"You surely aren’t going out there dressed like that?" Emily gasped.
Whitney fired an amused glance over her shoulder at her scandalized friend. "Of course not. I’m going to wear a shirt too."
"B-but why?" Emily persisted desperately.
"Because I don’t think it would be very proper to appear in my chemise, silly," Whitney cheerfully replied, snatching the stableboy’s clean shirt off a peg and plunging her arms into the sleeves.
"P-proper? Proper?" Emily sputtered. "It’s completely improper for you to be wearing men’s britches, and you know it!"
"True. But I can’t very well ride that horse without a saddle and risk having my skirts blow up around my neck, now can I?" Whitney breezily argued while she twisted her long unruly hair into a knot and pinned it at her nape.
"Ride without a saddle? You can’t mean you’re going to ride astride-your father will disown you if you do that again."
"I am not going to ride astride. Although," Whitney giggled, "I can’t understand why men are allowed to straddle a horse, while we-who are supposed to be the weaker sex-must hang off the side, praying for our lives."
Emily refused to be diverted. "Then what are you going to do?"
"I never realized what an inquisitive young lady you are, Miss Williams," Whitney teased. "But to answer your question, I am going to ride standing on the horse’s back. I saw it done at the fair, and I’ve been practicing ever since. Then, when Paul sees how well I do, he’ll-"
"He’ll think you have lost your mind, Whitney Stone! He’ll think that you haven’t a grain of sense or propriety, and that you’re only trying something else to gain his attention." Seeing the stubborn set of her friend’s chin, Emily switched her tactics. "Whitney, please-think of your father. What win he say if he finds out?"
Whitney hesitated, feeling the force of her cither’s unwaveringly cold stare as if it were this minute focused upon her. She drew a long breath, then expelled it slowly as she glanced out the small window at the group waiting on the lawn.
Wearily, she said, "Father will say that, as usual, I have disappointed him, that I am a disgrace to him and to my mother’s memory, that he is happy she didn’t live to see what I have become. Then he will spend half an hour telling me what a perfect lady Elizabeth Ashton is, and that I ought to be like her."
"Well, if you really wanted to impress Paul, you could try . . ."
Whitney clenched her hands in frustration. "I have tried to be like Elizabeth. I wear those disgusting ruffled dresses that. make me feel like a pastel mountain, I’ve practiced going for hours without saying a word, and I’ve fluttered my eyelashes until my eyelids go limp."
Emily bit her Up to hide her smile at Whitney’s unflattering description of Elizabeth Ashton’s demure mannerisms, then she sighed. "I’ll go and tell the others that you’ll be right out."
Gasps of outrage and derisive sniggers greeted Whitney’s appearance on the lawn when she led the horse toward the spectators. "She’ll fall off," one of the girls predicted, "if God doesn’t strike her dead first for wearing those britches."
Ignoring the impulse to snap out a biting retort, Whitney raised her head in a gesture of haughty disdain, then stole a look at Paul. His handsome face was taut with disapproval as his gaze moved from her bare feet, up her trousered legs, to her face. Inwardly, Whitney faltered at his obvious displeasure, but she swung resolutely onto the back of the waiting horse.
The gelding moved into its practiced canter, and Whitney worked herself upward, first crouching with arms outstretched for balance, then slowly easing herself into a standing position. Around and around they went and, although Whitney was in constant terror of falling off and looking like a fool, she managed to appear competent and graceful.
As she completed the fourth circle, she let her eyes slant to the faces passing on her left, registering their looks of shock and derision, while she searched for the only face that mattered. Paul was partially in the tree’s shadow, and Elizabeth Ashton was clinging to his arm, but as Whitney passed, she saw the slow, reluctant smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, and triumph unfurled like a banner in her heart. By the time she came around again, Paul was grinning broadly at her. Whitney’s spirits soared, and suddenly all the weeks of practice, the sore muscles and bruises, seemed worthwhile.
At the window of the second floor drawing room overlooking the south lawn, Martin Stone stared down at his performing daughter. Behind him, the butler announced that Lord and Lady Gilbert had arrived. Too enraged at his daughter to speak, Martin greeted his sister-in-law and her husband with a clenched jaw and curt nod.
"How-how nice to see you again after so many years, Martin," Lady Anne lied graciously. When he remained icily silent, she said, "Where is Whitney? We’re so anxious to see her."
Martin finally recovered his voice. "See her?" he snapped savagery. "Madam, you have only to look out this window." Bewildered, Anne did as he said. Below on the lawn there stood a group of young people watching a slender boy balancing beautifully on a cantering horse. "What a clever young man," she said, smiling.
Her simple remark seemed to drive Martin Stone from frozen rage to frenzied action as he swung on his heel and marched toward the door. "If you wish to meet your niece, come with me. Or, I can spare you the humiliation, and bring her here to you."
With an exasperated look at Martin’s back, Anne tucked her hand in her husband’s arm and together they followed Martin downstairs and outside.
As they approached the group of young people, Anne heard murmurings and laughter, and she was vaguely aware that there was something malicious in the tone, but she was too busy scanning the young ladies’ faces, looking for Whitney, to pay much heed to the fleeting impression. She mentally discarded two blondes and a redhead, quizzically studied a petite, blue-eyed brunette, then glanced helplessly at the young man beside her. "Pardon me, I am Lady Gilbert, Whitney’s aunt. Could you tell me where she is?"
Paul Sevarin grinned at her, half in sympathy and half in amusement. "Your niece is on the horse, Lady Gilbert," he said.
"On the-" Lord Gilbert choked.
From her delicate perch atop the horse, Whitney’s eyes followed her father’s progress as he bore down on her with long, rapid strides. "Please don’t make a scene, Father," she implored when he was within earshot.
"I make a scene?" he roared furiously. Snatching the halter, he brought the cantering horse around so sharply that he jerked it from beneath her. Whitney hit the ground on her feet, lost her balance, and ended up half-sprawling. As she scampered up, her father caught her arm in a ruthless grip and hauled her over toward the spectators. "This-this thing," he said, thrusting her forward toward her aunt and uncle, "I am mortified to tell you is your niece."