Chasing Cassandra

Page 18

“It was a mistake,” Phoebe allowed, “but Anne has always been an obedient daughter. After years passed, they met again, when Captain Wentworth had made a success of himself. He realized he still loved her, but unfortunately at that point Anne was being courted by another man.”

“What did Wentworth do?” Tom asked, interested despite himself.

“He chose to keep silent and wait for her. Eventually, when the time was right, he wrote a letter to express his feelings, and left it for her to find.”

Tom sent her a dark glance. “I’m not impressed by anyone in this story.”

“What should Captain Wentworth have done instead?”

“Pursue her,” he said emphatically. “Or decide he was well rid of her. Anything but wait in silence.”

“Doesn’t pursuit sometimes require patience?” Phoebe asked.

“When it comes to business, yes. But I’ve never wanted any woman enough to wait for her. There are always more women.”

Phoebe looked amused. “Oh, you are a difficult case, aren’t you? I think you should read Persuasion to find out what you might have in common with Captain Wentworth.”

“Probably not much,” Tom said, “since I exist and he doesn’t.”

“Read it anyway,” Phoebe urged. “It may help you to understand what Cassandra meant about Phileas Fogg.”

Tom frowned in bewilderment. “He’s in that book too?”

“No, but—” Phoebe broke off with a laugh. “My goodness, do you take everything so literally?”

“I’m an engineer,” he said defensively, following her out to the guest cottage.

Chapter 8

“WHY ARE YOU WALKING like that?” Pandora asked as she and her husband, Gabriel, accompanied Cassandra downstairs to dinner.

“What way?” Cassandra asked.

“The way we used to when we were little and had ballerina fights.”

That drew a grin from Gabriel. “What’s a ballerina fight?”

“A game to see who can stay on her toes the longest,” Pandora explained, “without sinking back down to her heels or toppling over. Cassandra was always the winner.”

“I don’t feel like a winner at the moment,” Cassandra said ruefully. She stopped by the side of the hallway, leaned back against the wall, and hiked the front hem of her dress up to the ankles. “I’m walking this way because of my new shoes.”

Pandora crouched down to investigate, the skirts of her lavender silk evening dress billowing and collapsing like a gigantic petunia.

The blue satin shoes were narrow, pointed at the toes, and studded with pearls and beads. Unfortunately, no matter how often Cassandra had worn them around the house to break them in, the stiff leather lining wouldn’t soften.

“Oh, how pretty,” Pandora exclaimed.

“Yes, aren’t they?” Cassandra said with a little bounce of excitement, followed by a wince of discomfort. The night hadn’t even begun, and blisters had already started on her toes and the backs of her heels.

“The heels are so tall,” Pandora observed, her forehead crinkling.

“Louis Quinze style,” Cassandra told her. “We ordered them from Paris, so I have to wear them.”

“Even if they’re uncomfortable?” Gabriel asked, reaching down to help Pandora to her feet.

“These shoes are too expensive to be uncomfortable,” Cassandra said glumly. “Besides … the dressmaker said tall heels would make me appear more slender.”

“Why are you still worrying about that?” Pandora demanded.

“Because all my dresses are too tight, and it would take a great deal of time and money to have everything altered.” She heaved a sigh. “Also … I’ve overheard the way men gossip at dances or parties. They point out all a girl’s physical flaws and debate whether she’s too tall or short, or if her complexion is smooth enough, or whether her bosom is adequate.”

Pandora scowled. “Why don’t they have to be perfect?”

“Because they’re men.”

Pandora looked disgusted. “That’s the London Season for you: Casting girls before swine.” Turning to her husband, she asked, “Do men really talk about women that way?”

“Men, no,” Gabriel said. “Arsewits, yes.”

THREE HOURS LATER, Cassandra limped into the quiet, empty conservatory. Soft ripples of light reflected from the indoor stream and jostled against shadows cast by ferns and palm fronds. It looked like the room of some underwater palace.

Painfully she made her way to the steps of a small stone bridge and sat in a billow of blue silk organza skirts. Tiny crystal beads had been scattered among the multiple layers of delicate fabric, casting glints across the floor. She sat with a groan of relief and reached down to work a shoe off her throbbing left foot.

Dinner had been lovely, actually, the atmosphere infused with wit and good cheer. Everyone had been genuinely happy for West and Phoebe, who had both seemed to be in a daze of bliss. The food itself had been spectacular, starting with rich circlets of foie gras laid out on slabs of ice arranged down the center of the mile-long table. An endless procession of courses had struck perfect chords of salt, butter, smokiness, and richness.

But all through the extravagant meal, Cassandra had been increasingly miserable as the chisellike edges of her shoes had cut into the backs of her heels and shredded her stockings. She’d finally resorted to slipping the shoes off beneath the table, and letting the air circulate over her pulsing, burning feet.

Thankfully she had been seated next to Lord Foxhall, whose engaging company had helped to take her mind off the discomfort. He was remarkably suitable and eligible, and so very nice … but he didn’t stir her interest any more than she stirred his.

Whereas Tom Severin and all his complexities seemed to have caught and stuck, burrlike, to her awareness. He’d been seated near the other end of the table, beside Lady Grace, one of Lord and Lady Westcliff’s dashingly pretty daughters. She had glossy black hair and a wide smile with very white teeth. She had seemed rather taken with Severin, laughing frequently, taking obvious interest in their conversation.

Severin had looked superb in formal evening attire. A man like a blade … sleek and hard, his gaze sharp with intelligence. Even in a room full of accomplished and powerful men, he stood out. He hadn’t once glanced in Cassandra’s direction, but she’d had the feeling he was aware of her and was deliberately ignoring her.

Every time Cassandra had glanced at the pair, the food in her mouth had turned bitter, and she’d had difficulty swallowing. Her mood, not especially elevated to begin with, had deflated like a cooling soufflé.

The crowning indignity had occurred when dinner had finally, finally ended and Cassandra had tried to slip her feet back into the detested shoes. One of them was missing. She had slid an inch or two down in her chair and hunted for the shoe as inconspicuously as possible, but the blasted thing had disappeared.

Briefly she’d considered asking Lord Foxhall to help. But he probably wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation of telling someone about it later—who could blame him?—and she couldn’t bear the thought of being laughed at.

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