Whitney started, then shrugged, trying to appear bewildered and unconcerned, when she was neither. "We took the stallion and he gave us trouble."
"Whitney, I find that very difficult to believe. I’ve ridden with Westland; he’s no novice around horses. And yesterday he seemed perfectly docile and well-mannered."
"Who seemed docile?" Whitney teased, trying desperately to lighten his mood. "The stallion? Or Mr. Westland?"
"I was referring to the stallion’s behavior, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I would rather hear about Westland’s."
"Paul, for heaven’s sake!" she almost pleaded. "You know perfectly well that some horses are completely unpredictable and can give even the most experienced horsemen trouble managing them."
"Then perhaps you will explain to me why, if that horse is so damned difficult to handle, you agreed to ride him in a race against Westland?"
"Oh that. Well, he taunted me until I could hardly refuse." Through her lowered lashes, Whitney stole a glance at Paul’s grim, dubious expression. Under the circumstances, she thought it might be wise-even expected-for her to display a degree of righteous indignation. "Paul, I can’t abide the man, and I-I don’t think it’s nice of you to quiz me like this. It’s unfair and improper."
Unexpectedly, he grinned. "I never thought I’d see the day when you were conscious of propriety." Without warning, he pulled her off of the swing and into his arms. "God, you are beautiful!" he whispered.
Whitney caught her breath and held it, thinking stupidly over and over, He’s going to kiss me! She was so nervous that she felt a giggle welling up inside of her as his head slowly descended to hers. But at the first brush of his warm, smooth lips on hers, all traces of laughter vanished.
She tried to keep her hands at her sides, but they slid of their own volition part way up his chest. She held back as best she could, afraid to abandon herself to the kiss for fear that Paul might somehow be offended by the depth of her feeling. But Paul wouldn’t let her remain uninvolved. He tightened his arms, holding her imprisoned against the hard wall of his chest, kissing her expertly, his mouth moving insistently over hers, sometimes teasing and gentle, then hungry and demanding. By the time he finally let her go, Whitney’s legs were weak. With a sinking heart, she realized that she had just been kissed by someone who knew a great deal about kissing and who undoubtedly had stored up a wealth of practice. No wonder he had always been so popular, so sought after and dreamed about, by the girls in the neighborhood.
He was watching her, his expression pleased and confident. "You do that very well," Whitney complimented, hoping to sound as if she were competent to judge.
"Thank you," Paul said, looking mildly irritated. "Is that conclusion based upon your vast experience in France?"
Whitney sat down on the swing, smiled at him, and said absolutely nothing. Pushing hard with the toe of her slipper, she sent the swiag backward. On the second sweep, Paul’s strong hands shot out, caught her at the waist and plucked her unceremoniously off her moving chair and into his arms. "You infuriating, outrageous brat." He chuckled. "If I don’t watch myself I’ll be more insane about you than those mincing fops in Paris were."
"They weren’t," Whitney protested weakly as his mouth covered hers, "mincing fops."
"Good," he murmured huskily, "because I would hate being in such poor company."
Whitney’s heart somersaulted. "Meaning?" she whispered against his lips.
"Meaning," Paul answered, his arms tightening around her, his mouth beginning to move hungrily over hers, "I already am insane about you."
Two hours later, Whitney floated dreamily into the house, inquired after her aunt and was informed by Sewell that her aunt, her father, and Mr. Westland were together in her father’s study. She shot a cautious glance down the hall to be certain she hadn’t been seen, then hurried up the stairs to her room. Nothing, absolutely nothing, would spoil her happiness, and seeing Clayton Westland was about the only thing that could do it. With a sigh of relief, Whitney closed the door to her room and flopped across the bed, hugging her memories of the afternoon to her heart.
Tears sparkled in Lady Anne’s eyes as she curtsied stiffly to the Duke of Claymore in Martin’s study. With long, determined strides he turned and left the room, and still she stood there, her chest painfully constricted around a knot of emotion.
Chair legs scraped against the floor as Martin Stone stood up and came around from behind his desk. "I would not have told you about all this yet; however, his grace felt that you should be made aware of the arrangements. I hope I don’t have to remind you that you gave your solemn word to remain silent about everything we discussed?"
Anne stared at him, her throat filled with tears. She started to raise her hand in a helpless, beseeching gesture, then let it drop to her side.
Apparently encouraged by her silence, Martin softened his tone slightly. "I will admit to you that I was not best pleased when I saw that you had accompanied Whitney, but since you’re here, you could be of great assistance. I want you to express approval of the duke to Whitney. She respects your opinion, and the sooner she develops a fondness for him, the better off we’ll all be."
At last, Anne found her voice. "Develops a fondness for him?" she echoed in terse disbelief. "Whitney loathes the air he breathes!"
"Rubbish! She scarcely knows him."
"She knows him well enough to despise him. I have it from her own lips."
"Then I shall rely upon you to change her opinion."
"Martin, are you blind? Whitney is in love with Paul Sevarin."
"Paul Sevarin is hard put to hold his own place together," Martin snorted. "All he could offer her is a life as a house drudge."
"Nevertheless, it is still Whitney’s decision to make."
"Poppycock! The decision was mine to make, and I made it."
Anne opened her mouth to argue, but Martin cut her off in a savage voice. "Let me explain something to you, Madam. I signed a legal agreement drawn up by Claymore’s attorneys, and I accepted ï¿½100,000 from the duke as his part of the bargain. I have already paid off my creditors and spent more than half the money. Half," he emphasized. "If Whitney should refuse to honor the agreement, I can’t return the man’s money. In which case, Claymore could, and would, bring me up on charges of fraud, theft, and God knows what else. And if that doesn’t concern you, let me put it a different way: Just how happy do you think Whitney would be married to Sevarin, while everyone for a hundred miles sniggers and gossips about her father who is rotting away in a dungeon?"