“Yes! And let me make this attempt properly.” Nikola shifted her from his lap to the cushion, then stood. He dropped to one knee on the floor before her, took one of her hands for reassurance – she looked so composed, and he all but trembling with nerves – and swallowed. “Miss Vasilver: I am ready to set aside all my philandering ways and cleave only unto you, if you will do me the very great honor of becoming my wife. Will you marry me, my lady?”
Her hand squeezed his as he awaited some reply, but his spirit sank as she remained silent. Finally, she asked, “Are you quite sure you wish to give up philandering?”
“For you? Absolutely. I have no entanglements, no illegitimate children, if that is your concern.”
But she was shaking her head. “No, it’s not that. It’s that I am not sure I am suited to the standards of marriage.”
“I…Miss Vasilver, if you are decided against me, you may feel free to say so; there’s no need to—”
“No!” She spoke quickly, interrupting him. “It’s not that I do not want to marry you, my lord, I do, marriage has been my goal for so long that you cannot know, you cannot imagine my happiness at being asked by you, by a man I esteem so much, one so principled, capable, attractive, even Blessed – you are everything I ever hoped for in a husband.” Nik blinked at her, stunned by the praise and apprehensive about the ‘but’ that must be coming. “I would be delighted to wed you. Only I fear I will not be the wife you expect or deserve. I had always thought, well, everyone marries, surely I can manage it, but everyone is not like me—”
Nikola rose enough to brace a knee against the couch and took her face in his hands to kiss her, silencing the flood of self-doubt. “Please, my lady. Let me be the judge of that. My mother has pushed a half-dozen or more conventional, unexceptionable girls into my path. I do not want to marry an ordinary woman who will be just what everyone expects. I want to marry you. Extraordinary, exceptional, unexpected.”
“Oh,” she said, faintly. “But…um…what if you do not have sufficient information to make an accurate judgment? I never did get you that due diligence report on myself.”
Nik took a deep breath, steadying himself against the rush of conflicting emotions: fear, passion, hope, nervousness. He focused on Miss Vasilver: her long face was composed but her light brown hands were clenched together, anxious, her gaze off to one side in concentration or embarrassment. “I have seen you defy and attack a man in my defense with both your own hands tied. I am not unaware of your character, Miss Vasilver. Is there something in particular you think I ought know and do not?”
“I’m afraid I’ll be unfaithful,” she blurted out. “That is – I was so forward with you when I oughtn’t have been and everyone has always told me that men despise such behavior in a woman—”
“I was there,” Nikola said, mildly. He resumed his seat beside the dark-haired woman. “‘Despise’ is not the word I would use. I am proposing to you, you know. I like your passion.”
“But what if I am the same way with another?”
He couldn’t help smiling at the way she phrased it, as if her actions might suddenly be beyond her control at any moment. “Miss Vasilver, I think you underrate your—-” he stopped mid-sentence, with a sudden awful premonition. What if she truly is afraid her actions will be beyond her control? “Are you – do you—” I love your mind, please, please do not ask me to change it. “Remember those pages of your document that so distressed my parents?”
She nodded. “My judgment can be so shockingly poor, my lord, there’s something horribly wrong with—”
Nik touched a gloved finger to her lips, not wanting to hear. That’s not a petition, she did not ask me what was wrong with her – “It did not distress me, my lady. I went to that meeting predisposed to dislike you, your parents, and everything about the situation. But instead you charmed me. With your very bluntness, your willingness to not merely consider but confront and address the ways that marriage fails some of its participants. Why would you think this makes you unsuitable for marriage? It is half the reason I am asking you! Perhaps that makes me unfit for the institution, in which case it is surely best that we be unfit together. If fidelity does not suit you – well, I should like you to be discreet; I do not wish to be a laughingstock. But I am not a jealous man. If you find you wish a lover in addition to and not in place of me, I do not think it an insurmountable obstacle to our matrimony.”
He smiled. “Truly. Is there…another man, then?”
“Oh…I do not think I ought to say. Is that the same as saying? Do not ask me his name, I beg you. I do not think anything could come of it regardless, I make such a hash of things.”
Nik swallowed against an unexpected surge of jealousy. Who is he? A gentleman? Some impoverished tradesman or a servant, too low class for you to wed? “Would you rather marry him?”
She shook her head. “No. I should rather marry you both, in truth.”
Nik smiled involuntarily. “I’m afraid that’s not an option.”
“So everyone tells me. If I may only have one, I will choose you. If you are sure—” She stopped as Nikola swept her into his arms again and kissed her thoroughly. As uncertain as her words had been, there was no shy hesitation in her response now. He caressed her side and down one skirt-covered leg as she twined her hands through his hair and pressed against his chest. Nik found he didn’t care why she prefered him to this unnamed suitor, whether it was for his title or Fireholt or his Blessing or – whatever. The important thing was she said yes!
“I am quite sure,” he told her after he paused for breath. His jacket had come off at some point in the last couple of minutes and his waistcoat was open. Delicate hands stroked over his shirt as she nuzzled experimentally at his cheek.
“Oh, thank you,” she murmured, kissing his neck just above the collar. “I am so very happy, I do not have words for it.” She clung tighter to him, as if to reassure herself he was real. “I do so want to be a good wife to you. I will do my best to be true, and not be a disappointment or an embarrassment to you. If I were not always making so many mistakes obvious to everyone else – but I will do better. For you I feel I could learn to be anything.”
Nik shivered at her words. “I don’t want you to be anyone but yourself.” The shapes of her mind filled his senses, the atypically rational connections standing out to him now, and the accompanying lack of instinct. That’s not a demon. Her mind is beautiful and fascinating and she did not petition me. ‘There’s something horribly wrong with me’ is a figure of speech. It doesn’t mean anything. He hugged her close, shutting his eyes, and knew he was making excuses to remain silent. “I do not believe there is anything wrong with you as you are, my betrothed. Do you…do you truly think yourself flawed?”
“Yes, certainly,” she answered, without hesitation. “In all sorts of ways. My body doesn’t express my feelings as it ought – my parents took me to dozens of healers when I was small and no one could ever determine why, and it’s as if because I cannot express them I cannot read emotion either. And things that are obvious to everyone else, like, oh, how one ought not discuss any of the important details of marriage when one is considering an engagement, or why one cannot marry more than one person, or – oh, the list is endless. Why I oughtn’t do things that feel wonderful, like kissing you.” She kissed him to demonstrate, and for a minute Nik forgot the topic and the accompanying sense of dread.
But she paused to breathe, gazing at him with a calm, neutral expression while he was flushed and stunned by desire, and he knew he could not just ignore what she’d said. “Ahh…so you’ve seen other mind-healers?” Not me. I would remember your mind anywhere, even if we had both been children at the consultation.
“No, my lord, it’s not that I’m—” She cut herself off, tilting her head at him. “Oh, it is, isn’t it? The healers couldn’t find a problem because it’s not my body that’s wrong but my mind. You can see it, can’t you? Why did you not – oh, of course you wouldn’t, you said you don’t ask people if they have a problem. But this is wonderful, Lord Nikola, will you fi—”
Nikola covered her mouth before she could finish, before she committed herself. “Don’t – please, wait.” Reluctantly, he shifted her from his lap to the sofa and stood, needing to clear his mind to think. He paced the polished hardwood floor of the small parlor. “Miss Vasilver, your mind is, yes, most unusual. I do not say ‘defective’. There are connections that your mind makes with reason and that other minds make by instinct, and that…that might explain the symptoms you describe.”
“This is very exciting, my lord,” she said, head tilted. “But is it not something you may repair? You do not seem pleased.”
“It’s not—” Nik dropped to one knee before her and clasped her hand. “I don’t know if I could change it. If you find it so troubling as that – very likely the Savior would alter it, if you wanted but—” he held up a hand to forestall her “—please consider what you are asking first. The Savior will not alter your mind in a way that makes you unhealthy or less sane, but it can – will, in the case – make you less like who you are now. Wisteria, I love the way your mind works. I love the contract that you made full of all the important details that no one is supposed to discuss, and I love your list of topics not to talk about, and I love that you made a list, and I love you. As you are. I do not imagine that I will stop loving you if you ask the Savior’s aid here, and if you petition me of course the Code obliges me to honor your request. But I do not want to change you. You are not insane, or dysfunctional, or – anything that is not wonderful. You may not be typical but typical is overrated in my opinion. Please, consider seriously whether this is truly what you want.”
She watched him for a long moment, silent, and he had to throttle back the urge to press further arguments upon her. “You love me?”
He blinked at her. “Of course. I asked you to marry me.”
“Lots of people get married for reasons besides love.”
Nik glanced to one side. “Not me. It’s all right, I do not expect you to feel the same—”
“But I do.” She leaned forward to embrace him. “I love you,” she said, matter-of-fact. He rose, sweeping her into his arms. That lack of expression isn’t self-control. It’s just how she is. How she will always be, if I am lucky. Footsteps sounded in the corridor outside as they were kissing, and Nik set Wisteria on her feet and smoothed her dress and sleeves to suit decorum again before hastily buttoning his jacket.
A maid tapped at the half-open door. “Mrs. Vasilver wishes to know if his lordship will be staying to dinner?”
Nikola took Wisteria’s hand and squeezed, thinking of the news they had to announce. “I will be very happy to.” The girl curtsied and withdrew. “I suppose that’s our cue to stop hiding here.”
“Oh. Regarding what you said, my lord, on petitioning—”
“Please, take all the time you need to consider.” Nik smiled at her, a little forced, and swallowed. “There is no rush at all.”
She nodded, curtseying to him. “Thank you, my lord. I shall.”
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