"Because he loved her?" Sherry asked.
"Because he was so dreadful as to ask her."
"According to my husband, who had the story directly from Stephen, Emily's primary reaction was shock and then anguish that he'd put her in such an untenable position. She was—is—the daughter of a duke, and it seemed that her family would not countenance a marriage to a mere mister. She was to be married in a fortnight to William Lathrop, the Marquess of Glengarmon, an old man whose father's estate marched beside Emily's father's. No one knew about the betrothal as yet because it had just been finalized. Emily burst into tears and told Stephen that, before he'd asked her to marry him, she had at least been able to resign herself to marrying Lord Lathrop, but that now, her life was going to be unbearable. Stephen was furious that she was to be 'wasted' on a pathetic old man, but she convinced him there was no point in trying to reason with her father—which he actually wanted to do, even though he knew perfectly well that it is a daughter's duty to marry wherever her family wills."
She paused and gave Sherry an abashed smile and added, "I did not necessarily agree with that when my father claimed the right to choose a husband for me." Returning to the story, she continued, "In any case, when Stephen still insisted on talking to her father, Emily told him he would beat her if he knew she'd complained to Stephen about her fate or her feelings about Lord Lathrop."
"And so they parted?" Sherry ventured when Whitney seemed to hesitate.
"I only wish they had! Instead, Emily convinced him that the only way she could endure her fate, now that she knew he loved her, was if they continued their… friendship… after she was married." Sherry frowned because it was difficult to hear about how much he had loved another. Whitney mistook her frown for disapproval and hastened to defend the indefensible, partly out of loyalty to Stephen and partly so that Sherry wouldn't condemn him out of hand. Unfortunately, within moments she found herself on shaky ground as she tried to impart information while obscuring its full meaning. "It's not that unusual or even scandalous. Amongst the ton, there are many females who desire the… attention… and the… companionship of an attractive man whom they know… ah… think... would be very… entertaining in… er… a-variety-of-ways," Whitney finished breathlessly. "It's all very discreet, of course."
"You mean they must be sly about their friendship?"
"I suppose you could say that," Whitney said, as it dawned on her that Sherry was blissfully unaware that Stephen had been much more than Emily's "friend" during her marriage, and that they were not discussing friendships at all. In retrospect, Whitney realized she should have expected that. Well-bred English girls often had no clear idea of what couples did in the bedchamber, but they usually had overheard the gossip of older sisters and other married females. By the time they were Sherry's age, they at least suspected that something more than friendly handshakes occurred.
"What happens if the truth is discovered?"
Having gotten by this far by telling truth with impunity, Whitney stuck to the same practice with the rest of her questions. "Then the husband is usually displeased, particularly if there has been cause for gossip."
"And if he is displeased, does he insist that his wife restrict herself to female companions?"
"Yes, but he occasionally has a discussion with the gentleman as well."
"What sort of discussion?"
"The sort that takes place at dawn at twenty paces."
"A duel?" Sherry exclaimed, thinking that seemed like a severe overreaction to what had merely been, at worst, too close a friendship between opposite sexes to be seemly.
"A duel," Whitney confirmed.
"And did Lord Westmoreland agree to continue being Emily Kendall's—" She paused, discarding the word "suitor" because it sounded ridiculous if the lady was already married, "—her close friend," she improvised, since that was correct, "even after she was married?"
"Yes, for over a year, until her husband found out about it."
Sherry drew in a long breath, half afraid to ask. "Was there a duel?"
Since Lord Westmoreland was still very much alive, Sherry assumed Lord Lathrop was very much dead. "He killed him," she said flatly.
"No, he didn't, though it might well have come to that. I think Stephen may have intended that it should. He was desperately in love with Emily, and loyal to her to the point of blindness. He despised Lord Lathrop. He hated him for ever offering for Emily in the first place, for being a disgusting old roué who'd stolen her youth and life, and for being too old to give her children. The morning of the duel, Stephen mentioned some of those opinions to him, though I'm certain he expressed himself more eloquently."
"And then what happened?"
"The old marquess nearly died, but of shock, not from a pistol shot. It seems that Emily and her father, not he, had sought the marriage. Our Emily wanted to be a duchess, which she would have become when Lathrop's ancient father died and Lathrop inherited his father's title. On the morning of the duel, Stephen believed Lord Lathrop. He said no man alive could have feigned such a stunned reaction to Stephen's accusations. Besides, Lathrop had no reason to lie."
"Did they still duel?"
"Yes and no. Stephen deloped, which amounts to an apology. In doing that he gave the elderly man the satisfaction he was entitled to have from him. Emily's father sent her to Spain within the week, and she stayed there for over a year, until after Lord Lathrop died. She came home a 'new woman'—more beautiful than before, but also more serene and less haughty." Whitney had intended to end the story there and explain the point she'd been trying to make with it, but Sherry's question obliged her to finish. "Did they ever see each other again?"
"Yes, and by that time Stephen had inherited his title. Oddly enough—or perhaps not oddly at all, considering the timing—it was Emily's father who went to see Stephen first. He told Stephen that Emily was in love with him, and always had been, which, in her own selfish way, I believe she was. He asked Stephen to at least talk to her.
"Stephen agreed, and I'm quite sure her father left in happy expectation that everything would be all right and that his daughter was going to be the Countess of Langford. Emily came to see Stephen the following week, and she confessed to everything, from her selfishness to her deceit. She begged his forgiveness and pleaded with him to give her a chance to prove that she truly loved him, to show him that she'd changed.