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Each evening he deliberately escorted a different woman, hoping each time that this woman would spark something within him-something that had died four weeks ago. But if she was blond, Clayton discovered that he had an aversion to pale hair. If she was brunette, her hair lacked the lustre of Whitney’s. If she was vivacious, she grated on his nerves. If she was sultry, he found her distasteful. If she was quiet, he had a wild urge to shake her and say, "Dammit, say something!"

But slowly, very slowly, he found his balance again. He began to feel that if he continued to block a pair of laughing green eyes from his memory, he might actually forget her someday.

As the weeks passed, he smiled more easily, and, occasionally, he was even able to laugh.

Chapter Twenty-six

WHTTNEY’S DAYS IN LONDON HAD ESTABLISHED A PATTERN. SHE went shopping with Elizabeth and Emily, or for an occasional drive through the park. Nicki called regularly at the house. Rarely did she let him escort her anywhere, but at least he came, and he made her smile. And he never asked her for more than she was able to give.

Elizabeth was a daily visitor. She was so caught up in her wedding plans, so eager to discuss her gown, the flowers, the banquet menu, and everything else that concerned the wedding which was only four days away, that Whitney could hardly remain in the same room with her exuberant joy, and even while she was frantically thinking up excuses to leave, Whitney hated herself for not being better able to take pleasure in Elizabeth’s happiness.

She no longer lived in frantic expectation of seeing Clayton, but neither was she able to relax. She existed in a tense limbo, suspended between a past she refused to think about and a future she could not bear to contemplate.

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Today was much like the others, except that when Elizabeth launched into an enumeration of all Peter’s wonderful qualities, Whitney leapt to her feet, excused herself, snatched her cape from her room and practically ran out of the house. Ignoring the stricture which required that she take someone with her, she fled to the small park a few blocks away, then slowed her steps and wandered aimlessly down the deserted paths.

Aunt Anne and Whitney’s father were coming up to London for Elizabeth’s wedding-Elizabeth had surprised everyone by deciding she wished to be married in all the splendor London could provide. As much as she longed to see her beloved aunt, Whitney dreaded the confrontation. In four days Aunt Anne would arrive, expecting to find Clayton and Whitney acting like an unofficially engaged couple. Instead, Whitney was going to tell her that she was never going to marry the Duke of Claymore. And Aunt Anne would insist on knowing why.

Why? Whitney thought wildly, rehearsing the scene with her aunt. "Because he dragged me away from Emily’s party, he took me to his house and he tore my clothes off, and he made me get into his bed."

Aunt Anne would be stunned and outraged, but she would want to know what had happened before that. She would want to know why. Whitney sank down onto a park bench, her shoulders drooping with confused despair. Why had Clayton believed she had given herself to Paul? And why hadn’t he at least come to find out how she was faring? Or to tell her what he was going to do?

Not once in the last four weeks had Whitney allowed herself to think about that night, but now that she ‘had started, she couldn’t stop. She tried to remember Clayton as the man who had coldly and viciously ripped her clothes off. Instead she remembered him in that awful, pain-blurred moment when he had discovered her virginity. She saw his tensed shoulders above her, his head thrown back, his face a tortured mask of anguish and regret.

She wanted to remember the names he had called her and the insulting, degrading things he had said to her. Instead she remembered that he had held her in his arms while she cried, stroking her hair and whispering to her in a voice raw with emotion. "Don’t cry, darling. Please don’t cry anymore."

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An awful, stabbing ache grew and grew in Whitney’s throat, but now the pain she felt was for Clayton, not herself. When she realized it, she jumped furiously to her feet. She must be mad, utterly mad! She was actually feeling sorry for the man who had violated her! She never wanted to lay eyes on him again. Ever!

She walked quickly back down the path, the gusty wind blowing her cape around her like a tourniquet. As suddenly as it had come up, the wind died and a squirrel scampered toward her, then stopped, watching her half in fear, half in expectation. Whitney stopped too, waiting for him to move, but he sat up and chattered reproachfully at her.

She saw the acorn lying beside her foot and bent down to pick it up, offering it to him. The furry little animal blinked nervously, but came no closer, so Whitney tossed it to him. "Better take it," she told him softly, "it’s going to be winter soon." The squirrel flicked its eyes to the precious acorn now lying only inches from him. For a moment he hesitated, then he turned, fleeing from it as quickly as his legs would carry him.      !

Not once in the weeks since that fateful night had Whitney broken her brave promise not to cry. She had succeeded, but she had also stored up a terrible burden of emotion. A little squirrel who preferred to starve rather than take something she had touched, was the last straw. "I hope you starve!" she choked as tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. She pivoted on her heel and stalked down the path, past the park gates.

Tears streamed down her face and the wind burned her eyes, but she cried anyway. She cried until there were no more tears of bitterness or hurt left to shed-and strangely her spirits began to lift. In fact, by the time she reached the Archibald house, Whitney felt better than she had since "it" had happened.

Lord Archibald was away that evening so Whitney and Emily shared a cozy dinner in Whitney’s room, and Whitney discovered she could actually enjoy herself again.

"You look remarkably restored tonight," Emily teased her, as she poured tea.

"I feel remarkably restored," Whitney said, smiling.

"Good," Emily replied. "Because there’s something I want to ask you."

"Ask away," Whitney said, sipping her tea.

"My mother wrote me that you’re betrothed to Paul Sevarin. Are you?"

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"No-to Clayton Westmoreland," Whitney replied in quick defense.

A priceless antique tea cup slid through Emily’s fingers and crashed to the floor. Her eyes widened, then grew wider still while a slow smile dawned across her pretty features. "You aren’t. . . jesting?" she whispered.

Whitney shook her head.

"You’re certain?"

"Very certain."

"I don’t think I believe you," Emily said.

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