Six

Sunday, obviously, was not one of those days. It began early, with Sheldon bringing her the information that his Grace expected her to be downstairs within half an hour, dressed and ready for services in the village church.

"The church?" Cassy was hesitant.

"Yes, my lord," he added with a second bow. "The church. I’m sure you must have passed it on your way up here. Everyone goes there for service, even the Duke’s neighbors."

"Neighbors?" As far as she could tell, Eastland manor stretched for hundreds of yards, and she hadn’t seen any fence to indicate a separation from another property.

"The old Viscount has lived right next to the manor for several years now," Sheldon said, in that slow manner that told Cassy he secretly thought her slow-witted. For all his faults though, he hid it well.

Church didn't sound bad at all, though Cassy did wonder sleepily why it began so early. She'd always enjoyed the sermons at the old church near Hampton road, even with its broken panes and cobwebs ceilings, an indication of how bare their circumstances were. The minister had been a bit grim at times, but interesting. And she liked singing the hymns.

Church services with the duke of Eastland, she soon discovered, were an entirely different matter.

In the first place, they arrived in the village in the ducal carriage, which commanded the villagers immediate awe and respect and made Cassy feel conspicuous. She could feel their eyes on her, some speculatively, some wary, some merely accepting, but all combining to make her feel quite uncomfortable.

"Anything on your mind, Levington?" the duke asked as she continued to fidget nervously with her lapels.

"Not at all, your grace," she said, slightly flustered by his attention.

"You look pale," he said, squinting his eyes as he regarded her slowly. "Are you ill, perhaps?"

"Not that I know of," she said, pressing the back of her hand on her forehead.

"Hm," he muttered simply, turning his attention outside.

Cassy hoped no one noticed her difficulty in keeping on the hat his grace had insisted she wear, or that her overlarge great coat flapped around her feet. The hat, a tall affair with a high crown and curved brim, slid about atop her curls and necessitated her holding it to keep it from falling off. Though the sun graced the land again, it was windy, and Cassy was forced to keep a firm grip on the hat brim. She could feel the duke's tight lipped frown in her direction and it made her even more nervous.

When they reached the church, Cassy walked just behind Eastland, trying to stride as easily as her brother would have done. The ill fitting boots slid up and down her heels, and she had to take them from being left behind as she stepped up the shallow stairs and into the church.

Although she was doing her best to appear at ease and masculine, Cassy's efforts caused the Duke to snap at her to stop swishing about or else he would send her back to the carriage.

"S-s-sorry, your Grace," she managed to stammer out, feeling her cheeks grow warm at his low rebuke. She took her place beside him on the high backed bench and shared his hymnal.

He'd doffed his tall silk hat, and his narrowed glance at Cassy prompted her to do the same. Standing beside him as the pipe organ began a familiar hymn, Cassy tried to concentrate on the printed pages instead of the duke's close proximity. He looked extremely handsome that morning, with stripped trousers and a high pointed shirt collar, his ivory silk cravat arranged in an intricate fall under his throat. His waist coat was a somber brown, but bore double rows of gold buttons that glittered from beneath his frock coat. It made Cassy's heart beat faster whenever she glanced at Eastland.

Tearing her attention away from him, she threw herself desperately into the hymn, her lilting voice soaring high above the music. It was, of course, a grave mistake. She could feel the duke's arrested gaze fall on her and knew she had erred again. Her voice cracked, and she lowered it to a more acceptable octave, hoping he would think it only a momentary adolescent lapse.

For Cassy, the church service seemed to have dragged forever, thought it actually lasted only an hour. She'd heard little of the minister's sermon, but had focused her attention instead on her own plight, and prayed heartily for a solution to the growing number of problems developing.

Unfortunately, with the end of the service came a round of introductions to the duke's neighbor, titled and untitled. She had only a vague memory of how it should be, and tried to keep names and titles straight. It was a disaster.

"What a shock seeing you in church, Eastland," a man the Duke had introduced as baron Harry remarked. "Doing penance for some misdeed, perchance?"

"Yes," Eastland said with a lifted brow, "I agreed to be guardian to Levington's heir."

Harry laughed and his gaze flicked to where Cassy stood quietly by the duke. "Ah, what a pretty boy. Was that him I heard singing as beautifully as a bird?"

Eastland's expression didn't alter from one polite courtesy, but his tone was short. "Yes, it was. You are still visiting your hunting box, I presume, Harry?"

The Baron's gaze shifted from Cassy's flushed face to the Duke, and he nodded. "Yes, though the hunting is not as good as it has been. . .such a pretty lad should be the talk of london this year, don't you think?"

The Duke gazed at Harry with unmistakable edge of coolness. "He's young. I imagine Levington will be immersed in his studies for quite a while. Good day to you, Harry."

The baron nodded politely, his flushy face reddening the slightest bit at the Duke's abrupt dismissal. When his gaze shifted to Cassy, she said, "Good day, Mr. Harry," before she thought. "I mean, your gra--lord. My lord. Lord Harry. Baron . . ."

As soon as they left the Baron behind, they were stopped almost immediately by a quite call of  "Eastland! Fancy meeting you here."

The Viscount was a big and beefy man, his second chin tucked right below the first. He walked lazily, as though his feet were too tired to move an inch over the ground. Strands of grey decorated his otherwise auburn hair, though it only peeked from under his tall hat. Cassy imagined he was bald underneath.

"Geoffrey," Eastland replied in that offhanded manner Cassy had come to associate with his short temperament.

"Haven’t seen you in a while, eh?" The man actually had the audacity to clap the Duke’s shoulder. "Always a dull moment when you’re not around."

"So I’ve heard," Eastland replied, staring down at his hand until the Viscount quickly withdrew it, as though he too had forgotten whom he was talking to.

"You remember my boy, Colin, don’t you?" he stepped aside to reveal a young boy who couldn’t have been much older than Cassandra. When he stepped in front of the Viscount, Cassy did a double take.

Colin was handsome, in a way she wouldn’t have pictured after meeting his father. He was a tall fellow, nearly as tall as Eastland himself. Deep green eyes twinkled as he smiled at them, his face perfectly sculpted and his copper hair pushed back to reveal the angles of his face. His movement was swift and elegant as he bowed before the duke.

"Your Grace," he said in a deep and yet quiet voice, causing Cassy to moan inaudibly. "It’s a pleasure to meet you."

"Charmed, I’m sure," Eastland replied, his hard gaze settling on the youth.

"Just returned from India, you see," the Viscount said with an air of immense pride. "Spent a year over there learning how to handle business like a man."

"I hear India is very hot this time of year," Eastland said lightly.

"India is hot all year round," Colin replied. "I was much too happy to leave, honestly."

He sounded so at ease, so sure of himself that Cassy wondered how he failed to cower under the Duke’s gaze. Perhaps it was because Colin had nothing to hide, unlike her.

"This is my distant nephew, Levington," Eastland gestured towards her impatiently upon noticing the expression on her face as she watched Colin.

"How do you do?" Geoffrey asked with a slight nod, noticing her for the first time. "Pretty little fellow, isn’t he?"

"Hello," Colin said with a small smile, extending his hand towards her. For a moment, Cassy just stared at him. When she felt the eyes of the Duke on her however, she quickly reached forward and shook Colin’s hand. The result was that her hat toppled off in her haste, landing at the Duke’s feet.

Mortified, Cassy watched as Colin reached down and picked it up, dusting it briefly before handing it back to her. "I believe this is meant to stay on your head," he said with a sardonic grin.

"Good day, Geoffrey," Eastland said stiffly before pulling her away.

Colin's slightly malicious grin did not help her discomfort, nor did Eastland's tight grip on her upper arm as he escorted her toward the carriage. Cassy, was so undone by her mistake, and by the Duke's firm grip, that when they were greeted by others of his acquittance, she managed to embarrass herself by garbling each and every introduction.

As Eastland escorted her to the carriage, Cassy felt the keen edge of his displeasure and knew she was in for a very unpleasant ride back to the manor.

"Is this a deliberate attempt to embarrass me, Levington?" The Duke demanded when the ducal carriage rolled away from the church. His glacial stare was focused upon Cassy's face so intently, she was forced to look up.

"No, sir, your Grace. I became confused."

"Apparently."

She flushed again, and jerked her head to look out the window. Her hat slipped, and when she made a grab for the seat and fell at the Duke's feet, he gazed down at her with a thunderstruck expression as she lay sprawled in the floorboards.

Yanking Cassy up by one arm, he growled, "I'm at the end of my patience, Levington!"

Stung by his contempt and embarrassed by her fall, she didn't stop to consider that it wasn't a prudent time to reply. She jerked her arm from his grasp and snapped, "So am I! You aren't the easiest man to endure, you know!"

An ominous silence fell, and only the rattle of the coach wheels could be heard as Eastland stared at Cassy with incredulous fury. "You do know I won't take it lightly with you Levington, Do you?"

"Your Grace!"

"I noticed you're a spoilt little brat who a beating would bring back to his senses," his cold glare pinned Cassy, and she couldn't help the shivering feeling that ran down her spine.

"I suppose you want me to apologise for speaking my mind, your Grace?"

"Do not provoke me anymore than I am, Levington."

Cassy let a lazy grin sweep across her lips, and something amazing stir Within her for riling the Duke up. "It is well deserved, your grace."

Before she could move, the duke already did, and Cassy was pinned painfully to the carriage, and her wrist grabbed painfully into his, and he squeezed it painfully.

Cassy chocked out, "Enough!"

Eastland stopped, and released her from the imprisoning grip of his thighs to let her kneel on the floorboards, her body sagging against the seat as she avoided his steely gaze.

"I have no intention of allowing a mannerless brat speak to me the way you seem to think you can, Levington," he said in a soft voice that did not fool her for a moment. "I assure you that next time you do so, you will very much regret it. A good flogging teaches a disobedient young man the peril of his ways, and prepares him for command later in life. Do you understand what I mean?"

Because it seemed as if he expected some reply, and because she wasn't certain she could speak without sobbing, Cassy gave a short nod of her head, still unable to meet his hard green eyes.

Eastland gazed at his ward's averted face for a long moment, then said, "Sit up on the seat, Levington. I don't want the coachman wondering what you're doing  when we reach the house."

Sullenly, surreptitiously wiping tears from her damp eyes, Cassy did as he said, wincing slightly when she unknowingly hit her hand wrist on the headboard.

"Levington," the Duke said in a flat tone that drew her sulky eyes to him, "I have a feeling I know what's wrong with you. Before too much longer, I intend to see to every aspect of your education. I have known many untried lads whose entire personality alters upon becoming a man."

"I would think so, your Grace," she said stiffly, glad her voice didn't crack. "In a few years . . ."

"That's not what I meant," Eastland cut in dryly. "I meant . . ." He paused, remembering his ward's reaction at his last blunt statement, and ended more carefully, "visiting an inn that has women of all taste and age. I know of a very fine establishment that changes boys into men most of the time." Or from limpid sycophants into at least a semblance of a man, he added silently.

"Oh," Cassy whispered, unable to force out another word. A w.hore house? Wasn't that what he meant with an inn?! It had to be the same thing as a convent! Doom!

"In a few weeks I must go to London," the Duke said, "and I will take you with me. This . . . Inn. . . has been frequented by many of England's best at one time or the other, and the abbess is very particular about her visitors. It will be just the thing to keep you from being so edgy."

"Your Grace," Cassy began desperately, wincing as she shifted position on the seat, "I'm only edgy because everything is so new, and there's so much to learn. Don't take me to an inn. I'll do better, I promise I will!"

"Does the idea upset you so badly,?" Eastland asked with some surprise, and she nodded.

"You have no idea how badly, your grace! You see, I . . . I made a vow__yes, that's it, and__"

"Good God! Not a vow of chastity, I hope!" Eastland thundered, and she jumped.

"No, no, your Grace, not exactly, but__"

"Then you're just nervous. Don't worry. The inn has young ladies who are expert at easing almost everything."

Cassy subsided into miserable silence for the remainder of the ride to the manor. She was doomed. If Eastland took her to a nunnery, then all the past weeks had been for nothing. She might as well have stayed in America, where at least she was familiar with the customs.

And somehow, she felt that if he did take her to this inn he'd mentioned, terrible things would happen. She wasn't certain quite what, but she knew instinctively that they would be terrible. If things took place there that changed boys into men, what would it do to her, she wondered desperately.

The future loomed ahead with dire certainty. Judging from the ferocity of his actions few moments before, Eastland intended to subject her to God only knew what kind of treatment from the mysterious abbess and her cohorts, and there was nothing she could do to escape.

Unless, Cassy thought with sudden inspiration, she could convince the Duke how manly she'd become.

Yes, that was it! She would do everything he wanted her to do, and do it so well and with such skill that he would forget all about the inn.

"Levington?" he said suddenly.

"Your grace?"

"Wipe that ridiculous grin off your face at once."

Comments (1)
goodnovel comment avatar
CDC23
I absolutely adore this story! I don’t know if the author is a thorough researcher or just incredibly knowledgeable, but I’m definitely impressed!
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