He couldn’t stand by and do nothing. Something inside him had been let out of its cage, and it wouldn’t go back in until he’d made the world pay for hurting Cassandra.
When he thought of what she might be feeling, how frightened and furious and wounded she must be … a strange and terrible emotion twisted all through him. He wanted Cassandra in his arms. He wanted to shield her from all this damned ugliness.
Except he had no right to do anything where Cassandra was concerned.
“I won’t interfere,” Tom said gruffly. “But I want your word you’ll notify me if there’s something I can do. Even some small service.”
“You’re going to them now?”
“Yes, I’m going to collect my wife and take her to Ravenel House. She’ll want to be with Cassandra.” St. Vincent looked simultaneously angry and world-weary. “That poor girl. It’s never been a secret that what Cassandra wants most is a conventional life. But with a few malicious words, Lambert has all but ruined her chances of having it.”
“Not when the rumor he started is exposed as a blatant lie.”
St. Vincent smiled cynically. “You can’t kill a rumor that way, Severin. The more facts you throw at a lie, the more people insist on believing it.”
PUBLIC SHAME, CASSANDRA REFLECTED dully, was drowning in deep water. Once you disappeared beneath the surface, you kept sinking.
It had been twenty-four hours since Pandora and Gabriel had called at Ravenel House. Ordinarily, the unexpected visit would have been a delightful surprise, but from the moment Cassandra had seen Pandora’s bone-white face, she’d understood something was very wrong. Life-altering wrong.
They had all gathered in the family parlor, with Kathleen and Devon seated on either side of Cassandra. Pandora had been too agitated to sit, pacing around the room and occasionally breaking in with loud exclamations, while Gabriel had carefully explained the situation.
As the realization of what Lord Lambert had done to her sank in, Cassandra had turned cold with shock and fright. Devon had brought her a brandy and insisted that she drink it, his large hands closing over hers to keep the glass steady as she raised it to her lips. “You have a family,” he’d said firmly. “You have many people to love and defend you. We’re going to fight this together.”
“We’ll start by killing Lord Lambert!” Pandora had cried, storming back and forth. “In the longest, most painful way possible. We’ll take him apart bit by bit. I’m going to murder him with tweezers.”
While her twin had continued to rant, Cassandra had gone into Kathleen’s arms and whispered, “It will be like battling smoke. There’s no way to win.”
“Lady Berwick will be able to help us more than anyone,” Kathleen had said calmly. “She’ll enlist the sympathy and support of her friends—all influential society matrons—and advise us on how best to weather this storm.”
But like most storms, it would leave wreckage in its wake.
“You’ll have the support of my family,” Gabriel had assured her. “They won’t tolerate any slight against you. Whatever you require, they’ll provide.”
Cassandra had thanked him woodenly, forbearing to point out that the duke and duchess, powerful as they were, wouldn’t be able to force people to risk ruin by mixing their reputations with hers.
She’d sipped the brandy until she’d finished all of it, while the rest of the group discussed what to do. They’d agreed that Devon would enlist Ethan Ransom to find Lord Lambert, who had probably run to ground after the havoc he’d caused. St. Vincent would go to the offices of the London Chronicle in the morning and pressure the editor into revealing the identity of the anonymous columnist. Kathleen would send for Lady Berwick, who would devise a strategy to counteract the damaging rumors.
Although Cassandra had tried to pay attention, a gloom of exhaustion had settled over her, and she sat with her head and shoulders drooping.
“Cassandra’s feeling floppulous,” Pandora had announced. “She needs to rest.”
Kathleen and Pandora had accompanied her upstairs, while Devon and Gabriel had continued to talk in the parlor.
“I don’t mean to sound self-pitying,” Cassandra had said numbly, sitting at the vanity table while Kathleen brushed her hair, “but I can’t think what I did to deserve this.”
“You don’t deserve it,” Kathleen had said, meeting her gaze in the looking glass. “As you know, life is unfair. You had the bad luck to attract Lord Lambert, and you had no way of knowing what he would do.”
Pandora had come to kneel beside her chair. “Shall I stay here with you tonight? I don’t want to be far away from you.”
That had brought the trace of a smile to Cassandra’s dry lips. “No, the brandy’s made me sleepy. All I want is to rest. But I’ll need to see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll come back first thing in the morning.”
“You’ll have work to do,” Cassandra had objected. Pandora had started her own board game company and was in the process of fitting up a small factory space and visiting suppliers. “Come back later in the day, when you’ve taken care of your responsibilities.”
“I’ll be here by teatime.” Looking up at Cassandra more closely, Pandora commented, “You’re not behaving the way I expected. I’ve done all the crying and screaming, and you’ve been so quiet.”
“I’m sure I’ll cry eventually. Right now, though, I only feel rather ill and gray.”
“Should I be quiet too?” Pandora had asked.
Cassandra had shaken her head. “No, not at all. It feels as if you’re crying and screaming for me when I can’t.”
Pandora had pressed her cheek against Cassandra’s arm. “That’s what sisters do.”
The atmosphere in the house this morning was ominously quiet. Devon had left, and Kathleen was busy writing a blizzard of notes and letters, enlisting friends’ support in the brewing scandal. The servants were unusually subdued, Napoleon and Josephine were listless, and even the usual noises of street traffic from outside were absent. It felt as if someone had died.
In a way, someone had. Cassandra had awakened into a new life with a different future. She had yet to find out all the ways it had changed, and what the extent of her humiliation would be. But regardless of how people treated her, she had to admit her own responsibility in this mess. She was at least partly to blame. This was the reason for all Lady Berwick’s rules.
All the minor flirtations and stolen kisses Cassandra had enjoyed in the past had now been cast in a different light. It had seemed like innocent fun at the time, but she’d been playing with fire. Had she stayed safely next to her chaperone or relations and behaved with decorum, Lord Lambert would have never been able to pull her aside and accost her the way he had.
The only benefit to being ruined, Cassandra thought morosely as she dressed with the help of her lady’s maid, was that she’d lost her appetite. Perhaps she would finally lose the extra pounds that had plagued her ever since the beginning of summer.
When teatime approached, Cassandra descended the stairs eagerly, knowing Pandora would arrive soon. Late-afternoon tea was a sacred ritual for the Ravenels, whether they were in Hampshire or in London. Here at Ravenel House, tea was served in the double library, a spacious long rectangle of a room, lined with acres of mahogany bookshelves and filled with cozy groupings of deep upholstered furniture.