Conversations dropped off and gazes swiveled to her. "I'm very much afraid," the duchess said with a smile, "that you will be changing gowns five times a day."
Sherry frowned at the amount of time that must take, but she held her silence until they left the sewing room. Planning to retreat back into the solitude of her room after she told the duchess she had no intention of marrying into the family, she headed in that direction with the duchess by her side. "I really cannot change gowns five times a day," Sherry began. "They will all be wasted—"
"No they will not," Whitney said with a confident smile that was not returned. Wondering worriedly why Sherry Lancaster seemed reserved and distant today, she said, "During the Season, a well-dressed lady needs carriage dresses, walking dresses, riding habits, dinner dresses, evening gowns, and morning dresses. And those are only the barest necessities. Stephen Westmoreland's fiancée will be expected to have opera dresses, theatre dresses—"
"I am not his fiancée, nor have I any desire to be," Sherry interrupted implacably, as she stood with her hand on the handle of the door to her bedchamber. "I've tried to make it clear all day and in every way possible that I do not need or want all that clothing. Unless you will let my father repay you for it, I ask you to cancel everything. And now, if you will excuse me—"
"What do you mean you aren't his fiancée?" Whitney said, and in her alarm, she laid her hand on the other woman's arm. "What has happened?" A laundress padded down the hall with an armload of linen, and Whitney said, "Could we talk in your bedchamber?"
"I do not wish to be rude, your grace, but there is nothing to talk about," Sherry said very firmly, proud that her voice didn't waver in the least, and that there was nothing plaintive in the way she was speaking to the other woman.
To her surprise, the duchess did not stiffen in affront. "I disagree," she said with a stubborn smile and reached forward to nudge the door open. "I think there is a great deal to talk about."
Fully expecting some sort of deserved reprimand for her discourtesy or ingratitude, Sherry walked into the bedchamber, followed by the duchess. Refusing to cower or apologize, she turned around and waited in silence for whatever was to come.
In the space of seconds, Whitney considered Sherry's denial of her betrothal, noted the total absence of her normal, unaffected warmth, and correctly assumed her current attitude of proud indifference was a facade to conceal some sort of deep hurt. Since Stephen was the only one who had the power to truly hurt her, that meant he was the likely cause of the problem.
Prepared to go to great lengths to undo whatever damage her idiot brother-in-law had done to the one woman who was surely meant for him, Whitney said cautiously, "What has happened to make you say you aren't betrothed to Stephen and don't wish to be?"
"Please!" Sherry said with more emotion than she wanted to show. "I do not know who I am or where I was born, but I do know that there is something inside of me that cries out against the deceit and pretense I've been told. I'll surely begin to scream if I have to endure more of it right now. There's no need, no purpose, in your pretending to want me as a sister-in-law, so please do not!"
"Very well," the duchess said without rancor, "we shall put an end to pretense."
"You have no idea just how badly I hope to have you as a sister-in-law."
"And I suppose you are now going to try to convince me that Lord Westmoreland is as eager a bridegroom as there ever was."
"I couldn't even say that with a straight face," the duchess admitted cheerfully, "let alone be convincing."
"What?" Sherry uttered in blank astonishment.
"Stephen Westmoreland has the liveliest reservations about marrying anyone, especially you. And for some very good reasons."
Sherry's shoulders shook with helpless laughter. "I think you are all quite mad."
"I cannot blame you for thinking that," Whitney said with a gusty sigh. "Now, if you would like to sit down, I shall tell you what I can about the Earl of Langford. But first, I have to ask you what he told you this morning that has made you think he does not desire to marry you."
The offer of information about a man who was a total mystery to her was nearly irresistible, but Sherry wasn't certain why the offer was being made or if she should accept it. "Why do you wish to become involved in all this?"
"I wish to become involved because I like you very much. And because I'd like you to like me also. But most of all, because I truly believe you are perfect for Stephen and I'm desperately afraid this set of circumstances may keep you both from finding that out until it is too late to undo the damage. Now, please tell me what happened, and then I'll tell you what I can." For the second time, Whitney carefully avoided saying she would tell her everything. The phrase she'd used was misleading, but at least it was not another lie.
Sherry hesitated, searching Whitney's face for some sign of malice and saw only earnestness and concern. "I suppose it can't do any harm—except to my pride," she said with a weak attempt at a smile. In a relatively unemotional voice, she managed to recount what had happened that morning in the earl's study.
Whitney was impressed by the simplicity and cleverness of Stephen's chosen method to enlist Sherry's cooperation, and she was equally impressed that a naive girl, who was in a strange land, surrounded by strangers, and with not even a memory of her past, could have seen right through his smoothly worded ploy. Moreover Sherry had evidently been wise enough and proud enough not to voice a single objection to it. Which, Whitney decided with an inner smile, probably accounted for Stephen's black scowl earlier, when she bade him good day before coming upstairs. "Is that everything?"
"Not exactly," Sherry said angrily, looking away in embarrassment.
"What else happened?"
"After he gave me all that fustian about wanting me to have choices, I was so angry and confused that I—I felt a little overemotional."
"Had I been in your place, I'd have felt for a heavy, blunt object to hit him with!"
"Unfortunately," Sherry said with a shaky laugh, "I didn't see anything suitable to use, and I felt this—this stupid urge to cry, so I walked over to a window to try to compose myself."
"And then?" Whitney prodded.
"And then he had the audacity, the arrogance, the—the gall to try to kiss me!"