A friendly reminder: I started posting this story before Brexit became an issue and long before the Americans trumped it. Hence the apparent emphasis on Grexit. Just go with it.
"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.
Mycroft takes Lestrade to cross some T's and dot some I's...
Chapter three is going to be posted in a couple of days since it belongs in the same sweep as this, but they were too long to post together.
(I'm lying about it being too long. I need more time to work on the middle.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lestrade looks up from his paperwork when I enter his office.
"I asked you to be ready, Lestrade."
"I have actual work to do!"
"You've been working long hours for eight days straight and it's affecting your progress. A change of scenery will do you good. Besides, what we are going to do is work."
"What's that, then?"
He's in shirtsleeves, rather the worse for wear at the end of the day. A well-fitting waistcoat would let him remove his jacket and still look finished, but scruffy is the modern way.
"Get your jacket." I have another theory about waistcoats that I'd like to test, but I haven't had the opportunity. There's no one I've allowed close enough to be a suitable guinea pig. I regard Lestrade, swinging my umbrella at my side. "Come along."
He rolls his eyes and follows me out, his jacket folded to his chest. In the lift, he puts it on. "Where are we going?"
I watch the numbers flash above the door. "As my partner, you'll need proper clothes this weekend."
"Wait, what?" He laughs, but it's shaky. "We're going to buy me a wardrobe?"
I raise an eyebrow. "We're going to rent you enough suitable items for one weekend."
"Oh, right." He glances at the flashing numbers. "About that…"
In the privacy of the car, the inevitable discussion begins.
"All right, Mycroft, what have you dropped me into this time?"
It's tempting to smile. "What do you know about Stavros Pitera?"
"I looked up more details today, after your…antics this morning. From a Greek shipping family. Spends all his time in London, though, based at the Pitera estate in Wimbledon. Some dispute over whether he or his younger brother should have taken over as head of the family business."
"He's adopted from an English family."
I look straight ahead. "Sealed records."
Lestrade laughs. "Not from you."
Actually, yes, in a way. The usual archives have been mysteriously deleted or otherwise destroyed. There are still, however, one or two back doors for me to try. I slant him a look. "I'll let you know if it becomes relevant. Why did you want to question him?"
"Both him and Jemima, actually. To do with one of my current cases; the Ken Martin homicide."
"Ah, yes, the Australian."
The victim is the fiancé of a ribboned equestrienne who participated in the Royal Windsor Horse Show this past May and who vanished shortly thereafter. Martin elected to stay in Britain to continue his search for her. Foul play in his subsequent death revived interest in her disappearance, and the double tragedy has played all over the news for over a week. The Australian High Commission is politely demanding answers.
Lestrade nods. "In the absence of any viable leads in the homicide, we're following up with talking to what friends and acquaintances of the victim we can find, and the Piteras stable their horses at the same place that Mr Martin had recently secured work. In fact, Jemima had called in a request for her animal to be saddled, but never showed up. It's a long shot that the Piteras can add anything and, to be honest, I was tempted to send a couple of uniforms to talk to them. Being who they are, though, I visited their home myself instead." His mouth goes up on one side. "And look where that got me."
Lestrade must regret the time wasted, but he couldn't have avoided a personal visit without causing more trouble than it warrants.
"How's the investigation going?"
He rubs his face. "That's what I should be working on now, instead of planning a jaunt to this guy's house for the weekend."
It's premature and I may be wrong, but— "If it helps, I think perhaps you are still working." I withdraw a buff folder from a side pocket of the car. "Before I give this to you, tell me whether you'd like me to cancel our joint attendance at the Pitera house party."
"What?" Lestrade is thunderstruck. "Is seeing that file dependent on my answer?"
"Not at all, Inspector. It's yours either way." I lay the folder on the seat between us and put my hand on it. "I just don't want you to be swayed by the contents. Pursuing your work is one thing, but you realise our stay will require the appearance of intimacy. If that's something you're not willing to undertake, now would be the time to say so."
He looks at the folder, and then into my eye. "What's all this about royals attending his do?"
My laugh is a half-hearted burst of air. "Royal by birth, perhaps, but not by active duty. The Greek royal family was swept out of power in 1967 under the force of republicanism, courtesy of their own military. Senior members tend to be figures of controversy when they pop up, and they might have some merit, but none of them will be in Wimbledon any time soon. A minor offspring of the bloodline that I know of, however, may consent to being lavished by Stavros for the weekend."
"So I'm not going to run into Prince Harry or anything."
"Would you like to meet him?"
Lestrade's laugh peters out when he realises I'm serious.
"No. Uh, no." He straightens up and tightens the knot of his tie as if the prince might appear in the car and conduct an inspection at any moment.
"Perhaps another time, then."
He slants me a sideways look.
"Now, about this weekend, Inspector."
"You could have just let me question Pitera."
"He wasn't going to cooperate and you would have had to leave his premises defeated."
"You don't know that."
I do. "I was trying to help."
He snorts and I surmise my look of hurt innocence has failed.
"All right," he says. "I stand by my decision from this morning."
I hold his gaze until I'm satisfied he means it, then nod.
"Though how I'm going to explain my disappearance for two days in the middle of a high profile investigation I don't know. And your brother refuses to help us."
"Leave that to me." Easy to call in a favour. "As for Sherlock, he is eager to test the limits of your desperation, to measure how long it will take you to buckle. Instead, you'll potentially turn the tables on him."
Lestrade can't resist a smile.
"In the meantime—" I hand him the folder and he withdraws a document. On its pages are printed several annotated freeze-frames from the CCTV.
" It's impossible to tell," I say, "whether the subject's evasion of the cameras was deliberate or by chance, but careful analysis suggests it is Stavros Pitera outside two nightclubs on evenings when people have gone missing."
Lestrade scans the document. "These abduction cases weren't mine, but I recognize one of them. Gone cold now. You think they're connected to the murder? And Pitera is involved?"
The conclusion of the analysis isn't quite statistically significant, but it's close and the opportunity for us to investigate further has presented itself. Yet I don't wish to mislead Lestrade. "It's not proof—"
"Did you know his brother's fiancée disappeared?" I say.
He stares at me. "No."
"A few years ago." I look down at the freeze-frames.
"If the person in these pictures is him, then," he says, "the coincidence with the missing people makes it worth following up."
"One of these nightclubs is in Manchester. I'll have Donovan see if she can dig up whether he was in London that evening or not."
He wasn't, but as yet we don't know where he was. I'll let the Inspector's team discover that.
Lestrade pauses to look at me. "This wouldn't have stopped me from going with you this weekend."
"Perhaps not." I master the ruffle inside me. "But it might have pushed you into going if you didn't otherwise wish to participate."
"No! No, it's—" He looks again at the document, then his gaze floats outside. "I hadn't really thought about that."
Quite. "I wanted us both to know that you were truly committed."
I catch him staring at my reflection in the window.
"What is it, Inspector?"
"I—Well, I—" He clears his throat and goes back to the document."Good to know you had a plan." He faces me. "This morning. You had a plan. Though God knows how you knew I'd show up right then. You have your ways, I suppose."
He goes back and forth through the document again, reading the annotations, trying to make out background elements in the pictures.
Of course I had a plan. What did he think? That I included him on a whim? The fact that Anthea had rushed the report to me ahead of schedule, before it was complete, providing a tenuous link between the abductions and the DI's homicide via Stavros after I'd notified her of my weekend plans is neither here nor there.
Eventually, he leans back. "This could be enough to bring him in for questioning."
"There isn't enough to make anything stick. Since you now have the opportunity to look for something more definitive on his property, do you want to show your hand yet?"
"He's not suspected of abduction. He's not suspected of homicide." Lestrade taps the paper with his nails. "Yet there he is, connected to both."
"It could be coincidental."
"It could be someone else." He looks at me. "Let's see if we can find out."
We arrive at the premises of Mr Patterson, a tailor who does some work for me, and who keeps a small collection of handmade suits available for rental. Naturally, he modifies them to the individual client, as close to bespoke as possible without making a custom suit from square one. He'll have to perform some kind of magic to have a tuxedo ready in time, but he assures me it will be done.
He handles the selections for Lestrade that I discussed with him earlier by telephone, whilst I review a brief for the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, check the trending value of the American dollar against North Sea oil prices and recap Greece's debt position in relation to an exit from the EU, as well as the country's possible hidden favour-dispensing assets.
Intermittently, I cast an eye over sartorial proceedings. Patterson will see to assigning all the appropriate accoutrements. Amongst the rentals, there will be a number purchases about which Lestrade need not know yet.
It takes several hours.
Lestrade slumps into the car, his head bouncing against the seat-back once before he closes his eyes.
"How do you do it?" His voice cracks.
I choose to take that question as rhetorical. "Some supper now, I think."
"No, home. I need to get some sleep." His eyes fly open. "No, wait. Office. I've got to go back to work." He drifts into a fitful doze. "Wake me when we get there."
"There is something we must discuss, Inspector. Gregory."
Lestrade opens his eyes and stares straight ahead before he looks at me. "What would that be?"
I find myself reticent to broach the subject and, instead, I hold out my hand. He looks at it, hesitates, then takes it. I rest our linked fingers on the leather gap between us.
After a few moments, he clears his throat and sits up straighter. "The intimacy portion of our preparations, I take it?"
He thinks I don't know how he feels about me, and he thinks he's hiding it well.
"I've perpetrated a deceit by claiming you as my partner," I tell him. "It behoves us to bring some verisimilitude to the weekend."
"Act the part convincingly."
"Yes." He stares out of the window as we pass through another street. "Perhaps we could have a bottle of wine with supper."
"My thought precisely."
End notes from chapter one were showing up in my AO3, so...
Hope this erases that :-)
The dinner and then the dance...
I may have added a few pounds to Mycroft's physique in this story. It's purely for plot and characterization purposes and not because my eyes misperceive the svelte and sweetly scrumptious Mark Gatiss :-)
I also borrowed Mycroft's eye colouring (rather distinctive and not, as far as I know, a Gatiss feature) from Take Flight, another one of my stories. Other than this detail, the two stories stand alone and have nothing in common. (Other than me as the author.) (After a while writing in Mycroft's pedantic POV, he starts rubbing off on you.) (That didn't come out right.)
I'm working on that vexing middle bit which still isn't solved. Nevertheless, as it's the season of giving, and in tribute to this day of celebration to so many in the world, here's chapter 3 hard on the heels of chapter 2.
Tip: don't ever put me in charge of rationing. We'd all have a huge party the first three days and then, you know, die.
Happy Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/Hindu new year (back at the beginning of Nov) :-D
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
I wouldn't ordinarily bring someone like Lestrade into my home, but after he was first vetted when he ran into Sherlock six years ago, his approved status has been regularly confirmed and updated. The hour is late, the weekend is two days away, and desperate times call for desperate measures.
The summer evening is balmy in the recent heatwave and dusk still lingers at almost 9PM. We eat al fresco to Chopin piped onto the patio. Lestrade scoops up food like a man unused to routine mealtimes, afraid he won't have time to finish, but he slows as his stomach fills and his wine glass empties. He probably hasn't eaten since luncheon, if then, and my abdomen pinches in sympathy. I pour more wine.
"Jesus, Mycroft, that was amazing." He stretches and, following me into the sitting room, throws his jacket and tie across the console behind the sofa.
"Yes. Mrs Pettigrew is legendary in the kitchen." Engaging her was a coup and I feel rightfully smug.
"It was nice to meet her. Thank her for me, though I don't think I could eat like that every night." He's groaning. "I'd never get any work done."
My eyes narrow. "Fuel for the brain."
"Maybe. I dunno. God, I need a nap." He yawns, and looks up at the painting hanging above the fireplace.
The window curtains are drawn against the late summer night, the room is lit with three lamps, and the round notes of Oscar Peterson's jazz piano fill the background. A small spotlight illuminating the portrait and the gilt from the frame add to the warmth of the beautiful young woman with long auburn hair staring back out at us. Lestrade is quite taken by her.
"I see the resemblance."
I examine the painting again. Other than the colouring, I perceive no similarity between myself and the classical French beauty whatsoever. I regard Lestrade. How extraordinary.
This would seem the moment to approach him. I hesitate. I'm not accustomed to feeling graceless, but in spite of an unsuspected affinity between us, I find it difficult to initiate touch. Added to that, the conversation I had about him in his absence with Stavros has blurred the distinction between reality and fiction. As much as I esteem the flesh-and-blood man in front of me, I must remind myself that he is not the perfect partner of my imagination.
He tilts his head. "There's something kind of sensual about her."
Ah. An opportunity to test my waistcoat theory. I keep the smile off my face. "It's the hair."
Lestrade glances at me, interested, then back at the portrait. "Oh yeah?"
I unbutton my jacket and his eyes shift to me as I slide it off.
"Yes." I arrange it on a wooden hanger before putting it in its place.
He smiles at me when I look at him; really quite stunning.
"In those days, without fail, women always had their hair up in public." I stare again at the painting, and his eyes follow mine.
"The only time they wore it down," I begin to unfasten my waistcoat, "was in the bedroom." He's grinning, but when he flashes a look at me, it lingers on my buttons.
"Yeah?" Licking his lips, he frowns and drags his eyes back to the painting.
"It wasn't long before the husband associated loose hair with bedroom pleasures"—I part the front of my waistcoat—"and intimacy."
Painting forgotten, he's like a cat following my movements. I find it quite…vivifying. He swallows and inhales through his mouth. He meets my eyes in confusion, then looks away.
"Every time she took her hair down"—I peel off the innocuous piece of clothing—"he was ready."
Lestrade stares at my shirt-clad torso, his eyes darkening, his respiration elevating.
"And he never knew why." I turn and hang my waistcoat over the back of a chair.
The Inspector crosses his arms when I turn back, clearing his throat. "Huh." He clears his throat again, his face a picture of turmoil. "Amazing."
Theory proven: a waistcoat has more uses than simply to gild a suit. I've always favoured cognitive psychology during negotiations, but behavioural psychology has its place. Amazing how predictable conditioning is. Granted, stimulating arousal is one of the easy ones. Now to work out what he did to win Jemima's esteem so fast.
Although to be honest, I feel somewhat undressed without any outer covering. I confess, it would be easier to concentrate if his gaze didn't keep finding its way back to my body.
He slowly meets my eyes. "I suppose we'd better get on with why I'm here, then."
"Quite." I offer my hands, but he ignores them.
"You got me into this, I get to choose how we go about it." His expression, neutral and harmless, nevertheless makes the hair rise on the back of my neck.
I stand still whilst he approaches and regards me with a down and up sweep of his eyes. It's not intentionally insolent, but lacking its customary veiled apprehension, it induces my body to react as if it is. When he walks behind me, I want to turn, not to take my eyes off the predator, but I remain motionless. He stands close enough that I can smell the lingering, unexpectedly intoxicating low notes of his skin-heated, day's-end cologne.
His hands come up to my collar and his fingers press warmth through my shirt into my skin. Before I have a chance to respond, he eases away and his palms travel along my shoulders and down my arms to my wrists, trailing heat in their wake.
My skin prickles, not just from allowing another person this close to me, but at the unaccustomed vulnerability of submitting to an unseen assailant. All I can see are his hands, fingers long relative to his palms, but squared off, giving the assurance of blunt solidity. Shed of all layers but my shirt, I can feel the slightest movement in air current, making me sensitised and attuned to his touch. This level of proximity wasn't quite what I had in mind in acclimating ourselves to each other.
Running the backs of his hands up my inner arms to the sleeve seams, he then curls his fingers around my torso, somehow making the scenery waver as he eases down in a roundabout journey over my chest, back along my spine, over my ribs. I pull oxygen into my lungs more and more deeply, letting go of everything beyond us. His movements are protracted, provocative, but I recognize the pattern.
When he stops at my hips, I scramble for something to say to keep me grounded.
"My goodness, is that how the police are patting down suspects nowadays?"
He pulls me back against him. "Your tailor tells me you like everything bespoke." He is leaning close, his lips against my hair. "So this modification has been custom-designed just for you."
I don't know whether to laugh or to shiver.
When his hands slide forward, up over my viscera to my chest, and he closes the gap until only the fine weave of our shirts remains between us, I shiver.
He wraps his arms like two bands around me, more swaddling than restraint. "Cold?"
Quite the reverse. A deep quivering breath, falling eyelids, and I let myself settle against him. I haven't felt this relaxed with another human being since…well, I don't recall a time.
He takes a deep shaky breath. "God, Mycroft, you're so…"
I'm so what?
He turns me in his arms and grazes the sensitive skin at the hinge of my jaw with his lips, sending tingles down my spine. His mouth brushes against my evening bristles, circling forward towards my—I pull back, rigid.
"What are you doing, Lestrade?" Good heavens, he's trying to kiss me. "People don't—" I wave a hand.
He stares at me and jerks his head back. "People do."
"Well, men don't—" I suppose they do. "I don't."
His gaze drops to my mouth and he rubs his lips together once, but that can't be longing on his face. I don't kiss. I don't kiss because I never have. I never have because I have never wanted to.
Other than the one that didn't count, the one that, from any perspective, never fit any kind of definition of a true kiss.The mistake.
"OK." He turns away.
I'm colder than can be accounted for by the ambient temperature and I turn to put on my waistcoat, frowning. Over the years, a small number of exclusive male escorts have seen to certain needs. Not one of them has left me feeling so bereft with so little effort. After a moment, I see Lestrade in my peripheral vision walk to the sofa and retrieve his jacket. I wait averted, stomach plummetting.
He shrugs it on. "I suppose I should—"
"Yes, I'll call for the car."
I go to push a button on the wall, but he's behind me and his hand catches mine. I stiffen as he pulls me back and wraps our joined right arms around us.
"Mycroft." Warmth fluctuates against the back of my ear. I resist his attempt to fold my other arm around us, but instead of being dissuaded, he clamps down and pulls me tight. "I was going to say I suppose I should back off and take things a little slower."
"Really?" I push against my confinement. "Is that what you were going to say?"
Not only is he much more physical than anyone else of my habitual acquaintance, but in spite of a height two inches shy of mine, he's strong enough to impose that physicality on me. Odd, then, that his confident iron grip, rather than stimulating unease, only makes me feel more secure.
"The added layers of clothing were supposed to help you relax and adjust. If you hadn't prematurely rushed to—oh, crap."
I can't help glancing back. With the native instinct of a protection officer, he's assessing my safety and a shudder of something unforeseen goes through me.
"Try and break free," he says.
I don't bother. I can't. It was too late the moment I let him take the dominant position behind me.
"I could do anything to you," his words skim my ear, but rather than flaunting, his voice is tight and dazed, "and you wouldn't be able to stop me."
True, I'd be at a disadvantage with someone determined to harm me, but I've talked my way out of worse situations. What catches me short is the abrupt realization that I may not want to talk my way out of this.
He gauges the environment. "You can't break free, you can't reach your panic button, there's no one in calling distance—" He takes two steps away, and the sudden distance between us unsettles me for a moment. "Sweet Jesus, Mycroft, where's your security?"
I take a deep breath. "Consider where you are, and under what conditions."
"I'm in your house." He looks around. "You brought me into your safe place."
"Which comes down to…"
He blinks at me. "Trust."
At the drinks cabinet, I'm pouring two Cognacs. The Lalique decanter trembles a little at his conclusion as I put it down. "Extensive vetting."
He rolls his eyes and throws himself into a corner of the sofa. "Vetting. Right."
"Don't misunderstand." I extend a glass to him and settle myself in an armchair. "I wouldn't commend Sherlock into the care of someone who hadn't earned my complete confidence." I tilt my glass in his direction before I start to swirl it. "A la tienne.”
The moment of frisson putting myself in Gregory's power and coming out unscathed is over, leaving an unaccustomed feeling in the pit of my stomach. Not triumph, or even relief. Perhaps disappointment. I displace it with a sip of the smoky honeyed heat of my brandy.
"Oh, right. Gan bēi."
I pull the snifter away from my nose. "Ni shō Putonghua?"
Ah, so he doesn't speak Mandarin. "Cheers." In fifty languages.
He takes an absent-minded gulp of the rare Cognac, coughing at the burn. I hide my bemusement in a smile.
We don't talk. Alcohol on top of adrenaline on top of exhaustion are taking their toll on him, and I watch his eyes flutter closed. The pull of his suit is setting wrinkles in unintended places, but his face and body are in complete repose, the worry-tuck at his brow all but gone.
His features are Gallic at its best. He must have been a pretty boy, perhaps saved from bullying by his strong chin. Or by his attitude. Or perhaps by his fists. Only with age has he matured into a truly handsome man, his looks when he's not laughing set off by a somber downturn to the mouth acquired over years of seeing the dross of London.
I ease the empty glass from his hand and clasp his shoulder to awaken him. He blinks.
"Would you like to go to bed?" He is startled into a soft gasp and, perplexed by my own choice of words, I amend them. "I have a guest bedroom."
Gregory doesn't answer. Before I can pull away to give him space to wake up, he takes my face in his hands.
"I thought you had blue eyes," he says, "but there are threads of grey running through them. You can hardly see it from a normal distance, but they're like lightning strikes."
"I'll take that as a compliment since others have likened my eyes to crazy paving." My heart rate elevates at the dark liquid warmth examining me. "With the emphasis on crazy."
"Baby brothers." His grin transports me to powder-snowed Alps on a cloudless sunny morning. "Got to love 'em."
"Hmm, I'll take that under advisement."
We stare at each other a moment more, then his hands slip away, and my face cools. I return our glasses to the drinks cabinet.
"Much as I'd like to take advantage of your hospitality," he stands and shakes the hang of his jacket into some semblance of respectability, "I need to go back to my flat. Gather some things for a day's work tomorrow." He retrieves his tie, his mutter not beyond my hearing. "Get some actual sleep."
"Of course." I turn away. That could mean so many things.
I summon the car, then stop him before he leaves. "Plan to stay here tomorrow night"—what can be the harm?—"so we can get going at a decent hour on Saturday. Bring anything you have on Pitera."
He frowns. "Don't I get a say in our plans?"
"Why, certainly, if you have a more expedient suggestion."
A moment passes. "See you tomorrow."
I watch the receding car from a window with a smile.
A la tienne - informal version of A ta santé = To your health (French)
Gan bēi = Cheers (Mandarin)
Ni shō putonghua? = You speak Mandarin? (umm, Mandarin)
Guess who's coming to dinner...
Durn you awfully nice people whom I can't bear to deny - here's another chapter *shakes fist*
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The smell is an intoxicating blend of gamey and tart, earthy and sweet, and I follow it into the spacious kitchen. Mrs Pettigrew smiles at me whilst continuing her admirable work. Dinner is prepared, but she won't plate it until the arrival of our guest.
She forbears my investigation of stovetop and double-oven, until she sits me down to a small plate of starred apple sliced horizontally, garnished with a sprig of mint. Whilst Naomi, her assistant, continues to restore the kitchen to order, she drapes a starched serviette across my knee and hands me a small fork and knife.
I smile at her. "Dessert first?"
"Think of it as an apéritif." The decorative apple, prepared with a rub of lemon, is dry and crisp rather than sweet. "A Pimm's Cup without the Pimm's No. 1."
She does, however, round out the dish by bringing me a small dry sherry. I watch her go about her duties as my mind brushes, by a natural process of association, on the formidable tie between food and nurturing—the closure of a poorly-run orphanage in Montenegro—the recent earthquake in neighbouring Lesbos—rumours of further nuclear-testing in earthquake-bedeviled Iran—the stumbling of Arab Spring and the dangers of breaking bread with the enemy—Pitera—Lestrade.
This won't do.
I put my folded serviette aside and thank Mrs Pettigrew for her care as I leave for the library to continue work. I turn back when the exterior door opens with far more kinesis than necessary.
He strides into the kitchen. His energy is loud and rumpled and fills every space. It steals the air from my lungs. Seeing me, he drops his bag, his expression—always an open book—transforming into what I can only describe as felicity.
On the point of coming up to me, Gregory. . .Lestrade. . .the Inspector notices the staff and hesitates, watching me, waiting for a cue. Mrs Pettigrew turns to us from instructing Naomi on final preparations for dinner just as a hint of disappointment and resignation filters through Lestrade's smile. She looks at each of us in turn.
A ripple of misgiving sweeps through me as I absorb his effect on Mrs Pettigrew, one that leaves her dismayed. I've never suffered this kind of difficulty with Anthea. Of course, she and I have worked together for so many years that we can adjust into many different aspects with each other, adapting to a variety of rôles without much thought. Lestrade is a novice at this, and the thought crosses my mind that this weekend I'll be taking him into the the ocean without teaching him to swim with the sharks.
Mrs Pettigrew clears her throat and Lestrade, after a second more of looking at me, turns to her.
"It's good to see you again, Mrs P." He busses her cheek. "I've been looking forward to another of your meals all day."
I'm nonplussed by his informality. "You kissed the cook."
He laughs like I made a joke. "It is customary."
I glance between them. "Is it?"
Her lower key smile is, nevertheless, broader than I'm in the habit of seeing. "In certain circles, yes."
"But you're Mrs Pettigrew." I find myself assailed by rising schoolboy discomfort, the type I grew out of years ago and with which Sherlock still struggles.
"I'm aware of that, Mr Mycroft."
The Mrs Pettigrew. The one I cherish and venerate and treasure as a jewel. "And you like this kissing?"
Lestrade is laughing again, leans sideways against the granite counter. "People do."
She looks at him, her levity heightened. "In certain circles, sir, yes."
I see; from him, but not me. I attend to him once more, undecided whether to be impressed or insulted. He tries to stifle a smile. Insufficiently, I might add.
Fine. I address Mrs Pettigrew. "Did Anthea stop by with your itinerary for this weekend?"
"Yes, I have everything I need." Her beatific smile is a salve. "It will be an honour to meet Chef Ming Tsai."
"The honour will be his." Her pleasure is infectious. "Saunders will be here in the morning. He'll take you to pick up my brother and Dr Watson and drop you all at the airport. Feel free to join the boys and meet the Harvard research medicos—"
"Harvard?" The inspector's stupefaction is mollifying.
"—but discourage my brother from meeting Chef. A homicide on the other side of the pond would be bothersome, and I've heard he's rather good with a meat cleaver."
"You're going to America? Wait, who's good with a meat cleaver?" Lestrade can't divert himself. "You're just going for the weekend?"
"You should go for at least a fortnight."
"She can go there on holiday any time. Chef Tsai only has this Sunday available."
"Chef has special knowledge I'd like to know more about," she tells him. "You know what they say, one man's allergy is another man's poison."
Lestrade blinks at her. "Who says that, then?"
"Well, mostly Mr Sherlock." Her expression deepens. "It's important to recognize it, catalogue it, erm, quantify it. Anyway, having the opportunity to exchange techniques with a recognized expert and famous chef is exciting."
"Oh God, what a field trip." Lestrade raises his eyebrows at me. "I imagine she's yours lock, stock and barrel."
"You didn't think it's my winning personality that keeps her in my employ, did you?"
They both look at me, then swap a guarded smile that is at once both mystifying and unnerving. When Hopkirk comes in from seeing to the car and picks up the overnight bag, I take the opportunity to divert the conversation.
"Upstairs, thank you, Hopkirk."
"No, wait." Lestrade intervenes, tries to relieve my driver and protection officer of the luggage. "I can take care of my own things."
I ignore him. "Just leave it with the suitcases for now." Lestrade would, I think, be unhappy with a stranger's hands on his things.
"Let him." Mrs Pettigrew touches the DI's sleeve. "You barely have time to wash your hands, and I hate to send you straight to the dining room without a chance to wind down with a glass of sherry, but my dinner's on the brink of being hopelessly ruined."
"G&T's more my speed." But he relents, and Hopkirk proceeds upstairs with his spoils. "I'm sorry, Mrs P."
"That's twice now you've been late. For future reference, dinner is at 8."
Lestrade's eyes become bleak. "I'll remember that." He looks at me.
Perhaps Sunday. Perhaps we could debrief here on Sunday. Over dinner.
Of course not. Mrs Pettigrew won't be here.
I turn away under suspicion that, for no good reason, my own eyes are shifting into something rather bleak. "This way."
Hang in there, it's not all gloom and disappointment! Well, I suppose it. . .Bear in mind that a happy ending happens, by definition, at the end. (But there'll be other exciting bits on the way.)
Somehow my endnotes for chapter one have become my endnotes for the entire work and keep moving forward with each chapter posted. It's got to be horribly irritating for you to keep seeing them (it is for me), but I don't know how to turn them back into chapter endnotes.
Should I empty my cache or something?
What does that mean anyway? Is it a real thing, or is it--like the Doctor's "Reverse the polarity of the neutron drive!"--something to say when you've got nothing else?
Which is my long way of saying--Sorry.
Feeding the soul...
Like a New Year's Day hangover, regret is going to floor me after I've poured out all my available chapters in the reckless high I get from your bubbly enjoyment of this story...(Sometimes my metaphors fall flat--sorry about that.)
Oh, what the heck, here's another chapter. Happy New Year! *throws confetti*
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
When the soup is sent back hardly touched, Naomi appears at the door, biting her lower lip. Mrs Pettigrew won't be far behind. It's insupportable and I push out my chair.
"Please excuse us." I close the door in her face. "Just for one moment."
I shove Lestrade's chair over a few inches and perch against the table next to him. "We can't do this to Mrs Pettigrew. I won't have it."
"Not good enough. If you find this too difficult, there's still time for me to make our apologies to Pitera, and you can go home. But I won't have Mrs Pettigrew upset."
"Hey, don't make this all my fault." He stands up and throws his serviette down beside me. "You hardly ate anything either. You're affected by…whatever it is, too."
Because of you. But conflict isn't going to solve the immediate problem. I want to restore Mrs Pettigrew's harmony, and squabbling won't do.
I focus his attention. "What do you want?"
He frowns at me. "What?"
"Right now, this minute, what will help you find your equilibrium?"
"I don't understand."
"We were both famished, looking forward to dinner—" Until we started thinking about the fictive Midnight. When this ruse would be over and pumpkins would abound. When everything would revert to the way it has always been, as it must. I run a knuckle over my eyebrow. "Is there anything—What can I do to help you you regain your appetite?"
He glances away, then back at me with a look that—I get to my feet. Perhaps I should have phrased that differently.
He reaches out, grazes a button of my waistcoat, and then waits without letting go. I watch the fabric of my clothing, along with his fingers, rise and fall too fast. Distracting myself with slowing my breath, I work to reconcile this hands-on Lestrade with the rather circumspect fellow I've known for six years.
It's not so much that he's willing to venture out of social space, bypassing personal space altogether and leaping straight into intimate space, as that I want him there. Here.
I close my eyes for the fleeting moment my Adam's apple takes control of my throat, then touch the back of his hand. I look at him. He double-takes before he proceeds to slip each button free. My breathing goes to hell again.
Once more he hesitates, tense, focussed on the way the rapid rise and fall of my ribs makes my shirt fluctuate.
This is a terrible idea. I take half a step back before I'm stopped by fingers pulling on the lapels of my waistcoat. He draws me close, settling his cheek against mine as he wraps his hands around my waist and then runs them up and down the shirt on my back. I find myself a little envious of his ease with touch and surrender to it.
When it doesn't let up, when he doesn't find relief in this moment because he's too busy stowing memories against the future, I disrupt his movements by echoing his gesture from last evening, banding my arms around him. I turn my face into his hair and try not to think of the end, two days hence.
"It's going to be all right, Gregory."
After a second, he nods.
He believes it as much as I do.
Not at all. Somehow, we find ourselves crossing a chasm on a rope bridge with fraying knots and we've passed the point of no return.
"Don't—" His voice is muffled. "You're not going to cancel the weekend, are you?”
"No." We can't stop now until we reach the other side. I only wish I knew what that meant.
He's still tense, but his hands have stopped moving. My cheek and nose slide against his ear as he adjusts towards me, his lips grazing my jaw, edging towards my mouth. My blood turns hot. I could just allow this—
I jerk away. It would surely disappoint.
"That was—I'm sorry," he says. I let him twist out of my arms. "I must be more tired than I thought. Maybe I'll find my equilibrium after a good night's sleep."
Not good enough. As he takes a step towards the door, I pull him back. "No."
He stares at me in disbelief. "What, are you going to lock me in here until I eat all my vegetables?"
If I thought for one moment that would help— "It's Mrs Pettigrew."
I'm being foolish, I know I am. I sag against the table, letting my hand slide off his elbow and, closing my eyes, rub a finger between my brows. It's just that it's Mrs Pettigrew. At this moment, though, I honestly couldn't eat a bite myself.
"Go, Lestrade, get a good night's sleep."
"No. Look, I'm sorry. The thing is I don't know if—I may have—" He swipes a hand over his face, then crosses his arms and looks at the empty fireplace. "I-I may have made some assumptions. I thought you had a plan, but it was just because I was right there, wasn't it?" He turns to me. "When you conjured up plans at Pitera's house for this weekend. You could just as easily have taken Anthea with you, but I was there."
He's seen through me. Pointless denying it. "Yes. I'd originally intended to take Anthea."
He sighs. "OK."
Only when he slumps back down by my leg in his chair with elbows on knees, hands cradling his face, that I realize he doesn't know. My sexuality isn't something I hide, but it rarely comes up since I place personal relationships firmly in the liabilities column. Even so, in spite of everything that has transpired between us, he hasn't trusted himself to believe what he has felt. He's wondering how much of my play-acting is play-acting.
"Look," he says, "I think I'll just go upstairs—"
It may only be for the weekend, but he's supposed to be my partner and I find I want to do a better job of easing him. Overcoming a spasm of inner resistance, I touch his cheek and neck, then pull his seated form against me. I soak in his glorious fragrance and solidity while his arms slowly come around me, his warmth spreading through the fine weave of my shirt. His enviably thick silver hair tickles my chin as he looks up at me in confusion.
"I made the right choice in taking you."
His eyes widen, but before he can say anything, there's a robust knock on the door and it opens. We pull apart. A determined Mrs Pettigrew marches in armed with a tray in one hand and a rather fearsome culinary butane torch in the other.
"I was reminded of a little idea today," she takes in our proximity and our despondency at a glance, "of having dessert first."
She places the tray containing two individual ramekins on the table. My mouth waters and I grin, but she flicks an amused glance at my open waistcoat. Blushing, I turn away to repair my appearance.
"Now, sit, both of you."
We take our places whilst I consider her accessories. "Carrot and whip, Mrs Pettigrew?"
"I didn't think either of those would work on you, so I improvised."
"I get the carrot because, crème brulée"—Lestrade smirks—"but how," he tilts his head, "how are you thinking the torch would work?"
"Ah well, that was a stretch," she shrugs at it and lays it in the tray, "but I've heard you don't have to fire a gun for it, nevertheless, to have great effect at a crime."
"Oh yes?" He extends his neck to loosen a kink. "And where did you hear that?"
Mrs Pettigrew and I busy ourselves with sorting out the dessert over Lestrade's mutter which is quite audible. "I need to have a chat with Sherlock one of these days."
She thrusts a spoon in his hand. "Eat."
He breaks through the crispy top and takes a bite—and indisputably melts on the spot. I cut a glance at Mrs Pettigrew who is spellbound.
"Oh my God." He groans. "I've never tasted one like this."
"It's often over-baked." She watches him.
"Yes!" He waves his spoon at her and takes another bite. "It's usually quite firm, while this is—"
"Creamy." He locks eyes with me and I wish I'd kept my mouth shut.
"Sometimes," Mrs Pettigrew says, "the crisp sugar layer has softened again if the dessert's finished off too far ahead of time and refrigerated."
Around a mouthful, he makes a sound that's positively indecent, and his gaze finds me again whilst he takes another bite.
"Or sometimes it's left sitting through dinner," she says, "and the contrast between the heat of the melted sugar and the cool of the chilled custard is lost."
"What's that flavour? It's like perfume."
He stares at her. "Plain vanilla?"
"There's nothing plain about Mr Mycroft's vanilla. Beans fresh from the rainforest, still redolent with dew."
He doesn't say anything, just continues to look at me as he eats.
"Yes, I—Yes." I pick up my spoon as his reverberates against an empty dish.
He slumps back, loose-limbed, and sighs. "I'm sorry if we ruined dinner, Mrs P."
"That's all right, you won't go hungry." She looks between us. "And nourishment comes in many forms."
Indeed, Lestrade's impudent contentment quite seems to feed something inside me.
"That was fantastic, but—" He runs his tongue around his lips. "What's next?"
To my aggravation, Mrs Pettigrew whisks away my uneaten crème brulée. "I'll make you a fresh one, Mr Mycroft. You'll enjoy it more at the end of dinner," she casts a glance at Lestrade, "if you can defend it."
He grins. That look does not stimulate competitive juices; much too much legwork. I feel something unknot inside me, and I catch Mrs Pettigrew's eye.
There's a reason she's the best household cook in the United Kingdom. "Your brilliance sparkles, as usual."
She smiles. "Are you ready for the grilled portobello mushrooms au poivre?"
"I thought we were having pheasant."
"That turned to shoe leather long ago."
Disappointed I can't show off more of her talents, I glance at Lestrade.
"Oops." He tucks his bottom lip between his teeth.
Wishing you all the best that 2016 has to offer...and a bigger and brighter future after that :-)
In the Library, with the (kid) Gloves...
I loved all 110 minutes of The Abominable Bride (including features), but the 17 seconds Mycroft and Lestrade stood together...that sang to me ;-)
In honour of the bloom of happiness it inspired, here's another chapter *languid sigh*
Through other channels, I've already read 97% of the documentation on Stavros that Lestrade has brought. What is new is unlikely to add anything of significance. As he sits on the floor in his shirtsleeves by the coffee table, his back against the perfectly serviceable sofa, and reads the dossier my people have compiled, however, his eyebrows rise.
"This is amazing." He stares at me, frowning. "Where did you find all the information?"
"It came from a variety of sources, but most of it's readily available to anyone that cares to look for it."
"Would've been helpful to have this earlier. Couldn't you have shared it before now?"
"I didn't have it earlier. Data doesn't turn into information until you have a reason to apply it." And that was the thing. At least half the time, it's not finding the information that's the problem. It's knowing that you need to find it that holds things up.
"You mean your people only just put this together?" He blinks. "But—but this has got everything - his schooling, his business interests, his house blueprints, his personality profile. You've got stuff about him losing the fight to take over the family business to his younger brother, and even a bit about his short-lived tennis career!"
I shrug. It's missing the guest list for this weekend. "Do you have anything on Constantine?"
"You think the brother's involved, too?"
What made him demand the London home back now, after five years? "I think he's related to Stavros. What've you got?"
"That he's related to Stavros." Lestrade looks dejected, though he probably shouldn't. It's my job to see connections before anyone else realises they might be important. "And the usual stuff in the annual report."
My eyebrows rise. "A current one?"
His face lights up. "You want to see it?"
"I've read it."
"But annual reports of private overseas companies, especially as closely held as this one, aren't readily available. How did you manage to get hold of it?"
He pauses a moment too long. "Our accounting people aren't completely useless, you know."
It's not kind to smile, but I do. "You don't know."
He groans and slides sideways to the floor, pillowing his head on his arm. "It was just there. I don't know how it got there. Not my division." He rolls onto his back, knees bent, eyes closed, hands clasped behind his head.
The doubtless witty response on its way to my lips is diverted by the sight of Gregory Lestrade on the floor of my library, where no one has reclined before. His serene ease is bewildering. Bewitching. Inviting.
My silence makes him look up.
I tighten my grip on my pen and scrawl out the first thing that comes to mind. Socrates' treatise on love from Plato's Phaedrus.
He reddens and sits up. "I'm sorry."
In the original Greek. "You shouldn't do that." Right in the middle of my notes on recent threats to Russian natural gas supplying Britain.
I glance at him as he pulls himself to his feet.
"I meant—" I pause to collect myself, close the leather portfolio and my laptop, and stand up. "I meant you shouldn't apologise."
At the drinks trolley, I consider offering him a less expensive spirit than I did last night, but go back to the Courvoisier L'Esprit which has been wheeled in with a small selection of after-dinner drinks. It's going to ruin his palate for ordinary brandy. I'm only sorry I won't be there to see the horror on his face the next time he pours himself a splash of whatever it is he has at home.
"You realise Stavros will go out of his way to make you uncomfortable this weekend." Lestrade takes the snifter I offer and we salute with a clink of glass. I sit on the sofa, remaining composed as he takes a generous first mouthful and coughs. Shall I tell him Stavros might make a play for him? But his inevitable self-consciousness would then be a beacon that drew every eye, making it impossible for him blend in. "You don't know how to behave—"
"Hey!" He crosses his arms, brandy glass hanging off to one side, and leans against the edge of the library table.
"—in the context he will construct. But you have a knack for making yourself at home when you're unself-conscious about it. Make that your strength."
"You mean pretend like it's the thing that would've made you keep me around for six years?"
Would it? Is it? "If you like." Did it?
No. This stealth—there's no other word for it, the way he has slipped into my stronghold and made himself accepted by everyone—is a side I had never suspected.
"But then again you wouldn't actually keep me around for six years."
I sip my Cognac and relish the burn all the way down to my stomach. The warmth fills me as I look at him. His loyalty, his courage, his ability to take Sherlock's guff without giving up or giving way have made me keep him in my orbit, even when it was clear he wasn't going to become my brother's close friend. Long after I should have cut him loose.
"But I would. I did."
"Keep you around for six years."
"Well," he stares at me, "only because you needed someone to keep an eye on Sherlock."
"I thank you for all you've done in that regard, but Dr Watson has taken on the rôle most satisfactorily for a couple of years now. You've still been around for six years."
"But I have access to serious crimes."
"Dr Watson again—or more precisely his blog—is proving to be an excellent lightning conductor for interesting cases to ground my brother. The situation has reversed and you are asking for his help far more than the other way around. Yet you're still very much in the forefront six years later." Oh, that cut a little close to the bone.
"You make it sound like we're friends or… Just don't blur the lines."
Doesn't he understand? "But that's what this weekend will do."
"Blur the lines?"'
"And afterwards everything goes back to the way it was?"
"Yes." As it must. "Are you changing your mind?"
"I don't just change my mind when things get tough."
Escape clause; it's stopping him from doing a bunk. But in addition, this one has his own reasons for being here. He wants Stavros. For different reasons, he wants me. Nothing will make him break.
"You're worth keeping around, Gregory."
His face is a battleground of pleasure and scepticism, and he buries his nose in his glass.
He almost does. “It doesn't bother you in the slightest, does it?”
I take a sip. "What doesn't?"
"Staying as a guest in Pitera's house while ransacking his records."
"First of all, he insisted I visit; I didn't inveigle my way in. Second, he threatened to find me a little friend for the weekend and that alone deserves punishment."
Gregory laughs as he stacks the Stavros dossier on the library table.
"Third, I'm not ransacking; you are. I shall remain unsullied and innocent whilst I let you do all the dirty work."
"I'm glad I was there, then."
I smile at him. "So am I. Speaking of which. . ."
I set down my Cognac and get up to retrieve my briefcase from under the library table by my chair.
I hold out a flash drive. "It automatically encrypts everything saved to it."
He hesitates, then takes it from the palm of my hand. "What's the password?"
"If you find anything worth saving, we'll review it together."
"You won't tell me the password?"
"It has a terabyte of storage."
"Don't you trust—A terabyte? That's. . .quite a lot, isn't it?"
"Whatever you find of interest, don't hesitate to copy it over."
"Yet you won't—"
"I promise—" Swallowing, I make a show of searching for an item in my briefcase around which my hand has already closed. Why promise? "If you find anything of relevance, we will review it. Together."
When I look up, he's staring at me.
"Here. You'll need this, too."
He takes the BlackBerry. "What does it do?"
"Sends and receives telephone calls, texts, emails. Browses the internet, takes photographs—"
"Not much of a Q, are you?"
"I've always thought of myself as more of an M."
He snorts. "But I already have a phone."
"Which contain private communications—"
He shoots me a look.
"—as well as work-related ones. You wouldn't want them to fall into the wrong hands."
"Are they likely to fall into the wrong hands?"
"We have protocols to eliminate the chance of likelihoods."
"OK." He punches some buttons. "Is this one all scrubbed and secure or something?"
"Bloody hell, there are pictures of us here!"
Oh, he's found them.
"But we've never—Christ, you Photoshopped them."
"All those snapshots we found of you made it easy." Nothing incriminating. Just friends enjoying cocktails in Covent Garden. "Thank you for posing." One of him lounging in my office. One of me usurping his chair in his. My 'phone contains photographs of us, too.
"What?" He's mesmerized. "Er, yeah."
I reclaim my Cognac, sitting in a nearby armchair, and let him find some texts, emails, an address book; a shallow but sterilized construction from a mirror of his phone and thin air. It's too pristine to pass muster under careful scrutiny, but at a glance, it give an impression of authenticity.
He should be reminded why I wouldn't make a good friend. "I get primary information from listening at doors, watching others unseen, outright deception. I break the law. I both authorise and use traits and techniques that are far from the best of British."
He turns to me. "You're talking to an inspector in Serious Crimes here. I see the scum of the earth on a daily basis. People do much worse than listen at doors or Photoshop pictures."
He's making excuses for me, but I represent much more than just myself.
"Organizations, I fear, do far more terrible things than individuals. Governments, corporations, military, church—"
"Mafia, drug cartels, human trafficking syndicates—"
"Point taken." I sip again. He'll learn. Eventually. "I wish it could be different, Gregory. I wish we didn't have to have a Serious Crimes unit. I'm sorry you have to deal with all that comes with it. I do what I do so individuals don't have to."
"Same here, my friend." He sighs and drifts to the window, holds the curtains open on one side against the frame. "Same here."
Curious to see what he's looking at, I go and stand behind him. With the dark concealing this postal stamp view of tranquil green England and with the light behind us, all there is to see is each other's reflection.
"You may think you're not the best of British," he meets my duplicate's eyes, "but we're all safer with you than without you."
This won't do, I can't let myself get fond of him.
I pull him back until the curtains drop. "My security detail won't be happy about us standing at a window with the light at our backs."
"Us. A threat to you is a threat to me."
He turns around to look at me. "Sometimes you say things that—"
He shakes his head and goes to examine some books on the floor-to-ceiling shelves that line the room. "That sound real."
A threat to him is a threat to me. It is real.
No, he's right. It's only real in the distortion of this sham weekend.
I'm willing, even eager, to take full advantage of having Gregory Lestrade at close quarters for two days and two nights, but everything will return to normal after that. It must. I need the purified efficiency of the life I've designed to control and direct all the projects I have in motion. People—not superiors precisely, but important people nonetheless—have come to have expectations of my performance, expectations I've spent a lifetime nurturing. I can't squander that for the sake of sentiment.
While no game is worth playing if there isn't a chance of losing, I do everything to ensure my odds are squarely on the winning side. I already have one messy relationship to divert me, but at least I can keep my brother at arm's length. My confidence in controlling distance with Lestrade over the long term, however, is faltering.
"Libraries are so quiet, even home ones like this." Gregory bites his lip. "Always thought it was a bit creepy."
"Noisiest places in the world." I look around at my beloved companions. "All those voices crossing space and time, each with its own opinion, vying for conversation with me."
He takes on a speculative gaze. "Never thought about it like that." He runs his finger along some first editions—Freud, Jung, Adler—in the original German. "Somehow I thought your library would be…prettier."
"Books all leather-bound and gilt-edged, rising in artistic symmetry to the ceiling?" I tone down my sneer to nothing more than an edge to my voice. "This is a working library, not for show."
He pulls down the next volume in English—Skinner—and flips through it, whilst I resume sipping my Cognac.
"I thought you might like to repack your own clothes in the suitcase."
Gregory looks up, startled. "Repack?"
"Wouldn't we have shared luggage as partners?"
"Well, yeah, I suppose."
"My garment bag has already gone down. Yours will be picked up from Patterson in the morning. Hopkirk has offered to wait for the suitcases tonight, and we'll bring down a small carryall with last minute items when we leave."
"I thought Hopkirk was your driver."
"More of a general factotum."
"You mean dogsbody."
What have you two been talking about during your drives? He won't go off duty until he believes you're comfortable. "That would be the vernacular, yes."
"So how many servants do you have in total to look after one of you?" He flips the pages of the book in his hand again without looking down. "Five? Ten?"
Deflect. "Hopkirk might be startled to find himself classified a household staff rather than government employee."
"Yes, there are fleets of civil servants at my command, too."
Gregory smiles, but turns away with a rather pained expression. I feel something akin to pity, perhaps even remorse, for getting him into deep water when I knew he wouldn't be able to say no to me. Even before the CCTV documentation on Pitera. "Is the reality of the weekend starting to get to you?"
"It's going to be a whole lot more of this, isn't it? You look so poised, so confident." He swallows. "I wish I felt that way."
So do I, Gregory.
Whilst the trappings of class and etiquette don't phase me, letting another human being this close to me does. I don't think I could have more of an adrenaline-high if I locked myself in a cage with a hungry tiger.
The upturn of my lips is the single nail that holds up my façade.
I wish I felt that way, too.
A bedroom scene...but not *the* bedroom scene
Had a hard week with my mother ordered to the ER from where she was admitted into hospital with pneumonia. My father was lost without her at home, and it felt eerily like looking after two well-behaved children all week.
Which is an exaggeration because my mother has never been well-behaved in her life.
Back to the story: F-bomb warning. Only one, but you may be as surprised as I was...
When I emerge from my dressing room in pyjamas, gown and slippers, I freeze. Lestrade has finished with the suitcases and put them outside the closed door to be taken down. Instead of changing for bed in his own room or even the other master suite dressing room, though, he has turned his back to change right here. Crossing my arms, I lean against the door jamb to watch.
He has already put on a washed-soft sleeveless t-shirt. When he bends over half-naked to put on a pair of thin, baggy shorts, I'm fairly sure I should look away. My head tilts to one side. I'm almost certain I should look away.
It takes me a moment to realise he's been watching my reflection in the large black television screen mounted on the wall. And that the little Yard-rat is laughing at me.
"Isn't this entrapment, Inspector?"
"Depends on what you try to do next."
"I'm sure I can work out something suitably damning."
He turns to me with a grin that takes my breath away. "I wasn't sure you would play along."
"But you thought you'd push the boundaries anyway and find out."
"Ah well, this weekend's just make-believe, that's what you've been trying to tell me, isn't it." His smile fades, but his expression remains good-natured. "We have something to accomplish at the Pitera residence, but beyond that, it's playing with roles. If there was the slightest chance of anything lasting beyond the next two days," his saunter towards me doesn't detract from the slight catch in his speech, "it wouldn't be worth risking. But if everything resets at midnight Sunday without penalty, it frees us to behave with each other in ways we wouldn't—couldn't—otherwise. Like it's all trapped in a helium balloon. At the end of the weekend, we'll seal it up and let it go. Never mention it again."
"Yes." I stare at him and think about the contents of the bedside drawer with some trepidation. I'd discarded the idea before, but— "Sleep with me tonight."
His jaw loosens a fraction before something behind his eyes shutters, and I squelch a sigh at my clumsy babble. This is one area in which I've never bothered to acquire any finesse, having found an alternate satisfactory solution. I search for a way to retract the suggestion with more aplomb than I made it.
But he smiles. "OK."
I blink. "Truly?"
"Yeah." He lowers his head and looks at me through his lashes. "Why not?"
Something prickles on the back of my neck, There's no evidence of reluctance or discomfort on his part. Nor of cynicism or aggressiveness. Nor even of encouragement, actually. He's only watchful.
"But in return"—ah, here we go—"kiss me tonight."
I thump back against my dressing room door frame, my eyes falling closed. "I knew it was too easy."
"If you don't kiss, how do you transition your dates from here to there?"
I look from him to the kingsize four-poster bed and back. At the very exclusive, discreet, particular kind of gentlemen's club I visit when the need comes upon me, I never have to address such transitions. With a sigh, I take his hand, tow him over to the bed and pull back the duvet.
"In." I gesture to the sheets.
Without a word, he climbs in. I throw the covers over his legs.
"That was very, um…" He hesitates. "I was going to say smooth, but—"
"—but that would be lying."
Lestrade's good humour is quite restored.
By the time I've made my way around the perimeter of the bed, draping my gown at the end of it, he's lying on his side facing me, propped on his elbow, his head on his fist. I lie down and stare up at the ceiling whilst I contemplate how to manœuvre around what's coming up.
"I can't wait to see how you transition this next bit."
And there it is. There must be a way ordinary people get from lying awkwardly next to each other down to the business of fucking without kisses, but damned if I know how to do it. He's proving to be an adept adversary in this, partly because his confidence speaks to a level of sexual experience that galls me. It's entirely in line with a man of his age, and yet—
He touches my shoulder. "Let me kiss you."
"If we're not intimate enough to kiss, then we're not intimate enough to—get intimate."
"It's that important to you?"
Not negotiable. I turn over and draw my knees up. Undaunted, he lies down behind me, tucks one arm under his pillow and reaches out with the other, his fingers sliding over me.
I think of myself as a tactile person: I love the nap of silk velvet, the buttery smoothness of imperial jade, the deep red colouring and chaotic grain of highly figured, highly prized amboyna bur wood; but Lestrade, he takes tactile to another plane. I'm sure I'd be able to sleep if he'd only stop running his hands over my back and arms, my ribs and hips, my thighs and oh God. So near and yet so far.
"You invited me into your bed. You invited me to get intimate. If you don't want me to touch you, tell me to leave."
I don't want him to leave. But the thought of kissing him creates an abyss not even I can span. It would mean—it would mean letting down my last defence. It would mean admitting how much I want him. I have a suspicion it would mean admitting I want to keep him. And that would be bad in so many ways.
"You haven't told me to leave."
I clench my jaw. Nothing but regret comes from wanting what you can't have. And yet— "No. I haven't."
I slap his hand away and look back at him. "For God's sake, if you don't want sex, stop touching me."
"I do want sex. I just want to kiss you first."
"What is this obsession of yours with kissing?"
"What's this obsession of yours with not kissing?"
I roll my face into the pillow to stifle a groan. I have never had the opportunity before to perceive that there is, in fact, a difference between those who are paid to have sex with one and those who aren't. Instructive, yet vexing. "It's just sex."
Lestrade, on his elbow again, pulls me onto my back to look him in the face.
"No." I'm surprised by the gravity of his expression. "It may be casual, may only be this one time, but it's not just sex." He draws his thumb over my lips. "Not with you."
I swallow with a deep breath chaser, utterly disarmed. Utterly terrified. "Don't." I harden my voice. "Don't make it more than it is."
His eyes fall shut, then he looks away. "Right." He pulls aside the duvet and gets out of bed.
Don't go. I mentally kick myself for having that thought as I watch him walk across the room.
Instead of opening the door, though, he picks up the dossier on Stavros he brought upstairs with the book from my library, and returns to bed. He props himself up against the headboard and arranges the folder on the incline of his thighs. Instead of leaving, he has turned his mind back to work and I find that curiously—warming.
Over the years, I've learnt to grab forty winks under a variety of conditions, so I'm not bothered by his bedside lamp or his wakefulness. I roll again the other way to switch off my light and hie down under the covers.
By the light of my 'phone, I watch him for awhile, this man next to me now at his most vulnerable and defenceless—asleep.
Three hours of work in my study, and I return to bed. He mumbles as he shifts up against me. My breathing climbs, but his sleep deepens again and my breathing comes down once more. Nevertheless, I am certain I couldn't possibly sleep entangled in his arms and legs.
The unaccustomed warmth and comfort soothes me into unconsciousness too quickly for me to register surprise.
Breakfast at Mycroft's...
After an uncharacteristically good night's sleep, I wake up with my head pillowed on Gregory's—Greg's—chest. My heart rate accelerates. My hand is on his t-shirt, low on his abdomen, whilst his is cupped over my silk-clad buttock. It's a memorable way to wake up for the first time with another person in my bed.
I take a deep breath, my eyes fluttering closed again as I inhale the agreeable scent of his shirt and skin. Warm and comfortable, I'm reluctant to move, but a change in the beat of the heart under my ear alerts me and I glance up. He's awake. He's been watching me with a small smile.
Oh no, absolutely not.
He groans as I press into his bladder to roll away and sit up, inadvertently then trapping his hand under me. He disappears into the bathroom whilst I calm myself and take up my tablet to check the notifications Anthea has flagged for attention. After that, through a variety of blogs, I scan what the public is aware of in current affairs.
When Greg emerges, I go in. Only after my shower do I notice my dressing gown is no longer hanging on the back of the door. I master my breathing, gone haywire with implication.
Putting on my pyjamas again, I go back into the bedroom just as he's returning with a tray. He clearly went to the kitchen in my gown and he had to have had assistance putting that breakfast together. Disturbing the bed linens in the guest room, then, is not only childish, but also pointless.
"A dressing gown has been provided for your use, Lestrade."
"Yes, thank you for that." He looks away, but it doesn't conceal his smile. "Except it's packed in the suitcase which went down last night."
How careless of him not to retrieve it first.
He puts the tray on the mahogany drum table by the window, and busies himself being mother.
Bemused by the informality, I pull out a chair and sit. "I typically breakfast in the dining room."
He hands me a cup and saucer, the tea prepared just the way I like it.
"We'd have to get dressed for that." Taking only a filled teacup for himself, he sits back in his own chair and, through the net curtains, we watch Saunders roll away in the Bentley with Mrs Pettigrew in the back.
From time to time, I gaze over my tablet at him reading his book as we eat a leisurely breakfast. Croissants with raspberry and lavender confiture from the small Holmes estate in Provence. My glance in his direction this time is arrested by a deep red patch at the corner of his mouth. He catches me staring.
"You have a—" I gesture at his face.
Before I can stop it, my tongue sneaks out to swipe at the corner of my mouth. "You have a, a—jam."
"Jam?" Eyebrows high, he smiles with apparent delight. "A traffic jam? A jam session? Maybe I'm in a jam with my boss."
And I'm in a jam because I can't help a smile of my own. "Raspberry and lavender jam. Right there. At the corner of your mouth."
"What, here?" He licks the wrong side.
Marvelling at this creature that has been unleashed from behind the business-hours façade of the DI, I glance down at the clear invitation for me to remove the offending stain. We both know the most expedient method to do so. His pursuit of a kiss is relentless and increasingly creative.
"What are you doing, Inspector?"
Making sure you don't forget me. The sentiment is evident in the wistful shadow of his smile.
I discard my tablet and walk over, looking down at him, my heart beating hard. There was never any danger of that.
I rest my fingers against his cheek and push the blob into his mouth. He closes around my thumb, sucks it all the way in, and on cue, my body floods with hormones. When I grab the back of his neck, his eyes lock with mine. He swirls his tongue along and around, swallows, and I lick the tingle at my lips. For the first time in my recollection, I'm desperate to be touched there, to bend down and press against his mouth. The warmth stealing into my chest comes from more than the weight of his hand on my ribs.
I want him.
I want him in a terrible way.
Pulling away, I shiver and despair of my yearning to sink back into his hot, wet depths. I decamp to my dressing room.
When I emerge, dressed, I'm surprised to see that Greg has elected not to wear the stylish yet casual celadon turndown shirt, periwinkle cashmere jumper and slate grey trouser ensemble with which I thought he'd be more comfortable today. Instead he has again put on the navy work suit that he wore yesterday and a pink button-up open at the neck. If the telltale fold lines on the shirt don't give away that it's brand new off the shelf, the packaging in my waste paper basket does.
"I thought"—he smiles uncertainly—"well, I can't pull off a three-piece like that, but I thought this would make us look more—"
—like we go together. I look down at my single-breasted tweeds, the trousers two shades darker than the jacket and waistcoat. It's a more rustic look than my normal workday attire, but still comparatively formal. If Greg could make a gesture towards fitting in with me, perhaps I could do something in acknowledgment.
Removing my waistcoat, I glance at his dilating pupils and allow a small smile as I hang it on the back of a chair. I slide an arm back into my jacket.
Curious, I comply.
He frowns. "What are you doing?"
"I should think that's self-explanatory."
"No." He takes the jacket from me. "Put the waistcoat back on."
As I do so, he throws my jacket on the bed and bats my hands away. He fastens my clothing himself, eyes intent on his task. When he finishes, I try to undo that last button again, but he grasps my hands to stop me.
"Except in the most formal situations," I tell him, "with single-breasted waistcoats, the bottom one is always left undone."
He looks at me whilst he licks his lips and swallows, but it's the expression in his eyes that captures my attention. My knees shake.
"Keep your buttons closed."
My lungs inflate and my body flares. His message is loud and clear. No one gets to see me without my waistcoat—and all that implies—but him. Not this weekend. Not whilst we're a couple. I tighten my hold on him, cutting away from mellifluent dark brown intensity to gaze at his mouth. How easy it would be to lean forwards— I close my eyes and tuck my chin to my tie knot. It won't do to let myself break down now.
I'm not given to sexual frustration. If I can't have the urge seen to soon after it comes upon me, I put it aside without undue aggravation until such time as I can. When my plan for last night disintegrated, it was no great hardship to turn over and go to sleep. Well, not much. Although between the last two evenings and this morning—
Greg is such a—such a tease that I find myself weakening under the constant and endless barrage of neuro-chemicals flooding my system. I suppress a squirm—there's no other word for it—and regret not pressing my advantage whilst I had him in my bed.
All I can do is hang on to the lifeline that everything between us must reset after this weekend, and the no-kissing rule is my last anchor to keep me grounded to do what must be done when the time comes.
I pull away and reach for my jacket, glancing down at my waistcoat. I feel self-conscious having that last button fastened, but I have no doubt that he would view my undoing it as dismissive of him. It matters to me that he not feel that way. Nevertheless—
"The shirt, sweater and slacks would be more comfortable for you." I draw on my jacket.
"No, it's all right. This is fine."
I capture his gaze. "Wear the clothes I selected for you."
His long inhalation as he processes my words is…satisfying. He retrieves the outfit from the small case and looks at me as he takes off his jacket and unbuttons his shirt.
Not again. I turn my back and struggle to get my body under control whilst I look through the window.
"Not going to watch me this time?"
The noise I make sounds like a laugh, feels like a sob. "Whilst I'm not inordinately worried about arriving at the Pitera residence in a timely fashion, I do think we ought to get there before nightfall."
Greg's laughter—mischievous tinged with longing—at my innuendo makes me slip my 'phone out of my jacket pocket to check for emails, texts, anything to take my mind off him.
"Speaking of which," he says after a few rustling moments, "it's after 10.30AM."
"Yes." I admire him in his new garments, although it might already be a little too warm for the jumper.
He picks up his suit and shirt and hovers over the carryall.
"Leave them here. You won't be needing them this weekend."
His fingers tighten as he gives me a thoughtful look for a moment, then he abandons them on the bed and zips closed the carryall. When he picks it up, I reach over.
He flexes his grip and brushes my hand away. "I'll take it." He steps around me. "Seems vaguely immoral to need two garment bags, two large suitcases and a carryall for a one-night stay. The least I can do is help with some of it."
I let him and reach for my Panama hat instead. He raises his eyebrows.
"I burn easily." One can't expect someone who tans in a snap to understand.
I open the bedroom door and we go downstairs.
He hands off the case to Hopkirk and faces me. "So, I thought the point of me staying over last night was to get an early start today."
"I didn’t say early, I said decent. Don't you consider 10.57 a decent hour to start the day's work?"
He dissolves into that grin that leaves me bowled over. "Oh God, yes."
I gather my classic black umbrella as we start to follow Hopkirk out.
Greg stops. "A sun hat and an umbrella?"
I look back at him. "It's going to rain in the next 24 hours."
"We're in the middle of a heatwave!"
"We're at at the end of a heatwave."
"Rain wasn't in the weather report."
I examine the metal tip of my umbrella. "It's in the quality of the humidity rising outside."
"You mark my words."
He contemplates me a moment. "I always do."
Without breaking eye contact, he comes up to face me, parts my jacket and unfastens the last button of my waistcoat.
I glance down, hiding my relief. "A test?"
"You get full marks."
He follows the path Hopkirk took out to the car and I follow him. I can't remember a time in my past when my smile muscles have had so much exercise.
The Dreaded Middle.
Chapter Part One of the Second.
Turns out, the story takes a bit of a dark turn from now on. Not 'dark' dark, not gritty (definitely not gritty), but Mycroft has to be tested. Since ordinary lives are so, well, ordinary to him, he has to be tested in ways that might be extra-ordinary. But we work our way up to it over several chapters. It's a gentle incline.
Btw, it occurs to me, from the big ol' fuss I've been making about The Middle (and I'm still a bit restless and colicky, still madly writing the missing bits), that you could be forgiven for believing it's going to be a stupendous mystery. Ummmm. There's probably just enough to form the pivot point for the change in Mycroft and Greg's relationship.
Please don't be Dan Browned off with me…
[Translations at the end]
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Hopkirk takes the car around to the side entrance of the Pitera house to see to the luggage whilst we go in through the front.
Most people are out in the grounds, Mrs Tennyson tells us as she leads us into the drawing room. Both sets of French doors stand open, letting in the day's heat and humidity on a fragrant breeze.
One set of doors opens onto the pool, by which a number of teak loungers and chairs are scattered for guests to enjoy the persistent reappearance of a cloudless English sun. A dark-haired man is swimming laps, leaving no more sound than that of contemplative ripples in his wake, whilst a young woman is reclining in a lime bikini. In spite of the floppy blue straw hat shadowing her face, her olive skin tones, rosy from the sun, and languid slenderness speak to a youth about that of our hostess. I suppress a sigh. Younger.
Through the other doors, past a veranda paved in black imported slate, over the spray of a small round fountain nestling where the patio extends out into the garden, come the sounds of an undermanned game of cricket. A micro pearl tent with three sides secured open has been erected on the grass, providing shade for refreshments and some tables and chairs. Nearby, Stavros is at bat, amiably arguing the lady bowler's leg-before-wicket call.
A number of windows are also open and, going by the airflow, not only in this room. This well-appointed house with all its modern conveniences, nevertheless, smells of aged beeswax and garden flowers.
Greg inhales and grins at me. He starts to strip off his jumper, snagging the sunglasses he'd tucked into its V-neck as he does so. "I'm glad you made me change."
"Feel free to go outside."
He hesitates, his arms half-lowered, entangled in a stretch of blue knit, whilst the pale green shirt underneath sets off his dark eyes. Colour and sunshine suit him.
"Aren't you coming?"
"Not my area."
"Very wise." A voice from the other end of the long room.
An impossibly good-looking blond man sets aside his laptop and rises from a wing chair that is facing away from us. He's lithe, shorter than Jemima, and boyishly attractive. I start to wonder what my role is amidst this conglomeration of beautiful people in which Greg looks much more apiece than I.
"Sun's a known carcinogen." The blond walks over to us. Not a hint of a smile mars the unwrinkled perfection of his eyes and mouth. "Worse, it'll age you long before your time."
He extends his hand to me, the gleam of white teeth now discernible. His smile is confident, his eye contact direct, his handshake firm. "Dr Peter Cunningham."
His gait and stance betray long hours of standing, though not regularly: clearly a surgeon. More interested in dispensing injections and electronic treatments these days than wielding a scalpel. He looks like a walking advertisement for a plastic surgeon, but a glance at his open laptop before it winks into hibernate-mode shows a database related to neurology. An interest in brain surgery, then.
At a distance, his adolescent figure lends him youth. His face and hands, however, are older than is at first apparent. He could be anywhere from his early 30s to mid-40s, but his experience, cynicism and career redirection put him closer to the latter.
Greg throws his sweater over the arm of a nearby couch and puts his sunglasses on a table as I introduce myself, but when I do the same with him, Cunningham's hand drops in a clench.
He flicks a glance towards the pool. "A detective inspector."
Greg follows that flash of attention to the two people outside and back, putting his rejected hand in his pocket. I wouldn't have used the title to introduce him in this setting to someone like Cunningham except that the doctor used his own title first. Greg's consideration of him has gone from sociable to curious.
"My partner," I add.
"Yes." Although he steps back at a measured speed, Cunningham nevertheless gives the impression of bolting for the doors that lead to the garden. "I'll let Stavros know you're here." Straight into the sun he abhors so much.
I turn to Greg in my perplexity, only to find him smiling at me.
"Never thought I'd hear you call me that outside the two of us." He rubs under his nose. "How long have you thought of me as your partner?"
I frown. Have we been at cross-purposes all this time?
His smile becomes uncertain. "I thought I was more of a casual plus one."
I stare at him. Stavros thinks so, too, but— Always. I've always thought of Greg as my partner. I've always referred to him that way, mentally and verbally, even to Stavros. Since the very beginning. Two days ago.
Greg turns to face me, his smile and his voice diffusing in my silence. "Mycroft."
Only two days? As always, when I can't think of anything to say, I don't say anything at all.
A jovial Stavros hesitates a flicker on the threshold, when he sees our stasis, and he tucks the cricket bat under his left arm to cover the moment as he continues his jog indoors. In spite of the heat and the game he has just abandoned, he is hardly perspiring. Annoying.
"Mycroft, you made it." He shakes my hand, clasping my upper arm.
"Greg." Stavros nods at him and smiles, but doesn't take the offered hand. The sweep of his eyes is veiled and quick, but a sense billows through me that he's weighing up horseflesh. Then he looks behind us. "Jemima."
Greg and I exchange a glance as we turn to meet our hostess and he investigates his trouser pocket again, flushing. Indeed, a weekend of endless snubs would be more than even I anticipated.
He raises his hand yet again and—yet again—it's ignored. Jemima brushes it aside as she leans in to kiss him on the cheek. "Good to see you."
"Hello there." His pleased surprise at her warm welcome is a relief.
She turns to me. "Mycroft."
Cunningham has arrived on the veranda at a more sedate pace than Stavros', who is now talking to him, angled against the French doors in a way that prevents the doctor from coming in from out of the sun. It looks unintended, but I'm not so sure. And there's something about the tableau of a smaller blond looking up at a tall dark-haired man that—
Jemima leans in to kiss my cheek too and, without thinking, I stretch away from her. How extraordinary. The child has never felt the impulse to do such a thing before. She pulls back and casts an uncertain look at Greg. He rolls his eyes at me, shakes his head and shrugs. Not that I feel rebuked, but I brace myself and kiss my hostess lightly on the cheek. She wafts faint traces of rosemary and basil.
Pleasure expands across her face as if I've given her a rare gift, which is rather perceptive of her. Greg's smile is brilliant and—I admit nothing by implication—it's worth the price of admission.
Outside, without the bat, the game has broken up. Or broken down. One of the fielders—both of them athletic men—is drinking beer alone at a table, facing away, the bottle drooping at his side. The other is clasping the lady bowler and staring down at her like a Caribbean Rudolph Valentino. She's clearly beguiled.
When Mrs Tennyson comes in again, the thump of willow wood falling from under Stavros' arm onto the carpetted floor diverts attention momentarily from the newest guest. An elegant woman, obviously Greek, though her faded tan indicates she's been living in this country for at least several months.
"Athína!" Stavros brushes off Cunningham's half-formed question and stares at the woman, as if reassessing her appearance and updating his memories.
"Lydia?" Jemima takes a step towards her, then hesitates with a glance at Stavros.
The woman nods at her.
Jemima gestures to Mrs Tennyson. "Would you let Dmitri know his guest has arrived?"
As the housekeeper makes her way to the pool, Stavros turns an Arctic look on Lydia. "Dmitri? Akóma líkno-li̱steía vlépo̱, Athí̱na."
After a moment, Lydia's eyes swivel to Jemima—and the gold band around her finger. "Tha boroúsa na po̱ to ídio kai gia sas."
Young Dmitri, a minor royal trying to make a name for himself as a minister without portfolio at the Embassy of Greece in London, walks in wearing a hurriedly-donned gown over his trunks, fresh-faced and eager. In spite of a rub-down with a towel, droplets are forming again at the tips of his dark curls.
"Lydia!" He looks between her and Stavros, his smile dwindling. "What is going on?"
No longer a part of the conversation, Jemima whispers to Greg. "Don't suppose you understand Greek, do you?"
Greg glances at me and my eyebrow kinks. He turns back to her.
"'Mycroft does." Oh, he's good. "I'll let you know what they said later."
"Dmitri, I'm sorry to tell you—"
"Oh God." Jemima reaches towards her husband. "Stavros, don't."
"—that your lady friend is masquerading under a false name."
"I know." Dmitri favours Stavros with a candid look. "And I'll thank you to maintain the—masquerade."
Our host stares with a gathering frown, evidently feeling he has some prerogative in this matter, yet unwilling to challenge his guest of honour. Dmitri, in spite of his youth and shallower personal charisma, doesn't flinch.
Indeed, he has mastered the art of projecting royal dignity with that certain prickliness that comes from having his dynastic place in the world violently torn away. Even though it happened long before he was born.
"Stavros, please," Cunningham says, "sit down before you keel over."
"Stop fussing, Doctor, for goodness' sake."
Stavros is, with the exception of myself—by a bare inch—the tallest man in the room and, by far of all of us, the most hypnotic. He means to overcome his discomposure and retain his dominance.
"Drinks, anyone?" On the other hand, Jemima, the good hostess, is too young to realise she's not doing herself any favours by deflecting attention at this moment away from her husband, who has been about to execute a face-saving manœuvre. "We have wine, beer and soft drinks in the tent. Or, perhaps," she glances at her watch, "it's close enough to lunch to warrant aperitifs."
Indeed, the tent is being prepared by caterers for a picnic luncheon.
Dmitri looks at her gratefully. "Ouzo?"
Jemima grins. "Of course." And guardedly— "For you too?" At the lady's smile, Jemima turns to Greg. "Would you help me?"
"Love to." He moves towards me until I feel his warmth. "Scotch for you, Mycroft?"
The indulgence in an excellent vintage scotch is tempting, but a tall, iced drink holds more allure in this stifling space. "I think I'll join you in a gin and tonic."
He grazes my lower arm whilst turning away. "'Course." Our fingers inexplicably knit for a split second.
In the midst of this burst of activity, Stavros is now standing at the veranda doors, giving the mistaken impression he has just noticed the three players outside awaiting his return. He picks up the cricket bat again.
"Peter?" Jemima prompts.
He glances at her. "We do have staff for this sort of thing, you know, darling." Without another word, he leaves the house to join the other players. At least one of whom doesn't appear avid to resume the game.
She stares after him for a moment, then Greg follows her to the bar at the other end of the room.
I turn to see Dmitri gazing after Greg, Lydia at his side.
"Yes." I take his offered hand and shift around to redirect his attention back to me. "Good to see you again."
"I didn't expect to run into you here."
"No. A last minute arrangement."
"For us, too."
"Lydia, may I introduce Mycroft Holmes? Lydia Ionnide...my fiancée."
She looks at him. "It is too soon for this announcement," she murmurs in Greek, "too sudden."
He takes her hand. "It is time."
Interesting. I give her a small nod. "Pleased to meet you."
About five years older than him, serene, earthy yet ethereal. I must put Anthea onto finding out her real name. Given Stavros' shaken reaction to her appearance, it's tempting to adjudge her Constantine's vanished fiancée, but—I glance at Dmitri—it's premature for such conclusions.
She smiles. "Dmitri speaks highly of you."
Flattering, but why would he speak of me at all? He wouldn't. She's as diplomatic as he is. More so.
"Here you go." Greg hands me my G&T and Dmitri his ouzo, cloudy with thawing ice cubes.
Jemima gives Lydia her drink, then goes to deliver two Perriers outside, to Cunningham and the young lady by the pool—who, I can now see, could be Persian or north Indian and whom he is trying to talk into coming in out of the sun.
And now to observe the niceties which Dmitri expects, at least socially, before he will invite familiarity. "May I present Detective Inspector Gregory Lestrade of Scotland Yard? Prince Dmitri of Greece and Denmark. Lydia Ionnide."
"Please, just Dmitri." He reaches forwards. "Anthea is a wonderful lady, but I always knew she was not his special one. It is good to finally meet you."
Greg can't suppress a blush as he takes Dmitri's hand, and then—after she transfers her drink to her left hand and tucks her clutch purse under her other arm—Lydia's. "Call me Greg."
Jemima appears at our side again with Greg's G&T and what looks like a Buck's Fizz for herself. "I'm taking Greg on a quick tour of the house and grounds before lunch. Anyone else want to tag along?"
Lydia murmurs to Dmitri, and Jemima sends me a helpless look. Unfortunately, I can't relieve her anxiety by sharing that Lydia is unsettled by the bombshell she threw and suggests she and Dmitri should leave.
He switches to English. "But, darling—"
"Have I not done enough damage? Would not my being here all weekend be a thorn in his flesh?"
"No!" Jemima struggles for a moment with trying to decide whether Stavros would rather have Prince Dmitri here more, or Lydia gone more. "At least stay for lunch."
Dmitri is looking at Lydia who, eventually, softens into acquiescence.
"An excellent idea," he tells Jemima.
"For now, I would like to freshen up, if you do not mind," Lydia says. "Dmitri will show me our room and take me around at a later time."
I watch them leave, as certain as he that, as much as Anthea isn't my special one, Lydia can't be his, either.
"Well," says Jemima, "shall we go?"
I wave them off and move towards a cluster of framed photographs on a console table by the wall. "I'll explore later."
He winces as she pulls him away and he throws me a grin over his shoulder. He's supposed to be investigating, not enjoying himself, but I let it go.
How odd that, amongst the family pictures, there should be one of a building, a villa, a former royal residence in Corfu. It is singular for being the birthplace of Prince Philip. Is this discreet royalist display for Dmitri's benefit alone?
With Cunningham returning to shelter in defeat, I glance at the damsel firmly ensconced on her lounger, as active on her 'phone as Anthea ever is. He's about to pass me on his way back to his chair and laptop, then stops.
"You know"—he hesitates—"there's someone very good I know who could fix your nose."
I blink at him. "My nose?"
"Not that there's anything wrong with it. Just mend the proportions."
My nose, for whatever reason, intimidates. It's a useful tool in my arsenal. I'm very happy with my nose.
I give him a small smile. "Why fix what's not broken?"
His tight stare and tighter fists suggests he would gladly break it if he could get away with it. Instead, thwarted twice in as many minutes, he goes to his corner, and I drain my glass in satisfaction.
Before I sweep upstairs, I consider gathering up Greg's jumper and sunglasses. In the end, I leave his territorial markers where they are. And add my hat.
This Greek is as accurate as I can get it...which may not be very:
Dmitri? Akóma líkno-li̱steía vlépo̱, Athí̱na - Dmitri? Still cradle-robbing I see, Athena
Tha boroúsa na po̱ to ídio kai gia sas - I could say the same of you
Also, research has yielded me very little inside knowledge about the Greek royal family (although, in a frenzy of coups and counter-coups in the 1960s/70s, they lost) and less about the Embassy of Greece in London. Just saying.
If you go down to the woods today...
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
By the time I come down again from the bedroom, after an enlightening conversation with Hopkirk, a loose formation of guests has gathered in the tent. Cunningham is seated in its deepest shadows, but his laptop doesn't go unused in the drawing room.
"I thought that computer was Peter's," I say to Stavros.
Stavros doesn't take his eyes off the screen, but a smile grows under his dark mustache. "Because he hates me using it."
"He should have password-protected it then."
Stavros glances up as I pause to straighten the framed photographs on my way to grab my hat and Greg's sunglasses, and he makes a derisive sound. "Passwords are only as unbreakable as the people who make them, don't you think?"
Possibly. Sherlock habitually breaks into John's laptop whilst crowing over the doctor's inability to accomplish likewise in return.
I periodically break into both. "I—well. Technology's not really my forte. There are people for that."
He doesn't react, but the satisfaction with which he snaps closed the lid of the device belies his acceptance of my story. I'm more concerned, though, with the disappearance of the homage to Prince Philip's birthplace. Remarkable that the photograph of the residence was here in the first place; even odder that it's now gone.
Stavros joins me as I settle under the shade of my hat and step onto the veranda. Greg is standing at the front of the tent, sipping from a bottle of Santorini ale, exchanging easy words with Jemima.
"Is Jemima safe spending so much time with Greg?" he asks.
I ignore the insult. "The innocent couldn't be in safer hands."
"Whereas the guilty?" Stavros isn't looking at his wife, but inside the tent.
"I expect I could find some aphorism about the long arm of the law. He really does have an excellent track record, one of Scotland Yard's finest."
Stavros turns his attention back to me. "What a good selling point."
"He's not for sale."
My host smiles.
With a touch on Greg's arm, Jemima goes about her duties and he looks straight at me. He takes no more than a step in my direction, however, before he's waylaid by the former lady bowler. She smiles up at him, lovely but unsettling in view of a disfiguring scar on this side of her face, from her ear, over her jaw, to her mouth and down her neck. Greg rapidly diverts his stare from it, but she notices his scrutiny. Her good-natured grin doesn't waver. Rather, it enslaves him to his embarrassment at being caught and, with a quick glance at me, he allows himself to be guided to a nearby table.
"Who are those people with Greg?"
Her young man stands by her chair, the very picture—his pretty, dark-skinned face notwithstanding—of a minder: arms crossed, pose relaxed but upright. She unapologetically encircles his thigh.
"Oh, that's Tippy. Tippy Hawke. She's quite well-known on the pool circuit. Quite a player. And Bernard Thomassi."
Thomassi's attention is on neither her nor Greg, but further back inside the tent where Jemima has gone to fuss around other guests. She anxiously watches Dmitri and Lydia inspect the Mediterranean fare: roasted lamb, rosemary-infused chicken, a variety of salads. Baclava and Greek coffee.
My nose twitches and my mouth waters, but Greg catches my eye. With a gesture towards me, he excuses himself and takes a few steps. Cunningham, however, is all of a sudden at his side, pressing a plate in his hand, inviting him to eat. The same man who hasn't brought himself to exchange a word with Greg since our arrival.
Stavros and I have been walking in long-legged, ground-consuming strides and he continues into the tent whilst I pause to consider the notion that my partner is being herded. When Stavros realises I'm no longer at his side, he looks back at me. I take out my 'phone and snap off a few frames of Greg who looks my way at the sound.
"Taking my picture without me knowing?" he says, laughing. "Again?"
He's quite good with language and doublespeak. I suppose he has to be to obscure the access he grants Sherlock at crime scenes in his reports. He leaves his plate absent-mindedly on the nearest table, comes up to me and, taking his sunglasses, he leans in to look at my screen.
"Came out quite well, don't you think?" I point with my thumb to Lydia's image captured in the background.
As we stroll towards the back of the fragmenting line, I slip my 'phone into my pocket again.
"I'll pose for you any time you like," he hooks his sunglasses between two buttons of his shirt, "you know that."
His smile is amused rather than suggestive, sweet rather than saccharine, wistful rather than bold.
I catch my breath at the same moment Stavros glances our way. He looks at Cunningham, at Tippy Hawke, then starts in our direction himself, but I'm not about to yield my partner. At the risk of insulting our hostess by forgoing her luncheon, I take Greg's elbow and guide him away.
"Show me the grounds." When we're back out in the garden, I move my hand to the small of his back. "I hear the woodlands are very scenic."
"Just a short tour."
He glances back at the spread with regret as he puts on his sunglasses again and falls into step.
When we're out of earshot, I let him go.
"You want to tell me what this is about?" he says.
"I just left Hopkirk in our room. He has unpacked our things."
"He what?" Greg is looking at me as we head for the trees. "Why'd he do that?"
"It's what he does," my mouth twists into a smile, "so he has an excuse to sweep the room."
We enter an open stand of thinned and new broadleaf trees, a landscaped transition from manicured gardens to natural woodlands. An embedded stone step leads down to a wide, honest-to-goodness chuckling stream running through the property and we cross it at an artfully dilapidated wooden bridge.
"I take it you don't mean 'sweep' in the sense of hoovering."
A mature growth of oak trees soon breaks up the sunlight and a hint of the wet-newspaper and old-stone-church smell of deadwood comes into the air. We sidestep encroaching brambles along the path.
"And what did the not-hoover find in this hotbed of not-Russia?" He takes off his sunglasses and stows them in his shirt again.
"Through a mix of sign language and code words, he told me that it—may not be entirely safe to speak freely indoors."
Greg stares at me with huge brown eyes. "Our room was bugged? Tell me there wasn't a camera."
"No camera, but the audio is still intact. As far as Hopkirk could tell, it's hardwired through the house and, whilst he could disconnect it, that would alert whoever's listening in."
"The whole house?" An oversized fallen trunk lies ahead of us and Greg leans back against it in dismay.
"Other than Stavros's private rooms, possibly. That's why we're out here in this ridiculous heat." I withdraw my handkerchief and wipe under my hat brim.
"You must be boiling."
In spite of the leafy shade, my elevating temperature suggests I'm acquiring that unattractive florid colour I loathe so much. I glance at Greg and remove my jacket, draping it over the trunk. The relief of cooling down a little is something I can live with him witnessing. I lean back next to him and fan myself with my hat.
"Stavros has his whole house tapped? That's…that's—"
"Aberrant behaviour for an innocent person."
He throws a smile my way. "Weird, yeah."
It's not that I don't understand the value—and the addiction—of surveillance, of trying to control, or at least contain, potential damage. But what could possibly pose such a threat to Stavros as to warrant this level of self-protection in his own home?
And is Jemima an accessory to it? A full conspirator? Or is the girl caught up in something beyond her comprehension?
For a fleeting moment, I wish I'd stayed with my first decision to bring Anthea here this weekend. Things have mushroomed and Greg isn't trained to deal with the kind of covert undertaking this might turn out to be. I could possibly be putting him in danger.
"We can leave at any time. You know that, don't you, Greg? Just say the word."
"Leave?" His eyes are huge again, this time with indignation. "Are you giving yourself the option to 'say the word' too, or is it only for if the hapless policeman wants to run away? Don't you think I can hack it?"
Low blood sugar. I should have let him eat first. "That's not what I meant."
"Look, we're here for a weekend of splashing about in the pool and having a bit of a sniff 'round. Stavros listening in on people's conversations without telling them is despicable, a clear invasion of privacy, but it's not actually criminal."
"I'm aware of that." But it points to so much more.
"So we still have work to do. I'm not about to put us in danger by going in guns blazing this weekend and taking Stavros in. If we find any evidence of wrong-doing, I'll come back with a properly executed search warrant and full backup. But I'm not a coward."
"I know that."
His world requires everything to fall into neat pigeon-holes—granted, occasionally with the help of a well-placed shove. It's not enough to know that something irregular is going on; we have to know what. If we were to abscond unexpectedly now, it might alert Stavros to something amiss. If he goes silent, if the tail of this mouse disappears, we may never trace it again and both our departments could lose out. Now that I've set this into motion, it could be our only chance to find out in what Stavros has involved himself.
"Be careful of Cunningham," I add.
"No need to warn me."
"As well as Tippy Hawke."
"She seems harmless." Greg frowns. "Open and curious. Very nice, in fact."
Or perhaps she has learnt, as I did at an early age, how to use body language to overcome a knee-jerk human reaction to mark down people with less than stellar looks. There's more to her than meets the eye; the scar stops you looking too closely, and if that doesn't work, the smile does. A smile that distorts and distracts rather than embraces. But I'm not going to argue a point that, for now, is just suspicion.
"What did she tell you about Thomassi?"
"Is that her guy?"
Nothing, then. I raise my eyebrows and rest my case.
"OK, but I think you're wrong about her."
"As long a you're careful, I defer to your judgement."
I'm satisfied, at least, that Greg's still committed to seeing this weekend through to the end. I guide the conversation back to its original path.
"I suspect Stavros has access to audio recordings through his laptop whenever he chooses, which presumably isn't when he's playing host. As this is his private residence, I doubt there's anyone else listening in. Unless, on your tour, you had reason to believe there might be some sort of control room?"
He shakes his head slowly. "Well, the blueprint doesn't quite match the house."
"Remember that little office on the floor plan next to the library?"
"It's not there. I assumed the library was expanded to absorb the space. That whole wall is shelves of books with a table in front of it, but—Jesus, now I want to go back and pace it out."
"I'm sure you'll have a chance this afternoon."
"Oh, and the game room."
"Yes?" I wave away a damselfly.
"It's been built out to include a media room too, now. Big screen telly, several rows of recliner seating, some heavy duty gaming computers."
I raise my eyebrows at him. "Computers."
"Yeah." He bites his upper lip. "I thought I'd check them out in case, but—"
"—it's unlikely machines made available for guests to use will hold anything useful."
"That was my thinking. But you never know."
"They won't be password-protected if they let anyone get access to online games, but to be thorough, look anyway. Did you see any other computer electronics?"
"Jemima leaves a tablet lying around. There's a desktop in the library. Stavros keeps his study locked."
"A locked room."
The obvious goal. "Our best bet will be to try and get in after everyone goes to bed."
"I thought you were going to remain innocent and unsullied."
He's smiling at me, but things have changed since last night.
"Don't take unnecessary chances, Greg. The one in the library is promising. For a password, try variations on Mon Repos. It's two words, but try it as one or with an underscore. Either way, I'm certain Stavros would retain the capitalisation." At the question in Greg's eyes, I add, "Prince Philip was also born a prince of Greece and Denmark, but renounced his title and became a naturalised British citizen before marrying the Princess Elizabeth. Mon Repos is the name of the royal villa in Corfu in which he was born. I have reason to believe this British-Greek connection holds importance to Stavros."
He shakes his head. "Good to know. I'm not even going to ask how."
"Jemima asked me what brought me to the house on Thursday. I took the opportunity to do an informal interview about the Ken Martin homicide."
"Did you learn anything useful?"
"Turns out she and Stavros vaguely knew Martin's fiancée, Natalie Smith, before she went missing."
I look at him.
"I know," he says, "that links Stavros to another one. Of course, we don't know—may never know—whether or not he actually knew or even met the other two missing persons, but between possibly being seen in their vicinity and then his connection to Natalie Smith and now knowing about the hardwired bugging of his house, it definitely raises questions."
No need to mention my suspicions about Lydia's true identity until I know more. Particularly since her reappearance breaks the pattern of missing persons. I place my hat on the back of my head and turn to settle my elbows on the dead trunk, pressing my lips against steepled fingers whilst Greg continues his recounting.
"Jemima didn't know Ken Martin had just started working at the same stables she and Stavros keep their horses until she heard about his death on the news that evening. She had actually planned to go riding that very afternoon, might have seen something if she had, but in the end she couldn't get away. She seemed uncertain where Stavros was at the time. That may or may not be relevant. He strikes me as someone who wouldn't think to check in and let his wife know where he is."
Greg's tone is bitter. A secretive spouse didn't work out very well for him.
Stavros's connection to those missing persons had been tenuous at best, a way to secure Greg to my bigger game plan, but it may end up being the key. This isn't the first time something besides pure deductive reasoning has put me precisely where I need to be—a flaw in my skills that I'll never divulge to another living soul. Especially Sherlock.
"Anyway, I'll catch Stavros later and see if he'll deign to answer any questions this time."
He takes a deep breath. "Promise me you won't try to help again."
I smile. "Promise."
"All right, then. So, what else?"
"Who's the tenth guest?"
I promised to add Additional Tags (to be Added), but darn if I can think of any. If you have any suggestions, feel free to alert me :-)
Babes [still] in the woods...
A special shout out to Nikte who metaphorically held my hand through the last chapter, reassuring me people still like this story because, you know, Middle.
"Who's the tenth guest?"
Greg frowns. "What?"
"Other than our hosts, I could only account for nine people. Frank Abbott appears to be attending stag, but I'm sure Jemima would never plan uneven numbers for a black-tie dinner."
He screws up his eyes and pauses. "Which one's Frank Abbott?"
He doesn't bat an eyelid at the reminder of a black-tie dinner and I am content. "You may not have met him. The professional tennis player."
"The name's familiar—Abbott—but I don't think I did. I'll see if I can find out for you."
"That would be helpful."
He leans back on his elbows and, eyes closed, turns his face up to the broken sunlight coming through the leafy canopy. "That Lydia was a bit of a surprise."
I'm appalled by my urge to explore the dappled gold on his face. "What have you deduced?"
He opens his eyes and stares into the treetops. "Stavros knows her, but he wasn't expecting her to appear this weekend. She's a blast from his past, though, not a current friend. He called her Athena, but she says her name's Lydia. She's lying. Dmitri knows she's lying, so maybe it's some deliberate ploy to avoid unwanted attention—paparazzi or something. And she must have known who her host was before she arrived, that he'd know who she was, so why is she using her alias here?" He straightens up with a self-deprecating smile. "How am I doing?"
"Not bad." I return his grin. "Did you notice how Dmitri wasn't surprised that Stavros knew Lydia? This was a deliberate unveiling."
"Because of their engagement announcement, I bet."
"I've known Dmitri in passing for more than a couple of years and, not only has he kept her well-hidden, but I happen to know girls are not his dish of choice."
"So, what, they're faking the engagement?"
"I would have said so except—I recognize that particular brand of puppy dog enthusiasm. I believe this is real." And he's making a mistake.
"OK. Then, what's going on there?"
"Extending your analysis, a buried anger surfaced in Stavros when he saw Lydia which speaks to something unrequited. He's jealous of her, wants her for himself. But he's newly married. He seems to love his wife. And he's not sure what to make of the twist with Dmitri; the partner of a prince is somehow more off limits than that of, say"—I glance at him sideways—"a minor government functionary."
Greg laughs at the idea and, again, I wonder if I should warn him or if that would make him debilitatingly self-conscious. Lydia's arrival might take some of the attention off him. Or it might set Stavros's sights more firmly on someone he believes he can win. I resume my observations.
"His ego is flattered to count a prince amongst his friends—not just flattered, but assuaged. He believes it's his right to move amongst those who, according to his lights, make up the highest echelons of society. Look at the people here: a prince, a surgeon, a professional athlete, an aristocrat whom he married. And yet—"
"The prince is a grandson by a younger son of a deposed king from an abolished monarchy. As the third generation, he has pretentions to a royal title, but his own children, the fourth generation of a cadet branch, will not—whether legitimately or laughably—be able to claim any right to the courtesy royal styling. The surgeon has turned his interest to pills and injections and surface appearances. He's now hardly more than a glorified model. The professional athlete peaked two years ago and, whilst he might make a comeback, his age on the competitive circuit weighs against him. And the aristocrat—"
I cast a glance at Greg.
"Yes, what about the aristocrat?"
"She has no claim to her father's title in her own right. It will go to her older brother to whom it will be as much a curse as a privilege since Lord Haddenbrough is all but destitute. She believes Stavros can be persuaded to help restore the estates, but he won't invest in the advancement of anyone else unless it benefits himself."
Greg's face tightens. "God, is it always about money around here?"
"It's about tradition. Legacy. Preservation of wealth for future generations. It's about continuity and dynasty."
"And it's about to go horribly wrong for her."
"I believe it might."
"So all this is just—"
"—transitory. In a way, yes. All the things Stavros wants so much seem to disintegrate in his hands."
"Tragic." Greg doesn't look sympathetic. "So, do you know what Stavros and Lydia said to each other?"
"He said, 'I see you're still cradle-robbing, Athína.' She replied, 'I could say the same for you.'"
Greg stares at me with a smile for a moment, then diverts himself. "Well, Dmitri's obviously younger than her so that's who Stavros was referring to today, but—"
"There must have been someone else in the past, possibly a rival of his"—possibly his adoptive brother—"who goes to the heart of his animosity."
"So you used me as a pretext to take Lydia's picture which you're going to send Anthea for further investigation."
"Clever." He studiously works his thumb cuticle. "Do you think she's a threat to Jemima?"
"Lydia? Not directly." Though there could potentially be collateral damage.
He looks at me sharply, as if he heard what I didn't say. "OK. Oh, I forgot to mention the wine cellar. Stavros has moved it to the basement. It's not on the ground floor anymore like the blueprint says."
The damp and threat of flooding often makes underground storage for wine undesirable. This area, though, on the cusp of two geological temperaments, could lie on the side of London Clay which is quite impermeable.
Records suggest Stavros hasn't been fussy about acquiring all necessary permits in the course of his renovations, but adding a basement to an extant building involves extensive excavation. He had to undertake a significant fight with the council and local homeowners to get permission. The amount of time and money he has put into the house and grounds, both with and without permits, is notable. No wonder he doesn't want to give the place back to his brother.
Greg has straightened up and walked away a few steps, gazing into the tree canopy. He is struggling with something. Was he deflecting me with that little nugget about the wine cellar?
My stomach plummets. "You like her."
I have his attention again. "Jemima."
"Yeah. Yeah, I do." His relieved smile focusses inwards. "Under that posh exterior, she's actually amazingly nice."
Despite what I promised Stavros, Greg—Gregory—really likes her. And he would never have come to know her socially if I hadn't brought him here.
I straighten up and put on my jacket again. I've always known he's attracted to both sides, of course. So, his interest in me all these years has been purely sexual. That's—good. It's a mistake for us to muck things up with sentiment. Nevertheless, he never struck me as adulterous before, although I suppose she'd be the one—
His expression hardens. "To the wrong guy."
Her Guinevere to Gregory's Lancelot, then. "They seem to have an emotional connection." Of sorts.
"Look, Mycroft, he may not turn out to be legally guilty of anything, but that doesn't make him innocent."
And that hits the nail on the head. There's a great deal devilish about Stavros that skates perilously close to or even crosses the line of the law, something I see with some frequency in my dealings. Something I'm not wholly innocent of myself.
With a gesture, I invite Gregory to start walking back with me.
"Just—For this weekend," I glance at him, "don't forget you're my partner."
"Why would I forget that?" He stops walking and I turn back to him. "Hold on, you think I— You think she and I— Mycroft! She's young enough to be my daughter."
And so? A lot of goldfish of a certain age are tempted to revisit their youth through a young paramour. He walks up to me, scowling at my expression, crowding me.
"You really think I'd—? Damn you, Mycroft!"
He shoves me against a tree, his eyes gleaming. He's insulted, not just for himself, but for her, too. He's really angry. I ignore the ache down my spine from the impact, remain frozen, as he pushes me back as much with his stare as with his hands.
Then his eyes flicker to my lips. My heart's pounding and I find I need more air as he gazes down twice more, longer at each occurrence. He lunges for my mouth just as I turn my head. He growls and grasps my jaw. I resist, but he forces me to face him again.
I keep my eyes lowered to let my brain reassert itself and my breathing begins to slow.
Interesting choice of power play, kissing. Although, of course, kissing is not what this is about. This is about demonstrating his physical superiority, taking what I won't willingly give. Asserting his dominance.
My prevailing attitude in such situations before has been contempt more than alarm; the power of brawn stands alone, it's one-dimensional, there's no additional power of any substance behind it. But Greg is— With him, it has nuanced dimensions that he's earnt over the years in, amongst other ways, dealing with degenerate criminals, dealing with unruly subordinates as well as superiors and, let's not forget, dealing with Sherlock. With Greg, it intrigues me…it excites me. But now is not the time to explore. I need space to think this through.
Relying on his character, I raise my eyes to his.
He tightens his grip in exultation.
He frowns at me. Loosens his hold a tad. And suddenly looks lost.
"What am I doing? You just make me so—Oh, Jesus, now I'm blaming you." He lets out a frustrated rumble and pushes away. "I like her, but not like that. Chrissakes, Mycroft, how can you even—"
With a final bellow, he storms back towards the house.
After a moment, I follow. Is it possible that, with him, I'm too close—too involved—to see clearly? That I misperceived? Disconcerting. So is it possible that he really simply wishes that the daughter he never had might have been something like Jemima? Why? What's so special about her?
My strides are slightly longer than his, but his are fuelled with antagonism. I don't try to catch up. He doesn't slow down, either, and this doesn't bode well for our return to company; our discord will be transparent for all to see. This folly, this dependence on the whims of another, is precisely why I much prefer to work alone.
The trees thin out and we cross the bridge. When I'm about halfway over, the house and garden in plain view, he turns and I'm abruptly halted by his hands on my chest.
"What I was going to say"—he's standing much too close—"is that she wouldn't go down into the basement. She just let me take a quick peek through the door that revealed nothing, then led me away."
Bluebeard. The tale of a young wife forbidden by her husband to go into a certain room. When she finally defied him, she found the dead bodies of his previous wives and her own potential fate. Has Jemima been forbidden to go into the basement? Or was she hiding something from Greg?
"I like her," he regards me bluntly, "but there was something off about the whole thing."
His integrity is unmistakable.
"Thank you for telling me."
"Fine." With a small thrust, he turns to walk away, but the energy has gone out of him.
"Greg." I reach out and touch his back.
He stops, stands still.
I take a step closer, feeling his warmth through the fine batiste cotton of his pale green shirt. "I-I'm sorry."
He takes a deep breath and a sound escapes him, as if he's about to speak. He swallows. Nods his head. And turns.
"It wasn't altogether unreasonable of you to assume I might be attracted to a pretty girl."
I drop my hand.
"But—" he looks down, unhooks his sunglasses and fiddles with them before looking up again, "I'd never compromise a married lady."
My shoes absorb my attention for a moment. After his personal history, of course he wouldn't.
"And I'd never compromise a child."
"I know." She's reached her majority, she's a married lady now, but she certainly seems more innocent than world-wise. "I'm truly sorry." I wish I could do more to demonstrate my contrition, but it's beyond me.
He puts on his sunglasses and turns away, taking only a step before he stops—then, facing my direction again, gazes at the sky.
"Okay, come here." He pulls me against him by the waist. "We've got barriers to break down and appearances to keep up."
It's too hot for this, but I gladly curl my arms up around his biceps, my hands pressing his shoulder blades as I bury my nose in the hair behind his ear. This has come to feel so right so quickly that I'm dazed.
"Do you think there'll be any of that fantastic lunch left?" he says at last.
My stomach growls. "I'm sure your surrogate daughter has a plate put by for you."
He pulls back with a knee-weakening grin. "Yeah?"
"If she thought to put a plate by for this old man, she will have done the same for this young man, too."
What? I'm not that much younger than him. "You're ridiculous."
"You make me giddy with ridiculosity," he agrees and, with a smirk, strides off.
That…could be an insult.
This time I do catch up with him and, when we emerge into the garden, thoroughly seduced by the lingering smells of the Mediterranean repast still spread out, a sullen Frank Abbott is facing off against Stavros.
"Are you challenging me?" Our host is gleeful.
"OK, fine, if that's what you want."
Stavros laughs, his arms spread wide. "Hear that? Veteran of the pro circuit is challenging me. Let's make this the set-piece of the weekend. Everyone meet at the tennis court for cocktails and sport. Let's say 5PM."
If Jemima were amidst the gathering, I have a suspicion she would have found a way to moderate Stavros's cocksure demeanour. A glance is all it takes, however, to show that, with the exception of Tippy, everyone else present is, to one degree or another, inclined to see him taken down a peg.
Abbott has been playing the Grand Slam circuit for a few years now and, even though he seems to have peaked when he made it to the semi-finals in the Australian Open two years ago, he should be grossly overmatched for Stavros. I have a feeling, however, that our host likes to stack the deck. For one thing, I wonder if Abbott knows Stavros played the circuit too for awhile. Not for very long, it's true, but he's no amateur either. Somehow, Stavros provoked this challenge and Abbott, oblivious to the clever manipulation, fell neatly into the trap.
"Oh my God," Greg says under his breath.
I glance at him.
He's staring at the tennis player, his eyes round with epiphany. "That would be too much of a coincidence."
Stavros, chatting with Tippy, looks over at us and she follows his cue, so Greg leans in to speak in my ear. His hand is at my back, mine on his upper arm.
"The vet at the stables—the same stables where Jemima and Stavros keep their horses, the same one where Martin worked—I've been trying to interview the vet in the course of my investigation, but I haven't been able to pin her down. Her name's Caroline Abbott."
Is it a fluke? While Abbott isn't an exotic name, it's not common either. She could be the link between Stavros and the tennis player. She could be how our host convinced Frank, someone who patently doesn't want to be here, to stay. She could be—I glance up at at the house and on the top floor, at a window, a woman is staring out at us. Caroline Abbott.
The tenth guest.
Mad dogs and Englishmen...
Gratitude to Nikte, Silverwoulf, and immadd4mgatiss for verbal tea and chocolate digestives during this difficult time :-D
Also to Sol Stein in 'Stein on Writing' for saying "eliminate your weakest scene." I'm gonna try another way for next week...let's hope it works better.
Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this :-)
At the open bedroom window, Greg looks out, his hands in his pockets. "How old do you think that Gabriella is?"
Gabriella. The young sun-worshipper lying poolside most of the morning.
"I doubt she's more than seventeen."
The divergence in age and interests of the guests is singular. Perhaps not surprising when the hostess is herself so young. Nevertheless, because of the extended closeness of a weekend in a small party like this, usually some effort is made to forge a guest list with a modicum of cohesion.
This miscellany of people would seem to have been thrown together higgledy-piggledy. That Stavros would include amongst his houseguests the veterinarian from his stables is suspect, considering he sees my plus one as beneath my station. Except, I'm certain, Stavros had final say in the guest list; no one is here by accident.
Other than Lydia. Stavros wasn't expecting her—he hadn't recognised the name and it was enough that she was the prince's guest. Yet there's a sense of seats hurriedly filled for a full complement this weekend.
Greg turns to looks at me. "But could be younger?"
"Gabriella's not under the age of consent, if that's what you're getting at."
"How do you know?"
"I overheard her telling Tippy that she recently passed her driving test, so—at least seventeen."
"But Cunningham's a doctor. And while he might look about ten from a distance, he's ancient compared to her."
Arguably someone in a position of trust, making any kind of sexual relationship between them whilst she's under eighteen potentially criminal in the eyes of the law.
"It would explain his antipathy towards you." At least in part. "It must be unnerving to have a detective inspector watching his every move when his plus one is a legal minor, if not a consensual one."
And tricky Stavros hadn't warned Cunningham that a police officer would be a guest this weekend. Again, there's that dissonance between invitees.
"It's not so much that I'm against May-December relationships," Greg leans against the window frame, "but when one of them is that young, it's on the line of immoral."
"Gabriella knows her own mind and isn't afraid to express it." No wonder Greg was offended when I was suggestive about his feelings for Jemima.
"Cunningham's rather strong opinions on sun exposure have made no impression on her at all. Quite the reverse, in fact." Oddly. Not to stereotype, but many women of the east culturally value pale skin as a sign of privilege, of being wealthy enough not to have to submit to the outdoors. They would never actively court a tan, whilst Gabriella has done nothing but encourage it. "Whatever their relationship, her deference to him isn't part of it." Of course, he would rid himself of an unrelenting sun-worshipper like her before she was eighteen for looking too old, but that's a separate issue. "Are you planning to arrest the doctor this weekend?"
"Would you mind?"
"It wouldn't be good form."
His laugh isn't amused. "I know I said I wouldn't go in guns blazing, but I'm not too polite to arrest the doctor if it's a matter of protecting a victim."
"I believe you." But I'm not referring to manners; I'm referring to strategy.
Greg turns to look outside again with a rumble of discontent, rendering my review of online information about Frank Abbott and his family—including wife Caroline, a practising veterinarian in the county of Merton, and one daughter—of lesser significance. Peter Cunningham's unfortunate choice of weekend guest is only the tip of the iceberg, symptomatic of a deeper roiling under the surface that's chafing at Greg: false identities, dirty eavesdropping, a damsel in distress. And daylight snobbery.
I put my 'phone aside—our inability to guard sufficiently all decent-sized devices regrettably leading to their surrender to Hopkirk before he left—and stand up, but I pause. What's been building between us is also adding to his tension. I've come to understand, however, over the past two days, that with the sole exception of when he's in high dudgeon, touch more than anything else soothes him. I compromise by standing at his shoulder, hands clasped behind my back, and look out at his view.
Some people have, like us, retired from the midday heat, but a cluster remains near the tent, talking and laughing and picking at dessert. Moths around Stavros. He looks up and sees us at the open window.
I put my hand on Greg's waist.
He looks back at me in surprise and whispers. "Don't you mind him seeing us like this?"
Ordinarily I would be a great deal more reticent. The house surveillance, however, has forced a different strategy on me. I lean against him to talk into his ear. "When Stavros later hears nothing but murmurs, he'll think he knows why."
Greg raises his eyebrows and pulls my arm all the way around him. His tone remains as low as mine. "Clever thinking. You bastard."
"It's my job."
"Which part?" He's smiling.
I hesitate. "Both."
He sighs and leans back against me.
I complete the circle around him with my other arm and rub my cheek once against his hair, amazed I could ever initiate this kind of activity with another human being. "This weekend is proving harder for you than you thought it would, isn't it?"
"I'm too old to be idealistic, yet somehow—It's all pretty here on the outside, but underneath it's all grime. I don't know," he says softly, "somehow I keep hoping, because your houses are bigger and your streets are cleaner, your souls are bigger and cleaner too."
"We're all tested." I do my very best not to nuzzle his ear, but I can't stop myself pulling him back tighter against me. "We all make mistakes, we all have lessons to learn, don't we?"
I loosen my hold as he twists around, his hands now on my arms. "Yeah, you're right. Of course you're right. But with all the advantages you lot get to buy—safer neighbourhoods, better schools, fancier opportunities—with all that, somehow, I dunno, it seems like you shouldn't have the same failings as the rest of us."
"We should have a better class of failings?"
"Well, yeah. Sort of."
"Do you really want to believe there are people who are superior to you, who even fail better than you, because of money?"
"Hold on, no, that's not—We're all human, we all make mistakes, yeah. I just mean when you have the education and the advantages, you shouldn't make mistakes like—"
"Drug addiction?" Driven by the advantage of an advanced mind. "We can have weaknesses, just not human weaknesses?"
"You're missing the point."
"I'm not. You're saying that from those to whom much is given, much is expected."
"I'm saying don't be blinded by platitudes which serve no purpose other than to make the masses feel morally superior. Rather, see the true mechanics of what is around you."
His frown hovers whilst he searches my eyes, then smoothes out. "That's how you always win, isn't it? You see things in ways the rest of us don't."
Sometimes he sees more than I expect. I should know better by now.
"Material advantages come with built-in disadvantages—they don't have the power to overcome life's tests—and non-material advantages can very often bowl them out." The proof is right in front of me. I brush his cheekbone with my thumb. "Which is why the most important things in life can't be bought."
He swallows. "Like—"
He sighs and then smiles. "Friendship. Yeah."
In the greying distance, cumulus clouds are gathering on the horizon. The front will reach us before the night is out, but for now the air is hot and still. We watch people wander indoors whilst the caterers clear up the detritus of lunch, but I don't let him go, even after our host—with a last glance in our direction—has disappeared.
"I'm glad you're here, Greg."
He just looks at me. Then— "It's not going to happen tonight—between us, I mean—is it?"
Our last chance before this adventure is over.
"Unlikely." It's a fine line. If we keep apart, it will reignite Stavros's suspicions that Greg has been brought here under false pretenses. If my ruse is revealed, I could be publically embarrassed at best, damaged at worst. But if I get too close to Greg, I'm very much afraid I won't be able to stop myself, and— "Knowing Stavros will sooner or later be listening in, I doubt we'll be…up for much." I stifle a wash of regret.
The way he looks at me— "To allay our host's suspicions, I might be persuaded to participate in a 'When Harry Met Sally' moment."
A laugh spills out of him. He slides his arms around my back and whispers in my ear. "You're not at all what I expected."
"You're very funny."
"Are you trying to ruin my reputation?"
"People should know how decent you are."
"But then they'd start to look more closely at me."
"Yeah." He pulls back and tilts his head. "And that would be awful."
"That would be counterproductive."
"Mum's the word, then." He grins at me. "Anyway, I sort of like being one of the few you share this side of you with."
That smile could surely start and end wars. My hand drifts up into his hair and he lets out a soft breath.
My own breathing stutters; I want him so very much, but Stavros could be listening in at this very moment. A third party witnessing our intimacy isn't the only concern: if a recording were unexpectedly to become public, it could have repercussions for us both. Especially for Greg. I break away and pick up my 'phone from the table next to my chair.
I rub my eyes. "You were going to go for a swim or something."
Silence. Then— "Yes."
I sit. "Your trunks should be in the tallboy."
Although I keep my gaze on the document open on my 'phone's browser, I can't help but be aware of him sitting on the bed to take off his shoes and socks, withdrawing his trunks from the chest of drawers, going into the ensuite bathroom. Not closing the door.
When his bare feet and legs step into my peripheral vision, I look up. His near-naked beauty tests my resolve to let him go.
He blushes. "Yeah, I'm getting on a bit."
I can't think of a thing to say that wouldn't compromise me further, but I can't tear my eyes away from him either. My Adam's apple gives away my distraction.
He clears his throat. "Anyway," he holds out a bottle of sunscreen. "could you—just do my back?"
I can't. I can't get that close to him. Not now. "I'm sure you can find someone at the pool to help you out."
"Right." He steps away. "I expect Jemima'll be there to help."
"Are you trying to make me jealous?"
He turns back. "No. I'm trying to ask you to help me out because you're the only person I know in this place."
"Fine." I put down my 'phone and pull forwards to the edge of my seat. "On your knees." I point to the ground in front of me.
The delicate muscles around his eyes flicker and then, facing away from me, he demonstrates that he's still agile enough to slide down between my legs. I stare at the back of his head before my lids drop closed for a moment.
He offers the bottle of sunscreen over his shoulder and I take it, the smell of summer holidays soon puddling in my palm. Just enough lotion to cover his back and no more. My judgement in dispensing the perfect quantity goes for naught, however, when I can't curb the tremor in my hands as I apply it. If he notices, he doesn't say anything.
I'd like to blame him for making me feel like an adolescent again, flailingly awkward and embarrassed and breathless with confusion. But I should be able to control the way things unfold, so I must be the one who permits these situations to keep cropping up.
I finish at his shoulders and brush my thumb along the slightly uneven hairline at his nape; it has been more than six weeks since his last haircut.
"If you don't want me to leave"—he's growling—"keep doing that."
My grip on his shoulder tightens. Situations. My fault. I tap him to signal him to move.
"I may nip into the library." He swings on his terry robe and slides into a pair of flip flops. He gazes at his feet. "How much footwear do I have for an overnight stay, anyway?"
Other than the pair he wore when we arrived? Flip flops, tennis shoes, slippers, casual canvas shoes, formal Oxfords. "The normal number."
He's laughing as he leaves.
Games people play...
Sooo sorry this took so long. I'm starting to think I'm not cut out to be a writer, so thanks again to the wonderful Tea and Chocolate Digestives crowd willing to coax me through my Middle Muddles: Nikte, Silverwoulf, and kvfm. (Double kisses to kvfm for worrying about me MWAH)
Case in point: I left a vital piece of information out of the last chapter. The UK has the Sexual Offences Act 2000 which "is primarily used for the protection of young people who are above the age of consent, but under the age of 18…" (Thank you Wikipedia for putting it so succinctly.)
The relationship between Dr Cunningham and Gabriella is highly suspect because Peter is both a doctor and considerably older than her, putting him in a 'position of trust'. Even though Gabriella is above the age of consent, the law potentially considers her more vulnerable under the influence of someone like him as compared to say a 20-year-old student and, therefore, in need of protection. But Greg doesn't have enough information yet to know definitively whether anything criminal is going on and Mycroft points out that, despite her youth, she appears to be too strong-willed to be swayed into doing something she doesn't want to do. I had alluded to the Sexual Offences Act in my first draft of the previous chapter, but edited it out in revision to make the scene move along faster and more smoothly. My heartfelt gratitude to Tammany for making this a stronger story by bashing me over the head (in the nicest possible way) until I realized what was missing, heh. I've put the reference back in so Greg's quandary over what to do about Cunningham makes more sense. It isn't necessary to go back and read it, unless you want to, because I've taken a paragraph here to explain a sentence added there :-D
Back to the story...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
I'm not fond of the browser on my 'phone, but it yields interesting information. Cunningham has business interests in water bottling and vitamin supplements, as well as his own venture growing hydroponic vegetables. Financially, they might be considered hobbies—by far the kindest word for failures.
His model looks billboard a few healthy lifestyle websites, but can't overcome the full extent of his history; a little more digging relinquishes notice from nearly ten years ago that the neurosurgeon was struck off. An eventuality so rare in the medical community which protects its own with a vengeance as to catapult him into a category of the highest suspicion. The gospel according to the internet suggests he has since stopped practising surgery—I have deduced that's not quite true. Perhaps this is his actual source of income? I let out a breath of frustration at the limited delving I can achieve here.
Moving on. Tippy has her own wiki page detailing her steady rise up the ladies' rankings of the UK Pool Tour and other tournaments, the beloved underdog of the circuit after her painful recovery from a car accident in Monaco four years earlier.
Lydia appears suddenly eight months ago. Nothing before that, but then Lydia Ionnide is not her true name. There is nothing on Bernard, not even a Facebook page—irregular in one of his age. And I have insufficient information on Gabriella to satisfy search parameters.
I send everything I have—including photographs and a suggestion that occurred to me, watching Stavros and Cunningham this morning, to examine certain legacy records stored in the Diogenes Club—to Anthea securely through the 'phone's Virtual Private Network and drop the device into my trouser pocket. Given the heat and the informality of the afternoon, I leave my jacket hanging from the wardrobe door knob, straighten my waistcoat and tie, and head out.
The door to the bedroom next to mine opens as I'm pulling mine closed and Gabriella glides out. She has changed into a peach one-piece costume and a silky dark green sarong. She's carrying a large white floppy hat. I let her pass and catch a glimpse of a deep moss green stare before she slips on her oversized sunglasses.
"Come back here!" Cunningham is following her out, in gymnasium garb that has been carefully chosen to camouflage the slightly awkward proportions of his long body and lamentably shorter legs.
She halts at the top of the stairs—but only long enough to put on her hat. The reddened state of her arms, indicative of the rest of her, announces she's been relentlessly toasting herself since at least yesterday noon. Even for one of her olive tones, the sunburn must be painful by now.
Cunningham hesitates when he sees me, but a tic fires in his cheek as she resumes her determined exit. Her persistence in seeking the outdoors is quite appalling.
"All that sitting around in the sun is hideous," he says.
Quite. But I'm not about to show solidarity with him. After all, Greg's appeal only increases when he's as brown as a nut. "Young people today, hm?"
He draws himself up at the veiled barb that he isn't one of them, then looks me up and down. "Wouldn't hurt for you to accompany me to the gym for a bit of running on the elliptical."
"I prefer a room with a view."
That beautiful face dissolves into a malicious quirk. "I hear you drink up the view of sweaty men."
So, taking off the kid gloves, is he? Used to winning by virtue of his looks? I suppress an eye-roll at his ineptitude in the arena of insults.
"A fruity imitation Beaujolais doesn't hold my interest, no matter how pretty the label. I prefer vintage. What I drink up is something finely aged and powerfully bodied. Something with long legs."
Cunningham reddens. "His legs aren't as long as yours."
"Should I be flattered that you noticed?"
His blond colouring isn't much better than auburn when it comes to radiant blushes of a fire engine hue. He manages a semi-civilised "Hmph" before retiring to his room.
A flash drive of my own stowed in the watch pocket of my waistcoat, I'm about to go upstairs to investigate the computers Greg saw in the game room. I can't see any nearby WiFi networks through my 'phone besides the open one that doesn't require a password, but a desktop or laptop should detect any secured ones.
As I approach the staircase, however, the faint clack of resin on resin alerts me that the room on the top floor is occupied by someone playing pool. From the unremitting, businesslike clatter, probably Tippy. There is no murmur of conversation, but whether or not she has company, it wouldn't suit my persona to show any interest in or capacity for electronics. Investigation of the additional bedroom suites upstairs, one occupied by the Abbotts, another by Tippy and Bernard, will have to wait for a future time too.
The four bedroom suites on this floor open onto an oblong reception hall outfitted with a lush oriental carpet in blues and greens. The area is useful for entertaining large parties, sunlit through a bank of serried windows looking out over the swimming area and beyond. The sounds of shouts and splashes floating in aren't enough to drown out the timbre of Lydia's voice inside the master suite. She's talking to Jemima and their emergence is imminent.
I wait, positioning myself to look outside.
The pool is a scene of chaos. A friendly kind of knockabout water-polo, between Stavros and Bernard on one side and Greg and Frank on the other, has degenerated into some unnameable, violently splashy rivalry between Stavros and Frank. With the exchange of a silent look, Greg and Bernard both retire from the field, hauling themselves out on opposite sides of the pool.
Behind me, the master suite's double doors open as expected, but I don't look around. I don't have to. Jemima and Lydia's funhouse reflections as they pause on the threshold are clear in the brass urn pedimented on a marble stand in the corner forward of me.
"Please, be cautious," says the older woman.
"Lydia—" Jemima takes a frustrated breath, at a loss for words.
By the pool below, Gabriella has covered any exposed skin in a generous layer of sunscreen and settled in a lounger. As I had surmised, in spite of her apparent courting of a tan, from this angle it's clear that the oversized hat and sunglasses are keeping her face and shoulders well-shaded. Her legs appear casually covered by her sarong, but I'm sure there's nothing casual about it.
Greg towels himself off—face, head, chest, arms—and throws his robe into a chair where he can keep an eye on Gabriella and general proceedings as he sits back.
Jemima's feathers are ruffled. "I'm sure you're mistaken." She's polite to Lydia at enormous cost. "It must be someone else you're thinking of. He would never—"
As the two ladies continue out of the master suite and catch sight of me, the conversation halts.
Below, sitting by Greg is the woman I saw in the window earlier, Caroline Abbott—out of hibernation, stiff in an eminently sensible black one-piece costume, a white rubber swimming cap bunched under her hand on the table beside her. Greg's attempts to make conversation with her stall as she keeps her eyes trained on the violence in the pool.
Dmitri did laps this morning, sees no further need for swimming exercise, and is dressed in polo shirt and slacks. He stands away from the pool, looking into the garden and at the woodlands beyond, loafered feet shoulder-width apart, hands on hips, as if master of all he surveys.
Lydia puts her hand on Jemima's arm. "Thank you for this." She gestures to the swimming ensemble she's holding and flashes a look my way. "I will change now." She melts into the fourth bedroom suite on this floor, the guest-of-honour suite.
Jemima, herself already in poolside clothing—turquoise bikini, open lilac overshirt, lilac wedge sandals—comes over and manages to smile at me.
She looks out at my view. "Oh lord. Stavros, what are you doing?"
"Competitive, isn't he?"
Her ambivalent expression hints of a loving pet-owner whose cat displays distressingly sharp hunting skills by littering the house with dead rodents. "He's used to winning."
I see that, but without attention to cost, he is clumsy. Stavros is a talented but untrained and undisciplined fighter whose mind is now too old to be moulded. In fact, he might be not just clever, but dangerous too.
I glance back at the guest suite as we start down. "So you managed to coax Dmitri and Lydia to stay."
She frowns. "Only for the afternoon." Jemima still doesn't know if that's a good thing or not enough. "She didn't bring any additional clothes, she doesn't plan to stay. I don't suppose you'd—" She already knows the answer to that. "No."
I won't step in and sort out everyone's social calendar when there's no clear advantage accruing to me. The prince has his uses, but he's not that important.
"I much prefer you when Greg's around." Her hesitant glance in my direction steals the thunder from her defiant tone.
"I expect most people do."
We continue downstairs.
She glances at my outfit. "Not planning to swim?"
"At least come outside for awhile."
"Hoping to gather everyone together for campfire songs and toasted marshmallows?"
"A bit of sun will do you good."
"What about Tippy?" I glance up.
"Oh, she's fine where she is. The green baize table is the only kind of pool she's comfortable with."
I raise my eyebrows at the dismissal, at the implied dig at Tippy's scarring.
"That was uncharitable of me." Jemima gives an apologetic quirk of the lips. "She's a professional pool player and puts in hours of practice every day. It's very laudable."
Every day? "Is she a frequent visitor?"
Jemima rolls her eyes. "She came with the house, I think, one of the fixtures and fittings or something."
"The mad wife in the attic that you didn't know about?"
"No!" She stops and stares at me, horrified, before indignation takes over. "No. She was in a car accident and Stavros was the heroic by-stander who pulled her to safety minutes before the car blew up." She casts me a pained smile and continues the recitation of what has evidently become part of the family's tribal history. "She had no family to speak of, so he kept in touch through surgeries, stood by her through failed skin grafts. She's been a cross between a devoted little sister and an adoring puppy ever since."
Jealous. Not surprising under the circumstances. "Of course. I'm sorry. My comment was in poor taste."
We resume our downward trek.
Jemima's first instinct was right, though—no need to worry about another wife stashed away upstairs. Something about the accident earnt Tippy a place at Stavros's side—endurance doesn't seem enough—and it pleases him to take care of her, but her disfigurement took her out of the marriage stakes with him from the start. We reach the bottom of the stairs.
"Anyway," Jemima plays with the cuffs of her sleeves, rolling them halfway up her forearms, "she's no trouble."
That's not true.
A breathless figure approaches us—half-running, half-wobbling on the balls of her feet, in that unflattering, black, schoolgirlish swimsuit. The veterinarian sees us standing in the way of her flight upstairs and has no choice but to come to a halt. The swimming cap drops from her nerveless fingers.
As I bend to retrieve it, she does the same and our angled heads crash. Standing quickly, I press fingers to my skull at the point of impact, eyes momentarily closed, until the pain dissipates amidst her embarrassed flurry of Sorrys and Thank-yous as I hand back the limp scrap of discoloured white rubber.
"Think nothing of it."
Greg has followed her into the house, robe grasped in one hand. When he sees our group, he hesitates, takes in my state of relative dishabille and, catching my eye, puts on his terry gown to obscure his questioning glance whether he should join us. At the subtlest shake of my head, he turns some thoughtful attention to the empty room by him instead, darts a last look around to see who might notice and goes into the library.
In spite of my annoyance at the homely woman in front of me, I can see she is not the type who militantly refuses the aid of a gentleman. She is, rather, someone who is not used to the assistance of others, male or female, and she has learnt to take up for herself. She is a descendent of the uncomplaining, middle class, relentlessly competent kind of woman upon whose shoulders the British Empire was really built. And this woman who is more comfortable with horses than people—something with which I can sympathise—is hopelessly out of her depth in Stavros's home.
Jemima's lips twist in a genuine—even kind—effort not to show her amusement at our inelegant collision. "I'm glad to see you up and about now, Caroline. I hope you're feeling better." At the filthy look thrown her way, she takes a step back in shock.
"You and your husband, the pair of you—" Caroline's voice is a low, raw growl, but she stops herself and flicks a glance at me.
My facility with languages has never been stumped by words and phrases that have no rendering in English, but the mixed expression of pity and self-pity on her face is untranslatable. Jemima and I exchange a futile glance and then the little coward makes her escape.
"If you'll excuse me," our hostess backs away, "I must check on the kitchen. Do let me—Mrs Tennyson—know if you need anything. Either of you." She turns and flees.
That does make things easier, in a way, but even so I don't think Caroline will cooperate.
I look at her and whisper. "What is it? What has you"—frightened—"concerned?"
"Sorry," she puts her hand on the newel post, "I'd like to go to my room now."
I consider not moving, but I'll gain nothing by being obstructive. I take a step out of her way.
"I expect Tippy will enjoy some company," I say at her ascending back as she makes her rapid way up.
She stumbles and looks down at me, her dismay apparent. She looks up the staircase, then back at me and, for a moment, I think I might win out as the lesser of two evils.
When she looks down the hall, I turn to see Stavros drop a towel on the nearby Regency table embellished with a tall floral arrangement predominantly featuring amaranthine lupins and blushing foxgloves. His penetrating stare back and forth between us somehow communicates to her an order to leave. Her climb this time is measured, even faltering, but doesn't stop.
He watches her critically for a moment, then looks at me. A smile spreads his lips and he's about to speak, but a noise attracts his attention. Forgetting me, he proceeds into the library.
I follow and listen at the door.
"You've been spending a lot of time with my wife."
Stavros's voice is oily, but not hostile. Not yet.
"She's a nice person."
"She seems to have taken a shine to you, too. Perhaps you should spend equal time with me so I can see your charms."
"Actually, I did want to spend some time with you."
I raise my eyebrows at the smug tone. Stavros still believes Greg can be seduced, in spite of everything I've said.
"About Ken Martin—"
"The murdered Australian groom."
"Your compassion is noted."
"Look, I hardly knew him."
"So, you did know him?"
"That's not what I said. I just stable my horses at the—"
I promised I wouldn't interfere with Greg's interview, so I turn away.
From the floor plan in my dossier at home and Greg's tip about the missing room, I know the next door along the hallway gives onto Stavros's study. Jemima said that it's kept locked and there's no reason to believe otherwise, but I can verify it with Stavros occupied in the library. After one last glance around to make sure I'm alone, I reach for the doorknob. Too late, I hear footsteps.
"That is the office of Stavros."
Without moving away, I glance over my shoulder at Dmitri. "Is it?"
I turn the knob anyway.
"I wanted to have a look, too." He comes up and gazes over my shoulder at the stubborn latch. "I wonder why he keeps it locked."
"Possibly to stop the intrusion of nosy outsiders."
Dmitri returns my smirk and joins me as I walk away. His acquisitive air as he gazes about is notable.
We go into the next room, a modestly proportioned gymnasium. It contains a stationary bicycle, an elliptical machine and, in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror, a complicated arachnid atrocity sprouting flexible rods and cabling. We stare up at it, wild-eyed.
As we back out into the corridor again, I clear my throat. "How's your house-hunting coming along?"
He runs a hand along the wainscoting; he might be steadying himself. "Not fast enough."
"Want to get it all wrapped up before the wedding?"
He glances at me with a conspiratorial smile.
"Perhaps the house of your dreams isn't too far off the horizon."
Dmitri throws me a startled look. "Has Stavros said anything to you?"
I examine him more closely as a sudden realization comes to me. "Have you known Constantine long?"
"We attended the same university for awhile. My presence was required after my father passed away so I left, but Connie and I, we—" Dmitri absorbs himself in studying the crown mouldings.
Well, that explains why Constantine wants this property back. He wants to lease the company's London house to the happy couple for old times' sake because they both mean something to him. Lydia is Athína Magoula his former fiancée. Meanwhile, Dmitri is marrying her to keep close a bygone lover—and she's is doing the same. What a byzantine triangle.
Everyone will agree that it is more astute of Constantine, both financially and in terms of potential connections, to lease the place to Dmitri and Lydia than to let his estranged, adoptive brother live here free of charge as a matter of entitlement. And it will give Constantine every excuse for extended visits. Unfortunately, like a chair with three legs, the liaison will eventually topple. Sentiment complicates everything.
My place is not to avert this train wreck, but collecting random pieces of information for potential use is always worthwhile. "When is the wedding?"
"Next spring." Dmitri pauses. "Since you and Greg are now our personal friends, you will both of course be invited."
My stomach plunges. "I don't do weddings."
Walking past the library, we can't help but overhear Stavros and Greg still talking. The topic has evolved.
"Who is he? Really?"
"He holds a minor position in the British government."
There aren't many people I find trustworthy and to whom I would, therefore, give my trust in return. I press that thought for future perusal into a special niche where I house all things Greg in my mental Archives.
"I am of a mind with Stavros, my friend," says Dmitri. "I do not know what exactly it is you do, but I am inclined to think it is not trivial. Nevertheless, Lydia and I will expect at least one of you to attend."
He may no longer be recognised as a prince on the world stage, but for a relatively ineffective young man, at unexpected moments there is no mistaking the authority of his lineage.
But I have no claim on Greg past this weekend. "We may no longer be together at the time of your nuptials."
"After six years?" Dmitri's disbelief gives way to good humour. "Yes, I have listened to the gossip. And it does not surprise anyone that you two have been together so long. Not truly. Watching you interact in such co-ordinated fashion is like watching the Bolshoi Ballet."
In spite of the fire blanket I keep on hand to deaden sentiment, my heart leaps at the truth behind the analogy. Dmitri is mistaken in his belief, however, that my affinity with Greg signifies any germination—let alone growth—in our nonexistent relationship. I turn away to hide my clenched fists.
Tell me if this chapter was too choppy and difficult to follow. There was a lot of information for Mycroft to accumulate on his prowls without the benefit of having Greg around to talk it over with, on top of which, Mycroft has that annoying tendency to notice EV.RY.THING. I'm hoping I won't have to tackle it this way again, at least not for the length of a whole chapter. (You may have gathered correctly that I found this chapter a challenge to write.)
Things are getting a bit hairy in my neck of the woods for awhile, with family in town for my father's birthday and papers coming due for my masters class—including a 10,000 word first draft for peer review in a month that I haven't started yet. Bear with me. I have the 4 or 5 Ending chapters of this story written and parts of the remaining 4 or 5 Middle chapters, and I'm as anxious to post them as you are (I hope) to read them.
In the Library, with the (silver fox) Gloves…
To my wonderful Tea and Chocolate Digestives (with the Occasional Late Night Tipple Thrown In For Medicinal Purposes Only) crowd for encouraging me through the Middle Muddles: Nikte (gosh, can't say enough!), Girl4Spring, OtakuElf, JennyWD (and in fact all my repeat commenters), Kvfm (love you), and Silverwoulf (sweet friend). Thank you so much for keeping me going!
Believe it or not, silver foxgloves (see what I did there?) really exist. According to rarexoticseeds.com: "the creamy-white speckled bells are flushed soft pink." Sounds about right :-D
Ohhh, the adventure of The Speckled Bell…
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"You should make him run, or something. In a few years he's going to be fat and jowly, you can see it now."
In spite of my abrupt halt outside the library, Dmitri's conversation doesn't slow down and, in his preoccupation, I fend off a wave of déja vu. For a moment, I could swear it was Sherlock talking to Greg.
"From where I'm looking, he's just fine as he is. If running ever comes up in our conversation—and it won't—you can be sure I'll advise him that he doesn't have to."
Coming down the stairs, Cunningham—followed by a bikini'd Lydia—is avoiding eye contact as he descends, but can't stop a flicker in my direction as he walks past to the gymnasium, a towel around his neck.
Dmitri grabs his fiancée by the arm and leads her away, sending me a stiff nod excusing them. His outraged words to her are muffled, but not hidden.
"You do not give way to the likes of him."
"I was not willing to argue precedence with a yapping fox terrier at the head of the stairs." Her words, fading with distance, sound both uncomfortable and amused. "Imagine the scandal when he was found at the bottom with a broken neck."
And imagine the paperwork. Thank heavens for sensible women. Dmitri breaks his ominous silence with a snort of laughter and I understand why he thinks he could marry her.
I take out my 'phone and open my email inbox, apparently absorbed by the screen to excuse my lingering near the library door.
"You don't know what it's like to be loved by Mycroft Holmes. To have someone drop everything to rescue you when things go pear-shaped, someone who'll stick by you no matter what."
How did the conversation come to this? Stavros doesn't know it, but Greg's talking about Sherlock. I didn't think there was anyone to bear witness, much less appreciate the things I do for the brother I love. I didn't think it mattered to me, but my throat thickens.
"Good lord, you're really in love with him."
"Why are you so obsessed by his looks anyway?" Greg's tone doesn't quite hit unconcerned. "Are you measuring him up for yourself?"
No danger of that on so many counts. Indeed, Stavros doesn't reply, but rather, deflects.
"You're not good enough for him."
My grip on my 'phone tightens as I lower the device. Of all the lies and deceits being perpetrated this weekend, that counts amongst the biggest.
A chair scrapes as Greg abruptly stands and walks away. "I know."
No. Just—no. I turn off the screen and replace the 'phone in my pocket.
They both turn to me in surprise as I enter the room. Stavros is sitting on a cushioned bench, his arm draped along its back, careless of the damage his still-damp trunks are doing to the burgundy velvet upholstery.
On the other side of the room is Greg. I scrutinise him. "I can't leave you alone with him for a minute, can I?"
The dismay blooming in his eyes skewers me. "Mycroft—"
Our host is smirking. "I told you you can't rely on a pleb like him to have any real loyalty."
"Not him." My gaze swings to Stavros. "You."
He stares at me in shocked animosity, his arm coming down from the back of the bench as he sits forward. Then he raises his chin. In a second, his expression transforms into something bland. "My goodness, he keeps you on a short leash, doesn't he, Greg?"
I stare at Stavros. "Don't."
Greg pulls himself together. "I'm far from a kept man, if that's what you're implying. You can't have already forgotten my position with Scotland Yard."
"Ah." Stavros grins as he sits back again, his words directed at Greg, his eyes directed at me. "A long leash, then. Tell me, Inspector, what do you think of greyhounds?"
Greg looks at me in confusion.
"Did you know Mycroft wouldn't bet on you?"
Cornered. If I tell Greg what was really said, I'd be admitting that I've talked about him behind his back as if he were a racetrack animal—perhaps worse, as if he were predictable. But if I say nothing, he'll think I lack confidence in him.
A glance in his direction and the look of veiled hurt in his eyes makes me turn away.
"I don't blame Mycroft." Stavros's smile is disingenuous. "You're not much of a protector of the people, are you, officer? Leaving one of our young in the hands of a man more than twice her age—a doctor, no less—when you could do something about it."
Greg's cheeks suddenly flushed, he stares at Stavros. "You invited them!"
Our host raises his hands in a don't-blame-me gesture. "I had no idea his plus one would be so young."
Greg splutters to conceal flaring guilt as the gibe goes home. He thought he should do something about Cunningham's influence over Gabriella, too. But we have bigger fish to fry and Greg has been willing to defer to my game plan, to maintain the status quo since the girl has carefully kept herself in public and isn't under imminent threat.
In spite of my wishes, however, the situation has never been sustainable for Greg—he continues to keep an eye on the pair of them. Stavros may suggest that the DI is being careless, but things assuredly look unfavourable for the predatory Dr Cunningham.
Quite wrongly, as it happens.
Not because the disgraced surgeon's intentions are pure—he would have deflowered the girl if all had gone according to plan—but she, the pawn, has managed to put the little white king in check.
I put my hands in my trouser pockets. "They would have to be sleeping together, though, wouldn't they?"
Greg and Stavros both look at me, duplicate wide eyes pushing brows up.
"For the doctor to cross the line into illegality," I lean against the bookshelf by the door, "for the DI to have a case, they'd have to be participating in sexual acts."
Still hurt by my failure to explain the bet, smarting at Stavros's derision, with no clear idea why I'm sure Gabriella is safe—for now—Greg starts walking towards me.
"Right." His agreement with me sounds authentic even to my ears.
"What makes you think they're not? Perhaps you'd explain your reasoning," says Stavros with a frown, "Inspector Lestrade."
I could step in to make explanations, but I've done enough damage to Greg's pride for the time being.
Greg stares at me, panic subsumed under the focussed intensity of his eyes.
Hands still in pockets, I stand straight and make a casual swerve into a stream of sunlight that is coming in through the window, encroaching on my position by the door as the sun moves across the sky. Its light behind Greg obscures his face and I rub my eyes. With barely a hesitation in my step, my hand forms a visor until I step out of the glare and continue across the room to inspect some books in passing on a shelf. From here I can watch both men at once.
"Peter and Gabriella," Greg says slowly, stealing a last moment to contemplate me before turning to face Stavros, "they haven't known each other very long, have they?"
"What makes you say that?"
A stab in the dark. But Greg's pacing takes him into the stream of sunlight and his hand comes up to shade his face. He jerks to a stop, flashes me a short but intense gape as insight hits him, and I allow myself to relax a little.
"Because he didn't know she's a sun junkie. He hates the sun, thinks its effects are unattractive. And she's done nothing but soak it up since the moment she arrived, hasn't she." Greg pauses for Stavros to agree, but our host denies satisfaction. Greg's on a roll, though. "They're not sleeping together because, now that he sees she wants to spend every spare moment sitting out in the sun, he's put off by her."
Almost, but not quite. Gabriella doesn't really care much for the sun herself, but she's using it to keep Cunningham at bay. He thinks staying away from her, keeping his hands off her, is punishing her. He's used to young people at an awkward age adoring him, grateful for his attention, and she must have given him that impression, too, for him to invite her to accompany him here in the first place. He thinks the feeling of rejection that a cold shoulder creates will soon break her down, make her succumb to him. In fact, he doesn't understand why it's not working already. He doesn't understand that distancing him is what she's been angling for all along.
The question is why?
Still, Greg's got the essential point and Stavros is immobile with surprise.
I can't resist a crack. "I told you he's good."
Greg looks at me with a mixture of pride and—is that gratitude? I'm so used to people taking credit for the ideas I put into their heads that I'd forgotten what this feels like. He has consigned his recent hurts to oblivion, buoyant with cheer.
"Wait a minute." Greg turns and spears Stavros with a look. "Did you want me to disrupt your weekend party by arresting one of your guests?"
Of course. Clever Greg, finding the nub of the issue. Stavros's surprise at Greg's revelation is real enough, but not from learning that Cunningham and Gabriella's relationship is—for as long as she can manage—nonsexual; Stavros has already worked that out. In fact, he has tried to turn it to his advantage. His surprise comes from realising that the DI has read the situation accurately. Accurately enough.
Cunningham wasn't told a member of Scotland Yard would be a guest for the weekend; he demonstrated genuine alarm when he found out. And Greg was supposed to respond with suspicion. He was supposed to arrest Cunningham. Then he was supposed to be made a fool of.
A sudden fury deep inside startles me. Unexpected developments have waylaid me before, but I never take them personally. This time, I want to squash Stavros like a beetle.
I pull a breath deep into my lungs.
Of some things I'm certain. I'm certain Stavros thinks Greg is beneath my station. I'm certain he wants to separate Greg from me. I'm certain he wants to use Greg himself—once—both to seal my split with the DI and also to slake his own attraction.
My nails bite into my palms and I'm glad of the pain because— Does my intention to end things with Greg after this weekend make me someone cut from the same cloth as Stavros?
I thrust that thought away, clearing mental space for another to dawn in its place—the notion that attention diverted to Cunningham's peccadillo could be used as more than a means to occupy and then invalidate the resident detective inspector. It could distract from an illegal practice of surgery.
And Stavros must know.
He tilts his head at Greg in scrutiny. "I'm grateful you've restrained yourself from taking Peter in." His eyes become infused with a pernicious mirth. "I count myself lucky that justice is…blind."
I frown and pre-empt Greg's angry retort, to clarify a point. "I take it you don't want my help finding justice with your brother, either."
He smirks. "You already said you couldn't help."
That's right, I did. And yet he insisted I come for the weekend anyway. It was never me he wanted to invite here.
My gaze veers to Greg. If I'm not at issue, if I'm taken out of the equation, then what else does he and Anthea have in common?
This quintessential English domicile is housing layer upon layer of secrets, labyrinthine twisters and conundrums in every corner. I dislike giving Stavros credit for this much dexterity, but I cannot escape the awareness that he is the conductor of it all.
A picture is revealing itself to me—too slowly. I need more time to disentangle each piece and this is my only opportunity to be at close quarters, an invitation into his home never likely to be repeated. Whatever goodwill he might have felt towards us in the beginning is fast evaporating.
Fortunately, in spite of our host being caught out, for now his lazy smile suggests he sees no credible threat in either of us. He's very clever, but he doesn't know that I know that something deeper is going on.
"Perhaps it would be better for all concerned"—I go to Greg, tie his robe in a move that demonstrates my proprietary rights—"if we leave."
"No!" Stavros, frowning, gets to his feet. "I mean…Dmitri and Ath—uh, Lydia are already putting Jemima's seating plan to the flame. You don't want to make it worse."
Ah, Lydia. Even more of a preoccupation than we are.
"It's true." Greg looks at me, his surprise at my suggestion to leave pushed away as he tries to salvage what he sees as a bigger and bigger red flag slipping out of his grasp. "We don't want to upset Jemima more."
I allow myself to be persuaded, with a stabbing glance at Stavros. "I expect never to see you alone with Greg again."
"No. Of course not, if you say so." He wipes his palms surreptitiously on his trunks. "Look, I'm sorry. Greek humour can be boisterous and doesn't always translate well. Jemima would never forgive me if you left."
He really wants Greg. My stomach seethes.
"I have to shower and change for the tennis match." Stavros goes to the door. "I'll see you there."
It isn't a question and he doesn't wait for confirmation as he exits, leaving the door wide open.
In a move so sudden I couldn't begin to anticipate it, Greg grasps my neck and jaw in both hands. Our lips are mere centimetres from each other. I can't break free and my stomach plunges. Out of nowhere, we've gone from playing doubles to playing singles and I've lost this game with Greg that is no game to me.
I'm at his mercy.
And then, to my everlasting disbelief, he exercises that mercy. He slides his arms around my neck and pulls me into a full body hug, his cheek and ear against mine.
"You did that on purpose, didn't you?" He's impressed by my simple use of reverse psychology and he doesn't try to hide it.
I'm rather impressed, too, by how easily it worked on one of the few people in the world I've come across who can give me a run for my money.
"I don't know what you mean." My words are coy, but my attention has wandered.
Confounded by Greg's clemency, I put my hands on his waist. The tie of his terry gown is rough under my fingers as I follow its path around to the small of his back and then beyond, pulling him closer. I shut my eyes, grateful he can't see my face, as he slots into place flush against me.
Stavros's intentions towards this man, Greg's captivation with me, my loss of control over my reactions to everything are unravelling me.
"Greg, I can't keep doing this."
"God help me, Mycroft, I can't stop."
My reflex is unmistakable. So is his response to me. If we were in my library at home, even though I'd never considered it a suitable location before Greg steeped it in his personality, I wouldn't hesitate to have him.
I take a long shaky breath and try to pull his arms down. "Please. Leave now."
His arms tighten. "It's be a bit ungentlemanly of you to make me leave this minute."
"You've got a heavy robe to cover up. Now go."
The need to keep our voices beneath the detection of recording steals my authority. He lets go, but his stubborn look doesn't bode well.
I grit my teeth. "Fine. Is this what you want?"
A sweep of my hand is all it takes to free the tie around his waist. His robe falls open.
"Mycroft?" His voice shakes, but not enough to make him escape to safety.
I can't stop myself glancing down at his chest so I make it a slow, deliberate graze instead.
He should know better than to call my bluff.
I put my palms on his abdomen, cataloguing the mix of warm and cool, hot blood coming through pool-water dampness, perhaps aided by a little perspiration in the air's growing humidity. Ignoring the sudden tremble in my hands, I let them skate through a smattering of coarse, salt-and-pepper hair, over hard nipples to his shoulders. Our eyes are locked.
I push his gown off and he shivers—but the situation is still not enough to make him walk away.
The sense of exposure—his willing vulnerability—is somehow more poignant than the cheeky glimpse of sweet arse he gave me last night. Is he daring me? More fool him if he thinks for a moment I won't take advantage of it. I inhale his intoxicating scent as my fingers slide down his biceps, his ribs, his back.
Not until I skim inside the back of his trunks and over his fine buttocks does he take an alarmed step back. My hands fall to my side. I slide one into my trouser pocket, thumb hooked over the opening.
"Here?" His expression is a blend of surprise and panic. And more.
I blink. If I wanted sex right here, right now, he would be willing. If not exactly eager, then at least consenting and compliant.
He realises I know and he crosses his arms. "The door's open, the windows're open, anyone could—" He stops.
"Anyone could be listening?"
He looks around the shelves as if suspicious wires are sticking out to indicate the bugging mechanism embedded through the house. "Yes."
My point precisely.
A body shadows the doorway and I step forwards to obscure Greg whilst he picks up his robe and puts it back on. It's not his swimwear I'm trying to shield.
Cunningham, on his way back upstairs from the gymnasium, flips his towel over his shoulder as he scrutinises us. "What are you two whispering about?"
Why would he care? Does he know about the audio bugging? Is he worried we're speaking too softly to be picked up? "Buggery."
Greg turns a scandalised snort of laughter into a cough. Eyes popping, Cunningham's gaze drops, proving that he heard what I wanted him to hear, not what I said. I still bear out the story he's telling himself, though I'm fast wilting.
I tilt my head forwards and raise my eyebrows.
He backs out of the library.
"That was…frightening." Greg ties his robe closed again. "Your particular brand of honesty."
He's still smiling, but I feel a pressing need to brush away imaginary lint from my waistcoat—or possibly a flare of panic from my gut. "It had the desired effect."
Greg's been betrayed before by someone close to him and, now he's seen my verbal sleight of hand in action, the facile trust he's always placed in me has to break. But then, of course, that's what I want. I've always discouraged it. He shouldn't trust me. I'm untrustworthy. I take a steadying breath.
"But," he raises his eyebrows at me, "reputation?"
I shrug. "Apparently, when it comes to you, I have none."
"Mycroft, you can't say things like that and expect me to leave you alone."
"I can." I suppress a regretful sigh. "I do."
He gives a resigned sigh and produces his flash drive from the pocket of his robe. "I didn't have a chance—" He takes a step towards the computer.
I intercept him and indicate the door. "Later. You have a courtside cocktail party for which to prepare."
He's about to remonstrate.
"I've laid out some clothes for you."
His eyes darken before he leaves. As I finger my own flash drive in my watch pocket, I'm tempted to follow.
Apologies to fox terriers everywhere.
I realised as I was writing this chapter that both Mycroft and Stavros would be aware of the damage sunlight does to books, yet I gave both their libraries windows. As a bibliophile, I condemn my own actions—if I'd been paying attention earlier, I would have told the story another way. Dagnabbit.
Uh, well, and since I'm already confessing my sins of omission, it occurred to me at chapter 11 that I'd forgotten to give Greg a nicotine patch for Mycroft to notice in chapter 7 when they were getting ready for bed. I decided to go with them being in a phase of nonsmoking for the duration of this story, rather than messing with it, which I regretted in chapter 13 when I wanted to describe Mycroft's preferred 'drink' to be smoky as well as finely aged and powerfully bodied. Double-dagnabbit.
Are you interested in my meta-writing angst, or would you prefer not to know what's going on behind the scenes so you can sink into the 'fictive dream'?
Mycroft juggles balls…
As usual, heartfelt thanks to my Tea and Chocolate Digestives comfort group: Nikte, Silverwoulf, Starskipper, and my dealer, Kvfm, who keeps me supplied in virtual scotch and espresso. I'm not kidding when I say I find Middles difficult - this is always the hardest part of writing a story for me - so I'm truly indebted to friends who stop by with an encouraging word.
I mentioned a few chapters ago that the remainder of the story would take a darker turn. This will always be first and foremost the love story, but missing persons issues become a bit of a theme hereon forward.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Nothing of interest resides on the computer in the library. Internet access is available on the open network and browsing history indicates perusal at cookery sites, news sites, dull entertainment sites. I can see a second, secured network, but without the access key—usually a random alpha-numeric sequence assigned by the manufacturer, although I expect Stavros has since changed it—any attempts to get into it from here cannot succeed.
The good news is, since he keeps his study locked, his laptop must automatically recognise the network so, although I'll still need a password to get into his private files, I won't need the access key. The bad news is, if he won't bring out his laptop whilst the house is full of guests, I'm going to have to go in.
The problem of entering the study is easily solved—Sherlock isn't the only one with some skill at lock-picking—but on leaving, I won't be able to re-lock the door behind me. Stavros will know someone has been inside.
Under his suspicious eyes, could I feign ignorance and get away with it? After all, I'm only a minor government functionary—one who is led by his heart, if I play up the rôle into which I've fallen of a jealous lover. The risk to me directly is not overwhelming, whereas the obvious suspect would be the one person Stavros is aware has been trained to snoop: the detective inspector. In banter, that was our original plan. In retrospect, the jest is souring.
Who else might Stavros suspect? Not Jemima. She's still in the first blush of wifehood, freely giving her loyalty to her new husband—although the shine is coming off that faster than he might like.
Cunningham is his man with no reason to rock the boat. Gabriella is too young and apparently self-absorbed to be considered a viable suspect.
Tippy is his surrogate sister and they dote on each other. She can go in any time, with no reason to break in at the dead of night. What about Bernard? Possibly. A new boyfriend, a new factor in the household, although uncommonly devoted to her.
Anyone with eyes can see Frank would attack Stavros in a heartbeat—if he could stay off the drink—although he's more likely to resort to his tennis racket or his fists than his brains. Either way, Caroline wouldn't stop him. Or, if she did, it would most definitely not be out of concern for Stavros. Their helpless frustration around Stavros, however, lacks subtlety; neither of them would be likely candidates for illicit entering and snooping.
Dmitri is exactly as young and preoccupied with finding an appropriate way to portray himself as he appears to be to pay much attention to his host. Ah, but Lydia, an unexpected addition to the weekend roster, an unwelcome ghost from Stravros's past—he could easily suspect her of devilry and sabotage. She could be a useful distraction.
Stavros is up to something shady, but he doesn't get his hands dirty and he's a clever man. Is he technically guilty of anything? He must keep records, but there's no guarantee he keeps incriminating evidence accessible from these premises. Is it worth the risk I'd have to take to get into his study? Some kind of pointer would be helpful, some affirmation of wrong-doing on his part would even the odds to make it worthwhile.
I tuck my chair under the computer table and, as I leave this leather-bound sanctuary, I walk into Bernard.
"I beg your pardon, sir." The lilt of his voice is soothing.
"Monserrat, isn't it?"
He looks at me wide-eyed. "What did you say?"
"I recognise the accent. You're from the Caribbean, aren't you? From Montserrat, in fact."
"I—" He takes a step towards me even though the constant lift of his eyes up the stairs speaks of urgency. An internal debate is clear in his stare, not whether to stop and chat with me, but whether to confide something. "Sir—"
"Mycroft, sir, please help me! They know. Back home they must know. I—" He freezes then gasps, staggers, reaches for the wall, his eyes tight with pain.
"Bernard." I take a step towards him, hesitate, staring at him.
The open neck of his bush shirt, slightly too big for his ropy but narrow shoulders, falls away to reveal layers of light scarring, new on top of old, the washed out pink of almost-healed subcutaneous flesh standing out against mahogany. Not deep enough to do lasting damage, but too much so for purely sexual bloodplay.
"Tell me what I can do, Bernard."
"No. Nothing. Nothing you can do." He clasps the door jamb to hold himself up. As I consider at least fetching a glass of water, the spasm passes. "I'm sorry. I need to get upstairs."
"Do you have some medications, something to take for your…ailments?"
"Yes." He straightens and he takes a few deep breaths. "Yes. I must take my medicine. Pardon me."
"Let me help you."
Climbing the stairs, he heads in the direction of Tippy, the girlfriend, and Caroline, the veterinarian. Whose presence here is an anomaly. Who has licence to dispense medications. And who performs equine surgery. A little eavesdropping might not go amiss.
Before I can follow, however, hurried footsteps approach from behind me, Dmitri's marginally more agitated of the two.
It might be more courteous of me to go on my way, pretend that I'm not aware of the couple's public altercation, but there are occasions when I'm not that polite.
"I did what you and Connie asked, Dmitri. That is enough."
"But you cannot leave."
"You cannot say anything to make me stay."
"Anything at all."
In spite of my best efforts to step out of the way, she bumps my arm, her only apology a brief half-turn towards me on her way to the stairs.
Dmitri stops by me, vibrating tension, and watches her go up. "She is being ridiculous."
"Is she?" Having determined I need to have her here, I have no choice but to engage him in conversation until I can see a way to make that happen. "Perhaps, now that Stavros knows she's alive and well, there's no more reason for her to remain."
Reverse psychology works admirably when the suggested line of action goes against the listener's beliefs or intentions.
"Of course there is reason. She is here with me."
It is inconsiderate of her to leave both her fiancé and her hostess high and dry. "Perhaps you should, instead, leave with her."
Dmitri turns his lips down at me, frowning.
"Out of support for her," I add.
"Is Mycroft Holmes now dispensing relationship advice?"
"When you put it like that," I smile, "it does seem unlikely."
His stiff pose relaxes a little and he manages to grin back. "I suppose, after six years, you have some basis for offering input."
"Greg's been a part of my life for six years, it's true, but our excursions together have only been the most reserved and innocent. Merely two friends enjoying coffee, a meal, a drink at the end of the day."
Dmitri looks at me more closely. "Until this excursion."
"Yes, well, discretion might, in fact, have been the better part of fondness since not everyone here has been as positive about our…liaison as you."
"But he stays in spite of unpleasantness because you ask it of him."
"Actually, I suggested we leave together. He refused."
"He is worthy."
Yes, he is.
"More so than I, I'm afraid. Every time he's slighted"—Dmitri's sympathetic expression quite turns my stomach—"well. Let's say this weekend might give me an ulcer."
Fortunately, Lydia, outfitted again in day clothes, draws his attention as she comes back downstairs, clutch purse in her right hand.
"Lydia," says Dmitri.
"No." She stops in front of us. "Whatever you are about to say, no."
"I was going to ask if you want me to leave with you."
She raises her eyebrows and scruntinises him, favouring me with a glance midway. "What if I say yes?"
Obviously not the answer for which he's hoping.
She sighs. "It is all right, agapitós. Stay and enjoy Stavros's hospitality."
"But you cannot hide from him forever."
"After we—you—" She glances at me again and hesitates. "I trust we will not be crossing paths with him again after this."
Her faith in Dmitri and Constantine is touching, if misplaced. She knows Stavros will not give up this house without a fight, but she believes, now that she's done her part, that their combined power is enough to oust him and thereafter keep him at bay. She's quite mistaken.
"If you will excuse me, gentlemen."
She moves her purse to her left hand, leaving her right free to shake mine in farewell. Dmitri and I regretfully watch her go through the front doors, both sides of it open to encourage a breeze.
"Your advice did not work, my friend," he says.
"My advice, if you recall, was for you to leave with her."
He gives me a sharp look. "Do you think I should go?"
No, I think she should stay. But perhaps by keeping him here, some small chance will arise to get her to come back. "Leaving separately in two cars at different times really wouldn't create the same sensation that sweeping out together as a united front would have."
Lydia is standing by the door of her MGB roadster, its soft top down, rummaging in her purse for the keys.
"Besides," I add, "like the proverbial tree falling in an empty forest, is it possible to make a dramatic exit without an audience?"
"You're still here."
"Not by the time you've packed."
He comprehends that, to a deserted foyer, he wouldn't be making any statement other than of the apparent slinking away in cowardly fashion. And that doesn't suit his image of himself.
He turns to me. "Make her stay."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Talk to her." He grasps my arm and guides me towards the porch. "If anyone can convince her to change her mind, it is you. Do your magic."
"Very well." This is no time for smiling. Instead, I stare at him until he frees me. "I'll try."
"I cannot ask for more."
"Lydia." I grasp my umbrella from the stand by the door, regretting for a moment my incomplete ensemble, and head towards her. "A moment, please, before you leave."
By the time I make it to her vehicle, she is sitting behind the wheel and is about to start the ignition.
She twists to look up at me. "Mycroft."
I'm intrigued not by her choice of car—fast, agile, not considered as safe as other cars—so much as by what it says about her. This is a woman not averse to living a risky life, who won an industrial prince and gave him up, only to win a royal prince. Of sorts. She must be frightened indeed of Stavros to walk away now.
"Has Dmitri sent you to try and make me stay?"
"Not at all. I'm only sorry I didn't spend any time with you, but I completely understand why you're uncomfortable here," I examine the tip of my umbrella, "Ms Magoula."
She stares at me. "How did you know?"
I meet her eyes. "It was unkind of Dmitri to expect you to spend an entire weekend."
"And why do you know? Do you work for Stavros?"
"Perhaps, before you leave, we could take a short stroll and talk."
She needs only a moment to decide. "Yes, all right."
I open the car door for her.
The distance from here to the public road isn't very far, but the driveway is long, winding and curving through a picturesquely thinned spread of old oak, ash and elm trees. In spite of the close air, the shade and the accumulated soft bed of fallen leaves beneath our feet make for a pleasant and secluded walk.
"If you don't work for Stavros—"
"I hold a minor position with the British government." She shoots me a look, ready to withdraw her trust which has been tentative at best. "But think who my partner is."
Lydia abruptly stops. "Detective Inspector Lestrade. But how did you—"
"The circumstances of our invitation aren't important. What is important is that I've admitted to you that his presence isn't entirely social."
"Why are you entrusting me with this information?"
"Because he can't move against Stavros without some proof of legal wrong-doing."
"And you want to help your inspector to take him in?"
I let her digest this and we start walking again.
"What makes you think I have such proof?" She glances at me. "You don't know anything about me."
At this point in my life, I shouldn't continue to be surprised when people say that. "I know Stavros has a younger brother, Constantine. The fact that Constantine was once engaged to one Athína Magoula might have escaped attention had she not disappeared five years ago, causing a scandal that threw a leading shipping and transportation family into frantic array."
She studiously avoids my eyes.
"When your appearance today alarmed Stavros into disclosing your true christian name, it wasn't difficult to put two and two together. The question is why was he angry to see you rather than pleased or even just relieved?"
"Is that what your inspector is trying to work out?"
"Amongst other things." I watch her as we continue walking. "Dmitri also mentioned that he and Constantine have university ties, ties that Dmitri is pleased—through you—to renew. When Constantine discovered not only that you were alive and well, but that the two of you are engaged and looking for a suitable London home, this place came up as an option."
"How can you possibly—"
"Perhaps prematurely, since it already has a tenant who expects to remain in residence for the foreseeable future. Dmitri, however, jumped at the chance to live here and neither of you want to disappoint him."
"And what exactly is it you want to know?"
"Why did you think revealing yourself to Stavros would encourage him to give up the house to his brother?"
She considers my question. "Please understand, Mycroft, I have not succeeded in remaining concealed all these years by volunteering my secrets every time someone asks."
"I do understand that. But you have voluntarily come out of hiding now."
She blows out a deep breath. "That is true."
My umbrella detects the change from loam to stony ground and then the brick edge to the gravel driveway before my feet do. I put out my arm for assistance if Lydia chooses to use it before she stumbles. We share a smile of disaster averted, ducking back under the cover of tree-shade on the other side of the gravel.
She stops and we face each other. "I was not the only person to go missing that week."
"I see. Someone you knew."
"She was never found."
"So am I. She was my best friend, picking up a gift for Connie's birthday for me because I was running late and because of that, I believe—She did not simply decide to start a new life somewhere else. I am certain she was taken in my place."
"And you were worried enough by it that you disappeared shortly after, before another attempt could be made on you."
"Cowardly, I know." She turns away and, in a stride, I catch up as she walks on. "But I thought it would only be for a few days, a week or two at the most. I thought she would be released when the mistake was discovered, and that this debacle would bring an end to the high jinks that started it. But—"
Lydia takes a deep breath and I don't interrupt her flow.
"She was a rising star, a beauty. Miss Star Hellas. Miss Europe. She was seeing success in her television career. I thought for sure she was too well-known to be held, too beautiful to be"—she draws in a stutter of air—"killed."
And if she wasn't killed, the alternative is just as dire to consider. Human trafficking is, regrettably, a thriving worldwide business. "And you think Stavros had something to do with her abduction."
Sympathy has never been my strong point and she seems grateful to be diverted away from engulfing sentiment.
"I think Stavros was—is—jealous of Connie. He seems to think their parents loved Connie more because he was their natural son, unlike Stavros. He was adopted."
"Yes, I know."
"Of course you do." She stops me with a hand on my arm. "But he is wrong. Connie is rougher than him, did not mind working among the men and getting his hands dirty to learn the business, but he has always been more honest than Stavros, more straightforward. At any moment, we know where we stand with him. If their parents loved Connie more, that was why."
My stomach swoops. Is that what it takes to make someone love you? To be honest and straightforward? Just as well beloved is a status to which I've never aspired. "You're saying he wanted to punish Constantine by taking you away from him."
"So, by appearing again as you did," I get back to the pivotal reason she came here today, "your message was, if Stavros won't cooperate by vacating the house, you'll reveal what you know about that potentially criminal event. If nothing else, it would make people look at him uncomfortably closely."
She suddenly covers her face.
Well, then. Checkmate in seven moves.
"And, given what you believe about your friend, you don't see a possibility you might be harmed before you can act?"
Her eyes are round with consternation. "Dmitri said he will protect me."
"You're putting your safety in the hands of someone who's practically a child."
She bristles. "He is a prince."
Her last resort. I've got her. "—is out of the country. He's restricted in how much he can guard you."
She stands ramrod straight, but something inside her crumples and she can't manage more than a whisper. "What have I done?"
Indeed. Fools rush in…
"If you're right, Athína, you can't back out now without putting yourself in greater jeopardy. You must confront Stavros, force the issue, and you must do so this weekend whilst Greg and I are here."
"Why should I believe you can protect me any more than Connie and Dmitri?"
She really has walked into a hornet's nest. She has no choice but to believe me if she wants any shred of hope to get away unhurt—and there's no guarantee—but I don't say it because she already knows.
Her voice is quiet, forlorn. "I have no more than my suspicions."
But I'm certain Stavros is a dangerous man. "If he's innocent of your friend's disappearance, nothing will make him confess. But if he's guilty, you alone have a window to make him admit it. Give us something with which to work, to make this go away."
"But anything he might say to me is not proof."
How ironic that I don't have the means to record that conversation or even to control when or where it might take place, but no matter. If she claims to have succeeded, I'll be able to extract the exact circumstances and composition of his words from her through questioning.
"You leave that to me." For now, all I'm looking for is enough to justify leaving footprints into Stavros's study. And, of course, someone on whom to cast suspicion if the study is found unlocked before we leave on the morrow. Hearsay about his guilt that passes my review will be sufficient for me to act.
She's quite sure-footed, yet I have the impression she's swaying. She accepts the offer of my arm and, with it, signals her acceptance of my proposal. I guide her back towards the house.
"I will not, however, attend that wretched tennis match." Her voice is low and gruff.
"Then don't." My smooth features blazon mock sincerity. "I'll convey your apologies and disappointment that it is the only opportunity you have to fetch suitable attire for tonight."
She squeezes my arm and smirks at her shoes.
"There is one thing, Athína." I don't want to tip my hand to Stavros before the opportunity for her to act comes up, but if I tell her now about the house being bugged, there's a good chance when she's away from here that she'll change her mind about coming back. "Let's keep our plan between us for now. Don't speak of it to anyone, not even Dmitri."
"Oh. I—I have already tried to warn Jemima about Stavros."
In the master bedroom when Jemima lent her something suitable to wear by the pool. "And she didn't believe you."
"It is not only Stavros who wants me gone." She takes a breath. "I do not think Jemima wants me here either."
"And that is your strength." I give her a quick smile. "Whilst their discomfort around you might be unpleasant to endure, it might very well also unbalance Stavros enough to make him give away more than he intends."
She shivers in spite of the heat.
"It'll all be over in less than 24 hours and you may gain a lot more than possession of this house. You may gain closure on a five-year-old mystery regarding your friend's disappearance."
I assist her into her car and soon the roadster skids down the driveway, kicking up gravel like surf. She throws me a casual wave as she disappears. Dmitri joins me, staring after her in resignation.
I tap a small stone with my umbrella until it skitters away. "What makes you say that?"
He turns to me. "You succeeded?"
"Don't expect her for court-side cocktails, but she's coming back."
"But she said nothing would make her—"
"Oh, ye of little faith."
"How did you do it?"
"Yes," he breathes as he gazes at the now-empty driveway. "Yes, indeed. I am in your debt."
Before satisfaction can tint my features, I turn back to the house. "Yes, indeed." I walk away.
Umbrella safely stowed again in the stand by the front door, I go upstairs and listen for sounds from the top floor.
With everyone indoors now, resting from the heat or dressing for the tennis match, wandering in search of an iron or perhaps for a snack, now is not the time for me to prowl.
At the door to my own rooms, my heart leaps at Greg slouching in the nearest armchair, legs crossed in a figure four, frowning at his 'phone. It's not so much that I'd forgotten he's here as that I'd forgotten how much air one slim man can take up. I draw a breath as deeply as I can.
He still hasn't changed and, in his preoccupation with the tiny keyboard, he's unaware that his gaping robe makes him a vision of obscene beauty. As with any objet d'art, I could gaze at him all day.
"What are you doing?" I close the door behind me.
It's entirely possible he's irked behind the smile he directs at me. "I left my notebook in my jacket. On your bed. And I can't just"—he waves an arm—"think my way to clarity like you do. I need to write things down, but I couldn't find any paper."
How fortunate. Notes on paper in a place like this are even more of a security risk than those tapped out on an unencrypted 'phone.
He turns off his screen with a sigh. "Don't you have that horribly intimidating leather book and pen that could feed a family of four for a month in your jacket?"
"I'm surprised you didn't look—"
His eyes suddenly brighten with new possibilities.
"—by which I mean 'No'."
Grinning, he slips the 'phone into his pocket as he stands.
I find myself oddly reluctant to pass him to get to the other armchair, so I turn to the only other accommodating piece of furniture within reach. I take off my shoes, avoiding the fresh clothes still laid out for him at the end of the bed, and sit back against the middle of the headboard, my own 'phone in hand. In spite of appearances to the contrary, its browser isn't the focus of my attention.
Greg is chewing his lower lip, then he strolls over to my jacket which is suspended on a cedar hanger from the knob of the wardrobe and, of all things, he gives it a slow pat down.
"No notebook. No wallet. Just"—he draws out a calling card holder and opens it—"some business cards."
He gives me a sideways look and I hide my amusement behind a sardonic eyebrow.
He puts the little case away and his hands drop to his sides. "What?"
"There's a time and a place, Greg." He really doesn't need this explained, but his eyebrow matches mine. "If you were to shoplift, would you wait until the clerk was watching? If you were to leave your bill unpaid at a restaurant, would you wait until the maître d' noticed you walking out? If you were—"
"You do know I'm with the police, don't you?"
I let my other eyebrow rise to the level of the first.
"I'm shocked you think I would do any of those things. Besides," his lips quirk, "I'm not going to wait until your back's turned to rifle through your things."
"It's what I love about you."
A calculated choice of words for a possible audience, but he goes still and swallows. His hand reaches out to touch my jacket.
"You're a good man, Greg. Much too good."
I know what he's going to say—a great man—and I put up my hand. "None of your gushing, please."
"I was going to say that you"—he starts towards me—"are an arse."
I quell my incipient smile at his impromptu verbal change of tack. "Your tone, nevertheless, betrays your effusive sentiment."
"Yeah, well." He sits on the edge of the bed next to me. "I happen to like arse."
A bark of laughter escapes before I can stop it. I don't believe I've had a conversation remotely like this before. Or—
Uncomfortable that I'm so comfortable with his freedom in my space, my gaze drops to his hand on my knee. I don't shrug it off. He runs it up my thigh a few inches before grazing my waistcoat—I hold in my breath—and then his knuckles are under my chin, urging me to meet entrancing eyes that are black with desire.
My breathing races his, speeding as his fingers brush against my cheek, around my ear, down my neck where his little finger tucks inside my collar. For no reason other than that he can. Before the window closes on the opportunity to touch me this way, before it won't be permitted anymore. My own rule, yet the thought troubles me. My fist clenches around my 'phone.
I clear my throat. "It's time you got ready."
Nothing can convince me to turn aside from his lingering perusal, noting that his eyes aren't the flat black found in a child's paintbox, but the complex dark translucence of French ultramarine mixed with burnt sienna. If he doesn't go away and dress now, if he chooses to defy me, I can't speak for my actions.
He sighs. "I suppose."
As he glances at the bathroom, I take the opportunity to close my eyes for a moment.
"Erm." He's pointing with his thumb, wants to know if the bugging extends into there too.
I don't know, but why take chances? I shrug an affirmative.
He stares at me.
I reach for his hip and follow the line down to the pocket of his robe.
His cry almost undoes me, but I manage to lean back with his 'phone in my hand. "There isn't time for any of that before cocktails."
His whine could rival Sherlock's best, whilst my answering grin isn't an honest portrayal of the desperate want I'm feeling one bit.
"But if you're good, if you're very good," I hand back the device open to his playlists, "perhaps there'll be an opportunity to negotiate after-dinner entertainment."
He rubs the back of his neck.
"You've already said I'm good," he says at last. "And I mean to show you exactly how very good I am, too."
He lets his words sink in and my heart-rate accelerates.
"Now, if you don't mind"—he stands up—"I'm going to work off some…energy to loud music in the bathroom."
I smile. "You do that."
When he closes the ensuite door, I sink down, bury my face in the pillow and groan.
Agapitós = beloved
As you may have guessed, we're happily now on the descent path of the Middle (if you're used to flying, you'll know that starts surprisingly early in the journey) which means the remainder of the weekend chapters will both answer more and more questions as well as ramp up to the weekend's climax. After that, another 4 or 5 chapters should take us to the Happy Ending :-)
I seem to keep bumping up against the choice between graduating this May or finishing this fic. This fic keeps winning. (It's rather terrifying, lol) I have papers and projects and incompletes to wrap up, but the good news is, one way or another, in about a month it's all going to be moot and I should be back to regularly scheduled posting. See you on the other side!
Cock(tail)-fighting Part I: Anyone for tennis?
I won't apologise for the long delay before posting because I've done that so often it's boring. There is some writer's angst at the end, though…where you can easily skip it :-D
Thanks to Abbie and Monika for stopping by with supportive words, and also to Nikte and Kvfm, stalwarts of my Tea and Chocolate Digestives comfort club, who have become little mothers. They are always encouraging, and will never say a bad word about my story, even if it completely goes off the rails. (Well, Kvfm has been known to stamp her foot—but in a wholly encouraging way.)
So if there's a gaping hole in the story, if you're confused by anything, if it's too much to take in, feel free to step up and grumble. This has turned into a rather complicated narrative and I'm not sure I have the skill to tell it as well as it deserves.
This chapter is getting insanely long, so I've split it - this is part one of three. (I've got big chunks of parts 2 and 3 written, but I still need to finish them to my satisfaction...)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Greg balks at his fourth wardrobe change of the day—into something dressy enough for outdoor cocktails in this heat, but casual enough to watch a tennis match—and begins to comprehend why some overnight visits might require a surfeit of luggage.
I pretend not to notice his surprise as he looks at himself, front and back, in the full-length mirror. The pale blue lightweight summer suit paired with a white cotton tee-shirt and finished with ecru canvas dock shoes is a look I could never carry off with such—with such—well.
Tippy and Bernard join us on a rustic path through a copse leading to the clearing beyond, where the tennis court is located. Greg catches my eye over his sunglasses and we exchange a resigned look, possibly tinged with the longing to talk with each other in the safety of the outdoors alone that has now been foiled.
Tippy's laugh comes out of her nasal cavity and damaged mouth as a kind of splutter. The rictus puts me in mind of a watchdog mid-growl, her upper lip pulling away on the right to reveal yellowing teeth and red gums. She doesn't try to hide it. "Oh God, you two have already become legendary with those exchanged looks—"
I settle my hat more firmly on my head. Legends are tidal waves, influencing shoals of goldfish in blunt, splashy ways. I prefer the bumble bee. Popularly believed to defy the laws of aerodynamics, it lives in a small colony and unobtrusively works hard. It sways individuals from their trajectory when they get in its way, breaching their personal space with nothing more tangible than menace, but with a real sting in its tail—which it can use repeatedly.
"—having whole conversations in a code where only you two have the key."
Our companions have pulled a little way ahead, Greg kicking forward in desultory fashion a soccer ball he found in a corner indoors. Bernard is watching it like a cat, puzzled and fascinated, and I realise my hopes of cornering Greg—or even Bernard—for conversation have been outfoxed.
I smile back at Tippy. "You make us sound like the Enigma machine."
"Ah, well." Her mirth reduces to a grave smile. "In the end, even that was broken."
Broken? I'm used to identifying patterns—hidden meanings, if you will—in other people's words and behaviour. Her scar-ravaged face and body show no signs of defensiveness or smugness, her sheet of fine, shoulder-blade length, brown hair fluttering prettily with each step, but her comment bears further examination.
I start positioning for a verbal poke back. "Jemima says Stavros first met you when he pulled you from a burning car. Quite the dramatic story."
"Not exactly. Stavros was driving."
She slants me a look. "What do you mean by that?"
"It makes more sense that he knew you beforehand."
She's trying to make me say he couldn't befriend someone with a face like hers, make me wrong-footed. The truth is, whilst he deserves full credit for his swashbuckling heroism in saving her, he values good looks too much to have given a scarred stranger a second glance after the mayor's recognition and the cameras' attentions wore down.
"Because he welcomes you like family to stay in his home and expects his new wife to do the same." Tippy had to have been someone he already knew.
"Yes." Her tone is quiet. "I owe him a lot."
"I rather think he owes you." I glance down at her. "He caused the accident, didn't he?"
She scrutinises me. "I didn't say that."
"You didn't have to."
She doesn't get angry or flustered, and I can't help but recognise a peer in the realm of sang-froid.
Bernard has tackled away the football from Greg with some fancy footwork and is now demonstrating amazing control of the ball with knees and feet without interrupting our progression to the tennis court.
"How could you know Stavros caused the accident?" Tippy asks.
"He doesn't just let you stay here—he accommodates your companion, too."
"You mean Bernard?" Her face stretches into gremlinesque amusement again. "Stavros didn't just let him move in. He more or less convinced Bernard to come home with me."
Even stronger evidence of some complex feeling in Stavros, something that in anyone else I'd name guilt.
"And that tells you he caused the accident?" Her good-natured curiosity goes a long way to explaining her popularity on the pool circuit in spite of her ruined looks. Besides being seen as a Plucky Penelope for putting herself out there when she could be forgiven for hiding, her apparent inability to rise to stimulus would make her the quintessential good sport.
"I don't think Jemima's aware of your history together."
"She would be if she actually asked."
Bernard knocks the ball with a flourish high into the air and captures it before we enter the stand of larches and elms. Greg laughs at that stroke of physical mastery whilst the sudden shade obscures Tippy's expression. She doesn't sound resentful about Jemima, however, or hold herself tensely.
"Bernard," she says.
He stops, then turns slowly to face her. In the gloom, we all watch her, but her expression is neither inflamed nor coy. Nevertheless, Bernard holds out the football to Greg. It surely should be tossed to the ground where it belongs, but Greg safeguards it like the treasure Bernard treats it.
Bernard comes to her side, puts his arm around her waist and she smiles the smile of a growling Rottweiler. Hard to characterise it as affectionate, yet he relaxes. Her lack of drama would seem to present a blank canvas on which others can project their own sense and sensibilities.
Her scarring—which clearly goes beyond her face—might distort her body language enough to give merely the appearance of complete detachment, but on closer inspection, other evidence also supports her lack of sentiment. Steady muscular relaxation. Phlegmatic eye dilation. Respiration and, doubtless, pulse remain consistent, too. I shift to dislodge something inside I haven't felt for decades—a distant, but looming sense of inadequacy.
I glance at Greg. Perhaps I've been forgetting myself this weekend; we're a long way from what I'd originally imagined as 'the appearance of intimacy'. Sunglasses off, he tries to hold my gaze, but I turn my attention to our companions who don't exhibit the behaviours I would have predicted of them at all. I stay at their side to think as we continue to the tennis court.
Outside the library, Bernard was agitated, confused. Now, it appears that making his young lady happy is his very purpose in life. With the evidence of blade injury around his clavicle and shoulders, it's tempting to conclude that they have a relationship built on his stress, which demonstrates itself in self-cutting, and her unflappability, which somehow soothes him.
Except that self-mutilation usually occurs on the forearms, thighs, chest, places that can be easily reached and hidden or viewed on one's self. And she said Stavros essentially brought him home for her. A prize?
A dead rodent?
And Tippy. Her decision to bring Bernard to heel just now seems to have come apropos of nothing. She didn't seem concerned that he was bonding with the detective inspector over football. If anything, given my suspicion that she and Cunningham were trying to separate Greg from me before lunch, I would expect her to take advantage of this budding friendship and let Bernard take up the offensive. But he can hardly do so now that she's called him off. Perhaps he's not part of the team.
Ironic, then, that I've been doing the job for them. I've been feeling the prickle of Greg's gaze on my back since he reluctantly took up the rear after we passed him, through the remainder of the copse and out of the other side, but I resist the temptation to turn around. It's what he wants—I can feel the pull—but I won't give him…either of us…the satisfaction. In matters of persuasion, a confused mind always declines and, when I'm uncertain what to do, it has always best served me to wait and observe.
Stavros isn't at the tennis court yet, but a bar area has been set up with bottled water laid out and supplies to the side in the care of a waiter. Two more catering staff are walking around offering Champagne or Pimms and canapés.
Frank and Caroline are at the furthest corner of the grass court, their silence and stance angled away from each other broadcasting tension, whilst their physical nearness conveys a desperate, if reluctant, reaching out for support and comfort. Frank glances every now and again between the alcohol-bearing waiter and his wife whilst he twirls his tennis racquet and pulls white tennis balls out of his shorts pocket, bounces them and then replaces them. Caroline's gaze doesn't shift from Jemima. The Abbotts' combined anxiety far outweighs what one might typically expect from a friendly match in which Frank at first blush would appear to have the advantage.
A long line of wood-framed director's chairs are arrayed on one side of the grass court in full sun, enough to accommodate everyone. Jemima, Dmitri and Gabriella have congregated nearby, chatting awkwardly together. On the other side, some blankets have been spread out on shaded, unlevel, stonier ground where chairs would be unstable. Cunningham has already dibbed a place for himself by the high fence under the trees.
Tippy heads in that direction, followed by Bernard, whilst I choose the lesser of two evils—chairs are, at least, more dignified. Greg pulls me back by the arm.
"Mycroft?" The confrontational nature of his bearing as he moves in front of me is unmistakable. "Is there something I should know?"
I could admit my reactions to his proximity are unbalancing me, but that would be uncharacteristically honest and straightforward of me. I could imply that distancing myself from him is nothing more than a strategic gambit to learn more about Stavros, but if called upon to outline precisely how, I would be stumped. To put things back on a more professional footing with him, though, would be steadying. Before I can decide how to field his question Jemima calls out and waves us over.
I wait for him to go to his new friend, fighting the urge—more than anything, in spite of everything—to keep him to myself. Moved by an answering bloom of hope in his eyes, I tighten my lips, dizzied by the clash of my contrary inclinations to keep him close and to keep myself apart.
I have to look away and my gaze alights on Tippy making herself comfortable, under Bernard's watchful eye, on the blanket where Cunningham sits. The football prodigy then lies down near them, hands behind his head, staring into the branches overhead.
I nod at the ball still cradled in Greg's hands. "Use that as a pretext to go over and resume your little chat with Bernard."
From his sudden stare, Greg's aware I'm sending him away.
"We weren't really chatting. More playing." He looks towards the blankets. "Well, he was."
"Yes, his raw talent is quite impressive."
"That wasn't raw talent." Greg contemplates the recumbent figure. "That was trained talent."
"I wondered. But—"
"—he was acting like he'd never seen a football before. Yeah, I know."
Interesting. "Was he pretending to be an amateur so he could dazzle us with his performance, do you think?"
"Are you suggesting he's some kind of pro player?"
"How should I know if even he doesn't seem to?"
"But he could be."
"He definitely has natural talent and it has definitely been trained." Greg pushes the ball under one arm. "I asked him if he'd played footie on the streets with his pals all the time as a kid like I did."
"He frowned and changed the subject." Greg's eye movements signal that he's struggling with what he believes Bernard's response means.
"You think he's forgotten."
"It doesn't make sense, but—I think he's forgotten everything," Greg gestures to the football, "his living, his childhood friends. His whole past."
A significant degree of amnesia. Rare, particularly without evidence of head trauma. If amnesia is the case—and Greg's opinion confirms my own improbable, but only possible, conclusion that fits all the facts—then Stavros and Tippy must be aware of it. Cunningham the brain specialist surely must be, too. Is Jemima?
"There's something else," he says.
"The cuts under his shirt." Greg would have seen them in the pool.
His lower lip and chin shoot forwards. "How do you know that? How can you possibly know that?"
I pull my head back from his pugnacious belligerence, but I don't step away.
"When exactly"—he edges closer to me—"did you see Bernard without his shirt on?"
He suddenly realises how close we're standing and all the fight leaves him as he stares at me. Wide-eyed. Unmoving. Waiting for me to rectify the situation. I don't. On the contrary, tumbling into the magnetic depths of his eyes, I fight the urge to close the gap between us.
Until a waiter stops at our side.
We step back and Greg lowers the ball to the ground, steadying it with his foot whilst we take a glass each, and the waiter moves on. We look anywhere but at each other.
Jemima continues to cast glances our way, tempted to join us, but reluctant to abandon the prince to a child. Gabriella, still protected by the large white hat and oversized sunglasses, now wears a loose summer dress in royal blue to her knees held up by spaghetti straps. She's tense with the pain of sunburn, but also distracted.
She meets the eyes of a waiter on the other side of the court who is clean-shaven and neat, who shares her olive appearance, though he is swarthier. The immersion of the other two caterers in their work discounts them as part of this collusion. When Jemima claims the girl's attention again, he catches my scrutiny of him and stares back for a moment with eyes rather more blue-green than her moss green before going to the bar to replenish the canapés on his tray.
"Interesting," I mutter. Is Stavros aware just how many infiltrators he has in his camp this weekend?
"Yeah." Greg didn't see what just happened, his mind still on Bernard.
I pull out my 'phone in the guise of checking on a text alert to conceal sending a coded message to Anthea and her team. The number 6: Be Vigilant.
I take a sip of a decent Veuve Clicquot. "Does Bernard's family know, do you think?"
"From his accent, I'm certain he arrived from Montserrat no more than a year ago. Probably much sooner. If his family is still there and the onset of his amnesia, from whatever cause, is recent, then—"
"Bloody hell!" Greg's eyes are huge and he forces himself to lower his voice. "Are you saying he might be another missing person?"
Made aware of the facts, he's grasped the salient point immediately—hard to remember that, not very long ago, I would have expected less from him. "Possibly."
Greg stares across the court at Bernard, tense with helpless frustration; how do you return a person who doesn't know he's missing? Greg is well aware that an adult going missing in and of itself isn't a crime and that Bernard may not want to be returned. The amnesia, though, if accurate, adds a wrinkle. Bernard must realise that his history is a blank.
Has he tried to recover his memory, to find his way home? Who has helped him? How many resources have been given over to it? Whose? How far has the search extended? Would the average goldfish have known to look for clues in Montserrat? I glance at Greg: would the un-average goldfish have known?
As one, everyone turns to the rustic path through the trees, startled by Stavros bursting into the open like an Olympic runner crossing the finishing line. I inhale to school myself from making any disparaging gestures, but the party seems to take on new life with his presence. In the ensuing gusto, I nudge Greg.
"On your way. Talk to Bernard."
Stavros heads for Jemima's group. He kisses her on the cheek whilst assessing who's present and who isn't. He narrows his eyes at Greg and me enjoying each other's company—or possibly at the football. Dmitri makes Lydia's apologies and allows himself the licence of exaggeration when he suggests she'll be joining us shortly.
Stavros barely suppresses a grimace.
"Gabriella." His tone is one of forced joviality and Cunningham glances over to watch this by-play. "Perhaps you'll be the ball-girl."
When she gives him a look that could freeze the Olympic torch into extinction, silence falls. Suddenly, she looks ten years older, giving the impression of a poised 27-year-old that surprises us all. Cunningham looks bewildered, then downright angry as he finally realises that, whilst she may be a teenager, she's not the insecure one he thought.
"Stavros, no!" Jemima is genuinely shocked.
"I suppose not." He gives a rueful laugh. "Of course not."
"I will." The caterer-accomplice speaks up. "I would be honoured to serve as ball-boy."
Gabriella shifts a penetrating stare to him, but he keeps his eyes steadfastly on Stavros.
"Darling," Jemima says, "for a friendly match surely you don't need—"
"You'll do," says Stavros, scanning the waiter. He clasps his wife's arm in a gesture that mitigates his abruptness in cutting her off, but he looks at Frank. "All right. Let's get this show on the road."
The waiter goes behind the bar area to remove his long black apron, slip-on shoes and socks, leaving him barefoot in a red, short-sleeved shirt and black trousers. Not ideal, but adequate.
Greg hesitates, glancing at the group on the blankets, and I shoo him away. "Go on. And whilst you're there, try to listen in on Tippy and Cunningham, too. Watch how they behave with each other."
He rolls his eyes, swigs the remainder of his Veuve Clicquot and thrusts the empty glass at me before picking up the football and crossing the tennis court to his quarry. My admiration for the hang of his suit is interrupted by a passing waiter and I replace the empty glasses with a fresh one.
Writer's angst: MIDDLES, AAARGH! (Glad I've got that off my chest.)
In case you're interested, I missed graduating in May by one research paper. My brain just pooped out and couldn't do any more. So I deferred graduation until August.
Tennis and cock(tail)-fighting part II: Break point
Thanks for the lovely welcome back from the Tea and Chocolate Digestives club: tillytaylor, lemondropped, skeptic7 and, of course, little mothers Nikte and Kvfm. Chocolate martinis and cucumber gin coolers may have been involved...little mothers can be such a ba-ad influence, heh.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Stavros was doomed to disappointment if he thought a late afternoon match would bring cooler weather with the lowering sun. However, as I'd suspected in terms of him stacking the deck, he must have known of the additional difficulties that would come with it.
The tennis court has been orientated to fit the available land such that, at this time of day, the sun will interfere with one of the players; the mature trees and slowly gathering cumulus clouds in the distance won't be sufficient to break it up. The increasing shadows from the trees cast over part of the court as the sun descends, moreover, will make it harder to see and place the ball accurately. Far from tournament conditions.
Frank, who has won the coin toss, must decide either from which end of the court to play first or whether to serve first—leaving Stavros to decide the other. As a pro circuit player, he knows that, statistically, there is a slight advantage to serving first. If he chooses that, it's almost guaranteed that Stavros will make Frank play into the sun.
A professional athlete with stamina enough, ordinarily, to withstand Stavros's attempts to tire him out with endless exercise all day, he is the worse for wear after several aggressively competitive hours against his host and several beers in this exceptional heat. Although they'll switch sides after the first game and every other game after that to equalise the disadvantage, between the distracting light, the long day of hard exercise and possible dehydration, any first service advantage to Frank could easily be negated.
If he chooses to play with his back to the sun, Stavros will almost certainly choose the service advantage. True, he would play into the sun for the first game, but he has thrived on the day's exercise and stayed hydrated. Most importantly, he's playing on home turf so he knows the court in ways against which Frank is helpless to compete.
The spectators are fairly evenly divided, with four on Greg's side under the trees and five of us taking chairs. Dmitri settles in the middle, the best spot to see both players equally well, with Jemima to his left and Gabriella to his right. The latter is flaunting her displeasure with her associate by refusing to recognise him, crouched as ball-boy a short distance from the net, instead focussing on her 'phone with formidable teenaged petulance. Between her chosen seat, floppy hat and electronic device, her disinterest in both the game and Cunningham is patent.
Caroline takes a seat off-centre, closest to the end where the player will have his back to the sun, maintaining her separation from the other guests. She takes umbrage when I sit next to her.
"What are you doing?" She gives me a hostile stare.
"Awfully warm, isn't it?"
"I—what?" She blinks. "Yes. I suppose…"
The ordinariness of discussing the weather is enough to disarm almost anyone. She turns her attention back to the court when I take a sip of my drink. I'll have to switch to mineral water to prevent drinking too much Champagne—there is such a thing—in this sweltering heat.
When Frank predictably chooses to play facing away from the sun—game theory supports his choice, given all the circumstances—Stavros laughs.
"If you'd chosen to serve first," he says, "as host, I still would have let you play with your back to the light."
Of course he wouldn't, for goodness' sake, but it's a fine example of psychological warfare. To be a pro player of any worth requires mental as well as physical discipline, but as they begin play, Frank is distracted with second-guessing new options that could have opened up with Stavros's offer—an amateur mistake. The degree to which he is off his game is compelling.
Stavros is surprisingly talented, a worthy adversary for a player of Frank's calibre. Apparently, the younger man's career on the pro circuit was cut short more by a lack of diligence than that of ability.
Frank, on the other hand, isn't doing well. His alcoholic indulgence today is taking its toll in notably slower reflexes. Whilst Caroline has doubtless tried to make him exercise some self-discipline since hearing about the match, it may be too little too late.
"Oh, that's too bad," I murmur when Frank loses the game.
The opponents switch ends and, for the remainder of the set, Caroline pins her unrelenting stare on Stavros. He doesn't notice. It doesn't stop her.
On the other side of the court, Greg is watching the match from a reclining position. He is propped up on an elbow, ankles crossed, next to Bernard who is relaxed in the shade, sipping a Pimms Cup. He doesn't look like he's being held here against his will and I would normally discourage Greg, with his weakness for strays and hopeless cases, from becoming embroiled in this situation—if it weren't for so many other coincidences of missing persons tied to Stavros. Only in the loosest possible way, it's true; evidence so far of Stavros's involvement with each that we've uncovered is peripheral at best. And yet all the improbabilities are piling up to make a convincing case for further investigation. We need to get closer.
My view swivels to the source of that soft cry: Tippy. The game continues whilst she raises her arm and watches a bumble bee trudge unsteadily over the hairs of her skin. Greg and the other blanketeers are looking at her, too, realising from her sudden physiological responses—most obviously, from where I'm sitting, an accelerating flush—that she has been stung.
Activity slows as she closes, with stunning reflexes, on the insect just as it takes off. I jerk to my feet and momentum carries me forward a step. When Frank lets the ball bounce past him to watch in horrified amazement, Stavros finally notices her squashing the abject Bombus between her fingers.
She looks up at all of us.
"What?" She wipes her hand on the grass. "It was going to die anyway. It stung me."
Stavros approaches the net. "Are you all right, Tippy?"
"'Course." She tilts her head. "Why wouldn't I be?"
I swallow, filled with a bleak sense of waste. Greg's dark eyes, turned to me in bewildered consternation, all of a sudden become compassionate. Why would he think, for one moment, that offering comfort would be an appropriate response to the life of a bee that has been—willfully—pointlessly—crushed?
I clear my throat. "Only honeybees die as a result of stinging a human. That was a bumble bee."
Tippy frowns. "How could you tell?"
"They're distinguished by their size—being bigger, rounder, a great deal more fuzzy." I succeed in sublimating nine-tenths of an erupting anger, but the last tenth escapes me. "Far from dying after administering a sting, they continue productive lives pollinating plants that couldn't survive and thrive without their assistance. And, when threatened, the bumble bee can in fact sting again."
"Oh." The only angry thing about Tippy, on the other hand, is the red weal coming up on her arm which she cradles. And her fingers start to show evidence of the bee's final death-throes which she is now feeling. "Oh."
Jemima casts Stavros a perplexed look, then goes to gather a handful of thawing ice wrapped in some paper serviettes from the bar. Stavros shows no surprise, suggesting he has seen this sort of behaviour from Tippy before. Dmitri has walked over, pulling a slender switchblade from his pocket.
"Here," he hunkers down, "this can be used to scrape out the sting."
I sigh and join them. "There is no stinger. As I've just explained, the bumble bee doesn't leave it behind."
"Wait a minute." Greg has installed himself at my side, but he is frowning, leaning in to look at the weapon. "Is that a flick knife?'
Dmitri warily meets his eyes, but says nothing.
"Are you illegally carrying a flick knife?"
Oh dear. Possible trouble. And Stavros is watching us, taking in details.
"I'm sorry," Jemima pushes through us and we step back to let her offer a damp, wilting package to Tippy, "the serviettes will disintegrate eventually, but the ice will help bring the swelling down."
Tippy takes it without looking up from her afflicted fingers and arm.
"I will ask Mrs Tennyson for a bag of frozen peas." Gabriella darts away before anyone can say yea or nay. The ball-boy caterer tracks her disappearance, but having tied himself to the match, he can't follow.
I wrap my fingers around Greg's wrist to extract him from further conversation with Dmitri. He knows exactly what I'm doing.
"I can't let this go, Mycroft," he says softly.
"Yes, you can."
"No. I can't."
"He has diplomatic immunity."
"What?" His expression is a blend of disbelief and disgust. "You've got to be kidding me."
"He is part of the cadre based at the Embassy of Greece in London."
Dmitri looks from one to the other of us and I tell him, "Greg's not unsympathetic. He knows about your—that you're not dissimilar from us."
Dmitri swallows. "Then you, of all people, must understand the importance of keeping some discreet means of defence close at hand at all times."
Comprehension dawns on Greg's face. The people one considers one's friends might accept us for who we are, but not everyone does. And some will use us as an outright excuse to vent hate.
"Has it happened before? Here? Have you reported it?"
"Once. In Thessalonika."
"We may take precautions"—Dmitri is obviously shaken by his experience—"but we cannot always predict when trouble may arise. Think of this as my stinger. I assure you, Detective Inspector, I keep it for defensive purposes only."
Greg shakes his head, more in resignation than veto. "Violence only causes more violence."
He means it, but the conviction behind his words is shaky. In a corner with no means of defence is an abominable place to find one's self. Unfortunately, not even the possession of a stinger can always save one from life-crushing hands.
Stavros has been keeping an eye on us, but as our loose cluster disperses, he switches his regard back to Tippy. Seeing no sign of distress in her, he returns to his service line in apparent composure, belied by the bouncing of a tennis ball alternately on his racquet and the ground that is ill-controlled.
We barely have time to get back to our places before the match starts again, but in spite of Stavros's impatience to proceed with the game, his mental disequilibrium is a weakness of which Frank takes advantage. The pro player manages to pull out another win, to rather enthusiastic applause. This is the second time he has broken Stavros's service, resulting in the score so far of 3-2 to Stavros. Caroline ignores the praise I murmur to her, whilst our host smiles through grinding teeth with renewed concentration.
Despite the rising conflict in the game, Tippy is the one who captures my mind. She has demonstrated that she feels physical pain, yet she has an utter lack of mental chaos that our tennis players surely must covet right now. I certainly do. Her behaviour could be evidence of hypopsychalgesia*, a condition of mental passivity with which one is born. Or it could be a consequence of the accident.
Is that another reason Stavros keeps Cunningham around? To keep an eye on her? The doctor may have been disbarred from practice for serious ethical reasons, but that doesn't presume a faulty knowledge of neurology. In fact, the display on his laptop when Greg and I arrived this morning suggested he's keeping up with advances in his field.
He is a man, it appears, of many uses in this household—one who, thus, earns a reprieve for his inappropriate sexual preferences. Not enough to excuse him from attending this demonstration of Stavros's prowess in full sun, but enough to merit a place as a pampered guest. My jaw clenches at the whiff of something rotten in this state of Greece-and-Denmark and I acknowledge the excellence of Greg's instincts about the man.
So, perhaps Stavros isn't so much feeling guilty about the accident he caused that ruined Tippy's looks as he is in grief over lost opportunities. But for her disfiguring scars, she would be a beautiful woman and would have made a perfect wife for him. Her cool, non-judging equanimity would surely attract someone of Stavros's disposition far more than Jemima's impoverished aristocratic connections.
With the final score of 6-3, the game and set go to Stavros. The players have already agreed to pare down the match to the best of three sets and, if things continue on this trajectory, our host could soon thankfully have it wrapped up—anything to get out of this heat.
In the short break, I'm as grateful as any spectator for the opportunity to stretch my legs, get a cold drink and seek the consolation of a few moments' shade. I discreetly wipe my brow and pat my neck with my handkerchief.
The blanket crowd has also stood up. Greg is brushing off his trousers, keeping me in his line of sight. Under Jemima's direction, the caterers have cold water ready for the players and Tippy is congratulating Stavros, overseeing his rest and refreshment at the other end of the court, unaware of—or unmoved by—Jemima's steely gaze.
Frank is standing with his back to us, upending a water bottle over his head, trying to push aside the heat and humiliation. Pro against amateur, he's not just losing, but losing badly and it has been a knock to his confidence.
Throughout the set, I've tried with a gentle touch to re-engage Caroline in conversation to no avail. She is about to join her husband, doubtless planning to take a seat near him at the other end of the court, rightly deducing that I'm not about to follow her like a puppy. These conditions are less than perfect, but I may not get a chance to talk to her alone again. Before she takes a step, I clamp her elbow.
Her voice is all but a snarl as she looks down at my restraining hand. "What do you want?"
"I want to know who's blackmailing you and why."
She goes rigid, her stare jumping to my eyes, her face draining of colour. On the other side of the court, Greg is focussed on us like a pointer.
"How do you—?" She tries to free her arm and I release her.
"Tell me before it's too late, Caroline." Though, in truth, whatever this is, it's probably already too late.
She hesitates and the ache to unburden herself flickers for a split second before she glimpses Stavros and ruthlessly beats it down. As he prepares to take his place at our end for the second set, Frank also starts down the court from where he'll be serving. Thunder rolls in the distance, but the clouds are still a long way from intersecting with the sun to blunt the glare or the shadowy distortions that are undermining the field of play.
She pins me with a look, her teeth clenched. "Leave. Us. Alone."
Frustrating, but she hasn't resolved whether I'm friend or foe, so I can't truly fault her caution.
Football forgotten, Greg snags a couple of bottles of water and makes his way across the court. Just before he reaches us, Caroline gives me a withering look and marches over to Frank. There's nothing more to be done about her. At least for now.
"What was that all about?"
In spite of my failure to get any useful information out of her, something inside me settles with contentment. I would be annoyed if I believed it had anything to do with Greg's arrival at my side. I'm sure it doesn't. Of course it doesn't.
Condensation wets my hand as I take a few cooling sips of water and recap the bottle. Greg draws his across his brow whilst we watch the Abbotts.
"You said you haven't managed to arrange an interview with her," I say softly, "in relation to the Kenneth Martin homicide."
"If the Abbotts were in trouble, if they were, perhaps, being blackmailed—"
Greg's looking at me now.
"—and they called in the police—"
"I'd be kept in the loop. Hell, given how badly stalled we are on the homicide and what a fuss the Australian High Commission is making about it and that she was the vet at the same stables Martin worked, my DCI'd probably put me in charge of it."
The tennis opponents have taken their positions. Frank serves before we're settled and, having seen how impatient Stavros is, I encourage Greg to take the seat next to me. My guiding hand is still damp with condensation and, to avoid soiling his sleeve, I grasp his wrist.
"No, wait." His focus belays my action and he insists on my attention by moving directly in front of me, surrounding my hand around my water with his. "Are they in trouble?"
I'm beguiled. Absorbed by his earnest face and the heat of our grip on each other. Even though I know better than to let myself be distracted. "It's the only way to explain—"
A startlingly close whoosh, and Greg jerks and disappears from my side. I feel him drag against me as he sinks to the ground. Prone on his side, he is gripping my calf with one arm, fingers digging into me, whilst his other hand is clasped behind him as he curls backwards against it. He stares up at me in astonishment for a moment, his eyes enormous in a suddenly pale face, before he collapses forward, visage pressed into the grass at the crook of his elbow to muffle a groan.
Stavros doesn't see my stare at him, both hostile and incredulous, intent as he is on Greg's figure, cut down with the tennis ball he'd sent flying in our direction, willing to sacrifice the game point to make some nebulous point of his own. Heart beating hard, I kneel, my fingers tangling with Greg's pressed tightly against his injury, not far above his kidney. I push them away.
Under his jacket, the tee-shirt is slightly damp with perspiration, the skin beneath it unbroken, but dusky and hot with rising blood. He is quick to brace the trauma site again as soon as I let him and I shut my eyes for a moment at the promise of deep bruising that is to come. At the possible formation of a hæmatoma.
I'm not squeamish by nature, but I know how bad bleeding-related injuries can be and it leaves me feeling nauseated. Resting one of my hands on the back of his neck and shoulder, I put the other in my pocket to manipulate my sharp-edged calling card case like a squeeze ball.
Jemima hurries over. "Are you all right, Greg?"
Of course he isn't!
He croaks something indecipherable.
Another bag of frozen peas would be excellent first aid, but a quick scan confirms that Gabriella still hasn't returned. I have a suspicion she won't. Jemima meets my eyes in confusion, having looked around and made the same determination.
"Some ice, perhaps?" I ask her, retrieving my dropped water bottle and pushing it under Greg's hand. He grabs it and presses it to his skin.
"Most of what's in the coolers has melted in this heat, but I'll send one of the staff in for more." She sees to it, the nearest being the ball-boy. How fortuitous for him, but the arrival of more ice is now unlikely.
The Abbotts are watching from a distance, as is Cunningham who is sitting forward and alert. Not enough doctorly concern for a downed man there to offer physical assistance, though. Bernard is on his feet, but Tippy restrains him from coming over with a touch on his leg. Dmitri also wants to come to Greg's aid, but unsure whether he'd find a fellow guest or a DI, he is reluctant to bring to mind again so soon the knife in his pocket. The waiters are keeping their distance, so he pursues them in search of a drink.
I, therefore, have an unobstructed view when Jemima approaches her husband just feet away at our end of the court. She keeps her voice down, but not enough to elude my hearing.
"For goodness' sake, Stavros." She looks at him, appalled as only an undeceived new wife can depict when she realises that, as charming a visitor as her husband can be, he makes a truly terrible host. "How many guests are you planning to send home in bandages?"
"Tippy's injuries have nothing to do with me. Besides, she is home."
"I'm not talking about Tippy."
He spins his racquet with a glance at Frank, then scowls as if this incident is Greg's fault. "The game was starting again. He was rude to hold everything up."
"He was rude?" Her stare highlights the irony.
"Oh he's fine. Don't be such a mother hen."
I imagine that, much like Sherlock, he was an annoying child. The roll of Greg's eyes suggests he also sees the similarity. We exchange a private moment, through grim expressions, of recognition and a hint of humour and I feel him relax somewhat as the first waves of pain begin to abate. He clings to me to pull himself up and I help him to sit.
“Why on earth do you care so much about the pleb, anyway?”
“I happen to like him.”
"Perhaps that's because you've found your water level with him."
"Perhaps I have. After all, I've been running around with a tyke from a Greek fishing village for the last six months. He'd be a step up."
"Athens is hardly a fishing village. And"—the timbre of Stavros's voice changes to something altogether more haughty—"I was adopted from an English family."
"But you've no idea who."
He clearly has some ideas—ideas about which he is so certain that her provocations all but roll off his back. "I don't belong in the same classification as him."
"No, you're right, you don't. At least he loves his partner."
"Whatever that means."
Ah. I've heard that before, the prelude to a spectacular royal marital failure. It was the wrong answer then and it's the wrong answer now. Even I know that.
Greg communicates his readiness to try and stand, but I push him down again as Jemima rallies.
"Have you forgotten his partner is Mycroft Holmes? An apology might be in order.”
So, she's the source of his rumours about me. I had no idea she was aware of my few meetings with her father a few years ago.
"And have you forgotten," he says, "that I've talked to himself? He flat out denies being the powerhouse you suggest."
"Of course he does. He's Mycroft Holmes."
Help a family once and they spill all your secrets.
Stavros glances at me, his nonchalance flavoured with a touch of speculation and unease. He pauses, then ambles over, studying the ground and hitting the side of his leg with his racquet.
“I say, are you OK?”
“I'm fine.” Greg prods at the constricted muscles around the point of impact, wincing.
“Lost my concentration there for a moment and the shot went wild.”
“Apology accepted.” Greg's tone is dry.
Stavros grits his teeth. “Good thing it's not too serious.”
I don't want to let him off the hook. “I think perhaps you should arrange to take us to hospital.” If it were me, a dozen doctors would be in attendance.
“I'm fine, I promise. I've been through worse on the job. You know I have.”
I dislike having my unexpected impulse to protect him thwarted. “Of course.”
“Excellent.” Stavros herds everyone's attention to the court again. “Let's get back to the match.”
“If you wouldn't mind helping me, though," Greg envelops me with a too-innocent look, "I think a bit of a rest in our room before dinner would do me a world of good.”
Escape! "Oh, well, quite. If you think so."
As we take our leave, Stavros frowns at his dwindling audience. I suspect that's the only reason Jemima elects to stay.
*Hypo-psych-algesia - totally made it up.
There's a very rare and dangerous condition some people are born with called hypoalgesia/hypalgesia where they feel no physical pain. Obviously, they can get into a whole heap of trouble, not realising they're injured. I wanted Tippy, on the other hand, not to be able to feel any kind of mental chaos, to be the physical embodiment of 'caring is not an advantage'. Unlike Mycroft who has always adhered to that belief because he chooses to, not because he has to, she can't ever change. Hence the 'psych-' addition to hypalgesia, to emphasise the mental aspect rather than physical pain (even though all pain is, ultimately, nerves sending alarm signals to the brain, so…mental).
So. You remember that unwritten research paper that forced me to defer graduation until August? Well, I'm starting to suffer from Richard III Syndrome because my place in the doctoral program is conditional on my graduating from the masters program, and graduating from the masters program is conditional on submitting this paper, and with August just around the corner (less than three weeks, eek!), my situation is starting to feel a lot like my kingdom for a horse. I'll try to post part III in a week, but don't lose faith in me if I take a bit longer. I'll be working on it simultaneously with my research paper—I just have to give *that* priority for now. (Sorry.)
Post-tennis and cock(tail)-fighting part III, subsection (a): Love all.
This three-part chapter is turning into the multi-headed Hydra—every time I get a scene down, two more come to mind to take its place, sigh.
Thanks so much to my Tea and Chocolate Digestives comfort club for throwing me a lifeline and keeping me afloat. Thank you, lkj, and special recognition, as always, to the amazingly steadfast Nikte and Kvfm. You've earnt a very special place in my heart.
A word about the timeline: from the very start, I've played with the timeline of this story. Things happen according to canon as much as I can manage (other than—obviously—the central relationship), but time in between those episodes are spread further apart - years can pass. So, as you will learn, Baskerville will already have taken place, while Jim Moriarty has yet to show up in any meaningful way.
I try to respect canon because, as an author, I feel like that makes my story as seamless as possible. For the same reason, I'm feeling an internal pressure to incorporate major world events (like Brexit, PM Theresa May's elevation, and what *are* the Americans doing?) that a Mycroft-in-character could never ignore.
In case it's not already perfectly obvious to you, this narrative officially takes place in an Alternate Universe where none of that is happening. Otherwise I'll never finish…
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Greg leans on me with exaggerated heaviness until we enter the relative obscurity of the copse on our way back to the house. Then he shrugs me off. He's determined to prove that he's not hurt in any significant way, but he can't hide a grimace. I reach out a steadying hand.
"What was Stavros playing at?" he says, ignoring my arm, but pausing to lean back against a tree.
"It was rather extreme."
"Extreme! That was assaulting a police officer, that was!"
Is Stavros still trying to seduce Greg? "You aren't here in the capacity of a police officer." Smashing him with a tennis ball at approaching a hundred miles per hour is hardly likely to endear him to Greg if that's still his game.
"But he knows who I am."
Perhaps, after seeing Greg and me close ranks in the library, Stavros has realised it's a game he's never going to win and he's retaliating with hyper-aggression. Yet, when I suggested we pack our bags and leave, our host balked. Why? Why not give us up as a bad job and agree we should go? Because he wants Greg.
Greg pushes away from the tree. "He knew from the beginning that I planned to talk to him this weekend about the Ken Martin homicide."
Could the assault have been aimed at me, then? A way to get me out of the way? Perhaps he thought he'd have a better chance at Greg without me present to muddy the waters. That would actually make some sense—if we'd all been standing in different positions. It was definitely aimed at Greg.
"And he's as bad as your brother about incessantly pointing out where he thinks I'm deficient in upholding the law." Greg has noticed a grass stain on his trousers and is rubbing at it.
For our host, whatever his underlying attraction, there's only one thing worse than someone of Greg's social demographic being embraced as an equal by someone of mine, and that's someone of Greg's social demographic rejecting him. Turning his back on him.
Greg looks up at me. "He was provoking me with that shot."
Yes, I do believe that. We resume walking through the copse. "He's nevertheless counting on you to act within the bounds of proper behaviour expected of a guest."
It's almost as if Stavros is using Greg as the last, single strand of web silk to keep himself in line, perhaps striving to be the man Jemima still thinks he is. Or striving to keep up with the man she sees in Greg. So, if Greg escalates tensions, then Stavros would feel vindicated in doing likewise. If Greg doesn't keep his cool, Stavros's underlying nature could break loose, feeling justified in imposing himself with all the force necessary to subdue his quarry.
"Is proper behaviour what's expected of me?" Greg runs a frustrated hand through his hair and grits his teeth. "What you expect?"
If it were a matter of fighting it out with fists, I'm supremely confident Greg could hold his own. After all, he has learnt to navigate even Sherlock's dirty tactics now. But if Stavros has something else in mind, something more depraved—My stomach churns. I should get Greg away from here.
But running from a snake only provokes his attack.
Anyway, one of the reasons I brought Greg here was to incite Stavros into indiscretion and it's working. Admittedly, I expected a rather higher order of conduct from our host, but if anyone understands law and disorder, it's Greg.
"I expect you to do whatever is necessary to protect yourself and discover what Stavros is doing. Or hiding."
His lips quirk. "So you don't expect me to behave, then?"
The chances of him getting into irremediable trouble are remote. Nevertheless, I pause until he looks at me. "I expect you to use your best judgement."
His amusement fades at my gravity.
As we emerge from the copse, I pull my hat forwards whilst Greg squints in the bright light and realises he's left his sunglasses at the tennis court. For now, though, there's no way either of us is going back for them.
He rubs his eyes.
"Are you all right?"
"Yeah, yeah," he waves his arm to keep me at bay, "I'm fine."
But he's not. I look carefully at his posture, at his face, at the evidence that he's no longer a young man. The harsh light only serves to highlight his lines, the bags under his eyes. In view of these facts, I wonder how long my brain has perceived him as youthful. It wasn't always that way, but somewhere along the line, things changed. Now, before my eyes can apprehend his wrinkles, my reflexes have already smoothed them away.
Is that the by-product of encroaching sentiment? I resist the urge to touch my own crows'-feet and creases, questioning how long I've unconsciously catalogued us both as men in our thirties. Or twenties. Possibly fourteen.
My perceptions have been flawed and that is troubling.
He starts walking again. "That Tippy was quite something."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, the way she killed that bee."
I don't wince. Alarmed by more evidence of sentiment, I reach for the opposite. "Her cool head under stress was admirable."
His eyes go round and he moves in front of me, walking backwards. "Cool head?"
"Most people would have flailed about and made an unnecessary scene." I try to go around him.
"Most people—" He puts his hands out and stops me. "Most people would have waved the thing away to try and make sure neither of them got hurt."
Also, in her own way, she did make a scene. Although I'm certain it wasn't her intention, her actions made everything come to a standstill with all eyes on her. "She thought it was a honeybee doomed to a painful death. Based on that assumption, her behaviour wasn't altogether irrational."
"You don't mean that." He's, at the same time, shocked and analytical and I have to work not to betray my discomfort under his scrutiny. "You were upset."
"I was not upset."
"You were angry." His gaze darts up to the left, remembering, and back. "And you were upset."
My muscles tense. "Change the subject."
"For some reason you identified with that bee—"
He frowns, running his hand through his hair, then sighs. "God knows why, but you did, and it really bothered you deep down when she squished it."
How can he know that? How can he possibly— "I dislike waste, that's all."
I start to turn away, but he steps up against me, halting my movement. "That's all?"
My very marrow crawls with uncertainty and dismay and I take a step back. "Nonsense."
Only a fleeting glimpse of his changing expression gives me any warning.
My hands shoot out to catch him under the armpits when his knees buckle and he slithers down my front for the second time today. I'm certain he's unharmed, but my body, in its thunderous palpitations, behaves independently of my reason.
"Good catch." Knees bent, arms akimbo, his weight straining my muscles, he's grinning up at me. "You've really got my back, haven't you? I'm impressed."
Perhaps the thundering in my ears is, after all, a result of a distant weather phenomenon, signifying not my fear for his safety, but my temptation to drop him and run for cover.
He tries to stand up again under his own power, awkward and wincing, his hands scrabbling for purchase on my upper arms. With my assistance, he achieves his feet.
"You see?" Instead of letting go, he pulls me close, his cheek rough and warm against mine, his lips buzzing against my ear, sending a frisson down my spine. "You care."
No. I release him—my hands having inexplicably closed around his waist—and walk away, leaving him to follow.
"So," he says when he finally deigns to match my pace again, "Bernard is Tippy's plus-one, not the other way around."
"Yes, do try to keep up."
"You say that like you've known all along."
He's infuriating in every conceivable manner and I summon patience. "I never once gave you a word of warning about him. Only about her."
He stays level with me as we continue towards the house, but his eyes are unfocussed, running from left to right as if reading a transcript of the day's events. Eventually he looks at me, startled. "You're right."
What an extraordinary thing to say. Of course I'm right.
The shadow the house casts into the garden provides some measure of relief and I'm eager to reach the civilised conditions, including a standing fan, offered by the indoors, but Greg is no longer at my side. When I look back, he's stalled—again—staring at the shade line from the wrong side of it.
I start walking back. "Are you all right?"
"I wish you'd stop asking that."
"I wish you'd let me call Hopkirk and take you to hospital."
The glare he shoots at me burns quite as hotly as the sun once again on my back.
"For Christ's sake, Mycroft, what is it I've done that warrants a trip to hospital?"
"It's what you haven't done. You haven't maintained a simple, uninterrupted line from the tennis court to the house without dithering and meandering. Why do you keep protracting our exposure to this ridiculous sun?"
"You know why."
Actually, I do. To talk. To talk freely without having to audit ourselves, without having to choose our words with the utmost care or lower our voices to not quite a whisper.
"The thing is—"
I take out my handkerchief and dislodge my hat enough to wipe my brow. "What is it?"
He's watching me. "No, nothing. I—It's fine."
"If you're sure."
He hesitates—"It's just…"—and doesn't finish the sentence.
"It's just what?"
He takes a deep breath as if he's about to answer, but at the last minute waves an arm in a dismissive gesture. "No. It's all right."
We starts walking again, thankfully back into the shade. Then he stops.
"No. I don't want to try to have this conversation inside, with the walls having ears and all that." He examines his feet. "I have to say something now."
My stomach sinks. "What is it you want to say?"
"This morning, right before lunch, you said—when you said—"
What? He glances at me.
"—when you said not to forget you were my partner this weekend?"
"Look, I'll do whatever I'm supposed to, whatever you tell me, but—"
Has he decided to forsake me for Jemima after all?
"—what with Stavros making me offers in the library—"
What? "Did he?"
"Yes. When the allure of the jet-setting life didn't seduce me, he tried to bribe me and, when that didn't work, well—"
He tried to shame Greg, make him feel inadequate for and unworthy of someone of a certain economic stature. I caught that bit. I pivot him to face me as he wipes his upper lip and mouth as if to silence himself, to prevent himself from letting his uncertainty spill out. I have to tell him.
"Look, Greg, you're obviously well able to look after yourself, but you should know Stavros is after you. He wants you for himself."
"What?" Greg stares at me as if I'm mad. "No. No, you've got it wrong."
I've got it wrong?
"My objection," he continues, "should be that he just got married and only has eyes for his beautiful young wife, but the fact is, obviously, he wants you."
For goodness' sake. I discard the urge to exhort him to observe. "You're too modest."
"Don't you see? He's been trying to separate us."
We agree on that, at least. He follows as I lead the way to the patio and its small fountain. The very slight mist coming off it offers a little extra coolness.
"And then there's you and Bernard."
Me and Bernard? He surely can't think—
"Look, I don't understand the rules here. Clearly. So if you could just explain the boundaries"—his voice turns bitter—"or lack thereof, I'd appreciate it."
He's jealous! My concerns that have been piling up about him start to loosen and untether. "You have a very warped view of us, don't you?"
"I think I have every right, considering what's been going on here."
"Worse than the things you see every day chasing down hardened criminals in the streets of London?"
"Give me straightforward violence any day of the week." Despite his strident assertion, a tiny smile breaks through. "Although, I have to admit—"
"It does smell better here."
My lips quirk as we turn our attention to the dancing water and the ripples it makes in the bowl of the fountain. Is he wrong in how he views the people in this place?
I'm used to starting with the premise that everyone has secrets and then ferreting them out. It's both my job and my inclination. And secrets, by definition, must be things about which the possessor feels in some way negative, otherwise they needn't be hidden. On the scale of what I see on a regular basis, most of them are trivial, even laughable—although, truth be told, it's surprising how poorly concealed most people from any walk of life keep them, barely below the surface.
Even more surprising to me is how the average goldfish refuses to see the duplicity all around him or her. Even someone one would think of as a realist, like a senior police officer, insists on giving everyone a highly questionable benefit of the doubt. Then, when the inevitable secrets are revealed and he's forced to see them, he's surprised and disgusted.
Yet there's something in the tension here that goes beyond the wildly disparate and incohesive guest list, something that goes beyond people unable to connect because they have nothing in common. There's a grating quality, a sense of abrasion amongst the attendees, both with each other and, especially, with our host.
So, in a sense, Greg's right. He is justified in seeing a warped fabric to this weekend, but he's wrong if he thinks I'm part of it.
"Let everyone else do what they want," I tell him. "We're here to watch, not participate."
"So you're not planning to get to know Bernard any better?"
"As pretty as he is," I glance sedately at Greg, but my spirit is unusually free of restraint, "the only way I hope to get to know him better is to find out who he really is. And, we both know, spending time with him won't be much help there."
Greg gives me an evaluating look. "So it's just you and me, then. Neither of us will be entertaining any other…offers?"
"We're devoted to each other."
I expect him to laugh, but he inhales deeply. "You're a dangerous man."
"The most dangerous man you'll ever meet." I'm exhilarated by the tightrope we're walking. "It's what you find so fascinating about me."
He gazes at the sky as if imploring it to aid him. "It is."
Not even the fountain offers enough temptation to spend another moment outdoors; in this still air, the mist is only adding to the humidity and, with a nod, Greg consents to enter the house.
I head for the kitchen.
"What are you doing?" he asks.
Instead of following me, he is orientated towards the stairs.
"Getting some ice."
I tilt my head at him.
"All right," he says, starting in my direction, "maybe it does sting a bit."
"Besides," I murmur when he reaches me, "I intend to investigate that wine cellar."
He stops abruptly. "That's not in the staff area."
The floor plan had clearly shown it off the kitchen, near the laundry room. I raise my eyebrows at him.
He points back whence we came.
Under-stair wine storage is by no means unusual, but— "That's the way to the basement?"
He shrugs as we make our way over and opens the door. A refreshing coolness wafts out.
"Nice, isn't it?" He's grinning.
"You might have mentioned it sooner." As striking as the estate is, the notable temperature difference could very well have persuaded me to abscond below for the weekend.
He flicks a double-switch to light the way and I follow him in. The floor of what I presume was once a coat closet has been maintained, leading to a series of wooden treads down in parallel to the slope above our heads. The staircase opens out onto an octagonal space, comparatively morgue-cold, of about 20 x 20 feet which is yet made to feel small by the low ceiling, large central table and clutter of—well, bodies.
"That would explain why she didn't want me to see it." Greg's voice is an appalled hush. "It looks like a-a-a field hospital after a battle at the Crimean War or something."
"I think the description you're reaching for is not a field hospital, but a doll hospital."
Or perhaps the unkempt playroom of a demented child. Amidst the bundles of fabric and explosion of kapok lie any number of soft-bodied porcelain dolls in various states of damage and undress.
"I always knew she was destined for great things." A snort of laughter erupts from him. "She's a doctor! I'm so proud."
"Your fatherly joy does you credit."
Glancing around the studio, I can see some method to "the doctor's" madness. Besides a natural inclination to work on multiple projects at one time, Jemima has recently received a batch of cast-off dolls, perhaps from eBay, which she has been inspecting and sorting into smaller piles based on the work that needs to be done. In spite of a decent supply of cupboards and shelving, she's not predisposed to put anything away, instead preferring to keep everything in sight and on-hand.
From the centre of operations and primary scene of carnage taking up the middle of the room, Greg picks up the nearest doll and turns it over whilst cursorily poking through paints and other tabletop supplies.
The eight walls of this almost circular room are also utilised in a variety of ways; an empty fireplace in one, an armchair with a table and gooseneck lamp for comfortable small work against another, an emergency exit taking up a third, with daylight in the small window towards the ceiling next to the door suggesting the escape goes up into the garden.
A sewing machine is pushed up against the wall directly opposite us, the position of its seat making the hair rise on the back of my neck. The occupant would have her back to the stairs behind us, unaware of who was coming or going—or watching.
The extensive music centre on the sixth wall, the small sink and cabinetry reminiscent of a wet bar on the wall opposite it, and Greg's observation earlier that the game room upstairs had been built out to include a home theatre suggest that the odd sprinkling of screw holes in the ceiling above us once accommodated an overhead box sending a television or DVD signal to a screen of some sort.
And where that would once have hung, shelving now occupies the wall. A selection of sixteen-inch belles dames catch my eye by virtue of being neatly tucked away on it in stands, about the only neat things in the room. Closer examination reveals that, whilst the dolls themselves aren't antique, they have been deftly cleaned and repaired and dressed in finely-made reproduction vintage clothing.
They could benefit from being accessorised with parasols, but the workmanship is more than adequate for second- and third-tier collectors. Not the professionals and purists who would pooh-pooh anything less than true antiques—who would only validate such dolls dressed in the tattered remains of their original frills and bustles and dismiss those in the graceful beauty of latterday facsimiles, such as these wrought by Jemima in velvet and taffeta and silk. In point of fact, I suspect that at least some of these fabrics, rummaged from the attics and corners of the Haddenbrough ancestral home, are older than the dolls they dress.
"That's enough playing with dolls, Mycroft. Let's go."
A tart reply dies on my lips when I spot Greg discreetly stretching and bowing his back, braced against the sink.
"Ice." I start for the kitchen.
I send him a meaningful look.
He closes his eyes for a moment, realising we still have a runaway wine cellar to track down. "Right. Lead the way."
And ice to procure.
There isn't a physical green baize door separating the staff domain from the main residence, but a sense of intruding without permission remains. I've never let that stop me.
Mrs Tennyson, when she steps in my way, doesn't even warrant a cocked eyebrow. She, doubtless, could assist with providing a cold-pack, but that isn't my primary objective. I sweep past, leaving Greg in my wake to placate her.
No more than my shadow in the kitchen door makes the four occupants look up with practiced hauteur. The chefs are distinguished from the assistant by their traditional double-breasted white jackets and houndstooth trousers, the head chef by the numerous extra pleats embellishing the toque on his head. His expression goes from sharp-faced to surprised.
"Chef Antoine." —whose accent betrays that he originally hailed from Wapping and who, after a bumpy start, leveraged his culinary talents to leapfrog into the finer landscape near Windsor.
"What can I do for you?" His genial expression doesn't hint at the deadline approaching by way of the dinner bell. Indeed, a repast for twelve—even an elaborate one—is hardly a stretch for a chef of his experience.
"I'm in need of ice to treat an injury."
He issues unhesitating instructions for crushed ice in a zip-topped bag. The assistant does his bidding as he invites me with a gesture to sit at a table somewhat removed from the activity.
"'ave you been 'urt?"
Something inside me isn't quite right. "No. It's for a friend."
He wisely doesn't pursue that line of conversation. "I didn't know you was a guest 'ere." He puts a glass of wine in front of me and sits in an adjacent chair.
"I, likewise, was not aware you were engaged as chef this weekend, or I might have accepted the invitation with more alacrity." We exchange a mutually appreciative smile, but I'm distracted by his staff's familiarity with the kitchen. "Not your first commission, then."
"I don't often do private residential parties, 'specially on a weekend"—when Chef's excellent restaurant is most busy and requires his attention—"but you're right, of course, Mr Pitera has requested my services before."
"This weekend was a bit of a rush, though, wasn't it?" Guessing the suddenness of his engagement is not much of a shot in the dark given the circumstances of my own and Dmitri's invitations.
Chef doesn't deny it. Rather, he raises his eyebrows to indicate the offer of a sky-high rate that overcame any possible objection he might have advanced. "Mr Pitera can be…persuasive."
"Your patrons will be disappointed you're not presiding at Chez Antoine tonight."
"Oh, Abidah's 'olding down the fort." His very talented sous-chef. "Truth is I'm running out of ideas to keep 'er interested enough that she doesn't go off and start a place of 'er own." He grins at me. "I may 'ave to marry her."
"That would be"—a disaster. They can't both be top dog—"quite something."
I may have to derail that idea to make sure one of my favourite restaurants doesn't become a casualty of love and war. But that's a project for another day.
"She must have her hands full if you've left her with a fraction of the wait-staff too."
"She's all right." He winks at me. "A mate of mine 'elps me out in a tight spot. We go way back and I can always depend on him to come up with reliable staff. 'e trains 'em and keeps 'em in line."
I tap the base of the stem glass. "But he isn't here this weekend, is he?"
Chef's merriment fades and his neck sinks into his collar. "Is there a problem?"
Not a problem—a cuckoo. "Nothing about which to fret."
"I just—It was such short notice."
I take a sip of the wine. "The wait-staff have been a credit to you."
So far. Things might start to unravel now, though.
I tilt my glass at him in salute and gratitude. "A very nice Saint-Emilion."
He achieves a simultaneous blend of smile and grimace. "I managed to liberate that bottle, but it won't be served with dinner."
"I thought you might think so." He knows my tastes all too well.
"Doubtless Mr Pitera has an interesting collection." I note Chef's studied nonchalance. "Might I be allowed a view of his cellar?"
"If it were up to me, I wouldn't 'esitate, but"—although his voice is pitched for my ears only, he glances at his staff—"I don't 'ave access."
A signal insult for a chef of Antoine's standing.
"I mean, I've been in there. It's just—" He shifts his chair. "The only way into it is through 'is office which he keeps locked."
The missing room between the library and the study. Jemima misled Greg into thinking her workshop was a wine cellar, but it could have been an innocent exercise motivated quite simply by embarrassment at its untidy condition.
I take another sip. "I expect it's a valuable collection." One that another collector might keep near the kitchens and guard from sundry staff and outside help with the simple expedient of a lock and key. Wine selection, whether ingredient or accompaniment, is so intrinsic to any menu that to deny access to a chef is slighting at best. "I expect, day-to-day, no one amongst his live-in staff has the experience to navigate it."
His deprecating look betrays his awareness of my attempt to make a face-saving excuse, but before he can say anything, Greg appears in the doorway. Four pairs of eyes snap to him and he hesitates.
He saunters in and rests his hand on he back of my chair. Chef is on his feet, cuts a glance at me before giving his attention to Greg again.
"Tony." Greg nods at him.
"Oh. Right. Done well for yourself."
I turn and look at Greg who was evidently one of the officers involved with Anthony's early brushes with the law. "I see no introductions are necessary."
"Well spotted, Mycroft. Must be the extra lubrication." He eyes the glass in my hand.
A warm, dark cocoa gaze twinkles down at me and, to break the spell, I hand him what's left of my wine.
The rumble of Chef's chair draws our attention as he pushes it under the table, his eyes noticeably rounder than before.
"I'm sorry. I didn't realise..." They suddenly gleam with the speculation that, whilst the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, the way to his stomach is through his— "That is, I don't think I've seen you at my place, officer."
"Let me guess." Greg sips the Bordeaux. "Chez Antoine."
Chef frowns slightly. "Er, yeah. Actually."
"Really?" Greg seems genuinely impressed. "That's yours?"
Perhaps it's a reflection of the heat of the kitchen, but I'd be willing to swear that Chef is blushing.
My amusement is overshadowed by a colourful shower of profanity that accompanies a burst of commotion at the gas rings. Distracted by our encounter, the commis chef tasked with tending the sauces works to contain a disaster now in the making.
"That's not supposed to be a bleedin' flambé, you idiot!" Chef Antoine barks.
The pastry chef grabs a large round lid to smother the oxygen supply and extinguish the pan fire and we're forgotten as, with mastery, Chef Antoine takes charge.
I rise to my feet with the hurried arrival of the makeshift ice-pack, which the assistant drops into my hands before attending the crisis.
"Come on," I say to Greg, "upstairs with you."
He rolls his eyes, finishes the wine in one unrestrained gulp, and leaves the empty glass on the table whilst I take point.
Going first, of course, is sometimes a bad idea.
Heartfelt thanks to everyone who bookmarks and/or subscribes to this story. I know I can be slow in posting sometimes (Middles, grrr), so it means a lot, really a lot, to know you like the story enough to keep up with it. MWAAH!
BTW, In case you're wondering, I graduated!
Post-tennis part III, subsection (b): or, to borrow from Douglas Adams, here is the fourth in the trilogy...
TADA! It's been so very long since I last posted, you may want to read the previous chapter again to remind yourself where we are.
This is actually only half the chapter I'd originally envisaged, but I have two final research papers due so it's going to be a few weeks before I can give the Middle my attention again. Turns out, though, that this half is quite long enough.
Thanks as usual to my Tea and Chocolate Digestives comfort club (which is turning into more of a virtual speakeasy—what's in our teacups at this point is most definitely not tea, heh): delightfully_demented, skeptic7, n_a, Silverwoulf, OtakuElf, VacationPlease, Aquarius Seth, and of course little mothers Nikte (to whom the previous chapter is dedicated because, like Jemima, she too is a doll-dressmaker) and Kvfm (to whom this chapter is dedicated because she is single-handedly responsible for making me post this chapter before the Christmas hols).
Special salute to VacationPlease for finding an Easter egg I'd embedded in the story—as every author learns, never underestimate the readers :-) The more my readers coax me along, the more the writing of this story becomes personal as I picture you, with baited breath, hoping against hope that you're surprised and pleased with where it's going…
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As I'm about to climb the main staircase, the appearance of a man on the half-landing attracts my attention. The missing ball boy-waiter. He's still unshod, slight and light on his feet, able to move with very little noise.
He hesitates, then raises his hand towards me. "No further."
Gabriella isn't following him, but in deference to the buggery in the walls, I refrain from enquiring as to her whereabouts. The staircase is far from narrow, wide enough to allow three people to walk abreast comfortably. To stop me, the smaller young man would have to go out of his way to breach my personal space and, unlike him, trespassing above stairs, I have the right to be here on my side.
I proceed up.
He takes two steps down, the sudden glisten of perspiration on his brow, the bobbing of his Adam's apple, the briefest swipe of his tongue over his lower lip, all adding up to a serious decision in the making. I'm, therefore, not wholly surprised when he pulls a weapon from behind him out of his trouser waistband. As much as I'm curious about Gabriella, it seems prudent to stop.
Gripped in his shaking hand is a sharp tourné knife, a residual smear of vegetable skin still on the short, downturned, beak-shaped blade. He didn't have the knife earlier whilst on the tennis court, so he must have checked first in the kitchen to see if Gabriella was seeking ice and picked up the blade on impulse from a preparation counter.
That was ill thought out. Doubtless, realising he would have to go into the body of the house to find her and manifestly untrained in the use of improvised weapons, he took the knife for protection, not for attack. And not for his own protection either; there was irritation in the look that passed between them at the tennis court rather than enmity. He thought to protect her, then. But from what?
The threat of a weapon is worthless without the willingness to back it up with action and I'm unconvinced he is prepared for the reality of using the knife. Going on the offensive to harm another human being is virtually impossible without proper mental adjustment, some form of training, or a pressing threat to his very survival. The risk from continuing on my way at a distance from him is, therefore, minimal.
He is holding the knife in an under-hand grip with the cutting edge down and the blunter top of the nose towards me. That together with his inexperience and deep ambivalence are all that save me when my resumed ascent provokes him to demonstrate his willingness, in fact, to act. He rushes towards me and, in the nick of time, I manage to insert the ice-pack between my chest and the blade. Even without much power behind the downward thrust, the tip pierces the polypropylene bag.
The acrid smell of body odour suddenly permeates the air and I take advantage of the waiter's horror at what he almost did to push forwards another step, targetting his vulnerable feet with my own well-made shoe. I drop the ice-pack whilst he flicks a look at the knife, then back at me, his pupils shrunken to points in his tight blue-green eyes only a few inches above the level of my own. Ungainly with shock and self-disgust, he stumbles against me.
Being quite a bit bigger, I might have been able to counteract his weight if I were not poised on one foot and if he hadn't reflexively put out his hands—the knife slipping away—to balance himself. They land squarely on my chest, well above my centre of gravity, pushing me downwards with him following.
Distantly aware of running feet, I reach for the banister to arrest my tumble, but I'm too far away to hook my arm over the handrail. I also fail to secure a grip on any one of the balustrades as I plunge rearwards, the back of one wrist and the fingers of the other hand riffing painfully down the carved poles.
I trained myself at a young age to ignore the swooping nausea of a fall and relax into it to minimise internal tissue damage, although things aren't going to end well with the waiter on top of me. Nevertheless, I have already begun to decompress when I…hit ballast. Greg has intercepted me, his legs braced, his body leaning in, rigid with muscular strain. He pulls the young man around to get the extra weight off us both and lets him fend for himself on his continuing headlong descent. One arm along the railing, one arm around me, Greg concentrates on checking my undignified and nerve-wracking spill. He succeeds.
Positioned awkwardly with my shoulder and back angled against his thighs, sliding down until my bottom lands gently between his shoes, I look up at him. We stare at each other, breathing hard. Surprised. Very relieved. And finding the search for innocuous-sounding words to express…anything…too much.
The waiter, who has been lying winded at the bottom of the stairs, begins to stir and I struggle to get my feet under me. With Greg's help, I leverage myself upright and continue after my quarry whilst, with lips pressed together, he goes down to tend to unfinished business. A young man's groan as he's yanked to his feet quickly fades behind me.
As I go past the half-landing and rise to see beyond the top step, Gabriella has her back to me, closing the double doors of…the master suite. She has clearly just left it. She turns, but at my appearance, her eyes widen and she backs into the barrier she herself has just put in place.
Her gaze flickers behind me, perhaps in search of her absent lookout, or perhaps for the threat of my white knight of the law. She's not carrying anything besides her 'phone tucked into her neckline, leaving her hands free, whilst the simple cut of her knee-length cocktail dress and the throbbing sunburn don't allow for anything hidden. So either she left something in the master suite, or she was looking for something and didn't find it.
If she left something behind, I doubt it's benign. Given the exposure of my work to violent political "solutions" and the increasingly commonplace use of children to execute them, I wonder if the house is still safe. Of course, it's hardly likely she could keep any kind of incendiary device concealed from Cunningham, sharing a room with him and leaving her luggage vulnerable to his curiosity.
Unless they are in cahoots. Could their conflict with each other be manufactured, designed to throw off suspicion that they're in a cooperative effort to destroy the Piteras? But the discord between them is subtle, not obvious to the casual viewer, so as a feint to misdirect, it serves no purpose; they gain nothing from such an elaborate set-up. They are not partners in any sense of the word.
She's waiting for me to say something accusatory, letting me speak first so she can use my words and attitude to shape her defence. I must confess, I'm tempted to test her. After all, she's been caught red-handed. What can she say?
As my silence extends beyond the length socially acceptable for a pause of surprise, though, her expression goes from defensive to confused. Unfortunately, I find myself at an impasse. As keen as I am to unearth her secrets, I'm equally reluctant to make them available for Stavros's consumption through his electronic ears.
Her moss green eyes stay focussed on me, but they transition again, this time from confused to cocked. Before she can say anything damaging, though, Greg's arrival with the waiter forestalls her. The young man's arm in a firm grip, Greg holds in his other hand a folded scrap of paper along with the bag of ice that he has rescued from saturating the stairs, even now weeping condensation and a trickle of thawing water from the small knife piercing. The particular stretch of his jacket pocket gives away the presence of the would-be weapon.
He opens his mouth to speak, but hesitates, locking eyes with me, and closes it again. It's one thing for us to communicate with low voices and the assistance of gestures and touch when we're alone, quite another when there are witnesses to intercept our transmissions. The girl holds her peace and watches us carefully, so he chooses to bide his time and pull the waiter back, positioning the two of them to my right, but out of my way. Not so perceptive as his accomplice, the young man blurts out her name.
"Tenziamh!" He yanks free of Greg's grasp, but she flings up a hand both to stop him from saying anything more and from approaching further.
She can't be.
I would suppress an eye-roll at yet another individual in this house under false colours, but I can honestly admit I'm too surprised to do more than keep my gaze on the child. Young woman. Highness, one supposes.
Greg gazes back and forth between them, only now realising that the young people are somehow linked. He still doesn't know who she is, though. I myself hadn't recognised her visage before—I don't keep au courant on the issue of every insignificant royal family in the world—but, as soon as I heard it, the name leapt out of my long term memory and the details filled in.
"Really, Greg"—I glance at him—"don't you ever go off duty?" Would Stavros know her? Doubtful. "Where did you run into this miscreant?"
"On the stairs, would you believe." Greg skewers his captive with a tight, hostile look.
"Did you now." I conceal my amusement. "Hired help has no business venturing into the main part of the house, young man. What were you thinking?"
The waiter stares at me in astonishment, then looks at the princess who, in turn, betrays her surprise, outrage and panic at our united contention with her faction. Before she rushes to his defence and destroys the fragile spectacle of misdirection we've managed to create here, I take my turn to raise a hand and curb the younger daughter of the Queen and King of Meistan.
She hails from a remote sovereignty in the Himalayas distinguished for being one of the rare societies in the world where the matrilineal line prevails. When the Queen dies, the Crown will pass to the elder princess and her chosen husband, whilst the old King, if he's still alive, will retire from public service. The province is also known for its unique crystal jewellery-making. Oddly enough—or perhaps not so oddly, given the undercover presence of the young Meistani highness—Jemima is the owner of just such a piece.
The Viscount her father is, by my lights, a thoughtless and rather foolish man, but fundamentally kind. Several years ago, he extended a careless gesture for which I never asked, but which saved me from some painful embarrassment. I doubt he even saw it as a favour—as I say, a foolish man. Nevertheless, disliking loose ends, I was glad to repay my debt to him when he found himself snookered by a group of unscrupulous City businesspeople. Even with the life-ring I threw him, he was left all but destitute, but at least he was free of the threat of prison.
With a cynical laugh at his reduced circumstances and mock humility at my rather extensive—if I do say so myself—efforts on his behalf, he offered me recompense in the form of a bauble more pretty than valuable brought to the marriage by his wife. My acceptance of it would have acknowledged his mockery of my going too far and yet not far enough and, of course, would have rendered my comprehensive endeavour to dissolve my obligation to him null and void.
But it so happens I'd heard the whisper of a rumour from an improbable source that the modest wrist cuff of fiery geodic stones and blue enamelled white gold he offered me had been commissioned during her India tour by Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark—Prince Philip's late mother. If there had been any provenance at all, any sort of record of ownership, I might have accepted it and returned it to HRH, but I had no proof. Or even any credible gossip.
Assuming, not unreasonably, that the cuff is what Princess Tenziamh is here to retrieve, I must conclude that neither does she. Otherwise, why would her family endorse these extraordinary stealth tactics? Why not take diplomatic or legal action to reacquire the cuff if they have some sort of claim? Oh, I see. Her parents have no knowledge of her presence here.
Nevertheless, parental oversight is one thing, mine is quite another. Even with the exceptional freedoms accorded females in Meistan, atypical of the region and indeed much of the world, the princess's arrival in the UK without my knowledge is beyond the pale. And how she arrived here, unchaperoned, the apparent floozie of a disgraced surgeon, is another matter I intend to unravel in due course.
Confident she has consented to keep quiet, I lower my hand and transfer my gaze to the waiter who, in response to my question to him, is donning dignity like fresh clothes after a bath. He too has chosen to stay silent, as the safest way to prevent landing up wrong-footed in the lady's eyes. Not a servant, whatever his rôle here at Stavros's house, since he didn't employ an honorific to address the princess. Certainly not a trained bodyguard, given his incompetence in stopping me on the stairs in spite of his armed and topographical advantages. That he made the attempt against every personal inclination, however, speaks to his utter devotion to her.
She, in turn, feels impelled to defend him. An unsuitable suitor, then. Someone whose appearance here was unexpected. Someone whom she couldn't acknowledge without exposing herself in the process. Someone she must love very much to gamble everything on this venture to win her parents' permission to marry him…which centers a great deal of value on a bauble that isn't worth very much.
The young man holds his own under my penetrating gaze. "I shall certainly speak to your employer," I maintain the myth, "and make sure he understands the inappropriateness of your behaviour."
Greg regards him coldly. "Or I could just take him in."
The princess takes a step forward as if to shield the waiter, her expression turning fierce, and I intervene to thwart any untoward words or actions.
"Is that necessary, Inspector?"
"There's no telling what he might do," Greg says. "He might steal a knife from the kitchen, for example, and randomly attack guests for no reason at all."
He gives the waiter a back-handed thwap across the chest, rough and sharp, but for all that harmless in recognition that the waiter's attempt to do damage ended in failure. Greg's abiding anger, nonetheless, cheers me for reasons I don't fully comprehend.
Meanwhile, the princess, staring at the young man with widening eyes, demonstrates she has understood that the outlined scenario was not hypothetical when she turns her scrutiny on me. The tilt of her head broadcasts just how much curiosity outweighs any actual concern for my well-being and I stifle a quirk of amusement when Greg disrupts her insolent perusal by obstructing her line of sight and handing me a worn, folded scrap of glossy paper. At his nod towards the waiter, I understand it is something Greg confiscated from his detainee.
I maintain the flow of conversation whilst, nevertheless, unfolding the paper carefully, given its damp-weakened state from being jostled against the ice bag.
"No, Greg, I won't have you breaking up our weekend over this—this—"
The princess's hands curl into tight fists and the clenching divot at the side of her mouth, more a dent than a dimple, turns even paler than the rest of her face. With admirable restraint, however, she stamps down her knee-jerk reaction to our insult. She is unable to stop a flicker of anxiety when I glance down, though, afraid the paper in my hand will, at the very least, brand her a thief by giving away the core of her guilty secret. If only she knew—that yak left the treeline long ago.
A magazine photograph pulled out of the society pages. From the Smytheson-West wedding, so…taken last summer. Jemima, quite possibly when she first met Stavros, sparkling into the camera as she fingers her ear lobe in a candid shot. A part of her coiffure has been torn away, but then the focus of this scrap is not her, but her wrist which is adorned with the only piece of jewellery she is wearing. At the time, the only piece of jewellery she could call her own. Precisely the cuff her father offered me.
"Let him go, Greg." Not at all surprised to have my suspicion confirmed, I slide the magazine graphic into my pocket and ignore the slight squeak of dismay from the princess. "He's just a boy, round-eyed with awe at Stavros's impressively done up home. Can't really blame him."
I really must bring this to a close, but I'll have to separate the two. Otherwise, there's a good chance they'll find a corner to talk about this and undo all we've achieved in frustrating Stavros's understanding of what's going on here. Beyond that, dealing with the princess is still a conundrum.
"Now, young man, don't leave Chef short-handed. We've got the ice we need and surely the tennis match is over, or soon will be. You get back to work and go only where Chef tells you. His reputation's on the line, you know. As it is, you'll be lucky to get a job as a buss boy after this." The least of his problems.
The desperation with which he and the princess seek out each other's eyes makes their shared look turn into an almost physical clinging together as they both realise his exit will leave her undefended with two men neither of them know nor have reason to commend. Then, sentiment is replaced by sense and, drawing herself up, the princess nods at him to go; she clearly recalls that she had never relied on his protection or support in her original plan to enter the lion's den this weekend.
"No!" He takes a step towards her in protest, but Greg catches him by the shirt and jerks him back into his grasp.
The princess's lips tighten and, if looks could kill, I'd have to think of something drastic to punish her for Greg's demise. It's fortunate I don't—I can be very inventive.
"I really think it would be for the best, young man."
At my quiet yet insistent tone, she takes a moment to hold me in the balance. All at once, she stands down, gesturing again at the waiter to go.
I can't speak to her foolishness, but she certainly has focus. And courage. All those times she felt him or herself threatened, all those times she almost spoiled things by blurting out an imperious command, and all those times she stopped herself, disciplined herself in spite of her extreme youth to hold back in pursuit of the longer game. How ironic that his unrelieved hostility towards the waiter marks Greg as the black hat, making me look by comparison like the white hat in her eyes, when all along he's the one who cares about her safety more than her possible usefulness. Yet, as a result, she is willing to put her trust in me.
She brushes past me to take her young man by the arm and, at my assent, Greg lets him go. She leads him to the stairs, patting his chest, her expression softened by a slight, resigned smile that tries to bolster him whilst communicating: 'I started this and you have to let me see it through. There's no turning back now. We have to let the chips fall where they may.'
He resists her, vehemently shakes his head, but when he opens his mouth to speak, she covers his lips with her hand—not to maintain the fiction we've created by encouraging his silence, but because she's made up her mind and she'll brook no discussion. The pained resignation, closed off by fluttering eyelids, as he realises the impossibility of his situation—he doesn't have the ability to fight us if he were to stay and he has no place to keep her safe if she were to consent to go downstairs with him—convinces me to give them a moment's privacy. Greg does likewise, the unexpected clash of our glance drawn out and heightened for several excruciating seconds by a distant roll of thunder—our oblivion to our surroundings as complete as theirs.
The fading whisper of unshod feet gets my attention in time to catch the princess looking down the stairs after the waiter—not in wistfulness, but in regret. She is beginning to acknowledge the foolhardiness of her self-imposed quest this weekend, but even if she could do it again, she sees no other choice. My curiosity can't help but be piqued by the power wielded by that unassuming little wrist cuff.
She turns to us and, with a small nod—was that supposed to be dismissal?—starts for her room. Greg leaps forward and blocks her with an arm across the doorway, his concerned expression petitioning my intervention. He's right to worry, of course.
She's playing a dangerous game, trying to keep the doctor at bay with only the invisible assistance of the sun's rays, a game that I believe will no longer work after the rage with which he looked at her on the tennis court. He will force matters on her if he chooses to reassert himself—and I rather suspect that, now that he knows she played him, he will.
Nevertheless, what am I to do with her?
Her very stillness betrays her trepidation as I approach, bracketing her with Greg.
"Leave," I murmur. "I can have a driver here in a few moments to take you to safety."
She looks at me in consternation, then in scorn.
"We can get him out, too." Greg, of course, understands her demurral. Then he looks at me. "Can't we?"
"Yes." Although I mean to keep her alone and off balance until I've not just confirmed the what of her intentions this weekend, but found out the why. "Later."
She considers her options, then with a glance at the master suite, she firmly shakes her head. I suppress a sigh. She has put herself in jeopardy to acquire the wrist cuff and she's not about to leave without it. Where does she think the blasted thing is?
Stavros's study, since that's the probable location of the household safe. Good gracious, how many of us will there be creeping around tonight?
The smile I turn on her isn't very pleasant as I consider the problem solved of who's going to take the blame for the un-locked room come morning. I'm almost looking forward to seeing Stavros's quandary when he finds out there's a genuine princess under his roof who is also at his mercy. The new problem is how to keep her safe from the doctor's attentions in the meantime.
Greg catches my eye and, still barring the way into her room, signals with his head.
The princess and I simultaneously look where he indicates, then back at him, wide-eyed.
He can't mean—
"I'm not as hurt as you seem to think, Mycroft." Speaking up, he nods vigorously and herds us towards our own room—"Let me show you the game room while there's no one around"—and we comply, if only to avoid the dripping bag of ice he's waving in our direction.
Nevertheless, I protest. "But I don't like games."
A silence, and I look back to see him staring at me in amazement before collapsing in giggles.
"Ow, ow." He slams a fist to his back, grimacing in pain and helpless laughter.
"What?" I fail to see the source of his amusement.
The princess, however, is looking between us, falling considerably short of suppressing a broad grin. The pair of them are quite as bad as Sherlock and John.
Still uncertain of the wisdom of the plan, I press on to our room and, opening the door, stand aside. The princess lifts her chin and approaches, hesitating only at the threshold for a moment to appraise us.
"We will not speak of this again," she says at last in a low voice, speaking for the first time.
Greg's look of utter surprise gives way to amusement.
She takes the bag of thawing ice from his hand and applies it with clear relief—in spite of its leaks and general sogginess—to first one and then the other sunburnt arm. With sly, sparkling green eyes directed at him, she disappears into our room and firmly closes the door behind her.
"Sweet Jesus,"—he's still smiling—"there are some real heart-breakers here this weekend."
I sniff, then realise he's looking at me. And looking at me. His head tilts, his smile breaks down into a rueful quirk, and he's still looking at me. Which means I'm still looking at him.
Unaccountably flustered, I make for the stairs with as much dignity as I can summon.
I played a bit with Princess Andrew's history. She did go to India in the 1960s, fell ill, and cut her visit short. She didn't go to Meistan which I made up.
I'd considered that the five chapters 16-20 came under the umbrella (heh) of one big chapter because, if it were a film or TV show, they would all be part of one continuous camera-take (close-ups notwithstanding). I've decided, however, to bring this 'take' to a close and do a little jump-cut to the next chapter.
Oddly enough, there was a time I considered eliminating the tennis and injury scene as trivial fluff that, while cute, didn't serve a narrative purpose moving the story forward in any way. I had no idea that the one set-up would trigger so many revelations—and a whole bunch more questions. I hope you're still enjoying it :-)
(PS: What *have* the Americans done?)
The games people play...
Hard to believe it's been a few days short of one year since I started posting this...AND I'M STILL NOT THROUGH THE MIDDLE! As I told one of my tea buddies, I really don't know if I could have kept writing this story without all your enthusiasm pushing me along.
Heartfelt gratitude, as always, to ever-present Nikte who always has something wonderful to say, and my other chums who stopped by for tea (heh) and chocolate digestives: CrushedRose, lkj, skeptic7, dianna, VacationPlease, LivvyD, Hrothgar, and to Silverwoulf--thanks for talking the write stuff with me! I love comparing notes on how writers create.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
From our vantage in the doorway, with the rays of the lowering sun filling the vestibule behind us, the windowless game room is blinding in its darkness before Greg fumbles the wall. Low-light sconces spaced around the rows of seating and the screen of the home theatre, which are furthest from us, reveal a vast room and a bank of switches beneath his hand.
"The den," he says.
He smirks at my less than impressed disposition—'den' would evoke a cosiness unsuited to this cavernous space—and he doesn't bother to investigate which switches operate which task lights over the pool table, the board game arrangement, the reading nook, the wet bar, the gaming area, before he stalks over to one of the two computers. He is quickly absorbed, his frown and the tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth betraying an antagonism towards the technology in front of him.
An unassuming door past the pool table attracts my attention. Greg doesn't even look up when I drift over and try the handle, unsurprised to find it locked. A secure latch in all probability allows free entry from the other side, but needs a key to get back. Worth investigating. It's curious that both this and the main entrance can be locked, suggesting this is used more as a private room than a common area.
From the hallway, it's obvious which of three doors leads to the room that shares a wall with the locked door, but since that will lead me back into the game room, I take a moment to scout the other two.
The first bedroom is small and unoccupied, with its own locked door that I believe accesses a shared bathroom. The second bedroom, adjoining it, confirms my supposition.
This room itself is an agitated mess of clothes and belongings, an exquisite representation of its inhabitants, the Abbotts. Unease and apprehension are broadcast via the discarded athletic wear, beer bottles and two racquet covers emblazoned with the logo of a company Frank is still hired to endorse…although possibly not for much longer. And I suspect there is very little of note hidden—or at least deliberately withheld from view—about the Abbotts in the closet and drawers.
As I turn to leave, my eye is caught by the veterinary bag tucked next to the wardrobe. Now here's a pretty little secret. Why would an equine surgeon expect to be called on to render professional services at a weekend house party when the Pitera horses are absent, boarded at a stables already on her roster?
As I go over to examine it more closely, tiny shards of glass in the carpet crackle underfoot, the scrapped remains of a broken hand-mirror in the waste-paper bin. On second glance, there's evidence the room has been mangled, then tidied up and then sundered again, and the united front of the two occupants separates: Frank is resentful and therefore careless and slovenly, whilst Caroline, superficially phlegmatic, is frightened and repressed. He wants to decimate everything in his path, whilst she'd rather accomplish her purpose and leave with as little vestige remaining as possible of their stay. That neither of them can stand being here is indisputable. The veterinary bag—fully stocked with surgical supplies—provides no enlightenment as to its presence.
Crossing the hallway, I open the door to the third bedroom which, to the contrary, is a soothing ocean of blues and greens, off-white and smoky plum. It is almost Japanese in its minimalism, but accented by a startling number of crystal pieces glistening under small LED lights. There is little evidence of long-term living, but the evening gown hanging from a pull-out silver arm discloses this is Tippy's room. Presumably Bernard shares it with her, although there is remarkably no indication of his possessions or personality.
The room is of a size similar to ours, but instead of the stand-alone furniture I've seen everywhere so far, there is a built-in array of wardrobes. Out of curiosity, I ease open a closet door.
Her choice of clothing is nothing but custom-made designer labels. Whilst I applaud her taste, according to her WikiPage, the occasional pot she has won through her pool-playing skills is not enough to pay for all these. Perhaps in every sense but the legal one, Stavros does have a wife stashed in the attic.
In a corner of the wardrobe are a suit, dinner jacket, a couple of slacks and shirts. Even the attire downstairs we brought for Greg would rival this inconsequential collection. It would be tempting to assign the rôle of beard to Bernard, here to camouflage Tippy's relationship with Stavros, except that neither she nor Stavros is given to accommodating other people's feelings. Moreover, Bernard seems attached to her in an almost clinging way whilst she, in turn, is watchful and forbearing rather than uninterested. And there is still the question of his mysterious origins.
Tidied away behind the next door is a bookcase. A handful of tomes on the principles of pool and billiards. The remaining five shelves are filled with puzzle books of the numeric variety, meticulously completed, indexed and filed in order, dating back to…her recovery after the car crash. A cursory glance at a sample confirms the solutions are correct.
The next closet contains a dressing table at standing height with a recessed mirror surrounded by lightbulbs that automatically activate when the door opens. And there, on an otherwise uncluttered countertop that surmounts a stack of drawers—doubtless full of ladies' essentials—resting on a bed of blue velvet, is Jemima's cuff. In the brightness of the mirrored illumination, it scintillates.
Leaving no obvious evidence of my intrusion, I open the door that does indeed lead into the game room, the least interesting detail of my exploration, although I can't avoid noticing that the space given for Tippy's hobbies is an order of magnitude larger than that given to Jemima. Greg's jacket lobbed across the seat he occupied when I left, he has moved to the other computer which puts his back to me. The door closes with a snick behind me and I look at the screen over his shoulder, not in the least taken by the slight curl under of his thick silver hair an inch above the neckline of his white tee-shirt.
He glances up at me. "Look."
I incline towards the monitor as he obscures a web page he's been reading—that features the Abbott girl at a gymkhana—with a pull-down menu to access the computer's browsing history. He zeroes in on the summary from ten days ago in which there is a list of searches into both the veterinary surgeon and her immediate family. The circumstantial evidence that there's a connection between this and Greg's murder investigation is not conclusive—that these searches occurred on the very day Kenneth Martin was killed at a stables on the veterinarian's roster could be coincidental—but it's compelling.
This isn't something Greg can download onto his flash drive, so he takes screen shots with his 'phone, then makes a video of the same, including the menu page with identifying information about the machine. Each file created on department-issued devices is automatically backed up onto two remote servers under our control, a protocol designed to keep the records intact if anything should happen to the original device or, if necessary, to pinpoint any tampering with digital evidence at a later date.
The overall browsing history makes it clear the computer is used all but exclusively for gaming as is, doubtless, the other—it looks like Bernard might be a fan of Assassin's Creed. If this blip of searching had been deleted, we rather worryingly would have had no reason to look further. Does that mean the user was someone who didn't realise his or her browsing would be recorded and therefore didn't appreciate the importance of clearing the history? Tippy, perhaps, since this location is closest to her room? Stavros certainly knows better than to leave his tracks on an unsecured computer.
Then again, Dmitri's invitation was sudden. As was Chef Antoine's engagement. My own invitation came at extreme short notice, needing a justification in place—entirely authentic excuses about Constantine agitating all of a sudden for the house—before it could be issued because, in my case, Anthea was the true goal. Yet Stavros, on the spur of the moment, deemed Greg a more than adequate substitute for her…
…if not adequate for me. A curious bit of protectiveness on my behalf that I didn't anticipate. The kind of destructive defending I might expect from Sherlock who, given half a chance, will let nothing stand in the way of his obtaining what he wants—and sometimes what he doesn't want, if he deems it bad for me; even if he's stuffed to the gills, he'll take the last piece of cake to stop me from having it.
All those elements mean that, no matter who undertook this internet search, Stavros is involved in a significant way. It could, in fact, have been he who overlooked the detail of clearing this little bit of search history. Not a mistake I would ordinarily ascribe to someone as precise and cunning as he, but what if he came up here to confer with Tippy and to cobble together a plan? The oversight could have been the result of a frantic busy-ness with putting it quickly into action.
If this house party is, in fact, a ruse to cover something else, then it's superficially seamless and well thought out, but its execution has been far from flawless. Lydia is an unintended consequence—the unvetted partner of a scion of former royalty who is supposed to add gloss and credence to the get-together, who is supposed to be too naïve to cause any trouble. And Gabriella—who might have been expected to be in the mould of Cunningham's history of trivial, young, throwaway partners, who turns out to be anything but. Greg and I also have ulterior agendas. It has occurred to me more than once that the entire assemblage of guests is notably incoherent in age and interests and I suspect it is Stavros's ambition that has put so many divergent variables into play. His arrogance may be his undoing.
But for what? It appears that the whole weekend revolves around a middle-aged, middle-class, middling veterinarian. Is she connected to the murder or is this all to do with something completely irrelevant? And why would Stavros want Anthea—or Greg—here?
Now that Greg's got something to redirect his case, I'm tempted to take my last piece of cake and go home and I put a hand on his shoulder as he finishes up his documentation. His heat—like him—seeps under my skin.
But of course, whilst the murder may be his business, Stavros is mine and something untoward is definitely going on here. Maybe several unrelated things. We've been circling ever closer to unravelling it all and I feel my blood rising at the prospect of the answers almost within my grasp.
Truth be told, I feel my blood rising with a great deal more and my fingers tighten involuntarily on Greg's shoulder. His cheek brushes my hand as he looks up at me questioningly, hopefully, and I acknowledge to myself that the exultation of uncovering the answers I seek will add spice to a…celebration with him in the privacy of my own home.
Which would bring its own danger—the end of the weekend should be here, rather than extended to my house. It's cleaner that way. Yet, before I can stop myself, I find myself speaking.
"Look, I know we both have to work on Monday, but you still have to pick up some things at my place." I let go of him and walk away to help disperse a growing inner electricity. "Perhaps, tomorrow, Naomi could make us something simple for dinner and you could…you could—"
He has followed me to the pool table. "I could what?"
Stay over. This is insane. "Eat. With me. Before you go." Terribly, terribly insane.
"That would be…nice." He's looking at me as if he can tell I was going to say something else, his voice pitched low. "You know I'm not expecting anything else—"
The resonance that quickens deep inside me in response to him makes me turn my back, lean on my fists against the edge of the table.
"—if that's what you're worried about."
He touches my back and I flinch because—I've crossed a line by inviting him over. And I don't know how to go back. Worse, I don't want to go back.
"There's not much time left." He's standing close, but he's careful to keep a gap between us, his head tilted down and to one side. He's whispering. "By this time tomorrow, we'll be—Jesus, Mycroft! Please. Can I just—"
"May I just."
He pauses, trying to decide whether my interruption was permission to let him touch me or deflection to put him off. I stand motionless, irresolute, putting the ball squarely back in his court, making it his decision to act or not because I want to stop this—but I need to know if he feels anything close to the way I do.
This time, he reaches for my sleeve and I don't balk. He takes a step closer, putting his other hand on my waist, and I straighten up against him, aware how dangerously close all my rules and parameters for having him here are to disintegrating. Sex was always on the cards, that was always my hope, my intention, but this closeness, this sentiment, this vulnerability I hadn't anticipated.
I want to turn around, to pull him into my arms, but I daren't. I daren't let him see the expression on my face, my desire to kiss him, my unfair wish to change the rules midway through the game and ask him to stay with me, to be my…to be my—to be mine. I daren't let him see my weakness.
Because when a situation becomes unstable, the most crucial factor in restoring balance is consistency. So I have to hold steady. I can't give in to temptation.
Nevertheless, as his arm slides forward around me, I grasp his hand, let our fingers intertwine over my waistcoat buttons and grip tightly, unable to stop myself from conveying not only my consent to this embrace, but my full complicity. His hand on my sleeve skims up to my bicep and he pulls me close, a soft breath across my collar, lips brushing against my neck.
"Mycroft, you're so…"
What? I'm what?
Those words always left unsaid irritate me, but at least I know he hasn't given up on me. Whilst I'm partly relieved, I force myself to keep my back turned, surely doing the right thing by staying averted. Nevertheless, I feel like a fraud for not facing him.
And I'm not sure how this is going to end. I should move away, but his solid, soothing warmth and support at my back are more than I'm willing to give up. This unexpected communion with another person—not just with anyone, but with him—is going to end soon enough and I'm greedy to hold on for as long as I can. He seems just as reluctant to break contact.
He turns his head, his lips against my neck. "You want me as badly as I want you. I know you do."
I feel his words in warm puffs of air more than hear them. To suppress my shudder of arousal, I pull his arm more tightly around me, pull us closer together. But as strategies go, this one is an utter failure as he rubs against me and I, inhaling heavily, almost break his fingers.
"Tonight—" He hesitates, gathers his words. "I want you, Mycroft Holmes, and if this our only chance, don't—God, please, don't let it get away from us. We don't have to kiss. We don't have to let anything get in the way. I'll do whatever it takes. Just, can't we—?"
And, without thinking, I break away and turn to stare at him, to confirm what he's suggesting. What I'm feeling, too. Let's do this. Just the one time. For god's sake, let me get you out of my system.
"I know what you're worried about—" he starts.
"Gabriella has to go."
He looks me in the eye. "We can't just give her up to Cunningham."
"No. I mean she has to go. She can't appear for dinner. She can't appear for anything if we want to make sure the doctor doesn't get his hands on her again. She has to leave."
"Hopkirk." He nods slowly. "She can sneak out to the car when we're all at dinner and he can whisk her away with no one the wiser."
I quirk my lips in agreement. "Or sooner." —whilst everyone is scattered around the house in preparation for the evening. Before we're all in one place, the focus of an attentive staff crossing the foyer to and fro at unpredictable intervals, making it difficult for her with no assistance to escape unseen.
But I hesitate at another objection that refuses to be ignored. "There could be a recording." Made public. Spilling this thing, whatever it is we have, outside the neat container of this weekend. Making it unmanageable once other people know about us, once our attachment is no longer ours alone to share and control.
He crosses his arms and looks away for a moment, then forces himself to meet my eyes. "—but we don't have to…to say anything. We don't have to—"
We don't have to speak? Ohh. We wouldn't have to be completely silent either, just as long as there were no identifying sounds, as long as the subjects involved could be any two men in bed.
"Mycroft, couldn't we—Isn't there any chance? Sweet Jesus, say something."
His suggestion is, of course, nevertheless ridiculous. In the heart of a viper's nest, our communications recorded, we shouldn't let our guard down. We shouldn't allow ourselves to distract each other. Unfortunately, there's only one possible answer.
"Yes." Oh, hell.
The sun comes out from behind the clouds of Greg's face and lights the shadowed room with sheer joy and surprise and relief and anticipation and…I could spend a lifetime trying to describe his expression and never come close. It makes me breathless with too much air, high on too much oxygen.
I find myself beaming stupidly back at him, unable to do a thing to stop it. To my irritation, I don't even want to try because—
Decision made, all dams and damns swept away, with desire flooding me at the very thought of him—at this moment, I'd consider it a win if I managed not to fuck him on the dining table tonight for dessert.
Greg and I bump back to the present and stare at each other, realising in an instant, from the slamming doors on the ground floor and Cunningham's bellowing, that the tennis match is over and everyone is trooping in. Greg hurries to the computer to close out the windows and turn it off, whilst I grab his jacket.
The doctor's anger is undimmed as it travels to every corner of the house. "Where is she?"
I was hoping we'd have more time than this to sort out a plan for Gabriella's escape, but the hourglass drops its last grain of sand when footsteps heading towards her make us bolt. Greg and I slow our headlong rush down the stairs at the sight of Cunningham storming away from his own bedroom, door bouncing on its hinges, and towards ours.
Greg grips my arm. "Bloody hell!"
I hand him his jacket and his hold slips away.
"What," I snap out as the doctor starts to open our bedroom door, "are you doing?"
He turns to look at us. "Where's Gabriella?"
"How should we know?"
He squints at my partner. "Weren't you supposed to be resting?"
"And you thought"—I interrupt before Greg can respond—"that she was in there resting with us?"
Suddenly red-faced, his grits his teeth. "Is she upstairs?"
"Not in the game room, I can tell you that much," says Greg.
Cunningham resumes his march in a whirlwind of acrimony towards the guest-of-honor suite whilst the door to our room, left ajar, slowly swings open. And there, standing in the middle of our floor, eyes huge, her 'phone in hand, is his prey—unwilling to shift too soon lest the movement attract his attention.
"As for the other rooms," Greg continues with an edge to his voice, "we don't go barging into other people's private quarters for no reason."
Gabriella locks onto my gaze, shocked by the extent of Cunningham's rage—she didn't see the way he looked at her on the tennis court when he realised that, whilst she's a teen, she isn't an insecure one and would never be grateful for his attention—and she finally vanishes into our en-suite bathroom. Not an ideal hiding place since it offers her little room for further concealment and no alternate exit, but it's better than staying out in the open…like that ice-pack sprawled in a growing puddle on the table between our armchairs.
In just about anyone else's house I'm certain it would be overlooked, but the approaching voices on the stairs include that of Stavros. I wouldn't put it past him, even without the benefit of his audio recordings, to notice and question why we would deposit the ice we had just procured and then immediately go to visit the game room without it. It's an entirely possible sequence of events, but not logical and I suspect he, like I, would automatically turn his mind to alternatives; he would wonder, if supposing we weren't the ones to leave it in our room, who else would or could. And that is not something on which I want to risk him speculating, on making connections, since it was Gabriella who originally left the tennis match to fetch ice.
Greg and I proceed to our room as Cunningham's breach of Dmitri's suite reveals that Lydia has now returned. Her exclamation is one of outrage more than apprehension, startled as she is from the task of removing her evening gown from a garment bag.
I close our door most of the way on the unfolding drama, gesturing to Greg to clear up the ice, as her fury gives way to expletives. I text a series of numbers to Hopkirk:
—whilst Cunningham shields himself in the nick of time from shoes that thump…one…two…on the door now pulled to behind him.
"Are you—" Ah, the arrival of Dmitri with the others. "Did you just—How dare you!"
I apply an eye to the crack of our slightly open door. Dmitri's face, as he confronts Cunningham, is mottled and tight, whilst Stavros, for once hot and bothered, spits the doctor on an intense stare.
"Yes, what the blazes do you think you're doing?"
Tippy—her arm now the dyspeptic pink of applied calamine lotion yet still giving her some pain—continues up the stairs to her room, giving no attention to the commotion in her wake, whilst Bernard, rubbing his neck just above the hairline, his face tight—perhaps a touch of the sunstroke since he's not in staggering pain like earlier—can't stop looking back, appalled. The whole scene is made incongruous by the distant sound of Frank's laughter floating to us from the drawing room; affable, fired up, slightly hysterical. My goodness, he won the tennis match.
Stavros is clearly eager to escape the débâcle outside his suite and take a shower, his muscles increasingly rigid and strained.
In spite of the reactions of everyone around him, Cunningham's anger hasn't abated. "She's disappeared!"
"Who—?" Dmitri clicks impatiently. "Kindly get out of the way, doctor—"
The towel Greg used to dry the table as best he could is jumbled in the sink with the done-in bag of ice. When I squeeze into the bathroom with the other two and turn on the taps, the force of water that sluices the heap splashes us from time to time, but sometimes the old tricks work best. Between the thunder of excellent water pressure pelting against plastic and our close quarters, it's no effort to speak discreetly to Gabriella.
"You must leave. Now. As soon as my driver gets here. As soon as it's clear."
"No!" She doesn't forget herself enough to raise her voice unduly, but she nevertheless reminds me of someone approaching a corridor criss-crossed with invisible laser beams, unaware she's about to trip something very unpleasant.
"He's right." Greg wipes a splash from the back of his hand.
I had hoped it wouldn't come to this until I'd had a chance to examine it more closely, but my contingency plan is in place. I retrieve the wrist cuff from my pocket and hold it up.
She stares at it. "Where did you get that?"
"If you leave now, it's yours."
Greg's indignation isn't unexpected, but she came here to get this and this is the way to get her out.
"My things—" She transfers her gaze from the bauble to me.
"Mrs Tennyson will pack them and my driver will bring it all to you tomorrow."
"Wait, Mycroft, where did you even get that?"
"Is there anything you can't leave here," I speak over him, "for, say, twenty-four hours?"
She pauses, then shakes her head.
I try to hand her the cuff—but before she can take it, Greg has my wrist in a vise grip.
"You're aiding and abetting." His tone is low and controlled, but nevertheless furious. He releases my wrist and propels me backwards out of the bathroom, away from her, pushing for a modicum of privacy with a hard finger at my chest. "It's theft."
We stop and he's speechless for a very short moment.
"Wasn't it you who agreed with me earlier about the importance of properly executed warrants? Search and seizure laws apply."
But he said it himself: my goal was theft, not to build a case for the courts, so search and seizure—or any other—laws don't apply. Not to what I've done. He'll put the pieces together for himself eventually, he always does. And I'm confident in the end it will work itself out so justice is served, if not the law.
"You really don't seem to understand what it means to be a police officer." He runs a hand over his scalp. "You're making me turn my back, one by one, on every principle I stand for."
It's true. "I'm sorry."
He closes his eyes for the beat of a frustrated growl, then stares at me as if evaluating me, sizing me up, taking my measure.
Gabriella has followed us out, leaving the taps running, and watches until he beckons her over. The young highness stiffens when he grasps her by the shoulder—she chose to travel incognito so I don't intervene—and delivers advice into her ear.
"Your young man is out of the way and needs to finish his shift to keep any suspicion off him. He'll be able to leave freely with the others when it's over and then he can join you later."
This time, he doesn't thwart my intention to give the cuff over to Gabriella who sends him a thoughtful and subtly grateful look that assures him she understands, whilst remaining distant with controlled apprehension. He steps back and I catch his eye. After a hard stare, however, he looks away and thereafter avoids me.
Getting her out is more than a matter of her safety; it has international and diplomatic ramifications so, of course—without acknowledging bitter disappointment—I will pay the necessary price of…dessert. Nevertheless, I can't help feeling something complex at the realisation that, whether or not he quite trusts me—or likes me—anymore, Greg has decided to throw his loyalty behind me. That counts for something. That counts for a great deal.
With quiet satisfaction, Gabriella slips the cuff onto her wrist. It will be a beacon to anyone who sees her, but then, with Cunningham's rage at her and his alliance with Stavros, if anyone catches sight of us during our improvised manœuvre to extract her, I expect that beacon will be the least of our problems.
This is the season of hope, and I hope to update once more before the new semester starts in January. Meanwhile, I wish you much joy and lots of fun presents <3
I can't tell you how delighted I am that this story is making readers' minds churn with fitting all the pieces together!
This chapter's been ready for a couple of weeks, but I've been trying to push the next one to a finish too so I could get the boys out of the confines of the room. Doesn't look like I'm going to be able to do it timely, so go ahead and enjoy this one for now. (Hope it's not too confusing with Mycroft listening in on everyone!)
Thanks as always to the Tea and Chocolate Digestives club: Dianna, delightfully_demented, VacationPlease, n_a, and the amazingly steadfast Nikte - I can't tell you how much your awesome comments mean to me! It's been a tough new year and a tremendous help to have you around.
Greg is still standing by the bedroom door, head tilted forward. Apparently the conversation outside hasn't abated in the few moments I've taken to change for dinner. He looks around when the bathroom door closes behind me and…does a double-take. He sweeps a glance upwards from my patent leather shoes to my waistcoat, black tie, eyes—and neither of us looks away as he works his jaw.
Gabriella, ensconced on the bed with her 'phone atypically inactive on her stomach, who barely looked up when I left the bathroom, has rolled over and is now inexplicably fascinated by our interplay. Their combined scrutiny somehow intensifies the closeness of the weather and I regret having had to forego a full shower, having had to make do with a quick wash and shave to freshen up in deference to the unpredictable window of time we have at our disposal.
When Greg turns back to the bedroom door, his demeanour speaks of tension: head bent, forehead hard against the painted panelling, hands level with his shoulders, knuckles white. Not listening to what's going on outside. His tee-shirt hangs, untucked after Stavros's stunt on the tennis court, over one hip and I itch to tuck it neatly away again, but there's little point since Greg needs to hurry into evening wear, too. The repast is approaching and we must be poised to take whatever opportunity presents itself, whenever it does so, to hasten Gabriella away without having to worry about being excessively late for pre-dinner drinks. By far the best solution is to be dressed in advance.
When I go over and touch his arm to get his attention, the suddenness with which he turns towards me makes me jerk my head back. The fusion of deep anger and burning lust in his eyes at such close quarters has an immediate effect on me. On us both.
I'm certain he's about to push me back against the door, slamming it shut, indifferent to betraying our presence to Stavros or our passion to Gabriella as he forces a kiss on me, refusing any argument…should I offer one. For one very fleeting moment, I imagine it is not she, but Greg and I who escape. To be alone. To exorcise this dreadful thing between us.
Impossible, of course. Tippy's voice as she comes back, stopping halfway down the stairs, penetrates my consciousness. She has doubtless discovered the cuff is gone. A reminder that the momentum I'm stirring up in this household is taking us too close to finding answers to abandon the weekend now.
"The bathroom's free." I nod at the garment bag, which contains his dinner jacket with all accoutrements, that I'd hung from the knob of the wardrobe when I'd gathered my own things…when I'd found evidence that our belongings had been searched.
Of course, there's nothing to find. It was planned that way. The only thing that might be considered suspicious about our unguarded possessions would be the complete dearth of personal ephemera, but one can't fault the princess for being sufficiently cautious to look. Like stalked prey, she has picked up the scent of danger, but she hasn't yet realised how close she is to being caught in my net. A spooked animal is prone to bolt, however, so I've held my peace. Fortunately for her, this hunter's intentions are benign; I intend to let her go.
I intend to let them both go.
"If necessary," I tell Greg more quietly, "we'll go on ahead and I'll meet you downstairs."
For a minute, I'm afraid he's going to insist I wait for him—or worse, refuse to change—but Hopkirk should be arriving any time. If the opportunity to bundle Gabriella out should arise, I must take it whether Greg is ready or not.
His instinct this morning to blend our two outfits into a more harmonious whole, however, was not misplaced and he realises we would stand out less in similar dress clothes than in mismatched day wear and evening wear. He gives one sharp nod and goes.
"…so you're not going to find her." Ah, Tippy presenting her theory on Gabriella's disappearance.
And it seems, whilst I was getting ready, Jemima has joined the conversation in the hallway. "Wait a minute. What??"
Aware of Gabriella's eyes on my back, I look out through the crack in the doorway in time to see Jemima's confused stare flicker to the master suite—at some time in the past the home of the cuff—and then back up at Tippy who, surveying them from the stairs, concludes her assessment.
"She took what she wanted and has gone. You won't find her here."
"But how—?" Jemima is confounded. "What were you doing with it?"
"That girl took the cuff?" Stavros's brow wrinkles. "Of all the valuable things in this house, she went up to your room, rummaged around and took the cuff?"
Jemima's regard snaps to him and she nods sharply towards Tippy. "But what was she doing with it in the first place?"
He focusses on his wife. "What haven't you told me about it? What has your family kept back from me?"
"What? What could we possibly have withheld?" Her hands float then drop to her sides. "Don't you think it would have been sold off long ago if it was worth anything?"
"Then why would Gabriella want it?" His eyes narrow. "Why would anyone want it?"
"Dammit, Stavros, I would want it. It's mine and I can't believe you gave it away!"
Grip loosening on the neck of his tennis racquet, Stavros contemplates Jemima with real curiosity. "Why are you upset?"
She blinks at him. "How can you ask that?"
"I didn't think you'd mind."
A soft touch on my arm alerts me to Gabriella's presence at my side.
Oh, for goodness' sake.
"I must know," she says, mindful of our proximity to the door and the others not far beyond. "Why are you helping me?"
"But—" I'm not sure whether Jemima is shocked, outraged or confused, and I regard the distraction of Gabriella with a jaundiced eye.
"And you didn't care for it properly." Tippy's tone is entirely neutral, yet her words could be interpreted as gloating.
Sherlock would doubtless snap at Gabriella that now isn't convenient for a chat. Nevertheless, irritating though this interruption is, one spurns the witch disguised as a trifling old beggar woman at one's peril and a princess disguised as a pauper is rather too close to the metaphor to be casually dismissed.
"Would you rather go back to your room and take your chances with the doctor?" I ask her. Diplomacy is as often about forcing an issue as it is about smoothing things over.
"You do not know me. No one here knows me. So—" Her hand curls around the cuff on her opposite wrist. "Are you a thief?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Do you always answer a question with another?"
She grits her teeth. "Who are you?"
"Does it matter?"
"Would I ask if it did not matter?"
"If it matters, why did you stay?"
I sigh. "You haven't been held in this room against your will. All the time we were upstairs you were free to leave. Why did you stay?"
"You did not have the cuff earlier and then you gave it to me. Either you are trying to trap me or you are a thief."
"Ah, well, you and I both understand," I tilt my head down at her and raise my eyebrows, "that not all thieves are villains."
A blush comes through her sunburn at her own rôle in this.
"Neither of us thinks you're safe here, Gabriella, but you stubbornly wouldn't leave without that." I nod at the cuff, my tone gentler now. "If that's the price for your escape, so be it."
A thoughtful glance flickers to the bathroom door and she signals her agreement with a short, reluctant nod.
Taking full advantage of her chosen guise as a commoner to turn my back on her without fearing diplomatic repercussion, I resume my surveillance through the crack in the door.
"You've got much more costly jewels of your own now, haven't you, my love?" Stavros.
"But the cuff's mine," says Jemima. "It's all I had—"
"And now you've got sapphires from Cartier which, I might add, you've chosen to leave lying around in the bedroom."
She stares at him, frowning. He doesn't seem particularly bothered by her laxity with the jewels, but she's torn between not wanting to appear unappreciative of his gift—one of many for the new and stylish Mrs Pitera—yet feeling greedy and possessive as only an impoverished young aristocrat who never had the finances to keep up with her social peers can be.
"Or would you prefer," he says, "that I give her the sparkly stones from Cartier whilst you cherish your cuff?"
"Why, though?" Jemima shakes her head. "Why does she have to have either?"
"Because she's like a magpie—you know that. Tin foil and sweetie wrappers are as precious to her as diamonds."
"Stavros, she's standing right there!"
"To her, all that glitters is gold."
"Don't speak about her that way."
Jemima means it. She's not out to deflect attention from her acquisitiveness, but rather to defend another—who has shown her neither real kindness nor animosity—without expectation of plaudits, only because she's the well brought up child of thoughtless and rather foolish but fundamentally kind parents.
"She doesn't care. Why do you?" Stavros's eyes show genuine perplexity. "Why waste precious gems on her when any worthless thing that sparkles makes her happy?"
"That cuff has been in my mother's family for generations." Jemima all but stamps her foot. "It's not worthless."
"Yes, apparently it does have some hidden value."
"It has sentimental value!"
It's not altogether irrational that I once gave him the benefit of the doubt, that I actually quite liked him.
Jemima flounces off to the master suite and Stavros, still perplexed and rather concerned, takes a step after her.
"For God's sake!" Cunningham's tenor is harsh and he starts towards the stairs down. "While you lot bicker, I'm going after Gabriella."
"You are not." Stavros cuts him off, drops his tennis racquet as he grabs the doctor by the shirt and yanks him up near his face. "Your girl planned this."
Cunningham gasps, his eyes wide. At that close range, he couldn't physically break eye contact even if he had the strength of will. Which he doesn't.
"Who the bloody hell is she, Peter?"
"Y-you were there when I met her!" He sucks in short sharp breaths and I press my ear closer to the crack in the door to hear him better. "You were ch-chatting up her sister! At the—"
The bathroom door opens and, when I glance over, the conversation outside is forgotten.
I've never seen the appeal of those full page glossy magazine spreads of a designer duvet artfully rumpled on an unmade bed. Oblique allusions to nights of pleasure have never moved me, never viscerally hit me until this very moment when a freshly shaved, but otherwise tousled Greg—jacket hanging from one hand, waistcoat open, sleeves rolled up twice, top button undone, salt and pepper hair in disarray because his black tie, slightly creased in frustration, still hangs undone from his collar—implores my help with his eyes.
My mouth goes dry and I swallow.
In my pause, Gabriella gives an eye-roll so exaggerated her entire head moves as she steps in front of him and, without permission, ties his tie into a neat black bow. Only a child would blunder that way, presuming to act like an intimate, in a manner akin to sitting with neither consent nor premonition of backlash in another's favourite chair. But I refuse to behave as if my territory has been usurped. Possibly because, instead of looking down at the chic if slightly roasted princess, he stares straight over her head at me.
He still has a wall up, but we don't break eye contact even when she takes one arm and then the other to roll down his sleeves and straighten his French cuffs. It's only when she nudges him for his cufflinks—she touches his chin!—that he's distracted away from me to reach into his trouser pocket and deliver the goods. I continue to watch until she completes the task and then takes hold of his waistcoat.
I turn back to the door, suddenly aware that I'm gritting my teeth.
Tippy and Cunningham have disappeared—Tippy's probably gone back upstairs, but where's Cunningham?
Lydia has meanwhile come out of her room only to cross paths with Stavros and they are watching each other like haughty cats. He has at some point picked up his tennis racquet which he swishes against his leg like a flicking tail. She is still in her day clothes, holding Dmitri's shirt which is in need of minor repair, but Stavros stands between her and assistance from Jemima in the master suite.
How long has this new configuration of people been out there? How long have I been distracted?
"Dmitri and I will leave if my presence here upsets you," she says.
Greg materialises, his cufflinks in place and his tie becomingly knotted, but otherwise his outfit still incomplete. He stands in front of me, head cocked uncomfortably close to my cheek in an effort to listen at the crack through which I'm spying.
"Oh, no." Stavros's smile is menacing. "You've mucked about with my wife's dinner plans enough already. You're damned well staying."
"I doubt Jemima wants me here."
"Why?" Stavros moves his grip to the neck of his tennis racquet again. "What did you say to her?"
The fragrance of spicy cologne and crisp cotton overlaying soap invades my senses and I breathe more deeply. But his open waistcoat addles me.
"Keep you buttons closed," I whisper.
Jacket still in hand, its sleeves drag on the floor for a moment and I regret my failure to convey my true thought, a gladness that he declined Gabriella's assistance with his waistcoat.
Lydia shifts. "I told her to beware."
"You bloody little—!"
Lydia flinches, but refuses to step back. It's touch and go for a moment, but in the end Stavros stops himself from doing anything rash.
"I treasure what's mine." He speaks through clenched teeth. "She inspires my love and protection and has no need to fear me. Not something you can grasp, perhaps, but then she's got more breeding and goodness in her little finger than you have in your whole—" He gestures up and down.
He has firmly positioned himself to guard the door of the master suite, but instead of maintaining social distance, Lydia lowers Dmitri's shirt and leans in, her voice tight and focussed.
"I know what you did. Connie won my heart, but I know—"
"Ohh." Greg eyes alight with realisation and shock as he makes the connection that Lydia is in fact Constantine's former missing fiancée, Athína.
"He won your heart?" Stavros's face is tight with incredulity. "You were nothing but a jumped up book-keeper with an eye for the boss's son."
"I was a good accountant valued by your father and, if I was as calculating as you say, then surely the elder son would have been my goal."
"I was not nor am I as gullible as my witless younger brother and you knew that."
"Yet you put yourself in my way often enough."
He growls. "To trap you. To prove you were nothing but a gold-digger."
"Then you were proved wrong. You must have hated that I had no interest in you." She shakes her head. "So instead you tried to steal me away."
He churns out a hard laugh. "That's preposterous. You think I wanted a washed up old dishrag like you? You're years older than either of us."
"Only two years older than you—"
"—five years older than Connie."
"You wanted me, Stavros." Her smile is bitter. "Perhaps not for myself, but you wanted to take what made Connie happy. Just like you try to take everything from him."
"You're wrong. He has taken everything from me, not the other way around."
"You tried to take over the family business."
"I'm the older son. It was my right."
"No, you wanted the prestige of it, but he was the better leader."
"It was mine."
"And now that you know they are friends, you are wining and dining Dmitri."
Stavros smirks. "People simply like me better."
"Connie is the one, I think, who makes better connections, curious about all types instead of only those he thinks will make him shine brighter."
Stavros pushes forward, putting them almost nose to nose and lifts his chin in victory when her slighter figure falls back a step.
"Dmitri is the one, I think, who needs to be warned about you, Lydia. Although, I must say," he douses her in an insolent stare, "I'm discovering I'm rather disappointed in him."
She backs away from him a few more steps and deliberates for a moment before speaking again.
"He knows everything he needs to know." She lowers her eyes. "Everything that's important."
Is she baiting him? Whether or not it's true, she could plausibly claim Dmitri knows everything about her, but instead she's implying there are things her fiancé doesn't know. Things she'd rather he didn't know. Things Stavros might be able to hold over her. She's pushing our host into making an admission about their past on the theory that, if he's busy chasing her secrets, he might be less cautious about his own. I have to admire her methods.
"Is that so? You'd better be very careful what you say without proof. He may have indulged your wild accusations, but if you defame me you'll regret it."
"You tried to steal me," she can barely open her mouth she's so tense, "and got Yanna by mistake."
"Oh, you mean that beauty queen. With the hue and cry of her disappearance, people assumed about what happened to you. But you and I both know—" he edges closer to her again "—that you weren't taken."
There it is. The admission for which I've been waiting . . . or at least enough of one.
My glance at Greg triggers him to review what he just heard. His eyes squint and glaze over until they come back to me and he mouths, "How."
Exactly. He sees it, too.
How does Stavros know she wasn't abducted unless he was the one who tried and failed? If he had nothing to do with the incident, he couldn't be so sure of his facts.
"You haven't learnt a thing in all these years, have you?" Believing he has the upper hand, he's on a roll and I re-apply my attention to the crack in the door. "You needed to be taught a lesson then and you need to be taught one now."
"Do not threaten me. I am not alone anymore. There are others who care for me."
"Like who? Dmitri? Connie? Do you really think they'll look out for you? That they even want to? They've talked you into revealing yourself because they know your claims about me are false slanders. Anyway, now you've brought them together again after all these years, you've outlived your usefulness. Doubtless the thought has crossed the boyfriends' minds that, if they're wrong, they have found a way to be well shot of you."
"No! No, you are mistaken, Connie is not like that."
His mouth slants into an insidious grin. "But Dmitri is?"
"You were always childish." Her hard-edged amusement comes out as a huff. "But there are others."
"The detective inspector."
"What are you going to tell him? That you misled the authorities into believing you'd been kidnapped when in fact you'd chosen to disappear? That you allowed a criminal outlay of police resources to be wasted on searching for you?" His fury has given way to malicious joy. "It's true, isn't it? You ran away. I've always known it, I just couldn't prove it. But now that you've re-emerged, even Lestrade will be able to work it out."
"You underestimate him."
"Do you think so?" He contemplates her words. "In actual fact, I'm certain he has depths I could learn to appreciate."
Greg clasps the back of my hand, and I glance over to find my fingers—somehow—digging into his forearm.
"Oh, I see. Someone else you do not want," she says in sudden understanding, "but want to take away."
Greg studies me, his dark eyes suddenly devoid of all the rancour and confusion that have hovered there to a greater or lesser extent since I produced the cuff. But why is he trying to soothe me when he is the one under attack?
We stare at each other for a second, a few moments, possibly a lifetime before I think to loosen my grip.
"You've always been comfortable around servants' quarters." The doors to the master suite open. "You can ask Mrs Tennyson for a safety pin."
Whilst Stavros shuts himself away, I take a deep breath and then look into the hall to find it empty. I venture out. A glance shows that Cunningham's door, which earlier had been open, is now closed; safe to assume it's because he's gone inside. From the top of the stairs, I catch sight of Lydia about to turn at the half-landing on her way down to find the housekeeper. We exchange a nod before she disappears. Greg—now chastely buttoned and jacketted—herds Gabriella out, towards me and the stairs.
With eyes and ears open, the three of us silently creep down.
Secrets in the wind...
I swear I thought I'd have them sitting down to dinner by the end of this chapter, but the word count was getting so high, I had to stop.
As I went back and said at the beginning, this story predates Brexit, set in a simpler time when the most people worried about was Greece leaving the EU. (Yes, there was such a time.) I started that way so I'll go on with it.
But I'm SURE Mycroft would have something to say about the world today ;-)
Thanks as always to the Tea and Chocolate Digestives Aid and Comfort Group for Authors Who Annoyingly Snail It In: lkj, Lizlemler, mystrademystery, mousie, and HaoLin.
n_a: if you're still with me, maybe we should talk about Greg - he's the one you're worried about and I've been rattling on about Mycroft (sorry about that) :-)
VacationPlease: I can't begin to express what a kick I get out of all your work :-D
Nikte: every author should be lucky enough to have a muse like you ;-)
The car purrs slowly up the driveway, hardly disturbing the gravel, and pulls to a smooth stop by the front door as we three step off the porch. Dusk is going to come in early with the approach of thick cloud cover and the wind is starting to pick up, blowing the occasional oven-hot breeze into our faces. But for now, we're protected from the sun by elongated summer evening shadows. They do nothing to cut the torrid air temperature.
Whilst Greg opens the door and hurries Gabriella into the back seat, Hopkirk puts the car in park and steps out. He hands the DI a small ball of fabric.
"You forgot your dress socks, sir."
Not true, but this is as good an excuse as any if someone should happen to catch sight of the car. Greg takes them, frowning.
"You can put them on in the back," I tell him. "I'll wait."
He rolls his eyes, but unbuttons his jacket and joins Gabriella whilst I speak to my driver.
"34-77-82." royalty-undercover-discretion advised
Gabriella is in all likelihood preoccupied with Greg, but Hopkirk realises my precautionary speaking in tongues means I'm keeping from our passenger my awareness of her identity. It's a clumsy code not intended for verbal communication, more akin to grunts than sentences, but it's enough to ensure our people treat her well without divulging anything until I'm ready.
"Someone else needs rounding up," I add, "at the requested destination." The address at which Gabriella will tell Hopkirk she wants to be dropped off.
He nods. "34?"
"I'm afraid so. 106." sister
The crown princess is doubtless also travelling incognito, which is advantageous since it will give us continued plausible deniability—we can't be expected to implement royal protocols when we've been kept unaware of our guests' true identities. My team will brief itself on her appearance before despatch so she can be pinpointed, whilst Gabriella will be taken straight to our facility. The sisters can be reunited there.
Hopkirk's glance strays to the car where Greg is emerging from the back seat again. "Might I interest you both in a lift back to town, too, sir?"
Greg is closing the door with a firm but discreet thump.
I may—perhaps—have tried to impress Greg with a couple of outfits and gadgets alluding to a Bond-esque world, but in reality, even with Stavros's extensive eavesdropping, this was supposed to be a low-key weekend of looking around. My driver finds my call for assistance in the middle of it worrying, apparently afraid that my accomplice, who is not a trained operative, might find himself out of his depth. I don't know whether to be irritated or relieved by Hopkirk's well-known passion for his wife and children because from where, then, does this concern for a man he hardly knows originate?
And should I be concerned about Greg? My earlier unease prickles and, I have to admit, with my primary scapegoat for the study's unlocked door about to be sent on her way, it might be wiser—certainly easier—not to remain. But after Lydia's efforts to provoke Stavros, there's every reason to stay and examine his study when everyone's gone to bed.
Greg has joined us, jacket re-buttoned, though his attention is on the open windows, alert for peering faces. His air of strength and courage and wile reinforce my resolve to see this through.
"Come back for us later," I tell Hopkirk. The oncoming clouds threaten rather more than rain, but it should be over in a matter of hours. "About 3AM."
He nods and I watch him pull away to avoid Greg's searching eyes on me. Things until now haven't been looking all that hopeful for our spending the night satisfactorily together, but with my instructions to Hopkirk, the chances have winked out of existence altogether.
Many operations, even the simplest, go in waves of wait and haste and, now that Gabriella's safely away, we have time to kill again before apéritifs. Going back into the house at this moment increases the chances of running into someone else and having to make awkward conversation whilst the adrenaline is still settling in our veins. Better to engage in a leisurely stroll, give the impression we're taking in some evening air whilst there's still some daylight left. I guide him in the direction of the tennis court.
"You didn't have to give her the bracelet." His tone is punchy. "I could have arrested him like Stavros wanted earlier."
He doesn't have to specify of whom he speaks.
"Under what charges?"
Greg grits his teeth. He knows Cunningham hasn't done anything criminal—or, at least, nothing for which he has any proof to justify taking the doctor in—but needless to say Greg would be willing to do it to save an innocent from imminent danger. Even if it means laying himself open to charges of wrongful arrest. Ironically, Gabriella herself would have neither backed him up nor thanked him for protecting her if it meant sacrificing possession of the cuff.
He glances at me. "I suppose you got it from Tippy's room."
"What makes you say that?"
"You didn't have it when we changed for cocktails so the only opportunity you had to acquire it was while I was checking out the computers. You didn't leave the third storey and you didn't unearth it in the game room. All the other rooms are guest rooms except for one—Tippy's."
My silence both confirms his deduction and angers him.
"You're tainting my investigation here. You went into her room for no reason, with no probable cause, nothing, and took something that didn't belong to you."
"It didn't belong to Tippy, either."
He brushes aside my comment.
"And then you compounded your larceny by passing it onto Gabriella." He pulls my arm and we stop. "I could have arrested her for receiving stolen goods."
"But that would have meant revealing her presence to the others and you weren't going to do that."
"Really, because the threat of physical danger to her, in your judgement, eclipsed the unlawful removal of mere property."
With a final squeeze of frustration, he lets go of me and we resume walking.
"Fortunately," I add, "your instincts are excellent. You were right to throw in with my plan."
Realisation dawns. "You're not going to let her go, are you?"
"Why wouldn't I? I've always let you go."
"That implies you are going to keep her for awhile." He gives me a look. "Well, at least you can get the bracelet back for Jemima."
I stay silent.
Debonair in black tie, he is turned by a ruffling of his hair in a sudden hellish gust of wind into a tempestuous prince of outrage. "Why not?"
I tear my eyes away from the vision. "Because I believe it belongs to another."
His tone is explosive not because he doesn't believe me, but because he wants to understand. He urgently wants to know. It's one of the qualities that drives his persistence and makes him so good at his job, but at this moment it's infinitely irritating.
"The Duke of Edinburgh," I say at last.
He frowns. "You mean Prince Philip? That Duke of Edinburgh?"
No, the other one. I nod.
He glances at me, waiting for more. "Not really his colour, though, is it?"
I roll my eyes.
"OK, I admit it," he waves an arm, "I don't understand."
"God, you bastard." He makes me stop and face him again. "Explain it to me."
My eyes close for a second in an attempt to summon patience. Unlike my brother, I find no satisfaction in the approbation of others, no glee in eliciting their praise. Explanations are tedious and pointless. My conclusions are the result of a merge of amassed data and to untangle it all for another to understand changes nothing, achieves nothing other than to disrupt my flow and eat away my time.
And anyway, where would I even begin?
"Some years ago, I went to a party."
"You should try that more often."
"Do you want to hear this or not?"
"Sorry. Go on."
I turn back towards the tennis court and Greg keeps abreast as we walk. "It was a daytime event at the Dorchester, a charity luncheon, less formal than an evening do. Lady Haddenbrough was in attendance with her son. I didn't cross paths with them"—my intention was to corner another guest who had been annoyingly elusive—"but I learnt that there had been a disturbance. A foreign gentleman had denounced her birth family as thieves and tried to relieve her of the cuff which, at the time, was on her wrist. Her son forcibly ejected him from the hotel and, as far as I know, nothing more came of it."
Greg looks carefully at me. "But?"
I let out a huff. "In a random conversation, the rumour came to me that it was originally commissioned by Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark." I clasp my hands behind my back and observe the alternation of my shoes as we walk. "But if that were the case, I suspect the transaction couldn't have been completed and the finished product never reached her."
"What do you mean you suspect? Don't you know? Where did you hear all this?"
"No, I don't know otherwise I would have acted on it. And I overheard it from"—I bridle—"from the Gentlemen's lavatory attendant."
"The lavatory attendant?"
I glance at him. "Not what you would consider a credible witness."
"Not my first choice, no."
"Naturally, given the scarcity of reliable information, I dismissed the rumour."
"But something's happened this weekend to change your mind."
"Stavros is right about one thing." We arrive at the tennis court and stop. An increasingly steady wind blows hot gusts into our faces that are nevertheless a relief from the previous largely infernal stillness. Dark cumulus clouds are accumulating. "Why would someone pass by all the valuable things in his house in favour of a dazzling but small and relatively inexpensive piece of costume jewellery?"
Why would a Meistani princess put her reputation and safety on the line to retrieve it when her family already possesses a myriad elaborate pieces of that type which are surpassingly unique and of the highest beauty and quality? Is there some merit to the rumour?
"She may have wanted it because—" Greg's brow wrinkles and he rubs a thumb across it. "Actually, there is no rational reason for someone with no personal motive to target it."
And the royal connection with HRH is all I've got to go on for a personal motive.
"Since you think Prince Philip may be the rightful owner, I'm guessing the lady involved is somehow related."
"Princess Alice—her birth name, not her married title—was his mother. But you're right to bring into question whether it was, in fact, she who commissioned it." I see a small shadow on the ground under the trees, likely my purpose for directing us here, and go over to investigate. "I have no proof, only that one dubious rumour and the fact that she did visit the part of the world where this style of jewellery and ornamentation originates during her India tour, in the Himalayas"—where she fell ill and was nursed back to health by a contingent of Hindu nuns attached to the Meistani winter palace.
Greg's eyes widen when he recognises the crushed scrap of plastic that I pick up and hand back to him.
"Bloody hell!" He stares at what remains of his sunglasses. "This damage isn't an accident. Someone deliberately—"
Affronted comments fight with each other to escape his mouth, but they only succeed in holding each other down, keeping him mute. In the end he just sighs.
"Never mind. Let's go back." He shakes his head and, slipping the remnant of his sunglasses into his trouser pocket, turns away. "Jesus, your friends."
"Don't delude yourself into thinking I have friends."
"Shut it." He turns and waves a finger practically in my face. "Not a word. Not another word."
He strides off.
"Frank won the tennis match."
Fine, if he doesn't want me to speak, that's easily achieved.
There's no change in my expression, no hitch in my stride as I walk beside him, but indignation flares up on his face.
"Dammit, you knew!"
I gave him no clue, I'm sure of it.
"How do you do that? How could you know?" He stops and I follow suit. "You were in the bathroom getting changed when Frank and Caroline came upstairs. You couldn't have overheard him gloating and Stavros sniping."
No, but the tenor of Frank's laugh downstairs earlier apprised me of his win.
"We've been together every minute since they all came in after the match." He frowns. "Except when I got changed. Is that when you found out? Out with it, Mycroft, is that it?"
Not until I have something to say.
"And tell me the truth because I'll know if you're lying."
Really? That's worth testing. "I didn't know anything about it until you said something just now."
He stares at me for a moment, taking in my whole body. "You're lying."
The possibility that he guessed based on a 50/50 chance of getting it right is strongly diminished by the way he all but slumps away and resumes walking. He really knows.
But Mummy's the only one who can tell when I'm lying. And then only sometimes.
Can he do this with Sherlock too? Is this the secret to my brother's fascination with him? Why he'll always make the grudging effort to clean up for Greg? Why he is constantly drawn back to the DI, unable to sever ties completely in spite of a more openly appreciative audience at home and a growing consulting practice of his own to distract him from Scotland Yard?
I hurry to catch Greg up—and to consider the significance. He's stopped behaving. He's no longer tiptoeing around me or around our situation. He's no longer staying on the sidelines, watchful for cues.
"Why are you here, Mycroft?"
"It's been bugging me for awhile."
"The Kenneth Martin murder—"
"No, I know why I'm here, but you—"
Ah, he's caught up.
"You just said these aren't your friends, but actually that's been obvious since the moment we arrived. In fact, all the evidence for as long as I've known you says you're uncomfortable reaching out on a personal level to other people. So much so that I'm left wondering now why on earth I assumed you'd just been invited for a social weekend and were at a loose end for a date when I conveniently turned up."
That was a foolish assumption. But then— "You've since worked out that I originally planned to bring Anthea."
"Instead, though, you arranged for me to have access not only to the Piteras, but also to their house and possessions for forty-eight hours. I know you're curious about Stavros, but why? For some reason, I thought you were doing it to help, but you don't do things out of the goodness of your heart."
"Quite. I don't have a heart."
"Hey, no," with a sudden furious turn, he's standing in front of me, pushing chest to chest, stopping me in my tracks, "don't give me that. You and I both know that's not true."
"That's not heart, that's duty."
He's startled enough to subject me to that aspect of his dark, penetrating gaze I might someday learn to dread. "You're lying again."
And I give way a few steps.
A tactical retreat is not the same thing as surrender.
"That's not what I meant, anyway." Whilst he's no longer pushing, his words drive his energy at me. "I meant you never do things for one reason. You've opened doors for me, but only as a by-product of your own goals. I know that. I'm fine with it. But I want to know—why are you here?"
I could say it's classified, but it's not and apparently he'll know it. Is his accuracy rate 100%? Can he tell when the truth is bent or only when there's an outright fabrication? He doesn't have a reputation as a human lie-detector, so he can't unmask just anyone; what determines who he can? I will find out, but now isn't the time to indulge my inquisitiveness.
It's still another hour until sunset, but the sun has dropped behind the trees and the wind is now gusting rather persistently. With a gesture, I sketch a pathway back to the house and we head towards the copse.
He slants a look at me. "Well?"
"Sherlock and I have a cousin. Her name's Lazarine."
"What's she, then, a rocket scientist?"
From the sharp look he turns on me, a thousand questions spill from his eyes.
"I happen to know you're a very funny man." His tone is quiet. "What's the punchline?"
I hate explanations. "Boom-boom."
We enter the copse, stopping for a moment whilst our eyes adjust to the deeply shadowed terrain, and he takes a slow, steadying breath.
"Lazarine… That wouldn't be a feminine version of Lazarus, would it?" His eyes are hardly more than a gleam in the momentary twilight. "I never pegged you lot for being religious."
I sniff. "We're not. My aunt is the anomaly."
"What happened to her?"
"One bad experience and she just—"
"I meant your cousin."
"Ah." Since his original question was why I'm here, do I have to go into all that? "My aunt asked me to keep an eye on Stavros—"
"Lazarus was raised from the dead."
Had Greg tried something foolish like a comforting gesture, I would have left him behind, but he grasps my arm to focus us both on his line of inquiry. I don't shake him off as we start walking again, but I don't succumb.
"— which I fully intended to do from a distance. When Stavros contacted me, however—"
"Was she in an accident? A car accident or something?"
"—about something entirely unrelated, it made sense to take the opportunity to get closer. Yes, you happened to turn up in Stavros's house at that precise moment—"
"No. Oh God, no. This happened early. This had to have happened at birth."
"—which gave me an excellent excuse for cover from which to watch him this weekend. The advantage for you to get closer as well was obvious, so—" Hold on, what? We stop and I pull away. "What do you mean it had to have happened at birth?"
Greg takes a moment to scrutinise me and my impatience for an answer grows.
"Your aunt had a bad experience, found religion, and christened her baby after a biblical character who was raised from the dead. You don't tempt fate by naming a baby something like that before disaster happens. Lazarine effectively died at birth or shortly after and came back to life—with or without medical help—before the christening ever took place. She lived, but that's why she's…in her condition." And then he adds the death knell. "Correct me if I'm wrong."
He's guessing. He has to be. There are so many possibilities and permutations of what might have happened—my aunt might have chosen that name because of a morbid personality, she might have liked the sound of it and dismissed the possibility of a supernatural force that could be provoked into causing calamity, she might have changed Lazarine's name last week or in fact at any time by deed poll.
If it were anyone else, I wouldn't hesitate to use these points and more to sow doubt in his mind about his own analysis, but Greg's capacity to judge the legitimacy my words holds me back. If he guessed about Lazarine and my aunt, he guessed right on every point. And if he suspected my response to his guesses were nothing more than misdirection, the exercise of trying to delude him would be a fruitless waste of energy at best and taken as a betrayal of trust at worst. That is unacceptable. I save my breath and walk away from his blossoming expression of self-satisfaction.
He catches up with me as we emerge from the copse. "So what does Stavros have to do with Lazarine?"
I walk faster.
When he grabs my arm again, I try to break away, but his grip turns to iron, insisting on a halt.
"That's need-to-know." I face him. "And you don't."
Startled by my abruptness, he stares into my eyes and I take the opportunity in his silence to slither away, this time unhindered.
"But you wanted me to know," he says behind me.
I spin to face him again, frowning. "What?"
"You were the first to bring all this up."
No, that's not right. "You were the first to bring this up. You asked me what I was doing here."
"And I expected you to say something about Stavros. Instead you told me about Lazarine."
I blink. It's true.
He's hit it square on, but he's doing something more. You know you want to tell me. Interrogators apply that technique all the time with a subject they suspect has been withholding information. It's the right thing to do. Swaying the interviewee through moral appeals, appeals to conscience. You'll feel much better once you share what you know.
I won't be tricked into spilling an account—
"I never understood the schism in my family."
—but…fully cognizant of the circumstances, I choose—deliberately—to tell him. I'm relieved that he keeps still, though, that he doesn't approach, but merely waits for more.
"Until I was about eight, my aunt and uncle were cordial with my parents. And then—"
He's watching me carefully, encouraging in my silence.
I flick a glance sideways and take a breath. "My father and uncle, from their university days, belonged to a certain society…"
When I taper off, he picks up.
"Oh. One of those secret societies?" The distance between us isn't enough to need raised voices and his is calm. "I've heard of them. Reserved for the powerful and influential, aren't they, who swear they'd die for one another?"
I rub my brow. "Not quite."
"I always thought they were a myth, but—That's pretty close, isn't it?"
Not for the first time I've wished for a way to upload information to another so I wouldn't have to go through the painful process of explaining. The relevant pieces come from apparently disconnected sources until, like a Chinese puzzle, everything falls into place. Up to that point, though, deciding what to say in which order is excruciating.
"My aunt was alone when the contractions started."
I huff at my inability to produce a cogent and connected through-line to the tale. Perhaps this attempt at disclosure is a mistake. I look behind me at the house, lights blazing from every window, with people starting to accumulate in the drawing room for apéritifs. I'm taken by a sudden yen for the sanctuary of a crowd. When I turn back, it's obvious Greg has been restraining himself from taking steps towards me, not wanting to startle me with an unexpected approach. Treating me like a spooked horse. Unnecessary.
But, as he comes forwards, I cross my hands at my waist.
Though he notes it, he doesn't stop until he stands in front of me at full height, his expression serious, with no hint of puzzlement or irritation at my lack of clarity.
I doubt I would be so charitable. "She summoned me two months ago."
"Where was your uncle? When your cousin was born?"
"I now know"—another disjointed fact—"she suspected an illegitimate child was involved in his absence."
He either engages in the guessing game par excellence or his intuitive understanding runs deep.
"Yes." When my uncle died a few years ago, my aunt had unrestricted access to all his papers. Father, dead before Greg ever ran headlong into the Holmes family, doubtless would have stopped her going through them if he could, but— "With a bit of digging, she has come to believe so."
"Oh God, wait, are you saying—? Is he your cousin?" He pauses. "Half-cousin?"
The truth is not something I want to contemplate. I turn and resume my walk towards the house.
"Mycroft." Footsteps follow. "Wait, Mycroft!"
He captures me from behind and holds me more firmly than necessary against him. I stiffen, but don't try to move away.
"I want you to tell me the rest." His mouth is against my ear as the irregular but escalating wind makes it harder to be heard. "But I want you to turn around first."
In surprise, I do as he says. To assess him. Because—because if anyone with unsavoury intent were watching from the house with simple binoculars whilst I was facing it, even in this dusk he or she could read my lips. Whether or not detective inspectors are routinely trained in such matters, it is apparent to me that mine is taking steps to protect my privacy.
I can't help but reward him. "According to my aunt, my father was with him."
Darkening clouds that have been tumbling across the sky start to gather above us. He grabs my elbow and we head for the tent, the only structure in our immediate vicinity to offer both shelter and privacy, now lit by two large Greek-style solar lanterns activated by the encroaching dusk. Greg intends to finish the conversation.
The walls of the tent ruffle as much as our hair and, on our way in, we release the door panels. The heavy canvas of each side unfurls with a swish, which he fastens shut with multiple sets of ties. The tables and chairs from luncheon are still in place, including the buffet table now stacked with a no-longer-cold selection of wine, beer and soft drinks. I help myself to two bottles of water and join Greg at a table in front of one of the lanterns.
Abandoning the ruined sunglasses on the table, he slides off his jacket and hangs it on the back of a chair. The tent provides a welcome reprieve from the wind, but in the enclosed interior, the humidity has sharpened. Divesting myself of the bottles, I do likewise.
"Looks like you were right about the rain." He's laughing and reaches up to smooth his hair.
I step closer and stop him. "The rain hasn't started yet."
I prefer his tousled appearance. With a momentary expression of surprise, he reaches over and straightens mine instead—an insufficient crop, but enough to make me a rumpled mess, so I let him. The comb in my inner jacket pocket is, after all, for the moment, out of reach.
"So." He touches my bow tie delicately with both hands before he lets them slide down my shirtsleeves and fall away. His expression is resigned to the business of finishing our conversation quickly so we can go in before the rain does start. "Your father was with your uncle."
"Yes." I clear my throat and take a seat at an undistracting distance. "My aunt believed my uncle's illegitimate child was about to be born and that my father would help ensure its disposition without any formal record."
His eyebrows shoot up. "You said Stavros's birth and adoption records were sealed!"
"I gather she taxed my uncle with it after she'd recovered tolerably from the birth, but he refused to divulge any information about his absence. That's when they separated—not very amicably, though they never divorced. And when my father was equally unforthcoming, she cut off all contact with my side of the family too."
Greg twists open a bottle and hands it to me, perching on the edge of the table in front of me to open his own. "So…I don't understand. Why did she get back in touch with you then?"
It's such a long story. Should I tell him all of it? I drink to give myself a moment to decide.
"She doesn't socialise, but she's not without some influence herself, counting Lady Smallwood amongst others as her friends. Enough to block Stavros's citizenship application and force his return to Greece in the event that country leaves the EU." Even tepid water is refreshing. "But then Stavros got married to a young British aristocrat and his means of staying here indefinitely was assured. Lazarine has the best care and is well-provided for, but my aunt is distrustful of him, concerned that, if he ever discovers a connection to the family, he will use his new-found status after she's gone to interfere with Lazarine's care and her inheritance."
Greg's eyes are wide as he absently puts his empty water bottle down. "We have to stop him."
I tsk. "He hasn't done anything yet."
He scowls with that frustration well-known in the police service of not being able to solve a crime until a crime has been committed. And by then, someone has already been hurt. In the absence of any other options for now, he goes to fetch more water and I follow.
I haven't yet found any conclusive record of a connection, nor does Stavros seem aware of one. If anything, his conceit elevates his kinship hopes far beyond the modest Holmes and Dudley families.
Greg hands me another open bottle and quaffs from his own. I try to drink too, but with my initial thirst slaked, I'm easily distracted by the view in front of me.
"So now you know why I'm here." I manage a sip. "If Stavros thought we were related, I'm certain he would have said something. Since he didn't, my goal was to take advantage of his ignorance to find out more about him."
"But he's like quicksand." Bottle empty, Greg laps his tongue over his lips. "We're sinking into so much more than we ever intended."
I'm beguiled by a missed drop of water at the corner of his mouth. "There's not much more left to do." Reminded of a slash of lavender and raspberry confiture at breakfast. "We'll be leaving before the night's out."
I'm insane for doing it, but I reach over and wipe it away.
He inhales sharply.
I think—I hope he might do something, say something more, but we only continue to watch each other.
Eventually he steps away to put his empty water bottle on the buffet table, not looking at what he's doing. Again he hesitates, back to me, staring at the lantern. Or beyond.
My heart sinks. I'm not mistaken— It wasn't— We've been playing all along, it's been fine. I haven't misread him, but—
When he turns back, he has a finger hooked in the low V of his waistcoat.
It has my full attention. But—
Not before dinner. He can't possibly mean to—
Sporting a half-smile that mesmerises me, he begins the slow process of unbuttoning. My bottle drops from nerveless fingers.
I take a deep breath when he pulls apart the final button, leaving the waistcoat to hang open, and puts his hands in his trouser pockets. I'm suddenly desperate for him, but helpless to move.
He grins at his shoes, walks over, and stands in front of me for a moment, just looking at my eyes, then at the rapid pulse in my throat. He runs a hand up my arm to my shoulder and then around my neck as he pulls me in to murmur in my ear.
"Ever hear of classical conditioning?"
He murmurs in my other ear. "Of course you have."
I'm salivating at his open waistcoat like a dog responding to a bell. He always gets there in the end, not afraid to turn the tables, and I'm reminded why he's one of our better detectives. Why he's one of our finest.
"What a clever boy you are."
He preens at my approval.
It may be futile, but I make a mental note to avoid ever giving him time to think too much about my actions. With one of his hands around my neck, the other in his trouser pocket, he's close enough for me to pull him by the waist and press against the side of his face. I breathe in his sublime scent, nudging against his cheek. The urge to kiss him is acute, dangerously so in the seclusion of these close quarters which, surely, are shrinking.
For all the nether regions of the body that are employed in the sexual act, nothing is more intimate than the mouth. I don't regret having reserved mine my whole adult life for the epicurean delights of food and drink. Now, though, I find myself helpless with desire to add Greg to that list of delights.
Two days ago I could scarcely bring myself to touch him and now I can scarcely bear to let him go. I must have been deluding myself to think he would be an impersonal male version of Anthea…with benefits.
"Mycroft." His voice is tight and strained. Desperate. A hand insinuates itself down my hip and over my buttock.
Oh god. Short, shallow breaths force my lips apart to get more air, and I press my temple against his, eyes closed, my mouth imploring me to find his, my mind begging me to leave. This is no good. To possess that alluring body for a time is one thing, but this?
"We can't," I whisper and try to disengage from him before I succumb to raging instincts—instincts that cannot be trusted. "Not now."
I try to step away, but he pulls me back. "When?"
When indeed? I intend to grasp the first opportunity tonight to search that study. We'll have to pack at some point and Hopkirk will take me straight to our facility to prepare to interview our royal guests. Even if we don't drop Greg home on the way, even if he comes with us, I'll be too busy to give him my undivided attention. And he deserves nothing less. So when?
I should take the opportunity to accept defeat and cut a clean break.
We look up at the distinctive sound of a raindrop or two hitting canvas. And then another. In no time it could accelerate into a deluge.
This time I succeed in disengaging, but I hold onto his hands and his gaze. "The weekend doesn't end until midnight tomorrow." I don't accept defeat. "We have time."
He takes a moment to assess my sincerity, our hands still clasped, and nods.
I don't quibble when he's the one to rebutton his waistcoat, then we shrug on our jackets and leave the tent.
It has become full dark in the rain which is still only spitting, but it's enough to make the newly moistened grass squeak and slide beneath my leather shoes as we hurry towards the patio. The relief of cooler air is already cutting across us.
"The lights are out," Greg says.
That fact hasn't escaped my notice—not all the house lights, only the ones in the drawing room—nor the fact that everyone is gathered at the mouth of the open veranda doors watching us. With a discreet swipe of my comb, I pull my hair into some semblance of order after I herd Greg in front of me at the patio, its slate tile proving to have satisfactory non-slip qualities.
The others hastily fall back as we press indoors with a bare stutter to our velocity, but we both slow down to find eight pairs of eyes trained on us. Bernard's still absent. Cunningham grimaces with open hostility. But the overarching mood in the room is positive.
Stavros regards us with tilted eyebrow and mouth, his arm around Jemima who covers her grin with no further effort to stifle it. Lydia averts her gaze with a mysterious smile, hand fanning herself. Dmitri wets his lips, his eyes slightly glazed.
Greg and I glance at each other—his brow creasing a shade as he takes in my freshly coiffed hair—before the clatter of Frank working his way back to the bar in the dark breaks the tension.
"For heavens' sake." Caroline crosses the room and clicks on the lights again.
Her husband laughs. "That was a hell of a show."
My gaze snaps back to the tent.
The solar lanterns are going strong.
Greg stiffens at my side as realisation hits him. "Oh God."
They've been watching a shadow play.