Frowning, Stephen realized his only choice was to spirit Miss Lancaster out of the city and take her to one of his estates—the remotest of his estates. That meant he'd have to make his excuses to his sister-in-law and his mother, at whose pleading insistence he'd come to London for the Season in the first place. They'd both argued very prettily and very persuasively that they hadn't seen enough of him in the last two years and that they enjoyed his company immensely, both of which Stephen knew they truly meant. They had not mentioned their third reason, which Stephen knew was to get him married off, preferably to Monica Fitzwaring, which was a campaign they'd undertaken with amusing—and increasing—perseverance of late. Once his mother and Whitney understood his reason for leaving London, they would immediately forgive him for foiling their plans, but they were going to be disappointed.

14

Now that he fully understood the importance of Whitticomb's reasons for wanting Stephen to play the part of her devoted fiancé, Stephen was determined to set matters to rights at once. He paused outside her door, braced himself for the inevitable bout of tears and recriminations that were bound to pour forth from her the moment she saw him, then he knocked and asked to see her.

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Sheridan started at the sound of his voice, but when the maid hurried forward to admit him, she returned her gaze to information she was copying out of the London newspaper, and said very firmly, "Please tell his lordship that I am indisposed."

When the maid relayed the information that Miss Lancaster was indisposed, Stephen frowned worriedly, wondering just how sick she had made herself because of his neglect. "Tell her that I came to see her and that I'll return in an hour."

Sheridan refused to feel even a trace of pleasure or relief that he intended to return. She knew better now than to depend on him for anything. Dr. Whitticomb had been so distressed over the state he'd found her in that morning, that his alarm had communicated itself to her, shaking her out of her dazed misery. If she was going to fully recover, he'd warned her, it was absolutely imperative that she take care of herself physically and that she keep her mind active.

He'd rushed through a disjointed—and, Sherry suspected, dishonest—explanation about her fiancé's neglect that included statements such as "absorbed by pressing business matters," and "obligations of his rank," and "problems with the stewardship on one of his estates." He'd even implied that the earl hadn't been feeling quite himself lately. Unfortunately for the kindly physician, the more he tried to explain away Lord Westmoreland's inexcusable disinterest in his fiancée, the more obvious it became to Sheridan that her presence, and her illness, were apparently less important to the earl than the tiniest details of his business and social life! Furthermore, she had every reason to believe that he was actually punishing her, or teaching her a cruel lesson, for having had the nerve to bring up the topic of love.

She had spent days tormenting herself for doing that and blaming herself for asking him if he had a heart. But as she'd listened to Dr. Whitticomb's lecture about her health and watched the somber look on his face, her guilt and hurt had finally turned to justifiable indignation. She wasn't engaged to the physician, but he'd been worried about her. He'd gone to the trouble to travel a distance to see her. If love was a laughable, forbidden emotion to sophisticated English noblemen, then the earl could at least have made allowances for her lost memory!

As to marrying the earl, Sheridan couldn't imagine what madness could have caused her to make such a decision. Thus far, the only positive attribute he seemed to possess was that he was remarkably handsome, which was certainly not reason enough to wed him. Furthermore, when her memory returned, if she didn't recall things that completely altered her opinion of him, she fully intended to tell him to take his marriage proposal and make it to some other female, one who was as cold and impersonal about marriage as he was! She found it almost impossible to believe that, in her right senses, she would have felt differently about the matter of marriage. Perhaps her father had been deceived into believing the earl would make her a good husband and had insisted she wed the man. If so, she would go to her father and explain why she'd decided not to do so. In the last few days, whenever she tried to think of her father, she couldn't conjure a face, but she could feel faint stirrings of emotion—a gentle warmth, a loving closeness, a sense of loss as if she missed him terribly. Surely, a father who evoked feelings like that wouldn't be the sort to force his daughter to marry a man she didn't admire in the least!

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Exactly an hour later, Stephen knocked at the door again.

Sheridan looked at the clock on the mantel, angrily noting that he was at least punctual, but that didn't influence her decision. Continuing to study the newspapers that she'd spread out on the writing desk by the windows, she spoke to the maid: "Please tell his lordship that I am resting." As she said the words, she felt a spurt of pride in herself. Although she didn't know anything factual about Charise Lancaster, at least she didn't lack spirit or resolve!

On the other side of the portal, Stephen's guilt was replaced by the beginning of alarm. "Is she ill?" he demanded of the maid.

The chambermaid looked pleadingly at Sheridan, who shook her head, and the maid answered him in the negative.

An hour after that, when Stephen again knocked upon the door, he was informed she was "having a bath."

An hour after that, he was no longer worried, he was annoyed. He knocked sharply, and this time he was advised that "Miss is sleeping."

"Tell 'Miss,' " he ordered in a dire, warning tone, "that I will return in exactly one hour, and I expect to see her, very clean and very rested and ready to go downstairs for supper. We dine at nine."

An hour later, when the earl knocked on the door, Sheridan experienced a degree of amused satisfaction. Smiling to herself, she sank deeper into the warm bubbles that threatened to spill over the marble bath. "Tell his lordship that I prefer to eat in my room this evening," she instructed, feeling sorry for the poor maid, who looked as if she'd rather be flogged—or else was afraid of being flogged.

Stephen flung open the door before the maid had finished the sentence and stalked inside the bedchamber, nearly knocking the servant over. "Where is she?" he snapped.

"In—in the bath, my lord."

He started toward the doorway that led into the special marble bath suite he'd had installed off this bedchamber several years ago, then he caught the maid's appalled expression and changed direction. Walking over to the table by the window, he glanced at the open newspaper and saw a piece of writing paper lying beside it. "Miss Lancaster!" he said, raising his voice and using a tone that made the poor chambermaid blanch. "If you are not downstairs in exactly ten minutes, I will come up here and haul you down there myself in whatever state of dress, or undress, I happen to find you! Is that clear?"

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