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?"
"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."
"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."
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."
"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."
Cassy sat huddled in one corner of the black lacquered carriage that sped towards London. Eastland sat opposite her, his long legs thrust out in front of him and crossed at the ankles, looking every inch the splendid lord he was.Yet for the first time, she found it hard to admire him. He'd not spoken a civil word to her in a week and until he'd had Sheldon inform her that she was to accompany him to London, had not deigned to take notice of her at all. It was as if Lord Levington, his ward, has ceased to exist for him.Now they were going to London and she had no idea why. It did not seem like a good idea to inquire, with him gazing out the window and ignoring her. She shifted on the plush velvet squabs and wished she'd never agreed to decided to England. Anything else would have been better than that.Only now she was here, and mired in the masquerade, and did not know how to extricate herself. She was afraid of Eastland. Yes, it was true. Oddly enough, she wasn't as afraid of the th
"You... You’re a... a,""I’m a girl," Cassy finished for her, daring to laugh. Anne staggered away from her, confusion suddenly written all over her face. Cassy felt her breath returning to normal almost immediately, although Anne was quite far from there. "A girl?" she blurted out suddenly, still making no attempt to cover her unclad state. "It would appear so," Cassy replied. "My lord, is there... did lady Herenton put you up to this?" she asked. "Did she pay you to humiliate me like this?""I can assure you that there has been a bit misunderstanding," Cassy said quickly. "And none of this was at your expense.""Then explain this," she grated. "Explain how you are a girl, and how you managed to fool them into thinking you’re not.""You might want to sit down for this," Cassy said. "It’s sort of a long story, and I don’t even know where to begin."Anne eyed her suspiciously, clearly debating whether she could trust this strange woman or not. It was bad enough that she had to discov
Life at Eastland hall had never been better. Cassy found it a shocking turnaround that she could actually smile now, and she was actually beginning to grow fond of the place. Even more shocking, perhaps, was the sudden improvement in everything the Duke laid out for her. The activities which she’d failed at earlier, now seemed like mere chores That’s she could expertly breeze through. It was almost as if the Levington that had gone to London with the duke was replaced by another one, more apt and skilled than the other one. Cassy slowly began to understand the intricacies of fending which her tutor desperately wanted her to understand. "Yes, yes, my lord," monsieur Fournier would exclaim excitedly whenever she successfully parried his thrusts or when her blade would skim right under his arm and straight at his rib. "Zat is exactly what I was saying."Tutoring went well enough, and she soon began to catch up on the many subjects which she was supposed to learn. Her tutors noticed this
Everything started to fall apart from the moment Colin kissed her. It was on a Saturday evening, right after he’d finished teaching her how a man was supposed to shake. Cassy’s grip hadn’t been firm enough, and he’d taught her how to position her fingers, even slightly squeezing the person’s fingers. And then he’d pulled her in and kissed her on the cheek. It wasn’t supposed to mean anything, but it was dangerously close to her mouth and Cassy had bristled at the sudden invasion. "What do you think you’re doing?" she asked, shoving him away. Colin regarded her coolly. "I didn’t mean to offend you," he said quietly. "I was just...""Don’t ever do that again," she said. "Just don’t."He stepped back, stung by her anger. "Cassandra, I..."Cassy ran from the spot, leaving him staring after her with a confused expression. She ran all the way back to the house, willing herself not to cry. She’d known Colin was attracted to her; had suspected it from the first day he found out her secr
For a long moment, Eastland didn’t speak. Cassy stood frozen before him, desperately trying to cover all that he’d already seen. There was no hiding no; no secrets that hadn’t been exposed already. His formidable gaze swept over her once. Twice. "Get dressed," he said in a clipped tone. "I shall wait for you in the carriage."He turned around and left, leaving her shaking in the wake of his inaction. What on earth just happened? Why, oh why did she have to leave Colin’s letters lying around in her bedchamber? It was over now. Eastland would surely finish her off for good. Cassy dressed slowly, methodically. Her heart was pulsing as she wondered what he had in mind. But even when she met him afterwards, sitting in the carriage with a vacant expression, he didn’t let anything slip. The carriage lurched forward with a jerk. Eastland said nothing, and when the carriage stopped a while later, she flashed him a worried look. From they lamplights standing on each side of a doorway, she kne
When Cassy woke the next morning, she was slow to realize that she was in a different bed. It looked much the same, yet something was different. She blinked, then it all came back to her, the unpleasant bath from yesterday, arriving at London, and the unpleasant events afterwards.Eastland had gone out the day before, and he never returned, leaving her roaming about the town house and retiring earlier to her room than usual.She groaned as she slid from the bed, and found sore muscles where she hadn't known she had any. It had been a perfectly horrible day yesterday, to end a perfectly horrible month.At least, she thought with a sigh, she didn't have to hide her sex anymore. What would Eastland do?The answer came quickly enough, as there was a discreet knock on the door and a pert ladies maid announced that she was there to help Lady Cassandra dress.Glancing down at her rumpled clothes, Cassy opened her mouth to say that she was already dressed, but the maid had beckoned to someone
"I knew it will get to this!" The duchess said as soon as she arrived at the house. "And I knew there was something about you I liked at that party. You're indeed the feisty little thing I thought you were!"Cassy’s smile was indulgent as she curtsied before the duchess. The townhouse suddenly came alive with the arrival of several visitors. Two days after Cassy’s arrival at the house, the duchess’s personal dressmaker arrived. She was a pompous old woman, who regarded Cassy over the edge of her nose, as though sizing her up on sight. The woman was accompanied by two young, bright eyed girls who smiled openly and warmly at her. They kept her busy, talking about fabrics, the latest styles, what would look good and what wouldn’t, their ramblings seeming to be endless until Cassy’s head began to spin. Their madame stopped them then, asking them to take Cassy’s measurement and be done with it. That was the purpose of their visit after all. Barely an hour after they left, Cassy was force
March 1819Jonathan Trenton slammed from the oak paneled study, smarting from the abrasive scrape of the duke's wrath. His blue eyes glittered with suppressed fury and humiliation, and he certainly didn't appreciate his twin sister's gurgle of laughter as she waited for him in the hallway."How do you like the Duke, Jonathan?" She asked in an innocent tone that didn't fool him for a moment."He's a bloody bastard!"Cassy grasped her brother's arm with a sudden flare of anxiety. "He didn't... didn't hurt you, did he?"Some of the rage faded from his gaze as Jonathan saw his sister's fret in her smoky blue eyes, and he shook his dark head. "Just my pride," he murmured. "And my ears."Cassy smiled with relief. "I was afraid you would provoke him into doing something terrible."Jonathan gave a wry shake of his head. "I've learned to curb my temper a little better since the last time we met," he said. "And I have gained a great deal of humility."Looking at him with new eyes, Cassy recogniz