Until You (Westmoreland Saga 3) - Page 39

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Sherry jerked her gaze from his. “Stop looking at me that way! It isn’t seemly, and people will talk! They are staring at us!” she hissed, trying to pull back, only to have his arm tighten, imprisoning her with infuriating ease.

In a conversational tone more appropriate to a casual discussion of the latest on-dits, he said, “Do you have any idea of what will happen if I follow my inclinations and either toss you over my shoulder and haul you out of here, or else kiss you right in the middle of this dance? For a start, you would be off-limits to every respectable male in the room. I, of course, wouldn’t care, being the ‘arbitrary, vain, unkind’ man that I am—”

“You wouldn’t dare!” she exploded.

Her eyes shot daggers at him as she boldly called his bluff, while all around them dancers were missing their steps in their eagerness to witness the altercation that seemed to be taking place between the mysterious American girl and the Earl of Langford. Stephen looked at her flushed, entrancing, rebellious face, and a reluctant smile tugged at his lips. “You’re right, sweetheart,” he said softly. “I wouldn’t.”

“How dare you call me by an endearment after the things you have done to me!”

Momentarily forgetting that she would be thrown off balance by the sort of sophisticated sexual banter that was commonplace among his own set, Stephen let his gaze drop suggestively to the rounded breasts displayed enticingly above the square bodice of her gown. “You have no idea what I would dare to do to you,” he warned with a lazy, suggestive smile. “Have I complimented you on your gown, by the by?”

“You can take your compliments, and yourself, right to hell,” she whispered furiously, yanking out of his arms and leaving him in the middle of the dance floor.

“Egad!” said Makepeace to his current partner, “did you see that? Miss Lancaster just left Langford standing on the dance floor.”

“She must be insane,” said his partner in a stricken voice.

“I do not at all agree,” the young baronet proudly declared. “Miss Lancaster did not treat me shabbily at all. She was the soul of civility and sweetness.” When the dance was over, he hurried off to make certain his own friends had noticed that the stunning redheaded American preferred his attentions to those of the lofty Earl of Langford.

That astounding fact had already been noted by a great many of the gentlemen in the ballroom, many of whom had been sorely rankled by Langford’s appearance in their own arena and who were greatly mollified to note that at least one female in the room had the superior taste and foresight to prefer Makepeace to Westmoreland.

Within minutes, Makepeace’s stature escalated to unparalleled heights among his peers. The lovely American girl, who clearly preferred him, ergo all of them, to the vastly more popular Earl of Langford, became an instantaneous heroine.

Furious with her for her outrageous display of temper, Stephen stood off to the side, watching an entire wall of bachelors make their way straight toward his fiancée. They clustered about her, asking for dances and flattering her so outrageously that she sent a glance of helpless appeal in his direction. But not to him, Stephen noticed, growing even angrier—to DuVille.

Nicki put down his glass of lemonade and started for her, but the men were closing around her so tightly that she began backing away, then she turned and beat a hasty retreat in the direction of the retiring rooms. Left with no choice, Nicki leaned back against the same pillar that he had shared with Stephen earlier and folded his arms over his chest as Stephen had just done. Unaware of how identical they looked, they stood side by side, two darkly handsome, urbane men in flawlessly tailored black evening clothes, wearing matched expressions of bored civility. “By spurning you, she has just become a heroine to every male in this ballroom,” Nicki observed.

Stephen, who had reached the same conclusion, was somewhat mollified to note that DuVille sounded almost as frustrated as he himself felt. “By tomorrow,” DuVille continued, “my fiancée will be unanimously declared an Original, an Incomparable, and Joan of Arc by every mincing fop and young Corinthian in London. You have set my courtship back by weeks.”

“I’ve turned down your suit,” Stephen retorted with flat satisfaction. Tipping his head toward the debutantes and their mothers who were lined up on the opposite side of the room, he said, “Feel free to lavish your attentions on any one of those eager hopefuls, however. I feel certain you could propose tonight to any one of them and be wed with their family’s blessing and a special license by tomorrow.”

Nicki automatically followed his gaze and for the moment the two men set aside their hostilities in favor of shared observations on the drawback of being deemed a brilliant catch. “Do you ever have the feeling they see you as a platter of tempting trout?” Nicki inquired, nodding politely and distantly toward a young lady who was fluttering her fan invitingly at him.

“I think they see me more as a blank bank draft with legs,” Stephen replied, staring unencouragingly at Lady Ripley, who was whispering frantically to her daughter and casting beckoning looks at him. He inclined his head imperceptibly at Lady Ripley’s very pretty daughter, who seemed to be one of the few females in the room who seemed not to be either coyly pretending the two men weren’t there or else gazing longingly at them. “At least the Ripley girl has enough sense and enough pride to ignore us.”

“Allow me to introduce you to her, so your evening will not be an entire waste of time,” Nicki volunteered. “I am already committed to an exquisite redhead who seems to be developing a tendre for me in a gratifyingly short time.”

“DuVille?” Stephen drawled in a steely voice that was in vivid contrast to the expression of bland courtesy he was wearing for the sake of their fascinated audience.

“Langford?”

“Back off!”

Nicki returned Westmoreland’s sideways glance with an identical one of his own, hiding his amusement behind a mask of genteel imperturbability. “Am I to assume you’ve had a change of heart, and no longer desire to be free of your obligation to Miss Lancaster?” he taunted.

“Are you itching to meet me at dawn in some pleasant, secluded glen?” Stephen bit out.

“Not particularly, although the idea is beginning to have a certain appeal,” DuVille said as he shoved away from the pillar and walked into the card room.

Sherry became aware of her change of status among her own sex—as well as the reason for it—as soon as she entered the crowded retiring room. Conversations instantly broke off and curious smiles were aimed at her, but no one spoke to her until a large-boned girl with a friendly smile spoke up. “It was very diverting to see you give the earl such an unprecedented setdown, Miss Lancaster. I am sure he has never received such a rebuff.”

“I feel perfectly certain he has had dozens of them coming, however,” Sherry said, trying to seem completely unemotional when she was angry and embarrassed.

“Hundreds,” the girl declared gaily. “Oh, but he is so very handsome and manly, do you not agree?”

“No,” Sherry lied. “I prefer fair men.”

“Are fair men de rigueur in America?”

Since Sherry had no recollection of that, she said, “They are to this American.”

“I heard you had suffered a loss of memory recently from an accident?” one of them asked with a mixture of sympathy and curiosity.

Sherry responded with the dismissive smile that Miss Charity had assured her would make her seem more mysterious than bacon-brained, and the remark Whitney had suggested, “It’s very temporary.” Since something else seemed to be expected, she improvised flippantly. “In the meantime, it’s very nice to feel as if I have not a worry in the world.”

By the time Sherry walked back into the ballroom, she’d learned many new things about Stephen Westmoreland, and she detested every piece of newfound know

ledge, along with the conclusions she’d drawn from them. Despite what Whitney thought, Stephen Westmoreland was apparently a libertine, a rake, a hedonist, and a notorious flirt. His amorous affairs were numerous, and his lechery was obviously sanctioned by the ton, who seemed to dote on him, and everyone—absolutely everyone—apparently felt that an offer of marriage from him was second only to the crown of England! Worse, much worse, even though he was temporarily betrothed to her, he kept a mistress—and not an ordinary mistress, either, but a member of the fashionable impure who was reportedly breathtakingly beautiful.

Feeling insignificant, appalled, and outraged, Sherry returned to the ballroom and took furious glee in using her heretofore untapped ability at flirtation. She smiled gaily at the gentlemen who were still clustered around a flustered Miss Charity, waiting for her return, and during the next two hours, she promised to save at least two dozen dances for those gentlemen who were invited to the Rutherfords’ ball later that evening. Her fiancé, however, did not appear to notice or mind her flirtatious triumphs, but merely stood watching her from the sidelines, his expression casual and pleasantly detached.

In fact, he seemed so utterly uninvolved that she felt no qualm whatsoever when he finally approached her and stated that it was time to leave for the Rutherfords’, and he didn’t seem displeased with her as they waited with Nicholas DuVille and Miss Charity for their carriages to be brought round. He even smiled blandly when Charity Thornton remarked ecstatically, “Sherry was such a success, Langford! I cannot wait to tell your mama tonight, and your sister-in-law, how excellently everything went!”

Nicholas DuVille had called for them in a fashionably sleek landau with its top folded back, but the Earl of Langford’s luxurious town coach made Sherry’s eyes widen as it glided to a stop in front of them. Drawn by six identical, flashy gray horses in silver harnesses, its body was lacquered a gleaming black, with the earl’s coat of arms emblazoned on the door panel. Sherry had encountered the coachmen and grooms in the kitchens at the house on Upper Brook, but tonight they were turned out in formal livery of white leather breeches with bottle-green-striped waistcoats and bottle-green topcoats adorned with gold buttons and braid. With their shiny black top boots, white shirts, snowy cravats, and white gloves, Sherry thought they looked as fine as any of the fashionable gentlemen inside Almack’s, and she told them so.


Tags: Judith McNaught Westmoreland Saga Romance
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