She washed and dressed with the help of a maid, and arranged her hair in a plaited chignon. There would be no meaningful talks with anyone in her family, she decided numbly. There would be no weeping or regrets. She was going to marry Dr. Julian Harrow and live far away from Hampshire. And she would try to find a measure of peace in that great, necessary distance.
"I want to be married as quickly as possible," she told Julian later that morning, as they had tea in the family suite. "I miss France. I want to return there without delay. As your wife."
Julian smiled and touched the curve of her cheek with smooth, tapered fingertips. "Very well, my dear." He took her hand in his, brushing across her knuckles with his thumb. "I have some business in London to take care of, and I'll join you in Hampshire in a few days. We'll make our plans there. We can marry at the estate chapel, if you like."
The chapel that Merripen had rebuilt. "Perfect," Win said evenly.
"I'll buy a ring for you today," Julian said. "What kind of stone would you like? A sapphire to match your eyes?"
"Anything you choose will be lovely." Win let her hand remain in his as they both fell silent. "Julian," she murmured, "you haven't yet asked what… what transpired between Merripen and me last night."
"There is no need," Julian replied. "I'm far too pleased by the result."
"I… I want you to understand that I will be a good wife to you," Win said earnestly. "I… My former attachment to Merripen…"
"That will fade in time," Julian said gently.
"And I warn you, Winnifred… I will launch quite a battle for your affections. I will prove such a devoted and generous husband, there will be no room in your heart for anyone else."
She thought about bringing up the subject of children, asking if perhaps he would relent someday if her health improved even more. But from what she did know about Julian, he would not reverse his decisions easily. And she wasn't certain it mattered. She was trapped.
Whatever life held in store for her now, she would have to make the best of it.
After two days of packing, the family was on its way to Hampshire. Cam, Amelia, Poppy, and Beatrix were in the first carriage, while Leo, Win, and Miss Marks were in the second. They had departed before day had broken, to gain as much headway as possible on the twelve-hour journey.
God knew what was being discussed in the second carriage. Cam only hoped Win's presence would help to blunt the animosity between Leo and Miss Marks.
The conversation in the first carriage, as Cam had expected, was nothing but animated. It both touched and amused him that Poppy and Beatrix had launched a campaign to put Merripen forth as a candidate to be Win's husband. Naively the girls had assumed that the only thing standing in the way was Merripen's lack of fortune.
"-so if you could give him some of your money-," Beatrix was saying eagerly.
"-or give him part of Leo's fortune," Poppy interceded. "Leo would only waste it-"
"-make Merripen understand that it would be Win's dowry," Beatrix said, "so it wouldn't hurt his pride-"
"-and they wouldn't need very much," Poppy said. "Neither of them gives a fig for mansions or fine carriages or-"
"Wait, both of you," Cam said, lifting his hands in a defensive gesture. "The problem is more complex than a matter of money, and-no, stop chirping for a moment and hear me out." He smiled into the two pairs of blue eyes regarding him so anxiously. He found their concern for Merripen and Win more than a little endearing. "Merripen has ample means to offer for Win. What he earns as the Ramsay estate manager is a handsome living in itself, and he also has unlimited access to the Ramsay accounts."
"Then why is Win going to marry Dr. Harrow and not Merripen?" Beatrix demanded.
"For reasons Merripen wants to keep private, he believes he would not be an appropriate husband for her."
"But he loves her!"
"Love doesn't solve every problem, Bea," Amelia said gently.
"That sounds like something Mother would have said," Poppy remarked with a slight smile, while Beatrix looked disgruntled.
"What would your father have said?" Cam asked.
"He would have led us all into some lengthy philosophical exploration of the nature of love, and it would have accomplished nothing whatsoever," Amelia said. "But it would have been fascinating."
"I don't care how complicated everyone says it is," Beatrix said. "Win should marry Merripen. Don't you agree, Amelia?"
"It's not our choice," Amelia replied. "And it's not Win's, either, unless the big dunderhead offers her an alternative. There's nothing Win can do if he won't propose to her."
"Wouldn't it be nice if ladies could propose to gentlemen?" Beatrix mused.
"Heavens, no," Amelia said promptly. "That would make it far too easy for the gentlemen."
"In the animal kingdom," Beatrix commented, "males and females enjoy equal status. A female may do anything she wishes."
"The animal kingdom allows many behaviors that we humans cannot emulate, dear. Scratching in public, for example. Regurgitating food. Flaunting themselves to attract a mate. Not to mention… Well, I needn't go on."
"I wish you would," Cam said with a grin. He settled Amelia more comfortably against his side and spoke to Beatrix and Poppy. "Listen, you two. Neither of you is to bedevil Merripen about the situation. I know you want to help, but all you'll succeed in doing is provoking him."
They both grumbled and nodded reluctantly, and snuggled in their respective corners. It was still dark outside, and the rocking motion of the carriage was soothing. In a matter of minutes, both sisters were drowsing.
Glancing at Amelia, Cam saw that she was still awake. He stroked the fine-grained skin of her face and throat, looking down into her pure blue eyes.
"Why didn't he step forward, Cam?" she whispered. "Why did he give Win to Dr. Harrow?"
Cam took his time about answering. "He's afraid."
"What he might do to her."
Amelia frowned in bewilderment. "That makes no sense. Merripen would never hurt her."
"You're referring to the danger of getting her with child? But Win doesn't agree with Dr. Harrow's opinion, and she says that even he can't say of a certainty what might happen."
"It's not just that." Cam sighed and settled her more closely against him. "Did Merripen ever tell you that he was asharibe?"
"No, what does that mean?"
"It's a word used to describe a Romany warrior. Boys as young as five or six are trained in bare-knuckle fighting. There are no rules or time limits. The goal is to inflict the worst damage as quickly as possible until someone drops. The boys' handlers take money from paying crowds. I've seen asharibe who were badly hurt, blinded, even killed during the matches. They fight with fractured wrists and broken ribs if necessary." Absently Cam smoothed Amelia's hair as he added, "There were none in our tribe. Our leader decided it was too cruel. We learned to fight, of course, but it was never a way of life for us."
"Merripen…" Amelia whispered.
"From what I can tell, it was even worse than that for him. The man who raised him…" Cam, always so articulate, found it difficult to go on.
"His uncle?" Amelia prompted.
"Our uncle." Cam had already told her that he and Merripen were brothers. But he hadn't yet confided the rest of what Shuri had said. "Apparently he raised Merripen as if he were a game dog."
Amelia turned pale. "What do you mean?"
"Merripen was brought up to be as vicious as a pit animal. He was starved and maltreated until he was conditioned to fight anyone, under any circumstances. And he was taught to take any abuse that was meted out to him and turn his aggression against his opponent."
"Poor boy," Amelia murmured. "That explains much about the way he was when he first came to us. He was only half-tame. But… that was all a long time ago. His life has been very different since then. And having once suffered so terribly, doesn't he want to be loved now? Doesn't he want to be happy?"
"It doesn't work that way, sweetheart." Cam smiled into her puzzled face. It was no surprise that Amelia, who had been brought up in a large and affectionate family, should find it difficult to understand a man who feared his own needs as if they were his worst enemy. "What if you were taught all during your childhood that the only reason for your existence was to inflict pain on others? That violence was all you were good for? How do you unlearn such a thing? You can't. So you cover it as best you can, always aware of what lies beneath the veneer."
"But… obviously Merripen has changed. He's a man with many fine qualities."
"Merripen wouldn't agree."
"Well, Win has made it clear that she would have him regardless."
"It doesn't matter that she would have him. He's determined to protect her from himself."
Amelia hated being confronted with problems that had no definite solution. "Then what can we do?"
Cam lowered his head to kiss the tip of her nose. "I know how you hate to hear this, love… but not much. It's in their hands."
She shook her head and grumbled something against his shoulder.
"What did you say?" he asked, amused.
Her gaze lifted to his, and a self-deprecating smile curved her lips. "Something to the effect that I hate having to leave Merripen and Win's future in their hands."
The last time Win and Leo had seen Ramsay House it had been dilapidated and half-burned, the grounds barren except for weeds and rubble. And unlike the rest of the family, they had not seen the stages of its progress as it was being rebuilt.
The affluent southern county of Hampshire encompassed coastal land, heathland, and ancient forests filled with abundant wildlife. Hampshire had a milder, sunnier climate that most other parts of England, owing to the stabilizing effect of its location. Although Win had not lived in Hampshire for very long before she had gone to Dr. Harrow's clinic, she had the feeling of coming home. It was a welcoming, friendly place, with the lively market town of Stony Cross just within walking distance of the Ramsay estate.
It seemed the Hampshire weather had decided to present the estate to its best effect, with profuse sunshine and a few picturesque clouds in the distance.
The carriage passed the gatekeeper's lodge, constructed of grayish blue bricks with cream stone detailing. "They refer to that as the Blue House," Miss Marks said, "for obvious reasons."
"How lovely!" Win exclaimed. "I've never seen bricks that color in Hampshire before."
" 'Staffordshire blue' brick," Leo said, craning his neck to see the other side of the house. "Now that they're able to bring brick from other places on the railway, there's no need for the builder to make them on site."
They went along the lengthy drive toward the house, which was surrounded by velvety green lawn and white-graveled walking paths, and young hedges and rosebushes. "My God," Leo murmured as they approached the house itself. It was a multi-gabled cream stone structure with cheerful dormers. The blue slate roof featured h*ps and bays outlined with contrasting terra-cotta ridge tiles. Although the place was similar to the old house, it had been much improved. And what remained of the original structure had been so lovingly restored that one could hardly tell the old sections from the new.
Leo didn't take his gaze off the place. "Merripen said they'd kept some of the odd-shaped rooms and nooks. I see many more windows. And they've added a service wing."
People were working everywhere, carters, stockmen, sawyers, and masons, gardeners clipping hedges, stable boys and footmen coming out to the arriving carriages. The estate had not only come to life; it was thriving.
Watching her brother's intent profile, Win felt a surge of gratitude toward Merripen, who had made all this happen. It was good for Leo to come home to this. It was an auspicious beginning to a new life.
"The household staff is in need of expansion," Miss Marks said, "but the ones Mr. Merripen has hired are quite efficient. Mr. Merripen is an exacting manager, but also kind. They would do anything to please him."
Win descended from the carriage with a footman's help, and allowed him to escort her to the front doors. A marvelous set of double doors, with lower panels of solid timber and leaded glass panes set within the upper panels. As soon as Win reached the top step, the doors opened to reveal a middle-aged woman with ginger hair and a fair freckled complexion. Her figure was shapely and sturdy in a high-necked black dress. "Welcome, Miss Hathaway," she said warmly. "I am Mrs. Barnstable, the housekeeper. How glad we all are to have you back in Hampshire."
"Thank you," Win murmured, following her into the entrance hall.
Win's eyes widened at the interior of the place, so light and sparkling, the two-story-high hall lined with paneling painted a creamy white. A gray stone staircase was set in the back of the hall, its iron balustrades gleaming black and spotless. Everywhere, it smelled of soap and fresh wax.
"Remarkable," Win breathed. "It's not the same place at all."
Leo came up beside her. For once he had no glib remark to make, nor did he bother to hide his admiration. "It's a bloody miracle," he said. "I'm astonished." He turned to the housekeeper. "Where is Merripen, Mrs. Barnstable?"
"Out at the estate timber yard, my lord. He is helping to unload a wagon. The logs are quite heavy, and the workers sometimes need Mr. Merripen's help with a difficult load."
"We have a timber yard?" Leo asked.
Miss Marks replied, "Mr. Merripen is planning to construct houses for the new tenant farmers."
"This is the first I've heard of it. Why are we providing houses for them?" Leo's tone was not at all censuring, merely interested. But Miss Marks's lips thinned, as if she had interpreted his question as a complaint.
"The most recent tenants to join the estate were lured by the promise of new houses. They are already successful farmers, educated and forward-looking, and Mr. Merripen believes their presence will add to the estate's prosperity. Other local estates, such as Stony Cross Park, are also building homes for their tenants and laborers-"