"Unfortunately, it isn't," Stephen drawled mildly. "And if you try to claim it," he added in a voice that stopped DuVille cold, "I will have to tell her that my sister-in-law put you up to playing the gallant suitor." Without a backward glance, Stephen shoved away from the pillar and presented himself to his unwilling partner.
"Nicki has the next dance," Sherry informed him with stony hauteur, deliberately using the familiar form of address to show the earl what particularly friendly terms she was already on with "Nicki."
"He's relinquished the privilege to me."
Something about his implacable tone made Sherry reverse her earlier decision and decide it was wiser to get the dance over with instead of delaying it or attempting to refuse, or causing any sort of scene. "Oh, very well."
"Are you having a pleasant evening?" Stephen inquired as the music began and she moved woodenly in his arms, dancing with none of the grace he'd seen in her in the last set.
"I was having a pleasant evening, thank you very much."
Stephen looked down at her shining head and caught a glimpse of her resentful profile. The letter in his pocket went a long way to dilute his annoyance over her attitude. "Sherry," he said with quiet determination.
Sherry heard the strange softness in his voice and refused to look up. "Yes?"
"I apologize for anything I've said or done that has hurt you."
The reminder that he knew he had hurt her, and undoubtedly believed he still could, was more than her lacerated pride could withstand. Her temper ignited and burst into flames. "You needn't give a thought to any of that," she said, managing to sound bored with the topic and disdainful of him. "I feel certain I'll have several more suitable offers of marriage by the end of the week, and I'm excessively happy that you gave me this opportunity to be introduced to other gentlemen. Until tonight," she continued, her voice beginning to vibrate with the raging hostility she really felt, "I naturally assumed all Englishmen were arbitrary, moody, vain, and unkind, but now I know that they are not. You are!"
"Unfortunately for you and for them," Stephen stated, stunned by the apparent depth of her anger at his tardiness, "you happen to be already betrothed to me.
Sherry was riding her wave of triumphant defiance, and that remark didn't slow her down in the least. "The gentlemen I've met tonight are not only the soul of amiability, but they are also much more desirable than you!"
"Really?" he said with a lazy grin. "In what way?"
"For one thing, they are younger!" Sherry fired back, longing to slap that arrogant, insufferable smile off his face. "You are much too old for me. I realized that tonight."
"Did you, indeed?" His gaze dropped meaningfully to her lips. "Then perhaps you need a reminder of times you found me very desirable."
Sherry jerked her gaze from his. "Stop looking at me that way! It isn't seemly, and people will talk! They are staring at us!" she hissed, trying to pull back, only to have his arm tighten, imprisoning her with infuriating ease.
In a conversational tone more appropriate to a casual discussion of the latest on-dits, he said, "Do you have any idea of what will happen if I follow my inclinations and either toss you over my shoulder and haul you out of here, or else kiss you right in the middle of this dance? For a start, you would be off-limits to every respectable male in the room. I, of course, wouldn't care, being the 'arbitrary, vain, unkind' man that I am—"
"You wouldn't dare!" she exploded.
Her eyes shot daggers at him as she boldly called his bluff, while all around them dancers were missing their steps in their eagerness to witness the altercation that seemed to be taking place between the mysterious American girl and the Earl of Langford. Stephen looked at her flushed, entrancing, rebellious face, and a reluctant smile tugged at his lips. "You're right, sweetheart," he said softly. "I wouldn't."
"How dare you call me by an endearment after the things you have done to me!"
Momentarily forgetting that she would be thrown off balance by the sort of sophisticated sexual banter that was commonplace among his own set, Stephen let his gaze drop suggestively to the rounded breasts displayed enticingly above the square bodice of her gown. "You have no idea what I would dare to do to you," he warned with a lazy, suggestive smile. "Have I complimented you on your gown, by the by?"
"You can take your compliments, and yourself, right to hell," she whispered furiously, yanking out of his arms and leaving him in the middle of the dance floor.
"Egad!" said Makepeace to his current partner, "did you see that? Miss Lancaster just left Langford standing on the dance floor."
"She must be insane," said his partner in a stricken voice.
"I do not at all agree," the young baronet proudly declared. "Miss Lancaster did not treat me shabbily at all. She was the soul of civility and sweetness." When the dance was over, he hurried off to make certain his own friends had noticed that the stunning redheaded American preferred his attentions to those of the lofty Earl of Langford.
That astounding fact had already been noted by a great many of the gentlemen in the ballroom, many of whom had been sorely rankled by Langford's appearance in their own arena and who were greatly mollified to note that at least one female in the room had the superior taste and foresight to prefer Makepeace to Westmoreland.
Within minutes, Makepeace's stature escalated to unparalleled heights among his peers. The lovely American girl, who clearly preferred him, ergo all of them, to the vastly more popular Earl of Langford, became an instantaneous heroine.
Furious with her for her outrageous display of temper, Stephen stood off to the side, watching an entire wall of bachelors make their way straight toward his fiancée. They clustered about her, asking for dances and flattering her so outrageously that she sent a glance of helpless appeal in his direction. But not to him, Stephen noticed, growing even angrier—to DuVille.
Nicki put down his glass of lemonade and started for her, but the men were closing around her so tightly that she began backing away, then she turned and beat a hasty retreat in the direction of the retiring rooms. Left with no choice, Nicki leaned back against the same pillar that he had shared with Stephen earlier and folded his arms over his chest as Stephen had just done. Unaware of how identical they looked, they stood side by side, two darkly handsome, urbane men in flawlessly tailored black evening clothes, wearing matched expressions of bored civility. "By spurning you, she has just become a heroine to every male in this ballroom," Nicki observed.