In Velvet Gloves

by Kadorienne and the Duchess



The cold scent of the ski field was fresh in his nose. New white snow as far as the eye could see, its pristine beauty marred only by the occasional rocky outcropping — his to conquer at his leisure.

The scion of the Eberbachs breathed deeply and shot forward, swooping downhill with primal grace. He had grown up on skis, of course, had holidayed in the most respectable Alpine resorts as a young man, and during the course of several missions for NATO he'd had cause to be grateful for the early training that meant even the dangerously steep jump up ahead couldn't defeat him.

He felt his body automatically ready itself for the jolt — and then it came and if he'd had breath in his lungs to waste he would have laughed out loud.

Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach loved to ski. You were on your own in the wilderness, facing Nature at her harshest, depending on the alertness of your highly-trained body to keep you upright and uninjured... indeed, a nearly perfect sport.

If only that blasted woman hadn't beaten him to the bottom.

"I'm feeling most braced!" Madame Roccanera informed him in a cheerful trill, pushing her designer ski goggles up onto her forehead. In defiance of her heritage she always spoke English to him, in that terribly well-bred accent that was a female version of the Earl's.

"I'm very happy for you," he said sarcastically. Inwardly he cursed the NATO doctors — overworked, they'd called him! Hah! — cursed his immediate superiors — in need of some light duty! Bah! — cursed his familiarity with the turf — cursed the fact that the sole source of a technical device essential to NATO's activities could fall into the hands of an idiotic foreign criminal — cursed, in short, everything that had caused him to become figuratively joined at the hip to the woman he most felt to be in need of a bloody good— he wasn't sure, but whatever it was it wouldn't be pleasant.

It wouldn't have been so bad, having to consort with that wretched female, if she'd just let him (NATO, rather) buy the damned factory from her. But no. "Nothin' doin', darlin'!" she'd said. It had been all he could do to prevent her shaking him off, without even giving him a chance to persuade her that it was in the best interests of everything concerned if the "widgets", as she called them, came under direct NATO control, where they ought to have bloody well been in the first place. Independent contractors — bah!

And so here he was, following the damnably irritating creature all over the bloody place, hoping that if he drove her half as mad as she drove him, she'd sign the fucking papers just to get rid of him.

It wasn't working.

They were skiing. On her very own mountain. And she was managing to take the fun out of even that.

She was stretching, to work a few kinks out of her back, and seen from a certain angle, in those ski clothes that hid her curves, she looked so much like Klaus's absent husband that he found himself privately admitting what he'd been struggling with all along: he missed Dorian, and having to hobnob exclusively with someone so like and yet so unlike the Earl, was what was really bothering him.

He followed her with uncharacteristic meekness when she arbitrarily decided where they were going this time. Usually he put up at least a pretence of disagreeing with her, just to show her he was there because it was his duty, not because she might have wanted him there.

The other side of the coin was of course that it appeared she did want him there, for some convoluted reason of her own that it was probably best not to even guess at.

They tramped off up the slopes, one perky and the other resigned.

***

Towards dusk it began to snow. Neither of them being quitters, they kept going until it was outright dark and visibility was virtually nil. "There's no point hiking all the way down to the lodge," Portia said suddenly. "There's a cabin just up there, if I remember rightly."

"And what if you remember wrongly?" came the sour rejoinder.

"I always remember rightly. I'm Portia Roccanera, remember?"

Klaus found himself almost wishing they'd get lost far from shelter, just to see the smirk wiped off her face. It was a letdown when she led him directly to a structure that looked quite a bit larger than any mere cabin. It was unlocked.

They let themselves in and, delighted to be out of the cold, Portia beamed beatifically out the window at the falling snow. "Well, as long as we're holed up here, all alone, we might as well make the best of it... fancy a game of strip poker?" she said brightly.

"Must you always be so bloody nymphomaniacal?" growled the German in the shadows.

Oddly enough, she shrugged. "Not necessarily. It passes the time."

Klaus stamped his feet to get the snow off his boots. It was mildly surprising that the foundations didn't shake under the assault. "If my husband has to challenge you to another duel for my honour, I assure you that this time he will not let you win, Madame."

"You mean you've got some honour left?" she asked interestedly. "I'd thought more of Dorian's talents than that!"

"He is my husband, idiot woman," he informed her through clenched teeth. "There is nothing dishonourable about an exclusive and solemn commitment."

Poker or no poker, Portia turned up the thermostat and began to wriggle out of her bright blue ermine-lined skiing attire. "Honour, dishonour, I've never understood what it's got to do with sex. Going behind someone's back is dishonourable, yes, but it would be in any event. Ah, well. There's no accounting for people."

"That's one thing we agree on, at least," he said morosely. He went to the window to examine the vague shapes of the snowbanks — with disapproval, now that he was no longer on them and they were going to waste. "Just so long as you don't expect a... repeat performance."

"Oh, goodness, no! You're not at all my type," the Italian exclaimed cheerfully as she ducked in and out of the small room off the foyer, where skis were stored and outer garb was hung because if it dripped it would do no harm. The next layer down was all cashmere, in a somewhat more subdued blue. Her feet were bare but it was already warm enough that that didn't matter.

"Then I suppose you wouldn't mind keeping the rest of that on?" Klaus snapped, keeping his gaze trained carefully away from her. She looked less like his husband now, and more like the woman he'd once slept with. He wasn't sure what was worse.

"I'll take it off if I like; it's my damn lodge." But she didn't — instead she pantomimed kicking him in the direction of the storage room and said, "You take those off and I'll find something to ruin our livers with. If you think you're indecent under them there's probably something in a cupboard. I don't know; I haven't been up here for a few years." She took it for granted that her orders would be obeyed and padded off on her own mission.

He supposed there was no reason not to cooperate. And he had no need of anything from the cupboards; he might be a practicing queer now, but he was still a von dem Eberbach, and beneath his coat were the prescribed three layers of clothing he would have stuck to even in Texas in August. In any case, though he would prefer the lady to remain well-covered, he believed her — he didn't expect any sincere assaults upon his virtue. Insincere ones were par for the course.

When he ventured deeper into the building he found her in a long room with a panoramic view of the snowscape — his keen sense of direction told him that if it hadn't been snowing, he could even have seen the main lodge from here, he thought sourly. What wouldn't he have given to be there, with a few other people as insulation between him and that woman.

The far wall was taken up by a fireplace worthy of Schloss Eberbach, obviously part of the original lodge that she'd renovated extensively. She was lighting it, unnecessary as it was, and talking on the phone. No cellular reception up here, but it figured she'd've had cabling laid. Just one more luxury a woman like Portia Roccanera didn't even consider doing without.

He was a tad surprised to see her kneeling before the fireplace, though — why, she might get her hands dirty!

"Tell him to fuck off, but nicely," she said, and, as if aware of Klaus's silent presence, "then, regarding that other matter... don't make me give you a direct order, sweetheart, it makes me feel like such a bully and you know I'm not. Goodnight." She straightened and tossed the phone onto a chair.

"Enjoying your mission?" she asked lightly, winking as she poured brandy for herself and a neat gin for him from a very well-stocked drinks cabinet.

"Whether or not I or anyone else is enjoying it is irrelevant," he growled, accepting the gin and pulling out the engraved silver cigarette case Dorian had given him to replace the grotty-looking packets that usually filled his pockets. He remembered his manners sufficiently to offer her one.

They smoked for a minute or two before the phone rang. Portia made a face and picked it up. "Roccanera. What? Oh, well, then—" and a mystifying stream of financial mumbo-jumbo poured forth from her. She concluded with a thoughtful, "If you need anything more leave a message for Katalin — I'm sure she won't be incommunicado for long — when you do remind her she's having breakfast with me Friday next week. Goodnight." The stress this time was on the second syllable, indicating that the same person had disturbed her again.

"And to think I'm meant to be on holiday!" she grumbled, pouting in a way utterly reminiscent of Dorian.

"There are no holidays for people like us," Klaus said curtly. "You should see the interruptions Lord Gloria and I have to live with every time we try to get away; it seems that Interpol and the KGB have nothing better to do than follow us to secluded chateaus in the south of France."

"No rest for the wicked," Portia said lightly, eyeing herself in a mirror as she knocked back the rest of her brandy. Even at this distance the shadow was still visible under her makeup — well, there was no point getting worked up about it; if it hadn't been for the black eye she'd be in Napoli, nose to the grindstone, instead of alone in a secluded ski lodge with a psychotic German. "Dominoes?" she tried, shrugging elegantly.

"I don't suppose you have a chess set here," Klaus said. "I am quite certain you're a good player."

"Unless it's like riding a bicycle, I'm probably not anymore. There might be a set somewhere. The man who used to own this place played, I seem to remember, and I don't think we got rid of everything that was his... I'll go and have a look. You get nice and blurred to give me a fighting chance." She indicated the drinks cabinet and ambled off.

When he could be sure he was unobserved, he allowed himself a small smile. Her protestations were a sure sign that he was about to face a tremendously challenging game.

She was gone precisely twelve minutes, whereupon her head appeared round the door. "Major?"

"Madame?"

"I've found all kinds of things. Come and carry them for me, won't you?"

'Good God,' he thought. 'What now?' But he obligingly rose and went into the hallway. No point letting her get into a snit over his uncooperativeness, now he was stuck with her exclusive company overnight.

Her "all kinds of things" were down a narrow staircase and around a corner, in a little room that housed cleaning supplies, tools, non-perishable foodstuffs, and a corner filled with... well, as she said again, "All kinds of things."

The chess set had already been located; a mahogany chest inlaid with semi-precious gems stood open, showing intricately-carved ebony pieces each in its own velvet-lined compartment, with surely ivory ones and a board beneath. The rest of the things consisted of four large wooden packing crates whose lids she'd already pried off — a hammer lay on the floor — but she'd barely begun to unpack them. She held out a jewelled dagger of Turkish design and beamed proudly. "For you," she purred. "Would you mind bringing this box upstairs? The others are less interesting. I can manage the chess set."

He took the dagger hesitantly. "Thank you," he managed, embarrassed. To cover his discomfort, he unsheathed it and examined the blade with a practiced eye, trying a couple of different grips to test the balance. Blades were Dorian's field — Klaus preferred things that went bang, as Portia had once put it — but he could tell this was as distinguished a weapon as it was an objet d'art. And it was pleasing to look at, even to an art moron like him — not overly ornate, with clean lines.

He put it carefully into a vest pocket and followed her up the stairs with the box she'd indicated. "Just leave it here; it'd look untidy in the sitting-room," she directed in the hallway, then when he was unburdened, rectified that by giving him the chess set to carry. She had rather strict views on what it was suitable for a lady to carry when there was a chap about.

"He had some interesting bric a brac, didn't he?" Portia said thoughtfully as they unpacked it on a table near the windows.

"Who did?" Klaus asked as he arranged the pieces. "Shall we flip a coin to see who moves first?"

"If you've got a coin, sure. He was someone I knew a long time ago... a Turk, like his dagger." When the comprehension she expected didn't immediately dawn, she added, "Opium! A girl's got to start somewhere, hasn't she? Of course, we're talking... well, over quarter of a century ago, certainly."

Klaus stared at her, the coin he had just pulled from his pocket forgotten in his hand. She smoothly took it, flipped it, and covered it with her hand. "Heads or tails?" she asked brightly. When he didn't immediately reply she wiggled her eyebrows at him.

It was an innocent question of the sort that Dorian always managed to make sound... "Heads," he said quickly, trying to put that out of his mind. She was thinking what he'd been thinking, he could tell. At least, he certainly wouldn't put it past her.

She revealed the coin: heads. "Lovely. I like the black ones best. Like my heart, you know."

"I don't really believe that, you know," he remarked suddenly, sitting down behind the white pieces. "I'm one of the beneficiaries of your carefully concealed kindness, don't forget. I haven't." He tried to appear nonchalant, by studying the board as keenly as he would any other battlefield.

"Careful, soldier; you don't know where saying things like that might lead. Why, if you keep being nice to lawless wretches like me, you might have a moral dilemma next time you're called upon to rip someone's head off."

"I don't trouble myself with moral dilemmas," he informed her. "I am a murderer — in a good cause. I am a bully — because my idiot subordinates would get themselves killed if they weren't afraid enough of me to follow my orders without question. I am a — degenerate... because the only person who's ever truly cared for me is a man."

"We're not actually that dissimilar. We do what we have to do, I think — we just have to do different things. For instance, aren't you supposed to be wheedling widgets out of me?" Why she couldn't call them by their proper name he didn't know.

He made the customary first move with a white pawn. "No one has ever wheedled anything out of you that you did not intend to give from the start, Madame. My guess is that you will make your terms known when it suits you, and not before."

She moved unthinkingly; after all, there weren't many options this early in the game. "See? Not that dissimilar at all."

He pondered for only a moment before deciding to adopt an obscure strategy he'd read of and she hopefully hadn't. As he made his second move, he forgot some of his irritation at her antics and appreciated the way she'd deftly avoided embarrassing him by accepting his indirect thanks.

"Does it suit you yet?" he asked.

She checked her watch and grinned insolently at him. "Nope!" Her next move was made without so much as a glance at the board.

"You're just like Dorian."

"Wasn't that the point?"

His face grew warm. He considered asking her what she meant, but wasn't sure he wanted the answer.

She saved him from having to reply, anyway, by getting up to put more wood on the fire. It was slow-burning and didn't need a great deal of attention, but she prodded it with the poker anyway for the look of the thing. The woodsmoke was most pleasant.

By the time she came back to the table Klaus had moved, and there was no need to speak again, lest it disturb their concentration... this state of affairs continued until long after the moon rose, with neither besting — or even making much of a dent in — the other's hand-carved forces.

"I'm hungry," Portia said at last, as she came back to the table after seeing to the fire again (they'd taken turns). "What about you?"

He nodded and got up. "I imagine you've already decided what we're going to have?"

"Whatever's in the kitchen that doesn't require me to do anything domestic, because I only ever learned how to do breakfast. Normally I have at least one servant up here, but this particular visit wasn't exactly premeditated. So we're roughing it. Shall we go and investigate?"

"I'm sure we'll manage. A pity Dorian isn't here — he's so fussy he had to learn to cook in self-defence, because hardly anyone else can ever get it right, according to him. He is... quite good at it." Eroica hadn't really come up in their conversations thus far... he was like the elephant in the room; an invisible presence of which Klaus was very aware. It made him uncomfortable. He was used to being around people who didn't know where he spent his nights. He found it oddly pleasant not to have to lie about it for once, but still uncomfortable.

"I always travel with two chefs, who've been with me for simply forever. They get it right, because they know I take a dim view of those who don't." She led the way downstairs again, this time turning right instead of left, into a spacious kitchen with lots of promising-looking cupboards, shiny appliances, and a vast fridge/freezer humming in the corner.

Portia looked around with the air of a tourist. "I've never been in here," she said, confirming what Klaus already suspected. She opened a cupboard and laughed. "My god, look at this charming little scene! Any minute now the two point four brats will come in to ask you about your day at work. If you want something, help yourself — I'm not that hungry." The cupboard contained glasses; she filled the largest she could find with purified water and stalked back upstairs.

Klaus didn't have much of an appetite himself, but regular meals were important to one's physical condition. He opened a few cans and set about heating their contents, smiling a little at how inadequate Dorian would have found it.

The kitchen was very well-stocked, considering how seldom this "cabin" must be used. He didn't do too badly for himself, all in all, particularly by the standards of a man who'd often dined upon field rations.

Portia was sprawled indolently in a chair by the fire when he came upstairs again, nursing another brandy and talking on the phone in dialect he couldn't quite follow. Her manner changed when she saw him, anyway, became more guarded, and she no doubt stopped saying anything interesting, even though she ought to have known an Eberbach would never eavesdrop save in the interests of a mission. And this mission didn't quite follow the usual rules.

"I'm going to bed," she said after she hung up. "I only stayed long enough to tell you that that couch is the sofabed—" she pointed "—and show you which bathroom is yours."

"Very well." He stood and followed her up the stairs, which led directly into what was a typical Roccaneran bedroom — antiques galore; large four-poster bed on raised platform below ceiling mirror; the scent of sandalwood in the air; any hint of the twentieth century well-hidden, such as the stereo she went straight to in a cabinet between the two doors on the far wall. There was also a rack of CDs, which she explored in a businesslike fashion.

"The trouble with uppity subordinates like Katalin," she said to Klaus, "is that you can't keep them from bringing their little playmates home occasionally. I don't ask and she doesn't tell, but if it's someone I know she typically leaves a clue... aha." She waved a CD. "Duke Ellington. This is Marie-Therese von Sachsen-Teschen music, no doubt about it. Your bathroom is on the left, by the way."

He didn't even attempt to hide his horror at the arrangements. "Are you saying that I am going to have to walk through your bedroom to get to the bathroom?" he sputtered.

"Yes. Problem?"

"Problem!? You don't actually expect me to—" He stopped, almost choking. The thought of entering a bedroom occupied by a woman... especially this woman... "Have you NO sense of propriety, Madame? Has it not occurred to you that I am a married man?"

"When I signed off on the architect's plans I wasn't expecting to entertain a guest here who wanted to be anywhere but in my bedroom," she explained, doing that eyebrow wiggle thing again.

"Life is full of surprises." He was starting to sweat. "Wait a minute. You mentioned that you usually have at least one servant here. Surely your servants aren't traipsing into your boudoir at all hours of the day and night. There must be a space for them."

"Ooh. Good point. There must be a servants' bathroom downstairs somewhere... but it's probably not nearly as nice as the ones up here," she said dismissively. "And it's probably only stocked with boring toiletries — mind you, that wouldn't bother you, would it? I bet you're Mr. Unscented Soap and Generic Toothpaste."

"I'll find it," he said curtly, and marched downstairs.

Minimal investigation revealed that a door in the kitchen which he had assumed opened onto a closet actually led to a tiny, spartan room. A bed with white sheets, a bureau, and yes, thank God, a tiny bathroom. It only had a shower stall, no bathtub, but privacy was more important in this case than comfort.

As she had predicted, there were only the simplest toiletries — but as she had also predicted, he preferred them Spartan despite Dorian's relentless attempts to broaden his horizons. He showered quickly and went to bed in his undershirt and boxers. It felt odd not to be wearing either a full set of pajamas or an English art thief, but there wasn't much choice.

***

Portia bustled about her palatial bathroom with the air of a woman who relished every moment of hedonism she could get. Scented bath oils, Creme de la Mer, hundred-year-old brandy, vast quantities of hot water — her evening ablutions went a long way toward making up for the myriad difficulties that faced her every day — the monitoring of her legitimate businesses, the ordering of her shadier ones, and, above all, the keeping up of her personal facade of sexy unsinkability. The bathroom was the only place she was allowed to truly relax. She made the most of it.

Someone, probably Katalin, had left a rubber duck in the bath. She'd done all kinds of uncharacteristic things that day; she did one more, by not evicting it.

"Hah," she observed to the duck, mentally naming it Klaus. It had that same indomitable quality, in the way it bounced back again every time a wave of her creation sent it hurtling toward the side of the bath. She reflected that it couldn't help itself — but, probably, neither could he.

If only he knew the real reason she was letting him tag along with her—! She broke out into real laughter, for the first time that day.

***

When Iron Klaus woke to the sound of a woman screaming as if all the demons of hell were on her tail, he didn't think once, let alone twice.

Seconds later he and his Magnum burst into Portia's bedroom, making a tableau that would have had Dorian swooning. But there were no marauders for him to dispatch: only Portia, sitting up in a disordered bed, her breathing audible.

She'd left the windows uncurtained and enough light reflected off the snow that he could make out the contours of her nude form. Nothing he hadn't seen before. What surprised him was the shadow that showed the extent of the bruising on her face, which her makeup had almost completely hidden during the day - and the scattered shadows that disfigured the rest of her, which nothing in her bearing had so much as hinted at.

A flame flickered and she brought the lit cigarette to her lips, inhaling before she spoke. "I apologise for waking you. Woke myself too, come to think of it."

Klaus put the safety on and plucked a silk dressing-gown from the foot of the bed. Given the circumstances, he supposed it wasn't out of line for him to drape it carefully around her shoulders.

"Do you need an aspirin for this?" he asked quietly. "Or a drink?"

"A hole in the head would be the favourite," she said, smiling wryly up at him. Her composure hadn't reached her eyes.

He sat on the edge of the bed. She hadn't completely regained her usual aplomb, so he felt safe enough to do so. "Do you have a lot of nightmares?" he asked, still quiet. He wasn't really good at soothing, but he could imitate what Dorian did when he woke them both up this way.

She tossed her cigarette case and lighter into his lap. "Do you?"

He gave a short nod. "Occupational hazard." The cigarettes, he noted without surprise, were good ones, strongly flavoured, not the papery substitutes Dorian insisted on.

"Same here. Sort of. God, it's odd, sitting on a bed with a man who isn't trying to jump me," she observed.

"Your virtue has never been safer," he remarked dryly, returning her cigarette case. "Do you want to talk about the dream?" Dorian always asked that. Or rather, Dorian just asked point-blank what it was about. It didn't seem to occur to him that Klaus might not want to talk about it.

She knew where that line came from all right. "That pretty Earl of yours has almost domesticated you, hasn't he?"

"And whose fault is that, Madame?"

"Touchè. I walked right into that one. You're not going to suggest I see a psychiatrist, are you?" she inquired wearily. "No, of course you're not, because you certainly would never even consider doing such a thing. No one can learn these things out of a textbook."

"Those people have led sheltered lives." He studied her in the dim light. She was breathing more calmly now. Good. He cast about for some way to keep the conversation going, to distract her. "What do you usually do when you wake up in the middle of the night? Or don't I want to know?"

"I only wake up when I don't have company, if that's what you mean." She put her cigarette down in the ashtray on the nightstand, and the cigarette case next to it. That removed neatly the temptations to fidget. "What about you? Does your Earl let you get away with going out for a run? Or does he worm all the sordid details out of you with a single bat of his long lashes?"

The sharp retort he was preparing was halted by the realisation that she wasn't flirting. In fact, though her words could have been (as always) interpreted a dozen different ways, her tone hadn't yet risen into its flirtatious register. Normally she couldn't keep it out of its flirtatious register for thirty consecutive seconds.

When Dorian neglected to tease, it usually meant something was very wrong. Klaus hesitated.

"Depends. Usually he massages my neck. If you like..."

A definite shake of her head. Her long, curly braid flopped over one shoulder. "How depressing. If you're offering that you must feel safe — I'm losing my touch!" But even that was delivered without a trill.

He drew on his cigarette, buying time to think. She really was strikingly like Dorian, more than just physically. It had taken him years to realize that under his husband's foppish clothes and aristocratic mannerisms was a complex person with hidden strengths... and weaknesses. He still didn't entirely understand why Dorian didn't display his true toughness and seriousness up front.

"Why do you do that?" he asked abruptly. "Flirt all the time? Flirt and..." He broke off.

"...Fuck?" she concluded helpfully, mainly because she was amused by that little look he didn't even know crossed his face when a woman of her demeanour used that sort of language. "I suppose it's a fair question. The answer is that I've never bought into all the emotional baggage that most people persist in attaching to sex... to me it's a biological function like any other. It's also a tool."

"Have you actually convinced yourself of that?" he snorted.

"Oh, yes. If I hadn't I probably wouldn't be here today. I think I told you once, outside my church..." They both remembered the day, she could tell, and the awkward discovery of each other's capacity for generosity. "I'm an atheist of course, but I do like church. 'Its aroma of incense, its liturgical chanting and harmony, the majestic presence of the priests, dazzling in their ornate vestments, the solemn rhythm of their gestures—'" she quoted. "It appeals to the drama queen in me. What was I saying? Yes. When I gave money to the children I told you I was once a gutter rat myself — and you can probably imagine what happens to pretty gutter rats." She lit another cigarette.

"I've heard about it," he answered, thinking of the only time it had been Dorian who'd woken them both up with a nightmare. Unfortunately, Klaus couldn't kill the bastard responsible; Lord Price had died a few years ago. Smart of him, cutting out before Klaus could get to him.

He decided not to debate the meaning of sex with her any further. Her attitude was clearly self-protective; proving her wrong — and she was wrong — would only hurt her. A psychiatrist wouldn't admit this, but sometimes the only way to survive was to keep your emotions jury-rigged.

"Either you let it get to you or you don't — I certainly never have. You're the exact opposite, of course — sex is extremely meaningful to you — I can't even imagine how you must have had to nerve yourself up to go to bed with me. It was rather a compliment, actually, that you thought it might be worth it. Isn't it odd, how easy it is to talk with the lights out?" That was a glimmer of the Portia he was used to.

It was easy enough that he was able to say, "I thought that if any woman could possibly hold my interest, it would have to be you." He did not add that he had been hoping to ward off a more deep-seated but less convenient interest.

"If I liked men, you'd probably be at or near the top of my list, too. If you were slightly less law-abiding, though. I really do think you're wasted in law enforcement; you'd make a fine mercenary. Are you going back to bed or d'you think we should get up?"

"Are you going to be able to get back to sleep?" he asked. He knew how it felt to wake up like this. He'd always kept a stiff upper lip about it, but he wasn't going to leave her alone right now, and that was all there was to it.

"Of course not. I usually just treat nightmares as an early start to the day."

"Then we'll get dressed. I hope there's Nescafé here." He rose and headed for the door.

"Wait." Portia wriggled out of the tangled bedclothes, more or less keeping her dressing-gown around her, and went into her dressing-room. She came out with, miracle of miracles, black silk boxers and thick pure wool socks of a masculine nature. "I'm sorry it's not the whole outfit," she said, tossing them to him.

He looked at them for a second. Black silk. Decadent. Dorian would have been delighted. Well, at least they weren't briefs. "Thank you," he said, deciding not to ask where they came from.

There was no sign of her when he came up out of his subterranean hole; he had expected no less. She probably took even longer in the bathroom than Dorian. Lighting a cigarette, he sat down to wait for her — and yes, he admitted to himself, he was waiting for her. Infuriating though it could be, her society was never dull.

Half an hour later she made her entrance, in skintight black leather pants and an equally fitted apricot-coloured silk t-shirt. He'd never before seen her dressed so youthfully. "Good morning," she said civilly. Whatever she'd been doing had successfully restored her.

"Guten morgen." He poured her a cup of coffee. It wasn't Nescafé , but at least it was instant. He wasn't used to making such trivial gestures of consideration, but people who had just had a nightmare deserved special treatment, in his view. Besides, as she had observed, his pretty Earl had him almost domesticated.

"Danke schoen. Keine Milch, keiner Zucker. Haben Sie ein guten geschlafen?" she asked wryly.

"Until you started screaming," he answered amiably.

Portia buried her nose in her coffee-cup. "I didn't do it on purpose," she informed him pertly

"I'm not scolding you."

"Scolding doesn't bother me; it's pity that I couldn't forgive."

She sauntered across to the window. "It's not snowing anymore," she informed him, as if he hadn't noticed on his own. "Still a bit dark, of course. I don't feel like leaving yet, although we could, in theory, if your cabin fever was getting too bad."

"I'm in no hurry. Are you ready to discuss the sale of the factory?"

"I'm in no hurry," she said, mimicking his inflection.

He sighed. "Very well." He swallowed the rest of his coffee, stubbed out his cigarette, and went to the foyer to pull his boots on.

Klaus was an honourable man, even if his definition of honour differed from the widely-accepted one in certain particulars... for instance, there was nothing he wouldn't do, no level to which he would not stoop, for the sake of his mission. But he found himself unwilling to try to pry the widgets out of her by devious means — he didn't like being in people's debt, but after the way she'd brought him and Dorian together he was in hers, and the sooner he got it paid off the better. So he'd do this by the book — the diplomatic book. No matter how much sooner it would be over if he didn't.

The phone rang and he heard her answer it in dialect. A moment later she brought it out to him: "It's for you."

"Me?" He stared for an instant before taking it. "Major Eberbach."

"Good morning, Major," said a voice his infallible memory instantly labelled 'Darcey Kenton'. "Do you have a minute?"

He had expected Dorian — who else would have tracked him down to a place like this? "What is it?"

"It's just that you're probably not getting very far with Portia and we thought you could use some help," said the voice of his beloved, on another line.

"I got along for years without your bloody interference," Klaus grumbled. Inside he felt light as air. Hearing Dorian's voice was like an reaching an oasis in the desert.

"Yes, darling, but now you know better," the Earl agreed comfortably.

Darcey interrupted again. She'd lost the hesitance that had characterised her the only times she and Klaus had met. "She mentioned to me that you're trying to get something out of her; what exactly is it? Or is that terribly secret?"

"Are you prepared to go behind her back, young woman?" Klaus demanded. Not that it could be very far behind Portia's back, given that the woman was standing right next to him.

Darcey reproved him with gentle guile. "Conducting business through a secretary is perfectly legitimate, you know."

Portia, meanwhile, was craning her neck to try to hear the other side of the conversation. She wasn't used to being out of the loop.

He smiled slightly and took a step back. "NATO has offered to buy that little electronics company from her. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, sometimes it's just a matter of knowing how to put things to her," said the girl serenely. "All right, Dorian, stop nudging me, I'll leave you two alone." A beep signalled her departure.

A moment later, Dorian, doing his best Marlene Dietrich impression, purred, "What are you wearing?" and dissolved into delighted laughter as he pictured the facial expression that probably went with the silence on the line.

For once, Klaus could beat his beloved at this game. "Black silk boxer shorts," he replied coolly. The shocked silence on the other end made him decide to buy the Roccanera woman flowers or something.

Klaus relished the moment — it wasn't often that he managed to shock Dorian, after all — before snapping, "Did you have an important reason to call?"

"I haven't told you I love you today. Is that an important enough reason, do you think?"

Klaus turned quickly so the camorrista couldn't see his face. "If you say it is," he grumbled. "Is there anything else?"

"Oh, I don't suppose, so, no. Nothing as urgent, I mean. Put Portia back on the line, will you?"

"Dorian," he growled warningly.

The thief's voice warmed. "Don't be gone too long, will you?" He hung up.

"No declarations of eternal devotion?" Portia inquired. "Or are those on your curriculum for next term?"

"Don't say that in front of him." Klaus shoved the phone into her manicured hands. "I don't need him getting any more ideas."

The phone recommenced ringing the moment she touched it. "Who, me?" she said. "Roccanera. Oh, it's only you. Can't I have ten bloody minutes peace? I know what you're going to say so don't even bother. Goodbye."

That conversation was remarkably similar in tone to the one he'd just had with Dorian, Klaus reflected.

"I take it we're hitting the road? I'll just slip into something more suitable." She handed the phone back to him like the hot potato it was pretending to be.

Klaus stopped himself telling her to hurry; even he knew women better than that. He found a shovel in the storage room, and cleared the front steps and a path leading in the direction they'd come from last night, just to get his blood flowing.

By the time she was ready to go, so was he. Of course they didn't take anything resembling a direct route to the main lodge — why take the easy way when if you went to a little trouble you could find a hard one?

When the moon's shift ended and the sun began to come up, they stopped long enough to watch the interesting bit. Portia insisted — and the first light stealing over that barren landscape was the kind of beauty even Klaus could admire without feeling he'd descended into foppishness.

Breakfast was waiting in when they finally meandered into the lodge — paint-peeling Neapolitan espresso and a croissant warm from the oven for the lady of the house, and a repast of heroic proportions, involving fried things and Nescafé , for her guest. She'd phoned ahead while dressing, naturally, to arrange it.

Portia took her coffee over to the morning-room window and surveyed the landscape with a pained expression. "It's snowing again. There goes my ice-skating. We might have to play dominoes after all." They'd left their game of chess unfinished; it was pretty damned obvious that all they could look forward to was a stalemate.

"About NATO's offer to buy your company, Madame," Klaus began.

"Ten points for persistence, Major. But I'm afraid I'll have to mark you down on your form."

"I'll survive. What are your terms?" Before arriving, he had entertained unpleasant suspicions about what those terms were. At least that fear had been laid to rest by the previous night.

She lolled elegantly against the windowsill. "What makes you think I'll agree at all? After all, I went to all the trouble of concealing my identity to buy it — maybe there's something there I want, too."

"Somehow I doubt you'd be bothering to continue stringing us along if you didn't have a price."

"I could just be stringing you along for the fun of it, because I'm bored." And the worst of it, from Klaus's perspective, was that that was a perfectly plausible explanation.

"Is that what you're doing?"

"Maybe," she said. "Then again, maybe not. You look awfully fetching when you're feeling martyred."

"That must be how I snared Dorian," he muttered.

"Maybe. Then again, maybe not."

If he'd been a little more au fait de film adaptations of scandalous eighteenth-century French novels, he would probably have started feeling like Madame de Tourvel when the Vicomte de Valmont informed her that it was Beyond His Control.

Portia went away without explaining herself. Klaus figured she'd be up to no good and continued chomping his way through the gargantuan breakfast that had been laid before him — no point going after her on an empty stomach, just to badger her about something she had no intention of discussing yet. He'd pursue his mission again later... giving up completely would have been unthinkable, whatever he had to deal with.

There was a phone in the corner and his eyes kept wanting to focus on it. A little voice in his head was musing along these lines: if Dorian could ring the cabin, he could ring here, couldn't he?

When at last he pushed his plate away and stood up, a languid voice addressed him from the doorway. "By the way, dear," said Portia, now she'd changed again, this time into one of her usual chic solid-coloured suits, "you still haven't told me why Iron Klaus has been demoted to widget-chasing."

He'd known he couldn't escape that question; still, hearing it wasn't an easy thing.

"No," he replied, "I haven't." Years of acquaintance with Eroica had taught him a thing or two about games he didn't generally play.

"I deserved that! It doesn't matter; I'll just content myself with the gift of your company, regardless of why I'm privileged to enjoy it. We're flying to Lausanne this afternoon, by the way."

"Are we."

"We are." She glanced quickly upwards into the shadows between the heavy oak beams and the ceiling; something had caught her attention and she wasn't sure what.

He sighed. "And why are we doing that?" As he waited for her answer, he found himself peering around the room. He wasn't given to claustrophobia, but it seemed that the room had become abruptly stifling. The camorrista's presence?

"I have to testify in a court case tomorrow. I'm sueing some people," she said cheerfully. "Major, can you hear something? Because I rather think I shouldn't — and I can." She looked up again. The sound was audible to both of them now, like the creak of a house 'settling'.

He looked quickly at the roof. She began to speak again, but he cut her off by seizing her around the waist and hurling them both through the door into the foyer.

His time was just less than perfect; snow from the collapsing roof got all over their shoes.

"Well, that was unexpected," said Portia to the gaping hole in her lodge. She shivered involuntarily in the suddenly-freezing air.

A black-garbed maid rushed in: "Madame? What happened? Are you hurt?"

Portia detached herself from Klaus and smoothed her suit. She'd had plenty of experience at facing calamities; she wasn't about to let a badly-behaved roof upset her now, particularly in front of the staff. "I'm fine, Elise. You'll give a message to Hans for me, will you? Tell him to make sure no one leaves without my permission and impress upon them that it is only a precaution... but that it is to be enforced by any means necessary."

Elise paled and nodded, and hurried away.

"I've got a run in my stocking," the camorrista observed. "They just don't make stockings — or lodges — like they used to."

Klaus didn't ask if she were hurt. He could tell she wasn't, and she wasn't the sort who needed to be fussed over when there were more important matters on the agenda. Such as — they had the same idea in the same moment — examining the ragged ends of the beams where they poked up through the mess of snow and roofing materials.

The Major had the advantage, as he wasn't in high heels. He scrutinised the beams for a long time.

It had been well done, he decided at last. But it had been done. A less suspicious eye than his own would probably have missed the signs of tampering; a less suspicious mind than his own might have dismissed them, because they were slight enough that they could indeed be normal wear and tear. Except that normal things didn't often happen to either Iron Klaus or Madame Roccanera.

Portia had found cigarettes somewhere and was smoking, watching him with no sign of impatience. "What's the verdict, soldier?"

"Who else of significance is staying here?" was his reply.

"We're it right now. I take it you're about to reveal that my message to Hans was well-justified?"

"Then the only question is, were they after you or me?"

"Me, probably. I've been expecting something of the kind. Well, we might just leave for Lausanne a little earlier than expected — what do you think?" She offered him a cigarette.

"Let's go." He gripped her arm and headed for the door. He didn't think she had anything in her luggage that couldn't be replaced in Lausanne — silk underwear and such fripperies were virtually impossible to get away from anywhere in the First World.

She broke his hold more easily than anyone ought to have been able to; but then, he hadn't expected it — he'd thought that even she would have seen sense over this. "Not so bloody fast." A phone was ringing in another room that adjoined the foyer, and Portia answered it and leaned in the doorway while she listened.

"Uh-huh," she said at last. "Good work. Send Elise to pack for me and have the car brought around as soon as possible." She hung up and eyeballed Klaus, daring him to try to drag her off again.

Now he was angry. He folded his arms, but said nothing. Once they got to the airport, he would arrange a flight to — anywhere but Lausanne. And get her onto it if he had to drag her by her golden hair.

"Hans is ex-SAS, by the way," she offered. "So are most of his team here — ex-SAS, ex-Legion Etrangere... they'll be virtually committing seppuku over this, I don't doubt, but in the meantime the mountain is under a complete lockdown and only you and I will be leaving — as soon as someone trustworthy has checked the vehicle we'll be using, of course. Meanwhile Elise — she was in one of the French secret services until Katalin recruited her — is looking for surprises among the things I'll be taking away with me."

Well, he knew where he'd look the next time an operative went missing. To his annoyance, he realized that she had the situation well in hand. Unless— "And what are your security precautions for Lausanne?" he demanded.

"The usual. And to top it off, I've got a crack NATO agent guarding my body, haven't I?" Wink.

"'The usual.' I don't suppose you could be more specific," Klaus said, rooting himself to the spot. He wasn't going to relent until she told him. In detail. If she thought her games could thwart him, then she had forgotten that thanks to her, he was married to someone who played the exact same games.

"Did I ever mention to you my advance team? They go where I go, twenty-four hours before, to make a complete security sweep, after which they establish two perimeters, and make sure I've got a decent hairdresser and manicurist on call. I'm not careless with my life — as a matter of fact, I'm quite attached to it."

He conceded defeat. "Right. Excuse me." With that, he turned on his heel and tromped upstairs to check his own luggage.

***

Portia insisted on driving the Land Rover at breakneck speed down the mountain — if she hadn't personally bankrolled a tarcealed road and a snowplough to keep it open, she probably would have done the saboteurs' job for them a dozen times over between the lodge and the nearest airport (her own airstrip was deemed temporarily insecure).

Klaus's plans to get them on the next plane to anywhere but Lausanne were duly thwarted; one of the smaller components of the lady's private airforce was ready and waiting. She'd made another phone call to be sure of it. In some circles her phone calls were legendary and it wasn't tricky to see why.

When they boarded the plane the Major checked his watch and found it to be just over an hour since the incident. Not bad, really, even if his instinctive urge to get far away from the lodge had made the necessary preparations for their departure seem to take twice as long.

The socialite-cum-criminal he was accompanying had draped herself in sables against the cold at the same time as she'd changed the offending stocking. She cocooned herself in their silky warmth in a corner of the long sofa that ran along one wall of the plane's main compartment. It had a discreet seatbelt at either end, which she ignored.

"Still spoiling for some heads to bust?" she asked.

"I'm breathing, aren't I?" he snapped. He'd have been calmer if he had been the one to get them out of harm's way. Inaction chafed at him.

"You could ask me about the widgets again, if you needed to feel useful."

He looked at the window. If they had been just a few hundred feet closer to the ground, he'd have jumped.

"I DON'T GIVE A DAMN WHAT YOU DO WITH YOUR BLOODY WIDGET FACTORY!" he roared, then cursed in a more normal tone. Now she had him calling them that.

"Dorian's influence really is helping you get in touch with your feelings," Portia observed, smiling sunnily. "Now we've established that you don't consider widgets the be-all and the end-all, would you mind passing me the new French Vogue? It's in the magazine-rack just to your left."

He glared at her and folded his arms. If he touched that magazine, he would find some way of killing her with it.

"Be like that then." She dug through her own magazine-rack and settled down with the latest 'Guns and Ammo'.

NATO's finest seethed in his chair for a moment before vaulting abruptly to his feet, then descending to the floor just as suddenly. Only one-handed pushups would do for this moment. Two hundred of them. On each hand.

Portia appeared to be absorbed in her magazine, but inwardly she was giggling with delight.

***

The gentleman in the exquisitely-cut dark blue silk suit and silver cravat looked surprised when the young lady on his arm directed him toward the reception desk instead of the elevators. He tossed his head of bouncy blonde curls and went along with it, because if there was one thing a gentleman didn't do, it was cause a Scene with a lady in a hotel lobby.

The young lady, whose cleanly-cut suit had obviously sprung forth from the house of Charvet, had a sad story indeed to relate to the desk clerk in fluent French. "I'm afraid I've lost my keycard. Do you think I could have another one? I'm quite prepared to furnish you with identification to prove I'm not just some opportunistic burglar... the name is Kenton. Miss Darcey Kenton. You weren't on duty when I checked in this morning, were you? I didn't think so... yes, here you are." Her gloved hand extracted the necessary documentation from her black crocodile Kelly bag, and tucked it away again once it had been scanned.

"Thank you so much," she said to the clerk, accepting the replacement keycard. "If the other one turns up I'll make sure to hand it in too when I leave. Are you coming, dear?" The last sentence was directed at her escort, who'd been silent throughout the discussion. They began to walk toward the bank of elevators.

He made a show of glancing over his shoulder. "I'm so unused to getting into places without picking locks that I expect to get into trouble now," he remarked.

The elevator door closed behind them. Darcey checked the number on the card she'd obtained so deftly, tucked it into the slot that awaited it, and pressed the button for the top floor. "There are other ways, you know." She blushed a little. Despite the amount of time she'd spent in Portia's vicinity, she still had the occasional qualm about lying. She'd become good at it, yes. Accustomed to it, no.

"We have to be careful," she counselled her counterpart, "that they don't catch on that all they need to do to avoid sleeping alone is nearly die. Remember, we don't want them pulling our strings."

Dorian looked at the changing display of numbers above the doors as they moved upward. "You know, at one time I hoped that a brush with death would get through that iron skull," he said forlornly. "His or mine. But we each had a dozen and he still didn't buy a clue."

"They take it in their stride, that's the trouble," Darcey said sympathetically. "At least he's got his clue now, even if you and Madame had to gift-wrap it for him."

"And he's not the only one, thank goodness." Dorian smiled fraternally at his countrywoman.

"I think I have you to thank for that."

The elevator doors opened. The guards outside the suite recognised Darcey, and let her and her companion pass with a quiet, "Good evening, ma'am, sir."

***

At the slight shift of the mattress, Klaus was instantly wide awake; he sat bolt upright and seized the intruder's arm in a viselike grip.

Which he promptly loosened as Dorian waited patiently, no longer bothering to make droll remarks about his love's hair-trigger reflexes.

The scent of roses was soothing and familiar. The skin under his hand was silky — of course, now he knew just how much effort went into achieving that silken feel. And the pretty oval face, barely discernible in the darkness — the warm, adoring thousand-watt smile reserved for him alone — was a balm to his embattled soul.

"What the hell are you here to steal?" he growled. At this hour of the night, after spending two days being so poignantly reminded of his absent husband, he could allow himself to be grateful that Dorian had never insisted on Klaus dropping his surly demeanour. They both knew perfectly well what was beneath it. That was enough.

There was just enough light creeping through the curtains to make Dorian's mission visible in his eyes. "A few hours with the man I love," he whispered, and leaned in for a kiss.

Klaus was tangling his fingers in his beloved's yellow curls and moving in for a second kiss when Dorian pulled back a little.

"And what was all that about black silk boxer shorts?" the Earl demanded.

Klaus closed his eyes. It was going to be a long night.

***

"My luck's in tonight," murmured Portia lazily as she was woken by the tiny sound of the door — and she detected the perfume she herself had superintended the creation of for Darcey's exclusive use.

The amorous tone of her voice turned her young lover shy, as it always did, and in lieu of replying verbally Darcey stripped to her petticoat and slipped between the sheets with exaggerated care. Portia's arm encircled her, drawing her close, stroking her through the silky fabric.

"You could've been killed," said Darcey at last.

"You sound annoyed."

"Oh, I am. You're the one who's taught me to be careful of my investments."

"Lovely talk from a dewy-eyed maid!"

A finger touched Portia's lips reprovingly. "Not so dewy-eyed and certainly no longer a maid. You've not been paying much attention, have you, Madame?"

"More than you know." Portia rolled over and put an end to the talking.

It was going to be a long night.

***

As usual, Klaus woke first. His body's clock seldom failed to wake him shortly after dawn, Bonn time, however late he had been up the night before.

He got out of bed quietly, knowing that waking his husband a single minute before it became absolutely necessary would result in a great many pouting complaints about "beauty sleep". He was shaved, combed and dressed in less than ten minutes — but before he attended to any of that, he located the black silk boxer shorts near the foot of the bed and hid them. But he knew better than to think he had seen the last of them.

Dorian stirred, felt around for the other presence that ought to have been in the bed, didn't find it, and adopted a sleepy little frown that affected Klaus quite profoundly — most of all because he realised it was unconscious, not just more of the Earl's usual posturing.

Suppressing the ingrained urge to look around to make sure no one was watching — he knew there was no one there, for Chrissakes — Klaus leaned over and gently stroked the curls back from Dorian's face. Dorian's expression relaxed back into peaceful rest, and Klaus virtually tip-toed out.

In the outer room, he took advantage of the fleeting privacy to recover his normal sternness. His mask, he realized with resignation, was slipping. More and more, it was difficult to hide his true feelings when Dorian was nearby.

He took a moment to cement the mask in place as best he could — he'd need it to deal with the next stage of his mission. Although talking to that woman was hardly what Klaus wanted to do now he had an Earl to think about, it would have to be done. Better sooner rather than later.

The Major knocked, and very correctly waited to enter until he heard a "Come in!"

Portia and Darcey were sitting up in a newspaper-strewn bed, leaning against innumerable pillows, with breakfast trays over their laps. Light makeup and strappy silk nightgowns did very little to lend them an appearance of propriety, what with the heady scents in the air and the handcuffs someone had left hanging from the bedstead.

"I thought you were another pot of coffee," said the camorrista balefully, taking the just-opened letter Darcey had been in the act of handing her. "Darcey, would you mind?"

"Of course not." The girl moved her tray and went into the bathroom, closing the door after her. Klaus caught Portia watching her go in much the way he'd often seen Dorian watching him: with respectful lasciviousness, if such a thing existed.

"Make it quick," she instructed the Major. "When that girl takes a bath alone it's what I call a criminal waste."

Klaus regained his wits sufficiently to say, "I beg your pardon. We can speak later." He fled from her boudoir and back to his own without giving her time to speak again.

In doing so he played right into her hands, allowing her to forego another tedious session of wrangling over widgets in favour of racing Darcey to the scented oils. She was on holiday, after all.

***

The next time he sallied forth in search of Portia, some fifteen minutes before the hour she'd said she'd be leaving for court, he found that she'd made it into the sitting-room and was the lucky recipient of a shoulder massage while she reviewed a document on her laptop.

"Good morning!" she said brightly, batting at Darcey's ministering hands and getting up from the desk. "My, you're looking chipper now you're getting some. Oops, I shouldn't have said that, Darcey, should I? He's frowning now... I do hate it when he frowns, it means he's going to start shouting... and I've got a whole morning's aggression ahead of me if the last skirmish in this unholy legal war was any indication. I just don't feel like it. What d'you say we go back to bed until next week?"

He was the chipper one? the Major thought. "I suppose you have a car waiting to take you to the courthouse, Madame?" he asked stiffly, deciding that ignoring her indiscreet remarks might be the best course. He made sure that he looked as icy and forbidding as possible.

"I most certainly do, Major darling. I presume you'll be accompanying Darcey and Dorian?"

"Accompanying them where?"

Portia and her young girlfriend shared a smile. "Oh, wherever," they chorused.

That did not bode well. "I am sure that accompanying you to court would be more congenial, Madame," he said. "If you have no objection."

Dorian emerged from the bedroom in time to hear this, still fussing with his hair. He made a rueful face at Darcey. "I told you he'd smell a rat," he laughed.

"You don't want to be on television, do you, Major?" asked Portia coolly.

Caught between two horrifying prospects, he chose the lesser evil: Dorian. "If anything goes missing from the museums here anytime soon..." he warned his husband.

Darcey did her best to look angelic. Her best was quite good, as her face always seemed as though it ought to be gazing out of a Renaissance painting. "It won't with us to keep a sharp eye on him, will it?"

"Then it's settled! I might as well get a head start," said Portia, taking the coat, gloves and handbag Darcey automatically handed to her. "Auf wiedersehen, all of you." She kissed the young woman and swept out.

Darcey's legs crumbled beneath her as they often did when Portia kissed her. She flopped quite gracelessly into the nearest chair and sat there, looking agreeably startled.

Klaus looked at the Earl apprehensively. "Museums, I suppose?" he asked, resigned to his fate.

"Galleries," Darcey put in with a dreamy sigh.

Even worse, to the Major's way of thinking.

***

At the end of the day Klaus found he couldn't even remember how many galleries that pair of aesthetes had dragged him through. There were only two types — those with old stuff, those with new stuff — and beyond that they all looked alike. Either they resembled Schloss Eberbach, in which case he at least felt he could try to blend into the background and ignore the things he didn't understand, or they were all colours and angles, with things he understood even less and considered dubious in the extreme. His companions agreed with that particular assessment often enough — but then they'd turn a corner and go into raptures over something that looked just like the last bloody ridiculous piece of garbage.

Then there were the gift shops. Filled with foppish nonsense in every shape and form, which those two found almost as interesting as the exhibits themselves. At every stop, Klaus was given more packages to carry — books, postcards, other junk even more pointless. And just when he thought he'd reached rock bottom, they decided to walk from one gallery to the next... along a fashionable shopping street.

He knew it was a fashionable shopping street because they made him go into every single damned shop.

The only sport he could find was glaring at the sales assistants — and even that backfired on him, because it only made them more eager to make themselves agreeable to Dorian and Darcey and gratify their every sartorial whim.

Impromptu television appearances had never seemed so attractive.

Klaus had lost all feeling in his fingers by the time they got back to the hotel and he was allowed to divest himself of the shopping. And if he thought he might get a bit of husbandly sympathy, he was flat out of luck, because now Darcey and Dorian had to go through every box and every bag, taking, it seemed, twice as much time to unpack and preen as they had to buy the verflucht things in the first place.

Portia strolled in in the middle of this and surveyed them benevolently while she poured herself a large gin. On a second thought, she got Klaus one too.

He accepted it without a word, but with a mental note that now he owed her the largest box money could buy of some of those ludicrous fancy chocolates Dorian liked. First enabling him to flummox Dorian with the silk boxers, now a gin after a harrowing day of museum-crawling. He looked up at her through eyes that felt bloodshot, whether or not they actually were.

"How did your case go?" he asked. At the moment he desperately needed to hear about something other than art. Anything other than art.

"I won, of course. It's dragged on for months — it was only a matter of time. I don't suppose I need to ask whether you enjoyed your day?" She looked in the mirror, imagining idly that her black eye was marginally less obvious than it had been the last time she'd peeked at it. Well, it was better than it had been yesterday, or she would have had a doctor's certificate written to say that she couldn't possibly have appeared in court. By tomorrow, she calculated, she wouldn't have to worry about her appearance at all.

"How did you get that?" he asked abruptly. He had wanted to ask at her cabin, but he had been too busy trying to soothe her and then the moment had passed.

"Get what?" she said, playing the game even though she knew what he meant.

"The black eye. The bruises." His voice was flat, his gaze piercing.

Portia inclined her head in his direction, keeping one eye on the two happy shoppers across the room. "Interesting question," she said in a discreet but airy tone. "Now, in Italy, as I'm sure you're aware, we have a very efficient and practical system under which politicians can buy lots of votes fairly easily, unlike, say, the English system, under which it's difficult to buy more than one vote at once, or the votes of a household. There's another system that I've found very helpful, although it isn't practiced quite as systematically... In essence, a good-looking woman can gain control of tens of thousands of votes simply by sleeping with one or two men. The only downside is that those one or two men are sometimes apt to become a little— excited, shall we say."

He knew he was flushing a little, but he didn't let that disturb his scrutiny of her. "That was good," he said evenly. "Try again."

"I'm not sure I take your meaning."

"I'm quite sure you do," he retorted, ignoring Dorian's exclamations over some very foppish (and very expensive) trinket Darcey had bought while he wasn't looking. "Remember that I saw you without the warpaint the other night. Whoever did that to you was trying very hard to inflict damage. I want to know who."

"You're so sweet to be concerned. Not all men are pussycats in bed like you, darling. Some of them are more like rottweilers — I put up with it when the prize outweighs the inconvenience. That's all it was. Believe me, I've suffered worse," she told him drily. "This one hated me as much as he wanted me; so what? I'm not exactly Miss Congeniality."

Klaus spared a moment to pray for the first time since childhood: 'Please, God, don't let my husband have overheard that remark.' Pussycat indeed. A covert glance at Dorian proved he was still absorbed in mucking about with Darcey's loot. Klaus supposed he should say some paternosters when he had the time.

"I am not as naive as you seem to think, Madame," he replied icily. "No one in intelligence can be, much as we might wish it. At least don't insult my intelligence; come up with some story about a riding accident."

"A story about an accident would be just as plausible on my lips as on yours — we neither of us have accidents. I'm telling you the truth. I wouldn't have thought you so naive as to believe that human beings are never carried away by malice. In the world I live in, Major, women like me get hurt. It's a fact of life. I accept the risks. I don't dwell on them; must you?"

That speech was quite disturbing, if it was true — and Portia's expression suggested it was. Klaus suddenly remembered the occasion, some years ago, long before he had admitted the truth of his feelings, when Dorian had lied for him. Two of Mischa's thugs had held him against a wall while Mischa himself, a former boxing champion, had beaten the tar out of him. Fucking coward.

It was the only fight the Major had lost since he'd been thirteen. But Dorian had told the alphabets Klaus's face had gotten bruised when he had slipped on some ice. The thief hadn't even bragged about the fact that without his grandstand play — facing down the KGB with a loaded gun as if he weren't a foppish pampered aristocrat — both he and Klaus would probably have been food for the wolves.

In any case, the camorrista was obviously determined not to tell him what had happened, and he already knew how impossible it was to get her to discuss anything she didn't want to. He would find some other way of finding out what was going on. He released her from his iron gaze and addressed the room at large.

"I am in need of steak," he informed them all. "Anyone who wants to join me will have to be ready in five minutes. I am not waiting until anybody's hair is done."

"I like steak," said Portia unnecessarily. Off the hook, then. "But I've got so many bloody reports to review that I'm going to have a tray sent up."

Darcey looked up from a darling Gucci something-or-other. She hid her emotions better than she used to, but they could still she was torn. "I c—" she began.

Her mistress cut her off. "You go; you'll have plenty of opportunity to play secretary later." She directed her next remark at Klaus: "Like children in a toyshop, aren't they?" and disappeared into her bedroom.

"Five minutes," Klaus repeated, looking at his watch, and went to comb his hair.

"He means it," Dorian informed Darcey with resignation. "I'm really not dressed for dinner, but when he gets like this, well! Don't try to stand between an alpha male and his red meat."

"I can't dress either, now she's shut the door," said Darcey glumly, accepting the hand Dorian offered to help her up. "We'll just have to be cretins tonight." She'd just put her gloves on and was reaching for her coat when Klaus stalked out again.

He headed for the door, not bothering to ask if they were coming. They both fell in behind him, military-fashion, and trooped after him down to the lobby, into the cab that was hailed for them, and in due course into the restaurant the concierge had recommended.

The maitre d' hotel saw at once that the Major was not to be trifled with. Enough uptight military types patronised the restaurant that he knew to show them directly to a table in a corner — not a table at which one sat to be seen, but a table at which one sat to see everyone else and make it impossible for them to sneak up on one. He knew prompt delivery of the menus would be expected, and he knew there'd be at least one very large steak in the order that was eventually placed. He was right on all counts, of course.

Darcey and Dorian put their heads together and conferred quietly, in quite a girlfriendish manner, coordinating their orders to make sure they got at least one of everything that looked delicious. The latter was charged with actually placing the order, of course; Darcey was extremely shy and ladylike about talking to waiters. She would if she had to, but was secretly relieved that she didn't.

When the business of the evening, as he saw it, was concluded, Klaus cleared his throat and looked at Darcey. "Working for Madame Roccanera must be very exciting," he began, in what could be mistaken for a conversational tone.

"It depends on your definition of exciting, of course, Major," said Darcey. She wasn't scared of him anymore (well, not much, anyway) but she was quite convinced that he didn't like her and that made it difficult to find words. "You'd hate it."

Now he wished he'd had a moment alone with Dorian to ask him to draw the girl out. Too late now; he was on his own. "Doubtless. How did she get the black eye?"

Oh, dear. No time to coordinate stories. "What did she tell you?"

"I didn't get a chance to ask," Klaus said blandly.

"I'm not quite sure I believe you."

"I was trying to take her mind off a nightmare. I didn't think that asking how her face got so bruised up was the best way to go about it."

Darcey's face fell. "She's having nightmares again? What about? Would she tell you? Or did she give you the runaround on that, too?"

"She gave me the runaround," Klaus admitted, and then realized he now had the perfect opening. He looked at the girl more seriously and made his tone gentler. He could be reassuring when he really wanted to; sometimes you had to be with novice agents. "Is she worried about something in particular these days?"

"She doesn't tell me things like that," said Darcey softly. Her hands were clasped on the edge of the table and she looked down at them, fighting back a few irrational tears. "I rather wish she did, but she prefers to hold her cards close to her chest. You know that, I'm sure. As for the black eye— I can't imagine you wouldn't have made time to ask later. Please tell me what she told you... because I don't really know much either."

Fuck. Now he was in up to his neck.

"She claims she got it in a riding accident," he said at last. "Do you have any theories?"

"That's bullshit," she said wearily. The ugly word sounded strange in her pretty mouth. "She's too good a rider — she wouldn't have said that, except as a joke. Even if she lied to you, she would have told you something much more plausible. Probably something you're too gentlemanly to say in front of me."

If at first you don't succeed, change your strategy. "You are a perceptive young woman, Miss Kenton," he admitted, and waited.

Darcey took a long look at him, which was as hard as her looks ever were. "I sleep in the north bedroom," she said at last. "The south bedroom is covered by a don't ask, don't tell policy. What I do know isn't much. I think I've decided to tell you; I certainly don't doubt your discretion."

"If you tell me, I might be able to help you. And your— employer."

"Oh, I shouldn't think she's in need of help. I just want any details you might have that I don't have, and I can't get information without giving it, can I?" She took a breath, and glanced furtively about her to make sure the other tables hadn't crept closer while she hadn't been looking.

"A few nights ago I slept alone. When I woke up security had been tightened and Madame had taken her bath alone. She had the black eye. A few hours later she decided I ought to go to England to do something I'd been putting off — settle some things in relation to my late mother's estate, now I'm eighteen and can't be put into care. Last night I found that the black eye wasn't all. It's not the first time she's been hurt like this in the time I've known her, but this is probably the worst. Or maybe it just feels like every time is the worst. I'm not exactly objective. I think it has something to do with the election."

"You think she's meddling in it? Do you know which gang of wops she wants installed?"

"Forza Italia," said Darcey promptly. Nothing, short of Portia in leather, distracted her as effectively as the mention of politics. "But they're going to get in anyway. It's which particular— er— politicians she'd like to see in power. The party's mainstream is quite centrist, you see, and she's hard right on many issues — I seem to recall her saying that beneficiaries ought to be boiled down into soap for export — she's obviously not a Northern separatist, nor is she a racist Alleanza Nazionale troglodyte or a raging Tim, so that just leaves Forza Italia. But she's not happy with the party the way it is and she's always... tweaking at it. She's close enough to Silvio Berlusconi that she gets away with it. He comes to her parties. Everyone comes to her parties."

Klaus considered in grim silence. Meddling in Italian politics was a dangerous business. The Roccanera woman might as well have driven her verdammt Ferrari off the nearest cliff.

More to the point, if the particular— er— politicians she was trying to oust had their way, NATO would have to find a new supplier for certain microscopic devices, and fast. There were only two other companies that made products of comparable quality, and for various reasons, Klaus had no wish to patronise them.

In short, he was going to have to make sure that the camorrista (and erstwhile matchmaker) continued breathing.

His somber thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of their meal. His steak was, as he had prescribed, burned to a crisp, though the maitre d' did indulge himself so far as to glance disapprovingly at it and its accoutrements. Klaus had decided that after his art ordeal, he deserved some fried potatoes; he would run extra laps in the morning to compensate.

An indifferent glance at his companions' plates showed an assortment of items, most of which he could not identify, which looked entirely too pretty to be nourishing. Klaus snorted and started on his steak.

The conversation on the other side of the table revolved mainly around the day's outing. Dorian and Darcey contrived to amuse themselves tolerably, grazing from each other's plates when necessary, until Klaus stood up to signal that dinner was over and they would be going back to the hotel without further delay. Apparently the alpha male in him had been encouraged rather than appeased by the red meat.

They returned to an empty hotel suite. Klaus abandoned propriety to the extent of storming into Portia's bedroom to make certain she was not in it, and even peering into the bathroom. He had no joy. The security guards, the front desk and the hotel staff, when interrogated, had no idea where Madame Roccanera was.

"God damn it to fucking hell," Klaus announced, throwing himself into a chair.

"Yes, rather," said Darcey. Her lips were set in a tight line. But she'd gotten used to this sort of thing; she pulled herself together philosophically, said her goodnights, and went to bed. It would be a while before she slept, but then, when wasn't it?

Dorian sank slowly into a chair at his husband's side. "Good Lord. No wonder you wanted to strangle me all those years."

"I'll enjoy my revenge some other time. You're her sort. What do you think she wants?"

That was easy. "She wants to play. You are fun to tease, I'm afraid."

Klaus's head fell against the high chair back with a few nasty words in German.

Dorian resisted the urge to pat his hand. "She'll be back, darling. You know she will. There's nothing we can do till then, so why don't we think of other things?"

"You never get enough," Klaus grumbled.

"That makes two of us, darling." The corners of Dorian's mouth quirked in a way his husband found distinctly disturbing. "I borrowed a little something from Madame."

Well, two could play that game. "I hope it's that mauve dress of hers," Klaus said gravely. "The colour would really bring out your eyes." He wasn't actually sure what colour mauve was, but that was beside the point.

When Dorian had got his breath back, he shook his head and reached into his pocket. Klaus's apprehensions were justified; when the beautiful Earl extended his hand, a pair of of silver handcuffs was dangling from his forefinger, and a challenging grin had come over his face.

"And which of us do you plan to wear those?" Klaus muttered, wishing there was a pill that could be taken to prevent blushing.

Dorian's eyes sparkled. "Oh, whichever you like — I'm flexible."

***

Klaus's eyelids snapped open at the usual hour. He barely had time to slide out of bed before there was a sharp knock at the door. "Morning, boys!" called Portia. "Front and centre in half an hour!"

Dorian groaned and pulled the sheets over his head. "She's worse than you," he said indistinctly from his haven.

Klaus stood and ripped the sheets away. "Get moving or I'll prove you wrong. If you're still in bed when I finish shaving..."

"One of these days I'm going to force you to carry out one of your threats," Dorian grumbled as he reluctantly sat up. "Just to find out what you'll do."

"Humph," Klaus said, and stalked into the bathroom.

***

When the motley band gathered together in the sitting-room shortly thereafter, it was easy to see who'd had the most warning of the early exodus. The women were immaculate: the only difference was that Portia was wide awake and bouncy, and only one of Darcey's eyes was ever open at once.

The front door was already open. There were still two guards posted, watching the porters with eagle eyes as they gathered up the small mountain of luggage and bore it off toward the staff elevator. Portia led the procession, offering as an explanation only the intelligence that they were "going home".

The moment they were settled in another of Portia's private planes, a larger one this time, Darcey kicked off her shoes and unceremoniously went back to sleep. Portia watched her fondly from behind her laptop.

"Where are we going now?" Klaus inquired bleakly. This was like being a petty agent, forced to follow your superiors' orders without knowing any of the whys or wherefores. He'd hated being a petty agent.

"I told you," murmured the camorrista impatiently, "Napoli."

Of course. Napoli. Seat of vast quantities of criminal activity, most of which she probably either knew about or instigated personally. A perfect place to go when her life was in danger. He shouldn't have worried.

The only sounds in the plane were quiet typing, and the grinding of teeth.

***

A phone call ahead ensured that Portia's palazzo off the Via Toledo was ready for the quartet and their entourage — Portia's entourage, really, but there was more than enough of it to go around.

There were a few temporary occupants who hadn't been briefed because they'd been brunching or lunching or, not to put too fine a point on it, still asleep. A salon that ought to have been empty when the lady of the house was in residence was tenanted after all; one of the beautiful young women whose presence in Portia's orbit it was wisest not to question was bending over a mirror with a few lines of white powder on it, a rolled-up banknote in hand.

She looked up slowly, the banknote falling out of her hand, and took a couple of steps back. Not that there was anywhere for her to go.

Portia moved like lightning, backhanding the girl viciously across the face, and doing something else she shielded from the others with her body that left her victim gasping in agony. Then she took her arm in a hard grip and pressed the button to summon security.

Darcey watched impassively as the girl was promptly handed over and the cocaine cleared away. The entire scene was over in less than forty seconds.

"The cardinal rule in this business: never trust a user," her mistress said to the two men, drily.

"Fortunately for you, I didn't see that," Klaus remarked, lighting a cigarette. "How do you intend to risk your neck today, Madame?"

"Ah! let me count the ways," she said cheerfully. "You're welcome to buzz off if you've lost interest in the wonderful world of widgetry. But I was rather hoping you'd stay for the party tonight."

Klaus felt his face turn ashen. "Party?"

"Just a little gathering to celebrate my cousin's engagement... a couple of hundred of our dearest friends and colleagues," Portia said, adopting a purposefully light tone that made it clear she was aware of the effect her statement would have upon the Major. Dorian, she could tell at a glance, knew it too.

The Major didn't know what part of the scenario he liked least — parties were bad enough anyway, but why the devil was she filling her house with people, probably half of them criminals, in the wake of several attempts on her life? She was madder than a hatter, he knew that, but even so this was a whole new level of idiocy.

"And what," he growled, "may I ask, are the security arrangements for this party of yours?"

"Damned if I know; go and talk to Katalin. She arranges all of that for me." Portia gave Klaus directions to the two likeliest places for her security expert to be lurking, and, disbelieving her ignorance completely, off he went.

The first, a windowless command centre tucked away under a staircase, was guarded by a young woman in black combat pants and a bright pink sequinned top. She'd been briefed about him, naturally, and cut down on her habitual good-natured insolence as she denied Katalin's presence within and suggested he try exactly the same place Portia had put second on the list: one of the upstairs bedrooms in her own wing.

Biting back comments about young women with no idea of proper uniform, the Major tromped upstairs, the occasional objet d'art rattling ominously in his wake. He knocked loud enough to raise the dead and get them on the telephone to the Noise Abatement Society, and stood back to wait. He wondered idly if this Katalin would be dressed as a man again, as she had been when they'd met, or if she only did that when Madame required an escort in a hurry.

"Chi Ë?" called a female voice that seemed familiar.

"Major Eberbach," he replied, serene in the knowledge that he never had any problems making himself heard through doors.

"Einen Moment." The switch of languages confounded him for just that, a moment, until the door opened.

Standing on the threshold in a monogrammed crimson dressing-gown was the Princess of Sachsen-Teschen. She greeted her husband's subordinate with a very civil, "Guten Tag, Major Eberbach. Wie geht es Ihnen?"

Bloody hell. Well, at least by now he was as immune to shock regarding the Princess as it was possible for an Eberbach to be. He returned her greeting correctly, as if he had encountered her in some entirely seemly situation.

"Kann ich Ihnen behilflich sein?" she enquired, inclining her head politely in his direction. Her long white braid fell over her shoulder; he'd never seen her without her hair up and that was perhaps the most disturbing component of an all-round unsettling scene.

He said something polite and fairly meaningless, then, because it couldn't be avoided now, asked, "Ist Katalin hier, gnadige Frau?"

"Ja." She moved away from the door and called out to the other woman. An inner door opened and closed and Katalin strode out in her usual black jeans and tight t-shirt, her hair wet from the shower and her combat boots only half-laced. She shut the outer door quite firmly behind her, after a quick backward look at the Princess.

"Yes, Major?" the Magyar asked coolly, but without disrespect. She was exactly his height.

"I would appreciate being briefed regarding the security arrangements for tonight," he said, trying not to sound as though he suspected her of coming straight from ravishing one of Germany's foremost matrons.

"I'm understandably not keen on spreading the data around any more widely than necessary... are you going to be a guest tonight or would you rather be pro-active?"

"Pro-active," he said with feeling. "I abhor parties."

"Good. We have three teams tonight, the C-Team on the grounds, the B-Team on the house, and the A-Team looking after Miss Boss and the kid and a few other select dignitaries. You'll be A-Team with special responsibility for glowering at anyone who looks at Miss Boss funny. Get your Magnum from your room if you don't have it on you already, and meet me downstairs in ten minutes."

Klaus, who naturally had his Magnum tucked cozily in its shoulder holster, was so cheered by having something constructive to do that he didn't bother to resent being ordered around. A party somehow became less partylike when one was on duty.

***

As the day progressed the house woke from the slumber it sank into in its mistress's absence. With one of Madame's famous parties in the offing, it became the centre of frantic activity in no time as each piece of the evening came into place — the flowers, the food, the extra security women ("henchwenches", someone had once called them, and the nickname stuck), and, most importantly, crate upon crate of Veuve Clicquot champagne was delivered to the service entrance, to supplement the already generous supply in the multi-level underground cellar.

Eliza Rosenthal and Darcey Kenton were the afternoon's unofficial generals, running around like bats out of hell, dealing with an orchid crisis here and a patÈ problem there, and somewhere in between finding time to slip into gorgeous frocks and get their hair done by the platoon of beauticians hired to make sure the members of the household were looking their best.

Dorian took advantage of their services, too, and took plenty of time to plan his outfit. He'd had no advance warning of the party, but of course he was prepared for anything. Indeed, the only thing he was missing was a silver hair-ribbon or something similar... no other shade would do, he decided; he'd have to borrow something.

Darcey was his first choice as a donor, as her hair was even longer than his and she was bound to have something, but a maid told him she was in the bath. The same maid was able to direct him to Madame, who, he sensed, could also be depended upon to fulfill all his hair-ribbon needs. He hurried up to her rooms, finding most of the doors left open and maids changing her flowers and polishing her beautiful furniture.

Her inner sitting room was deserted and her bedroom door closed. He raised his hand to knock, wondering if he might be better off to call out, and stopped. He could hear voices within and perhaps it wouldn't do to interrupt... in a quandary, caught between his desire to find the hair-ribbon to end all hair-ribbons, and his gentlemanly instinct to not intrude on a private conversation, his curiosity won out and he touched his ear to the door, hoping he could at least tell who she was talking to and use that information to deduce whether an interruption would be an irremediable faux pas or merely an annoyance.

Two voices, both female. One was Madame's; he'd know it anywhere. It was sufficiently raised that he could perceive a few distinct Italian phrases:

"You don't understand the situation! I have told you all I can of it; I have done all I can! The things you expect were impossible!"

"For God's sake, you're my mother!"

It was meant to sting and it did. Following it in close succession came a slap, running footsteps, a slammed door, then nothing, as whichever of them remained in the salon licked her wounds — or, as common sense dictated it was Madame, powdered her nose and got on with the business of the day.

'What now?' Dorian thought. He wanted to know the meaning of their words rather badly — had he really heard right? La Roccanera a mother?

He laid a hand against the door while he gathered his thoughts. To his dismay it swung open, and she caught sight of him reflected in the mirror she was looking into and beckoned. He watched her repair her already perfect makeup job for a moment, trying to come up with a tactful opening before remembering his original reason for seeking her. "I don't suppose you have a silver hair ribbon about, do you?"

"Probably, darling." She snapped her compact closed and turned around to look at him properly. "How long were you out there?"

He turned pink. "A minute or two. I am sorry; it wasn't my intention to intrude."

"Let's find your ribbon." Madame went to her dressing-table and opened a drawer, and pawed through it thoughtfully while Dorian watched. She finally offered him a fistful of neatly coiled ribbons in varying silvery shades, and remarked, "You must be awfully curious."

"And trying to be a gentleman about it," Dorian agreed.

"Well, go on. What did you hear and what do you think about it?"

Then she laughed at his consternation and, as if her deepest secrets went on display on a daily basis, exclaimed, "I have a daughter! What of it? You'll meet her tonight; it's her engagement we're celebrating, after all."

"You don't seem nearly old enough to— well. Congratulations." Dorian looked at the camorrista, disconcerted, before his eyes narrowed. "And who is the lucky fellow, may I ask?"

"You'll read that in all the papers tomorrow — Elisabetta Carturan, twenty-five, beautiful and successful young PR diva, is to wed her beloved and upwardly-mobile Senator Angelo Caracciolo, thirty-seven, in what is sure to be a fairytale wedding, held at the estate of the bride's infamous cousin, Madame Portia Roccanera!" When she said her name, she struck a flamboyant queenish pose.

"Senator?" Dorian echoed. He wasn't married to a superspy for nothing; he started making suspicious connections at once.

"Of Forza Italia, naturally." She winked; of course she knew he knew. There'd been no way to avoid telling him after what he'd heard, and if she knew anything, it was how to make the best of a difficult situation. "But you won't tell anyone, will you, darling? I wouldn't like there to be any nasty speculation about my date of birth..."

"Madame, I am a gentleman," he assured her. "But I'll have to tell my husband, you understand..."

"Oh, I know he won't tell anyone; he likes secrets too much to ever let extra people in on them. That's my frock for tonight, by the way." She indicated a breathtaking green silk number hanging from the screen in the corner. Dorian had been much too intent upon her to notice it earlier. "Elisabetta's is identical, but red. We like to make a splash."

"Indeed you will," Dorian murmured, viewing the impeccable cut and rich colour with approval, all thoughts of Senators and elections quite gone from his mind.

"Wait'll you see the full effect," Madame said cryptically. "Now shoo! I have to do so many things before tonight that you couldn't possibly imagine them all. I hope one of those ribbons suffices."

Dorian went, ribbons and new knowledge in hand. He hoped Klaus would have finished his tour of the building with Katalin by now; he'd certainly want to know this...

***

Madame swung her legs over the side of the bed, reaching for her watch to check the time. "The boys know about my little plan to make my son-in-law Prime Minister by the time he's forty," she remarked to Darcey.

The younger woman was lying prone on the other side of the bed, limbs and hair untidy, eyes still hungry as they followed her lover, rising and moving about the room. "I expect they suspected already. They certainly had more pieces of the puzzle than any other outsiders... did they really think you'd be going to all this trouble just to get the government more firmly under your thumb, when you've been managing so well for so long with things the way they were?"

"Who knows what that bloody Major thought," Madame called from the bathroom. She peered at herself in the mirror, finding pins to put her hair up. "At least I've minimised the inconvenience of having him hanging around at a tense time like this..."

Darcey rolled over and plucked a chocolate from an open box on her bedside table. She didn't have to get up just yet. "You need all the bodyguards you can get, Madame," she said with feeling. "I like you just the way you are: in one piece."

"Let's see how many pieces I'm in when we've got through tonight! Now, are you going to wash my back or not? Hurry up!"

***

"You know there are even more people than usual wanting Miss Boss out of the way right now," Katalin had said. Klaus most certainly knew it, and that was why his brain had veritably exploded as the full truth about that woman's deathwish had been revealed to him.

She was planning to invite all the people she thought wanted her dead to her goddammed party, in the hopes that she could get the ringleader to show his hand on her own turf. Well, how was that for egregious blockheadedness! That woman ought to be locked in a padded cell in Alaska as an example to the legions of other idiots on the planet!

Oh, yes, he had a bone to pick...

He stormed upstairs and, throwing caution to the winds in his haste to point out the error of her ways, shoved open door after door until he found her being laced into a corset by Darcey, who possessed surprising reserves of physical strength when it came to the fulfilling of lifelong dreams.

"Why, Major darling, I didn't know you cared," said Madame, batting her eyelashes at him. She didn't move from where she stood, clutching a bedpost. "Whatever's got you so hot and bothered?"

"Your attempts to do yourself in on my watch!" he snarled, ignoring her state of deshabille. "Why don't you just send your would-be murderer an engraved invitation?"

"Oh, but I did," she purred, while Darcey carried on as well as she could under the circumstances.

The Major counted to ten. In six languages. Then he said with emphasis, "If you meant to lay a trap for him, you should have told me about it."

"I was getting around to it. It's on the list, isn't it, Darcey? Somewhere in between getting dressed, brokering a twenty million pound land deal, getting back into the good graces of one of my few living relatives who's mad at me all of a sudden, getting laid, and hosting the social event of the season? In no particular order?"

"And what else do you have planned that I ought to know about?" he demanded grimly. Darcey's fingers slipped nervously and she dropped the corset strings. Inspired, he stalked over, shoved her aside, and gave the strings a good hard yank.

The woman let out a yelp of pleasure, damn her.

"Well, have you talked to Dorian?" she asked then.

"Not in the last ten minutes," he snarled, retreating. Darcey mutely resumed her place and fastened the strings.

"I suggest you compare notes, then, and don't come raging in here again because I've got so much to do, haven't I, Darcey?"

The Major didn't even dignify that with a reply; he clenched his fists and went off to find his husband, already dreading whatever news the thief might have to impart.

Madame looked over her shoulder at Darcey, who was fetching her stockings. "I think that went rather well, don't you?" she offered.

***

According to the engraved invitations that had been sent to friends and prospective murderers alike, the engagement party was to kick off at eight o'clock and wouldn't be over until it was over.

Still, people began to trickle in shortly after seven — even people who'd make a point of being fashionably late to anyone else's parties. An integral facet of the Roccanera legend was the parties, and no one liked to miss a moment of one of them. In short order a vivacious cross-section of society had assembled and were guzzling champagne: businesspeople and politicians, mafiosi and ranking military men, top actors and entertainers, and of course all kinds of fabulously idle people who only got up in the afternoon in order to get dressed and show up at shindigs like this.

Madame made sure to stay upstairs for the first hour or so, giving Elisabetta and Angelo a chance to catch up with their own good friends, who'd had an earlier time printed on their invitations, then swanned downstairs and flung herself into the urgent business of making sure everyone was happy... or unhappy, as she deemed fit.

Klaus attempted to hold himself aloof from the teeming crowds of over-dressed glitterati. Alas, Katalin's C-Team would have been better suited to that — his section of A-Team were dedicated to following Madame wherever she might go... and that meant it was his sad fate to be introduced to everybody in the bloody room. At least she got hold of Dorian's arm, too, so he wasn't doomed to go through it alone.

He committed names and faces to memory, as he'd trained himself to do, but didn't take a great deal of notice of any of them — until she presented them to the handsome couple who were the raison d'etre of all her hare-brained schemes.

Elisabetta Carturan had her mother's hair and eyes, and her perfect figure, but other than that the resemblance was slight; she managed to be an incandescent beauty without the benefit of Portia's famous face. Her Senator was the perfect foil to her blonde loveliness, a tall man of that dark, full-lipped Italian type, his face intelligent and compassionate in equal parts. He was the consummate politician, with a smile and a personalised pleasantry for everyone he met, and one hand resting on his lovely fiancee's back as if glued there.

They only spoke briefly, as the jazz band had just segued into a song Elisabetta felt deeply compelled to dance to. A man tried to get Madame's attention, but she warded him off with a raised hand; nothing could be allowed to interfere with her program for Klaus and Dorian, and she was already herding them in another direction.

The next object of her enthusiasm was a tall, fit, crisply-dressed man with a Nordic glow about him that Dorian might have appreciated before he'd discovered the joys of Germany. She kissed him warmly, complimented his cufflinks, and asked him how his family were and whether he thought it was too hot in here, all in one breath.

"This is Dottore Riccardo Antonacci," she said to the others. "May I introduce the Earl of Red Gloria, and Major Baron Eberbach of NATO?"

The doctor nodded politely to the other men and tapped a bare shoulder that was just within arm's reach. The shoulder proved to belong to a young angel with legs up to here: "My daughter, Regina," he said as she turned around, "the Earl of Red Gloria and Major Baron Eberbach."

Regina Antonacci offered her hand and it was a moment before it was accepted, because both Klaus and Dorian were very busy thinking that this was exactly what their hostess must have looked like as a teenager. "Major Eberbach, Lord Gloria," she murmured, with elegant poise a woman twice her age might have envied. Her dress was identical to Portia's and Elisabetta's, but white. "I've heard so much about you from my cousin."

"Your cousin?" Dorian asked automatically. Klaus's training stopped him from displaying his own ignorance.

"She means me," Madame said pointedly. She kept hold of Klaus's arm, knowing that might be the only way of retaining him, but tucked her spare hand into Regina's for a moment.

Klaus glared, speculating unpleasantly on what the chit might have heard. Dorian saved the moment by going into raptures over the young lady's dress, which deserved it anyway. He'd loved it in green on Portia, and in red on Elisabetta, but there was something about the purity of the white silk that just melted him into a puddle, as he explained.

Then Madame led Dorian and Klaus away again, and the latter hissed into her ear, "And what do you have planned for this daughter?"

She looked at him from beneath lowered eyelids. "Aren't we the bright cookie. The staff already call her Mademoiselle."

He scowled. "You're grooming a successor?"

"You make it sound so sinister."

"He makes everything sound sinister," Dorian said affectionately.

"I used to be able to do that, too, before I got so damned old. Tell that waitress I need another drink, won't you, Major darling? Oh, there you are, dear!" She swooped down on someone who'd escaped her notice until then, letting Dorian at least off the hook. For Klaus, though, it promised to be a hellish evening as he did his bit to keep her intact while she weaved through a crowd that also contained so many potential killers as to make his head spin.

All this for a damned gadget factory? Was it really worth it?

***

By two o'clock in the morning he was quite ready to slit her throat himself if it would mean an end to it all. Besides Klaus, there were four women dedicated solely to monitoring Madame and her immediate vicinity... but she didn't intend to make it easy for them; she moved so fast and so erratically she might as well have been teleporting, and was always disappearing into odd corners and locked rooms for quick conferences with figures of varying degrees of shadiness.

The Matrimonial Treasure Hunt was probably the low point of the night, he reflected. She'd taken a leaf out of Elsa Maxwell's book and decided to entertain her guests with an activity so simplistic as to verge on the childish — but by the time they all had a couple of drinks inside them, they were utterly game and virtually everyone was on the hunt for the items on the list, which of course included, in addition to a few hellishly difficult items, something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

A few of the young people were also playing Strip Charades in the library, and were utterly undistressed at being interrupted by punters looking for copies of their favourite love stories. Had she set that up deliberately? The less said about it the better, Klaus felt.

Madame was never without a drink in her hand, and Klaus was surprised she was still upright until he was given her glass to hold and realised from the scent that it was a pale kind of ginger ale. Sneaky — quite the thing he'd do himself if he wanted to remain fully alert without too many people being aware of it.

He caught sight of Dorian in the crowd, now and then, most notably having his picture taken with Portia, Elisabetta and Regina, who when they stood together were dressed as the Italian flag. Was it them he was having his picture taken with, or was it their dresses? Which was worse? Klaus didn't know. All he knew was that he wished all these verdammt people would remember they had homes of their own to go to, and go there!

When he got his wish, he didn't know it at first. He saw the disturbance in an antechamber, although most people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between it and the normal behaviour of these people, and looked at Madame to see if she saw it too... but she was already wending her way in the appropriate direction.

The man who'd tried to speak to her when she'd been busy introducing her two favourite gay men in the world to her family was lying on the floor among a cluster of fellow partygoers.

A young woman in Madame's employ dropped to her knees and took his wrist, feeling for a pulse. She looked up with wide eyes. "He's dead..."

***

The last genuine guests departed, and the remainder of the faux guests who'd been unobtrusively keeping tabs on them reported back to Katalin for their next assignments, glad to be able to carry their firearms openly again like the security guards they were.

The ballroom and the series of salons leading into it looked like a scene from 'Great Expectations' — but the ruins were of an engagement party rather than a wedding feast, and the bride-to-be had been packed off with her future groom to carry on the party elsewhere. Madame's damage control strategy appeared to be working; only a handful of people had been close enough to see the corpse fall, and they'd been told he'd just had a little too much to drink. As, indeed, had everyone else.

Madame sent Regina off with the others, keeping around her only a tiny entourage who wouldn't be missed — Darcey of course, and Rosenthal, and that annoying Major and his husband, who hadn't swallowed the intricate story put about explaining why the festivities had to relocate to a hotel Madame owned that thankfully wasn't hosting many events that night. They'd insisted on staying behind to see what was what, and, as soon as she'd consulted with Katalin and deployed her troops, she asked for them to be brought to her in her study.

She reckoned she had a few minutes to deal with them before Riccardo, the only doctor in Naples she felt she could trust, could get here to examine the corpse. She knew it was poison, could recognise the signs, but she didn't know any more than that and needed the gaps in her knowledge filled in, fast. Riccardo had studied this kind of thing, she knew, because she herself had paid for him to do so. She'd always thought it might come in handy to have her own poisons expert... and now it would.

It was damned bad luck that he'd buggered off an hour ago, to go to bed because he had to be up early... not until they knew how the man had died could they even begin to review the security tapes to see how the poison had been administered. Anyone who'd passed him a drink, or touched him, or brushed past him on the dance floor. At least they knew it hadn't been some yob who'd walked in off the street; with security so tight it had to be someone on the list, and despite that list's high concentration of public figures, it wasn't at all implausible when you figured in the countless mafiosi she'd invited in an attempt to draw her own enemies into the open. She was the one who should have been attacked!

La Roccanera lit a cigarette and leaned elegantly against her desk, as the door opened and the men came in.

"Do you know who did this yet? And was he trying for you?" Klaus demanded without preamble.

"We don't know yet and we won't for an hour or two at least," she said. "My poisons man — Riccardo Antonacci — is on his way, and I have the henchwenches poised to review the security tapes once he can tell them what to look for. Was he trying for me? Maybe, I don't know. He has links to one of the major candidates for Public Enemy Number One, but he himself is small fry... what I do doesn't affect him directly."

Klaus scowled. "So you don't know why he was targeted?"

"Do you, Einstein?"

He did not deign to reply to this jibe. "I will need to examine the body."

She waved a negligent hand. "Stay away from it. Riccardo is on his way. I don't want you screwing up any evidence; poisons aren't your area, are they, darling? Too subtle for you. You like things that go bang."

Or that one. "Fine. Now you need to increase your security even more. Someone's been murdered in your immediate vicinity."

"Thank you, but I'd noticed," she snapped. "Have you any idea how difficult it is to guard against poisoners? It's something I've had to worry about a lot, and I can tell you right now that if someone's determined to get you, they have so many sophisticated options open to them these days that it's perfectly safe to eat and drink because no assassin worth her salt would dream of a method so simplistic! While you're so busy impugning my security, I'd like to remind you that so far I haven't been killed, and there are people who'll tell you that's a bloody miracle! Now sit down and shut up; I need to take a phone call." She stubbed out her cigarette and stalked into the next room, with the dignity of a wounded lioness.

Klaus said some things in German that Darcey, who'd slipped in behind them, pretended not to understand. "The woman has a deathwish," he grumbled, again.

"Darling, please, try to relax. There's nothing else you can do right now," Dorian coaxed.

His attention was diverted by Darcey suddenly losing her usual quiet grace and literally collapsing into a chair. He rushed to her side, finding her skin clammy and her face far too pale. He tsk'ed. "Oh, how thoughtless of me. I didn't even realize how upset you'd be."

The girl was trying to appear calm, but she was shaking now. Dorian, who loved a man who got into gunfights on a regular basis, sympathised.

"I'll be all right," she said in a small voice.

"Nonsense. But don't worry, my girl; the Major's standing guard. Madame couldn't be safer." The girl glanced at Klaus, who was standing across the room silently exuding menace. It was a little comforting. "Now, what can I get you? Something to drink?"

Klaus sighed. Despite the girl's vapours, he knew his husband was right; at the moment there wasn't much danger, and certainly nothing the Major could do to improve matters. He hated times like these. He stood fuming like an idling engine.

"Some lemonade, please," Darcey whispered. Dorian promptly went to the little bar — Klaus doubted any room in the building lacked one, including the broom closet — and poured a glass. Glancing at the girl to make sure her gaze was aimed in the other direction, he added a generous dollop of tasteless, colourless, therapeutic vodka. Darcey didn't drink, but if ever a girl needed some alcohol, she did right now.

Darcey grimaced slightly after a sip, but didn't seem to notice anything amiss. Dorian looked at both of his companions and chuckled. "Oh, cheer up, you two! Just think of the cachet of being here. Everyone else has been exiled to the hotel. This is the most exclusive event of the season, and we're the only ones here."

"That's because we're the only ones who are above suspicion of wanting to kill Madame Roccanera," Klaus pointed out, though from his tone, he couldn't be altogether eliminated from that category at this moment.

"Us and the corpse," Darcey agreed with a shaky laugh.

"Ehm, yes," Klaus muttered, pulling out his cigarettes.

Then he froze in the act of tapping one out.

"Scheisse!" he said, loudly and emphatically, before dropping the cigarette and charging over to the door, drawing his Magnum as he kicked it in.

Making the most of the element of surprise, Klaus seized the late Signor Maratta, who was surprisingly lively for a man who'd just been poisoned, and was occupied with squeezing the life out of Madame Roccanera's swanlike throat.

She was just beginning to lose consciousness as Klaus pulled the man off her, but she had put up a fierce fight; Signor Maratta's eyesight was never going to be what it had been again, nor was his nose.

Assuming, of course, that the Major let him live.

And that, in that case, Madame followed suit.

***

Madame wore a scarf the next day, to hide the bruises on her neck, but other than that it was an ordinary day. When she was in Napoli, she liked to spend an hour each morning at a certain cafe it was known she frequented — friends and petitioners alike dropped in to see her, and her people were adroit at manoeuvering them so that she spoke to them for only as long as was necessary.

The last one was the Iron Major. It was the first time they'd spoken since the previous night, when Katalin had carried her up to bed and bolted the door against everyone but Darcey. Back at the house they'd missed each other by a hair, Klaus coming in from the run he'd stubbornly set out on first thing, and Madame hurried out the door by her staff... but she'd sent word that he should join her, and now he had.

She got up from her table before he could sit down, and put her arm through his, giving him her handbag to hold as they walked into the street. Her bodyguards fanned out around them. "Quick thinking on your part, last night," she said quietly.

He mentally added her words to the very short list of times she'd been completely serious with him.

"Just call me Einstein," he said mildly.

"All right, Einstein." She kissed his cheek firmly.

He started, but calmed himself. "A clever trick," he conceded. "Even you aren't paranoid enough to be on guard against the dead. Do you think he had a partner on this?"

"He didn't have a partner, he had a boss. But I know who it is now, for sure, and I'm taking steps... one of which is showing no fear, which is why we're going windowshopping."

"Do you need more help? After all this fuss, I have no intention of letting some idiot kill you and make all my trouble a waste."

"If it's any consolation, I don't think it was a waste."

Her phrasing startled him. He looked at her quickly and, after a moment, said, "You set me up to guard you. That's what this entire charade has been about. That's why you've kept putting me off."

"Don't tell me: you're going to talk try to talk to me about widgets."

"You could have told me that you needed protection."

"Yes, but this way was more fun for me," she said happily.

"And could have gotten you killed, idiot," he grumbled.

"I've been closer to death before. After the first time it doesn't frighten one, I find." She stopped to peer into a shop window.

"Bull. I've been closer too. Save that act for your little girlfriend, Madame."

She gave him a dirty look. "She collapsed last night when she saw what was happening, and even I noticed before your little boyfriend did."

"He was rather more concerned with the life-or-death struggle he was observing than with a fit of the vapours," Klaus snapped back. Already they were back to normal. It never did take long.

She shot back, "Darcey has low blood pressure, I'll have you know! And she's epileptic; if she falls and hits her head it could trigger a perfectly dreadful seizure!"

Darcey and Dorian, walking arm in arm a short distance behind them, shared a bashful and secretive smile. Those two Alphas were just so sexy when they fought.

Klaus couldn't think of a retort. He settled for a murderous glare.

"Give me my handbag," Madame told him frostily. He shoved the little calfskin bag at her, intensifying his glower. Her car was idling at the curb, keeping pace with her by illegally obstructing traffic. She pulled a few papers out of the bag, shoved them at Klaus, and got into the car, with Darcey following as fast as she could lest she be left behind.

They were gone by the time the Major realised what he was holding: the deed to the widget factory, transferred into his name. It was dated the very day he'd first broached the subject with her.

He blinked down at the papers, then looked at his husband, who seemed to find the unexpected gift entirely too amusing.

"Not a word," Klaus warned, and gripped his beloved's arm above the elbow as, together, they hailed a cab.





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