Although she didn’t object, Clayton was a little taken aback by the courteous, but impersonal smile she gave him as she turned into his arms for the waltz.
She was slimmer than before, and Clayton drew her protectively closer to him. It was his fault that she had lost weight. "Are you enjoying yourself?" he asked, his voice unfamiliar to her with its tone of tenderness and guilt.
Whitney nodded brightly. She nodded because she couldn’t trust her voice. From the moment he had walked into this house, her senses had been screamingly aware of his presence. She felt as if she were dying inside, slowly and painfully suffocating. He had stolen her virginity and then coldly withdrawn his offer of marriage, suggested calmly that she marry Paul and then tossed his money in her face to appease her. And even so, it was all she could do not to humble herself at his feet, to plead with him to tell her why, to beg him to want her again. Only one thing kept her silent and upright: pride-outraged, stubborn, courageous, abused pride. Her face ached with the effort it took to smile, but she had been smiling all night, and she was going to keep right on doing it until Clayton walked out of this room. And then she was going to die.
For the first time since he had met her, Clayton didn’t know what to say to her. He felt as if he were in a dream, and he was afraid to speak lest he say the wrong thing and break the spell. He thought of apologizing for ravaging her, but in view of the crime he had committed against her an apology was ludicrously inadequate. What he really wanted to say was, "Marry me tomorrow," but having already deprived her of her wedding night, Clayton was resolutely determined that she would have a spectacular wedding, complete with all the splendor and trappings, all the glittering pomp and circumstance, that she was entitled to enjoy as the bride of a duke.
Since he couldn’t beg her forgiveness, or ask her to marry him at once, he decided to say the only other thing that mattered to him. Gazing down at her bent head, he said the words he had never spoken to another woman. Very quietly and very tenderly, he said, "I love you."
He felt the emotional impact his words had on her because she went rigid in his arms, but when she lifted her beautiful face the laughter in her expression almost made him stumble.
"I am not in the least surprised to hear it," she teased breezily. "I seem to be all the rage this season-particularly with tall men." She tipped her head to the side, considering the possible reasons for such a thing. "I believe it is probably because I am rather tall for a woman. It must be quite awkward for tall men to be forever bent over, trying to speak to tiny women. Or," she added jokingly, "it could be because I have very good teeth. I take excellent care of them and-"
"Don’t!" Clayton commanded, trying to stop her banter.
"I shall never brush them again," Whitney agreed with sham solemnity.
Clayton gazed down at her entrancing cream and roses face and wondered how in the hell he had started to speak of love and ended up in an inane discussion of personal hygiene. If his emotions weren’t in such a turmoil, if he weren’t trying so desperately to make things right between them, he would have noticed that her overbright eyes were sparkling with suppressed tears, not laughter, and that the muscles in her slim throat were constricting spasmodically. But he was in a turmoil, and he didn’t notice. "Elizabeth is a beautiful bride," he said, trying to guide their discussion around to marriage.
Whitney laughed. "All brides are beautiful. It was decreed centuries ago-by a duke, no doubt-that all brides must be beautiful. And blush."
"Will you blush?" he asked tenderly.
"Certainly not," she said, managing to smile despite the catch in her voice. "I have nothing left to blush about. Not that I mind, you see, because I’ve always harbored a secret contempt for females who blush and swoon at the slightest provocation."
Clayton’s frustrated confusion reduced his voice to a tense whisper. "What’s wrong? You weren’t like this when you were in my arms outside the church-"
Whitney’s jade green eyes widened in apparent bewilderment "Was that you?"
Ignoring the wild curiosity they were generating among the wedding guests, Clayton jerked her hard against his chest. "Who in the living hell did you think it was?"
Whitney felt as if her heart was breaking. "Actually, I couldn’t be absolutely certain who it was. It might have been …" She inclined her head toward the two groomsmen who’d been dancing attendance on her all night. "John Clifford or Lord Gilmore. They say they ‘adore’ me. Or it might have been Paul. He ‘adores’ me. Or it could have been Nicki, he-"
In one swift motion, Clayton whirled her off the dance floor and thrust her away. He stared down at her with cold savage contempt, his voice dangerously low, hissing with fury. "I thought you were a woman with a heart, but you’re nothing but a common flirt!"
Whitney lifted her chin in scornful amusement. "I’d hardly say I was common; after all, I’ve fleeced you out of ï¿½110,000, and even so, all I have to do is smile, and you still come straight to heel, just as you did today. We are neither of us common, my lord," she taunted. "I am an accomplished flirt and you are a sublime fool."
For a split second, Whitney thought he was going to strike her. Instead he turned on his heel and strode swiftly away. She watched him stalk past the staring guests, past the servants stationed at the doors and knew that he had just left her life forever. Forcing back her damned up tears, she searched the crowd for Emily. "Emily," she mumbled brokenly, keeping her face down, "please explain to Elizabeth that I-I felt quite violently ill. I’ll-I’ll send your driver back with your carriage as soon as he leaves me at your house."
"I’ll come with you," Emily said quickly.
"No, I prefer to be alone. I have to be alone."
Later that night Emily and Michael both paused outside Whitney’s door, listening to the wrenching sound of grief being poured into a pillow. "Let her be," Michael advised compassionately. "She’ll cry it all out of her system."
However, when Whitney failed to appear for breakfast the next morning, Emily went up to her room and found her sitting in bed, her knees drawn up to her chest as if she were trying to curl into a cocoon. She looked pate and fragile but when she saw Emily, she managed a wan smile. "How do you feel?" Emily asked softly.
"I-I’m much better today."
"Whitney, what happened last-"
"Don’t!" Whitney implored tightly. "Please don’t." When Emily nodded, the tension in Whitney’s face gave way to gratitude and she relaxed against the pillows. "I’ve decided to begin enjoying the remainder of my time in London. Would you object if I had callers in occasionally?"