"Actually," he said, as he came around to stand in front of her, "you are not at an what I expected." His voice held a note of reluctant approbation.
"Nicolas!" Aunt Anne's gracious greeting relieved Whitney of the necessity of replying. "How lovely to see you. I've been expecting you-one of the maids discovered Therese's bracelet beneath a cushion of a sofa. The clasp was broken. I'll get it for you," she said, hurrying from the room.
Nicki's startled gaze shot to Miss Stone. A smile trembled on her lips as she lifted her delicate brows at him, visibly enjoying his chagrin. In view of his earlier rudeness, Nicki felt that some form of polite conversation was now required of him. He leaned down and picked up the etiquette book containing Emily's letters, glanced at the title, and then at Whitney. "Are you teaming good manners, Mademoiselle?" he inquired.
"Yes," Miss Stone replied, her eyes glowing with suppressed laughter. "Would you care to borrow my book?"
Her quip earned her a lazy, devastating smile of admiration. "I see that some form of atonement for my earlier behavior is in order. Mademoiselle," he said with laughing gravity, "would you favor me with a dance tomorrow night?"
Whitney hesitated, taken aback by his engaging smile and open admiration.
Mistaking her silence for coquettishness, Nicolas shrugged, and all the warmth left his smile as he said with mocking amusement, "From your hesitation, I will assume that all your dances are already bespoken. Another time, perhaps."
Whitney realized he was withdrawing his invitation, and she instantly decided the man was as arrogant and perverse as she'd first thought. "None of my dances are bespoken," she floored him by candidly admitting. "You see, you are the first gentleman I've met in Paris."
Her deliberate emphasis on the word "gentleman" did not escape Nicki, who suddenly threw back his head and laughed.
"Here is the bracelet," Lady Gilbert said, hurrying into the room. "And Nicolas, please remind Therese that the clasp is broken."
Nicki took the bracelet and left. He climbed into his carriage, instructed his groom to drive him round to his mother's, then relaxed back against the leather cushions. They drove past a park whose winding paths bloomed extravagantly with spring flowers. Two pretty females of his acquaintance lifted pastel-gloved hands at him in greeting, but Nicki scarcely glanced at the Gainsborough-like scene. His thoughts were occupied with the young English girl he had just met.
Try as he might, he couldn't understand how Whitney Stone and his addlepated chatterbox of a sister had become such boon companions, for they were as dissimilar as lemonade and heady French wine. Therese was a pretty thing, sweet as lemonade, but she had no hidden depths to interest a man.
Whitney Stone, on the other hand, was a veritable treasure of contrasts, sparkling like rich, red burgundy with the promise of hidden and tantalizing things to come. For a seventeen-year-old, she had borne his mocking disdain with remarkable composure. Given a few years, Nicolas decided, she would be fascinating. A chuckle welled up in his chest as he recalled how adroitly she'd retaliated for his remark about the etiquette book, by offering to tend it to him.
It would be a pity, he decided, for such a rare jewel as she to be relegated to obscurity at the crowded debutante ball tomorrow night, merely because she was a stranger to France.
Gorgeous tapestries adorned one side of the gigantic ballroom, and the opposite wall was mirrored to reflect the light from the thousands of candles in the glittering chandeliers overhead. Catching sight of her reflection in one of the mirrors, Whitney nervously studied her appearance. Her white silken ball gown was trimmed with broad scallops caught up and held in place with pink silk roses which matched the ones entwined in the heavy curls at her crown. She looked, she decided, a great deal calmer than she felt.
"Everything is going to be wonderful, you'll see," whispered Aunt Anne.
Whitney did not think everything was going to be wonderful at all. She knew she couldn't possibly hope to compete with the dazzling blondes and redheads, the demure little brunettes, who were laughing and talking easily with smiling young men garbed in black, but with brightly colored waistcoats of silks and satin. Whitney told herself she didn't care a pin about anything as foolish as a silly ball, but she knew it wasn't true. She cared very much.
Therese and her mama arrived only seconds before the musicians raised their instruments for the first dance. "I have the most splendid news," Therese whispered breathlessly, looking like a confection in her white lace gown with her cheeks pink and her shining blond hair elegantly curled atop her head. "My maid is cousin to Nicki's valet and he told her that Nicki is coming tonight. And he is bringing three of his friends as well-he bet them five-hundred francs against two hours of their time tonight on a roll of the dice, and they lost, so they have to come and dance with you . . ." She broke off with an apologetic shrug to Whitney and bestowed a charming curtsy upon the young man who had come to ask her for a dance.
Whitney's mind was still reeling with embarrassment over this news when the musicians struck the first note of music, and the debutantes were escorted onto the dance floor by their respective partners. Not all the debutantes-Whitney felt her color deepen as she looked helplessly at Aunt Anne. She had known when she came tonight that she might not be asked to dance at first, but she hadn't expected to feel so wretchedly conspicuous at being left standing there with her aunt and Madame DuVille. The feeling was painfully familiar -it was as if she were back home in England where invitations to neighborhood functions were infrequent and, if she went, she was either treated with derision or ignored.
Therese danced the second and third dances, but Whitney was not asked for either. When it was time for the fourth one, the humiliation of being passed over again was more than she could bear. Leaning toward Aunt Anne, Whitney started to ask if she could go somewhere to freshen up, but there was a commotion at the entrance and she curiously followed the gazes of the other guests.
Nicolas DuVille and three other gentlemen were standing beneath the arched portico at the entrance to the ballroom. Carelessly at ease in their elegant dark formal wear, and serenely indifferent to the wild attention they were receiving, they surveyed the crowd. In frozen apprehension, Whitney watched as Nicolas DuVille's gaze swept the staring masses of giggling debutantes and young dandies. When at last he saw Whitney, he inclined his head slightly in greeting, and the foursome started forward.
Whitney pressed back against the wall, childishly tempted to try to squeeze herself between it and Aunt Anne. She didn't want to risk another confrontation with Nicolas DuVille. Yesterday she'd been too surprised to feel intimidated by him; tonight what pride and self-confidence she possessed were already in tatters, and to add to her discomfort, she was acutely aware of how elegantly urbane and handsome Nicolas looked in his Mack evening attire.