Cassandra smiled and relaxed. “What does a mechanical engineer do?”
Mr. Severin continued to carve the inside of the copper pipe as he replied, “He designs, builds, and operates machines.”
“Any kind of machine?”
“Yes. The engineer on the train is responsible for the operation of the locomotive and all its moving parts.” He picked up a round brush and began to scrub the inside of the pipe.
“May I do that?” Cassandra asked.
Mr. Severin paused, giving her a skeptical glance.
“Let me,” she coaxed, leaning closer to take the brush and pipe from him. His breath caught audibly, and he suddenly had the kind of dazed, unfocused expression men sometimes wore when they found her especially pretty. Patiently she eased the objects from his lax hands.
After a moment, Mr. Severin seemed to collect his wits. “Helping with plumbing repairs doesn’t seem like something you should be doing,” he commented, his gaze flickering to the gauzy sleeves of her dress.
“It isn’t,” Cassandra admitted, scrubbing the pipe. “But I don’t always behave properly. It’s difficult for someone who was raised with hardly any rules to learn a great many at once.”
“I’m not fond of rules myself.” Mr. Severin bent to inspect a copper fitting protruding from the boiler, and polished it with emery cloth. “They’re usually for other people’s benefit, not mine.”
“You must have some personal rules, though.”
Cassandra lifted her brows. “Only three?”
Although his face was partially averted, she saw the flash of his grin. “Three good ones.”
“What are they?”
Mr. Severin rummaged through the plumber’s bag as he replied, “Never lie. Always do favors for people whenever possible. Remember everything they promise in the main part of the contract can be taken back in the fine print.”
“Those sound like good rules,” Cassandra said. “I wish I had only three, but I have to follow hundreds.”
He opened a tin of paste labeled flux and used a forefinger to apply it to the pipe and fitting. “Tell me some.”
Cassandra obliged readily. “When introduced to a gentleman, never look higher than his collar button. Don’t accept costly gifts; it will put you under obligation. It’s not nice to wear a tall hat while attending a play. And—this is an important one—never let the dogs stay in the room when you’re working with feathers and glue. Also—”
“Wait,” Mr. Severin said, sitting up and wiping his hands with a rag. “Why can’t you look higher than a man’s collar button when you meet him?”
“Because if I look at his face,” Cassandra said primly, “he’ll think I’m too bold.”
“He may think you need an eye examination.”
A chuckle escaped before she could restrain it. “Make fun if you like, but it’s a rule one can’t break.”
“You looked directly at me when we first met,” Mr. Severin pointed out.
Cassandra sent him a gently admonishing glance. “That wasn’t really an introduction. Leaping out like that during a private conversation …”
He didn’t even try to look contrite. “I couldn’t help it. I had to offer you an alternative to marrying West Ravenel.”
Hot color flooded over her face and body. The conversation had abruptly become far too personal. “That was a silly impulse on my part. I was anxious—because sometimes it seems as if I’ll never—but I wouldn’t. Marry West, I mean.”
His gaze searched her face intently. “You don’t have feelings for him, then?” His voice had lowered a note or two, in a way that made the question seem even more intimate than it was.
“No, he’s like an uncle.”
“An uncle you proposed to.”
“In a moment of desperation,” she protested. “You’ve had one of those, surely.”
He shook his head. “Desperation isn’t one of my emotions.”
“You’ve never felt desperate? About anything?”
“No, long ago I identified the feelings that were helpful to me. I decided to keep those and not bother with the rest.”
“Is it possible to dispense with feelings you don’t want?” she asked doubtfully.
“It is for me.”
The hushed conversation was interrupted as Cook called out from the other side of the room, “How goes it with the boiler, Mr. Severin?”
“The end is in sight,” he assured her.
“Lady Cassandra,” the cook persisted, “mind you don’t distract the gentleman while he’s working.”
“I won’t,” Cassandra replied dutifully. At Mr. Severin’s quick look askance, she explained sotto voce, “Cook has known me since I was a little girl. She used to let me sit on a stool at the worktable and play with scraps of dough.”
“What were you like as a little girl?” he asked. “Prim and proper, with your hair in curls?”
“No, I was a ragamuffin, with scraped knees and twigs in my hair. What were you like? Wild and playful, I suppose, as most boys are.”
“Not especially,” Mr. Severin said, his expression becoming shuttered. “My childhood was … short.”
She tilted her head and regarded him curiously. “Why?”
As the silence spun out, she realized Mr. Severin was debating whether to explain. A slight frown appeared between his dark brows. “One day when I was ten,” he eventually said, “my father took me with him to Kings Cross station. He was looking for work, and they were advertising for baggage men. But when we reached the station, he told me to go to the general office and ask for a job. He had to go away for a while, he said. I would have to take care of my mother and sisters until he came back. Then he went to buy a ticket for himself.”
“Did he ever return?” she asked gently.
His reply was brusque. “It was a one-way ticket.”
Poor boy, Cassandra thought, but she didn’t say it, sensing he would resent anything that sounded like pity. She understood, though, about what it was like to be abandoned by a father. Even though hers had never left for good, he’d often spent weeks or even months away from Eversby Priory.
“Did they give you a job at the station?” she asked.
A brief nod. “I was hired as a train boy, to sell newspapers and food. One of the station agents advanced me enough money to make a decent start. I’ve supported my mother and sisters ever since.”
Cassandra was quiet as she absorbed this new information about the man she’d heard described in such contradictory terms. Callous, generous, honest, crafty, dangerous … sometimes a friend, sometimes an adversary, always an opportunist.
But regardless of Severin’s complexities, there was much to admire about him. He’d become acquainted with life’s rougher edges at a tender age, and had assumed a man’s responsibilities. And not only had he survived, he’d flourished.
Cassandra watched as he applied more of the flux paste along the pipe and joint seam. His hands were elegantly long-fingered, but also strong and capable. A few small scars were scattered over his well-muscled forearms, just barely visible beneath a dusting of dark hair.