Chasing Cassandra

Page 26

“I can do it,” Cassandra volunteered.

Garrett nodded toward a supply cabinet. “Smocks, aprons and rubber gloves are over there. Use any of the scissors from the tray, but be careful: they’re all extremely sharp.”

“How short do you want the hair?”

“About an inch in length should do.”

Bazzle’s plaintive voice came from the towel. “I don’t want noffin’ cut orf.”

“I know this isn’t a pleasant process,” Garrett told the boy apologetically, “but you’ve been very well-behaved, and that helps things go much faster.” She lifted Bazzle onto a metal stool, while Cassandra donned a long white apron.

As Cassandra approached Bazzle and saw his features scrunched in worry, she smiled and reached out to gently push some matted locks back from his forehead. “I’ll be very careful,” she promised. “Would you like to hear a song while I cut your hair? There’s one my sister Pandora and I wrote, called Pig in the House.”

Looking intrigued, Bazzle nodded.

Cassandra launched into a sublimely ridiculous song about the antics of two sisters trying to hide their pet pig from the farmer, the butcher, the cook, and a local squire who was especially fond of bacon. While she sang, she moved around Bazzle’s head, snipping off long locks and dropping them into a pail Garrett held for her.

Bazzle listened as if spellbound, occasionally chortling at the silly lyrics. As soon as the song was finished, he demanded another, and sat still while Cassandra continued with My Dog Thinks He’s a Chicken, followed by Why Frogs are Slimy and Toads are Dry.

Had Tom been capable of falling in love, he would have right there and then, as he watched Lady Cassandra Ravenel serenade a ragamuffin while cutting his hair. She was so capable and clever and adorable, it made his chest ache with a hot pressure that threatened to fracture something.

“She has a marvelous way with children,” Garrett murmured to him at one point, clearly delighted by the situation.

She had a way with everyone. Especially him. He’d never been besotted like this.

It was intolerable.

After Cassandra had finished combing and trimming Bazzle’s hair, she stood back to view the results critically. “What do you think?” she asked.

“Perfect,” Garrett exclaimed.

“Good God,” Tom said. “There was a boy beneath all that wool.”

The mass of snarled, straggly locks had been cropped to reveal a nicely shaped head, a skinny neck, and a pair of small ears. Bazzle’s eyes looked twice as large now that they weren’t peering out through thick wads of hair.

Bazzle heaved a world-weary sigh. “Wots next?” he asked.

“The shower-bath,” Garrett replied. “I’ll help you wash.”

“Wot?” The boy looked outraged by the suggestion. “Ye can’t ’elp me.”

“Why not?”

“Yer a girl!” He shot an indignant glance at Tom. “I’d never let a girl see me tallywag.”

“I’m a doctor, Bazzle,” Garrett said gently, “not a girl.”

“She ’as bubbies,” Bazzle told Tom, with the impatience of someone having to explain an obvious fact. “That makes ’er a girl.”

Tom struggled to hold back a grin as he saw Garrett’s expression. “I’ll help him,” he said, and stripped off his coat.

“I’ll start the water,” Garrett said, and went to the other side of the room.

After removing his waistcoat, Tom looked for a place to set his clothes.

“Give them to me,” Cassandra said, coming forward.

“Thank you.” He handed the garments to her, and began to unknot his necktie. “Wait—take this too.”

Cassandra’s eyes widened as he began on his shirt cuffs. “How much more clothing do you plan to remove?” she asked uneasily.

Tom grinned, not missing the quick, interested flick of her gaze over him. “I’m only rolling up my sleeves.” He paused, his hands going to the top button of his collar. “Although if you insist—”

“No,” she said quickly, blushing at his teasing. “That’s quite enough.”

A warm mist had started to spread through the room, sweating the white tiles. Cassandra’s skin was turning luminous from the humid air. Little wisps of hair at her forehead had drawn up into delicate curls he longed to play with.

Instead, he turned his attention to Bazzle, who wore the expression of a prisoner confronting the gallows. “Go undress behind that curtain, Bazzle.”

Reluctantly the boy went to stand just inside the rubber-lined curtain, and began to remove his clothing piece by piece. Following Garrett’s instructions, Tom took each ragged garment and dropped it into a lidded pail partially filled with carbolic solution.

Bazzle’s pale, spindly body was startling in its frailty. Tom registered the sight with a stab of some unfamiliar feeling … guilt? … concern? … As the boy stepped into the falling water, Tom pulled the circular curtain completely closed.

The boy’s exclamation echoed in the tiled room. “Blarm me, it is like rain!”

Tom took a bath brush from Garrett, rubbed the bristles into a cake of soap, and handed it through the curtain opening. “Start scrubbing your little carcass with this. I’ll do the places you can’t reach.”

After a moment, Bazzle’s worried voice came from behind the curtain. “Me skin’s comin’ orf.”

“It’s not skin,” Tom said. “Keep washing.”

Not ten seconds had passed before Bazzle said, “I’m done now.”

“You’ve barely begun,” Tom replied in exasperation. As Bazzle tried to climb out of the shower bath, he herded him back inside and took up the brush. “You’re filthy, Bazzle. You need to be scrubbed, if not descaled.”

“I’ll be dirty again ter-morrer,” the boy protested, spluttering and staring up at him miserably.

“Yes, you’ve said that before. But a man keeps himself clean, Bazzle.” Tom clamped his hand on a slippery, bony shoulder and scrubbed the child’s back in gentle but steady circles. “First, because it’s good for your health. Second, it’s a mercy to those who have to be in your proximity. Third, ladies don’t like it when you look and smell like last year’s corpse. I know you don’t care about that now, but someday—confound it, Bazzle, hold still.” Exasperated, Tom called through the curtain, “Cassandra, do you know a washing song?”

Instantly she began one called Some Ducks Don’t Like Puddles. To Tom’s relief, Bazzle subsided.

After scrubbing and rinsing the child three times, Tom washed his hair with borax shampoo paste until the dark locks were squeaky clean. By the time they were done, Tom’s entire front was wet, and his own hair was dripping. He wrapped Bazzle’s now pink and white body in a length of dry toweling, picked him up, and carried him to the stool.

“I feel as if I’ve just wrestled a barrel of monkeys,” Tom said, breathing with exertion.

Garrett laughed as she used a towel to dry Bazzle’s hair. “Well done, Mr. Severin.”

“What about me?” Bazzle protested. “I was the monkey!”

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