V is for . . .

“A ball?” Charles asked in astonishment.

Peter was surprised at his own disappointment, the sensation of his heart dropping two inches in his chest. “You don’t want to go.” It was more a statement than a question.

“Of course I do,” Charles said roundly. “But I haven’t those kinds of clothes.”

“We have a day,” Peter said. “I’m sure we can work quickly enough.”

VIENNA was the last great bastion of grand balls of the kind once so common and popular in the early nineteenth century, and Peter liked having a reason to dress in his best—and better yet, a reason to dress Charles. Though Charles was the one with a better sense of style, Peter was the one who knew what would be most appropriate for the Hofburg Palace. After pulling old strings with a number of connections, they soon had Charles tailored and ready.

But while for Peter a tuxedo meant a certain kind of armor, he saw by the way Charles practically trembled in his shining new shoes that formal wear hadn’t nearly the same effect for him. “What is the matter?” Peter asked him quietly as they waited to enter the state rooms of the palace.

“Will I be expected to dance?”

Peter frowned. “Only if you see a young lady without a partner.”

Charles shot Peter a glare, a rare show of temper in the usually mild cabbie that Peter took to mean his companion was truly frightened. “And will you? Dance?”

“Not with you. Not here,” Peter said. Indeed, he would be sure to refrain from overt signs of affection for Charles, no matter how lovely he looked in that tuxedo.

“I meant the debutantes,” said Charles. “Will you dance with them?”

They were moving into the ballroom, keeping to the crowded margins so the dancers had space to move. “It is considered rude for a gentleman not to ask if he notices a lady who is being neglected.”

“They will work to be neglected once they see you in all your togs,” said Charles with a tiny pout that pleased Peter more than it should have; he liked the idea his easy-going Charles might actually have a jealous streak.

Charles glanced left and right, his natural curiosity breaking through his concern. Then, “Oh, God, there’s one already.”

Peter swung his head in the direction Charles was pointed and saw a young lady eyeing the two of them speculatively. “She’s looking at you, not me.”

Charles gave a laugh that might have been a hiccough. “Not bloody likely.”

They were saved when another gentleman swept in to petition the lady for a dance, though she looked over her shoulder at Peter and Charles until she was lost to them in the crowd.

“It’s looks to be a long night,” Charles sighed.

Before Peter could respond, a fine-boned blonde in a frothy ice blue gown came to claim his attention. “Peter Stoller! Never say you’ve been in Vienna and hiding from me.”

Peter glanced swiftly at Charles, whose eyebrows went up and mouth quirked in bitter amusement. “Uh, Astrid,” said Peter haltingly, “may I present my associate Charles Toulson. Charles, this is Astrid Bieler. An old friend.”

Astrid’s pale eyes dipped over Charles’s form before returning to Peter. “You’re not working, are you?”

“Not tonight,” said Peter.

“Good, then you can ask me to dance.”

“I haven’t had enough wine for that,” said Peter.

Astrid gave him a slap on the shoulder. “You terrible man! What about your friend then?” She looked at Charles.

“I haven’t had enough wine to dance with him, either,” Peter told her and was aware of the long breath Charles slowly let out beside him.

“You’re impossible,” said Astrid. “Fine, no dancing. Wine?”

“Are you offering?” Peter asked, and just as Astrid appeared ready to become truly irate, he acquiesced. “I’ll fetch some. For both of you,” he added with another glance at Charles, “so long as you promise only to say nice things about me while I’m gone.”

“Who could say otherwise?” asked Astrid as Peter began the push through the crowd toward the refreshments. Once he was out of earshot, she turned to Charles. “Is he as good in bed as I remember?”

Charles turned a startled look on her, and she gave a tiny shrug. “You’re making things difficult, what with all the travel,” she told him as she watched Peter maneuver through the press. “You should get settled somewhere soon.”

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