Clayton’s loins tightened as he recalled the way she had j kissed him and pressed herself against him after the Rutherfords’ ball when he took her back to the Archibalds’. The champagne had loosened her maidenly inhibitions, but the sweet desire she felt for him had been there for many weeks. She wanted him, and if she weren’t so damned stubborn, and so young, she would have known it long ago. She wanted him all right-and he wanted her more than he had ever wanted anything in his Me. He wanted to fill her days with joy and her nights with pleasure, until she loved him as much as he loved her.
Loved her? Clayton scowled darkly at the thought, and then with a long, derisive sigh, he admitted the truth to himself. He was in love with Whitney. At four and thirty years of age, after more women and more affairs than he wanted to count, he had fallen victim to an outrageously impertinent, gorgeous girl-woman who blithely incurred his displeasure, mocked his title, and flatly refused to yield to his authority. Her smile warmed his heart and her touch heated his blood; she could enchant, amuse and infuriate him as no other woman had ever been able to do. He couldn’t imagine his future without her at his side.
Having admitted all that to himself, Clayton was even more eager to reach her, to feast his eyes on her again and hold her in his arms, to hear her musical voice and to know the exquisite sensation of her slender, voluptuous body curved against his.
McRea pulled the coach to a stop in front of the apothecary’s shop and climbed down to help capture the last of the loose sheep and put them in the righted wagon. Unable to endure the confinement of the coach any longer, Clayton climbed down and joined the knot of spectators who were watching the men scrambling after the loose sheep. A smile touched his lips as the baker made a frantic lunge for one of the woolly beasts, missed his target, and plowed into another villager who had just captured one.
"Quite a comic spectacle, isn’t it?" Mr. Oldenberry said, coming out of his shop to stand beside Clayton and the other onlookers. "You’ve missed the real excitement though," he added with a sly poke in the ribs. "Whole town is buzzing with the news. Betrothals," he added.
"Really," Clayton said indifferently, his attention on the wagon which was finally being pulled from the street.
"Yes, indeed," Mr. Oldenberry said. "You won’t be able to felicitate the brides-to-be, though; they’re both in London." He lowered his voice to a stage whisper. "Personally, I thought the Stone girl would choose you, but she’s wanted Mr. Sevarin forever and now she got him. They’re betrothed. No sooner did I hear that than Miss Ashton announced her betrothal to Mr. Redfern. Amazing how nothing seems to happen and then-"
Clayton’s head jerked toward the speaker, and Mr. Olden-berry’s voice froze at the murderous look in those gray eyes. In a low, deadly voice, Clayton said, "What did you say?"
"I-I said Miss Stone and Miss Ashton both got themselves betrothed while you were gone."
"You’re lying or you’re mistaken."
Mr. Oldenberry stepped back from the furious blast of those gray eyes and hastily shook his head. "No-no, I’m not. Ask anyone in the village, and they’ll tell you it’s true. Miss Stone and Miss Ashton both left here yesterday morning within an hour of each other. On their way to shop for wedding finery in London–Mrs. Ashton told me so herself," Mr. Oldenberry reassured a little desperately. "Miss Stone is staying with Lady Archibald and Miss Ashton with her grandparents," he added to prove how fully informed he was.
Without a word, Clayton turned on his heel and headed toward the coach.
Mr. Oldenberry turned to his fellow villagers who had gathered to watch the sheep being captured and remained to eavesdrop on his conversation with Mr. Westland. "Did you see the look he gave me when I told him Miss Ashton was in London buying her wedding finery?" he asked them, his eyes glazed with awe. "And all this time I thought he fancied the Stone girl."
"The Stone estate," Clayton snapped at McRea and leapt into the coach.
As they pulled up before Whitney’s house, a footman ran out. "Where is Miss Stone?" Clayton said, his icy voice checking the servant’s hand as he reached out to lower the steps.
"In London, sir," the footman replied, stepping back.
Before the horses came to a full stop in front of his temporary residence, Clayton flung open the coach door, and vaulted out. "Have fresh horses pat to," fee snapped at his astonished coachman. "And be ready to leave for London in ten minutes." Rage boiled inside of Clayton like fiery acid, destroying his tender feelings for her. To think that while he was racing back to her like a besotted fool, she was in London buying her trousseau, which-he reminded himself with a fresh surge of blazing wrath-he was paying for!
"Damn her conniving little heart!" Hs ground the words om savagery as he swiftly changed his clothing. As soon as he could get a special license, he was going to drag her to the altar, by the hair if necessary.
No, by God, he wouldn’t get a special license! Why the hell should he wait for that? He’d haul her to Scotland tonight and marry her there. When they came back, she could endure the scandal of an elopement as her punishment for deceiving him.
Bitterly, he cursed himself for having denied himself the pleasure of her body because he was waiting and hoping she would admit she wanted to marry him. The hell with what she wanted! From now on things were going to be the way he wanted them. Henceforth, Whitney could either bend to his will or he’d break her to it-and he didn’t give a damn which way she chose to have it.
Precisely ten minutes later, after changing his clothes, he bounded out of the house and hurled himself back into the coach. Clayton endured the long trip back to the city in alternate states of deadly calm and barely leashed fury. It was after midnight when the horses drew to a stop in front of the brightly lit Archibald house where a party was obviously in progress.
"Wait here. I’ll be right out," he snapped at the coachman, and as Clayton stalked swiftly up the steps to the front door, the rage boiling inside of him turned to cold, hard resolve. He had been cuckolded by a spiteful, willful brat! Brat? She was worse, much worse than that. She was a scheming, lying bitch! He thought murderously as he strode past the astonished butler toward the music and laughter.
The chilly night air cooled Whitney’s heated face as she turned a dazzling, artificial smile on the gentlemen who had followed her out onto Emily’s terrace where she had fled to escape the overcrowded ballroom. Despite her bright smile, her green eyes were somber as they scanned the milling crowd indoors, searching hopelessly for Clayton, even though she knew it was too late now for him to arrive. Perhaps he hadn’t gotten her invitation; perhaps he had gone directly to her home without stopping in London. Whitney shivered, wishing she hadn’t written to Aunt Anne and suggested that she make her postponed visit to her relatives, since Whitney had everything under control in London. She should have waited until Clayton had acknowledged receiving her note.