Giving him a queer look, she reached down and plucked his jacket from the leaves, then she brushed it off and handed it to him. Remorsefully, she shook her head, but Clayton saw the tiny smile that touched her lips. "It has always been one of my most tiresome faults," she admitted with an exaggerated sigh. "And it has caused me a deal of regret, I assure you."
"What has?" Clayton asked, stifling a grin at the complete absence of contrition on her lovely, upturned face.
"Cheating," she solemnly replied. "I do it when I cannot win." She raked her fingers through her hair, grimacing at the leaves that fell from the tousled tresses, and Clayton chuckled to himself. She could turn her faults into virtues and her virtues into faults with a shrug of her shoulders or a shake of her pretty head.
While Whitney searched amidst the leaves for her riding crop, Clayton stalked over to his horse and swung up into the saddle. Trotting over to Dangerous Crossing, he caught the stallion's reins and led him back to Whitney, but when she reached for Crossing's reins, Clayton deliberately led the horse a pace forward, out of her reach. "I am so impressed by your honest confession, young lady," he explained when she dropped her arms and frowned at him, "that I feel I ought to make a confession of my own. You see, I am one of those perverse people who will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent a cheater from winning. In fact, I myself will cheat, to prevent it from happening."
Leading her horse, he trotted a few paces away, then he turned and looked at her over his shoulder. Whitney was staring at him in speechless indignation. "It isn't a long walk back," Clayton reminded her in a laughing voice. "However, if you prefer to ride, someone is bound to come along any moment now to see what has delayed us. But either way, you are not going to remount your rested horse and attempt to finish the race."
Whitney watched through narrowed eyes as he trotted away, leading her horse. In frustrated dismay, she slapped her leg with the crop, then yelped at the sting she received. She sank dejectedly to the ground to await rescue, but the longer she sat there, the funnier it all seemed. She hadn't purposely fallen from her horse at all. If she was guilty of anything, it was of foolishly looking over her shoulder to determine how long it would be before Clayton overtook her tiring mount. When she turned back around, a low limb was jutting out in front of her chest.
Whitney tried to stay angry with Clayton for leaving her so ignominiously behind, but she couldn't sustain her ire. She kept remembering how deeply alarmed he'd seemed as he bent over her. His voice had been hoarse with concern, and his face ravaged with worry as he whispered, "It's all right now, little one."
Whitney pulled out a fistful of grass and tossed it away with a sigh. How she wished Clayton would settle for just being her friend. He would make such a wonderful friend, she thought. He could be so charming and entertaining, and he made her laugh. Perhaps when she was a married woman, Clayton would stop looking at her as a possible conquest and then they could be friends. Perhaps-
Whitney forgot about Clayton as Paul came galloping around the bend and reined to a sharp halt beside her. When he saw her sitting there, his expression changed from worry to annoyance. "Do you suppose you could explain to me why it is that every time you and Westland are together, the pair of you seem to vanish?" he demanded irritably.
The moment Clayton trotted into the grove leading Dangerous Crossing, a cry of alarm went up from the spectators. They surged forward with Lady Gilbert in the lead. "What happened?" Whitney's aunt cried. "Where is Whitney?"
"She'll be along," Clayton called to her. Turning in his saddle, Clayton watched Whitney coming into the grove, mounted sideways in front of Sevarin. As he looked at her, he suddenly reversed his earlier opinion of how she had become separated from her horse during the race. However she'd come unhorsed, it hadn't been deliberate, he decided. It simply wasn't in Whitney to quit.
At the finish line, Whitney slid down from Paul's horse and glanced uncertainly at Clayton, wondering what he had told everyone. The spectators converged on her while those who had placed wagers on the outcome of the race shouted for her to give them the results.
Leaning over, Clayton caught her under the arms and swung her up onto his horse so that she was sitting sideways in front of him. "They are waiting for you to tell them who won the race," he pointed out, ignoring her indignant expression at being so familiarly handled.
"My horse was winded over a mile back," Whitney called out. "Mr. Westland won." She turned to Clayton and said under her breath, "Actually, there was no winner."
His brows lifted mockingly. "Your horse was tiring and you were going to lose," he told her. "And you are a fine enough rider to have realized that long before you fell."
"I'm delighted that you are at least willing to give me credit for taking an honest fall," Whitney retorted primly.
Clayton chuckled. "If you had the slightest notion of how much credit I do give you, it would astonish you."
Before Whitney could consider that staggering pronouncement, he lifted her effortlessly down from the saddle. Standing beside Paul, she watched Clayton turn his horse and gallop over the crest of the hill.
Thursday dragged by with little to occupy Whitney's time. Paul was busy with preparations for his trip, so she spent her day helping with the arrangements for her father's birthday party on Saturday and catching up on her correspondence with friends in Paris.
Friday morning, she wrote a long letter to Emily, who was back in London. The temptation to break her self-imposed, almost superstitious silence about Paul was nearly past bearing, so she hinted that she would soon have some very exciting news for her friend. She ended with a promise to visit Emily in London, a promise Whitney knew she would keep very soon, because she would need to go there in order to purchase her wedding gown and trousseau. When she was there, she would ask Emily to be matron of honor at the wedding, she decided happily.
She brought the letter downstairs to be sent off, and discovered that Clayton Westland had just arrived. He was chatting amiably with Anne in the rose salon, and he politely rose when Whitney joined them.
"I came to reassure myself that you've fully recovered from your accident the other day," he told her, and there was none of his usual mocking irony in his tone.
Whitney knew this was his way of apologizing for thinking she had faked her fall. "Completely recovered," she assured him.
"Excellent," he said. "Then you won't be able to claim fogged thinking or ill health if I beat you soundly at chess again. This afternoon?"