Paul looked like a man who had braced himself to face an unpleasant confrontation and having been granted a temporary reprieve, didn't know whether he was relieved or disappointed that he couldn't get it over with. "When is he coming back?"
"Not for five whole days," Whitney said, her slender shoulders drooping. "Just in time for a surprise party in honor of his birthday." She groaned in dismay. "His cards have already been sent to those of my relatives who have a distance to travel Unless he returns earlier in the afternoon than we expect, you won't be able to speak to him until the following day. Sunday, after church?" she ventured, brightening a little.
Paul slowly shook his head, deep in thought. "I want to settle the deal on a matched pair of Ainsleys-two splendid purebreds, you'll love them. And if I'm going to have enough time to reach the auction at Hampton Park, I've got to leave on Saturday, the day your father returns."
Whitney tried not to sound as disappointed as she felt. "How long will you be gone?"
"Less than a fortnight-nine or ten days, no more."
"That seems like forever."
Paul took her in his arms. "To prove how honorable my intentions are, I'll be on hand all day Saturday, in case your father should return early enough for me to speak to nun. That's only five days away. And," he added, chuckling at her desolate look, "I'll even delay my departure so that I can spend a few hours at his birthday party-assuming that you intended to invite me?"
Whitney nodded, smiling.
"Then, if there isn't an opportunity to speak with him during his party, and I rather doubt there will be, you can tell him after the party that I'm going to pay the formal call as soon as I return. Now"-he grinned-"does that sound like a man who wants to escape wedlock?"
After Paul left, Whitney deliberated over telling Aunt Anne the news and tentatively decided against it. She wanted to clasp her joy to herself for now, and she felt a superstitious fear of telling anyone of her forthcoming betrothal to Paul before Paul himself had actually asked for her hand. Besides, her father would undoubtedly return early enough on Saturday for Paul to speak with him. Then they could announce their betrothal at the birthday party that very night.
Feeling vastly cheered by the thought, Whitney went into the house to join her aunt for lunch.
As was his habit, Clayton was perusing his mail while he ate his lunch. In addition to the usual business correspondence and invitations, there were letters from his mother and brother. Clayton grinned, thinking of the surprise in store for his mother when she learned that he was finally going to marry and provide her with the grandchildren she'd been plaguing him to give her. He would give her about six of them, he decided with a silent chuckle, and he hoped they would all have Whitney's green eyes.
He was still smiling as he initialed the ticket from the London jeweler for the emerald pendant Whitney had worn the night of her homecoming party.
Laying that aside, he began reading a long missive from his secretary requesting instructions on how to proceed on matters as diverse as the pensioning off of an old family retainer, to the divestiture of a large block of shares in a shipping company. Beneath each inquiry, Clayton wrote precise, detailed instructions.
In the doorway, the butler cleared his throat. "Mr. Stone is here to see you, your grace," he explained when Clayton looked up. "Naturally, I informed him that you were dining, but the man insists his reason for calling is extremely urgent and cannot wait."
"Very well, show him in here," Clayton said with an irritated sigh. With Whitney, Clayton had all the patience in the world; with his future father-in-law, he had none. In fact, it was all he could do to stomach the man.
"I had to come before I started for London," Martin explained as he hastened across the room and seated himself at the table across from the duke. "We've got a beastly mess on our hands, and it's going to get messier if you-we-don't do something about it at once."
Clayton nodded a curt dismissal to the footman who had been serving him his lunch and waited until the servant had closed the door behind him, before shifting his impassive gaze to his unwelcome visitor. "You were saying, Martin?"
"I was saying that something has come up. A complication. It's Sevarin. He was with Whitney when I left."
"I told you I'm not worried about Sevarin," Clayton said impatiently.
"Then you'd better start worrying about him," Martin warned, looking anguished and angry at the same time. "When Whitney was fifteen years old, she got some bee in her bonnet about snatching Sevarin away from the Ashton girl, and even though it's taken her five years-five years!-she's still hell-bent on pulling it off. And she's about to. You mark my words, that poor devil is thinking of marrying her. He's only a hair's breadth from offering for her. God knows why, because she'd drive him mad. She drives me mad."
Clayton's voice was heavy with ironic amusement. "Speaking as the 'poor devil' who has already offered for her, I can only applaud Sevarin's taste. However, as I've told you several times, I can handle Whitney and-"
Martin looked as if he were going to explode from frustration. "You can't handle her. You think you can, but you don't know her as I do. Dammit, she's a stubborn, willful chit and always has been. Once she gets some maggot in her head- like marrying Sevarin-she'll follow through with it no matter what."
Reaching into his pocket, Martin found a handkerchief and swiped at the film of nervous perspiration standing on his forehead, then he continued, "Once she brings Sevarin to the point of wanting to marry her, she may feel she's accomplished her goal, and forget all about him after that. On the other hand," he emphasized in a dire tone, "if that hellion of mine takes it into her head to actually marry him, you'll end up dragging the chit to the altar while she fights you every step of the way. Do you understand what I am trying to say?"
A pair of cool gray eyes regarded him dispassionately. "Yes."
"Good, good. Then the thing to do is prevent Sevarin from mentioning marriage to her, and the way to do it is to tell Whitney at once that she's been betrothed to you since July. Tell Sevarin that. Tell everyone that. Announce your engagement immediately."
"No?" Martin repeated in bewilderment. "Then what are you going to do about Sevarin?"
"What do you suggest I do?"
"I told you!" said Martin desperately. "Order Whitney to give up whatever scheme she has in mind for Sevarin and command her to prepare herself to be wed to you at once!"