“Mr. Severin?” Cassandra guessed.
“Mr. Severin,” Meg confirmed emphatically. “The porter said Mr. Severin may be the cleverest man alive.”
“Not about all things,” Cassandra said with a small, private smile, “but about many things.”
Meg set the valise beside the dresser. “I hung your clothes and dressing robe in the cabinet, and put your unmentionables in the dresser. Will you want to change out of your wedding dress now?”
“I think …” Cassandra hesitated, her face warming. “Mr. Severin will assist me.”
The lady’s maid blinked. Since it was a well-known fact that a man couldn’t possibly manage the intricacies of fastening a woman’s garments, any “assistance” Tom provided would be limited to the removal of clothing. And once Cassandra was undressed, there was little doubt about what would happen next.
“But …” Meg ventured, “… it’s not even dinnertime.”
“I know,” Cassandra said uncomfortably.
“It’s still light outside.”
“I know, Meg.”
“Do you think he’ll really want to—” the lady’s maid began, but broke off at Cassandra’s exasperated glance. “I’ll just go settle my things in my room, then,” Meg said with artificial brightness. “It’s in the next carriage. The steward said there’s a fine parlor and dining room for the staff.” She averted her gaze as she continued in a rush, “Also … after my older sister married … she told me it doesn’t take too long. Gentlemen and their doings, I mean. Quick as a dog can trot a mile, she said.”
Gathering that the words were meant to be reassuring, Cassandra nodded and murmured, “Thank you, Meg.”
After her lady’s maid had left, Cassandra unlocked her vanity case and lifted the lid, which was fitted with a mirror. She removed the pins from the side twists of her hair, and removed the diamond tiara from her head. As she set it on the dresser, a movement from the periphery of her vision caught her attention.
Tom had come to stand at the doorway, his warm gaze taking her in.
A nervous thrill went through her, and her fingers trembled a little as she combed them through her hair to search for any stray pins. Although they’d been alone before, relatively speaking, this was the first time they’d been alone as a married couple. No clock to declaim each passing minute, no admonishing knocks to rattle the door.
A decidedly handsome man, her husband, appearing taller than usual in the confines of the room. Dark, coolly confident, and as unpredictable as a force of nature. But she sensed a carefulness in his manner, a desire not to worry or frighten her, and that made her flush with pleasure.
“I haven’t yet thanked you for the tiara,” she said. “When I opened it this morning, I nearly fell off my chair. It’s beautiful.”
Tom came up behind her, his hands stroking her satin-covered arms, his lips gentle as they brushed the rim of her ear. “Would you like the rest of it?”
Her brows lifted in surprise as their gazes met in the little vanity mirror. “There’s more?”
For answer, he went to the other dresser, picked up a flat mahogany box, and gave it to her.
Cassandra lifted the lid, her eyes widening as she saw more diamond stars and a chain of woven platinum mesh. “A necklace? And earrings? Oh, this is too extravagant. You’re too generous.”
“Let me show you how it works,” Tom said, picking up the tiara. “The largest star can be detached, and either worn as a brooch or added to the necklace.” Deftly he disconnected the star, manipulating the tiny catches and fasteners. How like him, Cassandra thought with a surge of affection, to have given her jewelry that could be taken apart and reconfigured, almost like a puzzle.
She tried on the star-shaped earrings, and shook her head a little to make them dance. “You’ve given me a constellation,” she said with a grin, looking at her glittering reflection.
Tom turned her to face him, his hands moving lightly through her hair, letting the golden locks sift and spill through his fingers. “You’re the brightest star in it.”
Cassandra stood on her toes to kiss him, and Tom gathered her more securely against him. He seemed to luxuriate in the kiss, wanting every detail of her taste, texture, scent. Slowly his palm moved beneath the curtain of her hair and up her spine. As the delicate tugging weights of the earrings dangled from her earlobes, a few diamond points lightly touched her neck and sent a shiver through her.
Turning her mouth from his, Cassandra said breathlessly, “I have a gift for you.”
“Do you?” His lips grazed the tender skin beneath her jaw.
“A small one,” she said ruefully. “I’m afraid it can’t compare to a suite of diamond jewelry.”
“Marrying me was the gift of a lifetime,” he said. “I don’t need anything else.”
“Nevertheless …” She went to the valise beside the dresser, and pulled out a parcel wrapped in tissue paper and tied with red ribbon. A little blue beadwork ornament dangled from the ribbon. “Happy Christmas,” she said, handing it to him.
Tom untied the ribbon and held up the ornament to look at it closely. “Did you make this?”
“Yes, for our tree next year.”
“It’s beautiful,” he said, admiring the tiny stitches that secured the beads. He proceeded to unwrap the gift, a book bound in red cloth with black and gilt lettering. “Tom Sawyer,” he read aloud, “by Mark Twain.”
“Proof that Americans write books,” Cassandra said cheerfully. “It was published in England a few months ago, and is just now coming out in America. The author is a humorist, and the bookseller said the novel is a breath of fresh air.”
“I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.” Tom set the book on the dresser and pulled her into his arms. “Thank you.”
Cassandra melted against him, resting her head on his shoulder. A hint of bay rum cologne, with its distinctive notes of bay leaf, cloves, and citrus, drifted to her nostrils. It was a somewhat old-fashioned scent, very masculine and crisp. How unexpectedly traditional of him, she thought with a touch of private amusement.
One of his hands came up to smooth her hair. “You’re tired, buttercup,” he murmured. “You need to rest.”
“I feel much better now that we’re away from all the clamor at Eversby Priory.” A hush gathered around them, easy and relaxed. She was not in the hands of an impatient boy, but an experienced man who was going to treat her very, very well. Anticipation filled the spaces between her heartbeats. “Will you help me change out of my clothes?” she dared to ask.
Tom hesitated for a long moment before he went to close the curtains. Her stomach suddenly felt light, as it did when a fast-moving carriage crossed a dip in the road. Pulling her hair over one shoulder, she waited for him to come up behind her. The dress laced up the back with a decorative satin cord that finished in a bow at the bottom. She considered explaining the placket of hidden buttons beneath the lacing, but suspected he would enjoy figuring it out for himself.
Gently Tom tugged at the bow. “You looked like a queen when you came into the chapel,” he said. “You took my breath away.” After he’d untied the satin cord, he stroked the placket that ran along her spine and felt the outline of tiny flat buttons. He searched for the miniature hooks that held the placket closed and unfastened them even more adeptly than a lady’s maid. As each button was undone, the satin bodice loosened and began to slip downward from the weight of the skirts.