Chapter XIII. The Stolen Ride
 

Cora was of a very independent character. She felt that she had done right, and she did not care who knew it. But, for all that, she could not help whispering to herself:

"I'm glad Sid didn't see me bringing Paul here. He evidently thought he had plenty of time. He didn't look my way, and, besides, I had my veil down." Sid had disappeared after Paul.

She decided that she would not wait in the main street for Paul, as he might be kept some time, but would spin through the park. She was about to start when Sid Wilcox reappeared. His face showed his anger, but at the sight of Cora in her car he called up a smile to his countenance.

"Why, good-morning," he said pleasantly, stepping up to the auto. "You look as though you had been speeding," for her face was flushed from the wind.

"A little," was her smiling response. She could afford to smile now.

"Waiting for some one?" he asked.

"Yes."

It was too late to start off now:

"I'm waiting, too. Suppose I get in and take a turn around the park with you? You've never invited me to try your new car."

Cora was surprised. She knew very well she had not asked him to ride in the Whirlwind, and she had no intention of doing so. She was about to reply, when Sid jumped in beside her.

"I see you're not going to ask me," he went on, "and, as I have no idea of losing the chance for a spin, I'll get in without an invitation."

With a quick motion he shoved over the spark lever and the motor started, for a charge had remained in one of the cylinders, obviating the necessity of cranking up.

"There, we're all ready to go," he said.

Cora was dumfounded. But she felt it would not do to make a vigorous protest in such a public place. For a moment her feelings threatened to master her. Then she regained control of herself, threw in the clutch and turned the car in the direction of the park. After all, it might be better to humor Sid.

"So you brought Paul Hastings over?" drawled the youth.

Then he had seen her, after all. Cora's precautions were useless.

She nodded coldly. She was offended by her companion's impertinent tone. She started to turn off the power and apply the brake. She would not ride with him.

"Oh, you needn't get mad," continued Sid quickly. "I did not mean to offend you, though if it had not been for you Paul would not have gotten here ahead of me. You're a plucky girl, as well as a pretty one."

Cora flashed an indignant look at him.

"I suppose you meant that for a compliment," she said, "but you don't quite understand the art. It requires a certain delicacy--"

"Such as Paul Hastings might have," sneered Sid.

Cora felt that she could not bear with him a moment longer.

"I have a purchase to make here," she said with as much frigidness in her tones as she could call up. "I'll not ask you to wait," and she stopped the car in front of a dress-goods store.

"Oh, it's no trouble to wait."

"I'd rather you wouldn't."

"Well, I will." He was smiling now. "I never like to leave a young lady when she is in a--temper."

Cora was positively angry. But again came that detestation of making a scene, which every well-bred girl feels, no matter how strong the provocation. She would make a purchase to gain time, and then turn back to the bank building.

She bought something she was in no need of, and prolonged the transaction to an interminable length, to the no small disgust of the salesgirl. When she got back to the machine, Sid was smiling more broadly than before.

He had taken her place at the wheel.

"You won't mind me driving as far as the bank building, will you?" he said. "I really must get a new car. I miss mine so much, and it's in bad shape since you--er--tried to smash me."

"I did nothing of the sort. It was your own fault."

"There, there," he said soothingly. "We mustn't quarrel."

Cora felt herself growing pale. She repressed a stinging reply, and without a word took a seat in the tonneau.

"Oh, so you won't sit beside me?" he asked as he started the car. "What makes you dislike me so, Cora? You and I used to pull a pretty good stroke, but lately you simply won't look at me."

"I don't dislike you. At least, I did not until this morning."

"Still angry," he taunted. "Now, I call that mean. Why do you go off riding with a common mechanic?"

"Mr. Hastings is a gentleman!" she flared back at him, like an explosion of one of the cylinders of her car. "He would never dream of acting as you are now, even if he is a common mechanic."

"No?"

His tone was tantalizing.

"Please turn this corner," she said icily. "I want to get back to the bank building."

"Oh, do you? Well, I'm in no hurry to. I can't seem to do any business there, or in the automobile place," and he flashed a meaning look at the girl. "Now we'll see, Miss Cora, who's going to have their own way. I'm driving this car."

He threw in the second speed gear, and the auto dashed forward through the city streets.

Had he suddenly gone mad? What was his object? He was heading for the turnpike road!

For a few moments Cora held her breath. Should she shout for help, no matter what happened?

Then the fact of her unfortunate entanglement with the missing money came to her mind.

Should she deliberately place herself in the position of another entanglement?

Sid Wilcox bent lower over the steering wheel and turned on more power.

"Paul Hastings rode out with you," he called over his shoulder to Cora, "and I'm going to ride back with you. Nothing like having a variety and being a popular young lady."

He was positively insulting.

"You are running away with my car!" exclaimed Cora, stung to desperation. "I shall have you arrested!"

"Oh, no, you won't!" he sneered. "That would not be at all pleasant--for you!"

"Why do you say that?"

"Why? Because you might have to explain how that pocketbook got into your car. I heard last night that they were going to have another investigation on new lines."

"How dare you!" she cried. "But that has nothing to do with this. If you do not stop my car at once I shall call for help!"

"I dare you to!"

Did he know that she would not?

"Now, Cora, Cora," he simpered. "You must not do anything rash. Better let me have my little ride with you, and incidentally get ahead of my conceited rival, Paul Hastings. He may ride back in the car he is to drive across country, for he has probably done me out of that place. It will be a good chance for him to practice."

Sid's audacity was positively startling. Perhaps it would be best to let him have his own way. In fact, how could she help herself? He had the wheel, and was going at a fast rate of speed. She could not climb over to a front seat from the tonneau. If she should shout, who would hear her above the noise of the car? For Sid in mere spitefulness had cut out the muffler.

Cora sank back in utter disgust and despair. What ever would Paul Hastings think of her? What would Walter Pennington say? Whoever saw her, it would make talk. Besides, Paul had come to New City in his shop clothes concealed under his duster, a fitting enough suit in which to ride in an auto, but not if he had to go back in the train. Perhaps, she thought, he had not brought money enough with him, depending on her to take him back to Chelton.

And, above all, what would people think of Cora Kimball riding with Sidney Wilcox?

"This is glorious!" exulted the daring youth, "I have just been pining for a ride in this car, Cora, and, incidentally, I may as well admit that I have been pining for a talk with you. When have you heard from your friend, Miss Downs?"

He fairly shot the question at Cora.

"Miss Downs?" she said falteringly.

"Yes."

"I don't know that I ever hear from Mary Downs," was Cora's sharp reply,

"No?" His voice was queerly questioning. "Well, I want to say I think Mary a very slick little girl."

Cora could not mistake his intention. He wanted her to think that he believed Mary was not one of her set. By "slick" he probably meant to convey the idea that he considered the former milliner girl might be tricky.

"I am sorry Miss Downs is away," said Cora simply. "I intended to take her on a little run with me. She doesn't get many chances to go out in a car."

"No, I guess, not. But don't you think it--er--rather risky to take up with--shop girls?"

"Shop girls? Why, any girl is a lady, no matter what her position, as long as she conducts herself like one. What do you mean by your insinuations?"

She almost detested herself for asking him this question, but she could not help it.

Sid laughed.

"What have you to say against her character?" demanded Cora again.

Sid seemed a bit uneasy. He had hardly expected to be pinned down so directly.

"Oh, of course," he finally answered, "if you feel that way about it, I--er--I suppose--nothing. I only wished to caution you. That money matter is still in--er--well, let us say, in an awkward shape."

"Does Mary Downs know anything about it?" asked Cora directly, determined to face Sid down.

"I'm sure I don't know," he drawled. "But you know she was --er--there with the--rest of us."