"A modest place, no more than a half-hour’s ride from Stone’s," repeated Matthew dazedly.

The man’s obvious bewilderment brought a glint of amusement to Clayton’s eyes. "Correct. And negotiate the lease in the name Westland, not Westmoreland. Once my staff and I are installed, we will keep to ourselves as much as possible, and I will pass myself off as a new neighbor, Clayton Westland."

"Surely not to Miss Stone?" Matthew said.

"Especially to Miss Stone," Clayton chuckled.

Chapter Eight

ONE MONTH LATER, WlLSON, THE GILBERTS’ DIGNIFIED BUTLER, padded down the hall to Lord Gilbert’s study and handed him the mail. On the top of the stack was a letter from England. Five minutes later, the door to Lord Gilbert’s study was flung open and he bellowed at the butler, "Have Lady Gilbert join me here at once! Don’t dawdle, man. Hurry, I said," he called after the harassed servant who was already sprinting down the hall, his black coattails flapping behind him.

"What is it, Edward?" Anne said, flying into her husband’s study in answer to his urgent summons.

"This!" said Edward, thrusting the letter from Martin Stone at her. Anne looked from her husband’s white face to the signature on the single sheet of paper in her hand. "He’s sent for Whitney?" she guessed in a tortured voice.

"He says he will reimburse me for all her expenses during the last four years, as soon as he receives an accounting from me," Edward said furiously. "And he’s sent a blasted fortune along with this letter, for her to spend ‘on clothing and trinkets’ before she returns. Who the devil does he think he is? He hasn’t sent a penny to cover her expenses in all this time. That bastard! He’ll get no accounting from me, and I will see that she returns in style. He can shove his money precisely-"

"Whitney is going home,"  Anne whispered brokenly, sinking into a chair. "I-I had deluded myself into thinking he’d forgotten about her." She brightened. "I have it! Wr-write Martin at once and hint of a match with Nicolas DuVille. That would buy us time."

"Read the letter, Madame. He says as plainly and as rudely as can be that she’s to leave here in one month to the day, without excuses or delay."

Anne did as he said, her eyes moving dully over the lines. "He says she is to spend the remaining time saying farewell to her friends and visiting her favorite modistes and milliners." She tried to look encouraged. "He must have changed in the last four years-he’d never have thought of Whitney requiring time to order her clothing here in Paris, where fashions are so far advanced. Edward," she said, "do you suppose that he could have received an offer for Whitney from that young man she adored so much when she was a girl?"

"He’s received no marriage proposal," Edward snapped, "or he would have been gloating about it in this damned letter, thinking he had succeeded where he believes we’ve failed." He turned his back to his wife. "You may as well tell her now and have done with it. I’ll be up in a bit."

Whitney stood numbly, trying to assimilate the news she thought she’d longed to hear. "I-I’m happy to be going home, Aunt Anne," she managed finally. "It’s just that. . ." Her voice trailed off.

Happy to be going home? Terrified of going home! Terrified that now the chance was being given to her, she might fail. It was one thing to languish in Paris, surrounded by men who flattered and admired her, another to go home and try to make Paul see her with their eyes. There was her father to cope with, and Margaret Merryton, and everyone’s mothers, who had always made her feel lower than an insect. But here, there was Aunt Anne and Uncle Edward who loved her and laughed with her, who made her life warm and happy.

Her aunt turned her face to the windows, but Whitney saw a tear trickle down her cheek. She bit her lip; if Aunt Anne had misgivings about her returning to England, then surely it was too soon to go. She wasn’t ready to confront everyone yet. She turned to the mirror, hoping to find some reassurance in her appearance. In Paris, gentlemen said she was beautiful. Would Paul think so? The mirror promptly quashed that idea! It was happening already, she realized in panic. Before she even left, she could feel her facade falling away. She was plain, awkward, too tall-even her fingers were fidgeting nervously as they used to do. And there–on the bridge of her nose-she could still see faint traces of the freckles she loathed. Oh the devil! Whitney thought, suddenly impatient with herself. Freckles do not reappear before one’s eyes; fingers do not have to fidget, and she would not, would not, begin inventorying her faults and shortcomings as she had in the old days!

Her stomach ceased its frantic churning. Inside of her, something else began to blossom: hope. Her lips curved into a soft smile. I am going home, she thought. I am going home to Paul-home to show everyone how much I’ve really changed. I am actually going home!

But going home also meant leaving her beloved aunt and uncle.

She turned away from the mirror and saw her aunt’s shoulders shaking with silent weeping. "I feel as if I’m being severed in half," Anne choked.

"I love you, Aunt Anne," Whitney whispered, hot tears rushing to her eyes and streaming down her cheeks. "I love you so much." Aunt Anne opened her arms, and Whitney fled into them, trying to comfort and be comforted.

Pausing outside Whitney’s bedroom, Edward squared his shoulders and carefully schooled his desolate features into a fixed, bright smile. Clasping his hands behind his back, he strolled into the room. "Having a good time, ladies?" he ventured with forced joviality, glancing from one weeping woman to the other.

Two teary, anguished faces gaped at him in utter disbelief. "Having a good. . . ?" Anne echoed incredulously. She looked at Whitney and Whitney looked at her. Suddenly they began to giggle, then the giggles burst into great, gusty laughs. "Yes … er … well, good. Glad to see it," Edward murmured, bewildered by his ladies’ excessively unstable behavior. Then he cleared his throat. "We’ll miss you, child. You’ve been a blessing and a joy to us both."

Whitney’s gaiety fled, and fresh tears stung her eyes. "Oh Uncle Edward," she whispered brokenly, "I shall never, never love any man as much as I love you."

To his acute dismay, Edward felt his eyes misting. He opened his arms wide, and his niece came into them. When at last the storm of emotions had passed, the three of them stood looking sheepishly at one another, each clutching a handkerchief. Edward was the first to speak. "Well now, England isn’t the end of the world, is it?"

"It-it isn’t exactly next door, either," Whitney said, dabbing at her eyes.