“I accept your apology. Now, may I go upstairs?”
“No,” Stephen said, suddenly wishing she had a little less courage. “I need . . . no, want . . . to explain why I did that.”
She gave him a scornful look. “I’d like to see you try.”
Courage was an admirable trait in a man. In a woman, he decided, it was a pain in the ass. “I am trying,” he warned.
Now that he’d lost a little of his composure, Sheridan felt much better. “Go ahead,” she invited. “I’m listening.”
“Will you sit down?”
“I might. It all depends upon what you have to say.” His brows snapped together and his eyes narrowed, she noticed, but his voice was carefully controlled as he began his explanation. “The other night, you seemed to be aware that I . . . that things between us weren’t . . . all that you’d expect from a fiancé.”
Sheridan acknowledged the truth of that with a slight, regal inclination of her head that indicated nothing more than mild interest.
“There’s an explanation for that,” Stephen said, disconcerted by her demeanor. He gave her the only reason he’d been able to invent that seemed logical and acceptable. “The last time we were together, we quarrelled. I didn’t think about our quarrel while you were ill, but when you began to recover the other night, I found it was still on my mind. That is why I may have seemed . . .”
“Cold and uncaring?” she provided, but with more puzzlement and hurt than real anger in her voice.
“Exactly,” Stephen agreed. She sat down then, and he breathed an inner sigh of relief that the skirmish and lies were over, but his relief was short-lived.
“What did we quarrel about?”
He should have known that a defiant American redhead with an unpredictable disposition and no regard for noble titles or respect for dress codes would insist on prolonging a disagreement, instead of accepting his apology and politely letting the matter drop. “We quarrelled about your disposition,” Stephen countered smoothly.
Puzzled gray eyes gazed straight into his. “My disposition? What was wrong with it?”
“I found it . . . quarrelsome.”
Stephen could almost hear her wondering if he was so small-minded that he’d continue to harbor a grudge over a quarrel when she’d been so sick. She looked down at her hands folded neatly in her lap, as if she suddenly couldn’t face him, and asked in a disappointed, hesitant tone, “Am I a shrew, then?”
Stephen gazed at her bowed head and drooping shoulders, and he felt a resurgence of the peculiar tenderness she seemed to evoke in him at unexpected times. “I wouldn’t say that exactly,” he replied with a reluctant smile in his voice.
“I have noticed,” she admitted meekly, “that my disposition has been a little—uncertain—these past few days.”
Whitticomb had said he found her utterly delightful, and Stephen had the feeling that was a vast understatement. “That’s completely understandable in these circumstances.”
She lifted her head, her eyes searching his, as if she, too, were trying to reassess him. “Would you tell me exactly what we quarrelled about the last time we were together?”
Trapped, Stephen turned toward the drinks tray and reached for the crystal decanter of sherry, thinking quickly for an answer that would soothe and placate her. “I thought you paid too much notice to another man,” he said on a stroke of inspiration. “I was jealous.” Jealousy was an emotion that he’d never experienced in his life, but women were inevitably pleased when they could evoke it in a man. He glanced over his shoulder and was relieved to discover that in that one respect, Charise Lancaster was like all her sisters, because she looked amused and flattered. Hiding his smile, he poured sherry into a small crystal goblet. When he turned to hand it to her she was still looking at her hands. “Sherry?” he asked.
Sheridan’s head snapped up, an inexplicable surge of delight in her heart. “Yes?”
He held the goblet toward her and she looked at him expectantly but not at the glass. “Would you like some wine?” Stephen clarified.
“No, thank you.”
He put the glass on the table. “I thought you said yes.”
She shook her head. “I thought you were talking to me and—Sherry!—” she exclaimed, surging to her feet, her face positively radiant. “I thought it was me. I mean, it is me. I mean, it must be what I was called, what—”
“I understand,” Stephen said gently, experiencing a sense of relief that was nearly as strong as hers. They stood within arm’s reach, smiling at each other, sharing a moment of triumph that seemed to bind them together and send their thoughts in similar directions. Stephen suddenly understood how Burleton could have been “madly in love” with her, as Hodgkin had claimed. As Sherry looked into his smiling blue eyes, she saw a warmth and charm that made her understand why she might have pledged herself to him. Odd phrases began to flit through the blankness of her memory, suggesting what ought to happen next . . .
The baron captured her hand and pressed it to his lips as he pledged his eternal devotion. “You are my one and only love . . .”
The prince took her in his strong embrace and clasped her to his heart. “If I had a hundred kingdoms, I would trade them all for you, my dearest love. I was nothing, until you . . .”
The earl was so overwhelmed by her beauty that he lost control and kissed her cheek. “Forgive me, but I cannot help myself! I adore you!”
Stephen saw the soft invitation in her eyes, and in that unguarded moment of complete accord, it seemed right, somehow, to respond. Tipping her chin up, he touched his lips to hers and felt the gasp of her indrawn breath at the same time her body seemed to tense. Puzzled by her rather extreme reaction, he lifted his head and waited for what seemed a long time for her to open her eyes. When her long lashes finally fluttered up, she looked confused and expectant and, yes, even a little disappointed. “Is something amiss?” he asked cautiously.
“No, not at all,” she said politely, but it seemed as if the opposite were true.
Stephen looked at her in waiting silence, a tactic that normally prompted others to continue speaking, and which was predictably successful on his “fiancée.”
“It is only that I seemed to expect something different,” she explained.