On Wednesday morning, Wisteria shut herself in her office with the Colbury files – boxes and boxes of them – to work on her analysis. Perhaps if she made some headway on that project, she could contact Lord Comfrey on the pretext of offering a preliminary report. She worked alone; her secretary and most of Vasilver Trading’s staff had the week after Ascension off for holiday.
Wisteria heard the knocker against the front door but paid it no heed; she almost never had callers during the Ascension season. So she was surprised when Mary came to her office to say Lord Comfrey had called and awaited her in the parlor. “Oh, it must be business,” Wisteria said, making a snap decision. “Please show him to my office.”
Mary hesitated. “He’s dressed for calling, ma’am.”
“Of course. He’ll have a dinner engagement after this and not time to change beforehand. Bring him here.” Wisteria very much doubted Lord Comfrey was here on business, but her parents and siblings would come to greet company in the parlor, while her office would be safer from interruption. Mary bobbed acquiescence and departed. Wisteria left her files to stand near the door and wait for his arrival, too impatient to let even a moment of his visit be wasted.
Lord Comfrey was dressed for a social call indeed, magnificent in a double-breasted jacket of deep green with gold knotwork buttons and matched trim, high-collared white shirt reaching almost to his chin, elegant neckcloth flaring from the jacket opening. He was even more attractive than she remembered; the irregular lines of nose and cheek gave a roguish cast to his dark-eyed smile. When he took her hand to kiss, Wisteria caressed his palm as she felt the warmth of his breath against her skin. It took a moment for her to remember herself enough to dismiss the maid. “My lord, thank you so much for calling. I’ve been reviewing the Colbury files,” she said as Mary closed the door behind her.
He chuckled. “I didn’t mean to keep you at work through the season, Miss Vasilver. Especially not after all that’s happened. How have you been?”
“Worried, impatient, and curious.” Wisteria gestured to the sofa. “Please, make yourself comfortable. How are you? Have you seen Lord Nikola?”
Lord Comfrey’s smile faded at her questions. He moved stiffly, and waited for her to sit – she chose the center because she wanted to be near him – before he lowered himself beside her with an awkwardness unusual in him. “I’m fine. Lord Nikola is not up to receiving visitors.”
“Was there some injury the Blessed missed?” Wisteria asked, concerned by his stiffness. “You don’t look well.”
“Mmm? Oh.” He chuckled again, shaking his head. “No. That’s just from me being an idiot yesterday. Think nothing of it; I am in perfect health.”
“Yesterday? What happened yesterday?”
“Nothing of consequence, my dear. Tell me, are you quite recovered?” Lord Comfrey leaned forward to brush his fingers against her cheek. “You seem well, but you always do.”
She put her hand over his. “Nothing happened to me, truly. I doubt I would be bruised today even if I’d not petitioned a healer.” Wisteria pressed his hand closer to her cheek. She spoke softly; they were close enough that he would hear even a whisper. “But I keep thinking about his hands.” She didn’t need to say whose hands. “I couldn’t tell what Brogan had done to his hands. I still don’t know. I’m not even sure what I saw, exactly. Blood. Raw flesh where the fingernails should have been.” The words poured out; this surely belonged on the list of Things Not To Discuss but she couldn’t stop herself. “Something that wasn’t blood, oozing. I should have done something more for him, after we were free, but I didn’t know what—”
Lord Comfrey reached out to enfold her in his arms. She leaned into him, feeling clumsy and awkward, craving contact and not knowing how to get it. But Lord Comfrey did: he tugged her unresisting into his lap, positioned her so one of her hands slid about his waist, and let her crumple his immaculate neckcloth beneath her cheek. He nestled his chin against her hair, whispering, “Shhh. Shhh. It’s not your fault.”
“But I could have checked, and I didn’t. I could have sent a messenger to Anverlee Manor. If we’d known Saturday night—”
His arms tightened around her, uncomfortably so. She curled closer, glad for the sense of steel and strength in him. “There’s no reason you should have. You did the right thing,” he said into her hair. “Many right things. You went into the den of those beasts, them thinking you a captive, and all the while you were in control. You were magnificent, my dear. Brogan is fortunate I arrived when I did; I doubt he would have lasted another few minutes against the two of you.”
Wisteria curled her fingers around his lapel as she burrowed closer for comfort. “After he’d surrendered, when you kicked him in the face, I thought: Good. I wanted to kill him. I think if I’d found a knife instead of rope, I would have. There were pliers in that pot. The one with the coals, that Lord Nikola threw. I remember seeing the pliers and thinking, ‘that’s odd. Why would you put pliers in a pot full of coals?’”
“Don’t.” Lord Comfrey murmured.
She barely heard him as she went on, “‘Why would you have a pot full of coals anyway?’ And I didn’t realize then but I’d noticed rust on the hammer I used, rust on the head and shaft. But it couldn’t have been rust because the shaft was wood. It was blood—”
“Don’t.” He stroked her hair along the curve of the twist, other arm encircling her waist. “You shouldn’t think about things like this. You shouldn’t have to think about things like this.”
“But I can’t, I can’t stop thinking about it, it doesn’t matter that I don’t want to know the answer, my mind just keeps going back to it, turning over the things that didn’t make sense and trying—” Wisteria stopped as Lord Comfrey tilted her head up and kissed her. He was tender this time, still assured but with a different kind of need. She closed her eyes and wriggled higher against his body to return the kiss.
After a long moment, he broke off to whisper against her mouth. “There, did that take your mind off of it?”
Wisteria blinked and nodded. “But I’m not sure what I’m thinking about now is any more appropriate.”
“I disagree,” he said, and kissed her again. She slipped her hand beneath his jacket, caressing smooth linen to feel the warmth of the flesh beneath. Her fingers clenched around the fabric to give herself purchase, willing her mind to stop thinking and just feel. Lord Comfrey cupped the base of her head with one hand and let the other wander down her back. He did not try to undress her this time; she wasn’t sure if she was sorry or relieved. Her own hand dropped to unfasten the buttons of his jacket without Wisteria thinking about it until she pushed it open.
Then she found herself thinking of the carriage, and of kissing Lord Nikola, and of what kind of woman she must be to behave so. Wisteria pulled away; Lord Comfrey released her at the first indication of resistance, and she fell back in a graceless heap to the center of the couch. “I’m sorry,” she said, automatically.
“I will forgive you under the sole condition that you never again apologize when the fault is mine,” Lord Comfrey said. He took her hand gently, as if afraid any stronger grip might startle her to flight. “I am sorry, my dear. I am usually better than this at pretending to be a gentleman.”
“Pretending, my lord?” She wanted to tell him she wasn’t apologizing for starting but for stopping, but that begged the question of why she had stopped and she did not know how to articulate that answer.
“Indeed. There are no true gentlemen in this world, Miss Vasilver. Only men who are more or less good at feigning it.” One corner of his mouth turned up as she glanced sidelong at him. “But Lord Nikola once told me that you can tell a true villain by his opinion of his fellows. A good man sees good everywhere, while a ruffian thinks everyone as corrupt as himself.”
Wisteria thought of Brogan, convinced that Lord Nikola was withholding his Blessing out of spite or greed. “I cannot allow you to offer such a slur against yourself, my lord. I must insist you retract it at once.”
That made him laugh. “And if I do not? I have it on good authority that you cannot pout.”
“I shall fetch my mother’s lavender perfume and cry at you, then.”
“Ah, not that. I retract my ill-considered words.” Lord Comfrey lifted her hand and kissed her fingers. “Shall we speak of some less provocative subject? You could tell me what you’ve found on Colbury. I promise not to defend his honor against you.”
Wisteria accepted the diversion with some relief, fleeing the couch for the safety of her desk. “I’ve found a few more oddities, my lord. Nothing criminal or fraudulent, but well short of best practices…”
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