"I was being glib," Stephen answered idly, his attention pulled inevitably to her quick, graceful movements as she readied whatever she was preparing. "My brother inherited the ducal title and several others through our father. Mine came to me from an uncle. Under the terms of a Letters Patent and a special remainder granted to one of my ancestors generations ago, the earls of Langford were allowed to designate the heir to their titles if they were childless."
She gave him a distracted smile and nodded, and Stephen realized with a jolt that she wasn't particularly interested in a topic that was normally a matter of avid fascination to every unwed female of his acquaintance.
"The chocolate is ready," she said, picking up a heavy tray laden with a pot, cups, spoons, and several delicate pastries she'd evidently discovered in a cupboard.
"I hope you like it. I seem to know exactly how to make it," she said, putting the tray into his hands as if it were perfectly natural for him to march about bearing it. "Only I don't know whether I make it well or not." She looked thoroughly pleased that she remembered how to make the drink, but it struck Stephen as a little odd that she would know how to perform a task that was always relegated to the servants. On the other hand, she was American, and perhaps American women were more familiar with kitchens than their English counterparts.
"I hope you like it," she repeated dubiously as they headed toward the front of the house.
"I'm sure I will," Stephen replied dishonestly. The last time he'd drunk hot chocolate, he'd been in leading strings. These days, his preferences ran toward a glass of aged brandy at this hour. Afraid she'd somehow read his thoughts, he added for emphasis, "It smells delicious. All that singing about snow and Yule logs must have whetted my appetite for it."
Stephen carried the ornate silver tray down the hall, past three gaping footmen, to the drawing room. Colfax was at his regular station near the front door, and he rushed forward with the obvious intent of prying the tray loose from him, but Stephen stopped him with a mocking remark to the effect that they had already fended for themselves without any help and he saw no reason to change that, now that most of the work was already done.
They were halfway into the drawing room when the door knocker was raised and lowered with emphatic regularity. Stephen had given instructions that all callers were to be informed he was not in, and he paid the sound no heed, but an instant later, he heard a chorus of cheerful voices that made him groan inwardly.
"He most certainly is at home, Colfax," Stephen's mother was telling the butler. "When we arrived in London two hours ago, there was a note from him announcing his intention to remove to the country. If we had not arrived several days early, he would have been gone. Now, where is he hiding himself?"
Swearing under his breath, Stephen turned just as his brother, his brother's wife, and a friend of hers accompanied his mother into the drawing room—a fleet of ships sailing determinedly into battle against what they perceived as his antisocial behavior.
"I won't have it, darling!" his mother announced, marching forward to press a kiss on his cheek. "You are too much…" Her eyes riveted on Sherry, and her voice trailed off lamely, "… alone."
"Entirely too much!" Whitney Westmoreland announced, her back to the room as she allowed Colfax to divest her of her cape. "Clayton and I intend to see that you attend every important ball and route for the next six weeks," she continued as she linked her arm through her husband's and started forward. Two steps into the drawing room, they stopped.
Stephen glanced apologetically at Sherry, who looked completely disoriented and panicky, and whispered, "Don't worry. They will like you once they recover from their surprise." In the space of a few tense seconds, Stephen rapidly considered every plausible, and implausible, way of handling what looked to be impending disaster; but without ordering Sherry to leave so that he could explain—which would only humiliate and distress her—he had no choice but to improvise and to play out the farce in his family's presence and then explain the truth to them after Sherry went up to bed.
In keeping with that plan, Stephen sent a warning look to his older brother that insisted on his unquestioning cooperation, but Clayton's amused attention was on Sherry and the forgotten tea tray in Stephen's hands. "Very domestic, Stephen," Clayton remarked dryly.
Impatiently putting the tray down, Stephen looked at the doorway, where Colfax was waiting for instructions about refreshments, and nodded emphatically to produce them at once. Then he turned to the waiting group and began the introductions. "Mother, may I present Miss Charise Lancaster."
Sherry looked at her future mother-in-law, realized she was being introduced to a dowager duchess and promptly panicked because she couldn't think what to say. She threw an agonized look at Stephen and said in a whisper that seemed to shriek through the silent, waiting room, "Will an ordinary curtsy suffice?"
Stephen put his hand beneath her elbow, partly for support and partly to urge her forward, and gave her a reassuring smile. "Yes."
Sherry sank into a curtsy and felt her knees wobble, then she drew on courage she didn't know she possessed and straightened. Meeting the older woman's piercing gaze, she said courteously, "I am very happy to make your acquaintance, ma'am, I mean, Your Grace." Turning, she waited as Stephen introduced her to his sister-in-law, a stunning brunette he referred to as Whitney, whose green eyes were regarding Charise with veiled puzzlement. Another duchess! Sherry thought frantically, older than she, but not a great deal. To curtsy or not to curtsy? As if the other woman sensed her uncertainty, she held out her hand and said with a hesitant smile, "How do you do, Miss Lancaster?"
Sherry was grateful for the hint, and after shaking the young woman's hand she turned to be introduced to the duke, a very tall, dark-haired man who bore a distinct resemblance to her fiancé in his facial features, height, and broad-shouldered physique. "Your Grace," she murmured, curtsying again.
The fourth member of the group, a handsome man in his mid-thirties whose name was Nicholas DuVille, pressed a gallant kiss to the back of her hand and told her that he was "enchanted" to meet her, then he smiled into her eyes in a way that made her feel as if she'd just received a very great compliment.
Finished with the introductions, she waited for one of Stephen's relatives to welcome her to the family or to at least wish her happiness, but no one seemed able to speak. "Miss Lancaster has been ill," her fiancé said, and three pairs of eyes turned to her, as if concerned that she might swoon, which she felt very much as if she might actually do.