They moved together with the grace of long intimacy; hip to hip, toe to toe, swirling lightly across the dance floor like leaves caught in an autumn breeze. Dolly’s hand rested on Ian’s shoulder as they danced, fingertips that could count the threads in his vest by touch alone squeezing tighter now and again, drawing his attention to this person or that as latecomers joined the party.  The waiter with the build of a bouncer; the tall, emaciated man with the tinted spectacles and eerily smooth gait; the rotund gentleman in the expensive suit who made the speakers whistle as he walked past.

It didn’t take words, not after everything they’d been through together. A flick of the eyes, the gentle incline of a hip, an urgent indrawn breath, the warm spreading of his fingers as he drew her protectively in against him, as if with hands alone he could cover her, hide her from the spies and rivals circling the outer edges of the party like sharks around a drunken frat boy’s father’s yacht. She never lost her smile, though; an impish twinkle still reigned in her eyes no matter whom she spotted and periodically, she would press close to her husband with a twist and a bump of her hips designed to do anything but make dancing easier.

Fighting a losing battle against the urge to smile, Ian swirled her around a corner and swiftly took the chance to give her a sharp slap on the backside.  A man with short brown hair in an unremarkable style, who’d had his eyes widened by some of Dolly’s earlier antics on the dance floor and at the buffet table – Oh Jesus, that celery stick  – gave Ian a look of mock-compassion, shoulders shaking with laughter as he twirled his far more staid date past them.

They quickened their pace slightly as the song came to an end. As he bowed to his wife, flashing the smug smile he reserved for any public outing with her, Carlyle kept his eyes on a bystander reflected in the heavy, gold-framed mirror on the wall – a young man barely into his twenties, judging from the lines on his hands, but with the arrogance of a much older man in his eyes. Born rich. The only child, only son of a dynasty that cared about such things.

Fernando Innocenti. Brat. Coke-head. Thug. Terrible disappointment to his father.

And staring at Ian’s bird as the flourish of her curtsey dropped her cleavage right into his eye line.

OK, so it meant the plan was working, but he was still going to enjoy the later bits more because of it.

Dolly let him raise her out of her dip with a chivalrous hand, then turned and sashayed off in the direction of a punch bowl. He watched her walk away with a far-away look in his eye, while the laughing dancer from earlier came to stand at his side.

“If it really was two piglets under a tarp, do you think it would be so much fun to watch?”

Ian glanced away from his wife long enough to scowl at the other man. “Shut the hell up, Mike.”

He glanced back just in time to see his inattentive wife collide softly with Innocenti as he prowled to intercept her at the drinks table. She exhaled sharply and fell back, landing on her ass with a startled shriek and a bounce he thought was gratuitous even while he enjoyed the artistry. Ian started striding forward, fists clenched, a certain inexorable menace in the set of his jaw. Mike took in the scene, swinging around it like a man who does not like to put his face in the path of airborne punches, then sidling up the side of the room to lean against the drinks table and watch, dipping himself a fresh ladle of punch without long taking his eyes off the incoming fracas.

Which Ian was looking forward to immensely. His hand snapped out, tapping on Innocenti’s shoulder with just a little too much force, that edge of rage just leaking through.

Ian’s glasses reflected the brat’s face back at him as he turned from offering his hand to Dolly and looked up into the older man’s face. Something primal, male and territorial was singing fiercely in his soul as he faced the kid down.

“Oi, mate. That’s my wife you’re drooling on.”

Then his fist flew through the air like a bolt of pure joy.

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