Sternly, Whitney reminded herself of the arrogant, tyrannical, and high-handed way he had negotiated their betrothal, and then she shrugged the thought aside. He was all those things and more, yet she cared for him too, and there was no point in denying it merely so that she could keep the fires of her resentment and rebellion alive.

She cared for him, and if she hadn’t been so obsessed with marrying Paul, she would have realized it much sooner. Her mind shied away from delving too deeply into the exact nature of her feelings for Clayton; it seemed obscene to even consider the possibility that she loved him, when three days ago, she’d thought she loved Paul. Besides, after believing she was in love with Paul for all these years, only to discover that she’d merely been blindly infatuated, she had little faith left in her ability to judge her own emotions. But she did care tor Clayton, there was no use denying it. She had always responded wantonly to his caresses and, although he often made her furious, he made her laugh too.

They were going to be married. Clayton had decided that last spring, and his indomitable will was going to prevail as surely as the sun was going to set.

It was inevitable; she was ready to accept that now. That handsome, powerful, sophisticated nobleman was going to be her husband. He was also going to be furious tonight when she told him the villagers all believed she was betrothed to Paul.

Sighing, Whitney scuffed at a pebble with the toe of her slipper. Instinctively, she knew that she could assuage Clay-ton’s anger simply by telling him that she was willing to marry him whenever he wished. Now, she had to decide what tone she would use when she told him. She could salvage some of her pride by being coolly unenthusiastic and saying something like, "Since I have no real choice except to marry you, we may as well wed whenever you wish." If she told him in that way, Clayton would undoubtedly look at her with that sarcastically amused expression which never failed to irk her and reply with something equally unenthusiastic, such as, "As you wish, Ma’am."

Whitney frowned unhappily. Although that would save a bit of her pride, it was an awful way for two people to begin a marriage-each pretending complete indifference. In all truth, she didn’t feel indifferent to him. These past days she had missed him more than she would have believed possible; she had missed his quiet strength, his lazy smile; she had missed the laughter they often shared; she had even missed arguing with him!

Since she felt this way, it seemed not only silly, but wrong, to pretend she hated the idea of marrying him. Mentally, Whitney rehearsed a different way of telling him that she was ready to marry him. Tonight, after she told him that everyone at home believed she was betrothed to Paul, she could smile softly into those fathomless gray eyes of his and say, "I suppose the best way to put a stop to the gossip would be for us to announce our engagement." Her smile would tell him that she was surrendering, unconditionally giving over in the battle of wills that had waged between them all these weeks. True, her pride would suffer a bit, but Clayton was going to be her husband, and he truly deserved to know that she was willingly accepting him.

If she told him her decision in this manner, Instead of replying with mocking sarcasm, Clayton would probably take her in his arms and kiss her in that bold, sensuous way of his. Just thinking about it made Whitney feel giddy.

The devil with her pride! Whitney decided. She would take the latter course. As she walked back toward the carriage, anticipation and happiness began to pulse through her veins.

When she returned to Emily’s house, Whitney was informed that Emily was in the salon with guests. Rather than intrude, Whitney went up to the luxurious guest room she was temporarily occupying.

Emily came in just as she was removing her bonnet. "Elizabeth, Peter, Margaret, and their mamas just left. Elizabeth asked me to be in her wedding." Apprehensively, Emily added, "I-I invited them to our party tonight. I couldn’t possibly avoid it, with my whole household in an uproar, obviously preparing for a party."

Whitney pulled off her gloves, a puzzled smile on her lips as she studied Emily’s worried expression. "Don’t fret about it, we’ll just make a few changes to the seating for dinner. It’s as simple as that."

"No, it isn’t," Emily said bleakly. "You see, while they were shopping, they encountered your friend, M. DuVille. He asked Margaret about you, and Elizabeth told him that you were staying here with me, and naturally he came here with them . . ."

Whitney felt a cloud of doom descending over her even before Emily said, "I had to invite him too. I knew it might make things awkward for you with the duke coming at your invitation, but I was absolutely certain M. DuVille would decline on such short notice."

Whitney sank down on the bed. "But Nicki didn’t decline, did he?"

Emily shook her head. "I could cheerfully have strangled Margaret. He was obviously interested only in you, but she was hanging on his arm like a … a leech, imploring him to come. I wish her parents would marry her off to someone before she disgraces herself and them. She is the most clinging, indiscriminate, vicious female alive, and Elizabeth is so sweet, she lets Margaret trample all over her."

Unwilling to let anyone or anything dampen her joyous anticipation of the night to come, Whitney gave Emily a reassuring smile. "Don’t worry about Margaret or Nicki. Everything’s going to be fine."

Chapter Twenty-four

CLAYTON TOSSED THE REPORTS HIS BROTHER HAD ASKED HIM TO read onto the opposite seat of his coach and leaned his head back, impatient with himself for returning to the village a day ahead of schedule.

The horses slowed as they neared the cobbled street of the village, and he leaned sideways, glancing out the window. Heavy clouds roiled overhead, nearly obliterating the struggling sunlight of the early Saturday afternoon. The road through the village was temporarily rendered impassable by an overturned wagon and several abandoned vehicles whose owners were trying to right the wagon and catch the fleeing sheep. "McRea!" he called irritably, "when we get close to that snarl, stop and lend a hand. Otherwise we’ll be here all day."

"Aye, your grace," McRea called from his perch atop the coach.

Clayton glanced at his watch and his mouth twisted with wry derision. He was behaving like a besotted idiot, racing back here a day early. Driven by a ridiculous eagerness to see Whitney, he had left his brother’s house at six o’clock this morning and headed straight here, instead of spending the day in London as he’d originally planned. For seven hours, he’d been travelling as if his life depended upon reaching her, stopping only to change horses. He should never have given her this week by herself, he told himself for the hundredth time. Instead of offering her solitude, he should have offered her firm but gentle moral support. By now she had probably worked herself into a fresh fit of rebellion because he had forced her to turn down Sevarin. What a stubborn little fool she was to persist in believing she loved that weakling. A beautiful, spirited, magnificent little fool. If she cared a snap for Sevarin, she could never respond to his own caresses the way she did.