Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Beginning (incomplete)

It was late afternoon on a crisp sunny Thursday in April, and Danny Vandervere was putting the final touches on his outfit for the White Party. His suitcase was nearly packed, his well-made and fashionable but decidedly slutty clothes for travel, pre-parties, after-parties, poolside, and restaurant meals already neatly folded in a saddle-leather Hermès half-trunk that stood open in the middle of Danny's red-carpeted and mahogany-paneled dressing room; a collection of costly cosmetics and grooming products—mostly unnecessary for a twenty-three-year-old boy naturally blessed with extraordinary skin and hair, but nevertheless cherished and used religiously—were all packed in a matching toiletries case; a few pieces of extremely expensive jewelry were locked in another small case that would go into his soft-sided carry-on bag.

But The Outfit, the all-important White Party Outfit itself, was giving him some trouble. The shirtless ensemble consisted primarily of high-waisted white sailor pants tailor-made in soft but sturdy stretch gabardine, skin-tight from navel to knee and then blossoming into dramatic but not floppy bell bottoms that nearly dusted the floor, hiding the white soft-soled Oxfords that were comfortable enough for hours of dancing without being too gauchely puffy.

Any decoration beyond that would be gilding the lily, as Danny Vandervere is never anything less than breathtaking: he is endowed with a tall lithe body, voluptuous but not bulky with carefully cultivated muscles, exquisitely proportioned with wide shoulders and a tiny waist, almost-spherical pectorals and buttocks, tautly sculpted abdomen and smooth hairless skin; this wonder is topped by a head of glossy blue-black curls arranged in a cherubic halo around a face of nearly unbearable perfection, chiseled Italianate bones and blushing white English skin with luscious red lips and huge thick-lashed gray eyes.

Anything such a paragon chooses to wear to the White Party would inevitably become the rage of fashion within minutes of his entry on the dance floor; he could not only get away with wearing a chartreuse polyester leisure suit if he so chose, but chartreuse polyester leisure suits would become a staple at the next Circuit party. However, Danny is a young man of wealth, leisure, and artistic inclinations, and he has precious little to do with his time besides dressing himself to a degree of perfection rivaling the heads of Mr. Blackwell's famous list.

And so, even with so simple an outfit, there were variables of detail that took up hours of Danny's otherwise idle afternoon. He'd spent the better part of one hour wondering if he should wear underwear or not, trying on thongs and briefs and jock-straps and boxer-briefs, struggling back into the pants with every change; at last he put the pants on "commando" and examined the effect in the floor-length trifold mirror.

Though the effect was certainly eye-catching, it bordered too closely on the obscene for Danny's comfort: though he was by no means shy about showing off his massive member to anyone who was interested in seeing it, he didn't like making it the centerpiece of his body... he wanted people to see his face, too. He also found it uncomfortable to move around too much with it rubbing against his thigh when he walked or danced, as the friction tended to make the monster rather awkward to accommodate in tight pants.

Stroking the beast idly with his thumb, he decided that the thong-back support jock was the best bet, bundling his genitals into a big round basket that was as eye-catching as no underwear but considerably more comfortable, and so turned to fold four pairs of that style into his suitcase.

Then he turned his attention to hats. He had two, a simple canvas sailor's cap as well as a structured officer's peaked cap with a glossy black bill and gold braid. He liked the shape and prestige of the officer's cap, but preferred the all-white of the sailor's cap, which would not interfere with his overall whiteness nor clash with the platinum and diamond jewelry he intended to wear. He wondered if he could cover the black bill and the gold embroidery with the white shoe polish he'd bought for his Oxfords, or if he could find another cap of the same shape but with no color before the shops closed that evening.

"Oh, poop," he sighed when the screaming peal of his doorbell interrupted this important decision-making process.

He reached out to pick up the wall-phone he'd recently had installed, part of a system that he'd had to put in place after an unpleasant occurrence the previous winter: he used to leave the street door to his small 1920s apartment-house open during the day, and would receive callers at the front door of his second-floor flat; but since someone camped out in the darkened stairwell waiting for Danny to come out, intending to do him harm, Danny had a buzzer system installed, with wall-phones in every room of his flat so he didn't have to go very far to answer the bell, and kept the street door locked at all times.

"Hello?" Danny asked the caller; he wasn't expecting anyone, and experience had rendered him cautious of the unexpected.

"Danny, it's Valerien, let me up," came a faintly impatient voice.

"Okay," Danny replied, pressing the button that operated the gate downstairs, then hung up and moved quickly down the long hallway connecting the front and back rooms of his apartment toward the door.

"I'm sorry I didn't call first," Baron Valerien de Seguemont rushed through the door and into the living room without preamble, a short slim blur of silvery-blond hair and silvery tweed suit, "I need to ask you something that won't do over the phone."

"That's all right, Val, I always love to see you," Danny followed his guest into the living room, "Can I get you some...".

"What the hell are you wearing?" Valerien interrupted abruptly once his vision adjusted to the indoor light and he saw his friend's outfit. His big violet eyes, which had been eloquent of despair a moment before, were squinting slightly with confusion; his lovely Dresden-figurine face was crimped with a combination of distaste and disbelief.

"It's for the White Party. Do you think the necklace is too much?" Danny fingered the narrow band of square-cut diamonds bezel-set in bright platinum that circled his throat.

"Who'll see it, with all that cock jumping out at them?" Valerien gestured at Danny's crotch with a fey flutter of his hand. Though one of Danny's cock's most ardent admirers, Valerien is extremely traditional in his views and somewhat hidebound about propriety.

"I'm going to wear a jock underneath to the dance," Danny explained, "So do you think the choker is too nelly?"

"Too nelly for what?" Valerien cocked his head to one side prettily, considering the question with the import it deserved.

"The White Party," Danny repeated, "In Palm Springs."

"Oh, merde, is that this weekend?" Valerien wailed and dropped down onto the satin-upholstered Duncan Phyfe sofa that held pride of place in the center of Danny's opulently overfurnished living room, "You've been looking forward to this for weeks, haven't you."

"I've had my tickets since November," Danny sat down beside his friend, tucking one foot under his leg and turning to face him.

"I hate to ask you this, but I'm just that desperate. What can I do to get you to come to the Château instead?"

"But I'm almost all packed, I have hotel reservations and flights booked and everything," Danny objected, then relented when he saw the hunted look return to Valerien's lovely face, "But I don't have to go, I guess. I mean, it's too late to cancel the reservations, but that doesn't mean I have to show up."

"I will make it up to you, I promise," Valerien took Danny's hands in his own, a gesture he reserved for important statements, talking fast and serious, "I'll pay back all your expenses for this trip, and book you into Miami's White Party, or New York's, or Mardi Gras in Sydney if you like or any other party you want attend anywhere in the world. Private jet, suites, you can take friends, I'll even go with you if you want."

"Oh, you don't have to do all that," Danny was somewhat frightened by Valerien's earnestness: he seldom gave the appearance of taking things very seriously, and though he was always generous to a fault and had given Danny millions of dollars worth of gifts during the six months they were together, he never spoke of money or paying for things unless he absolutely had to.

"But I will, and more than that," Valerien vowed, "I'll make it up to you if you'll come up to the country with me tomorrow and stay for the week."

"Of course I'll come," Danny assured his friend, "But what's wrong?"

"I just found out that Grandmère is trying to marry me off," Valerien relaxed against the back of the couch, visibly relieved but still agitated, "This whole house party is a setup, and she wants to be able to announce my engagement by next Saturday."

"But you've always said you planned to marry," Danny reasoned, not sure why his friend was so upset by the news that his grandmother was meddling... it's what grandmothers do, after all, "You told me you were going to marry to continue your family line and tradition, rather than for love; what could be more traditional than an arranged marriage? Certainly easier than having to look around on your own."

"Yes, but I don't like having the whole thing sprung on me, like a trap. Three women are invited to this party, and I will be expected to choose one of them."

"Why do you need me?" Danny wondered, poking Valerien playfully, "You want me to protect you from them? Sleep at the foot of your bed and growl if one of them tries to sneak in and seduce you?"

"To help me choose one, of course," Valerien looked at him sharply, "I trust your judgement, and you know me so well, you'll know if we're compatible. I don't think I'm obliged to marry one of these particular women, and I certainly won't if I don't like them; but from what my secretary just told me, and he weaseled it out of Grandmère's secretary this morning, these are probably the three most suitable women in the whole world. Grandmère has been planning this for ages, studying genealogies and cultivating acquaintances to lead to the proper introductions, and I know she wouldn't try to marry me off to a toad or a nobody. These three will be the crème de la crème of beauty and breeding."

"Well, this is a new one for me," Danny laughed, leaning against Valerien and draping an arm around his shoulders, "Helping my ex-boyfriend choose a future wife."

"I don't care for the 'ex-' appellation," Valerien frowned, resting his head against Danny's chest, "It's not as if we broke up. Our relationship simply evolved from a romance to a friendship."

"Nobody has yet coined a catch-all word for such a thing," Danny reached up and stroked Valerien's gleaming pale hair, silky-soft as a baby's and worn foppishly long to curl around his jaw and the nape of his neck, "But I won't use it anymore if you don't like it."

"You spoil me," Valerien sighed with a smile, laying his hand on Danny's thigh and giving it a squeeze.

"Now look what you did," Danny growled seductively, indicating the sudden erection tented painfully in his tight pants, "You're not going to leave me like this, are you?"

"I'm afraid I'll have to," Valerien gently stroked Danny's cock through the fabric, then abruptly pulled away and stood up, "I have a meeting at the bank in twenty minutes, some sort of diplomat who wants us to invest in some tiny African country nobody ever heard of. I have to rush, or I'll be late."

"Lucky diplomat," Danny sighed and stood as well, taking a moment to adjust his hard-on so that it lay more comfortably against his groin, "Shall I drive myself to the Château tomorrow, or will you pick me up?"

"I'll pick you up at noon," Valerien paused at the mirror beside the front door to check his perfectly-knotted mauve silk tie and tuck a stray lock of hair behind his ear, "The van will pick up your luggage around ten. We can have lunch before we drive up, and get there in time for tea. We'll be doing white tie twice, and a masquerade ball as well, so pack heavy."

"Sure thing. Tell the African diplomat I said 'Hi,'" Danny pulled Valerien into a warm embrace and kissed the top of his head.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you, I don't know what I'd do without you," Valerien breathed into Danny's neck, making his cock lurch violently.

"You'd better go before I rape you," Danny pushed his friend to arm's length and opened the front door for him.

"Can't rape the willing," Valerien smirked, stepping through the door and heading down the stairs to the Rolls-Royce limousine double-parked outside, "But this obscure little nation-ette looks like a really special opportunity. À bientôt, mon cher!"

Danny shook his head at the young Baron's little quirks of personality, amazed as always by the "can't be bothered" schtick that he used to distance himself from the money-grubbing aspects of his family business: the Seguemonts own and operate the Fiducies Française, a private investment-banking firm that manages their own vast fortune as well as the fortunes of other carefully selected vieux-riche families, with reliably profitable results.

Though the old Comte de Seguemont, Valerien's grandfather, was the presiding genius behind many of the firm's most spectacular financial coups, in society he floats about bonelessly, speaking softly of trifles as if he hadn't a thought in his head, shrugging off the bourgeois mantle of commerce and describing himself as "merely a country gentleman, pottering about with my vineyards."

He neglects to mention that his brilliantly managed winery is almost as profitable as his bank, and Château de Seguemont is considered one of the top five champagnes in the world (though it isn't technically champagne, since it's made in California; but the barrels, machines, vats, the very vines and even the soil itself were brought over from the original Seguemont lands in Champagne), and is produced is such small quantities that it is a costly luxury few have even heard of, much less sampled.

And now twenty-eight-year-old Valerien is following in his grandfather's footsteps, having taken the old man's place as head of the San Francisco offices of the firm (though he remains in constant contact with the elderly Comte, who is still the president of the company), and spends every weekday assiduously husbanding the billions of dollars in his care, hunting out investment opportunities all over the world, and riding herd over an exceptionally brilliant staff of brokers and bankers, financial advisers and trust-fund administrators.

Yet, like his grandfather, he cultivates the elaborate pose of a careless dilettante, referring to the venerable and internationally respected Fiducies Française as "the bank" and dismissing his important work there as a simple sinecure that is meant to keep the noble family present as the public face of the company.

With his understanding of Valerien built over the course of their romance, Danny could see right through the "some kind of diplomat" and "obscure little nation-ette" insouciance: he was sure Valerien not only knew the name of the country but also more about its political history and natural resources than its own rulers did, and had probably even learned a smattering of its language; he most likely had a similar wealth of information on the diplomat he was meeting, including a list of the man's vices and virtues for use as leverage in any future negotiations. It gave Danny pleasure to know that the only reason he and Valerien weren't in bed right then was for the benefit of an emerging nation and its millions of most-likely-impoverished citizens.

Returning to his dressing room, Danny kicked off the shoes, peeled out of pants and socks, then unlatched the safety clasps of his diamond necklace and deposited it on the dressing-table so he'd remember to put it back in the safe; once naked, he shuffled into the adjacent bathroom to shower and masturbate so he could think about something besides his cock.

As he carefully unpacked the half-trunk back into his closets, he mused over how stark a contrast Valerien's family offered to his own: where the Seguemonts were hard workers pretending to be useless fops, the Vanderveres liked to pretend that they were integral to the running of the Royal Vandervere paper mill and its subsidiary industries; but in fact it was their employees who did all the work, more often than not under direction of the administrators of the vast and complicated Vandervere Trust, which actually owned the mills and the million acres of forest that fed them, as well as the houses they lived in and the great piles of money amassed by their ancestors, administering the lavish allowances on which the entire Vandervere clan depended completely.

But then, the Vanderveres were American to the core, descended from Dutch merchants and financiers who'd been in New York since it was New Amsterdam, who had migrated to California in the 19th Century after being granted a a vast tract of the new state by a grateful collection of well-buttered Whig politicians; the Protestant ethos of hard work and austere living was the mask they felt compelled to wear.

The Seguemonts, on the other hand, were still decidedly French—and feudal aristocrats at that, tracing their title and estates in an unbroken male line all the way back to the Capetian dynasty. And even though the current Comte's father had moved the family and its wealth out of France just prior to the outbreak of World War II, stripping their ancient chateau and their Paris hôtel and transplanting their treasures into a new-built Napa Valley castle and a Presidio Heights mansion, the family still retained their French citizenship as well as their French titles, lands, and most importantly, traditions. Valerien was legally an alien in the country where he lived and grew up, carrying a French passport and liable to French military service.

Laughing to himself at the thought of Valerien in the French Army with their drab uniforms and drumlike caps, Danny returned the empty half-trunk to the top of a closet and went to the hall closet to pull out the huge full-sized steamer trunk he'd need for a week's worth of four-changes-a-day living at the Château de Seguemont.

While he was in the front of the house, he sat down at his computer and started messaging his friends, arranging to give away his party tickets and hotel room so they wouldn't go to waste; he also called to inform the airline that he wouldn't be using his first-class ticket to Palm Springs and didn't mind that he'd have to settle for a partial credit instead of a full refund. Knowing Valerien, a much-too-large lump of cash would be electronically transferred to Danny's checking account before the end of the day; the lost plane fare money, which never was much of an object to him in the first place, held no interest whatever.

Though it once stung his pride, Danny had become accustomed to Valerien's largesse. After all, though he'd inherited a few million from his Great Aunt Mathilda (an inveterate gambler who'd parlayed her Trust allowance into a fortune at the tables in Reno, then invested her winnings in empty land on the outskirts of town and simply waiting for urban sprawl to reach it, selling out at a staggering profit and hiding the money under a false identity so the Trust couldn't claim it), Danny invested the whole legacy in apartment buildings and antiques, and had little more to live on than his Trust allowance... a sum which, for most people, would be considered extravagant, but which was unequal to the extravagance of Danny's tastes.

Valerien, however, had twenty or so million in his own right from his late mother, as well as the hundreds of millions he stood to inherit from the Comte, and he could access dizzying sums whenever he wished. It seemed only natural that he would take the role of protector and supporter to his merely-well-off friend.

Though Valerien was probably the most prodigiously generous of his friends, he was not the only generous and wealthy friend Danny had. He'd spent the year and a half after graduating from Stanford and before meeting Valerien cultivating a dozen or so sugar-daddies who fed him at his favorite four-star restaurants, escorted him to choice seats at the opera and symphony and ballet, and bestowed on him all those little luxuries, like platinum wristwatches and lynx-lined ostrich jackets, that were beyond his own means.

Danny didn't like to think of himself as a whore, but he had rather fancied himself something of a modern-day courtesan. His relationships with wealthy men weren't really about sex (though sex was almost always involved), as sex is a fairly cheap commodity and the market is glutted with pretty boys and big dicks; instead, it was Danny's carefully cultivated charm, his unfailingly sweet nature, his surprising intelligence, and his comprehensive understanding of the arts and culture that had the men clamoring for his attention and showering him with Bulgari cufflinks and Brioni suits.

He'd initially chafed at Valerien treating him like a courtesan when he wanted to be treated as a lover, an equal rather than a possession; but he came to understand that Valerien took great pleasure in buying things for Danny, and was hurt when Danny refused anything or tried to pay him back in any way. It was the only way the young aristocrat knew to show his affection, and though he wanted to accommodate Danny's sense of independence, he simply didn't know how. Being the more naturally accommodating of the two personalities, Danny gave in and let Valerien buy him things and pay for everything they did together.

And then there was Mark Willard-Wilkes, called Marquesa by his friends, the dazzlingly beautiful transvestite who most people actually thought was a woman, though a charmed inner circle was privileged to know about the foot-long endowment under the couture gowns. He was the son of a self-made Hollywood tycoon and an old-guard San Francisco heiress, who died young and left him to be raised by his mother's two batty Havishamesque great aunts; he grew up completely ignorant of his father's immense wealth, held for him in trust by an offshore bank, thinking himself dependent on his great-great-aunts and the paltry remnant of the former Willard fortune, a few blocks of rented houses in the Richmond District. Once apprised of his inheritance, though, instead of merely living off the fat of his father's work, he set about rebuilding the Willard empire and was now the third-largest property owner in the City, surpassed only by a Chinese cartel and the Federal government. He was also Valerien's best friend, and the man Danny loved with all his heart... painfully and without reciprocation.

Marquesa had adopted Danny as something of a pet, and then as a favorite fuck-buddy, spending lavishly on him when he was dating Valerien and even moreso since he wasn't. Marquesa was very fond of Danny, and physically infatuated with him, but his love belonged to someone else: Richard Allenwhite, the world's handsomest billionaire, who kept Marquesa like an old-fashioned mistress in a cavernous Art Deco penthouse and increased his wealth exponentially with gifts of diamonds, cars, and apartment buildings.

But since Richard was married and the father of four sons, with no intention of disturbing that relationship (he really did love his wife, exactly as much as his mistress), Marquesa was free to dabble about on his own without infringing on Richard's place in his heart... and he quite frequently dabbled with Danny, aware that the boy was more emotionally involved than he was, but not quite aware that Danny was so insanely besotted with love for him.

Though Danny would never have said so to Valerien, it was partly due to Marquesa's inevitable presence at the Château that he had so easily capitulated and given up a much-anticipated Palm Springs weekend of riotous sex and ecstatic dancing in order to spend a week in the country with three strange women and Valerien's grandparents.

Valerien and Marquesa had been best friends since the age of fourteen, and the orphaned Marquesa had long been enfolded into the Seguemont family; he spent pretty much every weekend at the Chateau, trading fashion gossip with the Comtesse, hunting deer and rabbit in the woods surrounding the vineyards, and riding the huge black Friesian stallion that was kept as a permanent guest in their stables.

Danny had been included in many of those weekends, but he always felt faintly uncomfortable with Marquesa and Valerien together, at least while he and Valerien were lovers: his unquenchable love for Marquesa made him feel disloyal to Valerien, whom he loved but with whom he was not in love. After they decided to just be friends, a lot of that pressure was relieved and his comfort with the two friends restored; but then he wasn't asked to the Château as frequently, so it didn't really matter.

Danny shook his head vigorously to clear his mind of these thoughts, which had a tendency to spiral out of control until he felt sorry for himself and angry with those he loved. He started singing to himself instead, a wordless tune based on the waltz from Sleeping Beauty but ornamented here and there with a "hoo-hoo" or a "cha-cha-cha," diverting his mind from pointless and depressing circular thinking. Once his mind was cleared, he started organizing his wardrobe for the week.

The white tie was easy, as he kept his white-tie ensembles separate in their own bags, with shirts and waistcoats and ties all included; all he had to do was slide two of them into the wardrobe half of the trunk. The black-tie dinner suits he'd be expected to wear to dinner every night were a little harder, as he had rather more of them, and was conscious of the Comtesse's love of absolute correctness in all things: his dinner clothes had to be the best quality, but could not be too flashy, nor could they be too plain.

He assumed he would probably ride every day, so he filled a separate large suitcase with his custom-made English riding boots, several pairs of kidskin-padded riding breeches, three riding jackets (Harris tweed, black velvet, and hunting pink), white shirts with stocks, extra-long boot-socks, a top hat and a riding helmet, and a selection of antique crops.

He'd once been an equestrian athlete, winning a series of dressage trophies with his gorgeous dapple-gray Andalusian as a teenager, but he'd seldom had opportunities to ride since he left his family home in the far northern mountains to attend college, and then moved into San Francisco afterward. His father had sold his horse out of spite, anyway; and though Danny occasionally went riding at friends' country houses, or rented livery horses in the Park, he didn't think it worth the trouble to obtain and stable his own animal.

Closing and latching his riding-gear case, he returned to the big steamer trunk and started filling its lower drawers with underwear and socks. Since dressing for the Château was a much more formal proposition than dressing for the White Party (one does not wear shorts or jeans at the Château de Seguemont, much less flimsy linen capris and Daisy Duke cutoffs), he didn't have to pay much attention to the choices of undergarment: a dozen or so pair of white boxer briefs and an equal number of jockstraps would suffice. Another dozen pair of white athletic socks went into the drawers, and then black clocked formal stockings, some Argyles in various neutral shades, and several plain beige and grey socks on top.

Next came a selection of blazers, several pairs of khakis, several more of slacks, and three lightweight spring suits, packed in the wardrobe half with sheets of tissue hanging in between. He knew it didn't matter what order or how neatly he packed his clothes, since the Château servants would unpack it all into closets and drawers before he even arrived, and throughout his stay would give his clothes an airing and a touch-up with an iron before laying them out for him; but Danny has what he calls a "tidy soul" (though others would call it a nascent obsessive-compulsive disorder) and was incapable of performing a task sloppily.

Some skimpy nylon shorts went in next, since he liked to run in the mornings, along with some equally skimpy scoop-neck tanks, some relatively modest Speedos for the pool, and a few pairs of white shorts with white polos for tennis. Then came a dozen vee-neck cashmere sweaters in a spectrum of pastels; a dozen dress shirts, professionally laundered and starched, folded with blue ribbons around them; a dozen sport shirts, as precisely pressed and folded as the dress-shirts; two dozen neckties that were briefly compared to the shirts and jackets before being folded into the trunk; a pile of brilliant white Irish linen handkerchiefs; and finally a sheaf of beautifully patterned silk scarves to wear as ascots or instead of ties.

A separate specially-compartmented case held ten pairs of shoes, ranging from running shoes and tennis sneakers to wingtips and opera pumps, all meticulously cleaned or polished and packed with wooden shoe-trees inside. His toiletries case didn't need to be repacked, but his jewelry case did—he'd have a lot more opportunities for jewelry at the Château than he would in Palm Springs. A dozen jeweled cufflinks (Danny loved the number twelve and habitually did things in dozens), tie pins and stock pins, wristwatches and bracelets filled up the larger locking jewelry case that matched the rest of his Hermès luggage.

Having packed up more clothing for ten days than he would ordinarily wear in twenty, he closed the trunk and wrestled it down the hall to stand by the front door, placed the other cases in a pyramid beside it, and collapsed on the couch with a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

"I'm hungry," he said to himself after a few moments of laying back on the couch and studying the living-room furniture, taking immense pleasure in the elegant lines of the eclectic collection of neoclassical and Art Deco pieces he'd chosen. He glanced over at the Empire malachite-and-ormolu mantel clock and was surprised that so much time had passed since Valerien's visit: it was almost five o'clock, well after tea-time but nowhere near time for dinner. He tried to keep his eating times as routine as possible, so that his digestion would be as predictable as possible... a full colon is very inconvenient during certain favorite activities, and Danny didn't like those kinds of surprises.

Since he didn't want to wait another three hours for dinner, though, he decided a small snack wouldn't disarrange his peristalsis, so headed into his long steel-and-granite kitchen, as narrow as a ship's galley but fitted out with more equipment and conveniences than were necessary for the very little light cooking he did in it. Rummaging in a refrigerator full of restaurant leftovers and fresh produce, Danny decided on a small plate of sliced Fuji apples and sharp white cheddar cheese.

While nibbling on his snack in his small square dining room (Biedermeier birch chairs around a circular Moderne bronze table, overhung by a chandelier of bronze tree-branches dripping with mismatched crystals), he realized that he was going to be gone for ten days instead of the planned three, and that his refrigerator would have to be emptied of any near-to-perishing items before he left the following day. He also remembered a handful of appointments he'd have to call and cancel, and three dates he'd have to reschedule.

Those preparations took him well into the evening, when his bowels moved at their accustomed hour and Danny went into the bathroom to begin his evening rituals.

Since he spent a great deal of time in his bathroom, bathing and grooming himself frequently (or obsessively), it had been made as beautiful and luxurious as possible within the bounds of the space available in a 1920s townhouse flat. All of the fixtures were made of creamy rose-veined marble, or painted to resemble it; the walls and cabinets were French provincial paneling painted a soothing ivory, and the hardware was light silver with a warm patina. The entire ceiling was a skylight fitted with milk-glass panes hand-painted with rose-colored veins to match the marble, fitted with warm halogen floodlights above it that imitated the sun when it was dark out.

He set the bath to fill and added a generous scoop of bergamot-scented Dead Sea bath salts, turned on the stereo to play a series of beautifully structured Baroque string concerti, and made himself comfortable on the toilet with the morning's New York Times crossword puzzle. Once finished evacuating, then thoroughly flushing out his rectal cavity on the neighboring bidet, he abandoned the half-finished puzzle and sank into the deep fragrant bath, turning the air-jets to a gentle churn and letting his mind wander while his body floated.

He wondered, while he lay soaking, what the three women the Comtesse had chosen for her grandson would be like.  He was sure they'd all be titled Europeans, and Western Europeans at that, and that their titles would be at least two or three hundred years old; he assumed they'd be at least nominally but by no means devoutly Catholic, rich but not noticeably richer than the Seguemonts, and of course very beautiful... this was Seguemont tradition, visible in every ancestral portrait they owned. 

Danny's social circles were made up mostly of men; though he did know quite a few Society dames through the arts events and benefits he frequently attended, as well as clients from his brief stint as assistant to the City's most sought-after interior designer, Theo Ermengratz, he was not very close to any of them.  And aside from Valerien and the occasional visiting dignitary, Danny's address book was generally devoid of titles; he knew a Russian princess, but she was a third-generation New Yorker and didn't often use her title, so hardly counted.  He didn't have enough experience of the species to make a guess as to the three women's personalities.

He also wondered what it would be like for one of these women, married to a man like Valerien.  He was unapologetically homosexual, and had never been with a woman before; as staunchly traditionalist as the young Baron was, Danny didn't think he would consent to anything as crassly modern as artificial insemination, but didn't know if he'd be able to perform his marital functions in the old-fashioned way.  It suddenly occurred to him that this was probably the genesis of his panic over this marriage-mart house party: not that it was sprung on him as a surprise, but that he might not be able to pull it off.  Valerien was not inured to failure, and the thought of it must have terrified him.

When the water grew tepid, Danny crawled out and stepped into the adjacent shower to rinse off, shampoo and condition his hair, and masturbate again (he had a date that night, but needed to get through dinner first without any urgency in his groin).  Stepping over to the sink, he slathered his face with an exfoliating emollient mud-mask and let it set while he meticulously brushed and flossed his teeth; washing it off with a toning astringent, he dabbed around his eyes with eye cream and patted his face with face cream, then rubbed himself down with body cream.

Back in his dressing room, he futzed around with his hair while waiting for all the creams to be absorbed by his skin, adding a moisturizing high-gloss gel and trying out different styles, pushing it back with his hands, then combing it back into a smooth poll, then pulling the curls out one one side and then the other.  When the gel started to dry, he made up his mind and used a plastic pick to fluff the curls around his face in the usual halo, and shook it vigorously for a soft and careless look.

Since he was having dinner with an old friend instead of a new beau, he didn't feel that he had to try too hard to look his best, so getting dressed was fairly easy.  A pair of close-fitting chocolate corduroy jeans with distressed brown leather stack-heeled motorcycle boots, a deep-cut sable silk sweater that left a good deal of his chest bare but covered his arms down past the wrist, and a narrow blazer of rubbed caramel satin completed the outfit, and were accessorized with a long brown and rose paisley cashmere scarf draped around his neck in case he needed to cover up, a small cognac-colored diamond on a gold snake chain, a gold Cartier watch on a natural ostrich band, and an intricately carved gold thumb-ring.

After a moment's consideration of his face, he decided to smudge a little dark mocha shadow around his eyes and tart up his already incredibly long thick eyelashes with a whisk of sable mascara...not enough makeup to look like makeup, but enough to make his eyes smolder.  The man Danny was meeting was particularly partial to smoldering eyes, and the restaurant they'd agreed on was dimly lit, so he felt a little extra something would not go amiss.

Stopping at his lacquered Chinoiserie desk in the living room to take his smart-phone off its charger, then in the front hall to get his keys and wallet out of the little credenza by the door, he headed out through the kitchen and down the alley stairs to the garage in the basement.  Though there were three other units in the building, he selfishly reserved the entire garage for himself, though only one very small vintage Jaguar roadster was parked there; the rest of the space was filled with extra furniture and out-of-season clothes.  Of course, none of his tenants had cars, and Danny charged ridiculously low rents, so they didn't mind.

It was a warmish night, by San Francisco standards, so he put the top down on the racing-green 1963 E-Type before getting in and starting the engine, hitting the garage-door button, and pulling out into the quiet tree-lined side street on the outskirts of the Castro district that he called home.  He crossed Market and zigzagged through side-streets to the foot of Nob Hill, where he left his car with a very pretty parking valet at Henry's Eight, a cozy little steakhouse off the tourist paths that was better known for its excellent bar and gorgeous staff than its food, though the food was especially good.

Danny was a long-time patron of the establishment, and had dated several of the waiters as well as the owner (and so was in a position to know what Henry's "eight" was), so he was greeted warmly when he entered the dim walnut-paneled restaurant, and was escorted to his usual table in the corner near the fireplace, where his dinner companion was already ensconced with cocktails, bread, and a ravishing sommelier.

"Why, Danny Vandervere, as I live and breathe!" Theo Ermengratz crowed in a fruity Southern accent, "And don't you look good enough to eat?"

"Poppy, you old goat," Danny leaned down to kiss the famous decorator on the top of his shiny head before taking his seat, "I hope you're ordering wine and not just buttering the boy up."

Despite his age (past sixty, though he wouldn't admit to how far past), his baldness (he cultivated a little laurel-wreath of iron-gray curls), his baggy Italian silk suits and fussy pinkie-rings, and his tendency to fly into camp performance pieces in public, Theophilos Ermengratz (né Poppadopalous, called Poppy by those he loves), is one of the sexiest men in San Francisco: bulging with muscle and hung like a bull, huge square hands and a large square head, with an epically handsome face and the prettiest cow-brown eyes, a deep growling voice, and an ineffable air of command that could make the toughest leather-daddies swoon like corsetted debutantes.  He was the only man Danny had ever met who could say "Fan me with a tulip, Beulah" and "On your knees, boy" with equal authenticity.

"I was doing both, in fact," Poppy smiled brightly and winked lewdly at the sommelier, "I got a Mendoza Malbec and this charmer's phone number."

"Pimply ass and a very pointy dick," Danny told his friend confidentially once the sommelier was out of earshot.

"You do get around, don't you?" Poppy raised a quizzical eyebrow at the boy, then dropped his camp accent to reveal the gruff bark of a drill sergeant, "Now let's get down to brass tacks.  You're going to the Château tomorrow."

"Yes, but how..." Danny sputtered in surprise.

"I advised Valerien to invite you, of course.  He always follows my advice," Poppy said with a touch of smug pride, though he was only stating the truth.  Poppy had been Valerien's surrogate parent ever since he'd decorated Valerien's rooms at the Château on the occasion of his eighteenth birthday, and had subsequently decorated his bachelor apartment, his office, and several of his friends' homes; the Baron called the older man Tante Papà in affection, and never made a move in anything socially or aesthetically important without consulting Poppy first. 

"And here I thought it was the pleasure of my company he sought," Danny mock-pouted.

"No doubt," Poppy smirked, "But he was in a panic and not thinking straight.  He wanted me to come at first, but I pointed out that the Comtesse would have seven kinds of kittens if he foisted a mere tradesman on her hospitality for a house party."

"But you're a professional!" Danny objected, "And an Ermengratz, and rich in your own right besides. You're no more a tradesman than the Comte, if it comes to that."

"Let's not forget that I'm the son of Greek immigrants, blue-blood adoption or no," Poppy smiled.

"That's ridiculous," Danny shook his head; Poppy was referring to his late lover, who had adopted him as a son way back in the early 70s, when such things were being done... it was the best legal substitute for marriage in those days, so long as the young man in question was still under 18, as Poppy had been at the time.  Toddy Ermengratz, his adoptive father, was as old-money as Danny was, the last scion of one of Mrs. Astor's 400 families, with a gorgeous old townhouse on Fifth Avenue, a rambling mansion on Long Island (North Shore, naturally), and absolute buckets of money from his great-grandfather's railroads and oil wells. He'd left Poppy a very rich man with a great many important social connections.

"Perhaps so, but remember that I met the Comtesse professionally, not socially, and the poor old broad  is a slave to these distinctions.  And in circumstances like these, with a houseful of titled ladies that you're trying to hitch to your queer grandson, I can quite see her point.  You want to present your best-pedigreed friends and relations, not your decorator.  You and Marquesa are as pedigreed as it gets in the U.S., so of course you are who will have to stand by Valerien in his hour of need."

"I still think you should be the one to go," Danny reasoned, "You are the best judge of character out of anyone I know; you see through people, but I'm always being swayed by appearances."

"Oh, I'll get to have a gander at these geese before Valerien gets himself engaged.  I'll be up at the Château on Sunday for the garden party and next Saturday for the masquerade ball.  I will rate and classify the fauna for our dear little Baron and..."

"Oh my Christ, I forgot the masquerade ball!" Danny wailed in sudden despair, nearly rising from his seat in his agitation, "I didn't pack a costume!"

"Good God, boy, you startled me!" Poppy complained comically, clutching his chest and fanning his face with his hand, "It's not like you left the iron on.  Throw something in a bag when you get home."

"But I hate forgetting things like that!" Danny groused, leaning back in his seat and flicking at the silverware on the table with irritation, "What if I'd got all the way up there with nothing to wear?"

"You would have borrowed something from Valerien.  You know they've got trunks of old costumes up in their attic.  No need to go scaring old ladies like that."

"I'm sorry," Danny apologized, "You know how I am when I forget things."

"You should do it more often," Poppy smiled and reached over to squeeze Danny's hand, "It can't be good for a boy your age to be so methodical and perfect.  Mistakes give you character."

"I think I've had enough character-building in the last year to hold me for a while," Danny laughed ruefully, "Besides, my mother always said that 'character' is just a euphemism for 'wrinkles.'"

"Your mother may be right.  There's a first time for everything," Poppy said as the wine was brought and poured, followed closely by a pair of Porterhouse steaks, presented without sauces, with sides of sweet-potato fries and grilled string beans, "I ordered for you, I'm sure you won't mind."

"You always know what I like, Poppy," Danny beamed at the older man and started cutting lustily into his perfectly medium-rare steak.

"It's the secret to my success," Poppy declared happily, "I always know what everyone wants, and endeavor to give it to them.  Now, getting back to you, I want you to observe the young ladies closely and report back to me when I come up.  You are a terrible judge of character, but a minute and thorough observer; I need your eyes up there so that I can guide Valerien in his choice."

"Shall I encode my findings on a microfilm and disguise it as a beauty-spot?" Danny joked.

"Don't sass your Auntie.  I also want you to observe the men who are coming with these ladies."

"Men?" Danny brightened slightly.

"Yes, men, you horny little tramp.  The Comtesse invited a male relative to chaperon each of the young ladies.  I don't know who they are yet, Val's secretary didn't get names, but I want to know all about them.  I want to know about the rest of their families, too, if possible."

"I'd hate to be judged by my relatives," the boy shivered with disgust; aside from his three maiden great-aunts, one of whom left him her money, Danny and his large clan regarded each other with mutual loathing.

"Well, you are an exception.  Most apples don't fall far from their trees."

"You are a treasure-trove of cliches this evening," Danny refilled his glass from the bottle on the table, "Though that 'gander at the geese' bit was pretty good."

"I thought so, too," the older man laughed and refilled his own glass, "My next comment was going to be about killing two birds with one stone, but I think I'd better skip it since you're parsing my dialog."

"What about two birds?" the boy wondered as he cut some more steak.

"Well, you may have been wondering why you hadn't been invited initially?  Why the last minute distress-call?"

"I hadn't, actually," Danny frowned.

"Well, the Comtesse—and again I quite see her reasoning—intended to de-gay her party as much as possible.  She has no illusions about Valerien, and she certainly doesn't condemn him in any way, but she does worry that ladies with breeding in mind might be somewhat dismayed by how much homosexuality there is in their family."

"Whatever for? It's not a Mendelian marker."

"And their blood isn't really blue, either," Poppy rolled his eyes impatiently, "Reality and genetics don't matter to the Comtesse.  This is about what people think.  And I suspect she's concerned that these ladies, or their menfolk, will look askance at a houseful of ex-boyfriends and Sapphic sisters.  One easily passes off Marquesa as a woman, and the Comtesse thinks of her as family, but you and Valerien together generate heat that might raise some noble eyebrows."

"Am I supposed to pretend to be straight?" Danny was aghast.

"No, no, nothing like that," Poppy assured him, "But you've probably noticed by now that the Comtesse cannot sit down to dinner without having equal numbers of males and females in neat little pairs."

"I have noticed, actually.  Her secretary dined with us when I was there last, to make up the numbers."

"Well, note my brilliance: by getting Valerien to insert you into the party, that makes it possible for Valerien's aunt Cécile to bring her girlfriend, which had initially been denied her on the grounds that it would imbalance the table.  Now she has to be invited to keep things even."

"So long as I don't have to make out with Tante Cécile's girlfriend, I'm happy to oblige."

"Very good.  Rainbow pride and all that, we have to look out for each other.  Cécile is quite a firecracker, I think you'll like her.  I knew her way back in New York, in the Stonewall days.  A dyke to be reckoned with."

"I look forward to meeting her.  But I'm glad you told me about the gay thing," Danny resumed eating, "I'll try to tone it down, or just attach myself to Marquesa so they won't think I have a claim on Valerien that might impede marriage."

"Ah, thank you.  That will do nicely," Poppy beamed.

"You manipulated me into saying that!"

"Yes, I did."

"Why do I find that so hot?" Danny asked with a sultry smile.

"Your standards of hot are so delightfully low," Poppy told him with a wink, then returned to his subject, "Even without Mendelian genetics, you have to admit the Seguemonts are a pretty queer bunch: Valerien and Cecile are completely out, and even the old Comte sets off my gaydar, wife and children notwithstanding; and the Comtesse's brother, who is also going to be there, is so nelly nobody ever believes he's straight.  He is straight, heterosexual anyway and quite promiscuous about it; but he's terrifically fey and a leading expert on Proust. Again, it's all about  appearances."

"I'm beginning to wish I'd gone to the White Party after all," Danny said worriedly, "I don't know if I'm up to a whole week of Best Behavior."

"I am sorry I made you miss the White Party with my meddling," Poppy looked contrite, "But I knew you'd want to help Val.  Just follow Marquesa around like a lost puppy, as you tend to do around her anyway, and pretend Valerien is your frat buddy instead of your ex-boyfriend.  Everything will be fine."

"And I'll have the microfilm pasted to my left nipple when you come Sunday."

"That is absolutely the lewdest thing I've heard all day!" Poppy crowed gleefully, then added in an undertone, "I'm going to come tonight, and your left nipple is going to be pasted but good."

"Oh, boy," Danny breathed, his cock already hardening in anticipation.

"Now, let's talk about your costume.  If you really don't have anything, I've got dozens of things you could borrow.  A jeweled codpiece and a feather boa, perhaps?"

"I thought I was supposed to tone down the gay!" Danny laughed.

"The only way to 'tone down' a masquerade ball is to not go," Poppy explained, "But seriously, what have you got in storage?  I remember seeing a picture of you dressed in Elizabethan black velvet, do you still have that?  I have dozens of Venetian masks in my warehouse, and some 19th-century replica uniforms in my 'toy box'... you're taking your riding boots, aren't you?  I can see you in Hussar red..."

They spent the rest of dinner and dessert discussing various options available; and as Danny expected, he was invited over to Poppy's loft to look at, try on, and play with some costumes... followed by strenuous sex, some silly and serious talk, slightly-less-strenuous sex, some industrial-strength cuddling, sleep, and breakfast.

A perfect date, in Danny's opinion.

Danny arrived back home, wearing last night's clothes and feeling very satisfied with life, just as a big white van blazoned with the Seguemont coat-of-arms pulled up to his curb; he let the carters into his apartment to haul off his luggage, and handed over the big garment bag he'd brought back from Poppy's as well.

Amongst the hoarded treasures in the SoMa warehouse complex in which Poppy lived, worked, and stored antiques for future use in his decorating business, they'd found a fabulous Russian Hussar's uniform in scarlet and black with fur edging and pounds of gold braid; it was a little tight on Danny, and he would roast in the wool and sable if the night of the party was warm, but he looked incredibly dashing in the tunic and pelisse with over-the-knee boots and frogged black breeches.  With a Venetian mask of black boiled leather and black faceted beads, he would be a sensation at the ball.

He wasn't quite sure what to do with the next two hours; on an ordinary Friday, he would be getting ready to go to the gym at ten-thirty, but he didn't have time to go and come back by noon, and he didn't want to explain to friends why he was there instead of on his way to Palm Springs... if his plans hadn't changed, he'd already be in the air enjoying some second-rate champagne and warm chocolate-chip cookies.  He thought about taking a nap, since he hadn't slept much the night before, but he knew his housekeeper was going to be there soon (she always came right after he'd left for the gym and was finished before he returned), and he couldn't sleep with someone banging around his apartment.

With nothing better to do, he showered one more time and got dressed in something comfortable but classy—off-white khakis and a salmon silk sweater over a white dress shirt with caramel kidskin  loafers—that would be appropriate for the two-plus-hour drive to the Château, then sat down at his computer to play games and answer emails while he waited.

"Oh, Señor Van!" Mrs. Flores exclaimed when she came through the front door at eleven on the dot, "Why you here?"

"My plans changed, Señora," Danny smiled at his tiny wizened cleaning lady, noting that she'd had her thick coarse black hair cut short since he'd last seen her in person, several weeks ago, "Instead of a weekend in Palm Springs, I'll be spending the whole week up in Napa."

"You won't need cleaning, then?" she cocked her head at him, with an expression he couldn't quite read... was she anxious for some time off, or worried about losing income?

"Unless you want to take some time off," Danny covered both bases, "you can do some bigger messy projects while I'm gone.  I know the curtains could use a good shaking and brushing, and the silver always wants polishing."

"Ah, bueno," she smiled delightedly, "I take two days off to visit my sister, then I come back and take the curtains down to the cleaners; and the rugs, so I can wax the floors.  I want to wash out your fireplace, too, it's getting black outside.  And air out your books."

"Get some new dust-sheets from the hardware store, if you're going to do all that," Danny told her, amazed at her ambition, "Charge them to my account.  I'll be out of your way in an hour, just pretend I'm not here."

"Si, si," the old lady nodded, then went bustling off to the kitchen; she'd apparently taken him at his word and was pretending she was alone, playing salsa music at fairly high volume and singing along in her cracked tuneless voice as she washed the few dishes in Danny's sink.

An hour later, Danny was right on the verge of getting bored, having caught up with all his online games and answered every email in his in-box and even written a few new ones; but then he heard the peculiar non-noise of Valerien's car pulling up in front of his house: the old Rolls-Royce was meticulously maintained, its engine whisper-quiet, so the only sound it made was a silky hum and the tires churning against the pavement. He started shutting down his computer and was ready to go when the doorbell went off.

"Adiós, Señora Flores," Danny called out as he left the apartment.

"Hasta luego, Señor Van," she called back from deep in the back of the flat, "Buen viaje!"

Danny skipped down the stairs and greeted Valerien's chauffeur, Grenier, a short but delightfully handsome dark-eyed young man in a deep burgundy formal uniform; he held the door to the back of the gleaming chocolate-and-cream 1957 Silver Cloud, and Danny slid into the camel-velvet upholstered interior next to Valerien, who was reading a thick and imposing-looking contract.  The Baron gave him a distant "hello" and a fleeting peck on the cheek without taking his eyes off the papers.

Rather than be annoyed at such an offhand greeting, Danny felt honored that Valerien was comfortable enough with him to be seen working outside of his office, a sight which few of his friends ever witnessed.  He helped himself to a cup of coffee from the beautiful little Limoges service in the rear cabinet and watched the City slide past the untinted windows of the old limousine, enjoying the reactions of delight and awe that the gorgeous car inspired in passersby.

"How was your dinner with Poppy?" Valerien finally asked, signing the last page of his document with a flourish and snapping the folder shut, shortly after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.

"Very nice," Danny laughed, surprised by the sudden movement and sound, "We had steaks at Henry's Eight.  You know, I am becoming a big fan of sweet-potato fries."

"Really?  What are they?" Valerien was not a devotee of American cuisine, and in fact seldom ate anything that didn't come with a Michelin rating.

"French fries," Danny explained, "Pommes frites, you know.  Except made with sweet potatoes, or yams, instead of white potatoes. And if they're fried with butter, they are the utter bomb!"

"That sounds odd, but now that you mention food, I forgot about lunch," Valerien reached for the little gold speaker that hung beside him on the wall of the car, which connected him to his chauffeur on the other side of the closed partition, "Grenier, I forgot I was supposed to take Mr. Vandervere to lunch on the way.  Stop at the first likely-looking restaurant."

"There's a Cheesecake Factory in Corte Madera," Danny shouted helpfully toward the speaker.

"Cheesecake?" Valerien looked at him in horror, "Factory?"

"It's not really a factory, it's a very nice restaurant.  And they have more than just cheesecake," Danny explained, "They have good food and really cute waiters.  You'll like it, I promise."

"Cheesecake Factory in Corte Madera, then, Grenier," the Baron sighed into the speaker and hung it back up on the wall, "The places you take me, Danny Vandervere."

"Their shepherd's pie is fantastic!  And iced green tea with mint," Danny was almost salivating.  Though a connoisseur of fine dining, Danny also had a streak of populist tastes, and was always trying to get his food-snob friends to try chain restaurants.

"'Utter bomb'... where do you get these expressions?" Valerien wondered after a few moments' silence.

"Television, mostly," Danny laughed, "'Da bomb' is a hip-hop expression that was big in the 90s when I was in grade-school."

"Let me know when it reaches the Oxford English Dictionary, then I'll allow it," Valerien scolded him, but with a smile to show he was only kidding, then peered out the window with a frown, "What the... this looks like a shopping center parking lot!  Where are we?"

"At a shopping center, silly," Danny laughed at his friend as the car pulled up in front of the restaurant, "We can do a little shopping after lunch, if you like.  There are two department stores and some very nice shops here.  Honestly, Val, don't you ever get out of the car between the bridge and the Château?"

"Of course not," Valerien stepped out of the Rolls and took in the restaurant's glittering postmodern facade dubiously, "Why would I?"

"You miss a lot of life, tucked up in your little haute monde shell," Danny flung an arm around Valerien's waist and pulled him inside, "What's the point of living if you don't try everything at least once?"

"You're going to make me eat a hamburger, aren't you," Valerien narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

"Oh, hamburgers are advanced magic, you're not ready for that, yet," Danny winked and stepped up to the hostesses' desk, "Two for lunch, please."

Valerien ended up being pleasantly surprised by the menu and the wine list, and they shared a very enjoyable lunch under the care of their button-cute waiter.  Though the young aristocrat remained leery of the setting, and tasted everything as if he was afraid it was poisoned, he was fascinated by the other diners, as well as the giant television over the bar showing a soccer game...he seemed oddly enchanted by eating someplace where he didn't recognize anybody.

After a postprandial stroll through the shopping center, where Danny found a number of things to buy and which Valerien insisted on buying for him, they got back in the car and resumed their journey north.  They chatted lazily along the way, not saying much but enjoying the relaxation of not having to say much.  In due course the Rolls pulled off a narrow country road through a pair of huge wrought-iron gates into the Château de Seguemont grounds.

Many people think that the Château was transported to California from France, stone-by-stone in the time-honored American Tycoon manner.  But the original medieval Château de Seguemont still stands above its accustomed valley in Champagne; the new Château was built fresh in 1938 from local stone, designed by a Hollywood architect to capture the fairy-tale romance of a French château while excluding the varied discomforts and inconveniences of a real 12th-century fortress, and then filled up with the 18th-century fixtures and furniture brought over from France by the last Comte, Valerien's great-grandfather.

One gets a glimpse of the south facade of the castle across the valley shortly after entering the gates, a great cliff of pale beige stone with octagonal corner towers and a square central tower rising up like sentinels from a vast terraced garden, a picture-postcard view suitable for wine-bottle labels; but one plunges immediately into a dense oak forest after this brief view, and remains surrounded by trees, with occasional glimpses of deer and white marble follies, as the road skirts the eastern edge of the valley to approach the castle from the northeast; the shorter yet more complex north side of the castle suddenly leaps into view as the forest abruptly disappears, surrounded by high walls and outbuildings covered in flowering vines.

Driving up a causeway to a real working drawbridge and through a portcullised watchtower gate, the car entered the broad courtyard in front of the castle, where two footmen in pink and buff satin 18th-century livery emerged from the bronze-bound front doors to receive the Baron and his guest; once they'd been handed out, the limousine rolled away to disappear through another archway into the garage court.

"Take this to the study and fax the signature page to my office," Valerien said to one of the footmen, speaking French as he always did at home, handing over the contract he'd signed earlier as he strode through the echoing stone hall, "And then have someone take it back to the City.  Is my grandmother down yet?"

"No, monsieur, Madame la comtesse has not come down," the young man answered formally, bowing his white-wigged head in deference while walking sideways alongside Valerien, a feat of agility that Danny had to admire, "Madame la comtesse asked us to inform monsieur le baron that tea will be served in the glass-house."

"Very good, thank you," Valerien responded without looking at the man, "I'm going up to my rooms.  Please escort Mr. Vandervere to whatever room he's been assigned.  I'll see you at tea, Danny."

"Monsieur Vandervere is in the Clock Room," the second footman chimed in, "Would monsieur care to take the elevator, or the stairs?"

"The Clock Room?" Valerien stopped in his tracks and looked at the footman, "That's practically a garret! Are there no more rooms on the third floor?"

"Oh, is that the room at the top of the square tower?  Over the big clock?" Danny enthused.

"The house must be awfully full, or else Grandmère is punishing you for my last-minute invitation," Valerien frowned as the footmen exchanged nervous glances.

"I've always wanted to stay in that room, Val," Danny assured his friend, "Seriously!  The view is absolutely breathtaking!"

"But you'll be so far away," Valerien pouted, "And your coffee will arrive stone cold in the morning. Not to mention the noise of the clock."

"I like the clock noise," Danny shrugged, "It's like a metronome, it'll put me to sleep."

"You're like a puppy," Valerien laughed and kissed his friend, "All right, if you don't mind, go ahead and climb up into the bell-tower like Quasimodo.  I'm still going to have a word with the major-domo, I don't like the idea of twenty bedrooms being in use.  How big is this ghastly party, anyway?"

Valerien disappeared through a door leading into the service portions of the castle, the first footman went off in the other direction with the contract, and Danny followed the remaining footman up a grand marble staircase... and then up a slightly-less-grand carpeted staircase, then down a circuit of corridors to a not-at-all-grand wooden staircase, then another circuit of corridors to a stone spiral staircase in a turret, and finally into the big rectangular aerie at the tippy-top of the castle that was to be his for the next ten days.

"Please do not bring me coffee in the morning," Danny said to the footman as he went and opened the tall French window onto the little balcony over the clock, "I don't want you climbing all those stairs just for me."

"It will be my pleasure to bring anything monsieur wishes," the footman protested in French, bowing low and backing out the door, then grinned and added in English, "These stairs will give my glutes a good workout."

Danny laughed and turned his attention to the view, which was truly spectacular: he could see all the way across the valley and over the tops of the trees in the forest along the high ground, across the neighboring valleys with wineries dotted here and there, mountain ridges framing the east and west, and the barest glittering glimpse of the city of Napa at the horizon.

Taking a deep breath and saying a little pagan prayer to himself, he leaned forward on the balcony rail to take a daring peek at the stone terrace some hundred feet below, then quickly scuttled back into the safety of the room.  He was terrified of heights, but also loved to face his fears whenever a controlled environment presented itself, thrilling at his own fear and the adrenaline it brought up.

He explored the room, opening drawers and walking into the big closet to see where the servants had put his things; satisfied with the arrangements, he went into the large old-fashioned bathroom and peeped through the little round window at the northern woods across the roofs of the Château, used the toilet and washed his hands, then went back out into the bedroom and flopped down on the big four-poster bed to simply enjoy The Room at the Top, as he'd decided to call it in his interior monologues.

Being at the top of the tower, the room had sloping walls starting above the bleached wood wainscoting, and the tall south-facing French window was set in a dormer.  The room had no fireplace, but it never really got cold, so Danny didn't miss it; the furniture was all pale Louis XVI in distressed whitewash and faded gilt, the wallpaper was a lovely cocoa and cream toile de jouy, with a faded brown Aubusson reproduction carpet and smooth linen bedding, upholstery, and curtains the color of café au lait. There were two large paintings, a porcelain-skinned Icarus by a student of Ingres tumbling out of a cloudy blue sky as his wings slowly unraveled, and a contemporary copy of Le Brun's la Chute des anges rebelles (rather questionable themes for a high tower room), as well as several free-standing mirrors of varied sizes arranged to reflect the light around the room.

"Jesus Christ on a cracker, how tall is this fucking tower?" came an irritated voice in the spiral stairwell outside Danny's door.

"Marquesa?" Danny called out, rising from the bed in surprise.

"Rapunzel!" Marquesa cried out breathlessly as he burst through the door, took two steps into the room and then collapsed elegantly on a chaise longue to catch his breath, "I swear I passed a lost Sherpa on the last landing."

Marquesa was beautifully dressed for the country in a classic silk tweed Chanel suit in shades of pink and brown, the narrow jacket trimmed in self-fringe and the slim skirt just meeting the tops of tall glossy brown boots, with three graduated strands of large pearls with a starburst platinum clasp around his slender throat and the usual two huge diamond solitaires on his long French-tipped fingers—one cushion-cut white flanked by pink pear-shapes and the other an incredibly rare Asscher-cut blue; his gorgeous flame-auburn hair tumbled around his shoulders in rich spiraling curls, and his exquisite screen-goddess face was artfully painted to look completely bare of paint, except for the gloss of vermillion lipstick on his small severe mouth and the thick black fringe of false eyelashes over his wide glittering periwinkle eyes.

His long whip-thin body was draped bonelessly across the chaise, but Danny knew that whip-strong muscles tensed constantly under the stately couture, and that the graceful pose was very carefully contrived and maintained by a man who was at all times in complete control of his body... he wasn't in the least bit winded, he was only pretending to be, as it was the preferred way to play the scene at hand.

That control was one of the things that Danny loved about him: nobody saw Marquesa Willard-Wilkes doing anything that Marquesa Willard-Wilkes did not want them to see, no surprise could ruffle his incredible poise, no emotion marred the pristine surfaces he'd created as an armor against the world.  Danny was incapable of such cool, being emotionally transparent and endlessly vulnerable, so he found Marquesa's icy reserve exotic and fascinating.

"The least you could do is offer me a drink after that endless climb," Marquesa suggested sharply, snapping Danny out of his trance of silent worship.

"Water, white crème de menthe, or vodka?" Danny asked, sniffing at the cut-crystal decanters standing on a silver tray on one of the commodes.

"Vodka, of course, darling.  Valerien is in an absolute froth that you've been shoved away up here," Marquesa reached out and took the glass, shooting the two fingers of vodka in a single swallow, "But even I have been elbowed out of my accustomed second-floor rooms for the sake of grander personages than myself.  I'm in one of the dormer rooms on the third floor, facing the front.  I have a glorious view of the garage court and the chapel roof."

"And the woods, of course," Danny pointed out, taking back the glass and returning it to the tray.

"And no dressing-room," Marquesa arched an eyebrow in disdain, "But since the house is packed to the rafters, I guess I can't really complain.  At least Danvers is lodged in the house and not out over the garages. But he's doubled up with Henri.  Not that he minds, of course."

Danvers is Marquesa's manservant, a combination butler and lady's maid, a multitalented real-life Jeeves who looks like a real-life Siegfried, all chiseled jaw and warrior physique, without whom Marquesa could not function for more than a few hours; Henri is Valerien's valet, a tiny adorable monkey of a man (all of Valerien's personal servants are smaller than him), and he and Danvers have been physically but not romantically involved for years.

"Who's in the Lilac Room?"  Danny wondered, trying and failing to imagine someone grander than Marquesa; only a guest of the highest caliber would occupy the spacious octagon at the southeast corner of the castle, named for the lilacs embroidered on the hangings and upholstery, carved into the silver-gilt paneling, and painted on the Limoges ornaments.

"An Italian opera singer," Marquesa rose from the chaise in a fluid motion and spent a moment smoothing his clothes into place, "Donna Somebody."

"Opera singer?  I thought it was all nobility this week.  Is Donna her name or her title?"

"Do I care?" Marquesa laughed, "All I know is she did me out of my room, for which I shall have to exact some mild revenge.  Come on, let's go downstairs.  I hear tea is being served in the glass-house.  Do you ever find it odd that someone as French as the Comtesse holds a tradition so English as afternoon tea?"

"I'm pretty sure the French have tea, as well," Danny followed Marquesa into the spiral stair, "One has to do something between lunch and dinner, after all."

"French children have le goûter at four; adults have tea parties after five, but it's not a daily occurrence.  I asked Danvers."

"And Danvers would know," Danny smirked.

"As far as I can tell, he does know everything.  Or else he has a direct uplink to Wikipedia embedded in his brain."

Marquesa and Danny made their way down to the first floor, then took a turn through the long dining room and then the octagonal morning-room, through a little gallery and then into the vast tropical lushness of the glass-house, a conservatory that could pass for an arboretum, with a vine-drenched stone back wall, an interminable row of tall arched French windows opening onto a broad terrace, and an elaborately vaulted glass ceiling.

They were the first to arrive, and the major-domo was standing at the door to announce their names as they made their way through the dense foliage to the rotunda at the center of the glass-house; the Comtesse rose from her great wicker throne beside a big round stone table covered with flowers and tea-things,  raining kisses and apologies on them.

"I do hope you're comfortable in your rooms," the Comtesse was solicitous, clutching her tiny jeweled hands to her ample pearl-draped bosom, her pretty Fragonard face a caricature of regret; the old lady was dressed in a long flowing chiffon tea-gown hand-painted with watercolor roses, her snow-white hair piled up high and teased and sculpted into an impressive coiffure, "I'm desolated I had to give your usual accommodations to others.  Danny, cheri, is the Clock Room to your liking? I can move you to the Pink Room next to Marquesa, but it's so feminine and only has twin beds, and you're so tall."

"Please don't concern yourself, Madame," Danny bowed and kissed the lady's hand gallantly, "I absolutely adore my room.  The view is incredible, it's like being up in a hot-air balloon...but much more comfortable."

"Then I insist you take over that room, Marquesa," the Comtesse took his hand in both of hers, "I know the closets in the Mauve Room are inadequate for your needs, you can set the Pink Room up as your dressing-room.  My brother did the same just below you."

"Thank you so much, Comtesse!" Marquesa kissed the lady's cheek (as an old friend of the family, he was allowed to call her by her Christian name, Liliane, but he didn't like to), "My manservant was having some difficulty with the trunks, I'm sure he'll be delighted to spread out a bit."

"Lord Edward Fairbourne," the major-domo's voice boomed from the door, "Lady Emily Fairbourne."

Danny turned to see the new arrivals: a very attractive man, not especially handsome but somehow correct-looking with his smooth chestnut hair and elegant oval face, neither young nor old but with an extraordinary air of sophistication, dressed in perfect country tweeds of heathered brown but exuding the cosmopolitan glamour of Mayfair as if he were wearing a tuxedo. The young lady on his arm was exquisitely beautiful with the same glossy auburn hair and oval face, with a much more dramatic bone-structure and a blooming strawberries-and-cream complexion; she was dressed as an Edwardian schoolboy in a glen plaid waistcoat and knickers, a white shirt with a burgundy ascot, long argyle socks and polished brown brogues.

Introductions were made and the newcomers served tea and sandwiches, and the next booming announcement came out of the foliage, "Monsieur le Vicomte de Saint-Neve."

This was quite clearly the Comtesse's brother, as he looked exactly like her but thinner and with slightly less elaborately waved hair; he was foppishly dressed in a natty gray suit with a pink pinstripe, a plump pink-and-silver tie with a matching silk handkerchief spilling out of his top pocket, small glittering rings on both hands, and sharply pointed gray kid shoes.  His step was mincing, his hands fluttery, his face tightly tucked and lifted, and his mouth pursed—a classic stereotypical old queen.  The only way you could tell the man was actually straight was that he didn't give Danny a second glance but practically drooled on Lady Emily, kissing her hand wetly and waggling his plucked eyebrows like a classic stereotypical French roué.

By this time everyone was chattering, mostly in French though Marquesa only spoke English (he understood French but could not bring himself to say anything in that language for fear of mangling the accent). As Danny usually did in groups, he retreated into himself to watch people and listen to their conversations; hovering a little bit behind Marquesa and nibbling at a plate of petits-fours, he took the opportunity to study Lady Emily and wonder if she might be a suitable mate for Valerien.

Her boyishness was certainly a point in her favor, her trim but not willowy figure, her short wavy hair, her straightforward sky-blue eyes would appeal to someone who is not generally attracted to women;  and judging from her conversation, she was extraordinarily fond of riding and hunting, two of Valerien's favored pastimes, and was quite athletic. But Danny couldn't quite imagine her made up and dressed up, draped in jewels and furs at the opera or a charity gala.  Though Valerien loved the country, he was really more of a city-boy at heart, and Lady Emily did not look very City.

Her brother certainly did look City, though... Danny could easily imagine Valerien with Lord Edward, and could even more easily imagine himself with Lord Edward.  It was difficult to gauge his sexuality, though—such smooth urbanity in an American would be suspect, but the English are so much more difficult to pin down.  Danny would have to figure it out the old-fashioned way: make a pass at him and see what happened.

"Monsieur le Comte Lucien de Vallevers," the major-domo's voice boomed out again, "Mademoiselle la Comtesse Marie-Helene de Vallevers."

The couple matching those mouthfuls came sauntering through the greenery, a terribly stylish pair of tall, slender, languid creatures with sad chocolate-brown eyes and straight gleaming chocolate-brown hair, dressed almost alike in varied shades of brown: Lucien, who appeared to be about seventeen or eighteen, was elegantly draped in a rough-knit dark brown sweater and baggy tan herringbone slacks; Marie-Helene, some five years older than her brother, wore a tailored dark-brown skirt and a full-sleeved tan satin blouse with a half-dozen tortoiseshell-link necklaces draped across her bosom.

The Vallevers siblings melted seamlessly into the group and smoothly joined conversations in progress, all gentle smiles and free-flowing suavité.  Danny could very easily see Valerien married to the young Comtesse, her style was so much like his own, her chic so impeccable but as unpronounced as the last letter of her name; she had the kind of slow cygnine beauty that one can stare at for hours.  Unfortunately, she was a couple of inches taller than Valerien, and that might be a problem: though Valerien was medium-sized rather than short at five-foot-eight, and had palled around with the six-foot Marquesa for almost half his life, he was a little sensitive about his height, and made sure that everyone who worked directly for him—his valet, his chauffeur, his secretary, etc.—were especially petit.

Lucien was a treat to the eyes, as well, lithe and somewhat epicene, with a certain fawnish vulnerability about him that was immediately appealing: his voice was like velvet, surprisingly deep and resonant for such a graceful wand of a boy; and the way he pushed his hair back from his ear with his ring-finger made Danny want to carry him upstairs and do lewd things to him.

"You're slavering," Marquesa whispered to him with a little jab in the ribs.

"Dibs on the French boy," Danny replied.

"Straight," Marquesa warned.

"How do you know?" Danny wondered, disappointed.

"I asked him," Marquesa turned to face him, "The direct approach is best."

"Be sure to ask Lord Edward, too.  I can't tell."

"Straight," Marquesa decided after giving the man a long speculative look, "But possibly bendable."

"Hmmm, sounds like a challenge.  What do you think of the ladies?"

"They dress extremely well, but other than that I can't tell much.  Let's see them at dinner."

"Mr. and Mrs. Richard Allenwhite," the major-domo interrupted them with his announcement.

"Richard is here!" Danny gasped, turning to Marquesa, "And Cordelia!  Did you know?"

"Of course," Marquesa shrugged, but Danny could not help but notice his face tighten just a fraction of a millimeter, "He's Valerien's first-cousin, of course he'd come for a family gathering."

"You're OK with being cooped up with your lover's wife for ten days?" Danny was dubious.

"You know, I like Cordelia," Marquesa busied himself with a bunch of white grapes from the table, "And it's not like we're in competition for Richard's affections.  We both know where we stand, on secure and equal footing."

"I don't think I could be so cool," Danny turned to look at the man, seething with emotion...he wanted to like Richard the way Marquesa liked Cordelia, but his feelings were as close to real vivid hatred as he'd ever been in his life, and despite a lot of self-lecturing, he was still uncomfortable around him.

It was hard to hate Richard Allenwhite: he was so eminently likeable, with his sleek golden Arrow Collar Man looks, his easy attentive charm, his unfailing generosity.  But he held Marquesa's love, and Danny craved that love like a dying man craves air and water, and so Richard had to be regarded as an enemy...even if he did fill out a sweater and khakis better than a forty-five-year-old man had any right to.

Danny had met Cordelia Allenwhite a few times, though only at huge social functions and never in such intimate quarters as a house-party.  She is the polar opposite of Marquesa, blonde and voluptuous and vivacious, with laughing aquamarine eyes and a pert little giggle; but she does not lack gravity, she simply renders her playfulness elegant through the peculiar alchemy of her personality and her breeding.  She was dressed that afternoon in a crisp low-cut blue linen shirt-dress with Jean Schlumberger wildflowers in gold and enamel at her throat and wrists, Forties-style taupe heels, and a fresh white rose in her hair.

Watching her and Marquesa chatting politely as if they were members of the same club instead of lovers of the same man, Danny marveled at their sangfroid in such a soap-opera-cliche situation.  As Marquesa had told him, it's not polyamory that's tacky, it's cheating... so long as all parties agree and all behavior is honest, there is no need for melodrama. If Marquesa eyed Cordelia's gorgeously displayed bosom askance, or if Cordelia felt that Marquesa's jewelry was better than hers, they did not let such trifles mar their serenity.

"Monsieur le Comte de Seguemont, Monsieur le Baron Valerien de Seguemont," came the next announcement, followed by Valerien and his grandfather sauntering into the rotunda, still deep in a conversation which, if one judged by the faintly furtive tone they used, concerned money and business.

Danny always thought the old Comte was a funny-looking man: he wasn't ugly per se, but there was something comical about his face that made one smile; it was dominated by a really long and truly Gallic nose, under which grew an elaborate and old-fashioned silver-gray mustache with upturned ends that dwarfed his small mouth and drew attention from his rather weak chin.  His watery gray eyes were also small and almost hidden beneath immense gray eyebrows, and his silver hair was pomaded back from his high forehead in marceled waves.  He dressed his long loose frame in dull three-piece suits that had been unfashionable when he was a young man and had not come into vogue since, with tiny-patterned neckties and highly starched collars, a watch-chain across his waistcoat and a sprig of lavender in his buttonhole. 

One would never guess that the exquisitely pretty Valerien was in any way related to the lanky old man, dressed in clothes as anachronistic as his grandfather's but nevertheless elegant and even jaunty, a blue jacket with white piping and white flannel trousers, light tan loafers and a crisp white shirt, a red-and-white ascot around his neck and a matching necktie around his waist instead of a belt.

"My dear young Daniel, how well you look," the Comte greeted Danny with handshake and then proceeded to run his other hand over the boy's arm and waist possessively, coming to rest at the base of Danny's spine.

"You're looking quite spry yourself, Monsieur," Danny answered back with a little bit of coquettishness in his voice; he wasn't sure if the Comte's touches were sexually motivated or just habitually flirtatious; and though he had no compunction about going to bed with old men (he actually enjoyed it), he felt very deeply that screwing his recent ex-boyfriend-now-friend's grandfather would be beyond the pale of acceptable behavior; but flirting back just came naturally to him.

"Wine for breakfast, my boy," the Comte winked, "It's the secret of long life.  I turned eighty last year and I've never been sick once."

"Donna Bianca di Montedeo," the next announcement echoed through the glass-ceilinged space, heralding the appearance of a young woman so absolutely stunning that the room actually fell quiet for a moment when she emerged from the greenery.

Her eyes grabbed you at once, huge and liquid black, almond-shaped like a Byzantine empress in a mosaic, flashing a dark fire everywhere she looked; then one noticed her face, angular and feline, with an exquisitely carved scarlet mouth and the whitest skin Danny had ever seen on a live person; her hair was jet black and worn in a simple chin-length bob that waved gently about her face; her figure was angular as well, perfectly proportioned and dressed in a simple tight black silk dress with an ivory taffeta shawl collar, wearing business-like black heels and carrying an egg-shaped snakeskin clutch.  Her only jewelry was a large black and white cameo on a satin ribbon.

"Oh, my God, she's fabulous," Marquesa hissed... and his tone was not one of mere admiration, it was the sound of a serious competitor sensing a truly worthy opponent.  Danny could almost hear wheels turning in Marquesa's head as he mentally reviewed the wardrobe he'd brought, testing its fabulousness against the sheer style displayed by Donna Bianca.

The young woman ("lady" seems too dainty an expression for such a fierce creature) strode into the rotunda like a diva taking the stage, greeted her hostess with immense theatrical charm, smiled brilliantly as she was introduced to the rest of the party, and then devoted her attention to the food.

"She's" Valerien said, his eyes wide with wonder as he watched Donna Bianca examine a plate of cheese suspiciously before dismissing it in favor of some salted cantaloup.  The Baron looked a little flustered, drawn and repelled by the charismatic woman at the same time.  But after a moment he shook himself and turned to discuss a possible hunt in the Seguemont woods with Lord Edward, who was a keen horseman but not much of a shot (by his own admission).

"You notice she's the only one here who came in alone?" Marquesa was still studying Donna Bianca, "We all arrived in pairs, but she came on solo."

"Didn't you say she sang opera?" Danny turned his attention to woman in question, "I've never heard of her, but she does act like a professional."

"I have to find out.  I'm going to talk to her.  Coming?"

"I'll let you have her," Danny grinned, "I'd just distract the conversation by fawning on her and telling her how fabulous she is."

"You do fawn awfully well, darling," Marquesa kissed him lightly on the cheek and then stalked off after his prey, launching into the interrogation with an admiring comment on the cameo at her throat.

"Mademoiselle la Vicomtesse Cécile de Seguemont, Miss Laura Beckett."

Valerien's tall mannish aunt came striding into the room, the spitting image of the old Comte minus the silver hair and the big mustache... she even wore a three-piece suit very like his, but with a more flamboyant collar and cuffs, a loosely knotted foulard scarf instead of a necktie, and a pair of platinum pince-nez on a long delicate chain dangling from her minimal bosom.  Her dark ash-brown hair was worn in a slightly longer style but pomaded into a similar marcel wave, and her buttonhole sported a vivid coral-colored rosebud instead of lavender.

The lady beside her was small and plump and birdlike, with frizzy strawberry-blond hair in a messy cloud around her head, a pretty face only slightly marred by deep laugh-lines, and fine lustrous brown eyes that danced merrily with mischievous humor. Dressed in a rather blowsy and colorless skirt and cardigan, with grandmotherly amethyst jewelry and a pair of reading-glasses hanging about her neck on a silk cord, she looked like a happy librarian (which in fact she is).

Tante Cécile blew through the room like a tornado, her dynamic personality subduing those she met with her brusque handshakes and slightly-too-loud greetings; Miss Laura followed in her wake like a small planet caught helplessly in orbit, blushing and tittering her way through the various introductions.  Danny found something a little contrived about their behavior, and wondered if they acted like this all the time or if it was a performance put on for some obscure reason.  They were such a stereotypical lesbian couple, conforming almost ludicrously to heterosexual gender roles, that it seemed unlikely they were for real.

But Danny was accustomed to people who act—though he knew few professional actors, many of his friends lived their lives on a stage of their own devising, conducting themselves at all times as if there were cameras trained on them recording every gesture and declamation.  So he took the two ladies in his stride and enjoyed a discussion of recent literary trends with Miss Laura while Tante Cécile teased Valerien about the Comtesse's unspoken but nonetheless obvious motive for the party.

No more new arrivals showed up, and the party started to devolve into smaller conversational groups as people settled into the widely-strewn wicker furniture and footmen started circulating with sherry and light liqueurs instead of the now-cold tea and coffee.

"Join me for a stroll?" Valerien asked Danny with a significant tilt of his head, indicating that he wanted more than a mere walk, that he had something he wanted to talk about.

"Of course," Danny handed his empty cup and plate to a passing footman and followed his friend through the tall French doors onto the terrace.  They paused here and there to sniff at a flower or talk about a fragrant herb in the raised marble planters that were arranged like a parterre garden, slowly making their way to the broad stairs that led down to the lower terrace and the real parterre gardens; Danny guessed that Valerien was making a show of a casual wandering-away rather than a purposeful exit from the tea-party.

"So, what do you think?" Valerien asked as soon as they were out of sight and sound of the glass-house, "About the women, I mean?"

"They're all very beautiful," Danny said thoughtfully, "Marie-Helene seems the most suitable at first glance, though she's rather tall."

"She struck me as slightly insipid," Valerien frowned, "Though at such brief meeting, it's hard to gauge her personality.  She works in an art gallery, real art and not modern junk, which may indicate intelligence... or may just be a sinecure for a well-connected haute-mondaine.  What about the English girl?"

"I like her," Danny smiled, "She's cute as a button, and she talks like a Wodehouse character."

"If she were a boy, I'd be all over her, but I'm not sure she'd polish up very well.  We'll have to see her at dinner.  I like her brother better."

"Marquesa says he's 'bendable,' I'm going to try to bend him," Danny arched a roguish eyebrow.

"Tsk, such a slut," Valerien shook his head and laughed gently, "I'm not sure what to make of the Italian, though.  She's gorgeous, but she's rather scary, too."

"Marquesa's got his claws out already, I'm expecting a heated competition in style."

"They're kind of alike, aren't they?" Valerien wondered, "Not their looks, of course, but their magnetism and their directness.  I wonder if she's as hard as Marquesa can sometimes be."

"She strikes me as more passionate than hard," Danny considered, then looked around him in surprise at how far they'd walked in a short time, "Are we going somewhere in particular?  You seem to be in a hurry."

"I want to visit my father before we dress for dinner," Valerien said very quietly, practically whispering, breaking off from the main path that led to the swimming pool and heading uphill toward the forest.

The Vicomte Antoine de Seguemont, Valerien's father, to whom Marquesa often playfully refers as "Rochester's Wife," lives in a beautiful little house inside a spacious walled garden; he is what Victorian psychologists would call "childish," essentially lobotomized by a drug overdose many years before, and he exists simply and apparently quite happily with a very kind keeper and an even kinder nurse in the garden, planting flowers and vegetables and drawing lovely but primitive pictures of his plants.

The Seguemonts have let it be known for years that Antoine was dead, however—as Poppy had pointed out, the family was particularly sensitive to what people think, and they did not like it to be known that they had any insanity in their family, even if it was causal rather than congenital—so the walled garden was meant to protect his existence from the eyes of strangers more than to keep him contained... in his twenty years in the garden, he has only once tried to escape, convinced that his wife was calling his name from outside.

But Antoine de Seguemont had killed his wife, Valerien's mother Virginia Allenwhite de Seguemont, during a drug-induced paranoid hallucination when Valerien was only five years old.  Valerien never said how he'd killed her, but Danny had come to understand from what was not said that the crime had been particularly brutal and that the Vicomtesse had suffered much before she died.

Since he never recovered his faculties after that, never remembered what he'd done nor even understood that his beloved Virginia was dead, he was tried as mentally incompetent and placed in a secure ward of the local hospital.  After three years in the institution, he was judged to be no danger to himself or others, and with a good deal of bribery and complicated legal maneuvers he was released into his parents' custody.  They built a fifteen-foot stone wall around four acres containing an enclosed pavilion in the grounds, and installed their son there to live out the rest of his days in peace and comfort.  A little more bribery and some carefully seeded gossip secured an obituary and a generally-accepted version of history in which the Vicomte recovered his mental faculties and then died of grief for what he'd done (not suicide, mind, which would be its own scandal to an ostensibly Catholic family, but simply losing the will to live and therefore dying).

Arriving at the solid wooden gate into the walled garden, Valerien punched some numbers into an electronic keypad, causing a heavy bar on the other side to slide back, and the gate swung open.  The light changed as they left the dense dull oak wood and entered a paradise of open air and flowers, fragrant shrubs and tidy vegetable frames.  In the center was another octagon, this time a delightful folly built in an 18th-century French approximation of the Chinese style, with whitewashed fretwork porches and upswept jade-green tiled roofs crested with pottery dragons.  Glass wind-chimes tinkled in the breeze, pendant bronze bells sang in the eaves, and wide latticework doors stood open to the colors and scents of the garden.

The inside of the Folly was surprisingly spare and modern, compared to the outside: a large living room took up the front half of the building, with an open kitchen on the right and three doors through the central wall leading to two bedrooms and a bath, and a spiral iron stair disappearing into the loft above where the Vicomte had his own bedroom and bath as well as a tiny studio in the cupola at the top of the building.  The furniture was exceedingly plain, all straight lines and flat beige fabrics, but very comfortable with down-filled cushions and rounded edges.

Valerien's father was sitting on the floor hunched over a plain square coffee-table in front of an elaborate Chinoiserie porcelain stove that was left over from the Folly's days as an open summerhouse, assiduously applying watercolors to a small wooden panel; where his sister favored their father, Antoine looked more like their mother, tall and slim as the other Seguemonts, but with the Saint-Neve spun-sugar coloring,  delicate features, and slightly protruding large hazel eyes; his long curly silver-blond hair was beginning to fade to snow white, worn in an untidy ponytail down his back, and his plain jeans and sweater were the same shade of beige as the furniture around him.  He looked rather like an angel gone to seed.

"Look, it's my son!" the Vicomte cried out joyously when he paused in his painting and noticed he had visitors, "And his handsome friend!"

"Hello, Papa," Valerien said as he embraced his father, kissing him on both cheeks before laying his head affectionately on the taller man's shoulder.

"Monsieur," Danny greeted the Vicomte when his turn came to be hugged; one never used names in the Folly, as the Vicomte seemed unable to remember his visitors' names, though he was always clear on their relationships and remembered previous visits; and he became agitated if anyone called him by his title or his Christian name—he could be called Papa, mon fils or mon frère, or more commonly Monsieur, but never Vicomte or Antoine.

The exceptions to the no-name rule were the Vicomte's housemates, Claude and Albert, since calling them "keeper" and "nurse" would also agitate their charge.  He thought of them as upper servants rather than friends, a tutor and a chef since one of them (Claude) read to him and the other (Albert) did most of the cooking, but he treated them with familiar affection, as a child would a nanny.

Danny had always assumed that Claude and Albert must be lovers, though they occupied separate bedrooms and did not display romantic affection toward each other; it just seemed so unlikely that two men could bear to be cooped up with an addle-brained aristocrat in a four-acre universe for twenty years unless they really loved each other.  And they did seem very attached, if not affectionate, and clearly loved their charge.  Neither of them were in the Folly at the moment, but they never left the Vicomte alone for very long.

"How have you been, Papa?" Valerien followed his father back to the table where the man resumed his painting as if he'd not been interrupted.

"Very well, very well," he said, scrutinizing a brush before applying it to the incredibly detailed but poorly proportioned portrait of a stalk of small bluish-purple blossoms that stood before him in a glass of water, "The peonies are starting to come out, you should see them, they're so beautiful!  And Albert is making roast lamb for dinner, can you smell it?  I hope we have cous-cous with it, I love cous-cous, especially with gold raisins in it."

"Papa, Grandmère wants me to get married," Valerien said after a short silence.

"You're too young to get married," the Vicomte replied without looking up, "Aren't you?"

"I'm twenty-eight, Papa," Valerien reminded him.

"Really?  Then maybe you should get married.  Do you want to?"

"I feel like I ought to."

"But you don't want to," the man looked up from his work and smiled, "So you shouldn't."

"You're right, Papa," Valerien laughed, "I won't. Not unless I want to."

"You should never do anything you don't want to," the Vicomte advised with a wise nod, "Except bathe.  You have to bathe, and eat Brussels sprouts sometimes, even if you don't want to."

Danny always found these exchanges between father and son very charming, but they sometimes made Valerien a little sad.  He was long accustomed to the reversal of their roles as adult and child, but sometimes found himself brooding on what life would have been like if his father were whole, if his mother were alive, if he'd had even a semblance of a normal family.  Danny tried to head off that sadness with a change of conversation when he could see his friend needed more from his father than childlike advice on bathing and Brussels sprouts.

"What are you painting, Monsieur?" Danny asked solicitously, bending over to look at the picture.

"It's called monkshood.  It has some other names, too, it's supposed to cure werewolves.  You have to be very careful with it, you can get sick if you touch it without gloves on.  But it's very beautiful, isn't it?  I wish I could match the color better. I tried squashing the blossoms into the paint, but they just turned brown."

"It's very lovely," Danny smiled, resisting the urge to reach out and pat the man on the head as one would a little boy... Danny sometimes forgot that the Vicomte was fifty-two years old rather than five; and though he knew the man wouldn't mind being patted on the head, Valerien wouldn't like Danny treating him like a child.  It was an emotionally precarious relationship they had, and one always had to tread carefully between Valerien and his father.

"Well, good afternoon, gentlemen!" Claude boomed out as he entered from the kitchen door, Albert right behind him with an armful of long-stalked flowers; they were both very big men, more muscle than fat but the kind of muscle that comes from genetics and physical labor rather than gymnasiums and supplements, plain-faced and mouse-haired, so similar in their bearing and style of speech that they could easily be mistaken for brothers, though they didn't really look alike.

"Hello, Claude; hello, Albert," Valerien greeted the two men as they came into the room; Danny just smiled at them and waved.

"Oh, look! They brought in some of the new peonies!" the Vicomte jumped up from the floor and went to bury his face in the blossoms, "Aren't they amazing?"

"Beautiful," Danny agreed.

"You should take some with you," the Vicomte told him confidentially, "Take the yellow ones.  But not the blue ones, I love the blue ones."

"Thank you, Monsieur," Danny replied, touched.

"Oh, you should stay for dinner.  Albert, is there enough lamb for my son and his handsome friend to stay for dinner?"

"Of course, Monsieur, if you wish," Albert responded, though in fact he'd only made enough for three; but he knew the visitors wouldn't stay, so it seemed kindest to humor the man.

"We can't stay to dinner, I'm afraid," Valerien told his father, "We have to go back soon.  Grandmère is having a house party." 

"She is?  You must take the pink ones for Maman, she loves pink," the Vicomte took the peonies from Albert and spread them out on the dinner-table, culling the pink ones for his mother and the yellow ones for Danny, carefully putting all the blue ones to the side and leaving the other colors scattered, chattering all the while, "She came to visit this morning with the Father when he said Mass for us in the garden. I made a little chapel in the garden with a trellis and benches, you know, and the Father consecrated it with his box of oils. He usually comes on Sunday afternoons, but today was the feast-day of a saint, I forget which one, whose special care is gardens, and he thought she'd appreciate a Mass in my garden chapel.  I like his Masses, he says them in Latin all the time.  He doesn't take my Confession anymore, though.  My sins are always the same, so he just goes ahead and prays for me.  He's nicer than the old Father.  He says touching myself isn't really bad, it's only called a sin because God wants us to remember to treat our bodies respectfully.  So I always pray afterward and that makes it alright."

"Monsieur, I'm sure your son doesn't want to hear about that," Claude gently chided him, embarrassed by the turn his monologue had taken, though Valerien seemed to not mind and Danny had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing.

"He doesn't?" the Vicomte looked bewildered by the notion that there was anything he could say that would not interest everyone, "I thought it was interesting.  I'd felt bad all those years when the old Father said touching myself made God angry and sad.  But now I find out He just wants me to pray after.  That's much nicer."

"The new Father is very nice, Papa," Valerien reached out and took his father's hand, "He's more interested in our souls than our sins.  But my friend and I have to go change our clothes for dinner.  I'll come visit you again tomorrow, alright?"

"Why do you have to change clothes? You look very nice," the Vicomte seemed worried by the idea, a troubled frown creasing his forehead.

"Because I'm silly," Valerien laughed, kissing his father and hugging him again.  He realized he'd sparked some ghost of a memory in his father's scrambled brain, and hurried to distract him from it, "I have so many clothes I have to change four times a day just so I can wear them all."

"That is silly," the Vicomte agreed gravely, bundling up the pink and yellow peonies in paper towels and handing them over to Danny, his face smoothing out again as the unhappy memory receded, "All of my clothes are the same, even when I change you can't tell."

"Good evening, Papa," Valerien said, taking Danny by the arm and towing him out of the Folly, "Good evening Claude, good evening, Albert.  I'll be back tomorrow."

"Good night, my son and his handsome friend," the Vicomte called after them.

"Are you OK?" Danny asked when they reached the gate and plunged back into the woods.

"You know, I don't even remember what he was like before, I was so young," Valerien had a small sob in his voice, "But oh, how I wish I could talk to him like he was.  I need a father right now."

"You have Poppy," Danny suggested, tears starting in his own eyes as his sympathy for his friend welled up.

"Yes, I do have Poppy," Valerien laughed, then sighed, "And I have you and Marquesa, and I have Richard to advise me as well.  I have so much, and here I am crying about what I don't have."

"And you know your father loves you.  Mine can't stand the sight of me."

"Now don't you go getting all maudlin on me," Valerien punched him lightly on the arm, "It was supposed to be my turn to be sad.  You can't be sad, too."

"Sorry," Danny draped his arm around Valerien's shoulders and pulled him close as they walked along the dimming path through the woods, "You go ahead and cry, I'll laugh."

"Let's both laugh," Valerien suggested, pulling away and breaking into a jog when they reached the rose-bush-lined marble pavement that ran between the east terrace and the pool, "Let's have a quick swim before dinner."

"Oh, boy! Skinny-dipping!" Danny cried out, chasing his friend through the wall of Italian poplars that screened the swimming-pool from the house, pulling off his clothes as he went.


The two young men splashed around for a few minutes, cavorting and roughhousing until the gloomy mood dissipated; breathless and laughing, they pulled themselves out onto the lip of the pool and lay panting in the soft warm light.  The sun had not set yet, but had dipped below the roofline of the colonnade surrounding the pool.  The construction had obviously been influenced by the Neptune Pool at Hearst's San Simeon, with its large Greek temple reaching out gracefully curving arms of Corinthian columns interspersed with Classical statuary; but the temple was an actual pool-house with changing rooms and baths, the colonnade was enclosed by an arched stone wall, and the columns supported wistaria-hung pergolas, encircling the elongated octagon of the swimming pool, which was paved in azure tiles patterned with lapis lazuli in an elaborate geometric Roman pattern featuring more octagons.

"Your architect seems to have been fond of octagons," Danny remarked after a few minutes, noticing that even the capitals of the columns were octagonal, as well as the tiles of the terrace and the floor of the pool.

"It was the last Comte who was obsessed with them," Valerien corrected, shifting around to prop his head against Danny's chest, "The architect originally planned round towers to the Chateau, and an elliptical pool echoing the curved colonnade.  But my great-grandfather was absolutely potty about the number eight.  He was born on August eighth, eighteen eighty-eight, and so believed that eight was his lucky number.  He ordered octagons shoved in wherever the architect could put them.  He even designed some of the octagonal follies himself.  You find them in the most unexpected places.  Even the family crest, where it's worked into the architecture, features an octagonal shield instead of the traditional écu français.  Look at the bosses at the tops of the windows, and the medallions in the corners of the ballroom floor."

"There's something especially pleasing about octagons, though, don't you think?  I had an octagonal bedroom at my aunts' house at home."

"I suppose," Valerien shrugged, then sat up, "I'm so accustomed to seeing them everywhere, I don't really notice them anymore."

"I remember reading a book called Octagon Magic when I was a kid; it was a great book, about a girl who meets this strange old lady who lives in an octagonal house that's magical, with a dollhouse replica of the house inside it that allowed one to time-travel."

"I wonder if the old Comte read it.  When was it published?"

"The seventies, I think," Danny answered after a long pause in which he tried to picture the ratty paperback library book in his mind's eye, and trying to place the art on the cover in a decade.

"Ah, then he would have missed it.  He died in the late fifties."

"It was a kid's book, anyway, I doubt he'd read such."

"If it had the word 'octagon' in it, he would have, I'm sure," he reached across to the pile of his clothes and rooted around until he found his pocket-watch, snapped it open and looked at the time, "We'd better be getting in, we only have an hour to dress.  Do you think my father is happy?"

"He seems happy," Danny stood and followed his friend into the poolhouse, bemused by the turn of conversation, "Content at the very least."

"I sometimes wonder.  If happiness is the absence of pain, he does seem happy.  But I don't know... I never believed in that absence-of-pain definition.  What do you think happiness is?"

"I've always thought happiness was something you simply felt or didn't feel.  Like love.  It can't be quantified or even adequately explained.  But then, Poppy says that happiness is a way of life, you simply decide to be happy and then nothing can make you unhappy, even when sad or bad things happen. What do you think happiness is?"

"I wish I knew.  I know I've been happy, and I know I'm not happy now.  I just wish I understood it all better.  This business of getting married, I'm not so sure I'm up to it," the young Baron put on a bathrobe from one of the changing-rooms and handed another to his friend.

"Your father was right, though," Danny said, shrugging into the soft white terry, "You shouldn't if you don't want to.  It'll just make you miserable, and if you're miserable, your wife will be miserable.  And any children you have will be miserable."

"But I do want to," Valerien objected, "I want to continue my line.  An unbroken male descent over nine hundred years?  I don't want to break that; I want to keep it going. And I do want to have children, to nurture them and make them happy and watch them grow.  No, not wanting to isn't the problem.  Not being able to is the problem.  What if I can't do it?  I've never tried."

"It's not that hard," Danny told him, "I mean, it's not the same as with a man, but I've slept with women a lot of times and had no difficulty."

"But I'm not you, my love," Valerien reached up and touched his cheek, smiling, "I'm not the rampant sex-monster you are."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Danny reached out and took hold of Valerien by the waist, pulling him close, "You're a pretty horny little bugger.  I think you could fuck anybody or anything if you were inspired."

"Stop that," Valerien wriggled out of his grasp and rearranged his bathrobe to hide the erection that was starting to rise up, "We don't have time to finish, so don't get me started."

"You're right, we'd better go get dressed for dinner."

The two friends walked thoughtfully back to the Chateau, entering through a ground-floor salon and climbing the stairs in the ballroom, pausing to look at the elaborate medallions inlaid in varicolored wood in the parquet floor: a blue octagonal Seguemont shield, showing a diagonal scarlet band with a gold fleur de lys above and a silver crescent below, surmounted by the purple-capped coronet of a count and peer of France, supported by a leopard and a hawk, surrounded by a fancifully curling ermine mantle and bearing the motto Vérité sans peur.  

Danny did not remark on the contradiction of a family bearing the motto "Truth without fear" when they had an ostensibly dead son hidden away in a secret garden; but it gave him something to think about as he climbed flight after flight of stairs to arrive finally at his high tower bedroom, where he found a liveried footman waiting to help him dress.

"If monsieur would tell me what he wishes to wear this evening, I will lay it out while he takes his shower," the man said in his formal French.  Like the family, most of the servants were French citizens, or naturalized French nationals; but this one was clearly American or Canadian and had the distinctive accent of someone who learned French in school rather than at home.

"Thank you," Danny replied in his more faultlessly fluent French; he'd grown up with a French nanny, and learned his accent from her, and then studied French literature in high school and college to gain a more sophisticated vocabulary, "What's your name?"

"I call myself Eric," the young man answered, bowing low.

"Please speak English to me, Eric," Danny laughed, slipping out of his robe and enjoying the servant's bug-eyed appreciation of his body--there were few things as gratifying to him as turning men on, "I'll wear the black Gucci dinner-suit with the dark green waistcoat and tie.  I'll let you use your judgement on the shirt and shoes.  And would you take that robe back to the poolhouse later on?"

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir," the footman replied in English, then scuttled off into the closet to get the clothes out.

Danny spent his customary twenty minutes on the toilet and bidet, entertaining himself with a glossy magazine-sized booklet about the Chateau, a souvenir guide that was given to those who paid charity prices to tour the place in July when the family was away, which he found among a selection of new magazines in the rack beside the toilet.

It was full of gorgeous pictures of the Chateau and its rooms, and even featured floor-plans of the rooms that were on the tour (his own little aerie was not included, nor was the attic below him); there were also pictures of the family, including the previous Comte and his Comtesse, a terrifically attractive pair consistently turned out in the very height of mid-century fashions, both in studio portraits and informal snapshots.  The long Seguemont nose sat better in the former Comte's face than in the current Comte's, as it was balanced by an epic jaw and take-no-prisoners black eyes; the old Comtesse had the long face and narrow chin which on her looked charming, with her fathomless eyes and rosebud mouth, but on her son looked comical.

There were some pictures of the current Comte and Comtesse when they were young, from their wedding in the Chateau chapel to a lovely family portrait with Antoine and Cecile as small children; the current Comte was considerably more attractive in youth, his comical face smooth and fresh and animated, and the Comtesse was absolutely gorgeous in platinum hair and the best couture of the times; there were a few more pictures showing Antoine and Cecile as teenagers and then as young adults, but the pictures stopped there: nothing from the the Vicomte's wedding to the beautiful aluminum heiress Virginia Allenwhite, nothing of Valerien, nothing of the Comte and Comtesse taken after about 1980.

During his speedy shower (time was running short), he pondered the omission in the tour guides: was it because the tours started in the early eighties and nothing new had been added to the guides since then?  Or was it because the Seguemonts didn't want people wondering about Antoine and Virginia, didn't want people wondering about Valerien's parents, didn't want anyone being inspired to look up old newspaper stories and remember the tragedy.

"You're new at this valeting thing, aren't you?" Danny asked Eric when he saw the shoes the young man had laid out for him, slick black-and-white spectators that were completely unsuitable for evening, though they did look very dashing.

"I'm so sorry!" the young footman cried in abject misery, "Henri told me what to do, but I don't understand everything he says, he talks so fast."

"It's all right, Eric," Danny smiled at the servant, taking off his towel to dry his hair and give the young man a visual treat, "But go get a pair of plain black patent leather, I think the Ferragamos.  I'll need some help with the suspenders and the links, but I can do the rest myself."

"Yes, sir, right away, sir," the footman bowed deeply and scuttled off into the closet.  Danny filled his hair with a sculpting wax and combed it back into a sleek cap, and then fluffed the curls behind his ears and at the back of his neck with a pick before getting into his underwear and shirt, pulling up his pants and buttoning the fly and pulling the suspenders over his shoulders just as the footman came back out with the correct shoes, buffing them industriously as he came.

"Are the hems straight?" Danny asked, pulling at the adjustment bars on the front of the suspenders and examining the effect in the cheval mirror.

"Yes, sir," the footman replied, getting down on his hands and knees to measure the pants-cuffs against the floor with a little ruler, as he must have been taught by Valerien's valet.

"Very good," Danny sorted out a pair of gold cufflinks with cabochon emeralds from his jewel case and handed them to the footman to insert into his cuffs, "You're new to the Chateau, aren't you?  I don't remember seeing you before."

"Yes, sir, I came here two months ago," he answered, concentrating on the links with his tongue sticking out just a little.

"You're adapting quickly," Danny smiled at the young man and picked up his bowtie, turning to the shorter mirror over the dresser to watch himself tie it, "You're the first non-Frenchman I've ever seen here.  This place must be very confusing to work in."

"It really is," Eric admitted, slipping the flower-embroidered green satin waistcoat over Danny's arms and then reaching for the jacket and a brush as Danny buttoned it up, "I thought I was pretty fluent in French until I got here and people started rattling it off as fast as a machine-gun, so much idiom and slang I can't keep up."

"No, the shoes first.  It gets easier," Danny said, bracing himself against the footman's shoulder as he lifted his foot to put it into his shoe, "My French has improved immensely since I've known Valerien, the Baron that is.  He used to tease me about my accent, I learned it from my Nanny who was from Lyon and apparently not as cultured as she could have been.  I've gotten where I can identify the different kinds of French accents now, where I never knew before there was a difference.  Yours sounds almost Quebecois, but not quite."

"My first French teacher was Quebecois, I'm from Wisconsin."

"And how did you end up in California, in pink livery and a powdered wig?"

"I majored in Hospitality Management at San Francisco State," the footman laughed, "One of my teachers found this job for me, since I spoke French, or what I thought was speaking French.  He said it was like working in a hotel but paid better, and would get me more experience than entry-level clerking in a hotel."

"I always wondered where the Comtesse finds so many staff in this day and age.  Nobody has footmen anymore, I can't imagine you could just advertise for them on Craigslist.  A handkerchief from the top drawer, please, and do you have a small scissors to cut a flower for my buttonhole?"

"Most of us are aspiring hoteliers," Eric answered, patting the pockets of his satin frock-coat until he found the small bird-shaped gold scissors that Henri had given him, "The rest are just francophones who drifted into the work in one way or another.  Which flower?"

"Are there any alstromeira in that arrangement?" Danny asked, tucking the handkerchief into an inside pocket and then fluffing the green silk handkerchief that matched his waistcoat into his outside pocket.

"I don't know anything about flowers," Eric admitted, poking around in the big arrangement of cream and buff flowers in the big clear vase by the window.

"You'd better learn," Danny advised, walking over to the arrangement to make a selection, "These creamy white ones are Honor roses, the kind of beige-y ones are Chanelle, a little too strong a scent for a buttonhole; and these are freesia, also too strong, these are of course carnations, here are some sweet peas, and these spiky ones are muscari.  I think I'll take the Honor rose, it's the simplest.  Two inches of stem, no leaves."

"How do you know all that?" Eric wondered, reaching over to clip the bloom Danny indicated.

"I have this weird retentive memory.  I know what roses the Comtesse grows, because she told me once... there are dozens of types of white roses, and beige ones, so I only know these are Honor and Chanelle because that's what comes out of the cutting gardens here.  The rest of the flowers are fairly common, except for the muscari, but again I remember the Comtesse pointing them out to me on an earlier visit."

"There's so much to remember," the footman shook his head and watched Danny tuck the flower into his buttonhole before reaching for the brush and dusting off his shoulders, "I'll never get it all."

"Sure you will," Danny reached out and touched the young man's cheek affectionately, "You've already learned ten things since you've been in the room with me.  Oh, scheisse, is that the time?  I'd better get downstairs."

"Me, too... I'm working in the dining room tonight.  Thanks for your help."

"My pleasure, Eric.  See you at dinner."

Danny smiled to himself as he sauntered down the stairs after the footman sprinted down them; he enjoyed teaching people things, and looked forward to helping Eric learn the art of domestic service.  He briefly toyed with the idea of seducing the young man, who was quite good-looking to begin with and then perfectly adorable in his pink and cream livery and formal wig; but Danny knew that servants were off limits in the Chateau de Seguemont.  It would come under the heading of things that are, in Valerien's estimation, "simply not done."

Danny met Marquesa in the third-floor corridor, emerging from what he assumed must be the Pink Room.  He was dressed in a very structured gown of flame and copper brocade that exactly matched his hair, with three-quarter sleeves, a dramatic collar, and a flaring overskirt that tumbled down the back in richly sculpted folds to drag the floor behind him; his hair was slicked back and plaited into elaborate braids, which were arranged on top of his head like a tiara  and studded with glinting topaz-headed pins.  More large reddish-orange topazes in diamond and platinum Art Deco settings blazed all around his person, he carried a large square minaudier covered in gold and brown crystals, and a vast corsage of fiery ruffled orchids spilled down his left shoulder.

"Wow!" Danny exclaimed when he caught sigh of his beloved.

"Oh, damn," Marquesa replied, looking at Danny's outfit with consternation, "I should have told you what I was wearing earlier, that green waistcoat does not go with this dress."

"Does it matter?" Danny was a little wounded by the response, "We're not supposed to match, are we?"

"We probably should.  We're the only two untitled 'Murricans' at this rodeo, precedence makes us natural dinner partners.  I'll have Danvers tell Henri what I'm going to wear from now on so you can coordinate."

"Henri's not dressing me," Danny told him as they descended the stairs, "I guess I'm too far away from Valerien's rooms, up too many stairs.  I got low man on totem pole instead, the junior-est footman on staff.  But he's very sweet and very cute, so I'll make do."

"Well, I'll have Danvers keep in touch with your cute junior footman, then," Marquesa decided, turning to look back at Danny at the turn of the stairs, "Oh, darling, don't look so crestfallen!  You do look lovely, that green is really fetching." 

"Am I that transparent?  I was trying not to look hurt.  I'm not, not really."

"You're like glass to me, darling," Marquesa stepped back up to where Danny was standing and kissed him lightly on the cheek, "And I did not fail to notice that you're wearing the links and studs I gave you.  I was just too full of my own petty concerns to say anything.  Forgive me?"

"Nothing to forgive," Danny grinned and kissed him back, also lightly, making sure to not smudge anything.

"You're much too sweet to be real," Marquesa shook his head as he turned and continued down the stairs, "If you'd told me I clashed before telling me I looked fabulous, I'd punch you square in the nuts."

"I'll remember that," Danny laughed.

Reaching the bottom of the main stairs, they paused a moment to listen for voices, not sure which room they would be using to meet before dinner.  When the Seguemonts dined en famille, they gathered in the smaller drawing-room, called the Salon des chasseurs, so named for the hunting figures in the priceless Gobelins tapestries that lined the walls; when there was a large party of people coming in from outside, guests were ushered through that room to the Salon d'or, the larger drawing room, which was of course opulently gilded and upholstered in gold damask; but with a large house party, new to Danny's experience, there was some uncertainty... and with the Chateau's two-foot-thick stone walls, one had to listen carefully to find the party.

"The Long Library," Marquesa announced after a moment's silence, and headed for the double-doors opposite the foot of the stairs.

The Long Library, as opposed to the Tower Library next door, was not quite what Danny expected a library to look like: dark and brown and woody with the lovely smell of old books and tobacco.  The Long Library was lined with bookcases, but they were ivory enamel carved with golden oak leaves, acorns, birds and squirrels, with the books secured behind latticed glass doors; the gilded Louis XVI furniture was upholstered in ivory satin embroidered with wildflowers, and the Boulle tables and desks were pale golden wood marquetry; even the books were rebound in pale caramel kidskin, and were all modern best sellers and bound volumes of magazines.  The whole effect was light and warm and airy, a room for socializing rather than for reading and studying.

There was nobody posted at the door to announce the arrivals... that had only been done for the first tea so that the guests would hear each other's names.  Danny and Marquesa were greeted by the Comtesse, who was regal and lovely in rose-colored chiffon and Belle Epoque diamonds, were served a choice of aperitifs and cocktails on a silver tray by the senior footman, and mingled into the assembled guests.

Lady Emily, Danny noted, polished up very nicely after all: her auburn hair fluffed and swept into an elaborate wave, her slim figure draped in an exquisite bias-cut satin gown in pale green satin, her neck and ears glittering with dainty diamond and emerald pendants; she could move in heels and hold onto a handbag, which Marquesa would say were the most important elements of female grace. 


This story isn't going to happen for NaNoWriMo this year.  I've become hopelessly bogged down in needless details, I can't see my way out of the hyperexposition and into the meat of the story.  And I'm sick of looking at it right now.  I'll develop this story later on down the road, when I've had a chance to get some distance from the details and focus on the plot.