"Actually, there are one or two minor problems associated with that plan," Stephen said dryly, but he couldn't bring himself to dampen her enthusiasm. Besides, the plan seemed far more feasible now, with the women in his family ready to lend their enthusiasm and assistance, than it had in the past days. "Why don't you give the entire project some careful thought, and we'll discuss the various aspects of it on the morrow—at one o'clock here?" he suggested. When everyone agreed, he cautioned, "For Sherry's sake, it is important that we foresee problems and avert them in advance. Remember that, when you are thinking about all this. I'll send a note to Hugh Whitticomb and ask him to come round and join the discussion, so that we are certain we aren't imperiling her recovery in any way."
As the group arose, he looked at his mother and Whitney and said, "Unless I miss my guess, Sherry is wide awake and torturing herself with questions she cant possibly answer about everyone's reaction to her tonight." He didn't have to complete the request. Both women were already heading for the door, anxious to atone for any unhappiness they'd caused his temporary fiancée.
Standing at the windows, gazing out into a night as dark and blank as her memory, Sherry whirled around at the soft knock on the door of her bedchamber and called for her visitors to enter. "We've come to beg your forgiveness," Stephen's mother said as she walked over to the windows. "We didn't understand—about your betrothal, or your accident, or all the rest—until Stephen explained to us."
"I'm so glad you're still awake," Stephen's beautiful sister-in-law said, her green eyes filled with an odd kind of regret as they searched Sherry's. "I don't think I could have slept, after the way we behaved to you downstairs."
Momentarily mired down in the social technicalities of how she ought properly to respond to an apology from two regal duchesses, Sherry gave up worrying about protocol and did what she could to soothe their obvious unease. "Please don't trouble yourselves about it," she said with soft sincerity. "I don't know what could have possessed me to want to keep the betrothal a secret, but I wonder sometimes if, when I am quite myself, I am perhaps a little… eccentric."
"I think," Whitney Westmoreland said, looking as if she were trying to smile when she felt rather sad, "that you are very brave, Miss Lancaster." And then as if she'd belatedly thought of it, she held out her hands and exclaimed with a bright smile, "Oh—and, welcome to the family. I—I've always wanted a sister!"
Something about that forced, desperate cheer in her voice set off the alarm bells in Sherry's brain, and she felt her hands tremble as she held them out to her future sister-in-law. "Thank you." That sounded so inadequate that an awkward pause followed, and Sherry stifled a hysterical laugh as she explained, "I haven't the slightest idea if I've always wanted a sister… but I'm perfectly certain that I must have and that I would have wished for her to be as lovely as you are."
"What an utterly charming thing for you to say," the dowager duchess said with a catch in her voice as she enfolded Sherry in a brief, almost protective hug and then ordered her to "go straight to sleep," as if Sherry were a child.
They left, promising to come to see her tomorrow, and Sherry gazed in stupefaction at the door when it closed behind them. Her future husband's relatives were as unpredictable as he was—one minute cool and distant and unreachable, and then warm and affectionate and kind. Sherry sank down onto the bed, her brow furrowed in puzzlement as she searched for some explanation for their range of behavior.
Based on various statements she'd read in the Post and the Times in the past week, Americans were often regarded by the British in a variety of unflattering ways—from amusingly ill-bred Colonists to uncouth barbarians. No doubt, both duchesses had wondered what could have possessed Lord Westmoreland to want to marry one of them—that would explain their negative reaction to her when they first arrived. Evidently, Lord Westmoreland had told them something to reassure them, but what… Weary of the endless questions that revolved in her mind during every waking moment, Sherry raked her hair off her forehead and flopped down on her back, staring at the canopy above the bed.
The Duchess of Claymore rolled onto her side, studying her husband's rugged features in the light of a single candle beside their bed, but her troubled thoughts were on Stephen's "fiancée."
"Clayton?" she whispered, absently trailing her fingertip down his arm. "Are you awake?"
His eyes remained closed, but his lips quirked in a lazy half smile as her finger traced a return path to his shoulder. "Do you want me to be?"
"I think so."
"Let me know when you are certain," he murmured.
"Did you notice anything odd about Stephen's behavior tonight—I mean about the way he treated Miss Lancaster and their betrothal, and all that?"
His eyes opened just enough to slant her a wry glance. "What could possibly be considered 'odd' behavior in a man who is temporarily betrothed to a woman whom he does not know, does not love, and does not wish to wed… and who thinks he is someone else?"
Whitney gave a sighing laugh at his summation of the predicament, then lapsed into thought again. "What I meant is that I glimpsed a softening in him that I haven't seen in years." When he didn't immediately reply, she continued to pursue her hazy line of thought. "Would you say that Miss Lancaster is extremely attractive?"
"I would say almost anything if it will entice you to either let me make love to you, or else go back to sleep."
She leaned over and kissed him gently on the mouth, but when he started to turn toward her, she put her hand against his chest and said with a laugh, "Could you say that Miss Lancaster is extremely attractive—in an unconventional sort of way?"
"If I say yes, will you let me kiss you?" he teased, already tipping her chin up for his kiss.
When he finished, Whitney drew a steadying breath, determined to voice her thoughts before she inevitably sank into the sensual spell he could weave so easily around her. "Do you think Stephen could be developing a special fondness for her?" she whispered.
"I think," he teased, his hand drifting down her collarbone to her breast, "that you are indulging in wishful thinking. DuVille is more likely to want her than Stephen—which would please me almost as much."
"Why would that please you?"