Left out of the playful ruckus created by four boys, she wandered around the huge, sunny room, past a large table covered with an entire army of wooden soldiers, then she bent down to pick up two books that had fallen out of the shelves. She put them back, idly picked up an old sketchbook lying atop the bookcase, opened the cover… and felt her heart stop. Beneath a childish drawing of what appeared to be a horse grazing in a field—or drinking water from a lake—was a name, awkwardly and painstakingly inscribed: STEPHEN WESTMORELAND.
Sherry slapped the cover closed and swung around, but her carefully erected defenses took another hit—this time a broadside: a few feet away, framed upon a table beside a wooden rocking horse, was a painting of a little boy with his arm slung round the horse's neck and a grin on his face. The painting had obviously been done by a talented amateur, and the smile on the dark-haired child's face was impish, rather than boldly caressing, but it was just as irresistible, and just as unmistakably Stephen's.
"I think I'll join the game," Sherry burst out, turning her back on the painting. "What are we playing?" she asked Thomas Skeffington, the seven-year-old, who was already on his way to being seriously overweight.
"We have too many players right now, Miss Bromleigh," Thomas said. "And the prize is a special sweet, so it wouldn't be right for you to win it because I want it."
"No, I do!" the six-year-old whined.
Appalled by their manners, which had actually shown a slight sign of improvement under Sheridan's care, she sent an apologetic glance at the other two governesses, who answered with smiles of understanding sympathy. "You must be weary," one of the governesses said to her. "We both arrived yesterday and have the benefit of a night's sleep. Why don't you rest for a few minutes before the festivities begin, and we'll look after these gentlemen?"
Since it was already taking all her self-control to stop herself from opening the sketchbook again or studying the picture of the sturdy dark-haired boy with the heartbreakingly familiar smile, Sheridan took advantage of their offer and practically fled across the hall. Leaving the door open, she walked over to the chair near the bed and sat down while she fiercely concentrated on not thinking about the fact that this was the house where Stephen had grown up. However, three weeks of unabated anxiety and hard work, compounded by the events of the last half hour, had all combined to take their toll, and for the first time in weeks, Sheridan let herself daydream: closing her eyes, she fantasized that the invitation to the Skeffingtons had nothing to do with her, that she would be able to remain on the third floor, undiscovered for three days, and that Stephen Westmoreland was not going to be here.
Julianna's appearance a short time later not only removed all hope of any such possibilities but also made it obvious that Sheridan was due for more than just periodic humiliation. "Are you resting, or may I come in?" Julianna asked hesitantly, and Sheridan pulled herself from her prayerful fantasy.
"I'd enjoy the company," Sheridan said truthfully, and then because she couldn't choke back the words, she added, "Is the Earl of Langford here?"
"No, but he's expected momentarily, and Mama is up in the boughs with ridiculous notions about making a match between us. I don't know how I'll endure this weekend." Anger flared in her eyes. "Why does she do this to me, Miss Bromleigh? Tell me why her greatest desire in life is to foist me off on the richest man with the biggest title, no matter how old or how ugly or how unpalatable I might find him! Tell me why she behaves like such a—a toadeater when she's among anyone she regards as her social superior!" Sheridan's heart went out to her as she watched the seventeen-year-old struggle to keep her shame and anger under control. "You should have seen her in the drawing room a while ago with the Duchess of Claymore and her friends. Mama was so—so pushing—and so eager to win their favor that it was horrid to watch."
Sheridan couldn't answer any of those questions without betraying her secret revulsion at the same attitudes Julianna found so abhorrent in her ambitious, cloying mama. "Sometimes," she said cautiously, "mothers simply desire a better life for their daughters than they themselves have had—"
Scornfully, Julianna retorted, "Mama doesn't care about my life. My life would be happy if she would leave me to my writing! My life would be happy if she would stop trying to marry me off like I was a—"
"A beautiful princess?" Sheridan provided, and it was partially true. In Lady Skeffington's mind, Julianna's face and figure made her a precious asset to be bartered in return for a more elevated place in Society for the rest of the family, and her daughter was sensible enough to know it.
"I wish I were ugly!" Julianna exploded, and she obviously meant it. "I wish I were so ugly no man would look at me. Do you know what my life was like before you came to us? I have spent it all reading books. That's all the living I've ever done. I have never been allowed to go anywhere, because Mama has lived in daily fear that some scandal would attach itself to me and spoil my value on the marriage market! I wish it had happened," she said wrathfully. "I wish I were ruined, so I could take the little portion Grandmama left to me. I would live in a tiny place in London and have friends. I would go to the opera and the theatre and write my novel. Freedom," she said softly, wistfully. "Friends. You are my first friend, Miss Bromleigh. You are the first female anywhere close to my age that Mama has ever let me be near. She does not approve, you see, of the modern behavior of females my own age. She thinks they are fast, and if I were to socialize with them—"
Sheridan felt absolutely called upon to at least show she understood. "Then your reputation might suffer," she provided, "and you would be—"
"Ruined!" exclaimed Julianna, but she sounded positively jubilant about the prospect. Her eyes lit with the irrepressible humor and spirit Lady Skeffington was trying so hard to suffocate as she leaned forward and confided in a comic whisper, "Ruined. Rendered unmarriageable… Doesn't it sound divine?"
In Julianna's specific circumstances, it did sound like a permanent reprieve, but as Sheridan knew, Julianna had no real idea of the ramifications of such a thing. "No, it doesn't," she said firmly, but she smiled.
"Miss Bromleigh, do you believe in love? I mean, love between a man and a woman, of the sort one reads about in novels? I don't."
"I—" Sheridan hesitated, remembering the exhilaration she'd felt when Stephen walked into a room, the delight that came from talking with him or laughing with him. And she remembered most of all the odd sense of rightness she'd experienced when she believed he derived intense pleasure from kissing her. For a while, she had felt as if she were playing her part in the natural order of things. She had felt… complete… because she pleased him. Or because she stupidly thought she pleased him. Realizing that Julianna was suddenly watching her too closely, she said, "I used to believe in love."