She had spent days tormenting herself for doing that and blaming herself for asking him if he had a heart. But as she’d listened to Dr. Whitticomb’s lecture about her health and watched the somber look on his face, her guilt and hurt had finally turned to justifiable indignation. She wasn’t engaged to the physician, but he’d been worried about her. He’d gone to the trouble to travel a distance to see her. If love was a laughable, forbidden emotion to sophisticated English noblemen, then the earl could at least have made allowances for her lost memory!
As to marrying the earl, Sheridan couldn’t imagine what madness could have caused her to make such a decision. Thus far, the only positive attribute he seemed to possess was that he was remarkably handsome, which was certainly not reason enough to wed him. Furthermore, when her memory returned, if she didn’t recall things that completely altered her opinion of him, she fully intended to tell him to take his marriage proposal and make it to some other female, one who was as cold and impersonal about marriage as he was! She found it almost impossible to believe that, in her right senses, she would have felt differently about the matter of marriage. Perhaps her father had been deceived into believing the earl would make her a good husband and had insisted she wed the man. If so, she would go to her father and explain why she’d decided not to do so. In the last few days, whenever she tried to think of her father, she couldn’t conjure a face, but she could feel faint stirrings of emotion—a gentle warmth, a loving closeness, a sense of loss as if she missed him terribly. Surely, a father who evoked feelings like that wouldn’t be the sort to force his daughter to marry a man she didn’t admire in the least!
Exactly an hour later, Stephen knocked at the door again.
Sheridan looked at the clock on the mantel, angrily noting that he was at least punctual, but that didn’t influence her decision. Continuing to study the newspapers that she’d spread out on the writing desk by the windows, she spoke to the maid: “Please tell his lordship that I am resting.” As she said the words, she felt a spurt of pride in herself. Although she didn’t know anything factual about Charise Lancaster, at least she didn’t lack spirit or resolve!
On the other side of the portal, Stephen’s guilt was replaced by the beginning of alarm. “Is she ill?” he demanded of the maid.
The chambermaid looked pleadingly at Sheridan, who shook her head, and the maid answered him in the negative.
An hour after that, when Stephen again knocked upon the door, he was informed she was “having a bath.”
An hour after that, he was no longer worried, he was annoyed. He knocked sharply, and this time he was advised that “Miss is sleeping.”
“Tell ‘Miss,’?” he ordered in a dire, warning tone, “that I will return in exactly one hour, and I expect to see her, very clean and very rested and ready to go downstairs for supper. We dine at nine.”
An hour later, when the earl knocked on the door, Sheridan experienced a degree of amused satisfaction. Smiling to herself, she sank deeper into the warm bubbles that threatened to spill over the marble bath. “Tell his lordship that I prefer to eat in my room this evening,” she instructed, feeling sorry for the poor maid, who looked as if she’d rather be flogged—or else was afraid of being flogged.
Stephen flung open the door before the maid had finished the sentence and stalked inside the bedchamber, nearly knocking the servant over. “Where is she?” he snapped.
“In—in the bath, my lord.”
He started toward the doorway that led into the special marble bath suite he’d had installed off this bedchamber several years ago, then he caught the maid’s appalled expression and changed direction. Walking over to the table by the window, he glanced at the open newspaper and saw a piece of writing paper lying beside it. “Miss Lancaster!” he said, raising his voice and using a tone that made the poor chambermaid blanch. “If you are not downstairs in exactly ten minutes, I will come up here and haul you down there myself in whatever state of dress, or undress, I happen to find you! Is that clear?”
To his disbelief, the chit didn’t dignify his ultimatum with a reply! Wondering who she could possibly be writing to, Stephen picked up the writing paper. He was thinking sardonically that poor Burleton was probably better off dead, because Charise Lancaster would have made his life a hell with her outrageous obstinacy and temper, when he picked up the paper and realized what she’d been doing. In a precise, elegant hand, she’d recorded facts she’d gathered from the morning Post, facts that she must have known before, but which she was having to relearn. Because of him:
King of England—George IV. Born 1762.
George IV’s father was George III. Died two years ago. Called “Farmer George” by English people. The King is fond of ladies and fine clothing and excellent wines.
After every few recorded facts, she’d tried to list similar facts about herself, but there were only blank spaces where easy answers should have been.
I was born in 18_____?
My father’s name is_____?
I am fond of_____?
Guilt and sorrow raged through Stephen, and he closed his eyes. She didn’t know her own name, or her father’s, or the year of her birth. Worse, when her memory did return, she was in for the biggest blow of all—the tragedy of her fiancé’s death. All of that . . . and all because of him.
The words on the paper felt as if they were searing his hand, and he dropped it onto the desk, drew an unsteady breath and turned to leave. He would not lose patience with her again, no matter what she said or did, he vowed. He had no right to feel anger or frustration; he had no right to feel anything except guilt and responsibility.
Determined to do everything in his power to atone for the hurt he had inflicted on her with his neglect—and was going to inflict on her when she ultimately learned her real fiancé was dead—Stephen headed for the door. However, since he couldn’t begin his program of atonement until she left the bathing room, he warned, in a more courteous, but very firm, voice, “You have eight minutes left.”
He heard the bath water slosh, nodded with satisfaction, and left. As he walked down the upper hall toward the staircase, he realized he was going to have to do more than apologize for neglecting her; he was going to have to come up with an explanation she would accept. Before she lost her memory, Charise Lancaster had obviously harbored youthful, idealistic notions about love and marriage, since she’d plainly asked him if they were “very much in love.” Inwardly, Stephen recoiled from the mere mention of the word. As he’d discovered, with age and experience, very few women were actually capable of feelings or behavior that even approximated that tender emotion, though nearly all women talked as if it were as natural to their sex as breathing. For his part, he instinctively mistrusted the word and any woman who mentioned it.
Helene shared his feelings in that regard, which was one more reason he enjoyed her company. Moreover, she was faithful to him, which was more than could be said of most of the wives of his acquaintances. For those reasons, he kept her in a style that would have befitted the legitimate wife of a nobleman, complete with a beautiful London townhouse, a large staff of servants, closets full of gowns and furs, and a splendid silver-lacquered coach with pale lavender velvet squabs—a color combination that was Helene Devernay’s “signature.” Few but she could wear it, and others who tried never managed to carry it off or look as lovely in it. She was sophisticated and sensual; she understood the rules and did not confuse lovemaking with love.
Now that he thought about it, not one female, including those he’d spent enough time with to start betrothal rumors circulating, had ever presumed to try to engage him in a discussion about love, let alone expect him to actually profess it.
Charise Lancaster, however, was obviously not so practical or so sensible. She clearly expected her fiancé to discuss it—at length, no doubt—and that was something Stephen intended to avoid for his sake and her own. Once her memory returned, she was going to hate him for all his deceptions, but she would hate
him far more for humiliating her with false protestations of undying affection that he didn’t feel.
Two footmen stepped forward as he reached the drawing room and swept open the doors. His forehead furrowed in thought, Stephen walked past them and then over to the sideboard, where he poured sherry into a glass. Behind him, the doors closed silently, and he turned his attention to the most pressing problem at hand. Within the next minute or two, he had to invent some truly plausible explanation to give her for his blatantly unloverlike behavior the last night they’d talked, and for avoiding her since then. When he’d first gone upstairs to see her, he’d intended to apologize and soothe her with a few vague platitudes. Now that he had a better idea of her temperament, he had the uneasy conviction that she wouldn’t settle for that.
Seething and hurrying, Sheridan clasped the front of the long lavender gown closed as she rushed down the hall from her bedchamber, past startled footmen, whose heads turned in unison as she passed, their mouths agape. Just when she thought she must surely be coming to the living areas of the house, she emerged onto a balcony with a white marble banister that continued downward in a wide, graceful spiral for two full stories before it ended in a vast entrance hall below.
Snatching up the hem of her gown, she ran down the staircase, past framed portraits of what must have been sixteen generations of the arrogant earl’s ancestors. She didn’t have the slightest idea where he was or how he expected her to find him. The only thing she knew for certain was that in addition to all his other unpleasant traits, he’d spoken to her as if she were a piece of his chattel, and that he was undoubtedly relishing the prospect of hauling her downstairs like a sack of flour in front of his servants if she didn’t meet his deadline.
To deprive him of that pleasure, she was willing to go to almost any lengths. She could not imagine how she could have been in her right mind and still have agreed to bind herself for life to a man like him! As soon as her father arrived, she would break her engagement and ask him to take her home at once!
She didn’t like the earl, and she was quite certain she wouldn’t have anything in common with his mama either. According to the chambermaid, this gown belonged to the earl’s mother. It was appalling to imagine an elderly dowager such as his mother, or any other respectable female for that matter, prancing around at balls or entertaining visitors in a flimsy, frivolous lavender gown with nothing but silver ribbons to hold the bodice together or keep the entire front from coming open. She was so angry and so absorbed in her own woes that she didn’t give even a passing notice to the splendor of the great hall with its four immense chandeliers, glittering like giant tiers of brilliant diamonds, or to the exquisite frescoes on the walls and intricate plasterwork on the ceiling.
As she neared the bottom step, she saw an elderly man in a black suit and white shirt hurry into a room that opened off the main hall on the left. “You rang, my lord?” she heard him say in the doorway. A moment later, he backed out, bowing reverently, and closed the doors. “Excuse me—” Sherry began awkwardly, tripping on the hem of her gown and reaching for the wall to steady herself.
He turned, saw her, and his body froze. At the same time all his facial features seemed to twist and quiver in some sort of palsied shock.
“I’m perfectly all right,” Sheridan hastily reassured him as she righted herself and jerked the hem from beneath her left foot. Noting that he still looked a little queer, Sheridan held out her hand to him and said, “Dr. Whitticomb said I’m well enough to come downstairs. We haven’t met, but I am Charise . . . um . . . Lancaster,” she remembered after an awkward pause. He raised his hand toward hers, and since he seemed uncertain about what to do next, she took his hand in hers, and prompted with a gentle smile, “And you are—?”
“Hodgkin,” he said, sounding as if he had a blockage in his throat. Then he cleared it and said again, “Hodgkin.”
“I am happy to meet you, Mr. Hodgkin.”
“No, miss, just ‘Hodgkin.’?”
“I couldn’t possibly address you by your surname alone. It’s disrespectful,” Sheridan said patiently.
“It’s required here,” he said, looking harassed.
Indignation made Sheridan’s left hand clench on the front of her gown. “How very like that arrogant beast to deny an older man the dignity of being addressed as ‘mister!’?”
His features contorted again, and he seemed to stretch his neck as if gasping for air. “I’m sure I don’t know whom you might be referring to, miss.”
“I am referring to . . .” She had to think to remember the maid’s answer when Sheridan had asked her the earl’s name. It had seemed the woman had recited an entire litany of names, but his family name had been . . . Westmoreland! That was it. “I am referring to Westmoreland!” she said, refusing to dignify his name with his own title. “Someone should have taken a stick to his backside and taught him common courtesy.”
On the balcony above, a footman who’d been flirting with a passing chambermaid twisted around and gaped at the entrance hall, while the maid banged against his side in her eagerness to lean over the banister for a better view. A few yards from Sheridan, four footmen who had been filing decorously into the dining room carrying platters suddenly crashed into each other because the lead footman had stopped dead in his tracks. Another white-haired man, younger than Hodgkin but dressed exactly like him, materialized from the dining room, scowling ferociously as the lid of a silver chafing dish hit the marble floor with a crash and rolled into his leg. “Who is responsible for—” he demanded, then he, too, looked at Sheridan and seemed to momentarily lose control of his expression as his gaze ran over her hair, her gown, and her bare toes.
Ignoring the commotion around her, Sheridan smiled at Hodgkin and said gently, “It’s never too late, you know, for most of us to see the error of our ways if they’re pointed out to us. I shall mention to the earl at an appropriate moment that he ought properly to address a man of your age as ‘Mr. Hodgkin.’ I could suggest that he put himself in your position and imagine himself at your age . . .”
She stopped in puzzlement as the elderly man’s white brows shot up into his hairline and his faded eyes seemed to pop out of their sockets. Anger with the earl had overruled her sense for those moments, but Sheridan finally realized that the poor man was obviously afraid of losing his position if she interfered. “That was foolish of me, Mr. Hodgkin,” she said meekly. “I won’t say anything about this, I promise.”
On the balcony above and in the hall below, servants exhaled a collective sigh of relief that was abruptly cut off as Hodgkin opened the doors to the drawing room and they heard the American girl say to the master in a haughty, unservile tone, “You rang, my lord?”
Stephen whirled around in surprise at her choice of words and then stopped dead. Choking back a laugh that was part appalled and part admiring, he stared at her as she stood before him, with her pert nose in the air and her gray eyes sparking like large twin flints. In sharp contrast to the stony hauteur of her stance and expression, she was clad in a soft, billowing peignoir made of voluminous lavender silk panels that draped off both her shoulders, leaving them beguilingly bare. She was clutching the front closed, which lifted the hem just high enough off the floor to expose her bare toes, and her titian hair, still damp at the ends, was spilling over her back and breasts as if she were a Botticelli nude.
The pale lavender color should have clashed with her hair, and it did, but her creamy skin was so fair that the overall effect was somehow more dramatic than actually displeasing. It was, in fact, so startlingly effective that it took him a moment to realize that she’d not deliberately selected Helene’s peignoir out of some defiant desire to flaunt custom or annoy him, but because she didn’t have anything else to wear. He had forgotten that her trunks had sailed with her ship, but if that ugly brown cloak she’d been wearing was indicative of her preference in clothing, he preferred to see her in Helene’s peignoir. The servants wouldn’t sh
are his liberal view, of course, and he made a mental note to remedy her apparel problem first thing in the morning. For now, there was nothing he could do except be grateful that the peignoir actually covered enough of her to verge on decency.
Biting back an admiring smile, he watched her struggle to maintain her frosty facade in the face of his silent scrutiny, and he marvelled that she could convey so many things without moving or speaking. She was innocence on the brink of womanhood, outrageous daring untempered by wisdom or hampered by caution. A vision of that gleaming hair of hers spilling over his chest flashed through his mind, and Stephen abruptly shook it off just as she broke the silence: “Have you finished staring at me?”
“I was admiring you, actually.”
Sheridan had come downstairs fully prepared for a confrontation, longing for it, in fact, and she’d already suffered one setback when he looked at her with that peculiarly flattering expression in his bold blue eyes; his smiling compliment was the second. Reminding herself that he was a coldhearted, dictatorial beast whom she was not going to marry, no matter how he looked at her or how sweetly he spoke, she said, “I presume you had some reason for summoning me into your august presence, your worship?”
To her surprise he didn’t rise to her barbs. In fact, he looked rather amused as he said with a slight bow, “As a matter of fact, I had several reasons.”
“And they are?” she inquired stonily.
“First of all,” Stephen said, “I wanted to apologize.”
“Really?” she said with a shrug. “For what?”
Stephen lost the battle to suppress his smile. She had spirit, you had to give her that. A great deal of spirit . . . and a great deal of pride. He couldn’t think of a man, let alone a woman, who’d dare to face him down and verbally bait him as she was doing. “For the abrupt way I ended our conversation the other night, and for not coming up to see you since then.”