"No," Dr. Whitticomb said flatly. "I cannot and would not do so."
"I quite understand," Whitney said generously. "It was just a thought."
Reaching out, he took Whitney’s hand in his and smiled gently. "My dear, I have been a friend of the Westmoreland family for many years. You are soon to become a Westmoreland, and I would like to think we are also friends. Are we?"
Whitney was not going to become a Westmoreland, but she nodded acceptance of his offer of friendship.
"Good. Then allow me to presume upon this new friendship of ours by telling you that denying your fiance’ your company in order to gain whatever it is you want, is not only foolish but risky. It was obvious to me that his grace has a great affection for you, and I truly think he would give you anything you want if you simply gave him that lovely smile of yours and asked him for it."
More emphatically he said, "Deceit and deviousness do you no credit, my child, and what’s more, they will get you absolutely nowhere with the duke. He has known females far more skilled in deception and trickery than you, and all those ladies ever got from him was the opportunity to amuse nun for a very brief tune. While you, by being direct and forthright as I sense that you are, have gained the very thing those other females most desired. You," he said, "have gained the offer of his grace’s hand in marriage."
Fireworks exploded behind Whitney’s eyes; bells clanged in her ears. Why did everyone act as if she’d just been offered the crown jewels because Clayton Westmoreland had stepped down from his lofty pinnacle and deigned to make poor little lucky her an offer of marriage? It was insulting! Degrading! Somehow she managed to nod and say, "I know your advice is well meant, Dr. Whitticomb. I-I’ll think about it."
He stood up and smiled at her. "You’ll think about it, but you don’t plan to follow it, do you?" When Whitney made no reply, he reached down and patted her shoulder. "Perhaps you know best how to deal with him. He’s quite taken with you, you know. In fact, I never thought to see the day anything or anyone would unnerve him. But you, my dear, have come very close. When I arrived from London this morning, I found him wavering between anger and laughter. One moment, he was quite prepared to break your pretty neck for pulling this ‘stunt,’ I believe he called it. The next minute he was laughing and regaling me with stories about you. The man is torn between merriment and murder."
"So when he couldn’t choose between the two, he sent you here to teach me a lesson," Whitney concluded darkly.
"Well, yes," Dr. Whitticomb said, chuckling. "I rather think that was his intent. I confess that I felt a certain annoyance when I discovered that the patient I’d been hauled out of my house and bounced across half of England to treat was most likely shamming. But now that I’ve been here, I daresay I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!"
Gaiety, Whitney thought testily as she dined with her houseguests that evening, was not a balm for misery, it was an irritant. But then, nothing seemed to help. In an attempt to bolster her drooping spirits, she had taken extra care with her appearance and had even worn one of her new gowns-a soft powder-blue confection. At her throat and ears were blue sapphires encircled with diamonds which she’d bought her last day in Paris. Her hair was pulled back off her forehead and fastened with a diamond clip, leaving the rest to cascade naturally over her shoulders and down her back.
I am a kept woman, she thought as she listlessly pushed at a stuffed oyster with her fork. He had paid for the clothes she was wearing, the jewels, even her underthings. To add to her unwholesome feelings about herself, her cousin Cuthbert’s slavering gaze kept slithering sideways as he tried to steal a glimpse of what her bodice concealed.
Her father, she noted, was behaving with artificial joviality, proclaiming to his guests how happy he was that they’d come, and how sad he was that they were departing tomorrow. Whitney thought that he probably was sorry to see them go. After all, he had been using them as a shield to insulate himself from her impending wrath. So much the better, Whitney thought. She didn’t want a confrontation with him. All she felt for him now was a frigid core of nothingness.
After the gentlemen had enjoyed their port and cigars, they joined the ladies in the drawing room, where tables were set up for whist. The instant Cuthbert saw her, he started toward her table. He was pompous, balding and, to Whitney, wholly repulsive. Mumbling a quick excuse to Aunt Anne about not wanting to play whist, Whitney hastily stood and left the room.
She wandered down the back hall and into the library, but could not find anything of interest among the hundreds, of books lining the shelves there. The salons were being used for parlor games, and Cuthbert was in the drawing room. Under no circumstances could Whitney endure another moment near him, which left her the choice of either returning to her bedroom and the plaguing problems that would haunt her there, or else going into her father’s study.
She chose the latter and, after Sewell brought her a pack of cards and added a log to the cheerful fire burning in the grate, Whitney settled into a high-backed chair beside the fire. I am becoming a hermit, she thought, slowly shuffling the deck, then laying the cards, one at a time, on the parquet table in front of her. Behind her, she heard the door open. "What is it, Sewell?" she asked without looking around.
"It isn’t Sewell, Cousin Whitney," chanted a singsong voice. "It is I, Cuthbert." He sauntered over and stood beside her chair where he could avail himself of this new view of the creamy swells above her bodice. "What are you doing?"
"It’s called solitaire," Whitney explained in a cool, ungracious voice, "or Napoleon at St. Helena. It can only be played by one person."
"I never heard of it," said Cuthbert, "but you must show me how."
Gritting her teeth, Whitney continued to play. Every time she leaned forward to place a card on the table, Cuthbert leaned forward too, feigning interest in the play while his gaze delved into her bodice. Unable to endure it a moment longer, Whitney slapped the cards down and leapt to her feet in irritated resentment. "Must you stare at me?" she snapped. "Yes," Cuthbert rasped, grasping her arms and trying to pull her toward him, "I must."
"Cuthbert," Whitney warned ominously, "I’ll give you just three seconds to take your hands off of me before I start screaming the house down."
Unexpectedly, Cuthbert did as she commanded, but as his arms dropped, his body followed. Falling to one knee, he placed a hand over his heart, preparatory to proposing matrimony. "Cousin Whitney," he murmured hoarsely, indulging himself in a visual fondling of her from the tips of her toes to the top of her head and back down. "I must tell you what is in my heart and mind-" "I know what is in your mind," Whitney interrupted scathingly. "You’ve been ogling me for hours. Now get to your feet!"