Emily tapped on her door and asked if she were ready to leave.
"I’ll be down in a few minutes," Whitney called hoarsely. "Emily," she added, dragging her voice through the constricted pain in her chest. "Do … do you know how the duke came to be at the wedding? I mean, did Elizabeth decide to invite him, after all?"
Emily sounded both guilty and gay. "Yes. And aren’t you glad now that she did?"
The room reeled and tilted. Whitney started to lurch from her chair, thinking that she was going to be ill, but her legs refused to move. Gulping long uneven breaths of air, she stayed where she was. The tumultuous upheaval settled slowly, leaving a dull, throbbing ache that was intensified with every moment.
Clayton hadn’t come to the wedding to see her, he’d been invited! Whitney realized with a blinding streak of suffocating humiliation. Since his note and documents were dated weeks ago, he would naturally think she’d known about them today, when she saw him. Wild, hysterical laughter welled up within her. He had simply been attending the wedding-and how gratified he must have been when she had smiled adoringly at him!
She hadn’t merely smiled at him, Whitney remembered with a fresh streak of mortified fury-she had leaned against him! She had let him put his arm around her and hold her! And that vile, conceited, arrogant lecher probably thought she was inviting him to use her body again! He was probably planning to take her home with him after the banquet and, considering the way she had acted, he would be confident she was willing to go.
The banquet. Whitney put her face in her hands and moaned aloud. Clayton was going to be at the banquet. She would have to face him there.
When she joined Emily and her husband downstairs, Whitney was a little pale and there was a suspicious sheen in her eyes, but her head was high and her delicate chin was stubbornly set. Outwardly she was composed and very calm -but it was the deadly calm that precedes a hurricane white it gathers force, preparing to strike.
The first thing she did when she arrived at the huge home of Elizabeth’s paternal grandparents, was to smile her very best smile at the two handsomest groomsmen. Clayton had accused her once of trying to collect as many fawning admirers as she could squeeze around her skirts, and for a beginning, that was exactly what she intended to do.
As she stood between both groomsmen in the receiving line, she spoke to each guest as they made their way past-but if the guest happened to be a bachelor, Whitney was her most dazzlingly vivacious self. Within fifteen minutes, she had caused a tie-up in the proceedings, and she was surrounded by six gentlemen all of whom were vying for her attention. Only once did her composure slip a notch, and that was when Paul bent over her hand. Her bright smile faded uncertainly as she gazed into his handsome face, but he looked so sheepish and so contrite, that she immediately decided to add him to her entourage. Tightening her fingers a little on his, she drew Paul into the circle of men surrounding her.
Now she was fortified, surrounded. Insulated from Clay-ton. For the moment, this was ail she needed.
Clayton arrived just as the receiving line disbanded. He paused in the doorway, his tall, commanding frame clad in an elegantly tailored black suit and waistcoat. Whitney watched his glance slide over the guests, then instantly halt when it reached her. A rosy peach tint suffused her high cheekbones as she shifted her gaze from Clayton to the men around her. "We are quite ignoring the bride," she teased with a gorgeous smile, and without a backward glance she led her entourage toward Elizabeth.
Clayton was positive she had seen him, and his eyes darkened with surprise and puzzlement as he watched her walk away. After a moment, he realized that Whitney had an obligation to attend the bride, and he felt slightly better, but as he watched her laughing gaily with the men who trailed after her, no dammit, flirting with them, his patience began to fray.
A footman appeared beside him bearing a tray, and Clayton took a glass of champagne, his hungry gaze following Whitney. She knew he was here, and she was obviously waiting for the appropriate moment to come to him. He ached to touch her, longed to hear the soft music of her voice, had been driven half out of his mind these past two hours just thinking of being near her again.
Dinner was announced, but Clayton hung back, hoping that Whitney might come to him before she went in to the banquet. "Ah-Claymore! Good to see you again," a jovial masculine voice said at his elbow.
Clayton glanced briefly at the short, elderly man beside him, recognizing him as Lord Anthony, an old friend of his father’s.
"How’s your lovely mother?" Lord Anthony asked, sipping from his champagne.
Clayton watched Whitney walk into the banquet room; she was not going to come to him. "She’s well," he answered absently. "And yours?"
"I imagine she’s about the same," Lord Anthony replied. "She’s been dead for thirty years."
"Good," Clayton said. "Glad to hear it." He put his glass down and strolled off to take his assigned place at one of the banquet tables.
In the true spirit of a matchmaker, Elizabeth had contrived to place Clayton at the table facing the bridal party’s, directly across from Whitney. Clayton ate little of his meal, and what he did eat, he couldn’t taste. He was too preoccupied with an elusive and beautiful young woman who owned his heart, but who seemed either afraid, or unwilling, to meet his gaze. He watched her chatting playfully with the groomsmen on either side of her, winding them around her slender fingers, and jealousy pulsed through his veins.
To add to his mounting frustration, he was seated between two matrons who had discovered his title and immediately singled him out as a prospective husband for their unmarried daughters. "My Marie plays the pianoforte like an angel," one mother said. "You must come to one of our musicales, your grace."
"My Charlotte sings like a bird!" the other mother instantly countered.
"I’m tone deaf," Clayton drawled without taking his eyes from Whitney.
After what seemed like an eternity, the guests adjourned to the ballroom. Peter guided Elizabeth to the center of the floor and they danced together, their fine young bodies moving in perfect harmony with each other, then the newly married couple was joined by the bridal party, who also danced together When the required first dance was finished, Clayton waited for Whitney to come to him. Instead she drifted into the arms of another groomsman, and then another, smiling into their eyes in a way that made Clayton want to wring her neck!
She was dancing the fourth dance with Paul Sevarin, when it finally dawned on Clayton that Whitney was waiting for him to come to her, and he was dumbstruck at his own stupidity. She had taken the first step toward a reconciliation at the church, and naturally she expected him to take the next one. The instant the dance ended, Clayton strode directly to her. "Good to see you again, Sevarin," he lied politely as he firmly placed Whitney’s hand on his arm. "I believe the next dance is mine," he added, covering her long fingers with his and drawing Whitney onto the dance floor.