Whitney had been wearing a bright blue gown when they arrived. Sherry had said she intended to wear a bright green gown even though, she'd softly added, as she looked at the huge sapphire Stephen had given her that afternoon for a betrothal ring, "sapphire blue is my favorite color of all."
They had evidently changed their minds and their gowns upstairs because Whitney was now wearing Sherry's green gown and Sherry was wearing her deep blue one.
As both men started forward, they heard Whitney gaily predict, "Clayton will never notice the change, mark my word."
"And I doubt Lord Westmoreland paid the slightest heed to my comment about which gown would look best with my ring," Sherry said, laughing. "He was preoccupied with—" She choked back the word "kissing," and Stephen stifled a laugh.
"Shall we?" he said to his brother.
"By all means," Clayton agreed, and without further communication, Stephen walked up behind Whitney while Clayton offered his arm to Sherry, startling a peal of laughter from her as he joked in a low voice, "Did I tell you earlier how lovely you look in green, my love?"
Whitney was pulling on her gloves when masculine hands touched her shoulders and Stephen's voice whispered tenderly in her ear beside her bonnet. "Sherry," he whispered, and beneath his hands her shoulders shook with laughter as she carefully kept her face hidden, "I've arranged with my brother to leave us alone for a while when we return from the opera, so we can be private. He'll distract Whitney—" She whirled around and had already begun her indignant reprimand before she saw his knowing grin. "Stephen Westmoreland, if you dare to even—"
Outside Number 14 Upper Brook Street carriages paraded in dignified pomp, their lamps glowing and flickering like a procession of golden fireflies. As the conveyance belonging to the Duke and Duchess of Dranby passed by the house, her grace looked admiringly at its splendid Palladian facade and sighed. "Dranby, who shall we find to wed Juliette, now that Langford is taken? Where will we find his equal in taste and elegance, in refinement and—" She broke off as the front door of the house opened and four laughing people erupted from it—the earl running down the front steps in pursuit of his new fiancée. "Sherry," he called, "I knew she wasn't you!"
The American girl called a laughing reply back as she headed straight for the Duke of Claymore's coach, which was pulled up behind the earl's. The duke and duchess pressed closer to their coach window staring with disbelief as the Earl of Langford caught his new fiancée by the waist as she climbed into the duke's coach, swung her into his arms, and firmly deposited her into his own coach.
"Dranby," said the duchess, "we have just witnessed the most delicious on-dit of the year! Wait until I tell everyone what we saw!"
"If you'll take my advice, you won't bother," said the duke, leaning back in his seat.
"No one will believe you."
A steady stream of luxurious conveyances were packed into Bow Street, waiting to pull up before Covent Garden's brightly lit facade to unload their passengers. "It looks like a Grecian temple!" Sherry exclaimed in delight as she peered out the window of their coach. "Like the painting hanging in your library."
Her enthusiasm was so infectious that Stephen actually leaned over and looked at the Royal Opera House's facade with her. "It was modelled after the Temple of Minerva at Athens."
Careful to lift her beautiful skirts, Sherry took Stephen's hand as she alighted from the coach and paused to look about her before they went inside. "It's wonderful," she said, ignoring the amused glances being cast her way as they made their way across the expansive vestibule and proceeded up a grand staircase past imposing Ionic columns and glittering Grecian lamps. It was the fashion in London to appear quite bored and blasé at all times, but Sherry didn't care. Her face glowing with pleasure, she stopped in the lobby that led to the lower tier of boxes and looked about at the graceful pillars and arched recesses that contained paintings of scenes from Shakespeare.
Loath to rush her, yet conscious they were blocking the other patrons, Stephen touched her elbow and said softly, "We'll stay late so that you may look around at your leisure."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Only, it is hard to imagine that people can walk by all this without pausing to notice it."
Stephen's box was located for maximum view, and when they entered it, he actually peered around to get a look at Sherry's face, but she was gazing in admiration at the identical tier of elegant boxes opposite them, each with its own chandelier and with gold flowers and stars painted on the box's front.
"I hope you like the opera," he said, sitting down beside her and nodding casually to friends in the box on their right. "I try to come every Thursday."
Sherry looked up at him, so happy that she was almost afraid to trust it. "I think I do. That is, I feel excited, which must be a very good sign." His eyes had been smiling into hers, but as she spoke she saw their expression change and his lids lowered, his gaze dropping to her lips, lingering long on them, then lifting.
It was a kiss! she realized. It was a kiss, and he'd meant for her to feel it, to understand that was what he was doing. Without conscious volition, her hand moved imperceptibly, seeking his as it had the first day she'd returned to consciousness.
It was a tiny movement, one he might have missed, even if he had been looking instead of turning to greet friends who'd stopped into the box. And yet, as Sherry turned her head to do the same, his hand slid into her open palm, covering it, strong fingers lacing with hers. A jolt streaked up Sherry's spine as his thumb slowly rubbed her palm, brushing left and right, then back again. It was another kiss, she realized, her breath catching. This one slower, longer, deeper.
Her heart swelling, she looked down at the beautiful male hand partially covered by the open fan in her lap, watching his finger stroking while her body seemed to melt from the touch.
Below, in the gallery and pits, the crowd was noisy and curious, openly studying the occupants of the boxes, and Sherry tried to look perfectly casual, while the simple touch of a finger on her palm made her pulse continue to escalate.
When the movement finally stopped and her pulse slowed to normal, she felt very foolish to be so susceptible to what was very probably an idle touch on his part. Partly out of curiosity and partly for mischief, Sherry experimented. While he chatted with his brother, she stroked her thumb over Stephen's knuckles, concentrating far more on that than the conversation. It had no noticeable effect on him. In fact, he opened his hand, and for a second Sherry thought he was going to pull it away. Since he left it there instead, palm up, she dipped her gaze and thoughtfully traced each long finger from its tip to the vee where it met his wide palm, while he continued his absorbed conversation with his brother. Since he seemed not to notice or object, Sherry touched his palm, her fingertip following each intersecting line. I love you, she thought helplessly, telling him so with her fingertip. Please love me too. Sometimes when he kissed her or smiled at her, she was almost certain he did, but she wanted to hear the words, needed to hear them. I love you, she told him through her fingertip as it stroked his open palm.