"I don't want you!" she cried. "You've already used me like a—a common doxy, now stay away from me! God," she said, her voice breaking, "I'm so ashamed—it was so trite—the governess who falls in love with the lord of the manor, only in the novels he doesn't do the things to her you did to me in bed. It was so ugly—"
"Don't say that!" he cut in, his voice raw. "Please don't say that. It wasn't ugly. It was—"
"Sordid!" she cried.
"The new position comes with me," he continued, his face white with strain. "It comes with my name and my hand and all I possess."
"I don't want—"
"Yes you do," he said, giving her a shake, just as his full meaning sunk in. Sheridan felt a brief spurt of joy before she realized he was merely having another attack of conscience and duty, this time over seducing her, evidently.
"Damn you!" she choked. "I am not some foundling you're obliged to propose to every time you have an attack of guilt. The first time you did it, I wasn't even the right woman to feel guilty about."
"Guilty," he repeated with a harsh, embittered laugh. "The only guilt I ever felt where you were concerned was for wanting you for myself from the moment you regained consciousness. For God's sake, look at me and you'll see I'm telling the truth." He put his hand under her chin, and she neither resisted nor cooperated, but focused her gaze over his shoulder instead. "I stole the life of a young man, and then I saw his fiancée and I wanted to steal her too. Can you understand just a little of how that made me feel about myself? I killed him and then I lusted after the fiancée he couldn't have because he was dead. I wanted to marry you, Sheridan, right from the beginning."
"No you didn't! Not until after you were informed Mr. Lancaster had died, leaving his poor, helpless daughter alone in the world except for you!"
"If I hadn't wanted an excuse to marry his 'poor, helpless daughter' I'd have done anything I could for her, but marriage was not one of them. God forgive me, but an hour after I got that letter, I was drinking champagne with my brother to toast our wedding. If I hadn't wanted to marry you, I'd have been drinking hemlock."
Sheridan bit back a teary smile at his quip, afraid to believe him, afraid to trust him, and unable to stop herself because she loved him. "Look at me," Stephen said, tipping her chin up again, and this time her glorious eyes looked into his. "I have several reasons for asking you to walk into that chapel, where there is a vicar waiting for us, but guilt is not among them. I also have several things to ask of you before you agree to go in there with me."
"What sort of things?"
"I would like you to give me daughters with your hair and your spirit," he said, beginning to enumerate his reasons and requests. "I would like my sons to have your eyes and your courage. Now, if that's not what you want, then give me any combination you like, and I will humbly thank you for giving me any child we make."
Happiness began to spread through Sheridan until it was so intense she ached from it. "I want to change your name," he said with a tender smile, "so there's no doubt who you are ever again, or who you belong to." He slid his hands up and down her arms, looking directly into her eyes. "I want the right to share your bed tonight and every night from this day onward. I want to make you moan in my arms again, and I want to wake up wrapped in yours." He shifted his hands and cradled her cheeks, his thumbs brushing away two tears at the edges of her shimmering eyes. "Last of all, I want to hear you say 'I love you' every day of my life. If you aren't ready to agree to that last request right now, I would be willing to wait until tonight, when I believe you will. In return for all those concessions, I will grant you every wish that is within my power to grant you.
"As to what happened between us in bed at Claymore, there was nothing sordid about it—"
"We were lovers!" she countered, flushing with guilt.
"Sheridan," he said quietly, "we have been lovers since the first moment your mouth touched mine."
He wanted her to find pride, not shame, in that, and to accept it as a special gift from fate, and then he realized he was expecting the impossible of a young, inexperienced girl. He was about to absolve her completely by assuming all of the blame for the desire they'd shared, but after a moment the woman he loved turned her face into his hand to brush a soft kiss against his palm. "I know," she whispered simply.
The two words filled him with so much pride that he thought he would burst with it. I know. No more recriminations, no pretense, no denials. In place of that, she lifted her eyes to his, and in their fathomless depths he saw only sweet acceptance and quiet joy.
"Will you come inside with me now?"
His bride of two hours stirred reluctantly as the coach came to a smart stop, and with equal reluctance Stephen lifted his mouth from hers. "Where are we?" she asked, her voice a languorous, thready whisper.
"Home," Stephen said, a little surprised at the husky timbre of his own voice.
"Ours," he corrected, and Sherry felt a shiver of delight at the sound of that.
A servant was opening the coach's door and reaching inside to let down the steps. Sherry made a halfhearted effort to straighten her hair by raking her fingers through it and shoving it back off her forehead. As she did, she noticed the way his gaze strayed to her hair, following it almost caressingly down to her shoulders while the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes creased into a thoughtful smile. "What are you thinking about?" she asked.
His smile deepened. "Something I've been thinking about ever since you marched out of the dressing room in London, pulled a towel off your head, and announced to me in the direst tones that your hair was 'brazen.' "
"What did that make you think of?" she persisted as he alighted and offered her his hand.
"I'll tell you later. Better yet, I'll show you," Stephen promised.
"It sounds mysterious," Sherry teased.
For four years, women had flung themselves at Stephen in the hope of someday becoming mistress of the palatial house he had designed and built and called Montclair. Now he waited for a reaction from the woman he had finally chosen to be its mistress.
Sherry tucked her hand in the crook of his arm, smiled cordially at the footmen who'd come out to help them, took one step forward, and looked up at the majestic, sprawling stone mansion in front of her. She stopped dead, staring in disbelief at the brightly lit windows that were spread across its entire facade, then she looked over her shoulder at the long winding drive that was lined with luxurious coaches on both sides as far as she could see. She looked at it, and then at him, and said in a tone of blank shock, "Are you giving a party?"