After a minute's deliberation, Whitney began to write. Her eyes sparkled with triumphant satisfaction as she politely explained to Clayton that she had wrenched her knee and had to remain abed. She ended with a sugary statement that she would look forward to seeing him on the morrow-if her pain lessened. She signed it simply, "Whitney," then sat back, congratulating herself.
The idea of an injured knee was an absolute inspiration, for such injuries were not only painful, but unpredictably long in mending. Tomorrow she could send him another sorrowful note, and add a few convincing details about how the imaginary injury had occurred. With any sort of luck, she might be able to avoid seeing him until after Paul returned!
"What would you like to wear when you see the duke today?" Clarissa asked.
A beaming smile dawned across Whitney's features. "Fm not going to see him today, Clarissa. Or tomorrow, or the day after. Listen to this," Whitney said, and quickly read the note to her.
"Well, what do you think?" she asked, folding it and sealing it with a few drops of wax.
Clarissa's voice was tight with alarm. "I think he'll realize what you're up to, and he'll bring the house down around our ears, I don't want any part of it. You should ask Lady Anne before you send it."
"I can't wait for my aunt to arise, and you have to take part in it," Whitney explained patiently. "You must bring the note to him."
Clarissa paled. "Me? Why do I have to do it?"
"Because I need to know exactly how he reacts to it, and I can't depend upon anyone else to tell me."
"I get palpitations of the heart just thinking of what could go wrong," Clarissa complained, but she took the note for delivery. "What if he asks me questions about the injury?"
"Just make up answers," Whitney advised cheerfully. "Only remember to tell me what you say to him so that I don't accidentally contradict you."
When Clarissa left, Whitney felt as if an enormous weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Humming gaily, she went over to the wardrobes to select a gown to wear.
Clarissa returned twenty minutes later, and Whitney rushed out of the dressing room. "What did he say?" she asked eagerly. "How did he look? Tell me everything."
"Well, his grace was at breakfast when I arrived," Clarissa said, nervously fingering the starched collar of her dress. "But the butler showed me directly to him as soon as I said who I was. Then I gave his grace the note and he read it."
"He wasn't angry, was he?" Whitney prompted, when Clarissa fell silent.
"Not that I could tell, but I don't think he was pleased either."
"Clarissa, for heavens sake! What did he say?"
"He thanked me for bringing the note, then he nodded toward one of those uppity servants of his, and I was shown out."
Whitney wasn't certain whether she should feel relieved or apprehensive about his reaction, and as the day wore on, she discovered that her respite was not so blissful as she'd expected it to be.
By noon, she jumped every time she heard footsteps in the hall, thinking that she was going to be informed that Clayton had come to call. It would be just like the man to insist that her aunt accompany him to her bedchambers, even though mat would be an unforgivable breach of propriety.
Dinner was brought up to her on a tray, and Whitney ate in bored solitude. For the first time all day, her thoughts drifted to Paul. Poor Paul, she thought contritely. She'd been 90 caught up in this web of intrigue, trying to outmaneuver and second-guess Clayton Westmoreland, that she hadn't devoted any thought at all to the man she loved.
THE NEXT MORNING, WHITNEY DASHED OFF A SECOND NOTE TO her betrothed, going into more detail about the agonizing pain she was suffering from her clumsy tumble down the staircase, and begging rather prettily to be excused from seeing him today. Although it meant having to spend another long day alone in her room because she couldn't risk being caught downstairs with her relatives should Clayton decide to inquire personally about her ankle, Whitney felt the enforced solitude was more than worth it-not only because she could avoid Clayton, but because she had the equally great satisfaction of outwitting him!
"Do you really think this is wise, darling?" Anne frowned, reading Whitney's clever note. "If you anger him needlessly, I can't think what he'll do."
"There's nothing he can do, Aunt Anne," Whitney reassured, sealing the note and handing it to Clarissa to deliver. "You've already written to Uncle Edward asking him to come quickly. When he arrives, he'd help me think of some way out of this. In the meantime, I'll continue with this farce about my knee for as long as I can, then I'll think of something else. Maybe I can bore his grace into going away," Whitney laughed.
Clarissa returned to report in a harassed voice that the duke had scanned the note, and looked at her in an exceedingly odd way.
"Clarissa, please, can't you be more specific than that?" Whitney begged impatiently. "What sort of 'odd' way?"
"Well, he read it," Clarissa recounted. "Then he looked as if he were about to smile. But he didn't exactly smile, and he asked another one of his high-and-mighty servants to show me out."
Whitney bit her lip as she puzzled over Clayton's baffling reaction, then with a smiling shrug, she dismissed the entire matter. "The three of us really should stop worrying about his every word and gesture. After all," she said breezily, flopping down on the settee, "whether he thinks I'm lying or not, what can he possibly do about it?"
The answer to that question arrived shortly after luncheon in a sleek, black-lacquered Westmoreland travelling coach drawn by four prancing black horses in silver harnesses. A somberly garbed, portly gentleman alighted from the conveyance and proceeded briskly toward the house. In his left hand he carried a large black leather bag; in his right a small engraved card which he handed to Sewell. "I am Dr. Whitticomb," he said to the butler. "I have been brought here from London and instructed to ask for Lady Gilbert."
When Anne greeted him in the salon, Dr. Whitticomb smiled politely into her puzzled eyes and explained, "His grace, the Duke of Claymore, has sent me to examine Miss Stone's knee."
Lady Gilbert turned so white that Dr. Whitticomb feared she might be ill, but after bidding him to wait, she left the room, snatched up her skirts, sprinted down the hallway, and vaulted up the staircase with a speed and agility that would have been remarkable in a healthy female half her years.
"He's done what?" Whitney shrieked, jumping to her feet and sending the volume of Pride and Prejudice in her lap thudding to the floor. "Why that low, vile . . ."