She ran blindly up the stairs, holding back her tears until she heard the front door close behind him. And then they came, streaming down her cheeks as she covered her face with her hands and rushed past Emily and Michael's open door, down the hall to the bedroom which had become her private hell, to weep out the misery which seemed to have no end.
Emily turned on Michael, her eyes wide with alarm. "Dear God!" she cried. "What could have happened now? If Clayton Westmoreland has done anything else to her, I'll strangle him with my bare hands."
Michael drew Emily back into their bedroom and firmly closed the door. "Emily," he said cautiously, "Claymore married Vanessa Standfield at her home four days ago. Everyone who is in a position to know has been talking about it."
"I refuse to believe it!" Emily burst out. "Ever since I came to London years ago, I've heard endless gossip about him, and it's scarcely ever been true."
"Perhaps. But this time I believe it. And whether it's true or not, what difference does it make? Whitney has forgotten him completely these last weeks."
"Oh, Michael!" Emily said miserably. "How can you be so utterly blind?" Without waiting for her stunned husband to reply, she pulled the door open and walked determinedly down the hall to the blue guest bedroom. She tapped once on Whitney's door and when there was no answer, boldly opened it and stepped into the room. Whitney was lying in a crumpled heap on the bed, her eyes tightly closed, her face streaked with tears.
"Why are you crying?" Emily asked in a kind but firm tone.
Whitney's eyes flew open and she sat up in embarrassed surprise, groping for her handkerchief. "It seems to be the thing I do best lately," she said ruefully, dabbing at her eyes.
"This is the silliest thing I've ever heard. I've known you since we were babies, and I can't ever remember you shedding so much as one tear until a few weeks ago. Now, Miss Stone," she demanded, "why are you crying?"
"Nicki proposed," Whitney sighed, too exhausted to try to evade the question.
"Which made you so happy that you burst into tears?"
Whitney smiled but there was a catch in her voice. "I seem to have a difficult time coping with marriage proposals. You would think, with as must practice as I had in France, that I-"
"What happened to the last one?" Emily interrupted flatly.
Whitney looked at her in silence for a long moment, then she shrugged and looked away. "Clayton didn't want to marry me, after all."
"Oh rubbish! How can you expect me to believe such flummery? I've seen the way that man looks at you."
Whitney dragged herself off the bed and went over to the little French desk from which she extracted the packet Clayton had sent her. Without a word, she handed it to Emily.
Emily sank into a chair as she began to read. Her face registered no particular reaction when she read the legal documents, but she frowned at the bank draft, and rolled her eyes in absolute disgust when she read Clayton's note. "Really!" she exclaimed in wry exasperation. "Sending you this note was too foolish for words. If he wasn't drunk as a wheelbarrow when he wrote it I can't think what was wrong with his brain. But what has all this-" she gestured to the pile of papers-"to do with the way you behaved at Elizabeth's banquet? I saw the way you avoided and ignored him."
"I should have avoided him at the church!" Whitney said feelingly. "And I would have, except that I thought we were still betrothed. I-I didn't know about these papers until we came back here after the wedding. They were with the things my father sent from home."
"Surely you aren't upset because the duke withdrew his offer? It would seem to me he acted correctly, knowing that he had wronged you-and believing that you could never forgive him. I'm certain he was only trying to excuse you from an obligation he believed would be repugnant to you."
Whitney gaped at her. "How can you be so gullible? Emily, he dragged me to his bed and stole my honor, then he gave me a bank draft to pay me off, broke our betrothal, and sent me a note suggesting I marry Paul!"
"I suppose," Emily sighed, "that were I as emotionally involved as you are, I might feel the same way. But please, just for the sake of argument, forget about the bank draft. That was too foolish for words-and very generous of him, too." Whitney opened her mouth to object angrily, but Emily shook her head and firmly interrupted her. "Whitney, I saw him at the church, after he sent you these papers. He loved you-a fool could have seen that. He stood in that church worshiping you!"
Whitney leapt to her feet. "He stood in that church because Elizabeth invited him to her wedding. And if I'd known it at the time, I wouldn't have made such a horrid fool of myself and-"
"Elizabeth didn't invite him," Emily said guiltily. "I did. I sent him a note on the bottom of one of Elizabeth's invitations telling him that you were going to be there. And he came because he wanted to see you. He scarcely knew Elizabeth and Peter, and I doubt he attends weddings of distant acquaintances he doesn't care in the least about."
Whitney looked as if she were either going to faint or scream. "You told him?! But why-why would you do that to me? He surely thought I had put you up to it."
Emily shook her head. "He couldn't have thought anything of the sort. I simply told him that you were going to be there. And he came because you were. Whitney, listen to me. He came after he signed those documents; after he wrote that note, which, by the way, seems to me to have been only foolish and not vile; and after he sent you the bank draft."
A torrent of conflicting emotions battered Whitney as Emily went determinedly on. "He probably knew that Paul's circumstances are very strained. Everyone in the village knew it but you."
"He knew," Whitney admitted. "He was in my father's study the night I found out about Paul's problems."
"And he also knew you wanted to marry Paul?"
"Whitney, for the love of heaven, can't you see what he was trying to do? He thought you hated him and he knew you wanted to marry Paul, so he sent you this . . . this fortune to help make your life easier. He gave you money to help make your life better with the man you preferred to him. Dear God! He must have loved you even more than I thought, to do a thing like this."
Whitney snorted derisively and looked away, but Emily marched to the bed where she sat, and plunked her fists on her slim hips. "Whitney, I think you are a fool! You love that man-you told me so yourself, so don't deny it. And he loved you. He offered for you, he assisted your father when he didn't have to, then he stood by while you flirted with Paul and did a hundred other things that had to provoke him beyond words. What did you say to him at the banquet?" she demanded.