Eleven

Henry Blake, odd as it may seem, did not love Rebecca Spencer, nor was he particularly enamoured of her ripe charms. He'd been tired of her for some time and had welcomed the news of her engagement to Viscount Ravanel. It would effectively remove her from his life, he'd hoped.

He should have known better, Henry reflected cynically as he removed Rebecca's arms from around his neck and kept his steely grip on her wrists. She gazed up at him with a pout, and let her curves lean forward to brush against his chest. His body immediately responded in spite of his irritation, and Rebecca knew it.

"See?" She whispered in a triumphant voice, rubbing her hips suggestively against his arousal. "You still want me!"

"Maybe I'm just too accustomed to having you, Becky," he said with a shrug. "It's not as if we haven't spent a great many hours in bed together."

"Didn't you enjoy those times, Henry?"

"Immensely."

"There's no reason why you can't continue," she murmured throatily and leaned into him even more.

Henry's harsh grip on her wrists tightened, and he gave her a firm push backwards. "You're wasting your time and mine, Becca. You're Engaged. Marry Ravanel. He'll be a much better husband than I ever would."

"Henry!"

"My guests are waiting, Becky. I should never have let you talk me into coming with you to fetch your shawl. I doubt you really needed it anyway. If you want me to be rude to you..." He deliberately didn't finish, allowing her to think what she wanted 

Rebecca jerked her wrists from his, and smoothed her skirts and rearranged her bodice. Her voice was cool and composed. "I intend to have you, Henry, you might as well face it. And if you want to keep that pretty boy down there as your... ward, then I won't say any differently." Her words ended with a gasp as Henry's hand closed over her arm.

"You've got a nasty mind and a mouth to match, Becky," he said lazily, but there was a menace in his tone that reached even Cassy, standing rigidly in the shadows.

"I'm only repeating what others are whispering, Henry," Rebecca whined, sensing her grave error and growing suddenly frightened of him. The infamous Eastland fury was glittering coldly in his eyes, and there was a tautness in his powerful body that made her tremble.

"Shallowford, I presume?" Henry said lightly. "Or was it my dear cousin Zack?"

"Henry! You... You're hurting me!"

Releasing her wrists, Henry gave her a contemptuous push toward the staircase. "Never mind. It doesn't really matter who it was. And your conversational topics are as usual, Becky; boring."

"You bastard!"

He laughed. "That is the first honest sentiment I've heard from you all evening."

They stood in the middle of the hallway now, and Cassy could see them perfectly from where she stood. Henry was looking down at the blond fury with a bored, cynically amused expression on his handsome face, while Rebecca was quivering with rage and disappointment.

"Come to my room later, Henry," she said after a moment, and urged when he just shook his head, "there's something important I have to tell you."

"Write me a note."

"Henry! It... it concerns Zack."

"What has my wastrel cousin done now?" Came the amused question. "Nothing will shock or surprise me, I'm certain. Or matter."

Rebecca smiled and rearranged her blond curls with a pat of a hand. "This might. It involves Hathaway."

There was a moment of silence, then Henry gave her a curt nod. "All right. I'll come to your room later."

Cassy's heart wrenched. She knew what Rebecca had on her mind, and it certainly wasn't a conversation. They made a pretty couple in a way, she supposed, shrinking back against the wall as Henry and Rebecca passed within three feet of where she stood. Neither of them noticed her as they went down the staircase together 

Their footsteps had died away before she could force her numbed body to move. When she did, she fled the house. It was suddenly too much for her to bear, the extreme tension and the haughty guests, and then Rebecca and the duke, Colin, and the assumption of those horrible people that she and Eastland... that they were somehow engaged in something she didn't understand but, judging from his reaction to the insinuation, must be truly terrible.

Not caring if anyone saw her, Cassy dashed down the curved staircase and across the marbled entrance hall then out the front door. Lanterns gleamed softly, almost mistily, in the dark, she strode swiftly down the bricked path. She walked blindly, ignoring the cold, unaware of where she was going until she recognized the dark silhouette of the fence and the stable behind the enclosure.

Skirting cautiously around it so no one would see her, Cassy trudged past the stables heading for the lake. Perhaps it would be mercifully quiet there, and at least for a short while she could pretend that none of it was real. For just a few minutes, she could pretend the world was alright. 

The distance seemed longer now that she was walking, but Cassy made it to the lake eventually. By then, her toes had frozen and she was shivering nonstop. Too late, she realized that the water would only make everything colder. And indeed, the shore was freezing, and she suddenly wished she’d brought a coat along. 

Nevertheless, Cassy plopped down on the grass and sighed, pulling her legs towards her. The cold seeped into her soul, but she didn’t care. 

She had thought about seeking out the only source of any pleasure to her, Smith. He alone had been nice to her and had treated her with a kindness which no one else had since she'd arrived in England. Even Sheldon treated her with a lofty courtesy that was more often than not long-suffering. Not that she could blame him. He was the main recipient of the complaints concerning the duke's ward and had to deal with them.

Again, she thought about Jonathan, and America, and what he must be doing right now. Could he perhaps tell that his sister, thousands of miles away, was in distress?

"I thought I’d find you here," came a voice suddenly behind her. It was a voice she’d come to know, and it belonged to the person who she’d secretly expected to find her here. 

Colin sat beside her with a low grunt, keeping his eyes on the water. The moon was beginning to rise slowly, illuminating the water so that it sparkled with a dazzling beauty. Cassy turned to look at Colin, oddly enamored but his presence. 

"How did you know I was here?" she asked. 

“I saw you running across the fields from the living room,” he replied, casually picking up a stone and flinging it across the water. It skipped three times before plopping in. “I thought you were coming here, so I decided I should come and keep an eye on you.”

"You were spying on me then?" She raised an eyebrow. 

"Guilty as charged," he replied with a chuckle. 

"And how did Eastland react to your sudden departure?" she asked curiously. 

"Oh, I slipped out before anyone could see me," he said. "I’m really good at sneaking away from social gatherings, as it happens."

"Miss Hamilton?"

"Mercifully talking to Zack Hardwick."

Cassy studied his face carefully. In the moonlight, he was even more handsome, his eyes darkened and narrowed as he sucked in the cold air through his teeth. 

"I know what you’re thinking," he said. "You’re wondering why I have developed a sudden and rather unnatural interest in you."

"I never said that."

"You didn’t have to," he said, chuckling once again. "I saw it in your eyes." He drawled, "a chance to know your name, perhaps?"

Cassy was silent for a while, weighing her option of telling him not. But what more does she have left to hide? "Cassandra," she whispered.

He turned to face Cassy then, and she had to scoot away because he was very close; dangerously so. 

"Cassandra, I don’t know what has come over me," he said. "Call it madness, or whatever you will, but I feel this connection with you that I can’t explain. You and I hardly know each other after all, but I want to believe that you can guess my intentions. I find you a very amusing lady, and I would, with your permission of course, like to know you a bit more. I’m not trying to court you, of course. But I am intrigued by you, and I hope you feel the same way."

"You’ve only known me for a day, Colin," she replied. "Two if we’re counting that god-awful meeting at the church."

"I know," he said. "That’s why I said it might be madness."

He turned to the water again, sighing deeply. "Your secret is safe with me."

Cassy narrowed her eyes. "How will I know you’re trustworthy?"

"Because I would have exposed you earlier if I had wanted to," he said. "But I didn’t. Gentleman’s honor."

A sudden rustling came from behind them. Both Cassy and Colin turned just as Eastland drew up behind them. 

Fear cut through her suddenly, and she sprang to her feet in an instant. Colin had risen to his feet as well. 

"Your grace," he said quickly, "I was just...,"

"Shut up!" The duke growled. Colin fell silent, watching the duke instead with a cold gaze.

While Cassy cast about frantically for a reason to explain her flight from the house, she saw that the duke was looking past her, his frigid gaze resting on Colin. 

"You can see your way out, Colin," Eastland rapped out in the sharp tone that commanded obedience.

"Of course, your grace," Colin bowed stiffly, choosing not to argue. "Good evening."

Eastland’s gaze followed him until he disappeared into the darkness ahead. Until then did he turn to face Cassy. 

Cassy was shaking and couldn't bear to glance at him. She could feel his gaze resting on her, and knew he was angry, but began to wonder uneasily if she knew why. She'd known he might be angry at her for escaping the house as she had done, but there was an undercurrent in his voice that indicated unnecessary rage.

His hard fingers had not eased their grip on her arm, and they dug into her tender skin with a fierce pressure that made her clench her teeth together to keep from crying out.

"So, Levington, it seems that you include queerness in your repertoire of character flaws as well."

"I was only...,"

"Spare me the weak explanation." Eastland cut across her attempt like a whiplash. "I saw everything I needed to see."

"It’s not what you think, your grace," Cassy tried to explain. 

"Don't play me for a fool, Levington! Do you think I haven't noticed how you looked at that boy ever since he arrived? How you look at me, for God's sake? Like one of Nero's fancy boys!" His hand shot out to grab Cassy by the collar and he gave her a rough shaking that made her head snap back and forth on her neck. "I will not tolerate that kind of perversion in a boy known to be my ward!" He growled ominously.

Staggering, she grabbed his wrist with both her hands and held tightly. Real fear gripped her as the duke's fingers tightened on her collar. Surely, he didn't mean to strangle her to death.

He paused suddenly, his fingers loosening slightly. His face was creased into hard lines of fury, and his eyes glittered like broken shards of glass as he glared at her.

"I ought to lay a cane across your bare backside until you can't sit down for a month," he said, giving her another hard shake. 

"Your grace!" She gasped out, the words coming out as a squeak. "You don't understand..."

"No, I have to admit I don't, Levington." Eastland briefly released his hold on her collar, only to grab the back of her evening jacket. He dragged her along in front of him, his grip lifting her so that she had to almost run on her toes to keep from falling. Her arms flailed wildly and she could not turn her head to look at him.

She saw only the skimming past of the trees as he escorted her through the cold, crisp night air that had smelled so sweet and fresh earlier. Now, it felt colder than before and she could only smell the damp earth.

Instead of taking her back to the front door, Eastland took her round to the back, swung open the kitchen door, and shoved her inside. It was warm and smelled faintly of freshly baked bread and pungent spices. Cassy sucked in a deep breath as the Duke released her with another shove and shut the back door.

It was dark. Only a single lantern glowed, and Cassy could feel the faint warmth of the slumbering coals in the huge brick fireplace that ran across one wall with ovens built beside it. High ceilings soared overhead, darkened with soot, and every movement seemed to echo in the huge, cavernous room filled with bright brass implements. Still shaking, Cassy leaned back against a long table in the centre, keeping a wary eye on the Duke.

Her heart was thumping wildly and her arms were sore where Eastland had grabbed her. It occurred to her that to admit the truth now might be suicidal; the Duke certainly looked in no mood to hear the true explanation for her peculiar behaviour. Nor would he likely be in the mood to hear anytime soon.

So Cassy remained quiet, while the Duke's scathing words flayed her.

"I detest womanish men and I'm damned if you will become one of them, Levington. Since you have been left in my guardianship, I intend to see to it that you will have every opportunity to change your mind about your sexual preference."

Cassy stiffened, and her cheeks flamed with anger and humiliation.

"I doubt seriously that you can do that, your grace!" She snapped, goaded into a retort.

He took several steps closer to her until his face was only inches away. Cassy took an instinctive step away, and the edge of the table pressed hard into her back.

"We'll just see about that, Levington."

Comments (1)
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CDC23
Didn’t he already ask her name at the dinner table?
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