The ranks of dancers had thinned from earlier in the evening, and the four of them naturally stood up in the same set. Now that Justin knew Miss Vasilver’s neutral expression was the product of neither deliberate concealment nor actual indifference, dancing with her took on a different cast. It was peculiar to rely on words alone in an effort to gauge her mood, but her light-hearted banter indicated contentment. He did notice one giveaway in her body language, however: she often glanced to the entrances, doubtless to see if Nikola had returned.
By three in the morning, Meg’s unbounded enthusiasm for dance was losing the battle with her need for sleep: she and her husband did not keep Gracehaven hours. Lord Dunsang was reclaimed by his wife. Meg suggested she go home and Justin stay. “I can send the carriage back for you, and I know you don’t want to leave this early. Stand up with Miss Vasilver, Justin, I’m sure Nik would want you to keep her company.”Justin acquiesced, amused by the coincidence of social duties with what he wished to do anyway. He might have suspected Meg of matchmaking had they not had a history free of such machinations.
Miss Vasilver also agreed, lightfooted and grave as the music began. “It is curiously difficult, not reading feeling into your expression. Are you enjoying yourself, Miss Vasilver?” he asked as they took the first turn together.
“Oh yes, my lord. Far more than I expected to, in fact. The whole event has been most delightful and entertaining.”
“Were you not anticipating delight and entertainment, my dear, at the social event of the year?”
“I do not have very high expectations of social events, my lord. We cannot all have your problem.”
“Of being too well-liked.”
“It is not the most onerous of curses,” Justin conceded. “But I do not see why you should not share it.”
Miss Vasilver tilted her head at him as they circled in the dance. “Do you not, my lord?”
On the point of a glib reply, he hesitated, contemplating her composed unsmiling face, her cool tones and peculiar expectations, her exquisite long-limbed elegant form wrapped in glittering cream and crimson. Justin discarded his half-formed whimsical untruth and said instead, “It is a fool’s Paradise we live in, where one such as you is not valued as she should be.” The dance took them apart before Miss Vasilver had to compose a response.
When the orchestra took a break, Justin led Wisteria to one of the palace’s drawing rooms to sit for a bit. Guests still filled the palace, even at close on four in the morning, but he found them a quiet corner in a chamber with walls covered in cream-colored damask velvet. “How long does this event continue, m’lord?” Miss Vasilver asked, taking the offered seat on an antique sofa.
“Oh, most guests leave by dawn. Their Majesties don’t throw us out until noon, as I recall.” Justin sat beside her and stretched his legs before him. He flexed his toes inside his gold-inlaid dress leather boots, wishing he could take the curst things off.
“Noon? Noon tomorrow? People stay that long for an evening party?” Her voice was uninflected as always, but Justin fancied he read disbelief in her tone just the same.
“Well, I did. Twice. When I was a young man and it seemed a good idea. Their Majesties retired before dawn but Prince Edgar was awake to show the last guests to the door. Or to their chambers. Some of them are staying at the Palace – the Queen invites a hundred or so houseguests for Ascension, many the poorer Blessed who would not be able to make the trip for the Blessing of Newlant elsewise. If one stays until seven or eight in the morning one may even speak with the prince for more than three consecutive minutes.”
“But…don’t they have services on Sunday afternoon?”
“Sunday evening. It’s not until six. His Highness told me one year that he takes a nap after the ball, goes to service, and then goes straight back to bed.” Justin did not think Miss Vasilver would last until dawn, much less noon. Her face was relaxed and unlined, eyes alert enough, but her movements were slower and clumsier than earlier in the evening.
“Oh. Do you think Lord Nikola might yet return?”
The question spurred a sudden irrational surge of anger at Nikola, for bringing this poor lovely girl and then abandoning her. She did not sound wistful or heartbroken, merely factual, but then she would, wouldn’t she? Justin wondered if Nikola’s certainty that the girl was not attached was correct, or if Nikola had been misled by the indifference in her expression. Fool of a boy. How could she not love you? He hesitated, considering his reply. “It’s not outside the realm of possibility…but I believe in most prior years he’s left by this time of the night.”
“Oh.” Her face was turned to the drawing room door, calm, untroubled.
“Are you stranded, Miss Vasilver? I would be happy to take you home if you choose.”
She shook her head. “No, not at all. Lord Nikola left his carriage; the greatcats will take me back to Vasilver Manor whenever I ask. I…I am a little surprised he’s sent no message.”
Justin suspected the Strikers didn’t have the staff to send a message in the wee hours of Ascension night, but he did not like to say so. “He goes into a sort of trance when he’s working. I doubt he’s even aware of how much time has passed.”
“I suppose not.” Miss Vasilver considered this. “You don’t think something might have happened to him, do you?”
“Happened to him?” Justin tried to imagine mischance befalling his friend. Nikola had no enemies, no known wealth, and would have his warcat to protect him; no common footpad would risk an altercation with a greatcat. “What could possibly happen to him?”
“I don’t know. An accident?”
Justin smiled. “I promise you, Lord Nikola is the finest rider in Newlant. No one is less likely to have taken a fall. I am sure the emergency took longer than he’d expected, or attending to it was more tiring.”
She nodded. “Of course.”
He put his hand over hers, where it lay on the cushion between them. Did she fear Nikola had abandoned her deliberately? Was it advisable to reassure her on that count? While Nikola would not be so rude as to desert the girl on mere whim, Justin knew how little hope she had of attaching the man. Is it kind to assure her of his courtesy and friendship, when I know that’s the sum of it? “However unfortunate it may be for him or you, I cannot say I regret Lord Nikola’s absence.”
Miss Vasilver tilted her head. “Whyever would you not? I thought you and he were friends, Lord Comfrey?”
“Certainly we are. But we see one another often, whereas I have never before had a chance to speak with you outside of business. My motives are selfish: I could not have kept you all to myself for so long had Lord Nikola been in attendance.”
Her light brown eyes looked to his face for a long moment, and then away as if she feared staring. “My lord is very kind.”
Justin laughed. “I am many things, my dear, but ‘kind’ is not one of them. Never that. As I said: entirely selfish.” He rose and offered his hand. “I believe I hear the orchestra resuming, if you would care to dance again, Miss Vasilver?”
She placed her hand in his, pale brown fingers caressing his palm. “I would be delighted to join you, my lord.”
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