The master bath had a great clawfooted porcelain tub on a fanciful carved marble pedestal of twining dragons, scales detailed and anatomy realistic in the Markavian style. Nik filled it with a few inches of hot water from the gleaming brass tap and bathed quickly. He avoided getting his hair wet – it would look peculiar to arrive home on a dry night with soaked hair – but scrubbed hard at the rest of him. The greatcats would smell Justin on him otherwise, and while he trusted Anthser and the Anverlee greatcats, there was no reason to take risks.
And at the moment, he wanted Justin’s scent off of him anyway.
He felt cheap and dirty and angry, and not even sure Justin had meant any of it. ‘Debt repaid’. Is that why you think I’m here, prostituting myself in return for your largess? I didn’t come to lose money at some cursed game, I came for you. For this. Do you even care, old man?
How could an event so joyful in the moment become so humiliating in recollection?
Nik’s skin was pink and raw by the time he was done, and he still didn’t feel clean. Bruises ringed his neck where Justin had sucked and nibbled, not painful but already livid. His neckcloth would hide them. Justin was clothed when Nik emerged, and helped him dress – considerate given the complexity of a lord’s attire, but Nik almost wished he hadn’t. They barely spoke; Justin buttoned Nik’s cuffs and Nik arranged the folds of Justin’s neckcloth in silence. While Nik put on his shoes, Justin stepped out to pull the felishome bellrope to summon Anthser to the door. He returned and lounged in the doorway, watching Nik buckle his shoes. Justin looked every inch the lord, respectable and immaculate in gold-trimmed scarlet jacket and black breeches. Nik put on his gloves last, as he was walking to the door. Justin caught Nik’s bare right hand before he pulled its glove on, and kissed Nik’s palm. He cupped Nik’s hand to his face, then pulled Nik into his embrace. For a moment, Nik remained stiff and awkward, then he relented, relaxing to hug Justin close in return. He wanted to say…something. Do you truly think I care about your money? But he was afraid to ask. Not of a simple ‘yes’, but of another evasive, witty non-answer, like the response to Nik’s question about matchmaking. I wish I knew if I mattered to you.
Justin took a deep breath before pulling back. He tucked the lace of Nik’s jabot beneath the lapel of his jacket. “How do I look?” Nik asked.
“Edible.” Justin half-smiled. “Best make your escape before I devour you. My lord.” He made a sweeping half-bow to the door, sardonic yet graceful.
With his best regal nod, Nik proceeded to the hall.
Anthser lay draped over the front steps of Comfrey Manor. He looked unexpectedly content, especially for someone who’d been roused after three in the morning to cart his ne’er-do-well master to bed. Justin leaned against the doorjamb as Nik mounted. “Thanks for joining us, Striker. It’s always a pleasure to have your company.”
“And thank you for the invitation, my lord,” Nikola replied in the same easy manner, performing for their audience of one. As if Anthser cares one whit.
“You know you’re always welcome. Give my regards to the Count your father and your lady mother. Safe travels to you.”
Anthser laid back his ears at that last sentence. Nikola took his leave, and Anthser bore him away. Nik’s mind was cluttered and weary. Shelby would notice the bruising on his neck, of course – he could not hide it from his valet. Nik often covered for his indiscretions with Justin by engaging in less dangerous indiscretions with women. Extramarital relations between a man and a woman were technically illegal, but such laws were rarely enforced, and for the man it barely qualified as a social failing. Such behavior irritated his parents – his mother feigned ignorance and his father scolded him – but no one else cared as long as he wasn’t despoiling virgins or their own wives. Sexual congress between two men, however, was another matter: those laws were enforced with exorbitant fines, pillorying, and probable exile. Even if one escaped the legal consequences, the social costs of discovery were ruinous. The scandal would destroy Comfrey and Fireholt, and Nik’s father would likely disinherit him to preserve the shreds of Anverlee’s dignity.
All of which should have been sufficient motivation for Nik to conceal his crimes further. Madame Julietta and her girls would make him welcome at any hour, but he’d lost his taste for paid companionship years ago. The erstwhile widow Mrs. Pierce was Mrs. Hampton now, after remarrying last year, and while she’d intimated that this need put no constraints on their relationship, Nik had little interest in cuckolding any man.
Lost in these thoughts, he almost missed Anthser’s question: “Did you tell him?”
For a wild moment, he thought Tell Mr. Hampton? Are you mad? before he realized Ansther could not possibly know his train of thought. “Tell who?”
Surely this can’t be about what I think it’s about. Nik decided to feign ignorance. “I’m sorry, what are we talking about?”
“You know. The incident.” Anthser scuffed at the pavement. “With that rooftop.”
Nik laughed, half-amused and half-relieved. “No, of course not.”
Anthser relaxed, his sides vibrating with a contented purr. “Are you going back to see Lord Comfrey soon?”
“I don’t know. He’ll be at the Ascension Ball, of course, so I’ll see him then if not sooner.”
“But not at Comfrey Manor?” Anthser sounded disappointed.
Nik glanced askance at his warcat. “Is there some reason you’re in a hurry to get back there? What happened to ‘only catnip can make the company bearable’?”
Anthser ducked his big black head, scuffing the pavement again. “Well. He hired a new riding cat.”
“For bowracing. She’s beautiful. We spent the last three hours talking. And she groomed my ears.” Anthser sighed dreamily. “Champion racer, too. Wall full of medals. Hey, you should invite Lord Comfrey bowracing.” The greatcat’s ears pricked up in interest.
Nik laughed again. “I’ll think about it. In the meantime, you know you don’t need my permission to call at Comfrey’s felishome.”
Anthser canted his ears to the side, embarrassed. “I know. It’s just…a good excuse, you know?”
“I suppose I do.” Nik reflected on all the excuses he and Justin had contrived to obtain time alone together. Surely he must care. This is far too much risk and trouble otherwise. Isn’t it? “Don’t worry, Anthser, I’m sure we’ll be back.”