Until You (Westmoreland Saga #3) - Page 11

Until You (Westmoreland Saga #3) - Page 11

Sherry saw her father's jaw clench with fury a moment before Aunt Cornelia mentioned Dog Lies Sleeping, and for a split second Sherry was half afraid—and half hopeful—that he was about to poke Aunt Cornelia right in the eye for saying such vile things. Instead, he spoke in a voice laced with biting scorn: "You've become a foul-minded, spiteful spinster, Cornelia—the sort who pretends that all men are bestial, and that they l.u.s.t after every woman they see, when the truth is that you're angry because no man ever lusted after you! And furthermore," he finished, his Irish brogue thickening as his control and reason momentarily deserted him, "Sherry may be almost fourteen, but she's as plain as a pikestaff and as flat-chested as you! In fact, Nelly, girl," he'd finished with triumph, "poor Sherry's showin' signs of becomin' the image of you. And there ain't enough liquor on God's earth to make a man l.u.s.t after you, so I figure she's safe enough."

At the keyhole, Sheridan realized only that a fine insult had just been scored against the "foul-minded, spiteful spinster," and she clamped her hand over her mouth to stifle a cheer. Unfortunately, Aunt Cornelia wasn't as undone by her brother-in-law's insults as Sherry would have liked. She lifted her chin, looked him right in the eye, and retorted with icy disdain, "I think there was a time when you wouldn't have needed liquor, wasn't there, Patrick?"

Sherry didn't have the slightest notion what Aunt Cornelia meant. For a second, her father seemed blank too, and then furious, and then… strangely calm. "Well done, Cornelia," he said mildly. "Spoken just like Squire Faraday's haughty, oldest daughter. I'd almost forgotten that's who you used to be, but you haven't, have you?" The last traces of his anger drained away completely as he looked around at the drab little room, and he shook his head, smiling ruefully. "Never mind that you live in a house that's hardly b.i.g.g.e.r than a broom closet at Faraday manor, or that you eke out a living by teaching etiquette to other people's children, you're still Squire Faraday's daughter, proud and haughty as ever."

"Then perhaps you'll also remember," Aunt Cornelia said in a quieter, but unyielding, tone, "that Sheridan's mother was my only sister. And I tell you truly, Patrick, that were she alive to see the antidote… the laughingstock… that you've made of Sheridan, she would be horrified. No," Aunt Cornelia said with absolute finality, "she would be ashamed of her."

On the other side of the door, Sheridan went rigid with bewildered alarm. Ashamed of her? Surely, her mama wouldn't be ashamed of her, not of Sheridan; she'd loved Sheridan. Visions of her mother at the farm swirled through her mind… her mama putting dinner on the table and wearing a clean, starched apron, her hair wound into a neat coil at her neck… her mama brushing Sheridan's hair with long strokes until it crackled… her mama leaning closer to the light as she fashioned Sheridan a "special dress" from scraps of lace and cotton someone had traded them.

With a vision of her mother's starched apron and shiny hair still in her mind, Sheridan spread her arms wide and looked down at herself. She was wearing men's boots because she didn't like to bother with laces, and they were scuffed and dusty. Her buckskin pants were stained, not to mention worn thin at the seat; around her waist a braided belt that Dog Lies Sleeping had made for her was serving the dual purpose of holding her pants up and her jacket closed. Ashamed…

Involuntarily, she turned to the little looking glass on her aunt's washstand and moved closer to it to peer at her face and hair. The image in the mirror made her rear back in alarm; then she stopped and blinked her eyes and gave her head a shake to chase the vision away. For a moment she stood stock-still, completely at a loss as to what to do to fix matters, then she raised her hands to her head and tried to comb her fingers through the tangled mass of long, "wanton" red hair. Her fingers stopped, unable to p.e.n.e.t.r.a.t.e more than a few inches into the snarls, so she tried to remedy things by putting her palms against the sides of her hair and pressing down hard. Then she warily approached the mirror again. Ever so cautiously she lifted her hands away. Her hair sprang back out. She didn't in the least look like her mother. She didn't actually resemble any female she'd ever seen—a fact that she'd been both aware of, and unconcerned with, until that moment.

Aunt Cornelia had said she looked like a… laughingstock, and now that Sheridan thought about it, people had been reacting to her a little oddly lately—especially men. They stared at her in a peculiar way. Lustfully? Her father obviously hadn't noticed it, but in the last year, Sheridan's chest had been swelling quite embarrassingly and sometimes it showed no matter how carefully she tried to keep her jacket closed.

Aunt Cornelia said she looked wanton. Wanton? Sheridan furrowed her brow, trying to recollect when and how she'd heard that word used. "Wanton" had some sort of connection to a harlot… a hussie… A "wanton" hussie! That was it! That was Sheridan?

An unfamiliar lump of tears swelled in her throat at the realization. Aunt Cornelia was probably right about that and everything else—and, worst of all, that Sheridan's mama would be ashamed of her now.

Ashamed.

Sheridan was so stricken that she simply stood there, immobilized. Minutes later she realized that her aunt was demanding that Sheridan be left with her so that Sheridan could have a decent home and upbringing, and that Sheridan's father was putting up only a feeble protest. When it finally sank in, she bolted forward, tripping over her aunt's silly footstool in her haste, and yanked the door open. "No, Papa, don't! Don't leave me here! Please!"

He looked haunted and torn, and Sheridan took advantage of his indecision, flinging herself into his arms. "Please, I'll wear ladies' boots and fix my wanton hair, and everything else, but don't leave me here."

"Don't, darlin'," was all he said, and she sensed that she was losing the battle.

"I want to go with you and Rafe and Dog Lies Sleeping! That's where I belong, no matter what she says!"

Sheridan was still saying that the next morning when he left. "I'll be back before you know it," he said firmly. "Rafe has some good ideas. We'll make ourselves a pile of money, and we'll all come back for you in a year—two at the most. You'll be all grown up by then. We'll go to Sherwyn's Glen, and I'll build us that grand house, just like I promised you, honey. You'll see."

"I don't want a grand house," Sheridan cried, looking first at Rafe, who was standing in the street, looking handsome and grim, and then at Dog Lies Sleeping, whose expression revealed nothing. "I just want you and Rafe and Dog Lies Sleeping!"

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