(previously: Touched by Magic)
Soaring marble columns bearing gilded sculptures carried the gaze upward to an arched ceiling accented with carved moldings bearing the certain stamp of Robert Adam. Beneath the canopy of tinkling crystal chandeliers and between the brocade-and-velvet-covered walls milled a procession of soberly black-clad gentlemen and extravagantly arrayed ladies in the silks and flounces of the current Season.
Despite the hubbub of orchestra and hundreds of people speaking at once, none of the distinguished guests raised their voices above a civil level. They circulated with well-trained precision, balancing punch cups, napkins, fans, dance cards, and other necessities.
The couples in the center of the gleaming waxed ballroom swayed with stately grace to an old tune, not the rackety waltz the Regent had accepted at court two years before. Harmony prevailed among sedately wigged musicians and modishly styled dancers alike.
Only a few noble guests blinked at the rash whirlwind bursting from behind an elaborate sculpture of a draped Diana. Their serenity was only disturbed when the young lady dashed headlong through the center of the crowd.
The dancers gasped in surprise and hastily parted. They waved their fans and raised their quizzing glances at a glorious mass of sunset-gold hair flying past their noses. A tall, exquisite figure, garbed in daring primrose, she vanished through the doorway before any could correct her behavior.
Cassandra! They shook their heads, whispered behind their hands, and returned to their peaceful occupations.
The fleeing girl exploded into the mass of still-arriving guests. With their top hats and fur-trimmed pelisses discarded, the latecomers lingered to greet old friends and smile at new acquaintances.
Black swallowtail coats and silk breeches swung in startlement as the fiery explosion catapulted past. The men stifled admiring looks as their feminine companions frowned with disapproval.
At the door, a tall striking gentleman had halted to help his lady adjust her yards of Kashmir shawl. His stern features held no expression as he listened to his petite companion’s comments. The lady herself was little more than plain, but she carried her looks with the arrogance of wealth and nobility. Even a stranger would know she was someone of consequence, at least to herself.
When the spectacular trail of fiery beauty crashed to a breathless halt—grabbing the gentleman’s arm to stop her headlong flight—both gentleman and lady stared in confusion and surprise.
“Wyatt! Thank goodness! You have to help me. Tell him you’ve already claimed my next set. I’ll escape somehow afterward, but he’s right behind me. Dash it all, Wyatt, don’t stand there like a looby! Look pleased to see me. He’ll never believe you elsewise.”
The tall gentleman looked even more confused. Not unintelligent, nor inexperienced in what society required of a gentleman, he gallantly covered her gloved fingers. “I do beg your pardon, miss. Are we acquainted?”
“Wyatt! It is Cassandra! Have you completely lost your wits?”
The short lady on his other arm hissed and tugged in a futile attempt to free him, but he resisted.
“Cassandra! By Jove, little Cassandra?” In bemusement, he studied the outrageous sun goddess clinging to his arm. “It’s been how long? You weren’t above—”
The goddess’s less-than-heavenly answer rudely cut him off. “Since last Wednesday. I promised you this set then. Smile, curse you, Merrick! Do not play the prim and proper with me now.” Her gloriously lovely smile spread across her face. None watching from a distance would believe the biting tones with which she addressed him.
“Lady Cassandra, there you are! I have been searching this age for you. Lord Eddings said I might have this dance.” A slender gentleman sartorially correct in tight black silk breeches and white satin waistcoat—but heavily festooned with more gold than the ceiling—bowed in front of them.
Although immaculately turned out, his features bore evidence of dissipation, and the glass in his hand smelled of spirits stronger than punch.
Cassandra turned a blazing smile of condolence upon the newcomer. “Sir Rupert! What a pleasant surprise. I am so sorry, but this set is taken by an old neighbor of ours. Wyatt, Catherine, are you acquainted with Sir Rupert? Sir Rupert, these are my old friends, Lord Merrick and his fiancée.”
The earl barely disguised his disdain for the rake. “We’re acquainted, my lady. I beg your pardon, but Lady Cassandra and I previously arranged this set, Rupert. I was just taking Lady Catherine to a friend of mine. Here he comes now.”
Over the heads of the crowd he signaled a blond gentleman of muscular build who delightedly broke off in their direction.
Merrick could scarcely be indifferent to the angry intake of breath on one arm and the joyful exhalation of relief on the other, but he maintained his equanimity. Rupert appeared ready to protest, but the arrival of Merrick’s friend intruded.
“Scheffing, if you will, the lady has requested a glass of punch while Cass and I carry out this next set. Would you be so kind…?”
Smoothly Lord Merrick maneuvered Lady Catherine onto Scheffing’s arm. With a nod of dismissal, Wyatt Mannering, Earl of Merrick, led Lady Cassandra past the miffed baronet.
The weathered lines about the earl’s mouth deepened as he guided his unexpected dance partner onto the floor. “You will explain what that was all about?”
“That’s obvious, Wyatt,” she replied disparagingly. “Duncan promised that libertine I would dance with him, and I took exception to it. There simply wasn’t time to find my pelisse and summon a carriage. If you will be so kind as to dance me to the far staircase when the music’s over, I shall pretend to go to the powder room and make my escape. It’s quite generous of you to rescue me. I always knew you were the kind of man of which white knights are made.”
“That’s doing it a trifle too brown, my lady.” Aside from the fact that there was a decade difference in their ages, and he was due the respect of his rank, Merrick had not seen the chit in a half-dozen years. She may have turned into a grand beauty, but her airy familiarity rankled. “Since your brother is your guardian, you’re obliged to obey his wishes. And I cannot remember giving you leave to call me by name, much less molest me in public places. I require a more thorough explanation.”
Cassandra gave a great sigh and turned a pair of meltingly blue eyes up to him. “You haven’t forgiven me for stealing your apples yet, have you? I did not think you so petty.”
“The apples in question were the result of years of experimentation lost to me because of your childish prank. There were only three on the tree. You did not need pick all of them. That is not to the point.”
Cassandra simply smiled at Merrick’s complaint. “Any tree that bears only three apples cannot be worth much. And there is always the next year. Presumably it bore a great many more then. How did the experiment work out?”
“The tree bore a great deal too many while I was away, and the gardener failed to prune it adequately. The tree split in half and died.”
Cassandra laughed as he whirled her around in the pattern of the dance and brought her back to him. “All those apples wasted! That’s a terrible pity. Now, had I been there, I would have taken enough that the tree might be standing still. The Widow Jones always thought your apples were the best in the county.”
“Is that what you did with them? I always thought there were far too many missing for one little girl to eat. You could have told me who they were for. I would gladly have helped you pick them. She always sent me the most excellent pies.”
“Telling you wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.” Cassandra granted him a radiant smile.
Merrick merely raised an eyebrow at her lack of character.
She made a slight moue of resignation. “Besides, she died that next year and we moved away.”
Pages of explanation could have disappeared into the gulf created by that statement. Six years ago she had been a child pulling a foolish prank on her neighbor, who happened to be a happily married man at the time.
A year later her home was gone and so was his wife, not to mention the Widow Jones. A momentous year, indeed.
Wyatt carefully bridged the gap with a more innocuous topic. “Where is your chaperone? If you mean to leave just to spite Rupert, she could be fetching your carriage.”
Cassandra blithely waved away such niceties. “Do not concern yourself, my lord.” She added a sharp emphasis to his title, showing she acknowledged his earlier cut. “You have been more than kind. Simply see me to the stairs, and I will fend for myself.”
It may have been six years since he had seen her last, but Wyatt was beginning to remember the rash little brat. The awkward limbs and skinny child’s frame might be replaced with creamy skin and a woman’s grace and form, but he rather suspected her character had not undergone any such radical alteration. None of the Howards were known for their retiring character or circumspect behavior.
He frowned. “You surely do not mean to go home alone?”
Cassandra diverted the topic. “Have you and Lady Catherine set the date yet? She and your friend Scheffing seem to be getting along quite famously.”
Merrick followed the direction of her gaze. While he had scarcely been able to elicit a smile from his fiancée during the entire length of their courtship, Scheffing always managed to bring her to animation. Since his friend had the wits of an overgrown puppy, he could only assume Catherine responded to his friend’s blond good looks and store of gossip.
Well aware of his own lack of charm, Merrick returned his attention to the slender female on his arm. Time had certainly wrought changes. Dragging his gaze from full young breasts barely concealed by silk, Merrick gave her a shrewd look.
“Catherine and Bertie are old friends, as surely you must remember. You have not been away from Kent so long that you have forgotten that. Where is your brother? I think it might be best if I make myself known to him before you spirit yourself off.”
“Honestly, must you treat me as a child too? Duncan is off in the card room as usual. The set is almost ended, and Rupert is waiting by the entrance. The stairs it must be. Hurry, please, my lord, before he guesses that I am escaping.”
He had little choice in the matter, actually. She tugged his arm as soon as the music ended, and without creating a battle in the midst of this proper company, Wyatt could do naught but follow her to the stairs in the anteroom at the far side of the ballroom from the entrance.
“I am much obliged my lord.” Cassandra curtsied prettily as she gained the bottom steps. Then, without warning, she leaned from her perch to place a quick peck on his cheek. “Cathy doesn’t deserve you,” she whispered wickedly before fleeing up the stairway and out of sight.
Shocked at this unexpected tribute, Merrick hesitated like some inexperienced schoolboy besottedly staring after his first love. Recovering his senses, he swung around wearing his usual indifferent expression.
Beyond any question of a doubt he knew what the little minx meant to do, and as neighbor and gentleman, he could not let her do it.
He could search out the new Lord Eddings and confront him with his sister’s waywardness, but he knew Duncan Howard of old. The man had as few scruples as Rupert, or less. Only a father as insane as the late marquess could have left an innocent young female in the guardianship of Duncan Howard. Provided Cassandra Howard could be termed an innocent.
Not wishing to question the morals or character of a female he had not known since her childhood, he acted out of the gallantry of a gentleman toward a lady. Merrick proceeded across the crowded ballroom, gesturing toward Scheffing to follow.
They met at the entrance. Catherine did not look at all pleased to be dragged around like a puppet on a string, but the earl had already decided time was of the essence and ignored the signs of an impending set-down. That was one of the advantages of being affianced to a woman he had known all his life. He knew her every mood, and experienced none of the uncertainties of gauging her reaction as he must with any other woman.
“I am forced to rescue a lady in distress, Bertie. Catherine, I hate to take you away before you have a chance to enjoy yourself, but I feel obligated to escort Cassandra home. You know what Duncan is…” He let his voice trail off. They were all acquainted with the new Marquess of Eddings and his indiscretions.
“And I know what Cassandra is,” Catherine snapped. “How do you think she has managed all these years without you? Don’t make a cake of yourself, Wyatt. I have no intention of leaving early. She will find her own way home.”
Merrick stiffened. “She is just a young girl. I could not live with my conscience should anything happen to her because I neglected my duty. Scheffing, perhaps if you would look after Catherine, I will be back shortly.”
“You know how Merrick is about duty, Cathy. You knew he was a high stickler when you accepted his suit,” Bertie murmured apologetically.
Merrick did not listen to the lady’s reply as he pushed toward the staircase. Perhaps had he been a foot shorter he would have been less noticeable and his progress more impeded by the crowd. As it was, people hastily opened a path.
He reached the foyer in good time, but he didn’t trust his prey to dawdle. After casting a glance upward to assure himself she was not on the stairs, he stepped out onto the high stone steps and glanced down at the carriage drive.
He saw a slim figure in lined pelisse and hood hurrying away. Throwing a curt order to a footman, Merrick strode after her. One advantage to having damned long legs was that very few people could out stride him. Though Cassandra was of above average height, she was hampered by narrow skirts and thin slippers.
He caught her arm and swung her around with less gentleness than he normally would accord a lady. “I will see you home,” he announced, marching her back toward the house.
Cassandra stared at the earl in astonishment. She remembered Wyatt Mannering as a quiet man who seldom raised his voice even when giving a scold to a rambunctious child.
She had taken that quiet politeness as a sign of weakness. The strength of the hand compelling her into his carriage told a different story.
“This is not necessary, my lord,” she protested.
“It is entirely necessary for my peace of mind, Cassandra. Now, get in or I will carry you in.”
She was well acquainted with harsh commands. Her father and brother had often spoken to her in just such tones. The difference was that they never carried through on their threats. She feared the Earl of Merrick would not be as lenient. She climbed into the carriage.
Once inside, she oohed in delight at all the modern conveniences revealed by the lamplight. The velvet squabs, cushioned by springs, sank as she sat down. Behind the matching curtains, clear glass allowed her to gaze out upon the street. Beside each seat a vase held a single carnation, and she lifted one and tucked it into her hair. She reached up and found the lamp-wick knob and dimmed the light, then turned it up brighter.
Merrick sat with arms crossed in the seat beside her, watching her with amusement.
“You should have let me find a hackney, Merrick. Catherine will not speak to you for a week. I’m scarcely worth the trouble.”
He gave her a starched look. “A hackney? In the middle of the night? Have you completely lost your wits?”
“Oh, no.” She turned a smile on him again. “I do it all the time. My only problem tonight was that I had no coin to pay the fare. It’s devilishly difficult to carry coins in a ball gown, particularly one as daring as this. Any extra weight and… whoop!” She made a laughing gesture to indicate the effect on her daring décolletage.
Merrick rolled his eyes heavenward and made a muffled noise of assent.
Cassandra surveyed his pained expression. “I should not have said that. Duncan said you were a high stickler, but I didn’t imagine he meant humorless. Forgive me, I’ll not offend your sensibilities again. It was most kind of you to see me home.”
She settled back against the velvet cushions with dignity, primly crossing her hands on her lap and fixing her gaze on the empty seat. The carnation slipped from her hair and slid down her cheek.
Wyatt rescued it. “I am not entirely humorless, but someone needs to teach you proper behavior with gentlemen with whom you are scarcely acquainted.” He laid the carnation over her hands.
“Fustian. I daresay I know you as well as Catherine does. You just won’t admit that someone you think is a mere child can know anything. You’ve grown toplofty, Merrick, puffed up with your own consequence. I can mind my manners when I choose. I just didn’t think it necessary between neighbors.”
The carriage halted before the narrow Georgian town house of the Marquess of Eddings. It was in a less fashionable district on the wrong side of St. James’s, and many of its neighbors had been converted to flats.
“We have scarcely been neighbors for a number of years, Lady Cassandra, and you were much too young to know me even then. Duncan and I are barely on speaking terms, but if I find you taking off on your own again, I will be forced to report your behavior to him. Now, come, it’s time you went inside.” He stepped down from the carriage and held out a hand to her.
Arching her wrist to rest her hand upon his, lifting her chin, sweeping up her skirts and pelisse, Cassandra descended with all the grace and dignity she could summon. She cast him a scathing glance as he offered his arm to see her inside.
“You had better return to Roxbury’s with all due haste, my lord, or your fiancée will teach you the truth of her name. I bid you farewell.” Without waiting for any servant to open the door, she threw it open and marched in, slamming it shut in his face.
Cass considered the earl’s assistance well paid with her warning. Lady Cat hid claws inside her velvet gloves.
We hope you have enjoyed this free sample of
Dash of Enchantment by Patricia Rice