The forgotten cigar clamped between his teeth, Hugh leaned back in his chair and regarded the angry earl with amused fascination. "So, she appeals to you in that way, does she?"
"In exactly 'that way,' " Stephen bit out.
"Now I understand why you've been avoiding her." Narrowing his eyes against the smoke, Hugh considered the situation thoughtfully for a moment, then continued. "Actually, it's little wonder you find her irresistible, Stephen. I myself find her utterly refreshing and completely delightful."
"Excellent!" Stephen said caustically. "Then you tell her you're really Burleton, and then you wed her. That would set everything to rights."
That last sentence was so subtly revealing, and so interesting, that Hugh carefully withdrew his gaze from Stephen's face. He removed his cigar from his mouth, held it in his fingertips, and studied it with apparent absorption. "That is a very interesting line of thought, especially for you," he remarked. "I might even say a revealing line of thought."
"What are you talking about?"
"I am talking about your statement that if someone were to marry her, 'that would set everything to rights.' " Without waiting for a reply, he continued, "You feel responsible for Burleton's death and her memory loss, and you're physically attracted to her. Despite that—or because of all that—you're adamantly opposed to doing something as simple and therapeutic as pretending to be her fiancé, is that right?"
"If you want to put it that way, yes."
"That's it then," Hugh said, slapping his knee and smiling with satisfaction. "That's the whole puzzle, all nicely put together." Without waiting for his annoyed adversary to demand an explanation, Hugh provided it: "Miss Lancaster has no fiancé because of an accident for which you were unavoidably responsible, but responsible nonetheless. Now, if you were to pretend to be her affianced husband, and if she were to develop a deep affection for you while you were pretending to be that, then under those circumstances, she might expect—might even have a right to expect—that you turn the deception into a reality.
"Based on your prior attitude toward the female set, which by the way has your mama in complete despair of ever seeing you married, there would be no chance of Miss Lancaster bringing you up to scratch. But Miss Lancaster is not as easy for you to dismiss as the others have been. You find her physically desirable, but you also fear that you might find her irresistible on longer acquaintance, otherwise you wouldn't be letting her presence drive you into hiding in your own home. Nor would you be callously avoiding someone who clearly needs your company and attention.
"If you had nothing to fear, you wouldn't be avoiding her. It's as simple as that. But you do have something to fear: For the first time in your life, you have reason to fear the loss of your cherished bachelorhood."
"Are you finished?" Stephen inquired blandly.
"Quite. What do you think of my summation of the situation?"
"I think it is the most impressive combination of unlikely possibilities and faulty logic I have ever heard in my life."
"If so, my lord," Dr. Whitticomb said with a congenial smile, peering at him over the tops of his spectacles, "then why are you denying her the comfort of your presence?"
"I can't answer that at the moment. Unlike you, I haven't stopped to analyze all my misgivings."
"Then let me provide you with an added motivation to overcome any misgivings you may have or invent," Hugh said, his tone turning brisk and firm. "I've been reading articles on the subject of memory loss, and consulting with those few colleagues who have some experience in it. It appears that it can be brought on, not only by an injury to the head, but by hysteria, or in the worst cases—a combination of both. According to what I've learned, the more desperate Miss Lancaster becomes to recover her memory, the more upset and depressed and hysterical she will become when she cannot. As her agitation increases, the harder she'll find it to recall anything." With satisfaction, he watched the younger man frown with concern. "Conversely, if she is made to feel safe and happy, it stands to reason her memory will return much sooner. If it ever returns, that is."
Dark brows had drawn together over alarmed blue eyes. "What do you mean 'if it ever returns'?"
"Precisely what I said. There are cases of permanent memory loss. There was one in which the poor devil had to be taught to speak and read and feed himself all over again."
Dr. Whitticomb nodded to reinforce his point, then he added, "If you have any lingering doubts about doing what I've suggested, consider this as an added incentive: The young lady is aware that she had not spent a great deal of time with her fiancé before coming here, because I've told her that. And she's also aware that she's never been in this house, or even this country before, because I've assured her of that too. Because she knows she's among unfamiliar people in unfamiliar surroundings, she hasn't already made herself sick with anxiety over not recognizing everyone and everything. But, that's not going to be true if she hasn't recovered her memory before her family arrives. If she can't remember her own people when she sees them, she's going to start falling apart mentally and physically. Now, what are you willing to risk in order to save her from that fate?"
"Anything," Stephen said tightly.
"I knew you would feel just that way when you understood the true gravity of the situation. By the by, I told Miss Lancaster that she need not remain in bed any longer, provided she doesn't attempt anything strenuous for another week." Taking out his watch, Hugh Whitticomb flicked the cover open and stood up. "I must be off. I had a note from your lovely mother. She said she's planning to come up for the Season with your brother and sister-in-law in a sennight. I'm looking forward to seeing all of them."
"So am I," Stephen said absently. Whitticomb was on his way out when it occurred to Stephen that in addition to everything else, he was going to have to involve his family in the deception he was about to put into full force. And even that wouldn't suffice, he realized as he shoved papers into his desk drawer. In a week, when his family arrived in London for the Season, so would the rest of the ton, and invitations to balls and all the other entertainments would begin arriving at his house by the hundreds, along with a daily stream of callers.
He put the key into the drawer's lock and turned it, then he leaned back in his chair, frowning as he considered his alternatives: If he turned down all the invitations, which he was certainly willing to do, that wouldn't solve the problem. His friends and acquaintances would begin calling until they saw him and had an opportunity to try to discover why he had come to London for the Season only to behave like a recluse.