"Did you allow it?"
"No. Not willingly." That wasn't entirely true, and she looked away again in helpless misery. "I wasn't willing, at first," she amended. "But you see, he's very good at it, and—" She broke off as a realization hit her, and she said it aloud, her expression turning ferocious: "He's very good at it, and he knows it! That is why he insisted on kissing me, as if that would make everything all right again. And in a way he won, because in the end I gave in. Oh, he must be very proud of himself," she finished with withering scorn.
Whitney burst out laughing. "I very much doubt that. In fact, he was in the foulest mood imaginable when I arrived. For a man who wishes to break a betrothal, and has every reason to believe he's well on the way to accomplishing it, he is not in an exultant frame of mind."
Somewhat cheered by that, Sherry smiled; then her smile faded and she shook her head. "I do not understand any of this. Perhaps, even when I am in full possession of all my faculties, I am somewhat lacking in understanding."
"I think you are amazingly insightful!" Whitney said with feeling, "and brave. And very, very warmhearted too." She watched uncertainty flicker in expressive gray eyes, and Whitney wanted desperately to trust Charise Lancaster with the entire truth, every bit of it, beginning with Burleton's death and Stephen's part in it. As Stephen had pointed out, Sherry had scarcely known Burleton. Moreover, it was very clear that she had strong feelings for Stephen.
On the other hand, Dr. Whitticomb had emphasized the real danger of upsetting her too much, and Whitney was terribly afraid the news of Burleton's death and Stephen's part in it might do just that.
She settled for telling her everything but that, and, returning the other girl's level gaze, she said with a sad smile, "I am going to tell you a story about a very special man, whom you may not at first recognize. When I met him, four years ago, he was vastly admired for his tremendous charm and delightful manners. Men respected his skill at gaming and sports, and he was so handsome that women actually stared at him. His mother and I used to go into whoops over the effect he had on them, and not merely innocent young girls in their first Season, but sophisticated flirts, as well. I know he thought their reaction to his face was excessively silly, but he was unfailingly gallant to all of them. And then three things happened that changed him drastically—and the odd part is that two of them were good things: First, Stephen decided to take more of a personal interest in his business affairs and investments, which my husband had been handling along with ours. Stephen immediately began taking daring chances on large, risky ventures that my husband would never have considered—not with someone else's money. Time after time Stephen took enormous risks, and time after time, they paid off in enormous profits. And while all that was happening, so did something else that eventually contributed to his change from friendly gallantry to cold cynicism: Stephen inherited three titles from an elderly cousin of his father's, one of them the Earl of Langford. Normally, titles pass to the eldest son, except in certain instances, and this was one of them. Some of the titles held by the Westmoreland family date back over three hundred years, to King Henry VII. Among them are three titles granted by him that, at the request of the first Duke of Claymore, contain recorded exceptions to the normal line of descent. The exceptions allowed the holder of the title, if childless, to designate his own heir, so long as the heir was a direct descendant of one of the dukes of Claymore.
"The titles Stephen inherited were old and prestigious, but the land and income that went with them were insignificant. However—and here is where everything began to go 'wrong,' as it were—Stephen was already doubling and redoubling his own wealth. He loves architecture and studied it at university, so he bought fifty thousand of the most beautiful rolling acres imaginable and began working on a design for a house that would serve as his primary seat. While that house was under construction, he bought three lovely old estates in different parts of England, and began restoration on them as well. So there you have the whole picture—a man who was already wealthy, handsome, and from one of the most important families in England, and who, quite suddenly, acquired three titles, amassed a very large fortune, and bought four splendid estates. Can't you guess what happened next?"
"I presume he moved into one of his new homes."
Whitney gaped at her in laughing delight, pleased at her straightforward outlook and lack of guile. "He did do that," she said after a moment, "but that's not to the point."
"I don't understand."
"What happened was that a thousand families who would settle for nothing less than a titled husband for their daughters—and daughters who expected nothing less than that for themselves—suddenly added Stephen Westmoreland to their lists of desirable husbands. To the very top of their lists, in fact. Stephen's desirability and popularity exploded so quickly and so—so noticeably—that it was rather appalling to see. Because he was nearly thirty at the time, it was believed he would have to wed very soon, and that added a degree of desperation and urgency to the chase. Entire families descended on him if he walked into a room, daughters were thrust in his way—subtly of course—no matter where he went.
"Most men with titles and fortunes are born to them, as my husband was, and they learn to accept and ignore all that, though my husband admitted to me there were many times he felt like a hunted hare. In Stephen's case, it all seemed to happen overnight. If it had been otherwise, if the change hadn't been so sudden and drastic, Stephen might have adjusted to it with more patience, or at least more tolerance. And I think he still would have done so if he hadn't also gotten involved with Emily Kendall."
Sherry felt her stomach clench at the mention of a woman he'd been "involved" with, and at the same time she was helpless to control her curiosity. "What happened?" she asked when Whitney hesitated.
"Before I tell you, you will have to give me your pledge never to breathe a word of this to anyone."
Whitney got up and restlessly wandered over to the windows, then she turned and leaned back against the pane, her hands behind her back, her face somber. "Stephen met Emily two years before he inherited his titles. She was the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, and one of the wittiest and most amusing… and haughty. I thought her haughty. In any case, half the bachelors in England were mad about her, and Stephen was one of them, though he was clever enough not to let her see it. She had the most amazing way of bringing men to their knees, but Stephen wouldn't bend to her, and I suppose that was part of his appeal—the challenge. In what I can only think of as a moment of madness, Stephen asked her to marry him. She was stunned."