"Actually, they didn't 'happen this way.' You were quite right when you assumed all this was planned very carefully, but it was never intended to embarrass you, only to force Stephen to be in your company the maximum amount of time over the weekend. Also, the other two governesses will step in to look after the Skeffington boys while you're here. To that end, I've suggested to Lady Skeffington that you might better serve if you were to be where you could chaperone Julianna—from a distance, of course. That will allow you to wander about the grounds, ride if you wish, and generally be visible."
"I—I don't know how to thank you."
"You may not want to thank me," Whitney said with a nervous smile. And then because she desperately wanted to give the other woman enough reassurance to make her able to face up to whatever Stephen did to her, she confided something that only the family knew. "Several years ago, I was betrothed to my husband by my father without my knowledge. I—I had some foolish girlhood notion of marrying a local boy I thought I'd love forever, and I—I did several things to try to avoid this marriage that caused my husband to break the betrothal and withdraw his offer. Unfortunately, it wasn't until then that I realized I was long over my infatuation with the other man. By then, Clayton wouldn't even acknowledge that he knew me."
"Eventually, however, he obviously changed his mind."
"Not quite," Whitney admitted with a rosy blush, "I changed his mind. He was on the verge of marrying another, and I—I came here to see him, to try to dissuade him. Stephen stepped in and forced me to stay. Actually, I only conceived this party because a similar ploy worked with my husband and me."
"But everything came about as soon as he saw you?"
That evoked a musical laugh from the duchess and a firm shake of her head. "He seemed to hate the sight of me. It was the most mortifying night of my life. But when it was over, when I won—when we both won—I had no pride left. I had him."
"And you are warning me that my pride is going to suffer?"
"Terribly, unless I miss my guess."
"Thank you for confiding in me. In a way it helps to know another woman made an enormous mistake and had to rectify it herself."
"I didn't," Whitney said gently, "confide in you to share misery. I had a much more important reason, else I wouldn't have done it."
Sheridan hesitated, then stood up, her smile wobbly but her voice strong. "What should I do?"
"First, you must be very visible, so that he cannot avoid noticing you. And very available, somehow."
"Available… to him, you mean?"
"Precisely. Having been jilted and deceived, Stephen won't want anything to do with you. It will take an invitation from you—unmistakable, and hopefully irresistible—to lure him to you again."
Sheridan nodded, her heart thundering with dread and hope and uncertainty, then she slowly turned to the other women, all of whom she'd insulted earlier, and all of whom were watching her with fond, gentle understanding. She looked at the dowager and Miss Charity first. "I was inexcusably rude," she began, but Stephen's mother shook her head to stop her and held out her hand.
"Under the circumstances, my dear, I'm sure I would have acted much as you did."
Taking the dowager's hand in both of hers, Sherry clasped it tightly. "I'm terribly, terribly sorry—"
Victoria Seaton stopped further outpourings of guilt by standing up and giving Sheridan a fierce hug, then she drew back and laughingly said, "We are all here to support you, and you may well need it when Stephen arrives."
"Don't frighten her," said Alexandra Townsende, laughing as she stood up and clasped Sheridan's hands. With an exaggerated shiver, she said, "Leave that to Stephen."
Sheridan's smile wavered a little. "Do your husbands know what all this is about?"
All three women nodded, and Sheridan found it very touching to know the husbands were also wishing her well.
The task that lay in front of her was daunting. The realization that Stephen had evidently cared enough for her to wait with the cleric for hours after she ran away was heartbreaking. Sherry had never been happier in her life.
After Sheridan, Alexandra, and Victoria left the drawing room, the three women who remained within it, despite their valiant efforts to seem normal and confident, were jumpy and tense by the time they heard the sound of a coach arriving an hour later. "That must be Stephen," the dowager duchess said, putting her teacup down with enough nervous energy to cause the priceless Sevres cup to clatter and tilt upon its delicate saucer. All morning, guests had been arriving for the birthday celebration, including the Skeffington party, but Stephen had not put in an appearance, and it was becoming obvious something either had detained him or was going to cause him to miss the day completely. "If he has not been injured or held up by highwaymen on the road," she continued peevishly, "I shall be sorely tempted to do him bodily harm myself! My nerves are drawn to the limit. I am entirely too old to be subjected to this sort of suspense."
Too anxious to wait for the butler to announce the new arrival, Whitney was already on her way to the windows to have a look.
"Is it he, dear?"
"Yes… Oh, no!" her daughter-in-law answered, and turning around she pressed against the draperies, looking positively frantic.
"Yes, it is he, or 'oh, no,' it is not he?" inquired Miss Charity.
"Yes, it is Stephen."
"With Monica Fitzwaring."
"That's bad," said the dowager, handing her three-year-old grandson to Charity, who opened her arms to him, and who'd been included in the plot out of necessity. Since she and Noel had become inordinately fond of each other, Whitney didn't have the heart to send the elderly lady away from him on his birthday, nor could she have allowed Charity to remain if she weren't forewarned of Sheridan's arrival and apprised of the reasons and the plan.
"He has also brought Georgette Porter."
"That is very bad," the dowager said, sounding more dire.
"I think it is very nice!" exclaimed Miss Charity, drawing their incredulous looks as she grinned at Lord Noel Westmoreland. Picking up the youngster's wrists, she clapped his chubby hands together, making him laugh, before she glanced up at the two duchesses and noticed they were looking at her as if she were demented. "One woman would occupy his time," she predicted happily. "Two women can occupy each other and leave him quite free for our Sheridan."