From within the coach, Anne watched eagerly as Martin came face to face with the gorgeous, elegant young woman who was smiling dazzlingly at him. In a stiff, self-conscious voice, he spoke to the daughter he hadn’t seen in four years. "Child," said he, "you’ve grown even taller."
"Either that, Papa," Whitney returned gravely, "or you have shrunk."
Lady Anne’s muffled laugh announced her presence in the coach, and she reluctantly climbed down to confront her host. She had not expected effusive cordiality-Martin was never effusive, and rarely cordial-but neither had she expected him to gape at her, while his expression went from thunderstruck to alarmed to irritated. "Good of you to see Whitney home," he managed finally. "When d’you plan to leave?"
"Aunt Anne is going to remain with me for two or three months, until I’m settled again," Whitney interjected hastily "Isn’t that kind of her?"
"Yes, kind," he agreed, looking definitely irked. "Why don’t you both relax before supper . . . have a rest, or supervise the unpacking, or something. I have a note to write. I will see you later," he added, already starting for the house.
Whitney was torn between mortification over the way her father was treating her aunt, and a nostalgic joy at being home again. As they mounted the staircase, she let her gaze wander over the familiar old house with its mellow, oak-panelled walls lined with English landscapes and trained portraits of her ancestors. Her favorite painting, a lively hunt scene in the cool morning mist, was in its place of honor on the balcony, hanging between a pair of Chippendale sconces. Everything was the same, yet different. There seemed to be three times as many servants as they’d ever had before, and the house shone from the painstaking labor of many extra hands. Every inch of parquet floor, every bit of panelled wall was glowing with newly applied polish. The candleholders lining the hall were gleaming, and the carpet beneath her feet was new.
In the doorway to her old bedroom, Whitney stopped and caught her breath. Her room had been completely redone in her absence. She smiled with pleasure as she looked at her bed, its canopy and coverlet of ivory satin with threads of gold and pale orange. Matching draperies hung at the windows. "Clarissa, doesn’t it look wonderful?" she exclaimed, turning to her maid. But the plump, gray-haired woman was busily directing the footmen who were carrying in the trunks from the coaches. Whitney was too excited to rest, so she helped Clarissa and a new maid with the unpacking.
By mealtime, she had bathed and changed clothes, and the maids were nearly finished unpacking. Whitney went down the hallway to her aunt’s room. The large guest suite had not been redone and looked shabby in comparison to other parts of the house. Whitney wanted to apologize to her aunt for it, and for her father’s rude reception, but Aunt Anne stopped her with an understanding smile. "It doesn’t matter, darling," she said. Linking her arm through Whitney’s, they went downstairs.
Her father was waiting for them in the dining room, and Whitney vaguely noted that the chairs at the table had been reupholstered in rose velvet to match the new draperies that were pulled back with heavy tassels. Two footmen in immaculate uniforms were hovering near the sideboard, and another was pushing in a silver cart laden with covered dishes from the kitchen. "There seems to be a score of new servants in the house."
Whitney remarked to her father as he politely seated Anne at the table.
"We always needed them," he said brusquely. "The place had begun to look run down."
It had been four years since anyone had spoken to her in that tone, and Whitney stared at him in bewilderment. It was then, with the bright light from the chandelier above the table illuminating him, that she realized his hair had turned from black to gray in her absence, and that deep crevices now marked his forehead and grooved the sides of his mouth and eyes. He looked as if he had aged a decade in four years, she thought with a sharp pang. "Why are you staring at me?" he said shortly. He had always been this sharp with her in the old days, Whitney remembered sadly, but then he had had reason to be. Now that she was home, however, she didn’t want them to fall into their old pattern of hostility. Softly she said, "I was noticing that your hair has turned gray." –
"Is that so surprising?" he retorted, but with less edge to his voice.
Very carefully, very deliberately, Whitney smiled at him, and as she did so, it occurred to her that she couldn’t remember ever smiling at him before. "Yes," she said, her eyes twinkling. "If / didn’t give you gray hair white I was growing up, I’m amazed mere years could do it."
Her father looked startled by her smiling reply, but he unbent a bit. "Suppose you know your friend Emily got herself a husband?" Whitney nodded, and he added, "She’d been out three seasons, and her father told me he’d all but despaired of ever seeing her suitably married. Now the match is the talk of the whole damn countryside!" His gaze levelled accusingly on Lady Anne, rebuking her for having failed to see Whitney suitably married.
Lady Anne stiffened and Whitney hastily tried to interject a teasing note into her voice. "Surely you haven’t despaired of seeing me suitably married?" "Yes," he said bluntly. "I had." Pride demanded that Whitney tell him of the dozen splendid offers Uncle Edward had received for her hand; reason warned that her father would react violently to the discovery that, without consulting him, Uncle Edward had rejected those offers. Why was her father so cold and unapproachable? Whitney wondered unhappily. Could she ever hope to bridge the gulf between them? Putting her cup down, she gave him a warm, conspiratorial smile and said lightly, "If it would lessen your mortification at having an unwed daughter already out four seasons, Aunt Anne and I could have it whispered about that I declined offers from two baronets, an earl, a duke, and a prince!"
"Is this true, Madam?" he snapped at Aunt Anne. "Why wasn’t I informed of these offers?"
"Of course, it isn’t true," Whitney interceded, trying to keep the smile pasted on her face. "I’ve met only one real duke and one imposter-and I detested them both equally. I did meet a Russian prince, but he was already spoken for by the princess, and I doubt she’d give him up so that I could outdo Emily."
Far a moment he stared at her, then said abruptly, "I’m having a little party for you tomorrow night."
Whitney felt a glow of warmth tingle through her that remained even when he irritably corrected: "Actually, it’s not a little party, it’s a damned circus with every Tom, Dick and Harry for miles around coming-an orchestra, and dancing, and all that rubbish!"