“As the heir to the Marquis of Ripon, Lord Lambert is highly eligible. The family is well-connected and respectable, and their ancestral estate boasts one of the best grouse moors in England. They’re under pressure of debt, as everyone in good society is these days, and therefore the marquis would be gratified for his son to marry a girl with a dowry such as yours.”
“Lord Lambert is younger than I would prefer,” Cassandra said.
“That isn’t necessarily a detraction. For women in our position, the only important choice in life we’re allowed to make is what man will govern us. It’s easier to maintain the upper hand with a young husband than one who is already set in his ways.”
“Ma’am, forgive me, but that’s a dreadful way of putting it.”
Lady Berwick smiled with a touch of grim amusement. “The truth usually is dreadful.” She seemed to want to say more, but at that moment Lambert reached them and introduced himself with a smart bow.
“Roland, Lord Lambert, at your service.”
Roland. It suited him perfectly, a name for a fairy-tale prince or an intrepid knight on a quest. He was a few inches taller than she, his build slim and taut. Despite the practiced bow and the confidence of his posture, there was something a bit puppyish about the way he looked at her, an expectation of reward after having successfully performed a trick.
After Lady Berwick had introduced Cassandra, and pleasantries were exchanged, Lambert asked, “May I have the pleasure of the next dance?”
Cassandra hesitated before responding.
The appalling truth was, she didn’t especially care whether she danced with him or not. Why was it so difficult to work up any interest in this young man and his fresh-from-a-bandbox handsomeness? Maybe it was the air of entitlement that clung to him like strong cologne. Maybe it was the sense that it didn’t matter whether she ended up with Lambert, or Huntingdon and his chinstrap beard, or any of the other bachelors here. None of them stirred her. Certainly none of them struck her as someone she would like to be governed by.
But the flash of uncertainty in Lambert’s hazel eyes caused her to soften. Be fair to him, she told herself. Be kind and give him a chance.
Smiling with as much warmth as she could manufacture, she placed a light hand on his arm. “I would love to,” she said, and let him lead her toward the center of the room.
“I did my penance,” Lord Lambert remarked. “In fact, I chose the plainest girls in the row to dance with.”
“How nice for them,” Cassandra replied, and winced inwardly as she heard how waspish that sounded. “I’m sorry,” she said before he could reply. “I’m not usually so sharp-tongued.”
“It’s all right,” Lambert assured her immediately. “I would expect it of a woman who looks like you.”
She blinked in surprise. “What?”
“I meant that as a compliment,” he said in a rush. “That is … when a woman is as beautiful as you … there’s no need for you to be …”
His lips parted in dismay, a flush rising in his fair complexion.
Cassandra shook her head and laughed suddenly. “Are we going to dance, my lord, or simply stand here insulting each other?”
Lambert looked relieved. “We should dance,” he said, and drew her into a waltz.
“LOOK AT THAT,” one of the gentlemen in Tom’s group marveled. “A golden couple.” Tom followed his gaze to the center of the ballroom, where Cassandra waltzed with an exceptionally handsome blond man. Even without knowing who the man was, Tom had no doubt he was of noble birth. He looked like the result of generations of selective breeding, producing more refinement and quality until finally the ideal specimen had been achieved.
“Lambert and Lady Cassandra,” someone else in the group, Mr. George Russell, commented. Dryly he added, “The pairing is too perfect. They ought never to be separated.”
Tom looked at him alertly, recognizing the name. Lambert’s father was the Marquis of Ripon, one of the more corrupt dealmakers in the House of Lords, with heavy investments in the railway business.
“The lady is selective, however,” Russell continued. “Five proposals last season, as I heard, and she turned them all down flat. Lambert may have no better luck.”
“A belle like that may be as selective as she pleases,” someone else said.
Adelia spoke then, her voice like musical notes flagged with razors. “She’s what you all want,” she laughingly accused the gentlemen in the group. “Men may profess their yearning to find a modest and sensible girl to marry. But none of you can resist chasing after a golden-haired flirt with a well-endowed figure, all dimples and giggles—without giving a passing thought to how empty-headed she might be.”
“Guilty as charged,” one of the men admitted, and they all chuckled.
“She’s not empty-headed,” Tom said, unable to keep silent.
Adelia gave him a piercing glance, her smile firmly fixed. “I forgot—you’re acquainted with the family. Don’t say Lady Cassandra is a secret intellectual? An unacknowledged genius of our modern times?”
Another round of chuckles, this time more subdued.
“She’s highly intelligent,” Tom replied coolly, “and quick-witted. She’s also extraordinarily kind. I’ve never heard her speak ill of anyone.”
Adelia flushed at the subtle rebuke. “Perhaps you should court her,” she said lightly. “If you think she’d have you.”
“Let’s give her credit for more discernment than that,” Tom said, and the group laughed.
He danced with Adelia after that, and dutifully acted as her escort until the end of the evening, and they both pretended the exchange hadn’t happened. But beneath the surface, they were both aware that any possibility of courtship had been sliced to ribbons with a few sharp words.
FOR THE REST of that evening and over the course of the next month, Lambert nearly drowned Cassandra in the deluge of his attentions. He was present at every social event she attended, and called frequently at Ravenel House, and sent extravagant flower arrangements and sweets in gilded tins. People began to remark on the increasing familiarity between them, and made small jokes about what a pretty pair they were. Cassandra went along with all of it because there seemed to be no good reason not to.
Roland, Lord Lambert, was everything she should want, or very nearly so. She didn’t have any significant objection to him, only a number of small ones that would have sounded rather petty if she’d expressed them out loud. The way he had referred to himself as a member of the “ruling class,” for example, and said he expected to turn his attentions to diplomacy someday—even though he didn’t have any qualifications for managing international relations.
To be fair, there were many things to like about Lord Lambert: He was educated and well-spoken, and had entertaining stories to tell about his experiences on his Grand Tour of last year. He was also capable of warmth and affection, as he’d demonstrated while telling her about his mother passing away three years ago. She liked how tenderly he spoke of his mother, and how fond he seemed of his two sisters. He described his father, the Marquis of Ripon, as stern but not unkind, a father who had always wanted the best for him.