Stephen threw back his head and shouted with laughter, then he wrapped his arms around her and buried his laughing face in her hair. "I am insane about you, Lady Westmoreland."
She wasn't impressed by a palace, but she was pleased and impressed with the sound of her newly acquired name. "Sheridan Westmoreland," she said aloud. "I like that very much." Behind them, Nicholas DuVille's coach pulled to a stop and Sherry remembered her original concern. "Are you giving a party?"
Stephen nodded, looking over at DuVille and waiting as he walked toward them. "This is my mother's sixtieth birthday. I'm giving a ball in honor of the occasion, which is why my brother and sister-in-law weren't at the chapel. They've been playing host in my absence." She looked a little dismayed, and he explained, "The invitations had gone out weeks ago, but I didn't want to wait until after the ball for our wedding. More correctly," he amended wryly, "I couldn't endure the suspense of waiting another day to find out if there was going to be a wedding."
"It's not that," she said a little desperately as they walked up a flight of terraced steps, "it's that I'm not dressed—"
Nicki heard that and gave her a wounded look. "I chose that gown myself in London."
"Yes, but it isn't a ball gown," Sheridan explained as the butler opened the door and an explosion of laughter and music came at her from all sides. Ahead of her a Palladian staircase swept upward in a graceful U on both sides of an immense foyer. Beside her, a butler with a familiar face and a beaming smile stood at attention, waiting for her notice, and Sherry forgot about the problem of a gown. "Colfax!" she exclaimed joyously.
He bowed formally. "Welcome home, Lady Westmoreland."
"Is everyone here?" Stephen asked, pulling his thoughts from the large bed that awaited them upstairs to the more immediate issue of a change of attire.
With a nod, Stephen looked at his best man. "Why don't you go ahead to the ballroom, and Sherry and I will change clothes."
"Not a chance. I want to see their faces."
"Very well, we'll change and join you in—" Stephen actually considered the possibility of a tryst with his bride before he attended a ball that would last well into the small hours of early morning.
"In twenty minutes," DuVille emphasized with a knowing look.
Sherry listened to that with only half her attention while she wondered what she was expected to change into. She asked Stephen that as he led her upstairs, but his reply was interrupted by Nicki DuVille who called after them from the foot of the stairs, "Twenty minutes, or I come in after you."
That innocent reminder caused her new husband to say something under his breath. "What did you just call Nicki?"
"I called him the 'Soul of Punctuality,' " Stephen lied with a helpless grin at the dubious look on her face.
"It didn't sound quite like that."
"It was close enough," he said, stopping outside a suite of rooms at the end of the hall. "There wasn't time to have an appropriate gown made for you, so Whitney brought one she thought was well-suited to the occasion—providing you came back with me." As he spoke, he reached out and swung open the door. Sheridan looked around him and saw three maids standing in readiness, but her attention was drawn to a breathtaking ivory satin gown that was lovingly spread out across the huge bed, its long train swirling over the side of the coverlet and down all the way to the floor. Mesmerized, she took a step forward, then stopped and looked from the lavish gown to her husband's tender smile. "What is that?"
In answer, he curved his hand around her nape, pressed her cheek tightly to his chest, and whispered, "Whitney's wedding gown. She wanted you to wear it if you came back with me."
Sheridan decided it was absurd to cry merely because she was happy.
"How long will it take you to get ready?"
"An hour," Sheridan said regretfully, "if we have to try anything elaborate with my hair."
For the second time, he bent his head and whispered something the maids couldn't hear: "Brush it if you must, and then leave it alone."
"I have a distinct partiality for that long, shining, brazen red hair of yours."
"In that case," she said a little shakily as he let her go, "I think I'll wear it down tonight."
"Good, because we only have fifteen minutes left."
The dowager duchess looked at Hugh Whitticomb when the under-butler, who was stationed on the balcony, called out the name of the Duke and Duchess of Hawthorne as they passed by him and made their way into the crowded ballroom. "Hugh, do you have the time?" she asked.
Clayton, who had just looked at his own watch, answered for the physician. "It's after ten o'clock."
The answer caused the small group of people to look despondently at one another. Whitney expressed all their thoughts in a voice filled with sad resignation. "Sherry refused him or they would have been here three hours ago."
"I felt so very certain—" Miss Charity began, then broke off, her narrow shoulders drooping with despair.
"Perhaps DuVille couldn't get her to agree to go to the chapel," Jason Fielding suggested, but his wife shook her head and said flatly, "If Nicki DuVille wanted her to accompany him, he'd have found a way to persuade her to do it."
Unaware that she'd made it sound as if no woman could refuse Nicki anything, she glanced up and saw her husband frowning at Clayton Westmoreland. "Is there something about DuVille that I haven't noticed?" he demanded of the duke. "Something that makes him irresistible?"
"I have no trouble resisting him," Clayton said dryly, then he stopped while one of his great-aunts came over to congratulate his mother on her birthday.
"This is such a lovely ball, Alicia. You must be very happy tonight."
"I could be happier," the dowager duchess said with a sigh as she turned to begin mingling with the guests in the ballroom.
On the balcony above, the under-butler called out more new arrivals. "Sir Roderick Carstairs. Mr. Nicholas DuVille…"
The dowager whirled around and looked up, along with the rest of the small group that had been waiting for word of the day's outcome. Nicki looked down at them, his handsome face solemn as he walked slowly along the balcony toward the stairs leading down to the ballroom. "It didn't happen!" Whitney whispered achingly, studying his expression. "We failed."