Ten minutes ago, Stephen wanted nothing more than to be alone with Sherry. Now he wanted nothing more than to see her face when she realized who was waiting to see her, and he rather relished seeing Matthew Bennett's face when events unfolded as well. In high spirits, he invited the solicitor into the drawing room, sent Hodgkin after the visitors, and then walked over to the fireplace where he could have the best view while Matthew Bennett found a chair that suited him. "Sherry," he said mildly, interrupting DuVille's laughing recitation of the antics he had had to go through in order to get her to agree to go to the chapel where Stephen was waiting. "You have visitors."
"Who?" she said, sending him a look that said she wished she didn't. While she was looking from Stephen to Hodgkin, a handsome, middle-aged man who was bridling with impatience walked into the drawing room. Behind him, hovering in the doorway, Stephen saw a gray-haired woman in a simple high-collared gown pause just inside the doorway. "We regret intruding on your privacy," the man said bluntly to Stephen, "but my daughter is missing."
Stephen shifted his gaze to Sherry, who had whirled around on her chair at the sound of his voice and was slowly standing up. "Papa?" she whispered, and her father's head jerked toward her. She stood frozen in place, her eyes roving lovingly over the man as if he were an apparition she was afraid would vanish if she moved. "Papa… ?"
In answer he opened his arms and she ran flying into them.
Stephen looked away from the outpouring of emotion, giving them time, and as he did so, he noticed the rest of his family and DuVille had done likewise. "Where have you been?" she said, weeping and cradling his face in her hands. "Why didn't you write to us? We thought you were dead!"
"I was in prison," he said with more disgust than embarrassment as he glanced apologetically at the silent occupants of the room. "Your friend Rafe and I had the bad judgment to believe a horse we won in a card game was the legitimate property of the thief we won him from. We were lucky not to be hanged when they caught us with him. Your aunt Cornelia always warned me that gambling at cards was going to get me into trouble."
"And I was right," the woman said from the doorway.
"Fortunately, she doesn't object to marrying a reformed gambler, who still knows how to farm, and who's even willin' to make peace with Squire Faraday, for her sake," he added, but no one heard him. Sherry had already turned toward the voice in the doorway and she was laughing and hugging the woman who'd spoken.
Remembering her manners, Sherry took her aunt and her father over to Stephen to introduce them, but before she could begin, her father said, "There's someone else who would like to see you, Sherry. Although I doubt he's going to recognize you," he added with a proud smile as his gaze moved slowly over her.
Rafe's smiling voice spoke from the doorway as he sauntered into the room, looking more handsome than she remembered, and as at ease in an English drawing room as he'd been beside a campfire with a guitar in his hands. "Hello, querida," he said in that deep, caressing voice of his. At the fireplace, Stephen stiffened, and that was before his new wife hurtled herself into the arms of another man, who lifted her off the ground and whirled her around and around, holding her outrageously close to his lean body. "I have come to make good on my promise to marry you," Rafe teased.
"Goodness!" said Miss Charity, stealing an alarmed look at Stephen's forbidding expression.
"Dear God," said the dowager duchess, glancing at her son's ominously narrowed eyes.
"What does he mean by that?" Whitney said in a choked whisper.
"I'm afraid to think about it," her husband replied.
Nicholas DuVille leaned back in his chair, looking amused and wary, and said nothing at all.
"How soon can we be wed, querida?" Rafe joked, putting her down and inspecting her from head to toe. "I spent the long days in prison, thinking of my little carrot—"
To everyone's amazement, the object of his frankly admiring regard ignored what sounded like a serious discussion of honorable intentions, put her hands on her hips, and took issue with his use of a nickname. "I will thank you not to address me by such an undignified name in the presence of my husband. Furthermore," she confided with a soft smile at Stephen as she took the other man's arm and led him forward, "my husband thinks my hair is quite special."
That remark caused her father, her aunt, and Rafe to turn abruptly to the man at the fireplace while Sheridan quickly handled the introductions.
When she was finished, Stephen found himself the object of a thorough inspection being conducted by three people who seemed not to care in the least that he owned the mansion in which they stood, or that he was the Earl of Langford, or even that he was tentatively deciding whether it was necessary, or advisable, to do physical harm to Rafael Benavente, who struck him as too free with his attentions to Sherry, too virile to be left in the same room with any female under the age of seventy, and too damned handsome to be trusted by anyone.
Postponing that decision, he slid his hand around Sherry's waist, drawing her possessively close, and let them look him over. "Are you happy, darlin'?" her father asked after a moment. "I promised Dog Lies Sleeping I'd find you and bring you back. He'll want to know you're happy."
"I'm very happy," she said softly.
"You're quite certain?" her aunt asked.
"Very certain," Sherry assured her.
Rafael Benavente withheld judgment for another moment, and then held out his hand to Stephen. "You must be a fine man, and an exceptional one, for Sherry to love you as much as she obviously does."
Stephen decided to offer the man a glass of his best brandy, instead of his choice of weapons. Rafael Benavente was very clearly a man of exceptional judgment and refinement. It was actually quite a pleasure to have him as a guest beneath his roof, for one night.
He mentioned that to Sheridan much later that night, as he held her in his arms, his body sated, his spirit quietly joyous.
His wife tipped her face up to his and splayed her fingers over his bare chest in a sleepy exploration that was beginning to have a dramatic effect on the rest of his body. "I love you," she whispered. "I love your strength and your gentleness. I love you for being so kind to my family and so nice to Rafe."
Stephen decided they could stay as long as they liked. He told her that with a laughing groan as her hand drifted lower.