Tom nodded, his mind already assessing potential obstacles. Nothing could be allowed to stop this from happening. He had to be with her. “When you said our engagement is subject to your family’s approval,” he ventured, “I hope you don’t expect it to be unanimous.”
“I would like it to be. But it’s not a requirement.”
“Good,” he said. “Because even if I manage to talk Trenear into it, debating with West will be like tilting at windmills.”
She looked up at him alertly. “Was Don Quixote one of the books you read?”
“To my regret, yes.”
“You didn’t like it?”
Tom gave her a sardonic glance. “A story about a middle-aged lunatic who vandalizes private property? Hardly. Although I agree with Cervantes’ point that chivalry is no different from insanity.”
“That’s not at all what he was saying.” Cassandra regarded him ruefully. “I’m beginning to suspect you’ve missed the point of every novel you’ve read so far.”
“Most of them are pointless. Like the one about the French bread thief who violated his parole—”
“Yes. It took Victor Hugo fourteen hundred pages to say, ‘Never let your daughter marry a radical French law student.’ Which everyone already knows.”
Her brows lifted. “Is that the lesson you took from the novel?”
“No, of course not,” he said promptly, reading her expression. “The lesson of Les Misérables is …” Tom paused cagily before taking his best guess. “… ‘It’s usually a mistake to forgive your enemies.’”
“Not even close.” Amusement lurked at the corners of her mouth. “I have my work cut out for me, it seems.”
“Yes,” Tom said, encouraged by the remark. “Take me on. Influence me for the better. It will be a public service.”
“Hush,” Cassandra begged, touching his lips with her fingers, “before I change my mind.”
“You can’t,” Tom said, knowing he was taking the words more seriously than she’d intended. But the very idea was like an ice pick to the heart. “That is, don’t. Please. Because I …” He couldn’t break their shared gaze. Her blue eyes, as dark as a cloudless midnight, seemed to stare right inside him, gently and inexorably prying out the truth. “… need you,” he finally muttered.
Shame caused his face to sting as if from spark burns. He couldn’t believe what he’d just said, how weak and unmanly it had sounded.
But the strange thing was … Cassandra didn’t seem to think less of him for it. In fact, she was looking at him with more certainty now, nodding slightly, as if his mortifying admission had just cemented the bargain.
Not for the first time, Tom reflected there was no understanding women. It wasn’t that they were illogical. Just the opposite. Their logic was of a higher order, too complex and advanced to submit to a complete proof calculus. Women assigned mysterious values to details a man would overlook, and were able to draw piercing conclusions about his innermost secrets. Tom suspected that Cassandra, after their handful of encounters, had already acquired a more thorough knowledge of him than his friends of more than a decade. More troubling still was the suspicion she understood things about him even he wasn’t aware of.
“Let me talk to my family first,” Cassandra said, reaching out to make little adjustments to his collar and necktie, smoothing his coat lapels. “I’ll send for you tomorrow, or possibly the day after, and then you can make your case to them.”
“I can’t stay away from you that long,” Tom said, affronted. “And I’ll be damned if I let you handle this by yourself.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“It’s not that! Letting you handle it without me has every appearance of cowardice.”
“Tom,” she said dryly, “your love of confrontation is a secret to no one. There’s no danger of anyone accusing you of cowardice. However, nothing you say will make headway with the Ravenels until I convince them this is what I want.”
“Is it?” Tom asked before he thought better of it, and cursed himself silently. Hang it all, now he was begging, doglike, for scraps of reassurance. He couldn’t believe the power she had over him. This was what he’d been afraid of since the beginning.
Cassandra, alert to every subtle color of his mood, reached for him without hesitation. Grasping the coat lapels she’d just smoothed, she pulled him close and kissed him, soothing the rough edges of his anxiety. He kissed her deeply, taking as much as he could, while the sweet fervor of her response sent a fresh surge of arousal coursing through him. His flesh thickened, his lungs pumping with wild and uneven force. The self-control he’d always prided himself on had been reduced to smoldering rubble. He felt too much, all at the same time—it was all the colors mixed together. It was madness.
When at last their lips parted, their breath mingling in rapid gusts, Cassandra stared into his eyes and said firmly, “I want you. I won’t change my mind. If we’re to trust each other, Tom … let’s start now.”
“ALL WE CAN DO is advise you,” Devon told Cassandra the next day. “The decision is ultimately yours.”
“For God’s sake,” West said in exasperation, “don’t tell her that.”
Devon sent his younger brother a sarcastic glance. “It’s not Cassandra’s decision?”
“Not when she’s obviously in no condition to make it for herself. Would you let her dance at the edge of a railway platform when she’s drunk?”
“I haven’t been drinking,” Cassandra protested. “Nor would I ever be so silly as to dance at the edge of a railway platform.”
“I didn’t mean it literally,” West retorted.
“It’s still a mischaracterization. You’re implying I don’t know what I’m doing, when I happen to understand my own situation better than you do.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily agree—” West began, but quieted as Phoebe lightly dug her elbow in his ribs.
The five of them—Devon, Kathleen, West, Phoebe, and Cassandra—were out walking through Hyde Park, having felt the need to escape the confines of Ravenel House. With such a volatile topic of discussion, the large double library had seemed as pressure-filled as a kettle at full boil.
After having received a telegram from Devon the previous day, West and Phoebe had arrived on the first train from Essex this morning. To no one’s surprise, West was in a temper, longing for vengeance against Ripon and his son for daring to slander a Ravenel.
The rest of the family would arrive later for dinner, but for now it was enough just to handle West and Devon, who were both strongly against the idea of her marrying Tom Severin. Kathleen seemed at least open to the idea, and Phoebe was maintaining a policy of strict neutrality.
“What have the others said?” West asked, in the manner of a general assessing troop strength. “I hope no one else supports this asinine idea.”
“Mr. Winterborne and Lord St. Vincent have refrained from giving their opinions,” Cassandra replied. “Helen said she wants whatever I want. Pandora likes Mr. Severin and thinks it’s a splendid idea—”