A Perfect Match
by Kadorienne and the Duchess
Outside it was snowing, but in the ballroom the heat coming from the chandeliers, and the wealthy bodies pressed a little too close together for comfort, made Major Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach come closer than ever before to ripping off his starched collar so he could breathe.
He didn't do it, of course, because one didn't. And any Eberbach could tell you to the letter what was done and what wasn't. For instance, it wasn't done to circle calculatingly around behind a pillar when one saw one's father bearing down upon one in the company of what looked very much like a prime example of female aristocratic marriage-fodder.
Klaus did that anyway. The first rule for NATO agents was of course self-preservation, when it was in the interests of the overall mission. Tonight the overall mission was to get someone out alive himself.
But the shadow of the pillar was already occupied by a pair of lovers canoodling in a way that turned the Major's stomach. He had no choice but to politely acknowledge his father the Graf, and bow over the young lady's hand. Her father was there too, a carbon copy of his own.
"Fraulein Gunilla von Oeynhausen-Algenburg, my son Major Klaus von dem Eberbach," said the Graf, beaming proudly upon the young people in order to make his approval perfectly clear.
"Fraulein," said Klaus automatically, as he relinquished her hand.
"Major," she replied in exactly the same tone.
The Major didn't know how many men in the room, old and young, were cursing him at that moment. Indeed, even sober gentlemen had commenced walking into walls when the Fraulein had made her entrance on her father's arm. It wasn't that she showed intoxicating quantities of flesh (that being what they usually hoped would enliven deadly dull parties like this one), because even most of the dowagers wore frocks exposing more décolletage than her rather spartan off-the-shoulder black gown it was, in no particular order, her alabaster skin, the remarkable angles of her face, her wasp-waist, her thick straight hair the colour of ripe corn, and her eyes, like blue ice, roaming thoughtfully over all of them and settling on not a single one.
She was, in short, a knockout. The effect was lost on Klaus, who would have liked nothing more than to have never set eyes on her in his life.
When it became apparent that Klaus's powers of small talk were failing him, Gunilla said, "It is a lovely ball, Major, isn't it?"
"Yes. It is," he agreed shortly.
The two hopeful fathers moved away, but not so far that they couldn't monitor their children's faces with carefully-concealed anxiety.
With the ball again in her court, Gunilla had no choice but to pass it as graciously as she could. "Do you... often manage to find time in what I'm sure must be a busy schedule, to come to these parties?"
"Very seldom," Klaus said, unable to mask his own approval of that fact.
To his surprise, he saw the swiftly suppressed quirk of a smile on the lady's face. This won her enough favor in his eyes that he added, "And is your own schedule a busy one?"
"Hardly." It was her turn to resort to extreme brevity.
Klaus retreated inwardly. Just as he'd feared, another woman with nothing to do with her time than pester prospective husbands, and eventually catch one and clamour for his attention and breed.
But another glance at Gunilla's toned arms and straight posture made him curious. Clearly she didn't spend all of her time at idiot amusements like this one. "Are you a ballet dancer or something?" he said, not bothering to conceal his scrutiny.
"Or something," she allowed. "If you'll excuse me, Major, a dear friend of mine has just come in and I really must greet her." The woman who'd walked in was nothing of the kind but still alibi enough.
Glad of the reprieve, temporary though he knew it to be, Klaus allowed himself to seek out a head of golden curls he knew must be present somewhere. And there Dorian was, all the way across the vast room, talking to a couple of women who were smiling at him the way women did, inexplicably, smile at gay men. When he looked back Gunilla was long gone. Good.
"How'd you like your father to go right off little Gunilla?" a slightly breathy British accent purred in his ear. It was that damned Italian woman, right on cue. Whatever portion of the evening he'd spent avoiding his father, he'd spent all the rest evading her.
"Oh, and how would you manage that?" he inquired in a tone dripping with sarcasm. He didn't bother turning around; looking at Portia Roccanera would only annoy him.
"You don't believe me, do you?" She laughed easily. "I can arrange for him to find out the real reason she's been so picky and refused so many prospective husbands she wasn't waiting for an Eberbach; she's a raging dyke."
"Yes, yes. Marie-Therese was an Oeynhausen before she married so of course I know. Lovely pair of legs on her, although you can't tell under that long skirt. Shame, really."
He had turned to face her fully now. "You're certain of this? Then why is she allowing her father to bring her here when he's obviously trying to marry her off?"
"I might ask the same question of you, dear."
He studied the latest prospective Frau Eberbach, who was chatting indifferently with the young lady she had indicated before. "Then she understands that eventually, she'll have to do her duty to her family?" he asked thoughtfully.
"I daresay. People like the two of you always do. But the moment your father knows it'll cease to be a secret tough luck for the girl, but it'll get you off this particular hook, and you look as though you could use it!"
He whirled back to her. "Are you mad, woman? Don't even think of speaking to my father!"
"Now, now. How many times have I told you I prefer 'Madame'?" she said reprovingly. "But, in the matter of your father why on earth not?"
"Don't you see?" he demanded. Really, sometimes Madame could be as thick as the alphabets. "She's perfect!" With that, he made a beeline for Dorian.
Gunilla had been at finishing school in Lausanne with her unwitting rescuer, which in theory meant they'd have a lot of catching up to do and in practice meant she'd quite happily throttle the woolly-brained girl.
When the old school chum had exhausted the subjects of her upcoming wedding and the latest manifestation of the servant problem, she finally thought to coo, "And how is dear Gabrielle?"
That was all Gunilla needed to ruin her evening beyond repair; she said something perfunctory in the way one did when one didn't wish to admit to having lost touch with some "dear, dear friend", and performed her patented Ballroom Shuffle again. This time she pretended she espied her father and wished to ask him something.
After ensuring the coast was as clear as it would ever be, she ducked out through the corridor and into the solarium, which was never used in winter. It was murky and unlit, but the barren trees and thick blanket of snow she could admire through the full-length windows were far more appealing a vista than could be found indoors.
She inhaled deeply, feeling she could almost smell the stark whiteness. Goosebumps spread across her bare arms, but the cold never bothered her rather, she found its harshness appealing.
But even harsher was the palpable presence in the room of the decision she would have to make, within a fortnight at the latest. She had to find a man and marry him; virtually any man would do as long as he was high-born, and wouldn't ask questions about where her money went when, as a married woman, she could finally draw on it as she wished.
Men all looked alike to her anyway, and they'd all feel alike in the dark. No, which one didn't matter. The wedding and all it meant needn't even come immediately, so long as her father was generous with her trousseau... and she knew how much he loved excuses to spoil his resolutely non-materialistic but very much beloved only child.
Gunilla's mind turned as it always did in solitary moments to the gold standard, to discreet pawnbrokers-to-the-gentry, to when the next payment of rent was due on a little apartment over the Rue Cambon...
Hearing footsteps, she spun around in a rustle of black silk. It was the Eberbach man, her father's latest idea of a Good Match curse him for following her here! He wouldn't do for her purposes; if he'd held out against matrimony this long he wouldn't give in easily... he probably had some unsuitable girl tucked away whom his father would disinherit him if he married, and it'd fit in with what she'd heard of him, she thought, if he stubbornly refused to countenance any other match.
But why follow her unless he hadn't known she was here? Perhaps, then, he'd just slip away again and leave her to her schemes...
Behind him, less comfortable with the freezing temperature in the solarium, followed a man she knew only by sight, dressed ten times as frivolously as she. With that outfit, and those long curls, surely he was
"Fraulein von Oeynhausen-Algenburg," Major Eberbach began, "may I present my husband, Dorian Red, the Earl of Gloria?"
The Graf was downstairs for breakfast early, but his son had not varied his ironclad routine and was still upstairs showering. The elder Eberbach accepted coffee real coffee, not that instant travesty the younger favoured and tried to await his son's appearance with a modicum of patience.
He didn't do too well. There were too many things on his mind, too much that needed explaining and too many hopes. His son had spent hours in the garden talking to Gunilla the previous night. Another suitor, some dandified English peer the Graf had seen at similar events but never been introduced to, had attempted to cut in but been sent packing in short order. For the first time in memory, Klaus had willingly passed a considerable amount of time in the sole company of an eligible lady, instead of frightening her off with a few growls.
The Graf would have preferred to quiz his son on what had passed between the young people the instant Klaus left her side, but Klaus had, incredibly, stayed with her until it was too late for a man of the Graf's age to be out and about. He'd reluctantly let himself be chauffeured back to the Schloss, at so late an hour that he had fallen asleep promptly despite his anxiety for news.
At eight thirty precisely, the Eberbach scion walked into the dining room, with a newspaper held in front of his face as always. Really, sometimes the boy took things too far.
"Guten morgen, Klaus," the Graf said, to get his son's attention.
"Guten morgen, Vater," said the paper.
The Graf was drawing a breath preparatory to uttering a direct order when the paper abruptly came down, revealing his son's freshly shaved and cheerful face.
"Do you wish to accompany me to Schloss Oeynhausen after breakfast, sir?" Klaus asked calmly as he sat down.
The Graf's eyebrows shot up. "And why are you going?"
"To request Fraulein von Oeynhausen-Algenburg's father's blessing."
"Isn't this rather sudden?" his father blurted, then mentally kicked himself. He hadn't expected an engagement within twenty-four hours of an introduction Klaus had certainly never been the impetuous type, but at this point he shouldn't risk complaining.
"Why not? Fraulein von Oeynhausen-Algenburg and I agreed on everything last night." Klaus seemed to hesitate as he reached for his Nescafé. "We, ah, suit each other quite well." He smiled for the first time that morning and looked back at his father. "Did you know she was the star of her fencing team at university?" he asked with unmistakable approval.
"Was she," the Graf answered faintly. Good God, if his father had ever thrown a fencing woman at his head... But so long as she was fertile, he had no intention of rocking the boat and perhaps destroying his own cherished dream of grandchildren.
"I know it's moving rather quickly," Klaus continued unconcernedly, "but she's been looking for a husband for some time she wants children very much, you see but she couldn't find one who, ah, met her requirements. Till last night."
"Good to know the girl has high standards," the Graf conceded with approval. He was on the verge of asking what those requirements had been when he was interrupted by the appearance of the butler with a large white box. "What's this?"
"This was just hand-delivered, sir. For Master Klaus." The butler set it carefully on the table before the Major and withdrew.
Klaus frowned at the box for a second, then put down his coffee and opened the lid a crack. He got a look inside and, to the older man's amazement, actually turned pink before he hastily shut it. He then swallowed the rest of his coffee, stood, and tucked the box firmly under his arm. His cheeks were still flushed, but his expression was otherwise unperturbed.
"Well?" his father demanded. "What is it?" He noticed a tiny envelope falling from the box to the floor, but decided not to mention it. Not just yet.
"What? Oh, nothing. Excuse me." Klaus left the room swiftly, keeping a tight grip on the box. The Graf's suspicions were aroused but he said nothing. Instead, he waited till his son had left, and reached under the table to pick up the tiny envelope.
Inside was a scented card and a few words in a slanting feminine script:
Consider this an early wedding present. There isn't much to it, but I believe it should fit a certain blond quite well. Happy Honeymoon!
The Graf chuckled and replaced the card in its little envelope. He would leave it on the floor for the butler to find. Let Klaus think it hadn't been discovered. Just like the young blockhead, blushing like a schoolboy and running out of the room as if his father would swoon at the thought of his daughter-in-law having a trousseau.
Well, the boy always had been something of a prude, the Graf thought.