She looked so skeptical that Whitney’s lips trembled with laughter. "Would you care to bet your new sable cape that I’m not betrothed to him?"
"Do you want it badly enough to Be?"
"Definitely. But I’m not lying."
"But how-when-did it happen?"
Whitney opened her mouth to explain, then changed her mind. She desperately needed to talk to someone about it, but she was afraid to begin. Today, for the first time in weeks, she had begun to feel alive again; she didn’t want to risk her fragile, newfound tranquillity. "No, Emily," she said. "I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about it." She got up nervously and Emily rose too, advancing on her with a determined, joyous smile.
"Well, you’re going to!" Emily laughed softly. "You are going to tell me every single, tiny detail of this unbelievable romance if I have to wring it out of you with my own two hands. Now begin at the beginning."
Whitney started to refuse, but Emily looked so happy and so determined, that it was useless. Besides, she suddenly wanted to talk about it. She sat back down and Emily settled beside her. "I suppose it actually began several years ago, before my come-out," Whitney started. "Clayton said he saw me in a millinery shop with my aunt. The proprietress was trying to convince me to purchase a hideous bonnet covered with artificial fruit. . ."
At the end of the story Emily stared at her with a combination of mirth and wonder. "Oh lord," she whispered. "It’s too delicious for words-and so romantic. Imagine, after spending all that money, he came to England only to discover that you were infatuated with Paul." She gulped down a giggle. "Michael was so worried that his grace would break your heart, but I wasn’t. I saw the way he looked at you when he came to take you to the Rutherfords’ ball, and I knew."
"You knew what?" Whitney asked.
"Why, that he is in love with you, silly!" Emily broke off in bewilderment. "But he hasn’t been here in weeks, and I know he’s in London because he’s been seen at the opera and the theatre." She watched the familiar haunted expression return to Whitney’s face. "Whitney?" she breathed. "What’s wrong? You’ve looked like this ever since the night you didn’t come home. What happened that night to make you so unhappy?"
"I don’t want to discuss it," Whitney said hoarsely.
Emily took Whitney’s cold hands in hers. "You have to talk about it, it’s been tearing you apart. I’m not trying to pry; I already know you didn’t tell the truth. You see, I was standing at the window the morning you returned, and I saw the gold crest on the coach that brought you back. It was the duke’s coach, wasn’t it?"
"You know it was," Whitney said, her head bent with shame.
"And I also know you left here with him-you said you did, and Carlisle said you did too. Although," she added with a bemused smile in her voice, "Carlisle was shockingly in his cups that night, and he kept insisting that the Duke of Claymore had descended from nowhere and forcibly dragged you off into the night. Of course, I didn’t believe for a minute-oh dear lord!" she burst out. "Is that what happened? Is it?" she pleaded.
"Where did he take you?" Emily demanded, her voice tight with apprehension. "Did he take you to another party?"
"I will never forgive myself for laughing at Carlisle," she said, her hand tightening convulsively on Whitney’s. "Whitney," she whispered painfully, "where did he take you? What did he do to you?"
A pair of vulnerable green eyes lifted to Emily’s, and in them Emily saw the answer. "That monster!" she hissed, leaping to her feet. "That blackguard, that devil! He ought to be hung! He-" Emily stopped, obviously deciding that Whitney needed encouragement, not more fuel for her hurt and anger. "We have to look on the bright side of this."
"What ‘bright side’?" Whitney said tiredly.
"It may not seem like it, but there is one. Just listen." Dropping to her knees, Emily took both Whitney’s hands in her reassuring grasp. "I don’t know much about the law, but I do know that your father can’t force you to marry that. . . that monster! And after what he’s done, Claymore must know you will never willingly marry him. Therefore, he has no choice but to release you from the betrothal agreement and forget about the money he gave your father."
Whitney’s head jerked up. For long moments, she stared blankly at the wall across from her. Of course Clayton meant to release her. That must be why he hadn’t come to see her. He was going to withdraw his offer. A strange, sick feeling swept over her at the thought. "No," she said firmly. "He won’t withdraw his offer. I know he won’t. Oh Emily," she cried, "do you truly think he’ll just walk away and let me go?"
"Of course!" Emily promptly reassured. "What else can he possibly-" Emily’s eyes widened on Whitney’s unhappy face. "Whitney?" she gasped, slowly coming to her feet and staring down at her unhappy friend. "You cannot possibly mean- My God! You don’t want him to let you go," she cried.
Whitney’s gaze flew upward. "It’s only that I never considered that he might release me."
"You don’t want him to!" Emily persisted in rising tones. "It’s written all over your face."
Whitney stood up too, nervously rubbing her palms against the folds of her dress. She willed herself to say she hoped above everything that Clayton Westmoreland would release her, but the words lodged in her throat. "I don’t know what I want," she admitted miserably.
Emily dismissed that with a wave of her hand, her anxious eyes riveted on Whitney. "Has he sent word to you, or approached you in any way since that night?"
"No! And he had better not!"
"And you have no intention of trying to see him?"
"Certainly not," Whitney declared heatedly.
"He can’t possibly approach you. First he would need some sign from you that you would at least listen to an apology. And you won’t-can’t-give him that sign, can you?"
"I would the first!" Whitney announced proudly, and she meant it.
"But if he cares for you at all, he will be filled with remorse for what he did. He’ll think that you must loathe him."
Whitney walked over to the bed and leaned her forehead against the poster which supported the canopy. "He won’t let me go, Emily," she said with more hope than regret in her voice. "I think he cares . ._. cared . . . for me very much."
"Well!" Emily exploded. "He certainly has a peculiar way of showing his regard."