They all turned and stared, and her father's face tightened into lines of impatience and annoyance. "To France," he replied abruptly. "To live with your aunt and uncle, who are going to try to make a lady out of you."
Carefully avoiding meeting anyone's eyes, lest she break down then and there, Whitney slid into her chair at the table. "Have you informed my aunt and uncle of the risk they are taking?" she asked, concentrating all her strength on preventing her father from seeing what he had just done to her heart. She looked coldly at her aunt and uncle's guilty, embarrassed faces. "Father may have neglected to mention you're risking disgrace by welcoming me into your home. As he will tell you, I've a hideous disposition, I'm rag-mannered, and I haven't a trace of polite conversation."
Her aunt was watching her with naked pity, but her father's expression was stony. "Oh Papa," she whispered brokenly, "do you really despise me this much? Do you hate me so much that you have to send me out of your sight?" Her eyes swimming with unshed tears, Whitney stood up. "If you . . . will excuse me ... I'm not very hungry this evening."
"How could you!" Anne cried when she left, rising from her own chair and glaring furiously at Martin Stone. "You are the most heartless, unfeeling-it will be a pleasure to remove that child from your clutches. How she has survived this long is a testimony to her strength. I'm sure I could never have done so well."
"You refine too much upon her words, Madam," Martin said icily. "I assure you that what has her looking so distraught is not the prospect of being parted from me. I have merely put a premature end to her plans to continue making a fool of herself over Paul Sevarin."
THE NEWS THAT MARTIN STONE'S DAUGHTER WAS BEING PACKED off to France poste haste spread through the countryside like a fire through dry brush. In a sleepy rural area where the gentry were usually aloof and reserved, Whitney Stone had again provided everyone with a delicious morsel of excitement.
On the cobbled streets of the village and in households wealthy and poor, females of all ages gathered to savor this latest piece of gossip. With great relish and at greater length, they discussed every scandalous escapade of Whitney's scandal-ridden life, beginning with the toad she let loose in church one Sunday when she was eight years old, to the time this past summer when she fell out of a tree while spying on Paul Sevarin, seated beneath it with a young lady.
Only when those events had been recalled in detail, did they allow themselves to conjecture over Martin Stone's reason for finally sending her off to France.
In general, they felt that the outrageous child bad probably pushed her poor, beleaguered father too far when she appeared in men's trousers. Because she had so many other shortcomings, there was some disagreement over exactly what had driven her father to take such sudden action, but if there was anything they all agreed upon, it was that Paul
Sevarin would be vastly relieved to have the girl out from under his feet.
During the next three days, Martin Stone's neighbors arrived at his house in droves, ostensibly to visit with Lady Gilbert and to bid Whitney goodbye. On the evening before their departure for France, Anne Gilbert was seated in the salon, enduring one of these social calls by three ladies and their daughters. Her smile was more formal than friendly as she listened with ill-concealed annoyance to these women who professed to be well-wishers and yet took a morbid delight in recounting to her Whitney's many youthful transgressions. Under the pretense of friendly concern, they made it clear that, in their collective opinion, Whitney was going to disgrace herself in Paris, destroy Anne's sanity, and very likely ruin Edward's diplomatic career.
She stood when they were finally ready to leave, and bade them a curt goodbye; then she sank into a chair, her eyes bright with angry determination. By constantly criticizing his daughter in front of other people, Martin Stone had made his own child a target for village ridicule. All Anne really needed to do was whisk Whitney away from these narrow-minded, spiteful neighbors of hers and let her bloom in Paris, where the social atmosphere wasn't so stifling.
In the doorway of the salon, the butler cleared his throat. "Mr. Sevarin is here, my lady."
"Show him in, please," Anne said, carefully hiding her surprised pleasure that the object of Whitney's childish adoration had come to say goodbye to her. Anne's pleasure faded, however, when Mr. Sevarin walked into the salon accompanied by a stunningly lovely little blonde. Since everyone for fifteen miles seemed to know that Whitney worshiped him, Anne had no doubt that Paul Sevarin knew it too, and she thought it very callous of him to bring a young woman with him when he had come to say goodbye to a girl who adored him.
She watched him cross the room toward her, longing to find something about him to criticize, but there was nothing. Paul Sevarin was tall and handsome, with the easy charm of a wealthy, well-bred country gentleman. "Good evening, Mr.
Sevarin," she said with cool formality. "Whitney is in the garden."
As if he guessed the reason for her reserve, Paul's blue eyes lit with a smile as he returned her greeting. "I know that," he said, "but I was hoping you might visit with Elizabeth white I say goodbye to Whitney."
In spite of herself, Anne was mollified. "I would be delighted."
Whitney stared morosely at the shadowy rosebushes. Her aunt was in the salon, undoubtedly being regaled with more stories of her niece's past, and dire predictions for her future. Emily had left for London with her parents, and Paul.. . Paul hadn't even come to say goodbye. Not that she'd really expected him to; he was probably with his friends, toasting her departure.
As if she'd conjured him up, his deep, masculine voice sounded from the darkness behind her. "Hello, pretty girl."
Whitney lurched around. He was standing only inches away with one shoulder casually propped against a tree. In the moonlight his snowy shirt and neckcloth gleamed against the almost invisible darkness of his jacket. "I understand you're leaving us," he said quietly.
Mutely, Whitney nodded. She was trying to commit to memory the exact shade of his blond hair and every contour of his handsome, moonlit face. "Will you miss me?" she blurted.
"Of course I will," he chuckled. "Things are going to be very dull without you, young lady."
"Yes, I imagine so," Whitney whispered, dropping her eyes. "With me gone, who else win fall out of trees to ruin your picnic, or break your teg, or . . ."
Paul interrupted her string of self-recriminations. "No one."