"Not Westland, Westmoreland," Whitney emphasized. "And I didn’t accept him, my father did."
"’Then tell your father to marry him," Paul said tautly. "You love me, it’s as simple as that." His blue eyes narrowed on her in censorious irritation. "You’re playing games and I don’t like ft. None of this makes sense."
"I can’t help it," Whitney shot back, stung. "It’s the truth."
"Then will you kindly explain to me how you happen to have been engaged since July to a man you didn’t meet until September."
Now he was deadly serious and Whitney almost wished he weren’t. Drawing a long, unsteady breath, she said, "I was introduced to him in France, but I didn’t pay any attention to his name, nor did I remember his face. The next time I saw him was at a masquerade in May, and I couldn’t see his face then either. At the masquerade, he decided he wanted to marry me, but he knew that my uncle was turning down all my suitors-because I wanted to come back here and marry you-so he came here and paid my father ï¿½100,000 for me, then he had my father send for me and he moved into the Hodges place."
"Do you really expect me to believe all that?" Paul snapped.
"Not really," Whitney said miserably, "but it’s the truth. I had no idea what had been done until the night you left. I went downstairs to tell my father and aunt that you and I were going to be married, and Clayton was there. The next thing I knew, my father was shouting at me that I was betrothed to the Duke of Claymore, who turned out to be Clayton, and then everything got even worse."
"I find it impossible to see how this could get worse," Paul answered sarcastically.
"Well, it has. Clayton took me to London with him three days ago, and he told one of his friends that we were going to be married-"
"Then you have agreed to marry him?" Paul said icily.
"No, of course not."
Paul turned on his heel and walked over to the fireplace. Propping his booted foot against the grate, he stared down into the fire, leaving Whitney gazing helplessly at his back. Suddenly he stiffened, and when he turned his face was white with shocked alarm. "What do you mean he paid your father for you?" he demanded. "It is customary for the father to dower the daughter, and not the reverse."
Whitney realized at once where his thoughts had drifted, and her heart turned over in pity for Paul, and for herself. "I don’t have any dowry, Paul. My father had lost that and my inheritance as well."
Paul leaned his head back against the stone wall and closed his eyes, his broad shoulders drooping despondently.
The time had come for Whitney to commit herself to the path she had chosen, and she went to him with legs that felt like lead. Her mind screamed that she didn’t have to do this, but her heart wouldn’t let her desert him. Not now, not after seeing this tortured expression on his face. "Paul, my father told me how difficult your circumstances are, and it doesn’t matter to me, please believe that. I will marry you anyway. But we will have to act quickly. Clayton will be in London for six more days and in that time, we can elope to Scotland. By the time Clayton discovers what-"
"Elope!" Paul’s voice lashed out and his fingers bit viciously into her arms. "Are you out of your mind? My mother and sisters would never be able to hold up their heads."
"No," Whitney whispered hoarsely. "The shame will be mine."
"Damn your shame!" he snapped, shaking her. "Don’t you see what you’ve done? 1 have just spent a small fortune on five horses and a phaeton!"
How was that her fault? Whitney wondered, recoiling from the blaze in his eyes. And then she knew. Bitter resentment twined around her heart like sharp steel bands, wringing a ragged, choking laugh from her. "You spent the ‘fortune’ you thought I had-the dowry you imagined I would bring, didn’t you?"
Paul didn’t have to answer; she could see the truth in his flaring eyes. Angrily flinging his hands away, she stepped back. "Five minutes after I accepted you, you were mentally spending my money, weren’t you? You couldn’t even watt to talk to my father first! You ‘loved’ me so much that you didn’t bother to stay here with me and ask his consent. All you cared about was the money, and you didn’t even spend it on important things. Your lands are mortgaged, your house is in disrepair . . . Paul," she whispered, her green eyes glittering with tears, "what sort of man are you? Are you so spineless and so irresponsible that you would have married me just for money to spend on horses you don’t even need?"
"Don’t be an idiot!" Paul snapped, but his face was flushed with guilty embarrassment. "I loved you. I’d never have asked you to marry me otherwise." "Love!" Whitney scoffed bitterly. "None of you know the meaning of the word! My father ‘loves’ me and he sold me to save himself. All you care about is how much money I’m worth to you. At least Clayton doesn’t insult my intelligence by claiming to love me. He bought me like a bondservant, and now he expects me to live up to the bargain, but he doesn’t pretend to ‘love’ me."
Paul’s breath came out in a ragged sigh. "I’ll think of something, but eloping is out of the question. Will Westland . . . Westmoreland . . . give you up?"
Whitney looked at nun and stubbornly lifted her chin. "No," she said proudly, and at that moment, she would have given him that answer even if she believed otherwise. Turning, she stalked to the door, then paused to look at him over her shoulder. "Elizabeth Ashton is still available," she said bitterly. "I’m certain her dowry could cover your extravagances on this last trip. You’d better start thinking of ways to regain her favor so that you can get your hands on her money."
"Shut up!" Paul snapped. "Or I’ll do just that."
Whitney slammed the door on his last word, but not until she gained the privacy of her own room did she allow the tears to come. Sinking down onto her bed, she wept all her heartbroken disillusionment into her pillow. She cried for herself, for her empty dreams and the misplaced devotion she’d lavished on Paul all these years. She cried because she had been willing to destroy her reputation for Paul, and all he had cared about was his mother and sisters. But most of all, she cried with rage at her own stupidity.
When Clarissa brought a dinner tray to her room that night, Whitney’s eyes were puffy and her chest ached, but the storm of misery and animosity was mostly past. She ate alone, her thoughts in a swirling, melancholy turmoil that began nowhere and ended nowhere.
By noon the next day, Whitney was no longer angry with Paul. In fact, she was feeling strangely guilty. She had always imagined him as her modern-day knight in shining armor, courageous, romantic, and gallant, and it really wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t live up to that illusion. She felt a growing sense of shame and responsibility for the unwitting part she’d played in his worsened financial circumstances. She had exerted every wile she possessed to make him offer for her, and by accepting his offer, she’d inadvertently caused him to spend money she didn’t have.