They raced side by side across the rolling countryside. Soon the hell-for-leather speed and the fresh autumn breeze revived Whitney's flagging spirits, making her feel more alive than she had in two days.
At the edge of the woods where the meadow sloped down to the stream, Clayton drew up and dismounted, then walked over to lift Whitney down from Khan. "The ride has done you good," he said, noting the blooming color in her cheeks.
Whitney knew he was trying to break the ice and carry on a reasonably normal conversation with her. Sullenness was foreign to her nature, and she felt horribly churlish for remaining silent, yet it was impossibly awkward trying to talk to him. Finally she said, "I do feel better. I love riding."
"I like watching you," he said as they strolled over to the bank of the stream. "You are without question the finest horsewoman I have ever seen."
"Thank you," Whitney said, but her alarmed gaze was riveted on the old sycamore perched atop the knoll beside the stream, its ancient gnarled branches sheltering the very spot where she had lain in his arms the day of the picnic. It was the last place on earth she wished to be with him now. Clayton shrugged out of his jacket and started to put it on the grass, precisely where they had lain the last time. Hastily, she said. "I'd rather stand, if you don't mind." To illustrate her point, she retreated a step and leaned her shoulders against the sycamore's trunk, as if it were the most comfortable place in the world to be.
With a noncommittal nod, Clayton straightened and walked two paces away, propping his booted foot upon a large rock beside the stream. Leaning his forearm on his bent knee, he studied her impassively, without speaking.
For the first time, it really penetrated Whitney's bemused mind that this man was her affianced husband! But only for the time being, she told herself-just until Paul returned and they could carry through with the plan she had in mind. For now, all she could do was tread carefully and bide her time.
The bark of the tree dug into her shoulder blades, and Clayton's unwavering gaze began to unnerve her. For lack of anything better to say, and anxious to break the tense silence, Whitney nodded toward the place where he had tied his chestnut stallion. "Why didn't you ride that horse against me in the race? He's much faster than the sorrel you rode."
Her chosen topic of conversation seemed to amuse him as he glanced at the horses. "Your black stallion tired too easily when I rode him the day of the picnic. I rode the sorrel because he's about equal in stamina and speed to your stallion, and I was trying to give you a fair chance to win. If I'd ridden this brute against you, you wouldn't have had a prayer. On the other hand, if I'd ridden a vastly inferior horse against your stallion, you wouldn't have enjoyed winning."
Despite her dire predicament, Whitney's lips twitched with laughter. "Oh yes, I would. I would have enjoyed beating you in that race, even if you were riding a goat!"
Chuckling, he shook his head. "In the three years I've known you, you've never failed to amuse me."
Whitney's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Three years? How could that be? Three years ago, I'd only just made my come-out."
"You were in a millinery shop with your aunt, the first time I saw you. The proprietress was attempting to foist off on you a hideous hat covered with little grapes and berries, by convincing you that if you wore it for a stroll in the park, the gentlemen would fall at your feet."
"I don't recall the time," Whitney said uncertainly. "Did I buy the hat?"
"No. You informed her that if the gentlemen fell at your feet, they would only be trying to avoid the swarm of frenzied bees who were attracted by a fruit platter wearing a female."
"That rather sounds like the things I say," Whitney admitted, self-consciously toying with her gloves. She could almost believe there was tenderness in the way Clayton spoke of the incident, and it flustered her. "Is that when you decided you ... ah ... wanted to know me better?"
"Certainly not," he teased. "I was relieved that the proprietress, and not I, had to withstand those flashing green eyes of yours."
"What were you doing in a millinery shop?" Before the question was out, Whitney could have bitten her foolish tongue! What would he be doing there, except waiting for his current mistress?
"I can see from your expression that you've arrived at the answer to that," he remarked blandly.
Repressing her irrational annoyance over his being in the shop with another woman, Whitney asked, "Did we meet again after that-I mean, before the masquerade?"
"I saw you occasionally that spring, usually driving in the park. And then I saw you again a year later, quite grown up, at the DuPres' ball."
"Were you alone?" The question just seemed to pop out, and Whitney clenched her fists in self-disgust.
"I was not," he admitted frankly. "But then, neither were you. In fact, you were surrounded by admirers-a snivelling lot, as I recall." He chuckled at Whitney's indignant glare. "There's no reason to glower at me, my lady. You thought they were too. Later that evening, I overheard you telling one of them who was nearly killing himself with rapture over the scent of your gloves, that if the smell of soap affected him so, he was either deranged or very dirty."
"I would never have been so rude," Whitney protested, uneasily aware that he had called her "my lady" as if she were already his duchess. "He sounds only silly and not at all deserving of such a setdown, and . . ." Forgetting what she was about to say, she stared past Clayton, trying to bring a hazy recollection into focus. "Did he walk with absurd little mincing steps?"
"Since I was far more interested in your face than his feet, I wouldn't know," Clayton responded drily. "Why?"
"Because I do remember saying that now," she breathed. "I remember watching him mince away, thinking how thoroughly I disliked him. Then I turned around and saw a tall, dark-haired man standing in the doorway, smiling as if the entire scene had amused him. It was you!" she gasped. "You were spying in that doorway!"
"Not spying," Clayton corrected. "I was merely preparing to tend a hand to the poor besotted devil in case you drew blood with that razor tongue of yours."
"You shouldn't have bothered, for he more than deserved anything I said. I can't recall his name, but I do remember that the evening before, he'd tried to kiss me, and that his hands had a nauseating tendency to wander."
"A pity," Clayton drawled icily, "that you can't recall his name."