Nine Pound Notes

by the Duchess





DISCLAIMER: This story contains no Dorian, hardly any Klaus, plenty of Gunilla and a bit of Gaby, and lots of the author's own fondest, most half-baked Lesbian Conspiracy Fantasies. Indulge her, please. She needs her little dreams.



YESTERDAY IN BONN...

The Baron and Baronin von dem Eberbach breakfasted together, as the Earl and Countess of Gloria were still fast asleep and, when they woke, would prefer hot chocolate and croissants in their respective beds to the formal meal the German aristocrats had grown up with.

Besides, that meant they got first pick of the dozen international newspapers that were ironed by the footmen and arrayed on the breakfast table for their perusal. Breakfast tended to be a quiet meal, apart from the rustling.

Between papers, Gunilla ventured, "Any particular plans today?"

"I have an investigation to carry out."

Like blood out of a stone...

"Oh?"

"Unfortunately I cannot begin immediately. People will not be in their offices yet," the former crack NATO agent said disapprovingly.

"Shocking." Perhaps she'd have to spell it out. "What's it an investigation into?"

"A cousin of mine has disappeared from her school in Lucerne. I have been asked to look into the matter, as I still have certain connections." It wasn't the kind of mission he was used to — but it was something. It'd certainly keep him occupied until that decadent fop had woken up and had his hair done.

"How did it happen? Those places are more secure than your average jail cell... I can think of lots of girls I knew who would have given their eyeteeth to escape. Myself included." Gunilla got up and went to the window to observe the progress of the sun, which hadn't been up for nearly as long as they had.

It was a family matter and Klaus's first instinct was to keep his cards close to his chest. But Gunilla was family too now, and within her still-slender frame she carried the next generation of the Eberbachs. He gave a quick precis of the facts, thinking that perhaps her view of events, as a former inmate of a similar institution, might be of use to him... at least insofar as he certainly knew nothing of the mind of an adolescent girl.

"A woman came to the school, with a letter purporting to be from the girl's parents — a letter of which they knew nothing. She was well-dressed and well-spoken, and the staff found her completely convincing. Adelheid went with her willingly and said nothing about not recognising the handwriting in the letter. That was three days ago. The deception wasn't discovered until last night, when Adelheid didn't return a phone call, and her parents became... concerned."

His wife looked back at him thoughtfully. "And Adelheid had just turned eighteen, hadn't she?"

"Yes," Klaus replied shortly.

"And the woman wore sunglasses so that her face couldn't be seen properly, and gloves so she left no fingerprints..."

The Major narrowed his eyes. "How do you know?" he demanded, forgetting husbandly courtesy and reverting to his more natural state of extreme suspicion.

Gunilla took one of Klaus's cigarettes from the box on the mantelpiece, lit it, and coughed tremendously. Then she put it out, wrinkling her nose distastefully. It was the only time he'd ever seen her touch tobacco. "Sit down," she said. "This will take a little while."

****

SEVEN YEARS AGO...

As one of the eldest pupils at this particular boarding school for young ladies whose parents desired them to have an international yet old-fashioned education, Gunilla von Oeynhausen-Algenburg had certain responsibilities — ensuring order was kept in the dormitory wing when there were no mistresses present to scowl reprovingly, assisting the dancing mistress to drum the fundamentals of the waltz and the tango into the younger ones' heads, even, on the sly, marking essays for the young Classics mistress who often found herself a tad overwhelmed. Two months shy of her eighteenth birthday and her inevitable return to her family's schloss, Gunilla was in the unusual position of being halfway between student and mistress, a position that might have been uncomfortable indeed if she hadn't been scrupulously honest and fair-minded, and recognised as such by staff and pupils alike.

She was also, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the few senior pupils who'd never got into trouble over some unsuitable young man. How a girl that beautiful could be capable of such restraint was a mystery, but not an unwelcome one — either she could be trusted, or she was smart enough not to be caught, and either way she wouldn't cause difficulties for the school. Heaven knew they spent enough money on security and were scrupulous about chaperonage; their responsibility was to protect the heiresses entrusted to their care every bit as well as their parents would, and by and large they did a very good job.

Most of the girls managed to pass the French Baccalaureate as well as learning art, music and dance. That certainly distinguished the establishment from the finishing schools of the past, where if a pupil learned French and Italian and a few exhibition pieces to be played on the piano or harp, she was thought accomplished indeed.

Gunilla had duly passed her Baccalaureate (in the top percentile of students in Europe) and now she had little to do but keep up her music and her gymnastics, and read. She varied the programme by volunteering to do clerical work in the school's office, a practical skill none of the others had any interest in acquiring. The office was fully-staffed, of course, but any request backed by the Oeynhausen-Algenburg wealth (and the probability that Gunilla's younger girl cousins might follow in her footsteps someday) was honoured. She obligingly did data-entry and filing, and answered the phone, and in due course was upgraded to more sensitive tasks such as showing guests and prospective parents around the villa and its outbuildings. Her impeccable bearing and quiet elegance lent a tone to such proceedings that couldn't be counterfeited.

The headmistress, Louise Dorleac, had made a mental note to find an Old Girl or two who'd fallen on hard times, and hire them to perform the same offices. You simply couldn't buy PR to equal the things she'd heard people say about Gunilla.

The golden-haired daughter of the Graf von Oeynhausen-Algenburg entered the east wing through a side door to which she'd been given a key to facilitate her comings and goings. She'd spent the morning reading Herotodus in the original Greek (her more air-headed peers who were biding their time before fabulously wealthy marriages couldn't fathom such behaviour), and she'd come to spend the afternoon "helping out" as the paid staff politely called it. Madame Dorleac had asked her discreetly if she would be on hand to greet certain visitors who were expected — three different sets, the first due to arrive in the next quarter-hour... if they were punctual, which they tended to be. Madame Dorleac had a reputation as a dragonlady which seemed to reassure parents skittish about sending their daughters away to school for the first time.

"Bonjour, Madame Nathalie," Gunilla said to Madame's secretary, who'd been with her for nigh on thirty years and couldn't be dismissed even though her genteel frumpiness detracted somewhat from the chic image Madame endeavoured to project. She was rather like an old family retainer in that respect, and Gunilla certainly had experience dealing with those.

"Bonjour," Nathalie replied pleasantly. They exchanged a few pleasantries, as they usually did, and Gunilla moved out of the antechamber that led to Madame Dorleac's office and into the main foyer, which was decorated just as it had been when the villa had been the private home of aristocrats.

The first set of visitors were right on time, the lady carrying a crocodile Kelly bag and wearing Jicky, and the gentleman in Gucci loafers. She was old-school, then, and he might be — it was difficult to tell at first glance, even for Gunilla. But the right things to say were the right things to say, whomever one said them to, and her upbringing had imparted an exact instinct for them to her by osmosis. They were welcomed, offered refreshments in Madame Dorleac's sitting-room, and then Madame herself swept in and Gunilla quietly withdrew.

With no one else due to arrive for an hour yet, Gunilla prowled back the way she'd come and moved stealthily through the extensive gardens. At this time of the afternoon, there'd surely be at least one girl made sleepy by lessons, who'd sneaked out for a clandestine cigarette... and yes, sure as clockwork, she smelled nicotine behind— that tree over there.

She reached calmly through the foliage, plucked the cigarette from the other girl's very hand, threw it onto the path and stepped on it to put it out. "Go on," she said in a low voice.

A flushed junior student emerged, her head bowed. "Thank you, Gunilla," she murmured.

"Next time I'll report you," the older girl warned, keeping an eye on the bashful smoker's progress back to her classroom. She hated smoking; it was a filthy habit and anything she could do to dissuade people from indulging in it, she'd do. But she didn't see any reason to shove the rulebook down the kid's throat — that would make her the enemy, and others would become wary of confiding in her. What good would that do?

"Excuse me..." A woman spoke behind Gunilla, in French in an Italian accent made pleasingly rough by the very activity Gunilla was on the offensive against. Gunilla turned quickly.

"I'm early for an appointment with Madame Dorleac; I saw you through the window and wondered if you might tell me where I ought to be."

She was about forty, olive-skinned, her dark hair pinned back severely and her eyes hidden behind large sunglasses. It was impossible to tell whether she was beautiful or ugly, only that her face would be difficult to forget. Her black Chanel skirt suit was of a conservative cut, and with it she wore an onyx pendant on a matronly fob chain. Only her shoes were less than stern — black stilettos with pointy toes and narrow ankle-straps, so high she was forced to walk almost en pointe.

"Signora ———?" Gunilla guessed belatedly. She couldn't take her eyes off the high arch of the shoes and the slender line of the wearer's ankles. It was the first time she'd considered her own sensible flats inferior.

"Yes. And you are...?"

"Gunilla von Oeynhausen-Algenburg."

A hand tightly-gloved in black kid was extended, and Gunilla took it without hesitation. "Come in, Signora," she said, wrenching her eyes from the visitor's beautiful feet. She did her best to ignore the odd tingling feeling that came over her — as though she'd blundered into a gust of cold wind.

When they were inside, she directed the Signora to an alcove in the foyer where Louis Quinze furniture was arranged in a conversational grouping. "Madame Dorleac is engaged at present. May I offer you tea, coffee, or chocolate? Or, considering the weather, perhaps something cold?"

"Do you know what I'd really like?" Signora ——— removed neither sunglasses nor gloves. She sat down with her knees pressed tightly together and her ankles crossed.

"I— no?" Gunilla asked uncomfortably. Her stance was rigid, hands clasped behind her back, like a first-year called to the headmistress's office.

The Signora's dark red mouth curved lazily. "Chocolate chip ice-cream. Do you think you could find some for me, Gunilla?"

"Of course, Signora. I'll see to that right away." She could hardly prevent her legs shaking as she hurried out.

They knew her in the kitchen because she ordered refreshments for guests so often, but this was the first time she'd come down herself instead of telephoning. She asked for the ice-cream as casually as possible, mentioning that Madame's next guest had arrived ahead of schedule, and when told they only had vanilla and strawberry, she ordered a tray to be prepared and sprinted up to raid her own small refrigerator. Half a quart of chocolate chip Haagen-Dazs, just as she'd thought. The Signora wasn't the only one with a sweet tooth.

She took it down to the kitchen and spooned it into the bowl personally, sneaking a little herself to soothe the dryness in her throat. But in the end she pretended she had business elsewhere and sent it up to Signora ——— in the care of a maid.

****

Madame Nathalie looked a little flustered.

"Oh, Gunilla! Will you go and find Claudia Abruzzi? Tell her to pack a small bag and come at once — her parents have sent someone to collect her. Tell her she needn't worry about packing the rest of her things, we'll do that. And do tell her to hurry!"

"Of course, Madame," said Gunilla. She nodded politely, as she'd been brought up to do when taking leave of anyone who had authority over her, however ephemeral it might be.

That explained the Signora — or did it? Surely if she'd been dispatched to fetch Claudia at such short notice that Claudia herself didn't know yet, there wouldn't have been time to make an appointment? That obviously hadn't occurred to Nathalie — well, there were probably extenuating circumstances. It annoyed Gunilla a little that she didn't know them... she usually knew everything that went on at her school, one way or the other. Gaby always said her curiosity would be the death of her, but then Gaby was always so trusting. That was one of the things that made Gunilla so protective of her.

Claudia was probably idling in the music-room or the senior sitting-room, Gunilla decided, barring from her mind all thoughts but those relating to her immediate mission. She was eighteen, older than Gunilla by nearly four months, and most of the girls were privately amazed that her parents hadn't called her home long ago. It was always possible that they'd forgotten her age — it had been known to happen; parents who had the leisure of leading their own lives between Christmases tended to become somewhat absorbed in those lives. Perhaps they'd remembered, hence the sudden swooping-down of Signora ———... she didn't look like an employee; perhaps a family friend, or a cousin who lived nearby for tax purposes...?

"Claudia?" Gunilla inquired, putting her head around the sitting-room door and being rewarded by the sight of her quarry curled up in a windowseat. She passed on the message and offered to help with the packing, and Claudia, placidly unsurprised, accepted.

It was Gunilla's practice to cultivate few close friendships (to be honest, only one: Gaby's), but she and Claudia had known each other for five years now and it thus struck her as unusual that the older girl had so little to say as they repaired to her sunny bedroom and chose a few things to go into her Vuitton overnight bag.

"You must promise not to miss us at all now you're escaping into the big, wide world," Gunilla said at last, her tone lighter than usual.

"I've been happy here," agreed Claudia, "but that's no reason I can't be just as happy elsewhere. I'll certainly be less bored than I have been lately!"

"Will you marry soon, do you think?"

"If my mother has any say in the matter." She wrinkled her nose.

Had she imagined it, or had Claudia hesitated a moment before answering? A voice in the back of Gunilla's mind kept adding two and two and getting fifty million. But there was nothing she could do — it was all in order or Madame Dorleac wouldn't let Claudia set foot outside the gates.

Gunilla carried the overnight bag and Claudia her handbag, and they went downstairs as quickly as the anxious Madame Nathalie could have wished. Madame Dorleac and Signora ——— were standing near the front doors, conversing quietly in the French that was the school's first language.

"And here she is!" exclaimed Madame Dorleac fondly, turning to face the girls as they approached. "Leaving us so soon, Claudia — you will write, won't you, and keep us up to date on all your doings?"

"I'm sure she will," said the Signora smoothly. "Why don't you put your bag in the car and I'll join you in a moment? I abhor long, drawn-out goodbyes," she explained to the headmistress. Madame Dorleac didn't protest against losing control of the proceedings... Gunilla thought the Signora must have made quite an impression on her for her to accede to parting so quickly from Claudia, whom she regarded as a particular favourite.

"Goodbye, Madame," said Claudia, obeying as was natural to her. "You've taught me a great deal — more than out of schoolbooks, I mean — I'm not putting this very well but what I mean is that I shall always remember you. Thank you."

Gunilla refused to relinquish the bag as she escorted Claudia out to the waiting silver Mercedes convertible. It was the only vehicle parked in the wide paved driveway, which wrapped around a circular lawn sown with wildflowers in front of the villa, and led off around the side of the building as well as in the direction of the gates.

By the time the bag was stowed and Claudia had settled herself in the passenger seat, the Signora was walking toward the car faster than ought to have been possible in those awfully high shoes. Gunilla's self-control was usually impeccable but she caught herself staring again, and deliberately looked away.

The Italian touched her arm. "I enjoyed the ice-cream very much," she said, shaking the girl's hand in farewell. She got into the car and drove away, leaving Gunilla standing there, feeling daft, clutching the rectangle of card that had been pressed into her palm. She put it in her pocket without looking at it, making the movement as small as possible, knowing Madame Dorleac's eyes were on her.

It was a subterfuge unnatural to an Oeynhausen-Algenburg. Her hands felt clammy as she marched back into the villa.

****

She held the card in her hands, staring at the few words written on it as if there was a hidden meaning to be found in the name of an exclusive hotel not far away, in Lausanne, and a room number, and a time: midnight.

Claudia. Where was Claudia now? Not with her parents, that was for sure. With a boyfriend? That seemed the likeliest scenario, although it didn't exactly dovetail with her means of escape... Gunilla burned with what she thought must be the need to solve the mystery, if only for her own satisfaction.

It was half past eight now. Gunilla had counted on her seniority to prevent questions being asked and skipped dinner. Gaby would come looking for her soon. That thought was usually enough to bring a smile to her eyes, if not her lips, but now it only served to unsettle her even more.

She looked at the clock. Two minutes since the last time her eyes had found it. Gaby couldn't be much longer.

When the knock came it still startled her. She barely had time to slip the card into a book on her desk before Gaby bounded in without waiting for her to call out, and threw herself gracefully into a chair opposite Gunilla.

"Darling, are you all right? I missed you this afternoon... and we all missed you this evening!" Gabrielle Desjardins was two years younger than Gunilla, and ten times as lovely — or so the German girl devoutly maintained. With her newly-bobbed dark curls she looked even more like Lisa Fonssagrives than she had with long tresses she could sit upon. But from the neck down, she was considerably curvier than the top model of the '50s had ever been.

"Have you been brooding up here all alone? Is it your father again? Or were you just lost in a book?" Gaby picked up the Herotodus and for a moment Gunilla was afraid she'd open it, or the card would fall out. She couldn't honestly recall ever keeping a secret from Gaby before, and she was tempted to take the wretched card out herself and rip it up that very moment, and apologise to Gaby for worrying her.

She didn't.

"Ugh, Greek," said Gaby, not unkindly, putting the book down where she'd found it. "I never could get the hang of that. One alphabet is enough for me and then some. Do you like my skirt? It's new."

The abrupt change of subject wasn't atypical; for all her protests that she was really quite stupid compared to Gunilla, Gaby had a quick mind that encompassed a dozen things at once, and it no longer disoriented Gunilla when she leaped from one to another.

"It's beautiful," said the model Classics student. "As far as I can tell, anyway." But she'd taken too long to reply, and Gaby's feminine radar was going off the scale.

"What's on your mind, dear?" she asked kindly. She didn't even tease her friend about her lack of sartorial flair. "Do you— would you rather just be alone for a while?" It wouldn't be the first time she'd known Gunilla to crave solitude.

It took a moment for Gunilla to admit it. "I think— I think perhaps that would be best." She'd thought that the moment she saw Gaby, it would all become clear the way things usually did when viewed through the lens of her best friend's presence. But she was even less certain of herself now. She looked at Gaby's feet. Sandals, of rosy pink leather, with the medium heels mandated by the school's uniform code.

Gaby rose and planted a perfect pink lip-print on Gunilla's brow. "All right. But, I'm warning you — I shan't put up with reticence two days running." Her tone was as gentle and affectionate as ever, but Gunilla knew she meant what she said. Most of the time Gaby followed Gunilla's lead without questioning... when she didn't, it meant she was doubtful of Gunilla's ability to look after herself as well as she looked after Gaby. She tended to be quite right.

"Cherie?" said Gunilla when her friend had one hand on the door. She used the private nickname she'd given Gaby that first night she'd found the girl curled tightly in a ball, weeping inconsolably with homesickness. Since then they'd always been together, until none of their fellow pupils mentioned them individually — they were always Gaby and Gunilla, or Gunilla and Gaby.

"Yes?"

"Thank you. For understanding."

"You're a cipher, Gunilla. But I love you anyway." Gaby smiled wistfully and withdrew, closing the door carefully.

At ten o'clock Gunilla finished off the plain chocolate Haagen-Dazs as well.

At half past ten she made a phone call to a local taxi company and told them a tissue of lies.

At eleven o'clock she opened her window and climbed out.

She had to find out about Claudia... didn't she?

****

Gunilla had discovered several years earlier that a young woman dressed expensively, and walking as though she knew where she was going, attracted no questions. This proved to be the case even in luxury hotel lobbies at midnight. Her years of dance and gymnastics helped her to move steadily, despite her distinct feeling that she might shatter into a thousand pieces at any moment.

Her life had been well-ordered before her mother's death, with her time devoted neatly between governess and pony. It became amazingly so afterward, when she was sent away to school at the tender age of eight and inducted into a world of schedules and study, where she knew at any moment of the day or night what she ought to be doing and how she ought to go about doing it. Nothing in her life to date had prepared her for the last few hours.

She lingered in the elevator. She honestly had no idea what was about to happen. Signora ———'s presence acted like a magnet, tugging her by infinitesimal degrees in the direction of the elevator doors, and then along the corridor as she stole glances at each door in turn. They were spaced far apart. The rooms must be large, perhaps suites.

She knew she'd found her destination before she could make out the discreet number on the door, because it was the only one left ajar.

Gunilla looked at her watch. Two minutes past twelve. There was time to turn back — the Signora need not even know she'd come so close. She barely recognised as her own the hand pushing open the door and closing it with a small click behind her.

Coming from the bright corridor, she blinked, her eyes taking a moment to adjust to the minimal light given off by the lamps at either side of the broad bed. She was standing directly opposite French windows leading to a small balcony, on which a white-robed figure sat, watching the door as she smoked. Her hair blended into the darkness of the night behind her. She still wore her fascinating shoes.

They were silent a moment longer, one breathing out a cloud of smoke and the other trying not to shiver.

"You came, Gunilla."

"Yes, Signora ———."

"Maurizia," the woman said.

"Maurizia, then."

"Sit down."

Gunilla looked around. The only unoccupied seat was the wide stool at the dressing-table, which was littered with feminine paraphenalia belonging to her hostess. She thought about asserting that she'd rather stand, then abruptly did as she was told.

The Signora — Maurizia — threw her cigarette away over the balcony and came in, her satin robe gleaming irregularly as she moved through the softly-lit room. Her gentle hands on Gunilla's shoulders turned the girl around until they both faced into the mirror, their faces reflected one above the other. Yes, Gunilla decided, the Signora without her sunglasses was beautiful.

"I noticed the way you were looking at me, of course," Maurizia said. She touched Gunilla's hair, or caressed it, rather, and began to unbraid it with slow, lingering fingers.

"Looking at you?" said Gunilla, almost dumbstruck by the feather-light attentions being paid to her hair.

"You know what I mean."

"I don't." She bit her lip and asked the question she'd convinced herself she'd come here specifically to ask. "After she came back from Napoli Claudia always looked as though she was waiting for something — or someone. Was it you?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes."

"Her parents didn't send you, did they?"

"No."

"Where is she?"

"I put her on a plane this afternoon."

"A plane to where?"

"Does it matter? She's where she wants to be."

"It matters to me."

"They shelter you girls, don't they?"

"It's expected."

"Yet you managed to get out. Do you do this often, to meet lovers?"

"I don't have a boyfriend."

"I wasn't talking about boys."

Gunilla was prevented from leaping to her feet by the hands that had returned to her shoulders, this time as immovably as iron.

"You didn't think I wanted to chat, did you?" murmured Maurizia. Gunilla could see her smiling ironically.

"How did you— I'm not— I'm not!" the girl exclaimed, her voice hardly more than a whisper. Her mind was screaming at her ever-attentive body, telling it to flee, but the message wasn't getting through and her slack muscles wouldn't obey. Maurizia's unhesitant recognition of her cut off all her denials before they could even reach her lips.

"You started off to ask how I knew, didn't you?" The other laughed. "I told you. I saw the way you were looking at me. You can't deny it, Gunilla... it's your nature. It's no sin."

By this time hot tears, of outrage and thwarted desire, were streaming down Gunilla's face. Face to face with the truth there was nothing she could say, no new wall she could build to block out the knowledge of the way she was made.

She was still crying numbly when Maurizia raised her to her feet, kissed her throat, kissed her salty cheek. The knowledgeable Italian woman sensed Gunilla would prefer to save the romance of the first kiss for another, and so she avoided her delightful young conquest's mouth... but the rest of Gunilla was soon made hers. At least until dawn.

****

"I took advantage of you," Maurizia observed to the golden head pillowed on her chest.

Gunilla's reply was murmured with her lips still brushing skin. "I suppose you did."

"What's her name?"

"I don't have to tell you that."

"She won't wait forever, you know."

"Do you suppose she knows?"

"She can hardly be as dense as you, darling, can she?"

"That wasn't fair."

"Pillowtalk often isn't. How is one to be expected to exercise considered restraint with the sheets still hot beneath one?"

Gunilla didn't deign to reply to that. She was blushing again.

Maurizia guessed as much, smiling privately with the fondness she always felt for pretty girls — for the first few hours. She looked at the clock. "It's a few minutes after five o'clock. You were asleep for over an hour."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't apologise. Do you want to use the bathroom first?"

"Must we say such banal things?"

"Life goes on, Gunilla. Up you get."

Gunilla wriggled stiffly to her feet, paused to watch Maurizia light a cigarette, and went into the bathroom.

She surveyed herself in the long mirror. She looked tousled, but otherwise no different — there was no brand on her forehead proclaiming to the world that not only was she as bent as a nine pound note, but she'd just been taken by a woman.

She didn't know what to think, and suspected she wouldn't for some time yet.

After showering and wrapping herself modestly in a towel, she tip-toed out of the bathroom. Maurizia was on her second cigarette and hadn't shifted an inch, nor did she move to take over the bathroom. Gunilla had no choice but to drop her towel and dress with Maurizia's brown eyes taking in her every movement. She couldn't decide whether it was an invasion of privacy, or the most erotic thing since the Sergio Rossi shoes she'd had the pleasure of removing from Maurizia's pretty feet a few hours earlier.

No doubt the guilt would kick in soon. For now nothing seemed quite real — she'd been living in a novel since the previous afternoon, or in a dream.

When she was dressed, and her keys and wallet were restored to her pockets, she looked back at the tanned woman sprawled among the disordered white sheets.

"Will I see you again?"

"No."

"Good." Gunilla nodded and walked out. She had something very important to do, just as soon as the sun caught up with her.

****

BACK IN BONN... "I got a letter from Claudia a week later. She told me not to worry, that she was happier than she'd ever been and perfectly safe, and that she was sending the same letter to her parents. I had it analysed by handwriting experts. She wasn't coerced. Adelheid's parents will probably receive a similar communication. Please. You mustn't pursue this... not genuinely."

"Why?" Klaus demanded. "Unless you happen to know where these girls go as well as who sends them there! How are they identified? What are the lines of communication? You can't expect me to give up and let my cousin go with so many gaps in my knowledge!"

Gunilla sipped her cold coffee. Revolting as it was, she needed to moisten her throat. "Gaby saw Claudia a year ago in Paris," she said after a moment's deliberation. "She came to Chanel to have new clothes made, in the company of a few girlfriends. They spent a mint between them. One was Claudia's lover."

"Go on."

"They met on one of Claudia's trips home and sparks flew... this is going to sound very implausible. You must understand that there really are an awful lot of lesbians in girls' schools, on staff as well as among the students. The straight ones tend to pressure their parents to send them to co-educational schools, but to a young lesbian who's been lonely for as long as she can remember, what could be sweeter than spending years cocooned away in an exclusively feminine environment? Young women are becoming self-aware so early, and even if they didn't know what they are any more than we did at that age they know enough to know boys are icky and they only want to be around other girls."

"I have encountered much implausibility in the course of my NATO career," Klaus said impatiently. "Go on!"

"This is all according to Gaby, who could talk the hind leg off a donkey and persuade it to run a marathon afterward. Maurizia — I doubt it was her real name — acts as an agent between... wealthy women of certain predilections, and... young women of similar ones. Young women who could never live as they wish to within the constraints of the society in which they've been brought up. It's an old girls' network of a kind. Gaby seems to have tapped into it. I sometimes think she knows every wealthy or titled lesbian in Europe by name. As far as she could gather from Claudia, they all know each other too."

A sneaking suspicion crept into Klaus's mind. It was amply confirmed by the continuation of Gunilla's outlandish story.

"It seemed so fantastic I didn't believe it at first. I went to the only person I could think of to go to for corroboration — and she knew exactly what I was talking about from the beginning. Apparently her own latest protegÈ had to be smuggled out of her house in the middle of the night for fear her parents would make a fuss... I'm talking about Marie-Therese von Sachsen-Teschen, your former boss's wife and my own sainted aunt," Gunilla said grimly.

"I might have known," growled the Major. What on earth was he supposed to do now? Blow open an international ring of loaded lesbian predators that included members of his own family? Or let other members of his family go from day to day not knowing if their daughter was dead or alive? The rulebook didn't cover this one. Mind you, there were many things the rulebook didn't cover, and he'd always got through them before...

There was another way of looking at this. It wasn't the unmitigated disaster it seemed, when approached from a certain angle... He'd solved easily half the mystery without stirring from his own breakfast-table. Of course, Gunilla had solved it for him, but wasn't marriage about partnership?

"It makes sense," she was saying, in a dangerously reasonable manner, "if you consider the rule of supply and demand, and the difficulties that are faced even in this day and age by gay people who don't want to be alone any longer and have so few potential mates to choose from. A wealthy, sophisticated lesbian approaching middle age, either single and alone or living in a loveless or sexless marriage, is bound to want a beautiful, well-bred young companion... there's a market there and if both parties are willing to try it, why shouldn't an intermediary act to bring them together in the simplest way possible?

"They look after the girls, too, if it doesn't work out; they feel obliged to and I believe Maurizia's employer makes trouble for them if they don't. It's no stranger than meeting someone through a personal ad, and I understand that's done all the time by people who don't have their position to think about. It's safer too because everyone knows everyone. It might strike you and I as cold and calculating... but we're the lucky ones. Love came knocking — or, in your case, when no one answered the door, love broke the window and climbed in regardless."

"We are," Klaus agreed, ignoring the jibe for the time being. He secretly enjoyed having someone besides Dorian know just how lucky he considered himself. "My cousin Adelheid—"

"—Would have felt she had no other choice, if her upbringing was anything like yours or mine. Would have leaped at the chance to actually find a woman willing to take care of her. Can you imagine growing up knowing the truth about yourself, knowing that in the normal order of things you would never be able to live as you wished, and that, indeed, you would probably be forced by family and society to live in quite another way entirely?"

Klaus considered that. He had a duty to his family, that was non-negotiable. But to which members of his family did he owe the greater obligation?

He thought about who would be sitting across the table from him now if he hadn't met Gunilla and found out her secret. In the end he would have had to make that supreme sacrifice he'd dodged so long, because of the same sense of duty that was conflicting him now and would continue to rule him until the day he died.

His obligation was to Adelheid, his conscience answered after a long moment. Because of blood, and because queers ought to look after each other. God only knew who else would take on the job.

"If it can be confirmed that she did indeed abscond in the manner you detailed..."

"Gaby will make sure of that."

"Then perhaps her parents need not know everything," the Baron said heavily. He didn't like it. But he liked it more than he liked ruining the girl's life. He couldn't even remember what she looked like, but that was not the point. He could assure himself of her safety, and make something up to tell her parents — better yet, have her tell them herself. And if anything went wrong, he'd come down like a ton of bricks and break as many heads as necessary.

(It had been quietly observed by the rest of the household that the approach of fatherhood was turning the Iron Major into a right old paterfamilias. As if he hadn't been formidable enough before.)

"You've made the right decision, Klaus," said Gunilla quietly. "I think so, anyway. Come on. Let's go and wake up our sleeping beauties."

****

SEVEN YEARS AGO...

"Gaby... Cherie. I think I'm in love with you."

"I know, dearest."



Eroica