"No," Clayton replied curtly. "I’ve heard nothing of the kind."
Margaret’s papa’s thoughts had taken another twist. Stroking his goatee, he said thoughtfully, "So St. Allermain’s bought a country estate and is spending a fortune renovating it, is she?" Laughter rumbled in his belly as he turned a slow, knowing leer on the gentlemen. "It sounds to me as if Claymore has pensioned her off-with a bit extra for good behavior!"
Beneath her fingertips, Whitney felt the muscles in Clayton’s forearm harden. Tipping her head to see his face, she found him looking at Mr. Merryton and the others with an expression of such excruciating distaste and cold boredom that she almost flinched. Unexpectedly, his gaze slid to her and his expression softened into a faint smile.
Inwardly, however, Clayton was not smiling. He was furious at his secretary for failing to put a stop to the speculation over his whereabouts by giving out the story that he was somewhere! He was mentally dictating a sharp note of reprimand to the man when he realized, to his infinite disgust, that the guests were now wagering on the identity of his next mistress.
"I’ll wager ï¿½5 on the Countess Dorothea," Mr. Ashton put in. "Do I have a taker?"
"Indeed you do, sir," Mr. Merryton declared with a sty laugh. "The countess is old news! She’s been dangling after Claymore these past five years, even followed him to France with the poor old earl still on his deathbed. And what happened? I’ll tell you what: Claymore cut her dead in front of half of Paris. Lady Vanessa Standfield will be his next choice, but the duke will marry her. She’s been waiting patiently for him since her come-out. My ï¿½5 says his grace’s attention will next turn to Lady Standfield and that he’ll marry the young woman. Can I interest anyone in that sporting wager?"
The entire conversation was excessively improper in the presence of ladies and, with great relief, Whitney saw that her aunt was going to intervene at last. "Mr. Merryton," Aunt
Anne said, waiting until she had his full attention. "Would you care to make it ï¿½10?"
A shocked silence followed her aunt’s unladylike proposition, and Whitney was grateful when Clayton’s choked laugh made it seem as if it was all in good fun. Aunt Anne then turned to Clayton. "And you, Mr. Westland?" she asked brightly. "Would you care to wager on Lady Standfield being the future Duchess of Claymore?"
Clayton’s lips twitched with amusement. "Certainly not. I have it from an unimpeachable source that Clayton Westmoreland has decided to wed an enchanting brunette he met in Paris."
Whitney caught the sly, piercing look that Lady Eubank passed over Clayton, then forgot about it when someone else said, "There’s a remarkable similarity in your names, Mr. Westland. Are you by chance related to the duke in some way?"
"We’re closer than brothers," Clayton answered promptly, with an arch grin to make it seem an outrageous jest. From there, the conversation drifted to inaccurate descriptions of the duke’s lavish estates, to the horses in his famous stables, and inevitably returned to more tales of his mistresses and conquests.
Clayton glanced at his future wife to see how attentively she was listening (and therefore how much further he was sinking in her estimation, by virtue of what she was hearing) and saw Whitney concealing a yawn behind her slender fingertips. Under cover of the group’s boisterous banter, Clayton leaned toward her and teased in a low voice, "Aren’t you concerned about the future Duchess of Claymore, my lady?"
Caught in the act of yawning, Whitney’s gaze flew guiltily to his face. She smiled that stow, unconsciously provocative smile of hers that sent a fresh surge of pure lust firing through Clayton’s veins, while smoothing the satin skirt of her gown, preparatory to leaving. "Of course I’m concerned about her," she whispered gravely. "I have the deepest sympathy for anyone who marries that disgusting, dissolute, amoral, lecherous seducer of women!" With that, she turned and headed for the ballroom to instruct the musicians to begin.
There hadn’t been the slightest opportunity for Paul to speak to Whitney’s father, and with a sinking heart, Whitney watched the hands on the clock lurch toward twelve midnight. During their only dance together, Paul and she had carefully chosen the precise moment of his departure, so that they might snatch a few stolen minutes to say goodbye. Excusing herself, Whitney picked up her skirts and discreetly followed well behind Paul as he strode from the room.
With a shoulder propped against a Gothic pillar, Clayton raised his glass to his tips and watched with a mixture of possessive pride and irritation as Whitney glanced secretively around, then started to follow Sevarin from the room. One of the guests waylaid her, and while Clayton looked on, Sevarin returned to the ballroom and, abandoning all pretense at discretion, took her by the arm and drew her away.
That particular proprietary gesture of Sevarin’s sent a stab of sharp anger through Clayton. Why, he wondered, was he standing here like a damned fool, tolerating the Merryton girl’s flirtatious advances, when his own betrothed was strolling away on another man’s arm? With a sardonic smile, be contemplated the satisfaction he could have by crossing the room in a dozen quick strides and informing Sevarin that he did not tike another man’s hands on his betrothed. Then, in a few sentences, he could inform Whitney that his "disgusting, lecherous" attentions were permanently fixed on her and that she should prepare herself to be wed within the week!
He was seriously considering doing exactly that when Amelia Eubank bore down on him. "Margaret," Amelia barked heartlessly, "stop banging on Mr. Westland and go attend to your hair."
Without a trace of sympathy, she watched the young woman blush furiously, then turn and leave. "Nasty chit," Amelia said, directing her attention to Clayton. "The girl is nothing but malice and spite, held together by a core of viciousness. Her parents spend every penny they can scrimp together to send her to London and keep her in society. They can’t afford it, and she doesn’t belong there. She knows it too, and that makes her envious and mean."
Realizing that he wasn’t paying any attention to her, Amelia craned her turbaned head in an effort to discover the object of his unwavering interest. Whitney Stone, she noticed with a tiny smile, was just returning to the ballroom, directly in his line of vision. "Well, Claymore," she said, "if the ‘enchanting brunette’ you’ve decided upon is who I think it is, you’ve taken too long. Her betrothal to Sevarin is to be announced as soon as Sevarin returns."
The duke’s eyes turned cold and cynical. "Excuse me," he said in a dangerously soft voice. Putting his glass down, he walked away, leaving Amelia gazing after him with gleeful satisfaction.