Unaware that he was the cynosure of a half-dozen pairs of eyes, Stephen straightened, glanced in the direction the child had pointed . . . and froze, his gaze levelling on Sheridan, who was bending to receive her kiss but looking directly at Stephen.
Whitney saw his reaction, saw his jaw clench so tightly that a muscle began to throb in his cheek. She had secretly harbored the hope that he might somehow believe the Skeffingtons were actually acquaintances of hers and that Sherry’s appearance here was coincidence, but that hope was in vain. Slowly, Stephen turned his head and looked straight at her, his eyes boring into Whitney’s. In frigid silence he accused his sister-in-law of complicity and treachery, and then he turned and stalked purposefully toward the house.
Afraid that he intended to leave, Whitney put down her wineglass, excused herself to her guests, and went after him. His legs were longer, and he didn’t care about appearances, so he had gained the house several minutes before she entered it. The butler provided the information that he had called for his carriage to be brought round and gone up to his room.
Whitney ran up the steps. When there was no answer to her knock on his door, she knocked again. “Stephen? Stephen, I know you’re in there—”
She tried the door, and when it wasn’t locked, she opened it and went inside. He stalked out of the dressing room wearing a fresh shirt, saw her, and his expression became more forbidding than it had been outside. “Stephen, listen to me—”
“Get out,” he warned, quickly fastening the shirt up the front and reaching for his jacket.
“You aren’t leaving, are you?”
“Leave?” he jeered. “I can’t leave! You worked that out too. My compliments to you, your grace”—he emphasized contemptuously—“on your duplicity, your dishonesty, and your disloyalty.”
“Stephen, please,” she implored, taking a few hesitant steps into the room. “Just listen to me. Sherry thought you were marrying her out of pity. I thought if you had a chance to see her again—”
He started toward her, his expression threatening. “If I’d wanted to see her, I’d have asked your friend DuVille,” he said scathingly. “She went to him when she left me.”
Whitney began talking faster as she automatically backed away. “If you will just try to see it from her perspective.”
“If you are wise,” he interrupted in a soft, blood-chilling voice as he loomed over her, “you will avoid me very carefully this weekend, Whitney. And when this weekend is over, you will communicate with me through your husband. Now, get out of my way.”
“I know you loved her, and I told—”
He clamped his hands on her shoulders, forcibly moved her aside, and walked around her.
In stunned silence, Whitney watched him stalk swiftly down the hall and bound down the stairs. “My God,” she whispered weakly. She had known Stephen Westmoreland for over four years, and she had never guessed, never imagined, that he was capable of the kind of virulent hatred she saw in his face when he looked at her.
Slowly, she went back downstairs to rejoin her guests for a party that had already had a very inauspicious beginning. When she reached them, it was to discover that Stephen had taken Monica and Georgette for a jaunt to the local village, which meant he would probably be gone for several hours. Lady Skeffington looked as dismayed as everyone else over his departure, only for different reasons, of course. In fact, the only two members of the party who didn’t seem depressed about it were Sir John, who was having yet another glass of Madeira, which—thankfully—seemed to make him quiet instead of effusive, and Julianna Skeffington, who was talking to Sheridan and helping with the children. With a smile, she lifted Noel into her arms and hugged him tightly, then she turned and said something to Sheridan with an expression on her face that was clearly sympathetic.
From the sidelines, the dowager duchess watched the blonde girl and, in a halfhearted attempt to distract their thoughts from Stephen’s very violent reaction to Sheridan’s presence, she idly remarked to Whitney, “Julianna Skeffington knows something is in the wind. She saw the murderous look Stephen gave Sheridan when he saw her, and she was at Sherry’s side within seconds. She seemed like a thoroughly delightful girl when I spoke with her earlier—charming and intelligent.”
Whitney dragged her thoughts from the alarming things Stephen had said to her to Julianna’s lovely features. “Beautiful, as well.”
“It makes one marvel at the capriciousness of nature that allowed that man—” she nodded distastefully toward Sir John, “and that woman—” she grimaced at Lady Skeffington, “to produce that heavenly creature.”
Normally a full staff of footmen were always on hand to assist arriving guests from their carriages and see that the vehicles and horses were taken around back to the stables, but when Stephen returned from his jaunt to the village, no one came out of the house. The only servant in evidence was a lone footman who was standing in the drive, staring fixedly in the general direction of the hills that rolled gently away from the stables at the back of the estate. He was concentrating so hard on whatever it was he was trying to see, that he seemed not to hear the carriage wheels until Stephen pulled up behind him, then he turned with a guilty start and trotted over to take the reins.
“Where is everyone?” Stephen asked, noticing that the butler still had not dispatched more servants from the house, nor opened the front door, as was customary.
“They’re down at the stables, milord. It’s quite a show, if I may say so, and not one to miss. Or so I’ve heard from them that’s watching from the back of the house.”
Stephen took the reins back from the footman, having decided to drive around to the stables and see for himself what the footman meant by “quite a show.”
A long stretch of fence enclosed the stables and the large grassy area between the buildings where the horses were walked and cooled before being put away. To one side of the fence, pasture stretched all the way to the base of wooded hills, dotted with hedges and stone fences that were used to train Claymore’s horses for the hunt. When Stephen pulled the carriage to a stop at the stables, the entire length of fencing was lined with grooms, footmen, coachmen, and stable hands. Stephen helped Monica and Georgette down from the carriage, noting as he did so that the entire house party, minus his treacherous sister-in-law, were standing on the far side of the fence, as absorbed with whatever unknown spectacle was taking place on the hillside as the servants were.
Stephen studied his brother’s inscrutable profile as he and his two companions joined the group, wondering if Clay had actually collaborated in Whitney’s scheme, and unable to believe he would have. Since Stephen wasn’t completely certain, he deliberately addressed his question to Jason and Victoria Fielding. “What are you watching?”
“Wait and see for yourself,” Jason advised him with an odd grin. “It wouldn’t be right to spoil it with an explanation in advance.”
Victoria Fielding seemed to have a difficult time looking him in the eye, and her smile was overbright. “It’s really quite amazing!”
It occurred to Stephen that the Fieldings and the Townsendes were both behaving oddly. There was a nervousness in the women and an uneasiness about the men. Either they were uncomfortable because they were surprised and unhappy about Sheridan Bromleigh’s presence—or else they’d known all along that she was going to be here, and they felt guilty. Stephen studied the four people he regarded as particularly close friends, deciding whether or not that friendship was about to end permanently. The women had definitely known, he decided, watching color stain Alexandra Townsende’s cheeks as she felt his gaze on her. Not once in the three hours since he’d looked up and found himself only a few paces away from his former fiancée had Stephen allowed himself to think about her. Shutting out the reality of her presence was the only way he could stomach staying here.
She had pretended to be someone she was not, and when she was about to be exposed, she had fled to DuVille, leaving Stephen to wait for
her like a besotted idiot with a cleric and his family standing by.
In the weeks since her disappearance, he had gone over everything she’d said and done while she supposedly had amnesia, and he could remember only that one slip—when she’d objected to having a paid companion. “I don’t need a ladies’ companion,” she’d blurted. “I am a—”
She was an amazing actress to have pulled off the whole sham so well, Stephen thought with a fresh surge of disgust for his own gullibility.
A stellar actress, he decided wrathfully, remembering the softness in her eyes during the few moments their gazes had locked this morning. She’d looked straight at him with her heart in her eyes, unflinching. Except she had no heart. And no conscience either, obviously.
She was going to make another try for him. Stephen had realized it within seconds of seeing that wistful expression on her lovely, deceptive face this morning.
He’d assumed DuVille had been keeping her neatly tucked away for his own pleasure all these weeks, but evidently he’d tired of her in a surprisingly short time and sent her packing.
Now she was working as a governess and obviously longing for a better life. Based on that sweet pleading look she’d given him, she was apparently hoping he’d be as stupidly susceptible to her nonexistent appeal as he’d been before.