"He's cleaning us all out," Marcus Rutherford answered good-naturedly. "Hasn't had a losing hand in the last hour."
"You look like hell, brother," Stephen remarked in a grinning undertone.
"Thank you," Clayton answered drily as he tossed his chips onto the mounting pile in the center of the table. He took that band and the next two.
"Good to see you, Claymore," William Baskerville said, bending a cautious eye upon the duke who had left so abruptly the last time they'd been playing cards here. Baskerville was on the verge of politely asking after the young duchess, but the last time he'd mentioned seeing her at the Clifftons' party, he'd caused a quarrel, so he thought it best to avoid mentioning her. "Mind if 1 join you?" he asked the duke instead.
"He doesn't mind at all," Stephen said when Clay-ton appeared not to have heard Baskerville. "He's perfectly willing to take your money along with everyone else's."
Clayton gave his brother a mildly sardonic look. He couldn't stay home or the worry would drive him out of his mind. And yet the cheerful conversation of his brother and the others was already wearing on his ragged nerves, and he'd only been playing for an hour. He was on the verge of suggesting to Stephen that they both adjourn to his house and indulge in an orgy of drunkenness, which was more suitable to his frame of mind anyway, when Stephen remarked to him, "Didn't really expect to find you here. Thought you'd be attending the little affair Mother is having for our relatives tonight."
Managing an excellent imitation of a man who has just said something he shouldn't have, Stephen shook his head and added apologetically, "Sorry, Clay. I forgot that with Whitney staying with her and naturally planning to attend the party, you wouldn't. . ."
Baskerville, who overheard the gist of this, forgot his earlier resolution and said with his usual unaffected cordiality, "Lovely young woman-your lady duchess. Give her my best and . . ." Baskerville's jaw slackened as he watched in horrified surprise while Clayton Westmoreland came slowly erect and rigid in his chair. "I haven't seen her anywhere," Baskerville hastily assured him.
But the duke had already risen to his feet. He stood there, staring down at his brother with a mixture of incredulity, amazement, and something else poor Baskerville was too confused to identify. And then, without so much as picking up the huge stacks of chips that represented his winnings, or bidding a civil goodbye to anyone, the duke turned on his heel and headed for the door with long, purposeful strides.
"Oh I say!" Baskerville breathed to Stephen as they both watched Clayton's retreating form. "You've really put your foot in it! I could have told you-your brother don't like for his duchess to attend parties without him."
"No," Stephen agreed with a wide grin. "I don't think he does."
The drive to Grand Oak, which normally took four hours, was accomplished in three hours and a half from the front door of Clayton's club. Whitney had been staying with his mother! With his mother, for Christ's sake! The one person alive who should have had sense enough to order his wife home to him. His own mother had collaborated in putting him through this torment!
The coach pulled up in front of his mother's brilliantly lit house, and Clayton recalled that Stephen had said there was to be a party tonight. He didn't want to see his relatives, he wanted to see his wife. And he hadn't brought formal clothes, hadn't even considered stopping at his house for a change of attire, and wouldn't have if he'd thought of it. He was sorely tempted to confront his mother with her treachery before he went in search of Whitney. He was tempted, but he wasn't going to.
"Good evening, your grace," the family butler intoned.
"Dammit!" Clayton replied as he stalked past the affronted servant on his way to look into the crowded drawing room. It seemed that every relative he had was present in those rooms. But not Whitney. He saw his mother though, and when she started toward him, her face wreathed in a smile, Clayton took a moment to direct a look of such frigid displeasure at her that it stopped her dead. Then he swung around and headed for the main stairs. "Where is my wife?" he demanded of a maid in the upstairs hall.
Clayton hesitated outside the designated door, his hand on the brass handle, his heart slamming with a combination of relief and dread. He had no idea how Whitney would react to seeing him, no idea of what he could possibly say to her. But at that moment, all that mattered was being able to see her and feast his eyes on her.
Opening the door, Clayton stepped silently within, then closed it behind him. Whitney was in a big brass tub with her back to the room. Her maid was hovering behind her, holding soap and a washcloth. Mesmerized, Clayton simply stood there.
He wanted to go to her and pull her, naked and wet, into his arms, to absorb her into his body, to carry her to the bed and lose himself in her. And at the same time, he didn't feel worthy of even speaking to her, let alone touching her. He wasn't worthy. Twice in their lives now he had treated her with a brutal viciousness of which he'd never known he was capable. God! She was nurturing his child within her womb and never once had he even asked how she was feeling. How could one slender girl bear the weight of such cruelty without hating him as he deserved? Clayton drew a long, labored breath.
Clarissa glanced up, saw Clayton rolling up his shirtsleeves as he walked toward the tub, and gave him a ferocious scowl. She opened her mouth with the obvious intention of endowing him with a liberal piece of her mind, duke or no duke, bat Clayton forestalled her with a curt nod of dismissal. Reluctantly she handed him the soap and cloth and silently left the room.
With aching gentleness, Clayton soaped Whitney's back, carefully keeping his touch light and his hands out of her view.
"That feels wonderful, Clarissa," Whitney murmured as she bent forward and lathered her legs. Normally, Clarissa left her to bathe alone, but lately she had become so worried and solicitous that Whitney didn't give much thought to this unusual, added attention.
Sleek and glistening with droplets of scented water streaming down her, Whitney arose from the bath and stepped out of the tub. She started to turn and reach behind her for the towel, but Clarissa, in an excess of compassionate helpfulness, was already gently drying her off.
Clayton toweled her neck, her soft shoulders and her trim back.
"Thank you, Clarissa, I'll finish. I'm going to have my dinner up here and then I'll dress to go downstairs for-" Turning, Whitney reached for the towel. The color drained from her face, and she swayed unsteadily as she beheld the handsome, grave man who said nothing to her, but continued to dry her body. In a state of numb paralysis, she stood stock still, incapable of movement or speech. When Clayton toweled her stomach and thighs, Whitney was dimly aware that his hands angered imperceptibly longer there, but they were not caressing her. Desperately she tried to assimilate what was happening. Clayton was here-no longer angry with her-but not speaking to her. Not smiling at her. He wasn't even touching her as a husband, but almost like a ... a servant! A servant! An aching lump began to swell in Whitney's throat as she realized what he was doing. He was acting as her maid as a way of humbling himself to her.