With the calm composure that teachers and tutors had drilled into him throughout his youth, Nik waited while Shelby finished arranging Nik’s neckcloth for dinner on Wednesday afternoon. He did not dance with impatience or tell the dignified old servant to ‘hurry it up already’ because a footman had announced Justin’s arrival and Nik wanted to meet him in the parlor before they were seated for dinner. Their friendship was in no way a secret, but rushing down like a schoolboy with a crush was undignified and ill-advised.
Instead, the parlor was full when Nik arrived. In addition to the manor’s current seven gentleborn adult occupants, the Lady Striker had invited two women to balance the genders: Miss Andrea Rubane and her cousin Miss Eliza Quinten. Nik wondered if either of them had wealth enough to have become his mother’s next target for a betrothal. Miss Quinten had a remarkable figure and bright, pretty green eyes in a face framed by gold curls. She was also a giggly creature who hid behind her fan, a ridiculous affectation in wintertime, perhaps in a vain effort to conceal her discolored teeth. Miss Rubane had a less attractive figure – scrawny and of average height, with nondescript Newlanture features and dark hair – but she had a quick smile and an intelligent expression. Nik exchanged amiable greetings with them when Daphne introduced them as her friends. He did not have time for more than some meaningless chitchat and a friendly handshake with Justin before the party was seated for dinner.
Lady Striker had shown some mercy in the seating arrangements for dinner, however. She did place Miss Rubane on Nik’s right, but Daphne was on his left and Justin just to the other side of Daphne. Justin, as usual, was magnificent: long black hair loose except for a narrow queue down the back, broad shoulders encased in a jacket of wine-colored velvet, patterned waistcoat of gold and white just visible beneath it, neckcloth immaculately tied, strong well-turned calves outlined by white stockings, buckled shoes gleaming.
Dinner went off in a fine flow of food, drink, and conversation. Miss Rubane was an attentive but not simpering companion, politely dividing her attention between Nik on her left and Edmund on her right. Daphne was perhaps Nik’s favorite relative, and he had no objections to catching up with her.
Partway through the second course, Daphne asked Justin, “So how did your bowrace with Nikola go, Lord Comfrey? You know I so seldom see him for two minutes together that I’ve not even had the chance to ask him who won.”
Nik suppressed a wince and turned to distract Daphne, only to find Justin laughing at the question. “Oh, that’s just as well, Mrs. Adonse. I promise you Lord Nikola’s version of the story would be much less entertaining than mine.”
“It would?” Nik raised his eyebrows, wondering what tale Justin could plan to spin out of the debacle.
“Without a doubt.” Justin grinned, intention unreadable in his dark eyes.
Daphne all but bounced in her seat. “Don’t keep me in suspense!”
Justin steepled long tan fingers, considering his subject matter. “A bit of background first. Some weeks ago, I hired a racing greatcat for the express purpose of bowracing: Feli Southing, a superb racer, albeit with little bowracing experience. Still, fair enough, I am not an experienced rider either, so we planned to learn together. Second, as I suspect you are already aware, I am excessively competitive in every sport in which I partake. As one might imagine, Feli Southing, a professional racer, is as well! Surely this is a partnership destined for great things.”
“Oh, so you won?” Miss Quinten piped in from Justin’s other side.
The dark-haired lord shook his head at her. “Ah, don’t let me get ahead of my narrative, my dear. Lord Nikola and his greatcat, Fel Fireholt, are an excellent bowracing team, with a considerable advantage in both experience and teamwork, if not in competitive drive.”
Nik smiled despite himself. “Or in general physical condition.”
Justin acknowledged this truth with an inclination of his head. “Feli Southing and I are obsessives, you see, while Lord Nikola and his associates are famously sane. Why haven’t you ever cured me, anyway, Striker?”
“Because you’re not crazy.”
“A blatant falsehood, which I am about to disprove!” Justin dismissed Nikola’s answering glower and grinned as he continued, “That should be enough prologue: let us advance to the main event. The four of us had run through the first three of four legs in the bowrace. Feli Southing and I, through a combination of speed and accuracy, had established a comfortable lead over Lord Nikola and Fel Fireholt. To the point where the two greatcats spoke of Lord Nikola’s team forfeiting to us and calling it a day. As evidence the first of my insanity, I objected: ‘No! We must finish thrashing them in the grand finale!’ This despite the final leg being a cross-country romp where the greatcats are expected to blaze their own trails through impenetrable woods and up and down cliff faces. Now, I mentioned Feli Southing was a racing cat, did I not? Trailblazing is not her specialty. Fel Fireholt, on the other hand, is in truth part sphynx (the wings are invisible) and so he flies over the brush, down the cliff faces, and up the trees, occasionally putting a paw down against a tree or a boulder or whathaveyou for the sake of appearances.”
Miss Quintin giggled and Daphne smiled; on the far side of Nik, Miss Rubane was leaning around to listen. “Now I want to see this greatcat in action,” she murmured.
Nik shook his head. “Trust me, it’s not as impressive as he makes it sound.”
“It is far more impressive, Miss Rubane. I highly recommend it. As an observer. Not as a participant,” Justin said. “Understand that Lord Nikola becomes the man-portion of this sphynx-like creature, and therefore cannot be unseated. This will be important later. Feli Southing and I, being but greatcat and man and wholly mortal, struggled to follow this mythical arrow-spouting beast across the impossible and more relevantly impassible terrain—”
“It’s not like that at all, Lord Comfrey. Ladies, there are perfectly good trails—”
“Hush, Lord Nikola – didn’t I tell you this would be a better story told my way, Mrs. Adonse? Would you have a trifle like accuracy get in the way of a good tale?” Justin appealed to Daphne.
Daphne, trying not to laugh, shook her head. “Never, my lord.”
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