He picked up a sheet of plain stationery, then deliberated over the correct phrasing; it had to be worded as a challenge, not an invitation which she would only turn down.
"Dear Miss Stone," he wrote quickly. "I believe you indicated a desire to test your skill with the stallion. I can be available Wednesday morning for a race over any course you choose. If, however, you regret your hasty challenge, be assured I shall attribute your change of heart not to cowardice, but to a justifiable fear that the horse is too much for you to handle. Yours, etc." He sprinkled fine sand over it and sealed it with wax. With an elated sense of accomplishment, he gave instructions to have it brought round to Miss Stone and to await a reply.
His footman returned a quarter hour later with Whitney’s response, written in the beautiful, curving hand of a scholarly monk, not the illegible scrawl typical of so many well-bred but under-educated females. There was no salutation. "Wednesday is perfectly agreeable," she wrote. "I shall meet you at 10:00 in the morning at the northwestern edge of Mr. Sevarin’s property near the grove." That was all. But it was enough to make Clayton grin as he got up and stretched. Whistling, he strolled through the quiet house and went upstairs to change into riding breeches.
THE SPECTACLE THAT GREETED CLAYTON ON WEDNESDAY morning when he crested the hill overlooking Sevarin’s grove made him rein his horse in sharply. Curricles were scattered everywhere below, occupied by women holding brightly colored parasols and men in their Sunday best. Those less affluent spectators who had no curricle were either mounted on horseback, standing atop wagons, or milling about on foot.
All the scene below lacked to make it appear a full-fledged country fair were a few acrobats in bright silk tunics, and a juggler or two. Even as he thought it, someone raised a trumpet and blew two long blasts, and the crowd turned in unison to watch him descend the slope.
Beneath carefully lowered lids, Whitney slanted a long, considering look at Clayton’s horse as he approached. She saw four finely conformed legs and the muscled chest and rump of a strong hunter but, since her view from this angle was restricted, the only other information she could gamer was that the rider of the horse was wearing gleaming brown leather riding boots and a pair of buckskin riding breeches which fit him to perfection.
"Are you wishing this was pistols at twenty paces, Miss Stone?" Clayton teased as he moved his horse into position at the starting line beside her.
Whitney lifted her head, intending to treat him with cool formality, but his grin was so boyishly disarming that she nearly smiled. Two of the neighborhood men rushed up to offer him good wishes, distracting his attention from her.
Whitney watched him as he talked and joked with them. He looked so relaxed atop his great, powerful horse, and he spoke to the men with such lazy good humor that she could hardly believe he was the same relentless, predatory seducer who had stalked her at his house, who had held her clasped to him while his hungry mouth devoured hers. It was as if he were two people, one she could like very much, and one she feared and mistrusted—with excellent reason.
Elizabeth’s father blew another blast on the trumpet and beneath her, Dangerous Crossing gave a frantic lurch. "Are you ready?" Paul called to Whitney and Clayton. As he raised his pistol in the air, Whitney leaned toward Clayton, smiled warmly into his surprised gray eyes, and said very gently, "If you would care to follow me, sir, I shall be happy to show you the way/’
Clayton gave a shout of laughter, the pistol fired, and his horse bolted. He had to swoop down to recover the rein he had dropped in his surprised mirth and, by the time he had brought his bolting animal around, Whitney had gained a considerable lead on him.
His horse’s hooves thundered over the hard green turf as Warrior fought to close the gap, but Clayton held him slightly back, biding his time as they turned west, galloping alongside the stream. "Easy now," Clayton soothed his lunging mount. "Let’s see what she can do before we make our move."
Ahead of them, Dangerous Crossing vaulted over a low stone wall in perfect stride, and Clayton grinned approvingly. Whitney was tight and lovely in the saddle, managing her novice hunter with expert skill.
By the time they made the turn for the last leg of the race, Clayton could tell that Dangerous Crossing was beginning to tire. Deciding to overtake Whitney when he rounded the next sharp bend of the woods, Clayton eased up and forward in the saddle, relaxing all tension on the reins. Instantly, Warrior shot forward in long, ground-devouring strides.
They galloped wide around the next curve-and Clayton’s breath froze in his chest. The black stallion was veering across his path . . . without a rider. Hauling back viciously on Warrior’s reins, Clayton looked for her, his heart thundering in alarm.
And then he saw her. She was lying in a crumpled heap beneath a large oak at the perimeter of the woods. Above her was a thick, jutting limb which must have unseated her when she took the corner too sharply.
Vaulting down from the saddle, he ran to her, more frightened than he had ever been in his life. Frantically, he felt for a pulse and found it throbbing steadily in her slim throat, then he began searching her scalp for sign of a head wound. Panic shot through him as he recalled stories of people who had suffered blows to the head, never to regain consciousness.
When he found no cut or bump on her head, he ran his hands over her arms and legs, looking for broken bones. Nothing seemed to be broken, so he jerked off his jacket and placed it beneath her head. Sitting back on his heels, he began chafing her wrists.
Her eyelids fluttered, and Clayton almost groaned with relief. Gently smoothing the heavy, rumpled hair away from her forehead, he leaned close to her. "It’s all right now, little one. Where are you hurt? Can you speak?"
Sea-green eyes opened, regarding him calmly and steadily. She had such beautiful eyes, he thought as she gave him a shaky, reassuring little smile. But her first words banished all tenderness from his mind. "You will recall," she whispered, "that at the time of the mishap, / was in the lead."
Clayton could hardly believe his ears. He stood up on unsteady legs and leaned against the trunk of the tree, staring at her in amazed silence.
"Will you help me up?" she asked, after a minute.
"No," he said implacably, crossing his arms over his chest. "I will not."
"Very well," she sighed, rising somewhat stiffly to a standing position and straightening her skirts, "but it’s most ungracious of you."
"No more ungracious than it was of you to fake a fall when you realized you couldn’t hold the lead."