Twelve

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 thought of severe beating as she was his icy contempt. Though it was admittedly cowardly, she knew that if she was in imminent danger of being subjected to corporal punishment, she would confess her gender. She'd already observed the Duke enough to know that he would never knowingly strike a female.

No one was immune to his scathing comments, however, not even the dowager duchess. Cassy had been an unwilling witness to a brief scene between the Duke and his aunt on the day following the dinner. She had no idea what had caused it, but she still flinched at the searing barbs that had passed between them. This time, the duchess had not come off the victor and had left Eastland hall in a towering rage.

Pleading illness, Cassy had managed to cry off the rigours of the fox hunt and had wisely remained in her room until all the guests had departed. She had watched from her window as Rebecca Spencer climbed into her carriage, her pale face set and angry, and had wondered what had passed between her and the duke. Not that she really cared, Cassy told herself, but was only curious. Who was the mysterious Hathaway, whose name had caused Eastland to change his mind? She'd probably never know.

Eastland knew, and it still caused him pain when he thought of Catherine Hathaway. She'd been sweet and soft and full of laughter, and he'd loved her. He'd been not quite seventeen at the time, a boy in the throes of his first love, but he could still recall Catherine with aching clarity.

She'd come into his life at a time when he needed her, at a time when his father was dead and his mother gone. It still made him shake with rage when he thought of how his aristocratic mother had run off with her lover, but she was dead now, too. Killed, he'd been told, by that lover for whom she’d forsaken everything else. Including him. The bitter knowledge of his mother's treachery had not left him open to feminine wiles, but Catherine had managed to sneak beneath his guard.

He would have married her if she hadn't died in a tragic accident before their betrothal was announced. And then he had discovered that she had been on her way to Gretna Green to elope with Zack Hardwick. Since that time, Henry had allowed no woman near his heart. That reluctance had only been confirmed when Rebecca had told him that his Catherine had been pregnant with Zack's child.

He slid his gaze back to Levington, who was staring glumly out of the window, his pretty face resting in one palm. A wave of irritation shot through him and Henry's mouth tightened. Charles Ellington had been a weak man, a man prone to all manner of dissipations, but by God, his heir would not be! Only the strong survived, those who knew enough not to allow life to beat them down, and even if he had to toughen the boy with the most demanding of physical challenges, he would see that Edlington's heir survived. He owed that much to Charles, who had been there for him during those dark days after his father had died.

Aware of Eastland's narrowed gaze on her, Cassy shifted uneasily and wondered what fate he had in store for her. Her brief lesson in pugilism had been a dismal failure, just like all his other attempt to "make a man of Levington." She almost wished she could tell him that God had made that particular achievement impossible.

Gentleman Jeremy, the pugilist he had hired to teach her the basics of boxing, had discovered quite early that his pupil had no endurance, and it had taken an entire bottle of hartshorn to bring her around.

"It was just a little tap on the chin, your grace, I swear it!" Grimes had protested in amazement. The duke had not disputed it but had agreed.

"I'm certain of it. Never mind, Grimes."

And that had been that 

But now, she had been bundled into the ducal carriage with Eastland and was barreling the thirty miles to London without being told why. Perhaps, she mused sadly, she was being taken to the nunnery with which he had threatened her. She hadn't known that young men would be accepted into the religious orders of a convent, but perhaps things were done differently here in England.

"Don't bite your nails, Levington," the duke said after a few moments, and startled, she jerked her hand down from her mouth.

"Sorry, your grace."

Eastland's frosty green eyes rested on her for a long moment. His ward was attired in snug-fitting breeches of a light tan, a quilted waistcoat and a coat with claw hammer tails, as well as a greatcoat, top hat, and scarf around the neck.

"Afraid of freezing to death, Levington?" Came the soft, biting query, and she stiffened.

"It's January, your grace, and quite cold."

"I intend to see your blood warmed before the night is out," Eastland muttered and looked back out the window of the coach at the muddy fields stretching from the roadside.

Cassy felt shudder prance down her spine. He meant to do something terrible, she just knew it. She wished she knew what and tried to think of all the casual remarks she had ever heard about English nunneries. Nothing came to her. Oh, How she wished she knew what he intended!

But when they arrived in London and the carriage slowed as it rolled through narrow, winding streets, Cassy began to wish instead for escape. A terrible premonition filled her, and she gazed glumly out the windows at the winter fog shrouding half-timbered houses crouched close to the street.

Then the carriage jerked to a halt, and her stomach lurched as she saw the building rising steeply beside the street. A high flight of steps led up to the door, and one of the liveried footmen had leapt down to climb those stairs and knock on the door. It occurred to Cassy that the house certainly did not look like any convent or inn house she had ever envisioned, but Eastland looked too fierce to question.

For a moment, she allowed herself to hope he had not brought her to some dreadful place. Then that hope died when she saw his face in the light shed from the carriage lamps. That he had something quite different in mind was evident from the set of his jaw and the icy gleam in his eyes when he bade her to come with him in a voice that brooked no argument.

"Where are we, your grace?" She couldn't help asking when she climbed down and stood beside him, but he didn't answer. She followed him up the shallow steps to the door that had already been swung open, and when they were greeted by a servant who obviously knew Eastland well, her unease increased.

There was something quite different about the house, she decided as she stepped into a carpeted foyer and heard the plink of a harpsichord and the muted laughter of men and women. She wasn't certain just what made her feel that way until she saw the smiling woman approaching them with an expression of welcome on her face.

"Why, your grace! What a delightful surprise to have you with us this evening. It has been a long time."

"Yes, it has," Eastland acknowledged and turned to drag Cassy forward. "I've brought my ward for a visit. Levington, this is Mrs Herenton."

Cassy nodded politely and murmured a "how do you do?" to the woman, more from a habit than anything else. She swallowed a sudden premonition of danger. Mrs Herenton was dressed simply, in a gown that fit her rather stout figure well. She did not wear an excess of Jewelry, nor did she appear to be indiscreet. Yet Cassy shied away. There was something about the woman that was rather undignified, although she couldn't quite put her finger on what it was. Perhaps it was the way she seemed to size Cassy up as if about to sell her a faulty piece of merchandise.

"Come in, my Lord," Mrs Herenton said to her in a gravelly sweet voice. I'm sure we'll find someone to please you."

"May I speak with you a moment?" The Duke interrupted when they had removed their outerwear and given it into the care of a servant. Mrs Herenton nodded 

"Of course, your grace. I'll get Miss Anne to entertain your ward while we speak privately."

Miss Anne appeared as if by magic, a rather slender, smiling young woman with dark curly hair and sleepy eyes. She, too, seemed to size Cassy up and put her hand on her arm to drag her forward.

"Come with me, my Lord," she murmured in a husky voice and led Cassy into an adjoining room. It was opulently furnished and crowded with people. 

When Cassy saw several men sitting with girls on their laps, who giggled as the men kissed them and slid rough hands over their pliant bodies, she began to grow even more uneasy. Eastland had brought her to an unfashionable house, she was suddenly certain. She stood frozen in the doorway of the room, her eyes focused on a particularly amorous gentleman who had his hand tucked into the low bodice of a squirming, giggling girl, and was struck by the queerness of his actions. 

The full impact of where she was hit her like a hammer. This was not a nunnery! Not in the proper sense of the word, and Mrs Herenton was definitely not an abbess. No, Cassy had misunderstood Eastland's slang for what was obviously a house of ill repute. Though she had heard of them, it had been in an oblique way, and she’d certainly never thought that the duke’s words meant that. 

Cassy did the only thing she could do, she bolted.

Eastland caught her before she reached the street, his hard grip whirling her around and half lifting her as he walked her back up the steps and into the house. 

"Don't embarrass yourself in this, too!" He grated near her ear, and Cassy shivered from the anger in his tone.

"This...this isn't a nunnery!" She blurted out, and he lifted a dark brow.

"Not, perhaps, as one might use the word, no. Surely you didn't think__ah, but you apparently did." A thread of grim amusement was in his voice as he said, "Mrs Herenton is an abbess, Levington, or the overseer of these lovely Cyprians like Miss Anne."

Cassy's heart fell into the toes of her highly polished boots. "Your Grace," she mumbled, aware of Mrs Herenton's gaze, and the lighter on Miss Anne's pretty face, "I don't think you know what you're doing."

His grip tightened on her arm, and his voice was pleasant if she ignored the underlying threat. "I don't think you do, Levington. Mrs Herenton is noted for the fine entertainment in her house, and I assure you that you will not be disappointed."

"I'm not as worried about my disappointment as I am Miss Anne's," Cassy said desperately, flinching away from the girl when she reached out for Cassy.

Anne laughed merrily. "Come with me, my pretty young lord. In a very short time, you won't be worrying about disappointing anyone, I can promise you that."

Cassy toyed briefly with the idea of confessing all to the duke, but a glance at his hard face convinced her that she had more chance of success with Miss Anne than she did with Eastland. She allowed herself to be escorted to a room on the second floor, planning her speech all the while.

Miss Anne, it seemed, was in no mood to listen to any speech or explanation Cassy wanted to present. As soon as the door closed behind them, the young woman turned and began untying the ribbons beneath her low, scooped bodice.

"No, please!" Cassy protested in horror, but Miss Anne was determined. She slipped the dress over her small bosom and narrow hips and stepped out of it, her pale, naked body gleaming in the soft light from the lamps on the wall.

"Come here, my Lord," Anne invited in a sultry voice. "Don't you like me?"

Cassy couldn't look at her, highly embarrassed by the sight of such flagrant immodesty. She began backing away as Anne advanced until she felt the edge of the bed press against her thighs. "No! I mean, I like you just fine, but you...you don't understand! I can't be here, Anne! Let me explain..."

"There's no explanation needed between a man and a woman, my Lord," Anne purred, a smile stretching her generous mouth. She rubbed her palms down over her body in a suggestive manner, and Cassy averted her gaze, feeling a hot flush stain her cheeks as she realized she could back away no further.

"That's just it!" Cassy managed to blurt out, and slid backwards onto a bed, scrambling across it like a crab, her movements clumsy and awkward. "Between a man and a woman, not between...between us! I'm not a man..."

"Ah, you're young, it is true, my Lord, but you're about to become a man," Anne soothed and moved with a sinuous twist of her body that took Cassy by surprise. She reached for Cassy before there was enough time to escape, her hand grasping Cassy's crotch.

There was a flicker of surprise, the uncertainty on Anne's face, mirrored by extreme shock on Cassy's pale features. "What the__?" Anne muttered and tried to get a better grip.

"Surprise," Cassy said to the stunned expression on Anne’s face.

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