"I hope so," her sister said lightly. "I'll need a ball gown if I'm to catch a rich benefactor for the family."

"You know I only said that in jest. You don't have to look for a rich suitor. Only one who will be kind to you." Poppy grinned. "Well, we can hope that wealth and kindness are not mutually exclusive... can't we?" Amelia smiled back at her. "Indeed." As the siblings assembled in the entrance hall, Amelia felt even more remorseful as she saw Beatrix turned out in a green dress with ankle-length skirts and a starched white pinafore, an ensemble far more appropriate for a girl of twelve instead of fifteen.


Making her way to Leo's side, Amelia muttered to him, "No more gambling, Leo. The money you lost at Jenner's would have been far better spent on proper clothes for your younger sisters."

"There is more than enough money for you to have taken them to the dressmaker," Leo said coolly. "Don't make me the villain when it's your responsibility to clothe them."

Amelia gritted her teeth. As much as she adored Leo, no one could make her as angry as he, and so quickly. She longed to administer some heavy clout on the head that might restore his wits. "At the rate you've been going through the family coffers, I didn't think it would be wise of me to go on a spending spree."

The other Hathaways watched, wide-eyed, as the conversation exploded into a full-on argument.

"You may choose to live like a miser," Leo said, "but I'll be damned if I have to. You're incapable of enjoying the moment because you're always intent on tomorrow. Well, for some people, tomorrow never comes."

Her temper flared. "Someone has to think of tomorrow, you selfish spendthrift!"

"Coming from an overbearing shrew?

Win stepped between them, resting a gentle hand on Amelia's shoulder. "Hush, both of you. It serves no purpose to make yourselves cross just before we are to leave.'" She gave Amelia a sweet quirk of a smile that no one on earth could have resisted. "Don't frown like that, dear. What if your face stayed that way?"

"With prolonged exposure to Leo," Amelia replied, "it undoubtedly would,"

-- Advertisement --

Her brother snorted. "I'm a convenient scapegoat, aren't I? If you were honest with yourself, Amelia?

"Merripen," Win called out, "is the carriage ready now?"

Merripen came through the front door, looking rumpled and surly. It had been agreed that he would drive the Hathaways to the Westcliffs' residence and return for them later. "It's ready." As he glanced at Win's pale golden beauty, it seemed his expression turned even surlier, if such a thing were possible.

Like a word puzzle that had just solved itself in her brain, that stolen glance made a few things clear to Amelia. Merripen wasn't attending the dinner that evening because he was trying to avoid being in a social situation with Win. He was trying to keep a distance between them, while at the same time he was desperately worried about her health.

It troubled Amelia, the notion that Merripen, who never displayed strong feelings about anything, might be entertaining a secret and powerful longing for her sister. Win was too delicate, too refined, too much his opposite in every way. And Merripen knew that.

Feeling sympathetic and maudlin, and rather worried herself, Amelia climbed into the carriage after her sisters.

The occupants of the vehicle were silent as they proceeded along the oak-lined drive to Stony Cross Manor. None of them had ever seen grounds so richly tended or imposing. Every leaf on every tree seemed to have been affixed with careful forethought. Surrounded by gardens and orchards that flowed into dense woods, the house sprawled over the land like a drowsing giant. Four lofty corner towers denoted the original dimensions of the European-styled fortress, but many additions had given it a pleasing asymmetry. With time and weathering, the house's honey-colored stone had mellowed gracefully, its outlines dressed with tall, perfectly trimmed hedges.

The residence was fronted by a massive courtyard—a distinctive feature—and sided by stables and a residential wing. Instead of the usual understated design of stables, these were fronted by wide stone arches. Stony Cross Manor was a place fit for royalty—and from what they knew of Lord Westcliff, his bloodlines were even more distinguished than the Queen's.

As the carriage stopped before the porticoed entrance, Amelia wished the evening were already over. In these stately surroundings, the Hathaways' faults would be magnified. They would appear no better than a group of vagabonds. She glanced over her siblings. Win had donned her usual mask of irreproachable serenity, and Leo looked calm and slightly bored—an expression he must have learned from his recent acquaintances at Jenner's. The younger girls were filled with a bright exuberance that drew a smile from Amelia. They, at least, would have a good time, and heaven knew they deserved it.

Merripen helped the sisters from the carriage, and Leo emerged last. As he stepped to the ground, Merripen checked him with a brief murmur, an admonition to keep a close watch on Win. Leo shot him a vehement glance. Enduring Amelia's criticism was bad enough—he wouldn't tolerate it from Merripen. "If you're so bloody concerned about her," Leo muttered, "then you go inside and play nanny."

Merripen's eyes narrowed, but he didn't reply.

The relationship between the two men had never been what one could describe as brotherly, but they had always maintained a cool cordiality.

Merripen had never tried to assume the role of second son, in spite of the Hathaway parents' obvious fondness for him. And in any situation which might have lent itself to a competition between the two boys, Merripen had always drawn back. Leo, for his part, had been reasonably pleasant to Merripen, and had even deferred to Merripen's opinions when he had judged them better than his own.

-- Advertisement --