After dinner, Lord Nikola – Wisteria still could not think of him without the title – and she made the announcement to her parents. Which was, unsurprisingly, well-received by them.
Courtesy of Lord Comfrey, Wisteria had had several days to come to terms with the idea of Lord Nikola proposing to her. She had more-or-less resolved in advance that, after giving Lord Nikola as full a disclosure as she could, she would accept if he were still interested. So she had little right or reason to be surprised at finding herself engaged.
She was anyway.
Even more astonishing was Lord Nikola’s revelation that, first, her oddities were not only mental in origin but likely treatable, and second and more amazing, that he did not advise treating it. It had never occurred to her to look on her handicaps as anything but obstacles to be overcome. That someone might care for her not in spite of but because of them was nothing short of miraculous.
After the announcement, her mother didn’t want to do anything but discuss wedding plans and dates and set preparations in motion. Lord Nikola made his escape by promising to send his own mother as sacrifice in his place. Wisteria had no idea how to extricate herself from the task. She told her mother up front and repeatedly that her sole preference was “as soon as possible” and otherwise she was indifferent on the matter of location, invitations, colors, theme, and every other conceivable aspect. While her mother nodded and agreed, her behavior gave no indication that Wisteria had been believed or even heard.
When Lady Striker called with both her daughters to congratulate Wisteria and speak of wedding plans, Wisteria resorted to sneaking away outright. She excused herself to go to the lavatory, passed Mrs. Warwick a note on the way out to beg her to cover for her absence, and fled.
She stopped at her office first to get the folder she had worked up on the Colbury evaluation, put a suit jacket over her dress, and directed Sally to take her in the gig to Comfrey Manor. I can apologize to Mother later. This cannot wait.
Lord Comfrey had guests when she arrived; since her attire and folder signaled a professional call, Comfrey’s butler directed her to wait in his office.
A quarter of an hour later, Wisteria was seated at his conference table and engrossed in the file when Lord Comfrey stepped into the office. “Good evening, my dear. This is an unexpected pleasure; I would never expect you to work on that during the Ascension season. In fact…” His smile faded as he walked to join her at the table. “I ought to pay your fee and cancel the request; I no longer have the need to sell.”
“Oh, I truly think you ought to divest yourself of your stake in Colbury Textiles,” Wisteria told him. “But I did not come on business.” She stood before he had moved to take a seat, feeling the joy of recent events ebb out of her, an empty ache filling her heart. How can this be what I want and yet not at the same time? “Lord Nikola proposed to me today, and I have accepted him, my lord. I did not want you to learn this from another source.”
“Ah.” He stood motionless for a moment, then smiled. “Congratulations to you both, my dear. I trust you will be very happy together.”
“I believe we will.” She wished she could read his expression. “I wish I could marry you both.”
Lord Comfrey laughed. “There’s a notion! As if one marriage were not trouble enough. What kind of Paradise would it be where one might have several?”
“A more perfect Paradise?”
“I do not think you will find many who would agree. Come, my dear.” He offered his arm. “I should not keep my guests waiting. Let me show you out.” As they walked together into the hall, the lord added, “Thank you for telling me yourself, Miss Vasilver. That was well done.”
“You deserved that much. A great deal more, to be honest. I am sor—”
“Never apologize, my dear,” he interrupted her. “I should have made the same choice, in your place.” They had reached the front door. The footman opened it for them, and Lord Comfrey escorted her down the steps to hand her into her gig. “Be well, Miss Vasilver. I look forward to seeing you again.”
“Good day, Lord Comfrey.” There were a thousand things she wanted to say: had there been a moment, any chance at all, she would have blurted something inappropriate out. But she was in the gig before she knew it. I wonder how he does that, she thought as she asked Sally to take her home. I am sure my parents would love to know. Watching Lord Comfrey stroll back inside, tall and strong and graceful, the embroidered trim of his jacket flashing in the winter sunlight, she ached with loss and desire. How can I love them both so much, when I am only permitted one?
The remaining weeks of the Ascension season passed in a blur for Wisteria: all of the usual social events piled on top with all the details and chores of planning for the wedding. The date had been set for early summer, driven in part by the timing of the queen’s schedule. As a count’s heir, Nikola had the privilege of a royal officiant for his wedding and Lady Striker hoped the queen herself would do the honors. According to Nikola, the other part was that both their families wanted them wed at once, “for fear we might reconsider.” Wisteria’s mother lamented that a mere five months was insufficient to all the tasks that must be done for a proper wedding. Privately, Wisteria wanted to elope.
She did not suggest elopement to her betrothed, mostly because she was sure he would agree and she felt that, after all the times she had disappointed her parents and even his, she owed it to them to do this one thing properly. Or as close to properly as she could manage.
Wisteria gave the question of treatment for her mind’s peculiarities considerable thought. On the one hand, her inability to read and express emotion as others did had always troubled her. To smile, laugh, cry, and so forth as a natural response had been a childhood dream that she had never quite outgrown.
Yet it was useful in ways: her exaggerated reputation for patience and calm was due to the difficulty people had in discerning her feelings, for instance. And while normal people who could read emotions picked up on cues that she missed, it did not stop them from getting into stupid misunderstandings. If anything, it made the stupid misunderstandings worse, because where Wisteria would ask for a verbal explanation, others would rely on inaccurate nonverbal communication and their own assumptions. Do I want to be normal?
‘Normal’ was out of the question anyway. She doubted any treatment would take her interest in finance and analysis away, or instill a love of clothing. But: more normal?
In the final analysis: no.
As frustrated as she was by her limitations, Wisteria liked the person that she was. That person had been formed in meaningful part on her limitations.
Besides, I can always seek treatment later, if I change my mind about changing my mind. It’s not as if my healer of minds is going anywhere.
Lord Comfrey continued to call on her, to her surprise. Not as often – once every week or two – but he was as pleasant and attentive a companion as before she’d refused him. They would speak on a wide range of topics, but always circumspect ones. After the first couple of visits, Wisteria realized that he had to still be managing her, so deftly she could not even describe how he did it. But he ensured she never brought up any subject that might prove disagreeable, and likewise that they were never alone where she might be frank about her feelings.
Her very conflicted feelings.
As far as she could discern, Lord Comfrey had lost all romantic and sexual interest in her the moment she told him she would marry Nikola. Which was good! Even if Nikola was willing to overlook her transgressions, she would prefer he did not have to. Wisteria knew she loved Nikola and had a confidence of at least ninety percent that she wished to marry him even more than she wished to marry Lord Comfrey.
But she still desired Lord Comfrey.
Wisteria was glad for his visits, grateful that he enjoyed her company because she treasured his. Yet it was difficult not to be close to him, not to be open with him as she was with Nikola.
It was not that she felt any lack in her relationship with Nikola, save that it was not yet consummated. With the betrothal, they were afforded more privacy: ample time to cuddle and speak of whatever they chose. They could likely have gotten away with doing more than simply cuddling, but Nikola insisted on circumspection – some nonsense about proving his respect for her. Still, after waiting so long already, Wisteria reasoned she could survive another few months. So they were waiting. Impatiently. Perhaps when she was wed, her fantasies about Lord Comfrey would cease. Not to mention her fantasies about Nikola with Lord Comfrey. Which she truly should not have and there was no reason to think that Lord Comfrey had been Nikola’s lover, and even if he had been Nikola had made it plain it was over. So it was outlandish and insulting and offensive and oh so very, very sensual. She would never speak of it, of course: Nikola had entrusted her with his secret and she did not need a list to know one did not betray a secret. Just as she could say nothing to Nikola that could suggest that Lord Comfrey had been the man of whom she had spoken with longing. Risking her own reputation with an ill-chosen word was an easy mistake for her to make, but Wisteria had discovered that her mind was more than willing to put in the effort to protect the men she loved.
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