And now she had betrayed him. She had taken his love and defiled it in Clayton Westmoreland's arms. She was unworthy of Paul. Dear God! she was unworthy of Clayton Westmoreland, too. Wasn't she, even now, after returning his kisses, planning to marry another man?
Dawn had lightened the sky when she arrived at a final, irrevocable decision. Since Clayton would never willingly give her up, she would elope with Paul the day he returned. Paul loved her, and he trusted her; he was counting on her. The shame of an elopement would be her penance for her lustful, wicked behavior in Paul's absence. Someday, somehow, she would again be worthy of his love and trust. She would earn it by being the most devoted, obedient, faithful wife on earth.
Now that she had resolved on a course of action, she should have felt much better, but when she awoke late the next morning, she felt positively wretched.
Massaging her temples with both hands, Whitney swung her feet onto the floor and cautiously edged to the small washstand, her head pounding with every step she took. Squinting from the pain, she poured herself a glass of cool water and rang for Clarissa to help her dress.
Pate and distant, she slid into her chair at the breakfast table, managed a wan smile for Aunt Anne and flatly ignored her father. Unfortunately, her father refused to be ignored any longer. "Well, Miss," he demanded in a curt, authoritative tone, "have you and his grace set the date yet?"
Laying her fork aside, Whitney perched her chin on her folded hands, deliberately goading him with her wide, blank stare. "What date?"
"Don't treat me like an imbecile! You know I'm referring to a wedding date."
"Wedding?" Whitney repeated. "Did I forget to tell you? There's not going to be a wedding." Tossing an apologetic glance at Aunt Anne, Whitney rose from the table and left the room.
"Really, Martin, you are the greatest fool to push her that way. What choice do you leave her except to defy you?" Distastefully, Anne shoved her plate aside and followed Whitney.
After a moment, Martin also shoved his plate aside and sent for his carriage in order to pay a morning call on his future son-in-law.
By eleven o'clock Whitney's headache had abated, but her mood had not improved. Seated across from Aunt Anne in the sewing room, she listlessly worked at her embroidery frame. "I loathe needlework," she observed unemotionally. "I have always loathed it. Even if I could do it well, I'd still loathe it."
"I know," her aunt sighed, "but it keeps one's hands busy." They both looked up as a footman came in with the mail and handed a letter to Whitney. "It's from Nicki," Whitney said, brightening with fondness at the memory of him. Eagerly she broke the seal and began to read Nicki's bold, firm scrawl.
The smile faded from her face, and her head began to pound with renewed vigor. Slumping back in her chair, she gazed in numb horror at her aunt. "Nicki is arriving in London tomorrow."
Anne's embroidery needle froze in mid-stitch. "His grace will not be pleased to have Nicolas DuVille here on our doorstep, pressing his suit right beside Paul Sevarin."
Whitney was more concerned about sparing herself the humiliation of having Nicki here as a houseguest, where he would inevitably learn of her scandalous elopement with Paul next week. "It needn't come to that," she said firmly, taking charge of the matter. She left the room, returning a moment later with quill and parchment.
"What are you going to say?"
"Not to put too fine a point on it," Whitney announced, dipping the quill into the inkpot and beginning to write, "I am going to tell Nicki to remain in London. What sort of contagious disease do you prefer? Malaria? The plague?" Seeing that her aunt was not sharing her semi-hysterical humor, Whitney added more calmly, "I shall simply tell Nicki that I have commitments away from here and won't be able to
see him this trip. I gather from what he wrote that he is only going to be in England for a short time to attend some social function at Lord Marcus Rutherford's-whoever that may be."
For want of any more helpful comment, Anne said, "Lord Rutherford is connected with several of the best families in Europe, including the DuVilles. Your uncle has often said he is the most astute man in the government, and one of the most powerful, as well."
"Well, he certainly chose an inconvenient time to ask Nicki to come to England," Whitney remarked as she sprinkled fine sand over the note and rang for a footman to have it sent off at once.
Now that she'd taken matters into her own hands and done something to help avert disaster, Whitney felt better. With great gusto she applied herself to her needlework, but she had never been any good at it, and the tiny perfect stitches she planned in her mind failed to materialize on the cloth. In a fit of frustrated impatience, she ignored the ghastly effect she was creating and simply enjoyed the act of stabbing at the cloth with the needle.
Long after her aunt had gone down to lunch, she continued. This stab was for fate, which out of sheer perversity, was thwarting her at every turn. This stab was for Lord Rutherford, who was responsible for Nicki coming to England. This stab was for her father-cruel, heartless, unloving. This stab was for ... In her vengeful enthusiasm, Whitney missed the fabric and yelped in pain as the needle pierced her left index finger.
A throaty chuckle preceded a familiar, deep voice. "Are you embroidering that cloth or assaulting it?"
Whitney surged to her feet in surprise, sending her embroidery sliding to the floor. She had no idea how long Clayton had been standing in the doorway watching her. All she knew was that he seemed to fill the room with his compelling presence and that her spirits soared crazily at the sight of him. Embarrassed by her reaction, she hastily directed her attention to her finger where a minuscule drop of blood had appeared.
"Shall I send for Dr. Whitticomb?" he offered. A smile tugged at the corner of his handsome mouth as he added, "If you don't want Whitticomb, I can send for 'Dr. Thomas' but I understand that his specialty is more in the line of sprains and breaks. . ."
Whitney bit her bottom lip, trying desperately not to laugh. "Actually, Dr. Thomas is very busy with another patient right now-a sorrel mare. And Dr. Whitticomb was rather irritated over being sent here on a fool's errand the last time. I doubt he'd be quite so gracious about being summoned on a second one."
"Was it 'a fool's errand'?" Clayton asked quietly.
The laughter fled from Whitney's face and an inexplicable guilt assailed her. "You know it was," she whispered, averting her eyes.