She watched the men threading their way through the watchful crowd, coming right toward her, and even in her state of paralyzed horror, Whitney recognized the sharp contrast between Nicolas DuVille’s group and the other gentlemen in the room. He and his party were not only several years older than most of the young men paving lavish court to even younger girls, there was also an aura of smooth sophistication about them that further set them apart.
Madame DuVille laughed with delighted surprise as her son greeted her. "Nicki, I could not be more astonished if the devil himself strolled in!"
"Why thank you, Mama," he murmured drily, making her a brief bow. Abruptly, he turned to Whitney and grinned as he took her cold hand in his. Raising it to his lips for a formal kiss, he said with an infuriating chuckle, "Stop looking so astounded to find yourself the object of my attention, Mademoiselle. You should act as if this is nothing more than you expect."
Whitney stared at him wide-eyed, not certain whether she was insulted or grateful for his unsolicited advice.
He raised an ironic eyebrow, as if he knew what she was thinking, then he turned and introduced his three companions to her.
The musk began and without asking, Nicki simply took her hand, placed it on his arm, and escorted her onto the dance floor. He guided her effortlessly through the swirling waltz, while Whitney concentrated on following the steps she had learned from her dancing instructor.
"Mademoiselle." Nicki’s deep voice vibrated with humor. "If you will look up at me, you will find that I am gazing down at you in what our bewildered audience sees as a warm and admiring manner. However, if you continue to memorize the folds in my neckcloth, I am going to stop looking besotted and begin looking quite weary and bored. If I do, instead of being launched into society tonight, you will remain a wallflower. Now, look up at me and smile."
"A wallflower!" Whitney burst out, her gaze flying to his. She saw the humor in his eyes, and her indignation dissolved. "I feel so conspicuous," she admitted. "Everyone in this room seems to be watching us and …"
"They are not watching us," he contradicted with a tolerant chuckle. "They are watching me, and trying to decide if you are what has lured me to this dull assembly of virtuous innocents-"
"-And away from your usual pursuit of vice and depravity?" Whitney teased, while a slow, unconsciously provocative smile dawned across her vivid features.
"Exactly," Nicki agreed with a grin.
"In that case," she mused in a laughter-tinged voice, "won’t this waltz ruin my reputation before I even have one?"
"No, but it may ruin mine." Nicki saw her shocked look and said lightly, "It is not at all in my style to appear at debutante balls, Mademoiselle, And for me to be seen like this, actually enjoying myself dancing with an impertinent chit of your tender years, is unheard of."
Whitney pulled her gaze from Nicolas DuVille’s ruggedly chiseled face and glanced around at the young dandies in their bright satin waistcoats. They were staring at Nicki in open irritation, and no wonder! Nicki’s impeccably tailored midnight Mack attire, his air of smooth urbanity, made them all seem somewhat overdressed and rather callow.
"Are they still staring?" Nicki teased.
Whitney bit her lip, trying to hold back the laughter that was already sparkling in her eyes as she looked up into Us handsome face. "Yes, but I can’t really blame them-you an rather like a hawk in a room full of canaries."
A slow, admiring smile swept across his features. "I am indeed," he breathed softly. And then he said, "You have an enchanting smile, cherie."
Whitney was thinking that he was the one possessed of a wonderful smile, when it vanished behind a dark frown. "Is-is something wrong?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied bluntly. "Do not let a man you aren’t betrothed to call you ‘cherie.’"
"I will stare them out of countenance if they dare!" Whitney promptly promised.
"Much better," he applauded, and then boldly, "… cherie."
At the conclusion of the waltz, he guided her back to her aunt, keeping his head bent toward her as if he were positively hanging on her every word. He waited there, rarely taking his eyes off of her as she danced in turn with each of his three friends.
Whitney felt a little giddy and reckless and wonderful. Already there were a gratifying number of gentlemen asking for introductions to her. She knew it was because of the extravagant and unprecedented attention she was receiving from Nicolas DuVille and his friends, but she was too relieved and grateful to care.
Claude Delacroix, a handsome, fair-haired man who had come with Nicolas, instantly discovered that Whitney loved horses, and the two of them had a thoroughly enjoyable disagreement about the merits of one breed over another. He even asked if she would care to go for a drive with him one day soon, which was certainly not at Nicki’s prompting.
Whitney felt very pleased and flattered, and she was smiling as he returned her to her aunt.
Nicki, however, was not pleased, nor was he smiling, when he immediately claimed her for the next dance. "Claude Delacroix," he informed her curtly as his arm encircled her, "is from a fine old family. He is an outstanding whip, an excellent gambler, and a good friend. He is not, however, a suitable companion for you, nor should you think of him as a possible suitor. In matters of the heart, Claude is an expert, but he loses interest very quickly, and then …"
"He breaks the lady’s heart?" Whitney guessed with mock solemnity.
"Exactly," Nick said severely.
Whitney knew her heart already belonged to Paul, and so it was not in any danger. With a soft smile, she said, "I shall guard my heart with great care."
Nicki’s gaze lingered on her soft, inviting lips, then lifted to her glowing jade eyes. "Perhaps," he breathed with a tinge of self-mockery that Whitney couldn’t understand, "I ought to warn Claude to guard his heart. If you were older, Mademoiselle, I think I would."
When Nicki returned her to her aunt, there were more than a dozen gentlemen, all eager for a dance with her and waiting to claim it. Nicki detained her with a hand on her arm, and nodded toward the young man at the end of the line. "Andre Rousseau," he said, "would make an excellent husband for you."
Whitney gave him a look of laughing exasperation. "You really shouldn’t say things like that."
"I know." He grinned. "Now, am I forgiven for my rudeness yesterday?"
Whitney nodded happily. "I would say that I have just been ‘launched’ as beautifully as one of England’s ships."