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‘So that's where you’ve got to.’ Cassandra struggled back to consciousness to find Nicholas standing at the end of the bed. ‘You can come out now, she’s gone.’
‘Are you going to Woodham Park to stay as she asks?’ Cassandra sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
‘And abandon my trip for a week of hideous embarrassment while she throws the simpering niece of Lady Hare at my head? I think not.’
Cassandra saw a wicked gleam in his eyes. ‘Your aunt will be very displeased.’
‘All the more reason for not being here,’ Nicholas said with a grin. ‘Hurry, get up, I have had an idea. We have a lot to do – finding you clothes that fit for a start.’
‘Why, you are running away from her,’ Cassandra said as she swung her legs off the bed. ‘I do believe you are frightened of her.’
Nicholas’s mouth twisted into a rueful grin. ‘There is not a man in Christendom who isn’t, not if he’s any sense of self-preservation. Her late husband was terrified of her. But we will not be here to experience her wrath.’
Cassandra pricked up her ears at the we. It sounded as though, whatever the plan, he did not intend leaving her with the housekeeper after all.
‘You have a scheme for me?’ She looked at him, but his expression was preoccupied and he was not attending to her.
‘I must do something about trimming your hair,’ he began. ‘And I think I can find you some clothes to fit.’
‘But Nicholas,’ Cassandra shook his arm to gain his attention. ‘What are you going to do with me if you are going to France? And are you going to France without a valet?’
He looked down at her, a slow, mischievous smile curling his lips. ‘But I have a valet. I’m looking at him. Or, rather, at her.’
‘Your valet?’ she said incredulously, as his words sank in. ‘You want me to pretend to be your valet?’
‘I don’t want you to pretend to be anything. I want you to be twenty-five miles away in Hertfordshire under your father’s eye. But you’re not, are you? You’re here in my bedroom. On my bed.’ He crossed his arms across his chest and leant against the bedpost, ignoring her blushes. ‘And if Aunt Augusta walked in now and found you, I’d be marrying you, not Emily Hare.’ His smile was somewhat grim. ‘I don’t think either of us would thank her for that, would we? Well? Do you have any better ideas?’
Her mind seemed to be composed of porridge. Beds, marrying Nicolas… Under the coarse neckcloth, Cassandra could feel the rising heat of embarrassment. Marry Nicholas? He had been her idol for so long, a wonderful ‘big brother’, she could never think of him in that way. He was jesting, of course, believing her to be so young. And, of course, he was making it quite evident how unthinkable the idea was.
Cassandra got a grip on her rioting imagination. ‘I… why cannot I stay here with your housekeeper until Godmama returns?’ She broke off, realising he was still talking.
‘…there is no saying when my mother will return. After all, she is her own mistress with no-one to please but herself. My aunt, on the other hand, will not give up organising my life so easily. Quite simply, she must not find you here.’
‘But surely she'll think the house is empty?’
‘All the more reason for frequent visits to supervise the servants. You cannot hope to remain here undetected and, I can assure you, my aunt is of the old school. If your father says you must marry Lord Offley, then marry him you will. She would have no truck with disobedience.’
Cassandra could well imagine Lady Augusta’s reaction if she discovered an unmarried girl who had run away from home and taken refuge in a gentleman’s bed chamber. She would have to marry Lord Offley, or Nicholas, or be ruined in the eyes of Society.
She was conscious of Nicholas’s silence. He had made a suggestion, now it was up to her to decide. Travel with him and take the risk of public exposure and ruin, or go back and face a marriage she abhorred. She shivered, remembering Lord Offley’s lascivious gaze. She may have led a sheltered life, but she was a countrywoman and she knew exactly what was in his mind when he looked at her like that.
She raised her eyes to meet those of the very different man who was offering her the chance of escape.
‘Cassandra,’ Nicholas prompted. ‘I realise I have given you an impossible choice. You are between the Devil and the deep sea, but we have no time to waste. You must decide now.’
An impossible choice? What seemed impossible was to hide her elation from him, make him think she was the frightened, vulnerable child he believed her to be, not the determined eighteen year old she was. Cassandra could think of nothing she would rather do in the entire world. To journey abroad. To visit Paris. And with Nicholas, whom she had idolised since she was eight years old. Hastily she lowered her gaze before he could see the welling excitement there.
‘Yes, Nicholas.’ She managed to sound demurely obedient and trustful. ‘If you think it would work.’