In the candlelit dining room their meal progressed in stiff silence. Whitney watched him surreptitiously throughout the meal. It was nearly over when her gaze fell on his hand. It was devoid of the ruby ring she'd given him on their wedding night Her heart constricted as she stared at the light mark across his finger; from the moment she had placed the ring on his hand on their wedding night, he had never taken it off.

She looked up and found bun observing her pained reaction with a smile of cynical amusement. And as hurt as she was, Whitney was even angrier. She was going to that party, she decided with a determined lift of her chin. If she had to walk, she was going without him.


Before dessert was brought in, Whitney stood up and said, "I am going to my room. Good night." She was going to her room because she didn't want to alert him to the fact that she was also going to the party, and risk having Clayton forbid their drivers to take her anywhere.

It was well past one o'clock in the morning, but in the exclusive gentlemen's gaming club to which Clayton belonged, tune was never of much importance. He was relaxing in his chair, not paying much attention to the discussions going on around him, or, for that matter, to the cards he held.

No matter how much he drank tonight, or how hard he tried, he couldn't concentrate on the game or the hearty masculine conversation of his friends and acquaintances. He had married a witch who had gotten under his skin like a thorn. It hurt unbearably to have her there and it hurt to pull her out. His mind kept riveting itself on the way Whitney had looked tonight in that goddamned green gown with her charms displayed in such gorgeous wantonness. His hands had actually ached for the feel of that petal-soft skin against his palms, and his lust had been almost past bearing. Lust, not love. He wouldn't call it love anymore. All he felt for Whitney was an occasional pang of desire. More than an occasional pang.

How dare she even consider going out in that dress alone! And what in hell did she mean by acting as if he'd forbidden her to ride in order to torture her? He had given that order at the stable days ago when he had suspected her pregnancy and thought she was unaware of it. Not that he gave a damn what the 'conniving little liar thought. He didn't have to offer explanations for his actions; she would have to do as she was bidden. And that, he thought as he threw chips onto the pile in the center of the table, was irrevocably that!

"Good to see you, Claymore," William Baskerville said with amiable cordiality as he took a vacant chair at the table of six across from Clayton. "Surprised to see you, in fact."

"Why is that?" Clayton said indifferently.

"Just saw your wife at the Clifftons' crush. Thought you must be there, too," Baskerville explained, absorbed in stacking his chips into piles, preparatory to joining the heavy play in progress. "She looked lovely-told her so, too." This innocent discourse earned Baskerville a look of such stunned disbelief from the duke that Baskerville hastened to heap on polite reassurances. "Your wife always looks lovely. I always tell her that." In dismayed bewilderment, Baskerville watched the duke slowly come erect and rigid in his chair, his expression glacial. Searching his mind frantically for how he could possibly have given offense, Baskerville unfortunately arrived at the incorrect conclusion that his compliments must sound watery to the lady's husband who was, according to gossip, inordinately fond of his young bride. With a helpless glance at the other men seated around the table, Baskerville said desperately, "Everyone thought the duchess looked ravishing-she was wearing a green gown that matched her eyes. I told her it did, too. Had to wait in line just to tell her, in fact. Surrounded by all the young bucks and old fossils like me, she was. Quite a gathering of admirers."

Very quietly, very deliberately, Clayton turned his cards over on the table and slid his chair back. He stood up, nodded curtly to the other men seated at the table, and without a word to any of his friends, turned on his heel and strode purposefully from the room.

All cardplay suspended as the five remaining men at the table watched the duke making his way to the door leading out onto the street. Of the five, four were married. Baskerville, a confirmed bachelor of five and forty years, was not. Of the five faces at the table, four of them were either grinning or valiantly trying to hide a grin. Only Baskerville's expression was alarmed.

-- Advertisement --

"Blast it!" he whispered, looking around at the others. "Claymore gave me the devil of a look when I said I'd just seen his duchess at the Clifftons'," He paused, seized by a terrible thought. "I say-have the Westmorelands been married long enough to quarrel, would you think?"

Marcus Rutherford's lips twitched with laughter. "I would say, Baskerville, that as of about three minutes ago, the Westmorelands have now been married long enough to quarrel."

Distress furrowed Baskerville's kindly brow. "Good God! I'd never have mentioned seeing her if I thought it would cause a quarrel. She's a lovely young thing. Feel wretched about causing trouble for her. I'm sure she'd never have gone to the deuced party if she realized Claymore wouldn't approve."

"You think not?" Lord Rutherford said after sharing a derisive grin with the other married men.

Baskerville was positive. "Well, of course not! If Claymore told her not to go, she wouldn't have gone. She's his wife, after all. Vows, you know-obedience and all that!"

Guffaws greeted this announcement, bursting out around the table like cracks from a cannon. "I once told my wife that she didn't need the fur she was pining for-she had a dozen already," Rutherford told him as the gambling was temporarily forgotten. "I put my foot squarely down and told her she could not have it!"

"Surely she didn't buy it anyway?" Baskerville asked in a horrified tone.

"Certainly not," Rutherford chuckled. "She bought eleven new gowns instead, to match the furs she already had. She said that if she had to appear in outer rags, at least no one would have cause to criticize her gowns. She spent three times the cost of the new fur."

"My God! Did you beat her?"

"Beat her?" Rutherford repeated in amusement. "No-beating's not at all the thing,' you know. I rather dislike the idea of it myself. I bought her the new fur instead."

"But-but why?" Baskerville sputtered in shock.

"Why, my good man? I'll tell you why. Because I'd no wish to own all of Bond Street before she got over her being miffed. Gowns are devilish costly things, but jewels-jewels she hadn't even thought of yet! I saved myself a fortune by getting her the fur."

-- Advertisement --