Leaving the solicitor to his own thoughts, Clayton got up and walked over to the wide sweep of windows overlooking the rolling green hills. Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned a shoulder against the window frame and gazed at the magnificent view, while he considered for the last time the plan which, if put into words now, would become a reality.
Time after time, whenever he was in France and bad seen Whitney, he had been drawn to her, laughing silently at some of the setdowns she gave her too persistent suitors. Twice they had been introduced; the first time she was too young for him to consider, and the second time she had been surrounded by a group of beaux all vying for her attention. She had nicked a distracted glance in his direction without really looking at him or listening to his name.
After that, he had avoided further contact with her, sensing that Whitney would require considerable time and courtship to lure into his arms. Of time, Clayton had little. When it came to courtship, he could not recall ever having had to actively court a woman in his adult life, at least not a reluctant woman. They were all too ready and eager to court him.
And then, four weeks ago, he had stood in the Armands’ garden, drinking in her presence and fighting down the insane impulse to bend his head and slowly, endlessly, kiss the irreverent laughter from her soft, inviting lips, to carry her into the darkness and make love to her right there.
She was a natural temptress, alluring and provocative, with the smile of an angel, the slender, voluptuous body of a goddess, and an unspoiled charm that made him grin whenever he thought of her. And she had a sense of humor, an irreverent contempt for the absurd, that matched his own.
Clayton gave up trying to understand his reasons for the step he was about to take. He wanted her, that was reason enough. She was warm and witty and elusive as a damned
butterfly. She would never bore him as other women had; he knew it with the wisdom born of years of experience with the fair sex.
His mind made up, he turned and strode briskly to the desk. "I will need some documents prepared, and there will have to be a transfer of a considerable amount of money when Stone accepts my offer."
"If Stone accepts it," Matthew corrected automatically.
The Westmoreland brow quirked in sardonic amusement. "He’ll accept it."
Despite his nervousness today, Matthew was a respected legal advisor who had schooled himself never to show any emotion when dealing with delicate matters of a client. Nevertheless, when his grace began to dictate the terms under which a staggering sum of money was being offered to Martin Stone, Matthew raised his head and gaped in astonishment at the duke.
Clayton stood at the windows, absently watching the coach bearing Matthew Bennett back to Paris make its winding way down the hillside. Already he was impatient to have everything completed. He wanted Whitney, and he wanted her immediately, but he’d be damned if he’d court her in France, standing in line, playing the fop and bowing like an ass. That he would not do for any woman, even Miss Stone. Besides, he’d been away from England too long already. In order to manage his business affairs, he needed to be closer to London.
Since the Stone estate was only seven hours from the city, he could manage his business and his courtship very nicely from somewhere near her home. That being the case, he decided to have Whitney’s father summon her back to England as soon as his signature was on the documents and the money had changed hands.
Not for one moment did Clayton think Martin Stone would refuse his offer, nor did he have the slightest doubt of his own ability to lure Whitney into his arms.
What did concern him was the reported dissension between Whitney and her father-there was a small chance that if she learned of the arrangements to soon, she might rebel against it merely to defy Martin Stone. Clayton’s instincts warned him that if Whitney were ever forced into the position of opposing him, she could become a very determined young adversary. And he didn’t want to do battle with her, he wanted to make love to her.
Then too, there was the added complication of his identity and the personal notoriety that went with it. He rather fancied the idea of a charming country courtship, but how could he manage that with everyone bowing and scraping and cautiously keeping their distance. And the moment the newspapers discovered he was living in a remote country shire, the conjecture over what he was doing there would create a furor, and the villagers would watch every move he made with fanatical curiosity, particularly when he began to pay attention to Whitney.
Since Whitney had such a low opinion of the nobility-and dukes in particular-Clayton began to wonder if it might be wise to keep not only the arrangement with her father, but his identity as well, a secret from her until he had won her over.
Seven days later, Matthew returned to the duke’s country house in France and was shown out onto a wide veranda where Westmoreland was seated at an ornamental iron table, working on some papers, his back to the panoramic view. "Will you join me in a brandy, Matthew?" he said without looking up.
"Yes, thank you, your grace," murmured Matthew, pleased and amazed by the duke’s use of his given name and the friendly offer of a brandy. The Duke of Claymore glanced over his shoulder at the manservant hovering near the stone balustrade, and the drinks were produced without a word being spoken. A few minutes later, his grace shoved his papers aside and regarded Matthew, who had taken the chair across from him at the table.
Like the servant, Matthew found himself responding to an unspoken command, retrieving the documents from his case and handing them over. "As you requested, I included the provision that you will assume financial responsibility for Miss Stone’s expenses. Did you wish to stipulate any maximum figure?"
"No, I’ll assume complete responsibility for her," Clayton murmured absently, his gaze moving down the pages. After several minutes, he laid the documents aside and grinned at Matthew. "Well," he said, "what do you think?"
"What does Miss Stone think?" Matthew countered, grinning back at the duke.
"What Miss Stone thinks won’t be known for a little time yet. She knows nothing of this. For that matter, she knows nothing of me."
Matthew concealed his shock by taking a fortifying swallow of the excellent brandy. "In that case, I wish you luck with the father and the young lady."
The duke waved the offer of luck aside as if he didn’t need it, and leaned back in his chair. "I’ll be leaving for England within the week to discuss this matter with Martin Stone. Assuming he agrees, I’ll need a place to stay nearby. Notify your father in the London office to locate a comfortable one for me, will you? A modest place," he emphasized to Matthew’s further astonishment. "If possible, no more than a half-hour’s ride from the Stone estate. I don’t want to spend any more time than necessary settling matters with Miss Stone, and I haven’t any intention of wasting it traveling between her father’s place and mine."