Clayton sighed, resigning himself to Stephen’s continued presence, and smiled at Whitney. "How long will it take you to get ready, love?"
Gazing up into his compelling gray eyes, Whitney thought she would much rather have his arms around her and feel his lips moving over hers than discuss the wedding plans right now, but, like Clayton, she had no choke except to answer Stephen’s question. "I suppose it will be a huge wedding?" she mused, considering Clayton’s title, and the vast number of friends and acquaintances she knew he had.
"Very large," Clayton confirmed.
"Then it will take a great deal of time to plan. There are so many arrangements to make, the gowns to be chosen, endless fittings-and the dressmakers take forever. The invitations must be prepared, sent out, and acknowledged-" She paused. "About how many guests will there be?"
"Five or six hundred, I imagine," Clayton said.
"Closer to a thousand unless you want to offend half the
ton and alienate our relatives," Stephen corrected, grinning at Whitney’s expression of stunned honor. Taking pity on her, he added, "Westmoreland dukes are always married in a church, and the wedding celebration is always here at Claymore. It’s an ancient tradition, and everyone will know it, so you needn’t worry about anyone thinking it queer that it’s at Clay’s home instead of yours."
"Always married in a church, and the celebration here?" Whitney repeated, with an accusing look at her grinning fiance. "When I think of how you threatened to abduct me and take me to Scotland!"
"The custom, Madam," Clayton chuckled, tracing the elegant curve of her cheek and jaw with his forefinger, then tilting her chin up, "began because the first Duke of Claymore abducted his lady from her parents’ castle, which was several days journey from Claymore. On the way here was a monastery, and since my ancestor had technically compromised her honor, one of the monks was more than willing to marry them, despite the lady’s temporary reluctance. The celebration," he emphasized, "took place here because the young woman’s outraged relatives were in no mood to celebrate in their home an occasion which, at the time, they viewed as more a reason to fight than to feast." His grin widened devilishly. "So you see, had I carried you off to Scotland, married you there, then brought you back here, I’d have been honoring the tradition almost to the original letter."
Having been silenced on that subject, Whitney returned to the length of time required to prepare for the wedding. "Therese DuVille’s wedding was not even half so large, and it took a year to accomplish . . ."
"No," Clayton said irrevocably. "Absolutely not."
"Six months?" Whitney offered to compromise.
"Six weeks," Clayton announced flatly.
His imperious tone didn’t daunt Whitney in the least. "If it’s to be such a large wedding, it could scarcely be planned even in six months."
Clayton winked conspiratorially at Stephen. "Very well," he sighed, "I’ll give you eight."
"Eight months," Whitney agreed with a sad little sigh. "It will barely be time enough, yet it seems like forever."
"Eight weeks," her fiance corrected with finality. "Not one day more. My mother will help you and so will Hudgins. I’ll put an entire staff of assistants at your disposal. Eight weeks will give you plenty of time."
Whitney shot him a dubious look, but since she didn’t want to wait eight months either, she happily agreed.
Clayton was sitting with his arm around Whitney’s shoulders, chatting amiably with Stephen, when the weight against his side suddenly grew heavier and she didn’t respond to his teasing remark. He glanced down and saw her long lashes lying softly against her cheeks. "She’s asleep," he said quietly. Gently, he moved her aside, then scooped her up into his arms. "It’s been a more than exhausting day for you, sweetheart," he murmured as she stirred and snuggled into his chest. To Stephen he said, "Wait for me here. I have some things I want to say to you when I come down."
A few minutes later, after summoning a maid and seeing Whitney sleepily installed in one of the guest rooms, Clayton strode back into the salon and firmly closed the doors behind him. When he turned around, Stephen thrust a glass of brandy into his hand and raised his own in a silent toast. "I have two questions to ask you," Clayton said calmly when they were both seated.
Grinning, Stephen stretched his long legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles. "I rather thought you might, your grace."
"How did you know who Whitney was? To me?"
"You told me. During a very drunken night at Grand Oak, you told me all about her, including her green eyes-which, God knows, she has."
Leaning forward, Clayton rested his forearms on his knees, staring into his brandy glass as he rolled it between his palms. "How much did I tell you that night?"
Stephen considered lying because it was kinder, but he abandoned the idea when Clayton’s disconcertingly perceptive gaze lifted to his. "Everything," Stephen admitted with a sigh. "Everything including the harm you did her. So, when she appeared here tonight, thinking you’d received her note-which I understand Hudgins has-I took one look at her and decided that since her loss had done such damage to you, I would restore her to you."
Clayton nodded his acceptance of Stephen’s explanation. "I have one further question," he said gravely.
"You said you had two questions, and you’ve already reached your limit," Stephen warned lightly.
Ignoring that, Clayton said in a low, solemn voice, "I would like to know what I have within my power to give you, to express my gratitude."
"Your money, or your life?" Stephen ventured with a lopsided grin at his bandit’s demand.
"They’re yours for the asking," Clayton said quietly.
Later that night, he lay on his bed, his hands linked behind his head, staring at the ceiling. He could hardly believe that Whitney was here, that after fighting against him so fiercely, for so long, she had come tonight and fought to recover what they had begun together.
He thought of the way she had faced him in the study, daring him to deny that he still wanted her. And then he smiled in the darkness, remembering the way she had crossed the long room to him, her head held high, her eyes shining with love and surrender. That memory, that one memory of her coming to him, casting aside her pride because she loved him, would endure in his heart for as long as he lived. Nothing would ever mean more to him.
Tomorrow he would insist on a complete explanation for what had happened to change her attitude so drastically between the wedding and the banquet. No, he corrected himself with a wry grin, he would ask her for an explanation -that tempestuous beauty sleeping across the hall would be for more likely to respond to a question than a demand.