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Chapter Thirty

WHTTNEY AWOKE FROM A DEEP SLEEP, GROGGY WITH UNFINISHED dreams, and rolled over, unwilling to relinquish them. She opened her eyes, simultaneously recognizing her approximate location and Mary, the redheaded maid who had helped her the last time she was here. "The master has been prowling about below for over an hour, watching the stairs," Mary’s Irish voice gaily announced from the foot of the bed. "He said to tell you that the day is unseasonably warm, and he asked that you dress for riding."

"That man thinks he’s the King of England!" Clarissa grumbled, bustling into the room with her mob cap askew. "He decides he wants to marry my little girl, and we’re shipped home from France. He wants to go to a ball, and we’re bounced off to London. This morning, he wants to ride, and he has me hauled out of bed at dawn and carted here with the rest of your luggage. Dawn!" she exclaimed sourly, pulling back Whitney’s covers, "when decent folks aren’t even about on the roads!"

Whitney laughed, scrambling out of bed. "Oh Clarissa, I love you!" She bathed quickly and put on the amber riding habit that Clarissa had brought with her trunks that morning. Eager to see Clayton, to reassure herself that he didn’t regret letting her win last night,. she pulled her lone hair back and caught it at the nape with a bow, then she dashed out of the room.

She crossed the wide balcony and stopped. Clayton was waiting for her at the foot of the stairs, the winter sun glinting down on his dark hair through the domed glass ceiling three stories above. Dressed in a soft chamois peasant shirt with a deep vee at the throat and snug-fitting, coffee-brown riding breeches, he looked so masculine, so like a tall, broad-shouldered god, that Whitney’s pulse raced giddily.

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Clayton watched her coming toward him down the broad curving staircase. Warily he scanned her lovely face for signs that she regretted her capitulation last night, or resented him for making it so difficult for her.

And then she stood on the last step, gentled still, smiling shyly into his searching gaze. "It’s most embarrassing," she said softly, "to know that everyone is going to say that the groom is much more beautiful than the bride."

Clayton couldn’t help himself. He caught her into his arms, crushing her to him, burying his face in the fresh fragrance of her hair. "My God!" he whispered hoarsely. "How will I ever wait eight weeks to make you mine?"

He felt her whole body go momentarily rigid in his embrace. That hadn’t been what he meant at all, but he realized that Whitney had just recoiled in fear from the thought of his making love to her. He grinned against her hair; he had eight weeks to hold and caress her. Eight weeks until his desire could run its natural course to fulfillment and, in that time, she would come to want him too, and to realize that he would never hurt her. And on her wedding night, even if the act itself frightened her, she would trust him enough to let him make love to her. Then he would show her how it was supposed to be, how it was meant to be. He would make her wild with wanting, until she was clinging to him, writhing beneath him in a sweet yearning to be taken.

"Would you like to see the estate?" he asked her as soon as they finished breakfast.

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"Very much," Whitney said happily.

It was one of those bright blue winter days when the sun warmed whatever it touched. Together they strolled through vast formal gardens with sleeping flower beds arranged in lavish geometric patterns, their borders precise and manicured.

The gardeners and groundskeepers who were gathering fallen twigs and heaping them onto a small fire took no apparent notice of the couple strolling through the gardens. But when the young lady said something that made the duke roar with laughter and snatch her into his arms in a quick bear hug, several of them glanced up to stare in astonishment, and then exchanged knowing grins before quietly continuing with their tasks.

At Clayton’s side, Whitney wandered through the dappled sunlight of the arbor, her mind picturing the splendor of spring, when the trees would burst into bloom, strewing flowers along the wide winding paths, blanketing the white ornamental iron benches in blossoms of pink and rose and white.

They turned and walked along the perfectly tended banks of an immense lake with a graceful pillared pavilion overlooking it from a wide knoll on the opposite bank. Clayton took her hand and they walked around the lake toward the pavilion. It was, Whitney thought in a daze of happiness, sheer bliss to have her hand firmly clasped in Clayton’s strong, warm one; to be with him in quiet, joyous peace, without the barriers she had always kept between them. She gazed at the bright blue sky where fluffy white clouds slowly drifted past, and decided it was a halcyon day-the happiest day of her life.

The view of the lake and surrounding grounds from the higher pavilion was glorious. Whitney leaned her shoulders against one of the white pillars, breathing in the splendor of it. She knew perfectly well that Clayton had guided her here because, inside, the pavilion would offer some scant privacy, but she stood there anyway, delightfully prolonging the moment when they would step inside and he would take her in his arms . . .

Unexpectedly he stepped in front of her, blocking her view as he braced a hand on either side of her shoulders. Laughter lurked in his gaze as his mouth slowly descended to hers. "Have it your own way," he said huskily, his tone amused. "I’m not shy, so it matters not in the least to me if I kiss you out here or in there."

When at last he lifted his mouth from hers, Whitney was shaky with awakened desire. "Clayton," she whispered.

"I-"

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He interrupted her in a deep, quiet voice. "I love to hear you say my name. It makes me want to take you in my arms, to have your sweet tongue in my mouth, to caress your breasts and feel your nipples rise up proudly against my hand."

Whitney drew an unsteady breath and dropped her eyes, but not before Clayton glimpsed the fires kindling in their jade depths and the warm peach tint creeping up her soft cheeks. He smiled to himself. She might be afraid of his making love to her now, but she was still a warm, passionate creature, and she would soon dismiss her fears. He glanced over her shoulder into the pavilion. He wanted to hold her and leisurely kiss that stirringly provocative mouth, but not here, where he knew they could be seen. Idly, he let his gaze wander over the landscape, a little irritated by the lack of privacy available to him, then he saw the wooded ridge off in the distance to the west. That ridge would offer both privacy and a view.

"The home woods?" Whitney asked, following his gaze.

Clayton grinned at her. "Part of them. The view is supposed to be the best for miles. We’ll ride up there in a bit." But not entirely for the view, he added silently. Turning, he leaned against the pavilion wall, pleasuring himself with the view of her vivid profile. With her glossy tresses caught at the nape in a wide velvet bow, she reminded Clayton of a little girl who ought to be wearing white stockings and a ruffled dress, sitting on a swing, while the boys argued over the honor of pushing her. But here the image ended, for there was nothing childish about the lush, tantalizing curves displayed to such advantage by her amber riding habit.

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