"Precisely," Clayton said as he tipped his head toward Whitney, "for the reason you think I did."
"I knew it!" said she with a triumphant chuckle. "It took me weeks to be certain, though. You arrogant young pup!" she added almost affectionately as she put monocle to eye and turned, looking for one of her unfortunate neighbors from the village to pounce upon.
Dinner was a magnificent affair which began with a round of champagne toasts, the first of which was offered by Stephen. "To the Duchess of Claymore," he said.
Looking over at Clayton's mother, Whitney smiled gaily and lifted her glass, prepared to toast her. "I believe Stephen means you, love," Clayton whispered with a chuckle.
"Me? Oh yes, of course," Whitney said, quickly lowering her hand as she tried to cover her mistake. But it was too late, for the guests had seen her and were already roaring with laughter.
After toasts had been offered for the bride and groom's health, their happiness, and long life, the guests began calling for a toast from the groom. Clayton rose from his chair and
Whitney felt a burst of pride as he stood there, surrounded by that aura of quiet command that was so much a part of him. He spoke and his deep voice carried to the farthest corners of the silent room. "Several months ago in Paris," he said, gazing for a tender moment at Whitney, "a lovely young woman accused me of 'pretending1 to be a duke. She said that I was such a poor 'impostor' that I really ought to choose some other title to which to aspire-some title that would suit me better. I decided there was only one other title I wanted: that of her husband." He shook his head ruefully, while laughter kindled in his gray eyes. "Believe me, my first title was far more easily acquired than the second." When the deluge of laughter subsided, Clayton added solemnly, "and of far, far less value."
When the musicians struck up the first waltz, Clayton led her onto the dance floor. Taking her in his arms, he whirled her around and around for all to behold, but when the guests joined them on the floor, he relaxed and danced more quietly with her.
His senses were alive to the elusive perfumed scent of her, to the light touch of her fingertips. He thought of tomorrow night, or the night after, when he would truly make her his, and his blood stirred so hotly that he had to force the thought aside. He tried to concentrate on something else, and in the space of ten seconds, was mentally undressing and kissing her, caressing her with his hands and mouth until she was wild for him.
Her father claimed her for the next dance, and Clayton danced with his mother, and so it went for hours. It was long after midnight when Whitney and he left the dance floor to stroll together, arm in arm, laughing and talking with their guests.
Whitney was obviously enjoying herself and Clayton was certainly in no hurry to take her away from her party. After all, be had nothing to look forward to tonight except sleeping alone in his bed. As the clock neared the hour of one, however, Clayton began to have the uneasy feeling that the guests were expecting them to retire-a suspicion which was confirmed when Lord Marcus Rutherford remarked to him in a tow, laughter-tinged voice, "My God, man, if you're wondering when you can leave without causing talk, it was about two hours ago."
Clayton went to Whitney. "I'm sorry to put an end to your evening, little one, but if we don't leave soon, people will begin to talk. Let's say good night to your aunt and uncle," he urged, but he wasn't particularly eager to leave either, and it irked him to be evicted from his own damned party in his own damned house by his own damned guests . . . which, he instantly realized, was an entirely hilarious way for a bridegroom to be thinking on his wedding night, particularly when that bridegroom was himself. Grinning, he shook his head at the irony of it.
Unfortunately, Clayton was still grinning when Whitney bade her uncle good night, and that gentleman, mistaking Clayton's grin as a leer, felt it incumbent upon himself to give the bridegroom a dark, reproving frown. Clayton stiffened under the silent reprimand and, feeling unfairly villified, said flatly, "We shall see you at breakfast," when he had intended but a moment before to bid Lord Gilbert a friendly good night.
In silence, Clayton led Whitney down the long hall from the west wing. Tension twisted within her as they crossed the balcony, and at the staircase, her steps began to lag. Clayton, however, was grappling with a new problem and did not notice: Should he take Whitney to his chambers, or should he take her to hers? There were servants swarming all over the damned place and he didn't want their lack of marital intimacy on their wedding night to be common knowledge among the staff.
He had just decided to take her to her chambers when two footmen came up the stairs and, feeling guilty as a thief in his own house, Clayton quickly changed direction, stepped back, and opened the door to his rooms instead of hers. He had started into his suite before he realized that Whitney had stopped in the doorway and was staring in stricken paralysis at the familiar room where he had savagely torn her clothes off.
"Come, sweet," he said, casting a quick look down the hall and forcibly drawing her within. "There is nothing to fear in here, no madman to ravish you."
With a toss of her head, she seemed to shake off the memories that were haunting her, and she stepped inside. Sighing with relief, Clayton closed the door behind them and guided Whitney over to the long green sofa at right angles to the fireplace, across from the chair he had sat in that fateful night. He started to sit down beside her on the sofa, took one look at her enticing profile, and thought it would be wiser if he sat in the chair across from her instead.
Whitney couldn't possibly sleep in her rooms tonight and he in his, he decided, because the servants would think it odd if both beds were slept in. She would have to sleep in his bed and he would sleep on the sofa.
He looked at her. Her dark head was turned toward the blazing fire on the hearth, away from the large bed on the dais. It dawned on him then that she must be wondering why, if he meant to keep his promise, he hadn't taken her to her chambers instead of his. "You will have to sleep in here, little one-otherwise the servants will gossip. I'll sleep on the sofa."
She looked up at him and smiled, as if her thoughts had been far away.
After an awkward moment, he suggested, "Would you like to talk?"
"Yes," she agreed readily.
"What would you like to talk about?"
Clayton racked his brain for something interesting to discuss, but his mind and his body were both riveted on her exciting presence in his bedroom. "The weather was extremely fine today," he announced finally. He could have sworn that laughter flickered across her features, or was it only a trick of the firelight? "It didn't rain," he added, beginning to feel utterly ridiculous.