Until You (Westmoreland Saga 3) - Page 57

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“He wouldn’t believe you’d run away. He wouldn’t let the cleric leave,” Whitney emphasized. “The vicar was adamant that the wedding had to be performed in daylight, before noon, as is custom, but Stephen overrode him.”

Sherry turned her head away because her eyes were glazing with tears. “I never thought . . . never imagined . . . He could not possibly have been thinking clearly,” she said with more strength, turning to look at Whitney. “He would never have considered marrying a common governess.”

“Oh, yes he would,” Whitney said with a teary laugh. “I can tell you from personal experience—and from all I’ve read about the family’s history—that Westmoreland men do exactly as they please, and they always have. May I remind you that when Stephen kept the vicar at his house, he was already aware of your former position as Charise Lancaster’s paid companion. It didn’t matter to him. He’d made up his mind to marry you, and nothing could have stopped him. Except you.”

She paused, watching Sheridan’s expressive face mirror joy and anguish . . . and then hope. Tentative, fragile, but there, and though that pleased Whitney immensely, she also felt obliged to issue a sobering warning. “Unfortunately,” she said, “Westmoreland men are extremely difficult to manage when they have been provoked beyond what they deem reasonable, and I’m afraid Stephen is already far, far beyond that unlucky state.”

“Provoked beyond reason?” Sheridan said cautiously.

Whitney nodded. “I’m afraid so.” She waited, hoping for a sign of the courage Sheridan was going to need if things were to be set to rights. “If matters are to be set to rights between you, I very much fear the burden for it will fall completely to you. In fact, the best thing you can hope to receive from Stephen is opposition. Cold, unresponsive opposition. At worst, he’ll unleash some of the rage he feels toward you.”

“I see.”

“He wants nothing to do with you, will not even allow the mention of your name by any of us.”

“He . . . hates me?” Her voice faltered at the agonizing certainty he did—and the realization that she could have prevented all this.

“Thoroughly.”

“But he—I mean you do think that he didn’t hate me before?”

“I think he loved you. I told you once before I’ve never seen Stephen treat a woman quite the way he treated you. Among other things, he was possessive, which is not at all in his normal style.”

Sheridan looked down at her hands, afraid to hope she could rekindle any of those feelings in him. Unable to stop herself from hoping. Raising her eyes to Whitney’s, she said, “What can I do?”

“You can fight for him.”

“But how?”

“That’s the delicate part of the problem,” Whitney said, biting her lip to hide a smile at Sheridan’s alarmed expression.

“He will avoid you, of course. In fact, he would have left here the moment he realized you were here if it hadn’t been Noel’s birthday, and if leaving wouldn’t cause him to lose all face.”

“Then I suppose I should be grateful matters happened this way.”

“Actually, they didn’t ‘happen this way.’ You were quite right when you assumed all this was planned very carefully, but it was never intended to embarrass you, only to force Stephen to be in your company the maximum amount of time over the weekend. Also, the other two governesses will step in to look after the Skeffington boys while you’re here. To that end, I’ve suggested to Lady Skeffington that you might better serve if you were to be where you could chaperone Julianna—from a distance, of course. That will allow you to wander about the grounds, ride if you wish, and generally be visible.”

“I—I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You may not want to thank me,” Whitney said with a nervous smile. And then because she desperately wanted to give the other woman enough reassurance to make her able to face up to whatever Stephen did to her, she confided something that only the family knew. “Several years ago, I was betrothed to my husband by my father without my knowledge. I—I had some foolish girlhood notion of marrying a local boy I thought I’d love forever, and I—I did several things to try to avoid this marriage that caused my husband to break the betrothal and withdraw his offer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until then that I realized I was long over my infatuation with the other man. By then, Clayton wouldn’t even acknowledge that he knew me.”

“Eventually, however, he obviously changed his mind.”

“Not quite,” Whitney admitted with a rosy blush. “I changed his mind. He was on the verge of marrying another, and I—I came here to see him, to try to dissuade him. Stephen stepped in and forced me to stay. Actually, I only conceived this party because a similar ploy worked with my husband and me.”

“But everything came about as soon as he saw you?”

That evoked a musical laugh from the duchess and a firm shake of her head. “He seemed to hate the sight of me. It was the most mortifying night of my life. But when it was over, when I won—when we both won—I had no pride left. I had him.”

“And you are warning me that my pride is going to suffer?”

“Terribly, unless I miss my guess.”

“Thank you for confiding in me. In a way it helps to know another woman made an enormous mistake and had to rectify it herself.”

“I didn’t,” Whitney said gently, “confide in you to share misery. I had a much more important reason, else I wouldn’t have done it.”

“I know.”

Sheridan hesitated, then stood up, her smile wobbly but her voice strong. “What should I do?”

“First, you must be very visible, so that he cannot avoid noticing you. And very available, somehow.”

“Available . . . to him, you mean?”

“Precisely. Having been jilted and deceived, Stephen won’t want anything to do with you. It will take an invitation from you—unmistakable, and hopefully irresistible—to lure him to you again.”

Sheridan nodded, her heart thundering with dread and hope and uncertainty, then she slowly turned to the other women, all of whom she’d insulted earlier, and all of whom were watching her with fond, gentle understanding. She looked at the dowager and Miss Charity first. “I was inexcusably rude,” she began, but Stephen’s mother shook her head to stop her and held out her hand.

“Under the circumstances, my dear, I’m sure I would have acted much as you did.”

Taking the dowager’s hand in both of hers, Sherry clasped it tightly. “I’m terribly, terribly sorry—”

Victoria Seaton stopped further outpourings of guilt by standing up and giving Sheridan a fierce hug, then she drew back and laughingly said, “We are all here to support you, and you may well need it when Stephen arrives.”

“Don’t frighten her,” said Alexandra Townsende, laughing as she stood up and clasped Sheridan’s hands. With an exaggerated shiver, she said, “Leave that to Stephen.”

Sheridan’s smile wavered a little. “Do your husbands know what all this is about?”

All three women nodded, and Sheridan found it very touching to know the husbands were also wishing her well.

The task that lay in front of her was daunting. The realization that Stephen had evidently cared enough for her to wait with the cleric for hours after she ran away was heartbreaking. Sherry had never been happier in her life.

50

After Sheridan, Alexandra, and Victoria left the drawing room, the three women who remained within it, despite their valiant efforts to seem normal and confident, were jumpy and tense by the time they heard the sound of a coach arriving an hour later. “That must be Stephen,” the dowager duchess said, putting her teacup down with enough nervous energy to cause the priceless Sèvres cup to clatter and tilt upon its delicate saucer. All morning, guests had been arriving for the birthday celebration, including the Skeffington party, but Stephen had not put in an appearance, and it was becoming obvious something either had detained him or was going to cause him to miss the day completely.

“If he has not been injured or held up by highwaymen on the road,” she continued peevishly, “I shall be sorely tempted to do him bodily harm myself! My nerves are drawn to the limit. I am entirely too old to be subjected to this sort of suspense.”

Too anxious to wait for the butler to announce the new arrival, Whitney was already on her way to the windows to have a look.

“Is it he, dear?”

“Yes . . . Oh, no!” her daughter-in-law answered, and turning around she pressed against the draperies, looking positively frantic.

“Yes, it is he, or ‘oh, no,’ it is not he?” inquired Miss Charity.


Tags: Judith McNaught Westmoreland Saga Romance
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