"Absolutely not. If the girl had wits enough to wring an offer from Claymore, you can be certain she'd also be smart enough to make sure he sent a notice straight to the Times, I can't see Claymore crying off an engagement once it was announced."
Chiding herself for eavesdropping, Whitney started to leave but paused when the outer door again opened and a third voice chimed in. "They're betrothed, you may rely on it," the newcomer declared emphatically. "Lawrence and I have just had a word with his grace, and I'm absolutely convinced it's true."
"Do you mean," the first voice gasped, "that Claymore confirmed the betrothal?"
"Don't be silly. You know how maddeningly uninformative Claymore always is when he knows one most wants to pry into his affairs."
"Well then, what makes you so certain he's betrothed to her?"
"Two things. First of all, when Lawrence asked where they'd met, Claymore grinned in a way that made Vanessa Standfield positively livid-you do recall that Vanessa told everyone that he was on the verge of offering for her before he unexpectedly left for France? Well, now poor Vanessa looks an utter fool, because it's obvious that he left for France to join Miss Stone. He admitted he met her there several years ago. Anyway, when Claymore talks about Miss Stone, he positively beams with pride!"
"I can't credit the image of Claymore 'beaming,'" the second voice said skeptically.
"Then merely think of it as a gleam in his eye."
"That I can credit," laughed the voice. "Now, what was the second reason?"
"It was the look the duke gave Esterbrook when Ester-brook asked him for an introduction to Miss Stone. Believe me, there was enough ice in his grace's expression to send Esterbrook scurrying for a fire where he could warm himself."
Unable to remain any longer, Whitney opened the door. A secret smile touched her lips and eyes and, as she passed the three thunderstruck women, she graciously inclined her head.
Clayton was standing precisely where she had left him on the balcony, but surrounded now by two dozen men and women. Even so, Whitney had no trouble spotting him because he was taller than everyone else. She was trying to decide whether she should remain where she was, or go to Clayton's side, when he looked up and saw her standing there. Without a word of explanation, he merely inclined his head to those gathered around him, and strolled out of their midst to Whitney.
As they descended the curving staircase to the ballroom, the musicians on the raised dais broke into a majestic waltz, but instead of dancing, Clayton led her toward an alcove which was partially concealed from the ballroom by a curtain swept gracefully to one side. "Don't you want to dance?" Whitney asked curiously.
He chuckled and shook his head. "The last time we waltzed you tried to leave me in the middle of the dance floor."
"Which was no more than you deserved," Whitney teased, carefully ignoring the watchful stares of the guests.
They stepped into the alcove and Clayton picked up two glasses of sparkling champagne from the tray on the table beside her. Handing one to her, he inclined his head toward the smiling people who were already bearing down on the alcove. "Courage, my sweet." He grinned. "Here they come." Whitney drained the contents of her champagne glass and plucked another off the silver tray. For courage.
They converged on the alcove in a ceaseless stream, in groups of six and eight, demanding good-naturedly to know where Clayton had been and pressing invitations on him. They treated Whitney with a combination of carefully concealed speculation and extreme friendliness, yet there were several times when Whitney sensed a jealous malevolence in the attitudes of some of the women. And no wonder, she thought, smiting to herself as she admired Clayton over the rim of her fourth glass of champagne. He looked breathtakingly handsome in the elegant black evening attire that fit his tall, broad-shouldered frame to perfection. No doubt many of the women here had yearned to have him at their side, to bask in the aura of restrained power and masculine vitality that emanated from him, and to know the spell of those bold gray eyes capturing and holding theirs.
As she thought it, he glanced down at her in the midst of a conversation with his friends, and a glow of warmth and happiness surged through Whitney that had nothing to do with the champagne she had consumed. Seeing him like this, relaxed and laughing among these glittering members of London's haute ton who admired him and courted his friendship, Whitney could hardly believe this urbane, sophisticated nobleman was the same man who had raced after her on Dangerous Crossing and talked about prehistoric rocks with her tiresome uncle.
When at long last there was a brief moment of privacy, Whitney slanted an audacious smile at him. "I would say that the consensus is that I am probably your mistress."
"As it happens, you're wrong," Clayton said, his gaze dropping to the near empty champagne glass in her hand. "Have you eaten anything tonight?"
"Yes," Whitney said. She was puzzled by his concern, but she dismissed it because the music was beginning again and Lord Rutherford and five other men were bearing down on her with the obvious intention of asking her to dance.
Clayton followed her from the alcove and leaned a shoulder negligently against a pillar, raising his glass of champagne to his lips while he watched her making her graceful way toward the dance floor. Whitney might think these people believed she was his mistress, but Clayton was making certain they realized she was his fiancee. They all knew he was not in the habit of gazing fondly at the women he escorted to balls, or holding up pillars while he watched them dance. By doing that now, he was deliberately announcing their engagement as dearly and emphatically as if it had been printed in the Times.
Just why it was so important to claim Whitney as his tonight, was something that eluded him. He told himself that it was because he didn't want Esterbrook and the others panting after her, but it was more than that. She was in his blood. Her smile warmed his heart, and her most innocent touch sent desire raging through his veins. There was a provocative sensuality about her, a natural, unaffected sophistication and exhilarating liveliness that drew men to her, and he wanted every one of them to know, here and now, that she was his.
He watched her, his mind drifting to the night soon to come, when that glorious mantle of shimmering dark hair would be spilling over his bare chest and her silken body would writhe to sweet ecstasy beneath his. In the past, he had preferred his women to be experienced in the art of lovemaking; fiery, passionate creatures who knew how to give pleasure and receive it, women who could admit their desire to themselves and to him. But now he was outrageously pleased that Whitney was a virgin. In fact, it gave him intense pleasure to contemplate their wedding night when he would guide her gentry, tenderly from girl to woman, until she was moaning with rapture in his arms.