The Three Kisses,
or "Love Tank"

by Beth Minster

 

 

Major Klaus von Eberbach hated to need someone—when you needed a person you, of a necessity, became dependent on that person. He hated being dependent. And he hated being dependent on Eroica, Lord Dorian Red Gloria, more than anything else in the world. He drove around and around Castle Red Gloria, arguing with that dependency for over thirty minutes. Finally, he had to admit that there was no one else who could do what he wanted done. He turned up the long, well-kept drive with a terrible feeling of dread. When it came to confrontations with Eroica, he lost as many times as he won and that was far too often for his tastes.

The tree-lined drive was pleasantly shaded. Flowers bloomed in wild ecstasy among bushes and birds flew singing through the angled shafts of sunlight. Spring in England was alternately wet and glorious. It had been clear since morning and every living creature was outdoors playing in the balmy weather. Klaus scowled. Hopefully Eroica would be home. The Earl had occasional bouts of itchy feet and would sometimes take off across the world for no particular reason. Spring often brought on such attacks.

The drive opened up onto a large lawn. In the middle leapt a bronze fountain—a slim, lithe merman in the midst of a joyous leap, spraying water from his fins, his tail and the upraised palms of his hands. It was typically Eroica. Klaus scowled and parked the car.

The high, fantastical turrets of Castle Red Gloria reflected the sunlight and banners flew from the lofty spires. One of them was a pirate flag with an "E" made of bones. Klaus snorted. What a foolish bit of whimsy. He went up to the big double doors and lifted the brass knocker—let it fall. Now he was committed.

* * * * * * *

Dorian, the Earl of Red Gloria, was playing. He had always played, in one sense or the other, since his birth. Age and maturity had simply changed the form. Still, there were moments when the charm of make-believe beckoned. There were days when the weather or his mood or even stress demanded that he play simply as he had when he was young. So he was playing.

He kept such indulgences a secret. Bonham would have laughed, not cruelly, but the laughter would have been there. James would have pouted that he wasn’t invited. And…well, no one would have understood. So he played by himself.

No one else was in the castle. Even James had gone to town to confront his stock brokers. Dorian had given the servants the day off, taken an early lunch and gone out back. He was playing Tank Commander.

He had confiscated one of Klaus’ old uniforms a long time ago, and he gleefully put it on complete with boots and gun belt—the gun was only a water pistol. He topped it off with a pith helmet and strolled out into the sun-washed day.

There, amongst the riotous glory of the castle’s rose garden, sat Klaus von Eberbach’s Leopard tank. The sunlight reflected off of the highly polished steel in sharp angles. It crouched like a primal beast amidst its scented neighbors. Dorian skipped down the veranda steps and nearly ran over to it. He climbed up, opened the hatch, and dropped inside. It was time to play Tank Commander!

The inside of the Leopard had been cleaned and the metal facing had been replaced over the area that had been shot out. Nothing could be done about fixing it and, quite frankly, Dorian didn’t care. He had no intention of letting his prize out of the garden.

"Corporal Eroica reporting for duty, sir!" He gave the invisible commander a sharp salute. "No, sir," he answered the query, "I’ve never been on assignment. But HQ says that the Reds will attack at any moment."

Blam!! Boom!! The Reds attacked, throwing the new corporal unexpectedly into the arms of his new superior.

"Oh! So sorry, sir! Shall I man the guns?"

Dorian, the Earl of Red Gloria, was having a blast.

* * * * * * *

Klaus tested the door and found that it wasn’t locked. He was tempted to leave, since his continued knocking had brought no response, but his mission was too urgent. Perhaps the Earl was in his study or perhaps the studio and couldn’t hear the bell. It seemed that the servants weren’t about, nor any of his usual retinue, so he figured that everyone had been given a day off. But someone was still home or the door would have been locked.

He stepped inside the cathedral-ceilinged hall. Along the walls were framed original pictures, statues, tapestries and even a couple of suits of elaborate armor. The highly polished floor was white marble. He shut the door behind him and strolled inside. "Guten Tag!" he called. "Hallo!"

No one answered. Far down the hall he spied a square of light that signified an opened door. Perhaps the Earl was in his garden. No doubt the spoiled man was eating a late breakfast.

Klaus walked quickly. Well, Eroica would simply have to finish his meal and prepare to work. NATO didn’t have all day to wait for the Earl’s pleasure.

The veranda was empty. Yes, there was a table there, but all traces of a meal had been cleared away. Klaus went to the veranda’s railing and looked out over the extensive gardens.

Right in the midst of the roses sat his tank.

For a second the Major couldn’t believe it. Then he bellowed, "EROICA!" and vaulted over the railing. He approached the Leopard at a run and leapt upon the side. He kept an ear peeled for the sound of Eroica’s arrival. The thief would have a lot of explaining to do. How dare he keep his tank so blatantly captive! How dare he keep it among the roses!

But Eroica didn’t come running. Klaus prowled over the tank’s exterior. It seemed in good shape. Apparently it had been well taken care of. Perhaps the Earl had even had it repaired. He climbed up to the hatch. He would go in and see.

Klaus laid a hand on the lever.

BANG! The hatch leapt up and clanged against the tank’s casing. A blond, curly head crowned by a pith helmet sprang up from the tank’s interior. He had an obvious squirt gun. At first he didn’t see Klaus.

"I’ve got ‘em, Commander!" he called out, laid down a circular fire of water—and squirted Klaus square in the face!

 

 

"Mein Gott!" Klaus sat back hard on his butt, wiping water from his eyes.

Dorian Red Gloria’s mouth dropped wide open. A look of horror passed over his even features. Blue eyes grew large with shock. For a second they stared at each other. Then the Earl blinked. "Bloody hell!" he squeaked—and disappeared back inside, pulling the hatch closed over him.

"EROICA!" the Major bellowed. "Get out of my tank this instant!" He grabbed the handle and pulled, but the thief had locked it. "What are you doing in there? Get out!" He pounded on the hatch to no avail. What on earth was the Earl doing in his tank—with a pith helmet and a squirt gun? And what was his tank doing in the rose garden of all things? It was a tank, a war machine—not an ornament!

"Open up or I’ll… I’ll…" Klaus groped for an appropriate threat.

A faint mechanical buzz indicated that the thief had activated the Leopard’s intercom. The Earl’s voice was frantic. "Go away," he said.

"You open this tank immediately," Klaus barked. "Front and center!"

"Go away."

"Never! Not until you explain this—this—sacrilege!" Klaus pounded on the hatch again. "Come out!"

"Not until you leave!" the Earl answered.

"I will never leave!" Klaus stormed. "I will stay here until you come out or ROT! I will stay here a hundred years if I must!" That brought only silence. "EROICA!"

* * * * * * *

Dorian Red Gloria had never been so mortified in his life. Even safely sequestered in the impenetrable leopard tank, he was so embarrassed that he covered his face with his hands.

How terrible to be caught at it! How horrible to be seen like this—and by Klaus! The situation was unbearable, it went beyond ridiculous into the surreal. Klaus had seen him, had heard him. He’d squirted the Major in the face. Dorian stifled a wail of anguish. How could he ever expect Klaus to take him seriously after this?

"I will never leave!" Klaus promised. "I’ll stay here until you come out or ROT!"

Well. There was simply no choice in the matter. He’d have to rot.

"EROICA!" Even through the thick metal he could hear the Major pounding on the roof.

How could this have happened? Why, why did Klaus have to show up here now? In fact, why was Major von Eberbach here at all?

Dorian dropped his hands from his face and activated the intercom again. He had to find out. Maybe he could get rid of him….

"Major, what are you doing here?"

The German’s answer was immediate. "I’m here to strangle you, idiot!"

"That’s not the best way to get me to open the door," Dorian commented.

For a few minutes Klaus was quiet. Then, with deadly calm as frightening as his shouting, "I am here to hire you. Dummkopf."

Eroica drew a deep breath. So. That made sense. And he could get out of that one easily enough. "I’m terribly busy—I’m sorry, I can’t do it."

That sparked another silence. "Come out of my tank," Klaus said in a low, dangerous voice.

"No."

"Gut. Stay in there." The Major’s voice became suddenly smooth and sweet. "I will simply phone my office and have them send out a helicopter—and I will take my tank home, complete with captive thief."

Dorian groaned. Why did this have to happen?

"Are you coming out?" Klaus asked sweetly.

"Yes," Eroica sighed, defeated. "Yes, I’m coming out."

* * * * * * *

The lever turned and the hatch cracked open, then stopped. Klaus frowned, leaned down and peered underneath the edge. Cornflower blue eyes beneath the grey of the helmet gazed at him soulfully. Sunlight golden curls framed them in warm color.

Eroica blinked. "I hate you,’ he said morosely.

The Major sat upright in surprise. What in the world had come over the Earl?

"No, no, that’s not true," Dorian amended. "I don’t hate you. But I have every right to, you know."

Klaus yanked the hatch the rest of the way open.

Dorian Red Gloria bathed him with a dazzling smile. "Klaus, darling! What a surprise! How are you?"

Major von Eberbach frowned at him. "I do not have time for games, Eroica. Get out of my tank." He stood up and indicated "out" with a jerk of his thumb.

The Earl sighed and hoisted himself out. He was wearing some kind of uniform with highly polished boots and a gun belt too big for him. In the holster rested the squirt gun, now leaking (as all squirt guns do) a trail of water down his outer thigh. Eroica took off his helmet with a flourish and tucked it under his arm. "Jolly good day, isn’t it, Major? Bright sun is good for the skin and all that!"

"Shut up," Klaus answered.

"So, what kind of job do you have for me?" the Earl asked, resting his weight on one long, slim leg. The uniform he was wearing looked somewhat familiar.

Klaus jumped down from the tank and said, "A theft, of course. What were you doing in my tank?"

"A theft?" His lordship flowered another thousand-watt smile. "Imagine that—I’m a thief."

The Major frowned and regarded the Earl thoughtfully. He was acting rather strangely. And why was he wearing that naggingly familiar uniform? Why the gun and the helmet? In the tank… Klaus put it all together with a start of surprise. But what was so surprising about it? He’d known all along that the Earl was nothing but a child!

"You were playing in my tank." The Major uttered the words with the finality of a death sentence.

To his amazement, the thief blushed a deep, rather attractive rose pink. "Well," he answered defiantly, "what is wrong with that?"

Klaus was more taken aback by Eroica’s obvious embarrassment than by the actual fact that he was playing make-believe like a child. He felt an unexpected need to reassure him. The Major fished in his pocket and pulled out his cigarettes. "It is all right," he said. "I understand that many adults never outgrow such things." He lit his cigarette and let out a stream of smoke. "But leave my tank out of it."

For a long moment, Eroica stood regarding him with the wary eyes of a child being told a lie or an empty sentiment. Then he apparently decided that the Major was sincere and his smile came back. "Yes, sir, Mr. Tank Commander." He gave Klaus a salute. "No more tank during play time—Sir!"

"Shut up," Klaus growled. "Do you want a job or not?"

The Earl jumped down from the tank with the ease of an acrobat. "Of course—you know I’ll do anything for you."

The Major ignored that statement and said, "The mission is a tricky one and must be kept very secret."

"Aren’t they all," the Earl mused.

Klaus took a few more puffs on his cigarette, thinking. He didn’t particularly want Eroica to know all of the ins and outs of this one. Most of all he didn’t want him suspecting that von Eberbach was working purely on his own gut instincts. The Chief and other assorted superiors had shot down Klaus’ preferred procedures and insisted that he go about things in a way that would take forever to get results. So the Major was doing it his way on the sly.

"Major?" Dorian queried.

"I want you to infiltrate the palace."

"What palace?"

Klaus smiled. "Buckingham."

The Earl’s eyes went wide. Of the myriad crimes he had committed in his young life, all had been outside of his home country. If he were caught, he’d be subject to every law in the English books. "Oh."

"I will see to it that you are amply rewarded for the risk," Klaus said.

"Will NATO back me?"

"Don’t be ridiculous."

The Earl lapsed into a thoughtful silence. His fingers drummed a rhythm on the pith helmet. Klaus studied him with more confidence than he felt. Where had Eroica gotten that uniform?

"What am I to steal?"

The Major fished in his suit pocket, found the photo and handed it over. "A statue."

"Hmm… Nice, but not excessively artistic."

"No. I suspect it is a bomb."

Dorian flashed him an alarmed look. "When will it go off?"

"We don’t know." Klaus gauged his words carefully. This was the tricky part. "It may not be a bomb at all. It is suspected, but not known. See that little crystal the angel is holding? That may be it."

"May be," the Earl repeated.

"Correct. It was a gift from the Russian government to the Queen to convey that with the current political changes there could be expected better relations with England. The KGB and the military are not very pleased with such sentiments. They may have planted the explosive." The Major watched the thief carefully.

Eroica frowned, taking it all in. Klaus could almost see the wheels turning in his brain. He tried to act nonchalant.

"This is rather curious, Major." Dorian finally spoke. "‘May be’— ‘perhaps’—it is not like NATO to be so vague. Unless," he sent Klaus another brilliant smile, "you’re doing it all on your own."

"Don’t be stupid," Klaus snapped, irritated that he’d caught on so quickly.

"Ah. So you are." Dorian regarded the Major curiously.

"You know nothing," Klaus answered. "You are not paid to know more than I tell you."

"What’s wrong, love?" he asked. "Did they ignore you again?"

"Shut up!"

‘Really, darling," Eroica soothed. "You would think they would have learned by now." He shook a stray, unruly curl back behind his shoulder. The sunlight made his skin glow and his eyes very, very blue. "I trust your hunches far more than their spy contacts—if you have good enough reason to be suspicious, that’s fine with me."

His faith mollified Klaus’ temper. "I do not think I am wrong. That statue has turned up in some very interesting hands at all the wrong times—even Misha’s. It was a personal gift to the Queen herself. I hear she likes it and keeps it in her suite. I fear the old school in Russia intends to create an international incident."

"Oh, it’d be that all right! With the prince’s marriage on the rocks and whispers about him being put aside—and the boys are so young! No, no, England doesn’t need that right now." The Earl shook his head and lapsed into another thoughtful silence.

The Major let him think. If anyone could get into the palace and out again, it was Eroica.

"What if it’s not a bomb?" the thief asked.

"You must take it back—you will take it back even if it is. We will remove the crystal bomb and replace it with quartz. In this manner, the KGB will not suspect that anyone on the outside had anything to do with it. It will then cast suspicion among themselves when it doesn’t go off."

"And NATO will not know that you have acted on your own if it turns out to be a false move," Eroica concluded. He smiled sweetly. "This one will cost you, darling."

Klaus nodded. "Of course—how much?"

* * * * * * *

It was nothing less than a bloody miracle that Dorian Red Gloria was alive. He’d had every expectation of dying of embarrassment. Damn Klaus’ German hide! Naturally he’d added everything up correctly. Naturally he had to bring it up.

Eroica smiled softly at the man across from him. How sweet he was to excuse Dorian so gallantly! How noble to get on with business when he could have made the Earl squirm if he’d wanted! But Major von Eberbach was like that—kind when it was least expected and harsh when he should be kind.

"Of course—how much?" the German asked.

How much? He eyed Klaus thoughtfully. Von Eberbach might be rich, very rich indeed—but he couldn’t possibly afford the price tag that ought to come on such a dangerous mission. For a French thief it might only be another challenge, for an Irish one it might be a pleasure, but Dorian was a Peer of the Realm and the repercussions of getting caught would be devastating. More so than probably even Klaus knew.

There were some things that money just couldn’t buy.

"I don’t know, Major. What you’re asking is very dangerous—with very bad results should something go wrong."

"How much?"

"Darling," Eroica purred. "You aren’t rich enough for this one." He walked slowly around the Major, thinking.

"However, perhaps there is something we could bargain with…."

The Major’s eyes widened. His face turned a few very interesting shades of red, green and blue. His hair nearly lifted off of his head with the force of whatever mysterious emotion had suddenly gripped him. Eroica was so fascinated, watching the building reaction, that he was totally unprepared for the shout when it came: "PERVERT!"

Dorian jumped, startled. "What? What did I do now?"

"How dare you! Never! Don’t even think it! I will NOT!"

For a minute the Earl was at a loss. Had Klaus lost his sanity?

Then he got it.

Von Eberbach had misunderstood Dorian’s intention entirely. His back stiffened in indignation. How could he think that Dorian would be so crass? Why, he’d never strike a bargain using that as barter! He opened his mouth to reassure Klaus—then slowly closed it.

They stared at each other for a long, long moment.

Well—why not? Eroica smiled. He wasn’t getting any place with the love and patience approach, and he was beginning to suspect that Klaus thought the worst of him as a matter of course, so indulging himself wouldn’t cost him a reputation of any sort. Besides, there was a distinct possibility that he’d be turned down.

"Why, Major! What a brilliant man you are!"

Klaus eyed him suspiciously.

Dorian went on, feeling his stomach starting to tremble as his mind raced through myriad options. "Of course, I would never ask you for that—oh, no, when you come to me it must be of your own free will…."

"I will NEVER come to you!" Klaus yelled at him. "Stop talking about it!"

"—However, there are other sweet things in life."

"SHUT UP!"

The Earl stood and gazed at Klaus von Eberbach for a long moment. The bright sun made the Major’s hair glisten like a crow’s wing. The dark grey suit he was wearing set off his green eyes and emphasized his broad shoulders. Eroica sighed. His German love was the most handsome, passionate man he’d ever met. He was complex, full of contradictions and unfathomable motivations. Yet there were times when Dorian understood him so well that he could tell what the Major was thinking. There were moments when the two of them were so of one mind that a look was all it took to communicate a suspicion, a scheme, a solution. He loved this man far more than was reasonable.

What did he want in return for risking his life, his family name, his wealth and place in the world?

Dorian said, "I will do it all—for a kiss."

* * * * * * *

Major Klaus von Eberbach was at a loss for words. Outrage, indignation, shock and disbelief all crowded into his throat and clogged his voice. He stood and glared at Eroica while everything jostled for position. Dorian Red Gloria merely waited, gazing at the Major with his blue eyes all soft and wide and sweet. A slight, inviting smile curled the ends of his expressive mouth.

Outrage won. It emerged full blown and terrible in its force. It nearly blinded Klaus. "How DARE you!" His voice shook the air. "Pervert, queer! I will never kiss you—EVER!" He took a swing at Dorian—but the thief was learning and he ducked. "Do not look at me with those horny eyes!"

"These eyes aren’t horny, darling," Eroica answered. "They’re loving— it’s the whole rest of me that’s horny."

Klaus tried another strike and this time he made contact—the blow didn’t land as squarely as he wished but it did knock the Earl smack on his butt. The pith helmet went rolling.

"Ouch!" Dorian put a hand to his jaw. For a minute tears flooded the sapphire eyes. He swallowed once, twice and the tears faded without being shed. "Your witty repartee is absolutely smashing—literally. What are you going to do next, kick me?" There was sharp disdain underneath the sweet lilt of his voice. Klaus glared at him and refused to feel like a brute.

"I will not kiss you," the Major stated.

The Earl of Red Gloria smiled, leaned back on his elbows and lifted his face to the sunlight. "All right, darling. Find someone else to steal your bomb—if you can. And then, when everything falls apart, you can come back and we will discuss it again." His fingers brushed his chin. "If you can stick to articulate communication, that is…"

"Gut. Fine! I will find someone else!" Klaus stalked toward the veranda steps.

"See yourself out, love!" Eroica called out. "I haven’t a servant about."

Klaus stormed down the hallway, out of the door—and slammed it as hard as he could behind him. With great satisfaction he heard something fall and smash against the marble floor.

* * * * * * *

"Here you go, milord." Bonham plopped down the morning paper along with a tray of fruit, cheeses and featherweight pastries on his lordship’s bed. Dorian knew for a fact that he was being spoiled. Bonham never brought him sweet things for breakfast—in fact, he hardly brought him sweets at all.

"Sugar is not good for you," he often said. "It’s a proven drug that pollutes the body. And you need to stay healthy."

"But why?" Dorian had asked.

"You want to lose your sugar rush in the middle of a heist? I didn’t think so."

The Earl eyed the pastries with anticipation. "My, you’re in a spoiling mood—what happened?"

Bonham crossed the spacious bedroom to open the thin, cotton drapes. Diffused light transformed into sharp beams of warm illumination. "Nothing special. But I thought we ought to celebrate Major Eberbach’s disgrace and future groveling." It had been several days since Klaus’ visit.

"What in the world are you talking about?"

"Check the Post, milord."

Dorian sat up, stretched and then picked up the paper. He chose a piece of fruit and settled back to read.

"Thief Caught In Queen’s Bedroom!"

Dorian almost choked in amazement.

"A thief broke into Buckingham Palace late Tuesday night. After filling a sack with priceless art objects and jewels, he attempted to flee out of the Queen’s bedroom window. Her Majesty woke up and the villain seized the opportunity to talk to the Queen of all the British Isles."

Dorian read on, astonished. The thief had not only talked with the Queen, he’d sat down on her bed and engaged in such a lengthy chat that the security guards had had ample time to discover the break-in, track him to the Royal Suite and apprehend him. Among the objects he’d pilfered was an angel statue that the new Russian government had given Her Majesty.

Eroica howled with glee. "Yes! Yes! HA! That’ll teach him! Turn his nose up at me, will he?"

Bonham grinned, tossed him a salute and started for the door. "I’d best go secure the pictures to the wall—I have a feeling Herr Major won’t be in the best of moods."

"Bonham?"

The stocky man paused and looked back, one hand on the door knob.

"When he comes, tell him I’ll be down in a little while." Eroica stretched luxuriously. "Offer him some tea…or something."

* * * * * * *

Klaus von Eberbach arrived a bit past mid-morning. Dorian watched from the upstairs library window as the German parked his rental car and got out. There he stopped for a few minutes, smoking a cigarette and glaring at the castle door.

"Come on, darling," the Earl coaxed. "You know I’m the only man for you. I am your thief and no one else can replace me. Give up this foolish pride and come to me." He murmured, "Come to me…."

Klaus threw down his cigarette with an impatient gesture of his wrist. He stalked toward the front door, hands fisted in temper and dissatisfaction. He clearly did not like Eroica being the only thief for him.

The Earl raced back into his bedroom, threw open the door to his extensive wardrobe and bit his lip in sudden consternation. What should he wear? Something seductive, without a doubt—but nothing too frilly or blousey. He was a professional after all, and he didn’t want Klaus to forget it. But it had to be sexy, so the German would understand just how completely Eroica had won. Lace—oh yes, lace and something very tight….

* * * * * * *

"Is he coming or NOT?" Klaus bellowed at Eroica’s lieutenant. "I do not have all day."

"He’ll be down, Major," Bonham answered. "You know how he is. It takes him a little while to dress."

"An hour and thirty minutes is not ‘a little while’!" Klaus paced up and down the parlor like a caged wolf. His temper had been pushed to the limit even before he had started the reluctant trip to Castle Red Gloria.

The servants had welcomed him with so much pleasant courtesy that he knew for a fact that Eroica had found out about the fiasco at the palace. Mein Gott! What an idiot the man had turned out to be! Talking to the Queen! Sitting on her bed! He had never considered that an English thief would be so overwhelmed with Her Majesty’s presence that he’d stop and have a chat with his monarch! Fool! Stupid idiot! It was a miracle that the thief had managed to keep quiet about who had hired him.

Klaus’ mission required that he not make another mistake. The only one who had a prayer of getting in now was the Prince of Thieves. Eroica.

Eroica, who wanted a kiss for his trouble. Klaus considered knocking a few things over and breaking them just so the Earl would know how he felt about this. But then he decided that he couldn’t afford to make Dorian angry. What if he refused to do it?

Finally, he heard light, quick steps in the hallway. The door opened and Dorian Red Gloria paused, smiling, framed in the doorway like a picture. He was wearing what only Eroica could consider high fashion. His feet were encased in custom made moccasins of midnight blue leather and cobalt blue suede. From his calves to his shoulders he wore nothing but a cobalt blue body suit that had six-inch lace insets all the way up both sides showing rose-shaped glimpses of taut flanks, smooth thighs and lithe torso. Around his waist was a long midnight-blue scarf. His only other piece of clothing was a fitted blue jean jacket that ended at his waist, accenting the flawless shape of his buttocks and the long, long expanse of legs. Bright, tousled curls the color of new-minted gold spilled down his back, over his shoulders, down his chest. Sapphire earrings glittered from his earlobes. Deep blue lapis lazuli curled about his throat. Blue diamond rings flashed from his painted fingers.

For a second Klaus stood and stared. What could he possibly say? The entrance was too extravagant to ignore, the outfit too seductive to remain silent. But the Major knew instinctively that to shout or threaten would only weaken his position even more. So he stared until Dorian said, "Darling! What a surprise!"

"It is not a surprise," Klaus snapped. "You have anticipated me. You are playing games again."

"Not I." Dorian crossed over to the bar and rummaged about for glasses. "What would you like, Major?" Normally, Klaus didn’t drink around Eroica. It made him very emotional. But this interview would require a certain amount of courage and restraint—a drink might just take the sting out of the situation a little.

"Vodka. Straight."

"Feeling nervous, Major?" Dorian sent Klaus a sparkling smile that rivaled his diamonds.

"Nein," Von Eberbach answered sweetly. "I am trying to stifle a killing impulse."

The Earl’s eyes opened wide. He poured Klaus his drink and passed it over. "It’s not my fault, darling. I told you that it would all come crumbling down if you walked away from me—and it did. So are you the type to punish the seer who foretells disaster?"

The Major gritted his teeth. His hand tightened around the glass. "Do not rub it in."

Eroica poured himself a glass of wine. It was Bull’s Blood, the color striking and passionate against the blue of his lace and the white of his skin. "I won’t. Have you reconsidered my price?"

Klaus tore his eyes from the Earl and stared down into his glass. The vodka seemed as immune to his temper as the thief across the bar from him. At least he could take care of the vodka. He knocked it back in one swallow. "Yes." Then, bitterly, "I have no choice."

"No," Dorian agreed cheerfully. He came out from behind the bar and walked gracefully across the room to the sofa. "But I have one." He turned and sat, sprawling back against the dark leather of the cushions.

"What do you mean?" Intuition made the Major sharp and uneasy. "What are you talking about?"

"Well." Eroica crossed one leg over the over. The lace stretched luxuriously across his skin, making a shadow where his body curved. "When you first came to talk to me, the situation was workable. Risky, yes—very risky. But not beyond reason. Buckingham Palace has excellent security and very able guards, lasers across the pertinent doors and all of that. Nothing I haven’t run into before. But, now…" He shook his head, the bright curls sliding along his shoulders.

"What about now?" Klaus felt his stomach begin to tighten. He sensed another disaster approaching.

"But, now…" Dorian captured and twirled one of his curls around the end of his index finger. "The danger is at least three times as great. The guards will be tripled, the security systems carefully checked every hour on the hour if not more often. Everyone will be up in arms in a desperate attempt to prove that they weren’t the ones who’d let a thief slip by them." He batted long lashes at Klaus. "Really, darling—a single kiss hardly covers it any more."

"What are you saying?" Von Eberbach demanded, though he knew perfectly well what the Earl was leading up to.

"My price has gone up." He slanted Klaus a killing, flirtatious look. "I will still do it—for three kisses."

"WHAT!"

The thief shrugged. "It’s a seller’s market now, isn’t it? Be grateful Major, I could have asked for far more."

Klaus took a firm strangle-hold on his temper. "Three kisses," he repeated.

Dorian raised a finger to indicate further stipulations. "Real kisses. None of those quick pecks-on-the-lips things. Kisses like the kind you see in old movies. And—" He took a slow, appreciative sip of his wine, then cast Klaus a straight, blue-eyed glance. "One in advance."

"NEVER!" Klaus slammed his empty glass down on the bar. The crystal shattered, sharp daggers of glass skidding across the polished wood. "You are—are—"

Dorian looked expectant.

"A MENACE!"

The Earl looked almost satisfied with the insult. It took all of von Eberbach’s control not to grab him and shake him until his head fell off. So, instead of assaulting the outrageous flirt, he left. In two long strides he was at the door. He opened it and slammed it hard behind him.

Three kisses! Idiot! Fool! But Klaus wasn’t sure exactly who he was calling names—himself or Eroica.

* * * * * * *

Dorian Red Gloria sipped his wine and listened to Major von Eberbach’s noisy and furious exit from the castle. Poor Klaus, he really did lose it sometimes. Well at least this once he hadn’t resorted to physical violence.

He stretched his lace-encased legs out in front of him. It had been very gratifying to have Klaus stare at him. Perhaps, when the German came back, he could get him to stare again.

The door to the parlor re-opened. Major Klaus von Eberbach stood in the door way in a fighter’s stance, legs apart, hands clenched. His green eyes nearly flamed with controlled anger.

"One in advance," he said.

Dorian smiled. "Yes—so that you don’t try to gyp me out of anything."

The black eyebrows furrowed. "I do not cheat."

"No. But you have lied before and I want an honest payment out of you." The Earl stood up slowly, shaking his golden curls back. "I would be devastated if I got nothing for my trouble."

Klaus’ jaw tightened. He stood and glared and thought about it. Dorian could almost see the wheels turning in his brain behind the perfect shape of his forehead. A long moment passed. The Earl tried not to fidget, tried not to show any of his sudden nervousness.

"All right," Klaus snapped. "I will pay it. Pervert."

Dorian’s heart leapt and started to pound. His Major had agreed. Klaus had said ‘yes!’ He was going to kiss Klaus! Exaltation filled his throat and rose up into his head filling him with light and a fierce, potent joy. He kept his lips pressed together to keep from breaking into a full-voiced song of deliverance.

Klaus was going to kiss him!

Three times!

Von Eberbach came into the room, turned and slammed the door shut with unnecessary force. The pictures on the wall rattled. He stalked over to Dorian with all the grace of a wolf on the hunt. He looked very determined and more than a little dangerous. Eroica’s heart shuddered— he couldn’t resist a dangerous man.

Von Eberbach grabbed the Earl’s arm and yanked him against him. The Major’s body was taut and hard with tension and rage. Dorian realized with a start that Klaus intended to kiss him right now.

"But darling…" he started to protest. This wasn’t at all what he had in mind! He wanted there to be candlelight and stars and rose-scented breezes.

"Do you want it or not?" Klaus growled.

"Well, yes, of course, but…"

"Then shut up," the German ordered.

Dorian closed his mouth.

"Close your eyes," Klaus snapped. "I don’t want you looking at me the whole time."

"I wouldn’t stare."

"Close them."

Dorian closed his eyes. Deprived of sight, his hyper-aware senses flooded him with scent. Klaus smelled wonderfully of quality cigarettes, musk cologne and a drugging, deeper fragrance that had to be his natural skin-scent. The Earl’s head swam.

He felt Klaus’ hand dig into his hair, holding him steady by a fist full of curls. If he had tried to struggle it would have hurt. But Dorian wasn’t about to make a move.

Warm breath brushed his face. Skin-heat warmed his lips. He told himself furiously not to open his eyes, not to say anything or do anything that might change this happening. The Earl of Red Gloria stayed absolutely, perfectly still.

 

 

"No tongue," Klaus stated. His breath fanned Dorian’s lips.

The unfairness struck Eroica like a slap. No tongue? That was absurd! How could he be properly kissed with a set of closed lips? Outrage opened both his eyes and his mouth, protestations filled his throat.

That was when Klaus kissed him.

The German’s mouth was a lot hotter than Dorian would have imagined. Perhaps rage had heated him. Perhaps the Major was naturally hot blooded. Who really cared? That heat overwhelmed Dorian, flooding him with a growing pliancy, called up from the depths of his soul and body a complete and absolute surrender. He felt his weight slowly melt into Klaus’ rigid stance. He pressed his mouth against the Major’s, molded his body to the German’s tall form. He was aware of everything from the silken caress of Klaus’ hair to the iron strength of his hands to the defiant, exhilarating hardness of his body.

Klaus couldn’t hold his breath forever. He released it and it fanned against Dorian’s face and gusted into his mouth. The thief took that breath deep inside himself and sighed it back with a lover’s murmur of appreciation. He accepted the answering breath and gave it back again. And again.

Goddess! Who would have thought that Klaus von Eberbach could kiss like this? Even without tongues, it was the best kissing the Earl had ever received! Aphrodite be praised—he had breached the battlements and stormed the castle doors!

* * * * * * *

Major Klaus Von Eberbach had thought that by outlawing tongues, he could get away with something resembling decorum. He had kissed a couple of people in his life and both times it had been unsettling and rather messy. Mouths were slimy places and such places inevitably made for slimy kissing. He had hoped that without tongues, this payment the Earl demanded would not cost him too much dignity.

He was wrong on both counts.

To begin with, tongues apparently made little or no difference. To end with, the Earl’s mouth wasn’t the slightest bit slimy. Klaus’ dignity didn’t have a chance.

Dorian Red Gloria pressed against the Major with all the trust of a child. But his warm mouth wasn’t at all childlike. His lips claimed Klaus’ and dragged him down into a world of soft skin, sculpted, svelte muscles and languorous arms that twined around him and cradled him. The heat of Eroica’s body permeated and disarmed the clothing on Von Eberbach’s body. It eased into his skin and ravished his defenses.

When Klaus finally realized that he had to breathe, Dorian’s mouth took in his exhalation and fed it back to him, tainted with seductive warmth and his own life’s breath. The Major couldn’t breathe very well after that, and whenever he tried to get air into his lungs—he got Eroica’s as well. It made his head swim and it stole his anger and his armoring. Mein Gott! He had to stop this!

But he didn’t.

After too long a time the alarms finally went off inside his head. Was he mad? He had to stop this! His senses fought him, but he refused to be distracted again. It was time to end this.

Klaus tore his lips from Dorian Red Gloria’s.

The thief smiled at him. His eyes were enormous, wide and soft. They were precisely the color of the sapphires that nestled in his sunlight curls. His gaze held all the adoration of Heaven. For a second Klaus was nonplussed. Had he done it right? Had he actually given a kiss that the receiver had liked?

Eroica smiled, his eyes full of approval and love.

"That’s one," he said.

* * * * * * *

It took Eroica, the Prince of Thieves, over two hours to find a weak spot in Buckingham Palace’s security system. By then he was impatient and temperamental. To his relief, the little air grid in the roof of one of the unused nursery rooms came off without too much of a struggle. He’d disarmed the laser alarms for this portion of the wing earlier. He figured that no one would imagine that a second thief would bother breaking into one of the most deserted parts of the palace. Of course, the guards wouldn’t dream that someone who knew the grounds as well as Dorian Red Gloria would come in the night a-thievin’. He smiled. It was a small price to pay for the privilege of kissing his beautiful Major again!

He dropped down into the dark room. Eroica had very good night sight. He could make out a doll house castle, a toy box, a shelf full of dolls in gay dresses from nearly every culture in the world. After a moment he realized that he’d stumbled into a room made up for a princess— perhaps Margaret’s old playroom. Perhaps one intended for a royal princess that had yet to be conceived—and from the looks of it, one who never would.

He padded silently past the silent, watching dolls and out into the corridor beyond. It was quite a walk from here to the Queen’s suite. He stayed close to the wall and kept a sharp ear peeled for any sounds of patrolling guards.

Twice during the long night, he had to hide; once in an old dumb waiter and once beneath a rather small table that had a long table cloth. Both times he escaped notice. The close calls alarmed him. Normally he could pull off an assignment like this without any encounters at all. He went very cautiously afterwards, playing Not-Here with the security cameras and Hide-and-Seek with the patrols.

Finally, he reached the corridor where the Queen had her extensive suite of rooms. He found a likely-looking hiding spot behind an overgrown potted palm. He pulled out his secret weapon.

The Laser Diffuser was one of Bonham’s best inventions. It was a simple thing really—one simply pointed it at the camera or sensor one wished to confuse, depressed the button, and Ta-Da! It went all snowy for about one minute. A minute would be all Eroica needed to "pick" the electronic/laser combination lock that opened the door into the Queen’s section of the wing. He had to do it in record time, say, half of a minute, in order to have enough time to get in and beyond camera range. There were no visual security measures beyond the turn in the hallway. A queen required privacy.

Hopefully the timer he’d affixed to the power lines would operate properly. He checked his time piece. Five minutes.

Dorian passed the time relaxing. He slipped into a meditative stance and steadied his breathing. Meditation was one of his secrets. Like a good martial artist, a thief had to be relaxed, clear-minded and clear-sighted, so he had taken pains to learn a few tricks of the oriental arts. Meditation had become indispensable.

He felt his muscles relax and loosen. He saw in his mind’s eye the lock and the hall beyond it. Like a movie he saw every move he needed to make in order to succeed. He opened his eyes and glanced at his watch. Thirty seconds.

He aimed the Diffuser. Right at the last second he pressed the button.

Trusting to Fate, Eroica slipped quickly over to the lock and went to work. He popped the casing, fiddled with the wires, twisted just the right circuit board—then slapped the casing back on and pushed. The door swung open.

Eroica skipped in, shut it behind him and shot like a comet down the hall to the corner, then around it to safety.

He checked his time. Fifty-five seconds.

Eroica grinned. Put that in your gun and shoot it, Mr. Tank Commander. He stashed the Diffuser in his boot-pocket and headed towards the Queen’s sitting room. From here on out it would be a piece of cake.

* * * * * * *

Eroica couldn’t find the statue. At first he was convinced that it had merely been misplaced—but subsequent searchings revealed that the Russian angel simply wasn’t there. It wasn’t in the sitting room, the library, the study or the breakfast room. He methodically checked every possible place. He still couldn’t find it.

He stood in the middle of the sitting room and despaired. Tears threatened—what if he never found it? What if he never got the pleasure of Klaus’ mouth again? What if the Queen of England was killed? No, don’t panic. There was no time for it. What would Klaus do in a situation like this?

The Major would take a few minutes and think about it.

Eroica thought, taking it one logical step at a time. It had to be here somewhere. The Queen was too fond of it to put it in any of the public rooms. Not the sitting room, not the study… His eyes fell on the door to her bedroom. There? Surely not.

A feeling crept up the back of his neck. It laid calm, assured fingers around his neck. It made the hairs stand up all along his arms. He had had this feeling before. It was the touch of Fate. He didn’t question it.

The statue was in the Queen’s bedroom.

He approached the door carefully. There was no lock, of course, and no security measures. The Queen was no less likely to forget the alarm and accidentally trip it than any other human. He turned the brass handle and opened the door. It was dark inside. He slipped in and shut the door behind him.

The spacious bedroom was far less formal than the other rooms. The antique bed was one that Elizabeth the Great had used and the furniture was an intriguing assortment of styles and age. There was a small lump underneath the silken coverlet.

He started at the left of the door and moved in a clockwise manner. Clockwise was the flow of the universe and moving with it would psychically protect him. Klaus would have laughed at him. Major von Eberbach! What a delicious man he was to kiss!

Eroica tore his mind away from the memory. He couldn’t allow himself to become distracted now. The Queen’s tables and shelves were in good order with only the occasional clutter that marked all personal rooms. If he’d had time, he would have enjoyed investigating all the different things. Volumes could be learned from the astute observation of clutter items.

The statue wasn’t on any of the shelves, nor the tables by the big, picture windows. He kept looking. When he’d searched half of the big room, he caught a glimpse of reflected light like moonlight off water. He followed the glimmer and traced it to the bedside table. There, amongst assorted hair brushes and books, was the angel. The figure touched down on his brass stand with bare feet. Around his legs flowed a gown. In one hand he carried a sword, in the other a crystal—the bomb.

He wondered nervously if the thing was near its activation time. Klaus had had no idea. If it had been anyone less important than the Queen, he might never have sent Eroica for it at all. But the results would be too devastating if it detonated in Her Majesty’s presence.

Dorian caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked and met the straight, wide gaze of the Queen of England. For a long moment they just looked at each other. Then her hand slipped under the pillow.

He started, understanding that she might have a gun there. There might even be a security button she was pushing. He had to stop her before anyone came, before this whole thing went up in smoke.

There was only one thing to do.

Dorian reached up and pulled off the drawstring hood that was attached to the body suit His hair spilled out and all over his shoulders. He shook it free and smiled at the Queen.

For a second, she didn’t move. Then recognition registered in her eyes. "Lord Gloria?" she asked.

He nodded, put his finger to his lips and said, "Shhh!"

She sat up straighter. "What in heaven’s name are you doing in here?"

He smiled, stepped lightly to the table and picked up the statue. "I’ll bring it right back," he whispered.

"What do you want with it?"

"There might be a plant on it—a bomb, but we’re not sure."

Her eyebrows lifted. "Oh, really?" She didn’t sound convinced. "A bomb. What do you have to do with such things? And who is ‘we’?"

He contemplated not answering. But she was an experienced woman who was used to dealing with reality. "NATO," he said. "No, the Russian government is not untrustworthy—but there are others who might wish to see our relations with them go to hell. Trust me, Your Majesty. I shall be back in a jiffy."

She watched him go with her arms wrapped around her knees. When he was at the door she said, "So, it is true."

Dorian paused. "What is true?"

"You are Eroica."

He caught his breath. Held it. She waited, her manner impassive. Well, he should have known that Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have figured it out. "Yes. I am."

She nodded slowly. "Good. I may have need of you someday."

"It would be an honor to be of service, Your Majesty. But I must go now." He gave her a deep bow and slipped out of the room into the hall. His heart quieted. When he reached the turn in the hallway, he aimed the Diffuser and pressed the button.

This time he made it in fifty seconds.

The trip out was almost worse than the one in—he managed to hit guard change. More than once he had to wait out lengthy shift changes and chit-chats before he could go about his business. By four a.m., he was out of the palace. Thirty minutes later he was over the wall.

* * * * * * *

Major Von Eberbach paced and checked his watch for the one-hundredth time. Eroica was late. Had he been apprehended? This waiting felt too much like the last time he had stood outside of the palace. Was the trickster in trouble? He stood and glared at the high, lofty walls, hands clenched. What if he were caught?

He paced. If Eroica was caught, then he had to think of some way to get him out. He didn’t think the Earl would talk—he never had before—but there was no predicting what the ramifications of capture might be. Now the true possibilities of his failure became crystal clear. Dorian would lose his title, his land, his friends. Everything.

Verdammt! Klaus scowled. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? If the thief were caught it would be von Eberbach’s fault and no one else’s. He should have found some other way of doing this. Eroica might be exasperating, infuriating and annoying, but he didn’t deserve to lose all his earthly power and possessions.

The kiss he’d given the thief floated up to the surface of his mind. That had taken the Major by surprise. It hadn’t been as terrible as he’d thought it would be. Not that he let Dorian know that. If you gave the thief an inch, he’d cheerfully take over your life.

Where was he?

A form dropped out of a nearby tree. A stray bit of moonlight touched and was captured in a tangle of blond curls.

‘Worried, darling?’ Eroica murmured.

Klaus took two steps, grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him once, very hard. "Where have you been? This is no time for games!"

The thief’s eyes blinked up at him. "I’m not playing, Major. See?" He held up the knapsack—the tip of one wing peeked out of the top.

"Was there any trouble?" he snapped.

"Nothing I couldn’t handle. Though I’m flattered you’re concerned."

The look he gave Klaus was guileless. Was the thief sincere? The Major stared into blue eyes, trying to decide if Eroica was teasing him. He didn’t look like it.

Klaus took the knapsack and strode quickly towards his parked car. "Wait here," he said over his shoulder. "I will be back in less than an hour."

"But, darling—"

"Wait." Von Eberbach slid into the driver’s seat, shut the door and turned on the ignition. "If I am more than fifteen minutes late, then something has happened. Contact NATO immediately."

Eroica’s face went a shade paler. "Klaus…." But Klaus had already given the car gas.

The Major wasted no time getting out of the area. Now he had to convince the bomb crew to take a look. If all else failed, he would simply throw the verdammt statue into the Channel!

* * * * * * *

There were times when von Eberbach hated authority with an emotion intense enough to singe metal. He used that hate like a weapon and cut his way through Scotland Yard. He slashed past the lower-level officers meant to deter any but the most determined. He cut through the middle-level of detectives and first-level specialists. He made it through to England’s best bomb crew in a record-making thirty minutes. No one was happy about him being there—but that didn’t matter.

"This crystal," he stated, "is possibly a bomb. Check it and see."

"But, Major, NATO did not contact us about—"

"I am NATO. I am here in your office. Check it." Klaus nailed the man with a glare that would have melted the bricks of the building.

The smaller man swallowed, stood up and went into the other room. Klaus gave him a minute, then followed.

The back office was bigger than the front one and filled with as many gadgets and wires as books. "I know, sir," the Englishman was saying into a phone, his back toward the Major. "But he seems legitimate and I can’t get rid of him. I think it may be serious…."

Klaus reached over and took the phone from him. "Hallo. This is Major Klaus von Eberbach. I need your best bomb specialist. Now."

He listened with half an ear to the answer. "Too bad," he commented. "I will expect them both in fifteen minutes." He hung up the phone.

The Englishman glared at him. Klaus smiled, dug in his pocket and pulled out his cigarettes. "Have one—there will be a small wait."

"You think you’re bloody hot shit, don’t you?" the man blustered.

Von Eberbach tilted his head, lit his cigarette. "But, of course."

* * * * * * *

It was a bomb. There was no determining the set-time. But it was active and ticking, so to speak.

Once the bomb crew had pried it out and taken it away, racing about like the proverbial hornet’s nest, Klaus reclaimed the statue. He allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction. Now NATO could turn its energies to something else. Personally, he hoped it would be his own country with its growing trouble with Neo-Nazis. With a little sanctioning from NATO, Klaus knew he could remedy a good deal of the problem.

"Sorry to have given you the run about, old chap." A detective by the name of Smyth gave Klaus a hearty slap on the shoulder. "Regulations and all that. You understand."

The Major looked at the hand on his shoulder. The detective dropped it. "I am going," Klaus said.

"Need a lift?"

"No." The Major walked out, angel tucked into the big pocket of his overcoat. Now all Eroica needed was to return it. He hadn’t told Scotland Yard where the statue was from, nor how he’d acquired it. The less known about NATO’s association with Eroica, the better off they were.

* * * * * * *

Dorian stepped out of the shadows when Klaus’ car rolled to a stop. His ability to hide in pitch blackness with such a wealth of bright curls never ceased to amaze von Eberbach.

The Major tossed him the angel. "It was a bomb."

The thief smiled. "Of course it was—you’re never wrong, darling."

"Take it back in."

The Earl saluted. "Yes, sir, Mr. Tank Commander!" He gave von Eberbach a wink, back-flipped into the shadows—and was gone.

"Idiot," Klaus muttered and began his nervous pacing again. Vindicated or not, Eroica’s capture would still spell disaster. He lit another cigarette and checked the time.

He tried not to think that if the Earl did get out safely, his own trials would only just begin. There were still two kisses to pay up.

* * * * * * *

Success was sweet. And it kept on getting sweeter the longer it lasted. It had been very nice to get the statue back into the waiting Queen’s bedroom. It had been even nicer to escape back to his Major. It had been even nicer still to arrange for the next day’s meeting.

"I will see you tomorrow," Dorian had said as the Major dropped him off at Castle Red Gloria.

"Why?"

He had leaned into the car window, letting his hair spill over von Eberbach’s arm. "Payment time, darling."

Klaus had glared at him.

"You agreed to it," the Earl reminded him.

"Ja," Klaus snapped. "All right. Tomorrow."

"Six in the evening?"

The German lit a cigarette. "Six. I hate you."

"Yes, I know." He blew Klaus a kiss, ran up the stairs and inside the door. He heard the car tires squeal as a temperamental von Eberbach accelerated.

His poor darling! What a bad loser he was. Normally, Dorian might have felt guilty—but memories of that first kiss effectively killed any remorse.

* * * * * * *

The next day the Earl suffered a terrible attack of nerves. It took him fifteen minutes to decide on what fragrance to put in his bath water. It took literally hours to dress. His stomach fluttered and took wing with every step he heard in the hall, every sound that might be a car coming up the drive. Bonham threatened to slip him a tranquilizer if he didn’t calm down. James left in tears when he heard that Dorian had managed to get a few kisses out of the Major.

"Not that man!" he wailed. "No, milord, how could you! I’ve waited so long and now—THIS!"

"Oh, stow it, Mr. James," Dorian sighed, unable to deal with both his trauma and James’ too. "I’ve loved him for years and I’ve kept it no secret."

"No! Please say it really isn’t love! It’s just a phase, it has to be," James snuffled into a patched handkerchief.

"It’s not. I’m going to kiss my Klaus and enjoy every single second. If you can’t handle that—then take a day off." The Earl fled the room, leaving poor Bonham to deal with the hysterical accountant.

At one minute to six, Dorian heard the sound of a car parking outside. He ran to the library window and looked out. It was Major Klaus von Eberbach. The tall German was wearing a dark, pinstriped suit with fitted shoulders and slim-cut slacks. His hair reflected the light like satin. He wasted no time. There was no hesitation in his movements as he locked the car and walked toward the front door. Klaus walked well— part saunter and part predatory prowl. His shoulders looked delectable, his legs incomparably long, his grace unparalleled.

Dorian caught his breath. He was going to kiss this man tonight! The thought brought more excitement and more anticipation than he’d ever felt in his life. The Earl laughed at himself as he left the library— there was no feeling in the world like being a fool in love!

He checked his reflection in one of the hall mirrors. He hoped his clothes weren’t overly seductive. He wore a poet’s shirt of the finest, sheerest white cotton. The lace ruffles at each wrist were three inches long, and one around the neck was double rowed and tied so loosely that his chest glowed golden through the rose pattern. His stretch leggings were gold-on-gold rose print and his ankle boots were lace-cut leather. Moonstones glimmered at his wrist and milky beads dripped from his ears. He wore no necklace at all, choosing to display his skin instead. Part of his hair had been pulled up in a frothy ponytail and held by a scrap of white lace—it gave him the effect of having an even greater mane of curls. The whole effect was romantic and sexy. He hoped desperately that Klaus would stare again.

Bonham came up the stairs. Stopped when he saw Dorian. "Wow. Are you sure you’re legal?"

Dorian smiled. "We’ll find out."

"He’s in the parlor."

The Earl took a deep breath. "Well. Send him out back. I’ll be waiting."

Bonham nodded and went back down the stairs. Dorian dashed to the back stairwell and emerged a few minutes later on the veranda. He looked everything over carefully.

The champagne was ice-cold. The lace table cloth spotless. The white and gold china was set off perfectly by the black crystal goblets. The setting sun dyed everything rose and gold. Heady scents of roses, camellias and lilies floated up from the garden. The Leopard tank gleamed dully in the half-light. Soft, romantic music floated wistfully on the clear air.

Dorian moved quickly to the railing and stood looking out over the gardens. He relaxed so that it would look like he had been here for a while, watching the sun go down, striking a casual pose. His ears picked up the sound of steps just prior to the door opening.

He turned smiling.

Klaus scowled at him. "What is this?" he demanded.

"Dinner."

"I can see that." The German moved to the table. "This was not in our arrangement."

"No. But my cook is very skilled and I saw no reason to eat alone. Have some wine?" Dorian popped the cork and poured them both a glass.

Major Von Eberbach accepted his, then put it down on the table. He reached over and sat Dorian’s down as well. Then he reached for the thief with that determined look in his eyes.

Dorian stepped quickly out of range. "Oh, no, you don’t. This is my payoff—I get it the way I want it."

Von Eberbach’s brow gathered thunder. "I do not have time to waste."

"Yes, you do," the Earl contradicted. "You can’t leave until you pay up. So you have to stay until it’s done. We do it when I want to—which means you have all night." He sighed in frustration. "Do you have to be so difficult? Just relax, for Goddess’ sake! You haven’t eaten, have you?"

Klaus said, "Nein. I do not have to play this game, Eroica."

Dorian’s patience evaporated. "Oh, shut up and deal with it!"

To the Earl’s surprise, Klaus seemed capable of doing just that. The Major frowned, but he picked his wine up and took a sip. Dorian rescued his own goblet and drifted back to the railing. After a moment, the Major joined him. But, unlike Dorian, the German’s attention was on his war machine, not the garden.

"Have you repaired it?" von Eberbach asked.

"No. Why, were you planning to shoot me with it?"

"Nein. After I get it back to Bonn, I will repair it then."

Dorian laughed. "Really, Major, do you think I’m just going to let you move a crew in and take away my playtoy?"

Von Eberbach’s scowl intensified. "It is not a playtoy. It is a war machine."

The thief cast a doubtful look over the rim of his wine goblet. "Is it? I don’t think men ever outgrow toys—look at how many different kinds of bombs and guns there are. I ask you, how many kinds of death does a person need to kill people? They are all playtoys."

Klaus looked thoughtful. The sinking sun cast an amber glow over his features and black hair. "It is not like that. Different guns do different things—some are for protection only, some for long range, some are meant for killing a great many people at once."

"I see," Dorian said. "So it depends on whether you want to kill someone a little bit or a whole lot."

The German’s brow furrowed. "Nein, you do not understand."

‘Oh, I understand perfectly. With a little gun, the victim dies a long time. With a big one, the victim is smeared across the landscape." He shuddered. "You can have your functioning tanks, darling. I’ll keep the one that isn’t working."

The German was silent for a minute. A poignant melody drifted by on the garden breeze. "They are necessary, Eroica. Not everyone has your incredible luck at avoiding injury. In some places, not to own a weapon is to accept pain and suffering for a lifetime." His eyes were very serious.

Dorian stared into his wine. "I know, Klaus. I know." He shook his head, fighting sudden tears. "This world is so terribly messed up! When does it stop, I wonder? When the bullies have guns to kill with and the victims have guns to defend with—where does the killing end?" He cast the Major a questioning look to let him know the query was more than rhetorical.

Von Eberbach stared at the Earl a long time, thinking. Finally he sighed. "I do not know." He uttered the answer with all the weariness of an exhausted man. "I don’t know."

Dorian smiled at him. "Sorry—didn’t mean to get so depressing."

"The world is a depressing place."

The Earl shook his head. "No, it’s not. Well, not all of it. Look at this garden. Isn’t it lovely?"

"It is a garden." Von Eberbach scowled at the dusk-drenched roses as if they were being frivolous on purpose. "Some people have time for such things."

"You have time tonight," Dorian reminded him. He laughed. "You can even place all the blame on me."

The door opened and Bonham brought out a big tray of covered serving dishes. "Here you go, milord! There’s an extra bottle of champagne on ice. I’ll be off, if that’s all."

"Wonderful. Thank you, my friend," the Earl said.

Bonham gave him a wink. "See you tomorrow. Good night, Major." He left, whistling a bar or two of the Eroica symphony.

"That accountant of yours isn’t around, is he?" Klaus asked.

Dorian laughed again. "Not on your life—I told him I fancied a bit of Scotland and sent him off to buy a patch of Highlands. So—we’re all alone," he batted his eyes at the German.

Major Eberbach scowled. "Do not start that. This is a business arrangement."

"Quite true." The Earl crossed over to the table. "Let’s see what’s for dinner." He lifted a silver dish cover. "Yum! Grilled shrimp—have some?" He turned the whole force of his best, most charming smile on Klaus.

The Major gave him an I-know-what-you’re-doing look, but he sat down at the table and unfolded the white damask napkin. "Yes. I would like some."

* * * * * * *

The dinner was quite good. The grilled shrimp had been delicately seasoned to perfection. The crisp salad was flavorful and topped with paper-thin slices of almond and mandarin oranges. The fish with white sauce was almost melted with tender flavor. Major Klaus Von Eberbach was hungry and he spent most of dinner satisfying an unexpected appetite.

Sometime during the second glass of wine, he remembered the Earl (who’d been rather quiet) and glanced up to see what the thief was up to. He interrupted a dreamy, dewy look that changed the Earl’s eyes from sky-blue to deep sapphire. The white shirt made him look like a painting—a portrait of some long-forgotten poet of Florence who’d charmed the court and inspired Michelangelo.

The look, Klaus realized after a moment, was directed at him. He scowled, uncertain how to react. He’d never received such a look in his life and wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. Von Eberbach was not good at subtleties. He did not always catch hidden meanings—or veiled nuances. He had given up trying to be astute regarding these matters a very long time ago. So he tolerated Eroica’s gaze for a few more seconds, then snapped, "What?"

The thief blinked. "I’m sorry. Was I staring? I can’t help it. You’re very handsome, Mr. Tank Commander."

"Stow it," Klaus said borrowing one of the Earl’s own phrases.

Dorian grinned and rummaged about in the serving dishes again. "I’m sure Bonham has dessert in one of these. Ah!" He held up a plate of thin-sliced cheesecake. "It looks like strawberry, lemon or chocolate. Which one would you like, my battle axe?"

Klaus answered, "Lemon. And I am not your battle axe."

"Really?" Eroica’s eyes sparkled. "What would you rather be? My loaded gun? Or is that too specific? How about my Celtic love demon?"

"Shut up."

But the thief wasn’t finished. "You could be my sweet Baby Cakes, but I don’t think you could keep it up for long. You’re much too caustic for that." He leaned towards Klaus. The white lace gaped dangerously low, threatening to expose Dorian to the waist. "I could call you my Wild Thing, but that’s much too personal to use in public."

"SHUT UP!" Klaus stabbed his fork into the unsuspecting cheesecake and glared at the Earl. "You talk too much."

"Yes," he agreed, "I’m afraid I usually do. I’m so glad to have you around to keep me in line—my Wild Thing." He squawked in alarm and fled the table as Klaus started to get to his feet.

"Don’t kill me yet, love," Dorian said, laughing. "Dessert is a terrible thing to mar with a murder."

Klaus sat back down. "Idiot!" He applied himself to the cheesecake. Like everything else, it was superb. Most of the time, Klaus had little time for food except as an energy source. But when a good meal did come his way, he found that he appreciated it a great deal. It only took a couple of times of being lost in a foreign country or captured by rival forces before one acquired a fondness for fine cuisine.

Across from Klaus, Dorian had regained his seat. He proceeded to lasciviously devour his chocolate dessert. Von Eberbach tried to ignore the way his lips sealed over his fork and compressed, sliding the cheesecake off into his mouth. Klaus had kissed that mouth. The memory was unsettling.

After a bit, Eroica left the table and drifted down into the garden. Major Eberbach finished dessert, poured himself another glass of champagne. It had been a long time since he had had a leisurely night. He listened to music for a while, then followed Dorian down into the garden.

The thief was standing and swaying with the rhythm of the music, head tilted back as he gazed at the stars. The moon rode high in the sky, the thinnest of elegant crescents. The line of Eroica’s throat was as smooth and softly curved as a rose petal.

"I’ve lost Andromeda," he said.

Klaus looked up. "She is there, just by Cassiopeia. The two stars right by each other point to Andromeda."

"Oh!" He sounded delighted. "You’re so right!" He turned to Klaus. "Did your father have you memorize all the constellations? Mine tried but I only remember some of them."

"Nein. My father is not interested in such things."

"No?" Dorian looked intrigued. "What is he interested in?"

Von Eberbach scowled. "Obedience."

Dorian stared for a second. "Was he hard?"

"I was a child," Klaus said. "He was an adult. Children must learn to obey until they are old enough to take care of themselves."

"But children have to be loved, too." Dorian’s voice was soft.

"Do they?" Klaus shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable with the subject.

"Major?" the Earl said, voice still soft.

"What?"

"Kiss me."

The Major’s heart leapt and started pounding. He drew a careful breath. The wine he’d drunk made his head suddenly swim.

Eroica waited. The moonlight made his hair glow. Klaus reached for him and Dorian went easily into his arms. That surprised von Eberbach. He had expected this kiss to go like the last one. But Eroica showed no signs of standing still and waiting for Klaus’ compliance; he nestled against the German like an affectionate kitten.

"Stop that," Klaus ordered.

"It’s my pay-off. I don’t have to stop it." Dorian smiled at him. "What’s wrong—is my breath rank?"

"You get a kiss, nothing more," the Major stated.

"So shut up and kiss me." Dorian closed his eyes and lifted his face expectantly.

Klaus lowered his head. Right before they made contact Eroica said, "I want tongues."

Klaus gathered his breath to argue, but the thief beat him to the punch and pressed his lips against the Major’s. Von Eberbach’s protests faltered and died.

He had thought that the second time would be easier. Klaus had prepared himself mentally to make sure that he didn’t lose his composure or his command of the situation. But all his preparations were buried under an avalanche of sensation. Dorian’s mouth was warm and compliant. His lips moved sweetly against the Major’s. To Klaus’ relief, the thief apparently wasn’t going to dive tongue-first into his throat and, after a second, he forgot all about the subject.

Eroica’s hair was soft and voluminous against his neck and throat. The arms that slid up around him were loving. The legs that pressed against his own were slim and shapely. Von Eberbach put one hand on the Earl’s slim waist and the other found its way into the warmth of golden hair. Eroica’s weight was a pleasant pressure against his body. He drew air into his lungs and sighed it into Dorian’s mouth. The thief murmured in pleasure and the sound hummed against Klaus’ lips. He tightened his hand, pulling Eroica deeper into his kiss.

The warmth of Dorian’s mouth reached out and caressed the soft interior of Klaus’ lower lip. The touch raced through the Major’s veins and delivered a shocking blow to his middle. He froze completely, while the caressing flesh finished its leisurely seduction of his lip, then slid lazily to the upper one. It was more intimate and less invading than he would have supposed. There was also little wonder about what a tongue was meant to do to the recipient—arouse him!

The tongue reached and touched Klaus’ own. It make him start. It coaxed at him, teased him with little licks. After a moment, he thrust back. The shocking effect of that hit him somewhere lower than his middle. He paused, then decided that two could play at this game. He reached out and claimed the thief’s mouth with his tongue.

* * * * * * *

Dorian Red Gloria was nowhere on earth. He was in heaven. He knew it was heaven because Major Klaus von Eberbach was kissing him. He knew it was heaven because the Major’s arms were tight around him, because his muscular legs were pressed against Dorian’s own. Because the German’s hot and agile tongue was devouring the inside of his mouth. He melted completely, moaning in surrender.

Eroica trembled as Klaus pulled him closer. The German’s tongue, which had quickly acquired an unexpected skill, ravished him further. Dorian responded by pushing that tongue with his own. For a second the Major seemed uncertain about what to do with the resistance—then his penchant for getting his own way emerged and his tongue tried to regain the upper hand.

Heaven came back to Earth. Love became Desire.

Primal heat seared over the Earl’s skin. He pulled von Eberbach to him and for a long, long moment it seemed as if the only things in the world were their mouths, their tongues and their heat.

After an eternity, Klaus’ arms stiffened. He tore his lips away and pushed Eroica from him.

Dorian staggered back, his legs nearly folding beneath him. He caught himself. The Earl blinked, trying to bring the world back into focus. He gasped for air. The cool night fell against the furnace of his hot skin. Finally, his sight cleared and he pushed his hair out of the way. Goddess, it felt like he’d been dipped in flames!

The bearer of that fire was standing a few feet away. He was glaring. Klaus didn’t say anything but his stance indicated clearly that he considered Dorian the foulest of creatures. Still, the German’s black hair was mussed and his suit was rumpled. The heat in his gaze was part anger and, possibly, part something else. He was apparently having trouble breathing.

Dorian Red Gloria drew a shuddering sigh. Well. Who’d have thought the Major capable of that kind of kiss?

Eroica smiled. "That’s two."

Von Eberbach turned abruptly and stomped up onto the veranda. Dorian followed, moving slowly while his feet came back to earth. The after-feel of Klaus’ tongue and mouth burned along his nerves. Why was he so surprised that the Major was good at French kissing? The whole setup was custom-made for dueling and Klaus excelled at confrontation. The Earl drew in a deep breath. Steady now. Take it easy. If he knew Klaus the next thing on the agenda had to be—

"You are infuriating!" the German suddenly stormed. He jerked his suit straight. "You are the most spoiled, perverted man I have ever met!"

—a fight.

"Oh, really?" Dorian purred. "I know a particular German Major who is equally spoiled."

"I am not a pervert!" Klaus shouted.

"No." Eroica leaned against the veranda railing. His legs still tended to shake. "You’re a maniac—but I love you anyway."

"SHUT UP!"

Eroica didn’t answer but he sent Klaus his best adoring gaze. As usual, von Eberbach interpreted it as compliance.

"I hope you are happy," Klaus snapped. "You have successfully degraded us both." He crossed his arms over his chest and fell silent, glaring at the floor.

The stance and the tone of voice, more than the words, suddenly coalesced and became clear in Eroica’s mind. Dorian felt his mouth fall open. "Why, Major! I believe you’re pouting."

The look in Klaus’ eyes was the only warning Eroica got—but it was enough to make him vault the railing without pause and put himself out of hitting range.

"Come back here!" the Major raged. He shook his fist.

"Not on your life, darling!" Dorian said. "Why don’t you have some more champagne and relax? I’ll just stay out here with your tank until the smoke stops coming out of your ears."

After a few minutes, von Eberbach drew a slow breath. He ran a hand through his hair to smooth it into place and composed himself. "There," he said in the voice of a man trying to be reasonable beyond all expectations. "I will not strike you—though you certainly deserve it— so you can come back up if you want."

"Why don’t you come down here?" Dorian asked. "The night is lovely."

"No, thank you."

"You can inspect your Leopard," Eroica coaxed.

After another pause, Klaus put his hand on the railing and vaulted over. To the Earl’s relief, von Eberbach seemed to have genuinely regained his temper. He didn’t even try to grab the thief when he got within arm’s reach.

Dorian led the way, jumping up on the tank and throwing open the hatch. "See? It’s all polished and painted."

Von Eberbach scowled. "Well. At least you chose a decent color of grey."

"What did you expect me to paint it?" Eroica batted his eyes. "Pink?"

"Shut up! That is disrespectful!"

The thief smiled down at Klaus. "It’s also damned silly—fanciful I may be but I’m not without taste. Come inside—I’ve even had the batteries regularly charged so the lights work and the gun will move around."

The Earl dropped down inside his favorite playtoy.

"Eroica!" He heard the Major shout in outrage. "Get out of my tank!"

Dorian bit his lip to keep from laughing. Major von Eberbach could be so cute! "Come after me, darling, and have a look!" he called back.

"Never!" The Earl could tell from the sound of Klaus’ voice that the German had climbed up on top of the tank. When Dorian looked up, he could see Klaus glaring down at him. His heart trembled in response.

"Don’t be so paranoid, Major. Don’t you want to check it out for yourself?"

"I want you OUT of there!"

Dorian ignored him and went instead to the control board. He pushed a few buttons. The interior lights came on and the panel readouts blazed to life. "See, darling?" he called out. "The lights and even the digitals function! The castle registers as a great big block!"

"Stop screwing around with my tank!" von Eberbach ordered. "Leave it alone!"

The Earl flicked one of his favorite toggle switches. The exterior lights flashed on and began to rotate like police spotlights. A loud siren started whooping into the night. "Isn’t that grand, Major?" Dorian called out over the sound. "Bonham rigged them up especially for me."

A bellow of rage heralded Klaus’ evaporated temper. He landed with a thump inside the Leopard. He grabbed Eroica and pulled him away from the controls. Von Eberbach gave Dorian a shake. "Don’t play with my controls!"

Eroica smiled straight into angry green eyes. "What would you like me to play with?"

The Major released him. "Idiot!" He reached over and shut off the police lights and the siren. "How could you do this to such a fine war machine?" His voice was a blend of bafflement and an odd sort of grief.

"It’s not so bad, Major," the Earl said. "Would you like to rotate the gun while you’re here? It might make you feel better."

The German sat down at the control board and began pushing buttons and flicking toggles. To Dorian’s delighted amazement, a whole range of new lights and screens flickered into life. He sat down in the other chair and quickly memorized a few sequences.

"Stop that," Klaus ordered.

"Stop what?"

"Stop trying to learn what I’m doing—I don’t want you playing with my tank." The Major scowled at him.

Dorian smiled. "I’ll think of you every time I crawl inside."

"Shut up."

"What a difficult man you are!" Dorian tried out another brilliant smile. "Here I have been the soul of courtesy, serving you dinner, giving you dessert—I’ve even let you play in my tank! And what do I get for it? Abuse!"

"This was your idea, not mine." Von Eberbach sighed and turned off the control board. The tank was plunged into a thick darkness relieved only by the little lights that surrounded the pertinent buttons of the Leopard’s basic functions. "The motherboard is useless. I will have to replace this whole section." He got up and turned toward the hatch. "This is also all your fault."

"But think how dull your life would be without me." Dorian stood up. He could smell the seductive scent of Klaus’ skin mixed with cigarette smoke.

"My life," Von Eberbach snapped, "would be serene and comfortable!"

"And dull," the Earl finished.

"You are the one who is difficult," Klaus stated. He put his hand on the bottom rung of the ladder and started to climb out.

"Major, I think I’ll take my final kiss now."

Klaus froze, then bellowed, "HERE?"

Dorian winced. "Don’t yell in an enclosed space."

"In my tank?" Von Eberbach had lowered his voice but the temper was still thick in his words (that German voice, how exciting it was.)

The Earl laughed. His legs had started to get trembly again. "Of course—after all, you are my one and only Tank Commander!"

"Pervert!"

"I know—so take your hand off that ladder and pay up." He shook his hair back behind his shoulders.

For a minute it looked as if Klaus was going to refuse or climb out. But after a long second he released the ladder with a German curse. Von Eberbach reached over and pulled the thief to him. Dorian wrapped his arms around him again. How right this felt! How incredibly wonderful! His Klaus, his darling, beautiful Tank Commander!

With a great feeling of bliss and excitement, the Earl tilted his head, closed his eyes and waited.

He felt Klaus shift his grip around him. He felt the heat of German skin. Then stillness.

"Well?" the Major demanded.

Eroica waited a second, then opened his eyes. Von Eberbach’s face was very close to his own, his breath brushing Dorian’s lips. His black hair was a curtain around them.

"I beg your pardon?" the Earl said softly.

"Well?" Klaus repeated. "There are no last minute orders? Are you not waiting until the last possible second to demand some other foolishness of me?"

Dorian tightened his arms just the slightest, thrilling at the hard muscles that sheathed the Major’s form. "I love you madly, you know."

"I know," Klaus snarled. "Mein Gott, I know."

His lips came down hard and unforgiving on Dorian’s.

The assault almost lifted the Earl off of his feet. An electric shock coursed through him from his head to his toes and back again. Klaus’ mouth was stern and demanding. The Earl pushed against von Eberbach, feeling heat sweep over him at the immovable strength of the German. A hand twisted in his hair. He was pushed back against the wall.

Pinned between the Major and the solid steel of the Leopard, Dorian Red Gloria gave up all pretense of composure and surrendered. He opened his mouth and received Klaus’ avenging tongue. He opened his legs and felt the hard muscles of Von Eberbach’s thighs push against him. He moaned and gave up all thought, all time, all care.

Klaus had hoped to teach the Earl Red Gloria a lesson about ethics and honor. He had hoped that the thief would understand that Major Klaus Heinz von Eberbach was not a man to push around. As usual, his plan where Eroica was concerned fell miserably short of its mark.

The instant the Major had started kissing Dorian, all his careful revenges backfired. He had started out perfectly—he had pulled the thief too hard against him. He had shoved him against the wall and held him there—hard. But all Klaus got for his manhandling tactics was an acute shortness of breath, veins full of fire and sparks in front of his eyes. He lost complete track of his determined vengeance and, instead, shamelessly indulged himself.

Eroica’s mouth was all heat and challenge. His body curved and molded to Klaus’, his arms held unexpected strength. He felt the Earl’s fine, long fingers tangle in his hair. The thief’s supple body arched against him, a movement that produced another shock in the Major’s groin. Eroica’s tongue wrestled with Klaus’. With a growl von Eberbach pushed at him, trying to get the upper hand. Sometimes it seemed to work. Sometimes Dorian melted into his arms, pliant and accepting as a kitten. But, just as soon as the Major thought he had him, Eroica’s teeth would bite at his lip or his hands would tighten demandingly in Klaus’ black locks. Then von Eberbach would have to wrestle him back under control.

The whole affair was igniting every pore in the Major’s body, arousing every instinct and desire. After a long, long time, he seemed to be gaining some ground. Eroica’s moans had deepened into long, begging whimpers. His mouth had opened into his soul. His body arched effortlessly over the control board. His lips moved and his shaking breath sighed that Major Klaus von Eberbach had finally won—completely won. Without discourse.

Triumphantly, Klaus claimed the thief’s tongue and bent him just a little further back—

WHOOOOOOP! Whooop! Whoooop!

The big police spotlights snapped on. The loud air siren leapt into full voice.

Klaus nearly jumped out of his skin. He shot backwards and hit the opposite wall where he caught his balance. His Luger was in his hand. He looked wildly around. Eroica was halfway up the ladder.

WHOOOOOOOOP! Whooop! Whooop!

Then Major von Eberbach realized what had happened. For a second he was torn between outrage and laughter. The outrage lost.

Klaus threw back his head and laughed.

Dorian came back down the ladder, looking confused and disoriented. His glorious golden hair was a mussed halo that drifted all over his shoulders and down his back. He stared around in bafflement.

"The toggle!" the Major gasped. "You hit the toggle with your head and triggered the siren and the lights!" He chuckled, stood up and holstered his gun. "Turn that verdammt noise off."

While the Earl saw to the controls, von Eberbach pulled his clothes into some sort of order and shook his hair into place. By the time Eroica had turned off the lights and the siren, the Major was already climbing up the ladder. Von Eberbach jumped down off the tank.

After a few minutes, Eroica emerged and climbed down.

"Well," the thief sounded shaken. "Not every man can deliver a kiss that sets off search lights and sirens!"

"Shut up," von Eberbach growled and stomped his way to the veranda. His blood still whispered with echoes of fire and passion. Mein Gott, that kind of reaction was unexpected! He’d never felt so inflamed in his whole life.

Once, when Major Eberbach was a freshman in military school, an older classmate had taken him to a brothel. The experience had been rather interesting from a scholarly point of view. Young von Eberbach had performed reasonably well (or so the fraülein had said), and his classmate had apparently had a very good time for he’d emerged from his room with an easy-going cheerfulness and a certain amount of smugness. Klaus had found the evening actually rather dull once the uniqueness and the sense of danger had faded. He’d tried it again when he was a grown man, only to find that his previous assessment still held true. After that, von Eberbach had put down society’s fascination with sex as an obvious indication of most people’s lack of intelligence. It was a weakness that he never understood or approved of and any talk in the office of sexual prowess was grounds for a long vacation in Alaska. But this night in Eroica’s garden was an entirely different matter.

The Major poured wine into his goblet and drank it in one gulp. He had never expected to feel anything so overwhelming, so blinding. And that Eroica was the cause of it! It was unbearable! From now on, he would have to be stern with himself.

The thief came up onto the veranda. He gave Klaus a wide berth and then sat down at the table. The look he slid the Major out of the corner of his eyes was wide and startled. His hair was frothy with tangles and curls. His porcelain skin was flushed with delicate shades of pink and peach. The Earl’s hand shook a little as he poured himself some wine. He appeared vulnerable, overwhelmed and even a little alarmed. Klaus’ latest kiss had apparently been far more than Eroica expected. His lips were deep red, bruised looking.

I did that, Major Eberbach thought. Curious, Klaus started to walk around the table toward the Earl.

Dorian wasted no time getting to his feet and putting the table between them. His voice trembled a little as he said, "Oh no, you don’t! I haven’t recovered my breath from the last one!" His cheeks flushed a deeper color.

A fierce flash of triumph brought a furious blaze to green eyes. Perhaps there was a way of keeping the Prince of Thieves in line after all!

The Major stifled a grin and turned away. "I am leaving."

"Are you?" Dorian sounded both relieved and disappointed.

Klaus scowled at the thief. "I paid you, didn’t I?"

"Yes…."

"Three kisses, right?"

"Yes…."

"So I am going." He started for the door.

Klaus turned and looked back. Eroica was standing in a pool of golden light cast by one of the veranda lanterns. He looked ethereal and sweet, like an angel from a fairy tale.

The Major paused, and then conducted a little experiment. He stalked back to Eroica. The thief retreated immediately, but one of the chairs was in the way, and in the time it took Dorian to bump into it and then dodge around it, Klaus had caught up to him. The German grabbed one of his arms, tangled his other hand in golden curls, and pulled the Earl’s head far back. The exposed throat was golden and vulnerable as a gazelle’s. Klaus growled a little under his breath and then gave Dorian a hard, promising kiss.

Von Eberbach’s head swam. But Klaus kept a firm hold of his reactions this time and pulled away after only a second. "That," he snarled into Eroica’s ear, "was a bonus."

He released the Earl. Dorian sat down in the seat with a thud. Von Eberbach walked back to the door and shoved it open. He didn’t really expect the Earl to follow him and there was no sound of pursuit as he stomped along the hall to the door.

"Huh," Klaus grunted as his eye caught the change of decor in the hallway and interpreted it correctly. "They have taken the pictures away so I can’t slam any more of them to the floor." He grinned as he opened the big door and stepped outside. "We shall see about that!" He concentrated, gathered his strength—and slammed the door shut as hard as he could. He listened.

For a second, nothing happened. Then, far away in Castle Red Gloria’s interior, he heard a painting hit the floor and fall flat with a bang! Satisfied, Major Klaus von Eberbach walked to his car and got in. That would teach the Earl to fool with a von Eberbach!

A memory of Eroica’s lips against his haunted the back of his mind. He remembered the sweet surrender of that svelte body beneath his, the conquering of that mouth, the texture of golden, silken curls.

Perhaps after this the thief would be more manageable. With a few more kisses, he might even become cooperative.

What was he thinking? No! There would never be any more kisses! Eroica was a thief without morals or ethics. The sooner Klaus put him away in prison, the better off the whole world would be.

Payment in kisses! What a useless man the Earl was!

Major von Eberbach turned over the engine and put it in gear. He refused to look behind him as he drove away. He would put this whole night out of his mind. That’s what he would do! He would simply go on as if it had never happened.

He refused to listen to the inside of his head where Eroica’s sighs turned into pleading moans. He refused to acknowledge the pounding of his own heart.

* * * * * * *

Sunlight misted through the filmy, cotton sheers of Dorian Red Gloria’s bedroom. The diffused illumination gave a soft focus to the imported furniture, the Chinese screens, the French chairs, the Earl himself. Dorian woke and lay still for a long time, dozing on and off. He’d given orders not to be disturbed until he rang for breakfast. Bonham would keep Mr. James away so the Earl was free to wake and dream and wake again. He stretched, rolled onto his back and blinked up at the molded ceilings.

Yesterday Klaus von Eberbach had kissed him. Under duress, of course, but it was still a kiss. Actually, it was several kisses. Dorian smiled, turned over and hugged his pillow. Klaus had kissed him! How bright the sunlight was! How sweet the sound of singing birds! Joy dazzled his eyes and lifted his heart. How incredible it had been!

My God, the Major could kiss! The Earl trembled as a shiver of fire trailed up his spine. Under the power of those kisses, Dorian would have done almost anything Klaus asked him. For a few minutes he had been completely at the German’s mercy. Another rush of joy brought a smile to his lips. How lovely the curtains were, stirring in the wind! Klaus had kissed him!

He reached over and pulled the rope by his bed. He was starving! First he needed breakfast, then he had business to attend to.

* * * * * * *

Afternoon proved to be golden and magical. The birds sang arias to the sky, the bees gathered pollen in the garden, the wind played in the windows of the castle. The Earl of Red Gloria returned home, hefted his briefcase from the trunk and went in search of his accountant. He found Mr. James and Bonham in the study, arguing over expenses.

"Here you go, love!" Dorian pulled the briefcase up and thumped it down on the desk in front of Mr. James.

The accountant pouted. "You were lovers with the Major."

"Are you still upset about that?" The smile the Earl gave him was blinding. "You knew I had every intention of kissing him—and I did. Do get over it, love. Go ahead, open—" He nudged the briefcase. "It’s especially for you."

Mr. James sent him a doubtful look but released the catches on the case and opened it up. Inside were rows and rows of neatly stacked fifty pound notes. The accountant’s round face lit up like a neon light. He opened his mouth but no sound came out. He reached out loving hands and ran his fingers tenderly over the wealth.

Bonham gave a long, low whistle. "Quite a haul, milord! Did you rob the palace again?"

Dorian laughed. "No, no. I had a little jewel or two that I sold. Got a decent price for them, too."

"M-Milord!" Mr. James’ voice trembled. Then he turned his own version of a thousand-watt smile on the Earl. "How wonderful!"

"Yes," Dorian purred, "isn’t it? Invest it well, Mr. James! I want stocks, long term savings—you may even sink some in jars in the garden if you wish! Just turn me a pretty profit." He smiled. "You’ll need to run the estates on what we have there for quite a while."

Bonham cleared his throat and exchanged a knowing look with the Earl. Dorian leaned close to him and whispered, "Don’t worry, old friend. I’ve a little briefcase for you, too. Keep it well hidden!" His lieutenant’s eyes widened and then he stifled a grin.

Mr. James was still petting his money. "All mine, all mine… mine….."

Bonham cleared his throat again. "But, Milord, why do this now? Are we in some kind of financial trouble?" He looked worried. What he didn’t say out loud was, We’re not going out of business, are we?

"Don’t fret, Bonham," Dorian reassured him. "We’re fine. It’s just that—" He paused and gave a joyful laugh, feeling color rise to his cheeks. He turned to go. Just before Dorian closed the door behind him, he stopped and finished, "We won’t be getting paid by NATO any more— well, at least not in cash!"

The Earl Dorian Red Gloria shut the door on the sound of his accountant’s wailing and Bonham’s astonished expression. No, no more cash from NATO. Only kisses. Glorious, marvelous German kisses! Eroica whistled as he strolled down the main hall of Castle Red Gloria.

 

END

 

Eroica