Bewildered, Whitney stared at her aunt who had half-risen from her chair and was staring straight ahead with a look of such horrified alarm that Whitney leaned forward and peered into the shadows. She gasped when she saw Clayton Westland sitting there. "I-I beg your pardon! I'm sorry to have interrupted the three of you. As you've probably guessed, Mr. Westland, I had no idea you were sitting there. But since you are," Whitney persevered, determined to finish now that she'd begun, "I hope I can depend upon you not to mention my forthcoming betrothal to anyone. You see ..." The screech of chair legs on the planked floor as her father heaved himself to his feet, checked Whitney in mid-sentence. The fury in his voice brought her whirling around to face him.
"How dare you!" he bellowed. "What is the meaning of this?"
"The meaning?" Whitney echoed in bewilderment. Her father was standing with palms flat against the top of his desk, his arms trembling. "Paul Sevarin has asked me to marry him, that's all." In defiance of his thunderous glower, which she recalled so well as a child, Whitney added, "And I am going to do it."
Slowly, distinctly, as if he were addressing an idiot, her father said, "Paul Sevarin hasn't a pittance to his name! Do you understand me? His lands are mortgaged, and his creditors are hounding him!"
Despite her shock, Whitney managed to make her voice sound calm and reasonable. "I had no idea Paul was pressed for funds, but I can't see why it should signify one way or another. I have money of my own from my grandmother. And there's my dowry, besides. And whatever I have will be Paul's."
"You have nothing!'* her father hissed. "I was in worse straits than Sevarin. The duns were after me. I used your inheritance and dowry to pay them."
Recoiling as much from the vicious tone of his voice as the words he said, Whitney turned to her aunt, expecting her support. "Then Paul and I will have to live simply, without the luxuries my dowry and inheritance could have provided."
Aunt Anne just sat there, clutching the arms of her chair.
In helpless confusion, Whitney turned back to her father. "Papa, you should have told me that you were in such trouble! Why, I-I spent a fortune on clothes and jewels and furs before I came home from France. If only I'd-"
It penetrated through the wave of guilt and alarm sweeping over her that there was something amiss in all of this, something that didn't make any sense. Then it dawned on Whitney what it was. Cautiously, she said, "The stables are filled with new horses. The house and grounds are swarming with more servants than we could possibly need. If you are in such dire circumstances, why are we living in this extravagant manner?"
Her father's face took on a frightening purple hue. He opened his mouth, then clamped it shut.
"Surely I have a right to an explanation," Whitney persisted carefully. "You have just told me that I must marry Paul as a pauper, without dowry, and that my inheritance is gone. If all this is true, how do we manage to live like this?"
"My circumstances unproved," he hissed.
Unable to keep the accusation from her voice, Whitney said, "Your circumstances improved in July, yet you aren't going to replace my inheritance or my dowry?"
His fist crashed against the desktop; his roar reverberated through the room. "I'll tolerate no more of this farce. You're betrothed to Clayton Westmoreland. The arrangements have been made. The settlement has already taken place!"
The subtle difference in Clayton's surname momentarily escaped Whitney's notice as she groped frantically through the tumult in her mind. "But how-why-when did you do this?"
"In July!" he hissed. "And it's settled, do you understand? It's final!"
Whitney stared at him through eyes huge with horror and disbelief. "Are you telling me that you made a settlement on this man without ever consulting me? You pledged my dowry and my inheritance to a perfect stranger, without considering my feelings?"
"Damn you!" her father hissed between his clenched teeth. "He made the settlement on me!"
"You must have been a very happy man in July," Whitney whispered brokenly. "You finally managed to rid yourself of me forever, and this 'gentleman' actually paid you for me, and-oh God!" she cried. With sudden, heartbreaking clarity, all the pieces of the bizarre puzzle fell into place, presenting the whole gruesome picture, complete in every profane detail.
Closing her eyes against the scalding tears that threatened, she braced her hands on the desk for support. When she opened them, she saw her father through a bleary haze. "He has paid for all of this, hasn't he? The horses, the servants, the new furniture, the repairs to the house . . ." She choked on her next words. "The things I bought in August in France. What I'm wearing now, he paid for that too, didn't he?"
"Yes, dammit! I had lost everything. I had sold everything I could."
A boulder settled where Whitney's heart had been; cold fury dwelled where there had been love. "And when there was nothing else you could bear to part with, you sold me! You sold me to a perfect stranger for a lifetime!" Whitney stopped, drawing a long, anguished breath. "Father, are you certain you got the best price for me? I hope you didn't take his first offer. Surely you haggled a little-"
"How dare you!" he thundered, slapping her across the face with a force that nearly sent her to her knees. His hand lifted to strike her again, but the biting fury in Clayton Westmoreland's voice checked him in mid-motion. "If you touch her again, Martin, I'll make this the sorriest day of your life."
Her father's face froze, then sagged with defeat as he sank back into his chair. Whitney swung around on her "rescuer," her voice shaking with fury. "You low, vile snake! What sort of man are you that you have to purchase a wife? What sort of animal are you that you had to buy her without ever having seen her? How much did I cost you?" she demanded.
Despite her haughty stance, Clayton saw that her beautiful eyes, which were hurling scornful daggers at him, were also glittering with unshed tears. "I am not going to answer that," he said gently.
Whitney's thoughts circled, looking for some crack in his armor of implacable calm, some spot where she could thrust the blade of her anger. "You couldn't have paid much," she taunted. "The house you live in is no more than modest. Did you squander your entire pitiful fortune on acquiring me? Did my father drive a hard bargain or-"
"That's enough," Clayton interrupted quietly, coming to his feet.