It was a request for permission, which struck him as odd in an indefinable way, but since he'd already resolved to linger over her, he answered unhesitatingly and with a smile. "You may do anything you like, Lady Westmoreland." When she hesitated, holding the towel around her, Stephen politely turned his back and went into the bedchamber, a little surprised by her sudden modesty. A little off-balance.
When she strolled into the room a minute later, the sight of her did much more violent things to his balance. Dripping wet, wrapped in a towel, she was delectable. Clad in a low-cut dressing gown made entirely of white lace as fragile as a spider's web, with shadowy glimpses of skin offered up to his view from the tops of her breasts all the way to her ankles, she was the haunting temptress of a male's dreams… ethereal, inviting, not quite naked, but not quite covered. A siren. An angel.
Sherry saw the banked fires kindle in his eyes as they drifted over her, and with only the one night at Claymore to rely on for clues as to what was going to happen, she waited for him to instruct her to take her hair down. She stood there, feeling awkward and helplessly aware of her lack of knowledge—a situation that might not have occurred had the maid not poured handfuls of lavender scent into her bathwater. The reminder of Helene Devernay wouldn't have been quite so bad if Sherry hadn't also gotten a good look at Stephen's mistress two weeks ago, riding through Bond Street in a silver-lacquered carriage with lavender velvet squabs. Julianna Skeffington had pointed her out and provided her identity, but Sheridan had already guessed who she was. Stephen's mistress—his former mistress if Sheridan had her way about it—was the sort of female to make any other woman feel ordinary and gauche. And Sheridan did.
It was not a feeling she liked in the least. She wished Stephen had told her he loved her. She wished he had said he didn't see Helene anymore. Now that her memory was functioning, she had a vivid childhood recollection of Helene Devernay's American equivalent—a lady in a startlingly low-cut red gown with feathers in her hair whom Sheridan saw sitting in Rafe's lap one night when she peeked in the windows of a gambling house. The female had been running her fingers through his hair, and Sheridan had felt a burst of jealousy that was as nothing compared to the way she felt about the thought of Helene Devernay sitting in Stephen's lap.
She wished she had the courage right now to demand that he break off his relationship with the beautiful blonde if he hadn't already done so. On the other hand, common sense dictated that such an ultimatum might be far more successful if Sheridan were to first make Stephen want his wife more than he wanted his stunning chérie amie. The only thing standing in her way at the moment was that she didn't have the slightest idea how to make him want her without some guidance from him. Thinking of the way he'd ordered her to take her hair down at Claymore, Sheridan lifted her hands. "Should I?"
Stephen watched her breasts threaten to spill over the low, square-cut bodice of the lace gown. "Should you what?" he asked softly, as he started toward her.
"Should I take my hair down now?"
Permission again. She was thinking about his callous demand to loosen her hair that night at Claymore, he realized with a fresh stab of regret. He put his hands on her shoulders, trying not to look at the rosy swell of breasts. "I'll do it," he said gently.
She backed up a half step. "No, really, if you'd prefer that I do it, I will."
"Sheridan, what's wrong? What's bothering you?"
Helene Devernay is bothering me, she thought. "I don't understand what I'm supposed to do. I don't know the rules."
"I would like to know how to please you," she finally forced out. He looked as if he were struggling to keep his face straight and she said in an imploring voice, "Oh, please, don't laugh! Don't…"
Stephen stared down at the temptress in his arms and, very reverently, he whispered, "Good God…" She was serious. She was glorious, and sensual, and sweet, and courageous. And she was very, very serious. So much so that he had the distinct feeling that a wrong answer, a wrong reaction now, could hurt her beyond belief. "I was not laughing, darling," he said somberly.
Satisfied that he understood and did not object, she began with the subject of clothing, her eyes searching his. "What is allowed?"
He laid his hand against her cheek and ran it back, smoothing her hair. "Anything is allowed."
"Is there a… a goal?"
Stephen's earlier confidence that his prior experience with women had equipped him for this particular evening slipped a notch. "Yes," he said, "there is."
"What is it?"
He slipped his arms around her and put his hands lightly on her back. "The goal is for us to be as close as we can possibly be, and to enjoy that closeness in every way we can."
"How will I know what you enjoy?"
He was beginning to get an erection just from enjoying the conversation. "In general, if you enjoy something, I will."
"I don't know what I enjoy."
"I see. Then I think it's only right that you have time to find out."
"When?" Sheridan said, afraid he meant "someday."
He tipped her chin up, and she watched his sensual lips form one word. "Now."
She waited with a mixture of embarrassment and anticipation for him to do something, to give her some sort of direction, but Stephen could only gaze down into her eyes, thinking that he had gone to heaven. He bent his head to kiss her, very slowly rubbing his lips on hers, letting his hand drift down her throat to her bare bodice, and he felt her lean closer to kiss him back. She liked that, Stephen knew. She liked something else, too, he realized as she tentatively put her fingers against the narrow vee of his open shirt. "Would you like me to take my shirt off?" he heard himself ask.
Sheridan had a feeling that question was a prelude to having her own gown removed, but she was also certain that was going to happen anyway. She nodded, and Stephen complied. She stepped back, watching him unfasten the front of his shirt. When the last stud came free, Stephen put them down on the table. Then he slowly opened his shirt and removed it, surprised to find that the act of deliberately undressing while a woman looked on, watching, was strangely erotic.
Sheridan gazed in admiration at the heavily muscled broad shoulders and a wide chest with dark, springy hairs. She lifted her hand, then stopped when it neared his chest and gave him a swift look of inquiry. He nodded slightly, smiling at the sheer joy of her; she put her hand on his rib cage, slowly spreading her fingers, sliding them upward toward his nipple, and then she put her other hand beside it. He was beautiful, she thought, like a statue of a Greek god, all hard planes and bunched muscle. As her hands slid upward and her fingers brushed his small nipples, the muscles beneath her questing fingers leapt reflexively and she stopped instantly. "You don't like it?" she asked, looking into those heavy-lidded smoldering blue eyes.