Bingley didn’t seem to care.
Cassandra leaned over Tom. “Does your head hurt?” she asked in concern. “Do you need more medicine?”
“I need more you,” he said, and pulled her down beside him. She snuggled against him carefully. “Cassandra,” he said huskily.
She turned her face until their noses were nearly touching, and all she could see were the mingled depths of blue and green in his eyes.
“When I woke up this morning,” Tom continued, “… I realized something.”
“What was that, dear love?” she whispered.
“What Phileas Fogg learned after traveling around the world.”
“Oh?” She blinked and raised herself up on one elbow to look down at him.
“The money meant nothing to him at the end,” Tom said. “Whether he won or lost the bet … that also meant nothing. All that mattered was Aouda, the woman he fell in love with along the way and brought back with him. Love is what’s important.” His gaze locked with hers, a smile deepening at the outer corners of his eyes. “That’s the lesson, isn’t it?”
Cassandra nodded, wiping at the sudden watery blur of her vision. She tried to smile back, but a wave of pure emotion made her mouth quiver.
One of his hands touched her face reverently. “I love you, Cassandra,” came his shaken voice.
“I love you, too,” she said, and her breath caught on a little sob. “I know the words aren’t easy for you.”
“No,” Tom murmured, “but I intend to practice. Frequently.” His hand slid around her head to pull her down to him, and he kissed her ardently. “I love you.” Another longer, slower kiss, seeming to pull her soul from her body. “I love you …”
THE SOUND OF shattering glass caused Kathleen to start as she walked through the entrance hall at Eversby Priory. Or waddled, rather, she thought ruefully, one of her hands pressed against the curve of a distinctly rounded tummy. With only two months left to go, she had become heavier and slower, her joints loosening until the gait of impending childbirth was unmistakable. She was grateful to be away from the social whirl of London, back in the comforting surroundings of Eversby Priory. Devon had seemed equally as happy, if not more so, to return to the Hampshire estate, where the winter air was bitten with the savor of wood smoke and ice and evergreen. Even though she was too far along to ride, she could visit her horses in the stables, and take long walks with Devon, and return to snuggle beside a snapping fire in the hearth.
They had just finished afternoon tea, while Kathleen had read aloud from a letter that had arrived that morning. It had been from Cassandra, amusing and chatting and brimming with happiness. There was no doubt she and Tom Severin were good for each other, and their feelings were developing into a deep and enduring bond. They seemed to have found the remarkable affinity that sometimes occurred between people whose differences added spice and excitement to their relationship.
As Kathleen passed the door to the study, she saw her husband’s tall, athletic form crouching over a pile of sparkling glass on the floor. “Did something fall?” she asked.
Devon glanced at her and smiled slightly, his eyes glinting in the way that never failed to spur her heartbeat to a faster pace. “Not exactly.”
She drew closer and saw the object had been deliberately smashed onto a canvas tarp, which would allow the glass to be picked up and carried away easily. “What is that?” she asked with a bemused laugh.
After pulling something from the tarp, Devon shook away the last few shards of glass and held it before her eyes.
“Oh, that.” A smile curved her lips as she saw the trio of little taxidermied birds poised on a branch. “So you finally decided it was time.”
“I did,” Devon said with satisfaction. He set the display, now divested of its glass dome, back on the shelf. Carefully he drew her away from the heap of glass. One of his arms drew around her, while his free hand slid protectively over her stomach. His powerful chest lifted and fell with a deep, contented sigh.
“How far you’ve brought us,” Kathleen murmured, resting against him, “in such a short time. You’ve turned us all into a family.”
“Don’t give me credit for that, love,” Devon said, ducking his head to press a crooked grin against the side of her face. “We all did it together.”
Kathleen turned in his arms to regard the trio of goldfinches. “I wonder what they’ll do,” she mused aloud, “now that they’re out in the world, in the open air?”
He snuggled her back against him, and nuzzled her cheek. “Whatever they want.”
Six months later
“B … A … S … I … L,” Cassandra said, while the boy laboriously copied the letters in a little blank book.
“Are you certain that’s the right way?” he asked.
She and Basil sat together on a bench at the docks, beneath the soft blue sky of Amiens. Nearby, spoonbills and raucous oystercatchers waded through the waters of the Somme Bay in search of a last few mollusks before the tide rolled in.
“But why does the S make the same sound as a Z? I wish each letter had only one sound.”
“It’s rather annoying, isn’t it? The English language has borrowed many words from other languages, and those languages have different spelling rules.” She looked up with a smile as she saw Tom walking toward them, relaxed and handsome. The sunny fortnight they’d spent in Calais had tanned his skin, and made his blue and green eyes startlingly bright by contrast. He had brought them here for a day trip that would include a mysterious surprise.
“The surprise is almost ready,” he said. “Let’s collect our things.”
“Papa, does this look right to yer?” Basil asked, showing him the blank book.
Tom scrutinized the page. “It looks perfect. Now let’s put it into Mama’s tapestry bag, and—Good God, Cassandra, why did you bring that?” He was staring into the contents of the bag as if aghast.
“What?” she asked, bemused. “My extra gloves, a handkerchief, a set of binoculars, a packet of biscuits—”
“Tom Sawyer’s one of your favorites,” she protested. “You said so. Now I’m reading it to Basil.”
“I don’t dispute that it’s one of the best novels ever written, with an excellent lesson for younger readers. However—”
“What would that lesson be?” Cassandra asked suspiciously.
“Papa already told me,” Basil volunteered. “ ‘Never do yer own work if you can make someone else do it for yer.’”
“That’s not the lesson,” Cassandra said, frowning.
“We’ll discuss it later,” Tom said hastily. “For now, put it at the bottom of the bag, and do not let it be seen for the next two hours. Don’t mention it, and don’t even think about it.”
“Why?” Cassandra asked, increasingly curious.
“Because we’re going to be in the company of someone who, to put it mildly, is not especially fond of Mark Twain. Now, come with me, you two.”