Stephen gave the physician a look as bland as his own, but his voice carried a wealth of meaning. "Not a chance."
"I rather thought you were going to say something like that," Dr. Whitticomb said with a grin.
"A glass of Madeira instead?" the earl suggested, his expression as inscrutable as his tone.
"Yes, thank you. I believe I will," Dr. Whitticomb said, no longer quite so certain what Stephen's motives were for wanting him to depart. The earl nodded a silent instruction at a footman standing near a cabinet filled with decanters and glasses, and in moments a glass of wine was handed to him.
Dr. Whitticomb was asking Stephen what he intended to do about his houseguest when the ton descended en masse on London for the Season next week, when the earl's gaze suddenly snapped to the doorway and he straightened from his lounging position against the fireplace. Turning in the direction of his gaze, Dr. Whitticomb saw Miss Lancaster walk into the room wearing a fetching yellow gown that matched the wide ribbon that twined in and around the heavy curls at her crown. She saw him too, and she came directly to him as good manners and his age dictated she should. "Dr. Whitticomb," she exclaimed with a delighted smile, "you didn't tell me you would be here when I came down!"
She held out both hands to him in a gesture that, for a well-bred English girl, would have been much too cordial for such a brief acquaintance. Hugh took her hands in his own and decided he liked her unaffected warmth and spontaneity very well, and the devil with custom. He liked her very well indeed. "You look lovely," he said feelingly, standing back a little to survey her gown. "Like a buttercup, in fact," he added, though the compliment sounded unflattering somehow.
Sheridan was so nervous about facing her fiancé that she prolonged the moment before she had to look at him. "But I look exactly as I did when you saw me a few moments ago. Of course, I didn't have clothes on then," she added, and then felt like dropping through the floor when the earl made a choked, laughing sound.
"What I meant was," she amended swiftly, looking up at Lord Westmoreland's handsome, smiling face, "I didn't have these clothes on."
"I know what you meant," Stephen said, admiring the rosy blush that tinted her cheeks and the porcelain skin above the gown's square neckline.
"I cannot thank you enough for the lovely gowns," she told him, feeling as if she could drown in the depths of his blue eyes. "I confess that I was very much relieved by their arrival."
"Were you?" Stephen said, grinning for no reason at all except that she gave him an odd kind of pleasure when she walked into a room… or looked at him with such unconcealed delight over a trifling thing like a few hastily fashioned, simple gowns. "Why were you relieved?" he asked, noticing that she did not offer her hands to him to clasp as she had to Whitticomb.
"I wondered the same thing," Dr. Whitticomb said, and Sheridan pulled loose from Lord Westmoreland's mesmerizing gaze with a mixture of embarrassment and reluctance. "I was very much afraid they might all be like the one I wore two nights ago," she explained to the physician. "I mean, it was truly lovely, but… well… drafty."
"Drafty?" Dr. Whitticomb repeated blankly.
"Yes, you know—it rather floated about and I felt like I was wearing a lavender veil, instead of a sturdy gown. I was in constant fear that one of those silver ribbons would come undone and I would find myself…" she trailed off, as all the physician's attention shifted and narrowed on the earl. "So it was lavender, was it?" he asked her without taking his gaze from her fiancé. "And flimsy?"
"Yes, but it was perfectly proper to wear it in England," she put in quickly, sensing increasing censure in the look the older man was giving the earl.
"Who told you that, my dear?"
"The maid—Constance." Determined that he not misjudge her fiancé, who looked mildly amused despite the doctor's continued, narrowed scrutiny, she added very firmly, "Dr. Whitticomb, the maid assured me it was meant to be worn 'for one dinner bell.' Those were her very words—'For One Dinner Bell'!"
For some reason, that emphatic announcement caused both men to finally break off their visual duel and aim their twin gazes at her. "What?" they said in unison.
Wishing she'd never brought the matter up, Sheridan drew a long breath and patiently explained to both baffled male faces, "She said that the lavender gown was suitable for only one dinner bell. I didn't know you rang a bell, and I realized I was coming down to supper, not dinner, but since I didn't have anything else to wear, and I hadn't worn it for any other dinner bell, I didn't—" She broke off as understanding dawned on the earl's face, and she saw him struggling to keep his expression straight. "Have I said something amusing?"
Dr. Whitticomb looked at Stephen and demanded a little testily, "What does she mean?"
"She means 'En déshabillé.' The chambermaid was butchering the French pronunciation."
Dr. Whitticomb nodded his instant understanding, but he did not find the explanation at all humorous. "I should have guessed. I certainly suspected it from the description of that lavender gown. I trust you'll find a qualified ladies' maid for Miss Lancaster at once and that you'll completely remedy the clothing problem, so that sort of misunderstanding won't happen again?"
Dr. Whitticomb had drained his glass and passed it to the footman who materialized at his elbow with a silver tray before he realized that his host hadn't replied. Intending to insist on an answer, he turned and realized that Stephen had evidently forgotten not only the question but Hugh's presence. Instead of attending the discussion, he was grinning at Charise Lancaster, and saying in a lightly chastising tone, "You have not yet bade me good evening, mademoiselle. I'm beginning to feel quite devastated."
"Oh, yes, I can see that you are," Sheridan said, laughing at the outrageous—but flattering—exaggeration. Leaning casually against the mantel, with his blue eyes smiling into hers and that lazy white smile upon his handsome face, Stephen Westmoreland epitomized male confidence and potency. Nevertheless, his teasing gallantry and the warmth in his eyes had a strangely exhilarating effect on her, and her own smile warmed as she admitted wryly, "I did intend to greet you at once, but I've forgotten how it should be done, and I've been meaning to ask you about it."
"What do you mean?"