To his disbelief, the chit didn't dignify his ultimatum with a reply! Wondering who she could possibly be writing to, Stephen picked up the writing paper. He was thinking sardonically that poor Burleton was probably better off dead, because Charise Lancaster would have made his life a hell with her outrageous obstinacy and temper, when he picked up the paper and realized what she'd been doing. In a precise, elegant hand, she'd recorded facts she'd gathered from the morning Post, facts that she must have known before, but which she was having to relearn. Because of him:
King of England—George IV. Born 1762. George IV's father was George III. Died two years ago. Called "Farmer George" by English people. The King is fond of ladies and fine clothing and excellent wines.
After every few recorded facts, she'd tried to list similar facts about herself, but there were only blank spaces where easy answers should have been.
I was born in 18____?
My father's name is______?
I am fond of______?
Guilt and sorrow raged through Stephen, and he closed his eyes. She didn't know her own name, or her father's, or the year of her birth. Worse, when her memory did return, she was in for the biggest blow of all—the tragedy of her fiancé's death. All of that… and all because of him.
The words on the paper felt as if they were searing his hand, and he dropped it onto the desk, drew an unsteady breath and turned to leave. He would not lose patience with her again, no matter what she said or did, he vowed. He had no right to feel anger or frustration; he had no right to feel anything except guilt and responsibility.
Determined to do everything in his power to atone for the hurt he had inflicted on her with his neglect—and was going to inflict on her when she ultimately learned her real fiancé was dead—Stephen headed for the door. However, since he couldn't begin his program of atonement until she left the bathing room, he warned, in a more courteous, but very firm, voice, "You have eight minutes left."
He heard the bath water slosh, nodded with satisfaction, and left. As he walked down the upper hall toward the staircase, he realized he was going to have to do more than apologize for neglecting her; he was going to have to come up with an explanation she would accept. Before she lost her memory, Charise Lancaster had obviously harbored youthful, idealistic notions about love and marriage, since she'd plainly asked him if they were "very much in love." Inwardly, Stephen recoiled from the mere mention of the word. As he'd discovered, with age and experience, very few women were actually capable of feelings or behavior that even approximated that tender emotion, though nearly all women talked as if it were as natural to their sex as breathing. For his part, he instinctively mistrusted the word and any woman who mentioned it.
Helene shared his feelings in that regard, which was one more reason he enjoyed her company. Moreover, she was faithful to him, which was more than could be said of most of the wives of his acquaintances. For those reasons, he kept her in a style that would have befitted the legitimate wife of a nobleman, complete with a beautiful London townhouse, a large staff of servants, closets full of gowns and furs, and a splendid silver-lacquered coach with pale lavender velvet squabs—a color combination that was Helene Devernay's "signature." Few but she could wear it, and others who tried never managed to carry it off or look as lovely in it. She was sophisticated and sensual; she understood the rules and did not confuse lovemaking with love.
Now that he thought about it, not one female, including those he'd spent enough time with to start betrothal rumors circulating, had ever presumed to try to engage him in a discussion about love, let alone expect him to actually profess it.
Charise Lancaster, however, was obviously not so practical or so sensible. She clearly expected her fiancé to discuss it—at length, no doubt—and that was something Stephen intended to avoid for his sake and her own. Once her memory returned, she was going to hate him for all his deceptions, but she would hate him far more for humiliating her with false protestations of undying affection that he didn't feel.
Two footmen stepped forward as he reached the drawing room and swept open the doors. His forehead furrowed in thought, Stephen walked past them and then over to the sideboard, where he poured sherry into a glass. Behind him, the doors closed silently, and he turned his attention to the most pressing problem at hand. Within the next minute or two, he had to invent some truly plausible explanation to give her for his blatantly unloverlike behavior the last night they'd talked, and for avoiding her since then. When he'd first gone upstairs to see her, he'd intended to apologize and soothe her with a few vague platitudes. Now that he had a better idea of her temperament, he had the uneasy conviction that she wouldn't settle for that.
Seething and hurrying, Sheridan clasped the front of the long lavender gown closed as she rushed down the hall from her bedchamber, past startled footmen, whose heads turned in unison as she passed, their mouths agape. Just when she thought she must surely be coming to the living areas of the house, she emerged onto a balcony with a white marble banister that continued downward in a wide, graceful spiral for two full stories before it ended in a vast entrance hall below.
Snatching up the hem of her gown, she ran down the staircase, past framed portraits of what must have been sixteen generations of the arrogant earl's ancestors. She didn't have the slightest idea where he was or how he expected her to find him. The only thing she knew for certain was that in addition to all his other unpleasant traits, he'd spoken to her as if she were a piece of his chattel, and that he was undoubtedly relishing the prospect of hauling her downstairs like a sack of flour in front of his servants if she didn't meet his deadline.
To deprive him of that pleasure, she was willing to go to almost any lengths. She could not imagine how she could have been in her right mind and still have agreed to bind herself for life to a man like him! As soon as her father arrived, she would break her engagement and ask him to take her home at once!
She didn't like the earl, and she was quite certain she wouldn't have anything in common with his mama either. According to the chambermaid, this gown belonged to the earl's mother. It was appalling to imagine an elderly dowager such as his mother, or any other respectable female for that matter, prancing around at balls or entertaining visitors in a flimsy, frivolous lavender gown with nothing but silver ribbons to hold the bodice together or keep the entire front from coming open. She was so angry and so absorbed in her own woes that she didn't give even a passing notice to the splendor of the great hall with its four immense chandeliers, glittering like giant tiers of brilliant diamonds, or to the exquisite frescoes on the walls and intricate plasterwork on the ceiling.