After-supper conversation in the drawing room was as awkward and strained as Nik had expected, but the distraction of cards made it bearable. Edmund, to Nik’s surprise, maneuvered to speak with him alone for a few minutes, and offered a confused but heartfelt apology: “I did not mean to make light of what you’d endured, I promise. Dreadfully sorry about that.” Nik waved it off; granted that ‘boys will be boys’ was execrable garbage used to excuse the inexcusable, but he’d overreacted to a remark that even at the time he knew was not pointed at him. I overreact to everything of late.
After several hands and a couple of rounds of brandy, the atmosphere relaxed to merely stilted. By the time the elder Warwicks departed and Daphne and her husband retired for the evening, Nik felt something approaching normal. Enough so that when Lysandra and Edmund excused themselves, Nik asked his parents to wait before leaving the drawing room. “I’ve something I wish to say to you.”
“What is it, dear?” Lady Striker asked, all solicitude.
Lord Striker settled back into a chair, suspicious and irritated. “I’ll have you know I’m in no mood to be lectured at, boy.”
“Don’t shush me, Voleta.”
Nik raised both his hands. “Please. I just want to tell you something.” He took a deep breath. “First: as is obvious, in my present condition I am in no position to offer matrimony to anyone.”
“Of course not, sweetie, no one expects you to be looking now,” Lady Striker hastened to say. “I didn’t mean anything at all, mentioning Miss Rubane earlier—”
Miss Rubane? Nikola didn’t even recall when her name had come up. He waved the words aside. “Let me finish, Mother. I want you to be aware that, once I’ve recovered, I intend to ask Miss Vasilver to marry me.”
His mother clapped both hands over her mouth, eyes wide and even rounder than usual with shock. Lord Striker leaned forward, square jaw set and blue eyes narrowed as he appraised his son. “Do you, now?”
“Yes.” He met his father’s gaze defiantly. “Do not try to dissuade me on this point. I am convinced of Miss Vasilver’s virtue and worth. She is the finest, most admirable woman of my acquaintance; I can imagine no one I would rather wed. If she will have me, I will be honored to be her husband.”
Lord Striker grunted; his wife made a little squeaking sound muffled behind her hands. “Very well,” Lord Striker said. “Good to see you taking your position in society seriously for once. Good luck to you with her.”
His mother dropped her hands from her face, fingers waving, and managed, “Oh Nikki, how wonderful! I’m so excited for you! Are you going to ask her – oh, I know you can’t know yet, but before the season’s over, I hope? Oh, there’s so much to plan!” She clasped plump fingers together before her ample bosom and wriggled in her chair with excitement.
Nikola blinked at them. “You…uh…approve?” Having braced himself for resistance, he was off-balance at meeting none.
His father shrugged. “Odd girl, I’ll grant, but she’s of good family. Well-connected. You could do worse. Savior knows I’ve expected you to any number of times.”
“Rukert!” Lady Striker batted at her husband’s wrist in irritation, and leaned forward to say, “Of course we do! She’s a lovely woman, so courageous and selfless, I just know you’ll be happy together. Oh! My little boy getting married! I do hope we can have a summer wedding. Perhaps I could make just a few discreet inquiries regarding preparations, see if Alastasia Temple is available during any of the prime weeks…”
“But…when we first met her…you…”
“Oh, that!” A dismissive wave of one hand. “All a simple misunderstanding, Nikki, nothing to worry about now. Not after all she’s done for us. I’m sure with you to influence her you needn’t worry she’ll ever embarrass herself again.” Lady Striker beamed affectionately at him. Lord Striker gave a skeptical snort, but offered no correction.
Nik was still blinking. Part of him remembered Lady Striker’s vigorous condemnation of Miss Vasilver to Lysandra just a couple of weeks ago, and his father’s objections when he invited Miss Vasilver to the Ascension Ball. The wiser part recognized the folly in pressing his parents on their reversal. After all, I too have made my own reversal. I wonder if this was their plan all along? The thought dizzied him.
Lady Striker was rhapsodizing on the theme of color schemes and centerpieces. Nikola touched her hand to break the trance. “Mother, I’ve not even asked yet, much less been accepted.”
Her lined Haventure features broke into a fond smile. “Don’t you worry about that! No girl could refuse you, Nikola.”
Lord Striker muttered, “And the girl’s twenty-six. It’s not as if anyone else will offer.”
“Regardless. Please don’t get ahead of events, Mother.” Nikola rose and bowed to his parents. “Thank you for your blessing, my lord, my lady. If you will excuse me…” He took his leave, still marveling.
Nik awoke sweating and cold, from a nightmare of drowning in a half-frozen sea, trapped below the surface by a wall of impenetrable ice. He could see into a world of sunlight and life, but he could not reach it; saltwater burned in his lungs as he gasped for air. Even after waking, his lungs still ached with remembered pain. Beyond the terror of death was a crippling loneliness, an empty inner ache that wakefulness did not banish. He pulled a dressing gown on over nightshirt and staggered from the cottage’s bedroom to the workroom. Anthser was sprawled snoring upon the couchbed there; Nik sat beside the greatcat and draped an arm over his broad furry flank. That made the man feel a little better, but it wasn’t greatcat or even human contact he craved. He missed the Savior’s love, the god who had once been a constant presence in his mind. Now Nik shook even to think of him. How many petitioners are waiting for me now, while I tremble and feel sorry for myself, unable to face the god I have wronged? If I called, would he still answer?
He wanted to call, ached to reach for the Savior, but it was like trying to make his hand close on a burning log. Even when he told himself it wouldn’t hurt, his mind rebelled and would not obey the conscious command.
Anthser stirred under his fingers, dark head lifting in the dim predawn interior, the outline of ears pricking. “Lor’ Nik? Wassamatter?”
“Nothing, Anthser. Go back to sleep.”
“Mmhmm.” The big cat rolled over, wrapped one broad paw around Nik’s shoulders, and toppled the tall man down next to him. He snuggled Nik like a stuffed toy to his chest, purring.
“Anthser!” Nik struggled ineffectually, half-laughing; the greatcat outmassed him by an order of magnitude.
Anthser licked his face and squirmed to position Nik more comfortably. “Wha’? ’S cold. How’m I s’pposed to sleep when ’m cold?”
“I am your lord and master, you great beast, not your hot water bottle. Let me go.”
Anthser gave an incongruously pitiful mew and released the man. Nik gave him a hug by way of consolation before sitting up. He fished a blanket off the floor and draped it over the greatcat. “There. You may keep warm like a civilized creature.”
“Mph. The uncivilized way ’s more fun,” Anthser complained, burrowing down.
There was no arguing with that. Nik sighed and lay down beside the greatcat, who wrapped both right legs over him and cuddled against the human. I miss Justin, he thought, and felt a surge of annoyance. I miss the friend I thought I had, anyway. I miss sleeping through the night. I miss sanity. I miss the Savior. He tried again to open that connection they’d once shared. It was like using bare fingers to pry at a door locked and barred. They’re right, I know they’re right, I’m refusing. I don’t want to refuse. How do I unlearn that? How did Sharone Whittaker do it? He wished he could ask her. I wonder how she’s doing, and if she and her parents have made it home safely yet.
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