Clayton had a difficult time keeping his face straight. "Martin, have you ever actually ‘commanded’ your daughter to do something she didn’t want to do?"
"Of course I have. I’m her father."
Amusement tugged at the corner of Clayton’s lips. "And when you ‘commanded’ her, did Whitney dutifully accept your authority, and do as she was bidden?"
Martin slumped back in his chair, his face flushed with chagrined defeat. "The last time I ‘commanded’ my daughter to do my bidding she was fourteen years old," he admitted. "I ordered her to emulate the Ashton girl, and for two months afterward, Whitney curtsied me to death. She curtsied into and out of every room in the house. She curtsied to the butler and the cook, she curtsied to the horses. Every damn time I looked at the chit, she dropped whatever she was doing and curtsied to me. The rest of the time she did that ridiculous thing with her eyelashes . . . you know, fluttering them. She said she was obeying my order to emulate the Ashton girl."
"Whitney will do my bidding," Clayton said in a tone that brooked no further debate. "But until I am ready to tell her about our betrothal, no one is to tell her about it. When I think the time is correct, I will do so. Is that perfectly clear, Martin?"
Martin nodded resignedly.
"Fine," Clayton said, picking up an envelope from the stack of correspondence and opening it.
Running a nervous finger between his neckcloth and throat, Martin said, "There’s just one more thing. A small thing."
"Yes, go on," Clayton said without looking up from his correspondence.
"It’s Lady Anne Gilbert. She has some ridiculous notion that Whitney dislikes you. Fd like you to convince her that you can overcome that problem."
"Because my servants inform me that she is sending letters directed to her husband at consulates all over Europe. I assume she wants to find him and bring him here at once."
The duke’s face hardened with such cold displeasure that Martin pressed back in his chair. "Are you telling me that she is opposed to the marriage?"
"My God, no! I didn’t mean that," Martin exclaimed desperately. "Anne Gilbert’s a sensible woman, but she’s soft where Whitney’s concerned. After you told her what we’d done-you and I-and her shock had passed, she admitted that it was a brilliant match. She said you were the best catch in all Europe, and that there is no more aristocratic, important family in England than the Westmorelands."
"I’m delighted that Lady Gilbert is so sensible," Clayton said, somewhat mollified.
"Not that sensible!" Martin contradicted. "She’s up in the boughs over the way we went about the matter without Whitney’s knowledge." Bitterly, he added, "She accused me of being a cold, heartless father without a grain of human sensitivity!" Stung by the look of agreement on the duke’s face, Martin burst out defensively, "She accused you of being dictatorial and autocratic. She said she doesn’t like your reputation with the ladies above hah7, and that you are entirely too good-looking for comfort. In short, Lady Gilbert thinks Whitney is too good for both of us."
"I’m surprised my little gift to you of ï¿½100,000 didn’t soften her feelings," Clayton drawled cynically.
"She called it a bribe," Martin announced, then shrank back at the frigid look in "the duke’s eyes. "Lady-Lady Gilbert needs assurance that you won’t force Whitney to marry you without first giving her ample time to develop a tendre for you. If she doesn’t receive this assurance from your own lips, I think she means to urge her husband to use his influence to block the marriage. He has contacts in the highest circles, and his opinions carry much weight with people who count."
Unexpectedly, the duke’s ominous expression lightened with genuine amusement. "If Lord Gilbert wants to maintain his influence in those circles, he won’t want to make an adversary of me. At the risk of sounding immodest, Martin, I am one of those ‘people who count.’"
After Martin had left, Clayton got up and walked over to the window. Leaning his shoulder against the frame, he gazed at workmen constructing a small rustic pavillion at the far end of the lawn near the woods.
If Martin had come to him yesterday, rather than today, and urged him to order Whitney to marry him, he might have given the idea more consideration. Until last night, Whitney had simply been a possession he had acquired-a valued possession, perhaps even a treasured one, but a possession nonetheless.
On the night of the Armands’ masquerade, he’d briefly considered making Whitney his mistress, but deflowering a gently reared virgin violated even his relaxed code of honor where women were concerned. Then, too, it was his duty to marry and provide an heir, a responsibility of which he had been constantly reminded from the day he came of age. And so, as he gazed down into her radiant, laughing face in the Armands’ garden, he had arrived at a highly satisfactory solution to the dual problem of his duty and his desire: He would marry Whitney Stone.
Until last night, Whitney had merely been the delightful object of his lustful thoughts, and the future mother of his needed heir. But last night, that had changed. Last night, she had touched a tenderness, a protectiveness, within him that he never knew existed.
He had listened to her laughingly telling a story that seemed more sad than funny to him, a story about a motherless young girl who was made to play at a stupid musicale in front of a roomful of thoughtless people and, for the first time, he had realized the pain and frustration, the angry humiliation, she must have felt as a girl.
He didn’t like most of her neighbors; they struck him as small-minded, gossipy country bumpkins, and from the moment word had reached them that Whitney was returning from France, they had regaled each other-and him-with endless tales of her girlish antics and her youthful pursuit of Paul Sevarin.
If showing them all that she could bewitch Sevarin was the only way Whitney could regain her pride, then Clayton was wiling to allow her to do it. Let her show the villagers she had captivated Sevarin for a few days more. Clayton could wait that long . . . provided that Sevarin didn’t actually screw up the courage to ask her father for her hand. Clayton’s leniency toward Whitney did not extend to allowing her actually to betroth herself to another man. That he would not tolerate.
His mind made up, Clayton went back to the table. Martin was going to be gone for five days, and that was too long to wait to see Whitney again. He needed some excuse to see her in the meantime, some ploy to make her agree to see him. He considered the possibilities and, with a satisfied grin, remembered she had challenged him to a race in which she would ride Dangerous Crossing against him.