He crossed his arms on the table and buried his face in them, finally sinking into the oblivion he’d been seeking all night. His raw voice was so low Stephen could hardly hear it. "I can still hear her crying," he whispered.
In dumbfounded amazement, Stephen stared at Clayton’s bent head, trying to piece together the disjointed story. Apparently his self-confident, invulnerable, older brother had lost his heart to some girl with green eyes named Whitney.
There had been a wild rumor sweeping London this past week that Clayton was betrothed-or on the verge of it-to some female, but that was nothing out of the ordinary and Stephen had shrugged it off as being the usual idle speculation. But it must have been true, and this Whitney must have been the girl.
Stupefied, Stephen continued to gaze at his sleeping brother. It was unbelievable that Clayton, who had always treated women with a combination of amused tolerance and relaxed indulgence, could have been driven to rape. And why? Because the girl refused to marry him? Because he was jealous? Impossible! And yet the evidence was across from him; Clayton was tearing himself apart with remorse.
Stephen sighed. Clayton had always been surrounded by dazzling women; Whitney must have been very special to have meant so much to him, for it was perfectly obvious that he loved her desperately-and still did.
In fact, Stephen thought tiredly, if the girl had turned to Clayton for comfort after he had just forcibly deprived her of her virginity, she must have loved Clayton a little too. More than a little.
The following morning, the brothers shook hands on the front steps, neither able to look at the bright, sunlit day without flinching in pain. The duchess waved a cheerful goodbye to Clayton, then rounded on Stephen. "He looks awful!"
"He feels awful," Stephen assured her, gingerly rubbing his temples.
"Stephen," she said firmly, "there is something I wish to discuss with you." She swept into the salon, closed the door behind them, and sat down in the nearest chair. Then she took an extraordinarily long time arranging her skirts to her satisfaction. In a halting but determined voice, she said, "Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I came downstairs, thinking I’d spend a little more time with the two of you. When I reached the library, I realized that both of you were shockingly in your cups, and I was about to say how stunned I was to discover that I had raised two drunken louts, when I… when I …"
Stephen’s lips twitched with laughter at the "drunken louts" but otherwise he kept his face straight. "When you overheard what Clay was telling me?" he assisted her.
Miserably, she nodded. "How could he have done such a thing?"
"I’m not certain why he did it," Stephen began carefully. "Obviously he cared for the girl, and he’s a man-"
"Don’t treat me like an imbecile, Stephen," her ladyship interrupted hotly. "I am a grown woman. I’ve been married and I’ve borne two sons. I am perfectly aware that Clayton is a man and that, as such, he has certain … ah …"
"Certain urges?" Stephen provided when she began fanning her flushed face, looking agonizingly ill at ease. She nodded but Stephen said, "What I was trying to say is that Clay is a man who has always been sought after by women, yet he never cared for any of them enough to offer marriage.
Apparently, he finally found the woman he wanted. If he gave her father ï¿½100,000, I assume the girl is undowered and her family is poor, but even so, she refused him."
"She must have been seven kinds of fool to refuse your brother," Lady Westmoreland exclaimed. "She would have to be stupid not to want him."
Stephen grinned at her loyalty, but he shook his head. "It’s unlikely the girl is stupid or foolish. Clay has never been interested in vapid, empty-headed misses."
"I suppose you’re right," Lady Westmoreland sighed, coming to her feet. She stopped at the door and gave Stephen a sad look over her shoulder. "I think," she said quietly, "that he must have adored her."
Clayton read the legal document dissolving the betrothal agreement, then signed it and quickly shoved it across the desk to the solicitor. He could barely stand the sight of it. "There’s something more," he said when the solicitor began to rise. "See that this note and a bank draft for ï¿½10,000 are delivered along with the document to Miss Stone at her home."
Clayton pulled open one of the heavy, carved drawers of his desk and extracted a blank sheet of white parchment with his seal embossed in silver at the top.
He stared at the blank sheet, the moment freezing in time.
He couldn’t believe it had truly come to this. How could it be ending like this, with this wrenching stab of pain and loss, when he’d been so confident only a few weeks ago that it would end with Whitney standing beside him as his bride, lying beside him as his wife?
He forced himself to pick up the quill and write the words, "Please accept my sincere wishes for your happiness and convey them to Paul. The enclosed bank draft is intended as a gift." Clayton hesitated, knowing that Whitney would fly into a rage over the money, but he couldn’t bear to think of her having to pinch pennies for a new gown, which she would have to do as Sevarin’s wife. If by some miracle she didn’t marry Sevarin, then the money would be hers. At least her stupid father couldn’t once more spend everything she had.
"Enclose the draft and this note in the same envelope as that." He jerked his head toward the hateful document dissolving their betrothal. Rising, he concluded the painful interview with a silent nod of dismissal.
When the solicitor left, Clayton sank back down in his chair, fighting against the impulse to have the man stopped at the gates and brought back, to snatch the envelope from him and tear it to pieces. Instead he leaned his head against the padded leather back of his chair and closed his eyes. "Oh little one," he breathed aloud, "why do I have to send you that damned envelope?"
He thought of the words he had really wanted to write to hen "Please come back to me. Just let me hold you and I swear I will make you forget. I’ll fill your days with laughter and your nights with love. I’ll give you a son. And if you still can’t love me, then all I ask is that you give me a daughter. A daughter with your eyes, your smile, your-"
Swearing savagely, he lurched forward and grabbed the stack of correspondence that had accumulated in his absence.
With single-minded determination, Clayton threw himself into the task of forgetting her. He immersed himself in work, spending hours each day poring over reports on his present business investments and planning future ones. He drove his secretary, Mr. Hudgins, so hard that an assistant had to be hired for the man. He met with his business managers, his estate managers, his stewards, and his tenants. He worked until it was time to go out at night to attend a ball, the opera, the theatre.