“Not now, Laila! I told you I don’t want to be disturbed.” Ray returned his attention to his desk too soon to see his loyal servant gently moved aside.
“And yet I have the very information you need.”
Ray’s head snapped up and he rose half out of his seat, hand reaching for the whip he kept close at hand for unpleasant surprises such as this.
“You’ll want to think twice before using that on me.”
Ray kept his hand on the weapon as he studied the man standing, uninvited and unwelcome, in the middle of Ray’s private study. He was shorter than Ray and slender with delicate features and pale blond hair down to his collar in the style that was currently fashionable among young aristocrats. His clothing was expensive and well-tailored but at least a year out of date. But none of that interested Ray – it was the man’s startling amethyst-colored eyes that drew his attention.
“If you’re quite finished staring?” The man settled into the armchair opposite Ray’s desk, his body relaxed and expression amused. “Florian Rochefort, your cousin.”
“I expect I can stare as much as I like at someone who walks into my private rooms uninvited, Florian.” Ray made a point of returning to his own seat and taking up a casual but watchful pose. “You said you had information for me?”
“Indeed. Rumor has it that you’re interested in the Spring Faun topaz but are having some trouble finding it. As your cousin I felt it would be appropriate to assist you in your quest and also take the opportunity to introduce myself now that you’ve settled here in Paris.”
“Are you always so generous with your time or is that reserved only for relatives?”
“Only for special relatives, I assure you, Ray. Ones with whom I hope to become better acquainted.”
“And how do I merit this special attention from the illustrious Rochefort heir? You’re the only remaining son of that ancient line with ties to Bourbon kings while I am one of many Courlands related to your line by marriage.” Ray was intrigued in spite of himself. The blond wanted something, he could tell by his body language; Florian was trying hard to maintain an air of casual interest, but his relaxation was too forced to be real.
“I’ve heard the rumors about your choice of business, of course. And about your travels. You’re quite the topic of conversation at parties this season.”
“I must admit I’ve heard about you as well, cousin. The stories of the 120-carat diamond, and of course, the unfortunate stories of your financial situation.”
“I would be surprised if you hadn’t.” Florian shifted forward slightly and Ray knew he was about to discover the real reason for Florian’s visit. “You’re a clever man, Ray Courland.”
“I’ve been told that.”
“It strokes your ego, does it? All those wild speculations. All those front page stories in the newspaper.” He shifted forward even more and his voice dropped, but what mesmerized Ray were those amethyst eyes, now darker and even more alluring. At that moment, beyond all reason, he knew he would do anything to possess those eyes and the man behind them.
“I’ve never seen the point in modesty, but I don’t see what that has to do with newpapers. If you have a point, kindly share it or leave me to my work.”
“Not a point but a proposition.” Florian rose gracefully and, taking something from his coat pocket, set it on the desk. He unwrapped it himself and left the item glittering in the center of a fine linen handkerchief. “I believe you were looking for this?”
Ray stared at the topaz, knowing it was the Spring Faun he’d gone after as Noir the previous evening only to return empty-handed when he found the jewel case empty, the owners asleep and oblivious in the next room.
“You just happened to find this did you?”
“I did. Exactly where Noir would have found it if he’d arrived half an hour earlier.”
Ray’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve got the garnets too, I suppose?”
“I’m afraid they’ve been... relocated already.”
“How many other items have you acquired?”
“Not nearly enough. The stories about our family finances aren’t rumors.”
“And the 120-carat diamond?”
“A legend. If there ever was such a diamond, it’s long gone.” Florian’s confidence faltered for a moment and Ray caught a glimpse of a weary and overburdened young man behind the façade.
“What exactly do you want from me? I’m not in the habit of encouraging rivals in that particular line of work.”
“I have no desire to be a rival. I was hoping we could come to an arrangement.” The façade slipped a little more and Ray knew he was lost. There was no way he could resist his need to possess this man and those unparalleled amethysts.
“I don’t need an apprentice and I don’t believe you’re willing to be a servant.”
“I’m offering an exchange. Information for cash – enough to keep the creditors away from my mother. In return I can give you names of those who have items that may be of interest to Noir; social schedules, floor plans of mansions.”
“You would willingly betray your friends?”
“Not my friends. There are homes that Noir must agree not to enter. But the others... those who attend mother’s parties and then mock her in her own home. Yes, I will help you take from them.” Florian was trembling and Ray couldn’t hold back another moment. Instead, he stood slowly, as if considering the offer. He rounded the desk and stopped at Florian’s side, unable to resist the desire to touch. Instead of flinching away from Ray’s hand on his face, Florian leaned into the contact for just a moment. When he pulled back his eyes were shadowed and Ray understood how truly desperate this man was to have been pushed into this course of action. He knew too well what happened to aristocrats who had no money and nothing left to sell beside themselves.
“I’ll need you close. We’ll tell people I’ve taken you on as a companion.”
“Not as a partner?”
“You want to be a usurer? The rumors will be bad enough if they think you’re my companion but we can let them believe it is because of your finances.”
“You’re right, I suppose. But Mother...”
“I’ll speak to her. You don’t have many alternatives?”
“None.” Florian’s tone made it clear he wouldn’t even consider selling himself. Ray was glad for that even if it would be awkward having the man here. At least he wouldn’t have to hide the activities of his alter ego, Noir from Florian.
“May I ask how you acquired this?” Ray leaned over and picked up the topaz, studying it for a moment before handing it back to Florian.
“It wasn’t difficult. I’ve been in that mansion enough to know my way around and I had a good idea of where it would be.” Florian waved the matter off as if he didn’t want to discuss it. Ray wondered if Florian was as accepting of this deal as he pretended to be. Then the real question occurred to him.
“How did you know to bring the topaz to me?”
“That was the easiest part. I just hid outside and waited after I took the Spring Faun. You know, Noir really should wear a mask.” With a smile, Florian pressed the topaz into Ray’s hand and left the room.
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