All the queens men, p.16
All the Queen's Men, page 16
That question had him smiling again. “Are you wondering if it would be a party of two, which I would much prefer? I believe there are about a hundred people invited.”
“Then your house must be more than just ’comfortable,’ “she said dryly.
“Perhaps that was an understatement. But there are separate guest quarters that house half that number, so not everyone is staying under the same roof.”
“That is still a large roof.”
“Yes, it is. Don’t hold my roof against me, please.”
She laughed. “I’m sure it’s a very nice roof. Would you mind if I ask who the other guests are?”
His eyes gleamed. “You wouldn’t ask unless you were considering accepting,” he said with satisfaction. “You met many of the same guests at the prime minister’s ball that you’ll meet at my home.”
Many, but not all. Undoubtedly some of his guests were the sort who wouldn’t be invited to government functions. It was a cynical world, when the lawmakers and the lawbreakers mingled together behind the scenes. John would be there, as one of the latter group. She wondered if he would be surprised at any of the other guests, then dismissed the idea. No, he wouldn’t be surprised. He probably knew of them all.
“Please say yes,” he cajoled. “I won’t be in Paris much longer, and your visit may end before I return.”
“Yes,” she said, and sighed. “I’ll probably go home afterward. It would be awkward for me to visit you, then come back to the embassy. I don’t want to do anything that would damage Albert’s career.”
He was silent as they walked along. Perhaps he didn’t like being told associating with him had repercussions for others, but she wasn’t going to sugarcoat anything for him. She had a job to do, and so far her instincts had been on target; so many people sucked up to him, and he was pursued by so many women that the very fact she didn’t made her memorable to him.
“So I won’t see you again after you leave the house party,” he finally said. He gave her a wry smile. “I don’t think we normally travel in the same circles.”
“No,” she said. “We don’t.”
“Then it’s all the more important for you to come. There’s someone I’d like for you to meet.”
“I got the invitation,” she told John the next morning when he called.
“Good. When are you going?”
“Day after tomorrow.”
“I won’t be there until the next day. There’s a fancy-dress party that night, and I’ll probably schedule my arrival during the party.”
“How do you know the schedule? And why in the middle of the party?”
“Everyone’s attention will be splintered, including Ronsard’s. It’s just a small advantage for me, but every detail matters. We don’t know his security arrangements, the floor plan, or his schedule, so we’ll have to play that part by ear. Don’t forget, I’ll be smitten by you the first time I see you, so we’ll have an excuse to be together.”
“I’m turning into a love goddess,” she muttered. “Men are being smitten left and right.”
He laughed quietly. “Maybe you’ve found your niche in life.”
“I think you could get to like it.”
“That depends on what I’m smiting them with.”
“See you in three days, Mata.”
Ronsard left that day for his villa, so she didn’t have lunch with him for the first time since they had met Glad of the downtime, she spent a good portion of the day assembling the things she would need once she got to Ronsard’s house. The CIA station chief in the embassy was of great help in procuring the tiny transmitters, batteries, and wiring she needed. If he asked any questions, he didn’t ask them of her. She knew he had to have cleared everything with Langley for him to be as cooperative as he was.
The station chief didn’t know anything about the job she was doing, just that he was to get whatever she needed; the Paris-based CIA contingent didn’t even know she had been meeting Ronsard, unless one of the case officers had taken it on himself to follow her one day, but she couldn’t think why they would. So far as any of them had known until now, she had simply been a friend, visiting the ambassador and his wife.
Lyon was about three hundred kilometers from Paris, farther than she wanted to drive, so she booked a flight and called the number Ronsard had given her to arrange to be picked up at the airport.
She was eager to arrive, to look around and see what she had to deal with, so she could make concrete plans and decisions. Being a socialite, even a subdued one, wasn’t her cup of tea. She wanted to do something besides shop and have lunch and attend parties.
The weather was beautiful the day she flew down to Lyon, the flight smooth. She was met at the airport by a man in a stylish gray suit, his blond hair cut military short and his eyes hidden by sunglasses. He didn’t speak other than when it was necessary, but he was efficient. He collected her luggage and handed her into a silver Jaguar, and she settled back to enjoy the drive.
They went south on the expressway, then turned east, toward Grenoble. The region was beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful in France, with the French Alps rising in the east. The weather was warmer than it had been in Paris, the heat radiating through the expensive tinted glass of the Jaguar’s windows.
Her first view of Ronsard’s villa made her blink in astonishment, and she was glad she was wearing sunglasses to hide her expression. After all, she was supposed to be used to wealth and luxury. John should have warned her, she thought absently.
A sleekly paved drive, bordered with multi-colored flowers, led up to massive gates set in a twelve-foot-high gray stone wall that completely encircled the estate. The stone in the wall alone had to have been an enormous expense. The gates slid smoothly open as the car approached; when they drove through, the gates started closing again almost immediately.
The estate itself was massive; she estimated at least forty acres had been enclosed, though the grounds had been so artfully landscaped there were sections where she couldn’t see the wall at all. The house itself—though she doubted a structure that huge could be called a mere house—was four stories high, with wings stretching out on each side. It had been built with huge slabs of pale, luminous gray marble, with faint streaks of pink and gold running through the stone. The effect was stunning.
To the right was a long, two-story building that was rather barrackslike in style, though more of that incredible landscaping went a long way toward disguising it. To the left, set like a jewel on a picturesque pond, was what looked like another house. She guessed that this was the guest quarters Ronsard had mentioned. It was large enough to be a small hotel, and looked small only in comparison to the massive-ness of the main building.
Illegal arms-dealing had to be a very, very lucrative business.
Until now she hadn’t had any grasp of Ronsard’s wealth, but now she had a better idea why he was pursued for his money.
There were men in shades everywhere—his private army. There seemed to be a system of dress to designate authority. Most of the men wore a dark green uniform-type pants and shirt, and these men carried weapons openly. Next in number were those wearing dark green pants, but white shirts, and they wore only side arms. Fewest in number were those wearing light gray suits like her driver.
A number of guests had already arrived. They were wandering in the formal gardens, casually but expensively dressed in what she had always thought of as country-manor style. Some sat on a side patio, indulging in cocktails. Six industrious individuals were on the tennis courts, batting the chartreuse ball back and forth with increasing languor as the heat sapped their strength.
Ronsard himself came down the broad, shallow steps to meet her, smiling, and his hands extended as she got out of the car. He took her shoulders in a light grasp and, bending, brushed his lips across her cheek. Startled, she drew back and blinked up at him. That was the first time he had done more than kiss her hand, and she must have looked uneasy be
“One would think, from your expression, that I had attempted to remove your dress,” he said dryly. “If my ego had been inflated, it would now be as flat as yesterday’s champagne.” He gave a rueful shake of his head. “And to think I’ve missed this.”
“I’m sorry, I was just startled.”
“No, don’t apologize and ruin the effect.”
“Now you’re making me feel guilty.”
“I’m teasing.” He smiled down at her, then said briefly to the two young staffers who stood behind him like sentinels. “Put Madame’s luggage in the Garden room.”
“The Garden room,” she repeated. “That sounds lovely.”
“It’s actually a small suite. I want you to be comfortable. And before your suspicious nature rears its ugly head, no, it is not next to my private suite. None of the guest rooms are.”
“Consider my suspicions headed off at the pass.” She took his arm, and he led her inside, where delicious coolness and airy space replaced the heat of outside.
Marble columns soared to a painted ceiling three stories high. The floor was granite flagstones, in a darker hue than the pale gray of the columns, and dotted by enormous, richly colored rugs with tight, thick weaves. Twin marble staircases curved to the left and right, coming together at the top of the arch with hallways opening off each side.
“I hope you’re providing tour maps to everyone, so they don’t get lost,” she said as he escorted her up the stairs.
“The design is basically simple,” he began, and smiled at the disbelieving look she gave him. “There aren’t any cul-de-sacs. All secondary hallways lead directly back to the main hallway. If you have a sense of direction, you can find your way back to here without any difficulty.”
As they mounted the stairs she looked up at an enormous tapestry hung on the left wall. “How old is your house?”
“It isn’t old at all. It was built in the seventies by one of the Middle-Eastern oil billionaires. When the price of oil dropped, he needed to raise cash, and I was in a position to provide it.”
Upstairs, the marble stairs gave way to dove-gray carpeting so thick her feet sank into it. Light streamed through Palladian windows; walking over to look out, she saw an enormous swimming pool in the courtyard below, the pool was irregularly shaped so that it resembled a lake, exquisitely landscaped, with a small waterfall sparkling over rocks before cascading back into the transparent turquoise water.
“The pool must be spectacular at night, like another world,” she said.
“It’s one of my pleasures. A long swim is relaxing after a difficult day.”
He led her along the hallway, turned left down a secondary hallway, then opened a door on the right. “Here is the Garden room. I hope you will be comfortable.”
Niema stepped inside, and her eyes lit with pleasure. “It’s beautiful.”
The reason it was called the Garden room was obvious: It was filled with greenery. Besides the lovely arrangements of cut flowers, there were eight-foot tall areca palms in strategic locations, succulent jade, rhododendrons. They were in a small sitting room; double doors to the right were opened to reveal a sumptuous bedroom. Straight ahead, glass doors opened onto a private balcony that was lush with potted trees and flowers. The balcony was the width of both the sitting room and bedroom, perhaps forty feet wide.
Ronsard was watching her move around the suite, touching the plants, smelling the flowers. “This is a peaceful place. I thought you would enjoy it; an escape from the social whirl.”
“Thank you,” she said sincerely. His thoughtful-ness in providing this retreat was touching. He was correct in thinking she enjoyed occasional solitude and serenity in which to recharge, but as she looked around she realized that the balcony would also provide an excellent means of clandestine entry, à la Medina. She would make certain the glass doors were always unlocked—not that they would provide much difficulty to someone as adept at breaking and entering as John was.
Her luggage had already been deposited on a padded bench at the foot of the bed. Ronsard took her arm. “A maid will unpack for you. If you aren’t too tired, I have someone I’d like you to meet.”
“No, I’m not tired,” she said, remembering he had mentioned in Paris that he wanted her to meet someone. The electronic supplies she had brought were safely locked in her jewelry case, so she wasn’t worried about the maid seeing them and reporting to Ronsard that one of his guests had brought some interesting equipment with her.
“My private wing is on the other side of the house,” he said and smiled. “I wasn’t lying when I said your suite wasn’t next door to mine. I wish it was, but I deliberately remodeled so that the guest rooms were somewhat distant.”
“For privacy, or protection?”
“Both.” A tender look swept his face, an expression all the more astonishing because it seemed to be directed elsewhere. “But not my privacy, and not my protection. Come. I told her I was bringing someone to see her, and she has been excited all day, waiting.”
“My daughter. Laure.”
His daughter? John hadn’t men tioned that Ronsard had a daughter. Niema tried to hide her surprise. “You’ve never mentioned her before,” she said. “I thought your sister was your only family.”
“Ah, well, perhaps I’m paranoid. I do everything I can to safeguard her. As you pointed out, I’m an unsavory character; I have enemies.”
“I said Eleanor thinks you’re an unsavory character,” she corrected.
“She’s right, you know. I’m far too unsavory for woman like you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Smooth, Ronsard. Women probably fall all over you when you warn them than you’re too dangerous for them.”
“Have I ever mentioned you have this annoying tabit of seeing through my ploys?” he asked converationally, and they both laughed.
They weren’t the only people in the hallway. They passed several guests, all of whom had to speak to their host. One gentleman looked familiar, and he swept her with a knowing look. It took her a moment to place him as the horse-racing afficionado she had met at the prime minister’s ball. She smiled at him and asked how his horse had finished in the weekend’s race.
“You have a slave for life,” Ronsard said as they continued down the hall. “He bores everyone with his talk of horses and racing.”
“I like horses,” she replied serenely. “And it doesn’t take any more effort to be nice to someone than it does to be nasty.”
Getting from one side of the huge villa to the other took some time, especially when he was continually stopped. At last, however, they passed into his private wing, which was guarded by heavy wooden double doors. “My suite is here,” he said, indicating another set of double doors on the left. He showed her a family dining room, a den that surprised her with its coziness, a small movie theater, an enormous playroom filled with all manner of toys and games, a library so packed with books she doubted he could get another volume on the shelves. The titles were both fiction and nonfiction, with an amazing variety of children’s books mixed in.
“This is one of Laure’s favorite rooms,” he said. “She loves to read. Of course, she has outgrown fairy tales and Dr. Seuss, but I make certain there is always a selection of reading material appropriate to her age.”
“How old is she?”
“Twelve. It’s a delightful age. She’s hovering between childhood and adolescence, unable to decide if she wants to play with her dolls or experiment with lipstick. I’ve forbidden the lipstick for another year, at least,” he said, his lips quirking.
He turned to her, a smile still on his lips, but his eyes were somehow looking beyond her. “Laure is small for her age,” he said. “Very small. I want to prepare you. Her health is . . . not good. Every moment I have her is a gift from God.”
An odd thing for a man like Ronsard to say, but then again, perhaps it wasn’t He open
The voice was young, sweet, as pure as the finest crystal. There was a whirring sound and she came rolling toward them in a motorized wheelchair, a tiny doll with an animated face and a smile that lit the world. An oxygen tank was attached to the back of the wheelchair, and transparent tubing ran from the tank to her nostrils, held in place by a narrow band around her head.
“Laure.” His voice was filled with an aching tenderness. He leaned down and kissed her. He spoke in English. “This is my friend, Madame Jamieson. Niema, this is my heart, my daughter, Laure.”
Niema bent forward and extended her hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you,” she said, also in English.
“And I you, madame.” The young girl shook Niema’s hand; her fingers were painfully fragile in Niema’s careful clasp. Ronsard had said his daughter was twelve; she was the size of a six-year-old, probably weighing only about fifty pounds. She was so very, very thin, her skin a bluish white. She had Ronsard’s eyes, dark blue and intelligent, and an angel’s smile set in an alabaster face. Her hair was a silky light brown, brushed to a careful smoothness and tied back with a festive bow.
She was wearing lipstick.
Ronsard noticed it the same time Niema did. “Laure!” he exclaimed. He put his hands on his hips and gave her a stern look. “I forbade you to wear lipstick.”
She gave him a long-suffering look, as if she despaired of ever making him understand. “I wanted to look nice, Papa. For Madame Jamieson.”
“You are beautiful as you are; you don’t need lipstick. You are too young for makeup.”
“Yes, but you’re my papa,” she said with unassailable logic. “You always think I’m beautiful.”
“I think the shade is very flattering,” Niema said, because females should always stick together. She wasn’t lying; Laure displayed an intelligence beyond her years by choosing a delicate shade of rose and using only a light application. Anything more would have looked garish in such an unearthly pale face. She ignored the girl’s tiny size; what was important here was her mind, not her body.
by Linda Howard / Romance / Mystery & Thrillers have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes