"Why don't you let me begin?" Stephen suggested blandly.
Not that eager to bring up the matter of Charise Lancaster when things seemed almost cozy, Sheridan nodded.
"I have an offer to make to you." He saw her eyes kindle with happiness at the word "offer" and could not believe she thought him stupid enough to actually suggest marriage. "A business proposition, "he emphasized. "Once you've had time to consider it, I think you'll find it sensible for both of us. Certainly, you'll find it preferable to working for the Skeffingtons."
Uneasiness doused Sheridan's momentary happiness at his mention of an offer. "What sort of proposition?"
"It's obvious that despite our many differences, we are extremely compatible, sexually."
She couldn't believe he could sit there and describe the stormy intimacies they had just shared with such clinical calm. "What is your proposition?" she asked shakily.
"You share my bed when I'm wishful of your body. In return for that, you will have a home of your own, servants, gowns, a coach, and the freedom to do as you please so long as no other man is given the use of what I'm already paying for."
"You're suggesting I become your mistress," she said dully.
"Why not? You're ambitious and clever, and it's a hell of a lot better than what you're doing now." When she didn't respond, Stephen said in a bored drawl, "Please tell me you didn't expect me to offer to marry you because of what just happened. Tell me you aren't that naive or that stupid."
Flinching from the sting of his tone, Sherry looked at his hard, handsome face, at the cynicism she hadn't recognized in his eyes before. Swallowing convulsively, she shook her head and answered him honestly. "I did not know what to expect, of anything we did, but I did not expect it would make you ask me to marry you."
"Good. There's been enough deceit and misunderstanding between us before. I wouldn't like to think you misled yourself."
He thought he saw the sheen of disappointed tears in her wide gray eyes and stood up, pressing a perfunctory kiss on her forehead. "At least you are wise enough not to indulge in a fit of ire over my offer. Think about it," he said.
Sherry stared at him in mute misery as he added with a chilling bite in his voice, "Before you decide, there's a warning I feel obliged to give you. If you ever lie to me about anything, ever—just one time—I will throw you out on the street." He reached for the door as he added over his shoulder, "There's one more thing—Don't ever say 'I love you' to me. I never want to hear those words from you again."
Without another word or a backward glance, he walked out. Sherry laid her forehead on her knees and let the tears slide, but she was crying for her own lack of character and restraint when he took her in his arms, and for actually being tempted, for just a few moments, to accept his indecent, coldhearted proposal.
The full realization of what she had done last night had set in long before Sheridan dragged herself out of bed and got dressed the next morning. In the bright light of full day, there was no way to deny the awful truth: she had sacrificed her virtue, her principles, and her morals, and now she would have to live with the shame of that until the end of her life.
She had done it all in one desperate gamble to regain his love—if he had ever really loved her—and how had he reacted to the enormity of her deed? The agonizing answer to that question was below her bedchamber window—on the side lawn, where everyone was having luncheon—and it was there for her to see in every humiliating detail: the man she had lain with last night was dining with Monica, who was turning herself inside out to entertain him, and he looked perfectly willing to be entertained this morning. As Sheridan watched from her window, he leaned back in his chair, his gaze intent on Monica's face, then he threw back his head, laughing at whatever she was telling him.
Sheridan was a mass of shame and anxiety, while he looked more contented and more relaxed than she had ever seen him. Last night, he had taken everything she had to give and thrown it in her face with an offer to prolong her humiliation by making her his mistress. Today, he was socializing with a woman who'd never have been stupid enough to do what Sheridan had… a woman worthy of his own inflated opinion of himself, she thought bitterly. A woman to whom he would offer marriage, not some tainted liaison in exchange for her virtue.
All those thoughts and more marched through Sheridan's tormented mind as she stood at the window, staring down at him, refusing to cry. She wanted to remember this scene, she wanted to remember it every single moment of her life, so that she would never, ever soften in her thoughts of him. She stood still, welcoming the icy numbness that was sweeping away her anguish and demolishing all her tender feelings for him. "Bastard," she whispered aloud.
"May I come in?"
Sheridan started and whirled around at the sound of Julianna's voice. "Yes, of course," she said, trying for a bright smile that felt as strained as her voice sounded.
"I saw you standing up here when I was having breakfast. Would you like me to bring something up here for you?"
"No, I'm not hungry, but thank you for thinking of me." Sheridan hesitated, knowing some explanation was in order for her behavior yesterday when she had offered Stephen her favor, but she hadn't been able to think of a single reasonable excuse.
"I was wondering if you would like to leave here?"
"Leave?" Sheridan said, trying not to sound as desperate as she felt to do exactly that. "We aren't to leave until tomorrow."
Julianna walked over to the window and stood beside her, quietly looking down at the same tableau that Sheridan had been torturing herself with. "Julianna, I feel I ought to explain about what happened yesterday, when I said what I did to the Earl of Langford about holding him in deepest respect."
"You don't need to explain," Julianna answered with a reassuring smile that made Sheridan feel like the seventeen-year-old ingénue instead of her paid chaperone.
"Yes, I do," Sheridan persevered doggedly. "I know how much your mother was hoping for a match between you and Lord Westmoreland, and I know you must wonder why I—why I behaved to him in such a forward, and familiar way."
In what seemed like a change of subject, Julianna said, "Several weeks ago, Mama was quite despondent. In fact, I remember that it was less than a week before you came to stay with us."
Seizing her conversational reprieve like the coward she was at the moment, Sheridan said brightly, "Why was your mama upset?"