Today, Emily cursed her plan as the worst idea she'd ever had.
"You're next, Miss," Emily's maid told Whitney as she bent down and straightened Whitney's train.
The other bridesmaids had cringed in nervous terror from making the long, solitary walk down the aisle, but the prospect didn't bother Whitney in the least. She'd done it a dozen times in Paris for Therese DuVille and other friends, but today she felt especially joyous, for she had played a very large part in bringing this wedding about. With a breezy smile Whitney accepted her bouquet of yellow and white roses from the maid. "Elizabeth," she whispered affectionately, "when next we speak, you'll be married." And she stepped out into the aisle.
Clayton's gaze riveted on her the instant she stepped into view, and the sight of her had the devastating impact of a boulder crashing into his chest. Never had she looked so radiantly beautiful or so serene. She was a shaft of glowing moonlight moving down the center of the candlelit aisle.
He was standing only inches from her as she swept gracefully past him, and he felt as if he were stretched on the rack. Every muscle in his body tightened, straining to endure the torture of her nearness. But it was a torture he welcomed, an agony he didn't want to be spared.
Whitney took her appointed place at the front. She stood quietly through the ceremony but when Elizabeth began softly repeating her vows, the words held a poignancy for Whitney that she'd never felt before, and sentimental tears suddenly stung the backs of her eyes. Without turning her head more than an inch or two, Whitney could view half the audience in the church, and as her gaze touched the crowded rows, she noticed that most of the women were dabbing at their eyes. Aune Anne smiled a silent greeting. Whitney acknowledged it with an imperceptible tip of her head, feeling a surge of comfort at the sight of her aunt's reassuring face.
As the threat of tears passed, and the lump of emotion in her throat began to dissolve, Whitney let her eyes drift back over the rows of guests, past her father, past Margaret Merryton's parents . . . past Lady Eubank who was wearing one of her outrageous turbans . . . past a very tall, dark-haired man who . . . Whitney's heart gave a leap, missed a beat, then began to thump madly as a pair of penetrating gray eyes looked straight into hers. Paralyzed, she saw the bitter regret carved into his handsome features and the aching gentleness in his compelling eyes. And then she tore her gaze from his.
Dragging air into her constricted lungs, she stared blindly ahead. He was here! He had finally come to see her, she thought wildly. He couldn't be here to attend the wedding because he hadn't been invited to it. He was here! Here, looking at her in a way that he had never, ever looked at her before-it was as if he were offering himself to her! Standing very straight and very tall, he was humbly offering himself to her. She knew it, she could feel it.
Whitney wanted to scream, to drop to her knees and weep, to hurt him as he'd hurt her. Fury, humiliation, and wild uncertainty all collided into one another. This was her opportunity to repay him, she thought hysterically, to show him with a single contemptuous glance that she despised him. She might never have another chance. He hadn't tried to see her before this, and he would leave after the wedding; he couldn't attend the banquet without an invitation. Emily said he couldn't possibly approach her without some sign from her, and he was asking her for that sign now.
Oh God! He was silently asking for her forgiveness, standing there and offering himself to her. If her answer was no, he would walk out of this church when the wedding was over. And out of her life.
Whitney closed her eyes in an agony of indecision, not caring that Clayton would see her doing it and know the struggle raging within her. He had abused her body and ravaged her soul and he knew it! Her pride demanded that she look up at him and show him that she felt only contempt for him. But her heart screamed not to let him walk out of this church.
"Don't cry, darling," he whispered in her memory. "Please don't cry anymore."
Whitney couldn't breathe; she couldn't move. "Help me!" she prayed to someone. "Please, please, help me!" And then she realized that the "someone" she was praying to was Clayton. And she loved him.
The moment Whitney stirred, Clayton knew that she was going to face him, that his answer would be there. His knuckles whitened as he gripped the bench in front of him, bracing himself. Her eyes lifted to his and the gentle yielding in their melting green depths nearly sent nun to his knees. He wanted to drown himself in her eyes, to pull her into his shaking arms, to carry her from the church and beg her to say aloud the same three words she had just spoken in silence.
Everyone rushed down the aisle behind the bridal procession, pushing and jostling gaily for position on the broad crowded steps outside. Clayton was the last to leave. He strolled slowly along beneath the high vaulted ceiling, his footsteps echoing hollowly in his ears. Outside the massive doors of the church, he stopped, watching Whitney smiling and nodding, her hair shining in the late afternoon sunlight. He hesitated, knowing that if he went to her now, they'd not be able to exchange more than a few words, yet he couldn't bring himself to wait until the banquet. Meeting as few eyes as possible to avoid being waylaid by any of his former "neighbors," he stepped into the crowd, wending his way toward Whitney until he was standing only an inch behind her.
Whitney instantly sensed his presence as if it were a tangible force, something powerful and magnetic. She even recognized the elusive, tangy scent of his cologne. But she scarcely recognized his voice; it was raw with emotion, a hoarse, aching whisper. "Miss Stone-I adore you."
The shattering tenderness of the words sent a jolting tremor up Whitney's spine, a reaction which was not lost on Clayton. He saw her stiffen, and for one chilling second he thought he'd only imagined what had passed between them in the church, but then she took an imperceptible step backward. Very lightly, he felt her lean against him. His breath froze at the exquisite sensation of her body pressing against him. He dropped his hand to her waist, gently sliding it around in front of her, drawing her nearer and tighter to him. And she made no resistance at all... but stood quietly in his embrace. Clayton's mind flew to the cleric in the church. If he led Whitney inside now, would she stand beside him like some gorgeous greenhouse flower and repeat the same words Elizabeth had just said? Would he need a special license?
With a sublime effort, he thrust the idea of marrying her now, today, out of his mind. Whitney would be a breathtaking bride and he'd not attempt to cheat her of her day of glory-he'd already cheated her of so much!