Nervous because so much could hinge on his reaction and his help, Whitney admitted, “It’s Sheridan Bromleigh. I didn’t want to tell you in advance for fear she wouldn’t be here, or you wouldn’t come.”
His expression hardened instantly at the mention of the other woman’s name, and she lifted beseeching green eyes to his cool gray ones. “Please, Clayton, do not condemn her out of hand. We have never heard her side in the matter.”
“Because she ran off like the guilty little bitch she is. The fact that she likes opera, which we already knew, doesn’t change that.”
“Your loyalty to Stephen is clouding your judgment.” When that didn’t have any noticeable effect, Whitney persevered with gentle but firm determination. “She doesn’t come here for the performances. She never even looks at the stage, she only looks at Stephen, and she always sits in rows behind his box so that he wouldn’t see her if his attention wandered from the stage. Please, darling, just look for yourself.”
He hesitated for an endless moment, then conceded with a curt, wordless nod, and slid a glance in the direction she’d indicated, off to their right. “Plain dark blue bonnet with a blue ribbon,” Whitney added to help, “and a dark blue dress with a white collar.”
She knew the moment Clayton found Sheridan in the crowd, because his jaw hardened, his gaze snapped back to the stage, and it remained there until the curtain went up. Disappointed, but not defeated, she watched him from the corner of her eye, waiting for the merest change in his posture that might indicate he was taking a second look. The moment she felt it, she stole a swift glance at him. He’d moved his head only a fraction of an inch to the right, away from the stage, but his gaze was far off to the right. Praying that this was not the only time in weeks that Sheridan Bromleigh had decided to watch the performance, Whitney leaned slightly forward to peer around Clayton’s shoulders and smiled with relief.
For the next two hours, Whitney kept her husband and Sheridan Bromleigh under cautious surveillance, careful not to move her body in any way that would alert him. By the end of the evening, her eye sockets hurt, but she was feeling absolutely triumphant. Clayton’s gaze had returned to Sheridan throughout the entire evening, but Whitney did not bring the topic up again until two days later, when she felt he’d had time to perhaps readjust his attitude toward Stephen’s former fiancée.
“Do you recall the other night at the opera?” she began cautiously as the footmen cleared away their breakfast dishes.
“I thought it was a ‘riveting’ performance, just as you’d said,” Clayton said straight-faced. “The tenor who—”
“You were not watching the performance,” she interrupted firmly.
“You’re right.” He grinned. “I was watching you watch me.”
“Clayton, please be serious. This is important.”
His brows lifted inquiringly, and he gave her his fullest attention, but he looked amused, wary, and prepared.
“I want to do something to bring Stephen and Sheridan Bromleigh face to face. I discussed it yesterday with Victoria, and she agreed they ought to at least be forced to talk to each other.”
She braced herself for an argument and ended up gaping at him as he said casually, “Actually, a similar thought occurred to me, so I discussed it with Stephen last night when I saw him at The Strathmore.”
“Why didn’t you tell me! What did you say? What did he say?”
“I said,” Clayton recited, “that I wanted to discuss Sheridan Bromleigh with him. I told him that I believe she goes to the opera specifically to see him.”
“And then what happened?”
“Nothing happened. He got up and walked out.”
“That’s all? He didn’t say anything?”
“As a matter of fact he did. He said that, out of respect for our mother, he would ignore the temptation to resort to physical violence against my person, but that if I ever brought up Sheridan Bromleigh’s name to him again, I should not depend on his ability to exercise similar restraint.”
“He actually said that?”
“Not in exactly those words,” Clayton said with grim irony. “Stephen’s were shorter and more—colorful.”
“Well, he can’t threaten me. There must be something I could do.”
“Have you considered prayer? A pilgrimage? Sorcery?” Despite his light tone, he wanted her to let matters rest, and she could see that he did. When she didn’t smile, he put his cup onto the saucer and leaned back in his chair, frowning a little. “You’re absolutely determined to get involved in this, no matter what Stephen says or I say, is that it?”
She hesitated, and then nodded. “I have to try. I keep remembering the expression on Sheridan’s face when she looks at him in the opera, and the way she was looking at him at the Rutherfords’ ball. And Stephen looks more haggard and grim each time I see him, so being apart isn’t doing either of them any good.”
“I see,” he said, studying her face with a reluctant smile lurking at the corners of his mouth. “Is there anything I can say to persuade you it’s a mistake?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“I may as well confess—I’ve contacted Matthew Bennett to ask him to have his firm make inquiries about where she is. I can’t do anything to bring them together until I can find her.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t decide to hire a lackey during the intermission to follow her home from the opera, and then have Bennett’s firm make inquiries.”
“I didn’t think of it!”
His voice had been so unemotional, his expression so marvelously bland, that it took a moment for the true import of those two words to register. When they did, she felt the familiar fierce surge of love that had grown stronger over the four years of their marriage. “Clayton,” she said. “I love you.”
“She’s working as a governess for a baronet and his family,” he informed her. “Surname is Skeffington. Three children. I’ve never heard of them. Bennett has their direction.”
Whitney put her teacup down and stood up, intending to send a note to the solicitor’s firm at once, asking for all the information they had.
She turned in the doorway of the morning room. “My lord?”
“I love you too.” She smiled at him in answer, and he waited a moment before issuing a serious warning: “If you persist in your determination to bring them face to face, be very cautious how you handle this, and be prepared for Stephen to leave the moment he sees her. You should also be prepared for the possibility that he will not forgive you for this, not for a very long time. Think carefully before you take steps you may sorely regret.”
“I will,” she promised.
Clayton watched her leave and slowly shook his head, knowing damned well she wasn’t going to waste time in contemplation and inaction. It simply was not in her nature to watch life happen and not wade in. It was, he decided wryly, one of the things he most loved about her.
He did not, however, expect her to act as swiftly as she did.
“What’s that?” he asked late that same afternoon as he strolled past the salon and saw her sitting at a rosewood secretary, thoughtfully brushing the feathered end of a quill against her cheek while she studied a sheet of paper in her hand.
She looked up as if she’d been far away, and then smiled swiftly. “A guest list.”
The frenetic activities of the Season were finally winding to a close, and they’d both been looking forward to returning to the peace and serenity of the country for the summer, so Clayton was naturally surprised she was evidently planning to entertain. “I thought we were going back to Claymore the day after tomorrow.”
“We are. This party is three weeks off—it’s a birthday party for Noel. Nothing too large, of course.”
Over her shoulder, Clayton glanced at her list and muffled a laugh as he read the first item aloud, “?‘One small elephant, safe for children to t
“I was thinking of a circus theme, with clowns and jugglers and such, with all the festivities and meals taking place on the lawn. That’s so much more relaxed, and the children will be able to enjoy everything right alongside with the adults.”
“Isn’t Noel a little young for all this?”