Stephen was so riveted by the scene before him that it was several moments before he realized that Damson and the footman, and several of the others, had very pleasant voices, and several minutes more before it occurred to him that he was enjoying the amateur performance in his kitchen far more than the professional one at the theatre.
He was wondering why they were singing a Christmas song in the middle of spring, when Sherry suddenly joined the chorus, and the sound of her voice soaring gently above the would-be tenors and aspiring baritones nearly stopped Stephen's breath. When the notes were low, she sang them with a jaunty earthiness that made her makeshift chorus break into grins as they sang with her, and when the melody climbed higher, she matched it with effortless ease until every corner of the vast room seemed to reverberate with the soaring beauty of her voice.
When the song came to its rousing end, a footboy of about seven years of age stepped forward, holding out his bandaged forearm to Sherry. Smiling bashfully at her, he said, "Me hand would feel much better, ma'am, if I was to hear one more happy song."
In the doorway, Stephen straightened and opened his mouth to order the boy not to plague her, but Damson leapt in with what Stephen thought would be a similar order. Instead, the valet said, "I'm sure I speak for all of us, miss, when I say that you've made this evening into an extraordinarily fine one by sharing your company and your—may I be so bold as to say—your exquisite voice with us!"
That long, flowery speech won a hesitant, confused smile from Sherry, who had crouched down to adjust the bulky bandage on the little boy's arm. "What Mr. Damson means," Colfax, the butler, translated with a disgusted look at the valet, "is that we all enjoyed this evening very much, miss, and that we would be deeply appreciative if you might extend it just a little."
The little boy rolled his eyes at the butler and the valet, then beamed at Sherry, who was at his eye level, frowning at whatever she saw beneath the bandage. "They mean, may we sing another song, please, miss?"
"Oh." Sheridan laughed, and Stephen saw her wink conspiratorially at the butler and valet as she straightened and said, "Is that what you meant?"
"Indeed," said the valet, glowering huffily at the butler.
"I know it is what I meant," the butler retorted.
"Well, can we?" the little boy said.
"Yes," she said, sitting down at the kitchen table and drawing him onto her lap, "but I'll listen to you this time, so that I can learn another of your songs." She looked at Hodgkin, who was beaming at her and waiting for further suggestion. "I think that first song, Mr. Hodgkin—the one you all sang for me about 'a snowy Christmas night with a Yule log burning bright.' "
Hodgkin nodded, held up his thin hands for silence, waved his arms dramatically, and the servants instantly burst into exuberant song. Stephen scarcely noticed. He was watching Sherry smile at the little boy in her lap and whisper something to him, then she lifted her hand to his cheek, gently cradling his smudged face to the bodice of her gown. The picture they made together was one of such eloquent maternal tenderness that it snapped Stephen out of his distraction, and he stepped forward, inexplicably anxious to banish the image from his mind. "Is it Christmas already?" he said, strolling into the midst of the cozy scenario.
If he'd been holding loaded guns in both hands, his presence couldn't have had a more dampening, galvanizing effect on the merry occupants of the room. Fifty servants stopped singing and began backing out of the room, bumping into each other in their haste to scatter. Even the child in Sherry's lap wriggled away before she could catch him. Only Colfax, Damson, and Hodgkin made a more dignified—but very cautious—retreat and bowed their way out of the room.
"They are quite terrified of you, aren't they?" Sherry asked, so happy that he'd returned early that she was beaming at him.
"Not enough to stay at their posts, evidently," Stephen retorted, then he smiled in spite of himself because she looked so guilty.
"That was my doing."
"I assumed it was."
"How did you know?"
"My magnificent powers of deduction," he said with an exaggerated bow. "I have never heard them sing, or ever come home to an empty house until tonight."
"I felt at loose ends and decided to explore a little. When I wandered in here, Ernest—the little boy—had just put his arm against one of those kettles and burned it."
"And so you decided to cheer him by organizing all the servants into a choir?"
"No, I did that because everyone seemed to be as much in need of a little cheering as I was."
"Were you feeling ill?" Stephen asked worriedly, scanning her face. She looked fine. Very fine. Lovely and vibrant—and embarrassed.
"No. I was…"
"Yes?" he prompted when she hesitated.
"I was sorry you were gone."
Her candid answer made his heart lurch in surprise… and something else, some other feeling he couldn't identify. And didn't want to try. On the other hand, for the moment she was his fiancée, and so it seemed both appropriate, and pleasurable, to lean down and press a kiss to her flushed cheek, despite the fact that he had vowed in that same hour to maintain a completely platonic relationship from that moment on. And if the kiss drifted to her lips, and his hands caught her shoulders, drawing her closer for a moment, then that, too, seemed harmless enough. What was not appropriate or harmless was the instantaneous response of his sated body when she pressed lightly against him and put her hand against his chest or the tender thought that suddenly sprang to his mind… I missed you tonight.
Stephen released her as if his hands were burned and stepped back, but he kept his expression bland so that his confused annoyance wouldn't show. He was so preoccupied that he automatically complied when she suggested he wait while she fixed them something to drink.
When she had the cups and pot arranged on a tray, Sheridan returned to the table and sat down across from him.
She propped her chin in her hands and studied him with a slight smile while Stephen watched the way the firelight glinted on her hair and made her cheeks glow. "It must be exhausting work being an earl," she remarked. "How did you become one?"
She nodded, glanced at the pot and got up quickly. "The other night, after supper, you mentioned that you have an older brother who is a duke, and then you said you inherited your titles by default."