Justin called on Anverlee Manor at ten o’clock on Monday morning. That was an hour earlier than could be considered reasonable for a social visit during Gracehaven’s Ascension season, but Justin had already waited as long as he could tolerate. The peaceful crowd outside Anverlee’s gates was even larger than the last time he’d called; their makeshift shrine full of offerings had also swollen.
He was nervous, an emotion so unusual in him that it took him some time to identify what he was feeling.
Anverlee’s butler showed him into the parlor, betraying no surprise at his early arrival. Nikola’s younger sister, Mrs. Adonse, stopped in to greet Justin. A few years ago, there’d been some awkwardness between himself and the girl due to her infatuation with him. But she’d recovered from that obsession by fixating on the man she was now married to, and eventually recovered from her embarrassment at contriving the infatuation as well. Now she was at ease with him. “Nik said you’d be by this morning. I am so glad he’s feeling a bit less antisocial. We were starting to think he was going to miss the entire season! I hope he comes up to the house to see you,” she chattered away.
Where else would he see me? Justin recalled after a moment Lady Striker saying something about a gamekeeper’s cottage. The thought reminded him of the hunting cottage he’d arranged for them at the Markavian hunting preserve. Part of him wanted to press for further details on Nikola, but the greater part rebelled against gossiping about his closest friend. “Location is no matter. How has your own family been, madame?”
The little blonde woman giggled, as if still surprised three years after marriage to have it acknowledged. “Oh, worried, all of us,” she said. “Not the baby, of course, but even the captain’s been…wondering. You know. When we heard you’d brought him to the infirmary, I thought that was it, he was safe, he’d be treated, it’s over.” She lowered her voice, the remnants of her smile vanishing. “But it’s not. Not that we aren’t grateful for all that you’ve done, Lord Comfrey!”
Justin was saved from having to produce another diversion by the arrival, not of a human servant, but of Anthser. “Heyo, Lord Comfrey. This way, please.” He motioned to the hall with his dark-furred muzzle.
Mrs. Adonse made a moue of disappointment. “Nik’s not coming up, Anthser?”
“Not today, Mrs. Daphne,” Anthser said, apologetic.
She rose when Justin did, as if to follow him. Anthser’s head sank and ears went back as he gave her a look, his body language uninviting. Mrs. Adonse sank back to her chair. “Do stop in again before you leave, Lord Comfrey.”
Justin nodded assent and followed Anthser down the hall. “Have you been promoted to Lord Nikola’s butler now? Er, would that be a promotion, from warcat?”
The black greatcat shrugged. “Maybe? I can’t keep track. We’re just doing whatever he needs us to, for now.” Anthser led him out to the cold lawn and down a path into an orchard, barren branches stark against the wintery sky.
“All us greatcats.” Anthser raised a paw in a gesture that encompassed the grounds. Justin realized several greatcats were around: an adult stationed where the path joined orchard and lawn, a couple of adolescents about the fringes of the small orchard, another adult on a nearby rise, a third adult lounging atop the broad ledge of Anverlee’s eight-foot stone wall. They had the languid postures typical of greatcats, but their heads were up. Alert, watching.
“…I didn’t think this many greatcats worked for Lord Nikola. Or Anverlee.”
“Don’t. Those two are Gunther’s kids, the rest are volunteers. Making sure no one bothers Lord Nik.”
The cottage was small, old, and dilapidated, with a patched roof and little windows of bubbling, distorted yellow-brown glass. It hurt to picture Nikola in this squalid half-ruin. Anthser pawed open the door and announced him, standing back so Justin could pass. The interior smelled of bleach with a faint undertone of mildew, dark enough after the light of day that it gave the impression of dinginess.
Nikola stepped through an interior entranceway and Justin forgot all about the room. “Good morning, Comfrey.” The tall lord wore his habitual crooked smile. His neckcloth was tied askew, but that could not detract from his splendor in a blue morning coat and matched trousers, long blond waves of hair left loose to frame sharply-defined features. Nikola did not look pallid or sickly: he looked like himself. Perfect.
Justin’s face lit with pleasure and relief as he crossed the room to meet his friend in the middle, clasping his gloved hand. “Striker.” It took all his restraint not to fall into Nikola’s arms.
“Thank you for joining me.” Nikola motioned to Anthser in dismissal. The greatcat ducked into a bow before stepping back outside and closing the door, leaving the two men in private. “I’m sorry about the squalor here. I ought to have received you in one of the manor parlors, I know.”
Justin dismissed their irrelevant surroundings with a wave of one hand. “It doesn’t matter.” Then he took another look about, considering. “Are you all alone out here, without even servants?”
“Yes. The greatcats have been a tremendous help, of course, but they’re all outside at the moment.” Another crooked smile. “Mostly they help by intimidating the well-intentioned from trying to press their company upon me. It turns out all I need do to get some privacy in Gracehaven is be held prisoner and tortured. Who would have – Justin?” Nikola was caught by surprise as the viscount took a pace closer, steered them out of sight of the room’s narrow windows, and wrapped him in his arms.
Justin nuzzled golden hair aside to press his cheek against Nikola’s neck, breathing in his scent, feeling tension flow out as he exhaled. “I wouldn’t recommend the strategy, just the same,” Justin murmured dryly.
Nikola put his arms around Justin’s shoulders in return. “No. Not worth the cost,” he agreed, then stumbled a bit as Justin moved them farther back to push Nikola against the far wall. Justin pressed the length of his body against Nikola’s, brushing lips over the taller man’s pale neck, running hands down his sides. A familiar ache of desire rose in him, but Justin craved connection more than release, to hear Nikola gasp with pleasure under his touch, to explore every inch anew and verify for himself his lover’s well-being. He licked the line of Nikola’s chin, skin fresh-shaven and smooth against his tongue. “Justin…” Nikola said, quietly. The viscount snuggled closer still, trapping Nikola against the wall as he nipped at Nikola’s throat, exposed above the high collar. Nikola swallowed, breathing unevenly. “Don’t.”
Justin slid his hips against Nikola’s, feeling the other man’s arousal. “If you’re worried about the greatcats, I’ll bathe afterwards. I don’t have anywhere to be.” He caressed Nikola’s shoulders, stroking down his arms to capture the wrists.
At that, Nikola twisted violently, raising his arms to break the grip. “No!” Justin stepped back at once, releasing the other man, realizing too late the sincerity of that initial objection. Nikola was white, breathing too quickly, head turned to one side and eyes screwed up as if in pain.
Savior, I’m an idiot. Justin took another step away, crossing his arms to keep himself from doing anything else stupid. Apologizing felt wrong: to do so would draw attention to something that would be better to pretend hadn’t happened. Draw attention to the unusual nature of Nikola’s response. He poured a glass of winterberry juice from the carafe on the parlor table and moved to the sofa.
“It’s not that I’m not grateful, Justin,” Nikola said, voice catching. “I am. But I – I can’t—”
Justin clenched his hand around the glass. Do you think I expect you to screw me out of obligation? That I would want you to? He looked to his friend with the easiest smile he could conjure. “Don’t be absurd, Striker.” One corner of his mouth quirked higher with sincere mirth. “After all, it’s not as if you never saved my life before.”
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