Nikola managed a smile in return. “Funny you should mention it.” He moved away from the wall at last and took a ledger from the table beside the carafe and handed it to Justin before taking a seat in one of the armchairs. Justin pretended not to notice the trembling in Nikola’s hand and sat on the sofa, giving a puzzled glance to the ledger book. It had Fireholt’s symbol embossed on the cover. “Your reward,” Nikola said, as if in explanation.
With an unpleasant suspicion in his mind, Justin opened the ledger: inside was a signed and notarized assignment of an account at Michaelson’s, to change ownership from Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, to Lord Justin Comfrey, Viscount of Comfrey. It awaited only Justin’s signature acknowledging the transfer.
Of the same account Justin had set up for Nikola not two weeks ago.
“It’s a little short, I’m afraid, but since you’d already set the price of a life-saving I thought it only fair I do my best to meet it,” Nikola was saying.
Justin felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach. He could hardly breathe. You can’t, you agreed to accept this, you can’t just give it back— He looked up from the account papers to Nikola’s handsome, smiling countenance. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Oh, but I do. I do.” He scooted forward in his seat, hesitated, leaned over to put his hand on Justin’s. “Justin: thank you. I can’t say, can’t describe, how deeply grateful—”
“Nikola, don’t, it’s—”
“Please, Justin. Let me finish.” Nikola stared at their hands, his white-gloved fingers curling under Justin’s palm, thumb caressing the back. “You did more than save my life. Were it not for your intervention, had you and Miss Vasilver been unable to locate me, I would be lucky to be dead now. What Brogan planned next does not bear contemplation.” Justin’s fingers tightened over Nikola’s; he had to force himself to relax his grip. I wish I’d killed that man. No: I wish I’d made him suffer. “I owe you more than I can ever repay – let me finish, Justin – but I must at least try. I am a wreck of a man right now, and there are a great many things I cannot induce myself to do. But this much I can. And will.” He raised beautiful deep blue eyes to meet Justin’s, his smile turned shy. “I cannot keep taking everything from you and give nothing in return.”
You are everything to me. Justin could not say such a thing. “Oh dear. Does this mean you have tired of taking all the abuse I heap upon you?”
Nikola stifled a smile, looking away. “You know what I mean.”
“I should be sorry indeed if you were weary of taking my time. Or wait, am I taking yours? Perhaps you could repay me in that instead. Are we even there? I confess I have not kept track.”
His lover rose to pace the room. The ceilings were too low: his posture was slightly stooped because of it. “You said I’d won that wager, over the bowrace. The favor.”
Justin blinked at the change of subject. “Yes…?”
“Then I’m calling it in now. Be serious. Will you do that?”
Justin stared at him for a moment, then leaned back, arms to either side along the sofa back. “Of course.”
“Are you going to accept it or must we fight about this?” Nikola nodded to the ledger.
Are those my only choices? Justin swallowed the quip. “What of Miss Vasilver? Fel Fireholt? My part in the rescue was minor.”
“You killed two men for me.”
I would have killed every man on that boat if need be. “I would not have been in a position to do anything had Miss Vasilver not led Fel Fireholt to you.”
“Anthser was doing his job. He doesn’t want a reward, or even a bonus.”
“Nor do I.”
“Anthser also never set the price for a life.”
Justin grimaced. That was different! You know perfectly well why I wanted to reward you. Anverlee is all but bankrupt. He could not say it, could not state flatly that all his protestations had been mere cover for Nikola’s pride. Insufficient cover.
“As for Miss Vasilver.” Nikola stopped pacing to stand in profile before Justin, golden hair brushing the low ceiling, and half-smiled. “The princess’s hand in marriage is the other traditional reward, isn’t it? Heir in this case, I suppose, though Anverlee’s not much of a county, and certainly no kingdom.”
What— “You asked,” Justin said through gritted teeth, “that I be serious. Will you accord me the same courtesy?”
The half-smile vanished. “I am perfectly serious.”
Justin straightened, clenching his fingers into the sofa back to keep himself from surging to his feet. “You cannot mean to marry a woman out of gratitude, Nikola.”
“No.” The Haventure man turned to face Justin. “Not out of gratitude. I love her.”
The bottom fell away from Justin’s world. No this cannot be happening you cannot love her you belong to me – “Saints, Striker you made an anti-proposal to her! You cannot be serious!”
Nikola dropped his eyes, smiling wryly. “I didn’t know her then.”
“And you know her now? You met her less than a month ago!” Justin was fully aware of the hypocrisy of his words, when he’d had the same thoughts on an even shorter acquaintance, but he had to say something.
“Well enough to know there’s no woman in the world I’d rather marry. Look, I don’t know that she’d be fool enough to accept my proposal – I would not marry me, especially in my current condition. But I intend to offer. When I am…better.” Nikola returned to perch beside Justin on the sofa, taking his hand. “She is the most remarkable woman, Justin, and no, I do not mean only because she had the will to find me, the courage to risk herself doing so, and the wit to lead you to us when she did. She has the most extraordinary mind, the most fascinating way of viewing – everything. I know you are not much impressed by women, Justin, but Miss Vasilver is different. Special. If you knew her as well as I do, you’d understand.”
I’ve seen her half-naked; is that well enough? For a moment, Justin entertained telling his friend that – would you think so well of your would-be betrothed if you knew how easily she could be seduced? The thought was petty, unworthy of him: what right had he to tarnish Wisteria in Nikola’s eyes? But surely he deserves to know what kind of woman he’s thinking of wedding.
While he wrestled with that thought, Nikola continued, “I feel as though I can speak to her about anything, anything at all. And that’s the other matter I need to speak with you regarding. I want to tell her about us.”
Justin stared at him. “What do you mean, ‘about us’?”
“You know what I mean.” Nikola met his gaze earnestly, gripping his hand. “I would share my life with her; I do not want – I will not – deceive her. About who I am, or what I do.”
Justin’s jaw dropped. “Have you gone mad?” He jerked his hand away as if insanity might be contagious.
The Haventure man dropped his eyes. “Yes. But not in this,” he said softly.
Justin barked a mirthless laugh. “That would settle the question of your marrying her, anyway; she’d certainly refuse if you told her that. You cannot, Nikola, it is absolutely out of the question. You would ruin us both.”
“Miss Vasilver would not expose us, I’m sure.”
“‘You are sure’? And on this certainty, this acquaintance of what, three weeks? Four? You would stake our reputation, fortune, freedom – everything?”
“She’s not some naive sheltered girl, Justin.” Nikola hesitated. “She’s spent years traveling. Miss Vasilver would understand.”
“Do you even hear yourself? You say you wish to marry her in one breath and in the next say you would tell her the one thing guaranteed to make her refuse. Even if – if! – you are right that she would not intentionally expose us, a few careless words could do untold damage. If you are seeking my blessing for this insanity: no. Absolutely not.”
Nikola stood and took a few steps away. “There is nothing I can say to persuade you?”
“Nothing.” Justin had a terrible premonition that his words had made no impact on his friend’s intended course. “Nikola – I beg of you, for both our sakes, do not do this.”
“I won’t betray your secret, Justin. If that is what you choose.”
“But…” Nikola half-turned to look at him again. “I’ll not deceive her about my behavior, Justin. We cannot continue as we have been.”
Justin had spent six years waiting for and dreading this moment. Everything about this bizarre conversation had suggested it was near. The announcement could not be said to be a surprise. Yet the pain of it was worse than any physical blow. He could not mask entirely the shattering sense of loss; he bent, placed a hand over his screwed-shut eyes, controlled a shudder.
Nikola stepped to him, put a hand to his shoulder. “Justin, I’m—”
“Don’t.” Justin cut him off, voice harsh with grief. “Do what you must, but don’t you dare apologize for it. Don’t tell me you wish it were otherwise. It’s your choice. You made it.” He stood, shrugged off Nikola’s touch, moved blindly to the door.
“Is that it, then.” Nikola said to his back. “If we are not lovers, I am nothing to you.”
The dark-haired lord whirled upon him, snarling with rage and pain. “It’s your choice, how dare you fault me, how can you think—” Justin took two steps closer, fists clenched. Nikola turned his face to one side, pale and eyes shut, tensed for a blow. “You accuse me of lack of friendship? I saved your life!” By reflex, Justin had one fist raised to strike, a dozen conflicting thoughts running through him. He almost hated Nikola in that moment, for leaving him, for shaking with fear instead of being angry like a true man, like he was—
—and then Justin realized the reason for his own anger. I don’t want to lose him.
I already have.
With an inarticulate cry, Justin turned and stormed from the cottage.
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