"I'm afraid I never gave Almack's a thought," Stephen replied, turning away in order to hide the revulsion that he felt for the place.

"I shall speak to your mama about the vouchers. It will take all of her influence to pull it off, but she will be able to prevail on the patronesses." Her blue eyes riveted disapprovingly on the earl's finely tailored claret jacket and trousers, and she warned in alarmed tones, "You will not be admitted to Almack's if you are not properly attired, Langford."

"I will warn my valet of the dire social consequences should he fail to turn me out appropriately," Stephen promised, straightfaced.

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"Tell him you must wear a formal black coat with long tails," she emphasized, still doubting the competence of the excellent Damson.

"I'll relay that information verbatim."

"And a formal white waistcoat, of course."

"Of course."

"And a white neckcloth."

"Naturally," he replied in a tone of perfect gravity, inclining his head in a little bow.

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Satisfied that he was duly forewarned, Miss Charity turned to Sherry and confided, "The patronesses once turned back the Duke of Wellington himself when he appeared at Almack's in those dreadful trousers men wear nowadays, instead of formal knee breeches." In a lightning switch of topic, she said, "You do know how to dance, do you not?"

"I—" Sherry hesitated and shook her head. "I'm not certain."

"We must find you a dancing instructor then at once. You will need to learn the minuet, country dances, cotillions, and the waltz. But you must not dance the waltz anywhere until after the patronesses at Almack's have approved you for it." In a dire voice, she warned, "Were you to do it, it would be worse than if Langford weren't appropriately attired, for he would not be admitted, so no one would know, while you would be thought 'fast' and therefore disgraced. Langford will lead you onto the floor for the first dance, then he may dance one more dance with you, but no more. Even two dances could be construed as singling you out for particular attention, which is the last thing we would wish to happen. Langford," she said, startling Stephen out of his study of Sherry's flawless profile, "are you attending all this?"

"I am hanging on every word," Stephen replied. "However, I believe Nicholas DuVille will wish the honor of escorting Miss Lancaster to the assembly and onto the floor for her first dance." Leaning imperceptibly to the side to get a better look at Sherry's reaction to his last announcement and his next one, he added, "I have another engagement next Wednesday and will have to content myself with a later place on her dance card for that evening." Her expression didn't change. She was looking at her hands in her lap, and he had the impression she was mortified by all this discussion of attracting suitors.

"The doors close at eleven sharp, and the Lord himself wouldn't be admitted after that," Miss Charity warned, and while Stephen was marvelling at her ability to remember some things and forget others, she said, "DuVille? Is that the same young man who once had a tendre for your sister-in-law?"

"I believe," Stephen evaded cautiously, "that he is now quite taken with Miss Lancaster."

"Excellent! Next to you, he is the best catch in England."

"He will be ecstatic to know that," Stephen replied, mentally applauding his sudden and inspired decision to force DuVille to escort Sherry to Almack's hours before Stephen had to arrive. It was delightful vengeance just to envision the suave Frenchman surrounded like a trapped hare by a roomful of eager debutantes and their avaricious mothers who would look DuVille over like a choice meal, calculating his financial worth and wishing he had a title to go with it. Stephen hadn't set foot in "The Marriage Mart" in over a decade, but he remembered it well: The gambling available in the anteroom was for stakes so low it was absurd, and the food was as boring as the gaming—weak tea, warm lemonade, tasteless cakes, orgeat, and bread and butter. Once DuVille had his two dances with Sherry, the rest of the evening would be sheer, undiluted purgatory for him.

Stephen, however, intended to escort Sherry to the opera himself the next night. She liked music—he knew that from the night he found her singing with the servants' chorus—so she would surely enjoy Don Giovanni.

Arms folded over his chest, he watched Charity Thornton lecturing Sherry. When he first walked in to meet the new duenna, he'd taken one look at Charity Thornton and wondered if Whitticomb had lost his mind. But as he listened to her happy chatter, he decided the physician had actually made an excellent choice that would suit everyone, including Stephen, perfectly. When she wasn't dozing, or pausing to remember something that suddenly evaded her, she was cheerful company. If anything, she amused Sherry, rather than intimidating or flustering her. He was thinking about all that when he realized the woman was talking about Sherry's hair.

"Red is not at all the thing, you know, but once my excellent maid has cut it off and styled it, you won't see so very much of it."

"Leave it!" Stephen rapped the order out before he could stop himself or temper his tone, and the other three occupants all gaped at him.

"But Langford," Miss Charity protested, "girls are wearing their hair short these days."

Stephen knew he ought to stay out of it, knew it was not his place to interfere in an entirely feminine judgment about coiffeur, but the thought of Sherry's heavy mass of shiny hair lying in a molten heap on the floor was unthinkable. "Do not cut her hair," he said in a tone of icy command that sent most people scurrying for cover.

Inexplicably, his tone made Whitticomb smile.

It made Charity look chastened.

It made Sherry momentarily consider cutting her hair off at the nape.

28

Whitney smiled as she watched Sherry's new maid put the finishing touches on her coiffeur. Downstairs Nicki was waiting to accompany Sherry and Charity Thornton to Almack's for Sherry's first official London appearance. Stephen was to join them there later, and the foursome would then proceed to the Rutherfords' ball, where Whitney, Clayton, and the dowager duchess would lend their protection and influence to ensure that nothing went wrong during the Season's most important opening ball. "Stephen was absolutely right when he implored you not to cut your hair."

"He did not exactly implore me," Sherry pointed out. "He forbade it."

"I have to agree with him," Stephen's mother said. "It would have been a crime to cut such extraordinary hair."

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