"Is Monsieur DuVille annoyed because this is taking so long?" Sherry asked, lowering her arms and obediently turning around so that her helpers could begin to fasten the tiny hooks at the back of her gown.
"Not in the least. He is having a glass of sherry with his Stephen, and—Oh!" she breathed as Sherry turned around.
"Please do not tell me anything is wrong," Sherry said. "I refuse to endure one second more of primping."
When Stephen's mother didn't seem able to speak, Sherry turned to Whitney, who was slowly standing up, a smile dawning across her face.
"I wish someone would say something," Sherry said anxiously.
"Show Miss Lancaster how she looks," Whitney said to the maid, already longing to see Stephen's reaction when he witnessed the transformation. "No, wait—gloves first, and the fan." To Sherry, she added, "You must have the full effect when you see yourself, don't you agree?"
Sherry had no idea if she agreed. With an inexplicable combination of anticipation and grave foreboding, she drew on the long, ivory, elbow-length gloves, took the ivory and gold fan the maid held out to her, then she turned and slowly lifted her gaze to the full-length looking glass that the maids were holding.
Her lips parted in pleasure and disbelief at the gorgeously gowned woman looking back at her.
"I look… very nice!" she exclaimed.
Stephen's mother shook her head incredulously. "That is an understatement."
"A masterpiece of understatement," Whitney agreed, so eager to see Stephen's reaction that she had to suppress the temptation to grab Sherry's hand and drag the younger woman downstairs to the salon, where she knew he would be waiting with Nicki and Miss Charity.
Originally, Stephen had been amused at the thought of forcing Nicholas DuVille to spend a large part of his evening at Almack's—and under the watchful eye of Charity Thornton, no less—but now that the moment for their departure was near, he was far less pleased with his joke. As he sat in the drawing room, listening to Miss Thornton and DuVille chatting while they waited for Sherry to come downstairs, Stephen noticed that the elderly peagoose seemed to hang on to DuVille's every word and to beam approvingly at him as he uttered each syllable—an attitude that struck Stephen not only as highly inappropriate in a chaperone but damned incomprehensible, considering that DuVille's reputation as a womanizer was legendary. "Here they are now!" Charity Thornton said excitedly, tipping her head toward the hall and bolting to her feet with more enthusiasm and energy than she'd displayed all week. "We shall have such a wonderful evening! Come along, Monsieur DuVille," she said, gathering up her shawl and reticule.
Stephen followed them into the entry hall, where DuVille stopped to gaze at the staircase as if transfixed, an appreciative smile working its way across his face. Stephen followed the direction of his gaze, and what he saw filled him with bursting pride. Coming down the staircase, wrapped in a gold-spangled gown of ivory satin, was the same woman who'd dined with him in an overlarge peignoir and bare feet. Considering how delectable she'd looked that way, he should have expected her to be a sensation in a formal gown, but somehow he wasn't prepared for what he saw. Her hair was pulled back off her forehead and entwined with slender ropes of pearls at the crown, then it spilled over her shoulders in a tumble of molten waves and curls. She took his breath away.
She suspected it too, Stephen realized, because although she'd looked through him as if he were invisible for most of the last four days, she was finally looking at him… not for long of course. Only a fleeting glance to see his reaction, but he let her see it.
"Madam," he said, "I shall have to hire an army of chaperones after tonight."
Until that moment, Sherry had almost managed to forget that his whole purpose for this expensive charade was to lure suitors so that he could hand her off to someone else, but his unhidden pleasure in the thought that she might attract considerable notice came as an agonizing reminder. It cut so deeply—coming in the precise moment when she had thought she actually looked nice, and hoped he might also—that she went numb inside. Extending her hand for his kiss, she said with quiet, but unmistakable, determination, "I will endeavor to make certain you need to do exactly that."
Inexplicably, that rejoinder made his dark brows snap together into a frown of displeasure. "Don't 'endeavor' too much; that is how reputations are made."
"What was that all about, Damson?" Stephen glanced at his valet in the mirror as he deftly tied the last of a series of elaborate knots into his white neckcloth, then leaned forward and ran a hand over his jaw to check the closeness of his shave.
"Mr. Hodgkin thought you ought to be given this letter before you left, in case it was important," Damson said as he laid the tattered missive on the bed and went about the more pressing business of seeing that his lordship was properly turned out for an evening at Almack's. Removing a formal black coat with long tails from one of the wardrobes, he padded across the suite, shaking out nonexistent wrinkles from it. Holding up the coat, he waited while Stephen plunged his arms into the sleeves, then he smoothed his hands over the shoulders, adjusted the front, and stepped back to survey the excellent results of his care and attention.
"Did Hodgkin say who the letter was from?" Stephen asked, tugging his shirt cuffs into position and adjusting the sapphire studs at the cuff.
"Lord Burleton's former landlord had it sent round to you. It was directed to the baron at his old lodgings."
Stephen nodded without much interest. He had settled Burleton's bill with his landlord and directed that gentleman to forward all of Burleton's mail to him. So far all the mail had been from establishments where Burleton had made purchases for which he had not paid. Having deprived Burleton of his life and the opportunity to clear his debts himself, Stephen felt honor-bound to do so in his behalf.
"Give it to my secretary," Stephen said, in a hurry to be off. He'd promised to join his brother for a few leisurely hands of cards or rounds of faro at The Strathmore, and he was running late. After an hour or two of high-stakes gambling, he planned to put in his appearance at Almack's, and at the earliest possible opportunity, whisk her out of the "Marriage Mart," and then to Lord Rutherford's ball, which would be far more enjoyable for both of them. DuVille, he decided with amused satisfaction, could content himself with escorting Charity Thornton to the Rutherfords'.
"I suggested Mr. Hodgkin give it to your secretary, my lord," Damson replied, vigorously brushing away any invisible but offensive bits that might have decided to implant themselves somewhere on his lordship's immaculate person. "But he was very insistent that you see it, lest it turn out to be news of import. It was posted from America."