Whitney had scarcely conceived the notion of whirling Khan and racing for parts unknown, when in that same awful voice he said, "Don't try it, I'm warning you."
To her consternation and fury, Whitney felt her cheeks grow hot and her hands shake. She swallowed and reached her arms toward him in an unconsciously childlike gesture. "Then will you help me down?"
Clayton lifted her roughly from the sidesaddle. "How dare you disobey me," he hissed, his fingers closing cruelly on her upper arm as he marched her away from the curious grooms and stablekeeps.
Whitney waited until they were out of earshot of the stable and approaching the rear door of the house before she pulled her arm away and turned on him. "Disobey you?!" she repeated, stamping her foot. "Do you mean to actually remind me of my vows? Why of all the- Would you like me to remind you of yours, my lord?"
"I will give you a warning. Just one," Clayton enunciated viciously. "Call it advice, if you prefer."
"If I wanted advice," Whitney retorted, her eyes sparkling with jade fire, "you would be the last person on earth I would ask!" She opened her mouth to say more, then changed her mind at the boiling wrath her outburst brought to his features.
"Defy me one more time-just once more, and I will have you locked in your rooms until your brat is born."
"I'm sure you would like nothing more!" Whitney said, hating him for calling her baby a brat. "You are the meanest, cruelest.. . you're a fraud and a liar! How dare you have told me you love me and then treat me so! And another thing, my lord duke," she added in choking fury, "which I'm sure will come as a tremendous surprise to you: It so happens that making love makes babies!"
Clayton was so stunned by her ridiculous "revelation" that he never saw the blow coming. She caught him full on the side of the face with the flat of her hand, then reared back, looking like a tempestuous goddess in all her fine fury.
"Go ahead and hit me back," she raged. "You want to hurt me. What's wrong--have you lost your desire to torture me?" she taunted, ignoring the drumming pulse at his temple. "Well good, because I'm just angry enough to do it again!" She swung wide, then gasped with pain as her wrist was caught in a vise-like grip a split second before her hand would have crashed into his face.
Jerking her wrist up behind her back, Clayton brought her slamming against his chest. "You are a beautiful, conniving, deceitful little bitch," he said furiously. "But just once in our misbegotten lives together, tell me one small truth. Just one honest admission. I swear that whether the answer is 'I don't know' or 'yes' I won't care either way."
"You swear to me?" Whitney hurled back at him. "As you swore at our wedding? As you swore in this house never to hurt me? Your word isn't worth the-"
"Is the child mine?" Clayton snapped, viciously tightening his cruel grip.
Her eyes widened until they were huge green orbs; her soft lips parted in shocked disbelief that was so convincing Clayton wondered for a split-second if somehow he was wrong about everything. Tears of outrage sprang into her eyes. "Is it yours? Yours?" Her voice rose and then, unexpectedly, she collapsed against him, her shoulders quaking violently.
Clayton released his grip on her wrist. He wanted to thrust her slender, shaking form away from him And he wanted just as much to gather her into his arms and bury his face in her hair. But more than anything, he longed to take her into the house and ease the pain in his heart with her body. She was clinging with both hands to his lapels, her shoulders shaking, her face buried in his chest, saying over and over again, "Is it yours?"
Clayton put his hands on her arms, not gently but not roughly either, and moved her away from him. She was sobbing, he thought with an unwanted pang of guilt. He dropped his hands, and Whitney slowly raised her head. She wasn't weeping-she was laughing! She was laughing hysterically. She was still laughing when she hit him full across the side of the face with a crashing blow that snapped his head around, and then she ran inside.
Slowly, thoughtfully, Clayton followed her into the house. He went into his study, closed the doors behind him, and poured himself a liberal drink. He now knew two things for certain: Whitney had a powerful right arm. And the baby was his.
Whatever else she had lied about-the reason for her coming to him here, the reason she had married him- whatever else, her look of contemptuous scorn when he asked if the child was his-that look had been real. She had not lain with her lover on her trips to London. No human being alive who was guilty could have fabricated that look of stunned horror or shocked outrage. She had not betrayed him since they were married. Whatever else she had done, she had not done that. The child was his. Clayton knew it as surely as he knew she had come to him here seven months ago because she thought she needed a father for someone else's child. His wrath went from a roiling boil to a steady sunnier.
Unfortunately, Whitney's did the opposite. Of all the vile, vulgar, contemptible ... He was insane! Insane! And she would be too, if she stayed with him. For, even when he had called her terrible things a few minutes ago and hurt her arm with his punishing grip, she had felt joy in being pressed tightly to his heart again. Even then, she had wanted his arms to go around her. If she stayed, she would go mad.
Whitney tried to ignore the stab of anguish that came with knowing she had to leave him, while she tried to think of a place she could go. Her father wasn't strong-willed enough to shelter her from her husband if Clayton chose to demand her return to Claymore. Aunt Anne and Uncle Edward would help her. She would write to them and ask if she could come to France for a visit. When she was there, she would explain. She didn't know if Clayton's awesome power could touch her in France, or if he would retaliate by using his influence in England to damage her uncle's diplomatic career.
All she could do was explain to her Uncle Edward and let him decide.
Whitney sank down into the chair at her writing desk, pulled open the drawer and, as she reached for a sheet of blue stationery, she saw the crumpled ball of blue paper on top of the neat stack. Without much curiosity she turned it in her fingers, saw that it had writing on it, and smoothed it out to see if it was something she had kept because she might need it.
"To my very great mortification . . ." Blankly she remembered having secreted the unsent note among her unused stationery when she had been at Emily's because she didn't want a servant to find it. But now it was crumpled up and on top of the stack. Someone had found it, but only Mary and Clarissa served her at Claymore, and they would never search through her desk.