“How interesting,” Cassandra said uneasily, thinking, Oh, dear … more oddness. “You take photographs with your mind?”
His lips twitched, as if he could read her thoughts. “Not like that. I retain information more easily than images. Some things—charts or schedules, pages from a book—I can recall in perfect detail, as if I’m looking at a picture. I remember the furniture arrangements and the art on the walls of nearly every house I’ve ever visited. Every word of every contract I’ve signed and business deal I’ve negotiated are in here.” He tapped his temple with a long finger.
“Are you joking?” Cassandra asked in amazement.
“Why on earth is it unfortunate to be intelligent?”
“Well, that’s the problem: Recalling vast amounts of information doesn’t mean you’re intelligent. It’s what you do with the information.” His expression turned wry. “Remembering too many things makes the brain inefficient. There’s a certain amount of information we’re supposed to forget because we don’t need it, or because it hinders us. But I remember all the failed attempts as well as the successes. All the mistakes and negative outcomes. Sometimes it’s like being caught in a dust storm—there’s too much debris flying about for me to see clearly.”
“It sounds quite fatiguing to have a photographic memory. Still, you’ve made the most of it. One can’t really pity you.”
He grinned at that, and hung his head. “I suppose not.”
Cassandra finished the last drops of champagne before setting aside her glass. “Mr. Severin, may I ask something personal?”
“Why did you offer to be my oyster?” A hot blush climbed her face. “Is it because I’m pretty?”
His head lifted. “Partly,” he admitted without a hint of shame. “But I also liked what you said—that you never nag or slam doors, and you’re not looking for love. I’m not either.” He paused, his vibrant gaze holding hers. “I think we would be a good match.”
“I didn’t mean I don’t want love,” Cassandra protested. “I only meant I’d be willing to let love grow in time. To be clear, I want a husband who could also love me back.”
Mr. Severin took his time about replying. “What if you had a husband who, although not handsome, was not altogether bad-looking and happened to be very rich? What if he were kind and considerate, and gave you whatever you asked for—mansions, jewels, trips abroad, your own private yacht and luxury railway carriage? What if he were exceptionally good at …” He paused, appearing to think better of what he’d been about to say. “What if he were your protector and friend? Would it really matter so much if he couldn’t love you?”
“Why couldn’t he?” Cassandra asked, intrigued and perturbed. “Is he missing a heart altogether?”
“No, he has one, but it’s never worked that way. It’s … frozen.”
He thought for a moment. “Birth?” he offered.
“Hearts don’t start out frozen,” Cassandra said wisely. “Something happened to you.”
Mr. Severin gave her a slightly mocking glance. “How do you know so much about the heart?”
“I’ve read novels—” Cassandra began earnestly, and was disgruntled to hear his quiet laugh. “Many of them. You don’t think a person can learn things from reading novels?”
“Nothing that actually applies to life.” But the blue-green eyes contained a friendly sparkle, as if he found her charming.
“But life is what novels are about. A novel can contain more truth than a thousand newspaper articles or scientific papers. It can make you imagine, just for a little while, that you’re someone else—and then you understand more about people who are different from you.”
The way he listened to her was so very flattering, so careful and interested, as if he were collecting her words like flowers to be pressed in a book. “I stand corrected,” he said. “I see I’ll have to read one. Do you have any suggestions?”
“I wouldn’t dare. I don’t know your taste.”
“I like trains, ships, machines, and tall buildings. I like the idea of traveling to new places, although I never seem to have the time to go anywhere. I don’t like sentiment or romance. History puts me to sleep. I don’t believe in miracles, angels, or ghosts.” He gave her an expectant glance, as if he’d just laid down a challenge.
“Hmm.” Cassandra puzzled over what kind of novel might appeal to him. “I’ll have to give this some thought. I want to recommend something you’ll be sure to enjoy.”
Mr. Severin smiled, tiny constellations of reflected chandelier lights glinting in his eyes. “Since I’ve told you about my tastes … what are yours?”
Cassandra looked down at her folded hands in her lap. “I like trivial things, mostly,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh. “Handiwork, such as embroidery, knitting, and needlepoint. I sketch and paint a little. I like naps and teatime, and taking a lazy stroll on a sunny day, and reading books on a rainy afternoon. I have no special talents or grand ambitions. But I would like to have my own family someday, and … I want to help other people far more than I’m able to now. I take baskets of food and medicine to tenants and acquaintances in the village, but that’s not enough. I want to provide real help to people who need it.” She sighed shortly. “I suppose that’s not very interesting. Pandora’s the exciting, amusing twin, the one people remember. I’ve always been … well, the one who’s not Pandora.” In the silence that followed, she looked up from her lap with chagrin. “I don’t know why I just told you all that. It must have been the champagne. Could you please forget I said it?”
“Not even if I wanted to,” he said gently. “Which I don’t.”
“Bother.” Frowning, Cassandra retrieved her empty glass and stood, tugging her skirts into place.
Mr. Severin picked up his own glass and rose to his feet. “But you don’t have to worry,” he said. “You can say whatever you like to me. I’m your oyster.”
Before she could restrain herself, an appalled giggle escaped her. “Please don’t say that. You’re no such thing.”
“You can choose another word, if you like.” Mr. Severin extended his arm to escort her downstairs. “But the fact is, if you ever need anything—any favor, any service, large or small—I’m the one to send for. No questions asked, no obligations attached. Will you remember that?”
Cassandra hesitated before taking his arm. “I’ll remember.” As they proceeded to the first floor, she asked in bewilderment, “But why would you make such a promise?”
“Haven’t you ever liked someone or something right away, without knowing exactly why, but feeling sure you would discover the reasons later?”
She couldn’t help smiling at that, thinking, Yes, as a matter of fact. Just now. But it would be too forward to say so, and besides, it would be wrong to encourage him. “I would be glad to call you a friend, Mr. Severin. But I’m afraid marriage will never be a possibility. We don’t suit. I could please you only in the most superficial ways.”