Lambert belonged to what was called “high-toned” society, in which gentlemen had the bluest blood, the whitest waistcoats, and the most upturned noses. The intricate rules of the upper class were as natural to him as breathing. If she married him, they would stay in town for the Season, and spend the rest of the year at the estate in Northumberland, with all that beautiful unspoiled moorland bordering Scotland. It would be terribly far from her family, but there was the train, which would shorten the travel time considerably. There would be busy mornings and quiet evenings. The familiar rhythms of country life—plowing, planting, the seasonal harvests—would shape her days.
There would be marital intimacy, of course. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. When she’d let Lord Lambert steal a kiss after a carriage drive one afternoon, the pressure of his lips had been so enthusiastic—forceful, even—that there had been no room left for her to respond. But no matter how that part of their relationship turned out, there would be compensations. Children, in particular.
“Marriage first and love afterward,” she had told Pandora during a private conversation. “Many people do it in that order. I suppose I’ll be one of them.”
Looking troubled, Pandora had asked, “Do you feel any attraction to Lord Lambert? Butterflies swirling inside?”
“No, but … I do like his looks …”
“It doesn’t matter if he’s handsome,” her sister had said with authority.
Cassandra had smiled wryly. “Pandora, it’s not as if you married a bridge troll.”
With a shrug and a sheepish grin, her sister had replied, “I know, but even if Gabriel weren’t handsome, I’d still want to share a bed with him.”
Cassandra had nodded with a gathering frown. “Pandora, I’ve felt that with someone before. The nerves and excitement and the butterflies. But … it wasn’t Lord Lambert.”
Her sister’s eyes turned very round. “Who was it?”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s not available.”
Pandora’s voice lowered to a dramatic whisper. “Is he married?”
“My goodness, no. He’s … well, it’s Mr. Severin.” Sighing, Cassandra waited for her sister to say something comical or teasing.
Blinking, Pandora took a moment to absorb the information. She surprised Cassandra by saying thoughtfully, “I can see why you would like him.”
“Yes, he’s very good-looking, and his personality has interesting corners and edges. And he’s a man, not a boy.”
How like Pandora to accurately identify the reasons Cassandra found Tom Severin so compelling, and Lord Lambert so … not.
Lambert had been born to privilege, and his character was still unformed in many ways. He’d never had to make his own way in life, and likely never would. Tom Severin, by contrast, had started with nothing except his wits and will, and had become powerful by anyone’s standards. Lord Lambert enjoyed a life of languid ease, while Tom blazed through his days with relentless energy. Even the side of Tom that was cool and calculating was exciting. Stimulating. There was hardly any doubt in Cassandra’s mind that Lambert would be easier to live with … but as to the one she would rather share a bed with …
“Why isn’t he available?” Pandora asked.
“His heart is frozen.”
“Poor man,” Pandora said. “It must be solid ice if he can’t fall in love with you.”
Cassandra smiled and reached out to hug her.
“Do you remember when we were little,” she heard Pandora ask over her shoulder, “and you would bruise your shin or stub your toe, and I would pretend I’d hurt myself in exactly the same place?”
“Yes. I must say it was a bit annoying to watch you limp around when I was the one with the injury.”
Pandora chuckled and drew back. “If you felt pain, I wanted to share it with you. That’s what sisters do.”
“There’s no need for anyone to feel badly,” Cassandra said with determined cheerfulness. “I intend to have a very happy life. Really, it’s not important whether I desire Lord Lambert or not: They say attraction fades in time anyway.”
“It fades in some marriages, but not all of them. I don’t think it’s gone away for Gabriel’s parents. And even if it does fade eventually, wouldn’t you at least like to start out that way?” Seeing the indecision on Cassandra’s face, Pandora answered her own question firmly. “Yes, you would. It would be revolting to sleep with a man you don’t desire.”
Cassandra rubbed her temples distractedly. “Is it possible to make my feelings do what I want them to do? Can I talk myself into wanting someone?”
“I don’t know,” Pandora said. “But if I were you, I’d find out before I made a decision about the rest of my life.”
AFTER A GREAT DEAL of pondering, Cassandra decided even though she wasn’t sure what she might feel for Lord Lambert, she didn’t not desire him. She owed it to him, and herself, to find out if there was even a flicker of compatibility between them.
The opportunity came quite soon, when a charity banquet called the event of the month was held at the Belgravia home of Lord Delaval.
The evening included a private art exhibition and auction to benefit the Artists’ Benevolent Fund. Recently a talented but only moderately successful landscape painter named Erskin Gladwine had passed away, leaving behind a wife and six children with no means to support themselves. The proceeds of the art sale would go into a fund for the Gladwines and other families of deceased artists.
Since Lady Berwick had taken a well-earned night off from chaperoning, Cassandra attended the charity benefit with Devon and Kathleen.
“We’ll try to do a proper job of watching over you,” Kathleen had said with mock concern, “but I fear we won’t be strict enough, as we undoubtedly need a chaperone ourselves.”
“We’re Ravenels,” Devon had pointed out. “There’s only so much good behavior people will find believable.”
Soon after their arrival, Cassandra was disconcerted to discover Lord Lambert’s father, the Marquis of Ripon, was also attending. Although she had known she would meet him sooner or later, she didn’t feel prepared. At the very least, she would have worn a more flattering dress than this one, a moiré silk that was her least favorite. The extra weight she’d gained had made it necessary to let out the waist, but the square-cut yoke of the bodice couldn’t be altered without ruining it, so the top curves of her breasts plumped over the edge of the neckline. And the wavy “watered” fabric, in a shade of golden brown, gave it the unfortunate appearance of wood grain.
Lambert introduced her to his father, the marquis, who was younger in appearance than she’d expected. He was dark where his son was fair, his hair a mixture of cinder black and silver, his eyes the shade of bitter chocolate. The lines of his face were handsome but hard, textured like weathered marble. As Cassandra curtsied and rose, she was mildly startled to catch his gaze flicking upward from her breasts.
“My lady,” he said, “the accounts of your beauty were by no means exaggerated.”