"Not ill, actually," Sherry amended. "It was an injury—a blow to the head."
"Why don't we all sit down," Stephen suggested; cursing perverse fate for making what had already been a difficult situation into one that was bound to worsen. Sherry obviously didn't understand what his family was thinking, but Stephen did. They had walked in on him while he was entertaining an unchaperoned female in his home, which meant that her morality was in serious question, not to mention his own judgment for bringing such a woman into his home, particularly at an hour when callers might arrive. Furthermore, if she were some doxy with whom he was dallying, then he'd committed an unforgivable breach of decency by introducing her to his female relatives. Rather than believe he would descend to that, they were now waiting patiently for some sort of explanation as to who she was… or where her chaperone was… or where his mind was. Stalling for time, Stephen stood up as the butler came forward bearing a tray of decanters and glasses. "Ah, here is Colfax right now!" he said with grim desperation. "Mother, what will you have to drink?"
His tone won a startled glance from his mother, but she sensed his desire for her unquestioning cooperation and complied at once. With a polite smile, she shook her head at the tray the butler was placing on the table in front of the sofa and looked instead at the one Stephen had already put there. "Is that hot chocolate I smell?" she asked brightly, and without waiting for a reply, she said to the butler, "I believe I prefer the chocolate, Colfax."
"I'd have the sherry if I were you," Stephen advised with feeling.
"No, I think I'd prefer the chocolate," his mother said firmly, then she demonstrated her legendary grace under pressure by turning to Sherry. "I noticed you have an American accent, Miss Lancaster," she said politely. "How long have you been in England?"
"A little over a sennight," Sherry said, her voice tense with confusion and uncertainty. No one in that room seemed to know anything at all about her, even though she was betrothed to a member of their own family. Something was odd—dreadfully odd.
"Is this your first visit?"
"Yes," Sherry managed, looking desperately at Stephen, her chest tightening with anxiety and irrational foreboding.
"And what brings you here?"
"Miss Lancaster came to England because she is betrothed to an Englishman," Stephen said, coming to Sherry's rescue and praying that his mother's heart was strong.
The dowager duchess's entire body seemed to relax and her expression to warm. "How delightful," she said, pausing to frown at the butler, who had poured sherry into a glass and was holding it toward her, despite her stated preference for the chocolate. "Colfax, do stop waving that wine under my nose. I'd prefer hot chocolate." She smiled at Sherry as Colfax distributed glasses of wine to the remaining guests. "To whom are you betrothed, Miss Lancaster?" she inquired brightly, reaching forward and helping herself to a cup of the chocolate.
"She is betrothed to me," Stephen said flatly.
Silence exploded in the room. If the situation hadn't been so grave, Stephen would have laughed at the myriad reactions to his announcement. "To… you?" his mother said dazedly. Without another word, she put the cup of chocolate down and plucked a glass of wine from Colfax's tray on the table. Off to Stephen's right, his brother was regarding him with fascinated disbelief, and his sister-in-law had gone perfectly still, a forgotten glass of sherry uplifted in her outstretched hand, as if she'd been about to offer someone a toast. Colfax was dividing his anguished sympathy between Stephen's mother and Sherry, while Nicholas DuVille was studying the edge of his coat sleeve, undoubtedly wishing he were somewhere else.
Ignoring their plight for the moment, Stephen looked at Sherry, who was staring at her lap, her head bent with mortification at what surely struck her as an insulting lack of enthusiasm from her future in-laws. Reaching for her hand, Stephen clasped it reassuringly and gave her the first feasible explanation that sprang to mind: "You wanted to wait until my family met you before we told them we are betrothed," he lied, with what he hoped was a convincing smile. "And that is why they seem so surprised."
"We seem surprised because we are surprised," his mother said sternly, looking at him as if he'd taken leave of his senses. "When did you meet? Where did you meet? You haven't been to—"
"I'll answer all your questions in a few minutes."
Stephen interrupted in a terse voice that silenced his mother before she could blurt out that he hadn't been to America in years. Turning to Sherry, he said gently, "You look very pale. Would you like to go upstairs and lie down?"
Sherry wanted very much to flee from that room with all its tension and undercurrents, but there was something so very strange about everything that she was half afraid to be absent. "No, I—I think I'd prefer to stay."
Stephen gazed into her wounded, silvery eyes and thought how this moment would have been for her if he had not killed her real fiancé. True, Burleton wasn't much of a matrimonial prize, but they had cared for each other, and she certainly wouldn't have been subjected to such a degrading lack of enthusiasm from Burleton's family, if he'd had one. "If you would rather stay," he teased, "then I'll go upstairs and lie down and you stay here to explain to my family that I was such a… a sentimental idiot… that I let you twist me around your finger and convince me that they ought not to be told of our betrothal until after they'd met you and had an opportunity to know you."
Sherry felt as if an enormous weight had just fallen off her shoulders. "Oh," she said with an embarrassed laugh, as she looked around at the occupants of the room. "Is that what happened?"
"Don't you know?" the dowager burst out in what was, to Stephen's recollection, her first total loss of composure in her entire life.
"No—you see, I've lost my memory," Sherry replied with such sweetness and courage that Stephen's chest ached with admiration. "It is a dreadful inconvenience right now, but at least I can assure you it isn't a hereditary madness. It's merely the result of a silly accident that occurred on the dock beside the ship…"
Her voice trailed off, and Stephen forestalled another embarrassing barrage of questions by taking matters into his own hands and standing up, forcing her to follow suit. "You're tiring, and Hugh Whitticomb will have my head if you aren't rosy and healthy when he arrives tomorrow morning," he told her gently. "Let me walk you to your bedchamber. Say good-night to everyone. I insist."