An answering sparkle twinkled in Marie's smoky blue eyes as she inclined her head in a gracious acceptance of his gallant compliment. "Not quite the entire population," she said meaningfully. "But then I would be astonished to find you in such an excessively silly position, your grace."
Whitney listened to this light repartee in a state of angry, humiliated pain, wondering if Clayton were going to introduce his wife to his mistress, being absolutely certain that he could not, in the interest of politeness do so, nor avoid doing so without being impolite. In that moment, Whitney hated Clayton. She despised Esterbrook. She loathed every prying eye in that room. They were all her enemies, brittle, sophisticated, gossiping strangers who resented her intrusion into their select society and who were relishing the mortifying position in which she was now placed. They were Ester-brooks, one and all. Including her polished, urbane husband. She wished she had married Paul and lived quietly in the security of a place where she could belong. And that was before Whitney realized that Esterbrook, with a look of sham innocence, was now introducing Clayton's mistress to her.
Fortified by her anger, Whitney met Marie St. Allermain's silently assessing gaze with quiet composure. Graciously, in flawless French, Whitney said, "Thank you for sharing the gift of your beautiful voice with me, Mademoiselle. It was a joy to be able to hear you."
With equal graciousness, Marie replied, "Most accounts of feminine beauty and charm are gross exaggerations. However, I can see that accounts of yours were not." A slow, sensual smile curved her lips. Glancing provocatively at Clayton, she added with devastating candor, "And, I must say it is excessively disappointing to find it so." With that, she nodded regally at both of them, took Esterbrook's arm, and swept away to content herself with the fawning admiration of the other three hundred male occupants of the room.
For a while, Whitney basked in the warmth of Clayton's unspoken approval; she knew he was proud of the way she had handled the confrontation. She also knew when, an hour later, Clayton and Marie each left the room via separate doors out onto the terrace. She had seen the subtle look Marie passed to him across the ballroom and witnessed the 'imperceptible inclination of Clayton's dark head in reply.
Smiling in the summer moonlight, Marie extended both her hands to be clasped in his strong, warm ones. "It is wonderful to see you, Clayton. Esterbrook must bear you great malice to have deliberately manipulated our brief encounter in there."
Clayton grinned down at her. "Esterbrook is a stupid son of a bitch, as you have already surmised on your own, Marie." He watched the way the moonlight turned her hair to shining silver, white he relished her lush beauty and the keen intelligence in her violet-blue eyes. She took no missish offense at his blunt summation of Esterbrook; she was as astute a judge of character as was he, and they both knew it.
"Marriage does not agree with you, my lord?" She said it as a question, but it was more a quiet observation.
Clayton stiffened slightly. He reminded himself that nothing would rock the foundations of London society so violently as his taking Marie St. Allermain as his mistress again. They were both so well known that the gossip created by a renewed liaison between the two of them would be endless, and the humiliation Whitney would suffer as a result of it would be immeasurable. And Marie was a passionate bed partner who suited him perfectly. And even while he told himself all this, he could almost feel Whitney's cold, trembling hand on his arm, the way her fingers had clutched his for support while Marie was singing.
Damn her! How dare she take off her betrothal ring! She was a schemer, a liar, and a fraud. But she was also his wife. And right now, she was young and afraid and pregnant with his child. To Clayton's intense disgust, he realized that he could not bring himself to make the overture which he knew would be welcome to Marie. He would take another woman as his mistress, someone who would create less notoriety.
"Marriage does not seem to agree with your wife either," Marie was observing quietly. "She is very beautiful-and very unhappy."
"Marriage agrees with both of us," Clayton said grimly.
A slow, provocative smile trembled on her lips. "If you say so, Clayton."
"I say so," he said irritably. If Marie had noticed that Whitney was unhappy and distressed, others in the ballroom may have noticed that as well. He didn't want Whitney shamed in front of their friends. It was one thing for him to hate her and humiliate her in private, another entirely for society to be taking notice of it. And he was thoroughly incensed to discover that he even gave a damn.
"In that case," Marie mused, displaying the perspicacity that Clayton had always enjoyed in her, "it might be wise if you now went back into the ballroom. Because I am of the opinion that Esterbrook's intent in bringing us together in front of your wife, was to make himself available to console her later." She saw Clayton's shoulders stiffen and the dangerous glitter in his eyes. A winsome smile touched her lips. "I've never seen you look like this before. You are terrifying-and devastating attractive-when you're angry. And jealous."
"Leave it at angry," Clayton replied in a clipped voice which be softened as he bid his former mistress farewell.
When he strode back into the ballroom, he looked first for Esterbrook, then for Whitney. Esterbrook was there, Whitney was not. With a feeling of relief, Clayton noted that no one seemed to have observed his absence with Marie, and judging by the boisterous level of conversation in the room, whatever gossip had begun at their public meeting had died a polite death. Clayton was glad of that because these people were Whitney's friends as well as his, and she would need to know that she didn't have to cringe from seeing them the next time.
Except that Whitney wouldn't know that. Because the duchess, as the butler solemnly explained, had already left. Damned little fool! Clayton thought savagely. What was she thinking of, walking out on him like this? Now there would be hell to pay! He couldn't go back in there without her, or everyone would immediately realize that she had left in distress or anger, and that would cause gossip. Personally, he couldn't have cared less about the talk, but Whitney would be the one who had to face it, and who had left because she couldn't. And he couldn't leave either, dammit-because she had taken the carriage.
Emily and Michael Archibald solved that problem within seconds by walking into the entryway and asking to have their carriage brought round so that they could leave. Without question or comment, they provided him with a ride to his London townhouse, where Clayton spent a very angry, uncomfortable night. He kept seeing Whitney in that glittering golden gown that displayed her ripe breasts to such glorious advantage. She'd worn it deliberately to provoke him and, by God, she'd succeeded! Hadn't he had to stand beside her all night, watching men's gazes lingering lustfully on the tantalizing display of her creamy flesh?