Justin did not know what he was doing, which bothered him as much as anything else.
Other than Nikola, Justin had no close friends. He had a wide range of acquaintances, and a fondness for many of them. Even silly giggling girls and overstuffed peers were amusing in their own ways. But all of them were interchangeable, each with some uses and one no better than the other as far as company went, only differing in the details. There was no reason to cultivate any particular one for the sake of mere companionship. He preferred to keep them at arm’s length: it discouraged hangers-on and presumption. Even with people he screwed – especially with people he screwed – he recoiled from the appearance of attachment. In part that was due to the need for discretion, but it was a personal preference as well. He did not want be dependent on any one individual for anything. If his admiration for Nikola had not always been so intense, he would never have let their friendship progress as far as it had.
And now Wisteria Vasilver threatened to do the same. She was unlike anyone else he knew, with her quick grasp of details, her deep understanding of finance and investment, her cool, calm, analytical mind. Not to mention her remarkable bravery, her fearless, dispassionate evaluation of risks. Men called him brave, but Justin was not the one who – with both hands tied! – had tackled an armed man half again his size. Even without her considerable physical appeal, he wished to see more of her. With her considerable physical appeal, he wasn’t sure what to make of her. He was certain that she was a virgin who wished to preserve that state for marriage. Perhaps he could persuade her otherwise, but…he liked her. He didn’t want to risk that for mere physical gratification. Apart from the way he kept acting as if he wanted to risk it. He hadn’t meant to embrace her this afternoon, never mind kiss her. Yet it had seemed the sensible thing to do at the time. Madness in retrospect. Perhaps I ought to propose to her. Isn’t that what normal bachelors do with maiden women they admire and desire? But it was far too soon in their acquaintance for such thoughts, even if he’d been a normal man. Which he wasn’t. If I wed, would Nikola break from me? Even if he did not, it would be still harder to arrange assignations with him.
Justin assumed he would see Nikola again eventually. The alternative did not bear contemplation.
He arrived home without reaching a resolution even in his own mind. In the foyer, Justin shrugged out of his overcoat, letting the footman take it as he asked his butler, “Messages while I was out?”
“Two callers left cards, my lord, and three letters delivered.” The uniformed man proffered a silver tray with the papers on it. “The top one is from Lord Nikola.”
Justin couldn’t contain his smile, his heart lightening at the name alone. He collected the correspondence with more haste than necessary. “Thank you, Frederick. That will be all.”
Justin went to the cosy second-floor parlor, taking the seat by the window that Nikola always chose when he called. He put the cards and other letters aside without looking at them, holding Nikola’s in his hand. An actual letter in an envelope, not a folded page sealed. For a few moments he gazed at his name, penned in Nikola’s own deft slanted hand, then broke it open.
I must apologize – for quite a few things, in fact, but first and most of all for not contacting you before now. I know you’ve called, and I cannot readily describe how much it troubles me to have turned you away. Friendship alone demands a better reception than that, nevermind the very great debt that I owe you. To have treated you so shabbily after you have done so much for me…Common decency insists I return the call, but I do not know when I will be in a position to do so. But if you were so kind as to call at Anverlee Manor yet again, say on Monday morning, I should be very happy to receive you. I know it’s nonsensical to say in one breath “I cannot see you” and with the next “I’ve missed you”, but it is nonetheless true. Anthser and Jill and the other greatcats are good people, but they are not you. And there are the (admittedly rather tattered in my case) obstacles of class between them and I. It’s not the same as conversing with a peer. I do hope you will excuse my lapses and return, my friend.
I cannot thank you enough for rescuing me. I do not write that as hyperbole, but literal truth. I understand from Anthser’s account that he and Miss Vasilver played critical roles in finding me, but all that would have been for naught were it not for your skill and courage. I have never been so glad to hear anything in my entire life (and hope never to be again) as the sound of your voice ordering Brogan to surrender. I shudder to think what would have become of Miss Vasilver and myself without your intervention. I should sooner be exiled to the Abandoned World than have spent five more minutes as that man’s prisoner. I have done a poor job indeed of expressing my gratitude thus far, but never imagine I do not feel it. I will see what I may do about rectifying that lapse in the future. In the meantime: thank you, Comfrey.
I am not myself of late – I imagine you’ve noticed. I have a mountain of apologies to write for canceled engagements. Jill thinks I am mad for caring: “Nobody expects you to apologize for bein’ tortured.” Savior, I hope the whole world doesn’t know everything that transpired. But Jill thinks all humans mad, and I know better than most that is untrue. Apologizing for my indisposition is perhaps not needful, but it’s one of the saner things I’ve done of late. I am trying to make some use of my time, organizing my own notes on my work and cross-referencing them with my great-grandmother’s and her grandfather’s. It’s slow going, but I daresay a worthwhile project.
I hope this finds you well, Comfrey, and enjoying all the usual Ascension things. I look forward to hearing your dry commentary on Lady Dalsterly’s Fifth Night supper and Elsbury’s dance and everything else I am liable to miss this year. Take care, my most excellent friend.
Your obedient servant,
Justin touched his fingertips to the final sentence, a smile still on his lips. Monday! he thought, heart soaring. It did trouble him that the date was five days off and that Nikola wrote as if he were a recluse or a pariah, with all plans canceled. Why? With his body healed and himself a mind-healer, what could be troubling him so? Does he have some undiagnosable condition?
But five days was nothing: through most of the year Justin went months without seeing him, while Nikola was at Fireholt and Justin in Comfrey. Even when they were both in Gracehaven for the season, they might go a week without seeing one another. The important thing was that Nikola would see him, still cared for him and thought well of him. The typical round of parties would be far duller without Nikola there to enliven them, but it was of no consequence. I could wait five days, or five weeks, or five years if I have to, so long as Nikola will be there at the end. He smiled at the dramatic turn of his own thoughts. Being cynical and unromantic is just another of the many pretenses of my life. He traced his fingers over the words, reading the letter again, guessing at the emotions that went unwritten in it. The unhappy, apologetic tone bothered him more on subsequent reading, but the tangible proof of Nikola’s regard was too precious not to re-read. Justin gave over after the third reading and composed a quick note of reply.
You know I would not give an overripe berry for convention in this case. Any man who would is an insufferable pompous ass, and I would like to think I am not such. (Pompous, yes, undeniably, and an ass – alas, I cannot refute it – but surely a sufferable one.) Had you done anything to forgive or excuse, I would readily do so. Since you have not, there is no need. It will be my pleasure to wait on you Monday.
Your devoted friend,
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