Chasing Cassandra

Page 41

“Severin,” Devon said, his expression implacable, “Cassandra has endured enough for one day. Whatever you wish to say to her can wait.”

“No,” Cassandra said anxiously. She was well aware of Devon’s opinions about Tom, that although he was worthy as a friend, he would be an unacceptable husband. But after what Tom had just done for her, she couldn’t let her family send him away so abruptly—it would be rude and ungrateful. And although she still remembered Devon’s assessment of Tom’s character, she didn’t agree with it now.

Not entirely, at any rate.

Trying to sound dignified, she said, “At least allow me to thank Mr. Severin for his kindness.” She slid a pleading glance to Kathleen behind Lady Berwick’s back.

“Perhaps,” Kathleen suggested diplomatically, “Cassandra and Mr. Severin could talk at the other end of the library while we remain here?”

Lady Berwick relented with a reluctant bob of her head.

Devon let out a quiet sigh. “No objections,” he muttered.

Cassandra rose on weak legs and shook out the folds from her skirts. She went with Tom to the other half of the library, where rows of tall, multipaned windows bracketed a glass door that opened to a side entrance of the house.

Tom drew her to a corner, where a slant of weak light from the pebble-colored sky came through the windows. Lightly his fingers came to her arm, just above the elbow, a careful pressure she barely felt through the sleeve.

“How are you?” he asked gently.

Had he started any other way, she might have been able to maintain her composure. But that simple question, and the wealth of concern and tenderness in his gaze, caused the blank, sick feeling to melt away, far too fast. Cassandra tried to answer, but no sound emerged: She could only breathe in quick, shallow pulls. In the next moment, she shocked both of them, and undoubtedly everyone else in the library, by bursting into tears. Mortified, she put her hands over her face.

In the next moment, she felt him pulling her into a deep embrace. His voice was low and soothing in her ear. “No … no … it’s all right … easy, now. My sweet darling. Poor buttercup.”

She choked on a sob, and her nose trickled. “H-handkerchief,” she wheezed.

Somehow Tom deciphered the muffled word. He eased her away just far enough to reach into his coat, and produced a folded square of white linen. She took it and swabbed her eyes, and blew her nose. To her relief, Tom pulled her close again. “Do I really need to have an audience for this?” she heard him ask irritably over her head. After a moment, he said, “Thank you,” although he didn’t sound all that grateful.

Gathering that her family was leaving the library, Cassandra rested against him.

“You’re shaking,” Tom exclaimed softly. “Sweetheart … you’ve been through hell, haven’t you?”

“It’s been h-horrid,” she sniffled. “So humiliating. I’ve already been uninvited to a dinner and a ball. I can’t believe Lord Lambert would behave so ab-bominably and spread lies about me, and people would believe him so easily!”

“Shall I kill him for you?” Tom asked, sounding alarmingly sincere.

“I’d rather you didn’t,” she said in a watery voice, and blew her nose again. “It’s not nice to murder people, even if they deserve it, and it wouldn’t make me feel better.”

“What would make you feel better?” Tom’s tone was gentle and interested, his hands comforting as they moved over her.

“Just this,” she said with a shuddering sigh. “Just hold me.”

“For as long as you want. I’ll do anything for you. Anything at all. I’m here, and I’ll take care of you. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

Sometimes there were words a woman needed to hear, even if she didn’t believe them.

“Thank you for coming to me,” she whispered.


The warmth of his lips strayed across her face, absorbing the taste of her tears. Blindly she lifted her mouth, wanting more of the soft, tantalizing pressure. He gave it to her slowly, gently parting her lips. Breathing in unsettled sighs, she reached around his neck. His kiss shaped and stroked and teased, settling deeper into her response.

Her fingers laced into the clean, satiny locks of his hair, urging his head down over hers, wanting more pressure, more intimacy. He gave it to her, in a kiss so full and famished, it made her weak, heat pulsing in every limb and collecting at the tips of her fingers and toes. It felt like something she could die from.

A tremor went through Tom’s frame. He crushed his lips amid the disheveled locks of her hair, his breath rushing down to her scalp like bursts of steam. She twisted, trying to recapture his mouth, but he resisted. “I’ve wanted you for so long,” he said gruffly. “There hasn’t been anyone for me, Cassandra. Ever since—No, wait. Before I say anything else—You owe me nothing, do you understand? I would have leaped at any chance to expose Lord Ripon as a lying fraud, even if you hadn’t been involved.”

“I’m still grateful,” Cassandra managed to say.

“God help me, don’t be grateful.” Tom took an unsteady breath. “I’ll hold you ’til the end of time, if that’s all you want from me. But there’s so much more I could do for you. I would treasure you. I would—” He broke off, leaning so close she felt as if she were drowning in the tropical azure and ocean green of his eyes. “Marry me, Cassandra—and we’ll tell them all to go to hell.”

Chapter 16

AS TOM WAITED FOR her answer, he gently framed Cassandra’s face between his hands. His thumbs stroked the fine-grained skin of her cheeks, delicately mottled with pink in the aftermath of tears. Her lashes were long, wet spikes, like the rays of stars.

“Tell who to go to hell?” she asked in confusion.

“The world.” It occurred to Tom that as far as marriage proposals went, his might have been expressed a bit better. “Let me reword that—” he began, but she had already pulled away from him. He swore quietly.

Cassandra went to a nearby bookcase and stared fixedly at a row of leather-bound volumes. “We’ve already come to an understanding of why marriage wouldn’t work for us,” she said unsteadily.

Tom knew she wasn’t in the best condition to have this discussion. Not by half. For that matter, he wasn’t either. But he was fairly certain waiting would gain him nothing, nor would it help her.

His brain instantly began collating a list of arguments. “I’ve decided it would work for us after all. Circumstances have changed.”

“Not mine,” Cassandra countered. “No matter what’s happened, or what anyone says, marriage isn’t my only choice.”

“You were discussing it with Ripon,” Tom said, annoyed.

Turning to face him, Cassandra rubbed her forehead in a brief, weary gesture. “I don’t want to quarrel with you. One might as well try to face down an oncoming locomotive.”

Realizing his demeanor was too combative, Tom softened his voice and let his arms relax to his sides. “It wouldn’t be a quarrel,” he said innocently, reasonably. “I just want the same chance to make my case that you gave to Lord Ripon.”

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