Clayton studied her pale face with a slight, worried frown. Despite her momentary gaiety, he could tell that she was as tense as a tightly coiled spring. He wasn’t concerned by her rebellious announcement at breakfast this morning that there was not going to be a marriage, which was what had sent her father scurrying to him in a state of wild agitation. Martin Stone was a stupid bastard who continued trying to bully her, even though it only made Whitney more hell-bent on defying him. For that reason, Clayton had decided to do something to ease her plight and remove her from her father’s abrasive presence for a while.
He walked toward her, and she watched him warily. "I have a favor to ask of you," Clayton said with quiet firmness. "I would like you to accompany me to a ball in London. You can bring that peculiar little abigail of yours-the stout woman with white hair who always scowls at me as if she suspects I’m going to carry off the family silver."
"Clarissa," Whitney provided automatically, her mind already searching for a suitable excuse not to accompany him.
Clayton nodded. "She can play duenna, so there’ll be no lack of a proper chaperone." Actually, Lady Gilbert would have been a far more suitable chaperone, but he wanted Whitney to himself for a while. "If we leave in the morning, the day after tomorrow, we can be in London by late afternoon. That will give you time to visit with your friend, Emily, and rest before the ball. I’m certain the Archibalds will be delighted to have you stay for the night, and we’ll return the following day." Before she could refuse, which Clayton could see she was about to do, he added, "Your aunt is even now writing a note to advise Emily Archibald of your arrival."
Wildly, Whitney wondered what madness had made Aunt Anne agree to such a thing, and then she realized that her aunt was in no better position to deny the Duke of Claymore anything than she herself was. "You didn’t have a favor to ask," Whitney corrected him irritably. "You had a command to issue."
Clayton ignored her lack of enthusiasm for the ball-an idea which he had only conceived after talking to her father this morning. "I was hoping very much that you would like the idea," he said.
His gentle reply made Whitney feel churlish and rude. Sighing, she accepted the inevitable. "Whose ball are we attending?"
"Lord Rutherford’s." Clayton hadn’t realty expected any reaction to that, but even if he had, nothing would have prepared him for what happened next. Whitney’s eyes widened until they were huge green saucers. "Whose?" she demanded in a choked whisper, and before he could answer, she gave a stunned shriek of horrified laughter and literally collapsed into his arms, convulsed with gates of mirth.
Her eyes swimming with tears of hilarity, she finally leaned back in his arms and said, "You see before you a demented female who is beginning to look upon life’s tragedies as one great lark." Swallowing another giggle, she said eagerly, "Does my aunt know yet? Whose ball we are to attend?"
"No. Why do you ask?"
Whitney reached for Nicki’s note and handed it to him. "I wrote Nicki this morning and told him not to come-that I had other commitments away from home."
Clayton skimmed the note and gave it back to her. "Fine," he said curtly, annoyed because she called DuVille "Nicki," yet she persisted in addressing him, to whom she was betrothed, only in formal terms. With grim satisfaction, he realized that Whitney would beat his side when DuVille saw her at the Rutherford’s and his annoyance abated. Pressing a light kiss on her forehead, he said, "I’ll call for you at nine in the morning, the day after tomorrow."
TWO DAYS LATER, ON THE STROKE OF NINE O’CLOCK, WHITNEY watched two shiny black travelling chaises draw up in the front drive. Pulling on the aqua kid gloves that matched her travelling costume, she trooped down the stairs to the entrance foyer with Clarissa marching beside her. Aunt Anne and her father came to bid her farewell. Whitney ignored her father and gave her aunt a fierce hug white Clayton excused himself to escort Clarissa personally out to the chaise.
"Where is Clarissa?" Whitney asked a few minutes later as Clayton handed her into his empty chaise.
Clayton, who had unceremoniously dispensed with the irate, protesting chaperone by thrusting her into the other chaise with his valet, said smoothly, "She is comfortably ensconced in the coach behind us, undoubtedly browsing through the excellent books I took the liberty of providing for her."
"Clarissa adores romances," Whitney remarked.
"I gave her The Successful Management of Large Estates and Plato’s Dialogues," Clayton admitted impenitently. "But then, I had already put up the stairs and slammed the door before she ever had an opportunity to see the titles."
Whitney burst out laughing and shook her head.
The chaises swayed gently as they turned from her drive onto the rutted country road, and it occurred to Whitney that although the chaise looked, from the outside, like hundreds of similar conveyances, it was much more spacious and luxurious on the inside. The velvet squabs were deeper and more comfortable, and the coach was so well sprung that it seemed to float on its frame. Beside her, Clayton had ample room to stretch out his long buckskin-clad legs without being cramped by the opposite seat, and although his broad shoulders were almost touching hers, it was not a lack of ample room that caused him to sit so close to her on the seat. Her pulse stirred as the faint scent of his spicy cologne touched her nostrils, and she hastily turned her head to concentrate on the lovely fall landscape moving past.
"Where is your home?" she asked after a long, comfortable silence.
"Wherever you are."
The quiet tenderness in his deep voice took her breath away. "I-I mean where is your real home-Claymore?"
"An hour and a half drive from London in good weather."
"Is it very old?"
"Then it must be quite dismal," Whitney reflected. He shot her a quizzical look and she hastily explained, "I mean that most of the old noble houses look very large and spacious from without, but inside they seem dark and oppressive."
"There have been some modernizations and additions made to Claymore." Dry amusement vibrated in his voice. "I don’t think you’ll find it ‘dingy.’"
Whitney instantly assumed that his ducal residence must be palatial and extravagantly beautiful, but then she realized she would never see it, and a strange depression settled on her. Clayton seemed to sense her change of mood, and to Whitney’s surprised delight he began regaling her with hilarious stories of his boyhood and his brother, Stephen. In all the time she had known him, he had never been so open with her, and her mood lightened with every mile until they neared Emily’s London townhouse.