Meet & Greet: A Reception in Caprillon

Amidst glitter and glitz, the delegations are invited at last to cross the invisible lines between the two nations, symbolically beginning to break down the barriers between the peoples they represent. The small crowd gathers on the paths of the Terrace Garden, where cool breezes blown from the sea filter through foliage and bring freshness to the air. Waiters circulate with flutes of champagne, and an open bar is available for those who care for other drinks. A long table draped in blue and decked with candles sits to one side, laden with finger foods of every conceivable shape and flavor.

A small contingent of only six press representatives have cleared through the security checks necessary to attend. They talk to guests and take notes, though no cameras are permitted except those held by the two nations’ public relations departments. A band dressed in white tuxes plays in one corner, near a podium.

After giving the guests an opportunity to arrive and refresh themselves, the host of the peace accord, Federal Chancellor Corina Casanova of Caprillon steps before the podium and waits for the talk to die down and the music to stop.

"On behalf of the people of Caprillon, the people of the world, and myself, I bid you welcome. To the Hotel dei Fiori. To Caprillon. To a new beginning. To peace." Casanova flashes a dazzling smile to the polite applause that ripples through the crowd, making sure to give the photographers an opportunity to snap several pictures.

"This is, as many have said it, a momentous event, and Caprillon is proud to find herself in this prestigious place, able to bring together two great nations—two people who have been torn asunder by war and unhappiness. The world has cried for the peoples of Stovakia and Aemmeria. We have wept for your children, your mothers, your fathers. We have prayed for your hearts to turn to peace."

Casanova turns to favor the entire gathering with her regard as she continues. "Now as ambassadors of the futures of the world, let us look not only to this new beginning, but also to one another. The people of Caprillon, the people of the world, we stand behind the two great nations that gather here. We are here to help you, to support you. We are here to see an end to pain, and a beginning of joy."

"I entreat you all look into your hearts and see the goodness, the joy, and know that such can be found in even the hearts of former enemies. I entreat you to let the joy of Caprillon touch your hearts, and bring joy to your talks."

The applause is louder and longer as Casanova bestows another smile upon the crowd and the cameras. With a wave to the band to begin playing again, she steps away from the podium so that the reception may now begin.

Never having mastered the art of being fashionably late, Rosalind arrives at the reception mere minutes before 7:00 dressed in honor of Aemmeria in a simple and flowing sheath of shimmering red satin. Out of habit, she surveys the arrangements with a quick, sweeping glance to see whether all is organized—accustomed to being the host, not the guest.

All being well, she accepts a flute of champagne from a smiling waiter and then begins to explore the garden. She stays to the side for the most part at first, observing the goings-on and the other arrivals, until the conclusion of Casanova's blessedly short speech opens the floor for everyone to begin the happy getting-to-know-you dance.

The only thing missing from the gala event were little sticky name tags with blue borders that said, Hello My Name Is. She lifts her glass to her lips to smother a smile at the thought.

Clapping politely with the rest of the guests after Casanova finishes speaking, Rosalind finds herself near a young woman she recognizes from the briefing files as one of their counterparts in this endeavor. Ivanova. Svetlana Ivanova. Captain? No…. Major. She was wearing dark slacks and a white silk blouse under a half-jacket embroidered with silver roses. She was standing on the sidelines, holding a glass of champagne and looking rather lost.

Rosalind makes her way over to the other woman, giving her a polite smile. "Major Ivanova?" she inquires, extending a hand.

Svetlana looked at the other woman, knowing that she should know her from the briefing notes. Unfortunately, all that was coming to her was that she was a Countess. Someone of importance, the event aside. She returned the smile, taking the hand. "Please, call me Svetlana. I am not in uniform and that matters little to a nurse anyway. How do you do, Countess?" she added a bit uncertainly. Her accent was evident but not terribly thick, being most obvious in her pronunciation of 'Coun-tess.'

Rosalind shakes Svetlana's hand with a gentle, one might even say genteel, grasp, though her hand is strong. "Well, thank you," she replies. "Somewhat tired from the flight, but otherwise well. And you? I hope your trip here was uneventful."

She sighed, shaking her head. "Long flights are always tiring, but as you said, uneventful. I am most impressed with the opulence of this location. I am not used to such luxury, but could get used to it, I'm afraid," she added with a slight chuckle. She noticed the other woman didn't offer her name, but that was perhaps because she was royalty. She had no experience with royalty.

The other woman laughs. "Luxury is like that," she agrees. "So very easy to get used to, but the secret is that it's rather a hassle to maintain." She takes a sip of her champagne.

"I wouldn't know," Svetlana admitted. "My family was of simple means, but we did not truly notice it. And I joined the military after school, so I have lived that sort of means for the past few years." She shook her head. "The war did little to make things luxurious, I am afraid."

"Yes, war is like that," the Countess agrees. "There are some who benefit, but they are quite few, and the perceived benefits are thus spread equally thin. Have you been a nurse for very long, Svetlana?"

"About 4 years now, counting my later training. I have always wanted to help, and being a nurse was the best way I could think of to help people. The fault of a big heart, I'm afraid. It has defined me most of my life and I am fortunate that I am able to do such in any small way I can."

Svetlana regarded the other woman. "What is it you do, if I might ask?"

Rosalind smiles wistfully at Svetlana's answer, an expression that warms her eyes. "Do?" she asks. "In what context? In terms of the Aemmerian war effort, or professionally?"

Svetlana realized that the question might be an unusual for a royal. Her land had abandoned such things and her image of royalty was of a complete lack of responsibility. But this woman looked intelligent, and she doubted that she was so idle.

"Why, either as you wish, Countess. I know so very little of your people beyond what is in the news. So I am fearfully ignorant."

"No, that's fine," Rosalind says with an understanding smile as she swirls her champagne in the glass, making the bubbles rise. "One encounters many ideas about royalty when one is lumped into that category. But I'm in business. I've been the CEO of a mid-sized winery for about 16 years now, though I dabble in other things as time permits. And please, call me Rosalind."

Svetlana's eyes widened slightly. A CEO? A businesswoman? And for 16 years… it hadn't truly occurred to her that the other woman was that much older. "A winery? Forgive me for being very impressed. You have accomplished much more than I, I think. It must be very exciting to be in charge of so much, Rosalind."

Again the almost wistful look. "Yes, it was. But it will be good to move on to other things. And don't judge too quickly, Svetlana. You have plenty of time yet to make a great difference. Indeed, here you are in the middle of a delegation for peace on behalf of your country. That isn't something to sneeze at." Rosalind gestures to the rest of the reception with her champagne flute.

Something to sneeze at… What a funny turn of phrase! It made Svetlana smile. "You are correct, and I shall not, as you say, sneeze at it. I would give my life to see peace. I cannot bear to see others suffer as I have seen. And I thank you for being here to help in this noble effort."

"Thank you, Svetlana," Rosalind replies. "It's good to hear such sincere sentiments. I hope, as most do I believe, that a new peace is possible. It will take a lot of work, and a great deal of communication."

She pauses a moment, then adds carefully in Stovakian, "And it might be that I from you can learn much on your language while we are here." Her accent is not the worst, but certainly could use some work.

She smiled, her eyes alighting with the slightly broken attempt at her language. "I would be honored to teach you," she replied in her own tongue. Switching back to the other tongue, she continued smiling. "In such ways can we find friendship."

Rosalind chuckles, a wry note to the sound. Switching back to Aemmerii, she says, "Thank you again. I butchered it, yes? Ah, well, high school language classes were quite some time ago, and I'm afraid I wasn't able to brush up as much as I'd have liked in the past week."

The countess' attention is caught by sight of Prince Aeric leading the young Alexandrianna Gorodetsky down the grand staircase onto the main floor leading out to the terrace, arm in arm with his hand over hers. He was sporting a black tux with a modern cut, high collared jacket and black silk pants. The white shirt underneath had black onyx buttons and also had a high collar.

Aeric smiled pleasantly to everyone as they entered the reception, waving and nodding when appropriate to those that were attending. For her part, Alexa caught sight of Svetlana and urged Aeric forward with a whisper and a head nod in that direction. While she did not know who Svetlana was talking to, she did know she was not a Stovakian and assumed Aeric would be able to introduce her to his fellow countryman. When they were close enough, Alexa broke free of Aeric and gave Svetlana a sisterly embrace.

"Please pardon my interrupption, ma'am," she says with a smile as she broke into the conversation. "Svetlana, you look lovely! Let me introduce to you his royal highness, Prince Aeric of Aemmeria. Aeric, this is my dearest friend, Major Svetlana Ivanova, the best nurse anywhere and a hero of our country." She smiled politely to the other lady and waited for an introduction.

Rosalind gives Aeric an impenetrable look when he and Alexa approach, but her expression turns to a smile as Alexa and Svetlana greet each other. She leans over and kisses Aeric on the cheek as the two other women hug each other.

Aeric smiles and then takes Svetlana's hand once Alexa moved away, bringing it to his lips to kiss it in greeting. "It is a pleasure Major Ivanova," he says.

Svetlana smiled, embracing her friend, even as she regarded the Aemmerian with a bit of distrust; she recognized him from his photo. But she managed a smile as he took her hand. "I am pleased to meet you, your highness. Please, I am Svetlana to my friends, and I suspect that you are to be my friend." She regarded him with very intelligent eyes.

"Then please call me Aeric." he answered Svetlana. "As becoming friends is what this peace negotiations are for, is it not Auntie Rozzy?" Aeric gave her a knowing smile. "After all, that is why Alexandrianna and I chose to enter together, to encourage everyone to come together in friendship. And Lady Alexandrianna, may I present Countess Rosalind Hollingmore. Auntie Rozzy, this is High Kommissar Gorodetsky's lovely daughter."

"A great pleasure to meet you, Ms. Gorodetsky," Rosalind says to Alexa after the introduction, holding out her hand.

"Would anyone care for a drink?" Aeric asks, but then heads to the bar without giving any of the women a chance to answer.

Alexa nods. "I should like a drink, thank you," she says, looking around and in surprise when she realizes he's already gone.

All three women fall silent for a time, watching the prince put in the request with the bartender. Then while waiting on the drinks, he leans in to speak quietly to the handsome Stovakian delegate currently keeping the bar upright, Colonel Petya Zaitsev. Whatever the Prince says, his words evoke a grin from the Colonel. Zaitsev sips his drink, then sets down his glass as he replies, though the words are lost to the women by distance and background noise. He offers his hand to the Prince just as the bartender returns with a tray of four champagne flutes, and Aeric picks up the tray, ignoring the gesture from the Stovakian. With a final few words, the prince returns to the women with their drinks.

"Ladies?" he greets them again, setting the tray down and offering Svetlana and Alexa their drinks before picking up his and Rosalind's.

"Thank you," Alexa said to him as he handed her the flute of champagne. "Shall we drink a toast to peace?" She held out her glass to the others, though she stands closer to Svetlana than Aeric now, somewhat peeved over the insult the prince had paid to her countryman.

"Indeed," Rosalind replies with a sober expression as she trades her empty glass for the new one Aeric offers, watching the interplay between the others in the little group. She raises her glass at Alexa's suggestion. "To peace," she says.

"To the peace! Long may it endure, long may friendships here persist," chimes in Svetlana.

Alexa brings the flute of champagne to her lips and takes a small sip as she looks around. Seeing her parents with the King and Queen was not surprising, and others were already dancing or talking. She returns her attention to the stately Aemmerian woman in their group. "So, tell me Countess, how do you find the summit thus far?"

"So far, it's exactly what I expected," Rosalind replies in her firm, calm voice. Her grey eyes rest on the younger woman with a thoughtful, measuring look, though her faint smile remains. "These sorts of gatherings are good for photographs and warm fuzzies, with the occasional dramatic twist to keep people on their toes. I expect the more private discussions to be more productive."

Aeric finishes his champagne and then offers his hand to the Stovakian. "Svetlana, would you care to dance?"

"I'll hold your glass Svetlana," Alexa offered with a smile.

Svetlana could not hide the surprise on her face. He wanted to dance? With her? She looked at her younger friend, then handed her the glass. "Okay," she managed, taking the proferred hand. "I would enjoy a dance."

Alexa smiled at Svetlana's expression. "It is all right; he doesn't bite. At least, I think he doesn't," she teased. Her accent was tempered by her years in Darsonne, but still there, only softer, smoother. She whispers to Svetlana in their native tongue, "You can tell me what you think later."

Aeric just smiled at Alexa as she teased him. Though he thought of several comebacks, he surprisingly kept silent. Instead, he led Svetlana to the dance floor.

Rosalind sips her drink, nodding to Aeric and Svetlana as they depart, leaving her with the daughter of the High Kommissar. "Would you care for a stroll?" she asks Alexa.

"A stroll would be lovely, I kind of feel like a sitting duck right now with people staring at me as if I were a novelty or something." She grinned as she glances over at Svetlana and Aeric, wondering what they were so deep in conversation about before she turned back to the Countess. "I shall follow you, ma'am."

"Gracious! Please don't call me ma'am," Rosalind says with a wry smile as she turns. "Countess will do. Rosalind would be fine."

The two head away from the crowd and lights into the maze of cobbled paths through the garden. Greenery and flowers are placed to create patches of privacy and open space, making the terrace seem much larger than it is. The edge of the terrace is left open, with vining flowers spilling over the edge and down the wall to the beach. Stairs end at a walkway that leads to the beach.

"Yes ma…. Countess." She smiled. "Please call me Alexa as Alexandrianna is such a mouthful." The terrace garden was quite lovely and the moon reflected in the dark waters of the ocean was very beautiful. She was rather glad to be out of the main mix, at least for a bit. However, it now occurred to her that she was entirely at the mercy of this woman who, obviously, was family of the Prince. How much did she know? Did she approve ot disapprove? Alexa prepared to be disliked as they stopped to look out over the railing at the beach.

Rosalind looks out over the beach for a few moments, the expanse of sand shimmering in the light of the rising moon. "Alexa it is," she agrees. "You have not attended many functions like this then, that you feel like a sitting duck? Or are you talking specifically about the peace accords?"

"A little of both, actually. My life has been a bit on the quiet side compared to you and the Prince and the rest of the royal family. I was actually very surprised when my Father wanted me to join this summit," she said, not knowing how much the Countess may or may not know.

She laughs quietly. "The price of fame," she replies. "But I'm only the King's cousin, so I'm not nearly as interesting as their Majesties and the Prince and Princess." She turns to sit on the raised wall edging the terrace. "Yes, your presence on the delegation was something of a surprise, given your background. Please understand I mean no insult or slight. It's just that you're not military."

"No, I am not military, per se, but I did serve in the war. On the front lines to be exact. I was a medic in a field hospital, so, yes, I do know what war looks like and feels like. Our hospital was caught in the crossfire during one battle. If not for Lana…I wouldn't be here now." She a look crossed her young face briefly, the haunted look of one who has seen too much too soon, before she forced a smile to her face.

"This is why we are all here, da? To put an end to this war and to avoid future ones. Something my Father knows I would do all I could to accomplish not only for my people, but yours as well."

"Laudable," Rosalind replies with a sympathetic expression for Alexa's pain. "Understandable. And appreciated, even. But not exactly my point. I said you aren't military, not that you didn't serve in the war. I also served my country in the war, but I am not, nor will I ever be, military. I'm a businesswoman, with a variety of outside interests. As soon as the war is laid to rest, I will go back to my other life. You will go back to whatever it is that you plan to do with your life. Whereas military people go back to the military, and prepare for the next conflict."

"Ah yes, I see your point. The defenders never stop defending, even when there is no war. I was given special dispensation, honorary rank of private, in order to be where I was, but I will not go back to serve there. My future has a far different path."

She pauses a beat as they both sip champagne, then she changes the subject. "Cousin? So Prince Aeric calling you Aunt is an honorary title as well, da?"

"Mm," Rosalind assents. "I am King Aeron's cousin, which makes Aeric and me second cousins. I've known him since he was born, though, and he's called me Aunt for many years. He and his sister and cousin would sometimes spend summers at my house."

"You have a very close knit family then, da? Share confidences and such?" She found the Countess interesting, though she was unsure as yet what exactly the woman knew or not. She wished she knew what else to say, but she found herself momentarily at a loss for words. She gently fingered the pearls about her neck, thinking of Aeric.

"I love the ocean," she offered lamely.

Setting her glass aside, Rosalind leans over and pulls off her sandals, leaving them against the wall out of the way of other potential walkers. "We should take a walk down there, then," she asserts with a nod towards the beach.

"Oh, um, okay," Alexa agrees, surprised by the sudden idea. Glancing back towards the crowd, she caught a glimpse of Aeric and Lana, still chatting, through the other guests. She quickly slipped off her shoes, which diminished her height considerably, and padded off after the Countess.

"I'd like to think that we're close knit, but everyone has secrets," Rosalind answers the comment from before, her tone is neutral on that statement, neither warm nor cold. "Being in a position of influence, though, means that it's very hard to be sure who one's friends are. There are so many people out there who are only interested in what they can get, taking advantage of opportunities. Like the reporter with your colleague. He might really be interested in the Major. He might only be after a story. Who knows? Being able to depend on people is hard enough under normal circumstances, but it's harder still when you're a stepping stone on the path to power. It's something everyone in the family deals with. It means we have to depend on each other more, and watch out for each other more. It's probably something you'll have to deal with at some point, too, as the High Kommissar's daughter. That is, unless your father steps down or loses his position some other way."

"Oh, I am sure Papa has no plans to step down, at least not any time soon." If ever, she thought as she held up her skirt to keep from tripping, it was way too long now with her four inches of shoe removed.

[missing posts]

"Hmm…" Rosalind thinks about Alexa's question as she follows up the stairs and locates her sandals. "The only thing I can recommend is to be honest with him. Both when he scews up and when he does something you like. But that would apply to most anyone. And be careful of taking him seriously." Again the wry look passes across her face.

"Thank you, Countess. I appreciate the candour." She smiled and looked about for her glass, which was no where to be found. "I am very excited about the Children's Art Foundation and looking forward to working with you to bring it together." She was smiling and looking about the area at everyone. Seems Aeric and Lana had finished their dance and parted ways. Lana was talking with a young man and Aeric was over by his parents, along with her father.

"Countess, will you allow me to introduce you to my father?" She asked.

Rosalind looks over at the small group that consisted of Aeron, Yuri, and Covington. "I would be delighted to meet your father," she says. "And I don't think you've been introduced to His Majesty yet."

She allows Alexa to lead the way around the edge of the crowd, taking a flute of champagne from a passing waiter as they walk, as though needing something to hold.

She moved throught the crowd towards her father and the King with ease and grace, noticing that Aeric and her mother were also moving towards the men. Once there, she gave the King a curtsy before turning to her Father. "Papa, may I introduce to you the Countess Rosalind Hollingmore. Countess, my Father, Kommisar Yuri Gorodetsky."

"High Kommissar," the Countess gives Yuri a respectful nod as the names are exchanged, her grey eyes keen as she evaluates the current leader of Stovakia in person. "An honor to meet you."

"A great pleasure, Countess," the High Kommissar says with a nod in return.

"And I would present my wife, Reza," he adds as the other woman moves away from Aeric and back over to her husband.

Reza smiled, taking her husband's hand. "Humbled to me you, Countess."

Rosalind shares a nod and a smile with Reza. "You're very kind, Lady," she replies.

Turning back to Alexa the Countess adds, "I'm not sure if you've met His Majesty, King Aeron before. Majesty, Alexandrianna Gorodetsky."

“I am honored to meet you, your majesty,” she says in her softly accented voice as she extends her hand. She could see some resemblance in Aeric to both his parents. And of course the Pearce height was apparent as well. She felt like a Liliputian in comparison.

King Aeron takes her hand gently in his, and with enough of a bow to bring him to eye level, he raises the back to his lips in the lightest of kisses. Standing up again, he tucks her hand around his arm. "And I confess to being charmed," he says, his eyes twinkling. "Can I interest you in a dance?"

"It would be my pleasure, sir." She smiled at him. She did love to dance and it wasn't looking like he was actually going to let her say no, the way he wrapped her arm about his. She glanced over at Aeric who she heard asking the Countess to dance. Then she looked at her Mother and Father for their approval of which, she knew they would not refuse, considering. So with their nods she went with he king to the dance floor.

Those two safely entertained, Rosalind turns back to the others in the group. She gives Covington a smile and a nod, then notices another newcomer lurking in the background.

"Good evening," she says to Ivan. "I don't believe we've been introduced. Please. Come join. The more the merrier." She glances at the Gorodetskies and Covington as she says this, though it's hard to say if she's looking for assent or daring them to disagree.

"Thank you very much Countess it is a pleasure to finally meet you in person," the stranger says as he joins the group. A young-ish Stovakian, tall and well built, but with friendly eyes and an effacing smile. "I believe I have the advantage here. I am Ivan Vygotsky and you must forgive me for looking like a snoop, but I didn’t want to interrupt all of you." His voice is slightly accented, but it is difficult to place, his diction and inflections could almost allow him to pass for a native, except for his name.

"No offense taken, Mr. Vygotsky," Rosalind replies. "Everyone is expected to snoop at events like this. Otherwise there would be no point in attending them."

He laughs at that, then turns to nod to the others. "It is a pleasure to meet you all," he adds.

"Ivan," Aeric said with a nod of his head. He then turned to Rosalind as he had some questions for her now. "Care to dance, Countess? It is always a pleasure to dance with my Auntie."

Rosalind's mouth quirks into a wry smile. "Only if you give me a proper bow," she answers, extending her hand.

Aeric gave Auntie Rozzy a graceful, low bow as he asked her, "May I?" He then came up and hoped that would be sufficient as he took Rosalind's hand. He led her to the dance floor and began to dance with her.

"Graceful as always, Auntie." Aeric let Rosalind decide let Rosalind drive the conversation. He knew she would get to it eventually, probably pretty quick.

Rosalind trades looks with Aeron as they pass close by the other couple, then turns her attention back to Aeric. They dance for a few seconds before she says anything. "My, what a beautiful evening. Perfect for a night of empty conversation."

Aeric smiled at Rosalind as they danced. "You have the most interesting ways to politely criticize," he said.

She laughs a little. "One must first appreciate one's own gifts before they can be developed to their fullest potential."

Rosalind drops her voice. "Or am I to think you had ulterior motives for asking me to dance?"

Aeric twirled Auntie Rozzy. "It is the duty of the Prince to dance with all the beautiful women in attendance. What he may gleam from his Auntie about how she feels about his Stovakian counterpart would be nothing but an added bonus," he said with a smile on his face. Aeric led Rosalind into another turn and then guided her into his arm before guiding back out into the basic ballroom pose once again.

Rosalind follows his lead with the ease of someone who has danced with her partner before many times and knows many of his quirks. "Impatient, as always," she notes once they are again able to speak quietly.

"Yes, well I know you like it direct and to the point."

"I'll summarize, then. Young, idealistic, and moderately reactionary. Charming. Has potential. Does that about cover it?"

Aeric smiled at Rosalind as he took everything in. "Sounds like you've got plans for her already," he says. "Just remember she'll be mine, not yours." He said jokingly trying to keep quiet. "Once I've made her into a proper wife…I mean Queen, then I'll let you mold her a little." Aeric gave a big small knowing it would piss the hell out of her.

"Piffle. What is this 'yours, mine, ours' thing? Would you like a nosering for your cattle?" she replies, giving him a sugary sweet smile. "I don't think I want to wait till you've had your way, anyway. What am I to do with damaged goods? I'm not a miracle worker."

"Nosering? No." Aeric answered her. "But maybe a nipplering. I think that would be fun. Yeah. I'll add that to my list of improvements. Maybe get one of those 2 lb weights too. Thank you Auntie Rozzy." Aeric stopped dancing for a few seconds to give her a big hug.

Rosalind rolls her eyes and the hand on his shoulder moves up so she can tweak his ear with a finger. "Always about the sex," she says with a sigh, though her expression still shows wry amusement. "But I was thinking of something a bit more, oh, say, enlightened. Like guidance."

David politely detached himself from his esteemed companions to continue their comparison of different Operatic styles… frankly, it was more than a little mind numbing. Seeing that the Crown Prince had broken form and hugged the Countess, David seized the opportunity to cut in.

"Forgive me, Your Grace, but I've been waiting years for this opportunity. Would you mind…." He tapped the younger man upon the shoulder, allowing David to step into the proper stance with Rosalind.

"It would have been polite if you had asked," Aeric said to David. "However, I have others I must tend to." Aeric nodded to Rosalind before he steps away.

Rosalind looks a little surprised when Covington pops up, but Aericthe paragon of politenessscolding the other man for rudeness is enough to bring an amused look. "I'll talk to you later, Aeric," she says as he moves away.

Turning back to David, she gives him her hand. "Years?" she questions. "Waiting years for this. Next thing I know, you'll be telling me all about how the thought of coming home to see my smile was all that got you through the dark hours on the front lines."

"No…" he admitted solemnly. "It was the vision of you on the beach when we…" he cut off and whispered something definitely not for public consumption against her lobe.

She laughs, moving back so she can look up into his face again. "Apparently you like to edit out the rather uncomfortable ending to that particular story. Selective story telling."

"My ending is far more interesting…." his eyes reflected a good-natured mischievousness that she had come to appreciate.

Her eyebrows go up, her expression carefully skeptical, but her eyes are bright with amusement. "I'm not sure if I should ask you how your ending differs… but I'm curious. Care to elaborate?"

"For one, I'm not the one that ends up with sand in places it was never meant to be discovered." He returned her arched brow with one of his own.

She giggles, stifling the sound in his shoulder before she realizes what she's doing.

"That's a beautiful sound…" he murmurs.

She blinks, and steps back again, putting a much more polite distance between them. "That's the drawback to beaches, m'dear. Sand, sand, and more sand. You'll have to come up with a different locale to avoid it."

Her gaze finds his for a long moment, and color comes to her cheeks. "I could make a CD for you," she says, her voice momentarily breathy. She clears her throat and adds, "I wonder how much I could make from a CD of one of my lectures on life."

"You really don't want an answer to that, do you?" His smile was good natured. In his eyes, Rosalind could see the simple pleasure he took from just having her in his arms.

In spite of herself, she was enjoying the dance and the banter. Her smile returns. "Oh, I'd donate the money to a good cause, of course. It'd make a great story."

"Dabbling in my realm now, are we?" he teased, knowing how she loathed the press and their never-ending love for stealing people's privacy.

"Hmmm… tempting…" she says, a falsely thoughtful expression passing across her face. "But… no. That would be far too much work. I wouldn't want to give up my decadent lifestyle of ease and luxury."

"True, as delicate as you are…" he agreed with all the mock sincerity he could muster. He spun her a few times before reeling her back into his arms. "You are … " the smile that followed was one of a sheepish boy, "You are beautiful tonight, Rosalind."

She smiles in pleasure at the compliment, and her cheeks turn pink again. "Thank you, David. You're very sweet to say so. And you're looking quite dashing tonight yourself. Enough that you might sweep a woman off her feet before the party's end."

"Only if Luck is as much of a Lady as the one in my arms…" he returned softly, eyes never leaving hers.

She moves closer so she can reply in his ear. "I don't think you need luck, Mr. Covington. Just the right lady," she says. She pauses a moment, then adds, "And there are even a few here to choose from."

"Really…? I hadn't noticed but one… a Vision in Red…" he returned in a breath, his lips brushing against the tender spot where cheek meets ear.

Her eyes close briefly at the caress, and he can feel her shiver, but then she stops dancing. Stepping back, she finds that the flow of movement had brought them to the edge of the group of dancers. Smiling up at him again, her eyes are somehow a little sad. "Thank you for the dance, Mr. Covington," she says, her tone soft. "It was delightful. But I believe I need to mingle some more."

He takes her hand, "Dammit, Ros… can't you just… accept a compliment for what it is without retreating?" His expression was more than a little wounded. Releasing her fingers, he looked down for a moment. "Go." He couldn't make eye contact. She could see the tension in his jaw, the tendon along the right side throbbing.

Rosalind's expression crumples into pained dismay. She hadn't intended to be so abrupt, and now the damage was done. Why couldn't he be a bricklayer or a shoe salesman or something?

"Good night," is all she can say, the words barely audible.

Stuffing his hands into his pockets, "A pleasure as always, Countess," He managed to utter before heading toward the sanctuary of sands and surf.

She takes a step as though to follow as he disappears into the darkness, but stops for a steadying breath and turns back to the party instead. Personal was personal, and business was business.

Looking around, she spots the Duke daVenci nearby. "Good evening, your grace," she says, walking up to him with her smile back in place. "Would you gift me with a dance this evening?"

Robert glanced up when she spoke. He set down the glass he had acquired, the wine forgotten as he smiled for her "Certainly." He offered his arm formally. "And what brings you my way this evening?" he followed with as he led her to the floor.

She wraps her arm around his and accompanies him out to the dance area. "Fascination, of course. Mystery. Excitement. Curiosity. Such as how is it exactly that we're related?" She gives him a sidelong glance with a grin.

He took her into his arms as the next dance began. "It is a bit of a sordid beginning with a happy ending, Milady." He felt he could be a little less formal with her, and allowed her the friendly attentions that she desired. "I am the grandson of Diona, Countess of Osceola and her lover James Edward. They had an illicit daughter named Elanor who married Timothy Robert DaVenci. I am their son. Father was quietly recognized after services rendered. Unfortunately, I was a child when they were both killed in a skiing accident."

He paused a moment, gazing into her eyes as they danced. "And so we come to this point."

Rosalind takes a few seconds to figure that up in her head, accustomed to tallying and storing extended family relations. "That would make us second cousins. Well, then, Robert—may I call you Robert? Welcome to the family." She flashes him an impish smile, and leans in to kiss him on the cheek. "We've missed you at Thanksgiving."

"I must apologize for being a recluse for so much of my time. I enjoy the peace and quiet of being alone." That she picked up the closeness of their relations didn't surprise him, her talent with such was noted. "Robert is fine. Whatever you choose is fime…as long as it is not late for dinner." he quipped with a mischievous grin.

A look of pleased surprise passes over her face as he replies with a joke, and she laughs while he sends her into a spin and puts her through her paces. "You have to understand, we Royals… a bunch of busy-bodies you know. Keeping up with family is a very popular pastime, along with then gossiping amongst ourselves about the latest scandals. Being a recluse has spared you that experience thus far. But now that we know about you…" Her expression turns teasingly wicked as she lets the threat hang.

"Ahh, but the pleasures of being out of the light has certain advantages. One, no pesky Press types interrupting nor servants who pass tales of 'dark and sultry' stories. I never drew upon Mother's holdings and never felt need to. What I have is mine by my own hands. An accident of birth doesn't make one better or worse that someone else. Deeds count." He was enjoying the openness with her. Something that she would probably understand. And keeping things as close to the actual truth was better anyway.

He caught himself before he said more. Better there be mystery for her to discover. The problem was, he caught himself moving to kiss her.

A puzzled look takes brief hold this time at his abortive movement, not enough to communicate anything of the workings of his mind. But it is gone again and she shares with him instead an expression of wry amusement. "You won't have direct disagreement from me. But recall that I had no say in the matter of being born of Matilda and Bleys Montbattan. One makes of one's accidental fortunes what one can… Though you're right, there are many whose starting point in life is far less propitious than others'."

Throwing caution to the wind this time, her perfume bringing a delicious though to him, he kissed her, something soft and something meaningful. And not upon her cheek.

The move surprises her, at least. She pulls back, eyes wide, and she stops to stand stock still and stare at him. Tension marks her entire posture, one hand fisted at her side in the folds of her skirt, the other moving to press against his chest. "We seem to have a misunderstanding, Robert," she says in a quiet voice.

He looks a bit embarrassed, but unrepentant. "Perhaps. I did not mean to take liberties with you. I was caught up in the moment. Forgive me?"

The color rises to her cheeks now, and she looks down, strangely abashed. "That's very flattering. Thank you." She apparently doesn't take compliments well, or perhaps not ones that seem to be sincere. She relaxes again, then looks up again, meeting his eye squarely and with a hint of a challenge in the set of her chin.

Putting her hand back on his shoulder, she looks inquiringly at him whether he will continue the dance. "Life is full of misunderstandings," she comments. "Never mind about one more."

"Then let us start again. I am Robert, and perhaps we can be friends. I mean that. It seems we are both too far away from that need at the moment." He took her back into the dance with much more conservative motion that could not be mistaken for anything more.

She smiles again, looking past him over his shoulder as they dance in silence for a time. Eventually, she replies. "Another healthy boost to my ego," she quips. "The universe refuses to allow me to feel sorry for myself for long. I'm sure I'll soon need a pinprick for my swelling head."

Leaning a little closer, she speaks more quietly in his ear. "But I'm afraid, m'dear, that all other considerations aside, we're much too closely related for anything more than smiles and nods."

"I suggest that we cultivate that friendship and nothing more. Perhaps something just fun. Besides, I feel that you underrate yourself for all you said." He smiled once more for her. "And don't wear that scent: what it did to overcome me was a bit embarrassing for us both."

She giggles quietly. "I'll try to keep that in mind," she says, her voice on the dry side. "And please, I never said so earlier, but you may call me any variant of Rosalind you like. Except Rozzy."

"Then Rose it shall be." He paused a moment and then offered her another small secret. "I raise them when I can find the time. Again, something I do not let known."

"Hmm…" she muses. "Roses by Robert. Maybe there will be an opportunity sometime in the future for me to see these roses you raise. Do you have a favored variety?"

"I enjoy the old garden roses the best They have a delicate beauty and wonderful perfume not often found in modern roses. They have a wonderful fragrance and great winter hardiness." He was warming to his hobby nicely without a thought.

"They are a family that are easy to grow and are found in several shrub and vine sizes. Although colors vary, they are usually white or pastel. They include China Roses, Tea Roses, Moss Roses, Damask Roses, and Bourbon Roses."He paused a moment, blushing. "I am beginning to sound like some florist."

She nods in agreement with his last comment. "Is that a bad thing?" she questions. "You're right. Modern roses, with all the selection for other attributes, no longer have any scent to speak of. It's a pity. Like smelling a delicately shaped piece of cardboard."

He was surprised. A deep and serious appreciation of her entered him. "With my new found duties of late I haven't had time to enjoy them as I should. I think we do have something to share." He looked into her eyes with a certain deeper admiration. "I have been working on an interesting cross breed that has shown the ability to sustain itself as its own sub variant."

The dance ended, so he took her by the hand to the side where a servant was passing with a tray of champaign flutes. He retrieved one for her, then one for himself. "If you don't mind, could I name them after you?"

She accepts the glass with thanks, taking a sparing sip. “Oh, my! Robert, that’s such a sweet thing to ask,” she exclaims. “And we hardly know each other. I would consider it a great compliment if you would do such a thing. Thank you.”

Her voice lowering, she adds with again the wry, yet teasing smile touching her expression, “The businesswoman in me says I should see the product before I agree, but I think I’d prefer to ignore the practical side just this once.”

The strains of a tango start up, and she turns to see Aeric and Alexa begin the opening drama.

"Pardon me a moment," he whispered to her. Then moved off a couple steps away to talk quietly on his phone.

Rosalind nods absently, her attention still caught by the tango for a few more seconds. She scanned the crowd, expecting to see Gwynyth hauling Aeron out to join the dance, but then spotted the Queen engaged instead by chatting with a Stovakian delegate.

She glances over at Robert as he finishes his conversation, waiting to see if he rejoins her or moves along on to some other business.

He returns to her side and offers her his arm once more. "Merely arranging a gift for a friend." He smiled impishly to her. "The price of the gift is simply this dance?"

She blinks at him, with a bemused look. "A gift? And a price?" she questions, taking his arm almost automatically and accompanying him back out into the crowd. "The gift is for me?"

"It shall be here this time tomorrow. And please remember to water them…they are seedlings to start your own garden." He held her eyes as they began to dance.

Rosalind opens her mouth to say something, then shuts it again as he draws her close and begins to lead through the sensual and dramatic steps of the tango. Instead, she gives him a sweet smile, the sort that banishes the lurking sadness in her eyes for a time. "Thank you, Robert," she manages after a few seconds, eyes meeting his steadily as they dance. "That's very kind."

She is silent for some moments, following all the cues of his lead without a hesitation or misstep, her eyes searching his with a faint half-smile touching her lips. "But I have nothing for you," she remarks. "Not even a secret to share. You really must help me find a remedy for this circumstance."

"Perhaps not. Secrets should not matter between friends. I would be honored to help with that if you like? Perhaps over a quiet dinner together?"

It was funny. What he had felt about Isla was fading rapidly. This is a real woman. I need to not fall under her "…enchantment.

Somehow the last word of the thought had escaped his lips and Rosalind's eyes widen again. She laughs lightly. "Robert, dear, I know you said you liked being a recluse, but I have to tell you… you need to get out more." She's teasing him again, perhaps as a way to lighten the conversation.

"Coquetry. An interesting reply to my offer." He softly laughed. "The invitation is serious, however." The dance, as intimately as she had chosen gave him the opportunity to enjoy a certain non committed intimacy. "Perhaps for form's sake I should practice kissing my mirror until you feel me ready?" Two could have fun here.

"Defense mechanisms are legion," she replies, a little more serious, a little more self-deprecating. Someone who is quite aware of her own faults.

"But you present an idea. I can watch you practice your kissingin the mirror; hands work, toowhile we have dinner," she continues without a pause. "Because dinner sounds like a great idea. I would like to join you."

"Let's slip out to the Morpheus. They have private rooms and service so that we can enjoy without unwanted interruptions. Besides, I have seen their cellars. They have an excellent Pinot Grigio that will go with the best Flounder this side of home."

When the dance was finished, he bowed ever so perfectly and formally to her. With a kiss that lingered a moment longer than needed, but deliberately so. "Shall we?" He offered his arm.

She pauses, looking around the gathering for a moment, her hostess habits kicking in momentarily. She could tell, with the eye of someone who had been to more of these sorts of events than one ever wanted to even think about, that things were going to break up soon. Everyone would be left to their own devices. But then she remembers, she's not running this party. Thank the gods. With a grin to herself, she hooks her arm through his. "I haven't been there yet, so lead on…"

***

Re: Hotel dei Fiori - Morpheus (restaurant) by Robert daVenci

He entered with Lady Hollingmore on his arm. Spotting the Maitre D', he spoke. "A private room and a bottle of your finest champagne?"

The man nodded politely and had a server take them to a small room, well-appointed, intimate and private. A candle was on the table. He pulled her chair out for her. "Rose?"

She looks around the restaurant with interest as they both walk in, curious to take in the new surroundings. "Thank you," she says as he holds her chair, sitting getting comfortable as he goes to his own chair.

"Would you consider it, ah, provocative if I let my hair down? Literally," she asks, arching an eyebrow at him.

He smiled. "Figuratively or actually. Feel free, I won't tell anyone." He was hoping the light tone might express his desire to simply enjoy the time with her with no strings attached.

She grins, turning a little in her chair so she can lean over and pull the pins out. "I'm just checking," she says as her hair tumbles down and she runs her fingers through it a couple times to tame it a little. "Gods, I detest parties. Anyway, I don't want to give the impression I'm trying to seduce you or whatever you want to call it. Men like hair and all…"

A server in a sharp uniform appears with their champagne, as well as a carafe of water. Filling all the appropriate glasses, he lays down menus in front of them, then departs quickly.

"I will admit to that myself. After all, you do have beautiful hair. He was lucky, your husband." It was not flattery, merely a statement of fact. He lifted the champaign flute. "To beautiful things. Roses and the morning sun. And what friendship should be."

Rosalind lifts her glass in the toast, taking a drink. "Mmm. Very fine," she comments, setting it down again. She props an elbow on the table and leans her head on her hand, seeming utterly relaxed. She opens the menu and begins perusing the listed items.

"Have you ever been married? In a long-term relationship? That sort of thing?" she asks.

He replied with a slightly wistful air. "No, I am afraid not. It seems that with what I do, I have had no time to get serious. An occasional date or two, but otherwise." He shrugged slightly.

About this time a waiter arrived and waited until there was a break before speaking. "Milady, Sir. Would you like tonight's appetizer to start with? It is Avocado Shrimp Ceviche-Estillo Sarita. It is shrimp marinated in lime juice to cook, then mixed with tomato, cilantro, onion and a special sauce. I do recoomend it highly."

Rose looks up, listening to the description and nodding. She gives Robert an inquiring look. "I'll try just about anything once."

Looking back at the waiter, she shuts her menu and hands it to him. "In fact, just bring me something. I'm sure it will be delicious."

Robert spoke. "I was serious about the Flounder Mediterranean." He nodded to the waiter. Two please. And Pinot Grigio to go with it as well."

When she looked at him over his choice he explained. "It is baked with fresh tomatoes, kalamata olives, capers, onion, and white wine. Served with white rice and a green vegetable. Almost as good as mine and definitely the best here."

She nods in assent. "Almost as fine as yours?" she chuckles. "Sure, sure."

He merely shrugs at the tease about his culinary skills while pulling a card from the Le Cordon Bleu. He tosses it on the table lightly. The certifications showed his ranking as a three star chef. Remembering what he had to do to accomplish that for his cover, although difficult, had many side bonuses.

She waits while the waiter leaves, then continues with her thought. "And what do you do, that affords you so little time?" she asks. "Are your roses so demanding?"

The answer was patently simple. "I work for Uncle Aeron running security for the Royal events." That there was another side pulled at him that he couldn't tell her, but then…perhaps later.

She picks up the card, leaning back in the surprisingly comfortable chair to study it with furrowed brows. Her eyes flick back to him as he explains his purpose at the event. "So… you're a 3-star chef who raises roses and is a security expert?" she clarifies. She hands the card back to him. "Or you're a security expert who raises roses and likes to cook?"

"You dance like a noble, you're obviously educated, and your manners are almost perfect." She touches her lips with a finger, his kiss so far the only breach in conduct - one that is easily forgiven, to judge by the warm smile she gives him. "What a combination! You really ought to find some time to get serious. For the sake of single women everywhere."

He laughed. "Serious. Perhaps that is the problem. Too serious for the sake of single women." He gave her a feigned look of remorse. "As to imperfect manners, are you offering to train me?"

He found his eyes drifting to hers, masking a certain concern. A vision of Isla and an evening not too distantly past and then the pain he caused her on the beach. The guilt rose like a slow tide, slowed only by something about Rosalind that should not be there. Why don't they train us against this? Call the class 'Overcoming Emotional Failure 101'.

"Security is why I am here. Some, like my counterpart, play too much hands on. That's for amateurs. Having a properly trained and vetted team behind you allows for the simple amenities. Like occasional sleep and meals."

The appetizer arrived, granting a moment of respite. Waiting for the waiter to leave, Robert took the first on his salad fork and raised it to her lips. "Shall we enjoy?"

Rose leans in and takes the offered first bite, savoring the flavors with a look of concentration as she looks into the middle distance. "Mmm… Just… about perfect," she finally pronounces. Unfolding her napkin, she lays it across her lap, and spears a another shrimp onto her own fork, sitting back in her chair to enjoy the flavors and the company.

"As to training you, I think not. Been there. Done that. Saw the movie," she says, her tone light, but with a faint underlying tension. "But it might be that your counterpart is more… mm… hovery because the High Kommissar is here," she comments. "She is his only daughter; people aren't always exactly reasonable or impartial about things concerning their children's safety."

He bites back the retort about over protective that had popped into his mind. Without children of his own, he realized that such a dark comment might not go over well. "It is surprising that they would not send another in his place in that circumstance," he says instead. Over protective leaves a large blind spot should someone choose to make her a target. Or a way to get to him."

She looks up at the brief pause. "I meant the High Kommissar might have given different orders," she clarifies. "Surely he has as many resources in personnel to keep watch over the rest as you do. What is lost in having the best watch her?"

"Nothing provided he remembers that he is there as protection, not her father. The two roles together are a bad combination."

She starts to say something. Stops. Takes a breath. "I can't speak impartially on the topic," she says at last. She spears another shrimp and eats it slowly.

Remembering about Lucian's death, he felt a certain sense of loss. "I think that losing someone would change one's perspectives. Losing my parents when I was so young didn't leave me much to compare it to. I think back to people that brought me into this world and yet there is nothing there. A hole with no answers."

He paused, setting his fork down. "Perhaps that is why I chose this line of work. Protecting others. For all my training, I would have made one hell of a poor soldier."

Robert takes a drink after offering a silent toast to her, then feels his phone vibrate in his pocket. "Excuse me a moment," he says, pulling out and looking at the screen. He touched the alarm then tapped a couple keys in response. "My apologies. Duty called and I had to answer a question."

Rosalind waits quietly through the pause, taking a sip of her own drink while her thoughts linger on things better put aside for a pleasant evening. "No apology necessary," she says offhandedly. "Duty first."

"Perhaps another line of conversation would be more appropriate?" he suggests as he returns his phone to his pocket.

She raises her glass in a return salute, bringing a small smile back to her face. "I'd toast the future, except I don't really see much in mine," she admits, and then looks shocked that the words had just come out of her mouth.

She sets her champagne glass down sharply, sloshing the liquid inside. "Excuse me, what would you prefer to talk about?"

Robert realizes if he said what came into his mind at that moment, it would be wrong. Except I don't really see much in mine. He reaches over and takes her hand carefully into his. His eyes clouded a moment before he could speak. "Understand that I can make no promises other than friendship. But I would treasure that deeply."

Rose allows the handclasp, curling her fingers around his hand and squeezing for a few seconds. "Thank you, Robert," she says quietly, looking down at their hands. "I appreciate your forthrightness. Friends… can be challenging. To find. To keep. I don't mind finding another one."

Shortly the servers returned. One cleared the remains of the appetizers while another poured the wine. The champagne was set to the side but not removed. The delicious aroma of the flounder wafted gently to the palates.

"I see they have a certain sense of timing." He grinned, a boyish look softening his face. "Shall we?"

She nods, her expression turning from wistful to resolute as she looks up and meets his gaze. "That's enough of that," she says, her voice firm. "We have food, wine, company… Good enough."

Picking up her dinner fork, she takes a bite of her flounder and offers the first taste to him this time. He takes the proffered bite and chews slowly, enjoying the fish. He rolled his eyes in appreciation before he swallowed.

"It's decent." He laughed at his teasing. "No, perhaps another word befits…" He offered her a bite from his fork.

She also samples the savory dish, closing her eyes to better experience it. "Mmmm…. heavenly, I would say," she offers, "though I'm no expert." She laughs with him, settling back in her seat once more and attending to the next bites with her own fork.

"You don't, by chance, play tennis, do you?" she asks.

"I have played. Nothing in your class I am afraid," he admits. " But I suppose I could find a racket and enjoy a thorough beating around the court." He was an athlete; a matter of need for this job.

She leans back and laughs, putting her fork down and dabbing her mouth with a napkin. "Goodness! Even tennis! What can't you do, Robert? Your perfection just keeps keeps increasing!"

He was embarrassed. "Playing for fun in school is not the same thing. I have ridden horses, but does that make me an equestrian?" He took a sip of the wine as he composed himself. "No, Milady. I am not perfect and know my limits."

He chuckled softly for her alone. "After you thoroughly embarrass me on the court tomorrow, I will get my revenge. Do you bowl?" The suggestion given in jest, was also a bit of embarrassment self-inflicted. He had never bowled in his life.

"Uh… hmm… Well, I have once or twice," she admits, enjoying some of the steamed vegetables. "Granny style, you see. With bumpers. Does that count?"

He laughed. "Damn. I thought I had you that time. I have never in my life bowled, Granny or otherwise." He took a few mannered bites. "So we have perhaps found something to learn together?"

"I have to admit, not the first thing I would have thought of," she replies, still chuckling. She finishes a last sip of wine. "But it sure sounds like an adventure. You're on."

Somehow they found themselves near the end of the Main Course. The Wait staff entered and cleared the table and then a woman bearing a dessert tray entered. "Perhaps something to finish the evening?"

Robert smiled in offering Rose to decide.

"Something that involves more chocolate than any one person has reason to think about," she says with decision and without pausing to consider it. "I haven't had anything like that in, oh, hours. Maybe even days!"

The server smiles and points out two selections. "The first we have is the Fudge Truffle Cheesecake, It is a fluffy chocolate cheesecake over a chocolate cookie crust. Decorated with chocolate-dipped fruit. The second is the Chocolate Cappuccino Cheesecake. It is 'sinfully rich and velvety smooth'."

"The fudge truffle cheesecake for me. Unless you'd like to share?" she inquires with a look at Robert. "Then you'd get a say, too."

He nods in agreement. "One large piece with two forks, please."

Rosalind moves the candle out of the center of the table so that the server could put the plate between them. Coffee is poured and they're left alone again.

She picks up her fork, giving him a mischievous smile as she cuts a small piece off with her fork. "How long have you been working in security?" she asks, changing the subject. "That probably involves a lot of travel, going hither and yon where you're needed?"

"Promise to keep a secret?" he teased. "I am not quite the youngster I am purported to be. His Magesty knows and I will share that detail with you. I have been in the security business in all its tawdry forms for over nine years. I was twenty eight when I started."

Seeing her confusion, and knowing she had seen his 'file' and that the ages did not add up. "I am a couple years older than stated, and a few other details have been altered. I offer this in good faith." He took a gold plated Cross pen from his jacket and a small pad from which he pulled one sheet. Writing a number and one name, he handed it to her. "Keep this. Better yet, memorize it then destroy it."

The number was an international phone number, the name his own.

She picks up the paper, looking at the writing, her face turning to a thoughtful frown as she savors a bite of the cheesecake. "So many secrets," she murmurs. "I don't know, Robert. I'm forced to live in front of the lights and in front of everyone. But it seems to me that maybe a life of so many secrets can't really be that much better."

She puts her fork down and folds the paper, slowly and methodically, making sure the edges of the paper lined up exactly. Either extremely anal, or a way to draw out the activity.

"I'm afraid it is all I have ever had. Not much to share and damned lonely. I would truly enjoy giving it up and raising my roses. All the other a memory to forget. Life doesn't give us the opportunity to change what we are very often."

The corners of his mouth went down a moment, something unspoken upon his face, a certain truth. "I would walk from it. Like you, born into what I am and not seeing a way out."

"We're both getting morose," she notes, her wry smile returning. "Really, my life isn't all that bad. I shouldn't complain. I'm sure there are plenty of people who would insist I have it golden. Cousin to the King, you know. You have to figure out how to make it positive. It's the only way to survive and thrive."

Her expression changes then, a tangential thought coming to her. "I do want to ask you something, though, before I forget. About my other cousin."

He looked away and back. "I suppose you are right. Ask away. Which cousin?"

She shrugs. "Everyone creates different coping mechanisms," she replies. "And Isla."

She pauses to carefully break another piece of cheesecake off with her fork. "What's your interest in her?"

He felt a pain there and needed a couple moments to answer. Honesty was all he could offer, and in pain he did. "Isla. I found myself wanting her, then falling deeply for her. Something I have been trained against and yet it happened. I thought that I could get past what is hurting her, that perhaps the feeling was mutual. You probably saw what happened earlier with that idiot Zaitzev. He pushed her and I took offense. When she left, I went after her to comfort her. Instead I made a fool of myself and earned her hatred I am afraid." He paused with a certain bitterness boiling up. "Perhaps it would have been easier if I had simply killed him later."

He looked into Rose's eyes. "I never meant to hurt her."

She nods in agreement. "Certainly. But don't beat yourself up too much about it. We all make mistakes, and Isla is the nexus of an disproportionate number of them. Unless you've known her a lot longer than I'm aware of - and I can't keep up with all the men that wander through her life - you haven't had enough time to cause her great hurt."

She grimaces. "If you really do want her, it'll take time and patience. She is… She'll lash out at you, push you away. And it may not be possible at all."

He shook his head. "I am afraid not. I knew of the pitfalls that she represents. She has only loved one man in her life and she cannot get past him. How I know doesn't matter. My ignorance in things of the heart caused something irreparable between us."

He looked to Rose, apprising what he thought she might say before he spoke again. "Friendship is far safer I think. I do not know if I can love after what happened."

She looks up from the cheesecake at him, smiling a little, her eyes kind. "I have to remind myself that you've not had a strong relationship before," she says. "I don't mean to belittle what you're saying, Robert. Really, I don't. It's just hard to consider a week-long crush and heartache with that particular cousin as grounds for giving up love. The safer option, sure, but one you might want to experiment with more before making that decision."

A profound sadness comes to her face then, and her gaze moves beyond him, into the past. "Besides, Isla's problems are a lot more complex than a lost love, no matter how strong or painful that might be for her."

"I suppose my puritanical upbringing blinds me to too many things that others can see," he comments. " I am not sure I can endure that kind of pain. At least not without a light at the end of it to say there was something worth pushing for. But enough of my problems. May I ask one of you now?"

She pulls herself back to the present with an effort. "Certainly," she says. "I've cross-examined you enough. Turn about."

"Why did you never remarry?" The question was painful in asking and would probably be more so for her. He knew of both husband and son and could surmise the pain of those losses: a part of her forever lost and beyond her control. "What I mean is, you ask that I keep an open mind and yet I cannot see that path."

Rose's jaw clenches, and her eyes grow dark. She is silent again for several seconds, drawing in a deep breath and releasing it slowly as she looks down at the plate between them.

"There are a few reasons," she says, her voice almost too soft to hear. She stops and clears her throat before she continues in a more normal tone, her words even and measured. "The first and most important to me was Lucian. He wasn't even 10 when Jon died, and I made it my priority not to lose track of him in our grief. So often, grief can tear people apart instead of drawing them together. I couldn't -"

Her voice chokes off and she draws another sharp breath before she continues, her tone becoming even again. "I couldn't bear the thought of, of losing him." She looks up. "The second reason was finding the right person. Love isn't easy to find, even for people who have it all. Jon is a hard act to follow, and really… I'm not easy to live with."

She shrugs a little, painfully nonchalant. "And the third reason is, no one's asked me."

He knew he had touched a deep sadness, but it was not by intent to inflict pain. "I am sorry. I never knew my parents and was raised in a rather difficult way. I have seen friends that have not come back. I have killed in my job, knowing full well that in doing so I had deprived someone of a person that they perhaps loved. It haunts me."

"I am serious when I say I would give it up. The terminate a target: the knowing that a 'target' is flesh and blood. Perhaps a wife and children that are left behind for some greater perceived good." He looked at his hands as he continued. "Do not ask why, or who or how many. One is too many. It eats at the soul no matter what some priest says when asking absolution after."

He looked back to her, pain in his eyes. "Do not be so sure that someone will not ask you one day, Rosalind Hollingmore."

Her eyes widen at his statement, color showing in her cheeks in the dim light of the restaurant. She laughs lightly then. "Oh, I'm not worried about that so much," she says, answering his statement if not his intent. "Anything's possible."

Her mind turns to another conversation with another man, though, and she becomes serious. She turns her gaze back to Robert, intent. "But a word to the wise, Robert. As things stand with you now, it wouldn't be wise to consider serious relations with anyone of the family Pearce. Aeron is quite conservative about such things."

He shrugged. "If it needed done, a way could be found."

His eyes lit up, changing the subject. "By the way, how many points are you spotting me on the court tommorrow?"

Rose won't be diverted just yet, ignoring his question. "I'm serious, Robert."

His eyes were cold after this comment. "I believe I offered friendship. If our discussion gave you thoughts that I meant other, then forgive me. Perhaps we should call it a night?" Enough emotional rollercoasters. Right now he needed time alone. To think. Alone.

She sits back in her seat with a sigh. "Yes, probably wise," she agrees, wiping her lips a final time with her napkin and setting it on the table next to her plate. She looks suddenly weary. "Thank you for dinner. It really was lovely."

He stood, helped her from her chair. He managed a weak smile for her. "I gave my word. I am here for you. No matter what level you decide. Shall we?" He offered his arm to her formally. After all, it was still his duty to ensure her safety.

She nods, not saying anything more on the subject, taking his arm and allowing him to escort her out of the restaurant after picking up the folded piece of paper and tucking it away. But she stops once they step outdoors. "I think I want to take a walk on the beach now."

Though the word isn't stated, it hangs in the air between them. Alone.

He stops short, searching her face, and then just nods. "As you wish. But should you need me…."

"I know where I'll find you, yes. Thank you again, Robert."

With a last nod, Rosalind leaves daVenci and everything else behind, drawn toward the sound of surf and the darkness broken by starlight. She pulls off her sandals at the edge of the sand, carrying them carelessly by their straps as she heads toward a small group of lounge chairs set by the water's edge.

Lilting upon the wind was the familiar sound of a reporter dictating notes. In the distance, beneath the silvery kiss of the full moon, Rosalind could barely make out the image of a form straddling a beach chair overlooking the tide.

"Congenial relations between Pearces' and Gorodetskys'."

"FC Cassanova gave a poignant and moving opening speech welcoming the delegates."

"Reporters behaved and acted like they actually know how to act in public." The last brought a chagrined chuckle.

She pauses, hesitating. More company was not exactly what she had been looking for. Still…. She stands for a few moments, studying his outline in the faint light. Working. Typical. He worked too much. For that matter, so did she.

Moving forward quietly, she approaches until she's within comfortable speaking range, her steps in the soft sand muffled by the lapping of the waves. She clears her throat. "Um… would you mind some company?"

He glanced over his shoulder. "Of course, Countess, though… the accommodations are a bit lacking." He rose, dusting the sand off the matching chair and placing his coat upon the back of her chair before offering her a hand to assist her to sitting down.

"To what do I owe the pleasure?" he asked, shutting off the recording application on his phone and stuffing it into his pants pocket.

"An apology," she answers, taking his hand and allowing him to help her sit, dropping her sandals in the sand next to the chair. Leaning back, she looks up into his face. "I have a difficult time knowing how to act with you. I'm sorry I was… abrupt. Impolite. Inconsistent. Or any other descriptor you'd prefer."

"There is nothing to apologize for, Countess," David answers, trying to keep his voice cordial. "I overstepped my … compliment." His eyes were cast out into the ocean.

"But I don't understand you, Rosalind," he continues in a frustrated tone. "You can giggle on the dance floor about our escapades and yet when I give you a sincere compliment… you turn into the Ice Queen."

He sighs, leaning back in his chair as well, forcing tension from his shoulders. "What are we even doing here?"

She studies his profile again for some moments as he looks out over the lagoon, and then turns also to stare at the mesmerizing waves. "We're working. As always. You have your job. I have mine." She pushes her loose hair back away from her face, wishing for a drink of something strong.

"I don't understand myself, David," she admits. "It's no wonder you're in the dark, too. I - it's just - I'm so comfortable around you. I have a hard time remembering formality."

He chuckles. "Is that an asset or a detriment to our … working relations?"

"Judging by recent experience? A detriment," she replies.

"And where does that leave … us, Rosalind?" His eyes left the solace of the licking waves to take in her profile.

Rosalind's face pinches in dismay, and she doesn't turn to face him right away. "I… What do you want me to say? What do you want? You know - " She breaks off and now she looks at him. "You've never told me. I guess I've never asked."

He just stares at her for a moment. "You… you really don't know, do you?" he asked softly.

He swung his leg over so that he could face her. "I wanted to … " He heaved a sigh. "You. I want you, Rosalind. Not the Countess. Just you."

She smiles into his eyes, the gentle and sweet smile he knows and loves. "Thank you, David. That's so touching," she says, her voice warm and full of emotion. But then her smile fades a little. "But it's a package deal, you know. You can't separate me from the Countess."

"That's not what I mean, Ros." He shook his head, "I just… don't know how to tell you that I want YOU… not the title and the trappings. Tell you and have you believe me."

"It's not that I don't believe you, dear," she says softly, sitting up and turning to face him as well. She lightly strokes his hand with a finger. "I do, I think. It's just that… well, geez David. Have you ever heard of a thing called conflict of interest?" Her lips quirk into a smile, half teasing.

He shook his head, chuckling softly. "I trust my integrity and objectivity…" His fingers knit together, elbows resting upon his knees. Eyes went to the sand, stealing glimpses of her as he waited for her answer.

She laughs. "Well, but you should already know that I'm completely untrustworthy. Why do you suppose I hate having reporters nosing around in my affairs? They might find out what I'm really up to!"

"What do you need me to do, Ros? What do you want? Am I anywhere in that vision?"

She becomes serious again. It wasn't fair to make him suffer because of her own insecurities. "What do I want…" she echoes the question. She falls into thought, looking down and away towards the water again, thinking.

"I don't have a vision anymore, David," she finally says, her voice soft and almost distant. "For so long, I lived for Lucian. Through Lucian. He was my life, David. Probably not so healthy, I know, but that was how I was able to put the pieces together after Jon died."

Tears gather in her eyes, and she wipes them away irritably. Looking back at Covington again, she visibly gathers herself. "I want you to be in my life, David," she admits, her voice steady. "It's just that… you so love what you do, and I can't live with a reporter. It's really that simple."

He rose, pulling his coat from the back of her chair and wrapping it around her shoulders. "So, I write travel blogs. Or I retire. Let you be my Sugar-Momma." He knelt before her, wiping the moisture from her cheeks with the silk kerchief tucked in his coat pocket.

"If that is the biggest of your concerns…" he shrugs, "it's an easy choice."

"You? Retire?! Your head would explode within a week, m'dear," she points out, pulling the jacket closer about her shoulders and inhaling his scent. She catches herself leaning towards him and stops, though she doesn't draw away. "For that matter, even if you survived your own boredom, I'd probably be ready to kill you!"

"Perhaps, but I've never done anything in my life half-way. I would make a fine 'Man of Leisure'." He grinned, a finger tracing the delicate line of her jaw. "Come on, Ros, what have we got to lose?"

"Sanity," she answers promptly with a smile. "Since I'll be at leisure, too. Now that Lucian is gone," she manages to say that with only a small hitch, "the Hills and the winery will be passing over to the Brandts. I already told Dan and Charlie that I'm stepping down. I really hope they don't rename the Hills. Brandt Hills just doesn't have the same ring."

She pauses just a second, then adds, "But what about this? You're still at the Peace Accord on the job. As am I. What if we table the discussion for now, and come back to it when we're both more free to consider long-term commitments? But we'll table it at—" She makes air quotes. "Rosalind and David want to give a real relationship a go."

"Is that what you want?" he asked, cupping her face with his hand.

"Which?" she asks. "Tabling it, or a relationship? The first, not so much. But it would make me more comfortable. The second…" She leans over and kisses him.

His lips trapped her, savoring the night's enjoyment left upon them. His kisses continued for countless minutes, "Can I quote you on that, Countess?" His mirthful boyish grin lit his eyes.

"You're incorrigible," she answers with a grin. The fingers of one hand tease the hair brushing the collar of his shirt. "But you do have your little memo recorder on your phone there. Would you like some proof for later use?"

His hand dipped into his pocket, retrieving the mobile device. "Will this be audio or video?"

She straightens on the edge of her chair, running her fingers through her hair and pushing it behind her ears. She's trying to smother a grin, though it can't be completely suppressed. "Video," she says as she tidies her hair and then pulls the straps of her dress down off her shoulders. "It's more incriminating that way. I aim to please, ya know."

"Who am I to deny you such an opportunity to be incriminated," he sat up, holding the screen and waiting for her signal to being recording.

Adjusting her seat, she pulls up her skirt to reveal one pale leg up to the hip. "And do you have anything in particular you'd like me to say on the record?" she asks him with her eyebrows raised innocently in inquiry.

David cleared his voice, putting on his 'reporter' persona. "Countess, sources indicate that at the conclusion of the Peace Accords that you would be interested in exploring new ventures with a Mr. David Covington. Kindly comment upon this statement indicating the validity of its contents."

Rosalind clasps her hands in her lap as she considers the statement with a thoughtful expression on her face. "I am authorized at this time to confirm the rumors regarding interest in collaborating with Mr. Covington. I'm always interested in investigating new opportunities, and Mr. Covington looks like a promising investment. My people have done extensive research on him that indicates a fairly stable and likeable personality, exquisite taste for the finer things in life, and considerable prowess in bed."
His hearty laugh could not be contained. Holding the device to the side, he attacked her mouth, kissing and laughing and kissing some more. "I am so glad that I meet your requirements, Countess."

"But," he kissed some more, "Must we wait until after the Accords."

As the exuberance of the first kisses begins giving over to deeper passion, she runs her hands over his shoulders and down his arms. Reaching his hands, she pulls away so she can take the phone from his hand. It's not immediately apparent how to stop recording or turn it off. "I think we've been incriminating enough," she says, trying to catch her breath even as his nearness stole it away. "But yes," she answers his question then. "I need to… well, I guess it depends on what we're waiting on."

"Finding out how many places sand can be discovered in?" he asked with innocence while his eyes were anything but.

Her gaze turns from the phone to him, and she blinks a moment. "You wouldn't," she says.

"Wouldn't I?" His hands slide long her thighs. His movements were quick, tackling her into the sand.

She stifles a shriek against his shoulder, not wanting to bring security running to intervene. Hair flies everywhere as they sprawl into the sand together. As advertised, she immediately fancies she can feel sand creeping into every fold of her gown and down her back. She squirms a little, but it's only a token resistence, laughing up at him. "Alright, Mr. Covington," she manages after a few seconds. "Now what?"

Playfully, he cupped a handful of sand, drizzling it over her abdomen. "It seems that you are indeed in a precarious situation…"

She looks up at him, searching his face in the dim light, her lips still curved in a faint smile. "Precarious, but not entirely hopeless," she says. "Remember, I know your weaknessess." The tips of her fingers lightly tease the ticklish spots on his sides, just enough to make him flinch.

He wiggled and giggled and fought to find her rib cage. When her damnedable fingers relentlessly dug into her sides, he covered her mouth with his.

She sighs as he covers her body and mouth, her hands no longer teasing, drawing him close. Her mouth opens under his, inviting him deeper as her hands find their way under his shirt and caress

He was lost in the eternal moment of feeling her beneath him, her hands caressing his skin, the sound of the waves licking at the shore. Countless heartbeats pass before passion wanes on the side of prudence.

"I lied." he began, fingers twining a piece of her hair, "You are more beautiful now then I've ever seen."

She chuckles breathily. "You just like sand, I think," she whispers back. "Or mussed up hair. But you against a starry sky… now that's art." She pulls him in for another kiss, much more chaste. "I think I'd best go back to my room…"

"I am happy to escort you anywhere…" he returned softly.

Her smile gets wider, and she traces circles on his chest. "Of that, I have no doubt, m'dear. But it probably would be better if I found my own way. Willpower does have limits. I could use some help getting sand off my back before I go, though."

"Anything for a member of the Royal Family," he returned, rising from the beach and offering her his hands.

She stands back up with his assistance, and shakes her skirt to clear it of as much sand as possible while he attends to her back. Fluffing her hair a bit, it's easy to see she would need a good shower before bed, if she wanted to sleep without feeling crunchy with sand.

"You're such a good sport, Mr. Covington. I can see how you'll need to be rewarded one of these days. I'll have to think on that."

"I am a public servant, nothing less, Countess," he bowed deeply before offering his arm to her.

Rosalind returns his bow with a proper curtsey, keeping her expression serious. Then she retrieves her sandals before curling her hand around his arm. "I think we can take care of that," she says. "I'm looking for a more personal servant."

"Should such an opportunity avail itself, I would be happy to consider moving to the private sector," he returned as innocently as his grin would allow.

She laughs as they walk through the soft sand. "Not too private, I'm afraid. You realize how much hounding we're going to be in for if we really do get serious?"

"Not from my colleagues. Of course, I cannot speak for the riff-raff you engage in."

She tilts her head, sending him a wry smile. "Whatever you say, dear."

Then a thought pops into her head and her eyes brighten. "Actually, I can see advantages here. Jon was always very good at keeping the press distracted and at a distance. There are a couple things that never went out because of him. Maybe having you around will be a boon. You should know plenty of tricks to use."

"Tricks?! My dear Lady, mine is not of Smoke and Mirrors or Sleight of Hand!" His exclamation was filled with mock dismay.

"Then what else can you offer?" she asks as they reach the south door of the hotel near the restaurant. Rosalind isn't inclined to go back to the terrace all mussed and sandy.

"A gift for poetry and …" he leaned in and whispered something that most assuredly was not privy to public consumption.

She laughs, a faint blush made visible by the artificial lights where they now found themselves. "It's things like that which make me think you're not so keen on putting things off," she comments softly as they pass indoors and head to the elevators. "Maybe I should have left you on the beach after all."

"Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder…" Damn, there was something about her giggle that sent shivers through his body. "Isn't that how the adage goes?"

She looks up at him with wide-eyed innocence in her eyes. "Is that how it's really supposed to go? That's so helpful!" The hallway is deserted and quiet, only the faint sounds of the dying reception filtering back to them. She pushes the button on the elevator in the west wing. "Then all I have to do is play hard to get indefinitely?"

David leads her discreetly into the lift, cleverly pushing all the buttons from top to bottom before reaching her floor number. He turned, closing distance and pinning her form into the corner of the tiny lift. "I'm not the one that has insisted that we wait until this little convention is over," his words cascaded around her in a husky growl.

"You are so right, though you never actually agreed, did you?" she purrs, voice soft and seductive. She smiles up at him, making no effort to move away. He was tantalizing her, and she didn't mind letting him know that she wanted him.

He propped his arm above her head, caging her in with his form. His free hand traced a single line from her ear to the divot of her collarbone. "I'm afraid I do not recall the events that led to that accord, Countess…"

Her breath catches, but she waits with her eyes locked with his as the elevator stops at the top floor and the doors slide open. There's a pause, and they shut again. "Mmm… Short-term memory loss is one of the first signs of approaching dotage," she replies, voice still soft, one hand moving to trace his jaw with her fingers. "Fortunately, mental acuity runs in my family."

His fingers find a few locks, twining them together. "Then it is a good thing that you are the other contributing member of this accord… at least one person to keep us honest." His head dipped in tandem with the elevator, finding the sensitive spot just below the earlobe.

Her eyes close and she swallows heavily as his lips touch her skin. He can easily feel her heartbeat galloping as he presses against her. "David," she breathes, half admonition, half sigh of desire. "You are… not playing fair." She chuckles.

"I didn’t know there were rules…" his words are felt as lips brush against skin.

"They're probably guidelines more than rules," she temporizes as the elevator reaches the next floor. No one interrupts them there, either, and the door slides closed again. She turns her head, shifting somewhat to the side so she can look at him, their heads close, lips almost touching. "It's handy that you have proof of my intentions safely recorded on your phone. Otherwise we might need to renegotiate."

A single finger traced the delicate line of her jaw. "Are you so sure…? Technology is not infallible…"

The fingers at his neck steal into his hair, weaving into his locks to feel the silky texture. "Problems are usually caused by operator error," she points out even as she finally closes the tiny distance between them and claims his lips in a sensuous kiss.

"I was…" he melted into the softness of her lips, "… never…". An arm snaked around her waist, pulling her closer, "…good…" Gods above, how he loved the feel of her against him… "…with gadgets."

It seemed like they could kiss forever. She leans into him willingly, her arms finding their home around his back and caressing his shoulders. If I could just have a tiny corner of life to call my own right now… Some dim corner of her mind registers, just barely, when the elevator stops at the fourth floor, the doors opening and shutting. Her floor was next.

But her gut told her she was in deep. Teasing and tantalizing was all well and good, but she didn't know if at this point she could stop as she had planned. All she wanted right now was to have him. Unexpectedly, her grief and loneliness well up, and suddenly her face is wet with tears.

"I've summoned a great many responses; but tears… I'd have to say this is the first." Hands moved to cup her cheeks, thumbs smoothing away her emotion. "Ros, what's the matter? Let me comfort you, ease your burden." The volume with which he spoke had not changed, only the tone with which the words flowed from him. Little more than a breath earlier his voice was husky and full of passion; now, it was infused with deep concern. He peered deeply into her eyes, "I'm here… not going anywhere."

She stares back at him, unable at first to say anything. Instead, she moves close and puts her head on his shoulder. There was something indescribable about being held. "It's not you, it's" she breaks off when the elevator chimes to announce the third floor. Funny, she hadn't even heard the bell for any of the other floors. "This is my floor, David. I I need to—" The doors open again.

"What you need… is to not be alone." If he could take all her fears and insecurities at that moment, he would. His eyes never left hers, "We'll get you ready for bed and I'll just stick around until you fall asleep." He whispered to her ear as he held her close. "Nothing more than to give you a place to … be Ros. In the shadows, where no one can see or pass judgment."

She smiles wistfully as they step off the elevator together. It was a lovely thought, but she knew better, even if he didn't want to admit it. She felt herself treading on thin ice already, and when they reach her door, she stops without pulling out her keycard. Leaning into his embrace again, she feels herself relax utterly. It was a nice feeling. She basks in the sensation for a long moment before shaking her head. "You're right, and I so appreciate the offer, David, but I really can't do that. And you know it. But… can I take a rain check on the offer?"

"Ros…" he started, but he knew by the look in her eyes that there was no sense in attempting to convince her otherwise. He sighed, pressing a tender kiss to her forehead, his lips lingering. "Call me if you need to. Without question. Coffee, Bocce ball, whatever you need to unwind. Neither one of us will survive if we're expected to be 'ON' 24/7." Tipping her lips to his, he merely brushed them together before taking a step back.

She smiles at the parting caress, placing her hand against his cheek, her fingers unexpectedly finding the new scar on his temple. "Thank you, dear," her words are simple, the tone and her eyes conveying what the offer means. "I do want to talk with you. I've missed you. Take care, and have a good night."

Pulling out her keycard, she unlocks her door.

He waits for her to close the door behind her before departing.

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