Wisteria could not believe Lord Nikola had come back. She’d been agitated when she heard of his arrival, and enlisted her maid’s aid to select a presentable outfit for noble company and to arrange her hair for a suitor. She’d even grown impatient while Helen tried to fix it into an elaborate updo – “Something quick, if you will” – resulting in the comb and the simple spill of curls. That was doubtless a mistake. Wisteria needed every advantage other, normal, people might give her in this business. She would give few enough to herself. Men were used to waiting while women fussed over their attire. Surely Lord Nikola would not have left because she was taking too long. Well, it didn’t matter now. He held the door into the garden for her, then offered his arm. Which was a perfectly ordinary thing to do on a wide variety of social occasions, and she had done it more times than she could remember with relatives and acquaintances young and old, and there was no reason at all for her heart to catch or her fingers to wish to stray from their appointed place at the crook of his arm. She wondered what he would say if she asked, May I caress you, my lord? Even she didn’t need her father there to tell her she could not ask that.
For wintertime, it was not a bad day: cold enough that Wisteria was glad she’d put a coat and gloves on before they stepped out, but not freezing or windy. “I’m afraid the garden has little to recommend itself at this time of year, my lord.”
“It’s fine. Winter has enough miserable days that leave one cooped up inside that I like to take advantage of the ones that aren’t dreadful. Just to be…outdoors. I hope it’s not too cold for you, miss?”
“Not at all,” she answered truthfully. The garden path wound between mostly-dormant flower beds, only the white and pink wintertater blooms starting to open, marking the ripening root vegetables below ground. The statuary beneath the bare branches of the trees added most of the visual interest, each its own small tableau. Most of it was religious in theme, in detailed, idealized Markavian style: a woman fleeing from a monster of the Abandoned World here, children sheltering under the arms of a saint there. Wisteria considered saying something about them, or their provenance. That was the proper course, wasn’t it? Make inconsequential chatter about things no one cared about. Normal people did that, for reasons she had never begun to understand. She had no shortage of things she did care about to discuss. Wisteria chose one of those instead, one that she thought – with more hope than certainty – would not be inappropriate. “Please allow me to apologize again for my behavior of the other day—”
Lord Nikola frowned, gesturing with his free hand. Wisteria could not tell if he was politely waving off the apology or doubting the sincerity of her words. “You were fine, miss.”
That sounded promising. “I did not intend to presume, my lord, or be crass. I regret presenting you with that…document.”
“I don’t,” Lord Nikola said.
At that, Wisteria aborted her apology, instead turning to look at him as they walked side-by-side along the stone path. “You don’t?”
He glanced to her, a lopsided smile on his lips. “It’s made interesting reading.”
“You read it? Beyond the bit you skimmed during the call?”
Lord Nikola nodded, his handsome face in profile, the straight planes of nose and forehead and the shadow of his sharply-cut jawline stark in the winter sunlight, emphasizing the pallor of his Haventure skin. He was very tall – she was of a height with most men, and it was peculiar to have her face on level with his neck. He fell silent while Wisteria wrestled with which question she wanted to ask most and whether or not it was permissible to ask any of them. Before she had reached a decision, Lord Nikola stopped walking and turned to face her, his deep blue eyes capturing hers. She forgot her train of thought entirely. “Miss Vasilver, you said the other day you preferred difficult truths…is that…that is…may I be honest with you?”
Oh. Wild fantasies of what kind of inappropriate things he might want to say flitted unbidden across her mind. It is probably something dreadful, such as that he finds me repellent. But that didn’t matter – “Oh, yes. Please do. I should like that more than anything, my lord.”
“I am not at all interested in marriage,” Lord Nikola said in a rush. “I suppose I will need to marry at some point, but with a century or so ahead of me I see no need to rush to it. If it weren’t for Anverlee’s present financial disarray, I doubt my parents would see a need to rush it either. But…”
Wisteria waited a moment for him to continue. When he didn’t, she tried prompting: “But you intend to do so for the sake of your family?” Many people did: that was normal, too.
“No!” Lord Nikola said. “Not at all. That is…” He trailed off again.
For the first time, it occurred to Wisteria that he might not be saying what he thought because he was not sure himself. “There is no reason you should have to,” she said into the silence. Wisteria had resigned herself long ago to the likelihood that any marriage she entered into would be practical and without romance. She was not the sort of woman to inspire passion in anyone; after considerable research on the topic, she still did not understand so much as the basics of flirtation and coquetry struck her as absurd if not insane. Romance sounded lovely in books, but she had no idea how one translated it to the reality of Paradise, or if such a thing was even possible. Marrying a man who also sought a practical alliance was her best hope. But wedding one who was repulsed by that idea? That had a whole new layer of unpleasantness to it. If she was supposed to be encouraging him to do so – well, that would just have to get in line with all the other tests she had failed.
His lips compressed into a thin flat line. “In a more-perfect Paradise, perhaps.”
“In this one,” Wisteria said. “Your father’s estate – and yours, for that matter – are underutilized and illiquid, but those problems are solvable with an appropriate partner. A business partner, that is, not necessarily a marital one. It’s not as though your family can bring nothing to the table but a title and a bloodline. In truth, I ought to have a put together a business proposition for Anverlee instead of trying to fashion an engagement out of it.”
Lord Nikola watched her, blinking. “A business proposition?”
“I am much better at those. I imagine you noticed.”
He laughed. “Oh, I don’t know. Some of the uniquely marital clauses were most intriguing.”
“‘Intriguing’? Is that a polite word for ‘outrageous’? Or ‘unspeakable’?”
“Not at all. Or if it is supposed to be unspeakable, I found it refreshing to have it spoken. Written.” Lord Nikola waved a hand. “On article five, I found myself wondering if you had a lover in mind already or if you were only assuming that I did.”
“Oh, no wonder your parents were horrified.” Wisteria hadn’t even thought about how the clauses on extra-marital affairs would cast her current virtue in doubt. Idiot! “No, I don’t have any candidates – I’m a virgin, of course – I didn’t even mean to imply you would, my lord. I’m just…”
Too thorough, she planned to add, but she was cut off as Lord Nikola said, “Ah, no! I apologize, Miss Vasilver. I didn’t – that is – I shouldn’t have said – that was inexcusable of me. I meant no insult, I assure you. Please forgive me.” Wisteria tilted her head; he was flushed and spoke quickly, hands held up with palms out: even to her unreliable skills of observation, he looked flustered and mortified. He muttered under his breath, “Now I remember why one doesn’t speak one’s thoughts.”
“Oh, please don’t say that, Lord Nikola. I was not offended—” should I have been? The context of his words had been nonjudgemental; it hadn’t occurred to her that he might mean them harshly “—and in any case I should a thousand times rather you called me a slattern to my face than that you thought it unspoken, and let me believe I had your good opinion when I did not. And was unable to answer the accusation.”
Lord Nikola faced her on the garden path, yellowing plants and the black branches of bare trees surrounding them. He bent his head towards Wisteria, round blue eyes searching her face for something she doubted was there. Gently taking both her hands in his, he said, “As you say. But I did not – I did not, and I do not think anything ill of you, Miss Vasilver. Quite the opposite. I would not have you believe otherwise, even for a moment.”
Wisteria lowered her eyelids, gratified. “Thank you, my lord.” He bowed then and kissed her gloved hand, and this time she had no doubt she had his respect.
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