Her luxuriant hair spilled over her shoulders, the gold chain that rode her slender hips swayed gracefully with each step, and behind her trailed a magnificent cape glowing with pearls. She was a queen in ail her breathtaking glory, serene but not haughty, provocatively beautiful, yet aloof, untouchable. "Oh my Chad, little one," Clayton whispered in his heart.
The crowd watched in breathless anticipation as the duke stepped forward, his tall frame resplendent in rich royal purple velvet. They saw him take her hand and smile into her eyes-and they knew he said something to her. But only Whitney heard his softly spoken, "Hello, my love." The sight of the handsome duke gazing down upon his beautiful bride with such gentle pride brought handkerchiefs to eyes before the couple ever began to say their vows.
Clayton led her to the altar, to her place beside him, the place that would be hers for all eternity.
Whitney stood with her hand in his strong, reassuring grasp. When the archbishop asked her to repeat her vows, she turned to Clayton and lifted her eyes to meet his warm, reassuring gaze. She made her voice sound firm and sure, but when she was promising to obey him, Clayton's expression changed. He lifted one brow in a look of such humorous skepticism that Whitney almost missed a word as she choked back a stunned giggle.
At last they were pronounced man and wife; the organ music rose and swelled; and Clayton claimed his right to kiss his bride. It was such a chaste peck, so unlike any kiss he had ever given her before, that Whitney's eyes registered visible surprise. "I will have to practice," Clayton whispered teasing-ry as they turned, "until I get the hang of it."
His gloriously beautiful bride nodded with sham solemnity and whispered demurely, "I shall be happy to help you with your lessons, my lord."
Which is why, it was later reported, the Duke of
Claymore's shoulders were shaking with laughter as he left the altar with his duchess on his arm.
Whitney sat beside Clayton in his coach as they swept over the smooth roads toward Claymore. The Gilberts' conveyance was still hopelessly snarled in traffic at the church, so Whitney's aunt and uncle were grateful, but reluctant, passengers in the vehicle with the bride and groom which, as the four of them were all acutely aware, left no privacy for the newlyweds.
Listening to Clayton conversing with them, she looked at the heavy gold band he had slid onto her hand. It felt strange there, covering her long slender finger almost to the first knuckle-a bold proclamation to the world that she belonged to her husband.
Her husband? Whitney stole a glance at Clayton through her lashes. My husband, she repeated to herself, and a thrill shot through her. Dear Lord ... he was her husband; six feet three inches of bold masculinity, elegant and sophisticated-but forceful too; a gathered power, carefully restrained. She even bore his name now. She belonged to him. It was a scary thought-and a little wonderful, too, she decided.
The bridal entourage moved decorously through the main gates at Claymore then swept along the winding private drive where festive torches were already ablaze on both sides of the road to light the way for the guests who would soon be arriving. When they pulled up before the main house, Clay-ton helped Whitney to alight, and she was amazed to see that all the staff-from butler, steward, housekeeper, footmen, and maids; to gardeners, keepers, foresters, and stableboys- were lined up on the front steps in immaculate livery and uniforms, according to their individual rank.
Clayton led her, not to the front door as she expected, but rather to the foot of the steps to stand before diem. Whitney smiled a little uncertainly at the hundred and fifty faces, then glanced at Clayton.
"Brace yourself," he whispered, grinning. A second later the air was split with the thunder of cheers and applause.
He waited for the clamor to the down. "This is another tradition," he explained to Whitney as he remained there, regarding the servants gravely, but with a smile in his eyes. "Behold your new mistress, my wife." Clayton spoke the ancient words of the first Duke of Claymore, who had returned with his abducted bride, in a deep resonant voice that carried to all. "And know that when she bids you, I have bidden yon; what service you render her, you are rendering me; what loyalty you give or withhold from her, you give or withhold from me." Wide smiles wreathed the faces of the staff, and as Clayton turned to lead Whitney away, a cheer twice as uproarious as the last went up.
In the white-and-gold salon, Clayton poured champagne for Whitney, Lord and Lady Gilbert, and himself. Stephen and his mother joined them and Clayton automatically filled two more glasses. All one hundred and twenty-six rooms of the main house and the seventy rooms of the combined guest houses were occupied with wedding guests, many of whom had arrived the day before. Already there was the incessant sound of carriages pulling up in the drive, which meant the house guests were returning from the church.
"Would you like to rest, love?" Clayton asked as he handed Whitney her glass. Whitney glanced at the clock. It was seven and the festivities were to begin at eight. In the meantime, Clarissa would need to press her gown, which meant she bad no time to finish her champagne. Reluctantly, she nodded and put down her glass.
Clayton saw her wistful glance at her wineglass and, giving her a mocking grin, he picked up both their glasses and led her up the broad curving staircase toward their chambers. At the suite which adjoined his, and which she would occupy from this day forward, he stopped, opened the door for her, and handed her a glass of champagne. "Shall I have a full bottle sent up, my lady?" he teased, and before Whitney could make a suitably audacious reply, his mouth came down, lightly playing over hers in a sweet, fleeting kiss.
A crimson carpet stretched from the drive up the terraced steps leading to the great house which was ablaze with lights.
The guests arrived in a steady, endless stream, making their way up the grand staircase, which was flanked by thirty footmen standing stiffly at attention in burgundy-and-gold Westmoreland livery.
Beneath a six-tiered chandelier in the ballroom, Whitney stood beside Clayton while the butler intoned, "Lord and Lady ... Sir... Mr. and Mrs ..." as each individual passed beneath the marble portals into the flower-decked room. "Lady Amelia Eubank," she heard the butler say. Automatically, Whitney tensed as the gruff old dowager bore down on them wearing an outrageous green turban and purple satin gown.
"I trust, Madam," Clayton mocked, grinning at the old harridan, "that I did not fail to provide you with adequate 'competition' for Sevarin?"
Lady Eubank gave a sharp crack of laughter, then leaned closer to Clayton. "I've been wanting to ask you, Claymore, precisely why you happened to select the Hodges place for your 'rest?'"