If he said anything more, Whitney didn't hear it, because directly behind her and very close to her ear an achingly familiar, deep voice said, "I beg your pardon, I was told Whitney Stone was to be here tonight, but I don't recognize her." His hand touched her elbow, and Whitney's pulse went wild as she let Paul slowly turn her around to face him.
She lifted her eyes and gazed up into the bluest ones this side of heaven. Unconsciously, she extended both her hands, feeling them clasped firmly in Paul's strong, warm ones. In the last four years, she had rehearsed dozens of clever things to say when this moment finally arrived; but looking up at his beloved, handsome face, all she could say was, "Hello, Paul." A slow, appreciative smile worked its way across his face as he tucked her hand in the crook of his arm. "Dance with me," he said simply.
Trembling inside, Whitney stepped into Paul's arms and felt his hand glide around her waist, gathering her closer. Beneath her fingertips, his beautiful dark blue jacket seemed to be a living thing that her fingers ached to slide over and caress. She knew that now was the time to be the poised, light-hearted female she'd been in Paris, but her thoughts were jumbled and erratic, as if part of her was fifteen years old again. All she wanted to say was, "I love you. I have always loved you. Now do you want me? Have I changed enough for you to want me?" "Did you miss me?" Paul asked.
Warning bells went off in Whitney's head as she heard the thread of confidence in his tone. Instinctively, she gave him a provocative sidewise smile. "I missed you desperately!" she declared with enough extra emphasis to make it seem a gross exaggeration.
"How 'desperately'?" Paul persisted, his grin widening.
"I was utterly desolate," Whitney teased, knowing full well that Emily had regaled him with stories of her popularity in Paris. "In fact, I nearly wasted away in loneliness for you."
"Liar." He chuckled, his hand on her waist tightening possessively. "That's not what I heard this morning. Did you, or did you not, tell some French nobleman that if you were as impressed with his title as you were with his conceit, you'd be tempted to accept his offer?"
Whitney nodded slowly, her tips twitching with laughter. "I did."
"May I ask what his offer was?" Paul said.
"No, you may not."
"Should I call him out?"
Whitney felt as if she was dancing on air. Should he call him out? Paul was flirting with her, actually fluting with her!
"How is Elizabeth?" Before the words were past her lips, she cursed herself in French and English. And when she saw the satisfied smile sweeping across Paul's face, she felt like stamping her foot in self-disgust.
"I'll find her and bring her over, so you can see for yourself," Paul offered, the knowing smile lingering in his eyes as the musk wound to a close.
Whitney was still trying to recover from the humiliation of her hideous blunder when she realized that Paul was guiding her directly toward Clayton Westland's group. Until that moment, she'd entirely forgotten that she'd turned her back on him when he was asking her to dance, and had strolled off with Paul.
"I believe I stole Miss Stone away when you were about to request a dance, Clayton," Paul said.
Considering her earlier rudeness, Whitney couldn't see any way to avoid dancing with her loathsome neighbor now. She waited for Clayton to repeat the invitation, but he did nothing of the sort. With everyone witnessing her chagrin, Clayton let her stand there until she flushed with angry embarrassment. Then he offered his arm and said in a bored, unenthusiastic voice, "Miss Stone?"
"No, thank you," Whitney said coldly. "I don't care to dance, Mr. Westland." Turning on her heel she walked off toward the opposite end of the room, putting as much space as possible between herself and that boorish clod, and joined a group of people that included Aunt Anne. She had been standing there for perhaps five minutes when her father appeared at her elbow and drew her away. "There is someone I want you to meet," he said with gruff determination.
Despite his tone, Whitney could tell that he was very proud of her tonight, and she accompanied him gladly as he skirted around the perimeter of the ballroom . . . until she realized where he was taking her. Directly ahead, Clayton Westland was engaged in laughing conversation with Emily and her husband. Margaret Merryton still clung to his arm.
"Father, please!" Whitney whispered urgently, drawing back. "I don't like him."
"Don't be absurd!" he snapped irritably, forcibly pulling her the rest of the way. "Here she is," he told Clayton Westland in a booming, jovial voice. He turned to Whitney and said, as if she were nine years old, "Make your curtsy and say 'how do' to our friend and neighbor, Mr. Clayton Westland."
"We've already met," Clayton said drily.
"We've met," Whitney echoed weakly. Her cheeks burned as she endured Clayton's mocking gaze. If he said or did anything to embarrass her in front of her father, Whitney thought she would murder him. For the first time in her life, her father was seeing her as an accepted, and acceptable, human being, and he was proud of her.
"Well good. Good," her father said, looking expectantly from Whitney to Clayton. "Then why don't you two dance? That's what this music is for-"
The reason they weren't going to dance, Whitney instantly realized, was because it was obvious from Clayton's aloof expression that he wouldn't ask her to dance again if someone held a gun to his head. Feeling lower than an insect, Whitney made herself look imploringly at him, and then at the dance floor, in an unmistakable invitation to him.
His brows arched in ironic amusement. For one hideous moment, Whitney thought he intended to ignore her invitation, but he shrugged instead and, without so much as offering her his arm, he strolled toward the dance floor, leaving her to follow or remain standing there.
Whitney followed him, but she loathed him every single step of the way for making her do it. Trailing along in his wake, she stared daggers at the back of his wine-colored jacket, but until he turned toward her, she didn't realize that he was laughing-actually laughing at her mortification!
Whitney stepped toward him, then right past him, fully intending to leave him standing there in the middle of the dancers.
His hand shot out and captured her elbow. "Don't you dare!" he growled, laughing as he drew her around to face him for the waltz.
"It was excessively kind of you to ask me to dance," Whitney remarked sarcastically as she stepped reluctantly into his arms.