"Of course not. In fact, Lord Gilmore and the other groomsmen are downstairs right now, hoping to see you." Despite Emily’s determined cheerfulness, her voice wavered and she sat down beside Whitney, putting her arm around her. "Michael and I both want you to stay with us as long as you can. He understands that you’re more like my sister than my friend."
Whitney gave her a hard hug arid tried to laugh. "Sisters argue abominably. Friends are better."
THAT DAY BEGAN A MONTH OF FRENETIC SOCIAL activity for Whitney. With courage and determination, she purposely kept herself too busy to think. Each night she fell into bed exhausted, and slept until it was time to dress for the next day’s engagements. Nicki was her favorite and most frequent escort, but two of the groomsmen and the other eligible gentlemen she’d met at Emily’s party and Elizabeth’s wedding were frequently at her side, as well. With Emily normally acting as chaperone, she was escorted to rout parties, to musicales, the opera, the theatre, and balls. And she met more eligible men at those places, who then appeared with gratifying predictability at the Archibald townhouse to invite her to more parties and more balls.
If Paris had welcomed her, London embraced her with outstretched arms, for her charm and her wit were even more rare here. Whispers began and heads turned when she walked into a room. Her humor was softer now, and shy men who would have been terrified to approach her before, flocked around her.
She was courted and sought after. And she was unhappy beyond words.
She was never alone. And she was never at peace.
Occasionally at one of these functions, Whitney would hear Clayton’s name mentioned, and she would the a little inside.
But no one who saw her dazzling smile brighten even more would have guessed she cared.
Only once during that first month did Whitney even come close to encountering Clayton. The young viscount who was her escort for that particular evening handed her into his closed carriage and announced with obvious pride that tonight he was going to escort her to "the ball of the year," then he had turned to his coachman and instructed, "Number 10 Upper Brook Street."
The address struck Whitney like a pitcher of ice water in her face. Number 10 Upper Brook Street was Clayton’s London address, the address he’d given her long ago, in case she wanted to reach him. "I detest large parties," she desperately informed him. "They give me the vapors!"
"But Claymore gives the best parties in London!" he objected with equal vehemence. "And last week, you said you adored large parties."
"That was last week. This week the noise makes me quite ill!"
The viscount undoubtedly found her recently acquired allergy to noise rather extraordinary, but Miss Stone was beautiful and entertaining. And very popular. He took her to the opera instead.
That marked the end of Whitney’s good fortune: she saw Clayton the following night. She was at the theatre with Nicki, seated in a private box with an excellent view of the stage and the five tiers of seats above it. Just before the play began, her curl caught in her amethyst brooch, and Nicki leaned across to help untangle it. As he did so, Whitney’s gaze wandered aimlessly across the crowd-then riveted in stricken paralysis on Clayton and Vanessa Standfield, who were just entering a box nearby which was already occupied by the Rutherfords. Clayton’s hand was resting familiarly on Vanessa Standfield’s waist as the two couples exchanged gay greetings. Unable to tear her eyes away, Whitney watched them take their seats. She saw Vanessa speak to Clayton, who leaned closer, the better to hear her, and whatever she said to him made him throw back his head and burst out laughing.
Her body trembling violently, Whitney watched as the
Rutherfords turned to Clayton and Vanessa, obviously curious about the reason for his hilarity. Clayton spoke, and he must have repeated what Vanessa said, because Vanessa blushed gorgeously, and the Rutherfords also joined in the laughter.
In the rows of seats below and the tiers above, heads were twisting and turning, and Whitney heard the murmurings about "Claymore" and "his grace" and "the duke." Clayton’s presence in the theatre (and Vanessa’s with him) was being duly noted by all.
"Cherie, are you ill?" Nicki asked, frowning at Whitney’s paleness.
Thinking that she was going to be sick, Whitney started to rise. As she did so, Clayton glanced up and saw her. His eyes turned as flinty as steel, and his expression changed from icy distaste to bored contempt. And then he simply looked away. Whitney told herself that she had to stay in that box until the play was over, that she wouldn’t, wouldn’t let Clayton see that she was affected by his presence. She left ten minutes after the curtain went up. She left because tears had started to stream down her cheeks, and because she was so jealous, so unbearably, agonizingly, helplessly jealous that she couldn’t bear to remain.
Two nights later, Nicki escorted her to their second party of the evening. Arriving extremely late, Whitney handed her fur cape to the butler, then took Nicki’s arm as he led her through the throngs of departing guests who were all waiting for their conveyances to be brought round. Near the rear of the group, Whitney saw Clayton helping Vanessa with her wrap, grinning down at her in that bold, intimate way of his, and her fingers tightened convulsively on Nicki’s arm.
"Where are you leading me next, my lord?" Vanessa asked Clayton as Whitney tried helplessly to move past them.
"Astray," Clayton told her with a blunt chuckle. He glanced up and saw Whitney standing directly in front of him, but this time Clayton didn’t bother to communicate his loathing. He merely looked through her as if she didn’t exist for him, and then he turned his attention back to Vanessa. On a cold, blustery December afternoon two weeks later.
Nicki proposed. Without flowery, fervent professions of his affection, Nicki gathered a pale Whitney into his arms and said simply, "Marry me, love."
His quiet offering of himself nearly destroyed Whitney’s fragile grip on her emotions. "I-I can’t, Nicki," she whispered, trying to smile at him despite the tears gathering in her eyes. "I wish with all my heart that I loved you, but it would be wrong for me to marry you, feeling the way I do."
"I know exactly how you feel, cherie," he said gently, tipping her chin up. "But I’m willing to gamble that if you marry me and come back to France, I can make you forget him."
Whitney reached up and laid her hand against his jaw. Nicki had been someone she could count on and trust. If she refused him now, he would leave, but she couldn’t bring herself to give him false hope. "My dear, good friend," she whispered brokenly. "I will love you forever, but always as my friend." Tears glittered on her tang lashes, and Whitney’s voice shook. "I cannot tell you how . . . how honored I am that you would have me for your wife … or how much you have meant to me these past years. Oh Nicki, thank you. Thank you-for being all the things you are." Pulling out of his arms, she turned and fled.