Sherry surrendered to the overwhelming compulsion, and in a faint, thready voice, she waited until her fiancé was looking at her and said, "I'm sorry."
He winced as if her words had hurt him, and then for the first time in her recollection, she heard his voice—deep, confident, and incredibly soothing. "Don't apologize. Everything is going to be fine. All you need is a little time and some rest."
The act of speaking was beginning to require more effort than she could make. Exhausted and bewildered, Sherry closed her eyes, then she heard the men move as if to leave. "Wait…" she managed. Suddenly and irrationally terrified of being alone, of sinking back into the dark void that was tugging at her and never being able to surface again, she looked at both men, then settled her imploring gaze on her fiancé. He was the stronger of the two, younger, more vital—he would keep the demons in her brain at bay, with sheer force of will, if they came back to torment her. "Stay," she said in a faint whisper that was draining the last of her strength. "Please." When he hesitated and looked at the doctor, Sheridan wet her cracked lips and, drawing a labored breath, she framed into one feeble word all the thoughts and emotions that were warring inside her. "Afraid."
Her eyelids felt like lead weights, and they closed against her will, shutting her away from the world of the living. Panic set in, pressing her down, making her fight for air… And then she heard the sharp scrape of chair legs on the polished wood floor as a heavy chair was pulled up beside the bed. "There's nothing to fear," her fiancé said.
Sheridan moved her hand an inch forward on the coverlet, a child blindly seeking reassurance from a parent she couldn't even remember. Long masculine fingers closed over her palm and held it in a reassuring grip. "Hate… afraid," she mumbled.
"I won't leave you. I promise."
Sheridan clung to his hand, and his voice, and his promise, and she took all three with her into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Guilt and fear made Stephen's chest ache as he watched her drifting deeper and deeper into slumber. Her head was swathed in bandages and her face was ghostly pale, but what struck him forcibly was how small she looked in that bed, swallowed up by pillows and bedcovers.
She had apologized, when he was entirely to blame, not only for the death of her fiancé and her dreams, but for this calamity as well. He knew the dangers on a dock, and yet he'd positioned himself, and her, directly in the path of a winch. On top of that, he'd been so preoccupied with her reaction to Burleton's death that he'd failed to see the loaded cargo net swinging toward her, and then he'd failed to react in time to the stevedore's warning shout. And if she hadn't been in such a state of shock over what Stephen had told her, and the blunt, clumsy way he'd told her, then she might have been able to react in time to save herself.
As it was, he had put her in the path of danger, failed to protect her, and then made it all but impossible for her to protect herself. If she died, the fault would be entirely his, and he knew he'd never be able to live with that on his conscience. He already carried enough of a burden over young Burleton's death to torment his nights and haunt his days.
Her breathing changed suddenly, and fear clawed at him. He held his own breath until her chest rose and fell in what seemed like a reasonably steady rhythm, then he exhaled and looked down at the hand resting trustingly in his palm. Her fingers were long and graceful and smooth, but her nails were trimmed very short—an aristocratic hand belonging to a prim and proper young lady with an obvious penchant for tidiness and practicality, he decided.
He lifted his gaze to her face, and if he hadn't been half crazed with fear and half dead from exhaustion, he would have smiled as he wondered how she felt about that face of hers, given her prim and practical streak. There was certainly nothing prim about those soft, generous lips, and nothing practical about those incredibly long, curly lashes that lay like lush crescents against her cheeks. He had no idea what color her hair or eyes were, but her cheekbones were delicately molded, her ivory skin almost translucent. In contrast to all her other features that seemed to exemplify fragile femininity, there was a firmness to that small chin of hers that hinted of willfulness. No, Stephen corrected himself, it more likely hinted of courage. She hadn't wept with pain or fear; she'd said she hated being afraid, which implied she preferred to fight that debilitating emotion, rather than succumb to it.
She undoubtedly had courage, he decided, and kindness as well—enough to try to apologize for worrying him. Courage and gentleness, a remarkable combination in any woman, but particularly in one so young.
And so vulnerable, he realized with a fresh surge of panic as her chest rose and fell in fitful little gasps. Tightening his grip on her hand, he watched her seem to struggle for air while a lump of pure terror swelled in his throat. God! She was dying! "Don't!" he whispered fiercely. "Don't die!"
Bright sunlight was peeking between the green draperies at the far end of the room when Sheridan opened her eyes again. Her fiancé was seated in a chair beside the bed, still holding her hand, fast asleep. Sometime in the night, he'd removed his coat and neckcloth, opened his collar, and fallen asleep with his arms crossed on the bed and his head resting on them. His face was toward her, and Sheridan cautiously turned her head on the pillow, breathing a sigh of relief when the slight movement didn't unleash the hammers in her brain.
In the peaceful daze that comes after a deep sleep, she idly studied the man to whom she was betrothed. He was tanned, she realized, as if he spent time outdoors, and his thick hair was a rich dark brown, beautifully trimmed to lie flat at the sides and to barely touch the collar of his shirt. At the moment, his hair was rumpled from sleep and there was something endearingly boyish about that and the way his spiky black lashes lay against his face. There was nothing boyish about the rest of him, however, and she felt a mixture of fascination and an inexplicable uneasiness at the discovery. The shadowy beginnings of a dark beard had appeared on a square jaw that was hard and resolute even in slumber. His straight, dark brows were drawn together into a scowl that boded ill for someone in his dreams. The fine white fabric of his shirt was stretched taut over powerful shoulders and muscular arms. Crisp, dark hair peeked from the deep vee of his open collar and lightly covered his forearms. He was all rugged angles and sharp planes, from his finely carved nose to his chiselled jaw and long fingers. He looked stern and uncompromising, she decided.