Her mouth felt dry and at the same time wet tears stung her eyes as she thought of the father she might never see again. When he finally appeared at Aunt Cornelia's, anxious to see her and explain the reason for his long silence, she wasn't going to be there… She might never know what happened to him.
She closed her eyes and could almost see Rafe and Dog Lies Sleeping and her father standing in her aunt's parlor, waiting to see her. She'd brought all of this on herself by insisting on accompanying Charise on this voyage, and money hadn't been her only motive. No, indeed. She'd been daydreaming about England ever since she'd started reading those romantic novels. They had sparked her longing for adventure, ignited the streak of dreamy recklessness that she hadn't been able to completely conquer, despite her aunt's diligent efforts, and her own.
Well, she was certainly having an adventure! Instead of sitting in a classroom, surrounded by little faces listening with rapt attention as she read them a story or taught them to walk decorously, she'd landed herself in a strange, unfriendly country—trapped, defenseless, and completely devoid of the wit and courage on which she'd prided herself, preparing to face a nobleman who, according to Meg, would not be required by British law to govern his justifiable rage or delay his vengeance when she told him what had happened. What she, in her pride, had allowed to happen.
Fear, the weakness Sheridan despised above all others, spread through her, evading her efforts to subdue it, and she shivered uncontrollably at the thought of the misery she had caused everyone who trusted and loved her. After a lifetime of determined optimism and robust health, she suddenly felt weak, frantic, and alarmingly dizzy. The room began to revolve, and she clutched at the back of a chair for support; then she forced her eyes open, drew a deep breath, and smoothed her hair back into its stern chignon as she reached for her cloak and aimed a reassuring smile at the terrified maid.
Trying to sound flippant, she said, "It's time to meet the beastly baron and face my fate," then she sobered and ceased trying to pretend there was no need for alarm. "You stay here, out of sight. If I don't come back for you right away, wait for a few hours and then leave as quietly as you can. Better yet, stay aboard. With luck, no one will discover you until the ship is already under way in the morning. There's no point in both of us being arrested and hauled away, if that's what he decides to do."
After the relative quiet of their tiny, dim cabin, the noise and bustle on the torchlit deck was jarring. Stevedores with trunks and crates on their shoulders were swarming up and down the gangplank, unloading cargo and taking on new provisions for the Morning Star's voyage the next day. Winches creaked overhead as cargo nets were slung over the side of the vessel and lowered onto the pier. Sherry picked her way carefully down the gangplank, searching among the throngs for a man who looked like her notion of a villainous English nobleman—a thin, pale, overbred, pompous male with a streak of cruelty was certain to be decked out in satin knee breeches and dripping with fobs and seals to impress his bride.
And then she saw the tall, dark man standing on the pier, impatiently slapping his gloves against his thigh, and she knew in an instant it was he. Despite the fact that he was wearing dark trousers, not knee breeches, and that when the wind blew his cloak open, there wasn't a gleaming fob or golden seal in sight, everything about him still set him apart and stamped him indelibly as "privileged." His square jaw was set with cool purpose, and there was a confident strength emanating from every inch of his broad-shouldered frame, right down to the tips of his shiny boots. He was already frowning as he watched her approach, and Sherry's fear promptly escalated to panic. For the past two days, she'd secretly counted on her own ability to calm and cajole the affronted bridegroom into seeing reason, but the man whose dark brows were drawn together in a scowl of grim displeasure looked about as malleable as granite. He was doubtlessly wondering where the devil his fiancée was and why Sheridan Bromleigh, not Charise Lancaster, was walking down the gangplank. And he was clearly annoyed.
Stephen wasn't annoyed, he was stunned. He'd expected Charise Lancaster to be a giddy seventeen-or eighteen-year-old with bouncing curls and rosy cheeks, decked out in ruffles and lace. What he saw in the flickering shadows of the torches was a composed, pale young woman with high cheekbones and extraordinarily large, light eyes that were set off by gracefully winged, russet brows and a luminous fringe of long lashes. Her hair was an indeterminate color, pulled back severely off her forehead and concealed with a hood. Instead of ruffles, she was wearing a sensible, but unattractive, brown cloak, and his first thought as he held out his hand to shake hers was that Burleton must have been either mad or blind to describe her as "quite a pretty little thing."
Despite her outward composure, she looked extremely tense, frightened, as if she already sensed that something was terribly wrong, so Stephen changed his mind and decided the best course for both of them was probably the most direct one.
"Miss Lancaster," he said, after quickly introducing himself, "I'm afraid there's been an accident." Guilt tore at him as he added tightly, "Lord Burleton was killed yesterday."
For a moment, she simply stared at him in shocked incomprehension. "Killed? He isn't here?"
Stephen had expected her to dissolve into tears, at the very least, or even to have hysterics. He had not expected her to withdraw her cold hand from his and say in a dazed voice, "How very sad. Please give my condolences to his family." She'd turned and taken several steps up the pier before he realized she was obviously in complete shock. "Miss Lancaster—" he called, but his voice was drowned out by an alarmed shout from above as a cargo net loaded with crates swung wide from its winch: "STEP ASIDE! LOOK OUT!"
Stephen saw the danger and lunged for her, but he wasn't in time—the cargo net swung wide, striking her in the back of the head and sending her flying onto the pier on her face. Already shouting to his coachmen, Stephen crouched down and turned her over in his arms. Her head fell back limply and blood began to run from the huge lump at the back of her scalp.
"How is our patient today?" Dr. Whitticomb asked as the Westmoreland butler ushered him into the earl's study. Despite Dr. Whitticomb's brisk tone, he felt as pessimistic about her chances of recovery as Stephen Westmoreland, who was sitting in a chair by the fireplace, his elbows propped on his knees, his head in his hands.
"There's no change," the earl said, wearily rubbing his hands over his face before he looked up. "She's as still as death. The maids in her chamber are under orders to keep talking to her as you suggested. I even tried talking to her myself a few minutes ago, but she didn't respond. It's been three days," he pointed out as frustrated impatience edged his voice, "can't you do something?"