She heard his smothered laugh. “Are you jealous?”
“How silly,” she said stiffly, drawing her feet back. “No, not at all; I have no claim on your attention. In fact, I’m glad you’ve become friends with her.”
She forced herself to reply honestly. “Well, not especially glad, but I don’t mind if you like her. It’s only …”
Severin gave her a questioning glance.
“Why won’t you be friends with me?” To Cassandra’s chagrin, the question came out plaintive, almost childish. She looked down and rearranged the folds of her skirts, fidgeting with the crystal beads.
“My lady,” he murmured, but she refused to look at him. One of his hands came to the side of her face to angle it upward.
It was the first time he’d ever touched her.
His fingers were strong but gentle, slightly cool against her hot cheek, and it felt so amazingly good that she trembled. She couldn’t move or speak, only stared up into his lean, slightly wolfish face. A trick of moonlight had turned his blue-green eyes iridescent.
“That you’d even ask …” His thumb brushed over her skin in a slow stroke, and her breath stopped and started too fast, sounding like a tiny hiccup. There was no mistaking the experience in his touch, sending pleasure-chills down the back of her neck and all along her spine. “Do you really want to be friends?” His voice had softened into dark velvet.
“Yes,” she managed to say.
“No, you don’t.” In the electric silence, he drew closer, his face right over hers, and her heart thundered as she felt the warm waft of his breath against her chin. His other hand came to the back of her neck in a light clasp. He was going to kiss her, she thought, her stomach tightening with excitement, her hands fluttering between their bodies like panicked moths.
Cassandra had been kissed before, during stolen moments at dances or soirées. Surreptitious and hasty kisses, each lasting no longer than a heartbeat. But no erstwhile suitor had ever touched her like this, his fingertips gently exploring the curve of her cheek and jaw. She began to feel unsteady, unfamiliar sensations coursing through her bloodstream, and she welcomed the support of his arm sliding around her. His lips looked firm and smooth as they hovered close to hers.
To her dismay, however, the expected kiss didn’t happen.
“Cassandra,” he murmured, “in the past I’ve made more than a few women unhappy. Never intentionally. But for some reason I’m not eager to dwell on, I don’t want to do that to you.”
“One kiss wouldn’t change anything,” she protested, and flushed as she realized how brazen that sounded.
Mr. Severin drew back enough to look down at her, his fingertips toying with the fine wisps of hair at the nape of her neck. A shiver chased through her at the delicate caress.
“If you drift off course by only one navigational degree,” he said, “then by the time you’ve gone a hundred yards, you’d be off by about five feet. In a mile, you’d have strayed approximately ninety-two feet away from your original trajectory. If you’d set out from London to Aberdeen, you’d probably find yourself in the middle of the North Sea.” Seeing her frown of incomprehension, he explained, “According to basic geometry, one kiss could change your life.”
Twisting away from him, Cassandra said irritably, “You may not know this, but talking about mathematics eliminates any possibility of being kissed in the first place.”
Mr. Severin grinned. “Yes, I know.” Rising to his feet, he extended a hand down to her. “Would you settle for a dance?” His tone was calm and friendly, conveying how unaffected he was by moonlight and romantic moments and impulsive young women.
Cassandra was sorely tempted to refuse him, to demonstrate how little she cared about anything he might offer. But a Strauss waltz was playing in the background, the melody buoyant and yearning, and it so perfectly echoed her own emotions that she felt it down to the marrow of her bones. Oh, how she wanted to dance with him. Even if she were willing to sacrifice her pride, though, there was still the matter of her ruinous shoes. She couldn’t put them on again.
“I can’t,” she said. “I’m barefoot.”
“Why should that stop you?” A deliberate pause. “Ahh. I see. All those rules you like to follow—you’d be breaking too many of them at once. Alone with a man, no chaperone, no shoes—”
“It’s not that I like to follow the rules, but I have no choice. Besides, the temporary enjoyment wouldn’t be worth the risk.”
“How do you know, when you’ve never danced with me?”
An agitated laugh broke from her. “No one’s that good a dancer.”
He stared at her, his hand still extended. “Try me.”
The laughter dissolved in her throat.
Her insides were in a tumult, like birds darting and crisscrossing in flight. She reached out with a tremor in her fingers, and he pulled her up firmly. He caught her in a waltz hold, his right hand pressed to the center of her back. Automatically her left hand settled on his shoulder, her arm resting gently along his. He held her more closely than she was accustomed, their hips slightly offset, so his first forward step would slide precisely between her feet.
As he moved forward, the pressure at her back eased, and he steered her into the first turn. He was very good at this, his body a perfectly supportive frame, his signals so explicit she could follow without effort. It also helped that the shoulders of his coat weren’t padded, as so many gentlemen’s were, so she could feel the flex of muscle at the beginning of each rotation.
It was exciting and slightly embarrassing to feel the floor with her naked toes as he swept her into one luxurious full turn after another. Of course, the sensation of dancing with bare feet wasn’t entirely new: She’d waltzed alone in her bedroom more than once, imagining herself in the arms of some unknown suitor. But it felt very different when her partner was a flesh-and-blood man. She relaxed and abandoned herself, following his guidance without effort or thought.
Although they’d started slowly, Mr. Severin had quickened their tempo to match the music. The waltz was flowing and swift, each turn making her skirts whirl in eddies of silk and glitter. It was like flying. Her stomach turned light, as if she were on a garden swing, soaring a little too high and coming down in a giddy arc. She hadn’t felt so free since she’d been a young girl, running recklessly across the Hampshire Downs with her twin. The world was nothing but moonlight and music as the two of them swept through the empty conservatory with the ease of mist carried on a sea breeze.
She had no idea how much time had passed before she was panting from exertion, her muscles stinging with the need for respite. Mr. Severin began to slow their pace.
She protested, clinging to him, reluctant for the spell to break. “No, don’t.”
“You’re tiring,” he pointed out, sounding amused.
“I want to keep dancing,” she insisted, even as she staggered.
Mr. Severin caught her with a low laugh, holding her securely. Unlike her, he was barely affected by the exercise. “Let’s wait until you catch your breath.”
“Don’t stop,” Cassandra commanded, tugging at the front of his coat.