The last name on Whitney's list made his brows snap together and his smile vanish. "Roddy Carstairs!" he exclaimed in disgust. "I wouldn't let Sherry near that overdressed, egotistical, razor-tongued little gossip for anything. He's never married because he's never found a woman who he thinks is worthy of him."
"Roddy is not little," Whitney pointed out firmly, "though I'll grant he's not precisely tall, but he is a particular friend of mine." Biting her lip to hide her smile, she added, "You are being excessively particular, Stephen."
"I'm being practical!"
Discarding that list, he reached for Hugh Whitticomb's, glanced at it, frowned, and tossed it aside. "Apparently you and my mother have a great many friends in common." With an irritated sigh he got up and walked restlessly around to the front of his desk. He perched his hip on the edge of it, crossed his arms over his chest, and regarded his brother with frustration and hope. "I see you haven't brought a list, but you must know someone who'd be right for her."
"As a matter of fact," his brother replied in a voice tinged with ironic amusement, "I've been thinking that over as I listened to you eliminate the other candidates."
"And I realized I do know someone. He doesn't meet all of your lofty criteria, but I'm no longer in any doubt he's the right man for her."
"Thank God! Who is he?"
The word hung on the air while Stephen bit back a strange and irrational bitterness. "I am not a candidate!" he said frigidly.
"Excellent—" Nicholas DuVille's amused exclamation drew everyone's instant attention as he removed a sheet of writing paper bearing his family crest from his pocket. "In that case I did not waste my time in making out my own list. I assumed," he added as Stephen slowly unfolded his arms and reached for the paper, "that since I was invited here today, I was also to bring a list?"
"It's good of you to have gone to the trouble," Stephen said, wondering why he'd let his brother's absurd jealousy of DuVille color his own impression of the man. Nicholas DuVille was not only a handsome, educated, well-bred man, he was witty and he was damned nice. Stephen opened the list and looked at the single name scrawled across it, then he lifted his head and regarded DuVille with narrowed eyes. "Is this your idea of a joke?"
"I hadn't expected you to find the notion laughable," he countered smoothly.
Unable to believe he was serious, Stephen studied him in cool silence, noticing for the first time that there was an infuriating arrogance about the man, his smile, and even the way he was sitting in the chair, his driving gloves dangling idly from one hand. Realizing that no one else understood what he was talking about, Stephen managed to clarify the matter and still challenge DuVille's integrity. "You seriously want to be considered as a suitor for Charise Lancaster?"
"Why not?" Nicki countered, visibly enjoying the other man's discomfiture. "I am not too old, too short, nor have I ever shot myself in the foot. I dislike fishing, I haven't an excessive attachment to the hunt, and though I do have some vices, no one has ever accused me of being overdressed, razor-tongued, or a gossip."
… But egotistical, they have! Stephen thought with another flash of hostility. And jaded. In his mind, he saw the suave Frenchman locked in a passionate embrace with Sherry, her hair spilling over his arm like satin fire, and his hostility escalated to outrage. All her warmth and innocence, that rebellious, jaunty spirit of hers, her courage and thoughtfulness would belong to DuVille, who would…
Stephen's inexplicable wrath abruptly gave way to common sense and the realization that fate had just delivered the ideal solution to his problems. DuVille was perfect. He was, in fact, regarded as a tremendous matrimonial prize amongst the ton.
"Am I to take your silence for assent?" DuVille inquired, looking as if he knew perfectly well that Stephen couldn't have any objection to his suit.
Recovering his manners, if not his cordial attitude toward the other man, Stephen nodded and said with scrupulous civility, "Certainly. You have my blessings as her…" He had started to say guardian and broke off because he was not her legal guardian.
"As her unwilling fiancé?" Nicki suggested. "Who wishes to be relieved of the obligation to marry her himself so that he can continue as a bachelor without the tiresome burden of a guilty conscience over her unmarried state?"
Whitney saw Stephen's jaw tighten, and she recognized the ominous glitter in those narrowed blue eyes. In a mood like this one, she knew Stephen could and would flay Nicki alive, regardless of the fact that he was her friend or a guest in his home. Her fear was confirmed as Stephen recrossed his arms and subjected Nicki to a contemptuous, raking stare that slid slowly down his entire length. She opened her mouth, waiting to see if Stephen might somehow rise to Nicki's bait by saying he would marry Sherry himself. Instead, Stephen announced in an insulting drawl, "I think we ought to discuss your qualifications or lack thereof a little further, DuVille. In rejecting one of the other contenders, I believe the word 'lecher' was mentioned—"
"No, it was not!" Whitney burst out so desperately that Stephen looked at her, and while he'd momentarily lost some of his momentum, she said fiercely, "Stephen, please do not take your frustration out on Nicki. He wants to help." She glanced swiftly at Nicki, who had gone perfectly still from the moment Stephen launched his tirade and who looked more like he was contemplating murder than marriage. Her exasperating husband was sitting there looking as if he was enjoying both men's predicament, but he responded to her silent appeal and intervened. "Really, Stephen, this is no way to treat your prospective son-in-law," he said dryly, using humor to dispel the tension.
"My what?" Stephen demanded with disgust.
Clayton replied with a mocking grin, "Since you not only promised to provide a dowry, but a 'generous' one, I'd say that puts you in the role of father. Now, since DuVille has merely offered himself as a possible suitor, not a husband, my advice is to wait to antagonize him until after the nuptials."
The absurdity of that scenario was not lost on either of the combatants, who visibly relaxed, but Whitney scarcely breathed until Stephen finally held out his hand to Nicki in a gesture of conciliation. "Welcome to the family," he said ironically.
"Thank you," Nicki said, leaning forward and accepting the handshake. "How large a dowry should I expect?" he joked.