"Whitney can," Lord Edward proudly announced. "She understands Italian, Greek, Latin, and even some German!"
Whitney felt like sinking through the floor, for her uncle's boast had probably branded her as a bluestocking in the DuVilles' eyes. She had to force herself to meet Therese's startled gaze.
"I hope you don't play the pianoforte and sing too?" The little blonde pouted prettily.
"Oh no," Whitney hastily assured her. "I can't do either one."
"Wonderful!" declared Therese with a wide smile as she settled herself into a chair beside Whitney's, "for those are the only two things I do well. Are you looking forward to your debut?" she bubbled, passing a swift look of admiration over Whitney.
"Not," Whitney admitted truthfully, "very much."
"I am. Although for me, it is merely a formality. My marriage was arranged three years ago. Which is just perfect, for now I can devote all my attention to helping you find a husband. I shall tell you which gentlemen are eligible and which are only handsome-without money or prospects- then when you make a brilliant match, I shall come to your wedding and tell everyone that I was entirely responsible!" she finished with an irrepressible smile.
Whitney smiled back, a little dazed by Therese's unreserved offer of friendship. The smile was all the encouragement Therese DuVille needed to continue: "My sisters have all made splendid marriages. Which only leaves me. And my brother, Nicolas, of course."
Whitney suppressed the urge to inquire laughingly whether Nicolas DuVille fell into the category of "eligible" or "only handsome," but Therese promptly provided the answer without being asked. "Nicki isn't at all eligible. Well, he is- because he's very wealthy and terribly handsome. The thing is, Nicolas isn't available. Which is a great pity and the despair of my family, for Nicki is the only male heir, and the eldest of the five of us."
Avidly curious, Whitney nevertheless managed to respond politely that she hoped it wasn't because Monsieur DuVille was suffering from any affliction.
"Not," Therese said with a musical giggle, "unless one considers excessive boredom and shocking arrogance an affliction. Of course, Nicolas has every right to be so, with females constantly dangling after him. Mama says that if it were up to the females to do the asking, Nicolas would have had more offers of marriage than us four girls combined!"
Whitney's demure facade of polite interest disintegrated.
"I can't imagine why," she laughed. "He sounds perfectly odious to me."
"Charm," Therese explained gravely. "Nicolas has charm." After a thoughtful pause, she added, "It is such a pity Nicki is so difficult, because if he were to attend our debut and single you out for special attention, you would be an instant success!" She sighed. "Of course, nothing in the world will persuade him to attend a debutante ball. He says they are excruciatingly boring. Nevertheless, I shall tell him about you-perhaps he will help."
Only courtesy prevented Whitney from saying that she hoped she never met Therese's arrogant older brother.
ON THE DAY BEFORE WHTTNEY'S OFFICIAL DEBUT INTO SOCIETY, A letter arrived from Emily Williams that left Whitney lightheaded with relief: Paul had purchased some property in the Bahama Islands and was planning to remain there for a year. Since Whitney could not imagine Paul tumbling into love with a sun-burned Colonial, that meant she had a full year in which to prepare herself to go home. An entire year without having to worry about Paul marrying someone else.
To help quiet her nerves over the ball tomorrow evening, she curled up on a rose satin settee in the salon and was happily rereading all of Emily's letters which were hidden inside a book of etiquette. So absorbed was she with them, that Whitney was unaware that someone was watching her.
Nicolas DuVille stood in the doorway with the note his sister, Therese, had insisted he deliver personally to Miss Stone. Since Therese had tried a dozen other ploys in the last month to put Miss Stone in his way, Nicki had no doubt that delivering this note was a fool's errand devised between the two girls. It was not the first time his sister had tried to interest him in one of her giddy young friends, and from experience, Nicki knew the best way to nip Miss Stone's romantic plans for him in the proverbial bud was simply to fluster and intimidate the chit until she was relieved to see him leave.
His cool gaze took in the fetching scene which Miss Stone had obviously planned in advance so that she would appear to best advantage. Sunlight streamed in the window beside her, highlighting her gleaming cascade of dark hair, a long strand of which she was idly curling around her forefinger as she feigned absorption in her book; her yellow morning dress was arranged in graceful folds, and her feet were coyly tucked beneath her. Her profile was serene, with long lashes slightly lowered, and a faint suggestion of a smile played about her generous lips. Impatient with her little charade, Nicolas stepped into the room. "A very charming picture, Mademoiselle. My compliments," he drawled insolently.
Snapping her head up, Whitney closed the book of etiquette containing Emily's letters and laid it aside as she arose. Uncertainly, she gazed at a man in his late twenties who was coldly regarding her down the length of his aristocratic nose. He was undeniably handsome, with black hair and piercing, gold-flecked brown eyes.
"Have you had an edifying look, Mademoiselle?" he asked bluntly.
Realizing that she had been staring at him, Whitney caught herself abruptly and nodded toward the note in his band. "Have you come to see my aunt?"
To Whitney's stunned amazement, the man strolled into the room and thrust the note at her. "I am Nicolas DuVille, and your butler has already informed me that you have been expecting me. Therefore, I believe we can dispense with your pretense of coy surprise, can we not?"
Whitney stood in shock as the man subjected her to a leisurely appraisal that began at her face and wandered boldly down the full length of her rigid body. Did his gaze actually linger on her breasts, or was it only her confused imagination that made it seem that way? When he was finished inspecting her from the front, he strolled around her, considering her from all angles as if she were a horse he was thinking of purchasing. "Don't bother," he said, when Whitney nervously opened the note. "It says that Therese left her bracelet here, but you and I know that is only an excuse for us to meet."
Whitney was bewildered, embarrassed, amused, and insulted, all at the same time. Therese had said her brother was arrogant, but somehow Whitney had never imagined he'd be this horrid.