"But one which you will nevertheless honor," Clayton predicted.
Whitney looked at him with a mixture of resentment and pleading. "I loathe this constant bickering. Why can’t I make you understand that I love Paul?"
"You don’t care for Sevarin. You’ve told me so yourself, and more than once."
"I’ve told you nothing of the sort! I-"
"You’ve told me," he persisted, "every time you’ve been in my arms, that Sevarin has no claim on your heart."
Whitney, who was desperate enough to try anything, tried to intimidate him by scoffing. "For a man of your vast experience with women, you certainly place an absurd amount of importance on our few kisses. I’d have thought that you, of all men, would have learned better."
"I am experienced," he agreed curtly. "I am experienced enough to know that you respond to me when I kiss you, and that you’re terrified of what I make you feel. If Sevarin could make you feel the way I do, you’d have nothing to fear from me. But he can’t, and you damn well know it."
"In the fust place," Whitney retorted, drawing a long, suffocated breath while trying to calm herself, "Paul Sevarin is a gentleman, which you are not! And, as a gentleman, he would never dream of kissing me the way you do. He-"
Clayton’s mouth twisted in sardonic amusement. "Wouldn’t he indeed? Apparently, I’ve been giving Sevarin more credit than he deserves."
Whitney’s palm positively itched to slap that self-satisfied, mocking grin off his face. Why bother arguing with him, she told herself furiously, when he would only twist her words around until they suited him! Of course she’d responded to the wild, forbidden passions Clayton so skillfully aroused within her. What gently reared, unsuspecting female wouldn’t be momentarily carried away by the newness of his practiced caresses?
Gently reared, unsuspecting females! Why, half the most sophisticated flirts in Europe had apparently fallen victim to his skill at lovemaking! Compared to them, she was a mere babe in arms!
"What?" Clayton chuckled maddeningly. "No arguments?"
If she’d had a knife at that moment, Whitney would have plunged it into his chest. Instead she chose the only means available to her to retaliate. Looking at him with just the right degree of amused scorn, she said, "If I do respond to you, there’s a very simple explanation for it, but you aren’t going to like it. The truth is, I find your intimate caresses not only sordid but boring! The only way I can endure them is by pretending you’re Paul and-don’t!" she cried out in panic and pain as his hands tightened punishingly on her upper arms.
With a vicious jerk, he brought her crashing against his chest. Whitney’s head snapped back from the impact, and she saw his eyes glittering down at her like shards of ice. Her throat muscles constricted, choking her frantic apology. "I-I didn’t mean it! I-"
Ruthlessly, his mouth swooped down, slanting punishingly back and forth over her lips until they parted from the sheer, cruel pressure. When she tried to tear her mouth away, his hand clamped the back of her head, holding her against the bruising assault of his mouth. Tears of pain sprang to her eyes, and still the agonizing, endless kiss continued.
"Lie to anyone you please," he growled savagely into her mouth. "But never again lie to me! Do you understand?" His arm tightened sharply, underlining the warning and cutting off her breath at the same time.
Wildly, Whitney struggled, trying to draw enough air into her lungs to tell him yes! Her ribs felt as if they were being cracked; he was suffocating her and growing more enraged at her helpless, involuntary silence. She forced her hand up along his chest, futilely trying to wedge some space between them, until her fingers finally encountered the male lips locked fiercely to hers.
She didn’t realize it was the unintentional tenderness of laying her hand against his face that made him release her so abruptly. All she knew was that she could finally draw great, gulping breaths of air into her aching lungs.
"I bow to your better judgment," he drawled with icy contempt. "That was both ‘sordid’ and ‘boring.’ In fact, I would be hard put to decide which of us found it more distasteful."
Irrationally, Whitney was stung. She stiffened her spine, meeting his cold gaze with as much proud defiance as she could muster. "I don’t suppose you found it distasteful and disgusting enough to consider letting me go?"
What Clayton felt was not disgust, it was fury! Her announcement that when he was kissing her, she pretended he was Sevarin, had so incensed Clayton mat he actually considered yanking her into the pavilion and taking her right there on the floor. Since the day she’d returned to England, he’d been tolerating her rebelliousness and overlooking her temper. On the floor of the pavilion, she would learn the folly of pushing him too far. Unfortunately, she would also learn to hate him with a virulence that might sustain her for years.
With deliberate insolence, Clayton inspected her slender, voluptuous form and her classic profile with its flawless camellia-like skin; the color on her cheekbones was heightening because she knew he was looking at her. The sun shown on her mahogany-brown hair, gilding it with red-gold. She looked incredibly beautiful in that dusky pink gown, framed by the wide sweep of emerald lawns behind hen a single, breathtaking rose blooming in a garden of green. But for once, her vivid beauty annoyed, instead of pleased, him, particularly because she was now blithely examining her manicure as if he didn’t exist.
Miss Stone, Clayton decided coldly, was in dire need of a lesson. He considered her spiteful inquiry as to whether he had found the last kiss distasteful enough to let her go home, and an idea took shape. He’d let her go home all right, but before he did, he was going to teach her that his passion was a gift to be shared and enjoyed-a gift that he could give or withhold, when and if he pleased. First he was going to make her kiss him, and then, when he had her desire fully aroused, he would simply disentangle himself from her arms and walk away.
As if there had been no interval of several minutes since she’d snapped the question at him, Clayton answered it. "As a matter of fact, you’re wrong. With the proper incentive, I would let you go."
Whitney’s head snapped around, her heart leaping with elation, even though her common sense warned her that he was too high-handed, and too confident, to give up the idea of marrying her and let her go. "What sort of incentive did you have in mind?" she asked cautiously.
"I want a kiss from you. A goodbye kiss to take the chill off our parting. And if it is good enough, I’ll let you go. It’s as simple as that."