Whitney was so relieved and overjoyed that she completely forgave his suggestive reference to his bed. She threw up her hands. "Good heavens, why didn’t you tell me that before? Since that’s the way you feel, there’s no need for you to trouble yourself with me any longer."
"Meaning that I would make you the coldest, most unwilling wife imaginable."
One dark eyebrow flicked upward in a measuring look. "Are you threatening me?"
Whitney hastily shook her head, smiling. "No, of course not. I’m only trying to explain that my feelings toward you won’t change."
"You’re quite certain?"
"Absolutely positive," Whitney said brightly.
"In that case, there’s very little point in delaying the wedding any longer, is there?"
"What?" Whitney gasped. "But you said you wouldn’t marry me if I was cold and unwilling."
"I said that I didn’t want to do so. I did not say that I wouldn’t, if that’s the way it has to be." With that he nodded curtly toward the horses and started to turn, leaving Whitney petrified that he intended to go straight back to the house and summon a cleric to officiate at their wedding. No doubt he already had a special license! Her mind sought frantically for some way to save herself. If she fled, he’d overtake her; if she threatened him, he’d ignore her; if she refused, he’d make her.
She chose the only solution open to her, humiliating though it was to have to plead and wheedle. Reaching out, she laid her hand upon his sleeve. "I have a favor to ask of you, and you did say that you would give me anything within your power-?"
"Within my power," he stated coolly, "and within reason."
"Then will you give me time? I need time to get over this awful feeling I have of being a helpless pawn in a chess game
being played by you and my father, and I need time to become adjusted to the idea of our marriage."
"I will give you tune," he agreed evenly, "provided that yon use ft with discretion."
"I will," Whitney assured him, lying more easily now. "Oh, and there’s one more thing: I’d like to keep both your identity and our betrothal a secret between us for a white."
His expression turned coolly speculative. "Why?"
Because when she eloped with Paul next week, Clayton was going to be furious. But if she made a complete fool of him by publicly scorning him in front of villagers who knew of their betrothal, God alone knew what form his vengeance might take.
"Because," she said cautiously, "if everyone knows about you-us-they’ll want to talk about who you are and how we met and when we’re getting married, and I’ll feel more pressed than I already do."
"Very well, we’ll keep it a secret for now." He walked her to her horse and lifted her effortlessly into the saddle. Thinking the subject was closed and their meeting at an end, Whitney gathered up Khan’s reins, eager to get away. But he wasn’t finished yet, and her entire body tensed at the threat disguised beneath the smooth politeness of his tone. "I’ve granted you the time you asked for because you said you want to become accustomed to the idea of our marriage. If I ever have reason to think you want the time for some other purpose, you will not like the consequences."
"Are you through?" Whitney asked, hiding her fright behind hauteur.
"For now," he sighed. "We’ll talk more tomorrow."
Whitney spent the rest of the day with her relatives. With her entire future hanging by a thread, it took a supreme effort to smile and converse with these cheerful, well-meaning people, and to ignore her father’s apprehensive glances. The moment the evening meal was over, she excused herself and escaped to the quiet of her room.
Late that evening, Anne came up to see her. Whitney, who had been dying to confide in her all day, jumped up from the settee, wringing her hands in pent-up frustration. "Aunt Anne, that arrogant, ruthless tyrant actually intends to force me to marry him. He said as much this morning."
Settling herself on the settee, Anne drew Whitney down beside her, "Darling, he can’t force you to marry him. I’m certain England has laws which would prevent him from doing so. As I see it, your problem is not whether he can force you to marry nun, but rather, what will happen to your father if you don’t."
"My father didn’t consider the consequences to me when he agreed to the betrothal, so I don’t feel the slightest need to consider the consequences to him, if I don’t agree to the marriage. He has never loved me, and I no longer love him."
"I see," Anne said, watching her closely. "Then it’s probably best that you feel that way."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because your father has already spent the money Claymore gave him. If you refuse to honor the betrothal agreement, his grace will naturally demand the return of his money. Since your father can’t give it back, he will very likely spend his declining years in a rat-infested cell in debtors’ prison. If you had any love left for him, it might be very difficult for you to be happy with Paul, knowing that you were responsible for your father’s plight. But so long as you’re completely certain that you’d feel no guilt, we really needn’t concern ourselves one way or another with your father, need we?"
The door closed behind her aunt, leaving Whitney haunted with gruesome images of her father, ragged and filthy, rotting away in a wretched, dank cell.
There had to be some way to repay Clayton Westmoreland the money he had settled on her father. Perhaps if she and Paul lived very carefully, they could repay the debt on her father’s behalf over a period of years. Or better yet, there might be some way to goad the duke into crying off from the engagement himself, so that the money wouldn’t have to be returned. Or would it? How had the preliminary marriage contract been worded? Whitney wondered.
"Uncle Edward!" she breathed suddenly. Uncle Edward would never stand idly by, knowing Whitney was being forced to exchange her life for her father’s debts. Perhaps Uncle Edward could advance her father the funds to repay Clayton -a purely business arrangement, of course. She herself would see that the estate was put up as collateral.
But did Uncle Edward have sufficient capital to repay Clayton? If only she knew how much money had changed hands. It must have been a great deal, because it had paid for all the extensive repairs to the house, two dozen new horses, a dozen servants, and her father’s debts, too. ï¿½25,000? ï¿½30,000? Whitney’s heart sank; Uncle Edward wouldn’t have so much as that.
When Clarissa came in to awaken Whitney the next morning, she found her seated at her writing desk, thoughtfully nibbling on the end of a quill.