Justin gloried in the closeness to his love, bodies pressed together, ardent kisses fending off the underlying terror that at any moment it might end. But the small part of his mind that was always on guard against discovery was thinking What will onlookers make of the condition of our clothes? Justin brushed it aside as irrelevant. A little whimper escaped him as Nikola’s hand wormed under his trousers to close around his erection. The servants are all gone off for the day, there’s no one around to notice. Except Wisteria.
Justin’s fingers trembled against Nikola’s trousers, then clenched on air. Shuddering, he pushed himself away, rolling to one side to sit with his elbows on his knees and his palms pressed against his eyes.
“Justin?” Nikola touched his arm. Justin shook him off and scrambled to his feet to stalk a few paces away. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Justin gave a bark of bitter laughter, half-turning to look back at his former lover. “What’s wrong? Demons take us both! What’s right? You have a wife, Striker! A devoted, beautiful, intelligent woman who curst well deserves better from you – from us – than this.” For the first time, after a lifetime with any number of adulterous encounters, Justin was ashamed.
Flushing, Nikola approached, reaching for him again. “I know…I…I’ll talk to her, Justin, it—”
“No!” Justin knocked the pale hand away with a snarl of pain. “I’ll not be the wedge driven between the two of you! Curse it, Striker, this is madness of the worst kind! Why have you never cured us?”
Striker turned away as if slapped. Before he could respond, a new voice interrupted. “Good morning, my lords,” Mrs. Striker said. Both men gave a guilty start as she emerged from the trees surrounding the meadow. “Before you decide what I want, I recommend consulting me on the subject first. I may have some insights for you.”
Justin’s glib tongue failed him; he’d been caught in potentially compromising situations before but never one so revealing as this. Beside him, Nikola stammered: “Wisteria – I – we – we were just—”
“Making love,” Mrs. Striker provided in her usual calm way. Justin felt all the mortification of the words. Had she been anyone else, he would have demanded the statement be retracted or that he be given satisfaction, and never mind the truth of the accusation. But she was Nikola’s wife, and it was her trust they had betrayed, and that…mattered. “I apologize, my lords; I have been watching for several minutes.”
Is she actually apologizing to us for catching us in the act of adultery? If the situation had not been so painful it would have been funny. There was nothing he could do, no words or deeds by which he could make this right. Decency demanded he try anyway. “The fault is entirely mine, Mrs. Striker,” Justin said, voice heavy and without conviction. But better that she blame me. She doesn’t have to live with me. “I regret extremely my actions and my abuse of your hospitality. I will remove myself at once. Please excuse me.” He bowed low, not looking at her, then headed at once to the path. He did not even pause to retrieve his shoes. I deserve worse than sore feet for this debacle. Blood and death, what was I thinking?
“Why are you leaving?” Mrs. Striker asked. Justin froze, with no idea how to begin to answer that question. How could I stay, after what she has witnessed? The slender woman strode to his side and took his hand with a gentleness that made no sense at all. “When I said that you ought to consult me before you reach any conclusions, that was actually what I meant. I should like to talk with you. With both of you. Will you not do this for me, please, Lord Comfrey?”
Justin would have sooner accepted demonic possession, would have preferred to be left behind in the Abandoned World. But under the circumstances, he had no moral force with which to refuse. He closed his eyes, swallowed, and nodded. “As you wish, Mrs. Striker.”
“Oh good.” She led him back to her husband. Nikola silently handed Justin his shirt and shoes, then started buttoning his own shirt. Mrs. Striker produced a picnic basket, of all things, from behind a tree. She spread the blanket from it and sat with her legs folded to one side.
“Wisteria.” Nikola found his voice at last. “I am so very sorry. I don’t know what came over me – it wasn’t Comfrey’s fault at all, I—”
“You know, perhaps it would save some time if I went first.” Mrs. Striker patted the blanket in invitation. “You both seem to be under the misapprehension that I am dreadfully upset. I am not, in fact, upset at all. Well, I suppose if I thought about it I could be a trifle upset with you, Nikola, because you gave me to understand you were uninvolved with anyone other than me and I am confused as to why you’d mislead me on this point. But you could make me forget all about that in five seconds by kissing each other again, because the two of you making love has been one of my favorite fantasies for the last eight months and it’s even better in reality than it was in my imagination.”
With some hesitation, Justin had approached the blanket as she spoke. By the time she was done, he did not so much sit as collapse onto one corner, staring slack-jawed at her.
Nikola sat as well, blushing furiously. “Wisteria – I – you…truly?”
“Yes. And I apologize if I am not supposed to admit that, but not talking about things does not seem to be working for any of us so I thought perhaps we could try the converse for a bit and see how that goes?”
Justin was still trying to wrap his mind around this. “So…you were watching us – and not interrupting – because you were enjoying it?”
“Yes. That is, at first I didn’t interrupt because I was so surprised. I had not expected to see anything of the kind, well, ever. But mostly because I thought if I said anything, you’d stop and I didn’t want you to,” she answered, matter-of-fact. “I was rather frustrated that you stopped anyway. That the cessation was intended for my benefit seems particularly unfair.”
With one hand against the blanket, Justin leaned on his arm for support and blinked at her in a wordless stupor.
“…why would you fantasize about us?” Nikola asked plaintively.
“Have you looked at yourselves? Why wouldn’t I fantasize about you?” Mrs. Striker said, as if that were an explanation. “Why did you never tell me you had a tendre for Lord Comfrey when we were discussing extramarital affairs?”
This penetrated Justin’s stupor. “You discussed extramarital affairs?”
“Wisteria talks about everything,” Nikola said. “It’s one of her best features. Wisteria, I didn’t tell you about him because we weren’t involved. That is, er, we broke it off prior to the engagement.”
“Just prior to the engagement,” Justin muttered with a trace of bitterness. His usual self-censors must have been shocked into dysfunctionality; under normal circumstances he could not imagine saying a word about any of this.
“Did you break because of the engagement?” the dark-haired woman asked.
“…sort of. Comfrey feared you’d expose us if you found out, and I didn’t want to keep it secret from you if the affair were still ongoing.”
“How very awful.” Mrs. Striker turned to Justin and covered his hand with hers. “I would never expose you, my lord, I swear it. I would never let anything unpleasant happen to you, ever, if it were in my power to prevent it.”
Justin stared at her hand over his. How can she say that? She should hate me for what I’ve done, what I am. How can she wish to protect me instead? “Am I dreaming?”
“You know, that was my first thought too?” She squeezed his hand. Her grip felt warm and solid. “I am confident we are not.”
“I don’t see how this can be real. You truly do not mind that I was…kissing your husband?”
“If it helps, I will forgive you if you promise to do it again?”
Nikola leaned across the blanket to take Justin’s chin in his hand and tilted Justin’s face until their eyes met. Long loose blond hair fell in a curtain along one side of his face as Nikola closed his eyes to kiss Justin, gently. He drew back an inch to murmur, “She truly does not mind. Wisteria doesn’t say things unless she means them.”
Justin realized he was blushing; his eyes darted to glance sidelong at Striker’s wife.
She was watching them raptly. “You need not stop on my account.”
Justin pulled back anyway. He stood, stepping back from the picnic blanket and onto the grass of the meadow. “I…this is all so strange.” He ran his hands over his head to push back stray hairs that had escaped from the club securing the rest at the nape of his neck.
Nikola turned to his wife and kissed her too. “Will you give us a few moments alone, my love?”
After she assented, Nikola stood and helped her to her feet. Mrs. Striker shook out her long violet skirt. “I’ll wait for you in the gazebo, my lords.” She curtsied and strolled away.
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