“I don’t see how you’ll pull that off. If Claymore has set his heart on her, and Langford were to want her too, there’s bound to be trouble. You’ll have to make up your mind before we go, dearest.”
She opened her mouth to launch an angry tirade at him for his obtuseness, but was diverted by the outburst of animated voices in the hall. “Children!” she exclaimed, rushing down the hall and hugging the one she encountered first. “Miss Bromleigh!” she cried, so excited she inadvertently hugged the governess too. “We shall be working night and day to prepare for a trip. I can’t think what all we will need for a house party of this magnitude.”
“Julianna, where are you, dear?” she said belatedly, momentarily nonplussed when all she saw were two ruddy-faced dark-haired boys between the ages of four and nine.
“Julianna went up to her room, Lady Skeffington,” Sheridan said, hiding a weary smile at her employer’s excitement and a wary fear of what sort of extra work was likely to be required of her to get the children ready for “a house party of this magnitude.” As it was, she only had one evening off each week, and in order to have it, she worked from dawn to eleven every evening, doing an endless variety of additional chores that were normally relegated to seamstresses and maids, not governesses. Sherry took advantage of the uproar about the house party to escape to her own room in the attic for a while. Standing over the pitcher and bowl on her bureau, she washed her face, reassured herself that her hair was neatly bound in its coil, then she sat down by the little attic window and picked up her sewing. There was bound to be more mending, more ironing, more work for her involved in the house party being discussed, but Sheridan didn’t actually object to the extra work. Being governess to five children kept her too busy during the day to think about Stephen Westmoreland and those magical days she’d been an integral part of his life. At night, when the house was quiet and she was sewing by candlelight, then she could give free reign to her memories and her daydreams, even though there were times she feared her hopeless obsession with him would someday make her quite insane. With her head bent over her sewing, she invented entire scenes with him and improved on others that had been real.
Time after time, she rewrote in her mind the awful ending to their betrothal. She started most of those imaginary scenes the same way—with Charise Lancaster storming into her bedchamber—and in the midst of Charise’s damning tirade about Sherry’s motives and trickery, Stephen always walked in. From there Sheridan had several favorite variations on possible endings:
. . . Stephen listened to Charise’s incriminating lies, threw Charise out of his house, then he turned to Sheridan, listened sympathetically to her side of the story, and they were married that day as planned.
. . . Stephen refused to listen to a word Charise said before throwing her out of his house, then he listened sympathetically to Sheridan’s side of the story, and they were married that day as planned.
. . . They were already married when Charise appeared, and so he had to listen to Sherry’s side of the story and believe her.
None of that solved Nicholas DuVille’s painful revelation that Stephen had felt bound to wed her out of guilt and responsibility, but Sherry circumvented that mortifying fact with a simple solution—Stephen also loved her. She had variations aplenty for that ending too:
. . . He had always loved her but didn’t realize it until after she had gone away, then he searched for her until he found her. And they were married.
. . . They were already married, and he learned to love her despite everything.
She vastly preferred the first ending, because that was the only possible reality, and she kept the dream so close to her that sometimes she found herself looking out the window, half expecting to see him striding to the door. In addition to her fantasies, she had the real-life pleasure—as well as torture—of seeing him at the opera.
She had to stop going there, had to stop tormenting herself by waiting for the moment when he would finally turn to whatever woman was with him and focus his lazy, intimate smile on her. That, Sherry knew, would mark her last trip to the pits of Covent Garden. That she could never endure.
Sometimes, she even imagined that her disappearance was the reason he looked stern and distant when he sat beside the women he escorted to his private opera box. He looked weary and cold because he missed Sherry . . . because he regretted losing her . . .
It was still full daylight and too early for sweet dreams, and Sherry gave her head a shake to banish the thoughts, then she looked up with a determined smile as Julianna Skeffington slipped into the room.
“Miss Bromleigh, may I hide in here?” the seventeen-year-old said, her lovely face a mirror of dismay as she closed the door with a silent click and walked over to the bed. Careful not to mess the coverlet, she sat down, looking like a drooping angel. In her more uncharitable moments, Sherry wondered how two dreadful people like Sir John and Lady Skeffington could have produced this sweet, sensible, intelligent golden girl. “The worst thing imaginable has happened!” Julianna said with disgust.
“The very worst thing?” Sheridan teased. “Not merely a horrid thing or a disastrous thing, but the worst thing imaginable?”
A hint of an answering smile touched her lips then vanished as Julianna sighed. “Mama is up in the boughs, believing some nobleman has developed a partiality for me, when the truth is that he scarcely glanced in my direction, and he never spoke a word to me.
“I see,” Sheridan said gravely, and she did see. She empathized as well. She was thinking of something to say when Lady Skeffington threw open the door, looking wild-eyed.
“I can’t think what we have that is suitable to wear in such illustrious company. Miss Bromleigh, you came recommended by a duke’s sister, could you possibly advise us? We shall have to go to Bond Street straightaway. Julianna, straighten your shoulders. Gentlemen do not like a female who slouches. What shall we do, Miss Bromleigh? There are coaches to hire, and we shall have to go with a full retinue of servants, including you, of course.”
Sherry let that summation of her status pass without flinching. It was the truth, especially in this household. That was what she was, and she was fortunate to have the position. “I am not an expert on how the Quality dresses,” she said carefully, “but I shall be happy to lend you an opinion, ma’am. Where is the party taking place?”
Lady Skeffington straightened her shoulders and puffed out her ample chest, reminding Sheridan of a herald announcing the arrival of the king and queen: “At the country seat of the Duke and Duchess of Claymore!”
Sherry felt the room tip, then right itself. Her ears were deceiving her, of course.
“The Duke and Duchess of Claymore have invited all of us to an intimate gathering at their home!”
Sherry groped behind her for the bedpost, gripping it and staring at the other woman. Based on what she’d seen firsthand of the ton’s social ladder, the Westmorelands occupied the very pinnacle of it, while the Skeffingtons were on the bottom rung, completely beneath the Westmoreland family’s notice. Even if it weren’t for the ludicrous differences in wealth and prestige between the two families, there was the matter of good breeding. The Westmorelands had it and so did everyone they knew. Sir John and Lady Glenda Skeffington had none. This was impossible, Sherry thought. She was dreaming one of her daydreams, and it had turned into a nightmare.
“Miss Bromleigh, you are losing your color, and I must caution you that there simply isn’t time for you to have vapors over this. If I haven’t time for a nice swoon,” she added with a robust smile, “then neither do you, my good girl.”
Sherry swallowed and swallowed again, trying to find her voice. “Are you—” she rasped, “are you acquainted with them, with the duke and duchess, I mean?”
Lady Skeffington issued a warning before she confided the truth: “I trust you would not betray a confidence, and risk losing your position with us?”
Sherry swallowed again and shook her head, which Lady Skeffington co
rrectly interpreted was Sherry’s promise of confidentiality. “Sir John and I have never met them in our lives.”
“Then how, that is, why—?”
“I have very good reason to believe,” Lady Skeffington confided, proudly, “that Julianna has caught the eye of the most eligible bachelor in all England! This party is merely a ploy, in my opinion—a clever method devised by the Earl of Langford—to bring Julianna into his own circle so that he may look her over at his leisure.”
Sheridan was beginning to see bright flashes of vivid color at the edges of her eyes.
Sheridan blinked, warily surveying the woman who had obviously devised this entire Banbury tale as some form of diabolical torture designed to break down Sheridan’s carefully constructed foundation for sanity.
“Miss Bromleigh, THIS WILL NOT DO!”
“Mama, give me your smelling salts quickly,” Julianna said, her voice coming from farther and farther away, as if Sheridan were hurtling down a tunnel.
“I’m quite all right,” Sheridan managed, turning her head away from the odious salts that Lady Skeffington was determined to wave under her nose. “I was just a little . . . dizzy.”
“Thank heavens! We are all depending upon you to provide us with any information on how the inner circles of the ton go about.”
Sheridan gave a laugh that was part hilarity and part hysteria. “How would I know?”
“Because Miss Charity Thornton wrote your reference letter and said very specifically that you were a woman of rare gentility who would set an example of the highest social standards for any child entrusted to your care. She did write that letter, did she not? The one you showed to us?”
Sherry had her own suspicion that Nicholas DuVille had dictated it and somehow gotten Miss Charity to sign it without reading it, since the recommendation of a bachelor, who also happened to be a notorious rake, was hardly the thing to gain a young woman respectable employment. Either that or he’d not only written it but signed both their names to it. “Have I given you any reason to doubt the truth of those words, ma’am?” Sherry evaded.
“Certainly not. You’re a good sort of girl, despite the wild color of your hair, Miss Bromleigh, and I hope you will not let us down.”
“I will try not to,” Sheridan said, amazed that she was able to speak at all.
“Then I give you leave to lie down and rest for a few minutes. It is rather stuffy up here.”
Sherry plopped down on the bed like a limp, obedient child, her heart beginning to thud in fast, furious beats. An instant after she’d closed the door, Lady Skeffington poked her head back into the room. “I shall want the boys to show up to their very best advantage too while we are there. Even when my daughter becomes Julianna, Countess of Langford, we will still have their futures to consider, you know. Do practice them with their singing. It is very appealing the way you have taught the children to accompany you on that tired old instrument you suggested we purchase, that—”
“Guitar,” Sherry provided lamely.
When she left, Sherry looked at her lap. Not for one minute did she believe that nonsensical notion of Lady Skeffington’s that Stephen Westmoreland had glimpsed Julianna in the park and gone to all this trouble to bring her to him. Julianna was undeniably appealing to look at, but her special qualities only became apparent in conversation, which Stephen had not had with her yet. Furthermore, according to the gossip she’d heard the one time she’d visited Almack’s, he had women at his beck and call wherever he turned, ready to make complete cakes of themselves over him. He did not need to bother with an elaborate ploy like a house party.
No, that wasn’t why the Skeffington family—and their governess—was being summoned to Claymore for a command appearance. The invitation had nothing to do with them at all, Sheridan thought as a hysterical laugh that was part dread and part helplessness welled up in her. The truth was that the Westmorelands—and probably a large group of their friends who’d also be at Claymore—had devised the most exquisite vengeance in the world to punish Sheridan Bromleigh for what they thought was her deceitful misuse of them: they were going to force her to return to their society, only not as an equal this time, but as the glorified servant she really was.
And the most painful part of it . . . the humiliating, agonizing part . . . was that she didn’t have a choice in the world except to go there.
Sherry felt her chin tremble and angrily stood up. Her conscience was clear. Furthermore, there was no shame in her position. She had never aspired to be a countess.
Her conscience reminded her that wasn’t entirely true. The truth was that she had wanted to be Stephen Westmoreland’s countess. And so this was to be her punishment for daring to dream, daring to reach above herself, Sherry realized, feeling furious at fate for doing this to her.
“I want to go home!” she said fiercely to the empty room. “There has to be some way to go home!” Only five weeks had passed since she’d written to Aunt Cornelia, explaining everything that had transpired since she boarded the Morning Star, and asking her aunt to send her money for passage home. The money would be coming, of that Sheridan was certain, but at best it would take a total of eight to ten weeks for her letter to cross the Atlantic and reach her aunt, and then for her aunt’s response to reach her.
Even if the Atlantic seas stayed calm and the ships didn’t tarry in any port between Portsmouth and Richmond, there was still three weeks left before she could hope to hear from her aunt. Three more weeks before the money for her passage home could possibly arrive. Three more weeks before the party at Claymore. If Fortune would smile down on her just one time since she set foot on English soil, then she might still be able to deprive the Westmorelands of their petty vengeance after all.
With so much time to prepare mentally for whatever unpleasantness the Westmorelands had planned for her at Claymore, Sheridan had almost convinced herself she was well-fortified against her fate. For weeks, she had reminded herself that she was completely innocent, and that goodness and righteousness were therefore on her side. To further insulate herself against heartbreak, she had firmly put an end to her ritual daydreams about Stephen.
As a result, she was able to endure the trip to Claymore with what she thought was stoic nonchalance. Instead of wondering how long it would be before she saw Stephen—or if she was going to see him—she concentrated on the cheerful chatter of the Skeffington boys, who were travelling with her in the third of the rented coaches that comprised the entourage. Rather than wondering what Stephen would do or say when he saw her, she insisted the children sing merry songs with her during the two-hour trip. In lieu of peering out the coach window for her first glimpse of the house, Sheridan steadfastly devoted all her thoughts, all her attention, to the boys’ appearance while the Skeffington cavalcade proceeded along a winding, treelined drive and across a stone bridge that led up to the Duke of Claymore’s country seat. She did not-allow herself more than a passing, disinterested glance at the facade of the immense house with its double wings sweeping forward around a vast terraced entrance, nor allow herself to notice the balconies and mullioned windows that adorned its front.
Except for her treacherous heartbeat, which insisted on accelerating as she alighted from the coach, she was so well-fortified against feeling anything at all that she managed a polite, fixed smile at the servants who rushed from the house in maroon and gold Westmoreland livery to assist the new arrivals. Garbed in a plain dark blue bombazine gown, with her hair twisted into a severe coil at the nape, and her narrow white collar demurely buttoned at the throat, Sheridan looked exactly like the governess she was as she alighted from the coach. With her hands resting on the shoulders of the two boys, she proceeded up the flight of shallow steps, behind Sir John and Lady Skeffington and Julianna.
Her chin was high, but not aggressively so, and her shoulders were straight, but then she had nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of or to defend, not even her respectabl
e, if menial, position as a governess. For the thousandth time in three weeks, she reminded herself very firmly that she had never knowingly deceived the Westmorelands or anyone else. The Earl of Langford had willfully and wrongfully deceived her about being her fiancé and about actually wanting to marry her. His family had gone along with it, therefore the responsibility and the guilt and the shame were theirs, not hers.
Unfortunately, Sheridan’s hard-won poise took its first severe blow as soon as she shepherded her charges into the three-story skylit foyer, where more liveried servants were standing at attention, waiting to show the new arrivals to their rooms as soon as the under-butler had formally greeted them and indicated to which rooms each guest was to be shown. “Her grace thought you would enjoy the particularly fine view from the blue suite,” he told Sir John and Lady Skeffington. “When you have had all the time you desire to refresh yourselves from your journey, she will be pleased to have you join her and the other guests in the drawing room.” As he finished, a footman stepped forward from the front of the line to escort them to the blue suite.
“Miss Skeffington, the suite next to that has been readied for you.” He turned to the boys as Julianna began her trip up the broad winding staircase accompanied by another footman.
“Young sirs,” Hodgkin continued, “your rooms are on the third floor, where the playrooms are located. And your governess will, of course—” He turned to Sheridan, and even though she’d had time to brace herself for the moment when he saw and recognized her, she still wasn’t prepared for the horror that flashed across Hodgkin’s face as his pale eyes riveted on her features, slipped to her cheap gown, then snapped back to her face. “—will, of course—” he stammered, “be close at hand—in a room directly—across the hall.”
Sheridan had a wild impulse to reach out and pat his parchment cheek, to tell him that it was all right that she was here as a governess, and that he shouldn’t look as if he were going to cry. Instead, she managed a semblance of a smile. “Thank you very much—” she said and softly added, “Hodgkin.”