It was easy for Milan to keep himself occupied at the spa. Wealthy young women, and some not so young or wealthy, often came here without their male chaperones, to soak in the hot springs and mud baths and eat the delicious meals prepared by a famous chef. What good it all did, Milan wasn’t sure; but this was an age of corsets and propriety, when women had “nervous conditions” because of their restricted place in society and the roles imposed on them by their “betters”—so perhaps any excuse that got them away from their fathers and husbands for a little while was worth it. He liked to think that he provided his own special brand of sexual healing—another sad area of repression in most women’s lives—for the betterment of humanity, of course.
“Maybe we should open a spa,” he suggested idly.
Elsa laughed a bit. “You say that every time we come here,” she reminded him. “But it would be far too much work for you.”
“Are you saying I’m lazy?” he teased. He certainly looked the picture of indolence at the moment, lying on the bed in a white robe, a plate of breakfast beside him.
“Not at all,” Elsa assured him. She was up and dressed already, delicately painting a bouquet of flowers before her on the table. “I’m sure you were up all night working very hard.”
Milan smirked. “Well, Mrs. Rotislav is very demanding. I’m to meet her later today as well.”
Elsa raised an eyebrow. “Mrs. Rotislav? I thought you were with that general’s wife.”
“That was two days ago,” he pointed out cheekily. “Do try to keep up.”
She shook her head. “You are so lucky you can’t get sick,” she reminded him, pausing to look at her artistic creation.
“Not getting tired helps as well,” he noted with satisfaction.
For a little while they were both quiet. Elsa concentrated on her painting, and Milan concentrated on Elsa. It wasn’t that they always had to be lovers—though he did enjoy that part a great deal—but being so close to her all the time, when they were roughly the same age, but not being allowed to even imagine that someday—
“You’ve got enough lovers,” Elsa reminded him, reading his gaze easily enough.
“You know they’re nothing compared to you.”
“Let’s not talk about it anymore,” she suggested. The topic made her uncomfortable.
He nodded and watched her a moment longer—the curve of her neck, the grace of her fingers, the tiny flash of stocking-covered ankle where her skirt caught on the chair. It was enough to get the blood going. “I think I’ll get dressed,” he announced, rolling off the bed.
Her laugh followed him into the next room and he shut the door only partway. “Milan, you are so obviously eighteen,” she teased.
“Well that’s fairly old here, you know,” he reminded her. “Old enough to be in charge of all the family finances, for example.”
Elsa rolled her eyes. “Father was terribly old-fashioned,” she pointed out. “If it weren’t for Mother I wouldn’t even know how to read. So I wouldn’t put so much stock in his orders.”
Milan smirked to himself as he dressed. “I think I’ve found you a husband,” he went on cheerfully.
“Oh?” Elsa did not sound terribly interested.
“Fellow I met last night. We’re to have lunch with him today,” Milan added.
“Are you serious?” she asked with vexation.
“Richard Josefson,” he elaborated. “He’s a banker. Good with money. Weak digestion, though. You can cook him very bland foods, can’t you?”
“Remind me why I must marry,” Elsa replied dryly.
“You’ll need someone to keep you company while I’m out carousing,” Milan shot back matter-of-factly, surveying himself in the mirror. “And the children, of course. If you still want them.” There was silence from the other room and he glanced up to see Elsa gazing at the flower bouquet with an unfocused, melancholy expression. Pretending he hadn’t noticed, Milan bounded from his room and dropped to his knees at his sister’s feet. “Elsa, tie this for me,” he pleaded, indicating his cravat.
“Who needs children when I have you?” she responded with mock exasperation, tying the strip of silk. “When will you learn to do this on your own?”
Elsa was always punctual; Milan wasn’t. So when her carriage pulled up in front of his Prague townhome at precisely 9am as agreed, he was still wearing his tuxedo from the night before, poorly disguised by a red velvet dressing gown, and suddenly remembering he hadn’t washed off the scent of stale perfume and cigar smoke from the house of ill repute he’d spent the night at. Oh well, too late now, he supposed, peeking out the window at the arriving children. His nephews processed from the carriage one by one, at least two more than you would have thought could be comfortably combined in a space that size—like a clown car, they would say in the future. Elsa followed, her expression vigilant like a sheepdog’s.
Tallis let them in and the boys soon tumbled into Milan’s study, swarming over the furniture and knickknacks. He scooped up a couple and swung them around, as only a disreputable bachelor uncle could, then nudged them aside so he could greet Elsa properly.
She sniffed delicately and raised an eyebrow at him in amusement. “I didn’t realize our visit was a formal occasion,” she teased, tugging on the ruffles of the tuxedo shirt.
“Well of course!” he insisted. “Only the best for—“
“Which of these have you shot people with, Uncle?” demanded a small voice, and Milan glanced over to see several of the boys playing with his dueling pistols laid out on the table.
“Put those down at once!” Elsa ordered, suddenly frantic. She hurried to the boys and plucked the weapons from their small hands as Milan cursed himself for his oversight.
“It’s alright, they’re not loaded—“ he tried to assure her.
“Go, go in the other room,” Elsa insisted, shooing the boys away.
“Tallis will put these away,” Milan promised hurriedly. “Tallis! They’re just left out from yesterday. None of them are loaded.”
“When they’re older, you can teach them to shoot,” Elsa went on, obviously trying to calm herself. “But I don’t want them to think they can just pick up a gun and play with it!”
“No, I know, I’m sorry,” Milan soothed her, pulling her closer. “I just wasn’t thinking.”
“I don’t—I don’t want them to get hurt,” Elsa sniffed against his shoulder.
“I know.” Richard had been quite amenable to adopting children with Elsa, even though it was uncommon in their social circle—Milan had made sure he understood the importance of the issue before marriage was agreed to—and now their home boasted a whole gaggle from ages seven to three. There was a hole in the line-up, however; three years ago young Arnold had been struck by a carriage in the street. He was killed instantly, before Elsa or Milan could do anything about it, and Milan had been afraid his sister would never recover from the blow. She had more or less returned to normal by now, though with a heightened sense of caution that occasionally got the better of her.
“See? Tallis is putting them away,” Milan assured her. “I don’t keep them loaded.”
“You must tell them not to play with guns,” Elsa reminded him.
“I will.” He held her for a moment longer than was necessary or proper, reluctant to let go. Tallis, ever the good servant, kept his eyes on his work. Elsa spent much of her time in the country with her boys now, where they had plenty of meadows to run through, trees to climb, and frogs to torment; Milan visited often but was too drawn to the faster and more scandalous life in the city to stay for long. Besides, amiable though Richard was, Milan didn’t want to try his patience—or his sense of propriety. He stepped back to an arm’s length and looked over his shoulder to where his nephews had been corralled. “Now, where’s the new one?”
Elsa, smiling again, directed his attention down around her skirts, where a small boy was just barely visible. Milan dropped to the ground and playfully peered around one side of her voluminous dress, then the other. “Is he here? Is he over here?” The little boy dodged him with a childish giggle. “Here he is! Hello there!” He picked the boy up and whirled him around. “What’s your name, then?”
The boy didn’t answer, as young children were wont. “This is George,” Elsa introduced proudly.
“George. What a fine name,” Milan declared. “George, would you like to see the tiger I shot in India?” Of course he did—what little boy wouldn’t?
Milan and Elsa sat at the table, their tea growing cold as they were preoccupied with recent events. “Franz must think Elena is my daughter,” Milan finally said, though he didn’t sound terribly certain.
“I suppose that might explain why he brought her here for you to meet,” Elsa allowed. “But then again—she’s so ill! Why not just write to you and invite you to visit them?”
A dark thought was forming in Milan’s mind and he hesitated to voice it to his sister. “Maybe—maybe he wanted her to die from the journey.”
Elsa drew back slightly in horror. “But—she’s his daughter!”
“Well, he doesn’t believe that,” Milan reminded her. “He thinks she’s mine and he hates her for that. He wants to get me attached to her, then have her die.”
Elsa was shaking her head as he laid out the gruesome plan. “Oh, Milan, that’s a horrible idea! How could he be thinking that? You said he told you that Teresa confessed to being unfaithful only right before she died.” Milan nodded in agreement. “Well then, he’s raised the girl as his daughter for almost her whole life! He wouldn’t suddenly turn around and try to—to kill her.” She seemed satisfied with her logic.
Milan reached across the table and took his sister’s hand fondly. “You think too charitably of him,” he suggested. “Franz has a dark side to him—I can feel it. And I’m not sure he was telling me the truth when he said Teresa confessed to him—I can’t imagine her doing that, no matter what. If only because she knew it might negatively affect Elena.” He shook his head. “Maybe—maybe Franz saw us together, or overheard some gossip, and he always suspected Elena wasn’t his.”
“But she is,” Elsa insisted.
“I know,” Milan agreed. He could no more have children than Elsa could. “But Franz doesn’t know that. At least, he’s convinced himself otherwise. I mean,” he added in a slightly subdued tone, “she could be my daughter, normally.” He had had an affair with Teresa, after all. There was no denying that.
“Well, you must tell him it’s impossible,” Elsa reasoned firmly.
Milan sighed. “My love, we haven’t even acknowledged his suspicions!” His tender-hearted sister had no head for the games cruel people could play. “What am I supposed to do? Casually work my infertility into dinner conversation? ‘By the way, in case you were wondering for some odd reason, I can’t have children, never could. Could you pass the salt?’” Elsa frowned but acknowledged that wasn’t the best option. Milan’s expression hardened. “Besides, I don’t think I want him changing his mind just yet,” he added darkly.
He gave her the full intensity of his determined gaze. “This man tried—is trying—to kill a little girl, just to spite me,” he summarized flatly. “I don’t want him to continue being responsible for her.”
Elsa drew in a breath. “Yes, yes, I see what you mean,” she agreed quickly. She had grown fond of the little girl upstairs as quickly as Milan had. “Yes, we can’t let her go back to him, no matter what he comes to believe. Even when she’s well.” Because there was no question, they were going to make certain she got well. “But what are you going to do?”
“I have a plan,” Milan assured her. Franz thought he was being so terribly clever, playing his game of cat-and-mouse with Milan—but who was the cat, and who the mouse?
“It’s really so good of you to do this, Franz,” Milan said. He tried to sound sincere but not over-the-top. “I know it must be difficult for you, but Elsa is really so taken with Elena—“
“No, my friend, it’s I who must thank you,” Franz countered, remarkably cheerful for a man who was signing away his legal rights to his only child. “I could never have afforded the specialists Elena needs, and, well, the hotel is about to start its busy season…”
“You must get back, of course, we understand,” Milan assured him, waiting to be certain every copy had been signed in every place. “It’s so much safer this way, in case decisions need to be made in a hurry. And you can be certain Elsa and I will take care of Elena like she’s our own.” Milan thought he saw the tiniest ghost of a smile—a hateful smile—cross Franz’s face. “We’ll handle everything, and of course we’ll write to you every week to let you know how she’s doing.” The other man wasn’t quite done signing. “And you must write to us, too,” Milan went on pleasantly, “as often as you can, so we might read your letters to Elena. It will please her so much.” He hoped the utter contempt he felt for the other man didn’t seep into his voice.
“Yes, of course,” Franz murmured. Likely he had no intention of corresponding with them anyway. He was going to stick Milan with full responsibility for a young girl and then watch her die, expensively. Not that the supposed financial drain was Franz’s true goal, Milan suspected—it was emotional trauma that he hoped to inflict. Many husbands of the women Milan had seduced thought him a selfish cad, cold and thoughtless (though their wives would have said otherwise); it was ironic, then, that Franz had designed his revenge to take advantage of Milan’s inherent compassion and affectionate heart.
Franz drew the last flourish under his signature. “There you go,” he announced, standing. “Congratulations, you have a daughter.” He stayed remarkably straight-faced as he made this little ‘joke.’
Milan laughed a little bit as his attorney collected the papers. “How funny, I hadn’t thought about it that way,” he said off-hand. “But, I suppose I’ve always known that the only way I would get children would be to adopt them.”
Franz blinked at the odd statement. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, I can’t have children,” Milan revealed breezily. “Haven’t I ever mentioned that? Well, I suppose it’s never had the same impact on me as it has my sister.” Franz was starting to look slightly frantic. “We both had scarlet fever when we were young, you see. Do you remember that, Jakob?”
“Indeed I do,” the older attorney nodded. He had been serving the family for many years. “First you got it, then young Elsa caught it while nursing you. Never seen your parents so worried.”
“Well, we both survived, obviously,” Milan went on, blithely ignoring how pale Franz had become. “But there were consequences. All my sister’s children are adopted. They’ll love having a cousin,” he added cheerfully. “Well, sister, really, I’m afraid my lifestyle wouldn’t really be suitable for raising a young lady of quality. Yes, my brother-in-law is quite amenable to adopting, but I do feel my own condition has been somewhat to blame for my continued bachelorhood—what woman wants to marry someone who can’t give her children of her very own? It would take quite a—Franz? You don’t look well,” Milan observed suddenly, solicitously. “Do you need a drink?”
The other man turned away quickly and paused, no doubt scrambling to assess Milan’s statement and his possible course of action. “I just—Just wait a—“
“Well, this is a momentous occasion,” Jakob commented sympathetically, as if on cue (which he wasn’t, though he was terribly predictable). “Let’s just give him a moment here.”
“Of course,” Milan allowed, backing away. “Is everything in order?” he asked the lawyer instead, businesslike.
“Yes, it all seems fine,” Jakob assured him. “This is a very generous thing you’ve done, Milan. You may have saved that little girl’s life.”
“Well, as you know, Franz is a dear friend of mine,” Milan replied modestly, knowing Franz could hear perfectly well. “As was his late wife.”
“Excuse me, I must catch my train!” Franz announced suddenly. He bolted for the door without turning back around.
“We’ll tell Elena good-bye for you!” Milan called after him. There were men waiting on the street paid to follow Franz and make sure he left town. Milan wouldn’t put it past the sneaky devil to try getting back into Elsa’s house where Elena was recuperating. “Thanks again!” He had a feeling, though, that none of them would ever set eyes on Franz again. At least, that was his intention.