Nine

"You're a fidgety boy, aren't you?" The Dowager Duchess of Eastland remarked, impaling Cassy with a steely glare.

"I'm sorry, your grace," she muttered and stared glumly down at her untouched dinner plate. Footmen were still serving a variety of meats from salmon to mutton, along with an astonishing array of vegetables, sausages, pickles, and creamed dishes to tempt the appetite. Across the table, numerous conversations flew in all directions, most too confusing for her to understand.

"Don't apologise," Eastland's Aunt said in a stern voice. "It's a sign of weakness."

Cassy glanced up at the jewelled, rather portly woman with a surprised look, and nodded. "Yes, your grace."

"And don't be so mealy-mouthed." The duchess snapped. "Where's your spirit?"

A rush of resentment washed through her, and Cassy's eyes glittered as she said evenly, "I've been made to understand that spirit is not as important as obedience, your grace. If it offends you, it does not offend the duke."

"I see," the dowager Duchess replied with a faint smile. "Eastland has been terrorizing you, I suppose. Only fair, you know. All young men must go through rigorous training in order to fit the role they will one day occupy. Until one learns to obey, one cannot command. My nephew has had his share of canings, I can promise you that"

A satisfied gleam lit Cassy's eyes, and she said in a soft voice, "I'm grateful to know that, your grace!"

Laughing, the duchess replied, "I have this feeling that you are, indeed." Her gaze sharpened as she studied the pretty boy who had been seated beside her. There was something unusual about Eastland's ward, something very unusual indeed. Adeline Hampton was known to be observant to the extreme, and as she peered at young Levington through her gold quizzing glass, blithely ignoring polite conventions, she recognized the difference at last. Another smile curved her aristocratic mouth and she nodded her head. She was wearing an Armenian toque, a small turban of lavender satin, with a profusion of tulle and feathers that bobbed with her every movement.

"How do you get along with Henry?" she asked Cassy after a moment, startling a quizzical glance from her.

"Henry?" 

"Eastland. Henry is his Christian name. Ah, you had your doubts as to his possessing such gentle title, did you not?"

"I admit it freely," Cassy said after a brief pause. A faint glimmer of amusement lit her eyes, and she said with a smile, "But if you should tell him that, I will deny it to the bitter end!"

"A wise course, my dear," the duchess said and raked Cassy with another close stare. "You aren't at all as he described you, you know."

Cassy shifted uneasily and flashed a glance toward the far end of the table where Eastland sat. Glittering crystal chandeliers had been lit for the occasion, and in the light, his fair hair gleamed as if spun from gold. He was garbed in elegant evening dress of solid black, with a snowy white shirt and cravat, and looked so breathtakingly handsome that she almost forgot how much she hated him. 

"How did he describe me?" Cassy asked when it seemed as if the duchess expected some sort of comment. "Though I can well imagine what he said."

"I'm certain that you can, so I won't bore you with the less flattering details. But I’m sure you won’t hold him to blame for it. Henry is the ninth duke, as I’m sure you know. Our family is an old one, going back to the fourteenth century when this manor was built. It could be said that the original duke of Eastland was little more than a mercenary, and perhaps the fierce blood of those early adventures still runs in his veins. You will forgive him some of his vices if you understand where he’s coming from." After a slight pause, the duchess turned her attention to a guest on her left, and Cassy was left to listen idly to the conversation flowing around her.

She tried to pay attention but her gaze strayed again and again to where the duke sat at the head of the table. A beautiful blond woman sat next to him, very self-assured, very correct, and very flirtatious. Her snowy muslin gown revealed a generous bosom and she had obviously worked very hard to make the most of that asset. Her name, Cassy recalled with a pang, was Rebecca Spencer. Though reportedly engaged to another man, she was obviously after the duke of Eastland.

Cassy felt a moment of unexpected anguish. All the guests would be staying the night, of course, as the roads in England this time of the year were barely passable at best and Eastland Hall was some distance from London. There was to be a fox hunt for the men the next morning, as January was the best time of the year for such sport, while the ladies would be invited to repose inside by the fire and play cards.

Cassy hoped fiercely that Eastland would excuse her from the hunt. She had no desire to disgrace herself and earn the flogging he kept promising her. Anything would be better than to be mounted atop a racing horse and chasing a poor fox with a pack of baying hounds, even remaining in the company of the illustrious Miss Spencer. But how did she tell Eastland that?

Gloomily, she reflected that she did not dare. He was still angry with her, though he'd been fair enough about her fiasco with the stallion. She slid her glance toward him again and stifled a sigh.

Eastland looked far too handsome, and if she had not been who she was, or detested him as she did, she might have been attracted to him. Light from a thousand candles illuminated his strong features, accenting the harsh, rugged planes of his cheekbones and the sensual chiselling of his mouth. It was only when he allowed a smile to touch those lips that his dark face relaxed into lines that could almost be called pleasant. Then the harsh angles and planes of his face were soft, somehow, and she wondered with a pang if it was because of Rebecca Spencer. Maybe he was in love with her. It was quite apparent that Rebecca was taken with the duke. Who wouldn't be? He moved with such indolent, self-assured grace, and garbed in stark black evening clothes, he looked exactly like what he was. A powerful, attractive man 

Cassy's heart lurched with unhappiness. She must be mad to be thinking along those lines.

And then there was Colin, the devilishly handsome, devilishly breathtaking Colin who’d discovered her. Cassy felt a twinge of guilt every time she remembered the lake. She shouldn’t have gone swimming, now that she thought of it. Colin had seen her, and there was no doubt that he’d discovered her secret. Her single moment of negligence, and it had cost her dearly. 

But then he wouldn’t say anything. Surely he wouldn’t. The motion of bringing his fingers to his lips surely meant that he intended to keep her secret. Cassy felt a rush of gratitude towards him. If indeed he managed to keep her secret, then he would be a God-sent indeed. 

Glumly drawing her gaze back from the duke and his attentive guest, Cassy heard the dowager say, "But of course Henry must marry soon and provide an heir, or he'll be like old Levington, casting about in the family tree for a fresh apple to pluck." Her smile was not at all offensive as she continued, "Henry will be thirty in three years, much too old to be dragging his feet on getting to the altar. A man in his position needs an heir."

Cassy's blue eyes shot to the duchess and surprised a very shrewd glitter in her eyes. "Don't you think so, Lord Levington?" The duchess asked.

"I suppose so, your grace," she replied uncomfortably and glanced toward Eastland again. "But perhaps he's not found the woman he wishes to wed yet."

"Perhaps not," the duchess agreed, her gaze following Cassy's. "There are those who seem to worm their way into his temporary affections at times, however. Have you noticed, perhaps?"

It suddenly became apparent to Cassy that the Dowager Duchess was baiting her, and her clear gaze swung back to the older woman. "I would not presume to gossip about my guardian," she said warily. "It might cause a great deal of trouble for me."

"I would imagine that my nephew demands complete obedience from his ward," the duchess commented softly, and added, "even if he doesn't pay very close attention to the most important of details about that person."

Cassy froze, and her eyes widened and her palms grew damp. She wiped her hands on the linen napkin in her lap and swallowed the surge of fear that clogged her throat.

"What manner of detail do you mean, my grace?" She managed to ask calmly, and the Dowager Duchess only smiled.

"I admire spirit, you know," she said instead of replying to Cassy's question. "So does Henry. He may not seem as if he admires it, but trust me, he does. He cannot abide by rabbity girls, for instance, shaking and quivering in their shoes when a mouse happens by, or simpering like a fool." She paused, and when Cassy didn't speak, she leaned close to her, the duchess's voice low so no one could hear. "If my grandson seems rather harsh at times, it's because he has to be. My brother, his father, died from an unfortunate accident in Henry's arms. The boy was only fourteen at the time. It was quite tragic and left him with a great many responsibilities."

"Where was his mother?" Cassy asked when the duchess paused with a sad expression. She was faintly startled at the grimness with which the duchess responded.

"Mercifully dead by that time.”

"I . . . I see," Cassy said lamely 

"No, you don't," the Dowager said, "but that's just as well. Neither does Henry. Not now, anyway. Well, all will come out in good time." She sat back then and turned her attention to her plate, ignoring Cassy again.

Quite confused by the oblique turn of the conversation and unwilling to ask questions, Cassy remained silent. Her head began to ache with the effort to keep her face from reflecting her irritation and confusion. It seemed that the duchess was referring to something, but Cassy wasn't certain what. Did it have to do with her secret, or with the duke? Or both? She looked at the head of the table.

Eastland seemed completely unaware of her attention. He divided his time between the vivacious blond seated on his left and a Lady Grayson on his right with a languid indifference that infuriated Rebecca Spencer. She had made an effort to be charming, seething when Lady Grayson managed to capture Eastland's attention. Her irritation did not go unnoticed by Eastland and he found it amusing.

It was little enough compensation for having to endure a formal dinner and the company of guests he didn't particularly like. The only reason he was present was because his aunt had given him a scant opportunity to refuse. The cards of invitation had been sent out without his knowledge, and to cry off at a later date would have only given rise to speculation, which he knew the Dowager Duchess would have loved. He had no intention of giving her that pleasure and had deliberately said nothing to her about her high-handed action in arranging a dinner at his own country estate. He had, however, managed to squelch one of her plans by seating the unprepossessing Miss Hamilton whom he assumed his grandmother wanted him to meet, at the far end of the table.

But now, he had to endure the two women beside him. He had to endure Rebecca's lingering gazes and reproachful pressure of her fingers on his arm when he was forced to turn to Lady Grayson. It was enough to make any man wish all well-born ladies to hell.

Henry's icy green gaze shifted to the other end of the table, where he had seated his aunt with Levington just to provoke some sort of reaction from the duchess, but she seemed to have taken a liking to the boy. Henry couldn't understand that. Levington grated on his nerves with his swishing hips and high girlish voice, not to mention his missish ways. He would have thought his aunt would have felt the same about him. She obviously did not.

"Henry," Rebecca's soft voice insisted, and his gaze turned towards her. She smiled, and curled her fingers over his forearm, pressing slightly. "Henry, don't you think that you could show me your music room while I'm here? I don't get out of the country often and I've heard so much about your new glass ceiling."

He shrugged. "If you like. It's not really that unusual, but only redone because of a leak in the ceiling." His jade eyes narrowed slightly, and there was a faint mockery in his smile. "But you know that already."

She smiled back at him. "Yes, I do."

Cassy watched with growing irritation, not hearing what they were saying but recognizing a certain intimacy. It was in the duke's eyes and definitely in Miss Spencer's posture as she leaned close to him, her white muslin bosom almost brushing against the ebony sleeve of his evening jacket.

Did the duke have no pride? Didn't he care what others thought? Obviously not, or he would not allow a woman to be so familiar with him in public!

A high flush stained Cassy's cheeks and her eyes sparkled with anger. Jerking her gaze away from the spectacle at the far end of the table, she reached for her wineglass. It was closer than she'd thought and her hand brushed against it, knocking it over. Red wine dashed across the white linen tablecloth, and small scarlet drops splashed over the man opposite her.

"I say!" Zack Hardwick, heir presumptive to the duke of Eastland, exclaimed angrily. He glared at Cassy from across the table. "What do you think you’re playing at, clumsy fool?"

Cassy stared in dismay. The table was quite wide and she would not have thought the wine would splash that far, but it apparently had.

"I'm sorry, Sir," she mumbled, not quite certain what she was supposed to call Hardwick. He was the duke's cousin, and next in line of succession, but had no title of his own, so she could not recall what Sheldon had told her about addressing him. Her head began to pound with sharp fury.  So much to try and remember!

Hardwick still glared at his cousin's ward. He'd heard the duchess’s comments about Eastland's needing an heir, as he was certain she'd meant him to do, and was in a nasty temper anyway. The wine drops on his waistcoat and shirt were only an added irritant. Hardwick didn't care at all for the way Rebecca Spencer was making up to Eastland. He decided to take out his frustration on the first available person; Eastland's ward. He fixed the object of his anger with a daunting stare.

Cassy stared back at him. She had the thought that Zack Hardwick looked rather handsome in spite of his sharp-featured face, a curved scar that ran from his eyebrow to his high cheekbone, dark hair, and hot dark eyes. He was the dowager's nephew as well, her youngest brother's son, and a cousin to Eastland. And he wasn't at all pleasant.

"Sorry won't remove those spots from my shirt, will they? Hardwick snapped and Cassy's chin lifted slightly.

"Perhaps not," she returned in a gruff voice, "but you could try soap and water."

A peal of laughter erupted from the Dowager duchess, and her pale eyes glittered as she looked at Hardwick. "What an excellent idea. And it does sound so much more expedient."

Zack Hardwick's dark eyes shifted to the duchess, and he inclined his head in a gracious acknowledgement. "As you say, your grace." He wore a polite smile that didn't fool either the Dowager or Cassy for an instant. And when he swung his gaze back toward Cassy, she saw enmity in his eyes and sighed to herself. What a prickly lot these English were.

And then the steward entered. All eyes turned to him as he pointed his nose in the air and announced loudly, "Sir Geoffrey III, viscount of Blackburn, and his son, Colin Geoffrey."

Cassy nearly toppled out of her seat as both of them stepped into the hall.

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