Late in the afternoon, as she wandered aimlessly among the last blooms in the rose garden, Whitney's active mind turned from the contemplation of problems to the consideration of solutions. Soon a hazy plan took shape. Elizabeth loved Paul, of that Whitney was certain. Surely there must be something Whitney could do to smooth things over with Elizabeth, so that she would be receptive to Paul if he chose to renew his interest in her.
Whitney hesitated and pulled her silk shawl tighter around her shoulders. Considering the chaotic state of her own affairs right now, she was the last person on earth capable of taking a guiding hand in someone else's romance. Nevertheless, it was her responsibility, and besides, she had never been able to stand meekly by and hope that fate would make the right things happen.
With a vitality that had been dormant for many days, Whitney decided to take matters into her own hands. She went into the house and dashed off a note to Elizabeth, then she paced across her bedroom, wondering if Elizabeth would flatly decline her invitation. There had been so much competitive jealousy on Whitney's part in years gone by, so many pranks and tricks, that poor Elizabeth would be understandably suspicious of any overture by Whitney to befriend her at this late date.
Whitney was so convinced that Elizabeth would refuse to come that she jumped when Elizabeth's soft voice spoke from the doorway of the bedroom. "You-you asked me to come?" Her blue eyes were darting nervously around the room, and she looked ready to bolt.
Whitney fixed a reassuring smile on her face and said graciously, "Yes, and I'm so happy that you have. May I take your gloves and bonnet?" As she reached out, Elizabeth nervously clapped both her hands to the crown of her bonnet, clutching it protectively to her curls, and Whitney recalled another bonnet of Elizabeth's-a little straw confection with pink ribbons that Paul had once complimented years ago. Five minutes later, the bonnet was discovered beneath the treads of the chair in which Whitney was rocking. Elizabeth was thinking of it too, Whitney realized, and a flush crept up her cheeks when she remembered poor Elizabeth's shriek of dismay.
"I-I prefer to keep it on," Elizabeth said.
"I don't blame you," Whitney sighed. For the next half hour, Whitney served tea and kept up a one-sided conversation of trivialities in an attempt to put Elizabeth at ease, but Elizabeth replied in monosyllables and continued to perch on the edge of her chair as if she were going to fly from the room at the first loud noise.
Finally, Whitney went to the point. "Elizabeth," she said, finding it very awkward to confess her foibles to the female she had always viewed as her archrival. "I owe you an apology for a grave injustice I've done you recently, as well as for some horrid things I did to you when we were young. About Paul-" she blurted out. "I know how you must hate me, and I don't blame you, but I would like to help you."
"Help me?" Elizabeth repeated blankly.
"Help you marry Paul," Whitney clarified.
Elizabeth's blue eyes widened. "No! No, really, I couldn't," she stammered, blushing gorgeously.
"Of course you could!" Whitney declared, passing her a tray of little pastries. "You're a very beautiful girl and Paul has always . .."
"No," Elizabeth contradicted softly, shaking her blond head. "You are more in the way of being beautiful. I am only, well, pretty, at best."
After taking this monumental step in befriending Elizabeth, Whitney wasn't about to have her generosity outdone. "You have beautiful manners, Elizabeth. You always do and say the proper thing at the proper time."
"The properly dull thing," Elizabeth argued prettily. "Not lively and interesting things like you say."
"Elizabeth," Whitney said, unable to suppress her amusement, "I was always perfectly outrageous, while you were always perfectly perfect."
Elizabeth relaxed back in her chair and giggled. "There, you see! I would have only said thank you' but you always say unusual things."
"Do not pay me another compliment," Whitney warned with a laughing look. "I won't be outdone, you know, and we will be here all night admiring one another."
Elizabeth sobered and said, "I'm very happy about you and Paul." At Whitney's stunned glance, she explained, "Everyone knows your betrothal is supposed to be a secret, but since everyone is talking about it, I didn't think you would mind if I mentioned it."
"What do you mean, everyone is talking about it?" Whitney said hoarsely. "Who else knows?"
"Well, let me think. Mr. Oldenberry, the apothecary, told Margaret and me. He said he heard it from Lady Eubank's maid, who heard it from Lady Eubank, who heard it from Paul's own mama. I suppose everyone in the village knows."
"But it isn't true!" Whitney cried desperately.
Elizabeth's pretty face fell. "Please don't say it isn't true!" she implored agitatedly. "Not now, not when Peter is almost to the point of offering."
"Who is Peter going to offer for?" Whitney asked, momentarily diverted.
"For me. But he won't if Paul is unattached. You see, Peter is shy, and he's always believed I have a secret tendre for Paul, which isn't in the least true. But even if it was, my papa would never permit me to marry Paul because he's a shocking spendthrift and his lands are mortgaged."
Whitney slumped back in her chair and gaped at Elizabeth. "Peter Redfern shy?" she echoed. "Elizabeth, are we talking about the same Peter Redfern? The one who tried to box my ears the day of the picnic when you fell out of the tree?"
"Well, he's shy around me," Elizabeth said.
In speechless disbelief, Whitney pictured Peter's freckled face and thinning red hair, and tried to imagine how he could have won the heart of a fragile, ethereal beauty like Elizabeth, who had always had Paul at her beck and call. "Do you honestly mean to tell me," Whitney uttered, "that you've been in love with Peter all these years?"
"Yes," Elizabeth admitted brokenly. "But if you tell everyone that you and Paul aren't going to be married, then Peter will just stand back, the way he always has, and let Paul take his place. And then I'll-I'll--" Elizabeth groped for her lacy handkerchief and promptly trailed off into dainty tears.
Whitney cocked her head to one side. "However do you manage to cry like that?" she asked admiringly. "I always gasp and snort and my eyes spill over like fountains."
Elizabeth giggled tearily and dabbed at her eyes before lifting them pleadingly to Whitney. "You said you'd done me injustices and you were sorry. If you truly mean it, couldn't you wait just a few days before crying off with Paul? Peter is going to say he wants to marry me any moment now, I can tell."