Three hours later, Whitney had danced with more men than she could possibly remember and drunk more champagne than she had ever consumed. She was feeling decidedly gay and definitely tight-headed-so much so that not even Clayton’s frown of displeasure when she accepted this, her second dance with Lord Esterbrook, could dampen her spirits. In fact she was quite convinced that nothing could spoil her enjoyment of the evening, until she glanced over Lord Esterbrook’s shoulder and saw that, for the first time all night, Clayton was dancing with someone other than her. The young woman in his arms, whose eyes were turned laughingly up to his was a lushly beautiful blonde whose slender, voluptuous curves were draped in an exquisite gown of sapphire-blue, with diamonds and sapphires twined in and out among her shining curls. A blinding streak of jealousy suddenly ripped through Whitney.
"Her name is Vanessa Standfield," Lord Esterbrook provided with a hint of malicious satisfaction in his voice.
"They make a very striking couple," Whitney managed.
"Vanessa certainly thinks so," Esterbrook replied.
Whitney’s eyes clouded as she recalled the conversation she’d overheard much earlier between the three women in the withdrawing room upstairs. Vanessa Standfield had been expecting an offer from Clayton just before he left for France. No doubt, Clayton had given her very good reason to believe he cared, Whitney thought with a fresh stab of painful jealousy as she watched him grinning at the gorgeous blonde. But then she reminded herself that Clayton had offered for her and not Vanessa Standfield, and in a dizzying shift of mood she felt perfectly wonderful again. "Miss Standfield is very beautiful," she said.
Esterbrook’s brows lifted in amused mockery. "Vanessa was not nearly so complimentary when she remarked about you a few moments ago, Miss Stone. But then, she is quite convinced that you have wrung an offer from Claymore. Have you?" he asked abruptly.
Whitney was so stunned by his monumental nerve that she didn’t even consider getting angry. In fact, her eyes danced with laughter. "Somehow, I cannot conceive of anyone ‘wringing’ anything from him, can you?"
"Oh come now," Esterbrook said testily, "I am not naive enough to believe you misunderstood my question."
"And I," Whitney said softly, "am not naive enough to believe I have to answer it."
With the exception of Lord Esterbrook, all her other partners were lavishly attentive and outrageously flattering, but the dancing and animated conversation eventually began to wear on her. She found herself longing to be at Clayton’s side. Declining her current partner’s request for another dance, she asked him to return her to the duke instead.
As usual, Clayton was surrounded with people, but without looking up from the conversation, he reached out and firmly took her arm, drawing her into the circle of his friends, and keeping her close to his side. It was a casually possessive gesture that somehow added to Whitney’s sense of euphoric well-being … as did the next two glasses of champagne.
"What happened to Esterbrook?" Clayton asked drily a while later. "I expected him to ask you for a third dance."
Whitney twinkled. "He did. But I refused."
"To prevent gossip?"
An unconsciously provocative smile curved her lips as she shook her head in denial. "I refused because I knew you didn’t want me to dance with him the last time, and I was quite, quite certain that if I did it again, you would retaliate by dancing again with Miss Standfield."
"That’s very astute of you," he complimented softly.
"And very perverse of you," Whitney admonished, laughing. And then it dawned on her that she had just admitted to being jealous.
"Cherie-" Nicki’s deep chuckle brought her spinning around in joyous surprise. "Have you now decided to conquer London as you did Paris?"
"Nicki!" she breathed, beaming at the handsome face that had been so dear to her for so long. "It’s wonderful to see you," she said as he took both her hands in his familiar warm grasp and held them. "I asked Lord Rutherford if you were here, but he said you had been delayed in Paris and might not arrive until tomorrow."
"I got here an hour ago."
Whitney turned to Clayton, intending to introduce Nicki to him, but evidently they had already met. "Claymore, isn’t it?" Nicki interrupted her introduction, his tawny eyes surveying Clayton critically.
Clayton’s response was an equally cool inclination of the head, followed by a lazy, mocking smile which Whitney sensed was deliberately intended either to infuriate or intimidate Nicki. Whitney, who had never seen either man act this way to anyone before, had a sudden urge to run for cover, and an equally strong impulse, induced by champagne, to giggle at the male hostility she had somehow provoked.
"Dance with me," Nicki said, arrogantly disregarding etiquette, which required that he first ask Clayton if he objected.
Since Nicki was already exerting pressure to draw her with him to the dance floor, Whitney looked helplessly over her shoulder at Clayton. "Will you excuse us, please?" she asked.
"Certainly," came Clayton’s cupped reply.
The moment Nicki took her in his arms, his features tightened with disapproval. "What are you doing with Claymore?" be demanded, and before she could possibly answer, he said, "Cherie, the man is a … a …"
"Are you trying to say he’s a frightful rogue where ladies are concerned?" Whitney asked, struggling against her mirth.
Nicki nodded curtly, and Whitney continued teasingly, "And he is a trifle arrogant, isn’t he? Also very handsome and charming?"
Nicki’s eyes narrowed and Whitney’s shoulders trembled with laughter. "Oh Nicki, he is very much like you!"
"With one important difference." Nicki countered, "and that is that I would marry you!"
Whitney almost clapped her hand over his mouth in laughing horror. "Don’t say that to me, Nicki. Not here and not now. You would not believe the coil I’m in already."
"This is not a laughing matter," Nicki said sharply.
Whitney swallowed a giggle. "No one knows that better than I."
Nicki studied her flushed face in frowning silence. "I am going to stay in London," he announced. "I have business I can transact while I am here and friends with whom I will visit. You said in your note that you had social commitments for the next two weeks. At the end of those two weeks, you and I are again going to discuss the subject of marriage- when you are in a clearer frame of mind."
Caught between horror and hilarity, Whitney made no protest and allowed him to return her to Clayton where she downed more champagne and gaily contemplated her predicament, which was growing more complicated and perilous by the moment.