Why she should feel any guilt or responsibility for her harsh sire was a mystery, yet she did. "I hope you won’t deal harshly with him. If you’ll just be patient, I’m certain he’ll eventually be able to repay you."
Clayton’s dark brows drew together into a mild frown. "Considering that he has given me his daughter to wed, I count myself fully repaid."
A feeling of impending disaster seemed to crackle in the air. "But all of that has changed now that you’ve agreed to let me go."
Clayton closed the distance between them, grasping her by the shoulders and turning her around to face him. "What in the holy hell are you talking about?"
"You agreed to let me go and-"
"I agreed to let you go home," he stated emphatically.
"No!" Whitney cried, shaking her head. "You agreed to let me go-to give up the idea of marrying me."
"You can’t believe that," Clayton said shortly. "I meant nothing of the kind."
A crushing weight settled in Whitney’s chest. She should have known he would never give in. She stared at him in desperation . . . while something strangely like relief tingled through her. There was no chance for her to examine this odd feeling, however, for his arms went around her, pulling her close to him.
"Never, not even in my weakest moment, have I considered letting you go, Whitney. And if I had," he added, bluntly reminding her of her passionate response to him minutes ago, "do you think that after what has just passed between us, I would ever consider it again?" Clayton tipped her chin up, forcing her rebellious gaze to meet his implacable one. "You asked me for time, and I gave it to you. Use it to face the inevitability of our marriage, because I assure you that the marriage is going to take place. If you want to convince yourself that I deceived you a while ago, then do it, but I’ll not honor a promise I didn’t make."
His flat conviction that she had no choice except to marry him, to yield her body and her life to him, was more than Whitney could bear right now. "Then honor the promise you did make. Let me go home." Jerking away from him, she walked blindly toward the driveway, her emotions in turmoil.
Clayton caught up with her, snapped an order to the footman, and helped her into the carriage. Whitney looked
down at him, her voice deadly calm. "Has it ever occurred to you that you cannot make me marry you? You can drag me by the hah- to the altar, yet all I have to do is refuse to say my vows. It’s as simple as that."
His brows rose. "If those are the thoughts you’ve been entertaining during this time you asked me for, then there’s nothing to be gained by waiting any longer, is there?" He glanced over his shoulder as if he were looking for someone, then turned to start toward the house.
"Where are you going?" Whitney demanded sharply, alarmed by the sudden, purposeful vitality in his movements and the determined set of his jaw.
"I am about to order my valet to pack my bags for a lengthy trip. After which, I will have the travelling chaise brought round and horses put to. We," he stated coolly, turning around to face her, "are going to Scotland. We’re eloping."
"Eloping!" Whitney cried, clutching the side of the carriage. "You-you wouldn’t dare! The tongues would never cease wagging, the gossips would-"
Clayton shrugged indifferently. "As you should have gathered by now, gossip doesn’t matter to me. Since it does matter to you, I suggest you consider your choices: Once we’re in Scotland, you can either marry me or you can refuse to say your vows. If you refuse to say them, we will return unwed from an absence together of several days and nights which will cause a scandal you will never live down. Your last choice is to have a proper wedding in London as a duchess. Now, which is it going to be?"
What choice was there? Whitney thought bitterly. An elopement was scandalous enough, but if she returned with him from Scotland unwed, mothers would drag their daughters to the other side of the street when she passed, to avoid the contamination of a soiled female, and Paul would despise her. "A wedding!" Whitney hissed angrily, flopping back against the velvet seat. There was one other choice open to her, she reminded herself: She could elope with Paul. Her mind quailed at the thought of an elopement, with all the attendant censure and disgrace. Once again, she would be an outcast from the village society, the recipient of open snubs and scathing criticism. But at least she would have the compensation of being Paul’s wife.
"Whitney," Clayton said, looking at her as if he would like to shake her, "for once in your life, forget this obsession with Sevarin, and try to face what is really in your heart. If you weren’t so damned stubborn, you’d have done it weeks ago!"
The coachman came dashing around the side of the house, and Whitney bit back her angry retort, but Clayton’s words nagged at her all the way home. Staring dismally at the coachman’s stiff back, she struggled to sort out her jumbled emotions, not because Clayton had accused her of refusing to face what was in her heart, but because she truly couldn’t understand herself anymore.
How could she respond so wantonly to Clayton’s caresses while planning, yearning to marry Paul? Why had she been so shattered a few minutes ago when she realized she had hurt Clayton? Why had she felt so desolate when she believed she was saying goodbye to him forever? Was it because a grudging friendship had grown between them, nourished by the banter and raillery they always indulged in?
Friendship? she thought bitterly. Clayton was no friend of hers; he cared nothing about her. He cared only about himself and what he wanted, and for some obscure reason known only to himself, be happened to want her. He refused to believe she loved Paul because it didn’t suit him to believe it. Paul was meant to be her husband; that place in her heart, in her life, had long ago been set aside for him and only him.
Paul. Her conscience took over, tormenting her for her disloyalty to Paul, her scandalous, unprincipled behavior in his absence. Mentally, she cringed, thinking of the way she had let Clayton caress her, kiss her. Let him! she thought with self-loathing, she had kissed him. She had wanted to be in his arms; she had trembled with desire when his mouth had opened over hers.
It seemed to Whitney as she lay in bed that night, staring at the canopy above her, that she had never been so miserable. Tormented with guilt, she thought of the plans Paul had discussed with her during the days following his proposal. He was going to restore the master suite in the west wing of his house because it was nearer the nursery. She had blushed petal pink when he mentioned children, but she had joyously made plans right along with him.