Clayton chuckled. "Father obliged me by sending the servants away," he said, "and then he boxed my ears."
Into this utterly congenial atmosphere of charming conviviality intruded the black-coated figure of the butler who intoned magisterially, "Lord Edward Gilbert has arrived." This announcement was immediately followed by the appearance of Lord Edward Gilbert himself, who strode into the drawing room, glanced around, and beamed his general approbation on all the occupants.
"Good heavens! It's Edward!" gasped Lady Anne, coming to her feet and staring at her beloved husband. Afraid that her letters had finally caught up with him and that he had hastened here to rescue Whitney from an unwanted match with the duke, she thought madly for some concise explanation to give him for the momentous events which had led to this gathering at Claymore.
Whitney also lurched to her feet, her thoughts identical to her aunt's. "Uncle Edward!" she burst out.
"Glad that everyone recognizes me," Lord Edward Gilbert drily remarked, looking from Anne to Whitney in obvious expectation of some more sentimental greeting than he had thus for received.
Unnoticed, Clayton rose and strolled over to the fireplace, where he leaned an elbow upon the mantel, and with visible amusement watched the unfolding scene.
Edward waited for someone to introduce him to the duchess and Stephen, but when neither his wife nor his niece seemed capable of speech, he shrugged and strode directly over to the duke. "Well Claymore," he said, warmly returning Clayton's handclasp, "I see the betrothal has come off without a hitch."
"Without a hitch?!" Lady Gilbert whispered in a strangled voice.
"Without a hitch?" Whitney echoed as she slowly crumpled to the sofa.
"Almost without a hitch," Clayton corrected mildly, ignoring the gaping stares of the other occupants of the room.
"Good, good. Knew it would," said Lord Gilbert. Clayton introduced him to his mother and Stephen, and when the civilities had been exchanged, Edward finally turned again to his rigid wife. "Anne?" said he as he advanced upon her and she retreated, step for step. "After months apart, Madam, it strikes me that your greeting thus far has been less than enthusiastic."
"Edward," Lady Gilbert breathed, "you clothhead!" "Can't say that's much of an improvement over, 'Good heavens, it's Edward," he pointed out with asperity.
"You knew about this betrothal from the very beginning," she accused, transferring her dark frown from Edward to a grinning Clayton, who immediately smoothed his face into more suitably grave lines. "I have been subjected to enough suspense to drive anyone to raving lunacy, and the two of you have been in communication all along, haven't you?! I can't think which of you I should more like to murder."
"Do you want your hartshorn, my dear?"
"No, I do not want my hartshorn," his lady replied, "I want an explanation!"
"An explanation for what?" Edward asked, bewildered.
"For why you have not answered my letters, for why you did not tell me you were aware of this betrothal, for why you didn't advise me what to do ..."
"I only got one of your letters," he defended a trifle brusquely, "and an you said was that Claymore was in residence near Stone's place. And I can't imagine why you needed me to tell you what to do, when it was perfectly obvious that all you had to do was chaperone two people whom anyone could see were ideally suited to each other. And I did not tell you I was aware of the betrothal because I was not aware of it until Claymore's letter was brought to me in Spam a month and a half ago."
Lady Gilbert was not to be so easily pacified. With a brief glance of apology to Clayton, she burst out, "They most certainly were not 'ideally suited!'"
"Of course they were!" Edward defended stoutly. "What possible objection could you have to a match with Claymore?" Suddenly, a look of amused understanding crossed his face. "So you were worried about his reputation, were you? Lord, Madam," he chuckled tolerantly, momentarily oblivious to the presence of the Westmoreland family in the room, "haven't you ever heard the saying that 'reformed rakes often make the best husbands'?"
"Why, thank you, Lord Gilbert," Clayton said wryly.
Lord Gilbert cast a puzzled look at Stephen who was suddenly seized with a fit of strangled laughter, then continued speaking to his wife. "I thought they would make an excellent match the night I saw them together at the masquerade, and I knew something was in the wind when I was informed the Westmoreland solicitors were making inquiries about Whitney in Paris. Then I thought Martin had spoiled everything by sending for her, but when I got your letter and you said Claymore was in residence not three miles away from Stone's doorstep, I knew exactly what was happening."
"Oh no you didn't!" Lady Anne exclaimed heatedly. "I'll tell you what happened. From the moment Whitney clapped eyes on his grace in England, she was at daggers-drawn with him. And . . ."
Lord Gilbert turned his head and peered sternly at Whitney over the top of his spectacles. "Oh, so Whitney was the problem, was she?" He transferred his gaze to Clayton and said, "Whitney needs a husband who'll keep a firm hand on the reins. That's why I was in favor of your suit from the very beginning."
"Why, thank you, Uncle Edward," Whitney said ungratefully.
"It's the truth and you know it, m'dear." To Lady Anne, he added, "She's much like you in that respect."
"How very kind of you to say so, Edward," Anne said tartly.
Edward glanced from his wife's indignant face to Whitney's rebellious one, and then toward Clayton, who was regarding him with a dark brow arched in sardonic amusement. He looked at Stephen Westmoreland, whose shoulders were rocking with silent laughter, and then at the duchess who was much too polite to show any emotion at all. "Well," said he to the duchess with a sigh, "I can see that I've now offended everyone. Amazing, is it not, that I am purported to be a competent diplomat?"
The duchess broke into a smile. "I am not in the least offended, Lord Gilbert. I have a decided partiality for rakes. After all, I was married to one, and I have raised"-she looked meaningfully at Stephen-"two."
THE ANNOUNCEMENT IN THE PAPERS OF THE BETROTHAL OF THE Duke of Claymore to Miss Whitney Allison Stone struck London with the force of a hurricane, and Whitney was caught in its backlash.
Invitations to every conceivable social function arrived daily at the Archibalds' house in staggering numbers. Between the parties in their honor, which Whitney and Clayton had to attend, and the extensive wedding preparations which required every available minute of her time, Whitney was feverishly busy and almost limp with exhaustion. Added to that was the anxiety which increased as her wedding day- ergo, her wedding night-approached.