"Langford's betrothal was announced in the paper."
"Yes. His fiancée was American."
Uneasy under the unwavering gaze of those violet eyes, Sherry said nothing.
"There was some gossip about her, and you know how Mama adores being privy to any gossip about the ton. His fiancée reportedly had red hair—very, very red hair. And he called her 'Sherry.' They said she'd lost her memory due to a blow to the head, but that she was expected to recover quickly."
Sheridan made one more bid for anonymity. "Why are you telling me this?"
"So you'll know you can ask me for help if you need it. And because you are the real reason we were invited here. I realized that something was very strange when I saw the way Lord Westmoreland reacted to seeing you at the pond yesterday. I'm surprised Mama hasn't figured out what's in the wind."
"There is nothing in the wind," Sheridan said fiercely. "The whole awful matter is closed, over."
She tipped her head toward Monica and Georgette. "Do they know who you are?"
"No. I'd never met them when I was—" Sheridan broke off as she started to say, When I was Charise Lancaster.
"When you were betrothed to him?"
Sheridan drew in a long breath and then reluctantly nodded.
"Would you like to go home?"
A hysterical laugh bubbled up in Sheridan. "If I had anything to trade for the opportunity, I'd do it in a trice."
Julianna turned on her heel and started from the room. "Start packing," she said with a conspiratorial smile over her shoulder.
"Wait—what are you going to do?"
"I am about to draw Papa aside and tell him I'm feeling unwell and you must accompany me home. We'll not be able to pry Mama out of here early, but she will not want me to stay and give Langford a disgust of me by becoming quite terribly ill in front of him. Would you believe," she said with an incorrigible laugh, "she still cherishes hope that he'll look up at any moment and fall madly in love with me, despite everything that should be very obvious to her."
She was closing the door when Sherry called to her, and she poked her head back into the room. "Would you tell the duchess I'd like to see her before we leave?"
"All the ladies left for the village a bit ago, with the exception of Langford's ladies, that is, and Miss Charity."
The last time Sheridan had left them, she'd made herself look guilty and ungrateful. This time, she did not intend to flee in secret. She intended only to flee. "Would you ask Miss Charity to come up then?" When Julianna nodded, Sheridan added, "And don't say a word about our departure to anyone except your father. I intend to tell the earl myself, face to face."
Miss Charity's face fell as Sheridan explained that she was leaving.
"But you haven't had a chance yet to speak to Langford alone and make him understand exactly why you disappeared," she argued.
"I had that chance last night," Sherry said bitterly. She glanced at her bedroom window as she packed the few things she'd brought into a valise. "The result is out there."
Charity walked over to the window and looked down at the two women who were entertaining the earl. "How very vexing men are. He does not care in the least about either of those two women, you know."
"He does not care about me either."
Charity sat down on the chair, and Sheridan thought poignantly of the first time she'd seen her and been reminded of a china doll. She looked like one now—a very perplexed, unhappy one.
"Did you explain to him why you ran away and never came back?"
"Why did you do it?"
The question came so quickly that it took Sheridan aback. "I told you most of it yesterday. One minute I thought I was Charise Lancaster, and the next minute, Charise was standing there, accusing me of deliberately impersonating her, and threatening to tell Stephen that. I panicked and ran, but before I could recover from the shock of realizing who I really am, I began to realize that everyone else had been lying to me about who they were. Among the things I remembered was that Charise had been betrothed to a baron, not an earl, whose name was Burleton, not Westmoreland. I wanted answers, I needed them, and so I went to see Nicholas DuVille. He at least was honest enough to tell me the truth."
"What truth did he tell you, dear?"
Still embarrassed by what she had learned, Sheridan looked away and pretended to check the neatness of her hair in the mirror as she said, "All of it. Every mortifying bit of it, beginning with Lord Burleton's death and why Stephen felt obliged to find another fiancé for me—for Charise Lancaster, I mean. He told me everything," Sheridan finished, pausing to swallow over the lump of humiliated tears in her throat as she thought of her gullible belief that Stephen had wanted to marry her. That same deadly streak of naiveté had led her to sacrifice her virginity and her pride to him last night. "He even explained the greatest mystery of all, though I let myself believe otherwise when I talked to all of you yesterday."
"What mystery was that?"
Sheridan's laugh was choked and bitter. "Stephen's sudden proposal of marriage, the night we went to Almack's, coincided exactly with the news he'd received earlier that day of Charise's father's death. He proposed to me out of pity and responsibility, not because he cared for me or even wanted to marry me."
"It was very bad of Nicholas to put it exactly that way."
"He didn't have to. I am only a fool when it comes to that man out there."
"And you discussed all this with Langford last night?"
"I tried, but he said he wasn't interested in conversation," Sheridan said bitterly as she picked up her valise.
"What was he interested in?" Charity tipped her head inquiringly to the side.
Something about the sudden way she asked made Sheridan look swiftly at her. There were times when she wasn't certain whether the Duke of Stanhope's sister was quite so vague as she seemed, times like right now, when she was studying the hot flush staining Sheridan's cheeks with a distinctly knowing look. "I suppose he would be interested in proof of my innocence, if he were interested in me at all, which he is not," she evaded hastily. "When you look at it from his side, which I tried to do yesterday and last night, I ran away and hid because I was guilty. What other excuse could I have had?"
Charity stood up and Sheridan looked at her, knowing that she was never going to see her again, and tears burned the back of her eyes as she enfolded the tiny lady in a swift hug. "Tell everyone good-bye for me, and tell them I know they truly tried to help."