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For King and Country

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"My dear," said Vaughn, entering the morning room where Mary was seeing to her correspondence, "we have been summoned."

Mary raised her head from her writing desk, her right eyebrow arched in an inquisitive manner. "And who would dare presume such a liberty of the great Lord Vaughn?"

Vaughn tossed the letter down in front of her. "See for yourself," he said, taking a seat on the striped settee under the window. "I think you will be most amused."

Mary picked the letter up with a sniff. She devoured its contents quickly, her eyes darting from one side of the parchment to the other.

Vaughn watched her with open admiration. He could almost see the thoughts forming in his wife's head as she read, and he waited for her to --

"No," said Mary, dropping the letter back to the desk. "We will undertake no more missions on behalf of King and country. We have done quite enough." She raised an eyebrow again, this time with an imperious tint. "Wouldn't you agree?"

Vaughn lifted a shoulder, all nonchalance. "It is not for me to agree or disagree," he said. "I was merely reporting the summons, not stating any opinion as to their validity."

"No," Mary repeated, rising from her seat and crossing the room to join Vaughn on the settee. She nestled herself under his arm and raised her gaze to his with the most coquettish look she could manage. "I could try to convince you if you like."

Vaughn's arm tightened around Mary's shoulder. "I think that would be if you like."

"I do," said Mary.

Her mouth sealed over his, and that was all that was said on the matter for quite some time.

*

Despite Mary's best efforts at persuasion and over her adamant protestations, the very next afternoon they called at Pinchingdale House.

This was not a usual occurrence. The sisters Vaughn and Pinchingdale-Snipe were quite comfortable with letting one another move about in society without much attention being paid to their own connection. Letty wouldn't have minded being more firmly entrenched in her sister's affairs, but all the rest of her relations -- husband, sister, and brother-in-law alike -- were in firm agreement on that point.

The butler met them at the door and they were immediately shown into front parlor, the room of a not-so-long-ago assignation that hasn't been an assignation at all, and remembering it made Vaughn's mouth curve up into the smallest of smiles.

Noticing it, Mary's own mouth dipped down into a frown. "What?" she asked, instantly suspicious of anything that would put such an abnormal expression on his face.

Her suspicion warmed his heart, it truly did. Vaughn was contemplating whether or not he had time to engage in any of the behavior he'd been so rudely accused of the last time he had been in this very same spot, when the door opened and his brother and sister-in-law walked into the room.

"Hello," said Letty brightly, her arm tucked through her husband's. "It's lovely to see you."

"Letty," Mary acknowledged, bending her head just slightly to allow her sister to kiss her cheek. "You look... well."

"Pinchingdale." Vaughn nodded his head towards his brother-in-law, and the same gesture was returned, rather more stiffly than it had been given. Pinchingdale's discomfort at their relation was Vaughn's primary source of enjoyment in the same connection.

"Why don't we all sit down?" Letty suggested, tugging on Pinchingdale's arm until he joined her on the settee under the dreadful landscape.

Vaughn and Mary took the settee under the equally dreadful portrait of what Vaughn presumed was one of Pinchingdale's relations. He looked at the present Pinchingdale expectantly.

"What information do you have to impart?" asked Vaughn. "I trust our flowery friend has taken you into greater confidence than they have me. After all, you are the trustworthy type, aren't you, Pinchingdale? No one would think to accuse you of being a French spy."

Pinchingdale's jaw tensed in most satisfactory fashion, Vaughn noted.

"They wouldn't," said Pinchingdale, from behind clenched teeth. "And yes, our ‘flowery friend,’ as you deemed them, has seen fit to take me into their confidence. But I question their judgment in involving you --" and here Pinchingdale spared a glance at Mary --"or my sister in any further matters of this nature."

"Precisely as I said," Mary said, clearly satisfied with Pinchingdale's comments. She started to stand, but Vaughn wrapped his hand around her wrist to hold her where she was. She made a huffing noise that he also ignored, his attention focused solely on Pinchingdale.

"And were you granted such authority as to make those kinds of determinations on your own?" inquired Vaughn delicately. "It is not my understanding that our friend takes kindly to having their orders undermined."

Letty gave Pinchingdale an apologetic look. "I'm afraid Lord Vaughn has a point."

Vaughn looked smugly at his wife. His wife stared daggers at her sister. Pinchingdale pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Tea?" asked Letty.

"No," said Pinchingdale, resignation hanging on him like an ill-fitting coat. "No tea." He heaved an overly dramatic sigh for one so staid and looked directly at Vaughn. "You do realize that if we move forward with this arrangement, you will be following my orders? Our friend won't be available to provide you with directions or justifications for what I say."

"Of course," said Vaughn.

"Not 'of course'," Mary interjected, giving him a withering glare. "I haven't agreed to any part of this utter folly."

Pinchingdale looked relieved. "Well, if Lady Vaughn doesn't wish to take part..."

"She will," said Vaughn, taking his wife's hand in his own. He squeezed and looked her direct in the eyes, willing her to understand what he could not say in mixed company. Whatever his wishes about remaining out of the spy business, he owed a debt to the Pink Carnation that could not easily be repaid. Doing these small favors was a trifling inconvenience, and there was the added benefit of annoying Pinchingdale, the value of which could not be overstated. "Won't you, my dear?"

Mary returned his look evenly, and Vaughn spotted the exact moment that she softened. He also saw the payment that Mary intended to demand in return. He expected nothing less. "If I must."

Domestic matters having been seen to, Vaughn turned his attention back to his brother-in-law. "Pinchingdale?"

Pinchingdale leaned forward on the settee. "It will work like this," he began, his voice already taking on the lecturing quality that he lapsed into with alarming frequency.

Vaughn settled back to listen, his wife's hand still firmly held in his own. His features were carefully schooled into an expression of bored contempt, lest he give away the faint thrum of excitement coursing through his veins.

After all, not giving away the game was half the enjoyment of playing. And there was little in life that Vaughn enjoyed more than a game.

It just so happened that this was the greatest game of them all.