According to the investigation Clayton instigated the following morning, Whitney was not staying with the Archibalds. She had in fact vanished somewhere between the posting house and no-one-knew-where.
Clayton was no longer angry, he was worried. And when it was reported that she had not crossed the Channel on a packet for France, his worry became alarm.
Alone in his elegant bedroom suite a week after he had returned to Claymore and found her missing, Clayton considered the possibility that Whitney had gone to the man who had been her lover before they were married. Perhaps the bastard had been unwilling or unable to offer her his name before, but now was willing to keep her neatly tucked away and available to him.
That was an agonizing thought and an infuriating one. But only for a minute, because in the purple light of deepening dusk, Clayton couldn't actually believe that Whitney would go to another man. It might have been the mellowing effect of the half bottle of brandy he had consumed during the last two hours, but it seemed to him ... it seemed somehow that Whitney must have grown to love him. A little. He thought of the way she had preferred to sit curled up in a chair La his study during the day while he worked and she read, or wrote letters, or went over household accounts. She had liked being near him. And she had damn well liked being in bed with him. No woman alive would have melted in his arms, and tried in every way to give him as much pleasure as he was giving her, if she weren't at least infatuated.
He had loved her desperately on the day they were married; she hadn't loved him. Then. But surely in the months afterward, in the shared hours of quiet talk and laughter and unbridled passion, surely she must have come to love him.
Restlessly, Clayton got up and wandered from his empty, lonely room into hers. It wasn't pretty and alive without her. She was gone and with her, his reason for living each day. He had driven her away, finally broken her spirit and defeated her. And she had so much spirit! So damned much spirit. She had stood up to his rage that day she'd taken her horse out, and then defied him openly by going to the Clifftons' party in that glorious green dress that made her eyes turn the color of emeralds. And when he had been waiting here, in this very room in the dark, to confront her with it, she had stood up to him then too. No woman alive but Whitney would have dared to gaze boldly up into his eyes and flatly refuse to be confined to her rooms unless he stayed there with her! And why would she have wanted him to stay with her, if she didn't care for him?
Walking back into his room, Clayton leaned a shoulder against the broad expanse of mullioned glass that ran the length of it on one side. Staring out into the dark night, he thought about what she had said when he had grabbed her and shaken her, trying to silence her. "I can't stop." she had whispered, flinching from his harsh grip. "Because I love you. I love your smile and your eyes ..." Oh Christ! How could she have said that to him when he had been deliberately hurting her? "I remember exactly how your hands feel against my skin when you touch me," she had said, "and the things you have whispered to me when you are so deep inside of me that you have touched my heart."
Clayton slowly walked into his dressing room and opened the leather case where his shirt studs were kept. He took out the ruby ring she had given him and turned it in his fingers so that he could catch the inscription inside. With a ragged sigh he read the two beloved words: "My Lord." He hesitated, torn between putting it on now or waiting until Whitney could place it on his hand as she had the night they were married. She had put the ring on his finger, then she had kissed his hand and held it softly to her cheek. He put the ring on himself-he didn't want to wait any longer.
He felt better now that her ring was on his hand where it belonged, and he sat down and stretched his long legs out in front of nun, slowly sipping brandy white he stared in silence at the big four-poster bed they had shared. He knew he had to come to grips with her betrayal now, before he found her. Otherwise he would take one look at her, and his temper would erupt and destroy them both again.
Very well, Whitney had given herself to another man before their marriage. If he didn't let himself wonder who the man was, it was easier to bear. It was he himself who had deprived Whitney of her virginity, he who had probably driven her into the arms of that other man. So whose fault was it that she had given herself once to someone else in a moment of loneliness and despair? Once. He would allow her that much-one time. With a sigh, Clayton leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Or a hundred times-because no matter what she had done before, he could not face living without her now.
In a state of frenetic restlessness, Clayton rode for miles the next day. He rode Whitney's horse because Khan was something that belonged to her-as Whitney had haughtily reminded him. Ultimately he arrived at the same high ridge where he had brought her the day after she'd come to Claymore. Sitting down, he propped his shoulders against the same tree trunk where he had sat that day with Whitney cradled on his lap. He gazed idly out across the valley where brilliant sunlight danced and glanced off the wide stream that meandered through it.
With one knee drawn up, he idly tapped the side of his boot with his riding crop, remembering how Whitney had wanted to ride down into that valley because she was afraid he was going to try to make love to her. God, that was almost eight months ago. Eight months! Eight of the most glorious, wonderful, tormented, miserable months of his life.
He smiled a little sadly. Eight months. If Whitney had had her way the night she came to Claymore, they would just be getting married in the next week or two. She had insisted she would need eight months to make the wedding preparations and... eight months! Swearing savagely under his breath, Clayton surged to his feet, his mind in a turmoil. Whitney had wanted eight months to prepare for the wedding. Even she was not that naive! If she'd believed she was pregnant, if she'd come to nun because she was, or thought she was, pregnant, she'd never have wanted to wait eight goddamn months.
Hating himself with a virulence that nearly strangled his breathing, Clayton pushed her fleet-legged gelding to the limits of Khan's endurance. Whitney wasn't naive enough to want to wait eight months to get married if she'd thought she was pregnant-but she must have been naive enough to think he could have gotten her with child the night he abducted her. And she was proud enough to consider using that as a ploy to bring him to her. .. and honorable enough to give up the idea and come to him at Claymore herself.
"Cool him down," he snapped at the groom as he flung Khan's reins at the surprised servant and began half running, half walking toward the house. "Tell McRea to have the bays