Not only that, when her loathsome husband asked the cost of the gown and she told him, the man had looked as if he was going to cry! Instead of being admired and praised for her excellent taste and lovely figure, all he’d thought about was the money.
She was the one who had a right to cry, she thought furiously, glancing contemptuously at him as he read the newspaper. At home in Richmond, she’d been the one whom people envied and imitated. Now she was nothing—less than nothing—and she was consumed by envy every day when she went to the park and watched the ton promenading about, and ignoring her.
The problem with Thomas Morrison was that he didn’t realize she was special. Everyone in Richmond had known it, even her papa, but the tall, handsome clod she’d married didn’t grasp it. She’d tried to explain that to him, but he’d insulted her by saying she hadn’t been behaving as if she were special! Furious, she’d informed him that “people behave as they are treated!” That remark had been so clever that it sounded as if it came straight from Miss Bromleigh herself, and still he didn’t respond as he should have.
But then, what could she expect from a man so lacking in refinement and taste that he didn’t know the difference in desirability between a paid companion and an heiress?
At first, he’d paid more attention to that Bromleigh woman than Charise herself, and no wonder—Sheridan Bromleigh didn’t know her place at all. She read romance novels about governesses who married the lord of the house, and when Charise had mocked that ludicrous idea, she’d boldly said she didn’t think titles or wealth would or should matter between two individuals who truly loved each other.
In fact, Charise thought bitterly as she stabbed a slice of ham with her knife, if it hadn’t been for Sheridan Bromleigh, she wouldn’t be in this heartbreaking mess! She would never have felt compelled to draw Morrison’s attention away from her lowly paid companion when the two of them seemed to like each other, would never have eloped with him to show everyone on the ship, especially Miss Bromleigh, that Charise Lancaster could have any gentleman she wanted. Her awful life was the fault of that redheaded witch who’d put all that romantic nonsense in her head about love and fairy-tale marriages where money and titles didn’t matter!
She hadn’t spoken to him in two days, but something about the odd note in his voice made her respond by looking up, and when she saw his incredulous expression, she almost asked him what he was reading that made him look so foolish.
“Was there anyone else aboard our ship whose name happened to be Charise Lancaster? I mean it is not an extraordinarily common name, is it?”
She glared at him contemptuously. Stupid question. Stupid man. There was nothing common about her, including her unique name.
“According to this newspaper,” he said in a dazed voice, looking at her, “Charise Lancaster, who arrived in London three weeks ago aboard the Morning Star, has just become betrothed to the Earl of Langford.”
“I don’t believe you!” Charise said with blazing scorn, snatching the newspaper out of his hand so she could read the announcement herself. “There was no other Charise Lancaster on the ship.”
“Read it for yourself,” he said needlessly, because she’d already snatched the newspaper from him.
A moment later, she flung the paper down on the table, her face mottled with fury. “Someone is impersonating me to the earl. Some scheming, vile, evil . . .”
“Where the deuce are you going?”
“To call upon my ‘new fiancé.’?”
Humming softly to herself, Sherry took out the gown she was going to wear for her wedding in an hour and laid it across the bed. It was still too early to change from her day dress into the dressier blue gown she was going to wear later, and the hands on the clock above the mantel seemed to be moving at half speed.
Since it had been impossible to invite some of their friends and omit others, the decision had been made to limit the wedding guests to immediate family only, which avoided offending the sensibilities of friends who were not invited and also kept it a quiet intimate affair, which Sheridan preferred. It also enabled the family to wait a few weeks before announcing the marriage so that it didn’t look too sudden.
According to the dowager duchess, who had gently asked Sherry to call her “Mother,” last night, hasty weddings inevitably brought on a storm of gossip and conjecture about the reasons for the haste. Miss Charity had been invited because no one had the heart to exclude her, and she was due here any moment. Dr. Whitticomb was the only other nonfamily member asked to attend, but he’d sent word this morning that a patient of his was in urgent need of him, and that he’d come round later for a glass of champagne.
According to the plan, the Duke of Claymore was to escort his mother and Whitney here in an hour, and Stephen would arrive a half hour later, precisely at eleven a.m., when the wedding was to take place. English weddings, she had learned, traditionally took place between eight o’clock in the morning and noon, so that the bridal couple had the benefit of bright daylight and a full night’s sleep to contemplate for the last time the import of the step they were about to take. The vicar was obviously aware of the import of his own role in the marriage of the Earl of Langford, because he’d arrived an hour ago to make certain he was on time—a precaution that Colfax clearly found a little amusing when he imparted the information to Sherry. Clad in formal livery for the occasion, as were all the servants she’d seen downstairs earlier, Colfax had also imparted the information that the household staff wished to sing for her, on this momentous occasion, an old and traditional song they had been rehearsing in the kitchen. Touched by their thoughtfulness, Sherry had instantly and delightedly agreed.
Based on what Sherry had witnessed so far, it appeared that only the butler and the bride were taking things in stride. Her maid was so nervous that she’d fussed half the morning over Sherry’s bath and hair, dropping pins and mislaying towels everywhere, until Sherry finally sent her off in order to savor her anticipation in solitude.
Wandering over to the dressing table, Sherry gazed down at the diamond and sapphire necklace lying in a large, white-velvet-lined jeweler’s case that Stephen had sent over to her this morning. Smiling, she touched the necklace, and the triple band of diamonds and sapphires seemed to sparkle happily back at her, matching her mood. The lavish piece was more formal than her gown required, but Sherry intended to wear it anyway because it was from Stephen.
Stephen . . . He was going to be her husband, and her thoughts drifted inevitably to the minutes she had spent in the dark salon with him after the opera. He had kissed her into mindless insensibility, his hard body pressed into hers, and shock waves of sensation had rushed over her with every grinding shift of his hips, every deep demand of his tongue, every possessive, intimate stroke of his hands over her breasts. By the time he moved away a little, his breathing sounded strangely ragged, and Sherry was clinging to him in helpless abandon. “Do you have any idea,” he’d whispered in a rough voice, “how passionate you are, and how unique?”
Not certain how to answer that, she searched her empty memory for some specific cause for the uneasy guilt she felt for allowing him to kiss and touch her. Finding nothing in particular, she’d slid her hand around his nape and pressed her cheek against his hard chest. With a half-laugh, half-groan, he’d gently pulled her hand down and stepped back. “Enough. Unless you want the honeymoon to precede the wedding, young lady, you’re going to have to content yourself with a few chaste pecks. . . .” She must have looked disappointed, because, laughing softly, he’d leaned into her and kissed her again.
Sherry’s thoughts were disrupted by a knock on her door and she called for whoever it was to enter. “Your pardon, milady,” Hodgkin said, his narrow face pinched and pale, as if he were in pain. “There is a young—I hesitate to use the word ‘lady’ in view of the sort of language she used—woman downstairs who insists she must see you.”
Sherry looked at him in
the mirror above the dressing table. “Who is she?”
The elderly under-butler spread his hands and they trembled with the force of his reaction. “She says she is you, miss.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“She says she is Miss Charise Lancaster.”
“How very . . .” Sherry’s heart began to thunder for no apparent reason, and her voice strangled on the word “odd.”
Sounding as if he were begging her to claim the other woman was a mystic or a fraud, he added, “She is . . . is in possession of a great many facts that might seem to prove her claim. I—I know this to be true, my lady, because I was once employed by Baron Burleton.”
Burleton . . . Burleton . . . Burleton . . . Burleton. The name began to howl like a banshee in her brain.
“She—she was demanding to see the earl, but you have been very good to me . . . to all of us, and I would hope that were our positions reversed, not that they ever could be, you would at least come to me with any possible falsehood, instead of carrying the tale to the earl . . . to someone else. I will, naturally, have to tell him of the woman’s wish to see him when he arrives for the nuptials, but if you perhaps had a chance to see her first and she were to be more calm . . .”
Sherry leaned her hands on the dressing table for support, nodding to him to show the woman who claimed to be her upstairs, and she closed her eyes tight, concentrating.
Burleton . . . BURLETON . . . BURLETON.
Images and voices began to flash through her mind, speeding up faster and faster, spinning so quickly that the next one appeared before the other had spun away.
. . . A ship, a cabin, a frightened maid. “What if Miss Charise’s fiancé thinks we killed her, or sold her, or something evil like that? It would be the baron’s word against yours, and you aren’t nobody, so the law will be on his side. This is England not America . . .”
. . . Torchlight, stevedores, a tall, grim man standing at the end of a gangplank. “Miss Lancaster, I’m afraid there’s been an accident. Lord Burleton was killed yesterday.”