"Because," he said as he raised up on an elbow and forced her back onto the pillows, "if DuVille had a wife of his own, he'd stop longing for mine."
"Nicki doesn't 'long' for me in the least! He—"
Whitney forgot the rest of her protest as his mouth smothered her words and then her thoughts.
Standing on tiptoe, Sherry removed a book on America from one of the bookcases in the library, then she carried it to one of the polished mahogany tables scattered about the room and sat down. Looking for something to jog her memory, she flipped through the pages, searching for information that she might recognize. There were several intricate drawings of harbors teaming with ships and spacious city streets bustling with carriages, but nothing at all that seemed even remotely familiar. Since the heavy tome was arranged in alphabetical order, and since it seemed logical that pictures would jog her memory better than the written word, she went to the beginning of the book and began slowly turning the pages until she came to a drawing. Under "A" she found information on agriculture along with an illustration of verdant wheat fields against a backdrop of gentle hills. She'd started to turn the page when another picture flashed through her mind. Only the fleeting vision of fields that she saw had crops with fat white tufts on the top. The image faded instantly, but it made her hand begin to tremble as she reached for the next page and the next. The illustration of a coal mine triggered nothing, nor did anything else she saw, until she came to a picture of a man with a craggy face, prominent nose, and long, flowing dark hair. "American Indian," the caption above the illustration read, and Sherry felt the blood begin to pound in her temples as she stared hard at that face. A familiar face… or was it? She clenched her eyes closed, trying to focus on the images dancing and fading in her mind. Fields… and wagons… and an old man with a missing tooth. An ugly man who was grinning at her.
Sherry stifled a startled yelp as she whirled around in her chair and stared at the handsome man whose voice normally soothed and excited her.
"What's wrong?" Stephen demanded, his voice sharp with alarm as he noted her stricken, white face, and started forward.
"Nothing, my lord—" she lied with a nervous laugh, standing up. "You startled me."
Frowning, Stephen put his hands on her shoulders and scrutinized every feature on her pale face. "Is that all? What were you reading over there?"
"A book on America," she said, reveling in the sensation of his strong hands gripping her shoulders and steadying her. Sometimes, she almost felt as if he truly cared for her. Another vision drifted through her mind, hazier by far than the others… but soothing and, oh, so sweet: Kneeling before her with flowers in his hand, a handsome, dark-haired man who may have been the earl proclaimed, I was nothing until you came into my life… nothing until you gave me your love… nothing until you… until you…
"Should I summon Whitticomb?" Stephen demanded, raising his voice and giving her a slight shake.
His tone snapped her out of her reverie, and she laughed, shaking her head. "No, of course not. I was only remembering something, or perhaps only imagining it happened."
"What was it?" Stephen said, releasing his grip on her shoulders, but holding her pinned with his gaze.
"I'd rather not say," she stated, flushing.
"What was it?" he repeated.
"You would only laugh."
"Try me," he said, his words clipped.
Rolling her eyes in helpless dismay, Sherry stepped back and perched her hip on the library table beside the open book. "I wish you would not insist on this."
"But I do insist," Stephen persisted, refusing to be swayed by the infectious smile trembling on her soft lips. "Perhaps it was a real memory, and not just your imagination."
"You would be the only one to know that," she admitted, becoming very preoccupied with the study of the cuticle on her thumb. Looking sideways at him from beneath her long lashes, she asked, "By any chance, when you asked me to marry you, did you happen to mention that you were nothing at all, until me?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Inasmuch as you look revolted by the thought," Sherry said without rancor, "I don't suppose you would have gone down on one knee when you did propose?"
"Hardly," Stephen said dryly, so offended by the image of himself assuming such a foolish position that he'd forgotten he'd never proposed to her at all.
Sherry's disappointment in his answers was offset by his increasing discomfiture at the questions. "What about flowers? Did you happen to offer me a bouquet when you said, 'I was nothing until you gave me your love, Sherry. Nothing at all until you came into my miserable life'?"
Stephen realized she was actually relishing his discomfort, and he chucked her under the chin. "Brat," he said lightly, noting that she seemed never to be intimidated by him. "I merely came to invite you to join me in my study. My family will be gathering there any moment for a 'conference.' "
"What sort of conference?" Sheridan asked, pausing to close the book and return it to the shelf.
"A conference about you, actually—about the best way to 'launch' you into Society," Stephen replied distractedly, watching her lean up on tiptoe, and trying not to concentrate on how utterly fetching she looked in a deceptively simple peach gown with a high mandarin collar and tightly fitted bodice that cleverly called attention to every inviting curve she had without displaying so much as a glimpse of skin.
After a full night's sleep, he'd awakened feeling more optimistic about Sherry's plight than he had since she collapsed at his feet on the dock. With the aid of his family, who'd volunteered their cooperation and assistance, the idea of finding a suitable husband for her during the Season seemed not only an ideal solution, but an achievable one. In fact, he was so enthusiastic about it, that he'd sent notes to them early this morning, asking each of them to bring two lists: one of eligible men, and another itemizing those things that would also have to be handled in order to launch her properly.
Now that he had a specific goal, Stephen saw no reason not to pursue it with the same single-minded efficiency and determination that he used to achieve his other business successes. Like his brother and a very few other noblemen, he preferred to handle most of his own business and financial affairs, and he had a well-deserved reputation for doing so with brilliance and daring. In contrast to many of his peers who were sinking further and further into debt because they regarded any business dealings as the province of the "merchant class," and therefore beneath them, Stephen was steadily increasing his already vast holdings. He did it because it was sensible, but mostly, he did it because he thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of testing his judgment and timing; he liked the exhilaration that came with successfully acquiring and disposing of assets.