“No one gives me orders,” he murmured, but his tone was teasing, and his touch was gentle as he smoothed back a disheveled curl that dangled over one of her eyes.
Laughing breathlessly, she managed to tell him, “You’re supposed to say, ‘Your wish is my command.’”
“What is your command?”
“Dance with me, and never stop.”
Mr. Severin made no reply, his gaze riveted on her flushed face. He was still holding her, fast and close, in what had undeniably become an embrace. Even with the clouds of silk and chiffon skirts between them, she felt the hard strength of him all along her, the steely support of his arm. This was something she had never known but had always craved … to be enfolded, anchored, wanted … exactly like this. The sense of lightness left her, her limbs feeling loose and pleasantly weighted.
As Mr. Severin felt the yielding pliancy of her body, he took an unsettled breath. His intent gaze slid to her mouth. A new tension invaded the muscles of his arms and chest, as if he were struggling with an impulse too powerful to resist.
Cassandra saw the moment he broke, when he wanted her too much for anything else to matter. His head lowered, his mouth finding hers, and she closed her eyes at the careful, enticing pressure. Gently his hand came up to cradle the back of her head, his mouth moving over hers with erotic lightness … moment after moment … breath after breath. Embered warmth spread inside her, as if her bloodstream had been filled with sparks.
A faint moan escaped her as his lips broke from hers, straying down to her throat. The shaven bristle of his cheek was an electrifying abrasion as he nuzzled into the soft skin. He worked his way down her neck, seeking the frantic throb of her pulse. His broad, hard palms slid up and down her bare arms, soothing gooseflesh, while his teeth closed gently against the tender muscle of her shoulder. The tip of his tongue touched her lightly, as if he were tasting something sweet.
Disoriented, robbed of equilibrium, she sank against him, her head tipping back against his supportive arm. His mouth returned to hers with full, warm pressure, coaxing her to open for him. She gasped at the stroke of his tongue, silky and intimate as he searched slowly, until a knot of pleasure formed at the pit of her belly.
He gripped her hard against him for a few searing seconds. “This is why we can’t be friends,” came his rough whisper. “I want this every time I see you. The taste of you … the feel of you in my arms. I can’t look at you without thinking of you as mine. The first time I saw you—” He broke off, his jaw hardening. “My God, I don’t want this. If I could, I’d crush it like a cinder beneath my boot.”
“What are you talking about?” Cassandra asked unsteadily.
“This … feeling.” He uttered the word as if it were a profanity. “I don’t know what it is. But you’re a weakness I can’t afford.”
Her lips felt too sensitive, a little swollen, as if from a light burn. “Mr. Severin, I—”
“Call me by my first name,” he interrupted, as if he couldn’t help himself. “Just once.” After a long hesitation, he added in a softer tone, “Please.”
They were both motionless except for the matched rhythms of their breathing.
“Is it … short for Thomas?” Cassandra asked hesitantly.
He shook his head, his gaze not moving from hers. “Just Tom.”
“Tom.” She dared to reach up and gently touch his lean cheek. A wistful smile fluttered at her lips. “I suppose we’ll never dance together again, will we?”
She didn’t want to stop touching him. “It was lovely. Although I … I think you may have ruined waltzing for me.”
His face, brooding and saturnine in the shadows, could have belonged to some lesser god in a realm far below Olympus. Powerful, secretive, enigmatic. He turned his head until his lips nudged her palm with a tenderness she knew somehow was reserved for her alone.
After assuring himself of her balance, he let go and went to retrieve the shoe she’d thrown earlier.
Feeling as if she were waking from a dream, Cassandra fumbled to set herself to rights, smoothing her skirts and pinning back a lock of hair that had escaped her coiffure.
Tom came to her with both shoes, and she reached out to take them. They stood like that, linked by a mutual clasp on a few scraps of satin, leather, wood, and beading.
“You’re returning to your room barefoot?” Tom asked.
“I have no choice.”
“Is there something I can do to help?”
Cassandra shook her head. “I can sneak upstairs by myself.” She let out a quick little laugh. “Like Cinderella sans pumpkin.”
He tilted his head in that inquiring way he had. “Did she have a pumpkin?”
“Yes, haven’t you ever read the story?”
“My childhood was short on fairy tales.”
“The pumpkin becomes her carriage,” Cassandra explained.
“I’d have recommended a vehicle with a longer date of expiration.”
She knew better than to try explaining fairy-tale magic to such a pragmatic man. “Cinderella didn’t have a choice of transportation,” she said. “Or footwear, the poor girl. I’m sure those glass slippers were a misery.”
“One must be fashionable,” he reminded her.
Cassandra smiled up at him. “I’ve changed my mind about uncomfortable shoes. Why limp when I could dance?”
But he didn’t smile back, only gave her a brooding glance and shook his head slightly.
“What?” she whispered.
His reply was halting and gruff. “Perfection is impossible. Most mathematical truths can’t be proved. The vast majority of mathematical relations can’t be known. But you … standing here in your bare feet in that dress … you’re perfect.”
He bent over her, kissing her with pure molten longing. A shock of pleasure went through her, the sound of distant melody drowning in the heavy drum of her pulse. The shoes dropped from her nerveless fingers. She sank against him, grateful for the support of his hard arms as they wrapped around her, locking her close and tight.
When at last his mouth lifted, setting her free, Cassandra let her forehead drop to his shoulder. The smooth silk and wool fabric of his evening coat absorbed the fine sheen of perspiration from her skin as she listened to the undisciplined force of his breathing.
“I’ll never be able to forget this,” she heard Tom say eventually. He sounded far from pleased by the fact. “I’ll have to go a lifetime with you lurking in my head.”
Cassandra wanted to offer reassurance, but trying to think was like wading through a pool of honey. “You’ll find someone else,” she finally said, her voice not quite her own.
“Yes,” he said vehemently. “But it won’t be you.”
It sounded like an accusation.
He let go of her while he was still able, and left her in the winter garden with the discarded evening shoes at her feet.
BY ANY STANDARDS, TOM was an ass for most of the autumn. He knew that. But patience and tolerance required too much effort. He was brusque and short-tempered with Barnaby, his assorted private secretaries, accountants, lawyers, and the heads of his executive departments. Work was everything. He spared no time for friends, and turned down social invitations unless they pertained to business. There were political breakfasts and luncheons with financiers who’d agreed to supply capital for a continuation of his underground line.