Chapter Twelve

THE MORNING OF THE PICNIC DAWNED BRILLIANT BLUE, WITH A fresh cool breeze that carried the scent of fall.

Whitney bathed and washed her hair, then debated what to wear. Paul would undoubtedly call for her in the carriage, but Whitney had a deep yearning to ride beside him on horseback, as they occasionally had in years past. Her mind made up, she snatched a buttercup-yellow riding habit from the wardrobe.

She was ready when she heard Paul’s carriage coming to a stop directly below her open bedroom window, but she made herself pace the length of her room ten times before she hurried out into the hallway and across the balcony.

Paul watched her coming down the stairs, a look of unconcealed appreciation on his handsome face as he surveyed her jaunty yellow riding habit and the yellow-and-white dotted silk shirt that peeked from beneath her open jacket. Around her neck she had tied a matching dotted scarf, knotting ft on the side, with the ends flipped over her right shoulder. "How can you look so lovely so early?" he asked, taking both her hands in his as she stepped onto the polished foyer floor.

Whitney suppressed the urge to fling herself into his arms and smiled up at him instead. "Good morning," she said softly. "Shall we ride, rather than take the carriage? The stable is filled with horses, and you may have year choice."

"I’m afraid you’ll have to ride over without me. I’ll need the carriage to escort those females who seem to live in constant terror of falling from a horse." He inclined his head toward a dark shadow near the front door. "Clayton will ride with you and show you where we’ll be."

Whitney panicked at the lump of disappointment and alarm swelling in her throat. She couldn’t believe Paul was doing this. Since he’d invited her, and since the picnic was in her honor, his first obligation was to escort her there. Besides, only one of the girls in the neighborhood was afraid of horses-Elizabeth Ashton. She had a terrible feeling that appointing Clayton Westland as her substitute escort was Paul’s way of demonstrating to her that he would not play the part of jealous suitor. Last night he had realised that she was trying to make him jealous, and this morning he was showing her that it hadn’t worked.

With a sublime effort, Whitney forced herself to shrug lightly and smile. "You’ll miss a lovely ride then. It’s much too fine a day to be cooped up in a carriage."

"Clayton will show you the place," Paul repeated, studying her composed features. Drily, he added, "1 gather that you two know each other well enough to be on a first-name basis?"

Whitney dragged her gaze toward the tall figure lounging in the doorway, and gritted her teeth to hide her loathing.

"I’m sure your father won’t object if Clayton rides one of your horses," Paul said, already starting to leave.

Outside on the fourth step, he turned. "Take good care of my girl," he called to Clayton, and then he was gone, leaving Whitney slightly pacified and thoroughly mystified at being first cavalierly handed over into Clayton’s custody, and then called "my girl."

Her bemused thoughts were interrupted by the deep voice she despised saying a quiet, "Good morning." Resentfully, Whitney snapped her attention to Clayton, who was still standing in the doorway. Biting back three nasty responses to his simple greeting, she passed a disdainful glance over his immaculate white shirt, which was open at the collar, his gray riding breeches, and his gleaming black boots. "Can you ride?" she asked icily.

"Good morning," he repeated with calm emphasis, still smiling at her.

Whitney clamped her mouth shut and brushed past him into the brilliant sunlight, leaving him to follow her or stay in the house, she didn’t care which.

As she marched down the path leading around the back of the house toward the stable, he remained a pace behind her, but halfway there, he stepped in front of her, blocking her way. Smiling down at her, he said, "Do you treat every gentleman who steals a kiss from you with such animosity-or only me?"

Whitney looked at him with withering scorn. "Mr. West-land, in the first place, you are no ‘gentleman.’ In the second, I don’t like you. Now, please get out of my way."

He remained there, studying her stormy face in thoughtful silence. "Kindly move out of the way and let me pass," Whitney repeated.

"If you will keep still long enough to allow me to do it, I would like to apologize for last night," he said calmly. "I can’t remember the last time I apologized for anything, so I may be a bit awkward about it."

What an arrogant, conceited beast he was to think he could take liberties with her and then placate her with a few lukewarm words of apology. By telling her to "keep still" he completely banished Whitney’s momentary inclination to hear him out anyway, and get it over with. "I won’t accept any apology from you, awkward or otherwise. Now get out of my way!"

His face darkened with annoyance, and Whitney could almost feel his struggle to hold his temper in check. She glanced toward the stable to see if anyone would be within hearing if she needed help. Thomas was there, trying to hold a furious Dangerous Crossing who was lurching and trying to rear.

And revenge took the shape of a fiery black stallion.

The smile Whitney turned upon the angry man before her was dazzling and genuine. "My manners have not been entirely beyond reproach either," Whitney said, trying desperately to look ruefully apologetic when she felt like laughing. "If you wish to apologize, I shall be most willing to accept it." Instantly, he looked suspicious, so Whitney prodded, "Or have you changed your mind?"

"I haven’t changed my mind," he said quietly. Putting his hand beneath her chin, he tipped it up and said, "I am truly sorry if I frightened you last night. It was never my intention to hurt you, and I would like for us to be friends."

Whitney resisted the urge to slap his hand away and appeared to consider his offer. "If we’re going to be friends, we should have something in common, should we not? I particularly love to ride. Are you an adequate horseman?"

"Adequate," he confirmed, subjecting her to a cool, appraising look.

Eager to be free of his scrutiny, Whitney pulled away and started down the path toward the stable. "I’ll see to a horse for you," she called over her shoulder. Clayton Westland was going to have to ride that stallion, or else admit he was afraid to try it. Either way, his monstrous ego was going to take a beating, and Whitney felt he deserved every bit of what was in store for him.

By the time she reached Thomas, she was breathless from running. She threw a furtive glance over her shoulder, saw that Clayton was less than five paces behind her, and dropped her voice to an urgent whisper. "Have Dangerous Crossing saddled immediately, Thomas. Mr. Westland insists on riding him."