Arrogance, and Assumptions
“Doctor John Watson and Mademoiselle Gabrielle Vernet,” the footman announces, and I have to keep my teeth from gritting at the resultant lull in the conversation and the upturned faces tracking our descent of the grand staircase.
“You do not enjoy the attention?” my companion asks, her contralto tones lightly accented with charming Gallic inflection.
“I enjoyed the attention for perhaps a month after Study in Scarlet came out,” I answer honestly enough, “but after Reichenbach ….” I sigh deeply, and steer Mlle. Vernet over to the buffet, where we nod to various acquaintances and help ourselves to drinks.
“But now that he is back?” she persists, her dark eyes flashing with something indefinable that makes my pulse race for a moment.
Under the pretence of leading her to the dance floor, I encircle my arm around her waist, allowing my grasp to fall slightly lower than necessary, while still staying broadly within the definitions of propriety. “Now that Holmes is back,” I tell her, sipping at my champagne, “I find myself wishing everyone would just go away. My editor in particular,” I add with no little venom. “And as for my agent, the next time Doctor Doyle asks me –”
“Your Lordship!” my companion interrupts, her voice almost husky in its insistence. “I haven’t seen you since Cannes! Where have you been?”
Lord Shaftsbury, a corpulent gentleman of indeterminate age with large mutton-chop sideburns, huffs and bumbles a greeting, and then, quickly seeing someone else in the crowd he needs to greet, rushes off as rapidly as politeness allows.
“You have a positively mischievous streak,” I say.
“Mischievous? And why do you say that?”
“You know that His Lordship has never met you, Mademoiselle Vernet.”
“Please, call me Gabrielle, my dear Jean. You Englishmen, you are all so formal.” She downs her drink in a single gulp and turns to me, the twinkle in her eyes causing some dangerous stirrings in my loins. “And this is a party, after all. What else is a party for, if not to misbehave oneself just a little bit?”
I smile and hand over our empty glasses to a passing waiter, then take her in my arms and guide her onto the floor, chatting about this and that, greeting each couple and, most importantly, being seen. We judge about a half-hour of this charade as sufficient before we are able retreat to the side of the room, melting seamlessly in with the crowd. I take her elbow and we casually glide to a certain corner of the ballroom, where an inconspicuous door leads to the library.
Once the door closes behind us, Gabrielle Vernet is gone, and Inspector Lestrade is rifling through the desk while I keep careful watch. Or rather, Inspector Lestrade is off-duty and at home, and absolutely no where near the Belgian Embassy.
We are definitely not doing this small favour for Mycroft Holmes, I think ruefully, looking anywhere but at the little detective. Of all the strange things I have seen in my adventures, an off-duty Scotland Yard officer committing espionage wearing a wig, heavy makeup and a full-length ball gown shall definitely rank as the most bizarre.
“Those papers damn well better be in here,” Lestrade grumbles, carefully picking the lock on the second drawer. “If he’s sent us on a wild goose chase –”
“Someone’s coming,” I hiss, diving away from the door and toward Lestrade, who quickly sweeps away any evidence of his snooping, whisking his lockpicks up into his hand and from thence into my jacket pocket as we position ourselves into our pre-arranged alibi.
When the door gently creaks open, I am scandalously pressing my attentions on Mlle. Vernet, nuzzling her ear softly as I whisper devilish promises. The lady only mildly protests, murmuring her winsome replies and fluttering her eyelashes coyly.
Our witness assesses the situation, and after a moment of apparent indecision, the door closes with a discreet click; after all, Doctor John Watson has gained quite the reputation as a ladies’ man.
“That was too close,” Lestrade growls, returning swiftly to his work. “I could lose my badge for this – halloa! What have we here?” He pulls a long blue envelope from the drawer.
“Is that it?” I ask.
He unfolds the missive and scans it. “Exactly as he said it would be. Well, let’s get this to Holmes and get out of here.” He bends to the task of re-locking the drawer, and then we slip from the library and through the French windows into the garden. We cautiously move into the more public section, blending with the scattered couples amongst the topiary sculptures and the marble statuary which glows in the light of the yellow half-moon.
We follow the gravel path to a secluded bench near a fountain, and Lestrade wearily sinks down upon it, slipping off the dainty shoes with a muttered oath.
“I don’t know how women do it, and that’s a fact,” he says. “These blasted things will be the end of my poor spine.”
I circle around the bench to stand behind him. “Here, allow me,” I murmur, and dig my thumbs into his lower back.
“I say! a bit of medical knowledge comes in handy, eh, Doctor?” he says, arching his back as I massage the knot away.
“Actually, I used to do this for my mother,” I admit. “She would have to dress up like this for all sorts of balls and social events, and she always said the worst of it were the shoes.”
“I would have thought this corset thing would have been the worst of it, but that’s not as bad as those shoes. So how long do we have to wait?”
I check my watch. “I would expect about a half-hour before they discover the loss,” I say. I resume my ministrations without thinking, my hands already moving to his shoulders before I realize how much I am enjoying the act of touching him. Despite my uncharitable earlier description of him, he is rather handsome, and the tailored burgundy gown Holmes chose for Lestrade earlier tonight offsets his ivory skin in a maddeningly disconcerting manner; it has also been a very long time since I have bedded a man, and my body reacts in a predictable manner. I ignore my arousal, concentrating instead upon soothing the tension in my companion’s muscles.
Lestrade does not seem to mind my touch, and I allow my hands to roam freely over his back, massaging away the many knots I find.
“Good lord, man,” I chuckle. “Do you ever relax?”
“‘The life of a police inspector is a hard lot,’ Doctor,” Lestrade ripostes, and we both laugh. “You know,” he continues seriously, “you’re a damn good man, if you don’t mind my saying so. I hope Holmes knows how lucky he is. Oh, you needn’t worry,” he adds, as my hands jerk away suddenly. He turns around and clasps them in his own, his deep sombre eyes shining earnestly in the moonlight. “I’m of … well, I’m of a similar mind, if you take my meaning. And I must confess, I’ve always wondered how you two do it; you’re so obviously in love, even after all these years.”
A small amount of a crushing weight lifts from my shoulders, only to highlight the empty tug at my heart as I find myself having to put words to my greatest sorrow. “Well, you’re right about you and I being of a similar mind,” I tell him, “but as for anything between me and Holmes ….” I shake my head sadly. “We have done nothing, and discussed nothing. If he knows of my feelings for him – and he must know by now – he is kind enough to keep his opinions of the matter to himself.”
“Kind enough!” Lestrade snorts. “He must have a heart of stone, if he can’t return your devotion, at least.”
“He does,” I protest, “albeit in his own way –”
Lestrade reaches forward and touches my cheek. The tenderness of the gesture stops my words. “I didn’t mean to malign him, not to you. How long have you loved him?”
“Since somewhere during the Jefferson Hope affair,” I admit with a sigh. “I hated you then, you know; I was insanely jealous.”
He grins widely, his flashing teeth framed by ruby-red lips. “As jealous, I’d imagine, as I was of you. So, then, you did know about me.”
“Not really, no,” I chuckle. “During those first months, any man that got near him was a potential rival.”
“Just the men, eh? Well, we both know how Sherlock Holmes feels about women,” Lestrade adds. “You know, he might just be waiting for you to make the first move,” he continues doubtfully.
“Would you risk it?”
“No.” We stare down at the ground in silence for a long while before we realize that our hands are still joined. We smile a little and he squeezes my fingers tentatively. “You know,” he begins slowly, “men in our position –”
It has been far too long. I lift our joined hands to his chin and draw his mouth to mine. Our lips wrestle pleasurably together for a moment before a not-so-gentle cough makes us tear away from each other, our hearts leaping to our throats.
“As much as I hate to interrupt this tender emotional scene,” Sherlock Holmes says coldly, “we have work to do. I believe you have something for my brother?”
Lestrade silently hands the envelope to Holmes, who tucks it into his vest-pocket.
I step forward. “Holmes, I –”
“We’ll discuss this back at Baker Street,” he snaps, and, turning on his heel, strides around the corner and out of sight.
I collapse upon the bench beside Lestrade, trembling in every muscle. “Sweet Mother of God,” I whisper. “I just barely moved back in, you know. Now he’s going to think I sold my practice in order to …” I cannot finish the sentence.
Lestrade lays a hand upon my shoulder. “We’d better get back to the dance floor.”
“But if –”
“We can deal with this later,” Lestrade says firmly. He leans forward and kisses my cheek. “At the very worst, you can stay with me. But I don’t think it’ll come to that.”
I pull back and look deep into his eyes. Even in daylight, one cannot tell where his irises end and his pupils begin; here in the patchy light of the half-moon, his eyes are magnetic pools, flowing with compassion, encouraging me to voice my fears.
“How do you know,” I ask mournfully, “that my luggage shall not be upon the doorstep when we arrive at Baker Street tonight?”
Lestrade smiles ruefully. “Because our friend Mr. Holmes has a heart of stone, remember? You heard him; his objection was not that we were two men, but that we were indulging our emotions when we should have been tending to our mission.”
“Speaking of which,” I laugh nervously, rising from the bench. “Well, Mademoiselle Vernet,” I say loudly, “may I escort you back to the ballroom?”
With a graceful shake of her chestnut tresses, the willowy beauty takes my arm, standing upon tiptoe to kiss my forehead. “Please, Jean,” she murmurs, “I have told you; call me Gabrielle.”
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