Stephen recognized her attempt to control her fear as well as reassure him—which struck him as remarkably and touchingly brave. "Describe you…" he said, stalling for time. He didn't know the color of her hair, and he was afraid of how she might react if she saw herself in a mirror, so he tried to pass the entire issue off as a joke. "At the moment, your eyes are puffy and red," he said with a smile as he flicked a quick glance at her eyes to gather additional information, "but they're… very large and… gray," he concluded with some surprise.

In fact, she had startling eyes, Stephen realized—light silvery gray at the center with a thin outline of black at the edges and set off with that luxurious fringe of long sable lashes.

"Gray?" Sheridan said, disappointed. "I don't think I like that."

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"Right now, when they're wet, they look like liquid silver."

"Perhaps they aren't so very bad. What about the rest of me?"

"Well, your face is pale and streaked with tears, but it's a rather nice face, despite that."

She looked torn between horror, tears, and laughter. To his relief and surprise, she decided to smile. "What color is my hair?"

"At the moment," he prevaricated quickly, "your hair is concealed by a large white… er… turban. Wearing a turban to bed has become all the rage, as you know." The night of the accident, the light had been poor and her hair had been covered, first with a hood and then with her blood. Still, her lashes were brown, so it stood to reason her hair would be. "Your hair is brown," he said decisively. "Dark brown."

"It took you rather a long time to decide."

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She was watching him closely, puzzled but not suspicious.

"I'm not very observant—about some things," he countered, inanely he thought.

"May I see a mirror?"

Stephen wasn't certain how she'd react if she didn't recognize her face even when she saw it in a mirror, and he wasn't certain if she'd panic when she saw her head swathed in bandages and the dark bruise near her temple. He was, however, certain that when the time came for her to look in a mirror, he wanted Whitticomb here in case she needed medication. "Another day," he said. "Perhaps tomorrow. Or when the bandages are removed."

Sheridan sensed why he didn't want her to look at a mirror, and since she wasn't up to another bout of terror and had no desire to make things any more trying for him than she already had, she reverted to their earlier remarks about turbans. "Turbans are very practical, I suppose. They save one the bother of using brushes and combs, and all that."

"Exactly," Stephen said, marvelling at the grace and courage she displayed under such extreme duress. He was so grateful she was able to talk and so touched by her attitude that it seemed perfectly natural, perfectly right, to cover her hand with his, smile into those amazing silvery eyes, and tenderly inquire, "Are you in much pain? How do you feel?"

"I have a bit of a headache, that's all," she admitted, returning his smile as if that, too, were natural and right. "You needn't worry that I feel as badly as I look."

Her voice was soft and sweet, and yet her expression was open and direct. She'd indicated a feminine concern about her appearance earlier, then calmly accepted that she did not look her best, and now she was actually joking about it. All those things gave Stephen the distinct impression that pretense and pretension were completely foreign to her, and that she was refreshingly unique in those ways and probably many other delightful ways, as well.

Unfortunately, that realization led instantly to another—one that banished his pleasure and made him quickly withdraw his hand from hers. There was nothing natural, nothing right, about what he was doing or the way he was thinking about her. He was not her fiancé, as she believed; he was the man who was responsible for her fiancé's death. Common decency, respect for the young man he had killed, and just plain ordinary good taste all dictated that he keep his distance mentally and physically. He was the last man on earth who had the right to touch her or think about her in any personal sort of way.

Hoping to end his visit on a light note, he stood up, rotating his sore shoulders, trying to work the kinks out of them. Reverting to her last comment about her looks, he said, "All in all, if I had to describe you at this moment, I'd say you look like a fashionable mummy."

She giggled weakly at that, but she was tiring, and he saw it. "I'll send a maid in with breakfast. Promise me you'll eat something." She nodded, and he turned to leave.

"Thank you," she said quietly behind him, and he turned back, puzzled.

"For what?"

Those candid eyes lifted to his, searching, delving, and Stephen had the fleeting impression that, with time, she might see straight into his blackened soul. She obviously hadn't gotten his true measure, however, because a warm smile touched those soft lips of hers. "For staying with me all night."

Her gratitude only made him feel more guilty about everything, more of a disgusting fraud, for letting her think of him as some gallant white knight, instead of the black villain he actually was. Inclining his head in the mockery of a bow, Stephen gave her a bold grin and a deliberate insight into his true character: "That is the first time I've ever been thanked by a beautiful woman for spending the night with her."

She looked confused, not appalled, but that didn't diminish Stephen's own sense of relief. He hadn't made that subtle "confession" about his true nature because he needed or desired absolution, or wished to do penance. What mattered most to him at the moment was that he had at least been honest with her for a change, and that redeemed him a little in his own eyes.

As he headed down the long hall to his own chamber, Stephen felt completely elated about something for the first time in weeks, no, months: Charise Lancaster was on the way to a full recovery. He was completely certain of it. She was going to pull through, which meant he could now notify her father of her accident and at the same time give the man some needed reassurance about her eventual recovery. First he had to locate him, but that task and the delivery of the letter could both be handed over to Matthew Bennett and his people.

11

Stephen glanced up from the letter he was reading and nodded a greeting at the light-haired man in his early thirties who was walking toward him. "I apologize for interrupting your holiday in Paris," he told Matthew Bennett, "but the matter is urgent, and delicate enough to require your personal attention."

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