Byron returned to the back parlor a few minutes after Lord Comfrey’s departure. “Well?”
Wisteria was sitting again by the fire, her feet up and her mind still struggling to encompass this strange new world. “Well what?”
“Did he ask you?”
There is no way – “Ask me what?”
“To marry you! Don’t tell me he didn’t?”
“Byron, what in Paradise makes you think Lord Comfrey would ask me to marry him?”
Her brother sighed and flopped into the velvet chair opposite hers. “He’s been calling lately. Everyone’s talked about you two since the ball and the rescue. And he’d that terrified, agitated look of a man about to be hung. Or propose. One of the two. Thought for sure…” He gave another theatrical sigh. “What’d he want, then?”
“I should rather not talk about it.” Wisteria wanted more than anything to talk about it, but after Lord Comfrey’s request, it didn’t seem right to do so. Unless she was sure she was accepting him.
Byron gave her a sharp look. “He insult you?”
“No, of course not. And you may stop playing twenty questions with that one.”
“Oh, very well.” Byron gave her a comical look of long suffering. “There’s a house for let at Juniper Road and Azalea, near the warehouse district. Convenient for business. Know the one, with the gables and the little brick wall around it?”
Wisteria had never felt less like indulging Byron’s unserious thoughts on setting up his own household. “Do people truly expect Lord Comfrey to address me?”
“Eh. Maybe not ‘expect’. Consider it possible, sure.”
“Why, because he saved me? Does that happen with officers of the law too or is it only lords?”
“Don’t know, never happened to anyone I know before. But it’s not just that. Everyone knows he danced attendance on you at the Ball, after Lord Nikola left. And this makes, what, six times he’s called? Seven? In the last two or three weeks?”
“Some of those were for business.”
“That’s his excuse, yes. Look, not saying he’s serious. Only, he’s Lord Comfrey. Doesn’t attach. Kensleigh’s sister follows these things, says Comfrey never calls on anyone twice in one week. Any woman, that is. Maybe any man, for all I know. So. Noteworthy.”
“Oh.” They were interrupted then by Byron’s valet: Byron needed to get ready for a dinner engagement with friends.
After Byron left, Wisteria started to go to her office to brood, then considered that her office was less of a haven during the season – her mother sometimes chased her out, insisting she be sociable rather than work through the holidays. That Wisteria prefered working to socializing made no impression upon her. So Wisteria chose the unused third-floor schoolroom as her hiding place instead. The room was drafty despite the shuttered windows, so she dragged the big comfy tutor’s chair next to the heating vent and turned on the gaslights.
Bundled beneath an old quilt against the chill, Wisteria sorted through her thoughts and feelings.
She had been, to some extent, looking for a husband for the last nine years. Some years this search had been more active than others; when she was in Southern Vandu it had been confined to correspondence. Arguably, the correspondence had gone better than her efforts by more typical society events. She had received one offer, when she was twenty-one, by the impoverished younger son of a successful goldsmith. She had not liked him and did not think him attached to anything beyond the idea of her dowry, and so had declined.
When she had been very young, she had imagined handsome men vying for her favor. It had not occurred to her at any point in the last several years that this would ever happen. Certainly not with two men she particularly admired. Not to mention desired. Part of her still wondered if this was some peculiar joke on Lord Comfrey’s part. The notion was unkind, given he had been so agitated even she could tell he was not himself.
Another part was overawed, amazed by the idea that any man, nevermind one as powerful and attractive as Lord Comfrey, would be so moved by her. And his offer had to be for her own person: Vasilver was not Comfrey’s equal in wealth, title, or connections. From a mercantile perspective, it was a brilliant match for her, the sort that other women gossiped about with envy. Not a humiliating one for him, but by no means an equal match.
From a personal perspective: she did not know him as well as she wished, but he had been excellent company at the ball, and very kind to her since. Even more than the heroism of his rescue, Wisteria was endeared by his willingness to overlook the many peculiarities in her behavior, such as his acceptance without rancor of both her wanton behavior and her mercurial switches to reserve. That offhand remark – ‘I should not care if you had had a hundred lovers’ – was hyperbole no doubt, but promiscuity was not a failing most men would overlook in a wife. That he had offered even when she had given him reason to doubt her chastity was telling. And perhaps important, given all she had done. Beyond personality, his physical appeal was undeniable. The thought of undressing him in his – their – own home, sanctioned by law, custom, and society alike, thrilled her. She had once thought herself unmoved by such irrational considerations, but at the moment the influence of his kiss, his caress, could not be denied. Had he not told her of Lord Nikola’s intentions, she would have accepted him at once and never mind how serious a decision it was to make on impulse. He is the kind of man who will risk his life for his friends, who will fight and kill for them, and not even wish for gratitude. In all that list of pros and cons, never once did he mention the debt I owe him. That says as much about Lord Comfrey as all the words he spoke.
Nor did he have to tell me of Lord Nikola’s intentions, and he would have been within his rights to request a prompt reply rather than urging me to consider the question in depth. No, whatever he might say of himself, Lord Comfrey was a good man.
But so was Lord Nikola. Does he truly intend to ask me? She had not seen him since the rescue, although he had sent a wonderful letter, gracious and sweet and humble, inviting her to call on Wednesday. Would he ask then? The whole idea seemed so improbable, nearly as unlikely as Lord Comfrey himself asking. But why would Lord Comfrey carry the tale if it were untrue? Do I want to wed Lord Nikola? The instinctive answer was Yes!
But I cannot wed them both. Whom would I prefer for a husband?
Wisteria tried to consider the question systematically, but memories and feelings about both men kept jumbling in her head. Lord Nikola, eagerly inviting her to speak about anything at all in that absurd extravagant glass carriage. Lord Comfrey pulling her against him on her office couch and kissing her, then asking if that distracted her. Even Lord Comfrey’s sarcastic remarks at the Association which had so irritated her when she realized her mistake in taking them for sincere – ‘Your lecture is too sophisticated for him, miss’ – had a charm in retrospect. She couldn’t think this through in her head alone: she wanted to organize her thoughts in writing. In a chart. After a few minutes, she rummaged about the schoolroom for a slate and chalk and set to creating one. Perhaps if I score each on the various qualities one expects in a husband, it’ll be easier to see which I should choose.
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