Those thoughts gave birth to an impractical possibility that he actually let himself consider as his carriage neared his home on Upper Brook Street: Burleton hadn't had anything to offer her except a minor noble title and the respectability of marriage, but she and her father had been willing to settle for only that. Within hours of Burleton's death, Stephen had made plans for a funeral and had begun making inquiries into the young man's affairs to see if any other final arrangements were needed. What he learned was that the young baron had a predilection for gaming. Not until this morning, when Matthew Bennett's firm provided him with a full dossier, did Stephen learn that Burleton had completely depleted what little fortune he'd inherited. Beyond a small mountain of gambling debts, which Stephen intended to settle, Burleton had nothing to leave behind—not an estate or the family jewels or even a coach. His excessive gambling had already depleted whatever money he'd gained by agreeing to marry Charise Lancaster.
Within a year or two, Sherry would have been living in genteel poverty, just as Burleton had been doing at the time of his death, with no benefit from her marriage beyond a noble title that wasn't equal to the least of the titles Stephen held. Stephen had no intention of marrying her, but he was able—and perhaps even willing—to offer her the world, provided they continued to enjoy each other in the weeks to come, and so long as she actually understood the arrangement and its terms…
So long as she actually understood the arrangement…
The ugliness of what he was actually considering hit him, and it sickened him. Charise Lancaster was a naive virgin, not a courtesan. Even if she had had the background and experience to understand what such a relationship would entail, which she did not, she was still much too young for him, and he was entirely too jaded for her.
Fortunately, he was not quite jaded enough, or debauched enough, or bored enough to actually offer her an arrangement that would have robbed her of her virtue and all chances of respectability. He could not believe he was so utterly lacking in morality, so vile, that he was capable of killing a young, would-be bridegroom and then, in less than a fortnight, actually considering making a mistress of the young man's affianced bride. It wasn't merely revolting, it was madness. He accepted that he obviously had lost all his ideals over the years, but until that moment, he'd never felt he'd lost his mind as well.
Feeling like a complete degenerate, Stephen resolved to fulfill his role as Sherry's temporary guardian from that moment forward and to think of her only in the most impersonal terms. In keeping with this, he would henceforth see that she was not only amused and made to feel secure but also spared any future physical advances from him!
She might think they were betrothed, but he damned well knew better, and in the future, he would remember it! One person with a faulty memory was enough!
He wished, very devoutly, that she would recover quickly, but he was beginning to feel less guilty for depriving her of her real fiancé. She deserved someone better than young Burleton. He would never have been man enough for her; he was too callow for her, too irresponsible, and too poor. She needed, she deserved, to be garbed in furs and kept in the lap of sumptuous luxury.
In the back of his mind, he was aware that the responsibility for finding her someone like that was very probably his, but he didn't want to contemplate that now. It dimmed his pleasure, and he wanted to salvage the rest of the evening and make it enjoyable for both of them.
Wondering when he had developed such a weakness for damsels in distress—and such a bizarre partiality for distressed damsels with flame-colored hair—Stephen stood in the empty salon, prepared to do his duty as guardian by entertaining his houseguest.
Except the house was as silent and deserted as an empty tomb.
Shoving his hands into his pockets, he turned slowly, still half-expecting Sherry, or a servant, to materialize from the corners of the empty room. When no one did, he started forward, undecided whether to go to bed or rouse his normally efficient servants—who'd suddenly become inexcusably lax in their duties. He was reaching for the bell pull when he heard the faint sound of raised voices speaking in unison from somewhere at the back of the house, and then the sound died away.
Puzzled, Stephen headed in the direction of the sound, his booted footsteps echoing on the floor of the colonnaded entry hall as he crossed it and turned down a long corridor that ran toward the back of the house. At the end of the corridor he stopped again, his head tipped to the side, listening to the silence. Sherry had undoubtedly retired hours ago, he decided, growing thoroughly annoyed with himself for rushing home from his mistress's inviting arms to devote himself to her like some overardent nursemaid.
He started to turn in disgust then stopped dead as
Sherry's merry voice wafted down the hallway from the direction of the kitchen. "All right, everyone, let's try it again—only Mr. Hodgkin, you must stand right near me and sing louder, so I don't get the words wrong again. Ready?" she said.
A chorus of servants' voices suddenly burst into a jaunty Yuletide song that every English child since the Middle Ages had learned to sing. Stephen strode toward the kitchen, his annoyance increased by the thought of Sherry being in the kitchen with his dawdling servants instead of his being waited upon by them. In the doorway of the large, tiled room, Stephen stopped short, staring in amused disbelief at the sight that greeted him.
Fifty servants in their various household uniforms were standing in five perfect rows, with Sherry and old Hodgkin positioned in front of them. Normally the household staff conformed to a rigid, centuries-old hierarchy, with the head butler and the housekeeper at the pinnacle of it, but it was obvious to Stephen that Sherry had organized them without regard to either rank or decorum and probably according to singing ability instead. Poor Colfax, Stephen's lofty head butler, was relegated to the back row, between a chambermaid and a laundress, while his archrival for household supremacy—Stephen's valet, Damson—had managed to obtain a more important placing in the front row. Damson, a rigidly superior gentleman's gentleman, who rarely deigned to speak to anyone but Stephen, had actually slung his arm around a footman's shoulders, and the two of them were harmonizing with shared gusto, their rapturous gazes cast toward the ceiling, their heads nearly touching.
The vignette was so unprecedented, so beyond Stephen's wildest imaginings, that for several minutes he remained where he stood, watching and listening as grooms, ushers, and footmen in full livery sang in democratic harmony with chambermaids, laundresses, and plump scullery maids in soiled white aprons, all of whom were taking direction from a stooped, ancient under-butler who was waving his hands as if he were conducting a symphonic chorus.