Five

Waking uncomfortably early, Cassy gazed up at the canopy over her bed and dreaded the coming day. What precious little sleep she’d managed the night before had failed in making her feel even marginally relaxed.

Gray light pressed through the painted windows, and she realized that Gabriel must have already drawn the drapes, which meant he would be returning any moment to help her dress. That moved her to action and she flung herself from the bed and toward the dressing room.

With the dressing room door softly shut, she shed her nightshirt and dressed quickly. Turning in front of the long mirror to look at her appearance with an anxious eye, she noted the faint bluish shadows beneath her eyes and sighed. Thus, all in all, her masquerade was virtually unrecognizable. Even Jonathan could not recognize her for a few moments. Her hair was darker now, then it was white, long and pulled up into a demure chignon. Despite her efforts to keep her curls tamed, they waved in unruly stands in a short cropped style that was popular.

Leaning closer, she gazed at her face with a frown. It should look more like Jonathan’s, but somehow, it didn’t. Her eyes were larger, she supposed and her long lashes curled upward while his jutted straight out in thick spikes, her high cheekbones were curvy instead of angular, her chin was way rounder than her brother’s and of course, Jonathan have a rough scrape of beard in the mornings, where she did not. Well, there was nothing she could possibly do about that, was there?

Perhaps, she thought with a frown, her body could give her secret away. To most casual eyes, she was just a slender youth with well shaped legs. But a clearer view or notice could be evident to her curved hips and tight buff breaches and more so, her small waist could be spanned with a man’s hands. Without the loose, concealing shirt and covering waistcoat, one could glimpse the gentle thrusting of her breasts. Fortunately, the waistcoat and the frock coast gave her the appearance of a 'pouter pigeon.' No one could notice that there was something bizarre to this pigeon than there should have been.

Straightening her shoulders, she decided that she looked masculine enough even to Eastland and thereby, took the stairs down. To Cassy’s relief, the Duke was not in residence that day. Not only did he own the Eastland hall, but also two other country estates and as a tradition, he was accustomed to checking on them after every 25 days. There was much entailed to being a Duke than she had thought. He had more than enough to keep him preoccupied with the aid of his staff, numbered at almost two hundred, the vast grounds and wildlife there, as well as the foodstuffs and dairy products that were raised for the estate, and the redundant salt at market. Of course as his steward, Sheldon bore a lot of responsibilities, thus the Duke who was the helm had the ultimate responsibility of several estates and it’s tenets.

That should be enough to keep him busy for several days, she hoped, though, Sheldon had informed her that Eastland might come back late the next day. This gave her a promising feeling of freedom.

The feelings couldn’t last long. Her first tutor began to pound latin grammar into her medulla immediately after breakfast and later followed by a course in greek literature. Next came her science tutor, who spent a great deal of time explaining the intricate detail woven into nature. He spoke of elements, atoms, and the very fabric of life that Cassy’s head soon began to throb with the overflow of new knowledge. She was all too glad to see him go after nearly an hour.

"It must be Friday," she muttered, and ran her hand through her short, dark curls in exasperation. How could she be expected to learn all this? Unlike Jonathan who was given the chance to study all these as he was growing, she had never been bothered to even glance at a book, except when putting them away. Most of her days were spent learning how to sew, or sitting in the drawing room and knitting beside her mother while she enchanted her with tales of her forbidden love, so full of wonder that Cassy used to imagine what it would be like to care so deeply about someone that she’d be willing to give up everything for their sake.

Saturday dawned bright and crisp with yellow sunshine and a brisk breeze. It was a welcome relief from the rainfall as Cassy anticipated a bracing walk on the ground she had seen stretching for miles. A long, curved drive led to house and was bisected by not only a set but two set of ornate gate completed with gate houses. A heavy iron gate barred the uninvited from Eastland hall.

Deftly eluding Sam, and any suggestions of which he could offer to fill her time, Cassy slipped from the main house and walk slowly down to a beautiful garden. Gardeners worked in the cold, wet soil, some nodding as she walk through. Though she wasn’t sure of what the protocol was, she responded just by nodding back.

She kept walking and found herself near the stables, giving a close look to a hostler exercising one of the blooded animals the Duke owned. It was a splendid beast, a muscled black with a sleek body and proud head. It pranced around in a wide circle inside the rail enclosure, steam rushing from its nostril. It tossed its head as the hostler cracked a whip in the air to keep it galloping.

Cassy leaned against the fence resting her chin atop her cold hands. "That’s a beautiful horse," she ventured to say when the boy paused in keeping the animal trotting at the end of the long line.

He turned and nodded gravely. "Aye! My lord. This is one of his Grace’s favorite." Keeping his hand tight in the loose, the dark haired boy had a broad shoulder and was plump with big eyeballs. He regarded Cassy for quite a moment. "You’re the new earl I suppose?" he asked. Faintly flabbergasted at how gossips quickly spawned like mushrooms, Cassy retort, "Yes, I suppose."

"Then you’ll be glad to hear that his Grace means this horse for you, my Lord. That’s why I’ve got it out."

Cassy couldn’t follow through; she felt an uneasy tightening in her stomach. "For me?" With a perplexing look, the hostler slanted her a curious glance.

"Aye!"

She turned back at the horse, this time it looked  like a trifle wild animal which was ready to pounce on her at any moment. It eyes rolled so she could see the whites of them, it kept tossing its head in the direction she was and prancing briskly. Deep dished nostrils flared hot and pink as it snorted and shook its head.

"Which do you mean?" She asked in a faint tone, this time the hostler tilted his head to the east side.

"You’re not scared, are you my Lord?" There was a tinge of mockery in the question which made Cassy to feel that her pride was at stake here and now.

"No! Of course not!" Her quick answer seemed to have satisfied him, but she added; "I am just thunderstruck that his Grace didn’t mind sharing such a valuable animal."

"I don’t mind at all," came a baritone voice behind her, and Cassy did not even bother to turn around to see because she recognized it as belonging to Eastland. She briefly closed her eyes, taking a deep breathe and freeing her mind, then opened them when he added; "Are you an experienced rider, Levington?"

"Live ridden," she replied flatly, not adding that she rode her fat, dapple-gray pony when she was ten years old. She could remember clearly how she cried when she fell off and tore her cinderella pink dress. Jonathan had laughed at her and she was reluctant to ride her pony ever again.

"Excellent," the Duke said with such approval that Cassy suddenly loved would be true. After all, she could remember the rudiments of riding.

Turning slowly, she wasn’t prepared for the full impact of the Duke in casual clothes. Wearing smug breaches, tucked into the top of his high riding boots, a white shirt, navy waistcoat, long tailed riding jacket and a carelessly tied cravat, Eastland looked the epitome of a rugged gentleman.

He was carrying a short riding crop in his strong brown hands and taped it idly against his boots top as he looked from the horse to Cassy. Her heart thumped harder. His tawny hair was wind ruffled, and his green eyes were bright beneath the thick, dark fan of his lashes. Sunlight glided through his hair with pail light and gleamed on his chestnut color skin, and Cassy thought crazily what it must be like for him to look that good; it was appalling that she stared at him in such a way.

She turned away quickly, missing the Duke’s sudden frown at her. He had noticed her wide eyed reaction to him, and hoped that it wasn’t what he thought. Eastland’s mouth tightened, he had met youth who were flirting with him before, usually painted boys with smiling mouth and old eyes, boys who made his skin craw. If Levington had any of those inclinations, he’d better get rid of them!

"Saddle it up, Smith," the Duke said in a rough tone that made Cassy’s eyes swing towards him. "Now, your grace?" she blurted, then wished she hadn’t.

"It’s a fine day for riding, Levington. Are you reluctant to ride?"

"I. . . I . . . My boots, your Grace. They don’t fit, and one cannot ride without proper footwear." She wasn’t quite certain if that could be true, thus, it sounded reasonable and quite promising, she was relieved when Eastland gave a short nod with his head.

"I agree. The boot maker will be here Monday morning, and then you shall ride. I anticipate to see you astride ‘Black’ before the week ends."

Cassy wasn’t certain what aghast her most; the realization she would have to ride astride or that the horse’s name was Black. It was a close tie, she decided with a dismay, watching as the duke pivoted on his heel and strode towards the manor without looking at her again.

Her gaze redirected to Smith, and she noticed that the hostler was looking at her with a pitiful look with his warm brown eyes.

"You ought not to be scared of it. It ain’t a bad sort," he said, and for a moment she thought he was taking about the duke, then she realized he meant the horse and she nodded glumly.

"I suppose that my lack of empathy is apparent."

"Aye!, my Lord. It sticks out of you like a burr on a toad." He hesitated, then asked "would you like me to give you a few pointers?"

"Would you be willing to do that?"

"Aye! There is little or none for me to do today."

"I am game!" Cassy said with a smile.

Grinning, Smith showed Cassy how to mount from the left, though not on Black which was too big to start with. She was a bit chagrined when he trotted out a docile mare for her to ride, but thus saw the sense in it. No point in humiliating herself without at least some practicing.

Riding astride and riding side-saddle were two entirely different proportions, she discovered. One involved the careful arrangement of skirts and a knee hooked on a saddle horn, while the other involved positioning both legs in a very unladylike straddle atop the mount. All her recent training had geared her to keeping her balance by centering her posture on her buttocks. This new method focused on balancing on the balls of her feet and using her knees to superintend the critter.

It was novel and difficult, but was infinitely more rewarding than riding side-saddle. Cassy took to it at once. "I say, my Lord, you’ve never ridden much, have you?" Smith muttered as Cassy faced him with flushed pride on her small features.

She shook her head "Indeed I haven’t, Smith," she affirmed.

"How do they ride in the colonies?"

She was struck by the question, and spontaneously admitted "Similitude I suppose" she leaned closer and said in a low tone, "I just didn’t want his grace to know that I am inept at it. He seems to get upset with me easily."

"Aye! That he does I suppose."

Smith took the mare’s reins and began leading her into the stable and Cassy followed behind more to keep from being found by Sheldon than anything else. She had no interest to study anymore foreign or dead languages, nor the desire to see the duke again. Watching the hostler could be more preferable to anything at that momentum to further ‘Levington’s’ education.

The afternoon was spent quite pleasantly while getting along well with Smith. The tall, sturdy stable boy was the kind of character she had known in Virginia, plain spoken and sensible. There was no subterfuge in him, nor arrogance. He seem to accept the world as it was, with its melee and controversies by doing well to get along with it.

"Do you mind me coming tomorrow again, Smith?" Cassy asked as it began to grow late. He seem startled by her question.

"I am sure that is up to you, my lord. Or to his grace."

She was struck by that simple truth. "Yes Smith, I assume so."

It occurred to her that the Duke seemed to have much more to say about her world than anyone had the right to. Even her parents had not filled her day with such a rigid timetable. From the time she woke in the morning, until she was finally able to lay her head on her pillow at night, she had a full schedule.

She shuddered to think how Jonathan would have reacted if he had accepted and come to England instead. Would he have taken a liking to Smith as she had? Or would he have been more inclined towards earning the Duke’s approval, deftly hanging on his each and every word as though it were the saying of the gods.

That night, she thought about writing a letter to him. But just as the quill reached the parchment, her mind went numb and she crumpled the parchment with a groan and threw it aside.

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