"And it can be very painful when it is one-sided," she confessed and then was astonished her guard had dropped so far, merely by allowing herself to think of a kiss.
"I see," Julianna said, her violet eyes too wise for her age, too knowing. She was, in Sheridan's opinion, a talented writer and extraordinarily observant.
"I don't think you do," Sheridan lied with a bright smile.
Julianna proved otherwise with blunt simplicity. "When you first came to stay with us, I sensed… a deep hurt in you. And courage, and determination. I won't ask you if it was unrequited love, though I feel certain it was, but may I ask you something else?"
It was on the tip of Sheridan's tongue to sternly point out the wrongness of prying into another person's life, but Julianna was so lonely, and so appealing, and so sympathetic, that she didn't have the heart to do it. "Only if what you ask is something that will not make me feel uncomfortable," Sheridan said instead.
"How do you manage to seem so serene?"
Sheridan felt anything but serene at the moment, and she attempted a joke, but her laugh was strained. "I'm a paragon, obviously. Courageous—determined. Now, talk to me about more important things. What are the plans for the weekend, do you know?"
Julianna reacted with an admiring smile when Sheridan adroitly switched the topic away from herself, but she complied by answering the question. "It's to be a weekend spent outdoors, including meals, which seems quite odd, I thought. In any case, the children and their governesses will be seated at tables next to us—I know that part because I went out onto the lawn for a stroll before I came up here and saw how everything is being set up." She had leaned down to remove a pebble from her slipper and so missed the look of dawning horror and hostility on Sheridan's face. "Oh, and you are to play the guitar and sing with the boys—"
Instead of being stricken, Sheridan was slowly standing up, propelled to her feet by a boiling wrath beyond anything she'd ever known. Based on what Julianna had said, it was obvious that the entire party had been deliberately organized in a way that would keep Sheridan constantly in view. The guests were limited to those couples whom Sheridan had known the best. They were also close friends of the Westmorelands, which meant they could be relied upon to relish humiliating Stephen's former-fiancée-turned-governess, but not to repeat anything they saw to the London gossips because that would embarrass the earl. She was not even going to be allowed to dine in peace. Far more infuriating, she was supposed to perform like a court jester for their amusement. "Those monsters!" she exploded, her voice hissing.
Julianna looked up as she put her slipper on. "The boys? They are across the hall."
"Not those monsters," Sheridan said unthinkingly. "The adult monsters! Did you say they were in the drawing room earlier?"
Oblivious to Julianna's open-mouthed stare, the woman she'd just praised for her serenity marched forward with a militant look in her eye that would have given Napoleon Bonaparte second thoughts. Sheridan knew she was going to lose her position over what she was about to do, but then the Skeffingtons would dismiss her anyway after this weekend. Lady Skeffington was ambitious and sly, and it wouldn't take her more than an hour to realize that her children's governess was an object of scorn, in addition to being the focal point of the occasion. Lady Skeffington was perfectly willing to sacrifice her only daughter in hopes of being included in the Westmorelands' social circle. She wouldn't hesitate one minute to send Sheridan packing if she sensed the Westmorelands had a low opinion of her.
None of that mattered to Sheridan as she marched down the long staircase. She would sooner starve than let these haughty British aristocrats torture her out of some sick, distorted need for vengeance.
Blind to everything but her intention, Sheridan located the drawing room with the help of a footman, and there she confronted yet another servant who was stationed in front of the drawing room's closed door.
"I wish to see the Duchess of Claymore at once," she informed him, fully expecting to be informed that was impossible—and fully prepared to force her way inside if necessary. "My name is Sheridan Bromleigh."
To her shock, the footman bowed at once and said, as he opened the door, "Her grace has been expecting you."
That announcement removed for Sheridan any question that this party might have been organized for some purpose other than to punish her. "I'll wager she has been!" Sheridan said scornfully. Feminine laughter stopped and conversations broke off the instant she swept into the immense room. Ignoring Victoria Seaton and Alexandra Townsende, Sherry walked past the dowager duchess and Miss Charity without a nod and confronted the Duchess of Claymore.
Her eyes blazing, she looked down her nose at the composed brunette she had once thought of as a sister, and her voice shook with the violence of her outrage. "Are you so poor of entertainment that torturing a servant titillates you?" she demanded scathingly, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. "How much amusement did you honestly expect me to provide for you, besides playing and singing? Did you hope I would dance for you as well? Why isn't Stephen here yet? He must be as eager as you to see it all begin." Her voice shook with wrath as she finished, "You have all wasted your time, because I am leaving! Do you understand? You have put the Skeffingtons to an expense they can ill afford and dragged them here with their hopes all built up, when all you wanted was vengeance on me! What sort of—of monsters are you, anyway? And don't you dare to pretend you haven't planned this entire weekend for the simple purpose of dragging me here!"
Whitney had expected this visit from Sheridan, but she hadn't expected it to begin with the angry aggression of a duel. Instead of gently explaining what she hoped to accomplish, as Whitney had intended to do, she entered the verbal swordplay with a thrust aimed straight at Sheridan Bromleigh's heart: "For some reason," she announced coolly, with a challenging lift of her brows, "I rather thought you might appreciate our efforts to bring you into Stephen's sphere."
"I have no desire to be in any such place," Sheridan fired back.
"Is that why you go to the opera every Thursday?"
"Anyone can go to the opera."
"You don't watch the performance. You watch Stephen."
Sheridan paled. "Does he know? Oh, please, do not say you've told him. Why would you be that cruel?"
"Why," Whitney said very, very carefully, sensing that she was a hair's breadth from finally hearing the truth about Sheridan's disappearance and that if she made one mistake, she wouldn't, "would it be a cruelty if he knew you went there to see him?"