Chasing Cassandra

Page 9

“Pardon, milady,” the footman said, setting down the sloshing cans to flex his aching hands and arms.

“Peter,” Cassandra said in concern, “why are you carrying all that water? Problems with the plumbing again?”

As soon as Devon had inherited Eversby Priory, he’d insisted on having the manor fully plumbed. The process was still ongoing, since much of the ancient flooring they had pulled up had been in a state of decay, and many of the walls had to be rebuilt and freshly plastered. The family had become accustomed to the fact that at any given time, something in the ancient house was being repaired.

“Kitchen boiler’s broken,” Peter said.

“Oh, no. I hope they can find someone to repair it soon.”

“They already have.”

“Thank goodness. Peter, do you happen to know which room Mr. Severin is occupying?”

“He’s not staying at the manor, milady. He brought his private railway carriage to the estate quarry halt.”

Cassandra frowned thoughtfully. “I’m not sure how to deliver this book to him. I suppose I’ll ask Sims.”

“He’s in the kitchen. Not Sims … I mean Mr. Severin. He’s the one working on the boiler.”

Dumbfounded, Cassandra asked, “You’re referring to Mr. Severin the railway magnate?”

“Yes, milady. Never seen a gentleman so handy with a wrench and saw. Took apart the boiler pipe system like a child’s toy.”

She tried to picture the urbane and impeccably dressed Tom Severin with a wrench in his hand, but even her lively imagination wasn’t up to the task.

This had to be investigated.

Cassandra went downstairs, stopping briefly at the parlor on the main floor. After pouring a glass of chilled water from a silver refreshment tray, she continued to the basement, where the kitchen, scullery, pantry and larder, and servants’ hall were located.

The cavernous kitchen was filled with quiet, frantic activity. Cook instructed a row of kitchen maids as they peeled and chopped vegetables at the long worktable, while the assistant cook stood at a solid marble bowl, grinding herbs with a pestle. A gardener came through the back door with a basket of greens and set it near the scullery sink.

It appeared as if an invisible line had been drawn through the kitchen. One side was teeming with servants, while the other side was empty except for a lone man in front of the cooking range.

A bemused smile crossed Cassandra’s face as she saw Tom Severin kneeling on the floor with his thighs spread for balance, a steel pipe cutter in one hand. In contrast to his earlier polished elegance, he was in shirtsleeves with the cuffs rolled up over his forearms and the collar unfastened. A well-formed man, wide-shouldered and long in the bone. He was steaming in the residual heat from the range, the cropped hair at the back of his neck damp with sweat, the fine linen of his shirt clinging to a hard-muscled back.

Well. This was an eye-opener, in more ways than one.

Deftly he clamped a copper pipe into the cutter blades and trimmed it with a few controlled rotations. After inserting a wooden turnpin into one end, he reached for a nearby mallet and flipped it in the air to catch it by the handle. Every movement was skilled and precise as he hammered the cone-shaped turnpin into the pipe to create a flared edge.

As Cassandra approached, Mr. Severin paused and looked up, his eyes a jolt of intense blue-green. A peculiar feeling went through her, as if an electrical circuit had just been completed, and steady voltage were humming between them. A quizzical smile touched his lips. He seemed as surprised to see her in the kitchen as she was to find him there. Setting aside the tools, he made to stand, but she stopped him with a quick gesture.

“Are you thirsty?” she asked, handing him the glass of chilled water. He took it with a murmur of thanks. In just a few long gulps, he had drained it.

After blotting his perspiring face on a shirtsleeve, Mr. Severin said ruefully, “You’ve caught me at a disadvantage, my lady.”

Cassandra was inwardly amused by his discomfort at being less than perfectly attired and groomed in front of her. But she actually preferred him like this, all disheveled and unguarded. “You’re a hero, Mr. Severin. Without you, we would all be doomed to cold baths, and no tea for breakfast.”

He handed back the empty glass. “Well, we can’t have that.”

“I’ll leave you to your work, but first …” Cassandra gave the book to him. “I brought this for you. A gift.” His thick lashes lowered as he studied the cover. She couldn’t help noticing how beautiful his hair was, the black locks cut in well-shaped layers that almost begged to be played with. Her fingers actually twitched with the urge to touch him, and she curled them tightly against her palm. “It’s a novel by Jules Verne,” she continued. “He writes for young readers, but adults enjoy his work as well.”

“What’s it about?”

“An Englishman who accepts a wager to go around the world in eighty days. He travels by train, ships, horse, elephant, and even a wind-powered sledge.”

Mr. Severin’s perplexed gaze met hers. “Why read an entire novel about that when you could obtain the itinerary from a travel office?”

She smiled at that. “The novel isn’t about the itinerary. What’s important is what he learns along the way.”

“Which is?”

“Read it,” she challenged, “and find out.”

“I will.” Carefully he set the book beside a canvas plumber’s bag. “Thank you.”

Cassandra hesitated before leaving. “May I stay for a few minutes?” she asked impulsively. “Would that bother you?”

“No, but it’s as hot as blue blazes in here, and it’s a fine day outside. Shouldn’t you spend time with the other guests?”

“I don’t know most of them.”

“You don’t know me either.”

“Then let’s become acquainted,” Cassandra said lightly, lowering herself to a cross-legged position. “We can talk while you work. Or do you need silence to concentrate?”

A small but noticeable stir ran through the kitchen staff as they saw one of the ladies of the house sitting on the floor.

“I don’t need silence,” Mr. Severin said. “But if you end up in trouble for this, I want it known I had nothing to do with it.”

Cassandra grinned. “The only person who would scold is Lady Berwick, and she never sets foot in the kitchen.” With a self-satisfied air, she gathered the excess fabric of her skirts and tucked it beneath her. “How do you know so much about all of this?”

Mr. Severin picked up a shave hook with a wickedly sharp blade and began to carve burrs from the pipe’s copper edge. “As a boy, I apprenticed at a tramway construction company. I built steam engines during the day and took courses in mechanical engineering at night.”

“What is that, exactly?” she asked. “The only thing I know about engineers is there’s always one on the train.” Seeing the beginnings of a smile on his lips, she rushed on before he could reply. “How stupid I must sound. Never mind—”

“No,” he said swiftly. “There’s nothing wrong about not knowing something. The stupid people are the ones who think they know everything.”

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