"Dare I hope that smile denotes a softening in your opinion of me?" Clayton drawled lazily.
Whitney snapped her head around. "I have no opinion of you," she lied.
"You have a very strong opinion of me, Miss Stone," he said, chuckling as he seated her in a comfortable wingback chair upholstered to soft burgundy leather. Instead of sitting down across from her in the other wingback chair, the man had the unmitigated gall to perch atop the arm of hers and casually stretch his right arm across the back of it.
"If there is a shortage of comfortable seating, I will be happy to stand," Whitney said coldly, already starting to rise.
Clayton’s hands caught her shoulders, pressing her back into the chair as he compliantly stood up. "Miss Stone," he said, grinning, and gazing down into her angry upturned face, "you have the tongue of an adder."
"Thank you," Whitney said calmly. "And you have the manners of a barbarian."
Inexplicably, he threw back his head and shouted with laughter. Still chuckling, he reached down and affectionately rumpled the shining hair atop her head, which brought Whitney surging to her feet, torn between slapping his face and giving him a swift kick in the shin. Her father and aunt found them still standing face to face, Clayton’s expression boldly admiring, while Whitney glared at him in frigid silence. "Well, I see you two are having a devilish pleasant chat," her father announced jovially, which made Clayton’s lips twitch and Whitney almost, but not quite, burst out laughing. Dinner was a feast that would have done credit to a royal chef. Whitney toyed with the delicious lobster in light wine sauce, feeling vastly uncomfortable seated at the opposite end of the table from Clayton, as if she were mistress of his home. He was playing the host tonight with a natural, relaxed elegance that Whitney reluctantly admired, and even Lady Anne had unbent completely as she carried on an animated political discussion with him.
During the fifth course, Whitney broke her long-enduring, self-imposed silence. Clayton had taunted and goaded her all evening until she finally jumped into the conversation in order to argue in favor of educating females in the same manner as males. "What use is geometry to a woman who will spend her time embroidering handkerchiefs for her husband?" he had challenged.
Whitney accused him of thinking like his grandfather, and he laughingly retaliated by calling her a bluestocking.
"Blasted bluestocking," Whitney amplified with an amused smile. "It is what gentlemen such as you, who cherish antiquated ideas, call any female whose vocabulary contains more than the three acceptable phrases."
He grinned. "And what three phrases would those be?"
"The phrases are ‘yes, my lord’; ‘no, my lord"; and ‘as you wish, my lord.’" She lifted her chin and said, "I find it sad that most of my sex have been trained from babyhood to sound exactly like witless female butlers."
"So do I," Clayton admitted quietly. Before Whitney had recovered from her astonishment, he added, "However, the fact remains that no matter how well-educated a woman is, she will someday have to submit to the authority of her lord and master."
"I don’t think so," Whitney said, ignoring her father’s anguished, quelling looks. "And what’s more, I shall never, ever call any man my lord and master."
"Is that right?" he mocked.
Whitney was about to answer when her father suddenly launched into a monologue on the merits of irrigating farms, which surprised Whitney and visibly annoyed Clayton.
During dessert, Clayton again returned his attention to her. "I was wondering if there is any particular game you would enjoy playing after dinner," His gray eyes locked onto hers in silent, laughing communication as he added meaningfully, ". . . other than those little ‘games’ you and I have already played together?"
"Yes," Whitney said, boldly returning his gaze. "Darts."
A ghost of a smile flickered across Ms features. "If I had any darts, which I don’t, I wouldn’t care to be within your range, Miss Stone."
For a mere female, 1 nave an excellent aim, Mr. West-land."
"Which is why," he said pointedly, "I would not care to be within your range." Grinning, Clayton lifted his glass to her in a gesture of salute. Whitney accepted his tribute for their verbal swordplay with an exaggerated nod of condescension, then favored him with an irrepressible sidewise smile.
Clayton watched her, wanting more than anything to thrust his other two dinner guests out the front door and snatch Whitney into his arms, to kiss the laughing mischief from her lips until she was clinging to nun, melting with desire. He leaned back in his chair, absently fingering the stem of his wineglass, while he relished the knowledge that tonight he had finally battered down her wall of cold indifference. Just why Whitney had retreated behind it the day of the picnic, and remained aloof and distant until an hour ago, was still a question to which he would someday demand an answer. Darts! he thought with an inward grin. He ought to wring her lovely neck.
After the meal, a servant escorted Martin and Lady Anne from the dining room, but Clayton placed a restraining hand on Whitney’s arm when she started to follow them. "Darts!" he chuckled. "What a bloodthirsty wench you are!"
Whitney, who had been on the verge of smiling back at him, went scarlet. "Your way with words must make you the envy of all your friends," she flared. "In our brief acquaintance you’ve referred to me first as a hussy and now as a wench. Think what you will of me, but to future, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep your opinions to yourself!" Shamed and guilt-stricken because she felt she had earned both names, Whitney tried to pull her arm free, but his hand tightened.
"What the devil are you talking about? Surely, you can’t think I meant an insult with either name?" He saw the flushed, hurt look which she tried to hide by turning her face away. "My God, that is exactly what you think," he said softly. Putting his hand against her cheek, he forced her to look at him. "I beg your forgiveness, little one. I’ve moved too long in circles where it is fashionable to speak boldly, and where the women are as frank as the men with whom they flirt."
Although she’d never been exposed to the daringly fast set, evidently he had, and Whitney knew that the women were shockingly outspoken and behaved with wanton abandon, flirting openly, and even taking lovers. Suddenly she felt foolish and unsophisticated. "It isn’t just the names," she protested defensively. "It’s the day of the picnic, too, and the way you …" Her voice faltered when she recalled that she had been a willing participant in the heated kisses they exchanged. "I’ll strike a bargain with you," she offered after a moment. "You forget everything I’ve done, and I’ll forget what you’ve done, and we’ll start again. Providing, of course, that you give me your solemn word that you won’t try to do what you did to me by the stream."