Whitney’s gaze slid unwillingly to the black riding crop in his hand, then jerked back to his tanned face. She did not deign to reply.

"Lie across my lap, Whitney." He politely extended his hand to assist her, and in her terror, Whitney unthinkingly accepted it. She knelt beside him, glaring at him in stiff hatred. Cocking a dark eyebrow, he nodded meaningfully at his lap.

Drowning in an ocean of mortification, Whitney lowered herself into the humiliating position. His hard thighs pressed against her churning stomach; a beetle scurried through the blades of grass inches from her nose.

Above her, she heard his voice. "I will stop when you apologize. Not before." He raised his arm and Whitney wondered wildly how much protection her riding habit would provide, then had her answer as the crop whined through the air, slicing against her clothing, welting her tender flesh. He paused, waiting. For her apology.

Whitney gritted her teeth; he could beat her senseless but she’d never give him the satisfaction of an apology. Never! His arm came up another time, the crop landed mercilessly across her buttocks. Another pause . . .

Whitney counted through streaks of vivid pain-three times, four, five. By now she was sobbing. The sixth time her body jerked and a strangled cry wrenched from her. His arm lifted, and she screamed "Stop!" then cursed herself because he had already flung the crop away.

He grasped her roughly by the shoulders and turned her in his arms to sit across his lap. Whitney tried to pull away, but Ms arms tightened, and his hand lifted to hold her face pressed to his chest. Her ribs heaved and scalding tears raced down her cheeks, soaking through the front of his shirt as she wept, more from impotent fury than from pain. As if he were soothing a child, he began to stroke her hair. Whitney angrily shoved his hand away, but he ignored her and continued.

The minutes passed, and Whitney had just gotten control of herself when his hand touched her chin, tipping her face up to his. Glaring at him through a haze of wrathful tears, she whispered, "I hate you!"

"I know you do," he said quietly. It registered on Whitney that there was neither triumph nor satisfaction on his face and, since she could find nothing else in his expression to stoke the flames of her animosity, she looked away, staring fixedly off to the left, occasionally wiping at her tear-streaked face with her fingertips.

"Look at me," he ordered gently.

"No!" Whitney retorted. "If I do, I’ll scratch your eyes out, so help me!"

"You’re not nearly so angry with me as you are with yourself."

"How much would you care to bet?" Whitney snapped, but she could feel her anger ebbing as she looked at Dangerous Crossing, whose satin blackness was now splashed with huge, sweaty white patches. It was a miracle that the horse hadn’t injured himself, that the rider had been expert enough to stay on him, and wise enough to continue riding him instead of returning him to the stable. It was & double miracle that both horse and rider hadn’t been seriously injured.

He was right: she was bitterly angry with herself for what she had done even if her regret was more for the sake of the horse than the man. She finally realized that Clayton was waiting for her to apologize, and since she wanted nothing more than to get away from him, she said tonelessly, "I never meant to hit the horse, I meant to hit you. But either way, I suppose it was irresponsible and dangerous, a childish act deserving of a child’s punishment." "Thank you for that," he said almost tenderly. To be guilty and punished, to feel remorse and then be forgiven was a sequence of events totally missing from Whitney’s childhood experience. Whenever she had apologized to her father, he had listened and then launched into a fresh tirade about her misbehavior, and Whitney had expected about the same from Clayton. She stared at him, hardly able to believe what she saw and felt. His gray eyes were full of warmth, and he was smiling at her with gentle understanding.

Suddenly, Whitney felt as if they were the best, the closest, of friends-as if there was some special bond between them now. The feeling stunned her, then surged through her, sweeping everything away in its path. "I’m terribly sorry about …"

"No more," he interrupted softly. "It’s forgotten." Whitney knew, as he slowly bent his head to her, that he was going to kiss her, but instead of drawing away she shyly lifted her face and met him halfway, somehow seeking proof of forgiveness. His lips came down to caress hers in a long, tender, undemanding kiss.

Even when the kiss deepened and her lips were being sensually shaped and molded to his, Whitney knew he would let her pull away if she tried. Instead her hands crept up his chest, twining around his neck, and everything changed.

His hands tugged the scarf loose from her hair and tangled in the luxuriant tresses. Tenderly cupping her face between both his hands, he gazed down into her melting green eyes. "My God, you are sweet," he whispered. Whitney’s heart skipped a beat, then began to hammer as he slowly, deliberately buried his lips in hers once again. He kissed her long and lingeringly, slow, compelling kisses that made her head swim. His tongue flicked over her lips, teasing at first-then urging, insisting that she part them and, the moment she did, plunging inside to intimately explore her mouth while his hands moved down her back, finding the place where the crop had welted, lifting her up and tighter to him, then gently soothing away the sting.

Jolt after jolt of wild sensation rocketed through Whitney from her neck to her knees, leaving her trembling violently and clinging to him. The world tilted as he twisted her halfway around to lie in the grass beside him, wrapped in his strong arms. He leaned over her, and Whitney shook her head in feeble protest: "We can’t …"

His mouth came down hard on hers, silencing her objection, taking her lips in a fierce, devouring kiss. He patted her lips, teasing and tormenting her with his tongue as it plunged gently, then retreated, until Whitney, in a fever of longing, touched her own tongue to his lips.

He groaned and crushed her tighter to the hard length of his body, drawing her tongue into his mouth and caressing it with his own. When his mouth left hers it was to explore her ear before tracing its way across her cheek and covering her lips again. His hand left a trail of glowing warmth as it slid down her throat, across her breasts, and he began unfastening her thin shirt, seeking the soft swells beneath.

The touch of his strong fingers on her naked flesh penetrated Whitney’s passion-drugged senses, jerking her back to reality. Frantically, she shook her head, trying to tear her mouth from his as he pulled down her chemise, baring her swelling breasts to his hand.