She would act as naturally as she could, she decided, but she would be just reserved enough to warn him to keep his distance.
And she would find some way to stop remembering how his hands slid up and down her spine and across her shoulders when he kissed her… or how his fingers sank into her hair, holding her mouth pressed so tightly to his that it was as if he couldn't get enough of it. She would not think about the insistent hunger of those kisses, or the way his arms felt around her. And under no circumstances would she let herself dwell again on the way he smiled… that lazy, dazzling smile that swept slowly across his tanned face and made her heart stop… or the way his dark blue eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled…
Thoroughly disgusted with herself for doing precisely what she was telling herself she would not do, Sherry sat down at her desk and concentrated all her attention on the newspaper.
HE HAD LOVED EMILY LATHROP.
Frustrated, Sherry closed her eyes tightly as if she could shut him out of her mind. But she couldn't. He had loved Emily Lathrop to destruction and though she knew it was foolish, the knowledge hurt terribly, because she loved him.
Sheridan was still reeling from her realization when she was summoned to join Dr. Whitticomb and her future "duenna."
Longing for more time to think about all she'd learned that day and depressed at the prospect of living under the icy eye of some vigilant Englishwoman, Sherry reported to the drawing room, where Dr. Whitticomb was hovering near an elderly lady seated upon the sofa. Instead of the grim-faced English Amazon Sherry had imagined, her chaperone looked more like a tiny, plump china doll with pink cheeks and silver hair tucked neatly under a frilled white cap.
She was dozing at the moment, her chin resting against her chest.
"This is Miss Charity Thornton," Dr. Whitticomb whispered to Sherry when she was standing beside him, "—the Duke of Stanhope's maiden sister."
Swallowing an astonished chuckle at the absurdity of this diminutive, sleeping person being in charge of her. Sherry lowered her own voice to a whisper, and politely replied, "It is very good of her to come here to look after me."
"Oh, she was thrilled to be asked."
"Yes," Sherry joked helplessly, watching the gentle rise and fall of the elderly lady's bosom, "I can see that she is very excited."
Off to the left, out of Sherry's line of vision, Stephen leaned against a carved satinwood table, observing the meeting, and he smiled at her quip.
"Her younger sister, Hortense, wanted to accompany her," Dr. Whitticomb confided in his hushed voice, "but they bicker incessantly about everything, including their ages, and I didn't want to see your peace cut up."
"How old is her sister?"
"Eight and sixty."
"I see." Biting her trembling lower lip in an effort to hide her mirth, Sherry whispered, "Do you think we should awaken her?"
From his corner of the room, Stephen joined the conversation in a normal tone of voice. "Either that," he joked, "or we can bury her where she sits."
Sherry stiffened in shock at the discovery of his presence, but Miss Charity jolted awake as if someone had fired off a cannon in her ear. "Goodness, Hugh!" she exclaimed severely. "Why didn't you awaken me?" She looked at Sherry and held out her hand, smiling. "I am so very pleased to come to your assistance, my dear. Dr. Whitticomb told me you're recovering from an injury, and that you're in need of a chaperone of unimpeachable reputation while you stay here with Langford." Her smooth brow furrowed in bewilderment. "I can't quite remember what sort of injury it was, however."
"A head injury," Sherry provided helpfully.
"Yes, that was it." Her bright blue gaze darted to Sherry's head for a moment. "It looks as if it has healed."
Dr. Whitticomb intervened. "The injury has healed," he reminded her. "But there is still a troublesome aftereffect. Miss Lancaster has not yet recovered her memory."
Miss Charity's face fell. "My poor child. Do you know who you are?"
"Do you know who I am?"
"Who am I?"
Perilously close to a fit of giggles, Sherry looked aside, struggling for composure, and inadvertently encountered the earl's grin and sympathetic wink. Deciding it was best to ignore his friendly overture until she had more time to sort out her own feelings, she jerked her gaze back to her chaperone, and dutifully answered the question she assumed had been put to her as a test. "You are Miss Charity Thornton, the Duke of Stanhope's aunt."
"That is what I thought!" the elderly lady exclaimed with relief.
"I t-think I'll ring for t-tea!" Sherry said, already fleeing from the room, her hand clamped over her mouth, her shoulders rocking with helpless laughter.
Behind her, Miss Charity said sadly, "Such a beautiful child, but if that was a stammer I just heard, we're going to have a time of it, trying to make a good match for her."
Hugh gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "You're just the one to do it, though, Charity."
"I shall show her just how to go about in Society," Charity was saying when Sherry returned. Now that the elderly lady was fully awake, she seemed remarkably more alert and lucid, and she beamed brightly at Sherry as she patted the seat beside her on the sofa, in a clear invitation to sit down. "We are going to have a lovely time," she promised as Sherry complied with the invitation. "We will attend soirees, levees, and balls, and we'll shop in Bond Street and drive in Hyde Park and along Pall Mall. Oh, and you must attend a ball at Almack's Assembly Rooms at once. Do you know about Almack's?"
"No, ma'am. I'm afraid not," Sherry replied, wondering how her chaperone could possibly keep up such a pace.
"You will love it," said Charity, clasping her hands in prayerful ecstasy. "It is 'The Seventh Heaven of the Fashionable World,' and more important than a presentation at court. The balls take place on Wednesday evenings, and they are so exclusive that once the patronesses have given you a voucher of entry, you are virtually assured of acceptance at all the ton functions. The earl will escort you the first time, which will make you the envy of all the females and an object of special interest to all the males who are present. Almack's is just the place for you to make your first appearance in Society—" She broke off and looked worriedly at the earl. "Langford, does she have vouchers for Almack's?"