"I heard her and so did Stephen," Clayton said, his unease and suspicion vibrating in his voice. "However, I believe her exact words were that she was sorry she hadn't been able to find some other unfortunate, gullible male for Miss Bromleigh to deceive and abandon, instead of her dear Langford."
"Well, that's almost the same thing…"
"Only if you consider idiocy almost the same thing as sense. Why," he said with gravest reservations about hearing the answer, "are we having this discussion right now?"
"Because I—I invited her to stay with us for a while."
To Whitney it seemed as if he had stopped breathing. "I thought she could help look after Noel."
"It would make more sense to ask Noel to look after her."
Uncertain whether his mocking tone disguised annoyance or amusement, she said, "Naturally, Noel's governess would be secretly in charge."
"In charge of who—Noel or Charity Thornton?"
Whitney bit back a nervous smile. "Are you angry?"
"No. I am… awed."
"By your sense of timing. An hour ago, before I wore us both out making love, I might have reacted more violently to having her in my house than I am able to now—when I'm too weak to hold my eyes open."
"I rather thought that would be the case," she admitted guiltily after he deliberately let the silence lengthen.
"I rather thought you did."
He sounded almost disapproving of that, and she bit her lip, carefully lifting her gaze to his face, searching his inscrutable features, one by one. "Finding what you're looking for, my love?" he asked mildly.
"I was looking for… forgiveness?" she hinted, and her glowing eyes were almost Clayton's undoing as he struggled to keep his face straight. "A manly attitude of benevolence toward his overwrought wife? A certain nobility of spirit that manifests itself in the quality of tolerance for others? Perhaps a sense of humor?"
"All of that?" Clayton said, a helpless grin tugging at his lips. "All of those qualities in one beleaguered male with a wife who has just invited the world's oldest living henwit into his home?"
She bit her lip to keep from laughing, and nodded.
"In that case," he announced, closing his eyes, a smile on his lips, "you may count yourself fortunate to have married just such a paragon."
"I've come to ask you a favor," Stephen announced without preamble two weeks later as he walked into the morning room of his brother's house, where Whitney was supervising the installation of sunny yellow draperies.
Startled by his abrupt arrival and curt tone, Whitney left the seamstresses alone, and walked with Stephen into the drawing room. In the past three weeks since the aborted wedding, she'd seen him at different functions, but only at night and always with a different woman on his arm. Rumor had it that he had also been seen at the theatre with Helene Devernay. In the revealing daylight, it was obvious to Whitney that time wasn't soothing him. His face looked as hard and cold as granite, his attitude even to her was distant and curt, and there were deep lines of fatigue etched at his eyes and mouth. He looked as if he hadn't been to sleep in a week and hadn't stopped drinking while he was awake. "I'd do anything you asked of me, you know that," Whitney said gently, her heart aching for him.
"Can you make a place for an old man—an under-butler? I want him out of my sight."
"Of course," she said, and then cautiously she added, "Could you tell me why you want him out of your sight?"
"He was Burleton's butler, and I don't ever want to see anyone or anything that reminds me of her."
Clayton looked up from the papers he was studying as Whitney walked into his study, her face stricken. Alarm brought him quickly to his feet and around his desk. "What's wrong?"
"Stephen was just here," she said in a choked voice. "He looks awful, he sounds awful. He doesn't even want Burleton's servant around because the man reminds him of her. His pride wasn't all that suffered when she left. He loved her," she said vehemently, her green eyes shimmering with frustrated tears. "I knew he did!"
"It's over," Clayton said with soft finality. "She's gone and it's over. Stephen will come around."
"Not at this rate!"
"He has a different woman on his arm every night," he told her. "I can assure you he's a long way from becoming a recluse."
"He has shut himself away, even from me," she argued. "I can feel it, and I'll tell you something else. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Sheridan Bromleigh wasn't playacting about anything, including her feelings for Stephen."
"She was an ambitious schemer, and a gifted one. It would take a miracle to convince me otherwise," he stated flatly, walking back around his desk.
Hodgkin stared at his employer in stricken silence. "I—I am to be dismissed, milord? Was it something I did, or did not do, or—"
"I've arranged for you to work in my brother's home. That's all."
"But was I derelict in any of my duties, or—"
"NO!" Stephen snapped, turning away. "It has nothing to do with anything you've done." Normally he never interfered with the hiring or dismissal or discipline of the household staff, and he should have left this unpleasant task to his secretary, he realized.
The old man's shoulders sagged. Stephen watched him shuffle off, moving like a man who was ten years older than he'd been when he walked in.
It was a mistake to seek Stephen out, even from this safe distance, and Sherry knew it, but she couldn't seem to help herself. He'd told her he went to the opera on most Thursdays, and she wanted—needed—to see him just one more time before she left England. She'd written to her aunt three weeks ago, the day after her aborted wedding, explaining everything that had happened and asking Cornelia to send her enough money for passage home. In the meantime, Sherry had secured a position as governess to a large family without the means to hire a more desirable, older woman or the sense to verify the recommendation letter Nicholas DuVille had given her with Charity Thornton's name listed as a secondary reference—a reference that Sherry suspected the elderly lady knew nothing about.
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 because she was finally going to see him… and then she was devastated because she did not see him in the group at all.