"I—have my—memory back," Sherry said, gulping for air as if she were strangling. "I—I'm a fraud. Everyone is a—a fraud! Charise was betrothed to Burleton. Why did Stephen pre-pretend? No, I'm the pretender—"
"Don't try to talk," Nicki ordered sharply and went over to a tray of glasses and decanters. Pouring a liberal draught of brandy into a glass, he brought it over to her. "Drink this. All of it," he added when she took a sip, shuddered, and tried to thrust it back. "It will help calm you very quickly," Nicki added, thinking she was hysterical because she now knew she'd never been betrothed to Stephen Westmoreland.
She looked at him as if his concern for her was madness, then she obeyed like an automaton, drinking the sharp liquor in gulps and coughing.
"Don't try to talk for a few minutes," he said when she opened her mouth to begin again. Sherry obeyed helplessly, feeling the liquor burning a path all the way down to her stomach as she stared at her folded hands. The original shock of getting her memory back, of realizing who she was and had been, of seeing Charise, of listening to the ghastly accusations she was making, had sent her fleeing from the house like a heartbroken madwoman. She'd wandered for nearly an hour, wildly trying to think of some way to convince Stephen that she loved him, that she would never have lied to him, no matter what Charise convinced him was true, when another revelation finally hit her and sent her reeling: Stephen Westmoreland had never been betrothed to Charise Lancaster. Her fiancé's name had been Burleton! Everyone had been playing some sort of charade.
After that, came one stunning revelation and recollection after another, and she'd sat in a park, her mind stumbling over itself, her head spinning. Now she wanted answers from someone with the least reason to lie to her, and the brandy made her feel that she could cope with whatever explanations she heard.
"I'll send for Langford," Nicki said, watching a little of her color return, but her answer was so frantic that he realized she was still hovering close to hysteria.
"No! No! Do not!"
He sat back down in the chair opposite her and said soothingly, "Very well. I won't move from this room until you say I may."
"I have to explain," Sherry said, forcing herself to sound calm and lucid. Then she changed her mind and decided her best chance of getting honest answers to what seemed to be a world of deception was to ask questions before she gave out information. "No, you have to explain," she corrected carefully.
Nicki noticed that she was measuring her words, and he began to realize that she had not come to him on a whim, no matter how hysterical she was about being duped. Her opening sentence confirmed that and also neatly entrapped him.
"I came here because you are the only one I could think of with nothing to gain by… by continuing to play out this… this unbelievable deceit that's been practiced by the entire Westmoreland family."
"Would it not be better to discuss all this with your fiancé?"
"My fiancé!" She laughed a little wildly, shaking her head. "Arthur Burleton was betrothed to Charise Lancaster, Stephen Westmoreland wasn't! If I hear another falsehood, I'll—"
"Have some more brandy," Nicki interrupted, leaning forward.
"I don't need brandy!" Sheridan cried. "I need answers, can't you understand that?" Realizing that she wasn't likely to get them if she didn't sound more rational, Sheridan took a firm grip on her rampaging emotions and very carefully steadied her voice. Looking imploringly into his eyes, she explained, "I came here, to you, because as I looked back, I couldn't recall that you ever actively participated in this—this monstrous farce. You never even referred to the earl as my fiancé as everyone else did. Please help me now. Tell me the truth. All of it. If you don't, I very much fear I will go quite mad."
Nicki had been appalled when Westmoreland had announced their betrothal two days ago, but when Whitney explained about Sherry's father's death, he'd at least found the notion of rushing her into marriage before she regained her memory less noxious. Whitticomb had repeatedly warned everyone not to tell her anything that would distress her, but Nicki was now certain that she did need and want the truth, all of it.
Glad that the physician wasn't here to complicate his decision with opposing advice, Nicki braced himself for the unpalatable task of answering for other people's actions because Charise Lancaster trusted him and, evidently, him alone.
"Please help me," she said with quiet desperation. "I have things to explain to you too when you're finished… difficult, shameful, embarrassing things, but I won't hide the truth from you. I hate dissembling."
Sherry saw him lean back, as if resigned to a difficult discussion, but his gaze didn't waver from hers as he said, "I will be very frank, if you are certain you are well enough to hear it."
"I am well enough," she said emphatically.
"Where do you want me to begin?"
"Begin," she said with a grim laugh, "at the beginning. Begin with why he let me believe until yesterday that he was Lord Burleton. The last thing I remember, before I woke up in the earl's house with my head in bandages, was that he'd met me at the ship and told me Lord Burleton was dead."
Nicki noted that she had sounded solemn at the mention of Burleton's death, but not devastated. Westmoreland had obviously been correct in his assumption that she'd not known Burleton well enough to form any deep attachment to him. "Burleton died in a carriage accident the night before your ship arrived," he began in a gentle, but straightforward voice.
"I was sorry to learn of his death," she said, matching his tone and somehow reinforcing Nicki's conclusion that she deserved to hear the whole truth and would be able to handle it better than she could handle confusion and deception. "But I do not understand how the earl became involved in all this."
"Langford was driving the carriage," Nicki said flatly. He saw her wince, but she remained amazingly and gratifyingly calm, so he added, "It was foggy and close to dawn. Burleton was foxed, and he walked right in front of the horses, but Langford blamed himself for the young man's death, and in his position, I suspect I might have felt exactly the same. He was driving an untried team, unused to the city, and perhaps if that hadn't been the case, Burleton would still be alive. I do not know.
"In any event, when Langford made inquiries a few hours after the accident, he discovered that Burleton's fiancée was arriving the next day from America, and that Burleton had no family and no friends whom Langford could trust to meet you and give you the news. In fact, if Burleton's butler hadn't known about you and your impending arrival in England, no one would have been there to meet your ship at all. You probably remember the rest—Langford went to the ship to give you the news and offer you whatever assistance you desired. Evidently, he was so absorbed in that, he failed to notice a cargo net loaded with crates was heading straight for you, and it struck you in the head."