Ten

Cassy watched with mounting horror as Sir Geoffrey walked into the dining hall with an innocent smile on his face. Behind him walked Colin, handsome as ever, his smile a lazy one. Cassy felt her chest tighten at the sight of him, and the entire hall suddenly felt much too small. 

"No need for the warm welcome," sir Geoffrey said as he stopped right next to the duke. "We just thought we'd swing by since it appears that we didn't receive an invitation."

Eastland flexed his fingers slowly, his rage mounting slowly. Cassy could see the irritation in his eyes, and she could tell that he'd deliberately refused to invite the viscount. 

"Sir Geoffrey," the duchess said with an exaggerated friendliness, "forgive my oversight. I had assumed that, being my nephew’s nearest neighbor, he would have invited you personally. Invitations were sent out to guests who were far away, and I was careless in my assumptions. Forgive my mistake."

"I think nothing of it, your grace," sir Geoffrey said with a flourish bow. "I cannot hide that fact that I was deeply hurt by it however, being close friends with the late duke as I was."

"My apologies, sir Geoffrey," Eastland said reproachfully. "I had assumed that my aunt would send an invite to you as well, regardless of the fact that we happen to be neighbors."

"Your mistake is forgiven, Eastland," the old Viscount said with a hearty laugh. It was obvious to everyone, from the way Henry gripped the table, that he was scorned by the way sir Geoffrey had said ‘your mistake is forgiven’. As far as everyone could tell, the duke had never been on the receiving end of forgiveness in a long time. 

Cassy barely paid attention to all this however. Her eyes were on Colin, and he was watching her as well with an amused expression. He was dressed in formal trousers and a jacket, complemented by a blue waistcoat and an expertly tied silken cravat.

Pleasantries were exchanged all around quickly, and two chairs were drawn up at once. 

"You can take mine, sir Geoffrey," Zack Hardwick said as he stepped away from the table. "I was just leaving."

"That leaves me with nowhere to sit then," Colin said with a slight glance at Cassy. 

"Oh, don’t you worry," the duchess said. "I’m sure if Levington moved his chair a bit, we’ll have room for you right here."

"Thank you, your grace," Colin said with an elegant bow, although his eyes remained on Cassy. As they moved the chairs, she could have sworn that he placed his a few inches closer to her. 

"Lord Levington," he said in a perfunctory manner, making sure to let everyone know that he had spoken in a perfunctory manner. 

Cassy inclined her head towards him, not sure how to address him. 

The brief interruption now past, conversations resumed once more. Cassy tried hard to focus on the contexts of what was being said around her, but she couldn’t pretend that she wasn’t acutely aware of Colin sitting right next to her. She also pretended not to notice the attention Colin was drawing, specifically from the ladies. Miss Hamilton in particular seemed to be quite stricken by the handsome young man, and from the way she leaned ever so slightly towards him, Cassy was certain she would have traded seats with either her or the duchess in an instant. 

"Father insisted," Colin whispered suddenly. 

"Beg your pardon?"

"He insisted on coming," Colin said, turning to face her. "I tried to tell him that it’s wrong of us to barge into an event we weren’t invited to, but he would have none of it. In a way, he feels slightly entitled because he was such good friends with the duke’s father."

"I see," Cassy muttered, concentrating on the back of her fork with such keen interest. 

"I must confess that I was also eager to come," he added, leaning back into his seat. His voice was lowered so that their conversation wouldn’t be heard by anyone else. 

Cassy turned to look at him. 

"And why is that?" she asked. 

"Because I wanted to see you once again, my lady."

Cassy’s heart fell to the pit of her stomach. So he knew. She looked up at him, trying to catch a hint of what his intentions were. Colin smiled back at her effortlessly, long eyelashes framing his deep green eyes. 

"Don’t worry," he whispered. "Your secret is safe with me."

Cassy swallowed the lump in her throat, unable to say anything but give a weak nod. 

"What’s your name?" he asked suddenly. "Your real name, I mean."

Cassy checked to make sure no one was listening before she said, "Cassandra."

"Such a lovely name," he said with another smile. Did he ever stop smiling. 

"Colin," Sir Geoffrey called loudly, "would you be interested in joining the hunt tomorrow as well? It’s been a while since I saw you chasing a fox through the woods. The boy is a born hunter, I tell you."

"I’m afraid I would have to decline, father," Colin said. "I have some urgent business to attend to tomorrow."

"And what business is that?" Eastland asked halfheartedly. 

"Mostly finances," Colin replied in a bored tone. "I like to sit by the lake and sort out both mine and father’s finances, and it keeps me quite busy as it happens."

He said this with a suggestive glance at Cassandra, and she could tell that he’d said this intentionally so she would know he’d be at the lake tomorrow. 

"Is there a reason why you’re in disguise?" he asked quietly as the final course was brought. Cassy glanced nervously at the duke before she replied, "It’s a long story."

"I’m free tomorrow," he said with a smirk. "Father’s finances are in excellent condition, as it happens."

"And what makes you think I’ll meet you tomorrow?" she asked with narrowed eyes. 

"I don’t think you’ll come," he replied. "I know you will."

And he was right. Cassy would have to go, if not for anything then to remind him that her secret must be kept at all times. It was a risk, but she was willing to take it if it meant that Colin would be on her side. 

She could hardly hide her relief when the dinner ended, and the women retired to the drawing-room while the men lingered with port and cigars. Unfortunately, she was expected to stay in the dining room with the men. Cassy felt out of place and uncomfortable, but managed to remain just out of conversational range for a while.

Eastland sat back, putting in a word now and then, but letting his guests argue to their heart's content as they imbibed generously from his excellent wine cellar.

Again and again, Cassy found her eyes drawn to Colin, and she wondered desperately just what sort of odd fixation she had formed for the man. She certainly didn’t know much about him to even create a profile, other than the fact that he could draw the attention of every woman within his line of sight without even trying. Miss Hamilton, for example, had been right on the edge of her seat with longing the entire evening, first directed at the duke and then at Colin ever since he arrived. 

Cassy turned her eyes to the duke instead. Here was a man who certainly wasn't very nice to her, or polite, or even distantly friendly. He obviously regarded her, as Levington, a millstone around his neck. She was a duty to be discharged, and he meant to do his best by it, that she could see. But she could also see that he resented every moment of it. 

When, at last, the gentlemen went into the drawing-room to join the ladies, Cassy saw escape at hand. She edged toward the door cautiously, keeping a wary eye on the duke, who was in deep conversation with Sir Randeville. Perhaps no one could notice if she left quietly. Colin was finally talking with Miss Hamilton, and she looked just about ready to faint with joy. 

No one would have noticed, if not for the Dowager. She pinned Cassy with her sharp eyes and said in a commanding tone, "Come here, Levington. Let us hear what you've been doing since you've been in Eastland's care." Her gaze flicked to the duke with a faint glint of amusement. "Has my nephew been treating you well?"

Cassy shifted uneasily, fully aware of the duke's mocking gaze on her, and of the duchess's shrewd eyes impaling her. "Yes, of course, your grace. I have been treated very well, thank you."

"Have you now?" the duchess chuckled. "Somehow, I doubt that. Knowing him as I do, I would think that you've been treated to a most rigorous schedule, as well as all manner of physical activities. He was always mad over that sort of thing as a boy, and quite good at it, I might add."

"Thank you," Eastland spoke up dryly. "It's so unusual to hear you compliment me."

"It was inadvertent, I assure you," the duchess said with a smile. She was enjoying the interested stares of other guests, and arrogantly glad to see her nephew's polite facade remain unruffled. He'd never been one to publicly react even to the grossest provocation, and she admired that.

Yet, as much as she admired it, she longed to break through it. Henry was entirely too cool and poised. She wanted to see real emotion, to know that he possessed some remnant of emotion, and was not as everyone in the ton claimed, a cold man with no personal feelings about anyone or anything. Devil Henry, they called him behind his back. Always behind his back, though he was aware of his name and shrugged it off. Not that she could blame him.

Giving up her game suddenly, the duchess added, "Of course, I imagine your straight sense of responsibility dictates most of young Levington's education."

"Another inadvertent compliment?" Eastland drawled, his brow lifting languidly and a smile hovering at the corners of his mouth. "How unusual."

"Don't get used to it," the duchess said with a snap. "I assure you it won't last."

"I didn't expect it to," he replied cooly.

"Your grace," Rebecca Spenser said, throwing herself into the breach, "you promised to show me your music room, I believe."

"Did I?" Eastland murmured, his gaze moving with some difficulty from his aunt. He sensed more behind her evening baiting than usual but knew he would have to wait until it pleased her to let him know what was on her mind. Adeline was a woman who enjoyed manipulation and keeping secrets.

"Yes," Rebecca was insisting softly, and he looked down at her at last.

"Very well. I'm sure our guests won't mind if we leave them for a moment," he said, and his words precluded any objections.

"Eastland, I'm certain Miss Hamilton would like to see the new glass ceiling in the music room," the dowager remarked with an innocent stare that did not fool anymore. She indicated the blushing Miss Hamilton with a wave of her jewelled hand, the former looking up from her conversation with Colin as though she were just realizing where she was. "She is Viscount Tarnhower's daughter, you know."

Eastland regarded his Aunt and the red-faced Miss Hamilton with a lifted brow and a polite smile. "I have the greatest regard for Tarnhower, and I shall be happy to show Miss Hamilton the music room when it is completed. Now, if you will excuse us?"

Rebecca Spencer had a definite gleam of triumph in her eyes as she sailed from the sitting room with Eastland on her arm, and Cassy felt a moment's rage at both of them. How casually they'd managed an escape, and she could tell from the steely glint in the duchess's eye that she wasn't at all happy with the duke's deft avoidance of her manipulation. Not that Cassy could blame him for that, because she hated being manipulated, too.

Cassy stood stiffly by the marble fireplace, trying to make casual conversation with Miss Deborah Princeton, who had taken a liking to Zack Hardwick. Miss Princeton was an innocuous sort of woman, young and rather silly, which perhaps explained her affection for Hardwick. Cassy did not have to be a member of the social set to see how it went with that not so illustrious gentleman. His jaded dissatisfaction was marked on his face, his eyes were constantly smouldering, and he had a secret, guarded look about him that made her uneasy.

It was a half-hour before she managed to escape from the drawing-room, murmuring polite apologies as she fled. Rebecca Spencer and the duke had still not returned.

Cassy avoided the west wing, where the music room was located, taking instead the flight of stairs that led to the east wing. She had no intention of running into the duke and his lady love.

Striding along the dimly lit hallway on the second floor, she passed a shadowed alcove and was halted by the murmur of voices. She immediately recognized the duke's low husky voice and knew that Rebecca must be with him. Her insides knotted, and she stepped quickly into the shadows of the opposite alcove as the voices grew louder and she was in danger of being seen.

"Henry! Darling! You know what I want..."

"I know more than you think I do, Becca." The bored drawl sounded faintly amused and decidedly indifferent.

Her voice was sultry, with just the right tinge of hurt. "I don't know what you mean by that, Henry."

"Don't you?"

There was a muffled sound, and Cassy visualized him raking an impatient hand through his hair. Her heart was pounding so loud she hoped they couldn't hear it, hoped they would hurry and pass her. She pressed farther back into the shadows, wondering what they were doing in the east wing. That was where the bed chambers were located, not the music room.

Cassy's stomach lurched. Unsavoury images popped into her head, images of them together. Though she wasn't certain what details were involved, she did know enough to let her imagination run wild, and it all had to do with the duke being much too close to the clingy blond with a large bosom and pouty face. Why should she care? But she did, and she wasn't even certain why.

"Henry," Rebecca was saying, her voice thick and throaty and intimate, "are you going to let a little gossip stand between us?"

"Don't be a fool," he said shortly. "You of all people should know I don't give a damn about gossip. But you're engaged now, Becca, and anything that was between us is over."

There was an edge of desperation to her voice when she replied, "But I would throw him over in a minute and you know it! All you have to do is say the right word, Henry."

Cassy could hear the rustling whisper of muslin skirts and the unmistakable sound of bodies pressing close, and a wave of nausea swept over her. She clapped one hand to her mouth and prayed wildly for a rescue.

She stood rooted to the spot, hidden in the shadows until the kiss ended, and was glad she at least didn't have to see it. It was bad enough imagining it, bad enough hearing the throaty murmurs and knowing that the duke was intimately involved with Rebecca Spencer. He must love her! She thought with a pang, closing her eyes.

Back in the sitting room, Colin was still searching for Cassandra.

Related chapters

Latest chapter

DMCA.com Protection Status