The Honourable James - Scribe
Notes: A Sentinelization of The Lady Eve. The original movie is a classic, with Barbara Stanwyck as the card sharp, and Henry Fonda as the rich, bumbling herpetologist (snake studier). I get my info about British titles from here. I got my information for the fictitious crest from here. The spelling of 'honourable' is correct--it's the British version. The story is set in the early forties, and the difficulty of transatlantic travel later in the story is because of WWII. Rahka is my own invention. My thanks to Athos for helping me with the Latin motto--it means 'Blessed Protector'. King Edward of England abdicated the throne in 1936 so that he could marry an American divorcee--Wallace Warfield Simpson.
Jim had insisted that they have their trunks put aboard the Oceana Queen the day before they were to sail. William, his father, and Steven, his younger brother, had grumbled about the inconvenience. "What if I spill something on my dinner jacket?" Steven complained. "I won't be able to change with my other evening clothes packed away on that tub."
Jim had been adamant. "I know you two. No matter how closely I watch you, one of you will probably try for a last score before we leave, and we might need to vacate the area quickly. I've had to leave entire wardrobes behind because one of you couldn't resist a scam when you'd already pushed the envelope."
"We wouldn't have that problem if you weren't so stubborn about coming into the family business," William had said sternly.
Jim snorted. "Family business. You cheat and swindle, Dad."
"I'll have you know that the Ellison’s have been gentleman adventurers for generations."
"They've been card sharps, scam artists, and horse thieves."
"I resent that! It was only one incident, and I'll have you know that the horse was a thoroughbred, and my father made enough on that deal for me to be able to send both of you to college."
"But you didn't," said Jim sourly. "Steven went into," Jim crooked his fingers in the air, voice sarcastic, "the business, and I went into the military."
"That was your choice and look where it got you--stranded in the jungle for almost a year, and then a medical discharge, with that poor excuse for a pension."
"You're right: it was my decision, and I can't blame the military. After all, my childhood problem did come back."
"Problem," said Steven. "He can read people so accurately that he might as well be able to look through their cards to see what they're holding, and he calls it a problem. I wish I had troubles like that."
"No, you don't," said Jim quietly. "You know that it comes with baggage."
Steven knew. Jim had come back with heightened senses that would make him the perfect card sharp--he almost seemed telepathic sometimes. A mark might be able to keep a poker face, and even control his breathing, but he couldn't keep himself from breaking out in a sweat, or his heart from racing. However, the same acuity that Steven saw as a gift sometimes overwhelmed his brother. Jim could get splitting headaches from the smallest sounds, nausea from the mildest seasonings. A subtle smell could almost choke him, the smoothest silk sometimes felt like burlap, and a flash of light could blind him for several minutes instead of the usual second or two. Steven knew all this, but he stubbornly insisted that if he was the one with enhanced senses, he would rule them, and not vice-versa. Jim had said wearily that if Steven had any practical suggestions he'd be happy to hear them--if he didn't, he should just shut up.
Jim could give hard-headed lessons to a mountain ram, so Steven's friend, Rafe (who often posed as their valet), saw to it that the baggage was all safely stowed in their staterooms. And a good thing it was, too. Jim once again proved that he knew his family well. While he was in the men's room Steven talked a middle-aged, bedazzled breakfast cereal magnate from Michigan into '...just a few friendly hands of stud, Stud.' Jim got back just as the man was becoming suspicious, fingering a tiny bump that marked the back of the king of spades.
Jim had to bite back a groan when he returned to the hotel bar and saw what was going on. William was flirting with a cocktail waitress (he wasn't working that night--it was purely recreational), and Jim growled at him. "I thought I asked you to keep a leash on him."
William shrugged. "He's a grown man. Why should he listen to me?" He gave Jim a shrewd look. "My other son doesn't."
"Can the guilt. It hasn't worked since I was ten and figured out what you did for a living. If I had my way you'd retire, and Steven would get a real job. Since the only way I can do that would be to rat you both out, I've agreed not to interfere with your activities, as long as you don't try to fleece someone who can't afford it, and as long as you don't endanger us all. Now, excuse me. I have to go keep my brother from getting the crap beaten out of him, and then settling down for a long jail stretch. Damn it, why does he always go after the ones that are built like King Kong?"
Steven was too good a card player to let smugness show in his expression. He knew that he'd dealt his patsy a nice little straight, king high. He wouldn't be able to resist making a fat bet on something like that. Pity he was going to be beaten by a straight flush. He was just ready to raise when a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. His heart sank as he heard Jim saying, "So, here you are, Steven. I thought you'd promised your daddy that you wouldn't gamble?"
The cereal king allowed himself to be distracted from his suspicions for a moment. The newcomer was very good looking, but a little too--too--for his personal tastes. The man was as tall as he was, and as broad, and in his case, it was obviously muscle. Still, he'd been hoping for a little more than a game of cards from the smooth, handsome young man on the other side of the table. "He said that his father liked to take a chance now and then himself."
"Oh, his father does," said Jim calmly. "But his..." he paused significantly, "daddy doesn't approve."
The other card player blinked, and then flushed. He tossed down his cards as he gave Steven a reproachful look. "You could have told me you were with someone."
Steven gritted his teeth as he watched his pigeon fly the coop. "Damn it, Jim. You could have waited till I collected. I didn't get a red cent off him."
"And you didn't get any broken bones off him, either," said Jim tartly. "Come on. I'm going to get you and Dad out of here, before we end up having to have our mail forwarded to the local jail. If we're lucky, none of your previous marks will catch wise before we can embark tomorrow." As they made their way out, Jim said, "I'm just glad that we're leaving early."
Steven grunted. "It's a nice ship, isn't it?"
"And we're going first class?"
"At Dad's insistence. He thinks anything less and we might as well be going steerage."
William joined them. "And so it would be. The Ellison’s are not sardines, to be packed away in one of those tiny bargain cabins. Cheer up, Steven, m'boy. They have some nice lounges on those ships." He smiled benignly. "And the passengers get so bored on a long voyage that they'll be looking for some form of diversion."
"It seems a little silly," said Blair as he climbed out of the canoe, onto the riverbank. He glanced at the surrounding jungle. It wasn't nearly as thick as it had been up river, but it was still a long way from tame. "I mean, getting from one canoe into another to finish the trip down to the coast, where I'll be getting on a steam launch that will take me to the ship."
There were several natives and three Westerners in the group. Mugsy Murgatroyd, his valet/bodyguard, was supervising the transfer of their baggage (such as it was) from one canoe to another while Blair conversed with Professor Jones--the leader of the expedition that Blair was leaving. "I'm sorry," said the Professor, "But you have to get farther down river to reach the launch--this part is too shallow for it to come to us. And transferring here might seem unnecessary from our point of view, but it makes perfect sense to the natives. They're very superstitious about leaving their home territory, and they'd never let their boats out of their sight. They're too important to their survival."
Blair nodded. "Now that I think about it, I realize that. I'm afraid that I was just trying to make conversation to ease our good-bye." He made a face. "And making a hash of it, as usual."
Jones patted him on the shoulder, smiling. "Oh, you're not so bad, Blair. You just don't give yourself a chance. It isn't always your fault, you know. I'm sure that I wasn't the world's best companion--I get too absorbed in my work."
"Reptiles are fascinating creatures," Blair agreed. "And I can't thank you enough for bringing me along. I never hoped that I'd actually be able to contact the Chopec tribe. They're almost legendarily reclusive. I've only heard of one instance in my lifetime of an outsider having any extensive dealings with them, and he was stranded."
"Ah, yes--Enqueri. My local assistants tell fantastic tales about him."
"There's a chance that they're true," said Blair. "I don't believe that Sentinels and Guides are limited to South America. I think that they must exist everywhere, but because of the ignorance and intolerance of society, they're afraid to..." Blair noticed Jones' indulgent look and stopped, flushing. "I guess I'd better climb down off my hobby-horse. I'm going back to where those kinds of ideas will get me labeled as crazy."
"No, not crazy," Jones corrected him. "Eccentric--you're too rich to be just crazy." He handed over a small, enclosed basket. "Now, here's Emma. I won't tell you to be careful, because I know you'll take good care of her. Remember, she only needs to be fed once a day--just a few flies, and maybe a sip of milk. If she's a good girl, you might treat her and give her a pigeon's egg on Sundays. And be sure to tell Professor Marsdit that I named her after him--in Latin, of course."
Blair took the basket. "I'm going to be sorry to leave this band of men. It's been one of the best times of my life, sharing the pursuit of knowledge."
"But now it's time for you to go home, Blair," said Jones almost kindly. "I have nothing to lure me back to civilization. You--you have your mother, and your family business, and perhaps," he shrugged, "someone special soon? You're young."
Blair shook his head. "You know me." He held up the basket. "Only reptiles. Emma and I get along just fine. She's a lot simpler to please than most women I know."
Blair climbed into the second canoe, and the oarsmen pushed off. As they started down the river, Jones called after him, "Be careful, Blair. It's been a year since you've dodged traffic--or women."
The ship was on its second day of following the coast, but soon it would move on to deep waters, heading for New York. Jim finally felt like it was safe enough to relax, so he was strolling the deck with the rest of their little group, chatting idly. Steven was automatically flirting with anyone--male or female--who looked like they had a few dollars--or hundreds of dollars--to spare. Jim had already cautioned him to be particularly careful. "These ocean liners aren't such easy hunting grounds anymore--not like they were in grandad's time--or even your time, dad. With the telegraphs and such, they can pass information around much more quickly, and they tend to be rather hostile toward people fleecing their passengers. Remember: before you start to clip someone, make sure they can spare it. I don't want you taking every last cent from some poor schnook who saved up his entire life for one big splurge."
"Jimmy, your soft heart is a credit to your character," said William, "and a detriment to our pocketbooks."
"I'm not that soft hearted," said Jim tartly. "If I was, every time I saw you zero in on a potential mark I'd be yelling 'Run! Run for your life!'" There was the blast of a steam whistle, and all heads turned curiously toward it. "I didn't think we had a stop scheduled here."
"We don't," said Rafe. "But they're slowing down, all the same." The group drifted over to the rail, along with most of the other on-deck passengers, and watched as a tubby, battered steam launch pulled alongside. There were two men dressed in 'safari clothes' waiting in the stern, surrounded by boxes and duffel bags. "They don't look like much."
"You can't always go by looks, lad," said William. "There's a certain type of old money that often can be mistaken for near poverty-stricken. That's how they get rich--by not spending anything till they have to. And if they're important enough to stop an ocean liner--they're someone we should know better."
A matronly woman herded two young women past them, talking to them rapidly. "Jennifer, you get into your tennis whites--they show off your tan beautifully. Marigold, I want you to wear the red dress tonight."
"But mother," Marigold was, shockingly enough, a blonde. "You said that the neckline was indecent, and the back was a figment of the designer's imagination. You ordered me not to wear that dress."
"Well, now I'm ordering you to wear it. Every single girl of marriageable age on this boat is going to be setting their cap for Blair Sandburg. Neither of you girls are exactly Veronica Lake, and we need to make the most of your assets."
"But Mother." Now it was Jennifer whining. "He's short! And his hair is longer than mine. What sort of man wears long, curly hair?"
"A rich one. Now be quiet and do as you're told."
Jim shook his head. "The poor sap doesn't stand a chance. Those harpies are going to pick his bones."
"Bone, singular, maybe," said Steven slyly.
"Please, Steven," said William calmly. "No vulgarity while we're out in public. Let us be crooked, but not common."
Rafe had been speaking to a steward, and now he returned. "Boy, oh boy, oh boy."
"I take that as a favorable sign," said William. "Spill."
"He's the heir to one of the greatest brewing fortunes in America," said Rafe. He sounded as pleased as if he'd made the legacy himself. "An only child. It will all come to him."
"Mighty thoughtful of his old man to leave him so well fixed," said Steven, studying the young man as he scaled the ladder that had been hung over the side. Many well-to-do men would have waited to be raised in a sling, but Blair moved up the rope ladder with ease.
"Not his old man," Rafe corrected. "His mother." That got Steven's attention. "Yes. Naomi Sandburg. She was the black sheep of the textile Sandburg’s of Virginia."
William stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I think that my uncle may have once sold them a shipload of cotton that cough somehow got misdirected."
"She broke away from her family when she was barely in her twenties, and founded Sandburg Beer," Rafe continued. "Sandburg Beer--It Makes Joe College Cheer."
"What?" said Jim flatly.
"That's the slogan. It's really popular among the college crowd because it gives more bang for the buck. It's stronger than most of the other beers available. Apparently, Naomi said that if she was going to be selling anything alcoholic, by God it was going to be alcoholic." He winked at Steven. "It is rumored that young Blair's father might have had some hand in setting her up--starting capital, and such."
"Only rumored?" asked Jim.
"It's also rumored that one should be very careful in asking Naomi about her apparently still single state. Tales that she once threw a drink in the face of a minor society matron have never been denied."
Steven's eyes turned back to Blair. "Then he's rich." Steven looked at Jim. "Well?"
He didn't have to say any more--Jim knew what he was asking. Jim considered as he watched Blair supervise the retrieval of his luggage. He hated the thought of the young man getting taken for a ride by his family--he seemed nice enough at first glance. There was an open freshness--almost an innocence--in his expression. The man who accompanied him was obviously an employee, but Blair seemed to treat him almost with affection. Jim sighed. "I suppose so. Just be careful. If he catches you cheating him, he looks like the sort who'd be more hurt than angry."
"But those are the best kind, Jimmy," said his father. "It's the angry ones who are more likely to call the authorities. The hurt ones are either too embarrassed to complain, or they crawl off to lick their wounds." William rubbed his hands together. "Well, how shall we lure our little friend into our company? Jim, I wish you'd stayed married to Carolyn. She's a pretty wench, and shifty enough to be of real use in attracting and distracting marks."
"That would have been rather awkward," said Jim, "Especially after I admitted to her that if I had a choice between Carol Lombard and Clark Gable, Gable would win. She said something about me insulting her sex." Jim shrugged. "Hell, I know straight men who'd rather be with Gable."
"Even so, Carolyn would have helped us on a venture like this. She's nothing if not a practical business woman," said William. He sighed. "We just lose so many opportunities without a female lure. You know, Jim, you could help out occasionally."
"I'm not going to pretend I'm interested in some guy just to bring them into your net," Jim said bluntly. "Steven does well enough in that department. It doesn't bother him."
"Why should it?" Steven seemed surprised by Jim's implications. "I never have to go through with anything unless I want to, and where's the harm in a little flirting? I have a good time; they have a good time..."
"Until they realize that they've been royally screwed, and they didn't even get to enjoy the afterglow," said Jim wearily, knowing that he'd never be able to make his family understand his feelings about this.
The sun had been behind a thin skim of clouds, but now it came out. The day brightened, and Jim was suddenly squinting in pain and near blindness. He fumbled in his jacket pocket. William saw what was happening, and understood. He reached past Jim's groping hand, retrieved a pair of dark glasses, and set them almost gently in place on Jim's face. Jim sighed in relief. "Thanks, Dad. I guess I'll go inside and lie down before supper. I've got a splitting headache."
The other men watched him go. After a moment Steven said, petulantly, "It couldn't be all that bad."
William gave him a sharp look, then an even sharper elbow in the ribs. Steven winced, and William said, "Yes, it could. Now, how are we going to approach Mister Blair Sandburg?" He rolled his eyes toward the sky. "Do I know anyone in New York? Well, anyone who isn't currently doing time..."
Their table was back near the service bar that evening, and they were treated to a passing stream of waiters, all of them asking for Sandburg Beer. After about the twentieth order the bartender said, exasperated, "I told you, we're out of Sandburg Beer. Won't something else do? Maybe a nice lager, or a stout..."
"No," said one very tired and disgusted waiter. "All they want is Sandburg Beer--the beer that makes Joe College cheer. Rah, rah, rah." The last few words were said with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
"Well, we're out. Tell 'em they'll have to pick something else. Push the Salty Dogs--I have a whole case of grapefruit juice, and they're not asking for it at breakfast."
Normally, William would have protested about where they'd been seated, since this area was along the lines of Siberia on an ocean liner. Tonight, though, he didn't mind. The table commanded a good view of the entire dining room. From this vantage point they'd be able to see Blair Sandburg wherever he was seated.
"That's assuming that he doesn't have his meal in his cabin," said Jim. "I heard he's just coming back from a long expedition into the jungle. I know that when I got back all I wanted was a good meal, a hot shower, and a real bed."
"You're a different case, Jimmy," said William. "Yours wasn't by choice--it was an ordeal instead of an adventure. No, if he's been up the Amazon voluntarily for the last year, he's going to want to be out with his fellow creatures. He'll want to socialize."
Jim, holding his hand low to the table so it wouldn't be conspicuous, pointed. "Does he look like he's pining for company?"
Blair had entered the dining room, and had almost run into the maitre' de. He was reading as he walked. (The book was titled Are Snakes Necessary?, but though Jim could have easily read the title at that distance, he didn't bother. He was too interested in the reader himself) Jim watched as Sandburg apologized to the maitre' de. "That's unusual."
William didn't rub his hands together like a villain in a melodrama, but his fingers twitched unconsciously, as if he were dealing from the bottom of a deck. "Considerate, and willing to accept fault. I like that in a mark."
"It was his fault," said Jim. "He wasn't looking where he was going."
"Yes, but not many people as rich as he is would admit that, especially not to someone that his circle would consider a higher class variety of ocean going domestic. Drat, they're seating him way over there. I want to get a feel for him." He turned speculative eyes on his elder son. "Jimmy?"
Jim gave a martyred sigh. "You know I don't like doing that."
"Come, come. You're not doing anything illegal, or even technically immoral."
"How about 'unethical'?"
"Jim, the man is sitting in a public dining room--he can't expect to go totally unnoticed. If he wanted that he should have stayed in his cabin. All I'm asking you to do is describe what's going on. You can do it without staring like the circus has come to town."
"Oh, all right. I guess there's no harm in it. But if someone joins him it turns into a private conversation, and I'm not going to eavesdrop. I have my limits."
Jim leaned back in his chair and casually glanced toward a spot that was several feet away from where Blair Sandburg was actually sitting. Luckily, the shipping line believed that their female guests would appreciate flattering lighting, so there wasn't any glare--he could easily make out every detail of his target. "Well, he put down the book for a minute to look over the menu."
Jim's eyebrows rose, and Steven said, "Let me guess--he ordered a whole lobster, squab, and a tin of caviar on the side."
Jim didn't bother to look at him. "He ordered tongue."
"Oh, god!" Steven made a face. "What is someone that wealthy doing ordering organ meat?"
"He's wealthy enough to have anything he chooses," William said thoughtfully, "so he's showing that by disdaining richer fare and dining like a peasant."
Jim did shoot him a glance. "Maybe he likes tongue. Ever consider that it could be that simple?" As Blair handed the menu back to the waiter, he glanced around, and a faint flush rose in his cheeks. "He's blushing. He just realized that every woman in the place is looking at him--significantly." Blair's eyes flickered downward a fraction, and his face took on a long-suffering look. "And I believe he just noticed that every one of them has a bottle of Sandburg Beer on the table in front of them. He's not impressed by that. No, siree. No, it embarrasses you, doesn't it, Curly? You know that they aren't sincere." For a moment William was worried, but then he caught the faint tone of amusement in Jim's voice. "You know they're just trying to shine up to you. You aren't fooled for a minute. That's right--go back to your book. You'll be able to manage a paragraph or two before they bring your order."
Jim smiled, and Steven, curious but not wanting to tip his hand by looking, said, "What now?"
"He just knocked over the bread basket because he couldn't stop reading long enough to pick up a roll. Now the waiter is coming over. He's apologizing. 'I'm sorry,' 'Oh, no, sir. These things happen. Let me order you a fresh basket.' 'You don't have... I really don't want to be any... Oh, you've done it already. Well, thank you.'"
"I'm liking him better all the time," said William.
So am I, unfortunately, thought Jim. That's the longest, curliest hair I've ever seen. I guess he grew it on his trip through the jungle. I kind of hope he doesn't visit the ship's barber before we get to port. I wonder what it would feel like?
He wanted to stop this covert observation. To all appearances Blair Sandburg was a decent, even nice, young man. He'd traveled through the jungles of South America, and Jim knew from experience that you couldn't survive that if you were delicate, but still there was an unworldly air about him. I guess because he's been insulated by wealth most of his life, and academia the rest of it. God, letting my group get hold of him will be like feeding a lamb to a wolf pack. Still, I made my bargain with Dad. He's rich enough to afford it. If he's sucker enough to fall for Dad and Steven's tricks, maybe it will teach him a lesson in how the world works--wake him up a little.
"He's returning to his book," said Jim. "Every Jane in the joint is trying to catch his eye, but he's not interested. No, they're too obvious for him. C'mon, Sandburg. Surely among all this pulchritude there's one who'll catch your eye." Marigold, the blonde who'd been on deck this afternoon came slinking by his table. The dress was, indeed, red, and there was only a minimum of it in front and back. "Oh, here's a good one, but that dress might as well be a potato sack. He's not going to notice you, kid, but swing 'em anyway. Maybe he'll... What? No? There was more tenderloin on display there than in a butcher's window. What gets your motor going, Sandburg?"
"Does he have to give a running commentary?" complained Steven.
"Hush," said William. "If you listen, you could learn more from ten minutes of Jim's observations than you could taking a course in human behavior at Stanford."
"Here's one coming from the other direction. She's got a lace hanky in hand. Oh, I don't believe it! Tell me you're not going to... Holy smoke, the old dropped handkerchief routine. She really did it. I thought that went out with Sarah Bernhardt. And she's just standing there, looking helpless, waiting for him to notice--" A passing waiter picked up the handkerchief and offered it to the woman. Her expression sheepish, she took it and moved along, "...and another one bites the dust. So, obvious allure doesn't do it, and neither does ladylike helplessness. What will get your attention?" Jennifer, the other sister from that afternoon was sitting nearby. As Jim watched, her mother prodded her up out of her seat, and the girl almost wearily made her way past Sandburg's tables. Her gown was strapless, and it revealed a set of almost brawny shoulders. "Well, you can tell that Jennifer plays a lot of tennis. She almost looks like a lady wrestler. How about that one, Sandburg? Maybe you like the strong, silent type? How'd you like to find that in your Christmas stocking? You wouldn't? Nose still firmly in book." Jennifer returned to her table, looking relieved, much to her mother's displeasure. "Gee, Sandburg, you're going to give these poor women a complex. Ah, look at that one at the next table."
This was a young woman seated with another couple. She was commenting to them as she watched Blair. Jim could have easily heard what she was actually saying, but he had a good idea, and he preferred his own dialogue. "Now, there's one to your left who's just pining for you, Sandburg. Look over to your left." Sandburg lifted his gaze from the book, as if hearing Jim's order. "To your left. That's it, a little more. Just a little more, and... There she is! Look at her beam. Oh, those teeth must've cost her father a pretty penny. I bet the braces haven't been off more than six months." Sandburg was looking almost distressed, finger hooking in his collar, as if it were suddenly too tight. "Oh, you're caught now, Sandburg. You've made eye contact. She knows you! Oh, she's sure that she recognizes you. No? Maybe not. But you look so familiar. Maybe she should go over and... She's up. She's down. Make up your mind, girly--the suspense is killing me. Yes! She's on her way."
The woman made her way to Sandburg's table. As she approached, Blair stood up politely. She started talking even before she arrived. "Well, hello! Fancy meeting you here. Aren't you Fuzzy Krankheimer, who I went to manual training school with in Louiseville? You're not?" Blair was shaking his head. "But you look just like him. Are you sure we never...? Then I suppose your aren't going to ask me to sit down. I'm terribly embarrassed, but the resemblance is so... But if you aren't going to ask me to sit down... Sorry I bothered you--you so-and-so."
"This isn't so good," said William. "If he's completely unapproachable, we won't stand a chance."
As he'd watched young Sandburg fending off the clumsy advances of the women, Jim had become more amused--and more attracted. This, he decided, was someone he wanted to get to know. But with William and Steven on board, there was little chance that he'd be able to do it without their getting involved. There was only one solution--meet the man, and hope he could keep him from realizing it when he was rooked. Maybe then they could part as friends, or a little more. "I think you'll get your chance, Dad."
William gave him a shrewd look, and Steven said, "Why would you think that? You said it yourself--he didn't want anything to do with any of those women."
Jim gave him a cool look. "Because he didn't want anything to do with any of those women."
Steven stared at him, and then smiled slowly. "Oooh."
Halfway through his meal Blair lost his appetite. I should have stayed in my cabin like Mugsy suggested, he thought. But if I had he'd have insisted on staying with me, and the trip up the Amazon was harder on him than it was on me. He really wanted to get out among people again. Maybe I'll have breakfast and supper in my cabin, and try to get them to seat me in a corner at lunch. He refused dessert and signed his tab, then took his book and stood up. I just hope I can make it back to my room without being waylaid. A girl at a table he passed fluttered eyelashes at him that were so long and heavily mascaraed that they reminded Blair forcefully of the legs of some of the spiders he'd seen in the jungle. He averted his eyes, and hurried.
Just ahead, Steven said in a low voice, "If you're going to start anything, you'd better get on with it."
"Don't worry about me, Steven." Jim's voice was just as quiet. He appeared to be looking at something across the room, but he could see Blair approaching from the corner of his eye. "I'll do just fine. All Mister Sandburg needs is the right mixture of directness and subtlety--from the right person. Watch and learn, little brother."
As Blair drew abreast their table Jim shifted, as if to stand up. His right foot swung out, right into the path of the oncoming man. Blair couldn't possibly avoid it, even if he'd seen it. He hadn't, and he didn't. He sprawled flat on his face between the tables, his breath escaping him with a surprised little oof.
"Say, why don't you watch where you're going?"
Blair rolled over onto his hip and looked up. A man was just standing up from the table he'd fallen beside. Actually, looming might have been a better word. There was a whole lot of him. Blair told himself that it just seemed that way because of the position he was viewing him from. "I beg your pardon."
"You should." The man thrust out his foot, and Blair flinched automatically, but there was no kick. The man just wiggled his foot. "Look at that." Blair obediently looked at the offended foot. There was a nasty scuff marring the shiny leather across the top. "That's probably ruined it."
"I'm terribly sorry," said Blair, getting to his feet. "I didn't see..."
"I'm not surprised. I saw you come in earlier, walking along with your nose buried in that book. It's a good thing they have rails all around the deck--you might just walk right off and have to swim home."
"Of course, I'll replace..."
"I don't think that will be necessary." Jim regarded the shoe judiciously. "I guess it can be repaired, but I can't go around like this. I'll need to change, and the least you can do is walk back to my cabin with me."
Blair blinked at this, bemused, but something in the way this man said it, so matter-of-factly, made it seem like the most reasonable demand in the world. "Of course." He offered his hand. "I'm..."
"Blair Sandburg--we know that. You'd have to be deaf and dumb not to know it. I'm Jim Ellison, and this is my father, Colonel William Ellison, and my brother, Steven."
"How do you...?"
"They aren't important. You can talk to them later in the voyage if you really want to, but don't let's stand here like a couple of waxworks." Jim took a few steps, then turned and frowned when Blair didn't automatically follow. "Well?"
"Uh..." Blair bobbed his head at the two seated men, who hadn't made a sound. "Nice to meet you. Hope we'll have a chance to become better..."
"Bye." He followed quickly after Jim.
When they'd disappeared, William gave Steven a satisfied look. "Looks like Jimmy's decided to mix a little of his pleasure with our business."
Blair Sandburg was feeling a little breathless, and it wasn't just from having the wind knocked out of him by the fall. No, it had more to do with the tall figure strolling along beside him. Once they'd gotten out of the dining room Jim Ellison hadn't been in quite such a hurry. In fact, he'd slowed to a stop and leaned against the corridor wall. He lifted his offended foot and rubbed it, wincing. "You're pretty solid for a small guy, Sandburg."
Blair was immediately solicitous. "Oh, I'm sorry! Do you need me to get the ship's doctor? I think his office is over..."
"That won't be necessary. It's just an ache--not a real pain. If I keep some of the weight off it for a little while, I'm sure it'll be fine. Tell you what, though. If you're really sorry," he held out his arm, "you can give me a little support to my room."
"Certainly." Blair moved up under Jim's arm, putting his own arm around the taller man's back. "Just lean on me oof..." His voice became slightly strained. "As much as you need."
"Thanks." They started down the hall again. Jim comfortably leaned against Blair as they walked, trying to keep the smile off his face as the younger man staggered a bit. Jim patted his shoulder. "You're not just solid, you're sturdy, too. I guess that comes from all the exercise you got dodging tigers in the jungle."
"Oh, there weren't any tigers. They're native to Asia. There were jaguars, and..."
"I was teasing you."
Surprised, Blair turned his head to look at Jim, and found himself staring directly into a pair of pale blue, amused eyes. Jaguars don't have blue eyes, he thought. They have gold or green eyes. So why am I suddenly thinking how feline he looks? "Oh."
"Don't you get teased often? The way all the women in the dining room were fluttering by your table, I would have thought that you had to beat them off with a stick, and teasing is one of their favorite courtship rituals."
Courtship rituals were something Blair could talk about with confidence. "Did you know that among the Chopec, when a committed couple..."
"They hunt and make a kill together, then share the game--yes, I know."
That took Blair aback. "How do you know? That isn't a widely spread fact."
"I spent almost a year with them."
Blair was delighted. Here was someone who could share his rather obscure (as his mother so often reminded him) obsession. "Really? Finally, someone who'll understand..."
"I spent it accidentally, and I don't like to talk about it," said Jim shortly. "And don't change the subject. We were talking about why you weren't suavely juggling three or four nubile maidens--or near maidens--back there."
"Me? I can't talk to one girl without getting my tongue more tangled than my feet usually are."
"Oh, I find that hard to believe. You're doing just fine with me. Here we are." Jim, suddenly much more stable on his feet, released Blair, and unlocked the door to his cabin. Opening it, he invited, "Won't you come into my parlor?" They stepped in, and he shut the door. "Not parlor, actually. William and Steven are sharing a suite--I just took a single room."
"They have three room suites."
Jim arched an eyebrow. "I know. But occasionally..." He touched Blair's bow tie with the tip of one finger, "I like a little privacy. Now, what do you think I should slip into?"
Blair didn't quite choke. "I beg your pardon?"
"The shoes." Jim opened a trunk that was standing against the wall, and indicated a compartmentalized section, one that held around a dozen sets of shoes--some casual, some formal. Jim sat down in a chair beside it, and crossed his legs, propping his foot on his knee. He started to unlace the scuffed shoe. "Since you escorted me up here, you get to choose the shoes."
"Oh. Uh..." Blair bent over, peering.
Jim leaned over quickly, bringing his face close to Blair's. "And I'll let you put them on me, too." Blair stared at him. "It's the least you can do. I'm probably bruised."
"Sure." Blair knelt down to get a better look at the shoes.
Jim had removed his shoe, setting it aside. Now he extended his foot, and lightly stroked his sock clad foot from Blair's shoulder to his chest. "You look cute like that."
Blair froze, but paradoxically he felt a heat kindle inside. Oh, shit! He's not just teasing me, he's flirting with me! How did he know? I wasn't acting flighty, was I? Naomi told me that I'd have to be careful, because some people will bash your face in if they just suspect you like other men.
Blair had led a fairly insulated life, and though he was attracted to other men, he didn't feel any more comfortable flirting with them than he did with women. Actually, he hadn't had much experience with either sex. The gay men in his social set were so careful of their public images that it took Blair ages before he even realized that someone was of his own sexual tastes. So far, the ones he was sure of were either unpleasant, or they were married and had families. That had surprised him at first. Every one of those he'd spoken too had known before they married where their interests truly lay. That put Blair off them. It didn't seem fair to the women, or the children the men had fathered. Jim Ellison was the first attractive, apparently single man who was being open about his interest.
"You're not going to run away, are you?"
Blair resisted the urge to shake his head to clear it. "What?"
"You're looking a little like a deer caught in the headlights."
"No. Just... just a little surprised."
Blair paused, considering this. I've never picked anyone up, or let myself get picked up. He looked at Jim again, taking in the hard body under the stylish clothes, the handsome, humorous face, the short, dark hair, and those remarkable eyes. There wasn't anything the least effeminate about this man, but he was clearly interested in Blair. What the hell. They say that an ocean cruise is a great place for romance. "Yeah." And dear God, couldn't you just once let me say something clever or witty?
"Good." Jim dropped his foot and removed the other shoe. "Now, you'd better pick out those shoes. If we stay too long William and Steven might get the wrong idea. They might think I'm..." His foot stroked Blair's torso again, "trying to sell you insurance." Blair grabbed a pair of shoes blindly and offered them. Jim arched an eyebrow. "They're brown."
Blair looked down. "I think they call them 'oxblood'."
"It's a form of brown. I'm wearing black, Sandburg."
"Geez." He put the shoes away quickly, grabbing at a black pair. "I don't know what I was thinking."
"I can only hope that I have an inkling. Those are an excellent choice." Jim offered his foot. As Blair started to slip the shoes on, then tie the laces, Jim said, "Of course, the Chopec don't wear shoes, but they have an interesting custom. Only a spouse can tie their decorative ankle bracelets. So as they would see it, you're sort of staking a claim on me right now."
"You really do know about them. How did you...?"
"If you insist on talking about it, I'm sending you out of here alone."
"No, don't do that! I'll talk about anything you like."
Jim smiled at him. "You're sweet. I think we're going to be good friends, Sandburg." Jim stood up, and it was brought home to Blair even more forcefully just how tall he was. He reached down, and Blair automatically took his hand. Jim pulled him to his feet. "Let's go get better acquainted back in the dining room, shall we? If we stay here it wouldn't be quite," he leaned down, his mouth close to Blair's ear, and whispered, "respectable."
Blair followed him out of the room, hoping like hell that his dress pants were baggy enough to conceal the beginning of an erection.
They were about to enter the dining room when Jim took hold of his arm and steered him toward the nearby bar. "Let's go in here instead. I don't feel like sharing you with William and Steven right now." He turned to an approaching waiter. "Not one of the tables, okay?" He slipped the man a bill. "And most definitely not the bar."
The bill disappeared. "How about a nice, cozy little booth, sir? I have one over here in the back corner."
He led them over, and they slid in. Jim said, "I'll have a gimlet." He looked at Blair. "Beer for you?"
"Good lord, no! I hate beer."
Jim shook his head, then said, "Well, what do you want, then? Dry, sweet, fruity?"
He's making asking my choice of beverage sound suggestive. Did I get hit by the luck fairy and not realize it? "I'll have what you're having."
Jim held up two fingers, the waiter nodded, and left. Jim turned toward him slightly. "Do you even know what a gimlet is?"
"Good guess. I think you'll like it. One or two should refresh without knocking you cock-eyed. You really don't like beer?"
"I hate it."
"I think I sense passion in that tone. Hate is such a strong word."
"Well, I do. I hate bock beer, lager beer, and steam beer. I don't like pale ale, brown ale, or nut brown ale, porter, or stout." He made a face. "That one makes me ulp just thinking about it. And it's weird, sitting here with you and talking about beer."
"I dislike beer so much--but I'm enjoying this."
Jim smiled at him. "I bet you say that to all the men you trip over."
"I haven't tripped over many... I mean... I've been up the Amazon river for a year."
"I know." Jim lounged back comfortably. "It's a good thing it wasn't two years--I might not have gotten out of my cabin."
"Teasing." There was a moment of silence as Jim let Blair's fluster subside a bit. "I guess I can see why you'd develop an antipathy for the family business." His tone was faintly bitter. "Having it pushed down your throat at every turn, everyone just assuming that you're going to follow the tradition, never taking into account your personal desires."
"Exactly! I'm grateful to beer, but if they suddenly decided to bring back Prohibition, I wouldn't cry about it. I've hated beer since I was six years old. That was when everyone started calling me Hopsie."
"Yeah. Hopsie Sandburg. I felt like... like a damn rabbit."
"Hopsie. I kind of like it." Blair groaned. "Well, it's cute, it fits you. And when you get old, I can call you Popsie. Popsie Hopsie." Blair was smiling reluctantly. "You need to smile more often. You're too serious." The drinks came. As they picked them up, Jim said, "But a few of these should loosen you up nicely. Cheers."
They drank. Blair, sounding surprised, said, "It tastes good. Kind of like fortified limeade."
"Drink up, and we'll try a collins next."
"What's a collins?"
"Sounds good." Blair sipped. "Maybe I should stop at one, though. Like I said, I've been up the Amazon for a year, and they don't have gimlets or collins there. My blood may be a little too pure to handle much alcohol."
"You're kidding. What about the rahka?"
"You know about rahka?" Rahka was the very potent drink that the Chopec fermented from an assortment of berries and fruit.
"I told you I spent time in the jungle, and I can't believe that if you were at all close with the Chopec for a year you didn't have any."
"Once--that was enough."
"Maybe you're right. We'll just finish these, and then go in and look up father and Steven. I don't really want to share you, but if I don't, they'll hunt us down. They're insatiably curious about anyone I'm interested in."
Blair looked down at his hands. "You're interested in me?"
Jim leaned toward him. "Do you think I take every man who trips over me to my cabin, and for drinks?"
"Not in that order, anyway. Drink up."
"He's not coming back," said Steven morosely, turning his drink in his hands. "He's going to get that kid in his room, then eat him alive. We'll be lucky if he leaves bones."
"He's coming back," said William serenely. "And I get the feeling that he won't be quite as aggressive with this one as he might. Jim still has that tiny bit of chivalry nagging at him." He moved a card on the hand of solitaire that was laid out before him. "Hm, that opens a space. I'll need a king."
Steven tossed him a wry look. "I wonder if you'll get it?"
William smiled and dealt a card. "My, my--look at that. King of hearts."
"Which one was it?"
Steven shook his head. "Can't even play a straight game of solitaire."
"It behooves one to keep in practice, son. Did you notice anything unusual, there?"
"Not a thing. Your skill is as sharp as ever."
"May my hands never slow, and my ability to scent a sucker never fade. Speaking of which, here comes Jim with his newest lollipop."
Jim led Blair up to their table. "I decided to let him interact with you two, as long as you both promise not to play too rough." Jim's tone was light, but there was a warning in his eyes. It was saying, I like this one. Don't try to completely skin him.
"Jimmy, one would think that you didn't trust your dear old father." William half rose, shaking Blair's hand. Jimmy hardly gave us a decent introduction before. I'm Colonel William Ellison.
Colonel? Not that old routine. "Oh, brother."
"That would be me." Steven shook hands with Blair, too. "Steven, Jim's baby brother."
William indicated the seat beside him. "Please, Mister Sandburg. If you sit down, perhaps Jim will be less likely to sweep you away again."
Blair shook hands with both the other men and took the indicated seat, while Jim sat in the last free chair, between his father and Blair. "He is kind of abrupt, isn't he?"
"He knows what he wants, and he goes after it. Waiter, bring us a round of brandies, so that we may celebrate a fortuitous meeting." William was gathering the cards back into a pack. "So, Mister Sandburg. Are you returning home, or off on another jaunt?"
"Home. My mother sent me a message complaining that it if I didn't come back soon, she'd have to get pregnant again just to have some company."
"She sounds like a remarkable woman. I'd like to meet her some day."
Oh, I bet you would, thought Jim. Steven's usually the one who entices the prey into the trap, male or female, but you've conned your share of widows and divorcees. He's handling the cards. Any minute now he's going to ask him...
"Do you play bridge, Mister Sandburg?" William was shuffling the cards, deliberately being a touch clumsy.
Blair shrugged. "Yes, but I don't really like it--all that bidding and passing, dummies and tricks."
"Yes," drawled Steven. "The tricks are a little difficult to learn."
"Poker's my game," said Blair.
William and Steven kept expressions of mild interests. It wouldn't do to look gleeful right now. Steven said, "I like poker, but sometimes I forget the progression of the winning hands. Is it straight, then flush, or the other way around?"
"A flush beats a straight," Blair explained, "unless you have a straight flush."
"You'd think that it would have to be one or the other, not both."
Jim had to fight not to roll his eyes. Steven had been able to recite the order of winning hands in poker since he was five years old. He'd also been able to deal those hands on command since he was twelve. So had Jim, but he refused to use the talent now, and that frustrated and irritated Steven and his father.
"Well, I don't feel like bothering the steward for chips right now," said William. "Why don't we play a few hands of bridge?"
"Sure," said Blair. "I have to warn you, though--I'm pretty good at cards."
"Are you? Should we be worried that you'll sharp us?"
"Oh, nothing like that!" Blair smiled sunnily. "I only use my talents for good."
"I'm so relieved," said Steven. "Is poker your speciality?"
"I'm pretty good at it, but what I'm really good at is just... cards." He held out his hand for the deck. "Let me show you."
William handed over the deck and watched as Blair took out the king of diamonds. "Now, watch carefully." He held the card flat in his hand and made a pass over it. All three of the other men at the table clearly saw when he changed the card for the one he'd concealed in his other palm, but when Blair showed them the ace of spades, Steven and William looked astonished.
"Well, I'll be jiggered! How did you do that?" asked William.
"Oh, it's really very simple," said Blair modestly. He went on to demonstrate and explain palming cards to one of the most skilled card sharps he was ever likely to meet.
"Amazing. Boys, he does card tricks," said William.
"Yes. Isn't it sweet?" said Jim shortly. Parlor tricks with cards were a notorious mark of a... well, a mark. "Perhaps you shouldn't play with him, Dad." Jim pointed at the wall. There was a sign that said PASSENGERS ARE ADVISED TO BE CAUTIOUS OF TRAVELING PROFFESSIONAL GAMBLERS.
"Yes," said William, giving his eldest son a hard look, "but Mister Sandburg looks as honest as we are. I'm willing to trust him." William was shuffling the cards. It was a good thing that Blair was preoccupied with looking at the sign because William forgot himself for a moment and shuffled with his usual professional dexterity.
He began to deal out the cards. When he skimmed the first one to Jim, Jim stabbed down, trapping it with his fingertip, then skimmed it back at him. "I think I'll just sit this one out and kibitz."
"Then we'll play three handed," said William firmly. "And don't kibitz too much, Jim, or Mister Sandburg will think you're passing us tips."
The waiter put snifters of brandy in front of each of the men, wishing them a good evening. William lifted his glass, saying, "I think that this fortuitous meeting deserves a toast. Washington and Valley Forge."
Steven lifted his glass. "Dewey and Manilla!"
Getting into the spirit, Blair lifted his glass. "Roosevelt and San Juan!" He looked expectantly at Jim.
Jim was drumming his fingers on the table. He didn't really feel like offering a toast--he knew that Steven and William were celebrating what they saw as a windfall. He glanced at the waiting Sandburg, and thought. Maybe I'll have something to celebrate myself. He raised his glass. "Damon and Pythias."
The game began, and went on for close to two hours. The crowd was thinning out as William started tallying up the scores. "I'm afraid you've whipped the Ellison’s rather badly, young man."
"I did?" Blair seemed surprised. "I know I won more than I lost, but I'm afraid I wasn't keeping track. I was distracted." Jim had been engaging him in a running conversation. He wasn't worried about Blair being taken to the cleaners at this game. No, this was the set up. Steven and William would show Blair how innocent they were by losing to him. It was a calculated gamble. If they couldn't entice him into another game before they reached New York the Ellison wallets were going to be rather flat. America might be home, but it wasn't any more forgiving of a lack of funds than any other country.
"Well, you must play better distracted than most people do concentrating," said Steven. "What's the damage, Dad?"
"Let me see... Bring down and carry... My word. Well, I'm not sure if it was luck or skill, but I lost five hundred, and you, Steven, owe him roughly one hundred."
"Owe?" said Blair, surprised. "But I thought we were playing for fun."
"We were," Steven agreed. "Didn't you have fun?"
"We always play for money. If you don't, where's the fun? It's like swimming in an empty pool."
"Which is better than diving into one head first," said Jim.
Steven gave him a dark look as William pulled out his wallet. "I'll take care of both our debts, Steven, and you can recompense me later." He peeled bills off an impressive looking wad.
Blair had no way of knowing that the money represented pretty much the complete financial holdings of these three men, and one he hadn't yet met. As Blair reluctantly took the money, he gave Steven an apologetic grimace. "I'm sorry. If I'd known we were playing for cash, I'd have gone easy on you."
Steven smiled. "Oh, don't worry. You're going to give me a chance to win it back, aren't you?"
"Sure. Be happy to."
Jim stood up. "Tomorrow is tomorrow, but right now the waiters are giving us pained looks. It's time we let them get on with their clearing away."
"Is it that late?" asked Blair.
"If we don't go soon they might not have time to get ready for the breakfast crowd."
"I lost track of the time." He gave Jim a shy look as he stood up. "I guess that happens when you're in good company."
"Come on, Doctor Livingston," said Jim. "We'll see if we can't make you lose track of some more time." Out in the hall, Jim hooked his arm through Blair's. "Tell me, Sandburg--are you always this trusting? I mean, you gamble with people you've just met, you go into a stateroom with someone you literally fell over. Did you used to take candy from strangers when you were a child?"
"Well, I haven't been around a lot of people for most of my life. I was kinda sickly when I was little--"
"You don't look it." Jim ran his hand across Blair's shoulders.
"Th-thank you. Anyway, I had tutors at first, and then Naomi sent me to a small private school. They didn't believe in having their student's mingle much with the locals. I thought that when I went to college I'd have a chance to really move out into the world." Blair sighed. "Naomi bought a second house right next to the campus so I wouldn't have to leave home. I had to fight her like crazy on every single expedition I've ever been on. She was threatening to have a coronary when I was accepted for this one." Blair's expression became mulish. "She'd tried that tactic before, but this time I'd talked to her doctor before I told her I was going." He smiled. "So I went, and she won the country club senior women's singles tournament last month."
"I think the ability to pass out guilt is issued to every parent," said Jim.
"Do you have that problem with William?"
"You have no idea. He's pressured me something fierce to go into the family business."
"That's something we have in common, then."
"Here we are."
"Well, I've had a great evening, and I hope that tomorrow..."
"Are you going somewhere?"
"Uh... to my room." Is he going to ask me in again? Oh, man, that would be wonderful, but it's so sudden. Maybe I shouldn't...
"Sandburg, this is your room."
Blair looked at the brass number on the door. "It is. That's funny."
Blair cleared his throat. "Would you like to come in and see Emma?"
Jim gave him an amused look. "I've never known anyone who gave it a female pet name."
"Oh, Emma's not a pet--she's a specimen."
"I'll bet. Sure, I'll go see Emma."
They entered Blair's room, and he looked around. "I thought that Mugsy left Emma out on the dresser."
Jim blinked. "Mugsy should put Emma away when he's through playing with her." I must have gotten hold of the wrong end of the innuendo, but he doesn't look like the kind who'd be into toys. Well, not without a little encouragement, anyway.
"Maybe he put her in the bathroom, so she'd be warmer."
Jim was staring at him. "How is that possible?" I mean, I've heard of a wife keeping a man's balls in her pocket, but...
"Oh, it wouldn't be hard. See, she has her own little box, and... There it is, on that shelf."
Toys after all. This may really be interesting.
Blair took a small wooden box off the shelf and brought it to Jim. "I'll have to ask him not to do that again. She isn't used to heights, and..." He opened the box, stared, and then looked around anxiously. "She's not here. She must have gotten out."
"Gotten...? What are we talking about here?"
"A rare Brazilian variety of the glass snake. She's a new species discovered by Professor Jones, and... Where are you going?"
Jim was backing slowly toward the door, eyes darting alertly around the room. "I'm getting out of here. A snake."
"Yes." Blair sounded bewildered. "I thought you knew."
"I figured you were just being coy."
"What did you think I was talking about?"
Jim gave him a direct look. "A trouser snake."
"A what?" Jim's gaze flicked down to Blair's fly, then up to his face, and he cocked an eyebrow. Blair suddenly realized what he meant, and his face flamed, even as his heart leapt with glad excitement. "There's nothing to be worried about. She's totally harmless."
"Look, I had to deal with snakes on an almost daily basis for longer than I like to think, and I'm here to tell you that you never assume that a snake is harmless. Where is it?" Jim was right beside the bed, and he caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. His head jerked around, and he could see the slim, darkly shiny snake slithering under the pair of pajamas that were neatly laid out on the foot of the bed--about a foot from his knee. "Son of a bitch!"
It was a startled near-yell. Blair made shushing motions. "You're going to scare her."
"I'm going to scare her?"
"But you don't have to be afraid of Emma. Why, she's as playful as a kitten."
"Then throw her a ball of yarn, but keep her away from me. I'm out of here." Jim slammed the door open, narrowly missing the dignified elderly couple who was passing. "And you just keep your slimy snake to yourself, Sandburg! If I was interested in animals, I'd go to a zoo." He hurried away.
The couple looked at each other, and then looked through the door at the flustered Blair. The man's double chin firmed, and he growled, "Shame on you!"
"But it was nothing..."
"That's what they all say," said the woman balefully.
Blair rubbed his head vigorously. "Geeze, they're going to arrest me when we land." Jim Ellison must think he was an awful dope now, and Blair didn't want him to. He hurried after the other man, calling. "Jim, wait! I can explain..."
Jim was turning a corner, and he yelled back. "What's to explain? Cold blooded, scaly, slimy..."
"But she's not!" Blair was scurrying after him. Jim was almost to the foot of a staircase as Blair started down. "If you'll just hold her you'll see..."
The older couple was behind him now, and the woman said, "Young man, he obviously isn't interested! Why don't you talk to the boy in charge of the deck chairs? I'm pretty sure he's wearing rouge."
"Windburn," said her husband shortly.
Blair caught up with Jim as the other man reached his cabin. "Jim, I'm sorry. I had no idea you were afraid of snakes."
"I am not afraid of snakes."
He went into the cabin, and Blair followed him. "Okay, then--squeamish about them."
"And I'm not squeamish. Cautious. I'm sensibly cautious. Look under the bed."
"You're the one who let it get loose--you check under the bed. If I leaned over and it came slithering toward my face, I just might have a heart attack."
"And you're not scared?"
Jim gritted his teeth. "Shall I make it easier for you to check by stuffing you under there?"
Blair bent down and peered under the bed. "Not there, but it wouldn't be. Jim, we came down a flight of stairs, and we were moving so fast that the poor thing couldn't..."
"Now check in the bed."
Blair stared at him. "Now you're being silly."
Jim crossed his arms, eyes narrowing. "If you harbor any hope of seeing beneath those sheets for a more pleasant reason, you'd better do it." Blair quickly began rummaging under the covers, and then got a surprised look on his face. "I knew it! It probably slithered through an air duct to get here before us."
"Snakes can't plan in advance."
"Says you. You found it, didn't you?"
"Not Emma." Blair pulled out a limp, stoppered rubber bag. "But a cold hot water bottle can be a nasty shock." As he laid it aside he said, "Now are you satisfied?"
"Not yet, but the night is young."
Jim walked over to a chaise lounge and took a seat, patting the cushion beside him. "I don't know you well enough yet to sit on the bed for a chat. Come sit over here with me."
Blair went over. The lounge was small, barely big enough for two people. Jim was big, and he wasn't scooting over to make more room. I'll have to really wedge myself in to get a firm seat, Blair thought. That didn't seem polite, so he instead tried to perch on the very edge of the seat.
It didn't work. The soft cushion bent, and he slid, thumping off onto the floor. Jim looked down at him, saying wryly, "It isn't the first time I've had a good-looking man at my feet, but you seem determined to keep doing it by accident." Before Blair could scramble up Jim half reclined, bringing his face down beside Blair's, and he hooked an arm around the younger man's neck, holding him in place. "Don't bother to get up on my account."
For not the first time since he'd met Jim Ellison, Blair felt dazed. "Okay."
There was a moment of silence. Jim twirled a curl of Blair's hair around his finger. "Comfy?"
Blair could smell Jim's after shave--clean and sharp. "I'm not sure how to answer that."
"It's got to be more comfortable than what you were used to out in the jungle, unless that Professor Jones was really something else."
Blair missed the innuendo. "He's the second greatest living expert on reptiles."
"Only the second?"
"I'm taking Emma to the first greatest."
"Oh, good. Will he stuff her?"
"No! He'll study her, then give her back to me. I'm going to keep her."
"Then I don't suppose I'll be visiting once we're in New York."
"I don't live in New York. We have a place in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and there's lots of room. She can stay in the guest house."
Jim snuggled his cheek close to Blair's. "That might be all right. You smell good."
"I do? Thank you."
"Don't mention it. Is there anyone special waiting at home?"
"Naomi. I don't have any brothers or sisters."
"No, I meant someone..." Jim turned his head so that he was almost nuzzling Sandburg's ear, "special."
"Oh." Blair cleared his throat. "No, not really. I suppose I should have settled down and had a family by now, but I've just never met the right person."
Blair turned his head to look into Jim's eyes, and their lips almost, but not quite, touched. "Or boyfriend."
"Now that," said Jim softly, "is a waste." He kissed Blair--on the forehead.
Blair had closed his eyes in anticipation, and now he opened them again, a little bewildered. "I suppose she, or he, is out there somewhere. I just haven't met him yet."
Ah-ha. We've gone over to the masculine pronoun now. "Just wandering around? It would be a shame if you missed each other."
"You know how it is when you're trying to catch up to someone. You arrive just after they left, they'll be there at three o'clock, but the world ends if you aren't somewhere else by two. I suppose you know what he'll look like, too."
Blair gazed at him. "I have an idea."
"Let's see... I guess that he's like Leslie Howard in Gone with the Wind. Blond, refined, aristocratic."
"No, not quite so... so genteel."
"Glad to hear it. How are his teeth?" Blair gave him a blank look. "You should get one with good teeth. It'll save expenses in the long run."
"You're teasing me again," Blair accused.
"Just a little," Jim admitted. "But there's nothing wrong with having an ideal. I guess we all do."
"What's yours like?" Blair said hopefully.
"He's tall, and has a lot of money," Jim said promptly.
Blair tried not to sound crestfallen, since his head barely cleared Ellison's shoulder. "Why tall?"
"So he can meet me on my own level, and rich because--well, why not rich? No one thinks much of it if a girl marries for money. I want one who won't be calculating how much everything costs when we're out on the town. He won't smoke--I hate that. You can never get rid of the smell." He sniffed a lock of Blair's hair. "You don't smoke. And he won't use that greasy pomade in his hair. I like how you have yours done, by the way. What else? Oh, yeah--he won't do card tricks." At Blair's stricken look he said quickly, "Oh, it's not that I mind you doing card tricks--it's kinda cute. But, well--face it. Have you ever heard anyone describe their ideal, and end with 'and he has to do card tricks'?"
"I guess not. Anyway, that doesn't sound like he'd be too hard to find."
"Oh, he isn't--that's why he's my ideal. What's the point in having one if you'll never find it? No, mine is a practical ideal. You just have to know where to look. There are probably a dozen just on this ship who'd suit."
"Why don't you marry one of them?"
Jim made a face. "Have you gotten a look at the average first class passenger on this boat? Most of them are at least as old as William, or about two or three times his size. Why would I want to commit myself to someone who looked like that? I'm going to give myself to someone I've never seen before. I don't know exactly what he looks like, or sounds like, where he comes from. It'll be totally unexpected. I want him to take me by surprise."
"Like a mugger?" said Blair ruefully.
"Something like that. I'll just be standing there. Maybe it'll be night time, and the air will be sweet and clean." Jim's lips were almost against Blair's ear. His voice dropped to a husky whisper. "I'll hear footsteps behind me, and heavy breathing, and then..." Blair turned his head to gaze at him expectantly. Jim whispered, "and then... Will you look at the time?"
He sat back up, glancing at his wristwatch. "You'd better go to bed, Hopsie. If you stay any longer, well... My reputation, you know."
As Blair got to his feet he said, "I thought you were worried about Emma."
"As you say, she's hardly likely to make her way down here. I think I can sleep peacefully now."
Blair started for the door, muttering, "I wish I could say the same."
Jim grinned. "Why Hopsie. That's sweet." Blair hesitated hopefully at the door, but Jim just twiddled his fingers. "Sleep tight..." Blair sighed and left, closing the door. "...Beautiful."
The next morning, Rafe was enjoying a hearty breakfast at one of the little tables set up on deck. He'd had a profitable and productive evening the night before. At William's direction, he'd done his best to keep Sandburg's bodyguard/nanny distracted, and he'd had some success. Mugsy was as much of a sucker for a game of cards as his boss, though he was a lot more suspicious. Rafe didn't care--he'd learned from the best. He'd managed to keep Mugsy from following Blair while the sting was being set up, and he was almost a hundred dollars richer in the bargain. Life was good.
Mugsy, a dour, tough looking man in his late forties, came out on deck. When he spotted Rafe his expression became even more sour. Rafe waved at him cheerfully, and Mugsy came over. "Good morning," said Rafe. "Sleep well?"
"Not really," said Mugsy. "I sat up tryin' to figure out how you managed to rook me last night."
Rafe shook a fork at him. "Sore loser. Just because the luck wasn't running your way is no reason to cast aspersions."
"If I could prove you dealt funny, it wouldn't be aspersions I'd be castin'."
"I'll forgive you." He gestured at another chair. "Have a seat and I'll buy you breakfast."
"I don't need charity. I get a good salary."
"Touchy, touchy. But if you get a good salary, maybe you'd like to try your luck again tonight?"
"Maybe." His tone was almost grudging. "Hey, speaking of work, your boss was with my boss last night, right?"
"I believe that Mister Sandburg joined the Ellison party."
"What did they do to the kid? He's been wanderin' around in a daze ever since he got up. He even sent me to get Emma's breakfast, and he usually insists on doin' that himself."
Emma? I thought Sandburg was traveling alone, except for this goon. Did he meet someone on board? Jim's nose will be very out of joint. "Who's Emma?"
"She's a snake."
Rafe blinked. "Well, I've known a few women that I'd call by an animal term, but it's more canine than serpentine."
A steward bustled up to Mugsy, saying brightly. "Good morning, sir. Any breakfast today? We have eggs, sausage, bacon, ham, flapjacks, hash browns, fresh fruit, orange juice..." Mugsy was trying to wave him to a stop, but the man was on a roll. "Tomato juice, oatmeal, scones, waffles..."
"Look!" The man stuttered to a halt, looking at Mugsy expectantly. "Gimme a sip of milk, a raw pigeon egg, and four house flies. If you can't catch the flies, a cockroach will do. Send it to Mister Sandburg's cabin." He turned and stalked away.
The steward and Rafe exchanged looks, and Rafe slowly pushed his still filled plate away. "Just coffee, I think."
A few minutes later Mugsy opened the door of Blair's cabin and accepted a dish from a rather queasy looking steward. The man walked away, muttering, "The passenger is always right. The passenger is always right. Sometimes they're nuts, but they're always right."
Mugsy shrugged and shut the door, walking back into the bathroom, where Blair was shaving. Blair didn't stop, saying, "Is that Emma's breakfast?"
"It ain't Post Toasties." Mugsy watched Blair as he carefully scraped foam and bristles off his face, then shook his head. "I remember when I thought you weren't ever gonna grow enough whiskers to shave, and look at you now. If you don't shave every day, you look like a porcupine."
Blair tossed him an amused glance in the mirror. "Thank you. Better give that to Emma before it gets chilled. We don't want her to get a stomach ache."
"Not with all the belly she has to deal with," Mugsy agreed. He went to where the snake's box sat on the dresser and opened it, setting the dish inside. "Here ya go, Emma. Dunk your whiskers in that." He closed the lid.
"Maybe we should weight the lid of that box," said Blair, wiping the last few flecks of soap off his face. "She got out last night and scared a visitor half to death."
"Yeah, it's a shame she only does things by half measure."
"Mugsy!" Blair gave him a reproving look.
"Well, what kind of a guy fast talks his way into a complete stranger's cabin if he don't intend to lift something? Did you check to make sure your cuff links were still here?"
"I was wearing the only set I have with me. You know I'm traveling light--you carry the luggage." He started to put his shirt on over his undershirt. "I'd do it, if you'd let me."
"No," said Mugsy stubbornly. "Your Ma pays me to look after ya. You won't take my advice about who ya should associate with, so I have to at least keep you from straining ya back. You say they wanted to play cards. I don't like that."
"What else was there to do? We couldn't dance. Besides, you don't need to worry. I took them for over five hundred dollars."
Mugsy grunted. "Maybe they just ain't showed you all their tricks yet."
Blair sighed. "For the last time, Mugsy, it was totally innocent--darn it." Blair thought for a moment, and then put on a jacket and tie. "Say, don't big ships like this have a sort of gift shop, or florist? I'd like to make a romantic gesture."
Mugsy gave him an alarmed look. "Kid, you know I don't have any problem with the fact that your favorite type of company don't wear nylons and make-up, right?"
Blair was amused. "I don't like those kinds of guys, Mugsy."
"Be serious for a minute. I know you like guys, and I'm okay with that. You're a good kid. But Blair--you gotta be careful, even more careful than a guy who likes dames. Pick the wrong one, and it could get real nasty, real fast. And I don't just mean scandal-wise. You're tough enough, but that guy you were with last night... He may not be two of you, but he's at least one-and-a-half. If he decided to rough you up..."
"Jim isn't like that."
"Oh, it's already Jim, huh? Too fast, Blair. Too fast."
"Mugsy, most of my life I've been at a standstill. Now I'm on a roller coaster, and I like it. See you later."
As he left Mugsy called, "Well, just be careful that you don't get your ticket punched."
William was idly practicing his card shuffling technique when he heard the yell come from Jim's connecting bedroom. He rushed through the connecting bathroom, alarmed, to find his son sitting bolt upright in bed, sweating. "Jim, what is it?"
A little pale, Jim scrubbed a hand over his face. "Nightmare. Sorry if I startled you."
William sat on the edge of the bed. "Don't apologize, son. But you haven't had one of these incidents for months." When Jim had returned from being marooned in the jungle, vivid nightmares had been an almost nightly occurrence. They'd gradually become less frequent, though. As William said, it had been months since Jim had awakened suddenly, sweating with dread.
"You're right. I guess it was that incident with Sandburg last night."
William looked surprised. "Really? He seems like a nice boy, and I know you're attracted to him. What could he have done to suddenly become so repulsive?"
"He's far from repulsive. It's just... Dad, he's traveling with a snake act."
"Tried to mesmerize you, eh?"
"No, Dad--a real snake. You know--slithers, forked tongue, scales?"
"Oh. I see." William did see. One of the nastier aspects of Jim's forced sojourn in the jungle was the time that he'd been bitten by a poisonous snake. It was a good thing that he'd been with the Chopec, because he'd have died if they hadn't treated him quickly. He'd lived, but he'd gone through days of agony, and the medicine they'd used to treat him had certain hallucinogenic side-effects. He hadn't been afraid of snakes when he went into the jungle, but he had issues with them now. Normally, that wasn't a problem--he just avoided the reptile house at the zoo. "Most boys grow out of that collecting cold blooded things stage by the time they're twelve. Well, unless they move on and continue to collect certain types of women. What on earth is he doing with a snake at his age?"
"He went up the Amazon looking for it." Jim sighed. "The ship's gossip seems to be accurate this time around. He is who they say he is, and he's just as rich as they imagine. He's the real deal, all right."
"Good, good. I'd hate to think that Steven and I had used our time and funds sweetening the wrong kitty. If you'd rather avoid him after last night, it won't be a problem, Jimmy. We have the hook well set."
"Oh, I wouldn't go as far as all that. I'll just stay out of his room." He noticed the deck of cards that William was holding, and reflected that William looked most like himself like this. "Practicing?"
"A professional should never be so confident that he allows his skills to get dull. Even Paderwerski occasionally plays scales. To quote, 'If I don't practice for one day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, the critics know it. If I don't practice for three days, everyone knows it.'" He fanned the cards out, face up, on the bed, gave them a quick glance, and then gathered them again.
Jim didn't like what his father did for a living, but he could appreciate a skill that bordered on real talent. He sat back against the headboard, saying, "Show me the aces."
"Where do you want them?" William asked agreeably.
"Third hand." William began to deal four hands, his movements smooth, but not obviously careful. "What are you dealing?"
"You're never! Show me."
William tapped the smaller stacks of cards in turn. "Full house, fives and threes. Two pair, kings over nines. Four aces with a six kicker--we don't want to be greedy. And absolute shit."
Jim turned the cards over, and they were just as William had said. He shook his head, smiling. "How could I doubt you?" As William gathered the cards again, Jim said, "Tell me my fortune."
"You haven't asked for that in ages, Jim."
Jim shrugged. "I'm just thinking about the future for some reason." There was a knock on the door and Jim said, "You get it, will you? I don't feel like getting up yet."
"Certainly." William went and opened the door. There was a steward standing in the corridor. He was carrying a small tray, and William said, "I don't think he's ready for breakfast yet."
"Not breakfast, sir," said the man. "Mister Ellison?"
"Which one?" The man looked puzzled. "There are three Mister Ellison’s on board. Which one are you looking for?"
The man consulted a small pasteboard card. "Mister Jim Ellison."
"My son. He isn't up yet, but I can take whatever that is." He took the tray. "I tip at the end of the trip," he said, shutting the door quickly.
"Since when did you pass out tips at the end of a trip?" said Jim. "You only do it when you're starting a scam, so that the staff will treat you like a big shot and impress the mark."
"I often give tips." William brought the tray over to the bed. "The usual tip is that they shouldn't get in card games unless they can afford it."
Jim eyed the contents of the tray--a long, slender bundle of tissue paper. "What's that?"
"How should I know? It's yours--you open it." He set the tray on Jim's lap. "Though if I had to guess, I would hazard that it's a tribute from an admirer." Jim unwrapped the tissue and smiled slowly. It was a single long-stemmed red rosebud. "I'll be damned. Why is it that the richest ones give the cheapest gifts?"
Jim picked up the rose and ran his fingers along the stem, feeling the bumps where the thorns had been carefully stripped away. He brushed his fingertips over the soft petals, then closed his eyes and savored the sweet scent. He didn't have to bring it up to his face to do this. Eyes still closed, Jim said, "When was the last time someone sent me flowers?"
"Probably when your prom date gave you the boutonniere."
"That was a carnation." Jim found the card that had been placed back on the tray. His name was on the outside, written in a clear, rounded hand. He opened it and read the message inside, his smile growing even wider. Finally, he tucked the card in his pajama pocket and said, "Hand me my robe."
"I thought you wanted to stay in bed."
Jim patted the pocket. "I have a breakfast date."
Blair was sitting at one of the little tables on deck. He'd passed a dark haired man as he entered the dining area, and recognized him as the Ellison valet. Mugsy had described him in very colorful terms. Apparently, the man wasn't a good sailor--there was still a lot of food on the plate he left behind. He was a friendly sort, though. That was quite a smile he'd given Blair when he passed. I might have even been interested in him--if I hadn't just met Jim.
Blair took a seat and waved away the waiter when he approached with an absent, "I'm waiting for someone." He gazed out at the rolling waves, thinking, I just hope that I'm not waiting in vain. Was I too presumptuous? He might want to spend the cruise with his family. Or there are probably a ton of people on board who'd be drooling for the chance to be with him. Why me? And why am I questioning my good luck? If he doesn't show up, should I just leave him alone, or...?
It became a moot point. Jim strolled out onto the deck. He zeroed in on Blair immediately and walked over. Standing beside the younger man he lifted his lapel with his thumb, saying, "Thanks for this."
Blair saw that he'd used the rose he'd sent as a boutonniere. "I'm glad you liked it. I wasn't sure if it was appropriate, or if you'd think it was stupid."
"No, it's fine." He sat beside Blair. "I just had to cut it down. If I'd tried to use it as it was, I'd have ended up tucking the end of the stem in my pants, and that could be damn uncomfortable."
"You like teasing me, don't you?"
The waiter, seeing that Blair had been joined, bustled over again. "Good morning, gentlemen. Anything for breakfast? We have eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, flapjacks, waffles, fresh fruit..."
Jim was running his fingers gently over the rosebud, and Blair was watching him, distracted into near fascination. "Just a couple of martinis."
The waiter stuttered to a halt, and Jim said, "Isn't it a little early for martinis?"
"I guess so. Make it scotch and sodas." He looked at Jim. "Do you take it with soda?"
Jim's lips quirked. "I usually take it black."
"Okay. Two black label, over ice."
The waiter swallowed. "Look, the chef has this concoction that does wonders for hangovers. I think it has an egg in it. Why don't I get you that?"
"We're fine for now, thanks," said Jim. As the man left, shaking his head, Jim said, "Professor, you really ought to make sure your brain is in gear before putting your mouth in drive. You've given that man dinner conversation for the next month."
Blair blinked, and then suddenly realized what he'd been saying. "Oh, gosh. He either thinks I'm a fruitcake, or a dipsomaniac."
"Neither, I hope."
"Neither. It's just... Well, Jim--my brain doesn't seem to work too well around you. You sort of disorient me." Blair sat forward earnestly. "I imagine that's what life would be like with you--a series of ups and downs, lights and shadows, some irritation, but much happiness."
Jim's smile faded slightly, but it turned warmer. "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me. If only you meant it."
"But I do! Jim, I've told you how it is with me. I haven't interacted romantically enough to develop a smooth line of patter. I'm just saying what I feel."
Jim stared at him. "Blair Sandburg, are you proposing to me?"
Blair flushed. "Uh... no, of course not."
"Because people have been sued for less."
"I mean, I can't... It isn't..."
"Isn't what? Isn't done, isn't legal, isn't right?"
"No!" There was a moment of silence. "Okay, the first two. It isn't legal, which is stupid, and it isn't done, which proves how often people don't follow their hearts. But the last thing... It feels right, Jim."
Jim regarded him seriously, then said slowly, "Those sort of declarations are dangerous to make to people you don't know well."
"I know you," said Blair simply.
"All right--for people you haven't known long."
"But I've known you for a long, long time. It feels like that, anyway." Blair clasped his hands on the table. He desperately wanted to let Jim know how deeply he'd affected him, and he prayed that for once his tongue wouldn't get tangled around his eye-teeth so that he couldn't see how to talk. "It's like I've known you my entire life. You see, I have known that I'd meet someone, some day, and it would be like they were with me always. At every stage of my life I've thought about the person I was meant to be with. When I look at you, I see that person, and all the other versions of us that there have been down through the years."
Blair had a rapt look, and Jim thought, He is sincere about this. It isn't just a line.
"I see us when we were just little kids, walking through the woods. You like to be out in nature, don't you?" Jim nodded. "I could tell. Walking, and holding hands because we're too young to know that guys aren't supposed to hold hands. And then a little older, still walking in the woods. Not holding hands now, because society has taught us that it isn't manly. I wonder which one of us it was that stopped?" He smiled. "In that vision, you're already taller than I am. Then more years pass. You've shot up like a bean pole, and you're a little lanky, feet and hands a little too big, because you haven't grown into them yet."
How in God's name did he know that? I thought my 'awkward stage' was never going to pass.
"And then we're both adults, and we're together." He looked at Jim directly. "But it isn't happening in a forest--it's on the ocean--and it's real."
"I think you're right, Blair. It's real." He paused. "I think... I think I want to tell you about my time in the jungle."
Blair was tremendously excited to find that they'd shared many of the same experiences. Jim didn't tell him about the enhanced senses, though. What they had now might not be strong enough to survive the revelation that he was a little bit of a freak. If it was strong, though--if it was as right as it felt--then he'd tell him. They spent the rest of the day together, talking about everything, and nothing. By the time evening rolled around Jim was pretty damn sure that Blair Sandburg was the man he wanted to spend his life with, and it just might be possible. Off-beat relationships were accepted more readily in Blair's circle than they were in middle-class society. Every social set had a couple of old maids or old bachelors living together quite happily. People just said that they didn't want to live alone, and left it at that. If he went with Blair they could never legally marry, but they could be a couple, and unless one of them acted fickle, most others would consider them as tightly joined as the average mixed sex couple.
Jim had given up on that. After the fiasco of his marriage, he'd resigned himself to living alone, besides an occasional lover. He figured that if he was lucky he might find someone to be with for a year or two, but the sort of people he knew always moved on. The people he was thinking of were not gays, either--they were the hidden society of sharps, frauds, and scam artists that his family had been part of for generations. There were a few happy marriages, he supposed, but off hand he couldn't name one. His own mother had disappeared before he reached double digits in age. He supposed that William had missed her, but it hadn't slowed him down.
They parted in the early evening, going to their respective cabins to dress for dinner. Jim got into his evening clothes, then went into his father's room. Rafe, William, and Steven were all gathered there, probably discussing strategy. Rafe was just saying, "I stacked it with the face cards in the middle, and aces near the top."
"Good, good. You're an artist at producing a cold deck, Rafe. I'll have no trouble keeping them in place while looking as if I'm giving them a thorough mix."
Steven gave Jim a look and said, "Jim, you have canary feathers around your mouth."
"How is our little beer baron?" William was shuffling a deck of cards.
"Fine. Wonderful, in fact. I've never met anyone like him," said Jim.
"Really? He struck me as a simple specimen of the Sucker Sapiens--a fine example, but nothing special."
Jim sat beside him. "But he is. He's intelligent, sweet, funny, kind... You know, he's responsible for seeing that Sandburg Beer sponsors several scholarships each year for poor students."
"Oh, and generous, too. Fine, fine."
"Scholarships aren't cheap," said Steven, with satisfaction. "If he can afford to hand them out, he'll hardly miss what we're going to take."
Jim sat up a little straighter. "I think he's in love with me."
"Of course he is," agreed William. "You're the handsomest, most dashing male on the seven seas. Who is he not to love you?" He chuckled. "He's going to be so discombobulated tonight that he won't know a king from a deuce."
"Dad, you're not listening. I'm in love with him, too."
"Well, that's wonderful. No reason why you shouldn't amuse yourself while we go about our business. Maybe you can get a nice little vacation..."
"Dad. I--said--I--love--him. Not lust after him, though there is that. Love. As in 'till death do us part'. He's made me feel things I didn't think I was capable of feeling. He thinks I'm something special, and I'd give a lot to be... I'm going to be what he thinks I am. You aren't considering going ahead and taking him after I've told you that, are you?"
William's attitude cooled. "You aren't considering asking me not to?"
"I'm not asking you--I'm telling you."
Rafe and Steven were watching the exchange, heads swiveling back and forth like spectators at a tennis match. Steven said, "Damn. I thought that since you were only interested in men we wouldn't have to worry about you going soft headed on us. Jim, you know we need this. We're broke. If we don't, we might as well go straight from the boat to a soup kitchen."
"That won't be necessary," said Jim. "Of course I won't ask Blair to support you, but I can get a job and help you out. You can all go straight, too." He ignored the horrified looks that Rafe and Steven were giving him. "Dad, you know that you should retire--you've been bucking the odds for so long that they're bound to catch up with you, and you don't want to spend your golden years surrounded by iron bars. Blair said we can get our own place, and there'll be enough room for you, too."
"And then what?" said William almost wearily. "I spend my days doing cross-words and puttering in a garden, maybe picking up some pin money playing penny a point bridge on the weekend with the other duffers? The trouble with people who reform is that they expect everyone else to give up their vices. No, Jim. I'll drop in the traces." His expression hardened. "And this little coupe isn't going to be my last."
Jim's eyes narrowed. "You can win back what we lost to him last night. That's only fair."
"Oh, I can win back a good deal more than that, and I intend to."
"No. I won't let you."
"You can't stop me, Jim. Not without sending your poor old father to jail and you won't do that."
"No, I can't, but I will stop you." He stood up and stalked to Rafe, putting out his hand. "Give me one of those decks." Rafe passed it over. Jim gave them a quick shuffle that was as dexterous as any William could manage, then in quick succession he turned up all the aces. "I'm not your kid for free, you know." He left the room.
Rafe shook his head. "I wish I dared sit in and observe. Ellison vs. Ellison. This has the air of a card scam legend in the making."
Steven slapped him on the back. "You have more important matters to tend to. You have to see to it that the pit bull watching Sandburg is kept distracted."
"Well, all right," sighed Rafe. "But I suppose I'd better throw him a bone instead of poking him with a sharp stick. I'm not losing back more than I won, though."
William looked after Jim, and shook his head. "Children don't respect their parents anymore."
Later that evening William, Steven, Jim, and Blair were playing cards in the smoking room. Steven was, for once in his life, playing straight. He and William had decided that both of them working might cause Jim to have to split his attention, but there was too much of a chance for a slip up. Steven regarded the small pile of chips in front of him sourly, and then examined his hand with an even more bitter expression. He hadn't gotten anything better than three of a kind all night--and none of those with face cards. Jim was not only kicking his butt, he was making sure that he knew it. Steven stole a look at Blair Sandburg. Sure, he was a good looking kid, and he was rich that always helps, but Jim had never let that affect him before. While he didn't actively participate in fleecing the marks, he didn't warn them, or try to prevent it. He'd always been of the opinion that if someone was naive enough to get themselves into a poker game with William Ellison, well, they needed to be shaken out of their complacency before something really harmful came along.
Blair sighed as he threw in his hand. "My luck certainly seems to have turned. I'm not doing nearly as well as I did last night."
"Really?" said Jim. "How much are you down?"
"Just close to two thousand."
Just. "That sounds like a nice, round figure to stop on."
William was watching Jim with a bland expression, but the look in his eyes was exasperated. "One more hand, and we can do away with the betting limit. After all, Mister Sandburg, I should give you a chance to win back your money."
"I don't think..."
"Sure, one more hand won't hurt," said Blair.
William reached for the deck, but Jim (who had a longer reach) got to it first. "Oh, no. Since I'm going to be sitting this one out, I'll deal." He glared at his father. "Any objection?"
"Not at all, not at all." The look William returned said that he was through putting up with Jim's interference. "I feel quite lucky. I'm afraid you're going to lose your shirt, young man. But then I suppose you have a dozen or so others back at your cabin."
"Hm?" Blair was watching as Jim shuffled the deck, his big hands moving quickly and precisely.
"Never mind." Jim dealt the cards. William picked his up and looked at them. Two, five, nine, jack, and four--suits all over the map. Damn. I know you don't want me to win, Jim, but this is overkill. Well, we'll see about that. William coughed several times. Voice clogged, he said, "Pardon me," and pulled out a handkerchief, wiping his mouth. He laid it down for a moment and took a sip from his glass of water, then put the handkerchief away and picked up his cards again. Now he was holding four kings and a two. He regarded them smugly, then caught Jim's gimlet gaze.
"Oh, you look pleased with that one. Let me see." William wasn't quick enough to stop him. Jim reached out quickly and grabbed the cards from his hand. He let his hand drop below the edge of the table for a second as his eyes scanned the cards. "Hm. Interesting."
Jim handed them back, and William had to bite back a groan. Now he had two sixes, a four, an eight, and a ten, again of mixed suits. Damn. I suppose he expects me to be grateful that he's at least given me a pair. The old war horse isn't through yet, Jimmy. "I don't have enough money on the table to cover the bet."
"That's okay," said Blair. "I know you're good for it." Jim gave him an incredulous look.
"No, we're paying for cash. Just let me get my wallet." William reached into his jacket. By the time he'd laid down the additional money and resumed his hand, it was four aces and a three.
"I shouldn't have let you do that," said Blair.
"You couldn't have stopped me, dear boy."
"But I'm going to hate to take money from you. I think my hand is going to be pretty hard to beat."
"Mine isn't so bad, either. We'll just have to see, won't we?"
Jim looked at his father, looked at Steven, then reached over and flipped the top card on what remained of the deck. "Well, what do you know--the ace of spades. I could have sworn that one of you had four aces."
William managed not to sigh, finally accepting the inevitable. He wasn't going to be able to do anything with Jim around. Blair said, "I have a straight to the king. Can you beat that?"
"I regret to say that I was bluffing," said William with dignity. He slipped his cards into the discard pile. "Please save me the humiliation of revealing with what."
"How much are you down now, Hopsie?" asked Jim.
"Let's see... With that last hand, I owe your father a thousand dollars."
"And there we leave it. I have to go to the men's room. Why don't you meet me on the A deck in a few minutes?" He tweaked one of Blair's curls. "And no more gambling. Promise?"
"Sure." Blair stared after Jim as he left. "Your son is something else, Mister Ellison."
"That he is."
Steven stood up. "If you'll pardon me, I'm going to go lick my wounds." A cocktail waitress slunk past, casting a sloe-eyed glance at him. He straightened his tie. "Or maybe get another kind of lucky." He followed her.
As William neatened the cards, Blair said, "Mister Ellison? I'm not exactly sure about protocol in a situation like this, but I figure I ought to talk to you, since he's your son."
William stopped. "Has Jimmy been being naughty? You mustn't hold it against him. He's the impulsive sort, and I know he likes you."
"That's just it, sir. I like him, too, and I don't want it to be impulsive. I mean, I'm serious when I offer... It wouldn't be just..." He trailed off. "If Jim was a girl, I'd know what to say. I'd ask you for his hand in marriage."
William sat back, going round-eyed. I'll be a ring-tailed baboon. Jim wasn't kidding--the kid is in love with him. Oh, what we could do with that, if Jim didn't have those pesky ethics. Still, maybe I can salvage something out of this farce. "You astonish me, young man."
"I thought Jim was pretty open about..."
"No, no--not about that. I've known about my son's choices for a long time. That isn't a problem. But this is all rather sudden, isn't it?"
Blair shrugged. "How long does it take? I suppose you know I'm very rich..." William didn't quite roll his eyes. "I can't offer him conventional marriage, but I can see to it that he's safe and secure, and has the sort of lifestyle he deserves. You know, I almost wish that you weren't rich, either. It would be nice to be able to buy him all the expensive, nonsensical things, just for the pleasure of giving him something he'd never had before."
"Yes, that's the trouble with being rich--you have nothing left to want. It's our curse."
"And I won't try to hide him away, and I'll never deny him to anyone who asks. He'll be as much my true partner as I can make him."
"Have you discussed this with Jimmy?"
Blair flushed. "Not specifically, but I think he knows how I feel. I hope he feels the same way."
"I'm delighted, of course. I wish you every happiness. But now I hardly feel right, taking money from the man who's going to be, for all intents and purposes, my son-in-law." William drew the pack of cards toward him again. "Why don't I give you the chance to win it back--double or nothing?"
Blair looked doubtful. "I promised Jim I wouldn't gamble any more."
"This isn't really gambling. We'll just cut cards for it. What say? I'd never forgive myself if you didn't have a chance to get even."
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt." William pushed the cards toward him. Blair cut the deck. "Jack."
William cut. "Queen. You just missed it, my boy. One more try."
"You can afford it, can't you?"
"Of course. It isn't the money, but..."
"Jim will be awhile. Double or nothing again, and you can walk away with a nice little bundle. You can't have much cash on you after being up the Amazon for a year."
"No, but all I have to do if I want it is write a check..."
"Then this will be no problem. Cut." Blair did. "Ten. Hm, I wonder if I can beat that?"
When Blair didn't appear Jim went back to the smoking room. When he saw Blair still at the table with William, he immediately focused on them. Luckily, the crowd had thinned out, and the background noise didn't overwhelm him. Blair was writing something, and William was saying, "I really wish you'd try one more time, son. I'd feel better if I gave you another chance to get even."
"No, I'd rather lose thirty-two thousand than a really big amount."
"This is just awful. Make it out to cash, please."
Blair came to the space for his signature, and hesitated. "Look, for a check this size, I need to sign my full name. I want you to do me a favor--don't let Jim see that, and if he ever asks what my middle name is, tell him it's Jacob."
"Believe me, I won't let Jim know anything about this. And what is your real middle name?"
Angry now, Jim started across the floor, missing Blair's answer. "Jonquil." When William gave him a level look, Blair tore the check off the pad and handed it to him, slipping the pad back into his jacket. "My mother decided before I was born to give her baby both a boy's name, and a girl's name, so that whatever gender they were, they'd have something to constantly remind them to respect the other sex. I told her she didn't have to go for Jonquil--Blair sounded feminine enough as it is. I'd just rather he didn't know I was named after a flower."
"Too late, Rosebud." Blair flinched as Jim came up behind him. "I thought there was to be no more gambling. Honestly, Hopsie, you need a keeper. And you..." He stared hard at his father. "What do you intend to do with that, now that you've taught him not to play double or nothing?"
"Just this, son-of-mine." Using exaggerated motions, William wadded the check into a ball, tore it into several pieces, and deposited them in an ashtray. "Satisfied?"
"I'm getting there."
"You mean it was just to teach me a lesson?" said Blair.
"Of course," William assured him. "Would I take advantage of my son's very good friend? You two young people run along. I'm sure you have things to say to each other, and I think there's a beer somewhere around here needing a few tears in it."
They went up onto deck, moving to the railing. Jim leaned on it, staring silently out at the ocean. Finally Blair said, "Are you angry with me?"
Jim sighed. "No, not angry. It's just that that incident points up the fact that in some ways you're still very young."
Blair leaned beside him. "What about you? You aren't that old."
"Me? I was born ancient." Jim turned, looking at Blair directly. "Blair, I'm terribly in love with you, and you seem to feel the same way about me. One of us needs to keep a clear head about this, and I think I'm best suited to do it." He smiled. "A moonlit deck has sometimes been a sort of office for me. I've led an... interesting life. You don't really know me now, but you will. You just have to be patient, and trust me."
"I will. I do." He was quiet, and then said. "I'd like to kiss you." Jim started to glance around, and Blair continued. "I'd like to kiss you whether there's anyone looking or not."
Jim's expression softened. "For that, I'll kiss you."
So he did.
The Next Morning
"I don't get it. I know they're up to something, but I just can't figure out what."
Blair gave Mugsy a jaundice glance. "You won last night, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but it didn't feel right," said the older man stubbornly. "You lost."
"But he wouldn't take my winnings. He tore the check up right in front of me. Mugsy, can't you just be happy for me?"
"Your mother didn't hire me to be happy, kid. In my line of work, happy isn't a good habit to have on the job. I'll talk to you in a little while. I need to see the purser about something."
Mugsy found the purser and explained the situation to him. "It just stinks. I've worked around garbage pits that didn't stink like this."
"I'm afraid there's nothing I can do unless you have proof that these people are engaged in illegal activities here on board," said the purser. "Gambling per se isn't illegal. I tell you what, though--the line keeps photos of some of the more notorious card sharps and hustlers. Come to my office, and you can have a look through them."
In their stateroom, Jim was having a conversation with his father that wasn't all that different from the one Blair had with Mugsy. "I'm worried about you, Jim. You try to act blasé, but you feel things very deeply--more deeply than Steven or I. I guess you got all your mother's sentimental genes. This Sandburg--he's the sort who only sees black and white. I'm afraid that when he finds out who your people are, what you've been doing the last few years, he'll hurt you."
"He wouldn't do that, Dad."
"He might not intend to, but such people tend to have knee-jerk reactions. They may think things out later, but by then it's too late to mend fences. I suppose you will tell him about the family business before you actually, er, become intimate with him?"
"I have to. I'd hate myself if I felt like I was keeping something from him. But don't worry, I won't say anything till we're off the boat and you, Steven, and Rafe have a chance to do a quick fade."
"Thank you, son."
"It's only fair."
"I know I've balked like a mule, but I really do wish you all the best. I hope you're never unhappy."
"I hope I'm never more unhappy than I am right now."
Blair was waiting for Jim in what he'd begun to think of as 'their' place, the secluded spot near the rail. Mugsy came over to him, followed by the ship's purser. "I need to have a talk with ya, kid."
"Can't it wait? I'm expecting Jim at any moment."
"Then it can't wait. Show 'im the pictures."
Blair noticed that the purser was carrying a large manilla envelope. "What's this all about?"
The purser hesitated. "G'wan," growled Mugsy. "Better his heart gets broken now than later."
"I'm not sure this is the best idea," said the purser, "If we take any action and he's unwilling to make a complaint, we could get in a lot of legal trouble. The line could even get sued."
"I'm going to repeat myself--what's this all about?" said Blair sharply.
The purser sighed. "Mister Sandburg, professional gamblers have been a bit of a problem on our line, as they are on most others. Companies like ours have banded together to share information about people who might be possible threats to the well-being of our passengers, and that includes known card cheats." He held up the envelope. "We have something of a rogue’s gallery--ever major ship sailing now carries it. Mister Mugsy has had a look through it, and he believes that he recognized several individuals. This is a photograph of a group known to currently be working the lines."
Blair was staring warily at the envelope as the purser continued. "It's a family group--father, two sons, and a friend. The patriarch is 'Wiley' William Ellison, and the sons are Steven and Jim. The friend goes by a single name--Rafe." He smiled faintly. "I suppose he thinks that it's like 'Raffles'. Professional card sharps, also believed to be involved in bunko, oil wells, gold mines, and any other pipe dream that sells. He probably has a stash of secret treasure maps. William has used various aliases. He's been known as Dr. Herscher, Major D. D. Brown, the Rev. Dr. Upswitch, Capt. Julius Joyce, retired, C. K. J. Malvern... While none of these people have ever actually been arrested, the circumstances are too consistent to be mistaken." The man frowned. "Actually, the eldest son may not be actively involved in the cheating. We believe that he acts more as a lure to bring in the pigeons." He handed the envelope to Blair. "Sir, may I make a comment?" Blair nodded. "You don't feel as if you've been cheated?"
"I didn't," Blair said slowly. "He had a check for over thirty thousand dollars, and he tore it up."
"I can't understand that, unless... But they're not traveling with a woman."
"What do you mean?"
"Sometimes they'll try for bigger game. If you'd told me you'd fallen in love, then I'd be worried. These characters can make a lot out of a little indiscretion. I understand some poor souls have even married the bait before they realize what's going on." He tipped his hat and left.
Mugsy said, "It's up to you, kid. I'm not gonna try to force you to look at that picture. I'll just say that if you were my son, I'd want ya to know exactly what you were gettin' into." He left also.
Blair stared at the envelope. He almost threw it over the side, but he couldn't. He had to know. It's a mistake, he thought as he opened the clasp. It's someone else. It's all a coincidence. He pulled out an eight-by-ten photograph, and closed his eyes in sudden pain. The picture showed William, Rafe, Steven--and Jim. They were descending the gangplank of some other ship. Jim was walking a little behind the others, and he seemed to be looking right at the cameraman. It's like he's looking at me, thought Blair.
Blair felt as if the deck was about to tilt right out from under him. He staggered over and sat heavily in a deck chair, still staring at the damning and damnable picture. Finally he muttered, "Blair, spelled s-u-c-k-e-r." Blair slid the picture back into the envelope, got up, and went into the bar. He sat at the counter, and when the bartender approached he said, "Gimme a gimlet..." His expression stiffened. "Make that a whiskey--a large one."
Jim had expected to find Blair on deck. When he didn't, he went looking for him. He tried the bar first, not really expecting to find him, but there he was. Jim went up and took the stool next to him. "Hello, stranger." Blair didn't look at him--he just continued to draw circles with his fingertip around the drink in front of him. Jim's eyebrows rose at the sight of that drink. The sharp alcohol scent told him that it wasn't iced tea. "A little early, isn't it?"
"Maybe I wanted to celebrate."
The words were pleasant, what Jim would have hoped he'd say, but the tone was off. It sounded bitter. "Something's bothering you." Blair looked at him, not saying anything. "I think I know what it is."
"Yes, you're worried. You're worried because you've fallen in love with a stranger in the middle of an ocean, and all your life you've been warned about strangers. All you really have to go on about me is your impressions. I'll tell you about impressions, Blair. If they're good, the people often aren't as good as you believe. If they're bad, the people often aren't as bad as they seem. Not nearly so bad." He smiled. "So you don't have to worry about falling in love with an adventurer on the high seas."
Blair looked at him directly, and then turned away, as if he couldn't bear the sight of him. Jim felt his heart freeze at the ironic tone in Sandburg's voice. "Are you an adventurer, Jim?"
He knows. Somehow he found out. Please, let him listen, and understand "I suppose so. My Dad says that all the Ellison men are, and I certainly haven't led a dull life. But even adventurers are looking for someone special. That's why I tripped you, and got you to take me to my cabin, and change my shoes. And then I put my cheek next to yours, and I listened to you talk about the person you'd been waiting for all your life, and I thought 'that could be me.' And I fell in love with you, Blair. That wasn't in the cards."
Still looking away, Blair silently pushed an envelope toward Jim. Jim slid the picture out, examined it, and then gave a hoarse chuckle. "Rotten likeness, isn't it? I look like I've been on a monumental binge, but actually I'm recovering from a three day bout of the flu." Jim bit his lip as he put the picture back. "Blair," he said gently, "please don't be so upset. I was going to tell you when we reached New York, before anything, well, happened. I wanted to tell you last night, but don't you see, I couldn't betray Dad and the rest. Yeah, they're crooks, but they're family. And you never can tell how someone's going to take a revelation like that. What we have is so new... I guess I wanted you to love me a little more before I told you. You believe me, don't you? You know that I wouldn't have gone into your bed without telling you, don't you?" Blair closed his eyes. "Blair, you don't think that badly of me--do you?"
"Oh, I don't think you're bad, Jim. I think you're good--but maybe a little over confident. You really thought you had me going, didn't you?" Blair turned a stony face and burning eyes on Jim. "Well, this is one time that the wolf got taken by the sheep. You really believed that line I fed you."
Jim was very quiet for a moment, listening to the sound of his own heart cracking. Finally he said softly. "You knew?"
"Almost from the beginning. I could have turned you in, but I needed something to occupy my time. I really ought to thank you. I haven't had this much fun since I was the lead in my junior class play. Thanks, Jim. You were a great time-waster."
Jim stared at him, feeling what seemed like a bottomless well of hurt opening up inside. "You played me for a sucker? I don't believe it." Blair stared at him. "But if you did--if you were just trying to make me feel cheap and hurt me--" He drew a deep breath, and stood up. His voice wasn't quite steady as he said, "You succeeded handsomely, Mister Sandburg. I hope you're proud of yourself."
Jim turned and walked away. He didn't see Blair half rise, then angrily snatch up the envelope, wad it into a ball, and throw it.
It was a good thing that the voyage was nearing its end, because even though the ship was a large one, it was still an enclosed community. The two men had a few near encounters, because both were too proud to spend the rest of the trip in their cabin. The last night out the Ellison clan had been having supper in the ship's dining room. Blair Sandburg came to the entrance, as he had the first night. He wasn't carrying a book though--he had his hands stuffed in his pockets, spoiling the line of his dinner jacket. He looked paler than a man who'd just come from the jungle by way of an ocean voyage should look.
William knew when Jim had spotted him. Jimmy had been more quiet than usual, and now he went dead silent, staring. Staring--there's too much pain in that look for it to be a glare, no matter how much anger there is. Blair Sandburg saw them and stopped short, then turned aside into the bar, murmuring to the head waiter. A few minutes later a tray was brought into the other room. Jim returned to his meal without a word.
When they finally docked William, Steven, and Jim gathered on the upper deck, watching as most of the others disembarked. Blair was easy to spot, even in the crowd. His long, curly hair glinted in the sun as he walked behind Mugsy, who was clearing a path for him.
William, a little concerned, was watching Jim watch Blair. When he had come back to his cabin after his last meeting with Sandburg William had known that there was something wrong. He'd heard a crash in Jim's room, and hurried in, worried, to find his son sitting on the edge of his bed, nursing bruised knuckles. There was a very slightly dented space in the smooth wallpaper beside the bed. "Jim, what's wrong?"
Jim's voice was shaky. "You were right, Dad. He can't forgive. Why did I ever believe that I might have something approaching a normal life? Why do I keep torturing myself?"
William sat beside Jim, putting an arm around his shoulder. "It's going to be all right, son. If he can't deal with what you are, he doesn't deserve you."
"Oh, he deserves me, all right." There was an almost vicious edge to Jim's voice. "I did love him, and he treated me like... like... like some sort of whore who was planning on rolling him." Jim's eyes had been then as they were now--too bright, but dry. William didn't think that Jim had cried since his mother left them, and he rather wished that he would. Tears could bring great healing.
"Look at him," said Jim. "Walking away as if nothing had happened. As if promises were never made." He shrugged. "They were moonlight promises, so I guess he didn't take them too seriously. Well, I did. When I first saw him I didn't feel much of anything toward him, then I really fell in love with him, and now... Now I hate him as much as I loved him. I wish I hadn't stopped you, Dad. I wish you'd taken him to the cleaners."
"What makes you think I didn't?"
Jim gave him a startled look. "You tore up the check. I saw you."
Steven was shaking his head, smiling. William said, "Jim, Jim, Jim. With all the sleight of hand I've shown you?" He pulled a crumpled ball of paper out of his pocket and handed it to him.
Jim smoothed it out and stared at it. "A check for thirty-two thousand dollars, signed by Mister Blair Jonquil Sandburg." He blinked. "Jonquil?"
"He asked me not to tell you that."
Jim's expression showed grim satisfaction. "Having a funny middle name is the least of his worries now. Are you sure we can cash this without risk?"
Rafe examined it. "A few passes with a hot iron and it will look like he just tore it off the pad. Since he 'saw' it destroyed, I doubt if he'll bother to put a stop on it, and with as many checks as run through his account, no one will notice." Rafe made a face. "Unless Mugsy works in that department, too. That's one of the most suspicious men I've ever run into."
Jim ran his thumb over the signature on the check, and then looked out to where Blair was just climbing into a taxi. "I feel a lot better already."
Several Months Later
The Ellison group was having a day at the races. All four men were looking dapper in new, tailor made clothes, and they attracted a fair share of attention from both men and women. Steven and Rafe were having a fine old time flirting with anything that moved, while William concentrated on picking his horses from a racing form. Jim didn't feel like taking a chance of any kind, so he just sat and brooded, watching the races. William was starting to worry about him. He should have come out of his funk by now.
A slender man in a suit of clothes more suited to Ascot than an American track came up behind their seats. "Pardon me, but I was wondering if you..." His speech had the airy accent of a British aristocrat. "Well, bless my soul! Willy!"
William looked around curiously, and then made a shushing motion. "William."
"Of course, how silly of me. William."
William broke into a wide grin of recognition. "Pearly, you old dog! Oh, I beg pardon. You're...?"
"Sir Alfred McGlennan-Keith R. F. D.--for now."
"Have a seat." Pearlie sat on William's other side. "I didn't know you were on this side of the pond."
"I came over just before they closed the lines. The Axis has a lot to answer for. They've balled up the finances of many good gamblers."
"What are you doing now?"
"I've set myself up on the outskirts of a little place called Bridgeport." Jim suddenly sat up alertly, giving Pearlie his full attention, and William knew why. Blair Sandburg lived in Bridgeport. "It's in the heart of the contract bridge belt. Lovely game."
"How do you get them to let you into the circle?" asked Jim.
"My dear boy, when one is a member of the British aristocracy, one doesn't have to make an effort--one beats them off with sticks."
"Do you know the Sandburgs?"
"Know them? I positively swim in their beer. Lovely woman, Naomi." He shook his head. "The son's a bit peculiar--takes trips in the wilderness and pursues newts or some such..."
"If you say so. Seems like a nice enough boy, I suppose, but a fish out of water in social situations."
William looked at Jim shrewdly. "Jimmy, I can almost hear the gears turning in your head. What are you thinking?"
"Nothing much. Just..." Jim leaned across William. "Pearlie, would it be all right if I visited you for a few weeks, possibly as... Oh, a cousin?"
Pearlie gave him a surprised look. "But my dear boy, you'd have to be English."
"I've been English before." When Jim next spoke, his accent was as English as tea and scones, the equal, or better of Pearlie's. "I shall be as English as is necessary."
Steven had been listening in, and he said, "Jim, tell me you're not really thinking about bearding Sandburg in his den? You don't need his kind of trouble."
"I need him, all right," said Jim grimly. "I need him like the axe needs the turkey."
A Month Later
Naomi Sandburg got up, around nine o'clock, as usual. She'd been an early riser most of her life, but now... "I don't have to, so I'm not going to. That's part of being an adult, and independently wealthy. When I get old enough to not be able to sleep through the night, then I'll start getting up at the crack of dawn again." She sat up in bed, rubbing her eyes, and looked expectantly toward the small table beside her bed.
She frowned, then pushed a thick fall of red-brown hair (it wouldn't do any good to try to figure out Blair's paternity from his red hair--it was obvious where he'd gotten it) out of the way so she could have a better look. No, the table was bare. Usually, it would contain a breakfast tray, complete with fresh coffee in an insulated ewer. Her servants had long ago learned the trick of entering her room silently and leaving her morning meal.
Naomi shrugged, muttering, "I guess they left it in the hall today, though why they'd start now..." She got out of bed, grumbling mildly, and slipped into a floaty negligee and a pair of mules, both trimmed with wispy marabou feathers. She dressed conservatively when she was in the office, but at home she was more flamboyant--another perk of being independently wealthy. Naomi went to the door of her bedroom and opened it, peering at the small table on the other side of the hall. It, too, was bare, save for an arrangement of fresh flowers. "What...?"
Well, maybe they got distracted, now that Blair is home again. I suppose he had breakfast hours ago, out on the terrace. She smiled fondly. Since he was very young, he'd loved to picnic. I should have nipped that in the bud. Maybe he wouldn't have been consumed by the desire to go hiking off God knows where. Well, there's nothing for it. I'll have to go down.
She tied the robe shut and went downstairs, and out onto the terrace. Sure enough, the small table held an assortment of covered dishes. Feeling relieved, she took a seat, spread a linen napkin over her lap, and lifted the lid on the first dish, hoping for scrambled eggs. It was empty--the shining surface proclaiming that it hadn't even previously contained food. Frowning more heavily, she tried another one, then another. All empty.
Her expression dark, Naomi snatched up the brass hand bell sitting on the table and gave it two sharp shakes. She'd barely replaced it when a uniformed maid hurried out of the french doors. "Yes, ma'am?"
Naomi indicated the bare dishes. "Well?"
The maid peered at them. "Oh! Those will need to be put away before the guests arrive."
"Guests? What guests?"
The maid gave her a 'you're kidding' look. "The party guests?"
"What party? Who'd go to a party at this time of the morning?"
The maid paused, and then said slowly, "It's this evening. You remember; the party you're giving this evening?"
Naomi slapped her forehead. "Oh, yes! The party for that British muckity-muck's nephew."
"Cousin--the Honourable James Joseph."
"Honorable? The British like to brag about it right up front, don't they?"
"It's not an adjective, ma'am--it's a title. It means that he's the younger son of some sort of noble--a baron, or a viscount, or something."
"Whatever. No wonder I forgot it. I'm only giving it because Margaret Stanislaus was bragging that she was going to be the one to introduce him to our society. Ha! When I got to him first that really put her knickers in a bunch. If I have to put on a dog-and-pony show for the local nose-lifters tonight, I need sustenance, so get me some breakfast, okay?"
"You mean they didn't--? Oh, I'm sorry, ma'am! I'll see to it, right away."
The girl bustled away, heading straight for the kitchen. She'd been working here less than a year, and the kitchen had always been pretty placid. There had only been Naomi in residence, and she ate out often, so there wasn't much to do, but now... The place swarmed. Every servant in the place seemed to be there, plus at least a dozen who'd been hired just for this occasion.
Hoskins, the butler, was in the process of supervising the chef as he decorated a huge cake. He was showing the volatile little Frenchman a piece of paper, pointing out details. "It needs to be an exact replica of the Joseph family crest--exact. It's a simple design, really. An Or cross cleche on a Gules background, with a Sable jaguar rampant dexter, and the motto at the base in Gothic letters--Tutor Beatus."
The cook, who'd been slowly losing his temper under the butler's completely unnecessary supervision, just stared at him. The maid hurried over, leaning around the butler. "Mrs. Sandburg's breakfast never got to her, and she's a little upset about that."
The butler clapped a hand to his cheek. "Sweet mother! And she was doing her quality control sampling last night. She must have a head the size of a pumpkin this morning." He looked at the cook sternly. "Why didn't you send up her breakfast as usual?"
The cook growled, and said in thickly accented English, "Because I have been working on this thrice be-damned cake since four-thirty, that is why. Now, if you wish me to pause and fix the morning repast for Madame Sandburg..."
"No! No, this has to be done, and done properly." He looked at the maid. "Can't you fix it?"
"The mood she's in?" said the girl. "Not hardly. I'm not going to be wearing the eggs if they're scrambled too hard."
Hoskins waved at another maid, who was bustling past, her arms loaded with linen. "You need to get Mrs. Sandburg her..."
"Don't talk to me," said the harried looking woman. "I have to get all the napkins ironed, and check the monograms. If any repairs are needed, I'm going to be sticking my fingers like I been baiting fish hooks, getting 'em done in time."
"Drat." He held up his finger to another woman. "Could you...?"
"Only if you don't want the silver polished in time," she said shortly.
"We can't have that. I'll have to do it myself, I suppose. I can do it--as long as I can find the toaster. But first..." The chef had turned back to the cake, and was carefully squeezing out a neat squiggle of icing at the base. "Why are you fiddling with that now when you haven't finished the crest? Now, it's perfectly simple--Or is gold, Gules is red, Sable is black..."
The butler should have heeded the rising irritation in that single syllable, but he didn't. "You must know what a jaguar is, and rampant dexter means facing right, with right paw and foreleg raised, and the motto means 'Blessed Protector'. A cross cleche is..."
"Yes, cleche. It's..."
"I said that. It's..."
"Cleche!" The chef pointed the frosting tube he'd been using to decorate the cake and laid a thick squiggle of icing on Hoskins' face, narrowly missing his eyes. At about that moment a helacious CLANG! came from outside.
The maid rushed and peered out the window over the sink, onto the terrace. "That was the chafing dish." The maid whistled in admiration. "Boy, she's got an arm on her!" CLANGCLANGCLANG "Now she's using two lids as cymbals."
Hoskin was wiping sugary goo away. "Would you get...?"
"Not me. I'm not being paid enough."
Naomi stopped her percussion solo when the phone on the table rang. She tossed down the lids and snatched up the receiver. "Hello? Well, aren't you snippy till you get your coffee?" Her expression melted into smugness. "Oh, hello Margaret." Hoskins approached warily, but he was carrying a coffee pot and cup and saucer. He started to step back when he saw that she'd noticed him, but she frantically beckoned him over. "Yes, I'm so happy you can come to the party tonight. Black tie? I suppose..." Hoskins was mouthing the word 'white'. "No, white tie. You should know that. Yes, it's going to be at... uh..." She looked inquiringly at Hoskins. He mouthed 'eight'. "Eight o'clock. Now, don't be late. It'd be a terrible snub. Good-byeee." She hung up. "If I can get that coffee inside me in under two minutes, you might survive, Hoskins." Hoskins performed a feat of pouring and serving that would have won him a gold medal at the Domestics' Olympics. Naomi drank deeply, then sighed. "That started the heart. Hoskins, where's my boy?"
"I believe that he's in his room, ma'am."
"Again? Or would that be 'still'?"
"He did come down for breakfast, ma'am, but I believe he went back up again."
"Damn. I've seen so little of him that it's hardly like he came back from the Amazon."
"Indeed, ma'am. He hardly leaves his room except for occasional meals, and I don't believe he's eating like he should. Oh, and he occasionally takes the reptile out in the garden for a little sun. He's insisted on doing it himself since Mugsy let it escape for a moment and sent half the female staff into screaming hysterics."
"Well, as long as he makes sure that Blair doesn't try to hide up there during the party."
"If I may say so, Mugsy takes his duties..."
"Hoskins, I wouldn't finish that thought if I were you." She narrowed her eyes at him. "I might not wallop you for it, but Mugsy certainly would."
Hoskins was horrified. "You'd tell him?"
Naomi smiled sweetly. "I might not--if I got a little breakfast."
"Eggs and bacon, coming up--if I have to slaughter the pig myself."
Later That Day
Mugsy came into Blair's bedroom, saying, "Yeah, the cuff links were in my room. I musta missed 'em when I unpacked, and we didn't notice because you haven't been anywhere fancy enough to need 'em since then." He stopped abruptly. Blair, in complete formal evening dress, was sitting on the edge of his bed, staring down at the tips of his shoes. "Aw, kid... You're not thinkin' of him again, are ya?"
Blair looked up and tried to smile. It took him a moment, but he made it. "Thinking of who?"
Mugsy came over and handed him the links. "That's the spirit. I'm glad you didn't make me force ya to agree to go to this shindig. Maybe if ya get out more you'll meet someone who'll make ya forget that guy." He patted Blair on the shoulder. "Maybe this limey. They're supposed to be pretty brainy. Maybe he'll be a match for ya in that department."
Blair shrugged. "Some of the upper class are awful twits, but who knows?"
"Can ya finish gettin' ready by yourself? Your ma asked me to help out with gettin' everyone's buggies parked safely."
"I've been dressing myself for a long time, Mugsy. I'll manage." After Mugsy left Blair murmured, "I wouldn't mind some help getting undressed, but the right person turned out to be the wrong person."
The guests started arriving at 7:30. Mugsy had helped out at a lot of society parties over the years, and he was a little surprised. No one wanted to be the first to arrive, but they didn't want to be pegged for trying to be 'fashionably late', either. It was a sign of how eager to meet a real British aristocrat these people were. Imagine--being punctual.
The guest of honor and his sponsor didn't arrive till almost precisely eight. A Rolls Royce (he had no way of knowing that it had been hired for the evening) pulled up, and a small middle aged man climbed out of the back when Mugsy opened the door. "Good evening, my good man," he said cheerfully, ignoring Mugsy's grimace at being called a 'good man'. "Sir Alfred McGlennan-Keith R. F. D. and the Honourable James Joseph."
Before Mugsy could comment, Hoskins rushed up. He didn't exactly twitter, because a well trained butler never twittered, but his voice was about an octave higher than normal. "The guests of honor, Mister Murgatroyd."
"Stop it with that Mister Murgatroyd bit," Mugsy grumbled. "Well? Does the other one need help gettin' out? Too old and frail to do it on his own."
"Hardly," said Pearlie loftily. "James, time to come out and meet the great American public."
"Right you are, Alfie old boy." Mugsy had to take a step back as the other man emerged from the back seat--he needed more room. When he finished standing up, he was looking down at Mugsy, far enough down that he could have easily checked whether or not Mugsy's hair part was straight--without going on tip-toe. The man was also wearing formal evening dress, with a silk top hat set at a jaunty angle that threw part of his face into shadow. "Thanks for your concern." His tone was dryly amused. "But I haven't needed help getting in and out of a car since I graduated from a pram to walking beside my nanny."
"No offense meant," Mugsy muttered.
"None taken." He looked around. "Alfie, your friend's place looks absolutely charming--if a little small." The house had over twenty rooms.
The two men moved through the front door, led by an eager Hoskins. Mugsy turned to the chauffeur. "You can park the heap over there, by the green house, and..." Something struck him, and he turned quickly, looking back at the disappearing trio. "Wait a minute!" Before Mugsy could pursue them there was the sound of crumpling metal off near the greenhouse, and then the sound of two drivers beginning an argument that sounded like it could very well end in blows. Reluctantly, Mugsy turned aside to go settle the matter.
Hoskins led the two guests to the archway leading into the main drawing room. The sizeable room was filled with people in elegant formal wear, sipping champagne and nibbling on canapés as they genteelly dished the latest gossip. Most of that gossip was speculation about the guest of honor, so everyone's eyes turned as Hoskins announced, "Sir Alfred McGlennan-Keith R. F. D. and his cousin, the Honourable James Joseph."
As the butler spoke, James took off his hat, sweeping it across his chest in a gallant gesture, and giving the assemblage a dazzling smile. Several of the women developed crushes on the spot. Naomi hurried over and shook hands with first Alfie, then James, saying, "Alfred, I'm so glad you could come." She smiled at Jim, "And I never expected an Honourable to look quite so roguish."
James laughed. "Oh, please--no titles. This is America--the classless society. Just call me James."
"Classless? Don't you believe it, James. Most of the people here would sell their first-born for a title. What say we go find a drink?"
Naomi chuckled. "Ripping. I love it. How about something a little stronger than that bubble-water?"
"I think this time I'll say 'smashing'." Naomi laughed, and James offered his arm. She took it, and they sailed through the crowd toward the bar.
Blair waited till he was sure the party was well underway before going downstairs. For some people this would have been a calculated move to make 'an entrance'. With Blair, he was hoping to slip into the crowd unnoticed. He was successful. Everyone was having too much fun to notice anything as insignificant as one of the hosts arriving. Blair looked around at the crowd, feeling a little weary. It was pretty much the same old group that had attended every one of Naomi's parties since he was old enough to be allowed to stay up late. Maybe the British cousin will be a little interesting, he thought, not holding forth much hope. With my luck he won't talk about anything but horses, or King Edward's abdication. I think some of his countrymen still haven't forgive America for producing Mrs. Simpson.
A clutch of women were talking nearby. One said, "But my dear, however did he manage to get here? I thought that the passenger liners stopped running long ago. Nasty old U-boats."
"I hear that he came over on a naval cruiser, though I'm not sure if it was British, or American," said another. "He has connections, you know."
"From the look of those shoulders," said a third admiringly, "I wouldn't be surprised if he swam across."
This sounded interesting. If the guest of honor was a handsome man, then he'd be sure to find him with Naomi. Blair looked around till he glimpsed his mother's red hair through the throng. He made his way over to where she was sitting at the bar, next to a tall man. The man was speaking in an animated manner, vastly amusing the group gathered around him. "...so the doorman told me that the quickest way to get anywhere was in the tube... Oh, wait--you Yanks call it a subway. I got on, but of course I had no idea where I was going, so I asked the motorman to please let me off at Connet-icut. And he told me 'Sir, I don't know where Connet-icut is--this car goes to Harlem." The group laughed. "But I had to tell him that I wasn't a Sir--I've never been knighted, I'm only an Honourable. And he said that if I was honourable, he knew of a good dice game he could get me into."
The laughter rose in pitch as Blair approached. Naomi spotted him and waved at him to hurry up. "Blair, honey, I have someone you have got to meet. Blair, this is the Honourable James Joseph. James, this is my son, Blair."
"How do you do, Mister..." Blair trailed off as the man stood up, turning to face him. The man waited for him to continue, smiling faintly. "Don't I know you from somewhere?"
"How original," James drawled.
Naomi poked Blair sharply, but Blair continued stubbornly. "You look familiar. Haven't we met?"
"Possibly. I do get around quite a bit. Now, let me think... Have you been to Ascot? No? Possibly on the Riviera, then?"
"Maybe it was on the Oceana Queen, between South America and New York."
James shook his head. "No, I'm sorry. I've never been to South America."
Naomi poked him again. "For heaven's sake, Blair--that's the kind of thing people remember. James, you'll have to pardon my son. He's just gotten back from a year spent up the Amazon, and sometimes I think he didn't pack his brain when he returned home."
"Up the Amazon? How perfectly fascinating. You really must tell me all about it, Mister Sandburg."
Before he could speak, Naomi said, "Call him Blair. No need to stand on formality."
"Certainly." He turned a pale blue gaze on Blair. "If he doesn't think it would be too familiar on such short acquaintance?"
"No, I guess it's all right."
Naomi snorted. "He guesses. Don't get snobbish, Blair, or I'll tell him about Hopsie."
Blair flushed, and James said, "Who, or what, is a Hopsie?"
"I am--sort of," said Blair. "It's a nickname, and she knows I hate it."
"Really? I think nicknames can be rather fun. I wish someone would bestow one on me. One can't give oneself a nickname, you know." He made a face. "That would be both common, and vain."
"Are you sure that you haven't had a nickname?"
"Not that anyone used to my face. Why? Can you think of one that would suit me?"
"Has anyone ever called you Jim?"
"No, but I like it." He reached out and tapped Blair's bow tie. "Thank you. You may call me 'Jim', if you wish."
"I could swear... You look just like a man I met on my trip back."
There were murmurs in the surrounding crowd, some people wondering how Blair could make such an obvious mistake, and a few comments along the lines of 'not that old chestnut'. Jim said, ""Don't let them tease you, Hopsie. you can tell me all about him later but now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going in search of food. I believe I saw a tempting bowl of lobster dip over there, and I missed my tea this evening." He strolled away, calling, "Alfie you absolute hog--don't eat all of that."
Naomi smirked. "I do like a man with a hearty appetite." Blair was staring after James, and Naomi swatted him lightly. "What's gotten into you? You're acting like you've seen a ghost."
"Maybe I have." Unable to resist, Blair started over toward where James had taken a seat on a low sofa, with his cousin on one side and the most notorious flirt among that year's debutantes. The window beside the door was just barely visible, and a violent motion from that direction caught Blair's attention. It was Mugsy. He was motioning broadly, waving to get Blair to look. When he was sure that he had Blair's attention he pointed at James, then made a skimming motion with his hands. When Blair blinked, Mugsy swore (Blair could tell by his expression, even if he couldn't actually hear the words) and made the motion again. Now Blair knew what he was doing--he was pantomiming dealing cards. So, Mugsy had noticed James' resemblance to Jim Ellison, too. He'd have to...
Blair really should have stopped walking while he was distracted. He caught his foot and fell over the coffee table before the sofa, landing face first in the bowl of lobster dip. There was a burst of exclamations as Blair rolled off the table. The table leg, which had been cracked by the collision, took that opportunity to break and let the rest of the table's contents (mostly glasses of champagne) slide off to land on his torso and in his lap. The chattering died down to near silence as he tried to wipe the goo out of his eyes.
"Oh, my--you have made a mess, haven't you?" said a gentle, sympathetic voice. "Here, have my handkerchief. I'm afraid that yours got dirty." Blair blindly accepted the cloth pressed into his hands, and removed most of the mess. When he opened his eyes, James was looking at him with concern. "Are you all right?"
"You mean aside from having two left feet?" sighed Naomi. "After all the dancing lessons I paid for..."
"Now, don't scold him. That could have happened to anyone. People often trip over furniture, and that table was quite low."
"And it's been in the same place for the last fifteen years."
"I guess my mind was elsewhere," said Blair sheepishly.
"Oh, I see." Jim's eyes said that he understood why Blair was nervous. He smiled almost gently. "Were you terribly fond of him?"
"I... You know--shipboard... friendship."
James leaned close, picking a cracker off his shoulder, and whispered, so low that no one else could hear, "Did he break your heart?" Blair drew in a deep breath, but before he could decide what, or even if, he should reply James sat back and said more loudly, "You must tell me all about him later. I promise to be a wonderfully sympathetic listener, but you'd best go wash and change. They should be calling us to dinner soon."
"Holy smokes, yeah. The cook will have a fit of melancholy if I miss something he's slaved over like this. Uh..." Blair offered the now rather disgusting handkerchief.
"You may keep it," said Jim, "as a token of remembrance."
"Thanks." Blair tucked the soiled handkerchief in his pocket. It was a good thing he'd never know about the speculation as to what exactly was on it when the housemaid found it the next morning. He hurried toward the stairs, but just before he started up, he looked back.
James was watching him. He twiddled his fingers and called, "I don't like you any less for the fall."
Blair promptly tripped on the bottom step. As he tried to steady himself, he clutched at the drapes covering the window at the foot of the stairs. They weren't strong enough. They gave up the fight and followed him down to the floor, seeming to make a conscious effort to ensnare him. When he had managed to fight himself free he found that everyone was staring and muttering. James was looking, too, but he didn't look disgusted, shocked, or horrified. He said, "I don't like you any less for that one, either." Feeling an utterly foolish sense of elation, Blair bounded up the stairs, managing to make the second floor without tripping again, which was a good thing. Given the odds he was bound to break his neck, sooner or later.
Blair had cleaned up and was almost finished changing into his white tuxedo (his second less formal suit of evening clothes) when Mugsy came into his room. His bodyguard shut the door and looked around the room. "I lost sight of 'im downstairs."
"What?" said Blair, tying his tie. "You thought you'd find him up here? I'd never be that lucky."
"Lucky? Kid, you do know who that is, right?"
"The Honourable James Joseph."
"Honourable my Aunt Fanny. That's the guy from the ship, the one who shilled you into that crooked game."
"No, James just looks a good bit like him."
Mugsy blinked at him. "A good...? Yeah, like a Kodachrome snapshot--exact."
"No, not exactly. James is..." Blair's eyes took on a far away look. "He's more... refined. Jim was all right, but he was common."
Mugsy put his hands on his hips and said pugnaciously, "So what's wrong with common?"
Realizing his gaffe, Blair said, "You know what I mean, Mugsy."
"Yeah, I know you weren't jabbin' at me, kid, but you're foolin yourself here."
"I'm not. There are more differences. For one thing, James is British."
"How do ya know?"
Blair stared at him. "Everybody says so."
"Ya oughta know by now that when everybody says somethin', ya look at it real close. I'm not so sure about where he comes from. How'd he get here? When I came up stairs, I heard some dame sayin' that he'd come across on an American submarine, as a special favor from Roosevelt to the king."
"Okay, granted that people sometimes embellish. He has an accent."
"Anybody can have an accent, and say they're someone they're not." Mugsy grabbed up a comb and held it under his nose, then raked a lock of hair into his eyes and began to shout in a thickly Teutonic accent, waving his free arm. "Aster liner mein kinder de hassenphefer! Strudel eine wiener schnitzel von Hindenburg!" He dropped the comb. "Who am I? I'm not Hitler, that's for damn sure. I'm telling ya, it's--the--same--guy. They look too much alike for it not to be."
"And that's exactly why I'm sure it isn't Jim Ellison."
Mugsy blinked. "You wanna explain that logic to me? I didn't go to college, so maybe I missed something."
"It's really simple. If he was different, then I'd believe. If he'd, oh, bleached his hair, or grown a moustache, then I might be convinced. But nothing's different. If you really didn't want to be recognized, you'd cut a swatch out of Naomi's raccoon coat and glue it on your chin, and the dog wouldn't even bark at you, but only a crazy man would come into my own home, undisguised, and expect to pull it off. Now, excuse me. I'm sure I already missed the fruit cup, but that's all right, because I think they were going to include cantaloupe. Bleh." He hurried out.
Mugsy growled, and then started after him. "Only a crazy man--or a bastard with brass balls the size of those cantaloupes you don't like."
Naomi was at the head of the table and James, the guest of honor, was on her right. Blair's name card was in front of the place setting to Jim's right, since he was the son of the hostess. As Blair slipped into his seat, they were removing the appetizer course. "Well, I came as fast as I could without tripping again," he said cheerfully as he sat down. "But I missed the fruit cup, and it was cantaloupe, too."
James whispered out of the side of his mouth, "Abominable stuff." He flicked a finger at the still full dish that the waiter was removing.
Blair could tell that some of the fruit had been rearranged, but it was unlikely that any of it had actually been consumed. "You don't like it either?" he whispered back.
"The scent is positively nauseating. Thank goodness I have the fine old tradition of the British stiff upper lip, or else I'm afraid I'd have insulted your mother by ulping on her nice, clean table linen. Ah, now, the soup looks excellent!"
Maybe it was, but Blair really couldn't have said. He was a little surprised to find his dish empty when the waiter came to remove it. He'd been so engrossed in talking to James that he hadn't noticed that he'd been eating it. The next course was roast beef. Normally, protocol would have had Blair, as man of the household, carving it at the table. But with the way the evening had been going, Naomi had directed Hoskins to carve it in the kitchen, "...because I'd rather not have a nine fingered son if I can help it."
In the kitchen, Hoskins proudly surveyed the neat slices of rosy roast beef, and then carefully set a brimming boat of au jus on the tray. It was rather full, but being a seasoned pro, he was confident he could serve the guests without spilling a drop. He walked over to the stove to be sure that the potatoes that were to accompany it were nicely roasted. When he came back, the table was bare. He stared at it for a moment, as if believing that perhaps the meat had just excused itself for a moment. A burst of conversation from the dining room made him look over in time to see the swinging door just settling. What on earth? I distinctly told the waiters that I, myself, would be serving this course. He started for the dining room, eyes narrowed in determination.
The sight that greeted his eyes exceeded his worst expectations. It would have been bad enough for one of the less skilled (at least in his opinion) hired servers to try to present such a prestigious dish, but to have it hijacked by an uncouth bodyguard/nanny/chauffeur/valet/god-knows-what else... Mugsy Murgatroyd, holding the delicate, heavily laden silver tray like a man-hole cover, was walking the length of the table, aiming straight for the head. He left bewildered, indignant, and hungry people in his wake. Fruit and soup were all well and good, but most Americans had more of the carnivore in them than they'd like to admit. They were already beginning to find it difficult to get enough red meat to satisfy the cravings, what with the war going on, and they were looking forward to that roast.
Mugsy's eyes were fixed on the man sitting beside Blair Sandburg. He was sure that if he could just get a really close look that he'd find something that would convince Blair this was the same Jim Ellison who had so nearly swindled him on the boat. Hoskins caught up with him just as he came up beside Blair. "Mister Murgatroyd, you are not suited to this task. Give me that tray." He reached for it.
Mugsy turned slightly, keeping the tray out of the quickly-becoming-irritated butler's reach. "Buzz off, Hoskins. What difference does it make who brings the stuff around, as long as it lands on the plate?"
The desire to not make a scene was deeply ingrained in Hoskins, but so was his sense of etiquette, and propriety. "To begin with, the host and hostess are supposed to be served last, so you shouldn't even be up at this end of the table."
"Well, I'm here, so what's the problem? Blair oughta be served first, anyway, since he hasn't had all that much home cooked grub lately. Kid, go ahead and grab yourself a coupla slabs." Mugsy lowered the tray toward Blair.
"Mister Murgatroyd!" Hoskin's voice was both irate and pained. "One serves from the left and removes from the right." As he spoke, he grabbed at the edge of the tray.
"Stoppit with the Murgatroyd bit! Leggo of that thing or I'll show you removed."
Jim wasn't psychic, but he saw it coming. The two men didn't exactly wrestle for the tray, but it doesn't take much to upset something when it's overloaded. It tipped just far enough for the gravy boat to start sliding. Perhaps, if Hoskins hadn't tried to stop it, he wouldn't have hit Mugsy's elbow. Then Mugsy's arm wouldn't have flown up, tipping the tray almost vertical. If that hadn't happened, Blair wouldn't have ended up wearing an entire sliced roast and over a pint of gravy--but it did happen.
There were disbelieving murmurs around the table, while Blair sat with a stunned, almost fatalistic expression on his face. Mugsy, chagrinned, said, "Gee, kid--I'm sorry."
Being very careful not to look at James, Blair stood up, said, "Pardon me," quietly, and then headed out of the room.
As he passed Naomi, his mother, his mother shook her head, calling, "Maybe you should just put on a bathing suit."
The guests had adjourned to the living room for coffee and brandies by the time Blair came down again. This time he was wearing a white dinner jacket. James was leaning against the wall near the bottom of the staircase, and greeted him with a smile. "There you are. I was beginning to get worried."
Blair fingered his black bow tie. "I know I'm a little casual for this type of affair, but this is the last of my evening clothes. If anything happens to it, I'll be down to khakis and flannel."
"I think you look very handsome, and I'd wager you'd look even more handsome in khakis and flannel."
Blair hesitated, and then blurted, "Look, I'm sorry."
"But why? You haven't gotten a drop of anything on me."
"No, I mean my clumsiness," said Blair glumly. "You must think I'm a real nit-wit."
"Not at all." Jim brushed his shoulder lightly. "Anyone can have a bad night, Hopsie. Besides," there was now a seductive edge to his smile. "I'd rather like to think that a little of your fluster is because of me. Well, we mustn't stay out here in the hall talking, no matter how attractive the idea is. We must go back and do our social duty by mingling."
James mingled--Blair mostly watched. He couldn't help but admire the Englishman's easy charm. All the guests were practically eating out of his hand. He was going to be the social success of the season, invited everywhere. I just hope he'll still have a little time for me.
"Quite a chap, isn't he?"
Blair turned to find Sir Alfred at his elbow. "He certainly is."
"You know, Mister Sandburg, I believe that you didn't have to use that hoary chestnut about believing that you've met him before. I can tell that he likes you."
"I wasn't trying to pull anything," Blair protested. "I met a man on the trip back who looked almost exactly like him."
Hm, thought Alfred. Jimmy, you're doing splendidly, but a little interference couldn't hurt. "This man--was he tall, devilishly handsome? Did he have the McGlennan eyes of ice blue?"
"Yes, exactly, and he looked..."
"Hush! Mister Sandburg, I'm going to tell you a deep, dark family secret, and I'll have to trust to you as a gentleman never to reveal it."
Blair stared at him, fascinated by his dire tone. "What is it?"
Alfred cleared his throat, glancing surreptitiously at James. He lowered his voice confidingly. "I'm going to tell you about the skeleton lurking in the family closet. The Earl was elderly; the lady of the manor was a young, fresh maiden. It was one of those May-November romances. Perhaps even a March-December. In any case the Earl found fulfillment with his hounds and horses, while her Ladyship was left to boredom. I don't condemn her, you understand. She needed something to full the blank place in her life. Unfortunately... There was a coachman on the estate--a gay, handsome dog. He was so sly that they even nicknamed him 'Wiley'."
Blair started. "That was the alias of Jim's father!"
"Hush! Alfred hissed. He lowered his voice even more, so that Blair had to lean in to him to hear. "Nothing will ever be said against her Ladyship. There must be no breath of scandal, not even a hint of an inkling, but there were two sons born on the estate--one to her Ladyship, and one to a serving wench who later ran away with Wiley William Ellison. It is said that the two babies were so alike that her Ladyship used to insist upon having her child sleep with her, lest cough someone try to make a substitution. So, Ellison left the estate, but from time to time we have heard rumors--disturbing rumors. Now it seems that they're all true." Alfred clutched Blair's arm. "But you must say nothing of this to James! They have managed to keep him innocent of the knowledge, and it would break his dear, gentle heart if he ever knew." Alfred's eyes were soulful. "He loved his mother."
"I won't say a word," Blair assured him, "but I'm glad that you trusted me enough to tell me. It sure clears up a lot of things."
Blair watched James as he chatted with Naomi while she poured him a cup of coffee from the silver service on the low table before them. Wow, and I thought I had a lot of baggage with just not knowing who my father is.
Blair went over to the couch. Jim glanced up at him and said, "I'd ask you to sit, but I'm afraid that the only open space is on my lap. I don't think we should do that till we've known each other at least a day or two."
The matron sitting on Jim's right giggled, but Naomi gave Jim a shrewd look, and then took a really close look at Blair for the first time this evening. Uh-oh. My baby has fallen head-over-heels. Well, Blair, at least I can be proud of your taste.
Jim had crossed his legs at the ankle. His legs were so long that they extended well under the coffee table. As he started to bend his knees and pull his legs back, he hesitated, making a face. "You know, I do believe that my trousers are snagged."
"What?" said Naomi.
"Snagged. There's a definite tugging at the material. I'm afraid it will rip if I pull. Isn't this the same table that Blair tripped over earlier?"
"Yes, it is. Hoskins told me before we came out that one of the chauffeurs had offered to do a quick repair on it. He must not have knocked one of the nails in all the way."
"I think that if I try to bend down to unhook it, I'll rip it anyway. As charming as I've found your company, I hardly think that you'll want me camping out on your sofa."
"Let me help," said Blair. He squatted down and reached under the table, fiddling around in an effort to find the snag.
"You're very considerate," said James. With one fingertip he stroked a loose curl back behind Blair's ear. "And so handy to have around."
Blair had gotten the material unhooked. "There! You're free, and..." He started to stand up. His shoulder caught the edge of the tray holding the coffee service. This time he was drenched in black coffee, cream, and sugar.
There was a moment of silence. "This simply isn't your night," said James quietly.
Hoskins rushed up. "Mister Blair, are you all right?"
"Yeah." Blair shook his head, causing sugar cubes to patter to the floor. "It wasn't hot enough to be painful."
"It wasn't? I'll have to talk to the kitchen staff about that." He stalked off.
Blair stood up slowly, and then bowed. "Mother, James... everyone. If you'll excuse me, I think I'll go climb into bed before the roof falls in on me. I wouldn't mind so much if it wasn't for the fact that some of you might end up as collateral damage."
As he left, James smiled at Naomi. "Isn't he thoughtful?"
The morning after Jim's 'debut' in Bridgeport society, Alfred and the Ellison group were gathered around the breakfast table. William was explaining, "So you see, there's a grain of truth in Jim's cover--that's what makes it so effective. The Ellison’s really did immigrate to America from England back in the eighteenth century, and we really are entitled to that coat of arms. Of course, the family has fallen into obscurity, and if any of the British branch are still above ground, I doubt that they'd acknowledge us. For some reason they looked upon our part of the clan as black sheep."
"There's no accounting for some attitudes," Alfred said as he spread marmalade on a muffin. "I find it hard to believe that he didn't recognize you right away, Jim."
"I almost didn't recognize him," said Jim, sipping his coffee. "But I have a theory about that. On the boat we were falling in love. When it hits you that fast and that hard, you never see straight. It's like a rose colored filter gets laid over everything. He probably remembers me being at least two or three inches taller, and I remember him as having eyelashes about two inches long. They're not--they're only an inch-and-a-half at the most. Anyway, we're both different people from who we were back then, so it isn't all that surprising that the masquerade is working."
"Well, you were almost snagged," said Alfred, "But I believe that I got you over the hump."
"What did you tell him? I need to know so I can keep my lies consistent."
"You're not supposed to know, Jimmy." Alfred polished his nails on his shirt. "I gave him a gender switched version of Cecilia, or the Coachman's Daughter, a Victorian era melodrama simply dripping with lustful coachmen, neglected and erring wives, and stern, unforgiving cuckolds."
"My God," said William. "He didn't actually swallow that old yarn, did he?"
"Like a wolf," Alfred assured him. "And speaking of wolves, Jimmy--if you aren't truly interested in him, I'd suggest investing in a pair of cast iron knickers. He wasn't actually drooling down his chin, but I think that only good manners kept him from licking his lips when he looked at you."
"Good." Jim's voice was hard.
"Now that you have him," said Rafe, "what are you going to do with him?" He was genuinely curious. As far as he was concerned, Jim was the person who had the most knowledge of how to work a con, and the least inclination to actually pull one off, of anyone he'd ever known.
"I'm going to go through with what I had planned," said Jim. "I'm going to dine with him, hit a few of the ritzy-but-racy clubs, swim with him, let him almost beat me at tennis, laugh at his jokes, and just basically canoodle with him--up to a point. When he gets to where he can't stand the regretful requests for him to control himself, it'll happen."
"What will?" asked Steven.
Jim sat back, folding his hands over his belly, and stared into space contemplatively. "It'll be one day about, oh, six weeks from now..."
Alfred's butler came in, carrying a long florist's box. "Excuse me, sir. These were just delivered for Mister Joseph."
"Really?" drawled Jim. "Whoever could they be from?" He opened the box to find a dozen perfect long-stemmed scarlet roses. "My, how... showy." He plucked the card out and read it, his expression smug. "From Mister Blair J. Sandburg, hoping that I had an enjoyable evening, and that I'll allow him to make apologies for his lack of grace by joining him for dinner tonight." He picked up one, and told the butler, "They're very long, aren't they? Just pop those in the umbrella stand, or something." When the butler had left, Jim continued in his unaccented voice. "Hell, it's not even going to take six weeks. One day about two weeks from now we'll go riding up in the hills. We'll pass waterfalls and patches of wild flowers, go up and down ravines and along vine covered trails, till we'll finally come to a spot that's just so breathtaking that it'll be like Mother Nature herself has smacked me in the face. I'll be so enchanted that I'll just have to get off my mount for a closer look. And as I stand there, silhouetted against a magnificent sunset, surrounded by the glory of nature, my horse will steal up behind, and nuzzle me..." Jim's voice dropped, going as hard as his eyes, "And so will Sandburg, the heel."
It took less than two weeks. Twelve days after Jim made his prediction, he was visiting a popular jazz club with Blair and Naomi, and when Naomi went to 'see a man about a dog', Blair invited Jim to go riding in the hills the next day. "We've spent so much time in the night spots or at the country club, and that's fine, but we're never alone."
"I'm not sure I should, Hopsie," said Jim, his tone at once amused, arch, and chiding. "Remember what happened on that picnic? If Mister Murgatroyd hadn't arrived when he did to bring that umbrella, I might not have escaped with my virtue intact."
"And I still don't know why he did that. I checked the newspaper when I got back, and there was no mention of rain, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky."
"I believe he doesn't trust me." Jim made his eyes round, and a little hurt. "I wonder why?"
Blair cleared his throat. "He's like that with most people. It's sort of a side effect of his job. He's been taking care of me for so long that it's hard to get it across to him that I can look after myself now. Anyway, you weren't really angry with me about that, were you? I know I got a little fresh..."
"Fresh? Hopsie, steam was rising off you."
"I couldn't help it. You have that effect on me."
"That's a sweet compliment, and no, I wasn't angry--just a little... unsure."
"You don't have to be," said Blair earnestly. "I..."
"No," Jim put his hand on his arm, stopping him. "I can see your mother on her way back from the powder room. Yes, I'll go riding with you tomorrow. I've missed the wild woods around the family estate. This will remind me of home."
"Yes," said Blair, putting his hand over Jim's and looking at him earnestly. "I'd like it if you started to think of here as home."
Jim's smile became a little stiffer. Damn. Why does he have to be sweet now? Don't be fooled, Jim. Remember what happened on the boat. Remember him stringing you along while you scraped your heart raw for the first time with anyone. Remember that, and let it make you cold.
It happened just as Jim had predicted. Jim met Blair at the stables (thinking that he was grateful that one of his former superior officers had been one of the last members of the cavalry--and insisted that every man in his command know how to ride a horse--just in case.) Jim let him wait for a little while, not showing up till almost two o'clock, when the date had been set for one. He apologized profusely with a vague excuse about not being able to find his riding breeches, and not wanting to disappoint Blair. "So I dug through simply every drawer in Alfie's house looking for them, and where do you think they were? Some silly maid had tucked them in Alfie's grandmother's hope chest."
They spent the afternoon exploring the hills near Blair's home, and Blair regaled Jim with tales of his wanderings there when he was a child, particularly the time he'd gotten lost for several hours when he was ten, and Naomi had been on the phone to the FBI before Mugsy tracked him down and brought him back. He pointed out a cave where he'd found pottery shards and arrowheads--an event that had been partially responsible for his interest in primitive cultures.
They were still deep in the hills when sunset approached. Jim had no problem finding a suitable spot--the area really was beautiful. The topped a small rise, emerging from the cool shelter of the trees, and a shallow valley spread out before them. The sun was slipping down behind the hills opposite, gilding the rims, and throwing the basin into purple shadows. "I say!" said Jim. "That is absolutely gorgeous. I must get a better look."
He dismounted, carelessly slapping his horse’s reins at a low branch, then walking away, pretending that he hadn't noticed that he'd done a very poor job of tethering the horse. He walked toward the steep downward slope and stopped near its edge, gazing out across the valley. He could feel Blair behind him, watching him. He could almost feel his gaze. He's close. His breathing is deeper and more uneven, and his heart is racing. Jim's nostrils flared. And it isn't just emotional. I can smell the want coming off him. Jim heard his horse drifting toward him, the heavy beast's movements distinct. It pushed at his shoulder with its nose, and he pushed back with his elbow, not looking. "Stop it, Smokey."
It shouldn't take much, Jim thought. I have to make the image just a little more romantic. Maybe if I... He turned his head slightly, so that his profile was silhouetted against the bright horizon. He heard a sharply indrawn breath from Blair. Bingo.
He heard the slide and soft thud as Blair dismounted, then the shush of his footsteps through the thick, wildflower studded grass. He'd folded his arms, as if hugging himself, waiting, but seeming to be lost in the visual wonders before him. Then he felt a soft, warm touch at the back of his neck, and thought, Damn. He must've had to stand on tip-toe to reach. He didn't let himself think about how good it felt. He just swatted backward, saying, "Stop it!"
"Ow. I'm sorry."
Jim half-turned, letting himself look contrite. "Oh, no--I'm sorry, Blair. I thought it was the horse again." He smiled. "Since it's you, I don't mind at all."
"Really." Jim turned back to the view. "You can do it again, if you want to. In fact, I'm feeling a bit chilly. A little shared body heat would be appreciated."
"Put your arms around me, you daft boy."
Blair did so joyfully, embracing Jim from behind. He couldn't quite get his chin on the taller man's shoulder, but he laid his cheek against Jim's broad back. He sighed happily. "This feels so right, James. It isn't at all like we've just met. I feel like I've known you for a long time."
For a moment Jim had been wondering if he was really going to have the cool nerve to go through with this when Blair was being so sweet. Son of a bitch. The little weasel is going to use exactly the same line. He deserves everything he gets. Or everything I get. "But we have, dear. Two weeks is a long time in today's mad rush of life."
"No, not like that. It's like I've known you my whole life, ever since I was very young. It's like we grew up together. When I look at you..."
"I know just what you mean. It's as if we were together at different ages, each one different, but the same. I'll bet that you've pictured us together here, just like this."
Blair's voice was joyous. "Yes! We..."
"We were holding hands." Blair's hands had been on Jim's waist, and now Jim took hold of them, drawing them around to rest against his belly, clasping his own hands over them. "Because it's all right for kids. But our older selves just walked together, because people would tease if they saw." He tipped his head back, catching Blair's gaze. "But we walked close, because we couldn't stand to be apart. And then we were adults, and still together," his voice lowered, "and it didn't really matter what anyone else said anymore."
"I don't deserve you."
"Oh, you do, Blair. If anyone deserves me--you do."
"Then be with me. I can't offer you marriage, but I swear, I'll find a way that we can be together, and you can feel secure. I know you probably don't need it, but I want to take care of you. My family has a platoon of lawyers on retainer. I'll have them draw up some sort of a contract." Jim looked at him sharply. "Please don't be insulted, darling. I know it doesn't matter to you, but do it because it'll make me happy."
Jim smiled sweetly, then turned in Blair's arms, took his face between his palms, and kissed him. "If you insist... You do insist?"
"Then I do." He kissed him again. "Anything to make you happy, my little guppy."
"You're what? Alfred's voice wasn't quite a screech, but he came as close as a man with pretensions of gentility could.
"I'm marrying him--sort of." Jim was lounging on a sofa, feet crossed comfortably, hands behind his head as he stared up at the ceiling. "As close as we can get in America, anyway. We've discussed it. They've been getting ready to open a branch of Sandburg Beer over in England after the war, and I'm going to be a partner--a partner with controlling interest. He'll be expected to live over there, at least for the first few years, anyway, and London society won't make much of two partners living together till they get a new venture firmly established."
"But Jim, you can't do this."
"Sure I can. He wanted something legal, so he settled on this, and I didn't even have to prompt him. His first idea was to adopt me. Luckily, the lawyers disabused him of that notion."
"I can't believe this. I thought you were just going to wheedle some stunning presents out of him--diamond cuff links, a new roadster, perhaps even a small house in the country, but this..."
"It wouldn't be enough, Alfie," Jim said coldly. "I want more than monetary compensation."
"But my dear boy, it's dangerous--and not just for you. I introduced you to him..." He hesitated. "Well, they think I did. I've finally found myself a snug little nest, one that I might almost have considered for retirement, and you're going to bollocks it up, you twit."
Jim arched an eyebrow. "Sticks and stones, Alfie. I'm doing it. Naomi's going to throw us a huge party to announce the overseas venture."
"I won't stand for it! I'll tell your father, Jim Ellison! William will be up here from Atlantic City in no time at all, and then he'll..."
Alfie was beginning to hyperventilate, and Jim took pity on him. "Look, Alfie, take a vacation somewhere, and this will all blow over. Sandburg isn't the type to blame someone for an introduction when a romance goes sour."
Light dawned in Alfie's eyes. "You mean you intend to...?"
"If I was a woman, I'd have a standing reservation in Reno." He sighed. "Blair deserves what he gets, but I'll admit that I'm not looking forward to disappointing Naomi. You know, when we told her, she cried, and it wasn't because she was upset. She has a really strong hug for such a small woman." Jim's tone was almost wistful. "She'd have been a great mother-in-law."
Naomi was not one to miss a chance at free publicity, and the type of business deal that she was announcing was big news. The press was eager to report any sign of financial vigor, and they pounced on the story. There were headlines for days about the ground breaking legal agreement that would tie together America's premier brewing family and the British aristocracy. The party went off without a hitch. Blair didn't trip over anything. His clothes remained pristine through the entire event. The news photographers were happy that the two men involved were surprisingly willing to stand for pictures together. They were photographed seeming to look over documents, and shaking hands, and then standing with Jim's arm around Blair's shoulders. Jim had suggested that one, and the newsmen had been thrilled. It would make great copy about 'friendship between the American Democracy and the British Empire.'
Alfie called William after the party ended. "I never thought he'd really go through with it, Willy."
"I did." William was holding the receiver between his jaw and his shoulder as he dealt practice hands. "Jimmy has always been hard headed."
Steven and Rafe looked up from their game of pinochle. Their games were always close to a draw, but they liked to compete to see if they could catch each other cheating. "Hard headed is an understatement," said Steven. "If the guy who had jilted him was a politician, Jim would have gotten him elected president, and then impeached him."
"Did he look handsome?" asked William. "Jim has always looked so good in formal clothes." He sighed. "I wish he'd done this for different reasons. I knew what he had with Carolyn wasn't going to last, but I've always hoped that he'd find someone he could really give himself to. He won't be happy unless he does. And now he's... The only word for it is honeymooning. Now he's on a train, honeymooning with a man he hates."
"Maybe he'll kill him," said Rafe. When William gave him a sharp look, Rafe said, "He was in that hard-core military unit, wasn't he? It's not like he couldn't. Maybe he'll shoot him."
Steven shook his head. "I don't know how Jim ever passed the requirements for that unit. He's no good with guns--keeps dropping 'em. He can't leave a target practice range without having to pick his weapon up a half dozen times."
"Okay," said Rafe. "Maybe he'll push him out a window."
"You can't open the windows on a train," said William, his tone eminently sensible. "Not the bottom halves, anyway, and Blair could never stuff Jim through the top."
Blair couldn't believe it when Jim had agreed that Niagra Falls would be perfect for their getaway. Most new couples in his social set went to Miami or Los Angeles these days, but he couldn't help wanting as many of the traditional trappings of marriage as he could get. He was delighted to find out that Jim was more than agreeable to go along with his romantic gesture.
He'd reserved one of their most comfortable sleepers, and he'd had to tell Mugsy very firmly that no, he wasn't going to make a reservation for him, not even in one of the berths. "And if I catch you in the club car, I'll tell the conductor that you're the last of the old time train robbers, hoping to pull off just one more heist. He might doubt that, but he won't take any chances."
Naomi hadn't thrown rice at them as they left for the station, but she'd waved her handkerchief for all she was worth. Then she handed the handkerchief to Mugsy, so he could wipe his eyes. Mugsy tried to hand it back, and she said, "You can keep it."
"In that case..." Mugsy honked into it lustily, and then sniffed. "He don't need me any more." His voice was almost plaintive.
Naomi patted his shoulder. "We still need you, Mugsy." Mugsy gave her a doubtful look. "Blair's already told me that they intend to adopt."
Mugsy perked up. "You mean...?"
"That's right. I'm sure Blair can talk James into letting you do your stuff instead of hiring one of those British nannies."
Blair was making his way back from the men's room, carefully navigating the narrow, swaying corridor. His mind wasn't on where he was going, and he should have been tripping at every other step. Fate being as perverse as it often was, he was moving with surprising grace. He met the porter coming in the other direction. "Ah, Mister Sandburg. I made up the room, like you asked."
"Good, good. Did you get the champagne?"
"It's on ice. I have to say..." The conductor hesitated, and then said slowly, "It's nice to see business partners on such good terms. There aren't many who'd share a compartment--with one double bed."
"Now you know why they call becoming partners getting into bed with each other," said Blair blithely. "Besides, he gets nightmares." Blair pulled out the bill he'd tucked in his robe pocket for just this occasion. "This is for you."
The man glanced at it, then did a double take when he saw the denomination. "Thank you, Mister Sandburg. All I can say is that this partnership looks like it's going to be good for a whole lot of people."
"Two will be enough."
As the man moved off, Blair tapped on the door. A voice inside said, "If you're the porter, I'm not decent. If you're Blair Sandburg, come on in."
Heart thumping, Blair went into the compartment. James was stretched out on the bed, wearing only a pair of pajama bottoms. It wasn't the first time Blair had seen him bare chested (they'd gone swimming at the country club. Blair hadn't liked the constant parade of bathing beauties who switched past, trying to attract James' attention. He'd been gratified when James gave them only a passing glance, concentrating his attention on Blair). But this was the first time Blair knew that James was dressed (or undressed) like this for him, and him alone. Jim smiled seductively, patting the mattress at his side. Blair eagerly shut the door...
A little too hard, it seems, since a small traveling case in the rack over the door tumbled out and bumped him on the head.
"Oh, you poor, dear thing!" James exclaimed. "Come here." Rubbing his head, Blair locked the door and came to sit beside Jim. His soon-to-be-lover reached out, gently petting Blair. "Are you all right?"
"Nothing bruised but my ego. What a way to start a honeymoon." James started laughing. A little bewildered, Blair smiled. "What's so funny?"
James, still laughing, waved at him in a 'give me a moment' gesture. Finally he said, "I'm sorry, dear. It isn't you. It's just that this reminded me so much of the other time."
"When I fell over the coffee table, or when I almost got knocked off my horse by that low hanging branch?"
"Neither." He started chuckling again.
"Tell me about it. I like a good laugh."
"I suppose you had to be there, but really, it was so funny. Of course I was only sixteen, and I thought that it was the most romantic thing that had ever happened. The young take personal discomfort as a sign of their devotion, I suppose."
Romantic? "What, exactly, happened when you were sixteen?"
"Oh, nothing much. I just ran away with Angus, the stable master." Ignoring Blair's suddenly widening eyes, Jim continued. "Of course he wasn't really the stable master--he was only a groom. But he liked to wait until the stable master had a day off and wear his uniform. He looked so cute. You know those high boots, and the cap with a bill, and... Don't you think that looks cute?"
"Not particularly," said Blair faintly. "So, you two kids ran away together to have an adventure?"
"It was an adventure, all right, but much different than, say, Huck Finn. He was much older than me, of course." Jim sighed nostalgically. "I can still remember the scent of hay that first time in one of the stalls. But what reminded me of him here was the whole thing about being uncomfortable on a train. When we ran away we had to travel in the coach, because my money ran out..."
"Well, silly, Angus certainly didn't have any. I had to finance us some way, though I really wish I hadn't pawned the watch my grandfather gave me. We couldn't really get a proper price for it, since it was an heirloom, and they don't pay for family sentiment, even if something is an antique. Any way, there was this farmer sitting right across from us..." James started laughing again, "and he smelled of cheese!"
"I guess they caught you at the first station." Blair's tone was hopeful.
"Oh, no. We managed to stay hidden for simply weeks. We kept moving around, and using false names. We thought up the most outrageous... You Americans call them 'monikers', I think. I called myself..."
"You two... slept together?"
Jim stopped laughing, but smiled. "There was only one bed in the rooms."
"But you... you..."
"That, too. It doesn't matter to you, does it, Hopsie?"
Blair swallowed hard. "You were young. What's happened, happened. It's in the past. If you love someone, you deal with their youthful transgressions with understanding and," his voice cracked, "sweet forgiveness..."
"I said sweet forgiveness! Neither of us are the same person we were when we were sixteen." Though one of us seems to have been a lot more experienced at that age.
"Exactly! It takes time to grow a little sense. I didn't even really like Angus, so we'd never have stayed together. Now Harry--I was genuinely fond of him."
"Harry?" Blair's voice was an octave higher.
"My room mate at Eton. It was much more appropriate, since we were the same age. I spent a couple of summers with his family." James raised his eyebrows. "He had scads of younger brothers and sisters. I can't tell you how many times they nearly caught us when we were..."
"Yes, it would have been terribly embarrassing, but when you're that age you just don't care. You know how it is."
"Not really." There was a moment of silence. "I suppose that when the hormones hit, most people indulge a little. But when you settled down..."
"Oh, yes. I was with Anthony for almost a year, but I hadn't learned my lesson--Cedric only lasted a month. Hubert warned him that I was fickle."
"When did you meet Cee-dric?"
"It's pronounced Ced-ric. Henry introduced us, and then the jealous devil tried to split us up."
"I thought you said Hubert?"
"I did. Hubert was Henry's identical twin. Not exactly identical, you know. Henry had the cutest little birthmark on his bum, just below the right bottom curve. It looked just like..."
James eyed him. "You said you'd forgive my youthful indiscretions."
"I didn't know that you'd had more affairs than a commercial grand ballroom. I can't believe... All Jim was really guilty of was having a dodgy family. I could shoot myself for not believing him when he tried to explain."
"Jim? Oh, he's the gigolo you met on the ship."
"He wasn't a gigolo, and I... I hurt him so bad, just because my pride was stung." He stood up and grabbed the case that had fallen on the floor.
"What are you doing?"
"This has at least some of my clothes in it. I'm getting off at the next station. I don't know how I'm going to settle this, but I know that it isn't going to work out. I'll contact you through Lord Alfred." He started for the door.
"Really, Hopsie," said James, "what's the fuss? It isn't as if everyone doesn't sow their wild oats before they find the one they want to settle down with."
Blair's eyes were wounded. "Not everyone. I didn't." He left.
Jim's smile faded. At first he looked confused, and then the implication of what Blair had said sank in. "I don't believe it." He closed his eyes. Yes, I do. What in God's name have I done?
William, Steven, and Rafe sat together at the small breakfast table on one side of the hotel suite's common room. They were watching Jim, who was sprawled on the sofa on the far side of the room. He was wearing dark glasses, and despite their protection he had his palms pressed over his eyes. "How long has he been like this?" Rafe whispered.
"I can hear you," said Jim, not moving. "It feels like forever."
"I'm worried," said Steven. "He hasn't been this bad since he first came back from the jungle. I thought he was getting over it."
William said quietly, "You're too young to remember when this first happened, when he was a child. It isn't some sort of phase or illness that will pass, or can be cured. It's part of him, what he is. He'd been so much better that I'd hoped he'd gained some control of it. He says he didn't have a single instance of his senses getting away with him while he was letting Sandburg court him. I was sort of hoping..."
"Weren't we all?" said Steven dryly. "The way he's acting just doesn't make any sense. Here he is with a golden opportunity--he doesn't even have to insist on them going through with the business deal. No, he could easily skin Sandburg for enough to keep us all fat and happy for the rest of our lives. I'd do it in a heartbeat, but he will not talk with the lawyers to get some sort of settlement."
"I know you would, Steven, and shall I tell you a secret? There are times when I wish you were more like your brother. Hell, sometimes I wish I was more like him. Still, being callous has it's advantages."
William patted his shoulder. "Don't try to act insulted, son. The Ellison men just don't run toward deep sentiments. That's why I'd wonder about Jim, if I wasn't so completely sure that your mother was faithful to me."
The phone rang, and Rafe answered it, using his best professional domestic voice. "Sir Alfred's suite." He glanced significantly at the others. "Yes, he's here. I'm not sure that he'll want to speak to you, though."
"I told you," said Jim wearily, "I'm not speaking to the lawyers."
Rafe covered the mouthpiece. "It isn't a lawyer, Jimbo. It's Naomi Sandburg."
Jim sat up quickly, grimacing at the sharp pain caused by the sudden movement. He held out his hand. "Give it here." He took it, and assumed his British voice, "Hullo, Naomi, angel."
"Hi, James. You sound dreadful, dear." In a law office many miles away, Naomi glanced at Blair, who was pacing nearby, and raised her voice. "Have you been crying?" Blair scowled and kept pacing.
"Oh, I suppose I'm all right. How... how's Blair?"
"More stubborn than I'd ever believe. I tried to convince him that there was no need to dissolve the partnership--he doesn't have to stick close to you now, and he might always change his mind, but he's set on it. He wants to sever all contact."
Jim sighed. "I can't blame him. He was..." Jim closed his eyes. "We hurt each other badly. I've learned things that make me very sorry that I acted as I did. I thought I was justified at the time, but that's no excuse."
"James," she pulled a small stack of paper toward her, glancing at them worriedly. "You sent the agreement back unsigned. I know it isn't what you were expecting, but the settlement he's offering is very generous."
"Yes it is, but I don't want it. I won't fight the legal dissolution, but I'm not going to just sign what we had away without making an effort. If he'll come to me himself and say that's what he wants I'll do it."
Naomi looked at Blair. "He says that he won't sign the agreement unless you come personally."
"Screw that!" Blair snapped. The lawyers present in the room gasped, but Naomi just raised an eyebrow. "If he won't sign the dissolution agreement, fine--we'll keep the partnership, but it's only on paper. I never want to see him again. In fact, I'm going back up the Amazon. Professor Jones will welcome me back, and up there the only snakes I have to worry about crawl on their bellies." He stalked out of the room.
Naomi sighed. "James, he says..."
"I heard him, Naomi," said Jim quietly. "I don't blame him. I don't want anything from the agreement, no money at all. I'll have someone draw up papers, but this time without giving me any sort of settlement."
"I don't know exactly what went on between you two," said Naomi, "but I really like you, James, and I think that you two could make each other happy, if you just both weren't so darn stubborn and proud."
'I'm working on the pride, but I'm still stubborn." Jim pulled off the glasses, and there was a determined gleam in his eyes. "And that may come in handy. You take care, Naomi."
"I will. And James? Don't be a total stranger. Blair won't be here for some time, so you won't have to worry about running into him."
They hung up, and Jim said, "You weren't listening, Naomi." He dialed, and then said, "Hello, information? I hope you can help me. What number would I dial to get a listing on ships leaving for overseas? Hm? South America."
Rafe shook his head, but he was smiling. "Looks like we're going to South America."
William nodded, happy to see Jim once again looking alert and lively. "Looks like we are."
Mugsy insisted on coming with Blair again, though Blair had told him that it wasn't necessary. "I can look after myself, Mugsy. After all I've been through, I'll know better than to let myself get involved again."
"I ain't sayin' you're not responsible, kid," said Mugsy. "And maybe you'd like to be alone and brood," Mugsy thrust out his jaw, "but it ain't gonna happen. I'm comin' with you, even if you fire me. I'll just end up havin' to sleep in the hall outside your room."
Blair wouldn't have put it past him, so they sailed together. He spent the first day in his room, with Mugsy urging him to go out and mingle with the other passengers. "Why?" said Blair. "It'll be the same thing it was the last time--every single female between puberty and senility will be drinking Sandburg Beer and casting sheep's eyes at me. I'd rather just stay in my cabin till we reach our destination."
"Kid, I know you're hurtin', but you can't let this get to you so bad. I ain't gonna see you shut yourself off from the world and become some kinda eccentric little old professor. Now, tonight you get out there, or so help me I'll drag you into the dining room by the hair. And remember--" he flipped Blair's ponytail. "You've got enough for me to get a good grip."
"You pester me for my own good more than Naomi ever thought about."
Blair bit the bullet. When evening rolled around, he put on a good suit and made his way to the dining room. It was just as bad as he'd expected. Even before he entered the room, he saw a waiter hurrying past, carrying a tray full of bottles of Sandburg Beer. He almost turned around, but by then the maitre de had spotted him and was hurrying over. "Good evening, Mister Sandburg. We have a table reserved for you, of course. Your employee, Mister Murgatroyd, suggest one in a quieter section of the room, so if you'll follow me..."
He started to lead Blair through the room, making for an empty table off in a far corner. Blair wondered if it were possible to die of embarrassment. As he passed by people conversations would die, only to spring up again with renewed fervor after he'd passed. Before they reached the table he decided that he just couldn't stand it, and he'd have to resign himself to a hair-pulling. He turned and started swiftly toward the exit...
...and ended up flat on his face.
"Why don't you watch where you're... Why, Hopsie!"
Blair froze at the familiar voice. He waited for the wash of pain and anger, but it didn't come. Instead he felt a great, warm longing fill him as he turned over and sat up. He could see William, Steven, and Rafe all sitting at the table, watching him with various intensities of smiles. His eyes were just on the level of a pair of knees clad in silk dress trousers. Blair looked up and up till his eyes reached that dear, beautiful face, and he was relieved and elated to see nothing in the pale blue eyes but recognition, and pleasure.
Jim squatted beside Blair. "We've got to stop meeting like this, Blair. People will talk."
"I don't care." Blair suddenly looped an arm around Jim's neck and kissed him square on the mouth.
It wasn't quite pandemonium, but it did cause a stir. Most of the older passengers weren't used to seeing even mixed sex couples kiss in public--not unless they'd been married for a number of years, and then it was less likely to be an issue. Jim didn't pull away for several seconds. When he did, he was a touch breathless. "Hopsie, were you up the Amazon again while we were apart? You're acting, um, anxious again."
"I wasn't. I am. I mean... I missed you, and I'm sorry."
"Dearest boy, this is not the place." Jim helped Blair to his feet, tucking his hand in the crook of his elbow. "Let's go have a talk."
"Yeah, sure. But first..." Blair flagged down a passing waiter. "I want a bottle of your best champagne for this table." He addressed William. "Colonel, if there's any left of that when we return, we'll have a toast together."
"Father?" said Jim.
"Ignore what he just said. Don't wait up."
"Somehow I'm not surprised."
As they walked away together William could hear Blair saying, "I have so much to tell you. First off, did you know that you have a doppleganger?"
Steven shook his head as the waiter began to pour out the champagne. "He may not have been the easiest mark I ever ran into, but he could have been the biggest."
"Cheer up, Steven," said William, accepting a glass. "I've seen at least a half-dozen millionaires on this boat, male and female. One of 'em is bound to be lonely and looking for a little congenial companionship. Jim and Blair are going to get off soon--Blair isn't going to want to continue on to South America. Just wait till they disembark, and you can go hunting." William raised his glass. "Here's to the Great American Mark--may its number never decrease." The other men lifted their glasses and drank. William lifted his glass again. "And here's to my new son-in-law. Bless him, I have a feeling that they're going to keep each other on their toes."
As they walked, Blair kept up a running commentary that was more babble than discourse. Jim placidly let it wash over him. He knew that the younger man was rabbitting on because he was relieved, and that meant that this was going to work out just fine.
"...heaven knows I'm not a prude, Jim, but from the way he talked he was Casanova, Don Juan, Romeo, and Lothario all rolled into one. But the really bad thing was that he wasn't serious about any of them. The way he talked, he seemed to regard having an affair like buying a bag of peanuts."
"Yes. I wouldn't have had anything to do with him if he hadn't reminded me so forcibly of... But it was just physical."
Jim bent his head toward Blair. "Does that mean that what we have isn't physical?"
"No. No! I hope... I mean, I didn't mean... Outwardly..."
"I know, Hopsie." They were just the right heights for Jim to press a kiss to Blair's forehead without really bending down. "We're here."
Blair looked up. "This is my cabin."
"Well, we couldn't very well go to mine. I'm having to share this trip across, and Steven or Rafe could wander in at any moment."
Blair eagerly unlocked the door, but hesitated, looking apprehensive. "Jim, I've reached the point where I really don't give a damn what the rest of the world thinks, or what your father does, or anything about your past. All I know is I love you, I want you, and I need you, but... but I have to be fair to you. As long as that contract is in effect, I'm not really a free man. I'm tied to someone."
Jim smiled at him and pushed the door open. As he drew Blair in after him and leaned in for a kiss, he said, "But Hopsie--so am I."
The door closed.
A moment later it opened and a flustered, very embarrassed Mugsy slithered out into the hall. He quickly shut the door and hung a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the knob. He gazed at the door for a moment. He shook his head, then he nodded, and finally he shrugged. As he walked off toward his own room he muttered, "Positively the same guy."
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Acknowledgements: Art by Patt. Beta by Mary Browne.