"I'm early," he stated unequivocally.
Whitney swallowed back a gurgle of relieved laughter, and he added, "However, now that I know how eager you are to see me, I shall make it a point to be early all the time." The great hall clock began to chime the hour of eleven as they left the house, and Clayton shot her an I-told-you-so look.
She climbed into his carriage and leaned back against the moss-green velvet squabs, gazing up at the puffy white clouds skittering across an azure sky. She felt his weight settle into the seat beside her, and her sidewise gaze wandered admiringly over his shiny brown boots, his long, muscular legs clad in biscuit superfine, his rust-colored jacket, and cream-silk shirt.
"If what I'm wearing doesn't please you," he drawled, "we can go to my humble abode and you can decide which of my clothes you approve."
Whitney's head jerked up. Her first impulse was to retort that it didn't matter in the least to her what he wore. Instead she surprised them both by shyly admitting the truth: "I was thinking that you look splendid."
She caught his startled look of pleasure before he gave the spirited grays the office to start, sending them trotting away.
Trees marched along both sides of the country lane, their branches meeting overhead like Lines of partners in a country dance, forming an arch for the carriage which rocked along beneath. Leaves swirled and drifted down in slow motion, and Whitney reached up, lazily trying to catch a bright yellow one.
When Clayton guided the pair south at the fork in the road, however, she sat bolt upright, turning on him in bewilderment and panic. "Where are we going?"
"To the village, for a start."
"I-I don't need anything from the village," Whitney insisted urgently.
"But I do," he said flatly.
Falling back against her seat, Whitney closed her eyes in bleak despair. They would be seen together and, in that sleepy little village where nothing ever happened, much would be made of it. She knew that everyone, with the exception of the man beside her, was expecting the announcement that she and Paul were soon to be married. She felt ill just thinking of Paul stopping in the village on his way home and hearing an exaggerated version of today's outing.
Their carriage clattered across the stone bridge and down the cobbled streets of the village, between the long rows of quaint, shuttered buildings which housed a few inferior shops and a small inn. When Clayton pulled the horses to a smart stop before the apothecary's shop, Whitney could have screamed. The apothecary, of all people-the worst of the village tattlers!
Clayton came around to help her alight. Trying to make her voice sound normal, she said, "Please, I would rather wait here."
In the voice of one issuing a command, but politely phrasing it as a request, Clayton said, "I would like it very much if you accompanied me."
That particular tone of his never failed to raise Whitney's hackles, and the friendly atmosphere of their outing abruptly disintegrated. "That's very unfortunate, because I'm not going into that shop." To her consternation and fury, Clayton reached into the carriage, grasped her by the waist, and lifted her down. She was afraid to struggle or push his hands away for fear of creating even more of a scene than they undoubtedly had already. "Are you trying to make a public spectacle of us?" she gasped, the instant her feet touched the cobbles.
"Yes," he said unanswerably, "I am."
Whitney saw the florid, jowly face of Mr. Oldenberry peering curiously at them through the window of his shop, and all hope of escaping notice was shattered. Inside the tiny, dimly lit shop an odd array of medicinal scents mingled with the odors of herbs, over which there was the pervading sting of ammonia salts. The apothecary was all effusive greetings, but Whitney saw his eyes lock with fanatic curiosity upon Clayton's hand, which still cupped her elbow.
"How is Mr. Paul?" he asked her slyly.
"I believe he's expected to return in another five days," Whitney said, wondering what this little man would be saving six days from now if she carried through with her tentative plan to elope with Paul.
Clayton asked for a bottle of hartshorn and the apothecary handed it to Whitney. Grimacing with distaste, Whitney waved it away. "It's for Mr. Westland, Mr. Oldenberry," she said solemnly. "I fear he suffers quite terribly from the vapors and the headache."
Clayton accepted her slur upon his masculine vitality with an infuriating grin. "Indeed I do," he chuckled, while his hand left Whitney's elbow and swept possessively around her shoulders, drawing her close for an affectionate squeeze. "And I intend to continue 'suffering.'" He winced as Whitney ground her heel into his instep, then winked at the apothecary. "My suffering gains me a great deal of sympathetic attention from this enchanting neighbor of mine."
"Oh rubbish!" Whitney burst out.
Clayton turned a conspiratorial smile on the apothecary and observed admiringly, "She certainly has a temper, doesn't she, Mr. Oldenberry?" Mr. Oldenberry puffed up with importance and agreed that, indeed, Miss Stone had always had a temper, and that he, like Mr. Westland, preferred females with spunk.
Whitney watched Clayton pay for the hartshorn, and she caught the subtle movement of his hand as he placed the bottle back on the counter. Certain now that he had invented this errand for the sole purpose of illustrating to every gossip within fifteen miles that he had some claim upon her affection, Whitney spun on her heel. Clayton caught up with her as she stepped from the shop into the sunlight. "You're going to regret this," Whitney promised in a furious undertone.
"I don't think so," he said, guiding her across the street.
Elizabeth Ashton and Margaret Merryton were emerging from one of the shops, the latter's arms laden with bundles wrapped in white paper and tied with string. Politeness dictated that they all stop and exchange civilities. For once, Margaret didn't greet Whitney with an insulting, vindictive remark. In fact, she didn't greet her at all. Turning her shoulder to Whitney, she smiled into Clayton's gray eyes while Clayton obligingly took her bundles from her. As they crossed the street toward Margaret's carriage, Margaret linked her arm through his and said just loudly enough for Whitney to hear, "I've been meaning to ask you if I left my parasol in your carriage the other evening."
The shock of his betrayal knocked the breath from Whitney. True, she herself didn't feel obligated to honor their betrothal agreement, but Clayton had willingly and legally committed himself to her in a contract almost as binding and solemn as marriage. The man was worse than a rake, he was . . . promiscuous! And of all the women for him to be seeing in secret, he had chosen to consort with her bitterest enemy. Pain and rage seeped through Whitney's system.