"Say?" Whitney repeated, lowering her eyes to hide her delighted smile. "Why . . . how very provoking of you,

Peter. I had so wanted to … give Elizabeth a glorious taste of London."

Peter, who was innately good-tempered, glanced with smiling tolerance at his future wife and said in a friendlier voice, "Since you’re so bent on being with Elizabeth in London, you can shop for her trousseau with her. If her papa accepts me tonight, I expect she’ll want to leave tomorrow, and she has already informed me that she wants you to be a bridesmaid."

Chapter Twenty-three

UPON ARRIVING AT THE ARCHIBALDS’ TOWNHOUSE, WHTTNEY was greeted by a flustered Emily, her brown hair covered with a kerchief, her cheeks smudged with dirt. "You look like a chimney sweep," Whitney laughed.

"You look like a godsend!" Emily countered, embracing her. "Can a knight be seated beside an honorable at dinner?" she burst out desperately.

Whitney blinked in surprised confusion.

"It’s this wretched party," Emily explained in the salon after Whitney had taken off her pelisse and Clarissa had been shown to her room. "Michael’s mama said that I must begin to entertain as suits Michael’s station in life. Have you any idea how much fuss the ton can make over the simple act of sitting down to dinner? Here, just look at what I’ve been going through." She went over to a desk and plucked up a seating diagram for the dining tables that evening. It was obvious she had repeatedly scratched out names to rearrange them. "Can you, or can you not, seat an honorable beside a knight? Michael’s mama lent me a dozen books on etiquette, but they’re so filled with contradictions and exceptions to rules that I know less now than I did before I read them."

Whitney scanned the seating diagram and then promptly slid into the sabre-legged chair at the desk. Dipping the quill into the inkpot, she deftly rearranged the guests, then sat back and flashed a sunny smile at her stunned friend. "Thanks to Aunt Anne’s training, 1 can do that when there are nobles from five different countries present," she said.

Emily sank down on the sofa, her eyes still clouded with worry. "This is our first formal party and Michael’s mama is going to be here watching every move I make. She’s a stickler for formalities. She was less than pleased when her son married A Nobody, and I want more than anything to show her I can have the most perfect, grandest party she’s ever attended!"

Whitney, who had been racking her brain for some excuse to see Clayton other than the obvious one, slowly began to smile with delight. Turning back to the desk, she picked up the quill and wrote his name and title in the proper place on the seating diagram. "This should make you the hostess of the year," she announced proudly, handing the diagram to Emily. "And it will also make your mother-in-law positively envious!"

"The Duke of Claymore," Emily gasped. "But he’d think me the most presumptuous person in the world. Besides, he’d not come-none of our guests is his social equal, despite their titles."

"He’ll come," Whitney assured her. "Give me a spare invitation and a sheet of paper." After a moment’s thought, Whitney wrote to Clayton and explained that she had come to London to visit Emily, and that she hoped very much that he would join her at the party. She enclosed the invitation and gave it to one of the Archibalds’ footmen with instructions to take it to his grace’s secretary, Mr. Hudgins, in Upper Brook Street and to tell Mr. Hudgins that the note was from Miss Stone-which was how Clayton had told her to reach him if she wanted him to come back early.

The footman returned a short time later with the information that the duke had gone to his brother’s country home, and would be back in London early the next day-Saturday.

Emily looked simultaneously relieved and crestfallen. "He’ll be too weary to come to the party tomorrow night," she sighed. "He’ll be here," Whitney said with smiling certainty.

After dinner, Emily tried to open the subject of Paul, and then the Duke of Claymore, but Whitney said very gently, and very firmly, that she didn’t want to discuss either of them just yet. To take the sting out of her refusal to confide in her best friend, Whitney then regaled her with an hilarious account of how she’d coerced poor Peter into offering for Elizabeth. "Elizabeth and Peter, along with their parents, and Margaret and Mrs. Merryton, all left the village this morning when I did," she finished gaily. "They have come here to shop for Elizabeth’s trousseau."

"If anyone had told me a few years ago that you would someday be Elizabeth’s bridesmaid, I’d have accused them of being deranged!" Emily said with a laugh.

"I think Elizabeth means to ask you to be her matron of honor," Whitney said. "The wedding is going to take place here in London, since most of Elizabeth and Peter’s relatives live here."

Not until Saturday afternoon did Whitney allow herself to dwell on her forthcoming confrontation with Clayton tonight. She and Clarissa spent the morning doing errands for Emily, and on the way back, Whitney asked the Archibalds’ driver to turn into the park and stop. She left Clarissa in the open carriage and wandered along the path between the neatly tended beds of chrysanthemums.

She had told Aunt Anne that Clayton didn’t care for her, but she knew that wasn’t entirely true. He had said he "wanted" her, which must mean he desired her. Whitney sat down on the park bench, a faint blush staining her cheeks as she thought of his lips moving warmly on hers and his hands caressing her body, molding her to his masculine frame.

She thought about the times they had been together, beginning with the first time she’d seen him in England. He’d been standing beside the stream with his shoulders propped against the sycamore, watching her sunning her bare legs. He had already been betrothed to her that day, and she had virtually ordered him oft her property. She felt a surge of righteous indignation when she recalled the way he had used the crop on her tender backside, but it dwindled away when she thought about what she’d done to deserve it. A smile touched her lips as she recalled the night they bad played chess at his house, and her flush deepened as she remembered the stormy passion of his kisses before he took her home.

Clayton desired her. And he was very proud of her-she had seen that at the Rutherfords’ ball. He didn’t love her, of course, but he did care for her. He cared enough about her to be hurt by the dreadful things she’d said to him that day beside the pavilion. Tenderness welled in her heart as she remembered how furiously he’d rejected her kiss until he finally lost control and his arms went around her, crushing her to him. And she remembered how desolate she’d felt when she believed they were saying goodbye forever.