Cheerfully ignoring his mother’s apprehensive glances, he relaxed back in his chair and listened while she and Whitney discussed a variety of topics, from Paris fashions to London weather.
After nearly an hour the front door was swung wide and voices drifted in from the entryway. The words were inaudible, but there was no mistaking the soft murmur and throaty laughter of a woman as she answered Clayton. Stephen saw Whitney’s stricken expression as she realized that Clayton was accompanied by a female. Rising quickly, he flashed a sympathetic, encouraging look at her and then carefully placed himself so that he was standing in front of her, blocking her from Clayton’s view to give her time to compose herself.
"I’m sorry we’re late. We were delayed," Clayton said to his mother as he leaned down and pressed a tight kiss on her forehead. Teasingly he added, "I trust you had no trouble finding your rooms without me?" Turning aside, he drew Vanessa toward. "Mother, may I present Vanessa . . ."
Stephen expelled his breath in a rush of relief when Clayton finished. "Standfield."
Vanessa sank into a deep curtsy before the duchess and when the two ladies had exchanged the proper civilities, Clayton waved a casual arm in Stephen’s direction and laughingly added, "Vanessa, you already know Stephen." With that he turned back to his mother and bent tow, speaking quietly to her.
"A pleasure seeing you again, Miss Standfield," Stephen said with amused formality.
"For heaven’s sake, Stephen," Vanessa laughed. "You and I have been on a first-name basis forever."
Ignoring that, Stephen reached behind him, touched Whit-ney’s arm, and she rose with quaking reluctance to her feet. "Miss Standfield," Stephen raised his voice slightly, "may I present Miss Whitney Stone …"
Clayton jerked erect and swung around.
"And this stony-faced gentleman," Stephen continued lightly to Whitney, "is my brother. As you know."
Whitney actually flinched at the cold, ruthless fury in Clayton’s eyes as they raked over her. "How is your aunt?" he inquired icily.
Whitney swallowed and replied in a barely audible whisper, "My aunt is very well, thank you. And you?"
Clayton nodded curtly. "As you can see, I have survived our last encounter without scars."
Vanessa, who apparently recognized Whitney as her rival for Clayton from the Rutherfords’ ball, gave Whitney a feint inclination of her elegantly coiffed head and said with a frosty smile, "Esterbrook was introduced to you at Lord and Lady Rutherford’s affair, Miss Stone." She paused as if trying to recall the occasion more clearly. "Yes, I remember that he spoke of you at some length to many of us."
Realizing that Vanessa was waiting for an answer, Whitney said cautiously, "That was very kind of him."
"As I recall, what he said was not in the least kind, Miss Stone."
Whitney stiffened at Vanessa’s unexpected and unprovoked attack, and Stephen waded into the deafening silence. "We can all discuss our mutual acquaintances at dinner," he announced cheerfully, "providing that I can convince my beautiful guest to dine with us."
Whitney shook her head in a desperate, emphatic no. "I really can’t stay. I-I’m sorry."
"Ah, but I insist." He grinned. Arching a brow at his white-faced brother, he said, "We both insist, don’t we?"
To Stephen’s infinite disgust, Clayton didn’t bother to second the invitation. Instead he merely glanced over his shoulder and nodded curtly to the servant hovering in the doorway, indicating that another place should be set at the table. Without another word, he turned on his heel and strode to the sideboard where he snatched a bottle of whiskey and a glass.
Stephen seated himself beside Whitney, then looked around to where Clayton stood, his tall frame rigid with anger, his back to them as he poured himself a drink. "Me too, big brother," he called good-naturedly.
Clayton threw Stephen a look of unwavering distaste and said in a voice of tightly controlled fury, "I am certain, Stephen, that included among your other brilliant talents is the ability to pour your own drink."
"Correct," Stephen said serenely, getting up from the settee where he was seated beside Whitney. "Ladies?" he offered. "A glass of wine?"
Vanessa and Whitney both accepted, and the duchess stifled the urge to request a full bottle.
Stephen strolled over to the sideboard, poured himself some whiskey, and began filling three crystal glasses with wine, blithely ignoring the simmering rage emanating from his brother. Under his breath, Clayton snapped, "Is there the slightest chance that you don’t know who she is-to me?"
"Not the slightest." Stephen grinned imperturbably, picking up three of the four glasses. As he turned toward the ladies he said in a carrying voice, "Will you bring Whitney’s glass, Clay? I can’t manage all four. ‘
Carrying her wineglass, Clayton bore purposefully down on Whitney, and she unconsciously pressed further back into the seat cushions, searching his forbidding countenance for some sign that he still cared for her. But there was none.
In a state of acute misery, she absently sipped her wine surreptitiously studying Clayton, who was seated across from her beside Vanessa, with his gleaming booted foot resting casually atop the opposite knee, his long legs encased in superbly tailored gray trousers. Seeing him here, relaxed and at home in the splendor of this white-and-gold room, he was every inch the aloof, elegant nobleman, the master of all he surveyed. Never had he looked more handsome-or more unattainable. And to make everything worse, Vanessa Stand-field, who was draped in flowing blue silk, was more haughtily, breathtakingly beautiful than Whitney had realized that night at the Rutherfords’ ball.
In the hour before dinner was announced, Stephen carried the greatest share of the conversational burden, with Vanessa contributing two more pointed insults aimed at Whitney. Clayton spoke in clipped, abrupt phrases only when absolutely necessary, and Whitney replied to Stephen’s light banter with weak monosyllables. The duchess had three more glasses of wine and said nothing at all to anyone.
Curled into a tight ball of suspended anguish, Whitney silently counted the minutes until dinner could be finished and the ordeal over, so that she could creep away. She now knew she should never have come. It was too late.
Mercifully, dinner was announced shortly thereafter. Clay-ton rose, and without so much as a glance in Whitney’s direction, he offered his arm to his mother and, with Vanessa on the other, escorted both women from the room.
Whitney stood and took Stephen’s arm, her gaze clinging hopelessly to Clayton’s back. She started to follow in his wake, but Stephen stopped her. "Damn Vanessa!" he laughed softly. "I could strangle her. It’s time for us to change our strategy-although everything has been going well so far."