haven't peeked," she said, "but something tells me those don't contain selections from the latest collections. Pity. I love Prada to bits, don't you? They make the most divine boots, thigh-high, stiletto-heeled, laced... I'd never in a million years wear them, but oh!" She clasped a hand to her heart.
Dorian smiled. He loved the Major to distraction, but it was so good to be around people who spoke his language. "Perhaps you'd like to make Madame a gift of a pair."
Darcey fanned herself deliberately, still blushing. "Stop putting ideas in my head, Lord Gloria! You'll drive me into a coma at this rate, and what use will that be?" Then she laboriously swallowed a yawn, her perfect cupid's-bow mouth held tightly closed.
"If you can stay a bit," Dorian suggested, feeling a rush of kindness for this fellow unrequited fool, "perhaps you'd like to have a look at some of my bric-a-brac. I picked up some lovely glass doodads in Venice." He glanced at the clock. It would be best to be late for today's appointment. Later than expected, that was. "And I could drop you home later."
"Murano?" asked Darcey, her eyes lighting up. "Or?" Then she yawned a yawn of truly monumental proportions, a yawn that refused to be silenced, a yawn that threatened to engulf her completely.
The moment her hand dropped from her mouth, she was all apologies: "I'm so sorry! It isn't the company, I assure you... We were all up all night, preventing Madame's nocturnal guests from suspecting each other," she said gravely. Her half-smile began to droop. "Madame took a catnap and a happy pill, so she's raring to go, but the rest of us have to muddle along as best we can... I'm quite all right, really."
"I'm sure you are," Dorian lied. "Right through here, then. Just the sort of collection I like most a hodgepodge. Some of these pieces are centuries old, some brand new. And the traditions are still followed, handed down through families rather than passed about as a matter of business" Still chattering, Dorian ushered the girl into the next room to see his impressive new collection of delicate Venetian glass.
Darcey went in not knowing much about Venetian glass, except that she thought it was awfully pretty.
She came out very much enlightened, enthusiastic enough to forget her sleepiness or, at least, to ignore it. "Those birds remind me very much of a pair we had at home, with the most beautiful particles of gold dust as plumage... I suppose they're mine now," she reflected.
Pleased with himself at having distracted her for a bit, Dorian said, "Are you ready to go home, or would you like another glass of lemonade first?"
His visitor hovered momentarily. "I think I'd better go... I've imposed upon you long enough... and I'm expecting my Greek tutor this afternoon."
"It's no imposition, foolish child. But you mustn't keep your tutor waiting, of course. Is he handsome?"
Darcey made a face. "I don't know. Men who aren't as pretty as you all look alike to me... he hasn't struck me as fantastically ugly; beyond that I couldn't possibly comment." Dorian cracked up, and Darcey continued as if she hadn't noticed. "He's over here as part of a group from the University of Thessaloniki, studying Etruscan ruins... I'd much rather be learning from his professor, who looks like Maria Callas. I'm sure she would instill in me a deep and sincere love of all things Greek. But I'll take what I can get!"
"A depressingly levelheaded philosophy for one so young," Dorian replied. "Let's go, then. I hope you don't mind getting your hair mussed; today is perfect convertible weather."
The only suitable reply to that was an impish grin. "My hair always looks like a haystack anyway. Hairdressers hide when they see me coming. I'd never ridden in a convertible before I met Madame... Lead on!"
Portia's ideal croissant was large and piping hot, accompanied by bitter Turkish coffee, and eaten al fresco. Fortunately, her chauffeuse didn't need to be told where to go to hunt down this dream brunch in its own habitat.
The chef hurried out of his chic cafe to personally seat his illustrious patroness and her guest, kissing her hand and promising his finest product for la bella donna. Portia held up her end in the exchange of compliments with her usual grace and diplomacy. "And you, Major darling?" she asked at last, an eyebrow quirking beneath her veil.
"Something with no sugar whatsoever," he ordered, "and Nescafé."
She grinned at the horrified chef as he bustled off, then looked back across the table at Klaus. "What a boring man. But I adore you anyway!"
"How can I discourage that?" he replied without reflecting. She wasn't the only corrupt aristocrat with too much time on her hands who seemed to have a taste for boring men who wore striped ties and drank instant coffee. There had to be some way of making them all lose interest.
"You could always try giving me too much of a good thing," she said slyly and began her brunch with a kiss.
Klaus's first thought was that he still did not care for the flavour of lipstick.
Her kiss was different from... from...
There was no irrational conviction that this kiss had begun at the dawn of time, or that her mouth against his made him complete. There was only a pair of lips moving with his expertly, but without that instinctive understanding of exactly when and how...
Portia released him and sat back. Klaus promptly fished out his handkerchief and carefully wiped off every trace of lipstick.
When he glanced back at his companion, he found himself looking into a smouldering gaze that had clearly been fixed on him for the entire time he had been intent on removing the traces of her kiss.
That was when Klaus von dem Eberbach began to suspect that he might have a problem.
He was saved from having to comment by the arrival of their brunch. Portia's eyes didn't leave him once as she began to methodically consume her croissant... the desire had become muted, replaced by meditative thoughtfulness that was just as unnerving.
Klaus had been served an identical croissant light and fluffy, perfect even when polluted by proximity to instant coffee. Even so, he didn't understand Portia's visible delight as hers disappeared in record time... a croissant was a croissant; what need was there to moan?
"I have to powder my nose," she said at last, rising.
The man at the next table got up to leave and learned over for an instant to offer Klaus a piece of unsolicited advice: "Run! That one will ruin you for all other women and then where will you be?"
Ignoring the idiot, Klaus scowled out at the beautiful Italian sunshine. The thunderclouds on his brow ensured that waiters left him unharassed, in peace with his Nescafé and his morbid thoughts.
Which he tried to restrict to experimental NATO weapons in unauthorised hands, but other problems kept creeping in.
Madame Roccanera's disconcerting, baffling advances, for one. He could not be certain if she really meant to seduce him, or if she merely enjoyed toying with whatever male happened to be nearby. Well, he would not play her game. If she wanted him, she would have to say so clearly. He would not stoop to making advances he was not certain would be welcome.
What he would do if he was certain, he did not consider at that moment.
Klaus worried about Portia for as long as he could, but finally that train of thought lost its steam, leaving him with no choice but to worry about Eroica.
Face it, Eberbach.
Very well, then. He would face it. The fact was, he had liked it. That kiss. It had been pleasant. No. A great deal more than pleasant.
Well. Eroica's prowess was legendary, after all. He was good at it. Which just went to show, if one allowed oneself anything imprudent Klaus knew that narcotics were dangerous, for example, and so had never used them, not giving their forbidden pleasures a chance to insinuate themselves and weaken him.
By the same token, he had to make sure he never sampled any other varieties of forbidden pleasures. There were a lot of bad things out there that felt good but destroyed those foolish enough to enjoy them. Eroica had given in to temptation. Iron Klaus would not.
A flicker of purposeful movement in his direction caught the Major's eye and he turned his head to watch the elegant camorrista gliding toward him.
He regarded her meditatively. He had two beautiful, expert hedonists offering themselves to him. But one of them was... acceptable.
Since apparently he wanted someone, he had better seriously consider taking the acceptable choice.
Portia had been gone quarter of an hour, but that was nothing. Once, she'd returned from a foray into the powder-room to find her companions had given her up as lost and left without her. Men simply didn't realise how many things had to be done in those few, precious minutes apart from their company.
"Do you have to be anywhere this afternoon?" she said by way of greeting him.
The Major was a bit startled by her apt question. His scowl had relaxed a bit as he had studied her, but it returned at the thought of the arduous afternoon ahead. Hours of listening to that fop spout nonsense about the scenery and the history of every spot, and keeping himself at a proper distance from seductive influences.
"I'm meeting someone." He looked at his watch. "I have to be back at my hotel in twenty minutes. Well, he's usually a bit late," he added.
"I'll call the car, then. We wouldn't want you to be late, dear." Calling the car consisted of opening her handbag, pressing a single button on her phone, and snapping the clasp closed again. Seconds later the handsome vehicle appeared. Portia adored efficiency.
As Klaus had anticipated, the Earl was late. Klaus had heard the phrase "fashionably late", and years of acquaintance with Eroica had led him to conclude that the point of habitual unpunctuality was to make certain of having an audience waiting raptly for a grand entrance.
It pleased Madame to linger with him on the front steps of the hotel as he waited, passing the time with more foppish conversation. There were men ogling her from every direction. She affected not to notice, but Klaus knew she knew she was drawing a formidable amount of attention. To a man who disdained the wasting of time, the display was ostentatious in the extreme. He didn't like being a part of it. That only seemed to amuse her even more she was more tactile than usual, not just holding his arm, but touching his hand and borrowing his cigarette and returning it to his lips every so often.
He made the mistake of looking away during one such manoeuvre. She cut off her surprisingly intellectual review of a favourite French novel, to purr, "What's the matter? Don't you like making an exhibition of yourself?"
"Nein," he stated, flatly and emphatically.
The only warning he received was a suspicious twinkle in her eyes. Then her gloved hands were gripping his collar and he was being kissed intensely, to a chorus of friendly wolf-whistles.
He would not add to the display with an unseemly struggle, he decided grimly.
Although, when one of her silk-stockinged legs slipped around his, he did give momentary consideration to lodging a protest.
He allowed the brazen woman to skillfully devour his mouth until she suddenly jerked away. Opening his eyes, Klaus discovered that the camorrista had been pulled away by a very angry Eroica.
The Earl's sapphire eyes were blazing and his well-shaped mouth tight. A phrase wandered through Klaus's mind: You're pretty when you're mad.
Portia was watching the furious thief composedly. Eroica reached into his pocket and withdrew an impractical glove of soft leather, which Klaus supposed had cost a completely ridiculous amount in Florence, and with great deliberation slapped the camorrista's face with it.
"Madame," Eroica said in a voice low and shaking with fury, "You are trifling with the affections of the man I love. I demand satisfaction." He tossed his extravagant golden mane back from his face. "Choose your weapons."
"Lord Gloria," Portia acknowledged glacially. "You choose weapons. I'll choose conditions."
Quite a number of Neapolitans had gathered to observe. They didn't need to understand English to know top-hole street theatre when they saw it.
"Rapiers, then," Eroica retorted at once, even though the challenged had the right of that choice. "At your earliest convenience, Madame."
"The fencing gallery of my townhouse, at midnight. Until then, Lord Gloria." With supreme dignity, she tucked her handkerchief into Klaus's hand and stepped back into her car, which had been hovering at the curb, door open, all the while.
She couldn't be seen through the tinted windows, but her smile was truly victorious.
Without a word or glance at Klaus, Dorian stormed back to his frivolous, narcissistic convertible and drove away, apparently too furious to remember their date.
Klaus stood on the steps, still silent. He realised, dazed, that two people had just agreed to fight a duel over him.
"Ah! Hello, Major! It's fortunate that I have a fencing gallery, isn't it? It came with the place... every mod con," Portia said cheerily. They were in a small dressing-room adjoining the gallery, where a proper dressing-table had been set up for her. She'd been in the act of powdering her nose when Klaus was shown in; she saw no reason to pause for his sake. After all, this was hardly your average social occasion!
She laid down the powder-brush and stood up. It was the first time he'd seen her in trousers he hadn't realised until that moment just how long her perfectly-tapered legs were. The trousers in this case weren't anything Klaus would formally recognise as such, but white silk harem pants, paired with a blouse, the same fragile embroidery on collar and cuffs. Around her waist was a bright obi-like sash, red, emblazoned with dragons the colour of her severely pinned-back hair. It matched her lipstick and her red leather boots. Just because she was fighting a duel was no reason to be uncoordinated.
It was ten minutes to midnight.
"Don't tell me that you still intend to go through with this insanity," Klaus grated. He had spent half the afternoon trying to get the headstrong woman on the phone to talk some sense into her. She had spoken to him briefly, but had laughed off his warnings. In the end, she'd gone off to play Mah Jong, boasting of an unbroken run of nine double-limit hands that she hoped to continue. Women.
"Never let it be said that Portia Roccanera backed down from a challenge." Her rapier was lying unsheathed on a table. She picked it up cautiously, touching a finger to the blade, and jumped as it pricked her. "Ouch!" she exclaimed, sucking her finger and looking for a moment like a girl playing with her older brother's toys.
"Idiot! How many times do I have to tell you? The Earl's an expert fencer. I've seen him slice off half a man's mustache by flinging a knife from thirty paces, and it must have been the cleanest shave he'd ever had. I've seen him win a duel against a master with a sword a dozen times heavier than the rapiers he's used to, and he did it with a hangover, too!" No need to mention that Klaus had helped a bit by shining a light in the other man's eyes. He had seen Eroica's skill even with that unaccustomed blade. He had little doubt that the thief would have triumphed without his help; he'd only given it because he'd been worried the thief would get injured in the process.
Portia only pouted at him. "You still haven't asked me how my Mah Jong was."
Klaus could feel the steam coming out of his ears. "HOW THE HELL WAS YOUR BLOODY MAH JONG?!" he demanded. "I HOPE IT WAS GOOD! BECAUSE IT'LL BE THE LAST MAH JONG GAME OF YOUR LIFE, YOU IDIOT WOMAN!"
Portia waited a moment to be sure he was finished. "There's no need to be snappish," she murmured reprovingly. "We played eight games and I won six. I'd have won them all, if it hadn't been for all the bloody bamboos I got! Plenty of Red Dragons, too, but what good are Reds when you keep getting fours and sixes and eights? Not to mention twos and threes." From her expression, one would gather that this was the most vexing thing that had happened to her in years.
Klaus had never played Mah Jong in his life and had no idea what she was talking about. And cared less.
"Do you think that bloody queer is too much of a gentleman to hurt you? He's completely insane! Can't you see that? What kind of lunatic goes around challenging people to duels in this day and age? Five or six years back he took it into his head that he was in love with me, and he's been a complete nuisance ever since! There's no telling how insanely he might act over this! I wouldn't put it past that lunatic to kill you or cut you to ribbons out of jealousy! He's held my enemies at knife or gunpoint many times, and if you'd seen him doing it, you wouldn't doubt that he would have killed them to defend me! He's risked his life trying to help me, and he's... he's..." Klaus's shout trailed off and he found himself staring at her uncertainly.
"You're that good?" Portia asked dreamily. She batted her eyelids, then drew back, chuckling. The rapier was still in her hands, although now she was far warier of its steely length.
Klaus sputtered for a moment before managing, "If I am, he certainly doesn't know it! That is, I haven't given him the chance to find out he has no reason to" Again, Klaus's words dissolved in confusion.
"Uh-huh," Portia said gravely. "I don't suppose you'd fetch me a glass of brandy? I think I could find a use for it."
Klaus fetched the brandy, and a second one for himself. He could use it too. He hoped brandy was good for high blood pressure.
He handed her one drink and knocked back the other himself. Putting the empty glass down on the nearest table, he spoke in the slow, deliberate voice one used for slow children or drunks. "Madame. The Earl is very good with a blade. You are risking your life by dueling with him. How much more plainly do I need to put it?"
She looked thoughtfully at him, giving him hope that perhaps she'd finally heed his warnings and call the whole thing off... no such luck. She downed her brandy and tossed the empty glass into the dead fireplace at the end of the room, pasting on a bright smile. "I'm ready. I'll just have to manage, won't I?"
In another antechamber, the Earl of Red Gloria was making his own preparations.
First of all, he had to refresh his rose scent. It would hardly do to fight a duel without fragrance.
Then there was the proper hairdo for the occasion. For swordplay, a bit of practicality was inescapable, but Dorian always made every effort to make practicality more interesting by covering it up with frivolity. His hair had to be back from his face, where it could not obscure his vision, so he took a ribbon of black velvet and used it to tie his hair back in the sort of ponytail men wore back in the days when they still fought duels on a regular basis.
And of course he had to be certain his lace cuffs were properly arranged, and that the lacing down the front of his white blouse was properly tied, just loose enough to show a bit of his creamy skin beneath.
He studied himself critically. For a duel, he had thought it apt to set Douglas Fairbanks aside in favor of Errol Flynn, and tight trousers, high black boots, a billowy white shirt, and a wide sash the same blue as his eyes became him, he thought.
There was a timid knock at the outer door and his eyebrows rose in surprise he'd thought he'd requested to be left alone. "Yes?"
The door opened and a familiar curvy figure ducked in. Darcey was all in black, possibly to save time. She didn't yet have the necessary experience in subterfuge to hide her mixed emotions, so she didn't bother trying. "Lord Gloria," she said tentatively, toying with the doorhandle, "are you are you sure you want to do this?"
"Of course I'm sure. Honour requires that I avenge this slight."
"It's just that you're rather decent, for a masculine sort of person, and I don't want to see you humiliated," the girl said miserably. "She's beaten world champions in private tournaments, did anyone tell you that?"
Dorian swallowed a smile, thinking of his own similar triumphs. "Not till now," was all he said. A gentleman did not boast, after all.
"You look as though you know what you're doing. Do you?" she asked anxiously.
Dorian gave her a complicitous smile. "You're growing up, dear, so I'm going to tell you a grownup secret," he confided, knowing she would understand that the condescension was meant ironically. "Always look like you know what you're doing never more than when you haven't the slightest clue."
"Not a bad idea," she managed. "Well er good luck... I don't know who to root for, you know. I can't imagine what's worse. Madame humbled, or" They both knew what she was thinking. They both winced.
"Don't worry, darling," Dorian said, turning back to the mirror for one last evaluation.
"I'll try not to."
She tip-toed out and used a servants' passage to gain access to the room where she knew Portia would be waiting. The door opened under her fingertips just in time for her to obey an order to "Take the Major upstairs, and tackle him if necessary to prevent him intervening." This was delivered with another dazzling grin as Portia sauntered out to meet her opponent.
Biting her lip, Darcey led the glowering NATO agent up through a hidden staircase to a balcony overlooking the gallery. There were five other balconies, one opposite and two each over the longer sides of the room, all crowded with Portia's favourites and some of Dorian's staff, too. The gaps between the balconies were adorned with images of Roman emperors, painted in fresco by a Renaissance artist, gazing forbiddingly down upon centuries of noble combatants.
One of them had been removed and replaced with a similar fresco of Portia herself, but it was amazing how few guests actually noticed that.
Darcey went straight to the edge and peered over, her heart in her throat as she monitored Portia's progress out of her dressing-room and across to meet Dorian, where the precise centre of the room was marked by the floor mosaic. Oh my, she thought as a hush fell.
Everyone was silent as the two combatants faced off, taking each other's measure. After a long, tense moment, Dorian took the rapier Bonham was holding out to him and both assumed the traditional stance in perfect concert, as if they had choreographed it.
It didn't matter who said it; at its sound, they both moved with the agile grace of trained fencers, each of them surprising someone.
The Major watched in dazed fascination, still wondering how he could put a stop to this insanity. A few seconds of observation had shown clearly that Portia could handle herself with a blade, but still, there was no telling what that damned thief would do if she couldn't disarm him at once...
As he observed, he found that he kept forgetting that the duellers were idiots, children someone had allowed to play with knives, neither really understanding how dangerous their flashing shiny toys were. They moved together so elegantly, so seamlessly, that the duel seemed more like a dance, more like a work of art than a fight.
He'd worried about what the Earl might do to Portia.
But he couldn't touch her. She couldn't touch him, either. Steel struck steel, ringing out the notes of a deadly minuet that absorbed both lithe blondes equally, as a strike was blocked and another defly evaded, and they went back to circling each other on almost-silent booted feet. Then a feint, a parry, and close combat resumed.
They were well matched. Both were tall and fair and beautiful and well-dressed. Watching them, the perfection of their movements anticipating one another, the Major found himself admiring the sight of the two slender bodies following each other back and forth across the floor. And every now and then he would remember that this was over him.
There wasn't another respite. Both wanted to get it over and done with, whatever their reasons, although each was able to detach from that longing so that it wouldn't lead them into hasty manoeuvres that might end in defeat. Jaws dropped further among their admirers with each moment that passed fencing of this calibre didn't usually take place anywhere there wasn't a large gaudy cup at stake. And here it was, before their very noses a man and a woman trying to kill each other or, worse still, trying to deprive each other of a prize worth risking so much.
It happened quite quickly too quickly for anyone to see exactly how. One minute they were locked together, blade to blade, almost nose to nose, the next Portia had danced away and back again... Then a clatter as Dorian's rapier hit the ground and skidded away, and a heavy breath from the Earl as Portia's blade drew a single bead of crimson from his throat. The breath echoed, as did the ones after.
"Do you yield?" she said quietly.
Klaus found himself poised to snatch the blade out of the woman's hand if the idiot thief didn't take the better part of valour.
Dorian locked eyes with her, his grim expression out of place on his pretty face, but somehow serving to make it even more beautiful. He drew a couple of breaths; both their chests were heaving from their exertions.
His gaze darted to Klaus for one instant. Then, a world of bitterness in his voice, he said, very low, "Yes."
She tossed her weapon after his, took his limp hand in her own long enough to shake it, and sauntered back into her dressing-room.
Dorian watched her go, standing silent, still, and very, very pale.
Darcey, who'd nearly swooned several times already, was about to bolt downstairs and throw herself at Portia's feet. She caught herself just in time, biting her lip again, this time until she tasted blood. "Off you go," she said to the Major, jerking her head in the direction of the stairs.
The blood rushed to Klaus's face as he realised what the girl meant. Everyone else's gaze turning to him didn't help. "Doesn't it occur to you that I might want some say in that?" he demanded sarcastically.
"Doesn't it occur to you that, after that, no one's going to listen?" she retorted. If Portia wanted this stupid, stupid man... she'd have him, and Darcey wouldn't lift a finger to stop her. She wouldn't. Even if she did have long nails that itched to implant themselves in his eyes...
"If you think I'm going to just" the Major began, but broke off abruptly as he sensed a particularly intense gaze on him. He gritted his teeth for a moment, then forced himself to meet Eroica's eyes.
The insane thief was still standing right where he'd been when that woman had put the blade to his creamy throat. A thin trickle of blood was falling unregarded from it. And his eyes he was looking at Klaus, not pleading, but as if he had not even a forlorn hope that a plea would do any good.
Klaus clamped his jaw. He was being tempted, he could admit that much to himself. And the cure for that temptation was at hand. He broke the eye contact and stalked down to meet Madame.
A light sheen of perspiration had touched Portia's face and certain areas of her garb. Otherwise, she looked very much as she had when she'd been so blithely disregarding Klaus's warnings... but now he knew she'd had no reason to fear.
Two of her maids were hovering in attendance. She clicked her fingers and they exited, leaving her alone with her prize. "I shall go up to bathe now," she said simply.
He looked at her uncertainly. Was she inviting him to join her, or was he expected to wait, or was he to be sent back to his hotel after all?
Her arm slipped possessively through his. Despite her exertions, she still smelled beautifully of roses? "Shall we?" she purred, looking like the cat that had swallowed the cream, then had the canary as a main course. Klaus swallowed and allowed himself to be led through the inner door.
They paused on the way to admire a fine new fragment of statuary that hadn't been in the gallery leading to her private rooms yesterday. "Fourth century BC," Portia told him, trailing a loving hand over the marble veil that rippled across the woman's features.
She took her bath alone after all, with Klaus waiting in her boudoir. Though she was a woman, it was more sensible than Dorian's she favoured clean lines and wide open spaces; fragile antique furniture, yes, but without the faintest hint of a ruffle. It could have passed for a pleasant sitting-room, perhaps... if it weren't for the doors to the next room, left ajar, through which Klaus distinctly perceived a very large bed. He tried to avoid looking at it and couldn't, his fascination more morbid than anything else.
The Iron Major was facing perhaps his toughest mission yet, and leaving him alone to stew mentally or, at least, to deny that he was stewing at all for a good half-hour would have been a sure recipe for trouble, if he hadn't had boundless reserves of control.
He heard a noise in the doorway and whirled. She was there, in a white silk robe left unbelted, its edges just barely meeting. He could see every line and curve of her peerless shape through its flimsy fabric. Curls even longer than Dorian's, and every bit as lustrous, spilled down her back. Coco Red painted her amorous smile.
Every red-blooded heterosexual man's dream was approaching him with but one intent. Klaus exhaled and reached out.
She's beautiful and elegant and intelligent and spirited and I am going to do this if it kills me.
Dorian didn't need to wait for his manicurist to kill him. The suspense would do him in before said manicurist got the chance.
His hands temporarily camouflaged by soft black leather gloves, he let himself be escorted into the depths of the palazzo, to Portia's own private dressing-room, where men seldom if ever entered. At every turn he alternately sought and sought to hide from signs that his beloved might still be there a few rooms away, perhaps, entwined with their hostess, or worse.
Portia's plan had sounded so exquisitely devious. It had been certain to work. But what they'd counted on right from the first was that Iron Klaus would have no real interest in her... it was paralysingly clear to Dorian that a mistake might easily have been made. That all the Major's protests might have been truly genuine, to the depths of his being...
The manicurist fell upon him, tsking. And the beautiful Earl even relaxed a little as her skillful fussing returned him to reality for a time.
But the gilt clock on the mantel ticked and ticked. Still the lady of the house was absent, until the manicurist was forced to tender her apologies and say that she really couldn't wait for Madame any longer.
She was shown out and Dorian relapsed into gloom. There could be only one explanation for missing a manicure of this quality.
A door opened and he almost leaped to his feet, before discovering that it wasn't Portia, but Darcey, clutching a tray that held two mugs of hot chocolate and two plates of pancakes awash in two seas of maple syrup. "Don't tell me you're slimming," she said firmly, depositing the tray on a table with a muted clatter. "This is no time to be slimming. Besides, I cook once a year; you ought to make the most of it."
Dorian dutifully picked up his fork and made the effort of poking the pancakes with it. "What time did he leave?" he asked dismally.
Darcey was halfway through her plate before she even stopped to answer. "Just after dawn," she said matter-of-factly, the words ending in a curious kind of hiccup, as if a sob were being repressed.
Dorian wavered briefly between prolonging her agony and ending his own, and had the grace to be ashamed of opting for the former. "How did he seem?" he asked in a thin voice.
"I don't know. Stiff?" She shot out those few hard-to-hear words and looked fiercely away, dabbing at her eyes with her linen serviette.
Dorian supposed he deserved to hear that. "Lovely dress," he mumbled, mutilating his pancake a bit more. "Dior, isn't it? It suits you."
Darcey's own brunch continued to disappear at a stunning rate. How she did it without smudging her lipstick, Dorian didn't know. "It's only a hand-me-down. I'm dressed entirely in hand-me-downs these days and they're the best things I've ever worn."
"They suit you," Dorian repeated lamely, unable to think of anything else to say. He ate an entire bite of pancake and promptly regretted it; it curdled in his stomach at once. Still, he was able to truthfully say, "This tastes very good." Another awkward silence descended, until Dorian broke it with, "My dear... if I may... you say that men and women parade through Madame Roccanera's life. Why are you particularly upset over my Major?"
A pancake made a miraculous transfer from Dorian's plate to Darcey's. She had that unfortunate propensity toward overindulging in times of stress that drives women to distraction and a larger dress size the world over. "They never make her happy," she said at last. "If they did, I could bear it, but they don't. She just does it for personal gain. Never thinks twice never cares who touches her so long as she wins in the end." That sentence almost ruined even her appetite, but she rallied, bowed her head over her plate, and began to cut the purloined pancake into bite-sized pieces. Anything to keep her hands busy so they wouldn't try to wring themselves the way they did all night. "But with your Major... I don't see how she can be gaining. What she can be getting out of it. I suppose I suppose I'm afraid she really does like him..."
"Oh, good God!" Dorian exclaimed. "I didn't tell you because I thought it would but my dear, I blush to admit it now, but she's doing all this as a favour to me." He managed a rueful smile and hoped he didn't look as haggard as he felt.
Darcey's head shot up so fast that wisps of auburn hair escaped from her chignon at the sudden movement. "Excuse me, I think you just said... could you run that past me again because I think I missed it?"
Dorian found himself colouring as if he were younger than his companion. "I... well... the idea is, if spending the night with her doesn't make him realise that isn't where his true interests lie, nothing will." He shrugged sheepishly. "Your camorrista is trying to help me win my one true love."
The pancake bandit wavered as if she might swoon from sheer delight, then pulled herself together and sniffed. "Every time I think I can't love her more..." she began. "But, you know, she isn't really a proper camorrista. She works with them and often bosses them, but there's no official place for her in the hierarchy, d'you see?" There followed a thoughtful dissertation on what constituted a mafioso or mafiosa, in this case.
"I'm well aware of the finer points of such distinctions," Dorian assured her. "My dear, I must apologise. When Madame suggested this scheme, I had no idea that she had a devoted admirer of her own."
Another door opened, this time revealing an attractively tousled non-camorrista, wrapped in black silk that was almost falling off her. Her arms flowed up into the air above her head, fingers twined, as she indulged in a mighty stretch that made Darcey drop her fork.
"Good morning, darlings!" she sang out. "Dorian, show me your hands."
Dorian obeyed, his face pale. Mindful of Darcey's presence, he mentioned the least urgent of the numerous things on his mind this morning. "Sometime, Madame, you and I must have a duel in earnest. It's been years since I had such a challenge."
"I was in earnest," she said gaily, "weren't you? Oh, yes, this is a vast improvement... I told you she could do something with even the ruins you've been sporting. Ooh! What was that?" She turned to the pair of magnificent Salukis behind her, one of which had nuzzled her in an unexpected greeting. Her hands clasped each of the animals' heads for a moment. "Dorian, say hello. This is Agamemnon, and this is Clytemnestra... You ought to have seen Klaus's face when Agamemnon wondered why he was leaving."
"Ought I? Why?" Dorian caught himself about to wreck his new manicure.
"It was a picture-postcard moment, believe me."
Darcey spoke up at last, getting to her feet. Time for her discreet exit, but there was one thing she needed first. "Is Nella in there?"
"Yes, I think so... and here's the little lady herself." Portia bent down and picked up an infinitesimal pug puppy, who'd been protectively concealed beneath Clytemnestra. She combed her talon-like nails through the wriggling puglet's soft fur for a moment, then handed her to Darcey.
One pale hand wrapped around the puppy, who was actively engaged in trying to climb up her dress to lick her ear, Darcey offered the other to Lord Gloria. "It was a pleasure to meet you," she said softly, fairly certain they wouldn't meet again.
"The pleasure was all mine," Dorian replied, bowing over her hand. The old-fashioned gallantry made her smile just slightly before she left, and Dorian turned to Portia. "Well?" he demanded.
Portia's attention returned to the Salukis, who knew they weren't allowed in the dressing-room, but were poised on the threshold, monitoring their mistress. "I think Clytemnestra's looking a little peaky today... perhaps she was up too late...?"
"Madame. You know what I want to hear about!" Dorian bit his lip, then burst out, "What was he like?"
Portia gave him a wolfish smile. "I have no doubt you'll find out for yourself before the week is out, darling. But I will tell you that you won't be disappointed!"
Dorian put his head in his hands. "Oh, God. What if this was all a mistake?"
"Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach," Portia drawled, "is gayer than a treeful of monkeys on nitrous oxide. Strawberry?" She popped one into Dorian's mouth without waiting for a reply. Where they'd come from was uncertain; legions of them seemed to follow her around.
"But you said I mean, how can you be sure?" Dorian stuttered.
She laughed, shooing away the Salukis and closing the door. "Darling, if there's one thing I'm an expert on, after all these years, it's men! Come and sit down." The Earl was herded over to her industrial-sized alabaster-topped dressing-table, where she sat him down and commenced to brush his hair.
Dorian fidgeted under her hands. "Would it be delicate to ask what convinced you?"
"Of course it wouldn't be." But she leaned over and whispered it into his ear anyway. His face abruptly turned the shade of his Ferrari.
"But do you think he realised it?" Dorian persisted, red-faced. "I mean, he's practically a monk, he doesn't necessarily know what... what certain things mean..."
"He's not a monk anymore," said Portia smugly, pausing in her brushing to buff her fingernails on her silk whatever-it-was. "I'm sure it will dawn on him in time."
Dorian closed his eyes. "How sure?" he whimpered.
"I'd stake my Faberge on it," she told him soothingly, twirling his curls up into a fanciful arrangement. "You have such lovely hair just like mine!"
Dorian looked regretfully at his nails. If only he'd had them done tomorrow, he could have the relief of biting them now. "What's he doing today? Do you happen to know?"
"I imagine he's asleep now. Later, we're going out for drinks. I'd advise you to go back to your hotel soon and make yourself even more beautiful than you already are, just in case he puts two and two together soon... although, I don't think much of his mental capacity, considering how numbskulled he's been to spurn you in the first place!"
Thinking of a barely-steady voice expressing cynicism far beyond its proper years, Dorian mumbled, "He isn't the only numbskull I know."
"Oh? You have experience with the breed, do you?"
"One's running her perfect manicure through my hair at this very moment."
Portia pretended to draw back, offended, giving Dorian a moment's apprehension before she smiled again and resumed playing with her visitor's curls. "What makes you say that?" she inquired, airily certain that it would be nothing serious.
"Only a pair of big baby browns that constantly follow you as if you were the center of the universe." Dorian pulled away from Portia's elegant hands to turn his head and look up at her. "Have you actually not noticed that she's in love with you, you thickheaded woman?"
"Who? Oh, Darcey..." She shrugged, the black silk again threatening to cascade to the floor. "Yes, I think she has a little crush, but that's only natural under the circumstances, isn't it?" Portia's face registered her first self-deprecating smile in over a decade, effectively rendering the conceit in her query ineffectual. "When I found her, she had a precocious but almost entirely untrained instinct for beauty... I think she's coming along nicely now, don't you?"
"Madame! You aren't listening! She does not have a 'little crush'. I know someone who's desperately in love when I see them, and that girl would walk through fire for you!"
"Then she doesn't have half the brain I gave her credit for," said the amateur hairdresser crisply. "Under all that fluff, she's quite sharp. I know myself, Dorian, and I'm not worthy of the affection of such an innocent... I'd much rather she be quite detached! I wouldn't want any awkward situation to develop that might make her think she'd be better off leaving... she has nowhere else to go, and she's not suited to dealing with income tax and electricity bills on her own. She'll grow out of it; I'm sure she will. It'll be best for all concerned."
This time Dorian seized the hands that were again toying with his hair, looking the woman intently in the eye. "My God, you're as clueless as the Major. Madame, take a good hard look at that girl. You'll see it isn't the sort of thing one grows out of. Don't deceive yourself about it, or worse, reason with yourself over it. It's the real thing, my good woman."
She looked back at him without flinching. "What do you want me to do about it, hmm? I don't do love, Lord Gloria I've never felt it and I don't intend to start now."
Dorian froze. Then he said carefully, "Then you are depriving yourself of the entire point of life, Madame." He rose, unable to endure another moment. "You have my sincere and undying gratitude. If you ever need anything stolen, you need only say the word. Though I hope you'll do me the return favor of not parading your lovers in front of Darcey quite so obviously." With that he left, wanting only to be alone in his suite, to wait and hope and leave his new manicure alone.
Portia ensconced herself at the dressing-table and rang the little bell that would summon the horde of people whose connivance was necessary to have her looking her best. In only a few hours, she'd have to see Klaus again and before that she had two meetings, a sitdown and a press conference. No time to worry about Darcey, in other words, although she admitted to herself, resignedly she'd have to worry eventually.
Klaus, left alone whenever his subordinates had excuses, was mulling over the events of the previous night.
Portia Roccanera had to be one of the most beautiful women alive. Klaus was not widely experienced with women, but he knew enough to realise that her skill equalled her beauty. There was no denying that it had been excellent.
His body was happier than it had been in years. But something else within him he refused to dignify it by giving it a name ached, more and more with each moment that passed him by.
Which left him asking himself, when he wasn't reminding himself of how good it had been:
Why didn't it work?
The hour came when he had agreed to meet her at some palace or other, for drinks. He dressed with his usual care and was there two minutes early, outwardly the very image of a proper gentleman. His name was on the list; he was ushered inside, to the long salon where a few diplomats were already chatting with a few tycoons, and a few society ladies were gathered together to talk about whatever it was society ladies talked about during purgatorial evenings such as this.
Klaus remained aloof as the room began to fill. He had other fish to fry.
He tried to concentrate on the mission, but of course other thoughts kept intruding. He had been right to keep entanglements out of his life up till now. Because now he kept on thinking of the hours he had spent in Portia Roccanera's arms, and the minute he had spent in Dorian's.
He had taken the option which seemed more acceptable, based on the one difference between the two beautiful, challenging, skilled partners who were offering themselves to him. But now he was realizing that there was, in fact, a second difference between the two, and there was a creeping suspicion that it was actually far more important.
That difference was that to Portia, he was a handsome and virile man, an interesting conquest, an amusing interlude. Whereas, to Dorian...
"Darling! There you are!" a familiar voice rang out. He'd last heard it murmuring a protest as he climbed out of its bed.
The black-tied jungle parted to reveal Madame, wearing a stupefying little black dress and a great many diamonds. She held out white-gloved hands, tucking one into his and straightening his tie with the other, as she air-kissed him so close to his face that he could feel the warmth of her skin. To his own surprise, Klaus leaned over and kissed her. She responded with now-familiar skill, which he appreciated as abstractly as he might admire a good tennis swing.
When he judged he had gotten all he was going to out of the kiss, he straightened. She was looking up at him with a faint smile. Whatever he had hoped one more kiss might achieve, it hadn't happened.
A few heads had turned in their direction. Portia ignored them and did the business with a clean handkerchief to make her latest lover presentable again. "I see you've missed me, too," she murmured companionably.
"What progress have you made in finding Varozzi?" Klaus demanded.
A low chuckle. "Not here, dearest... not here. There are people I have to speak to... you can come with me if you like, and glare at them if they look like they're monopolising my time for too long... or you could mingle on your own account... this shouldn't take too long."
"I need a cigarette," he growled, and stalked off.
As he smoked, snippets of conversation drifted back to him. People were discussing Portia's press conference that afternoon how divine she'd looked, how flustered some of the reporters had been, where she'd gotten those delicious earrings, and, oh, incidentally, the orphanage she was building.
After a while he came in from the balcony and surveyed the room, looking for his reason for being present.
It looked as though he couldn't reach her again without physically tossing aside the crowd of fawning admirers that inevitably swarmed her on these occasions. He was contemplating a) plowing through them anyway, b) fleeing the scene, or c) murder, when he felt a hand on his arm and recognised the Princess von Sachsen-Teschen, the wife of one of his bosses at NATO.
"Good evening, Major Eberbach," she said graciously.
She was an attractive woman of uncertain age the Titian tresses of her youth had turned a uniform snowy white that she didn't deign to dye, but barely a wrinkle had invaded her lovely face, and of course she could afford to dress marvellously. True German self-discipline kept her trim enough that she turned heads even in a gathering that included Portia Roccanera.
He inclined his head with stiff formality. "Your Highness. I trust you are enjoying your evening."
"I am indeed, Major. I heard through the grapevine that you're Madame Roccanera's latest particular friend..." Her voice fell an octave and took on a deep and mystical significance he was hearing more and more lately. "You're a very lucky man. I miss the taste of our lipsticks mingling... Ah!"
Klaus heard a small, strangled noise that sounded something like "gurgh" and realised it had come from his own throat. A tiny corner of his brain observed that he was standing rooted to the spot, gaping at the Princess like a half-wit; the rest of his brain was fully engaged in said gaping.
Portia swanned up and attached herself to his arm, so close to him that their bodies threatened to melt together. "Darling? Have you swallowed an olive?" she inquired solicitously. "Oh, hello Marie-Therese! Is that Arpeg»?" Still holding Klaus, she leaned over until her nose almost brushed the other woman's throat, and drew in a deep, appreciative breath...
"Gurgh," Klaus remarked again, unable for the moment to manage more. Portia's gleaming smile as she glanced back toward him kicked his stunned brain back into motion, allowing him to retrieve his jaw from the floor and try to think.
"Major Eberbach, is something wrong?" the Princess inquired, feeling the poor man's forehead. Portia had detached herself by now and the two women were side by side, facing the paralysed agent with similar expressions of concern.
"What did you say to him?"
"Why, nothing, dear..."
"Are you sure?"
"It must have been an olive."
"But he doesn't have a martini."
"Maybe that's the problem! Waiter!"
A drink was pressed into Klaus's hand and he drained it automatically, even though he actually hated martinis. He looked from one woman to the other.
Portia took it upon herself to try to guess the rest of his sentence. "You... just fell in love with the Princess and wonder what the Prince is going to have to say about it? You... miss me terribly and would like to find a quiet broom-closet? You... find the chandeliers tasteless...? You... feel rather queer all of a sudden?"
"I. Erm. I have to meet someone. Ehm. Excuse me. If you would. Ladies." He coughed.
Portia's pale eyes danced delightedly as she watched the NATO agent flee the room as discreetly as possible. Mission accomplished, she felt enlisting an old lover to play a part in their private drama, and realign Klaus's world view, had been a stroke of genius.
The Princess leaned close and whispered to her, "What a strange man! You must tell me all about it!"
The Earl of Red Gloria's private cellular phone rang. He pounced, hearing at the other end a single word: "Incoming." He set the phone down with shaking fingers and looked regretfully at his exquisite manicure.
Dorian was beginning to think perhaps he would do better to put his fingernails somewhere he couldn't get at them, the hotel safe or someplace. He also believed that climbing the walls would have been quite a relief.
He nearly jumped out of his skin at the loud knock.
"Always keep a man waiting a bit," Dorian's mother had admonished his older sisters. Dorian himself had followed that advice in the past. Today, he made Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach wait an entire three seconds before opening the door.
Klaus marched in without a word, looking as if he were surprised to find himself there. Dorian tried to recite conventional pleasantries, but "What a pleasant surprise!" and "Would you care for a drink?" shrivelled unsaid in his dry mouth.
Klaus looked around the room suspiciously, checking a second and third time that no one else was present. Then, with an air of taking his courage in his hands, he turned and looked at the other man.
"Dorian," he began.
I am going to faint, Dorian thought. Hearing that deep, faintly accented voice say his name for the first time...
"Klaus?" he managed after a long, long silence. Then he shut up, because his voice was perilously close to a squeak.
Klaus drew in a breath as if it were fighting to escape him. "I," he began, and stopped. He scowled. "You" He broke off. "You" he tried again.
Klaus was still struggling. "It's I"
Dorian stopped Klaus's stalled sentences by stepping forward and kissing him.
To Dorian's thrilled surprise, he was immediately crushed against Klaus's muscled chest, and his head bent back to present his mouth more easily. He closed his eyes and melted into the iron embrace.
Klaus released Dorian's mouth when he had to breathe. He looked into the other man's adoring sky-coloured eyes for a moment, and there he found the answer to the question he had been pondering all day.
"Dorian," he said, his tone gentler now, "I..."
Dorian waited, a slow smile spreading across his beautiful face. "Klaus," he sighed happily, before engulfing him in another eternal, blissful kiss.
After that, Klaus didn't even try to think.
Klaus supposed he should be second-guessing himself, but he really didn't have any inclination to. He had surrendered a fight he had been carrying on for years, put his career and, for want of a better word, his heart in jeopardy, and discovered he was capable of all sorts of things he felt certain he ought to disapprove of, and he had never felt more confident that all was right with the world.
With an utterly unfamiliar sensation that he suspected must be contentment, he rose from Dorian's bed at dawn, kissed the drowsy thief goodbye with a promise to return that night, and headed back for his own hotel. All might be right with the world, but it would not stay right if he didn't round up Varozzi and all those experimental weapons. He was going to have to deliver an ultimatum to that woman this very day. Just in case she wasn't through with him, he wanted to get out of Naples as soon as he could. He was going to limit himself to one entanglement per lifetime.
Klaus's hand was on his doorhandle when he sensed something was wrong. There was movement inside, he was certain. Not the hotel staff, not at this hour.
He moved quietly down the hall to Z's room and rapped on the door. It only took a moment for Z to answer, wrapped in a robe, his shaggy yellow hair damp.
"There's someone in my room," Klaus informed him.
Z blinked in surprise. "Who, sir?"
"I don't know. I just got here," Klaus said, and promptly realised his mistake.
Z's face became respectfully blank. "Yes, sir. I'll pull on some clothes and get my gun, then."
Klaus waited in the hall until Z emerged, only one minute later. Z positioned himself on one side of the door while Klaus unlocked it, waited a moment, and then threw it open, Magnum at the ready.
Half a dozen fresh boxes were stacked up beside the bureau, on which sat a bouquet of white roses, with a card. And Varozzi was lying in the middle of the bed, shackled and gagged, his arms bound to his body by a vast red velvet bow wrapped around his torso. He looked like a demented butterfly.
Klaus and Z were both too well trained to goggle at the ridiculous sight for more than a few seconds before securing the room. It was a good job, the Major had to concede. No noticeable signs of forced entry. Eroica would approve.
Having ascertained that there were no other people lurking in the room, Klaus looked at his "gifts". The break-in job wasn't the only thing Eroica would have approved of. The Major's gaze strayed to the vase of roses, and the tiny card. His eyes narrowed.
With a long stride, he moved to the bureau and snatched up the card. But the message within wasn't the familiar lavender letters saying, "From Eroica With Love".
"I think this ought to conclude our business, darling... if you're ever in the area, do drop by. P.R.
Klaus glared at the card as if he expected it to lose its nerve and change its message. When it didn't, he slipped it into his pocket and turned to Z. "Wake the others. Call for a van to transport all this," his gesture included the bound Varozzi and the boxes of weapons, "to local headquarters."
"Yes, sir," was Z's unfailingly prompt response before he departed.
Alone with Varozzi, Klaus removed the card from his pocket and read it over again.
My husband and I are going to have to have a talk, he thought.
The sea breeze stirred Darcey's hair. She leaned into it, letting out an orgasmic sigh as the scent of brine in the wind mingled with the jasmine, daphne and orange-trees of the garden at her back... Ahh.
She'd loved this little island since the first moment her feet had touched its sandy beach, as a guest of the lessee, three months ago almost to the day. A casual remark on its beauty had earned one of Portia's lithe shrugs; she'd seen enough beauty in her life to be blase about a tiny island off the Riviera, with its simple eightenth-century manor house and outbuildings.
But to Darcey, it had spoken of possibilities her head was crowded with visions of frothy white muslin dresses, seafoam and wildflowers, the novel she'd like to write about a corner of the world as unspoiled as this.
A week later Portia had announced that she'd bought it, and would Darcey like to videoconference with the decorators?
Darcey would, thank you very much, and in due course perfection was achieved.
They'd just come for the weekend, Darcey told herself fiercely. Just for the weekend. She'd have to go away again soon; there was no point getting all weepy.
She turned on her heel and bobbed briskly back across the rolling lawn and through the garden proper, to the salon where she'd last seen Portia. The easiest way for her to regain composure was always to hurry to Portia's side... her curious kind of pride wouldn't let her admit weakness in her idol's presence, lest comfort be offered and misinterpreted and Darcey didn't like to think further on that theme. Most assuredly she did not, as Jean-Pierre, the majordomo, would have put it.
The blonde was still there, dressed in a simple silk frock rather akin to Darcey's, but typically off-the-shoulder. Even a dyed-in-the-wool Neapolitan could play at rusticity occasionally, particularly when there was an endless supply of martinis and a black Bláthner grand to pick away at. Just at the moment, she was playing "La Vie en Rose" by ear, and not doing so badly at it, either.
Darcey couldn't help joining in as she leaned against the doorframe.
"Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Then the languid piano music dissolved into a thundering crash. Portia never could continue following a mistake; anything she did would be perfect, or why bother? "Fuck! I skipped a note!"
"It was beautiful," Darcey said loyally.
"You really are shockingly biased. Martini?"
"You know I don't want one."
"You ought to say yes and change your mind later. Then I could have an excuse to pour two, then drink them both!"
"You don't need them, Madame it's only four o'clock. You'll have plenty of time to get drunk later, if it's that important to you. If you skip dinner the way you did lunch, you'll be able to manage it even faster!" Darcey exclaimed with cheery sarcasm.
"You make me blush."
"Damn skippy," said Darcey, who'd been reading strange American crime novels lately. She tried to grin. It wouldn't do to show how much it mattered to her.
Portia rolled her eyes theatrically, but she did leave the drinks tray to its own devices. "How was the garden?"
"Bliss. How long are we here again?"
"I thought we'd leave tomorrow night, or first thing the next morning. I have to be at that ghastly conference in Geneva, you'll remember. Did I tell you they have a New Zealander running things over there? I can't imagine what New Zealanders know about trade. Isn't their GDP something like eighty percent of my companies' combined annual turnover? He's a bloody commie, too."
Darcey hid a smile. Portia saw Communists under every bush. As a species, she ranked them slightly above rapists, but below fleas. "I'm sure you'll straighten them all out in no time. Your new burgundy velvet Charvet suit will be perfect there isn't a tough room that skirt couldn't bring to its knees."
"You think so? You'd better wear the navy blue velvet, then."
"You want me to?" The girl almost swooned on the spot.
"Carry my briefcase, yes," Portia finished. "And his wife's appalling. She hosts barbecues and drives a Volkswagen Beetle. Why I'm going at all I don't know." She shrugged, sliding off the piano stool and prowling across to stand in the doorway, too, close enough to Darcey to reach out and touch her if she chose to. She almost did, just to verify the impression she had that there was a different texture to Darcey on this island; an aura of serene pleasure that made her already-luminous little face shine with the brilliance of a thousand sta
Portia cut off that thought. Sentimental rot; too many French novels.
"I'd love to. If you're sure I won't be in the way...?"
"Darling, you'll be an essential."
Darcey laughed in delight.
She was so easy to please, the older woman reflected. A chance to be near her, to serve her, to spoil her, was all that was necessary to send Darcey humming about the house with a bounce in her step... She'd never seen anything like it in her life. She inspired devotion among her employees, yes, but it was never so affectionate: traditionally, it was edged with the sure knowledge that a nasty fate would befall anyone who displeased her. Darcey was blithely unafraid. The confounding thing was that Portia knew full well she had no reason to be hurting Darcey was right up on a level with torturing a tabby kitten.
She thought about what Dorian had told her and cursed inwardly.
"Darcey..." she began.