“Miss Vasilver.” A masculine voice broke into her thoughts, and she turned to see Lord Comfrey’s handsome, broad-shouldered figure. He was not so tall as Lord Nikola – only a few inches taller than herself – but his deep-chested frame gave an impression of such power that he seemed larger, magnificent in a long scarlet jacket patterned with gold. He took her breath away; an uncomfortable reminder that Lord Nikola was not the only extraordinarily handsome man of her acquaintance. “What are you doing up here all by yourself?”
He was smiling; as was her usual default, she took the question for factual and not accusatory. “Watching the dancers.”
Lord Comfrey chuckled. “That answers the ‘what are you doing’ but not the ‘all by yourself’. Lord Nikola cannot have abandoned you so early? Or, wait – you found his company so tedious that you abandoned him?”
She shook her head. “Not at all. He was called away by an emergency, but he plans to return.” Soon, I hope.
“What sort of emergency? Is his family all right?”
“Oh, nothing to do with them, my lord. A petitioner.”
“Ah.” Lord Comfrey rested a hand against the railing next to her, but turned sideways to face her, rather than watching the dancers.
Wisteria searched her mind for useful small talk and fell back on imitation. “And you, Lord Comfrey? What are you doing up here all by yourself?”
“Why, making conversation with the most beautiful woman at the ball,” he answered. Puzzled, Wisteria looked about to see whom he meant, and Lord Comfrey laughed. “I am referring to you, Miss Vasilver. You are meant to take it as a compliment.”
“Oh.” She felt more as if he were making sport of her. No one but Byron and her mother ever called her beautiful.
“I see Miss Vasilver is not to be flattered for her exquisite looks. Am I forced to confess my wish to speak with the most intelligent woman at the ball as well?”
Now he had to be mocking her, even if calling her smart made more sense than calling her beautiful. She leaned on the railing, watching the glittering guests turn and bow below. “You’d best start looking for her, then. It’s early yet, you might have time to find her.”
He laughed again. “I daresay I already have.”
“Then perhaps you should screw up your courage and speak with her instead of me,” Wisteria said.
She stole a glance at him; he looked unhurt, although no longer smiling. She didn’t know what that signified. “Shouldn’t you be entertaining the young lady you invited to this occasion?”
He smiled again. His features did not have the stark perfection of Lord Nikola’s: nose slightly bumpy instead of straight, lips narrow, dark eyebrows low and a bit crooked, face rather triangular – but the imperfections did not detract from the overall appeal. Added to it, perhaps, making his face more interesting. She looked away quickly before she started staring, listening as he said, “Alas! The weakness of the flesh forced me to withdraw from the dance floor earlier, and when I returned – mere minutes later! – my partner had already been cruelly stolen from me. My sister even now dances with that cad Blackwell, leaving me no choice but to inflict my presence on innocent young women such as yourself. Or sulk in a corner, I suppose, but what sort of a man would I be if I did that?”
“Your sister?” I must have missed that in the introduction earlier. “What terrible plague do you have that you had to ask your sister to the Ascension Ball?” Wisteria asked without thinking.
That made Lord Comfrey laugh again. “The kind that makes one procrastinate until it’s too late to ask anyone else who is not already engaged. Fear not, I am assured it’s not contagious.”
She realized belatedly how insulting that must have sounded. “I apologize, my lord, I intended no offense – it’s just something Lord Nikola said to me earlier—”
“Ah, so Lord Nikola is the one who intended to offend me?”
“No, no, not at all, he was speaking of what other people would say if…oh, I am not going to recover from this, am I? Please forgive me, Lord Comfrey.”
“Forgiven.” Lord Comfrey smiled at her again, and gave her a slight bow. “In return, might you be so good as to tell me what I did to annoy you, that I might ask forgiveness for that?”
“Oh…” Wisteria hesitated, suspecting she had completely misread the situation. As usual. “I thought you were mocking me, my lord. With that exaggerated flattery.”
“Ah.” He leaned against the rail, watching her. “I will confess to occasional use of hyperbole, miss, although in this particular instance I do not believe I resorted to it. Certainly it was not my intent to make mock of you. Why would you think that?”
She was facing the opposite balcony, her ear to him to hear him better. Does he truly think me beautiful? She could not ask. The crystals on her dress and in her hair caught the gaslight from the chandeliers and reflected it back, scattering spots of light around her. “I am…very bad at discerning intent, my lord. I took you for serious the other day when you made sport of Mr. Edgewick, and now I am wary of making the same mistake again.”
“I see. I know I warned you not to take me seriously, Miss Vasilver, but I assure you I would not sharpen my tongue at your expense. I save my mockery for deserving men – fortunately there’s always at least one around who suits, if the mood strikes me.”
“Always?” Wisteria glanced about them; their section of the balcony was clear of other traffic for the moment.
“And who would be that man now?”
“Why, myself, of course.”
Amusement bubbled inside her. “And what have you done to deserve such abuse, my lord?”
“Oh, the list is endless, my dear. The ball would be over before I was half-done. Why, I am so well-known as a monster that entirely blameless young women must assume I approach only to demean them.”
“It may be that these young ladies are a trifle oversensitive.”
“I would never say that.” He turned to rest his hands on the railing beside her, not close enough to impinge on her personal space, but she had the sense of his presence anyway. She caught the faint musk of his cologne, pleasant but curious, like chocolate and leather.
“Think it, perhaps?” Wisteria offered, stealing a sidelong glance at him. Lord Comfrey was not merely handsome but disturbingly attractive. It seemed especially wrong of her to find him so after she’d been kissing a different man not an hour ago.
“…perhaps.” He smiled for a moment before sobering. “But no, I do believe the fault is mine alone. I am quite the monster, after all.”
“And in what way are you monster, my lord?” Does your monstrosity extend to ravishing purportedly blameless young women? May I volunteer? Accustomed as she was to having her thoughts run on inappropriate topics, this one surprised even her. Am I so much the slattern that I crave any man’s touch now? She knew nothing of Lord Comfrey’s reputation on this point, but she’d made no specific inquiries into it either, so that meant little.
“All men are monsters, Miss Vasilver. Did no one warn you?”
“Too many times to count, and I give it no credence whatsoever,” Wisteria answered at once. “It is nonsense designed to rob men of agency and lay the blame for their faults upon their sex. It not only insults men but makes a tiresome excuse, as if one’s gender robbed one of…I was not supposed to take that seriously, was I?”
“Not a bit, but please, do not let that deter you.” Lord Comfrey faced her again with a smile. “What are we robbed of?”
“…responsibility for one’s actions.”
“Ah! That sounds refreshing. I have always longed to be irresponsible.”
Wisteria was beginning to catch on to the dark-haired lord’s irreverence. “Is this where you mock yourself, my lord?”
“You have caught me at it indeed! I hope you do not intend to defend me; I should hate for you to join on the losing side.”
“Should I be part of the attack, then? I might have some ammunition from the Colbury file.”
He considered this for a moment. “All things considered, I’d prefer you didn’t. I have sufficient ammunition against myself already.”
“Am I condemned to the role of mere spectator, in that case?”
“That doesn’t seem gentlemanly, does it? Now that you mention it. Very well, I will abandon my quarrel with myself in the interests of serving the greater conversational good.” The man paused, dark eyes studying her with such exaggerated scrutiny that even she could not miss it. “That was your plan all along, wasn’t it?”
“Well-played.” Lord Comfrey turned from the rail and offered his arm. “Will you walk with me, Miss Vasilver?”
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