Whitney felt Clayton's light touch at her elbow and turned, her warm smile filled with gratitude. From the moment he'd diverted Uncle Hubert at the beginning of the evening, Clayton had carefully placed himself wherever a conversant, amiable, unattached gentleman was most needed. Without being told, he bad recognized her need for help and come to her aid. "You must be exhausted," he murmured in her ear. "Can't you slip away and get some steep now?"
"Yes, I think I will," Whitney sighed. Nearly all the guests had already departed or retired upstairs for the night, and Aunt Anne seemed perfectly willing and able to function as hostess to those remaining. "Thank you for all your help tonight," she said as she turned to leave. "I'm very grateful."
Clayton watched her until she disappeared down the hall, then he strode purposefully toward Martin Stone. "I want a word with you and Lady Gilbert after your guests leave tonight," he said curtly.
Just climbing the stairs was an effort for Whitney's tired legs. Once she was in her room, it took ten minutes of struggling with the long row of tiny satin buttons down her back to unfasten her gown. She leaned forward to step out of it, and a shiny object tumbled from the gaping bodice of her chemise.
With infinite tenderness, Whitney picked up the opal ring from the carpet and looked at it. Paul's ring, given to her as he left tonight. "To remind you that you're mine," he had whispered, pressing the ring into her palm.
A wild thrill of excitement shot through her now as she slowly placed the opal ring onto her finger. All the exhaustion she'd felt but a moment before seemed to melt away in a burst of joy.
She hummed softly as she wrapped herself in an oriental dressing gown of red silk and sat down at her dressing table to unpin and brush her hair. With each stroke of her ivory-handled brush through her long hair, the glittering opal seemed to catch fire and sparkle in the mirror. Laying the brush aside, Whitney held her hand out in front of her to better admire her betrothal ring. Her betrothal ring! "Mrs. Paul Sevarin," she said softly, smiling at the sound of the wonderful words. "Whitney Allison Sevarin." Something about that tickled her memory, and Whitney said it again, trying to recall. . .
With a joyous laugh, Whitney remembered and hurried over to her bookshelves. Taking down the leather-bound Bible from the shelf, she quickly fanned through the pages, but found nothing. Finally she grasped the book by its covers and turned it upside down, giving it a hard shake. A small scrap of paper, smudged and folded several times, drifted to the floor. Picking it up, Whitney smiled as she began to read:
"I, Whitney Allison Stone, being fifteen years of age and in full possession of my mind and all my faculties (despite what Papa says) do hereby Vow, Swear and Promise that I shall someday manage to make Paul Sevarin marry me. I shall also make Margaret Merryton and everyone else take back every single horrid tiling they have said about me. Sworn this day and duly signed by the future Mrs. Paul Sevarin."
Beneath the signature, she'd written "Whitney Allison Sevarin" and then, apparently carried away by her longing, had practiced the wished-for name at least a dozen mote times.
Reading that note after so many years, remembering the despair that had driven her to write it, made her joy at possessing Paul's ring swell within her until Whitney thought she would burst if she couldn't show her ring to someone and share her glad tidings.
Going to bed when she felt like this would be hopeless; she was more in the mood for singing and dancing! She had to tell someone, she just had to ...
Whitney hesitated for a few minutes, and then happily decided to tell her father that Paul was going to offer for her. He would remember how she had chased after Paul years ago, and he would be gratified to know that at last, the villagers would no longer have any reason to ridicule her antics. Now, it was Paul Sevarin who was pursuing her. He wanted to marry her!
Whitney checked her appearance in the mirror, straightened the high mandarin collar of her red dressing robe, tightened the sash around her slender waist, and tossing her glossy hair off her shoulder, marched to her bedchamber door.
Trembling with anticipation and a bit of apprehension, she walked along the hall, her robe rustling behind her. In the aftermath of so much laughter and gaiety there was something almost melancholy about the silence now, but Whitney ignored the feeling as she raised her hand to tap on her father's door. .
"Your father is in his study, Miss." The footman's voice echoed hollowly from the darkened entrance foyer below.
"Oh," Whitney said softly. Perhaps she ought to show her ring to Aunt Anne tonight, and wait until tomorrow to tell her father everything. "Has my aunt retired yet?"
"No, Miss. Lady Gilbert is with your father."
"Thank you. Good night."
Whitney hastened downstairs, knocked on the study door, and in response to her father's call to enter, she swirled into the room, closing the door behind her. Flattening her palms against the thick oaken panel, she leaned against it. Her smiling gaze took in her father, seated behind his desk directly in front of her and, over to her left, Aunt Anne, who was watching her alertly from a wingback chair at right angles to the fireplace. With only the glow from the cheery link fire to illuminate the room, Whitney completely overlooked the shadowy form seated in the wingback chair opposite her aunt's, with its high back concealing its occupant.
Her father's voice was faintly slurred but friendly as he splashed brandy into his glass. "Yes, Daughter, what is it?"
Drawing a long, deep breath, Whitney plunged in. "I have something wonderful to tell you, Papa, Aunt Anne, and I'm so happy that you're here together, so that I can share it with you both at the same time."
Strolling over to her father, Whitney moved the brandy glass aside and perched a hip on his desk. For a moment she gazed fondly into his glassy-eyed, upturned face, then she leaned forward and planted a kiss on his forehead. "I, Whitney Stone, love you very much, Papa," she said softly. "And I am deeply sorry for the grief I brought you when I was growing up."
"Thank you," he murmured, flushing,
"And," Whitney continued, getting up and coming around the front of the desk so that she could face Aunt Anne, "I love you too, Aunt Anne, but then you've always known that."
She drew another long, quavering breath, and suddenly her words came tumbling out, gathering excited momentum. "And I also love Paul Sevarin. And Paul loves me and wants to marry me! And, Papa, when he returns, he's going to ask your permission to do so. I know how- Is something wrong, Aunt Anne?"