In the space of one second, rage replaced Stephen's fear—rage that she had terrified him with her stupid stunt, and fury that she had been able to evoke any emotion in him at all. And while he was still struggling to get that under control, she headed the lightly galloping horse straight at Stephen. Monica and Georgette jumped back with cries of alarm, but Stephen folded his arms and stood his ground, knowing damn well she was in full control. Not until she was almost on top of him did she haul Commander to a smart stop, and at the same time, she swung her leg over the horse's back and slid gracefully to the ground. While the servants erupted in cheers, and the houseguests applauded, Sheridan landed on both feet in front of him, a smile on her soft mouth, her color gloriously high. But what Stephen noticed, as he gazed impassively at her, was the look in those liquid-silver eyes. They were imploring him to soften, to smile at her.
Instead, he raked her with an insulting glance from the top of her gloriously tousled flame-colored hair to the tips of her booted feet. "Didn't anyone ever teach you how to dress?" he asked contemptuously.
He saw her flinch at the same moment Georgette laughed, but Sheridan's gaze never faltered. With everyone looking on, she smiled at him, and said with a catch in her soft voice, "In days of old, it was customary for the winner of a tournament to bestow his favor on someone at the tournament as a gesture of his—his very high regard and—and deepest respect."
Stephen didn't know what the hell she was talking about until she held out the empty grain sack to him and softly said, "My favor, Lord Westmoreland—"
He took it before he realized what he was doing.
"Of all the brazen, the outrageous—" Monica exploded, and Lady Skeffington looked as if she were going to burst into tears of mortification.
"Miss Bromleigh!" she cried angrily. "You forget yourself! Apologize to these good people and then go at once and tend to your pack—"
"Tend to me!" Julianna interrupted sharply, linking her hand through Sheridan's arm and drawing her toward the house. "You must tell me when you learned to ride like that and how you did it…"
Victoria stepped away from the group and glanced at the Skeffingtons. "Miss Bromleigh and I are both Americans," she explained. "I am longing to talk to someone from my own country. Will you excuse me until supper?" she added, looking at her husband.
Jason Fielding—who had once been the subject of ugly gossip and an outcast from polite society—grinned at the young wife who had changed all that. With a tender smile, he bowed slightly and said, "I will be desolate without your company, madam."
"I, too, would love to know more about America," Alexandra Townsende announced as she broke away from the group. Turning to her own husband, she said with a smile, "And you, my lord? May I count upon you to be equally desolate without my company?"
Jordan Townsende—who had once regarded his marriage to a besotted young Alexandra as an "obligatory marriage of inconvenience"—looked at her with unhidden warmth. "I am always desolate without you, as you perfectly well know."
Whitney waited until her coconspirators were well on their way to the house before she fixed a bright smile on her face and prepared to invent an excuse to leave, but Lady Skeffington forestalled her.
"I cannot imagine what has gotten into Sheridan Bromleigh," she said, her face red with ire. "I am always saying to Sir John that it is so very hard to find good help. Isn't that what I always say?" she asked him.
Sir John nodded and hiccupped. "Yes, my dove."
Satisfied, she turned to Whitney. "I must implore you to tell me how it is done, your grace."
Whitney pulled her thoughts from Stephen, who was conversing with Monica and Georgette as if nothing had happened—the grain sack Sheridan had sweetly offered him on the ground beneath the heel of his boot. "I'm sorry, Lady Skeffington, my thoughts wandered. You wished to know something?"
"How do you find adequate servants? Were it not so difficult, we certainly wouldn't be employing that brassy American woman. I have the gravest misgivings about keeping her in our employ for another hour."
"I do not regard a governess as a servant—" Whitney began. She had thought Stephen wasn't listening, but at that remark, he looked over at her and replied to Lady Skeffington in an acid voice, "My sister-in-law regards them as family. One might even say she holds them in higher esteem than mere family." His dagger gaze shifted to Whitney. "Don't you?" he snapped sarcastically.
It was the first remark he had addressed to Lady Skeffington since their introduction, and that lady seized on it as a source of great encouragement; at the same time she missed the sarcasm in his voice. Dropping the subject of a governess altogether, she hastened to his side and said, "My dear Julianna is the same way, as you will have noticed. She leapt right to Sheridan Bromleigh's defense. Julianna is such a wonderful girl," she continued, and somehow managed to squeeze herself between Stephen and Monica, "so very loyal, so sweet…"
When Stephen walked off to the house, she stayed at his side with Sir John trotting along in their wake.
"I could almost feel sorry for him," Clayton remarked idly, watching Lady Skeffington continue her one-sided monologue.
"I cannot," Whitney said, still stinging from his cutting remark about her misplaced loyalty. With a quick apologetic look at the men, she said, "I want to talk to Victoria and Alexandra."
They watched her leave, all three of them silent and thoughtful. "Despite what our wives think, this was a mistake," Jason Fielding said, echoing all their thoughts. "It's not going to work." He looked at Clayton and added, "You know Stephen far better than Jordan or I. What do you think?"
"I think you're right," Clayton said grimly, remembering the expression on Stephen's face when Sherry sweetly offered him the "favor."
"I think it was an enormous mistake, and Sheridan Bromleigh is the one who's going to be hurt by it. Stephen has marked her down permanently as a scheming opportunist who fled out of fear of prosecution, but who has now gained enough confidence because he didn't file charges against her to try to insinuate herself again. Nothing she says or does is going to matter, because she is going to have to prove he's wrong. And she can't."
Their wives, who had gathered in the blue salon to discuss the situation, were of a like opinion.
Whitney slumped back in her chair, staring dully at her hands, then she glanced around at her coconspirators, including the dowager duchess. "It was a mistake," she told her mother-in-law, who'd watched the "show" from the window of her bedchamber.