An audible sigh of relief escaped Whitney as they were permitted to pass, and the coach lurched forward onto the smooth, private road. They swayed gently along the curving drive bordered with wide sweeping lawns and huge formal parks dotted with leafless trees. The gently rolling landscape seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see.
They clattered over a wide bridge whose arches spanned a deep flowing stream, and at long last a magnificent house with immense expanses of mullioned windows and graceful balconies came into view. It loomed against a backdrop of clipped lawns, rising to a height of three stories in the center. Gigantic wings swept forward on both sides of the main structure, creating a terraced courtyard that was the size of a London park.
So bleak had been her mood the last time she had seen this house, Whitney could scarcely remember it. She laid her head back and closed her eyes in sublime misery: Had she called the house "dingy," or was that his word? Her own large house would fit into one of the wings with room enough left over for four more like it. She felt as if she were coming to see a stranger; whoever owned this palatial estate was not the carelessly unaffected man who’d raced against her on Dangerous Crossing or taught her to gamble with cards and chips.
Darkness had settled on the November afternoon, and the windows of the great house were aglow with lights when the coach pulled to a stop and the coachman climbed down and lowered the steps for Whitney to alight.
Comfortably ensconced in the white and gold salon at the front of the house, Stephen glanced away from his mother’s anxious face and considered with distracted admiration the eighteenth-century furnishings covered in white silks and brocades. A magnificent Axminister carpet stretched across the seventy-foot length of the room, and the walls were papered in white watered silk, with paintings by Rubens, Reynolds, and Cheeraerts hanging in ornate gold gilt frames.
His gaze shifted restlessly to the clock, and he rose to pace impatiently. As he passed the wide bow windows, he saw the coach pulled up in the front drive and, with a quick grin over his shoulder at his mother, he strode from the room.
The butler was just opening the front door as Stephen stepped into the foyer with a welcoming smile on his face, expecting to see his brother with Vanessa Standfield. He halted in surprise, staring instead at a vaguely familiar, beautiful girl wrapped in a blue-green velvet cape lined with white ermine. When she reached up and pushed the hood back onto her shoulders, Stephen’s pulse gave a wild leap of recognition. "My name is Miss Stone," she told the butler in a soft, musical voice. "I believe his grace is expecting me."
In that brief flash of tune, Stephen thought of his brother’s anguished drunken ramblings, debated whether it was likely Clay was bringing home a wife or only a fiancee, considered the wisdom of involving himself in his brother’s personal life, and on a wild impulse, made his decision.
Stepping quickly forward to intervene before the butler could say that his master wasn’t at home, Stephen put on his most engaging smile and said, "My brother is expected at any minute, Miss Stone. Would you like to come in and wait?"
Two very conflicting reactions flickered across the beautiful young woman’s face: disappointment and relief. She shook her head. "No. Thank you. I sent word yesterday that I would like a few moments of his time, and asked that he let me know if today wouldn’t be convenient. Perhaps some other day…" she murmured, half turning to leave.
Stephen reached out and firmly grasped her elbow. The reaction earned him a surprised look from the young woman, which deepened to astonishment as Stephen gently-but forcibly-drew her back into the entrance foyer. "Clay was delayed and didn’t return yesterday," Stephen explained with a disarming smile. "So he doesn’t know you intended to call on him today." Before she could utter a protest, he reached up and politely lifted the aquamarine velvet cape off her shoulders, then he handed it to the butler.
Whitney’s gaze was riveted on the immense marble staircase which swept in a wide graceful half circle, terminating in an arc along the broad balcony above. She remembered how Clayton had carried her up that staircase, and she recalled vividly how brutal his rage could be. Abruptly, she turned toward the door. "Thank you for inviting me to stay, Lord Westmoreland."
"Stephen," he corrected.
"Thank you, Stephen," she said, taken aback when he insisted she use his given name. "But I’ve decided not to wait. If I could have my cape, please?" She looked at the butler, who looked at Stephen, who firmly shook his head, whereupon the butler crossed his arms over his chest and simply pretended not to have heard her request.
"I would like you to stay," Stephen said, his voice firm, but his smile cordial.
Bewildered laughter crept into Whitney’s voice as she accepted Stephen’s outstretched arm. "I don’t think I’ve ever been made to feel quite so welcome, my lord."
"Westmorelands are famous for their hospitality," Stephen lied with a roguish grin as he drew her inexorably toward the salon where his mother was waiting.
At the sight of the duchess seated on one of the settees, Whitney drew back in startled embarrassment.
"My mother and I will both be pleased to have you wait for Clay with us," Stephen urged gently. "I know he will be delighted to see you, Miss Stone, and that he would never forgive me for letting you go before he returned."
Whitney halted and stared at him. "Lord Westmoreland," she began with a hint of a smile touching her soft lips.
"Stephen," he corrected.
"Stephen-I think you ought to know that there’s every chance your brother won’t be in the least ‘delighted’ to see me."
"I’ll risk it," Stephen said with a grin.
Whitney was overawed by the white-and-gold room, but she carefully refrained from gazing at the intricately carved plasterwork on the ceilings and the masterpieces displayed in ornate gold frames along the walls while Stephen led her to his mother.
"Mother, may I present Miss Stone," Stephen said. "Since Clay did not return last night, he is unaware of Whitney’s intention to call, but I have persuaded her to stay and wait with us until he arrives."
As Whitney curtsied to the duchess, she heard the emphasis Stephen placed on her first name-which she hadn’t told him-and she saw the duchess’s blank, answering look.
"Are you a friend of my son’s, Miss Stone?" the duchess politely inquired as Whitney took the indicated seat across from her.
"Occasionally we have been friends, your grace," Whitney replied honestly.
The duchess blinked at the unusual response, studied the jade-green eyes regarding her solemnly from beneath a heavy fringe of dark lashes, then suddenly half rose from her chair, caught herself, and sat back down. Her gaze flew to Stephen, who nodded imperceptibly at her.