* * *
Their wives, who had gathered in the blue salon to discuss the situation, were of a like opinion.
Whitney slumped back in her chair, staring dully at her hands, then she glanced around at her coconspirators, including the dowager duchess. “It was a mistake,” she told her mother-in-law, who’d watched the “show” from the window of her bedchamber.
“I felt like crying when he ignored her gesture,” Alexandra said with an ache in her voice. “Sheridan was so brave about it, so open, and so terribly vulnerable.” She looked over her shoulder to politely include Miss Charity in the conversation, but the elderly lady had nothing to say. She sat on the window seat, her brow furrowed in concentration, looking straight ahead, giving the impression that she was either listening intently or not listening at all.
“We still have another full day and evening,” Stephen’s mother said. “He might soften by then.”
Whitney shook her head. “He won’t. I was counting on proximity to make him listen, but even if he listened, he wouldn’t change his mind. I realize that now. For one thing, I discovered earlier that he knows she went to Nicki the day she left his house, and you know how he feels about Nicki.”
Miss Charity turned her head sharply at that, her frown deepening with intense concentration.
“The thing is that Stephen wouldn’t believe anything Sherry says without proof. Her actions spoke so loudly that nothing else matters. Someone would have to present him with some other viable reason for her to have run away—” She broke off as Miss Charity stood up and walked silently out of the room. “I don’t think Miss Charity is holding up very well under the added stress of all this.”
“She told me she finds it all very exciting,” the dowager announced with an irritated sigh.
* * *
From Sheridan’s perspective as she stood at the window of her room and watched Stephen laugh at something Monica said to him, the situation looked even more bleak. She couldn’t get him off alone to try to talk to him because he clearly wouldn’t cooperate with anything she wanted, and she couldn’t talk to him in front of the others because she’d tried to communicate with him when she gave him her “favor,” and that had been a disaster.
Stephen’s decision to ignore her existence became harder and harder to adhere to as evening drifted into night, and he saw her hovering on the edge of the torchlit area where the tables had been set up for supper. The shock of seeing her had fortified him for the first few hours, but now he no longer had the advantage of that barrier. Standing off to one side, behind the other guests, his shoulders propped against an oak tree, he could watch her without being observed, while the memories he couldn’t seem to stifle paraded across his mind.
He saw her standing outside his study doors, talking to the under-butler. “Good morning, Hodgkin. You’re looking especially fine today. Is that a new suit?”
“Yes, miss. Thank you, miss.”
“I have a new gown,” she’d confided, doing a pirouette for the under-butler’s inspection. ‘Isn’t it lovely?”
A few minutes later, when Stephen had stalled for time before he told her he wanted her to look for another husband, he’d asked why she hadn’t read the magazines he’d ordered for her.
“Did you actually look at any of them?” she’d asked, making him grin even before she embarked on her description. “There was one called The Ladies Monthly Museum, or Polite Repository of Amusement and Instruction: being an Assemblage of what can Tend to please the Fancy, Instruct the Mind or Exalt the Character of the British Fair,” she’d explained. “The article in it was about how to rouge one’s cheeks! It was absolutely riveting,” she’d lied with an irrepressible smile. “Do you suppose such an article falls under the heading of ‘Instructing the Mind’ or of ‘Exalting the Character’?”
But most of all, he remembered how she felt when she melted in his arms, the sweet generosity of that romantic mouth of hers. She was a natural temptress, Stephen decided. What she lacked in expertise she more than made up for with willing passion.
A few minutes ago, she’d gone into the house to get the Skeffington boys, who were evidently going to sing for the amusement of the guests, and when she emerged, he could see she was carrying some sort of an instrument. He had to drag his gaze from her and force himself to stare at the brandy glass he held, so that he wouldn’t meet her gaze and wouldn’t start wanting her.
Wouldn’t start wanting her? he thought with bitter disgust. He had started wanting her the moment she opened her eyes in his bed in London, and he wanted her no less badly now, within hours of seeing her again. Clad in that plain gown with her hair scraped back off her forehead and twisted into a stern coil at her nape, she made his body harden with lust.
He glanced at Monica and Georgette who were talking to his mother. They were both beautiful women—beautifully gowned, one in yellow and the other in rose, beautifully coiffed, and beautifully behaved. Neither one of them would have considered dressing like a groom and galloping about on that damned horse.
But then, neither one of them would have looked so glorious had they tried.
Neither one of them would have offered him a grain sack with a beguiling smile and pretended she was bestowing a “favor” upon him.
But then, neither one of them would have been brazen enough to gaze into his eyes, inviting him to pull her into his arms, daring him to do it.
In the past, he’d thought of Sheridan Bromleigh as a sorceress, and as the first strains of music began to throb from the instrument she was playing, the thought hit him again. She mesmerized everyone, especially him. Conversations among the guests had broken off completely, and even the servants were pausing to look at her, to listen in awe. Stephen glowered at the brandy in his glass, trying not to look at her, but he could actually feel her gaze on him. She’d looked at him often enough tonight to make that likely. The glances were always soft, always inviting, sometimes pleading. They infuriated Monica and Georgette, who were confused and disdainful of how forward she was, but then Stephen hadn’t had his hands all over either of their bodies. Sheridan alone knew exactly what she could make him want . . . and make him remember.
Furious with his weakening resolve, Stephen shoved away from the tree and put his glass down on the nearest table, then he bade the guests good night and headed for his room, intending to drink himself into a private stupor if that’s what it would take to keep him from going to her.
Her head reeling from the tension of the day, Sheridan opened the door to the small bedchamber across from the playroom. Moving cautiously in the dark, unfamiliar room, she found the bureau and felt for the tinder to light the candles in the holder on her bureau. She was in the process of lighting the fourth candle when a deep masculine voice made her choke back a startled scream as it said, “I don’t think we’re going to need much light.”
She spun around, her hand falling away from her mouth, her heart beginning to beat in deep, fierce thuds of pure joy. Stephen Westmoreland was sitting in the room’s only chair, the image of relaxed elegance with his white shirt open at the throat and one booted foot propped casually atop the opposite knee. Even his expression was casual. Too casual. Somewhere in her whirling thoughts she registered that he was treating this momentous meeting with a cool nonchalance that didn’t seem at all appropriate, but she was so happy to see him, so achingly thrilled to have him this close, and so much in love with him that nothing mattered. Nothing.
“As I recall,” he said in the lazy, sensual drawl that always made her heart melt, “the last time I waited for you we were planning a wedding.”
“I know and I can explain,” she said. “I—”
“I didn’t come up here for conversation,” he interrupted. “Downstairs, I had the distinct impression you were offering me a great deal more than talk. Or did I mistake the matter?”
“No,” she whispered.
Stephen looked at her in impassive silence,