Afterwards, as Nikola lay spent and half-dozing in Justin’s broad bed, Justin extricated himself from the tangled sheets and withdrew to the washroom to clean up. He returned a few minutes later, wrapped in a long silk dressing gown, and tossed Nikola a soapy washcloth and a dry towel, balancing a half-full basin on the bed. Nikola cleaned himself off. “Tidy as always.” He held out his arms in a silent plea.
Justin left the washcloth floating in the bowl and slid back into Nikola’s waiting arms. He was silently gratified by Nikola’s craving for contact even after physical desire was slaked. Dark hair spilled across the pillows as Justin sat propped against them, sliding an arm around Nikola to snuggle his tall slender frame to his side. His friend curled an arm over Justin’s chest and one leg over his. Justin felt deliciously comfortable with him there, and an unwanted pang of regret that they could not stay like this forever. “One must be discreet. Though my guests use the same linens, so the laundress might blame any peculiarities on one of the married couples who’ve stayed lately. Or perhaps think I seduced poor Miss Dalsterly.”
“Poor Miss Dalsterly indeed. She’s thoroughly fixated on you, you know.”
Justin gave a dry chuckle. “I noticed, although I hadn’t realized the extent until this evening.”
“I suppose her reputation is safe at least, with Lady Dalsterly having escorted her off when the servants were about to bear witness.” Nikola nuzzled his cheek against Justin’s silk-clad shoulder. After a moment, he asked, “Are you courting her?”
“Saints, no. That child? Please.”
“She’s a year older than I was when you and I first met.”
Justin suppressed a shudder, tapping a finger against Nikola’s nose. “Yes, and one child in my life is sufficient, boy.”
Nikola chuckled. “Did you do nothing to encourage her?”
“Hardly anything. I stood up with her once or twice at Society balls, and made some meaningless chitchat a few times.”
“And invited her tonight.”
Justin sighed. “And invited her tonight. You’ll note I didn’t seat her by me.”
Nikola was silent for a long moment. “You’re not matchmaking for me too, are you?”
Justin tightened his arm around Nikola. How could you imagine I’d willingly help some addle-brained girl take you from me, Nikola? “Well,” he drawled, “I know how fond you are of Lady Dalsterly…”
His efforts were rewarded with a laugh. “I swear, if I thought she’d have me, I’d be tempted to ask. I was threatening my parents with her this morning. You should have seen my mother’s expression.”
“Savior’s blessings, did you in truth? Ha!”
“She’s quick-witted, wealthy, titled, kind, and laughs at my jokes. What more could a man ask for?”
“Youth? Beauty? Fertility? A body that doesn’t resemble driftwood?”
Nikola dismissed these objections with an airy wave. “She has great-grandchildren! Her fertility is surely proven by that. Besides—” he reached up to snag a lock of Justin’s dark hair and plucked a single silver strand out of it “—we both know I prefer mature lovers. Old man.” He pulled the gray hair to dangle before Justin’s eyes.
( Collapse )Justin pressed his cheek against Nikola’s shoulder, closing his eyes and breathing. I love you. Don’t leave me.
He wished Nikola would accept his invitation and stay at Comfrey Manor instead of insisting on going back to his parents. But he won’t stay. He will never stay, old man. Accept it. He is not yours and never can be. To cover the unpleasant emotions this reflection brought out, Justin rose and washed off again.
As he returned, Nikola watched him, those round Haventure eyes hooded. “I suppose I ought to be leaving.”
Condemn it. Already? “You could sleep in one of the guest suites if you like. No one would remark on it. I often have overnight guests who’ve succumbed to drink or weariness the night before.”
But Nikola shook his head. “No, I’d have to fly home in the morning in any case. Petitioners.” He threw his legs over the side of the bed to sit upright, and wrapped his arms about Justin’s waist to pull him close.
Justin exhaled, stroking blond hairs away from Nikola’s face. “Suit yourself.”
They lingered so for a moment, before Nikola released him and stood. “But I’m obliged to you for the offer, Justin. Thank you.” He gave a slight courteous bow, dignified despite his nude state.
Justin smirked. “Hmph. As for obligations—” he swatted Nikola’s rear “—I daresay you can consider your debt to me amply repaid.”
Nikola stiffened, and retreated to the washroom.