"Paid companions do not address their 'betters' by their given names."
She looked as if she were at the end of her tether, and so Nicki did not argue with her decision and let her ask her question.
"You won't tell any of them where I am—promise me you won't!"
Nicki hesitated, reviewed the alternatives and their consequences, and finally said, "I give you my word." He watched her walk up the stairs, beaten and humbled. She had never resembled a meek servant, but she did then, and it made him want to do violence to Westmoreland. And yet, he had acted honorably until today. More than honorably, Nicki reluctantly decided.
"Will there be anything else, my lord, before I retire?"
Stephen lifted his gaze from the glass of liquor in his hand and stared at the elderly under-butler standing in the doorway of his bedchamber. "No," he said shortly.
He'd kept his family and the cleric waiting until three hours ago, in the asinine belief that Sheridan Bromleigh would come back and face him. If she were innocent, if she'd really lost her memory, not only would she have wanted to explain and exonerate herself, she'd have demanded explanations from him about why he'd pretended they were engaged. Since she didn't seem to need those explanations, the only answer was that she'd always known the truth.
Now, however, there was no way to avoid the truth and not enough liquor in the world to douse the rage that was beginning to burn like an inferno inside him. Sheridan Bromleigh had obviously never lost her memory. When she regained consciousness, she'd simply seized on a brilliant ploy to lead a better life for a while, and he'd sweetened the deal a thousand times by offering to marry her. She must have been laughing herself into a seizure while he pretended to be Burleton and she pretended to be her own employer.
After all his experience, his alleged sophistication, Stephen thought, as his wrath continued to build, he'd fallen like a rock for the oldest female ploy in the world—the helpless damsel in distress! TWICE! First with Emily and now with Sheridan Bromleigh.
With Sheridan's talent, she should have been on the stage. That's where she belonged, along with the rest of the ambitious semiharlots who danced and cavorted and recited their lines. He took another swallow of his drink, remembering some of her best performances: Her first one had been truly impressive. The morning he'd slept by her bed, he'd awakened to the sound of her weeping. "I don't know what I look like," she'd wept, wringing his heart with her tears. "It's a trifling thing, really, but since you're already awake, could you just describe me a little?" Then there had been the morning she'd decided to point out her hair to him—in case he hadn't already noticed its siren appeal, Stephen thought viciously: "My hair is not brown. Look at it. It's red—"
Like the ass he was, he'd stood there transfixed by the sight of that glossy mantle, mentally likening her to a red-haired Madonna. "It's so… so brazen!" she'd pointed out to him, managing to look unhappy about a head of hair that obviously suited her perfectly.
Then there was her charming confusion over how she ought to behave. "I understand from Constance—the maid—that you're an earl, and that I ought properly to address you as 'my lord.' Among the things I do seem to know is that in the presence of a king, one does not sit unless invited to do so."
But his absolute favorite, Stephen decided with blazing cynicism, was the first night she'd been out of her bed, when she'd begged him prettily, "And my family—what are they like?" After he'd explained her father was a widower and she was his only child, she'd looked at him with those big, beseeching eyes of hers and said, "Are we very much in love?"
In all their conversations, she'd only slipped once that he could remember. He'd been in the process of telling her she had to have a chaperone if she stayed in his house, and she'd laughed. I don't need a companion, I am a—" Her only slip, but in retrospect damning proof.
She'd been comfortable with the servants because she was one, or close to it.
"Jesus, what a scheming, brilliant little opportunist she was," Stephen thought aloud, grinding his teeth. She'd probably been hoping she could persuade him to offer her his protection and set her up in a house of her own, and instead he'd offered her his name!
He tossed the rest of his drink down as if he could wash away his self-loathing, then he got up and headed into his dressing room.
Despite her strong protests in the coach when they left Almack's, that redheaded sorceress had agreed to marry him in less than one hour and made it seem as if he'd convinced her.
He jerked off his shirt and flung it on the floor. It dawned on him that he'd intended to wear the clothes he had on at his wedding, and as he removed each piece of clothing, he dropped it carefully onto the growing heap. Damson came in just as he was pulling on a robe, and the appalled valet bent down to pick them up.
"Burn them!" Stephen bit out. "Get them out of here and go to bed. In the morning, have someone get rid of everything she left behind."
He was standing at the fireplace, the last of the bottle of liquor in his glass, when he heard another knock at his door. "What the hell is it now?" he demanded when Burleton's butler was standing just inside the room, looking as tormented as if he was being stretched on a rack.
"I—I do not wish to intrude into a situation that is none of my affair, my lord, but neither—neither would I—would I feel right were I to conceal information that—you might wish to know."
Stephen had all he could do to contain his loathing for the old servant who now reminded him of Sheridan Bromleigh. "Do you intend to tell me or to stand there all night?" he snapped scathingly.
The old man seemed to wilt from the cutting tone. "Dr. Whitticomb privately told me that I was to keep an eye on Miss Lan—on the young lady."
"And?" he gritted furiously.
"And so, when she left today in such a state, I felt obligated to send a footman to watch after her. She—she went to the home of Monsieur DuVille, my lord. That is where she is…" He trailed off at the sight of the murderous look on the earl's face as he heard that news and hastily backed out of the doorway, bowing.
DuVille! She'd gone to DuVille. "Little bitch!" he said aloud.
He did not consider going after her. She was dead to him now, and he didn't give a damn where she went or whose bed she occupied. She had a highly refined sense of survival, and she'd land on her feet wherever she went. With a malicious smile, he wondered what Banbury tale she'd fed DuVille today to persuade him to let her stay under his roof. Whatever it was, DuVille had an equally good sense of survival, and he had never been besotted by her, as Stephen had been.