“What will they think?” he prompted, studying her flushed cheeks and rosy lips knowing damned well what some of them were going to rightfully assume.
“It does not bear contemplating,” she said with a shudder, pulling the pins out of the gleaming mass and letting it tumble over her shoulders.
Sherry pulled the comb through her hair, growing increasingly aware of the way his warm gaze lingered on her movements, and it only added to her confusion. “Please stop looking at me in that way,” she said helplessly.
“Looking at you has been my favorite pastime from the moment you asked me to describe your face,” he said solemnly, looking straight into her eyes.
The velvet roughness of his voice and the amazing words he’d spoken were more seductive than any kiss could have been. Sherry felt all her resistance to marrying him begin to collapse, but pride and her heart demanded she mean more to him than she apparently had. “Before you think any further about a marriage on Sunday,” she said hesitantly, “I think you should know I have a freakish aversion to something that English ladies seem not to mind in the least. I myself did not recognize, until earlier tonight, how strongly I feel.”
Baffled, Stephen said, “To what do you have this aversion?”
“The color lavender.”
“I see.” Stephen was stunned by her temerity and unwillingly impressed by her courage.
“Please consider it very carefully before you decide if we should even remain betrothed another day.”
“I’ll do that,” he replied.
He hadn’t conceded as she’d hoped, but at least he wasn’t angry, and he had taken her seriously. Sherry told herself to be satisfied with that and lifted her hands to try to restore more order to her tumbled hair. Self-conscious as the focus of his lazy, admiring glance, she said with a helpless smile, “I can’t do this if you’re going to watch me.”
Reluctantly Stephen withdrew his gaze, but no one else who saw her walking along the balcony beside him and down the steps into the Rutherfords’ crowded ballroom a few minutes later looked away from her. Her head was high, her lips were rosy from his kisses, and her smooth skin seemed to glow. In contrast to the image of quiet serenity she presented in the cool ivory gown, her hair was loose, flowing over her shoulders and down her back in a molten mantle of graceful waves and curls.
To Sherry, it seemed to take forever to work, their way through the guests who stopped the earl on the balcony, the steps, and the floor of the ballroom to speak to him—which wouldn’t have mattered to her in the least if so much of their conversation hadn’t been littered with joking references that made her feel excruciatingly uncomfortable. “I say, Langford,” a gentleman on the balcony said with a laugh the instant the butler finished announcing their names, “I heard you’ve developed a recent fondness for the assembly rooms at Almack’s!”
The earl sent him a look of comic horror, but the joking had only just begun. An instant later, another man stopped a servant who was in the act of offering the last two glasses of champagne on his tray to Stephen and Sherry. “No, no, no!” he said to the startled servant as he whisked the glasses off the tray and out of their reach. “His lordship prefers lemonade these days. Oh, and be sure it is nice and warm,” he instructed the servant, “just the way they serve it at Almack’s.”
The earl leaned forward and said something that made the other man guffaw, and the good-natured joking went on and on and on as they wended their way slowly down the stairs. . . .
“Langford, is it true?” a middle-aged man joked, when they finally reached the ballroom floor. “Did some red-haired chit at Almack’s actually give you the cut-direct in the middle of the dance floor?” Stephen tipped his head meaningfully to Sherry, acknowledging it was true and that she was the “red-haired chit” who had done it. With a large group of people looking on, the other man demanded an introduction, then he grinned widely at her. “My dear young lady, it is a privilege to meet you,” he declared as he raised her hand for a gallant kiss. “Until tonight, I didn’t think there was a female alive who was immune to this devil’s charm.”
Moments later an elderly man leaned heavily on his cane and said with a wheezing cackle, “Heard your dancing isn’t up to snuff these days, Langford. If you’ll come round tomorrow, I could give you a lesson or two.” Overcome by his own humor, he banged his cane on the floor for emphasis and cackled with glee.
The earl bore it all with amused indulgence, declining to reply to most of their quips, but Sherry had to struggle to maintain even a surface appearance of being blasé. She was horrified at how closely he was watched and how swiftly gossip about him spread. Everyone, but everyone, seemed fully aware of every move he’d made in the last few hours, and she had a horrifying vision of people peeking into the windows of his coach, their hands curved round their temples, spying on them.
Just thinking of what they would have seen made her cheeks hot. Miss Charity noticed it as soon as they located her in the crush, standing with Whitney and Clayton and a group of the Westmorelands’ friends. “My goodness,” she exclaimed happily, “you’re in fine color, my dear. Strawberries and cream, that’s just what you remind me of at this moment. The ride in the coach with the earl must have done you a world of good! You looked quite pale when we left Almack’s.”
Sherry began vigorously fanning her face, and that was before she noted that several members of the Westmoreland enclave had turned, waiting for introductions, and they heard it all. So did her fiancé, who looked down at her with a knowing smile and leaned close. “Did it do you a world of good, sweet?” he asked.
In the midst of her mortifying predicament, his smile made her laugh. “You wretch!” she whispered, shaking her head in admonishment.
Unfortunately, that movement drew Charity Thornton’s attention to a matter she had heretofore overlooked. “Your hair was up when we left Almack’s!” she exclaimed worriedly. “Did the pins come out, dear? I shall have a word to say to my maid for her shoddy work upon our return this very night!”
Sherry felt as if the entire group had stopped talking in favor of listening to this amazingly revealing commentary from a woman whose job it was to protect the very reputation she was demolishing. Several of them had, including the Duke of Claymore, who gave Sherry a secretive, knowing smile so much like Stephen’s that she quite forgot to be intimidated by him and instead rolled her eyes at him. He burst out laughing at her impertinence and introduced her to the two couples closest to him—the Duke and Duchess of Hawthorne and the Marquess and Marchioness of Wakefield. Both couples greeted her with a warmth and cordiality that made her like them instantly. “I gather you were the attraction that lured Stephen to Almack’s?” said the Duke of Hawthorne, and his wife smiled at Sherry and added, “We were all longing to have a look at you. Now that we have,” she added, glancing at the Wakefields and including them in her flattering assessment, “it is little wonder that he went tearing out of The Strathmore when he realized Almack’s doors were soon to close.”
Oblivious to all of that conversation, Miss Charity was concentrating on a half dozen young men from Almack’s making their determined way across the crowded ballroom. So was Stephen. “Langford, do go away!” she said, turning to him. “Those young men are heading straight for Sherry, and you’ll run them off if you intend to stand here as you are doing with that—that very unwelcoming expression upon your face.”
“Yes, Stephen,” Whitney teased, linking her arm happily through his, her smile telling him that Clayton had already told her a wedding was imminent, “could you not contrive to look more congenial when several of London’s most desirable bachelors are about to surround Sherry?”
“No,” he said bluntly and temporarily eliminated the problem by touching Sherry’s arm and turning her to meet their host.
Marcus Rutherford was a tall, imposing man with a warm smile and the relaxed congeniality and unshakable confidence that came from a privileged life and an illustrious blood
line that few could match. Sherry liked him instantly and rather regretted the necessity to turn away and acknowledge the gentlemen from Almack’s who were lined up to speak with her and ask for dances.
“You seem to have a great deal of competition, Stephen, and it’s little wonder,” Rutherford remarked as Makepeace drew Sherry onto the dance floor with Miss Charity waving daintily and beaming approvingly at the pair.
“And for once,” Clayton chuckled, watching Charity Thornton’s satisfied expression as she kept a close watch on the dance floor, “the object of your attentions has a chaperone who does not seem to be overcome with joy to have you nearby.”
Stephen heard that, but an idea was taking shape that suited him perfectly, an idea that would also immediately undo whatever damage to Sherry’s reputation her own chaperone had just done.
“I heard Nicki DuVille finds her very out-of-the-ordinary,” Rutherford commented, lifting his glass of champagne to his lips. “Enough so that he actually went to Almack’s too. Gossip has it that the two of you stood off to the side, holding up the same pillar, when you couldn’t get close enough to the young lady because of her other beaux. That must have been a sight,” Rutherford continued, his shoulders shaking with mirth. “You and DuVille both at Almack’s and on the same night. Two wolves in a roomful of cubs. Where is Nicki, by the by?” Rutherford added, idly searching across a sea of six hundred faces.
“Nursing his broken heart, I hope,” Stephen replied, putting his idea into action.
“DuVille?” Rutherford said, laughing again. “That is almost as difficult to imagine as the two of you at Almack’s. Why would he have a broken heart?”
With a mocking lift of his brows and an amused smile, Stephen replied, “Because the object of his affections has just agreed to marry another.”
“Really?” he said, fascinated and looking at Makepeace with new respect as he danced with Sherry. “You can’t mean Makepeace. Tell me all that beauty won’t be wasted on that young pup.”
“She’s not marrying Makepeace.”
“Then who is she marrying?”
His face went from shock, to delight, to comic anticipation. Gesturing with his glass to the entire ballroom, he added, “Would you consider letting me announce it tonight? I would love to see their faces when they hear the news.”
“I’d consider it.”
“Excellent!” he said, sending a censorious look at Whitney Westmoreland as he added, “If you recall, your grace, I once tried to announce your betrothal, but you had some maggot in your head that night about wanting to keep it secret.”
That seemingly innocent remark caused her husband and brother-in-law to cast her matched looks of amused admonishment for having rebelled against marrying her husband in ways that had wreaked havoc all over London. “Stop it, both of you,” Whitney said with an embarrassed laugh. “Do you ever intend to let me forget it?”
“No,” said her husband with a tender grin.
Sherry was standing by Stephen’s side for the first time in an hour, enjoying the friendly conversation of his friends, when Lord Rutherford abruptly detached himself from the group. She saw him wend his way through the crowd toward the orchestra, but she paid it no heed until the music rose to an imperative crescendo, then died completely in the classic musical call for attention. Conversations broke off and surprised guests slowly turned, looking about for the cause of the odd occurrence.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Stephen’s friend said in a surprisingly carrying voice, “I have the very great honor of announcing an important betrothal tonight, before it is formally announced in the paper—” Sherry looked around, as did many of the guests, wondering who the newly engaged couple might be, and in her curiosity, she overlooked the tender amusement in Lord Westmoreland’s smile as he watched her study the crowd alertly, trying to guess. “I know this particular betrothal will come as a vast relief to many of the bachelors in this ballroom, who will be thankful to have this gentleman finally out of their way. Ah, I see I have aroused your curiosity,” he said, obviously enjoying his role as he looked around at hundreds of faces alive with amused curiosity.
“In view of that, I think I’ll prolong your suspense a moment longer and instead of telling you the names of the parties, I will ask them to do me the honor of performing their first formal duty as future husband and wife, by officially opening our ball.” He left the vacant dance floor, accompanied by murmurs and laughter, but no one was looking at him. As the orchestra leader signalled a waltz and the music began to fill the room, everyone was scanning the crowd and even looking suspiciously at one another. “What a wonderful way to announce an engagement,” Sherry confided to her amused future in-laws.
“I am very glad you approve,” Stephen said, covering her hand with his and slowly leading her to the edge of the dance floor—so that she could have a better view, Sherry presumed. But when they were there, and the music continued to flow and soar in its rich tempo, he stepped slightly in front of her, blocking her view. “Miss Lancaster,” he said quietly, pulling her attention to him when she was trying to see around him.
“Yes?” Sherry said, smiling at the inexplicable amusement in his eyes.
“May I have the honor of the next dance?”
There was no time for stage fright, no time to react at all, because his arm was already sliding around her waist, drawing her forward, then whirling her off the sidelines and onto the dance floor. The moment the crowd realized who was leading off the dance, laughter and cheers exploded in the room, building to a deafening roar.
Overhead, crystal chandeliers glittered and gleamed with fifty thousand candles while the mirrored walls reflected a couple dancing alone beneath them—a tall, dark-haired man who waltzed with easy grace, his arm possessively encircling a young woman in an ivory gown. Sherry saw their reflection in the mirrors, sensed the heady, romantic magic of the moment, and she lifted her gaze to his. Somewhere in the depths of those knowing blue eyes smiling down at her, she saw another sort of romantic magic sparking to life . . . something deep and profound and silent. It held her captive, promising her something . . . asking . . . inviting.
I love you, she thought.
His arm tightened around her waist, as if he’d heard her and had liked the sound of it. And then she realized she’d said it aloud.
On the balcony above the ballroom, the Dowager Duchess of Claymore looked down upon the couple and smiled with pleasure, already thinking of the splendid grandchildren they would have. She wished her husband could have been with her, watching his son with the woman who was going to share his life. Robert would have approved of Sherry, she thought. Unconsciously rubbing her thumb over the marriage ring Robert had slid on her finger nearly four decades before, Alicia tenderly watched their son waltzing with his affianced bride, and she could almost feel Robert standing at her side. “Look at them, my love,” she whispered to him in her heart. “He’s so like you, Robert, and she reminds me so much of me in little ways.” Alicia could almost feel Robert’s hand slide around her waist as he leaned down, and his smiling voice whispered in her ear, “In that case, my sweet, Stephen is going to have his hands full.”
A proud smile trembled on her lips as she thought of her own contributions toward bringing this moment about. Her eyes sparkled as she thought of the names she’d placed on the list of suitors Stephen had asked her to prepare, and his thunderstruck reaction to her candidates. They’d all been so old that Stephen hadn’t even realized they were also infirm. “I did it!” she thought.
Beside her, Hugh Whitticomb was observing the same sight and thought of the long-ago nights that Alicia and his own Maggie had kept Robert and himself on the dance floor until dawn. As he watched Sherry and Stephen moving together, he chuckled with delight at how successfully he had manipulated the situation. True, there were going to be some rough seas when she recovered her memory, but she loved Stephen Westmoreland and he loved her. Hugh knew it. “I did it, Maggie girl,?
?? he told her in his heart. Her answer floated through his mind. “Yes you did, darling. Now, ask Alicia to dance. This is a special moment.”
“Alicia,” he said dubiously, “would you like to dance?”
She turned a dazzling smile to him, as she placed her hand on his arm. “Thank you, Hugh! What a wonderful idea! It’s been years since we danced together!”
Standing off to one side of the dance floor, Miss Charity Thornton tapped her toe in rhythm to the magic of the waltz, her faded blue eyes bright with pleasure as she watched the Earl of Langford perform his first official function as Sherry’s future husband. As the other dancers finally moved onto the floor, Nicholas DuVille spoke at her ear, and she turned in surprise. “Miss Thornton,” he said with a lazy, white grin, “would you honor me with this dance?”
Stunned with pleasure that he had sought her out at this momentous occasion, she beamed at him and placed her small hand upon his sleeve, feeling like a girl again, as one of the handsomest men in the room led her onto the floor. “Poor Makepeace,” she confided without a hint of sympathy, “he looks quite devastated over there.”
“I hope you are not devastated,” Nicki said with concern, and when she seemed confused, he added kindly, “I had the impression you were very much in favor of my suit.”