"There must be something else I can do," Charity said, her face looking as if it were going to crumple.
"There is," Sheridan said with a fixed, confident smile. "Please tell his lordship that I would like to see him privately for a moment. Ask him to meet me in that little salon immediately off the front hall."
When Charity left to do that, Sheridan drew a steadying breath and walked over to the window, watching a few minutes later as Charity went over to him and delivered the message. He got up so quickly, striding swiftly toward the house, that Sheridan felt a sharp stab of hope that perhaps—just perhaps—he wasn't going to let her leave. Perhaps he would beg her forgiveness for his callousness last night and ask her to stay.
As she walked down the steps she couldn't stop herself from indulging in that last, tormentingly sweet fantasy. The frail hope made her heart accelerate as she walked into the salon and closed the door, but the hope began to die the instant he turned and looked at her. Clad in a shirt and riding breeches, with his hands shoved into his pockets, he looked not only casual, but supremely unconcerned. "You wanted to see me?" he suggested mildly.
He was standing in the middle of the small room, and a few steps brought her almost to within arm's reach of him. Displaying a calm she didn't at all feel, Sheridan nodded and said, "I came to tell you I'm leaving. I didn't want to simply disappear this time, as I did the last."
She waited, searching that hard, sardonic face for some sign that he felt something, anything, for her, for the fact that she was leaving, for the gift of her body. Instead, he lifted his brows as if silently asking her what she expected him to do about it.
"I'm not accepting your offer," Sheridan clarified, unable to believe he could be so completely uninterested in a decision that affected her entire life—a decision made after a night spent in his arms, after she had surrendered her virginity and her honor to him.
He lifted his broad shoulders in a slight shrug and said in an indifferent voice, "Fine."
That did it—that single bored word sent her from the depths of humiliated despair to a fury that was almost uncontainable. Turning on her heel, she started to walk out on him, then she stopped and turned back.
"Was there something else?" he prodded, looking impatient and unconcerned.
Sheridan was so infuriated, and so pleased with her intention, that she actually gave him a bright, disarming smile as she stepped up to him. "Yes," she said lightly, "there is something else."
One brow lifted in arrogant inquiry. "What is it?"
"This!" She slapped him so hard his head jerked sideways, then she took an automatic step back from the rage in his face and held her ground, her chest heaving with fury. "You are a heartless, evil monster, and I cannot believe I let you touch me last night! I feel filthy and defiled—" A muscle began to tick in the side of his jaw, but Sheridan wasn't finished and she was too infuriated to care that he looked murderous. "I committed a sin when I let you do what you did to me last night, but I can pray for forgiveness for that. But, I will never be able to forgive my stupidity for trusting you and loving you!"
Stephen watched the door crash into its frame behind her, and he stood perfectly still, unable to shake off the image of a tempestuous beauty with blazing silver eyes and a face alive with fury and disdain. The picture branded itself on his mind along with a voice that shook with emotion. "I will never be able to forgive my stupidity for trusting you and loving you!" She'd actually looked and sounded as if she meant every single thing she'd said to him, including that last. Christ, she was a superb actress! Better by far than Emily Lathrop. Of course, Emily hadn't had the advantage of Sheridan's aura of virtuous innocence or her tempestuous temper. Emily had been sophisticated and carefully restrained, so she couldn't have pulled off this scene.
On the other hand, Emily probably wouldn't have flung his proposition in his face…
Somehow, he hadn't expected Sheridan to do that either. She'd been clever enough and ambitious enough to turn a brief loss of memory after her accident into what appeared to be a full-fledged case of amnesia that seemed to last for weeks, and to very nearly raise her status from a governess to a countess as well. The proposition he'd offered last night wouldn't have made her a countess, but it would have given her a hell of a lot more in the way of a luxurious life than she could possibly expect otherwise.
Either she wasn't as clever as Stephen had credited her with being…
Or she wasn't as ambitious…
Or she wasn't interested in luxury…
Or she'd been innocent of deviousness all along—as innocent of it as she'd been sexually innocent before last night.
Stephen hesitated uneasily and then rejected the last possibility. Innocent people did not run away and hide—not when they had Sheridan's kind of courage and daring.
Out of consideration for Noel's birthday, and in a futile effort to maintain a semblance of a festive atmosphere, Whitney declared the subject of Sheridan Bromleigh and her departure off limits for the rest of the weekend, but the failed attempt at a reconciliation hung like a pall over most of the guests at Claymore. Within hours after Sheridan left, storm clouds rolled in and rain began to fall, driving everyone indoors and further dampening feminine spirits. Only Charity Thornton was immune to the atmosphere and so energized that she declined to follow suit when all the other ladies and most of the men repaired to their chambers for a nap before supper. In fact, their absence suited her perfectly.
Seated upon a tufted leather sofa in the billiard room, with her legs crossed at the ankles and her hands folded in her lap, she watched the Duke of Claymore playing billiards with Jason Fielding and Stephen Westmoreland. "I have always found billiards so very intriguing," she lied, just as Clayton Westmoreland poked a long cue stick at the balls on the table and missed his shot entirely. "Was that your strategy—to miss all the balls on the table so that Langford will now have to deal with them?" she inquired brightly.
"That's an interesting way of looking at it," Clayton replied dryly, stifling his annoyance with her outburst that had caused him to miss his shot.
"Now what happens?"
Jason Fielding answered with a chuckle. "Now Stephen will take over and neither of us will have another opportunity at this game."
"Oh, I see." Charity smiled innocently at her intended victim as he rubbed something on the end of his cue stick and bent over the table. "Does that mean you are the most skilled player here, Langford?"