London Countryside, 1803
Her heart was racing. She couldn’t tell when last she’d been this excited, her skinny limbs trembling both from her exuberance and the unforgiving cold. The time was drifting toward winter, when Cassandra would be forced to bundle up in countless layers, sit before the fireplace in the drawing room, and pretend she was reading. She hated this time of year, preferring the summertime when she was free to roam outdoors as much as she wanted. Before long, she wouldn’t get another chance to do this until the snow melted away.
That spurred her legs on, even though she was already beginning to regret not bringing a coat. She’d remembered her riding gloves in her haste, not bothering to take a candle. She knew the hallways as well as she knew herself. It would be no issue finding her way downstairs and out the back door in the dead of night.
Cassandra couldn’t keep the smile off her face as she raced down the staircase, her steps light enough to keep her silent. She jumped down the last couple ones and didn’t bother lingering to find out if her heavy thud had woken anyone. She was already racing out the back door.
Frigid wind hit her square in the face. It brought tears to Cassandra’s eyes, but she kept going even as she shivered. Cassandra’s steps slowed as she drew closer to the stable and once she was inside, she took a moment to savor the warmth inside.
“Bindie?” she called, the air cold enough for her breath to be visible.
A neigh sounded deeper within the stables. Cassandra grinned. Even though it had only been a few weeks, she’d already developed quite the bond with four-legged animal.
She made her way to Bindie’s stall within seconds. The pony on the other end lifted her brown head at Cassandra’s approach, her hair shimmering under the moonlight shining through the high square window behind her. Even though Bindie was smaller than the other horses, she was still taller than Cassandra. That had been daunting to Cassandra at first, but now nothing about this pony frightened her.
“Did you miss me?” she whispered to the steed and the pony snorted in response. Taking that as an affirmative, Cassandra grinned as she quickly slipped into Bindie’s stall and mounted her.
“Let’s go.” Cassandra eased her forward, carefully. She knew she shouldn’t be doing this. Her mother always warned her never to go riding alone. But Cassandra was ten-and-three now. Surely the fact that her parents had gifted her this pony for her birthday meant they thought she was a proficient enough rider?
Cassandra shook off the feeling of uncertainty that came over her as she led Bindie out the stables. Once they were out in the open, Cassandra let the pony fly. She knew how to handle her, knew how to rein her in and let her loose. She savored the wind blowing through her hair, though it stung in its coldness. Within seconds, she left behind the trepidation, forgetting why she’d hesitated in the first place.
Before she knew it, they’d raced past the invisible line her riding instructor always cautioned her not to pass. The land became too uneven, she would warn. You are not ready to handle such terrain.
“Bindie, slow down,” Cassandra yelled over the roar of the wind in her ears.
Bindie did not do such a thing. She continued, delving into the copse of cedar trees that surrounded the small pond Cassandra liked to frequent with her governess.
“Stop, Bindie!” she screamed as branches flew too close to her face.
Suddenly, Bindie listened, skidding to halt right in before a massive root jutting out of the earth. The next moment, Cassandra felt herself become as light as air.
And when gravity took control, the ground rose to meet her.
Springtime, London, 1811
Perhaps I should go for a walk.
The thought had crossed her mind three times in the past hour and Cassandra was no closer to mustering the courage. Instead, she remained seated in the corner of the ballroom, watching as guests wandered by, enjoying the ball. She tried not to sulk, wishing she could be anywhere but there.
With a sigh, she lifted her eyes to the chandeliers above, brilliant with dozens of candles. Her mother had certainly outdone herself with tonight’s decorations, she thought, taking in the silky drapes running down the walls like water. It matched the linen that covered the refreshments table and nearly every seat in the room. With the orchestra playing a gentle tune at the back of the ballroom, it almost felt as if Cassandra had been transported to the palace itself.
It should have been as magical an evening as it looked, but a few hours had already passed since the commencement of tonight’s ball and all Cassandra wanted to do was return to her chamber and sleep. Her darling sister, Elizabeth, had dragged her around Bond Street all afternoon and she hadn’t gotten a chance to rest before she had to get ready for tonight’s ball. And yes, this was supposed to be her debut ball, so did it really matter that she was here when no one else seemed to care?
“Careful, Cassandra,” she whispered to herself. “You’re pitying yourself again.”
But on a night like this, Cassandra couldn’t help herself. Without thinking, she reached under the blue veil she’d donned to match her silver-blue gown, fingers brushing against the left side of her jaw. As soon as she did, she was brought back to that night eight years ago, that weightless feeling before she’d crashed to the ground.
Cassandra quickly withdrew her hand. The scar that now laid there, a reminder of that night, seemed to burn.
“I think I passed by this current location three times and this is my first time noticing you here.”
Cassandra smiled, looking up at the gentleman who came to her side. She rose, accepting the glass of punch he held out to her. “That is because I have become a master of disguise.”
“A master is right. I thought you were a statue. I almost screamed in surprise when you moved.”
Cassandra giggled behind her hand. The Viscount of Bancroft, Lord Simon Bancroft, laughed alongside her, tucking his hands into the pockets of his breeches. Simon always knew the right thing to say to cheer her up. Cassandra wouldn’t be surprised if he’d approached her because he knew she was wallowing.
“Thank you for the punch,” she said. “Somehow you knew that I was dying of thirst.”
“And was either too lazy or too uncomfortable to make your way to the refreshments table.”
“I will not say which.”
Simon tilted his head back to laugh. “And I’m not surprised. You’re quite welcome, Cassie.”
“How fares your night, Simon?” Cassandra asked before taking a sip of the punch.
“Your mother has outdone herself yet again. It’ll be hard for anyone else to top this ball, which is quite a feat considering the Season has only just begun.”
Cassandra eyed him. He was handsome with sandy hair cut Brutus-style and a broad build that made him appear far more athletic than he was. Both Cassandra and her parents had once entertained the thought of being courted by him until she’d actually gotten to know him and realized they would be much better as friends. And in the years they’d known each other, Cassandra quickly came to realize that Simon Bancroft was well aware of how handsome he was—and was not afraid to take advantage of it.
“How many ladies have you made swoon since the evening has begun?” she asked.
“You know what I mean,” she pressed, smiling. “I’m sure you’ve already made a handful of them give over their hearts to you already.”
“Cassandra Jessica Matthews, are you saying that I am a rake?”
“That is exactly what I’m saying.” When she caught his eyes, she saw amusement shining in within the green. “So out with it. You know it has always intrigued me to see how easily you make ladies fall for you.”
“And yet it has never worked on you, has it?”
“And it never will,” she stated confidently.
Simon sighed dramatically, which only made her laugh again. It was partly the truth. Cassandra had quickly realized that she had no romantic interest in him and he had none in her. But she also knew where his heart truly lied.
As if by design, her eyes came to rest on a dancing couple in the center of the ballroom. Cassandra drank in her sister’s graceful figure, how elegant she appeared with every step she made to the waltz. Her dance partner paled in comparison and had a red face as if he knew it, as if he was well aware that he stood in the presence of goddess-like beauty. Tonight’s ball was for her—Lady Elizabeth Matthews.
And she’d certainly made the best of it. While Cassandra had spent her time sitting in the corner and counting the seconds until it was over, Elizabeth had not had a single moment to rest. The moment the dancing commenced, Elizabeth’s time had been occupied by one handsome gentleman after another, all wanting to dance with her. The sight had filled Cassandra with pride—and just a bit of longing.
Glancing at Simon, she saw the same longing in his eyes.
They were for different reasons, she knew. For her, she longed to debut, to have gentleman after gentleman vie for her dance. Cassandra had tried to remind herself that that would never happen. The scar her veil kept hidden would never allow it. But, as she watched her sister’s brilliant smile, she wished for a second that things had been different.
And for Simon, Cassandra knew he longed to be the one holding Elizabeth in his arms.
“Have you asked Elizabeth to dance yet?” Cassandra blurted out before she could stop herself.
Simon frowned at her. Had she not been staring at him, she might have missed the way his cheeks colored. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, come now, Simon. Wouldn’t it be odd that one of my dearest friends and a friend to the family did not dance with the lady of honour?”
Simon swallowed hard, eyes returning to where the dancers swept by. “I’m sure her dancing card is full.”
“And I’m sure she will make space for you if you asked.”
He was considering it, Cassandra could tell. She fell silent, waiting for him to come to his own conclusion.
Just as the set came to an end, he spoke again, “I suppose it would not hurt. Just to keep up appearances, of course.”
“Of course,” Cassandra drawled. But he was already walking away, eyes set on Elizabeth.
Cassandra polished off the rest of her punch and rested the empty glass on the table nearby before reclaiming her seat. She was watching as her dear friend approached her sister just as she’d returned to her mother’s side. He bowed, said something, and sadly kept his head bowed. Which meant he did not see the joy that lit Elizabeth’s face at the request.
Cassandra sighed, watching as they made their way to the center of the room in time for the next set. They looked lovely together. Cassandra hoped that one day Elizabeth would come to see Simon as a potential match.
And she secretly prayed that one day, she too could entertain the idea of love.
A gentle breeze drifted through the open bay windows Cassandra sat next to and she let out a sigh of relief. The morning had been uncommonly hot for the springtime and the afternoon promised to be even worse. She shifted uncomfortably, longing to wipe at the sweat coating the back of her neck and wishing she had chosen to pin her hair up before coming down for tea.
“I’m telling you, Viola. Both you and Elizabeth are the talk of the ton! Everyone has your ball on the tips of their tongues.”
Cassandra pinched off a piece of cake and slowly lifted it to her lips as she studied her aunt. Lady Mildred Jones, wife to the Earl of Hanebridge, looked nearly identical to her sister but shared none of her personality. She’d been smart enough to put her hair up, though Cassandra couldn’t help but wince at how tightly she’d pulled her blond hair into her chignon. She was dressed a little more conservatively as well, with a high neckline and long sleeves. How she was not bothered by the heat, Cassandra didn’t know.
“I agree, aunt,” Phoebe spoke up with a nod. She looked more like her father than her mother, Mildred. She sipped her tea and Cassandra held back her shudder. She had no intentions of touching the stuff when she was seconds away from overheating. “You did throw a wonderful debut ball for Lizzie last night. I enjoyed myself so much that I hardly wanted to leave.”
“Oh, we know, Phoebe,” Elizabeth spoke up with a smile. “You were the last person to depart, after all.”
Phoebe didn’t seem bothered by it, continuing to sip her tea. “You can blame yourselves for making my night so enjoyable.”
The ladies laughed at that, except Cassandra. She was hardly paying attention, her mind drifting from the unbearable heat to how badly she wanted to take a nap. The ball had not ended until after dawn and she’d barely gotten enough sleep last night. When she’d come down for breakfast to see her mother and Elizabeth looking as fresh as ever, Cassandra could hardly believe her eyes.
Lady Viola Matthews, the Countess of Wiswall, touched Elizabeth on her shoulder. Both Cassandra and Elizabeth had adopted her strawberry-blond curls, though Cassandra’s had a tendency to frizz while Elizabeth’s always remained perfect. Viola had lovely deep brown eyes though, which she had passed on to her younger daughter. Cassandra had taken her father’s sky-blue eyes.
“I hardly had anything to do with it,” Viola said, pride stark in her voice. “Elizabeth was lovely as always. I watched her all night and she did not take a single moment to rest from dancing. I was half afraid that she would fall down!”
“Oh, Mother, you know I’ve prepared extensively for that night,” Elizabeth told her. “I wanted to be prepared. Just ask Cassie, I spent hours dancing in both our rooms so that when I finally debuted, I would not be tired.”
The three ladies looked at Cassandra and so she nodded, even though she did not wish to be a part of the conversation. She wanted to sleep. “I can confirm,” she mumbled, biting into her cake simply to give herself something to do.
Elizabeth beamed. “But did you see Lord Vassell? He was so tall, I thought I might break my neck just looking up at him.”
“Of course, I took note of him,” Phoebe said, batting aside a lock of dark hair that had fallen against her cheek. Her eyes glittered with interest. “And I also noticed Lord Gregory, the second son of the Marquess of Fairway. Wasn’t he as kind as he was handsome?”
“He certainly was,” Elizabeth agreed. “Though I wonder if he is a bit old.”
“The older the better,” Mildred said. “They have a world of wisdom.”
“Mother!” Phoebe gasped and Viola laughed.
“She’s right, though,” Viola agreed. “But I don’t think too much attention should be placed on one gentleman. It’s important to get to know each person who shows interest in you, so that you make the right decision.”
“The right decision for me will be any gentleman who has wealth and status,” Phoebe stated. “I am already on my second Season. I have no time to waste.”
Cassandra looked out the window, staring at nothing. She tried and failed to cast aside the discomfort rising in her at the conversation. This wasn’t something she could partake in. Debuts, courting, marriage…all a part of a life that Cassandra could never have.
Try as she might, she could not stop that pinch of longing that seized her chest. She curled her hand into a fist under the table to stop herself from touching her scar. In her home, she did not bother to wear the veil. Her family did not care. But outside of these walls, she had to hide the thing that kept her from finding love, from having a family of her own.
“Well, not to worry, ladies,” Mildred said, drawing Cassandra’s attention away from her wandering thoughts. “The masquerade ball I will be hosting in a few days will help us narrow down the perfect bachelors for you two.”
“Who will be in attendance?” Elizabeth asked excitedly.
“Have you invited Lord Bane?” Phoebe questioned. “I hear he is quite wealthy and he isn’t too bad to look at.”
“Of course, I have,” Mildred stated proudly. “And he has already confirmed that he will be in attendance. You’ll have to move quickly though, Phoebe. Don’t think you are the only lady who has her eyes set on him.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice, Mother,” Phoebe said determinedly and then Cassandra turned her attention back to the window, letting her mind wander once more so that she did not have to long for the things she would never have.
She had to endure another hour of tea and talk of eligible bachelors before Cassandra was able to retire to the library. The moment she was in the large room, she drew in a deep breath, casting aside the uneasy emotions that had been plaguing her ever since the start of the Season. It would only get worse, she knew. With every ball, party, or soiree, Cassandra knew that the hole in her heart would grow larger.
But for now, she supposed she could immerse herself in a book and forget the world around her.
She wandered over to the Shakespearean section, running her fingers along the spines of each publication. For the past few months, Cassandra searched for her favorite novel, Romeo and Juliet, and could not find it. She’d gotten into the habit of bringing it everywhere with her and must have misplaced it somewhere. She came here often hoping that it had been found and returned to its rightful place.
Since the spot was still sadly empty, Cassandra opted to read her second favorite, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She took the book with her to her usual spot on the chaise lounge by the window, propped her legs to the side, and began to read, savoring the gentle breeze that brushed against her neck. As soon as Mildred and Phoebe had left, Cassandra had gone straight to her chambers to pin her hair up before coming to the library.
She’d gotten though a few pages when the door opened and Elizabeth swept in.
“Oh, Cassie!” Cassandra watched as her sister hurried over and dramatically threw herself into the armchair nearby. “I feel so overwhelmed.”
Cassandra slowly closed the book, noting the last page she’d read, then gave her dear sister her full attention. “What’s the matter?”
Elizabeth held out the scandal sheets in her hand. “Here,” she said. “Read it for yourself.”
Cassandra had just barely reached out to take the scandal sheets before Elizabeth pulled it back. Cassandra held back her smile. Elizabeth had always been a bundle of energy. Though they were two years apart, Cassandra sometimes wondered when Elizabeth would shed the childlike enthusiasm that usually had her bouncing from one place to the other. Not that she minded much. Cassandra remembered a time when she’d been just like that, when she would much prefer chasing cats around the backyard to sitting in silence reading. That was before the incident, before her life had changed forever.
“It says here,” Elizabeth began to read, springing to her feet. Cassandra followed her with her eyes as her sister paced back and forth. “’The Countess of Wiswall’s hosted one of the first balls of the Season, and has truly set the tone for all the rest. With her beautiful daughter debuting as the Season’s ‘Diamond’, Lady Elizabeth Matthew’s coming out was a major success!’”
“I don’t understand,” Cassandra said, straightening. “I see no problem with what was said. You’ve been dubbed the Season’s ‘Diamond’, which I think is quite accurate. The ton has finally said something right, for once.”
“But that’s just it!” Elizabeth blew out a frustrated breath as she collapsed in the chair once more. Somehow, not a single strand of hair fell out of place. “It is far too much pressure.”
“This is good news, Lizzie,” Cassandra told her with a warm smile. “There is nothing to be afraid of, I assure you.”
“How can you be so sure?” Elizabeth pouted. “With so many eyes watching me, what if I were to do something scandalous and embarrassing?”
“In all your ten-and-seven years, have you ever done anything scandalous or embarrassing?”
Elizabeth made a show of thinking about it. “No, I don’t think I have.”
“Then there is your answer. Certainly nothing to worry about.” Cassandra propped her feet up once more, opening her book. “And now that you know that, leave me be so that I may read.”
Cassandra was not at all surprised when Elizabeth threw herself onto the chaise lounge next to her, wrapping her arms around Cassandra’s neck. “Oh, Cassie, you always knew exactly what to say.”
“Yes, yes, I am the wise big sister. What else is new?”
Elizabeth giggled at that, which brought a smile to Cassandra’s face. Through all the longing that panged her heart, she was truly happy for Elizabeth. She wanted the best for her sister, wanted her to find and marry for love—even if that fate was never destined for her.