Whitney lifted her candid gaze to his. "Will you wait for me?"

"I will be here when you return, if that’s what you mean," he replied evasively.

"But you know it isn’t!" Whitney persisted in desperation. "What I mean is, could you possibly not marry anyone else until I-" Whitney trailed off in embarrassment. Why, she wondered, did she always go on this way with him? Why couldn’t she be cool and flirtatious as the older girls were?

"Whitney," Paul was saying firmly, "you will go away and forget my name. Some day, you’ll wonder why you ever asked me to wait for you."

"I’m already wondering that," she admitted miserably.

Sighing with irritation and compassion, Paul gently touched her chin, forcing her to look at him. "I’ll be here," he said with a reluctant grin, "waiting impatiently to see how you’ve grown up."

Mesmerized, Whitney gazed up into his recklessly handsome, smiling face-and then she committed the final, the ultimate, mistake: Impulsively, she leaned up on her toes, flung her arms around nun, and planted an urgent kiss just to the side of Paul’s mouth. Swearing under his breath, be pulled her arms down and forcibly moved her away. Tears of self-loathing filled Whitney’s eyes. "I’m so sorry, Paul. I-I never should have done that."

"No," he agreed, "you shouldn’t have." He reached into his pocket, angrily pulled out a small box, and slapped it unceremoniously into her hand. "I brought you a farewell gift."

Whitney’s spirits soared dizzyingly. "You did?" Her fingers shook as she snapped the lid up and gazed in rapturous wonder at the small cameo pendant dangling from a slender gold chain. "Oh, Paul," she whispered, her eyes shining, "it’s the most beautiful, most splendid-I shall treasure it forever."

"It’s a memento," he said carefully. "Nothing more."

Whitney scarcely heard him as she reverently touched the pendant. "Did you choose it for me yourself?"

Paul frowned in indecision. He’d gone to the village this morning to choose a tastefully expensive little trinket for Elizabeth. While he was there, the proprietor had laughingly remarked that with Miss Stone leaving for France, Paul must be in a mood to celebrate his freedom. As a matter of fact, Paul was. So, on an impulse, he asked the proprietor to choose something suitable for a fifteen-year-old. Until Whitney opened the box a moment ago, Paul had no idea what was in it. But what was the point of telling Whitney that? With luck, her aunt and uncle would be able to find some unsuspecting Frenchman who would marry her- preferably a docile man who wouldn’t complain when Whit-ney ran roughshod over him. Out of reflex, Paul started to reach for her, to urge her to make the most of her opportunities in France. Instead he kept his hands at his sides. "I chose it myself-as a gift from one friend to another," he said finally.

"But I don’t want to be just your friend," Whitney burst out, then she caught herself. "Being your friend will be fine . . . for now," she sighed.

"In that case," he said, his expression turning humorous, "I suppose it would be perfectly proper for two friends to exchange a farewell kiss."

With a dazzling smile of joyous amazement, Whitney squeezed her eyes closed and puckered her lips, but his mouth only brushed her cheek. When she opened her eyes, he was striding from the garden.

"Paul Sevarin," she whispered with great determination. "I shall change completely in France, and when I come home, you are going to marry me."

As the packet they had boarded at Portsmouth pitched and rocked across the choppy Channel, Whitney stood at the rail, her gaze fastened on the receding English coastline. The wind caught at the wide rim of her bonnet, tugging it free to dangle from its ribbons, whipping her hair against her cheek. She stared at her homeland, conjuring a vision of how it would be when she again crossed this Channel. Of course, news of her return would be announced in the papers: "Miss Whitney Stone," they would proclaim, "lately the belle of Paris, returns this week to her native England." A faint smile touched Whitney’s lips … The belle of Paris . . .

She pushed her unruly hair off her face, stuffing it into the crown of her childish bonnet, and resolutely turned her back on England.

The Channel seemed to smooth out as she marched across the deck to stare in the direction of France. And her future.

Chapter Three

FRANCE 1816-1820

SITUATED BEHIND WROUGHT-IRON GATES, LORD AND LADY Gilbert’s Parisian home was imposing without being austere. Huge bow windows admitted light to the spacious rooms; pastels lent an air of sunny elegance to everything from parlors to second-floor bedrooms. "And these are your rooms, darling," Anne said as she opened the door to a suite carpeted in pale blue.

Whitney stood mesmerized on the threshold, her gaze roving longingly over the magnificent white satin coverlet on the bed splashed with flowers of orchid, pink, and blue. A dainty settee was covered in matching fabric. Delicate porcelain vases were filled with flowers in the same hues of orchid and pink. Ruefully, Whitney turned to her aunt. "I’d feel ever so much better, Aunt Anne, if you could find another room for me, something not quite so, well, fragile. Anyone at home," Whitney explained to Anne’s amazed expression, "could tell you that I’ve only to walk by something delicate to send it crashing to the floor."

Anne turned to the servant beside her who was shouldering Whitney’s heavy trunk, "In here," Anne said with a firm nod of her head toward the wonderful blue room.

"Don’t say you weren’t forewarned," sighed Whitney, removing her bonnet and settling herself gingerly on the flowered settee. Paris, she decided, was going to be heavenly.

The parade of visitors began promptly at half past eleven, three days later, with the arrival of Anne’s personal dressmaker, accompanied by three smiling seamstresses who talked endlessly about styles and fabrics and measured and remeasured Whitney.

Thirty minutes after they departed, Whitney found herself marching back and forth with a book on her head before the critical stare of the plump woman whom Aunt Anne was entrusting with the formidable task of teaching Whitney something called "social graces."

"I am atrociously clumsy, Madame Froussard," Whitney explained with an embarrassed flush as the book plummeted to the floor for the third time.

"But no!" Madame Froussard contradicted, shaking her elaborately coiffed silver hair. "Mademoiselle Stone has a natural grace and excellent posture. But Mademoiselle most learn not to walk as if she were in a race."