"What are you talking about?" Whitney whispered back as premonitions of disaster began to pound in her brain.
"Marie St. Allermain. She's here! Michael's father went through friends of friends to entice her to come and sing here tonight. She's a guest at the palace where she is to perform tomorrow night, and . . ."
Whitney didn't hear the rest. Her legs and arms had begun to tremble from the moment Emily had mentioned the name of Clayton's beautiful and most famous former mistress. Marie St. Allermain was in London, in the very house with Clayton. And not more than an hour ago, he'd announced his intention of moving into the London house. Whitney didn't remember what she said to Emily or how she managed to return to the circle of acquaintances she'd left. She waited in sick dread for the moment when Marie St. Allermain would walk into the room.
The huge drawing room was packed beyond capacity. From the corner of her eye, Whitney watched Clayton enter the room at the same time the accompanist seated himself at the big grand piano, and the musicians picked up their instruments. There was a crackling tension in the room, although whether it was due to the appearance of a woman whose voice and beauty were legendary, and who was in demand in all the capitals of Europe, or whether it was because everyone was secretly waiting to see Clayton and her come face to face, Whitney didn't know.
Clayton, who had paused to talk to someone, finally made his way to Whitney's side. It was as if the crowd parted to clear a path so that they could both stroll to the very front row of guests clustered around the piano.
Whitney stood with her hand linked through Clayton's arm. She knew he didn't want it there, but she was feeling ill and desperately needed something to hold onto. "No voice in the world like St. Allermain's, if you ask me," the elderly man beside Clayton said. Beneath her fingertips, Whitney felt the muscles in Clayton's forearm tense into rigidity and then slowly relax. He hadn't known! she realized. Ob God! Why did he have to look so devastating^ handsome tonight, so completely desirable? And why, she thought, with tears burning behind her eyes as the blond singer entered the room, did Marie St. Allermain have to be so lushly, provocatively, enchantingly beautiful? Whitney could not tear her unwilling gaze from the woman. She had the body of a slender Venus and the magnetism of a woman who is confident of her extraordinary beauty without being at all obsessed with it.
And when she began to sing, Whitney felt the room swim dizzily. She had the sort of lilting voice that could fail gently upon the ears, or deepen until it was rich and sensual. There was a glint of laughter in her eyes white she sang, as if she found the silent adoration being lavished upon her by the hundreds of people who were listening and watching her, secretly very silly.
In comparison to her, Whitney felt girlish and plain and unsophisticated. And deathly ill. Far she now knew exactly what being Clayton's mistress really meant. That woman with the laughing blue eyes had known Clayton's drugging kisses, had lain naked in his arms and shared the exquisite ecstasy of his body driving deeply into hers. Whitney knew she must be as pale as death; her ears were ringing and her hands felt like ice. She was going to faint if she stayed in here; if she left, she would create a scene that would feed the malicious gossips for years. She tried to tell herself that, after all, Clayton had broken off his affair with Marie to pursue her. But that was before; now he detested and despised her. And very soon, even if he came back to Claymore, her body would be ungainly and swollen with child.
Whitney wished, very sincerely, that she were dead. She was so anguished that she had no idea precisely when Clayton's hand had come to rest upon her cold, clammy one which was linked through the crook of his arm, or for how long he had been lightly, reassuringly squeezing her fingers. But when she realized it, she shamelessly took what little support he was offering her and curled her fingers tightly around his. At least now she felt as if she could breathe. But only momentarily. For when Marie St. Allermain was accepting the thunderous applause with a faintly amused inclination of her head, her blue eyes met Clayton's, and a current leapt between the two of them that Whitney felt with a painful jolt.
Soon after, the ballroom was opened for dancing. For the next half hour, Clayton did not leave her side, but neither did he speak to her or so much as glance at her. He was there though, and Whitney clung to that fact as if it were the beginning of the reconciliation she had been waiting for. Her hopes were dashed to pieces the moment Clayton led her onto the dance floor and took her in his arms. "Where in the living hell is your betrothal ring?" he snapped angrily as he whirled her effortlessly in perfect time to the waltz.
"The token of your love?" Whitney asked him, her chin proudly high, her pale face fragile and beautiful. "That betrothal ring?"
"You know damned well which ring."
"Since it was a token of the love I no longer have from you, I felt it was hypocrisy to wear it." She waited breathlessly for Clayton to say his love for her wasn't dead.
"Do as you damn well please," he said with cynical indifference. "You always have."
When the dance ended they remained together, each of them putting on a convincing performance of participating in the light-hearted conversation directed at them by the dozen guests surrounding them. A short time later, however, an imperceptible tension seemed to take root and spread through the group, and their laughter suddenly became too hardy and forced as they flicked nervous glances over Whitney's right shoulder. In her heightened state of nervous awareness, Whitney noticed the change in the atmosphere and turned to see what was causing it. One glance, and she jerked her head around, but it was too late to do more than brace herself. Lord Esterbrook, with Marie St. Allermain on his arm, was approaching them from behind.
"Claymore!" Esterbrook's mocking voice cut through the little group's forced joviality like a hot knife through butter. "I'm sure that no introductions are necessary between the two of you."
Every pair of eyes swivelled to them as Clayton turned automatically at the sound of his name and found himself confronted by a grinning Esterbrook and his former mistress. Whitney, who had no choice but to turn around also, heard the frantic buzzing and gasps, the muted laughter, and felt the weight of avidly curious gazes focusing on them. There was no doubt that everyone present in the huge ballroom was now fully cognizant of the import of the meeting taking place . . . everyone, that is, except Clayton and Marie St. Allermain, who seemed to find the situation rather amusing.
With a lazy grin, Clayton lifted Marie's hand to his lips for a brief kiss. "I see, Madam, that you still have only to walk into a room to bring the entire male population to your feet."