Weddings (141/141)

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They set the wedding for three months later, at Fireholt. Nikola and Justin were inclined to perform the ceremonies the night of the engagement, but Wisteria counseled for an engagement period. She was particularly concerned that Justin reflect on the decision. “You’ve never truly considered this possibility before, I think, and it does mean you will never have a legal wife all to yourself. Our marriage will be secret, but nonetheless legally binding. It’s a large step along a difficult and ill-lit road.”

“The two of you are the only family I have ever wanted. I never desired a ‘normal’ family and long ago resigned myself to bachelorhood,” Justin noted, but he allowed Wisteria’s prudence to persuade him. At times he did still reel at the vastness of it, at the realization of a future he had never dared dream of.

They invested some time discussing the wedding beforehand, though the preparations were still orders of magnitude simpler than for Nikola’s wedding to Wisteria.

“No need to plan for guests,” Justin remarked. It was well after midnight, late in the Ascension season, and the three of them were snuggled together among the maroon velvet blankets of his broad bed.

“Actually…” Nikola looked at the two of them.

“What, did you want to invite your parents?” Justin teased.

“I didn’t want to invite them to my first wedding,” Nikola retorted.

“That’s not true,” Wisteria said.

“Perhaps not entirely true. But there is someone we could invite, if we want guests. A few someones.”

Justin gazed at him askance. “Have you checked your mind for signs of possession lately, Nikola? Perhaps you should.”

Nikola stuck his tongue out. “I was thinking of Anthser. Fela Southing knows, too. Not about the wedding itself, but you know they won’t be shocked by it. They’d be pleased.”

“It would be nice to have witnesses,” Wisteria said. “Didn’t Anthser say there’s another greatcat who knew already? One of your parents’ greatcats?”

“Jill. It might look a touch odd if we invited her out, but Anthser could without exciting comment.”

Justin pushed himself upright amongst the plump pillows of his bed. “You can’t be serious about this.”

“Why not?” Nikola rolled onto his side, propped up on one elbow to look over his wife at Justin.

“Because the more who know, the more danger we’ll be in of being detected?”

“But they already know,” Wisteria said.

“Making them part of it will reduce the chance they’ll expose us,” her husband added. “If we leave them to draw their own conclusions, they may end up accidentally betraying something they don’t realize they need to keep secret. Frankly, I’m amazed Anthser never did so. Perhaps greatcats have better instincts for this sort of thing than I’ve given them credit for. But I still think it would be safer to tell them upfront what we’re doing and why they can’t talk about it.”

Justin sighed, looking between his lovers. It went against his instincts. But so does marriage itself. Yet this is what I want. And a wedding should be witnessed. “If you’re certain…”

“I am,” Nikola answered, while Wisteria snuggled close to Justin and kissed him.

He closed his eyes. “Very well. No need to resort to seduction to convince me.”

Wisteria ran her tongue over the curve of his ear. “What if I want to resort to seduction to seduce you?”

Chuckling, Justin pulled her into his arms and scooted closer to press her into Nikola’s body. “Then by all means, do.”


Before the Ascension season ended, Wisteria had rearranged their lives in other ways as well. She felt the three of them spent too much time apart, and one by one produced unexceptionable reasons for them to be in the same parts of Newlant at the same time more often. The high demand for Nikola’s Blessing during Ascension was clearly because Gracehaven needed a mind-healer in residence, so she arranged to rent a house there for a month during spring and fall that he might be more accessible, and they agreed Justin would invite them to stay a week or two now and again to keep demand manageable. Justin took a stake in the Vasilvers’ mining operation in Fireholt, giving him a business reason to visit there more often. Wisteria even spoke of spending part of the summer in Comfrey Viscountcy: “It’s a good half-day’s travel from Gracehaven by greatcat: I suspect the demand for a mind-healer would justify a month there.” When everything was added up, they’d spend no more than a few weeks apart at any given period, and perhaps six or seven months combined each year would be spent living in close proximity.


As on every Sunday, Fireholt was empty of staff for the day, but Nikola had ordered an elaborate dinner of storable foods be left for their dinner. Jill was visiting from Anverlee, nominally as Anthser’s guest.   

The greatcats set up decorations in the petitioner’s hall. They rolled a white carpet runner down the center of the hall, hung Ascension curtains of gold and purple over the windows, and white and gold streamers from the new gaslit chandeliers. It was festive and cheerful, if not exactly like a wedding.

Justin could not order wedding clothes without raising eyebrows, but he wore an elegant white suit with gold and indigo jewelry. Nikola and Wisteria had snuck their own wedding clothes out of storage. Nikola left the long cape off for now, as he took the officiant’s place at the front of the hall. Jill, Anthser, and Southing were gathered to one side, whiskers spread with pleasure as they watched Justin and Wisteria enter from opposite ends of the hall.

It shouldn’t make this much of a difference, Nikola thought, unable to restrain his smile as his lovers met before him at the center of the hall and knelt to one another. We’ll still be in danger of discovery. Many would regard these weddings as even more abominable than the previous nature of our relationship, where at least we laid no claim to legitimacy or divine blessing for our actions. Could the Savior ever approve such a thing?

But the divine presence in his mind offered no hint of sorrow; nothing but warm pure love washed through Nikola as he presided over the marriage of his beloved. Is this why I could never cure myself of this passion? Because there is no madness at its root to destroy?

But even if human society would revile this union, the act of marriage mattered to Nikola, more than he had realized even when they proposed. After years of no promises, no words of love, nothing but the ever-present now: this was something entirely other. A vow that they would remain together, steadfast, no matter what happened. A pledge that there was more between them than temporary forbidden pleasure. A promise that their love was mutual, their commitment unshakeable. As the walls rang with Wisteria’s recitation of the vows, as Justin smiled uncontrollably at her, Nikola found himself blinking back tears of joy. Justin was half-right. This cannot possibly be happening.

Yet it is.

After Nikola pronounced them united and they kissed, the new Lady Comfrey officiated while Nikola married Justin. They’d not had time to rehearse the performance: Justin and Nikola both stumbled over their vows at different points, and laughed at their mistakes, and smiled at the adaptations they’d made to the traditional vows since both of them were men. It was ersatz and strange and as wonderful as their shared relationship. When Wisteria touched their joined hands to seal the marriage, Nik felt the Savior’s presence in it, just as he had at his wedding to Wisteria.

After Nikola and Justin exchanged a not-at-all-chaste kiss to the roaring approval of three greatcats, Wisteria donned her cape again and took Justin’s left arm. Nikola took his right, and they processed from the hall as solemnly as if an audience of thousands had been watching. Three greatcats could not match the level of noise at Nikola’s first wedding, although at this proximity it almost seemed they did.   

“Is it very wrong of me, my husbands,” Wisteria said, “that I spent my first wedding wishing we could skip the formalities and the audience and elope, and now I find myself regretful that I cannot proclaim my love to the world at the second?”

Nikola chuckled. “I was thinking the same thing. I wish all Paradise could know.” They paused outside the main entrance to the petitioner’s hall to wait for their guests to join them.

Justin squeezed their arms close. “We know. That’s all that matters.”

And it was.

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Proposal, Part Three (140/141)

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Justin was delighted when the Strikers arrived at his manor for the Ascension season. “I see you have worked another miracle in inducing Striker to accept my hospitality,” he told Wisteria when he kissed her hand in greeting.

Her face was as unmoved as always when she answered, “Indeed, my lord. What could be more inexplicable than spending a holiday with one’s dearest friend?” No one who looked upon her would ever suspect her of having a lustful thought for any man, much less of the full extent of her tastes, Justin reflected as Nikola took his wife’s arm and the viscount led the two inside. An entourage of a dozen servants and employees accompanied them. Part of Justin was jealous of Wisteria still, not merely for marrying Nikola, but for accomplishing what Nikola had never allowed Justin to do: giving him wealth to match his station.

They had arrived in time for supper; Justin had arranged no guests or entertainments for the first night back in Gracehaven, assuming they’d be tired from the journey. The three spent a few hours after supper deep in conversation in Justin’s cozy parlor, but the couple did retire early, around ten o’clock. But when Nikola shook his hand good night, the blond lord murmured, “We’ll call after the servants are abed.” The implication sent a thrill of desire humming through Justin’s veins.

Justin resisted the temptation to hurry to his own chambers to await them. He dealt with a few odds and ends in his study instead, as was typical of him, and then retired. He left the door unlatched after his valet departed, and settled on the sitting room’s chaise in dressing gown and slippers with a book while he waited for his lovers. The long time apart had in no way diminished his ardor. He knew he ought to do something to break this addiction, to better brace himself for the inevitable ending, but Justin did not know what. Withdrawing from them while they were still willing was madness itself. He needed to make the most of this while he could.

The door opened quietly, without a knock. Justin rose from the chaise, but pleasurable anticipation shifted to apprehension as Wisteria and Nikola entered. Both were attired as if for a formal event: Nikola in a suit of Anverlee blue with silver embroidered lapels and cuffs and a lace jabot, Wisteria in a dress and short jacket of the same colors. Justin fought back the sense that something must be wrong and smiled to them. “My lord, my lady. I feel quite underdressed for the occasion; I did not know we were going out.”

Nikola looked to his wife; he was nervous, which did nothing to settle Justin’s own mind. Wisteria was calm as always. “We do not intend to, my lord.” She moved to him and took his left hand. “I apologize for the lack of warning. Nikola and I thought we ought to do this properly.” She turned back to her husband and asked him, “Perhaps we should let him have the chance to dress?”

“Perhaps you ought to tell me what occasion I am dressing for?” Justin kept his voice light. Surely this is not how they would end this affair with me. Surely they did not accept my hospitality only to tell me they no longer wished to share my bed.

Nikola was shaking his head. “No, we should just ask.”

“Ask what?” Justin said impatiently.

The Haventure man strode to his side and took Justin’s left hand, standing beside his wife. Nikola’s gloved fingers trembled with nervousness. They glanced to each other, and then together sank, Nikola dropping to one knee and Wisteria in a deep curtsey. “Lord Comfrey,” Wisteria began. “We wish to ask you to do us the very great honor of becoming our husband.”

“Will you marry us, Justin?” Nikola lifted his head to meet Justin’s gaze, expression as serious as his wife’s, eyes beseeching.

Justin stared at the two, blinking in mute shock. Then he yanked his hands from theirs and stumbled back a pace. “This joke is in extremely poor taste,” he snapped.

“We’re not jesting.” Nikola rose, took a step towards Justin, and stopped as Justin backed away again.

“You’re already married! You can’t do it again and you certainly can’t to a man,” Justin snarled, voice low but harsh.

“Er,” Nikola said. “Actually.” He looked to Wisteria for support.

“I believe we can.” Wisteria got to her feet

What? Have you both gone mad?”

“No, Nikola would know if we had. I’ve been researching the law involved,” Wisteria said. “The practice of polygamy, defined as one man marrying more than one woman, was criminalized in Newlant in the third century. The standard marital contract further includes clauses specifying that both marital partners are currently unwed, and that neither will marry another. But there is no actual law preventing a woman from marrying multiple men. There’s a law prohibiting sexual congress between men, but there isn’t one prohibiting a marriage between two men. Nikola and I have made some seemingly-innocuous modifications to our marital contract which happen to have the effect of removing the clause which prohibited both adultery and multiple marriage. So there is no legal reason you cannot marry either or both of us.”

Justin stared between the two; even Wisteria’s calm manner could not soothe the combination of insult, outrage, and suppressed longing that seethed within him. “And which of us would be the husband in this ludicrous arrangement? Do you imagine Nikola could be my lord and master, or I his?”

Nikola’s lips twitched in a hint of a smile. “We have gotten this far without one or the other of us turning into a woman, Justin. I daresay we could sustain that trend.”

“I don’t see why you cannot be husband to each other,” Wisteria added. “You have both already shown yourself willing and able to protect the other.”

His sense of insult leeched away, leaving him weak in its absence. Forgetting his manners, Justin sunk onto the chaise; he no longer felt equal to standing. “But a marriage is confined to one man and one woman. Everyone knows that.”

“Indeed. It is a fact so obvious to every person in Newlant that the law has never seen the need to define it as such.” Wisteria perched on the edge of the chaise, not quite close enough to touch. “Since the Sanctity of Marriage Act was repealed in the fourth century (to remove the requirement that one’s family approve a marriage) there is no actual law that defines the term ‘marriage’. It is, instead, defined by each marriage contract for the specific parties entering it. The law that makes sexual congress between men illegal would likely still make it a crime between you and Nikola even if you were wed, alas. Although there’s some legal wrangling even there. There’s a fifth-century act that criminalized weddings and sexual congress between races. Because the authors could not criminalize existing marriage without violating the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto laws, the law included specifications that intercourse between already-married persons was legal. Well, the miscegenation portions of that act were eventually repealed, but the whole act never was so that clause legalizing relations between married persons remains in effect. One could argue it would apply to the two of you, if you accept Nikola’s proposal. I do not have great confidence in the effectiveness of such a maneuver, however.”

“We’re not saying we should publicize the marriages, Justin, if you accept.” Nikola sat on the other side of Justin, putting a hand on his knee. “We’d be pariahs even if we won the legal fight, I know. Society would revile us.”

“But it doesn’t need to be public,” Wisteria said. “Nikola can officiate the marriage between you and I, and that would make me technically Lady Comfrey so I could officiate for you and he. Or Nikola could designate me to perform it, if say you wished to accept him and not me.”

Justin looked between them, lost. He turned at last to Nikola. “Why?” he asked, plaintive, unable to articulate beyond that.

Nikola folded Justin’s golden-brown hands between his white-gloved ones. “Because I love you. Because I have always loved you. I want to share the rest of my life with you. I love Wisteria as well, but there is no choosing between you; it’s like asking which do I need, food or drink? I cannot live without both.”

Wisteria slipped her arms about Justin’s waist and snuggled against his back. “I feel the same, Justin. But you know that. I always wished to wed both of you.”

Nikola’s hands tightened about Justin’s. “If this is not what you want, my love, say so and nothing need change between us.”

“We’ll understand. If you want your own normal family someday. A wife you need not keep secret.” Wisteria had her cheek against Justin’s broad shoulder. “Or if you only want to marry one of us, for that matter.”

He closed dark eyes against longing. “You know I have never been faithful, not even to you.”

His blond lover chuckled, drawing near enough to kiss the side of Justin’s throat, above the lapel of his dressing gown. “You do not think we care about a thing like that, do you?”

“You might have lain with a hundred others, and I would not mind as long as I might be the hundred-first,” Wisteria said, echoing his own words of nearly a year past. “If you wish to consider the question longer, you may of course. There is no need to answer tonight.”

Justin squeezed his eyes shut against the tears that threatened to overflow. “Yes,” he managed, seizing Nikola in a hug so tight the slighter man squeaked, but Nikola held him in return just as fiercely. Justin laughed, tears flowing down his cheeks, and twisted to the side to embrace Wisteria as well, pulling them both hard against him as he leaned back against the wall. “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. We are all three mad, and perhaps that is the Savior’s blessing on us because I hope never to be sane. I never want to be anywhere without you. I love you both.” He breathed out, feeling a part of his soul unclench from its tightly-guarded knot, feeling a freedom he had never known before. “I love you both,” he repeated, and then he could say no more as his elated lovers kissed him.

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Possibilities (139/141)

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After two and a half weeks at Fireholt, Justin took his leave. Wisteria and Nikola tried to persuade him to stay longer still, but he’d already extended his stay by ten days. Assembly would resume in a few days and he had business in Gracehaven he needed to attend to. And he’d be headed back to Fireholt again soon enough, for the house party.   

Which would not be nearly the pleasure that being their sole houseguest had been. There would be fewer opportunities for unsettling conversations as well. Justin was not sure if that was good or bad. He felt as if he were growing far too comfortable with his lovers, their company dangerously addictive. However it might feel in the moment, everything about this situation was precarious by nature. Nikola or Wisteria might lose interest in him, or grow jealous, or break it off for any number of reasons. He had to remain on guard against that day. It will come, sooner or later. I need to handle it better than I did Nikola leaving me the last time. They are wedded to one another and that commitment is inviolate, but I can never be more than an optional addition to their happiness. I am no true part of it, no matter how much they may welcome me now.

Gracehaven was relatively empty during the summer, but by the fall it was back to being the center of life in Newlant. Still, returning home to it felt like going into exile. He was glad to get back to his various business dealings, and he had bills in Assembly he needed to champion – such as one to increase the legal protections the Blessed had against men like Brogan, and to make the punishments for such crimes harsher in the hopes of deterring them. But he missed Nikola and Wisteria more than ever.

He was delighted to go back to Fireholt for the house party, and quite amazed to find Wisteria had put a connecting door between the suite they gave him and Nikola’s room. The pretext for it had been that when her first (and still unconceived) child was born, it would be the baby’s room because she did not like the situation of the nursery. But since the house was full for the party, of course they had to put some guest in there…

It was wonderfully convenient.

By that time, Wisteria had preliminary results from her commissioned experiments on greatcat scent perception. Her official motive for the study was to quantify greatcat tracking abilities in the event of another abduction. Some of her findings were alarming, such as that a greatcat could detect and even discern between different levels of stress in a man’s scent. The researcher had tested for such moods as calm, angry, anxious, and afraid, but Anthser had privately confirmed that ‘aroused’ was also discernible. Both research and Anthser indicated that a greatcat’s ability to distinguish subtleties in a scent diminished quickly at range. “You’d want to keep a few feet away and avoiding riding a greatcat if you did not want one to note where you’d been,” Wisteria phrased it. “But riding in a greatcat-drawn carriage or passing one on a street would be unlikely to betray anything.”

Perhaps most constructively from Justin’s perspective, the study had determined several different perfumes and colognes that were strong enough to overpower any human scent to the point that not even a greatcat could detect it. If he couldn’t smell it himself, at least he could cover it up so no greatcat could either.

Justin enjoyed the house party a great deal: it kept them busy enough that they didn’t have time for long unconventional conversations, but not so busy that they could not indulge in late-night carnal activity. Still, it too had to come to an end. His hosts persuaded Justin to stay a week after the last guest had left, but after that he went back to Gracehaven.

Well, it will be Ascension in two months; I’ll see them then. However much I get to, with all the other family commitments involved in the season.


“Would you like to stay at Comfrey Manor when we go to Gracehaven for the season?” Wisteria asked Nikola one morning in mid-autumn. She was at her desk in her office, attending to her correspondence, while he had stopped in to see her after finishing early with the day’s petitioners. Nikola had eschewed the room’s other seats to perch on the edge of her desk instead, where he was near enough to touch her.   

Nikola gave her a lopsided smile as he ran his stockinged foot along her calf. “I wish we could. But I’ve never been able to manage it, with my parents having a mansion in town, and now we’ve your parents’ hospitality to consider as well.”

“I thought that could be our reason, actually.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, we wouldn’t want to offend my parents by showing a preference for yours, or yours by showing a preference for mine, correct? If we stay with Justin, that’s neutral ground. And it’s relatively convenient to both Vasilver Manor and Anverlee’s Gracehaven residence.”

Nikola considered this. “It is, isn’t it? Do you suppose our relations might accept that?”

“I’m sure my parents will.”

“I don’t know…I always get mobbed with petitioners when I’m in Gracehaven. Last year was particularly bad, and if your reasoning about my reputation holds true, this year will be worse.” Nikola drummed his fingers against the side of her desk. “I hate to put that kind of strain on Comfrey’s household.”

“I cannot imagine he will be less gracious about it than your father is,” Wisteria said, prompting a chuckle from her husband. “Truly, I can brief Justin on the requirements. His house is not so large as your parents’, but it does have a petitioner’s hall. Your staff is more than twice what you had last year and I intend to hire more just for the season, given your caseload last year. I am not saying it isn’t an imposition, but it will be no matter whom we stay with, and you said you did not wish to take lodgings for the season. Justin invited us already, so he does not think the imposition unreasonable.”

Nikola smiled then. “Did he? When?”

“In today’s letter.” She smoothed the pages. “Though he doesn’t expect us to accept: ‘I am sure you will be staying with relations who have a greater claim upon you than a mere friend such as myself may ever have, but I will extend the invitation anyway: the two of you (and any stray madgirls Striker may stumble across along the way) are welcome to stay the season with me. I should not wish to deprive Striker of the annual privilege of declining merely because he is wed now.’” She passed the letter to her husband.

“That sounds like him.” Nikola’s smile grew as he read the letter himself.

“Does it ever bother you when he says things like that?” Wisteria asked. “The ‘greater claim than I may ever have’ part.”

“Oh, he doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s just his sense of humor.”   

“Is it? It feels more as if he means it, but is saying it in a humorous way to take the sting from it. As if being the first to laugh over it will rob it of its power to wound.”

Nikola let the hand holding the letter fall. “…perhaps it is.”

“And I don’t think it works because it still hurts me. I suppose it would not be discreet to write that he has a claim far greater than blood. Unless I attributed it to his heroism, and I very much doubt that would give him any pleasure.”

Her husband smiled again. “No, I do not think so. Besides, he has a point. That is – I wish it were not true, Wisteria, but we are not kin to him. And cannot become so. If humor helps to cope with that unfortunate truth…well, perhaps we all might need it.”

Wisteria gazed at the books filling one glass-windowed case. “Not all countries have the same marriage laws Newlant does.”

Nikola gave a startled laugh. “What, do they let a woman have two husbands in Southern Vandu?”

“No…not in Southern Vandu. But in some countries – Bijoli for one – I know a man may have more than one wife. Perhaps there’s one where a woman may wed twice. Or a man marry a man.”

The corners of Nikola’s blue eyes wrinkled with his smile. “Wisteria, even I think that a man marrying a man is absurd.”

She turned to face him directly. “Do you, my lord?”

“Of course it…is.” Nikola dropped his eyes after a moment.

“And you would not marry Justin if it were permissible?”

“Justin would never agree to something so ridiculous.”

“But would you?”

“Why are you asking me this, Wisteria? It’s not legal, and no, I do not want to give up Fireholt and Anverlee and my family and yours in search of some remote barbarian tribe that might approve such a thing. My sense of familial duty may be weak but it is not nonexistent!” Nikola stood, mouth set in a thin line, hands clenched at his sides.

Wisteria rose as well, touching his hands. “I did not mean to upset you, my lord. But you know I always wished I could marry you both. Life is compromise, but I cannot help wondering if this is truly the most satisfactory one we can manage. If you disapprove of such notions, however, of course I will not pursue any other possibilities.”

The tall man uncurled his fingers to take Wisteria’s. A few moments passed in silence, then he bent to embrace her, exhaling as he kissed her forehead. “My love,” he whispered. “I should like nothing better than to unite my life with Justin as I have with you. My mind tells me ‘but this can never be’, yet my mind has said that about too many things that you have proven possible for me to trust it. If there is a way, lead and I will follow.”

Comforted, she snuggled in, tucking her head beneath his chin. “I do not know if there is or not. But I will look.”

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Your Part in This Script (138/141)

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It was the second week of Justin’s stay: Nikola and Wisteria had conspired to persuade him to lengthen his trip beyond the original plan of a single week. Justin was outside, once again exercising before his hosts arose. As he jogged along a wide trail through the hills behind the manor, Fel Fireholt loped up to him from behind, then slowed to fall into stride beside him. “Mind if I join you, Lord Comfrey?”

Justin shrugged. “As you like. Pacing me won’t be much of a workout for you, I daresay.”

“That’s fine. I’m a lot lazier than you anyway.”

They traveled together in silence for half a mile, Justin breathing hard as he ran up the gentle slope of the winding trail, and Fel Fireholt doing little more than a walk to keep up. Justin did not know how to treat Fel Fireholt any more. The greatcat wasn’t Nikola’s employee now, but he still watched out for Nikola as if he had been, and the two often rode together. Nikola treated Fel Fireholt as an equal, a feat which made Justin uneasy and which he could not match. It was wrong somehow, a violation of the social order. Yet the black greatcat had saved his own life, as well as Nikola’s and Wisteria’s. Decency demanded Justin treat him civilly at the minimum.

At length, the greatcat interrupted the silence. “So. Do they know what you’re doing?”

Perplexed, Justin asked, “‘They’?”

“Lord Nik and his wife. Do they each know you’re screwing the other?”

Justin nearly ran into a tree. “What?” He stumbled to a halt as he glared at Fel Fireholt, a dangerous wrath building inside him. “I beg your pardon?” He couldn’t call out a greatcat: it would be suicidal even if it weren’t illegal.

The dark greatcat dropped back a pace, broad shoulders hunching. “Look, I know you humans are weird about mating, and I’ve kept out of this for six years, but…I can’t pretend I haven’t noticed any more. I don’t care what any of you do with each other, really. Ain’t my fur. But if you’re gonna rip Lord Nik’s heart out again and stomp on it, I…kinda…need to know.” He faltered, ducking his head with an incongruously abashed look.

Justin stared at him. Six years? Has he known all this time? He fought to master his anger (how dare this upstart commoner threaten me and my lovers) and form a cautious reply. “Are you implying that both Mrs. Striker and Lord Nikola are carrying on an affair with me? Have you any idea, Fel Fireholt, how serious an accusation you are making?”

“Uhhh. No.” Fel Fireholt canted his dark ears to the side. “Not really. Whaddaya mean?”

“What in Paradise makes you believe such a preposterous tale?”   

The greatcat sighed. “It’s your scent. It’s on both of them. And theirs on you. I mean, Lord Nik always smelled too clean after visiting you but I probably wouldn’t ever have realized why except that he didn’t wash his hair before he went home. And human hair catches and holds scents too. Sorry.”

Justin turned a slow circle, verifying that they were alone on the trail as he gathered his thoughts. You can’t duel a greatcat, he reminded himself. “Are you aware, fel, that accusing Mrs. Striker of infidelity with me would force Lord Nikola to duel me for her honor? Or that your reprehensible accusation of sexual congress between Lord Nikola and myself could result in us being stripped of title and property, and sent into exile?”

Fel Fireholt sat back on his haunches. “Seriously? That’s messed up.”

“This is an insult of the highest order, fel. I must demand that you retract your words.”

“No it’s not. I mean, you don’t really believe that, do you? I’m not insulting you. Er. I didn’t mean to insult you, anyway. I guess implying that you’d do it behind their backs is kind of…bad. So you aren’t, then?” The greatcat pricked his ears, hopeful.

Justin took a deep breath. “I don’t think you understand your part in this script.”

Fel Fireholt shook his head vehemently.

“You are supposed to apologize for having made such a vile statement and withdraw it before I am forced to take action.”

One feline ear dropped. “How d’you withdraw words? I don’t see what’s so vile about it anyway. And what sort of action?”

“Action to ensure you will not spread such an abhorrent rumor.”


“I haven’t figured it out yet. I’d duel you if you were a man, but I’ve never had this problem with a greatcat before. Look, just say you withdraw the remark and that you’re not going to repeat it to anyone. It’s much simpler that way.”

“‘I withdraw the remark and am not going to repeat it to anyone’,” Anthser parrotted, bemusement evident even on feline features.

“Very well.” Justin turned and started away.

The greatcat climbed to his feet and followed hastily. “But I still don’t understand what’s going on.”

Justin chose his next words with care. “I am not engaged in any activities with either Lord Nikola or Mrs. Striker of which the other is unaware.”

Fel Fireholt brightened immediately. “Great! That is such a relief.”

As they walked in silence, Justin glanced sidelong at the greatcat. The feline had visibly relaxed, strides easy now. Shadows from the leaves and branches of the trees around them played over black fur, interspersed with dappled sunlight. After a brief struggle with discretion, Justin asked, “You’ve known for six years?”

“’Bout that, yeah.”

“Who have you told?”

“No one.” The greatcat’s ears flattened. “It’s no one else’s business. And I know you humans are…really weird about it.”

“Do all the greatcats just…know, then?” Unsettling thought.

“Naw. You’d have to almost shove your face in Lord Nik’s hair after…er…the things I’m not repeating again…to notice. Callie might’ve noticed it with Wisteria when we were out riding, but she hasn’t realized that humans barely touch each other or why it’d be unusual. Jill knows about you two, cause she and Lord Nik have always been close. I’d be surprised if anyone else does.” The greatcat swished his tail once. “You know we’d never do anything that could hurt Lord Nik, right?”

Six years. I do now. Justin nodded, mind struggling to encompass all the ramifications. “It truly is of no consequence to you, is it?”

“Nah. Never understood why it was so important to all of you. It’s only natural.”

Justin gave a dry bark of laughter. “Believe me, there is nothing natural about it.”

“Yes it is. I mean, yeah, reproduction is kind of the point, but the function is pleasure and there’s nothing abnormal about doing things that feel good. You three obviously love each other, why wouldn’t you do things together that make you happy? And if it were crazy, Lord Nik would cure it.”

“Even a Blessed cannot treat all dysfunctions.”

“Still. One of the other mind-healers would’ve noticed. The Savior doesn’t cure it because it’s not a disease,” Fel Fireholt said with conviction.

The viscount fell silent, uncomfortable with the line of discussion and regretting that he’d resurrected the topic. One could not expect a greatcat to understand the subtleties and refinements of a human culture many centuries in the making. The greatcat race was still in its infancy by comparison. It wasn’t in their blood the way it was with him. His rank rendered Justin immune to the consequences of his behavior so long as he remained discreet and kept it deniable. That wasn’t the same as making it right.

And yet Nikola and Wisteria and even Fel Fireholt believe otherwise, don’t they? It was a pleasant daydream, to imagine for a moment an entire world who accepted him as he was, without any need for habitual lies and everyday deceptions.

A dangerous daydream, that could tempt a man into carelessness and ruin. Better not to get in the habit of thinking in such a way. “Why did you come to me instead of asking Lord Nikola?”

The black greatcat ducked his head. “Couldn’t give anything away to you. I mean, I can’t ask Lord Nik ‘Hey, did you know that your wife and your friend are—’” he stopped at Justin’s look “—well, you know, without telling him if he didn’t know.”

Justin raised an eyebrow. “And you would not tell him if he didn’t know?”

“…I dunno. If you’d said they didn’t know, I was going to try to talk you into telling them.”

“Were you.”

Fel Fireholt winced, flattening an ear. “Yeah, none of my business, I know, but there’s a point where you can’t just do nothing.”

“And as things stand, can you do nothing?”

“Sure. You all know what’s going on. Fine, it might still be a disaster later on, but it’s not like there’s an obvious disaster that’s easy to avoid.”   

Everything about this is an obvious disaster. “You greatcats have a peculiar way of viewing the world.”

“Hah. Take a step back sometime and consider how you humans think about it.”


Later, when he was alone with them in the Fireholt library, Justin told his lovers about the conversation. Justin would have preferred not to, but at a minimum they needed to know that they had all been overlooking a way they could be detected.

Nikola was flabbergasted. “Anthser knows? He’s known for years?” He sank into one of the library’s cozy reading chairs. “I can’t believe he never said anything to me.”

“It wasn’t his place.” Still isn’t.

“Yes, but I didn’t think he’d know that.”

Wisteria wanted to experiment to determine the exact limits of greatcat senses. “I suppose a double-blind test would be difficult to arrange, but we could check to see if he can distinguish between a person who has been with another recently and one who has not. How long does the scent persist as detectable – is it a matter of minutes? Hours? Days? We’ve been assuming that an ordinary bath eliminates the odor, but does it? We ought to find out.”

“You cannot run tests to see under what conditions greatcats can tell with whom you – or anyone else! – last had intercourse.” Justin was appalled. “There are no circumstances under which that is an acceptable line of questioning.”

“Truly? But it’s for science. How else would one find out?”

“One is not supposed to find out. That’s the entire point.”

Nikola chuckled. “Perhaps you could frame it differently, Wisteria. Test it with less indiscreet scents.”

“Oh, and on different materials, like a handkerchief or a ceramic tile or a letter or a lock of hair. And whether or not perfumes or other artificial scents would be sufficient to mask it from a greatcat.” Wisteria produced a little notebook from her reticule and jotted it down. “I wager there’s far more variance to it than we imagine. Perhaps I could commission an inventor to make a study of the topic.”

Justin covered his eyes with one hand. “Wisteria, please do not make it look as if you’re trying to figure out how to hide your dalliances, all right?”

Still grinning, Nikola said, “I’ll help her come up with some innocuous excuse, my lord. Fear not.”

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Trust Given (137/141)

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“So what happened after this kiss?” Wisteria asked after a moment’s pause.

“Oh, I was devastated,” Nikola said, easily. “I thought Justin had noticed my infatuation and was intentionally mocking me over it.”

Justin pinched the bridge of his nose. “I had not the smallest notion. I was trying to think of some way to keep you from believing I’d intended to molest you.”

“In fairness, you did accomplish that.”

“In the most horrific way possible. I spent the whole ceremony trying to think of some way to ask Dremmond to replace you—”

“I always wondered that you did not!”

“—but I could think of no way without implying that you were at fault and risking that you’d be punished. For my indiscretion.” Justin looked back to Wisteria. “So when I found him waiting for me when I got back, I apologized for my behavior and told him to take a holiday. I’d care for myself and not tell a soul. Then the next night—” Justin paused again. “Why did you come back the next night? Because I had a whole host of theories and I believe now that every one of them must have been wrong.”

“I was hideously confused at first – I was not even sure what you were apologizing for – but after considerable thought, I concluded it was for desiring me. Which was what I wanted you to do, so I worked up the nerve to approach you again.”

Wisteria shifted between them, nuzzling the top of Justin’s head before glancing at Nikola. “Have you two managed to know each other seven years without ever discussing your first meeting? How is that even possible?”

Nikola laughed. “I don’t know. It never came up. There’s…a great deal we never talked about,” he said, wistfully.

“One doesn’t talk about such things,” Justin said. Even to his own ears it sounded prim and fatuous.

“I hope that doesn’t mean you will refuse to tell me the rest,” Wisteria said.

“Of course we’ll tell you,” Nikola said.

Justin cleared his throat and raised his head from Wisteria’s shoulder to continue. “I found him the next night in my room, out of uniform and all dressed up – terribly fine for a servant, I thought. When I asked him what he wanted, he said—”

“‘You’.” Nikola leaned in to kiss Justin again; Wisteria watched them with rapt attention.

“I thought you terrified then, too,” Justin murmured against Nikola’s mouth.

“I was. That I was wrong, that you were uninterested, that you’d laugh or worse.”

Justin closed his eyes, hugging Wisteria to him with an arm about her shoulders and his other arm holding Nikola to them both. “I am a very great fool. And that, madame, is how we became lovers.”

“But then you hardly knew one another at all when you began? Did Nikola tell you that night he was Lord Striker’s son?”

Nikola shook his head ruefully, while Justin laughed and answered, “No. No, we did not know one another at all, and I daresay Nikola was too busy to consider correcting his little oversight with his title.”

“It wasn’t an oversight! East Hansleigh Boys’ Academy had a ‘culture of service’, which meant we weren’t to use our titles on campus and we got drafted for menial labor during big events like Ambrellan. That’s why I was in a position to volunteer. It was that or set up tables.”

“Oh my,” Wisteria said. “When did you find out, then?”

Justin covered his eyes. “Five months later? At an Ascension-season party. When his father introduced him. I about died of mortification, learning that what I had thought was an affair with a valet of about my own age had actually been with an underage peer.”

“It truly took five months to emerge?”

“We were not in contact after those first few days Justin spent at the academy,” Nikola said. “I was too intimidated to write Lord Comfrey, and he – well, he could not start a personal correspondence with a man he thought a servant.” Justin was thankful that Nikola omitted the one disastrous gift Justin had sent while in ignorance. Nikola stroked Justin’s cheek. “But it all worked out well in the end.”

Justin managed a smile, turning his head to kiss the pale hand. “That it did. After that formal introduction we became friends.” He remembered what a miracle even that much had seemed, at the time. How much he had missed Nikola in those intervening months, how he had thought Nikola uninterested in continuing the relationship. To think that he had always admired me, and I never knew until now. We never spoke of it.

Perhaps we should have. Perhaps I ought to say something now, about those feelings. But even like this, it felt impossible to match his lovers’ frankness. Men in his world did not share their emotions, and Nikola might be the exception to every rule but that did not mean Justin could be, too.

“Did you think of one another, in that intervening time?” Wisteria asked. “I cannot imagine having a lover without attachment. What is it like?”

“Not as good as one with,” Nikola answered. “Not bad, mind, I still enjoy the act. But it’s less intimate and intense, at least for me.” He hesitated, then added, “I don’t think I could ever be described as unattached to Justin, though. I missed you, you know. And felt like a complete fool for it, under the circumstances, with no acquaintance to speak of between us. I imagine you scarcely gave me another thought until we met again.”

Justin looked at Nikola’s slight self-deprecating smile. I never told him. I never tell him anything, and then I wonder why he does not understand. “No, not above a half-dozen times,” Justin said, softly. “Each day.”

Nikola blinked, smile turning to wonder. “Truly?”

“Truly. I thought it perhaps as well you were not around, because I was so obsessed with you I was sure to give it away in my behavior.”   

“You were always so collected, your manner so easy and casual. Even when we were alone. I never thought you greatly affected,” Nikola said in a voice just as low.

“I’ve been pretending so long that sometimes I think I have forgotten how to stop.” Justin paused, struggling for his next words. I love you. I’ve always loved you. Until I met Wisteria, you were my whole world. How can I know these things are true and yet find them impossible to say aloud? “I have always been attached to you, Nikola.” That was such a profound understatement it felt like an untruth. “Those five months, when I did not know who you were and thought you indifferent to me, I still longed for you. I would imagine returning to East Hansleigh, just to see if you’d changed your mind, if there was anything I could offer to induce you to leave Dremmond’s service for mine. I could not, you know. I could not face harassing you so, not when I felt you had made your wishes clear. But how I wished I might.”

Nikola touched Justin’s hand, where it rested on Wisteria’s stomach. “I…I never thought you could be anything less than confident.”

“One more pretense, my friend.” My love, Justin thought, and could not say it. “My life is full of them. I do not know how the two of you manage to be so honest.” That was dangerously sincere; he ought to leaven it with a joke, but his mind refused to produce one. “Or why you would take up with someone as unaccustomed to truth as myself.”

“It is no virtue in me,” Wisteria said, her arm tightening about Justin’s shoulders. “I’m jealous of you, do you know, my lord? You know just when to be false in order to please the society you are in, and just how far to take it, to ensure no one ever notices it. If I could imitate your manners, I would in a heartbeat.”

“You wrong yourself.” Nikola’s voice was harsh with emotion. “You have played the part others demanded of you, and only deceived those who had no right to the truth. Those who’d condemn you for what they had no business questioning you upon at all.”

“No.” Justin shook his head, straightening to sit upright. “You said it yourself – even with you, with the two of you whom I ought to trust, for whom I care more than anything in the world, I have still clung to my masks. Like an armor I don’t know how to set aside. Let me set it aside for this moment, and tell you: I love you.” He met Nikola’s eyes, tan fingers trembling under pale ones, then looked to Wisteria. “I love you.”

“Oh Justin.” Wisteria caressed his cheek, and she did not smile but Nikola was smiling wide enough for both of them, blinking quickly. She sat up to kiss Justin, with all the warmth and passion her expression never showed. “You are safe with us. We would never betray you.”

“Never,” Nikola promised, kissing his cheek. “I love you too.” They enfolded him fast in their embrace, holding him tightly enough that Justin could almost believe in that safety.

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How Did You First Become Lovers? (136/141)

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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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At Ease (135/141)

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Justin was still reeling from bliss as Nikola fell onto his side beside the two of them and snuggled close with an arm over his wife’s back as she lay on top of Justin. She extended an arm blindly to circle his waist. “Oh, my lords, that was the most sublime, amazing thing I have ever felt.”

“Agreed.” Nikola slipped an arm under Justin’s head and kissed first him then Wisteria, before hugging both fiercely. “I love you both so much.”

The slim, long-legged beauty laying against Justin caressed Nikola before wriggling off to lie on the opposite side of Justin and rest her chin on his chest. “You are the best husband in all Paradise,” she told Nikola. “I’ve loved Lord Com – Justin – for so long.” Addressing Justin directly, she added, “You have been such a good friend to me, to both of us, strong and loyal and brave.” Justin found himself blushing again, listening to them. He’d long known Nikola loved him, but the two of them had never spoken of emotions before. It was strange to hear it now, strange and heart-achingly sweet. “But I always thought it would make you unhappy, Nikola, if you knew of my feelings.”

Nikola shook his head, smiling. “I would have thought so too, but it doesn’t. I am thrilled. My sole regret about marriage was giving him up. And now I have you back.” He rose on one arm to kiss Justin, stroking his cheek.

Justin hugged Nikola one-armed to his side. He still could not believe that this was real. Madness seems so much more plausible.

I will never consent to be cured of this.

He had never been happier in his life. Lying between his two favorite people in all Paradise, he realized that this was what he had been longing for. This peace, this connection, this comfortable physical ease, this is what he had needed even more than gratification. To stop hiding, to stop pretending, if only with these two, if only for a little while. He was more relaxed than he’d been in months, no guilt, no shame, no regrets.

“I wish we could stay like this forever,” Nikola murmured, reaching across Justin’s chest to stroke his wife’s cheek.

She stirred to press against his fingers. “Oh yes.”

Justin chuckled, squeezing them closer. “Alas that we cannot. Does Fireholt still hold Temple service at four o’clock, Nikola?”

“Ugh. Unfortunately.” Nikola shuddered. “What time is it?”

Wisteria lifted her head enough to see the clock on the mantlepiece against the wall beyond Nikola. “Half past two.”

Nikola groaned and snuggled closer to Justin, curling one leg across his and stroking Wisteria’s thigh with his toes. “I suppose I ought to get ready. I’m leading the service so it’ll be short, at any rate.” He sighed.

“Probably we all should.” Wisteria turned her head to kiss Nikola’s hand, then Justin’s chest. Her lips drifted to encircle one bare nipple, hand gliding down his abdomen to rest atop his hip.

Justin arched, half-laughing. “Ahhhh, my very dear Wisteria, that will get one part of me to rise, but it will by no means encourage me to leave your bed.”

The blond man on his other side shifted to drop kisses on both of them as he sat up. “You two may play as you like, but I had best arrive a little early. Excuse me, my lord, my lady.” He slid from the bed and padded into the bathing chamber to clean up.

Justin snagged Wisteria’s hand and pulled her up with his other arm for a quick kiss before she could tempt him further. As if she wasn’t tempting enough just being her beautiful self pressed nude against him. He ran a hand through her thick curls, smiling at her. “I should not wear myself or you out completely, my dear.”

She nodded, settling for a moment with her legs twined about his thigh and her face against his shoulder. She held him tightly, and they lay together a few minutes longer before rising.

The three of them helped one another dress in lieu of the usual servants. Nikola finished first and went to his study to collect his notes, leaving Wisteria alone with Justin as she tied his neckcloth. He stood at ease, watching her as she worked. Like her husband, she wore simple jewelry for the occasion: a single brooch of onyx and gold styled in Fireholt’s symbol pinned to the short-waisted embroidered violet jacket she wore over her long gown, gold bracelets clasped around her wrists. Her expression was neutral as always, her motions brisk and efficient. When she was done, he caught her about the waist and pulled her close; her body melted gratifyingly against his. “How are you feeling?” he asked her. “No regrets?”

Wisteria shook her head. “I am so very happy, my lord.” She rested her cheek against his shoulder. “I feel wonderful. A little wicked, perhaps, for doing something so outrageous that even I never imagined such things could happen. And I was sure you must have lost all interest in me, and that it was very wrong of me that I could not put you out of my mind even as much as I love Nikola. Now…it’s as if I had been trying to put a puzzle together with half the pieces flipped over. Now that they’re all right-side up everything fits together beautifully.” She burrowed in against him, as if to remind him just how well they had fit together. As if he needed any reminders.

Justin smiled and kissed her forehead. “A little too well, perhaps.”

“What do you mean, my lord?”

“Ah, do not mind a cynical old madman, my dear. I am only thinking that something so improbable cannot possibly last. But that will not stop me from enjoying it in the moment.” He released her to offer his arm. “Come, let us join Nikola that we may all walk out together. We ought not arouse suspicions.”

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At Last (134/141)

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From long habit, Nikola smoothed Wisteria’s dress and Justin straightened his shirt cuffs before they strode with feigned dignity through the gardens to enter the house through the patio door. As soon as they were inside the deserted manor, the two men exchanged glances and broke into laughter. Justin swept Wisteria into his arms and bolted for the rear stairwell, taking them two at a time as she clung with her arms about his neck and Nikola pursued. “Hey! I said you could share her, not steal her!”

“Right! And you’ve had her all to yourself for months,” Justin called back. “Now it’s my turn.” The door to Wisteria’s suite was closer than his or Nikola’s, so he shouldered it open. He stepped through to the sitting room and pressed his back against the wall to the right of the door. He set Wisteria on her feet and put a finger to his lips, waiting. A moment later, Nikola entered and started across to the bedroom door without looking about him. Justin pounced from behind, seizing Nikola about the legs and throwing him over one shoulder.

“My word,” Wisteria said, watching them. “Is he always like this, my lord?”

Nikola shook his head, laughing as he struggled to shift into a less undignified position. “Only when he’s in a very good mood.”

“Stop squirming,” Justin ordered him, moving to hold him in place with one arm and using his free arm to grab Wisteria and put her over his other shoulder. “There, now I have you both!” Awkwardly, he shoved open the door into the bedroom with his foot. The room’s south-facing windows were shaded by small awnings and the room remained cool despite the warmth of the day.

Justin staggered to the wide, canopied bed – fortunately the curtains on it were tied back – and leaned over to lie them both on it. “Now I can have my – erk!” Wisteria and Nikola interrupted him by grabbing an arm each and pulling him down between them. They divested him of his shirt, Nikola unbuttoning it while Wisteria pulled the ends from his trousers and drew it off. She kissed and caressed the bare skin of his back while Nikola nibbled at his throat and prised apart the buttons of his still-damp trousers. Justin closed his eyes as they worked their magic upon him. They had the entire house to themselves, with no chance that servants would return until tomorrow. They were in a second-floor bedroom overlooking a private forested hillside. No outraged spouse could interrupt, no parents to defend a daughter’s virtue. The vigilant part of Justin’s mind let go of fear and left him to bask in these glorious attentions.

“I have so longed to do this again, you have no idea. Your skin feels divine,” Wisteria said against his back, as she rubbed her cheek against his shoulders, then flicked out her tongue to lick him. “You even taste good, Lord Comfrey.”

The formality of the title penetrated the delicious haze of desire; at some level it bothered him, as if she considered herself a courtesan or prostitute with no right to a more intimate address. He rolled over to face her. “Wisteria.” Justin kissed her briefly. “Call me by my name.” Another kiss. “My given name.”

“Oh.” Her pale brown eyes seemed large in the dim bedroom. “Yes, Justin.”

He kissed her again, longer and deeper now. One arm encircled her back while his other hand pushed up her skirt, fingers running over her stockinged calf and up her exposed thigh. She clung eagerly to him, curling her leg over his to press her hips closer. He groaned against her lips, hand squirming beneath the lower edge of her drawers to cup her derriere. Behind him, Nikola had stripped off his own clothing and pressed his naked chest to Justin’s back, hands tugging Justin’s trousers down. The dark-haired man shifted enough to let Nikola accomplish his desire, kissing Wisteria’s neck and pulling off her drawers. Her pussy was already wet as she curled tight to his side, rubbing against his erection. At the same time, Nikola slipped his own hard cock between Justin’s nether cheeks, reaching across with a hand to caress Wisteria’s cheek, one bare foot stroking over their intertwined legs. The intimate press of flesh was intensely erotic despite, or perhaps because of, the awkward angles that made penetration almost impossible. Justin was intoxicated, part of him urgent to screw now (quickly before I wake, before they come to their senses, before this delusion is dispelled) and part wanting to make it last, to savor each moment (will I ever have this opportunity again?)

“I want to feel you inside me, Justin,” Wisteria said, voice soft, body insistent. “I’ve dreamed about this so long and the reality is so much better, oh, Nikola, is it all right? May I, my lords?”

Speech was beyond Justin: part of him was shocked to hear Wisteria speaking, shocked but aroused by that clear statement of desire. Grinning, Nikola answered for him: “Of course you may, my love.” His longtime lover shifted to roll Justin onto his back, while Wisteria moved to straddle him, dress bunched about her hips. Nikola snuggled against Justin’s side, stroking the curve of her rear as she lowered herself onto Justin’s prick.

Conscious thought impinged on Justin’s pleasure-addled mind, and he locked his hands about her hips to stop her. “W – wait.”

Wisteria stopped at once. “My lord?”

Justin struggled for words. “Your wife – I can’t get your wife pregnant—”

“I don’t mind,” Nikola said, as if he truly did not.

“I do!” Justin growled, although he was close to the point of not-minding-enough to restrain himself from resuming.

“We can do something else.” Wisteria sat back against Justin’s thighs and surprised him again by boldly caressing his cock with her fingers.

“No – I’ve got a preventative in my room – just a moment—” Nikola started to rise, stopped to kiss them, and ordered, “Don’t go anywhere!” before he hurried nude through the door that joined her suite to his.

As he left, Wisteria wrapped her fingers about his erection and worked up and down in slow firm strokes. “Do you like it when I do this?”

Breathing unevenly, Justin managed a nod, reaching to grab her other arm. He pulled her down beside him, fumbling to unbutton her dress.

She cuddled against his side, still stroking him. “I want to please you, my lord. I want to find out all the things you like best and do them with you. I know I ought to be patient but I fear this is too good to be true and I won’t have another chance.” She stopped petting him to let him pull her dress over her head. Then Justin rolled her onto her back to kiss her breathless, unhooking the front closures of her underbodice, pushing it open to touch her breasts again, small and soft and as delicious against his fingers as he remembered. He bent to kiss one, slid a hand between her thighs – she was very slippery – and tried to remember how one went about pleasuring a woman. She arched into his hand as he slipped one finger inside her. “Oh, that’s nice, my – Justin,” she murmured, curling her fingers through his hair to hold his head to her chest. “Would you use another finger inside – oh yes, like that—” she pushed against his hand, clutching him closer. “And put your thumb higher – here—” she guided his fingers with her own hand “—oh my yes, oh Justin…”

No one had ever tried to give him directions on lovemaking before. Justin found it unsettling, even insulting, as if suggesting he didn’t know what he was doing. Although he had to grant that he arguably didn’t; most of his experiences with women had been prostitutes who had no expectation of pleasure and little interest in receiving the kind of attention that might result in it. Yet the results of utilizing Wisteria’s instruction were charming: the murmur of pleased words, the very appealing writhing of her body under his touch. He was so intent upon her that it was a few moments before he realized that Nikola had returned and perched at the edge of the bed, watching them. Justin paused when he noticed, and Wisteria opened her eyes. “No need to stop on my account,” Nikola said, with a mischievous smile. “I think I can appreciate what my wife finds appealing about watching.”

“Get over here,” Justin mock-snarled to cover his embarrassment, and shifted just enough to seize Nikola’s arm and drag him down beside them.

“Why, Justin, are you blushing?” Nikola asked, his grin widening. “Surely you’re not shy…?”

“Shut up or I’ll give you what’s coming to you, and then you’ll have to face your wife’s wrath for displacing her,” Justin growled, snatching the prophylactic from Nikola’s hand and putting it on.

“Ooh, I don’t mind waiting if I get to see that,” Wisteria offered.   

Justin fell onto his back against the bed. “You are both terrible perverts,” he announced. “This must be what drew me to you. If only I’d realized months – ahhhhh—” his words were interrupted by Wisteria stroking his cock through the thin sheath of sheep intestine.

“How curious. Can you still feel through it?” Wisteria bent unselfconsciously to kiss the tip, then engulfed it and suckled as Justin gasped and thrust into her mouth. She drew back after a few moments to say, “It doesn’t taste as good as Justin’s skin.”

Justin growled again, grabbing her by the hips and pulling to position her on top of him; he was in the habit of taking a first-time lover from the lower position, so that the other could set the rhythm. It did not occur to him until she was sliding against his erection that this would be less important with a woman, and by then he had better things to think about. Like how wonderful she felt as he entered her. Her fingers clenched against his shoulders as she eased herself down, rocking against him and sending waves of pleasure radiating through his body. She fell forward to kiss him, and he wrapped his arms about her. As he ran his hands down her back, he felt Nikola’s hand brush his. Justin laced his fingers together with his friend’s. He was dimly aware that Nikola had positioned himself directly behind Wisteria, knees to either side of Justin’s legs. What is he doing…surely he wouldn’t be… The thought was impossible to focus upon when there was so much else commanding his attention. Wisteria shifted against him to angle her rear higher and tilt her head back. Justin nipped at her exposed throat, suckling hard. “Oh yes, my lord,” she said, arms curled about his head and shoulders, “please…”

Then he could feel her tightening around his cock, could feel Nikola through the thin vaginal wall as her husband penetrated her ass. He did not have time to be shocked, the sensations so overwhelming in intensity that every conscious thought disappeared in the moment of uncontrollable climax, pure ecstasy blinding his mind. He roared involuntarily, an animal noise that mixed with Nikola’s own cry, with the shuddering of Wisteria’s frame as she collapsed panting against him.

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Whatever You Wish (133/141)

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Before Wisteria had even reached the lawn, she regretted the bluntness of her words. Nikola never minded when she was straightforward, but what must Lord Comfrey think of her? He had been so circumspect with her these last several months, and her speech was so wanton – she was sure even her husband thought it strange that she would enjoy watching two men be intimate. But I couldn’t let them believe I would be full of moral outrage at their actions. Could I? Perhaps I should have left it at “I do not mind” and not explained the why.

She crossed the lawn to the gazebo, an edifice with waist-high stone walls and the upper half an open-air wooden frame with a tiled roof. Workers had replaced the decaying wickerwork a couple of months ago, and re-tiled the roof so that it looked like new again. The seats and backs of the interior stone benches were now covered with weatherproof cushions. Wisteria took a seat inside and fretted. Do I not mind? Or did I only think it all right when I was able to watch? Did Nikola ask me to leave so they could resume without an audience? Wisteria imagined the two men reviling her as soon as she was out of earshot, for spying upon them and for having such perverse desires. It made a depressing image, and would not be the first time her manners had been despised. But surely they would not judge me harshly when their own desires are atypical. Would they? And if Nikola thought me out of line he would tell me. That was reassuring. But would Lord Comfrey? Lord Comfrey had not been himself that entire interview; even I could tell that. He hardly spoke. It’s not like him to be so quiet.

Preoccupied with anxious thoughts, she did not notice the two men returning until they were almost to the gazebo. Wisteria rose to greet them. “Hello, my lords.” They were both smiling as they approached. That has to be a good sign, right? Lord Comfrey was not smiling when we spoke earlier. They still looked damp and rumpled, although they had put themselves back in some order: Nikola had tied back his hair, while Lord Comfrey had exchanged his fraying clubbed hair style for a simple ponytail. Lord Comfrey had also fixed the shirt he’d buttoned on crookedly earlier. Her husband motioned for the raven-haired lord to precede him into the gazebo.

The viscount bowed to her as he stepped through the entryway and stood before her. “Mrs. Striker.” He paused, glancing to her husband. Nikola made an encouraging motion. Lord Comfrey cleared his throat. “This is going to be a hideously awkward moment to regain my senses, I’ll have you know.”

Nikola’s smile widened. “You’re not crazy, Comfrey. You have my professional word on it.”

“That would be more reassuring were it not exactly what I’d expect from a demon-induced hallucination,” Lord Comfrey said, making her husband chuckle.

“My lords?” Wisteria resumed her seat, perplexed.

“Never mind.” Comfrey sat sideways on the bench before her, so close they were almost touching. He took her hand, his thumb caressing her knuckles. “My dear Mrs. Striker, my friend Lord Nikola and I have been speaking most bluntly, a pastime at which you know I have no skill. I have confessed that I once proposed to you and believed you to find the offer – ah, to be more blunt still, my person – attractive. Would you say that was accurate, my dear? It is quite all right to answer, I promise.”

“…you know it is, my lord.” Wisteria was still confused. His manner was more like himself again, but something about this made her uneasy. She glanced at Nikola and he smiled at her, giving a small nod.

“And do you yet feel this attraction?” Lord Comfrey asked in a rush.

“Yes?” She was still looking at Nikola. “Is this a problem, my lord? I know Lord Comfrey isn’t int—”

She was interrupted as Lord Comfrey captured her face in his hands and kissed her with a dizzying passion. “Lord Comfrey,” he told her when he paused for breath, “is expert at feigning a disinterest that has nothing whatsoever to do with his real inclinations.”

“…oh.” She gazed at his eyes, so dark and intense, feeling lost.

Nikola poked his friend’s side. “You were supposed to ask her first.”

“May I kiss you again, Mrs. Striker?” Lord Comfrey asked, one hand still cradling her cheek.

“Um.” She wanted to say yes but she wasn’t sure she was supposed to. She glanced to her husband, standing a few feet away from them. “Is this a test, my lord?”

Nikola shook his head. “No! More of…er…an experiment?” He moved to sit behind her as she faced Lord Comfrey; Nikola’s arms slid around her waist and held her close in the way he only did when they were alone. “This was my idea. There’s no wrong answer.” Nikola dipped his head to nuzzle the side of her neck, kissing her nape. “I know it sounds absurd, but I thought—”

“We thought,” Lord Comfrey interjected.

“—we thought that if you enjoyed watching us, you might enjoy…doing…more. With us. Both of us.”

“Were we mistaken, my dear?” Lord Comfrey asked. “I did mention that I’ve gone delusional, did I not?”

“He’s joking,” Nikola clarified.

“He thinks I’m joking. In any case, I am very serious about wanting to kiss you but do not wish to press—”

Wisteria looped her hands behind Lord Comfrey’s neck and pulled him to her for another kiss. He moved with her, pressing her back against Nikola as his shirt-clad chest brushed against hers. One of his hands dropped to her thigh for balance as his tongue slipped between parted lips to explore her mouth. She could feel Nikola’s teeth raking over the skin of her neck, hands stroking her stomach. “Yes,” she said, when she was capable of speech again. “Please.”

Lord Comfrey chuckled, kissing a line down her face and neck until he intercepted Nikola over her shoulder and kissed him as well. His hands drifted up her torso to caress the slight curves of her breasts and prompt her to arch into his touch. They continued their exploration up to the collar of Wisteria’s dress, and hesitated before undoing the top button. He sat back, drawing a shuddering breath. “Perhaps…we ought continue this somewhere more comfortable. And private.”

“Mmm.” Wisteria had her eyes half-closed, hands wandering the considerable breadth of Lord Comfrey’s muscular shoulders. “Whatever you wish, my lords.”

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Cannot Possibly Be Happening (132/141)

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After his wife had disappeared into the woods, Nikola re-seated himself sideways on the blanket, legs stretched to one side and loose hair thrown over his shoulder as he leaned on one arm. Wet and disheveled and gorgeous, he made no effort to speak, only waited.

Justin paced, mind so whiplashed by the conflict between reality and expectation that he could not form a coherent thought. At length, he dropped to sit cross-legged before Nikola. “Did you – did you know…?” He trailed off, words still failing him.

“Had I the smallest idea of her reacting so…positively, I should have acted months ago.” Nikola offered a lopsided smile. “No, when we discussed extramarital affairs, our understanding was that fidelity would be preferable. I did not – I do not – wish to give her pain, and it seemed…advisable at the time.”

“How in Paradise could you ever bring such a topic up? With your wife?”

Nikola laughed. “What makes you think I brought it up? Did I never tell you, Justin? She raised the subject at our first meeting. It’s why my parents took such a dislike to her for a time.”

She planned to have an affair? And told you so?”

“No, not at all. Well, not at that time.”

“There was more than one time?”

He nodded, chuckling at Justin’s boggled expression. “Wisteria likes to prepare for contingencies, and to be straightforward about…everything.” His smile turned dreamy. “She is the most wonderful woman in Paradise. The first time she didn’t have anyone in mind, but she knew my reputation and did not want to assume I’d be faithful. In retrospect, she was entirely right in that. The next time was when I proposed, in fact. Do you know she nearly refused me?”

Justin blinked a few times. “I did not.”

“She thought herself unfit for marriage because she wanted another man as well as myself.”

“Did she.” Justin listened with a deepening sense of dread.

Nikola rolled to sit with his legs before him, leaning back on his arms and gazing at the sky. “I had to assure her that I would rather share her with another man than have no claim on her at all.”

Justin swallowed. “…would you?”

Another chuckle. “Paradise, yes. When she first spoke of it, I was so jealous of that man, whoever he was – she would not tell me his name. I would think of that faceless individual and wonder what attraction he must hold for her. Was he too lowborn for her to wed, and that was why she chose me instead? Married already and thus ineligible? I cannot say the question did not trouble me. But having no part of her, that was intolerable. It was months before I had any suspicion who he might be.” Nikola rolled to face Justin again, torso supported on one arm while the other extended to caress Justin’s cheek. “But I believe now she must have meant you. And…I have no idea how you feel about my wife, Justin. But I find the idea of sharing her with you concerns me not at all.” He scooted closer and leaned forward to kiss Justin.

“Nikola – you cannot – your wife – you cannot mean this.” A flare of hope burned inside him: so hot it hurt, disappointment certain.

“Can’t I?” Nikola nipped at Justin’s lower lip, tantalizing. “But I do. I love you both so much; I can think of no more perfect Paradise than one where I may share you with one another, where I may see you both as happy together as I am with each of you.”

Overwhelmed, Justin wrapped his arms about Nikola and toppled him backwards to press him against the blanket and cover him with kisses. The blond man laughed in delight and answered his embrace. After a few moments, Nikola rolled Justin onto his back and pinned him down, kneeling over him with his hands on Justin’s shoulders. “I take that to mean the idea is not without appeal to you as well?”

Justin growled, wrapping his hands over Nikola’s rear and squeezing. “It may have escaped your notice, boy, that your wife is the most desirable woman in Paradise, but it has not escaped mine. And I have clearly gone mad with lust and am trapped in some demon-fashioned delusion because this cannot be happening. So let us find Mrs. Striker at once, because curst if I am not taking fullest advantage of this hallucination before I have the misfortune of being cured by my excellent mind-healer friend.”


As they walked down the trail, Nikola spoke of how to approach his wife. “We should ask her outright if she’s interested. I know that sounds too forthright, but she’ll appreciate it. She needs clear explanations. If we tried seducing her without speaking plainly first, she’d be confused and upset.”

Justin nodded slowly. Is that why she always withdrew from my embrace? How does one explain such desires in words?

Nikola continued, answering his unspoken question. “Perhaps start by asking her if you are that other man she said she was attracted to when I proposed. Oh, and reassure her that it’s all right for her to answer.”

Would she mention the proposal? She’d have to realize I haven’t told Nikola about it or I wouldn’t be asking such an absurd question. Wouldn’t she? Justin lagged behind, mind turning to all the ways this could go wrong.

His tall friend had outpaced him by a few yards before he noticed and turned. “Justin? What is it?”

Aching with desire, Justin stared into those beautiful blue eyes. He’ll hate me if he finds out. I can’t tell him. I can’t lose him, not again. “Perhaps this is a mistake.”

Nikola walked back to stand before him, extending a hand to cup his cheek. “She won’t be offended that we asked, not even if she’s uninterested. She always prefers openness.”

What am I doing? I am the least open man in Paradise. “It’s not that.”

Nikola half-smiled, dipping his head to Justin’s. “Timidity is unlike you, my friend,” he murmured before kissing him.

As he answered the kiss, Justin locked powerful arms around Nikola. He lifted Nikola and pivoted to press him against a tree, kissing and caressing with a hunger that was almost violent, angry.


Justin pulled back, gasping, arms still imprisoning Nikola. The other lord blinked at him in a daze of desire and confusion. “Justin?”

“I know it’s me.” Don’t hate me. “Nikola, I proposed to her.” As soon as the words were out, Justin wanted to take it back. What are you thinking? You’ll ruin everything. You’ve ruined everything.

“What?” Nikola stiffened in his arms.

Please don’t hate me. It was too late now to stop. “The day of our break. I proposed to Wisteria.” Nikola stared at him, tense: Justin couldn’t tell if he didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand. “She did not accept, obviously. But she would have, had it not been for you.”    

“You proposed to Wisteria? Directly after I told you I wanted to marry her?”

He dropped his eyes. “Yes.”

Nikola struggled in Justin’s embrace and the stronger man released him, stepping back. Nikola clenched his fists at his sides. “How dare you? Did you hate me so much?”

Justin gave a bark of humorless laughter. “Do you think so little of me, Nikola, that you believe I would propose to a woman out of spite?”

The pale man colored. “Well, why else…would…” He paused, swallowing. “You truly wished to wed her?”

Justin turned away. “She’s only woman I’ve ever wanted as wife. I daresay the only one I’ll ever ask.”

“…I had no idea.”

“I know it was ill-done of me, after you’d stated your intentions, to take advantage of your condition so.” Justin forced himself onward. I can hardly make this worse now. “But I’d just lost you. I did not want to lose her as well. I had to try.”

“But…why would she refuse you?” Nikola asked, so bewildered that Justin chuckled. “Why take my impoverished backwards holding when she could have Comfrey Viscountcy, wealth, and prestige, not to mention the most handsome man in Newlant?”

Justin smiled briefly before sobering. “Did you never ask her why she chose you?”

“She never told me anyone else had offered. I thought the other man ineligible.”


“Did she tell you?”

Justin shook his head. “I did not ask. I did not have to; she chose the better man.”

Nikola snorted. “I don’t even understand why she didn’t accept you at once. Could she have expected me to ask?”

“Well. Yes. Since I told her to.”

“You told her I intended to propose? At the same time that you yourself proposed?”

Justin winced and nodded.

Nikola sank to the ground, his back against the tree. “I don’t know whether I should call you out or thank you.”

“It was ill-done of me.” Justin repeated. He could say that much. He could not apologize, not sincerely. He regretted asking only because he’d been refused. He’d do it all again for the chance that she’d accept.

His friend rubbed a pale hand over angular features. “This is quite a day for revelations. So…if you know that Wisteria wanted you, why do you think it a mistake to ask her now? Do you think she’s changed her mind?”

“No…I thought you’d be angry. If you learned of the proposal.”

Nikola looked up at Justin, still standing on the dirt trail. He extended one hand, and Justin took it, helping Nikola to his feet. “I don’t know. It was ill-done of you. But I cannot swear that I would have done otherwise in your place.” Nikola stroked Justin’s cheek with his thumb. “I cannot claim the moral high ground, not after attempting to seduce my guest with my wife watching.”

“Were you seducing me? I thought I was seducing you.”

Justin.” Nikola enfolded him in his arms. “I forgive you. And I still mean what I said earlier. I’d rather share you with her, and her with you. Shall we see what Wisteria thinks of it?”

Exhaling, Justin squeezed him. “As you will, my lord. But for the record, I am still certain this is madness.”

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