Two steps into Whitney's room, Anne came to an abrupt halt, a slow, beaming smile working its way across her face. In profile, Whitney's finely sculpted features looked too lovely to be real. Anne took in everything, from the shadows of thick lashes on glowing magnolia skin, to the diamonds glittering amidst her shiny mahogany curls and peeping from beneath the soft tendrils at her ears. Her curvaceous form was draped in an emerald-green velvet gown with a high waist. The bodice was molded firmly to her breasts, exposing a daring amount of flesh above the square neckline. As if to atone for the gown's immodest display of bosom, the sleeves were fitted tubes of emerald velvet which did not allow so much as a glimpse of skin from shoulder to wrist, where they ended in deep points at the tops of her hands. Like the front, the back of the gown was elegant in its simplicity, falling in velvet folds.
A carriage drew up below, and Whitney watched a tall, blond man bound down and offer his hand to a beautiful blond girl. Paul had arrived. And he had come with Elizabeth. Jerking away from the window, Whitney saw her aunt and visibly jumped.
"You took positively breathtaking!" Lady Anne whispered. "Do you really like it-4he dress, I mean?" Whitney's voice was raspy and tight with mounting tension.
"Like it?" Anne laughed. "Darling, it's you! Daring and elegant and special." She extended her hand from which dangled a magnificent emerald pendant. "Your father asked me this morning what color your gown was, and he just brought me this to give to you. It was your mother's," Anne added when Whitney stated at the glittering jewel.
The emerald was easily an inch square, flanked by a row of glittering diamonds on all four sides. It was not her mother's; Whitney had spent hours, long ago, lovingly touching all the little treasures and trinkets in her mother's jewel case. But she was too nervous to argue the point. She stood rigidly still while her aunt fastened the pendant.
"Perfect!" Anne exclaimed with pleasure, studying the effect of the glowing jewel nestling in the hollow between Whitney's breasts. Linking her arm through Whitney's, Anne took a step forward. "Come, darling-it's time for your second official debut." Whitney wished with all her heart that Nicolas DuVille were here to help her through this debut, too.
Her father was pacing impatiently at the foot of the stairs, waiting to escort her into the ballroom. When he saw her coming down the steps toward him, he halted in mid-stride, and the stunned admiration on his face bolstered Whitney's faltering confidence.
Under the wide arched entrance to the ballroom, he stopped and nodded at the musicians in the far alcove, and the music ground to an abrupt hate. Whitney could feel the eyes swerving toward her, hear the roar of the crowd dying swiftly as the babble of voices trailed off in ominous silence. She drew a long, quivering breath, focused her eyes slightly above everyone's heads, and stepped down the three shallow steps, allowing her father to lead her toward the center of the room.
Staring, watchful silence followed her and, at that moment, had she been able to find the strength, Whitney would have picked up her skirts and fled. She clung to the memory of Nicolas DuVille, of his proud, laughing elegance, and the way he had escorted her everywhere. He would have leaned over and whispered in her ear, "They are nothing but provincials, cherie! Just keep your head high."
The crowd parted as a young, red-haired man shoved his way through-Peter Redfern, who had teased her unmercifully as a child, but had also been one of her few friends. At five and twenty, Peter's hairline had receded slightly, but the boyishness that was so much a part of him was still there. "Good God!" he exclaimed with unconcealed admiration when he was standing directly in front of her. "It is you, you little ruffian! What have you done with your freckles?!"
Whitney gulped back her horrified laughter at this undignified greeting and put her hand in his outstretched palm. "What," she countered, beaming at him, "have you done with your hair, Peter?"
Peter burst out laughing, and the silent spell was broken. Everyone started talking at once, closing in on her and exchanging greetings.
Anticipation and tension were building apace, but Whitney restrained the urge to turn and look for Paul as the minutes ticked past and she continued making the same mechanical responses, over and over again. Yes, she had enjoyed Paris. Yes, her Uncle Edward Gilbert was well. Yes, she would be pleased to attend this card party or that dinner party.
Peter was still beside her a quarter of an hour later while Whitney was speaking with the apothecary's wife. From her left, where all the local girls and their husbands were standing, Whitney heard Margaret Merryton's familiar, malicious laugh. "I heard she made a spectacle of herself in Paris and is all but shunned from polite society there," Margaret was telling them.
Peter heard her too, and he grinned at Whitney. "It's time to face Miss Merryton. You can't avoid her forever. And anyway, she's with someone you haven't met yet."
At Peter's urging, Whitney reluctantly turned to face her childhood foe.
Margaret Merryton was standing with her hand resting possessively on Clayton Westland's claret-colored sleeve. This afternoon, Whitney would have sworn that nothing, nothing could make her dislike Clayton Westland more than she did, but seeing him with Margaret, knowing he was listening to her vituperative comments, turned Whitney's initial dislike into genuine loathing.
"We were all so disappointed that you weren't able to find a husband in Prance, Whitney," Margaret said with silken malice.
Whitney looked at her with cool disdain. "Margaret, every time you open your mouth, I always expect to hear a rattle." Then she picked up her skirts, intending to turn and speak to Emily, but Peter caught her elbow. "Whitney," he said, "allow me to introduce Mr. Westland to you. He has leased the Hodges place and is just back from France."
Still stinging from Margaret's cruel remarks, Whitney jumped to the conclusion that if Clayton Westland had just returned from France, he must be the one who had provided Margaret with the lie that Whitney was an outcast there. "How do you like living in the country, Mr. Westland?" she inquired in a voice of bored indifference.
"Most of the people have been very friendly," he said meaningfully.
"I'm certain they have." Whitney could almost feel his eyes disrobing her as they had at the stream. "Perhaps one of them will even be 'friendly' enough to show you the boundary of your property, so that you don't embarrass yourself by trespassing on ours, as you did earlier today."
A stunned silence fell over the group; the amusement vanished from Clayton Westland's expression. "Miss Stone," he said in a voice of strained patience, "we seem to have gotten off on a rather bad foot." Inclining his head toward the dance floor, he said, "Perhaps if you will do me the honor of dancing..."