The Die is Cast
Author's Note: Hello! I know it's been a very long time (2 years to be exact!) but I am back, and will continue this story slowly but surely. I've been very busy and have also suffered from acute Writer's Block – so we shall see how quickly this story gets updated. I am so grateful for the reader reviews urging me to continue – and I would love to hear more of your thoughts. Warning – I haven't written creatively in a long long time, so excuse any lapses, and well - enjoy!
Chapter 20: Of Dinner and Discomfort
Dinner was a lively affair, and Cassandra could not remember when she had been so discomfited. It was not that Winborne held out her chair with an embarrassing amount of gallantry, or that Eliza teased her about ensnaring the perpetual bachelor, or that Lady Kingston bombarded her with pleasantries. Cassandra was overwhelmed, true, but it was the first time she had had a family. Frederick and his card room friends paled in comparison to the warm, intimate setting that she had somehow found herself in. She found herself torn between longing for her little dark corner, where she formulated plans for no future and dreamed of nothing, and absorbing the vivacity of her companions. There was a moment when her discomfort revealed itself. Lady Kingston stopped talking about the Massingham beauty whom all of London was agog to see, and asked, in a concerned, motherly voice, if anything was wrong. Blushing now, Cassandra swallowed her wince and assured her hostess that it was merely indigestion. Winborne gave her a sidelong glance that hinted at his assessment, but other than that, her companions resumed their idle talk.
And so, Cassandra learned that the old Earl of Wetherfield had provoked scandal by sending away his firstborn to the Americas, and naming his secondborn heir, that Lady Jersey had fallen into disagreement with Lady Morton and cut her at the last Almack's assembly, and that little Miss Arabella Boldstock was a 'shocking' flirt, to quote Lady Kingston.
"But forgivably so," interjected Eliza. "You really cannot blame the poor girl if the Good Lord never sought fit to equip her with a brain!" She turned to Cassandra then and said, laughingly so, "Cassandra – I hope I do not presume to call you thus – but I should warn you that Arabella has the most unrelenting tendre for my dear cousin here."
"As do all the young ladies of marriageable age," said Lady Kingston with a teasing smile. She reached over to pat Winborne's hand affectionately, before turning to Cassandra to say, "You'd best keep the other girls at arm's length and my nephew always within view."
Winborne raised an eyebrow in mock alarm. "Dear Flavia, is this a testament to my supposed faithlessness?"
"No," said his aunt, the retort springing readily to her lips, "just to the madness that characterizes the Marriage Mart, come the Season. Perhaps, you men do you not see it so, but for us, the ladies, it is veritably every woman for herself!"
"It sounds positively odious!" said Cassandra, speaking up for the second time that night.
"Assuredly so," said Eliza with a yawn. "Be thankful that you never had to endure such boorish and torturous nights, dancing with eligible, rich, and fashionable men – or more often than not, terribly unfashionable men who are only eligible due to their wealth."
"Dear heart," interposed Winborne, "I believe you wound me to the quick. As one of these eligible, rich, and fashionable men whom you have complained of boorishness and torture…."
"Boorish? You? Never," said Eliza, one eyebrow raised with amusement. "But fishing for compliments does not become you."
Yes, dinner was a lively affair, and Cassandra had never been so discomfited. Eliza's sallies were met by a wickedly curved brow and a handsome retort from Winborne's lips. They conversed with such ease, such familiarity that Cassandra felt quite the outsider. For in truth, she was no more than a stranger, despite the impending marriage.
This ramshackle, absurd thought of marriage, she amended in her mind. She wondered then if insanity ran in the Winborne line, and whether Eliza or Lady Kingston would deem her odd if she voiced this question aloud... Cassandra had not realized how far her mind had wandered until she was abruptly brought back to reality with a single, grounding complaint.
"Harry dear, I do wish you would stay the night," said Lady Kingston through pursed lips. She held her china with a dainty finger slipped in the handle.
"That would please me very much," responded Winborne in an easy voice, "but I'm afraid that there is business at the estate to which I must attend. I hope it will not inconvenience you to handle the little matter we talked over earlier."
Eliza raised her eyebrow at him and laughed. "You, hope to not inconvenience someone? That I would wish to see!" Then, she turned and said to Cassandra: "You poor dear! I'll wager you have no idea what madness you've gotten yourself leg-shackled to! Nevertheless, I am sure that you shall lead Winborne a merry dance – and for that, I have a feeling that we shall be great friends."
With that, Eliza excused herself, pleading a headache (to which Winborne mischievously coughed and murmured "heartache." This, in turn, prompted a glare that Medusa herself would have been proud to give). Although Eliza also stepped on her cousin's foot and sweetly replied, "Clumsy me!" in response to his yelp of pain, she nevertheless, gave him a peck on the cheek and affectionately mussed his hair before bidding him good night. Then, with a pointed glance at her mother, she exited the dining room.
Lady Kingston, never one for picking up on subtleties that did not refer to the delicate flirting at Almack's, only got up after a rather conspicuous "ahem!" from her daughter. Then with an embarrassed laugh, Lady Kingston confessed to Cassandra, "It's been so long since I was young! I've almost forgotten how difficult it is for young lovers to be apart for even a moment. A fortnight or more shall seem like forever." She bent and gave Cassandra a very motherly kiss on the cheek and murmured, "If you should need something, all of the servants are readily at your disposal. Or if you should need me, my quarters are in the left wing."
Lady Kingston straightened then, marched over to her nephew, and boxed his ears. "You be good or else I shall tell your mother," she warned, kissed him on the cheek, and then also left the dining room.
They were alone now, just the two of them. Cassandra counted heartbeats, then breaths. In, out, in, out. Breathe. Her lungs suddenly felt constricted, as if two hands were pressed against the delicate white of her neck, suffocating all the air out of her.
Lady Kingston, Eliza – they were both so nice... and both so new. She did not know them... she would be alone now...
She stared at him then, hoping the rising panic that she felt did not show in her eyes. In her most composed – oh, she hoped she sounded composed – voice, she said, "You – you are leaving, so soon!"
He looked at her then, searchingly.
His eyes – they were so blue, so very blue, she thought. Blindingly so, as if they could scorch her to the very core and reduce her to ashes.
She rather thought he condemned her for her weakness, but he merely said, "I have business to attend to." Then, after a preemptive pause, he added, "Also, my dear, it would cause unnecessary scandal were I to stay under the same roof as my bride to be, even if it is my cousin's house."
The blue of his eyes darkened, as if in challenge. They dared her to ask a question. But therein lay his mistake. Cassandra bristled under the heat of his stare, and immediately felt her resolve return. He could not seduce her so easily. She was a Colney, and she could not – would not - ask him to stay.
No matter how that gaze tried to tease or seduce the words out of her.
In her mind, she told herself that the words had only been on her tongue because he was her most familiar reference point. With the frantic, dizzying events that had occurred since the fateful game of hazard, she had no choice but to turn to him for steadiness. Even in her panic, she did not even realize how strange it was that she felt comforted – yes, comforted! - by his presence. Yet – she could not, would not ask him to stay.
Thus, Cassandra uttered with great effort, "When will you be back?" Her voice only contained the slightest tremor, but her tone was even. They were both standing now. She laid one hand down upon the back of the chair to still any weakness, lest she betray herself.
"Soon," he promised, bending low over her limp hand and pressing a kiss to the back. Then, he strode out of the room, out of the house without a backward glance.
She knew this, of course, because she watched him leave, watched him enter the chaise, watched the chaise peel away from the curb and get swallowed up by the darkness.
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