It was his words, not the seduction of his hands and mouth that crumbled Sherry's resistance. Some protective feminine instinct warned her that she must never again let herself trust him, never again let him touch or kiss her, but just this once… just one more time, to yield to that insistent mouth that was possessing hers…
Her lips softened imperceptibly, and Stephen claimed his victory with the swiftness of the hunter, except gentleness was his weapon now.
Reality set in finally, and Stephen lifted his mouth from hers and dropped his arms. She stepped back, breathing hard; her entrancing smile was overbright. "Thank you for the demonstration, my lord. I shall endeavor to grade you fairly when the time for comparison arrives."
Stephen scarcely heard her, nor did he try to stop her when she whirled on her heel and left him standing there. Reaching out, he braced his hand against the window frame, staring blindly at the ordinary scene in front of his house. "Son of a bitch!" he whispered savagely.
Careful to smile at each servant she passed so that they wouldn't know how she felt, Sherry walked up the stairs, her lips feeling swollen and bruised from the plundering kisses that had destroyed her and meant nothing to him.
She wanted to go home.
The phrase became a chant with every carefully paced step she took, until she finally gained the privacy of her own chamber. She curled into a protective ball on the bed, her knees drawn to her chest, her arms wrapped tightly around them, feeling as if she could splinter into a thousand pieces if she let go. Turning her face into the pillow to stifle her sobs, Sheridan wept for a future she couldn't have and a past she couldn't remember. "I want to go home," she cried in a broken chant. "I want to go home. Papa," she wept, "why are you taking so long to come for me?"
A beautiful spotted horse was grazing nearby, and in a fit of exuberance, Sherry got up and jumped onto its back, and they rode off in the moonlight, her laughter echoing on the wind. The horse and she were flying… flying… "You'll break your neck, cara!" the younger man called, and he was in hot pursuit, his horse's hooves pounding closer and closer, and they were both laughing and flying across the meadow…
"Miss Lancaster!" Another voice, a female voice was calling from a further distance. "Miss Lancaster!" A hand touched her shoulder, shaking her lightly, and Sherry jolted back to harsh reality. "I'm sorry to wake you, ma'am," the maid said, "but Her Grace is in the sewing room with the seamstresses, and she asked if you would join them there."
Sherry wanted to wrap herself in the bedcovers like a cocoon and seek out her dream again, but how did one tell a duchess and her seamstresses to go away so one could dream, particularly when one was an unwanted fiancée of the duchess's son. Reluctantly, Sherry got up, washed her face, and followed the maid upstairs to a huge, sunny room.
The duchess who was waiting turned out to be the earl's sister-in-law, not his mother.
Refusing to disgrace herself further by revealing any of her emotions, Sherry gave her a scrupulously polite greeting that was neither cool nor warm.
If Whitney Westmoreland noticed anything different in Sherry's demeanor, she didn't show it, but then she was carried away with enthusiasm about seeing Sherry outfitted "in all the latest fashion."
With Whitney Westmoreland smiling and chatting about balls and routs and Venetian breakfasts, and seamstresses buzzing around her like gnats, Sherry stood for what seemed an eternity on a raised platform in a huge sunny room, being measured, pinned, pushed, tugged, and turned. This time, she was not gullible enough to believe Whitney's warm smile and encouraging comments were sincere. She simply wanted Sherry off their hands, engaged to someone else, and obviously a wardrobe was the first step toward that goal. Sherry understood that, but she had plans of her own. She was going back home, wherever home was, and she couldn't possibly get there fast enough to suit herself. She intended to reassure the duchess of that as soon as this absurd fuss over clothing was over, but when the seamstresses finally let her step off the platform and pull on a dressing robe, they didn't leave. Instead, they began opening trunks and swirling bolts of fabrics over furniture, window seats, and carpet, until the entire room was a riot of colors in every imaginable shade, from emerald green to sapphire blue and sunny yellows, down to the palest pinks and shades of cream.
"What do you think?" Whitney asked her.
Sherry looked around at the dizzying array of sumptuous silks and soft batistes, of gossamer chiffon and delicate lawn. Jaunty striped fabrics were scattered among silks that were richly embellished with gold and silver and bolts of batiste heavily embroidered with flowers of every color and type. Whitney Westmoreland was smiling, waiting for Sherry to express her pleasure or her preferences. What did she think? Sherry wondered a little hysterically. Putting up her chin, she looked at the woman named Madame LaSalle who spoke with a French accent and behaved like a general, and she stated her preference, though she didn't know where it came from. "Do you have anything in red?"
"Red!" the woman gasped, her eyes popping. "Red! No, no, no, mademoiselle. Not with your hair."
"I like red," Sheridan persisted stubbornly.
"Then you must have it," she said, recovering her diplomatic self, but not yielding a bit artistically. "You must use it to upholster furniture or hang at the windows, but it is not a color that can be worn on your lovely self, mademoiselle. Heaven has already blessed you with hair of the rarest red, and so it would be wrong, sinful, to wear anything that would not flatter your special gift."
That flowery speech was so absurd that Sherry bit back a wan smile and saw the duchess struggling to keep her own countenance straight. Momentarily forgetting that Whitney Westmoreland might pretend to be her friend, but was nothing of the sort, she said, "I think that means it would look dreadful on me."
"Oui," said Madame with great feeling.
"And that there is nothing on earth that would compel her to make me a red gown, no matter how much I insisted," Sherry added.
The duchess returned Sherry's laughing look and said, "Madame would sooner throw herself into the Thames."
"Oui!" all of the seamstresses chorused, and for a few moments the room was filled with the convivial laughter of eight women with a common goal.
For the next several hours, Sherry stood mostly aside while the duchess and Madame talked endlessly about the correct styles and fabrics to be used. Just when she thought it was all settled, they began to discuss embellishments, and there was more talk about bows and laces and satin edging. When she finally realized the seamstresses were actually going to remain at the house, working day and night in this room, Sherry firmly interceded. "I have five gowns already—one for every day for nearly a week."