"I have to say it," he persisted in rising tones. His pudgy hands felt the hem of her blue gown and Whitney snatched her skirt away, half convinced that he intended to lift it and peak beneath it. Deprived of her hem, his hand returned to cover his heart. "I admire you with every fiber of my being. I have the deepest regard for-" Gulping, he broke off, his widened eyes riveted on a point behind her. "I sincerely hope," drawled a lazily amused voice from the doorway, "that I am not interrupting a devoted man at his prayers?" Strolling to Whitney's side, Clayton looked down at an angry Cuthbert until Whitney's cousin finally staggered to his feet.
"My cousin was teaching me a new game of cards, and only one can play," he said.
The indulgent amusement in Clayton's expression vanished. With a curt nod toward the door, he said, "Now that you have learned, go and practice."
Cuthbert clenched his fists, hesitated, took a second look at the coldly determined line of his opponent's jaw, and left. Whitney watched the door close behind him and looked up at Clayton with relieved gratitude. "Thank you, I-"
"I ought to break your neck!" Clayton interrupted.
Too late, Whitney realized that she shouldn't have been standing all this time on her "injured" knee.
"Allow me to congratulate you on a fine day's work, Madam," he said sternly. "In less than twelve hours, you've brought Whitticomb to your side and Cuthbert to your feet."
Whitney stared at him. Although his tone was very grave, one corner of his mouth was quirked into something that looked suspiciously like a grin. To think she'd been quaking with fear because she thought he was furious! "You devil!" she whispered, torn between laughter and anger.
"I would hardly describe you as an angel," Clayton mocked.
All day, Whitney's emotions had been careening crazily between anger, dread, fear, and relief, rebounding from one near calamity to the next narrow escape. And now, gazing up at the darkly handsome man who was amused instead ot enraged, as she'd expected, the last vestige of her control slipped away. Tears of exhausted relief sprang to her green eyes. "This has been the most awful day," she whispered.
"Probably because you've been missing me," he said with such ironic derision that Whitney's shoulders trembled with mirth.
"Missing you?" she giggled incredulously. "I could cheerfully murder you."
"I'd come back to haunt you," he threatened with a grin.
"And that," she said, "is the only reason why I haven't tried." Without warning, what had started as a giggle became a choked sob, and tears came spilling down her cheeks.
Clayton's arm slid gently around her. He was offering her comfort, and Whitney accepted it. Turning into his arms, she buried her face against his dove-gray jacket and wept out her troubles in the embrace of the man who was responsible for causing them. When the tears finally subsided, Whitney remained where she was, her cheek resting against the solid, comforting wall of his chest.
"Feel better now?" he murmured.
Whitney nodded sheepishly and accepted his proffered handkerchief, dabbing at her eyes. "I can't remember crying after I was twelve years old, but since I came back here a few weeks ago, it seems as if I'm forever weeping." Glancing op, Whitney surprised a look of panted regret in his eyes. "May I ask you something?" she said softly.
"Anything," Clayton replied.
"Within your power, and within reason, of course," Whitney reminded him with a teary half smile.
He accepted her mild jibe with an amused inclination of his head.
"Whatever made you do this Gothic thing?" she asked him quietly, without rancor. "Whatever made you come to my father, without speaking to me first, scarcely knowing me?" Although there was no change in his expression, Whitney felt his muscles tense, and she quickly explained, "I'm only trying to understand what you could have been thinking of. We didn't get along well at the Armands' masquerade. I mocked your title and rebuffed your advances, yet you decided you wanted to marry me, of all people. Why me?" "Why do you think I chose you?" "I don't know. No man offers for a woman merely to make her miserable and ruin her life, so you must have had another reason."
Despite the unintended insult in her words, Clayton grinned. She was letting him hold her, and he was feeling extremely tolerant. "You can't condemn me for wanting you, unless you condemn every other man who has. And arranged marriages may be Gothic, but they have been a custom in the best families for centuries."
Whitney sighed. "In yours perhaps, but not in mine. And I can't believe that in those marriages there wasn't at least a chance that both people would eventually come to like one another, even to develop an affection for each other."
"Can you honestly say that you haven't occasionally felt a liking for me?" he persisted gently. "Even against your will?" There was no mockery or challenge in his tone to justify an argumentative denial, and Whitney's innate fairness prevented her from attacking without provocation. She shrugged uncomfortably and looked away. "Occasionally." "But always against your will?" Clayton teased. In spite of herself, Whitney smiled. "Against my will, and against my better judgment." His eyes warmed and Whitney cautiously changed the subject. "You promised to tell me why you wanted to marry me, and you haven't."
"How could I have known when I came here that you would set out to despise me the moment you saw me?" he countered.
"Clayton!" Whitney burst out, then froze in surprise at the sound of her voice using his given name. Hastily, she corrected her error. "My lord duke-" "I liked it much better the other way." "My lord duke," she persisted stubbornly as the quiet intimacy of their truce began to crumble, "you answer all my questions with questions! What in heaven's name possessed you to come here and offer for me?" At last Whitney realized that his arms were around her, and she jerked away. "And don't bother trying to tell me that you thought you loved me."
"I didn't," Clayton agreed equably. "As you have just pointed out, I hardly knew you at the time."
Whitney turned her back on him, unable to understand why his answer hurt her. "Wonderful!" she said bitterly. "Now it is all perfectly clear. You met me a tune or two and, knowing nothing about me-caring nothing about me-you came to England and purchased me from my greedy, penniless father, who drove a sound bargain and then sent for me to hand me over to you!" She swung around, ready-eager- for battle, but Clayton simply stood there, calm and impervious, refusing to take up the gauntlet.