Thinking it was probably a charge for something Burleton had purchased while he was visiting there, Stephen reached for the letter and headed downstairs, opening it as he walked.

"McReedy is out front with the coach," Colfax advised him, holding out his gloves, but Stephen neither heard nor saw him.

All his attention was riveted on the contents of the letter sent to Burleton by Charise Lancaster's father's solicitor.

Advertisement

Colfax noted his employer's deep preoccupation with the letter and his darkening expression and immediately worried that the letter's contents might somehow cause the earl to alter his plans for the evening. "Miss Lancaster was certainly in her best looks when she left for Almack's—and very much anticipating her evening, if I may say so," he pointedly remarked. It was the truth, but it was also Colfax's cautiously worded reminder, spoken out of fondness for the American girl, that the earl's appearance at Almack's in her behalf was vitally important.

Stephen slowly refolded the letter and stared past the butler, his thoughts clearly on something, something far removed from Almack's—and very dire. He left without a word, his strides long and purposeful, as he headed toward his waiting coach.

"I fear it was disagreeable news, Hodgkin," Colfax said to the under-butler who was hovering worriedly at the edge of the hall. "Very disagreeable indeed." He hesitated, feeling it was beneath his dignity to conjecture, but his concern for the lovely American girl overrode even his abiding concern for his dignity. "The missive was addressed to Lord Burleton… perhaps it pertained only to him, and had naught to do with Miss Lancaster."

31

Situated in St. James's Square behind a dark green canopy that stretched from the front door to the street, The Strathmore catered to a relatively small, highly select group of the nobility who preferred to gamble in more luxurious surroundings than the glaringly lit, noisy game rooms at White's, and to partake of better fare than the tasteless boiled fowl, beef steaks, and apple tarts served at Brooks's and White's.

In contrast to Brooks's, White's, and Watier's, The Strathmore had been founded by, and was owned by, its one hundred and fifty illustrious members, rather than by an outside proprietor. Membership was handed down from generation to generation and was rigidly limited to the descendants of its original founders. The club existed, not to make a profit, but to provide an unbreachable, comfortable fortress where members could bet staggering fortunes on a hand of cards, talk in desultory tones without having to shout to be heard, and dine on superb fare prepared by its French and Italian chefs. Discretion was expected from—and granted to—each member. Gossip about members' giant losses and gains at the gaming tables spread from White's and Brooks's and then all over London like wildfire. At The Strathmore, where the stakes were astronomical by comparison, not a word about such things ever passed beyond The Strathmore's green canopy. Within the club's confines, however, gossip was passed from member to member and room to room with astonishing alacrity and considerable masculine enjoyment.

-- Advertisement --

Guests were not allowed beyond the marble pillars that flanked the front door, even if accompanied by members, a discovery that had enraged Beau Brummell when he attempted to gain entry during the days he reigned supreme at every other fashionable gentlemen's club in London.

Prinny himself had been denied membership on the grounds that he was not a descendant of the founders, which caused the then-Prince Regent to react with as much ire as Brummell but with uncharacteristic common sense and foresight: He founded his own club, installed two of the royal chefs in prominent positions, and named it Watier's, after one of his chefs. The Prince Regent could not, however, replicate the aura of hushed dignity—of utter exclusivity and understated elegance—that pervaded the spacious rooms.

Nodding absently to the manager, who greeted him with a bow at the door, Stephen wended his way through the large, oak-panelled rooms, paying scarcely more attention to the members conversing in comfortable, high-backed dark green leather chairs or seated at the gambling tables, than he had to the club's employee. The third room he came to was virtually deserted, which suited him perfectly, and he sat down at a table with three vacant chairs. Staring fixedly into the empty fireplace, he considered the grave contents of the letter and contemplated the most momentous decision of his life.

The more he thought about the problem the letter created, the more obvious the solution became… and the better he felt about it. In the space of half an hour, Stephen's mood veered from grim to thoughtful to philosophical—and finally to gladness. Even without the letter, Stephen knew that he probably would have ended up doing exactly what he was about to do. The difference was that the contents of the letter virtually obliged him to do it, which meant he could act on his desire without surrendering all claim to honor and decency. From the moment he'd told Sherry that he wanted her to consider other suitors, he'd regretted it. He could hardly contain his jealousy if she praised DuVille, and he had no idea to what irrational lengths he might have gone when other suitors started appearing at his door. No doubt the day would have soon come when some besotted suitor screwed up the courage to ask Stephen for her hand, and found himself sprawled in the street instead.

Whenever she was in a room with him, Stephen had trouble keeping his eyes off of her, and if they were alone, it took all of his control to keep his hands off of her. If she was gone, he couldn't seem to keep his mind off of her. Sherry wanted him too. He'd known that from the very first, and she hadn't changed, no matter how much she tried to behave as if he were merely a distant acquaintance with whom she had little in common. She'd melt in his arms again if he kept her there for longer than a few moments, he was certain of it.

His brother's joking remark made Stephen look up in surprise. "At the risk of intruding on what appears to be a complicated discussion you're having with yourself," Clayton drawled, "would you care to include me in it, or would you rather play cards?" A half-finished drink was on the table in front of him, and as Stephen glanced around the room, he noticed it had filled up considerably since he had arrived.

While Clayton waited with lifted brows for his decision, Stephen leaned back in his chair and contemplated for the last time the decision he'd made and the desirability of acting on it at once. Since that was exactly what he wanted to do, he considered only the advantages of haste and ignored any disadvantages. "I'd prefer to talk," he said. "I'm not in the mood for cards."

"I noticed that. So did Wakefield and Hawthorne who invited us to join them while you were lost in thought."

-- Advertisement --