The sun was descending, and Whitney grew increasingly tense as she stared out at the cobbled London streets. "What's wrong?" Clayton asked beside her.
"I feet conspicuous, arriving at Emily's house with you," Whitney admitted miserably. "It's going to seem very odd to her and to Lord Archibald."
"Pretend we're going to be married," Clayton laughed. Gathering her into his arms, he kissed her so long and so thoroughly that Whitney almost believed it.
The Archibalds' townhouse was trimmed with ornamental wrought iron and grillwork. Emily greeted them in the entry nail with smiling graciousness, and although Whitney knew Emily must be shocked that she had come to London with Clayton, she was relieved that Emily gave no hint of it. After giving Whitney a warm hug, she escorted her quickly up to a guest room, then went back downstairs to join her husband and Clayton in the drawing room and fulfill her duties as a hostess.
When she returned a quarter of an hour later, her serenity was gone and her cheeks were flushed with excitement. Whitney, who was helping Clarissa unpack, took one look at Emily's overbright eyes, and braced herself. "It's him!" Emily burst out, leaning against the door, gaping at Whitney. "He just told me who he really is. Michael has known all along, but his grace had asked Michael to keep his identity a secret. Everyone in London talks about him constantly, but I'd never seen him. Whitney!" she exclaimed, her pretty face lit with unabashed pride in her friend. "You are going to the Rutherfords' ball with the most eligible bachelor in all Europe! The Rutherfords' ball," she repeated as if trying to inspire enthusiasm in her friend. "Invitations to their parties are as coveted as diamonds!"
Whitney bit her lip uncertainly, longing to confide in Emily, yet unwilling to burden her with her own problems. If she told Emily she was betrothed to "the most eligible bachelor in Europe" Emily would obviously be thrilled. If she told Emily she didn't want to be betrothed to him, Emily would automatically sympathize. If she told Emily she was going to elope with Paul a few days from now, Emily would fear the inevitable scandal and she would plead with her not to do it.
"How long have you known he is the Duke of Claymore?"
"Less than a week," Whitney said cautiously.
"Well?" Emily prompted eagerly, so excited that her sentences ran together. "Tell me everything. Are you in love with him? Is he in love with you? Weren't you surprised to discover who he is?"
"Astounded," Whitney admitted, smiling slightly at the memory of her shocked horror at learning Clayton was her betrothed.
"Go on," Emily prodded.
Her delight was so infectious that Whitney's smile warmed, but she shook her head and answered in a firm tone that at least temporarily discouraged her friend from further probing. "He isn't in love with me, nor I with him. I am going to marry Paul. It's all but settled."
Clayton glanced at the clock above the mantel of the Robert Adams fireplace in his spacious bedroom suite as his valet eased a crisp white evening shirt onto his muscular shoulders. It was nearly ten, and he felt almost irrationally eager to be on his way to the Archibalds'.
"If I may say so, my lord," Armstrong murmured, assisting him into a black brocade waistcoat, "it's very good to be in London again."
While Clayton was buttoning the waistcoat, Armstrong removed a black evening jacket from the wardrobe, flicked a nonexistent speck off the lapel, then held it up while Clayton plunged his arms into the sleeves. After adjusting the ruby shin studs, Armstrong stood back to survey the full effect of his master's tall frame in impeccably tailored, raven-black evening attire.
Clayton leaned close to the mirror to assure himself that his shave was close enough and flashed a broad grin at the hovering valet. "Well, do 1 pass muster, Armstrong?"
Surprised and gratified by the duke's uncharacteristic informality, Armstrong swelled with pleasure. "Most assuredly, your grace," he said, but when the duke left, Armstrong's pleasure slowly gave way to dismay as he realized that Miss Stone must be the cause of the duke's extraordinary good humor. For the first time, Armstrong began to doubt the wisdom of his wager with McRae, the coachman, against the master marrying the girl.
"Have a pleasant evening, your grace," the butter intoned as Clayton shrugged into an evening cloak lined with crimson silk and bounded down the long sweep of stairs that paraded from his magnificent Upper Brook Street mansion to the street. McRae, in full Westmoreland livery now, swept open the door of the coach as Clayton approached. Grinning at the red-haired Irish coachman, Clayton jerked his head toward the horses. "If they can't get above a trot, McRae, shoot them."
Elated anticipation seemed to build inside of Clayton with every revolution of the coach's wheels clattering over the cobbled London streets. He was exhilarated at the prospect of appearing in London with Whitney at his side. The Rutherfords' ball, which he'd originally intended to be a diversion for her, was now a profound pleasure for himself. He'd been dreaming of showing her off as his own since the night of the Armands' masquerade-and what better place to present her to London society than at the home of his good friends?
With boyish enjoyment, he contemplated Marcus and Ellen Rutherford's reaction when he introduced Whitney to them tonight as his fiancee. By presenting Whitney to London society as his fiancee, he wouldn't be breaking his promise to her, for she could still have the secrecy she desired when they returned to her home, at least for another few days. Secrecy! he thought disgustedly. He wanted the world to know!
"He's here," Emily exclaimed, rushing back into Whitney's room after greeting her noble guest downstairs. "Just think of it," she laughed. "You are making your London debut at the most important ball of the year, and the Duke of Claymore is your escort How I wish Margaret Merryton could see you tonight!"
Emily's delighted enthusiasm, which had been increasing all evening, was so contagious that Whitney couldn't help smiling as she stood up to leave, nor could she suppress the unexplainable joy that surged through her when she saw Clayton talking with Lord Archibald at the foot of the stairs.
Clayton looked up automatically as she began descending the staircase, and what he saw stopped his breath and made his heart burst with pride. Draped in a Grecian gown of nugget-gold satin which left one of her smooth shoulders deliciously bare and hugged her slender, voluptuous curves until it ended in a swirl of gold, Whitney looked like a shimmering golden goddess. A rope of yellow tourmalines and white diamonds was entwined in her lustrous dark hair, and a radiant smile lit her face and glowed in her eyes. Clayton thought that she had never looked so provocatively lush, nor so regally sensual as she did tonight. She was beautiful, glamorous, bewitching-and she was his.