Even now, as he strolled past the stately mansions that marched along Upper Brook Street, the thought of her made him smile. Charise Lancaster rather reminded him of his Margaret, he realized. Not in looks, of course, but in her kindness and her pluck!
All things considered, Hugh was quite convinced that fate had finally given Stephen Westmoreland the sort of blessing he deserved. Of course, Stephen didn't want that sort of blessing, and Charise Lancaster wasn't likely to feel very "blessed" when she discovered she'd been duped by her "fiancé" and her own physician. Nevertheless, fate had Hugh Whitticomb as an ally, and Dr. Whitticomb fancied himself as something of a potent force when the need arose.
"Maggie girl," he said aloud, because even though his wife had died ten years before, he still felt she was very close and he liked to talk to her to keep her close, "I think we're going to pull off the best match in years! What do you think?"
Swinging his cane, he tipped his head and listened, and then he started to chuckle because he could almost hear her familiar response: "I think you should call me Margaret, Hugh Whitticomb, not Maggie!"
"Ah, Maggie girl," Hugh whispered, grinning, because he always replied the same way, "you've been my Maggie since the day you slid backwards off that horse and dropped right into my arms."
"I did not slide off, I dismounted. A little awkwardly. "
"Maggie," Hugh whispered, "I wish you were here."
"I am, darling."
Stephen had intended to spend the night with Helene, at the theatre and then in her bed, but three hours after he'd left, he found himself back at his own front door, frowning because his knock hadn't been answered. Inside the entrance hall, he looked around for a butler or a footman, but the place seemed deserted, despite the relatively early hour. Dropping his gloves on a hall table, he strolled into the main salon. No butler materialized to divest him of his coat, so he shrugged out of it and tossed it over the arm of a chair. Then he took out his watch, wondering if it had stopped.
His watch indicated the hour was half past ten, and when he turned to study the ormolu clock on the mantel, both timepieces agreed. Normally, he never returned from an evening with Helene, or any of his clubs, until dawn, and even then a sleepy-eyed footman was always in the hall to greet him.
His thoughts turned to the evening he'd just spent with Helene, and Stephen reached up, idly rubbing his hand over the back of his neck, as if he could somehow rub away the discontent and ennui that had plagued him all night. Seated beside her in his box at the theatre he'd paid scant attention to the performance on stage, and then it was only to find fault with the actors, the musicians, the stage setting, and the perfume worn by the elderly dowager in the next box. In his state of restlessness, everything seemed to either bore or grate on him.
The unusually pleasant mood he'd enjoyed earlier, as Sherry partook of an early dinner and regaled him with her amusing—and often astute—observations about her latest discoveries in the newspapers, had begun to dissipate as soon as he left the house.
By the end of the play's first act, Helene had sensed his discontent, and smiling invitingly behind her fan, she had whispered, "Would you prefer to leave now, and create our own 'second act' in more congenial surroundings?"
Stephen had readily acceded to her suggestion that he take her to bed, but his performance there was as unsatisfying as the performance he'd witnessed at the theatre. Once he'd gotten his clothes off, he discovered he didn't want to indulge in the sort of leisurely sexual preliminaries he normally enjoyed; he simply wanted to spend himself in her. He'd wanted physical relief, not sensual pleasure; he'd gotten the former and given none of the latter.
Helene had noticed, of course, and as he shoved off the bedcovers to get up, she raised up on an elbow and watched him dressing. "What occupies your thoughts tonight?"
Guilty and frustrated, Stephen had bent down to press an apologetic kiss on her furrowed forehead, as he replied, "A situation that is entirely too complicated and too vexing to trouble you with." The explanation was an evasion, and they both knew it, just as they both knew a mistress was not ordinarily entitled to explanations or recriminations, but then Helene Devernay was far from ordinary. She was as sought-after and admired in her own right as any of the ton's acclaimed beauties. She chose her lovers to suit herself, and she had a wide field to choose from, all of them wealthy noblemen who were only waiting for the chance to offer her their "protection," as Stephen had done, in exchange for the exclusive right to her bed and her company.
She'd smiled at his evasion and traced her fingertip down the deep vee of his open shirt as she inquired with sham innocence, "I understand from a seamstress at Madame LaSalle's that you had urgent need of several gowns that you desired to be delivered to your home with utmost haste for a visitor there. How is that… situation?" she finished delicately.
Stephen straightened and regarded her with a mixture of amusement, irritation, and admiration for her perception. "The situation," he admitted bluntly, "is 'vexing' and 'complicated.' "
"I rather thought it might be," she said with a knowing smile, but Stephen heard the underlying note of sorrow in her voice. She was obviously concerned about the presence of an unknown woman in his home, and that puzzled him. In his elite social circle, not even the presence of a wife had any bearing on a man's decision to have a mistress. Amongst the ton, marriages generally took place between two congenial strangers who expected to remain exactly that, once the requisite heir was produced. Neither party was expected to alter their lifestyle to suit the other, and affairs were as rampant among women as men. Discretion, not morality, was what mattered to both parties in a ton marriage. Since both Helene and he understood all that, and since he was not married, Stephen was amazed that she would give even a passing thought to his female houseguest. Leaning down, he kissed her on the mouth as he ran his hand familiarly over her bare thigh. "You are making entirely too much of the matter. She is a homeless waif who is merely recovering from an injury at my home, while we await the arrival of her family."
But as Stephen left the house he provided for Helene, he reluctantly faced the fact that Charise Lancaster was a far cry from a pitiable homeless waif. In reality, she was courageous, intelligent, spontaneous, amusing, naturally sensual, and thoroughly entertaining. And the surprising, irritating truth was that he'd enjoyed her company tonight far more than he'd enjoyed taking Helene to the theatre or to bed. Sherry enjoyed his company too. She liked talking to him, and she liked being in his arms…