Stephen, who had reached the same conclusion, was somewhat mollified to note that DuVille sounded almost as frustrated as he himself felt. "By tomorrow," DuVille continued, "my fiancée will be unanimously declared an Original, an Incomparable, and Joan of Arc by every mincing fop and young Corinthian in London. You have set my courtship back by weeks."
"I've turned down your suit," Stephen retorted with flat satisfaction. Tipping his head toward the debutantes and their mothers who were lined up on the opposite side of the room, he said, "Feel free to lavish your attentions on any one of those eager hopefuls, however. I feel certain you could propose tonight to any one of them and be wed with their family's blessing and a special license by tomorrow."
Nicki automatically followed his gaze and for the moment the two men set aside their hostilities in favor of shared observations on the drawback of being deemed a brilliant catch. "Do you ever have the feeling they see you as a platter of tempting trout?" Nicki inquired, nodding politely and distantly toward a young lady who was fluttering her fan invitingly at him.
"I think they see me more as a blank bank draft with legs," Stephen replied, staring unencouragingly at Lady Ripley, who was whispering frantically to her daughter and casting beckoning looks at him. He inclined his head imperceptibly at Lady Ripley's very pretty daughter, who seemed to be one of the few females in the room who seemed not to be either coyly pretending the two men weren't there or else gazing longingly at them. "At least the Ripley girl has enough sense and enough pride to ignore us."
"Allow me to introduce you to her, so your evening will not be an entire waste of time," Nicki volunteered. "I am already committed to an exquisite redhead who seems to be developing a tendre for me in a gratifyingly short time."
"DuVille?" Stephen drawled in a steely voice that was in vivid contrast to the expression of bland courtesy he was wearing for the sake of their fascinated audience.
Nicki returned Westmoreland's sideways glance with an identical one of his own, hiding his amusement behind a mask of genteel imperturbability. "Am I to assume you've had a change of heart, and no longer desire to be free of your obligation to Miss Lancaster?" he taunted.
"Are you itching to meet me at dawn in some pleasant, secluded glen?" Stephen bit out.
"Not particularly, although the idea is beginning to have a certain appeal," DuVille said as he shoved away from the pillar and walked into the card room.
Sherry became aware of her change of status among her own sex—as well as the reason for it—as soon as she entered the crowded retiring room. Conversations instantly broke off and curious smiles were aimed at her, but no one spoke to her until a large-boned girl with a friendly smile spoke up. "It was very diverting to see you give the earl such an unprecedented setdown, Miss Lancaster. I am sure he has never received such a rebuff."
"I feel perfectly certain he has had dozens of them coming, however," Sherry said, trying to seem completely unemotional when she was angry and embarrassed.
"Hundreds," the girl declared gaily. "Oh, but he is so very handsome and manly, do you not agree?"
"No," Sherry lied. "I prefer fair men."
"Are fair men de rigueur in America?"
Since Sherry had no recollection of that, she said, "They are to this American."
"I heard you had suffered a loss of memory recently from an accident?" one of them asked with a mixture of sympathy and curiosity.
Sherry responded with the dismissive smile that Miss Charity had assured her would make her seem more mysterious than bacon-brained, and the remark Whitney had suggested, "It's very temporary." Since something else seemed to be expected, she improvised flippantly. "In the meantime, it's very nice to feel as if I have not a worry in the world."
By the time Sherry walked back into the ballroom, she'd learned many new things about Stephen Westmoreland, and she detested every piece of newfound knowledge, along with the conclusions she'd drawn from them. Despite what Whitney thought, Stephen Westmoreland was apparently a libertine, a rake, a hedonist, and a notorious flirt. His amorous affairs were numerous, and his lechery was obviously sanctioned by the ton, who seemed to dote on him, and everyone—absolutely everyone—apparently felt that an offer of marriage from him was second only to the crown of England! Worse, much worse, even though he was temporarily betrothed to her, he kept a mistress—and not an ordinary mistress, either, but a member of the fashionable impure who was reportedly breathtakingly beautiful.
Feeling insignificant, appalled, and outraged, Sherry returned to the ballroom and took furious glee in using her heretofore untapped ability at flirtation. She smiled gaily at the gentlemen who were still clustered around a flustered Miss Charity, waiting for her return, and during the next two hours, she promised to save at least two dozen dances for those gentlemen who were invited to the Rutherfords' ball later that evening. Her fiancé, however, did not appear to notice or mind her flirtatious triumphs, but merely stood watching her from the sidelines, his expression casual and pleasantly detached.
In fact, he seemed so utterly uninvolved that she felt no qualm whatsoever when he finally approached her and stated that it was time to leave for the Rutherfords', and he didn't seem displeased with her as they waited with Nicholas DuVille and Miss Charity for their carriages to be brought round. He even smiled blandly when Charity Thornton remarked ecstatically, "Sherry was such a success, Langford! I cannot wait to tell your mama tonight, and your sister-in-law, how excellently everything went!"
Nicholas DuVille had called for them in a fashionably sleek landau with its top folded back, but the Earl of Langford's luxurious town coach made Sherry's eyes widen as it glided to a stop in front of them. Drawn by six identical, flashy gray horses in silver harnesses, its body was lacquered a gleaming black, with the earl's coat of arms emblazoned on the door panel. Sherry had encountered the coachmen and grooms in the kitchens at the house on Upper Brook, but tonight they were turned out in formal livery of white leather breeches with bottle-green-striped waistcoats and bottle-green topcoats adorned with gold buttons and braid. With their shiny black top boots, white shirts, snowy cravats, and white gloves, Sherry thought they looked as fine as any of the fashionable gentlemen inside Almack's, and she told them so.
Her artless compliment drew fond smiles from the servants and an appalled look from Miss Charity, but when the earl's expression didn't change in the least, Sherry felt a prickle of uneasy foreboding—enough so that when she realized he intended her to ride alone with him to the Rutherfords' ball, she balked. "I prefer to ride with Miss Charity and Monsieur DuVille," she said firmly, already turning toward their carriage.