~6~

There had been a time when Marcus would have avoided the Earl of Red Gloria. He probably would have left the party once he caught sight of him. But that time was years ago.

There had also been a time when he would have gone over and slapped the Earl's pretty face, and they probably would have ended up in a match of screeching and hair-pulling, at least if they'd had enough zinfandel. But that time was also years ago.

And yes, there had been a time when he would have thrown himself at the Earl's feet and pleaded, quite unabashedly, for just one more chance, one more night. It was embarrassing to think of, now, because that time was also years ago.

It had been nearly a decade since Marcus had last seen the Earl. He found his eyes being drawn back to the man across the room repeatedly as he continued catching up with other old friends, and not just because the man was beautiful, either. There was a change in him, more than the simple passage of a decade should have caused. A subtle one; only one who knew him as well as Marcus did could have detected it.

Everyone still loved him, of course. How could anyone help it, really? Even Fortune loved him. Beautiful, clever, titled, wealthy. Dorian must have been a saint in a previous life.

He certainly hadn't been one in this life. He had lavished charm on every attractive man he saw, and left a trail of broken hearts in his wake, with never a backward glance. Marcus had been only one of many to be lifted up to the heavens by the Earl of Red Gloria and then dashed back to earth and plunged into the freezing hell below. And that beautiful, heartless creature had been careless as a child about it -- not from malice, Marcus was certain, but simply naivete. Dorian had had no idea what he was putting his lovers through when he enchanted them and then discarded them.

Dorian looked much the same now as he had when he'd captured and then broken Marcus' heart. His features were a bit more finely drawn, as one would expect as he grew older -- he must be nearly thirty by now. He still dressed the same; no man could carry off lavender satin and black lace like Dorian. He was as nonchalant as ever... almost. Not quite. That was where the change was.

Marcus would go and speak to him, but later. For now, he was too interested in simply observing him from a distance.

A very striking young man with chestnut hair and nicely muscled shoulders brought Dorian a drink and stood talking to him for a time. Marcus could not hear the conversation, of course, but the young man's intentions were clear enough from the way he stood so close to the Earl, his large hazel eyes fastened on Dorian's face, his expression a winsome one Marcus felt certain few men had ever resisted.

To Marcus' amazement, Dorian resisted it. He said something that must have been a very tactful refusal, because the striking young man only looked a bit rueful, and moved away from the Earl still smiling. Marcus shook his head. Ten years ago, Dorian's rejections had been spectacular. Of course, he would not have been likely to reject a lovely creature like the one he had just turned down, but just the same.... Marcus remembered the time Dorian had exclaimed, quite loudly in the midst of a cocktail party, "Don't be absurd, darling. You have to dress well to make me want to undress you!" The poor unstylish lad had nearly died of humiliation.

And now Dorian had apparently declined an offer in the gentlest possible way, and was standing alone looking downright melancholy. Alone and melancholy when he could have been snuggling that ravishing chestnut-haired creature.

No question, Marcus had to find out what was going on. Though he had a fairly certain guess about it already.

He maneuvered through the clusters of people to the Earl's side. "Dorian."

The Earl turned and his eyes widened. Seeing Marcus' friendly expression, Dorian smiled gaily and embraced him. "Marcus, darling! You don't look a day older than the last time we met. Teal suits you."

"You're as beautiful as ever, Dorian. You must tell me what you've been doing with yourself."

Dorian prattled cheerfully about his steadily growing art collection. Marcus listened respectfully, though he was not a fraction so well-informed about such matters as Dorian. Evidently Dorian had also found some way of reversing his family's waning fortunes, if he was purchasing the kinds of works he was discussing, though he did not mention how. Well, doubtless it would make deadly dull talk. Dorian wouldn't be so gauche as to talk business at a party.

"But what about you, darling? It's been simply ages."

"Ah. Well, I lived in Paris for a few years, for one thing." Marcus filled in the broad outlines of his last decade and Dorian listened as if Marcus' life were the most interesting topic on earth. He always could listen like that, when he wished to; it was part of his considerable charm.

"If Colin were here, I'd introduce you, but he's on a business trip," Marcus remarked.

"Colin?"

"My husband."

Dorian's look became more attentive. "How long have you been together?"

"Oh, almost four years now."

"Congratulations." He sounded quite sincere, but a shadow finally crossed his sunny smile. He held Marcus' eyes for a moment before speaking again, his voice regretful and even hesitant -- Dorian, unsure of himself. Would wonders never cease. "I treated you rather shabbily, didn't I?"

Marcus shrugged, smiling comfortingly. "Water under the bridge, old friend. Though, since you mention it -- yes, rather. And as I recall, I wasn't the only one to fall prey to your deadly charms, darling."

Dorian gave a lopsided smile which Marcus knew had not been in his repertoire a decade earlier. "For what it's worth, Marcus, it seems I'm being punished for my sins now."

So that was it. He'd thought so. Marcus allowed himself a small, sympathetic smile in return. "Who is he?"

The change in Dorian was instantaneous and remarkable. His gaze became distant, his eyes wistful -- Dorian, wistful -- and some subtle change made one aware of the vulnerability of that mouth when it was neither smiling sunnily nor sublimely scornful. "The most beautiful closet case you ever saw," he said, sadly and dreamily.

There had been a time when Marcus would have sold his soul to have the Earl look that way over him. Now he only asked gently, "Are you sure he is a closet case?"

"I hope so!" Dorian exclaimed, and there was a flicker of real worry in his eyes. The poor beauty was losing sleep over this brute, whoever he was. Dorian added, "The way he flies off the handle, every time I tell him how I feel -- he wouldn't do that if he didn't feel the same way, would he?"

"Probably not," Marcus said reassuringly. Who would ever have believed this blithe spirit would need reassuring. Dorian had been Fortune's Child. That sort of luck didn't last forever. The gods demanded payment in blood or tears, sooner or later. "No one could resist you for long, Dorian."

"He has."

Of course. And he, whoever he was, was the only one who had ever mattered. "Good luck, then, Dorian." Marcus was about to offer further reassurance when Jones appeared at the Earl's elbow.

"There's a call for you in the Rolls, milord," he said in a low voice.

Dorian did not even turn his head to look at his employee. "Good heavens, Jones, this is a party. Take a message."

"It's him, milord."

Dorian froze, looking at the floor. Marcus did not have to ask who "him" was. After considering for a moment, the Earl ordered, "Keep him on the phone, then. I'll make him wait for a few minutes."

"He'll be frightfully angry, milord."

Dorian responded with an angelic smile. "Yes, won't he?"

Jones smiled back and went to carry out his instructions. Marcus raised an amused eyebrow. "True love has made you devious, Dorian."

"Stalking a leopard will do that to you," Dorian replied smoothly. His poise was back in place as he took his leave of Marcus and left the party in a most leisurely fashion.

And what a lucky leopard he is, Marcus mused as he finished his drink. I hope he has the sense to let you catch him soon.

 

 

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