Vanessa put her hand on Clayton’s arm. "I hope you aren’t angry with me for blurting out our secret in front of a stranger."
"I’m certain he isn’t in the least angry, Miss Standfield," Whitney said quietly, but her eyes were on Clayton. "We all do foolish things when we’re in love. Don’t we, your grace?"
"Do we?" Clayton countered repressively. "I hadn’t noticed."
"Then you either have a very short memory," Whitney challenged softly, "or a very convenient one. Or perhaps you’ve never been in love, after all."
Clayton’s wineglass slammed on the table. "Precisely what is that supposed to mean?" he demanded.
Whitney withered before the blast of those gray eyes. "Nothing," she lied softly.
The clink of silver began again. She watched Clayton’s hand flexing on his goblet of wine, clenching it and loosening, then clenching again, and she knew he was wishing that her neck, not his goblet, were in his grip. After several minutes, his mother nervously cleared her throat, and cautiously said to Whitney, "Tell me, my dear, were things very different here in England when you returned?"
Whitney started to reply impersonally, but then she realized that the duchess had just unknowingly given her exactly the opening she needed. Since Clayton wasn’t willing to let her explain in private, perhaps she could at least make him partially understand, here, at the table. "Very different!" she said with feeling. "You see, shortly after I returned to England, I discovered that while I was still in France my father had arranged for my marriage to a man I had scarcely met, and did not even recognize when I saw him again here." "How distressing," replied the duchess with a dawning look of understanding.
"Indeed it was-particularly because I have a freakish streak in my nature which positively rebels against being coldly ordered about by anyone. And the man I was to marry, although he was kind and understanding in many ways, was quite horridly arbitrary and imperious about the betrothal. He acted as if I had no choice in the matter whatever."
"These arranged marriages can be difficult to adjust to at first," the duchess agreed. "What did you do then?"
"She betrothed herself to another man who was thoroughly spineless and an idiot!" Clayton announced coldly.
"But not dictatorial and tyrannical," Whitney shot back. "And I did not betroth myself to Paul at all!"
Angry silence reigned until Stephen laughingly said, "My God, don’t keep us in suspense. Then what happened?"
Clayton answered for her in a contemptuous drawl. "Since there were another thousand eligible men in London, Miss Stone set about seeing how many of those she could betroth herself to as well."
Whitney couldn’t endure it when he used that tone of voice. She bit her lip and meekly shook her head. "No, I was only ever betrothed to one man, but he’s so angry with me, he won’t give me a chance to explain. He’s already withdrawn his offer."
"The beast!" Stephen said cheerfully, helping himself to a second portion of duck a 1’orange. "He sounds like an evil-tempered sort. You’re probably much better off without him." "I-I have a rather formidable temper myself," Whitney admitted.
"In that case, he’s better off without you," Clayton snapped, then his gaze swung on Stephen with deadly menace. "Stephen, I find this conversation not only excessively boring, but in excruciatingly bad taste. Am I making myself clear?"
Stephen met his brother’s look with sham bewilderment and nodded, but even he didn’t dare to reopen the subject.
Servants moved about the room, and all five people at the dining table studiously concentrated on the sumptuous fare on their plates, but only Stephen ate with any enjoyment. Whitney told herself she would try once more, just once more, to make Clayton leave the room with her. Although how she was going to cope with him if she succeeded, was beyond her imagination.
"Stephen asked you a question, Clayton," Vanessa whispered.
"What?" Clayton demanded, staring at Stephen with blazing animosity.
"I asked how your horses did at the last race."
"They did well," was the curt answer.
"How well?" Stephen persisted. Although he addressed the table at large, the smile that tugged at the corner of his mouth was aimed at Whitney as he explained. "We had a bet that three of Clayton’s and two of mine would come in the money. I know mine placed, and only two of his did, which means he lost the bet, and he owes me ï¿½300." Stephen’s conspiratorial grin widened meaningfully at Whitney. "He doesn’t care about the money, but he hates to admit he lost. He’s never learned to accept defeat."
Clayton laid down his knife and fork, preparing to give Stephen the brutal setdown he’d earned hours before, but Whitney, taking Stephen’s cue, immediately drew off Clay-ton’s fire. "How strange you should say that," she said to Stephen, looking genuinely amazed. "I have found that your brother accepts defeat without even putting up the slightest struggle. Why, faced with the tiniest discouragement, he simply gives up and-"
Clayton’s open hand slammed down on the table with a crash that made the dishes dance. He surged to his feet, a muscle leaping furiously along the taut line of his jaw. "Miss Stone and I have something to say to each other which is best said in private." He gritted out the words, flinging his napkin down on the table. Swiftly, he strode around the table and jerked Whitney’s chair back. "Get up!" he snapped in a tow, terrible voice when Whitney remained frozen in her seat. His hand clamped down painfully on her forearm and Whitney rose unsteadily.
The duchess looked at her in helpless dismay, but Stephen lifted his glass to Whitney in a silent toast and grinned.
Forcibly pulling her beside him, Clayton strode purposefully from the room and down the carpeted marble hallway. As they passed the front door, he snapped at the butler, "Have Miss Stone’s carriage waiting in front in three minutes!" He turned down a side hall and nodded curtly to a servant who opened the doors of a luxurious study for them.
Clayton hauled her halfway across the room, which was lined with books recessed behind richly carved arches of polished oak, then flung her arm away and stalked to the fireplace. Turning, he regarded her with a look of undiluted loathing, white he visibly strove to bring his rampaging temper under control. Suddenly his voice slashed through the silence. "You have exactly two minutes to explain the purpose of this unexpected and unwelcome visit of yours. At the end of that time, I will escort you to your carriage and make your excuses for your absence to my mother and brother."