"Stephen told her he would think about it. The very next day, her father paid a 'casual social call' on Stephen and brought up the subject of a betrothal contract. Stephen volunteered to have something drawn up, and her father left believing Stephen was the most forgiving and generous of men."
"He was going to marry her after what she'd done?" Sherry burst out in disbelief. "I cannot believe he would! He must have been quite out of his head." The words were out before Sherry realized that the emotion she felt was as much jealousy as righteous indignation. "Then what happened?" she asked more calmly.
"Emily and her father came to see him, as they'd arranged to do, but the paper that Stephen handed them was not a betrothal contract."
"What was it?"
"It was a list of suggested second husbands for her. Every man on it had a title, and every man was between the ages of sixty and ninety-two. It was not merely an intentional insult to both of them; it was doubly cutting because he'd deliberately let Emily believe she was going to be given a betrothal contract."
Sherry digested all that for a moment. "He isn't very forgiving, is he? Particularly when you said earlier that it is not at all unusual for married ladies to do what she did."
"Stephen could not forgive her for wanting to marry Lathrop in the first place, not when she did it for his title. He could not forgive her for lying to him. But most of all, he could not forgive her for letting him nearly kill her husband in a duel.
"If you consider all I've told you, I think you will begin to understand why he mistrusts his own judgment of women and why he mistrusts their motives. Perhaps you'll even find that his desire to have you meet other gentlemen, before you decide permanently on him, isn't so very wrong or even cruel. I am not saying he was right," Whitney added when her conscience issued another irate protest. "I don't know that he is, and what I think doesn't matter in any case. I am only asking—suggesting—that you listen to your heart and decide for yourself, based on the new information about him I've given you. And there is one more thing I can tell you that may help you to decide."
"What is it?"
"Neither my husband nor I have every seen Stephen look at any woman quite the way he looks at you, not with the same degree of gentleness and warmth and humor." Having done and said everything she could think of to help matters, Whitney walked over to the sofa to collect her things, and Sherry stood up.
"You've been very kind, Your Grace," Sherry said with soft sincerity.
"Please call me Whitney," the duchess said as she picked up her reticule, and with a sidewise smile, she added, "and do not call me 'kind,' for then I will have to confess the truth, which is that I also have a selfish reason for wanting you in the family."
"What selfish reason is that?"
Turning fully toward her, the duchess said with soft candor, "I think you are my best chance of ever having a sister, and probably my only chance of having one with whom I could be completely delighted."
In a world where everything and everyone seemed unfamiliar and suspicious, the words she'd said and the soft smile that accompanied them had a profound effect on Sherry. As they smiled at each other, Sherry reached out to shake the duchess's hand and the duchess reached forward to meet it, and somehow the polite handshake became a tight squeeze of encouragement that lasted an extra moment longer than it needed to. And then it became a hug. Sherry had no idea who made the first move, but she did not think it was she, and it didn't matter. They both stepped back from it, smiling a little sheepishly at such an unseemly display between two virtual strangers who should have been calling each other "Miss Lancaster" and "your grace" for at least another year of acquaintance. None of that mattered because it was too late to go back The bond had already been felt and acknowledged and accepted. The duchess stood quietly for a moment, a tiny, amused smile at the corner of her lips, and she shook her head as if pleased and puzzled. "I like you so much," she said simply, and then she was gone in a swirl of fashionable cherry skirts.
A moment after the door closed, it opened again and she put her head inside, still smiling. "By the by," she whispered, "Stephen's mother likes you too. And we'll see you at supper."
"Oh, that's lovely."
Whitney nodded and said with another irrepressible smile, "I'm on my way downstairs to convince Stephen it's his idea."
And then she was gone.
Sherry wandered over to the windows that overlooked Upper Brook Street. Crossing her arms, she gazed absently at the fashionably dressed men and women alighting from carriages and strolling down the street, enjoying the balmy afternoon.
She thought about everything she'd heard, turned it over and over in her mind, and the earl took on new dimensions. She could imagine how it would feel to be wanted for what he had and not for what he was. The fact that he didn't appreciate that sort of attention, that sort of fawning and pretense, proved that he was not a boastful or prideful man.
The fact that he had not abandoned his friendship with the woman he'd loved, even after she was lost to him, was irrefutable proof that he was steadfast and loyal. And the fact that he'd been prepared to risk his life in a duel… that was downright noble.
In return Emily Lathrop had deceived and used and betrayed him. In view of that it was little wonder he wanted to be very, very certain he did not make a second mistake when he chose a wife.
Idly rubbing her hands over her elbows, Sherry watched a carriage with a high perch tear down the street, scattering pedestrians, while she contemplated the vengeance he had exacted on the woman he had once obviously loved.
He was not boastful or prideful…
He was not forgiving either.
She turned away from the window and wandered over to her desk, idly turning the pages of the morning newspaper, trying to distract herself from another truth: she had not learned one thing today, or any other day, that would indicate he had any feelings for her at all.
He liked to kiss her, but somewhere in her darkened memory. Sherry had the feeling that that did not necessarily signify love. He liked her company, sometimes. And he liked to laugh with her, always. She could sense that.
She so much wished her memory would return, because all the answers she needed would be there.
Restlessly, she bent down and picked a scrap of paper from the carpet, trying to decide how to behave to him from this point on. Pride demanded that she seem unaffected by his crushing announcement downstairs. Her instincts demanded that she not give him a second opportunity to hurt her again.