Chasing Cassandra Page 3

“What good qualities?” West inquired sharply.

Tom had to think for a moment. “How rich I am?” he suggested.

West groaned and shook his head. “I might feel sorry for you, Tom, if you weren’t such a selfish arse. I’ve seen you like this before, and I already know where it will lead. This is why you own more houses than you can live in, more horses than you can ride and more paintings than you have walls. For you, disappointment is inevitable. As soon as you obtain the object of your desire, it loses its power to enchant you. Knowing that, do you think Devon or I would ever allow you to court Cassandra?”

“I wouldn’t lose interest in my own wife.”

“How could it be otherwise?” West asked softly. “All that matters to you is the chase.”



Chapter 2

AFTER LEAVING THE MUSIC ROOM, Cassandra had hurried upstairs to her room to wash her face. A cool, wet compress on her eyes had helped to soothe the redness. There was no remedy, however, for the dull ache that had started as soon as she’d watched Pandora’s carriage pull away from the house. Her twin, her other half, had begun a new life with her husband, Lord St. Vincent. And Cassandra was alone.

Fighting the urge to cry again, Cassandra slowly descended one side of the grand double staircase in the great entrance hall. She would have to mingle with guests in the formal gardens where an informal buffet had been set out. Guests came and went as they pleased, filling their gold-banded plates with hot breads, poached eggs on toast, smoked quail, fruit salad, and slices of charlotte russe made with sponge cake and Bavarian cream. Footmen crossed through the entrance hall as they headed outside with trays of coffee, tea, and iced champagne.

Ordinarily this was the kind of event Cassandra would have enjoyed to no end. She loved a nice breakfast, especially when there was a little something sweet to finish it off, and charlotte russe was one of her favorite desserts. However, she was in no mood to make small talk with anyone. Besides, she’d eaten far too many sweets lately … the extra jam tart at teatime yesterday, and all the fruit ices between dinner courses last night, and that entire éclair, stuffed with rich almond cream and roofed with a crisp layer of icing. And one of the little decorative marzipan flowers from a platter of puddings.

Halfway down the stairs, Cassandra had to pause and gasp for air. She put a hand to her lower ribs, where her corset had been cinched more firmly than usual. As a rule, everyday corsets were close-fitting to support the back and promote good posture, but they weren’t punishingly tight. She only tight-laced for special occasions such as this. With the extra weight she had recently gained, Cassandra felt miserably bound up and breathless and hot. The stays seemed to trap all the air near the top of her lungs. Red-faced, she sat at the side of the staircase and leaned against the balusters. The corners of her eyes were stinging again.

Oh, this has to stop. Vexed with herself, Cassandra took a handkerchief from the concealed pocket of her dress and pressed it hard over a new trickle of tears. After a minute or two had passed, she became aware of someone ascending the stairs in a measured tread.

Embarrassed to be caught crying on the steps like a lost child, Cassandra struggled to rise.

A low voice stopped her. “No … please. I only wanted to give you this.”

Through a blur, she saw the dark form of Tom Severin, who had come to stand a step below her, with two glasses of iced champagne in his hands. He extended one to her.

Cassandra began to reach for it, but hesitated. “I’m not supposed to have champagne unless it’s mixed with punch.”

One corner of his wide mouth tipped upward. “I won’t tell.”

Cassandra took the glass gratefully, and drank. The cold fizz was wonderful, easing the dry tightness of her throat.

“Thank you,” she murmured.

He gave her a brief nod and turned to leave.

“Wait,” Cassandra said, although she wasn’t sure whether she wanted him to stay or leave.

Mr. Severin turned back to her with a questioning glance.

During their brief encounter in the music room, Cassandra had been too flustered to notice much about him. He’d been so very odd, jumping out like that and offering to marry a complete stranger. Also, she’d been absolutely mortified for him to have overheard her tearful disclosure to West, especially the part about having her dress altered.

But now it was impossible not to notice how very good-looking he was, tall and elegantly lean, with dark hair, a clear, fair complexion, and thick brows set at a slightly diabolical slant. If she were to judge his features individually—the long nose, the wide mouth, the narrow eyes, the sharply angled cheeks and jaw—she wouldn’t have expected him to be this attractive. But somehow when it was all put together, his looks were striking and interesting in a way she’d remember far longer than conventional handsomeness.

“You’re welcome to join me,” Cassandra found herself saying.

Severin hesitated. “Is that what you want?” he surprised her by asking.

Cassandra had to consider the question. “I’m not sure,” she admitted. “I don’t want to be alone … but I don’t especially want to be with anyone either.”

“I’m the perfect solution, then.” He lowered to the place beside her. “You can say whatever you like to me. I make no moral judgments.”

Cassandra was slow to reply, momentarily distracted by his eyes. They were blue with dapples of brilliant green around the pupils, but one eye had far more green than the other.

“Everyone makes judgments,” she said in response to his statement.

“I don’t. My sense of right and wrong is different from most people’s. You could say I’m a moral nihilist.”

“What’s that?”

“Someone who believes nothing is innately right or wrong.”

“Oh, that’s dreadful,” she exclaimed.

“I know,” he said, looking apologetic.

Perhaps some gently bred young women would have been shocked, but Cassandra was accustomed to unconventional people. She’d grown up with Pandora, whose twisty-turny, hippity-hoppity brain had enlivened an unbearably secluded life. In fact, Mr. Severin possessed a kind of contained energy that reminded her a little of Pandora. One could see it in the eyes, the quicksilver workings of a mind that ran at a faster speed than those of other people.

After another sip of champagne, Cassandra was relieved to discover the urge to cry had passed, and she could breathe normally again.

“You’re supposed to be a genius, aren’t you?” she asked, recalling a discussion between Devon, West, and Mr. Winterborne, all friends with Severin. They’d agreed the railway magnate possessed the most brilliant business mind of anyone they knew. “Sometimes intelligent people can make something simple into something very complicated. Perhaps that’s why you have difficulty with right and wrong.”

That elicited a brief grin. “I’m not a genius.”

“You’re being modest,” she said.

“I’m never modest.” Mr. Severin drained the rest of his champagne, set down the glass, and turned to face her more fully. “I have an above-average intellect and a photographic memory. But that’s not genius.”

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