"Good-night, everyone," Sherry echoed with a disconcerted smile. "As I'm certain you know, Lord Westmoreland is terribly protective." As she turned away, she noticed that while everyone else seemed to find her very odd, Nicholas DuVille was watching her with a faint smile, as if he found her more interesting than hopelessly peculiar. Sherry clung to the memory of his encouraging glance as she closed the door to her bedchamber and sat down on her bed, her mind whirling with frightening doubts and hopeless questions.
When Stephen walked back into the drawing room a few moments later, four pairs of eyes tracked his progress across the room, but his family waited until he was seated before they launched their questions. The instant he touched the chair, however, the two women spoke simultaneously.
His mother said, "What accident?"
His sister-in-law said, "What ship?"
Stephen looked to his brother for his first question, but Clayton merely regarded him with raised brows and said dryly, "I can't seem to get past the staggering discovery that you are not only a 'sentimental idiot' but 'terribly protective' as well."
Nicholas DuVille politely refrained from saying anything at all, though Stephen had the distinct feeling the Frenchman was rather amused by his predicament. He considered rudely volunteering to provide DuVille with a coach so that he could leave, but the man was a longtime friend of Whitney's, and, besides, his presence would deter Stephen's dignified mother from indulging in what would have been her first bout of hysterics.
Satisfied that the group was as ready as they were ever likely to be to hear the truth, Stephen leaned his head against the back of his chair and addressed the ceiling in a terse, composed voice. "The scene you just witnessed between Charise Lancaster and myself is actually a giant farce. The entire debacle began with a carriage accident over a week ago, an accident for which I was responsible and which has resulted in a chain of events that I am about to describe to you. The young woman whom you have just met is as much a victim of those events as her deceased fiancé, a young baron by the name of Arthur Burleton."
From the other side of the room, Whitney said in an appalled voice, "Arthur Burleton is—was a complete scapegrace."
"Be that as it may," Stephen replied with a ragged sigh, "they cared for each other and were going to be wed. As you're about to discover from my tale, Charise Lancaster, whom you all suspect of being either a complete birdwit or else a scheming fortune-hunter who has somehow enticed me into offering her marriage, is actually a completely innocent, and very pitiable, victim of my own negligence and dishonesty…"
When Stephen had completed his tale and answered everyone's questions, a long silence fell over the room's occupants as everyone tried to gather their thoughts. Lifting his wineglass, Stephen took a long drink, as if the wine could somehow wash away the bitterness and regret he felt. His brother spoke first. "If Burleton was inebriated enough to run in front of a team of horses on a public street in the fog, then surely he is responsible for his own death."
"The responsibility is mine," Stephen replied curtly, dismissing Clayton's well-meaning attempt to absolve him. "I was driving a raw team. I should have been able to keep my horses under control."
"And following that logic, I gather you feel equally responsible for the loaded cargo net that injured Charise Lancaster?"
"Of course I do," Stephen bit out. "She would not have been standing in harm's way, nor would I have let her, if we hadn't both been preoccupied with Burleton's death. If it had not been for my carelessness on two occasions, Charise Lancaster would be a healthy, married woman tonight with an English baron for a husband and the life she wanted stretching before her."
"Now that you've convicted yourself," Clayton countered, momentarily forgetting DuVille's presence, "have you decided on your penalty yet?"
Everyone in the room knew Clayton was merely frustrated and alarmed by the bitter self-recrimination that had permeated Stephen's voice, but it was Nicholas DuVille who defused the charged atmosphere by interrupting in a humorous drawl, "In the interest of avoiding a nasty duel between the two of you at dawn, which would force me to arise at a very inconvenient and uncivilized hour in order to act as your joint second, may I respectfully suggest you turn your excellent minds to possible solutions to the problems, rather than dwelling on the cause?"
"Nicholas is quite right," the dowager duchess murmured to her empty glass, her expression somber and preoccupied. Lifting her gaze to his, she added, "Though it's unfair to embroil you in our family problems, it is obvious that you are better able to think clearly because you are not so deeply involved."
"Thank you, your grace. In that case, may I offer you my thoughts on the matter?" When both women nodded emphatically and neither man voiced an objection, Nicki said, "If I understood everything correctly, it appears that Miss Lancaster was betrothed to a penniless ne'er-do-well, for whom she harbored tender feelings, but who had nothing to offer her other than a noble title. Do I have it right so far?"
Stephen nodded, his expression carefully neutral.
"And," Nicki continued, "because of two accidents for which Stephen feels responsible, Miss Lancaster now has no fiancé and no memory. Correct?"
"Correct," Stephen said.
"As I understood it, her physician believes her memory will return in its own good time, is that also correct?"
When Stephen nodded, Nicki said, "Therefore, the only permanent loss she has suffered—for which you can possibly feel responsible—is the loss of a fiancé who possessed a meaningless title and several very unsavory habits. In which case"—he lifted his glass in a mocking toast to his own powers of reason—"it appears to me that you could discharge your debt to her by simply finding her another fiancé to take Burleton's place. And if the fiancé you select also happens to be a decent fellow, capable of supporting her in a respectable style, then you could not only soothe your guilt, but you might rightly feel as if you've saved her from a life of torment and degradation." He glanced at Whitney and then at Stephen. "How am I doing so far?"
"I'd say you're doing rather well," Stephen replied with a slight smile. "I'd given some thought to a similar idea. But," he added, "the idea is far easier to contemplate than to execute."
"Oh, but I know we could pull it off if we put our heads to it!" Whitney exclaimed, anxious to pursue any solution at all that would derail his guilt and give them all a direction. "All we need do is see that she's introduced to a few of the hundreds of eligible men who will be here for the Season." She looked at her mother-in-law for support and received an overbright smile that belied unspoken worries.