“She would,” West muttered.
“—and Lady Berwick said it’s a disaster, and she won’t have any part of it.”
West looked glum. “This is the first time the old battle-ax and I have ever agreed on anything.”
The group meandered across the broad natural landscape of Hyde Park. In spring and summer, the park teemed with carriages, riders, and pedestrians, but in the chill of winter, it was nearly deserted. Flower-beds had gone dormant, tree limbs were bare, and the trampled parade grounds had been left in peace to recover. A flock of rooks squabbled among a grove of ancient oak, presenting such a perfect reflection of the Ravenels’ mood that Cassandra was amused despite herself.
“Let’s set aside the subject of Tom Severin for a moment,” West told Cassandra. “Phoebe and I have come up with a plan.”
“It’s West’s plan,” Phoebe said.
“You’ll recall she has a younger brother named Raphael,” West continued. “Tall, unmarried, nice teeth. He’s perfect.”
“He’s not at all perfect,” Phoebe said. “And how do you know he’s tall and has nice teeth?”
“Your parents are obviously incapable of producing a less than superior human being. We’ll introduce him to Cassandra, he’ll want to marry her right away, and everyone will be happy.”
“What about Tom?” Cassandra asked.
“He’ll be happy as soon as he finds some other woman’s life to ruin.”
She gave him a reproachful glance. “I thought you liked him.”
“I do, absolutely. He occupies a high place on the list of things I don’t respect myself for liking, right between street food and filthy drinking songs.”
Cassandra was aware that it had always been West’s habit—as well as Devon’s and Winterborne’s—to make sarcastic remarks about Tom Severin, in the way of longstanding friends. But it rankled now in a way it never had before. “After all Mr. Severin has done for our family,” she said quietly, “he deserves more respect than that.”
They were all silent, darting surprised glances at her. Until that moment, Cassandra had never dared to utter one word of reproof to him.
To West’s credit, he considered the point, and relented. “You’re right,” he said in a different tone. “I beg your pardon for being a facetious arse. But I know both of you well enough to be certain you don’t belong together.”
Cassandra met his gaze without blinking. “Is it possible that Mr. Severin and I might know each other in a different way than you know either of us?”
“Touché. Is it possible that you might think you know him far less than you actually do?”
“Touché,” Cassandra replied reluctantly.
West’s face softened. “Listen to me, Cassandra: If you spend enough time around Severin, you’ll come to love him. It’s your nature. Even knowing it’s a bad idea under the circumstances, you’ll end up doing it, the way I used to sing in the bath.”
Phoebe slid her husband a surprised glance. “When was that?”
“When I lived alone. But I was obliged to stop after I moved to Eversby Priory, when Kathleen told me it was scaring the servants.”
“It sounded nonhuman,” Kathleen said. “We all thought someone was performing an exorcism.”
Entertained by the revelation, Phoebe grinned and slipped her arm through West’s.
West turned his attention back to Cassandra. “Sweetheart, none of us could bear seeing you in a one-sided marriage. Don’t expect Severin to change. You can’t love someone into loving you back.”
“I understand,” Cassandra said. “But even if Tom is never able to return my feelings, he has qualities that make up for it.”
“What qualities?” Devon asked, plainly bewildered. “I’ve always thought I understood you well, but this … you and Severin … it makes no sense to me.”
As Cassandra considered how to explain, she heard Phoebe point out with a touch of amusement, “It’s not that improbable, is it? Mr. Severin is a very attractive man.”
Both Ravenel brothers looked at her blankly.
“Oh, yes,” Kathleen agreed. “Not to mention charming.”
West rolled his eyes and gave Devon a resigned glance. “He’s always had it,” he said flatly. “That thing women like.”
“What thing?” Devon asked.
“The secret, mysterious thing I’ve always wished someone would explain so we could pretend to have it too.”
They approached a massive weeping beech tree, its silvery branches draping down to the ground to form an umbrella-shaped skeleton. In the summer, its rich, dark foliage turned the tree into a living cave, and inspired some to refer to it as “the upside-down tree.” At this time of year, only a few pale brown leaves clung to the branches, shivering and crackling in the breeze.
Cassandra wandered slowly among the trailing branches and sprays of threadlike twigs as she tried to explain. “I’ve always found Tom very appealing,” she said, and was grateful for the chill of December air against her hot cheeks. “Despite his eccentricities, and perhaps even because of them. I wasn’t able to envision myself as the wife of such a man before, but yesterday he made some compelling arguments. And the moment he suggested the contract, I knew for certain I wanted to marry him.”
“What bloody contract?” The word had instantly riled Devon. “Severin has no business mentioning contracts without someone there to protect your financial interests—”
“Not that kind of contract,” Cassandra replied quickly. She went on to explain Tom’s proposition to write an agreement together, about the things they valued and needed, the compromises they would be willing to make, the lines that had to be drawn.
“But it wouldn’t be legal,” Devon said.
“I think,” Kathleen ventured, “the point is that it shows Cassandra’s thoughts and feelings matter to Mr. Severin.”
“It means he wants to listen to her,” Phoebe added, “and take her opinions into consideration.”
“Diabolical bastard,” West muttered, although the corner of his mouth twitched with rueful amusement.
Cassandra paused to curl her gloved hand around a beech branch. A wondering smile broke out on her face as she regarded her family. “He’s not like anyone else I’ve ever met. His brilliant mind won’t let him view anything, even his wife, in a conventional way. He sees more potential in me than I’ve imagined for myself. I’ll admit, I’m surprised by how much I like it.”
“Has Severin told you he has only five feelings?” West asked sardonically.
“He told me. But recently he’s been forced to add a few, which I find encouraging.”
Devon approached Cassandra, gazing at her in the manner of a concerned older brother. He leaned down to kiss her cheek, and sighed. “From my own experience, I can say this with authority: There’s no better way to become familiar with Tom Severin than negotiating a contract with him. If you’re still speaking to him by the end of it … I’ll consent to the match.” At the periphery of his vision, he saw West begin to object, and added firmly, “You have my word.”