Long before Justin had set out for Fireholt, he knew this was a terrible idea.
He could not have refused Mrs. Striker’s plea, innocent of any desire beyond a wish to please her husband. Well, he could, and refusal would have been the sensible, prudent course. What did he think he was doing, agreeing to spend a week in the countryside with his former lover and the sole woman he’d ever wanted to marry, with no distractions from yearning and envy? Was a more certain recipe for disaster even imaginable?
But he missed them both too much to choose any sane course. Daily life felt empty of purpose or savor; he lived for the occasional letter from Wisteria – Mrs. Striker – or Nikola. Striker had never been a great correspondent – neither was Justin, for that matter – but his wife wrote every few days. Every letter closed with “Nikola sends his love”. Some sleepless nights, he would lie in bed reading and re-reading those innocent, expected words, and then the rest of the letter, daydreaming that he was there with them. Pretending that it would be enough just to see her, to hear his voice, that friendly companionship could suffice.
It would be better than nothing.
Thus his carriage was rolling with scarcely a bump over the newly-paved lane, carrying himself, his valet, and his secretary to Fireholt. Justin was full of apprehension at the final approach, but he exerted himself to force his features into a semblance of his usual confidence as the carriage drew to a halt before the house. Nikola had turned out his entire staff to welcome him – a staff that had doubled since his last visit. The whole of Fireholt looked better than he’d ever seen it: lawn weeded as well as clipped, the manor freshly painted, chipped flagstones replaced, no detritus in sight, not even fallen fruit or twigs. Even the signs of the pipeline construction that would bring gas to the neighborhood were unobtrusive.
Nikola waited at the foot of the steps, his wife on his arm, looking as well and happy as Justin had ever seen him, splendid in a new summerweight suit of Fireholt colors, black with orange embroidery at the trim. Mrs. Striker looked as she always had, as beautiful and detached as an ice sculpture. Her dark hair was held back from her face by jeweled combs but allowed to spill loose curls down her back. They stepped forward as Justin disembarked, Nikola grinning like a schoolboy. “Welcome to Fireholt, Comfrey. It’s good to see you.” He shook Justin’s hand, grip firm and as warm as his smile.
Justin could not have restrained an answering smile if he’d tried. “And you. Thank you for the invitation.”
“Wisteria’s idea, but you know you’re always welcome in my home.”
Justin turned to kiss Mrs. Striker’s hand, and she said to him, “Yes, thank you so much for coming, Lord Comfrey. You don’t know how comforting it is to have you here.”
No idea at all, Justin thought, though the smile was still on his face as the three of them walked into the house. ‘Comforting’ is the last thing on my mind at the moment.
Over the course of Nik’s marriage so far, he had enjoyed more regular sexual intercourse than he’d had in his entire unmarried life. He and Wisteria made love nearly every night, and often during the day as well (the hour before dinner had proven a good time to steal away to the bedroom). Her interest and eagerness to experiment surprised him, in the best possible way. Things he could not have brought himself to mention to a gentlewoman, not even his wife in private, she would offer as if such desires were only natural. Perhaps they were: Nikola saw nothing malformed in either his libido or hers. Every day brought new reasons to thank the Savior for his astonishing good fortune in marriage. If every man were blessed with a wife as wonderful as mine, Paradise would indeed be perfect.
As satisfied as his carnal appetites were, Nik felt he ought to be easy at the idea of seeing Comfrey. Oh, he still entertained the occasional ribald daydream and not a day went by that Nik did not think wistfully of his absent friend. But surely he was in no real danger; he could be subject to no powerful temptation to stray from the marital bed.
Yet, from the moment Comfrey stepped from that carriage, Nik knew his former lover’s hold over him was undiminished. He wanted at once to step into Comfrey’s arms, to hurry him into his study and there strip him naked, as he had one visit two years ago. To drink in the sight of that powerfully developed body, to run his hands over golden-brown skin, to wrap his mouth around Justin’s cock and feel strong hands holding his head as the man thrust.
Comfrey was at ease as he always was, conversation light and bantering, showing no sign that he was now or ever had been attracted to Nik. Not that he ever had except when they were alone. Nik feared to be alone with him now, not out of his prior concern over how Comfrey might behave but because Nik doubted his own resolve. Through dinner, he tried to focus on his love for Wisteria. Afterwards, he made some excuses about work he needed to do on his treatment notes and left the two of them to their own plans. While Wisteria was not trying to surprise Nik with her intentions for a house party to celebrate his naming-day, she did want some of the events to be pleasant surprises for him, so it was a reasonable excuse.
His study at Fireholt was far nicer than the makeshift one he’d had in the gamekeeper’s cottage. One of Wisteria’s first improvements to Fireholt had been hiring a master carpenter to refurbish both his study and the room he turned over for her use. Her design was unconventional but functional and efficient: his chair was at the center of a surrounding desk, with shelves on top and drawers and shelves below, in a variety of shapes and sizes for different purposes. The rest of the room was wall-to-ceiling bookcases, and the floor hardwood. The desk chair’s legs ended in smooth polished curves that could glide over the floor, to make it easy to scoot about behind the desk without standing to reach the farther parts. It seemed absurdly indolent.
Alone behind his desk, surrounded by unattended papers for his project, it occurred to Nik that perhaps he should have had some concern for Wisteria’s propriety, if Comfrey was indeed that other man she had hinted about having an attachment to. It made sense: Comfrey had cut a heroic figure, dashing into that ship to her rescue, and he had always been able to charm any woman, often without meaning to. But no: Wisteria had assured Nik nothing could come of it, so Wisteria must have recovered when she realized Comfrey uninterested. And Comfrey cannot have expressed interest; she’d have to be mad to choose the chore of rehabilitating my impoverished estate in the middle of nowhere over becoming Lady Comfrey and limitless wealth.
Unless Comfrey had made some disreputable proposition to her. That would be like him. But no, Wisteria said she did not feel ill-used by him, and she would have told me if she were pursuing an illicit relationship. We haven’t even spoken about that adultery clause since before the wedding.
To Nik’s surprise, the idea of Wisteria being infatuated with Comfrey, specifically, induced far less anxiety than thinking about her with an unknown man. Not because Comfrey was unintimidating: Nikola could imagine no rival more formidable. Perhaps it was that he could sympathize with Wisteria’s position. Pity her, even. Nik supposed he had come as near to having Comfrey as anyone ever had, and even he did not think he had ever penetrated Comfrey’s reserve, ever known his secret mind or touched his heart. It wasn’t until he’d become engaged to Wisteria that he truly appreciated the distinction. To know how Wisteria felt, all he had to do was ask. Such conversations with Comfrey were all but impossible: he avoided any approach to personal topics and deflected all questions with flippant non-answers. If Wisteria loved Comfrey – well, half of him wanted to wish her luck, and the other half to protect her from heartbreak. You can give him your heart, but he won’t want it.
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