With thanks to Astra Plain and Thyme, for their help and encouragement.
"What sad story are you reading tonight?" Noir grinned as he slipped into the dark room where a single light revealed that the room's only other inhabitant was still awake.
Florian set aside the slim volume he had been reading to take his mind off the anxiety he still couldn't stop indulging in after all this time. He didn't bother mentioning it; he knew that if Ray had any inkling just how much he suffered when Noir carried out his daring escapades, Ray's double life as an international jewel thief would come to an end. But the excitement and adventure that were the life's blood of his alter ego Noir, were as necessary to Ray as opium to an addict. Lord knew he didn't need any more money; Ray Courland was a genius whose shrewd and diverse investments ensured that they would be well off no matter what happened in the world's financial markets. Ray just needed two things to be happy with his life, a challenge against which to sharpen his wits, and beauty upon which to feast his eyes. In Noir's dangerous occupation, he found both. Florian knew, and accepted this about his lover–it was just another aspect of the man he loved.
In truth, what Ray realized was that he found those very things that his soul thirsted for in his Amethyst, which is why, if he were ever asked by Florian to give up his life as Noir, he would....although he'd probably have to think long and hard about it. He was just glad Florian had never asked. He knew it bothered his oh so proper lover, and Florian's attitude alternately frustrated and amused him. Sometimes he'd tease him with his exploits, driving him frantic with tales of how he'd tweaked the nose of the local police, especially one Solomon Sugar, a former police officer, now private detective, who made it his task in life to capture the notorious jewel thief Noir. With the poor success those gentlemen were having, Sugar was guaranteed a long and busy career, Noir thought with an inward grin. Other times, when he saw the dark shadows under those fine amethyst eyes, and knew it was his fault that Florian had another sleepless night, he felt guilty and sought to distract himself and his partner from what they both knew he'd been doing.
Tossing the evening's take down on a side table, out of view, he reached a gloved hand out to pick up Florian's book.
"Stories by O. Henry." he read. "Anything interesting?" Florian invariably read sad stories late at night, which Ray couldn't understand at all. He knew the man worried, although really, there wasn't any reason, Ray knew what he was doing, but if he was already jumpy, why not read something cheerful to take his mind off his fears? Instead, Florian read the most depressing stories! No wonder his imagination ran to the worst possible thoughts!
Ray tossed the book over by the bag of jewels, intending to take a look at it later, seeking, as always, a clue to understanding the complex man he'd "bought" five years before, and yet, who really possessed him more deeply every day.
Florian reached out a long, slim fingered hand, which was much stronger than it looked, and, grasping Ray's wrist, pulled him close.
"Good thing I finished it, since you seem to have 'stolen' my book along with the rest of your loot tonight," he observed, tugging the gloves off Ray's captive hands after he pinned the dark haired man under his longer body. Ray was broader and more muscular, but Florian had a long, lean strength to him, and had learned to use his long limbs to advantage...especially in bed. His nightshirt rode up, distracting Ray enough to enable Florian to straddle him completely, rendering him defenseless...for the moment.
Ray smiled seductively, looking up at him from beneath long dark lashes, green eyes sparkling. "Am I your prisoner, Amethyst? When all I wanted was a bedtime story? Now you have me helpless."
Florian threw his head back and laughed. "The day you are helpless will be two days after you are planted six feet under...and I hope that won't be until long after I am dead and gone before you."
Ray flipped their positions easily, although Florian had no idea how he did it--he could have sworn he had his weight distributed just the way Ray had taught him to keep a man pinned–and he smiled devilishly down into his lover's eyes, before rolling and pulling them both into a sitting position up against the pillows, Florian tucked comfortably against his chest.
"Well," Ray continued as though there hadn't been a break in the conversation, "since you are two years older, it only makes sense that you will precede me into the grave, but only when we're both old and wrinkled and bald...."
"Eww, not bald," Florian objected.
"Well, maybe not bald," Ray conceded, grinning, "but gray, definitely gray. We're talking ninety-seven and ninety-nine, after all, so we're bound to be a bit gray, even you, though I understand that blond hair doesn't show it as badly."
"No, it doesn't," Florian said agreeably, "my great, great, grand-father had very nice silvery blond hair as I recall. But he was only eighty-eight when he passed away, he may well have gotten more grayish if he had made it another ten years. You really are quite nonsensical, you know that, don't you?"
"Not at all," Ray objected, running his fingers through the fine strands of his lover's fair hair that fell across his shoulders and chest, now that Florian's busy fingers had unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it open and off. "I make perfect sense. But, I'm still waiting to hear about your sad book. If you tell me the story, I won't have to read it myself. You know how lazy I am."
Florian scoffed at the idea of Ray lazy but obliged, telling him the American writer, O. Henry's tale of the poor young lovers' unselfish gifts for each other.
"Well, that was stupid," Ray commented. He loved listening to Florian's beautiful rich voice, and indeed, was touched by the tale, but he couldn't resist teasing him over the romantic nature of it. "I think they both would have been better off had they given each other a list...that's what we should do, give each other a list. That way there are no misunderstandings and no useless gifts like brushes for hairless girls and chains for watchless men." He waited for Florian's spirited reply, which he knew was coming. Five years with a man, you learned a few things if you weren't a total idiot. He had to wait for the indignant sputtering to stop, of course.
"It isn't about the material gift! Don't you understand, Ray! They each loved the other more than their most treasured possession! Sometimes I wonder about you! His watch was so important to him, but he loved her more than the mere material item, and yes, even more than the sentimental value of the watch, because it had that too! And she loved him more than her hair, which symbolized her vanity, but also her womanly beauty to others, so what she was saying was that she was putting him ahead of all others. All that she had to give, all that was truly hers that hadn't come from him, was her hair, and that too she gave to him...it is beautiful! The gifts weren't meaningless, they were the most meaningful things they could have given each other! They gave of themselves!"
Florian's eyes were flashing, the amethyst darkening to deep purple. He was up on his knees, his chest heaving, his hair down in his face. He was so incredibly beautiful that Ray could hardly breathe. He reached out for him.
"No...think about it, Ray...what have I ever done to show my love that is anything like that?" Florian had that determined look on his face. Uh oh, Ray thought.
"Florian, you have done so much for me, you just said, money doesn't prove love." Ray felt he made a very good point. He reached out again.
"But that's just it, Ray. Both of us still think in traditional ways. This couple, they gave up something that hurt...something that meant more than the world to them...they were in sync. I want us to have a love like that."
Why didn't I stay in tonight, Ray thought despairingly. Then he had a terrible thought.
"You aren't going to cut your hair, are you?"
"No," Florian waved his hand impatiently. "That worked for them. But, Laila reminded me today that it's been five years since...well...since...."
"Since I bought you," Ray offered but knew it was a mistake as soon as the words were out.
Florian started to get out of the bed. Ray pulled him back.
"I didn't mean it like that. I don't even think of it like that," he started to explain but he was talking to a very stiff back.
"Then why would that be the first thing that came to your mind? Anyway, it's true. It's been five years since you purchased me from my mother. I was thinking we should celebrate in some fashion...but what does one do to celebrate an acquisition attaining five years? Check its warranty? Trade it in for a newer model? Do I depreciate or appreciate over time? You know I don't have your head for business."
Ray winced. He touched the stiff shoulder and rubbed it comfortingly. "We've been through too much together for you to think you're a possession to me. What will it take for those unfortunate words to be forgiven?"
Florian rolled over. There was a calculating gleam in his lovely eyes. "You stole my book. You figure it out. Now, I'm glad you're home safely, Noir, but I think I'd like to get some sleep."
Ray drew his brows together. This was ridiculous.
"You're kicking me out over an unfortunate comment, one I've already said I didn't mean?" He asked incredulously.
"Unless I don't have the freedom to do so." Florian folded his arms and dared Ray to stay.
There was a time Ray would have taken that dare. And regretted it. Not immediately. In the short run he would have been lost in the pleasures of that beautiful face and body–and he was skilled enough that Florian would have enjoyed it too. But, Florian would have hated himself, and by extension, Ray, afterward, and the fact that his body betrayed him by giving in to desire made it worse in the blond's mind. So, Ray got up and walked slowly to the table where the bag of jewels and the book rested.
He turned and looked solemnly at Florian.
"I'll play this game of yours, my dear Amethyst...there will be many nights, after all, before we're old and gray and one of us is in that grave, what's one less? But, maybe you should be thinking too, since the Magi brought two gifts, didn't they? Not just one. As I recall, we have just ten days until our fifth anniversary...not much time to think of the perfect gift."
Ray left by the same window he entered. Florian wished he would use the door sometimes, as he shivered, telling himself it was the draft from the window. But, deep down, he knew it was really the suspicion that there would come a day when the one left behind would give anything for one more night with the other; he could only hope he wasn't the one left knowing that his temper was what cost him that extra night of happiness.
Ray's head was bent over a book in his library when Laila hunted him down.
"Are you going to eat anything?" She stood, arms akimbo, brown eyes glaring. He just glanced at her and went back to his reading. Give Laila an inch and she'd have you, tied down, being spoon fed and dressed in short pants and frilly shirts, back in the nursery. At least, that was the more innocuous of possible outcomes, he thought whimsically. He refused to let him mind travel down any other paths...the first was bad enough. The others would make it impossible to look her in her lovesick face any time in the next year. Some days, especially when he and Florian were on the outs, Laila dithered between mothering and smothering him...if he had to choose, he'd pick the mothering, although her buddy mode was by far his preference. Let her mother Florian, he needed it more. Poor guy, he was probably getting bread and water this week, although given Laila's cooking, that could be the better fare.
"Seriously, Ray, you haven't touched your lunch tray and your breakfast was barely picked at! Just because you and his highness are fighting is no reason for you to..."
"Laila, stop calling Florian names. After all this time, don't you think you could treat him with more respect? As he does you?" Ray spoke mildly but firmly enough to make it clear to her that he meant what he said. To her credit, she no longer did it when others were around, well, others besides Florian or Ray. She didn't do it in front of Sugar, for example, or Florian's ward, young Noel, but it was open season when the three of them were alone. Or when it was just Ray and her, as now.
She was biting her lip now, her eyes bright. As he often did when confronted with her obvious feelings for him, which, as much as he cared for her, he would never be able to return the way she would like, he tried to be as gentle as possible. He and Laila went back a long time, far more than five years. He owed her a great deal, and in his way, he loved her. Just not the way he loved Florian.
"Laila, I know you are just looking out for me, and I appreciate it, you know I do. We look out for each other. Florian, he's different from us, he can't help it, and I guess he'll always be different. He was raised to be a gentleman, not a street rat like you and me. You mock what you call his royal ways, but a lot of that is what makes him special because its not fake, it's bone deep. He would no sooner do something he thought was wrong, like steal or lie than, than, strike you across the face! It isn't in his nature. He's a better man than I am, Laila, and I won't have him made fun of for that."
"But you are every bit as good a man as he is!" she cried. "You couldn't help being abandoned as a child, and I'd like to have seen him survive the streets and keep his fine ways!"
"He was abandoned...to me, and he was plenty tough," Ray reminded her harshly, tired of the discussion. "He's kept his fine ways, proving that it can be done. A man doesn't have to turn into a thief to survive."
"You saved him, Noir, he would have had to sell himself on the streets if it weren't for you," Laila insisted stubbornly. Ray had to give her credit. Even when the signs were clear that she should shut up, she still defended what she saw as his honor...even when he didn't want her defense. He held up a hand.
"Enough. I had only money to offer, but nothing can buy honor, and Florian's was never for sale. That is the whole point of this argument, Laila, so if you don't have anything useful to say, please. Just take that tray away and bring me some wine. I promise, I'll eat dinner but I don't want any food now."
Florian had been standing outside the library door but that was his clue to move away. He didn't want to have another altercation with Laila. Besides, Ray's words had given him much to think about...as had Laila's. He stepped out into the garden before she exited the library, carrying the rejected tray.
Ray continued his reading, mumbling to himself.
"Hmm, the fifth anniversary is associated with sapphires...Florian wouldn't be impressed with jewelry. It's too easy. Coming from a jewel thief, he'd just accuse me of stealing it even if I bought him the most precious, rarest sapphire in the world. I wonder what that would be? No, I won't get distracted. Each year has a flower too. Fifth is the daisy. Such a pedestrian flower, though. Any street urchin could sell me that for a...I have to stop thinking of the monetary value...think outside the box...that's what I have to do. So, daisies? Something simple? Outside the box...but it's so, so...."
Ray's eye fell on the next page. The fifth anniversary was the wood anniversary. Wood. Could he do something with that? The point of Henry's story, and he had read it, a couple of times, in fact, was not just to give up what was most important, as Florian said, but to Ray, he felt it meant for the lover to give up a part of himself. The watch was a part of the husband's history, his connection to his past, and the wife's hair was a part of herself.
So, what would be a link to Ray's past that he could give to Florian, to help him understand him a little bit better, since that was what Florian always wanted, a better understanding of Ray. He wasn't a jealous man but he did envy Laila her greater knowledge of Ray's past. Of course, what Florian had seen of it, his time with Azura, had been a nightmare, but it wasn't all like that. There were those barely remembered days in the desert when his father was still alive, and he used to hold Ray in his lap and tell him stories. Count Courland would carve him toys from the sweet smelling wood found in the desert, the dalbergia, or sonokeling, what his mother called rosewood. She'd had a lovely jewelry box made from it by his father, Ray remembered. Maybe Ray could make something like that? And make carvings on the top, as his father had for his mother.
He pulled a piece of paper over and started to design a simple box. Next, he would go down to the marketplace. There should be something among the Indian merchants' ware that would do. He hadn't done this type of knife work in a long time, but a long time ago he used to play more innocent games with his knives. He had several days to practice and perfect his skills. A smile curved his lips as he worked on his design.
Florian was getting worried. Ray had been looking mysteriously content over the past couple of days. Which meant that he had solved his puzzle of the gift. It was either going to be a spectacular failure or a brilliant success and knowing Ray's genius...and the fact that deep down inside he had an amazing capacity for the outrageously romantic gesture...Florian just knew that it would be the latter. Which annoyed him to no end. If Ray had failed, Florian could have laughed and graciously forgiven him, because it was obvious that he'd tried. And they would have failed together. But if Ray succeeded and Florian failed...when Florian was supposed to be the romantic one...it didn't bear thinking of. He just had to come up with something worthy to be a Magi's gift. For about an hour, he was seriously considering cutting his long blond hair but ultimately rejected it as too unoriginal to count.
So, what could he do? His thoughts kept coming back to the conversation he'd overheard between Ray and Laila...he thought he'd been "meant" to hear it, by some higher power, since he'd been particularly desperate at that moment for inspiration. His heart rejected the idea that he was a better man than Ray; he was in full agreement with Laila on that point! He knew that Ray gave away most of the money and jewels he stole and he certainly never stole from anyone who would be in hardship from the loss. Ray wasn't like Azura, he didn't enjoy causing pain, and he did a great deal of good. His treatment of Florian had been proof of that. Florian had pushed him at every turn, but he showed a great deal of patience and kindness, often rewarded with insults and....
That was it. Florian walked quickly to the kitchen.
"Laila, do you have the newspapers from last week?"
The petite brunette looked at him curiously. "I don't know. We usually throw them out after Ray gets everything out of them that he thinks he might want to save. Why?"
"Do you remember that story about his great-uncle being in residence in the city...the one that made him so angry? Do you know if that was saved?"
"Oh that one? It wasn't. He threw it into the fire as soon as I brought it to his attention, why?"
Florian felt like gnashing his teeth. "Do you know where I might find another copy? Please."
She looked at him speculatively. "Why?"
"I...I'm trying to work things out with Ray and I'd like to check something out in that article but I really can't tell you more...please, Laila, can you find me another copy?" They hadn't said they couldn't get help from the staff or tell what the deal was, but Florian didn't want to share with Ray's chief accomplice and the woman who had an unrequited love for him exactly what he was doing. He wasn't sure whether she would help or hinder him; on any given day either was possible.
"I'm not sure but you might try that Solomon Sugar; he is obsessed with Ray and saves everything on him. But Ray wouldn't like you going to him, I'd bet. Or you reading about his nasty family. He hates them. They act like he doesn't exist."
"I know...and that isn't right," Florian grimly said. "But maybe something can be done about that. Thank you, Laila, your help is much appreciated."
Florian had a servant take a note over to Solomon Sugar's rooms, asking the detective to meet him at a café for tea that afternoon, with the instruction to wait for a reply. Receiving an acceptance a short while later, Florian told Laila he had some errands to run and would grab tea while he was out. He knew the servant he'd used was on the outs with her so any attempt by her to pry into the substance of Florian's earlier messages was unlikely to glean her any information.
Sitting across from the aesthetically handsome detective, Florian was nervous. He'd never done anything like this before. But...he felt in his gut that is was the right thing to do. Besides...he was really righting an injustice. If not in the eyes of the law, on a more basic level.
"So, to what do I owe the honor, de Rochefort?" Sugar smiled over his teacup. His Grace, the very attractive Duke de Rochefort was not in the practice of inviting men to tea alone, without his patron, Count Ray Balzac Courland, aka, the infamous jewel thief Noir. Sugar had devoted years to the devil's capture, but ruefully admitted that he might have had more success if he didn't admire the rogue so damn much. If he were brutally honest, which Solomon made a point of avoiding unless he were very, very drunk, he'd admit that his attraction for the dark haired, green-eyed thief made him loathe to see all that lithe young beauty in chains.
Looking across the table, he had to admit that the combination of blond hair and glowing amethyst eyes, paired as it was with an appealing air of fragility, had much to recommend it also. Sugar was charmed by the sweet smile sent his way, and relaxed the guard he would have kept up had it been Ray on the other side of the table. Everyone knew that de Rochefort had nothing to do with Noir's schemes...even if he couldn't catch Noir red-handed, Sugar would bet his last franc on Florian's being as innocent as he knew Courland to be guilty.
"Thank you for meeting with me, Detective Sugar. I was intrigued to read of your being hired to guard the person and property of the acknowledged head of the Courland family...the English branch that is. My mother always recognized Ray's claim, of course. I thought it was quite clever of the man...you've always been Ray's nemesis, although we acknowledge our debt to you also. You stood our friend in Morocco and I can never repay you." Florian nodded gratefully.
Solomon blushed and disclaimed. "There is no need, your Grace."
"Please...I wish you would call me Florian. After you save a man's life, such formality as a title seems rather silly don't you think?" Florian gently complained, his smile taking the sting out of his words.
Solomon felt his cheeks redden even more. It wasn't every day that he was asked to call a Duke by his first name, even one who had lost his property, and he was enough of a snob to feel flattered. "I must insist you call me Solomon then."
Florian nodded his acquiescence, then launched into his planned speech. His new friend, Solomon was cautious at first, but soon, beguiled by a pair of large amethyst eyes, agreed to help.
"All you want me to do is meet with Ray for dinner in a public place while you call on Sir Mathew Courland? And I have your word as a gentleman that this is not part of any plot by Ray to steal any family heirlooms, right?"
Florian smiled sweetly. "You have my word. It is because of that type of assumption that I need the protection of Ray being in the company of someone beyond reproach, above suspicion when I make my call upon my cousin Matthew. We are related also, you know, as are Ray and myself, second cousins, but when you've lost as much family as I have...." He let his sentence falter, and Solomon rushed into speech.
"I quite understand. Just because Ray and his family are at odds is no reason for you to cut off all ties. I am sure Sir Matthew will welcome your acquaintance, he is quite a stickler for the old ways, as your mother was. I am sure he will recall your father and I've heard you look very much like him." Solomon wasn't sure how much the old bastard would appreciate the type of relationship Florian had with his great-nephew, but he trusted that Florian knew how to be discreet. He really was a most well bred young man. Although Solomon couldn't help being partial to the wilder Ray, he could appreciate the open and genteel qualities Florian offered.
The excellent detective would have been surprised if he knew just how deceptive Florian could be when motivated.
Sir Matthew was pleased with his young visitor. The elegant young man was dressed properly for visiting a man of his standing: in fashionable, well fitting clothes but not too fashionable as to appear trendy. His long hair was neatly tied back, and while Sir Matthew did not as a general rule approve of long hair on men, the style was so reminiscent of the style in his father's day that he couldn't help but think it flattering. For all that the youth's own title was higher than his host's, he showed a flattering deference which appealed to Sir Matthew's ego without making him feel his years too keenly.
Yes, a most attractive young relative.
"I believe you are right, the connection would be, oh, second cousins, once removed...I know my aunt always knew the exact degree but why quibble. I knew your father very well. Attended any number of functions together. Was at the wedding, yes, I was, bet that surprises you. You should have had a silver christening cup from us, the wife sent."
Florian smiled his thanks for the generous gift to a young relative so many years ago. He knew he must have received at least two dozen such items, and they all were sold many years ago by his impoverished mother, along with most other items of any value, to fund her pretense that all was fine at the de Rochefort estate. He gently led his host to a discussion of Courland trinkets...and not to small items of value, especially those items that would have passed down from father to son, had a certain son not run off to explore the world many years ago, and left his own son alone and fatherless in that harsh foreign world.
"The estate here was ransacked by my great nephew...well, I believe you are friends so I won't say anything against him," the rheumy eyes looked at Florian sharply for a moment but Florian was careful to keep his expression bland. Let the old man make of that what he wished. Or perhaps he should help him to a conclusion, an imp of mischief whispered in Florian's mind.
"Well," he said, looking away for a moment, as though thinking of painful memories, "Count Courland has been...very...understanding with me, after he made an arrangement with my relatives for my... housing and found that I was not party to that arrangement. I have found employment with him as... a secretary."
Let's see what the old bastard makes of that, Florian thought. The avid light in the old man's eyes told Florian he'd heard the more lurid stories and he was dying to know if they were true but manners prevented him from asking anything more openly. But, he suspected, oh, he suspected, and if he didn't miss his guess, the old man was more than a little titillated by his thoughts.
"It is a shame you didn't know to come to me, lad. I would have been happy to help you out, and you certainly wouldn't have had to work! A man such as yourself? God forbid! You would have been welcomed as a treasured family member. It's just me, you know, now that the wife is gone and the children are all grown. Would have welcomed the company."
Florian was disgusted. He felt much better about what he planned to do. He sipped from the wine he'd been given.
"It's so good to meet a family member of such honor," he murmured. "Were you able to preserve anything of value, perhaps a signet ring from your forebears? Or did your great-nephew get everything?"
"Ah, that's where I outsmarted him," Sir Matthew gloated. He pointed to a curio case that stood in the corner of the room.
"Over there are some of the treasures of the Courland family. I take them everywhere I go. Knowing I was coming right into the thief's den, so to speak, I took precautions, see? I'm sure you must know the rumors, that Courland is none other than that thief, Noir? Well, knowing I was coming here, I hired the best expert on that rascal in all of Paris, none other than Solomon Sugar. If anyone can keep my treasures safe, it's him!"
"Oh yes, Detective Sugar is the best. I must tell you, I would trust my own treasure to him to keep safe from harm," Florian assured the old fool.
Indeed, on this night, I have, he thought whimsically. With that thought, he placed a hand to his head. "Sir Matthew, I am feeling quite ill. Are you sure...was the wine...I'm afraid my wine was not..." Swooning dramatically, Florian fell to the floor.
Ray looked at Sugar suspiciously.
"When is Florian getting here?"
"I was told that he would be here by seven o'clock. You have a note, it says the same thing, you already waved it at me. So relax. Why don't you order another drink?" Solomon was amused by Ray's glares. The green eyes were flashing at him as though he had done something nefarious with the young nobleman in order to get Ray alone. Not a bad plan, but it wasn't his plan tonight. In fact, tonight's plan wasn't his at all. He was merely...what was he doing? Providing Ray with an alibi while Florian visited his cousin. Suddenly, Solomon felt uneasy. Why would Ray need an alibi? He looked at his timepiece. It was now past eight. Where was Florian?
"Sugar, as fun as your company is...sometimes...I thought I was meeting Florian for dinner. We've kind of, well, it's none of your business what's going on with us, but I was looking forward to a pleasant evening out with him. And, actually, an even more pleasant night later...and I know you catch my drift. So, if you don't mind, I'm going to bid you good evening and...."
"Where is Florian?" Solomon demanded, grabbing Ray by the arm. Ray stared at him, incredulous, before knocking the man's hand away.
"Have you been drinking more than I saw? I was just asking you that! What do you know that I don't?" His own grasp on the detective's arm was much more painful.
Fortunately for Solomon's circulation, the servant that Florian had used before came up to their table just then. Both men turned to him when he said, "Sir!"
Ray glared at Solomon and then turned back to his employee. "What is it?"
"It is Lord de Rochefort, sir...he's quite ill. The driver brought him back a short while ago. Laila sent me for you. She called for the doctor. She thinks he's been poisoned!"
Solomon frowned. Florian had been to visit Sir Matthew Courland. How could he have been poisoned? The old man was a greedy old bastard, but Solomon would have bet his last dollar on him being a harmless one...except. He had been willing to cut his great nephew out of his rightful inheritance. Could he have argued with Florian over that? Perhaps Florian confronted him with evidence of Ray's rightful claim and he took steps...permanent steps to silence him?
"I need to go." Both Ray and Sugar spoke at the same time. Ray looked at Sugar oddly but he didn't want to waste time with the detective, Florian needed him.
"You'll be explaining this to me later, Sugar," he warned.
"You can count on it," Solomon responded grimly, as he headed off to his employer. "Take care of your young man and send him my best wishes for a fast recovery."
Ray nodded as he followed his man out to the car.
Once home, he found a pale Florian lying back in bed while Laila and the doctor hovered over him.
"Florian, what happened?"
"It seems your friend ingested some peanuts...he is not sure how he could have done so, but he is quite deathly allergic to them he tells me," the doctor explained. "Fortunately, he realized it in time to...ah, eliminate the offending matter from his system."
"He puked," Laila translated helpfully.
"Thank you, Laila, I understood already. Will he be all right?" Ray looked worriedly at the fine sheen of sweat that covered the pale brow.
"I've given him some medicine which should ease his breathing. Rest and light foods, some clear broths for tomorrow and he should be fine."
Ray asked Laila to see the doctor out and sat on the edge of Florian's bed.
"Are you really okay? Can you tell me what really happened? How could you accidentally eat peanuts? You're always so careful."
Florian peeped out from behind his long lashes. "Shh, I think we might have company soon. I'll explain later...remember, I'm very weak and sick."
He frowned even harder when he heard the commotion at his front door. He walked quickly to the head of the stairs.
"What is the meaning of this racket?" He called down in his most commanding voice, keeping it low enough so as not to disturb Florian, but pitching it so that it clearly carried to the group gathered at the front door.
"You! Give it back right now, you low life scoundrel!" The heavyweight bald headed clown could only be his great uncle, Ray surmised. The English branch of the family always did run to fat as they aged, and he was thinking of them when he mentioned balding to Florian days earlier in his teasing about the future. He shuddered now, at the thought of losing his own thick locks, as he gazed at that shiny pate.
"It's good to see you too, Uncle Matt. And Sugar...couldn't get enough of me tonight? You wish for an after dinner cocktail?"
"What is he blathering about, Sugar? Arrest him! He stole the Courland necklace and ring! Who else? It must have been him!"
"What is it, Ray?" Florian was suddenly by his side, clutching the wall, pale and sweating from the effort, clad in his ornate dressing robe.
Ray grabbed him before he could fall down the stairs and lifted him in his arms. "Excuse me, gentlemen. Sugar, deal with this. Florian is quite ill; someone poisoned him tonight. The doctor can explain."
Ray turned before he had the satisfaction of seeing his great-uncle turn as pale as Florian. But Sugar noticed it.
"Doctor, could you explain, please?"
The doctor succinctly explained that somehow young de Rochefort was given extract of peanuts, in his wine that evening, which all of Paris knew the de Rocheforts were infamously allergic to, and but for the quick thinking of his servant, might have expired on the drive home, since his host apparently packed him off to be driven home in an unconscious state, according to the servant.
"And who was that host?" Solomon inquired, smoothly noting that Ray had silently rejoined the group and was waiting, arms crossed over his chest, for the answer to that question. Solomon knew, but he wanted the question answered by an impartial party. Even better would be if Sir Matthew confessed to hosting Florian, but denied responsibility for the tainted drink. Certainly there would be no reason for peanut oil to be in wine. Could it have been in the refreshments? But Florian would know to avoid any cake or food he didn't know to be peanut free.
Before the doctor could answer, Laila blurted out, "He was at his house!" She pointed a finger at Sir Matthew. "You must have done it! You poisoned poor Florian...oh, Ray is going to kill you!"
"But, but, I didn't...I didn't know he was allergic to peanuts...." the man blustered.
"So you admit to giving him wine with peanut oil mixed in? Why would you do that?" Ray asked, his eyes narrowed dangerously.
"No! I didn't! This is a plot! The man just passed out! The wine was fine! He was talking, and I said I would have welcomed him into my home...well, not like that! He just didn't feel well, and all of a sudden, went down...I tried to revive him, but he was agitated and sick, and wanted to go home, so, I sent him home in his own car with his own driver...I didn't know he was that sick."
"He could have died! Why didn't you go with him?" The doctor was aghast.
"But I was worried about leaving my treasures alone! I did check on him! I followed his driver all the way down the drive and watched until they were out of sight just to be sure he didn't need any help. It was quite a walk...I had to rest two or three times before I made it back up to the house and then I had to lie down. I didn't go back to my study until some time later and that's when I discovered the burglary! The window was wide open and my cabinet had been broken into...the Courland necklace and ring...."
"Yes, yes, we heard you before. But you don't seriously expect us to believe that Count Courland harmed his Grace simply to break into your house for a few trinkets?" The doctor raised his eyebrows. No one could look as skeptical as your average Frenchman, Solomon mused. But, the man had a point, which he proceeded to hammer home to the hapless English Baron. "Perhaps, good sir, you are unaware, but Count Courland is not only a dear friend of Florian de Rochefort, and a kinsman, but he is also one of the richest men in Paris! My pardons, Count, but it is an absurdity!"
The doctor shook his head and made his excuses, murmuring of other patients to be seen. Ray thanked him for his prompt attention to Florian and requested that his bill be sent as soon as possible so that it could be settled.
Ray turned to his great-uncle. "You had certain accusations, dear uncle?"
Solomon sighed. "I must advise you, sir, after hearing the events that have transpired, that while I will do my utmost to apprehend the culprit, I must tell you that it cannot have been your nephew."
"How can you be so sure?" Sir Matthew sneered...but it was a poor thing. The Frenchmen still present sniffed in disdain. A few of them sneered, just to show him how it should be done.
"Because," Solomon couldn't help sighing again, he saw the end of a profitable assignment but he was an honest man, "Count Courland was in my presence for the hours from six to eight this evening. He left only when apprised of the illness that befell de Rochefort and came directly here, at which time I went directly to your property, and arrived shortly after you discovered the theft. He could not have committed the crime."
Solomon Sugar was summarily dismissed by one employer, but was immediately hired by another to investigate whether Matthew Courland attempted to murder Florian de Rochefort.
Ray was acting somewhat tongue in cheek when he hired Sugar, but it was fun to watch his great uncle's fat face get red, and while Sugar tried explaining that it could be a conflict of interest, he waived that concern off, and annoyed his uncle by airily saying he'd happily pay three times what Sugar had been getting, since money was no object to him.
He told Sugar his first job would be to remove the fat man from the premises.
He left while his uncle was still yelling.
By agreement, they met in Florian's bedroom...which was usually Ray's bedroom too except during times like this when there was a dispute going on....on the evening of their fifth anniversary. Florian had come to the house at night so it seemed appropriate that they commemorate it at night as well, although the circumstances were far different now.
Ray entered the room anxiously, by the door, holding his package behind his back and was disappointed to see that the room was empty. He was sure that they'd agreed at breakfast to meet at eight. Within minutes, however, he heard a rattle at the window. He rushed over to unlatch it.
Florian smiled at him sheepishly.
"I forgot to make sure it was unlatched," he said, breathlessly, as he climbed inside, gratefully accepting the hand Ray offered him. "This isn't as easy as you make it look, you know."
Ray let out his breath slowly. Don't yell, he told himself. This was a night for ending a fight.
"What the hell were you trying to do?" he asked, forgetting his good intentions. "Break your neck? Of course it isn't easy! You're climbing in a window from a steep roof three stories up! If it were easy, everyone would be a cat burglar and Noir would retire!"
"I love you too," Florian said, pulling Ray close for a deep kiss, his hands knitting into the thick black hair, his lean body molding to the hard muscular one he'd been missing for days.
Ray wrapped his arms around the slim form, curiously dressed in black, and returned the kiss passionately. "Don't ever do that again...please. Promise me?" He murmured his plea into his lover's warm neck, his kisses moving across the pale skin, his hands roving under the dark shirt.
"I promise...no high climbing....but..." Florian gasped as Ray's mouth found a sensitive spot on his collarbone. "Ah, keep doing that and you'll never find out what I've given you for our anniversary," he teased.
"If I have you back, that's enough," Ray growled, working on the buttons of Florian's trousers and pushing him back on the bed.
"Mmm, so good...so you mean all I had to do was this...I didn't have to outwit your wicked uncle and steal back your family jewels...my family jewels...so to speak...would have sufficed?" Ray lifted his head. Florian's amethyst eyes were sparkling.
"Oh good, I get to give my gift to you first?" Ray nodded, totally floored by what he was beginning to suspect. Florian reached into his pocket and pulled out a velvet bag, which he tossed to Ray with a broad smile. Ray opened it with trembling hands. Inside was his grandmother's necklace and his grandfather's signet ring, a square cut sapphire, unusual because it was a green sapphire, green like the eyes of the men in the true Courland line...the ring that should have gone to his father, and the matching necklace his father always told his mother he would give to her to put in her rosewood jewelry box when they returned home. Home.
Ray swallowed hard.
"How did you...?"
"Simple. Well not really. After I arranged for you to be with Solomon and thus in the clear, I faked being sick...and then after I quickly sneaked back in and stole the ring and necklace, I made myself really sick, so I had an alibi for when the old devil showed up here, as I just knew he would. He was really very predictable."
"But, you stole...you hate stealing." Ray looked into Florian's eyes.
Florian looked unsure of himself for a minute. "That's kind of the point, actually. The necklace and ring aren't the gifts...they belong to you, so they aren't mine to give...the gift is..."
"Is that you were willing to steal them for me, or do what is considered stealing in the world's eyes," Ray finished gently. "I understand. And it is a gift I will treasure. The ring and necklace are nice to have. Maybe some day we can even enjoy them. But the fact that you went to that risk...that you didn't hold yourself above me...yet could find an honorable way to 'steal'...and I think it was your way of trying to understand me, yes?"
Florian nodded, choked up, but happy to see from the happiness in Ray's eyes that he'd succeeded.
"Thank you." Ray pressed his lips softly to his lover's lips, feeling closer than ever. Feeling the part of his past that Florian had taken such risks to return to him...although they'd have words later about the stunt with the peanuts, which were indeed poison to Florian....he took a deep breath and reached for his package.
"Well, my gift is not a priceless heirloom, I'm afraid."
"Good," Florian frowned teasingly, "you passed the first hurdle...hopefully it isn't combs for my hair, either."
"How did you guess that was my second choice?"
"Because a watch chain was mine?" he offered ruefully. He could relax now, his gift had been deemed a success. He leaned back, his shirt open tantalizingly, his pants half open. Ray wished he were at that same happy stage. He was more nervous than he could ever remember being.
"I gave this a lot of thought, you have to understand...and I hope you like it, but if you don't, you have to know I tried...."
Florian reached up and cupped his face. "Ray, I love that you put so much thought and care into this. I saw that you did. Whatever it is...I love it because I love that you cared, so whatever you bough...."
"I didn't buy anything."
Florian looked shocked. And yes, a bit disappointed, so Ray rushed to explain.
"I can pretty much buy anything, and it seemed to me that the point wasn't to give a thing...but to give of yourself...as you did, when you were willing to compromise what you always believed about stealing to recover my property from my uncle. Well...what I wanted to give you was something from my past...something I lost long ago that I wished I could get back again. Perhaps a part of my innocence, if such a thing were even possible. When I'm with you, I feel as though anything is possible."
Ray handed Florian the package. Florian unwrapped it reverently, and looked at the beautifully made rosewood box, on which there were carvings of desert scenes. Twining around the edges, however, was the very homey image of a daisy chain, hidden within which were their initials.
"You made this," Florian stated, his voice breaking.
"Yes," Ray affirmed.
"I'd seen you in Morocco, sitting on the wall sometimes, carving pieces of wood...I often wanted to ask you for something but it seemed so silly and sentimental. This is beautiful." Tears were falling from the lovely amethyst eyes. Ray reached up and brushed them away with his thumb.
"My mother had a box a good deal like this one...yours is more masculine of course...but for the daisies...she had a different flower but daisies are for five years, you must know. My father was very good at making things...and this kind of wood was her favorite. I...I'd like to tell you more about them some time."
Florian smiled. "I'd like that."
"But...seeing as how we have another eighty or more years for that...do you mind if we set these things aside for now and get back to the rest of our celebration? I've missed you...very much."
Ray pulled off his shirt as he made his suggestion. His eyes lighting up appreciatively as he looked at the broad muscular chest, Florian set his beautiful wooden box on the side table and slipped his trousers the rest of the way off his slim hips.
Some gifts don't need words.
"The magi as you know were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger....Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in the case of duplication....But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who gave gifts, these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."
O Henry, "The Gift of the Magi" (published 1906)