Crowds swarmed around and jostled against the Whittaker carriage, slowing its progress from a trot to a crawl. Thick, oily smoke from torches penetrated the interior. Velvet curtains and cushions reeking of pitch felt ready to smother Miss Cassandra Bainbridge, who was already hot on this August night.
“I think we would be better off walking in the crowd than riding in here.” She clutched her rose satin reticule in one hand and gripped her fiancé’s arm with the other, as though ready to spring from the vehicle at any moment, which she was. “Perhaps we could take refuge in someone’s drawing room until these bacchanalians go home.”
Beside her, Lord Geoffrey Giles, Earl of Whittaker, chuckled and covered her hand with his. “Only you would use a word like bacchanalian to describe a crowd of drunken debauchery.”
“It is the proper word for those who have celebrated too freely with drink.” She glared at him down her long Bainbridge nose, though she could see little of his face in the gloom inside the carriage. “What should I call them?”
“The right word, of course.” Whittaker shrugged, then moved his hand from her gloved fingers to her nose, to the place where her mirror warned her a crease was already forming between her eyes.
Not that what her mirror said mattered much to Cassandra. That crease came from hours of honest study.
She gripped her reticule more tightly, as it held the efforts of her latest project—the design of a balloon—and leaned toward Whittaker’s hand. Since the renewal of their engagement in June, the slightest brush of his fingertips came close to distracting her from thoughts of ballooning and Greek translations, and most definitely from wild, celebratory crowds worked to a fever pitch over Wellington finally winning a decisive battle against Napoleon’s troops in Spain. If Whittaker moved his hand to her cheek—
A throng of young men slammed against the side of the carriage, tilting it onto two wheels. The horses whinnied and the coachman shouted. Cassandra screamed, a short burst of a cry, and Whittaker wrapped his arms around her, upsetting her elaborate coiffeur and sending her hair tumbling around her shoulders. Her hair and Whittaker’s shoulder shielded her face against his coat lapel.
“Le’s ’ave a ride,” the drunken youths shouted in speech so slurred as to be scarcely comprehensible. “Don’ be shelfish, arishtocrat.”
“Lord Mayor’s already stingy with t’luminations.”
“More light. More light.” The chant grew deafening.
Cassandra shivered now despite the heat. The men sounded angry, not celebratory. “They’re angry over too few illuminations to celebrate the victory?”
“C’mon, Whittaker, open up.” The rattle of the door handle accompanied the command. “We ’eard yer lady.”
“They know your carriage.” Cassandra raised her head. “But why would they assault you over too few lanterns and torches and such?”
“It’s not me personally. The celebration seems to have gotten a bit rough, is all.” Whittaker stroked her hair. “Hush now. The doors are locked, the coachman and footman are armed, and I have a brace of pistols here in the carriage.”
Shots rang out at that moment, the crack of a pistol, the boom of a blunderbuss fired into the air. Whinnying again, the horses lurched forward. Without Whittaker’s arms around her, Cassandra would have slid to the floor. She grasped his shoulder with one hand and twisted her fingers through her reticule strings with the other.
The jostling and demands ceased, though the crowd did not disperse.
“Perhaps we should have gone home with Christien and Lydia,” Cassandra said, maintaining her hold on her fiancé and folded plans. “Christien is a trained soldier, after all.”
“But this was the first opportunity we’ve had to be alone together for a week.” Whittaker flashed her a smile, then kissed the crease between her brows. “This wedding is keeping you from me so much I think we should have eloped like your sister.”
“They did not elope.” Cassandra rubbed her head against Whittaker’s shoulder. “They simply got married by special license. But this is my first marriage and Mama wants everything just so.” She shuddered. “I hate every dress fitting and shopping excursion as much as I dislike this crowd.”
Her ears strained for signs of the rough youths returning. She could distinguish nothing of them over the general din of the throng.
“Where will I wear all those gowns in Lancashire?” she added.
“You will need them when Parliament is in session and we are in town.”
“But that’s not until spring.”
“With the Americans declaring war, it is going to be this autumn.”
“But you promised.” She started to pull away.
“I did not declare war.” Whittaker tightened his hold and kissed her cheek.
“And all spring the Luddites kept you away.”
“I did not go smashing up looms either.” He kissed her lips.
She decided to stop arguing with him for the moment. She forgot about the rowdy revelers outside the carriage. This, after all, was why Cassandra had taken Whittaker’s equipage instead of sharing one with her elder sister and her new husband—to be alone with her fiancé for a few minutes of tenderness, for some time of forgetting that Mama wanted her to buy one more fan or pair of gloves, that Whittaker’s mama needed to introduce her to half a dozen more relatives, that Cassandra herself wanted to talk to her fellow aeronaut enthusiasts about her design. She simply wanted to remember this man whose glance, whose smile, whose touch, turned her heart to tallow. She needed moments like this like she needed nourishment for strength and air for breath.
Except he robbed her of breath.
Gasping, laughing, she drew back from his embrace—and began to cough. Nearby, something larger than torches blazed, the smoke heavy and sharp, thick inside the carriage. Around them, laughter and cheers had turned to bellows and protests, commands and threats.
Cold perspiration broke out beneath the sleeves of her pelisse and trickled down her spine. “Whittaker . . . what’s wrong?”
“I cannot be certain.” He leaned forward and lifted a corner of the window curtain. “A fire. That is obvious.” He sounded calm.
Cassandra moved to the other side of the carriage so she could peek out the curtains too. Fire indeed. A carriage blazed in a side street. Men and women swirled around it, roaring incomprehensible but angry-sounding words, as though about to burn a body in effigy—or worse.
“This was a celebration for Salamanca,” Cassandra protested. “Why the anger?”
“Too many people and too much spirits combined can cause trouble.” He knelt before her and took her hands in his, letting the curtains fall over the window, leaving them in darkness—a private, sheltered cocoon despite the smoke. “We will be out of it soon and safely back to Bainbridge House.”
“I was hoping we could go to the Chapter House. It’s perfectly respectable, and I have my plans to give—”
“I am not taking you to a coffeehouse tonight. Your friends will have to wait for their balloon plans.” Beneath the tumult around the carriage, Cassandra thought he muttered, “Forever.”
They had enjoyed such a pleasant evening with Lydia and her husband, she did not want to argue with Whittaker. He did not like her ballooning enthusiasm, but she would change his mind once they were married. Then she would have more freedom to move about, not constantly under her mother’s eye. Whittaker, not Father, would dictate her movements, and Whittaker was no dictator.
Unless he did intend to stop her from pursuing aeronautics.
She pursed her lips and squeezed his gloved fingers with her own, then released one of his hands to clutch at her precious reticule. “I think Lancashire will be perfect for ballooning once the harvest is in. All that flat land and the sea breezes.”
“I think,” Whittaker said, “you will have no time for balloons once we are wed. Mother intends to leave the running of the house to you. She wants to travel, visit friends, but with the trouble with the Luddites, she has been afraid to do so.”
“But—” Cassandra released his other hand. “I know little of household management. I thought she would be there, help me. Geoffrey, when were you going to tell me this?”
“Mama was going to when she takes you to Gunter’s tomorrow.”
“Oh, that.” Cassandra did not admit she had forgotten the engagement. “One of my ballooning friends—”
“Enough about balloons. It is as much a passing fancy as was your translation of Homer.”
“Homer was not a passing fancy at all.” Cassandra raised her chin. “I finished it. Then I saw the balloon and aeronautics—”
He silenced her with another kiss.
“What was that for?” she asked when she could catch her breath.
“To ensure I am no passing fancy.”
“You know you are not.” Because she had broken off their betrothal in the spring, she leaned forward this time and pressed her cheek to his, slipped her arms around his shoulders.
He drew her off the seat so they squeezed into the footwell between the two benches. The cacophony of the crowd, the oiliness of smoke, and the jostling of the carriage ceased to matter, may as well have ceased to exist. Always he won her attention this way, sending the world packing, even her scholarly interests and now her enthusiasm for flight. If he was in the same room, she could not bear to be more than inches from him and felt as though a piece of her were missing every time he left.
“I love you so much it scares me sometimes,” she murmured into his ear.
A shudder ran through him. She understood why. He felt the same. Their profound attraction had gotten them reprimanded more than once, mostly by Cassandra’s sister Lydia. But now seven endless days stood between them and their wedding. She wished it were seven hours, or, better yet, seven minutes.
They would reach Cavendish Square in little more than seven minutes unless more crowds stopped them. Chaperonage and separation. Annoying, dull dressmakers would crowd between them. Tea and cakes with his mother and embarrassing conversations with her own . . .
Cassandra dropped her reticule so she could bury her fingers into Whittaker’s thick, dark hair. “Only a week,” she whispered.
“Too long.” He drew her closer.
Her hair tumbled over his hands. His cravat and her gown would be hopelessly crushed. Mama and her companion, Barbara, would lecture about proper conduct for a young lady. Her younger sister, Honore, would give her sly glances and giggle. Father would scowl at Whittaker and draw him aside for a “manly” conversation about propriety and dishonor. Cassandra did not care. Whittaker loved her despite her need to wear spectacles most of the time, despite her eccentric interest in Greek poets and flying machines. Surely once they were wed, he would understand she would die of boredom overseeing the household and stillroom and all those country housewife things, or, worse, being the London hostess for a member of the House of Lords. She accepted his proposal when he was plain Mr. Giles, a younger son. His becoming the earl due to an unfortunate accident to his elder brother did not change her. It certainly did not change his feelings for her. Alone in the carriage, every time they were alone, he made that amply clear. Marriage would be even better. So much—
The carriage rocked again. More drunken voices shouted through the panels. The door handles rattled.
Cassandra gasped. “Geoffrey.”
“Stay down. I’ll fetch my pistols.” He started to rise. A strand of her hair caught on his cravat pin, halting him for a second.
And in that moment, the window glass shattered.
Cassandra screamed and ducked. Whittaker grabbed for his pistols. His feet tangled in Cassandra’s skirt, and they fell against the door—the door at which several revelers tugged. With their combined weight pushing and the bacchanalians pulling, the latch gave way. The door burst open.
And Cassandra tumbled into the arms of a torchbearer.