He unbuttoned his dark blue jacket, leaned back in his chair, and stretched his long legs out beside the table. Relaxed and comfortable, he turned his head slightly and gazed into the fire.
Whitney studied him surreptitiously as she sipped from her brandy. Sitting like that, he looked like an artist's portrait of the "gentleman of leisure." And yet, she had the strangest feeling that beneath his relaxed exterior there was a forceful-ness, a power, carefully restrained now, but gathered. Waiting. And if she made a wrong move, a mistake, he would unleash that force, that power on her. Mentally, she gave herself a hard shake. She was being foolish and fanciful. "I can't make out the time," she said softly, a while later, "but it's surely long past the hour for me to leave."
His gaze shifted from the fire to her. "Not until I hear you laugh again."
Whitney shook her head. "I haven't laughed that hard since the day of our spring musicale when I was twelve years old."
When he realized that she had no intention of elaborating, Clayton said, "Since you're obviously reluctant to share it with me, I claim the retelling of that story as my victory prize."
"First you lure me into a chess game," Whitney berated him, smiling. "Then you outwit me, and now you want to claim a reward from me for doing it. Have you no mercy?"
"None. Now go on."
"Very well," she sighed. "But only because I refuse to further flatter your vanity by pleading to be let off." Her voice softened as she looked back into the past. "It was a long time ago, yet it seems like yesterday. Mr. Twittsworthy, our local music instructor, decided that the village should have a spring musicale. All the females whose musical education was entrusted to his tutelage were to display their accomplishments by playing or singing a short piece. There were about fifteen of us, but Elizabeth Ashton was the most gifted performer, so Mr. Twittsworthy bestowed the honor of hosting the musicale on her mama and papa. I didn't even want to go, but. . ."
"But Twittsworthy insisted that you must, or the musicale would be a dismal failure?" Clayton speculated.
"Good heavens, no! Mr. Twittsworthy would have been delighted if I'd stayed away. You see, whenever he came to the house to listen to me play the pianoforte, his eyes began to bum and water. He complained to everyone that my playing was so offensive to his ears that it actually made him weep."
Clayton felt an unexplainable surge of anger at the music instructor. "The man must have been a fool."
"Indeed he was," Whitney agreed with a breezy smile. "Otherwise, he would have realized that I was sprinkling pepper in his snuffbox whenever he came to give me lessons. Anyway, the morning of the musicale, I pleaded and argued with my father that I shouldn't have to go, but he would have it to the very last hour that I absolutely must!
"Looking back, I think Father would have relented if I hadn't been seized with the unfortunate inspiration of sending Clarissa, my maid, down with a note for him."
Clayton grinned at her over the rim of his glass. "What did you say in the note?"
"I said," Whitney confessed with twinkling eyes, "that I had taken to my bed with a case of cholera, but that he should go to the musicale without me and ask everyone to pray for my recovery."
Clayton's shoulders began to lurch and Whitney said severely, "I've not yet come to the humorous part of the story, Mr. Westland." He smoothed the laughter from his face and Whitney continued, "Father gave poor Clarissa a thundering scold for having failed to instill in me a grain of respect for truth. The very next thing I knew, Clarissa was thrusting me into my best dress which was much too short, because I'd told her I wasn't going and she didn't need to let the hem down, and Father was marching me into the carriage.
Of course, I hadn't learned my piece for the musicale, which was nothing out of the ordinary, since I never had the patience to plink and plank my life away at the pianoforte, and I pleaded with Father to let me go back into the house and get my music, but he was too angry with me to listen.
"Every neighbor for miles was gathered in the music room at Elizabeth's house. Elizabeth played like an angel, which was always the way, and Margaret Merryton's piece was judged quite agreeable. I was saved for last." Whitney lapsed into pensive silence. For one brief moment, she was again sitting in the third row of the crowded music room, just behind Paul, whose eyes were riveted on Elizabeth's dainty, angelic profile as she played the pianoforte. Paul had leapt to his feet, with everyone else, to applaud Elizabeth's performance while Whitney stood behind him, tugging at her short, unbecoming pink dress and hating her own awkward body which was ail arms and legs and knees and elbows.
"You were the last to play," Clayton prodded, his teasing voice rousing Whitney from her unhappy recollections. "And even without your music, you played so well that they all cheered and called for an encore?"
"I would say," Whitney corrected him with a tinkling laugh, "that their reaction was more one of dazed silence."
Despite Whitney's offhand manner of telling the story, Clayton found it more poignant than funny. At that moment, he could have cheerfully strangled every one of these small-minded country bumpkins who had ever embarrassed her, beginning with her music instructor and ending with her stupid father. Deep inside, he felt a stirring tenderness, a protectiveness toward her, that surprised and disturbed him, and he lifted his glass, drinking from it to cover his own bewildering emotions.
Afraid that he might somehow feel sorry for her, Whitney smiled and waVed her hand dismissively. "I've only told you this to give you the background. The reason for my hilarity occurred later, while everyone was enjoying a light luncheon out on the lawn. You see, a prize was to be awarded after lunch for the best performance, and Elizabeth Ashton was to receive it. Unfortunately, the prize vanished, and a rumor was circulated that it had been hidden up in the largest tree on the lawn."
Clayton studied her, and his gray eyes lit with amused speculation. "Did you put it there?"
Whitney pinkened. "No, but I started the rumor that it was up in the tree. Anyway, everyone had just begun to eat when suddenly Elizabeth came tumbling from the tree, crashing like a rock onto the table. I thought she made a very fetching centerpiece, reclining amidst the sandwiches and pudding in her pink and white ruffles, and I started to laugh." Whitney smiled as she recalled the scene, then she remembered the way Paul had run to Elizabeth's rescue, drying her tears with his handkerchief, while he glared furiously at Whitney.