That was certainly true, Sheridan thought with disgust. Miss Bromleigh was probably responsible for her elopement with a near-stranger, an impulsive act that loosely resembled the plot of one of the romantic novels that Sheridan had shared with Charise on the voyage. Aunt Cornelia was so opposed to those novels, and to those "foolish romantic notions" they put forth, that Sheridan normally read them only in secret, with the curtains closed around her cot. There, in solitude, she could experience the delicious excitement of being loved and courted by dashing, handsome noblemen who stole her heart with a glance. Afterward, she could lie back on the pillows, close her eyes, and pretend that she had been the heroine, dancing at a ball in a glorious gown with pale golden hair in an elaborate upsweep… strolling in the park with her dainty hand resting upon his sleeve and her pale golden hair peeping from beneath the brim of her fashionable bonnet. She'd read each novel so many times that she could recite her favorite scenes from memory and substitute her own name for the heroine's…
The baron captured Sheridan's hand and pressed it to his lips as he pledged his eternal devotion. "You are my one and only love…"
The earl was so overwhelmed by Sheridan's beauty that he lost control and kissed her cheek. "Forgive me, but I cannot help myself. I adore you!"
And then there was her particular favorite… the one she most often liked to imagine:
The prince took her in his strong embrace and clasped her to his heart. "If I had a hundred kingdoms, I would trade them all for you, my dearest love. I was nothing until you."
Lying in bed, she would alter the plots of the novels, the dialogue, and even the situations and locales to suit herself, but she never, ever changed her imaginary hero. He and he alone remained ever constant, and she knew every detail about him, because she had designed him herself: He was strong and masculine and forceful, but he was kind and wise and patient and witty, as well. He was tall and handsome too—with thick dark hair and wonderful blue eyes that could be seductive or piercing or sparkle with humor. He would love to laugh with her, and she would tell him amusing anecdotes to make him do it. He would love to read, and he would be more knowledgeable than she and perhaps a bit more worldly. But not too worldly or proud or sophisticated. She hated arrogance and stuffiness and she particularly disliked being arbitrarily ordered about. She accepted such things from the fathers of her students at school, but she knew she'd wouldn't be able to abide such a superior male attitude from a husband.
And, of course, her imaginary hero would become her husband. He would propose on bended knee, and say things like, "I didn't know there was happiness, until you… I didn't know what love was, until you… I was only half a man with half a heart… until you." She liked the idea of being truly needed by her imaginary hero, of being valued for more than beauty. After he proposed with such sweet, compelling words, how could she do anything but accept? And so, to the envious surprise of everyone in Richmond, Virginia, they would be married. Afterward, he would whisk her, and Aunt Cornelia, off to his wonderful mansion on a hill, where he would devote himself to making them happy, and where their most pressing worry would be which gowns to wear. He would help her locate her father, too, and he would come to live with them.
Alone in the darkness, it didn't matter that she didn't have a prayer of meeting such a man or that if by some wild chance she did encounter such a paragon of perfection, he wouldn't give Miss Sheridan Bromleigh a passing glance. In the morning, she would scrape her thick red hair back off her forehead and fasten it into a practical coil at the nape, then she would leave for school, and no one would ever know that prim Miss Bromleigh, who was already regarded as a "spinster" by students, staff, and parents, was an incurable romantic in her heart.
She'd fooled everyone, including herself, into thinking she was the epitome of practicality and efficiency. Now, as a result of Sheridan's boundless overconfidence, Charise was going to spend her life married to an ordinary Mister, instead of a Milord, a man who could make her life utterly miserable if he chose. If Charise's father didn't die of his fury and heartbreak, he was undoubtedly going to spend the rest of his life thinking of effective ways to make Sheridan's and Aunt Cornelia's lives miserable. And poor, timid Meg, who'd been Charise's overworked maid for five long years, was surely going to be turned out without a reference, which would effectively destroy her future prospects for obtaining a decent position. And these were the best possibilities!
These prospects were based on the assumption that Sheridan and Meg might somehow be able to return home. If Meg was correct, and Sheridan was half-convinced she was, then Meg was going to spend the rest of her life in a dungeon, and Sheridan Bromleigh—"sensible, competent" Sheridan Bromleigh—was going to be her cell mate.
Tears of fear and guilt stung Sherry's eyes as she thought of the calamities she'd caused, and all because of her naive overconfidence and her foolish desire to see the glittering city of London and the fashionable aristocracy she'd read about in her novels. She should have listened to Aunt Cornelia, who'd lectured her for years that longing to see such wondrous sights was tantamount to reaching beyond one's station in life; that pride was as sinful in the eyes of the Lord as greed and sloth; and that modesty in a female was far more attractive to gentlemen than mere beauty.
Aunt Cornelia had been right in the first two of those beliefs, Sheridan belatedly realized. Sherry had tried to heed her aunt's warnings, but there was one major dissimilarity between her aunt and herself that made those warnings about going to England terribly difficult for Sherry to accept: Aunt Cornelia loved predictability. She thrived on rituals, treasured the identical day-to-day routines that sometimes made Sherry feel like weeping with despair.
As she stared blindly across the tiny cabin at poor Meg, Sherry wished very devoutly that she were back in Richmond, sitting across from her aunt in the tiny little three-room house they shared, enjoying a nice, routine pot of tepid tea, and looking forward to an entire lifetime of tepid tea and tedium.
But if Meg was right about British laws… then Sheridan wouldn't be going home ever, wouldn't set eyes on her aunt again, and that thought was almost her undoing.
Six years ago, when she first went to live with her mother's elder sister, the prospect of never seeing Cornelia Faraday again would have made Sheridan positively gleeful, but Sheridan's father hadn't given her a choice. Until then, he had let her travel with him in a wagon loaded with all manner of goods, from fur pelts and perfume to iron pots and pitchforks, luxuries and necessaries that he sold or bartered at farmhouses and cabins along their "route."