Nicki's smile was filled with warmth as he raised her fingers to his lips. "Bon voyage, cherie," he said.
And then he was gone.
Whitney was still thinking about the night before and smiling softly to herself as she descended the stairs the following morning, intending to ride her uncle's spirited mare. Masculine voices drifted into the hallway from the drawing room, and as Whitney started to walk past, Aunt Anne appeared in the doorway, her face wreathed in a smile. "I was just coming up to get you," she whispered. "You have callers."
"Callers?" Whitney repeated, panicking. It was one thing to mouth the usual prescribed platitudes during the dancing last night, another thing entirely to charm and interest these gentlemen who had now exerted themselves to pay a morning call on her. "Whatever shall I say to them?" Whitney begged. "What shall I do?"
"Do?" Anne smiled, stepping aside and firmly placing her hand against the small of Whitney's back. "Why, be yourself, darling."
Hesitantly, Whitney entered the room. "I was about to ride-in the park," she explained to her callers-three of the gentlemen she had danced with last night. The three young men leapt to their feet, each one thrusting a bouquet of flowers toward her. Whitney's gaze slid to the bouquets they were holding, and a smile lifted the corners of her mouth. "It appears that the three of you have just come from there."
They blinked at her as it registered on each of them that she was teasing them about having purloined the flowers from the park beds. And then-surprise of surprises-they were smiling at her and arguing good-naturedly over who was to have the honor of accompanying her to the park.
In the true spirit of fairness, Whitney happily permitted all of them to accompany her.
That year Miss Stone was proclaimed "an Original." At a time when young ladies were models of dainty fragility and blushing coquetry, Whitney was impulsive and gay. While other young ladies her age were demure, Whitney was clever and direct.
During the following year, Anne watched as nature collaborated with time, and Whitney's youthful face fulfilled all its former promise of vivid beauty. Sooty black lashes fringed incredibly expressive eyes which changed from sea-green to deep jade beneath the graceful arch of her dark brows. Burnished mahogany tresses framed an exquisitely sculpted face with a softly generous mouth and skin as smooth as cream satin. Her figure was still slim, but ripened now, with tantalizing carves and graceful hollows. That was the year she was proclaimed "an Incomparable."
Gentlemen told her that she was "ravishingly beautiful" and "enchantingly lovely" and that she haunted their dreams. Whitney listened to their lavish compliments and passionate pledges of undying devotion with a smile that was part amused disbelief and part genuine gratitude for their kindness.
She reminded Anne of an elusive tropical bird, surprised , and delighted by her own appeal, who landed tentatively and then, when one of her suitors reached out to capture her, flew away.
She was beautiful, but gentlemen left the sides of equally beautiful young women to cluster around her, beckoned by the gaiety that seemed to surround her and the easy playfulness of her manners.
By the beginning of her third year "out" in society, Whitney had become a challenge to more worldly, sophisticated men who sought to win her merely to prove that they could succeed where others had failed-only to find themselves rather unexpectedly in love with a young woman who hadn't the slightest inclination to reciprocate their feelings. Everyone knew she would soon have to marry; after all, she was already nineteen years old. Even Lord Gilbert was becoming concerned, but when he observed to his wife that Whitney was being excessively fussy, Anne only smiled.
Because it seemed to her that Whitney had lately developed a decided partiality for Nicolas DuVille.
FOR THE THIRD TIME IN TEN MINUTES, WHTTNEY REALIZED THAT she had again lost track of the conversation, and she glanced guiltily at the girls who were paying a morning call on her. Fortunately, they were all enraptured with Therese's enthusiastic description of her new life as a married woman and seemed not to notice Whitney's wandering attention.
Nervously, Whitney fingered the letter from Emily which had just been handed to her, wondering as she always did, if this was going to be the letter that brought the dreaded news that Paul had chosen a wife. Unable to bear the suspense any longer, she opened it, and her heart doubled its already rapid pace as she began to read:
"Dearest Whitney," Emily wrote in her neat, precise hand, "henceforth, I shall expect you to address me as 'Lady Emily, Baroness Archibald, the Happiest Woman Alive.' I shall expect you to bow and scrape and mince about when next we meet, so that I will truly believe this has happened." The next two pages were filled with wondrous praise of Emily's new husband and details of the marriage which had been performed by special license. "What you said about France is also true of England," Emily said. "No matter how grotesque he is, if a gentleman has a tide, he is considered a great matrimonial prize, but I promise when you meet him, you will agree that my husband would be wonderful without any title."
Whitney smiled, knowing that Emily would never have married her baron unless she loved him. "Enough about me," she continued, "I have something else to tell you which I forgot to mention in my last letter. Six of us from home were all at a rout party in London, where our hostess introduced a gentleman who at once took the ladies' fancy. And no wonder, for he was very handsome and tall, and from a distinguished French family. Whitney, it was M. Nicolas DuVille! I was quite certain he was the same gentleman you mention in your letters, and I asked M. DuVille if he was acquainted with you. When he said that he was, Margaret Merryton and the other girls flocked around him to try to offer their 'sympathy.'
"How you would have laughed, for after giving them a look that should have turned them to stone, M. DuVille quite flayed them alive with tales of all your suitors and conquests in Paris. He even implied that he was rather taken with you himself, which made the girls absolutely livid with jealousy. Is what he said true? And why haven't you told me that 'Paris is in the palm of your hand'?"
Whitney smiled. Although Nicki had mentioned meeting Emily in London, he had never mentioned meeting Whitney's childhood arch foe, Margaret Merryton, or the other girls. The pleasure she felt at his defense of her vanished, however, when she considered the possibility that Nicki might truly want to be something more than just her friend. For nearly three years, he had merely been a handsome vision who appeared without warning at her side to claim her for a dance or tease her about one of her many suitors. Then he would vanish with some dazzling female clinging possessively to his arm.