“And a formal white waistcoat, of course.”
“And a white neckcloth.”
“Naturally,” he replied in a tone of perfect gravity, inclining his head in a little bow.
Satisfied that he was duly forewarned, Miss Charity turned to Sherry and confided, “The patronesses once turned back the Duke of Wellington himself when he appeared at Almack’s in those dreadful trousers men wear nowadays, instead of formal knee breeches.” In a lightning switch of topic, she said, “You do know how to dance, do you not?”
“I—” Sherry hesitated and shook her head. “I’m not certain.”
“We must find you a dancing instructor then at once. You will need to learn the minuet, country dances, cotillions, and the waltz. But you must not dance the waltz anywhere until after the patronesses at Almack’s have approved you for it.” In a dire voice, she warned, “Were you to do it, it would be worse than if Langford weren’t appropriately attired, for he would not be admitted, so no one would know, while you would be thought ‘fast’ and therefore disgraced. Langford will lead you onto the floor for the first dance, then he may dance one more dance with you, but no more. Even two dances could be construed as singling you out for particular attention, which is the last thing we would wish to happen. Langford,” she said, startling
Stephen out of his study of Sherry’s flawless profile, “are you attending all this?”
“I am hanging on every word,” Stephen replied. “However, I believe Nicholas DuVille will wish the honor of escorting Miss Lancaster to the assembly and onto the floor for her first dance.” Leaning imperceptibly to the side to get a better look at Sherry’s reaction to his last announcement and his next one, he added, “I have another engagement next Wednesday and will have to content myself with a later place on her dance card for that evening.” Her expression didn’t change. She was looking at her hands in her lap, and he had the impression she was mortified by all this discussion of attracting suitors.
“The doors close at eleven sharp, and the Lord himself wouldn’t be admitted after that,” Miss Charity warned, and while Stephen was marvelling at her ability to remember some things and forget others, she said, “DuVille? Is that the same young man who once had a tendre for your sister-in-law?”
“I believe,” Stephen evaded cautiously, “that he is now quite taken with Miss Lancaster.”
“Excellent! Next to you, he is the best catch in England.”
“He will be ecstatic to know that,” Stephen replied, mentally applauding his sudden and inspired decision to force DuVille to escort Sherry to Almack’s hours before Stephen had to arrive. It was delightful vengeance just to envision the suave Frenchman surrounded like a trapped hare by a roomful of eager debutantes and their avaricious mothers who would look DuVille over like a choice meal, calculating his financial worth and wishing he had a title to go with it. Stephen hadn’t set foot in “The Marriage Mart” in over a decade, but he remembered it well: The gambling available in the anteroom was for stakes so low it was absurd, and the food was as boring as the gaming—weak tea, warm lemonade, tasteless cakes, orgeat, and bread and butter. Once DuVille had his two dances with Sherry, the rest of the evening would be sheer, undiluted purgatory for him.
Stephen, however, intended to escort Sherry to the opera himself the next night. She liked music—he knew that from the night he found her singing with the servants’ chorus—so she would surely enjoy Don Giovanni.
Arms folded over his chest, he watched Charity Thornton lecturing Sherry. When he first walked in to meet the new duenna, he’d taken one look at Charity Thornton and wondered if Whitticomb had lost his mind. But as he listened to her happy chatter, he decided the physician had actually made an excellent choice that would suit everyone, including Stephen, perfectly. When she wasn’t dozing, or pausing to remember something that suddenly evaded her, she was cheerful company. If anything, she amused Sherry, rather than intimidating or flustering her. He was thinking about all that when he realized the woman was talking about Sherry’s hair.
“Red is not at all the thing, you know, but once my excellent maid has cut it off and styled it, you won’t see so very much of it.”
“Leave it!” Stephen rapped the order out before he could stop himself or temper his tone, and the other three occupants all gaped at him.
“But Langford,” Miss Charity protested, “girls are wearing their hair short these days.”
Stephen knew he ought to stay out of it, knew it was not his place to interfere in an entirely feminine judgment about coiffeur, but the thought of Sherry’s heavy mass of shiny hair lying in a molten heap on the floor was unthinkable. “Do not cut her hair,” he said in a tone of icy command that sent most people scurrying for cover.
Inexplicably, his tone made Whitticomb smile.
It made Charity look chastened.
It made Sherry momentarily consider cutting her hair off at the nape.
Whitney smiled as she watched Sherry’s new maid put the finishing touches on her coiffeur. Downstairs Nicki was waiting to accompany Sherry and Charity Thornton to Almack’s for Sherry’s first official London appearance. Stephen was to join them there later, and the foursome would then proceed to the Rutherfords’ ball, where Whitney, Clayton, and the dowager duchess would lend their protection and influence to ensure that nothing went wrong during the Season’s most important opening ball. “Stephen was absolutely right when he implored you not to cut your hair.”
“He did not exactly implore me,” Sherry pointed out. “He forbade it.”
“I have to agree with him,” Stephen’s mother said. “It would have been a crime to cut such extraordinary hair.”
Sherry gave her a helpless smile, unable to argue the point, partly out of courtesy, but mostly because in the three days since Lord Westmoreland had told her she was to consider other suitors, Sherry had become very fond of Whitney Westmoreland and the dowager. They’d been with her almost constantly, accompanying her on her sightseeing and shopping excursions, watching as she had her dancing instructions, and telling her amusing stories about people she was going to meet. In the evenings they dined as a group with the earl and his brother.
Yesterday, Whitney had brought her three-year-old son, Noel, to the earl’s house, where Sheridan was having a dancing lesson in the ballroom given by a humorless dancing master who should have been a military general. With little Noel in her lap, Whitney and the dowager duchess, who was seated beside her, had watched as Sheridan tried to master the steps of dances she seemed never to have done. When the dancing master’s clipped orders began to embarrass her, Whitney had stood up and volunteered to dance with the dancing instructor so that Sherry could see how the steps were done. Sherry had happily switched places with her and held Noel in her lap. In no time at all, the dowager duchess decided to show both Whitney and Sherry some of the dances that were done in her day, and by the end of that session all three women were convulsed with laughter over the dancing master’s indignation when they began dancing with each other.
At supper that night, they regaled both men with hilarious descriptions of the lesson and the teacher. Sherry had dreaded that first supper with her reluctant fiancé, but the presence of the dowager, Whitney, and the duke served as a buffer and a distraction. Sherry was inclined to think that that was exactly their purpose in coming to supper. If that was their plan, it was certainly effective, because by the end of that first evening, Sherry was able to be in the earl’s presence and to treat him with courtesy, but nothing more and nothing less. There were times when she had the gratifying feeling that it irritated him to have her treat him thus, times when she was laughing with his brother, that she caught the earl frowning, as if he were piqued about something. There were also times when Sherry felt as if Clayton Westmoreland was perfectly aware of his brother’s unreliable disposition, and that for some reason the duke found it amusing. For her part, Sherry thought the Duke of Claymore was the kindest, most amiable, charming man she had ever met. She said as much to the earl the following morning when he surprised her by coming down early for breakfast. In hopes of avoiding him, she’d begun eating earlier and in the morning room, and so she’d been surprised when he wandered in as if he’d always dined there instead of in the grandeur of his dining room. She was equally surprised when her praise of his brother’s disposition and character caused the earl’s mood to take a sudden turn for the sarcastic as he said, “I’m happy to know you have met your ideal of the perfect man.” He then had gotten up from the table, with his breakfast not finished, and with an excuse about having work to do, he had left Sherry sitting alone at the table staring after him in stupefaction. Last night after supper he’d gone to the theatre with a friend and the night before to another late function, and Hodgkin said he’d returned each night just before dawn.
Whitney and his mother had arrived shortly afterward and found her sitting at the table, wondering if lack of adequate sleep was making him cross. When she explained to both women about his ill humor and what had preceded it, Whitney and the duchess looked at each other and exclaimed in unison, “He’s jealous!” That possibility, though seemingly unlikely, had been intriguing enough that when Nicholas DuVille called for her in the afternoon to take her for a brief ride in the park, Sherry had made it a point to c
omment on his attributes as a cheerful and amiable companion in the drawing room before supper that night. The earl’s reaction had been similar to his reaction that morning, though his words were different. “You’re certainly easy to please,” he said scornfully.
Since Whitney and the dowager had asked to be kept apprised of everything Stephen said and did, Sherry shared his comment with them the next morning, and they again chorused, “He’s jealous!”
Sherry wasn’t certain if she was pleased or not. She only knew that she was afraid to believe he really cared for her, but a part of her was completely unable to stop hoping that he did.
She knew he was coming to Almack’s tonight to single her out for attention because Charity Thornton thought that would assure Sherry’s instant popularity. Sherry wasn’t interested in popularity; she was only interested in not shaming herself or his family or him. She’d been nervous all afternoon about the evening to come, but Whitney had arrived unexpectedly to keep her company while she dressed for the evening, an activity that had taken so much time she was actually beginning to long to be on her way.
A seamstress stood off to the side, holding a spectacular gown that had been completed only minutes ago, and Sherry again glanced at the clock. “I am keeping Monsieur DuVille waiting,” she said nervously.
“I am perfectly certain Nicholas expects to be kept waiting,” Whitney said dryly, but it wasn’t Nicholas DuVille Sherry was concerned about. Lord Westmoreland was downstairs, and she hoped to see if the final effect of all this preparation had any noticeable effect on the way he looked at her.
“All ready—no, don’t look yet,” Whitney said, when Sherry started to turn to the mirror to see her new coiffeur. “Wait until you have your gown on, so that you can see the full effect.” Smiling whimsically, she added, “I was staying with my aunt and uncle in Paris when I was of an age to make my first appearance in Society. I had never seen myself done up in a real gown until the moment my aunt let me turn around and look in the mirror.”