Whitney's eyes widened with bewilderment, then grew huge with understanding. She lurched into an erect sitting position, starting to pull away from him, but Clayton drew her back against his chest. "No," he said quietly, "stay in my arms a while longer. I just want to hold you." And she did.
"Is this ridge the boundary of your property?" Whitney asked later, as they walked toward their tethered horses.
Clayton looked a little stung. "No, the boundaries are farther away."
"How much land do you have?" Whitney asked, wondering at his odd, faintly wounded expression.
"About one hundred twelve thousand acres."
Her obvious shock reminded Clayton of something else, and he stopped abruptly, regarding her with laughter glinting in his eyes. "While I think of it, I've been meaning to ask you if you find my house 'dingy'?"
Whitney gave him a plucky smile. "I said 'dismal.' 'Dingy' was your word. And it is splendid-just like you."
To a man who had waited for months just to hear her call him by his given name, being told in the same morning that he was "beautiful" and "splendid" was unequivocally reason for another long, stirring kiss.
Standing at the wide bow windows overlooking the side-lawns, the duchess and Stephen watched Whitney and Clay-ton walking hand in hand toward the house. "They are splendid together, aren't they," her grace happily observed.
"Yes, sweetheart," Stephen chuckled knowingly. "And you will have half a dozen splendid grandchildren. And in none too long a tune, I'll wager," he added with a bald grin.
"Stephen, that is too bad of you!"
"Can't imagine why. I think it's rather wonderful."
His mother shot him an exasperated look that dwindled into laughter when she met his contagious grin. "What I meant, you wretched boy, is that she is a marvellous girl, and she makes your brother happier than I have ever seen him."
"She does indeed." Stephen looked out the window and saw Whitney, who had been walking beside Clayton, suddenly draw back laughing. She spoke rapidly to him, then turned and fled. In two long strides, Clayton caught her at the waist, flung her over his shoulder as if she were a sack of flour, and continued striding toward the house. Whitney struggled and pushed against him until he finally put her down, whereupon she walked sedately beside him with her hands clasped demurely behind her back.
"I believe that settled that!" the duchess laughed.
"Don't count on it," Stephen chuckled. Even as he spoke, Whitney began moving ahead of Clayton, a good four or five paces this time, then she turned, taking little backward skipping steps. She shook her head, laughing at whatever Clayton told her, then she pivoted on her heel and fled out of their line of vision. Instead of chasing her this time, Clayton leaned a shoulder against a tree, crossed his arms over his chest, and called something after her. Whitney was back in a flash, flinging her arms around him.
"Now that settled it!" Stephen laughed. "Remind me to ask Whitney if she has a sister," he added thoughtfully.
"Really, Stephen," her grace expostulated. "With half the mamas in London trying to put their daughters in your way these past five years, I can't imagine why you haven't already chosen a wife and-" she paused as if struck with an idea. "I believe Whitney did say she has a second cousin."
A lazy smile, very much like his brother's and just as fatal to a lady's heart, flashed across Stephen's features. "If she's like Whitney, I'll marry her out of hand and give you enough grandchildren to make you blush."
"You can't possibly be serious!" the duchess gasped at lunch, when Clayton announced his intention to be wed in eight weeks.
"I am perfectly serious." Rising from his chair, he pressed a kiss on Whitney's forehead and lightly mocked, 'Til leave the little details of the affair to the two of you." He strode toward the door, turned back toward his mother and Whitney who were staring at each other, overwhelmed, and took pity on them. "Just draw up a list of things to be attended to, and give it to Hudgins. He'll be able to prevail upon the various establishments to act with haste."
"Exactly who is Hudgins?" Whitney asked. "I've never seen him."
"He's Clayton's secretary. And he's a wizard," the duchess sighed. "Hell employ the magic of Clayton's name, and everything will be ready in eight weeks, but I had so hoped to have more time for parties and-"
Her sentence was interrupted by Clayton, who poked his head back into the room and, grinning like a devil, said, "Well, is the list ready yet?"
IN RESPONSE TO WHITNEY'S NOTE, LADY ANNE GILBERT arrived the following morning, ready to help with the wedding preparations, and an almost instant friendship sprang up between her and the duchess.
For Whitney, the next four days drifted by in a haze of comfort and togetherness, of smiles exchanged across the table, and stolen moments of joy in each other's arms.
True to Clayton's mother's prediction, all the various shops agreed to meet their eight-week deadline, despite the fact that the fashionable modistes were already overburdened with orders for the next season. Frequently, it was the proprietors themselves who arrived, carrying large sketches and boxes of swatches, all of them eager to claim that they had been of assistance to the future Duchess of Claymore in her wedding preparations.
On the fifth day, however, Whitney received a rather perfunctory summons from a footman who informed her that "His grace wishes to see you in his study-at once." Trying to smother the apprehensive feeling in her breast, Whitney hurried down the hall, nodded toward a distinguished-looking man she passed who was carrying a large, flat, oblong case under his arm, and entered Clayton's study. Closing the doors behind her, she bobbed a funny little servant's curtsy and said teasingly, "You rang for me, your grace?"
Clayton was standing in front of his desk, and he gazed at her silently across the room, his expression very somber.
"Is-is something wrong?" Whitney breathed after a moment.
Although he spoke gently, there was a strange new gravity to his tone. "No. Come here, please."
"Clayton, what is it?" Whitney said, hurrying toward him. "What has-"
He caught her to him in a crushing embrace. "Nothing is wrong," he said in an odd, rough voice. "I missed you." With one arm still around her waist, he turned aside and picked up a small velvet box from the desk behind him. "I thought about an emerald," he said in that same gentle, grave voice, "but it would be outshone by your eyes. So I decided on this instead." He unsnapped the lid of the box with his free hand, and a magnificent diamond shot prisms of color across the intricate plasterwork scrolls at the ceiling.