Avon was waiting for Rafe in the Great Room. He caught himself flexing his toes and looked down at the new boots. The lightness and softness of the boots felt odd after wearing the campaign boots so long-- almost like not wearing boots at all. Oh, well, at least he and Rafe were of a size and the trousers and the tunic he had borrowed fit admirably and were of suitably subdued colours. In fact he rather liked the deep blue of the tunic--
"There has been some news, Galen. Devon spoke to Pearson-- he'll be here this evening, too, by the way. Word is that the Federation engaged Liberator two days ago and the pursuit ships have failed to report." Rafe was at the sideboard pouring drinks. He handed one to Avon. "Drink up, that's good news. And it'll be days before anything happens. Meanwhile, you've got this evening to get through, so relax and enjoy yourself."
Days. Seven days out and no fix on their position in all that time. They could be anywhere--
"What's that?" Rafe asked indicating the prettily wrapped package on the table next to Avon.
"Something for Marian," he said.
"Oh. That's very thoughtful-- " Rafe gave a low whistle.
Turning to see what so inspired Rafe's admiration, Avon saw Georgie and Marian and the most beautiful woman he had ever seen-- the back of her, anyway: tall and elegant, her hair piled on top of her head with marigolds and lavender, wearing a soft, creamy white dress, and she had good legs, too. She was laughing at something-- and she moved so gracefully, turning towards them-- Cally? Suddenly he was aware that Rafe was looking at him, and, he realized his mouth was open. Schooling his expression to one of polite interest, he remarked, "Georgie is looking very well this evening." Rafe just grinned and said, "Yes, she is," and went off to greet her.
Avon turned away. He hoped Rafe hadn't heard the clack his teeth had made when he'd snapped his jaw shut, but he had a feeling that that was a forlorn hope. If I don't get off this damnable planet soon, he thought, I'm going to go out of my mind. Tarrant, you'd better be on your way back with my ship or I'll hound you for the rest of your days! He downed the rest of his drink and--
"Rafe says you have something for me," said Marian coming quietly up behind him.
He picked the package up by its bow and held it out to her; she held out her hand and he dropped the package into it. "Something to remember me by."
"Thank you," she said unwrapping it. "Are you leaving? Rafe didn't mention-- "
"He doesn't know yet. It's just that cousin Galen feels he has imposed on your hospitality long enough," he said watching her. When she saw what was in the box, she looked up frowning in thought.
"I knew you'd like it," he said.
Marian took the camera out of the box. "Very nice," she said, turning it on.
"Yes. I thought you might like to record this gala occasion for posterity. There will undoubtedly come a time, after I'm gone, when you, and perhaps others, will want to... remember what cousin Galen looked like."
"Yes, I had thought of that. What about his friend Leah?"
"Leah, too. Just in case. Take lots of pictures. And later on, I'll adjust it for you."
"Of course," she said. "Smile for posterity, cousin Galen." Avon smiled and Marian recorded the event.
"Doc! Whatever are you doing?" Georgie asked in a dramatic whisper, looking from her mother to Avon and back again.
"Taking pictures-- "
"But, Doc-- "
"It was cousin Galen's idea," Marian said calmly.
"It was?" Georgie looked blank.
"Yes, dear. He gave me this camera."
Georgie stared at the camera for a moment. "Oh," she said; and then, beginning to smile: "Oh! I know. Cousin Galen, you've thought of something, haven't you? What-- "
"We'll talk about it later, shall we," said Marian.
"We certainly shall," said Georgie indignantly. She glared fiercely at both Avon and her mother, but the effect was spoiled when she giggled. "I hope it will turn Lieutenant Krager green," she said to Avon.
Avon smiled in spite of himself.
"Good," said Georgie with satisfaction.
"Well, now," said Marian, "I see our guests are beginning to arrive. Come, Georgie. Galen, we'll talk later."
Avon watched them go, wondering at them both. He was glad he had decided to leave, but... it was a shame he wouldn't be present when Krager got his comeuppance.
* * * * *
Cally had been assiduously ignoring Avon the whole evening, since the moment she had seen him standing there in the Great Room wearing that deep blue tunic that was just the right colour and cut-- she kept a sharp eye on him to make sure that he was assiduously ignoring her, too.
She laughed and danced and flirted with Wes-- but, after a while she began to feel a certain pique, a dissatisfaction that Avon hadn't spoken to her, hadn't noticed what a good time she was having, how popular she was. And she began to wonder what he was plotting that he hadn't any time to notice these things. Certainly, by now, he should have had something cutting to say. Perhaps there had been some news of Liberator-- it would be just like Avon not to tell her, damn him. The fluttering of her stomach she ascribed to nervousness at being among a large group of people for the first time in ages; she never realized that the butterflies only stirred when she caught sight of him.
* * * * *
Everyone came to Marian's parties. Barram's head of Security, and, by special invitation, the Federation's own Jolly-Fly-Boy, Lieutenant Krager. And Avon had never been more glad to see the Federation. The evening had been very wearing so far. Making small talk in the guise of cousin Galen was bad enough, but having to stand by and watch Cally-- Leah-- making a complete fool of herself put him out of all patience. Now that Krager had arrived there might be some fun. It was strange to see Krager without Elston, though, and he wondered what the reason could be. Then, having wondered fruitlessly, he decided he would ask.
* * * * *
Cally became a little uneasy when she noticed Marian taking pictures of everyone, but, when Georgie told her who had given Marian the camera, she stopped worrying and began to wonder just what Avon's plan was and whether it included her. She wanted to ask and curiosity had almost overwhelmed pride when she observed Avon talking to Lieutenant Krager.
* * * * *
Krager was standing by the refreshment table, sipping a drink, surveying the room.
"Good evening, Lieutenant," Avon said, choosing a drink for himself.
"Evening, Galen," said Krager affably. "Not suffering any ill effects from your, ah... dunking, I see."
"None at all," said Avon, pleasantly. "Speaking of ill effects, where is Lieutenant Elston this evening-- I mean, he isn't ill, is he?"
Krager grinned and sipped his drink. "No, no, not to worry. Elston has merely been, ah... detained."
"He won't be detained too long, I hope."
"He's awaiting a, ah... communication," he said, continuing to scan the room.
Avon nodded and sipped his own drink. Looking about, he noticed Cally glaring at him from across the room. It amused him to think he was making her nervous by talking with Krager and he decided to prolong the conversation. "Business?" he asked.
"That's too bad. It would be a shame to miss the party because of business."
"Oh, I don't think Elston will, ah... miss anything. He should be along-- " Krager glanced at his chronometer, "any time now."
* * * * *
Avon and Krager had been talking for quite a long time and it was beginning to make Cally both angry and very uneasy--
"I believe this is my dance," Wes said quietly from beside her.
Startled, Cally turned quickly, her frown still in place.
"Is everything all right?" he asked, taking her hand.
"Yes," she said.
Wes stared at her for a moment, and the next thing she knew she was watching him raise her hand to his lips and kiss it lightly. "You're sure?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
He smiled charmingly and repeated the gesture with her other hand.
"Oh, yes," she said smiling back.
"Good." And Wes saw to it that she didn't think about anything but him for a while.
* * * * *
"Now there's a lovely lady," said Krager.
Avon looked up and saw Wes leading Cally out for the next dance. She was smiling now and her attention seemed to be wholly on her partner--
"Leah, isn't it?" Krager asked, watching Avon out of the corner of his eye.
"Yes, Leah Hilary," he said slowly, his attention still on Cally and Wes.
"An old friend of Georgie's, I take it."
"I believe so," said Avon as he watched Cally and Wes dance. They made a handsome couple, danced well together. And she was flirting with him for all she was worth--
"Lovely. She's the one to be dancing with," Krager sighed. "You'll not have much, ah... luck there, though, Galen, will you?"
"I beg your pardon?" Avon asked, looking over at Krager, not quite sure he had heard correctly.
"Not after yesterday," Krager went on placidly, still watching them. "You and she didn't seem to, ah... hit it off, did you?"
Not deigning to reply to such an impertinence, Avon stared icily at Krager, but Krager wasn't in the least disconcerted, and, after a moment they both turned their attention back to watching the dancing.
"Very nice," Krager said. "It'd take a man with a great deal of, ah... address to make the lady forget Doctor Wes. A great deal of address..."
And watching them, Avon was beginning to believe it.
"There aren't many men could, ah... carry it off. No. Not in the face of Doctor Wes. He does have a way-- "
"Good evening, Lieutenant, Galen," said Georgie.
Krager turned to smile at her, saying, "Good evening," but Avon's attention was riveted on Cally and Wes.
"You aren't dancing. Aren't you enjoying yourselves?" she asked.
All at once Avon's mind was made up and he looked down at Georgie, asking, "Would you care to dance?"
"Why, I'd be delighted."
"If you'll excuse us, Lieutenant," Avon said, taking Georgie's hand. Then remembering the drink in his other hand, he handed it to Krager, saying, "If you would be so kind..." And with a nod of thanks, he led his partner onto the floor.
"Why, Galen," she said after the first turn around the room, "you're very good. Where did you learn?"
"Mother saw to it. No son of hers could be allowed to be less than proficient in all social accomplishments." And though he smiled sweetly at her, she felt he was bitter about it. Then he began dredging up the prescribed chatter. Georgie was a very good dancer in spite of her pregnancy. "You're a very good dancer, too," he said. "It's like dancing with-- "
"A pregnant woman. I know."
"I was going to say 'a feather,' Georgie," he said with mock severity, "please play along." And he smiled a delightful smile. "We're flirting, now. Just like everyone else."
"Oh," she said, enlightened. And she smiled delightedly back, thinking This ought to be good. "And is flirting a necessary social accomplishment?"
"Well! And I thought it was something everyone just did."
"Some people do it naturally; others have to be taught. To be a social success, one must seem to flirt naturally."
"Which are you, natural or taught?"
For an answer, Avon only laughed.
"Kerr?" Del Grant came quietly into the room. "I couldn't help overhearing-- "
"Rowena's voice does carry. You're lucky she's not your mother."
"When did that ever save me? I went through the full social indoctrination, too, if you remember. What a nightmare!"
"Yes, but you're good at it."
"I wasn't always. If you think you're shy-- "
"I just don't have any interest in being sociable. It's stupid. Why can't everyone just leave me alone?" Kerr turned away. Why did she have to make such an issue of it? Why did she want him to be the one thing he couldn't be? Why wasn't just being himself enough?
"I'd be glad to. But Rowena won't. Look, Kerr, it's really simple. It is a stupid game. You know all the rules, you know all the moves, you've just got to..." Del grabbed him by the elbow, saying, "Come with me," and took him downstairs into the formal salon. Turning on the lights, he said, "Look in the mirrors. What do you see?"
"You and me. So?"
"Watch." And Del smiled at Kerr's reflection and bowed. "That's who Rowena and everyone else sees, when necessary. Not me, just a pleasing reflection. Try it."
Kerr looked at both reflections. And as he watched grinning Del gave solemn Kerr a playful punch that knocked Kerr off balance enough for Del to try to sweep Kerr's foot out from under him. It was an old game. One Del used to win. But Kerr was nearly as big as Del now and Kerr grinned, pleased to know that this time Del wasn't sure to win...
It was nearly a draw.
"Do you see?" Del asked, looking into the mirrors again. They were sitting on the floor, laughing and trying to catch their breath. "It isn't what you say..." Del explained, "it isn't even how you say it; it's the way you look when you say it. You can say any damned fool, inane thing, just as long as you smile and look them in the eyes. And they'll never guess that you aren't really there."
When the dance ended, Avon delayed just long enough to let Wes lead Cally off the floor before he followed with Georgie. Leading her over to where Cally and Wes were standing with Rafe, he surrendered Georgie formally, in his best courtly manner, kissing her hand lightly and murmuring a fervent "Thank you," accompanied by an outrageously provocative smile and what they call a "speaking look." Then he smiled at the others and excused himself.
"Well," said Georgie, laughing, greatly amused by Avon's performance and astounded by what an accomplished a flirt he was. "If he keeps that up some woman will surely kill him."
Wes laughed at Georgie's observation, but, Rafe, catching a glimpse of Cally's face, thought he knew which woman it would be.
As for Avon, the performance had taken a lot out of him-- and he wasn't even sure why he had felt compelled to do it. He went outside, found a secluded spot, and sat down. You were right about the reflections, Del. Did I ever remember to tell you that? Holding out his hand he was pleased to see how steady it was.
A little while later he went looking for Marian.
* * * * *
"Galen," Marian said, coming quietly into the study, "Elston has arrived. And they are looking very smug."
Avon nodded. "I'll see what they're up to. When this sequence is done," he said rising, "remove the camera and key in the word 'Krager.' When the screen goes blank, turn it off. Just remember, if you have to show this to anyone, make sure Leah stays out of sight."
"Leah doesn't know?"
"But you must have needed base pictures of her to work from-- " Marian looked at Avon sharply.
Avon nodded. "I like the way your household security system is set up. I doubt there are many who would be able to tap into it-- or even discover that it exists."
Marian laughed. "I thought your area of expertise was bank fraud."
"An avocation merely. My field is computers."
"That was Eve's field, too. That and security."
"I should like to have met him."
Marian nodded and Avon went to find Krager and Elston.
* * * * *
Wes was occupied with a group of his friends and now that she had a moment to think, Cally had just begun wondering where Avon had disappeared to when she chanced to notice Lieutenants Krager and Elston going into the garden, followed surreptitiously moments later by Avon. Curious, she went circumspectly into the garden herself.
* * * * *
Avon was fairly sure they hadn't spotted him following. The path wound in and out among the trees and shrubs here and the dark clothes made him nearly invisible once he had turned the corner of the path and was out of the light. Krager and Elston stopped when they reached the bench overlooking the lake: it must have seemed a secluded enough spot.
Keeping the shrubbery between, Avon moved out of the path against the trunk of a tree. "Let's have a look at it," he heard Krager say--
"What's going on?" Cally whispered close behind him.
Avon was startled. Straining to hear Krager, he hadn't heard Cally approaching. Why couldn't she ever mind her own business? And that white dress stood out like a beacon; he grabbed her wrist and pulled her into the shadows with him.
"Listen," he hissed. Cally complied, not moving. She was standing awkwardly though, and a few moments later when she shifted her weight she fell heavily against Avon who caught her in his left arm and held her steady against his side, trying to minimize the noise. He glared at her, but it was too dark for her to appreciate it and when he turned his head to listen again, Krager and Elston had fallen silent.
"I don't hear anything," she whispered after what she thought was a decent interval of listening.
Turning his head to look at her, he whispered, exasperated, "No. Of course not, because now they're probably listening to us."
Cally shivered. His arm was still around her and his face was only inches from hers and before she could stop herself she was kissing him. And then she didn't want to stop. It was Avon she wanted. She had never wanted anyone so much and now she wanted him to know it, too. She kissed him hungrily, pressing her body close, aware only of her own aching desire, trying to steal as much pleasure as she could before she could be repulsed.
But he didn't repulse her. Avon had never understood women; they were unpredictable and dangerous and they used sex as a weapon, but early in life he had learned that he could use sex as a defense. The way to remain in control was to stay detached and use them first, overpower them. He was very good at it. It was easy-- especially so since he was already angry with Cally. He became the aggressor; he allowed his body to respond. His physical passion matched hers, became more demanding than hers: his lips sought to devour her, his hands caressed her, arousing her senses to fever pitch--
Suddenly Cally knew she wasn't in control any longer and she was scared; scared of this man she hardly knew, scared of his hardness pressing against her, scared of her own desires and of losing herself, scared of being used. She tore herself away, striking at him, and, with a resounding smack! her left fist struck Avon smartly in the right eye.
He let her go and for a stunned moment they could only stare at each other. Then, horrified by her own behavior, Cally turned and ran back toward the house.
Avon's head was ringing a bit as he watched her run, but he felt some satisfaction at having defeated her until he heard the snickering laughter of Krager and Elston and the comment "Lovebirds," and then he was angry again. What in hell was wrong with the woman? She'd been acting strange for days, arguing about everything, throwing herself at Wes-- now throwing herself at him. Had she gone completely out of her mind? He wanted to strangle Cally; shake her until her teeth rattled, but she wasn't near and he settled for giving a healthy kick to a fair sized rock. It probably would have gone a good twenty-five feet if he'd been wearing his campaign boots. Damn the woman!
He stayed in the shadows, nursing his foot, until Krager and Elston went past pointedly ignoring him, then, limping slightly, right eye throbbing-- swelling and colouring nicely, too, he was sure-- he went back up the path wondering how it happened that his life had turned into such a farce.
Rafe was coming down the path. Krager and Elston exchanged greetings with him as they passed and he heard Rafe ask if they'd seen Galen. They laughed and Krager indicated the path behind them, saying, "I believe he's right behind us," and they went on towards the house. Rafe looked down the path and saw him and then it was too late; Rafe came to meet him.
They both stopped, regarding each other. "Georgie's with Leah-- " Rafe looked at Avon hard for a moment, then, he put a hand on Avon's shoulder and moved to one side, turning Avon slightly, to let the light shine on the right side of his face. Avon was too angry to speak, so he stood glaring at Rafe, thinking, If you value your life, just don't say anything.
Rafe wanted to laugh, but he had no trouble catching the gist of that unspoken message. All he said was, "Come on. We'll go round by the front and I'll put something on it for you."
Rafe was quiet as they walked, but then, putting a comradely hand on Avon's shoulder, he said, "You know, you're not the first man this has happened to." Avon stopped in his tracks, looking at Rafe, trying to fathom his meaning, trying hard to resent the familiarity, but finding that he didn't--
"Women," Rafe elucidated.
"Women," Avon concurred. It was comforting to know that he wasn't alone in his confusion.
The men continued into the house, each pondering the imponderable.
"They should come with-- "
"-- instructions." Rafe grinned. "They should, but they don't."
* * * * *