Watching her closely, Nicki leaned forward, letting all that sink in while he poured himself a brandy. She seemed very calm, he thought admiringly, and he continued, "Langford brought you to his house and summoned their family physician. For several days, you were unconscious, and Whitticomb had little faith in your chances of ever waking up. When you finally did come round, and he realized the trauma to your head had caused you to lose your memory, he was adamant that no one ought to say anything to cause you any form of distress. You seemed to think Langford was your fiancé, and so they—we—let you go on believing it. That is about all I know, except," Nicki added, in fairness to Stephen Westmoreland, "I do know that Langford blamed himself for not protecting you from harm, and for giving you dire news in such a clumsy way that you were too overcome to protect yourself. I also know he has carried a great burden of guilt and remorse over depriving you of your fiancé."
Drowning in humiliation, Sherry reached the obvious, the agonizing, conclusion: "And so he felt obliged to provide me with another fiancé by volunteering himself. That's it, isn't it?"
Nicki hesitated, then he nodded. "That's it."
Sherry turned her head aside, fighting desperately not to weep for her stupidity, for her gullibility, and for falling in love with a man who felt nothing for her but responsibility. No wonder he'd never said he loved her! No wonder he'd wanted her to find someone else to wed! "He was actually going to marry me out of guilt and responsibility."
"I wouldn't say those are his only reasons as of this time," Nicki said cautiously. "I suspect he feels something for you."
"Of course he does," Sherry replied scornfully, reeling with humiliation. "It is called pity!"
"I'll escort you back to Langford's."
"I can't go back!" she cried.
"Miss Lancaster," Nicki began in a sharp, authoritative voice that normally quelled anyone who heard it. It made the stricken young woman across from him double over with hysterical laughter, her arms wrapped around her stomach. "I am not Charise Lancaster!"
Nicki quickly went round to her, cursing himself for letting her trick him into believing she was well enough to handle whatever he told her.
"I am not Charise Lancaster, "she repeated, and her laughter abruptly gave way to sobs. "I was her paid companion on the trip." Her arms still wrapped around her stomach, she rocked back and forth, weeping. "I am a glorified governess, and he was going to marry me. What a laugh his friends would have had over that. He was drowning in pity for a glorified governess who'd never laid eyes on Lord Burleton."
Nicki stared at her in blank shock, but he believed her. "Good God," he whispered.
"I thought I was Charise Lancaster," she whimpered, her shoulders beginning to shake with sobs. "I thought I was, I swear it."
Belatedly it occurred to Nicki to pull her into his arms and offer her some form of comfort, and he did it, but he was at a complete loss for words to match the gesture. "I thought I was," she wept against his chest. "I thought I was her until she came to the house today. I thought I was, I swear it!"
"I believe you," Nicki said, and was a little amazed that he did.
"She wouldn't go away. She had to tell him herself. He—he was getting ready for the wedding. A s-secret wedding. I don't have anywhere to go—no clothes—no money."
Trying to offer her one small bright spot out of all this, he said, "At least it was not your father who died."
Very slowly, she lifted her head, her eyes dazed, unfocused. "What?"
"Langford received a letter one night last week that was forwarded to him from Burleton's landlord. It had been intended for Charise Lancaster, written by her father's solicitor, and informing her that her father had died two weeks after she sailed for England."
She drew a shaky breath, coming to grips with that, and said bleakly, "He was a harsh man but not an unkind one. He spoiled Charise quite terribly—" Another wrenching probability struck her, and she thought she was going to retch. "Last week—was it the same night I went to Almack's and the Rutherfords' ball?"
"So I was told."
Her head bowed with further humiliation and fresh tears spilled down her cheek. "No wonder he changed so abruptly from wanting me to find another fiancé, to deciding we should wed at once." She remembered the way she'd touched his hand at the opera and thought of how repelled he must have been at having to sit through that—and pretend to want to kiss her and—
"I wish I were dead!" she whispered brokenly.
"Stop that sort of talk at once," Nicki said mindlessly. "You can stay here tonight. Tomorrow, I'll go with you to Langford's and we'll explain."
"I did explain in a letter! I can't go back. I won't, I tell you, and if you send for him, I'll go mad. I know I will. I can never go back now."
She sounded as if she meant it, and Nicki couldn't blame her.
Sherry wasn't certain how long she cried in his arms or when she stopped, but as the silence lengthened, a blessed numbness finally took over. "I can't stay here," she whispered, her voice hoarse from the storm of emotions.
"As you said, you have nowhere else to go."
She pushed free of his soothing embrace and sat up, then she stood, swaying a little. "I shouldn't have come here. I would not be surprised if there are charges filed against me."
The thought that Langford might do that filled Nicki with an anger that was almost uncontainable, but he couldn't deny the possibility or the unthinkable results. "You're safe here, at least for tonight. In the morning, we'll discuss how I can be of help."
The feeling of unworthiness and relief that surged through her at the realization that he was actually offering to help her nearly broke Sherry's fragile grip on her control. "I—I will have to find some sort of position. I have no references. I can't stay in London. I don't—"
"We'll discuss it in the morning, chérie. I want you to lie down now. I will have your dinner sent up."
"No one who knows him or his family will consider employing me, and he—everyone in London seems to know him."
"In the morning," he said firmly.
Too weary to protest, Sherry nodded. She had started up the stairs with a servant when something hit her and she turned around.
"I gave you leave to call me Nicki, mademoiselle," he tried to tease.