"You have friends there," Edward reminded her. "And of course, that young man you admired so much is there too-the blond fellow who didn't have brains enough to recognize a jewel when she was right under his nose. What was his name?"
"Paul," Whitney provided with a teary smile.
"The man's a fool-he should have snatched you up before." Edward paused, then watching her very closely, he said, "I expect he will now."
"I hope so," Whitney said fervently.
"I rather thought you did, child," he said with an I-told-you-so look at Anne. "In fact, I've often wondered if the reason you've never found any of your suitors here acceptable is because you've always wanted to go back to England and bring Mm up to scratch. That's what you're going to do, isn't it?"
"I intend to try," Whitney admitted, puzzled because her uncle suddenly looked like a small mischievous boy.
"In that case," he continued, "I expect you'll get yourself betrothed before the snow falls."
"If I can," Whitney said, smiling eagerly.
Jamming his hands into his pants pockets, he seemed to consider an idea. "I rather think at a time like that, a lass should have a woman to advise her. It might take a lot of planning to snare such a laggard as . . . er . . . ?"
"Paul," Whitney provided breathlessly.
"Right, Paul. You know my dear," he said thoughtfully, "you might like to have your aunt come with you." He peered over his spectacles at Whitney. "Would that please you?"
"Yes!" she shrieked, laughing. "Yes, yes, yes!"
Edward hugged her and looked over her shoulder at his beaming wife. The smile of gratitude that she gave him was compensation enough for his sacrifice. "I've been postponing a journey to Spain," he said. "When the two of you leave, I'll be about the kingdom's business there. After a stop or two along the way, I'll come to England to congratulate that laggard you'll be betrothed to, and I'll bring your aunt back home with me when I leave."
Now that he had the satisfaction of outmaneuvering Martin Stone by sending Anne along to be certain Whitney got off to the right start, Edward relented on his original decision about the extravagant sum Martin had sent for Whitney to spend. Accordingly, his ladies set out on a round of shopping excursions which began in the morning and ended with just enough time to dress for the evening's festivities or collapse in bed.
Nicolas DuVille's parents held a lavish party in Whitney's honor the night before Lady Anne and Whitney were to leave. All evening, Whitney dreaded saying goodbye to Nicki, but when the time came, he made it relatively easy.
They had stolen a few moments alone together in one of the anterooms of his parents' spacious house. Nicki was standing by the fireplace, one shoulder propped against the mantle, idly contemplating the drink in his hand. "I'll miss you, Nicki," Whitney said softly, unable to endure the silence.
He looked up, his expression amused. "Will you, cherie?" Before she could answer, he added, "I shall not miss you for very long."
Whitney's lips trembled with surprised laughter. "What a perfectly unchivalrous thing to say!"
"Chivalry is for callow youths and old men," Nicki told her with a teasing inflection in his voice. "However, I shan't miss you for long, because I intend to come to England in a few months."
Whitney shook her head, and in sheer desperation said, "Nicki, there is someone else. At home, I mean. At least, I think there is. His name is Paul and . . ." She trailed off, bewildered by Nicki's slow grin.
"Has he ever come to France to see you?" he asked carefully.
"No, he wouldn't even think of such a thing. You see, I was different then-you know, childish, and he only remembers me as a reckless, unruly, inelegant young girl who . . . Why are you grinning like that?"
"Because I am delighted," Nicki said, laughing softly. "Delighted to learn, after so many weeks of wondering who my rival is, that he is some English idiot whom you haven't seen in four years, and who hadn't sense enough to anticipate the woman you would become. Go home, cherie," he chuckled, putting his glass down and drawing her tightly against him. "You will soon discover that in matters of the heart, memories are much kinder than reality. Then, in a few months, I will come, and you will listen to what I wish to say."
Whitney knew he intended to declare himself, just as she knew it would be futile to argue the point now. Her memories would not prove better than reality, because none of her memories were good ones. But she didn't want to explain to Nicki how shockingly she had behaved, and why Paul couldn't possibly have imagined she would turn out to be a presentable young woman.
Besides, Nicki wouldn't have listened; he was already bending his head to claim her lips in a long, violently sweet\
IN THE DEEPENING DUSK OF A SPLENDID SEPTEMBER DAY, Whitney gazed out the coach window at the achingly familiar scene. She was only a few miles from home.
Uncle Edward had insisted that they travel in style, which meant that, in addition to their coach, there were two more, heavily loaded with trunks and valises, and a fourth carrying Aunt Anne's maid and Clarissa, Whitney's own maid. Besides the four coachmen and four postillions, there were six outriders, three in front and three bringing up the rear. Altogether they combined to make a rather spectacular caravan, and Whitney wished that Paul could see her returning in such grand style.
The coach swayed as they turned north onto the private drive leading up to her home. Whitney's hands shook as she drew on her lilac gloves so that she would look absolutely perfect when she saw her father.
"Nervous?" Anne smiled, watching her.
"Yes. How do I look?"
Lady Anne gave her a thorough appraisal from the top of her head where a fragile filigree clip held her heavy mahogany tresses off her forehead, past her glowing face, to the fashionable lilac traveling costume she was wearing. "Perfect," she said.
Lady Anne pulled on her own gloves, feeling almost as nervous as Whitney looked. In order to eliminate the possibility that Martin Stone might somehow object to her accompanying Whitney home, Edward had decided the best course was for her to arrive unexpectedly with Whitney, leaving Martin with no choice but to make her welcome. At the time, Anne had recognized the wisdom in her husband's thinking, but as her confrontation with Martin approached, she was miserably uncomfortable at being an uninvited houseguest.
Their coaches drew up before the wide steps at the front of the house. The footman opened the door and let down the steps, and both women watched Martin making his decorous way toward the coach. Whitney gathered her skirts so that she could step down and threw a smiling look at Anne.