That startled an instantaneous chuckle from her. "I don't need a ladies' companion," she laughed. "I am a—" Sherry's stomach churned and the words simply stopped coming. The thought that prompted them vanished into the ether.
"You are what?" Stephen prompted, watching her closely and noting her agitation.
"I—" she reached for the words, the explanation, but they evaded her, retreating further from her mind's grasp. "I—don't know."
Eager to get the distasteful part of the discussion over with, Stephen brushed that aside. "Don't worry about it. Everything will come back to you in good time. Now, there is something else I want to discuss with you…"
When he hesitated, she lifted those large silvery eyes to his and smiled a little to reassure him that she felt quite well enough to go on. "You were about to say?"
"I was about to say that I have arrived at a decision with which my family agrees." Having closed off her only possible avenue of appeal by warning her that his family concurred with him, Stephen presented her with a carefully worded ultimatum: "I want you to have an opportunity to enjoy the Season, and the attention of other men, before we announce our betrothal."
Sherry felt as if he had slapped her. She didn't want attention from strange men, and she couldn't imagine why he would like that. Steadying her voice, she said, "May I ask why?"
"Yes, of course. Marriage is a very great step, which should not be undertaken lightly—" Stephen broke off, mentally cursing himself for idiotically paraphrasing the actual ceremony, and switched to what he felt was a convincing explanation she wouldn't see through. "Since we did not know each other well before you came to England, I've decided that you ought to have the opportunity to look over the other eligible suitors in London, before you settle on me as a husband. For that reason, I'd like our betrothal to remain a secret between us for a while."
Sherry felt as if something were shattering inside. He wanted her to find someone else. He was trying to rid himself of her, she could feel it, and why not? She couldn't even remember her own name without a reminder and she was nothing like the gay, beautiful women she'd seen in the park yesterday. She couldn't even begin to compare to his sister-in-law or his mother, with their self-assured manner and regal ways. Apparently, they didn't want her in the family either, which meant their cordiality to her had all been a pretense.
Tears of humiliation burned the backs of her eyes, and she hastily got to her feet, trying to recover her control, fighting desperately to hold on to her shattered pride. She couldn't face him, and she couldn't run from the room without giving her feelings away, so she carefully kept her back to him and strolled over to the windows that looked out upon the London street. "I think that is an excellent idea, my lord," she said, staring blindly out the window, struggling to keep her voice steady. Behind her, she heard him get up and come toward her, and she swallowed and drew a deep breath before she could go on. "Like you, I have had… some reservations about our suitability… ever since I arrived here."
Stephen thought he heard her voice break, and his conscience tore at him. "Sherry," he began and put his hands on her shoulders.
"Kindly take your hands…" she paused for another shattered breath, "off me."
"Turn around and listen to me."
Sherry felt her control collapsing, and though she closed her eyes tightly shut, hot tears began to race down her cheeks. If she turned now he'd see that she was crying, and she would rather die than suffer that humiliation. Left with no recourse, she bent her head and pretended to be absorbed in tracing her finger over the etchings on the leaded glass pane.
"I am trying to do what is best," Stephen said, fighting the desire to wrap her in his arms and beg her forgiveness.
"Of course. Your family could not possibly think I am suitable for you," she managed in a relatively normal voice after a moment. "And I'm not at all certain how my father could have thought you were suited to me."
She sounded composed enough that Stephen was about to let go of her, when he saw the tears dropping onto the sleeve of her gown, and his restraint broke. Grabbing her shoulders he turned her around and pulled her into his arms. "Please don't cry," he whispered into her fragrant hair. "Please don't. I'm only trying to do what is best."
"Then let go of me!" she said fiercely, but she was crying so hard, her shoulders were quaking.
"I can't," he said, cradling the back of her head and holding her hot cheek pressed to his shirt, feeling the wetness seeping through it. "I'm sorry," he whispered, kissing her temple. "I'm sorry." She felt so soft against him. She was too proud to struggle and too shattered to stop crying, so she stood rigidly in his embrace, her body racked with silent sobs. "Please," he whispered hoarsely, "I don't want to hurt you." He stroked his hand over her back and nape in a helpless attempt to soothe her. "Don't let me hurt you." Without realizing what he was doing, he forced her chin up with his hand and touched his mouth to her cheek, trailing a light kiss over the smooth skin, feeling the wetness of her tears. With the single exception of the night she regained consciousness, she had not shed a single tear over the absence of her memory, or the blinding pain from her injury, but she was crying in silent earnest now, and suddenly Stephen lost his mind and his control. He rubbed his mouth over her trembling lips, tasting their salty softness, and crushed her closer to him, delicately teasing her lips with his tongue, urging them to part. Instead of sweetly offering him her mouth, as she had done before, she tried to turn her face away. He felt her rejection like a physical blow, and he doubled his efforts to make her succumb, kissing her with demanding hunger, while in his mind he saw her smiling up at him a few minutes ago, and leading a chorus of servants in the kitchen, and flirting with him yesterday: I hope I had the good sense to make you wait a very long time before I accepted your ungallant proposal, she'd teased. She was rejecting him now, permanently, and something deep within Stephen gave out a keening cry, mourning the loss of her tenderness and passion and warmth. Shoving his hands into her hair, he turned her face up to his and gazed into wounded, hostile silver eyes. "Sherry," he whispered thickly as he purposefully lowered his mouth to her, "kiss me back."
She couldn't free her mouth from his, so she fought him with rigid, unmoving indifference, and Stephen fought back. Using all of the sexual expertise he'd acquired during two decades of dalliance with the opposite sex, he ruthlessly laid siege to the defenses of an inexperienced, virginal twenty-year-old. Slanting his arm across her back, holding her pressed fiercely close to him, he teased and seduced her with his hands and mouth, and then his voice. "Since you're going to be comparing me with your other suitors," he whispered without realizing that he was undoing everything he thought he'd wanted to accomplish, "don't you think you ought to know how I compare?"