Stephen liked it. He liked every damn thing about her. "I like it," he said casually. "I gather that red hair isn't quite the thing in America?"
Sheridan opened her mouth to answer, and realized she didn't know the answer. "I… don't see how it could be. And I don't think it is in England."
"What makes you say that?"
"Because the maid who helped me admitted after I pressed her that she had never seen a head of hair this color in her entire life. She looked perfectly appalled."
"Whose opinion matters most?" he countered smoothly.
"Well, when you put it that way…" Sheridan said, feeling shy and overheated beneath the warmth of his smile. He was so beautiful—in a dark, manly way—that it was difficult not to stare at him and even more difficult to believe he'd actually chosen her above all the women in his own country. She loved his company, his humor, and the gentle way he treated her. She counted the hours between his visits, looking forward eagerly to each one, but the visits had all been very brief and completely uninformative. As a result, she still knew nothing about herself, or about him, or about their past relationship. She was no longer willing to exist in limbo, waiting for her capricious memory to return at any moment and provide the answers.
She'd understood Lord Westmoreland's point of view, which was that she shouldn't jeopardize her health by overtaxing her mind, but her body was healed now. She'd gotten out of bed, bathed, and washed her hair, and then put on the dressing robe, in order to prove to him that she was well enough now to ask questions and hear answers. Her legs felt wobbly, but that might be due to a lingering weakness from her ordeal or, more likely, it was another symptom of the flustered nervousness she sometimes felt in his presence.
She nodded toward a pair of inviting gold-silk-covered sofas positioned near the fireplace. "Would you mind if we sat down? I'm afraid I've been in bed so long that my legs have grown weak from disuse."
"Why didn't you say something before?" Stephen said, already stepping aside so that she could precede him.
"I wasn't certain it was allowed."
She curled up on the sofa, tucked her bare feet beneath her, and arranged the dressing robe neatly around her. One of the things she'd obviously forgotten, Stephen noted, was that well-bred young ladies did not entertain gentlemen who were not their husbands in their boudoir. Stephen, on the other hand, was as aware of this as he was his own transgression in being there. He chose to ignore both issues in favor of his own desires. "Why did you say you weren't certain you were allowed to sit down?"
Her embarrassed gaze slid to the fireplace, and Stephen felt absurdly deprived of the delight of her face, and absurdly pleased when she looked back at him. "I understand from Constance—the maid—that you're an earl."
She looked at him as if she almost hoped he'd deny it, which made her the most unusual woman he'd ever met.
"And?" he said when she didn't continue.
"And that I ought properly to address you as 'my lord.' " When he merely lifted his brows, waiting, she admitted, "Among the things I do seem to know is that in the presence of a king, one does not sit unless invited to do so."
Stephen suppressed the urge to shout with laughter. "I am not a king, however, merely an earl."
"Yes, well, I wasn't certain if the same protocol applied."
"It doesn't, and speaking of the maid, where the devil is she? I specifically said you were not to be left alone at any time."
"I sent her away."
"Because of her reaction to your hair," he assumed aloud. "I'll see that—"
"No, because she'd been with me since dawn, and she looked exhausted. She'd already tidied the room, and I certainly didn't want to be bathed as if I were a child."
Stephen heard that with surprise, but then she was full of surprises, including her next announcement, which was stated with a great deal of resolve and only a tremor of uncertainty. "I've been making some decisions today."
"Have you now," he said, smiling at her fierce expression. She was not in any position to make decisions, but he saw no reason to point that out to her.
"Yes. I've decided that the best way to cope with the loss of my memory is to believe that it's merely a passing inconvenience, and for us to treat it that way."
"I think that's an excellent idea."
"There are a few things I'd like to ask you, however."
"What would you like to know?"
"Oh, the usual things," she said, choking on a laugh. "How old am I? Do I have a middle name?"
Stephen's defenses collapsed, leaving him torn between the wild urge to laugh at her wonderful, courageous sense of humor and the wilder urge to pull her off the sofa, shove his hands into that mass of gleaming hair and bury his lips in hers. She was as enticing as she was sweet, and more sexually provocative in that robe and curtain cord than any gorgeously dressed—or undressed—courtesan he'd ever known.
Burleton must have been in an agony to take her to bed, he thought. No wonder he intended to marry her the day after she arrived…
Guilt abruptly doused Stephen's pleasurable contemplation of her appealing assets, and shame ate at him like acid. Burleton, not he, should have been sitting across from her. It was Burleton who should have been the one to enjoy this cozy moment with her, to see her curled up on the sofa, barefoot; it was Burleton who had the right to be mentally undressing her and thinking of taking her to bed. No doubt he'd been thinking of little else while he waited for her ship to arrive.
Instead of all that, her ardent young lover was lying in a coffin, and his killer was enjoying the evening with his bride. No, Stephen corrected himself with savage self-disgust, he wasn't merely enjoying a pleasant evening with her, he was lusting after her.
His attraction to her was obscene! It was insane! If he wanted diversion of any kind, he could choose from among the most beautiful women in Europe. Sophisticated or naive, witty or serious, outgoing or shy, blondes, brunettes, and redheads—they were his for the asking. There was no reason on earth to feel a wild attraction to this woman, no reason to react to her like some randy adolescent or aging lecher.
Her quiet voice jerked him from his furious self-reproach, but his feelings of revulsion lingered. "Whatever it is," she said half-seriously, "I don't think it has very long to live."
Stephen's gaze snapped back to her face. "I beg your pardon?"
"Whatever it is that you've been glowering at over my left shoulder for the last minute—I hope it has legs and can run very quickly."