"Now that we've overcome that hurdle," Stephen said, walking back around his desk and sitting down, "let's get down to the problems we're likely to face when we introduce Sherry to Society."
Whitney surprised him with an instant objection. "There's no need to do that. Nicki has already offered himself as a prospective suitor."
Stephen flicked a quelling glance at her as he withdrew a sheet of writing paper from his desk. "I would like Sherry to have more than one suitor from which to choose, which means she will have to be out in Society. I'd also like her to have her affections set on someone by the time her memory returns, if at all possible. That will help diminish whatever grief she may feel when she learns of Burleton's death."
DuVille's objection was next. "That is hoping for too much in too short a time."
Stephen overruled that with a shake of his head. "Not in this case. She scarcely knew Burleton. He could not have become the entire center of her universe during the short time he was with her in America."
No one could argue the logic of that, but from there on, everything concerning Sherry's actual introduction to Society went up for endless debate. Stephen listened in growing frustration as everyone suggested various pitfalls and problems, from the possible to the absurd, that might be encountered if Sherry were introduced to the ton during the Season.
At the end of an hour, when impatience finally drove Stephen to begin brushing aside everyone's objections to his plan, Hugh Whitticomb suddenly decided to give his professional medical opinion of it as Sherry's physician. "I'm sorry, I cannot allow it," he said flatly.
"Would you care to enlighten me as to your reason?" Stephen said caustically when the physician acted as if the matter was settled and there was nothing more to be said.
"Certainly. Your contention that Society will overlook Miss Lancaster's lack of knowledge about our ways because she is American may be partially correct. However, Miss Lancaster is sensitive enough to notice immediately that she's lacking in certain social skills, and she is likely to become her harshest critic. That will add to the extreme stress she is already under, which I cannot permit to happen. The Season begins in a few days, and that's an impossibly short time for her to learn everything she'd need to know to make a full-fledged debut, as intelligent as she is."
"Even if that weren't an obstacle," Whitney added, "we still wouldn't be able to outfit her for the full Season on such short notice. It will take a great deal of pressure to influence Madame LaSalle, or any other acceptable modiste, to set to work on a wardrobe for Miss Lancaster when they're already impossibly busy working for their regular clients."
Ignoring that problem for the moment, Stephen directed his remarks to Whitticomb. "We can't keep her locked away from everyone. That won't help her meet potential suitors, and furthermore, people will begin to talk and wonder why we feel the need to hide her. More important, Sherry herself will begin to wonder about that, and I suspect the conclusion she'll draw is that we're ashamed of her."
"I hadn't considered that," Whitticomb admitted, looking deeply troubled by the possibility.
"I suggest we compromise," Stephen said, wondering why everyone else seemed bent on finding problems, instead of solutions. "We'll keep her social appearances to a minimum. So long as one of us stays at her side whenever she attends a function, we can shield her from too many questions."
"You can't shield her completely," Whitticomb argued. "What will you tell people about who she is and how she lost her memory?"
"We'll tell them the truth, but without going into too much detail. We will say that she suffered an injury, and though we can all vouch for her identity, as well as for her being of unexceptional birth and character, she simply cannot answer questions for a while."
"You know how cruel people can be! Why, her lack of knowledge could be mistaken for stupidity."
"Stupidity?" Stephen scoffed with a harsh laugh. "How long has it been since you went to a debutante ball and tried to carry on a sensible conversation with any of the chits making their annual debut?" Without waiting for a reply, he said, "I can still remember the last time I did—half of them were incapable of discourse on any topic beyond the latest fashion and the weather. The rest of them couldn't do anything but blush and simper. Sherry is extremely intelligent, and that will be evident to anyone with enough wit to recognize intelligence when it is right in front of them."
"I don't think she'll seem stupid to anyone," Whitney put in slowly. "They're more likely to think her wonderfully mysterious, particularly the younger beaux."
"It's settled then," Stephen said with an implacable finality that warned further argument would be futile. "Whitney, you and Mother make the arrangements to see her appropriately attired. We'll introduce her to Society under our own aegis, and then make certain that at least one of us is always with her. Let's begin by taking her to the opera, where she can be seen but not easily approached. After that, a musicale, a few teas. Her looks are so extraordinary that she's bound to attract considerable attention, and when she doesn't immediately appear at all the balls, the mystery surrounding her will grow, and as Whitney pointed out, that's actually to our advantage." Feeling satisfied that all the important considerations had been resolved, Stephen looked around and said, "Does anyone have anything else that needs to be discussed?"
"One thing," his mother said very emphatically. "She cannot possibly stay under your roof with you another night. If it were known she'd been in this house alone and unchaperoned, nothing we could do or say would salvage her reputation or enable her to make a suitable match. It will be a miracle if servants' gossip hasn't already spread."
"The servants adore her. They wouldn't utter a word to hurt her."
"Be that as it may, they are bound to talk with other people's servants without intending to harm her. By the time the on-dits have circulated through the city, she'll have become your paramour, and we cannot risk that sort of gossip."
"I suppose Clayton and I could invite her to stay with us," Whitney said reluctantly when Stephen seemed to be waiting for her to make the offer, but she wasn't at all pleased with the solution. She didn't want to remove Sherry from Stephen's immediate sphere. Once the round of social activities began with the crushes of people at all of them, Stephen might not encounter her for days at a stretch, or only for a few minutes at a time.