Guarded (69/141)

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Nik was guarded now, and uneasy. During the meal, he had glanced in the direction of Miss Vasilver’s table enough times that the lady to his right had teased him about it. At that moment, he realized he was inviting the very speculations his father had warned him would occur. Not merely because he’d brought Miss Vasilver, but because he was acting besotted. Gazing off into space with a smile on his face as he thought about their earlier conversation, waiting impatiently for the meal to end so he could rejoin her, looking towards her table to catch a glimpse of her again – this was the kind of thing that made people talk. He might as well be Miss Dalsterly trying to catch Justin’s eye, the way he’d been carrying on.

Realizing this bothered him on several levels, the least of which was exciting gossip. He and Miss Vasilver were single and of an age and as long as he spoke to her at all, people would speculate about their potential as a match. But it would hardly be juicy gossip: scarcely a whiff of scandal to it apart from the attitude of Nik’s parents towards her.

What troubled him more was that he was used to being guarded, to schooling all inappropriate emotion from his face, to showing only what he intended to show. He had to be; it was vital that his interactions with Justin excite no interest whatsoever in any observer. With women he was less scrupulous, but even that was to a purpose. He’d had several affairs with women, but by flirting shamelessly with any lady young or old, people were less likely to take his behavior with any particular woman – married or otherwise – seriously. Not to mention less likely to consider that his interest might not be confined to women. In any case, unwittingly signaling an obsession with Miss Vasilver was unlike him, unlike his usual control.

Worse still, it meant he was obsessed with Miss Vasilver.

I just like her company. I’m not infatuated with her, he tried to tell himself, long-legged strides carrying him quickly through crowds, gracefully weaving past the other guests to reach her side. And that thought alone was the height of folly. No one ever thinks ‘I’m not infatuated’ unless they are. If I wasn’t infatuated it wouldn’t be a question. I wouldn’t even think about this. As he reached her table, his heart caught at the sight of her. She greeted him in her usual calm, grave manner, and placed her hand in his offered one to rise. Her words were kind, but nothing in her face or voice suggested any particular affection.

He confined his expression to a neutral smile and received, as usual – as always – no smile in return. Savior help me, I’m infatuated with her and half the time I’m not sure she’s anything but tolerating my company. What kind of fool am I?

But when she tucked her fingers into the crook of his arm, they stroked over his jacket and nestled into place with an unnecessary squeeze, and Nik thought, well, perhaps she has some interest in me.

§

Dance at the Ascension Ball was traditional, in sets of four couples each arranged in rectangular formations – gentlemen on one side, ladies on the other – about the palace’s marble-tiled ballroom. Ascension blossoms, winter-blooming purple flowers with yellow streaks, overflowed from stone planters topping chest-height columns all along the walls. The arched ceiling, some four stories high, was a latticework of steel frame and clear glass panes. With the chandeliers blazing within, the glass mirrored the brilliance of the room below and the bejeweled, gaudy guests. Midway up the walls, a high balcony ran about the room, overlooking the dance floor.

With Meg’s cooperation and the unspoken assistance of Nikola, Justin timed his arrival in the ballroom to coincide with Nikola and his companion – Miss Vasilver, of all women. She looked coolly ravishing in a white gown wreathed by a scarlet ruffle, like an icicle set ablaze. Justin wondered at Nikola’s reasoning in bringing his anti-betrothed – and even more, at her motive in accepting. Did she take him as seriously as he thinks when he told her he would not wed her, or does she reason he’ll come around to another way of thinking given time? For that matter, will he change his mind? She was, after all, a strikingly handsome woman and an heiress of considerable means (though a matter of less consequence to Nikola now), as well as intelligent. Nikola had already acknowledged an appreciation for her conversation. Knowing Nikola, having his parents take a dislike to her probably counted to her advantage. Why wasn’t he interested in her, anyway?

The four exchanged cordial greetings as they took their places in the dance, Nikola introducing Miss Vasilver to Justin’s sister. The structure of the dance involved a stately procession of couples through the eight-person formation, with the couple at the lead falling to the end of the formation as the three other couples processed upward. Only a handful of different movements were involved in the first dance, but they were combined in a variety of ways to make up the set, which included frequent changes of partners in crossovers. Meg was, as always, delighted to dance – her husband hated it – but Justin suspected she’d taken an immediate dislike to Miss Vasilver. Meg never cared for any woman who accompanied Nikola. Sometimes Justin wondered if she was jealous of them: Nikola flirted with Meg almost as shamelessly as he did with Lady Dalsterly, and with the same conviction that his attentions would never be taken as serious. Meg responded with a motherly affection – indeed, the blond man was only a few years older than her eldest son – but Justin could not help wondering if she was as immune as Nikola assumed.

The pacing of the dance was such that one would spend a minute or so at a time close enough to converse with each woman in one’s set. Etiquette required one make small talk during these stylized interludes, while the timing mandated it be very small talk indeed. “How are you enjoying the Ascension Ball, Miss Vasilver?” Justin asked as the dance brought them together, right hands raised to shoulder height and touching lightly palm to palm as they turned a measured circle clockwise, side by side and facing opposite directions.

“Oh, I am delighted by it, my lord,” she replied, flat voice belying her words. “Feeling the Blessing of Newlant in person was quite the experience.”

“Your first time here then?” The measure closed and the next began, signaling each dancer to make a half turn and touch left hands instead, moving counterclockwise now.

“A first for my family, even. It’s a great honor to me. Is it quite routine for you, my lord?”

Justin gave the question more thought than he usually did to his words during a dance. “The ball, yes. The Blessing – one does not ever become habituated to it, or at the least I do not.”

She did not smile, and her strangely expressionless tone remained unchanged in her reply of, “I am glad it is not just me, my lord. I do not even know what words to use to describe it.”

“Unsettling,” Justin offered, with a smile.

She tilted her head as the measure changed and they stepped apart, Justin bowing to her and her curtsying. “That would be one,” she agreed gravely, and then they were turning to their next partners.   

Justin watched Nikola and Miss Vasilver with half an eye through the next several measures – neither dance steps nor small talk were demanding activities in themselves, leaving ample opportunity to people-watch. Nikola was in usual form, smiling and charming with each woman in turn – a charm entirely lost on Miss Vasilver. It wasn’t just that she didn’t smile for Justin: she did not smile for anyone. The other two gentlemen in their set were oppressed by her solemnity, their own countenances sobering when they took their turns with her. Nikola showed no sign of such reserve, almost as amiable with Miss Vasilver as with Meg, whom he’d known far longer. Still, that explained Nikola’s stated disinterest in her: it would be unlike him to persist in the face of such obvious indifference, no matter how beautiful she might be.

Except, if she was indifferent, why accept the invitation? Meg would come for the Ball itself, regardless of who brought her, but Miss Vasilver looked as bland about her surroundings as she did about her fellow dancers. What an enigma you are, Miss Vasilver. I cannot make you out at all, Justin thought as he and Meg danced and chatted idly about her son Daniel. But I always have liked a challenge. He smiled, resolved to un-riddle her yet.


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