Lord Robert Westbrook’s life of responsibility and social obligations is turned on its head when he meets Cass, a beautiful and idiosyncratic woman at his mother’s garden party. Cass is a staunch supporter of women’s rights as well as an advocate of dress reform, rejecting the restrictive fashions of the nineteenth century.
In fact, Cass’s rebellion isn’t limited to her dress sense. She is also determined to experience the excitement and passion of a sexual liaison. Lord Westbrook, she has decided, is the very man she wants to seduce her. Meanwhile Lord Westbrook has determined that Cass requires some stern discipline.
The couple’s passionate and fiery romance breaks every rule of Victorian decency and kindles a love that neither Cass nor Robert were prepared for. However, when Cass’s secret past finally catches up with her, it seems that the couple’s happiness might be doomed forever.
Lord Robert Westbrook scowled fiercely at the surrounding countryside as he walked along the country path. He wasn’t aware that he was scowling. His face was set that way more often than it wasn’t.
The fact that he was ruminating on the events of the Waverley Ball the previous night certainly didn’t make him any more cheerful.
He hated events like that with a passion. The formalities, the forced gaiety, the dances … especially the dances.
God, if he never had to ask another woman to dance, that would suit him just fine. What made it worse was the patronising attitude of the other attendees. Miss Phoebe March had been there acting like quite the society princess. She was in her first season ? a fact which in itself seemed startling given that it only seemed five minutes ago that she had been running around the village in pigtails.
“I was told that you were a dreadful bore at this sort of thing,” she had whispered to him conspiratorially. “But really you are not quite as bad as everyone makes out. Even your dancing isn’t completely dreadful.”
How the deuce was anyone supposed to respond to such a remark? He hadn’t. He had finished the dance, bowed and left her to go off and giggle with her friends. Perhaps she had wanted him to retaliate? To issue forth some sort of droll retort to demonstrate what a quick-witted fellow he was.
The very thought sent a shiver of repulsion through him. He found it hard enough to speak to other people in such situations in any case. He really didn’t want to feel obliged to regale them with scintillating bon mots.
God, maybe he should marry the self-centred little child and be done with it. Or any of the others from the gaggle of eligible women that he found himself obliged to dance with. He didn’t imagine for a moment that they actually liked him but he did at least have a title to offer in exchange for having to marry him. How hard could it be to find one little social climber happy to wed him in order to become the next Lady Westbrook? The idea of spending the rest of his life with Phoebe March ? or any of her sisters whom her family appeared to release into society with alarming regularity? ? caused a shudder to go through him.
Phoebe’s remarks hadn’t even been the worst of it, however. He had somehow found himself talked into hosting an informal soiree of his own. The blasted thing was scheduled for this Friday. It was bad enough having to attend one of those things as a guest. Now he had to act as the bloody host. He wondered if he could just call the whole thing off. He could pretend to have some dreadfully infectious disease ? the nastier the better ? to ensure that Surrey society shunned him for a good long while.
He continued walking until his destination ? his mother’s house ? came into view. He cleared some vines with his walking cane and walked up to the front door.
“Robbeeeeeeeeee!” a piercing call permeated the air as a whirling dervish of ribbons and white muslin came hurtling down the lawn at him and launched itself at his chest.
Robert’s almost-perpetual frown disappeared instantly as he caught his little half-sister in his arms.
“Hullo my little May-bug,” he said. “I do believe you’ve grown.”
“Silly!” laughed May. “You only saw me two days ago! I can’t have grown that much.”
“Nevertheless, I think you look much more grown up. You’re heavier too,” he said setting her down on the grass.
As he looked up, he was surprised to see that they had been joined by someone else, a young woman who had followed May as she had run to greet him.
“So you’re Robbie?” she smiled. “I have heard so much about you from this little one here.”
Robert stiffened. Only May called him Robbie and only then because she had struggled to say Robert properly when she was first learning his name.? No one else would presume to call him that. Especially not a stranger to whom he had not even been introduced.
“Lord Westbrook,” he said bowing. “And whom do I have the honour of addressing?”
If she was at all put out by the rebuke in Robert’s reply she didn’t show it. In fact, the brightness of her smile seemed to increase a notch, lighting up her face with its radiance. “Cass,” she responded.
“And you are staying with my mother at the moment, Miss … er …?” He had no idea how to address her after such an inadequate introduction. Was her name really just Cass? Presumably that was her first name though why she should introduce herself in such a manner was a mystery.
In fact, he couldn’t even tell from looking at her whether she was a guest or a servant. She was dressed in the most extraordinary fashion. He wondered if she was wearing a stage costume for a theatre production.
Her dress was dark green with long bell sleeves and appeared to be made entirely of velvet. It hung from her shoulders straight down her body, with no apparent corsetry to govern its shape. Instead it seemed to follow the contours of her body, pulling Robert’s eyes inexorably to the gentle swell of her breasts and the round curve of her hips. It looked like something one would wear when putting on a production of a Shakespeare play. Her face was framed by a magnificent mane of titian red hair, utterly unpinned and unrestrained.?? She looks like Ophelia, he thought.
She was clearly not going to be pressed to provide any further information on her name.? “Just Cass,” she replied.
“Come on, Robbie,” said May, pulling on his arm. “Mama will be serving tea in a minute on the lawn. Let’s go.”
Robert allowed himself to be pulled by his little sister round to the patio at the back of the house.? His mother, Margaret Oliver, was entertaining a dozen or so guests on the lawn. When she saw Robert arrive she hurried over to greet him.
“Robert, darling,” she smiled. “How lovely to see you. I see you’ve met our new houseguest. Cass is a fellow member of the National Society for Woman’s Suffrage. She’s staying for a while.”
“Yes, we’ve met,” said Robert, shortly.? He hadn’t realised his mother would have so many guests in attendance or he wouldn’t have come. She might have warned him. They mostly comprised of the young people of the fashionable set that he had been obliged to socialise with the previous evening. He saw Phoebe March and her irritating brother Toby amongst them. He supposed that his mother had invited them in order to provide some more youthful company for her guest.
Of course, thought Robert meanly, if she needed young people, she always had her husband. Robert’s mother, the former Lady Westbrook, had relinquished her title when she had married her second husband, Felix Oliver, five years ago. Mr Oliver was only a few years older than Robert himself was and Robert still felt vaguely uncomfortable about having a stepfather close enough in age that they could have gone to school together. Still, he had to admit his mother had never been happier and the arrival of his little sister, May, was like a burst of sunshine in his otherwise uninteresting life.
“May I serve tea?” asked Cass.
“Oh would you, dear?” replied Robert’s mother.
Cass hurried off to the tea table to pour out the cups. Robert followed her with his gaze.
“Do be kind to her, won’t you? She’s had a difficult time of late.”
“Of course I’ll be kind,” said Robert, his voice sharper than he had intended. “Why would I not? What on earth is she wearing, by the way? Did you tell her it was fancy dress?”
“Don’t be rude, Robert,” admonished his mother. “Cass is a staunch supporter of the Rational Dress Movement. They believe that modern fashions deform women’s figures, impede their movements and injure their health. Cass chooses to dress the way she does in order to make a statement that women do not have to subject themselves to the tyranny of tightlacing and corsets. The ‘aesthetic dress’ style is inspired by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. I think she looks rather lovely.”
She looks extraordinary, Robert thought. He could not keep his eyes from her as she poured tea and chattered merrily with the other guests. She was showing far less exposed skin than any of the other ladies there and yet the simple design of the gown made Robert far more aware of the female body beneath the clothes. There were no corsets, no cage, no massive hooped crinoline to give her lower half the sort of bell shape of the other women there. The dress flowed over her womanly curves. As she bent slightly to pick up a cup and saucer, Robert could see the beautifully shaped outline of her bottom, smoothly framed by green velvet. He wondered how many layers there were between him and that backside. Two? One? He wanted to lift up her skirts and find out for himself. He wanted to run his hands over the body beneath that dress. He frowned and shook his head slightly as though trying to dislodge such inappropriate thoughts.
“Oh Robert, don’t look like that,” said his mother
“What?” he snapped somewhat guiltily.
“So disapproving. She’s perfectly entitled to wear whatever she likes.”
“I know she is, Mother” said Robert and walked towards the tea table.
He collected a cup of tea and circulated the lawn for a bit saying hello to people he couldn’t wait to be shot of the night before.? He made small talk with Freddie Lowestoft and Neville Swift, two members of the Waverley cricket society who, as usual tried to persuade Robert to join their team. Robert’s well muscled build coupled with years spent in the army seemed to make others think that he would be perfect for the cricket team. However, Robert abhorred organised sport and, as usual, made his excuses.
He really wanted to speak to the mysterious Cass but her company had been commandeered by Phoebe March and a brace of other village socialites and he had no wish to intercept that little coven.
May’s nursemaid arrived to take her for her afternoon nap – a proposition which made the four year old object loudly and stamp her feet in protest. Robert knew that May must be enjoying the party and quickly stepped over to give the nursemaid some assistance.
He hunkered down to talk to his little sister. “Come on, May. Don’t be naughty in front of all these people,” he said quietly. “You know you need to have your nap. All these people had to do the same when they were your age, you know. I certainly did.”
“But you don’t now, do you?” said May petulantly. “I wish I was a grown-up.”
Don’t wish for that, Robert thought to himself. It really isn’t as fun as it looks.
Out loud he asked her, “Would you like me to carry you up and tuck you in today for a special treat?”
“Oh yes, please!” said May, her eyes shining. She lifted up her arms to be carried and Robert scooped her up.
As he carried May towards the house followed by the nursemaid, he caught sight of his mother who mouthed “thank you” to him over the heads of the guests. He looked around for Cass out of curiosity and saw that she was still talking to Miss March with her back to him. Although he knew that he shouldn’t, he stole another glance at her beautiful bottom hidden from gaze by the Pre-Raphaelite gown.
As he tucked May beneath the covers in her bedroom, Robert planted a gentle kiss on his sister’s cheek. “You all right now, little madam?” he asked affectionately.
“Mm mm,” said May, happy as ever to have Robert’s full attention. “Robbie, do you like Cass?”
“She seems very nice,” Robert replied noncommittally.
“I like her,” said May. “You should marry her. Then she would be my auntie.”
“I don’t think we know each other well enough to get married just yet,” said Robert. “We only met this afternoon. Besides if I did marry her, she wouldn’t be your auntie, she would be your sister.”
“Oh, even better! A big sister!” said May clapping her hands. “Oh you must marry her, Robbie, you must!”
That’s all I need, though Robert once he had said his goodbyes to May and left her in the care of her nursemaid, my baby sister deciding to act as my matchmaker.
When he went down to the garden again, his heart sank even further. The assembled party had clearly decided to amuse themselves by organising some team games.
That’s the last thing he wanted, he realised. If there was one thing that Robert hated even more than dancing it was the horror of being forced to play a game of ‘Are you there, Moriaty?’, ‘Charades’ or, worst of all ‘Cockfighting’.
“There are you, Westbrook!” bellowed Toby March as he came to rejoin them. We are just setting up a game of ‘Cockfighting’. You’ll play of course?”
“I’d rather not,” said Robert stiffly, determined to remain a spectator for this bit of organised idiocy.
Freddie Lowestoft and Neville Swift started the game. They lay on their backs on top of the blanket that had been spread on the lawn. They were side-by-side with their feet pointing in opposite directions and their right arms linked at the elbow. Their heads were next to one another’s waists. They both lifted their legs vertically and hooked them round each other then each one tried to pull his opponents heels over his head in a somersault.
Freddie managed to successfully overbalance Neville on the hook and he went tumbling forwards to the cheers and whoops of the assembled crowd. Robert watched in silence. Toby then took on Freddie as challenger and once again Freddie managed to overpower his opponent after a minute or two of grappling with their legs. Freddie’s third challenger, a stout fellow named Henry Smith was the next challenger. He put up a good fight but in the end was no match for Freddie who overturned his opponent once again.
“Come on then Westbrook,” said Freddie still lying on his back on the blanket. “It must be your turn now. You’re the only man left to take on the challenge.”
“I don’t think so,” said Robert.
“Oh, you must!” said Cass appearing at his side. “All the other gentlemen have had a go.”
“Come on, Lord Westbrook,” encouraged Miss March.
The rest of the group joined in with shouts of “Come on!” and “Take on the challenge!”
Robert was determined to stand his ground until Cass did the most infuriating thing. She grabbed hold of his arm and physically dragged him to the blanket. She wasn’t weak for a lady, but she certainly wasn’t strong in comparison to Robert. He could have overpowered her in an instant. But how on earth could he do that? He could hardly shake her off or push her away. Good manners dictated that he let her pull him over to the blanket.
“Now you must lie down, as the others did,” Cass instructed. God damn the woman, thought Robert. He could hardly bloody well refuse at this juncture.
He felt the blood surge to his face in embarrassment as he awkwardly positioned himself on the rug beside Freddie. He lifted his leg and Freddie gripped it vice-like with his own. He wanted the ground to swallow him up.
Toby March didn’t help by exclaiming loudly, “Dear God, you actually managed to make him do it. I never thought in all my life, old Westbrook would actually condescend to join in.”
“What great sport!” laughed Phoebe March, “I should never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
“I know, it’s like witnessing one of the seven wonders!” laughed Henry Smith.
“The wonder being that perhaps Lord Westbrook is human like the rest of us,” said Toby.
Robert tried to turn over Freddie in order to get this over with but met with fairly rigid resistance.? He then tried to surrender control to Freddie so that the game would be over quickly that way instead.? That didn’t work either and Robert realised with a sinking feeling that Freddie wasn’t trying to best him. He was trying to keep him in that humiliating position for as long as possible so that everyone could laugh at him. Well, damn him. Damn them all. Robert jerked suddenly to the left, freeing his leg from Freddie’s grip, and rose to his feet in a fury. He was not going to play their stupid fucking games. Without even excusing himself or saying goodbye, he grabbed his hat and briskly walked away from the party, most of whom were still laughing at the hilarity of the proceedings. As he went, he glanced at Cass and felt oddly relieved to see that she was not joining in the laughter. In fact, the expression on her face actually looked more guilty than anything,