"Let’s get the hell out of here!" the duke growled, flinging himself into the open carriage and slamming the door behind him.
Something’s amiss with the lass, McRae concluded with a chuckle, sending the magnificent grays bowling down the drive. So delighted was he, that not even the persistent throbbing of his abscessed wisdom tooth could dull his spirits. Mentally visualizing a variety of pleasant ways to spend the proceeds from his wager, McRae began to hum a lilting Irish melody. After a few bars, the duke leaned forward and demanded furiously, "Are you in pain, McRae?!"
"No, your grace," McRae hurriedly replied over his shoulder.
"In mourning?" the duke snapped.
"No, your grace."
"Then cease that goddamn moaning!"
"Aye, your grace," McRae said, carefully concealing his happy expression from his infuriated master.
WHTTNEY SLOWLY OPENED HER EYES, BLINKING IN CONFUSION AT the late morning sunlight filtering through the draperies. Her head ached dully, and she felt strangely, unaccountably melancholy. Her benumbed mind refused to function, preferring instead the anesthesia of watching the shadows creeping across the gold carpet as the sun was slowly obliterated by a heap of dark clouds rolling past. She frowned, trying to understand the bitter desolation that seemed to be weighting her down, and in that instant, the scene in the study last night penetrated her sleep-fogged consciousness.
In a panic, Whitney squeezed her eyes closed, trying to shut out the reality of the Cheltenham Tragedy that had been enacted, with all its macabre plots and twisted subplots, but it was too painfully sinister to be ignored.
Dragging herself up into a sitting position, she twisted around and arranged the pillows behind her, then fell back against them. She knew she had to think, to plan, and with grim determination she set about systematically reviewing what facts she had. First, the man who occupied the Hodges’ place was Clayton Westmoreland, the "missing" Duke of Claymore. Which, she thought listlessly, finally explained his expensive clothes and those monstrously aloof servants of his.
He was also the man she’d met at the Armands’ masquerade, the same arrogant, lecherous . . . With an effort, Whitney set aside her boiling animosity and made herself return to the facts at hand. After they met at the masquerade, Clayton Westmoreland must have come directly to her father to purchase her for his wife. Her father said last night that everything was "arranged," which undoubtedly meant that a preliminary marriage contract was already signed.
Once Clayton had accomplished that, the unspeakable cad had evidently installed himself and his servants in his lair, not two miles from her front door.
"Unbelievable!" Whitney whispered aloud. It was more than that, it was ridiculous, absurd! But, whether it was or not, it was also true. She was technically . . . obscenely . . unwillingly betrothed to the Duke of Claymore. Betrothed to a notorious libertine, a profligate rake!
Why, he was as hateful as her father! Her father . . . The agonizing recollection of her father’s heartless treachery was more than Whitney could bear. She drew her knees up against her chest, wrapping her arms tightly around her legs in a sort of protective cocoon, and rested her forehead on her knees. "Oh, Papa," she whispered brokenly, "how could you have done that to me?" The lump in her throat grew and grew until it was suffocating her; unshed tears burned her eyes and made her throat ache unbearably. But she didn’t let go, would not break down.
She had to be strong. Her opponents outnumbered her two to one-three to one, if Aunt Anne were a party to this monstrous scheme. The thought that her beloved aunt might have betrayed her too, very nearly broke the dam of her control. Swallowing convulsively, Whitney stared out the window across the room. She might be outnumbered now but when Paul returned, he would stand against them too.
In the meantime, she reminded herself sternly, she would have to rely on her own courage and determination, but she had plenty of both, and a stubborn nature that Clayton Westmoreland heretofore had only glimpsed! Yes, she could manage perfectly well on her own until Paul returned.
Almost gleefully, Whitney began planning ways to thwart and foil and exasperate the duke. By the time she was finished with him, his grace would know that if he wished to have either peace or joy in his remaining years, she was not the wife for him! Perhaps if she was clever enough, she might even maneuver him into crying off and, by the time Paul returned, this vile betrothal could be nothing more than an unpleasant memory.
There was a light tap on the door, and Aunt Anne walked in, her features composed into a sympathetic, encouraging smile. Friend or foe? Whitney wondered, watching her warily. Forcing herself to sound calmly unemotional, Whitney said, "When were you informed of this, Aunt Anne?"
Her aunt settled herself on the bed. "On the same day yon saw me send letters to your uncle in four different countries and cancel my trip to London."
"Oh," Whitney whispered hoarsely. Aunt Anne had been trying to locate Uncle Edward to come to their aid; she hadn’t betrayed her. A piercing sweetness flooded through Whitney, washing away her defenses until her chin quivered. Her shoulders began to shake with relief and misery and, as Aunt Anne’s arms went around her, Whitney surrendered to the harsh, racking sobs that had been screaming for release since the moment she’d awakened.
"Everything is going to be fine," her aunt soothed, smoothing the soft tangles from Whitney’s hair.
When the last rush of tears subsided, Whitney found she felt immensely better. She dried her eyes and smiled ruefully. "Isn’t this the most wretched coil, Aunt Anne?"
Her aunt fervently agreed that it was, then disappeared into the adjoining bathroom, returning with a soft cloth wrung out in cold water. "Here, darling, press this against your eyes so they won’t be swollen."
"I am going to marry Paul," Whitney said in a muffled voice, obediently holding the damp cloth to her face. "I have planned to since I was a child! But even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t wed that. . . that degenerate lecher!" Whitney pulled the cloth away in time to see her aunt quickly smother a frown. "You are on Paul’s side, aren’t you, Aunt Anne?" she questioned anxiously, scrutinizing her aunt’s noncommittal face.
"I’m on your side, darling. Only yours. I want what’s best for you." Anne started for the door. "I’ll send Clarissa in to you. It’s nearly noon, and his grace sent word he would arrive at one o’clock."
‘"His grace!’" Whitney repeated, infuriated by this reminder of Clayton’s lofty rank. All other noblemen were referred to merely as "his lordship" and addressed as "my lord," but not a duke. Because a duke outranked all other noblemen, he must be addressed much more respectfully-as "your grace."