"Unfortunately, Monica and Georgette cannot abide each other."
Miss Charity didn't see that as an obstacle. "In order to secure Langford's good opinion, they will spend all their time trying to surpass each other for amiability. Or else," she added, her brow furrowed in thought, "they will unite and turn all their malice on our poor Sherry, should Langford pay her attention."
Less than pleased with the second possibility, Whitney looked at her mother-in-law. "What shall we do?"
Unwilling to be left out of the excitement for more than a moment, Charity said brightly, "We ought to invite dear Monsieur DuVille to even out the numbers!"
The dowager duchess's nerves were strained enough to cause that lady to turn clear round in her chair and glower at Miss Charity. "What a perfectly absurd idea! As you well know, Stephen developed an aversion to the mere mention of the man's name from the day Sheridan disappeared!"
Wary of the dowager's unprecedented mood, Whitney hastily interceded. "Why don't you take Noel outdoors, ma'am," she suggested to Charity. "I instructed the governesses to take the children down by the pond at this hour to see the swans and have a sweet. You could keep an eye on our particular governess if she appears there."
Charity nodded at once, stood up, and took Noel's hand. "Well, my young lord, shall we endeavor to spy out our prey?" she invited.
Noel pulled back and shook his dark, curly head. "First, kiss 'bye," he explained, and ran across the room on sturdy little legs to kiss his grandmother and his mother as he knew they liked for him to do. Satisfied, he grinned at Miss Charity, offered her his hand, and allowed her to lead him outdoors through the French doors that opened onto the lawns.
The Dowager Duchess of Claymore managed to keep her smile in place until Noel vanished, but the moment he was out of sight, she focused her irate gaze on the door that led into the room from the main hall. Stress had finally pushed her past the limit of her endurance. She was irrationally angry with Stephen for foiling their carefully made plans to effect a reconciliation with Sherry by bringing not one, but two women, and she was vastly, if unjustly, annoyed with both women for coming along. Unaware of his mother's strained temper, Stephen escorted his guests into the drawing room and went straight to her chair. "You look a little weary," he said, bending to kiss his mother's cheek.
"I wouldn't look weary if you wouldn't persist in being late and worrying me when you are."
Stephen was too startled by her tone to react strongly to the unjust criticism. "I wasn't aware time was of the essence. I'm sorry you were worried."
"It is excessively rude to keep your hostess waiting," she added crossly.
Stephen straightened and eyed her with surprised annoyance. "My sincerest apologies for my tardiness, your grace." With a formal bow, he added, "For the second time."
Dismissing her unnaturally querulous behavior with an imperceptible shrug, he turned so that she could acknowledge his guests. "Mother," he said, "I believe you're acquainted with Miss Fitzwaring—"
"How is your papa, Monica?" the dowager demanded as the young woman made her a pretty curtsy.
"Very well, thank you, your grace. He sends you his warmest regards."
"Please convey mine to him. And now, since you are clearly exhausted from your trip, I suggest you go straight upstairs and stay there until supper so that you may rest and recover your color."
"I am not in the least tired, your grace," Miss Fitzwaring said, stiffening in affront at the bald hint she didn't look her best.
The dowager ignored her, extended her regal hand to the other woman, and announced as Georgette curtsied, "I heard you have been ill recently, Miss Porter. You must spend the weekend lying down."
"Oh, but—that was last year, your grace. I'm fully recovered."
"Prevention is the key to good health," she persevered doggedly. "That is what my physician always says, and that is how I have lived all these years with such robust health and cheerful disposition."
Whitney stepped in and greeted her unexpected guests before they could pause to mentally challenge her claim to cheerful disposition. "You both look perfectly fit, but I'm certain you'd like a few minutes to refresh yourselves," she said with a smile as she escorted the mortified Miss Porter and the offended Miss Fitzwaring to the door so that a footman could show them to their rooms.
"Where is my nephew?" Stephen asked as he pressed a brief kiss to Whitney's cheek. "And where," he added in a sardonic whisper, "is my mother's 'cheerful' disposition?"
"Noel is with Miss Charity…" Whitney began as it suddenly hit her the time was at hand. It was now. There was no turning back. "In a half hour, everyone is to go down to the pond, where the children are to have a little party. Noel will be there then, along with some of the cottagers' children."
Swans floated gracefully on water as still as a mirror, as Sheridan and the two other governesses stood near a graceful white gazebo, watching several children who lived on the estate playing happily with small, fledgling ducks on the bank of a small lake on the front lawn. Their happy voices rang out as they tried to coax the lofty swans closer to the bank, mingling with the deeper, more reserved voices of the Fieldings, Townsendes, Skeffingtons, and Westmorelands.
Sheridan kept a close eye on the children, but none of the day's sounds were as loud as the thunder of her heart as she watched Stephen finally emerge from the house with two women. Whitney had already whispered a warning about the women before she joined her guests, but Sheridan scarcely paid it any attention. In her mind, all she could hear was Whitney's earlier words: "Stephen kept the cleric there until late that night. He could not—would not—believe you weren't coming back."
Tenderness and regret shook through her every time she thought of it, reinforcing her courage, her determination to face him and give him whatever "invitation" was necessary to bring him back to her.
He was listening to whatever Monica was telling him, but his smile was absent, and his gaze was on the children.
The closer he came, the harder Sheridan's heart beat until it seemed to roar in her ears. Noel came running up to her with Charity close beside him, and he stopped shyly in front of her. "Flower, for you," he said, holding out a tiny wildflower that Charity had told him to pick.
Charity's reason was obvious as she said, "Langford will be looking for Noel, and if he is with you, then we will all be relieved of our tension sooner than if we have to wait until he notices the governesses."