Justin had not meant to do more than kiss Wisteria; certainly not to undress her less than twenty minutes from her home. But she had been so much more encouraging than he’d anticipated that he had let impulse get the better of him.
He had been hyperalert, concerned that her neutral expression and few nonverbal cues would make it difficult to take the proper measure of her interest. In the event, it had been obvious: she was no passive fainting creature, merely allowing him his way, but an active participant who stripped him with a flattering eagerness, as ready to caress and kiss as to be touched. Her enthusiasm had been unmistakable.
As unmistakable as the moment when it ended. As those flat words: “I hate this.” Which proved as effective an antiaphrodiasic as any icy plunge, unpleasant in the moment and surprisingly painful in recollection. Had he misjudged her earlier interest? What else could have been signified by her eager touch, her passionate embrace? What had he done to make her hate the experience? Was it specific to him or something about the act itself?
Let it go. You pushed beyond what she would accept, you stopped, done. Forget it.
But despite his success in smoothing over the awkwardness with her, his mind continued to pursue the question. Why had she said she was sorry? What could she have been sorry about? Why not demand an apology of him? He was the man, the instigator. Why wasn’t she angry? Was she angry? He studied her sidelong in a vain effort to gauge her mood. Her expression was exactly the same as on the dance floor, or at the poker table, or even while he cupped her bare breasts. A total cipher. You are not going to read the answer in her eyes or manner. If you want to know, now or ever, you will have to ask.
Everything in him rebelled against asking. To speak of such actions was a greater breach of etiquette than to commit them, especially after such an unequivocal rebuff.
“I hate this.”
Curse it all. “Forgive my impertinence, Miss Vasilver, but I must ask – when you said you hate this—”
Wisteria interrupted him before he could finish, though her gaze remained fixed on the carriage seat opposite. “Oh, my lord, I did not mean you, or what we were doing,” she answered at once. “I was thinking of the greater society, of the unwritten rules that dictate something so wonderful and desirable is also forbidden. That I am wrong for wanting your attentions and worse for permitting them. I hate that I am a whore if I do not object and I hate that I objected, if that makes any sense. I wish I could just be normal, or failing that, embrace my abnormality and be indifferent to all expectation. I am so very sorry to have led you on as I did.”
The intensity of Justin’s relief surprised him, heart gladdened by the assurance that she did want him. It took him a moment to marshal his thoughts and reply. He took her hand politely, like the gentleman he so often pretended to be. “Miss Vasilver, I will allow no one of my acquaintance to employ such an epithet as that against you, and that includes you yourself. I must insist you retract the slur at once.”
Wisteria still wasn’t looking at him, but she tilted her head to cant her ear to his voice. “Or what? Will you pout at me again?”
“Were you a man, I would be forced to challenge you to a duel for your honor. As you are not, I must consider what options are available to me. I hope you will not force me on this.”
“I must note that, technically, I did not ascribe it to myself but merely noted that there were possible conditions that would make it truth.”
“Weasel words; the insinuation remains unacceptable and moreover—” Justin lifted one hand to her chin and turned her face gently to meet his gaze “—untrue. There are no possible conditions, no actions you might take or refrain from taking, which would make you anything less than a gentlewoman in my eyes. My dear, I ask you again: withdraw the remark.”
She regarded him with pale brown eyes, beautiful, unreadable, the skin under his fingers smooth and soft, unwrinkled by expression. “I rescind it. I intended no offence to you, my lord.”
“Thank you, my dear.” Justin dropped his hand before his thumb could wander to trace her lower lip. The urge to kiss her again nearly overwhelmed him. Just one little kiss – no. Down, boy. “And, indeed, the problem is that you intended no offense to me. Had you insulted me I could have laughed it off, a matter of no consequence. But an insult to my friend Miss Wisteria Vasilver: that I cannot overlook. I hope you appreciate the distinction.”
Her eyelids drooped, lending her features a sensual cast. Knowing her, an unintended one. “I do appreciate it, my lord. Very much indeed.”
Justin caressed her knuckles; holding her hand had seemed harmless at the time he took it, but now he was less certain. Down, boy “Newlant is stuffed full of narrow-minded busybodies, Miss Vasilver, a fact beyond your power or mine to change. But I do not care for anyone who would demean my friends or soil their reputations with foul accusations, particularly about something so harmless as one’s very private and personal desires. I imagine that unfortunate souls blessed with fewer privileges than myself, without title or wealth or the right to issue a challenge, may find they must tolerate such gross wrongs. But happily, I need not.”
“But what if the accusations are true?”
He gave her a significant look. “A true accusation? That is even more intolerable. I would never sit by while my friends were dragged through the muck by the truth.”
“Not even if the truth was, let us say, that he had defrauded your company through a series of corrupt loans funding nonexistent capital improvements?”
Justin raised an eyebrow. “A man such as that I need not consider my friend. Now, my dear, I apologize: it is too late an hour for me to attempt this fencing with words. Let me try speaking plainly instead, and forgive my lack of polish at it: I so rarely do. I do not think you are ‘all wrong’ or even wrong at all. Normal people are a myth: I have never met one, only a great many of us gifted at pretending we are. I am glad you are not one, for it would mean you did not exist and I should be very sorry if that were the case. Furthermore—” Justin crossed his eyes, trying to recall what other points he had wanted to make and failing. Ten years ago he would have thought ‘screw this, let’s screw’ and tried to overcome her objections. But he could get a lay anywhere, and people he truly liked – not just ‘was entertained by’ or ‘found amusing’ or ‘had a use for’, but those who held his attention with their ideas and conversation – well, those were far fewer. “…furthermore, I have had a delightful evening, so thank you. And I must remember to thank Lord Nikola for abandoning you as soon as I get the chance. And do not fret for my discretion, not least because nothing happened but also because if I said anything to impugn your honor I would be forced to challenge myself to defend it and where would we be then?”
Wisteria tilted her head at him, the red jewels still studding her black hair glittering in the lantern light. “You truly do not have much practice at speaking plainly, do you?”
“None at all. Terribly sorry.”
“I forgive you. Would it be very awful of me to want another kiss? Just a kiss and nothing more?”
“It would not be awful of you at all,” Justin said, and kissed her.
He was still holding her – chastely, and proud of himself for that fact – when the carriage slowed as they neared Vasilver’s drive. The lead greatcat announced their approach, and Justin reluctantly released her. He checked them both over to make sure all was in order: becoming tendrils of hair had escaped from her elaborate style, but that had begun when she was doing no more than dancing and should not excite comment at this hour. The sophisticated fabric of her gown had resisted wrinkling despite the treatment it had received. Her calm expression betrayed nothing, and he trusted his own would do the same. He escorted her to the door and left her in the capable hands of Vasilver’s night footman.
As his carriage bore him to his own home, it struck Justin that all those improper things he’d wished to do with Wisteria would be legal – well, with certain exceptions and no one cared about those laws – had they been married. It was a thought he’d rarely had, first because he’d long ago stopped caring about a certain subset of laws and second because marriage had never been an option before. But it is here. Isn’t that interesting?
I wonder if it would be so bad?
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