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.