Until You (Westmoreland Saga 3) - Page 36

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“Lancaster must have been quite a pinchpenny if he regarded that ugly serviceable brown gown she was wearing on the ship as giving her ‘everything,’?” Stephen remarked as he stretched his long legs out in front of him, crossed them at the ankles, and settled more comfortably into the chair. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he glanced over his shoulder to signal a servant. “Champagne,” he requested in answer to the servant’s inquiry.

In the immediate aftermath of such grim news and its dire ramifications for Sherry, Clayton thought Stephen’s indolent posture, and his request for champagne, were both a little odd. He waited for some indication as to how and when he intended to break the news to her, but Stephen seemed perfectly content to watch the servant pour champagne into two glasses and place them on the table.

“What do you intend to do next?” Clayton finally demanded.

“Propose a toast,” Stephen said.

“To be more specific,” Clayton said, growing extremely impatient with his brother’s deliberate obtuseness, “when do you intend to tell her about the letter?”

“After we’re married.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Instead of repeating his answer, Stephen quirked an amused brow at his brother, picked up his champagne, and lifted the glass in a mock toast. “To our happiness,” he said dryly.

In the moment it took Stephen to drain the glass, Clayton recovered his composure, carefully disguised his delight with that turn of events, and stretched out in his own chair. He picked up his glass of champagne, but instead of drinking it, he turned it absently in his fingers while he eyed his brother with unhidden amusement.

“Are you wondering if I’m making a mistake?” Stephen asked finally.

“Not at all. I am merely wondering whether you’re aware that she seems to have developed a certain, shall we say, ‘mild aversion’ to you?”

“She wouldn’t throw water on me if I were on fire,” Stephen agreed “At least not if she had to come close to me to do it.’

“And do you see that as an obstacle to her accepting your generous offer of marriage?”

“Possibly,” Stephen said with a chuckle.

“In that case, how do you intend to persuade her to agree?”

“Actually,” Stephen lied straight-faced, “I thought I would point out how wrong it was of her to mistrust my intentions and integrity, and then I’ll prove it to her by proposing. Afterward, I’ll tell her that if she cares to ask my forgiveness, I’ll grant it to her.”

He was so convincing that his brother gave him a look of sarcastic disgust. “And then what do you suppose will happen?”

“And then I will spend the next few days and nights in the pleasant confines of my home.”

“With her, I presume?” Clayton mocked.

“No, with compresses on both my eyes.”

Clayton’s laughing rejoinder was interrupted by the return of Jordan Townsende, the Duke of Hawthorne, and Jason Fielding, Marquess of Wakefield. Since Stephen had nothing more to discuss with his brother, he invited them to stay and the four friends got down to the serious business of high-stakes gaming.

Concentrating proved to be difficult, however, because Stephen’s thoughts kept drifting to Sherry and their immediate future. Despite his joking banter about how he intended to propose to her, he had no notion of what he would actually say. It didn’t even seem important. All that mattered was that they were going to be together. She was actually going to be his, and without the taint, the lifelong guilt, that had made Stephen recoil from marrying young Burleton’s fiancée. Her father’s death made it imperative that she have someone to care for her—and for whom she cared—when she learned about it.

Their marriage would have happened anyway. Stephen accepted the truth of that now. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he’d known it from the moment she had confronted him in a robe tied with a gold curtain cord and her hair covered with a blue towel, reminding him of a barefoot Madonna—a Madonna with a horrifying problem. “My hair—it’s red!”

No, Stephen thought, he’d felt something for her even before that . . . from that very first morning when he awoke beside her bed and she’d asked him to describe her face. He’d looked into those mesmerizing gray eyes of hers and seen such courage, such softness. It had started then and was strengthened by everything she did and said. He loved her irreverent wit, her intelligence, and her unaffected warmth toward everyone she encountered. He loved the way she felt in his arms, and the way her mouth tasted. He loved her spirit and her fire and her sweetness. And especially her honesty.

After an adulthood surrounded by women who hid avarice behind inviting smiles and ambition behind lingering glances, and who pretended passion for a man when the only passion they were capable of feeling was for possessions, Stephen Westmoreland had finally found a woman who wanted only him.

And he was so damned happy, that he couldn’t decide what to buy her first. Jewels, he decided, as he paused to bet on his hand of cards. Carriages, horses, gowns, furs, but first the jewels . . . Fabulous jewels to set off her exquisite face and more to twine in her lustrous hair. Gowns adorned with . . .

Pearls! Stephen decided with an inner laugh as he recalled her mirthful commentary on the Countess of Evandale’s gown. A gown adorned with three thousand and one pearls. Sherry didn’t seem to have any interest in gowns, but that particular gown would appeal to her sense of humor, and she would like it because it was a gift from him.

Because it was from him. . . .

He knew she would feel that way as surely as he knew Sherry wanted him. From the moment he brushed his mouth over her lips and felt them tremble, felt her body strain instinctively closer to his, he’d known she wanted him. She was too inexperienced to hide her feelings, too candid to want to try.

She wanted him, and he wanted her. In a very few days, he would take her to bed for the first time, and there he would teach her the delights of “having.”

Jason Fielding spoke his name, and Stephen glanced up, realized they were all waiting for his bet, and tossed more chips onto the stacks in the middle of the table.

“You’ve already won that one,” Jason pointed out in an amused drawl. “Wouldn’t you like to clear it away, so you can win a nice fresh pile of our money?”

“Whatever is on your mind, Stephen,” Jordan Townsende remarked, eyeing him curiously, “it must be damned engrossing.”

“You looked right through us earlier,” Jason Fielding added as he began to deal the cards. “The most crushing setdown I’ve had in years.”

“Stephen has something very engrossing on his mind,” Clayton joked.

As he finished that sentence, William Baskerville, a middle-aged bachelor, strolled over to the table, a folded newspaper in his hand, and idly watched the play.

Since Stephen’s courtship of Sherry would be common gossip by morning, and his betrothal a fact by the end of the week, Stephen saw no reason to conceal what had been on his mind. “As a matter of fact—” he began, when he suddenly thought to glance at a clock. Three hours had passed already. “I’m late!” he said, startling the others as he shoved his cards back into the center, and abruptly stood up. “If I’m not inside Almack’s before eleven, they’ll have locked the damned doors.”

Three astounded males watched his retreating shoulders as Stephen stalked swiftly out of the club—evidently in a hurry to reach a destination that no man of sophistication or maturity ever set foot in willingly, let alone anxiously. The thought of Stephen Westmoreland willingly setting foot in that place with its ballroom filled with blushing misses fresh from the schoolroom and eager to snag an eligible husband was utterly ludicrous. Baskerville spoke first. “Egad!” he breathed, looking around at the others in stunned horror, “did Langford say he was bound for Almack’s?”

The Marquess of Wakefield tore his amused gaze from the doorway and looked at the others. “That’s what I heard.”

The Duke of Hawthorne nodded, his voice dry. “No

t only did I hear him say Almack’s, but I noticed he seems to be in rather a hurry to get there.”

“He’ll be lucky if he gets out of there alive,” Jason Fielding joked.

Tags: Judith McNaught Westmoreland Saga Romance
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