Sherry gave her a helpless smile, unable to argue the point, partly out of courtesy, but mostly because in the three days since Lord Westmoreland had told her she was to consider other suitors, Sherry had become very fond of Whitney Westmoreland and the dowager. They'd been with her almost constantly, accompanying her on her sightseeing and shopping excursions, watching as she had her dancing instructions, and telling her amusing stories about people she was going to meet. In the evenings they dined as a group with the earl and his brother.
Yesterday, Whitney had brought her three-year-old son, Noel, to the earl's house, where Sheridan was having a dancing lesson in the ballroom given by a humorless dancing master who should have been a military general. With little Noel in her lap, Whitney and the dowager duchess, who was seated beside her, had watched as Sheridan tried to master the steps of dances she seemed never to have done. When the dancing master's clipped orders began to embarrass her, Whitney had stood up and volunteered to dance with the dancing instructor so that Sherry could see how the steps were done. Sherry had happily switched places with her and held Noel in her lap. In no time at all, the dowager duchess decided to show both Whitney and Sherry some of the dances that were done in her day, and by the end of that session all three women were convulsed with laughter over the dancing master's indignation when they began dancing with each other.
At supper that night, they regaled both men with hilarious descriptions of the lesson and the teacher. Sherry had dreaded that first supper with her reluctant fiancé, but the presence of the dowager, Whitney, and the duke served as a buffer and a distraction. Sherry was inclined to think that that was exactly their purpose in coming to supper. If that was their plan, it was certainly effective, because by the end of that first evening, Sherry was able to be in the earl's presence and to treat him with courtesy, but nothing more and nothing less. There were times when she had the gratifying feeling that it irritated him to have her treat him thus, times when she was laughing with his brother, that she caught the earl frowning, as if he were piqued about something. There were also times when Sherry felt as if Clayton Westmoreland was perfectly aware of his brother's unreliable disposition, and that for some reason the duke found it amusing. For her part, Sherry thought the Duke of Claymore was the kindest, most amiable, charming man she had ever met. She said as much to the earl the following morning when he surprised her by coming down early for breakfast. In hopes of avoiding him, she'd begun eating earlier and in the morning room, and so she'd been surprised when he wandered in as if he'd always dined there instead of in the grandeur of his dining room. She was equally surprised when her praise of his brother's disposition and character caused the earl's mood to take a sudden turn for the sarcastic as he said, "I'm happy to know you have met your ideal of the perfect man." He then had gotten up from the table, with his breakfast not finished, and with an excuse about having work to do, he had left Sherry sitting alone at the table staring after him in stupefaction. Last night after supper he'd gone to the theatre with a friend and the night before to another late function, and Hodgkin said he'd returned each night just before dawn.
Whitney and his mother had arrived shortly afterward and found her sitting at the table, wondering if lack of adequate sleep was making him cross. When she explained to both women about his ill humor and what had preceded it, Whitney and the duchess looked at each other and exclaimed in unison, "He's jealous!" That possibility, though seemingly unlikely, had been intriguing enough that when Nicholas DuVille called for her in the afternoon to take her for a brief ride in the park, Sherry had made it a point to comment on his attributes as a cheerful and amiable companion in the drawing room before supper that night. The earl's reaction had been similar to his reaction that morning, though his words were different. "You're certainly easy to please," he said scornfully.
Since Whitney and the dowager had asked to be kept apprised of everything Stephen said and did, Sherry shared his comment with them the next morning, and they again chorused, "He's jealous!"
Sherry wasn't certain if she was pleased or not. She only knew that she was afraid to believe he really cared for her, but a part of her was completely unable to stop hoping that he did.
She knew he was coming to Almack's tonight to single her out for attention because Charity Thornton thought that would assure Sherry's instant popularity. Sherry wasn't interested in popularity; she was only interested in not shaming herself or his family or him. She'd been nervous all afternoon about the evening to come, but Whitney had arrived unexpectedly to keep her company while she dressed for the evening, an activity that had taken so much time she was actually beginning to long to be on her way.
A seamstress stood off to the side, holding a spectacular gown that had been completed only minutes ago, and Sherry again glanced at the clock. "I am keeping Monsieur DuVille waiting," she said nervously.
"I am perfectly certain Nicholas expects to be kept waiting," Whitney said dryly, but it wasn't Nicholas DuVille Sherry was concerned about. Lord Westmoreland was downstairs, and she hoped to see if the final effect of all this preparation had any noticeable effect on the way he looked at her.
"All ready—no, don't look yet," Whitney said, when Sherry started to turn to the mirror to see her new coiffeur. "Wait until you have your gown on, so that you can see the full effect." Smiling whimsically, she added, "I was staying with my aunt and uncle in Paris when I was of an age to make my first appearance in Society. I had never seen myself done up in a real gown until the moment my aunt let me turn around and look in the mirror."
"Really?" Sherry said, wondering how that could be true when from, all she'd seen and read, wealthy English girls were turned out like princesses from the time they were quite little.
Whitney saw the question she was too polite to ask, and laughed. "I was a 'late bloomer.' "
Sheridan found it impossible to imagine that the gorgeous brunette seated on the edge of the bed had ever known an awkward moment in her life, and she said so.
"Until shortly before that night in Paris, my two greatest ambitions were to master the use of a slingshot, and to force a local boy to fall madly in love with me. Which is why," she finished with a confiding smile, "I was sent off to France in the first place. No one could think what else to do with me in order to stop me from disgracing myself."
Sherry's joking reply was muffled as the maid and seamstress gently lowered the gown over her head. Behind her, the dowager duchess walked into the bedchamber. "I was too eager to see how you looked to wait until we saw you at the Rutherfords'," she confided, standing back and watching the robing procedure.