ATTENTION: Stories marked with an * may contain material which would be better appreciated by those over 18. Parental Discretion is advised. This is your responsibility, not ours.

"Le Cheval*"
NC-17 ==== Sequel to Renaissance



The bell on the door to the shop jingled, rousing Mme. Beaullieu.

"Qui est la?" she called out gruffly. It was, no doubt, some ignorant tourist, probably Allemand, who dared to interrupt her mid-afternoon nap. Certainly no one in the village would be so rude!

There was no answer. She fumbled for her glasses and levered herself out of her chair. As she stood up, a gloved hand covered her mouth, and she could feel the barrel of a gun against her spine. Outraged, she tried to scream, but only a muffled squawk emerged. The gun poked her harder, and a voice whispered ominously,

"Tais-toi! Si tu ne me le donne pas, tu vas mourir! Tu comprends?"

She nodded. The hand was cautiously lifted from her mouth.

"Oui, I understand. You will kill me if I don't give it to you. But I can't give it to you if I don't know what it is," she replied calmly.

"Don't play games, Madame. You know very well what I've come for."

"I'm not playing games, Monsieur. I really don't know what you are looking for."

" . . . le cheval," he whispered fiercely in her ear. "I've come for my mother's horse."

She remained silent, remembering the circumstances under which the horse had come into their possession. If it was his mother's horse, as he said, then she had been right - he was German. And definitely up to no good. There was no way in hell that she was going to tell him where he could find it - this cochon! She might be an old woman, but she still knew how to keep a secret. She had certainly had enough practice at it during the War.

She searched her mind frantically for some delaying tactic. She needed time - to find out why the horse was so important, and to figure some way out of this mess without giving him what he wanted.

"It isn't here. It will take me some time to access it. If you are unwilling to wait, then you will have to kill me now, because I can't conjure it up out of thin air!"

She waited. Would her bluff work?

"How much time?"

She shrugged. "At least 48 hours - perhaps longer."

"That is not acceptable!"

"You must accept it. I simply can't get it for you sooner. As I said, Monsieur, either wait or kill me now."

She made the sign of the cross and prayed aloud. "Sainte Vierge Marie, please intercede for me with your Son. I regret all my sins, and I beg His forgiveness. Oh Seigneur, into Your hands I commend my spirit."

"I am ready, Monsieur. Decidez."

" . . . . All right. Forty-eight hours. Not one minute more. And Madame . . . no tricks, or you will not be the only one in your family to come face to face with her Seigneur! Now sit down."

He pushed her back into the chair and began to tie her hands and feet.

"Idiot! Just how do you expect me to get it for you if I am tied to this chair?"

A gag was stuffed into her mouth. "Your husband will be informed of your predicament. I'm sure I do not have to warn you of the consequences should either of you seek help."

She had still not seen her attacker, but no matter. She would recognize that voice again. Next time, he would not escape. She would make certain of it.

* * * * *

"Madame Beaullieu? . . . ."Madame, are you here? It's Nikita."

(Mon Dieu, she may find me before Emil does! What shall I do then!) She remained perfectly still, hoping that the young woman would leave rather than come looking for her. No such luck.

A pale face suddenly appeared before her. Blue eyes widened as her visitor took in the situation. (Putain! This one is so friendly. She will blab my business to the entire village - she is pretty and sweet, but probably not very intelligent.)

To her astonishment, however, the young woman drew a gun from her handbag! She proceeded with a most competent and thorough search of the shop before returning to release Mme. Beaullieu. Once the gag was removed, Madame was further amazed when Nikita did not ask her any questions. She merely stood and waited patiently.

(Well, old woman, haven't you learned by now not to be too quick to judge by first appearances?) Mms. Beaullieu chided herself.

The silence between them dragged on. Finally, Mme. Beaullieu decided to take the offensive.

"Do you always carry a gun when you go shopping, Madame?"

Nikita smiled and held up the gag.

"We live in dangerous times, Madame Beaullieu. As you see."

The older woman nodded silently. She was intrigued by this young woman. She was one 'cool customer,' as les Americains used to say. Perhaps after all . . . . She considered her options.

"Café?" She moved toward the coffee pot and cups she kept on the counter.

"Oui, merci," Nikita replied. "With sugar and cream, if you have it."

* * * * * *

They were sipping coffee in companionable silence when Madame's husband Emil burst in the back door of the shop.

"Genevieve! . . . Vas-tu bien? Un homme . . . ." He called frantically, then broke off in mid-sentence when he saw she was not alone.

"Emil, je vous presente Mme. Nikita . . . .? I am sorry, Madame, but I do not know your last name."

"Just call me Nikita." She smiled and extended her hand to Emil.

Madame Beaullieu's curiosity was definitely piqued.

(Humph! Living in sin, no doubt. But who could blame her? He is too magnifique to resist, no matter what the Church may have to say about it. Besides, I suspect she has more important secrets to keep than her lst name!)

Emil didn't seem to think there was anything strange in Nikita's reply. He was more concerned with their own difficulty. He looked questioningly at his wife. She shook her head almost imperceptibly.

(Thank God she has not said anything!)

Then, to his consternation, she pointed her cup at Nikita and announced, "She untied me."

He gaped at Nikita, who merely smiled and held up the gag again.

"Mais . . . ." He didn't know what to say or do.

"It's all right, Monsieur," said Nikita. "I understand your concern. I won't betray your confidence."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

"It is a long story," Madame Beaullieu sighed. "Perhaps it would be better if we all had a glass of cognac while I tell it."

"Genevieve! He told me if we tell anyone he will kill us all! You CANNOT . . . !"

"Emil, did he tell you what he wants from us?"

He nodded.

"Whom do you think I sold it to, old man?"

His eyes widened.

"Besides, she has already seen too much. And, I suspect, I have already seen more than she would wish me to know about her own abilities. Am I correct, Nikita?"

"Yes."

"Le Bon Dieu must have sent her to us in our time of need. There are no coincidences in life, mon mari. You know that."

"D'accord," he admitted grudgingly.

"So, Nikita, it appears we must trust you as you must trust us. Ai-je raison?"

Nikita smiled. "Yes, Madame. You are right."

* * * * *

An hour later Nikita knew all there was to tell about the horse and how the Beaullieus had come into possession of it.

Genevieve Marais had been eighteen years old when the Germans invaded France and occupied the village. She had immediately joined Le Resistance, and her first assignment had been to secure a position in the household of Colonel Fuchs, the commanding officer of the German forces in the area. Her beauty had made it easy - the Colonel had need of a private secretary - one who could fulfill "other duties as assigned."

For four years she had done her duty - all of it - for the glory of France. For three of those years she had been in love with Emil. Shortly after she had come to work for Colonel Fuchs, Emil had been hired as the gardener. She had recognized him right away as one of the young men she had met at a Resistance meeting. At first, they did not dare to communicate. The danger was too great. But as the months passed, Emil began to find an especially tasty slice of pate or piece of cheese in his lunch basket, and Genevieve came upon the odd wild rose or tiny carved figurine in a drawer of her desk. Their mutual respect grew into a clandestine passion - one which was forced to remain unrequited for years. It was simply too dangerous to the cause for them to indulge their own desires. And there was, of course, the Colonel. He had first claim on Genevieve's "affections." His wife and daughter had come to live in the village with him, once the occupying forces had established their authority. But, Madame Fuchs was no longer young and beautiful. There had been no other children after Ilsa, and she was nine years old.

Emil was aware of Genevieve's predicament, but he was powerless to protect her. He had trained himself to hide his feelings for her. But, the bile rose in his throat whenever he saw the Colonel's hand draped possessively over Genevieve's shoulder. At those times, it was all he could do to remind himself of their mission - to do whatever it took to gather intelligence to defeat Les Boches, to free France from this degradation.

In 1944, Allied troups invaded France. Resistance forces became bolder, and the Colonel began to confide more in Genevieve about his plans for the two of them. He wanted her to come with him back to Berlin. He promised he would divorce Madame Fuchs as soon as the war ended, and marry Genevieve.

"I asked him then, what about Ilsa?" said Madame Beaullieu. "He told me she would continue to live with her mother. It was about that time that I first saw the horse. Perhaps because of his guilt, the Colonel showered presents on Ilsa - costly, outrageous toys, among them a life-sized rocking horse. He presented it to her on her 13th birthday. She ignored it completely - just sniffed and said, 'Papa, you know I'm too grown up for a rocking horse!' So, it went into the attic. It wasn't until January 1945 that I saw it again."

"A rocking horse," echoed Nikita.

"The very same," confirmed Mme. Beaullieu.

"What happened then?"

"The Allies were nearing the village, and the Colonel and his family were forced to flee in the middle of the night. Evidently, his attachment to me was secondary to his attachment to his own miserable hide. Thank God it was over! Emil and I were finally free. I must confess we took advantage of the spoils of war. We stripped the house of whatever the Colonel had left behind - including the horse."

"I must admit, I was the one who wanted it," interjected Emil. "For many generations my family has collected toys, and this seemed a fitting addition to our holdings. Then, too, I took a certain pleasure in possessing something the Colonel had gone to so much trouble to have made for his child. It was, perhaps, petty of me, but I was so full of anger that I felt no shame at all."

Emil put his arm around Mme. Beaullieu and hugged her tightly to him.

"And now my action has returned to haunt us," he said.

"Your attacker wants the horse."

"Exactement."

"Do you know why?"

"No. Only that it was his mother's. I believe he must be Ilsa's son - the Colonel's grandson."

Nikita thought for a few moments, then took another sip of coffee.

"How much time do you have to give it to him?"

"Forty-eight hours."

"That should be sufficient." She calmly put down her glass and looked at the Beaullieus.

"I'll be back in touch with you before noon tomorrow. I won't tell you not to worry. You know the dangers involved. But I assure you that we will help you."

"We . . . who is 'we'?" asked Emil. "It is dangerous enough, Madame Nikita, that you must know about our difficulty. You must tell no one!"

"Hush, Emil. It will be all right." Mme. Beaullieu looked at Nikita.

"Ton mari, I presume?"

Nikita nodded.

"Does he have your skills?"

An enigmatic smile was her only answer.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

He was restless. When would she be home? It had been too long. Too long . . .

A frisson of anxiety swept over him. He closed his eyes, searching for that warm safe place deep in the center of his being. He knew he could count on finding her there. Yes. His breathing slowed, and the fear retreated -- for now.

Opening his eyes, he scanned the horizon. Lowering clouds portended a coming storm. He could smell the ozone in the evening air. Flying insects swarmed near the ground, and the birds followed them, swooping down to enjoy the bounty. A gust of wind lifted his hair off his neck, drying the sweat. Relief. He wiped his palms on his jeans, ashamed of this physical evidence of his inner struggle with panic.

Then he saw it. The Rover was making the turn into the main gate of the farm.

(Nikita. Nikita. Nikita. . . .) Her name resounded in his mind like a mantra, releasing the last of the tension. It was over. They were free.

She drove the vehicle into the barn. He followed at a deliberate pace, determined not to run after it. There was no need to hurry. She was home now.

As he entered the barn, she turned off the ignition. He opened the door for her. She stepped out into his waiting arms.

"Welcome home."

She pushed back and looked at him.

"Did you miss me?" She tilted her head and gave him a cocky grin.

He pulled her closer. She relaxed into his embrace, molding her body close to his.

"Is that a yes?" She whispered.

He thrust his hips forward reflexively.

"Hmmm, I guess it is," she teased, slipping her tongue into his ear.

He moaned at the sudden rush of heat down below. His jeans tightened alarmingly. He could feel the teeth of the zipper pressing into his swollen flesh. He should have worn underwear! But it was too late now. He knew he would sport "railroad tracks" there tomorrow.

She could feel the hard outline of his erection against her mound. She rubbed against it invitingly, and he moaned again. "Please, Ni-ki-ta." She tried to insert her hand in the waistband of his jeans, but something was in the way. So she began to inch down the zipper, careful not to cut him with the teeth. It was a close call. He held his breath, fighting for control, as he felt the cool air against inch after inch of his hot length.

"Trust me," she whispered. He nodded, licking dry lips. She continued her mission with delicate precision. At last he was free. The relief was enormous. And so was he.

"Oh my!" She sighed, fondling him with both hands.

"Aahh!" He cried out as she rolled him between her palms. His fingers dug into her shoulders. He lowered his head, his hair forming a curtain to hide his features from her. She kissed the top of his head while adding a slight twist at the end of each palm roll. His knees bent slightly as the muscles contracted all the way down to his toes. They cramped inside his boots.

Starved for air, he sucked in the first breath he had taken in almost a minute. The rush of oxygen to his brain fueled the fire of sensation which licked at him, intensifying his pleasure unbearably. Electricity crackled in the air. Outside, the storm had arrived, and heavy drops of rain began to pelt down on the metal roof of the barn. Inside him, another storm was building. He tried to hold it back, but it threatened to burst from him just as the rain was now bursting from the overburdened thunderclouds.

Nikita could feel his impending climax. She knew the signs well by now -- the tightening of his haunches, the change in pitch of his cries, the angle of his erection -- all spoke of imminent eruption. He was right on schedule. He gave a deep grunt as his testicles contracted, and his penis began the spasms which would force his seed down and out. He came in pulsing waves, a spoonful at a time, into her cupped hands. His entire body danced to the rhythm of these waves -- his stomach muscles, his hands, his knees, even his toes, she suspected, were flexing and releasing in sympathy with the activity going on between his legs.

She recognized also the signs of his completion. The spasms gradually became less violent -- the spaces between them of greater duration, until finally they appeared to cease. But she knew that he often experienced one final, violent contraction which expelled the last few drops. She waited patiently, her hands still cupped. She saw his jaw tighten, and knew it was coming. Sure enough, he thrust frantically into her hand one last time, hunching forward as a long hissing breath escaped from between his clenched teeth. When it was over, he gulped in a breath of air and collapsed bonelessly against her. She supported him until he could stand on his own. He smiled at her shyly, and she kissed him one last time for good measure. He drew out a bandanna from his jeans pocket and began wiping his semen from her hands.

"Nikita?" He didn't look up from his task.

"Yes, Michael?"

"It seems all I've ever done is take from you. Your freedom. Your innocence. Your trust in me. Your love. This . . . " and he held up the wet bandanna. "I'm ashamed of how much I need your touch - your presence. I'm always hungry for you."

She smiled at him.

"I know. And it makes me so hot for you, my sweet baboo. So let me help you assuage your guilt. Come on upstairs and return the favor."

Her words flowed over him like balm.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

They were both soaking wet by the time they made it onto the porch. A loud clap of thunder startled a yelp out of Nikita. Michael smiled and drew her closer. She loved the feel of his arms around her. Heat radiated from him. His shirt steamed slightly as the water soaking it evaporated. He smelled sweet, like new-mown hay. In fact, a few strands of it were threaded through his hair and stuck to his sweater, she noticed. She picked them out at her leisure as she nestled against him. He wiped her dripping hair away from her face, then delicately lapped at the moisture which still beaded her skin. Her shirt clung damply, revealing the clear outline of nipples puckered by the cold - and something else. He circled one nipple slowly with the callused pad of his thumb. Lightning flashed behind her closed eyelids as a bolt of pure lust zinged from that point of contact straight down to her clitoris. She gasped with the ferocity of it.

He drew her bottom lip into his mouth, sucking on it in rhythm to the action of his thumb. She opened her legs and rubbed against him, begging for more. He was more than willing to oblige. Transferring his attentions, he thrust his hand into her pants and began to circle that other erect nub with his thumb. His mouth moved down to her nipple and he swirled around it with his tongue. She could feel herself begin to peak as tiny ripples became waves of ecstasy. The tide washed in and around her, and she drifted helplessly wherever it pulled her, crying out as she totally abandoned herself to sensation.

He delighted in her response to his ministrations. He could feel the gush of warm liquid as he inserted a couple of fingers deep into her channel. Sporadic contractions massaged those fingers as he spread them to increase the resistance she felt.

"Ohh!" She cried out at the stretching sensation deep within, and she instinctively bore down to force as much contact as possible with those rigid appendages inside her. As the friction increased, a second, even stronger orgasm coursed through her. Michael may even have sensed it coming before she did, as the waves of inner pressure became stronger and more predictable. Again, he obliged, inserting a third finger, while speeding up his thumb action around her hot nub. He could feel it harden and swell under him - a smaller version of his own now insistent erection. But this was her turn - not his, and he suppressed the desire to rip open his pants and thrust himself wildly into her. She appeared quite satisfied with the way things were going, and he had no intention of disrupting her pleasure at this point.

"Je t'aime, Nikita," he rasped as he felt her climax yet again.

Nikita felt him supporting her with his thighs as she sagged at the knees. She leaned her forehead into his chest and gripped his shirt in both fists, while she trembled helplessly in the throes of her release. He rubbed her back, patiently waiting for her to recover. At last, she took a deep breath and released it, then looked up at him. Her eyes were still slightly unfocused, and she had a lopsided grin on her face. He chuckled and brushed his hand across her cheek.

"Have I paid back any of my debt to you?"

"Oh yeah," she murmured throatily. "With interest."

As she pulled back slightly and took his hand in hers, intent on leading him into the house, she noticed the pronounced bulge straining against the seam of his pants. She brushed against it casually with the palm of her hand and teased,

"The only problem you have, Michael, is that you spend more than you pay off. At this rate, you'll never get out of debt. Of course, that's to my benefit. Just think of me as your loan shark. As long as you keep those payments coming, I promise not to break anything."

"You've already broken something," he whispered.

"I have? What?"

"My resolve to let you go."

"That's good, because I have no intention of leaving." she replied, stroking his chest.

* * * * *

After a long hot bath, during which Nikita had significantly reduced Michael's tension, they sat at the kitchen table slurping down homemade chicken soup and crusty French bread. She was gratified that his appetite had returned. He ate with almost as much gusto as she did. Which was good, considering the calories he had burned only a short time ago.

"Your debt is on the rise again, Michael," she teased. He pushed his empty bowl away and leaned back in his chair. He grinned lazily at her.

"Perhaps it's time for me to make another installment payment?" he eyed her questioningly.

She laughed and shook her head. "Not tonight." Then her expression sobered.

"I have something important I need to talk to you about, Michael."

He tilted his chair forward and leaned his arms on the table, giving her his full attention.

* * * * *

"No." Although he spoke calmly, he looked like a trapped animal.

She tried again. "Michael, we have to help them. There's no one else."

She had told him what she knew of the Beaullieus' situation. She had hoped that would be enough for him, but his resistance went deeper than she had realized. For years he had been unwilling to access the feeling, caring part of himself. Now, he was unwilling to unleash the warrior. She could understand his fear, but she knew that until he could reconcile the two sides of his nature, he would never be completely healed. She played her trump card.

"I know you're afraid, Michael. I'm afraid too. But I'm more afraid of what will happen to Genevieve and Emil Beaullieu if they try to solve this problem on their own. If you can't help me, I'll have to do it without you."

He leapt up and grabbed her arms in a viselike grip.

"No."

His voice trembled with barely suppressed rage and fear. She flashed back to the scene in his office following her first failed mission. She had not known then the true reason for his rage. But she saw it now for what it had always been -- the measure of his love for her.

She didn't try to break away from him. At her lack of resistance, his grip loosened slightly. Through his hands she could feel the fine tremor humming through his entire body.

"Michael . . . ." She stared intently into his eyes, willing him to understand.

He closed his eyes and shook his head in denial. When he opened them again they were blank. She had won. But at what cost?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

They were in the loft, examining the horse for some clue to the secret it held. They had removed the saddle, which now hung over the back of a chair. The most logical conclusion was that the horse was hollow, and that whatever was so valuable was packed inside it. But, the horse appeared to be carved of one solid piece of wood. For the past several hours they had conducted a painstaking search for a hidden opening, but they had found nothing.

"We've done all we can for now, Michael. Let's get some sleep. In the morning I'll bring the Beaullieus out here and let them examine it."

He nodded reluctantly. He hadn't spoken more than a couple of words since they had come up here.

"Michael . . . " She put her hand on his arm. He tensed. She removed her hand, angry at his rejection.

"Nikita . . ."

He stared at her, his mouth still open to say something. For that brief moment, she saw the torment in his eyes, but then the mask settled firmly into place once more, and he just shook his head slightly.

Her expression softened.

"Come to bed, my sweet baboo. Come let me hold you."

He flinched at her words. The mask slipped again, and before he could summon the will to call it back, she had breached his defenses and wrapped her arms around him. He leaned into her, exhausted beyond measure. She cupped the back of his head with her hand and pulled him against her, rocking him slightly. His eyes closed in surrender, and tears trickled unheeded down his cheeks.

Still locked in an embrace, they moved toward the bed and tumbled into it fully clothed. To Nikita's surprise, he fell asleep immediately. She took off his shoes, then her own, and settled back to cradle him again in her arms. Still asleep, he turned his face into the warmth of her breast, as a flower turns toward the sun. She combed her fingers through his hair and sang an old lullaby.

"Sleep, my love, and peace attend thee,
All through the night.
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night.

Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and vale in slumber steeping,
I my loving vigil keeping,
All through the night."

It was nearly dawn before she slept.

* * * * *

She awoke to the sound of the shower. She stretched out her hand to the hollow beside her in the bed. It was still slightly warm. She rose and stripped off her clothes, then padded silently over to the bathroom door. Steam enveloped her as she entered. Pulling aside the shower curtain, she stepped inside. He was standing with his back to her, his forehead leaning on his crossed arms as he gripped the towel bar. The hot water drummed down on the back of his neck. She stepped up behind him and began to massage the knots out of his neck and shoulders. He moaned softly at her touch. The very sound of that moan aroused her, and she bumped her pelvis against his backside in silent invitation. He gripped the bar more tightly and bent forward, spreading his legs. She reached between them and cupped him in her hand. His sac was full and heavy. Her hand traveled up his length, measuring his readiness. He was hard as stone. When she took her hand away he growled in protest.

"Patience, my sweet baboo. I'm just soaping my hands." His imagination did the rest, and he gasped as his erection swelled and lengthened, the tip now touching the shower tile. He backed up to relieve the pressure. (Not yet! Not yet!) He repeated desperately to himself. He could hear her behind him, lathering shower gel between her palms. He waited for her touch, not daring to breathe. When it finally came, he nearly did too.

Nikita was close to the edge herself. She wanted him inside her in the worst way, but the anticipation itself was so exciting that she couldn't bear to bring it to an end just yet. With every stroke of her slick hands, he groaned loudly and pushed back against her. She rubbed her thumb in slow circles over the slit in the tip of his penis, and his own secretions blended with the lather. Suddenly, he whirled around and thrust himself full into her, ready to burst from the hot aching load he carried.

She loved the feel of him inside her, filling her like a giant plug from lips to womb. She began to spasm around him, sucking him in as deep as possible. He could stand it no longer. He had to release NOW. He could feel it bubbling out of him even as he strained against that final barrier. For that one moment, all the uncertainty, the fear, the pain -- fizzled out in his release. Only one thought remained - for both of them.

"Oh God! This feels so good!"

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Genevieve and Emil were sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. Neither of them had slept a wink, and the atmosphere was thick with worry. They both jumped slightly at the sound of someone knocking on the back door. Emil peered out the curtained window and saw Nikita. She wasn't alone. He motioned to Genevieve to come have a look.

"Is that her husband?" he whispered.

She nodded. "Let them in."

He opened the door and ushered them inside, then checked to make sure no one had seen them enter. The man spoke.

"No one saw us." His voice was a soft monotone, oddly reassuring.

Emil took a closer look at him, trying to take his measure. There was something about the way he carried himself - something familiar. He couldn't put his finger on it right now.

"Monsieur Beaullieu, this is Michael. Michael, this is Emil Beaullieu."

"Monsieur Beaullieu." Michael nodded in greeting.

Emil extended his hand. For a moment, he thought the younger man was going to refuse to take it. When he finally did, Emil was shocked by the tremor he could feel in that icy touch.

(Not a good sign! If he is as afraid as I think he is, how can he possibly be of any help to us?)

Emil looked despairingly at Genevieve, trying to communicate his concern to her.

"Madame," Michael acknowledged Genevieve's presence for the first time. She came over and kissed him on both cheeks. Emil noticed he tried to back away from her, but Nikita stood in his way.

"Thank you for your help, Monsieur," she said. She appeared unperturbed by Michael's attempt to extricate himself from her embrace. Emil decided they would have to have a private talk before things went any further.

"Genevieve," he interjected. "May I have a word with you alone?"

Then he turned to Michael and Nikita. "Please excuse us. We will return shortly. Please have some coffee." He gestured to the coffeepot and cups on the kitchen counter. The couple looked at him silently. He hurried Genevieve from the kitchen before she could object.

* * * * *

"Could you not smell the fear on him, Genevieve?"

"Yes."

"Then how can you trust him?"

"There is something about him. Despite his fear, I believe he will help us. I am willing to take the risk."

"Risk our lives?"

"It would not be the first time you and I have gambled on those, Emil."

"And what about Monique and Albert and their families? Are you willing to risk the lives of our children and grandchildren as well?"

"I don't see that we have much choice. And after all, there is Nikita. I tell you, Emil, she knows what she is doing. And she vouches for him as well. We have to trust someone, old man. We cannot do this alone."

He bowed his head in defeat. "Very well, Genevieve. I only pray that you are right."

She touched his cheek with her hand. "Moi aussi, mon mari."

* * * * *

When they reentered the kitchen Nikita and Michael were sitting at the kitchen table. Nikita's hand covered Michael's, her thumb stroking his wrist. Michael looked at the old couple. His eyes were hooded.

"Have you decided?" he asked in that same calm voice.

Genevieve and Emil looked at one another, then turned and nodded.

"Oui, nous avons decide. We will do whatever you ask."

"Bon," he replied. "Please come with us now."

"But . . . " Emil began to object.

"Now."

"D'accord." This from Genevieve. "Emil, will you bring me my hat and jacket?"

* * * * *

Half an hour later they were at the farm. It had been an interesting ride. Michael spoke not at all. He drove with commanding skill, Emil noticed. A very light touch - no motion wasted. In his youth, just before the war, Emil had spent a year on the racing circuit, and Michael's driving technique was curiously reminiscent of his own. Even this "barge" of a car seemed to float over the country road and around the many tight curves. Nikita sat in the back with the Beaullieus, explaining to them what she and Michael suspected about the horse.

"We haven't been able to find a way to open it, though. We hope that you can find some hidden panel or something. Or perhaps you have a better theory."

"I think you are probably correct," replied Genevieve. "Now that I think on it, the Colonel had accumulated quite a collection of the "spoils of war" from French museums. He once showed me a beautiful diamond and emerald necklace - very old. I asked him where it had come from, but he refused to tell me. I always assumed he had taken these things with him. Perhaps I was wrong."

Emil spoke up. "Perhaps the rocking horse had a dual purpose. Not only an extravagant birthday gift to his daughter, but also a hiding place for his little nest egg in case the war went badly for Germany. As indeed it did."

At this point, Genevieve interjected. "And his plans were thwarted at the last moment as the invading forces overcame German resistance more quickly than he had estimated, forcing him and his family to flee the village with nothing more than the clothes on their backs!"

Nikita nodded in agreement. "That sounds like a probable scenario. If we have to, we can destroy the horse to get inside it."

"Before we do that we must be certain it isn't the horse itself which is of value," cautioned Emil. "However attractive our theory is, we might still be mistaken."

No one had spoken for the remainder of the trip. They were all too preoccupied with solving the mystery of Ilsa's rocking horse. The clock was ticking.

* * * * *

As they entered the house, Genevieve couldn't help but notice the loving care with which it had been furnished. It was a bit embarrassing to enter the younger couple's boudoir. Nikita hurried in the door ahead of them and hastily pulled up the covers on the bed. There was a familiar smell about the room - one which caused Genevieve to smile. Ahh, young love! It was insatiable. She remembered how she and Emil couldn't seem to get enough of each other in those first years after the war. They had restrained themselves for so long, it had been as though a dam burst once they were free to express their feelings. Monique and Albert had been born within 10 months of one another in 1946. And even after almost 50 years, their own marriage bed was still quite warm. Yes, indeed, she could well imagine the activity this one saw. She chuckled softly. Michael looked at her sharply, and Nikita's face flushed becomingly.

"Well, uh, here's the horse," she said in a rush, directing them hurriedly through the bedroom into the loft space.

"Mais, c'est une salle tres charmante!" exclaimed Genevieve. In spite of their worries, she couldn't help but appreciate the beauty of this room.

"Thank you," replied Nikita.

Emil was already laying hands on the horse.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

It was now late afternoon. Just over 24 hours since first contact. The silence in the attic was oppressive -- broken only by the occasional mutter from Emil as he wrestled with the puzzle of the horse. Genevieve and Nikita sat in the chairs by the fireplace. Genevieve appeared to be asleep, but nothing about Michael or Nikita escaped her as she observed them from beneath lowered eyelids. Michael stood by one of the murals, arms folded, staring into it. He had not moved in almost an hour. Nikita, on the other hand, was in constant motion. She twisted a lock of her hair, drummed her fingers soundlessly on the padded arm of the chair, scratched one spot or another, and swung one foot back and forth. And all the while, her eyes were boring a hole in Michael's back. If he felt her gaze, he gave no indication of it. Finally, Genevieve couldn't stand it any longer.

"You are concerned about him," she murmured in a voice so soft that Nikita barely heard her.

The only response to her comment was a slight tremble of the younger woman's bottom lip. She stilled it immediately by biting down on it.

"Are you certain he can do this?" Genevieve whispered.

This time Nikita faced her and nodded. Genevieve patted her hand.

"When this is over, come and talk to me. Perhaps I can help."

Nikita's eyes filled with tears, and she ducked her head to hide them.

"Yes, Madame."

"Call me Genevieve, chouette. You don't mind if I call you that, do you? 'Little cabbage' - it's what I sometimes called my mischievous daughter Monique. It is my belief that one is never too old for the pet names."

She had spoken a bit louder this last time, as if signaling the end to their very private conversation. Michael turned around, startled out of his reverie upon hearing the French term of endearment.

"Oui," he agreed. His expression was softer, with a hint of a smile. He looked at Genevieve but nodded his head toward Nikita.

"Vous avez raison, Madame. " 'tite chouette - ca c'est ma Nikita."

He came over to join them then, hunkering down beside Nikita's chair and staring into the flames in the hearth. She lay her hand on his shoulder.

"I believe I have found it!" exclaimed Emil a few minutes later.

Michael was on his feet in an instant and in two strides was beside Emil. Nikita and Genevieve hurried to join them.

"You see, here just under the tongue, where the bit was, is a tiny switch. When I depress it, voila!" Nothing happened.

Emil muttered an expletive in frustration. "I KNOW this is it!" And he grabbed the horse's head on each side, twisting and pulling. Suddenly, the lower jaw dropped and they could see the opening to a chamber at the back of the throat. There was just enough room for Emil to stick his hand inside.

"Is anything in there?" asked Genevieve.

He nodded vigorously. "Oui, ma cherie. Il y a quelque chose, mais je ne sais quoi. Un moment . . ." and he pulled out a small sack. It was of deep blue velvet, with a gold drawstring. He weighed it in his hand. Something was definitely inside.

"Bring it over here," said Michael, moving to the small coffee table between the two chairs. Emil dropped into one and Genevieve into the other.

"Here, ma cherie, you open it." Emil handed Genevieve the sack. With trembling fingers, she plucked at the drawstring. The opening widened, and she turned the sack over and dumped the contents onto the table.

"Mon Dieu!" she gasped. The others could only stare in stunned silence at the bounty spread before them. The necklace was there - diamonds and emeralds glittering in the firelight. And that was only one item in the magnificent collection.

Michael opened a small drawer under the table and took out a magnifying glass. He carefully examined each piece. Nikita realized he knew exactly what he was doing.

"I would estimate the value at auction to be between $20 and $30 million, American dollars" he announced. "Not only because of the quality of the gems, but the antique value as well."

"What antique value?" asked Nikita.

"This collection is very old - several centuries, I believe. The style is late baroque - anywhere from 1750 to 1800. That is only an estimate, of course."

"Well, now we know why Ilsa's son wants the horse," said Genevieve.

"Not really," said Nikita. "All we know is that he wants the jewelry. We don't know what he intends to do with it."

"What does it matter?" asked Emil.

"Well, he could want the money for any number of reasons, ranging from personal greed to funding a terrorist group. If it's the former, then only your family is in danger. But if it's the latter . . . " She looked at Michael. He stared back at her impassively.

"I don't care why he wants it," declared Genevieve. "We are not going to give it to him!"

"That may be unavoidable," interjected Michael. "We must consider the worst-case scenario. With that in mind, I have prepared a profile - a plan of action - for us to follow. Nikita, would you please escort them into the kitchen? I'll meet you there in a few moments." He turned abruptly and left the room.

Meow