The Height of Good Manners (6/141)

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“Unbelievable! The nerve of that child! Nikki, I am so sorry I subjected you to that – that – creature. I had no idea – I couldn’t imagine – as gauche as a street urchin! Ignorant, unschooled – that her father lets her out in society in such a state!”

Nik gazed out the coach window, reflecting on Miss Vasilver’s behavior as well. ‘I prefer a difficult truth to a convenient fiction.’ “Mother, you are an appalling judge of character.”

“Nikki!” Lady Striker tugged her grey velvet wrap tighter about her plump shoulders. “I was never introduced to the girl before, and her parents were unexceptionable—”

“I don’t mean then. I mean now. ‘Ignorant’? ‘Unschooled’? Were you even listening to her? If that gentlewoman is unlearned than I’m a greatcat.”

His mother harumphed. “Was I listening to her? That creature was no gentlewoman!”

“She is undeniably no fit match for a lord.” Lord Striker shook his head, mouth compressed in a thin disapproving line.

“I should think you’d be relieved, Nikki, the way you complained about calling,” his mother went on. “I can scarce imagine a creature with more appalling manners or less good sense.”

“Truly? Because Miss Vasilver isn’t the one who shouted and stormed from a civil meeting.”

“You call that civil? What was I supposed to do, stay to hear such filth?”

“Don’t take that tone with your mother, Nikola.”

‘I prefer a difficult truth’… Nikola took a deep breath. “Of course. Leaving in the middle of a conversation is the height of good manners.” He stood in the coach, swaying with its smooth motion. “I think I’ll do it now.” He banged on the front wall, and slid open a panel in it to call out. “Jill!”

“Nikki, don’t you dare—”

“My name, madam, is Nikola,” Nik said coldly, one hand braced on the rail above the door as the coach came to a halt. “As you might recall, since you gave it to me. Good day, my lord, lady.” With a stiff bow, he opened the coach door and stepped out to the street.

“Nikola—” his father was half-standing, leaning out the door after him. Lord Striker’s hard-edged features took on a weary cast. “Quit being childish and get back in the coach.”

Jill stood before Nik, whiskers flat in the offended look she always wore if he opened the door before she could get out of harness to open it for him. Nik gave the greatcat a cordial nod. “Jill, kindly direct Anthser to retrieve me at—” he took a moment to get his bearings “—Valience Park. At his leisure.”

“With the gig, m’lord?” The giant cat’s whiskers relaxed from their offended posture, ears twitching in suppressed amusement. She fixed her eyes on Nik to avoid looking at his father behind him.

“Afoot will suffice.”

“Very good, m’lord,” Jill dropped her head in a bow.

“Nikola!” his father called after him, as Nik walked beside Jill while she returned to the harness. Her companion greatcat, Gunther, waited with his haunches on the ground, eyes forward, whiskers rippling and ears canted in silent feline laughter. “Don’t imagine that I’ll have my household’s routine interrupted for your tantrum!”

“Then I shall walk, my lord.” Nik crossed the smooth stone street in front of Jill as she slipped back into her position.

“We’ll send someone for you shortly, Lord Nik,” Jill said in an undertone.

He flashed her a smile. “No hurry. Thank you, Jill.”