Twenty minutes. It felt like an hour. I double checked with my wrist watch, just to make sure—going on twenty-one… I paced up and down the room again, the same path over the same floorboards, then up to the slightly ajar window to listen once more.
A fan humming from somewhere on the rooftop, the distant sound of a car passing. Nothing.
“Fuck,” I whispered with great emphasis; then placed a finger under my collar and pulled in an attempt to loosen it a little, and took a deep breath. I needed to calm down.
After all, I was not the one in the most apparent danger. If someone was, against all odds, to walk in, all I had to do was lift my phone to my ear and dive straight into a very distressed and very well prepared conversation with my “girlfriend”, upon which no one would wonder what I was doing in an empty conference room, nor would want to ask any questions. No, it was he who was taking the risk, climbing down to the balcony below, breaking in to the staff room, working his way through empty corridors and office doors with a stolen key card—and probably not breaking a sweat over it, while I was up here feeling like a bloody tropical night. I pulled at my bow tie, muttered another oath, and resumed my quest at making an elephant path on the parquet. To be fair, I was not used to this kind of thing—if indeed it was something you ever could get used to. A high society party was quite enough excitement for one night without a break-in on top of it. And then I also kinda was not too eager to see my friend potentially break his neck falling off a balcony.
It was as if hand of steel loosened its grip on my heart when I finally heard a soft thumping on the wall outside, and then two fingers tapping quietly on the window. I hurried to open it wide. Not ten seconds later, Raffles had gracefully swung his feet over the sill, and stood smiling at me in his black tie.
“Too easy, Bunny,” he said as he pulled the rope up, and let it disappear beneath his cummerbund. “It was almost boring.”
“Then why did it take so long?” I said, still a tad breathless.
He shook his head.
“Bunny, Bunny; you need to learn that ‘easy’ and ‘quick’ are not synonyms in this trade—and rushing when things are going smoothly is only going to get you in trouble. Besides,” he added, as I supressed another sigh and closed the window, “I thought I was rather quick.”
“It felt like forever, that’s all,” I muttered.
He only chuckled, then swiftly caught my hand and swirled me around to face him. A crooked smile graced his face, a star twinkled in his eye, and he turned my palm up.
“Well, maybe this will make it worth the wait,” he said, and the next instant my hand held a pile of small but blindingly glistering stones.
I inhaled sharply, and he gave another quiet laugh.
“Now, what do you say to that?” he murmured, the thumb of his hand that was still cupping mine brushing over the diamonds and making them play with the faint rays from the ceiling spotlights.
“It’s…” I said, trying to regain my voice. “It’s not bad at all. Pretty darn fabulous, actually,” I continued, and could not help but grin when I met his eye.
“Isn’t it?” he grinned back. “And to think they would have been wasted on Mr Beaufort.” He scooped up the diamonds and put half in the inner pockets of his jacket, then reached into mine to place the rest. “He surely planned on investing them, and spend the money on so-called fashionable tasteless nonsense. Well you and I shall invest it for him, shan’t we, and show him what real taste looks like,” he concluded with a wink and a pat on my breast pocket.
“We shall,” I smiled. “But can we get out of here now?”
“Oh, you’re an impatient little rabbit,” he sighed, but led the way to the door. “Now, don’t rush,” he whispered, after carefully listening for a minute. “If anyone sees us, we don’t want to raise any suspicion. We’ve just taken a breather from the crowd, that’s all.”
I nodded, and he opened the door an inch. Satisfied with what he saw—or, rather, didn’t see—he pushed it open and slid out into the carpeted corridor, with me close behind. It was not a long walk back to the banquet hall, but we would have to make a few turns and pass a couple of odd doors before we reached it. I was breathing more easily at last, and followed with borrowed confidence in Raffles’ calm waters, sure that we would be back in safety in no time. As we reached the last corner I prepared to smile and blend into the crowd—but there Raffles suddenly stopped and turned; and in an instant he had taken my hand and pressed me up against the wall, leaving not an inch of air between our bodies. His curls brushed my face as he leaned in to my left side, gently cupped my other cheek with his steady hand, and with a low purr placed a kiss on my neck. My body did nothing to protest; my mind was soaring somewhere above, wondering what the hell was going on; but I had barely time to draw a breath before footsteps were heard and Raffles drew back, just a second too late.
A young woman in waiter’s clothes was standing in the hall, looking a bit taken off-guard. Raffles had assumed a perfectly balanced look of surprise mixed with mild embarrassment, and gave her an apologetic smile. My own act was already complete, and I simply lowered my gaze to the floor.
“Sorry,” I heard muttered, and she passed us to continue down the corridor.
For a moment or two we looked at her disappearing figure, Raffles’ hand still holding mine in a firm grip. Then he stepped in close again, and placed his other hand on the wall with a chuckle.
“No suspicion,” he whispered, his face close to mine. “Always a safe card. You don’t mind, I hope?” he added.
“No,” I whispered, still trying to piece myself together, “no—of course not.”
His eyes glittered into mine for another moment.
“Come on,” he said then, and gently pulled me away from the wall. “Let’s score this run.”