In angry despair, Whitney sank back down into the chair she'd occupied earlier, and picked up the cards. "This is solitaire," she said, dismissing him as she resumed the game she'd left unfinished. "It's all the rage in France, but it can only be played by one person "
Clayton watched her. "In this instance, my lady, it would seem to require two." Leaning down he deftly made four obvious plays which Whitney had overlooked because Cuthbert had been hanging over her shoulder.
"Thank you," Whitney said. "But I would rather play this alone."
Turning, he went to the door, and Whitney thought he was finally leaving. Instead he spoke to a servant in a tow tone, and a moment later he came back to the table and placed an intricately carved rosewood box, belonging to her father, before her. Flipping up the lid, he exposed stacks of wooden chips. Whitney recognized them as the same sort of chips which Uncle Edward and his friends used when they gambled at cards.
A quiver of excitement shot through her as she realized that Clayton apparently intended to teach her how to use them. What a shocking, scandalous thing for him even to contemplate. .. but it was such an intriguing idea that Whitney made no protest. She watched as Clayton shrugged out of his jacket and draped it carelessly over her father's desk. Sitting down across from her, he unbuttoned his gray waistcoat, leaned back in his chair, and inclined his head toward the deck of cards. "Deal," he said.
Whitney was so nervous about the severe breach of propriety she was committing, that she knew she'd never be able to shuffle the cards properly. She gathered them together and pushed the deck toward Clayton. Fascinated, she watched the cards spring to life in his hands, flying into place with a whoosh and a snap as he shuffled them. Her voice was tinged with reluctant admiration. "I'll bet you're acquainted with every gaming hall in London."
"Intimately," he agreed. Palming the deck face down on the table, he raised a dark, challenging brow at her. "Cut the cards," he said.
Whitney hesitated, trying unsuccessfully to maintain a cool, disdainful attitude toward him, but how could she when he looked so outrageously handsome and elegantly dissolute? Lounging nonchalantly in that chair, with his waistcoat open at the front, he was the personification of the well-bred gentleman at the gaming table-and he was going to teach her how to play. Besides, she knew in her heart that he was trying to cheer her and distract her from her troubles. "I hope you know," she said, leaning forward, her hand hovering uncertainly over the deck, "that if anyone sees me doing this, my reputation will be destroyed."
Clayton gave her a long, meaningful look. "A duchess can do as she pleases."
"I am not a duchess," Whitney returned.
"But you're going to be," be said with absolute finality.
Whitney opened her mouth to argue, but he nodded toward the deck. "Cut the cards."
Gambling, Whitney thought two hours later as she stacked the chips away, made one feel deliriously wicked and decadent. Despite her unfamiliarity with the games, she had played very well and lost only a little money. She sensed that Clayton was proud of how quickly she learned, yet any other gentleman of her acquaintance, even Nicki, would have been horrified that she seemed to possess such a penchant for gaming. Why, she wondered absently, watching Clayton button his waistcoat and pull on his jacket, did he admire in her the very things that would shock or intimidate her other suitors? When she was with Paul, she had to be very careful to stay well within the bounds of feminine propriety, yet Clayton seemed to tike her best when she was being her most outrageously impertinent self. If Paul knew she had gambled at cards, he would be shocked and displeased, yet Clayton had taught her to play and grinned at her in open admiration when she did it well.
Her thoughts scattered as Clayton leaned over her chair and pressed a light kiss on her upturned forehead. "We'll go for a drive tomorrow at 11 o'clock if the weather permits," he said. And he left.
Dr. Hugh Whitticomb was seated before the fire enjoying a glass of his host's excellent brandy when Clayton returned. "How did you find my young patient?" he asked with pretended casualness as Clayton poured himself a nightcap.
Sitting down, Clayton propped his feet on the low table between them, and gazed dispassionately at the physician. "I found her much the same as you probably did this afternoon -standing on her own two feet."
"You don't sound very pleased about it," Dr. Whitticomb remarked evasively.
"I found her," Clayton clarified with a grim smile, "receiving a proposal of marriage from one of her cousins."
Dr. Whitticomb made an impressive show of choking upon his brandy while he struggled to keep his face straight. "I can understand how that might have surprised you."
"I have long passed the point where anything Whitney does surprises me," he said, but his irritated tone completely denied his philosophical words.
After a moment's hesitation, Dr. Whitticomb said, "I am a detached observer and not inexperienced in dealing with the female mind. If you will pardon the presumption of an old family friend, perhaps I might be able to offer some advice?" Taking the duke's silence for consent, Dr. Whitticomb continued, "I have already gathered that Miss Stone wants something you aren't wilting to give her. What is it that she wants?"
"What she wants," Clayton replied sardonically, "is to be released from the betrothal contract."
Dr. Whitticomb gave a bark of horrified laughter. "My God! No wonder she glowered at me when I offered subtle suggestions on how she ought to comport herself in order to keep you." Conflicting thoughts chased across his mind- amazement that the young lady could find fault with an offer from England's most eligible, most sought after bachelor; admiration for Clayton's patience in dealing with her rebellion; and bewilderment over why the most eagerly awaited betrothal announcement in a decade was being kept hushed. "What objection does the lovely widgeon have to your offer?" he said finally.
Leaning his head against the back of his chair, Clayton closed his eyes and sighed. "That I neglected to consult her first."
"I can't see why she should fault you for that. But then, knowing her independent temperament as you must have done, why didn't you consult with her first?"
Clayton opened his eyes. "Since she didn't even know my name at the time, I felt that it might be awkward to discuss marriage with her."
"She didn't know your . . . You can't mean to tell me that with half the females in Europe throwing themselves at you, you offered for a young woman you didn't even know!"