After his wife had disappeared into the woods, Nikola re-seated himself sideways on the blanket, legs stretched to one side and loose hair thrown over his shoulder as he leaned on one arm. Wet and disheveled and gorgeous, he made no effort to speak, only waited.
Justin paced, mind so whiplashed by the conflict between reality and expectation that he could not form a coherent thought. At length, he dropped to sit cross-legged before Nikola. “Did you – did you know…?” He trailed off, words still failing him.
“Had I the smallest idea of her reacting so…positively, I should have acted months ago.” Nikola offered a lopsided smile. “No, when we discussed extramarital affairs, our understanding was that fidelity would be preferable. I did not – I do not – wish to give her pain, and it seemed…advisable at the time.”
“How in Paradise could you ever bring such a topic up? With your wife?”
Nikola laughed. “What makes you think I brought it up? Did I never tell you, Justin? She raised the subject at our first meeting. It’s why my parents took such a dislike to her for a time.”
“She planned to have an affair? And told you so?”
“No, not at all. Well, not at that time.”
“There was more than one time?”
He nodded, chuckling at Justin’s boggled expression. “Wisteria likes to prepare for contingencies, and to be straightforward about…everything.” His smile turned dreamy. “She is the most wonderful woman in Paradise. The first time she didn’t have anyone in mind, but she knew my reputation and did not want to assume I’d be faithful. In retrospect, she was entirely right in that. The next time was when I proposed, in fact. Do you know she nearly refused me?”
Justin blinked a few times. “I did not.”
“She thought herself unfit for marriage because she wanted another man as well as myself.”
“Did she.” Justin listened with a deepening sense of dread.
Nikola rolled to sit with his legs before him, leaning back on his arms and gazing at the sky. “I had to assure her that I would rather share her with another man than have no claim on her at all.”
Justin swallowed. “…would you?”
Another chuckle. “Paradise, yes. When she first spoke of it, I was so jealous of that man, whoever he was – she would not tell me his name. I would think of that faceless individual and wonder what attraction he must hold for her. Was he too lowborn for her to wed, and that was why she chose me instead? Married already and thus ineligible? I cannot say the question did not trouble me. But having no part of her, that was intolerable. It was months before I had any suspicion who he might be.” Nikola rolled to face Justin again, torso supported on one arm while the other extended to caress Justin’s cheek. “But I believe now she must have meant you. And…I have no idea how you feel about my wife, Justin. But I find the idea of sharing her with you concerns me not at all.” He scooted closer and leaned forward to kiss Justin.
“Nikola – you cannot – your wife – you cannot mean this.” A flare of hope burned inside him: so hot it hurt, disappointment certain.
“Can’t I?” Nikola nipped at Justin’s lower lip, tantalizing. “But I do. I love you both so much; I can think of no more perfect Paradise than one where I may share you with one another, where I may see you both as happy together as I am with each of you.”
Overwhelmed, Justin wrapped his arms about Nikola and toppled him backwards to press him against the blanket and cover him with kisses. The blond man laughed in delight and answered his embrace. After a few moments, Nikola rolled Justin onto his back and pinned him down, kneeling over him with his hands on Justin’s shoulders. “I take that to mean the idea is not without appeal to you as well?”
Justin growled, wrapping his hands over Nikola’s rear and squeezing. “It may have escaped your notice, boy, that your wife is the most desirable woman in Paradise, but it has not escaped mine. And I have clearly gone mad with lust and am trapped in some demon-fashioned delusion because this cannot be happening. So let us find Mrs. Striker at once, because curst if I am not taking fullest advantage of this hallucination before I have the misfortune of being cured by my excellent mind-healer friend.”
As they walked down the trail, Nikola spoke of how to approach his wife. “We should ask her outright if she’s interested. I know that sounds too forthright, but she’ll appreciate it. She needs clear explanations. If we tried seducing her without speaking plainly first, she’d be confused and upset.”
Justin nodded slowly. Is that why she always withdrew from my embrace? How does one explain such desires in words?
Nikola continued, answering his unspoken question. “Perhaps start by asking her if you are that other man she said she was attracted to when I proposed. Oh, and reassure her that it’s all right for her to answer.”
Would she mention the proposal? She’d have to realize I haven’t told Nikola about it or I wouldn’t be asking such an absurd question. Wouldn’t she? Justin lagged behind, mind turning to all the ways this could go wrong.
His tall friend had outpaced him by a few yards before he noticed and turned. “Justin? What is it?”
Aching with desire, Justin stared into those beautiful blue eyes. He’ll hate me if he finds out. I can’t tell him. I can’t lose him, not again. “Perhaps this is a mistake.”
Nikola walked back to stand before him, extending a hand to cup his cheek. “She won’t be offended that we asked, not even if she’s uninterested. She always prefers openness.”
What am I doing? I am the least open man in Paradise. “It’s not that.”
Nikola half-smiled, dipping his head to Justin’s. “Timidity is unlike you, my friend,” he murmured before kissing him.
As he answered the kiss, Justin locked powerful arms around Nikola. He lifted Nikola and pivoted to press him against a tree, kissing and caressing with a hunger that was almost violent, angry.
Justin pulled back, gasping, arms still imprisoning Nikola. The other lord blinked at him in a daze of desire and confusion. “Justin?”
“I know it’s me.” Don’t hate me. “Nikola, I proposed to her.” As soon as the words were out, Justin wanted to take it back. What are you thinking? You’ll ruin everything. You’ve ruined everything.
“What?” Nikola stiffened in his arms.
Please don’t hate me. It was too late now to stop. “The day of our break. I proposed to Wisteria.” Nikola stared at him, tense: Justin couldn’t tell if he didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand. “She did not accept, obviously. But she would have, had it not been for you.”
“You proposed to Wisteria? Directly after I told you I wanted to marry her?”
He dropped his eyes. “Yes.”
Nikola struggled in Justin’s embrace and the stronger man released him, stepping back. Nikola clenched his fists at his sides. “How dare you? Did you hate me so much?”
Justin gave a bark of humorless laughter. “Do you think so little of me, Nikola, that you believe I would propose to a woman out of spite?”
The pale man colored. “Well, why else…would…” He paused, swallowing. “You truly wished to wed her?”
Justin turned away. “She’s only woman I’ve ever wanted as wife. I daresay the only one I’ll ever ask.”
“…I had no idea.”
“I know it was ill-done of me, after you’d stated your intentions, to take advantage of your condition so.” Justin forced himself onward. I can hardly make this worse now. “But I’d just lost you. I did not want to lose her as well. I had to try.”
“But…why would she refuse you?” Nikola asked, so bewildered that Justin chuckled. “Why take my impoverished backwards holding when she could have Comfrey Viscountcy, wealth, and prestige, not to mention the most handsome man in Newlant?”
Justin smiled briefly before sobering. “Did you never ask her why she chose you?”
“She never told me anyone else had offered. I thought the other man ineligible.”
“Did she tell you?”
Justin shook his head. “I did not ask. I did not have to; she chose the better man.”
Nikola snorted. “I don’t even understand why she didn’t accept you at once. Could she have expected me to ask?”
“Well. Yes. Since I told her to.”
“You told her I intended to propose? At the same time that you yourself proposed?”
Justin winced and nodded.
Nikola sank to the ground, his back against the tree. “I don’t know whether I should call you out or thank you.”
“It was ill-done of me.” Justin repeated. He could say that much. He could not apologize, not sincerely. He regretted asking only because he’d been refused. He’d do it all again for the chance that she’d accept.
His friend rubbed a pale hand over angular features. “This is quite a day for revelations. So…if you know that Wisteria wanted you, why do you think it a mistake to ask her now? Do you think she’s changed her mind?”
“No…I thought you’d be angry. If you learned of the proposal.”
Nikola looked up at Justin, still standing on the dirt trail. He extended one hand, and Justin took it, helping Nikola to his feet. “I don’t know. It was ill-done of you. But I cannot swear that I would have done otherwise in your place.” Nikola stroked Justin’s cheek with his thumb. “I cannot claim the moral high ground, not after attempting to seduce my guest with my wife watching.”
“Were you seducing me? I thought I was seducing you.”
“Justin.” Nikola enfolded him in his arms. “I forgive you. And I still mean what I said earlier. I’d rather share you with her, and her with you. Shall we see what Wisteria thinks of it?”
Exhaling, Justin squeezed him. “As you will, my lord. But for the record, I am still certain this is madness.”
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