Four

After Sheldon had left her alone in the study however, with the lunch tray and the rain still pelting the mullioned windows, Cassy surrendered to gloom. Her fate would be the same, no matter what her brother did. Jonathan was assured of a place when and if he wound up in England, but she would be superfluous. An unwanted sister destined to remain on the fringes of life. There would be no place for her here, that much was certain.

Her only hope was to carry off her deception until her eighteenth birthday. As stipulated by her father's will, she would at least inherit a small legacy and be able to avoid being trapped in an unnecessary and quite frankly undignified marriage.

It didn’t matter that the duke was younger than she’d expected. Much younger, in fact. The fact remained that he was a prickly fellow with an inflated sense of self. Perhaps Sheldon had it wrong when he said the Duke likes to keep to himself. Most likely, he avoided people because no one wanted to suffer his presence.

Yes, she'd have to stick it out at Eastland, but she dreaded her next encounter with the grim Duke.

No less did the Duke anticipate his next conversation with his ward. Young Levington was a surly youth, he thought wryly. And entirety too effeminate for his liking, though he did have a prickly temper. Eastland had noted the boy's almost girlish limbs, and though the ill fitting boots disguised it, Levington had a definite swing to his stride. Of course, there were those dandies who affected just such a walk, and limp wristed nonchalance, but he held them in contempt. His mouth tightened. He would have no missish boy under his guardianship. No, he would do something about that at once.

Standing at the long window behind his desk, Eastland damned the rain and his dead cousin with impartiality. It was just like Charles Edlington to die without forgiving his daughter her marriage to a colonial. And then to settle a title on her son and make her daughter a virtual outcast showed even more lack of character. If not for the girl's inheritance, she might have gone penniless into the world, something he would never have allowed. He could understand the need to latch her onto his care. It was the best thing they could possibly do for her; no doubt an afterthought.

A knock came on the door, and he waited until it swung open before he turned around. The young lad was a skinny fellow, with a mop of flaming red hair which fell just over his forehead and wide eyes that seemed eager to please. Eastland regarded him coolly.

"Your grace," Thomas said with a deep bow, "your steward informed me of your summon."

"Sit down, Thomas," he said. The lad sank into the chair before him, wide eyes settling on the Duke while he remained at the window.

"How much do you know about America?" he proceeded to ask.

"Precious little," he replied. "A bit of this and that, really. Most of it came from old Dickens down the road. He lived there for half a decade."

"I see," Eastland muttered with a frown. "Still, you’re the sharpest of the lot, and the most apt at seeing the fine details others simply brush over."

"Thank you, your grace," he said quietly, not sure if he was being complimented or not.

"You will leave for Southampton at once," Eastland said, pulling out an envelope from his pocket. "There you will find a ship, Sea wolf, about to depart. You must ask for Captain Clarkson. Give him this letter. It should grant you passage to America, along with some supplies which the captain will give you upon your arrival."

"America?" Thomas asked astonishingly.

"Is there a problem?"

"None at all,” he shook his head quickly. "Your grace, what, if I may ask, am I to do in America once I arrive?"

It took a moment before Eastland replied. "There is a girl," he began, pinning the coldest of stares on the boy when he dared to grin at him.

"Sorry," Thomas said quietly, scathed.

"Her name is Cassandra Trenton," he continued calmly. "Although I suspect she might be traveling under a different alias now. Doesn’t matter. You will start at Virginia, where you will ask about and find out whatever you can about where she is, or where she might be headed to. I suspect they might be heading south, as that is what every sensible person would do. Your job is to track her down and inform me as soon as you find her whereabouts."

Thomas received the envelope from the Duke with a puzzled look on his face. Finding someone who’d disappeared was laborious on its own. But finding someone whom he didn’t know, who also didn’t want to be found; heaven forgive him if he thought it would be easy.

"You leave at once," Eastland said. "I expect frequent reports on your progress. You have a month."

When Thomas bowed and withdrew from the room, the Duke returned to his musing. Lean brown fingers curled around the stem of his brandy snifter as he stared out the rain spattered window.

It shouldn’t take long, he thought to himself. If indeed the fellow she’d run off with was, as Levington had said, nothing more than a farm boy, then surely they would run out of funds soon enough. And hunger was the best tool for fishing out anyone.

Although, if she was anything like her brother, Thomas would have a hard task on his hands.

He smiled reluctantly at the memory of the youth's heavy lashed blue eyes glaring back at him, and his cutting remarks. Levington had spunk. Perhaps not judicious use of it, but he possessed it, and that was an asset. And it might offset his feminine inclinations.

Now all he had to do was see that young Levington honed his energies into the making of a nobleman, not an easy task at all, and one that he didn't relish. But it had never been said of Eastland that he was a man to shirk his duties, and he would see that the uncouth, unmannerly colonial became a highly regarded, manly Englishman despite his stubborn resistance.

Eastland turned to his desk and pulled out a sheaf of paper, pen and ink.

*

The evening meal was much quieter than the morning meal had been. Cassy, who had been tutored in the proper manner of addressing the Duke, managed to appear every inch the young Lord. She had carefully followed Sheldon's suggestions and dressed in a fawn colored pair of breeches and a white linen shirt with a high collar. The thick quilted waistcoat she wore had once been one of Jonathan's favorites, and she wore one of his muslin cravats that Gabriel, her Valet had tied into an intricate fold of snowy material. She thought the final effect rather dandyish and top heavy, but Gabriel had pronounced it superb. Even the Duke did not seem to find fault with her appearance.

"Good evening, your grace," Cassy said when he acknowledged her presence, and waited for him to indicate that she take her place at the table. He looked up from the opposite end, his face lit by one of the tall, branched silver candelabras on the table, and nodded.

"Please be seated, Levington."

"Thank you, your grace." She took her seat, keeping an eye on the duke as she did. Though she had been taught how to use her cutlery by her mother, she wanted to ensure that she made no mistakes, not with Eastland watching her like a hungry tomcat.

If the Duke noticed, he didn't mention it, and when the meal was ended and he asked her to join him in the drawing room, Cassy was feeling fairly confident. The conversation had been limited during the meal, partially due to the fact that the table seated twenty, and she and the Duke had sat at opposite ends. Now, with him inviting her in a coldly polite voice into the drawing room, obviously for conversation, her heart began to pound.

She wasn't at all certain of her ability to carry on a decent conversation with him. Not without giving herself away in some small manner. It had not escaped her notice that the Duke was very observant and she feared any slip would reveal her masquerade and end her hopes.

Standing awkwardly by a plush chair near the fire burning in the grate, Cassy shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, keeping a wary eye on Eastland. He seemed unaware or unconcerned about her state of apprehension, and sat down in a straight backed chair and crossed his legs, one ankle resting on his knee. His gaze fell speculatively on her, and she began to fidget even more.

"Don't squirm, Levington. I'm not going to bite you."

"Yes, your Grace. I mean no, your Grace."

His expression softened, transforming his face from a rather grim visage to a faintly pleasant one. "You learn quickly it seems."

"Excuse me, your Grace?" Cassy tried not to fidget, and wished he would give her permission to sit down.

"In less than twenty four hours, you have ceased from calling me 'sir' or 'mister', and have learned the proper form of address. Not only that, but you have mended your vile manners. A decent improvement, I must say."

"Thank you, your Grace. Fear is a powerful motivation," Cassy returned gruffly.

"Fear?" Eastland smiled slightly, his mouth curling into the barest hint of amusement. "Somehow, I doubt that, little fire eater. Caution, perhaps, but not fear."

"As you say, your Grace." Cassy wished he would not loom at her so closely, as if he could see clear into her soul. That steady jade gaze made her want to confess everything and throw herself on his mercy, a foolish impulse at best. But she wasn't about going to risk getting caught now, not when things are going smoothly.

The Duke motioned for her to sit down, and she did so gratefully, almost falling over her chair before she managed to right it and take her seat. She crossed her legs at the ankle and put her hands in her lap. Eastland watched with a lifted brow.

"You know, Levington, there is something about you that disturbs me."

Cassy's heart dropped. He knew! Her voice came out in a squeak. "What is that, your Grace?"

"You don't lack in spunk, yet your speech and carriage seem feminine."

She felt a wave of nausea sweep over her, and barely managed to stammer, "W..w..why do you say that?"

Dryly, he said, "for one thing, your voice rises two octaves on occasion. For another, your hips swing from side to side when you walk. I intend to rectify that."

"Y..y..you intend to rectify that?"

"Please, do not repeat everything I say, Levington. I find it annoying. I have sent letters to a master in pugilism, and one in fencing. Your new tutors will arrive within the week. I have also sent for a boot maker."

Cassy didn't know whether to burst into tears or run. Neither seemed particularly effective and would certainly invite some sort of action from Eastland.

"Thank you, your Grace," she muttered, and his gaze sharpened.

"You don't seem particularly thankful. Have you ever boxed before? Fenced?" He asked when she shook her head. "I think it's time to begin that aspect of your education."

Again, miserably, "Yes, your Grace. Thank you, your Grace." She began to chew on her fingernails, a nervous habit that she thought she had conquered at one time.

"Levington."

She looked up. Her heart did a funny kind of wrench, and her throat closed. He actually looked sympathetic, his forest green eyes gazing at her with a faintly warm glow that made her feel distinctly odd. And for some reason, she found the Duke intensely attractive. His tawny mane of hair was in the style of byron, loose and flowing, with a golden strand falling over his forehead and making him look much more approachable. His mouth was firmly molded, chiseled, and slightly sensual. To her horror, she found herself wondering what it would be like to kiss those lips.

"Yes, your Grace?" she murmured gruffly when it was apparent that he expected an acknowledgement.

"I know you're fairly young, but seventeen is old enough for a manly youth to be attracted to comely girls." He paused then asked bluntly, "have you ever bedded a w.ench?"

Cassy felt the blood drain from her face, and she surged to her feet. "How dare you!" She raged before she remembered to lower her voice an octave. "That is a. . . a vile accusation!"

Eastland regarded her with a frown. "Impertinent, perhaps, but not vile. I can understand your being fairly insulted by the crudity of the question, Levington, but there's no reason for you to become so agitated. You look as if you're about to explode. Sit down." His voice grew harder when she continued to glare at him, and he repeated, "Sit down, Levington."

Reluctantly, Cassy sat down on the edge of her chair but refused to look at the Duke. She could feel his sharp gaze on her face and knew she was flushed with anger and embarrassment, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Too late, she realized that she should have reacted as her brother would have done; with a cool stare, or even a smirk, but not as if bedding a young girl was the worst thing that could be suggested. She had listened to Jonathan enough to know that it was on the minds of young men a great deal of time, but now she had erred.

It served her right for sitting there and gazing at the Duke with romantic notions. She should have remembered that she was not at liberty to entertain such thoughts, particularly about the man who held her future in his hands. And she should not have let her imagination wander at any time she was in his company. He seemed to have a way of surprising her.

Gamely, she tried to rectify her error. "I'm sorry, your Grace, if I overreacted. You caught me by surprise."

"So I assumed." His voice was dry, but there was a faint glitter in his eyes that made her flinch from his gaze. "Nevermind. Perhaps it is best if you retire for the evening. This has been a full day for you."

"Yes, your Grace," she said, then paused awkwardly, wanting to say more in her defense, but recognizing a dismissal when she heard it.

"Good night, Levington."

Surrendering, she murmured, "Good night, your Grace," and left the room. Thankfully, a footman happened by, and she was spared embarrassment of going back to the Duke and asking for directions to her room. Would she ever grow accustomed to the winding hallways and innumerable rooms in the house, she wondered when she finally reached the safety of her chambers.

Gabriel waited to assist her in undressing, and Cassy made him understand that she preferred managing that task herself. "Though I appreciate your thoughtfulness in offering," she assured the stunned man. "If you will be so kind as to bring me some hot chocolate, I think I can take care of everything else."

Obviously shocked, and slightly insulted that he had been reduced to the rank of a butler or a footman, Gabriel said stiffly, "Very good, my Lord. I shall have someone bring you a tray at once."

Didn't they do anything else? Cassy wondered with a sigh when Gabriel had left. She slipped into the dressing room and shrugged out of her clothes, pulling a voluminous nightshirt over her head and crossing to the bed before Gabriel could return and offer to help her.

Snuggling beneath the coverlets, she looked up at the canopy overhead, the heavy swagging curtains and tented fabric that enclosed the bed. Her room was comfortable enough, she supposed, though entirely too opulent for her tastes, with thick carpets, unholstered furniture, and a variety of satinwood tables scattered about. It made her feel too formal, too uncomfortable, as if she slept in a museum. Or a tomb.

"Your chocolate, my lord," Gabriel said upon his return with a silver tray, and Cassy thanked him then told him she didn't need him anymore that night. "Very good, my lord," he said, bowing out of the room and closing the door behind him.

A sweep of relief washed over her at being alone and she lay looking at the canopy and sipping at her hot chocolate. The memory of the Duke's insulting question still rankled, especially when it occured to her that she did not know quite what was entailed in bedding a w.ench. That it had some unsavory overtones, she knew, but she didn't know why. That part of her education had never been undertaken, though she knew that Jonathan was much more aware of those things. Her lack of knowledge had to do with being a well bred female, she knew that, but now it had become extremely inconvenient not to know why she should be so shocked.

Even more inconvenient was not knowing why she felt so strange when the Duke gave her a lazy glance from his jade green eyes, and why her pulse accelerated so rapidly when she looked at him. It left her feeling awkward and unsure of herself, and vaguely frightened in a nameless way.

In spite of the hot chocolate, Cassy did not sleep well that night. Towards the first light of dawn however, when she finally drifted off, she could have sworn that she felt his presence in the room while her eyes drooped, watching her. Judging her.

Related chapters

Latest chapter

DMCA.com Protection Status