The crowded pit at Covent Garden was occupied by boisterous, restless people who stepped on Sherry’s feet and bumped her shoulder constantly, but she scarcely noticed. Her eyes were on the empty box, the seventh from the front, and she stared at it until the gilt flowers and stars on the front of it began to blur and merge. Time ticked past and the ruckus within the opera house rose to a deafening roar. The curtains behind the seventh box suddenly parted and Sherry froze, panicked bec
ause she was finally going to see him . . . and then she was devastated because she did not see him in the group at all.
She must have miscounted, she thought wildly, and began to count each box, searching the aristocratic faces of its occupants. Each box was separated from its neighbor by a slender gold pillar, and from each pillar a cut-glass chandelier was suspended. Sherry counted and recounted them, then she looked at her hands in her lap, clasping them tightly to stop their trembling. He wasn’t coming tonight. He’d given his box to others. It would be another week before she could come again, providing she saved enough money to buy another ticket.
The orchestra gave out a blast of sound, the crimson curtains swept open, and Sherry mentally counted the minutes, ignoring the music she had once loved, glancing up compulsively at the two empty seats in the box, willing to see him there, and when she didn’t, praying that he would be there when she looked again.
He arrived between the first and second acts, without her seeing him enter the box or take his seat—a dark spectre from the mists of her memory who materialized into the realm of her reality and made her heart thunder. Her eyes clung to his hard, handsome face, memorizing it, worshipping it, as she blinked away the sheen of tears that blurred her vision.
He hadn’t loved her, she reminded herself, torturing herself with the sight of him, she’d merely been a responsibility he’d mistakenly assumed. She knew all that, but it didn’t stop her from looking at his chiseled lips and remembering how softly they had touched hers, or from gazing at his rugged profile and remembering how his slow dazzling smile could transform his entire face.
Sheridan was not the only woman whose attention wasn’t on the performance. On the opposite side of the theatre, in the Duke of Claymore’s box, Victoria Fielding, Marchioness of Wakefield, was staring hard at the occupants of the pit, searching for the young woman she’d glimpsed earlier making her way into the opera house. “I know the woman I saw was Charise Lane—I mean Sheridan Bromleigh,” Victoria whispered to Whitney. “She was in the lines going into the pit. Wait—there she is!” she exclaimed in a low voice. “She’s wearing a dark blue bonnet.”
Oblivious to the curious looks of their husbands, who were seated behind them, the two friends peered hard at the woman in question, their shoulders so close together that Victoria’s auburn hair nearly touched the glossy dark strands of Whitney’s.
“If only she didn’t have that bonnet on, we’d know her in a minute by the color of her hair!”
Whitney didn’t need to see the color of her hair. For the next half hour, the woman in question never looked anywhere but at Stephen’s box, and it was confirmation enough. “She hasn’t stopped looking at him,” Victoria said, her voice filled with some of the same confusion and sorrow that Whitney felt about the sudden disappearance and behavior of Stephen’s fiancée. “Do you suppose she knew he would be here tonight?”
Whitney nodded, willing the young woman to look in her direction for just a moment, instead of the opposite one. “She knows Stephen comes here on Thursday nights and that he has that box. She was here with him a few days before she . . . vanished.” Vanished was the least damning thing Whitney could say at the moment, which was why she chose the word. Victoria and Jason Fielding, who were also friends of Stephen’s, were two of the very few people amongst the ton who were privy to most of the full story because they’d been invited to attend the small celebration that had been planned for after the private affair.
“Do you think she intends to meet him ‘accidentally’ for some reason?”
“I don’t know,” Whitney whispered back.
Behind them, their husbands observed the pretty pair who were ignoring a rather excellent performance. “What is that all about?” Clayton murmured to Jason Fielding, tipping his head toward their two wives.
“Someone must have the gown of the century on.”
“Not if she’s down there in the pits,” Clayton pointed out. “The last time Whitney and Victoria indulged in a similar huddle, it was because Stephen’s mistress was in his box with him and Monica Fitzwaring was in the next box with Bakersfield, trying to look as if she didn’t know who was one narrow pillar away from her shoulder.”
“I remember,” Jason said with a grin. “As I recall, they were on the side of Helene Devernay that night.”
“Whitney laughed all the way home,” Clayton said.
“Victoria declared it the most diverting three hours of the entire Season,” Jason added, and leaning forward he whispered jokingly, “Victoria, you are in imminent danger of toppling out of this box.”
She sent him an abashed smile but did not cease her scrutiny of whatever they were watching.
“She’s leaving!” Whitney said, feeling both relieved and crestfallen. “She didn’t wait for the performance to end, and she didn’t leave her seat between acts, which means she doesn’t intend to meet him here accidentally.”
As puzzled as he was amused by their girlish whispering, Clayton leaned sideways, scanning the rows in the pit, but he waited until they were on their way to their next engagement—a lavish midnight supper—before he brought the subject up to his preoccupied wife. “What were you and Victoria doing all that whispering about tonight?”
Whitney hesitated, knowing he would not be pleased that Sheridan Bromleigh had reentered their sphere or be interested in the reasons. “Victoria thought she saw Sheridan Bromleigh tonight. I couldn’t get a good enough look at her face to say for certain that Victoria was correct.” Clayton’s brows drew together into a dark hostile frown at the mention of the woman’s name, and Whitney decided to let the subject drop.
* * *
The following Thursday, after seeing that their husbands were occupied elsewhere, Victoria and Whitney arrived early at Covent Garden, and from the vantage point of their box, scanned the faces of every new arrival who entered the pit and the gallery, searching for one particular face. “Do you see her?” Victoria asked.
“No, but it’s a miracle you noticed her in the crowd at all last week. It’s impossible to see everyone’s features clearly from up here.”
“I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed,” Victoria said, sitting back in her chair when the curtain went up, and they still hadn’t had a glimpse of the woman they’d thought was Sheridan Bromleigh last week.
Whitney sat back too, silently sorting out her own reaction.
“Your brother-in-law just arrived,” Victoria said a few minutes later. “Is that Georgette Porter with him?”
Whitney looked across the theatre at Stephen’s box and nodded absently.
“She’s exceedingly lovely,” Victoria added in the tone of one who is trying very hard to find and give encouragement about a situation that is not particularly encouraging at all. She liked Stephen Westmoreland very well, and he was one of a very few people whom her husband considered among his close friends. She had also felt an instantaneous liking for Sheridan Bromleigh, who, like herself, was also an American.
Whitney contemplated Stephen’s attitude toward the woman at his side, who was smiling at him and talking animatedly. He was listening with a look of fixed courtesy, and Whitney had the impression he didn’t know Georgette Porter was talking, or that she had a face, or that she was even in his box. Her gaze shifted inexorably to the seats below in the pits, scanning the rows of heads again. “She’s here, I know she is. I mean, I have a feeling she is,” she amended as Victoria glanced sharply at her.
“If I hadn’t seen her arriving last week and been watching for her to come into the pit, I’d never have been able to point her out to you. We could never find her now, among all these rows of people.”
“I know a way!” Whitney said on an inspired stroke. “Look for a head that is turned toward Stephen’s box instead of the stage.” A few minutes later, Victoria grabbed her arm in her excitement. “Right there!” she said. “The same bonnet too! She’s practically beneath us, which is why we didn’t see her.”
at she’d spotted the other woman, Whitney observed her steadily, but not until she stood up to leave did she get a clear look at the other woman’s wistful face. “It is her!” Whitney said fiercely, feeling a swift stab of helpless sympathy for the naked sorrow and longing she’d seen on Sheridan’s face as she stood up to leave just before the opera’s end.
Sympathy was not an emotion her husband was likely to share—at least not unless he too saw the way Sheridan Bromleigh had sat in silence, her gaze on Stephen. But if he were to see it, and if his attitude toward Sheridan were to soften, then Whitney thought he might be persuaded to talk to Stephen, to urge him to seek her out. Clayton was the only one, she knew, who had enough influence on Stephen to possibly sway him.
“We mustn’t be late.” Whitney cast an anxious look at the clock as her husband lingered over a glass of sherry. “I think we ought to leave now.”
“How is it I never realized you were so inordinately fond of opera?” Clayton said, studying her curiously.
“Lately the . . . the performance has been quite riveting,” she said. Bending down, she wrapped their son in a tight hug before he padded off sleepily between his governess and Charity Thornton.
“Riveting, really?” Clayton repeated, eyeing her with puzzled amusement over the top of his glass.
“Yes. Oh, and I exchanged our box for the Rutherfords’ just for tonight.”
“May I ask why?”
“The view from Stephen’s side is much better.”” “The view of what?”
When he tried to question her further about that baffling answer, Whitney said, “Please, just trust me and don’t ask more questions until I can show you what I mean.”
* * *
“Look,” Whitney whispered, clutching Clayton’s wrist in her agitation, “there she is. No—don’t let her see you looking. Just turn your eyes, not your head.”
He did not turn his head, but instead of looking in the direction she indicated, her husband slanted his gaze at her and said, “It would help immensely were I to have some slight idea whom I’m supposed to be looking for.”