Until You (Westmoreland Saga 3) - Page 30

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To her surprise, the duchess did not stiffen in affront. “I disagree,” she said with a stubborn smile and reached forward to nudge the door open. “I think there is a great deal to talk about.”

Fully expecting some sort of deserved reprimand for her discourtesy or ingratitude, Sherry walked into the bedchamber, followed by the duchess. Refusing to cower or apologize, she turned around and waited in silence for whatever was to come.

In the space of seconds, Whitney considered Sherry’s denial of her betrothal, noted the total absence of her normal, unaffected warmth, and correctly assumed her current attitude of proud indifference was a facade to conceal some sort of deep hurt. Since Stephen was the only one who had the power to truly hurt her, that meant he was the likely cause of the problem.

Prepared to go to great lengths to undo whatever damage her idiot brother-in-law had done to the one woman who was surely meant for him, Whitney said cautiously, “What has happened to make you say you aren’t betrothed to Stephen and don’t wish to be?”

“Please!” Sherry said with more emotion than she wanted to show. “I do not know who I am or where I was born, but I do know that there is something inside of me that cries out against the deceit and pretense I’ve been told. I’ll surely begin to scream if I have to endure more of it right now. There’s no need, no purpose, in your pretending to want me as a sister-in-law, so please do not!”

“Very well,” the duchess said without rancor, “we shall put an end to pretense.”

“Thank you.”

“You have no idea just how badly I hope to have you as a sister-in-law.”

“And I suppose you are now going to try to convince me that Lord Westmoreland is as eager a bridegroom as there ever was.”

“I couldn’t even say that with a straight face,” the duchess admitted cheerfully, “let alone be convincing.”

“What?” Sherry uttered in blank astonishment.

“Stephen Westmoreland has the liveliest reservations about marrying anyone, especially you. And for some very good reasons.”

Sherry’s shoulders shook with helpless laughter. “I think you are all quite mad.”

“I cannot blame you for thinking that,” Whitney said with a gusty sigh. “Now, if you would like to sit down, I shall tell you what I can about the Earl of Langford. But first, I have to ask you what he told you this morning that has made you think he does not desire to marry you.”

The offer of information about a man who was a total mystery to her was nearly irresistible, but Sherry wasn’t certain why the offer was being made or if she should accept it. “Why do you wish to become involved in all this?”

“I wish to become involved because I like you very much. And because I’d like you to like me also. But most of all, because I truly believe you are perfect for Stephen and I’m desperately afraid this set of circumstances may keep you both from finding that out until it is too late to undo the damage. Now, please tell me what happened, and then I’ll tell you what I can.” For the second time, Whitney carefully avoided saying she would tell her everything. The phrase she’d used was misleading, but at least it was not another lie.

Sherry hesitated, searching Whitney’s face for some sign of malice and saw only earnestness and concern. “I suppose it can’t do any harm—except to my pride,” she said with a weak attempt at a smile. In a relatively unemotional voice, she managed to recount what had happened that morning in the earl’s study.

Whitney was impressed by the simplicity and cleverness of Stephen’s chosen method to enlist Sherry’s cooperation, and she was equally impressed that a naive girl, who was in a strange land, surrounded by strangers, and with not even a memory of her past, could have seen right through his smoothly worded ploy. Moreover Sherry had evidently been wise enough and proud enough not to voice a single objection to it. Which, Whitney decided with an inner smile, probably accounted for Stephen’s black scowl earlier, when she bade him good day before coming upstairs. “Is that everything?”

“Not exactly,” Sherry said angrily, looking away in embarrassment.

“What else happened?”

“After he gave me all that fustian about wanting me to have choices, I was so angry and confused that I—I felt a little overemotional.”

“Had I been in your place, I’d have felt for a heavy, blunt object to hit him with!”

“Unfortunately,” Sherry said with a shaky laugh, “I didn’t see anything suitable to use, and I felt this—this stupid urge to cry, so I walked over to a window to try to compose myself.”

“And then?” Whitney prodded.

“And then he had the audacity, the arrogance, the—the gall to try to kiss me!”

“Did you allow it?”

“No. Not willingly.” That wasn’t entirely true, and she looked away again in helpless misery. “I wasn’t willing, at first,” she amended. “But you see, he’s very good at it, and—” She broke off as a realization hit her, and she said it aloud, her expression turning ferocious: “He’s very good at it, and he knows it! That is why he insisted on kissing me, as if that would make everything all right again. And in a way he won, because in the end I gave in. Oh, he must be very proud of himself,” she finished with withering scorn.

Whitney burst out laughing. “I very much doubt that. In fact, he was in the foulest mood imaginable when I arrived. For a man who wishes to break a betrothal, and has every reason to believe he’s well on the way to accomplishing it, he is not in an exultant frame of mind.”

Somewhat cheered by that, Sherry smiled; then her smile faded and she shook her head. “I do not understand any of this. Perhaps, even when I am in full possession of all my faculties, I am somewhat lacking in understanding.”

“I think you are amazingly insightful!” Whitney said with feeling, “and brave. And very, very warmhearted too.” She watched uncertainty flicker in expressive gray eyes, and Whitney wanted desperately to trust Charise Lancaster with the entire truth, every bit of it, beginning with Burleton’s death and Stephen’s part in it. As Stephen had pointed out, Sherry had scarcely known Burleton. Moreover, it was very clear that she had strong feelings for Stephen.

On the other hand, Dr. Whitticomb had emphasized the real danger of upsetting her too much, and Whitney was terribly afraid the news of Burleton’s death and Stephen’s part in it might do just that.

She settled for telling her everything but that, and, returning the other girl’s level gaze, she said with a sad smile, “I am going to tell you a story about a very special man, whom you may not at first recognize. When I met him, four years ago, he was vastly admired for his tremendous charm and delightful manners. Men respected his skill at gaming an

d sports, and he was so handsome that women actually stared at him. His mother and I used to go into whoops over the effect he had on them, and not merely innocent young girls in their first Season, but sophisticated flirts, as well. I know he thought their reaction to his face was excessively silly, but he was unfailingly gallant to all of them. And then three things happened that changed him drastically—and the odd part is that two of them were good things: First, Stephen decided to take more of a personal interest in his business affairs and investments, which my husband had been handling along with ours. Stephen immediately began taking daring chances on large, risky ventures that my husband would never have considered—not with someone else’s money. Time after time Stephen took enormous risks, and time after time, they paid off in enormous profits. And while all that was happening, so did something else that eventually contributed to his change from friendly gallantry to cold cynicism: Stephen inherited three titles from an elderly cousin of his father’s, one of them the Earl of Langford. Normally, titles pass to the eldest son, except in certain instances, and this was one of them. Some of the titles held by the Westmoreland family date back over three hundred years, to King Henry VII. Among them are three titles granted by him that, at the request of the first Duke of Claymore, contain recorded exceptions to the normal line of descent. The exceptions allowed the holder of the title, if childless, to designate his own heir, so long as the heir was a direct descendant of one of the dukes of Claymore.

Tags: Judith McNaught Westmoreland Saga Romance
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