“… and as soon as Jonesy has taken the security system offline, we’ll enter by way of the skylight above the conservatory. Barnaby will come in with me; Beck, you’ll wait for us outside. If anything goes wrong, you’ll swing our emergency exit strategy into action.”
Eroica looked around the conference table at his men. “Any questions? No? Good. We’ll meet here tomorrow evening at nine o’clock, ready to go. In the meantime – Bonham, can you oversee getting all the gear ready? Thank you, gentlemen. Meeting closed.”
Eroica favoured everyone with one of his warm, bright smiles, and then his eyes settled on his newest recruit. “Barnaby, love – come down to my study. Come and talk to me.”
Beck, Jones and Bonham watched Barnaby follow the Earl out of the work room, trotting in his wake like an eager puppy.
Barnaby was the Eroica gang’s first new recruit for several years. Nobody was very clear about where Eroica had met him; nor was it entirely clear just what Barnaby’s thieving credentials were. About two months before, the Earl had brought him home to the Castle and introduced him to the team as their new colleague, and from the first day he arrived, it was clear that Barnaby had captured the Earl’s attention.
Lord Gloria spent hours alone with him, talking to him in his study, or walking with him in the Castle gardens. He included Barnaby in strategy meetings, and had given him a place in their plans for the next robbery, to the chagrin of several other members of the team.
“What do you make of that?” Jones looked genuinely puzzled. “His lordship’s hardly looked at anyone for years, not since he fell for the Major. But I swear he spends half his time with Barnaby. You don’t suppose he’s gone off the Major?”
Bonham shook his head. “Impossible. Nothin’ would shift his affections off the Major. Not after all this time.”
“Well, I’m not so sure,” Beck commented. “I mean, it’s all one-sided, isn’t it? It’s not as if the Major’s fallen in love with him, or even given him any encouragement. As far as I can see, all the Major’s ever done is abuse him. Young Barnaby, on the other hand – well, he worships the ground Lord Gloria walks on. You can hardly blame his lordship for lapping up the attention. And Barnaby is very pretty. Until he started chasing Uncle NATO, his lordship always liked pretty boys.”
The three lapsed into silence, pondering.
“Look, I don’t think there’s anythin’ in it,” Bonham said at last, sounding more convinced than he felt. “Young Barnaby’s the new boy. Of course ‘is lordship’s goin’ to spend time with him, makin’ sure he understands ‘ow things work round ‘ere. And the lad’s got one hell of a crush on ‘is lordship, you can see that, so I wouldn’t blame Lord Gloria for feelin’ flattered.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Beck growled. “It wouldn’t surprise me if bloody Barnaby flattered his way into Lord Gloria’s bed. His lordship’s not exactly getting what he needs from the Major, is he?”
“What ‘is lordship does is ‘is own business,” Bonham reminded them. “’E’s grown up. ‘E can do what ‘e likes.”
Jones said, “D’you think Barnaby’s kosher? I mean, we know who’s who in the world of art theft, but none of us had ever heard of him before he arrived here two months ago. He seems to have all the right skills, but— I dunno, it just seems like something doesn’t quite fit.”
“What, are you sayin’ he might be a plant? You ran the background checks yourself, Jonesy. You said you didn’t find anythin’.”
“That’s just it, Bonham mate. I didn’t find anything. It was as if our boy Barnaby hadn’t existed until two months ago.”
All three sighed gloomily.
Dorian opened the window that overlooked the gardens, letting the frosty breeze blow into his study.
“There, love, is that better? You do like cool temperatures, I must say! Jamesie must love you, he’s always trying to get me to agree to turn off the central heating.”
Barnaby smiled shyly. James certainly did not love him. James had noticed within days of Barnaby’s arrival that there seemed to be a special affection blossoming between the Earl and his newest recruit, and he’d become intensely jealous.
The newest recruit was also aware that some of the other men were less than happy about how quickly he’d become an essential part of the Eroica enterprise, and how far he’d been taken into the Earl’s confidence. Barnaby knew that James was not alone in feeling jealous and resentful.
“My lord, what are you planning to do after we’ve completed tomorrow night’s job? Are you going to take a break?”
Dorian smiled. Just looking at Barnaby made him feel warm and peaceful. “I plan to enjoy Christmas here at the Castle, with the people I love most in the world.”
“Not tempted to spend Christmas somewhere glamorous, m’lord? Somewhere exciting?”
“No, Barnaby love. I’ve spent the last few Christmases away from home, and I don’t want to do it again. I want to be with people I love – with people who love me. My last few Christmases haven’t been like that.”
For the last five years, Dorian had spent Christmas trying to trap the Major into sharing some seasonal joy with him. He’d turned up at the Major’s apartment in Bonn, at Schloss Eberbach, at a small hotel the Major had tried to hide out in; he’d followed the Major on a mission he’d taken in order to escape Dorian’s overtures; he’d even tried having himself delivered to the Major’s office on Christmas Eve in a large cardboard box with a big red bow on it.
All to no avail. The Major – grumpy, iron-hearted man that he was! – had thwarted his plans every time. Dorian had come home, disappointed and hurt, to his men who were also disappointed and hurt that he’d abandoned them at Christmas time, in pursuit of what most of them thought was a lost cause.
Barnaby knew this, of course, so it didn’t matter that the Earl didn’t elaborate further.
“It makes me sad when people are unhappy at Christmas time,” Barnaby said. “People should be with the ones they love best at Christmas!”
“Home is where I’ll be, Barnaby love. No more chasing mirages. I’ve already told Bonham to organise the best Christmas party he can imagine. We’re going to celebrate having everyone at home this year.”
Barnaby smiled warmly. “Then let’s make this the best Christmas you’ve had for years, my lord.”
“Oh, darling,” Dorian said ruefully, “that wouldn’t be very hard at all.”
The sadness Barnaby could see in Lord Gloria’s eyes cut him to the quick. Nobody as beautiful as Lord Gloria should ever feel sad or lonely, he thought. A man like Lord Gloria should be loved and appreciated – and he, Barnaby, knew just how to make sure that happened.