Possibly Be Happier (128/141)

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Fireholt’s front parlor had always been a charming room, with a view of the hills and brook, its thick stone walls covered by drywall painted a cheerful yellow. Nikola and his wife had updated the furniture since their marriage, recovering the threadbare sofa and chairs with a subdued flowery pattern that echoed the carved flowers in the wooden trim. Small matched ottomans sat before each chair. The room’s shelves and mantle showcased an eclectic selection of gifts from petitioners. Some showed great skill, such as the carved bust of Nikola’s great-grandmother, and others only great enthusiasm, such as a clay creation that was perhaps intended to be a greatcat, or the framed picture of a brown stick figure captioned “I lov yu”. There was nothing of pretension or ostentation in the chamber. Justin liked it.

He and Mrs. Striker sat together on the sofa, heads bent to look at her planning notes. As he reached to move a page and almost collided with her hand doing the same, he remembered their flirtation over the Colbury file, the feel of her fingers on his skin, her eyes betraying nothing when they met his. This was almost the first time he had been alone with the girl since her engagement. To distract himself from the memory and discourage the sudden urge to kiss her again, Justin leaned back on the sofa. “I fear for your state in this marriage business, my dear.”

She turned to him, shifting a few inches away on the sofa. “Why do you say that, my lord?”

“Why, because I can already tell you have made Striker a terribly happy man.”

“…I don’t believe I follow how this is a problem?”

“Do you not understand the importance of managing investor expectations, Mrs. Striker? How can you sustain such impossibly high standards as you have set for yourself?”

Mrs. Striker folded her hands in her lap, her light brown-gold skin a pleasant contrast against the pale green of her dress, and regarded him with her head tilted. “Isn’t that why I invited you here?”

If you want tips on how to satisfy your husband, I’ll be glad to demonstrate. This was not taking his mind from inappropriate topics. “Yet you are but three months into this venture and you are already drawing on your full resources. You ought to be holding a card such as myself in reserve, perhaps for his fiftieth naming day. If you give him everything his heart desires now, what will you use to appease him a year from now?”

“I think you are worrying over nothing, my lord,” the dark-haired woman replied. “I have been informed by no fewer than six gentlewomen, on my wedding day no less, that I should never be able to make my husband happy if I did not learn to smile more.”

“By women whose own husbands were henpecked miserable creatures, no doubt.”

“I fear I would not have noticed. However, it is clear to me that my husband’s natural good humor requires no help from me to maintain.”    

Justin laughed. “Your triumph is complete, if you have so transformed him. Tell me, my dear, how are you? Is marriage to your own liking?”

“So much so that mere words cannot express it, my lord. I love Nikola, and Fireholt, and having my own household to run just as I please. Nikola is the easiest man in Paradise to live with, he always encourages me to say just what I feel. You have no idea what a pleasure it is, not to feel as if I am being tested each day on some scale I cannot comprehend and am always failing.”

He smiled at her plain language. “So you do not miss Gracehaven?”    

“Oh, a little. I miss the plays and the music at times. And talking to my father and Byron, especially. Business is more difficult to manage at a remove and I regret that I cannot be as involved with Vasilver Trading as I once was. But I admire the peace here. It is so wonderfully easy to concentrate on a task, hours at a time with no interruptions. And we’ll be back soon enough for the season.” She took her teacup from the table and sipped. “No, I do not see how I could be happier, unless I could be wed to both of you.”

The last was spoken with such matter-of-fact simplicity, no pause nor weight to her tone, that it caught Justin off-guard. For a moment, the idea of it seized his imagination: of being gathered into their marriage instead of being divided from them by it. If Nikola could share his wife with me, would she be able to share me with him? It was as if he were a starving man being offered a feast.

An illusory feast he could never taste. It was shockingly painful to contemplate, knowing how impossible it was. No man, not even Nikola, would willingly share his wife; no woman, not even Wisteria, would tolerate her husband having an affair with a man. He closed his eyes against agonized longing. What am I doing here? Waiting to muster the courage to petition Nikola to cure this madness?

“My lord? I apologize, should I not have—”

Justin opened his eyes as she spoke, forcing a smile so artificial he doubted it would fool even her. “My dear Mrs. Striker, you must re-check your calculations. I daresay you would find two husbands to be twice the trouble but half the joy.”

“I do not think mathematical equations work that way, Lord Comfrey.”

“No, but relationships do.” He could withstand no more of this subject and took a page of Mrs. Striker’s notes from the table before them. “Since you miss the plays in Gracehaven, have you considered inducing your guests to perform for you? I am not the only one of Nikola’s acquaintance who enjoys being the center of attention.”

She put her hand over his. “I feel I have wronged you, my lord, and I do not know how to make it right.”

Even that touch was too much; he moved away, putting some distance between them. “Not at all. Dear lady, I have always been so wrong that I do not see how anyone might ever right me. Shall we return to the agenda, or must I sue the chairman to bring the meeting back to order?”

She dipped her head, dark curls falling from the comb to dangle against the side of her neck. “As you wish.”

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