Until You (Westmoreland Saga #3) - Page 22

Until You (Westmoreland Saga #3) - Page 22

What sort of person was she, she wondered, to have wanted to wed a man who thought as he did? What sort of person was he? Her stomach churned when she remembered the cold way he'd looked at her and the callous way he'd spoken about love.

What could she have been thinking of to have pledged herself to such as he? Why would she have done that? Sheridan wondered bitterly.

But she already suspected the answer to that: it lay in the wondrous way she felt when he smiled at her.

Only he hadn't been smiling when he left. She'd given him a disgust of her with all her talk about love. When he came to see her in the morning, she'd apologize. Or leave the matter entirely alone and simply try to be lighthearted and amusing company.

Reaching for the edge of the coverlet, she climbed into bed and pulled it up to her chin. Wide awake, her throat aching with tears, she stared at the canopy above her. She would not cry, she told herself. Surely no irreparable damage had been done to their relationship tonight. They were betrothed, after all. He would surely overlook her small error in viewpoint. Then she remembered that she'd asked him if he had a heart, and the lump of tears in her throat felt the size of a fist.

Tomorrow, everything would look brighter, she told herself. She was still weak and tired right now from the exertion of bathing and dressing and washing her hair.

Tomorrow, he would come to see her and everything would be all right again.

13

Stephen was in the middle of dictating to his secretary when Whitticomb arrived three days later. He was smiling, Stephen noticed, as the butler showed him past the double doors that opened into the study. A half hour later, when he came downstairs after visiting his patient, he did not look nearly as pleased. "I'd like to talk to you privately, if you can spare me a few minutes," he said, waving off the appalled butler who was standing in the doorway, trying to announce him.

Stephen had an uneasy premonition of what he was going to hear, and with an irritated sigh, he dismissed his secretary, shoved his correspondence aside, and leaned back in his chair.

"I distinctly remember telling you," Hugh Whitticomb began, as soon as the doors closed behind the secretary, "that it is imperative to keep Miss Lancaster from becoming upset. The specialist I consulted on memory loss stressed that to me, and I stressed it to you. Do you remember that conversation?"

Stephen reined in a sharp retort at the physician's tone, but his voice turned curt. "I do."

"Then will you please explain to me," Dr. Whitticomb said, noting his adversary's warning tone and tempering his own accordingly, "why you have not gone up to see her in three days. I told you it was important that she have diversions to distract her thoughts from her troubles."

"You told me, and I made certain she has every conceivable sort of feminine diversion I could think of, from books and fashion plates to embroidery frames and watercolors."

"There's one 'feminine diversion' you have not offered, and one she has a right to expect."

"And that is?" Stephen said, but he already knew.

"You have not offered her even a modicum of conversation with her fiancé."

"I am not her fiancé!"

"No, but you are inadvertently responsible for the fact that she doesn't have one. I'm amazed you've forgotten that."

"I'll overlook that insult," Stephen warned icily, "as having been spoken by an aging, overwrought family friend."

Dr. Whitticomb realized that he had not only chosen the wrong tactic with his opponent, but also pushed him too far. He had forgotten that the cool, uncompromising nobleman seated behind the desk was no longer the mischievous little boy who'd sneaked to the stables in the middle of the night to ride a new stallion, then bravely refused to cry while Hugh set his broken arm and lectured him on the folly of inviting danger.

"You're quite right," he said mildly. "I am upset. May I sit down?"

His opponent accepted his apology with a tentative nod. "Certainly."

"We 'overwrought, aging' fellows tend to tire rather easily," he added with a grin, and was relieved to see a trace of amusement soften Stephen's features. Stalling for time, Hugh gestured toward the brass cigar box on the leather inlaid table beside his chair. "Every now and then I develop a sudden urge for an excellent cigar. May I?"

"Of course."

By the time Hugh had the cigar lit, he had decided on a better way to convince Stephen of the gravity of Charise Lancaster's situation, and he was satisfied that enough time had elapsed to dissipate any lingering hostility Stephen might have felt about Hugh's last ill-advised attempt. "When I went upstairs just now," he began, studying the thin trail of white smoke curling off the cigar in his hand, "I found our patient thrashing about in bed, moaning."

Alarm sent Stephen partway to his feet before the physician held up his hand and added, "She was sleeping, Stephen. Dreaming. But she felt a little feverish," he added, dishonestly, to help attain his goal. "I was also informed that she's not eating well, and that she's so lonely, and so desperate for answers, that she talks to the chambermaids, the footmen—anyone at all who might be able to tell her about this house, about herself, or about you, her own fiancé."

Stephen's guilt tripled at this vividly drawn picture of Charise Lancaster's suffering, but that only made him more adamant. "I am not her fiancé. I am the man who is responsible for his death! First I m.u.r.d.e.r him, and then I take his place," he gritted caustically. "The whole notion is obscene!"

"You did not m.u.r.d.e.r him," Hugh said, astonished by the true depth of Stephen's guilt. "He was foxed and he ran out in front of you. It was an accident. These things happen."

"You wouldn't be able to shrug it off as easily as that if you'd been there," he shot back savagely. "You weren't the one who pulled him out from under the horses. His neck was broken, and his eyes were open, and he was trying to whisper and trying to breathe. Christ, he was so young, he didn't look like he ought to be shaving yet! He kept trying to tell me to 'Get Mary.' I thought he was asking me to find someone named Mary. It didn't occur to me until the next day that, with his dying breath, he was talking about getting married. Had you been there and seen and heard all that, you wouldn't find it so g.o.d.d.a.m.n.e.d easy to excuse me for running him down and then l.u.s.t.i.n.g after his fiancée!"

Hugh had been waiting for Stephen to end his guilty tirade so he could point out that Burleton reportedly had a penchant for recklessness, drunkenness, and gambling, none of which would have made him a decent husband for Miss Lancaster had he lived, but Stephen's last revealing sentence banished everything else from his mind. It explained Stephen's uncharacteristic cruelty in leaving her alone upstairs.

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