Whitney rose to his bait like a trout for a fly-which is why she ended up spending the better part of the day pleasurably engaged in battling and bantering with him across the chessboard, with her aunt ensconced on the settee, acting as smiling chaperone while her fingers flew nimbly over her embroidery.
Lying in bed that night, Whitney courted sleep, but it refused to come. She lifted her left hand and looked at her long fingers in the darkness. Would there be a betrothal ring there tomorrow? It was possible, if only her father would return early enough tomorrow afternoon for Paul to speak to him. And then they could announce their engagement at the party tomorrow night.
Whitney was not the only one unable to sleep. With his hands linked behind his head, Clayton stared at the ceiling above his bed, pleasurably contemplating their wedding night. His blood stirred hotly as he imagined Whitney’s silken, long-limbed body beneath his, her hips rising to meet his thrusts. She was a virgin, and he would take care to arouse her gently until she was moaning with rapture in his arms.
With that delightful thought in mind, he rolled over onto his side and finally drifted off to sleep.
LADY ANNE WAS AWAKENED BY THE BABBLE OF VAGUELY familiar voices calling cheerful greetings to one another in the halls. She blinked at the dazzling sunlight and realized her head was pounding, while a feeling of foreboding crept over her.
Martin’s surprise birthday party had been Whitney’s idea and, at the time, Anne had immediately supported it, hoping it might help bring, Martin closer to his daughter. But she hadn’t known then of Whitney’s betrothal to the Duke of Claymore. Now, she worried that one of the thirty visiting guests might recognize the duke, and then God knew what would happen to all the careful plans hatched by Martin and the duke.
Reaching behind her, she tugged on the bellpull to summon her maid and reluctantly climbed out of bed, unable to shake the feeling of impending doom.
Dusk had fallen when Sewell finally tapped at Whitney’s bedroom door and informed her that her father had returned.
"Thank you, Sewell," Whitney called dejectedly. Tonight would have been such a perfect occasion for announcing her betrothal; the Ashtons and the Merrytons and everyone else of any consequence in the neighborhood would be at the party. How she wanted to see their collective reaction to the news that Paul and she were going to be married.
Still, she reasoned hopefully as she lathered herself with carnation-scented soap, there was a chance that Paul might find an opportunity to draw her father aside during the party. Then they could still announce their betrothal tonight.
Three quarters of an hour later, her maid, Clarissa, stood back to survey Whitney’s appearance while Whitney dutifully turned around for her inspection.
Whitney’s elegant ivory satin gown shimmered in the candlelight, and its low, square-cut bodice molded itself to her breasts, displaying a tantalising glimpse of the shadowy hollow between them. The wide bell sleeves were trimmed with rich topaz satin from her elbows to her wrists, and a matching band of topaz adorned the hemline. From the front, the gown fell in straight toes, widening slightly at the hem, but viewed from the back, it flared out into a graceful, flowing half train. Topaz and diamonds glittered at her throat and ears, adding their fire to the matching strand of jewels twined in and out among the thick, shining curls of her elaborately coiffed hair.
"You look like a princess," Clarissa announced with a proud smile.
Prom below and along the halls, Whitney heard the guests stealthily moving about. Her father’s valet had been instructed to inform his master that "a few guests" had been invited for dinner, and that he was requested to come downstairs at seven o’clock. Whitney glanced at the clock on her mantel; it was six-thirty. Her spirits lifted as she imagined her father’s happy surprise at finding relatives who had travelled from Bam, Brighton, London, and Hampshire to celebrate his birthday. With the intention of asking Sewell to try to keep the guests a little quieter, Whitney dipped out of her room and into the hall.
There on the balcony, leaning over and peering down into the entrance foyer, stood her father, his neckcloth hanging loosely over his starched white shirt. So much for the "surprise," Whitney thought ruefully as she walked over and stood beside him. Below, the local guests were arriving in a steady stream, exchanging greetings in boisterous whispers while a harassed Sewell shepherded them toward the drawing room, admonishing, "Ladies and Gentlemen-Madam, Sir-I must request that you lower your voices."
Her father’s puzzled grimace swung from the guests below, to the long hall beside him where two bedroom doors were opened and quickly banged shut again, as the relatives spied their guest of honor standing on the balcony. Whitney pressed a self-conscious kiss on his bristly cheek. ‘They’ve come to celebrate your birthday, Papa."
Despite his stern, disgruntled expression, Whitney could tell that he was touched. "I take it that it’s to be a surprise, and I’m not supposed to notice this clamor in my house?"
"That’s right." Whitney smiled.
"I shall try, my dear," he said, awkwardly patting her arm. Suddenly there was the ear-splitting sound of glass shattering on the floor. "Oh my goodness, goodness gracious!" trilled an agitated female voice.
"Letitia Pinkerton," Martin identified the voice with his head tilted slightly to the side. "That is her favorite and only expression of dismay." With an odd catch in his voice, he looked at Whitney and added, "I used to send your dear mother into spasms by threatening to teach Letitia to say ‘Goddamn!’" With that, he turned and strolled off toward his bedchamber, leaving Whitney staring after him in silent laughter.
Half an hour later, with Whitney on one arm and Lady Anne Gilbert on the other, Martin made his way toward the drawing room. At Whitney’s nod, Sewell threw the doors wide and Martin was greeted by exuberant cries of "Surprise!" and "Happy Birthday!"
Anne started forward to begin performing her duties as hostess, but a footman forestalled her. "Pardon me, my lady, but this letter was just delivered by special messenger, and Sewell instructed me to bring it to you directly."
Anne glanced at the letter, saw the familiar, beloved scrawl that was Edward’s hand, and with a quick gasp of joyous relief, she took it from him and hurriedly broke the seal.
Whitney looked for Paul, and when she didn’t immediately
see him, she made her way to the dining room to make certain that everything was exactly as Aunt Anne and she had planned.
The doors dividing the salon from the dining room had been pushed back, creating one vast area of small tables, each seating six. Enormous clusters of red, white and pink roses reposed in gigantic silver bowls and atop tall floor stands. Silver and crystal gleamed in the candlelight, and her mother’s finest linen, in a soft shade of pale pink, was spread on all the tables.