Sherry did the last thing she'd planned to do if he came: she ducked around Nicki and beat a hasty retreat to the retiring room—not to primp, though, or check her appearance. No indeed. Merely to compose herself. And then primp just a little.
As she waited to get into the retiring room, she discovered her fiancé was the talk of the crowd, and the talk she was hearing was as illuminating as it was embarrassing to her: "My older sister will swoon when she hears Langford was here tonight and she was not!" one of the girls was telling her friends. "Last autumn, he singled her out for particular attention at Lady Millicent's ball and then dropped her completely. She has carried a tendre for him ever since."
Her friends looked shocked. "But last autumn," one of them corrected, "Langford was on the verge of offering for Monica Fitzwaring."
"Oh, I do not think that's possible. I heard my sisters talking and they were positive he was having—" she cupped her hand over her lips, and Sherry strained helplessly to eavesdrop, "a torrid affair with a certain married lady last autumn."
"Have you ever seen his chérie amie?" another asked, and the girls in front of that group turned around. "My aunt saw him at the theatre with her two nights ago."
"Chérie amie?" The question flew out before Sherry could stop it, prompted by the discovery that he had escorted a female to the theatre, immediately after dining with Sherry and his family.
The girls, whom she'd been introduced to earlier, were happy to oblige Sherry with all the information a newcomer to their circle, and an American, might need in order to fully appreciate the finer subtleties of the gossip.
"Chérie amie is a courtesan, a woman who shares a man's baser passions. Helene Devernay is the most beautiful courtesan of them all."
"I heard my brothers talking one evening, and they said Helene Devernay is the most heavenly creature on earth. She loves lavender, you know… and Langford had a special silver coach built for her with lavender velvet squabs."
Lavender. That flimsy lavender gown that Dr. Whitticomb had objected to, the meaningful way he'd said, "Lavender, was it" to the earl. It had belonged to the woman who shared his "baser passions." Sherry knew kissing qualified as passion. She didn't know what constituted baser, but she could sense the fact that they were intense and somehow scandalous and personal. And he shared all that with another woman only hours after dining with his unwanted fiancée.
Even though Miss Charity now knew Lord Westmoreland was somewhere in the ballroom, she was almost as angry with him when Sherry returned as she'd been when Sherry left. "I intend to report Langford's conduct to his mama, first thing in the morning! She will ring a peal over his head for this night's work."
Stephen's bland, amused voice made Sherry stiffen in angry shock as he strolled up behind them and spoke to Miss Charity first. "For what am I to be called to task by my mother, ma'am?" he asked, a lazy, white smile sweeping across his features.
"For being late, you naughty boy!" she said, but all traces of animosity were vanishing from her voice as he aimed that lethally attractive smile directly at her and kept it there. "For stopping too long to speak to the patronesses! And for being entirely too handsome for your own good! Now," she finished, forgiving him entirely, "kiss my hand properly and lead Sherry onto the dance floor."
Nicki had been shielding her by keeping his back to the room, but he had no choice except to step aside. Sherry's anger escalated when she heard Miss Charity cave in so easily, and it doubled when she reluctantly turned and found herself the object of amused blue eyes and a smile so warm it could have baked bread. Aware that every head in the ballroom seemed to be turned their way, Sherry reluctantly extended her hand, because that was what she was required to do. "Miss Lancaster," he said, pressing a brief kiss to the back of it, continuing to hold it despite her effort to jerk it free, "may I have the pleasure of the next dance?"
"Let go of my hand," Sherry said, her voice shaking with anger. "Everyone is looking at us!"
Stephen studied her hectic color and flashing eyes, and he marvelled that he'd been able to ignore how magnificent she looked when she was angry. If he'd realized during the last few days that a slight lack of punctuality could rouse her from her indifference to ire, he'd have come down late for every meal.
"Let go of my hand!"
Grinning helplessly because he was happy and she was evidently this unhappy over his near-absence, Stephen teased, "Are you going to make me drag you onto that dance floor?"
Some of his satisfaction with that faded as she yanked her hand free and said, "Yes!"
Momentarily thwarted, Stephen stepped aside as some young dandy squeezed past him and bowed before her. "I believe the next dance is mine, if you don't mind, my lord." Left with no choice, he backed off a step and watched her curtsy prettily to him and stroll onto the dance floor. Beside him, DuVille observed him with amusement. "I believe you have just been the recipient of a crushing setdown, Langford."
"You're right," he replied affably, leaning his shoulders against a pillar behind him. He was so happy he even felt charitably toward DuVille for a change. "I suppose there's nothing alcoholic to drink?" he said, watching Sherry dancing with her partner.
"Not a thing."
To the vast disappointment of everyone in the room, neither Lord Westmoreland nor Nicholas DuVille seemed inclined to ask anyone to dance except the American girl. When Sherry remained on the dance floor for a second dance with the same young man, Stephen frowned. "Didn't anyone warn her that it's a mistake to show partiality by dancing twice with the same partner?"
"You are beginning to sound like a jealous beau," Nicki remarked, slanting him an amused look from the corner of his eye.
Stephen ignored him, glancing around at the hungry, eager, expectant, hopeful female faces watching him and feeling like a human banquet being served up to an audience of refined, elegantly dressed cannibals. As the music wound to its end, Stephen said, "Do you happen to know if her next dance is taken?"
"All of her dances are taken."
Stephen saw Sherry's partner politely return her to Charity Thornton, and he observed the crowd of men crossing the dance floor to claim their partners for the waltz that was just beginning so that he could see in advance who he was about to preempt. Beside him, DuVille shoved away from the pillar they'd been sharing. "I believe this dance is mine," he said.