His strong hands were gentle as he forced her down onto the chair beside the tub and, without looking up at her, be knelt down on one knee and solemnly began to dry her calves. "Clayton," she whispered brokenly. "Oh, don't..."

Ignoring her tearful plea, he continued his bumble services as he said in a ragged, pain-edged voice, "If I ever think you are even considering leaving me again, no matter now good your reasons, I'll have you locked in your rooms and the doors barricaded, so help me God." He lifted her mot and began to dry ft.

Her voice shaking, Whitney asked, "Will you stay locked in there with me?"

He raised her dainty foot to his jaw and tenderly laid his cheek against it, then turned his head and kissed it. "Yes," he whispered.

Standing up, he walked over to the wardrobe, removed a fine silk dressing robe and brought it over, holding it while Whitney put her arms into the sleeves. Like a puppet, she stood there while he reached around her and brought the sash to the front, tying it at her waist. Without a word, he leaned down and scooped her into his arms, carrying her over to the chair where her dinner was waiting on a low table. He sat down, cradling her on his lap. Leaning forward, he removed the silver cover from her dinner tray. When Whitney realized that he intended to feed her, she couldn't bear any more.

"Don't!" she cried out softly, reaching her arms around his powerful shoulders and burying her face in his neck. "Please, please don't do this. Just talk to me. Please talk to me."

"I can't," he whispered against her shining hair. He drew a long, tortured breath. "I can't find the words."

The naked anguish in his voice brought tears to her eyes as she leaned back and looked adoringly at him. "I can," she whispered brokenly. "You taught them to me-I love you. I love you."

Threading his fingers through her hair, he framed her face between his hands and gazed at her. "I love you," he whispered hoarsely. "God! How I love you."

In the flickering candlelight, the hands on the ormolu clock across the room from the bed had just moved to hah7 past one. Clayton gazed down tenderly at the beauty who was nestled up against him, asleep in his arms, her tousled head resting trustingly against his naked chest. Brushing a wayward curl gently off her cheek, he drew her closer to him and touched his lips to her forehead. "I love you," he breathed softly. He knew Whitney was asleep and couldn't hear him, but he needed to say the words again.

He had said them to her in his heart tonight, each time his mouth touched the dewy softness of hers in hungry urgency or aching tenderness. "I love you." It was a song his heart sang when she writhed beneath him and arched sweetly up to meet his thrusts; a melody that rose to a soaring crescendo as he led her to the peak of ecstasy and then joined her there.

His wife snuggled closer against him and dreamily whispered, "I love you, too."

"Ssssh, darling. Sleep," Clayton murmured. He had lingered over her endlessly tonight, deliberately delaying the final, exquisite moment of release until they were both wild with wanting. After such prolonged lovemaking he wanted her to rest.

"What took you so long?" she whispered.

Leaning his head down to better see her face, Clayton grinned. "I can't believe you mean what I think you mean."

She looked puzzled at first, then she blushed and looked away.

Surprised and concerned by her reaction, Clayton tipped her chin up. "What did you mean?" he asked gently.

"It--it doesn't matter. Truly it doesn't."

Gazing down into her pain-shadowed green eyes, he said quietly, "I think that, whatever it is, it matters very much to you."

Whitney wished she hadn't spoken, wouldn't have, except that the hurt was spreading through her like a bruise that would not stop aching. Knowing that Clayton would now insist on an answer, she gave it in a barely audible whisper, "Marie."

"What about her?"

"Was she the reason it took you so long to come for me?"

Tightening his arms around her, as if he could absorb some of the pain he had caused her, Clayton smiled wryly. "Darling, the reason it took me so long was that forty investigators could not find a trace of you. And I-who undoubtedly should have known better-failed to consider my own mother as a possible partner in a conspiracy to keep my wife from me."

"But I thought this would be the first place you would think of looking for me, once you had time to think things over."

"Well it wasn't," Clayton said quietly. "But then, neither did I 'think things over' within five miles of Marie St. Allermain-which I gather is what you're trying to ask me."

"You didn't?"

"No, I didn't."

Her green eyes filled with tears as she gazed at him and smiled tremulously. "Thank you," she whispered simply.

"You're very welcome," Clayton said with a tender smile at her upturned face. He traced his finger along the elegant carve of her cheek. "Now sleep, my love. Otherwise, this bed is again going to be put to another use."

Obediently she closed her eyes and snuggled into his arms. Her fingertips slid up to lightly brush the hair at his temple; a few minutes later they slipped down his shoulder to his chest.

Clayton felt his body's instant response and tried to control the mounting passion which Whitney was inadvertently igniting with her sleepy caresses. When her hand drifted down the planes of his stomach, he caught it and held it firmly in his own to prevent its further descent. He thought he heard a smothered laugh as she turned in apparent sleep, and her lips touched his ear.

Leaning back, Clayton gazed suspiciously into her face. She was wide awake, her eyes aglow with love.

In one quick, smooth motion, he rolled her over onto her back and pressed her into the pillows, his body half covering hers. "You can't say I didn't warn you," he whispered in a husky voice.

"I won't."