Chasing Cassandra

Page 13

“Not yet, but soon. They’ll have the ceremony in Essex, at the Clare estate. A small affair, with only close friends and relations.” Winterborne picked up a celery stalk and sprinkled it with a pinch of salt as he added, “Ravenel means to invite you.”

Tom’s fingers clenched reflexively on a lemon wedge. A drop of juice hit his cheek. He dropped the crushed rind and wiped his face with a napkin. “I can’t fathom why,” he muttered. “He’s never put my name on a guest list before. I’d be surprised if he even knew how to spell it. In any case, I hope he won’t waste paper and ink on an invitation for me, since I won’t be going.”

Winterborne gave him a skeptical glance. “You’d miss his wedding? You’ve been friends for at least ten years.”

“He’ll manage without my presence,” Tom assured him testily.

“Does it have something to do with Cassandra?” Winterborne asked.

Tom’s eyes narrowed. “Trenear told you,” he said rather than asked.

“He mentioned you’d met Cassandra and taken a fancy to her.”

“Of course I did,” Tom said coolly. “You know my fondness for pretty objects. But nothing will come of it. Trenear thought it was a bad idea, and I couldn’t agree more.”

In a neutral tone, Winterborne said, “The interest wasn’t only on your side.”

The statement sent a quick, sharp thrill down to the pit of Tom’s stomach. Abruptly losing interest in food, he used the tines of his fork to nudge a sprig of parsley across his plate. “How do you know?”

“Cassandra had tea with Helen last week. From what she said, it seems you made a strong impression on her.”

Tom laughed shortly. “I make a strong impression on everyone. But Cassandra told me herself I could never give her the life she’s always dreamed of—which includes a husband who could love her.”

“And you couldn’t?”

“Of course not. It doesn’t exist.”

Tilting his head, Winterborne stared at him quizzically.

“Love doesn’t exist?”

“No more than money.”

Now Winterborne looked baffled. “Money doesn’t exist?”

For answer, Tom reached inside a coat pocket, rummaged for a moment, and pulled out a bank note. “Tell me how much this is worth.”

“Five pounds.”

“No, the actual piece of paper.”

“A ha’penny,” Winterborne guessed.

“Yes. But this ha’penny slip of paper is worth five pounds because we’ve all agreed to pretend it is. Now, take marriage—”

“Yr Duw,” Winterborne muttered, realizing where the argument was headed.

“Marriage is an economic arrangement,” Tom continued. “Can people marry without love? Of course. Are we able to produce offspring without it? Obviously. But we pretend to believe in this mythical, floaty thing no one can hear, see, or touch, when the truth is, love’s nothing but an artificial value we assign to a relationship.”

“What about children?” Winterborne countered. “Is love an artificial value to them?”

Tom tucked the five-pound note back into his pocket as he replied, “What children feel as love is a survival instinct. It’s a way of encouraging their parents to care for them until they can do it themselves.”

Winterborne’s expression was dumbfounded. “My God, Tom.” He took a bite of the dressed crab, chewing methodically, taking his time before replying. “Love’s real, it is,” he said eventually. “If you’ve ever experienced it—”

“I know, I know,” Tom said wearily. “Whenever I make the mistake of having this conversation, it’s what everyone says. But even if love were real, why would I want it? People make irrational decisions for the sake of love. Some even die for it. I’m far happier without it.”

“Are you?” Winterborne asked dubiously, and fell silent as the barmaid came with the pitcher of ale. After she had refilled their mugs and left, Winterborne said, “My mother used to tell me, ‘Troubled are they who want the world, troubled are they who have it.’ I knew she had to be wrong—how could a man who’d gained the world be anything but happy? But after I made my fortune, I finally understood what she meant. The things that help us climb to the top are the same things that keep us from enjoying it once we’re there.”

Tom was about to protest he was enjoying himself. But Winterborne, damn him, was absolutely right. He’d been miserable for months. Holy hell. Was this what the rest of his life was going to be like? “There’s no hope for me, then,” he said grimly. “I can’t believe in something without evidence. I don’t take leaps of faith.”

“More than once, I’ve seen you talk yourself into the wrong decision by thinking too much. But if you could manage to climb out of that labyrinth of a brain long enough to discover what you want … not what you decide you should want, but what your instinct tells you … you might find what your soul is calling for.”

“I don’t have a soul. There’s no such thing.”

Looking exasperated and amused, Winterborne asked, “Then what keeps your brain working and your heart beating?”

“Electrical impulses. An Italian scientist by the name of Galvani proved it a hundred years ago, with a frog.”

Firmly, Winterborne said, “I can’t speak for the frog, but you have a soul. And I’d say it’s high time you paid attention to it.”

AFTER LUNCH, TOM walked back to his offices on Hanover Street. It was a cool autumn day with sharp, sudden gusts coming from every possible direction—a “flanny” day, as Winterborne had put it. Stray gloves, cigar stubs, newspapers, and rags torn from clotheslines went skittering along the street and pavement.

Tom paused in front of the building that housed the main offices of his five companies. A short distance away, a young boy diligently collected used cigar stubs from the gutter. Later the tobacco would be pulled out and made into cheap cigars to be sold at tuppence apiece.

The imposing entrance was twenty feet in height, surmounted by a massive pedimented arch. White Portland stone covered the first five stories, while the top two were faced with red brick and elaborate white stone carvings. Inside, a wide staircase occupied a light well that stretched up to a glass-paneled skylight on the roof.

It looked like a place where important people went to do important work. For years, Tom had felt a thrill of satisfaction every time he’d approached this building.

Now, nothing satisfied him.

Except … absurd as it was … he’d experienced some of that old sense of purpose and fulfillment while repairing the boiler at Eversby Priory. Working with his hands, relying on the skills he’d acquired as a twelve-year-old apprentice, with all of it still ahead of him.

He’d been happy back then. His boyish ambitions had been praised and nurtured by his old mentor, Chambers Paxton, who’d become the father figure he’d needed. In those days, it had seemed possible to find the answers to any question or problem. Even Tom’s limitations had been an advantage: When a man didn’t have to bother with love, honor, or other such rot, it left him free to make a lot of money. He’d enjoyed the hell out of that.

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