Having delivered this diatribe, he stalked to the door. "I shall expect your cooperation in all this, for Whitney’s sake, if not for mine."

Chapter Thirteen

WHTTNEY GREETED THE NEWS THAT CLAYTON WAS TO DINE WITH them the following evening with all the enthusiasm she would have felt for a public flogging. Nevertheless, her father liked the man, and Whitney was prepared to endure him for her father’s sake.

They dined at eight o’clock, with her father at one end of the long, damask-covered table and Lady Anne at the other. Which left Whitney sitting across from Clayton. Using the heavy silver candelabra in the center of the table as a barrier between herself and her unwanted dinner companion, she maintained a cool, formal silence. Several times during the meal, Clayton made inflammatory remarks which she knew were deliberately intended to rile her into entering the dinner table conversation, but she meticulously ignored him.

Surprisingly, the other three managed quite well without her, and the conversation became animated as the evening wore on.

As soon as dessert was cleared away, Whitney stood and excused herself, pleading an impending attack of the vapors. She thought she saw Clayton’s lips twitch, but when her narrowed gaze searched his face, he seemed to be regarding her with polite concern and nothing else. "Whitney has the constitution of an ox," her father was reassuring his guest as Whitney walked out of the room.

During the next two weeks, Paul called for her every day. Her life took on a dreamlike quality, spoiled only by the frequency with which she had to endure Clayton’s company in the evenings. However, she bore it without complaint for her father’s sake. No matter what Clayton said or did, Whitney was unfailingly cool, polite, and distant. Her withdrawn formality pleased her father (who mistook it for ladylike reserve); irritated Clayton (who apparently never mistook anything); and, for no reason Whitney could understand, seemed to worry her aunt.

In fact, Whitney thought Anne was acting very peculiarly lately. She spent endless hours writing letters to every capital in Europe where she thought Uncle Edward might be, and her moods shifted constantly from nervous animation to dazed solemnity.

Whitney decided that the cause of her aunt’s odd behavior was loneliness for her husband. "I know how dreadfully you must miss Uncle Edward," Whitney sympathized one evening two weeks later, when they were to dine with Clayton at his house for the first time.

Aunt Anne seemed not to have heard, as she concentrated on selecting a gown for Whitney to wear. Finally she chose a gorgeous peach-colored crepe, scalloped at the low neckline, with wider scallops at the hem. "I missed Paul dreadfully the entire time I was in France, so I know how you must feel," Whitney continued, her voice muffled by the peach gown which Clarissa was lowering over her head.

"Childhood romances," her aunt replied, "always seem so real, so enduring, when we are separated from the object of our affection. But usually, when we return, we find that our dreams and memories quite surpassed reality."

Whitney jerked around without a thought for poor Clarissa, who was busily applying a brush to Whitney’s long hair. "You can’t think Paul is a ‘childhood romance.’ Well, he was of course, but not any longer. We are going to be married, precisely as I always dreamed we would be. And very soon."

"Has Paul mentioned marriage to you?"

When Whitney shook her head and started to reply, Anne drew a long breath and interrupted her. "I mean, if it was his intention to offer for you, he’s surely had sufficient time by now to do so."

"I’m certain he’s only waiting for the right moment to declare himself. And I haven’t really been home very long, a few weeks only."

"You’ve known each other for years, darling," Aunt Anne contradicted gently. "I’ve seen matches between two perfect strangers arranged in the length of time we’ve been back here. Perhaps Mr. Sevarin merely enjoys paying court to a lovely young woman who is all the rage, right now. Many men do, you know."

Whitney smiled confidently and planted a kiss on her aunt’s cheek, "You worry too much for my happiness, Aunt Anne. Paul is on the verge of offering, you’ll see."

But as their open carriage rocked along beneath the shadowy oaks toward Clayton’s house, Whitney’s optimism began to ebb. Idly, she toyed with a long strand of her hair which hung in gentle waves over her shoulders and midway down her back where it curled at the ends. Could it be that Paul merely enjoyed escorting the current neighborhood beauty? she wondered. Unemotionally, Whitney knew she had usurped that title from Elizabeth Ashton, although she didn’t derive nearly as much satisfaction from the knowledge as she once thought she would. Invitations to local card parties and soirees were arriving with flattering regularity, and whenever Whitney accepted, Paul either escorted her or spent most of the evening at her side. In fact, the only person in the neighborhood who rivaled Whitney’s popularity was Clayton Westland, and she saw him everywhere she went.

Whitney shrugged the thought of her despised neighbor aside. Why didn’t Paul declare himself? she wondered. And why didn’t he ever speak of love, if not marriage? Whitney was still searching for answers to those troublesome questions when they arrived at Clayton’s home.

The front door was opened by a stiff-backed butler who eyed the trio down the length of his nose. "Good evening," he intoned majestically. "My master is expecting you." Whitney was at first shocked, then secretly amused by his lofty manner, which would have been far more appropriate if he were the butler of some grand personage, opening the front door of a magnificent mansion.

As Aunt Anne and her father were being divested of their outer garments, Clayton came striding down the hall into the small foyer. He went directly to Whitney. "May I?" he inquired politely, stepping behind her, his long fingers resting lightly on the peach-colored satin cape covering her shoulders.

"Thank you," Whitney said civilly. Pushing back the wide hood, she unfastened the satin frog closing at her throat, releasing the cape with as much speed as possible. The touch of his hands reminded her of the way he had held and caressed her the day of the picnic, the way he had promised to hold her much closer for far longer as if he were offering a sweet to a child. Conceited ass!

Her father detained her aunt to admire some carved ivory objects adorning a hall table while Clayton showed Whitney to a medium-sized room that apparently served as a combined salon and study.

A fire burned cheerily on the wide hearth, chasing away the night chill and adding its lively glow to the light of the candles in sconces above the mantle. The room was sparsely but rather grandly furnished to suit masculine tastes. One wall was taken up by a long, richly carved oak cabinet which bore a pair of massively splendid sterling silver candelabra, one at each end. The top of the cabinet was inlaid with marble squares, each of which was surrounded by strips of intricately carved wood. In the center stood an enormous sterling tea service unlike any Whitney had ever seen. It was so immense that Sewell, their butler, would never be able to lift it, let alone carry it with dignity. Whitney smiled a little as she visualized the ever-correct Sewell staggering into a room, laboring beneath the weight of the tray.