Chasing Cassandra

Page 47

“SIR, THIS WAS just delivered by a footman in full livery.”

Barnaby approached Tom Severin’s desk with a sealed letter, intensely curious about its contents. Although it wasn’t unheard-of for correspondence to arrive at the office in such a manner—Severin had business dealings with people from all walks of life—it was somewhat more unusual for the address to have been written in a feminine hand. On top of that … the letter was lightly scented. The fragrance reminded Barnaby of a field full of tiny white flowers, so delicate and alluring that he ducked his head and sniffed it discreetly before handing it to Severin.

Severin seemed riveted by the sight of the letter. Barnaby could have sworn his employer’s hand trembled slightly as he reached out to take it. There was something very off about Severin. It had started with that business over the London Chronicle yesterday, when Severin had impulsively decided to buy the newspaper. He’d gone about it with maniacal determination, bypassing his usual business protocols, and hounding lawyers, accountants, and bankers to have it accomplished immediately. Then this morning, Severin had been incredibly distracted and edgy, checking his pocket watch over and over, and jumping up every few minutes to stand at one of the windows and stare blankly down at the street.

Now seated at his desk, Severin broke the wax seal and hesitated unaccountably before unfolding the letter. His gaze moved swiftly over the written lines. One of his hands came up to rub his lower jaw slowly as he read it over again.

The black head lowered, as if Severin were overcome by illness … or emotion, which for Severin amounted to the same thing … and Barnaby was tempted to panic. Dear God, what was happening? What terrible news did the letter contain? But then Barnaby realized with a little shock that Severin had bent to press his lips to the scented parchment.

“Barnaby,” came his employer’s unsteady voice. “Clear my schedule for the rest of the week.”

“The entire week? Starting tomorrow?”

“Starting right now. I have preparations to make.”

Unable to stop himself, Barnaby asked hesitantly, “What has happened, sir?”

Severin grinned, a flush climbing in his fair complexion. His eyes were an intense blaze of blue-green. Such an apparent extremity of excitement was not at all normal for the man, and it made Barnaby nervous. “Nothing to worry about. I’ll be occupied with negotiations.”

“More to do with the Chronicle?”

Severin shook his head. “Another business entirely.” A brief, wondering laugh escaped him. “The merger of a lifetime.”

Chapter 19

AT EIGHT O’CLOCK IN the morning, Tom arrived at Ravenel House, dressed in a beautiful dark suit of clothes with a royal-blue four-in-hand necktie. As he entered the breakfast room and bowed, he was so obviously pleased with the entire situation that even West was moved to reluctant amusement.

“I expected you to look like the cat who swallowed a canary,” West said, standing to shake Tom’s hand, “but you look more like a cat who swallowed another entire cat.”

At Kathleen’s invitation, Tom went to the sideboard and helped himself to coffee from a silver urn. He took the unoccupied chair between Cassandra and Phoebe. “Good morning,” he murmured.

Cassandra could hardly meet his gaze. She felt ridiculously shy and giddy, and embarrassed by the memory of their intimacy … those deep, consuming kisses … the wicked exploration of his fingers …

“Good morning,” she replied, and quickly took refuge in her tea. She was vaguely aware of the conversation taking place around her, a few pleasantries, and a tentative question from Phoebe about where he and Cassandra would take up residence after the wedding.

“The betrothal isn’t official yet,” Tom replied seriously. “Not until Cassandra is satisfied with the outcome of our negotiations.”

“But assuming you’ll reach an agreement … ?” Phoebe pressed.

“At the moment,” Tom said, looking at Cassandra, “I live at Hyde Park Square. We could live in that one if you like it. But it would be an easy matter to move to one of the others, if you would prefer.”

Cassandra blinked in confusion. “You have more than one house?”

“Four,” Tom replied in a matter-of-fact tone. Seeing her expression, he appeared to realize how odd she found it, and continued more cautiously, “I also have a few undeveloped residential lots in Kensington and Hammersmith, and recently I acquired an estate in Edmonton. But it would be impractical to live that far from my offices. So … I thought I might turn that one into a town.”

“You’re going to start a town?” Kathleen asked blankly.

“For the love of God,” West said, “don’t name it after yourself.”

A vaguely uneasy feeling crept over Cassandra. “Why do you have so many houses?” she asked Tom.

“Sometimes when a freehold property comes on the market at a decent price, I’ll buy it as an investment.”

“The London Ironstone railway isn’t your only source of income, then,” Cassandra said, trying to make sense of it. “You also deal in real estate.”

“Yes, and I do some speculative building here and there.”

“How many businesses do you have?” she asked.

Registering the keenly interested gazes focused on him, Tom asked uncomfortably, “Aren’t we supposed to refrain from discussing this at the breakfast table?”

“You never follow the rules,” Cassandra reminded him.

His reluctance was obvious. However, being Tom, he answered honestly. “I’ve grouped several companies with London Ironstone to form a conglomerate. Freight, steel and concrete production, factories that make hydraulic pumps, dredging and excavating equipment, an engineering and design firm, and so on. When I build a new railway line, I don’t need to hire outside contractors, I use my own. I also have service companies for maintenance, communications and signaling, safety equipment—” He paused as he saw the color drain from her face. “What’s the matter?”

“I just realized,” Cassandra said in a suffocated voice, “you don’t have a railway, you have an empire.”

“That’s not how I think of it,” Tom said with a slight frown.

“No matter what word one uses … you must be nearly as rich as Mr. Winterborne.”

Tom devoted a great deal of attention to buttering his toast.

Reading into his silence, Cassandra asked apprehensively, “Are you richer than Mr. Winterborne?”

“There are many different ways to calculate wealth,” Tom said evasively, reaching for a pot of jam.

Her stomach sank. “Oh, God, how much richer?”

“Why must I be compared to Winterborne?” Tom parried. “He does well at his business, and so do I. Let’s leave it at that.”

Devon replied to Cassandra in a matter-of-fact tone. “The two aren’t really comparable. Although Winterborne is a dominating force in commerce, Severin’s business affects everything: transportation, trade, manufacturing, communications, and urban development. He’s not only changing the way business is done, but how and where people live.” Devon stared at Tom speculatively as he continued. “My guess is, Severin’s fortune is half again as much as Winterborne’s, and before long will be approximately double.”

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.