Chasing Cassandra

Page 28

The Season seemed very different this year, now that Pandora was no longer taking part. Without her twin’s companionship and impish humor, the constant rounds of dinners, soirees and balls had already begun to feel like drudgery to Cassandra. When she said as much to Devon and Kathleen, they had been understanding and sympathetic.

“This process of husband hunting seems unnatural to me,” Devon had commented. “You’re thrown into proximity with a limited selection of men, and chaperoned too closely to allow for any genuine interactions. Then after a fixed period of time, you’re expected to choose one of them as a partner for life.”

Kathleen had poured more tea with undue concentration. “The process has its pitfalls,” she had agreed, her expression pensive.

Cassandra had known exactly what Kathleen was thinking about.

It seemed a lifetime ago that Kathleen had married Cassandra’s brother, Theo, following a whirlwind courtship. Tragically, Theo had died in a riding accident a few days after the wedding. In that short amount of time, however, Kathleen had discovered there was another side to the charming young man who’d courted her so gallantly during the Season. A volatile and abusive side.

Devon had leaned over to press a nuzzling kiss among the soft red curls of his wife’s coiffure. “No one in this family will ever be left to the mercy of someone who doesn’t treat them well,” he said quietly. “I’d fight to the death for every last one of you.”

Kathleen had turned her face to smile at him tenderly, her fingers coming up to stroke his lean cheek. “I know you would, darling.”

Privately Cassandra had wondered if she would ever find a man who’d be willing to sacrifice himself for her. Not that she would ever want him to, of course. But something in her longed to be loved and needed that intensely.

The problem was, she had started to feel a tiny bit desperate. And desperation might eventually cause her to chase after love as if she were participating in the greased pig race at the county fair.

“There’s only one sure way to catch a greased pig,” West had once commented. “Give him a reason to come to you.”

If she wanted love, therefore, she would have to be patient, calm, and kind. She would have to let it find her in its own way and time.

Since Love is a greased pig wasn’t a particularly dignified motto, she decided the Latin translation was more elegant: Amor est uncta porcus.

“WHAT ABOUT MR. SEDGWICK?” Cassandra asked Lady Berwick sotto voce, at the last dance in October. The lavish and crowded event, given to mark the coming out of the Duke of Queensberry’s niece, Miss Percy, was held at a grand house in Mayfair.

“I’m afraid his credentials are lacking,” the older woman replied. “It would not do to encourage his attentions.”

“But at least he’s dancing,” Cassandra protested in a whisper. “Hardly any of the other eligible men are.”

“It’s a disgrace,” Lady Berwick said grimly. “I intend to speak to the other London hostesses about these scoundrels, and ensure they are denied invitations from now on.”

Lately it had become the habit of fashionable bachelors to loiter in the doorways and corners, putting on superior airs and declining to dance. Instead, they headed for the supper room as soon as the doors were opened, indulged themselves with fine food and wine, then proceeded to another ball or soirée and did the same thing over again. Meanwhile, there were rows of girls who had no one to dance with other than married gentlemen or boys.

“Arrogant peacocks,” Cassandra said wryly, her gaze traveling over the clusters of privileged young males. A particularly handsome specimen, slim and golden-haired, lounged near an arrangement of potted palms. He had an air of swaggering even while standing still. As he glanced at a group of disconsolate wallflowers in the corner, his lips quirked with amused disdain.

Lady Berwick recaptured her attention. “I was told Mr. Huntingdon will attend tonight. When he arrives, you must ingratiate yourself further with him. He’s due to inherit an earldom from his uncle, who is gravely ill and will not last the year.”

Cassandra frowned. She’d met Mr. Huntington on two previous occasions, and he’d struck her as pleasant but slow-witted. “I’m afraid he won’t do for me, ma’am.”

“Won’t do? The earldom was created by Queen Mary in 1565. One would be hard-pressed to find a more ancient dignity. Do you object to being the mistress of a glorious country estate? To belonging in the very best social circles?”

“No, my lady.”

“Then what is the problem?”

“He’s stodgy and dull. It’s no fun talking to him—”

“One has friends for conversations, not husbands.”

“—and that chinstrap beard is dreadful. A man should either shave or grow a proper beard. Anything in between looks accidental.”

Lady Berwick looked stern. “A girl in her second Season cannot afford to be particular, Cassandra.”

Cassandra sighed and nodded, wondering when the supper room would be opened.

Following her gaze, Lady Berwick said quietly, “No dashing off to fill your plate when they ring the bell. I can see the beginnings of a bulge on your upper back, at the top of your corset. You may indulge your appetite after you are wed, but not before.”

Shamed, Cassandra wanted to protest that she was hardly a glutton. It was just that Pandora was no longer there to keep her busy, and it was difficult to shed pounds while attending endless rounds of dinners and soirées, and having to sleep all day. If only she’d looked at her back view before leaving the house that night. Was there really a bulge?

Her mind went blank as she saw a tall, dark form enter the ballroom. It was Tom Severin, escorting a slender dark-haired woman, whose arm was firmly tucked in his. Cassandra had a sinking, sick feeling in her stomach. She’d never seen Tom at one of these events before, and she could only assume he was courting the woman.

“Oh, there’s Mr. Severin,” she said casually, while poisonous jealousy flooded her. “Who is he with?”

Lady Berwick glanced at the couple. “Miss Adelia Howard. One of Lord Beaumont’s daughters. The family’s financial difficulties must be dire indeed, if they’re willing to sacrifice her to a social nobody.”

Cassandra stopped breathing for a moment. “Are they engaged to marry?” she managed to ask.

“Not yet, as far as I’m aware. No announcements have been made, nor banns posted. If he’s escorting her publicly, however, it won’t be long in coming.”

Trying to calm herself, Cassandra nodded. “Mr. Severin’s not a nobody,” she dared to say. “He’s a very important man.”

“Among his kind,” Lady Berwick allowed. Her eyes narrowed as she assessed the couple, who had joined a group of guests in conversation. “Socially ill-matched though he and Miss Howard are, one can’t deny they’re a striking pair.”

They were, Cassandra thought miserably. Both tall, slim and dark-haired, wearing identical expressions of cool reserve.

Tom flexed his shoulders, as if against a sudden tightness, and glanced around the room. He caught sight of Cassandra and stared at her, seemingly riveted, until she looked away. She clenched her trembling hands in her lap, and tried to think of an excuse to leave the dance early. It had been a week since she’d encountered him at Garrett Gibson’s clinic, and she’d been melancholy and frustrated ever since. No, she couldn’t leave—that would be cowardly, and it might make the evening easier for him, which she wasn’t about to do. She would stay and ignore him, and give every appearance of having a wonderful time.

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