To Clayton, however, his house was a place of haunting memories where he could not sleep, and when he did, could not escape the recurring nightmare of what had happened there seven endless agonizing nights ago. It was a place from which he had to escape.
Seated at his desk in the spacious oak-panelled library, he listened impatiently to the solicitor who was repeating the instructions Clayton had just given him.
"Do I understand you correctly, your grace? You wish to withdraw your offer of marriage to Miss Stone? But make no attempt to recover any of the monies you expended to secure the agreement?"
"That is precisely what I just said," Clayton replied shortly. "I am leaving for Grand Oak today, and will return in a fortnight. Have the papers here for my signature the day after my return." With that he stood up, abruptly concluding the distasteful interview.
The dowager Duchess of Claymore glanced up eagerly as the butler appeared in the doorway. "His grace’s coach is just pulling up the drive," the old family retainer announced, his dignified countenance lit with unabashed pleasure.
Smiling, the duchess walked over to the windows of the lovely manor which her husband had years ago set aside as her dower house. In comparison to the vastness of Claymore, Grand Oak was small, but she entertained frequently and lavishly in the spacious house which stood before five guest pavilions and was surrounded by glorious gardens and arbors.
She watched the two sleek travelling chaises draw up smartly before the front steps, then turned aside to check her appearance in the mirror. At five and fifty, Alicia, Dowager Duchess of Claymore, was still slim and gracefully erect. Her dark hair was threaded with silver strands, but they only added dignity to her abiding beauty. A worried shadow darkened her gray eyes as she patted her elegantly coiffed hair into place and thought about Clayton’s strangely uninformative note which had arrived only three days ago, announcing his intention to pay her a two-week visit. Clayton’s visits were infrequent and usually disappointingly brief; it seemed odd somehow that he had decided to come for such an extended time and on such short notice.
A controlled commotion in the entrance hall heralded Clayton’s arrival, and with her face wreathed in a delighted smile, Lady Westmoreland turned to greet her eldest son.
Clayton strode swiftly across the pale blue carpet and, ignoring her outstretched hands, he caught her in a brief embrace and pressed an affectionate kiss on her smooth forehead. "You are more beautiful than ever," he said.
His mother leaned back, anxiously studying the deeply etched lines of strain and fatigue at his eyes and mouth. "Have you been ill, darling? You look terrible."
"Thank you, Mother," he said drily. "I am delighted to see you, too."
"Well, of course, I’m delighted to see you," she protested with a sighing laugh. "But I would like to see you looking better, which is what I meant." Dismissing the subject with a cheerful wave of her hand, she drew him down to sit beside her on the sofa, but her eyes still worriedly scanned his drawn face. "Stephen is in transports over being able to spend an entire fortnight here with you," she said. "He has planned parties and is even now en route here with a large group of people. I doubt you’ll have a moment’s peace and quiet, so if that’s why you’ve come, I’m afraid you’re in for a rude surprise."
"It doesn’t matter," Clayton replied grimly. Getting up, he walked over to the side table and poured himself a liberal glass of whiskey.
"Where is that scoundrel who forced me to be a penniless younger son?" Stephen Westmoreland called from the hall way. He strode into the salon, winked at his mother, and warmly clasped Clayton’s hand. Jokingly referring to the jumble of voices out in the hall he said, "I grew tired, brother dear, of having to make excuses for your absence to the London beauties, so I brought a few of them with me, as you will soon see."
"Fine." Clayton shrugged unenthusiastically.
Stephen’s blue eyes narrowed into a slight frown, a pensive expression which heightened the similarity of features between the two brothers. Like Clayton, Stephen was dark-haired and tall. Although he lacked the aura of power and authority that seemed to surround his brother, Stephen was friendlier and easier to know, and as the ton often remarked, he possessed the legendary Westmoreland charm in good measure. He was, despite his earlier remark, very wealthy in his own right and perfectly content to have the ducal title- and the hundreds of responsibilities that went with it-rest on his brother’s capable shoulders.
Subjecting Clayton to a brief scrutiny, he said, "You look like hell, Clay." Then with an apologetic grin at his mother, he added, "I beg your pardon, Mama."
"Well, he does," the duchess agreed. "I told him the same thing."
"You told him he looks like hell?" Stephen teased her, pressing a belated kiss of greeting on his mother’s beringed fingers.
"It must be a family characteristic," Clayton observed sardonically, "to ignore the common civilities and make unsolicited observations instead. Hello, Stephen."
Shortly thereafter, Clayton pleaded fatigue from his four-hour trip and excused himself. As soon as he left the room, Lady Westmoreland turned determinedly to her youngest son. "Stephen, see if you can discover what’s troubling nun."
Stephen firmly shook his head in the negative. "Clay won’t tolerate anyone prying into his affairs, you know that as well as I, sweetheart. Besides, he is probably only tired, nothing more."
Despite his words, Stephen watched Clayton closely in the two weeks that followed. During the day, the members of the house party rode and hunted and jaunted off to a nearby village to explore and shop. But the only activity Clayton seemed to enjoy was riding-except that now he ruthlessly forced his mount over impossible obstacles and rode with a reckless, bruising violence that struck genuine alarm in Stephen’s chest.
The evenings were filled with sumptuous feasts and brilliant conversation; games of whist and billiards; as well as the predictable flirtations one could always took forward to wherever seven lovely, well-born young women and seven eligible gentlemen were thrown into each other’s constant company for nearly two weeks.
Clayton fulfilled his role as host to the group with his usual careless elegance, and Stephen sat through meal after meal watching in amusement as the women flirted shamelessly with him, doing everything within the limits of propriety (and frequently beyond) to hold his attention. Occasionally, a lazy grin would flash across Clayton’s features as he listened to whatever woman was speaking to him, but the shuttered look never left his eyes.