"Not as often as I suspect you are going to," Clayton said dryly.
"What do you think, Nicki?" Whitney asked after glancing behind her to make certain Stephen's butler was closing the door and not eavesdropping in the doorway.
He shot her a sideways smile as he signalled for his carriage. "I think that, at this moment, your husband and your brother-in-law are longing for any excuse to draw my blood."
Whitney smothered a laugh as a footman rushed forward to let down the steps, and she climbed into the carriage. "I think Stephen is the more eager."
"An alarming thought," he said, chuckling, "since he has the hotter temper and the reputation as a crack shot."
She sobered. "Nicki, my husband was very specific in there about our not interfering. I thought you understood the warning I was trying to give you to forget all about volunteering yourself as Miss Lancaster's suitor. You will have to excuse yourself from the contest at the first opportunity. Clayton rarely forbids me anything, and I will not defy him when he does."
"You are not defying him, chérie. I am. Furthermore, he said only that the 'family' could not interfere. I am not part of your family, to my everlasting regret."
He grinned to take the solemnity out of it, and Whitney knew he was merely flirting. "Nicki—"
"Yes, my love?"
"Do not call me that."
"Yes, Your Grace?" he teased.
"Do you remember how painfully naive and gauche I was when you decided to help 'launch' me into Society by attending my debut and paying me particular attention?"
"You were never gauche, chérie. You were refreshingly innocent and unconventional."
"Charise Lancaster," she persisted, "is as inexperienced as I was. More so. Do not let her mistake your attention for real devotion. I mean, do not let her care for you too much. I couldn't bear it if we were responsible for hurting her more than she has been."
Nicki stretched his long legs out in front of him, looked at them in thought for a moment, then he slanted her a smile. "When I attended your debut, I remember warning you that you must not confuse a harmless flirtation for something more meaningful. I did that so you would not be hurt. Do you recall the occasion?"
"And in the end, you were the one who rejected me."
"After which you soothed your 'broken heart' with an endless string of willing ladies."
He didn't deny it, but said instead, "Charise Lancaster reminded me of you from the moment I saw her. I cannot say why I think she is very out of the ordinary, or how deep the resemblance to you goes, but I am looking forward to the discovery."
"I want her for Stephen, Nicki. She is right for him. I know Dr. Whitticomb thinks as I do. All you were supposed to do is pay her enough attention to make Stephen a little jealous—"
"I think I can handle that without trying," he chuckled.
"—so that Stephen will have to see how desirable she is and that he's at risk of losing her to another."
"If you mean to adhere to your husband's dictate about not becoming involved, I am afraid you are going to have to leave the methods to me. Agreed?"
Summoned to the earl's study by a footman, Sherry bade a cheerful good morning to the servants she passed in the upper hall, paused in front of a gilt-framed mirror to ensure her hair was tidy, then she smoothed the skirt of her new lime dress and presented herself to Hodgkin, who was stationed at the open doors to the study, watching as footmen applied beeswax to graceful tables and polish to silver candelabra. "Good morning, Hodgkin. You're looking especially fine today. Is that a new suit?"
"Yes, miss. Thank you, miss," Hodgkin said, fighting unsuccessfully to conceal his pleasure at the discovery that she, too, noticed how well he looked in the new suit of clothes that he was entitled to twice each year as part of his employment. Straightening his shoulders to their most rigid angle, he confided, "It arrived yesterday, directly from the tailors."
"I have a new gown," she confided in return. Stephen had looked up at the sound of her voice and now watched her pick up her skirts and do a slow pirouette for the under-butler's benefit. "Isn't it lovely?" he heard her ask.
The scene was so unaffectedly charming that Stephen smiled and answered before the under-butler could. "Very lovely," he replied, which caused Hodgkin to jump nervously and Sherry to drop her skirts, but she smiled that winsome smile of hers as she came toward his desk, her hips swaying gently. Most of the women Stephen knew had been taught exactly how to walk and how to carry themselves, so they moved with the practiced precision of a drill team. Sherry had an effortless grace about her, as if walking was what it should be—a distinctive, naturally feminine act.
"Good morning," she said. Gesturing toward the sheaf of documents and correspondence on his desk, she added, "I hope I'm not interrupting you. I thought you wished to see me at once—"
"You aren't interrupting," Stephen assured her. "In fact, I sent my secretary away so that we could be private. Sit down, please." Glancing at Hodgkin, he nodded toward the doors in a silent order that they were to be closed. As the tall oaken panels swung silently into place, Sherry settled her skirts around her. She took painstaking care with her new gown, Stephen noticed, smoothing her hand over a wrinkle and looking down at her feet to make certain the hem didn't lie beneath the toe of her slipper. Satisfied that everything was arranged in becoming order, she looked at him expectantly, her lovely eyes inquisitive. And trusting.
She trusted him implicitly, Stephen realized, and in return he was about to abuse that trust by manipulating her. As the silence lengthened to the point of awkwardness, he realized that he had been dreading this moment more than he'd realized—enough to have put it off last night so that they could enjoy supper together. However, there was no point in delaying it another minute. And yet, that's exactly what he found himself doing.
He searched quickly for a topic, failed to come up with one, and filled the expectant silence with the first remark that came to mind, "Have you had a pleasant morning?"
"It's a little too soon to tell," she solemnly replied, but her eyes lit with laughter. "We finished breakfasting only an hour ago."
"Has it only been an hour? It seems longer," Stephen said inanely, feeling as awkward and ill-at-ease as an untried youth alone with a woman for the first time. "Well, what have you done since then?" he persevered.