Chasing Cassandra

Page 25

“Just as well,” Tom said to Cassandra. “You should keep your distance from him.”

“I ’as chats,” came Bazzle’s muffled voice from behind him.

“How very trying,” Cassandra said sympathetically. “It could happen to anyone.”

No response.

Cassandra continued speaking to Tom, although the words were clearly meant for the boy. “You’ve brought him to the right place, obviously. Dr. Gibson is a very nice lady, and knows just what to do about chats.”

Bazzle leaned cautiously around Tom’s side. “I been itchin’ somefing awful,” he said.

“Poor boy.” Cassandra crouched to bring her face level with his, and smiled. “You’ll feel much better soon.” She tugged off her glove and extended her hand. “I’m Lady Cassandra. Will you shake hands, Bazzle?” Her gentle fingers closed around a small, grubby paw. “There … now we’re friends.”

Tom, who was terrified she was going to catch something from the walking plague that was Bazzle, turned to Garrett. “Should she be touching him?” he asked curtly. At the same time, his gaze pleaded and commanded Do something.

Garrett sighed and asked Cassandra, “Would you mind if we rescheduled lunch? I must attend to this boy, and I expect it will take a while.”

“I’ll stay and help,” Cassandra offered, standing and continuing to smile down at the boy.

“No,” Tom said, inwardly appalled by the idea.

“That would be most appreciated,” Garrett told Cassandra. “I’ll start treating Bazzle, if you’ll pop over to Winterborne’s with Mr. Severin and help him select some ready-made boy’s clothing. We’ll have to dispose of the ones he’s wearing.”

“I don’t need help,” Tom said.

“Lady Cassandra is familiar with the layout of Winterborne’s,” Garrett told him, “and she’ll know exactly what Bazzle needs. If you go alone, heaven knows how long you’ll take.”

Cassandra ran an assessing gaze over Bazzle’s small form. “Children’s sizing is labeled by age. I think seven to nine years would suffice.”

“But I’m fourteen,” Bazzle said sadly. When all three adults’ gazes flew to his face, he gave them a gaptoothed grin, indicating it had been a joke. It was the first time Tom had ever seen him smile. The effect was endearing, although it revealed the urgent need for an application of tooth powder and a good brushing.

Garrett laughed. “Come, young rascal, let’s dispose of your uninvited guests.”

“THERE’S NO NEED for you to accompany me,” Tom muttered as he and Cassandra went through the ready-made clothing department at Winterborne’s. “I’m perfectly capable of asking a sales clerk to find clothes for Bazzle.”

Tom knew he was being a surly ass, when he should have been making the most of the opportunity by trying to charm her. But this situation was not something he wanted Cassandra to associate him with.

The last time they had been together, they’d waltzed in a winter garden. Now, they were de-lousing a pestilent street urchin.

It wasn’t exactly progress.

Moreover, it would make Tom look even worse in comparison to the well-bred gentlemen who were undoubtedly pursuing her.

Not that he was competing for her. But a man had pride.

“I’m delighted to help,” Cassandra assured him with annoying cheerfulness. She stopped at a table with goods displayed for browsing, sorting through stacks of little folded things. “May I ask how you came to meet Bazzle?”

“He was collecting cigar stubs from the gutter outside my building. The wind blew my hat from my head, and he brought it to me instead of running off with it. I hired him to sweep and dust my offices.”

“And now you’re taking care of him,” she exclaimed, beaming.

“Don’t make too much of it,” Tom muttered.

“You took valuable time out of your workday to bring him to the doctor yourself,” she pointed out.

“Only because my assistant refused to do it. I’m merely trying to minimize the amount of vermin in my workplace.”

“No matter what you say, you’re helping a child who needs it, and I think it’s splendid.”

As Tom followed her through the clothing department, he had to admit Cassandra knew what she was doing. She went briskly past counters and shelves, addressed store clerks by name, and located what she wanted without hesitation.

“You shop very efficiently,” he said begrudgingly.

“Practice,” came her airy reply.

She selected a pair of trousers, a cotton shirt, a gray wool broadcloth jacket, thick knit stockings, a wool cap and a muffler. A pair of sturdy leather shoes was added to the pile, after Cassandra estimated the size and decided to err on the side of larger rather than smaller.

“Miss Clark, would you wrap these immediately, please?” she asked a sales clerk. “We’re rather pressed for time.”

“Right away, Lady Cassandra!” the young woman replied.

While the sales clerk listed the items on a sales slip and totaled them, Cassandra glanced regretfully at the entrance to the stairwell. “The toy department is right beneath us,” she told Tom. “I wish we had time to buy a toy for him.”

“He doesn’t need toys,” Tom said.

“Every child needs toys.”

“Bazzle lives in a St. Giles rookery. Any toy you gave him would be stolen immediately.”

Cassandra’s good cheer deflated like a cooling soufflé. “He has no family to look after his belongings?”

“He’s an orphan. He lives with a gang of children and a man they call Uncle Batty.”

“You’re aware of this, and yet you allow him to go back?”

“He’s better off there than in a workhouse or orphanage.”

She nodded, looking perturbed.

Tom decided to change the subject. “How has your Season gone so far?”

Cassandra smoothed her expression, following his lead. “I miss the sun,” she said lightly. “I’ve been keeping the hours of a hedgehog. Dinners never start before nine o’clock in the evening, receptions never before ten, and dances routinely begin at eleven. Then I go home at dawn, sleep for most of the day and wake up all muddled.”

“Have you set your sights on anyone?”

Her smile didn’t reach her eyes. “They’re all the same. Just like last year.”

Tom tried to feel badly about that. But he couldn’t help feeling a primal pang of relief, his heartbeat settling into a satisfied rhythm … Still mine … still mine.

They returned to the clinic with the parcel from Winterborne’s. A nurse showed him into a white tiled room with a shower bath, a steel-clad bathtub and sink, steel tables and supply cabinets, and a drain in the floor. The acrid bite of disinfectant hung in the air, along with the unmistakable scents of borax and carbolic soap. Bazzle was leaning over a sink in the corner, while Garrett rinsed his head with a spray nozzle and rubber hose attached to the faucet.

“I’ve doused Bazzle’s scalp with a chemical solution,” Garrett said, blotting the child’s head with a towel. “I’ll need help cutting his hair: I’m afraid it’s not one of my skills.”

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