"I'm only a minor government functionary."
Stavros glances at me over his shoulder, his laugh supplemented by the sound of a lead crystal stopper returning to the mouth of the decanter. "I believed that for about a minute, Mycroft. But then I heard things."
The dark-haired playboy saunters to my seat in the conservatory and, standing too close, looks down at me in scrutiny. A feral quality, heretofore well-hidden, filters through the deference he has been directing at me and about which, until now, I've allowed myself to feel complacent. I resist the urge to shift away in misgiving—a blend of distaste and dismay—while his mottled grey eyes ringed with long black lashes give surprisingly little away.
"I don't know what you've heard, but I think you mistake my capacity." I accept the two fingers of Scotch he proffers. "The disposition of private assets for inheritance is a matter for the individuals concerned. It's not something with which the government involves itself, especially since the principals in this situation are Greek. I'm afraid I can't help you."
The sky is deep blue and has been uncharacteristically clear, even for July. We're shaded by the gabled roof above us, but through the three glass walls that protrude into the garden, late morning sun fills the conservatory with a brilliant light. It doubtless shows up every one of my fatigue lines whilst it flatters Stavros.
He drops into the wicker chair opposite me. "Nonsense. You've a reputation for being a fixer whatever the problem—in fact, the thornier the better—and we're talking about property in England. I should've been given UK citizenship when I applied, instead of having to marry a local girl, and this property should be mine. What can I do to convince you to help me put things right?" He holds up his glass. "Yamas."
"Cheers." The Scotch is good, the 1977 Jura Vintage single malt, although I prefer the 1973. Still, someone who stocks this can't be all bad. Can he?
A golden droplet sticks to his ebony moustache, a Victorian feature which enhances rather than detracts from his looks, and his tongue darts out to whisk the liquid away. "I was fully adopted, so doesn't that give me the rights of a first son? He can run the family business for all I care, but I don't see why I should give up this place to my little brother."
"Ah, little brothers. I do sympathise." But the property is entailed to the business, not the individual, and Stavros is lucky that his refusal to give up his London home hasn't provoked his brother sooner.
"So you'll help me? Look, don't decide now. I'm having a few people over for a house party this weekend. Join us if you're free. Let me treat you to a couple of days' relaxation. Swimming pool, grass tennis court, wooded trails. Come on, hard to resist."
All that exercise—appalling—and a weekend as Stavros' guest will obligate me to listen to his story, but he knows a little too much about me for a nodding acquaintance. And I've heard rumours about him, too, as yet unverified. Perhaps observing him in his own domain wouldn't go amiss.
"I could drop by for awhile on Saturday."
"The others will be arriving on Friday, but if you can't manage that, come on Saturday morning. Stay for the day, for dinner. Stay the night."
"Excellent!" He looks into his glass as he swirls his scotch. "Shall I have my wife invite someone to make up the numbers?"
How ghastly to have to make conversation with some ingenue at dinner. No, Anthea, my fall-back plus one, would at least relieve some of the tedium of the other guests. She would enjoy a short escape to this scenic retreat on a several acres in the middle of Wimbledon. And, whilst rare, it wouldn't be the first time we've slept in the same bed. We might even be able to get some work done.
"I'll bring someone, if that's all right."
"Oh, yes, of course." His satisfaction steamrolls over me.
He knows who I have in mind to bring and that piques my curiosity. Before I can pursue it, however, the housekeeper knocks and lets him know a police officer is here for Mrs Pitera, but she's out. He's asking to speak to Mr Pitera. Stavros frowns and glances at me.
"Don't let me detain you, Stavros. It wouldn't do to neglect your civic duty."
"Yes, let me see to him. Thank you, Mrs Tennyson."
The housekeeper disappears and Stavros follows, pulling the clear French doors leading into the house behind him. They don't catch. Through the glass, I can't help but notice that he is stopped short by what—or who—he sees in the foyer.
When he moves on, I go to the doors to listen in, but I'm too far from the foyer to hear. I step out enough to see down the corridor.
Whilst the DI replaces his warrant card in an inner pocket, Stavros ruminates on him in a way I find unpalatable. Possibly useful, though, to know of his interest on this side of the tennis court, given that he has recently married.
"A few questions, sir, that's all."
"I'm preparing for an event this weekend. Royalty and whatnot." Stavros's smile is half rebuff, half flirtation. "Perhaps you could come back after."
"This won't take long." The Inspector pauses. "It is for a homicide investigation."
"Do you know who I am?"
"Yes, Mr Pitera, and your cooperation would be appreciated."
"The timing is very inconvenient."
Lestrade inhales. "You remind me of a consulting detective I know."
As amusing as it is to watch them jockey for control, I see a number of goals I can accomplish through the person of the good Detective Inspector. He's proven perceptive and adaptable at times over the course of our encounters regarding Sherlock, and I have every reason to think he won't object to my plan. I start down the corridor. At least, his heart won't object, although his head might, given the chance to consider it. Better not to give him that chance just yet, then.
"Greg." Truncating his name ought to alert him. "What a surprise."
"Mycroft!" Eyes wide—and now a certain bullishness enters his expression. He thinks Stavros is my friend and he's afraid I'm going to deflect his questioning by pulling strings. I am, but not the ones he thinks.
Stavros looks between us. "You two know each other?"
"Indeed. This is my plus one this weekend." The flit of surprise on Stavros's face is worth my change in plan. "I see you've already met."
"He's your—?" Stavros tilts his head. "Mycroft. You surround yourself with the most interesting companions."
Curious. "You're aware of my companions?"
He scratches his chin. "You always seem to have that good-looking assistant of yours on your arm, and I'm afraid that, like a pleb, I jumped to conclusions."
Stavros and I have crossed paths at the occasional cocktail party or dinner event useful to me for political favour-mongering where Anthea has been my plus one. However, I never introduce her as my assistant. Moreover, she and I rarely stay for more than an hour or two, so his attention to detail is noteworthy.
Not only did he have a clear idea who I'd bring to his house party, but he tried to manipulate me into thinking it was my idea. He would have succeeded, too, if Lestrade hadn't appeared just now and diverted my intentions.
Stavros's level of perspicacity is head and shoulders above most people's, possibly second only to Sherlock's. And third to my own. I'm flooded equally with appreciation for it and alarm.
He smiles at Lestrade. "You know about her, I assume?"
I wonder what Stavros's purpose is in trying to manœuvre her into his sphere of influence. He has newly acquired a trophy wife worthy of the description and he disclosed his supposition that Anthea is my significant other, so seduction wouldn't be on the agenda. Would it?
"And what people assume about her and Mycroft?"
"'Course." Lestrade rubs the back of his neck and looks at me. "Although I still have trouble picturing her giving you more attention than her BlackBerry."
Good save. "Stavros has invited us to stay this weekend. I took the liberty of accepting on our behalf."
Lestrade fumbles with his change in status from business caller to social caller, from single man to attached, from my friend to my Friend, but keeps his expression neutral. "Did you now."
I turn to Stavros. Just a little pressure here—"Unless, of course, you're retracting your invitation?"—ought to settle things.
We fall under our host's perusal. When he regards Lestrade up and down, I don't let my annoyance show and my partner in crime appears not to notice anything amiss as he continues to watch me. "Not at all."
The escape clause is one of the contrivances that makes certain of my strategies work: give people a way out that they don't necessarily want to take, but can't deny to themselves later was offered. Once explicitly turned down, it secures their investment in the project, guides their behaviour, and requires a great deal of inner turmoil to neutralise. Nevertheless, ending this for now would be prudent.
"I'll see you this evening." I touch Lestrade's elbow and turn to go back to the conservatory.
"Mycroft, a word please?"
"Oh please, gentlemen, go ahead."
I glance at Stavros. At this point, under his scrutiny, we will likely look unpractised and awkward, which will give the game away. It might damage my current advantage over him and compromise my intention to corral Lestrade—and the Detective Superintendent—into my debt once more.
But making a fuss now would only aggravate Stavros' suspicions, so I turn a smile on Lestrade. "Of course."
Our host moves aside, but stays close, so the DI takes my wrist and leads me a few steps away. He realises what he's doing and drops my arm, glancing at the double front door, apparently contemplating escape. As well he might; Stavros appears to be checking his 'phone, but he's in fact watching us through FaceTime.
I take a step closer, breaching Lestrade's personal space, and he jerks his gaze straight at me. In those dark eyes I see everything he wants to say, everything I'm afraid he'll blurt out. In a flash, his expression goes from I'm your partner? to Is there a reason you're getting me access to these premises for a weekend? to something very like Those who are about to die salute you. His dissatisfaction with all these responses is evident as he darts a glance in Stavros's direction.
Instead, he shakes his head, smiling slowly whilst, of all things, he straightens my already aligned tie bar. I've seen his real smile before through the CCTV, of course, but in our face to face meetings, it has always been closed and concealing rather than open and revealing. This display of exuberance, for me alone, leaves me dazzled. We walk to the front door, and Stavros joins us.
"Are all your conversations like that?" The double door is a big arched affair and he pulls one half open.
Lestrade prepares to leave. "I hope we didn't get too loud."
"You'd be surprised, actually."
"I expect when we find time to chat this weekend my conversation with you will be more traditional."
"Indeed." Stavros's eyes flicker from Lestrade to me whilst the social temperature tumbles a few degrees.
He doesn't want a police officer as a guest in his home, but he evaded the Inspector's attempt at questioning earlier. So whether his reluctance now is because he considers such a guest beneath him or because he has something to hide is hard to tell.
A gust from outside brings in a young woman. Very young, although she has matured remarkably from the schoolgirl I've met before. Almost as tall as Lestrade, slender, blonde hair, blue eyes, flushed cheeks; the epitome of the English Rose. That much perfection in one body can only incite distrust. Or interest of an even less savoury nature—such as attraction. I flick a glance at Lestrade.
"Hello, everyone." She smiles at Stavros as he squeezes her shoulder and she turns to me with her hand extended. "Mycroft. What a—" Pleasure? She's not pleased to see me. Surprise? She knew Stavros had invited me to call. "How unexpected." Ah yes, she didn't expect to run into me herself.
I've met her in passing with her parents and, as usual, her expression is warm, pleasant and counterfeit, with a trace of wariness. "Jemima." I touch her fingers and she turns to Lestrade. "May I introduce Detective Inspector Gregory Lestrade of Scotland Yard? This is Mrs Jemima Pitera."
Not yet twenty years old, only daughter of the Viscount and Viscountess Haddenbrough, the Honourable Jemima Haddenbrough needed money, Stavros Pitera wanted British citizenship, and here we are. "Our best wishes to both of you on your recent nuptials."
Her social smile goes up a notch. Ah, she's not yet aware of the ambidextrous nature of Stavros' sexuality. Only a matter of time before the wool is lifted from her eyes since he will see no reason now that they're married to hide what he wants.
His arm slips to her waist. "Mycroft's joining us for the weekend."
"And this is his plus one."
Her smile remains fixed whilst her eyebrows fly into her hairline, and a sarcastic impulse to exclaim 'Another Mycroft, how nice!' flashes on her face. She reminds me a great deal of Sherlock: superficially jagged with sophistication, yet scratch the surface and the child is revealed. Unlike Sherlock, though, she schools herself. "Lovely. Have you two known each other long?"
"Six years." Lestrade and I look at each other and, like our words, our amusement echoes each other.
"Six years?" Stavros squints at me.
"Terrifying how fast the time has gone," my putative partner says.
"Not as terrifying as I'd feared it might be in the beginning." Our good humour fades as we remember Sherlock's self-destructive condition when the DI took him in hand six years ago. Things could have ended very differently.
Just like that our performance splits into double exposure, both a public spectacle with one meaning and a private conversation with another. "Have I ever thanked you for taking that trepidation away?" I direct my question at the parquet floor, my hands clasped behind my back.
"Don't worry about it." Every careworn line on Lestrade's face is manifest and I regret the oversight.
"I will rectify that."
He snorts. "I'll expect a fruit basket from Anthea, then, shall I?"
"Don't." I turn to face him. "Don't gloss over my lapse in conveying my high regard for everything you've done. For everything you are. For making the last six years"—Sherlock's alive and clean—"happy. You deserve better."
After a penetrating stare, he lowers his eyes. The way he looks up again worries me. "I do deserve better, don't I?" His tone is casual and quiet, and couldn't be more ensnaring.
Aware of our audience, I think I'm going to regret this. "Yes."
"I deserve a holiday, at least."
Oh dear. "Indeed."
He looks away before meeting my eyes again. "And power tools," he says. "I deserve power tools."
Good grief. "Power tools. Yes."
"Please don't ask for a pony." I'm fascinated by his after-dinner-coffee eyes sparking at me and the way his nostrils flare in his effort not to laugh. Sherlock and John's puerile giggling starts to make an awful kind of sense as my own lips escape discipline and refuse to stay downturned. This is quite dreadful.
"Still so much in love after all that time." Both our gazes snap to Jemima, who glances from Lestrade to Stavros. "I like him."
I clear my throat. "I-I apologise for that little…silliness."
"I—Yes, I need to get back to the Yard."
"And Mrs Tennyson's probably waiting for me." Jemima touches Greg's arm. "DJ Saturday night."
"OK." He grins at her. "That sounds like fun."
Really? I'm surprised he even owns a dinner jacket. Ah, he's expecting a musical host, a disc jockey. I watch Jemima walk away to hide my grimace. I'd better make arrangements with my tailor.
Things couldn't have gone any better, however, all things considered. Our little performance has neutralised any suspicions our host might have entertained about my choice of partner. Stavros is also now wondering whether I am indeed a minor and rather pointless government official with nothing better to do than entertain myself with someone he considers beneath my station. And Lestrade is going to be an irritant to Stavros's normally suave demeanour such that he might give something useful away. Moreover, as unlikely as it might be for the new lady of the manor, it seems the Hon has bestowed on the DI her favour.
Lestrade turns to me and rubs his cheek. "I may have to work late so don't stay up." He smirks into his palm.
That won't do at all; there are preparations to be made that can't wait. "No. Barring an emergency, you won't. Not tonight. I'll send the car at five. Be ready." He starts to object, and I smile. "Don't make me send a note to the Detective Superintendent."
"You wouldn't—" Lestrade cuts himself off with a dry laugh. "I was going to say you wouldn't dare, but I've been surprised before by your antics."
Antics? "Well, I certainly hope you've learnt your lesson. Where's Sergeant Donovan?"
"Outside in the car, taking a phone call."
"Send her my best."
"Of course. She's always delighted to hear from a Holmes."
As he leaves, a smile tugs at my lips. Perhaps this weekend isn't going to be as tedious as I'd feared.
"You're a very private man."
My attention springs back to Stavros who has been watching me. When he says private, he isn't talking about my disinclination to rub shoulders with celebrities or to get my name in the newspaper, as he is wont to do.
"I hadn't heard a whisper about you two."
"Does it bother you? That my partner is male?"
"Not at all." He's leading me back down the hall to the conservatory. "Though, I must say, I'm surprised he's a policeman."
"How very—ordinary. Admittedly, I can see why you'd want to keep him around," he casts a roguish smile over his shoulder, "but for six years?"
My stare at his back flattens. "He's good enough for a dalliance, but not a commitment?"
"Look, I'm sorry, really I am, but the minute he opens his mouth it's obvious you two don't go together. It's not terribly surprising you don't let him out much."
I avert my eyes to detach from my growing annoyance whilst we resume our seats.
"I've seen it before countless times." Stavros reaches for his glass. "Whatever your role in government might be, you're a man of wealth and refinement, and people like him, well, they're drawn to it."
Is he accusing Lestrade of being a gold-digger? I'd attribute this pointed verbal sparring to homophobia if I didn't know otherwise. "He has achieved the rank of detective inspector at the Metropolitan Police headquarters on his own merits, with a perfectly adequate income of his own."
"Adequate for his world, not ours. He'll stick with you for as long as you'll pay for him, but there's always someone wealthier around the corner, someone better-looking. Someone younger." He takes a sip. "Better to make him leave before he strays."
Irrelevant, since our partnership is feigned. There's certainly no need for me to feel punctured. Anyway, Lestrade has carried a torch for me for more than three of the six years he's known me, at least since his divorce. In all that time, he has rarely sustained more than the occasional one-night stand with anyone else. Would that count as straying or loyalty? "He won't stray."
"I wouldn't bet on it."
"I feel no need to bet on it. I know his measure."
"Not willing to have a flutter on your greyhound?"
Is he challenging me for Lestrade? Does the wealthy, good-looking, younger—ah, and newly married—playboy think he can win the DI away from me? "You shouldn't treat him like a dog."
"Because he's yours and you don't want others to pet him?" Stavros' gaze turns speculative. "Or because he isn't?"
Too close to the bone. I pick up the remainder of my Scotch. "Because he'll bite."
My host cuts a dark look towards me. "Dogs that bite are often put down."
Threat? I see. Since the closest to me anyone can find to a significant other is Anthea, he has concluded that only the slenderest of sexual threads ties my plus one to me. My reputation for sang-froid is well-earned, so he surmises that our supposed long history must be a casual one, the result of convenience and inertia, not passion or commitment. Building on the supposition that this means Lestrade is not my greyhound in any deep-rooted way, Stavros believes I'd distance myself from any humiliation to the Inspector because he sees us as separate entities.
"Then don't provoke him." I drain my glass. As far as Stavros is concerned, he'd better learn we're a unit. "Or me."
"Heavens, look, don't take it amiss." His smile is sincerity itself, but I'm certain that's not what lies beneath. "I expect you're the one that will end it."
Well, insofar as there's anything to end, he's right about that.
Jemima whirls in without any marital decorum, like the teenager I suppose she still is, and plumps herself down next to me.
"I have to do some errands and I'm afraid you'll be gone by the time I get back."
I frown as she disregards my personal space with the oblivion of youth to take my hand before I can move it away.
"But I wanted to tell you," she says, "how much I'm looking forward to seeing you and Greg this weekend."
The open goodwill in her eyes and her smile make me blink. Oh Lord, five minutes with Lestrade and she's in love with him.
"Yes, er, yes." I pat her hand awkwardly. "Likewise."
"Jemima." Stavros is clearly as much a stranger to this joyful effervescence as I am.
"Oh." Her expression shutters and, at once, that air of connubial dignity is in place. "I'm sorry. I was—that was out of order."
My hand falls to my lap as she pulls away and stands up.
She looks at Stavros until his expression softens. He does love her, then, but—in that way of old-fashioned alpha males—love doesn't require monogamy from him. Another surprise waiting for her.
She heads out of the conservatory. "We'll see you at the weekend, Mycroft."
"Another tot?" Stavros has topped up his glass at the drinks trolley and poises the decanter over my tumbler.
I decline. Whilst his assessment of my thin connection to Lestrade is remarkably accurate, even if his reasoning is slightly off the mark, his interest in me is notable. And there's something more going on with the interest he has now developed in the Inspector. Sometimes the only way to find out what is hidden is to put opposing players together and see if something pops. Time to force the issue. Gathering my umbrella, I too stand up.
"Greg goes where I go. Problem?" Because, if so, I'll give this weekend a miss and find some other way to observe Stavros—in all likelihood without my inspector.
"Not at all." He tilts his head and gives a small smile. "Actually, I'm honoured that you've chosen my little house party for Greg's social début."
I roll my eyes with a good-natured quirk of the lips that drops away as soon as I turn from him.
Legwork's not my area; I'm a strategist, not a field agent. This, however, isn't something I can delegate. Stavros has too many question marks around him. The newest little hook—both irritating and intriguing—is that he wants my alleged partner for himself. Not to keep, but for a fling; both because he likes what he sees and because he thinks I'd no longer want a tarnished copper in my pocket.
Whatever else he has on his agenda, Stavros plans to save me.