Infuriated by Us imperious tone, Whitney sat-but not on his jacket. Instead, she dropped to the grass, curled her legs beneath her, and stared straight ahead at the pond.
"You're quite right," Clayton observed drily. "The damage to those rags you're wearing is much less important than soiling one of my favorite jackets." So saying, he picked up his jacket and put it around her stiff shoulders, then settled himself beside her.
"I'm not cold," Whitney informed him, trying to shrug his jacket off.
"Excellent. Then we can dispense with this absurd cap you're wearing." He reached up and snatched the little mob cap from her hair, and Whitney's temper ignited, sending a rush of hot color to the soft curve of her cheek. "You rude overbearing. . ." She clamped her mouth closed in frustrated rage at the glint of laughter in his gray eyes.
"Do go on," Clayton encouraged. "I believe you left off at 'overbearing.'"
Whitney's palm positively itched to slap that mocking grin from his face. She drew a long, rasping breath. "I wish I could find the right words to tell you just how much I loathe you, and everything you represent."
"I'm sure you'll go on trying until you do," he remarked agreeably.
"Do you know," Whitney said, staring fixedly at the pond, "I hated you from the first moment I met you at the masquerade, and the feeling has intensified with every encounter since then."
Pulling his knee up, Clayton rested his wrist on it and studied her impassively for a long, silent moment. "I'm very sorry to hear that," he said softly. "Because I thought that you were the loveliest, most enchanting creature God ever created."
Whitney was so startled by the gentle caress in his voice that she snapped her head around and searched his face for signs of sarcasm.
Reaching out, he traced his forefinger along the curve of her cheek. "And there have been times, when you were in my arms, that you gave no sign of this hatred you insist you've always felt. In fact, you seemed to enjoy being there."
"I have never enjoyed your attentions! In fact I've always found them . . ." Whitney groped desperately for the right word, hampered by the knowledge that they both knew her traitorous body had responded to his caresses. "I've always found them-most disturbing!"
He slowly brushed his knuckles along her chin, up to her earlobe, sending shivers down her spine. "Those times were 'disturbing' for me as well, little one," he murmured quietly.
"Yet you persisted in doing it, although I told you not to!" she blazed. "Even now, this very minute, I can tell you're just waiting for another opportunity to-to pounce on me!"
"True," he admitted with a throaty chuckle. "I'm drawn to you like a moth to a flame. Just as you are to me."
Whitney thought she was going to explode. "Why you conceited bas-"
His forefinger pressed against her trembling lips, silencing her. Grinning, he shook his head. "It grieves me to deprive you of one of your epithets, but I have it on the best authority that there is no question of my legitimacy."
Her life was in tatters and he was laughing! Flinging off his restraining hand, Whitney scrambled to her feet and said woodenly, "If you don't mind, I'm tired. And I'm going inside. I can't share your humor in all of this. I have been sold by my own father to a stranger, an arrogant, cold-hearted, selfish fiend, who, without a care for my feelings-"
Panther-quick, Clayton rolled to his feet, his hands locking like slave manacles on her arms as he pulled her around to face him. "Allow me to help you itemize my crimes against you, Whitney," he said with cool calm. "I am so cold-hearted that I saved your father from debtor's prison by paying all his debts. I am so selfish that I've stood by, watching you flirt with Sevarin, so arrogant that I let you sit next to him at that goddamned picnic and snipe at me, when the taste of your mouth was still warm on mine. And why have I done this? Because in my cruel, fiendish way, I want to give you the protection of my name, an unassailable position at the pinnacle of society, and a pampered life replete with every luxury within my power to grant you." He looked at her levelly. "For this, do you honestly think I deserve your bitterness and animosity?"
Whitney's shoulders drooped. She swallowed and looked away, her spirit shattered. She felt confused and miserable, no longer entirely right-yet not completely wrong either. "I-I don't know what you deserve."
He tipped her chin up. "Then I'll tell you," he said quietly. "I deserve nothing-except to be spared the hatred and blame for your father's drunken blundering last night. That's all I ask of you for now."
To Whitney's mortification, tears welled up in her eyes.
Brushing them away with her fingertips, she shook her head, declining his proffered handkerchief. "It's only that I'm tired. I didn'tt sleep very well last night."
"Nor did I," he said feelingly, escorting her back to the house. Sewell opened the front door, and from the salon came peals of laughter and loud, jesting remarks on the progress of the whist games apparently in progress. "We'll ride tomorrow morning. But if we aren't going to provide the main topic of conversation for your houseguests, I think it would be best if I met you down at the stables. At ten o'clock."
In her room, Whitney untied the white apron and pulled off the ugly black dress. Even though it was not yet two, she felt limp and exhausted. She knew she should put in an appearance downstairs, but she recoiled from the thought of the false smile she would have to wear and the gay chatter she would have to listen to; besides, if just one person said so much as a word about the Duke of Claymore, she was positive she would have hysterics!
The gold coverlet had been neatly turned down, and the bed beckoned to her, A nap might restore her spirits and enable her to think more clearly, she decided. She slid between the cool covers, and, with a heavy sigh, she closed her eyes.
When next she awoke, the moon was riding high in a black velvet sky. She rolled over onto her stomach, seeking the peace of slumber before she lost it to wakefulness and the torturous thoughts that would surely come.
CLAYTON WAS LEANING AGAINST THE FENCE, LAUGHING WITH Thomas when Whitney arrived at the stables the next morning. Whitney managed a smile for Thomas, but it died on her lips when she looked at the lazily relaxed man beside him.
When she didn't reply to his "Good morning," Clayton sighed resignedly and straightened. Tipping his head toward Khan, who was being led out of the stable, he said, "Your horse is ready."