"Where is everyone?" Stephen asked, noticing that the butler still had not dispatched more servants from the house, nor opened the front door, as was customary.
"They're down at the stables, milord. It's quite a show, if I may say so, and not one to miss. Or so I've heard from them that's watching from the back of the house."
Stephen took the reins back from the footman, having decided to drive around to the stables and see for himself what the footman meant by "quite a show."
A long stretch of fence enclosed the stables and the large grassy area between the buildings where the horses were walked and cooled before being put away. To one side of the fence, pasture stretched all the way to the base of wooded hills, dotted with hedges and stone fences that were used to train Claymore's horses for the hunt. When Stephen pulled the carriage to a stop at the stables, the entire length of fencing was lined with grooms, footmen, coachmen, and stable hands. Stephen helped Monica and Georgette down from the carriage, noting as he did so that the entire house party, minus his treacherous sister-in-law, were standing on the far side of the fence, as absorbed with whatever unknown spectacle was taking place on the hillside as the servants were.
Stephen studied his brother's inscrutable profile as he and his two companions joined the group, wondering if Clay had actually collaborated in Whitney's scheme, and unable to believe he would have. Since Stephen wasn't completely certain, he deliberately addressed his question to Jason and Victoria Fielding. "What are you watching?"
"Wait and see for yourself," Jason advised him with an odd grin. "It wouldn't be right to spoil it with an explanation in advance."
Victoria Fielding seemed to have a difficult time looking him in the eye, and her smile was overbright. "It's really quite amazing!"
It occurred to Stephen that the Fieldings and the Townsendes were both behaving oddly. There was a nervousness in the women and an uneasiness about the men. Either they were uncomfortable because they were surprised and unhappy about Sheridan Bromleigh's presence—or else they'd known all along that she was going to be here, and they felt guilty. Stephen studied the four people he regarded as particularly close friends, deciding whether or not that friendship was about to end permanently. The women had definitely known, he decided, watching color stain Alexandra Townsende's cheeks as she felt his gaze on her. Not once in the three hours since he'd looked up and found himself only a few paces away from his former fiancée had Stephen allowed himself to think about her. Shutting out the reality of her presence was the only way he could stomach staying here.
She had pretended to be someone she was not, and when she was about to be exposed, she had fled to DuVille, leaving Stephen to wait for her like a besotted idiot with a cleric and his family standing by.
In the weeks since her disappearance, he had gone over everything she'd said and done while she supposedly had amnesia, and he could remember only that one slip—when she'd objected to having a paid companion. "I don't need a ladies' companion," she'd blurted. "I am a—"
She was an amazing actress to have pulled off the whole sham so well, Stephen thought with a fresh surge of disgust for his own gullibility.
A stellar actress, he decided wrathfully, remembering the softness in her eyes during the few moments their gazes had locked this morning. She'd looked straight at him with her heart in her eyes, unflinching. Except she had no heart. And no conscience either, obviously.
She was going to make another try for him. Stephen had realized it within seconds of seeing that wistful expression on her lovely, deceptive face this morning.
He'd assumed DuVille had been keeping her neatly tucked away for his own pleasure all these weeks, but evidently he'd tired of her in a surprisingly short time and sent her packing.
Now she was working as a governess and obviously longing for a better life. Based on that sweet pleading look she'd given him, she was apparently hoping he'd be as stupidly susceptible to her nonexistent appeal as he'd been before.
He shifted his speculative gaze to the men, but Victoria Fielding's exclamation drew his attention.
"There they come!" she said.
Stephen tore his mind from furious thoughts of Sheridan Bromleigh and lifted his gaze to the edge of a wooded hillside where she pointed.
Two mounted riders were galloping at full speed, crouched low over the horses' necks, leaping hedges in graceful unison, side by side. Stephen recognized Whitney at a glance; she was one of the most skilled riders he'd ever seen mounted—man or woman. The lad who was challenging her was slight in stature, clad in a shirt, breeches, and boots, and he was even more skilled than Whitney. Riding at breakneck pace, he took each jump with an effortless, breezy unconcern for style that Stephen had never seen before. With his face pressed close to the horse's mane, there was a jubilation, a simplicity in the way he soared over each jump, as if he were one with his mount—confident, trusting, elated.
"I never knew that animal could jump like that!" Clayton exclaimed with an admiring laugh. Oblivious to Stephen's private doubts about his filial integrity, he added, "Stephen, you've ridden Commander in the hunt. He's fast on the flat, but did he ever soar like that over the jumps?"
Stephen squinted into the late afternoon sun, watching the riders jumping in perfect tandem, then galloping flat-out, soaring over the next hedge together. Since he couldn't demand answers about Sheridan from his brother at the moment, he reported what he could see of the lad who was riding in a flat, unemotional voice. "It appears that he's holding Commander back, to keep him from gaining on Khan—"
"Who is normally more willing to take the jumps than Commander," Clayton added to his friends.
The riders took the last fence, then turned their mounts in unison at full speed toward the open gate of the enclosure, where the spectators were gathered. Since Clayton had been trying out new trainers for the past year, Stephen naturally assumed his brother had probably decided to give the slightly built lad a chance at the position. As the horses thundered closer, he was about to suggest his brother make the position permanent, but two things happened at once that made him break off in mid-sentence: a stable hand rushed forward into the field and dropped a grain sack on the ground—and as Commander's rider began to lean to the right, her hair came unbound.
Piles of fiery tresses unfurled like a flag behind her, swirling about, and she leaned farther and farther down to the right, and began to fall. Monica screamed in fear, Stephen took an involuntary step, starting to run toward her… and Sheridan swept the grain sack off the ground while the servants and houseguests erupted in wild cheers.