Stephen grinned at her. "I can only tell you what I know, darling. Clay’s note said simply that Vanessa and he had remained an extra night with her parents but that they would both join us here at four-thirty this afternoon."
"He only referred to her as ‘Vanessa’?" her ladyship said. "Are you certain he meant Vanessa Standfield?"
Stephen sent her a wry look. "If the rumor mill is to be believed, her name is now Westmoreland."
"I saw her years ago. She was a beautiful child."
"She’s a beautiful woman," Stephen said with a roguish grin. "Very blond, very blue eyes, very everything."
"Good. Then I will have beautiful grandchildren," the duchess predicted happily, her thoughts ever reverting to that Glancing sideways, she discovered her son frowning out the coach window. "Stephen, is there something about her you don’t like?"
Stephen shrugged. "Only that her eyes aren’t green and her name doesn’t happen to be Whitney."
"Who? Oh, Stephen, that’s ridiculous. What can you be thinking of? Why the girl, whoever she was, made him positively miserable. He’s obviously forgotten all about her, and that’s for the best."
"She’s not that easy to forget," Stephen said with a grim smile.
"What do you mean?" she demanded suspiciously. "Stephen, have you met that girl?"
"No, but I saw her at a ball at the Kingsleys’ a few weeks ago. She was surrounded by London’s ‘most eligibles,’ excluding Clay, of course. When I heard her name was Whitney and saw those eyes of hers, I knew who she was."
The duchess started to demand a description of the young woman who had brought such torment to her eldest son, then dismissed the idea with a shrug. "That’s all over now. Clayton is bringing home his wife."
"I can’t think he’d so easily forget someone who meant so much to him. And I can’t believe Clay is bringing home a wife. More likely a fianc6e."
"I almost hope you’re right. There’ll be the very devil to pay if Clayton married Miss Standfield so abruptly. The gossip will be terrible."
Stephen gave her a mocking, sideways glance. "Clay wouldn’t care two hoots about the gossip, as you well know."
"Time to get up," Emily announced gaily, throwing back the curtains. "It’s past noon and there’s been no word from his grace telling you to stay away."
"I didn’t go to sleep until dawn," Whitney mumbled, then she sat bolt upright in bed, catapulting from deep sleep to total awareness in the space of an instant. "I can’t do it!" she cried.
"Of course you can. Just swing your feet over the side of the bed. It works every time," Emily teased.
Whitney pushed the covers aside and slid from the bed, her mind groping frantically for ways to extricate herself from the arranged meeting with Clayton. "Why don’t we spend the day shopping and see that new play at the Royal?" she suggested desperately.
"Why don’t we wait until tomorrow and begin shopping for your trousseau instead?"
"We are both candidates for Bedlam!" Whitney cried. "This entire scheme is insane. He won’t listen to me, and even if he does, it won’t change anything. I’ve seen the way he looks at me now-he despises me."
Emily shoved her in the direction of the bath. "That’s encouraging. At least he feels something for you." She came back, just as Whitney finished dressing.
"How do I look?" Whitney asked uncertainly, turning in a slow circle for Emily’s inspection. Her gown of rich aquamarine velvet had long sleeves and a low square-cut bodice. Her heavy mahogany hair had been brushed until it shone, then pulled back off her forehead, and fastened at the crown with an aquamarine and diamond clip, letting the rest fall in natural waves that curled at the ends halfway down her back. The lush gown was enticing and yet demure; the hair style framed her slightly flushed face, setting off her heavily fringed green eyes and finely sculpted features, giving her a softly vulnerable appearance.
Solemnly Emily said, "You look like a beautiful temple goddess about to be sacrificed to the bloodthirsty gods."
"You mean I look frightened?"
"Panic-stricken." Emily crossed to Whitney and took her cold, clammy hands in her own. "You’ve never looked better, but that’s not going to be enough. I’ve met the man you’re going to see, and he’ll not be swayed by a poor-spirited, terrified young woman with whom he is still furious. He loved you for your spirit and courage. If you go to him all meekness and timidity, you’ll be so different from the girl he loved, that you’ll fail. He’ll let you explain and apologize, then he’ll thank you, and say goodbye. Do anything: argue with him, make him angrier if you must, but don’t go there looking frightened. Be the girl he loved-smile at him, flirt with him, argue or fight with him-but don’t, please don’t be meek and supplicating."
"Now 1 know how poor Elizabeth must have felt when I made her defy Peter." Whitney half sighed, half laughed. But her chin came up and she was once again regal and proud.
Emily walked her out to Michael’s coach and Whitney gave her a fierce hug. "Whatever happens, you’ve been wonderful."
The coach pulled away with a much calmer Whitney and left behind a wildly nervous Emily.
After an hour of her journey, Whitney’s fragile serenity began to slip, and she tried to calm herself by imagining their meeting. Would Clayton open the door himself, or would he have the butler show her into a private room? Would he make her wait? Would he stalk in and loom over her, his handsome face cold and hard while he waited for her to finish so that he could thrust her out the door? What would he be wearing? Something casual, Whitney thought with a sinking heart, as she glanced down at her gorgeous finery-which he had paid for.
With firm determination, she pulled her mind away from this nonsensical preoccupation with the possible dissimilarities in their attire and concentrated on their meeting again. Would he be angry-or would he be merely cool? Oh God! she thought miserably, let him be angry or even furious; let him storm at me or say terrible things to me; but please, please don’t let him be coldly polite, because that will mean he doesn’t care anymore.
A terrible premonition of failure quivered through her. If Clayton still cared about her, he would never have waited impassively for her to come to him today; he would have at least sent her a terse note acknowledging that he would be there at five.
The coach made a sharp eastward turn and approached a pair of gigantic iron gates barring their way. He’d had the gates closed against her! Whitney thought frantically. A gatekeeper dressed in burgundy cloth trimmed in gold braid stepped out of the gatekeeper’s house and spoke to the Archibalds’ coachman.