A proud smile trembled on her lips as she thought of her own contributions toward bringing this moment about. Her eyes sparkled as she thought of the names she'd placed on the list of suitors Stephen had asked her to prepare, and his thunderstruck reaction to her candidates. They'd all been so old that Stephen hadn't even realized they were also infirm. "I did it!" she thought.
Beside her, Hugh Whitticomb was observing the same sight and thought of the long-ago nights that Alicia and his own Maggie had kept Robert and himself on the dance floor until dawn. As he watched Sherry and Stephen moving together, he chuckled with delight at how successfully he had manipulated the situation. True, there were going to be some rough seas when she recovered her memory, but she loved Stephen Westmoreland and he loved her. Hugh knew it. "I did it, Maggie girl," he told her in his heart. Her answer floated through his mind. "Yes you did, darling. Now, ask Alicia to dance. This is a special moment."
"Alicia," he said dubiously, "would you like to dance?"
She turned a dazzling smile to him, as she placed her hand on his arm. "Thank you, Hugh! What a wonderful idea! It's been years since we danced together!"
Standing off to one side of the dance floor, Miss Charity Thornton tapped her toe in rhythm to the magic of the waltz, her faded blue eyes bright with pleasure as she watched the Earl of Langford perform his first official function as Sherry's future husband. As the other dancers finally moved onto the floor, Nicholas DuVille spoke at her ear, and she turned in surprise. "Miss Thornton," he said with a lazy, white grin, "would you honor me with this dance?"
Stunned with pleasure that he had sought her out at this momentous occasion, she beamed at him and placed her small hand upon his sleeve, feeling like a girl again, as one of the handsomest men in the room led her onto the floor. "Poor Makepeace," she confided without a hint of sympathy, "he looks quite devastated over there."
"I hope you are not devastated," Nicki said with concern, and when she seemed confused, he added kindly, "I had the impression you were very much in favor of my suit."
She looked charmingly flustered as he whirled her around and around, adjusting his steps for her diminutive size. "Nicholas," she said, "may I confide something to you?"
"Certainly, if you like."
"I am old, and I nod off when I don't at all wish to sleep, and I am dreadfully forgetful at times…"
"I hadn't noticed," Nicki gallantly replied.
"But, dear boy," she continued severely, ignoring his disclaimer, "I am not enough of a ninnyhammer to have believed for more than the first hour that you were besotted with our dear Sherry!"
Nicki nearly missed a step. "You… did not think I was?" he said cautiously.
"Certainly not. Things have worked out exactly as I planned they should."
"As you planned they should?" Nicki repeated a little dazedly, completely reassessing her and coming up with answers that made him feel like shouting with laughter and flushing with embarrassment over his own naiveté.
"Certainly," she said with a proud little wag of her head. "I do not like to boast," she tipped her head toward Sherry and Langford, "but I did that."
Uncertain if the unbelievable notion forming in his head was correct, Nicki studied her closely from the corner of his eyes. "How did you do whatever it was you think you did?"
"A little nudge here, a little push there, dear boy. Although I did wonder tonight if we should have let Sherry leave with Langford. He was jealous as fire over Makepeace." Her little shoulders shook with merry laughter. "It was the most diverting thing I've seen in thirty years! At least, I think it was… I shall miss all this excitement. I have felt so very useful from the moment Hugh Whitticomb asked me to be chaperone. I knew, of course, that I wasn't supposed to do a good job of it, or else he'd have gotten someone else to do it." She looked up inquiringly after Nicholas's long silence and found him staring at her as if he'd not. seen her before. "Did you wish to say something, dear boy?"
"I think so."
"Please accept my humblest apologies."
"For underestimating me?"
Nicki nodded, grinning, and she smiled back at him. "Everyone does, you know."
"I feel like a guest in my own house," Stephen remarked ironically to his amused brother as they waited for the women to join them in his drawing room so they could leave for the opera. He had not been alone with Sherry since he'd announced their engagement last night at the Rutherfords' ball, and he found it absurd that his change in public status to being her fiancé supposedly had to mark the end of all possibilities for the slightest intimacy.
At his mother's suggestion, he'd moved into Clayton's house, and she had moved into his, where she planned to remain with Sherry during the three days before the wedding—"to absolutely eliminate any possible reasons for gossip, since Sherry is under the very nose of the ton here in London."
Stephen had graciously agreed to her suggestion only because he had every reason to expect Whitticomb to maintain his earlier position that Sherry would require the security of his reassuring presence, and that Charity Thornton was an adequate chaperone.
Instead, the unreliable physician had agreed with Stephen's mother that Sherry's reputation might suffer now that Society knew Stephen was personally interested in her.
Tonight, his brother and sister-in-law were playing chaperone, accompanying Sherry and him to the opera, while his mother attended her own functions, but she would be there when they returned, she'd promised.
"You could always move Sherry in with us," Clayton pointed out, enjoying Stephen's discomfiture and his healthy eagerness to be alone with his fiancée, "and then you could stay here."
"That's as absurd as this arrangement. The point is that I'm not going to preempt the damned wedding and take her to bed when there are only three more days to wait—"
He broke off at the sound of feminine voices on the staircase, and they both stood up. Stephen picked up his black coat and shrugged into it as he strolled forward, then nearly walked into his brother, who had stopped to watch the two women rushing into the hall together laughing. "Look at that," he said softly, but Stephen was already looking, and he knew what Clayton meant even before he added, "What a portrait they would make."
Their musical laughter made both men grin as they watched the Duchess of Claymore and the future Countess of Langford trying on each other's capes and bonnets in front of the mirror while Colfax and Hodgkin stood with hands clasped behind their backs, staring straight ahead, as if oblivious to the girlish antics. Hodgkin wasn't as good as Colfax at hiding his thoughts, and his gaze kept sliding to Sherry and a smile kept tugging at his cheek.