Stephen put his toe against the panel to stop her. "I think you should consider making an exception."
Her disdainful face appeared in the wedge of light between the jamb and the edge of the door. "We do not make exceptions, sirrah!" She saw who he was, and a look of comical disbelief momentarily shattered her expression of stony hauteur. "Langford, is that you?"
"Of course it is, now open the door," Stephen commanded quietly.
"You cannot come in."
"Letty," he said with strained patience, "do not make me resort to unpleasant reminders of times when you've invited me in to less appropriate places than this one—and with your poor husband practically within earshot."
She opened the door, but placed herself in the opening. Stephen contemplated the efficacy of lifting her by the shoulders and moving her out of his way while she implored in a fierce whisper, "Stephen, for God's sake, be reasonable! I cannot let you in. The other patronesses will have my head if I do."
"They will kiss you on both cheeks for making an exception in my case," he said flatly. "Only think of the boost in attendance you'll have tomorrow, when it's learned that I was actually lured to this boring assembly of virtuous innocents for the first time in fifteen years."
She hesitated, weighing the obvious truth of that against the peal that was likely to be rung over her head by the other patronesses before she could explain her motivations. "Every eligible male in London will want vouchers to get in, so that he can see for himself what female could possibly have been exquisite enough to lure you here."
"Exactly," Stephen said sardonically. "You'll have so many eligible men inside that you'll have to lay in an extra supply of warm lemonade and bread and butter."
She was so delighted with the possibility of receiving credit for all the splendid matches made during her season as patroness, that she overlooked his disdainful slurs on the hallowed halls of Almack's, its refreshments, and its occupants. "Very well. You may come in."
The evening had not been the disaster Sherry had feared it would be. She had danced and been made to feel quite welcome. In fact, with a few uncomfortable exceptions, the evening had been very pleasant, but she had remained tense and expectant until a few minutes ago, when the clock finally indicated the hour of eleven. Now that the possibility of the Earl of Langford's appearance was eliminated, she felt incredibly disappointed, but she refused to succumb to anger or rejection. She'd sensed he wasn't enthusiastic about coming here, and it was foolish to expect him to inconvenience himself for her. That would have implied some sort of concern or caring for her that she now accepted he simply did not have. Whitney and his mother had been wrong. Determined not to let thoughts of him occupy one more moment of her evening, she concentrated on the conversation of the young ladies and their mamas who were standing in a circle with her, talking among themselves, but politely including her.
Most of the girls were younger than she, and very amiable, if not particularly given to intelligent discourse. They were however amazingly well-informed on the income, prospects, and lineage of every bachelor in the room, and she had only to look twice at a male to have them—or their mamas and chaperones—lean aside and obligingly share all their knowledge. The deluge of data confused Miss Charity and alternately embarrassed and amused Sherry.
The Duchess of Clermont, a stern elderly lady who was introducing her granddaughter, another American named Dorothy Seaton, tipped her head toward a handsome young man who'd asked Sherry for the honor of a second dance, and warned, "I would not show young Makepeace more than the briefest civility, were I you. He is only a baronet, and his income is a mere five thousand."
Nicholas DuVille, who'd spent most of the evening in the card room, heard that as he returned to Sherry's side. Leaning down, he said in a low amused voice, "You look quite terribly embarrassed, chérie. Amazing, is it not, that a country that prides itself on its refined manners has no compunction at all in discussing such things."
The musicians who'd paused briefly for refreshments were returning to their instruments, and music began to fill the ballroom. "Miss Charity looks exhausted," Sherry said, raising her voice to be heard above the increasing volume of music and conversation.
Miss Charity heard her name and looked up sharply. "I am not weary, my dear child. I am exceedingly vexed with Langford for not making his appearance as he promised, and I intend to scold him soundly for treating you so shabbily!"
All around them heads were beginning to turn and conversations were dropping off, then escalating to frantic whispers, but Sherry was blissfully unaware of the cause. "It doesn't signify, ma'am. I've done perfectly well without him."
Miss Charity was not soothed. "I do not remember being this annoyed in the last thirty years! And if I could remember all of the last thirty years, I'm still certain I wouldn't remember being this annoyed!"
Beside them the Duchess of Clermont stopped eavesdropping on Charity Thornton's irate monologue, and she glanced up, her gaze riveting on something across the room. "I cannot believe my own eyes!" she burst out. Hectic conversations were erupting all around them, and she leaned sideways, raising her voice to be heard above it all as she commanded her granddaughter, "Dorothy, attend to your hair and gown. This is a chance you may never have again." That gruff order drew Sherry's attention to Dorothy who had obediently reached up to pat her coiffure into place as were half the debutantes in Sherry's range of view. Those who weren't checking their hair were smoothing their skirts. Debutantes who weren't already lining up with their partners on the dance floor were making a mass exodus toward the retiring room, and they were also patting and smoothing on the way. "What is happening?" she asked, lifting quizzical eyes to Nicki, who was blocking her view.
His gaze shifted over the blondes and brunettes, registering heightened color of cheeks and eager gazes, and without bothering to look over his shoulder, he said, "Either a fire has broken out in the middle of the dance floor, or else Langford has just arrived."
"It can't be him! It's after eleven and the doors are locked."
"Nevertheless, I would wager a small fortune that
Langford's the cause. The hunting instincts of the female of the species are at a fever pitch, which means prime prey is in sight. Shall I look round and see?"
"Try not to be obvious about it."
He complied, turned back around, and confirmed it. "He's stopped to greet the patronesses."