One of Comfrey’s footmen showed Nik to the private dining room, where Justin set aside a copy of the Times Commerce and welcomed Nik with his usual warm smile and a handshake, making no mention of the delay. He did quirk an eyebrow at Nik’s morning-call attire: formal jacket, neckcloth, lace cuffs, breeches, hose and buckled shoes. Justin was already dressed for riding, in gleaming mahogany knee boots, snug cream jodhpurs and a vest over a plain high-collared shirt, black hair in a simple ponytail.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Comfrey,” Nik apologized anyway, taking a seat at Justin’s cue. The dining table had been collapsed to its smallest state – still large enough for six – and set for two. “I called on Miss Vasilver earlier and did not realize the lateness of the hour.”
“Vasilver? Wait, that girl your parents wanted-up-until-they-didn’t-want you to marry?” Justin motioned to the butler to bring the soup course.
“That’s the one. Have you met her?”
Justin thought for a moment. “I don’t believe so. I know her…father and brother, I believe. From Association events.”
“Pity, you’d like her.”
“What, Miss Too Honest? Me?” Justin raised his dark eyebrows.
Nik smirked. “Perhaps not. But she wouldn’t be bored or perplexed by your business dinners. Brilliant woman.”
“Worse and worse!” Justin shook his head. “How would I impress her with my lordly superiority if I could not depend on patronizing explanations of commerce? I’d be reduced to relying on my title. You know how I despise doing that, Striker.”
“Isn’t that why you maintain your lordly physique?”
Justin grinned. “Have you looked at our peers? There’s nothing lordly about my physique. I’d need to maintain a regimen of strict rest and constant consumption to achieve that.” He leaned back and slouched, puffing out his cheeks and stomach in an effort to look fat. Even that attempt could not disguise the breadth of his muscular shoulders and chest.
Nikola laughed. “That would leave some kind of impression, no doubt.”
“It always has on me.” Justin returned to his normal straight-backed posture as a footman placed bowls of lobster bisque before each lord. “Alas, I am far too fond of sport to give myself over to my appropriate place of huffing and wheezing after a quarter-hour’s walk.” He waved his spoon dismissively and added, “One of my many failings,” before tucking in to the soup.
They ate for some minutes in silence, Nik reflecting on his conversation with Miss Vasilver. Strange that he could not remember seeing her smile, even after hours of talking. Every witticism she delivered was with an expression so deadpan one could only gauge her intent by context. She never laughed at his banter, and yet he had the clear sense that she’d been amused nonetheless. She did banter in return, after all.
“Striker?” Justin said, and Nik realized with a guilty start the other man was repeating himself.
“Yes, excuse me?”
Justin gestured with his spoon to the Nik’s forgotten and cooling soup. “Don’t care for the bisque? Mrs. Alsberry will be devastated.” Justin’s own bowl was empty. “Or I could eat it for you and spare her feelings. I liked it.”
“No, it’s good, sorry.” Nik set to consuming the rest, while Justin sent the footman to fetch himself another bowl.
Justin waited a few moments, then asked, “So, is the engagement back on, then?”
“What? No! No, of course not. Not there ever was an engagement.” Nik shook his head with enough vehemence that he had to rescue his wavy ponytail before it fell into the soup. “In fact, we’ve an explicit understanding that there will be no such understanding.”
His companion raised dark eyebrows. “You reached an understanding with a girl to not marry her. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an anti-marriage proposal before. Er – don’t tell me you offered to make her your mistress?”
Nik choked on a mouthful of soup, spitting it back into the bowl and grabbing his napkin. Round blue eyes glared at Justin until he’d recovered himself enough to say, “No! Why would you even – Savior! With Vasilver’s daughter? Honestly, Comfrey. Besides, it’d be like hiring a first-rate inventor to pull your coach. Highly inappropriate and unsatisfying for all involved.”
Justin laughed. “I wonder if that’s why her family keeps her under wraps – embarrassment?”
Nik pushed his bowl aside. “They don’t,” he said shortly, regretting raising the topic. “I’ve seen her about town before. And she did mention travelling a great deal.”
“As you say.” Justin’s amused smile lingered. “So how did you come to make an anti-marriage proposal to this girl?” The footman returned with the next course, roast stuffed partridges, and cleared the dishes from the last at his lord’s wave.
“Ah. Well – since she’d said she prefered people to be straightforward, I thought I’d just tell her I wasn’t interested in marriage. The quickest way to make sure I wouldn’t mislead her on that count.” Nik cut into the partridge. “You know, as opposed to you and Miss Dalsterly.”
“I did not mislead Miss Dalsterly! I invited her to one supper.” Justin shot Nik an aggrieved look. “And only because I needed her to make the numbers, plus I could not invite Lady Dalsterly without her.”
Nik smirked. “And did you tell her that?”
“Saints no. Are you mad?” Justin took a bite of his fowl, then asked, “Wouldn’t the quickest way to show this girl you don’t want to marry her be to not call on her? Why’d you go?”
“Well…I like her.”
Justin raised a dark eyebrow. “But not enough to marry her?”
“Is that so hard to believe? I like you, and—” Nik regretted the words as soon as they were out, but there was no way to stop now “—I’m not going to marry you.”
“I am a man. You may have noticed. At some point. This might have influenced your calculations in that respect,” Justin said, with a great dignity spoiled by his lurking smirk.
Nik hurried on. “Anyway, my parents were perfect beasts to her, and I didn’t want her to think they represented my own feelings.”
“Which would be…?”
“Disinterested admiration for her intelligence.” Nik sipped his wine, eyes daring Justin to question his motives further.
“And how was your anti-proposal received? Was it the joyous occasion one imagines of the converse?”
Nik made a face at him. “With perfect composure. I suspect she was as relieved as I, under it all.”
“Do you.” Justin put his elbow on the table in defiance of good manners and rested his chin on one tan fist.
“I’d make a terrible husband. I spend half my time with impoverished petitioners and the other half gadding about town. What could she see in me?”
The dark-haired lord gave Nik a long, measuring look as Nik dissected his meal. “Can’t imagine,” Justin drawled at last. “So if this anti-marriage proposal was quick, what did delay you?”
“Oh – business, mainly.”
Justin blinked at him. “You always complain when I talk business.”
Nik had the grace to look apologetic. “This was different. We discussed Anverlee and Fireholt. She had a number of interesting ideas on how to get the house on a better financial footing.”
“I didn’t know you cared,” Justin said, with a slight smile. “I thought you prefered to leave all those plebeian details to other mortals.”
Nik made a face at him. “I am not devoid of all familial feeling, Comfrey.” He paused for a mouthful of meat, then added, “Just most of it.” He went on to make a good-faith effort to explain Miss Vasilver’s plans to Justin. As he did so, Justin offered the occasional request for clarification, which inevitably led to Nik correcting himself on a term or chain of events. Nik was left with the distinct impression that Justin knew better than Nik did what he was talking about.
“It seems reasonable,” Justin allowed grudgingly. “Though why is she so convinced Fireholt’s got onidian deposits anyway?”
“Oh, that’s easy. It’s been mined there before. All the pure veins were tapped out decades ago, but Vasilver’s got a new patent for a smelting process that will let them cheaply extract onidian from the remaining ore. All they need are ore deposits.”
There were tiny tarts for the final course, but Justin had ordered a small dinner in light of their plans for exercise immediately thereafter. “Shall we stop by Anverlee Manor so you may change?” Justin asked as they rose from the table.
“No, Anthser’s got most of my riding gear on him; I’ll just wear it over this.” Nik had intended to change first, but Anverlee Manor was in the opposite direction from the club’s bowracing grounds, and his unintentionally late departure from Vasilver’s had prevented him from doing so beforehand.
“Bah. I’ll lend you a tunic at least. You’ll ruin the cuffs racing in that. Not to mention look ridiculous.”
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