After speaking of Colbury Textiles for a little while, the conversation wandered from that to business in general. Lord Comfrey wanted to know more about her methods of analyzing records and what sorts of flags she looked for in deciding what warranted a closer look and what was innocuous. Wisteria found Lord Comfrey very easy to talk to. Not in the way that Lord Nikola was, always encouraging her to speak of whatever she chose no matter how inappropriate; instead, Lord Comfrey had an inexhaustible supply of appropriate conversational topics at his disposal. They spoke for above an hour in an ordinary way that did not involve Lord Comfrey touching her even once. The interruption came not from Lord Comfrey excusing himself, but from a servant announcing it was dinner time, and extending Mrs. Vasilver’s invitation to Lord Comfrey to stay for the meal.
Rather to Wisteria’s surprise, Lord Comfrey accepted instead of offering a polite demurral. During the meal, he was every inch the gentleman. Wisteria was hopeless at reading moods in general, but she had learned to gauge those of her immediate family to a degree. Her mother was overawed by Lord Comfrey, her father flattered, and Mitchell and David eager to speak with him of hunting. Byron was out, dining with friends. They had a few other dinner guests, acquaintances of her parents, but the gathering was small and informal: no concern about speaking only with one’s neighbors or keeping an exact ratio of men and women. Lord Comfrey was as easy a conversationalist at dinner as he had been in private. The only topic he did not speak of readily was the abduction and rescue. Today’s guests were just as eager to hear the details as everyone else, but Lord Comfrey steered conversation away from the topic.
The sheer normalcy of it all added to Wisteria’s sense of unreality. It ought to make a difference, that this man had saved her life, seen her half-naked, been kissing her passionately not two hours ago. How could the weight of all these strange experiences go unacknowledged, unobserved, in favor of the banalities of everyday life? All right, the abduction did not go unremarked, but she felt it might as well have done. She wished now she had not retreated to safe topics during that private interview in her office, that she’d dared to speak of all those inappropriate things.
But she had been, hadn’t she? Talking about the part of the abduction she could not forget. And that’s what Lord Comfrey had distracted her from. Maybe he’s like everyone else and doesn’t want to know, doesn’t want to hear. It’s a miracle that you found one man interested in such things; just because Lord Comfrey is his friend does not mean he would share that peculiarity.
After dinner, her mother suggested a walk about the manor’s garden to improve digestion. When Lord Comfrey agreed, Wisteria did as well. Once outside, he offered Wisteria his arm and set a brisk pace: not too quick for Wisteria, but fast enough to put some distance between them and the others. “I am not going monopolize you all day, my dear,” he told her quietly, when they were out of earshot. “But I do wish to thank you for seeing me today. This is the first time I have felt myself since Sunday. I cannot tell you how profound a relief it is. I may even be able to face my evening engagement with a semblance of equilibrium.”
“What are your plans for the evening, my lord?”
He waved a hand. “Nothing of consequence. A dance hosted by the earl of Elsbury, if I recall aright.” He brought his hand down again to cover hers where it lay in the crook of his other elbow. “I am afraid I have given you the wrong impression of myself, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘the right impression, but not as flattering a one as I would prefer you to have.’”
Wisteria looked at his handsome golden-brown face, remembering his tangled attempt at plain speaking when they were returning from the ball. Maybe he just needs a little encouragement. “What do you mean, my lord?”
Lord Comfrey looked away from her, leading her along the path as it curved beneath a trellis arch decorated by yellow-brown vines gone dormant for the winter. “I mean…you are a courageous, intelligent, resourceful young woman, perhaps the finest of my acquaintance.” He fell silent.
“That is very kind of you to say, my lord,” Wisteria said, flattered but confused. If anyone here is brave, it’s him and not me. “I do not know that I’ve thanked you properly for saving me; I do not know if it’s even possible to offer sufficient thanks, my obligation to you is so great. But if there is anything I might—”
“Please don’t.” Lord Comfrey cut her off as he turned to face her beneath the arch and took both her hands in his. “I did not think it was possible for me to receive too much undeserved praise but it turns out it is. I am surfeited and more than surfeited. You owe me nothing, Miss Vasilver. If anything, I am in your debt for your assistance – your invaluable assistance – in locating Lord Nikola.”
“But were it not for you—”
“No. I do not want your obligation, Miss Vasilver. The only reward I sought in what part I played was your safety and that of Lord Nikola. I am more than repaid in receiving that much. Do not think you owe me anything at all.” He was quite intent upon her, thin mouth unsmiling, narrow dark eyes focused on her face.
“As you like, Lord Comfrey. But why does it trouble you?”
He released one of her hands and touched his knuckles to her cheek: such a simple gesture to make her long for more. “Oh, you’ve seen the state of my professional accounting, my dear. I have enough trouble managing it, without needing to track the balances positive and negative in my private life. Much easier to keep everything even.”
She tilted her head at him; he was smiling now. She could not make her face answer him so she did her best to make her words respond in kind. “I have never thought of keeping a ledger-book for favors before.”
Lord Comfrey shuddered. “And may you never again. Bad enough keeping them for numbers.”
“I like numbers, my lord.”
“They’re well enough for ledgers, I’m sure.” He dropped his hand; by now they had stood still long enough for the voices of her parents to be audible again as they caught up. Lord Comfrey turned about to face the way they’d come, offering his arm. “I should be going now. Thank you again for your company, Miss Vasilver.”
“You know you are very welcome. Am I allowed to thank you for yours?”
He laughed. “Only if it truly pleases you.”
“The thanking or the company? Nevermind: it is yes to both. Thank you for calling, my lord: I had been longing to know how you were.”
“Quite well,” he answered, walking back with her to rejoin the party.
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