Whitney stared at it in awed wonder. "I've never seen anything so ..." She stopped as tears of poignant happiness welled in her eyes.
Taking her hand, Clayton slid the exquisite gem onto her long finger. Whitney looked down at her own hand which now bore the first tangible proof that she was actually Clayton's. She belonged to him now, and all the world would see the ring and know it.
No longer was she Whitney Allison Stone, her father's daughter, Lord and Lady Gilbert's niece. She was now the promised bride of the Duke of Claymore. In the space of one moment, she had lost her identity and been given a new one. She wanted to tell him that his ring was beautiful, that she worshiped him, but she only managed to whisper, "I love you" before the tears came, and she turned her face into his chest. "I'm not sad," she tried to explain as the reassuring strength of his arms encircled her, "I'm happy."
"I know, little one," he whispered, holding her until the same emotion that had unexpectedly rocked him when he'd chosen the ring a few minutes ago, had passed through her.
Finally Whitney drew back, smiling a little sheepishly, and held her hand out in front of her to admire the glittering splendor of the single stone. "It's the most magnificent thing I've ever seen," she said, "except for you."
A surge of hot desire swept through Clayton at the sound of her words, and he bent his head to capture her mouth with his, then he checked the motion-there was a limit to how much stimulation his body could tolerate these days. Instead, be said ma tone of mock severity, "Madam, I hope you'll not make a habit of crying whenever I give you a jewel, else we'll have to send for buckets when you see the ones that belong to yon from my grandmothers."
"Didn't this ring belong to one of your grandmothers?"
"No. Westmoreland duchesses are never betrothed with a ring that has belonged to another-it's tradition. Your wedding band will be an heirloom, though."
"Are there any other Westmoreland traditions?" Whitney asked, her smile filled with love.
Clayton's restraint broke; he gathered her into his arms, his mouth descending with hunger and need on hers. "We could start one," he whispered meaningfully. "Tell me you want me," he said thickly, his mouth fiercely tender as it ravaged hers.
"I love you," she answered instead, but Clayton felt her intoxicating body straining automatically to be closer to his. A deep, knowing laugh sounded in his chest as he drew back. "I know you love me, little one," he said, tipping her chin up. "But yon want me, too."
Whitney conveniently remembered, then, that her aunt and the seamstresses were waiting for her in the other room. Only half reluctantly, she stepped away. "Win that be all, your grace?" she smiled, bobbing another servant's curtsy.
Clayton's tone was politely impersonal. "For now, thank you," he said, out when she turned, he gave her an affectionate smack that landed squarely on her derriere.
Whitney halted. Over her shoulder she regarded him with an expression of exaggerated severity, and warned, "If I were you, I'd not forget what happened when you did that to me after the Rutherfords' party."
"At the Archibalds' house?" he clarified. "When I brought you home?"
Her lips twitched with laughter, but she managed a slow, haughty nod. "Precisely."
"Am I to understand," Clayton mocked, trying unsuccessfully to keep his face straight, "that you're threatening to knock these paintings off the wall?"
Puzzled, Whitney glanced at the portraits in heavy carved frames hanging along the wall, and then at Clayton's laughing face. "I thought I slapped you."
"I'm afraid so," he confirmed gravely.
Whitney muffled a giggle. "How provoking."
"Undoubtedly," he agreed.
Bemused, Whitney turned and started to walk away. His second smack landed with a little more force upon her derriere than the first, and although she managed to look quite disapproving, she couldn't stifle her laughter.
That night after dinner, the family all retired to the drawing room. The duchess and Aunt Anne were deeply engrossed in gossip, white Stephen was regaling Whitney with hilarious versions of Clayton's most infamous boyhood transgressions, to which Clayton was listening with alternating expressions of extreme discomfort and bored disgust.
"Then there was the time when Clay was twelve and he didn't come down to breakfast. When he wasn't in his room either, Bather and the servants began combing the grounds. Late in the afternoon, Clay's shut was found on the bank of the stream where the water is fast and deep. His boat was still there, because Father had forbidden him to take it out for one month..."
Breathless with laughter from the last story, Whitney turned to her betrothed and gasped, "Why-why weren't you allowed to take your boat out?"
Clayton glowered his displeasure at Stephen, then gazed down into Whitney's vivid, laughing face and grinned in spite of himself. "As I recall, I had not come down properly attired for dinner the night before."
"Not properly attired?" Stephen hooted. "You appeared a half hour late, in riding boots and hacking clothes positively reeking of horse sweat and leather, with gunpowder on your face from sneaking out and practicing with Father's old dueling pistols."
Clayton hurled a look of excruciating disgust at Stephen, and Whitney dissolved with laughter. "Go on, Stephen," she gasped merrily. "Tell me the rest about finding Clayton's shirt by the stream."
"Well, everyone thought Clay had drowned and they came rushing to the scene, with Mother in tears and Father as white as a sheet, when, around the bend came Gay on the most rickety, makeshift raft you have ever seen. Everyone held their breath, expecting the raft to swamp when he tried to bank it, but Clay guided it right in. With his fishing pole in one hand and a stringer of prime fish in the other, he got off and looked around at us as if he thought we were all odd for standing there, gaping at him. Then he strolled up to Father and Mother, still carrying that huge stringer of fish.
"Mother promptly burst into tears and Father finally recovered his voice. He was in the middle of delivering a thundering tirade about Clay's irresponsible behavior, his recklessness, and even his lack of a shirt, when your future husband said very patiently that he did not think it was seemly for Father to be dressing him down in front of the servants."
"Oh, you didn't!" Whitney whispered hoarsely, stomping lower in her seat. "Then what happened?"