Win stiffened as she saw Leo and Merripen enter the room. Leo came straight to her, while Merripen went to lurk in the corner as usual. He wouldn't meet her gaze. The room was filled with a charged silence that caused the down on the back of her neck to rise.
She hadn't gotten herself into this all alone, Win thought with a flare of anger.
Merripen would have to help her now. He would have to protect her with any means at his disposal. Including his name.
Her heart began to pound so heavily that it almost hurt.
"It appears you've been making up for lost time, Sis," Leo said flippantly, but there was a flicker of concern in his light eyes. "We have to be quick about this, since people will talk even more in light of our collective absence. Tongues are wagging so fast, they've created a strong breeze in the drawing room."
Mrs. Hunt approached Amelia and Win. "Winnifred."
Her voice was very gentle. "If this rumor is not true, I will take action at once to deny it on your behalf."
Win drew in a trembling breath. "It is true," she said.
Mrs. Hunt patted her arm and gave her a reassuring glance. "Trust me, you are not the first nor will you be the last to find yourself in this predicament."
"In fact," came Mr. Hunt's lazy drawl, "Mrs. Hunt has firsthand experience in just such a-"
"Mr. Hunt," his wife said indignantly, and he grin-ned. Turning back to Win, Mrs. Hunt said, "Winnifred, you and the gentleman in question must resolve this at once." A delicate pause. "May I ask whom you were seen with?"
Win couldn't answer. She let her gaze fall to the carpet, and she studied the pattern of medallions and flowers dazedly as she waited for Merripen to speak. The silence only lasted a matter of seconds, but it seemed like hours. Say something, she thought desperately. Tell them it was you!
But there was no movement or sound from Merripen.
And then Julian Harrow stepped forward. "I am the gentleman in question," he said quietly.
Win's head jerked up. She gave him an astonished glance as he took her hand. "I apologize to all of you," Julian continued, "and especially to Miss Hathaway. I didn't intend to expose her to gossip or censure. But this precipitates something I had already resolved to do, which is to ask for Miss Hathaway's hand in marriage."
Win stopped breathing. She looked directly at Merripen, and a silent cry of anguish seared through her heart. Merripen's hard face and coal-black eyes revealed nothing.
He said nothing.
Merripen had compromised her and now he was letting another man assume the responsibility for it. Letting someone else rescue her. The betrayal was worse than any illness or pain she had ever experienced before. Win hated him. She would hate him until her dying day and beyond.
What choice did she have but to accept Julian? It was either that or allow herself and her sisters to be ruined.
Win felt her face drain of all color, but she summoned a paper-thin smile as she glanced at her brother.
"Well, my lord?" she asked Leo. "Should we ask your permission first?"
"You have my blessing," her brother said dryly. "After all, I certainly don't want my pristine reputation to be marred by your scandals."
Win turned to face Julian. "Then yes, Dr. Harrow," she said in a steady voice. "I will marry you."
A frown notched between Mrs. Hunt's fine dark brows as she stared at Win. She nodded in a businesslike manner. "I will go out and explain quietly to the appropriate parties that what they saw was a betrothed couple embracing… a bit intemperate perhaps, but quite forgivable in light of a betrothal."
"I'll go with you," Mr. Hunt said, coming to his wife's side. He extended a hand to Dr. Harrow and shook it. "My congratulations, sir." His tone was cordial but far from enthusiastic. "You are most fortunate to have won Miss Hathaway's hand."
As the Hunts left, Cam approached Win. She forced herself to stare directly into his perceptive hazel eyes, though it cost her.
"Is this what you want, little sister?" he asked softly.
His sympathy nearly undid her. "Oh yes." She set her jaw against a wretched quiver, and managed to smile. "I'm the luckiest woman in the world."
And when she brought herself to look at Merripen, she saw that he was gone.
"What a ghastly evening," Amelia muttered after everyone had left the library.
"Yes." Cam led her into the hallway.
"Where are we going?"
"Back to the drawing room to make an appearance. Try to look pleased and confident."
"Oh, good God." Amelia pulled away from him and strode to a large arched wall niche, where a Palladian window revealed a view of the street below. She pressed her forehead against the glass and sighed heavily. A repeated tapping noise echoed through the hallway.
Serious as the situation was, Cam couldn't prevent a quick grin. Whenever Amelia was worried or angry, her nervous habit asserted itself. As he had once told her, she reminded him of a hummingbird tamping down her nest with one foot.
Cam went to her, and rested his warm palms on the cool slopes of her shoulders. He felt her shiver at his touch. "Hummingbird," he whispered, and slid his hands up to the back of her neck to knead the small frozen muscles there. As her tension ebbed, the foot tapping gradually died away. Finally Amelia relaxed enough to tell him her thoughts.
"Everyone in that library was aware that Merripen was the one who compromised her," she said curtly. "Not Harrow. I can't believe it. After all Win has gone through, it comes to this? She'll marry a man she doesn't love and go to France, while Merripen won't lift a finger to stop her? What is the matter with him?"
"More than can be explained here and now. Calm yourself, love. It won't help Win for you to appear distressed."
"I can't help it. This is all wrong. Oh, the look on my sister's face…"
"We have time to sort it out," Cam murmured. "A betrothal isn't the same as marriage."
"But a betrothal is binding," Amelia said with miserable impatience. "You know people regard it as a contract that can't be broken easily."
"Perhaps semi-binding," he allowed.
"Oh, Cam." Her shoulders drooped. "You would never let anything come between us, would you? You would never let us be parted?"
The question was so patently ridiculous that Cam hardly knew what to say. He turned Amelia to face him, and saw with a jolt of surprise that his practical, sensible wife was close to tears. The pregnancy was making her emotional, he thought. The glitter of moisture in her eyes sent a rush of fierce tenderness through him. He curved a protective arm around her and used his free hand to grip the back of her hair, not caring that it mussed her coiffure. "You are the reason I live," he said in a low voice, holding her close. "You're everything to me. Nothing could ever make me leave you. And if anyone ever tried to separate us, I would kill him." He covered her mouth with his and kissed her with devastating sensuality, not stopping until she was weak and flushed and leaning hard against him. "Now," he said, only half-joking, "where is that conservatory?"
That provoked a watery chuckle from her. "I think there's been enough gossip fodder for one night. Are you going to talk to Merripen?"
"Of course. He won't listen, but that's never stopped me before."
"Do you think he-" Amelia broke off as she heard footsteps coming along the hallway, along with the crisp, abundant rustling of heavy skirts. She shrank farther into the niche with Cam, burrowing into his arms. She felt him smile against her hair. Together they were still and silent as they listened to a pair of ladies chattering.
"… in heaven's name did the Hunts invite them?" one of them was asking indignantly.
Amelia thought she recognized the voice-it belonged to one of the prune-faced chaperons who had been sitting at the side of the drawing room. Someone's maiden aunt, relegated to spinster status.
"Because they're monstrously wealthy?" her companion suggested.
"I suspect it is more because Lord Ramsay is a viscount."
"You're right. An unmarried viscount."
"But all the same… Gypsies in the family! The very thought of it! One can never expect them to behave in a civilized manner-they live by their animal instincts. And we're expected to hobnob with such people as if they're our equals."
"The Hunts are bourgeois themselves, you know. No matter that Hunt owns half of London by now, he's still a butcher's son."
"They and many of the guests here are not at all of suitable caliber for us to associate with. I have no doubt at least a half-dozen other scandals will erupt before the night is out."
"Dreadful, I agree." A pause, and then the second woman added wistfully, "I do hope we'll be invited back next year.…"
As the voices faded, Cam looked down at his wife with a frown. He didn't give a damn what anyone said- by now he was inured to anything that could be said about Gypsies. But he hated that the arrows were sometimes directed at Amelia.
To his surprise, she was smiling up at him steadily, her eyes midnight blue.
His expression turned quizzical. "What's so amusing?"
Amelia toyed with a button on his coat. "I was just thinking… tonight those two old hens will probably go to their beds, cold and alone." An impish grin curved her lips. "Whereas I will be with a wicked, handsome Rom who will keep me warm all night."
Kev watched and waited until he found an opportunity to approach Simon Hunt, who had just managed to extricate himself from a conversation with a pair of giggling women. "May I have a word with you?" Kev asked quietly.
Hunt didn't appear at all surprised. "Let's go to the back terrace."
They made their way to a side door of the drawing room, which opened directly onto the terrace. A group of gentlemen were gathered at one corner of the terrace, enjoying cigars. The rich scent of tobacco drifted on the cool breeze.
Simon Hunt smiled pleasantly and shook his head as the men beckoned for him and Kev to join them. "We have some business to discuss," he told them. "Perhaps later."
Leaning casually against the iron balustrade, Hunt regarded Kev with assessing dark eyes.
On the few occasions when they had met in Hampshire at Stony Cross Park, the estate that bordered the Ramsay lands, Kev had liked Hunt. He was a man's man who spoke in a straightforward manner. An openly ambitious man who enjoyed the pursuit of money and the pleasures it afforded him. And although most men in his position would have taken themselves far too seriously, Hunt had an irreverent and self-deprecating sense of humor.
"I assume you're going to ask what I know about Harrow," Hunt said.
"In light of recent events, this seems a bit like shutting the door after the house is robbed. And I should add that I have no proof of anything. But the accusations the Lanhams have made against Harrow are sufficiently serious to merit consideration."
"What accusations?" Kev growled.
"Before Harrow built the clinic in France, he married the Lanhams' eldest daughter, Louise. She was said to be an unusually beautiful girl, a bit spoiled and willful, but on the whole an advantageous match for Harrow. She came with a large dowry and a well-connected family."
Reaching into his coat, Hunt extracted a slender silver cigar case. "Care for one?" he asked. Kev shook his head. Hunt pulled out a cigar, deftly bit off the tip, and lit it. The end of the cigar glowed as Hunt drew on it.
"According to the Lanhams," Hunt continued, exhaling a stream of aromatic smoke, "a year into the marriage, Louise changed. She became quite docile and distant, and seemed to have lost interest in her former pursuits. When the Lanhams approached Harrow with their concerns, he claimed the changes in her were simply evidence of maturity and marital contentment."
"But they didn't believe that?"
"No. When they questioned Louise, however, she claimed to be happy and she asked them not to interfere." Hunt raised the cigar to his lips again and stared thoughtfully at the lights of London winking through the night haze. "Sometime during the second year, Louise went into a decline."
Kev felt a discomforting chill at the word "decline," commonly used for any illness a doctor couldn't diagnose or comprehend. The inexorable physical failing that no treatment could prevent.
"She became weak and dispirited and bedridden. No one could do anything for her. The Lanhams insisted on bringing their own doctor to attend her, but he couldn't find any cause for illness. Louise's condition deteriorated over a month or so, and then she died. The family blamed Harrow for her demise. Before the marriage, Louise had been a healthy, high-spirited girl, and not quite two years later, she was gone."
"Sometimes declines happen," Kev remarked, feeling the need to play devil's advocate. "It wasn't necessarily Harrow 's doing."
"No. But it was Harrow 's reaction that convinced the family that he was responsible in some way for Louise's death. He was too composed. Dispassionate. A few crocodile tears for appearance's sake, and that was it."
"And after that he went to France with the dowry money?"
"Yes." Hunt's broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. "I despise gossip, Merripen. I rarely choose to pass it along. But the Lanhams are respectable people and not given to dramatics." Frowning, he tapped the ash from his cigar over the edge of the balustrade. "And despite all the good Harrow has reportedly done for his patients… I can't help but feel there is something amiss with him. It's nothing I can put into words."
Kev felt an ineffable relief to have his own thoughts echoed by a man like Hunt. "I've had the same feeling about Harrow, ever since I first met him," he said. "But everyone else seems to revere him."
There was a wry glint in Hunt's black eyes. "Yes, well… this wouldn't be the first time I didn't agree with popular opinion. But I think anyone who cares for Miss Hathaway should be concerned for her sake."
Merripen was gone by morning. He had checked out of the Rutledge and had left word that he would be traveling alone to the Ramsay estate.
Win had awoken with memories rising to the forefront of her bewildered mind. She felt heavy and weary and sullen. Merripen had been a part of her for too long. She had carried him in her heart, had absorbed him into the marrow of her bones. To let go of him now would feel like amputating part of herself. And yet it had to be done. Merripen himself had made it impossible for her to choose otherwise.