"Does he know?" Sheridan countered stubbornly, and Whitney bit her lip to hide an admiring smile at the other woman's spirit. Sheridan Bromleigh might be a servant in a roomful of nobility, but she bowed to no one. On the other hand, her caution and spirit were creating a standoff. Whitney drew a breath, hating to resort to blackmail, but she did it anyway and without compunction. "He does not know, but he will know if you cannot make me understand why you go to the opera to look at him, after jilting him at the altar."
"You have no right to ask me that."
"I have every right."
"Who do you think you are?" Sheridan exploded. "The Queen of England?"
"I think I am the woman who appeared for your wedding. I think you are the woman who did not appear for it."
"For that, I would have expected you to thank me!"
"Thank you?" Whitney uttered, looking as stunned as she felt. "For what?"
"Why are you asking me all this! Why are we caviling over trifles?"
Whitney studied her manicure. "I do not consider my brother-in-law's heart and life a trifle. Perhaps that is where we differ?"
"I liked you much better when I didn't know who I was," Sheridan said in a voice so bewildered that it would have been comic in another context. She looked around the room as if she needed confirmation that the furnishings were firmly anchored to the floor and that the draperies hadn't become bed linens. "You didn't seem quite so… difficult and unreasonable. After Monsieur DuVille explained to me the day of the wedding why Stephen had suddenly decided to marry me, I did the only thing I possibly could. Poor Mr. Lancaster… dying without Charise there."
Mentally, Whitney consigned Nicki DuVille to perdition for his inadvertent part in this debacle, but she kept her mind focused on their plan.
"May I leave now?" Sheridan said stonily.
"Certainly," Whitney said as Victoria and Miss Charity looked at her in shock. "Miss Bromleigh," Whitney added as Sheridan reached for the door, but her voice was gentle now, "I believe my brother-in-law was in love with you."
"Don't tell me that!" Sherry exploded, her hand clenching the door handle, her back to them. "Don't do this to me. He never pretended to love me, never even bothered to lie about it when we discussed marriage."
"Perhaps he didn't acknowledge the feeling by name, even to himself, perhaps he still does not, but he has not been the same man since you left."
Sherry felt unbalanced by the explosion of hope and fear, of denial and joy, inside her brain. "Do not lie to me, for the love of God."
Sherry turned at the soft sound in her voice.
"On your wedding day, Stephen wouldn't believe you weren't coming back. Even after Miss Lancaster poured all her venom, he didn't believe her. He waited for you to come back and explain."
Sherry thought her heart would break and that was before the duchess added, "He kept the cleric there until late that night. He wouldn't let him leave. Does that sound like a man who didn't want you? Does that sound like a man who was only marrying you out of guilt and responsibility? Since he knew by then you weren't Charise Lancaster, why would he have felt any guilt or responsibility to you? Your head injury was healed and your memory was returned."
Sherry felt shattered at the thought of what she might have had… and what she had lost.
"He wouldn't believe you'd run away. He wouldn't let the cleric leave," Whitney emphasized. "The vicar was adamant that the wedding had to be performed in daylight, before noon, as is custom, but Stephen overrode him."
Sherry turned her head away because her eyes were glazing with tears. "I never thought… never imagined… He could not possibly have been thinking clearly," she said with more strength, turning to look at Whitney. "He would never have considered marrying a common governess."
"Oh, yes he would," Whitney said with a teary laugh. "I can tell you from personal experience—and from all I've read about the family's history—that Westmoreland men do exactly as they please, and they always have. May I remind you that when Stephen kept the vicar at his house, he was already aware of your former position as Charise Lancaster's paid companion. It didn't matter to him. He'd made up his mind to marry you, and nothing could have stopped him. Except you."
She paused, watching Sheridan's expressive face mirror joy and anguish… and then hope. Tentative, fragile, but there, and though that pleased Whitney immensely, she also felt obliged to issue a sobering warning. "Unfortunately," she said, "Westmoreland men are extremely difficult to manage when they have been provoked beyond what they deem reasonable, and I'm afraid Stephen is already far, far beyond that unlucky state."
"Provoked beyond reason?" Sheridan said cautiously.
Whitney nodded. "I'm afraid so." She waited, hoping for a sign of the courage Sheridan was going to need if things were to be set to rights. "If matters are to be set to rights between you, I very much fear the burden for it will fall completely to you. In fact, the best thing you can hope to receive from Stephen is opposition. Cold, unresponsive opposition. At worst, he'll unleash some of the rage he feels toward you."
"He wants nothing to do with you, will not even allow the mention of your name by any of us."
"He… hates me?" Her voice faltered at the agonizing certainty he did—and the realization that she could have prevented all this.
"But he—I mean you do think that he didn't hate me before?"
"I think he loved you. I told you once before I've never seen Stephen treat a woman quite the way he treated you. Among other things, he was possessive, which is not at all in his normal style."
Sheridan looked down at her hands, afraid to hope she could rekindle any of those feelings in him. Unable to stop herself from hoping. Raising her eyes to Whitney's, she said, "What can I do?"
"You can fight for him."
"That's the delicate part of the problem," Whitney said, biting her lip to hide a smile at Sheridan's alarmed expression.
"He will avoid you, of course. In fact, he would have left here the moment he realized you were here if it hadn't been Noel's birthday, and if leaving wouldn't cause him to lose all face."
"Then I suppose I should be grateful matters happened this way."