Until You (Westmoreland Saga 3) - Page 35

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“Really?” Sherry said, wondering how that could be true when from all she’d seen and read, wealthy English girls were turned out like princesses from the time they were quite little.

Whitney saw the question she was too polite to ask, and laughed. “I was a late bloomer.’?”

Sheridan found it impossible to imagine that the gorgeous brunette seated on the edge of the bed had ever known an awkward moment in her life, and she said so.

“Until shortly before that night in Paris, my two greatest ambitions were to master the use of a slingshot, and to force a local boy to fall madly in love with me. Which is why,” she finished with a confiding smile, “I was sent off to France in the first place. No one could think what else to do with me in order to stop me from disgracing myself.”

Sherry’s joking reply was muffled as the maid and seamstress gently lowered the gown over her head. Behind her, the dowager duchess walked into the bedchamber. “I was too eager to see how you looked to wait until we saw you at the Rutherfords’,” she confided, standing back and watching the robing procedure.

“Is Monsieur DuVille annoyed because this is taking so long?” Sherry asked, lowering her arms and obediently turning around so that her helpers could begin to fasten the tiny hooks at the back of her gown.

“Not in the least. He is having a glass of sherry with his Stephen, and—Oh!” she breathed as Sherry turned around.

“Please do not tell me anything is wrong,” Sherry said. “I refuse to endure one second more of primping.”

When Stephen’s mother didn’t seem able to speak, Sherry turned to Whitney, who was slowly standing up, a smile dawning across her face.

“I wish someone would say something,” Sherry said anxiously.

“Show Miss Lancaster how she looks,” Whitney said to the maid, already longing to see Stephen’s reaction when he witnessed the transformation. “No, wait—gloves first, and the fan.” To Sherry, she added, “You must have the full effect when you see yourself, don’t you agree?”

Sherry had no idea if she agreed. With an inexplicable combination of anticipation and grave foreboding, she drew on the long, ivory, elbow-length gloves, took the ivory and gold fan the maid held out to her, then she turned and slowly lifted her gaze to the full-length looking glass that the maids were holding.

Her lips parted in pleasure and disbelief at the gorgeously gowned woman looking back at her.

“I look . . . very nice!” she exclaimed.

Stephen’s mother shook her head incredulously. “That is an understatement.”

“A masterpiece of understatement,” Whitney agreed, so eager to see Stephen’s reaction that she had to suppress the temptation to grab Sherry’s hand and drag the younger woman downstairs to the salon, where she knew he would be waiting with Nicki and Miss Charity.

29

Originally, Stephen had been amused at the thought of forcing Nicholas DuVille to spend a large part of his evening at Almack’s—and under the watchful eye of Charity Thornton, no less—but now that the moment for their departure was near, he was far less pleased with his joke. As he sat in the drawing room, listening to Miss Thornton and DuVille chatting while they waited for Sherry to come downstairs, Stephen noticed that the elderly peagoose seemed to hang on to DuVille’s every word and to beam approvingly at him as he uttered each syllable—an attitude that struck Stephen not only as highly inappropriate in a chaperone but damned incomprehensible, considering that DuVille’s reputation as a womanizer was legendary.

“Here they are now!” Charity Thornton said excitedly, tipping her head toward the hall and bolting to her feet with more enthusiasm and energy than she’d displayed all week. “We shall have such a wonderful evening! Come along, Monsieur DuVille,” she said, gathering up her shawl and reticule.

Stephen followed them into the entry hall, where DuVille stopped to gaze at the staircase as if transfixed, an appreciative smile working its way across his face. Stephen followed the direction of his gaze, and what he saw filled him with bursting pride. Coming down the staircase, wrapped in a gold-spangled gown of ivory satin, was the same woman who’d dined with him in an overlarge peignoir and bare feet. Considering how delectable she’d looked that way, he should have expected her to be a sensation in a formal gown, but somehow he wasn’t prepared for what he saw. Her hair was pulled back off her forehead and entwined with slender ropes of pearls at the crown, then it spilled over her shoulders in a tumble of molten waves and curls. She took his breath away.

She suspected it too, Stephen realized, because although she’d looked through him as if he were invisible for most of the last four days, she was finally looking at him . . . not for long of course. Only a fleeting glance to see his reaction, but he let her see it.

“Madam,” he said, “I shall have to hire an army of chaperones after tonight.”

Until that moment, Sherry had almost managed to forget that his whole purpose for this expensive charade was to lure suitors so that he could hand her off to someone else, but his unhidden pleasure in the thought that she might attract considerable notice came as an agonizing reminder. It cut so deeply—coming in the precise moment when she had thought she actually looked nice, and hoped he might also—that she went numb inside. Extending her hand for his kiss, she said with quiet, but unmistakable, determination, “I will endeavor to make certain you need to do exactly that.”

Inexplicably, that rejoinder made his dark brows snap together into a frown of displeasure. “Don’t ‘endeavor’ too much; that is how reputations are made.”

30

“What was that all about, Damson?” Stephen glanced at his valet in the mirror as he deftly tied the last of a series of elaborate knots into his white neckcloth, then leaned forward and ran a hand over his jaw to check the closeness of his shave.

“Mr. Hodgkin thought you ought to be given this letter before you left, in case it was important,” Damson said as he laid the tattered missive on the bed and went about the more pressing business of seeing that his lordship was properly turned out for an evening at Almack’s. Removing a formal black coat with long tails from one of the wardrobes, he padded across the suite, shaking out nonexistent wrinkles from it. Holding up the coat, he waited while Stephen plunged his arms into the sleeves, then he smoothed his hands over the shoulders, adjusted the front, and stepped back to survey the excellent results of his care and attention.

“Did Hodgkin say who the letter was from?” Stephen asked, tugging his shirt cuffs into position and adjusting the sapphire studs at the cuff.

“Lord Burleton’s former landlord had it sent round to you. It was directed to the baron at his old lodgings.”

Stephen nodded without much interest. He had settled Burleton’s bill with his landlord and directed that gentleman to forward all of Burleton’s mail to him. So far all the mail had been from establishments where Burleton had made purchases for which he had not paid. Having deprived Burleton of his life and the opportunity to clear his debts himself, Stephen felt honor-bound to do so in his behalf.

“Give it to my secretary,” Stephen said, in a hurry to be off. He’d promised to join his brother for a few leisurely hands of cards or rounds of faro at The Strathmore, and he was running late. After an hour or two of high-stakes gambling, he planned to put in his appearance at Almack’s, and at the earliest possible opportunity, whisk her out of the “Marriage Mart,” and then to Lord Rutherford’s ball, which would be far more enjoyable for both of them. DuVille, he decided with amused satisfaction, could content himself with escorting Charity Thornton to the Rutherfords’.

“I suggested Mr. Hodgkin give it to your secretary, my lord,” Damson replied, vigorously brushing away any invisible but offensive bits that might have decided to implant themselves somewhere on his lordship’s immaculate person. “But he was very insistent that you see it, lest it turn out to be news of import. It was posted from America.”

Thinking it was probably a charge for something Burleton ha

d purchased while he was visiting there, Stephen reached for the letter and headed downstairs, opening it as he walked.

“McReedy is out front with the coach,” Colfax advised him, holding out his gloves, but Stephen neither heard nor saw him.

All his attention was riveted on the contents of the letter sent to Burleton by Charise Lancaster’s father’s solicitor.

Colfax noted his employer’s deep preoccupation with the letter and his darkening expression and immediately worried that the letter’s contents might somehow cause the earl to alter his plans for the evening. “Miss Lancaster was certainly in her best looks when she left for Almack’s—and very much anticipating her evening, if I may say so,” he pointedly remarked. It was the truth, but it was also Colfax’s cautiously worded reminder, spoken out of fondness for the American girl, that the earl’s appearance at Almack’s in her behalf was vitally important.

Stephen slowly refolded the letter and stared past the butler, his thoughts clearly on something, something far removed from Almack’s—and very dire. He left without a word, his strides long and purposeful, as he headed toward his waiting coach.

“I fear it was disagreeable news, Hodgkin,” Colfax said to the under-butler who was hovering worriedly at the edge of the hall. “Very disagreeable indeed.” He hesitated, feeling it was beneath his dignity to conjecture, but his concern for the lovely American girl overrode even his abiding concern for his dignity. “The missive was addressed to Lord Burleton . . . perhaps it pertained only to him, and had naught to do with Miss Lancaster.”

31

Situated in St. James’s Square behind a dark green canopy that stretched from the front door to the street, The Strathmore catered to a relatively small, highly select group of the nobility who preferred to gamble in more luxurious surroundings than the glaringly lit, noisy game rooms at White’s, and to partake of better fare than the tasteless boiled fowl, beef steaks, and apple tarts served at Brooks’s and White’s.

In contrast to Brooks’s, White’s, and Watier’s, The Strathmore had been founded by, and was owned by, its one hundred and fifty illustrious members, rather than by an outside proprietor. Membership was handed down from generation to generation and was rigidly limited to the descendants of its original founders. The club existed, not to make a profit, but to provide an unbreachable, comfortable fortress where members could bet staggering fortunes on a hand of cards, talk in desultory tones without having to shout to be heard, and dine on superb fare prepared by its French and Italian chefs. Discretion was expected from—and granted to—each member. Gossip about members’ giant losses and gains at the gaming tables spread from White’s and Brooks’s and then all over London like wildfire. At The Strathmore, where the stakes were astronomical by comparison, not a word about such things ever passed beyond The Strathmore’s green canopy. Within the club’s confines, however, gossip was passed from member to member and room to room with astonishing alacrity and considerable masculine enjoyment.

Guests were not allowed beyond the marble pillars that flanked the front door, even if accompanied by members, a discovery that had enraged Beau Brummell when he attempted to gain entry during the days he reigned supreme at every other fashionable gentlemen’s club in London.

Prinny himself had been denied membership on the grounds that he was not a descendant of the founders, which caused the then-Prince Regent to react with as much ire as Brummell but with uncharacteristic common sense and foresight: He founded his own club, installed two of the royal chefs in prominent positions, and named it Watier’s, after one of his chefs. The Prince Regent could not, however, replicate the aura of hushed dignity—of utter exclusivity and understated elegance—that pervaded the spacious rooms.

Nodding absently to the manager, who greeted him with a bow at the door, Stephen wended his way through the large, oak-panelled rooms, paying scarcely more attention to the members conversing in comfortable, high-backed dark green leather chairs or seated at the gambling tables, than he had to the club’s employee. The third room he came to was virtually deserted, which suited him perfectly, and he sat down at a table with three vacant chairs. Staring fixedly into the empty fireplace, he considered the grave contents of the letter and contemplated the most momentous decision of his life.

The more he thought about the problem the letter created, the more obvious the solution became . . . and the better he felt about it. In the space of half an hour, Stephen’s mood veered from grim to thoughtful to philosophical—and finally to gladness. Even without the letter, Stephen knew that he probably would have ended up doing exactly what he was about to do. The difference was that the contents of the letter virtually obliged him to do it, which meant he could act on his desire without surrendering all claim to honor and decency. From the moment he’d told Sherry that he wanted her to consider other suitors, he’d regretted it. He could hardly contain his jealousy if she praised DuVille, and he had no idea to what irrational lengths he might have gone when other suitors started appearing at his door. No doubt the day would have soon come when some besotted suitor screwed up the courage to ask Stephen for her hand, and found himself sprawled in the street instead.

Whenever she was in a room with him, Stephen had trouble keeping his eyes off of her, and if they were alone, it took all of his control to keep his hands off of her. If she was gone, he couldn’t seem to keep his mind off of her. Sherry wanted him too. He’d known that from the very first, and she hadn’t changed, no matter how much she tried to behave as if he were merely a distant acquaintance with whom she had little in common. She’d melt in his arms again if he kept her there for longer than a few moments, he was certain of it.

His brother’s joking remark made Stephen look up in surprise. “At the risk of intruding on what appears to be a complicated discussion you’re having with yourself,” Clayton drawled, “would you care to include me in it, or would you rather play cards?” A half-finished drink was on the table in front of him, and as Stephen glanced around the room, he noticed it had filled up considerably since he had arrived.

While Clayton waited with lifted brows for his decision, Stephen leaned back in his chair and contemplated for the last time the decision he’d made and the desirability of acting on it at once. Since that was exactly what he wanted to do, he considered only the advantages of haste and ignored any disadvantages. “I’d prefer to talk,” he said. “I’m not in the mood for cards.”

“I noticed that. So did Wakefield and Hawthorne who invited us to join them while you were lost in thought.”

“I didn’t realize they were here,” Stephen admitted, looking over his shoulder for the two friends he’d inadvertently offended. “Where are they now?”

“Nursing their affronted sensibilities at the faro table.” Despite his offhand manner, Clayton was very aware that something important was on Stephen’s mind. Hoping for an explanation, he waited patiently for a few moments, and finally said, “Did you have any particular topic of conversation in mind, or should I choose one?”

In answer, Stephen reached into his pocket and withdrew the letter that had arrived from Charise’s father’s solicitor. “This is the topic on my mind at the moment,” he said, handing it to his brother along with the modest bank draft that accompanied it.

Clayton unfolded the letter and began to read.

Dear Miss Lancaster,

I have directed this letter to your new husband so that he may first prepare you for the news it contains.

It is with deep personal regret that I must inform you of the death of my friend, your father. I was with him at the end, and it is for your own sake, that I tell you he expressed regret for what he felt were his many failures in your upbringing, including having spoiled you by giving you everything and too much of it.

He wanted you to attend the best schools, and to make a brilliant marriage. He accomplished all those goals, but in doing so and in providing your large dowry, he spent virtually all that he had, and mortgaged the rest. The bank dra

ft I have enclosed represents the full value of his assets as they are known to me.

I know you and your father disagreed on many things, Miss Lancaster, but it is my fond hope—as it was his—that you will someday appreciate his efforts on your behalf and make the best of your opportunities. Like you, Cyrus was strong-willed and hot-tempered. Perhaps it is those very similarities that you shared with him which prevented the two of you from seeking a better understanding.

Perhaps that lack of closeness will now enable you to cope better with the news of his death than might otherwise have been. More likely, you will feel a deep regret someday when you realize that it is too late to say and do those things which might have mended the rifts between the two of you.

In his desire to spare you such painful thoughts, your father instructed me to tell you that, though he may not have shown it, he loved you, and though you did not show it, he died believing you also loved him.

Finished, Clayton handed the letter back, his somber expression reflecting the same regret and concern that Stephen felt for Sherry . . . and the same puzzlement over some of what he read. “A pity about her father,” he said. “She has had a staggering run of ill luck. Although it is probably fortunate that they weren’t close.” After a moment’s hesitation, he frowned and added, “What do you make of the solicitor’s tone? The young woman he referred to in that letter is nothing like the one I’ve met.”

“Nor I,” Stephen confirmed. “Except for her willfulness and temper,” he amended with a wry grin. “Other than that, I can only assume her father—and his solicitor—must have been of like minds when it came to raising females, and both regarded any sort of spirit as intolerable defiance.”

“That is the same conclusion I reached, based on my knowledge of my father-in-law.”


Tags: Judith McNaught Westmoreland Saga Romance
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