"I have every faith in the journalistic integrity of the Gazette's society reporter," Stephen joked.
"If that is correct," she said with an infectious smile, "then I can only assume they were either very small pearls or she is a very large lady."
"Why is that?"
"Because if the pearls were large and she was not, she'd have surely required a winch to haul her upright after she curtsied to the king."
Stephen was still grinning at the image of the coldly dignified and very rotund countess being hoisted aloft and swung out of the way of the throne when Sherry made a lightning shift from the frivolous to the serious. Propping her chin on her linked fingers, she'd regarded him down the length of the dining table and asked, "In April, when everyone of importance gathers in London for the Season and remains until June, what do people do with their children?"
"They stay in the country with their nannies, governesses, and tutors."
"And the same is true in the autumn during the Little Season?"
When Stephen nodded, she tipped her head to the side and said gravely, "How lonely English children must be during those long months."
"They aren't alone," Stephen emphasized patiently.
"Loneliness has nothing to do with being alone. Not for children or adults."
Stephen was so desperate to avert a topic that he feared would lead directly into an impossible discussion of their children, that he didn't realize his tone had chilled or that in her vulnerable state, his remarks might hit her like daggers. "Are you speaking from experience?"
"I… don't know," she said.
"I'm afraid that tomorrow evening, you're going to be."
When he nodded, she looked quickly at the delicate pastry shell filled with pâté that was on the plate in front of her, then she drew a deep breath, as if gathering her courage, and looked at him directly. "Are you going out because of what I just said?"
He felt like a beast for making her ask that, and very emphatically he said, "I have a prior engagement that cannot be cancelled." And then, as if his need to exonerate himself in her eyes weren't already reaching the absurd, he announced, "It may also set your mind at ease to know that my parents had my brother and me brought to London at least once every fortnight during the London Season. My brother and his wife, and a few of their friends, bring their children and an entourage of governesses here during the Season."
"Oh, that's lovely!" she exclaimed, her smile dawning like the sun. "I am vastly relieved to know there are such devoted parents amongst the ton."
"Most of the ton," he informed her dryly, "is vastly amused by that same parental devotion."
"I don't think one ought to let the opinions of others influence what one does, do you?" she asked, frowning a little.
Three things hit Stephen at once, and he was torn between laughter, pity, and chagrin: Whether she realized it or not, Charise Lancaster was "interviewing" him, weighing his merits, not only as a prospective husband, but as the prospective father of her children—neither of which were roles he was going to fulfill. And that was a very good thing, because in the first place, he didn't seem to be rating very high in her estimation, and in the second, her disinterest in the opinions of Others would surely get her banished from polite society within a week, were she ever to set foot in it. Stephen had never cared for anyone's opinion, but then he was a man, not a woman, and his wealth and illustrious name gave him the right to do as he damn well pleased and to do it with impunity. Unfortunately, the same upright society matrons who were eager to lure him into marrying their daughters, and who were perfectly willing to overlook any of his vices and excesses, would pillory Charise Lancaster for the most minor social infraction—let alone a major one such as dining alone with him, as she was doing now.
"Do you think one ought to let the opinions of others influence one's actions?" she repeated.
"No, definitely not," he solemnly averred.
"I'm happy to hear that."
"I was afraid you would be," Stephen said, biting back a grin.
His good humor continued unabated during their meal and afterward in the drawing room, but when it was time to bid her good-night, he realized he couldn't trust himself to do more than press a brotherly kiss on her cheek.
"Whatever you did, it certainly has turned the trick," Hugh Whitticomb announced early the following evening, as he poked his head into the drawing room, where Stephen was waiting for Sherry to join him for dinner.
"She's feeling well, then?" Stephen replied, pleased and relieved that his passionate and willing "fiancée" had not decided to indulge in a fit of virginal guilt over the few liberties he'd taken the night before and confessed it all to Whitticomb. Stephen had been closeted all day, first with one of his stewards, and then with the architect who was laboring over the plans for renovating one of his estates, and so he hadn't caught a glimpse of her, though the servants had kept him informed of her whereabouts in the large townhouse and reported that she appeared to be in good spirits. He was looking forward to a thoroughly enjoyable evening, first with Sherry and later with Helene. As to which part of the evening he was most looking forward to, that was something he did not care to consider.
"She's feeling more than well," the physician remarked. "I'd say she's glowing. She said to tell you she'd be down in a moment."
Stephen's pleasurable contemplation of his evening was substantially diminished by the fact that the physician was now strolling into the room, uninvited—and unwanted—and he was studying Stephen with an open, intense interest that was distinctly disturbing from someone as astute as he. "What did you do to accomplish such a miraculous transformation?"
"I did as you suggested," Stephen said mildly, turning and walking over to the fireplace mantel where he'd left his glass of sherry. "I made her feel… er… safe and secure."
"Could you be more specific? My colleagues—the ones I've consulted about Miss Lancaster's amnesia—would surely be interested in your method of treatment. It's amazingly effective."
In answer, Stephen propped an elbow on the mantelpiece and quirked a mocking brow at the inquisitive physician. "Don't let me keep you from another appointment," he countered dryly.
The broad hint that he should leave led Hugh Whitticomb to conclude that Stephen wished to enjoy the evening alone with her. Either that or he simply didn't want a witness to the charade he was being forced to play as her devoted fiancé. Hoping to discover it was the former, he said sociably, "As it happens, I'm free for the evening. Perhaps I could join you at supper and witness firsthand your methods with Miss Lancaster?"