"I didn't realize they were here," Stephen admitted, looking over his shoulder for the two friends he'd inadvertently offended. "Where are they now?"

"Nursing their affronted sensibilities at the faro table." Despite his offhand manner, Clayton was very aware that something important was on Stephen's mind. Hoping for an explanation, he waited patiently for a few moments, and finally said, "Did you have any particular topic of conversation in mind, or should I choose one?"

In answer, Stephen reached into his pocket and withdrew the letter that had arrived from Charise's father's solicitor. "This is the topic on my mind at the moment," he said, handing it to his brother along with the modest bank draft that accompanied it.

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Clayton unfolded the letter and began to read.

Dear Miss Lancaster,

I have directed this letter to your new husband so that he may first prepare you for the news it contains.

It is with deep personal regret that I must inform you of the death of my friend, your father. I was with him at the end, and it is for your own sake, that I tell you he expressed regret for what he felt were his many failures in your upbringing, including having spoiled you by giving you everything and too much of it.

He wanted you to attend the best schools, and to make a brilliant marriage. He accomplished all those goals, but in doing so and in providing your large dowry, he spent virtually all that he had, and mortgaged the rest. The bank draft I have enclosed represents the full value of his assets as they are known to me.

I know you and your father disagreed on many things, Miss Lancaster, but it is my fond hope—as it was his—that you will someday appreciate his efforts on your behalf and make the best of your opportunities. Like you, Cyrus was strong-willed and hot-tempered. Perhaps it is those very similarities that you shared with him which prevented the two of you from seeking a better understanding.

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Perhaps that lack of closeness will now enable you to cope better with the news of his death than might otherwise have been. More likely, you will feel a deep regret someday when you realize that it is too late to say and do those things which might have mended the rifts between the two of you.

In his desire to spare you such painful thoughts, your father instructed me to tell you that, though he may not have shown it, he loved you, and though you did not show it, he died believing you also loved him."

Finished, Clayton handed the letter back, his somber expression reflecting the same regret and concern that Stephen felt for Sherry… and the same puzzlement over some of what he read. "A pity about her father," he said. "She has had a staggering run of ill luck. Although it is probably fortunate that they weren't close." After a moment's hesitation, he frowned and added, "What do you make of the solicitor's tone? The young woman he referred to in that letter is nothing like the one I've met."

"Nor I," Stephen confirmed. "Except for her willfulness and temper," he amended with a wry grin. "Other than that, I can only assume her father—and his solicitor—must have been of like minds when it came to raising females, and both regarded any sort of spirit as intolerable defiance."

"That is the same conclusion I reached, based on my knowledge of my father-in-law."

"Lancaster must have been quite a pinchpenny if he regarded that ugly serviceable brown gown she was wearing on the ship as giving her 'everything,' " Stephen remarked as he stretched his long legs out in front of him, crossed them at the ankles, and settled more comfortably into the chair. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he glanced over his shoulder to signal a servant. "Champagne," he requested in answer to the servant's inquiry.

In the immediate aftermath of such grim news and its dire ramifications for Sherry, Clayton thought Stephen's indolent posture, and his request for champagne, were both a little odd. He waited for some indication as to how and when he intended to break the news to her, but Stephen seemed perfectly content to watch the servant pour champagne into two glasses and place them on the table.

"What do you intend to do next?" Clayton finally demanded.

"Propose a toast," Stephen said.

"To be more specific," Clayton said, growing extremely impatient with his brother's deliberate obtuseness, "when do you intend to tell her about the letter?"

"After we're married."

"I beg your pardon?"

Instead of repeating his answer, Stephen quirked an amused brow at his brother, picked up his champagne, and lifted the glass in a mock toast. "To our happiness," he said dryly.

In the moment it took Stephen to drain the glass, Clayton recovered his composure, carefully disguised his delight with that turn of events, and stretched out in his own chair. He picked up his glass of champagne, but instead of drinking it, he turned it absently in his fingers while he eyed his brother with unhidden amusement.

"Are you wondering if I'm making a mistake?" Stephen asked finally.

"Not at all. I am merely wondering whether you're aware that she seems to have developed a certain, shall we say, 'mild aversion' to you?"

"She wouldn't throw water on me if I were on fire," Stephen agreed. "At least not if she had to come close to me to do it."

"And do you see that as an obstacle to her accepting your generous offer of marriage?"

"Possibly," Stephen said with a chuckle.

"In that case, how do you intend to persuade her to agree?"

"Actually," Stephen lied straight-faced, "I thought I would point out how wrong it was of her to mistrust my intentions and integrity, and then I'll prove it to her by proposing. Afterward, I'll tell her that if she cares to ask my forgiveness, I'll grant it to her."

He was so convincing that his brother gave him a look of sarcastic disgust. "And then what do you suppose will happen?"

"And then I will spend the next few days and nights in the pleasant confines of my home."

"With her, I presume?" Clayton mocked.

"No, with compresses on both my eyes."

Clayton's laughing rejoinder was interrupted by the return of Jordan Townsende, the Duke of Hawthorne, and Jason Fielding, Marquess of Wakefield. Since Stephen had nothing more to discuss with his brother, he invited them to stay and the four friends got down to the serious business of high-stakes gaming.

Concentrating proved to be difficult, however, because Stephen's thoughts kept drifting to Sherry and their immediate future. Despite his joking banter about how he intended to propose to her, he had no notion of what he would actually say. It didn't even seem important. All that mattered was that they were going to be together. She was actually going to be his, and without the taint, the lifelong guilt, that had made Stephen recoil from marrying young Burleton's fiancée. Her father's death made it imperative that she have someone to care for her—and for whom she cared—when she learned about it.

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