"How do you intend to prevent Stephen from leaving when he sets eyes on her?"
"Leave?" she repeated, looking even more pleased. "And abandon his nephew who adores him? The nephew he positively dotes on? How would that look to Noel? And how would it look to everyone else if he's so overset by the presence of a mere governess in a house with over a hundred rooms that he can't bear being there and has to leave? I wish there were a less public way to bring them together, but since Stephen clearly won't countenance a private meeting, I had to find a method of getting him where we want him to be and then preventing him from leaving. Even if he could rationalize that Noel wouldn't notice his absence, he'd still lose face in front of the Fieldings and Townsendes and everyone else. He has a great deal of pride, and Sheridan already trampled it. I doubt he'll be willing to sacrifice one iota more by leaving when he sees her. And by keeping the party outdoors, the governesses will be in constant view of the guests, so Stephen won't be able to avoid Sherry, even in the evenings."
She paused, glancing thoughtfully at the guest list. "I daren't invite Nicki. For one thing, he'll try to dissuade me, and even if he didn't, he'd refuse to come under these circumstances. He disapproved of everything Stephen did where Sheridan was concerned, including the fact that Stephen didn't try to find her and explain. Nicki is very hostile on the entire subject. He admitted to me the day after I saw her at the opera for the first time that he knew where she was, but he refused to tell me where when I asked. Nicki's never refused me anything. He said very firmly that she's suffered enough from Stephen and she doesn't wish to be found."
"She left. Stephen didn't," Clayton pointed out curtly.
"I'm inclined to agree, but Nicki is adamant."
"Then you're wise not to maneuver them into the same shire, let alone the same house."
Whitney heard that with a troubled frown. "Why not?"
"Because Stephen has developed a pronounced, highly refined loathing for DuVille since Sheridan vanished."
She looked so distressed that Clayton shifted his thoughts back to the plan to bring Sheridan into Stephen's presence. Her scheme was fraught with possibilities for failure, but he could not think of another that was better. "What if the Skeffingtons decline?" he said idly.
His wife dismissed that possibility by tapping her fingers on a folded missive on her desk. "According to the information in this letter from Matthew Bennett's firm, Lady Skeffington persuaded her husband, Sir John, to bring the family to London for the Season, specifically so they could mingle with the 'right sort of people.' Lady Skeffington has very little money, but very big social aspirations, it seems."
"She sounds delightful," Clayton said ironically. "I can hardly wait to have them occupy my home for seventy-two consecutive hours, twelve meals, three teas…"
Preoccupied with making her point, Whitney continued, "They came to London in high hopes of gaining an entree into the sort of elevated circles where their seventeen-year-old daughter might have an opportunity to make a brilliant match. As of yesterday, they'd succeeded in neither goal. Now, given all that, can you honestly believe the Skeffingtons will decline a personal invitation from the Duke of Claymore to attend a party at his country seat?"
"No," Clayton said, "but there is always hope."
"No, there isn't," his incorrigible wife said as she turned back to her note making with a laugh, "not when your brother happens to be considered the most splendid match in England."
"Maybe it will snow that weekend," he said, looking appalled by the forthcoming house party. "Surely at some time in the history of the world, it must have snowed on this continent in June."
With her aching feet propped up on a footstool, Lady Skeffington sat in blissful silence in the salon of their small rented London house. On the opposite side of the room, her husband read the Times, his gouty foot propped up on another footstool. "Listen to how quiet it is," she said, tipping her head to the side, her expression blissful. "Miss Bromleigh has taken the children for ice cream. They will return at any moment, and all I can think about is how nice it is to have them gone."
"Yes, my dove," her husband replied without missing a word of text.
She was about to continue that topic when their footman, who doubled as coachman and also butler, intruded on the solitude, a missive in his outstretched hand. "If this is another notice about our rent—" she began, then her fingers registered the extraordinary thickness of the heavy cream paper in her hand, and she turned it over, staring at the seal embedded in the wax. "Skeffington," she breathed, "I think—I am almost certain—we have just received our first important invitation—"
"Yes, my dove."
She broke the seal, unfolded the note, and her mouth dropped open as she beheld the gold crest at the top of the parchment. Her hands began to shake as she read each word, and she stood up as excitement flowed through her shaking limbs. "Claymore!" she uttered in awe, her free hand clutching her chest, where her heart was beginning to thunder. "We have been invited… to Claymore!"
"Yes, my dove."
"The Duke and Duchess of Claymore request the honor of our company at a small party to celebrate the birthday of their son. And—" Lady Skeffington paused to reach out for her hartshorn on the table, before she could continue, "the Duchess of Claymore has written me a note in her own hand. She says she is sorry that she did not have the pleasure of making our acquaintance during the Season, but is hoping to remedy that at… Claymore…" She stopped for a dose of hartshorn before she continued. "… in three weeks. And we are to bring the children. How does that sound to you?"
She pressed the invitation to her ample bosom, her voice a reverent whisper. "Skeffington, do you know what this means?" she breathed.
"Yes, my dove. It means we have received an invitation intended for someone else."
Lady Skeffington whitened at the possibility, snatched the paper from her chest, reread it, and shook her head. "No, it is directed to us, right there—look."
His attention finally drawn away from the Times, Sir John took the note from her outstretched hand and read it, his expression going from disbelief to smug satisfaction. "I told you there was no need to hare all over London hither, thither, and yon, hoping for invitations. This letter would have found us had we stayed right at home in Blintonfield, where we belong."