Wisteria fell in love with Fireholt at first sight.
Even the sophisticated suspension of the beautiful coach in which they travelled could not protect her and Byron from the jolts of the pitted stone road, but she didn’t mind. Old-growth forest rose to either side, towering trees arching over the lane with branches already budding with nuts. Spring berry bushes fruited in their shade. Narrow trails threaded between the trees and dense undergrowth: this land was a hunting preserve. It had once been reserved for the lord of the manor, but five generations ago Fireholt’s lord had opened it to all his people. Greatcat game wardens roamed the woods to prevent poaching by strangers, but enforcement was only strict against hunters who engaged in mass slaughter. Sally and Ransha, the greatcats pulling their carriage, were already chattering merrily about hunting plans as they pulled the carriage up the winding hilly lane. A second coach followed behind, bearing their luggage and servants.
This vast preserve was one of the things Vasilver’s mining plans would inevitably disrupt, and Wisteria and Byron discussed during the ride ways to minimize the damage.
“Gone sentimental in your old age, Teeri?” Byron asked during a contemplative lull. “Surprised to see you so concerned about a bunch of old trees and wild animals.”
“It’s important to the locals, and a miserable populace is an unproductive one,” Wisteria said. “Besides, Lord Nikola likes it. Oh.” She gazed out the carriage window as they emerged from the forest and into view of Fireholt Keep.
It was no longer a keep, of course: only a picturesque ruin of stone walls and eroded fortifications remained of the original keep. Instead, a lovely sixth-century house rose from within those crumbled ruins. By the standards of Vasilver or Anverlee, the house was small: a two-story building of three thousand square feet, according to county records, with the servant’s quarters and felishome detached. But it was beautiful, nestled with its back to a hill, and perched at the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean to the east. A waterfall dropped down the hillside and meandered across the landscape until it cascaded down the cliff. Several square miles of land around the brook were cleared, with tenant houses and cottages dotting it, along with a few larger homes.
As was to be expected, all of Fireholt’s staff turned out along the house’s drive to greet the approaching visitors. Wisteria knew that Nikola’s staff was small, but it still startled her to see that just seven adult humans, one adolescent girl, and three greatcats were the sum of his retainers. But the staff paled into insignificance at the sight of Nikola, standing a little apart from the servants. A middle-aged couple waited with him, gentility by their dress, but Wisteria had eyes only for Nikola. Byron made some remark on the size of the welcoming party that she did not attend.
One of Fireholt’s footmen sprang forward to open the carriage door as soon as the vehicle stopped. Nikola was there with equal alacrity to offer his hand to Wisteria in helping her alight. A thrill went through her at the warmth of his gloved hand against her skin. She met his eyes as she stepped from the carriage, and then, quite careless of propriety, fell into his arms. He laughed softly and enfolded her fast in his embrace. “I’ve missed you too,” he murmured into her hair. “Thank you for coming, my love.”
“I am so very glad you invited us.” With an effort of will, Wisteria straightened and withdrew from his arms to stand a decorous pace before him. “Mother is driving me to madness with wedding plans. I may need to petition you.”
“I am at your service in all things, Miss Vasilver.” He gave her a short bow, and another for Byron who was now standing beside her. “And Mr. Vasilver. Thank you for bringing your sister to me, sir. Allow me to present my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Greenleigh.” Wisteria took Nikola’s arm as he conducted introductions, then the group ascended the wide steps into the house.
Life at Fireholt was delightfully peaceful. Nikola saw petitioners for two unhurried hours in the morning; he seldom had more than fifteen in a day. When Nikola was busy with that or his other duties as lord, Wisteria and Byron amused themselves tramping about the woods to look at old mines and make notes on the countryside, existing trails, roads, and available housing. Byron was appalled that Fireholt had no quickgas lines and relied on wood-burning stoves for heat and candles and lanterns for light. “That’s the first thing we’re fixing,” he declared.
They were not left entirely to themselves. The neighborhood – in this rural place, that term covered everyone within a few miles of the residence – had several other gentleborn families, and Nikola invited a few of them to dinner each day. He and Byron went hunting twice, although Byron was not much use with a bow. They also went fishing in the brook, which both men were even worse at – they caught not one fish, on three separate occasions – but which they enjoyed immensely nonetheless, judging by their mood on returning.
But much of the time was spent in Fireholt’s parlor or drawing room, talking, sometimes with company and sometimes alone. Byron did not believe that his sister either required or desired a chaperone and would leave her and Nikola alone for hours to talk. Which they did. Talk, that is. Also kiss and embrace and cuddle together on the loveseat. But fully clothed. For the most part.
But they discussed serious matters too, and trivial ones, and everything in between.
One afternoon, Nikola returned from handling an issue with one of his tenants to find Wisteria at work on the table in the drawing room. At her side were lists of names, charts cross-indexing names in different colors of pencil, a floor plan, a pair of scissors, and a tack-stick. She was cutting out names from the lists and arranging them on the floor plan.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Since my mother wants me involved with the wedding preparations, I told her when I left that I’d take care of the seating arrangements. I already ordered placecards and holders, but I still need to decide where everyone sits. I thought it would be interesting to be the one who gets to choose, for a change. Though I am a terrible choice for this task, since I have no idea who hates whom and shouldn’t be seated together. I interrogated Byron for details on all the guests he knows, but of course that doesn’t include any of your relations. Are there any intra-family feuds among them which I ought know?”
“Probably.” Nikola sat at the table and looked over the guest list. “Don’t put Uncle Henrik near any of the Kinsleighs. Preferably not in the same section of the hall, for that matter. Why is Uncle Henrik even invited?”
“He was on your father’s list. Is he so bad as all that?”
“Uncle James Kinsleigh duelled him four years ago for an unspecified offense against his daughter’s honor. Who, I might add, is nineteen now. Neither of them tried to kill the other so I suppose the specifics were not grave beyond measure, but I thought everyone in the family stopped speaking to Uncle Henrik after that. My mother certainly did.”
“I shan’t seat him at our table either, then. Perhaps between his mother, and…er…some other elderly female relation.” Wisteria went through the pile of unassigned names. Since the reception was a formal event, men and women had to alternate seats.
“Have you done our table yet?” Nikola shifted to stand, leaning over her to look at the floor plan and resting a hand on her shoulder for balance.
“Oh, yes, I did it first. I don’t want to do any of the rest, to be honest, but I didn’t suppose it would be quite the thing to take eight guests for myself and leave the other four hundred to someone else to deal with.”
“Do we truly have four hundred guests?”
“Four hundred thirty-two, to be exact.” It’s not too late to elope, Wisteria thought.
“Did one of us want a large wedding? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.”
“Our parents, I believe. Well, mothers, at least. Though my father has not once complained about the cost, so I daresay he is pleased too.”
“Because it’s not too late to elope,” Nikola added.
Wisteria covered his hand on her shoulder with hers, amused at his echo of her own thoughts. “Funny you should mention it. But no, I have disappointed my parents enough times in my life already. You do not mind so much, do you?”
“Only the delay.” He kissed the top of her head, then frowned as he studied the seating chart. “Why is Lord Comfrey at our table?”
Wisteria turned to look at him, tilting her head. “Where else would he be?”
“Anywhere else. Did he say he’d attend?”
“Of course. He was one of the first to respond.” Wisteria was perplexed and a trifle anxious. Had Nikola somehow learned of Lord Comfrey’s proposal? If they had fallen out over me wouldn’t he have spoken to me of it before now?
Nikola twisted his mouth in what Wisteria had learned to recognize as a bitter expression. “Of course he would. Appearances must be maintained. Well, they don’t have to extend to him sitting next to me on my wedding day. Put him somewhere else.” He peeled back the name cutout – the tack-stick used removable glue – and stuck it to a random spot on the floor plan halfway across the room from their table.
“But why? Hasn’t he been your friend for years?”
He straightened, crossing his arms. “That’s what I thought too, but I daresay we have both been mistaken.”
Wisteria twisted in her chair to stare at him. “How could we be mistaken? He saved our lives.”
Nikola turned away. “Don’t you start too. Look, I know how great a debt I owe the man, but that doesn’t mean he owns me. Fine, put him wherever you like. I can pretend one more time to be cordial if he can.”
Wisteria tried and failed to see how this statement followed from hers. “I do not speak of indebtedness, my lord; I simply do not understand how Lord Comfrey’s actions could be taken as anything but those of a friend. He has always been welcoming when we see him, and he’s been an attentive companion to me since our engagement. Do you know, he never speaks anything but praise of you? Even when he jests. He might tease me for my fixation with analysis, but you would only be faulted for being ‘too principled’, or some such quality no one could possibly take for a failing. If there is some information I am missing, I should like to be enlightened.”
“Well. Appearances can be deceiving.”
“I am aware of that, and no one is more likely to be mistaken about appearances than I am. But I am not speaking of cues; I am referring to his actions. When I told my father that I intended to meet with your abductors, Lord Comfrey and Fel Fireholt supported my decision against his objections. Before I left, Lord Comfrey told me privately that he would pay any ransom they named. I do not understand how that could be the offer of an enemy or even someone who is indifferent. Will you not speak to me of your reasons?” Had she not promised Lord Comfrey that she would keep his proposal confidential, Wisteria would have blurted out an apology on the spot. Does he know about that carriage ride back from the ball? But why would he blame Lord Comfrey for that and not me?
Nikola was not looking at her, the sharp lines of his handsome face in stern profile as he stood to one side of her chair. “You’ve seen a great deal of him, since I left Gracehaven.”
“Less than before you left. He calls once a week or so.” She hesitated. “Are you jealous, my lord?”
He glanced at her then. After a moment, he gave her one of his wry lopsided smiles. “Perhaps I am.”
“Lord Comfrey has been unexceptionable in every respect since the betrothal, I assure you,” Wisteria told him. She stood and placed her hands on Nikola’s folded arms. “I am very fond of him, I admit, but I want to marry you.”
Nikola blinked at her for a few moments, mouth open but not speaking. Then he unfolded his arms to embrace her and bury his face in her hair. She hugged him close in return, resting her cheek against his chest. “I wish I could tell you my reasons,” he said. “But…you do not feel ill-used by Comfrey?”
“Not in any way.” More the converse. “Next to you and Byron, there is no man I would trust more. Am I so mistaken?”
“I don’t know.” He kissed the top of her head, arms curled snugly around her shoulders. “Perhaps I am.”
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