"It appears that our houseguest is going to sleep away the day," Michael remarked.
Emily saw the meaningful look which his grace directed at her husband as he said mildly, "Whitney may be suffering from the effects of her evening."
"I had no idea she might be ill," Emily exclaimed. "I’ll go up and see her."
"No," Whitney croaked behind them. "I-I’m here."
At the sound of her hoarse voice, all three turned in unison. She was standing in the doorway, arms extended, her hands braced against the doorframe on either side of her, swaying slightly as if she couldn’t support herself. Alarmed, Emily pushed back her chair, but the duke was already out of his and striding swiftly across the room.
A knowing smile touched Clayton’s eyes as he studied her pale face. "How do you feel, little one?" he asked.
"How do you think I feel?" she whispered, focusing an anguished, accusing look on him.
"You’ll feel better after you’ve had some breakfast," he promised, taking her arm to lead her toward the table.
"No," Whitney rasped. "I am going to the."
SHE WAS STILL HALF CONVINCED OF IT WHEN THEIR COACH DREW away from Emily’s London townhouse. "Do you know," she whispered miserably, "I never liked champagne."
With a throaty laugh Clayton put his arm around her and drew her throbbing head against his shoulder. "I’m rather surprised to hear that," he teased.
Sighing, Whitney closed her eyes and slept until they were almost at her home, occasionally clutching Clayton’s arm when their coach gave a particularly sharp lurch
She awakened feeling entirely restored and very sheepish. "I haven’t been very good company," she apologized, smiling ruefully at Clayton. "If you would like to come for supper. I-"
"I have to start back to London tonight," he interrupted.
"Tonight?" Whitney repeated, sitting bolt upright. "How long will you be gone?"
Elation began to pulse through Whitney’s veins and she quickly turned her face from him. If Clayton was in London, Paul and she could elope to Scotland without having to fear that he would learn of their elopement in time to come after them. His going to London now was a stroke of luck beyond any she could have hoped for. It was a boon! It was a blessing!
It was a calamity.
The relief she’d been feeling turned to panic, and Whitney’s head began to pound with renewed vigor. Dear God, Clayton was going back to London. As gentlemen did, he would probably spend his evenings at his clubs, dining or gambling with his friends and acquaintances. In those clubs there were bound to be men who had attended the Ruther-fords’ ball and heard the rumor of his betrothal In the club’s atmosphere of easy camaraderie, his friends would naturally press him to confirm or deny the rumor. And Whitney could almost imagine Clayton grinning and telling them that it was true. And if he did, he would look like an utter fool when she eloped with Paul instead.
Awash with misery, Whitney squeezed her eyes closed. As much as she feared Clayton’s vengeance, which would now be far more awesome because he would feel publicly humiliated, she dreaded even more being the cause of that public humiliation. She couldn’t bear the thought of this proud man becoming the object of derision and pity. He had done nothing to deserve that. Last night she had seen how respected and admired he was by everyone. Now, because of her, he would be humbled before them.
Whitney clasped her clammy palms together in her lap. Perhaps she could prevent a public scandal. Paul was due home tomorrow. If they eloped tomorrow night, she could notify Clayton in London almost at once, and the sooner he knew of her elopement, the fewer people he would tell that he had offered for her.
Naturally, she would make certain her message didn’t reach him in time for him to come after her. Tuning, she decided with a lump growing in her throat, was going to be essential. No matter how travel-weary Paul might be, they would have to leave within hours of his return. Once Clayton learned of her elopement, he wouldn’t tell anyone he was betrothed to her. He could pass the betrothal rumor off with one of his mocking smiles and simply appear at some public function with one of those beautiful women who panted after him. And that would be that! Everyone would believe that his betrothal to a penniless nobody like Whitney Stone had merely been a joke, a ridiculous rumor.
Paul. Her heart sank when she thought of telling him they had to elope. He wouldn’t want to do it; he would be concerned about the damage to her reputation that an elopement would cause. He had been so happy the night of her father’s party, telling her about the plans he had for them, the improvements he would make to his house and lands to please her.
Clayton’s hand cupped her chin and Whitney jumped nervously. "When Sevarin returns," he said in a tone that brooked no argument, "I want you to inform him at once that you aren’t going to marry him. I will not tolerate people believing that my future wife has been engaged to another man. Give Sevarin any reason you wish for declining his offer, but tell him immediately. Is that understood?"
"Yes," Whitney whispered.
Clayton gave her a long, penetrating look. "I want your word on it."
"I-" Whitney swallowed, profoundly touched that he was crediting her with having a sense of honor as strong as his own. She dragged her eyes to his, feeling utterably vile for betraying his trust. "I give you my word."
His expression softened and he looked at her with unbearable gentleness. "I know how hard it will be for you to tell him, little one. I promise I’ll make it up to you someday." Tears burned the backs of her eyes and the muscles of her throat constricted as he tenderly traced the elegant curve of her cheek. "Forgive me?" he asked her softly.
Forgive him? Whitney’s emotions were waning so fiercely inside of her that for one second, she actually considered turning into his strong arms and sobbing out her confused sorrow. Instead she nodded and gazed at him, trying to memorize his handsome face as it was now-because if she ever saw him again, she knew his expression would be one of icy rage.
They were turning up the road toward her house, and Whitney numbly pulled on her gloves.
"Why are you going back to London so quickly?" she asked as the time to bid him a final, painful goodbye drew nearer with each moment.
"Because I met with my Business managers early this morning and there are some decisions which I must make, once I’ve met with some people in the city. It’s purely a matter of choosing which are the best investments in which to place a rather large sum of money," he reassured her, and with a grin he added, "Contrary to the gossip you heard about me at your father’s party, I don’t lead a life of leisurely debauchery. I have seven estates, a thousand tenants, and a hundred business interests, all of which are suffering from the lack of my attention-which has been devoted almost exclusively to you, my pet."