His brow furrowed in puzzlement. "If you’re referring to the crop, surely you don’t think-"
"Not that. The other."
"What? Do you mean kiss you?"
When Whitney nodded, he looked so utterly astounded that she burst out laughing. "Now, don’t tell me I’m the first female you’ve ever met who didn’t want you to kiss her?"
He lifted his shoulders in a brief shrug that dismissed her question. "I admit to being somewhat spoiled by women who seemed to enjoy my … attentions. And you," he added, smashing her momentary sense of triumph, "have been too long surrounded "by besotted fools who kiss the hem of your skirts, begging your permission to be your lord and master."
Whitney’s smile was filled with confident amusement. "I told you, I will never call any man my lord. When I marry, I shall be a good and dutiful wife-but a fall partner, not an obedient servant." In the doorway of the salon, he glanced down at her with an odd combination of humorous skepticism and absolute certainty. "A good and dutiful wife? No, little one, I’m afraid not."
Shaken by an inexplicable sensation of prickling alarm, Whitney looked away. It was as if he believed he had some sort of power over her. From the very first moment she’d seen him watching her at the stream, from the first words he’d spoken to her there, she’d had this same peculiar feeling. Perhaps that was why it always seemed so important, so necessary to avoid or outmaneuver him whenever possible. With a start, Whitney realized that he was speaking to her.
"I asked if you would enjoy a game of whist, or if you’d prefer something else. Other than darts," he joked.
"I suppose we could play whist," Whitney said with more politeness than enthusiasm. Her gaze fell on the chess set in front of the fireplace, and she wandered closer to inspect it. "How beautiful," she breathed. Half the set was cast in a burnished gold, the other in a silvery metal. Each piece was nearly as tall as her hand, and when she picked up the heavy king and held it to the light, she caught her breath sharply. There in her hand she held the figure of King Henry II, his face so real and lifelike that Whitney could only marvel at the genius of the craftsman who had created it. The queen was Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitane. With a smile, Whitney put the queen down and picked up the bishop. "I knew it would be Becket." She smiled at Clayton over her shoulder. "Poor Henry, even on a chessboard the image of the Archbishop of Canterbury still plagues him." Gently and reverently, she put the piece down.
"Do you play?" Clayton asked, surprise and doubt in his voice.
He sounded so incredulous that Whitney immediately decided to entice him into playing with her. "Not very well, I’m afraid," she replied, lowering her eyes to hide her mischievous laughter. Only so well that Uncle Edward stoutly rued the day when he’d decided to teach her. Only so well that he used to challenge his most skilled opponents from the Consulate to come to the house and try to take a victory from her. "Do you play often?" Whitney inquired innocently.
Clayton was already drawing the burgundy leather wing-back chairs into place on opposite sides of the chess table. "Very infrequently."
"Good," Whitney said with a bright, vivacious smile as she sat down. "In that case, this won’t take very long."
"Planning to trounce me, Ma’am?" he drawled, one brow arrogantly raised.
"Soundly!" Whitney told him.
She made her moves skillfully, confident she could best him, but careful not to underestimate his ability. He was bold at first, decisive and quick, but after forty-five minutes, the play had slowed considerably.
"It seems you mean to make good your threat," he chuckled, eyeing her in frank admiration as she captured his rook.
"Not nearly as easily as I’d hoped," Whitney said. "And I recognized your skill three moves before you became aware of mine. That alone should have cost you the game."
"I apologize for disappointing you," he mocked.
"You are absolutely delighted to ‘disappoint me’ and you know it!" Whitney laughed. She was just reaching for her bishop when her father suddenly stood up and announced that, inasmuch as his gout was troubling him, he would be grateful if Mr. Westland would escort Whitney home when their game was finished. With that, he seized his sister-in-law’s hand and strode swiftly toward the door on what were obviously two perfectly healthy legs, hauling Anne in his wake.
Whitney was already on her feet. "We can have our game another time," she said hastily, hiding her wistful regret over being unable to go on playing.
"Nonsense!" her father declared stoutly, hurrying over and pressing a clumsy kiss on her forehead, while forcing her back into her chair. "Nothing Improper about the two of you going on with your game-there’s a house full of servants for chaperones."
Having once been the object of scorn and ridicule in this neighborhood, Whitney had no desire to bring censure down on herself over such a trifling thing as a game of chess. "No, really, I couldn’t, Father." Unable to rise with her father’s restraining hand on her shoulder, she looked beseechingly to her aunt, who shrugged helplessly, then levelled her rapier gaze on Clayton. "I trust you will remember to conduct yourself as a gentleman, Mr. Westland?"
"Whitney will be treated with all the deep respect and affection I have for her," Clayton replied with tolerant amusement.
The second game was begun, the first having ended in a stalemate. For a while after her father and Aunt Anne departed, Whitney felt ill at ease, but she soon relaxed, and by the time they were well into the second game, both opponents were heckling one another outrageously.
With her elbows propped on the huge chess table and her chin cupped in her hands, Whitney watched Clayton reach for his knight. "Most imprudent," she advised him.
Clayton gave her a wicked grin, ignored her advice, and advanced his knight. "You are hardly in a position to counsel me on strategy after your last reckless move, Miss."
"Then don’t ever complain that I didn’t warn you," Whitney mused, tapping her long, tapered fingernail on an empty square, while she pondered his wily move of the knight. Leaning forward, she plunked her rook into position, then rested her chin on her hands again.
Each time she reached across the board, she unwittingly afforded Clayton glimpses of the thrusting fullness of her breasts above the scalloped bodice of her dress, until it required every ounce of his self-control to concentrate on the game. Long ago, she’d abandoned her slippers and now sat curled up in her chair with her legs tucked beneath her. With her luxuriant hair tumbling over her shoulders and her green eyes glowing with devilment, she presented such a captivating picture that Clayton was torn between the urge to shove the chess table aside, draw her onto his lap, and let his hands revel in the richness of his prize-and the equally delightful desire simply to lean back in his chair and feast his eyes on her.