Sherry ran without realizing she was moving, clutching the other girl's shoulders, trying to make her listen before she did the unthinkable, her words tumbling over themselves. "Charise, please, listen. I was hit in the head—accident—and I didn't know who I was. Please wait—just listen to me—You don't know, don't understand what it would do to them to have a scandal."
"I'll have you in a dungeon before nightfall!" she raged, flinging off Sheridan's hands. "I'll have your precious earl exposed for the fool he is—"
Blackness rose up before Sheridan's eyes. Black on white. Headlines screaming. Scandal. Dungeons. "This is England, and you aren't nobody, so the law will be on his side."
"I'll leave!" she cried, her voice plaintive and demented and confused as she began backing toward the door. "I won't come back. I won't cause trouble. Don't bring authorities. Scandal will kill them. Look at me—I'm leaving." Sherry whirled and ran. She fled down the staircase, nearly knocking over a footman. A lump rose in her throat at the realization that Stephen was going to walk into this hall in an hour, thinking he was about to be wed, only his bride would have deserted him. Her heart hammering, she raced into the library, scribbled a note, and thrust it at the stricken elderly butler, then she tore open the door, and raced down the steps, down the street, around the corner.
She ran and ran until she couldn't run anymore, and then she leaned against the side of a building, listening to a voice of her more recent past—a beloved voice—a beloved voice explaining things that had never happened to a woman he'd never met: "The last time we were together in America, we quarrelled. I didn't think about our quarrel while you were ill, but when you began to recover the other night, I found it was still on my mind."
"What did we quarrel about?"
"I thought you paid too much notice to another man. I was jealous."
Staggered by yet another shock, Sherry stared blindly at a passing carriage as she wandered slowly down the street. But he hadn't been jealous. His attitude had hardened from the moment she'd asked him if they were "very much in love."
Because they'd never been in love.
Her mind went numb with confusion and shock.
Stephen grinned at Colfax as he strode into the main hall, dressed formally for his wedding. "Is the vicar here?"
"Yes, my lord, in the blue salon," the butler said, his expression oddly withdrawn for such a festive occasion.
"Is my brother with him?"
"No, he's in the drawing room."
Cognizant of the fact that he was not supposed to see his bride before the ceremony, Stephen said, "Is it safe to go in there?"
Stephen walked swiftly down the main hall into the drawing room. Clayton was standing with his back to the room, looking into the empty fireplace. "I'm early," Stephen began. "Mother and Whitney are a few minutes behind me. Have you seen Sherry? Does she need any—"
Clayton slowly turned around, his expression so foreboding that Stephen stopped in mid-sentence. "What's wrong?" he demanded.
"She's gone, Stephen."
Unable to react, Stephen stared at him in blank disbelief.
"She left this behind," Clayton said, holding a folded sheet of notepaper out to him. "Also, there is a young woman here, waiting to see you. She claims to be the real Charise Lancaster," Clayton added, but he made that last announcement in a tone of acceptance, not ridicule.
Stephen opened the short, disjointed letter that had obviously been written in haste, and each unbelievable word seemed to sear his mind, branding his soul.
As you will soon discover from the real Charise Lancaster, I am not who you thought I was. Not who I thought I was. Please believe that. Until the moment Charise Lancaster walked into my bedchamber this morning, I did not remember anything about myself except what I was told after the accident. Now that I do know who I am and what I am, I realize that a marriage between us would probably be impossible. I also realize that when Charise is finished telling you her opinion of what I intended to accomplish, it may sound far more believable than my truths in this note.
That would hurt me more than you can imagine. I wonder how I would go on, knowing that somewhere in this world you would be living your life, forever believing that I was a fraud and a schemer. You won't believe that, I know you won't.
She'd crossed out the last word and simply signed the letter:
Sheridan. In the most painful moment of his life, with her letter in his hand and the unbelievable words scored into his brain, Stephen stared at her real name—a strong, beautiful name. Unique.
And he thought Sheridan fit her far better than Charise.
"The woman who is waiting for you says that you've been duped. Deliberately."
Stephen's hand closed on the letter, wadding it into a ball, and he tossed it in the direction of the table. "Where is she?" he snapped.
"Waiting for you in your study."
His expression as murderous as his feelings, Stephen stalked out of the room, determined to prove that this new Charise Lancaster was a liar, or a fraud, or that she was mistaken about Sherry's having deliberately duped him.
But the one painfully irrefutable fact that he could not ignore, or disprove, was that Sheridan had run from him, rather than facing him and explaining. And that hinted unbearably of guilt…
As he walked swiftly toward his study, Stephen told himself Sherry would return in an hour or two. She'd run away because she was upset—hysterical. Whitticomb had said memory loss was a form of hysteria. Perhaps hysteria came with its return as well. With visions of her wandering through London streets, alone and confused, he strode into his study. With only a curt, icy nod to the blonde who was waiting for him, he flung himself into the chair behind his desk, determined to disprove her contention that
Sherry had deliberately deceived him. "Sit down," he ordered curtly, "let's hear what you have to say."
"Oh, I have a great deal to say!" she burst out, and Stephen was momentarily disconcerted by the fleeting irony that this Charise Lancaster looked exactly like the curly-haired blonde he'd expected to meet at the ship.
Charise sensed his desire to disbelieve anything she said, and as it sank in that this handsome, rich man might somehow have belonged to her, her fury and determination grew to new proportions. Daunted by his glacial manner, she was trying to decide how to best begin, when he said in a savage voice, "You've made a damning accusation against someone who isn't here to defend herself. Now, start talking!"