"TURN OF A CARD"

Chapter One

"Florian, you have to come! Hurry!"

Florian looked up from his book. Laila looked as upset as he'd ever seen her. That was saying a great deal, given the adventures Ray had taken all of them on, none more than her. This was supposed to be a relatively quiet trip to London, a vacation to make up for the less than relaxing trip to the German branch of Florian's family. That little excursion had almost led to his and Laila's death by entombment. As he remembered how calmly Ray's loyal follower had taken that misadventure, Florian's heart started to race and he jumped up, his book forgotten.

"What is it, Laila? Where is Ray? Is he hurt? Kidnapped? It isn't..." He couldn't even say the name but he didn't have to, the haunted look in his eyes said it for him.

The small dark-haired woman answered with some sympathy, although no lessening of her own urgency, "No, it isn't Azura, but Ray needs you at once. He's being, oh, you know, he is being Ray, and if you don't do something fast, he's going to lose everything! In a stupid card game! You have to stop him, Florian! None of the rest of us can get in because we aren't proper gentlemen, but you can...you can go anywhere, right? Ray said so."

Not necessarily, Florian thought to himself. What had set off their latest argument was that Florian had been welcome by many more of Britain's aristocracy than Ray had been. Still, Florian knew that the highest sticklers would have no compunction about closing their doors even to a Duke, if his title were as tarnished as Florian's was at present. The difference was, he had no desire to mix in such company and would be happy to spend his time in museums and theaters. It was Ray who was adamant about them being accorded respect by everyone, and who recognized no man as his social inferior. He refused to acknowledge that there were some things money couldn't buy. Ray had been especially annoyed that because his wealth was associated with business, not to mention that his particular occupation was the unsavory one of moneylender, it carried with it that most dreaded "smell" to the British upper class— that of the "merchant". Doors were closed to handsome, well-read, fluent in several languages, absolutely brilliant Ray that were open to the blond, mainly ornamental Florian, who, as far as anyone knew, did absolutely nothing, nothing being a perfectly acceptable pastime for a gentleman. Indeed, it galled Ray that he would probably be better received as his alter ego Noir, the master thief, than as a common usurer. The former was intriguing, the latter, tasteless.

Money and lineage would get you only so far among England's upper crust; impeccable manners and good breeding were also pre-requisites. Ray's brusque manners were not especially winning ones for the ballrooms of London. Florian's family may have lost their money, but they clung to the trappings of their breeding like...well, not like leeches as it was those trappings that sucked their life's blood from them and not vice versa, Florian had often mused. Going into debt to support a lifestyle one could no longer afford was actually a time honored tradition among the highest class of people in both England and France. So was selling your children to the highest bidder to support such a lifestyle and save the family home. Normally it was daughters who were sacrificed on the altar of duty to family, but occasionally a son was married to the daughter of a lesser born man with money but no title, who had an ambition to social climb that he was willing to purchase by way of a generous marriage settlement. Of course, the son of noble birth didn't commonly go to a purchaser of the same gender, but the upper class was good at closing its eyes to unsavory details. The fact that Ray was nominally family made the sale aspect of Florian's situation something easily ignored by those who chose to ignore it. Florian didn't have much, but he was impeccably trained in the ways of high society and always knew the right thing to say or do in any social gathering to any level of person, royalty on down to chimneysweep. His mother may have made questionable choices, but they were acceptable ones in the eyes of her class, even when it came to selling her only son to save the Estate.

Ray's mother, on the other hand-- running off to make a love match with a man who was not approved by her parents-- and worse, whose claim was to a title that was not only foreign but disputed--was less forgivable. Love matches were not the done thing, and Arabs were even more disputable than the French! They weren't even Christian; indeed, the average English society matron wasn't quite sure what they were. All of this contributed to Ray's less than effusive welcome into the London social whirl. Florian, with his contacts from his past life, his beauty, his high rank, and his quiet good manners, was a hit. Ray was much less so, despite his own darkly handsome good looks, which were thrilling to the ladies, but disturbing to their men. Florian was clearly "safe" to dance with their daughters and wives...Ray was just as clearly deemed "not safe". More than one young debutante was swept away from his presence with a flimsy excuse. It wasn't that Ray was interested in such silly young women...or even their jewels...it was the insult to his character that had him fuming.

Florian could kick himself. He should have known Ray was headed for trouble. The younger man's pride was such that he could never bear to be second in anything. Last night they had gone to a ball at the French Ambassador's home and while His Grace, the Duke de Rochefort was solicited by the hostess to dance with one debutante after another, Ray was rebuffed as only the British upper class can do. Smiling pleasantly and painfully polite the entire time, they made you feel as though you just soiled your pants in Church, but they were far too well bred to comment on it.

As he quickly donned clothes suitable for the men's club where Laila told him he could find Ray, Florian thought about the argument the two of them had engaged in the night before, upon their return to the well appointed townhouse they had hired for the season in Oxford Street, not far from Green Park for riding, as well as the theatres that Florian enjoyed.

"I didn't enjoy dancing with those simpering young girls, Ray, you know that! They were merely duty dances. My father was friends with the ambassador. Naturally his wife wanted to introduce me to young ladies of her acquaintance thinking that I would be looking for a wife."

Florian had stopped at that unfortunate comment; the explanations weren't helping as Ray's glower proved.

"Naturally you didn't think to disabuse her of that notion, did you, my dear Florian?" Ray spoke silkily. "Doesn't she realize your finances are such that you are in no condition to entertain thoughts of matrimony...even if you were so inclined? Are you so inclined, my lovely Amethyst?" Ray moved like a cat...a large panther like cat, as he circled Florian's slimmer form.

"Of course not! What would I do with any of them? I was just being polite. It wouldn't hurt you to try it some time, you know."

"I do believe it would. Hurt me, that is. To act as a lapdog for these pampered society girls as you do, fetching their lemonade and picking up their dropped handkerchiefs...I never saw so many dropped pieces of cloth. Do you think they enjoy watching you bend over as much as I do, sweet Florian? I believe some of their brothers did."

Ray felt a twinge of guilt when he saw the flush come to Florian's pale face, erasing the last traces of pleasure in his evening with old friends. Then he grew angry at Florian for making him feel guilty. He knew the sensitive man hated being reminded that he roused feelings of lust in men, and that he was viewed as an object. The two of them had moved past that point, except when Ray felt the need to reassert himself, as he did now for some reason he didn't care to examine too closely. He knew that neither of them, least of all Florian, cared to dance with any young females, but it was the principle of the thing. Ray was the wealthy Master, Florian was the penniless possession who owed his life to Noir's inexplicable fondness for a certain semi-precious gem. Or so it would seem.

The relationship between the two men wasn't that simple, as Laila had come to realize, to her chagrin. There was a power and nobility in Florian's character that his amethyst eyes only hinted at, and a beauty in his soul that his face and form, lovely as they were, merely hinted at but could never truly match. An event like the Ambassador's ball brought home to Ray Balzac Courland how truly unworthy he was, wealthy Count or not, for a gem such as his Amethyst.

Agreeing with an unpleasant truth doesn't make that truth more palatable. The fact that he knew that Florian did not believe Ray inferior in any way didn't help; to Ray, that was just further evidence of the other man's nobler nature. It made him harsher than he had been in a long time with Florian and he rejected every attempt the blond made toward peace. Finally, Florian's even temper had enough and he stormed off to his own room.

Ray toyed with the idea of forcing his way into Florian's bedchamber. How dare he lock his door to his Master? He was lucky this hired house didn't come with a cellar, he shouted at the closed door, knowing that Florian would be mortified at the fancy London butler who came with the house over-hearing the threat. Florian had already asked Ray to please watch what he said in front of the London servants. Knowing his behavior was childish, Ray stormed off to his own room. Getting the last word was cold comfort when he would much rather have taken Florian's warm body to bed than a cold bottle of whiskey.

Ray was in a foul temper when he left the townhouse on Oxford Street that morning, forgetting all about the ride in the Park on which he was supposed to accompany Florian. Laila had followed him surreptitiously. The whole household had overheard the fight between the two men. It was a sign of how disturbed he was that he didn't notice her tailing him, she thought. Laila was good, she should be, the man she was following had taught her everything she knew. But Noir was the best and she couldn't remember a time she'd ever been able to follow him without him knowing it within five minutes and letting her know that he knew. The boss was troubled, that was for certain. She wished they'd never come to this damp, gloomy London. They'd done it to cheer up Florian and pick up a few items along the way. From what she could tell, however, the blond was just killing time, waiting to go home, and Noir was beating his head against a brick wall, trying to fit in with these cold, stuffy Brits.

"Courland!"

Ray turned. A tall auburn haired man in a well cut suit raised his hand to him from across the street. Seeing Ray stop, the man quickly strolled across, dodging between the few motorcars that were passing by to join Ray on the sidewalk.

"I thought that was you. Do forgive me for bellowing across the pavement like a jarvey. We met last night at that crushingly boring Ambassador's ball. Twiningham, Del's m' name, Rochefort introduced us, but I doubt you remember. He was doing the duty dances with m' sisters, poor chap, and we got to relax with the bubbly. I take it he is still sleeping it off, resting from all that exertion?"

The man had an amused quirk to his well cut lips and Ray felt his hand reach out to shake the gloved one proffered to him. This was the first friendly Brit he'd met. He readily accepted the invitation to join the man for lunch and some cards at his club. It just went to show that Florian wasn't always right. Not everyone was snobby here in London. Perhaps this man's parent's were stiff necked but this fellow, heir to a Earldom, if Ray recalled correctly, was perfectly pleasant. The club they went to wasn't on Bond Street, where Florian's father's club was, but instead was on a side street Del showed him that was reminiscent of some of the dark streets he'd known as a boy in Morocco.

When Ray hesitated a moment before going into the club, which was guarded by a large man that Del cheerfully told him was a former professional pugilist, the cheerful young nobleman threw his arm over his shoulder.

"Come on, I can't believe a man of the world such as you would be concerned about our little club that we have for kicks. If you are, we certainly can go to m' father's club, White's or one of the other boring places for lunch and a nice hand of bridge. I just thought you'd like something a little more exciting. This club isn't for everyone, you know."

Ray looked at the young man, whose eyes were gleaming. He raised his own brow in inquiry.

"And just what is the name of this exciting club?"

Laila, hiding behind some trash bins a few yards away had to strain her ears to hear the answer.

"Why, welcome to the Hellfire Club, my dear Courland."

"So what happened next?" Florian quizzed Laila as the two of them hurried along the darkening streets to the ill-fated club.

"I waited a little bit but when Noir didn't come right back out, I got worried. I managed to sneak my way into the back of the place and got in by the kitchen."

Florian looked at the young woman, torn between admiration and incredulity. The things she did boggled the mind. He debated whether it was worth pointing out the risk she took, and what could have happened to her if she were to have been discovered by the type of men who no doubt ran this type of place...and decided she doubtless knew more of such risks than he did.

"What then?" He quickened his pace, but slowed fractionally when he saw how hard it was for the tired girl to keep up with his longer strides. She'd had a rough day, he realized sympathetically. Once he got Ray out of this jam, he was going to kill him, he promised himself.

"It took me a while to discover where Ray was...it's a big place. But I was able to find some spare waiter clothes so I dressed like a serving boy and with my hair short like this and the loose white shirt and baggy trousers which is what they all wear, I was able to get into the room where he was. It was weird, Florian. I mean, the room Noir was in was perfectly normal looking, a regular men's club, but not all of the rooms were like that. In some of them, it was more like the kind of place you'd find back in Morocco. In a few of the rooms, some of the men...they were smoking opium right there in the room! And hashish! These fine English gentlemen! And they didn't just have girls in the upstairs rooms. They had them downstairs, too. Plus they had boys in the room, half dressed!"

Florian tightened his lips. He'd heard of such practices in a few of the clubs in Paris and knew they existed here in London too. Bored rich men playing at being bad. Some of them weren't playing at it. "Where was Ray?"

"He was involved in a card game with this older man...a very different type of man than that fellow he met on the street. I think the first man was the one who brings young men to the place for this other man, because when Ray was playing cards against the first man, he kept winning...and drinking some. Not too much, but more than he usually does. Then this other man joined in and at first Ray was winning, but then he started losing. A lot. I couldn't stay in the room the whole time, but in the time I was there, Noir had lost a lot of money. That's when I thought I'd better get help. Because even worse, I don't think it was Noir's money that the man was after, Florian. I heard the younger man, Twiningham, tell someone that Mayles would soon have the wager he wanted on the table, that Courland's money would have to run out soon, and then he would have to bet the emeralds. You don't think they mean emeralds the way...well...I mean..."

"You mean the way Ray has always meant his Amethysts?" Florian was glad the young woman at least looked abashed. She was essentially asking Florian to save her Master from Florian's fate. "Oh, stop looking like that," he snapped at her. "I'm rushing to his aid like this because I know what it feels like to have someone barter for you. I wouldn't want that to happen to Ray, even if it is through his own stupidity. But what in the world made him do such a thing? This is so unlike him! He never drinks so much he forgets what he's doing."

"Maybe he was just trying to fit into your world? Did you ever think of that?" Laila stopped, hands on her hips, her temporary embarrassment over. "He came here to make you happy! He goes to those stupid balls and society functions for you! Not for him! He doesn't even steal anything because he doesn't want to make you unhappy! And what do you do? You flaunt it in his face that you are the more accepted one, that his background isn't as good as yours!"

"No! I didn't do that. I was just trying to explain!" Florian stared at the small woman, aghast.

"Since when has Noir ever needed anything explained?" she huffed. "He knew all of that going in; he was just doing his best for you. One of the reasons he came here was so that you could be on top, away from all of the rumors and innuendos that follow you in Paris, and sure, it bothered him more than he expected it to that such a fuss was made over you. But maybe all he needed was to know he was still on top with you. He didn't need to have the door slammed in his face when he was feeling bad already. For Allah's sake, Florian, you're a man. You should know what they're like and how to handle one!"

This time it was Florian who stood still, appalled at his own behavior. He'd been so caught up in the social whirl over the past couple of weeks that he'd pushed Ray to the side. Perhaps he had been enjoying being the one on top just a little bit? No, he'd been enjoying it a lot, and he'd been condescending in his explanations to Ray, which hadn't been needed after all. Laila was completely right. He knew how rash Ray could be when he was hurt and angry. He must have gone into the Hellfire Club planning to turn the tables on Del for what he thought was an ill-advised attempt to take advantage of him, never guessing that there was a well planned conspiracy behind it. Well, two could play that game, Florian thought, angry at Del for leading his lover into trouble. To think that he had danced with each of the man's ugly sisters...twice!

"Let's get into that infernal club and get Ray out of there."