Some Insights (131/141)

RA Header 131

Justin gloried in the closeness to his love, bodies pressed together, ardent kisses fending off the underlying terror that at any moment it might end. But the small part of his mind that was always on guard against discovery was thinking What will onlookers make of the condition of our clothes? Justin brushed it aside as irrelevant. A little whimper escaped him as Nikola’s hand wormed under his trousers to close around his erection. The servants are all gone off for the day, there’s no one around to notice. Except Wisteria.


Justin’s fingers trembled against Nikola’s trousers, then clenched on air. Shuddering, he pushed himself away, rolling to one side to sit with his elbows on his knees and his palms pressed against his eyes.

“Justin?” Nikola touched his arm. Justin shook him off and scrambled to his feet to stalk a few paces away. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Justin gave a bark of bitter laughter, half-turning to look back at his former lover. “What’s wrong? Demons take us both! What’s right? You have a wife, Striker! A devoted, beautiful, intelligent woman who curst well deserves better from you – from us – than this.” For the first time, after a lifetime with any number of adulterous encounters, Justin was ashamed.

Flushing, Nikola approached, reaching for him again. “I know…I…I’ll talk to her, Justin, it—”

“No!” Justin knocked the pale hand away with a snarl of pain. “I’ll not be the wedge driven between the two of you! Curse it, Striker, this is madness of the worst kind! Why have you never cured us?”

Striker turned away as if slapped. Before he could respond, a new voice interrupted. “Good morning, my lords,” Mrs. Striker said. Both men gave a guilty start as she emerged from the trees surrounding the meadow. “Before you decide what I want, I recommend consulting me on the subject first. I may have some insights for you.”

Justin’s glib tongue failed him; he’d been caught in potentially compromising situations before but never one so revealing as this. Beside him, Nikola stammered: “Wisteria – I – we – we were just—”    

“Making love,” Mrs. Striker provided in her usual calm way. Justin felt all the mortification of the words. Had she been anyone else, he would have demanded the statement be retracted or that he be given satisfaction, and never mind the truth of the accusation. But she was Nikola’s wife, and it was her trust they had betrayed, and that…mattered. “I apologize, my lords; I have been watching for several minutes.”

Is she actually apologizing to us for catching us in the act of adultery? If the situation had not been so painful it would have been funny. There was nothing he could do, no words or deeds by which he could make this right. Decency demanded he try anyway. “The fault is entirely mine, Mrs. Striker,” Justin said, voice heavy and without conviction. But better that she blame me. She doesn’t have to live with me. “I regret extremely my actions and my abuse of your hospitality. I will remove myself at once. Please excuse me.” He bowed low, not looking at her, then headed at once to the path. He did not even pause to retrieve his shoes. I deserve worse than sore feet for this debacle. Blood and death, what was I thinking?

“Why are you leaving?” Mrs. Striker asked. Justin froze, with no idea how to begin to answer that question. How could I stay, after what she has witnessed? The slender woman strode to his side and took his hand with a gentleness that made no sense at all. “When I said that you ought to consult me before you reach any conclusions, that was actually what I meant. I should like to talk with you. With both of you. Will you not do this for me, please, Lord Comfrey?”

Justin would have sooner accepted demonic possession, would have preferred to be left behind in the Abandoned World. But under the circumstances, he had no moral force with which to refuse. He closed his eyes, swallowed, and nodded. “As you wish, Mrs. Striker.”   

“Oh good.” She led him back to her husband. Nikola silently handed Justin his shirt and shoes, then started buttoning his own shirt. Mrs. Striker produced a picnic basket, of all things, from behind a tree. She spread the blanket from it and sat with her legs folded to one side.

“Wisteria.” Nikola found his voice at last. “I am so very sorry. I don’t know what came over me – it wasn’t Comfrey’s fault at all, I—”    

“You know, perhaps it would save some time if I went first.” Mrs. Striker patted the blanket in invitation. “You both seem to be under the misapprehension that I am dreadfully upset. I am not, in fact, upset at all. Well, I suppose if I thought about it I could be a trifle upset with you, Nikola, because you gave me to understand you were uninvolved with anyone other than me and I am confused as to why you’d mislead me on this point. But you could make me forget all about that in five seconds by kissing each other again, because the two of you making love has been one of my favorite fantasies for the last eight months and it’s even better in reality than it was in my imagination.”

With some hesitation, Justin had approached the blanket as she spoke. By the time she was done, he did not so much sit as collapse onto one corner, staring slack-jawed at her.

Nikola sat as well, blushing furiously. “Wisteria – I – you…truly?”   

“Yes. And I apologize if I am not supposed to admit that, but not talking about things does not seem to be working for any of us so I thought perhaps we could try the converse for a bit and see how that goes?”

Justin was still trying to wrap his mind around this. “So…you were watching us – and not interrupting – because you were enjoying it?”

“Yes. That is, at first I didn’t interrupt because I was so surprised. I had not expected to see anything of the kind, well, ever. But mostly because I thought if I said anything, you’d stop and I didn’t want you to,” she answered, matter-of-fact. “I was rather frustrated that you stopped anyway. That the cessation was intended for my benefit seems particularly unfair.”

With one hand against the blanket, Justin leaned on his arm for support and blinked at her in a wordless stupor.

“…why would you fantasize about us?” Nikola asked plaintively.

“Have you looked at yourselves? Why wouldn’t I fantasize about you?” Mrs. Striker said, as if that were an explanation. “Why did you never tell me you had a tendre for Lord Comfrey when we were discussing extramarital affairs?”

This penetrated Justin’s stupor. “You discussed extramarital affairs?”

“Wisteria talks about everything,” Nikola said. “It’s one of her best features. Wisteria, I didn’t tell you about him because we weren’t involved. That is, er, we broke it off prior to the engagement.”

Just prior to the engagement,” Justin muttered with a trace of bitterness. His usual self-censors must have been shocked into dysfunctionality; under normal circumstances he could not imagine saying a word about any of this.

“Did you break because of the engagement?” the dark-haired woman asked.

“…sort of. Comfrey feared you’d expose us if you found out, and I didn’t want to keep it secret from you if the affair were still ongoing.”    

“How very awful.” Mrs. Striker turned to Justin and covered his hand with hers. “I would never expose you, my lord, I swear it. I would never let anything unpleasant happen to you, ever, if it were in my power to prevent it.”

Justin stared at her hand over his. How can she say that? She should hate me for what I’ve done, what I am. How can she wish to protect me instead? “Am I dreaming?”

“You know, that was my first thought too?” She squeezed his hand. Her grip felt warm and solid. “I am confident we are not.”

“I don’t see how this can be real. You truly do not mind that I was…kissing your husband?”

“If it helps, I will forgive you if you promise to do it again?”

Nikola leaned across the blanket to take Justin’s chin in his hand and tilted Justin’s face until their eyes met. Long loose blond hair fell in a curtain along one side of his face as Nikola closed his eyes to kiss Justin, gently. He drew back an inch to murmur, “She truly does not mind. Wisteria doesn’t say things unless she means them.”

Justin realized he was blushing; his eyes darted to glance sidelong at Striker’s wife.

She was watching them raptly. “You need not stop on my account.”   

Justin pulled back anyway. He stood, stepping back from the picnic blanket and onto the grass of the meadow. “I…this is all so strange.” He ran his hands over his head to push back stray hairs that had escaped from the club securing the rest at the nape of his neck.

Nikola turned to his wife and kissed her too. “Will you give us a few moments alone, my love?”

After she assented, Nikola stood and helped her to her feet. Mrs. Striker shook out her long violet skirt. “I’ll wait for you in the gazebo, my lords.” She curtsied and strolled away.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy A Rational Arrangement now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements is a collection of three new novellas about the same characters: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

Not Made of Stone (130/141)

RA Header 130

Nikola and Justin spent more effort on conversation than fishing; for his part, Justin found conversation more rewarding. Still, they lapsed into companionable silence at times. Even spread out, Nikola’s jacket wasn’t wide enough for them to sit upon without touching occasionally, and Justin was keenly aware of his friend’s nearness. Whenever Justin shifted and stretched to keep himself from stiffening, he inched a little farther away, until he was sitting half-off the jacket in an effort to get a buffer of distance between them. Which was the opposite of what he wanted: his mind was full of fantasies of pushing Nikola down on the moss and making love to him as they had of old. Why did I choose this spot, so full of memories? It was almost intolerable to brush against Nikola when he could not claim him. Distance was safer. A little safer. Has anyone ever petitioned you to mend a broken heart, Nikola? If the Savior cannot heal it, do you know how long it takes to recover on its own? Will I never stop wanting you? He could say none of it.

The day grew warmer, the sun chasing back their shade as it climbed. During a conversational lull, Nikola yawned and shook his head. “Ah, forgive me, Comfrey. This heat is making me drowsy.” He set his fishing rod down to stand and stretch, then bent to slip out of shoes and stockings and roll up his trouser legs. The fair-skinned man picked his way down a sloped section of bank to stand in the shallow water along the edge.

“Testing to see if human toes make more appetizing bait than shiny baubles?” Justin watched the waterfall upstream to avoid staring, but from the corner of his eye he could see his friend’s lithe form as Nikola shook the kinks from his shoulders.

“They can’t do worse.” Nikola wiggled his toes in the muck and bent to splash water on his face and hands.

Justin was more overheated than ever, and the water looked cool and inviting. What harm could there be in bare feet? There is nothing whatsoever for a normal man to find erotic in this. (Yes, and there has never been anything normal about my desires.) He pulled up one foot at a time to unbuckle his own shoes despite his misgivings.

“Did you want to keep on fishing?” Nikola asked. “I think I’ll swim for a bit instead. I don’t suppose it’ll scare the fish any more than the lures do.”

Justin froze in the act of placing stockings atop shoes. He finished the movement with exaggerated care and looked up to see Nikola turned in profile to him, eyes on the depths of the pool. His handsome friend unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged out of it, tossing it carelessly atop the jacket. Justin clenched his fingers against the urge to run them over exposed Haventure-pale skin, to feel the lines of lean supple muscle. Nikola drew the ribbon from his ponytail and ran his fingers through long loose waves of golden hair as he waded deeper into the pool.

Justin splashed into the pool after him. Nikola was up to his thighs before he felt a hand on his upper arm. “Am I stone, Nikola?” Justin asked, softly. Skin flushed pink beneath his fingers. Need overcame restraint and he circled his other arm about the fair man’s waist, caressing his stomach, pulling Nikola to him to press the younger man’s back against his chest. He nuzzled aside golden hair to bare Nikola’s shoulder to his lips. His former lover’s body tensed against his touch, but Justin could not make himself draw back. “Am I unfeeling rock? You are not sixteen, Nikola. Nor innocent.” He kissed the exposed shoulder, skin reddened and heated against his lips. “You know full well what effect you have on me.” In emphasis, Justin ground his hips against Nikola’s rear, ensuring he felt the erection through their clothes.

“I…Justin, I’m…” Whatever he was going to say trailed off unfinished.

“Curse it, boy. Fidelity was your choice.” Justin nipped at the side of Nikola’s throat, provoking a stifled moan. One hand drifted up Nikola’s chest, feeling firm muscle beneath the skin. “Why are you tormenting me like this?”

Nikola shuddered under the attentions of hands and mouth, then twisted to face him. Justin released Nikola and forced himself back a step, eyes down. “I’m not sorry,” Nikola whispered, hoarse and fierce, following Justin’s retreat and wrapping him in his arms to prevent further withdrawal as Nikola dipped his head to lock his mouth over Justin’s. They kissed with the pent-up passion of months of frustrated desire. Nikola tore open Justin’s shirt to stroke the skin beneath. “I can’t stop wanting you, Justin,” Nikola whispered, lips moving from Justin’s to press against his cheek, to lick his ear. “I’ve tried, I’ve been trying for months, but it’s all pretense. I am so very tired of pretending, my lord.” Teeth raked over the curve of Justin’s ear, Nikola’s hips grinding urgently against his.

With a groan of pure need, Justin lifted Nikola and carried him to the bank. He laid him down on the moss and covered him with his body, his dominant thought take him now before he changes his mind. Nikola arched into his mouth as Justin bit down on a stiffened nipple, a hand clamping on the back of Justin’s head to hold him in place. Justin stroked his fingers over the trousers covering Nikola’s cock, fumbled at the stiff wet cloth as he tried to unbutton them, fingers clumsy and shaking with need.


Nikola’s note had said he expected to find Justin near the waterfall, which didn’t surprise Wisteria. It was one of the most picturesque spots in Fireholt; she and Nikola had been there many times on pleasant days like this one. It was also private, screened off by forest and part of the few dozen acres that remained reserved to the lord of the manor. As she walked up the final rise, she hadn’t heard or seen them yet. But she didn’t expect to; the waterfall often masked other sounds.

The first indication that the men were about was a towel hanging from a tree not far from the pool. She continued along the path, peering between the trees to look for them. Wisteria was about to call out when she saw two figures standing hip-deep in the water. Standing oddly close together in the water. With their arms about one another. How strange. Are they all right? By build and hair color, the two had to be her husband and Lord Comfrey, but why would their heads be so…Oh.


Stunned, Wisteria stepped off the path and into the trees, using them for cover as she drew nearer. She watched as Lord Comfrey lifted her half-naked husband from the pool, as Nikola stripped the dark-haired man of his shirt, pale pink hands moving with eager, practiced assurance over golden-brown skin. They lay together on the mossy bank, Comfrey half on his side and half on top of Nikola, kissing, licking, nibbling at her husband.

Am I dreaming? Wisteria touched the bark of the tree she was half-hiding behind. It felt very real. My husband is making love with Lord Comfrey.

It was the most moving, erotic thing she’d ever witnessed. They looked beautiful and right together, as if they were made for this intimacy. She set her half-forgotten basket on the bare earth and crept nearer, wanting to see more, sensible of the impropriety of her actions but unwilling to stop herself.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy A Rational Arrangement now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements is a collection of three new novellas about the same characters: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

An Unsatisfied Hunger (129/141)

RA Header 129

It was Sunday, the third day of Justin’s stay at Fireholt. On the bright side, each day was no longer bleak and colorless. Justin hardly knew how he felt from one moment to the next, but “colorless” definitely was not it. At times he grasped the easy companionship he craved, as at home at Fireholt as anywhere, bantering with Nikola and his wife on walks about the grounds, playing cards and other games in the evening, as comfortable as he gave the appearance of being. Other times, he was so consumed by desire that a lifetime of practice at concealing his passion did not seem equal to the task. He had already masturbated three times since his arrival and had contemplated locating the local whore – there must be one – and would have if he thought it would make any difference. It was like satisfying hunger by drinking water: it might temporarily sate the appetite, but it could not touch the underlying need.

Like his great-grandmother before him, Nikola had always given his staff a holiday on Sundays, a quirk his marriage had not altered. Rather than have his people be the only ones in Fireholt working, Justin had followed local custom and allowed them the day off as well. Thus he rose and dressed alone. Mrs. Striker had told him the night before what the breakfast arrangements were, but he couldn’t remember the specifics when he got to the kitchen. He scavenged a few hard-boiled eggs and a pastry that might or might not have been set aside for this purpose. When he finished, Striker and his wife were not awake yet, or at least still in their chambers (thinking about what they might be doing if they were awake prompted a fourth effort at manual satisfaction of his unrelenting lust). So Justin ventured outside for his morning exercise.

He spent half an hour running trails through the wooded hills near the manor, and another half-hour on strength-training exercises. Now he closed with fencing drills in a meadow by the waterfall, where the brook pooled deep and still before meandering its final path to the ocean. Not even the greatcats were in evidence this morning; Justin felt like the only man in the world as he practiced his footwork.


Nikola and Wisteria had separate suites – Fireholt might be small for a lord’s holding, but not so small that the lord and his lady had to share sleeping quarters. The two suites did share an adjoining door for convenience, however. Nik usually came into Wisteria’s bedchamber after her maid had finished dressing her for bed and left. “I don’t know why I keep changing into nightclothes when I am just going to take them off again a quarter of an hour later,” Wisteria remarked once.   

Often they fell asleep intertwined. Nik always drew his nightshirt back on but sometimes Wisteria snuggled up to him nude and didn’t bother with her nightgown until the lady’s maid came back in the morning. Nik found this habit intensely erotic and did nothing to discourage her from it.

Last night had been such an occasion. Nik felt as if he’d been in a constant state of arousal since Comfrey’s arrival, and had been subjecting Wisteria to even more of his attentions than usual in an effort to give this lust an appropriate outlet. Thankfully, Wisteria was as eager as ever herself. This morning he had awakened to find her wrapped intimately about him, one hand stroking his cock and her own body aroused and ready for him. After they made love, she fell back into a doze. He held her for a while as she slept, then rose to check on their guest.

The door to Comfrey’s suite was open but he wasn’t in it, or any of the common rooms. Probably taking some exercise. I should wait for him here. The vivid memory of Comfrey shirtless and gleaming in the garden of his own home flashed through Nik’s mind. Or I could look for him. It’s a beautiful day, and I know his favorite trails and spots. He left a note on the dining table for Wisteria, and took fishing gear with him as an excuse to be out.

The early morning had been pleasantly cool, but as the sun rose higher the day turned warm, and Nik perspired while he hiked up the trail to the meadow by the waterfall. As he drew nearer, he could hear the pad of Comfrey’s feet and the occasional grunt of effort. The polite thing to do would be to call out, but Nik pretended he couldn’t hear. This had been a favored locale of theirs in years past; Nik felt himself warm further at the memory of some of the things they had done together in this pool. The trees thinned as he cleared a rise, and he could see Comfrey. The Newlanture man was turned away from him, moving with a practice foil in hand, feet shifting backwards and forwards along an invisible line. The foil’s blunted end dipped and wove with thrusts and parries against an imagined opponent.

Nikola drew to a halt, mesmerized. When he was a boy, before he’d even met Comfrey, he’d seen the lord compete in sporting events. That was how he’d first contrived this lifelong infatuation. He realized anew how much he missed watching Justin in such activities: grace, strength and skill combined in movement as elegant as any dance, the interplay of rippling muscles on Comfrey’s back as hypnotic as any cut-crystal adornments on an Ascension jacket. Nik stared, not wanting to say anything that might draw attention to himself, that might bring this private performance to an end.

But after several minutes, Comfrey lifted his sword in salute to his invisible opponent, and started to turn. Nikola hastily cleared his throat, resuming his approach. “Good morning, Comfrey.”

The dark-haired lord turned about to look at him. “Hello, Striker. I didn’t hear you coming.”

“It’s the waterfall.” As Nik entered the meadow, Comfrey splashed water over his torso to rinse off, then dried himself with a towel from a bag he’d brought.

“Indeed. So what brings you out here?”

“Looking for you.” Nikola motioned with the fishing poles resting against his shoulder. “One of my new brothers bought me this array of angling gear. I thought you might care to try it.”

“You know I am game for every sort of sport, Striker.” Comfrey tossed the damp towel over a tree limb and, to Nik’s regret, produced a shirt from the bag and buttoned it on.

“It is the least sporting sport I have tried,” Nik warned him. “It requires a great deal of patience and sitting. Well, one might stand if one preferred, but I don’t believe it helps any. It is, however, an excellent excuse for lazing next to a river for several hours, accomplishing nothing whatsoever in a socially-acceptable form.” He offered Comfrey one of the poles.

It was too warm for a jacket in such an informal environment; Nik took his off and draped it over a mossy spot along one of the higher sections of the bank for them to sit on. They sat side by side, legs dangling over the bank above the pool, while Nik showed him the assortment of baits and lures. “What works best for this area?” Comfrey asked

“Try one of these.” Nik pointed to a selection of lures supplemented by bright feathers. “They’ve not failed me yet. By which I mean ‘I’ve not tried them yet’. I have never caught anything except the occasional small branch. Byron has a theory that the greatcats have already caught all the stupid fish and the ones that remain are too clever to fall for some merely human ruse.”

“A likely scenario. Have you not yet learnt to stock your streams and hunting grounds if you expect to catch anything in them, Striker?”

“Having someone else catch or cultivate animals for me and then release them into my grounds so that I can try to catch them again has always seemed a bit…roundabout? For my tastes. Though I admit that hunting is more fun at the Markavian or on your grounds than here.”

Exactly. The point is to be entertained, my boy, not to be productive. Having a Blessing has given you entirely the wrong idea about what a lord ought to do.”

“It has?”

“Indeed! You have the misbegotten notion that a lord ought to be the benefactor of his people, healing their illnesses of body and mind and requiring no special reward for the service. Why, I suppose you even believe it is a lord’s purpose to be a good steward over his lands and to exercise wisely what powers Assembly has not yet legislated away from us.”

“It is possible I have been so informed. Yet this is not the true function?”

“Of course not. A lord’s proper role is to amuse himself and his peers with no regard to the ridiculousness of his pastimes. Indeed, the more ridiculous the better, for his goal is to prove himself the most useless of all. His purpose is to be fat, indolent and live off the fruits of other’s labors. Sitting about recapturing someone else’s captured fish is perfectly in keeping with the lordly way.”

“I observe, my lord—” Nik poked at Comfrey’s steely abdomen “—that you yourself have been less than exemplary in regards to gluttony and languor.”

“I have never claimed to be an exemplar of my class, Striker. We all have our vices,” Comfrey said, sanguine. He finished baiting his hook – “Aren’t we supposed to have servants for this sort of thing?” – and had Nikola show him how to cast off.


Fishing was a man’s pastime. Wisteria thought gendering activities as male or female was absurd and she was willing to defy convention and learn unwomanly things if they piqued her interest, as bowracing did.

But fishing did not sound exhilarating; it sounded rather dull, and she thought Nikola used it as an excuse to connect with his male friends instead of for its own sake. So when she found his note, she did not intend to intrude on his time with Lord Comfrey.

Usually she had no trouble entertaining herself alone; she loved the stillness and the freedom to concentrate on one thing uninterrupted. But today she was restless; her thoughts kept going to her husband and Lord Comfrey. She longed to be with them, to hear their laughter and banter. As the morning grew later and Wisteria foraged in the kitchen for a snack, she noticed the food set aside for dinner was still packed in its basket in the cupboard. I’ll carry it out to them, she decided. It’s a nice day and we can all enjoy a meal outside, and then I can leave them alone to their fishing or whatever afterwards.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy A Rational Arrangement now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements is a collection of three new novellas about the same characters: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

Possibly Be Happier (128/141)

RA Header 128

Fireholt’s front parlor had always been a charming room, with a view of the hills and brook, its thick stone walls covered by drywall painted a cheerful yellow. Nikola and his wife had updated the furniture since their marriage, recovering the threadbare sofa and chairs with a subdued flowery pattern that echoed the carved flowers in the wooden trim. Small matched ottomans sat before each chair. The room’s shelves and mantle showcased an eclectic selection of gifts from petitioners. Some showed great skill, such as the carved bust of Nikola’s great-grandmother, and others only great enthusiasm, such as a clay creation that was perhaps intended to be a greatcat, or the framed picture of a brown stick figure captioned “I lov yu”. There was nothing of pretension or ostentation in the chamber. Justin liked it.

He and Mrs. Striker sat together on the sofa, heads bent to look at her planning notes. As he reached to move a page and almost collided with her hand doing the same, he remembered their flirtation over the Colbury file, the feel of her fingers on his skin, her eyes betraying nothing when they met his. This was almost the first time he had been alone with the girl since her engagement. To distract himself from the memory and discourage the sudden urge to kiss her again, Justin leaned back on the sofa. “I fear for your state in this marriage business, my dear.”

She turned to him, shifting a few inches away on the sofa. “Why do you say that, my lord?”

“Why, because I can already tell you have made Striker a terribly happy man.”

“…I don’t believe I follow how this is a problem?”

“Do you not understand the importance of managing investor expectations, Mrs. Striker? How can you sustain such impossibly high standards as you have set for yourself?”

Mrs. Striker folded her hands in her lap, her light brown-gold skin a pleasant contrast against the pale green of her dress, and regarded him with her head tilted. “Isn’t that why I invited you here?”

If you want tips on how to satisfy your husband, I’ll be glad to demonstrate. This was not taking his mind from inappropriate topics. “Yet you are but three months into this venture and you are already drawing on your full resources. You ought to be holding a card such as myself in reserve, perhaps for his fiftieth naming day. If you give him everything his heart desires now, what will you use to appease him a year from now?”

“I think you are worrying over nothing, my lord,” the dark-haired woman replied. “I have been informed by no fewer than six gentlewomen, on my wedding day no less, that I should never be able to make my husband happy if I did not learn to smile more.”

“By women whose own husbands were henpecked miserable creatures, no doubt.”

“I fear I would not have noticed. However, it is clear to me that my husband’s natural good humor requires no help from me to maintain.”    

Justin laughed. “Your triumph is complete, if you have so transformed him. Tell me, my dear, how are you? Is marriage to your own liking?”

“So much so that mere words cannot express it, my lord. I love Nikola, and Fireholt, and having my own household to run just as I please. Nikola is the easiest man in Paradise to live with, he always encourages me to say just what I feel. You have no idea what a pleasure it is, not to feel as if I am being tested each day on some scale I cannot comprehend and am always failing.”

He smiled at her plain language. “So you do not miss Gracehaven?”    

“Oh, a little. I miss the plays and the music at times. And talking to my father and Byron, especially. Business is more difficult to manage at a remove and I regret that I cannot be as involved with Vasilver Trading as I once was. But I admire the peace here. It is so wonderfully easy to concentrate on a task, hours at a time with no interruptions. And we’ll be back soon enough for the season.” She took her teacup from the table and sipped. “No, I do not see how I could be happier, unless I could be wed to both of you.”

The last was spoken with such matter-of-fact simplicity, no pause nor weight to her tone, that it caught Justin off-guard. For a moment, the idea of it seized his imagination: of being gathered into their marriage instead of being divided from them by it. If Nikola could share his wife with me, would she be able to share me with him? It was as if he were a starving man being offered a feast.

An illusory feast he could never taste. It was shockingly painful to contemplate, knowing how impossible it was. No man, not even Nikola, would willingly share his wife; no woman, not even Wisteria, would tolerate her husband having an affair with a man. He closed his eyes against agonized longing. What am I doing here? Waiting to muster the courage to petition Nikola to cure this madness?

“My lord? I apologize, should I not have—”

Justin opened his eyes as she spoke, forcing a smile so artificial he doubted it would fool even her. “My dear Mrs. Striker, you must re-check your calculations. I daresay you would find two husbands to be twice the trouble but half the joy.”

“I do not think mathematical equations work that way, Lord Comfrey.”

“No, but relationships do.” He could withstand no more of this subject and took a page of Mrs. Striker’s notes from the table before them. “Since you miss the plays in Gracehaven, have you considered inducing your guests to perform for you? I am not the only one of Nikola’s acquaintance who enjoys being the center of attention.”

She put her hand over his. “I feel I have wronged you, my lord, and I do not know how to make it right.”

Even that touch was too much; he moved away, putting some distance between them. “Not at all. Dear lady, I have always been so wrong that I do not see how anyone might ever right me. Shall we return to the agenda, or must I sue the chairman to bring the meeting back to order?”

She dipped her head, dark curls falling from the comb to dangle against the side of her neck. “As you wish.”

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy A Rational Arrangement now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements is a collection of three new novellas about the same characters: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

A Terrible Idea (127/141)

RA Header 127

Long before Justin had set out for Fireholt, he knew this was a terrible idea.

He could not have refused Mrs. Striker’s plea, innocent of any desire beyond a wish to please her husband. Well, he could, and refusal would have been the sensible, prudent course. What did he think he was doing, agreeing to spend a week in the countryside with his former lover and the sole woman he’d ever wanted to marry, with no distractions from yearning and envy? Was a more certain recipe for disaster even imaginable?

But he missed them both too much to choose any sane course. Daily life felt empty of purpose or savor; he lived for the occasional letter from Wisteria – Mrs. Striker – or Nikola. Striker had never been a great correspondent – neither was Justin, for that matter – but his wife wrote every few days. Every letter closed with “Nikola sends his love”. Some sleepless nights, he would lie in bed reading and re-reading those innocent, expected words, and then the rest of the letter, daydreaming that he was there with them. Pretending that it would be enough just to see her, to hear his voice, that friendly companionship could suffice.

It would be better than nothing.

Thus his carriage was rolling with scarcely a bump over the newly-paved lane, carrying himself, his valet, and his secretary to Fireholt. Justin was full of apprehension at the final approach, but he exerted himself to force his features into a semblance of his usual confidence as the carriage drew to a halt before the house. Nikola had turned out his entire staff to welcome him – a staff that had doubled since his last visit. The whole of Fireholt looked better than he’d ever seen it: lawn weeded as well as clipped, the manor freshly painted, chipped flagstones replaced, no detritus in sight, not even fallen fruit or twigs. Even the signs of the pipeline construction that would bring gas to the neighborhood were unobtrusive.

Nikola waited at the foot of the steps, his wife on his arm, looking as well and happy as Justin had ever seen him, splendid in a new summerweight suit of Fireholt colors, black with orange embroidery at the trim. Mrs. Striker looked as she always had, as beautiful and detached as an ice sculpture. Her dark hair was held back from her face by jeweled combs but allowed to spill loose curls down her back. They stepped forward as Justin disembarked, Nikola grinning like a schoolboy. “Welcome to Fireholt, Comfrey. It’s good to see you.” He shook Justin’s hand, grip firm and as warm as his smile.

Justin could not have restrained an answering smile if he’d tried. “And you. Thank you for the invitation.”

“Wisteria’s idea, but you know you’re always welcome in my home.”

Justin turned to kiss Mrs. Striker’s hand, and she said to him, “Yes, thank you so much for coming, Lord Comfrey. You don’t know how comforting it is to have you here.”

No idea at all, Justin thought, though the smile was still on his face as the three of them walked into the house. ‘Comforting’ is the last thing on my mind at the moment.


Over the course of Nik’s marriage so far, he had enjoyed more regular sexual intercourse than he’d had in his entire unmarried life. He and Wisteria made love nearly every night, and often during the day as well (the hour before dinner had proven a good time to steal away to the bedroom). Her interest and eagerness to experiment surprised him, in the best possible way. Things he could not have brought himself to mention to a gentlewoman, not even his wife in private, she would offer as if such desires were only natural. Perhaps they were: Nikola saw nothing malformed in either his libido or hers. Every day brought new reasons to thank the Savior for his astonishing good fortune in marriage. If every man were blessed with a wife as wonderful as mine, Paradise would indeed be perfect.

As satisfied as his carnal appetites were, Nik felt he ought to be easy at the idea of seeing Comfrey. Oh, he still entertained the occasional ribald daydream and not a day went by that Nik did not think wistfully of his absent friend. But surely he was in no real danger; he could be subject to no powerful temptation to stray from the marital bed.

Yet, from the moment Comfrey stepped from that carriage, Nik knew his former lover’s hold over him was undiminished. He wanted at once to step into Comfrey’s arms, to hurry him into his study and there strip him naked, as he had one visit two years ago. To drink in the sight of that powerfully developed body, to run his hands over golden-brown skin, to wrap his mouth around Justin’s cock and feel strong hands holding his head as the man thrust.

Comfrey was at ease as he always was, conversation light and bantering, showing no sign that he was now or ever had been attracted to Nik. Not that he ever had except when they were alone. Nik feared to be alone with him now, not out of his prior concern over how Comfrey might behave but because Nik doubted his own resolve. Through dinner, he tried to focus on his love for Wisteria. Afterwards, he made some excuses about work he needed to do on his treatment notes and left the two of them to their own plans. While Wisteria was not trying to surprise Nik with her intentions for a house party to celebrate his naming-day, she did want some of the events to be pleasant surprises for him, so it was a reasonable excuse.

His study at Fireholt was far nicer than the makeshift one he’d had in the gamekeeper’s cottage. One of Wisteria’s first improvements to Fireholt had been hiring a master carpenter to refurbish both his study and the room he turned over for her use. Her design was unconventional but functional and efficient: his chair was at the center of a surrounding desk, with shelves on top and drawers and shelves below, in a variety of shapes and sizes for different purposes. The rest of the room was wall-to-ceiling bookcases, and the floor hardwood. The desk chair’s legs ended in smooth polished curves that could glide over the floor, to make it easy to scoot about behind the desk without standing to reach the farther parts. It seemed absurdly indolent.

Alone behind his desk, surrounded by unattended papers for his project, it occurred to Nik that perhaps he should have had some concern for Wisteria’s propriety, if Comfrey was indeed that other man she had hinted about having an attachment to. It made sense: Comfrey had cut a heroic figure, dashing into that ship to her rescue, and he had always been able to charm any woman, often without meaning to. But no: Wisteria had assured Nik nothing could come of it, so Wisteria must have recovered when she realized Comfrey uninterested. And Comfrey cannot have expressed interest; she’d have to be mad to choose the chore of rehabilitating my impoverished estate in the middle of nowhere over becoming Lady Comfrey and limitless wealth.

Unless Comfrey had made some disreputable proposition to her. That would be like him. But no, Wisteria said she did not feel ill-used by him, and she would have told me if she were pursuing an illicit relationship. We haven’t even spoken about that adultery clause since before the wedding.

To Nik’s surprise, the idea of Wisteria being infatuated with Comfrey, specifically, induced far less anxiety than thinking about her with an unknown man. Not because Comfrey was unintimidating: Nikola could imagine no rival more formidable. Perhaps it was that he could sympathize with Wisteria’s position. Pity her, even. Nik supposed he had come as near to having Comfrey as anyone ever had, and even he did not think he had ever penetrated Comfrey’s reserve, ever known his secret mind or touched his heart. It wasn’t until he’d become engaged to Wisteria that he truly appreciated the distinction. To know how Wisteria felt, all he had to do was ask. Such conversations with Comfrey were all but impossible: he avoided any approach to personal topics and deflected all questions with flippant non-answers. If Wisteria loved Comfrey – well, half of him wanted to wish her luck, and the other half to protect her from heartbreak. You can give him your heart, but he won’t want it.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy A Rational Arrangement now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements is a collection of three new novellas about the same characters: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

An Invitation (126/141)

RA Header 126

Nikola and Wisteria had been married for three months, and Wisteria had never been happier.

Life at Fireholt was not perfect. Wisteria had all sorts of plans and ideas, not only for the mining operation but for running the household and for handling Nikola’s petitioners. Especially for addressing Nikola’s petitioners. Wisteria had been shocked when she found out that Nikola did no accounting for the gifts he received. The entirety of his process consisted of sending one of his people to market any gifts he wasn’t keeping, and placing all proceeds into the household account alongside rents and any other income for that period. “It’s not as if it’s a business,” he told her when she asked. “I’m not charging them a fee for services. I’ll take a pebble from the street as soon as a diamond; it’s all the same to the Savior.”

“Yes, but how do you know how much you are taking in? How can you budget for the future if you’re not tracking your income? How do you know what the trends are?”

“What difference does it make? I’m going to do the same thing whether it’s profitable or not.”

“But, goodness, Nikola, your people could be embezzling from you and you’d have no way to know.”

“Wisteria! My people would never steal!”

Eventually, she persuaded him to humor her desire for information. She hired an accountant and set up a system where all gifts were recorded upon receipt, whether in marks or goods or services, and the sale price of any that were sold. They also tracked which petitioner presented which gift and how long Nikola had spent with the petitioner.

They hired additional retainers to help manage the petitioners, including a foreign woman with experience as an asylum nurse in Natol. Nikola’s fame had grown since the abduction, and more petitioners who had had no luck with other mind-healers were making the trek to see him. Wisteria had convinced Nikola to have the new nurse interview petitioners whom Nikola could not diagnose immediately, on the theory that perhaps knowing the problem might help in diagnosis and referral. After he’d told her that people petitioned for relief from normal, functional drives, Wisteria thought it ridiculous not to screen for that sort of thing. She wanted to interfere more; there was so much that didn’t make sense or was inefficient in the process. The gifts were so arbitrary, correlating not at all to the severity of problem nor to the time Nikola spent curing it, and only weakly to the petitioner’s own wealth. When they travelled, if word got out, Nikola would be mobbed at their destination by people who were unable to travel themselves. Mundane treatment for those he could not cure was all but nonexistent; the reason they’d hired a Natolese nurse was that asylums in Newlant were nightmarish places no better than prisons.

But Nikola was adamant in his opposition to any change that involved charging petitioners. He was more than happy to be guided by her in all other matters of business, but it was not possible to induce him to look on answering petitions as a business. Never mind that it had income like one, or expenses like one, or consumers like one, or that his time and Blessing was of irreplaceable value. It was a sacred duty. He would accept gifts because that was part of the Code, but the Code was the beginning and the end of it for him. Wisteria intended to improve the process further as a charitable endeavor, but she did want their household on solid financial footing first.

As a result, most of her efforts were put towards improvements in Fireholt and directing the mining activities. Byron was a frequent guest, as Vasilver Trading was their partner in the venture. It would be years before the mine itself returned any profits, but it was already doing good things for the local economy.

But all of this meant change – a great deal of change – and humans in particular were not enamored of change. More than a few of the locals were full of ill-will for her, as the instigator of all these alterations in their locality. They resented the new developments, the construction activity, and complained about it driving away game in the hunting preserve. While they’d made an effort to minimize the latter and 90% of the preserve was untouched, the increasing population and activity did have a negative impact on the local fauna.    

It was also widely believed that Wisteria Striker did not return her husband’s obvious regard, a complete untruth that nonetheless held sway even among many of the household staff. She did not smile, she did not laugh: it followed naturally that she could not love. The staff she’d brought with her – her lady’s maid, her secretary, and one of the greatcats who’d asked to join her, Sally – knew better, more or less, but those who’d always worked for Nikola resented her. Wisteria had no idea what to do about this, other than wait for them to figure out that reality did not match their imagined version of her. It did not help her cause that she still was not pregnant. Not for lack of trying, on her part or Nikola’s. But it’s only been three months. Much too soon to start worrying.

They had done some entertaining – of Byron, of course, and Lysandra Warwick and her family had also come for a week, and regular invitations exchanged among the neighborhood gentility. But the most unusual of her new social acquaintances were the greatcats.

Wisteria had been surprised to learn that Fel Fireholt – Anthser, as he’d asked her to call him – was one of Nikola’s friends rather than an employee, and independently wealthy. Despite the latter, Anthser stayed at Fireholt, in the newly-remodeled felishome. He shared it with Sally and another greatcat employee Wisteria had hired to pull the new carriage, and with two friends of his: Feli Southing and a second who varied from month to month.

She’d never had a greatcat friend before: all the ones she had known had been employees for Vasilver or some human acquaintance, and as such never encountered in a social setting. She was fond of both Anthser and Feli Southing as company. The greatcats did not seem to have the same inscrutable prohibitions on various topics that her own kind possessed, and were far more willing to state and accept things at face value.

Anthser was using his personal wealth to have a bowracing course constructed, and Wisteria had been inspired to ask her husband to teach her how to bowrace. Nikola had been surprised by her request – she supposed the sport was unladylike – but had been willing enough. It turned out Feli Southing also had an interest in the sport, and so the four of them would go out a couple of times a week to practice. Nikola would ride Southing while Wisteria rode Anthser, with the two experienced bowracers both providing advice to the newcomers. Wisteria was not yet up to firing a bow from a moving greatcat, and her aim from a stationary one left a great deal to be desired. Still, clinging to the back of a racing greatcat was an exhilarating experience.

Stimulating as these diversions were, they’d not yet hosted any large gatherings, nothing like a house party. Wisteria wanted to throw one for Nikola’s naming-day: invite a dozen of his friends for two weeks and have entertainments every day. Such events were quite normal among the wealthy: her parents had held any number of them, sometimes during the Ascension season itself for friends who didn’t have residences in town, more often at other times of year when entertainments and company were scarcer. Wisteria knew Nikola enjoyed such occasions: he spoke fondly of ones he’d attended in the past, especially when Lord Comfrey had hosted. But the constraints of Fireholt’s budget had kept him from hosting much in that line himself. However, Wisteria’s marriage portion and her considerable portfolio of investments meant that they had ample disposable income. Money was not a constraint.

Unfortunately, Wisteria found the prospect rather terrifying. Social gatherings were not her strength, most of the locals were indifferent to her at best, and she feared such an effort on her part would be a disaster. She was in a quandary on what to do about it: she did not want to burden Nikola with planning his own naming-day celebration or dealing with her worries, and she didn’t want to avoid doing something that he ought to like just because she was intimidated by it. She’d been maintaining a regular correspondence with Lord Comfrey since the marriage and had solicited his advice on the subject. He’d replied with a lengthy letter stuffed with useful insights, tidbits, and ideas. It was so helpful that she asked – begged, in truth – Lord Comfrey to visit them so she might call on him for further assistance in the planning. He had accepted the invitation, and thus was engaged to stay with them for a week at the end of summer.

The thrill that went through Wisteria when she read his acceptance made it hard for her to convince herself that her invitation had been motivated only by the desire for his advice. She knew that she missed his company, and knew Nikola would glad to see him, perhaps even moreso than she. But she also knew that her love for Lord Comfrey was nothing like platonic. Even though her relationship with Nikola was everything she had ever hoped for, in many ways far better than she had ever imagined marriage could be, she still had daydreams and fantasies about Lord Comfrey.

I am his closest friend’s wife now. He has quite properly lost all interest in me. All I need do is behave as a mature woman and not make any improper advances on him while he’s under my roof. This is not too much to expect of myself.

Nonetheless, she could not escape the sense that this was a terrible idea.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy A Rational Arrangement now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements is a collection of three new novellas about the same characters: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

The Marital Bed (125/141)

RA Header 125

Nik watched the greatcat go, glad but also strangely nervous to be alone with his wife. “Do you – would you like me to ring for a maid to help you change?” he started to ask, turning back to her.

Wisteria’s hands were already moving to undo his neckcloth. “No. Well, if you think it best. But…forgive my naivete, my lord, but need I change? I hope undressing is the next step.” She did not look at his face, eyes level with his neck as she pulled the last knot free and slid the cloth down one side. “But I do not wish to dress again immediately afterwards. If that is acceptable? You are my husband, I thought it would be permissible…” Her fingers undid the top button of his shirt, paused at the second.

Nik closed his eyes against a surge of desire. “If it is not, no one ever told me either.” Her fingers unfastened the next button as he shrugged out of his gold-laced jacket and tossed it on a chair. He’d already made a study of her quite beautiful wedding attire and set to unlacing its sides. She finished unbuttoning his shirt and pushed it apart to kiss his bare skin, eager fingers caressing, twining through curly chest hairs, pausing only to let him pull the overdress off over her head.

He caught her hands as she started to push his shirt off his shoulders. Nik took a deep breath, kissing her fingertips. “A moment, my lady, before I lose all capacity for rational thought. I know you want a family, but did you wish to…er…start on that immediately?”

Wisteria glanced at her hands in his. “Yes, my lord? Isn’t that why we escaped the party?”

“Yes, but – if you only want to gratify desire, there are ways to do that without, well…and I do have a preventative I could wear…”

“Oh! I see. If you do not wish to start trying at once, I am willing to wait on that, my lord. But I am very happy to start today. Now.” She leaned in to nuzzle his shirt aside and kiss his shoulder.

Nik smiled, releasing her hands and helping her remove his shirt. “As am I, my lady.”

He swept her into his arms and carried her to the bedroom. Wisteria clung with her arms about his shoulders, kissing and nuzzling at his neck. He laid her down in the center of the bed, admiring the sweep of the white lace and satin underdress around her. “Now, how do I get you out of this…” He knelt over her, knees to either side of her waist, and started unfastening the tiny buttons that ran down her front. A delicious sense of wickedness filled him despite the licit nature of this assignation. His father had given him the traditional uncomfortable pre-wedding lecture on the subject of marital relations. Lord Striker knew better than to imagine his son a virgin, but he did go on at length about not “treating your wife like one of your whores”. His general theme was that a gentleborn maiden would be shy, frightened, and unencouraging, and the best course was to get it over with as quickly as possible instead of forcing further unwanted attentions upon her. Nikola had nodded his way through the interview without the slightest intention of heeding any word of it.

Wisteria caressed his arms as he worked, then reached to her head to pull out the comb and pins in it, freeing her dark curls to spill over the pillows. Her hips wriggled underneath him in the most enticing and distracting manner. Nikola spread the halves of the top of her gown apart, to reveal the bodice below. “You,” he growled, “are wearing far too much clothing.”

Wisteria was unlacing the front of his breeches. “I could not agree more – oh—” her hands stopped as Nik cupped her small breasts through the thin fabric, thumbs stroking stiffening nipples “—that feels so wonderful, my lord.” Nik smiled and shifted to lie half beside her, mouthing one nipple through the cloth while his other hand undid the front hooks of the underbodice. When it was open to the waist, he pushed it aside to kiss bare skin. Her face might be hard to read but her body’s response was unmistakable, spine arching to press soft, yielding flesh against his lips, her hand circling behind him to cradle his head closer. “Please don’t stop, I love that.” Her fingers fumbled at the barrette holding his hair back, unclasping it to let it stream around his face.

“But what about the other one? I don’t want it to be jealous,” he teased, moving to nuzzle and nip at her other breast while she squirmed under him. Nik slid his hand beneath her dress and underclothes, fingers exploring the smooth skin of her stomach, gliding lower to find the curly hairs of her vulva, some already slick in evidence of desire. He probed between the lower lips, rewarded by the tilt and arch of her hips to meet his fingers as he explored the slick nub of her clitoris with his thumb, index finger slipping gradually inside her. Her hymen would have been removed by the Blessed who inspected her prior to the wedding and who had attested to her health, fertility, and virginity. The last was a mere formality: Nik knew perfectly well that there was scarcely a Blessed in Newlant who’d embarrass a bride with a contrary announcement, not even ones actually pregnant.

She clutched at his head, fingers twining in his hair as she writhed against his hand. “Oh, Nikola, that’s amazing, why is it so much better when you do it?”

Nik blinked, lifting his head. “When I do it?”

“Than when I do it to myself. Oh, I am not supposed to talk about that. Please continue?”

He laughed quietly. “Now I want to see you do it to yourself.” He moved his fingers again, sliding in middle next to index, stroking rhythmically as she pushed instinctively into him. “May I do such inappropriate things with you, my love?”

She took a moment to answer, her breathing uneven. “I am advised to submit to my husband in all things,” she said, “and that sounds like a delightful way to start doing so.”

Nik laughed again, and licked her nipple. “Well, don’t submit to me if you don’t enjoy it. But if you’ll give things a try on those grounds, well enough.” He extracted his hand and wiped it on the bedclothes, then helped her out of the sleeves of the underdress. She sat up to help him get it off of her, squirming to escape her remaining clothing afterwards. Her nude form took his breath away, slender, with curves slight but graceful, breasts small and high, deliciously soft to touch. With her clothes out of the way, Wisteria was determined to do the same for him, which was only fair. She was as fascinated by his body as he by hers, and fearless in touching him. She caught him off-guard by stroking her fingers over his erection almost as soon as his breeches were off. He gasped in pleasure, closing his eyes.

“Is it all right if I do this?” She trailed her fingers down to cup his balls experimentally.

“It is much better than all right.” Then she wanted to know what would feel particularly nice, and they lay down together while he did his best to explain and demonstrate. It still felt bizarre to explain – no one had ever asked him before, especially not in such detail. Justin had always had a knack for reading Nik’s body language and knowing what he wanted. But during the months of the betrothal, when he and Wisteria would kiss and cuddle during the occasional time alone, she had often requested instruction upon his tastes, and he had come to have considerable appreciation for the results.

“Do lips feel good there too?” she asked. Nik had just shown her how to grasp the skin so as to stroke up and down on the shaft without sliding over it, and she was still practicing the technique, to his considerable distraction. She shifted down along his body as if intending to find out. Nikola gasped, half with pleasure and half laughing. She paused. “Is that a no?”

“That is…ahhh, Wisteria, you are the most wonderful woman alive…on the list of terribly inappropriate things I hoped to introduce you to – ah!” He arched his back as she licked her tongue over the head of his cock, gripping the sheets as he struggled for control. “I wasn’t planning on it tonight, though – ohh Paradise, no don’t stop, Wisteria—” he lost himself for a minute to sheer pleasure as she wrapped her mouth about the tip while her hand still stroked the shaft. It was less a matter of technique than that it was her doing it. After so many months of longing and fantasies, it was almost more than he could bear. He hauled her bodily up the length of his form and rolled her onto her back, kissing her.

“Too much?” she asked, when she could speak again, her hand wandering over his back.

He smiled, stroking her hair from her face. “After a fashion. I don’t want to climax just yet.”

She tilted her head. “What do you mean by ‘climax’?”

Nik blinked at her. “Er…” Then he grinned mischievously. “Let me see if I can show you.” He worked his way down her body, marveling again at the softness of her skin beneath his fingers. When he was between her legs, he slipped a finger inside her and dipped his head to stroke his tongue over her clitoris. She shivered in response, hips arching, legs curling around his shoulders, one hand reaching to burrow through his hair. He licked and suckled, slowly at first, then faster, pulsing first one and then two fingers inside her, matching the fevered instinctual rhythm of her own body, until she convulsed, lifting from the mattress with a full body shudder and then falling back limp, vagina fluttering around his fingers. He pillowed his head against her thigh as she relaxed beneath him.

A few moments later, she said, “Oh. That.”

Nik chuckled, shifting to snuggle up her side and embrace her. “Also better than when you do it yourself?”

“I was just thinking how annoying it is that I had to wait twenty-seven years to experience that. This makes a great many things much more intelligible now. Thank you, my lord.” She rolled onto her side to hug him back, wrapping a leg over his thighs and kissing him. “Although…is this sexual intercourse? Because, well, not that I ever got the clearest of answers on this question, but it’s not what I was expecting.” She squirmed, positioning herself so that his renewed erection pressed against her pussy in a way that suggested she’d had quite a good idea of what to expect. “And I don’t see why it would be all right for me to climax just yet if it wasn’t for you.”

“It’s all right because women, er, recover faster. And when I climax, my, um, member, goes limp and it takes some time before I can get an erection again.” Nik’s face reddened; it was hard even now to be frank. “All a woman has to do is remain slick, as far as the mechanics…ah…” Wisteria was demonstrating this property on him, tugging his hips closer with her leg and rocking so that the tip of his cock nearly penetrated despite the awkward position with the two of them on their sides. He cupped a hand around her rear and pulled, driving himself a little way inside with a groan. “Wisteria.

She nuzzled at his throat. “Oh, may we do more of this, please?”

Yes,” he growled, unable and unwilling to restrain himself under such encouragement. Nikola rolled her onto her back, kneeling between her legs, driving himself deep into her until he noticed the growing tension in her body. He eased back, but she locked one leg around his rear before he could withdraw completely. “Sorry, I should have been more gentle—”

Wisteria shook her head. “Don’t stop. It’s – please don’t stop.” Moving carefully now, he pushed into her again, biting the inside of his cheek to avoid giving into the euphoria of the experience, to avoid losing all control and pounding relentlessly. “Thank you,” she said, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, pressing her face against his neck. “Oh thank you, that’s…indescribable…” She rocked against him, pulling him deeper inside. Nik fought to match her rhythm, holding himself in check against the building waves of pleasure, until the growing tide overwhelmed him and his world dissolved into ecstasy.    

He returned to himself half-collapsed against Wisteria. She was still murmuring thanks in his ear, which was at once absurd and wonderful and entirely Wisteria. He kissed her to interrupt. “Thank you,” Nik told her, throwing his long hair over his shoulder to get it out of her face. “I love you, my beautiful lady wife.” He rolled onto his side, pulling her with him in a fierce embrace, feeling all the thrill of possession.

“I am so very happy, my lord.” She snuggled her face against his chest, curling one leg over his side to keep him near. “How did you learn all these marvelous things? Is it because you are a man? Will people answer when you ask instead of telling you it’s immodest even to think the question?”

He chuckled. “Perhaps. I don’t know. Adolescent boys will talk freely amongst themselves; I learnt a great deal of complete nonsense from my schoolmates. Some actual truth from…grown men, when I was older.” Justin. “And some from…er…women of negotiable virtue. And bits and pieces from my petitioners, in fact.”

“From your petitioners?”

“Yes. Most prefer to be cured or not without disclosing why they chose to petition, so discussions are rare. But sometimes, when I am re-examining those whom I could not immediately diagnose, they will volunteer specifics. There are some complaints that…well…eventually one realizes the reason I cannot diagnose them is because they are not disordered. I have seen far too many women shame-facedly confess to desiring or worse yet enjoying sexual intercourse. Sometimes I think the social order is crazier than any of my petitioners.”

“Oh.” Wisteria twirled a few of his chest hairs around one of her fingers. “I always thought there was something wrong with me for feeling lust. It never occurred to me to petition for it, though…it’s such a trivial thing in comparison with real troubles.”

Nik bent to kiss her fiercely. “There is nothing wrong or unnatural about desire, in either a man or a woman. There is certainly nothing wrong with you. You are entirely right and just as the gentlewoman I married ought to be.”

She twined her fingers through his hair to cradle his head as she returned the kiss. “I love you.” She paused. “So…does that mean we may do that again? Please?” She wriggled the length of her nude body against his in a fashion so tantalizing that he felt his prick stir to action again.

Nik laughed in pure delight, cupping a hand to her rear to pull her against him. “I am yours to command, my lady wife.”

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy A Rational Arrangement now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements is a collection of three new novellas about the same characters: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

The Way I Would Like to Celebrate (124/141)

RA Header 124

The wedding banquet had been delightful. Wisteria was glad that Nikola had reconciled with Lord Comfrey, because the viscount was the most charming part of it. She could barely recall the food, but she could remember his smile and kind words as he toasted them.

Her majesty had generously offered the Vasilvers use of the Dragongate Palace in Viant for the wedding reception. When dinner adjourned in favor of dancing, the affair began to remind her of the Ascension Ball. The Dragongate ballroom was akin to Dawnfell’s only in opulence: the floor at Dragongate was of tiny fitted marble tiles in an intricate pattern that made it look as if one was walking on ocean waves, and there was no balcony from which to watch the dance. But the dancing and music were similar, and as she stood up in a set with her husband (my husband!) and Lord Comfrey and Lord Comfrey’s sister and four other guests, the sense of deja vu was uncomfortably intense. At least Wisteria had been allowed to detach her gown’s trailing cape for the dancing; having two children following her every motion had been an odd experience.

When the pattern of the dance put her and Lord Comfrey together for several turns, he opened conversation with a smile. “You must tell me how happy you are, my dear. I hope the wedding has matched expectation?”

“Oh, Lord Comfrey, I am happier than I ever have been before. Terrifyingly so.”


“Yes. I feel like a fairy-tale princess and part of me in convinced something awful must be about to happen. A demon-prince come to curse my husband, perhaps. Or worse. If a messenger comes to tell Lord Nikola that some petitioner needs his attention urgently, I do not think my reaction will be rational.”

“Now, my dear. If you tackle Lord Nikola to the floor and forbid him to leave your sight, I will vouch for it being the sole reasonable course. I will assist you, in fact.”

“Thank you, my lord. I am so very glad you understand.” Wisteria squeezed his fingers when their hands touched in the dance, before the next moves split them to new partners.

After two dances, no demon-prince had arrived at the party to curse them, and no messenger to summon Nikola away. Wisteria was increasingly anxious to escape any possibility of such. Also, she had been legally allowed to be intimate with her husband for nearly six hours now and that she had been allowed no opportunity to take advantage of this Most Important Fact was plain cruel. At her request, they took a break from dancing to take some air: it had been a warm day for early summer, and the ballroom was overheated.

It took half an hour to make their way out of the ballroom, as it seemed every guest not among the dancers wanted to stop them to wish them well and exchange a few sentences. It was like a miniature version of the endless receiving line after the wedding.

Wisteria had thought it would be safe outside, but it was worse: a good third of their guests had also taken to the palace gardens in pursuit of cooler air, and all of them also wanted to offer their congratulations and marital advice. Often, Wisteria would find herself steered aside, or Nikola “borrowed” from her arm for a few minutes, so that some relation or acquaintance might offer advice. Much of the advice was perplexing if not disturbing in nature.

When she had finally managed to reclaim her husband’s arm and they had escaped to an unobserved bower, Nikola breathed an enormous sigh. He peeked around the corner of the vine-covered trellis that sheltered them from view, then ducked behind it again to sweep her into his arms and kiss her. After a few moments, he drew back laughing, whirled her about and embraced her again. Wisteria clung to his neck, suffused with delight. “My wife,” he whispered in her ear.

“Yes, my husband?” she replied, just to say the words.

“Are you quite sure you made the right choice, marrying such a great fool as me?”

“Very sure. But what is your folly, my lord?”

“You will never credit it, it is so preposterous.”

“Oh, try me, my very dear husband. I have lived two years in Southern Vandu; my standards of unbelievable are high.”

“Well, there was a time – now, you must trust me on this, I know it sounds absurd – but there was a time when I thought I did not wish to marry you.”

“I am glad to hear that is so,” Wisteria said gravely.

Nikola blinked at her. “…you are?”

“I should hate to think you had lied to me, those months ago, when you said you were uninterested in marriage at the present time.”

“Oh! Yes. Still, it was exceedingly foolish on my part. I cannot imagine what I was thinking.” He pressed her back against the trellis to kiss her neck, one hand stroking down her side and the other around her waist. A few too-short minutes passed before he murmured, “I suppose we ought to get back to our party.”

“Must we?” Wisteria had unbuttoned his wedding jacket to slide her hands beneath it. It is much too warm for all these clothes. “I was hoping you knew some private room in this palace too, where we might be undisturbed.”

Her golden-haired lord chuckled. “I do not, my lady. But if you wish to retire early—”

“I do. Now. Six hours ago. This wedding celebration is ill-timed, I tell you, and not at all the way I would like to be celebrating my wedding.” She caressed his chest through the thin shirt, fingers tracing the lines of pectoral muscles, finding the nipples and lingering over them as he gasped.

Nikola wriggled in the most intriguing fashion, then seized one of her hands to kiss her palm. “Then let it be as you wish.” He stepped back, reached into the inner breast pocket of his jacket, and with a flourish produced a whistle. As she tilted her head at him, he blew on it, producing no sound she could hear.

“But what do you want a greatcat for?” Wisteria asked. Nik signaled her to wait with one raised hand.

There was a thump above and to one side of them, and she looked up to see Fel Fireholt perched on the stone wall at the rear of the bower. “Don’t tell me you need rescuing from her, Lord Nik?”

“No, we need rescuing from this party. Will you get us out of here?”

The huge black feline rumbled a chuckle and dropped into a crouch in the bower beside them. “You got it, m’lord.”

The warcat was still in the regalia he’d worn at the ceremony, but had removed the riding seat. Nikola lifted Wisteria to sit sideways on Fel Fireholt’s back, the full skirt of her dress belling against his side. Lord Nikola swung up behind her and snuggled her to his chest. “Carefully now, Anthser; Mrs. Striker cannot get a good seat in this dress.”

“Yessir.” Fel Fireholt padded down the garden path with even, decorous strides. The guests who saw them leaving smiled and waved; Nikola returned the smiles and Wisteria waved, leaning against her husband for support she didn’t need as he held her for balance she also didn’t need. But it made a delightful excuse.

They had taken temporary lodgings in a charming inn overlooking the river, a mile or so from the palace. Even at an easy pace, it didn’t take long for the greatcat to carry them to it. The inn was a modern new building, with vaulted ceilings and vast doors and passageways large enough not only to accommodate a greatcat, but to accommodate one bearing riders. The inn’s doorman opened the double doors for them and stood aside as Fel Fireholt carried them in and padded up four flights of stairs to the royal suite, where another footman opened the doors. Fel Fireholt crouched in the sitting room. Nikola dismounted and lifted Wisteria off. “Thank you, Anthser. You may go.” The dark-furred warcat bowed and withdrew.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy A Rational Arrangement now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements is a collection of three new novellas about the same characters: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

Wedded Bliss (123/141)

RA Header 123

Wisteria wasn’t sure if her wedding day was the happiest day of her life – the day Nikola asked her to marry him gave it stiff competition – but she was undeniably happy. There were a few flaws in the perfection of the day, most of them falling under the header of “mother” and “mother-in-law-to-be”. The two women seemed determined to make even the most minor of issues sound like a major disaster. Last minute uncertainties in Queen Felicia’s schedule threw both women into fits, even though Prince Edgar was attending and had already confirmed his willingness to officiate if his mother didn’t arrive in time. Then the queen had arrived this morning and sent notice that she would perform the service, rendering the whole issue moot. The place cards, which had been delivered weeks ago, had a pattern of gold leaves on them which did not match the pattern of gold vines-and-leaves on the borders of the tablecloths, an issue Wisteria had not noticed even after her mother had pointed to the two in horror three days ago. New place cards were to be printed and delivered but had not yet arrived and Mrs. Vasilver was in a panic over it. “Everything has to be perfect!”

Lady Striker, meanwhile, had uncovered some problem or other with the soup course of the wedding feast and was flying hither and yon in an effort to make various hapless servants and caterers rectify it to her satisfaction.

Fortunately, neither woman expected Wisteria to address these matters. A few weeks ago, Wisteria had taken to responding to every statement on the lines of “There’s a problem with the wedding plans!” with “Has Lord Nikola changed his mind about marrying?” When the answer came back as “No” she would respond, “Then it’s not important.” This had not stopped anyone from telling her what they thought was wrong, but it had stopped them from expecting that she would care.

The marriage was taking place at the Alastasia Temple, in the duchy of Viant. The location was chosen not for convenience – it was close to neither Gracehaven nor Anverlee County nor Fireholt – but for prestige. The summer court was held in Viant. By long tradition, the members of the upper nobility – royalty, dukes, margraves, and counts – and their designated heirs had the right to an officiant from among the royal family and the right to be married at Alastasia Temple. An Alastasia Temple wedding was, Mrs. Warwick assured her, every little girl’s dream. Even Mrs. Warwick and her sister had not been wed here, as they were not heir to their father’s title, and their husbands were gentleborn but not titled.

In one sense, it was unfair that the direct recipients of this very great honor were so indifferent to it. In another, Wisteria reflected that the whole of the wedding was for the benefit of their two families, who appreciated the honor enough to make up for a score of uninterested wedding couples.

Wisteria’s wedding dress was even more elaborate than her gown for the Ascension ball. Unlike Ascension fashions, the style was classic and varied little, though hers employed modern materials. The underdress was spotless white lace over layers of silk opulence, with a full skirt that flared from the waist to swish about her ankles. The overdress was golden flaxvelvet with insets of matching lace, the whole trimmed in gold beads and set with indigo sapphires. The colors were symbolic: white for purity, gold for prosperity, and indigo because her intended was a peer. The overdress included a matching attached cape, secured along the shoulders and down the sleeves of the dress and extending behind her for several yards. There were two little girls, children of servants, trained for the role of following her about to hold the cape off the ground, until it was detached for the party afterwards. It would only trail during the ceremony itself. Wisteria wore her mother’s wedding jewelry for the ceremony: a necklace dripping with diamonds and gold ear cuffs and bracelets to match. As servants swarmed about Wisteria, arranging her various garments, she wondered if she ought to have put her foot down about some of these extravagances.


The Alastasia Temple dated back to the third century: the work of dozens of Blessed for stone and plants, as well as myriad other craftsmen, after the sacking of Viant destroyed the original temple. The original, by all accounts, had been a far more modest affair. Successive generations of kings and queens had added their own touches to the temple to make it ever-grander and more imposing. Like all temples, it was a round building with a speaker’s circle at the center. Unlike most temples, the speaker’s circle was lowered and the seats surrounding it rose in tiers of polished hardwood, inlaid with elaborate knotwork, and it included dedicated seating for a small orchestra. The domed roof alternated gleaming alabaster and panels of stained glass. The temple was enormous, so large that Nikola’s four-hundred-something invited guests filled only the lowest tiers. The ceremony itself, as was traditional for a marriage involving a peer, was open to the public. Thousands of commoners were in the higher tiers to watch the spectacle: there were just a hundred and three titles of a rank of count or above, so marriages involving them were rare. Hundreds of the spectators were greatcats; Justin had never seen so many greatcats gathered under one roof. Viant was a full day’s journey from Fireholt even for a greatcat; Justin had to wonder how many of them had made the long trip to see their lord wed.

Justin had come with his sister Meg and her husband, Henry Walker, who had received invitations of their own. While Justin’s invitation allowed him to bring a guest, no one assumed a bachelor such as he was would travel with a female companion. Which was as well, since he was in no mood to entertain some near-stranger of an acquaintance. Meg and his brother-in-law were much more suitable for the occasion: Henry Walker was a bluff, self-absorbed man without the wit to notice whether his companions were lively or not, and it was not in Meg’s nature to rely on anyone else to entertain her. Justin had to exert himself enough to be civil and show a semblance of good humor instead of sinking completely into brooding, but if his conversation lacked its usual polish no one remarked on it.

Justin feared Meg truly was jealous of Miss Vasilver; Meg had had nothing good to say of the match since its announcement five months ago. Justin had discouraged his sister from speaking ill of Miss Vasilver or Nikola’s prospects and Meg was making an effort to hide her resentment, but he did not think her happy about the proceedings.

As they watched the wedding begin, music swelling from the orchestra, Justin was not sure how he felt about it himself. Part of him was consumed by jealousy, of Nikola for marrying the one woman Justin had ever wanted, of Wisteria for taking from him the one man he’d ever loved.

Another part was happy – not thought-he-ought-to-be-happy, but genuinely pleased – that the two were marrying. They were both good people, the most intelligent, principled, generous people he knew. They were perfect for one another. Justin did not want to keep them apart.

But he regretted extremely that their union must inevitably separate him from them.

The east and west doors at the top of the temple opened, and all necks craned to one side or the other to watch the procession begin. Servants pulled levers at the top of either side, which opened dozens of cages that lined the stairwell, each full of white and gold swallowtail butterflies. The butterflies swarmed out to fill the air like confetti. Next came the siblings of the bride from the west, and the siblings of the groom from the east, each with spouse and children over the age of eight, if applicable. Each member of these groups carried basketfuls of wedding favors, cleverly folded paper creations designed to sail through the air, each carrying a mark-note – most singles, but a random few of larger denominations – in its interior. The favors were strewn liberally into the crowd in the higher tiers. The children and some of the men hurled them with particular vigor, ensuring that members of the crowd in the middle stood as good a chance at snatching one from the air as those near the edge. The greatcats, who would have had a tremendous advantage at the game in speed and reach, politely refrained from playing, though some of the youngest greatkittens could not resist batting ones down.

By the time they reached the lower tiers, the baskets had been emptied and the bride and bridegroom had made their appearance. Wisteria was mounted sidesaddle on a pure white greatcat in gold harness. The train of her cape flowed out over the greatcat’s flanks and fell to trail down the steps behind her as the greatcat bore her in slow, measured steps to the speaker’s circle. On the opposite side of the temple, Nikola descended, riding on Anthser. That greatcat’s fur remained its usual black, rather than bleached to the traditional white. His cape and harness were in Fireholt orange, however, making him match Fireholt’s colors of black and orange; perhaps that nod to Nikola’s holding was substituted here. Nikola’s own attire was a masculine version of Wisteria’s: white satin breeches with gold buckles, white silk hose, white shoes with gold buckles, white shirt with gold lace cuffs and jabot, brocade jacket of gold lace over white. He wore more expensive jewelry than Justin had ever seen on him: hair clasp studded with sapphire chips, rings over his gloves, a lapel brooch inset with indigo sapphires large enough to flash even at this distance, and the gold chain and obsidian pendant of a mind healer crossing his chest.

The parents walked, arms linked, behind their offspring. As the first of the siblings approached the speaker’s circle, they filed into the seats of the lowest tier. When the greatcats reached the bottom step, they too stopped. Their riders dismounted, turned to their respective parents, took their hands, kissed cheeks ceremoniously, and then turned to the speaker’s circle. Each crossed alone to meet the other at the center, capes drifting in their wake. A pace apart, they stopped. Nikola bowed low to her and fell gracefully to one knee as she dropped into a deep curtsey. The orchestra fell silent.

Queen Felicia, seated in her throne at the edge of the speaker’s circle, rose. The vast temple was still other than the fluttering of butterfly wings. “Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, heir of Anverlee, by the grace of the Savior Blessed as healer of minds. Miss Wisteria Vasilver. You are come today in the presence of the Savior, your liege, your families, your friends, and your people to unite your lives and your families in sacred matrimony. Lord Rukert Striker, Count of Anverlee; Lady Voleta Rukert Striker, Countess of Anverlee: do you give your consent to this marriage?”

“We do.” The two spoke together from the east edge of the circle, Lady Striker’s voice wavery as she dabbed at her eyes.

“Mr. Ethan Vasilver, Mrs. Madeleine Ethan Vasilver: do you give your consent to this marriage?”

“We do,” Wisteria’s parents echoed. This portion was traditional rather than legal: parental consent was required where inheritance and parental property were concerned, but marriage itself only required a titled officiant (or one’s designated gentleborn representative) and the consent of the two people marrying.

“Lord Nikola. Miss Vasilver. You have the blessing of the Savior, the permission of your liege, the support of your families, and the goodwill of your nation in entering this union. In the years to come, you will find yourself relying on all of these things. Depend on the Savior most of all, my dears; he’s the most reliable of the lot of us,” Queen Felicia said to them, as smiles broke out across the crowd. “But you are in this circle alone because the ultimate success of your marriage rests upon you. The Savior and all of us wish for a more perfect Paradise for you, but it lies in your hands to build it. Conflicts in daily life are inevitable: it falls to you to resolve them with compassion, patience, and trust. You will know hardships, sickness, and suffering in your life together: it falls to you to share these burdens, to do what you may without resentment, to accept what is given to you with grace. It falls to you, Lord Nikola, to lead your wife wisely, to ensure the prosperity and honor of your holdings. It falls to you, Miss Vasilver, to obey your husband in all things, to nurture your household and your family with love and honor.

“Lord Nikola. Please rise,” the queen continued. Nikola stood, opening the velvet box in his hands as she continued, “Will you pledge yourself to Miss Vasilver?”

“With all my heart.” Nikola smiled, radiant, unreserved, as he turned to his bride. He took the gold, diamond-studded tiara of the Countess of Anverlee from the velvet box. It was customary for a groom to shower his bride with jewels at the wedding, as a show of his ability to provide for his new family. For a count’s heir, this was a traditional choice, even though as part of the county entailment it would not fall to Wisteria’s hands until the current Count of Anverlee passed on. Nikola placed it on her brow just the same. “My lady, I pledge my life to you, to honor and guide you, to cherish and protect you, to be true to you always, through all our days together.” He held out his hands to her.

Queen Felicia turned to Wisteria. “Miss Vasilver. Please rise. Will you pledge yourself to Lord Nikola?”

Wisteria took his hands and rose. “With all my heart.” Her expression was grave and calm even now, but her voice projected to the top of the temple as she continued, “My lord, I pledge my life to you, to honor and obey you, to nurture our family, to be true to you always, through all our days together.”

The queen lay her own hands over their joined ones. “And so let you be as one, and let nothing sunder you apart.” The orchestra swelled again as Queen Felicia stepped back and Nikola took Wisteria in his arms to kiss her. The crowd in the upper tiers cheered, greatcats roaring their approval, while the more dignified guests confined themselves to applause.

Justin joined in the applause, blinking hard and biting the inside of his cheek to avoid weeping openly.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy A Rational Arrangement now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements is a collection of three new novellas about the same characters: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks

Why Can We Not Be Friends? (122/141)

RA Header 122

At the end of the Gracehaven trip, when Nik bid his (lengthy) farewells to Wisteria, he did so knowing that the next time he saw her would be for the wedding. And then I’ll never have to say goodbye to her again.    

As pleasant as the idea was, it was not to Wisteria that his thoughts turned on the return trip.

It was a beautiful day in the countryside, fifteen miles out from Gracehaven. Crops grew in knee-height green stalks in the fields to either side of the road, and cherry blossom trees bloomed in pink and white along the lane. The sun shone bright in a sky streaked with a few clouds. Nikola was riding Anthser because it was too lovely outside to be cooped up in the hired carriage. Anthser had wanted to stretch his legs, and so they were miles ahead of Nik’s entourage. Even Anthser’s pair of greatcat “friends-of-the-month”, Gavin and Rawlth, had been disinclined to keep up. Now the muscular black greatcat was strolling at an easy pace, sides vibrating with contentment. His blond rider was glad as well: travelling alone with Anthser made him feel free, unrooted by obligations, titles, employees. Nik could be anyone, going anywhere.

They were coming to a crossroads, where they’d turn northwest towards Fireholt. The lane they were on continued west, to Comfrey Viscountcy. Comfrey could not be said to be on the route to Fireholt; the trip was some thirty miles out of the way, a detour of at least two hours even riding alone on Anthser. As the greatcat moved to the side of the lane to let an overly wide wagon pass, Nikola told him, “Let’s keep going west.”

“West?” Anthser snaked back onto the lane and glanced at the crossroads. “Huh. You want to wait for the others?”

“No.” Nik grinned as the greatcat twisted to look at his rider. “Just the two of us. We can catch up to them later.”

“You’re ditching them? Even Gavin and Rawlth?”

“I haven’t ditched anyone in years, Anthser. Well. Months, anyway. Don’t you think I’m past due? Here, I’ll leave a note on the signpost for them so they needn’t fret.” He rifled through Anthser’s harness pouches to find a notebook, tore out a sheet, scrawled a message, folded it, wrote “Mrs. Linden” in large letters on one side, and tacked it to the post. “There.”

Anthser flared his whiskers, amused. “As you wish, m’lord.”

Nikola didn’t need to tell Anthser why they were taking the west road, or which turns to take. They’d made this journey many times before. Comfrey Viscountcy boasted a bustling, wealthy community, with a dock on the river that served as a hub for trade. Comfrey’s ancestral home was in a prime location, situated near the river and at the top of a rise, with a stone wall to separate it from the town. It was at the edge of town because the town had been unable to grow behind it: the rear several hundred acres formed Comfrey’s private hunting preserve, a stocked wilderness to rival the Markavian’s. Acres of garden surrounded the house itself, immaculate lawns lined by cultivated flowerbeds, selected so that there were always some flowers blooming among the green. Flowering hedges broke up the landscape, some sculpted together with trellised ivy to make private bowers.    

Nik had reconsidered his impulse a half-dozen times on the ride here. Once or twice he was on the verge of telling Anthser, “Never mind, I just wanted to take in the scenery, no need to stop.” But he let the greatcat carry him to the top of Comfrey’s steps. As the greatcat crouched, he slid off Anthser’s back onto the wide sheltered porch.    

One of Comfrey’s retainers must have seen their approach, because Nik had not even knocked before a footman opened the door. “Good morning, Lord Nikola. Our deepest apologies, but we were unaware you were coming and his lordship is out at present. His lordship is expected to return before dinner, however, if m’lord would care to wait in the parlor?”

Nik waved off the apology. “It’s fine, Mr. March. I didn’t send word…just a whim, in truth. I’ll—” Part of him was tempted to flee: what are you doing here? Comfrey doesn’t want to see you. But he had already come this far. “—wait in the garden. Kindly inform Lord Comfrey when he returns.”


Justin was running one of the trails in the vast hunting preserve behind his mansion. He hadn’t brought bow or quiver; the sound of his pounding feet as he hurtled down the track would frighten off any game. He didn’t have the patience for hunting any more. The stillness left him too much time to brood. Easier to run, to focus on making each stride faster, to maintain the pace even when his lungs burned and heart pounded. Don’t stop don’t slow just move go! His body obeyed. It was well-trained in that respect. I thought my mind well-disciplined once, too, but it’s evident now how I spoilt it. Justin shoved the thought away. He raced shirtless, in trousers and flexfiber shoes that conformed to his feet through each stride, black hair tied back and clubbed to keep it from his face.

He checked his pocket watch as he broke out from the cover of trees: not as good as his competition days, but better than his times from last year. Justin slowed to a jog as he crossed the lawn, sweat trickling down the small of his back. Someone was walking in the side garden to the west of the manor. Not a servant; too well-dressed, and besides all Comfrey’s gardeners were working on trail maintenance in the preserve today. Who could that be? he wondered, annoyed as he veered off to avoid catching the stranger’s eye. He disliked coming on people like this, as disheveled and scruffy as some lowborn farmer’s son. The stranger was tall, and that he was a gentleman was plain even at this distance, by his straight-backed carriage as much as by his summerweight suit. His back was to Justin, attention on the lane leading to the house, long hair gleaming gold in a ponytail that spilled down the blue jacket back. The silhouette and hair color arrested Justin’s eye, and he stumbled. It’s not Nikola, he told himself. Nikola would not drop by unannounced, would not drop by at all, stop that it’s not him. Despite his sternest admonitions to himself, his feet turned of their own accord, pace quickening to move in the newcomer’s direction. The closer he drew the more the figure looked like Nikola’s: even the suit was familiar. Justin slowed to a walk as he closed on the garden, wanting the man to look his way so this hideous mirage could be ended, not sure if he was more afraid that it was Nikola or that it wasn’t. I don’t want him to see me like this, like a bare-chested heathen. It was too late to turn and run into the house without looking even more ridiculous if and when the visitor finally noticed him. Justin cleared his throat to call out hello. The greeting came out half-strangled when the man turned that handsome, unforgettable visage at the noise. “Striker?!”

“Hello, Lord Comfrey.” Nikola squared his shoulders, uncomfortable.

‘Lord Comfrey’, is it? Justin let the weight of that formality squash the painful surge of hope. “Lord Nikola.” He delivered a short bow that must have looked ridiculous in his sweating, half-naked state. “What brings you to Comfrey Viscountcy?”

Nikola would not meet his eyes. “I was…I wanted to see you.”

“Ah.” Justin’s head was so full of things he could not say that it took a moment to supply another meaningless cordiality that he could. “It’s good to see you.”

“Is it?” Blue eyes flicked up to his face at last.

Is that another accusation? Justin was suddenly sick to death of pretense: of pretending to be cordial, polite, civilized. Happy. “I suppose that depends on why you wanted to see me.”

Nikola’s expression changed from a neutral one to a scowl. “Of course. If I didn’t come to fuck you there’d be no point in welcoming me at all, would there? Good day, Lord Comfrey.” He spun on his heel and stalked away between two sculpted hedges.

Demons take it all. “Striker—” Justin charged after him, seizing one arm. Nikola twisted to face him, arm jerking away as if the touch burned. Justin let go. “Curse you, Striker, I did not say that! I said nothing like that! Abandoned world! What have I ever done to you to deserve this?”

The taller man glowered at him, jaw working. “What was that crack supposed to mean, then?” His body was tense, words clipped.    

“I meant that if you came because you missed glaring at me and treating me as if I’d betrayed you then yes, that would considerably lessen the pleasure of your company!”

Still scowling, Nikola turned away. “Look, Comfrey, I know I have not behaved as I ought. I am grateful for all that you have done—”

“Curse it! I don’t want your fucking gratitude, Striker—”

“I know!” he hissed, stung. “All you want is my body to fuck—”

“Blood and death! I don’t even want that!” Justin lied; even now, even like this, if Nikola had offered himself, Justin would have taken him and been grateful for the chance. But it was not what he wanted most.

Nikola put a hand over his face, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I should not have come. Excuse me, my lord.” He walked away between two flowerbeds. The viscount did not chase him this time, though part of him ached to. What would be the point?

At an intersection of the garden’s stepping-stone paths, Nikola stopped and half-turned. “Lord Comfrey…I just…what would have made it good to see me?”

“…almost anything but this.” Justin walked after him, slowly. “Why can we not be friends, Striker? You don’t know how much I’ve missed your friendship. And no, I don’t mean screwing, I mean friendship. Hunting. Bowracing. Conversation. Things friends do.”

Nikola glanced sidelong at him. “I did not think you interested in that. Any longer.” A statement of belief, not an accusation.

“Well, I am. Do you truly think I’ve spent six years merely tolerating your company for the sake of the occasional opportunity to screw?” Justin was torn between indignation and amusement. “You’re a good lay, Striker, but not that good.” That last…might have been a lie, too. Nikola flushed, making a face at him and crossing his arms. Justin reached for the other man’s shoulder, let his hand drop without making contact. “I do not want anything of you because you are grateful, Striker, or obliged. I want your friendship because you are fond of my company, because I have always been fond of yours. I ask sincerely, what may I do to persuade you of the truth of this?”

The younger man turned to face him then, the emotion in his expression hard to judge. “Um. That,” he answered at last, and stepped forward to envelop Justin in a hug. By reflex, Justin caught Nikola in his arms, one foot going back to brace them as the taller man pressed against him. The feel of that long, lean form, of gloved hands against his naked back, sent a too-familiar surge of lust through Justin. He tightened his embrace to keep his hands from wandering, and rested his chin on Nikola’s jacketed shoulder. “I’m sorry, Justin,” Nikola whispered.

“If you’re apologizing for hugging me, stuff it.” Justin squeezed harder, rewarded by Nikola’s chuckle.

“Not for that. For doubting you. For reading in too much. I ought to have asked and not assumed.” Nikola relaxed in his arms, the contrast making it obvious how tense he’d been. Justin was tempted to steer Nikola into one of the garden’s bowers, screened from prying eyes by greenery, to push him down on a padded bench and see how much more relaxed Justin could make him. Ah yes, the perfect strategy with which to cap my credentials of disinterested friendship.

“No matter.” From somewhere, Justin mustered the will to release Nikola and step away. “I ought to clean up and change, Striker. Will you stay for dinner?”

Nikola was still flushed; he clasped his hands behind his back and smiled. “I’d be glad to.”


After dinner, Nik lingered over drinks in Justin’s study, talking and laughing as they caught up on all the news they’d missed. Nik felt better than he had in months, as if he’d been missing a piece of himself and finally had it restored. By the time he thought about leaving, it was too late to make his planned stop before nightfall. Justin invited him to stay the night; with a certain amount of hesitation, Nik accepted.    

At some point during their conversation in the garden, Nik had realized that at least part of his willingness to believe Justin indifferent was because that made it easier on himself. If Justin had never cared, then there was no reason to feel guilt or regret over ending their relationship. It was a convenient belief in that respect.

Seeing Justin like that in the garden, shirtless, muscles gleaming with sweat, had been a vivid and unnecessary reminder of how powerful the man’s appeal was. Comfrey made not one untoward suggestion or innuendo the entire day, took not one opportunity to touch him even when they played billiards and Justin offered advice. By the time they retired to their separate rooms for the evening, Nik was wondering if Justin’s avowal of physical repulsion during their fight earlier had been earnest. Had the months of coldness between them broken whatever power Nik had once held over him?

Because it had not altered Nik’s attraction to him. As he lay in bed that night, he couldn’t stop thinking of previous stays at Comfrey Manor, of the secret passageways that ran between the bedrooms. If he crept down it now to the master suite, would he find the concealed door in Justin’s dressing room latched against him? He’d checked the latch in his own chamber: sealed. Nik had left it that way, and by turns wished he hadn’t and was glad that he had, because if he’d found Justin perched on his bed in a dressing gown, Nik doubted he’d have the strength of will to do anything but pull him into bed and ravish him. As it was, his mind kept replaying memories of past nights together. Chastity was hard.

Perhaps it will be easier when Wisteria and I are wed was one of Nik’s last thoughts before sleep claimed him.


The next day, Justin sent a messenger ahead to the inn to let Nik’s retinue know they could return to Fireholt without him and that he’d be along later. Nik ended up spending another entire day at Comfrey Manor, just enjoying Justin’s company. He would have spent more time yet had he trusted himself. As it was, the two men were often alone and the temptation to violate Wisteria’s trust in him was far too great. Remaining chaste in distant Fireholt was far easier.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy A Rational Arrangement now: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks ~ Print

Already bought A Rational Arrangement? Further Arrangements is a collection of three new novellas about the same characters: Amazon ~ Kobo ~ Nook ~ iBooks