At the end of the Gracehaven trip, when Nik bid his (lengthy) farewells to Wisteria, he did so knowing that the next time he saw her would be for the wedding. And then I’ll never have to say goodbye to her again.
As pleasant as the idea was, it was not to Wisteria that his thoughts turned on the return trip.
It was a beautiful day in the countryside, fifteen miles out from Gracehaven. Crops grew in knee-height green stalks in the fields to either side of the road, and cherry blossom trees bloomed in pink and white along the lane. The sun shone bright in a sky streaked with a few clouds. Nikola was riding Anthser because it was too lovely outside to be cooped up in the hired carriage. Anthser had wanted to stretch his legs, and so they were miles ahead of Nik’s entourage. Even Anthser’s pair of greatcat “friends-of-the-month”, Gavin and Rawlth, had been disinclined to keep up. Now the muscular black greatcat was strolling at an easy pace, sides vibrating with contentment. His blond rider was glad as well: travelling alone with Anthser made him feel free, unrooted by obligations, titles, employees. Nik could be anyone, going anywhere.
They were coming to a crossroads, where they’d turn northwest towards Fireholt. The lane they were on continued west, to Comfrey Viscountcy. Comfrey could not be said to be on the route to Fireholt; the trip was some thirty miles out of the way, a detour of at least two hours even riding alone on Anthser. As the greatcat moved to the side of the lane to let an overly wide wagon pass, Nikola told him, “Let’s keep going west.”
“West?” Anthser snaked back onto the lane and glanced at the crossroads. “Huh. You want to wait for the others?”
“No.” Nik grinned as the greatcat twisted to look at his rider. “Just the two of us. We can catch up to them later.”
“You’re ditching them? Even Gavin and Rawlth?”
“I haven’t ditched anyone in years, Anthser. Well. Months, anyway. Don’t you think I’m past due? Here, I’ll leave a note on the signpost for them so they needn’t fret.” He rifled through Anthser’s harness pouches to find a notebook, tore out a sheet, scrawled a message, folded it, wrote “Mrs. Linden” in large letters on one side, and tacked it to the post. “There.”
Anthser flared his whiskers, amused. “As you wish, m’lord.”
Nikola didn’t need to tell Anthser why they were taking the west road, or which turns to take. They’d made this journey many times before. Comfrey Viscountcy boasted a bustling, wealthy community, with a dock on the river that served as a hub for trade. Comfrey’s ancestral home was in a prime location, situated near the river and at the top of a rise, with a stone wall to separate it from the town. It was at the edge of town because the town had been unable to grow behind it: the rear several hundred acres formed Comfrey’s private hunting preserve, a stocked wilderness to rival the Markavian’s. Acres of garden surrounded the house itself, immaculate lawns lined by cultivated flowerbeds, selected so that there were always some flowers blooming among the green. Flowering hedges broke up the landscape, some sculpted together with trellised ivy to make private bowers.
Nik had reconsidered his impulse a half-dozen times on the ride here. Once or twice he was on the verge of telling Anthser, “Never mind, I just wanted to take in the scenery, no need to stop.” But he let the greatcat carry him to the top of Comfrey’s steps. As the greatcat crouched, he slid off Anthser’s back onto the wide sheltered porch.
One of Comfrey’s retainers must have seen their approach, because Nik had not even knocked before a footman opened the door. “Good morning, Lord Nikola. Our deepest apologies, but we were unaware you were coming and his lordship is out at present. His lordship is expected to return before dinner, however, if m’lord would care to wait in the parlor?”
Nik waved off the apology. “It’s fine, Mr. March. I didn’t send word…just a whim, in truth. I’ll—” Part of him was tempted to flee: what are you doing here? Comfrey doesn’t want to see you. But he had already come this far. “—wait in the garden. Kindly inform Lord Comfrey when he returns.”
Justin was running one of the trails in the vast hunting preserve behind his mansion. He hadn’t brought bow or quiver; the sound of his pounding feet as he hurtled down the track would frighten off any game. He didn’t have the patience for hunting any more. The stillness left him too much time to brood. Easier to run, to focus on making each stride faster, to maintain the pace even when his lungs burned and heart pounded. Don’t stop don’t slow just move go! His body obeyed. It was well-trained in that respect. I thought my mind well-disciplined once, too, but it’s evident now how I spoilt it. Justin shoved the thought away. He raced shirtless, in trousers and flexfiber shoes that conformed to his feet through each stride, black hair tied back and clubbed to keep it from his face.
He checked his pocket watch as he broke out from the cover of trees: not as good as his competition days, but better than his times from last year. Justin slowed to a jog as he crossed the lawn, sweat trickling down the small of his back. Someone was walking in the side garden to the west of the manor. Not a servant; too well-dressed, and besides all Comfrey’s gardeners were working on trail maintenance in the preserve today. Who could that be? he wondered, annoyed as he veered off to avoid catching the stranger’s eye. He disliked coming on people like this, as disheveled and scruffy as some lowborn farmer’s son. The stranger was tall, and that he was a gentleman was plain even at this distance, by his straight-backed carriage as much as by his summerweight suit. His back was to Justin, attention on the lane leading to the house, long hair gleaming gold in a ponytail that spilled down the blue jacket back. The silhouette and hair color arrested Justin’s eye, and he stumbled. It’s not Nikola, he told himself. Nikola would not drop by unannounced, would not drop by at all, stop that it’s not him. Despite his sternest admonitions to himself, his feet turned of their own accord, pace quickening to move in the newcomer’s direction. The closer he drew the more the figure looked like Nikola’s: even the suit was familiar. Justin slowed to a walk as he closed on the garden, wanting the man to look his way so this hideous mirage could be ended, not sure if he was more afraid that it was Nikola or that it wasn’t. I don’t want him to see me like this, like a bare-chested heathen. It was too late to turn and run into the house without looking even more ridiculous if and when the visitor finally noticed him. Justin cleared his throat to call out hello. The greeting came out half-strangled when the man turned that handsome, unforgettable visage at the noise. “Striker?!”
“Hello, Lord Comfrey.” Nikola squared his shoulders, uncomfortable.
‘Lord Comfrey’, is it? Justin let the weight of that formality squash the painful surge of hope. “Lord Nikola.” He delivered a short bow that must have looked ridiculous in his sweating, half-naked state. “What brings you to Comfrey Viscountcy?”
Nikola would not meet his eyes. “I was…I wanted to see you.”
“Ah.” Justin’s head was so full of things he could not say that it took a moment to supply another meaningless cordiality that he could. “It’s good to see you.”
“Is it?” Blue eyes flicked up to his face at last.
Is that another accusation? Justin was suddenly sick to death of pretense: of pretending to be cordial, polite, civilized. Happy. “I suppose that depends on why you wanted to see me.”
Nikola’s expression changed from a neutral one to a scowl. “Of course. If I didn’t come to fuck you there’d be no point in welcoming me at all, would there? Good day, Lord Comfrey.” He spun on his heel and stalked away between two sculpted hedges.
Demons take it all. “Striker—” Justin charged after him, seizing one arm. Nikola twisted to face him, arm jerking away as if the touch burned. Justin let go. “Curse you, Striker, I did not say that! I said nothing like that! Abandoned world! What have I ever done to you to deserve this?”
The taller man glowered at him, jaw working. “What was that crack supposed to mean, then?” His body was tense, words clipped.
“I meant that if you came because you missed glaring at me and treating me as if I’d betrayed you then yes, that would considerably lessen the pleasure of your company!”
Still scowling, Nikola turned away. “Look, Comfrey, I know I have not behaved as I ought. I am grateful for all that you have done—”
“Curse it! I don’t want your fucking gratitude, Striker—”
“I know!” he hissed, stung. “All you want is my body to fuck—”
“Blood and death! I don’t even want that!” Justin lied; even now, even like this, if Nikola had offered himself, Justin would have taken him and been grateful for the chance. But it was not what he wanted most.
Nikola put a hand over his face, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I should not have come. Excuse me, my lord.” He walked away between two flowerbeds. The viscount did not chase him this time, though part of him ached to. What would be the point?
At an intersection of the garden’s stepping-stone paths, Nikola stopped and half-turned. “Lord Comfrey…I just…what would have made it good to see me?”
“…almost anything but this.” Justin walked after him, slowly. “Why can we not be friends, Striker? You don’t know how much I’ve missed your friendship. And no, I don’t mean screwing, I mean friendship. Hunting. Bowracing. Conversation. Things friends do.”
Nikola glanced sidelong at him. “I did not think you interested in that. Any longer.” A statement of belief, not an accusation.
“Well, I am. Do you truly think I’ve spent six years merely tolerating your company for the sake of the occasional opportunity to screw?” Justin was torn between indignation and amusement. “You’re a good lay, Striker, but not that good.” That last…might have been a lie, too. Nikola flushed, making a face at him and crossing his arms. Justin reached for the other man’s shoulder, let his hand drop without making contact. “I do not want anything of you because you are grateful, Striker, or obliged. I want your friendship because you are fond of my company, because I have always been fond of yours. I ask sincerely, what may I do to persuade you of the truth of this?”
The younger man turned to face him then, the emotion in his expression hard to judge. “Um. That,” he answered at last, and stepped forward to envelop Justin in a hug. By reflex, Justin caught Nikola in his arms, one foot going back to brace them as the taller man pressed against him. The feel of that long, lean form, of gloved hands against his naked back, sent a too-familiar surge of lust through Justin. He tightened his embrace to keep his hands from wandering, and rested his chin on Nikola’s jacketed shoulder. “I’m sorry, Justin,” Nikola whispered.
“If you’re apologizing for hugging me, stuff it.” Justin squeezed harder, rewarded by Nikola’s chuckle.
“Not for that. For doubting you. For reading in too much. I ought to have asked and not assumed.” Nikola relaxed in his arms, the contrast making it obvious how tense he’d been. Justin was tempted to steer Nikola into one of the garden’s bowers, screened from prying eyes by greenery, to push him down on a padded bench and see how much more relaxed Justin could make him. Ah yes, the perfect strategy with which to cap my credentials of disinterested friendship.
“No matter.” From somewhere, Justin mustered the will to release Nikola and step away. “I ought to clean up and change, Striker. Will you stay for dinner?”
Nikola was still flushed; he clasped his hands behind his back and smiled. “I’d be glad to.”
After dinner, Nik lingered over drinks in Justin’s study, talking and laughing as they caught up on all the news they’d missed. Nik felt better than he had in months, as if he’d been missing a piece of himself and finally had it restored. By the time he thought about leaving, it was too late to make his planned stop before nightfall. Justin invited him to stay the night; with a certain amount of hesitation, Nik accepted.
At some point during their conversation in the garden, Nik had realized that at least part of his willingness to believe Justin indifferent was because that made it easier on himself. If Justin had never cared, then there was no reason to feel guilt or regret over ending their relationship. It was a convenient belief in that respect.
Seeing Justin like that in the garden, shirtless, muscles gleaming with sweat, had been a vivid and unnecessary reminder of how powerful the man’s appeal was. Comfrey made not one untoward suggestion or innuendo the entire day, took not one opportunity to touch him even when they played billiards and Justin offered advice. By the time they retired to their separate rooms for the evening, Nik was wondering if Justin’s avowal of physical repulsion during their fight earlier had been earnest. Had the months of coldness between them broken whatever power Nik had once held over him?
Because it had not altered Nik’s attraction to him. As he lay in bed that night, he couldn’t stop thinking of previous stays at Comfrey Manor, of the secret passageways that ran between the bedrooms. If he crept down it now to the master suite, would he find the concealed door in Justin’s dressing room latched against him? He’d checked the latch in his own chamber: sealed. Nik had left it that way, and by turns wished he hadn’t and was glad that he had, because if he’d found Justin perched on his bed in a dressing gown, Nik doubted he’d have the strength of will to do anything but pull him into bed and ravish him. As it was, his mind kept replaying memories of past nights together. Chastity was hard.
Perhaps it will be easier when Wisteria and I are wed was one of Nik’s last thoughts before sleep claimed him.
The next day, Justin sent a messenger ahead to the inn to let Nik’s retinue know they could return to Fireholt without him and that he’d be along later. Nik ended up spending another entire day at Comfrey Manor, just enjoying Justin’s company. He would have spent more time yet had he trusted himself. As it was, the two men were often alone and the temptation to violate Wisteria’s trust in him was far too great. Remaining chaste in distant Fireholt was far easier.
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