"You're the one who looks wonderful," Whitney said, admiring Emily's tight brown hair cut fashionably short and threaded with a ribbon.
"That's because I'm happy, not because I'm beautiful," Emily argued.
Arm in arm the girls strolled into the drawing room. A slender, sandy-haired man in his late twenties stood up, his hazel eyes smiling as Emily breathlessly began the introduction. "Whitney, may I present my husband-"
"Michael Archibald," he finished before his wife put the barrier of his title in Whitney's way. It was a simple, unaffected gesture of open friendliness, and Whitney appreciated the subtle thoughtfulness, as did his beaming wife.
Shortly thereafter, he excused himself and left the girls to talk, an activity in which they engaged eagerly for two hours. "Paul was here this morning," Emily said as Whitney reluctantly rose to leave. "He came over to speak to my father about something." A guilty smile flitted over Emily's pretty features. "I... well. . . I didn't think it would hurt if I-very casually, you understand-repeated some of the things Monsieur DuVille had mentioned about how popular you are in France. Although," Emily added as her smile vanished, "I'm not sure Monsieur DuVille did you a favor talking about you like that in front of Margaret Merryton. He flayed her alive with tales of your conquests, and now she hates you even more than she ever did."
"Why?" Whitney asked as they walked down the front hall.
"Why has she always hated you? I suppose because you were the wealthiest of all of us. Although, now that she's preoccupied with your new neighbor, maybe she'll be nice for a change, instead of so hateful." At Whitney's puzzled look, Emily explained. "Mr. Westland, your new neighbor. From what Elizabeth was telling me yesterday, Margaret considers him her exclusive property."
"How is Elizabeth?" Whitney asked, forgetting about Margaret entirety at the mention of her rival for Paul's love.
"As pretty and sweet as ever. And you may as well know that Paul escorts her practically everywhere."
Whitney thought about that as she galloped diagonally across an implanted field belonging to Emily's father. Elizabeth Ashton had always been everything Whitney wanted to be-ladylike, demure, blond, petite, and sweet.
The wind tore at her hair, tugging it loose from the velvet ribbon, tossing it wildly about. Beneath her, Whitney could feel Khan gathering and flexing gracefully as he flew over the ground with amazing speed. Regretfully, she eased him back into a canter, slowing him to a walk as they entered the woods to follow a path that existed now only in Whitney's memory. Rabbits scampered in the underbrush, and squirrels darted up the trees as they wound their way through the dense growth. A few minutes later, they crested the hill, and Whitney guided Khan carefully down the steep slope where a small meadow was bordered by a wide brook that ran through the northern section of her father's property.
Dismounting, Whitney looped Khan's reins around a sturdy oak, waited a minute to be certain that he would stand quietly, then patted his sleek neck and struck out across the meadow toward the stream. As she walked, she stopped now and then to gaze around her with older, more appreciative eyes, and to savor the scent of late summer wildflowers and fresh clover. She did not, however, look up and over her shoulder, and so she didn't notice the solitary horseman who was motionless atop a great sorrel stallion, watching every step she took.
Clayton grinned when Whitney stripped off her turquoise jacket and slung it jauntily over her right shoulder. Free of all the restrictions of Parisian society, her walk was an easy, swinging gait that was both lively and seductive, sending her luxuriant mane of hair swaying to and fro as she strolled toward the stream. She sauntered up a gentle knoll that sloped toward the water's edge. Seating herself beneath an ancient, gnarled sycamore standing sentinel atop the knoll, she pulled off her riding boots, peeled her stockings down, and tossed them over by the boots.
His horse moved restlessly beneath him while Clayton debated whether or not to approach his quarry. When she hitched her skirts up and waded into the stream, he chuckled and made his decision. Angling his horse back into the trees, he descended through the woods toward the meadow below. Wading in this stream, Whitney quickly decided, was not quite as enjoyable as she remembered it. For one thing, the water was freezing cold, and beneath her feet the rocks were sharp and slippery. Gingerly, she waded back to the bank, then stretched out on the grass. Her hair tumbled to the sides, floating on the water's rippling surface as she lay propped up on her elbows, her chin cupped in her hands, lazily raising and lowering her wet calves, letting the breeze dry them. She was watching the minnows darting in the shallows and trying to imagine the moment when Paul would see her for the first time tonight, when a slight movement near the sycamore tree to her left drew her attention.
From the corner of her eye, Whitney glimpsed a pair of expensive brown riding boots polished to a mirror shine. She froze, then rolled over and quickly raised herself to a sitting position, drawing her knees up against her chest, hastily tugging her sodden skirts down around her bare ankles.
The man was standing with one shoulder negligently propped against the sycamore tree, his arms crossed loosely over his chest. "Fishing?" he inquired, as his gaze roamed over every warm curve of her body, lingered momentarily on her bare toes peeping out from beneath the wet hem of her riding skirts, then moved upward in a leisurely inspection of her feminine assets that left Whitney feeling as if she'd just been stripped of all her clothing. "Spying?" she countered coldly.
He didn't deign to reply, but looked at her in ill-concealed amusement. Whitney lifted her chin and haughtily returned his gaze. He was very tall, easily 6 feet 2 inches, lean and superbly fit. His jaw was firm and well carved, his nose straight. The breeze lightly ruffled his hair which was a thick, coffee-brown. Beneath dark brows, his gray eyes observed her with frank interest. His clean-shaven face was very handsome-Whitney allowed him that-but there was an aggressive virility in his bold gaze, and an uncompromising authority, an arrogance, in the set of his jaw, that was not at all to Whitney's liking.
His mouth quirked in a half smile. "Were you going for a swim?"
"No, I was trying to be alone, Mr. ... ?" "Westland," he provided, his gaze dipping to touch the rounded fullness of her breasts where they pressed against her sheer white shirt. Whitney crossed her arms protectively over her bosom, and his smile widened knowingly. "Mr. Westland!" she snapped angrily, "your sense of direction must be nearly as poor as your manners!"