Long gloves of matching gold covered her bare arms to well above the elbows, and when she reached the bottom of the staircase, Clayton took both her gloved hands in his. His gray eyes were smoldering, and his voice was almost hoarse. "My God, you are beautiful," he whispered.
Caught in the spell of those compelling gray eyes, Whitney yielded to the sudden temptation to let herself truly enjoy the evening, which already held the promise of enchantment. Stepping back, she favored Clayton with a sweeping look of unabashed admiration that ran the length of his long, splendidly clad frame, then she raised her laughing green eyes to his. "Not nearly so beautiful as you, I fear." Her eyes twinkled as she feigned dismay.
Clayton put her gold satin cape over her shoulders then rushed her from the house, not realizing until the door had closed behind them that he had neglected to say good night to the Archibalds.
Staring at the closed door, Emily expelled her breath in a long, wistful sigh.
"If you are wishing for something," Michael warned her gently, placing his arm around her shoulders, "wish that Whitney keeps her head, and not that Claymore loses his heart, because he won't. You've heard enough London gossip about him to know that. Even if be did lose his heart, and was willing to overlook her lack of fortune, he would never marry a female whose lineage was less aristocratic than his own. He is obligated by family custom not to marry beneath himself."
Outside the night was foggy, and a chilly breeze sent Whitney's cape fluttering behind her. She paused halfway down the steps to pull up the wide satin hood in order to protect her coiffeur. In the act, her gaze fell on the coach waiting in the street beneath the gas lamp. "Good heavens, is that yours?" she gasped, staring at the magnificent burgundy-lacquered coach with a gold crest emblazoned on the door panel "Of course it is," she said quickly, recovering her composure and walking alongside Clayton down the steps. "It's just that I don't think of you as a duke. I think of you as you are at home. My home, I mean," she explained, feeling thoroughly absurd and unsophisticated as she stopped again to stare, not at the coach, but at the horses who drew it-four glorious grays with snowy white manes and tails, who stamped and tossed their heads in a restless frenzy to be off.
"Do you tike them?" Clayton said, helping her into the coach and settling down beside her.
"Like them?" Whitney repeated as she pushed back her hood and turned her head to smile shyly into his eyes. "I have never seen such magnificent animals."
He slipped an arm around her shoulders. "Then they're yours."
"No, I couldn't accept them. Really, I couldn't."
"Is it now your intention to deprive me of the pleasure of giving you gifts?" he asked gently. "It pleased me mightily to know I had paid for your gowns and jewels even though you had no idea they were from me."
Lulled by his tolerant good humor, Whitney asked the one question she had heretofore been afraid to voice. "How much did you pay my father for me?"
The mood was shattered. "If you will grant me nothing else," he said shortly, "at least grant me this. Stop persisting in this foolish determination to see yourself as something I purchased!"
Now that she'd asked the question and incurred his anger, Whitney wanted an answer "How much?" she repeated obstinately.
Clayton hesitated and then snapped icily, "One hundred thousand pounds."
Whitney's mind reeled. Never in her wildest imaginings had she dreamt of a sum like that; a household servant only earned thirty or forty pounds a year. If she and Paul scrimped and saved for the rest of their lives, they could never pay back a fortune like that. She wished with all her heart that she hadn't asked the question. She didn't want to spoil their evening; tonight would be their first and last gala affair together, and for some reason it was terribly important to her not to ruin it. Trying desperately to recover some of their earlier gaiety, Whitney said lightly, "You were a fool, my lord duke."
Clayton threw his gloves onto the seat across from them. "Really?" he drawled in a bored, insulting voice. "And why is that, Ma'am?"
"Because," Whitney informed him pertly, "1 don't think you should have let him fleece you out of a single shilling over �99,000!"
Clayton's stunned gaze shot to her face, narrowed on her smiling lips, and then he leaned back his head and laughed, a rich throaty sound that warmed Whitney's heart. "When a man sets out to acquire a treasure," he chuckled, drawing her closer and smiling at her. "He does not argue over a few pounds."
The silence between them lengthened and the amusement in his eyes was slowly replaced by a slumbering intensity. His silver gaze held hers imprisoned as he slowly bent his head to her. "I want you," he breathed, and his lips parted hers for a deep, violently sensual kiss that left Whitney shaken and flushed.
The Rutherford mansion was ablaze with lights, and the long drive leading up to it crowded with vehicles making their way toward the front of the house where they stopped to allow their resplendent passengers to alight. Footmen carrying torches met each vehicle, then escorted the guests up the terraced front steps to the main door.
In a reasonably short time, Whitney and Clayton were being escorted up the steps by a torch-bearing, liveried footman. In the entry foyer, a servant took their outerwear, and they proceeded up the carpeted staircase where enormous bouquets of white orchids in tall silver stands had been placed on each step.
They walked around the corner and out onto a balcony and Whitney paused to gaze down at the scene in the ballroom below. Her first London ball, she thought. And her last. The crowd seemed to dip and sway as the ladies moved about the floor, talking and laughing. Immense crystal chandeliers reflected the dazzling kaleidoscope of colorful gowns, which were multiplied over and over again in the two-story mirrored walls.
"Ready?" Clayton said, tucking her hand possessively in the crook of his arm and trying to draw her toward the wide curving staircase which lead from the balcony down to the crowd below.
Whitney, who had been casually looking for Nicki, suddenly realized that everyone down in the ballroom was beginning to look at them, and she pulled back in confused alarm while hundreds of curious gazes swivelled up to where they were standing. The roar of conversation began steadily winding down until it was reduced to whispers and murmurings, and then it soared to deafening heights. Whitney had the terrifying feeling that every person in that ballroom was either looking at them or talking about them. A woman looked up at Clayton, then hurried over to speak to a tall, distinguished-looking man, who immediately turned to gaze up at Clayton, then disengaged himself from the people surrounding him and strode purposefully in the direction of the balcony where they stood. "Everyone is staring at us," Whitney whispered apprehensively.