"Margaret hates you terribly," Elizabeth murmured to Whitney as they both watched Clayton deposit Margaret's parcels in her carriage, then walk over to his carriage, apparently to search for Margaret's parasol. They lingered there, talking and laughing. "I think she hates you more for Mr. Westland than she did for that gentleman from Paris- Monsieur DuVille."
It was the first tune Elizabeth had ever addressed a voluntary comment to Whitney, and if she hadn't been so miserably preoccupied, Whitney would have made a more cordial response. Instead she said stiffly, "I would be very obliged to Margaret if she were to snatch Mr. Westland right from under my nose."
"That's just as well," Elizabeth said, her pretty face troubled, "because she means to have him."
After assisting Elizabeth and Margaret into their carriage, Clayton reclaimed Whitney's hand and tucked it in the crook of his arm, as if nothing at all had happened. Whitney walked beside him, her face frozen with anger. At the end of the street was a small inn which boasted only one private dining parlor, the public rooms, and a small courtyard concealed from the street by vine-colored trellises. The proprietor's daughter greeted Clayton as if she knew him, then hastened to show them to a table in the courtyard.
Whitney watched in mounting annoyance as Millie batted her big brown eyes at him, then bent over the table, smoothing the linen and rearranging the vase of flowers, while deliberately providing Clayton with an unimpaired view of the ample bosom spilling over her bodice. Seething, Whitney observed the girl's swaying hips as she went to get their meal. "If that is the way Millie conducts herself around men, her poor parents must be at their wits' end."
Clayton observed Whitney's indignant features with a gleam of knowing amusement, and Whitney's tenuous hold on her temper snapped. Raking him with a contemptuous look, she added, "Of course, you've probably given Millie reason to believe you find her very desirable."
"What the devil do you mean by that remark?" he demanded.
"I mean that you have a notorious reputation with women -a reputation which you've undoubtedly earned!"
"Not for dallying with serving wenches, I haven't."
"Tell that to Millie," Whitney retorted frigidly. When Millie brought their meals, Whitney attacked her meat as if it were still alive. The instant they were finished eating, she pushed her chair back and arose.
Neither of them broke the charged silence on the way home until Clayton turned into his own drive, rather than continuing past it to hers, and pulled the grays to a stop before his house. When he came around to help her alight, Whitney pressed back into her seat. "If you think for one minute that I am going to set foot in that house with you, you're sadly mistaken."
A look of sorely strained patience crossed his face, and for the second time that day, he caught her by the waist and lifted her down from the carriage. "God help me if I ever injure my back," he quipped.
"God help you if you ever turn it," she snapped, "for there'll surely be some heartbroken papa or cuckolded husband ready with a knife-if I don't murder you first."
"I have no intention of arguing with you or ravishing you," Clayton said with exasperation. "If you will only look around, you'll see why I brought you here."
Whitney did, irritably at first and then with surprise. The Hodges estate had always had a seedy look about it, but all that had changed. The bushes were pruned, and the grass neatly trimmed. Missing flagstones from the walk had been replaced, and rotted woodwork repaired. But the biggest change was brought about by the twin expanses of great mullioned windows on the first story, where before there had only been three gloomy little glass-covered holes. "Why have you gone to such expense?" Whitney asked when it was apparent that he was waiting for some reaction from her.
"Because I bought it," Clayton said, indicating that she should walk with him toward the newly erected pavilion at the far end of the front lawn.
"You bought it?" Whitney gasped. Just the thought of the cozy trio they would mate-she and Paul, with Clayton for a neighbor-made her feel quite violently ill. Was there no end to the obstacles one single man could put in the way of her happiness?
"It seemed a reasonably sound idea. This land adjoins yours, and someday the two estates can be combined."
"Adjoins your land, not mine!" Whitney corrected him bitingly. "You paid for it, just as you paid for me."
She started to step blindly into the wooden pavilion but his hand shot out and captured her arm, jerking her around. He studied her flushed, angry face for a moment, and then he said calmly, "Margaret Merryton's carriage wheel was broken, and I offered to take her up with me, rather than leaving her there in the road. I brought her home, where her father thanked me profusely and invited me to dinner, which I declined. There was nothing more to it than that."
"I don't care in the least what you and Margaret did!" Whitney lied angrily.
"The hell you don't! You've been sniping at me ever since she asked if she left her parasol in my carriage."
Whitney looked away, trying to decide if he was telling the truth and wondering why it mattered so much to her.
"If you won't credit me with discretion," he added quietly, "at least credit me with taste." He paused. "Am I forgiven, little one?"
"I suppose so," Whitney said, feeling absurdly relieved and thoroughly foolish. "But the next time you see Margaret. . ."
"I'll run her down!" he chuckled.
A faint smile touched Whitney's lips. "I was merely going to ask that you not encourage her, for she'll only behave more horridly to me than she already does, if she thinks you're interested in her. Did she have a parasol that day?" Whitney asked, suddenly suspicious.
"No. Not that I recall."
Pretending to study the toes of her pink slippers, Whitney asked carefully, "Do you think Margaret is... well. . . pretty?"
"Now that's more like it!" Clayton laughed, possessing himself of her other arm and drawing her close to him.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that it pleases me to have you thinking like a wife-even a jealous one."
There was enough truth in that observation to make Whitney flush hotly. "I am not in the least bit jealous, nor have I any reason to be, because you do not belong to me, any more than I belong to you!"
"Except by virtue of a signed, legal contract betrothing you to me."
"A meaningless contract, since I was not consulted."