“You did not murder him,” Hugh said, astonished by the true depth of Stephen’s guilt. “He was foxed and he ran out in front of you. It was an accident. These things happen.”
“You wouldn’t be able to shrug it off as easily as that if you’d been there,” he shot back savagely. “You weren’t the one who pulled him out from under the horses. His neck was broken, and his eyes were open, and he was trying to whisper and trying to breathe. Christ, he was so young, he didn’t look like he ought to be shaving yet! He kept trying to tell me to ‘Get Mary.’ I thought he was asking me to find someone named Mary. It didn’t occur to me until the next day that, with his dying breath, he was talking about getting married. Had you been there and seen and heard all that, you wouldn’t find it so goddamned easy to excuse me for running him down and then lusting after his fiancée!”
Hugh had been waiting for Stephen to end his guilty tirade so he could point out that Burleton reportedly had a penchant for reck
lessness, drunkenness, and gambling, none of which would have made him a decent husband for Miss Lancaster had he lived, but Stephen’s last revealing sentence banished everything else from his mind. It explained Stephen’s uncharacteristic cruelty in leaving her alone upstairs.
The forgotten cigar clamped between his teeth, Hugh leaned back in his chair and regarded the angry earl with amused fascination. “So, she appeals to you in that way, does she?”
“In exactly ‘that way,’?” Stephen bit out.
“Now I understand why you’ve been avoiding her.” Narrowing his eyes against the smoke, Hugh considered the situation thoughtfully for a moment, then continued. “Actually, it’s little wonder you find her irresistible, Stephen. I myself find her utterly refreshing and completely delightful.”
“Excellent!” Stephen said caustically. “Then you tell her you’re really Burleton, and then you wed her. That would set everything to rights.”
That last sentence was so subtly revealing, and so interesting, that Hugh carefully withdrew his gaze from Stephen’s face. He removed his cigar from his mouth, held it in his fingertips, and studied it with apparent absorption. “That is a very interesting line of thought, especially for you,” he remarked. “I might even say a revealing line of thought.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I am talking about your statement that if someone were to marry her, ‘that would set everything to rights.’?” Without waiting for a reply, he continued, “You feel responsible for Burleton’s death and her memory loss, and you’re physically attracted to her. Despite that—or because of all that—you’re adamantly opposed to doing something as simple and therapeutic as pretending to be her fiancé, is that right?”
“If you want to put it that way, yes.”
“That’s it then,” Hugh said, slapping his knee and smiling with satisfaction. “That’s the whole puzzle, all nicely put together.” Without waiting for his annoyed adversary to demand an explanation, Hugh provided it: “Miss Lancaster has no fiancé because of an accident for which you were unavoidably responsible, but responsible nonetheless. Now, if you were to pretend to be her affianced husband, and if she were to develop a deep affection for you while you were pretending to be that, then under those circumstances, she might expect—might even have a right to expect—that you turn the deception into a reality.
“Based on your prior attitude toward the female set, which by the way has your mama in complete despair of ever seeing you married, there would be no chance of Miss Lancaster bringing you up to scratch. But Miss Lancaster is not as easy for you to dismiss as the others have been. You find her physically desirable, but you also fear that you might find her irresistible on longer acquaintance, otherwise you wouldn’t be letting her presence drive you into hiding in your own home. Nor would you be callously avoiding someone who clearly needs your company and attention.
“If you had nothing to fear, you wouldn’t be avoiding her. It’s as simple as that. But you do have something to fear: For the first time in your life, you have reason to fear the loss of your cherished bachelorhood.”
“Are you finished?” Stephen inquired blandly.
“Quite. What do you think of my summation of the situation?”
“I think it is the most impressive combination of unlikely possibilities and faulty logic I have ever heard in my life.”
“If so, my lord,” Dr. Whitticomb said with a congenial smile, peering at him over the tops of his spectacles, “then why are you denying her the comfort of your presence?”
“I can’t answer that at the moment. Unlike you, I haven’t stopped to analyze all my misgivings.”
“Then let me provide you with an added motivation to overcome any misgivings you may have or invent,” Hugh said, his tone turning brisk and firm. “I’ve been reading articles on the subject of memory loss, and consulting with those few colleagues who have some experience in it. It appears that it can be brought on, not only by an injury to the head, but by hysteria, or in the worst cases—a combination of both. According to what I’ve learned, the more desperate Miss Lancaster becomes to recover her memory, the more upset and depressed and hysterical she will become when she cannot. As her agitation increases, the harder she’ll find it to recall anything.” With satisfaction, he watched the younger man frown with concern. “Conversely, if she is made to feel safe and happy, it stands to reason her memory will return much sooner. If it ever returns, that is.”
Dark brows had drawn together over alarmed blue eyes. “What do you mean ‘if it ever returns’?”
“Precisely what I said. There are cases of permanent memory loss. There was one in which the poor devil had to be taught to speak and read and feed himself all over again.”
Dr. Whitticomb nodded to reinforce his point, then he added, “If you have any lingering doubts about doing what I’ve suggested, consider this as an added incentive: The young lady is aware that she had not spent a great deal of time with her fiancé before coming here, because I’ve told her that. And she’s also aware that she’s never been in this house, or even this country before, because I’ve assured her of that too. Because she knows she’s among unfamiliar people in unfamiliar surroundings, she hasn’t already made herself sick with anxiety over not recognizing everyone and everything. But, that’s not going to be true if she hasn’t recovered her memory before her family arrives. If she can’t remember her own people when she sees them, she’s going to start falling apart mentally and physically. Now, what are you willing to risk in order to save her from that fate?”
“Anything,” Stephen said tightly.
“I knew you would feel just that way when you understood the true gravity of the situation. By the by, I told Miss Lancaster that she need not remain in bed any longer, provided she doesn’t attempt anything strenuous for another week.” Taking out his watch, Hugh Whitticomb flicked the cover open and stood up. “I must be off. I had a note from your lovely mother. She said she’s planning to come up for the Season with your brother and sister-in-law in a sennight. I’m looking forward to seeing all of them.”
“So am I,” Stephen said absently. Whitticomb was on his way out when it occurred to Stephen that in addition to everything else, he was going to have to involve his family in the deception he was about to put into full force. And even that wouldn’t suffice, he realized as he shoved papers into his desk drawer. In a week, when his family arrived in London for the Season, so would the rest of the ton, and invitations to balls and all the other entertainments would begin arriving at his house by the hundreds, along with a daily stream of callers.
He put the key into the drawer’s lock and turned it, then he leaned back in his chair, frowning as he considered his alternatives: If he turned down all the invitations, which he was certainly willing to do, that wouldn’t solve the problem. His friends and acquaintances would begin calling until they saw him and had an opportunity to try to discover why he had come to London for the Season only to behave like a recluse.
Frowning, Stephen realized his only choice was to spirit Miss Lancaster out of the city and take her to one of his estates—the remotest of his estates. That meant he’d have to make his excuses to his sister-in-law and his mother, at whose pleading insistence he’d come to London for the Season in the first place. They’d both argued very prettily and very persuasively that they hadn’t seen enough of him in the last two years and that they enjoyed his company immensely, both of which Stephen knew they truly meant. They had not mentioned their third reason, which Stephen knew was to get him married off, preferably to Monica Fitzwaring, which was a campaign they’d undertaken with amusing—and increasing—perseverance of late. Once his mother and Whitney understood his reason for leaving London, they would immediately forgive him for foiling their plans, but they were going to be disappointed.
Now that he fully understood the importance of Whitticomb’s reasons for wanting Stephen to play the part o
f her devoted fiancé, Stephen was determined to set matters to rights at once. He paused outside her door, braced himself for the inevitable bout of tears and recriminations that were bound to pour forth from her the moment she saw him, then he knocked and asked to see her.
Sheridan started at the sound of his voice, but when the maid hurried forward to admit him, she returned her gaze to information she was copying out of the London newspaper, and said very firmly, “Please tell his lordship that I am indisposed.”
When the maid relayed the information that Miss Lancaster was indisposed, Stephen frowned worriedly, wondering just how sick she had made herself because of his neglect. “Tell her that I came to see her and that I’ll return in an hour.”
Sheridan refused to feel even a trace of pleasure or relief that he intended to return. She knew better now than to depend on him for anything. Dr. Whitticomb had been so distressed over the state he’d found her in that morning, that his alarm had communicated itself to her, shaking her out of her dazed misery. If she was going to fully recover, he’d warned her, it was absolutely imperative that she take care of herself physically and that she keep her mind active.
He’d rushed through a disjointed—and, Sherry suspected, dishonest—explanation about her fiancé’s neglect that included statements such as “absorbed by pressing business matters,” and “obligations of his rank,” and “problems with the stewardship on one of his estates.” He’d even implied that the earl hadn’t been feeling quite himself lately. Unfortunately for the kindly physician, the more he tried to explain away Lord Westmoreland’s inexcusable disinterest in his fiancée, the more obvious it became to Sheridan that her presence, and her illness, were apparently less important to the earl than the tiniest details of his business and social life! Furthermore, she had every reason to believe that he was actually punishing her, or teaching her a cruel lesson, for having had the nerve to bring up the topic of love.