"You don't realize what you're asking of me," Whitney said, tensing. "If a certain person were to hear the gossip and believe I've truly betrothed myself to Paul, my life wouldn't be worth a farthing." Elizabeth looked on the verge of a fresh bout of tears and Whitney stood up, torn between the certainty that a few days really wouldn't make a difference and the inexplicable fear that they could result in disaster. "I'll give you three days before I put a stop to the gossip," Whitney reluctantly conceded.
Long after Elizabeth's departure, Whitney sat in her room, thinking and worrying. If everyone, including the servants, was openly gossiping about her "betrothal" to Paul, Clayton would certainly hear of it as soon as he returned. He had made it very clear that he wouldn't tolerate people believing she had ever been betrothed to anyone but him, and Whitney tried to think of some proof she could offer him that none of this was her fault-that she had, in fact, told Paul she wouldn't marry him, exactly as she had promised Clayton she would.
He had accepted her word and trusted her to keep it, and Whitney wanted him to believe she had, but the only one who could prove it was Paul, and Paul was in no mood to aid her.
Whitney bit her lip, concerned with more than just the loss of her honor. Without the incentive of marrying Paul to give her courage, she now felt a deep-rooted, genuine fear of Clayton's wrath. The more she pondered it, the more convinced she became that the best way to avert certain disaster was to go to London and explain to Clayton what was happening here. He would be far less angry hearing it from her than from strangers, and he would know she wasn't to blame. After all, if she was truly planning to marry Paul, as the gossip had it, why would she return to London to see Clayton?
Resolutely, Whitney got up and went down the hall to her aunt's room. She poured out the entire story, including the gossip about her betrothal to Paul and her abandoned plan to elope. Aunt Anne blanched but she remained silent until Whitney was finished. "What do you intend to do now?" she asked then.
"I think it would be best if I went to London and stayed with Emily. As soon as I arrive, I'll notify his grace I'm there, and he'll naturally come to see me. Then I'U choose exactly the right moment to tell him about the gossip here. I don't think he'll care so much about the talk, so long as he believes it isn't my fault."
"I'll come to London with you," her aunt instantly volunteered.
Whitney shook her head. "I wish you could, but there's a slim chance that he might return to the village without my having been able to see him in London. If he does, he'll hear the gossip and undoubtedly come straight here to the house. I need you here to explain and calm him down."
"What a cheerful prospect," Lady Anne said drily, but she was smiling. "Very well, I'll stay here. Now, assuming you reach him in London, what reason will you give him for being there?"
Whitney's smooth forehead knitted into an irritated frown. "I suppose I'll have to tell him the truth-that I was afraid he would come back to the village and believe that despite his warning, I hadn't refused Paul. Although, I find it excessively galling to have to tear off to London like a rabbit frightened of incurring his wrath. That man walked into my life a few months ago, and I've been like a puppet obliged to dance to his tune ever since. I think I shall tell him that too!" Whitney finished mutinously.
"While you're bent on being so honest about your feelings," Aunt Anne suggested with a knowing gleam in her eyes, "why don't you also tell him that you have developed a sincere affection for him and you are willing now to honor the betrothal contract? It will please him immensely to hear you say it."
Whitney shot up off the sofa as if she'd been scorched. "I most certainly will not!" she declared hotly. "Considering that he never cared whether I wanted to marry him, and has never doubted for a minute that I would marry him, I fail to see why I should flatter his vanity now by professing to want to marry him. Besides, I haven't made up my mind to marry him."
"I think you have, darling."
Her aunt's quiet voice checked Whitney in mid-stride as she headed for the door. "And if it will make it easier for you to admit your own feelings, I will tell you that, in my opinion, that man loves you with an intensity that would astonish him if he but recognized it-and very likely flatter your vanity."
"You're wrong, Aunt Anne," Whitney said tonelessly. "He has never even said he cares for me. I'm a possession he's acquired, nothing more. Don't ask me to crawl to him; I have very little pride left as it is, and I won't sacrifice it to soothe his temper or flatter his ego."
Elizabeth Ashton appeared at the house each afternoon to report her progress, but by the end of the third day, there was still no cause for celebration. Clarissa and Whitney were packing for the next day's trip to London when Elizabeth trailed into the bedroom, a soldier returning in defeat from a battle that should have been easy for her to win. "Peter is no nearer declaring himself now than he was ten years ago," she said glumly, flopping into a chair.
Whitney thrust an armload of underclothing into a trunk
and gazed at Elizabeth in perplexed dismay. "Are you certain?"
"Positive," Elizabeth said morosely. "I suggested we dine at my house tonight, without my parents, and do you know what he said? He said"-Elizabeth sighed heavily-"that he likes dining with my parents."
"That idiot!" Whitney burst out irritably. Slowly she began to pace back and forth. "You may be ready to accept defeat, but I'm not-at least not from Peter Redfern, of all people! That dolt has worshiped you since we were children. What he needs is some sort of motivation to force him into declaring himself without delay." Idly, Whitney shoved the fully packed portmanteau out of the way with her foot and frowned at the luggage scattered everywhere around the room. "I have it!" she burst out, whirling on Elizabeth with an impetuous, daring gleam in her green eyes that Elizabeth well remembered from days gone by. Terrified, she shrank back into her chair: "Whitney, whatever you're thinking, we aren't going to do it."
"Oh yes, we are!" Whitney hooted triumphantly. "Miss Ashton, I hereby invite you to come to London with me."
"But I don't want to go to London," Elizabeth sputtered desperately. "I want Peter."
"Good, and you're going to get him tonight. Now repeat after me, 'Yes, I will go to London with you.'"
"Yes, I will go to London with you," Elizabeth parroted. "But I don't want to."