Her voice trailed off, and Stephen forestalled another embarrassing barrage of questions by taking matters into his own hands and standing up, forcing her to follow suit. “You’re tiring, and Hugh Whitticomb will have my head if you aren’t rosy and healthy when he arrives tomorrow morning,” he told her gently. “Let me walk you to your bedchamber. Say good-night to everyone. I insist.”
“Good-night, everyone,” Sherry echoed with a disconcerted smile. “As I’m certain you know, Lord Westmoreland is terribly protective.” As she turned away, she noticed that while everyone else seemed to find her very odd, Nicholas DuVille was watching her with a faint smile, as if he found her more interesting than hopelessly peculiar. Sherry clung to the memory of his encouraging glance as she closed the door to her bedchamber and sat down on her bed, her mind whirling with frightening doubts and hopeless questions.
When Stephen walked back into the drawing room a few moments later, four pairs of eyes tracked his progress across the room, but his family waited until he was seated before they launched their questions. The instant he touched the chair, however, the two women spoke simultaneously.
His mother said, “What accident?”
His sister-in-law said, “What ship?”
Stephen looked to his brother for his first question, but Clayton merely regarded him with raised brows and said dryly, “I can’t seem to get past the staggering discovery that you are not only a ‘sentimental idiot’ but ‘terribly protective’ as well.”
Nicholas DuVille politely refrained from saying anything at all, though Stephen had the distinct feeling the Frenchman was rather amused by his predicament. He considered rudely volunteering to provide DuVille with a coach so that he could leave, but the man was a longtime friend of Whitney’s, and, besides, his presence would deter Stephen’s dignified mother from indulging in what would have been her first bout of hysterics.
Satisfied that the group was as ready as they were ever likely to be to hear the truth, Stephen leaned his head against the back of his chair and addressed the ceiling in a terse, composed voice. “The scene you just witnessed between Charise Lancaster and myself is actually a giant farce. The entire debacle began with a carriage accident over a week ago, an accident for which I was responsible and which has resulted in a chain of events that I am about to describe to you. The young woman whom you have just met is as much a victim of those events as her deceased fiancé, a young baron by the name of Arthur Burleton.”
From the other side of the room, Whitney said in an appalled voice, “Arthur Burleton is—was a complete scapegrace.”
“Be that as it may,” Stephen replied with a ragged sigh, “they cared for each other and were going to be wed. As you’re about to discover from my tale, Charise Lancaster, whom you all suspect of being either a complete birdwit or else a scheming fortune-hunter who has somehow enticed me into offering her marriage, is actually a completely innocent, and very pitiable, victim of my own negligence and dishonesty . . .”
* * *
When Stephen had completed his tale and answered everyone’s questions, a long silence fell over the room’s occupants as everyone tried to gather their thoughts. Lifting his wineglass, Stephen took a long drink, as if the wine could somehow wash away the bitterness and regret he felt.
His brother spoke first. “If Burleton was inebriated enough to run in front of a team of horses on a public street in the fog, then surely he is responsibile for his own death.”
“The responsibility is mine,” Stephen replied curtly, dismissing Clayton’s well-meaning attempt to absolve him. “I was driving a raw team. I should have been able to keep my horses under control.”
“And following that logic, I gather you feel equally responsible for the loaded cargo net that injured Charise Lancaster?”
“Of course I do,” Stephen bit out. “She would not have been standing in harm’s way, nor would I have let her, if we hadn’t both been preoccupied with Burleton’s death. If it had not been for my carelessness on two occasions, Charise Lancaster would be a healthy, married woman tonight with an English baron for a husband and the life she wanted stretching before her.”
“Now that you’ve convicted yourself,” Clayton countered, momentarily forgetting DuVille’s presence, “have you decided on your penalty yet?”
Everyone in the room knew Clayton was merely frustrated and alarmed by the bitter self-recrimination that had permeated Stephen’s voice, but it was Nicholas DuVille who defused the charged atmosphere by interrupting in a humorous drawl, “In the interest of avoiding a nasty duel between the two of you at dawn, which would force me to arise at a very inconvenient and uncivilized hour in order to act as your joint second, may I respectfully suggest you turn your excellent minds to possible solutions to the problems, rather than dwelling on the cause?”
“Nicholas is quite right,” the dowager duchess murmured to her empty glass, her expression somber and preoccupied. Lifting her gaze to his, she added, “Though it’s unfair to embroil you in our family problems, it is obvious that you are better able to think clearly because you are not so deeply involved.”
“Thank you, your grace. In that case, may I offer you my thoughts on the matter?” When both women nodded emphatically and neither man voiced an objection, Nicki said, “If I understood everything correctly, it appears that Miss Lancaster was betrothed to a penniless ne’er-do-well, for whom she harbored tender feelings, but who had nothing to offer her other than a noble title. Do I have it right so far?”
Stephen nodded, his expression carefully neutral.
“And,” Nicki continued, “because of two accidents for which Stephen feels responsible, Miss Lancaster now has no fiancé and no memory. Correct?”
“Correct,” Stephen said.
“As I understood it, her physician believes her memory will return in its own good time, is that also correct?”
When Stephen nodded, Nicki said, “Therefore, the only permanent loss she has suffered—for which you can possibly feel responsible—is the loss of a fiancé who possessed a meaningless title and several very unsavory habits. In which case”—he lifted his glass in a mocking toast to his own powers of reason—“it appears to me that you could discharge your debt to her by simply finding her another fiancé to take Burleton’s place. And if the fiancé you select also happens to be a decent fellow, capable of supporting her in a respectable style, then you could not only soothe your guilt, but you might rightly feel as if you’ve saved her from a life of torment and degradation.” He glanced at Whitney and then at Stephen. “How am I doing so far?”
“I’d say you’re doing rather well,” Stephen replied with a slight smile. “I’d given some thought to a similar idea. But,” he added, “the idea is far easier to contemplate than to execute.”
“Oh, but I know we could pull it off if we put our heads to it!” Whitney exclaimed, anxious to pursue any solution at all that would derail his guilt and give them all a direction. “All we need do is see that she’s introduced to a few of the hundreds of eligible men who will be here for the Season.” She looked at her mother-in-law for support and received an overbright smile that belied unspoken worries.
“Actually, there are one or two minor problems associated with that plan,” Stephen said dryly, but he couldn’t bring himself to dampen her enthusiasm. Besides, the plan seemed far more feasible now, with the women in his family ready to lend their enthusiasm and assistance, than it had in the past days. “Why don’t you give the entire project some careful thought, and we’ll discuss the various aspects of it on the morrow—at one o’clock here?” he suggested. When everyone agreed, he cautioned, “For Sherry’s sake, it is important that we foresee problems and avert them in advance. Remember that, when you are thinking about all this. I’ll send a note to Hugh Whitticomb and ask him to come round and join the discussion, so that we are certain we aren’t imperiling her recovery in any way.”
As the group arose, he looked at his mother and
Whitney and said, “Unless I miss my guess, Sherry is wide awake and torturing herself with questions she can’t possibly answer about everyone’s reaction to her tonight.” He didn’t have to complete the request. Both women were already heading for the door, anxious to atone for any unhappiness they’d caused his temporary fiancée.
Standing at the windows, gazing out into a night as dark and blank as her memory, Sherry whirled around at the soft knock on the door of her bedchamber and called for her visitors to enter.
“We’ve come to beg your forgiveness,” Stephen’s mother said as she walked over to the windows. “We didn’t understand—about your betrothal, or your accident, or all the rest—until Stephen explained to us.”
“I’m so glad you’re still awake,” Stephen’s beautiful sister-in-law said, her green eyes filled with an odd kind of regret as they searched Sherry’s. “I don’t think I could have slept, after the way we behaved to you downstairs.”
Momentarily mired down in the social technicalities of how she ought properly to respond to an apology from two regal duchesses, Sherry gave up worrying about protocol and did what she could to soothe their obvious unease. “Please don’t trouble yourselves about it,” she said with soft sincerity. “I don’t know what could have possessed me to want to keep the betrothal a secret, but I wonder sometimes if, when I am quite myself, I am perhaps a little . . . eccentric.”
“I think,” Whitney Westmoreland said, looking as if she were trying to smile when she felt rather sad, “that you are very brave, Miss Lancaster.” And then as if she’d belatedly thought of it, she held out her hands and exclaimed with a bright smile, “Oh—and, welcome to the family. I—I’ve always wanted a sister!”
Something about that forced, desperate cheer in her voice set off the alarm bells in Sherry’s brain, and she felt her hands tremble as she held them out to her future sister-in-law. “Thank you.” That sounded so inadequate that an awkward pause followed, and Sherry stifled a hysterical laugh as she explained, “I haven’t the slightest idea if I’ve always wanted a sister . . . but I’m perfectly certain that I must have and that I would have wished for her to be as lovely as you are.”
“What an utterly charming thing for you to say,” the dowager duchess said with a catch in her voice as she enfolded Sherry in a brief, almost protective hug and then ordered her to “go straight to sleep,” as if Sherry were a child.
They left, promising to come to see her tomorrow, and Sherry gazed in stupefaction at the door when it closed behind them. Her future husband’s relatives were as unpredictable as he was—one minute cool and distant and unreachable, and then warm and affectionate and kind. Sherry sank down onto the bed, her brow furrowed in puzzlement as she searched for some explanation for their range of behavior.
Based on various statements she’d read in the Post and the Times in the past week, Americans were often regarded by the British in a variety of unflattering ways—from amusingly ill-bred Colonists to uncouth barbarians. No doubt, both duchesses had wondered what could have possessed Lord Westmoreland to want to marry one of them—that would explain their negative reaction to her when they first arrived. Evidently, Lord Westmoreland had told them something to reassure them, but what . . . Weary of the endless questions that revolved in her mind during every waking moment, Sherry raked her hair off her forehead and flopped down on her back, staring at the canopy above the bed.