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The Tabor Grand Opera House
Tonight should have ranked among the finest of Callie Mitchell's life. Certainly all the elements were in place. She sat in a box seat, on a plush velvet chair, watching a world-class performance of Roméo et Juliette.
Based on William Shakespeare's play, the popular opera consisted of five drama-filled acts with fourfour!duets between the main characters.
Callie was supposed be happy.
She was happy. Almost. But not quite.
Stifling a sigh, she took her gaze off the drama unfolding on the stage and glanced around. Horace A. W. Tabor had spared no expense in the construction of his opera house. The expert woodwork, elaborate chandelier and vibrant frescos made for a luxurious decor unrivaled by any other theater in Denver.
Perhaps therein lay the problem. Too many sights assaulted Callie, begging her to gawk in openmouthed wonder.
She was entirely too sensible for such a vulgar reaction. After all, she was the more levelheaded of the two Mitchell sisters, the boring one. Everyone said so.
Another sigh worked its way up her throat. Callie only had herself to blame for what people thought of her. She'd deliberately cultivated her uninteresting persona after her shameless act all those years ago when she'd attended school in Boston.
Fortunately, no one in Denver knew just how close she'd come to ruin. God may have forgiven her sin. Callie could not. Nor could she forget and thereby risk repeating the same mistake twice.
She closed her eyes for a momentjust oneand lost herself in the music. The heart-wrenching melody washed over her, each note more superb than the last. An urge to hum told her she was inches away from losing control.
She whipped open her eyes and focused on the woman perched on the chair beside her. A renowned beauty in her day, Beatrix Singletary's golden brown hair held not a speck of gray. And her face barely showed that nearly two decades had passed since Mr. Singletary, now deceased, had won her hand in marriage.
Serving as the widow's companion had come at a time in Callie's life when she'd needed a change and a reason to focus on someone other than herself.
The music hit a crescendo.
Callie turned her attention back to the stage. This time, she did give into a sigh. The doomed Juliette had no idea the pain she would soon suffer because of love.
Callie knew. Oh, how she knew. Not only because of the incident in Boston, but also because of., .him.
She didn't dare glance in his direction, though he sat directly across the theater, in a box seat mirroring Mrs. Singletary's. Don't look, Callie ordered herself.
Do. Not. Look.
The breath clogged in her throat. Her heart slammed against her ribs. Reese Bennett Jr. She knew every facet of that strong, handsome face. The full breadth of those wide, muscular shoulders. The dark, intense eyes that were the same rich color as his hair, a shade nearly as black as a raven's feather.
He sat with his father and seemed a little too content for a man recently jilted. Not by Callie. She would never reject an offer of marriage from him. He'd proposed to someone else, and would have married that someone else had the stubborn girl not left town.
The fact that the person in question was Callie's younger, prettier sister was a source of intense distress. Fanny had made a terrible mistake. And the longer she stayed away the harder it would be to rectify her rash decision.
Reese would not stay single for long. Not only was he a successful attorney, but he was also very masculine, so utterly appealing. Any number of women would happily take Fanny's place.
Callie could not allow that to happen. He must remain free of any entanglement until Fanny came to her senses.
Stubborn, headstrong girl. How could she have rejected Reese? He was so very wonderful. Callie swallowed. Restrained another sigh. Felt her eyelashes flutter.
As if sensing her watching him, Reese turned his head in her direction.
Their gazes met. Held.
Callie nearly choked on her own breath.
Floodgates of emotion burst open, giving her no time to brace for impact. Sensation after sensation rolled over her. There was something else in the storm of feelings running through her, something truly terrible, a scorching pain in her heart. He can never be mine.
The thought itself was beyond inappropriate, perhaps even a betrayal to the sister she adored.
Pressing her lips tightly together, Callie set her hands in her lap and willed away the emotion threatening to take hold of her. A quick, sharp gasp slipped out, anyway.
"Something troubling you, my dear?"
"No, Mrs. Singletary." Callie dragged her gaze away from Reese. Keeping her voice low enough for only the widow to hear, she added, "I I was simply caught up in the music."
"Ah, yes." The widow swept a glance over the auditorium, stopping a shade too long on the box directly across from them. "Perfectly understandable."
Callie gave her employer a faint smile, praying they were talking about the opera. Surely, she hadn't given herself away.
Thankfully, the widow turned her head back toward the stage and studied the drama unfolding before them. After only a moment, though, she leaned back toward Callie. "I find the music quite lovely, I'd even suggest inspiring. What say you?"
Lovely? Inspiring? Were they watching the same opera? "Not really. The music is haunting and the story is so very" she took a quick, hitching breath of air "tragic."
"My dear, dear girl." The widow patted her arm in a way that made Callie feel both young and ridiculously naive. At twenty-three, and with the incident in her past, she was neither. "One must never focus on the ending when the story has yet to fully begin."
Had the widow not been paying attention? "Mrs. Singletary, we have come to the final moments of the third act. Tybalt is dead. Romeo has been banished for murder. Nothing but misfortune and heartache lies ahead."
"Oh, Callie, you are missing my point entirely. No matter the outcome, we must enjoy each moment of every journey as it comes."
The words were entirely too profound for an evening at the opera, alerting Callie that the widow, in her non-too-subtle way, was encouraging her to relax her serious nature.
It wasn't the first time she'd let Callie know her opinion on the matter. Arguing now would be useless.
"Yes, Mrs. Singletary." Callie inclined her head in a polite nod. "I shall try my best to heed your advice."
"That is all I ask." The widow settled back in her chair, but not before Callie caught a speculative gleam in her eyes.
Oh, this was bad. Very, very bad.
As if to confirm her suspicions, Mrs. Singletary ignored the performance and turned her attention back to the box across the auditorium. She held steady for one beat, two, then continued circling her gaze around the auditorium, stopping at seemingly random spots along the way.
Or, perhaps not so random.
If Callie wasn't mistaken, the widow only paused to consider single, unattached men around Callie's own age before moving on to search out the next section of seats.
Callie wanted to smack her hand over her eyes and groan aloud. Mrs. Singletary was hunting out suitable young men to court her.
Oh, Lord, please, no.
It was no secret the widow considered herself a skilled matchmaker. And why not? She'd made several high-profile matches in the past two years. Her most recent success had been her former companion, Molly Taylor Scott. Callie's closest, dearest friend, Molly was now married to one of Callie's older brothers. And
No. Oh, no.
Mrs. Singletary was attempting to find Callie's one true soul mate. It didn't seem to matter that she'd made it abundantly clear she wanted no part in the widow's matchmaking schemes, either as an accomplice or the object of a pairing.
Callie hadn't made this declaration because she didn't believe in love, or want to be happily settled. She did. So very much. But the one manthe only manshe wanted could never be hers.
If only he hadn't asked another woman to marry him. If only that woman hadn't been Callie's sister, a woman who would come to her senses any day now and ask Reese to take her back.
The third act came to an abrupt, dismal close.
Mrs. Singletary enthusiastically applauded the performance. Callie very much doubted that look of joy on the widow's face had anything to do with the spectacular singing and superior acting.
As soon as the lights came up, Mrs. Singletary rose regally to her feet. "Come along, Callie." A cagey smile played across her lips. "It's time we indulge ourselves in conversation and refreshment."
Callie would rather stay behind. Unfortunately, that particular activity was not in her job description.
Giving in as graciously as possible, she squared her shoulders and followed the widow to the curtained exit of their box seating. Against her better judgment, she glanced over her shoulder and allowed her gaze to find Reese once again.
Reese remained in his seat during intermission, while his father left to work the crowd in the atrium. He knew he was ignoring his duty. As the new managing senior partner of his family's law firm, Reese should be circulating among the other opera patrons, engaging in small talk with current clients and scouting out potential new ones.
At the very least he should make a point to speak with the firm's most important client, Beatrix Singletary.
Reese couldn't drum up the enthusiasm.
He'd already endured three acts of the ghastly Roméo et Juliette. He needed this moment alone to gather the fortitude he would need to suffer through the remaining two acts. He didn't especially dislike opera, not in general, just this particular one. The main characters' senseless behavior struck an unpleasant chord.
The impulsive, reckless actions of youth, the unchecked passion that overwhelmed all common sense and eventually led to needless death, it was all so familiar.
Reese battled against the fourteen-year-old memories always lurking at the edges of his calm nature. They came stronger tonight, momentarily bringing back the fear. The helplessness. The searing pain of grief he'd vowed never to experience again.
Love was a costly proposition best avoided.
Poised between the pull of the past and a need to push toward a predictable, steady future, he looked out over the nearly empty seating below.
The din of conversation and high-pitched laughter grated on him. He kept his reaction hidden behind a blank stare.
To the outside observer he probably appeared to be enjoying this moment alone. If anyone looked closer, would they sense the dark mood beneath? Would they falsely attribute it to his broken engagement with Fanny Mitchell?
He shifted in his seat, fought off a frown.
He regretted losing Fanny, as one might regret the loss of a good friend. Her erratic behavior had given him pause, though. He'd been so careful in his choice of brides, so meticulous. Fanny had seemed a good fit. Until her sudden change of heart had revealed an inconsistency in her character that Reese had missed originally.
Though unexpected, her actions had saved them both a lifetime of regret.
Enough. Enough thinking. Enough pretending he was enjoying himself. There was nothing keeping him from leaving. He would rather spend his time pouring over legal briefs, anyway. The dry, precise language always managed to restore his tranquility.
Decision made, he stood, turned to go and
He was not alone in the box. Two women had joined him. But when? He hadn't heard them enter. How long had they been standing there, watching him?
The older of the two gave him a slow, significant smile, alerting him that he was staring.
He firmed his expression and opened his mouth to speak.
The widow cut him off before he could begin. "Why, Mr. Bennett, I believe we caught you on your way out."
"You did." He hooked his hands together behind his back. "That's not to say your arrival isn't a pleasant turn of events. Good evening, Mrs. Singletary." He inclined his head in the widow's direction. "You are a vision as always."
He didn't need to catalog her attire to know this to be true. She spared no expense when it came to her clothing and made sure her personal style rivaled any woman in Paris, New York or London. As a result, Beatrix Singletary was undoubtedly the best dressed in all of Denver.
"That is very kind of you to say." She swept her hand in a graceful arc. "I believe you know my companion."
"Of course." Reese continued to look into the widow's eyes another two seconds before turning his attention onto Callie Mitchell.
For a moment, they stared at one another with mutual discomfort. Reese felt the muscles in his back stiffen, and knew his reaction had nothing to do with Callie's personal connection with his former fiancée. He always had this disturbing visceral response to the woman, a woman most looked past in order to focus on her more glamorous sister.
Reese suspected that was exactly what Callie wished people to do.
"Miss Mitchell." Her name came out sounding oddly tortured, even to his own ears. He cleared his throat. "You are looking quite lovely this evening, as well."
"Thank you, Mr. Bennett." Her gaze didn't quite meet his, nor did she make a move to enter the box fully. Shadows still curtained most of her hair and face.
"Mrs. Singletary." He addressed the widow once again, wondering at her sudden arrival. "To what do I owe this honor?"
"The theater is far too full of people milling about, even on the landings between the tiers of box seats." She flicked a wrist in the direction of the curtain behind her. "We thought we might escape the maddening crush and sit with you a moment before the rest of the performance begins."
Odd. The maddening crush had never bothered her before. He'd seen her happily mingling amid the largest of crowds. He couldn't help but wonder again at her sudden presence.
"Please, come in and relax, partake in the desserts the Tabor has provided for my father and me tonight."
Gesturing to his right, Reese stepped aside to let the woman pass.
The widow went directly to the small buffet table and studied the offerings. After a moment, she released a weighty sigh. "There are too many choices. Come closer, Callie." She waved the girl forward. "I shall rely on you to fill my plate."
"Yes, Mrs. Singletary." Callie hesitated only a beat before moving, her steps surprisingly graceful for a woman of her height, a mere head shorter than his six feet two inches.
She floated along like a snowflake, slowly, smoothly and icily controlled. Eventually, she emerged from the shadows completely and Reese's heart kicked an extra hard beat.
His stomach knotted with tension.
Did Callie know the way she'd ruthlessly secured her pale blond hair off her face displayed her arresting features in startling detail?
His stomach rolled again.
This was not a new reaction for Reese, nor was it in any way a pleasant sensation. Callie Mitchell disturbed him.
He shook aside the thought, not wishing to dwell on how she made him feel. Yet he could not look away from those sculpted cheekbones, the perfectly bowed lips and green, green eyes the color of summer-fresh leaves.
What a picture Callie Mitchell made. So pretty. So perfectly upright. Not a hair out of place. Not a wrinkle in her gown. An image that didn't completely ring true. The woman was too controlled, too perfectly put together.
Reese sensed she hid something a little wild beneath that measured calm. He'd sensed it from the start of their acquaintance and thus had made a point of avoiding her more often than not.
"Mr. Bennett, how are you enjoying this evening's performance so far?" Mrs. Singletary asked him the question as she sat on a chair beside him, settling her skirts around her with practiced ease. "Do you not find the music lovely?"
"Lovely, no. I find it extremely haunting."