Until You (Westmoreland Saga 3) - Page 12

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She looked as if he’d slapped her, and Stephen put the glass down with more force than he’d intended. “I hope I haven’t upset you with my bluntness,” he said, feeling like a complete bastard. “It’s getting late, and you need your rest.”

He gave her a slight bow to indicate the conversation was over, and then waited for her to stand up, carefully looking away when the dressing robe parted to reveal a glimpse of shapely calf. He already had his hand on the door handle, when she finally spoke.

“My lord?”

“Yes?” he said without turning.

“You do have one, though, do you not?”

“One what?”

“A heart.”

“Miss Lancaster,” he began, furious with himself and with fate because he was in this untenable situation. He turned around and saw that she was standing at the foot of the bed, her hand resting on the poster in a pretty pose.

“My name is—” she hesitated, and he felt another stab of unbearable guilt as she had to think to remember her own name, “Charise. I wish you would call me that.”

“Certainly,” he said, intending to do nothing of the sort. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some work to do.”

Sheridan waited until the door closed behind him, then she grabbed the poster with the other hand as dizziness and nausea overwhelmed her. Carefully, she eased herself into a sitting position on the satin coverlet, her heart hammering from weakness and fear.

What sort of person was she, she wondered, to have wanted to wed a man who thought as he did? What sort of person was he? Her stomach churned when she remembered the cold way he’d looked at her and the callous way he’d spoken about love.

What could she have been thinking of to have pledged herself to such as he? Why would she have done that? Sheridan wondered bitterly.

But she already suspected the answer to that: it lay in the wondrous way she felt when he smiled at her.

Only he hadn’t been smiling when he left. She’d given him a disgust of her with all her talk about love. When he came to see her in the morning, she’d apologize. Or leave the matter entirely alone and simply try to be lighthearted and amusing company.

Reaching for the edge of the coverlet, she climbed into bed and pulled it up to her chin. Wide awake, her throat aching with tears, she stared at the canopy above her. She would not cry, she told herself. Surely no irreparable damage had been done to their relationship tonight. They were betrothed, after all. He would surely overlook her small error in viewpoint. Then she remembered that she’d asked him if he had a heart, and the lump of tears in her throat felt the size of a fist.

Tomorrow, everything would look brighter, she told herself. She was still weak and tired right now from the exertion of bathing and dressing and washing her hair.

Tomorrow, he would come to see her and everything would be all right again.

13

Stephen was in the middle of dictating to his secretary when Whitticomb arrived three days later. He was smiling, Stephen noticed, as the butler showed him past the double doors that opened into the study. A half hour later, when he came downstairs after visiting his patient, he did not look nearly as pleased. “I’d like to talk to you privately, if you can spare me a few minutes,” he said, waving off the appalled butler who was standing in the doorway, trying to announce him.

Stephen had an uneasy premonition of what he was going to hear, and with an irritated sigh, he dismissed his secretary, shoved his correspondence aside, and leaned back in his chair.

“I distinctly remember telling you,” Hugh Whitticomb began, as soon as the doors closed behind the secretary, “that it is imperative to keep Miss Lancaster from becoming upset. The specialist I consulted on memory loss stressed that to me, and I stressed it to you. Do you remember that conversation?”

Stephen reined in a sharp retort at the physician’s tone, but his voice turned curt. “I do.”

“Then will you please explain to me,” Dr. Whitticomb said, noting his adversary’s warning tone and tempering his own accordingly, “why you have not gone up to see her in three days. I told you it was important that she have diversions to distract her thoughts from her troubles.”

“You told me, and I made certain she has every conceivable sort of feminine diversion I could think of, from books and fashion plates to embroidery frames and watercolors.”

“There’s one ‘feminine diversion’ you have not offered, and one she has a right to expect.”

“And that is?” Stephen said, but he already knew.

“You have not offered her even a modicum of conversation with her fiancé.”

“I am not her fiancé!”

“No, but you are inadvertently responsible for the fact that she doesn’t have one. I’m amazed you’ve forgotten that.”

“I’ll overlook that insult,” Stephen warned icily, “as having been spoken by an aging, overwrought family friend.”

Dr. Whitticomb realized that he had not only chosen the wrong tactic with his opponent, but also pushed him too far. He had forgotten that the cool, uncompromising nobleman seated behind the desk was no longer the mischievous little boy who’d sneaked to the stables in the middle of the night to ride a new stallion, then bravely refused to cry while Hugh set his broken arm and lectured him on the folly of inviting danger.

“You’re quite right,” he said mildly. “I am upset. May I sit down?”

His opponent accepted his apology with a tentative nod. “Certainly.”

“We ‘overwrought, aging’ fellows tend to tire rather easily,” he added with a grin, and was relieved to see a trace of amusement soften Stephen’s features. Stalling for time, Hugh gestured toward the brass cigar box on the leather inlaid table beside his chair. “Every now and then I develop a sudden urge for an excellent cigar. May I?”

“Of course.”

By the time Hugh had the cigar lit, he had decided on a better way to convince Stephen of the gravity of Charise Lancaster’s situation, and he was satisfied that enough time had elapsed to dissipate any lingering hostility Stephen might have felt about Hugh’s last ill-advised attempt. “When I went upstairs just now,” he began, studying the thin trail of white smoke curling off the cigar in his hand, “I found our patient thrashing about in bed, moaning.”

Alarm sent Stephen partway to his feet before the physician held up his hand and added, “She was sleeping, Stephen. Dreaming. But she felt a little feverish,” he added, dishonestly, to help attain his goal. “I was also informed that she’s not eating well, and that she’s so lonely, and so desperate for answers, that she talks to the chambermaids, the footmen—anyone at all who might be able to tell her about this house, about herself, or about you, her own fiancé.”

Stephen’s guilt tripled at this vividly drawn picture of Charise Lancaster’s suffering, but that only made him more adamant. “I am not her fiancé. I am the man who is responsible for his death! First I murder him, and then I take his place,” he gritted caustically. “The whole notion is obscene!”


Tags: Judith McNaught Westmoreland Saga Romance
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