In his private carriage, Justin stewed in anger, an anger he knew full well masked a terror as great as any of mortal peril.
But it was still better to be angry, better to blame Nikola, than to admit that fear. He thanks me in one breath and breaks with me in the next and with the third accuses me of being inconstant! Claims a disinterested friendship with Wisteria one day, pledges his love for her the next, and I am fickle? Hypocritical self-righteous bastard!
Whispers of self-recrimination broke into his fury. There was something wrong with Nikola, something the Savior couldn’t fix, and Justin didn’t even know what because he was too circumspect to ask. Circumspect. Hah. The first thing I did today was try to seduce him, but I am too circumspect to ask him to tell me his troubles? Too self-involved, perhaps, unwilling to confront an uncomfortable subject. Because what could be more important than my own comfort? Then he’d twist back around to how this was all Nikola’s fault – he’s the one who broke it off! He betrayed me! (Betrayed what? There was no oath between us, no pledge of undying love. No statement of love, even.) And then implied my interest in him has always been merely physical! (And if he thinks that, whose fault is it? What was your first instinct on finding him in private?) I saved his life! (And threw it in his face, as if that obliged him to fuck you.) It’s not about obligation! He should know that I’m his friend, curse it! He’s no right to question me on that. (And surely turning your back on him and stomping off in a tantrum proves your devotion.)
But it didn’t matter how the argument in his head went. Nikola was lost to him now, if indeed he could ever have been said to be his at all (he never was). And as if that were not enough, Nikola was going to propose to Wisteria, and she would be lost as well.
He rapped on the front wall of the carriage to get the draycats’ attention, sliding open a panel as the carriage slowed. “Take me to the Vasilver house.”
Wisteria was in the back parlor talking with Byron when Lord Comfrey called. She asked him to be shown to it, because it was his fifth visit and she thought he deserved to escape the pretentious parlor by now. They exchanged the usual greetings when he was shown into the comfortable room, with its view of the rear gardens framed in two square windows and its worn but well-padded chairs, each with an unfashionable ottoman to rest one’s feet upon (her mother despised those ottomans, and the entire practice of putting up one’s feet for that matter).
Lord Comfrey showed no sign of noting the defiant ottomans; in fact, although he sat at her invitation, he was on his feet again in moments, pacing. Even to Wisteria’s inexpert eye, he looked agitated. After inquiring of the health of her family, he and Byron exchanged a look. Perhaps it conveyed some meaning to Byron, because her brother excused himself a minute later, leaving the parlor door ajar for decency’s sake. Wisteria wasn’t sure if she and Lord Comfrey still needed a chaperone: he had called twice since last Wednesday, and both visits had been pleasant but entirely circumspect. To Wisteria’s disappointment, although she could not bring herself to initiate such intimacies herself, and in any case there had been no opportunity on either prior occasion.
Now there was an opportunity, but Lord Comfrey’s nervous pacing intimidated her. “My lord? Is something amiss?” she asked after Byron left.
Lord Comfrey shook his head, then pivoted to face her. Wisteria was seated a few feet away, with her feet on the floor and ankles crossed demurely beneath her long yellow skirt, too anxious to use the ottoman. His dark brown eyes studied her face, his countenance unsmiling. Wisteria tried to remember if that was normal for him – it was difficult for her to notice or recall even obvious expressions – and thought it wasn’t. He strode abruptly to the door, checked the hall, left the door half-closed again, then returned to her. “Were you aware,” he asked, “that Lord Nikola intends to propose to you?”
Her first thought was What? followed by That cannot mean what it sounds like it means. “Propose what, my lord?”
That made him smile for a moment, though it faded as he replied, “Marriage.”
“To me?” Wisteria felt unusually stupid. Surely even if he did propose to me he would not do so through Lord Comfrey. Would he? Does anyone still use intermediaries in Newlant?
“To you. Yes.”
“No, I was not. I am not sure I am aware of such a thing now. Is this a jest, my lord? I am afraid I do not follow the humor in it if so.”
“No jest.” He took a step closer to her chair, looming over her.
Wisteria stood, discomfited and flattered and taken aback all at once. “Truly? But his family dislikes me, except for Mrs. Warwick, and I am not suitable for marriage, and this is all so very strange. Why did he send you to ask? Is he unwell?”
Lord Comfrey clasped her hand between his. “He did not. Forgive me, Miss Vasilver, for the irregularity here. Of course I should not be telling you such things. Lord Nikola would be furious with me – rightly so – if he knew I was relaying his intentions to you. It is not my place to do so, and believe me I am well aware of that. I have gone back and forth over what to do this last hour and my resolution, such as it is, has not favored the most honorable course. But tell me, my dear, why would you say you are not suitable for marriage?”
“Because I am not? I am blunt and indelicate and I speak of things that ought not be spoken and I can’t even remember that they’re not even though I’ve been told and everyone else understands these things. And you, as much as anyone, ought to know how far I fall short of the ideal. I cannot imagine why he would ask, or why anyone would save a man blinded by greed. Why, Lord Nikola told me himself he was not interested in marriage at this time of his life.”
Lord Comfrey smiled, stroking the back of her hand. “He has reconsidered that stance. My dear Wisteria—” her attention was arrested by the sound of her given name in his baritone voice “—you sell yourself far short of reality. And it is due to that brilliant, courageous, passionate reality that I am engaging in this…rather dishonorable course. For you see—” he lifted her hand to his lips, brushing the skin in a caress that made her insides melt. “—I wish to marry you myself.”
Wisteria watched him, her mind wiped blank by pure shock. He laid a tan finger against her lips before she could formulate a coherent thought, much less a response. “Do not answer me now, my dear. It is wrong of me to have asked immediately after my friend confided his own intentions to me. I will not compound that error by forcing you to a decision before allowing you the chance to consider his offer as well.”
The tall, broad-shouldered man took a deep breath and continued. “I imagine you know already that of the two of us, I am by far the wealthier and more influential. My good friend is frugal but has little interest in business and less in politics. ‘Viscountess’ is not so grand a title as ‘Countess’ and Anverlee is larger than Comfrey, but Comfrey is prosperous, developed, and well-managed. In certain respects, I have made good use of the advantages I was born to. I will not undersell the match.” He moved his finger from her lips to stroke her cheek, then cupped her chin and angled it to his face as he leaned closer. “And I flatter myself that you are not indifferent to my charms.” He kissed her, too briefly; her face followed his when he drew away. “But let me be honest, as I so rarely am. As a man, I am deeply flawed: hypocritical, cynical, temperamental, unchaste – indeed, my dear, I care so little for chastity that I should not mind if you had lain with a hundred men, so long as I might be the hundred-first – sarcastic, flippant – wait, that might be one of my virtues. Wisteria – did I mention presumptuous on that list of vices? that too – Wisteria, I very much doubt marriage will improve me in any respect. Lord Nikola is generous, devoted, devout, honest, kind, and a better man than I will ever be. I have no doubt that he will make a better husband. And a much better father, should you desire children.” He gave a bark of laughter. “Saints, I’ve never considered being a father before. I’m not sure I could do it.”
Most of this conversation had been so stunning – wait, someone wants to marry me? Two men want to marry me? The two most attractive and most fascinating men I know want to marry me? – that Wisteria could not process it, never mind comment. That last begged the question, however: “You do not want children, my lord?”
Lord Comfrey shook his head. “My sister has a Blessed son; I designated him my heir seven years ago. I’ll sire no bastards, and I never thought I’d find a woman I wanted to marry.” He caressed her cheek with his thumb. “Until I met you.” He cleared his throat. “Did you want children, my dear?”
“Oh yes. Very much.” She leaned her head into his hand.
He gazed into her eyes. “I would reconsider my opposition,” he said, and for the first time Wisteria wondered if he felt as much like she had upended his world as he had hers. He gave her another gentle kiss. She put her hand on his shoulder for balance, and then somehow they were embracing, kissing hungrily, until Lord Comfrey released her and took a step away. “Ah, I had best leave before I add to my list of rash ill-considered dishonorable actions. I do not know when Lord Nikola will offer, but I urge you to take all the time you need in considering your choice. It took me thirty years to find a woman I wanted as wife: I promise you I’ll neither change my mind nor find another. I shall call again, my dear, but consider yourself under no obligation to answer me at any time. I beg you to wait at least for Lord Nikola to say his piece. He is a good man, a better man than I by far. And, ah, if your answer to him is yes, I would take it as a kindness if you did not speak of my proposal. Given the circumstances.”
He started to withdraw, and Wisteria caught his hand. “Lord Comfrey—” she could not bring herself to say Justin, though she longed to “—if you believe that he would be a better husband and that you are in the wrong for asking, why did you?”
His narrow lips smiled. “Did I forget to mention ‘selfish’ on my list of vices?”
She shook her head. “But then why tell me his intentions at all? Why list reasons to choose him?”
“Ah.” Lord Comfrey looked away. “Perhaps because I do not think it my place to decide. It is you who must live with one of us—” he smiled “—or neither, as you prefer. The choice belongs with you. Good day, my dear.”
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