মুখ্য Masquerade

Masquerade

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সাল:
2011
ভাষা:
english
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ডাউনলোড (epub, 76 KB)

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আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.
1

The Touch of Max

সাল:
1993
ভাষা:
english
ফাইল:
EPUB, 184 KB
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2

Lady Thief

সাল:
1981
ভাষা:
english
ফাইল:
EPUB, 134 KB
0 / 0
Masquerade





Chapter One


A cold wind snatched at her cloak as Cassandra Eden bent forward to peer in the direction of her coachman's pointing finger. She shivered as she looked at the broken axle. It was a very broken axle, and she did not require the opinion of an expert coach-builder to perceive that the vehicle was not going anywhere until it was repaired. Cassandra's dismay intensified when fat white flakes of snow began to swirl through the gloom of approaching night.

"Oh, no," she said.

John Potter, her coachman, nodded glumly. "I suspicioned that axle was cracked, miss, and this godforsaken road finished it off right enough. There'll have to be a new one, and where to find aught tonight

—"

"Obviously we won't be able to get it repaired tonight,"

Cassandra said with a sigh. "But we must have shelter. How far to the nearest inn, John?"

The grizzled coachman ruminated with a frown, then said, "That'd be the Boar's Head, miss, and it's all of twenty miles along and back on the main road."

Even a lightweight racing curricle and team of fine horses would have required more than an hour for the journey on such a bad road, but in any case Cassandra had neither. She had a weary team of well-bred but sturdy horses and an elderly, broken coach that should have been left in her uncle's London stables. It was late January, late afternoon, and the leaden sky was a grim indication that the drifting flakes of snow were only the overture to a storm.

Cassandra glanced up at the window of the coach, where her maid's worried face could be seen, then stepped away and surveyed the countryside with considerable—though masked—worry of her own. A damaged bridge some miles back had necessitated this detour from the normal route between London and Bristol; they were presently somewhere in north Berkshire, an area that was almost exclusively patchy forests and endless acres of cultivated or pastured land.

"John, is that a manor house? There—on the edge of that;  forest across the field?"

The coachman squinted, then nodded slowly. "It appears to be, miss. Haven't seen another place bigger'n a cottage for miles, so stands to reason there'd be an estate of some kind in these parts. Lonesome place, though."

Cassandra agreed silently. In the fading light it was difficult to see clearly, but she thought the distant house looked lonely and more than a little desolate. But that was probably the weather, she told herself sternly.

"We shall go there, then," she said in a decided tone. "Another half mile along this road should bring us to the drive, I think."

"I'll go, Miss Cassie. I'm sure they'd be agreeable an' send a carriage—"

"Oh, nonsense, John. I would much rather walk to the house than huddle in the coach awaiting rescue.



We shall not impose upon our host any more than absolutely necessary. Come out, Sarah—we must walk from here."

Her maid, a pretty but apprehensive young woman no more than a few years older than her mistress, left the shelter of the coach reluctantly. "Walk, Miss Cassie?"

Cassandra could hardly help but smile at Sarah's consternation; town bred, the maid considered anything outside London's narrow and bustling streets the wilderness and undoubtedly quaked at the thought of walking any distance at all through this bleak landscape.

"Would you prefer to freeze, Sarah?" She didn't wait for a response but directed the groom to unstrap her smallest bag from the coach and hand it down to her. Since the horses were standing wearily with no need to be held, the lad scrambled atop the coach and did as he was bid.

"I'll carry that, miss," John Potter told her as he reached up for the bag. "Tom can stay with the coach till I bring help from the manor. An' you won't be wantin' to rap on a strange door with no more than this slip of a girl beside you."

Cassandra, who was neither a shy woman nor one who imagined herself threatened where there was no cause, was a little amused as well as resigned by her servant's determined protection. It was one of the reasons her uncle had allowed her to set out from London with only her maid; he knew very well that John Potter was a more trustworthy guard than any number of outriders and could be depended upon to defend as well as advise Cassandra in the event of trouble.

"I very much doubt the manor is filled with desperadoes," she told him in a dry tone.

"Likely not, miss," the coachman returned stolidly. "But Sir Basil would have my head on a platter was I to let you out of my sight before I was sure you'd be in good hands."

Too wise—and too chilled—to bother protesting further, Cassandra merely told Sarah to take care on the uneven surface of the road, then struck out briskly. Unlike her maid, she was country bred and enjoyed daily long walks when she was home, so this trifling distance bothered her not at all.

Her estimation of the distance involved turned out to be fairly accurate; they came upon the manor's neat driveway a little more than half a mile from the stranded coach, and Sarah had complained of sore feet only once. But the drive itself wound along for another half mile, and it was nearly dark by the time they neared the house.

John Potter seemed much reassured by the condition of the place, commenting once that care and money had been spent here right enough. Cassandra agreed silently. The estate was clearly in excellent shape, the lawns immaculate and the shrubbery pruned, and the manor house itself was neat as a pin, at least on the outside. For the first time she wondered whom it belonged to; the place was a fair distance from London—inconvenient in a country house.

Not that she was in any position to be particular as to the identity of her host, of course. She needed shelter.

With her servants half a step behind her on either side, Cassandra trod up the steps and applied the gleaming brass knocker firmly. When the door was pulled open almost immediately, she had to fight the impulse to step back, and Sarah's gasp was perfectly audible in the startled quiet.

It had become dark enough outside that the only illumination came from inside the house, and in that faint light half of the manservant's grim, swarthy face was visible. Unfortunately for the maid's disordered nerves, that side of his face bore an ugly scar that twisted from the corner of his left eye to the corner of his mouth, and the disfigurement lent him an appearance of menace virtually guaranteed to terrify an imaginative young woman.



"Yes?" he said, his unusually deep voice another shock.

Cassandra's alarm had been momentary, and when she spoke it was pleasantly. "Good evening. I am afraid I have suffered a slight misfortune on the road and require assistance."

The servant's chilly gray eyes looked her up and down swiftly, and then were veiled by lowered lids.

"Indeed, miss? We don't get many travelers out this way."

A little impatient at being kept standing out in the cold and snow by a servant—hardly the kind of treatment to which she was accustomed—Cassandra's voice sharpened. "I don't doubt it. Be assured I would hardly have come this way myself had not a bridge washed out some miles back. Would you kindly be good enough to inform your master of my plight? I have my maid, as you see, and my coachman will require assistance to bring my coach and horses safely off the road."

It was not in her character to be so peremptory, particularly with a servant in a private house, but Cassandra was chilled and tired, and all she wanted was something hot to drink and a brisk fire where she could warm her hands and feet. And she was not pleased by the notion that this manservant regarded her with only thinly disguised disdain.

And, indeed, he hesitated after she spoke just long enough to subtly imply that it was his decision rather than hers to admit her to the house. He stepped back, opening the door wider, and said in a colorless tone,

"If you'll step this way, miss, I'll inform His Lordship."

Cassandra came into the entrance hall, which was quite impressive and blessedly warm, and said, "His Lordship?"

"Yes, miss. The Earl of Sheffield. This is Sheffield Hall." He said it as if he seriously doubted she had not been aware of the information.

She heard a quickly indrawn breath from Sarah, and Cassandra felt a bit dismayed herself. The Earl of Sheffield? Though she had never met him—or even seen him, for that matter—two Seasons in London had certainly exposed her to all the talk concerning one of the more infamous rakes of past Seasons.

Stone's his name, stone his heart. That was what they said about Stone Westcott, the Earl of Sheffield. It was always said with a sad shake of the head and an ominous frown, a warning to all young ladies of quality to stay out of the earl's path if they wished to keep their good names—and their hearts. Of course, unmarried young ladies were considered too innocent to hear what sin, precisely, Sheffield was guilty of committing, and so those interested or merely curious were reduced to piecing together whispers and overheard comments and arriving at some conclusion, however unsatisfying.

The facts Cassandra felt reasonably sure of were few. Sheffield sprang from a long line of apparently rakish earls, most of whom had treated their reputations with careless disregard and the rules of society with even less respect. Sportsmen rather than dandies, they had excelled in all the manly pursuits, and among the numerous sporting records gentlemen discussed, many were held by various Westcotts. They seemed to own the finest horseflesh and to drive their racing vehicles farther and faster than anyone else (often merely to win a bet), were famous for their punishing fists in the boxing ring, and were said to be superior marksmen.

And for generations they had seemingly held a powerful, unusual fascination for the women they encountered. Rarely handsome and never famed for their social graces, they nevertheless boasted an astonishing history filled with conquests. It was whispered that more than one lady of quality had abandoned her morals and, many times, a husband and family in order to run off with "one of those Westcotts."

From all Cassandra had heard, this particular Westcott, the current earl, was worse than all his ancestors put together.

All this flashed through her mind as the dour manservant crossed the hall on silent feet and opened the door to the parlor, where she and Sarah would wait, but her hesitation was momentary despite her misgivings. She had little choice, after all.

"What name shall I gave His Lordship, miss?" the servant inquired as he held the door.

Before Cassandra could reply, her maid spoke up in a voice that was higher than usual and definitely frightened. "Wells. She is Miss Wells."

Once again, Cassandra's hesitation was fleeting. It hardly matters, after all. With luck , the coach can be repaired tomorrow, and I will never see Sheffield after that. So she didn't correct her maid, allowing the lie to stand.

But as soon as they were alone in the lovely, snug parlor, Cassandra took a chair near the crackling fire, held out her gloved hands toward the flames, and said severely, "Sarah, why on earth did you say such a thing? Wells is your name, not mine."

"You know very well why, Miss Cassie," Sarah retorted with spirit. "They say the earl has run through his fortune and intends to wed an heiress—and you're under his roof unprotected! He's already ruined one lady and only laughed when her brother demanded he marry her and nearly killed the brother in the most wicked duel the next day!"

Cassandra's surprise was momentary. Naturally, Sarah would have heard servants' gossip—which was clearly more candid than what was whispered abovestairs. But was it any more truthful?

"Duels in this day and age? Sarah—"

"It's true, Miss Cassie. It was years ago, but it happened. My cousin was groom to—to the young lady's brother, and he swears he saw it with his own eyes. How the earl stood there smiling like a fiend and then shot that poor young man, blood everywhere, and then he just walked away. And he was still smiling, Miss Cassie! Like a devil!" Sarah shuddered, obviously finding a ghoulish delight in the retelling of such a dramatic story.

Cassandra was unwillingly impressed but reminded herself silently that gossip—even that supposedly obtained by an eyewitness—could seldom be relied upon to be wholly truthful. Still, it seemed at least probable that a meeting had taken place between the disreputable earl and some man he had grossly insulted, though the cause as well as the meeting itself was doubtless less dramatic than Sarah's cousin had described.

"Be that as it may, you have put me in an awkward position," she told her maid firmly. "Whatever the earl may have been guilty of in his past, there is no reason to suppose he would be anything but courteous to a stranded traveler, and I very much dislike facing him with a lie."

Unrepentant, Sarah said, "Even a saint can be tempted, miss, and tempting a sinner is foolish! Bad enough you're so pretty and look so delicate—if he knew you had a fortune as would make a nabob stare, he'd be after you in a trice!"

Cassandra couldn't help laughing, but she shook her head as well and lapsed into silence as she warmed her hands at the fire. Hiding her identity had not been her doing, and it was not what she wanted, but now that Sarah had taken that step, she was uncertain if she would correct the situation.

She was not afraid of Sheffield, or of being under his roof without the protection of a family member; no matter how black the earl was painted, he was indisputably a gentleman. He might well flaunt the conventions of society, and he might even have compromised a lady and then refused to marry her, but he would no more take advantage of a young lady temporarily under his protection than he would rob a bank.

So it wasn't fear of him that made Cassandra hesitate to offer her true identity. It was, more than anything, a rather weary repugnance for the inevitable response her name evoked in so many of the men she had met. Fortune hunters had dogged her steps since the day she had come out into society, and she was very tired of weighing the sincerity of every compliment and searching each charming smile for signs of duplicity or greed.

At least if Sheffield had no idea she was an heiress, she would be able to relax that particular guard.

Not that she expected him to attempt to charm her—despite Sarah's flattering words, Cassandra knew herself to be too dark for fashionable prettiness, too tall, and so pale and fine-boned that she appeared ridiculously fragile—but her social mask had become so fixed that it required a conscious effort to relax.

Which was one reason she had decided to go home for a few weeks.

Cassandra was still undecided about exposing Sarah's lie when the door opened a few moments later and a trim middle-aged woman in sober raiment entered the room carrying a tray.

"Good evening, Miss Wells. I am His Lordship's housekeeper, Mrs. Milton. He'll be down to welcome you shortly but asked that I see to your needs in the meanwhile. Your coachman has gone with some of our men to fetch your coach and horses, and I will take your maid and baggage to the room being prepared for you. We keep country hours here, but supper has been put back to allow you time to warm and refresh yourself."

As she accepted a cup of steaming tea, Cassandra said apologetically, "I am sorry to have disrupted the routine of the household, Mrs. Milton."

Her own tone comfortable and placid, the housekeeper replied, "There's no bother, miss. We have visitors rarely enough, but His Lordship expects things to be done right. Now—I'll take your maid up and see to her, and as soon as the room is ready, I'll be back for you."

"Thank you," Cassandra murmured. Left alone in the warm parlor, she reflected wryly that the moment for confessing Sarah's lie was beginning to recede into the distance. Every time she faced someone as "Miss Wells," it would become more and more difficult to tell the truth.

She removed her gloves and untied the ribbons of her bonnet to remove it as well, having been reassured that she would remain at the Hall at least for tonight. The mirror over the fireplace told her that her dark curls were sadly crushed. She did what she could to restore them but did not worry particularly about it; she was not a vain woman and, moreover, had no desire to present any more than a neat and ladylike appearance to the earl.

She had finished her tea as well as a slice of bread and butter, and was feeling much warmer and more comfortable—and, in fact, a little sleepy—when the door opened a second time and her host strode in.

Cassandra rose to her feet in a response that had less to do with politeness than with something deeper and more basic within her, and her drowsiness vanished.

"How do you do, ma'am?" the earl said in a rather hard, abrupt tone as he came toward her. "I am Sheffield."

She did not know what, precisely, she had expected, but Lord Sheffield surprised her. She doubted he was much past thirty, which was rather young to be so infamous a reprobate. He was an unusually big man, well over six feet tall, with very wide and powerful shoulders, and he moved with an almost eerie, catlike grace. His thick hair was black, his eyes dark and brooding, his complexion tanned; he was not a conventionally handsome man, but he was quite definitely. . . impressive.

Cassandra offered her hand, having to look up to meet his eyes, which was rare for her. "Lord Sheffield. I am—Miss Wells. Cassandra Wells." She heard herself continue with the lie but was still unsure why she had.

His hand, unexpectedly well formed and beautiful, held hers for a brief moment and then released it while his frowning dark eyes looked her over with more censure than admiration—or even curiosity—and his voice was still abrupt when he spoke. "You're traveling alone? What was your family thinking of to allow a girl of your age to travel alone?"



The impatience in his tone did not disturb Cassandra; her uncle was a man of irritable temperament, and she got along quite well with him. Nor was she offended by his assumption of extreme youth; she knew only too well that, despite her height, large eyes, and a childlike voice—which she had attempted in vain to mature—caused her to appear a good four or five years younger than her actual age.

If she had removed her cloak, he would have had no doubt of her maturity; slender virtually everywhere else, her breasts were well formed and generous—the envy of her friends but an attribute with which Cassandra had never been quite comfortable because of the way men looked at her. So while she might, if she wished, have added to the lie and allowed him to believe her much younger, her own body made it unlikely she would be believed.

"I am not a child, my lord, and I often travel alone," she told him, polite and perfectly composed.

He frowned. "How old are you?"

Cassandra had hoped to avoid a direct answer, but the blunt question—however rude—demanded one.

Lifting her chin a trifle, she said, "I am twenty, my lord."

His brows lifted in surprise. "You don't look it—or sound it. But I maintain that you should not be traveling alone; twenty is still hardly more than a child. Sit down, ma'am." He stepped away from her to stand with one shoulder idly propped against the mantel. "Have my people seen to your comfort?"

She resumed her seat and replied only to the last rather indifferent question. "Yes, Mrs. Milton has been very kind, and I understand my coach and horses are being fetched."

He nodded, gazing at her in a very direct way that was a bit unsettling. "They are. According to your coachman, you suffered a broken axle?"

"My coach did," she murmured.

The hard stare continued for a moment, but then he smiled quite suddenly—and his harsh face was lit with warmth. "I stand corrected, ma'am."

Cassandra felt herself smiling back at him and coping with the oddest sensations. A kind of fluttering near her heart that she had never experienced before. It was deeply disturbing, almost frightening, and she was very glad when the sensation faded. She thought there was even a touch of relief in her voice when she spoke to him. "Can it be repaired quickly, my lord? I am expected home tomorrow."

"Your destination is Bristol?"

"Some miles northeast of Bristol, yes."

The earl's smile had been brief, the seemingly habitual frown quickly returning, but his voice seemed less abrupt when he said, "The broken axle is not the problem, ma'am; I would be happy to lend you one of my vehicles and send your coach along later once it is repaired. However, the weather has definitely taken a turn for the worse, and I doubt travel will be possible for at least a few days."

Dismayed, she said, "But there was only a little snow falling when we arrived—"

"There is much more than a little now; it is mixed with sleet as well, and the wind is building steadily.

Unless I much mistake the matter, we will be in the midst of a full-blown storm before midnight."

Cassandra's consternation increased, but she was too sensible to struggle fruitlessly against the potent combination of fate and nature. It appeared that her destiny included an enforced stay at Sheffield Hall.

Sighing, she said, "I am sorry, my lord, but it seems I must impose upon you for the duration."

He bowed slightly with more courtesy than enthusiasm, his harsh face immobile. "It is, of course, my pleasure to offer you shelter, ma'am."



She felt one of her eyebrows rise before she could halt the indication of derision at the conventional—

and obviously reluctant—offer but was able to respond politely. "Thank you very much, Lord Sheffield."

There was a sudden gleam in his dark eyes, and a faint smile played about the corners of his strong mouth, but before he could say anything the door opened and Mrs. Milton came to convey Cassandra to her room.

Sheffield bowed again, this time with a slightly mocking tilt to his dark head. "I would be honored, ma'am, if you would join me for supper. In an hour?"

Cassandra picked up her gloves and bonnet, rose to her feet, and curtsied with a brevity that held a subtle touch of her own mockery. He could deride the often stiff and formal conventions of polite society if he chose, she decided, but there was no reason why she should pretend she didn't understand his indirect ridicule; she refused to play dumb.

"Thank you, my lord," she replied sweetly. Then she followed the housekeeper from the parlor. She didn't look back at the earl, and so she didn't see his smile—or see it die as he turned his gaze to the bright fire.





Chapter Two


The room provided by her host was lovely, and as Cassandra allowed Sara to divest her of her traveling dress, she decided that if Sheffield was indeed in financial difficulties, he had certainly not scrimped on keeping his estate up to snuff. There were no signs of economizing that she had seen: The house was neither chilly nor drafty and appeared to be in excellent repair; none of the main rooms seemed to be closed up in order to avoid having to heat them; brisk and generous fires burned in the grates; and the linens and draperies seemed in excellent condition. Still, Cassandra was completely aware that such things were not necessarily signs of a full purse. Many a noble family had kept up an appearance of prosperity while falling deeper and deeper in debt. "The velvet gown, Miss Cassie?" Sarah inquired as she brushed out her mistress's raven hair before the dressing table. Drawn from her musings, Cassandra hesitated. The velvet gown, while elegant and entirely suitable for a winter's evening, was also high-necked and long-sleeved, and not particularly flattering. Sarah, of course, suggested that particular gown because it was imminently proper, with no unseemly display of flesh— with which to tempt a sinner.

Cassandra knew she should accept her maid's sensible suggestion and wear the velvet gown, but she kept hearing the earl's brusque voice stating that "twenty is still a child," and she felt ridiculously belligerent about the matter. She was a mature and intelligent woman, and strongly disliked being viewed as a child.

"No," she heard herself say in a disinterested tone. "The blue silk, Sarah. And my lace shawl."

The brush stopped abruptly, and in the mirror Sarah's expression could only be described as appalled.

"The blue silk, miss? But—"

Quite gently Cassandra repeated, "The blue silk, Sarah."

Sarah considered her mistress to be one of the kindest possible, but she understood that tone perfectly well and knew better than to argue with a mind made up. Swallowing whatever comments she wanted to offer, she murmured an obedient response, finished arranging the gleaming black hair, and then went to lay out the blue silk gown.

Some minutes later as she considered her reflection in the mirror, Cassandra knew a twinge of doubt.

The gown, while perfectly proper for evening dining in a private home, was rather revealing. Low-cut, it left her shoulders bare and covered no more than three-quarters of her breasts. The blue silk was drawn up snug beneath her breasts and clung to the remainder of her body with every movement, glimmering slightly as silk did when light played over the material.

Though she could boast a jewel collection to rival any woman in London, Cassandra tended to wear very little ornamentation to even the fanciest dress balls; all she wore tonight were tiny gold earrings and a wide blue velvet ribbon around the base of her throat, to which was pinned a cameo. The lace shawl, beautifully made and very old—it had been her mother's—did not so much cover her bare shoulders as it did cunningly reveal them.

The effect of the outfit was what Cassandra had hoped. While no one could have had the least doubt she was a lady of quality dressed with simple elegance, there was also no doubt she was a woman.

She knew an impulse to change into something less revealing but chided herself sternly. There was absolutely nothing wrong with what she was wearing—it was perfectly proper—and she would not behave like a missish female by covering herself in layers of clothing in order to thwart advances the earl certainly had no intention of making!

With that resolve in mind, she left her room with her head held high—and found the grim manservant awaiting her out in the corridor.

His name, Sarah had reported with a shudder, was Anatole. He was neither butler nor valet, but more of a head steward, responsible for making sure the earl's household was run as smoothly as possible. He was not English; Sheffield had apparently found him during a trip abroad several years before, and between the two—according to Sarah—was a relationship quite different from the usual between master and servant.

How it differed was something Sarah had not been able to say beyond remarking that Anatole was reportedly quite blunt in his speech to the earl and that he seemed to "take a great deal upon himself" when it came to running the household. Apparently, there were hostilities of a sort going on between Anatole and the Hall's housekeeper, a long-standing tug of war over who was in charge.

All that flitted through her mind as Cassandra left her room and found Anatole waiting for her, and she couldn't help wondering if there had been a tussle to determine who would escort her down to supper.

The manservant, his scarred face expressionless, bowed to her with more politeness than he had yet shown. "I am Anatole, miss. Most find the Hall difficult to negotiate at first; I will show you the way."

She had a good sense of direction and was confident she could find her own way, but Cassandra didn't object. Composedly she said, "Thank you, Anatole," and followed him down the hall.

The Hall was both unusually large and laid out rather peculiarly, she thought as they made two turns and traversed three short hallways before reaching the main staircase. But there were candles aplenty to light the way, most in sconces, and by the time her escort had bowed her into a pleasant drawing room, Cassandra was confident she had memorized the way.

Lord Sheffield was in the drawing room. He, too, had changed, from the country buckskins he had worn earlier to knee-britches and a long-tailed coat. His coat was cut so that he could shrug himself into it without the aid of his valet, and his cravat was neatly rather than beautifully arranged, but the less dandified dress suited him admirably, Cassandra thought. He was a physically powerful man and would have looked a trifle absurd decked out in the affectations of a town tulip.

"Good evening, ma'am." He bowed as she came toward him, but he did not leave his position by the fire and move to meet her. "I trust your room is—"

Cassandra felt heat rise in her cheeks as his impassive query broke off abruptly. His dark gaze was every bit as direct as it had been earlier, unnervingly direct, and she had the doubtful satisfaction of knowing that the blue silk gown had chased all notions of childishness out of his head.

"My room is quite lovely and entirely comfortable, my lord, thank you," she replied as if he had completed the question, her own voice sedate. She sat down in a chair near the fire, forcing herself to continue meeting that unsettling stare. However, she had not fully considered the earl's characteristic bluntness, and so his next words caught her by surprise.



"I see I am to stand corrected a second time, ma'am. Twenty is not always a child, after all. You have a magnificent figure."

For a brief moment Cassandra debated whether she should take offense or else pretend he had not said anything that was certainly frank beyond the bounds of what was appropriate; those were, after all, the only two acceptable ways of handling such disgraceful bluntness. But as she gazed into his dark eyes, she felt a surge of recklessness inside her. After two Seasons of polite conversation and genteel advances from gentlemen, she found the matter-of-fact admiration in the earl's words and tone curiously refreshing.

"Thank you." Her voice was a bit dry but calm. She frowned slightly. "Though I suppose I am hardly responsible; I am told I very much resemble my mother."

The earl seemed amused, whether by her clear acceptance of his scandalous manners or by her response she could not be certain.

"Indeed? Then I envy your father."

She had asked for the outrageous response, Cassandra decided ruefully. Unable to hide her amusement, she merely said, "Do not be so quick to envy him, my lord; my mother was also infamous for her temper. She was half French, you see, and prone to throw things when she became enraged."

"And do you throw things, ma'am?"

Thoughtfully she replied, "I have not so far become more than irritated, I should say. So there is really no telling what I would do when thoroughly enraged."

The earl was definitely smiling. "While I have no wish to enrage you, I confess I am most curious. I have never seen a lady throw things."

It was most improper, but Cassandra could not help offering him a hint of her sophistication by casually responding, "Perhaps not, but I am sure you have, in the course of your life, seen some female in the throes of passion."

"One or two," he retorted without hesitation.

Cassandra felt another blush rise in her cheeks as she suddenly recollected that the word passion had many meanings, but she refused to allow the unintended blunder to cause her to retreat back into conventional politeness.

With dignity she said, "I should be much surprised, my lord, if you had not observed some female enraged enough to throw things at you. You seem to me a man at whom any female would frequently become infuriated."

He laughed suddenly, and she felt once again that mysterious and alarming flutter insider her. His whole face changed when he laughed, from something hard and rather forbidding into something warmly and unexpectedly attractive. She was curiously breathless for an instant and knew an impulse to rise and touch him—an urge as shocking as it was incredible.

"That is probably quite true, ma'am," he said, concurring somewhat wryly with her charge. "I have a blunt character and a thoughtless tongue—and both have led me into difficulties with the female sex on more than one occasion."

Having recovered her composure, Cassandra said, "As I said, my lord, I cannot have any doubt of that."

Whatever he might have said then was prevented by the opening of the door. Anatole stood there, his gaze on the earl, and bowed slightly before retreating. Cassandra assumed from this that their meal was ready to be served, a guess confirmed when Sheffield stepped toward her and offered his arm.



"Shall we? I understand my cook has exerted himself, delighted by the prospect of a more appreciative audience than I provide."

"So you are a man of plain tastes, my lord?" Cassandra rose and took his arm, very conscious of his nearness and the contact as he escorted her toward the dining room. She was far more accustomed to being on eye level with most gentlemen; the earl's height and evident strength made her aware of him in a way she had never known before.

"When it comes to what I find on my table, yes, ma'am. I have no liking for heavy sauces, and that preference is apparently a knife to the heart of any fine cook."

That may have been so, Cassandra thought much later, but the earl seemed to enjoy his cook's efforts as much as she did herself. The food was excellent—and the company was even more so. After her exhausting day she had thought herself too weary either to care what she ate or to be much interested in conversation, but both beliefs were in error.

When the meal was finished, Sheffield suggested that she forgo the custom of withdrawing while he enjoyed his port in lonely splendor, and she was pleased to accept; in her uncle's house that practice was confined to evenings in which there were no guests present, and she had always enjoyed the relaxed and casual conversation with her aunt and uncle.

In the earl's snug dining room it seemed to her just as comfortable. He drank his port, she leaned her elbows on the table, and they talked on in the frank manner so quickly established between them, discussing subjects ranging from the treacherous unpredictability of the weather this time of year to the war with France.

He seemed quite interested in her opinions even when they disagreed with his, and never once treated her as anything other than an equal with an intelligent mind fine enough to challenge his own. Cassandra had encountered that unusual attitude in only one other man, her uncle, and she responded to Sheffield with a pleased freedom from constraint that made her virtually glow.

The conversation turned eventually to the social scene. The earl laughed often, much entertained by her perceptive and pungent descriptions of society, particularly when she became somewhat indignant on the subject of young girls "married off to the highest bidder"—that being her opinion of London's glittering social Season.

"When did you come out, ma'am?" he asked her.

"Last Season. I was presented at Court, of course, and that was interesting enough, but the rest tried my patience sorely."

"Balls and routs? Dancing at Almack's? Theater parties?" His voice was matter-of-fact.

Cassandra, who knew that the earl was welcome at any private social event as well as Almack's should he happen to grace London with his presence, felt curious as to why he had for years— to her knowledge—avoided such events. While many in society clearly still disapproved of him, and mothers of marriageable daughters quailed at the mere mention of his name, he undoubtedly had friends and connections who urged him to attend their social gatherings.

But she shied away from asking the question, reluctant to bring up the subject of his place in society both because she did not want to betray what knowledge she had and because she was afraid the discussion would change the frank and easy manner between them. So she merely answered his questions.

"Yes. And visits of ceremony, and rides in the park where one cannot even shake the fidgets out of one's mount with a brisk gallop. The necessity of changing one's clothing half a dozen times each day.

Having one's toes crushed at least twice each evening by an unwary step, and being forced to suffer both the sly digs of matchmaking mamas with daughters to settle and the measuring scrutiny of gentlemen silently debating one's attributes and possibilities."



Sheffield chuckled. "I daresay you encountered quite a number of the latter, ma'am."

Since she wanted to avoid any mention of the fortune hunters who had dangled after her, Cassandra merely said briskly, "According to the current standards of beauty, I am both too dark and too tall to be accounted any more than passably attractive, my lord, as you well know. However, I must say that a number of gentlemen seemed to believe that my possibilities were worth their interest."

"Yes, there must be a few intelligent men among the town bucks," the earl stated casually. "Doubtless you have received several offers. Then why are you unattached, ma'am? If this has been your second Season, you must be conscious of the usual pressure brought to bear upon young ladies expected to become betrothed quickly to a suitable candidate."

Cassandra hesitated, but then answered truthfully. "I have a blessed advantage most of my contemporaries lack. My uncle— who had been my guardian for fifteen years—has the novel idea that I might like to decide my own future. To that end, he has left the decision of marriage—whom I wed and, in fact, whether I choose to do so at all—up to me."

"And so far, no aspirant to your hand has persuaded you to abandon your independence?"

Surprised at his understanding, she nodded a bit hesitantly. But then, lest he believe she was boasting of conquests, she said with a touch of wry humor, "My aunt tells me that I have stuffed my head with too many romantic notions, but I must say the thought of accepting a sensible and cold-blooded arrangement to spend the rest of my life with a virtual stranger is something I simply cannot support."

"Then you're holding out for a love-match?"

Cassandra was surprised again, this time that there seemed to be no mockery in his question. And her surprise led her to reply more honestly than she might otherwise have done. "I—I suppose that is what I want. Perhaps it is a foolishly romantic desire, but I know myself too well to believe I would be happy with anything else." She looked at him curiously, bothered by an elusive note in his voice that she couldn't define.

"Do . . . you believe in love-matches, my lord?"

For the first time that evening, his gaze fell away from hers, and he studied his glass of port as if the shimmering liquid held secrets. His mouth was hard, a little twisted, his voice suddenly bored and yet a bit harsh when he answered.

"I believe, ma'am, that whatever the wishes of we mere mortals, the pressure of those around us is often impossible to resist. As I have no doubt you will discover—the first time someone refers to you as an unmarriageable spinster."

Cassandra felt a twinge of hurt, yet at the same time she had the odd idea that he was telling her something far more important than his words indicated. Was his absence from the social scene these past years less a matter of his supposed sins than his animosity toward society? And, if so, what had caused it?

Was there more to the tale of a young lady's good name scandalously ruined than Cassandra knew or could imagine?

She wanted to ask, but the earl's closed, brooding expression warned her that this was not the time.

Instead, suddenly weary and aware of how late it had grown while they had sat talking, Cassandra pushed back her chair and rose to her feet.

"If you will permit me, my lord, I will retire. It has been a very long and eventful day."

He rose as well, and his voice remained bored, the earlier relaxation and enjoyment completely gone.

"Of course, ma'am. If you require an escort—"

"No, I believe I can find my way. Thank you very much, my lord, for your aid and hospitality as well as a very pleasant evening. Good night."



"Good night, ma'am."

She felt his gaze on her as she left the dining room, but Cassandra did not look back at him.

The port decanter is empty, my lord. Should I refill it?"

The emotionless voice roused Sheffield, and he thrust his empty glass away from him in a gesture of controlled violence. "No," he replied shortly.

"Very good, my lord."

"What's the time?"

"Nearly midnight, my lord."

"As late as that?" The earl frowned down at the polished table but made no move to rise.

Silent, Anatole removed the decanter and glass. He then knelt to put more wood on the fire, which leapt up eagerly to snatch at the new fuel and brightened the snug room with its renewed energy. With that task completed, the manservant rose and pinched out a guttering candle, then polished the gleaming sideboard and adjusted two of the chairs at the table.

The earl scowled at him. "Would you have the goodness to leave me in peace? Your endless fidgeting would try the patience of a saint!"

Anatole stood by the table, still expressionless. "Of course, my lord." He did not move.

Sheffield, staring broodingly down at the gleaming table once again, muttered, "She is very young."

"If I may say so, my lord, not in her self-assurance and manner. Quite an intelligent young lady, and not at all flighty unless I miss my guess. It was pleasing to hear Your Lordship so enjoy the evening."

"She has a—an engaging frankness. And amusement rather than missish dismay when I respond in kind."

"An excellent attribute, my lord."

"She's lovely as well. 'Too dark and too tall to be accounted more than passably attractive,' indeed! As if any man with a particle of sense would prefer some ordinary female with pale hair and washed-out eyes to her glorious raven curls and smoky eyes. And however childlike her voice, her splendid shape proclaims her most definitely a woman."

Anatole preserved a diplomatic silence.

Sheffield swore beneath his breath. "I am being a fool even to entertain thoughts of ... We met only hours ago, I cannot possibly feel ..." He stopped, then said stolidly, "In a day or so the weather will improve, and she will be gone."

"I believe, my lord, that the storm will be a severe one, and native members of the staff agree. Travel may not be possible for a week or longer."

"A week." There was a silence, and then the earl said, "I have been alone too long."

"Perhaps it would be more accurate, my lord, to say that you have been alone long enough."

After a moment the earl looked up at his manservant. He was frowning once again. "If you for one moment suppose that I am so lost to all sense of decency as to take advantage of a young lady under my protection—"

"No, of course not, my lord," Anatole soothed. "But to spend time with the young lady here, where all is peaceful and where there are no ... difficulties . . . surely that is a situation of which to take advantage."

Sheffield's scowl faded but did not entirely disappear, and he did not reply to the comment. Instead, he pushed back his chair, rose, and spoke abruptly. "Have we supplies enough to weather the storm?"

"Yes, my lord."

The earl nodded, hesitated, then sighed a bit wearily. "I am going to bed. See that I am awakened at first light."

Scarred face still impassive, Anatole bowed. When his master had gone, he banked the fire for the night and began extinguishing candles. The building wind of the storm outside made itself heard for the first time, and as he paused to listen to the eerie sound, Anatole smiled to himself.

Cassandra slept well, though when she awoke the next morning, she had the discomfiting awareness that her dreams had been highly sensual ones. She did not remember specifics, but found it oddly embarrassing that she woke smiling.

Sarah did not seem to notice anything amiss. While Cassandra drank her morning coffee, Sarah chattered on as usual, commenting on various members of the household staff and offering her opinion that Anatole would win the conflict with Mrs. Milton, because the housekeeper had stated her intention of leaving the post she had held since the earl was a boy.

"Leaving?" Cassandra frowned at her maid. "When?"

"By spring, she said, Miss Cassie. She's all upset about it but says she can't have Anatole taking over her job and still hold her head up."

Cassandra thought about that as she finished her coffee. It wasn't her place, of course, and the earl would probably not thank her for interfering, but she had experience directing a large household staff and was reasonably sure she could soothe Mrs. Milton's territorial spirit. She was less certain of Anatole but thought shrewdly that he would not object to her suggestions so long as he remained head of the household staff.

She rose and dressed, choosing today a subdued dress of gray merino that was rather plain but suited her coloring and figure most admirably and which was one of her warmer dresses; though the temperature inside remained comfortable, the wind could be heard from time to time, and its howling had a chilling effect upon the mind. She had ventured a look outside her bedchamber window, only to find a white world in which swirling snow hid all else, and resigned herself—with a lack of regret she knew she should find appalling—to an extended stay at the Hall.

It was still early morning when Cassandra left her room and, armed with directions from Sarah, found her way to the second-floor linen closet, where Mrs. Milton was at work sorting out pieces needing repair.

"Mrs. Milton, I am sorry to disturb you, but I just wanted to thank you for providing me with such a lovely and comfortable room."

Her sincere appreciation had the desired effect, and after no more than five minutes of casual conversation she was seated in a small parlor while the housekeeper poured out her woes to a willing and sympathetic ear. The situation was much as Cassandra had suspected; though Anatole had not, in fact, deliberately trespassed upon the housekeeper's territory, the rest of the staff recognized in him a stronger personality and a higher authority and had been going to him for their orders. Mrs. Milton had done little to remedy the matter except to complain to some of the other staff members—which had served to lower her even more in their eyes.

Cassandra was careful to keep her suggestions thoughtful and tactful, basing them, she said, on a similar situation that had occurred in her uncle's house. By the time she was finished speaking, the housekeeper was nodding happily, convinced that only a minor adjustment or two would solve her problem.



Less than an hour after she had left her room, Cassandra found her way to the dining room where breakfast waited on the sideboard, kept warm in silver serving dishes. She helped herself, and when Anatole appeared to pour her coffee, she thanked him serenely and carried her plate to the table.

"His Lordship is doing his business accounts in his study, miss."

She hadn't asked—but she had wondered. Still composed, she merely said, "Thank you, Anatole. Pray do not disturb him on my behalf. I shall do quite well on my own. I believe I shall explore that splendid library I caught a glimpse of last night."

"An excellent idea, miss."

Cassandra was a little amused by his approval. Her first impression of him had not been good, but she was beginning to revise it—not so much because he was more polite to her now, but because she had the idea he was totally devoted to the earl—and she thought he would prove a valuable ally. . . .

Ridiculous thought. Why on earth would she need an ally in this house?

"I would like to speak to my coachman this morning," she told Anatole before he left the dining room.

He bowed. "I will bring him to the library when you have finished breakfast, miss."

He was as good as his word, delivering John Potter to the library some half an hour later and before Cassandra could do more than begin scanning the shelves. Her coachman came in, hat in hand, explaining that he was preparing to make his way to the stables where the coach had been taken.

She frowned. "It is still storming, John."

"Yes, Miss Cassie, but we've strung ropes down to the stables so nobody'll get blown away or lost—

it's that bad, you can't see your hand in front of your face, I swear—an' His Lordship's man has a fire going in the stove, so we'll be snug enough. He says as how there's an old coach no longer useful, but the axle's stout enough to replace our broken one; we're going to change 'em over."

"With His Lordship's permission, I trust?"

"Oh, yes, miss."

"Excellent, John." She kept her voice cheerful. "Then we'll be able to start forward again once the storm is over and the roads are passable?"

"The coach should be repaired by the end of the day, miss. But as to the storm—I'm told it's expected to last at least another day or two, an' maybe longer. With the wind we'll have drifts as much as two or three feet deep in places."

"What are you saying, John?"

He turned his hat in his hands and sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, miss, but I wouldn't want to try pushing ahead for at least a few days after the snow stops."

"Then ... we may be here a week?"

John Potter mistook her careful question for one of anxiety and hastened to reassure her. "As soon as the snow stops, I'll ride out an' check the roads, Miss Cassie. Maybe they'll be clearer than I expect—"

"It's all right, John, I quite understand. If we must remain here a week, then so be it." Cassandra smiled, hoping that he saw only resigned forbearance rather than the (really quite appalling) lighthearted pleasure she felt.

When she was alone once again in the library, which was a marvelous room with enough books to delight any reader, she took a more careful look around and was even more pleased by what she saw. The room was airy and more than spacious, yet as warm and snug as the rest of the house. The two tall windows were heavily curtained, effectively shutting out the sight of the storm and permitting very little of its wailing to be heard.

Cassandra, who had been raised to be self-reliant and independent and for whom reading was a particular pleasure, sighed happily and went to explore His Lordship's shelves. She quickly discovered a treasure: a recent novel she had not yet read by one of her favorite writers. Obviously, the earl also enjoyed adventurous fiction—or, at least, considered it worth adding to his library.

Ten minutes later she was comfortably seated in a chair by the fire and completely engrossed in the exciting activities of pirates sailing the high seas.

In the normal way, once Cassandra was involved in a book, it required either a loud noise or a shake to get her attention. But it appeared that she was particularly sensitive to the earl's presence, because even though the opening door made almost no sound at all, she looked up as if someone had shouted her name.

"Forgive me, ma'am—I didn't intend to disturb you." Back in is country buckskins, he looked unnervingly powerful as he stood in the doorway. His dark gaze was direct as ever and seemed to search her face.

"Not at all, my lord," she returned politely, using a finger to mark her place as she closed the book. "I hope you do not mind, but I took the liberty of exploring this wonderful library."

He came into the room rather slowly. "Of course I do not mind, ma'am—please feel free to explore any room you wish." His deep voice was a little abrupt.

Cassandra was oddly unwilling to allow a silence to develop between them. "My coachman tells me you have supplied an axle with which to repair my coach."

He shrugged, standing now near the fireplace and looking down on her with a very slight frown. "It is little enough, ma'am, and useless to me."

"Then why are you frowning, my lord?" She hadn't realized she was going to ask that until the question emerged.

"Was I?" His brows lifted, effectively altering his expression.

"I beg your pardon. Business accounts are sometimes tiresome, ma'am."

"As are household accounts; I understand perfectly, my lord." She hesitated, then said diffidently.

"Please don't feel yourself obliged to entertain me while I am here. I have no wish to disrupt the routine of the household—or your routine."

He smiled suddenly, crooked and slightly rueful. "Even if I wish it?"

Cassandra felt herself smiling back at him. It was doubtless the storm, she thought, making him feel restless and in need of companionship. That was all. But it was difficult to hide her own pleasure when she asked, "What did you have in mind, my lord?"

She felt the now-familiar fluttering sensation deep inside her for a moment, because there was something in his dark eyes she had never before seen in any man's gaze, something heated and hungry. She was suddenly conscious of her clothing touching her flesh, of the dim wail of the wind outside, and the nearer crackle and pop of the flames in the fireplace. She could feel her heart beating as if she had run a long way, and it seemed difficult to breathe all at once.

It was as if all her senses had . . . opened up. As if all her life she had seen and felt everything through a gauzy curtain until that moment when he looked at her.



There was a part of Cassandra, a rational, sensible part, which urged her to be on her guard. This, then, was his charm, it had to be—this ability to make a woman feel that no one else had ever looked at her, seen her. It was utterly compelling. This was the seductive power the men in his family were known to possess, the ability to enthrall a woman until she threw morals and scruples aside to do anything he wished her to do.

The sensible part of Cassandra offered that warning, but before she could make an effort to—to what? save herself?—his dark eyes were unreadable once again, and he was smiling in a perfectly polite and casual way.

"Do you play cards, ma'am?"

The written adventures of pirates held no appeal for her now, and Cassandra was barely aware of laying her book aside. "Yes," she heard herself say with astonishing calm. "Yes, my lord, I play cards."





Chapter Three


He taught her a particularly intricate, often perplexing, and sometimes downright Byzantine card game which he had learned from a colorful ship's captain on a journey across the Mediterranean, and she astonished him by not only grasping the rules but soundly defeating him in only the third hand dealt.

"How on earth did you do that?" he demanded.

Briskly shuffling the cards, Cassandra showed him a mock frown and laughing eyes. "You should know, my lord. It was you who taught me the game."

"Yes, but it's the devil of a game to win," he told her frankly.

"Then we shall call it beginner's luck, sir. Did you say you learned it from a ship's captain?"

"I learned it from a rascally pirate who called himself one," the earl replied dryly. "And the bas—the ruffian emptied my pockets three nights running."

Cassandra picked up her hand and regarded him in amusement. "Does it have a name, this game?"

"None that I ever heard. In fact, I rather doubt it existed before Captain Bower invented it in order to fleece those of his passengers raw enough to sit down with him."

"I cannot imagine you being raw, my lord."

Ruefully he said, "Oh, I promise you I was. Hardly older than you are now, and not at all up to snuff. It was more than ten years ago." He looked down at the cards he held, the light of amusement in his eyes dimming and his mouth hardening just a bit as his thoughts obviously turned painful or bitter.

Before Cassandra could respond to what he had said, Anatole came into the library where they were playing cards and asked the earl if luncheon at twelve-thirty would be satisfactory, and by the time he left the room, the earl's abstraction had vanished and he was once more relaxed. What might have been a brief opening through which she could have learned more about his past was now firmly closed again.

The card game continued until lunchtime, with Cassandra winning once more and then playing the earl to a draw. Which meant, he said, that they were "evenly matched in terms of possessing labyrinthine minds." Whether or not that was true, it was obvious that each enjoyed the other's company far beyond what was merely polite.

After luncheon they played chess in the earl's study, and it proved another game in which they had like minds and tendencies, both employing shrewd tactics and alert strategy. And so they whiled away the stormy afternoon, pausing from time to time in their conversation to listen to the wind reach a crescendo and then fade away only to shriek once again and send sleet rattling against the windowpanes.



"Nasty," Cassandra observed.

"Very. Check, ma'am."

"Now, how did you . . . Oh, I see. White must resign, my lord, for I can see you mean to pursue my king across the board."

"I would never be so unhandsome as that, I promise you. Another game, ma'am?"

But the clock on the mantel chimed the hour just then, and Cassandra excused herself in order to go upstairs to change and freshen herself before supper. She had thoroughly enjoyed the day, and she returned to her room with a smile she didn't think about hiding until Sarah greeted her with anxious eyes.

"Sarah, he is a complete gentleman," she assured her apprehensive maid.

"Just be careful, Miss Cassie, that's all!"

But Cassandra only laughed, certain that her maid's fears were completely unfounded. Indeed, it seemed her own instincts were to be trusted, for the earl's behavior during the next two days was so exemplary that even Sarah seemed reassured (or, at least, she stopped issuing dire warnings). He was an entertaining and appreciative companion, forthright without being in any way offensive, and though she did not want to admit it to herself, Cassandra knew she was drawn to him in a way she had never known before.

That moment when he had looked at her with naked intensity was something she remembered far too often for her peace of mind, but it was not repeated during those days. He made more than one flattering observation, but since his comments tended to be quite casual and matter-of-fact, she could be sure of nothing except that he considered her attractive—and for all she knew he would have been just as appreciative of any personable young woman appearing on his doorstep.

It did not occur to Cassandra that the severe isolation of the storm had created a kind of refuge for both of them, and that the return of good weather might change that. All she knew was that the glittering but restrictive world of London society seemed very far away.

The storm raged outside, with a fierce wind blowing the existing snow about even when no fresh precipitation fell, and those inside the house became so accustomed to the sounds of fury that their cessation in the early evening of Cassandra's third full day at the Hall was something of a shock.

She came downstairs after dressing for supper and found that she was early; the earl was not waiting for her. Restless, she wandered into a small salon near the earl's study, a room she had not so far explored except to note the presence of a pianoforte. There was a fire burning in the grate, though it had been allowed to die down a bit, and though the room was comfortable, it was not really warm. A candelabra set upon the pianoforte provided light that was only adequate, leaving the corners and much else of the room in shadows.

Cassandra sat down on the bench and sorted through several sheets of music until she found something familiar. She considered herself a fair musician without being in any way exceptional, and since she had had little opportunity to practice during recent weeks, her fingers felt a bit awkward on the keys.

But it did not take many minutes for her to relax and find her touch, and the first tentative notes of a sonata soon became easier and more confident.

Nevertheless, due to her lack of patience, the piece required all her concentration, and she had no idea she was not alone in the room until the final notes faded into silence and he spoke.

"You play beautifully."

Startled, she half turned on the bench to find the earl standing only a few feet away. He was turned so that the light of the candelabra flickered in his eyes, making them glitter with a strange intensity.



Trying to collect herself, struggling with a curiously compelling awareness of him, she said, "Thank you, my lord." She wanted to go on, to make some innocuous comment about the excellent instrument or something equally as nonchalant, but she could not. Her throat seemed to close up, and she could feel her heart thudding.

Sheffield took a step toward her, then another, and quietly said, "It is cool in here, ma'am, and your shawl has slipped. Permit me."

Cassandra did not move as he lifted the lacy edge of her shawl to cover her bare shoulders. The gesture was more than courtesy; his hands rested on her shoulders briefly, and she felt his fingers tighten just a little before they were removed. Then he offered his hand, silent, and she took it, turning toward him as she rose to her feet.

He didn't release her hand as he should have done, or tuck it into the crook of his arm casually. He held it and looked down at her with an expression she could not quite read in the shadows of the salon.

Cassandra did not know what was different, but she knew something was. In him or in her, or perhaps both, there was a change. The intensity of the moment lay heavily in the very air of the room, and she had the odd notion that if she moved too suddenly or spoke too hastily, something terribly rare and valuable could be destroyed.

Then Sheffield drew a quick breath, and when he spoke his voice was low and husky in a way that seemed almost a caress. "I think ... I cannot go on calling you ma'am. Would it displease you very much if I called you Cassie?"

She shook her head just a little, unable to look away from his intent gaze. "No. No, of course it would not." Her own voice sounded so shaken she hardly recognized it.

His fingers tightened around hers, and he lifted her hand until his warm lips lightly brushed her knuckles. "Thank you, Cassie."

It wasn't the first time a man had kissed her hand, but it was the first time she had felt heat shimmer through her body in a shocking, exciting response. She knew he could feel her fingers trembling, and would not have been surprised if he could actually hear her heart beating like a drum. And the way he said her name, something in his voice, pulled at her.

Absurdly, she murmured, "You're welcome, my lord."

His mouth curved in a slight smile. "My name is Stone, Cassie. A ridiculous name, I agree, but mine. If you could bring yourself to use it, I would be most pleased."

Almost imperceptibly, she nodded. "Stone."

He raised her hand to his lips again, the touch a lingering one this time as heavy lids veiled his eyes, and Cassandra felt another wave of heat when he whispered her name. Her name had never sounded like that before, tugging at all her senses and perhaps something even deeper and more basic inside her. And how odd it felt, the sensations he evoked. They seemed to spread all through her body, yet settled more heavily deep in her belly and in her breasts, until she ached.

She didn't know what, if anything, she would have said, but they heard the soft chimes of a clock in one of the nearby rooms proclaiming the hour just then, and the earl carried her hand to his arm.

"If we don't go to the dining room," he murmured, " Anatole will only come in search of us."

A bit dazed, she allowed herself to be guided toward the door, vaguely surprised that her unsteady legs could support her weight. And it was only then, as they reached the door, that she realized what was different, what had been different from the moment she had turned to find him in the room. It was a silence, a hush so absolute it seemed to have a physical presence.



"I—I don't hear the wind," she said.

He was holding her hand against his arm, and his fingers pressed hers. He looked down at her. "I know. I believe the storm is dying."

It was such a casual and ordinary thing to say, Cassandra thought, a perfectly reasonable thing to say

—why did it sound so very ominous? So very disturbing? Why did she want to cry out a protest, or insist fiercely that he was wrong? Why did she suddenly feel almost frantic with anxiety?

She did not comprehend the answer to all those questions until she looked across the dining table at Sheffield some minutes later and remembered that once the storm was gone, the roads would soon be clear enough for travel . . . and she would have to leave the Hall. Her good name was already at risk because she had stayed here with him unchaperoned; if word of that should spread, the storm would probably be an acceptable justification— for now, at least, and for all the most suspicious and cynical members of the ton.

But nothing would protect her if she remained here once the weather cleared.

She would have to leave very soon. And perhaps it should have horrified her to realize that she was more than willing to risk her reputation by remaining here—but it did not. It did not even surprise her very much.

Not after he had whispered her name.

Their conversation during supper was quieter than usual, desultory; she thought they were both very conscious of how quiet it had become outside as the storm died away. Cassandra could not seem to keep herself from stealing glances at his face, her gaze falling away swiftly whenever he chanced to look at her.

He seemed somehow changed, she thought, his features not so harsh, the expression in his dark eyes direct as ever but warmer now and . . . tender?

Her imagination, most likely. She wanted to be sensible, to keep her head and not indulge in such foolish . . . imaginings. That was dangerous. She knew the pain of romantic flights of fancy brought cruelly to earth, knew that she had in the past more than once failed to judge a man accurately until his true character was revealed by his own actions. She had more than once seen her worth to a man measured in the cold mathematical accounting of her fortune.

But Sheffield—Stone—did not know who she really was. Odd how she kept forgetting that. Or perhaps it was not so odd, after all; she could not recall anyone in the house addressing her by the name Sarah had offered since that first evening. No one ever called her Miss Wells. She was "miss" or "Miss Cassie," with nothing else added. And "ma'am" to Stone, until now.

She had never discussed her background in anything but the vaguest terms, and he had not questioned her even to ask the name of the uncle she mentioned, so she had not been forced to choose between the truth and more lies. But the one great lie she had told was now weighing heavily on her.

It was when she was thinking of that during supper that Cassandra almost confessed the truth. She even opened her mouth to do so, but the words would not come. Not because she feared that Stone was a fortune hunter, but because she felt so guilty about lying.

When they left the table—earlier than usual—she had not managed to confess and was unhappily aware of her duplicity. She murmured an assent when the earl asked her to play the pianoforte, but it was not until they went into the salon serving the Hall as a music room that a flicker of amusement lightened her mood. The room that had been so dim and shadowed earlier was now much more inviting, with several sconces and candelabras alight and the fire burning briskly.

"Did Anatole know we would return here?" she asked the earl, sitting down on the bench.

"He seems to know everything that goes on in this house," Sheffield replied, then smiled as he leaned against the side of the pianoforte. "I believe I have you to thank for ending the feud between him and Mrs.

Milton."



"I merely made some suggestions." Cassandra played a few notes idly, then began to pick out a soft tune from memory. "All she really needed was a sympathetic ear and someone to advise her to reclaim those areas in which she excels. After all, I doubt that Anatole wants to be responsible for the care of linen and the training of the housemaids—and so on."

"Very wise of you. And very much appreciated, Cassie."

She watched her fingers tremble over the keys but managed not to strike a sour note. What was the magic of his voice saying her name? Keeping her own voice casual, she said, "My pleasure. I must admit, I am most curious about Anatole."

"In what way?"

"He is not English, is he?"

"No, Greek." His attention caught by a smoldering log that had fallen half out onto the hearth, the earl went over to the fireplace to nudge it back into place. He remained there, leaning a forearm on the mantel and looking down at the flames. "I encountered him on that ship I told you about, the one with the rascally captain. He was the first mate."

"And you offered him a position?"

Sheffield smiled oddly as he looked across the room at her. "Nothing so ordinary, I'm afraid. Shortly after we docked in Italy, he saved my life."

Cassandra stopped playing abruptly. "He—?"

"Yes. I was set upon by thieves, and there were too many for me to handle. If not for Anatole, I would have been knifed in the back and left to bleed to death. It was the first time he saved my life—but not the last."

Obeying her instincts, Cassandra rose and went to him, halting so that they faced each other. "You must have been very young," she ventured, remembering that Anatole had been with the earl for a number of years.

"I was twenty-one." He gave her a twisted smile. "Wild and bitter and bent on getting myself killed because I was convinced life had nothing more to offer me. God knows why Anatole chose to follow me across half the world, but he did. He kept me alive until I'd the sense to look out for myself, and after that he made himself useful—in fact, indispensable."

Cassandra studied his hard face curiously. "And you returned here—?"

"Four years ago. It took the next two years and more to get this place in some kind of order. The house had been closed up since I left England, and had been allowed to virtually fall into ruins, so I had my work cut out for me."

Which, she thought, was a fair explanation of why he had vanished so completely from the London social scene; he had been either out of England or else very much occupied here for the past ten years.

"I see," she said.

"Do you? I have not been what anyone of sense would call a suitable match for a young lady, Cassie."

Matter-of-factly, Sheffield added, "I had succeeded to the title when I was nineteen, and found myself the possessor of a vanished fortune, useless properties, and a name painted black going back five generations.

Naturally, it did not take long for me to add to the sins of my ancestors. I left England very much under a cloud and not quick enough to avoid the scandal I'd caused."

Cassandra had certainly been curious about his background and, in particular, the sin that had earned him the condemnation of society, but in that moment all she wanted to do was to ease the strain in his low voice.

"Stone—I heard all the rumors about you when I first came out."

He was obviously surprised, and not a little wary. "Good God, are they using the sins I committed more than ten years ago to frighten debutantes?"

She kept her voice solemn. "Oh, yes, and it's quite effective. They never explain what, exactly, you were guilty of, but then it never seems to be necessary. All those horrified whispers and sad shakes of the head are enough to cause any girl to think twice if she is contemplating some reckless act." Pondering the matter, she added thoughtfully, "I daresay you have saved any number of parents from the consequences of rash daughters. I shouldn't doubt it if they were not actually eager to welcome you back to society."

The earl smiled slightly, but his gaze was very intent on her. "I was not ostracized, you know. I can return if I choose to do so."

"I know."

"I suppose I should go back from time to time—if only to prove I lack horns and a tail."

Cassandra smiled. "Don't forget the cloven hooves."

"Has there been no other scandal in England since I sinned?" he demanded a bit ruefully.

"Not really. I believe it was because of the war."

"The war?"

"Yes. You see, so many of the young men were occupied with the war for so long that they simply had not the time or energy to get much tangled in scrapes and scandals."

In a grave tone he said, "I begin to see that the sin I was most guilty of was one of bad timing."

Sin. She wondered if he was fully conscious of his use of the word. "And you could hardly be blamed for that. After all, you were very young."

"Older than you are now," he retorted.

Cassandra laughed but said, "In any case, you should probably return to London society at least long enough to show that you have become perfectly respectable."

"For all you know, that might not be the case at all," the earl warned her in a voice that was not quite humorous. "They say some things are in the blood, and mine is certainly wicked enough to give any rational young lady pause—even without tales of my dissolute past. Perhaps I am only biding my time for my own amusement."

"Until?" she said, interested.

"Until I have . . . won your trust. It is the classic method of rakes, you know."

"Perhaps." She was smiling.

He looked into her big gray eyes and then shook his head a little in wonder. "You are not the least bit afraid of me, are you, Cassie?"

"Should I be?"

"Virtually alone with me in my house, cut off from the outside, no chaperon—"

"Should I be?" she repeated steadily.



He reached up and touched her face very gently, the very tips of his fingers tracing the delicate arch of her brow, the curve of her cheek, and the clean line of her jaw. "I would not harm you for the world."

Cassandra wondered if she was breathing, but it did not seem important. She felt feverish, yearning, vulnerable, and yet enthralled. His touch was like something she had felt in a dream, and if it was a dream, she did not want to awaken. She heard her voice and was not surprised that it was husky. "Then I have nothing to fear."

For a moment it seemed that he leaned toward her, but then his hand fell to his side and he smiled at her, only the intensity of his dark eyes hinting at something not nearly as calm as his voice when he said,

"You promised to play for me."

"So I did." She turned and went back to the pianoforte, and when she began to play, she was not much surprised to realize that her fingers had selected a love song.

It was like a wonderland. Cassandra stood at the top of the front steps of Sheffield Hall and gazed around in utter delight. Snow had turned the bleak winter landscape into something so beautiful it made the heart ache. The brown grass had vanished beneath a blanket of pristine white, and the bare branches of trees seemed dressed now with their mantle of snow.

Already, the earl's servant had been at work, for the steps were swept clean of snow, and Cassandra had no fear of her footing as she closed the door behind her and set out. She was warmly dressed—and very glad of it when a sudden gust of wind snatched at her cloak as she was making her way cautiously through the uneven drifts of snow along the carriage drive toward the stables. Though the storm was apparently over, this was still winter and winter's name might have been caprice; the occasional wind was urgent in its warning that spring was far away.

Cassandra had awakened early and with the most amazing sense of energy. She had had her coffee in bed but had not yet breakfasted; Anatole had reported that the earl had gone down to the stables before his own meal, and she had instantly decided to go in search of him. She needed fresh air and the chance to get a bit of exercise, she told herself—and nearly laughed out loud at the absurdity of this attempt to delude herself.

If Sheffield had vanished into the depths of a dungeon or sallied forth to drive over a cliff, it was more than likely that she would have followed him without hesitation.

She saw her breath mist before her eyes as she did laugh out loud, and shook her head at this odd, bewitched creature she had become. It should have been appalling, she thought, or at the very least shocking, but she could not seem to summon those negative emotions. She was too happy. She wanted to smile all over, to laugh again and throw a snowball at someone.

Most of all, she wanted to see the earl.

She heard his voice only moments later when she reached the stableyard and followed her ears to find him standing before a row of stables talking to a spare, middle-aged man who was no doubt the head groom or coachman.

"Watch his leg to make sure it doesn't swell, Flint, but if he's all right by afternoon, turn him out."

"Yes, my lord."

The earl turned then and saw Cassandra approaching, and his smile was instant as he stepped forward to meet her. "Cassie, I would have waited for you if I had known you wished to come down here."

She was only vaguely aware that the groom had gone away, all her attention focused on Sheffield. He was holding her hand, and she felt a flicker of annoyance that she was wearing gloves. "I had no notion where I would end up," she confessed. "Is it not beautiful out here? Who has hurt his leg?"



With a chuckle, the earl said, "Yes, it is beautiful—even more so now. And my favorite hack made a spirited attempt to kick down the door of his stable earlier; he dislikes storms and being confined for any length of time, and wants to kick up his heels in his paddock."

"Impatient as his master, I collect?"

"Now, when have I ever shown you impatience?" he demanded in a voice of mild surprise.

"That first evening," Cassandra replied promptly. "You looked at me in such a way, and spoke very brusquely."

"If I was brusque, I beg your pardon." He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. "As for how I looked at you, I can only say I was charmed and delighted to find a smoke-eyed beauty quite unexpectedly in my house."

Cassandra promised herself she was never going to wear gloves again, even if her fingers froze. She drew a breath and said rather uncertainly, "I—I see. Then I suppose I must forgive you."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"You are laughing at me," she said suspiciously.

He kissed her hand again, and there was a gleam in his dark eyes that was something more than laughter. "Never. Are you warm enough? May I show you my horses before we go back to the house?"

"I am quite warm enough, and I would love to see your horses." She smiled up at him.

He continued to hold her hand instead of tucking it into his arm, an arrangement Cassandra was delighted by. She did not even feel self-conscious when Sheffield introduced her to his head groom, Flint—

but she was rather glad to be told that her coachman had borrowed a hack and ridden out first thing to check the condition of the roads just as he had said he would.

She was glad that John Potter was not confronted by the sight of her and the earl holding hands most improperly—but her coachman's eagerness to check the roads was an unwelcome reminder of time ticking away. The roads were not passable today, she knew, but what of tomorrow or the next day?

With that in her mind Cassandra's pleasure in being with the earl during the casual tour of his stables was even more precious to her than it would otherwise have been. She could not seem to get enough of hearing his deep voice or watching the changing expressions of his face (had she once thought it harsh?), and every time he said her name it was as if the sound of it touched something deep inside her.

Still, perhaps nothing irrevocable would have happened if Sheffield's favorite hack had not betrayed his native impatience by trying to ascertain if Cassandra had a lump of sugar hidden somewhere on her person.

The big bay gelding nudged her so hard with his Roman nose that she stumbled back away from the stable door and would have fallen had not the earl caught her.

"Oh! My goodness, you—"

"Clumsy brute! Cassie, love, are you—"

They had spoken in the same moment, and she stared up at him as both their voices broke off. Had he said what she thought he had? He was holding her so close . . . even with his greatcoat and her cloak she could feel the hardness of his body, the warmth of him. Her hands had somehow landed on his chest, gloved fingers spread, touching him. Both his arms were around her, and then only one because he had lifted the other hand to push the hood of her cloak back and touch her face with his fingers the way he had last night in the music room.

"Cassie . . ."



It did not occur to her to push herself away, to make some attempt to stop this. It simply did not occur to her. Instead, she offered her lips in the most natural way imaginable, and when his mouth covered hers, she heard an unfamiliar little purr of pleasure in the back of her throat.

She had been kissed by boys—those eager young swains with whom she had shared country dances before her first Season— but never by a man, and the difference was shocking. His mouth was not awkward or wet and she felt absolutely no desire to burst out in giggles at the absurdity of lips pressed together; his mouth was skilled and sure, hard yet silken, and a shimmering heat ignited inside her at the first touch.

Cassandra thought she was melting. All the strength was flowing out of her legs, and the burning inside her intensified until it was a wild fever consuming her. She should have been shocked when the possessive invasion of his tongue turned the kiss into something more intimate than she had ever imagined was possible, but instead what she felt was pleasure and desire, and a dim wonder that he could make her feel this way. . . .

When Sheffield lifted his head at last, Cassandra opened her eyes dazedly, hardly aware that she had uttered a faint sound of disappointment. His eyes had a heavy, sensual look that made her pounding heart skip a beat, and she wished once again that her gloves were off so that she could touch his hard face.

He drew a slow breath, then said huskily, "I have wanted to do that since you walked toward me dressed in blue silk that first evening, so beautiful I could hardly bear it. Must I beg your pardon?"

She should have said yes, she knew, but propriety was beyond Cassandra. Far beyond her. She shook her head, unable to tear her gaze from him. "No." It was almost inaudible, and she cleared her throat to try again. "No, of course not."

His already black eyes seemed to darken even more, deepen somehow, until they were bottomless pools into which she knew she could lose herself. Into which she wanted to throw herself, body and soul.

Then he bent his head again and rubbed his lips over hers in a brief, almost rough caress that was even more stirring to her senses than the prolonged kiss had been.

"For that?" he murmured.

Cassandra had the dazed notion that he was teasing her, but she was also aware that he was hardly unaffected; there was a tension in his body she could feel, and there was no disguising the hunger of his taut expression.

Her lips trembling and tingling, she whispered, "I am shameless, I know . . . but please don't beg my pardon, Stone."

Her tremulous words and guileless pleasure seemed to affect him most oddly. He moved slightly as if to kiss her again, but then his mouth firmed and he put his hands on her shoulders to ease her back away from him. A muscle flexed in his jaw, and there was a note of disbelief in his voice when he spoke.

"I must be out of my mind."

She blinked, the fingers clinging to his greatcoat beginning to slacken, but her sharp pang of hurt vanished when he continued grimly.

"A cold, drafty stable through which anyone might pass— and probably has—and I want nothing more than to find a pile of reasonably clean straw and make a bed for the two of us."

Burning color rose in her cheeks, but Cassandra was not nearly so shocked by his blunt desire as she should have been. Instead, she felt a hollow ache deep in her loins, a wild urge to cast aside every vestige of breeding and every principle of ladylike behavior by pleading with him to make that bed and carry her to it, and that shocked her more than anything.



He laughed, a low, raspy sound. "Have I shocked you?"

She caught her underlip between her teeth and felt the sensual tenderness left by his ardent kisses.

"No—yes—I don't know. I cannot think."

His rather fierce expression softened, and his hands lifted to frame her hot face. "My poor darling—so bewildered." His thumb caught her bottom lip and pressed gently until it was free of her small white teeth, and the pad of his thumb rubbed back and forth slowly. "And so damnably young. I ought to be shot for taking advantage of you this way."

"Ought you?" She met his eyes steadily despite the virginal blush. "Even if—if it is what I want?"

He did not move for an instant, just looked down at her as if her honest response had stolen his breath or stopped his heart. Then, very slowly, he took his hands off her face, lifted her hood carefully to cover her raven curls, and then took one of her hands and tucked it into his arm. He was frowning slightly as he did all this, but it seemed to her a frown of concentration rather than anger, as if it required all his resolution.

"Come," he said. "We must return to the house."

"Must we?" she ventured regretfully.

"Yes," he said, his voice very rough, "we must. Before I forget you're a lady."

Stealing a glance up at his face as they walked, Cassandra wondered for the first time if being a lady might prove a definite stumbling block for a girl who wanted to become a woman.





Chapter Four


It was not to be expected that their earlier relaxed companionship could remain unaffected by what had happened in the stables. Indeed, the awareness between them was so potent that Cassandra discovered only a glance from him had the power to stop her breathing, while his dark eyes instantly lit with the now familiar hot glow of desire when they met hers and his voice changed almost imperceptibly when he spoke to her.

She had the suspicion that the dusting of pink across her cheekbones that was all that remained of her blush in the stables had become a permanent thing; when she retired to her room late that evening, the face in her mirror wore it like a muted banner of sensual awakening. And her eyes seemed different, larger and more brilliant, she thought, gazing at her reflection as Sarah took down her hair and brushed it. Smok e-eyed he had said. A smoke-eyed beauty.

He had called her love. And his poor darling. And for the rest of the day, that note in his voice, husky and caressing whenever he spoke to her.

Normally a young woman who was very sure of herself, Cassandra was both excited and bewildered by the earl and by her own feelings, and though she felt few doubts or hesitations when she was with him, alone in her bed that night she tossed and turned restlessly. Her body was feverish, her mind troubled.

They had gone for a long walk in his snow-covered garden after breakfast, taking care in the drifts and attempting to guess what plants lay beneath odd-shaped humps of snow. He had held her hand, and once caught her when she would have slipped, but there were no more kisses or thrillingly blunt statements of desire.

John Potter found them there when he came to report the impassable condition of the surrounding roads, and though Cassandra tried hard, she was afraid her voice betrayed the relief she felt at knowing they could not leave just yet. Sheffield did not comment on the information other than to say calmly that it would likely be another day or two before travel was possible, and when they were alone together again he talked of other things.



The remainder of the day was much as the previous ones had been, with amusing card games and conversation and chess to occupy them—but when Cassandra went upstairs to change for the evening, he stood in the entrance hall and watched her go up; she could feel his eyes on her. And just before she retired to her room much later, she had accidentally (she assured herself) brushed against him as she rose from her chair; he had caught her in his arms and kissed her almost violently, and Cassandra had melted against him with a murmur of pleasure.

"This must stop," the earl told her fiercely, giving her bare shoulders a little shake and then kissing her again.

"Must it?" Her fingers clung to his lapels, but she wanted to burrow closer to his hard body, to slip her arms around him and press herself against him. The urge was shocking, and she did not care.

Sheffield half closed his eyes as he looked down at her, his face a hard mask. "Yes, dammit." But instead of shaking her once more, his fingers probed at the delicate bones of her shoulders, then followed the graceful length of her neck upward until his hands cradled each side of her face and his thumbs gently smoothed the heated skin over her cheekbones.

Without thought she moved her head a little so that she could feel the slightly rough texture of his palms. She was dizzy, excited, yearning, and half-frightened all at once, wanting without being able to put a name to what it was she craved so terribly.

"Cassie ..." He bent his head to kiss her, his tongue sliding deeply into her mouth, stroking hers in a secret, erotic duel that made the fever inside her burn even hotter. Learning rapidly, she responded with a swift and total abandon, and his mouth was wild on hers for a moment before he jerked his head up and ground out a curse so savage it cut through the daze of her need.

She blinked at him uncertainly. "Stone?"

He gave her a fierce look that seemed to her to hold reluctance but something else as well. Anger?

Bitterness? Whatever it was, she had little opportunity to try and understand it. He took his hands off her and stepped back until they were no longer touching. Then he drew a breath and said politely, "Good night, Cassie."

So she had left him, retreating to her room in some confusion, and now she tangled the bedclothes with her restless tossing and turning. Her body ached, and she could not stop thinking, suddenly worrying.

After all that had happened between them, Sheffield had not uttered a single word about the future.

He had called her love, yes, and his poor darling—but did it signify anything? How could she be certain, after all, that what he said to her and the way he kissed and touched her was important to him? She had heard it said that, for a man, there could most certainly be passion without love. According to the discreet murmurs of older women, many men were held to make love with ease and without real meaning—what if Stone Westcott was such a man?

He certainly had the blood of rakes in his veins—as he had warned her himself—but did that automatically mean he could feel nothing but passion for her?

She did not know. But he had not so much as hinted there might be a future for them together, and Cassandra was very much afraid that did mean something.

He greeted her quietly but with shuttered eyes and an impassive expression at breakfast, and Sheffield spent that morning and much of the afternoon closeted in his study with his estate agent. That was neither unusual nor unexpected, since storms tended to cause problems on any large estate, and those would need to be reported to the earl and remedies planned. Cassandra did not resent the duties that occupied him—but she wished they could have been postponed a few days.

Even one day might have made a difference, because she was much afraid that was all the time she had left. The temperature had warmed during the afternoon so that the snow was already beginning to melt, and John Potter had offered his opinion that travel might be possible as early as the following day. The main roads were clearing rapidly; the mail had gone through, and the Bristol Light Post Coach as well, so that was strong evidence of improving conditions.

John had the coach repaired; the horses were rested; the weather was breaking. She would have to leave.

From the astonishing, dizzying pleasure and excitement of the previous day to the anxiety and fears of this day was such a plummeting drop Cassandra felt almost ill with reaction. She managed to keep herself occupied during the day but acknowledged to herself the uselessness of it when she realized she had read the entire pirate adventure and could not recall a single word of the story.

The earl was still shut in his study when she went disconsolately upstairs to change for the evening, and when the tall case clock on the landing chimed the hour cheerfully, she wanted to kick it. There were clocks everywhere in this dratted house, and all of them insisted on reminding her of the passage of time.

"Miss Cassie—will we be leaving soon?"

She thought that Sarah's voice was just a trifle too disinterested (considering her worries earlier), but Cassandra was putting tiny diamond drops in her earlobes and didn't look at her maid when she replied calmly, "I believe so. The roads are clearing, and so we should be on our way."

"To Bristol, miss?"

"Perhaps. Or back to London." She had lost her desire to continue on and felt the need to return to her uncle's cheerful house in Berkeley Square.

Sarah said no more, and Cassandra tried not to think of tomorrow as she went back downstairs. She had rather defiantly chosen to wear the blue silk dress again, her lace shawl draped across her shoulders, but when she went into the drawing room where they met before supper, he was not there.

Sighing, she went to stand before the fireplace, head bent as she gazed down at the flames, and when she heard his voice a few minutes later, it required every ounce of her control to keep from flinging herself into his arms.

"Good evening, Cassie." He closed the door behind him as he came in, then moved to stand at the fireplace so that they faced each other.

No one else had ever made her name sound that way, and she felt an absurd prickle of tears that she fiercely blinked away before meeting his gaze. "Good evening." Her voice was calm; what an actress she seemed to be! "I trust the storm did no lasting damage to your estate?"

"No, nothing that cannot be repaired." He was frowning a bit, obviously preoccupied, and his eyes were still shuttered.

Cassandra wondered if he had even noticed the blue silk dress he had said made her look beautiful.

She made her voice light and careless. "I believe I may be able to travel by tomorrow. John Potter reports that the main road is in quite good shape, so we shall only have to take care until we reach it."

"On to Bristol?" The earl spoke slowly, and his frown appeared to deepen.

"Oh—back to London, I think. I am promised to at least three balls after next week, and might as well return in time to attend them."

He nodded. "It is just as well you mean to go, Cassie," he said in a very deliberate tone. "These past days . . . shut off from outside contact and thrown together as we have been—"

However he might have finished what he meant to say, Cassandra was left with only painful conjecture when a sudden bustle of noise from the entrance hall caused Sheffield to break off abruptly and start toward the drawing room door.

"What the devil?"

Cassandra was feeling numb, hardly interested in visitors, but when the drawing room doors were thrust open before the earl could reach them and a woman swept in still speaking over her shoulder to Anatole, she could not help arriving at the forlorn conclusion that she was being punished.

"Oh, don't be absurd, Anatole—we hardly need announcing in my own brother's drawing room!" Lady Harleston, the wife of the vague but amiable Lord Harleston, sailed into the drawing room as if it were her own, with her much quieter husband following. She was a tall woman in her late thirties, quite handsome in a decided rather than pretty way, several years older than her brother, and it was immediately apparent that between them flourished a somewhat bristly tolerance rather than warm affection.

"Althea, what the devil are you doing here?" the earl demanded grimly.

"A fine welcome, I must say! When we took the time and trouble to get off the main road—on our way back to London, you know—only to make certain the storm left you and the Hall still standing!"

"As you can see, we stand," Sheffield retorted. "Hello, Jasper."

"Evening, Stone. Sorry to drop in on you like this, but Althea would have it you was frozen in a drift and needed to be dug out." Lord Harleston smiled, as good-natured as his wife was sharp-tongued.

"It would have suited me better," the earl said, "if she had waited until the spring thaw to look for me."

Lord Harleston's responsive chuckle broke off abruptly as he saw Cassandra—who had stood perfectly still and hoped she would pass unseen. His mild blue eyes widened, and he looked at the earl in some surprise, but before he could speak, Lady Harleston also took notice of her brother's guest.

"Why, is that you, Miss Eden?" she demanded, striding forward to shake hands briskly.

"How do you do, Lady Harleston," Cassandra murmured, hoping wistfully that all this would—

somehow!—turn out right.

"How do you do is the question I want answered," Her Ladyship replied with all her brother's bluntness and none of his humor or charm. "Were you not supposed to be fixed at Bristol until next week?

What on earth are you doing here at the Hall?"

It was the earl who replied, his voice unusually flat. "The lady's coach broke down, Althea."

"Today?" Her Ladyship demanded to know.

Deliberately he replied, "No. A few days ago at the beginning of the storm."

Cassandra had stolen one glance at Sheffield's face, and that had been enough. He had not missed his sister's use of the name Eden, and obviously realized he had been lied to; his expression matched his name, and his eyes were completely unreadable. Cassandra wished the floor would open up and swallow her, and be done with it.

Lady Harleston, shocked, exclaimed, "Days ago? And she has been here unchaperoned? Stone, what can you have been thinking of? A child of her age—with a man of your reputation! Do you for one moment think anyone would believe it innocent? When word of this reaches London—"

"Althea," her husband warned softly.

But Lady Harleston finished her warning defiantly: "—she will be ruined!"

There was an awful silence that seemed to Cassandra to last an eternity. Then she squared her shoulders and, without looking at the earl, said quietly, "If our society believes that a lady may not take shelter from a vicious storm in the home of a gentleman without sacrificing her reputation and marring his, then it is not a society of which I wish to be a part."

Lady Harleston glared at her brother. "Say something!" The clock on the mantel chimed.

Unemotionally the earl said, "Will you join us for supper, Althea? Jasper? I am sure Anatole has set two more places."

By the time Cassandra retired to her room several hours later, her nerves were so strained by the effort of preserving a composed front before the earl and his guests that all she wanted to do was crawl between the covers and indulge in a passionate bout of tears. He had seemed perfectly calm, of course, fielding his sister's insistent questions by simply refusing to discuss Cassandra's presence in his house, but Cassandra was exhausted.

Sheffield had made no effort to speak to her alone; in fact, he had hardly spoken to her at all. Whether he was furious over her using a false name, disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Lord and Lady Harleston, or simply impatient with the entire situation was not clear. He had retired behind a wall of remoteness, and what his thoughts were behind that impenetrable barrier was very much his own secret.

Now, in her bedroom, Cassandra changed from the blue silk dress into her nightgown and wrapper and allowed Sarah to take her hair down. But she did not want to be fussed over tonight and was about to dismiss her maid when there was a soft knock and Lady Harleston came in. She was not yet dressed for bed and seemed to take no notice of Cassandra's attire.

"May I speak to you, my dear?" she inquired briskly.

It was the last thing Cassandra wanted, but common courtesy forced her to dismiss Sarah with a nod and murmured, "Of course, Lady Harleston."

The earl's sister sat down on a chair near the dressing table and, as soon as the maid had gone, said, "I know we are barely acquainted, but this is my brother's house, and since you have no older female to advise you in this situation—"

"My lady, I thank you for your concern, but I assure you I require no advice." Cassandra kept her voice steady and met the other women's eyes as directly as she could manage. "I took shelter here because there was no place else I could go under the circumstances, and I remained during the storm because I had no other choice. Lord Sheffield has been a most kind and hospitable host, for which I am most grateful."

Lady Harleston nodded but with an expression that said she had expected to hear such platitudes. "I have no doubt that you considered the circumstances innocent, Miss Eden, and I am perfectly aware you had little choice in the matter. However, the fact remains that you have spent several nights unchaperoned under my brother's roof."

Evenly Cassandra said, "During which time I had no need to lock my bedroom door, my lady. We may have been alone together upon occasion, but there were always servants about." Tactful servants. Not that she cared what they may have seen. She shut from her mind the aching memory of soul-wrenching kisses and forced herself to go on speaking what w