He gave her a brief, humorless smile. "My thoughts drifted. I apologize."
"Oh, please do not apologize!" she said with a nervous laugh. "I am vastly relieved to know you were thinking of something other than my questions with that black scowl on your face."
"I'm afraid I've forgotten the questions entirely."
"My age?" she provided helpfully, her delicate brows lifting. "Do I have a middle name?" Despite her lighthearted tone, Stephen realized she was watching him very, very closely. He was disconcerted by the way her eyes were searching his, and he hesitated for a second, still struggling to switch his attention to the topic at hand. She broke the silence before he could, by heaving a great, comical sigh of dismay and warning him in an exaggerated, dire voice, "Dr. Whitticomb told me this malady I have is called am-ne-si-a, and it is not contagious. Therefore, I shall be very much aggrieved if you mean to pretend you have it too, and thus make me look quite ordinary. Now, shall we start with something a little easier? Would you care to tell me your full name? Your age? Take your time, think about the answers."
Stephen would have laughed if he hadn't hated himself so much for wanting to. "I am three and thirty," he said. "My name is Stephen David Elliott Westmoreland."
"Well that explains it!" she joked. "With so many names, it's little wonder it took you awhile to recall them all!"
A grin tugged at his lips, and Stephen tried to negate it by chiding as sternly as he could, "You impertinent baggage, I'll thank you to show me a little more respect."
Unchastened and unrepentant, she tipped her head to the side and inquired curiously, "Because you're an earl?"
"No, because I'm bigger than you are."
Her peal of laughter was as musical as bells and so infectious that Stephen's face hurt from the effort to keep his expression blank.
"Now that we've established that I am impertinent and you are larger than I," she said, giving him a laughing, innocent look from beneath her lashes, "would it be equally correct to assume that you are also older than I?"
Stephen nodded because he couldn't trust his voice.
She pounced instantly. "By how many years?"
"Persistent little chit, aren't you?" he said, caught between amusement and admiration at how neatly she'd twisted the subject back around to her questions.
She sobered, her gray eyes infinitely appealing. "Please tell me how old I am. Tell me if I have a middle name. Or don't you know?"
He didn't know. On the other hand, he didn't know the ages or middle names of many of the women who'd occupied his bed. Since she'd spent very little time with her fiancé, the truth seemed safe and even reasonable. "Actually, neither of those issues ever came up."
"And my family—what are they like?"
"Your father is a widower," Stephen said, recalling what he'd learned from Burleton's butler, and feeling quite capable of handling the discussion, after all. "You are his only child."
She nodded, absorbing that, then she smiled at him. "How did we meet?"
"I imagine your mother introduced you to him shortly after you were born."
She laughed because she thought he was joking. He frowned because he hadn't anticipated questions like that, he didn't feel capable of either answering or evading them, and no matter what he did or said, he was still going to be a fraud.
"I mean, how did you and I meet?"
"The usual way," he said curtly.
"We were introduced." He got up to avoid the puzzlement and scrutiny in those wide gray eyes of hers, and walked over to a sideboard, where he'd seen a crystal decanter earlier.
He glanced over his shoulder as he pulled the stopper out of the decanter and raised it to the glass. "Yes?"
"Are we very much in love?"
Half the brandy sloshed over his thumb and ran down the side of the glass onto the gold tray. Swearing silently, he realized that no matter what he told her now, she was going to feel duped when she recovered her memory. Between that and the fact that he was also responsible for the death of the man she did care for, she was going to hate him thoroughly when this was over. But not as much as he hated himself for everything, including what he was about to do. Raising the glass, he tossed down what little brandy he'd actually managed to get into it, then he turned around and faced her. Left with no choice, he answered in a way that he knew would destroy any good opinion she had of him. "This is England, not America—" he began.
"Yes, I know. Dr. Whitticomb told me that."
Inwardly Stephen winced at the reminder that she'd had to be told what country she was in, which was also his fault. "This is England," he repeated curtly. "In England, in the upper classes, couples marry for a variety of reasons, nearly all of which are purely practical. Unlike some Americans, we do not expect or desire to wear our hearts on our sleeves, nor do we prose on and on about that tenuous emotion called 'love.' We leave that to the peasants and the poets."
She looked as if he'd slapped her, and Stephen put the glass down with more force than he'd intended. "I hope I haven't upset you with my bluntness," he said, feeling like a complete bastard. "It's getting late, and you need your rest."
He gave her a slight bow to indicate the conversation was over, and then waited for her to stand up, carefully looking away when the dressing robe parted to reveal a glimpse of shapely calf. He already had his hand on the door handle, when she finally spoke.
"Yes?" he said without turning.
"You do have one, though, do you not?"
"Miss Lancaster," he began, furious with himself and with fate because he was in this untenable situation. He turned around and saw that she was standing at the foot of the bed, her hand resting on the poster in a pretty pose.
"My name is—" she hesitated, and he felt another stab of unbearable guilt as she had to think to remember her own name, "Charise. I wish you would call me that."
"Certainly," he said, intending to do nothing of the sort. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some work to do."
Sheridan waited until the door closed behind him, then she grabbed the poster with the other hand as dizziness and nausea overwhelmed her. Carefully, she eased herself into a sitting position on the satin coverlet, her heart hammering from weakness and fear.