By half-past four, Wisteria was certain Lord Nikola would not be back at the party, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. On the negative side of the ledger, it meant no opportunity to steal back to that study and continue their earlier…activity? Conversation? Either. Both. On the positive side, it meant no opportunity to disgrace herself further.
Or rather, no opportunity to disgrace herself with Lord Nikola.
She found Lord Comfrey’s company dangerously enjoyable. She rather suspected she’d been flirting with him. And he seemed to understand, to believe her when she’d explained why she didn’t smile. Which was on her list of Things Not to Talk About, not only because her parents had cautioned her against it but also because in the past such explanation had made communication more awkward yet. But Lord Comfrey had adapted by asking her direct questions about what she wanted instead of trying to guess. Which was exactly how she wished to be treated. It was marvelous. The whole evening had been filled with marvels. Wisteria usually retired by midnight and as such was flagging at this hour, but for all its imperfections she did not want this night to end.
She was seated at one of the chairs beside the ballroom floor; Lord Comfrey had left her there while he hunted down refreshments for them. Wisteria had her eyes closed, indulging in a confused daydream wherein she was alternately embracing either Lord Nikola or Lord Comfrey. Part of her felt irritated by herself over this: she had just been engaging in highly inappropriate behavior with Lord Nikola, and she felt that she owed, or at least ought to owe, some fidelity to him over that. Even a mistress was faithful to the man who kept her, if Wisteria understood correctly. Only a prostitute would go from one lover to the next as if the act was no more meaningful than a game of cards. Is that what I am, a whore? A number of conversations on the subject had given her to understand that decent, virtuous women not only did not engage in carnal activities, but indeed did not even have the desire for such. Wisteria had always been a failure at the latter, but until tonight she’d done tolerably well at avoiding the former. For all the good it’s done me. Whether I’m virtuous or not, no man’s going to marry me anyway. I might as well satisfy my lust. With – whomever.
Experimentally, she tried substituting other men into her daydreams. Invoking Lord Dunsang spoilt the fantasy entirely. Her affable clerk was less absurd – she’d always been fond of him – but not appealing. Byron’s valet was a handsome man with a strong jawline, trim build, and a pleasing professionalism, but imagining kissing him was nonetheless dull. I guess any man won’t do.
She was just imagining how Lord Comfrey’s shoulders would feel under her hands when a voice broke into her reverie. “Should I have brought back tea instead of wine, Miss Vasilver?” She opened her eyes to find Lord Comfrey standing by her chair, holding two wineglasses. He offered her one, continuing, “The champagne is undrinkable by this hour, I’m afraid. But you do not look in need of a soporific, my dear. Should I have called for your carriage instead?”
Wisteria thought about riding home alone in that glittering glass coach, and the prospect of the spectacle was far less attractive than when she thought she’d be with Lord Nikola. Will it look odd, me being all alone? If I wait longer to leave, will it be more likely to go unnoticed? She took the glass and shook her head. “No, thank you, my lord. I am—” she rose as she spoke, forgetting the weight of her beaded gown, and tripped over the train. Lord Comfrey caught her about the shoulders with one arm, cradled her to his chest, and steadied her glass with his free hand so she did not spill it. “—fine?”
“You’re quite sure of that, my dear?” He smiled down at her. She could feel the curve of his glass against her opposite shoulder. He had not spilled a drop.
Mmmm. For the first time, Wisteria understood why women did ridiculous things like ask for help on problems they knew the answer to, or drop items so men would retrieve them, or behave as if they could not cross a street unassisted. It would never have occurred to her to stumble just so Lord Comfrey could catch her, but she was aware she was in no great hurry to regain her feet. “Oh. Well.” She was more tired than she’d realized, to be tripping over her own feet. Not to mention to be taking advantage of the chance to rest in Lord Comfrey’s arms. Usually she had more self-control than this. Not as much more as her family might wish, but nonetheless. If he minded either her delay or her clumsiness, it didn’t show: he felt strong, capable, and alert, which was comforting when she felt none of those things. But I hardly know him: ought I be trusting him? Mustering all her available willpower, she withdrew from his arms. “Perhaps I am a trifle weary.”
“I may understate.” Dancing was not a good idea if she was falling over just standing. She tried to think what else she might do that would be fun without requiring her to be fully conscious. Other than falling back into Lord Comfrey’s arms. That sounded like a lovely idea. “…perhaps you are right about the carriage after all.”
Lord Comfrey offered his arm. “Seldom do I so regret being correct.”
Justin sent for his coach at the same time as Wisteria’s. Had Nikola been there he’d have stayed for hours longer, but tonight no one remaining could command his attention. Miss Vasilver had made an impression on more than just him, Justin had noticed. Not only the married Lord Dunsang, but a handful of bachelors who’d been observing her or dancing with her over the course of the evening. She had not noticed their regard, and Justin suspected his own looming presence had kept anyone from daring to be forward. The poor girl was struggling even to make small talk at this stage, so he waited in companionable silence with her in one of the studies. When a servant let them know her coach was without, he accompanied her down the broad palace steps. She seemed in actual need of the support, leaning into him and almost resting her cheek against his shoulder. False dawn lightened the eastern sky to a paler blue. One of the coaches before the steps was the gaudiest Justin had ever laid eyes upon, an absurd assembly of gilt wire and clear crystal plates. He chuckled at the spectacle. “I wonder what lord brought that contraption?” he said in an aside to Miss Vasilver.
One of the coach’s pure white greatcats stood by the door and opened it when he saw Miss Vasilver coming as the two of them descended the steps. Justin halted, realizing his tactical error. “Lord Nikola?”
“It’s a gift from a petitioner. Well, a gift in the form of lending it for the night,” the beautiful woman replied.
“Ah. Of…course. No wonder you didn’t wish to go home, alone in that thing.” With the eyes of every gossipy bystander wondering why Lord Nikola wasn’t with her, no doubt. “You know, my offer to take you in my carriage stands.”
She shook her head. “There’s no need to put you out of your way.”
“My dear.” He turned to her on the palace steps and took her chin gently to tilt her face to his. “It would be an honor and a privilege.”
“Oh.” She blinked at him a few times. “…then I accept. Thank you, my lord.”
Justin patted her hand and told the greatcats they could leave – Nikola was surely not returning, and there was no sense making them stay all night for nothing. The greatcats looked disappointed as they departed. Justin had to admit it wasn’t how he wanted the night to end himself, although escorting Miss Vasilver home was no small consolation.
After handing her into his own far more traditional carriage, he noted that she had chosen the far side of the forward-facing seat, leaving plenty of room for him to sit beside her. He accepted the tacit invitation, although he did not crowd her. They could not sit in silence for the entire length of the drive, so he selected an unchallenging topic. “Now that you have seen Newlant’s most famous ball, my dear, what do you make of it?”
“It’s very large,” she said, her eyes looking at the Ascension lights lining the drive as the greatcats trotted down it.
Justin chuckled. “Were you expecting a modest gathering? I am afraid the Crown always disappoints on that count.”
“Not modest, exactly. But intimate. Everyone speaks of the royal Ascension Ball as terribly exclusive, so I did not expect so many attendees.”
“Ah, of course. The other royal events of the season are far more exclusive, in that regard. But none of them are as grand.”
“It certainly is that. It made me wonder at the logistics involved. Do they normally have furniture in those vast halls?” she asked, and he nodded in answer. “Where do they put it?”
He blinked at her. “Do you know, I’ve never thought about that? In the attics, perhaps.”
“The palace has an attic?”
“Several. One of them is stuffed full of old family portraits. They keep past kings and queens on display but there’s not room on the walls for all the princes and princesses and their children and third wives and what not.”
“Oh, I thought that was why they needed such a large palace. Enough wall space for forty generations of grandchildren portraits.”
“And thus the current fashion in miniatures, inspired by Dawnfell Palace running short on blank walls?”
“I knew there had to be some excuse for those tiny pictures.”
They spoke for some time about the ball. Justin found her perspective both refreshing and intriguing. Everyone noticed the costumes, the elaborate displays, the exquisite food, the awe of the Blessing. Miss Vasilver, by contrast, was curious how they managed to park all the carriages and what system they used to retrieve them. Or how they managed staffing – “they cannot have all those servants on retainer; some must be on loan, but what do they do the rest of the year?” Whether there was a discreet second-hand market for Ascension garb, catering to all those courtesy-titled lords and ladies with Blessings but no fortune.
As Miss Vasilver discussed the potential in the latter – “I know the average peer would be horrified to see her castoffs make an appearance at the ball, but they could be modified—” she interrupted herself. “I am dreadfully sorry, my lord. I know I oughtn’t speak of business on such an occasion.”
He grinned at her. “I cannot say I mind at all, Miss Vasilver.” Justin leaned closer and murmured, as if fearing to be overheard even though they were alone in a moving carriage, “I am far more accustomed to having to check my own impulses in this regard. Lord Nikola would flay me alive if he heard me criticise another over it.”
“Would he? I thought him a very even-tempered man.”
“Did I say he was not? I promise that he would be quite cool and calm as he set about removing my hide one strip at a time.”
“With the razor-sharp edge of his tongue, my lord?” By now, they were more than halfway to Miss Vasilver’s home. The gaslit streets outside the carriage no longer commanded her attention: she was leaning into him, eyes on his face.
“Indeed. I trust you have not experienced it.” Justin touched his fingertips to the smooth skin of her cheek, which was of course Entirely Inappropriate and he fully expected her to respond by blushing or retreating. His caress was featherlight, experimental. “I cannot imagine he would risk damaging a work of art such as yourself.”
Instead of withdrawing, she mirrored his gesture, her fingertips against his own cheek. “Then why would he risk damaging one such as you?”
Justin smiled. “I am a big strong man, my dear. I can take it.” Slowly, so she’d have ample time to draw back, he dipped his head to kiss her.
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