Reluctantly Stephen withdrew his gaze, but no one else who saw her walking along the balcony beside him and down the steps into the Rutherfords' crowded ballroom a few minutes later looked away from her. Her head was high, her lips were rosy from his kisses, and her smooth skin seemed to glow. In contrast to the image of quiet serenity she presented in the cool ivory gown, her hair was loose, flowing over her shoulders and down her back in a molten mantle of graceful waves and curls.
To Sherry, it seemed to take forever to work their way through the guests who stopped the earl on the balcony, the steps, and the floor of the ballroom to speak to him—which wouldn't have mattered to her in the least if so much of their conversation hadn't been littered with joking references that made her feel excruciatingly uncomfortable. "I say, Langford," a gentleman on the balcony said with a laugh the instant the butler finished announcing their names, "I heard you've developed a recent fondness for the assembly rooms at Almack's!"
The earl sent him a look of comic horror, but the joking had only just begun. An instant later, another man stopped a servant who was in the act of offering the last two glasses of champagne on his tray to Stephen and Sherry. "No, no, no!" he said to the startled servant as he whisked the glasses off the tray and out of their reach. "His lordship prefers lemonade these days. Oh, and be sure it is nice and warm," he instructed the servant, "just the way they serve it at Almack's."
The earl leaned forward and said something that made the other man guffaw, and the good-natured joking went on and on and on as they wended their way slowly down the stairs…
"Langford, is it true?" a middle-aged man joked, when they finally reached the ballroom floor. "Did some red-haired chit at Almack's actually give you the cut-direct in the middle of the dance floor?" Stephen tipped his head meaningfully to Sherry, acknowledging it was true and that she was the "red-haired chit" who had done it. With a large group of people looking on, the other man demanded an introduction, then he grinned widely at her. "My dear young lady, it is a privilege to meet you," he declared as he raised her hand for a gallant kiss. "Until tonight, I didn't think there was a female alive who was immune to this devil's charm."
Moments later an elderly man leaned heavily on his cane and said with a wheezing cackle, "Heard your dancing isn't up to snuff these days, Langford. If you'll come round tomorrow, I could give you a lesson or two." Overcome by his own humor, he banged his cane on the floor for emphasis and cackled with glee.
The earl bore it all with amused indulgence, declining to reply to most of their quips, but Sherry had to struggle to maintain even a surface appearance of being blasé. She was horrified at how closely he was watched and how swiftly gossip about him spread. Everyone, but everyone, seemed fully aware of every move he'd made in the last few hours, and she had a horrifying vision of people peeking into the windows of his coach, their hands curved round their temples, spying on them.
Just thinking of what they would have seen made her cheeks hot. Miss Charity noticed it as soon as they located her in the crush, standing with Whitney and Clayton and a group of the Westmorelands' friends. "My goodness," she exclaimed happily, "you're in fine color, my dear. Strawberries and cream, that's just what you remind me of at this moment. The ride in the coach with the earl must have done you a world of good! You looked quite pale when we left Almack's."
Sherry began vigorously fanning her face, and that was before she noted that several members of the Westmoreland enclave had turned, waiting for introductions, and they heard it all. So did her fiancé who looked down at her with a knowing smile and leaned close. "Did it do you a world of good, sweet?" he asked.
In the midst of her mortifying predicament, his smile made her laugh. "You wretch!" she whispered, shaking her head in admonishment.
Unfortunately, that movement drew Charity Thornton's attention to a matter she had heretofore overlooked. "Your hair was up when we left Almack's!" she exclaimed worriedly. "Did the pins come out, dear? I shall have a word to say to my maid for her shoddy work upon our return this very night!"
Sherry felt as if the entire group had stopped talking in favor of listening to this amazingly revealing commentary from a woman whose job it was to protect the very reputation she was demolishing. Several of them had, including the Duke of Claymore, who gave Sherry a secretive, knowing smile so much like Stephen's that she quite forgot to be intimidated by him and instead rolled her eyes at him. He burst out laughing at her impertinence and introduced her to the two couples closest to him—the Duke and Duchess of Hawthorne and the Marquess and Marchioness of Wakefield. Both couples greeted her with a warmth and cordiality that made her like them instantly. "I gather you were the attraction that lured Stephen to Almack's?" said the Duke of Hawthorne, and his wife smiled at Sherry and added, "We were all longing to have a look at you. Now that we have," she added, glancing at the Wakefields and including them in her flattering assessment, "it is little wonder that he went tearing out of The Strathmore when he realized Almack's doors were soon to close."
Oblivious to all of that conversation, Miss Charity was concentrating on a half dozen young men from Almack's making their determined way across the crowded ballroom. So was Stephen. "Langford, do go away!" she said, turning to him. "Those young men are heading straight for Sherry, and you'll run them off if you intend to stand here as you are doing with that—that very unwelcoming expression upon your face."
"Yes, Stephen," Whitney teased, linking her arm happily through his, her smile telling him that Clayton had already told her a wedding was imminent, "could you not contrive to look more congenial when several of London's most desirable bachelors are about to surround Sherry?"
"No," he said bluntly and temporarily eliminated the problem by touching Sherry's arm and turning her to meet their host.
Marcus Rutherford was a tall, imposing man with a warm smile and the relaxed congeniality and unshakable confidence that came from a privileged life and an illustrious bloodline that few could match. Sherry liked him instantly and rather regretted the necessity to turn away and acknowledge the gentlemen from Almack's who were lined up to speak with her and ask for dances.
"You seem to have a great deal of competition, Stephen, and it's little wonder," Rutherford remarked as Makepeace drew Sherry onto the dance floor with Miss Charity waving daintily and beaming approvingly at the pair.