Chasing Cassandra

Page 39

The marquis sounded very grave, his voice stripped of its former sneering edge. Cassandra risked a glance at him. He had a certain hawklike handsomeness, his form slim and smartly dressed, his black hair threaded with silver. “I came to tell you how thoroughly I condemn my son’s actions,” he said. “It grieved and angered me to learn of his conduct. Nothing in his upbringing would explain or excuse it. Nor can I fathom why he would speak so recklessly about it afterward.”

“I can answer that,” Pandora broke in heatedly. “He started the rumor out of spite, because my sister didn’t want him.”

Ripon looked directly at Cassandra. “I apologize most humbly on his behalf.”

She nodded slightly, comprehending that he wasn’t a man who was often given to humbling himself for any reason.

Lady Berwick spoke frostily. “One would wish, Ripon,” she said, “that your son had come to tender the apology on his own behalf.”

“Yes.” A rueful note colored his reply. “Unfortunately, I have no knowledge of his whereabouts. I’m sure he dreads my reaction to what he’s done.”

“What of the column in the Chronicle, Ripon?” St. Vincent asked, staring at him intently. “Who do you think wrote it?”

“I know nothing about that,” Ripon said, “other than it was reprehensible.” His attention returned to Devon. “For me, the issue of paramount importance is how best to help Lady Cassandra. Her reputation has been harmed … but perhaps the damage is not irreversible.” The marquis lifted his hands as if anticipating a volley of arrows. “I beg you to allow me to explain.” He paused. “Lady Cassandra, if I were to bring my son before you, penitent and profoundly apologetic—”

“No,” Cassandra said, her voice bowstring-taut. “I have no interest in him. I never want to see him again.”

“As I thought. In that case, there’s another candidate I would like to put forth for your consideration: myself.” Seeing her astonishment, Ripon continued carefully. “I am a widower. For some time, I’ve searched for someone with whom I could share the kind of contentment I enjoyed with my late wife. I find you ideal in every regard. Marriage to me would restore your reputation and lift you to a high place in society. You would be the mother to my future children, and the mistress of a great estate. I would be a generous husband. My wife was a very happy woman—anyone who knew her would attest to that.”

“How could I possibly become Lord Lambert’s stepmother?” Cassandra asked, revolted.

“You would never have to see him. I’ll banish him from the estate altogether if you wish. Your happiness and comfort would take precedence over all else.”

“My lord, I couldn’t—”

“Please,” Ripon interrupted gently, “don’t give me an immediate answer. I beg you to do me the honor of taking some time to consider the idea.”

“She will consider it,” Lady Berwick said flatly.

Cassandra glanced at her in mute protest, but managed to hold her tongue. She owed it to Lady Berwick not to contradict her in company. But she knew exactly what the other woman was thinking. This offer, from this caliber of man, wasn’t something to turn down summarily.

“I’ve been lonely for a long time, Lady Cassandra,” Ripon said quietly. “I’ve missed having someone to care for. You would bring much joy into my life. I’m sure the difference in our ages gives you pause. However, there are advantages to having a mature husband. If you were mine, every obstacle, every thorn and rough patch, would be cleared from your path.”

Cassandra glanced at Lady Berwick, whose brows lifted an infinitesimal but significant distance, as if to say, You see? He’s not so terrible after all.

“You will have many questions and concerns, of course,” the marquis said. “Whenever you would like to talk with me, I’ll come at once. In the meantime, I’ll do everything I can to publicly defend your honor.”

A new voice entered the conversation. “Well. That would be a refreshing change.”

Cassandra felt her heart jolt painfully as her gaze went to the doorway, where Tom Severin stood.

Chapter 15

THE BUTLER, WHO HAD been waiting for an opportune moment to announce the new arrival, was clearly disgruntled at having being preempted before he could perform his duty correctly. “My lord,” he said to Devon, “Mr. Severin.”

Unlike the marquis, Tom had already dispensed with his hat and gloves, as if he intended to stay for a while.

Devon went to him, deftly blocking his way. “Severin … not now. We’re dealing with a family matter. I’ll meet with you later and explain—”

“Oh, you want me to be here,” Tom assured him nonchalantly, and walked around him to enter the library. “Good afternoon, all. Or evening, I should say. Are we having tea? Splendid, I could do with a cup.”

Devon turned to watch him with a perplexed frown, wondering what his friend was up to.

Tom looked relaxed and supremely confident, a man who was thinking five steps ahead of everyone else. The tantalizing sense of something dangerous held in reserve, a hidden volatility beneath the coolness, was still there.

Weak with longing, Cassandra stared at him, but his gaze didn’t meet hers.

“Mr. Severin,” Kathleen asked pleasantly, reaching for a fresh cup and saucer from the tea tray, “how do you prefer your tea?”

“Milk, no sugar.”

Devon began to make introductions. “Lord Ripon, I’d like to present—”

“No need,” Tom said casually. “We’re already acquainted. Ripon happens to sit on a select committee that awards contracts to railway developers. Oddly enough, the most lucrative contracts tend to go to a railway company in which he’s heavily invested.”

Ripon stared at him with cold disdain. “You dare to impugn my integrity?”

Tom reacted with mock surprise. “No, did I sound critical? I meant to sound admiring. Private graft pairs so beautifully with public service. Like Bordeaux with aged beef. I’m sure I couldn’t resist the temptation any more than you.”

Lady Berwick, bristling with indignation, addressed Tom directly. “Young man, not only are you an unwelcome distraction, you have the manners of a goat.”

That drew a flashing grin from Tom. “I beg your pardon, madam, and ask your indulgence for a minute or two. I have a good reason for being here.”

Lady Berwick huffed and regarded him suspiciously.

After taking the teacup from Kathleen and declining the saucer, Tom went to brace his shoulder against the fireplace mantel. The firelight played over the gleaming short layers of his hair as he glanced around the room.

“I suppose the subject of the missing Lord Lambert has already been brought up,” he remarked. “Has there been any sign of him?”

“Not yet,” Winterborne replied. “Ransom has dispatched men to find him.”

Cassandra suspected Tom knew something no one else did. He seemed to be playing some kind of cat-and-mouse game. “Do you have information regarding his whereabouts, Mr. Severin?” she asked unsteadily.

Tom looked directly at her then, the nonchalant mask temporarily falling away. His intense, searching gaze somehow burned through the numbness of the past twenty-four hours. “No, sweetheart,” he said gently, as if there were no one else in the room. The deliberate endearment caused a few breaths to catch audibly, including hers.

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