Sherry didn't care for that idea, but she crouched down to accept the flower, smiling softly at the sturdy three-year-old, who reminded her of his father and Stephen both. "Thank you, kind sir," she said, watching Stephen from the corner of her eye as he neared the gazebo. Behind her, beneath a large oak tree, the adults were surreptitiously watching the same scene begin to unfold, and their conversations became halting, while their laughter came to an abrupt end,
Noel looked at the sunlight glinting on the flaming strands of her hair, reached out to touch it, then paused to look inquiringly at Charity. "Hot?"
"No," Sheridan answered, loving every feature on his face. "It's not hot."
He grinned and reached out to touch it, but Stephen's call drew his instant attention.
Noel broke into a grin, and before Charity could stop him, he turned and raced to his uncle, who swept him up into his arms. "You've grown a foot!" Stephen told him, shifting him to his left arm, his gaze on the group of adults beneath the tree. "Have you missed me?"
"Yes!" Noel said emphatically with a shake of his head, but as they passed within a few feet of Sheridan, Noel saw Sherry watching him with a hesitant smile. He made a sudden decision and wriggled to get down.
"What, leaving me so soon?" Stephen asked, looking surprised and a little hurt. "Obviously," he joked to the Townsendes and Fieldings, as well as Georgette and Monica, as he lowered the wriggling little boy to his feet, "I need to start bringing him more lavish gifts. Where are you going, young man?"
Noel gave him an adoring look, but pointed a chubby finger to a woman who was standing a few paces away, wearing a drab dark blue gown, and explained, "First, kiss 'bye!"
Unaware that he was the cynosure of a half-dozen pairs of eyes, Stephen straightened, glanced in the direction the child had pointed… and froze, his gaze levelling on Sheridan, who was bending to receive her kiss but looking directly at Stephen.
Whitney saw his reaction, saw his jaw clench so tightly that a muscle began to throb in his cheek. She had secretly harbored the hope that he might somehow believe the Skeffingtons were actually acquaintances of hers and that Sherry's appearance here was coincidence, but that hope was in vain. Slowly, Stephen turned his head and looked straight at her, his eyes boring into Whitney's. In frigid silence he accused his sister-in-law of complicity and treachery, and then he turned and stalked purposefully toward the house.
Afraid that he intended to leave, Whitney put down her wineglass, excused herself to her guests, and went after him. His legs were longer, and he didn't care about appearances, so he had gained the house several minutes before she entered it. The butler provided the information that he had called for his carriage to be brought round and gone up to his room.
Whitney ran up the steps. When there was no answer to her knock on his door, she knocked again. "Stephen? Stephen, I know you're in there—"
She tried the door, and when it wasn't locked, she opened it and went inside. He stalked out of the dressing room wearing a fresh shirt, saw her, and his expression became more forbidding than it had been outside. "Stephen, listen to me—"
"Get out," he warned, quickly fastening the shirt up the front and reaching for his jacket.
"You aren't leaving, are you?"
"Leave?" he jeered. "I can't leave! You worked that out too. My compliments to you, your grace"—he emphasized contemptuously—"on your duplicity, your dishonesty, and your disloyalty."
"Stephen, please," she implored, taking a few hesitant steps into the room. "Just listen to me. Sherry thought you were marrying her out of pity. I thought if you had a chance to see her again—"
He started toward her, his expression threatening. "If I'd wanted to see her, I'd have asked your friend DuVille," he said scathingly. "She went to him when she left me."
Whitney began talking faster as she automatically backed away. "If you will just try to see it from her perspective."
"If you are wise," he interrupted in a soft, blood-chilling voice as he loomed over her, "you will avoid me very carefully this weekend, Whitney. And when this weekend is over, you will communicate with me through your husband. Now, get out of my way."
"I know you loved her, and I told—"
He clamped his hands on her shoulders, forcibly moved her aside, and walked around her.
In stunned silence, Whitney watched him stalk swiftly down the hall and bound down the stairs. "My God," she whispered weakly. She had known Stephen Westmoreland for over four years, and she had never guessed, never imagined, that he was capable of the kind of virulent hatred she saw in his face when he looked at her.
Slowly, she went back downstairs to rejoin her guests for a party that had already had a very inauspicious beginning. When she reached them, it was to discover that Stephen had taken Monica and Georgette for a jaunt to the local village, which meant he would probably be gone for several hours. Lady Skeffington looked as dismayed as everyone else over his departure, only for different reasons, of course. In fact, the only two members of the party who didn't seem depressed about it were Sir John, who was having yet another glass of Madeira, which—thankfully—seemed to make him quiet instead of effusive, and Julianna Skeffington, who was talking to Sheridan and helping with the children. With a smile, she lifted Noel into her arms and hugged him tightly, then she turned and said something to Sheridan with an expression on her face that was clearly sympathetic.
From the sidelines, the dowager duchess watched the blonde girl and, in a halfhearted attempt to distract their thoughts from Stephen's very violent reaction to Sheridan's presence, she idly remarked to Whitney, "Julianna Skeffington knows something is in the wind. She saw the murderous look Stephen gave Sheridan when he saw her, and she was at Sherry's side within seconds. She seemed like a thoroughly delightful girl when I spoke with her earlier—charming and intelligent."
Whitney dragged her thoughts from the alarming things Stephen had said to her to Julianna's lovely features. "Beautiful, as well."
"It makes one marvel at the capriciousness of nature that allowed that man—" she nodded distastefully toward Sir John, "and that woman—" she grimaced at Lady Skeffington, "to produce that heavenly creature."
Normally a full staff of footmen were always on hand to assist arriving guests from their carriages and see that the vehicles and horses were taken around back to the stables, but when Stephen returned from his jaunt to the village, no one came out of the house. The only servant in evidence was a lone footman who was standing in the drive, staring fixedly in the general direction of the hills that rolled gently away from the stables at the back of the estate. He was concentrating so hard on whatever it was he was trying to see, that he seemed not to hear the carriage wheels until Stephen pulled up behind him, then he turned with a guilty start and trotted over to take the reins.