A TURN OF THE CARD

Chapter Three

As Florian commenced playing against the man who had trapped Ray so easily, Mayle's earlier victim struggled to follow the cards. Ray didn't know who he wanted to punish more–Mayles for drugging the wine when he proved too difficult to beat at cards fairly–or himself for letting down his guard in the first place in the mistaken belief that "gentlemen" would never stoop to such dirty tricks. Neither, he finally decided. He'd punish Florian for exposing himself to such danger in this crazy attempt to save Ray. The dark haired man almost snorted at the idea of gentle Florian rescuing him; sheer worry would end up killing Ray long before this card game ended. He couldn't handle just sitting there, helpless, while Florian played with fire, teasing the big, dangerous man and ignoring the cards. Hell, it seemed like he barely even knew how to play piquet, judging from his terrible discards. What was his Amethyst hoping to achieve?

Ray fought to keep upright in the hard chair and blinked to clear his blurry vision as Florian paused yet again over a discard. He felt a shoeless foot caress his calf...and couldn't help but start in surprise. Mayles looked over at him curiously, then stared at Florian, who wore a half smile. The older man raised an eyebrow and then shifted in his seat in order to glance under the table. Doing so, he caught sight of Florian's gracefully arched foot making its way up Ray's thigh. Of course, thus distracted, he missed seeing Florian deliberately knock his wine glass over.

"Oh, I'm so sorry! Pardon! I must beg your indulgence for my clumsiness, my good friend, Mayles! But I was not paying attention to the placement of my glass, my mind was...on my cards...and now I have ruined this deck. We must have a new deck, I think. Yes, of a certainty. I shall forfeit this game, if you wish?"

"Not at all, my dear Rochefort, you were much too far ahead on points, I believe, before that mishap. Let us count." Mayles did a quick tally and smiled painfully. Alas, despite his best efforts, with the marked deck, no less, he wasn't able to throw that first game to the young nobleman. It was his usual practice to let the other man win the first in a best out of three situation so as to lull him into a false sense of capability. How could anyone be that bad at cards, he wondered. At least the loss of the marked deck wouldn't pose a problem. Good thing too, as the more he watched the blond, the tighter his trousers grew. There was no way he would be content with just winning money this evening. Although the young brunet's worth had proven to be surprisingly large, his mind was fixed on owning both of these beautiful young foreigners for at least the night, and longer if he could get away with it. He fully intended to end the night a far richer man. To celebrate his new wealth, he was going to take these gems up to one of Adrian's "special" rooms and taste their charms. If they proved shy about paying their non-cash debt, he had a manservant who was every bit as strong as the doorman to help restrain them. Mayles adjusted himself as unobtrusively as he could–he was a gentleman after all–and tried not to gloat too obviously.

Seeing this, Florian tried not to roll his eyes. If he needed any incentive to strengthen his resolve to keep up his pretense, he only needed to think of that oaf laying a hand on Ray. He knew that behind the drug induced haze reflected in those beautiful green eyes, the keen mind of Noir, the master thief and deadly fighter was struggling to break free of the trap that had been set for him. Florian wished there had been some occasion when he could have told Ray about his godfather, when they could have pitted their card playing skills against each other in a friendly game. Perhaps, Florian thought with an inward smile, he might even have played to win those emeralds for himself...or to lessen his debt. Not that he could ever really repay his debt to Ray.

Instead, Ray had no more idea of Florian's true skill than did the wolf in Earl's clothing, who sat opposite Florian now, with his marked deck and his drugged wine, pretending to be a fine gentleman. Well, with both aids to the Earl's "good fortune" now removed from the game, it was time for Florian to demonstrate more "luck" in his own play. He proceeded to do exactly that, with a combination of skill disguised as dumb luck and distraction appearing as audacious flirtation whenever he judged that Mayles stood a chance of winning.

"I do believe I just might have found some of that beginner's luck, although indeed, I am no beginner at this game," Florian announced with his charming smile as he took the second game. "But this is thirsty work! Do you think you could get that lovely waiter...the man, not one of those females dressed like a man, mind you, to bring another pitcher of water?" He looked coaxingly at Mayles from beneath his long lashes. Florian had given Ray as much water as he could without being too obvious. He interspersed his efforts at reviving Ray with caresses and suggestive comments aimed at arousing Mayles' libido while allaying his suspicions. Florian wanted the scoundrel to see him as nothing more than an empty headed tease...ripe for debauching.

It was a fine line Florian was walking, and he knew it. He had to seem seductive enough to interest Mayles in the first place, and yet innocent enough to inflame the man's darker nature to its utmost and thus make him toss caution to the wind. He'd been careless with Ray, as Florian suspected he normally wouldn't have attempted his tricks on an unknown quantity such as the mysterious Count Courland. Florian knew that this type of devil relied on his victim's pride keeping his own misdeeds unknown to the high circles in which he traveled. No doubt he had something on Twiningham, which made the young Lord lead likely marks to him. Someone like Ray, who was a fighter and would never forgive being cheated, was not a smart choice.

In fact, Mayles had sensed as much when that fool Twiningham first brought the man into the club. Within minutes of watching the Count's cat-like grace and his long, elegant fingers toying with the slim cigarette that perpetually hung from those shapely lips, Mayles was captivated. His mind had been filled with images of other places he wanted to see those fingers, those lips. His fantasies became all the more arousing when he realized that Courland was far younger than his poise and powerful presence suggested. Mayles found he couldn't resist the lure of those unfathomable green eyes. He didn't want to risk losing this prey so he'd given the signal for Courland's very first glass of wine to be drugged when normally he would have at least tried to win honestly. The fact that the man proved to have so very much money on him, and was so very stubborn in his play, was merely an added bonus. Ray's unusual recklessness was a boon to his plans, as normally a man like Mayles never would have been able to outwit a man who had eluded the best minds on the continent. It was just Mayles' luck that he'd caught Ray in a very bad frame of mind and with very full pockets.

Money always came in handy; Mayles pursued an expensive lifestyle. But his true goal in this encounter was the man himself. From the haunted look in Courland's lovely eyes as the cards went against him, Mayles sensed that his prize was no stranger to places where people could be bought and sold as easily as gems.

The blond was a different matter altogether. A rich dilettante, was Mayles' guess, no doubt accompanied by Courland as they traveled through the great cities of Europe. Young nobles no longer did the "Grand Tour" as a matter of course, but it was still quite acceptable for titled young men to spend the years between college and settling down, in aimless travel with their peers. The Rochefort family was an old one, and while there were some rumors about the condition of the French branch's estate, this scion of the family looked well-off. That signet ring alone was worth a pretty penny. But those jewel like eyes were what interested Mayles most. He couldn't wait to see them darkened in passion. The Duke looked young, barely out of his teens for all his poise and grand airs. The Earl smiled as he watched that nimble tongue dart out yet again to moisten those lush lips. Yes, he was going to taste those lips, he promised himself. Soon.

Watching Ray when Mayles' attention was diverted, Florian was concerned to see how pale he was. He decided he'd better bring this third and decisive game to a close as soon as possible. It would look suspicious if he suddenly were to abandon the faltering manner of play he'd adopted to lull Mayles into a false sense of superiority, but it was a fatiguing and time consuming way to play. He would have to come up with something to speed the game up. He hoped that Laila was still safely at her place in the little side room and was keeping alert. They might need to make a quick exit. The room was much emptier than it had been, with only a few men still remaining, scattered in twos and threes about the room, most of them engrossed in their own play.

It occurred to Ray, whose mind was slowly winning its fight against the effects of the drugged wine, that far from not knowing what he was doing, Florian was in fact, doing a masterful job of hustling the hustler. Over the course of the next several minutes of play, Florian made no obvious changes to his style or quality of play, yet he was managing to just barely take enough tricks to win more points than he lost. At the same time, he stepped up his teasing, one moment leaning forward so that Mayles was given a view down the now open front of his ruffled shirt, the next, stretching out his long legs so that the muscles in his thighs were displayed to advantage...not to mention the bulge that rested between those long legs. Since Florian was seated sideways, Mayles was treated to quite an eyeful as Florian lounged back against the arm of the chair and hung one leg over the side. Ray couldn't help admiring the fine show he was putting on, wondering from where his shy Amethyst was drawing the courage to act in such a manner.

If Ray only knew, Florian was pretending he was Noir, fearless, devil may care jewel thief, who laughed at danger and bowed to no man. The only problem, Florian lamented, was that the courage that was second nature to Noir was all bravado for him. He was terrified that Mayles would win, or that he would do something to Ray or himself that Florian wouldn't be able to handle. He prayed that the cards continued to fall his way and that they were permitted to leave once he won, fair and square. The presence of a few other patrons made him hope that they would be permitted to leave, money and honor intact, once this game from hell was over. He also cringed at the thought of what those men must be thinking of the Duke of Rochefort, to be acting in such a manner, but pushed that thought from his mind. He didn't care about the opinion of any man who frequented such a place any way, he told himself.

"I believe you are finding your beginner's luck...and at an opportune time," Mayles' voice was tight, as the cards continued to go against him.

"Do you think so, mon ami? It can be so hard to keep track..." Florian kept his voice tentative. In actuality, he was quite sure he had won already. He slipped his feet back into his shoes and used his free hand to squeeze Ray's knee warningly.

"I think so indeed. It's remarkable how much better you are faring." There was a threat implicit in the comment.

"Rather like yourself," Ray commented in a low, lazy voice.

Both Mayles and Florian stared at the green eyed man in surprise. Of course, in Florian's case it was relieved surprise, while Mayles expression was more dismayed, but Ray ignored both of them, choosing instead to examine the cards with seeming interest. His head still hurt abominably but alerted by Florian's signal that the end was near, he dug deep into his reserves of strength and nerve to assist as best he could. He sensed that his Amethyst needed some help bringing this matter to a close.

"What are you suggesting, Courland?" Mayles' tones were silky again.

The green eyes looked up, meeting the challenge. There was no hint of fogginess left in their depths, although Florian suspected that it was pure strength of will that was driving Ray now.

"I suggest nothing, Mayles, unless you are implying that there is anything untoward about my dear friend Florian experiencing the same improvement in luck that you exhibited when you played me earlier."

Florian smiled brightly and interrupted just when it looked as though Mayles would explode into violence, "Such is the way of the cards; my dear Courland is so right. A turn of the cards for you, mon ami Mayles, then a turn for me, it is all in the turn of the cards, oui? That is the lure, n'est pas?"

Mayles looked from dark green eyes to bright amethyst ones and tried to determine where he had gone wrong. The dark haired man was clearly a hardened gamester, the type of man who could best him if not hampered by unfair means, but the blond? Surely there was no more there than appeared on the surface? The French duke was an attractive but empty headed aristocrat given over to pleasures of the flesh. Mayles merely had underestimated the luck fate sometimes accorded fools. He was not going to let such a grievous miscalculation cost him a fortune, however, much less the delights of the flesh he'd been anticipating for the past several hours. Especially not after the teasing he'd been subjected to by that blond whore.

"I must congratulate you, Rochefort, on a well played game. I can see why piquet is such a favorite of yours. I hope you will do me the honor of a rematch in the near future." Mayles smiled graciously, showing all of his teeth. "Can I interest you gentlemen in a late supper while Adrian retrieves Courland's purse?"

"I fear we must be off. My poor servant must be dead on his feet and we have a riding engagement in the morning. But most certainly we shall have that rematch." Florian smiled just as pleasantly, as he added to himself, when hell freezes over.

Ray watched with smoldering eyes as Mayles assisted Florian with his jacket, those large, beefy hands lingering as they smoothed the fine cloth down the slim body. He shrugged the man's hands away from his own shoulders, but regretted doing so as the movement made his aching head spin. Only with great effort was he able to avoid staggering...even then, it was a close call until Florian made a timely step to his side to unobtrusively steady him by linking his arm in his. .

"We take our leave now...ah, there is the lovely Adrian with my Ray's purse, merci." Florian reached into Ray's wallet and pulled out several pound notes for the androgynous proprietor to reward her for her services. Ray wasn't sure what the gratuity was for...drugging him or not drugging Florian but trusted Florian to know the correct etiquette for the occasion. The young man who brought the water was slipped something as well. That at least was a well deserved tip, Ray thought, grateful for the water that went a long way toward clearing his head.

As they headed toward Laila, whom they could see dozing on a gilded chair in a small anteroom, from the corner of his eye, Florian also saw Mayles beckoning to a large, ugly looking man in an ill fitting suit. Giving Ray the pleasure of waking Laila up, Florian continued to watch the two men hold a conversation, their heads bent close together. The larger of the two men nodded and walked quickly from the room. Florian didn't have a good feeling about this.

"Come on, you two," he whispered. "Time to get going before we have company on the way home."

Laila looked up at him, concern in her dark eyes as he took his hat and cane from her grasp. Even in her sleep she had kept a tight hold on them.

"Trouble?" she asked anxiously as they slipped out the door, which was no longer guarded. .

"I can't be sure but it looked like Mayles wasn't taking his loss like a gentleman...he may have been sending someone to ambush us. Ray, how close to being back to Noir are you?" The three of them walked quickly down the narrow street, which was lit only by a single gas light at the end of the block.

"As close as I need to be," was the grimly spoken response. Just then, Laila screamed as Florian was grabbed from behind and pulled into a dark alley, dropping his cane in the process. Thinking quickly, Laila snatched up the cane and tossed it to Ray, telling him in the street language of their native Morocco, it has a sword hidden inside it...use it to save him.

True to his word, Noir, moved faster and more silently than a jungle cat, into the shadows. He freed the thin deadly sword from its sheath as he slipped behind the large man who held Florian his broad chest, his thick forearm crushing against the pale throat. A second man held a club and waved it threateningly at Laila.

"Where'd he go? Where'd the green eyed one go? The boss wants him the most, boy, so you'd better tell me where he is or it won't go too well for your pretty purple eyed friend here."

The club wielder looked down at Laila, who had crouched low, ready to attack as soon as she saw an opening.

"Maybe he is behind you?" she suggested in a mocking tone. "Why don't you turn around and look?"

"Yeah, and have you run away for help? You think we're stupid? You tell your friend to come out from wherever he's hiding or we hurt the blond, you got that? I heard you use that funny language before, you little heathen. Trying to trick an Englishman, I should whack you one just for the cheek."

"No, indeed, she made an excellent suggestion, you want me, you should have turned around," Noir said as he drove the sword deep into the man holding Florian. He wrest it clear in time to catch his gasping lover, who had been struggling for air. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the other man being distracted, Laila had no trouble rendering him unconscious and quickly tying him up.

"What do we do with these two, boss? Neither one is dead." She made the last comment rather regretfully.

Noir shrugged. "Leave them. Mayles is sure to find them. I wounded the large one seriously but he should live...man his size can bleed for awhile before he dies, mores the pity. Let's catch a taxi and get home now." He cleaned the sword off on the smaller villain's coat and sheathed it.

"Are you feeling well enough to go back to the house or do you need a doctor?" Ray asked Florian, who was still struggling to catch his breath. He was leaning quite heavily on the younger man.

"Home," he said hoarsely.

Florian was settled in bed after a warm bath and a hot cup of soothing tea. There were some skills at which a London butler excelled, he mused, and pampering one after an attack by "footpads" was one of them. He was just setting down his empty cup when Ray came into the room, toweling off his dark hair. From his appearance, he'd just finished his own hot bath. His hair was still curling damply around his face and he looked far younger than he normally did.

"So," Ray began, leaning against the bedpost, his dressing robe falling open just enough to reveal that he wasn't wearing anything else. "You were quite dashing tonight."

Florian raised an eyebrow. "You mean you aren't going to reprimand me?"

"Why would I do that?" Ray purred, letting his robe slip open a bit more as he reclined across the bottom of Florian's bed. "I got myself into trouble through admittedly rash behavior...somewhat like someone else we know often does, now that I think of it...and you came to my rescue...rather like someone else that we know usually does. It was rather like a turn of the cards when you think of it, wouldn't you say?"

Florian smiled ruefully. "I would say, especially since the cards turned back again before the adventure was over, and once again, I needed to be rescued by you."

"Ah, but you were the one who thought to have a weapon handy. I think we actually made a good team." Ray crawled up the bed, the silky robe falling from his satiny shoulders as he moved toward his prey. Florian's tongue wet his suddenly dry lips as his Amethyst eyes darkened in arousal. He found himself pinned down in the bed, the beautiful body covering him as the deep green eyes looked into his.

"You know," the deep voice said as a muscular arm reached over to dim the light on the bedside table. "You did win me for the night."

"Just one night?" Florian gasped as his neck was captured by hot searching lips and hard flesh pressed into his.

"Mmm hmm, after that, you go back to being my Amethyst. Forever."

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