~19~

The Earl of Gloria’s birthday celebration was always the event of the summer. But the revelry could wait for a few minutes. It would still be there when the Earl emerged from his study, where Bonham had requested his presence for a few words.

The Earl entered the room breathlessly, carrying a glass of champagne, laughing softly at something a friend had said a moment ago. "What is it, Bonham?" he asked as he closed the door behind them.

Before Bonham could answer, James spoke up, looking up from his calculator. "You have received gifts from every member of your family, every guest at this party, and all the men who have made romantic overtures to you during the last two years, with the exception of that horrible hairdresser from Paris, who you really should forget about," he reported with satisfaction. "The total value of them is—"

The Earl shook his head in bemusement. "James! Have you no soul?"

"It's in one of my safety deposit boxes," James replied promptly, making a note on his clipboard. Dorian looked at him sharply, but was unable, as always, to tell if his accountant had a sense of humor.

"What is that, a list of everyone who sent me anything? Let me see." Dorian took the clipboard and let his eyes skim over the carefully alphabetized list.

"There’s nothing from Uncle NATO, me lord," Bonham said gently.

"Of course there isn’t," Dorian replied, tossing the clipboard back to James. "I didn’t expect there to be." But that didn’t stop him from looking, every year.

"I don’t know what you see in a man who doesn’t even send you presents, my lord," James said accusingly. "Really, you shouldn’t even speak to a man who doesn’t at least send high-quality gemstones or—"

"I think my mother told my sisters something like that once," Dorian remarked. "Bonham, what was it you had to tell me? I do need to get back to my guests…."

"It’s about those ruby earrings you were planning to acquire, me lord."

Eroica was instantly all attention. He had been planning this heist for two months now. He had spotted the gems — two large rubies of the highest quality, with a heart of the deepest crimson — during his last mission for NATO. He had wanted to steal them right then, but had made the mistake of enthusing over them to Klaus, who had said, "I would prefer that you not steal them while you’re working for me."

Working for /him/. If Klaus had said NATO, the words would have had no effect. But phrased that way — how could Dorian refuse? Especially when, for once, Klaus had phrased his wishes not as the most arrogant of orders, but almost as a request.

"What about them?" Dorian asked Bonham now.

"They’ve been sold, me lord."

"What? To whom?"

"That’s the problem, me lord. I did a bit of checking, and the name the bloke gave — John Smith, if you can imagine — is false. I can’t find out who he really is, either."

"You can’t, or you haven’t yet?"

"I can’t. Not a trace. And someone who can cover his tracks like that is not to be interfered with lightly, me lord."

"You think it’s organized crime?"

"Has to be. That or government."

"Blast! I knew I should have grabbed them while I had the chance!" Dorian dropped into a leather-upholstered wing chair to sulk a bit. "Now I’ve lost them."

"There’s other rubies in the world, me lord. You could always—"

A soft knock on the library door interrupted them. At the Earl’s nod, Bonham opened the door to admit Jones, carrying a small brown-wrapped box.

"This was just delivered, milord."

Dorian looked up. "From whom?"

Jones shrugged, smiling. "No card. Maybe some lovelorn chap trying for a bit of intrigue."

"How lovely of him. Let me see it."

The wrapping was plain brown, not the enticing fancy paper one would have expected of a secret admirer. Jones set the box on the desk, and Dorian ambled over to it. "You know," Dorian remarked as he reached into the drawer for a penknife and began to cut away the dull paper, "this /has/ given me a sudden appetite for rubies. The Countess of Roquejardin has a fine collection. Perhaps I should call on her."

"But you want something you can wear, don’t you, me lord? Most of her pieces are a bit distinctive."

"True. Perhaps I should try—" The Earl stopped mid-sentence.

"What is it, milord?"

Eroica just shook his head slightly, staring at the now open box. The others approached hesitantly, one by one joining him in gazing at a pair of glowing, blood-red ruby earrings nested on white velvet.

"Are those the ones?" Bonham asked incredulously after a stunned moment.

"Oh, yes," Dorian answered in a hushed voice.

"Maybe they’re fakes!" James insisted.

"No," Dorian said quietly, touching one of the stones with a fingertip. "This is the real thing."

"Who—" Bonham began, and then broke off.

Dorian meticulously examined the box and wrapping. There was a bill of sale to John Smith, some sort of paper certifying that the earrings were now the property of the Earl of Gloria, and no hint anywhere of its donor’s true identity. "What does this mean, do you suppose?" he asked thoughtfully.

Jones hesitated. "Volovolonte, maybe."

Dorian smiled slightly, shaking his head. "He sent me several gifts. All with his name on them. He wouldn’t do something like this anonymously."

The others looked at each other, but said nothing.

"These have to be from someone who knew I wanted them," Dorian mused with the tiniest of smiles.

Dorian delicately lifted the earrings out of their box and put them on. Flashy scarlet stones. Stones he had planned to steal, but which were now his, legal, free and clear.

What could such an anonymous gift mean? A gesture of some sort? An attempt to keep him honest? A preliminary feeler? An initiation of some sort?

Turning to the nearest mirror to see how they looked, Dorian smiled at his reflection. The next time he had a mission with NATO, he would be certain to wear these. With a flashy red shirt, of course. He was certain he would be expected to.

 

 

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EROICA