"You'll catch a cold." A heavy fur coat was draped over Florian's shoulders. He caught it automatically, drawing it around him as he turned to give the new arrival a greeting.
"Still taking care of me, Stephan?" Florian turned back towards the view of Paris on New Year's Eve. Inside, the orchestra continued to play, and people talked and laughed, but out here on the wide balcony, it was peaceful.
"Old habits, my friend." Stephan moved closer so they were almost touching. They were nearly the same height now. The last time they'd been at a party together, Florian was fifteen and still growing. At eighteen, Stephan had seemed worldly and wise. Now they were handsome men in their twenties, tempered by travel and experience.
"How was Moscow?"
"Cold, but beautiful. Have you ever been there?"
"Ray prefers warmer climates."
"Ah. You would love it there, Florian. I should have a word with your Count." Stephan's eyes were bright with that mischievous glint Florian remembered very well. He'd gotten in trouble more than once as a youth because of that glint.
"Ray has strong opinions," Florian cautioned mildly.
"So I've heard." Stephan was laughing outright now. "I should have John speak to him. He could charm the stripes off a zebra."
"So I've heard." It was Florian's turn to laugh as he repeated his friend's words. Stephan's companion was quickly becoming the talk of Paris society and they'd only been in the city for a week. "Did he really wear earrings to Madame LaRue's winter ball?"
"He did. On his shirt collar. He threatened to wear them on his ears if even one of the ladies pinched his cheeks." Stephan pretended to be annoyed as he added, "He's a year older than me yet all the ladies want to mother him."
"As if those pleading eyes of yours don't get you what you want every time," Florian countered. Stephan's sweet nature and princely manners had charmed any number of women out of chocolates and cakes when they were growing up. Even Florian's mother had fallen prey to it on occasion.
"Not every time." There was a hint of wistfulness in Stephan's voice that surprised Florian. Before he could ask, Stephan continued, "It has been a struggle for him. I thought Paris would help but… It is difficult for him to fit in."
Florian thought of his own situation – three years ago he was the sole heir to one of the oldest aristocratic families in Paris, left orphaned, homeless, and deeply in debt to his distant cousin, Ray Courland. Between his own fall, and Ray's somewhat questionable reputation as a usurer, they were often the subject of gossip. It could be disheartening.
"You should bring him to visit tomorrow. Even if Ray's not free, I'd be delighted to show you the sights."
"I have been to Paris before." Stephan leaned back against the railing as he faced his longtime friend. They hadn't seen each other for more than six years. Florian was still slender and fair with pale blond hair and bright amethyst eyes but there was a reticence about him that didn't match his memories of the younger man.
"I wasn't planning on taking you to all the tourist attractions. I thought you might enjoy a more personalized tour. Ray has a pond that's frozen solid enough for skating. You do still skate?"
"Do you still spend most of your time falling down?"
"Thank you, no. I've been practicing. I only fall down half of the time now. We can go shopping afterwards."
"John will like that. He loves shopping almost as much as he loves skating." Stephan gave him a look. "I suppose you've been reading the society columns."
"Force of habit," Florian admitted. "But I would like to spend time with you if you aren't too busy. And John seems like a nice man." Florian gave him a wicked smile. "You bring home the most interesting souvenirs."
"Now you sound like an old lady, hoping for bits of gossip. I met John in New York. He was skating and I bumped into him, literally. We became friends and when it was time to return home, I asked him to accompany me."
"You always hated traveling alone."
"Still do. John's interesting to travel with. He taught himself to speak and read Russian and French. He can be very charming, but has a tendency to be too honest. You remember my uncle." Florian winced at the memory.
"Not quite, but there are times… At least my uncle could be diverted with chocolates."
"I seem to remember someone else having a fondness for them," Florian teased, his smile growing wider as Stephan's dark-haired companion tiptoed up making a show of having snuck off with a bottle of wine. He was wearing a full length fur coat and had a matching hat under one arm.
"The wolves were circling," he explained as he settled in beside Stephan and pretended to hide. "I can't dance one more waltz with a partner who confuses my feet for the floor."
"Poor feet," Stephan let John lean closer, his head dipping down until his lips almost brushed the top of John's head. Florian took that as a sign and made his excuses to leave.
"Tomorrow at eleven. Don't forget your skates." He reminded them before walking away and allowing them some privacy.
Jacques escorted Stephan's valet into the dining room where Ray and Florian were just starting their breakfast. They made him take a seat and provided him with coffee and a plateful of food that he ignored.
"The police arrived before six," he reported, his voice quavering. "They accused Master John of stealing a brooch from one of the guests who had been at the party last night. They wanted to take him to the police station for questioning but Master Stephan refused. They are questioning him now in the Master's suite. He asked me to come here in person as soon as I could get away and tell you what was happening."
"Why do they think John stole the brooch?" Ray asked, giving Florian a look meant to keep him silent before turning his attention back to Brian. He could feel Florian staring intently at him, but knew that the blond was too well-bred to cause a scene, especially in front of another man's servant.
"He admired it last night and Lady Foster insisted that he try it on. He's always doing things like that. Master Stephan buys him jewelry and he wears it around the suite." Brian looked fondly exasperated; he'd been with Stephan a long time and had learned to accept eccentric behavior from him and his companions. He'd been fond of Florian for being so very normal.
"The Fosters are staying in the same hotel?" Ray asked, his eyes bright and his lips curved in a little smile that was a sign Florian knew to mean that his patron was making plans. Most likely it would require Florian to do something embarrassing.
Ray reached over and tapped Brian's plate before turning his attention back to the remnants of his own meal. "If you don't eat, neither will Florian and I won't have either of you fainting on me. It's going to be a busy day."
Brian looked uncomfortable, but he obeyed as did Florian. Ray was plotting, so there was no conversation for a few minutes. Florian was eating faster than usual and he seemed ready to race to his friend's side, but the looks he kept giving Ray let the man know they would be having a private conversation in the very near future.
They were all finished with their meal when Ray shouted for Jacques. The man entered promptly with Laila on his heels. Almost as if they were listening at the door, Florian realized.
"Escort Florian and our guest to his hotel in the carriage and wait with them there. Do not let Florian leave the hotel." Ray ignored Florian's indignant huff. He reached out and caught Florian's arm. "I will meet you there. Perhaps your presence along with Stephan will discourage the police from taking John."
Florian nodded once, giving Ray a grateful smile before turning and following Brian and Jacques out to the carriage. Ray would need the car to join them later.
"Master John is not a thief," Brian told Florian as soon as they were alone in the carriage. "Stephan gives him everything he could want and more."
"They seem happy. It's good for Stephan to have a companion." Florian gave Brian a smile and patted his hand, adding, "Besides you. You've always taken good care of him, even when we were children."
"My father taught me well, and Master Stephan isn't a demanding master."
"Perhaps not, but he tends to get into trouble when he's alone for too long. John seems like a good match for him."
"He has the most outrageous ideas and some of his taste in clothing is questionable, but he challenges Master Stephan and makes him laugh. I find them dancing at all hours of the night."
"That's not completely John's influence. Stephan always loved to dance. Even more than he loved his animals." Florian smiled fondly at the memories. There had been so many bad memories since his mother died and his family home burned that it was good to be reminded of the good times.
The carriage slowed and Brian looked out at the hotel. He turned to Florian impulsively and squeezed his hand in thanks before resuming his role of servant escorting an aristocrat. He held the door for Florian and escorted him and Jacques, the driver, to second floor corner suite where Stephan was pacing and two police officers were watching him.
"Florian!" Stephan threw himself at his friend, holding on tight enough that Florian could feel him trembling."Thank you for coming so quickly." Stephan turned to Brian. "And thank you, Brian."
Brian nodded slightly and faded back against the wall, waiting for Stephan to turn his attention back to Florian before resuming his duties unobtrusively. First on the list was making tea.
"Sit here and tell me what happened," Florian guided Stephan to the sofa and sat beside him, close enough that they could talk without the police officers overhearing them.
"Lady Foster's brooch is missing - her suite is just down the hall. The police asked if anyone had shown interest in it and she told them that John had admired it at the party. They think that makes him guilty! I tried to tell them that John admires any jewelry he finds interesting, but that doesn't make him a thief. He's got many pieces finer than that brooch - it was just a few small diamonds around a piece of malachite. They have a lot of malachite in Russia and John loves Russian things."
"How long have they been in there questioning him?" Florian asked quickly before Stephan could go off on a tangent about Russia. He wasn't always the best at keeping on topic when he was upset.
"More than an hour. That's too long, isn't it? An hour."
"It should be more than enough time," Florian agreed, standing up and striding over to the door to the bedroom, ignoring the bored policemen. The door wasn't locked and he entered the room to find John, pale but looking defiant, handcuffed to a chair, his mouth closed and jaw firm. Both of the policemen who had been questioning him looked frustrated and angry.
"Gentlemen, I am Florian du Rochefort." He strode towards the two police officers, wearing his most haughty demeanor. "Perhaps you would care to explain to why you are inconveniencing my friend and his companion in this manner?"
"Lady Foster's brooch has been stolen and this gentleman was the last one other than the Lady to be interested in it."
"I was unaware that paying a compliment to a Lady had become grounds for accusing someone," Florian commented mildly as he motioned for the nearest officer to remove John's handcuffs. The officer complied quickly, casting nervous glances at his partner. It was one thing to upset an aristocrat, but upsetting two was almost certain career suicide. Especially one such as Florian du Rochefort whose patron was the infamous Count Ray Balzac Courland.
"Stephan, will you assist John? I believe he would appreciate the opportunity to freshen up." Florian watched as his friend guided his companion to the large bathroom and closed the door.
"I'm sure you gentlemen have better things to do than to question an innocent man." Florian's tone made it clear he would tolerate no dissent. He'd learned many things since Ray had taken him in after Florian's home burned, including how to use his status as an aristocrat to get what he needed in urgent matters. Florian definitely considered this urgent.
"Well, sir. Your Grace. You see..." The one policeman blathered while the other one stood beside him looking nervous. Finally the man couldn't remain silent.
"We'll be back if we have any more questions," the officer said and bidding them good day.
As they were leaving, Ray arrived. He dropped casually into a chair and grinned up at Florian.
"Problem solved," he said when Florian remained unsatisfyingly silent. "Lady Foster's brooch was found on the floor behind a potted plant in the ballroom. Must have fallen there last night."
"Imagine," Florian replied mildly. "Thank goodness for the vigilant cleaning staff."
"I wouldn't be so quick to sing their praises," Ray sniffed, brushing imaginary dust off his sleeve. "They're rather lax on dusting the windowsills."
"Good thing Noir isn't afraid of a little dust." Florian moved closer, leaning down and lowering his voice. "Of course if he hadn't stolen the brooch in the first place..."
"You know how those kinds of parties bore me. And you were playing in the snow on the balcony with your dear Stephan. I had to do something." Ray grinned up, completely unrepentant. "The Lady will have her brooch back before lunchtime. Of course her bracelet is another matter entirely."
"Ray!" Florian flushed pink with annoyance. "You didn't?" Sometimes he wondered if Ray's adventures as the Phantom Thief Noir weren't deliberately planned to drive Florian mad.
"Florian?" The door opened and Stephan peeked out. "Is it safe out here?"
"Yes, the police officers are gone and Ray has brought some very good news - the brooch has been found."
"Wonderful!" Stephan cried, gathering John close and giving him a firm hug. The smaller man looked exhausted.
"We will let you rest now. Perhaps we can delay our outing until tomorrow?"
"The shopping, certainly," Stephan agreed. "But if it wouldn't be too inconvenient for the skating?"
"Not at all," Florian insisted before Ray could comment. "This afternoon at two? And perhaps you would stay for dinner? "
"We'll see you at two," Stephan assured them , escorting Ray and Florian to the door before returning to John's side and gathering the man up in a tight embrace. "Until then, you and I have a private appointment." Together, they returned to the bedroom and closed the door.
Florian laughed as Stephan skated past chasing John in an ice skating version of tag. Ray was sitting on the low wall at the far side of the pond, only the tip of his skates on the ice. He was refusing to join in, no matter how much Florian and Stephan begged. John had declared that the decision was up to Ray, and Ray decided on the spot that he liked John.
John picked up speed, spreading his arms out wide and stretching his body so that he resembled a bird ready to fly. Stephan came up behind him, caught him at the waist and threw him so that John turned in the air and landed neatly on one foot, arms up and other leg extended. Florian clapped so hard he almost lost his balance.
John and Stephan were chasing each other again while Florian continued his tentative movements around the edge of the pond. He was working his way past Ray when the man reached out, grabbed Florian and pulled him down beside him.
"Just watch," he urged, before Florian could protest. Instead, he settled in at Ray's side and watched his friend and his friend's companion play. It was joyous, and Florian was the tiniest bit jealous, until Ray leaned over and whispered in his ear:
"Tonight I'll get the diamonds out and show you a better way to play with ice."