"Oh, I see you don't want to believe me," she burst out in alarm and rage. "Well, I didn't want to believe it either when I read the announcement in the newspaper. She's duped you, just the way she dupes everyone."
"She had amnesia—memory loss!"
"Well, she certainly found it when I appeared—how do you explain that?"
He couldn't, and he didn't want to let her see his reaction to that point or to the rest of what she was saying.
"She's a liar and an ambitious schemer, and she always was! On the ship, she told me she intended to marry someone like you, and she almost pulled it off, didn't she? First she tried to lure my husband away, and then she set her sights on you!"
"Until she returns and can answer you face to face, I'll ignore that as the anger of a jealous little minx."
"Jealous!" Charise exploded, leaping to her feet. "How dare you imply I'd be jealous of that red-haired witch! And for your information, my lord, she ran away because she was exposed. She is never coming back, do you hear me? She admitted to me she'd lied to you." Stephen felt as if his chest had a rope around it that was being tightened with every word the blonde said. She was telling the truth—it was all over her contemptuous face—the hatred she felt for Sheridan Bromleigh and the scorn she had for him.
"On the way over from America, she talked me out of marrying Burleton and convinced me I ought to elope with Mr. Morrison instead! Now that I think about it, I'm surprised she didn't betroth herself to my own fiancé!"
In the midst of his own rampaging emotions, Stephen realized the girl seated in front of him with tears in her eyes and her fists clenched in furious frustration had two pieces of very bad news coming. In his current mood, he was not inclined to postpone or dissemble. Fed up with all the convoluted lies and his own disastrous efforts to spare Sherry news that didn't even pertain to her, he tempered his voice and said flatly, "Burleton is dead."
"Dead?" Charise wailed in genuine despair as her secret hope that Burleton might still take her as his wife if she could get rid of Morrison was crushed to splinters. "How?" she whispered chokily, reaching into her reticule for a lacy handkerchief and dabbing at her eyes.
Stephen told her and watched her face crumple. She wasn't lying now either, he realized. She was completely distraught.
"My poor father. I didn't know how I was ever going to face him after that Bromleigh woman talked me into eloping with Mr. Morrison. I've been so afraid I haven't even written him yet. I'm going home!" Charise decided, already inventing a plausible lie that would persuade her father to take her back, to buy a divorce or an annulment or whatever was necessary. "I'm going straight home."
"Miss Lancaster," Stephen said, and it seemed so odd, so ugly, to be calling this woman by a name he thought belonged to Sherry, "I have a letter for you from your father's solicitor. It was sent to me by Burleton's landlord." Setting aside his own monumental concerns for the moment, Stephen unlocked his desk drawer, extracted the letter and bank draft, and reluctantly held them out to her. "I'm afraid it isn't good news."
Her hand trembled violently as she read the contents of the letter and looked at the bank draft, then she slowly raised glazed eyes to his. "Is this all the money I have in the world?"
Her financial situation wasn't Stephen's problem or his concern, since she had evidently jilted Burleton and wed someone else en route to England, but keeping her silent was very much his concern. "Without implying that I believe Sheridan Bromleigh deliberately impersonated you," he said flatly, "I would be willing to give you a substantial sum to… shall we say, ease your plight… in return for your silence on this entire matter."
Stephen loathed her at that moment. He loathed the idea of paying her off to keep her from spreading what would become a scandal that would explode all over England if it came out. He loathed himself for the twinge of doubt growing inside him about Sherry's intention to return in a few hours. Her letter hadn't been a final farewell, it had been a plea—a hysterical plea from a lovely, overwrought girl who feared he wouldn't listen, wouldn't believe. She had run from the house to give his temper time to cool, in case he did believe Charise.
She would come back, confused and distraught and indignant; she would come back and face him. She was entitled to answers and explanations from him about why he'd impersonated Burleton. She would come back for those. She had enough spirit to confront him. She had so damned much spirit.
He repeated that to himself over and over again as he watched the Lancaster woman leave with the enormous sum he'd paid her, then he got up and wandered over to the windows, staring down at the street watching for his bride to return… to explain. He saw Charise Lancaster climb into a hired hack as his brother walked in behind him and quietly said, "What do you intend to do?"
For one of the few times in his life, Clayton Westmoreland felt and sounded helpless and hesitant. "Do you want me to send the vicar home?"
"No," Stephen clipped. "We'll wait."
Holding up a coat of wine-colored superfine, Nicholas DuVille's superior valet cast an approving eye over his master's gleaming white shirt and neckcloth. "As I've oft said, sir," he remarked as Nicki finished buttoning his wine velvet waistcoat, "no Englishman has quite your excellent knack with a neckcloth."
Nicki cast him an amused glance. "And as I've oft replied, Vermonde, that is because I am more French than English, and you are biased against the British—" He broke off as the valet went to answer an imperative knock at the door of his bedchamber.
"Yes, what is it?" Nicki asked, surprised that his haughty valet had admitted a lowly footman into his private domain.
"I am to tell you that there is a young lady here to see you, my lord. She's in the blue salon and very distraught. She says you know her as Miss Lancaster. The butler tried to send her off, seeing that she arrived in a rented hack and is not known to him, but she was very persistent. And unwell, we think, because…"
His voice trailed off at the sight of the dire look on his employer's face as he stalked swiftly toward the doorway, almost knocking the surprised footman out of his way in his haste.
"Sherry?" Nicki said, his alarm escalating as she looked up at him with a haunted, wild expression. Tears were streaking down a face that was so white her silvery eyes looked dark in contrast, and she was sitting on the very edge of the sofa as if she were thinking of either bolting or falling over. "What has happened?"