Beneath demurely lowered lashes, Whitney stole a peek at his ominous expression and realized with satisfaction that now he, and not she, was the jealous one. It dawned on her then that if she could appear fickle, perhaps even a little fast, he might have second thoughts about wanting to marry her. "I think I ought to tell you that he wasn’t the only gentleman in Paris who tried to win my affections and became. . . overeager. I had dozens of serious suitors in Paris. I can’t even remember all their names."
"Then allow me to assist you," Clayton offered calmly. White Whitney stared at him in shock, he rapped off the names of every man who had offered for her. "I left out DuVille," he finished, "because he is still biding his time. But I suppose I ought to include Sevarin, since he is trying to offer for you. It appears to me, Madam," he continued conversationally, again addressing her as if she were already a married woman, "that for a sensible young woman, you are extremely foolish about the men you allow to court you."
To avoid discussing Paul, Whitney seized upon Clayton’s implied criticism of Nicki. "If you are referring to Nicolas DuVille, his family happens to be one of the oldest and most respected in France!"
"I am referring to Sevarin, and you know it," he said in a coolly authoritative tone that Whitney particularly resented. "Of all the men I mentioned, Sevarin is the least suitable, yet if it had been left to you, he would be your choice. He is no match for your intelligence or your spirit or your temper. Nor," he added meaningfully, "is he man enough to make a woman of you."
"And just what do you mean by that remark?" Whitney demanded.
His glance slid meaningfully to the grassy spot near her feet where he had used the crop on her tender backside, then held her in his arms, soothing her. "I think you know precisely what I mean," he said, watching the pink tint creeping up her cheeks.
Whitney wasn’t completely certain, but she did know it was not a subject she wished to pursue. She switched to an earlier, less inflammatory one. "If you were so ‘taken’ with me in France, why didn’t you do the proper thing and approach my uncle to make your offer?"
"So that he could fob me off with that nonsense about your being too young to marry, and your father not being ready to part with you yet?" he said with sardonic amusement. "Hardly!"
"What you really mean," Whitney retorted, "is that it was beneath your exalted position in life to bother being introduced to me, and then to-"
"We were introduced," Clayton interrupted. "We were introduced that same night, by Madame DuPre. You didn’t pay enough attention to hear my name, and you accorded me a brief nod and one shrug before you returned to the more pressing business of accumulating as many fawning admirers as you could squeeze around your skirts."
How that cool reception must have deflated him, Whitney thought with secret pleasure. "Did you ask me for a dance?" she needled sweetly.
"No," he replied drily. "My card was already full."
Under other circumstances, Whitney would have laughed at the joke, but she knew that it was intended as a barbed reminder that he, too, was popular with the opposite sex. As if she needed to be reminded! She threw him a derisive look that matched her tone. "I imagine that if men did have dance cards, yours would always be full! Now that I think about it, what does a man do with his mistress when he desires to dance with someone else?"
"I don’t recall having found that an insurmountable obstacle the night you and I danced at the Armands’ masquerade."
The gloves Whitney had been holding dropped to the grass. "How dare you be so crude as to-"
"-as to even bring up such a thing?" he countered smoothly. "Isn’t the saying ‘an eye for an eye’?"
"I can hardly believe my ears!" Whitney scoffed furiously. "If you aren’t a living example of ‘the devil quoting scripture.’"
"Touche." He grinned.
His amusement only made Whitney angrier. "You may be able to dismiss your scandalous conduct with a laugh, but I can’t. In the time I remember knowing you, you’ve made lewd suggestions to me at the Armands’, insulted me at Lady Eubank’s, and assaulted me in this very spot." Whitney bent down and snatched her gloves from the grass. "God alone knows what you’ll try to do next."
Her last sentence brought a warm gleam to his eyes, and Whitney warily decided it was time to leave. She started to stalk past him toward the horses, but he reached out and caught her wrist, pulling her toward him. "With the exception of the Armands’ masquerade, I have always treated you precisely as you’ve deserved to be treated, and that’s the way it will always be between us. I have no intention of letting you walk all over me. If I did, you’d soon have no more respect for me than you would have had for Sevarin, had you been unfortunate enough to marry him."
Whitney was thunderstruck by his monumental gall in presuming to know how she would feel, and she was stricken by the awful finality with which he dismissed her plan to marry Paul as an unfortunate whim, entirely beyond the realm of possibility. And to make everything worse, his arms were encircling her at that very moment. "Don’t you care that I don’t love you?" she asked despairingly.
"Of course you don’t," Clayton teased, "You hate me. You’ve told me so at least half a dozen times. Right here, in this very spot, as a matter of fact. And just a few moments before you became a warm, passionate woman who held me in her arms."
"Stop reminding me of what happened (hat day! I want to forget it."
He gathered her closer against his muscular frame and gazed down at her with tender amusement. "Little one, I would give you anything within my power, but I will never let you forget what you were that day. Never. Ask anything else of me, and it’s yours."
"Ask anything else of you and it’s mine?" she scoffed, wedging a space between them by forcing her hands up against his chest. "Very well. I don’t want to marry you. Will you release me from my father’s bargain?"
"No, I’m afraid not."
Whitney could hardly contain her bitterness and animosity. "Then don’t insult my intelligence by pretending to care about my wishes! I don’t want to be betrothed to you, but you won’t release me. I don’t want to marry you, but you fully intend to drag me to the altar anyway. I-"
He let go of her so abruptly that Whitney staggered back a step. "Had I any intention of ‘dragging you to the altar,’" he said tersely, "you would have been ordered home from France to be, fitted for your wedding gown. However, the simple fact is that I don’t want a cold, unwilling wife in my bed."