She walked through the salon and peered into the ballroom. Like the other two rooms, the ballroom was lavishly decorated with bouquets of roses that lent color and drama to what had been a cold, austere room.
From behind her she heard Paul’s deep voice, and she smiled softly as she turned.
"I missed you today," he said. His gaze drifted appreciatively over her elegant ivory satin gown then lifted to her glowing features. "Who would have guessed," he whispered, drawing her into his arms for a long, tender kiss, "that you were going to turn into such a beauty?"
Anne’s eyes were still devouring the contents of Edward’s missive as she walked into the dining room. Glimpsing Whitney’s ivory gown at the opposite end of the long room. Anne began at once in a happy voice, "Darling, I have finally had word from that laggard uncle of yours! He has been on holiday. .." She glanced up just in time to witness the hastily broken embrace, and her eyes widened in shock.
"It’s all right, Aunt Anne," Whitney explained, blushing gorgeously. "I’ve been dying to tell you for days, and I can’t wait any longer. Paul and I are going to be married as soon as be has Papa’s permission. He’s going to try to speak to him tonight, so that we- Aunt Anne?" Whitney said as her aunt abruptly turned on her dainty, satin-shod heel and marched away. She apparently had not heard a word Whitney had said. "Where are you going?"
"I am going over to this table, and I am going to pour myself a very large glass of this burgundy," her aunt announced.
In amazed silence, Whitney watched Anne pluck a crystal goblet from the table, snatch up a bottle of burgundy, and fill the glass to the brim.
"And when I have finished this glass," her aunt added, transferring the glass to her left hand and picking up her mauve silk skirts with her right, "I am going to have another." With that she swept regally from the room. "Good evening, Mr. Sevarin," she said, graciously inclining her dark, silver-streaked head at Paul as she passed him. "So nice to see you again."
"She’ll have the devil of a head in the morning, if she plans to keep that up," Paul observed wryly.
Whitney looked up at him, her face full of confusion and concern. "Head?"
"Yes, head. And you, my girl, are going to have your hands full tonight." Placing his fingers beneath her satin-sleeved elbow, he reluctantly guided Whitney toward the drawing room. "Unless I miss my guess, your aunt isn’t going to be of much help entertaining your guests."
Paul’s prediction was certainly accurate, Whitney thought with an inward sigh an hour later, as she stood at the entrance to the drawing room, welcoming latecomers. In France, Aunt Anne had always performed the endless duties required of a hostess; now, bearing the full burden of responsibility herself, Whitney felt as if she needed another pair of eyes and ears.
She signalled to a servant for more trays of drinks to be passed among the guests, then turned to greet Lady Eubank. Whitney’s eyes riveted in horror on the dowager’s startling combination of purple turban and red gown. "Good evening, Lady Eubank," she managed, fighting to keep her face straight.
Ignoring her greeting entirely, the dowager raised her monocle and looked about the room. "It doesn’t look like a ‘good evening’ to me, Miss," Lady Eubank snapped. "I perceive Mr. Sevarin standing over there with Elizabeth Ashton on one arm, and the Merryton girl on the other, and I don’t even see Westland in the room." She dropped her monocle and directed a disgusted scowl on Whitney. "I credited you with spunk, girl, and you’ve let me down. I thought you were going to snare the most eligible bachelor alive right in front of these tiresome neighbors of ours. I’ve half expected to hear a betrothal announcement, and instead, I find you standing by yourself and-"
Whitney couldn’t stop the beaming smile that lit her face. "I have snared him, my lady, and you are going to hear an announcement. If not tonight, then as soon as Paul returns from his trip."
"Paul?" Lady Eubank echoed blankly, and for the first time since Whitney had known her, the dowager seemed at a loss tot words. "Paul Sevarin?" she repeated. Suddenly a look of unabashed glee danced in her eyes as she again scanned the crowd. "Is Westland coming tonight?" she demanded.
"Good, good," her ladyship said, and she began to chuckle. "This should be a most diverting evening. Most diverting!" she chuckled, and strolled away.
By half past nine, the stream of arrivals had dwindled to a trickle. Standing near the entry where she was greeting latecomers, Whitney heard one of them speak to Sewell out in the hall. A moment later, Clayton Westland appeared in the doorway.
Whitney watched nun coming toward her. He looked almost breathtakingly handsome in fastidiously tailored black evening attire that hugged his wide shoulders and long legs, and contrasted beautifully with his dazzling white ruffled shirt and neckcloth.
In the spirit of relaxed friendship that had sprung up between them during their afternoon of chess two days ago, Whitney smiled and extended both her hands to him in a cordial gesture of greeting. "I was beginning to think you weren’t coming," she said.
Clayton grinned with satisfaction as he took her hands in his. "That sounds very much as if you’ve been watching and waiting for me."
"If I had been, I’d never admit it, you know," Whitney laughed. Looking at him now, she could scarcely credit her belief that he was an unprincipled libertine bent on her seduction, and then she realized that he still retained both her hands in his, and that he was standing so close to her that the starched ruffles at his shirtfront lightly brushed against the bodice of her gown. Self-consciously withdrawing her hands, Whitney took a small step backward.
His eyes mocked her cautious retreat, but he made no comment on it. "If losing two games of chess to you on Thursday has finally put me in your good graces," he teased, "then I promise to let you defeat me in all future contests."
"You did not let me defeat you at chess," Whitney reminded him with an exasperated sidewise glance. Catching the eye of a footman, she signalled him to approach. With the finesse of a natural hostess, she asked him to fetch a whiskey for Mr. Westland. When she turned back to Clayton, she glimpsed his surprised pleasure at the fact that she remembered his preference in drink.
It showed in his eyes as he said, "We seem to be at a stalemate. I won our race, but you’ve won a majority of our chess games. How will we ever prove which of us is the better man?"
"You are impossible?" Whitney berated him, smiling. "Merely because I think that a female should be as well-educated as a man, does not mean I wish to be a man."