Their marriage would have happened anyway. Stephen accepted the truth of that now. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he'd known it from the moment she had confronted him in a robe tied with a gold curtain cord and her hair covered with a blue towel, reminding him of a barefoot Madonna—a Madonna with a horrifying problem. "My hair—it's red!"

No, Stephen thought, he'd felt something for her even before that… from that very first morning when he awoke beside her bed and she'd asked him to describe her face. He'd looked into those mesmerizing gray eyes of hers and seen such courage, such softness. It had started then and was strengthened by everything she did and said. He loved her irreverent wit, her intelligence, and her unaffected warmth toward everyone she encountered. He loved the way she felt in his arms, and the way her mouth tasted. He loved her spirit and her fire and her sweetness. And especially her honesty.

After an adulthood surrounded by women who hid avarice behind inviting smiles and ambition behind lingering glances, and who pretended passion for a man when the only passion they were capable of feeling was for possessions, Stephen Westmoreland had finally found a woman who wanted only him.

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And he was so damned happy, that he couldn't decide what to buy her first. Jewels, he decided, as he paused to bet on his hand of cards. Carriages, horses, gowns, furs, but first the jewels… Fabulous jewels to set off her exquisite face and more to twine in her lustrous hair. Gowns adorned with…

Pearls! Stephen decided with an inner laugh as he recalled her mirthful commentary on the Countess of Evandale's gown. A gown adorned with three thousand and one pearls. Sherry didn't seem to have any interest in gowns, but that particular gown would appeal to her sense of humor, and she would like it because it was a gift from him.

Because it was from him…

He knew she would feel that way as surely as he knew Sherry wanted him. From the moment he brushed his mouth over her lips and felt them tremble, felt her body strain instinctively closer to his, he'd known she wanted him. She was too inexperienced to hide her feelings, too candid to want to try.

She wanted him, and he wanted her. In a very few days, he would take her to bed for the first time, and there he would teach her the delights of "having."

Jason Fielding spoke his name, and Stephen glanced up, realized they were all waiting for his bet, and tossed more chips onto the stacks in the middle of the table.

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"You've already won that one," Jason pointed out in an amused drawl. "Wouldn't you like to clear it away, so you can win a nice fresh pile of our money?"

"Whatever is on your mind, Stephen," Jordan Townsende remarked, eyeing him curiously, "it must be damned engrossing."

"You looked right through us earlier," Jason Fielding added as he began to deal the cards. "The most crushing setdown I've had in years."

"Stephen has something very engrossing on his mind," Clayton joked.

As he finished that sentence, William Baskerville, a middle-aged bachelor, strolled over to the table, a folded newspaper in his hand, and idly watched the play.

Since Stephen's courtship of Sherry would be common gossip by morning, and his betrothal a fact by the end of the week, Stephen saw no reason to conceal what had been on his mind. "As a matter of fact—" he began, when he suddenly thought to glance at a clock. Three hours had passed already. "I'm late!" he said, startling the others as he shoved his cards back into the center, and abruptly stood up. "If I'm not inside Almack's before eleven, they'll have locked the damned doors."

Three astounded males watched his retreating shoulders as Stephen stalked swiftly out of the club—evidently in a hurry to reach a destination that no man of sophistication or maturity ever set foot in willingly, let alone anxiously. The thought of Stephen Westmoreland willingly setting foot in that place with its ballroom filled with blushing misses fresh from the schoolroom and eager to snag an eligible husband was utterly ludicrous. Baskerville spoke first. "Egad!" he breathed, looking around at the others in stunned horror, "did Langford say he was bound for Almack's?"

The Marquess of Wakefield tore his amused gaze from the doorway and looked at the others. "That's what I heard."

The Duke of Hawthorne nodded, his voice dry. "Not only did I hear him say Almack's, but I noticed he seems to be in rather a hurry to get there."

"He'll be lucky if he gets out of there alive," Jason Fielding joked.

"And still a bachelor," Jordan Townsende agreed grinning.

"Poor devil!" said Baskerville in a dire voice. Shaking his head, he departed to join some acquaintances at the hazard table—and to share the highly diverting information that the Earl of Langford had rushed off in order to make it into the "Marriage Mart" before the doors were closed.

The consensus of opinion among the hazard players, who were throwing dice on long tables with high wooden sides, was that Stephen had yielded to the deathbed wish of a dying relative to appear at Almack's on behalf of some young chit to whom the dying person was related.

At the green felt-covered faro tables, where gentlemen were placing bets on what card a dealer was going to draw, face up, from a box, the general opinion was that the unfortunate Earl of Langford had lost a wager that required him to spend a night at Almack's as his noxious forfeit.

Gentlemen who were playing even-odd, wagering on the numbers most likely to appear when the rotating even-odd wheel came to a stop, were of the opinion that Baskerville had lost his hearing.

Whist players, concentrating on the cards they held, were of the opinion that Baskerville had lost his mind.

But whatever opinion the particular individual held, his reaction was always the same as everyone else's: hilarity. In every one of The Strathmore's rooms, the refined atmosphere was repeatedly disrupted by loud guffaws, hearty chuckles, and snorts of laughter as word circulated from member to member, and table to table, that Stephen Westmoreland, Earl of Langford, had gone to Almack's for the evening.

32

It was five minutes past eleven of the clock when Stephen strode swiftly past the two chagrined young bucks who were retreating to their carriages after having been turned away by Lady Letitia Vickery for failing to arrive before eleven. The patroness was in the act of closing the door when Stephen called out to her in a low, warning voice, "Letty, don't you dare close that damned door in my face!"

Bristling with affront, she peered into the darkness beyond the lighted entry, as she swung it closed. "Whoever you are, you are too late to enter."

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