"Perfect, because you aren't going to. But I have just asked you and you've accepted. This way, when you tell Peter you've agreed to come with me, you won't be lying to him." Advancing purposefully on a bewildered Elizabeth, Whitney caught her hand and pulled her over to the writing desk. "Now, write and tell Peter to join you here for dinner with me tonight. Tell him . . ." Whitney hesitated, her forefinger pressed to her lips, then chuckled at her own stroke of genius. "Tell him that you and I are planning to do the most extraordinary thing together. That should petrify him."
"Peter isn't going to like our going to London together," Elizabeth said.
"He'll detest the idea!" Whitney agreed proudly, "Even though I've grown up, Peter still watches me as if he expects me to do something outrageous at any moment."
For the first tune in her sweet, acquiescent life, Elizabeth displayed a stubborn streak. "If Peter won't approve, I won't go."
Stung by Elizabeth's lack of appreciation for her brilliant plan, Whitney said, "You aren't going. Don't you see, Peter will be appalled at the idea of our going off together. He doesn't think I've truly changed. He still thinks of me as the same hoyden who used to smile Reverend Snodgrass's old mare on the rump with a slingshot."
"You did that?" Elizabeth gasped.
"That, and a great many other things Peter knows about," Whitney admitted impenitently. "He'll try to dissuade you from coming with me, but you are to tell him that I am insisting. I'll be right there to insist, and when Peter can't talk either of us out of it, he'll do the only thing he can do."
"What?" Elizabeth asked, looking intrigued but dubious.
Whitney threw up her hands. "Why, he'll propose, you widgeon!" Taking Elizabeth's trembling hand in an affectionate, reassuring grasp, Whitney said, "Please, please trust me. Nothing wrings an offer so quickly from a man as the fear that you are going to leave him. And nothing makes a man quite so brave and bold as the opportunity to rescue an innocent female from 'unsuitable companions,'-in this case, the unsuitable companion is me. Nicolas DuVille scarcely paid any attention to me unless he objected to some gentleman who was courting me, then he swooped down like an avenging angel to protect me from some man who was not nearly as dangerous a flirt as he! It was vastly amusing, I can tell you. Now please write that note. Before this night is over, Peter will propose, you just wait and see."
Reluctantly Elizabeth did as she was bidden and the note was dispatched to Peter with a footman.
Three hours later, against her protests, Elizabeth was draped in Whitney's most daring gown, which had been temporarily shortened, and her golden curls had been tamed into a sleek chignon. Still objecting, she was led to a mirror by Clarissa and Whitney.
"Go ahead," Whitney urged. "See how lovely you look-"
Elizabeth's timid gaze travelled up the clingy folds of the elegant silk gown, past her sum hips and dainty waist, then riveted in shock on her exposed decolletage. Her hands flew to cover the tops of her breasts swelling above the bodice of the gown. "I can't," she gasped, blushing.
Whitney rolled her eyes. "Yes, you can, Elizabeth. Why in France, this gown would be considered only a tiny bit daring."
A nervous giggle trilled from Elizabeth as she slowly lowered her hands. "Do you think Peter will like it?"
"Not," Whitney predicted happily, "when I tell him that I think your gowns are much too demure and that when we're in London I intend to make certain you buy more like this one to wear at the parties we shall be attending."
At eight o'clock Peter strode into the candlelit drawing room and joined the two young women who were waiting for him. After a brief nod in Whitney's direction, he looked around the room for Elizabeth, who was staring out the window with her back to him.
"What is this 'extraordinary thing' the two of you are planning to do?" he demanded.
Elizabeth slowly turned and an expression of comical incredulity froze Peter's features. With slackened jaw and glazed eyes, he gaped at her.
Elizabeth, who had evidently hoped he would take one look at her and fail to his knee to propose matrimony, waited in expectant silence. When he neither spoke nor moved, her dainty chin lifted with stubborn determination and for the first time in her twenty-one years, Elizabeth consciously began to use the feminine wiles with which she was born. "Whitney is taking me for an extended trip to London tomorrow," she explained, while strolling back and forth, parading her blond loveliness before a staggered Peter. "Whitney thinks I shall be all the rage in London once I have new clothes and a new hair style. She is going to teach me how to flirt with gentlemen too," ad-libbed Elizabeth with wide-eyed innocence. "Of course," she finished with a spurt of inspiration, "I do hope I shan't have changed so much by the time we return that you won't recognize me ..."
Whitney's lips trembled with admiring laughter which she quickly suppressed as Peter's outraged glower swung toward her. "What the devil do you think you're doing?" he snapped furiously.
Somehow Whitney managed to look almost as innocent as Elizabeth. "I'm only trying to take Elizabeth under my wing."
"Elizabeth would be safer under an axe!" he exploded. "I won't permit-"
"Now Peter," Whitney soothed, struggling desperately to keep her face straight. "Be reasonable. All I intend to do is take Elizabeth to London and introduce her to some of the gentlemen I met at a ball there this week. They are a most charming, eligible group, and all of them have impeccable backgrounds and unexceptionable reputations. They may be a little fast, but I'm quite certain Elizabeth won't fall violently in love with more than one or two of them. It's time for her to marry, you know. She's a year older than I."
"I know how old Elizabeth is!" Peter raked his hand through his hair in frustration.
"Then you should also know that you have no say in what she does. You aren't her papa, nor her husband, nor even her fiance. So do stop arguing and admit defeat. I'll just go and see about dinner," she finished, hastily turning away to hide her brimming laughter.
Whitney was absolutely certain that Peter would propose when he took Elizabeth home. She was wrong; they were standing hand-in-hand when she returned to the drawing room ten minutes later.
"It grieves me to upset your plans," Peter mocked, "but Elizabeth will not be accompanying you to London. She has agreed to become my wife. Well," he demanded irritably, "what have you to say to that?"