Mentally she rehearsed her strategy as she walked downstairs to the drawing room where Paul was waiting for her. She would make him think she was returning to Paris with Aunt Anne when Uncle Edward came for her. If that didn’t prod Paul into offering for her, then nothing ever would.
In the doorway of the drawing room, she hesitated. Paul looked so wonderful, so handsome, that she was sorely tempted to throw propriety to the winds and offer for him. Instead she said brightly, "It’s a lovely afternoon. Shall we walk in the garden?"
The moment they were within the sheltered seclusion of the high, clipped hedges that surrounded the last of the blooming roses, Paul took her in his arms and kissed her. "I’m trying to atone for all my years of neglecting you," he teased.
It was exactly the sort of opening she needed. Stepping back, she smiled gaily and said, "Then you’ll have to hurry, because you have a great many years to atone for and only a few weeks left in which to do it."
"What do you mean, ‘only a few weeks left?’"
"Before I go back to France with my aunt and uncle," Whitney explained, almost sagging with relief at the swift scowl that darkened his face.
"Before you go back to France? I thought you were home to stay."
"I have a home there too, Paul. In some ways, more of a home than I have here." He looked so upset that Whitney felt guilty, yet all he had to do to prevent her from going to France was propose, and he knew it.
"But your father is here," he argued. "I’m here. Doesn’t that mean something?"
"Of course it does," Whitney whispered, looking away so he’d not see just how much it did mean. Why couldn’t he, why didn’t he, simply say "Marry me," she wondered. Turning her back on him, she pretended to admire a scarlet rose.
"You can’t leave," he said in a strained voice. "I think I’m in love with you."
Whitney’s heart stopped beating, then began hammering wildly. She wanted to hurl herself into his arms, but it was too soon; his declaration was lukewarm, inconclusive. She took a step down the path and smiled flirtatiously over her shoulder. "I hope you’ll write and let me know-when you decide for certain."
"Oh no, you don’t!" Paul laughed, capturing her arm and drawing her back. "Now, Miss Stone, do you, or do you not, love me?"
Whitney stifled her wild avowal of eternal love. "I think I do," she said, twinkling.
Instead of pursuing the issue, as she expected, Paul abruptly dropped her arm, his expression turning remote, shuttered. "I have some things to do this afternoon," he said coolly.
He was going to leave, she realized in shocked despair. She had the most horrible, humiliating feeling that he had seen through her ploy, that he knew she was trying to manipulate him, to force him.
They walked to the front of the house where his sleek new carriage waited on the circular drive below. Paul stayed only long enough to press a brief, formal kiss oa her fingertips, then he turned and started to leave. One step away, he turned back again. "Exactly how much competition do I have, besides Westland?" he demanded.
Whitney’s spirits soared crazily. "How much would you like?" she smiled.
His eyes narrowed; he opened his mouth to speak then changed his mind, turned on his heel, and left.
Whitney’s smile faded. In tortured misery, she watched him bounding down the steps, her heart beating a funeral dirge in time to each long stride he took. She had forced him to reveal his intentions, and now she knew what they were. He intended to have a light, meaningless flirtation with her, and nothing more. He hadn’t wanted her before she went away, and he didn’t want her now.
Beside his carriage, Paul paused, reached to take the reins from the groom, then paused again. He stood motionless, his back to her, and as Whitney watched him, she began uttering feverish, pleading, disjointed prayers.
In tense silence, afraid to hope and unable not to, she watched Paul slowly turn and gaze up at her . . . and then begin retracing his steps. By the time he was near enough for Whitney to see his face, her knees were quaking so badly that she could scarcely stand.
"Miss Stone," he said in a laughter-tinged voice, "it has just occurred to me that I have only two choices where you are concerned. I can either avoid all future contact with you, and thus put an end to my torment-or I can marry you in order to prolong it."
Gazing into his teasing blue eyes, Whitney realized he had already made his choice. She tried to smile at him, but she was so relieved that her voice filled with tears. "You know you would never be able to forgive yourself if you took the coward’s way out."
Paul burst out laughing and opened his arms, and Whitney collapsed against him, laughing and crying at the same time. She pressed her cheek against the steady, rhythmic thudding of his heart, revelling in the feel of his strong arms holding her tightly, possessively to him.
She felt as if she were encased in a golden haze of security, for Paul had just given her a gift as priceless as his love, and she was so grateful to him that she could have sunk to her knees and wept with gratitude: Paul loved her, he wanted to marry her-and that was proof, real, incontrovertible proof, that she had really changed in France. She wasn’t just a polished counterfeit dressed in the height of fashion and masquerading as a young lady of refinement, as she had often feared. She wasn’t a hopeless misfit anymore. She was real. She was worthy. The villagers would no longer snigger about the fool she had made of herself ovsr Paul Sevarin; they would smile now and say Mr. Sevarin had always liked her, they would say he’d merely been biding his time, waiting for her to grow up. She could live here among the people she had always wanted to like her. She had redeemed herself in their eyes, and in her father’s too. She was so relieved that she felt like sobbing.
"Let’s find your father," Paul said.
Whitney lifted her head and stared at him in happy incomprehension. "Why?"
"Because I would like to get the formalities over with and I can hardly ask your aunt for your hand in marriage. Not," he added ruefully, "that I wouldn’t prefer to do it that way if I could."
"Sewell, where is my father?" Whitney said anxiously as they stepped into the house.
"On his way to London, Miss," the butler replied. "He left a half hour ago."
"London?" Whitney gasped. "But I thought he wasn’t planning to leave until tomorrow? Why did he leave today instead? Is he returning any sooner?"
Sewell, who always knew everything, claimed to know nothing. Whitney watched him pad away down the hall, his long coattails flapping, and felt like the sun had just set on her happiness.