"It’s just as well," he said, and his gaze drifted meaningfully over her exquisite features and provocative figure. His warmly intimate appraisal made Whitney’s pulse leap in a bewildering combination of excitement and alarm. "At any rats," he continued, "I doubt there’s any other contest of skill in which we could compete evenly. As a male, my youthful pursuits were naturally more vigorous, while yours were sedate and ladylike."
Whitney flashed him a jaunty smile. "How are you with a slingshot?"
His hand stilled in the act of reaching for the drink the footman was handing him. "You can use a slingshot?" he said with such exaggerated disbelief that she burst out laughing. "I wouldn’t tell just everyone this," she said, leaning a trifle closer, white she resumed her vigilant surveillance of her guests’ well-being. "But I used to be able to snap the petals off a daisy at seventy-five paces." Across the room, she saw Paul start toward her father and for one moment, it looked as if he would be able to catch him alone, but two of her relatives were already bearing down on him from the other side. Inwardly, Whitney sighed.
Clayton knew she was preoccupied with her guests and that he was monopolizing her time, but she looked so damned beautiful that he was loath to leave her side. Besides, she was practically flirting with him, and he was enjoying every moment of it. "I’m very impressed," he murmured.
Whitney scarcely noticed the betraying huskiness in his tone. She was watching one of her elderly uncles approach a gaily laughing group. "Do any of you know about prehistoric rocks?" Hubert Pinkerton demanded loudly. "Devilish interesting topic. Let me tell you about them. We’ll start with the Mesozoic era . . ." In growing dismay, Whitney watched the gay atmosphere of the group deteriorate to polite attention, then restrained antagonism. And she’d so wanted her father’s party to be gay and lively!
She turned to Clayton, intending to leave him and try to divert her uncle. "Will you excuse me, I-" She turned her head as a harried-looking footman approached and said that they were running low on champagne. He was immediately followed by another servant requesting instructions about supper. After handling both minor calamities, Whitney turned apologetically to Clayton and saw him frowning as he looked about the room. "Where is your aunt this evening? Why isn’t she helping you attend to these details?"
"She’s feeling a trifle indisposed," Whitney explained lamely, watching his piercing gaze rivet on Anne, who was clutching a wine goblet and staring trancelike out a window.
"Please excuse me," Whitney said, tipping her head toward Uncle Pinkerton. "I have to rescue those people from my Uncle Hubert. He will bore everyone to distraction talking about prehistoric rock formations, and they already look antagonized enough to do him an injury."
"Introduce me to your uncle," Clayton said. She looked so astonished that he added, "I will divert him so that you can took after the rest of your guests."
Whitney gratefully brought him over and performed the introductions, then watched in fascinated admiration as Clay-ton bowed to the elderly man and said smoothly, "I was just now telling Miss Stone how much I would enjoy discussing our mutual interest in the rock formations of the Mesozoic period." Positively emanating enthusiasm, Clayton turned to Whitney and said, "Will you excuse us, Miss Stone? Your uncle and I have much to discuss."
He carried off his flagrant deception with such skill that Whitney could hardly tear her eyes from him as he guided Uncle Hubert off to a deserted corner and appeared to become instantly absorbed in whatever her uncle was saying to him.
The long day of undiluted tension and anxiety as Whitney waited for her father to return had taken its toll. By half past ten, as she gently urged the stragglers into the dining room, Whitney could think of nothing as inviting as finding a quiet comer where she could relax. The guests were making their way along the banquet table, filling their plates from the sumptuous array of foods, when Elizabeth Ashton’s father’s sudden exclamation halted the line and stopped conversations in mid-sentence. "You say the Duke of Claymore is missing?" he demanded of a visiting relative from London. "You mean Westmoreland?" He clarified as if unable to believe he’d heard right.
"Yes, I thought everyone knew," the relative replied, raising his voice for the benefit of the people who had turned to stare at him. "It was in the papers yesterday, and London is buzzing with speculation over where he is."
The level of conversation in the room soared to a fever pitch. Whitney’s neighbors picked up their plates and crowded together at tables where better informed guests from out of town could impart their news. After supper, it was impossible to thread one’s way through the people who were clustered between the tables, speculating over the Duke of Claymore’s disappearance. Whitney was standing with a large
group which included her aunt, Lady Eubank, and Clayton Westland, while Paul was hopelessly trapped across the room, wedged between Elizabeth Ashton and Peter Redfern, unable to make his way to her.
"Claymore’s in France this time of year, if you want my guess," someone said.
"Oh? Do you think so?" Lady Anne asked, her face flushed with a vivacious interest that Whitney attributed to too much wine. At the first mention of the Duke of Claymore, her aunt’s distraction and lethargy had vanished. But while her aunt was obviously enjoying the gossip and speculation about the man, the subject made Whitney’s father fidgety and nervous, and he was periodically slaking an uncharacteristic thirst for whiskey.
Personally, Whitney found the subject excessively boring and she stifled a yawn.
"Tired, little one?" Clayton whispered beside her.
"Yes," Whitney admitted as Clayton drew her hand through the crook of his arm, covering it with his own strong fingers as if he were trying to infuse some of his stamina into her. He shouldn’t call her "little one," she thought, and he shouldn’t be holding her hand in such a familiar way, but she was too grateful for his assistance tonight to cavil over such trifles.
"I heard that his mistress took her own life in Paris last month," Margaret Merryton said, turning to address her stunned audience. "Apparently Claymore cast her aside, and she went all to pieces. She cancelled her European tour, went into seclusion, and-"
‘-And," Amelia Eubank put in frigidly, "she is now spending a fortune renovating a country estate she just purchased. Do you expect us to believe she’s a ghost, you henwitl"
Rushing furiously under the assault of Lady Eubank’s sharp tongue, Margaret wedged herself around and looked appealingly to Clayton. "Mr. Westland has lately been in Paris and London. Surely you’ve heard the news of her suicide?"