“The titles Stephen inherited were old and prestigious, but the land and income that went with them were insignificant. However—and here is where everything began to go ‘wrong,’ as it were—Stephen was already doubling and redoubling his own wealth. He loves architecture and studied it at university, so he bought fifty thousand of the most beautiful rolling acres imaginable and began working on a design for a house that would serve as his primary seat. While that house was under construction, he bought three lovely old estates in different parts of England, and began restoration on them as well. So there you have the whole picture—a man who was already wealthy, handsome, and from one of the most important families in England, and who, quite suddenly, acquired three titles, amassed a very large fortune, and bought four splendid estates. Can’t you guess what happened next?”
“I presume he moved into one of his new homes.”
Whitney gaped at her in laughing delight, pleased at her straightforward outlook and lack of guile. “He did do that,” she said after a moment, “but that’s not to the point.”
“I don’t understand.”
“What happened was that a thousand families who would settle for nothing less than a titled husband for their daughters—and daughters who expected nothing less than that for themselves—suddenly added Stephen Westmoreland to their lists of desirable husbands. To the very top of their lists, in fact. Stephen’s desirability and popularity exploded so quickly and so—so noticeably—that it was rather appalling to see. Because he was nearly thirty at the time, it was believed he would have to wed very soon, and that added a degree of desperation and urgency to the chase. Entire families descended on him if he walked into a room, daughters were thrust in his way—subtly of course—no matter where he went.
“Most men with titles and fortunes are born to them, as my husband was, and they learn to accept and ignore all that, though my husband admitted to me there were many times he felt like a hunted hare. In Stephen’s case, it all seemed to happen overnight. If it had been otherwise, if the change hadn’t been so sudden and drastic, Stephen might have adjusted to it with more patience, or at least more tolerance. And I think he still would have done so if he hadn’t also gotten involved with Emily Kendall.”
Sherry felt her stomach clench at the mention of a woman he’d been “involved” with, and at the same time she was helpless to control her curiosity. “What happened?” she asked when Whitney hesitated.
“Before I tell you, you will have to give me your pledge never to breathe a word of this to anyone.”
Whitney got up and restlessly wandered over to the windows, then she turned and leaned back against the pane, her hands behind her back, her face somber. “Stephen met Emily two years before he inherited his titles. She was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, and one of the wittiest and most amusing . . . and haughty. I thought her haughty. In any case, half the bachelors in England were mad about her, and Stephen was one of them, though he was clever enough not to let her see it. She had the most amazing way of bringing men to their knees, but Stephen wouldn’t bend to her, and I suppose that was part of his appeal—the challenge. In what I can only think of as a moment of madness, Stephen asked her to marry him. She was stunned.”
“Because he loved her?” Sherry asked.
“Because he was so dreadful as to ask her.”
“According to my husband, who had the story directly from Stephen, Emily’s primary reaction was shock and then anguish that he’d put her in such an untenable position. She was—is—the daughter of a duke, and it seemed that her family would not countenance a marriage to a mere mister. She was to be married in a fortnight to William Lathrop, the Marquess of Glengarmon, an old man whose father’s estate marched beside Emily’s father’s. No one knew about the betrothal as yet because it had just been finalized. Emily burst into tears and told Stephen that, before he’d asked her to marry him, she had at least been able to resign herself to marrying Lord Lathrop, but that now, her life was going to be unbearable. Stephen was furious that she was to be ‘wasted’ on a pathetic old man, but she convinced him there was no point in trying to reason with her father—which he actually wanted to do, even though he knew perfectly well that it is a daughter’s duty to marry wherever her family wills.”
She paused and gave Sherry an abashed smile and added, “I did not necessarily agree with that when my father claimed the right to choose a husband for me.” Returning to the story, she continued, “In any case, when Stephen still insisted on talking to her father, Emily told him he would beat her if he knew she’d complained to Stephen about her fate or her feelings about Lord Lathrop.”
“And so they parted?” Sherry ventured when Whitney seemed to hesitate.
“I only wish they had! Instead, Emily convinced him that the only way she could endure her fate, now that she knew he loved her, was if they continued their . . . friendship . . . after she was married.” Sherry frowned because it was difficult to hear about how much he had loved another. Whitney mistook her frown for disapproval and hastened to defend the indefensible, partly out of loyalty to Stephen and partly so that Sherry wouldn’t condemn him out of hand. Unfortunately, within moments she found herself on shaky ground as she tried to impart information while obscuring its full meaning. “It’s not that unusual or even scandalous. Amongst the ton, there are many females who desire the . . . attention . . . and the . . . companionship of an attractive man whom they know . . . ah . . . think . . . would be very . . . entertaining in . . . er . . . a-variety-of-ways,” Whitney finished breathlessly. “It’s all very discreet, of course.”
“You mean they must be sly about their friendship?”
“I suppose you could say that,” Whitney said, as it dawned on her that Sherry was blissfully unaware that Stephen had been much more than Emily’s “friend” during her marriage, and that they were not discussing friendships at all. In retrospect, Whitney realized she should have expected that. Well-bred English girls often had no clear idea of what couples did in the bedchamber, but they usually had overheard the gossip of older sisters and other married females. By the time they were Sherry’s age, they at least suspected that something more than friendly handshakes occurred.
“What happens if the truth is discovered?”
Having gotten by this far by telling truth with impunity, Whitney stuck to the same practice with the rest of her questions. “Then the husband is usually displeased, particularly if there has been cause for gossip.”
“And if he is displeased, does he insist that his wife restrict herself to female companions?”
“Yes, but he occasionally has a discussion with the gentleman as well.”
“What sort of discussion?”
“The sort that takes place at dawn at twenty paces.”
“A duel?” Sherry exclaimed, thinking that seemed like a severe overreaction to what had merely been, at worst, too close a friendship between opposite sexes to be seemly.
“A duel,” Whitney confirmed.
“And did Lord Westmoreland agree to continue being Emily Kendall’s—” She paused, discarding the word “suitor” because it sounded ridiculous if the lady was already married, “—her close friend,” she improvised, since that was correct, “even after she was married?”
“Yes, for over a year, until her husband found out about it.”
Sherry drew in a long breath, half afraid to ask. “Was there a duel?”
Since Lord Westmoreland was still very much alive, Sherry assumed Lord Lathrop was very much dead. “He killed him,” she said flatly.
“No, he didn’t, though it might well have come to that. I think Stephen may have intended that it should. He was desperately in love with Emily, and loyal to her to the point of blindness. He despised Lord Lathrop. He hated him for ever offering for Emily in the first place, for being a disgusting old roué who’d stolen her youth and life, and for being
too old to give her children. The morning of the duel, Stephen mentioned some of those opinions to him, though I’m certain he expressed himself more eloquently.”
“And then what happened?”
“The old marquess nearly died, but of shock, not from a pistol shot. It seems that Emily and her father, not he, had sought the marriage. Our Emily wanted to be a duchess, which she would have become when Lathrop’s ancient father died and Lathrop inherited his father’s title. On the morning of the duel, Stephen believed Lord Lathrop. He said no man alive could have feigned such a stunned reaction to Stephen’s accusations. Besides, Lathrop had no reason to lie.”
“Did they still duel?”