"Poor Stephen," the duchess corrected drily. "I came here because I couldn't bear to watch my elder son murder my younger, which is what Clayton was threatening-rather seriously, I might add-to do if Stephen came within arm's reach of him again."
Time flew on rapid, beating wings, and suddenly Whitney was fully dressed, walking into the bedroom for her aunt and her future mother-in-law's inspection.
"Oh my dear child," the duchess gasped, her eyes shining with wonder. "I have never seen anything like you in all my life!" Stepping back, she surveyed Whitney's ivory, pearl-encrusted gown which had been designed as a glorious representation of a medieval bride. Its low, square-cut bodice hugged Whitney's full bosom. then tapered to a narrow waistline, where a gold chain with clusters of diamonds and pearls set in each shining link rode low on her hips. The undersleeves were tightly fitted satin tubes terminating in deep points at the tops of her hands, but the satin oversleeves, stiffly encrusted with pearls, ended in wide bells at her elbows. A flowing satin cape trailed behind her; bordered in pearls, and attached at her shoulders with jeweled links that matched those at her waist. She wore no veil. Instead, her long hair was pulled back off her forehead and held at the crown with a diamond and pearl clip. It cascaded over her shoulders in curving waves, ending in soft thick curls, midway down her back. Clayton had once said he liked it best this way.
"You look exactly like a medieval princess would have wished to look," Clayton's mother breathed reverently, but Anne Gilbert only stared in silent joy at the serenely beautiful young woman who was about to become a duchess, while in Anne's mind she saw Whitney as she had been not so long ago, wearing groom's britches and balancing barefoot on the back of a cantering horse. When she finally spoke, tears of happiness and pride thickened her voice. "We should leave early for the church. Your father said there were crowds of spectators already gathering when he passed there hours ago, and he said that traffic was dreadfully bogged down."
That turned out to be an understatement. Four blocks from the massive church, the coach bearing Whitney, her father, and her aunt, was at a complete stop, hopelessly caught in the tangle of conveyances and would-be spectators blocking the streets. It was as if all London had turned out to witness the wedding.
In a large anteroom of the church, twelve groomsmen looked up hopefully as Stephen came in from a side door. He walked over to Clayton who was leaning against a table, his rigid features reflecting the gathering storm brewing within him as it seemed more and more likely that Whitney had jilted him at the altar. Stephen, however, was imperturbably cheerful as he reported, "There is the most unbelievable snarl out there. The streets are swarming with pedestrians, and the horses and carriages can't move "
Clayton straightened abruptly and jerked his head toward tile door. "Find McRea, he's in this church somewhere, and tell him I want the coach waiting in front. If she isn't here in five minutes, I'm going after her."
"Clay, unless your cattle have sprouted wings, it wouldn't do any good. Would you mind stepping over to this door and seeing for yourself why Whitney is late?"
With long, angry strides, Clayton followed him to the door which looked out from the side of the church onto a square. The street was teaming with humanity and hopelessly entangled conveyances. "What in the living hell is going on?" he snapped.
"A duke is getting married." Stephen grinned. "And to a beautiful girl who has neither aristocratic lineage nor even immense wealth. Apparently yours is the fairy-tale wedding of the century, and the cits mean to be here to see it."
"Who in God's name invited them?" Clayton demanded, his mind on where Whitney might have gone to elude him.
"Since we don't own the church, they undoubtedly think they have the right to be here. Although," Stephen added wryly, "there's no more room left out there. Even the balconies are filled to capacity."
"Your grace," a serene masculine voice interrupted. Fourteen concerned male faces turned toward the archbisnop who was arrayed in all his ecclesiastical finery. "The bride is here," he said quietly.
Twenty thousand white candles illuminated the aisles and the altar of the church. The organ pipes gave forth an expectant note, and then musk rose majestically, filling the echoing church from its marble floor to the high-vaulted ceilings.
One by one, Whitney watched her twelve bridesmaids drift down the aisle. Therese DuVille Ronsard accepted her bouquet from the maid and straightened her train, then she turned to Whitney with a soft smile. "Nicki gave me a message, which I am to give to you at this moment. He said to tell you, 'Bon voyage-again.'"
The poignant message from Nicki almost shattered Whitney's composure. Tears momentarily blurred her vision and she purposefully focused her eyes on Emily, who was just stepping out into the aisle in a trail of apple-green silk and satin. Alone now with her father with whom she had only exchanged polite, impersonal comments since his arrival for the wedding two days ago, Whitney turned to him. He looked austere and gruff. "Are you nervous, Papa?" she asked softly, watching him.
"Nothing to be nervous about," he said in an oddly hoarse voice. "I'm walking down the aisle with the most beautiful female in England on my arm." He looked at her, and Whitney saw that his eyes were moist as he added, "Don't suppose you'll believe this, because you and I have always been at sixes and sevens, but I never would have promised you to the duke if I didn't think he was man enough to handle-no, the man for you," he corrected clumsily. "I thought to myself that first day, when he came to the house, that the two of you were cut from the same cloth, and I agreed to his suit right then. We never even discussed money until after I had agreed to the betrothal."
Whitney's eyes were misty as she leaned up and kissed his furrowed brow. "Thank you for telling me that, Papa. I love you, too."
The organ music suddenly stopped, followed by a long moment of suspenseful silence, then it gave forth two expectant blasts, and Whitney laid her trembling hand upon her father's arm.
With the music soaring through the eaves and four thousand people staring in awed, hushed silence as she took each step, Whitney started down the long aisle.
Clayton had carried a picture in his mind of how she would look at this moment-a picture of a beautiful bride in a veil and flowing white gown. But the vision he saw coming toward him through the candlelight snatched his breath away. Pride burst within him, exploding through his entire body until he ached with it. No bride had ever, ever looked the way she did. Whitney was coming to him without shyness, without even a veil to cover herself from him. As he watched, she raised her eyes to his-then kept them there-deliberately letting every man, woman, and child in that church see that she was proud to be going to him.