Chasing Cassandra

Page 32

Cassandra smiled in thanks. “An honor to make your acquaintance, my lord.”

The marquis studied her with a calculating gaze. “Are you here as an art lover, Lady Cassandra?”

“I know little about art, but hope to learn more. Will you bid on a painting tonight, my lord?”

“No, I intend to make a donation, but the painter’s work is no more than mediocre. I wouldn’t have it hanging in my scullery.”

Although Cassandra was disconcerted by the jab at the late Mr. Gladwine’s work—at a charity benefit for his widow and children, no less—she tried to show no reaction.

Seeming to realize how unkind the marquis had sounded, Lambert interceded hastily. “My father is very knowledgeable about art, particularly landscapes.”

“From what I’ve seen so far,” Cassandra said, “I admire Mr. Gladwine’s skill at conveying light—a moonlit scene, for example, or the glow of a fire.”

“Visual tricks aren’t the same as artistic merit,” the marquis said dismissively.

She smiled and shrugged. “I like his work nonetheless. Perhaps someday you might do me the kindness of explaining what makes a painting worthy, and then I’ll know better what to look for.”

The marquis stared at her appraisingly. “You have pretty ways, my dear. It’s to your credit that you wish to heed a man’s opinions and enter into his views.” His lips curved slightly as he remarked, “A pity I didn’t meet you before my son did. As it happens, I’m also searching for a wife.”

Although that seemed intended as a compliment, Cassandra thought it a rather odd thing to say, especially in front of Lord Lambert. Perturbed, she ransacked her brain for a suitable reply. “I’m sure any woman would be honored by your attentions, my lord.”

“So far I’ve found no one worthy of them.” His gaze traveled over her. “You, however, will be a charming addition to my household.”

“As my bride,” Lambert said, chuckling. “Not yours, Father.”

Cassandra kept silent. With a flare of testiness and worry, she realized both men regarded the marriage as a fait accompli, as if courtship and consent weren’t even required.

The way the marquis looked at her was disturbing. Something in those flinty eyes made her feel blowsy and trivial at the same time.

Lord Lambert presented his arm to her. “Lady Cassandra, shall we view the rest of the paintings?”

She curtsied to the marquis once more and went with Lambert.

Slowly they wandered through the circuit of public rooms on the main floor of the house, where artwork had been hung up for display. They stopped before a painting of Vesuvius erupting in red and yellow fury.

“Don’t mind my father’s forwardness,” Lord Lambert said casually. “He doesn’t mince words when it comes to expressing his opinions. What’s important is that he approves of you.”

“My lord,” Cassandra said quietly, conscious of people passing behind them, “somehow we seem to have come to a misunderstanding … an assumption … that an engagement is a foregone conclusion.”

“It isn’t?” he asked, looking amused.

“No.” Hearing the edge in her own voice, she moderated it before continuing more calmly, “We haven’t had a formal courtship. The Season proper hasn’t even started. I won’t be ready to consent to anything before we become far more familiar with each other.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

“I understand what you want.”

Cassandra relaxed, relieved that he didn’t seem to have taken offense. They progressed along the row of paintings … a view of castle ruins at night … the burning of the old Drury Lane theater … a moonlit river estuary. She was unable to focus on the artwork, however. Her mind buzzed with the uneasy awareness that the more often she saw Lord Lambert, the less she was coming to like him. The possibility that she might have her own thoughts and dreams didn’t seem to have occurred to him. He expected—as his father had put it—for her to enter into his views. How could he ever love her if he had no interest in who she really was?

But dear God, if she rejected this man, this scion of the aristocracy, who was universally regarded as perfect …

People would say she was mad. They would say there was no pleasing her. That the fault lay not with him, but with her.

Maybe they would be right.

Abruptly, Lord Lambert tugged her out of the main circuit of rooms and into a hallway.

Stumbling a little, Cassandra let out a surprised laugh. “What are you doing?”

“You’ll see.” He pulled her into a private room, the kind of small, cozy retreat often referred to as a snuggery, and closed the door.

Disoriented by the sudden darkness, Cassandra reached out blindly to steady herself. Her breath stopped as Lord Lambert’s arms went around her.

“Now,” came his self-satisfied purr, “I’ll give you what you asked for.”

Both irritated and amused, Cassandra pointed out, “I didn’t ask to be dragged into a dark room and manhandled.”

“You wanted to become more familiar with me.”

“I didn’t mean this—” she protested, but his mouth came to hers, too hard, his lips wriggling against hers with swiftly increasing pressure.

For heaven’s sake, didn’t he understand that she’d wanted to spend time talking with him to discover their mutual likes and dislikes? Did he have any interest in her as a person?

The force of his kiss was bruising, almost belligerent, and she reached her hands up to his cheeks, stroking lightly in the hopes of soothing him. When that didn’t work, she twisted her face away and gasped, “My lord … Roland … not so hard. Be gentle.”

“I will. Darling … darling …” His mouth found hers again, the pressure only slightly mitigated.

Cassandra steeled herself to hold still, enduring his kisses rather than enjoying them. She tried to will herself to feel some kind of pleasure, anything except this creeping sense of distaste. His arms were crushing bands around her. In his excitement, the surface of his chest pumped like fireplace bellows.

It was becoming farcical, actually, a scene depicting an impassioned buffoon imposing himself on an outraged virgin. Worthy of Molière. Wasn’t there a scene like this in The Love-Tiff? Or maybe it was Tartuffe …

The fact that she was thinking about a seventeenth-century playwright at this moment was not a good sign.

Concentrate, she commanded herself. His mouth wasn’t unpleasant in itself. Why did it feel so different to kiss one man as opposed to another? She wanted so much to like this, but it wasn’t at all similar to that night in the winter garden … the cool night air scented of shadows and green fern … standing on her bare toes as she sought the delicious pressure of Tom Severin’s mouth … sensitive but urgent … and tendrils of warmth began to uncurl inside.

But then Lord Lambert forced her lips apart, and the wet spear of his tongue filled her mouth.

Spluttering a little, Cassandra jerked her head back. “No … wait … no.” She tried to shove him away, but he was holding her too tightly for her to wedge her hands between them. “My family will be looking for me.”

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