Chasing Cassandra

Page 59

She stretched beneath him and yawned. “I couldn’t sleep unclothed.”

He adored her prim tone. “Why not?”

“I felt exposed.”

“You should always be exposed. You’re too beautiful for clothes.” He would have expounded on the theme, but was distracted by the sound of her stomach growling.

Blushing, Cassandra said, “We didn’t have dinner last night. I’m starving.”

Tom smiled and sat up. “The chef on this train,” he told her, “knows over two hundred ways to make eggs.” He grinned at her expression. “You linger in bed. I’ll take care of the rest.”

AS TOM HAD expected, the travel arrangements made by Rhys Winterborne were superb. After breakfasting on the train, Tom and Cassandra were conveyed to Weymouth Harbor, where they boarded a two-hundred-and-fifty-foot private steam yacht. The captain himself showed them to the owner’s suite, which included a private glass observation room.

Their destination was Jersey, the largest and southernmost of the Channel Islands. The lush and prosperous bailiwick, only fourteen miles off the coast of France, was famed for its agriculture and breathtaking landscapes, but most of all for the Jersey cow, a breed that produced unusually rich milk.

Tom had been a bit skeptical when Winterborne had told him the honeymoon destination. “You’re sending me to a place predominantly known for its cows?”

“You won’t even notice your surroundings,” Winterborne had pointed out laconically. “You’ll be in bed most of the time.”

After Tom had pressed him for more details, Winterborne had revealed that the hotel, La Sirène, was a seafront resort with every modern comfort and convenience imaginable. With its secluded gardens and individual balconies, it had been designed to ensure privacy for its guests. A superbly talented chef from Paris had already made a name for himself at the restaurant, creating exquisite dishes from the abundance of fresh produce on the island.

Thanks to the skill of the yacht’s captain and crew, who were familiar with the strong currents and ridges of sunken rock around the archipelago, the crossing was relatively smooth. They arrived within five hours, first approaching the high, rocky headland, then rounding the southwest corner of the island. The terrain became increasingly lush and green-mantled as they came to the bay of St. Aubin, framed with immaculate white sand beaches. La Sirène presided serenely over the scene from a series of elevated garden terraces.

As Tom and Cassandra disembarked, the chief harbormaster welcomed them onto the pier with a great show of deference. He was accompanied by a coast guard officer, who became wildly flustered as soon as he was introduced to Cassandra. Looking a bit dazed, the young officer began to talk to her without pause, offering a wealth of information about the island, its weather, its history, and anything else he could think of to keep her attention.

“Give your tongue a holiday, lad,” the harbormaster said with a touch of amused resignation, “and let the poor lady have a moment’s peace.”

“Yes, Chief.”

“Now, you may escort Lady Cassandra to the covered parapet over there, while Mr. Severin confirms that all luggage has been brought out of the ship.”

Tom frowned, glancing at the crowded pier.

The white-haired harbormaster seemed to read his thoughts. “It’s but a short distance, Mr. Severin. Your bride will be more comfortable there than standing here with cargo being unloaded and wharfmen running about.”

Cassandra gave Tom a reassuring nod. “I’ll wait for you at the parapet,” she said, and took the young officer’s arm.

The harbormaster smiled as he watched them leave. “I hope you’ll pardon the lad for his jabbering, Mr. Severin. Great beauty such as your wife’s can make a man nervous.”

“I supposed I’d better become accustomed to it,” Tom said ruefully. “She causes a stir every time we’re out in public.”

The elderly harbormaster smiled reminiscently. “When I came of age to take a wife,” he said, “I set my heart on a girl in the village. A beauty who couldn’t so much as boil a potato. But I was sore in love with her. My father warned me, ‘He who weds a beauty courts trouble.’ But I put on a lofty air and told him I was too high-minded to hold her looks against her.”

They both chuckled.

“Did you marry her?” Tom asked.

“I did,” the harbormaster admitted with a grin. “And thirty years of that sweet smile has made up for many a burnt chop and dry potato.”

After the steamer trunks and luggage had been accounted for, a trio of porters undertook to load it all on a coach from the hotel. Tom turned toward the covered area of the pier in search of Cassandra. An incredulous scowl crossed his face as he saw a gathering of dockworkers, porters, and cabmen near his wife. A navvy called out to her—“Gi’ me a smile, ye sweet tidbit! One little smile! What’s yer name?”

Cassandra tried to ignore the catcalls, while the coast guard officer stood by, doing nothing to shield her.

“Now, now, Mr. Severin—” the old harbormaster said, following as Tom headed toward Cassandra with swift, ground-eating strides.

Tom reached his wife, blocked her from view, and sent a chilling glance at the navvy. “My wife doesn’t feel like smiling. Is there something you’d like to say to me?”

The catcalls faded, and the navvy met his gaze, taking his measure … deciding to back down. “Only that you’re the luckiest bastard alive,” the navvy said cheekily. The crowd broke up with a mixture of chuckles and guffaws.

“On your way now, lads,” the harbormaster said, briskly dispersing the gathering. “Time to go about your business.”

As Tom turned to Cassandra, he was relieved to see that she didn’t seem upset. “Are you all right?” he asked.

She nodded immediately. “No harm done.”

The officer looked sheepish. “I thought they would tire of their sport if we ignored them long enough.”

“Ignoring doesn’t work,” Tom said curtly. “It’s the same as permission. Next time, pick the ringleader and go for him.”

“He was twice my size,” the officer protested.

Tom shot him an exasperated glance. “The world expects a man to have a backbone. Especially when a woman is being harassed.”

The younger man scowled. “Pardon, sir, but these are rough, dangerous men, and this is a side of life you wouldn’t know about.”

As the officer strode away, Tom shook his head in perplexed annoyance. “What the devil did he mean by that?”

Cassandra reached out a gloved hand to stroke his coat lapel, and looked up at him with laughing eyes. “I think, my dear Tom, you were just accused of being a gentleman.”

Chapter 24

“I THOUGHT YOU NEVER SLEPT late,” Cassandra said the next morning, as she saw her husband stir in bed. She stood at the French doors that opened onto the private balcony, shivering slightly at the cool morning breeze.

Tom stretched lazily, like a big cat. He rubbed his face and sat up, his voice sleep-scratchy. “My wife kept me awake for most of the night.”

Cassandra loved the way he looked with his eyes heavy-lidded and his hair tousled. “That wasn’t my fault,” she told him. “I had planned to go to sleep right away.”

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