Justin remained pleasant and agreeable through the remainder of dinner, smiling and listening after having taken up so much time earlier relating his anecdote. Inwardly, he was irritated and frustrated. Not at having related the whole sorry episode – that didn’t trouble him. Anyone who thought less of him for it deserved to, and besides the only listener in the room whose opinion he valued already knew the truth.
No, Nikola was the problem.
It had struck Justin on Sunday evening that, finally, he had a certain way to force his proud, impoverished friend to take some curst money from him. Money, which always lay between them like a needless thorn. It was an unspeakable injustice that Nikola, whose gifts restored men’s minds, gave them back sanity, dignity, memory, intelligence – everything that made life bearable – should be forced to scrape along in a household hobbled by debt and understaffed to serve the needs of his Blessing, never mind those of his personal life. The world ought to shower the man with riches, not leave pennies in an offering bowl while walking away with the true fortune of an intact mind. Whereas society lavished rewards upon Justin for his far less significant talents in making connections, persuading influential people, and choosing investments. Justin had long ago passed the point where he wanted money for the sake of what he could purchase: it was just a way to keep score, to show that he was winning at yet another game. Justin liked winning, and liked having something to show for having won, but beyond that he didn’t have much use for most of his fortune other than investing it for the next round of the never-ending game. Which was a certain amount of fun, but he’d rather have spent it on something important. Someone important.
Who did need what money could acquire, but didn’t want it from Justin.
Every effort Justin had ever made to alleviate Nikola’s relative poverty had failed, sometimes disastrously. Granted, the disasters were mostly Justin’s fault – one time in particular pained him to recollect, several years after the fact. Somehow, knowing he was to blame did not make his failures any easier to bear.
Why can’t I do this one thing?
Half the reason he’d chosen to tell the entire story of the race at the dinner table was to make Nikola’s rescue public knowledge, and to assert Justin’s right to repay the debt before witnesses, where it would be harder for Nikola to fend off the claim. It should have worked, curse it. Nik was accustomed to being paid to save lives. Not in anything like proportion to the value of the life saved, granted, but nonetheless. Perhaps Justin had started negotiations too high – he’d expected Nikola or the Strikers would object to what would be, admittedly, an outrageous sum. That he would have gladly paid. But he figured he’d let them talk him down to something more reasonable, such as ten or five percent. He had not reckoned on Nikola’s obstinate end run around the entire issue. There’s nothing wrong with ideals, boy, but there’s no shame in seeing to your own needs, either. Perhaps making it a public issue had been a tactical error and he’d do better at private negotiations. You know, most people have this sort of problem acquiring wealth, not convincing someone else to take it, Justin reflected dryly. I have to be different about everything.
The back of his mind was still turning over the issue when dinner concluded. Most of the party withdrew to the drawing room, though Mrs. Adonse took her sister and her female friends, Miss Quinen and Miss Rubane, upstairs to the nursery to show off their offspring. Nikola asked Justin, “Would my lord care for billiards?”
“By all means.”
“Anyone else, gentlemen?” Nikola asked politely. None of the others were interested – Lord Striker’s brow was furrowed in outright disapproval, for no reason Justin could discern. After exchanging bows with the others, Nikola led Justin alone to the billiards room in the north wing. “I didn’t know you had a billiards room, Striker,” Justin commented.
Nikola gave him a lopsided smile. “We do. After a fashion.” He opened the door on a forlorn-looking chamber ill-lit by what late afternoon sunlight came through the east-facing windows. The room held a few shabby chairs and an ancient pocketless billiards table in need of recovering. “My father likes to pretend it doesn’t exist because he’s ashamed of it. Captain Adonse detests playing on it because the surface is so warped.”
Justin stepped onto the threadbare rug of Anverlee blue, strolling to the table as Nikola closed the door. “Ah, you know I do love a challenge, Striker.” He stroked a hand over the worn red velvet on the uneven top, then turned to fetch down a cue stick from the wall – only to find Nikola standing a few inches before him, tall and slim in his formal blue dinner jacket and neckcloth with its fraying ends concealed in careful folds. Without a word, the blond lord enfolded Justin in his arms, pressing his cheek against dark hair, holding so hard that he forced Justin back a half-step to bump against the billiards table. Justin laughed, startled but pleased, sliding his own arms around Nikola’s waist. “Or perhaps you don’t want to play billiards, either?”
“Perhaps not,” Nikola admitted. Justin could feel the tension in his lover’s body, a strain that did not feel like passion, though Justin’s own body was responding predictably to the pressure of Nikola’s leg between his thighs. The fantasy of bending Nik over that billiards table and taking him, here, now, in his father’s house, flashed through Justin’s mind. Down, boy, he told himself, and just held his friend instead, stroking a hand over his back.
Nikola had begun to melt against him when they were interrupted by a knock at the door. Neither man started, though Nikola growled in Justin’s ear, tensing again. Calm, they dropped their arms and Nikola took two steps back before calling, “Enter.”
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