As she neared the bottom step, she saw an elderly man in a black suit and white shirt hurry into a room that opened off the main hall on the left. "You rang, my lord?" she heard him say in the doorway. A moment later, he backed out, bowing reverently, and closed the doors. "Excuse me—" Sherry began awkwardly, tripping on the hem of her gown and reaching for the wall to steady herself.
He turned, saw her, and his body froze. At the same time all his facial features seemed to twist and quiver in some sort of palsied shock.
"I'm perfectly all right," Sheridan hastily reassured him as she righted herself and jerked the hem from beneath her left foot. Noting that he still looked a little queer, Sheridan held out her hand to him and said, "Dr. Whitticomb said I'm well enough to come downstairs. We haven't met, but I am Charise… um… Lancaster," she remembered after an awkward pause. He raised his hand toward hers, and since he seemed uncertain about what to do next, she took his hand in hers, and prompted with a gentle smile, "And you are—?"
"Hodgkin," he said, sounding as if he had a blockage in his throat. Then he cleared it and said again, "Hodgkin."
"I am happy to meet you, Mr. Hodgkin."
"No, miss, just 'Hodgkin.' "
"I couldn't possibly address you by your surname alone. It's disrespectful," Sheridan said patiently.
"It's required here," he said, looking harassed.
Indignation made Sheridan's left hand clench on the front of her gown. "How very like that arrogant beast to deny an older man the dignity of being addressed as 'mister!' "
His features contorted again, and he seemed to stretch his neck as if gasping for air. "I'm sure I don't know whom you might be referring to, miss."
"I am referring to…" She had to think to remember the maid's answer when Sheridan had asked her the earl's name. It had seemed the woman had recited an entire litany of names, but his family name had been… Westmoreland! That was it. "I am referring to Westmoreland!" she said, refusing to dignify his name with his own title. "Someone should have taken a stick to his backside and taught him common courtesy."
On the balcony above, a footman who'd been flirting with a passing chambermaid twisted around and gaped at the entrance hall, while the maid banged against his side in her eagerness to lean over the banister for a better view. A few yards from Sheridan, four footmen who had been filing decorously into the dining room carrying platters suddenly crashed into each other because the lead footman had stopped dead in his tracks. Another white-haired man, younger than Hodgkin but dressed exactly like him, materialized from the dining room, scowling ferociously as the lid of a silver chafing dish hit the marble floor with a crash and rolled into his leg. "Who is responsible for—" he demanded, then he, too, looked at Sheridan and seemed to momentarily lose control of his expression as his gaze ran over her hair, her gown, and her bare toes.
Ignoring the commotion around her, Sheridan smiled at Hodgkin and said gently, "It's never too late, you know, for most of us to see the error of our ways if they're pointed out to us. I shall mention to the earl at an appropriate moment that he ought properly to address a man of your age as 'Mr. Hodgkin.' I could suggest that he put himself in your position and imagine himself at your age…"
She stopped in puzzlement as the elderly man's white brows shot up into his hairline and his faded eyes seemed to pop out of their sockets. Anger with the earl had overruled her sense for those moments, but Sheridan finally realized that the poor man was obviously afraid of losing his position if she interfered. "That was foolish of me, Mr. Hodgkin," she said meekly. "I won't say anything about this, I promise."
On the balcony above and in the hall below, servants exhaled a collective sigh of relief that was abruptly cut off as Hodgkin opened the doors to the drawing room and they heard the American girl say to the master in a haughty, unservile tone, "You rang, my lord?"
Stephen whirled around in surprise at her choice of words and then stopped dead. Choking back a laugh that was part appalled and part admiring, he stared at her as she stood before him, with her pert nose in the air and her gray eyes sparking like large twin flints. In sharp contrast to the stony hauteur of her stance and expression, she was clad in a soft, billowing peignoir made of voluminous lavender silk panels that draped off both her shoulders, leaving them beguilingly bare. She was clutching the front closed, which lifted the hem just high enough off the floor to expose her bare toes, and her titian hair, still damp at the ends, was spilling over her back and breasts as if she were a Botticelli nude.
The pale lavender color should have clashed with her hair, and it did, but her creamy skin was so fair that the overall effect was somehow more dramatic than actually displeasing. It was, in fact, so startlingly effective that it took him a moment to realize that she'd not deliberately selected Helene's peignoir out of some defiant desire to flaunt custom or annoy him, but because she didn't have anything else to wear. He had forgotten that her trunks had sailed with her ship, but if that ugly brown cloak she'd been wearing was indicative of her preference in clothing, he preferred to see her in Helene's peignoir. The servants wouldn't share his liberal view, of course, and he made a mental note to remedy her apparel problem first thing in the morning. For now, there was nothing he could do except be grateful that the peignoir actually covered enough of her to verge on decency.
Biting back an admiring smile, he watched her struggle to maintain her frosty facade in the face of his silent scrutiny, and he marvelled that she could convey so many things without moving or speaking. She was innocence on the brink of womanhood, outrageous daring untempered by wisdom or hampered by caution. A vision of that gleaming hair of hers spilling over his chest flashed through his mind, and Stephen abruptly shook it off just as she broke the silence: "Have you finished staring at me?"
"I was admiring you, actually."
Sheridan had come downstairs fully prepared for a confrontation, longing for it, in fact, and she'd already suffered one setback when he looked at her with that peculiarly flattering expression in his bold blue eyes; his smiling compliment was the second. Reminding herself that he was a coldhearted, dictatorial beast whom she was not going to marry, no matter how he looked at her or how sweetly he spoke, she said, "I presume you had some reason for summoning me into your august presence, your worship?"
To her surprise he didn't rise to her barbs. In fact, he looked rather amused as he said with a slight bow, "As a matter of fact, I had several reasons."