And the most painful part of it… the humiliating, agonizing part… was that she didn't have a choice in the world except to go there.
Sherry felt her chin tremble and angrily stood up. Her conscience was clear. Furthermore, there was no shame in her position. She had never aspired to be a countess.
Her conscience reminded her that wasn't entirely true. The truth was that she had wanted to be Stephen Westmoreland's countess. And so this was to be her punishment for daring to dream, daring to reach above herself, Sherry realized, feeling furious at fate for doing this to her.
"I want to go home!" she said fiercely to the empty room. "There has to be some way to go home!" Only five weeks had passed since she'd written to Aunt Cornelia, explaining everything that had transpired since she boarded the Morning Star, and asking her aunt to send her money for passage home. The money would be coming, of that Sheridan was certain, but at best it would take a total of eight to ten weeks for her letter to cross the Atlantic and reach her aunt, and then for her aunt's response to reach her.
Even if the Atlantic seas stayed calm and the ships didn't tarry in any port between Portsmouth and Richmond, there was still three weeks left before she could hope to hear from her aunt. Three more weeks before the money for her passage home could possibly arrive. Three more weeks before the party at Claymore. If Fortune would smile down on her just one time since she set foot on English soil, then she might still be able to deprive the Westmorelands of their petty vengeance after all.
With so much time to prepare mentally for whatever unpleasantness the Westmorelands had planned for her at Claymore, Sheridan had almost convinced herself she was well-fortified against her fate. For weeks, she had reminded herself that she was completely innocent, and that goodness and righteousness were therefore on her side. To further insulate herself against heartbreak, she had firmly put an end to her ritual daydreams about Stephen.
As a result, she was able to endure the trip to Claymore with what she thought was stoic nonchalance. Instead of wondering how long it would be before she saw Stephen—or if she was going to see him—she concentrated on the cheerful chatter of the Skeffington boys, who were travelling with her in the third of the rented coaches that comprised the entourage. Rather than wondering what Stephen would do or say when he saw her, she insisted the children sing merry songs with her during the two-hour trip. In lieu of peering out the coach window for her first glimpse of the house, Sheridan steadfastly devoted all her thoughts, all her attention, to the boys' appearance while the Skeffington cavalcade proceeded along a winding, treelined drive and across a stone bridge that led up to the Duke of Claymore's country seat. She did not allow herself more than a passing, disinterested glance at the facade of the immense house with its double wings sweeping forward around a vast terraced entrance, nor allow herself to notice the balconies and mullioned windows that adorned its front.
Except for her treacherous heartbeat, which insisted on accelerating as she alighted from the coach, she was so well-fortified against feeling anything at all that she managed a polite, fixed smile at the servants who rushed from the house in maroon and gold Westmoreland livery to assist the new arrivals. Garbed in a plain dark blue bombazine gown, with her hair twisted into a severe coil at the nape, and her narrow white collar demurely buttoned at the throat, Sheridan looked exactly like the governess she was as she alighted from the coach. With her hands resting on the shoulders of the two boys, she proceeded up the flight of shallow steps, behind Sir John and Lady Skeffington and Julianna.
Her chin was high, but not aggressively so, and her shoulders were straight, but then she had nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of or to defend, not even her respectable, if menial, position as a governess. For the thousandth time in three weeks, she reminded herself very firmly that she had never knowingly deceived the Westmorelands or anyone else. The Earl of Langford had willfully and wrongfully deceived her about being her fiancé and about actually wanting to marry her. His family had gone along with it, therefore the responsibility and the guilt and the shame were theirs, not hers.
Unfortunately, Sheridan's hard-won poise took its first severe blow as soon as she shepherded her charges into the three-story skylit foyer, where more liveried servants were standing at attention, waiting to show the new arrivals to their rooms as soon as the under-butler had formally greeted them and indicated to which rooms each guest was to be shown. "Her grace thought you would enjoy the particularly fine view from the blue suite," he told Sir John and Lady Skeffington. "When you have had all the time you desire to refresh yourselves from your journey, she will be pleased to have you join her and the other guests in the drawing room." As he finished, a footman stepped forward from the front of the line to escort them to the blue suite.
"Miss Skeffington, the suite next to that has been readied for you." He turned to the boys as Julianna began her trip up the broad winding staircase accompanied by another footman.
"Young sirs," Hodgkin continued, "your rooms are on the third floor, where the playrooms are located. And your governess will, of course—" He turned to Sheridan, and even though she'd had time to brace herself for the moment when he saw and recognized her, she still wasn't prepared for the horror that flashed across Hodgkin's face as his pale eyes riveted on her features, slipped to her cheap gown, then snapped back to her face. "—will, of course—" he stammered, "be close at hand—in a room directly—across the hall."
Sheridan had a wild impulse to reach out and pat his parchment cheek, to tell him that it was all right that she was here as a governess, and that he shouldn't look as if he were going to cry. Instead, she managed a semblance of a smile. "Thank you very much—" she said and softly added, "Hodgkin."
Her room was small in comparison to the boys' and simply furnished with a bed, a chair, and a small bureau with a washbowl and pitcher, but it was palatial compared to the attic room she occupied at the Skeffingtons'. Better yet, the house was so vast that if she stayed on the third floor, she could easily avoid all sight of the owner and his family. In an effort to keep busy, she washed her hands and face, unpacked her night garments, and went to check on the boys.
Two other governesses were installed at the end of the hall, and as Sherry ushered the boys into the playroom, they appeared there with their own charges, two little boys of perhaps four. After friendly introductions, those governesses insisted on involving the Skeffington children in a game with the little boys, and Sheridan found herself with the last thing she wanted: time on her hands.