Her husband slid his hand around her waist and pulled her close. "You tried, darling. You did everything that could be done."

"We all did," Charity Thornton agreed, her chin trembling as she looked sadly at Hugh Whitticomb and then up at Nicholas DuVille.

"The Earl and Countess of Langford!"

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That announcement caused an immediate reaction among the inhabitants of the ballroom, who began looking at one another in surprise and then turned to the balcony, but it was nothing compared to the reaction among the small group of seven people who'd been keeping a vigil of hope. A jolt went through the entire group; hands reached out blindly and were clasped tightly by other hands; faces lifted to the balcony, while joyous smiles dawned brightly and eyes misted with tears.

Attired in formal black evening clothes with a white waistcoat and frilled white shirt, Stephen Westmoreland, Earl of Langford, was walking across the balcony. On his arm was a medieval princess clad in a pearl-encrusted ivory satin gown with a low, square bodice that tapered to a deep V at the waist. A gold chain with clusters of diamonds and pearls in each link rode low on her hips, swaying with each step, and her hair tumbled in flaming waves and heavy curls over her shoulders and back.

"Oh, my—" Charity breathed in awe, but her exclamation was drowned by the thunder of applause that had begun all over the ballroom and was gaining in volume, until it seemed to shake the very rafters.

62

It was his wedding night.

With his shirt open at the collar and his cuffs rolled back on his forearms, Stephen sat in a wing-backed chair in his bedchamber, his feet propped upon a low table, while he lingered over a glass of brandy, giving his bride ample time to disrobe and dismiss her maids.

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His wedding night…

His bride…

He looked round in surprise as his valet let himself into the suite. "May I be of assistance this evening?" Damson suggested when his master seemed baffled by what was actually a routine appearance each night.

Assistance? Stephen stifled a smile as his wayward thoughts refused to switch from the pleasurable task that lay ahead of him to Damson's offer to assist him tonight. His mind conjured a comic image of his conscientious valet hovering at Sheridan's bedside, his clothing brush in hand, waiting for Stephen to hand him his trousers so he could hang them properly, then bustling back to the bedside for each additional piece of clothing as Stephen removed it.

"My lord?" Damson prompted and Stephen gave his head a slight shake as he realized he was staring past the servant with what surely must look like an idiot's smile.

"No," he said with polite firmness. "Thank you."

Damson eyed Stephen's open shirt and rolled-back cuffs with disapproval. "Your dressing robe perhaps, my lord, the black brocade?"

Stephen tried, very seriously, to imagine what possible use he was going to have for a dressing robe, and felt the smile tug at his cheek again. "No, I think not."

"The wine silk, then?" Damson persevered doggedly. "Or the dark green, perhaps?" It hit Stephen that his middle-aged valet, who had never been married, was gravely concerned that Stephen was not likely to make a good impression on his new bride were he to walk into her bedchamber casually attired in trousers and shirtsleeves.

"Neither one."

"Perhaps the—"

"Go to bed, Damson," Stephen said, cutting off any discussion of silk neckcloths and appropriate shirt studs, which he felt certain would be the valet's next point of concern. "And, thank you," he added with a brief smile to take any sting out of the dismissal.

Damson obeyed with a bow, but not before he cast a tortured look at Stephen's open shirtfront and the glimpse of bare throat and chest it allowed.

Half-convinced the man would make one more attempt to save him from the unspeakable indignity of appearing for his wedding night inappropriately attired, Stephen put the brandy glass on the table. Then he got up, walked over to the door, and threw the bolt.

Damson did not know, of course, that Stephen had already precipitated his wedding night with Sherry, and as Stephen opened the connecting door between the suites, he felt a sharp stab of guilty regret for the way he had begun and ended that night, but not for what they had done in the middle of it. Resolved to atone for everything their last encounter lacked, he walked into the connecting bedchamber. He stopped in surprise when she wasn't waiting for him in bed, since he'd given her more than enough time to disrobe. Then he walked slowly toward the adjoining bathing room. He was partway there when the hall door of her bedchamber opened, and a maid rushed in carrying a pile of fluffy towels.

His wife was in her bath, Stephen realized.

His wife… Reveling in the thought and all it implied, he reached for the towels and took them from the scandalized maid. Then he dismissed her for the night.

"But—but my lady will require me to help her dress for bed!"

Stephen was beginning to wonder if every husband and wife, with the single exception of Sherry and himself, went to bed in a full suit of clothes and a ball gown as some sort of modest ploy to prevent servants from realizing they might actually see each other's bodies. He was smiling about that as he walked into the bathing room and saw his wife in the sunken marble bath. Her back was partially turned to him, her hair was piled in a loose knot atop her head with charming tendrils down her nape, and there were bubbles up to the tops of her breasts.

The sight was more than charming, it was downright enticing. His wife! The scent of lavender rising from her bath suddenly made him remember her bold ultimatum about Helene—an ultimatum with which he'd already complied. That memory called to mind her angry tirade about all the other women she'd heard mentioned by the gossips in connection with him. With an inner smile, Stephen decided that although she didn't approve of his sexual dalliances before their marriage, she was certainly going to benefit from them tonight. In fact, he intended to make certain that she did so by using every bit of skill and knowledge he possessed to give her the wedding night she deserved, one she would never, ever forget.

Feeling relatively confident of his ability to do that, he sat down on the edge of her tub, intending to play lady's maid. Reaching into the warm, scented water, he wet his hands, then put them on her shoulders, his thumbs working lightly over her slick, wet skin.

"I'd like to get out now," she said without turning around.

Smiling a little at the joke he was playing on her, Stephen stood up and opened the towel, holding it out for her. Sherry stepped out of the water, and he wrapped the towel around her from behind, folding his arms around her as he did so. She stiffened in shock when she saw his bare forearms encircling her, instead of a maid's hands holding the towel. And then, very lightly she leaned back against him, bringing her back and hips and legs into contact with his full length, and she wrapped her arms over his, turned her cheek, and rubbed it against his shirt. It was a silent gesture of wanting, of tenderness, of love, and yet when he turned her around, she trembled slightly, looking at him with nervous uncertainty. "May I put on my dressing robe?"

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