Completely impervious to the stir he was creating, Clayton flicked a glance down at the guests, then shifted his gaze to Whitney’s lovely, upturned face. "I see that," he agreed drily as the distinguished-looking man, who Whitney assumed must be their host, bounded up the last stair onto the balcony.
"Clayton!" Marcus Rutherford laughed. "Where the devil have you been? I was beginning to believe the rumors that you’d dropped off the face of the earth."
Whitney listened as the two men, who were obviously close friends, exchanged greetings. Lord Rutherford was handsome, and looked to be about seven and thirty, with piercing blue eyes that spoke of perceptiveness. Without warning, those brae eyes levelled on her, inspecting her with unconcealed admiration. "And who, pray, is this ravishing creature beside you?" he demanded. "Must I introduce myself to her?"
Glancing uncertainly at Clayton, Whitney was startled to find him gazing down at her with a look of profound pride. "Whitney," be said, "may I present my friend, Lord Marcus Rutherford-" Directing a meaningful glance at Whitney’s hand which was still firmly clasped in Lord Rutherford’s, Clayton finished, "Marcus, kindly take your hands off my future wife, Miss Whitney Stone."
"Whitney?" Marcus Rutherford repeated. "What an unusual…" A slow, disbelieving smile broke across his face as he stopped in mid-sentence and stared at Clayton. "Have I heard you aright?"
Clayton inclined his head in a slight nod, and Lord Rutherford’s delighted gaze returned to Whitney. "Come with me, young lady," he said, eagerly drawing Whitney’s hand through his arm. "As you may have noticed, there are about six hundred people down there all on fire to know who you are."
When Clayton seemed perfectly agreeable to letting her go with Marcus Rutherford, Whitney hastily took matters into her own hands. "My Lord Rutherford," she said, her pleading gaze directed at Clayton. "We-we wish to keep our forthcoming marriage a secret for a while."
She looked so distressed that Clayton reluctantly relinquished his plan to present her to everyone as his betrothed. "It’s to remain a secret for a white, Marcus," be said.
"You must be mad," Lord Rutherford returned, but he released Whitney’s hand. "You’ll never keep this prize of yours a secret for a day. In fact"–he glanced in the direction of the crowd below which was now openly watching what was transpiring on the balcony-"you’ll never manage such a feat for even an hour." He waited a moment, obviously hoping that Clayton would relent, then turned to leave them, saying over his shoulder, "You win at least allow me to confide in Lady Rutherford? She’s already charged me to discover who this beautiful young woman with you is."
Before Whitney could object, Clayton nodded his assent. With a feeling of impending disaster, she turned a despairing took on him and said, "Now watch what happens." Lord Rutherford strode directly to a stunning redhead, drew he-aside and said something to her, and that lady turned to gaze in astonished welcome at Clayton and Whitney while flashing them a conspiratorial smile. Precisely as Whitney expected, the moment Lord Rutherford left her side, Lady Rutherford hurried over to another woman and bent low to whisper in her ear, and that lady’s head swivelled to Clayton and Whitney, pausing for a split-second before she raised her fan and leaned close to speak to the lady beside her.
Cold terror strangled Whitney’s voice. "So much for secrecy." She choked out the words, and searched for someone to ask where she could freshen up. Too stricken to care what Clayton would think of her actions, she fled to the designated room and closed the door, leaving him standing alone on the balcony.
Her eyes were glazed with panic as she stared blindly at her reflection in one of the mirrored walls. This was a calamity! A disaster! The guests at this ball knew Clayton; they were his friends and acquaintances. In another fifteen minutes, every one of them would know that he was betrothed to her, and within a week, everyone in London would know it. When she eloped with Paul, they would also realize that she had scorned Clayton, fled to escape him and their forthcoming marriage. Dear God! Before this was over, Clayton was going to be publicly humiliated. She couldn’t bear to do that to him. Even if she could, she would be afraid to do it. If she publicly shamed him, his vengeance would surely crash down on her with a savagery that would be devastating. She shivered, thinking of Clayton’s inevitable fury and the awesome power he possessed to retaliate against her and her family, even Aunt Anne and Uncle Edward.
Sternly, determinedly, Whitney fought to bring her rioting panic under control. She couldn’t continue to hide in this room like an hysteric, and she couldn’t leave the ball. Hugging her arms around herself, she began to pace slowly across the crimson carpet, struggling against her quaking fear and forcing herself to think logically, clearly. In the first place, she reminded herself, Clayton had avoided matrimony for years. If he didn’t marry her, wasn’t it likely that everyone would assume she’d lost whatever appeal she had for him, and that he and not she had cried off? Of course they would-particularly when they discovered that she had neither wealth nor aristocratic lineage.
The painful knot in her stomach began to dissolve. After a few minutes of additional contemplation, she realized that when Clayton had refused to allow Lord Rutherford to introduce her as his intended bride, he had relegated their betrothal to the status of an unconfirmed rumor. And wasn’t London, like Paris, always buzzing with rumors that were soon forgotten? Emily said it was. She felt much, much better.
Her heart gave a funny little lurch when she remembered how very proud of her Clayton had seemed when he introduced her to Lord Rutherford as his fiancee. Never in all these weeks had Clayton mentioned love, or even that he cared for her, yet there was no mistaking that expression on his face tonight; he did care for her, and more than a little. She didn’t want to repay him by embarrassing him. She owed him more than to shame him by cowering in this room. At least for this evening she could surely pretend that she returned his affection.
Having made that decision, Whitney composed her features and carefully studied her reflection in the mirror. A perfectly poised young woman looked back at her, her chin resolutely high.
Satisfied, she reached for the door handle just as female voices sounded from the adjoining room where champagne had been placed on a small gilded table between a pair of silk settees. "Her gown is Parisian," a woman pronounced,
"But with a name like Whitney Stone, she must be as English as we," a second voice reminded, adding, "do you believe the rumor that they’re betrothed?"