No, she decided miserably, Clayton’s secretary had been very positive about his employer’s travel plans. There was no point in deceiving herself; Clayton had cavalierly ignored her invitation. Her indignation gave way to deep hurt.
She had worn her hair loose about her shoulders because Clayton had said he liked it best that way. She had even dressed especially to please him in an alluring ivory satin gown heavily embellished with pearls. She had done everything to please him, and he hadn’t even bothered to come or to decline her invitation.
Perilously close to tears, Whitney tried to convince herself that this aching disappointment she felt was merely because she had finally gathered the courage to tell Clayton that she would willingly marry him whenever he wished, but her lonely dejection sprang from something much deepen she had missed him. She had been longing to see his smile, to be able to teU him she was surrendering in this battle of wills that had raged between them, and then to have him take her in his arms and kiss her. She had hoped tonight would be a beginning for them. Whitney blinked back her tears and determined to enjoy what was left of her ravaged evening.
Clayton nodded curtly to those few guests with whom he was acquainted, while he waited like a panther, watching for a glimpse of his prey. He saw DuVille going toward the terrace doors, carrying two glasses of champagne. Clayton’s eyes tracked him across the room, his jaw clenching into a tight line of rage when he saw Whitney standing outside on the terrace, surrounded by at least half a dozen men.
With deceptive casualness, Clayton strolled toward them. His eyes turned icy with contempt when he realized that the men were pretending to play musical instruments while his "betrothed" was giving a charming little imitation of leading them with her invisible baton. The role, Clayton thought scathingly, was eminently suited to her-leading men on. He was about to let himself out the doors beside the ones through which DuVille had just gone, when a detaining hand was laid on his arm,
"What a pleasant surprise to find you here," Margaret Merryton said.
All Clayton’s attention was riveted on Whitney. He started to pull his arm away, but Margaret’s fingers tightened. "Disgraceful, isn’t she?" she remarked, following the direction of his gaze.
Thirty-four years of strict adherence to certain rules of etiquette could not be completely disregarded, and Clayton turned, albeit angrily, to acknowledge the woman who was addressing him-except he was so furious that it took several moments for nun even to identify her. Too angry to attempt to hide his insulting lack of recognition, Clayton stared blankly into her worshipful hazel eyes while their expression changed from adoration to insulted hatred. Laughter burst from the terrace and Clayton’s head jerked in the direction of the sound.
Margaret’s hand tightened convulsively on his arm as she looked toward Whitney Stone, and wounded pride hoarsened her voice. "If you’re so eager to have her, go and get her. You needn’t worry about DuVille or Paul Sevarin. Neither of them will ever actually marry her."
"Why is that?" Clayton demanded, pulling his arm away.
"Because Paul has just discovered what M. DuVille has known for years-neither of them was her first!" She saw Clayton’s face blanche and the muscle leaping in his, clenched jaw. Turning on her heel, she hissed brokenly over her shoulder, "In case you’re interested, a stableboy was the first! That’s why she was seat to France."
Something shattered inside of Clayton, splintering his emotions from all rational control. At another time, he would have shrugged off Margaret’s words, for he was well enough acquainted with female jealousy to recognize it when he saw it. But this wasn’t another time. This was the day he had realized that Whitney had been playing me for a fool, that she was a treacherous liar.
He paused, waiting while DuVille departed, then he reached down, grasped the handle of the door and jerked it open. He stepped onto the terrace directly behind Whitney just as one of her drunken admirers dropped to one knee.
"Miss Stone," the young man joked, his words slightly slurred. "It occurs to me that two talented ‘musicians’ such as you and I ought. . . ought to form a permanent duet. May I have the honor of your arm . . . no, your hand in…" Suddenly he stopped and swallowed audibly, his alarmed gaze fixed on something behind Whitney.
Dissolving with laughter at the young man’s comic antics, Whitney glanced over her shoulder, then half turned toward Clayton. Happiness soared through her and she smiled joyously at him, but Clayton’s attention was frozen on poor Carlisle, who was still kneeling on one leg.
"Get up!" Clayton snarled. With withering sarcasm he added, "If you intend to request Miss Stone’s hand in marriage, you will have to wait until she grows another. At present, she has only two, and she has already pledged them both." With that he caught Whitney’s wrist in a vice-like grip and turned on his heel, dragging her with him.
Whitney ran, trying to keep up with him as he strode around the wide balcony and down the front steps to his coach waiting below a street lamp.
"Stop this, you’re hurting me!" she panted, stumbling on the hem of her gown and falling halfway to her knees. Clayton jerked her up with such cruel force that a pain shot from her wrist to her shoulder blade, then he snapped a command at his driver, grabbed her by the waist and flung her into the coach.
"How dare you!" Whitney hissed, angry and embarrassed at being so ignominiously hauled from Emily’s house, and then manhandled to boot. "Who do you think you are?" The horses bolted from the curb and the coach lurched violently, sending Whitney reeling against the back of her seat
"Who do I think I am?" Clayton jeered. "Why, 1 am your owner. By your own words, your father sold you, and ‘ bought you."
Whitney stared at him, her mind in a complete turmoil. She couldn’t imagine why Clayton was so angry over Carlisle’s mock proposal when he’d interrupted her cousin, Cuthbert, in the midst of a serious one, and had been laughingly good-natured about it. She had believed that tonight would be a time for sweet reconciliation between them, and it was harshly disconcerting to now find herself the target of Clay-ton’s fury instead of his ardor.
Even so, she was absurdly happy that he hadn’t ignored her invitation, and she couldn’t really blame him for losing his temper when he discovered yet another gentleman offering marriage to her. Very gently, she said, "Mr. Carlisle was quite foxed, you see, and his proposal was only a joke. He-"
"Shut up!" Clayton snapped. His head twisted toward her, and for the first time, in the flickering light of the coach lamp, Whitney actually saw the savage, scorching fury that was emanating from the man beside her. His handsome jaw was taut with rage, his mouth was drawn into a ruthless, forbidding line, and his expression was filled with cold loathing. His contemptuous eyes raked over her . . . and then he turned his head away, as if he couldn’t stomach the sight of her.