He intended to handle Sherry Lancaster as if she were any other very desirable "asset" he possessed and of which he intended to dispose. The fact that Sherry was a woman, not a rare artifact or a warehouse full of precious spices, had no bearing on his thinking or his strategy, except that he intended to ensure that her purchaser was worthy and responsible. The only remaining difficulty was to enlist her cooperation in being "disposed of."
He'd considered that delicate problem earlier, while he bathed. By the time Damson removed a jacket of biscuit superfine from one of the wardrobes and held it up for Stephen's approval, he'd arrived at the best, and only, solution. Rather than add yet another lie to the ones Sherry had already been told, Stephen was going to tell her a partial truth. But not until after he'd met with his family.
Sherry put away the remaining books she'd intended to look through, as well as the quill and paper she'd removed from a desk drawer. Then she turned and he offered his arm to her. The gesture was so gallant and the smile in his eyes so warm that she felt a helpless burst of joy and pride. Clad in a light tan coat, his long legs encased in coffee brown trousers and shiny brown top boots, Stephen Westmoreland was the stuff that dreams were made of… tall, broad-shouldered, and breathtakingly handsome.
As they started down the staircase, she stole another glance at his chiselled profile, marvelling at the strength and pride carved into every feature on that starkly beautiful, tanned face. With that lazy, intimate smile of his and those deep blue, penetrating eyes—why, he must have been making female hearts flutter all over Europe for years! No doubt he'd kissed a great many of those females too, for he certainly knew how to do it, and he didn't seem the least hesitant about it when he chose to kiss her. Thousands of women all over Europe had probably found him as completely irresistible as she did, and yet, for some incomprehensible reason, he'd chosen her above them. That seemed so unlikely, so inconceivable, that it made her uneasy. Rather than surrender to doubt and uncertainty, Sherry returned to the lighthearted conversation they'd had in the library.
As they neared the open doors of his study, she gave him a jaunty, teasing smile. "Since I can't remember your proposal, you might at least have pretended that you made me a proper one—on bended knee. Considering my weakened condition, that would have been the more chivalrous thing to do."
"I am a very unchivalrous man," Stephen replied with an impenitent grin.
"Then I hope I at least had the good sense to make you wait a very long time before I accepted your ungallant offer," she retorted severely, stopping in the doorway. She hesitated and then with a helpless laugh at her inability to remember, she said, "Did I make you wait, my lord?"
Helplessly enthralled by this new, teasingly flirtatious side of her, Stephen automatically matched her mood. "Certainly not, Miss Lancaster. In fact, you flung yourself at my feet and wept with gratitude at the offer of my splendid self."
"Of all the arrogant, dishonest—" she said on a choked, horrified laugh. "I did no such thing!" Looking for some sort of confirmation, Sherry glanced at Colfax who was standing at attention holding one of the study doors open, while trying to look as if he weren't hearing—and enjoying—their banter. Her fiancé looked so supremely self-satisfied, his expression so bland and complacent, that Sherry had the awful feeling he was telling the truth. "I didn't actually do that—" she said weakly, "did I?"
Stephen's shoulders lurched with suppressed mirth at the appalled expression on her upturned face, then he shook his head and put her out of her misery. "No," he said, unaware that he was flirting with her in an open doorway and looking happier than he had in years, in view of his mesmerized servants and his fascinated family and friends, who'd arrived while he was with Sherry in the library. "After you greet everyone, I'm sending you for a ride in the park, so that you can take in the sights and get some fresh air while we discuss arrangements—" He broke off as some slight movement from inside the study attracted his attention, and he turned fully around, somewhat surprised to find Sherry and himself the focus of a roomful of people who oddly hadn't made a single sound to alert him they were present.
Blaming their lack of conversation on awkwardness about their forthcoming topic, Stephen led her into the study and waited while Sherry greeted everyone with the same warm, unaffected cordiality that she seemed to feel for everyone from the servants to her physician. Anxious to get down to the purpose for the meeting, he interrupted Hugh Whitticomb, who was embarking on an enthusiastic recounting of Sherry's recuperative powers and bravery, and said, "Since you're all present, why don't you begin discussing the various ways to ease Sherry's way into Society while I walk her out to the carriage." To Sherry, he added, "I'll wait while you find a light wrap, then we'll go to the carriage and discuss your itinerary with my coachman."
Sherry felt his hand under her elbow, firmly drawing her away from people she would very much have liked to spend more time with, but she did as he asked and bade them good-bye.
Behind them, Dr. Whitticomb signalled Colfax to close the doors, then he looked round at Stephen's family, noting their distracted, thoughtful expressions. The scene he had witnessed a few moments ago as Stephen and Charise Lancaster stood just outside the doors had only confirmed what he already believed, and he was almost certain that the others in the room had noted the same delightful alteration in Stephen that he had.
He hesitated, vacillated, then made his decision, and cautiously endeavored to see if their thoughts truly marched with his. Keeping his voice casual, he glanced at the dowager duchess. "Lovely girl, isn't she?"
"Lovely," Stephen's mother agreed unhesitatingly. "Stephen seems very protective of her, I noticed. I haven't seen him treat any female quite that way before." Her smile turned wistful. "She seems to like him very well too. I cannot help wishing he weren't so set on finding a husband for her. Perhaps with time, he might have—"
"My thoughts, exactly," Hugh said, and so emphatically that she gave him an odd, startled look. Satisfied that he had her unwitting support, Hugh turned to Stephen's sister-in-law. "What do you think, Your Grace?" Whitney Westmoreland smiled at him—a slow, knowing smile that warmed his heart and promised her full cooperation. "I find her completely delightful, and I think Stephen does too, though I doubt he'd want to admit it."
Restraining the absurd urge to wink at her, Hugh looked to Nicholas DuVille. Until that moment, Hugh had been the only outsider whom the Westmoreland family had regarded as a confidant. DuVille was not a family member or even a close family friend. He had in fact been Clayton's rival for Whitney's hand, and although Whitney regarded him as a dear and close friend, Hugh doubted that Clayton harbored quite the same fondness for him. Hugh wasn't certain why DuVille had been invited to attend what was an intensely private family discussion.