"It sounds . . . wonderful," Whitney managed to say, keeping her laughing eyes downcast.
"Emily is coming from London with her new husband. Everybody is coming."
His shifts of mood were so unpredictable that Whitney stopped trying to converse with him, and the rest of the meal progressed in wary silence. Not until dessert was nearly finished did he break the silence, and then his voice was so unnaturally loud that Whitney started. "We have a new neighbor," he almost boomed, then checked himself, cleared his throat, and spoke more naturally. "He'll be coming to your party too, I want you to meet him. Good-looking chap--a bachelor. Excellent man with a horse. Saw him out riding the other day."
Understanding dawned, and Whitney burst out laughing. "Oh Papa," she said, shaking her long, shining hair, "you don't have to start matchmaking-I'm not quite at my last prayers yet." Judging from his expression, her father didn't share her humor in the matter, so Whitney tried to look dutifully solemn as she asked the name of their new neighbor.
"Clayton Westmor . . . Clayton Westland."
Lady Anne's spoon clattered to her plate and onto the table. She gazed with narrowed eyes at Martin Stone, who glared at her in return while his face turned a suspicious red.
After considering her father's stormy countenance, Whitney decided to rescue her aunt from his trying moods. Putting down her own spoon, she stood up. "I think Aunt Anne and I would both like to retire early after our journey, Father."
To her surprise, Lady Anne shook her head. "I would like to spend a few minutes with your father, dear. You go ahead."
"Yes," Martin echoed instantly. "Run along to bed, and your aunt and I will have a friendly chat."
When Whitney left, Martin curtly dismissed the footmen, then regarded Anne with a mixture of caution and annoyance. "You reacted very queerly to the mention of our neighbor's name, Madam."
Lady Anne inclined her head, watching him intently. "Whether or not my reaction was 'queer' depends upon whether or not his name is Clayton Westland-or Clayton Westmoreland. I warn you that if the man is Clayton Westmoreland, I shall recognize him the moment I see him, even though we've never been introduced."
"It is Westmoreland, if you must know," Martin snapped. "And there's a very simple explanation for his being here: He happens to be recovering from exhaustion-the result of an old ailment that sometimes troubles him."
That explanation was so ludicrous, Anne stared at him open-mouthed. "You're joking!"
"Dammit, do I look like I'm joking?" he hissed furiously.
"Do you actually believe that Banbury tale?" Anne exclaimed, not sore whether he might. "There are countless places where the Duke of Claymore would go, were he in need of a rest. The very last I can think of is here, with winter coming on."
"Be that as it may, I can only tell you what he told me. His grace feels the need to escape from the pressures of his life, and he has chosen to do it here. Since only I-and now you-know who be is, I trust that neither of us will deprive him of his privacy by giving his identity away."
Upstairs in the solitude of her rooms, Lady Anne sought to come to grips with the furor in her mind, feverishly, she thought back to the night of the Armands' masquerade when Whitney had asked the name of the tall, gray-eyed man with Marie St. Allermain. Anne was absolutely positive the man had been the duke; it was common knowledge that the gorgeous St. Allermain was Claymore's mistress, and that she never honored any other man with her company. The duke, of course, was not so singular in his attentions, and frequently escorted other beautiful women when St. Allermain was on tour in Europe.
Very well, Anne thought, dismissing St. Allermain from her mind, Claymore had been at the masquerade, and Whitney had asked about him. But they couldn't have spent any time together, or Whitney would have known who he was without having to ask. And Claymore could not have followed Whitney here--he was here before she arrived. Therefore, it must be mere coincidence that Whitney had inquired about him at the Armands', and he was now in quiet seclusion here.
Lady Anne felt much better, but only for an instant. Tomorrow night Clayton Westmoreland and Whitney would be introduced to each other. Whitney would attract him, of that Anne had no doubt. What if he chose to pursue her? Anne shuddered, then stood up, and her feminine jaw was hardened with resolve. She had no desire to make an enemy of the powerful Duke of Claymore by giving his identity away, but if she suspected that Whitney might be falling victim to his legendary charm and good looks, she would reveal not only his identity to Whitney, but a full accounting of his past female conquests and behavior!
Not for one moment would Anne allow herself to hope that Claymore might meet Whitney and tumble into love with her, ignore the fact that she was neither wealthy (by his standards) nor of aristocratic lineage, and offer her marriage. No indeed! There were hundreds of embarrassed mamas with heartbroken daughters who'd been foolish enough to hope that!
Lady Anne undressed and went to bed, but Clayton Westmoreland's presence in the district kept her lying awake for hours. Nor could Whitney sleep. She was dreamily contemplating tomorrow night's party, when Paul would see her for the first time, elegantly gowned and grown to womanhood.
Three miles away, the objects of both their* thoughts were together at Clayton's temporary home, relaxing over a brandy after a game of cards. Stretching his legs toward the fire, Paul savored the taste of the amber liquid in his glass. "Are you planning to attend the Stone affair tomorrow night?" he asked.
Clayton's expression was guarded. "Yes."
"Wouldn't miss it, myself," Paul chuckled. "Unless Whitney's done a complete turnabout, it should be an entertaining evening."
"Unusual name-Whitney," Clayton remarked with just the right degree of mild curiosity to encourage his guest to continue.
"It's a family name. Her father was bent on having a boy, as I understand it, and he hung the name on her anyway. He nearly got his wish, too. She could swim like a fish, climb like a monkey, and handle a horse better than any female alive. She showed up in men's pants one day-another, she set off on a raft saying that she was sailing for America on an adventure."
"She came to me end of the pond," Paul said, grinning. "To give her credit, the chit has-had-a pair of eyes that were something to behold, the greenest green you'll ever see." Paul gazed into the fire, smiling with an old memory. "When she left for France four years ago, she asked me to wait for her. First proposal I ever got."