Until You (Westmoreland Saga 3) - Page 46

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Stephen opened the short, disjointed letter that had obviously been written in haste, and each unbelievable word seemed to sear his mind, branding his soul.

As you will soon discover from the real Charise Lancaster, I am not who you thought I was. Not who I thought I was. Please believe that. Until the moment Charise Lancaster walked into my bedchamber this morning, I did not remember anything about myself except what I was told after the accident. Now that I do know who I am and what I am, I realize that a marriage between us would probably be impossible. I also realize that when Charise is finished telling you her opinion of what I intended to accomplish, it may sound far more believable than my truths in this note.

That would hurt me more than you can imagine. I wonder how I would go on, knowing that somewhere in this world you would be living your life, forever believing that I was a fraud and a schemer. You won’t believe that, I know you won’t.

She’d crossed out the last word and simply signed the letter:

Sheridan Bromleigh

Sheridan Bromleigh.

Sheridan. In the most painful moment of his life, with her letter in his hand and the unbelievable words scored into his brain, Stephen stared at her real name—a strong, beautiful name. Unique.

And he thought Sheridan fit her far better than Charise.

“The woman who is waiting for you says that you’ve been duped. Deliberately.”

Stephen’s hand closed on the letter, wadding it into a ball, and he tossed it in the direction of the table. “Where is she?” he snapped.

“Waiting for you in your study.”

His expression as murderous as his feelings, Stephen stalked out of the room, determined to prove that this new Charise Lancaster was a liar, or a fraud, or that she was mistaken about Sherry’s having deliberately duped him.

But the one painfully irrefutable fact that he could not ignore, or disprove, was that Sheridan had run from him, rather than facing him and explaining. And that hinted unbearably of guilt . . .

40

As he walked swiftly toward his study, Stephen told himself Sherry would return in an hour or two. She’d run away because she was upset—hysterical. Whitticomb had said memory loss was a form of hysteria. Perhaps hysteria came with its return as well.

With visions of her wandering through London streets, alone and confused, he strode into his study. With only a curt, icy nod to the blonde who was waiting for him, he flung himself into the chair behind his desk, determined to disprove her contention that Sherry had deliberately deceived him. “Sit down,” he ordered curtly, “let’s hear what you have to say.”

“Oh, I have a great deal to say!” she burst out, and Stephen was momentarily disconcerted by the fleeting irony that this Charise Lancaster looked exactly like the curly-haired blonde he’d expected to meet at the ship.

Charise sensed his desire to disbelieve anything she said, and as it sank in that this handsome, rich man might somehow have belonged to her, her fury and determination grew to new proportions. Daunted by his glacial manner, she was trying to decide how to best begin, when he said in a savage voice, “You’ve made a damning accusation against someone who isn’t here to defend herself. Now, start talking!”

“Oh, I see you don’t want to believe me,” she burst out in alarm and rage. “Well, I didn’t want to believe it either when I read the announcement in the newspaper. She’s duped you, just the way she dupes everyone.”

“She had amnesia—memory loss!”

“Well, she certainly found it when I appeared—how do you explain that?”

He couldn’t, and he didn’t want to let her see his reaction to that point or to the rest of what she was saying.

“She’s a liar and an ambitious schemer, and she always was! On the ship, she told me she intended to marry someone like you, and she almost pulled it off, didn’t she? First she tried to lure my husband away, and then she set her sights on you!”

“Until she returns and can answer you face to face, I’ll ignore that as the anger of a jealous little minx.”

“Jealous!” Charise exploded, leaping to her feet. “How dare you imply I’d be jealous of that red-haired witch! And for your information, my lord, she ran away because she was exposed. She is never coming back, do you hear me? She admitted to me she’d lied to you.” Stephen felt as if his chest had a rope around it that was being tightened with every word the blonde said. She was telling the truth—it was all over her contemptuous face—the hatred she felt for Sheridan Bromleigh and the scorn she had for him.

“On the way over from America, she talked me out of marrying Burleton and convinced me I ought to elope with Mr. Morrison instead! Now that I think about it, I’m surprised she didn’t betroth herself to my own fiancé!”

In the midst of his own rampaging emotions, Stephen realized the girl seated in front of him with tears in her eyes and her fists clenched in furious frustration had two pieces of very bad news coming. In his current mood, he was not inclined to postpone or dissemble. Fed up with all the convoluted lies and his own disastrous efforts to spare Sherry news that didn’t even pertain to her, he tempered his voice and said flatly, “Burleton is dead.”

“Dead?” Charise wailed in genuine despair as her secret hope that Burleton might still take her as his wife if she could get rid of Morrison was crushed to splinters. “How?” she whispered chokily, reaching into her reticule for a lacy handkerchief and dabbing at her eyes.

Stephen told her and watched her face crumple. She wasn’t lying now either, he realized. She was completely distraught.

“My poor father. I didn’t know how I was ever going to face him after that Bromleigh woman talked me into eloping with Mr. Morrison. I’ve been so afraid I haven’t even written him yet. I’m going home!” Charise decided, already inventing a plausible lie that would persuade her father to take her back, to buy a divorce or an annulment or whatever was necessary. “I’m going straight home.”

“Miss Lancaster,” Stephen said, and it seemed so odd, so ugly, to be calling this woman by a name he thought belonged to Sherry, “I have a letter for you from your father’s solicitor. It was sent to me by Burleton’s landlord.” Setting aside his own monumental concerns for the moment, Stephen unlocked his desk drawer, extracted the letter and bank draft, and reluctantly held them out to her. “I’m afraid it isn’t good news.”

Her hand trembled violently as she read the contents of the letter and looked at the bank draft, then she slowly raised glazed eyes to his. “Is this all the money I have in the world?”

Her financial situation wasn’t Stephen’s problem or his concern, since she had evidently jilted Burleton and wed someone else en route to England, but keeping her silent was very much his concern. “Without implying that I believe Sheridan Bromleigh deliberately impersonated you,” he said flatly, “I would be willing to give you a substantial sum to . . . shall we say, ease your plight . . . in return for your silence on this entire matter.”

“How substantial?”

Stephen loathed her at that moment. He loathed the idea of paying her off to keep her from spreading what would become a scandal that would explode all over England if it came out. He loathed himself for the twinge of doubt growing inside him about Sherry’s intention to return in a few hours. Her letter hadn’t been a final farewell, it had been a plea—a hysterical plea from a lovely, overwrought girl who feared he wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t believe. She had run from the house to give his temper time to cool, in case he did believe Charise.

She would come back, confused and distraught and indignant; she would come back and face him. She was entitled to answers and explanations from him about why he’d impersonated Burleton. She would come back for those. She had enough spirit to confront him. She had so damned much spirit.

* * *

He repeated that to himself over and over again as he watched the Lancaster woman leave with the enormous sum he’d paid her, then he got up and wandered over to the windows, staring do

wn at the street watching for his bride to return . . . to explain. He saw Charise Lancaster climb into a hired hack as his brother walked in behind him and quietly said, “What do you intend to do?”

“Wait.”


Tags: Judith McNaught Westmoreland Saga Romance
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