"We were, and she did," Clayton confirmed promptly, his laughing gaze daring Whitney to deny it.
"In the first place, my horse was running with a bad foreleg," Whitney retorted. "Secondly, if I’d been riding the stallion, I think I’d have won by a greater margin."
"If you’d been riding that stallion, young lady, we’d be summoning your relatives to your bedside," he contradicted, grinning.
"Mr. Westland," Whitney said, "I could handle that stallion and get a better performance from him than you did."
"If you think so, I’ll ride one of my own horses, and you may test your skill with the stallion any time you want a rematch."
Goaded by the mocking amusement in his eyes, Whitney snatched up the gauntlet of challenge. "A flat course," she specified. "No high jumps. The stallion knows nothing about jumping yet."
"He did rather well in clearing several fences today, as I recall," Clayton reminded her drily. "However, it will be as you wish. You choose the course."
"Aren’t you taking on a little more than you can handle?" Paul asked, his forehead furrowed in concern.
Whitney tossed a vengeful glance at Clayton and said with more conviction than she really felt, "Certainly not. I’ll win easily."
"Are you planning to wear men’s breeches and ride astride? Or will you go barefoot and try to stand on his back?" Margaret taunted viciously.
As if by mutual agreement, everyone else began talking at once, drowning out Margaret’s voice, but Whitney heard snatches of what she was saying to Clayton and the other couple: "… disgraced her father . . . scandalized the village . . ."
The servants began to distribute baskets of cold chicken, ham, cheese, and apples and pears. Whitney determinedly shook off the pall of Margaret’s spite and strove to make something enjoyable of what was left of her day. She listened to the light raillery Emily was exchanging with her husband, Michael. "Whitney and I made a bet when we were very young," she was telling him. "The first of us to marry had to pay the other a forfeit of ï¿½5."
"That’s absolutely right!" Whitney smiled. "I had forgotten."
"Since it was I who influenced her to marry me," Michael Archibald said, winking at Whitney, "I suppose I am honor-bound to pay her forfeit."
"Indeed you are," Whitney returned. "And I hope that won’t be the last time Emily allows you to influence her, my lord."
"So do I!" Baron Archibald replied with such exaggerated despair that Whitney burst out laughing.
Paul leaned close, and Whitney looked up at him, traces of laughter still lingering in her eyes. "Are you planning to allow me to influence you?" he asked.
It was so near to a declaration of his intentions that Whitney could hardly believe she’d heard him correctly. "That depends," she said in a whisper, unable to tear her gaze from his compelling blue eyes. A fierce gust of wind blew up, tossing her hair wildly about her face and shoulders. Absently, Whitney reached behind her for the yellow and white dotted scarf that should have been holding her hair back.
"Are you looking for this?" Clayton drawled, pulling her scarf from his pocket and holding it toward her.
Paul’s jaw tightened, and Whitney snatched the scarf out of Clayton’s hand. She knew that Clayton had just deliberately caused everyone to wonder not only about how her scarf came to be in his pocket, but about their delayed arrival at the picnic as well, and to her consternation, she felt a guilty flush creeping up her cheeks. The idea of doing him bodily harm filled Whitney with morbid delight. She would have thoroughly enjoyed running him through with a sword or blowing his head off with a gun or seeing him hanging from a tree.
Late in the afternoon when the last of the picnickers had departed, Paul instructed a groom to ride Khan, and he took Whitney home in his gleaming carriage. The horses pranced down the dry, dusty lane with Paul handling the reins in preoccupied silence.
"Paul, are you angry with me?" Whitney ventured cautiously.
"Yes, and you know why I am."
Whitney did know, and she was torn between worry and happiness. It was possible, just possible, that Clayton West-land was providing the impetus Paul needed to declare himself without delay. All day, Paul’s loverlike jealousy had been unmistakable.
In the drive at the front of her house, Paul pulled the horses to a stop and turned toward her, resting his arm on the back of the seat behind her. "I don’t remember telling you how beautiful you look today," he said.
"Thank you," Whitney replied with surprised pleasure.
He grinned suddenly. "I’ll call for you at eleven tomorrow morning. We’ll talk about it then."
"About how beautiful I looked today?" Whitney teased.
"No, about why I’m angry."
She sighed. "I’d rather talk about the other."
"I’m sure you would," Paul said with a chuckle as he climbed down and came around to help her alight.
Paul arrived at precisely eleven the following morning. In the doorway of the drawing room, Whitney stopped, scarcely able to believe he was actually here, calling for her, exactly as she used to dream he would be! He looked incredibly handsome as he laughed at some remark of Lady Anne’s.
"I like your young man," Anne whispered to Whitney as she left.
"He isn’t mine yet," Whitney whispered back, but she was smiling optimistically.
The sky was bright blue with a fresh breeze that gently ruffled Paul’s blond hair as they toured the country roads in Paul’s well-sprung carriage, talking and laughing, stopping occasionally to admire a particularly pleasing view of the hilly terrain stretching out on both sides of the road. A few of the trees were already exchanging the lush green leaves of summer for the bright golds and oranges of early fall, and for Whitney, it was a halcyon day.
Paul was charming and entertaining, treating her as if she were made of fragile porcelain, as if she weren’t the same female who used to catapult from one misadventure to the next near calamity. And Whitney was scrupulously careful to say nothing which might remind him of the young girl she had been. Even now, years later, it still made her cringe with embarrassment when she recalled how she had tried to kiss him and begged him to wait for her.
They had luncheon with Paul’s mother, and although Whitney had dreaded the idea at first, it turned out to be a very pleasant meal.
Afterward, they strolled across the lawn to the edge of the woods. At Paul’s suggestion, Whitney sat on a swing suspended from a stout oak branch.
"Why were you and Westland so late getting to the picnic yesterday?" he demanded without preamble.