Home > Chasing Cassandra (The Ravenels #6)

Chasing Cassandra (The Ravenels #6)
Author: Lisa Kleypas

Chapter 1

Hampshire, England

June 1876

IT HAD BEEN A mistake to invite himself to the wedding.

Not that Tom Severin gave a damn about politeness or etiquette. He liked barging into places where he hadn’t been invited, knowing he was too rich for anyone to dare throw him out. But he should have anticipated the Ravenel wedding would be an utter bore, as weddings always were. Nothing but romantic drivel, lukewarm food, and far, far too many flowers. At the ceremony this morning, the tiny estate chapel of Eversby Priory had been stuffed to the rafters, as if the entire Covent Garden Flower Market had disgorged its contents there. The air had been so thick with perfume that it had given Tom a mild headache.

He wandered through the ancient Jacobean manor house, looking for a quiet place to sit and close his eyes. Outside, guests congregated at the front entrance to cheer for the newly married couple as they departed for their honeymoon.

With the exception of a few guests such as Rhys Winterborne, a Welsh department store owner, this was an aristocratic crowd. That meant the conversation consisted of subjects Tom couldn’t give a rat’s arse about. Foxhunting. Music. Distinguished ancestors. No one at these gatherings ever discussed business, politics, or anything else Tom might have found interesting.

The ancient Jacobean house had the typical dilapidated-but-luxurious look of an ancestral country manor. Tom didn’t like old things, the smell of mustiness and the accumulated dust of centuries, the worn carpets, the ripples and distortions of antique window glass panes. Nor did the beauty of the surrounding countryside hold any enchantment for him. Most people would have agreed that Hampshire, with its green hills, lush woodland, and sparkling chalk streams, was one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth. In general, however, the only thing Tom liked to do with nature was cover it with roads, bridges, and railway tracks.

The sounds of distant cheers and laughter funneled into the house’s quiet interior. No doubt the newlyweds were making their escape amid a shower of uncooked rice. Everyone here seemed genuinely happy, which Tom found both annoying and somewhat mystifying. It was as if they all knew some secret that had been kept from him.

After having made a fortune in railways and construction, Tom had never expected to feel the bite of envy again. But here it was, gnawing at him like woodworm in old timber. It made no sense. He was happier than most of these people, or at least richer, which was more or less the same thing. But why didn’t he feel happy? It had been months since he’d felt much of anything at all. He’d been overtaken by a gradual, creeping awareness that all his usual appetites had been blunted. Things that usually gave him pleasure now bored him. Nothing, not even spending a night in the arms of a beautiful woman, had been satisfying. He’d never been like this before. He was at a loss to know what to do about it.

He’d thought it might do him some good to spend some time with Devon and West Ravenel, whom he’d known for at least a decade. The three of them, along with the rest of their disreputable crowd, had often caroused and brawled their way across London. But things had changed. Two years ago, Devon had unexpectedly inherited an earldom and had assumed the role of responsible family patriarch. And West, the formerly carefree drunkard, now managed the estate and tenants, and talked incessantly about the weather. The weather, for God’s sake. The Ravenel brothers, formerly so entertaining, had become as tedious as everyone else.

Entering an empty music room, Tom found a large upholstered chair occupying a shadowy nook. After turning the chair to face away from the door, he sat and closed his eyes. The room was as silent as a sepulcher, except for the delicate ticking of a clock somewhere. An unfamiliar weariness settled over him as gently as mist, and he let out a sigh. People had always joked about his vitality and his fast-paced life, and how no one could keep up with him. Now it seemed he couldn’t keep up with himself.

He needed to do something to jolt himself out of this spell.

Maybe he should marry. At the age of thirty-one, it was high time to take a wife and sire children. There were dozens of eligible young women here, all blue-blooded and well-bred. Marrying one of them would help to advance him socially. He considered the Ravenel sisters. The oldest, Helen, had married Rhys Winterborne, and Lady Pandora had married Lord St. Vincent this morning. But there was one sister left … Pandora’s twin, Cassandra.

Tom had yet to meet her, but he’d caught a glimpse of her at dinner last night, through multiple bowers of greenery and forests of silver candelabra. From what he’d been able to tell, she was young, blond, and quiet. Which wasn’t necessarily all he wanted in a wife, but it was a good start.

The sound of someone entering the room broke through his thoughts. Damn. Of the dozens of unoccupied rooms on this floor of the house, it would have to be this one. Tom was about to stand and make his presence known when the sounds of a female sob caused him to shrink deeper into the chair. Oh, no. A crying woman.

“I’m sorry,” the unfamiliar feminine voice quavered. “I don’t know why I’m so emotional.”

For a moment Tom thought she might have been talking to him, but then a man replied.

“I imagine it’s not easy to be separated from a sister who’s always been your closest companion. A twin, no less.” The speaker was West Ravenel, his tone far warmer and more tender than any Tom had ever heard him use before.

“It’s only because I know I’ll miss her. But I’m happy she’s found true love. So very happy—” Her voice broke.

“So I see,” West said dryly. “Here, take this handkerchief and let’s wipe away those tears of joy.”

“Thank you.”

“It would hardly be unnatural,” West commented kindly, “for you to feel a touch of jealousy. It’s no secret that you’ve wanted to find a match, whereas Pandora has always been determined never to marry at all.”

“I’m not jealous, I’m worried.” The woman blew her nose with a soft little snort. “I’ve gone to all the dinners and dances, and I’ve met everyone. Some of the eligible gentlemen have been very pleasant, but even when there’s nothing terribly wrong with one of them, there’s nothing terribly right either. I’ve given up looking for love, I’m only searching for someone I could come to love over time, and I can’t even find that. There’s something wrong with me. I’m going to end up an old maid.”

“There’s no such thing as an old maid.”

“Wh-what would you call a middle-aged lady who’s never married?”

“A woman with standards?” West suggested.

“You might call it that, but everyone else says ‘old maid.’” A glum pause. “Also, I’m too plump. All my dresses are tight.”

“You look the same as always.”

“My dress had to be altered last night. It wouldn’t button up the back.”

Twisting stealthily in the chair, Tom peeked around the edge. His breath caught as he stared at her in wonder.

For the first time in his life, Tom Severin was smitten. Smitten and slain.

She was beautiful the way fire and sunlight were beautiful, warm and glowing and golden. The sight of her dealt him a famished, hollow feeling. She was everything he’d missed in his disadvantaged youth, every lost hope and opportunity.

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