Until You (Westmoreland Saga 3) - Page 48

Listen Audio


Nicki hesitated, then he nodded. “That’s it.”

Sherry turned her head aside, fighting desperately not to weep for her stupidity, for her gullibility, and for falling in love with a man who felt nothing for her but responsibility. No wonder he’d never said he loved her! No wonder he’d wanted her to find someone else to wed! “He was actually going to marry me out of guilt and responsibility.”

“I wouldn’t say those are his only reasons as of this time,” Nicki said cautiously. “I suspect he feels something for you.”

“Of course he does,” Sherry replied scornfully, reeling with humiliation. “It is called pity!”

“I’ll escort you back to Langford’s.”

“I can’t go back!” she cried.

“Miss Lancaster,” Nicki began in a sharp, authoritative voice that normally quelled anyone who heard it. It made the stricken young woman across from him double over with hysterical laughter, her arms wrapped around her stomach. “I am not Charise Lancaster!”

Nicki quickly went round to her, cursing himself for letting her trick him into believing she was well enough to handle whatever he told her.

“I am not Charise Lancaster,” she repeated, and her laughter abruptly gave way to sobs. “I was her paid companion on the trip.” Her arms still wrapped around her stomach, she rocked back and forth, weeping. “I am a glorified governess, and he was going to marry me. What a laugh his friends would have had over that. He was drowning in pity for a glorified governess who’d never laid eyes on Lord Burleton.”

Nicki stared at her in blank shock, but he believed her. “Good God,” he whispered.

“I thought I was Charise Lancaster,” she whimpered, her shoulders beginning to shake with sobs. “I thought I was, I swear it.”

Belatedly it occurred to Nicki to pull her into his arms and offer her some form of comfort, and he did it, but he was at a complete loss for words to match the gesture. “I thought I was,” she wept against his chest. “I thought I was her until she came to the house today. I thought I was, I swear it!”

“I believe you,” Nicki said, and was a little amazed that he did.

“She wouldn’t go away. She had to tell him herself. He—he was getting ready for the wedding. A s-secret wedding. I don’t have anywhere to go—no clothes—no money.”

Trying to offer her one small bright spot out of all this, he said, “At least it was not your father who died.”

Very slowly, she lifted her head, her eyes dazed, unfocused. “What?”

“Langford received a letter one night last week that was forwarded to him from Burleton’s landlord. It had been intended for Charise Lancaster, written by her father’s solicitor, and informing her that her father had died two weeks after she sailed for England.”

She drew a shaky breath, coming to grips with that, and said bleakly, “He was a harsh man but not an unkind one. He spoiled Charise quite terribly—” Another wrenching probability struck her, and she thought she was going to retch. “Last week—was it the same night I went to Almack’s and the Rutherfords’ ball?”

“So I was told.”

Her head bowed with further humiliation and fresh tears spilled down her cheek. “No wonder he changed so abruptly from wanting me to find another fiancé, to deciding we should wed at once.” She remembered the way she’d touched his hand at the opera and thought of how repelled he must have been at having to sit through that—and pretend to want to kiss her and—

“I wish I were dead!” she whispered brokenly.

“Stop that sort of talk at once,” Nicki said mindlessly. “You can stay here tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll go with you to Langford’s and we’ll explain.”

“I did explain in a letter! I can’t go back. I won’t, I tell you, and if you send for him, I’ll go mad. I know I will. I can never go back now.”

She sounded as if she meant it, and Nicki couldn’t blame her.

Sherry wasn’t certain how long she cried in his arms or when she stopped, but as the silence lengthened, a blessed numbness finally took over. “I can’t stay here,” she whispered, her voice hoarse from the storm of emotions.

“As you said, you have nowhere else to go.”

She pushed free of his soothing embrace and sat up, then she stood, swaying a little. “I shouldn’t have come here. I would not be surprised if there are charges filed against me.”

The thought that Langford might do that filled Nicki with an anger that was almost uncontainable, but he couldn’t deny the possibility or the unthinkable results. “You’re safe here, at least for tonight. In the morning, we’ll discuss how I can be of help.”

The feeling of unworthiness and relief that surged through her at the realization that he was actually offering to help her nearly broke Sherry’s fragile grip on her control. “I—I will have to find some sort of position. I have no references. I can’t stay in London. I don’t—”

“We’ll discuss it in the morning, chérie. I want you to lie down now. I will have your dinner sent up.”

“No one who knows him or his family will consider employing me, and he—everyone in London seems to know him.”

“In the morning,” he said firmly.

Too weary to protest, Sherry nodded. She had started up the stairs with a servant when something hit her and she turned around.

“Monsieur DuVille?”

“I gave you leave to call me Nicki, mademoiselle,” he tried to tease.

“Paid companions do not address their ‘betters’ by their given names.”

She looked as if she were at the end of her tether, and so Nicki did not argue with her decision and let her ask her question.

“You won’t tell any of them where I am—promise me you won’t!”

Nicki hesitated, reviewed the alternatives and their consequences, and finally said, “I give you my word.” He watched her walk up the stairs, beaten and humbled. She had never resembled a meek servant, but she did then, and it made him want to do violence to Westmoreland. And yet, he had acted honorably until today. More than honorably, Nicki reluctantly decided.

42

“Will there be anything else, my lord, before I retire?”

Stephen lifted his gaze from the glass of liquor in his hand and stared at the elderly under-butler standing in the doorway of his bedchamber. “No,” he said shortly.

He’d kept his family and the cleric waiting until three hours ago, in the asinine belief that Sheridan Bromleigh would come back and face him. If she were innocent, if she’d really lost her memory, not only would she have wanted to explain and exonerate herself, she’d have demanded explanations from him about why he’d pretended they were engaged. Since she didn’t seem to need those explanations, the only answer was that she’d always known the truth.

Now, however, there was no way to avoid the truth and not enough liquor in the world to douse the rage that was beginning to burn like an inferno inside him. Sheridan Bromleigh had obviously never lost her memory. When she regained consciousness, she’d simply seized on a brilliant ploy to lead a better life for a while, and he’d sweetened the deal a thousand times by offering to marry her. She must have been laughing herself into a seizure while he pretended to be Burleton and she pretended to be her own employer.

After all his experience, his alleged sophistication, Stephen thought, as his wrath continued to build, he’d fallen like a rock for the oldest female ploy in the world—the helpless damsel in distress! TWICE! First with Emily and now with Sheridan Bromleigh.

With Sheridan’s talent, she should have been on the stage. That’s where she belonged, along with the rest of the ambitious semiharlots who danced and cavorted and recited their lines. He took another swallow of his drink, remembering some of her best performances: Her first one had been truly impressive. The morning he’d slept by her bed, he’d awakened to the sound of her weeping. “I don’t know what I look like,” she’d wept, wringing his heart with her tears. “It’s a trifling thing, really, but since you

’re already awake, could you just describe me a little?” Then there had been the morning she’d decided to point out her hair to him—in case he hadn’t already noticed its siren appeal, Stephen thought viciously: “My hair is not brown. Look at it. It’s red—”

Like the ass he was, he’d stood there transfixed by the sight of that glossy mantle, mentally likening her to a red-haired Madonna. “It’s so . . . so brazen!” she’d pointed out to him, managing to look unhappy about a head of hair that obviously suited her perfectly.

Then there was her charming confusion over how she ought to behave. “I understand from Constance—the maid—that you’re an earl, and that I ought properly to address you as ‘my lord.’ Among the things I do seem to know is that in the presence of a king, one does not sit unless invited to do so.”

But his absolute favorite, Stephen decided with blazing cynicism, was the first night she’d been out of her bed, when she’d begged him prettily, “And my family—what are they like?” After he’d explained her father was a widower and she was his only child, she’d looked at him with those big, beseeching eyes of hers and said, “Are we very much in love?”

In all their conversations, she’d only slipped once that he could remember. He’d been in the process of telling her she had to have a chaperone if she stayed in his house, and she’d laughed. “I don’t need a companion, I am a—” Her only slip, but in retrospect damning proof.


Tags: Judith McNaught Westmoreland Saga Romance
Source: www.freenovel24.com