"No. I’m afraid not."
Although his tone was light, Whitney beard the huskiness of desire that deepened his voice as he said, "In that case, I suppose you will have to learn some other ways to please me." Beneath the thin fabric of his shirt, his chest was warm and hard against her cheek. Whitney smiled as she slid her hand upward and spread her fingers over his pounding heart. "The last time we discussed my shortcomings in that area, you said yon didn’t have the time to instruct a tiresomely naive schoolgirl. But I think-if you have the time-you will find that I’m an excellent student."
He was silent a long moment, then he said, "Perhaps I should begin by teaching you * more suitable response than your last when I tell you that I love you?"
Whitney nodded happily, but her voice suddenly filled with tears. "If you’d care to try again, I’ll show you that I’ve already teamed that lesson."
Tipping her chin up, Clayton looked deeply into her eyes and quietly said, "I love you, little one."
"I love you, too," Whitney whispered, shyly laying her trembling hand against his smoothly shaven cheek and jaw. "I love you very much."
He grinned. "Now that, my sweet, is a vast improvement."
She tried to smile back at him, but Clayton saw the tears glistening in her eyes. Cradling her face between both his hands, be gazed at her misty green eyes. "Why tears, darling?"
"Because," Whitney whispered brokenly, "until this moment, I was certain you would never say that to me again."
With a groaning laugh, Clayton hugged her tightly to him. "Oh, little one, I have loved you since the night we played chess at my house and, after announcing that you would never call any man your ‘lord,’ you called me a conniving, black-hearted scoundrel when I took the game from you." He had loved her from the moment she had laughingly told him a story about a girl who used to pepper her music teacher’s snuffbox.
Stephen tapped lightly on the door, then stepped into the study and closed the door behind him. He grinned wickedly at his brother, who tightened his arms possessively around Whitney. "Excuse me, brother dear, but your absence is making things increasingly uncomfortable in the other room."
Clayton heard this with a frown of distaste. "Is dinner over?"
"Long since," Stephen confirmed. "And Vanessa is displaying a marked antagonism toward my charming efforts to enlighten her on the proper care and feeding of racehorses."
"Stephen, your brother is in something of a dilemma." Whitney smiled, turning sideways in Clayton’s arms. "Let me think-how did he phrase it? Oh yes. He has only two hands and he has offered them both."
Stephen arched a thoughtful brow. "I have two hands, and they are neither of them promised, Miss Stone," he offered gamely.
"Stephen," Clayton said sternly, but with a slow grin, "do not strain the bonds of brotherly affection beyond what you already have this evening. I’ll attend to freeing one of my ‘hands’ when I take Vanessa home tonight."
"I should be leaving too," Whitney sighed, reluctantly pulling out of Clayton’s arms and smoothing her gown. "It will be very late by the time I get back to Emily’s."
"You, my love, are not setting foot out of this house. I’ll send a servant to the Archibalds’ for your things when I leave with Vanessa, and he can inform them that you will return in a week. Not one day before."
Whitney knew perfectly well that Clayton was issuing this edict because of her unexplained change in attitude between the time she left him at the church and saw him again at the wedding banquet. Since she wanted with all her heart to stay with him, Whitney acceded to his flat command with a demure smile.
With one hip perched atop his desk, Clayton watched while Whitney sat behind it and wrote a note to Emily. She assured her that the duchess was in residence and asked that Clarissa and her clothes be dispatched post haste to Claymore. Winsomely, Whitney added a postscript. "This time, I’ll send the invitations. This one is yours-will you please be my matron of honor? I love you. Whitney."
Clayton took the note from her and, serenely ignoring his brother’s presence, pulled her to her feet and kissed her with tender thoroughness. "I’ll be back in two hours, perhaps a little more. Will you wait up for me?"
Whitney nodded, but as Clayton started from the room, she turned away from him, tracing her finger across his gleaming mahogany desktop. "Clayton," she said softly, her voice threaded with tears, "when Vanessa asked about my ‘accomplishments’ tonight, I forgot to mention that I do have one. And it’s-it’s so splendid that it compensates for my lack of all the others."
Stephen and Clayton grinned at each other, neither of them hearing the emotion that clogged her voice. "What ‘splendid accomplishment’ is that, little one?" Clayton asked.
Her shoulders hunched forward and began to shake. "I made you love me," she whispered brokenly. "Somehow, some way, I actually made you love me."
The laughter faded from Clayton’s face, replaced by an expression so intense, so profoundly proud, that Stephen quietly left the two of them alone.
Clayton emerged from his study a few minutes later on his way to face Vanessa in the salon and take her home. He flashed a quick, grateful grin at Stephen, inclined his head toward the study doors and said in a low, laughter-tinged voice, "Stephen, do not let her out of your sight!"
While Clayton was leaving with Vanessa, Whitney sat across from Stephen in the study, trying to vanquish her sudden embarrassment over the earlier part of the evening. Finally she clasped her hands in her lap and regarded him directly. "Whatever made you want me to stay for dinner, when it was so obvious that Clayton didn’t want me here at all? What made you help me, when I could have been just any female who-"
"I knew you weren’t Must any female.’" Stephen corrected.
"Your name was Whitney and you had green eyes. And one drunken night many weeks ago, my fair brother could talk of little else."
Two hours later, Clayton strode into the salon and Stephen drily remarked, "I suppose Lord Standfield was not in the best humor when you left?"
"He was reasonable," Clayton said briefly. He sat down beside Whitney and, defying all the proprieties with his usual careless elegance, he put his arm around her shoulders, drawing her dose. With a meaningful look at his smiling mother and brother, he ungraciously hinted, "I imagine you’re both exhausted from your trip this morning and would like to retire?"
"I happen to be exhausted from a good deal more than my trip," the duchess said laughingly, and obligingly she bade them both good night. Stephen, however, did nothing of the sort. Leaning back in his chair, he crossed his arms over his chest and said, "I’m not in the least tired, big brother. Besides, I want to hear about the wedding plans." Ignoring Clayton’s dagger look, he glanced expectantly from him to Whitney. "Well, when’s it to be?"