Whitney heard the smattering of giggles as the group quickly disbanded, and she felt her face grow hot with shame. "How do you do, Aunt Gilbert? Uncle Gilbert?" With one eye on Paul’s broad-shouldered, retreating form, Whitney reached mechanically for her nonexistent skirt, realized it was missing, and executed a comical curtsy without it. She saw the frown on her aunt’s face and put her chin up defensively. "You may be sure that for the week you are here, I shall endeavor not to make a freak of myself again, Aunt."
"For the week that we are here?" her aunt gasped, but Whitney was preoccupied watching Paul help Elizabeth into his curricle and didn’t notice the surprise in her aunt’s voice.
"Goodbye, Paul," she called, waving madly. He turned and raised his arm in silent farewell.
Laughter drifted back as the curricles bowled down the drive, carrying their occupants off to a picnic or some other gay and wonderful activity, to which Whitney was never invited because she was too young.
Following Whitney toward the house, Anne was a mass of conflicting emotions. She was embarrassed for Whitney, furious with Martin Stone for humiliating the girl in front of the other young people, somewhat dazed by the sight of her own niece cavorting on the back of a horse, wearing men’s britches . . . and utterly astonished to discover that Whitney, whose mother had been only passably pretty, showed promise of becoming a genuine beauty.
She was too thin right now, but even in disgrace Whitney’s shoulders were straight, her walk naturally graceful and faintly provocative. Anne smiled to herself at the gently rounded hips displayed to almost immoral advantage by the coarse brown trousers, the slender waist that would require no subterfuge to make it appear smaller, eyes that seemed to change from sea-green to deep jade beneath their fringe of long, sooty lashes. And that hair-piles and piles of rich mahogany brown! All it needed was a good trimming and brushing until it shone; Anne’s fingers positively itched to go to work on it. Mentally she was already styling it in ways to highlight Whitney’s striking eyes and high cheekbones. Off her face, Anne decided, piled at the crown with tendrils at the ears, or pulled straight back off the forehead to fall in gentle waves down her back.
As soon as they entered the house, Whitney mumbled an excuse and fled to her room where she flopped dejectedly into a chair and morosely contemplated the humiliating scene Paul had just witnessed, with her father jerking her ignominiously off her horse and then shouting at her. No doubt her aunt and uncle were as horrified and revolted by her behavior as her father had been, and her cheeks, burned with shame just thinking of how they must despise her already.
"Whitney?" Emily whispered, creeping into the bedroom and cautiously closing the door behind her. "I came up the back way. Is your father angry?"
"Cross as crabs," Whitney confirmed, staring down at her trousered legs. "I suppose I ruined everything today, didn’t I? Everyone was laughing at me, and Paul heard them. Now that Elizabeth is seventeen, he’s bound to offer for her before he ever has a chance to realize that he loves me."
"You?" Emily repeated dazedly. "Whitney Stone, Paul avoids you like the plague, and well you know it! And who could blame him, after the mishaps you’ve treated him to in the last year?"
"There haven’t been so many as all that," Whitney protested, but she squirmed in her chair.
"No? What about that trick you played on him on All Soul’s-darting out in front of his carriage, shrieking like a banshee, and pretending to be a ghost, terrifying his horses."
Whitney flushed. "He wasn’t so very angry. And it isn’t as if the carriage was destroyed. It only broke a shaft when it overturned."
"And Paul’s leg," Emily pointed out.
"But that mended perfectly," Whitney persisted, her mind already leaping from past debacles to future possibilities. She surged to her feet and began to pace slowly back and forth. "There has to be a way-but short of abducting him, I-" A mischievous smile lit up her dust-streaked face as she swung around so quickly that Emily pressed back into her chair. "Emily, one thing is infinitely clear: Paul does not yet know that he cares for me. Correct?"
"He doesn’t care a snap for you is more like it," Emily replied warily.
"Therefore, it would be safe to say that he is unlikely to offer for me without some sort of added incentive. Correct?"
"You couldn’t make him offer for you at the point of a gun, and you know it. Besides, you aren’t old enough to be betrothed, even if-"
"Under what circumstances," Whitney interrupted triumphantly, "is a gentleman obliged to offer for a lady?"
"I can’t think of any. Except of course, if he has compromised her-absolutely not! Whitney, whatever you’re planning now, I won’t help."
Sighing, Whitney flopped back into her chair, stretching her legs out in front of her. An irreverent giggle escaped her as she considered the sheer audacity of her last idea. "If only I could have pulled it off… you know, loosened the wheel on Paul’s carriage so that it would fall off later, and then asked him to drive me somewhere. Then, by the time we walked back, or help arrived, it would be late at night, and he would have to offer for me." Oblivious to Emily’s scandalized expression, Whitney continued, "Just think what a wonderful turnabout that would have been on a tired old theme: Young Lady abducts Gentleman and ruins his reputation so that she is forced to marry him to set things aright! What a novel that could have made," she added, rather impressed with her own ingenuity.
"I’m leaving," Emily said. She marched to the door, then she hesitated and turned back to Whitney. "Your aunt and uncle saw everything. What are you going to say to them about those trousers and the horse?"
Whitney’s face clouded. "I’m not going to say anything, it wouldn’t help-but for the rest of the time they are here, I’m going to be the most demure, refined, delicate female you’ve ever seen." She saw Emily’s dubious look and added, "Also I intend to stay out of sight except at mealtimes. I think I’U be able to act like Elizabeth for three hours a day."
Whitney kept her promise. At dinner that night, after her uncle’s hair-raising tale of their life in Beirut where he was attached to the British Consulate, she murmured only, "How very informative, Uncle," even though she was positively burning to ply him with questions. At the end of her aunt’s description of Paris and the thrill of its gay social life, Whitney murmured, "How very informative, Aunt." The moment the meal was finished, she excused herself and vanished.