His hand strayed to caress her cheek of its own accord, Nik forgetting he’d taken his glove off. “Your mind is beautiful.” He drew his hand away quickly. “You don’t know how hard it is not to touch you.”
“I like it when you touch me,” she said with perfect innocence. She laid her fingertips against his jaw, undoing his reserve. “I didn’t know minds could be beautiful. I thought they would be…grey and wrinkled and squishy. Like cows’ brains.”
He shook his head, breath catching as he laced his fingers through hers. “No, the brain is where the mind is housed but the mind’s appearance is…wholly other. The mind dissolves on death, did you know? One cannot see what the mind of a corpse had been.”
“Oh. No, I did not know that.” Miss Vasilver traced her thumb over his lower lip and he swallowed, closing his eyes. “What does it look like?”
“Magnificent. Indescribable. Shape and color and texture combining in endless variety.” He let his mindsense linger on her, exploring the softness of her capacity for love, the warm velvet of desire, the web of reason that wrapped through every structure, strong but flexible, yielding. “I love how rational yours is, so elegantly arranged,” he murmured. Some of the structures were unusual shapes: senses were all normal but most of the usual interconnections with interpersonal skills were replaced by reason instead. In fact, her entire social skills web was heavily reliant on rationality, when not outright displaced by it, which perhaps explained her charming willingness to consider any subject.
“Oh,” she said faintly, cuddling closer, burrowing her face against the lace folds of his jabot, and he realized he had dipped his mouth to kiss her thumb, then nibble at the pad while she wriggled in the most appealing fashion against his thighs—
—I need to stop this. He pulled his head away to press against the sofa backrest. “You’ll not make Vasilver’s daughter one of your whores,” his father had said, and as insulting as the man had been he was right. She was a gentleman’s daughter, never married, taking her innocence was wrong, a sin of an entirely different magnitude from sleeping with a courtesan or a widow or even another man’s wife. Even sitting with her like this would destroy her reputation if they were seen, and she might not understand that but he did. I will not, cannot abuse her trust. He hugged her again, more tightly than intended, then removed her from his lap and stood.
He heard the rustle and tinkle of her dress as she shifted position, but he had his back to her, a hand over his face. I need to say something or she’s going to apologize again and I don’t think I can bear that. “I’m fine, Miss Vasilver—” the formality automatic and yet absurd after such intimacy “— but I – I fear I have entirely exceeded the bounds of your question.”
“What question? Oh, that question. I don’t mind, my lord. The subheadings on the first item were extensive.”
Her reply was so free of artifice, so very her, that Nik choked back laughter. “What were the subheadings? No, no, don’t answer that, I have no business asking such a thing.” He turned to her again, fell to one knee, reached for her hand and stopped himself from taking it. “I—” His mind was a confused jumble as he searched for a way to explain how he was at fault without implying that she was.
A voice calling from the balcony, a little ways off, broke into his thoughts with a faint but distinct, “Lord Nikola?”
Nik nearly swore despite the presence of a lady. He scrambled to his feet. “I’ll get rid of him,” he growled, pulling his glove back on, straightening his jacket and the ribbon holding back his hair. He strode decisively out the balcony door and closed the door quietly behind him to ensure the searcher would not find the two of them together in such an out-of-the-way spot. He turned and walked towards the sound of the voice.“Yes?” He used his most imperious voice, glowering in the direction of the speaker as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.
The other was a boy in the livery of a royal page. He bobbed a bow as Nik approached, saying, “M’lord, there’s a greatcat messenger for you, says she’s come from Anverlee.”
Sudden fear chilled Nik more than the cold night air did. “Is something wrong? What’s the message?” It can’t be my parents, they’re here and avoiding me. Lysandra? Daphne?
“Don’t know, m’lord, the message was only ‘Sharone Whittaker requesting treatment’. Said you left instructions that you wanted to know right away, m’lord,” the boy said. Nikola did swear this time, and the page cringed. “Sorry, m’lord, the messenger carried Fireholt’s seal—”
Nik tried to keep the frustration from his voice and did not quite succeed. Of all the times she has to pick now– “You did right. If the messenger’s still here, tell her to wait for me at the foot of the palace steps. I’ll be down in a moment.” After the page bowed and withdrew, Nik returned to the study. His thoughts churned in a half-dozen different directions. Part of him wanted to ignore the message. What difference would a few hours make? Why should he, lord and Blessed, be continually inconvenienced by a young girl’s madness and obstinacy? Who was to say she would not have changed her mind by the time he made it to Anverlee Manor anyway, even if he left at once?
Excuses. I have to go.
Miss Vasilver had risen and met him halfway to the balcony. “What is it, Lord Nikola?” Her serene expression was at odds with the disheveled hem of her dress, fallen partway back down but left unattended.
“One of my petitioners – a difficult and troublesome case – I don’t wish to bore you with the details, but I must leave at once. I am most heartily sorry for it.”
“I understand, my lord. Of course you must,” she said, her voice betraying neither disappointment nor offense.
He smiled at her quick grasp. “I – do you wish to go home, my lady? Miss Vasilver,” he corrected himself. “I shouldn’t be long. I hope I’ll be able to return within an hour, an hour and a half, perhaps.”
“Should you like me to go with you?” Miss Vasilver offered.
“More than anything.” Nikola briefly indulged the fantasy – he could not hold her in that glass carriage, but the round trip would give them considerable private time for conversation – “But no,” he said, reluctantly. “Speed is essential – it’d be a quarter of an hour at least for the greatcats just to extricate the coach from the warren of them, and even on the road it’s heavy and slow. I hope to ride the messenger back.”
“Then I will wait at the ball for you. If you wish.” She lifted her hand as if to touch him, then hesitated.
Nik caught her hand and pressed her palm to his lips, then drew her into his arms and lifted her into a kiss, spinning her about as her feet left the floor. She looped her arms around his neck, as eager as she’d been earlier. After breaking off the kiss, he held her fast and whispered in her ear, “You are magnificent, my dear lady. If I am unable to return – unavoidably delayed – know that it is not because I wish to be anywhere else or with anyone else. You have my deepest admiration and respect. Never doubt that.”
He could feel tension leave her, that slim, straight body melting to conform to his. “Thank you, my lord,” she said. “You do not know how good it is to hear that.” Strange how she never looks worried about what anyone might think. But she is.
Nikola pressed his lips against her temple, luxuriating in the warmth of her mind. “Thank you for sharing your list with me, my dear. I – we need to go, or I will never tear myself away.” He released her with an effort of will, taking a moment to straighten her gown and ensure she looked unexceptionable before offering his arm to her.
Miss Vasilver did not take it at once. “…I thought I might stay here for a bit.”
He blinked at her a few times, thinking, then shook his head. “It…would be better if you did not, miss.”
She tilted her head at him. “Why does it matter?”
“Someone noted that we’d come this way or that page would not have known to look for me on the balcony. To have the two of us taking air on the balcony is not itself remarkable, but if I’m seen returning inside without you and then leaving, while you’re not seen by anyone for some time thereafter…well. It would excite talk.”
“Oh. I see.” She slipped her hand against his arm, and he fought off the urge to embrace her again. “You have a great deal of experience with this sort of thing, do you not?”
“Some,” Nik admitted, and wondered if he should not have. But she has always been honest with me. “Does that trouble you?”
“No. It’s comforting.” Miss Vasilver had her long face in profile to him as they strode along the balcony to its legitimate entrance to the exhibit hall.
Startled, Nikola laughed. “Comforting?”
“Well, one of us ought to know what we’re about, don’t you think?”
What are we about? He had a brief vision of carrying on a clandestine tryst with Miss Vasilver, arranging stolen moments in secrecy, avoiding the eye of their families, friends, everyone, for – how long? The idea was – sordid. Unappealing. I don’t want to hide how I feel about you. I don’t want to be guarded and careful. I want everyone to know. I want to marry you.
The thought shocked him. I can’t mean that. Can I? I don’t want to marry anyone. Marriage means obligations, expectations, fidelity—
—to an ordinary woman. But Miss Vasilver is anything but ordinary. He hardly dared look at her as they moved through the exhibit hall, her steps quickened without comment to match his urgency. He thought of her document, still kept close to his heart even tonight. To her, the meaning of marriage is something one may negotiate.
He wrestled down the impulse to propose. This is madness brought on by frustrated lust. I can’t propose to her in the middle of the Ascension Ball, in the thirty seconds before I rush away to a petitioner. I need to give this serious consideration before I do something rash and irreparable.
Shaking off the reverie, he took his leave of Miss Vasilver when they returned to the main hall. As he kissed her hand, he wondered if he looked half so convincingly unaffected as she did. She did not smile at him – she never did – but she did squeeze his fingers as if reluctant to release them.
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