"I'll come back before you know I'm gone," he'd promised, ignoring her sobs and giving her his warm, Irish smile that ladies always found so appealing. In a stroke of inspired cajolery, he added, "Think how shocked Rafe will be when we come for you and you're a lovely young lady, wearing skirts and… and doing the things your aunt will teach you."
Before she could protest, he untangled her arms from around his neck, put his hat on, stepped back, and looked at Cornelia. "I'll send what money I can to help out."
Cornelia nodded as if accepting alms from a peasant and said nothing, but her manner didn't seem to disturb him in the least.
"Who knows," he said with a roguish grin, "maybe we'll even take you back to England with us. You'd like that, wouldn't you, Nelly—living right under Squire Faraday's nose, holding court in a house bigger than his? I seem to remember that the drawing room was always filled with your beaux." With a mocking smile, he added, "None of them were good enough for you, though, were they, Nelly? But then, maybe they've improved with age."
Sheridan, who was trying to breathe slowly so she wouldn't weep like a baby, watched him shrug his shoulders in utter indifference at her aunt's rigid silence, then he turned and gave Sheridan a quick, hard hug. "Write to me," she implored him.
"I will," he promised.
When he left, Sherry turned slowly to look at the expressionless face of the woman who had caused the complete destruction of her life and who was her only living female relative. Her gray eyes brimming with tears, Sherry said very softly and very clearly, "I… I wish we'd never come here. I wish I'd never set eyes on you! I hate you."
Instead of slapping her, which Sherry knew she was entitled to do, Aunt Cornelia looked her straight in the eye and said, "I'm sure you do, Sheridan. I daresay you'll hate me much more before this is over. I, however, do not in the least hate you. Now, shall we have a bit of tea before we begin your lessons?"
"I hate tea too," Sheridan informed her, lifting her chin to its haughtiest angle and returning her aunt's stony stare—a stance that was not only instinctive but identical to her aunt's. Her aunt noticed the similarity, even though Sheridan was unaware of it. "Do not try to stare me out of countenance with that expression, child. I perfected that very look long ago, and I'm quite immune to it. In England, it would have served you well, were you Squire Faraday's acknowledged granddaughter. However, this is America, and we are no longer the proud Squire's relations. Here we are shabby-genteel at best. Here, I teach deportment to the children of people whom I would have once regarded as my inferiors, and I am lucky to have the work. I thank my Maker that I'm able to have this cozy house for my very own, and I do not look back at the past. A Faraday does not lament. Remember that. And I am not completely regretful of my life's choices. For one thing, I am no one's puppet anymore. I no longer awaken wondering what sort of uproar will occur today. I lead an orderly, quiet, respectable life."
She stepped back as she finished that speech, and with something that might actually have been amusement, she surveyed her unmoving niece. "My dear, if you wish to carry off that look of stony hauteur to its best advantage, I recommend that you look down your nose at me just the tiniest bit—yes, just so. That's how I would have done it."
If Sheridan hadn't been so forlorn and so bitter, she would have laughed. In time, she learned to laugh again—just as she learned Latin and ladylike behavior. Her aunt was a relentless teacher, determined that Sheridan learn everything she herself knew, and yet Sheridan soon realized that beneath her aunt's formal rigidity, there was a deep concern and even affection for her wayward niece. Sheridan was a quick student, once she got over her resentment. Book learning, as she discovered, helped to relieve the tedium of a life that no longer involved wild rides on spotted horses or the humming of guitar strings or laughter under the stars. Exchanging even a nodding glance with a member of the opposite sex was evidence of easy virtue and, therefore, forbidden; striking up a conversation with a stranger verged on criminal behavior. Singing was done only in church, and never, ever, ever was one to accept payment in any form for it. In place of the exhilarating things she used to enjoy, there was the dubious challenge of learning to pour tea while holding the pot at just the right angle, of placing one's fork and knife in the correct place after dining—trivial things, to be sure, but as Aunt Cornelia said, "Knowing how to behave is your most valuable asset—your only one, in our circumstances."
Her reasoning became evident when Sheridan turned seventeen: Garbed in a simple brown gown with her hair tucked into a neat chignon, held in place by a cap she'd crocheted herself, Miss Sheridan Bromleigh was presented to Mrs. Adley Raeburn, the headmistress of the school where Aunt Cornelia taught. Mrs. Raeburn, who had come to the house at Aunt Cornelia's invitation, stared for a split second at Sheridan's hair and face—a peculiar reaction from city people that had become more pronounced of late. A few years ago, a younger, less well-bred and serene Sheridan Bromleigh would have self-consciously looked down at her boots or tugged her hat down over her face or else demanded to know what the stranger was gaping at.
But this was a new Sheridan, a young woman who was well aware that she had been a financial burden. Now she was determined to become a wage-earner, not only for her aunt's sake, or merely for the present, but for her own sake and for always. In the city, she had seen the face of widespread poverty and hunger—things that had seemed rare in the country. Sheridan was a city dweller now, and likely to remain so for the rest of her life. In the last two years, her father's letters, which had come frequently at first, had ceased altogether. He wouldn't simply forget her here, of that she was sure, and the possibility that he might be dead was so unbearable that she couldn't endure it. That left her no choice except to find a way to look after herself and to tell herself that it was only until he and Rafe came for her. She told herself that as Mrs. Raeburn said courteously, "I've heard some very good things about you from your aunt, Miss Bromleigh."
And Sheridan Bromleigh, who once would have shoved her hands into the waistband of her pants and replied with blunt shyness that she couldn't think what those good things might have been, stretched out her hand instead, and replied with equal courtesy, "and I of you, Mrs. Raeburn."
Now, as Sheridan stood below decks on the Morning Star, she suddenly realized there was a very good chance she would never see any of the people from her old life again; not Aunt Cornelia, or the little girls at school or the other teachers who'd become her friends and who gathered at the house every Saturday afternoon for tea and conversation. She might never again set eyes on their smiling faces. Or on Rafe… or her father.