Dr. Whitticomb pulled his gaze from the earl's haggard features, curbed the impulse to insist he get some rest, which he knew would be futile, and said instead, "She's in God's hands, not mine. I'll go up and look in on her, however."
"A damned lot of good that's going to do," his lordship fired at his departing back.
Ignoring that outburst of noble temper, Hugh Whitticomb walked up the grand staircase and turned left at the top.
When he returned to the study sometime later, the earl was sitting as he had been before, but Dr. Whitticomb's expression had brightened considerably. "Evidently," he said dryly, "my visit did do some good, after all. Or perhaps she simply liked my voice better than the maids'."
Stephen jerked his head up, his gaze searching the physician's face. "She's conscious?"
"She's resting now, but she came around and was even able to speak a few words to me. Yesterday, I wouldn't have given a farthing for her chances, but she's young and strong, and I think she may pull through."
Having said all he had to say on that subject, Dr. Whitticomb looked at the deeply etched lines of fatigue and strain at Stephen's eyes and mouth and embarked on the second of his primary concerns: "You, however, look like the very devil, my lord," he pronounced with the blunt familiarity of a longtime family friend. "I was going to suggest we go up to see her together after supper—providing you invite me to stay for supper, of course—but the sight of you might frighten her into a relapse if you don't have some sleep and a shave first."
"I don't need any sleep," Stephen said, so relieved that he felt positively energized as he stood up, walked over to a silver tray, and pulled the stopper out of a crystal decanter. "I won't argue about the shave, however," he said with a slight smile as he poured brandy into two glasses and held one of them out to the physician. Lifting his own glass in the gesture of a toast, he said, "To your skill in bringing about her recovery."
"It wasn't my skill, it was more like a miracle," the physician said, hesitating to drink the toast.
"To miraculous recoveries, then," Stephen said, raising his glass to his lips, then he stopped again as Whitticomb negated the second toast with another shake of his head.
"I… didn't say she was recovered, Stephen. I said she's conscious and she's able to speak."
The earl caught the hesitation in his voice, and a pair of piercing blue eyes narrowed sharply on Dr. Whitticomb's face, demanding an explanation.
With a reluctant sigh, the physician acceded to the demand. "I'd hoped to delay telling you this until after you'd had some rest, but the fact is that even if she pulls through physically—and I can't promise you she will—there's still a problem. A complication. of course, it may be very temporary. then again it might not."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"She has no memory, Stephen."
"She what?" he demanded.
"She doesn't remember anything that took place before she opened her eyes in the bedchamber upstairs. She doesn't know who she is or why she's in England. She couldn't even tell me her own name."
With his hand on the ornate brass door handle, Dr. Whitticomb paused before entering his patient's bedchambers. Turning to Stephen, he lowered his voice and issued some last-minute warnings and instructions: "Head wounds are very unpredictable. Don't be alarmed if she doesn't remember speaking to me a few hours ago. On the other hand, she may have already regained her memory completely. Yesterday, I spoke with a colleague of mine who's had more experience with serious head injuries than I, and we both felt it would be a mistake to give her laudanum no matter how severe her headache might become. Even though it would help her pain, laudanum will put her to sleep, and we both think it's imperative to keep her conscious and talking."
Stephen nodded, but Whitticomb wasn't finished. "Earlier today, she grew very anxious and frightened when she couldn't remember anything, so do not, under any circumstances, say or do anything to add to her anxiety. When we go in there, try to make her feel calm and reassured, and make certain any servant who enters this bedchamber is under the same orders. As I said, head wounds are very dangerous and very unpredictable, and we wouldn't want to lose her." Satisfied that he'd covered everything, he turned the handle.
Sheridan sensed the presence of people in the darkened room as she floated in a comforting gray mist, drifting in and out of sleep, her mind registering neither fear nor concern, only mild confusion. She clung to that blissful state, because it allowed her to escape the nameless fears and haunting questions nagging at the back of her mind.
The voice was very near her ear, kind but insistent and vaguely familiar.
He was speaking to her. She forced her eyes open and blinked, trying to focus, but her vision was strangely blurry and she saw two of everything, each object superimposed over the other.
She blinked again, and the images separated into two men, one of them middle-aged and gray-haired, with wire-rimmed spectacles and a neat mustache. He looked kindly and confident, just as he sounded. The other man was much younger. Handsome. Not so kindly. Not so confident, either. Worried.
The older man was smiling at her and speaking. "Do you remember me, Miss Lancaster?"
Sheridan started to nod, but movement made her head hurt so horribly that spontaneous tears burned her eyes.
"Miss Lancaster, do you remember me? Do you know who I am?"
Careful not to move her head when she spoke, she answered his question: "Doctor." Her lips felt dry and cracked, but talking didn't seem to make her headache more intense. The moment she realized that, her own questions began to rush in on her. "Where am I?"
"Where?" she persisted.
"You're in England. You sailed here from America."
For some reason, that made her feel uneasy, depressed. "Why?"
The two men exchanged a glance, then the doctor said reassuringly, "That will all come back to you in due time. Don't concern yourself with anything right now."
"I… want to know," she insisted, her whisper hoarse with tension.
"Very well, child," he agreed at once, patting her arm. After a slight hesitation he smiled as if he were giving her happy news and said, "You came here to join your fiancé."
A fiancé. Evidently, she was betrothed… to the other man, she decided, because he was the one who'd looked the most worried about her. Worried and exhausted. She shifted her gaze to the younger man and gave him a wan, reassuring smile, but he was frowning at the physician, who was shaking his head at him in some sort of warning. That frown bothered her for some reason, and so did the physician's warning look, but she didn't know why. It was incongruous, but at that moment, when she knew not who she was or where she'd been or how she came to be here, the only thing she did seem to know for certain was that one must always apologize for causing unhappiness to another. She knew that rule of courtesy as if it were deeply ingrained in her—instinctive, imperative, urgent.