"Show my guest to the parlor. Extend him every courtesy but tell him nothing." Azura waited for the servant to leave before dropping the calling card onto the silver tray and pushing it aside. He picked up his teacup and leaned back in his chair, inhaling the aroma. He disliked being interrupted during his mid-morning break.

He read the name on the card again, lips curving into a smile as he took a sip of tea. He was intrigued, but in absolutely no hurry to hear what extraordinary event would bring Florian du Rochefort to his door.

An hour and twenty minutes. Florian closed his watch softly and barely restrained from sighing audibly. He'd expected to wait - he knew well enough what kind of game that was - but he'd hoped Azura's curiosity would get the better of him before now. Or at least his concern for Ray. Certainly there was none to be had for Florian himself; if it amused him, Azura would keep him waiting until nightfall, then have a servant send him away.

Florian had abandoned his anxious perch on the divan soon after his arrival, and had managed to pass some time examining the elegant yet impersonal decor. For the last forty minutes he'd been standing at the window watching the sky. Before everything changed, he'd barely noticed birds in flight, but now they fascinated him.

"Escaped your cage again?" Azura asked without a hint of amusement. He was startlingly close and Florian took a step back before he realized he was moving.

"I've come to ask for your help," Florian replied, having wasted too much time already to bother playing games. "Ray is out of the country on business, as I'm sure you are aware. Solomon is with him. The police have been unhelpful, and I have no one else to turn to."

"What kind of mischief could you have gotten into that requires my assistance? And what possible reason would I have to offer it?"

"It's not for me!" Desperation tore at Florian. Any calm he'd had when he arrived was worn away by the long wait. He brushed past Azura, earning an increased level of scrutiny from the man.

Look as you will, damn you, Florian thought as he picked up the box he'd brought with him. He set it down on a nearby table and took off the lid, revealing a half dozen dead, mangled or decapitated roses, a scattering of glass and some hatpins.

"Someone is trying to hurt Laila. It started a week ago with the roses. Every morning, a box has been left at the front door. The first batch were white roses with some of the petals plucked off. The next morning they were white again, but spattered with red paint. After that they were all red, and all damaged in some way. The last batch were black."

"The pins were in her chair at the theatre when we returned to Ray's private box after intermission. The glass was in front of the side door that Laila uses every morning when she goes out to check on her garden. She didn't see it until it was too late. The glass cut right through those thin slippers she wears."

"What happened today?" Azura demanded, leaning forward and barely stopping himself from grabbing Florian by the arms to shake him. They didn't have time for one of the man's fits; Azura may not care for Florian, but he had no quarrel with Laila, and he knew how important she was to Ray.

"Someone got into the house and put poison in Laila's tea. If she hadn't realized the smell was off before she drank it... " Florian made a visible effort to calm himself. "She's staying with a friend for the moment. I don't want to put them at risk, but I don't know where else Laila can go while her feet are still healing."

"The servants are going through the house looking for anything else that might have been tampered with. We can't trust any of the food or drink, so I had the servants bring in only enough for breakfast, but we can't continue to do that without arousing suspicion. The last thing I want to do is draw too much attention, especially while Ray is away."

"You'll both stay here," Azura leaned in a little to enjoy the delicious combination of desperation and fear that played across Florian's face. "Ray's woman will be safe, and I will take excellent care of you." He ran a hand lightly from Florian's jaw to his neck and up into his hair, tangling his fingers in the fine strands. Before moving in very close to speak into his ear "I expect you to be very grateful."

With a smirk Azura released Florian and stepped back. He turned with a flare of robes and walked out without another word.

XXXXXX

"Is the food not to your liking?" Azura asked mildly, taking a drink of the excellent wine he'd chosen for the evening. He'd had the chef prepare a meal that was lavish even by Azura's exacting standards, but Florian had barely touched his food.

"It's very good," Florian offered a polite smile and took a few small bites before slipping back into his thoughts. He laid the knife and fork across his plate and drained his wineglass. "You're certain Laila will be safe?"

"Quite certain." Azura took another bit of his entree and let the silence stretch before continuing. "She's traveling with my personal physician and six of my most trusted associates. The villa is remote and well guarded. She will be able to recover in peace and safety and will remain there until the person responsible for her injury has been dealt with."

"You've sent word to Ray?"

"This afternoon. It will be delivered in person by another of my associates, but it will be at least a week before Ray can return. You'll remain here until that time."

"I should be with Laila," Florian argued weakly; they'd had a much louder, and more vehement version of this conversation earlier in the day. From his manner, it was clear that Florian had already conceded and was only making a token argument.

"You're needed here." Azura finished his wine and set the glass down with a predatory smile. He rose gracefully and strode forward, savoring the way Florian's eyes followed his every movement. It had been three years since he'd tasted that pale skin, but he remembered...

"Don't," Florian surged to his feet, one hand out, as if that could stop Azura from invading his space.

"You came to me. You asked for my assistance." Azura pressed in, forcing Florian to take a step backwards.

"I promised my gratitude, not my body," Florian replied, far too calm for Azura's liking. He pressed in again, lifting his hand to rest on Florian's arm - heavy, but not yet grasping.

"Your body is the only form of gratitude you have to offer." Azura leaned in, pressing his nose against Florian's neck and inhaling. He didn't expect to be shoved backwards.

"You might be surprised." Florian sounded far too confident as he extracted an account book from his coat pocket. He handed it to Azura without another word and watched as Azura blinked at the balance.

"Ray is far too generous," Azura returned the book with a smirk. "Or you've been overcharging. I'll have a word with him."

"Please do," Florian replied, and there was an unexpected hint of amusement in the tone. "He's wanted to have a word with you about this for quite some time. After all, I've you to thank for this - my souvenir from our first adventure." He waved the book once before slipping it back into his pocket. "As for overcharging... perhaps you'd like to judge for yourself."

Without warning, Florian reached out and grabbed Azura with both hands, one on his upper arm and one on the back of his head, pulling him in as he pressed forward. Their lips met in a bruising kiss.

Azura wrapped his arms around Florian, trying to assert dominance. He took over, pressing Florian back against the wall, one hand working at Florian's clothes. He wanted the man to remember what it was like to be ravished. He didn't expect him to bite.

"This isn't a game," Azura snarled, his grip tightening so that he knew it would leave bruises. Florian didn't even flinch.

"I'm not a drug addled innocent," Florian said, his voice pitched low and seductive, "and I'm no one's plaything."

"You flatter yourself. You came to me, a scared little boy, and begged for my help."

"I asked for help for Laila. I have no need of your help, or your posturing. If the thanks you want is to bed me, then so be it, but don't try to pretend it's anything other than my choice." He leaned in, his entire body radiating confidence and only then did Azura realize the earlier fretfulness was an act; this was an entirely different Florian and Azura was intrigued in spite of himself.

"You already know who's responsible for the attacks on Laila, don't you?"

"I didn't yesterday, but I've had time to consider and yes, now I'm certain who it is." He smiled almost coyly and added, "I didn't want to ruin your fun. You seemed like you were enjoying yourself, strutting around and barking out orders."

"If this isn't really about Laila, then why are you here?"

"Ray and I reached an agreement months ago. He thought he'd convinced me my souvenir bauble was worthless, but you don't grow up safeguarding a legendary diamond and not know a little something about rare gems. I had it appraised, and presented him with a fact he couldn't charm his way past. He kept my debt book for appearances sake and I convinced him that a willing partner is much more interesting than a pet."

"The Ray I know doesn't share easily. I'm to believe he let you come here?"

"What part of 'partner' escaped you? Ray's not my owner and neither are you. But you did have a hold over me -once. I'm here to make it clear that hold no longer exists."

"You believe it's as easy as that? You shot me."

"Yes, and you drugged and raped me then sent an assassin to kill me. I don't owe you this, but I'm offering anyway." Florian made a show of checking his watch. "It's a limited time offer."

With a growl, Azura slammed Florian up against the wall again, clawing and biting. Florian gave as good as he got, his body pressed forward against Azura, making him work for what he wanted.

In the end, the lavish dinner lay scattered on the ground along with discarded clothing and the two sweaty, panting men lay on the table debating whether they should move to the bedroom or just continue where they were. The bedroom won, but only because the table was damned uncomfortable.

Azura settled back against the pillows, listening to Florian sing while he bathed, and contemplated ways to delay Ray's return.

::end::