“Dr. Garrett Gibson?” Tom asked. “She married him?”
West grinned at his surprise. “Who do you think took care of Ransom while he was recuperating at the estate?”
Noticing Tom’s perturbed expression, Phoebe asked gently, “Did you have an interest in Dr. Gibson, Mr. Severin?”
“No, but …” Tom paused. Garrett Gibson was an extraordinary woman who had become the first licensed female physician in England after earning a degree at the Sorbonne. Despite her youth, she was a highly skilled surgeon, having been trained in antiseptic techniques by her mentor, Sir Joseph Lister. Since she was friends with the Winterbornes, and had established a medical clinic next to his store on Cork Street for the benefit of his employees, Tom had met her on a few occasions, and liked her immensely.
“Dr. Gibson is a refreshingly practical woman,” Tom said. “Ransom is fortunate in having a wife who keeps both feet on the ground and doesn’t care about romantic nonsense.”
West grinned and shook his head. “I’m sorry to ruin your illusions, Severin, but Dr. Gibson is quite besotted with her husband, and adores his romantic nonsense.”
West would have said more, but he was interrupted as a little boy came charging up to Phoebe and collided with her. Reflexively West reached out to steady them both.
“Mama,” the child exclaimed, breathless and agitated.
Phoebe looked down at him in concern. “Justin, what is it?”
“Galoshes brought me a dead mouse. She dropped it on the floor right in front of me!”
“Oh, dear.” Tenderly Phoebe smoothed his dark, ruffled hair. “I’m afraid that’s what cats do. She thought it was a fine gift.”
“Nanny won’t touch it, and the housemaid screamed, and I had a fight with Ivo.”
Although Phoebe’s younger brother Ivo was technically Justin’s uncle, the boys were close enough in age to play together and quarrel.
“About the mouse?” Phoebe asked sympathetically.
“No, before the mouse. Ivo said there’s going to be a honeymoon and I can’t go because it’s for grownups.” The boy tilted his head back to look up at her, his lower lip quivering. “You wouldn’t go to the honeymoon without me, would you, Mama?”
“Darling, we’ve made no plans to travel yet. There’s too much to be done here, and we all need time to settle in. Perhaps in the spring—”
“Dad wouldn’t want to leave me behind. I know he wouldn’t!”
In the electrified silence that followed, Tom shot a glance at West, who looked blank and startled.
Slowly Phoebe lowered to the ground until her face was level with her son’s. “Do you mean Uncle West?” she asked gently. “Is that what you’re calling him now?”
Justin nodded. “I don’t want him to be my uncle—I already have too many of those. And if I don’t have a dad, I’ll never learn how to tie my shoes.”
Phoebe began to smile. “Why not call him Papa?” she suggested.
“If I did, you’d never know which one I was talking about,” Justin said reasonably, “the one in heaven or the one down here.”
Phoebe let out a breath of amusement. “You’re right, my clever boy.”
Justin looked up at the tall man beside him with a flicker of uncertainty. “I can call you Dad … can’t I? Do you like that name?”
A change came over West’s face, his color deepening, small muscles contorting with some powerful emotion. He snatched Justin up, one of his large hands clasping the small head as he kissed his cheek. “I love that name,” West said unsteadily. “I love it.” The boy’s arms went around his neck.
Tom, who hated sentimental scenes, felt incredibly uncomfortable. He glanced around the entrance hall, wondering if he could slink away and find his room later.
“Can we go to Africa for our honeymoon, Dad?” he heard Justin ask.
“Yes,” came West’s muffled voice.
“Can I have a pet crocodile, Dad?”
Phoebe produced a handkerchief from seemingly out of nowhere and tucked it discreetly into one of West’s hands. “I’ll take care of Mr. Severin,” she whispered, “if you’ll do something about the dead mouse.”
West nodded with a gruff sound, while Justin protested that he was being squashed.
Phoebe turned to Tom with an incandescent smile. “Come with me,” she invited.
Relieved to escape the poignant scene, Tom fell into step beside her.
“Please excuse my son’s timing,” Phoebe said ruefully as they crossed the entrance hall. “To children, there’s no such thing as an inconvenient moment.”
“No apology necessary,” Tom replied. “As this is a wedding, I expected some drama and weeping. I just didn’t think it would all be coming from the bridegroom.”
Phoebe smiled. “My poor fiancé has been flung headlong into fatherhood with no preparation. He’s doing splendidly, however. My boys adore him.”
“It’s not a side of him I’m used to seeing,” Tom admitted, and paused reflectively. “I never realized he wanted a family. He’s always insisted he would never marry.”
“‘I’ll never marry’ is the song of every libertine and the refrain of every rake. However, most of them eventually succumb to the inevitable.” Phoebe sent him an impish sidelong glance. “Perhaps it will be your turn next.”
“I’ve never been a libertine or rake,” Tom said dryly. “Those are words for blue-blooded men with trust funds. But I’m open to the possibility of marriage.”
“How refreshing. Any candidates in mind?”
Tom glanced at her sharply, wondering if she were mocking him. Surely West had told her about his former interest in Cassandra. But there was no glint of malice in her light gray eyes, only friendly curiosity.
“Not at the moment,” he replied. “I don’t suppose you could recommend someone?”
“I have a sister, Seraphina, but I fear she might be too young for you. What kind of woman would suit you?”
A female voice interrupted. “Mr. Severin wants an independent and practical wife. Pleasant but not demonstrative … intelligent but not chatty. She’ll go away when he wants, appear when he wishes, and never complain when he doesn’t come home for dinner. Isn’t that right, Mr. Severin?”
Tom stopped in his tracks as he saw Cassandra approaching from the opposite end of the hallway. She was unspeakably pretty in a pink velvet dress with pulled-back skirts that followed the shape of her waist and hips. The front hem kicked up in a froth of white silk ruffles with every footstep. His mouth went dry with excitement. His heart writhed and struggled like some live thing he’d just trapped inside a dresser drawer.
“Not really,” he replied, staying very still while she came toward him. “I’m hardly looking to marry an automaton.”
“But it would be convenient, wouldn’t it?” Cassandra mused, coming to stand just a foot or two away from him. “A mechanical wife would never annoy or inconvenience you,” she continued. “No love required on either side. And even with the expense of minor repairs and maintenance, she would be quite cost-effective.”