By the time they pulled up before the house, her heart was hammering so wildly she could scarcely breathe. Clayton climbed down, then reached in and dragged her from the coach.
"I am not going into that house," she cried, writhing and twisting in his grasp.
"It’s a little late for you to start trying to protect your virtue," he jeered, swinging her up into his arms. His hands bit into her thigh and waist as he carried her into the dimly lit house and up the endless, curving staircase.
A red-haired maid rushed out onto the balcony and Whitney opened her mouth to cry out, then choked on the cry as Clayton’s fingers dug agonizingly into her flesh.
"Go to bed!" he snapped at the woman who watched them pass with wide, disbelieving eyes.
"Please, please stop this!" Whitney begged frantically as he kicked open the door to a bedroom and strode inside. Her mind dimly registered the splendid furnishings and a fire burning in the grate of an enormous fireplace across the room, but the object that claimed all her wild-eyed attention was the large four-poster bed on a dais to which Clayton was carrying her.
He dumped her unceremoniously in the center of the bed, then turned on his heel and headed across the room toward the door. For one relieved moment, Whitney thought he intended to leave. Instead he reached out and rammed the bolt into place with the finality of a death blow.
In a frozen paralysis, she watched him stride past the bed toward the fireplace across the room. He flung himself into one of the sofas at right angles to the fireplace, and minutes passed while he sat there, looking at her as if she were some strange, captive animal, a curiosity, deformed and loathsome to his sight.
The silence was finally shattered by his order rapped out in a cold, unfamiliar voice. "Come here, Whitney."
Whitney’s whole body jerked. She shook her head and inched backward along the bed toward the pillows, her gaze flying to the windows, then the other doors. Could she possibly reach one of them before he could stop her?
"You can try," Clayton commented. "But I promise you’ll never make it."
Swallowing a panicked sob, Whitney sat straighter, struggling against the hysteria welling up in her throat. "About Paul-"
"Say his name one more time," Clayton lashed out furiously, "and I’ll kill you, so help me God!" And then he became frighteningly polite. "You may have Sevarin if he still wants you. But we can discuss all that later. Now, my love, are you going to walk over here to me unaided, or must I come and assist you?"
He lifted a dark brow at her, permitting her a moment to think it over. "Well?" he threatened, half rising from his chair.
Refusing to beg, or to give him the added satisfaction of subduing her, Whitney rose from the bed. She tried to hold her head high, to look scornful and proud, but her knees felt like water. Two paces away from him, her shaking legs refused to move again. She stood there, staring at him with tear-brightened eyes.
He surged to his feet. "Turn around!" he snapped. Before Whitney could utter a protest, he caught her by the shoulders and whipped her around. With one vicious jerk, he ripped her dress down the back and the sound of tearing fabric screamed
in Whitney’s ears, while satin-covered buttons scattered across the carpet to shine in the firelight, He turned her back toward him and smiled malevolently. "I own the dress too," he reminded her. He settled back in his chair, stretched his long legs out, and for several moments watched Whitney’s clumsy attempts to keep the slippery satin bodice clutched to her breasts. "Drop it!" he ordered.
The satin bodice slid from her fingers and he watched impassively as yards of fine ivory satin swooshed down her hips and slender legs, landing in a heap at her feet.
"The rest?" he said blandly.
Choking on her humiliation, Whitney hesitated, then stepped woodenly out of the stiff petticoats, standing before him clad only in her thin chemise. He was waiting for her to remove the chemise, Whitney knew-because he intended total nakedness to be her final humiliation. He meant to punish her for the gossip about Paul by terrifying her like this. Well, she was terrified and degraded enough already, punished for whatever she’d done or thought of doing. In mute rebellion, she started to back away.
Clayton was on his feet before she could take the second step. His hand shot out and twisted tightly in the thin fabric at the neckline of her chemise, drawing it taut over her thrusting breasts. Her chest rising and tailing in rapid, harsh breaths, she stared down at the strong, well-manicured hand at her breasts, the same hand that had once caressed her with gentle passion. Abruptly the hand tightened and with one sharp jerk he split the thin garment in two, flinging it away from her body. "Get into the bed," he ordered coldly.
Desperate to hide her nakedness, Whitney fled to the big four-poster and quickly pulled the sheets up to her chin, as if they could protect her from him. In a blur of unreality, she saw Clayton strip off his jacket. He unbuttoned his shut and pulled it off, and she stared blindly at the rippling muscles of his powerful shoulders and arms. When his hands went to the waistband of his pants, Whitney twisted her head to the wall and squeezed her eyes closed. His footsteps bore down on the bed, and she opened her eyes to see him towering menacingly above her.
"Don’t cover yourself from me!" He caught the sheets and tore them from her clenched fists. "I want to see what I paid so handsomely for." Pain slashed across his features as his gaze swept over her naked body, then his jaw hardened.
In a shivering trance of fear, Whitney stared at his hard, ruthless face while her tortured mind superimposed other, gentle memories of him. She saw him bending over her the day she fell from her horse, his face white with alarm. She saw him gazing tenderly into her eyes the day she had kissed him near the stream-"My God you are sweet" he had whispered. She thought of the night he had taught her to gamble with cards and chips. She remembered the way he had stood beside her only a few nights ago at the Rutherfords’ and proudly introduced her as his fiancee.
Aunt Anne had been right; Clayton did love her. Love and possessiveness were driving him to do this terrible thing to her-she had driven him to it, by denying her feelings for him for so long, by her blind determination to marry Paul, He was deliberately compromising her so that she would have no choice except to marry him and not Paul. He loved her, and in return she had caused this proud man to become an object of public ridicule.
The bed shifted beneath his weight as he stretched out beside her, and Whitney’s fear gave way to a deep, shattering remorse. Her eyes aching with unshed tears, she turned her face to his and hesitantly laid her trembling fingers against his rigid jaw. "I-I’m sorry," she whispered chokily. "I’m so sorry."