The coach drew to a stop in front of her house, and a footman came to open the door and let down the steps. Whitney began to rum toward the door, but Clayton's quiet voice stopped her. "My business affairs won't require that I remain in London for that long, but I thought you would want some time alone after you confront Sevarin. Unless you send word to me in London, I'll remain there until Sunday-a week from tomorrow."
As he told her how to reach him in London, Whitney heard the guarded hope in his voice that she would indeed send for him before the week was out, and she laid a trembling hand on his sleeve, aching to plead for his forgiveness and understanding. "Clayton, I-" She saw his pleasure at her voluntary touch and her use of his given name, and her voice broke. "Have a pleasant trip," she managed to say, pulling away and blindly climbing down from the coach.
As soon as she reached her room, Whitney sent a note round to Paul's house with instructions that no matter what time Mr. Sevarin returned, he was to be given it. In it, she asked him to send word to her that he was back and then to go immediately to the old gamekeeper's cottage where she would join him. There, at least, she would have some privacy so that she could explain her predicament. Explain her predicament! How in the world was she ever going to find the words to do that? she wondered dejectedly.
By nightfall there was still no word from Paul.
Twice as she dressed for bed, Whitney almost went down the hall to enlist her aunt's aid in the elopement. Each time, her better judgment warned that Aunt Anne would never consent to an elopement no matter how urgent Whitney's reasons might be. Aunt Anne would think only of the irreversible damage the elopement would do to Whitney's reputation. She would never understand that Whitney couldn't, she just couldn't take the coward's way out now and let Paul down, even if she wanted to-which she didn't, Whitney told herself without much conviction. He loved her. He was counting on her.
Since she couldn't trust Clarissa with her secret either, Whitney slowly packed her necessities and hid the case, then she climbed into bed and gazed at the ceiling. Of all the unpleasant tasks facing her, the one she dreaded most was writing the note she would have to send to Clayton in London.
Mentally she worded and reworded it. It preyed on her mind until she finally decided to get it over with and dragged herself out of bed. "Paul and I have eloped," she wrote. "I hope some day you will find it in your heart if not to forgive me, at least to understand."
Forgive? Understand? Never would Clayton do so. She sat at her desk and stared at the note, imagining Clayton's reaction to it. At first he would smile, thinking that she was sending word to him to return early, and then his smile would fade ...
Shivering as if the blast from those glacial gray eyes were already levelled on her, Whitney crawled back into bed and huddled under the covers. She wasn't certain she had the courage to elope or even if she wanted to elope.
Tears trickled down her cheeks and dampened her pillow as she thought of the tall, gray-eyed man whom she would have to face when she returned from her elopement-a forceful, vital man who would turn away from her in disgust and loathing, who would never again laugh with her, never hold her in his strong arms, and never again call her "little one" in that tender way of his.
Paul's message arrived at eleven o'clock the following morning. Dressed warmly against the frosty chill of the cloudy day, Whitney raced Khan around the hillside and galloped into the overgrown yard of the deserted cottage. She tied Khan beside Paul's horse, then shoved open the creaky door of the cottage. The timid little tire Paul had built snapped and flickered on the hearth but did little to dispel the chilly gloom of the single empty room. At a movement behind her, Whitney whirled nervously. "Paul!"
"I believe you were expecting me," he teased. Straightening from his lounging position against the wall, he opened his arms and said, "Come here."
Whitney went to him and automatically turned her face up for his kiss, while her mind sorted through various ways to begin.
"I've missed you, brat," he murmured in her hair. "Have you missed me?"
"Yes," she answered absently, pulling away from his arms. She had to explain slowly, not heap all their tangled problems on him in the first minute. She moved toward the center of the room, then turned to face him. "Paul, I have some things to tell you which you are going to find"-she searched madly for the right word-"surprising."
"Go on," Paul urged, grinning. "I like surprises."
"Well, you aren't going to like this one!" she burst out helplessly. "You know Mr. Westland?"
"And do you recall at my father's party, how everyone was gossiping about the Duke of Claymore, Clayton Westmoreland?"
"I do," Paul said.
"Well, Mr. Westland is actually Westmoreland."
"The duke who disappeared?" Paul said, his expression a mixture of amusement, curiosity, and disbelief. "The duke who owns fifty estates, four hundred of the best horses in Europe, and who is, if my memory of the party gossip is correct, on the verge of marrying no less than fifty ravishingly beautiful females? That duke?"
Temporarily sidetracked, Whitney said, "Actually he only has seven estates. He may have four hundred horses, I don't know. But I do know that he is on the verge of marrying only one female. Now Paul," she said soothingly, her voice shaky with nerves, "I know you will find this as disconcerting as I did at first, but I am the female he's on the verge of marrying."
Paul's lips twitched with laughter as he came forward to draw her into his arms. "If he persists in his suit," he teased, running his thumb along her chin, "I'll tell him what I've just discovered-that when you are left to your own company, you drink the cooking sherry."
"Are you implying that I'm foxed?" Whitney gasped in disbelief.
"Drunk as a wheelbarrow," he joked, then he sobered. "Stop trying to make me jealous. If you're angry because I've been gone so long, then simply say so."
In sheer frustration, Whitney lurched back and stamped her foot. "I am not trying to make you jealous! I am trying to make you understand that I've been betrothed to Clayton Westmoreland since this past June." There, it was out!
"I beg your pardon?" Paul said, staring at her.
"Actually, I think it was July," Whitney rambled on disjointedly. "Do you think it's important?"
For the first time Paul took her seriously. "You accepted Westland?"