Clayton sent word to have his coach brought round; then he took her in his arms for a last dance. "What amuses you so, little one?" he asked, smiling down at her and holding her much closer than was seemly.
"Oh, everything!" Whitney laughed. "For example, when I was a girl I was absolutely positive that no one would ever want to marry me. And now Paul wants to-and Nicki says he does-and of course, you do." After a moment’s thought, she announced expansively, "I wish I could marry all three of you, for you are all very nice!" She peeked at him from beneath her long sooty lashes, and asked almost hopefully, "I don’t suppose you are the least bit jealous, are you?"
Clayton watched her intently. "Should I be?"
"Indeed you should," Whitney said merrily, "if for no other reason than to flatter my vanity because I was jealous when you danced with Miss Standfield." She sobered a bit and lowered her voice to the barest whisper. "I had freckles when I was a girl," she confessed.
"Surely not!" Clayton said in exaggerated shock.
"Yes, thousands of them. Right here-" she jabbed a long tapered fingernail at the general vicinity of her nose and almost poked her eye out.
A throaty chuckle escaped Clayton as he quickly reclaimed her right hand to prevent its being jabbed at her other eye.
"And," Whitney continued in the tone of one admitting to a ghastly deed, "I used to hang upside down from tree limbs. All the other girls used to pretend they were royal princesses, but I pretended I was a monkey …" She tipped her head back, expecting to see condemnation on Clayton’s face. Instead he was smiling down at her as if she were something very rare and very fine. "I am having a wonderful time tonight," she said softly, mesmerized by the tenderness she saw in his eyes.
An hour later, Whitney sighed with contentment and snuggled deeper into the burgundy velvet squabs of Clayton’s coach, listening to the steady clip-clop of the horses’ hooves on the cobbled, fog-shrouded London streets. Experimentally, she closed her eyes, but dizziness made her snap them open. She concentrated instead on the weak yellow light from the flickering coach lamps that sent shadows dancing within the cozy confines of the coach. "Champagne is very nice," she murmured.
"You won’t think so tomorrow," Clayton laughed, putting his arm around her.
Clutching his arm to help maintain her fragile balance, Whitney trailed beside him up the steps toward the front door of the Archibalds’ townhouse, her face turned up to the dawn-streaked sky. At the front door, Clayton stopped.
Whitney finally realized that he was evidently waiting for something and pulled her gaze from the sky to his face. Her eyes narrowed on the laughter tugging at his lips, and she drew herself up to her fullest height. In a voice of offended dignity, she asked, "Are you thinking that I have had too much to drink?"
"Not at all. I am hoping that you have a key."
"Key?" she repeated blankly.
"To the door . . ."
"Oh certainly," she proudly declared.
After several moments passed, he chuckled. "May I have it?"
"Have what?" Whitney asked, trying desperately to concentrate. "Oh yes, of course-the key." She glanced about, trying to remember where she’d left her elegant little beaded reticule, and discovered it hanging haphazardly from her left shoulder by its short golden chain. Grimacing to herself, she muttered, "Ladies do not carry their reticules thus," and pulled it down, rummaging clumsily within it until she finally found the key.
In the darkened entrance hall, Whitney turned abruptly to bid Clayton good night, misjudged the distance separating them and collided with his chest. His strong arm encircled her, steadying her. She could have drawn away, but instead she stood there, her heart beginning to hammer as his gray eyes slid to her lips, lingering on them for an endless moment. And then he purposefully lowered his head.
His mouth opened boldly over hers, his hands sliding intimately over her back and then her hips, molding her tightly to his muscular frame. Whitney stiffened in confused alarm at the hardening pressure of his manhood, then suddenly wrapped her arms around his neck and shamelessly returned his kiss, glorying in the feel of his tongue insistently parting her lips, then plunging into her mouth, slowly retreating and plunging again in a wildly exciting rhythm so suggestive that she felt as if his body were plunging into hers.
Dizzily, she finally pulled away, and then was disappointed that he released her so readily. Drawing a long, unsteady breath, she opened her eyes and saw two Claytons gazing down at her, one superimposed over the other on her swimming vision. "You are shockingly forward, sir," she admonished severely, then spoiled it with a giggle.
Clayton grinned impenitently. "Understandably so, since you seem to find my attentions less than repulsive tonight."
Whitney considered that with a hazy, thoughtful smile. "I suppose that’s true," she admitted in a candid whisper. "And do you know something else-I believe that you kiss quite as well as Paul!" With that backhanded compliment she turned and started up the stairs. On the second step, she paused to reconsider. "Actually," she said, looking at Clayton over her shoulder, "I think you kiss as well as Paul, but I can’t be perfectly certain until he returns. When he does, I shall ask him to kiss me the way you do, so that I may make a more objective comparison." On a stroke of brilliance, she added, "I shall make a scientific experiment of it!"
"The hell you will!" Clayton half growled, half laughed.
Whitney lifted her delicate brows in haughty challenge. "I will if I wish."
A hard smack landed familiarly on her derriere. Whitney lurched around, swinging her arm in a wide arc with every intention of slapping his grinning face. Unfortunately, her aim was off and her hand grazed the wall alongside the staircase instead, dislodging a small painting and sending it clattering to the polished floor. "Now look what you’ve done!" she hissed unfairly, "You’re going to awaken the entire household!" Turning, she flounced up the stairs.
Three Archibald servants were stationed at the sideboard which was covered with steaming platters of buttered eggs, ham, bacon, wafer-thin sliced sirloin, fresh crusty rolls, three kinds of potatoes and several other tempting dishes which Emily had ordered last night after due consideration as to what was appropriate to serve a man of the Duke of Claymore’s lofty rank. They were waiting for Whitney to come downstairs and join them for the meal, to which the duke had been invited since he was escorting Whitney back home that day. Stirring her tea, Emily furtively studied the duke as he conversed across the table with Michael, while a romantic daydream of Whitney becoming the Duchess of Claymore floated through her mind.