A Challenge (51/141)

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Justin made his way to the Vasilvers’ section before they left, while their assistants were still gathering their things. As he drew near, he overheard Miss Vasilver say in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, “If you ever put me in a position to be humiliated like this again, Byron, I will not speak to you for a year.”

Her brother winced, hunching his long-limbed frame. “I didn’t know it’d go like that, Teeri. Besides…some woman has to be first.”    

“She needn’t be me,” Miss Vasilver said.

Before she could add more, Justin was close enough that her father greeted him with, “Good day, Lord Comfrey,” and his two adult offspring looked up from their private conversation.

“Mr. Vasilver, Vasilver.” Justin shook each man’s hand in turn and looked to Miss Vasilver, waiting pointedly for an introduction. The young woman met his gaze with disinterested light brown eyes before glancing away.

“I don’t believe you’ve met my daughter,” her father said. “Lord Comfrey, this is Miss Wisteria Vasilver, executive analyst for Vasilver Trading Company. Wisteria, this is Lord Justin Comfrey, Viscount of Comfrey.”

“A pleasure.” Justin extended his hand. “Thank you for your time today, Miss Vasilver. Your illustration of financial concepts was captivating.” Miss Vasilver looked at his hand for a few moments before offering her own with a certain hesitance; Justin realized belatedly he was holding his hand sideways, as if to shake hands with a man. He corrected himself and bowed over her hand.

“You’re welcome, my lord.” Miss Vasilver gave him another brief look and added coolly, “it is an honor to make your acquaintance, Lord Comfrey.”

Justin was well aware that he was a handsome man and that his powerful build was a rarity that attracted notice and admiration. He dressed in impeccable attire that suited his station and set his features to advantage; he had rank, wealth, and title and was the kind of highly eligible match into whose path society matrons threw their daughters. He was used to young women who would not meet his eyes, who blushed and looked away coyly, who flirted and giggled. He found such behavior entertaining if not particularly attractive, and had a practiced ease in handling it. Miss Vasilver’s indifference – neither attracted nor intimidated nor impressed – was something else entirely. Almost unsettling. Almost a challenge.

Justin offered his warmest smile, the kind that had inadvertently conquered the heart of Miss Dalsterly. “Do you work exclusively for Vasilver Trading, Miss Vasilver, or would you be willing to act as consultant?”

Unmoved, Miss Vasilver glanced to her father. “Er,” the older man said. “I don’t believe the question’s ever come up before. My daughter has always worked for me.”

“I imagine it would depend on the nature of the engagement: whether it poses any conflict of interest, either with Vasilver Trading’s business or with my existing time commitments to the company. Did you have something in mind, my lord?” Miss Vasilver tilted her head, regarding Justin.

“I have a few businesses I may sell in the next several months, and I’d like an independent evaluation of them,” Justin answered. That wasn’t what he’d planned to say when he came over, although now that he thought about it, it was a good idea. “No great hurry on it.”

Miss Vasilver nodded. “The Ascension season is usually quiet for me…”

Her brother glowered at her, and her father said, “Wisteria. Social obligations are also obligations.”

“Yes, Father,” Miss Vasilver said, without conviction.

“As I said, there’s no hurry,” Justin said. “If you’re interested, I’d be happy to call later this week and go over the details.”

“I am sure that would be fine,” Mr. Vasilver said.

After a short pause, Miss Vasilver nodded as well. “Thank you, Lord Comfrey.”


Mr. Vasilver sent the assistants home by gig, while he and his offspring took the carriage, a comfortably-appointed vehicle whose velvet-padded bench seats included clever fold-out footrests. The elder Mr. Vasilver took the forward-facing side while Wisteria and Byron sat together on the opposite side. With the smooth ride given by the cab’s impeccable suspension, there was little to distract Wisteria from her inner seething. She was still angry about all of the events at the Association: the infuriating complaints about nothing, that humiliating vote to close the session. And almost as upset at Byron for asking her to do it, when he must have known how the members would react. Her father usually stopped her before she made this kind of social blunder – why hadn’t he done so this time? It was maddening.

And that Lord Comfrey! She supposed from later context that he’d meant to help, but being lured into apologizing for her delivery when he was only being sarcastic – ah! Infuriating. She wondered if everyone else had thought her a fool for taking Comfrey literally, or if they assumed that she too was sarcastic. I don’t imagine it matters; neither way is flattering. She hadn’t meant to insult Mr. Edgewick and hated to think she’d added fuel to his irrational resentment. That Lord Comfrey was such a handsome man did nothing to lessen her agitation. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to like him or hate him. On the one hand, at least he had defended her right to be there, and while she had taken a while to realize that was his intention, if she was to be reasonable then she had to admit that was at least as much her fault as his. On the other, she was already rather pining after one attractive gentleman she couldn’t have. If she hated Lord Comfrey, maybe she wouldn’t add a second unattainable lord to the list. Maybe I should find a nice footman or delivery boy to obsess over. If I aim low enough, perhaps I’ll find one I can have, she thought glumly. After brooding for some minutes, Wisteria finally mustered the energy to ask Bryon, “Was he serious, do you think?”

“Lord Comfrey? About consulting work? Yes, certainly.” Byron put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her to his side. “His compliment on your presentation wasn’t sarcastic, either.”

Wisteria nodded. She rested her cheek against her brother’s shoulder and closed her eyes, not angry enough with Byron to reject comforting. From context it hadn’t made sense for Lord Comfrey to be sarcastic, but it was always best to check.

“It’s a good opportunity for you, Wisteria,” their father said. “Lord Comfrey’s an influential man. Seat in Assembly, you know. And…well, he’d be a good man for Vasilver Trading to cultivate a connection with.”

“Then why are you suggesting I do it?” Wisteria asked. “Wouldn’t anyone else be better?”

Mr. Vasilver coughed. “Well. He didn’t ask for anyone else. He asked for you.”

“It’ll be fine, Teeri.” Byron squeezed her opposite shoulder. “Lord Comfrey already saw what you’re like. If he found anything objectionable, he’d not have suggested it.”

“Thank you, Byron.”

He glanced down at her. “Not being sarcastic now, are you?”

“No.” Wisteria considered this. “Do you truly think that listening to me lecture for an hour covers all the ways I might offend someone?”   

Into the ensuing silence, her father conceded, “Perhaps not all the ways.”

Byron grimaced. “Still something, though. And you’re a good speaker, Teeri. You’ve a keen intellect and a shrewd mind for finance. Ought to show it as an advantage, right?”

“Is that why you wanted me to be the one to speak?”

Her brother shifted against the velvet-cushioned bench. “Might’ve factored in. You were the best person for it, though. And the one who argued we should share the information instead of keeping it for our own advantage.”

“A well-informed marketplace benefits everyone save liars and criminals,” Wisteria said.

Byron raised a hand between them, palm-out. “Not arguing! But that’s my point – you see things differently than most. More clearly. Half those insights were ones you’d come up with. Ought to be you explaining them.”

Wisteria did not feel insightful; she felt like everything she’d said was so obvious it hardly bore repeating. But that made sense, in its way: so many other things were so obvious to everyone but her that no one considered that she might not grasp them. It might as well work in the converse occasionally. “Very well. But the next time you want me to do something for multiple reasons, I would appreciate it if you would share them all.”

“Sorry. Guess it would help you evaluate it better.” Byron rubbed the back of his neck.

“Yes. And to hate you less when it turned out to be a disaster for reasons you foresaw.”

Byron turned away, mumbling, “Didn’t think they’d be outright rude like that.”

“Next time, Byron.” Wisteria patted his shoulder and spoke no more of it.

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