"Oh, this is not merely an invitation!" she said, her voice gaining girlish strength. "This means a great deal more than that!"
He picked his paper back up. "How so?"
"This has to do with Julianna."
The paper lowered a scant inch, and his eyes, red-rimmed from a pronounced fondness for Madeira, appeared over the top. "Julianna? How so?"
"Think, Skeffington, think! Julianna has been in London all Season, and though we could never get her vouchers to Almack's or anywhere else where she'd be seen by the best people, I did insist she stroll in Green Park each day. I was very regular about it, and we saw him there one day. He looked straight at Julianna, and I thought then… I thought, Yes, he sees her. And that is why we have received an invitation to Claymore. He noticed how lovely she is and has spent all this time searching for her and thinking of a way to bring her into his company."
"Rotten way for him to go about it—having his own wife send the invitation for him. I can't say I approve. Smacks of bad taste."
She rounded on him in dismayed disbelief. "What? Whatever are you talking about?"
"Our daughter and Claymore."
"The duke?" she cried in frustration. "I want her to have Langford!"
"I don't see how you'll pull that off. If Claymore has set his heart on her, and Langford were to want her too, there's bound to be trouble. You'll have to make up your mind before we go, dearest."
She opened her mouth to launch an angry tirade at him for his obtuseness, but was diverted by the outburst of animated voices in the hall. "Children!" she exclaimed, rushing down the hall and hugging the one she encountered first. "Miss Bromleigh!" she cried, so excited she inadvertently hugged the governess too. "We shall be working night and day to prepare for a trip. I can't think what all we will need for a house party of this magnitude."
"Julianna, where are you, dear?" she said belatedly, momentarily nonplussed when all she saw were two ruddy-faced dark-haired boys between the ages of four and nine.
"Julianna went up to her room, Lady Skeffington," Sheridan said, hiding a weary smile at her employer's excitement and a wary fear of what sort of extra work was likely to be required of her to get the children ready for "a house party of this magnitude." As it was, she only had one evening off each week, and in order to have it, she worked from dawn to eleven every evening, doing an endless variety of additional chores that were normally relegated to seamstresses and maids, not governesses. Sherry took advantage of the uproar about the house party to escape to her own room in the attic for a while. Standing over the pitcher and bowl on her bureau, she washed her face, reassured herself that her hair was neatly bound in its coil, then she sat down by the little attic window and picked up her sewing. There was bound to be more mending, more ironing, more work for her involved in the house party being discussed, but Sheridan didn't actually object to the extra work. Being governess to five children kept her too busy during the day to think about Stephen Westmoreland and those magical days she'd been an integral part of his life. At night, when the house was quiet and she was sewing by candlelight, then she could give free reign to her memories and her daydreams, even though there were times she feared her hopeless obsession with him would someday make her quite insane. With her head bent over her sewing, she invented entire scenes with him and improved on others that had been real.
Time after time, she rewrote in her mind the awful ending to their betrothal. She started most of those imaginary scenes the same way—with Charise Lancaster storming into her bedchamber—and in the midst of Charise's damning tirade about Sherry's motives and trickery, Stephen always walked in. From there Sheridan had several favorite variations on possible endings:
… Stephen listened to Charise's incriminating lies, threw Charise out of his house, then he turned to Sheridan, listened sympathetically to her side of the story, and they were married that day as planned.
… Stephen refused to listen to a word Charise said before throwing her out of his house, then he listened sympathetically to Sheridan's side of the story, and they were married that day as planned.
… They were already married when Charise appeared, and so he had to listen to Sherry's side of the story and believe her.
None of that solved Nicholas DuVille's painful revelation that Stephen had felt bound to wed her out of guilt and responsibility, but Sherry circumvented that mortifying fact with a simple solution—Stephen also loved her. She had variations aplenty for that ending too:
… He had always loved her but didn't realize it until after she had gone away, then he searched for her until he found her. And they were married.
… They were already married, and he learned to love her despite everything.
She vastly preferred the first ending, because that was the only possible reality, and she kept the dream so close to her that sometimes she found herself looking out the window, half expecting to see him striding to the door. In addition to her fantasies, she had the real-life pleasure—as well as torture—of seeing him at the opera.
She had to stop going there, had to stop tormenting herself by waiting for the moment when he would finally turn to whatever woman was with him and focus his lazy, intimate smile on her. That, Sherry knew, would mark her last trip to the pits of Covent Garden. That she could never endure.
Sometimes, she even imagined that her disappearance was the reason he looked stern and distant when he sat beside the women he escorted to his private opera box. He looked weary and cold because he missed Sherry… because he regretted losing her…
It was still full daylight and too early for sweet dreams, and Sherry gave her head a shake to banish the thoughts, then she looked up with a determined smile as Julianna Skeffington slipped into the room.
"Miss Bromleigh, may I hide in here?" the seventeen-year-old said, her lovely face a mirror of dismay as she closed the door with a silent click and walked over to the bed. Careful not to mess the coverlet, she sat down, looking like a drooping angel. In her more uncharitable moments, Sherry wondered how two dreadful people like Sir John and Lady Skeffington could have produced this sweet, sensible, intelligent golden girl. "The worst thing imaginable has happened!" Julianna said with disgust.
"The very worst thing?" Sheridan teased. "Not merely a horrid thing or a disastrous thing, but the worst thing imaginable?"
A hint of an answering smile touched her lips then vanished as Julianna sighed. "Mama is up in the boughs, believing some nobleman has developed a partiality for me, when the truth is that he scarcely glanced in my direction, and he never spoke a word to me.