"I mean, am I to curtsy?" she explained with a desperate little laugh that Stephen found utterly endearing. Somehow, she managed to confront her enormous problem and all its obstacles with a smiling honesty that he found astonishing and incredibly courageous. As to how he wished her to greet him, he would have preferred that she offer both her hands to him as she'd done to Hugh Whitticomb, or better yet that she offer her mouth for the kiss he suddenly wanted to put there, but since neither was feasible right now, he nodded in answer to her question and said casually, "It's customary."

"I rather thought it was," she said and sank into a graceful, effortless curtsy. "Was that acceptable?" she asked, putting her hand into Stephen's outstretched palm as she arose.


"More than acceptable," he said with a grin. "How did you spend your day?"

From the corner of his eye, Hugh Whitticomb carefully noted the warmth of the earl's smile, the absorbed way he watched her as she answered his question, and the fact that he was standing far closer to her than was necessary or even seemly. If he was merely acting a part, then he was certainly enjoying it. And if he wasn't merely acting…

Dr. Whitticomb decided to test the latter possibility, and in a casual joking tone, he addressed their profiles, "I could still be coerced into staying for supper, were I invited—"

Charise Lancaster looked around at him, but Stephen didn't so much as glance in his direction. "Not a chance," he said dryly. "Go away."

"Never let it be said I don't know a hint when I hear one," Dr. Whitticomb said, so encouraged, so utterly delighted by everything, including Stephen's unprecedented lack of hospitality, that he almost clasped the butler's outstretched hand at the front door when the butler gave him his hat and cane.

"Keep an eye on the young lady for me," he said instead, with a conspiratorial wink. "It will be our little secret." He was halfway down the front stairs before he realized that the butler hadn't been Colfax, but another, much older man.

It didn't matter. Nothing could have dampened his spirits right then.

His carriage was waiting at the curb, but the night was so fine and his hopes so high that he decided to walk and motioned to his coachman to follow him. For years, he and the Westmoreland family had watched in helpless consternation as women threw themselves at Stephen, all of them so damned eager to trade themselves for his title, his wealth, and an alliance with the Westmoreland family that Stephen, who had once been the personification of elegant charm and relaxed warmth, had become a hardened cynic.

He was sought after by every hostess and matchmaking mama in England, treated with the deferential respect that his immense wealth and powerful family commanded amongst the ton, and desperately desired—not for what he was, but for who he was and what he had.

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The longer he remained unattached, the more of a challenge he had become, to married and unmarried women alike, until it reached the point that he could not walk into a ballroom without creating a veritable frenzy amongst the female population. He saw it happening, he understood the reasons, and his opinion of women continued to degenerate in direct proportion to his increase in popularity. As a result, his attitude toward the entire female sex was now so jaded and so low that he publicly preferred the company of his mistress to that of any respectable female of his own class. Even when he came to London for the Season, which he hadn't done in two years, he disdained to put in an appearance at any of the major social functions, preferring to spend his evenings either at the gaming tables with male friends or else at the theatre and opera with Helene Devernay. So openly did he flaunt her in front of the offended ton that it was causing a scandalbroth that was deeply distressing to his mother and his sister-in-law.

Until a year or two ago, he had at least tolerated the women who made cakes of themselves over him. Until then, he had treated them with nothing worse than amused condescension, but lately his patience had seemed to come to an end. These days, he was fully capable of delivering a crushing setdown or a biting incivility that was guaranteed to reduce a lady to mortified tears and to outrage her relatives when they heard of it.

And yet… tonight, he had been smiling into Charise Lancaster's eyes with some of his old warmth. No doubt part of his attitude owed itself to the fact that Stephen felt responsible for her plight—and he was. She needed him desperately right now, but in Dr. Whitticomb's opinion, he needed her just as badly. He needed gentleness in his life and sweetness. Most of all, he needed hard proof that there were unmarried females in the world who wanted and needed more from him than just the use of his title, his money, and his estates.

Even in her vulnerable state of mind, Charise Lancaster seemed to place no importance in his title or the size and elegance of his home. She wasn't intimidated by him, or his possessions, nor was she awed by his attention. Tonight she had greeted Hugh with a natural warmth that was irresistible, then she had laughed out loud at Stephen's gallantry. She was refreshingly frank and unselfconscious, yet she was sweet and soft too—enough to have been crushed by Stephen's neglect. She was the sort of rare young woman who thought of others' needs before her own and who obviously forgave offenses with grace and generosity. During the first few days of her recovery, when she was still confined to her bed, she'd invariably asked Hugh to reassure "the earl" that she was going to recover her health and her memory so that he wouldn't worry needlessly. Moreover, she'd been thoughtful enough—and astute enough—to realize that he would blame himself for her accident. In addition to that, Hugh was completely enchanted by her friendly, unaffected cordiality toward everyone, from the servants to himself, and even her betrothed.

Monica Fitzwaring was a fine young woman of excellent character and breeding, and Hugh liked her very well, but not as a wife for Stephen. She was lovely, gracious, and serene—as she'd been taught to be—but because of that same upbringing, she had neither the desire nor the ability to evoke deep emotions in any husband, and particularly not in Stephen. Not once, in all the times Hugh had seen Stephen with her, had he ever looked at her with the sort of gentle warmth he'd shown to Charise Lancaster in the last hour. Monica Fitzwaring would make Stephen an excellent hostess and charming dinner companion, but she would never be able to touch his heart.

Not long ago, Stephen had alarmed his entire family by announcing that he had no intention of ever marrying Monica or anyone else merely to beget an heir. Hugh found that more reassuring than alarming. He didn't approve one bit of these modern marriages of convenience that were so de rigueur amongst the ton—not for anyone he cared about, and he cared very much about the Westmorelands. For Stephen, he wanted nothing less than the sort of marriage Clayton Westmoreland had, the sort of marriage Hugh himself had when his Margaret was alive.

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