It was a cold, crisp winter’s day, clear and still at the Markavian’s hunting preserve. The hunting preserve was mostly wooded hills surrounding a lake. In summertime, the ground around the lake turned marshy, but Newlant winters were dry and the earth was hard-packed now. The club stocked the preserve with a variety of game, much of it small: rabbits, pheasants, grouse, turkeys, stoats, waterfowl and wild pigs. But there were some large animals too: deer, elk, wild boar, plus some brown bears for the most adventurous – or foolhardy. Some members hired greatcats to ‘help’ with the hunting; Justin, like many others, felt this defeated the whole purpose of hunting as a sport. “You might as well call riding a sport. It is a skill, but it’s not as though you do anything but hinder a greatcat by clinging to his back while he’s racing or hunting.”
So, Justin and Nikola stalked their prey unmounted through the preserve, though Justin had brought a pair of hunting dogs to track, flush, and fetch for them. Nik had been surprised to find no one else was joining their party when they met at the main lodge. “What, no business associates? No assemblymen or chancellors or ministers?” Nik asked, teasing. Not even servants, in fact, which meant Justin didn’t plan to hunt large game today.
“Just us, Striker,” Justin said, walking boots crunching on dry leaves as they walked the trail through the preserve side-by-side, dogs obediently at his heels. “If you feel deprived, though, I’ll talk business anyways. I met your Miss Vasilver the other day at an association meeting, did I tell you?”
“She’s not my Miss Vasilver,” Nik said, the denial reflexive by now. “What did you think of her?”
“I don’t know.” Justin gave a mournful look skyward. “She is just as clever as you said, and therefore just as unimpressed with me as I said she’d be.”
Nik laughed. “Were you trying to impress her?”
“Of course! How do you think I interact with people, Striker? I have to get them in awe of me from the outset, so they’re too intimidated to look beyond my veneer of apparent well-bred, well-educated success.”
“Why? Why?” Justin gave him a look of mock amazement. “Because they’ll never be impressed with me if they look closely.”
“But why do you need them to be impressed, Comfrey?”
“How else am I going to get them to fawn and fuss over me?”
“…and you like being fawned and fussed over?”
“Of course! Who doesn’t? Other than you, I mean. Truly, Striker, you can’t expect the rest of us to live up to your standards of humility and quiet dignity. Be reasonable. How else will I maintain my over-inflated pride and arrogant attitude if I am not surrounded at all times by sycophants who tell me how important and amazing I am?”
Nik shook his head, smiling, and gave up on getting Justin to be serious. He’d seen the mindshapes of men whose self-worth was artificially inflated: narcissists unable to think of anyone but themselves. Justin, in Nik’s professional opinion, evaluated himself fairly at heart, notwithstanding all his exaggerations for comic effect. “So Miss Vasilver would not fawn and fuss over you?” Nik tried to imagine her doing so over anyone and almost laughed at the idea.
“Not even a little. Despite her mother’s noble efforts to show her the proper methods and induce her to follow suit, too. I ask you, what kind of Paradise is it where young single women do not trip over themselves to simper at a rich bachelor like myself? It’s almost enough to make one dare to engage one in conversation without fearing it will lead to engagement in marriage.”
After due consideration, Nik offered, “A more-perfect Paradise?”
Justin chuckled. “All right, perhaps, but such a foreign and terrifyingly strange one. I might need your aid to let my poor brain adapt. If it ever came to pass. I may be able to handle just one woman unsettling my entire worldview. I’ll let you know.”
Nik gave a slight bow. “I am at your service, should you need me for anything, my lord.” It was an automatic quip, the kind of thing Nik had said many times before, but before he finished speaking this time he felt bitterness triggered by the sentiment now. After all, you paid enough for me, didn’t you?
“Always good to hear.” Justin’s eyes roved over Nik possessively, narrow mouth half-smiling.
Nikola forced an answering smile before he turned away and pretended to scan the woods about them. Justin had not asked about the account, nor had Nik mentioned it. Nor thanked him. Nik ought to thank him – propriety demanded at least thanks – but resentment and black misery stirred at the idea. The only way he could manage to behave somewhat normally was to put it out of his mind as much as possible. Fortunately, there was a natural lull in the conversation as they closed on a likely thicket. The two men stopped to nock arrows and draw bows by silent agreement before Justin signaled the dogs to flush out grouse.
A small unpredictable moving target was far more of a challenge to shoot with an arrow than a stationary target, even when one was not moving oneself, and hunting was seldom very rewarding. After a few hours and countless shots taken, they’d brought down three birds between the two of them and counted themselves fortunate to do so well. Justin had seen a deer, but passed on the shot: “I hate grazing the creatures when I can’t be sure of the kill. And then there’s dealing with the carcass – never mind.”
By the time they’d bagged the third bird, Nik’s fingers were numb despite ivywool gloves. Justin’s expensive angoraflax outerwear did a better job of keeping him warm, but even so his cheeks and nose were pink with the cold. “Let’s get inside for a bit to defrost,” Comfrey suggested, taking a path to one of the summer cottages isolated in the heart of the preserve. The cottages were primarily used during the warmer months, by members escaping the heat and noise of Gracehaven when business precluded going out to the country proper. During the winter they were shut up, but Justin produced a key and unlocked the side door to this one. The two men kenneled the dogs and shed frockcoats, hats, gloves, boots and scarves in the mud room. They left the bird carcasses hung over the utility sink, then proceeded to the front room. Nik didn’t see any servants about, but Justin must have told the staff to ready this cottage because a fire was lit in the front room’s hearth. The place was comfortably furnished, with a sofa and a loveseat bracketing the fireplace and a thick fleece rug over the hardwood floor between them. Other touches besides the fire bespoke recent attention: the air was clean with a faint scent of sandalwood instead of musty from being closed up, and fresh-cut flowers stood in the room’s vases. Nik went to the fire to chafe warmth into his fingers. Justin bolted the front door shut and drew the curtains, then joined Nik as the younger man pulled on his habitual thin dress gloves.
Justin caught Nik’s right hand while its glove was still held in his left. “You know you don’t need to wear those on my account, Nikola.” Warm tan fingers wrapped around Nik’s long pale ones, still cool from the hunt. Nik closed his eyes, lost in the familiar shapes of Justin’s mind, the weight and solidity of the viscount’s self-confidence and assurance, his educated and rational thought processes, the lively humor twining through all. It matched his body: handsome, powerful, well-developed. Justin brought Nik’s hand to his mouth, warming pale fingers with his breath before he kissed the knuckles, tongue flicking intimately along the line where digits met.
Nik could not stop his body from responding with a hunger only Justin could satisfy. At the same time, the level of the calculation involved struck him. It was not by chance that they’d hunted alone and unattended today, or that this cottage had been readied but no servant left to wait upon them. Justin had orchestrated this moment of privacy with considerable care. Not that this was the first time.
Not that this wasn’t every time. How much of his friendship is genuine, and how much is only a mask to cover for this? When does one of his invitations ever end in any way but this? ‘Never’ was uncomfortably close to the truth. Justin released his hand to draw Nik into his arms; Nik felt stiff and unsettled, pressing his face against Justin’s hair instead of yielding to the offered kiss. Undeterred, Justin nuzzled at the corner of his jawline, one hand untucking his shirt to slide beneath it and vest to stroke Nik’s bare back, the other cupping his rear and pulling him hard against Justin’s hips. Nik could feel the hard bulge of the dark-haired lord’s arousal. Part of Nik wanted to pull away, to refuse the intimacy, to make it stop. You don’t own me.
Doesn’t he? Didn’t he pay enough? What right do you have to refuse the Viscount of Comfrey anything he wishes?
Even white teeth raked down the skin beneath Nik’s ear, nipped at the side of his neck. Nik moaned involuntarily, trembling with an aching need that fed his self-loathing but overpowered it just the same. “Justin,” he whispered, and surrendered his pride, yielding to the insistent demands of golden-brown hands and his own body.
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Afterwards, with the mess tidied and disposed of, they lay intertwined on the couch. Justin curled half-atop Nikola, fingers toying with the fine blond hairs of his lover’s chest. The taller man wrapped an arm around Justin’s shoulders, nose and mouth pressed against dark hair. Justin felt gloriously alive and satisfied, deeply content with the company, the hunt, and the lovemaking. The one flaw in the afternoon was Nikola’s subdued mood. Justin knew he’d received the reward because Anthser had sent a thank-you note for his, but Nikola had said nothing at all.
Which was – what Justin had expected. They did not need to talk about it. He didn’t want Nikola’s thanks or gratitude or anything else that reeked of obligation. All Justin wanted was for his closest friend to have one less thing in his life to worry about.
And one less reason to rush to the marriage bed to settle his parents’ debts. No, Justin did not imagine it a wholly disinterested gesture on his part. And he did save my life. It is surely fair that I express my appreciation for that.
Even so, if he was honest, he knew he was a little disappointed. Not that Justin wanted Nikola to be grateful, but he wanted him to be glad. Pleased. Relieved. Something positive, not this flicker of melancholy hiding within indigo eyes. He needs time to grow accustomed to it, is all. And I no doubt handled it badly, because I always do. But all will be well in time. Nikola can’t be truly offended, or he’d have growled and snapped. Or thrown the bank ledger in my face and ordered me never to speak to him again before stomping off. Shivering in unpleasant recollection, Justin straightened and raised his head to claim a kiss. Nikola wrapped his other arm around Justin’s bare back and snuggled him close, curling a leg over his. “Cold?”
Justin shook his head and nuzzled Nikola’s cheek. “Not any more.”
They remained comfortably ensconced together for some minutes more. Justin was trailing his fingers along Nikola’s abdomen and wondering if he could interest his friend in further bodyplay when the blond man stirred to glance at the mantle clock. “We should be getting to dinner.”
“Should we?” Justin kissed Nikola’s collarbone, tasting the salt of his skin. “I don’t have anywhere else to be until half-past eight.”
“I have an appointment—” Nikola swallowed as Justin licked a path down his sternum “—at six, Justin.”
“Mmm. With whom?” Justin curled his fingers to rake down Nikola’s side, making him arch his spine and press against Justin’s mouth as he explored the pale chest.
“With – ah! – a petitioner.” Nikola’s breathing quickened as Justin circled his tongue around a stiffening nipple.
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