Still dazed by his long conversation with Miss Vasilver, Nik traveled by cab to Justin’s manor. What a remarkable woman. He didn’t think he’d ever had such a frank discussion with anyone. She hadn’t been the least perturbed by his admission that he was not interested in marriage: quite the opposite, given her willingness to elaborate on alternative solutions to Anverlee’s financial woes. Perhaps she was relieved as well; other than a title and a bloodline, he had little to recommend himself. Probably she dreamt of a husband with a mind as keen for business as her own, someone who didn’t look at her blankly when she spoke of ‘due diligence’ and understood at once the distinction between income and revenue. Though she’d been very patient in her explanations, her cool calm voice holding no trace of condescension or contempt for his ignorance. Miss Vasilver had the most wonderfully concise and clear way of describing complex concepts, unpacking technical details into plain language even Nik could understand.
But the most amazing thing was how easy it was to talk to her about everything. He’d been afraid a few times that he’d given her offense – indeed, how could she not have been offended when he’d inadvertently impugned her virtue? – yet she remained unruffled throughout.
And it was a great relief to have the matter of courtship taken off the table so easily. Nik tried to imagine broaching that topic with any other woman: how would Miss Dalsterly, say, respond if Justin told her up front of his disinterest? The mental image that followed made him wince. Of course, no doubt it helped that Miss Vasilver barely knew Nik and her affections were far from engaged.
It was…almost a shame, in a way. The state of matrimony did not have much to recommend itself, but wedding a woman like Miss Vasilver – a practical, intelligent wife one could talk to, who would listen with calm comprehension to even the most outrageous statements – that had a certain appeal. That document of hers, with its tolerant terms on the conduct of extramarital affairs.
But even her tolerance would not, could not extend to… he squashed this entire line of thought as he stepped from the cab and ascended Comfrey Manor’s steps.
Wisteria felt as though she were made of light. After Lord Nikola took his leave, she leaned back in the parlor chair and closed her eyes to cherish the afternoon in recollection. He called on me! He wasn’t sarcastic or jesting at all! And he said he’d call again! She ought to go upstairs to dress for dinner, but she wanted to commit every moment of the last few hours to memory first. I told him I prefered honesty and he believed me. She pictured Lord Nikola’s angular face in her mind, framed by waves of tied-back golden hair, blue eyes on her, so intent when he caught her hands in his. Imagine him worried that he had offended her. Mirth bubbled inside her at the idea. Oh, but it felt so good to speak plainly and to get plain answers in return.
She shouldn’t let it lull her, she knew. No doubt she’d fall all unwitting into some new conversational death trap at some point, one Lord Nikola would not be so ready to assist her in escaping. He could not be so unlike other people as to truly sympathize with her feelings on politeness and forbidden topics. But he had been so very kind.
When Helen found Wisteria, she was still woolgathering in the parlor. The lady’s maid clucked at Wisteria’s attire and hurried her upstairs to change for dinner. “It’s only family, Helen, does it matter?” Wisteria complained as Helen shut the door on her dressing room.
“Yes, miss. It matters to your family. They count too, you know.” The lady’s maid plucked a dress from racks well-organized by type and color.
“Of course. They count more, in point of fact. But by now they ought to know better than to judge me by what I wear.” Wisteria stood before the full-length mirror on a cherry stand in the corner by the door.
“Clothing makes the woman, miss.” Helen slipped the jacket from Wisteria’s shoulders and unfastened the rows of buttons down the back of the dress until Wisteria could step out of it. The angoraflax daysuit was exchanged for a formal dinner gown of emerald green with matched jewelry, all selected by Helen. Wisteria never chose her own attire, although she sometimes vetoed singularly uncomfortable selections.
Makes her into what? Wisteria wondered, gazing at her reflection. Helen shifted Wisteria to sit at the vanity, and the lady’s maid busied herself dressing long dark tresses. Wisteria didn’t rush the woman this time. My family won’t leave because I’ve taken too long, she thought. And if they did, it wouldn’t be all bad. Which was unkind and untrue. Almost entirely untrue. Wisteria returned to her daydreams over Lord Nikola while her attendant swept her hair into an elegant twist and secured it with a tourmaline-studded comb.
Dinner was just family for a change: her mother, father, Byron, and her two teenaged brothers, Mitchell and David, home from school on winter break. Wisteria had two other older brothers, both captains in Vasilver’s merchant fleet, and overseas at present.
Byron and their father were already deep in a discussion of trade with Heschia Dachee Company, an overseas press in Esanalee. Vasilver Trading did brisk business shipping their books: HDC had some marvelous secret technique for printing or ink or paper or binding, or perhaps all four, that enabled them to sell volumes for a quarter of what local presses charged despite comparable labor costs in the two countries. Wisteria joined as they debated the merits of continuing to import from HDC versus attempting to duplicate HDC’s processes locally. Their father favored the former and Byron the latter. Byron saw in terms of efficiencies and diversification, preferring to spread into a variety of businesses to avoid overdependence on a single economic sector, while the senior Mr. Vasilver was reluctant to jeopardize a good business relationship and source of profit, and disliked jumping feet-first into businesses Vasilver had no practical experience in running. They both had good points to make, so it was always a balancing act. Wisteria suggested partnering with HDC to create a press in Newlant, allowing Vasilver to provide local knowledge and HDC printing expertise, especially since HDC was reluctant to sell their trade secrets.
While this discussion continued, Mitchell and David fought or maybe just roughhoused at their end of the table – Wisteria could never tell the difference – as her mother ate in silence. Wisteria felt a twinge of guilt. Poor woman. Five sons, and her one daughter is even more incomprehensible to her than they are.
When they reached an impasse on HDC that could not be solved without more information, Mitchell took pity on their mother – or perhaps wanted a different sibling than David to harass – but at any event changed the subject. “So, Teeri, you had a caller this afternoon…?”
Lord Nikola’s face displaced the chart of pros and cons on involvement in the printing process that Wisteria had been building in her mind. “Oh, yes, I did.”
“Well, how’d it go?” Mitchell demanded, when she didn’t elaborate on her own. “You were talking to him for hours.”
“Oh, it was marvelous. Did you know, Father, he liked the document I gave him the other day, we were talking about it.” Wisteria turned to her father as she spoke.
“Were you now?” He gave her a too-familiar look that she had learned to recognize as something between apprehension and horror.
Wisteria abruptly recalled herself. “Yes…” She tried to sort out which parts might be safe to relate to her family. Her father had complained about its business clauses too, but less so than the rest. “Mostly about Fireholt and mining.”
“In truth? Thought Lord Nikola wasn’t much of a man for business,” Byron said.
“He seemed interested enough,” Wisteria said, now second-guessing herself. Would I have noticed if he’d been humoring me? “He lost track of time until Betsy came to say it was near dinner.”
“Teeri’s got a lo-ord,” David sing-songed from his end of the table. Mitchell snorted a laugh.
“Hush, David,” Ms. Vasilver said. Mitchell cuffed his younger brother, and David pulled a face and cuffed him back.
Wisteria was unperturbed by her squabbling younger brothers. “In any case, Lord Nikola said he would call again. I’m sure you can discuss it with him yourself – the onidian mining operations are your bailiwick, after all,” she said to Byron.
“Hmm.” Byron paused, then asked, “So, this mean the engagement is back on?”
Wisteria blinked at the idea. “Oh, no, not at all. Not that there ever was an engagement, of course. But no, nothing of the sort.”
Their mother, who’d paused in eating while this conversation waxed on, heaved a sigh and turned back to her plate.
Byron gave Wisteria a quizzical look. “So Lord Nikola called, to discuss these papers you’d put together in pursuit of a marital alliance – papers he admired – and you had a marvellous conversation, and he’s going to call again.”
“Yes.” Wisteria had no idea why her brother was summarizing her earlier statements.
“But he’s not courting you.”
“Correct. Are we making progress in clear communication, Byron? You have grasped my precise meaning.” Wisteria took a bite of her pudding.
Byron exchanged glances with their parents. “Clear, yes. Understandable, perhaps not so much.”
“Teeri’s got a lo-ord,” David sang out again.
Lacking whatever telepathic abilities were apparently required to explain the situation properly, Wisteria gave up and addressed herself to her food. Yet it had all made perfect sense to Lord Nikola, I am certain.
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