"What?" Thomas gasped, staring at Westland. "Are you certain?"
"Positive!" Whitney said, laughing silently as Thomas turned and walked into the stable. Feeling extremely pleased with herself, Whitney clasped her hands behind her back and strolled over to the white corral fence to stand beside Clayton, "I’ve arranged for you to ride our very finest horse," she told him.
Clayton studied her bright smile, but his attention was diverted by the sound of a scuffle from within the stable. Two violent oaths from a groom were followed by a yowl of pain, and Dangerous Crossing erupted into the enclosure, flinging one groom against the fence, then kicking savagely at the other.
"Isn’t he wonderful?" Whitney rhapsodized, casting a mirthful sideways glance at her intended victim. At that moment, the horse changed direction, charging for the rail where they stood, then swung around. Whitney jumped back just as his rear feet punched out, exploding against the fence like the crack of a cannon. With a tremor in her voice, she explained, "He’s … ah … very spirited."
"So I see," Clayton agreed, shifting his impassive gaze from the nervous, sweating stallion to Whitney.
"If you’re afraid to ride the stallion, simply say so," Whitney generously suggested. "I’m sure we can find you a more suitable mount. . . like Sugar Plum." Fighting back her laughter, she nodded sweetly toward the old brood mare who was nibbling contentedly at grass, her belly hanging down, and her backbone sticking up. Clayton followed her gaze, and a look of cold revulsion crossed his features. Instantly, Whitney decided it would be much more satisfying if Clayton Westland had to jog up to the picnickers on the ancient mare. "Thomas!" Whitney called, "Mr. Westland has decided to ride Sugar Plum instead, so-"
"The stallion will do," Clayton snapped at Thomas, then he swung his icy gaze on Whitney.
Defensively, she said, "Why don’t you just tell me where the picnic is, and I’ll go on ahead."
"I have no intention of doing that, nor do I intend to gratify your wish to see me lying on the ground under the stallion’s hooves." Jerking his head toward Khan, who was being led out of the stable, he said curtly, "Get on your horse and keep him at the rail out of my way. I’m going to have enough on my hands without having to worry about you."
His arrogant assumption that he could ride the stallion wiped out Whitney’s momentary trace of guilt. She mounted Khan and guided him to the rail at the far end of the enclosure. Transferring Khan’s reins to her teeth, she reached
up behind her neck, gathered her hair into a fist at her nape and then tugged her scarf loose, using it to tie her hair back.
Grooms and stablekeeps and three gardeners hurried to the enclosure, positioning themselves along the fence for the best view. Thomas and two grooms held the stallion’s head while Clayton ran his hand along the horse’s sleek neck, speaking quietly to him. The remembered feel of that same hand fondling her breast made Whitney flush with anger.
Clayton put his foot in the stirrup, then eased up and over, settling slowly, carefully into the saddle, avoiding any sudden movement that might add to the stallion’s alarm. In spite of his caution, Dangerous Crossing snorted and jerked wildly at the men holding him. The last man who had used that particular saddle was shorter than Clayton and, for a moment, it looked to Whitney as if Crossing were going to rid himself of his unwelcome burden while the stirrup leathers were being lengthened.
Whitney laughed at the way the stallion was turning and twisting about. At any second, she expected Clayton to give up and dismount. Instead he gathered the reins and the grooms turned the stallion loose, then leapt out of the way.
All Clayton’s attention was concentrated on the nervous, sweating stallion beneath him. "Easy now," he soothed, loosening the reins very slightly. Dangerous Crossing jerked his head furiously, trying to get the bit between his teeth as he danced sideways across the enclosure, threatening first to rear and then trying to get his head down to buck. "Easy now . . . Easy . . ." The voice calmed the horse’s ragged nerves; the light contact on his reins held him firmly but not harshly under control.
Whitney watched in wide-eyed astonishment as the stallion fretted a bit and then smoothed out, easing into a flashy trot across the length of the enclosure. The stallion’s ears were forward, and he looked as if he were almost enjoying himself, proud to be bearing the burden of the tall man atop him- until Clayton brushed the stallion’s flank with the crop, signaling for a canter. Instantly Crossing jerked his head, bunching his hindquarters to buck.
"It’s the crop, sir," Thomas called happily. "Drop it- that’s all that’s worrying him now."
For the moment, Whitney dismissed her grievances against the man. She was too She a horsewoman herself to pretend to be unimpressed by what she had just witnessed. Clayton’s expert handling of Dangerous Crossing filled her with admiring respect, and she made no effort to conceal it as the stallion trotted toward her. Her mouth curved into a smile as she started to pay him the tribute he deserved-only to have Clayton slap the crop into her outstretched hand and snap, "Sorry to disappoint you. Find someone else to play your nursery games with next time."
"You monster!" Whitney hissed, raising her arm; the crop sliced the air, missed Clayton’s shoulder, and bit into the stallion’s flank. Raging and violent, the stallion threw himself into the air, broke for the fence as if be were going to crash through it, and at the last possible moment, leapt it instead with the bit in his teeth-completely out of control.
"Oh dear God," Whitney whispered, watching horse and rider tearing across the rolling landscape. In belated shame, she looked away. The silent punishment she was heaping on herself for her childish attempt at vengeance was reinforced by Thomas, who flung himself across the corral, his face purple with fury. "Is this what you learned in France-to bring injury to strangers! Is it?" he roared. "No one will ever mount that horse again, you little fool!" He turned and ran for a mount to pursue the stallion.
It was all Whitney could do not to go after Thomas and explain that she’d intended to hit the rider, not the horse. Never the horse. Off to her distant left, the stallion was rapidly diminishing to a speck on the horizon, and there was no way to tell if the rider was still up. Glancing about her, Whitney saw disapproval on every servant’s face before their eyes slid away from her.
She couldn’t bear to remain here and suffer their silent accusation. She turned Khan and cantered from the enclosure, but once outside its boundary, she realized she hadn’t any idea where to go. She drew Khan to a halt and hesitated.