AS THEIR ELEGANT TRAVELLING CHAISE ROCKED AND SWAYED along the rutted country road, Lady Anne Gilbert leaned her cheek against her husband's shoulder and heaved a long, impatient sigh. "Another whole hour until we arrive, and already the suspense is positively gnawing at me. I keep wondering what Whitney will be like now that she's grown up."
She lapsed into silence and gazed absently out the coach window at the lush, rolling English countryside covered with wild pink Foxglove and yellow Buttercups, trying to envision the niece she hadn't seen in almost eleven years.
"She'll be pretty, just as her mother was. And she'll have her mother's smile, her gentleness, her sweet disposition ..."
Lord Edward Gilbert cast a skeptical glance at his wife. "Sweet disposition?" he echoed in amused disbelief. "That isn't what her father said in his letter."
As a diplomat attached to the British Consulate in Paris, Lord Gilbert was a master of hints, evasions, innuendoes, and intrigues. But in his personal life, he preferred the refreshing alternative of blunt truth. "Allow me to refresh your memory," he said, groping in his pockets and retrieving the letter from Whitney's father. He perched his spectacles upon his nose, and ignoring his wife's grimace, he began to read:
" 'Whitney's manners are an outrage, her conduct is reprehensible. She is a willful hoyden who is the despair of everyone she knows and an embarrassment to me. I implore you to take her back to Paris with you, in the hope that you may have more success with the stubborn chit than I have had.' "
Edward chuckled. "Show me where it says she's 'sweet-tempered.'"
His wife shot him a peevish glance. "Martin Stone is a cold, unfeeling man who wouldn't recognize gentleness and goodness if Whitney were made of nothing else! Only think of the way he shouted at her and sent her to her room right after my sister's funeral."
Edward recognized the mutinous set of his wife's chin and put his arm around her shoulders in a gesture of conciliation. "I'm no fonder of the man than you are, but you must admit that, just having lost his young wife to an early grave, to have his daughter accuse him, in front of fifty people, of locking her mama in a box so she couldn't escape had to be rather disconcerting."
"But Whitney was scarcely five years old!" Anne protested heatedly.
"Agreed. But Martin was grieving. Besides, as I recall, it was not for that offense she was banished to her room. It was later, when everyone had gathered in the drawing room- when she stamped her foot and threatened to report us all to God if we didn't release her mama at once."
Anne smiled. "What spirit she had, Edward. I thought for a moment her little freckles were going to pop right off her nose. Admit it-she was marvelous, and you thought so too!"
"Well, yes," Edward agreed sheepishly. "I rather thought she was."
As the Gilbert chaise bore inexorably down on the Stone estate, a small knot of young people were waiting on the south lawn, impatiently looking toward the stable one hundred yards away. A petite blond smoothed her pink ruffled skirts and sighed in a way that displayed a very fetching dimple. "Whatever do you suppose Whitney is planning to do?" she inquired of the handsome light-haired man beside her.
Glancing down into Elizabeth Ashton's wide blue eyes, Paul Sevarin smiled a smile that Whitney would have forfeited both her feet to see focused on herself. "Try to be patient, Elizabeth," he said.
"I'm sure none of us have the faintest idea what she is up to, Elizabeth," Margaret Merryton said tartly. "But you can be perfectly certain it will be something foolish and outrageous."
"Margaret, we're all Whitney's guests today," Paul chided. "I don't know why you should defend her, Paul," Margaret argued spitefully. "Whitney is creating a horrid scandal chasing after you, and you know it!"
"Margaret!" Paul snapped. "I said that was enough." Drawing a long, irritated breath, Paul Sevarin frowned darkly at his gleaming boots. Whitney had been making a spectacle of herself chasing after him, and damned near everyone for fifteen miles was talking about it.
At first he had been mildly amused to find himself the object of a fifteen-year-old's languishing looks and adoring smiles, but lately Whitney had begun pursuing him with the determination and tactical brilliance of a female Napoleon Bonaparte.
If he rode off the grounds of his estate, he could almost depend on meeting her en route to his destination. It was as if she had some lookout point from which she watched his every move, and Paul no longer found her childish infatuation with him either harmless or amusing.
Three weeks ago, she had followed him to a local inn. While he was pleasantly contemplating accepting the innkeeper's daughter's whispered invitation to meet her later in the hayloft, he'd glanced up and seen a familiar pair of bright green eyes peeping at him through the window. Slamming his tankard of ale on the table, he'd marched outside, grabbed Whitney by the elbow, unceremoniously deposited her on her horse, tersely reminding her that her father would be searching for her if she wasn't home by nightfall.
He'd stalked back inside and ordered another tankard, but when the innkeeper's daughter brushed her breasts suggestively against his arm while refilling his ale and Paul had a sudden vision of himself lying entangled with her voluptuous naked body, a pair of green eyes peered in through yet another window. He'd tossed enough coins on the planked wooden table to mollify the startled girl's wounded sensibilities and left--only to encounter Miss Stone again on his way home.
He was beginning to feel like a hunted man whose every move was under surveillance, and his temper was strained to the breaking point. And yet, Paul thought irritably, here he was standing in the April sun, trying for some obscure reason to protect Whitney from the criticism she richly deserved.
A pretty girl, several years younger than the others in the group, glanced at Paul. "I think I'll go and see what's keeping Whitney," said Emily Williams. She hurried across the lawn and along the whitewashed fence adjoining the stable. Shoving open the big double doors, Emily looked down the wide gloomy corridor lined with stalls on both sides. "Where is Miss Whitney?" she asked the stableboy who was currying a sorrel gelding.
"In there, Miss." Even in the muted light, Emily saw his face suffuse with color as he nodded toward a door adjacent to the tack room.
With a puzzled glance at the flushing stableboy, Emily tapped lightly on the designated door and stepped inside, then froze at the sight that greeted her: Whitney Allison Stone's long legs were encased in coarse brown britches that clung startlingly to her slender hips and were held in place at her narrow waist with a length of rope. Above the riding britches she wore a thin chemise.