In the sitting room:
Off in the sitting room in another part of the manor, Serena and Cassandra were giggling like teenagers. After the meal, when Caleb had taken his leave, they'd decided to spend the remainder of the evening back in the sitting room where they'd met. At some point they'd grown curious to taste some of Caleb's brandy and now they sat on the sofa before the fire, sipping their third snifter of brandy each.
With a delighted grin on her face, Cassandra laughed, "I don't know why I've never tried this before. It's really quite good once you've had a few sips."
Smiling in return, Serena teased, "I'd hardly say we've had just a few sips." Her eyes lifted to the half empty decanter. With a devilish look, she imagined Caleb would wonder about it at some point. "But in any case, I often snitch a small taste of my father's before bedtime. It helps me to sleep when I'm nervous about things."
Cassandra frowned now. She wondered if it would be possible to try that at her own home. Who would care what her father was like if she felt this oblivious when he was with her? Her mind was swirling and she found it difficult to remain focused on her thoughts. Forgetting herself, she commented, "My father would beat me anyway."
Serena paused with a look of disbelief. "For sticking your fingers in the bottle? I know it isn't done, but'"
A burst of laughter erupted from Cassandra and she qualified, "No, he would beat me for anything. This, that'" Her head flew back and forth in no particular direction. Sitting forward, she shushed Serena unnecessarily and looked around the room as though the walls had ears. "He's a little unperdictble like that." An unladylike hiccup followed the comment. She hastily covered her mouth by way of an apology. "Scuze me," she offered.
Frowning deeper, Serena tried to make reason of what Cassandra had unwittingly revealed. The liquor had quelled her inhibitions and she found herself acting out of character by probing for detail.
"What do you mean by that? Your father honestly beats you? It's all right. You can tell me you know."
Overwhelmed by emotion, tears came to Cassandra's eyes and she shook her head as her cheeks dampened. "No, I couldn't'shouldn't' I should have said nothing. It isn't proper to speak about my father this way. And, Caleb'd kill him' I heard him say so, and I don't want anything to happen to him. I love Caleb. He could get in trouble for it. So, oh'" She grasped Serena's hand and suddenly begged, "Please don't say a word to him about this. I would die of embarrassment. I really would!"
Serena was worried as she tried to think rationally. Instinct told her it was better to pacify Cassandra's growing hysteria. "No, of course I won't say anything you tell me. We are friends and I would never break your trust. But, please tell me, is he cruel to you? Is that why you come here to Damon Manor so often?" She knew that was the reason.
Tears fell unchecked down Cassandra's face now and she bowed her head to hide it from Serena. "I cannot talk of this. I wish I could, but I just don't want anyone to get hurt'"
As Cassandra's words turned to sobs, Serena's heart felt like breaking for her. Feeling that Cassandra needed comfort more than words, she offered her hand gently and stroked Cassandra's hair. She couldn't believe this sudden turn of events. She knew it was happening because of the liquor. It often forced her to dwell on her own unhappiness when she drank too much of the stuff.
She moved closer to Cassandra and gave her a reassuring hug. "You are a strong woman, Cassandra. All will be well soon. You will see. Perhaps if living at home is so bad, you should consider looking for a mate."
Allowing Serena to embrace her, she sank gratefully into her arms. She sniffled and shook her head. "Men are not nice. I would never wish to marry one."
Thinking quickly, she offered, "You like Caleb well enough, and he is a man."
"Yes," she agreed and remained in Serena's arms. She stared into the fire as she said, "But, my sister was his wife. I could never betray her in such a way. And, really, he isn't interested in me."
Serena shifted her head to stare into the fire as well. Resting her head atop Cassandra's she continued to stroke her hair in comfort. Deciding to change tactics, she said, "It just goes to prove that there are nice men out there though. You just admitted that you think Caleb is nice. Somewhere out there is probably a very nice man who would make you happy. There must be someone who can take you away from your father if he's so horrible to bear."
In a pessimistic mood, Cassandra argued, "I would never find that man. Besides, he would probably find me repulsive, even if I did."
Scoffing at the notion, Serena said, "I sincerely doubt that!"
"You don't know," Serena tried to explain. "You don't know what I am. That man would be repulsed. He would be'"
"Nonsense!" In defense of her, Serena insisted, "There is no man alive who would think you are anything but a beautiful and kind woman. You should have more confidence in yourself." Gaining a new thought, she said, "Just wait until tomorrow! There ought to be many eligible men at the party. Just you wait and see how many will ask you to dance."
Sighing dreamily, Cassandra asked, "Do you honestly think that could happen?" She sat up and dried her eyes, refusing to believe it. When they found out' As soon as they knew'
"Why don't you go up to bed and think on it," Serena suggested. It was getting late and a little sleep might do Cassandra some good. It would give her a little time to think and contemplate this issue as well.
Sniffing one last time, she patted her eyes with the hem of her skirt. Nodding, she asked once more, "Do you swear that you will keep this between us, Serena? Truly, it will do more harm than good too'"
Placing a hand of reassurance on her arm, Serena promised, "I will not say a word of it to anyone."
A long stare passed between them. Finally, Cassandra stood up. Her head was ever more fuzzy and she suddenly started laughing again. Shaking her head wearily, she said, "I think I shall not forget this night too soon."
Musing at the comment, Serena thought just the opposite. You will likely forget it all by morning, she thought.
After Cassandra left the room, Serena remained sipping her brandy, contemplating what Cassandra had said. She knew better than to dwell on it as she stared into the fire, but she couldn't help worrying for her new found friend. It made her own concerns in life seem petty by comparison.
Just as she was standing to take her leave, she saw Jacob passing by the room. She hurried toward the door, hoping he'd continue on his path to wherever he was bound, but he'd caught a glimpse of her in the darkened room. He paused mid-step to turn back. She saw that he was about to enter the room.
Her anxiety was not well concealed as she greeted him hesitantly in the doorway. Remembering how cross she'd been with him earlier, she found it unnerving to remain in his presence right now.
"Jacob, hello. I was uh'just about to'"
He nodded obligingly. "I know," he teased, "you were already about to leave. My arrival has nothing to do with it."
Looking away from him in embarrassment, she hedged, "No, I uh' Well, I have to be up early in the morning and everything."
Catching the hazy look in her eyes, his amusement showed as he pointedly stared down at the remaining brandy in the glass that she still held. "Well, I had no idea," his smile brightened. His brow shot up in feigned surprise.
That comment sparked defiance in her. She knew it was beyond the realm of society for women to indulge themselves.
"It helps me to sleep when I'm anxious," she replied defensively.
Again he shot her a look of surprise as his brows rose ever-higher in mock disbelief. "You? I cannot imagine such a thought. What could you possibly be concerned about? Not my earlier stupidity still bothering you, I hope."
Feeling herself blush a little, she rose to the challenge by admitting, "Actually, you have been nowhere in my thoughts at all this evening." Flipping her hair at him, she stepped back into the room to place her glass on a shelf before returning to the door where he still stood.
He'd had no idea she could deliver such a barb. The insult struck home, though he refused to admit it.
"I'm crushed," he remarked with a teasing smile.
"Good," she quipped. "I've no time to spare for a person who gains pleasure in insulting others. Your attack against Cassandra was completely unjust. And for that, I hope you are truly remorseful."
This time he could not hide his dismay. If Serena had any idea, would she think him so callous right now? Would she still condemn him for indulging the emotions he could no longer control?
Nodding, he agreed, "I guess I deserve that one too." Turning away, he passed by her and walked into the room.
Realizing there was something about him she did not understand, she felt decidedly guilty for her last remark. It was obvious there was more behind his earlier mood than she knew. Thinking he might have been bothered by something more pressing at the time, she decided to try and comfort him rather than continue this attack against him.
She stepped further into the room, standing a few feet away from him. "It just wasn't like you to be so abrupt with someone. Why were you so upset?" She waited patiently, wondering if he would answer her.
He shook his head disdainfully and looked back to her. "It wouldn't matter anyway I suppose."
Believing it must matter, she pressed, "Do you dislike Cassandra? Or, were you bothered by something else at the time?" She couldn't imagine Jacob disliking anyone.
Releasing a tense sigh, he said, "I do not dislike Cassandra, and it really doesn't matter anymore. If it pleases you to know, I will do my utmost to curtail any further remarks like that to her."
"You sound as if it would be a chore to be pleasant to her," she noted curiously. "Has she done something to'"
He shook his head immediately and denied, "Cassandra has done nothing to me. She is an angel. She rarely even acknowledges that I live, so how could she have done anything to hurt me?"
The moment he'd said it, he could see the look of wonder crossing Serena's face. He regretted having made that statement almost immediately. He could see the questions forming in her eyes and he turned away to stare into the fire. He should have said nothing at all.
The brandy was allowing Serena a greater sense of freedom from her usually reserved personality. She was unable to keep from asking, "Would you wish that she noticed you?" She had seen the look of wanting that had come into his eyes when he'd made that comment. It suddenly occurred to her why he might have acted that way. She couldn't believe it!
"It really doesn't matter," he said. "And this is a very pointless conversation'"
Just as he would have passed by her to leave the room, she touched his arm to force him to stay. "No, I think it is a very important conversation. If you have feelings for her, you should tell her so." She was pushing the issue and she knew it, but remembering Cassandra's plight, she felt obligated to push him. "It might do some good if you were to'"
"You don't know what you're saying," he argued. Trying to change the subject, he said, "If you had not drunk that brandy, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now. I think it has opened your mind to fantasy."
Insulted again, she insisted, "I am not fantasizing this. And do not criticize my indulgence in the liquor. I had not intended on meeting with you in here. I would have gone off to bed if you hadn't interrupted me."
Raising his brows once more, he asked, "Who is stopping you from going now? If it is not the brandy or my delightful personality keeping you here, then what is? As you so gleefully pointed out earlier, my crude tongue is not all that appealing it seems."
Stung by his suggestive comments, she would have marched straight passed him out of the room, but one persistent thought crept into her mind. She couldn't seem to let it go. He was purposely being rude to her, just as he had been with Cassandra that day. She refused to fall for it. This was not his true character. Though she was hurt by his remarks, she stood her ground.
He could see she was put off by his mood, but he didn't care. He would not allow anyone to probe his personal life. This was one subject he could not discuss with anyone. It would be futile and pointless!
Nodding at last, he said, "If you insist on remaining, then I will leave."
Surprised that he'd given up so easily, she was a little disappointed as he walked to the door. "What's bothering you so much that you would intentionally try to hurt my feelings," she shouted at his back. She knew it was not what he wanted to do. "You weren't like this in the game room. So, what has changed in you?"
Jacob paused just outside the door. He closed his eyes for a moment trying to reason it out in his head. She was right, he knew. He didn't want to hurt her feelings anymore than he'd wanted to hurt Cassandra's. He just wasn't himself when Cassandra was in the manor.
"Look," he turned around at last, "I am sorry for what I said. It is not with you that I'm upset and it's wrong for me to let you believe that."
"Who are you upset with then, Jacob," she wanted to know. She could see that he was upset about something.
"Myself," he answered quietly. "Ridiculous as it may sound, I just grow tired of being second in everyone's world around here. I am heir to nothing. I will never have a title or rights to this manor. This place will pass down to Caleb's heirs and then theirs. Nothing I do will ever amount to anything."
Frowning, she walked closer and said, "One day you will have a wife to love and children of your own. That is not nothing." That was all she'd ever be able to hope for as well. It would have to be enough.
He laughed at her naivet' and explained, "It seems that would be enough for anyone, but for me it is a dream. With Elizabeth gone, no woman in this keep would have eyes for me. Until the day that Caleb weds again, I am fated to remain alone."
Biting her lip, Serena could not believe that was true. How could there be no woman in this man's life? "I think you're mistaken. You must have had relationships in the past. You must have been in love before. So how could that be if no one finds you appealing?" It was a ridiculous thought. Jacob, alone?
He stepped back from the doorway and said, "In order to love, you must be loved in return. Since that has never been the case in my life, I believe you are the one who is mistaken." He began to walk down the hallway and turned back after a moment to say, "Who could object to this lifestyle though, right? Everything I need? So, who could care for the burden of a relationship? It's a fantasy anyway'"
Serena was at a loss for words as he turned the corner at the end of the hall. As she too left the room, she felt a great heaviness in her heart for him. Could that be possible? Jacob had never been in a relationship in his lifetime? It was unbelievable.
In order to love, you must be loved in return' Those had been his words. Did that mean he had never loved someone or that someone had never loved him?
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