Notwithstanding Justin’s fears, the remainder of his stay continued in much the same joyous vein. They had to be more circumspect during the week, with all the servants underfoot. But Nikola had a long-established reputation of valuing his privacy, so it surprised no one if he gave orders to his greatcat employees to keep everyone out of the forest when the three of them went walking there, or if all three were shut up together for hours in Nikola’s study, or in the library. It was not so comfortable for lovemaking as a bedroom, but they were not spending all their time alone indulging carnal appetites, either.
Much of it was spent engaged in conversation. Justin had always enjoyed conversation as a pastime, and he’d carefully nurtured his skills at it. He had cultivated an excellent sense for when to speak and when to listen, what responses and questions would steer a conversation towards or away from a given topic, what topics would be of interest to a group in general, whether a given participant needed to be encouraged to speak or would be happiest left to listen – all the little talents his society valued in a conversationalist.
Justin had always regarded Nikola as equally skilled, but he learned over the next few days that Nikola had good habits by instinct more than by conscious intent. He found this out because Wisteria asked Justin how he directed conversations, a skill her husband had been unable to articulate and one where her difficulty at reading body language put her at a disadvantage. It was not the kind of thing one normally discussed, but Justin did his best to explain in a way that would be useful to her.
But the irony of her request for his advice on this subject was that he found himself at a loss to direct conversations with Wisteria and Nikola.
Speaking with either of them alone, or among other people, was never – well, almost never – anything outside the ordinary bounds of polite conversation. But when the three of them were alone together, he discovered that Wisteria and Nikola had an openness between them unlike anything he had ever before witnessed. The two of them could talk about anything. Anything. They talked about lovemaking. It was not merely an activity in which one engaged but the subject of frank discussion on tastes, desires, and timing, in which Justin was expected to take part. He learned that Wisteria and Nikola had engaged previously in anal intercourse because she’d asked Nikola what intercourse with another man consisted of and he answered. And then she wanted to try it. Her, a gentleborn woman and a lord’s wife! Most of the prostitutes Justin knew of refused to engage in that. And Wisteria liked it.
About which he ought not complain, of course, given that intercourse with her and Nikola together was Paradise perfected, an experience to rival his most erotic fantasies. And Justin did not complain, but this openness made him uneasy. He had gone through life segregating the various parts of it so that they did not interfere with one another, and part of that meant that there was an entire world of emotions and experiences that he did not give voice to. That was the way society worked: one could do these unspeakable things, as long as one left them unspoken. This frankness violated that compact of hypocrisy. It wasn’t even restricted to lovemaking: they touched on an array of subjects he’d always thought untouchable.
Such as one evening after supper when they’d gathered in Nikola’s study. This room had become a favorite haunt of theirs because the catbed he kept in it afforded enough space for three humans to cuddle – or use for still more intimate activities, as time and inclination allowed. Tonight they had shed only the least comfortable articles of clothing – jackets, neckcloths, shoes – before the lovers snuggled together. Wisteria was in the middle this time, leaning into the curving corner where the back dipped down towards the front, while Justin and Nikola cuddled to either side of her. Justin was not sure when or how this greatcat-like-heap had become their default mode when alone together. He and Nikola had never done so except post-coitus. The casual physical intimacy gratified Justin in a way he could not articulate, as if it satisfied a craving that had gone unacknowledged so long he had not realized it existed. It was disquieting if he thought about it. He tried not to think about it.
“How did you first become lovers?” Wisteria asked after all three were settled together cozily. Her question prompted a laugh from Nikola and a groan from Justin. “Is that something I should not ask?”
“It’s definitely something you shouldn’t ask,” Justin growled.
Nikola was still laughing. “Oh, come, Justin. You have to admit it’s a great story, and it’s not as though there’s anyone else in Paradise we could ever tell.”
“It’s a hideous story and I have been grateful never to have had to relive it in words.”
“I am sorry. We can speak of something else, my lords,” Wisteria offered.
With an impish smile, Nikola promised her, “I’ll tell you when we’re alone.”
“You’ll do no such thing!” Justin reached across Wisteria to tickle Nikola into submission.
Laughing, Nikola squirmed out of range as Wisteria said, “He won’t, Justin, I do not wish to pry.”
Still grinning, Nikola mouthed to him I absolutely will. Aloud, he said, “Justin is only playing, Wisteria. He doesn’t mind.”
Justin made a face at him, his reluctance more genuine than he wanted them to know. “Fine. But I will tell her. No doubt you’d mangle it to make it even more horrifying.”
Nikola straightened enough to give an insouciant half-bow before he lapsed back against his wife’s side. “By all means.” Wisteria tilted her head and waited for Justin to begin.
Justin put one hand over his eyes as he considered how to relate these events to maximize the humor and minimize the painfulness of the recollection. “About seven years ago, I visited the East Hansleigh Boys Academy to present one of the Ambrellan Society grants. It was the second-to-last stop on this five-week tour I’d been on as I put my father’s estate in order. One thing and another had led to several delays to my arrival. The last of these – the overturning of my cab and resulting injury to my valet – had caused me to arrive less than an hour before the scheduled event. Alone, on foot, grungy, and in the foulest mood imaginable.
“My host, Dean Dremmond, sent me up to my room to prepare as best I could, and promised to send someone along to serve as valet. A few minutes later, the most beautiful young man I had ever laid eyes upon – this angelic vision, slim and with perfect carriage, golden hair, astonishing blue eyes—” Justin looked to Nikola as he spoke; the younger man had the grace to blush at the description “—walked into my room and asked how he might be of service.”
Wisteria glanced to her golden-haired, blue-eyed husband, then back to Justin, perplexed. “But that cannot have been Nikola?”
“Yes! Exactly! That cannot have been Nikola!” Justin said, prompting a laugh from Nikola. “The Strikers’ only son was a mere child, so young I had not yet been introduced to him! And there is no sane reason in Paradise that a count’s heir with a Blessing would come into my room to act as valet. That is precisely why, even when I asked his name and was told ‘Nik Striker’ – note the lack of any title! – it never occurred to me that there could be a relation.”
Nikola was still laughing. “I was not trying to mislead him, Wisteria. It was—”
“Shut up, Nikola, this is my story and we’ve already established you cannot be in it yet. So I spent half an hour doing my best not to molest this handsome angel, who by the by had brought me food, gently brushed the tangles from my hair, washed and massaged my aching feet, and was in every way all that one might hope for from a valet. By arcane means I am no longer able to explain, I somehow concluded from this that he must be flirting with me—”
“—probably because I was—”
“—so I kissed – wait, what?” Justin broke off his narrative as his mind processed Nikola’s interruption.
Nikola laughed. “Justin, I was all but fondling you the entire time I helped you dress.”
“But I – you – you were terrified when I kissed you!”
“Yes! That you’d stop. Which you did.”
“Because you were whimpering in fear!”
“I was not! Arousal, maybe. Come, Justin, I knew you didn’t realize this at the time, but you must have known when I came back?”
“I…” Justin’s mind reeled as he sorted through all the misunderstandings and different interpretations he’d made of the long-ago events. “…I never did.”
“Why did you think I’d come back?”
Justin blinked at him, not answering. Between them, Wisteria asked, “My lords?”
Nikola explained for her, “After discerning – correctly! – that I was flirting with him, Justin kissed me. Passionately. I panicked, because it was Lord Comfrey, whom I’d been infatuated with for years—”
“—what?” Justin demanded.
“—and he was actually kissing me and I didn’t know how I was supposed to respond and I was terrified that I’d do the wrong thing and he’d stop. Since I was not responding, Justin decided I must be repulsed and stopped. And laughed, like it was all just a joke and he hadn’t meant anything by it. And clapped me on the shoulder and ran off to his function—”
Justin propped himself higher on one arm and waved the other. “Wait, stop, go back, what was that ‘infatuated for years’ bit? We’d never so much as met before!” I would have remembered you. You are unforgettable.
Nikola’s smile turned shy. “No, but I’d watched you at sporting competitions. And I snuck down to a party you were attending at Anverlee Manor one year. Did you ever see him compete, Wisteria? He won all sorts of tournaments. Fencing, archery, backball…”
She shook her head. “I do not believe so; I’ve attended few sporting events.”
“Ah, pity. He’s magnificent.” Nikola extended a hand to caress one well-developed bicep through Justin’s shirt.
Justin blinked. “So…you knew of me already?”
“Justin, I volunteered for that assignment, the instant Dremmond’s butler came looking for someone. Did I truly never tell you?”
Stunned, he shook his head. “I had not the smallest notion.”
Nikola smiled, leaning across Wisteria to kiss him. “I can scarce remember a time when I did not long for you, Justin,” he murmured. Justin was still reeling from the shock of revelation.
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